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Before reading about all the world’s messes, I need to be in a good place, soothed and comforted. Prepared.
So I read the comics first.
Then I turn to the advice columns, being a particular fan of "Ask Amy" and "Miss Manners", then horoscopes (Capricorn for me; Pisces for my husband), then "Today in History" and "Today’s Birthdays".
Only afterwards do I read the headlines. Only after I’ve strengthened myself through pleasure, gratified that the sexy pin-ups of my generation are distinctly post-menopausal while astonished the heartthrobs of my youth also age — "Wait, he’s 109?" — do I feel remotely prepared to face the news.
That’s why, as unlikely as it might seem, I find the daily papers calming. A lot of my friends don’t get it. These days, they use newspapers to make tents under which they hide from anything about politics, various global health crises, the hugely inflated-but-never-discussed United States national deficit (projected to reach $US1.02 trillion this year, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office) and arguments about why some women can dance onstage during the Super Bowl while other women prepare guacamole in the kitchen.
I am not alone in needing comfort before facing reality — but I am baffled by where some people find sources of comfort. For example, how can running 42.2km be happy-making? Yet there are dozens of otherwise sensible individuals with whom I can have meaningful conversations concerning otherwise reasonable topics who nevertheless "run marathons" for "fun" and because they find it "satisfying".
The same goes for gardening. I have friends who not only create beauty and bounty in their gardens but also write books about teaching others how to do the same, even as they offer — as a decorative border, so to speak — history and cultural context for the idea of gardens themselves. Author Suzanne Staubach’s A Garden Miscellany can almost convince me to head off the deck and into my own backyard.
But I don’t find nature cosy, and I find anything that’s fuzzy in nature hideous. So I am happy to read the book and look at the pretty illustrations while sitting indoors under a fuzzy blanket (which is not alive, doesn’t sting and won’t wiggle unless I do it first).
I have faced disappointment and contempt and faced the narrow-eyed suspicion used on women accused of witchcraft for admitting that the outdoors annoys me. It’s fine.
From my city childhood onwards, the last place I would go to feel safe, renewed or refreshed is the woods. The woods terrify me. Who knows what’s crouching behind the stump? I would breathe more deeply and feel more relaxed on the D-Train from the Bronx to Coney Island than I would from a walk around Walden Pond. I do acknowledge the Sixth Avenue Express wouldn’t smell as good.
Of course, I find comfort in the world in less eccentric ways. Like navy veteran Elizabeth Williams, the very promise of fresh clean sheets on the bed and a long, hot shower can calm me down on a hectic, crumpled, nervous day.
Like Patti White, a friend from my graduate school days, food nourishes me in all kinds of ways. As Patti put it, for her, comfort comes from "BBQ ribs with collards. In other words, local foods in places that welcome me and remember me". Foods made with love by places that you feel know you and care for you? That’s comfort food, for real.
And cooking? That’s gloriously soothing so long as there’s no deadline and you’re making food for people you’re welcoming and remember, and as long as somebody else washes up.
Finally, so to speak, I find the thought of our own collective mortality soothing.
The last part of the newspaper I read every morning is the obituaries. My friend from college, Nicholas Newman, does the same, and I suspect we’re not the only ones who find them comforting rather than unnerving. Death notices keep everything in perspective. Some break your heart, but most lift your spirits. They remind us that this day will pass and be gone forever whether we seize it, ignore it, embrace it, enjoy it or tear it apart.
Everybody gets the same 24 hours. There’s comfort in that. — TCA
- Gina Barreca is an author and board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut.