World Kindness (Every) Day

Image courtesy of https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/world-kindness-day

This will be a short post, as I have a virus and my head is on strike, but I did want to mention that yesterday was World Kindness Day, and that’s something I really believe in.

In a world with a lot of daily stressors, it’s easy to be grumpy, short-tempered and so wrapped up in your own issues that you forget to take other people into consideration. I think we’re all guilty of it from time to time in varying degrees, but sometimes you run into a person who is so toxic to deal with that it taints your entire day.

My best antidote to that is to go out of my way to be kind to someone. I’ll make someone a nice cup of tea, or make a point of chatting with a stressed store clerk to make them smile, or give a Tim Horton’s gift card to a homeless person so they can get a hot meal. These small acts of kindness are my way of putting some good karma back into the world.

If each of us can take the time to be kind, to give someone a break or the benefit of the doubt, even just to smile at people, we could make the world a much nicer place.

In the words of Brooke Jones, Vice President, The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, ” Kindness starts with one. One smile. One compliment. One cup of coffee. One conversation.” Find out more about being kind at the Random Acts of Kindness website.

Label removal

I hate labels. As soon as I get a new item home, whether its a piece of clothing or new towels, I cut off the label — it’s a tacked-on piece of cloth, or worse, plastic, that just annoys the heck out of me.

Yesterday I saw the title of an article on the BBC website, my daily news source, that produced a similar feeling: Emma Watson: ‘I’m happy to be single, I call it being self-partnered, and it really struck me as a ridiculous concept. No disrespect to Emma, it’s the idea that we have to label ourselves as something. Why can’t we just ‘be’?

Why should it matter to society what status we have? Whether we’re in a relationship or not, have children or not, what age we are, what our sexual orientation is – none of that should matter or be anyone else’s concern.

We live in a society of both oversharing and judginess. People feel the need to be validated by the opinions of thousands of people they don’t actually know, while internet trolls seem to take great pleasure in being mean about it.

Having grown up in the post-war era, when wealthy families were rare and most people were just working quietly away to make ends meet, people were just themselves, without connotations attached. I went to a high school where we dressed in uniforms, which really did democratize the student body. It also removed any anxiety about what you were going to wear the next day. We were aware of who the wealthier students were, but that never manifested in a way that made students from lower-income families feel threatened. I was one of the latter. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, and I understood that, and appreciated when they were able to splurge on something special.

There were a couple of cliques of students who thought they were cool, but – and maybe our class was singular in this – everyone had plenty of people to hang out with, regardless of their interests, and I never saw anyone get bullied or shunned.

Now ostentatious wealth seems to be the norm – massive homes that flaunt their size and expense, wealthy people spending ridiculous amounts that could feed a family for several years on art or memorabilia, or on luxury travel where everything must transpire perfectly or the trip isn’t worth taking.

My hubby and I were on safari in Botswana a number of years ago to celebrate a milestone anniversary. We chose a mobile camping safari that you could perhaps call early glamping – the camp staff transported and set up our tents in each location, cooked our food, etc., so all we had to do was show up and enjoy the experience – but we used communal toilet tents, slept on cots and fell asleep to the sounds of hippos grunting down by the river. We loved it and had an absolute blast being so immersed in the African bush.

In our final game reserve in the Chobe region of northern Botswana, one day our group passed a safari vehicle from the most exclusive (and expensive) lodge in the area, and all the guests looked bored.

How sad, that these people apparently had so much money that they couldn’t appreciate the remarkable experience of being in the middle of Africa, surrounded by prowling lions and noisy baboons and big herds of elephants thudding down to the river’s edge to bathe – an experience that many people will never get to have. What a waste!

Everyone seems to feel the need to label themselves publicly, urged on by the media, who thrive on drama. A recent trend I’ve seen is for business signatures to include what your preferred pronouns are, e.g. “she/her/hers”. If we’re to be truly inclusive someday, we shouldn’t even have to specify.

Labelling people tends to create an awful ‘us vs them’ mentality. I’m married, you’re not; I’m straight, you’re not; I’m wealthy, you’re not; I’m xxx religion and you’re not so you’ll be going straight to Hell… So many troubles have arisen from a separation of identity, when we should all just be creatures sharing the same beautiful planet, and acknowledging the importance of every creature on this planet. Maybe then we’ll take better care of it.

Do you remember when…?

I love the smell of fallen leaves in the morning.

It’s straight out of my childhood. I always looked forward to the return to school, Thanksgiving turkey, and, best of all, Halloween!

As an adult I only have Thanksgiving turkey and Halloween in my life, but I have a great deal of nostalgia around all of them.

People seem to either love or despise nostalgia — I know people who feel it’s just indulging in sentimentality — but psychologists have done studies around it, and results have shown that there are benefits to spending some time in pleasant reminiscing:

  • The boost to your mood when recalling a positive experience. My hubby and I often find ourselves laughing at something from our travels that happens comes to mind from something that’s just occurred. It’s really special to us that we’ve shared those experiences together, and those memories have on occasion been a bulwark against something stressful that’s happening in the present.
  • Researchers found a strong social component, where people experiencing nostalgia were more motivated to connect with other people. It may be for the often communal aspect of the shared memories.
  • When we’re reminiscing, it’s akin to reading or watching a good story, but better because it’s from our own lives and actually happened to us.
  • For the elderly, who can suffer from feelings of isolation, it may inspire them to share their experiences and the wisdom they’ve gained.

Autumn is my favourite season, and Halloween my favourite ‘holiday’, dating back to my childhood and a time when as kids we were innocently and fully free to enjoy it. It was the one night where we were allowed to prowl the streets without a parent in tow, and we made the most of it.

My neighbourhood was lined with trees, and as the air got cooler and the beautiful red and gold leaves began to drift to the ground, shuffling through them on the way to school every day, breathing in the earthy smell and crunching them underfoot, became an annual fall ritual. I would often pick up an especially ‘perfect’ leaf to press between book pages and keep in my room.

The scent of grapes would also fill the air – a lot of people had grapevines in their yards at the time, so it’s an aroma that instantly takes me back to childhood, although it’s increasingly rare.

Each grade at school always put on a Halloween party, and, at least for me, weeks of planning went into my costume. My mom had a trunk full of old clothes, which she readily helped me transform into a variety of outfits.

Anticipation on October 31st was intense – the daylight hours couldn’t pass fast enough. We would put our costumes on and wait feverishly for dusk to fall – it was an unwritten rule to not start trick-or-treating before dark! – and for jack-o-lanterns to come to life on front porches as the streetlights came on. As soon as that happened, our parents would let us out the door for a night of adventure.

We always made a beeline to any places giving out candied apples or popcorn balls, and then, in the mysterious darkness that could be concealing who knew what unearthly creatures and the chill breezes that felt like the tap of the grave on our shoulder, we would go up and down the streets, deciding which houses looked welcoming.

There were always a few houses whose inhabitants were either not kid-friendly, or (to us children) downright creepy. If the former, we didn’t bother visiting them, but if the latter and there was a pumpkin out, we would have a discussion as to whether we felt safe going up to the front door; sometimes we did, with some trepidation, but sometimes the risk outweighed the possibility of more loot.

Once we’d completed our circuit, and usually with a full pillowcase of candy, we’d head toward our respective homes to dump out the contents onto a table and see what goodies we’d accumulated. It was always a great night, and I regret strongly that children now can’t have the same thrill.

My nostalgia for those experiences has been a strong influence on creating a spooky effect for the kids that come to our door trick-or-treating. They all seem to enjoy getting a little scared, and their parents get a kick out of it as well. I didn’t realize how much the children enjoyed the creepy contact lenses I’ve worn with certain costumes until a parent commented once that his kids look forward to it every year.

My hubby helps me decorate our front entrance but allows me to do the dressing-up and hand out the candies. He’s invariably lurking in the background, though, to watch the kids react. We’ve put out a variety of decorations, including some large stone gargoyles that we added glowing red eyes to, and there’s usually fog swirling through the bushes and along the ground. Our house has a split entryway, and the kids have even commented on the interior Halloween décor that they can see behind me as I’m putting treats in their bags.

Halloween allows us to experience some chills in a safe way, and allows both children and adults to step out of our normal lives and become something entirely different for a night. It doesn’t have the emotional baggage or responsibilities of Christmas, and it gives us an opportunity for some good, silly fun.

The proliferation of Halloween-themed cooking contests on the Food Network have instituted a new annual tradition for me, and I now have a well-decorated Halloween tree on our dining-room buffet, but you might still sometimes catch me romping through a pile of raked autumn leaves, to my hubby’s combined dismay and amusement. Enjoy your autumn, and I hope you get as big a kick out of Halloween next week as I do.

“God preserve my sanity”

“3 MAY. Bistriz. Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning…”

So begins, innocuously, one of the most famous horror stories in history – Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

The cover of the first edition, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545797

Stories about vampires had been around for a long time, but Stoker’s foray into the horror genre seemed to enrapture the Victorian psyche, perhaps tapping into the repressions of the era’s morality.

Victorians enjoyed a revival of gothic literature, and were also fascinated by mysticism. Spiritualism, brought  over from America around 1852 by an American medium, Mrs. Hayden,  who conducted séances in London for the fashionable, gave hope to people who’d likely lost a loved one by the age of 35, the average life expectancy at the time.

By the time Stoker wrote his story, the Potato Famine had resulted in over a million deaths, the 1848 cholera epidemic had killed 52,000, and the British had been fighting in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Small wonder that death was prevalent on Victorian minds.

Bram Stoker was born in Dublin in the middle of the Potato Famine, and apparently retained memories of the  mass deaths. He was himself bedridden throughout his early childhood from an unknown illness, from which he eventually recovered, but he wrote that during that time, “I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years.”

Trinity College Library, Dublin

He became interested in the theatre while a student at Trinity College in Dublin, became a theatre critic and eventually managed the Lyceum Theatre in London for his friend Henry Irving. He travelled widely as a result, although he never actually visited the wilds of Transylvania, which he would delineate in atmospheric detail in his sensational novel.

“Beyond…rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered…”

Stoker also began to write his own stories, and novels. He had met Ármin Vámbéry, a Slovak-Jewish writer and traveller who shared legends from the Carpathian mountains, inspiring Stoker to research in more detail, especially the folklore around vampires.

The concept of a creature who transcended death would have appealed to Victorians as much as Spiritualism. Stoker wasn’t the first Brit to write about vampires – John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician who was at the rented house in Switzerland when Byron challenged the group to write a ghost story (inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the other great horror story in history), came up with The Vampyre.

The Vampyre by John Polidori, Public Domain, British Library

Dracula wasn’t greatly successful when published in 1897, although reviewers and fellow authors – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft – liked it, and the book never made much revenue for Stoker. It wasn’t until Hollywood introduced vampires into popular culture, beginning in 1922 with the silent classic Nosferatu, that the public began to lap up the idea of blood-drinking immortals, and our fascination with the concept continues to this day.

Goth fans have been congregating in Whitby, England – a featured location in Stoker’s story – for 25 years for the well-known Whitby Goth Weekend in late October, and vampire enthusiasts can spend Halloween at parties in Transylvania, but now you can go to the source in Dublin. The city has embraced one of its most famous legacies with Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula Experience, which, as a dedicated Halloween enthusiast, I hauled my hubby to straight off when we were in Ireland a couple of weeks ago!

My mother was actually born in Transylvania, in and around Cluj-Napoca, so you might say that I come by my interest in vampires naturally. Some day I’d love to do that Halloween-party thing on Halloween, but the opportunity to visit an attraction tied to Bram Stoker in Dublin was too good to pass up.

You can book tickets online, and you should: the attraction is only available on a limited selection of dates, and seating is limited. As it happened, it was running the day that we arrived in Dublin – it was meant to be.

Attendees meet at a specified point, a fitness club in the Clontarf area, across the street from where Bram Stoker was born, and are then walked over to the ‘castle’. The show is an entertaining fusion of actors getting you into the spirit of things while leading you through recreated eerie medieval stone passageways, and a stage performance that’s essentially an illusionist show which interacts with the audience. I won’t spoil the story for you, in case you’re able to attend in person, but it was all very well done, and a really fun evening during Halloween season. There are numerous items of actual memorabilia from Stoker’s life, and if you purchase VIP tickets you get some swag as well; please note that there is no shop on the premises to just buy the swag separately.

Hallway of historical info and artifacts, Castle Dracula experience
Scene from the stage show, Castle Dracula experience
Yours truly, in Dracula’s throne

If you’ve never read the original Dracula book, I highly recommend it – it’s very well written and very atmospheric. You can buy it in stores or read it on Project Gutenberg.

Also watch the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi – it would have been sensationally creepy at the time.

Movie posters, Castle Dracula Experience

Dracula has gone on to inspire countless vampire novels and movies, endless kids’ Halloween costumes, and some great music. It is a worthy inclusion in your Halloween entertainment.

“But my very feelings turned to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings…”

Chills and things that go bump in the night – Live!

Calling all Halloween aficionados: there are all kinds of places that are happy to creep you out around the world.

I really got into this kind of travel a few years ago when I discovered that Sleepy Hollow is a real place! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a classic eerie tale by Washington Irving, has always been my favourite Halloween-season story ever since watching Disney’s delightful animated version called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Washington Irving was inspired by a real ghost story in what was then the wilds of Tarry Town, New York, along the Hudson River, where Irving had spent some of his youth.

Irving became arguably the most famous American writer of his day. He was a multi-talented man — architect (he built his own house, Sunnyside), diplomat for the American government, mentor to many other contemporary writers. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which you can tour, and his memory is so revered in that area that his headstone gets rubbed constantly by visitors and has had to be replaced more than once.

Montgomery Place Estate, Hudson River Valley

The Hudson River Valley was the summer recreation spot for the wealthy of New York City, as well as a hub of the American Revolutionary War and the inspiration for the Hudson River School of painters, so there’s a lot of history to be visited. The entire area has also embraced Irving’s gothic legacy and becomes a Halloween-themed playground every autumn. One of our favourite places is the Headless Horseman theme attraction, rated one of the best in the U.S. There’s a 20-minute hayride through monster-filled woods, a dark and creepy corn maze, several haunted houses, several shops full of Halloween treasures (the first time we went, my hubby took one look at the shops, parked himself on a hay bale and gestured for me to go and knock myself out), cafes, magicians, music, stilt walkers — this place is truly amazing!

Of course, Disney always does a bang-up job of Halloween. We particularly liked Halloween at Disneyland in California. It’s not nearly as big as Disney World in Florida — if you stay at one of the onsite hotels at Disneyland, you walk out the door into essentially a giant street party that extends into the two parks, plus you get to dress up in costume and enjoy adult trick-or-treating, photo ops with your favourite villain, dance parties and all the rides.

However, last fall we did the Howl-O-Scream evening at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg Virginia, and I liked it even better. During the day you can see all the wonderful spooky detail throughout the park…

… but as dusk starts to fall, fog begins to creep through the air, and the park turns into something delightfully eerie.

Each zone of the park has its own creatures, from the medieval French version of creepy clowns,

to Jack the Ripper in England, who held a wicked knife to my throat, and responded, “Possibly” in a charming British accent when I asked him if I was going to survive my photo op.

Giant menacing pumpkins oversee shadowed cemeteries,

and walkways become murky trails into the unknown.

Howl-O-Scream is a wonderful combination of fun for kids and eerieness for adults, and there’s no extra admission for the event — you enter any time with your day ticket and you’re good to stay as long as you want.

For all of us Halloween enthusiasts, there are many places, both in North America and abroad, to enjoy some pretend terrors. Watch for details about a new spooky adventure in Ireland next week!