How do we find solace these days when so many of us are in such need of it?
By employing self-care? I’m not sure what that term means, actually, we use it so often. But surely we can all agree that it means taking time to look after ourselves physically and mentally. Eating properly, getting exercise, slowing down when we are tired and stressed. And, I guess, doing whatever else works for you. But what that “whatever else” looks like is anybody’s guess.
Instagram seems to think that self-care means scented baths and romantic candles, luxurious robes and pedicures. And I guess if that works for you, then that’s what self-care means for you. For me it sometimes means escaping to the wilderness with Hubby. Paddling our canoe. Sitting around a campfire looking up at the stars.
But more often it means alone time. Walking by myself. Or drinking tea and reading a good book. I remember when Hubby was recovering from his heart surgery, the discharge team at the Heart Institute met with the families of soon-to-be-discharged patients and advised us to take care of ourselves as assiduously as we took care of our loved one. They said that if our “tank” was empty, we’d not have strength left to draw upon to care for the recovering patient. That really helped me; it gave me permission to make a cup of tea and read my book when I needed, and to not feel selfish about doing so. Of course tea and a good book does not cure all ills. Even I have to admit that.
If you’ve been reading my blog a while, you’ll know that “bibliotherapy,” retreating into a book, is my preferred form of solace. I’ve written many times about my love of gentle books, and how they’ve helped me in times of sadness or fear about the future. As I said in a post back in 2017, I look for books which celebrate the small moments in life, in which “the plot, the characters, the setting and, in particular, the style make me feel that, no matter what, life can be absorbing, interesting, engaging, beautiful.” Books like that always make me feel hopeful again.
In a fascinating 2015 article in The New Yorker called “Can Reading Make You Happier?” Ceridwen Dovey explores the idea of reading fiction as therapy: how it works, how it began, and the many, many benefits. Of course those of us who have been, as Dovey puts it, “self-medicating with great books” for years are not surprised by the evidence that reading has restorative powers. Apparently in study after study scientists and psychologists have proven that reading “puts our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm.”
“Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,” the author Jeanette Winterson has written. “What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”
So reading can be a form of self-care. A way of restoring our faith in the universe. A balm for hurt minds, to slightly misquote Shakespeare.
But I am also a big believer that other, less intellectual, and more shallow pursuits are a form of self care too. Like walking, meeting caring friends for coffee or lunch, making a special meal, toasting marshmallows on a campfire and eating more of them than is good for me.
And even shopping. Yep, in a kind of way, beyond the instant gratification thing, shopping can be a form of solace.
Let me explain. My sister has been going through a difficult couple of years. A hellish couple of years, if I’m honest. I’m not going to go into any detail, because that’s her story and I don’t want to invade her privacy too, too much. Except to say that when one cares for a loved one for a long time, one’s “tank” becomes empty no matter what.
So my sister Carolyn and I had a sisters’ shopping day earlier this week which she sorely needed. And which I think did her a world of good.
We shopped. And shopped. We laughed. We got lost in the mall. At a shoe store, we entertained the two young sales assistants with tales of the time we both bought the same Stuart Weitzman boots, with smooth leather soles, and took our life in our hands every time we wore them that winter. We had an amazing lunch at Nordstrom, followed by a delicious latté. And, with my help, Carolyn found some beautiful pieces to buy. A fall capsule wardrobe in its entirety, actually. Good, basic pieces which she needed and which all work together and will work with what she already had in her closet. She hasn’t had the time or the energy to go shopping for a couple of years, but we made up for it on Tuesday.
At Nordstrom, she tried on at least a hundred pairs of jeans, which is only a slight exaggeration. And she found a pair that look great on her. And while she was pulling jeans on and off, I did a couple of spins around the department with the help of a lovely sales assistant. We chose a selection of soft cashmere sweaters and long-sleeve tee shirts, and she bought one of each. As well as the jeans.
When we left Nordstrom and lost our way in the mall, we stumbled upon a store that was new to both of us and she bought a pair of black leather ankle boots. On sale. Then we visited Fossil and she bought the same Jolie Hobo bag that I have, except in black. And finally as we headed, footsore but replete, back to the car, I spied a beautiful scarf in Talbots that would be just the ticket to update an old blazer she owns. And before we’d left Talbot’s, I’d persuaded her to shell out for a pink, long-sleeve tee shirt, and a navy quilted vest as well. Perfect to go with the scarf and her new jeans.
When we finally piled all the bags in the car and drove off, we were happy with our day. And with her purchases. We felt, as she said, fulfilled.
And not just because we’d spent money on clothes, either. Even though that was the object of the day. But because we’d been out together doing something we both love. Shopping, laughing, eating, talking, just being together. Away from family worries. And in finding jeans and a sweater or two that fit well and looked great, her faith in her ability to look good, and feel good again in her clothes was restored. At least I think it was. I hope it was.
My sister texted me when she arrived home to thank me for her day. I said I couldn’t wait to see photos of all the outfits she could put together with the pieces we chose. She said she was excited about that. Excited. Which means hopeful, doesn’t it? Looking forward with anticipation.
Now don’t tell me that shopping isn’t a form of self-care. I don’t mean just in the actual purchases, but in the act of shopping with someone you love and with whom you enjoy spending time. That’s where the solace comes in, I think. With that and with the renewed positive self-image that new clothes can bring.
And for me? Well, I had the wonderful role of chief stylist, bossy organizer, runner, chooser, fashion consultant. I had the chance to help someone I love in my own way. I mean when sisters go through tough times we can’t always do much to help. But this… this I CAN do, my friends.
So what does solace look like? Well, I think for some it comes from family and friends. That kind of goes without saying. Sometimes it comes in the form of a wonderful book which lifts your spirits and makes you feel that the world is full of sensible, smart, and caring people. A book which reaffirms your belief that life is, after all, absorbing, engaging, beautiful.
And sometimes it comes in the form of a new pair of jeans. I mean it…. a new pair of jeans that make you feel like you again. Jeans acquired during a glorious shopping day with an entertaining, if somewhat shallow, younger sister. Ha.
And before you ask, I bought two pairs of socks and some tights.
Now it’s your turn my friends. What does solace look like to you? Does self-care involve the kinds of things that worked for Carolyn and me? Perhaps a seemingly superficial, but maybe not quite so superficial when you look a bit more closely, kind of activity?