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.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A Work in Progress - A Rule Of Threes

Look:  I'm a work in progress just like everyone else.

I want to lead a healthier lifestyle, but I still say "Yes, please" to a slice of chocolate cake.

I want to be more frugal, but then I splurge on extras at the fabric store.

I want to slow down but, instead, I take on more work.

I want to simplify, but I resist letting go of things.

I spend a lot of time feeling disappointed with myself for not doing a better job of attaining my goals.

I have learned something along the way though:  I do better at moving forward if I can break my big, grand, I-want-to-be-better-at-everything goals down into a series of smaller, more attainable ones.

With that in mind, I'm working these days on a rule of threes:  Three simple goals, each broken down into three smaller things.

Morning and evening I pause to list at least three things I'm grateful for.

Each day I remove or discard at least three items from my home.

Each day I make a "to do" list of only three items.  One chore at home, one chore at work, and one creative project.

The list has been the greatest challenge.  There are so many things that demand my attention each day it's hard choose just a few. (I'm sure the same is true for you.)  It's a valuable lesson, though, because it requires that I set priorities.

The great thing about this rule of threes business is that it's a place of beginning, not one of limitations.  It's okay to do more:  To be thankful for more things, to get rid of more things, to accomplish more things than I have on my list.

I do that almost every day.

On few days when I accomplish only my three things, though, and not any extra, I still feel okay about it.  I've reached my goal without falling short.  And I've accomplished that goal day, after day, after day.

And THAT'S a good feeling.

Really, really good.

Because I am a work in progress

but at least I am progressing.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Thirty-Three Years

Today is our wedding anniversary: 33 years.

When I look at my wedding pictures, I seem impossibly young.

I was 23 when I married my fella.  He was 42.  A golden anniversary may not be a likelihood for us, but I think we've done quite well, don't you?  A marriage of more than 30 years is not so commonplace any more.

I've thought a lot about what to say here about our years together.

It would be dishonest to say they've all been good.

We had a tough time adjusting to one another at first.  My stubbornness and independence didn't mix well with his one-generation-older views about marriage. But we bumped along, frequently clashing, and somehow made it through to the next part.

My fella worked on a ship and was away from home for weeks at a time.  My independence worked to my advantage during those absences, but it wasn't always easy to adjust to one another again when he came home again.

Departures posed their own set of challenges and anxieties, often marked by fiery clashes between the two of us.

There have been illnesses and hardships.

There has been deep sadness and great joy.

Some years we grew together, other years apart.

There were long periods of time when we really didn't like each other.

Sometimes it seemed the only thing that held us together was the fact that marriage is not just about emotion; it's a business partnership too.  The financial consequences of separation kept us together when emotional strife might have torn us asunder.

There have been good times, too: lots and lots of them.

Times so joyous that it seemed my heart would burst from the sheer magnitude of it.

Moments so tender they made me cry.

Struggles surmounted and discoveries made together, trips taken and stories told, company kept and grand-babies to hold.

So, so good all of that, that in the end it outweighed the bad stuff, making it all worthwhile.

So what can I say about our years together?

That life is hard and times are often difficult.

That when things are bad they can seem very bad indeed.

That the bad years may well outnumber the good but, for me at least, it's been more than worth it to tough it out.

Because, when the good times are so very good, love's light can illuminate even our darkest hours.

Turns out Will Shakespeare had it right:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved, 
I never writ, nor no (wo)man ever loved. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Making the Best of Things

The internet is a lot like the humans who created it and now help it grow.  There's good stuff and bad. There's personal stuff and business stuff and hard stuff and fun stuff.  There's encouragement and hope.  There's cynicism and unkindness.  There's a sea of information, on any subject a person could imagine.

The internet is vast and expanding at an exponential rate, as fast as our thoughts, and ideas, and causes can carry it.

Everything I might say or do or think or know or imagine or share has already been said or done or thought or known or imagined or shared by someone else.  Within the vast universe of binary code that is the internet, the zeros and ones that encode the small amount I write are less significant than even a single speck of dust within the big, wide physical universe around us.

It was that thought that caused me to step back from blogging. If it's all be said or done or created or thought about and discussed, what's the point in saying anything at all?  I needed to take a break from all this on line stuff and re-engage with the real life world around me, and to restore my sense of proportion.

During my quiet months, something new occurred to me:

With so much information available to us, what really becomes important is not what is said or shared, but the intention behind the act of saying or sharing it.

I know, I know:  It's been thought, and said and written before.  

The newness (to me) in this idea comes in its application to my writing.  I'm returning to blogging because, although nothing I may say is new or revolutionary, I'm saying it out of my belief in the importance of positive thought, compassionate listening, and encouraging speech.

Actions taken or words spoken out of anger, hate, bitterness, or envy bring anger, hate, bitterness, or envy in return.  Negativity feeds on negativity.

Actions taken or words spoken out of hope, compassion, inspiration, or gratitude, bring positive change in return.  

We can't always control our circumstances, but we can control our responses to them and, in sharing positive thoughts and actions, we offer encouragement and inspiration to others along the way.

There are lots and lots of ways to make the best of our circumstances:

  • We can live frugally, making the best of our resources.
  • We can live respectfully, seeing the best in others and in our environment, and honouring what they have to share.
  • We can live gratefully, being thankful of the many "bests" each day has to offer us.
  • We can live pragmatically, accepting that there are some things we cannot change and seeking the best way to live within those circumstances.
  • We can be dreamers.  There are always things we can make better or grow into.  
  • We can practice empathy, striving to understand what others are experiencing and accepting that their "best" may be different from our own.
  • We can act with kindness and compassion, helping to bring out the best in ourselves and in those around us.

Making the best of things really does make things better  

and, while I know that none of us are at our best every moment of any day, we can all benefit from making a conscious effort to adopt a "making the best of it" attitude.

That's why I'm blogging again.  

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Yellow Violets: A Life Lesson From My Mom

When my mom was in her late thirties, she decided to return to teaching.  

Mom had been a teacher early in her marriage, but by the time she contemplated returning to the classroom she'd been away from teaching for more than a decade.  During that time teacher training requirements had changed drastically, from a two-year program at Normal School to a four-year university degree.  

In order to return to work, Mom had to complete her degree and, in order enter university, she had first to acquire some high school prerequisites she lacked. 

Among those required high school courses was biology.  My mom is an artist by nature, with little inclination toward the sciences, but she took a workman-like attitude to that biology course, determined to get through it with good grades.    

One of the biology class assignments required that students collect ten wild plants and then present their collection correctly labeled with their botanical names and information about their attributes and habitat.  Predictably, the students accomplished this by gathering wild plants and either pressing them or drying them in silica gel, then attaching them to boards on which they had written their cultural information.  

All except my mom.

Mom took her easel and oil paints to a favourite local park and made a painting of the shaded landscape beneath the forest canopy.  Once the landscape painting was completed, she carefully added in detailed images of the wild plants she intended to include in her project.  When the painting was finished, Mom made a line drawing of the painted image with the plants numbered and then detailed in a carefully lettered legend that provided the information required for the assignment.

I loved that painting, not least because a few sunny yellow violets stood like a bright exclamation point in the shadowed right hand corner of the foreground, the only spot of vivid colour among the whites and greens of the other plants my mom had chosen to describe. Those yellow violets were among her favourite spring wildflowers and she had highlighted them beautifully within the composition.

I have no idea what happened to that painting. It disappeared into the the tides of passing time, life events, and moves to new addresses.  It remains in my memory though, as clear as if it were framed on the wall in front of me, because I loved both the image itself and what I learned from it.

In choosing to fulfill her biology class assignment in a way that suited her artistic nature, my mom taught me something really important:  Life doesn't always allow us the luxury of doing things we enjoy but, if we are willing to invest a little extra thought and effort, we can still find the means to make whatever work life may bring us uniquely our own.  It's a lesson I've been thankful for again and again. 

It's the season of the yellow violet right now.  They're blooming in the woodlands, spangling the shaded undergrowth with their sunny faces.  Every time I see them I'm reminded again of my good fortune.  To have a mother who cares so deeply about fostering and sustaining creativity, a parent who has inspired her children to remain true to themselves while making their way in the world, is gift beyond measure.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Be a Fearless Artist

Have you ever watched little kids make art?  You put the materials in front of them and they dive in with abandon, fearlessly marking up their paper, cutting things in pieces, mixing paint, and sprinkling glitter. They are absolutely unconcerned with success or failure, and although they will show you their work when they're done with it, they do so knowing that you'll like it.

Then, as kids get older, they start to compare their work to that of others, and to preconceived standards taught them at school, on line, on TV, in books, and by well meaning family and friends.  Soon they become self conscious about their work, pointing up its flaws rather than its virtues. They become hesitant to even begin a project, not wanting to mess up that clean, white sheet of paper. By the time they're adults, most have convinced themselves that they're "not artistic."

So what about the artists who do continue to make art even as adults?  Are they not self conscious about their work?
I'm pretty sure that most artists experience some hesitation before picking up a brush, or playing a note, or writing that first sentence, but they do it anyway. 

I know that they're often more critical of their work than any objective viewer might be, but they do it anyway. 

They do it because the need to make art is so strong within them that they can't not do it.

That need for artistic expression lies at the very heart of what makes us human.  For as long as humans have been human, we've been making art: embellishing ourselves, our tools, and our surroundings; striving to make things more beautiful, to tell stories, and to reflect the beauty around us. 

Our artists are those who feel that need for expression most acutely.

When an artist creates new work, it's very nice if others like it but even if no one at all cares for it the piece has still served it's purpose: The expression of creativity.

Experiencing art is one of the most intensely individual things we do. Each one of us will view a work uniquely, through lenses coloured by our personal experiences and taste. Whether we like that work or not, it will cause us to think and experience new things and those new thoughts and experiences are at the core of art's value.

So, why am I telling you all of this?

I want you to make art fearlessly, putting aside the fears and reservations you've learned growing up.  

I want you to approach your paper, your musical instrument, your camera, your keyboard, or whatever medium you choose to work with, with abandon.  

I want you to dive into the creative process with child-like enthusiasm; without concerning yourself over success or failure. 

I want you to put aside comparisons of "good" and "bad" and just enjoy the wonder of the creative process.  

I want you to put pen, pencil, paint to paper, to pick up an instrument, to dance in the kitchen, to carve or assemble sculpture, to sing loudly, to write your story, to make your quilt, to grow your garden or to piece together your mosaic.

I want you to do these things with no thought for who might see or hear them, but just for the joy of doing it.  

If you don't like what you've created, throw it away or - better still - use it as a stepping stone to make something new.


Because creativity feels good. It's a meditative process that allows us to clear our minds of the stresses of the day. It makes us happy.  

Creative thought in one area of our lives usually leads to creative thought in other areas too. We become more adaptive - better problem solvers - through fostering our creativity.

I want you to experience art made by others in the same way:  

Step outside the work of artists you already know and love.  Look at and listen to genres outside your comfort zone.  Encounter new and different things with an open mind.  

You may not like the new art you experience, and that's okay: No permanent injury was ever done by looking at a painting you didn't care for, or by listening to a song you don't like. No one ever died as a result of watching a bad play.  

But here's the thing:  You may like some of those things too.  You may discover a passion for some new art form that you'd never have experienced if you weren't open to new work.

Go forth. 

Be fearless. 

Be creative. 

Have fun doing it.

You can thank me later.

Friday, 10 January 2014

A Story About Friendship and Some Advice About Grief

photo by Debra Hughes

Sometimes life can take us in the most unexpected directions.

When I married, we moved to a new town and I went in search of work.  I applied for a job advertised in our new town's paper, providing home care for a 13-month-old girl with spina bifuda .

I didn't give much thought to her disability at the time: Kids are kids to me and I enjoy them all.  I needed work and taking care of a little girl in her home five days a week seemed well suited to both my temperament and my budget.

Cheri was a sweet child: tiny, bright eyed, already talking, and very curious about the world around her. She readily accepted me into her world and embraced me with an unqualified love I couldn't help but return. Very quickly, she became a child of my heart; as dear to me as my own family.

Cheri grew, as children do, and went off to school.  I took full time work elsewhere, but still my bond with Cheri and her parents continued. I provided respite care for Cheri, and Cheri's mother Anna became one of my closest friends.  We were often in and out of each other's houses.

We shared happy times and challenging ones:  Cheri's health problems were many and complicated.  When Cheri was well, we enjoyed adventures, and quiet times too. When she was ill, we supported one another and helped to provide the care and reassurance she required.

So it was that a chance reply to a classified ad grew into a great gift of love.  I am more grateful for it than I can begin to tell you here.

At the end of November a couple of years ago, when she was 28 years old, Cheri's poor body could no longer withstand the many demands her health problems had made upon it.  She was admitted to hospital one last time and, after some days, a decision was made to take her off life support.  I was honoured to be with her when she slipped away.  

I can only imagine the magnitude of pain one suffers upon losing a child.  Anna was a brave woman, and quite stoic, but it overwhelmed her.  She worked very hard to find away to carry on after her loss but confessed to me that it felt like a part of her was missing.  For 28 years she'd centered her life around her daughter, and now that center was gone.

Almost exactly a year after Cheri died, Anna became very ill.  She was admitted to hospital, diagnosed with anemia and diabetes, given meds and - once she was strong enough to manage alone - sent home.  She didn't respond as expected to the medications and began to experience terrible pain in her legs and back. Further tests revealed that cancer had spread so pervasively throughout her body that it was not possible to treat it, or even to determine where it had begun.

Four months later my dear friend was gone.

I am struggling with the loss of these two women, both so dear to me.  Even though it's been more than two years since Cheri's death, and almost a year since Anna's passing, grief still ambushes me at the most unexpected times.  

They are so often on my mind.  I'll see an eagle fly by and think "Oh, Cheri would so love to take a picture of that," or be walking the trail beside the river and think "Anna would enjoy the sight of the mist rising up the canyon."  I'll make a recipe that Anna shared with me and feel her presence in the kitchen beside me.

I'm sad.  

I miss them.  

I'm sharing the story of my friends because I think that we, as a society, are very bad at grieving.  

Grief embarrasses us.  

We avert our eyes from it.  

We try to jolly people out of it.  

We encourage those who are grieving to refrain from showing strong emotion.

We need to do better.  Here are some things that you can do to help friends and loved ones who are grieving:

Reminisce.  Share stories both happy and sad about the person you're missing.  It'll make you feel better and it'll help others too.

Mention the person who's gone by name.  It may make people sad. It may make them cry.  That's okay.  It's part of the process of working through loss. 

Be a patient listener.  It doesn't matter if you've heard a reminiscence a thousand times before.  The teller is finding comfort in sharing it again.  In listening, you're giving them the gift of compassion and an acknowledgement that the person remembered is still important to you too.

Understand that everyone grieves differently.  Don't tell people how they should be acting.  Don't treat their actions as inappropriate. Don't assume that they need a hug, or that they want to be left alone.  Listen to what they're saying and pay attention to their particular needs.

Understand that grieving doesn't have a time table. Grief peaks at different times for different people.  For some, it's immediate and intense.  For others, it's delayed.  In either case, grief can revisit people for a long time after a loss. Don't treat it as being less because a person's loss is growing more distant.  It isn't less to them.

Be there for the long haul.  It's comforting for people to know three months, six months, a year, or many years down the road that you still remember and recognize their loss.

Grief is hard, both for the person grieving and for those around them.  It's painful to watch someone struggling with loss, but a little empathy and a mindful response can go a long way toward providing comfort.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Walk a Mile (or a Hundred) In My Shoes

Last month, Slapdash Mom posted a 100 Miles in December challenge.  I like to walk and needed some motivation to get moving so I decided to participate.  

It was just the thing I needed:  I completed 175.2 km/108.9 miles for the month and learned a few things along the way.

The first thing I learned was that in order to accomplish any fitness goal I need to actively set aside a specific quantity of time towards it in my schedule.  My life, like everyone else's, is busy and - not being a lover of fitness activities - I find it easy to fill my minutes and hours without giving a thought to exercise. By the last week of the month, it became apparent to me that I'd not set aside enough time on a daily basis and I ended up taking some long hikes on my days off in order to make up the kilometers needed to meet my goal.  I've learned my lesson (I hope) and now know to schedule those minutes into my day.  I even enter them in my calendar so that my computer will send me a reminder!

The second thing I learned was that being accountable is a good thing for me.  I posted my walks on my personal Facebook page and, knowing that I'd published my goal for my friends and family to see, I felt obligated to meet it.

The third and most important thing I learned was that walking on a regular basis made me feel a whole lot better.  The comparatively relaxed pace allowed me time to look around me and enjoy my surroundings.  I felt less stress and got to appreciate the beauty of my little corner of the world.  On a purely physical level, it loosened up muscles stiff from too much sitting, aided my digestion, and improved the quality of my sleep. I've been struggling with high blood pressure and my doctor feels that regular exercise is helping with that too.

With all of that in mind, I've decided to walk at least another hundred miles this month and I thought I'd invite you to walk along with me.  I can't offer any prizes or monetary rewards for joining in, but I do think that we'll all benefit from doing this together.  The more the merrier, right?

One hundred miles = 161 kilometers.

Assuming we're starting today, to meet the goal in January, our walks will need to average 3.27 miles/5.27 kilometers per day.

I'll post my kilometers daily on my B on Balance Facebook page and on Twitter.  I hope you'll post yours in the comments too. Let's cheer each other on!