Tuesday Book Club: A Little Life

A Little Life

Why do we like to read sad books? Or watch sad movies? Or listen to songs that break our heart? (“Cat’s in the Cradle”, I’m looking at you.)

According to an Ohio State University study we like tragedies because they bring us happiness in the short-term. Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, lead author of the study, believes that tragedies help people reflect more deeply on their own relationships. Knobloch-Westerwick and her team were looking specifically at people who watched a sad movie (Atonement), but I believe her ideas can be viewed more broadly within the scope of literature and even entertainment at large. She explains:

“‘People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life, to count their blessings….negative emotions, like sadness, make you think more critically about your situation.  So seeing a tragic movie about star-crossed lovers may make you sad, but that will cause you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more.'”

It appears, then, as Knobloch-Westerwick suggests, negative moods make us more thoughtful. We are more prone to introspection and awareness. While I didn’t have this exact study to reference while reading A Little Life a couple of weeks ago, similar ideas were running through my mind as I pushed through over 700 pages of sexual abuse, physical abuse, hard drug use, abandonment, death, and more. Why keep going? What is in it for the reader?

Reading this book was a visceral, almost physical experience. I had dreams about it; my stomach would hurt during more disturbing scenes; I was melancholic. But it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Hanya Yanagihara’s characters are so alive, so vivid, that one can’t help but become immersed in the world she has created for them, however upsetting it may be.

At the outset, A Little Life may look like a typical post-graduate coming-of-age story about four friends who live in New York. And Yanagihara intentionally sets up the novel this way, perhaps to upset our notions of ensemble fiction or the bildungsroman. But the stories of Willem, Malcolm, JB, and Jude, and indeed their unified story–their story of friendship–is uniquely told and uncovered.

It’s haunting and dramatic and brilliant. As Jon Michaud writes in his review for the New Yorker, “Yanagihara’s rendering of…abuse never feels excessive or sensationalist. It is not included for shock value or titillation, as is sometimes the case in works of horror or crime fiction…counterintuitively, the most moving parts of “A Little Life” are not its most brutal but its tenderest ones, moments when [he] receives kindness and support from his friends.”

I know many people don’t understand the appeal of reading tragedies or dark novels when we live in an already dark and disturbing world. But sad novels, or even sad non-fiction, can offer us reprieve from our own suffering and awareness. And I can’t help but think this may add to our stores of sympathy and empathy, which may in turn lead to even more meaningful relationships with others. The case for tragedies gets ever stronger.

What do you think? Do you like sad movies, books, or songs? As an emotional person, I think a good cry in reaction to any of these forms of entertainment can feel cathartic and therapeutic. But I’m sappy like that : )

Sunday Rituals

Yesterday was one of those classic Sundays wherein I did all of my favorite things and yet I never really did anything. We slept in and made coffee and scrambled eggs; I read magazines while Adam read up on homemade pasta techniques (more on that later this week); I did some light fitness, took a long bath and used a hair mask and face mask–big time pampering; we watched church and made pizza; I had a glass of really good wine and Adam had an IPA; we watched a movie while trading foot rubs. It rained all afternoon and we never left the apartment. It was awesome.

It got me thinking about Sunday rituals and how balancing a day like yesterday can be: no expectations, no to-do list, no priorities. Just indulging in what you and your family like to do–want to do–and not feeling guilty about it. Pajamas encouraged, naps recommended.

My Sunday rituals obviously revolve around indulgences, but they can be more practical and still feel really good: a long run alone; grocery shopping for the week; organizing your schedule or materials for the week ahead; cleaning.

If we can cleverly combine rituals and resolutions here, I’d like to suggest that I add another item to my no-agenda agenda for Sundays: baking. And this yogurt cake, a riff on the traditional French dessert that almost all children master during the toddler stage, seems like a nice place to start. (My chocolate chip-less cookies, a natural second place.) It’s an easy recipe that includes the seasonal addition of clementines and I imagine it would make the apartment smell lovely, adding to the homey, cozy atmosphere I try to create each Sunday.

So I’ll start with this yogurt cake and let you know if baking becomes a new ritual. I can tell you a certain someone around these parts will really enjoy the trial and error process… Until then, I’m curious: what are your favorite Sunday rituals? What do you look forward to on the weekend? And what helps you reset for the coming week?

An Early Valentine’s Day

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What are you up to this weekend? We are celebrating Valentine’s Day a week early since we’ll be traveling with friends next weekend. We’re planning on making something delicious and little bit adventurous–probably a dish from our Battersby cookbook–and enjoying a special bottle of wine from the cellar.

I hope you have a great weekend, and until we meet again on Monday here are a few thoughts and things that kept me distracted this week:

A song for your weekend. So funky.

In an unbridled attempt to pretend spring is around the corner, I ordered this dress (psst, it’s on sale!)

I love this lip balm my sister gave me for Christmas. It’s really moisturizing and provides just the right amount of color.

14 tips for living in a tiny space. (I agree with #5 and #14)

This story about a couple choosing to die together broke my heart.

Though I’m certainly not dating anymore, I agree that we should all do our part to curb mindless, needless small talk.

Resting Bitch Face is a thing, people. A science thing.

How to care for a leather bag. Lately, I’ve been toting around this one –a Christmas present–in navy.

I wish we could watch the Super Bowl this weekend…mostly for the commercials.

Dream dresser. More mid-century eye candy.

I’m having burgers with my friend Paige today and this made me laugh. I’ll try not to overindulge.

Foot Rubbin’ Night

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Adam and I have a Sunday night tradition: after cleaning up dinner we put on a movie and give each other massages. I almost always want a foot massage and Adam usually asks for a back and neck massage that we have somehow nicknamed the “surf and turf”. It’s something we each look forward to each week and it’s a treat for us both.

Since we’ve both just had birthdays, followed closely by the excitement of Christmas, we don’t give gifts for Valentine’s day, but I am looking forward to our weekly massage ritual. And while we usually skip the oil, I recently received this massage oil as a gift with purchase and it just might make our Sunday night tradition a little more festive. Here are a few more oils in case you’re looking for a gift for your loved one:

  • We’ve actually used this body oil from Shea Moisture and it feels really light and never greasy. I like that is has natural ingredients and a warm scent. Bonus: you can also use it in the bath.
  • This oil is has rosemary and lavender fragrances, which promote relaxation and tranquility.
  • I like this drug store staple because of its lightweight formula and modest price. It absorbs quickly and is fragrance-free–good for sensitive skin.
  • Sunflower seed oil and olive oil make this massage oil extra nourishing and moisturizing. Its warming properties help soothe tired or sore muscles.
  • I love Herbivore Botanicals and will try pretty much anything they make. I’ve raved about their body oil before and this jasmine-scented one would be a lovely addition to foot rubbin’ night.

You can go all out here: candles, fresh flowers, and smooth tunes instead of a movie. It’s an easy way to celebrate Valentine’s day, or the everyday, with very little cost.

Do you like massages? They are one of my favorite indulgences.

Tuesday Book Club: 10% Happier

happy

I’ve read eight books since the start of the new year and yet this book, 10% Happier seems to be the one I’m thinking about most (well, besides A Little Life, which I finished yesterday; I can’t quite talk about that one yet). You may recognize the author Dan Harris from Good Morning America or Nightline or a variety of short pieces featured on various ABC news programs. He’s a journalist with a fevered, almost maniacal work ethic, who, after years of war correspondence, recreational drug use, and chasing stories around the world, hit rock bottom when he had a panic attack on GMA one morning.

From there he visited a series of therapists and counselors to help him ween himself off drugs and find ways of coping with the stress from his highly competitive job in news broadcasting. This stress, which manifested in physical symptoms as well as emotional ones, was overtaking his life.

Simultaneously, he was covering the religious beat for Nightline news and interviewing religious radicals across the US and world. Having grown up in a secular home, he was shocked to find himself suddenly intrigued by the idea of meditation, which had previously seemed too spiritual and fluffy to actually be of use.

With the help of teachers, silent meditation retreats, endless literature, and gurus, Harris began his own meditation practice. His credits his daily sessions with making him 10% happier than he once was, and far more calm and collected at work; no more on-air panic attacks.

Harris was once one of meditation’s biggest skeptics so there is a lot of hemming and hawing in the book. He is reluctant to acknowledge its benefits, but they quickly become a cornerstone of his professional success. The key, he says, is to quiet the inner brain chatter than can quickly derail one’s best intentions. In fact, the subtitle reads: “How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works–a true story.” It’s a bold claim, but the book is incredibly persuasive.

One passage, with its beautiful simplicity, stuck with me:

“Instead of mindlessly criticizing [someone]…[one can] calmly and tactfully disagree. Seeing a problem clearly does not prevent you from taking action…Acceptance is not passivity. Sometimes we are justifiably displeased. What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, ‘respond’ rather than simply ‘react.’ In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.(emphasis my own)

Respond, don’t react. How could our interactions with others be transformed if we adhered to this simple mantra?

Meditation does not have to be a spiritual practice, though much of its fundamentals come from Buddhism. But I don’t think one needs to convert to Buddhism in order to understand and utilize many of the religion’s beliefs. Or am I naïvely believing I can sample religions like a buffet? Either way, I’m intrigued.

So intrigued, in fact, that I’m thinking of taking up my own meditation practice. At the end of yoga or other light exercise, I usually spend a few minutes in a supine pose relaxing with my breath. This is something I started years ago and it’s very calming and restorative. So, I’m already halfway there. I want to take it further, however, and I’m looking forward to the challenge, as well as the positive results.

Mindfulness has been coopted by a variety of organizations and self-help fields: mindful eating; mindful budgeting; mindful parenting; mindful leadership. I’m hoping to apply the concept more broadly, however, and naturally incorporate into different parts of my life. How can I be more mindful of my own thoughts, and how does that translate into my interactions with my world and others around me?

What are your thoughts? Have you tried meditating before? How do you slow the endless brain chatter? The kind that gets you down or gets you needlessly worked up?

P.S. Here’s a really nice short relaxation exercise that you can do at home. I love this line: “Feel sounds passing through your awareness without untangling you.” How often have you felt that a sound—traffic, screaming, construction—has untangled you? Such a good way to put it.

(image via Buzzfeed)

The Art of Being Alone

IMG_4573Last week I was reminded of this Boston Globe article about the power of loneliness and solitude. While the article itself is several years old, and the research in turn even older, it still rings timely and true. In fact, it might be even more pertinent given how much more connected to society we are through our increasingly advanced technology and smart devices than we were in 2011.

These cold and dark days seem to inspire a lot of alone time, don’t they? On Tuesday I spent my entire day alone. I never once left the apartment. I ran into a neighbor in the laundry room and chatted briefly, but that was it–and I was in my pajamas. The snow and frigid temperatures made going into town, even for milk or other simple groceries, feel unnecessary. It’s so much easier to find ourselves alone during January and February and even into March, especially considering how many people work from home. Studies and research show that alone time, extended and, most importantly, wanted stretches of solitude can be very healthy:

“Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.”

Influential thinkers and deities aside, solitude can be just as good for laymen. The article references a study about “social loafing” (the idea that people don’t work as hard on a task if they know others around them can pick up the slack) and the differences of recall when an activity was performed either in a group or solo. The results of the study indicate that we remember a task or incident better when we’ve experienced it alone. The graduate student who led the study, Bethany Burum, compares her findings to going to the movies alone:

“Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it…Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen.”

As someone who craves alone time I found this delightfully refreshing and validating. I’ve been to the movies by myself and it’s wonderful. I’ve traveled alone and it can be great too: you can see what you want to see, stop when you want, eat where you like, etc. You’re in control!

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But the article also reminds us that we’re never truly alone. The writer explains:

“the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.”

These days this is an obvious point, but I found it jarring nonetheless. This so-called “social snacking”, the texting, emailing, quick FaceTiming, can cause a lot of confusion about what solitude is. Solitude isn’t being alone with the option of constantly reaching out to someone, it’s a concentrated effort at becoming in tune with your inner brain chatter. It’s not looking to see if someone in your contacts list has something better to say than your own mind. It’s getting comfortable with social silence.

Easier said than done! As always, right? So how do we cultivate a sacred solitude? And when do we do it? In the morning, when we haven’t been tainted by the demands of the day? Or in the evening when we know our to-do list has been tackled to the best of our ability? In the middle of the day when you just need a break from it all? It seems a rather personal decision, one that can actually be quite mutable if you really listen to your needs.

I’m curious: how do you like to spend your alone time? Reading? Running? Knitting? Cooking? Or, do you not like alone time? It can be tricky to distinguish being alone and feeling lonely. What are your thoughts?

 

Imagining a Better Home Bar

Domaine Modern bar

My Domaine bachelor pad

Domino

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Adam and I have been looking into getting a new bar cart for our dining nook. We have this one from IKEA at the moment (in a bright blue color) and it works fine, but it doesn’t really fit our aesthetic anymore and it looks a little cramped as it is. Our space is so small, however, that we can’t upgrade to something much larger. But perhaps something a little more chic and refined.

We both like the mid-century modern look that is hugely popular at the moment. It’s characterized by clean lines, muted tones, and a lot of natural wood.

While I have no plans to completely redecorate, it is fun to imagining what I would do if given a space to properly entertain. At the moment it’s people barely squeezed into our narrow dining space, or sprawled out on our giant sofa. Here are a few ideas for redesigning a better home bar:

Mid Century Walnut Chet Beardsley Barstools - Pair

West Elm Bar cart

Chairish Silver Rim Glass Coupes

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If I could make one major structural change to our apartment, it would be blowing out half of one wall so that the kitchen and dining nook were a shared space. It would be like a pass-through wherein the cook could still visit with guests while working away in the kitchen. I’d love to have a bar where people could sit and visit, sitting on these comfortable and stylish bar stools. Everyone always wants to be in the kitchen anyway, right? Here are loads of other unique and interesting bar stool options.

I also love the look of these French Champagne coupes. They, like the bar stools, are from Chairish, an online auction website. It’s a well-curated mix of vintage and vintage-inspired pieces. My father-in-law gave my sister-in-law a set of glasses just like these the past two Christmases and I’ve envied her both times. They are interesting and classic and instantly elevate the home bar.

The tortoise tray would be great for serving cocktails to guests, or for corralling items on the bar cart. Speaking of, our well-stocked cart includes gin, bourbon, rye, St. Germain, tequila for margaritas, and vodka for Moscow mules. We just bought a new set of glasses that are similar to these and I’ve been using them for sparkling water at dinner, but they’d also be perfect for a classic cocktail like an old-fashioned.

Of course a good playlist and a collection of original artwork go a long way to creating a festive atmosphere. Adam is an excellent DJ so thankfully we’ve got that covered.

For now I’ll be concentrating my search on a bar cart, keeping the mid-century motif in mind, and not discounting something vintage or something that needs to be tweaked or upgraded. Who’s up for a little design project?

(image 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / courtesy of Chairish / 5 / 67 / 8 / 9)