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.

Being neighbourly

I’ve just finished re-reading Anneli Rufus’ book, Party of One. In part it’s an exploration of the word “loner”, and particularly the media’s use of the word very freely in relation to disturbed killers.

She points out how often the perpetrator of a crime is headlined as “loner”, and how neighbours will always report that “he kept to herself”.

I took a look around at my neighbours. Not that I think any of them are deranged, but it occurred to me that what is said about the perpetrator by the neighbours after an event is utterly irrelevant because we’d all say the same thing about our neighbours and they’d say the same thing about us.

I live in a small dead-end street, and I live at the bottom of it so I see almost all the residents walking or driving past. And almost everyone goes past alone. This is not because they are all single but because they leave for work at different times.

Sometimes people will smile as they pass if they see me on my porch. If I were to report in a neighbourly way on these people, what would I say about them, and they about me? “She seemed ordinary, not unfriendly but kept to herself”. Indeed.

So either I live in a street filled with potential psychopaths, or that’s just how people in my part of the world normally behave.

Actually it occurs to me I may be living in the ideal neighbourhood for me. I have a semi retired architect who works next door but doesn’t live there. He’s been pretty unfriendly but recently we chatted a bit and yesterday he offered me a couple of spare plants. He’s there on his own during the day and I never see him with anyone else, clients or family. Across the road is a couple who I’ve spoken with a few times. Their family is well grown up and they have grandchildren although the grandkids don’t come to stay. There are a couple of singles further up the street who I don’t know but I see them walking past.

The reason this is ideal? I know by sight the people in the street, I know a couple enough to say hello to, but I’m not expected to be in and out of their homes. In an earthquake we’d know enough to know if someone was missing.

That’s neighbourly enough for me.

Bothering the doctor

I’ve been watching a rather hilarious show, Very British Problems. Most of it is about avoiding people in a variety of situations.

One comedian had a great definition of her best friends: the ones who cancel on her. She maintains this is perfect because they keep in touch and intend to see one another but cancel so they don’t actually have to see each other.

Clearly I have a LOT of British DNA in me.

Another example: “I don’t like going to the doctor’s because I feel like I’m annoying them”. Ha! That’s me to a ‘T’.

I did go to the doctor on Friday though. I went because my taste buds had been seriously messed up after using a new toothpaste and the taste was taking a long time to come back. There’s little worse than chocolate that tastes like soap.

I decided to walk there and halfway I had to sit down on the ground because I felt like I was going to collapse. By the time I got to the surgery I was sweating, breathless and feeling dreadful.

That spun out into tests, and that was my day gone. The tests showed nothing much, which is good (not serious) and bad (no idea what’s going on). Conclusion: a virus. Thank god for viruses, they explain everything that doesn’t show up on a test.

It’s a few days later now and I’m still here, so all good. I don’t really know what’s going on but if I get worse I’ll be back to bother the doctor again.

Meanwhile, I’ve had an excuse (feeling poorly) to cancel any plans with friends this weekend.