I was flying home from Paris to New York on a wide-body 777.
The turbulence wasn’t, objectively, that bad at all and, really, could have been much worse. But I really dislike turbulence, especially at the start of a 7.5 hour trans-oceanic flight with Godknowshowmuch more of it ahead.
Even while mortified by my babyishness, I cried. Not a lot and not loudly.
A man sitting in the seat in front of me, an Indian man in his 60s or beyond, was gentle and kind.
“It’s all right. We’re all here with you,” he said.
His very simple words meant a lot to me, as someone who’s been through way too much emotional turbulence in my past life, which I sometimes think is why physical turbulence undoes me somehow. Nor did I grow up in family who did a lot of comforting or cuddling if/when I was scared. That was my job.
I was so touched by his words and later wanted to thank him, but he was too quickly gone.
Maybe he’s just that kind to everyone.
I’m forever amazed at the things we say to one another, whether strangers on an airplane or teacher to student (or vice versa), that can leave such a positive effect on us, years, even decades later.
Sometimes it’s like a stone whose initial plunk into the water ripples outward in many circles, having a much deeper and profound effect on you than the person speaking could possibly know or understand.
It seems such a little thing…
Maybe not everyone is as open or susceptible to these things as I seem to be, but I try to say nice things whenever and wherever I can; readers of this blog know I can be very tough indeed. I’m no Pollyanna, but it’s been so powerful in my life when someone has offered a nugget of passing wisdom.
Like the woman I met socially just as my now-husband and I had started dating. We were serious about one another from the start, but we argued a lot and were stubborn and hot-headed. Not a pretty combination.
“You can give this man his happiest years or his worst years,” she said. I knew her very briefly and maybe saw her once or twice after that.
That made clear to me what my wisest choice would be and, 15 years later, we are happily married.
I didn’t come from a family filled with cute, cosy homilies, so I learned to find much of my wisdom and comfort from people beyond that circle.
In my mid-20s, on a journalism fellowship in Paris, a perceptive friend about 15 years my senior noticed my obsession with antiques, one that continues today.
“You don’t have to buy other people’s histories,” she said.
That same year, back in the days before (yes, really!) the Internet and the cloud, I was shooting a lot of film and slides, and had hundreds of them, going back years and much global travel, in a big black portfolio I used to show editors to win work.
It was stolen and I was devastated. How could I possibly persuade people to trust me and invest their time and money in my skills?
“Nope,” said a fellow fellow, a woman a bit older than me, also from Toronto, said firmly. “Everything inside that portfolio is already inside you. You don’t need it.”
She was right.
What has someone said to you that changed your life for the better?
I can hear all you young un’s stampeding for the exits.
That old fart? OMG!
But today is my bloody 55th. birthday and the hell with it. Consider the alternative!
I’ve never been happier, and am grateful indeed: loving husband, good health for us both, a new hip and a pain-free life, my Dad still alive and healthy at 83; dear friends; work (finally!) in abundance. Whew!
So, as I celebrate, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the past few decades, some words of wisdom, (aka WOWs).
The greatest love of my life has been the work I chose, writer and photographer. From 12 I knew this was what I wanted to do and I shaped my university studies accordingly, learning French and Spanish well enough to work in both languages, in Montreal, France and Spain. It has not been a smooth and uninterrupted ascent to fame and fortune; I could have made a hell of a lot more money doing almost anything else.
But I know my words have changed lives; one woman wrote to me after I published this medical story, and said it saved her life. No paycheck can beat that.
WOW:Invest the time to find out who you are and what you do best, and in what situations. Find workplaces that allow you to thrive, not merely survive. If you can’t, use your talents and skills as a volunteer, mentor or friend.
My second greatest love has been that of/for my second husband, someone who for years I thought, “Nah, we’ll never make it.” We’re really different! We fought ferociously at first, and, on occasion, still do. But he’s the most affectionate, expressive and loving person I’ve ever met. Lucky me!
WOW:Don’t give up too quickly on a new sweetie, even if it looks a little challenging. Maybe you need to grow into this one. Maybe s/he needs to grow (up) too!
Many women, especially, are terrified of it. Get over it. Stand up for your principles. Speak your piece calmly, fairly and confidently. Not everyone will like you. Some people will get angry and rude and attack you. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means you’ve pissed them off. Big difference.
WOW:Get comfortable speaking your mind publicly, like — blogging! You can, and must, also write letters to your elected officials, to newspapers, magazines and blogs you disagree with. Question your teachers and professors. If you never disagree with or question anyone, what’s up with that? Time to reality-check your certainties.
The first time it happens, you think it will kill you. My first husband, for whom I’d left friends, career and country behind, abandoned me two years after our wedding — and was re-married to his next wife within a year. That hurt like hell.
The first time a client cheated me in my freelance business, I was 19, and stunned. But I did then what I do now — hire a lawyer. Works every time!
WOW: What role did I play in allowing this?
This one is huge. As 19th. century British poet Rudyard Kipling put it:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
WOW:Bad things will happen to every single one of us: job loss, divorce, illness and death of loved ones, financial or health struggles. A mean boss! An unfaithful lover. Whatever. Try your very best to deal with it calmly and thoughtfully.
Send for help! Hire lawyers. Get second or third medical opinions. Save money so you have breathing room in which to make smart(er) decisions. The ability to remain lucid, centered and helpful will pull you through most shit flying your way. And others you least expect, watching you handle shit gracefully, will help you because they so admire your sangfroid.
No one likes a drama queen. No one.
Nope, there’s never enough — if your desires are insatiable. Save 10-25% or more of your annual income, no matter how broke you feel. Once you have a f–k-you fund and serious retirement savings, you’ve got choices. Without those, you’re toast.
If you don’t save money now, who exactly do you think is going to save your broke ass when you’re old and sick and tired and no one will hire you?It’s no joke.
WOW:That designer handbag or shiny new car won’t pay for chemo or put your kid(s) through college. What are your priorities? Fund them consistently for a life that matters to you, not just one that enriches others.
The greatest gift in this lifetime. Nurture your pals through good times and sad. Show up for the funerals of their kids and wives and husbands and parents. Write thank-you notes. Remember their birthdays and favorite flowers or food or wine. Some of them will ditch you. Some of them you’ll outgrow. Others will appear and grow further with you where you are now.
WOW:Never take people for granted. Show them how much they matter to you!
Get a passport and beat the hell out of it — only 30 percent of Americans own one, and most of their trips are to Mexico and Canada. I’ve been to 37 countries, (so far), and it’s the best investment I’ve made, even when alone and ill in Venice and Istanbul.
Even better, and tougher, live in another country, culture and language. I lived in London ages 2-5, Mexico at 14, France at 25. I moved to New York, knowing no one, with no job in sight, when I was 30, leaving my native Canada behind.
All were life-changing, and for the better.
Only by getting out of the comfy, cozy bubble of what you know and like and think is “normal” can you truly realize that all values are relative.
WOW:Especially for women, travel alone is an essential way to gain strength and independence. There are cute boys (and girls) and kind strangers everywhere!
What are your defining values?
Mine include: ethical behavior, non-stop creativity, curiosity, lots of loud laughter, fierce hugs, loyalty, doing your absolute best, under-promising and over-delivering, sincere apologies. Beauty is everywhere: a bird’s call through the silent woods, a smile from your sweetie, an ancient painting on a gallery or museum wall, the light on the lake at sunrise.
WOW:Find joy in every day. Savor it, share it and celebrate it. Make time to be alone and quiet and reflect on who you are and where you’re headed in life. If you’re unhappy, figure out why and fix it. (Yes, it can be hard.) Cherish the people who nourish, challenge and guide you, in work and play and family and community — and shed the toxic ones. You know who they are.
In your teens, 20s and 30s, you just assume — most of us — that you’ll be healthy. You can work crazy hours, eat crappy food, never take breaks. After the age of 40, it starts to change. After 50, you’re fighting to stay alive to 65, after which, statistically, you’ll make it to your 80s.
WOW:Don’t take fitness for granted. Enjoy and safeguard every bit of health you have. Get your mammograms and teeth cleaned and Pap smears and annual checkups. If your behavior patterns (or others’) are destroying your mental health, find a good therapist. If you “can’t afford” health insurance, cut out every conceivable cost from your life and get some.
I think this remains an under-rated quality, especially in young women. Physical strength and stamina will see you through extended periods of work, travel, study, care-giving. Emotional strength will see you through almost any crisis, holding it together so you can make decisions or find wise, trustworthy people to help you make them. Spiritual strength means you’re not some greedy, mean pushover. Intellectual strength will prove its worth when you skip junk distraction for challenging material and smart companionship. It glows.
WOW:Weakness is deeply unattractive, whether you’re 16 or 66. Weakness demands others rescue you from your own (lousy) choices. Don’t choose to be weak!
How badly do you really want it — the job, the sweetie, that friend, the trip overseas, your Phd, losing all that weight?
Few accomplishments come quickly or easily, and those who give up and walk away too soon cede the field (bye!!!!!) to those of us who keep showing up and take your place. Both of my books, both of which have garnered reviews that made me cry with relief and gratitude, were rejected 25 times. Twenty-five! If my agents had given up….?
WOW:If your goal is too easy, what’s the point? Find coaches and cheerleaders to help you get there. After you arrive, champagne!
Without it, we’re just walking bits of meat, getting and spending until we die. In an era of stunning income inequality, of long-term and widespread unemployment, of political gridlock that threatens the very notion of democracy, we must recognize others’ humanity and connection to us and take action. Whenever you shrug and turn away, you deny your best impulses. Be a Big Brother or Sister. Find a volunteer position that feeds your soul. Commit to a life partner who shoves you back onto that path when you stray.
WOW:“I want to be happy” is not a great life’s goal. I want to help others be happy is.
If you, like me, are a strong personality with a few too many opinions, you’re bound to create some enemies along the way. It happens. You’re fine as long as you have allies. Assertive and powerful women especially need them. Enemies aren’t worth fussing over, but don’t be naive about their envy, insecurity and determination to mess you up. (See: allies.)
WOW:In every job, class, workplace, freelance gig, nurture as many relationships as you can. Receptionists and secretaries are the gatekeepers to power. Stay in touch. Send cards and flowers for special occasions. Write thank-you notes on your personalized stationery with a real pen. Keep a supply of stamps at hand for this purpose.
Such an old-fashioned word. So essential. I decided to marry Jose when we went out to rescue my mother after she was found lying in her bed for days, immobilized by a large brain tumor. Her mattress was soiled. We had to make sense of her condition and deal with her house and dog and doctors, in a few days. Jose didn’t hesitate to leave work, pay thousands of dollars to fly us out overnight, and even scrubbed her soiled mattress.
WOW:You can choose your sweetie and friends because they’re funny and cute and like the same music and food. We all do, especially when we’re younger and life is still mostly fun. But when the shit hits the fan — which starts around age 45, when friends and family begin to sicken and die — character will separate the wheat from the chaff. Character will propel the right people to your side in the chemo suite and the funeral parlor and the NICU. Choose wisely.
Thanks for being part of Broadside — we’re now 1,463 worldwide.
I hope your 2010, and the decade to come, is filled with good things.
Here are a few of the life lessons that hit me upside the head these past few years, some more gently than others:
1) Young ‘uns rule. If you’re older than 35, 45, let alone 50, it’s a good time to get to know, and understand the thinking and relationships and behaviors of, people unrelated to you who are smart, talented, ambitious — and under 30.Maybe not if you’re a civil servant or tenured professor, but in the media, I think so. Even as a manager, it’s your job now to figure out how differently they think and deal effectively with it, whether the use of technology or some radically different ideas of what work is.
My two best professional opportunities arose this past year thanks to meeting two young women, both of them barely out of graduate school, who were working with high-level people they introduced me to. Had I been dismissive or skeptical of their interest, which many older, experienced workers can be, or could have been pre-recession, I’d have missed out.
One of them is fellow Canadian-jock-in-NY, T/S’s Katie Drummond, who heard me speak to her grad school class at NYU, snagged me, and is now one of my under-30 bosses. Reporting to people so much younger than is a little funky at times, but work — now more than ever — is less about titles and degrees and what you’ve done for the past 20 or 30 years, but about collegiality, mutual respect, enthusiasm, shared values.
Some of us older folk also share the “new” values of Gen Y, such as a way to make a living that also allows us the time and energy to enjoy our life. And there’s no way past the ugly truth that age discrimination is thriving. If you’re out of work, sneak in under the skirts of someone fresh(er)-faced.
2) Techno-sabbaths will keep you and your relationships healthy. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, but I admire their strict Sabbath. In an era of cool, sexy, portable toys that buzz, beep, blink, ring, whine and suck us into their orbits 24/7, turn ’em all off!One full day every single week. Very, very few of us need to be available 24/7, to anyone. It’s ego, addiction, boredom. Your kids, partner, co-workers and others — like wait-staff and retail associates trying to serve lots of other people at the same time — will like you more.
Read the fantastic book on this issue, “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson. Then go stare into the sky or at nature, night or day, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes. We are not meant to spend all our days reacting and responding to machinery, no matter how alluring its form.
3) Take gentle, consistent, grateful care of your body. In January 2000, mine started teaching me a lesson I had no interest in learning — it has limits. Excuse me? I’m not invulnerable?
That’s when I had a right knee arthroscopy to remove torn cartilage (the result of playing three squash games a week). December 2001, I had left knee arthroscopy for the same problem. May 2008 offered right shoulder surgery. By December 2009, the left shoulder needed months of physical therapy to avoid another surgery. November 2009, stress fracture of my left foot.
In the past decade, I’ve also watched more than a dozen people I cared for die, one at 17 of cancer, another at 49, of cancer, one murdered the day after he retired. Life and health are to be treasured.
If you’re young — under 30, say — you’re certain you’ve got your whole life, probably 80+ years’ worth, to eat junk, sleep 4 hours a night, ride a bike without a helmet, binge-drink, have weird/complicated relationships with food, smoke, take all kinds of drugs or share prescription medications with friends. All you need is one bad accident, surgery or months-long injury to get it and get smart(er.)
Women, especially, are socialized to care for everyone but themselves and to focus endless, tedious, narcissistic attention on the size and shape of their bodies. Focus instead on your blood sugar/pressure, heart health, cancer risks, mental health, wearing a facial moisturizer with SPF every single day.
We live, in the U.S. in one of the most brutal and bare-knuckled of capitalist countries: no paid sick leave, little or no paid vacation, 1/3 of the workforce now working freelance or temp or contract — i.e. no paid sick days or vacation, people terrified to disappoint their boss(es) and get fired. Don’t let this larger world shorten your life, as it can and will.
I worked myself, in March 2007, into three days on an IV in a hospital bed with pneumonia. Don’t ever be(come) that person. Save several months’ expenses so when you are ill you can take enough time off, in most cases, to fully recover.
Respect your body for its strengths and be gentle with its weak(er) bits.
4) Mentor and volunteer, wisely. Everyone needs help, at 17, 28, 39, 54. Whenever. Don’t be a doormat and beware of users, but make it a point to help others trying to achieve a goal you admire and share. It’s fun and it builds good karma.
I answered an email about six years ago from a younger writer in D.C. asking advice. Unlike most people who shamelessly ask to “pick my brain”, he immediately offered several extremely valuable, hard-t0-get editor contacts. Which was kind, classy and made me reply right away. He wasn’t, as so many hungry wannabe’s, out to grab and run.
We have since — still never having met face to face — become good friends and colleagues, acting as valuable sounding boards for one another. The book he was then trying to sell became a best-seller. Cool!
Find a cause, or several, that matter deeply to you and make a commitment to giving back.
5) Publishing a book will not, despite people’s fantasies to the contrary, change your life. Everyone thinks it will. They want it to. You want it to. Your agent or publisher, maybe less so. They’re been around that block many times before. Don’t assume you’ll get on “Oprah” or even get reviewed anywhere.
If you’re lucky, and/or persistent, and the book has some lasting value, you will find a community of its fans. That’s a lovely thing. Nurture them.
If it does change your life in any significant way, say a huge thank you to whatever deity — or non-deity — you pray to. You are extremely fortunate. Now, go help someone else achieve this; see Lesson Number Four.
6) You can find a decent guy/woman on the Internet. In March 2000, a man in Brooklyn saw my profile on aol.com and wrote me a letter. Like me, he was a workaholic, ambitious career news journalist, someone who lives to eat, drink, listen to music, take photos, travel. We would never ever have met otherwise, even though we both worked for the Times, he staff, me freelance.
I was, officially, writing a story about on-line dating — then declasse, secret, scary — for the now-defunct women’s magazine, Mademoiselle. We’ve been together ever since.
7) Taking risks is essential to growth. The most terrifying choice — of man/woman, job/career, pet(s), kid(s), re-training, new city, town or country, the fellowship or grant you’re sure you’ll never win, leaving the man or woman or boss who abuses you, the athletic challenge that looks impossible — go for it!Be selective and smart about it, but if nothing you’re working on or with ever makes you a little nervous or anxious, in a good way, you’re stagnant.
8) Your dream job/man/woman/home may prove to be a nightmare. You’ll survive.
9) Being broke, (short of losing your home and health), is annoying as hell but it won’t kill you. I am not talking about severe, chronic poverty, but the nasty fiscal dive so many of us have taken in the past two years — and in the recessions of 2003 and 1990. I’ve watched my income plummet by three-quarters on a few occasions. Not fun!
I live near New York City, where simply driving my Mom to the airport in the summer of 2008 snapped my last nerve after paying an insane $13 in tolls and parking for 15 minutes. Not including gas. Enough already!
Live as far below your means as you can tolerate, adding luxury and pleasures when and where they are affordable; read The Millionaire Next Door, published in 1998, for advice and inspiration on avoiding dangerous peer or family pressure to “keep up”. Health insurance, safe housing and healthy food are necessities. Cable TV, cellphones, a gym membership, new clothes (short of underwear or socks) are not.
Being broke, even for a few weeks or months, offers a powerful, unavoidable opportunity to sort out your priorities and values, let alone prompt a come-to-Jesus conversation with your partner/spouse/family of origin/kids.
Don’t attach your entire ego to your job title, profession or career. If you have to leave them behind, what (else) will provide you with your sense of self-worth and value?
10) A balanced life includes nurturing your mind, body, soul, heart, friends, family and community. It’s not a zero-sum game. Think of yourself not as a two-sided scale, but a multi-faceted gemstone like a diamond, one that needs to gleam.
I weary to nausea of “balance” conversations. It’s life. It’s your life. It’s your only life. If you need someone to do more of, (even some of), their share of the cleaning, grocery shopping, housework, picking up their dirty laundry — delegate. Insist. Insist again.
Little kids, let alone teens, need to learn that Mom (or, less frequently, Dad) doesn’t mean “slave” in some foreign tongue. If you do always feel like a weary slave to your domestic environment, job or location, consider quitting, moving, downscaling and buying/owning fewer things that need care, feeding, dusting, polishing. Your only life is getting shorter by the minute.
Even if you don’t have kids, you likely have a kajillion other commitments, certainly in a lousy economy with little relief in sight. The word “no” is useful, short, easily said. You can still be a generous and giving person and carve out time for yourself. Do you really need everyone to rely on you being indispensable all the time — or could you, even a few nights a week, instead flop into bed at 9:00 pm. and enjoy a full eight hours’ sleep?
If you don’t take deliberate and consistent care of your own needs, whether for privacy, silence, worship, dawdling, doodling, canoodling, doing nothing, you’ll burn out and become a monster. No one likes a martyr.
Make a list, today, of 10 affordable, accessible activities (no, not Paris) that make you really, really happy. How often do you do them?