Tag Archives: life

The big news

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog, although it’s not been for lack of things to say. On the contrary, my silence has sprung from being overwhelmed with just how much has been happening. That’s not a complaint; there has just been a LOT going on, and I haven’t had time until now to sit down and record it for posterity. For one thing, Al and I bought our first house! Then, four days after we moved in, we took off for a three-week trip to New Zealand! Oh, and also, I’m 24 weeks pregnant!

So yeah, there’s been a lot of stuff going on.

I will be blogging about our new house soon, I promise, and about our awesome NZ odyssey. But for now, let’s talk just a little about that the BIGGEST news, our pending bundle of joy, a girl, scheduled to arrive on February 3, 2015.

Official preggo

Official preggo bathroom selfie

Expecting a baby is, in a word, insane. Insane in the membrane, if I may expand my feelings into four words. Getting pregnant is a perfectly reasonable thing for Al and me to do, as thirty-something married people, but it still feels slightly crazy, as if we’re doing something completely outrageous and possibly illegal. I keep waiting for someone in a suit to knock on my door and tell me my parenting permit has been preemptively revoked, since, let’s be real, I still don’t know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, and who am I to be raising another human? But I suppose all parents-to-be must feel like they’re not ready, and might never be ready, to be put in charge of a whole other person’s entire upbringing. In fact, I’d be kind of suspicious of any expectant parent who wasn’t a little freaked out by the vastness of the responsibility she’s suddenly facing down. I mean, in forty weeks, you go from a person who only has to worry about getting herself up in the morning (and maybe making sure her partner gets up, too) to a person who is responsible for keeping another (completely helpless) person ALIVE. The magnitude of that change is staggering, if you think about it long enough. So I tend not to.

This may sound obvious, but what keeps occurring to me is that deciding to have a kid is the most extreme thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve moved abroad by myself, I’ve quit my stable, lucrative job in favor of a career with little money and lots of uncertainty, I’ve gotten married, I’ve hitchhiked without a cell phone, and I’ve eaten suspicious street food in a variety of developing countries — but this pregnancy thing poses a whole new level of risk and challenge. I’m hoping that all the cliches about parenting being the greatest adventure and most wonderful gift are all true, but if they’re not, there’s not too much I can do about it now. I’m in this thing!

Clearly, I don’t have anything particularly new or insightful to say on the subject of pending parenthood, although I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be sharing more thoughts on it as the Big Day approaches. For now, I just wanted to share the news that I am gestating a new person in my body (WHICH IS SO WEIRD, RIGHT?) and am feeling pretty psyched about it. Everything’s going fine, physically (I might write a little post on pregnancy itself at some point, too), and pretty well mentally, too. So, that’s that. Stay tuned for updates on New Zealand, home ownership, and life in general!

Soundtrack to my life, part 1: angst

Like any narcissist, I often dream about the movie that will inevitably be made of my life. I don’t focus on which actor would play me (although, let’s be real, Jamie Lynn Sigler could use the work), but I do tend to fantasize heavily about the soundtrack. When I think about the soundtrack to my life, I don’t try to connect songs to particular scenes that I’ve lived (since most of the foundational moments of my life were not, as it turns out, set to music), but I match specific songs to moods that I’ve experienced or general feelings that I’ve had. So, for example, my happy, jaunty walking song will always and forever be Belle and Sebastian’s “There’s Too Much Love.” Listen to this song and try NOT to walk jauntily. It’s impossible.

Since there are so many songs that I love and that figure prominently into any dramatic rendering of my emotional life, it won’t do to try to sum them all up in one post. So let’s just start with the most fun: the angsty songs — you know, the songs you listen to when you just want a good wallow. Sometimes I listen to angsty songs when I’m in a good mood, just to feel superior (it’s like Schadenfreude). So, here, in no particular order, are ten (plus a couple of extras) essential, angsty, life soundtrack songs.

1. My go-to, moody, blissfully sad, self-indulgently angsty song: “Goodnight L.A.” by Counting Crows. Counting Crows is one of my all-time favorite bands. They’re up there with The Beatles. They’re geniuses, and I won’t hear anyone say a word against them. My cousin Catie and I actually joined the Counting Crows fan club as high schoolers and we used to blast August and Everything After and This Desert Life (and yes, Recovering The Satellites, although it’s not their best work, in my humble opinion) every time we were together. Adam Duritz’s beautiful, ragged voice is present throughout a large chunk of the soundtrack to my teenage years. “Goodnight L.A.,” however, is off of the album Hard Candy, which came out in 2002, and which I listened to heavily during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Hard Candy, for me, in some ways signaled the beginning of the end for Counting Crows. It included their awful, plasticene cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” (ugh), and although a lot of the songs on the album were good, only a few moved me. “Goodnight L.A.,” though, is perfect. The melody is gorgeous and the lyrics are pure, old-school, poetic Adam Duritz (“So I put my head on the ground, and the sky is a wheel” kills me every time). Whenever I’m feeling like I want to wallow in loneliness or angst without going full Elliott Smith, I put on this song. It’s wonderful.

Counting Crows: angst kings

Counting Crows: angst kings

2. My other go-to angsty song: [Insert any Sarah McLachlan song here]. Oh, Sarah: I love you. So much. Here’s the thing: Sarah McLachlan has the voice of a Canadian angel, and her lyrics are so lovely and heartfelt. If I had to pick one song out of her catalog to be my go-to angst song, I’d probably have to go with “Elsewhere.” It’s slightly churchy in its arrangement and harmonization, the lyrics are great (yet inscrutable), and it’s angsty while still being soothing. You could totally take a nap to this song. A sad nap.

3. My angsty-with-banjos song: “Maybe,” by Allison Krauss. I seem to recall listening to a lot of sad country songs when I was a freshman in college, when EVERY moment in my life held what felt like great emotional import, and I was surrounded by people from Texas: so, a perfect storm of banjo angst. Allison Krauss and her sad, sad voice (lady always sounds like she’s about to burst into tears) was delicious during these moments.

4. My angsty-in-love-in-my-head song: This song hasn’t really applied to my life since I was in college, but I used to listen to Guster’s “Either Way” and just feel like it was speaking to me, about my actual life, even though I never had a real boyfriend until I was out of college and spent most of college pining after people who did not return the feeling. I was basically Noel from Felicity. Anyway, from its first notes, “Either Way” just captures the feeling of delicious misery of having one’s heart stomped upon as a young, impressionable person. It’s hard not to listen to this song, with its sad violins and sad piano, and not immediately picture my freshman year dorm room and its chili lights hanging over the bunk bed. I love it! (Runner up: “Only In Dreams,” by Weezer. Oof.)

5. My so-depressing-you-can’t-even-take-it-seriously song: “Talk Show Host,” by Radiohead. It’s Radiohead. Enough said. (Runner up: “Karma Police.”)

6. My slightly drunk, angsty song: “Wildflowers,” by Ryan Adams. I say “slightly drunk” to be generous to Mr. Adams, who once fell off a stage during a concert. I’ve seen Ryan Adams twice in concert, and he was visibly intoxicated both times, but do you think that stopped him from singing and playing the harmonica, the guitar, and the piano, sometimes all at once? Hell, no. The man’s a dynamo (and I think he’s been clean and sober for quite a while now — hat-tip to the sobering presence of Mandy Moore).

7. My late-nights-working-at-the-law-firm sad song: “The Sword and the Pen,” by Regina Spektor. Used to play this one a lot past midnight while sitting in front of a glowing computer screen.

8. My favorite angsty cover song: Bon Iver’s cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Holy crap. Shivers.

9. My saudade brasileira song: “É Isso Aí,” by Ana Carolina, with Seu Jorge. This is set to the same tune as Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter,” which is pretty angsty in its own right, but there’s something about the acoustic guitar and Ana Carolina’s husky voice that makes this version even better. Brazilians are known for being happy and upbeat, but they’re also experts at saudade, the feeling of longing or nostalgia for the past, or for a place or person far away. This song pretty much nails saudade.

10. My obligatory Ben Folds angst song: “We’re Still Fighting It.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a Ben Folds song on an angsty music list. The guy’s like a teenage girl trapped in an adult male body. I adore his music, and a lot of his songs capture specific life moments. “We’re Still Fighting It” is about growing up, and a relationship between a parent and child. It’s sad, but ultimately hopeful. And it still gives me chills when I listen to it.

So! Everyone feeling nice and angsty now? What are your favorite sad, wallowy songs? I’m sure I’m missing some gems here, but I wanted to keep the list relatively short so as not to overwhelm. Happy/angsty listening!

 

 

Lessons from 2013

It’s the last day of 2013 and I feel as if I should write a post reflecting upon the year: the places I went, the lessons I learned, the ways I grew. But quite honestly, to quote Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, I already did one of those posts, way back in October. And all of the stuff I said in my earlier post still applies: I still like routine, I still like putting things away in drawers, I still hate getting rejected. So today, I’d like to add just a few additional (and surprising) things I’ve learned over this past year of living abroad, moving constantly, and trying new things.

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1. Writing takes perseverance.

I’ve said this one before, and I’ll keep saying it, if only to remind myself that this writing thing isn’t meant to be easy. When I started off on my professional writing endeavor last October, I knew, intellectually, that it would be challenging and would require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness. I didn’t realize, though, just how much stubborn, unflappable perseverance it would take. I’ve learned, after a year of trying, that to hack it as a professional writer, you must develop a skin of rhino-like thickness, constantly muddle through morasses of confusion and disappointment, and force yourself to continue to pursue a goal that might not actually be reachable. Because it’s worth it. (And I’m still not giving up.)

2. You don’t need that much stuff.

Since moving to London in July, Al and I have moved apartments (and/or hotels) eight or nine times (we lost track of the exact number after a while — I blame PTSD). And the main thing one learns very quickly after being forced to haul one’s stuff around London in a taxi cab at rush-hour is that one simply has too much stuff.

When we moved to South Africa last October, Al and I put most of our earthly possessions into storage in Virginia and brought only a fraction of our belongings with us to South Africa. Then, when we packed up for London, we took only a fraction of THAT. And now, after living in a series of one-room corporate apartments, that amount of stuff even feels like too much. At this point, we’ve each pared down to two suitcases of stuff, because we only have a month left in London, and traveling with more is just too hard.

When we move back to DC in a month, I’m really looking forward to getting all of our things in one place and doing a giant purge of our belongings. We did a purge once before, a few years ago, and man, it feels great (and it’s cheaper than therapy, a spa day, and/or buying more stuff). By the way, anyone interested in doing a purge, or even in just decluttering, should read the excellent book The Hoarder In You. (Don’t be put off by the title!) The book breaks down the emotional reasons why we hold on to stuff and gives the reader strategies for simplifying, decluttering, and lightening. Highly recommended!

3. However, some stuff enriches your life. Keep that stuff.

I could never get rid of ALL my stuff. What would I do without yarn, knitting needles, books, and my running shoes? What about my underwater MP3 player, my pink leather gloves, and my Le Creuset Dutch oven? Sure, I COULD get rid of that stuff — but it would negatively impact the quality of my life. I’ve learned that some stuff is not just necessary, but happy-making. My advice is to figure out what those things are for you and hold on to them. Get rid of the rest (or at least, a lot of the rest).

4. Coming home is still the sweetest part of travel.

I love to travel, and I wouldn’t trade our last year of adventures abroad for anything. But I’m really looking forward to coming back to the States and starting my life there, with Al. We’ve enjoyed being away, but we’re so excited to come back.

So, that’s it: just a few life lessons I’ve picked up during the past year. What have you learned this year? Was 2013 a good one for you or an absolute stinker? For me, it was one of my best years — but I’m optimistic that this next one will be even better. Happy New Year to all of my readers, whoever and wherever you are. I wish you success, peace, and joy in the new year. See you in 2014.

London winter blues

My life in London is great. Really great, actually. I have a wonderful group of friends here, Al and I take awesome weekend trips, we’re surrounded by cozy pubs that serve roast beef and mulled wine, and we have the option of watching Downton Abbey in real time. What more could one want, right? Well, it turns out there is one thing one could want: sunshine. Dear me, I miss the sun. It’s one of those things where you don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it. Sunlight: kind of key, as it turns out.

Now that we’re into the darkest part of the year in London (I hope?), I’m really starting to feel the effects of living in a gray, dark city where the sun sets at four o’clock in the afternoon (SERIOUSLY). The effects are not good. I’ve been low on energy, kind of mopey, unmotivated, and a bit stir-crazy. SAD is a real thing, you guys. I think I didn’t totally believe in it before I moved to London, but, hoo boy, it’s real. (Also, according to Wikipedia, “Around 20% of Irish people are affected by SAD, according to a survey conducted in 2007. The survey also shows women are more likely to be affected by SAD than men.” CHECK AND CHECK).

Before we came to London, people had warned me about the weather, and I had brushed them off. “London’s great,” they’d say, “except for the weather.” Pshaw, I’d think. At the time, when people said this to me, I was living in South Africa, which has fabulous weather all year ’round, and which I totally did not appreciate. What I wouldn’t give today for those clear, sunny Joburg skies! You can be depressed in South Africa for a lot of reasons, but weather ain’t one of them.

Before we got here, I thought that London would be kind of rainy and blustery, but I was pretty confident I wouldn’t mind the nasty weather because it would be “cozy.” Coziness is something I value very highly, to the point where I romanticize crappy weather because it enhances the experience of being inside and warm — kind of a “you’ll never know joy until you’ve known pain” type thing. I guess I was imagining a sort of “weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful” scenario in which I’d spend my afternoons in London hunkered before a roaring fire while it snowed charmingly outside my beveled glass window. This (false) idea of what London winter would be like was informed by movies (Bridget Jones, Love Actually) and little else. Guess what? The movies lied. It doesn’t even snow here! It just gets dark insanely early and the wind blows a lot. Also, we don’t even have a fireplace, so the injustices just keep on coming.

The good news is, my SAD will be cured (at least temporarily) in a little over a week when I blow this popsicle stand for San Francisco. And San Francisco in the winter is delightful. It’s chilly but not cold, and, if you’re in the right part of the city, it’s downright sunny! Even in my parents’ neighborhood, which is notorious for being foggy, it’s pretty sunny in the winter, and you get some beautiful sunsets.

San Francisco, last winter

San Francisco, last winter

Never again will I complain about San Francisco fog, by the way, because no matter how foggy it gets, at least the sun still sets at a normal time in the winter. London is just punking all of us with this four PM sunset nonsense. As I write this, it’s quarter to six, and it started getting dark two hours ago. All this is to say that I’m totally fine, and having a case of SAD is a small price to pay for living in a really cool city, but I’m learning that I need to live in a climate with sunshine, long-term. At least now I know. See you soon, San Francisco, and the sun. It’s been far too long.

On not giving up

I’m well aware that the pace of my blogging has really fallen off since South Africa. I’d like to say that this is because my life here in London is so much fuller, but that’s not entirely true. It’s definitely partly true — I am no longer effectively housebound, like I was in Joburg! — but I also spend a fair amount of my day doing things like participating in a one-woman Sons of Anarchy marathon (hey, it’s paid work, lay off me!), knitting, cooking, and reading, so it’s not like I have that many pressing errands to do in my day-to-day life. The truth is, I can be a bit lazy when it comes to blogging.

Another thing that has kept me from blogging is that I’ve been in the Slump to End All Slumps, writing-wise. I’m in limbo with a lot of my projects right now, waiting for people to get back to me (which can fairly be translated to: “waiting to be rejected”). It’s kind of demoralizing. I wrote here about how, as a writer, I experience ebbs and flows, but really, for the last year, it’s been mostly flows. Then I hit this major ebb a few weeks ago, and it sort of threw me for a loop. Weeks dragged by in which I had to force myself to write even a few hundred words each day, and I hated every single one of those words. There were even a couple of nights where I let myself cry, rather self-indulgently, and told Al that maybe I should just give up this whole writing thing and go back to being a lawyer. Al talked me off the ledge, but really, I was never on the ledge. I was peering at the ledge from afar, but I wasn’t actually going to go up close to it. Really, I just felt like complaining. I know in my heart that even when writing sucks and I feel like everything I produce is crap and everyone hates me, it’s still better than being an attorney. But it’s worth acknowledging that it’s not all sunshine and unicorns, either. Writing is hard. Rejections are really hard. Who knew?

Sometimes, even caffeine isn't enough.

Sometimes, even caffeine isn’t enough.

The thing is, though, I’m not going to give up. If all the writers of the world gave up because they hit a month-long snag in which things didn’t go their way, we’d have no books. Plus, maybe this monster ebb is a good thing, in the great scheme of things. The interesting thing about this period in my life is that it’s genuinely challenging me. It’s been a while since I’ve had to struggle to make things happen for myself: I graduated high school, went to college, graduated college, secured a job, worked for a year, went to law school, secured another job, and worked for three years. And then I quit that job, walked away from all the support structures that I had built around myself during my brief career as a lawyer, and embarked on something that required me to build all necessary ladders and bridges for myself. This is what entrepreneurs and writers and artists have to do, but it ain’t easy, and it can be discouraging. But if there’s one thing I learned growing up, it’s that you don’t give up on things just because they are hard (thanks, Ma and Dad for forcing me to do all those sports I was terrible at!). So, I’m keeping on keeping on. Just thought I’d let you guys know.

Also, I am happy to report that I think I am finally breaking out of my über-slump. The other day, I felt a tiny spark of inspiration and rode that wave for three hours, finally finishing a draft of a short story I had been dawdling over and feeling lukewarm about for weeks. Since then, I’ve felt my mojo coming back, bit by bit, and that’s a huge relief. And, in other news, I’m also feeling excited about the fact that Al is taking me to Oslo this weekend for my birthday. He kept it a surprise until last night (although he gave me really cryptic clues along the way, many of which had to do with Detective Harry Hole), and now that I know where we’re going, I am beyond excited. I will report back next week on our Nordic adventure.

Enjoy your Friday and weekend, and keep on trucking.

 

Traveling v. settling in

For almost a year now, Al and I have been lucky enough to live abroad: first in South Africa and now in the United Kingdom. When we signed up to do this international stint, we wanted an adventure: namely, the opportunity to live in and travel to new places. And we’ve certainly gotten that. When we were in Joburg, we got to travel all around Southern Africa, and now that we’re here in London, we’ve gotten to go to Scotland (twice!), Denmark, and Corsica, and hopefully we’ll get to do a bit more traveling before we leave. It’s pretty awesome. Al and I look at each other sometimes and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to do this.

BUT. (You knew there was a “but” coming, right?)

The truth is that the price of being mobile (or, to put it differently, being hobos) for a year and a half is that there is a crap ton (i.e., a lot) of uncertainty about where we’re going next, and when. The way we’ve chosen to do this within Al’s company has meant that we must go where Al gets staffed, with little notice ahead of time. So, although we’ve been in the UK for three months now, we don’t know how much longer we’ll be here, or even where we’ll go next if we don’t stay here. There’s always a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads in the short term, which means that we have to be really flexible. And being flexible is hard.

Have international driver's license; will travel.

Have international driver’s license; will travel.

The other day, for example, we had to move out of our corporate apartment and check into a hotel for one night and then move back into the corporate apartment. In preparing to do this, we realized how much stuff we had accumulated (and I will take credit for a lot of it: my sewing and knitting habit adds up to a lot of crafty detritus) and how annoying it is to have to haul all of it around London. We resolved to do a purge of our stuff when we get back to DC, and in the meantime, to put a lot of it in storage so that we can move more easily on short notice, if we need to. This is the sensible solution; it’s always better to have less stuff.

BUT.

The stuff I’ve accumulated — sewing books, knitting needles, yarn, cloth, thread, scissors, the handmade products of my labors, and so on — represents, to me, a life in one place. And, despite my love of travel, I really like living life in one place. Don’t get me wrong, traveling is great! But I enjoy having a home to come back to afterwards. And home, to me, means a place where I have bags of yarn and needles, books on shelves, tea and edibles well-stocked, and clothes put away in closets and drawers. When you’re living out of suitcases for extended periods of time, it just doesn’t feel like home. I’ve realized that the main tradeoff to being wild and crazy guys/gals who travel around the world on a moment’s notice is that you must leave behind the stuff that makes a place feel lived-in. Al and I have always differed a bit on this front: he relishes the thrill of traveling to new places. I do, too, but I’ve always preferred settling into a place. I like traveling somewhere and then putting down roots, getting to know the place, pretending to be a local. This is what I did when I moved to Brazil, for example. And to be honest, I’ve really started to settle into London, which means, if we have to leave, it’ll be hard.

I’ve been trying to adjust my attitude about uncertainty. I remind myself how lucky we are to be doing this and how exciting it will be to see new things. If the trade-off for traveling to marvelous new places and having adventures is that I have to put away the cozy trappings of home and shake up my comfortable routine, so be it. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. But it’s nice to know that when this adventure is over, we’ll be staying in one place for a while.

Until then, I’m going to take my knitting bag with me.

Ebbs and flows

In my writing, I’ve noticed, I go through periods of high energy and periods of low energy — ebbs and flows.

There are weeks in which I wake up every day hungry to write, with ten different projects bubbling away, and not enough time in the day to get everything done. Those are the best weeks.

But there are also weeks in which I wake up every day and search for any excuse not to write. I have to read this blog first, or drink this cup of coffee, or go to the grocery store, or go swimming. Oh, and I definitely need to pluck my eyebrows before I can even think of sitting down to work. Eventually, I run out of stupid ways to procrastinate and am forced to reckon with the blank computer screen. Getting words onto the page is like pulling fingernails and the hours tick by slowly. Those are the worst weeks.

The past few weeks, I’m happy to report, have been a high-energy period. I’m revising a manuscript of a novel, I’ve finished a short story, I took a stab at sketch comedy writing (challenging!), and I’m cooking up ideas for new things all the time. I’ve gotten up every day this week excited to get writing. I love that feeling.

The blahs can be tough.

The blahs can be tough.

But the life of a writer, like any other job, has its moments of difficulty and boredom, and sometimes those moments stretch on into weeks, even months. Last month, for instance, when I was waiting for a few trusted friends to get back to me with their comments on my manuscript, I felt stuck, unmotivated. I couldn’t work on the manuscript without hearing my readers’ comments. I had started a short story but didn’t like where it was going. I didn’t really feel like blogging. None of the books I was reading were inspiring. I felt… blah. The blahs, by the way, are kryptonite to creativity. When you’re not feeling inspired by anything you’re reading or watching or thinking, it’s hard to drum up good material. But the thing is, you have to push through the blahs, as blah-y and treacherous as they are, and keep forcing yourself to write. Even when you feel like you have nothing to say. Even when you hate everything you’re writing. Even when you’re bored by yourself.

The good news is, if you force yourself to push through the down periods, you’ll eventually come out on the other side. This game is cyclical, you see. There are highs and lows. After a low period, eventually, you’ll once again find yourself with things to say and not enough hours in the day to get everything on paper. This is a relief, because it’s a reminder that the blahs are conquerable. The only way they can stick around forever is if you give into them and stop writing.

So — don’t stop writing.

Mental health

Since quitting my job as an attorney, my life has improved a lot. I know I’ve said this before, and I’m sure my fellow lawyers are sick to death of hearing it, but I’m going to say it again. I now can do all the things I used to want to do but didn’t always have time for: knitting, sewing, exercise, cooking, binge-watching entire television series, making art, folding my laundry, and so on. I feel extremely lucky because I know a lot of people aren’t able to indulge their hobbies and interests.

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I’ve also found, since quitting my job, that partaking in a variety of activities every day (rather than just doing one thing, day in and day out), regardless of what I’m actually doing, has in itself improved my mental health. Life is more interesting for me when I’m doing a bunch of different things. Today, for example, I went to the gym, wrote, went to the fabric store, wrote some more, talked to my mom in California on Google chat, got my eyebrows waxed, planned dinner, and knit. Tomorrow, I think I’ll write, swim, write some more, sew, and knit. Compare this to my life as a lawyer, when on a typical day I’d go to the gym, go to the office, come home, watch TV, and go to bed, and you start to see what I’m talking about.

There are certain constants in my days, of course. Exercise. Writing. Tea. These are my Essentials, the things I need to do or have regularly to feel normal and healthy. After my basic physiological demands (eating and sleeping and so on), exercise comes in near the top of the list. When I don’t work out, I feel crappy, inside and out. After that, I must write. This professional writing business isn’t for wimps. You have to actually do it — constantly — to make things happen. Plus, I love writing. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t really be me. And yes, I need tea. Tea features prominently in the equation.

What else? Making things. I’ve talked about this before, but one of the biggest differences between my life now and my life before I quit my job is that now, every single day, I’m able to be creative. My work requires me to create and then, in my downtime, I make things.

Another Essential: reading. I can’t imagine what I’d do at night without a book to read. My Kindle broke recently and the same day, I rushed to the bookstore to stock up on paperbacks, as if preparing for a coming bookpocalypse. Priorities, you understand.

What about people? Do I need people in my life every day? Yes, but maybe not in the way you’d think. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve slid more and more into the Introvert side of the Extrovert-Introvert divide on the Myers-Briggs scale. This means, practically, that I don’t need that much face-to-face human contact every day to feel happy, which is why working at home in my little writing cocoon suits me so well. But I do need some contact, whether that means reading and responding to emails from my friends, seeing my husband for dinner, or talking to my parents on Skype. No woman is an island. But do I miss the hum of an office buzzing with human activity? Hell to the no.

So, that’s about it. I need to be physically active, creative, tea’d up, surrounded by books, and not completely isolated from other humans. How about you? What are the things that make you feel normal? How do you balance your hobbies with work and life? I recommend thinking about your Essentials, making a list, checking it twice, and then making the top one or two or three on that list a daily priority. It works wonders.

 

On sewing, knitting, and the impulse to make things

I’ve always loved making things. As a kid, I did latch-hook; I made beads; I wove hemp necklaces; I painted; I sketched; I sculpted. I was always making something. I can’t remember a time in my childhood where I didn’t have several projects, of various sorts, going. As an adult, I never lost my desire to be constantly creating things, but there were long years during which I figured making things just wasn’t something I got to do anymore. There was never enough time. Or energy. Working at a law firm, I found that I was so unhappy with my work life, I had little energy after work to devote to being creative. Instead, I’d come home from work and watch TV, or read, but I wouldn’t create anything more elaborate than dinner because I just didn’t have the energy. Consequently, my creativity languished for a long time. Then, I quit my job and rediscovered unstructured free time, which has been an absolute joy. I am now an adult who gets to make things during my day. In fact, my job now requires me to be creative: I get to tell stories for a living. Best job ever, right? (Well, best job ever for me, anyway).

Me and one of my masterpieces

Me and one of my early masterpieces

As I mentioned a while ago when I talked about knitting, I love to do activities in my downtime in which I am creating something — that is, in which I am making a product of some sort, whether it’s a hat or a casserole, that I did not have to invent from scratch. I like following a knitting pattern or a recipe and ending up with something I can be proud of, but which I did not have to pull out of thin air. I love knitting, especially, because in the end, you have a product — something you can wear or use — and, best of all, the knowledge that you made that product with your own two hands. So satisfying.

There's something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

There’s something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

So, I decided, given my love of knitting, to seek out sewing classes in London. I’ve wanted to learn how to sew for years but never got around to it (see: law firm job), and I figured there’s no time like the present. Thus, early last week I reported for a four-day, twelve-hour Intro to Sewing class at the lovely Sew Over It in Clapham North. And I loved it! I came back from my first day of class, completed pillow cushion proudly in hand, and told Al that I was “pretty sure” I could “master” sewing. Yes, I used the word “master.” No one ever accused me of hedging my bets. I was encouraged, you see, by my early success at creating things made entirely up of square pieces of fabric sewn together in straight lines. To give you an idea, here are the projects I completed in my intro class:

Cushion cover

Cushion cover with buttons

Tote bag

Tote bag

Makeup bag

Makeup bag with lining and zipper

Feeling on top of the sewing world, I immediately signed up for an Intro to Dressmaking course, figuring that after another twelve hours of instruction, I’d basically be able to start a side business as a seamstress and/or make all my own clothes from here on out. But oh!, dressmaking brought me low. My first day of class was intensely humbling. We made a circle skirt, which is so named because when you hold it up, it’s in the shape of a large circle with the waistband in the middle. It sounds simple — and the pattern looked simple — but that circle skirt nearly broke me. I messed up the hem line, the waistband was bumpy, and, when the dratted thing was finally done, I found that I had made the waist just a tad too small, so that the back would not stay closed if I so much as breathed. Ugh.

I was convinced, the entire first two days of dressmaking class, that I was the dolt of the classroom. I had trouble visualizing what the teacher was telling us to do. “Stitch here,” she’d say, and I’d wonder, “But why?” I didn’t understand the why of any of it. Why do those stitches go there? What will happen if I put them somewhere else? What larger purpose are these stitches serving? This inability to visualize my final product, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between my experience with knitting and my experience with sewing. For whatever reason, perhaps because knitting is necessarily a much slower process of construction and one has time to wrap one’s mind around the contours of what one is making, knitting is just not as confusing as sewing. Sure, while knitting I may have trouble executing certain tricky maneuvers or I may accidentally mess up the measurement of a piece of work, but I generally understand why I have to do a certain thing when I see it on a pattern. With sewing, though, the patterns are just big pieces of paper, and I don’t think my spatial visualization skills are quite finely tuned enough to picture said pieces of paper arranged into items of clothing. Folds, in particular, confuse me. There are no folds in knitting.

Long story short, my first two days of dressmaking class were stressful. My Type-A, detail-oriented inner lawyer (who, let’s face it, is probably always going to be with me) was freaking out at every mistake and berating me for not understanding the instructions. I was dismayed that other people in the class seemed to zip right along, with no signs of nervous sweating. This made me even more nervous (and sweaty). I left class that day feeling discouraged, with my misshapen, ill-fitting skirt stuffed into a plastic bag.

The next day, though, we started on a simple shift dress, and things began to make a little more sense. I understood a little more clearly why I was doing things. Yes, there were certain parts of the pattern that I found confounding, but mostly, things made sense. And, in the end, my dress came out really well. It actually, believe it or not, fits me. I’ve sewn my first piece of wearable clothing. Huzzah!

Summer shift dress

Summer shift dress

So, what have I learned from the experience of learning to sew? One, I can’t expect everything to come easily to me right away. Not to brag, but I was a bit of an (idiot) savant at knitting. I was good at it right away, and could master new skills easily by looking at a book or watching a YouTube video. No teacher required. Sewing is not like that for me, and that’s okay. It is going to take a bit more practice and patience on my part to get good at it. Second, it’s good to learn a new skill, even — and perhaps especially — if you’re not good at it right away. Keeps you on your toes. Life gets boring if you don’t have to stretch now and then, after all. On her blog The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about the three levels of fun: challenging, accommodating, and relaxing fun. Learning to sew is challenging fun. It’s hard and frustrating at first, but as you get better at it, it gets more fun — and that’s more rewarding than coasting at something you’re already good at.

Here’s to more challenging fun, then, and to always making time for making things.

Goodbye, Johannesburg

I can’t believe I am leaving South Africa tomorrow. I got here at the end of October 2012, which is somewhere between yesterday and a long time ago, and tomorrow I’m departing for London. Weird. I thought, after spending over seven months on the ground in South Africa, it would be fitting to write a piece about what I liked about my experience here, what I didn’t like, and what I learned. So — here goes nothin’.

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It’s no secret that I wasn’t a huge fan of Joburg. From the beginning, I wasn’t psyched to move to this particular city (even though I was excited about the adventure Al and I were embarking upon together), but  I was determined to keep an open mind about this place and give it a chance. I think it’s fair to say, at this juncture, that I did give Joburg a chance. I was prepared to let it win me over. It just — didn’t. I don’t want this to devolve into a long list of things that I hate about Joburg, because no one needs to read that, but suffice it to say that this city and I were not meant to get along.

Bread at Vovo Telo - one of the best parts of Joburg

Bread at Vovo Telo – one of the best parts of Joburg!

For one thing, you need a car to do anything here. Al and I shared a car, our trusty 2008 Toyota Yaris, but he took it most days for work, since he had to go to clients’ offices and meetings and such, whereas I worked from home. Fair enough. But that ended up meaning that on days I didn’t have the car, I was functionally housebound. You can’t walk anywhere here (no sidewalks, dangerous, etc.), and there’s no viable public transportation. So I spent a lot of time by myself. Inside. And until a few months ago, that was okay. I embraced my inner introvert, I got to know the afternoon TLC schedule (Say Yes to the Dress, Rich Bride Poor Bride, Jon & Kate Plus 8), I cooked dishes that required obscene amounts of prep time (including this one, which I highly recommend if you have an afternoon to spend grinding spices), I knit (oh, did I knit), I wrote (duh), I got hooked on several TV shows on Netflix (Being Human UK: life changing), and things were pretty good, overall.

I got REALLY into knitting.

I got REALLY into knitting.

Then, a few months ago, I hit a wall. I just got sick of not having much of a life outside of my house. Part of this frustration was compounded by the fact that Al and I had not invested heavily in our social network here. We made wonderful friends, of course, but most of them worked crazy hours during the week and traveled on the weekends, which meant that during the weekdays and early evenings, I was pretty much left high and dry if I needed social contact with other human beings. The thing is, I’m not someone who needs a ton of time with other people to be happy. But I do need options. I’d like to have the option of setting up drinks with someone, for instance, or the option to just leave the house and go do something by myself. When I lived in Sao Paulo by myself and my friends were traveling or otherwise not around, I used to take myself to the movies, and I could walk to the theater. But here in Joburg, I couldn’t do that. And after a while, I got pretty sick of it.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

Now, the flip-side of all of this, of course, is that while we were here, we invested heavily in travel, and I am very glad we did. In nine short months (more or less), we traveled to Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Namibia, as well as pretty extensively within South Africa (Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Kruger, the Drakensberg Mountains, Durban, and more). Plus we squeezed in a trip to Italy, and I went to North America twice (first by myself to San Francisco, and then with Al to Ottawa, DC, and Mexico City). So, not too shabby, if you ask me. I am so, so grateful for the experience of living here and being able to travel so widely in Southern Africa and within South Africa, in particular. Joburg, while not awesome itself (in my opinion), is a great jumping off point for seeing all sorts of amazing stuff in this region.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to live in a country — and a part of the world — that I knew pretty much nothing about before I came here. To be honest, I still kinda don’t get it. South Africa is confusing and complex and confounding, but I’ve enjoyed being here and trying to figure out what’s going on around me day to day (that is, when I step foot outside of the house). It’s a country that has a lot of problems (inequality, corruption, wastefulness, racial issues), but it’s also a place with incredible potential and some of the most stunning natural beauty (flora and fauna) that I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a special place.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

I probably won’t miss the experience of living in Joburg, per se, but there are definitely some things I will miss about being here. A short list would include the low cost of living (and especially the cheap, high-quality steaks, nom), the incredible (and cheap) wine, my adorable local knitting store, and the great weather.

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I will miss you, knitting store.

So, all in all, these last nine months have been a rewarding adventure. Even for all of my complaints about Joburg, I wouldn’t ever take back the time we spent here, because it afforded us such incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to explore this region. And I will always remember my kitchen table in Joburg fondly, because this is where I launched my fledgling writing career. Me and this table, we have history now.

And now, off to London, our next adventure. Onwards and upwards. Seacrest out.