The reason I started writing this blog is that I felt I had painted myself into a corner – I was focusing so carefully on health, and healthy food, and exercise, and sleep, and tracking every step and every morsel, that I had inadvertently engineered out surprise, craziness and adventure. Life was wholesome, virtuous and entirely dull.
What does a life look like that’s lived so cautiously? Well, I actually have a friendship in my life that has taught me a lot about balancing restraint and abandon.
I first met my friend – I’ll call her Mrs S – almost two years ago. Since going freelance I’ve been doing some volunteer work with a charity that looks after survivors of Nazi persecution. This charity pairs up elderly survivors who don’t have large social support networks with people like me. To hang out, to talk, to run errands, to really just spend time together on a regular basis. We hit it off right away and we’ve been fast friends ever since.
Just for background, Mrs S’s life has been one of tremendous turmoil. She was one of many kids in a poor family. Her father died young. She often didn’t have enough to eat. As a teenager she was abducted to a Siberian labor camp. Her mother and sisters were murdered by the Nazis. She survived the labor camp, despite the incredible cold, the hunger and the rampant diseases. She then ended up in several different countries until she made it to New York. She worked into her late eighties, losing a husband and a son. She never had a day of vacation in her life. She’s never been to Manhattan to see the sights. Even though her window overlooks an amusement park she’s never been on a single ride.
When she lost her job three years ago, Mrs S found other ways of imposing structure on her life. Every minute of every day is scheduled: when to clean, when to do laundry, when to exercise, when to go the pharmacy, when to make a little lunch of fish and potatoes (she eats a diet paleo followers would recognize) when to sit on the terrace, when to watch TV and when to go to sleep. Her only treat is a visit to the beauty parlor once a month to get her hair and nails done. She also attends a monthly lunch and dance arranged by the charity.
Others would look at her life and find it incredibly constrained and boring. But I can fully see why she has decided to adhere to these very rigid structures – she’s lived through history’s most brutal convulsions, has experienced more dramatic changes any of us would ever experience. She has changed country five times, had to learn six languages, has lost everyone she has ever loved. She has figured out that if she keeps her head down and sticks to a plan life becomes manageable and endurable. That change is usually risky and dangerous.
My life is safe and easy in comparison. Whatever change and risk I’ve faced pales into insignificance in comparison to hers. But we’re using similar strategies to manage our daily lives – irrational strategies that supposedly protect us from life spiraling out of control. And in a way, we’ve both ended up in a similar quandary. How do we add a little bit of unexpected, irrational joy?
We’ve been feeling our way forward. One small ritual we’ve added is that we’ll occasionally have coffee and pastries at a little Turkish coffee shop, and people-watch, and gossip, and feel a little bit glamorous. Sticky middle eastern pastries are a total no-no for me, and an expensive treat for her, but we’ll do it anyway.
The best discovery we’ve made is that we both love dancing. And on the weekends a DJ sets up on the boardwalk. So instead of just strolling along the ocean like we usually do, we’ll do serious, intense, expressive, badass dancing to whatever ear-splitting deep house the DJ is spinning, until we’re too exhausted to continue. And sometimes we’re the only people dancing. And we don’t care at all.
It’s not a big thing, but it’s beautiful.