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The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING, Page 2

Jen Lancaster

  (Ten points for you if you caught The Office reference.)

  The house itself couldn’t be more festive. Each mantel is decked with piles of greenery and lights, and the tree is so big and lush, it takes up a quarter of the living room. Outside is a veritable winter wonderland, with enough LED strings to almost, but not quite, cross the border into Christmas Vacation territory. I’m overcome by the miasma of Fraser fir, San Marzano tomatoes, and the spicy cinnamon tang of the rose hips in all the potpourri bowls.

  In the dining room, a couple of guests are laughing so hard that the walls practically shake.

  This is the perfect holiday dinner party.

  And yet all I can think is, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT OF MY HOUSE.

  Let’s take a step back—we have wonderful friends and we love entertaining. We bought this house (gun cabinet notwithstanding) because we knew it would be the ideal place for gatherings both great and small. When we left the city, we moved away from ninety-five percent of our social circle, so every time our peeps actually RSVP yes, we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to host them. Plus, tonight’s extraspecial, because our buddies Beef-free Julia and Finch are up from Atlanta.

  The problem definitely isn’t the guest list.

  The problem is that my ambitions are greater than my abilities, so in order to get this shindig together, I put in three eighteen-hour days in a row and now I’m freaking exhausted. As I watch dirty plates stack up and wineglasses multiply, I just feel weary. I don’t have the energy for this, and that’s so not like me.

  You see, this has been a rough year. Not in a huge, job-loss, death-in-the-family kind of way. More like in a poor-little-you, Eat, Pray, Love fashion, except with a solid marriage and no road trips.

  Starting in January, things systematically began to go wrong in a plethora of small, exasperating instances. Death by a thousand cuts.

  I experienced professional setbacks and the consequences of business missteps, then a series of minor yet incredibly stupid and slightly debilitating health-related issues. (Did you know your ears are full of tiny crystals and when they slide out of place, they will mess you up? Believe it.)

  Over the course of this frustrating year, checks didn’t arrive when they were supposed to, deals fell through, and this summer we lost power practically every other week, which was an added stressor when I was attempting to meet a book deadline. Seemed like anytime something had the potential to go wrong, Mr. Murphy showed up. He and his damn law can kiss the fattest part of my ass right about now.

  In February and March, we had to put down our two oldest cats, and then we lost Gus, Chuck Norris, and Odin to an escape attempt. We eventually rounded up all our stray felines, thank goodness, but it was a rough few days. Gus has especially been a jerk ever since we finally captured him again and brought him back inside, registering his displeasure on the curtains in the family room. He’s all, “How ya gonna keep me down on the farm after I’ve seen Paree?” (Sorry, pal. Ranking mammal making the decisions here.)

  I know, I know…why don’t I run around Italy eating all the pizzas and gelato and then the world can feel extrasorry for me when I give myself a tummyache before I go live on the beach? (Perspective…perhaps I should get me some.)

  Make no mistake: This is first-world bullshit right here. We’ve been through far worse, and I weathered those events with more grace and dignity. Possibly some swearing, but with much more aplomb.

  Back when times were darkest, after we’d both lost our jobs and Fletch was racked with depression, I managed to find little ways to be happy. I had to, for my own sanity. Maybe we’d go for a walk, as much for fresh air as for a respite from the constant call of bill collectors. Yet while we’d stroll our slumtastic neighborhood and fret about our future, I’d still stop to smell all the just-bloomed lilacs and be instantly cheered. Now I live securely in a lovely community, but instead of rejoicing in my own lilac bushes, I’ll grouse about the encroaching buckthorn. That’s all wrong.

  So many people, including friends, are currently dealing with real issues—illness and job loss and problems with their children. I watch the news and my heart aches for those who are truly suffering. I haven’t earned the right to throw myself a pity party, and I need to buck the hell up.

  What really aggravates me is that Fletch and I have worked so hard over the past ten years and made so many sacrifices to get to this point in our lives. I’m furious with myself for allowing ridiculous little things to have an impact on my happiness.

  Is it really a big deal that the customer service agent was rude to me?

  Is the world going to end over a minor disappointment?

  And why on earth do I give a shit about what some stranger says about me on Facebook?

  Didn’t I used to have a thicker skin?

  Years ago, when some guy called me a fat bitch on the bus, I laughed in his face and then turned the experience into the New York Times bestselling memoir Such a Pretty Fat. What happened to me? When did I become such a delicate flower? I should, in the words of Clark W. Griswold, be whistling “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” out of my bunghole every day, but I’m not, because I’ve allowed little things to throw me offtrack.

  Is it because I’m just so stressed over my beautiful pit bull Maisy? After meeting Fletch, this little girl is the best thing that ever happened to me. We adopted her back when I’d lost my corporate job in 2001, and her presence in my life changed everything. I fell so deeply in love with her that I became a writer in order to have the excuse to stay home with her every day. Maisy’s in no way perfect herself—she’s bossy, she’s officious, she’s spoiled, she’s lazy, she defies authority, and she pouts when she doesn’t get exactly what she wants when she wants it.

  Pretty much she’s me.

  A couple years ago, she was diagnosed with mast cell tumors, and the oncologist gave her six months to live. Of course, Maisy’s ridiculously stubborn, and you can’t tell her a damn thing she doesn’t want to hear (again, hello); ergo she’s defied every odd thus far. Her doctor uses her as the best-case scenario to comfort other families with sick dogs. Yet I can’t ignore that she’s not strong like she was before she got sick. She had her second surgery earlier this month—this time for melanoma—and was so weak afterward that her doctor said we should hold off on new rounds of chemotherapy.

  Yet the good news is, the mast cell tumors haven’t returned. And since we adopted our other pit bull Libby last year, Maisy’s spirits have never been higher.

  Maisy adores having a mini-me and lives for an audience. She leaps out of bed every morning to roll around and scratch her back, thrilled at the prospect of a new day. And the fact that the biggest downside is that she can’t yank so hard on the leash isn’t the worst thing in the world. Back in the day, she could pull me over in three seconds flat. My unskinned knees don’t miss that.

  Yet despite all her positive progress, every time she coughs or sneezes or lingers in bed, I envision the worst-case scenario. I run to the emergency vet like people run to the store.

  Because of all of the above, I just want this year to be behind us, and I figured the easiest way to do that would be to ignore the holidays. Back when we were broke, we routinely skipped Christmas, so it’s not like we’d be blazing new territory here.

  Fletch was on board with me…until a couple of weeks ago, when he realized he wasn’t. He decided instead of skipping Christmas, we were going to flip all of 2011 the bird by ending the year in style. And that’s what we’ve done. Now the lights are up, the presents have been exchanged, and the house is full of food, friends, and fun. It’s a hundred percent festive up in here.

  I should be on my knees, thanking God for all His blessings.

  Yet all I can focus on is how I’m going to be stuck doing dishes until three thirty a.m.

  For everyone’s sake, I need to improve my attitude in 2012.

  “I miss them.”

  “Me, too.”

  Fletch and I are sitting in the kitchen, drinkin
g coffee, eating doughnuts, and bemoaning the departure of Julia and Finch. They had to take off at the crack of dawn to get down to Julia’s parents’ house in St. Louis.

  When they arrived earlier this week, my mood was so foul that I almost ruined my own party. But it’s patently impossible to not be happy in their presence. Our fine moods last well into the evening, and we’re both extrachipper while watching New Year’s Eve programming.

  No, we didn’t go out.

  A word about New Year’s Eve?

  I would rather receive a Pap smear from Captain Hook than venture out on New Year’s Eve.

  I’d rather time-travel back to junior high and give a speech clad in nothing but a fez in front of the mean girls who used to hassle me on the bus.

  (Quick aside? My chief tormentor now gives pedicures in a salon next to the county jail in my old hometown. Sometimes karma looks a lot like OPI’s Lincoln Park after Dark.)

  There’s something that feels so incredibly lonely and self-defeating about all the forced gaiety of New Year’s Eve, like if I’m not out there having the very best time, swilling the most champagne, tooting the loudest noisemaker, wearing the most-spangle-laden dress, then I’m somehow failing. It’s not that I hate parties and frivolity—eleven years of college is proof positive of that—but I’m enough of a contrarian to balk at the notion of Mandatory Fun. I don’t begrudge anyone else their merrymaking, but it’s not my bag, baby, at least not on December 31. Let’s see: all the amateurs who throw down only once a year, those same amateurs hitting the roads later, and hyperinflated prices for shitty service and watery drinks? Or couch time and Carson Daly?

  I choose Carson. All the way.

  We watch as Carson interviews people in Times Square about their resolutions. “What do you resolve for 2012?” Fletch asks. He’s smirking, because he knows the only thing I loathe as much as NYE is being questioned about my resolutions, particularly by people I don’t know. What do I resolve? To find a Starbucks where the baristas are less chatty.

  I yell at the screen, “How about this for a resolution, Carson? I resolve to not disclose personal information about my hopes, dreams, and inadequacies on national television.”

  Look at them all—they’re cold and it’s loud and they have to pee in Porta Pottis and weirdos are using this as an opportunity to furtively press their junk against the unsuspecting. I simply don’t get it. You, right there in the giant plastic 2012 sunglasses? Some pervert just tea-bagged you and you don’t even know it.

  And you in the sparkly dress? You’re going to wake up with a stranger tomorrow morning, having received the gift that keeps on giving. (Herpes.)

  How about you there, dressed as Baby New Year? A) You’re going to get frostbite, and B) there’s no way your wallet’s not falling out of your diaper. When you’re shivering your way back to the Bronx tonight with nothing but your banner to keep you warm, you’ll regret the decisions that led you there.

  The square is so crowded that all these dummies can barely lift their arms every time they squeal, “WOO!” at the camera.

  As I mock and judge, it occurs to me that I can’t recall the last time I spontaneously lifted my arms and shouted, “WOO!”

  I wonder if I’ve done it once in 2011.

  Although, as much as I have to say that I hate 2011, this year wasn’t entirely worthless. In so many ways, I got my shit together. After living in a state of arrested development for most of my life, I finally buckled down, making a concerted effort to behave like an adult.

  Like, I have insurance now.

  So much insurance.

  Everyone has auto insurance (except for anyone driving around tonight, of course), but I also invested in life insurance, homeowners insurance, a supplemental umbrella policy for what homeowners insurance doesn’t cover, flood insurance, mortgage insurance, long-term disability insurance, pet insurance.…

  I should be the happiest son of a bitch on the planet with all these levels of protection.

  And yet here I am.

  Welcome to Crankytown, population: me.

  I wonder if, in trying so hard to be grown-up, I didn’t somehow overshoot my mark. By working diligently to be my most responsible me, did I quash some of my own natural propensity for joy? Is it possible that I’ve lived through years that were far worse than my current season of Sorority-Girl Problems, and that I never noticed because I was a perpetually grinning adolescent?

  This bears further examination.

  “It’s too bad no one sells happiness insurance,” I say.

  “Hmm?” Fletch glances over at me with a puzzled expression.

  “Think about it: We have every protection known to man, yet I’ve still had a miserable year. If someone sold happiness insurance, I could fill out a claim and, much like Stella, get my groove back. Otherwise, why would I have paid all those premiums to Big Insurance?”

  “Wasn’t aware your groove was missing.”

  Yes. This makes perfect sense.

  I continue. “Here’s the thing about this year: I’ve failed at having an attitude of gratitude. I’ve not come at my life from a place of yes. I’ve not chosen me.”

  He gives me the whale eye. “You been watching Oprah again?”

  I wave him off. “No, no, she went off the air in May. I did like her, though, but I always had some trouble really connecting with her advice. She was all, ‘Live your best life!’ and ‘Chart your vision board!’ but there’s nothing actionable, you know?”

  Fletch pauses Carson and his Conclave of Bad Decisions. “What is this ‘vision board’ of which you speak?”

  I explain. “You’re supposed to imagine something you want—like when I wanted to be a writer. To help me visualize my dream, I was supposed to clip out images of what inspired me. Maybe I’d have pasted pictures of Jennifer Weiner and David Sedaris and swimming pools and bookstores in between pom-poms and sparkles.”

  He’s dubious at best. “So it’s a craft project.”

  “No. Well, okay, yes, a little bit, if you factor in the glitter and rubber cement. But I know tons of people who said doing vision boards helped them.”

  “Yet even without a vision board, you became an author.”

  I nod. “True dat.”

  “Never say that again.” Even Maisy manages to look disgusted with me. “Let me ask you something: How does sitting around clipping pictures from a magazine advance your goals?”

  I scratch Maisy’s ears while I consider my answer. Apparently I have pleased her, because she curls her toes and burrows in closer to me, forcing most of my right butt cheek off the couch.

  Worth it.

  I reply, “Can’t say for sure, because I never tried to make one.”

  He snorts. “Yeah, you know why? Because you were busy actually trying to be a writer. You were writing. You were reading. You built a blog audience. You learned your way around nascent social media. You were putting in the effort and not just sticking pictures on oak tag.”

  “True da— Ahem. True enough.”

  Fletch slips into Professor Fletcher mode, and I suspect he’s two seconds away from pulling out a whiteboard. “Okay, you want to be happy. You want 2012 to be a better year. What’s your plan? What’s going to change? What tangible thing can you do to alter your circumstances?”

  “Whoa, slow down! I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

  “Maybe you should.”

  “Oh, yeah? Your year sucked, too. Maybe you should think about it,” I retort.

  “I have and I’ve made a plan. Happiness guaranteed.”

  I can’t keep the surprise out of my voice. “Really? What are you going to do? How are you going to manifest a better year?”

  If he’s got the inside track on an improved way going forward, then I’m all ears.

  “I’m going to grow a beard.”

  “That’s it? That’s your home-run swing?”

  “Yes. Besides, it’s easier than growing a jawline. I decree 2012 to be the Year of the

  I roll my eyes and click play on the DVR, getting back to Carson and the teeming, grinning masses. “Whatever.”

  Still, a beard’s more tangible than a vision board.

  So there’s that.


  We’re but three days into the New Year/new beard and I already dislike both. Greatly. I was kind of hoping for some Carson Daly–induced epiphany on New Year’s Eve, but no such luck. The ball dropped, we kissed each other (and the dogs), and that was it. The new year began as inauspiciously as 2011 ended.

  We’re currently on our fourth visit to the Restoration Hardware outlet store in Wisconsin in pursuit of replacing the funereal drapes that used to hang in our bedroom. Before Thanksgiving, I found a great deal on some discontinued curtains and figured it was high time for a more modern update.

  Not only were the old drapes fussy, but they weren’t functional; they were made only to frame the window. We had decent Levolor pull-down blinds for privacy and light blocking, but Nibble-y Libby and the Boredom Chews ended what should have been a long life span. Keeping the blinds open had come to require tying a system of Gordian knots, so most often, the bedroom was dark as a tomb.

  Fletch tore down the nonfunctional blinds, only to discover that the sun lights up the bedroom like the map room in the Temple of Doom every day at five forty-five a.m.

  I fixed the problem by thumbtacking sheets to the window frame.

  Yes, I realize that Martha would shudder at my half-assery. But it was that or rising with the roosters until we found a solution that we liked and that didn’t cost as much as a used Honda.

  Once we removed the old curtain hardware, I estimated that installing the new rods would take an hour, max. Which it did.

  The window-covering situation became complicated only once we determined that we’d hung the rods too low and that the curtains I insisted would match the rug…didn’t. This development precipitated the second trip to Wisconsin and a fair amount of cursing on both our parts. Then, because we’d punched so many holes in the wall, we had to patch the paint.