Monday, 2 May 2016

The 30 x 30 Nature Challenge

In January, I set myself a challenge to walk 161 kilometres/100 miles in a month.  I missed my goal by 6 kilometres but persisted with my walking.  I tried again, and by the end of February exceeded my goal.  It felt good to attain my goal and even better to get back into the habit of walking daily,

This month I'm participating in the 30 x 30 Nature Challenge promoted by  The goal is to spend 30 minutes a day in a natural setting for 30 consecutive days.  With my now-established walking habit, this should be a fairly straightforward challenge for me to meet.

Since the challenge is a relatively simple one for me to achieve, you may be wondering why I've undertaken it at all.  The answer is simple too:  I find peace, comfort, and calm in being in nature.  It encourages me to observe, appreciate, and value the beauty of my surroundings.  I thought it might do the same thing for you.

The photo above was taken yesterday, at Bright Angel Park, just a few kilometres from where I live. The park has long been a part of my life. My dad was one of many community members who contributed volunteer hours and fundraising work to its creation, and I've been going there ever since it first opened on Canada Day in 1967.  It's truly a wonderful place to be on any day of the year but on a warm sunny day like yesterday, it's pure magic.

I'm going to continue sharing photos of my daily nature breaks on Facebook at B on Balance, on Google+, and on Twitter,  I'm hoping you'll take part in the challenge with me and share your photos and stories too.  We can encourage one another to stick to our new routine and we can enjoy the gifts our time in nature gives us. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Winding Tracks and Unpaved Roads

I remember sitting next to my baby sister, in the back seat of my mom's battered green Austin as Mom drove down a country road with one arm extended out of the driver's side window, holding a baby bottle.  She'd packed it in a thermos of hot water so it would be ready when she needed it, but the water had done its job a little too efficiently and the milk was too warm for my sister to drink.  No problem!  "We'll just let the air cool it as we go."

That outing was just one of hundreds of rambles we took with Mom. If the weather was fair - and often even if it was not - she'd pack a lunch, bundle my brother, my sister, and I into the car, load her paints and easel in the trunk, and we'd set off adventuring.  

My mom could never resist taking the long way 'round.  Unpaved roads and winding tracks were siren calls to her; irresistible in their opportunities for exploration and discovery.  It was, perhaps, the reason she was so rarely punctual.  There was always something new to be seen; some great or small delight to be discovered.

It was an enviable way of growing up, really.  We would drive the country roads until we found a spot that caught Mom's eye and then scramble from the car to play - perhaps splashing on a river's edge, climbing trees, or chasing bugs and picking flowers in a field or clearing - enjoying the freedom just to be kids while Mom painted, or read, or simply watched us play.  A great many happy memories were made on those adventures and, in me at least, the seeds planted for rambling on my own.

Perhaps my nature predisposed me to love wandering for its own sake, perhaps it was my mom's example, or maybe a combination of the two but, whatever the reasons, I am a lover of the long way 'round.  

Highways, main roads, and direct paths to our destinations do, of course, have their places.  Sometimes when I'm tired or in need of the speediest route to my destination I take them too, but more often you'll find me budgeting twice the time I actually need in order to get somewhere just so that I can act on the impulse to explore a country road or take the scenic route.

My husband was a kindred spirit in that regard.  We had a standing date to go exploring once a week.  We'd pack a picnic lunch and set off without a destination.  Only two rules applied to these trips:  We'd spend no money other than the cost of fuel, and we drive no further than two hours distance from our home.  

We came to know our surroundings very well.  My guy was really good at noticing and admiring the small miracles all around us.  He had the gift of stillness - something I struggle with - and so could sit until the small creatures around us came to accept his presence.  Then, he would point them out to me.  He was an admirer of sunrises and sunsets, of full moons and twinkling stars, of spring flowers and bright fall foliage, and he shared that appreciation with me.  We saw amazing things together and shared some of our sweetest conversations while out on our weekend travels. 

Both my mom and my husband are gone now; passed away within three months of each other in 2015.  I miss them both terribly but I find comfort in myriad memories we made together, a great many of them by following winding tracks and unpaved roads.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

How I Measure Things

A while back, I took my old computer to the recycling centre.  It was an expensive machine in its day but by the time I dropped it off its programs and operating system were so outdated that its only value remained in what could be salvaged or re-used from its parts.  That gave me pause.  It made me think about investment versus return, not only in terms of that computer, but in terms of life in general.

Everything we acquire and everything we do requires an investment of life energy and, as I have learned all too well in the past couple of years, life energy is not something we should fritter away.  We need to invest it wisely.

I invested life energy in the hours of work required to earn the purchase price of my computer and in the effort required both to learn to use it and to maintain it.  In return, that computer provided me with a means to earn wages and it gave me many happy hours spent working on art projects and photos. During a long period of illness it also helped to keep me in touch with the world outside my walls.  All in all, my computer was a good return on the energy I'd expended to get it.

Other things have proven to be less satisfactory investments.  I've done work that has cost me joy or caused me angst without providing either satisfaction or sufficient earnings, and I've allowed some people to avail themselves of my knowledge or labour without doing me the courtesy of paying the favour forward. Both were poor investments of my life energy but I did at least gain the benefit of a lesson learned.

These days, I measure almost everything against this standard of energy investment and it has affected my approach to life a good deal more than I expected.  Sometimes it leads to curious and rather impractical decisions, like choosing to purchase yarn instead of food because a knitting project gives me more satisfaction over time than a steak dinner ever could, but it also leads to decisions that are both positive and life affirming, like choosing time outdoors instead of time in front of the TV, and spending time on friendships and family connections instead of wasting it on empty small talk with near-strangers.

I'm not sure where this change in parameters will eventually lead me.  I doubt my life energy standard of measurement is a formula for financial success, but it has certainly been good for my spirit.  It encourages me to take more risks than I used to, to be more generous with others, to be more accepting of differences, and to be more compassionate.  It leaves me with a tranquil heart at the end of the day, a clear conscience, and the knowledge that I haven't wasted my energy on things that make me or those around me unhappy.  

Life is short.  It flies by in the blink of an eye.  It's much too precious to waste on things that don't feed our souls.  It's been a hard lesson, to be sure, but one that is surely worth learning.

Monday, 28 March 2016

The Sentinel Tree

I love it on dark days
Or on light,
The sentinel tree outside my door,
But today I loved it even more
As sunlight gilt its branches bright
Against the clear blue sky.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

So Much More

I have my husband's ashes at home, packaged in a cardboard box, sitting on the top shelf of a bookshelf in what was so recently his bedroom. I keep looking at that box and wondering how such a small container can possibly hold him. He was, in so many ways, so much larger than life: big heart, big enthusiasms, big spirit. How could all of that fit in there?

My fella roared through life. He embraced it. He was childlike in his enthusiasms. He ate too much, he drank too much (until he didn't), and goodness knows he talked too much. When he loved someone, he loved them with his whole heart. When he was interested in something he gave it his entire attention.

Sometimes his enthusiasms drove me nuts - like when he filled the garage with more than 100 homemade clocks and every one of them ticked out of sync - but often (and for me these are the times that count) his enthusiasms demonstrated the sweetness of his spirit. He adored so many of the good things in life, and he celebrated them loudly and long. He swept those around him along on the tide of his delight.

So, why am I telling you this?

Because what's in that box fits in there because it is just a single, small part of what my husband was.

We are all much more than the sum of our parts.

Our bodies are just vehicles. They carry us through the experiences of our lives but they are just a means of transportation. They need to be maintained, to be sure, and kept in good working order, but we need to live both in them and outside them. We need to adventure, and love, and enjoy, and admire. We need to laugh, and to cry. We need to imagine, and to dream. We need to see wonders in the small things around us, and in the great. We need to grab onto all that life brings us and experience it as best we can.

Bodies break down.

Goodbyes are inexpressibly hard.

In the end, memories and experiences and love are what carry us through.

So take good care of your vehicle but don't obsess about it. Don't miss the journey because you're worried that you might break down along the way. Grab life two-fisted, mistakes and hurts and annoyances notwithstanding.

You are more than the sum of your parts and you always, always will be.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Fake It 'Til You Make It

Most weekday mornings I write a "Good Morning" post at A Word From Aunt B and most weekday evenings I write a "Good Night" post on my Facebook page. The tone of these pieces is deliberately calming, the language and flow of the wording deliberately soothing, the subject matter deliberately positive.

I'm not always calm when I sit down to compose my posts.  I don't always exist in a zen-like state.  My life is just as crazy and disorganised and stressful as anyone else's.  

My purpose in writing my morning and evening pieces is to practice a form of meditation.  They are like mental yoga for me:  stretching the muscles of my mind while at the same time focusing my attention and calming my spirit.

When we're feeling stressed or anxious or grumpy there may well be merit in trying to "fake it 'til we make it;" acting the way we wish to feel. Research suggests that when people are feeling sad or stressed the simple act of intentionally pasting a smile on their face actually works to improve their mood.  Smiling stimulates the brain to release mood improving neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrin, which work to reduce or balance stress related hormones.  It also stimulates increased production of endorphins, which improve our mood and can even increase our resistance to pain. Likewise, assuming a more confident, open posture appears to result in increased feelings of self assurance.

Certainly, the practice of writing calming, positive words reduces my level of stress.  By focusing my mind on the peaceful, restorative things in my surroundings, I am able to slow myself down, draw deeper breaths, and find a quieter place within myself. I may not always be calm when I start to write, but the process of sharing soothing words leaves me feeling more peaceful when I'm done.

I'm not saying that fake it 'til you make it will always work.  Many troubles are bigger than a smile (no matter how wonderful), a confident stance (no matter how bold), or a few calming words (no matter how well intended) can cure, but it's a worthwhile method with which to address the smaller concerns of every-day.  

So, the next time you feel your shoulders inching up towards your ears, the next time you're nervous about an interview or meeting, the next time you find yourself gritting your teeth rather than losing your temper, consider it.  Try pasting a smile on your face, or standing up straight with your shoulders back, or sharing a silly joke, or writing a couple of paragraphs about something that calms you.

It's worth a try, right?  At the very least you'll have paused for long enough to give yourself a small break before moving on.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Give a Little, Take a Little

Recently, a friend and I went for a walk in one of my favourite parks.  We visit there often, walking familiar trails along the rocky shoreline, then back through the shaded woods, finishing at salt water once again.  

On this particular walk, near the end of the path through the woods, we found a new surprise.  Someone had carefully crafted a fairy house, shaped to fit the hollows of a large fir tree.  

It really was charming:  A little curved door and an arched window, calked with living moss, and bearing a sign that said "Give a Little, Take a Little."  

I unlatched the tiny door and found all sorts of treasures inside: Feathers, pretty shells, heart shaped stones, notes, and photos, and little greeting cards. 

I was charmed both by the idea of the fairy house, and by the fact that so many passers-by had chosen to participate.  

There is something to be learned from this gift in the forest:  

It speaks volumes about our desire to reach out to others, to feel part of a community, to share what is beautiful to us.  

It speaks about our ability to respect the creativity of others, and to use our creativity to bring moments of brightness to friends and strangers alike.  

And it speaks to our understanding of need to give when we can, and to accept gifts with grace when we need them.

I have trouble with the accepting part, and I know that a lot of other people do too.  I find great joy in helping others but when I'm offered help myself it embarrasses me and hurts my pride.  I feel shame that I can't surmount every challenge on my own.

Pride is a good thing.  It helps us to carry on in times of trouble.  It helps us to retain our dignity.  It helps us to be self reliant and to do our best to rise above our circumstances.

But pride can be a bad thing too.  There are times in every person's life when they truly do need a helping hand; sometimes in the form of emotional support and sometimes in the form of tangible assistance, like help with food, or shelter, or medical care.  When you are stretched beyond your ability to cope by yourself and pride prevents you from accepting a hand up, your pride is working against you.

Perhaps the key to finding balance between pride and need can be found in the example of that little fairy house in the woods.  When you're doing well and reach out to help others who are struggling, you're leaving a treasure in the fairy house.  When you're struggling and in need of some caring, it's okay to take a what you need from the trove.  In doing so, you're honouring the kindness and generosity of those who left the gifts, and you're receiving some small repayment for kindnesses that you, yourself have done in the past.

So, please, if you are in need right now, do reach out for help. There are generous hearts and caring arms all around you, reaching out to help hold you up.  Don't let pride get in your way. You'll repay what you've received - and more - when you're able, by offering your own gifts to others.  

Give a little, take a little:  In the greater equation, it all balances out in the end.