The first half dozen pages of the November issue of Real Simple were just the kind of thing you’d expect from a glossy magazine—double page ads for makeup, cashmere sweaters, and a sonic foot care system.
It was the next couple of pages that brought me up short.
On the left, beneath the word “Thoughts” there was a striking photograph of an island with a grove of birch trees whose russet leaves covered the ground and a boardwalk inviting the reader to stroll over a patch of slate blue water lined with the afternoon shadows of the trees to the solitude and peace of the island.
Near the bottom of the page there was a quote from Henry David Thoreau: "I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence.
On the right there was a full page ad dominated by an enormous image of a bottle of facial lotion floating inside a water balloon (presumably to highlight its moisturizing qualities).
It was such a strange juxtaposition. I couldn’t help but wonder what Thoreau would have to say about it.
On outer Cape Cod where I live there is the summer tourist season, when every business has more than they can handle, the fall “tour-bus” season, which some businesses stay open to accommodate, and the off-season when any discussion of where to go starts with, “What’s open?”
I’ve grown used to the limitations that go with living year round in a summer vacation destination, but I didn’t expect to find the same problem on a recent visit to Washington DC which happened to coincide with the first day of the government shutdown.
All the places I’d hoped to visit—the National Gallery, the World War II Memorial, the Holocaust Museum, the National Arboretum—were closed, so I said to myself, I need to do what I do all winter—direct my attention to what’s open.
I like words, discovering new ones and looking up their meanings, yet I’ve always had an aversion to any piece of writing that starts off with something like, “The word x is defined as....” It’s always felt like a weak beginning and I’ve vowed never to do it.
But sooner or later we end up breaking our hard and fast rules, so I’m going to start this column with a definition for the word "responsible" which you won’t find in any dictionary: being responsible means changing the toilet paper roll when the old one is empty.
It’s a simple practice but it’s not as easy as you might think, especially for someone as mechanically challenged as I am. I’ve often had to collect the two sections and center spring of the spindle from the floor multiple times before finally getting it back on the holder, or have spent an extra ten minutes in a public stall trying to figure out how to reload one of those multi-roll contraptions.
What's important about this exercise is that I took the time to attend to the task in front of me, without an audience, or accountability, or the expectation of any reward beyond the boost it gave to my own self-esteem.
This summer I’ve been studying the Alexander Technique, an educational process developed by New Zealander F. M. Alexander in the early 1900's that teaches you how to release tension by sending messages to your body to undo unnecessary patterns of holding.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that Alexander’s idea of achieving greater freedom and ease of movement works also with more than just muscles, nerves and bones.
Looking for places in my body where I habitually store stress, it didn’t take long for me to discover what felt like a sizzling mass of hot wires in the back of my neck and left shoulder blade that appeared whenever I was provoked by an unpleasant sensation, e.g. sitting for a long period of time in summer traffic.
But it took a while to figure out where I stashed my emotional patterns of holding. When I heard myself sharing a painful situation in my life exactly the way I’d shared it for the last two years, I knew I’d hit paydirt.
I’ve been aware of this trend for some time, but it came into clear focus recently when I read the words “Farm Raised” in bold print on the front of a carton of organic milk.
Having grown up in an era when the New England countryside had more dairy farms than shopping malls, my first thought was, “Where else?” But sadly I know enough about how the “food-industrial complex” works to understand that most of the milk in the dairy case comes from places that are a lot more like factories than farms.
What if every time I de-cluttered, picking up shoes, books, dishes, etc., instead of grumbling about it I paused to remember the recent tornado in Moore, Oklahoma and reminded myself that if I lived there I might have nothing left to put away?
What if, after listening to a discussion about nuclear proliferation in unstable countries halfway across the world, I closed my eyes and allowed the realization of the potential we have to destroy one another to inform how I create peace in the relationships in my life?
What if I looked at the opportunity I have to do the work I know how to do as a great gift, like Mike Leahy, the only person to get a job in the PBS New Hours story about the increasing despair of over-55 job seekers unable to find employment I talked about last month.
Last month I talked about the chronic nature of long-term unemployment. But there’s another elephant in the living room—systemic ageism.
In a recent segment on the PBS News Hour Paul Solman reported, “For those 55 and older, it takes at least a year on average to find work, longer than any other age group.”
He then sat down to talk with a group of bright, skilled, articulate older men and women who been unsuccessful at finding work.
Although each of them had tried to appear younger using such tactics as truncating the work history on their resumes, their attempts had ultimately backfired.
“I was coming in for a face-to-face interview,” one person said, “and the HR recruiter saw me, assumed who I was, and his face—I could just see his face almost fall when he saw me and how old I was. After that, I pretty much got pushed through two of the people I was supposed to talk to. The other three got busy and I couldn't see them.”
The others nodded and related their own experiences of losing an interviewer’s attention or being given a perfunctory half hour before being shown the door.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that the signs of spring—green grass, purple crocuses, yellow forsythia—can’t always be counted on to appear on schedule where I live on Cape Cod. More often than not, the dominant color of April is brown and you have to bundle up to take a walk just as you did in February.
But I’m a daily walker and the other day I donned my wool coat and hat to go out right after reading an article in the Boston Globe that said nearly four million people have been out of work for a year or more. Before the recession, 10% of the total unemployment number represented the long-term unemployed. Now it’s almost 30%. There’s no spring for these work-seekers either.
According to the article, long-term unemployment is the “most intractable” consequence of the last recession and because of a lack of political will, despite all the talk about creating jobs in the last election, few resources are being directed toward it. The problem, the Globe said, is “chronic.” They make it sound like an illness.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent a lot of money on a textbook for a class you really didn’t want to take.
I have a vivid memory of waiting in line in a college bookstore to buy an 800-page statistics manual for a quantitative methods course in an MBA program. I was recently divorced, in my mid-forties, re-entering the work world, and this was the prescribed credential.
But as I inched closer to the checkout area, I happened to pass the Art History section and my heart beat faster as book cover images of Gothic cathedrals, Old Masters and Impressionist landscapes caught my eye. A powerful urge to abandon multivariate data analysis for Degas’ ballerinas came over me, but I dutifully held on to the textbook, even as it grew heavier in my arms.
During the holidays, a senior executive I work with unplugged and loved the time it gave her to think, to enjoy breathing space, and “feel more sane.” At the end of the long first Monday back, her non-stop schedule with too much work and too many meetings left her wanting to do nothing but stretch out on the couch and watch Downtown Abbey. Yet she found herself in work mode, sitting up and tensely typing tweets instead. She had to make herself stop and enjoy the show.
Harper Reed, Chief Technology Officer for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, was used to receiving thousands of emails a day, but when the election was over, he chose to put distance between the campaign and what was coming next in his life by giving himself a week away from the Internet and 140-character tweets to read a 1,000 page history of the Stalingrad Campaign.
I like these examples of creating a healthier balance between time spent on- and offline because they represent conscious choices that are far removed from all the hype we’re hearing these days about “digital detox.”
My husband and I have a standing joke about traveling Amtrak. When we first started doing it, it seemed like there'd always be someone who would board, take a seat in front of or behind us, whip out a cell phone, make a call and say, “Hello, I’m on the train.”
And so now, whenever we settle into our seats, we look at each other and one of us will say, “We’re on the train!”
This Christmas our little joke took on new meaning. When we arrived in New Haven, our usual point of departure, the long-term parking lot in the station was full and so were all the others in the surrounding area. This had never happened before. It was beginning to look doubtful that we would be able to get on that train.
As the minutes ticked away, my husband drove around like a maniac, hopping from red light to red light, looking in vain for a lot that didn't have a sign that said FULL in front, while I kept saying we needed to pull over, get information and pause to consider our options.
On our third circuit of Union Station, he finally heard me. He pulled into the passenger drop-off area in front where just it so happened that Santa Claus was waiting to give us what we most needed for Christmas—a parking space.