My retired brother is enviably clear about what makes him happy. This summer he built himself a small camper for the road trips that are one of his greatest joys. He enjoyed the process of building the camper and a few weeks ago he headed out. This trip is expected to last almost three months, the fourth of months-long journeys in the last two years, visiting National Parks and seeing friends along the way.
He also seems happy when he is not on the road. He reads books on his phone that he tells me are junk, is a popular bartender at a local high end restaurant, goes fishing and sleeps a lot. If he has my compulsion toward constant goal-setting, he hides it well.
Last week, he texted me praising the great camping in North Dakota’s Teddy Roosevelt National Park along with a photo of a bison on the range. When I shared a screenshot with the rest of the family, one of my nieces responded “He is living his best life.”
The insistent internal voice telling me to improve myself is temporarily satisfied whether I learn something new, reduce my carbon footprint, or act more kindly and I do experience joy when I achieve any of my self-improvement goals. My brother’s message and my niece’s response are fresh reminders that living my own best life also requires pursuing pure joy unrelated to self-improvement.
Imagine an immigrant living on a country road near Durham, North Carolina with her husband, also an immigrant, and four children aged 8 to 13, managing her household on a tight budget. It is 1970. She has a high school education, no other nearby relatives, and no longstanding friendships in the neighborhood. And she is reading Cancer Ward, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize that year. That was my mother and I am trying to imagine whether this very serious book is how she entertained herself when her kids were at school and the housework was done (was it ever done?) or if it was something she plowed through to talk about with my father, who was fascinated by Russia.
I finally finished Cancer Ward after owning it for roughly 15 years. As I was reading it, the character of Vadim, who has a fatal melanoma, reminded me of my mother’s long ago foray with Solzhenitsyn. When I was in 8th grade, she became so concerned that the large thick mole on my lower back could be cancerous that she took me to a dermatologist to have it removed. I remember two trips to the doctor; the first when she told him that we were there because she read Cancer Ward which alerted her to the potential danger of large moles. The second trip was for the removal. I have a clear memory of lying on my stomach and the pinpricks of the local anesthesia on my back and then later seeing the mole (not malignant) floating in liquid in a jar.
I believe I remember this so clearly because, like all children, I wanted attention and this event was one of the rare instances when I received special attention. (Such events were so memorable that I could do another blog post about the one other time that I remember receiving special attention.)
Cancer Ward’s story of cancer patients and their caretakers in the Soviet Union of the 1960s are dark and moving and I loved the recognizable influence of Tolstoy, who will keep his several inches on my bookshelves because I am likely to re-read War and Peace, Anna Karenina and some of his shorter novels. However, since I don’t think I will want to re-read Cancer Ward, I am giving it to a friend. Even though it brought back such a powerful memory of my mother, I have many strong memories and many irreplaceable physical souvenirs of her — china, linen, silver, pictures, handiwork. What I would love and cannot have is to ask her what else she got out of Cancer Ward beyond confirming that a mole would not kill her eldest child
Like the rest of the privileged world, I am decluttering my life. That even means my bookshelves. Some books are easy to put in the ‘donate’ pile (decades-old guidebooks, literary fiction that I enjoyed but know I don’t need to read again) but many books fall in a gray area and so I am re-reading a few to help me decide whether to keep or give.
Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki I have two books by Tanizaki, the other being The Makioka Sisters, which was the basis of a 1983 movie that I loved and left me with a memory of a shot of a beautiful red silk kimono. I must have bought both books after seeing the movie. Some Prefer Nettles, published in 1955, is much shorter, and therefore an easier read although it assumes a knowledge of Japanese culture and geography that I don’t have. The plot revolves around a couple in the 1920s who have made a decision to divorce but make only the smallest steps toward acting on their decision. Mannered but with surprisingly modern attitudes, it’s a keeper because I love to read books by local authors when I travel and a trip in rural Japan is on my wish list. With its descriptions of theatre and place, Some Prefer Nettles will help set the mood I want on that eventual trip.
The Cloud Forest by Peter Matthiessen. The date on the price sticker tells me I bought this after my trip to the Amazon, which makes sense because I came home wanting to learn more. I loved Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard the first time I read it but on the second reading, his selfish treatment of his family ruined the book for me. On the second reading of The Cloud Forest, published in 1961, his cluelessness about the vulnerability of the Amazon is infuriating. He wrote: “It is difficult to accept that a wilderness of this dimension still exists… we cannot really enter it but only skirt its edges. This will change, of course, but it will change slowly.” Material deforestation of the Amazon began right after the book was published, and 60 years later, at least 20% of the rainforest is gone. That feels fast, especially since a healthy Amazonian ecosystem is critical to avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. While it may not be fair to blame Matthiessen — his arrogance reflected the optimism of the times, plus he was writing a traveler’s tale with a focus on birds and not an analysis of potential threats to the Amazon — his point of view hasn’t aged well. I hope someone else will enjoy it.
Last summer, for exercise and pleasure, I swam laps across the Delaware River. The river is mostly wide and shallow in my area but I found a public access point where the water was deep enough to swim and, if I aimed upstream, the current would bring me roughly across from the landing where I started. For safety, I attached a boogie board to my swimsuit as a life preserver. At first, I relied on breaststrokes and kept my eyes above water so I could see where I was, but with more experience and confidence, I put my head down with each stroke or did some crawl and back strokes. Swimming these laps was peaceful, beautiful, and just the right amount of strenuous.
Then a friend showed me a place where, because the current was weaker close to the shore, I could swim upstream for as long as I felt like it, enjoying the trees and sky overhead, The current strengthened toward the middle of the river and by moving a few feet toward the center when I was ready to quit, the river quickly brought me back to my starting point. Just swimming upstream for as long as I wanted was magical.
With the gift of time that is retirement, I anticipated more frequent magic this summer. Unfortunately, the current has been so strong that when I head upstream, I stay in place. Since I have time, I’ve experimented with different public access points but haven’t found the right mix of current and depth to give me the joy I was anticipating. Still, this summer, when it is warm enough, I drive to the closest river beach and swim upstream (actually in place). Not trusting the current, I have been doing my eyes-above-water breaststroke. It is not as joyous as swimming upriver but much better than riding a stationary bike at the gym.
I imagine myself from the vantage of the families and groups of young people that play in the water or relax at the river’s edge (although they don’t seem to pay any attention to me): The tall woman parks her car, puts her towel, glasses and keys on a rock and walks into the river. After a few minutes to adjust to the cold water, she swims, head above the surface. Sometimes she slowly moves backwards, then stands up to walk back upstream past the white flag that is her towel. After 20 or 30 minutes, she gets out and drives away.
When I was in high school, I spent a lot of the summer at the local town pool sunbathing. (I knew that the sun would damage my skin but I was living in the moment and wanted to maintain the deep brown that came with fresh sunburn on top of a suntan). When my skin started to feel sizzling, I cannonballed into the pool to cool off, my hair floating in all directions until I emerged to resume sunbathing. My hope was the chlorine would lighten my brown hair a little. (And this was not even the dumbest thing I did in my youth.)
On the fringes of my preoccupations with unhealthy goals and unhealthier boys, I did notice older women doing slow breaststrokes back and forth in the lap lane. They kept their heads above water so as not to ruin their sprayed-in-place hairdos, with the result that they looked a little like ducks or swans, with their heads — made taller by the hairstyles — gliding through the water and barely a splash to indicate the below-surface activity that powered their progress.. To the extent I thought about them — enough to give me this vague memory — I wondered if those languid laps counted as exercise and decided it was sad to have hair that needed to be so pampered that you could not get it wet.
Now I am probably decades older than those women were then (40 seemed ancient when I was a teenager), swimming against the current, comparing myself to them and thinking about the ways we are the same and the ways we are different.
Working with my hands is therapeutic after decades in a large bureaucracy. My garden is full of squash blossoms, small delicata and rapidly growing butternut squash, plus dozens of green cherry tomatoes. The thirty year old polyurethane on my dining room table has been stripped off and replaced by many coats of softly shining lacquer. A hand knit sweater (thanks, mom) that provided nesting material for mice has been darned and bright flowers are embroidered over what were formerly gashes. I have done all that and more.
These finished and imperfectly executed products of my attention give me pleasure. The squash plants are taking over my flower bed but the bees the coneflowers attract are fertilizing the squash blossoms so they will bear fruit. It took watching many YouTube videos to figure out how to apply an even lacquer finish and the result looks great to me but is certainly not professional. My embroidered flowers are a bit gaudy so I am thinking about how to tone them down.
Next on the list is webbing two chair frames with vinyl cord I ordered from Etsy. This project will require more YouTube tutorials. Learning new skills feels as good as exercising my dormant needlecraft skills.
I think all of this will help me figure out what I want to do when I run out of these projects but right now, I am going to focus on my handiwork.
A few days after telling my amazing doctor that I would cut back on sugar, I indulged in a sundae of Mayan Chocolate ice cream with roasted cherry sauce, coconut whipped cream and almonds…the chocolate/cherry combination is even better than usual because of the chile and spices in the Mayan chocolate.
I hoped to post a simple message of decadence and pleasure but that version didn’t feel honest. If you want to pretend I am a carefree person who would break her word to her doctor by driving to the ice cream shop, waiting in line and ordering this sundae without extensive rationalization, stop reading now.
My day had been annoying. I only accomplished half of my errands because one proprietor left a note on the door of the shop apologizing for taking the afternoon off and I arrived at the post office ten minutes after it closed. Add that my new glasses prescription is giving me headaches. Then, I lost something valuable and spent two hours looking for it.
After all of this, I gave myself permission to have this sundae if I made one last effort to look for the lost valuable by going back to a place I had already looked, an effort that was pretty certain to be hopeless. It is a theme in my life that such diligence is often rewarded with good luck, but finding my small gray hearing aid on the parking lot pavement, undamaged hours after it fell there, felt like a miracle. Instead of serving only as a reward, the sundae was also a celebration.
One room in my house, my bedroom, is painted a dark blue-gray that I dislike. This raises two questions: first, what color do I want? and second, who should repaint it? Since I now have time to watch junky TV and scroll through Twitter as well as take road trips to visit friends and write blog posts, I could save the money on a painter and do it myself. Working on projects around the house is a classic retiree activity. And recently, two very fashionable and glamorous women I follow on Instagram* posted about painting rooms themselves, so it even seems like it may even be trendy to DIY. Why would I even think of hiring someone?
One reason: I feel I should be doing something either fun or meaningful with my time. Since I am probably taking myself way too seriously (again), I will note that laziness is also a factor. The job will take me at least four days, since covering the dark paint will require several coats of primer.
I had begrudgingly decided on DIY. Fortunately, then I followed a YouTube link a friend sent me. The lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit** are not truly inspirational but the beat is. Now, the idea of spending four days singing along to loud music has me looking forward to the project.
I readily call myself privileged but volunteering at a South Bronx food pantry* recently showed me my privilege in a stark light. As I assembled bags of vegetables to be distributed, I was reminded of the bag of produce I buy twice monthly for $30 from an organic farm. I had been confident that this $30 is well-spent – supporting a local farm, eating at home, avoiding processed food. Feeding myself such healthy food is a form of self-care that I usually don’t feel guilty about. However, my recent bag of arugula, lettuce, spring onions, kale, rosemary and Japanese turnips looks uncomfortably precious when I compare it to the cabbage, onions, carrots, and indestructible tomatoes that we presented to people suffering from food insecurity. When almost 20% of NYC children are food insecure, I wonder if my priorities are misplaced.
The day I volunteered, along with the produce, we distributed a bag of non-perishables, plus milk, yogurt and eggs. I was told that the quantity and quality of the food distributed varies from week to week. Someone struggling to feed a family must hope to show up on a day with more and better food… one more way that people with fewer resources are vulnerable to random luck.
The pantry permits one pick-up per household per month and a few people were turned away because they had already received their monthly distribution. It wasn’t my place to object, but I have been wondering about alternatives to turning people away. Many of the clients brought shopping carts but several were not prepared for the volume of packages. Some of the pantry employees seemed impatient with this lack of preparedness while I wished I could help those recipients carry their food home. My thoughts are probably signs of naivete.
I have a frequent internal debate about how much I should do for others, and especially the others who are NOT my nearest neighbors or friends. I try to resolve this debate by being generous with how I spend my time and money but that usually feels inadequate. I will keep working toward a better answer.
*I volunteered through NY Cares, which I recommend to New Yorkers interested in community engagement. After a straightforward registration process, the website offers dozens of one-off volunteering opportunities in a variety of time slots and fields of interest. It is a great way to explore volunteering opportunities before committing to an organization or to do something useful with a random chunk of time.
This picture is a selfie I took on the day that I chose new frames at the optician. I was really excited by how they look with my increasingly gray hair but now that the frames are fitted with my prescription lenses, I am a little heart-broken. To explain why, I have to break a rule I developed:
“AVOID TELLING PEOPLE ABOUT YOUR FLAWS because, most of the time, people won’t notice those flaws unless you point them out.”
In this situation, the flaw is that, because the prescription is so strong, my eyes look weirdly small behind the pretty new frames. My vision deteriorated a lot during the year of COVID and, to me, there is a huge difference in how these glasses look compared to my old prescription lenses.
Here’s the obligatory but sincere gratitude: I know that I am incredibly fortunate to live in a time when someone with such bad eyesight can get it corrected, and also fortunate that I can afford all the extras so that the lenses don’t look an inch thick. And if the glasses bother me so much, I could go back to wearing contact lenses.
I also know this is probably something that no one but me will ever notice unless I point it out, so why break the rule? Because sharing emotions helps manage them but also to figure out why I am so sad about this. The answer is probably wrapped up in decades of history of trying not to look as vision-impaired as I am. When I started wearing glasses in the fourth grade, choosing frames was a repeated and angst-ridden project given the options available for young girls in the 1960s. I started wearing contact lenses in middle school, and popped them in daily for almost 50 years. So even though I think I am only moderately vain, those habits attached huge emotional baggage that unexpectedly arrived with my new glasses. With practice, I think I can leave that baggage behind
When I logged into my Citibike account recently, the welcome page told me I had logged an astonishing 1,650 rides. I also owed $1.87 for a ride that went over the 45 minute per ride time limit plus the credit card on file had expired. I spent an hour trying to get the website to accept my updated credit card and then gave up. After putting the project aside for a day, I loaded the app on my phone, which accepted the updated credit card without a hiccup.
Crazy to think I logged 1,650 rides without ever loading the app. It is also crazy that the website wouldn’t accept my credit card but the app did.
Somewhere around ride 1,655, I was waiting at a light next to a woman on a vintage olive green Raleigh like one I remember having. I told her how beautiful it was, and she told me her age (76), and that the bike she was riding was a replacement that she found on Etsy after her old bike was stolen. My mother was riding her bike around Chicago well into her 80s, and I was so happy to chat with another role model.
Brief conversations with nice strangers are one of the great joys of being in NYC. For me, so is getting around on a Citibike …for the convenience and exercise, because I don’t have to worry about the bike getting stolen, and because of the joy of a downhill coast in Central Park. Although sharing the roads with the rest of NYC and managing the basic technology can be annoying, I plan to be like my mom and ride well past 76.