Monday, May 14, 2012

Finding Balance

Sometimes hobbies and interests seem like the Hydra. They take over so much of my non-working or sleeping hours, they invariably drain away the quiet downtime I often convince myself I don't have time for. I shrug it off as frivolous, even wasteful because I am a busy person, and busy people should be productive. I occasionally feel overwhelmed by all that self-imposed responsibility, but when I try to wrangle balance out of this monster and cut off one head, another grows back.

I normally buy presents for people weeks or months in advance, but I realized last Friday that I had not yet purchased a Mother's Day present. I had little time to remedy this situation because Mr. Petals and I were taking Mom to a Sunday seaside brunch. So I did the unthinkable. I went to the mall. On Saturday.

This may surprise you coming from a beauty blogger, but I hate shopping. My husband feels like the most fortunate man on earth because shopping for me means being in the store/mall parking lot waiting for the doors to be unlocked, dashing inside with a list, and returning to the car within the hour, before the crowds show up. To be that organized takes research, but I am it's the only way I can handle it.

So Saturday I found myself at the mall, without a list or even a plan, but I wasn't inside more than five minutes before the most gorgeous bottle-green handbag called to me.


Total Mom bag. Great—I'd found the perfect present for my mother. Except I had to walk through the department store to get back to the parking lot. On my way through, as these things invariably happen, I had to brace myself for the perfume blockade.  One such spritzer was a Chanel employee, but I felt quite smug and safe as I informed her that I have been wearing Chanel No.5 and No.19 since the 80s and did not need a thing.

"But what about your mother?" she asked.  Uh-oh.

How did she know I'd been considering trying to convert my mother over to Chanel? Mom began her perfume life wearing Guerlain Shalimar, and she switched to Estée by Estée Lauder after, which has been her signature fragrance for 50 years. And as much as I hate to say it, I have never liked Estée, mainly because it makes me sneeze. So I asked Georgia about something rich and spicy, since that seems to be my mother's preference. 

And here's the thing about shopping, and perhaps the main reason I avoid it. When I am out there, surrounded by at all the pretty things, I see all kinds of stuff I had no idea I wanted. I covet. I lust. I have an inner battle. I often lose. To make a predictable story short, I left the Chanel counter with a sample spray vial of Coco for Mom. And a bag of Chanel items I do not need for me. An eyeshadow quad? Really? I'm not the Hydra monster. I have only two eyes, but it often feels like my becoming a beauty blogger has heightened my awareness for beauty products I used to largely ignore.

Skip to Sunday. Brunch was wonderful, and we had a great visit with my parents, visits that I cherish because I know there will come a day in the not too distant future where I no longer have one or both of them to visit.

On our way home from the coast, Mr. Petals and I stopped at the nursery so I could buy hanging flower baskets, one for the hummingbirds and honey bees and a few for the front porch for curb appeal. Within five minutes after we'd arrived home, and I was hanging the flower baskets, and I was drawn up short by the absolute beauty of my surroundings.

Barely 5PM, it was prime feeding time for birds, who were crowded at the feeder. The sound of hundreds of happy songbirds was simply gorgeous. And then I noticed a clematis that had flopped over and tied it back up, and the more I stayed outside, tending to my neglected gardens, the more I realized what I have been missing by not slowing down and appreciating all the beauty around me. As I weeded and deadheaded, it occurred to me that perhaps my desire to buy new makeup is a based on a love of color. I don't need to buy stuff that clutters my home and my mind when I can enjoy all the beauty that nature has to offer.

I lost my sense of smell—totally and completely—for five years, and when I felt sorry for myself for not being able to smell the perfume of flowers, my morning cup of coffee, freshly-cut grass, the salty tang of ocean air, or even a Thanksgiving turkey cooking in the oven, I continually reminded myself that of any sense to lose, at least it wasn't my sight. To not be able to read or see beautiful things would be a devastating blow. People deal with such loss all the time, but I would have a very hard time adjusting.

One of the things I would most miss, you see, is color. Sky, clouds, ocean, flowers, trees, textiles, and more. I sat down on the porch steps and admired the brilliant yellow goldfinches feeding their babies, which if you have never seen it, is so adorable; the youngsters line up on the railing and furiously flap their wings and peep for attention. Suddenly, my eye would be drawn to the brilliant ruby throat of a hummingbird, the cardinal red of the red-bellied woodpecker, dusky red and steel blue against the creamy belly of the bluebird, purple finches, dove-grey titmice, iridescent blue-green-black feathers of gluttonous grackles, the brilliant orange breast of the oriole, the scarlet cardinals, the grey catbird, and the golden-brown Carolina wren. And once in a while, so rare sightings become treasured moments, my patience will be rewarded with the glorious plumage of a strutting tom turkey.

And if that isn't enough beauty, I can walk around my yard and admire the blooms of the nearly-spent pinkish-white crab apple and ivory dogwood, the bell-shaped delicate-pink bleeding heart, pale yellow helleborus, the vivid purple lungwort with its velvety white-spotted grey-green leaves, the proud violet iris nodding in the breeze, and the beginnings of the pink and white and purple bigfoot geraniums. With more to come over the summer and fall season.

Peaceful. A sensory explosion of all senses but taste, but sometimes I think I can smell honeysuckle on my tongue. Yesterday, all desire for material things outside my surroundings or myself drifted away like the gentle, departing wake from a sailboat. I felt centered, balanced, and restored. Invigorated.

Whatever one's life situation, it seems like there are more demands than ever before, some self imposed and some necessitated by families, job, and maintaining the roof over our heads. How and where do you find balance?


  1. Beautiful writing, quietly moving.I hope you have many more of those moments of absolute beauty to enjoy, it's in our nature to feel this happiness and we can only ever really feel it when we are in touch with nature. I believe that consumerism is just a substitute and all the Chanels and Diors in the world cannot give you a moment's happiness like that, it can't inspire you to write as beautifully as you have in this piece and I really like it. I started beauty blogging precisely because I am an aesthete, not a beauty junkie. I usually for shop things not because they are 'new season', but because it covers a gap in my palette. What I'm trying to paint with that palette remains to be seen, but I try not to fall into the cosmetic companies seasons-trap. I want my creativity, vision and love for cosmetics to remain alive, not be dampened down and taken over by company marketing schemes:)

    1. Hi Olga, thanks very much. Yesterday's serenity made me think back to my childhood, well, starting back at age of 6 well into my 30s. My family used to spend the entire month of August in a rustic cottage on a lake that had been part of a Boy Scouts camp before WWII. No TV, just the radio and lots of board games, cards, and books. Oh, so many books!

      Every night at dusk we'd eat on the screened-in porch, and as the sun set and the sky darkened, I'd often go out in the canoe with my father. It was such a glorious experience to be on water smooth as glass and see the twinkling stars reflected in the surface. For years Dad convinced Mom that those things flying overhead in the dark were barn swallows. ;)

      Getting away from everything for a month really lets you disengage from the rat race, and my parents eventually purchased a similar rustic cottage on the ocean. The silence of the woods was largely the same, but the primary difference was moving from fresh water to salt. The new cottage had its own charms, from waking up to the sound of lobster boats gently chugging out to sea, to the blood-curdling shriek of loons and egrets at night, a sound you would not soon forget.

      As for the material things, despite a brief foray into insanity, I do not consider myself a beauty junkie, either, but something weird happened to me at age 44. I guess we'll have to call it a midlife crisis, clinging to pretty, but I am largely over it by now, as there are so many other things to be concerned with ... though I am still not 100% sure what I am painting with my own palette. A softer version of me, I guess. One thing I rarely fall prey to anymore is the limited edition, HAWT New Thing. And six months later, that discontinued thing will be re-released in the same color, same formula, new name. Phhht.

  2. Such beautiful writing, Zuzu. I don't know all the names of flowers, but just imagining that colored canvas makes me smile.

    1. Thanks, Larie! I am constrained to soft colors because my entire yard is part shade at various times of day.I don't even have enough full sun to grow a tomato, which is really too bad. I'd even share my veggies with the bunnies.

      Oh, and speaking of ... I am unable to rake the old mulch out of my cottage garden until the babies grow up. Right now there's a nest of baby bunnies hiding underneath the daisy foliage, and a cuter sight you never saw, all those pink noses wriggling.

  3. Your garden sounds absolutely gorgeous and like the perfect refuge. I have to remind myself that balance is just that, constant adjusting and changing. It's never static. And material lust? These days I am trying my best to appreciate beautiful things without needing to own them. It's not easy, though.

    1. Veuve, the sad thing about my gardens and deck and shade oaks is the bugs. May brings on the black flies, and when they fly away or die off, it's mosquito season. And those biters are EVIL. For some reason they love me, and Mr. Petals used to tease me for how they ignored him so he never used bug spray ... until he got Lyme's. Sick as a dog for three months with spiking fevers and exhaustion. Nasty virus is that. Now he stinks of OFF like the rest of us.

      I agree it's hard to appreciate without coveting. I see beautiful things and I want to wrap it all in my arms. The funny thing is I have no desire for a big house with all the techno doodads. I just want a little cottage by the sea and I can die happy.

  4. What a beautiful article Zuzu!! :)
    I kind of hate shopping lately too-I used to love it. The noise of malls bother me so much-after a bit my brain goes STOP and I have to get out.
    Balance is something I need to find. I am trying to find ways to restore it in my life but stress has been getting the better of me, and affecting my disease. I want to try yoga-ging to finally get the chance this week. I'm hoping that will help me find balance.

    1. Tracy, I used to LOVE shopping. I never did the shop-with-friends thing; I'm more a solitary shopper so I can be completely selfish and noodle around at will. Walking around Faneuil Hall and Copley Plaza were once heaven to me. Oh, and the old-skool Filene's Basement! A total blast. Not anymore.

      I don't mind noise and I don't mind big crowds, either—there's no better place for an introvert to get lost. What I cannot abide are rude, entitled people. They really spoil an outing, and I am convinced society has run amok. And then there's the sad fact that many people in the services industry, including some department store counter people, act like they're doing you the biggest favor. I'm just waiting for a new trend where their tip jar comes out. ;)

      I'm at a crossroads, trying to decide if I need to get off the internet completely or if I can manage my 2D life better so I have more time in the 3D world. I have always been an all-or-nothing person, which is one of my greatest faults and certainly my greatest downfall. Oh, I ate that stupid cookie ... might as well finish the bag. Seriously, what kind of cracked thinking is that?

      Stress is such a terrible thing, and very aging, but women, especially, are so good at masking it, acting as if, and continuing to fly high in our superhero capes. Yoga is an excellent idea. So is sitting quietly and even meditating. Try just siting still for 30 minutes a day. It's hard. It is for me anyway. It's hard to still my racing thoughts.

      One thing I have noticed in the last several months ... my best ideas come in the shower. I used to think it was some weird coincidence, but now I understand why. It's probably the ONE place where I can only do one thing at a time, so I am forced to be mindful. I can't page through a magazine while giving myself a manicure and watching TV with one eye while I am shampooing my hair. Showers and baths are a sort of enforced quiet time. I have started to enjoy getting clean for a completely different, non utilitarian reason ... so much so that I have begun driving in silence, too. It's weird at first. My head can be like a baaaad neighborhood, but eventually things calm and settle down and it becomes enjoyable.

      OK, now I just gave myself a Depeche Mode ear worm. I won't mention the song so I don't pass on a sickness to you which usually lasts several days for me.

  5. Good article Zuzu, touching on a very old and always actual problem.
    I can't help mentioning this little poem by W. H. Davies here:


    WHAT is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare?—
    No time to stand beneath the boughs,
    And stare as long as sheep and cows:

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

    No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance:

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began?

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare."

    For me there are two things that help me to find balance: nature and music.

    1. Nature and music, definitely music. When I have a deadline, and my adrenaline is jumping, nothing calms me like Bach's Goldberg Variatins .. unless, of course, I think of Hannibal Lecter. Jazz makes me happy—the first few minutes of Cannonball Adderly's Autumn Leaves or Vince Guaraldi's Django or Tommy Flannagan's Peace, and I just melt.

      Thank you so much for the poem, Olga. I am going to print it and hang it on my fridge. I haven't read much poetry since Critical Analysis as an undergrad, but strangely an old (Mother Goose?) nursery rhyme just bubbled to the top of my consciousness:

      Little Drops of Water

      Little drops of water,
      little grains of sand,
      make the mighty ocean
      and the beauteous land.

      Little seeds of mercy
      sown by little hands,
      grow to bless the nations
      Even in far-off lands.

      Little deeds of kindness,
      little words of love,
      make our earth an Eden,
      like the heaven above.

      And the little moments,
      humble though they may be,
      make the mighty ages
      of eternity.

    2. Thank you for the poem too Zuzu, I am always very touched by things like that. Simple words and much beauty in them.
      Goldberg Variations work for me as well (Hannibal Lector doesn't usually come up in my mind:)). Also I love Rameau's harpsichord music, but also his other works, Händel, Telemann, sometimes Mozart. I just wish I made time for just listening and absorbing the harmony so to say. Instead I always try to do something else too when listening.

    3. Excellent point, Olga. I often think I might actually enjoy opera if I sat down and just listened to it, while following along in the liner notes. I have a thick booklet in my Lully CD, and I am sure the story is fascinating, but I have never taken the time.

      There is so much to be said for just quietly sitting and doing one thing at a time. In fact, I made some small inroads recently: I now drink my first cup of coffee at the day watching the birds at the feeder. It is probably the quietest 10 minutes of my day because once I get to work, all hell breaks loose.

  6. Great post! I certainly know what you mean about the mall. Every time I go I am tempted by so many beautiful things I had not known existed before but now suddenly I MUST have them. Not good! I find balance by spending time outdoors -- anywhere quiet and peaceful, surrounded by plants and birds, and especially near the ocean :)

    1. I understand completely about the ocean, MM. I grew up on it but now live a good hour away from the smells and sounds of waves pummeling the rocks. When I visit my parents and we drive along Beach Avenue, and I smell that lovely rank seaweed at low tide and the clam muck, I want to cry from happiness.

      My husband is a mountain/woods person, and I am a wide-open ocean person (maybe because I am Pisces), so I told him that unless we divorce or depart from the United States the only place for us to retire will be Bar Harbor/Mt. Desert Island which has both mountains AND is surrounded by ocean. :)

      As for nature, I most love your articles that include all the lovely pictures of the birds and flowers and outdoors. They always make me smile.

  7. Maintaining a healthy balance is essential to me, during my PhD I worked myself into a nervous breakdown. Now I work hard but not seven days a week like before and I love my job but it has taken me years to recover and get to this stage.

    1. I know what you mean, Dr. Mopsy. A master's isn't as grueling as a PhD, but I pushed myself through it in 18 months (at night) while regularly working up to 60 hours every week at my job. And there was all that studying and homework, too. And in case that wasn't enough fun, in my new industry I found myself regularly working 80 hours. So although my master's degree improved both my job prospects and salary, I often felt like I had taken a cut in pay because of all the unpaid overtime, not to mention the great loss to personal time ... and my health.

      I didn't have a nervous breakdown (I am actually not sure what that is—maybe I did have one!), but I ended up very very sick with a long list of symptoms that got lumped into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which is really just burned-out adrenals, but it doesn't sound as nice).

      I manage my work life much better these days, but I have no control over deadlines when things go totally nutty. Which is where I am right now. Procrastinating! I do adore my job, though. *slinks back to work*

  8. Such a thoughtful, poignant, and beautifully written article!!

  9. I no longer go to malls. I can't. I have terrible MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity) and the fragrances make me ill with fatigue for days. It's not worth it. But, even before I swore off malls, I'd walk through a department store and just feel there was nothing there for me anymore. Nothing appealed. Mainly, because there was TOO MUCH. I still find things to yearn for. . things I see online, and then have some time to think about. If days go by and an item is still on my mind, then I know maybe I should consider purchasing, but most items slip by, forgotten, and my bank balance is safe. So, I find, life imposes a certain balance upon me; it has constrained me and I welcome that.

    I do veer off balance creatively sometimes. I'm working on a history book and I find I can spend too much time in my imagination and not enough on my real life, if I am not careful. Any task, creative or otherwise, can sweep me up and absorb me, so it sometimes boils down to time management. I use the Pomodoro method for most tasks (25 mintues devoted to tasks here and there, though I give myself big juicy "heirloom tomatoes" of time for writing, when I can.

    Have you ever read "Elizabeth and Her German Garden"? I think you might enjoy it.

  10. I could really use some time management techniques. But then the inner rebel in me scoffs. I can be such a self-sabotaging dweeb.

    I had not heard of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but I just added it to my Kindle, thanks much for the recommendation!

  11. I actually love going to the mall, lol. Not for the joy of purchasing necessarily but I like looking at new things and comparing prices, qualities, sensing changes in trends and how people respond... it's the modern marketplace! Malls are here to stay and I like learning to navigate through it. :)

    Your writing is so thoughtful and lovely and I love reading it. The topic really speaks to me as lately I'm being stretched very thin and I wonder where the breaking point is and how long this precarious balancing act can be maintained. But I also believe in the human spirit's ability to endure much more than we originally think we can handle. You do it for as long as it's necessary when people are in need of you doing it and hope that rest and respite will come soon. If you're doing it for just the sake of doing it, it's time to let go and take a breather. And if there's help to be had, it's better to reach out and shoulder things together than to let things tumble and crumble.

    Losing one of my senses is kind of a pet nightmare of mine, actually. I have terrible sight (glasses since Gr. 1), not the best hearing (often ask people to repeat themselves), and my sense of smell isn't the best (some sort of nasal/respiratory issue since childhood). But you see all sorts of people with various handicaps moving through life with dignity and grace and hope that your other senses sharpen to allow you to cope with the loss of one. I'm sorry for your five years of loss but I bet it had something to do with your sharp eye for very specific colours and shades. :)

    1. I do believe that the human spirit can be quite resilient, though some of us seem to be more rigorously tested than others. I remember a span of years when my family endured a robbery (the thieves were definitely professionals--they even lifted the Oriental rugs to see if they were hand woven and left the ONE behind that was machine made), and then we had a house fire that forced us to live in a hotel for several months. I will never forget the shock of how DARK the house was with its soot-covered walls and how that sooty stench lingered in surprising places for years, like underneath a bureau drawer. Other terrible things happened in the next few years, and it put a strain on my family, but we came out stronger than ever. When I look back, I realize that much of the bad happened to things. The people I love are still with me and all intact, and that is what matters because when I reach old age, I don't want to look around me and say to myself, "What a lot of beautiful things I have." I want happy memories and people to love, who love me in return.

      I agree that when we lose one sense another sharpens. I have heard that blind people often have incredible hearing and a heightened sense of touch. What's so odd for my regaining my sense of smell is I smell a lot of awful things. My husband does not smell the same phantom objects that I smell rotting in the refrigerator (I have cleaned the inside thoroughly and have not found any hidden science experiment), and at work I often smell sulfur. Ick. I should probably get tested for a brain tumor, but I think smelling oranges points the way of the dreaded head cancer. ;)

      As for malls ... *sigh* I have been carrying around a fair bit of extra weight the last 10 years, and I cannot tell you how being at the top end of the size range sucks the joy out of shopping. It doesn't take a shrink to point out my transference to purchasing makeup and accessories instead. I'll take the weight off--I always do--but i have to first stop making excuses by putting everyone and everything in my life first before myself. In fact, the best anti-aging tip I could give anyone is DON'T BE FAT! Nothing will turn an otherwise attractive woman into grandma faster than that. :)

      I don't know the details of what you are going through, Liz; I have only caught little hints based on your recent posts; it sounds like job and family are at the heart of your sadness. I hope you weather the storm and find some peace. ♥


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