The Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness. Next to health and wealth, it’s one of the most commonly-sought, yet elusive, goals in our society. Stressed out by work, children, elderly parents, finances, and more, we wonder how we can even find the time to be happy. The two books I’m going to recommend today both purport to hold the key to happiness and, while they differ markedly in tone and content, their core ideas both centre around finding and holding onto the things that matter to you over those that don’t.

The Year of Living DanishlyLast weekend I had the joy of travelling to Copenhagen. The Danes are ranked among the happiest people on earth, and it was no surprise when I took in the cycles strewn about the city (seriously, no one seems to lock their bikes up), the leisurely meals on patios outside restaurants (complete with blankets and heat lamps), and the clean, minimalist design (our hotel room was small, but the space was used so efficiently). As often happens after I’ve gone on holiday, I came home eager to seek out information on my new favourite country, and that’s how I came across Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly. After her husband, an inveterate Lego fan, was offered his dream job working for the toy company itself, Russell, a journalist who was, at the time, working long hours and dreaming of retirement, decided to use the opportunity to seek out the clues to the Danes’ famous happiness. For each month of the subsequent year she learned about a particular aspect of Danish culture and life that might help explain the phenomenon, including, but not limited to, their famed minimalist interior design, their solid social welfare system, and the concept of hygge.

Part travel diary, part self-help book, The Year of Living Danishly is a funny, honest look not only at what it’s like to be an immigrant but also at what it means to live life to the fullest.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpWhile minimalism is only one aspect of Danish life that Russell attributes their happiness to, it is the core of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Minimalism and decluttering are often associated the act of finding things to get rid of, but in contrast Kondo focusses not on choosing what to discard, but on choosing what to hold onto. She uses the phrase ‘spark joy’ to describe the way the things you retain should make you feel. Paring down your possessions, Kondo asserts, will not only provide you with a calm home but also encourage you to take the same approach to life, placing your own joy at the centre of decision-making.

Kondo’s advice to only keep books you have read and loved will probably make most book nerds cringe, but it’s worth considering in conjunction with her advice to only hold onto things that ‘spark joy’. For many bookish types, unread books do spark joy, holding between their covers infinite possibilities and promising excitement and pleasure when we do get the chance to read them. So many readers get stressed by the size of their TBRs and anxious about all the books they haven’t read. If this is you, then your TBR is not bringing you the joy it should. You know what I’m talking about: The excitement of running your finger along the spines, tugging one book out only to replace it because it’s not quite what you’re feeling right now, only to slide out another and curl up on the sofa with it, ready to tumble into the world held in its pages. This is a vital part of living joyfully for me, and so I interpret Kondo’s advice a little differently. If I pick up a book on my TBR and feel excited about reading it, then it belongs on my shelf. If I can’t even remember why I bought it, then it goes in the donation bin. Because Kondo emphasises holding onto things that make you happy, you’re free to interpret her other advice based on what does and does not make you, as an individual, happy.

Do either of these books hold the secret to lifelong happiness? Perhaps they do, and perhaps they don’t. But The Year of Living Danishly was a tremendously enjoyable read and, while I have yet to entirely tidy my home according to Marie Kondo’s advice, I haven’t been assaulted by the Tupperware Tower of Terror that used to lurk in the kitchen cabinet in months, and both of those things most definitely make me happy.

Nicola’s wanderlust has found her in a tiny apartment in Edinburgh, where minimalism and tidiness are essential to keep her happy.


Rising Strong, by Brené Brown

23317538I was all set to recommend something different today. Then I finished Rising Strong and changed my mind. I’ve been going through some deep soul searching this winter — thinking about my creative life, my job, my heart and what happens next. It’s natural for me in times like these to read books about the kinds of things I’m thinking of. I like to see what other women are thinking about the kinds of things that sometimes feel too personal to talk about.

You know already (if you’re one of our regular readers) that I’ve recommended Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Michelle Tea’s How to Grow Up for creatives who are stuck, struggling or just need a boost. In some ways Rising Strong is the same kind of book, in others it’s quite different. Yes, if you’re a creative, this book will feel very personal to your process, but honestly it’s for everybody.

We live in a culture that prioritizes perfection, getting over it, “happiness” and “letting go.” To hear folks talk about this stuff, you’d think it was a matter of simply choosing differently, but anybody who’s actually done the work to try any of that knows it’s a struggle. And let me tell you, my lovelies, Brené gets you. Rising Strong is all about getting up from the fall and in Brené’s terms, “rumbling” with your soul.  It’s about getting in there, risking vulnerability and learning how to stand back up and try again.

Frankly, this is one of the most important lessons we can learn in life. You might think it’s common sense to know how, but honestly there’s so many messages about the “justs” (just eat clean! just let it go! just repel negativity! just! just! just!) that we can start feeling pretty downtrodden when we can’t just climb back up again. You know what I mean; you could be going through anything from a tough day to losing your job and you check in with Facebook, only to find that someone has some “just do this” quote posted in your timeline and you JUST want to lose it all over the place. Cultivating well-being is hard work and there’s no “just” about it.

Building resilience is an ongoing process. In Rising Strong, Brené Brown shares years of research, wildly funny personal anecdotes and a wealth of ideas about how you can keep getting up, dusting yourself off and use vulnerability and empathy to pave the way to keep on going. Not for a second do you feel like she’s telling you to “just” anything. Brené makes it pretty clear that the rising strong process is an ongoing journey, that you’re going to forget how and have relearn (that she forgets how and has to relearn) over and over.

I think that the thing that makes Brené Brown’s work so much easier to process is that she’s so damn real. I read a lot of self-helpish books because I like having tools and frameworks to turn to when times get hard. I like knowing how other people deal with their problems because it helps me pave my own way.  I am always wary of anyone who writes a self-help book from the perspective that they have their shit (forget my language) all figured out. When I start hearing that smug tone of “let me tell you what I know because I’ve been there and I’m just not there anymore” I dump whatever I’m reading lightning quick.

This is what I love about Brené Brown. Yes, she’s got a process figured out, but never does Brené lead you to believe that she’s got it perfected. In fact, she tells story after story about how she gets smug with herself about aspects of the process, only to find herself face down again. I realize that might feel a little discouraging to hear, but it shouldn’t be. It’s authentic. We’re going to keep failing at big and little things, no matter how good we get at cultivating well-being, it’s unreasonable to think we won’t. We can’t learn not to fail or to avoid grief, trauma and pain, those things are unavoidable, but we can learn how to bounce back.

We like to hear stories and read self-help books that promise that if we just do what the author says, we’ll be alright. In our hearts, I think we know that’s not true.  We buy these books, we try the the “process” out, feel better for a while and then slip back into old habits. There’s no easy fix to anything, there’s just a toolbox or belt or whatever you like to get out when things get broken or leak. I think if you’re ready to do some renovations on your heart, or you’re confronted with the fact that failure and “face down” moments are a part of life that will happen again and again, Rising Strong is for you.

If you’d like a little taste of Brené’s work this episode of Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert gives you a sneak peek of what she’s all about. Or watch the book’s trailer below, which includes narration of the Rising Strong manifesto.

Allison Carr Waechter is calling Brené Brown “Brené” in this post because she’s spent weeks listening to her work on audiobook, TedTalk, etc. and Brené’s started to feel like a wise friend. 

Tea at Three

If you follow me on Instagram, you k12568277_1685365308395586_1609367539_nnow that I’ve started a little ritual of having tea at three every day.* It’s a chance for me to slow down for just a little bit in the afternoon and recharge for the rest of my day. I love the beautiful alchemy of pouring hot water over fragrant tea leaves and just waiting, breathing in and out.** Nothing to do, nowhere to be, just a short half hour or so to be quiet and reconnect with myself.

Since I work from home, I’m lucky to be surrounded by my books. I’ve always considered books to be my friends, but I’ve been hauling theme around with me for ages and sometimes I don’t see them anymore. And I think we all know that if we’re not seeing, using or appreciating something, it becomes clutter. With over 1000 books in my home, that could be a lot of clutter and I don’t want my precious books to turn into that.

My solution is to pair Tea at Three with two more things I love, my darling books and sharing with others. I have so many gorgeous books: vintage books with amazing covers, children’s books, gardening books with botanical illustrations, cookbooks and collections of fairy tales and poetry… All of them wonderfully “shareable” in so many ways. Many of them are books that I wouldn’t normally pick out if I were settling in for a longer time, so it’s nice to revisit some beautiful friends. 12424879_1035413523182366_387830579_n

Here are some of my favorites for tea at three. They all feature either beautiful illustrations or have short pieces that are easy to put down so you can get back to work.

The Goddess Guide, by Gisele Scanlon

I will be honest with you, this book is almost 100% frivolous. The average person cannot afford the beauty products or experiences that Scanlon talks about in this gorgeous book. But it is gorgeous. The book itself has the cover of your dreams. The beautiful black brocade is velvety against that hot pink lusciousness. Scanlon’s photographs and illustrations are rich and well put together. It’s like your favorite beauty blog rolled into one beautiful, physical experience. If you can find a copy, it’s lovely to flip through. This book is not for you if Pinterest stresses you out, or if things like beauty blogs and Instagram make you feel pressured into living a “picture perfect” life. However, if you’re like me and you just really like looking at pretty pictures, you might love this one.

The Vintage Tea Party Book, by Angel Adoree

This is a cookbook and lifestyle guide all in one. Like The Goddess Guide, this book is not for folks who feel pressured to adhere to a “picture perfect” life by platforms like Pinterest or Instagram. However, if you really dig baking and a vintage aesthetic, I think you’ll find this book to be incredibly charming. Adoree has a pleasant demeanor, and though her personal style is nothing like mine, I love the recipes and gorgeous illustrations herein. It’s the perfect teatime book because of course, it’s about how to host a lovely tea party. Reading it with a steaming cuppa kind of makes me feel like I’m at a tea party, without the fuss of baking or putting on mascara.

The Nature Notes of and Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden

The pressure’s off. This book, or its counterpart The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, are perfect for nature and history lovers alike. Edith Holden was a remarkable woman. Born in 1871, she was the daughter of a paint manufacturer. In her time, she was best known as an illustrator of children’s books, but the reproductions of her diary and nature notes are some of her best known work today. Holden’s beautiful illustrations, thoughts, and bits of poetry make these books a delightful tea time read. The books are easy to leaf through and set aside for another look later.

Blue Horses, by Mary Oliver

Truly, Blue Horses is just one of Mary Oliver’s beautiful collections of poetry. A friend recently noted that when you turn thirty, someone should hand you a pile of Oliver’s work so that it might be your guide, and I completely agree. I don’t always “get” poetry, but Oliver’s words always speak to me as a woman, and her words often make their way into my Tea at Three experience. I find that a quick snippet of good words, put together with some lovely photos or illustrations makes my afternoon a little nicer, and I think we all need that.

I hope you’ll start your own Tea at Three practice, whether it’s in the morning, afternoon or evening. With coffee, wine or tea, you can pair up bevvies, books and images to create a small moment of peace in your day that you look forward to. I admit, I don’t make it every day at three, and sometimes not at all, but the days I do, I’m always happier for it.

*It was m y sweet friend Laura’s idea, with her grandmother as inspiration. Our hashtag #teaatthree has a lovely collection of images.

**My gorgeous friend Lindsay helped me to re-learn this thing that women the world over have known for eons, and she can teach you too.

Allison Carr Waechter has the kettle on as she types this and hopes you do too. Catch up with her for #teaatthree on Instagram and make sure you tag her so she can see what you’re up to as well. 

Big Magic is Big Magic

24453082First of all, I think this book came into my life at just the right time. It’s not that Gilbert’s advice in Big Magic is anything particularly new to me, it’s just that I needed a reminder and here it is: Creativity is tricky. Creativity involves failing. Creativity involves what some of us call magic.

Look, if you’re a cynic, if you don’t like Liz Gilbert, if you don’t believe in failing, if you don’t like some new-agey woo woo in your talks about creativity, stop reading this recommendation and don’t read this book. But if you’re okay with some woo woo, and you need a loving reminder that you’re in league with your own creative soul already, please read this. Better yet, do what I did and get it on audiobook.

Gilbert has a great voice for reading her own work. She’s kind sounding, her vocal inflection is on point and you can tell she believes what she’s saying. I suppose some of the stuff she says might sound kooky to some folks, but again, if you don’t want to read a treatise on creativity that’s infused with emotion and a bit of cheerleading, this isn’t for you.

You see, this isn’t exactly a how-to, step-by-step guide to “living creatively beyond fear” so much as a well organized dump of what Liz Gilbert has been thinking about creativity and writing all along. As a writer and all around creative, I think a lot of this in my own head, a lot of the time. But there’s something about having someone else talk about how they think “ideas” work that’s compelling, or hear someone else’s stories about intuitive moments, or how they understand their own creative nature that makes a creative feel a little less alone.

I loved listening to Gilbert talk about the way fear leaks into your creative process, and how to negotiate with fear, since it’s nearly impossible to banish. I liked hearing her say that she doesn’t think that it’s necessary to be miserable to be an artist, that maybe we are more productive when we practice self-care. And I’ll admit that as someone who got an MA instead of and MFA, I was a little relieved feeling when she said you don’t need one to be a good writer.

But if I had to boil it all down to one reason I think you should read this book (or listen to it!) it’s this: the Big Magic of the creative process is you and if you let her in, Gilbert can remind you all the reasons why you’re invested in your creativity in the first place.

Basically, if you’re a creative who’s been feeling a little stuck lately, this might be just the right book for you — if you’ve already read this and you need something else, try Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.

P.S. Thanks to Kitsey over at The Lush’s Blush for the inside info about Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons!

Allison Carr Waechter is indulging quite a bit more in her creative side. Follow her on Instagram if you enjoy photos of cats, books and tea. Otherwise, holler at her on Twitter to talk TBR for 2016. 

How to Know How to Grow Up

22521549Typically, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But as you’ll remember from a post I wrote a few weeks ago, I have a weakness for advice-giving self-helpish types of books. At the time, I was reading How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea. As things often go when I read non-fiction, I took some breaks to read new fiction I was excited about. Long story short, I finished How to Grow Up this week and I want to recommend it because I thought it was so good, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how to go about doing that.

Of course I’m going to give it a shot. That’s why we’re both here, right? Let’s start with the basics:

Michelle Tea is a writer and an incredibly impressive person, especially given the circumstances under which her prolific creative work has been produced, and How to Grow Up showcases a lot of that. The book is a series of essays that chronicles a lot of how Tea worked with, through and around a lot of “life stuff” to become someone with a stable life. I think the Goodreads blurb gives you most of the basic info you need to know:  

As an aspiring young writer in San Francisco, Michelle Tea lived in a scuzzy communal house; she drank, smoked, snorted anything she got her hands on; she toiled for the minimum wage; and she dated men and women, and sometimes both at once. But between hangovers and dead-end jobs, she scrawled in notebooks and organized dive bar poetry readings, working to make her literary dreams real.

In How to Grow Up, Tea shares her awkward stumble towards the life of a Bonafide Grown-Up: healthy, responsible, self-aware, stable. She writes about passion, about her fraught relationship with money, about adoring Barney’s while shopping at thrift stores, about breakups and the fertile ground between relationships, about roommates and rent, and about being superstitious (“why not, it imbues this harsh world of ours with a bit of magic.”)  At once heartwarming and darkly comic, How to Grow Up proves that the road less traveled may be a difficult one, but if you embrace life’s uncertainty and dust yourself off after every screw up, slowly but surely you just might make it to adulthood.

It’s probably not surprising to anyone that someone with Tea’s creative ability has had some wild (and sometimes sordid) adventures; I think we all assume that a certain sect of creative folk delve into life’s dark spots and create from there. So you could read Tea’s memoir and enjoy it a lot from the point of view of someone who hasn’t ever experienced anything like that. I definitely think that’s possible. Tea is a talented writer and I think almost anyone would find her writing moving and interesting.

That’s not the place I read this book from though. I read this book as a girl with a dark past of her own –one with some low, low places in it. I’m not in those places anymore, but I’m not quite where Tea is either (Bonafide Grown-Up is still a ways up the road for me). Tea has a few years on me though and reading this was like listening to a big sister, a soul sister tell me how it gets better.

I don’t need to get into the ways in which my twenties were all messed up here, but I’ll say that they were not nearly as wild as Tea’s, but a lot darker than average (at least from what I can tell). As someone who is (on the outside) a high-functioning adult, but who is still dealing with all the complexities that a decade of messy living creates, Tea’s stories made me laugh, cry, and murmur “yes!” “exactly” and “I’ll get there.”

The chapters in which Tea describes her romantic relationships especially resonated with me. I have that person in my past that I loved desperately, but that was incredibly bad for me. Like Tea, I couldn’t figure out why if we loved each other so damn much we couldn’t stop fighting (believe me, I know now). And similarly, I’m lucky enough to have had that shining moment where I found the person who could be my still point when everything is out of control and I am grateful beyond measure for the happy life we have together.

Tea’s chapters about inadvertently putting together a career during dark times, simply by working hard at what she loved, made sense to me too. Chipping away at things, even when I could barely get out of bed has always been my thing. I found Tea’s resilience inspiring, but my resilience inspires me too. Honestly, How to Grow Up was an affirmation for me that there are other people out there with brains as messy as my own who make it, who pick themselves up and keep going and that there’s an end result to that work that doesn’t involve running out of energy to keep going. Tea’s life may not be perfect, but she’s learned to love herself and that’s something radically awesome for any woman.

So I want to say this: if you are a girl who has a dark past and a messy brain, who makes lots of mistakes, who loves Stevie Nicks, who reads tarot and her horoscope, who believes in creativity, who believes kindness is a critical life skill, who always feels a little outside what’s normal… This book is totally for you. No matter where you’re at in cleaning up your mess, Michelle Tea can make you feel like you can do it.

You can do it.

Allison Carr Waechter is still here and that’s an accomplishment in itself. Holler if you need something.