Abundance wasn’t a word in my family’s vocabulary growing up. My parents had to feed three kids on one blue-collar income, so our word was more like “need,” as in the kids need shoes again or clothes or we’re out of milk. When I ventured forth into the world, my parents advised me to find a practical vocation, one in constant demand, a nurse, a teacher, a sure thing, no matter what I wanted.
So, it’s funny that abundance was on my mind yesterday as I quietly gathered my belongings and slipped out of a comfortable, stable corporate job that paid well and offered health insurance. I could already hear my mom: You did what? In this economy? In her life, you did what you had to do, any job; you weren’t supposed to like it. The idea still seems right to me; I should feel lucky to have a job. But I quit mine anyway.
Already I feel a deep sense of guilt writing this. My husband was unemployed for a full year until recently. We subsisted on dry beans and lentils and the cheap produce box from Hollygrove. There were months when making rent was a luxury, others when I seriously contemplated residence on a close friend’s front porch. I feel guilt, too, because the current economy necessitates unemployment for some while I elected to quit my job. It feels selfish and reckless.
But quitting that job also immediately felt like shrugging off a fifty-pound bag packed with stones. It also felt like something else: taking a gamble on myself, saying, by my actions in the world, that I don’t have to take the first offer or the surest thing. I don’t have to settle.
I’ve spent so much time governed by fear. Thinking, “Oh, no. That isn’t for people like me,” whatever that may be. A publishing career, a prize, a bikini, whatever. I’ve convinced myself before even trying that I deserve defeat, and therefore cement that outcome. This is a common mentality among those who grow up poor. We internalize cultural assumptions that we have earned poverty and that we deserve it.
I even found these ideas creeping into a conversation with my mother recently. My mom has lived a relatively safe life, not stretching too far or risking too much. After spending almost her entire adult life in the Midwest, she’s decided to pack up the family and head to Florida to be closer to her parents. Immediately, the trained pessimist inside me told her that she wouldn’t like it, she was making a mistake, she shouldn’t leave my adult brother alone in St. Louis, and on and on. In the face of my mother’s act of tremendous bravery, I scattered fear and worry all around her, forcing her to defend her decision when I should have supported her. My mother is leaping, maybe for the first time in her life. There is tremendous beauty in that.
How much of our lives are governed by fear? I feel like we are less so in New Orleans. Perhaps it’s the adversity the city has overcome, instilling confidence that we can survive. Or maybe it’s the tight communities across social structures that act as barriers elsewhere, so that we understand if we face need, we can turn to our neighbors who will always have something extra in a pot or on the grill for us. Whatever it is, abundance seems built into our culture here, and I don’t mean excess. I don’t mean huge houses and expensive cars, although some of us have that, too. I mean abundance, joy, something indefinable that encourages us to leap.
I don’t want to say that any of you should do something as drastic as quitting a perfectly good job, unless it makes you as unhappy as my job made me. But definitely find some place in your life where you’ve been harboring insecurity and fear, telling yourself that something you want isn’t possible—whatever that thing is—and then leap. Think about abundance and its many forms.
Let me just tell you: I had a serious amount of fun for Mardi Gras. An almost illegal amount. And this year’s Mardi Gras was an especially magical one, filled with those surreal and serendipitous moments that make me fall in love with this strange place all over again. Sometimes those moments were simple like finding a restroom in an unpopulated downtown bar on Fat Tuesday and chatting with a bored and bewildered bartender while she jammed good tunes on the juke box. Other times those moments were transcendent like happening upon a block party second line and dancing for hours with a mass of other writhing bodies.
But all fun aside, that kind of indulgence comes with a price. I feel a lot like a shriveled up apple core tossed in a moldy, sludgy gutter drain. I got bad skin, bloated belly and a damn cigarette habit again. I’m sure I’m not the only person thankful that Lent is here, Catholic or not.
With our regular jobs, our families, our communities and consuming passions, adding Mardi Gras to our busy lives can wipe out our ability and time for self-care. The good intentions for a New Year of health have fallen by way of late-night cheeseburgers and four beers too many with good friends. We forget how necessary our quiet early mornings are to set our days, the importance of our yoga practice for our minds rather than our bodies. We neglect our beloved books and films. Long walks with our dogs. Taking the time and intention to be present in this moment, for ourselves.
Another reason I’m not as good as I’d like to be with self-care is that the concept requires an understanding of future gains from present choices. I’m more of an instant gratification girl: I like a six pack after a particularly shitty day at work, melted cheese as my comfort food, and, when my mood is a roiling dark cloud, burying myself in blankets in bed, no matter the time. Each of these things is a necessary coping indulgence once in a while. But I turn to them more often than I should.
For today, my resolve remains high: I’m about to head out into the sunrise for a jog on the levy. I’ll even make it to a yoga class today. But I also know that my post-Mardi Gras party burnout won’t last, and I’ll be wanting to shirk a workout for Cooter Browns (oh, delicious cheese fries).
So I’m curious:
What do you all do for self-care? How do you stay sane and fulfilled and the vibrant women (and men!) you are? How do you keep yourself doing the things that are good for you even when you don’t want to? (Oh, I just want to do bad!)
I have a confession to make. A book lover’s confession. The kind of secret that could get me thrown out on my ass in certain bibliophilic circles around the city. I can’t stand William Faulkner, and before last May I had never attended even one book club gathering. That’s two confessions. Let’s stick with the second and just let the first one exist. (Although, I have to say here that Faulkner is the inspiration behind one of New Orleans’ best annual literary festivals.)
Last May I started working at Garden District Book Shop, one of the oldest and quirkiest independent book stores in New Orleans. (You just try and figure out how we organize our shelves. There’s logic to it, I swear!) An absolutely wonderful woman named Deb MacDonald had run the book store’s monthly book club for the last fifteen years, and due to unavoidable circumstances, she could no longer. She asked me to take over. If you were ever lucky enough to have met Deb MacDonald in her many capacities as book lover and reading promoter throughout New Orleans, you know there was no way I could tell her no.
I have to admit skepticism on my part at first. Many of these women had been attending this book group for the entirety of its fifteen-year existence. They’d formed friendships, deep attachments to one another, and certainly to Deb. I worried they wouldn’t accept me. I worried over what we would talk about. I’d attended dreadful lectures in the past where an overbearing audience member forced a writer to defend the moral choices of a character. Would we spend most of our time talking about our personal lives? What if they picked terrible books? And what was the role of a book club leader anyway?
What I encountered was a large group of incredibly intelligent and well read women who opened their circle of fold out chairs to me so that we could sit together and discuss our shared passion: books. In small and unrecognized ways, these women seem to me the backbone of the city. They are lawyers, artists, librarians, editors, teachers, and writers. Many have spent their lives in New Orleans, and many others have transplanted themselves and adopted this place as their own.
We’ve never unanimously agreed on a book, and I’d probably fall out of my chair in shock if we did. But we’ve consistently read incredible books I may have not picked up on my own. Whatever our opinions, we defend them in the circle with fire. During the best meetings, we change one another’s minds, broaden perspectives, shift ways of thinking. We also do a lot of laughing. And just a tad bit of drinking afterward. It is, after all, a book club. In New Orleans.
I’ve come to think that perhaps this book club wasn’t a great introduction to the world of book clubs. If my time with it ends, my expectations of my next book club are now so high they can’t be met. This book club has offered me a community unlike any other. While it is similar to the MFA program I’ve attended in terms of a deep love for writing, the book group allows for a unique dynamic of such disparate individuals to come together and share a reading experience. There is a beauty in this that I didn’t expect.
I know throughout I’ve kept saying women. We just haven’t had any men in our book group yet, but we would certainly welcome them. And we always welcome new members. You can join us every second Wednesday of the month at 6:00 inside The Rink at the corner of Washington and Prytania. We always like seeing fresh faces. Or, there are other book clubs you could check out around town. You could also always start your own. I highly recommend it. A book club engenders deep friendships where there is always something interesting to talk about.
Do you all belong to book groups? Have they been good experiences?