The Glass Matters: How to Survive Heartbreak by Sweating the Small Stuff
I’ve always been a martini girl. Ice cold, straight up, or with a twist. A dirty on the rocks, give the olives to Stace (or Colleen). Cosmos. Espresso martinis. Lemon drops.
An ex-friend of mine was prone to remarking in disgust, “I don’t know how you drink those. They aren’t even cocktails, they’re just…glasses of vodka.”
I heartily disagreed.
That is until I had my first cocktail in a post-Covid world; a world where bars and restaurants no longer served drinks in the corresponding glassware (I love corresponding glassware), but in plastic cups. You know the kind - only slightly larger than the tulip-printed dixie cups my mom used to keep in a plastic pop-up dispenser in the bathroom next to the hand soaps shaped like seashells; the kind of cups that disappear in the fists of grown men. Not only are they difficult to hold, but you also can’t set them down, lest your $11 drink blow into your lap at the slightest suggestion of a breeze.
I do not enjoy drinking from these cups.
June 2020. It was the first drink at the first restaurant we’d visited during our very first post-lockdown outing. I was thrilled to be sitting on a patio in the warm summer sunshine amongst people I was not related to, ready to sip a cold cocktail I didn’t shake, and to eat a meal I didn’t have to cook (or clean up).
And then my drink arrived, served not in plastic but in….
What in the goodness gracious great balls of vodka is going ON here
As I sipped from my pathetic synthetic glass, the sound of sad trombones echoing in my ears, I suddenly realized, “I’ll be damned; she was right. Without the martini glass, this really is just a cup of vodka.”
Call it silly but corresponding glassware is one of the great delights of my life. I like to use the right glass for the right red wine, and don’t you dare serve me a mule in a pint glass or a margarita in an old-fashioned glass, you complete philistine.
I’m not a snob; I don’t need to sip from Irish crystal or toast with paper-thin Italian glassware. I just appreciate the experience of a cocktail as much as - probably more than - the drink itself.
While the old adage about not sweating the small stuff has merit - we should not lose heart or joy (or our tempers or patience) over things we can’t control (the line at Starbucks, tiny plastic cups, everything about Facebook’s comments sections) - for me, the small things in life are what truly matter the most.
Good glassware, for example - and not just for cocktails. I do not drink out of thermal mugs and tumblers, and the list of requirements I have for a water bottle is both pretentious and exhausting.
When I said we were going to use the good dishes, I meant it.
While the really big events in life - love, loss, failure, triumph - are what we remark upon and record, the small things are who we are. When truly bad things happen, when tidal waves of change rock us on our foundations, it is the little things that anchor us; return us safely to shore. When we have forgotten how to live, how to be present in our lives, when it hurts simply to breathe and exist, the little things bring us back into our bodies and root us to our routines, our joy; to life.
Tight hugs. Fluffy blankets. Good books. Movies in bed. Pizza with extra cheese. Sunrises and sunsets over the water. A chocolate and vanilla twist in a cone. Stolen hoodies. Recipes our mom used to make.
The little things bring us back to life because they are life. It may be the epochs of our lives that are marked by celebrations and fanfare - weddings, births, deaths, retirement, promotions - but ask someone about a person they’ve lost and they’ll talk to you about the little quirks and idiosyncrasies, the silly stories, and the million and one small ways that person built a home in their heart.
The things we remember most clearly about old jobs aren’t the duties and titles that defined our roles but the inside jokes with coworkers, the smell of the building when we entered each morning, what that threadbare carpet felt like underfoot, or where the coffee machine was located.
When we speak of loss and devastation - fire, divorce, heartbreak - the little things tell the story; reveal the human experience behind the headline. The Barbie Christmas ornaments. Family picnics at the beach. Songs that can trigger an actual aching in your chest.
John Irving wrote in my favorite book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, “When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”
We are not the big things in life. We are an accumulation of all the small things. And the small things exist so that we can survive when big things happen - survive, and find joy again.
During the summer of 2020, when I was neck deep in the pit of my own emotional hell - I mean it; even the months following my mother’s death cannot compare to the Epic Clusterfuck of Pain that was 2020-2021 (RIP, my waistline, gray-free hair, all my wreaths and throw pillows) - I would find myself in emotional pain so great it triggered a physical reaction in my body. My chest ached and burned. My hips and neck ached. I did not sleep. My body vibrated with tension, like a human tuning fork. It was painful just to be in my own skin.
Some days it was heartbreak that gnawed at me - a mix of longing and loss, aimed in opposing directions, tearing my heart in two. Some days it was fear - terror beyond anything I’d known before. Terror of the devastation I was witnessing in my life and of my inability to control it or to stop it; the even greater terror of the question marks ahead; the immortal - and universal - dread of the unknown, which is nearly always worse than reality itself (except maybe when your house burns down during your divorce; that reality is actually worse than the fear of it).
I was keeping secrets that summer, secrets so huge that sometimes it was difficult to focus on anything except taking my next breath. Not from my ex-husband. He was my partner in crime that summer. He knew the storm that was battering my heart because I’d confessed much of it freely, needing to share my pain with the soul that shared my life and my home. The rest he’d taken by force: reading my journal, searching through my phone, tracking my phone records, and because - and I wouldn’t believe this if I hadn’t lived it - he’d taken a Masterclass on interrogation techniques when his manual searches didn’t yield the results he wanted - meaning there was nothing to find in my journal or my phone, so he was determined to mine the secrets from my heart.
He not only studied interrogation techniques from a former CIA operative - his subscription to Masterclass had actually been my Christmas gift to him that year - he smugly bragged about how successfully he’d been able to use them on me. “That’s how I got you to admit everything,” he told me one night, unable to stop himself from grinning. And he was right, I had shared it all - things I hadn’t even been ready to acknowledge to myself and found not compassion, but vindication. The experience left me feeling stripped bare and alone, the words wrung from my heart, leaving me alone and empty.
Looking back, it’s hard to understand why I didn’t start packing that night, but in the moment I believed I deserved that; I was so filled with shame I thought I deserved whatever punishment, whatever guilt he handed out.
These secrets I was keeping, the pain and fear and tension that defined the summer of 2020, would ultimately culminate in shame and heartbreak so great and so widespread that the hell it brought - to me, and to people I cared about - would one day make me look back on that summer as the calm before the storm. These secrets and the way I handled them, the fear that drove my every decision - until, finally, it didn’t - would dismantle every aspect of my life as I knew it, from my marriage and family life to my friendships and social circle (my house and possessions were about to go up in smoke too - literally - but fortunately even my wildest imaginings couldn’t have seen that one coming).
One hot July evening as I sat on the back patio, dread pooling in my stomach, trying to imagine what would happen to my life when the truth of what I felt and what I’d done, and what I needed to do made its way into the world - and it would soon get far worse, although I didn’t know it yet - I looked down at the planter boxes full of white petunias I’d set out that spring and thought how beautiful they looked. In that moment I realized, “No matter how bad it gets, I will always love summer afternoons on the patio. I will always love planting and tending my flowers.”
That became the mantra that carried me through when I did not know how to get from one moment to the next. When fear overwhelmed me, I tethered myself to the present, and to hope, with the same mantra:
No matter what happens, I will still delight in the sight of things growing in my garden.
No matter what happens, I will always love night swims.
No matter what happens, I will have John Irving, and the Golden Girls and Anne of Green Gables, and Beastie Boys and Harry Potter and books. I will always have books.
No matter what happens, I will always love sitting on the beach at night.
I will still love these things when my heart is broken. I will still love these things even if everyone I love leaves me. I love these things now even though I do not know how to love myself at this moment.
No matter how bad it gets, I will know joy. I will still be me, and life will go on.
The glass does matter, and so do all of the small, precious things that tie us to life; that make it worth living.
Every day of my life begins and ends with a list of things I am grateful for. I recount a list upon waking, and another when I lie down in bed. I never fail to have more blessings than I can count; never fail to find my well of gratitude spilling over, blessings coming one after another, each one scrambling to the front of the line ready to be acknowledged and accounted for.
Another favorite book of mine reads, “Life is short, but it is wide.” I say this to my children, to my friends, often. When we recount the big things in life, it’s impossible to believe the pace at which the days pass. “It seems like only yesterday!” We exclaim. Life is so short.
Oh, but it is wide. Wide, and filled with things that make it worth living.
The real business of living isn’t in the big things - not even the weddings and the births and the deaths, no matter how indelibly they mark us. It is in the planting of tulip bulbs and bedtime snuggles with my son and the exchanging of funny memes and Tik Tok videos with my daughter. It is hot tea, and belly laughs with my girls, and a soak in the hot tub after a hike - and it is the hike, and the admiration of my new hiking boots, and the playlist I sing along to on the way to and from each adventure.
Heartbreak feels like it will kill you. In the thick of it, we do not know how we will survive. I have stood on that icy, windswept cliff more times than I can count; more than some, maybe. And there have been times when I truly believed I would not, could not survive - at least, not as the version of myself I’d been before. Every time I found myself teetering on the edge of that cliff, the little things were what brought me back.
It’s late and I am closing up the laptop now - the one I bought in rose gold because just the sight of it makes me happy (it looks like me) and I am headed upstairs to apply at least three layers of night creams and serums before climbing into bed to watch Tik Tok ASMR sleep videos with a child on each shoulder (or possibly power washing or deep car cleaning videos tonight; we like to mix it up). I will silence my phone and set the alarm and we will snuggle together on a set of clean sheets under a feather duvet and we will sleep well and wake to live another day. And when we do, I will make that bed, put on my favorite sweats (and a new layer of creams and serums), make the coffee and give the hugs and be grateful for every step that leads me into the new day.
I cannot think of a better way to spend my life.
Wherever you are, whatever you love, may you have plenty of it today, and every day. May you notice it, and say thank you for it, and may it both save you and shape you as needed, when needed, just as it is meant to do. May your heart never break, but if it does, may the tiny joys of life make you whole again.
And may no one ever serve your martini in a plastic cup.