We get busy, we get tired, we give to everybody around us. And yet, as the author of the smart, sparkling novel The Engagements reveals, there are a few vows we need to uphold for our own well-being.
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When I lived alone in a tiny studio apartment in my mid-twenties, I would listen to my favorite music and sing along at the top of my lungs while I washed the dishes. (Confession: I really like folk music. And show tunes. Belated apologies to the residents of 73 Cranberry Street who shared my thin walls, but perhaps not my passion for Miss Saigon
and Joni Mitchell.) I don't do this so often anymore, but occasionally I pump up those old songs, and it all comes back—that essential time in my life when I learned to be alone without feeling lonely.
There's a wonderful little book called Live Alone and Like It
. It was first published in 1936, but still resonates today. The happiest women I know are the ones who take time to be alone every now and again, no matter how busy life gets. I know a teacher who is married with three sons. Every summer she rents a house on Martha's Vineyard and spends a week there alone, just reading books and soaking silently in the swimming pool. I want to be her when I grow up.
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When I was born, my parents lived in a small beach house, right across the street from the water. For the first five years of my life, I fell asleep each night to the sound of the waves crashing against the sea wall. Later, we moved to the suburbs, but we still took all our vacations at the beach. On the last day of a trip, the car packed for home, my mother would bring us to the sand and we'd stare out at the water. "Take it in," she'd say, "Remember it." She was certain that the ocean, her great love, would bolster us through whatever hardships might come in the months ahead. Now, all winter, wherever I can sneak in a quick visit to the ocean, I do it—no matter what. Last summer, I was in central Maine for work one afternoon. I needed to be in Boston that evening. A trip to the coast didn't make any sense—it was a couple hours out of my way. But I went anyway, and sat there fully dressed for an hour, while everyone around me lounged in their bathing suits. It was heaven.
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My best friends from college and I have what we call a Guilt-Free Friendship, which means that if one of us sends an email, or calls, and the other is too busy, there's no need to reply (or feel bad about not replying). The flip side of this is that when one of us sends up the Bat Signal—that we're really struggling—the others are there in a flash. For example: Seven years ago, a week before my friend Aliya got married, I went through a horrible break-up. Our other friend Laura showed up to move me into my new apartment, unpack my books and argue with the moving men when they couldn't get the couch through the door. She also decided her husband would sit Aliya's wedding out, so she could come as my date instead. (Yes, we danced the night away.) Last winter, after Aliya's second child was born, I went to Wisconsin to help her while her husband was traveling for work. We ended up snowed in with her newborn baby and 3-year-old daughter. (Yes, it was an adventure.) Then a few months ago, Laura broke her ankle days before a scheduled cross-country move. Her husband and belongings were already in Texas. Aliya and I headed to Laura's near-empty house in DC to keep her company. We made sure she was fed and in good spirits, we did her laundry and the dishes. Despite the housework, it felt like a vacation in the end. We vowed to do it more often -- minus the broken bones.
I was raised Irish Catholic. Guilt and I, we're like this. There are so few situations in life where I don't wish I had handled something differently, or better, or where I don't play back a decision in my head over and over. Maybe this is why I made a particular friend. She's blonde and beautiful and from California. She was eating quinoa before the rest of us even knew how to pronounce it. I met her through an old job, and whenever I would come into work, frazzled, stressing out about some bad choice I'd made, she'd softly say, "Be good to yourself. Let yourself off the hook." She has no idea how often I hear her voice in my head repeating those words, and how many times they have saved me.
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the novels The Engagements (now out in paperback), Maine and Commencement.