Planning a social life

Yesterday I went walking with my friend G. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed a lovely couple of hours walking through bush with views over the sea. At the conclusion of our walk we went to a cafe for lunch and shared a slightly geographically confused but very tasty paella and pizza.

Like me, G lives alone and also has RA. We both acknowledge the need for regular exercise so we make an effort to get together and walk somewhere every few weeks, because walking is a good way to catch up without dealing with noisy cafes or bars.

I know these catch ups are important to him. He’s told me how he makes a real effort to plan his weekends to ensure he has social contact and doesn’t just sit around his flat feeling sorry for himself. I suspect he has a much greater need for social engagement than do I, do I think it’s very self aware of him to be so proactive about organising his time so he makes sure he gets the level of interaction he needs to keep well.

It occurred to me that this is the very issue I face, but I’m not as disciplined as he is. My issue is how to say no to engagements so I get the solitary time I need for good mental well-being.

People think it’s hard to reach out to others to ask for help, and it is. Asking for company can sometimes feel needy rather than an act of sharing. But it’s very difficult to refuse when someone offers to share their company with you. I feel rude and ungrateful and I suspect I always will. But I’m still going to say no.

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One week in

I go back to work on Monday after a pretty decent break. Here, we get 2 public holiday days for Christmas and two for New Year so for 6 days of annual leave I got a break of 15 days. Nice.

It’s now the end of the first week of 2018. So how is it looking so far?

About the same as last week, truth be told. But this is no criticism. The promise of New Year is that we can transform our lives into a more perfect version through the act of wishing it to be so. Unsurprisingly this doesn’t work. If it were the case, we’d have wished it so a lot earlier and we’d no longer be in this imperfect place.

Transformation is jolly hard work and mind numbingly boring, tedious and uncomfortable. This morning I went for a run — I’m easing back into training again now that my medication side effects are better controlled — and it was horribly hard work. I kept needing to stop and walk, my lungs hurt, my legs felt like lead. I thought to myself, “why is this so hard? It wasn’t before, I used to be able to run, maybe I shouldn’t even try” (because of course there is a Rule that if you’re rubbish at something you have no business doing it, right?) But of course it’s hard: I’m starting from square one. I could run 21.1km before because I’d spent months running regularly before I reached that goal, and I have simply forgotten how painful and tedious and frustrating and occasionally miraculous those “learning” runs were.

We all do this, focusing on the end goal we want to achieve and glossing over the hard yards required to get there. I know I’ll forget this repeatedly throughout the year but I hope I can remember it just often enough to keep going no matter how hard it is and how rubbish I am. As someone wise wrote,

Practice isn’t for those who know how, it’s for those who don’t.

New Year, same old me

Women’s magazines love New Year. Their covers are full of titles like “New Year, New You!” and “How To Have Your Best Year Yet!”

This only brings out my inner cynic who, lets be honest, is rarely far from the surface. I recognise the absurdity of these false hopes even as I am drawn to their promise of transformation and the lure of Better.

Let’s face it: I’m not going to transform myself into a gregarious, high-energy style icon with a multi-million dollar business developed in my garage. One thing I do agree with those magazines on is that if I really, really wanted this I could achieve it or most of it. But it’s not going to happen because it’s not something I want.

And here I return to a persistent theme, namely how difficult it is to follow your dreams when those dreams are the antithesis of what the world says you Ought to want.

Dreams and plans and goals that the world endorses are big and bold, active, social and public. I want smaller, quieter, more private.

I want less stuff. I was thwarted in this by my father who gave me a book I wouldn’t buy because a flick through it in the library would be sufficient, and a very expensive designer alarm clock that I won’t use and have no need for. Now I have to figure out how to dispose of these items without causing offence. I realise this sounds ungrateful. It is. But I’d have been more grateful had he listened when I told him I didn’t want anything and if he really wanted to buy me something I’d prefer food or wine that I could consume.

Quieter should be easier to achieve, although it takes some discipline to shut out noise in all its many forms including social media, aimless web surfing, reality TV and the aforementioned women’s magazines. My real challenge will be to stop browsing on my phone when I wake up and to do something a bit more life-giving and positive when I start my day.

More private is entirely up to me really. Many would say I keep pretty much everything to myself as it is. And one has to share in order to have conversations with people and build relationships of any kind. But while I am hardly the type to air all my linen in public I do want to honour my need to keep some things to myself, not because they are scurrilous or shocking but because they are important to me. And I don’t want them tainted by others not treating them as important.

Those are my rules to live by this year. Same old me, really, only more so.

Incidentally I had a lovely Christmas Day with my nephews, no. 1’s partner & child, and my father, probably the nicest family Christmas I’ve ever had. But I won’t lie: it was taxing and I was completely over people for the next few days.

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.

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.