Winding up in the wind-down

I should be winding down at work given there’s only a week to go before the entire country shuts down to enjoy some sun at the beach and a Christmas picnic. But instead, that peculiar madness has come over everyone where they suddenly decide project/thing X absolutely must be completed by the end of the year. Invariably X has been sitting around ignored for months prior to this rise in its priority.

So I have been busy doing other people’s work for them, which normally leads to feeling tired and grumpy. However, I have managed to keep my wits about me and not let this get to me. It’s only taken me 30 years to learn I can say no at work and I won’t be fired.

This is a good feeling, being unbothered. I wish I’d known how to do it years ago. But it’s only possible now with the confidence that comes from years of proving myself capable, reliable, dependable and useful.

So I ignored all thoughts of work this weekend and spent it instead making a compost bin, painting the bannisters, and baking Christmas mince pies. It’s now Sunday afternoon and I feel achy from the painting but pleased with my progress.

I’m giving credit for this burst of activity to the impact of the change in my medication. I got permission to stop taking the particularly nasty RA drug that, while effective at keeping the disease well controlled, left me feeling about as energetic as a hibernating bear. The new drug has its side effects but debilitating fatigue isn’t one of them. I’m calling that a win.

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How to do Christmas alone

With only three weeks to go, small talk has begun to focus on what people are doing for Christmas.

My preference was and is to spend it alone and do things I enjoy, invariably solitary pursuits of minimal interest to anyone else. Over the years I’ve developed the following approach to having a successful Christmas alone:

  1. Plan your solo day with the same forethought as you would if you were hosting Other People for Christmas at your place.
  2. Make sure you have food you like to eat, and make it a bit special. A bag of chips and a glass of red wine is fine (?!) for a Friday night dinner but Christmas dinner needs to be better planned. Since it’s summer at this end of the world my preference is salmon and salad with a special dessert like French chocolate tart. And bubbles.
  3. Decorate the house however you like. Or not at all. I never used to because I didn’t like the mishmash of decorations I had, but I finally got rid of them and spent a few hours making decorations. I’m much happier with my homemade strings of paper stars. It feels like me.
  4. Buy a present for yourself, something you really want. Wrap it and put it under the tree. Don’t unwrap it until Christmas Day. This is called delayed gratification and it means you’ll enjoy it all the more when you finally unwrap it. In my case I usually buy myself a book so I can spend the day reading it. I look forward to unwrapping the book because that signals the start of a day spent reading. Bliss.
  5. Do things you enjoy doing, and nothing you don’t. If you want to read all day, do that. If you want to lie in the grass and count daisies, do that. If you want to drive backroads singing Glen Campbell songs, do that.
  6. If anyone asks about your plans for Christmas, and you don’t want to tell people you’re spending it alone (because they will judge and will likely pity you then insist you join them or someone because they can’t deal with you being alone) you may have to dissemble a little. I usually respond “oh the usual, food, presents, what about you?” when I’m asked what I’m doing this year. It’s perfectly true.

So that’s it. Christmas on your terms. I can highly recommend it.

I’ve had Christmases alone for probably 20 years, off and on. Lately with my elderly widowed father and me the only child in town I’ve had to sacrifice my solitary Christmases to keep him company. This year, nephews 1 and 2 plus partner 1 and child 1 are all going to be in town and I’m having to host it. It’ll be the biggest and most peopled Christmas I’ve had since I was a teenager.

Much as I love my nephews, I’ll miss my solitary Christmas.

A pre-Christmas holiday

I went on holiday last week. Work was getting antsy about high leave balances, and I was fed up with work, so it was a mutually agreeable arrangement.

I found a lovely wee cottage to rent about an hour north of home, and I booked it for 4 days. I decided to start my holiday on Sunday afternoon because it was better than rushing out of work on Friday and dealing with traffic, and it was way better than a normal Sunday afternoon spent contemplating the week of work ahead.

The cottage was lovely, well equipped and clean and private. There was a table and two chairs outside under a verandah, with an outlook over a small field of lavender. It was warm and sunny. I sat outside with a cup of tea and a book and felt the tension letting go.

I replaced the tea with a glass of wine. I sat. I listened to the birds and looked at the lavender and sipped the wine. I felt the warmth seeping into my bones.

I went fly fishing one afternoon in the nearby river. I stood in the water casting and watching the strike indicator bob along until it was time to retrieve it and cast again. Rinse and repeat. I went to the beach and sat on the sand and looked at the shells and the small waves and the clouds and the people way down the other end of the beach. I let the sun warm me. I read. I took a nap in the shade of some silver birches. I watched a hedgehog make his way over the gravel driveway to the cool dark shade of my car and onward to the hedge. I made salads for dinner.

On other words, I went away for a week and did nothing and it was wonderful.

A spinster and a slattern

That could be the start of a joke: a spinster and a slattern walk into a bar …

According to the OED, the word spinster

…is always a derogatory term referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy and repressed.

Well. Let’s see:

  • I’m unmarried (aka single, but let’s be all judgy about what’s normal and what’s un-normal)
  • I’m childless (which of course presumes childiness as the norm)
  • My nickname at grad school was Miss Priss (it was used “lovingly”, but still)
  • I am without a doubt repressed as any number of therapists would confirm if they were given to using that language to rather than about their patients.

Four out of four. I always did like to do well on tests.

A slattern is “a dirty, untidy woman”. Today I cleaned my house for the first time in several months. Yes, that’s right, months. I have done token wiping of surfaces when things got desperate but I haven’t had the energy to clean properly until today.

I am not a fully fledged slattern. I’m more of a slattern-about-home. I do shower daily and launder my clothes regularly, I brush my hair, trim my nails, keep up appearances. It’s on the home front where appearances fall over a bit. Mind you, my definition of slatternly is still on the neat-freak side of some of my friends.

Interestingly there are no equivalent words for men. Bachelor has an entirely different connotation of course, and I can’t think of a word with similar derogatory overtones for a dirty, untidy man. Unless — husband? Going by complaints from married friends the vast majority of husbands seem to be dirty of habit and chronically untidy.

There’s probably not a lot that can be done to redeem the word slattern. But spinster used to declaim with honour that a woman worked to support herself in a trade (spinning). Spinning isn’t my trade but I definitely work to support myself.

It’s always a shame when a good word goes bad. It’s too bad there’s no positive word to sum up a single woman living alone and earning her own living. We need one.

Training habits for single life

I read a blog post somewhere this week (I’d link to it if I could remember where it was) that was advocating habits over goals. This resonated. I love me some habits.

The point the author was making was that it’s all well and good to have goals — buy a house, travel through India, make a million bucks, run a marathon — but achieving goals is more about creating the right habits than it is about having a vision. Also, a goal ends when you achieve it, while habits endure.

There’s a contradiction here. Let’s say your goal is to get fit. Most goal gurus would say this is a poorly-defined goal because how will you know when you get there? Goals need to be measurable, so a “better” goal would be “I want to run the New York City Marathon in 2018” which is now specific and time-bound.

But the only way you’re going to achieve this is by getting race-fit: embarking on a regular running programme to train for the event. That means establishing a habit. Habits are boring and daily and never-ending, pretty much like a marathon. And it’s that boring never-ending routine that’s going to get you across the finish line.

However, having run your marathon, what do you do then? Getting fit is no longer your goal, because you are, and you’ve run your marathon, so that’s not your goal any more either. Lots of people quit running at this point because their training was in pursuit of that marathon goal, and not in pursuit of vaguer goals like ‘to become a runner’ or ‘to get fit and stay fit’.

All those goal gurus would tell me that ‘to have a good single life’ is not a well-formed goal because it lacks specificity. That’s true, but the purpose of setting this goal isn’t so much to reach it (what would I do then? Sit on my deck and congratulate myself? Die?) as to provide a point of focus for identifying the habits I need to develop in order to achieve it. My real goal is to be living in a way that means every day I’m doing the things that will ensure I reach my goal. My goal is to establish habits that lead to my goal.

The definition of ‘a good single life’ will change over the course of my life. But regardless, at any point it will mean doing daily those things that contribute to my definition of a good life, which currently means looking after my health and wellbeing, doing things I enjoy (as distinct from things I think I’m supposed to do but don’t enjoy), and avoiding doing harm.

It all comes back to that marvellous quote from Annie Dillard:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

 

The pleasures of baking alone

I got the urge recently to bake bread. It’s been a while since I did this. I’d forgotten how easy it is to do and how nice it is to eat.

Years ago I was given an unglazed ‘bread pot’ as a gift. It came with a simple recipe (minimal work) and I used it a lot. It never failed. I got it out of the cupboard the other day,  mied up the dough using yeast I wasn’t even slightly sure was still alive, and once again the pot delivered. A delicious loaf of homemade bread and the house warm with that saliva-inducing scent that only comes from bread.

I bought some kibbled grains for the next go round and found a different recipe (pre-fermenting, two risings, more kneading) for a wholegrain loaf. It’s in the oven now – two  free-form loaves gently rising and baking in the oven. Already the house smells wonderful and we’re not even halfway through the baking time.

I love baking. It’s so satisfying: the miracle of boring and tasteless ingredients transforming through some combination of heat, liquid and phsyical mixing into deliciousness.

It’s also satisyfing because it’s so fundamental. Baking bread is saying to the world, I can look after myself. I’ve been feeling pretty wretched lately with a combination of stiffness and unusually bad fatigue, but bread conquers all.

I bake, therefore I will survive.

Avoiding Hallowe’en

I have no interest in Hallowe’en . It wasn’t a thing when I was a kid, and has only become a thing since retailers here realised they too could make money off a holiday just like their US counterparts do.

I refuse to buy candy in case kids come knocking, because if they don’t come I’m stuck with candy that I have no interest in eating. This has happened often enough in the past for me to now refuse to play ball.

I am a curmudgeon. I am at peace with it.

Actually I forgot about it this year, which was a mistake. I didn’t close the curtains and was lying on my couch watching tv when I heard footsteps on the porch and a loud banging at the door. Unfortunately for me, you can see into my living room from the door, so I could see the kids out there in their costumes, and eventually they would see me.

So I did what any self-respecting curmudgeonly adult who hates Hallowe’en and has been caught out on the night at home with no candy would do: I pretended to be asleep.

When those kids grow up they’ll realise I was faking it. No one could sleep through the telly blaring away and their very loud and persistent knocking on the door.

Eventually they went away. I am certain they will have acquired enough candy from other sources that my non participation will have had zero effect on their evening’s happiness.