Giving our brains a much needed rest

How often do you take a break from daily life? If you’re like most North Americans, probably not very often. And yet studies were showing, long before the pandemic, that not only our bodies, but especially our brains, need some down time. How much more do we need it now, bombarded by successive waves of the pandemic and political instability around the world?

Breaks throughout the day refresh our brains. When I was working in the counselling department of a college, lunch times were sacrosanct for all the staff, and knocking on an office door when it was closed had to be backed up with a damned good reason.

In the mid 1990s, studies demonstrated that our brains demand a lot of energy – 20 percent to make our bodies run, and even more when we’re doing mental work. Is it any wonder that we so often ‘hit a wall’ before the end of the work day?

The interesting thing, though, was that even when we’re at rest, perhaps just daydreaming, there was still considerable communication going on between certain regions of the brain, which the researchers called the default mode network. That’s an interesting name, including the word ‘default’. It turns out that letting our minds to drift into this basic state allows our brain to process all kinds of information that’s been accumulated but not dealt with. When our brains aren’t occupied with external pressures, they have time to make sense of everything, order it, imagine solutions and connect all the dots.

Some of our most creative moments occur when we’re not trying to find them. As a writer, I’ve found many times over that if I’ve reached a place in my novel’s plot where I’m not sure how to address a problem or move the story from one point to the next, the answer occurs to me when I’m lying in bed, essentially day-dreaming before I fall asleep, or first thing in the morning as I’m awakening but haven’t felt like getting out of bed yet. First thing in the morning is better; last thing at night requires me to tap a quick note into my phone lest I forget, unless it’s something so brilliant that the idea carries through to the next day.

And indeed studies have shown that the default mode network is more active in more creative people, not necessarily because those people have different brains but perhaps devote more time to getting out of the way of their own minds.

Try it out the next time you feel overwhelmed, like your brain is ‘fried’. Take a break and go for a walk, without your phone. It should preferably be in nature, whether it’s a park or even a path through a garden, and un-occupy your mind. Be alone with your own thoughts, and let them flow like the breezes around you. Notice the things going on all around you, from the butterflies flitting from flower to flower to the texture of the path beneath your feet and the colour of the sky. You’ll be amazed both by how refreshed you feel afterward, and by what interesting things your mind will come up with.

When I need to decompress, I love to take walks around our extensive local botanical garden. There’s always something interesting to see in every season, and the peace and quiet are soothing within the first few minutes.

For even better breaks, go on as long a vacation as you can, and make it a complete getaway. The modern penchant for managing your entire trip through a series of apps totally defeats the purpose of getting away from it all. You can check the day’s weather, or find a restaurant, but apart from that it’s important that you put away your electronic devices and just be in the moment. Take some photos if you like to do that, but only a few of yourself. What you should be noticing is the place you’re in and all its wonders, not worrying about how good you look for a series of selfies.

One of the best vacations my hubby and I ever had was our first safari in Africa. Deep in the wilds of Botswana, we spent days bouncing along sandy roads, feeling the wind ruffle our hair and keeping our eyes peeled for the next herd of zebras or elephants, gazing into the golden eyes of a lioness lying under a bush near the road, having morning tea while we watched antelopes graze by the river while hippos snorted in the water. We’d left all our problems at home and immersed ourselves in the hot African sun and the stillness of a place without the noise of other humans. At night we fell asleep to the chirping of tree frogs, woke up to the chatter of francolin birds. It rejuvenated us after a very challenging year, made us feel alive and whole again.

When you’re standing in the magnificent ruins of ancient Machu Picchu in Peru, dazzled by the remarkable stonework somehow built on the top of a mountain surrounded by other blue-green peaks as far as the eye can see, your mind imagines what life must have been like all those hundreds of years ago, waking up with the dawn, walking along paths that overlooked the silvery Urubamba River far below, gathering food from the steep terraces just below the city and feeling the spirituality of the many sacred huaca stones all around you. You’re far, far away from the daily grind, breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air, watching a lizard skitter across the intricately laid stones right next to you.

Taking down time is essential to our well-being. Make sure you use it well.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved.

Winter daydreaming

Generally around February, when I’ve run out of love for snowy landscapes for the season, my mind wanders abroad, to sunnier climes and exotic places.

When I was a child, my father and I loved to watch old adventure movies together on television, usually on Sunday afternoons; he must have had the same wanderlust gene that I do. Two of our favourites, both involving treks through the desert to lost cities, were Legend of the Lost (1957) and She (1965).

Legend of the Lost is an obscure movie now; I rarely see it aired on television any more. The plot revolves around an Englishman, Paul Bonnard, who’s in Africa in the legendary city of Timbuktu, looking for a treasure his archeologist and missionary father was after ten years before. Bonnard’s father never returned, and Bonnard is finally able to secure the services of a rugged American guide, Joe January (played by the ubiquitous John Wayne), to take him deep into the desert on his quest. They’re eventually accompanied by a beautiful, down-on-her-luck prostitute played by the ever-stunning Sophia Loren. Much drama ensues.

The movie She was based on the famous book by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1887 after its popular serialization on a magazine. A sensational adventure, the book has never been out of print since then, and has seen many movie iterations. The 1965 version is my favourite, starring Ursula Andress at her most gorgeous as Ayesha, the immortal ruler of the lost city of Kuma, a remnant of ancient Egypt. Two men stumble across evidence of Kuma at the end of WW1, when they meet a mysterious woman in a nightclub in Jerusalem. Leo Vincey, the young and handsome adventurer, his older friend Horace Holly, a British archeologist played by the inimitable Peter Cushing, and Holly’s valet, are lured into a trek through the desert to search for Kuma, putting their lives in grave danger.

The exotic landscapes of both movies imprinted themselves on my imagination and I’ve loved desert scenery of any kind ever since. So when I saw this recent travel deal, I immediately settled in for a little armchair travel and wishful thinking.

from the Travelzoo website: “Every week we search more than 2,000 companies worldwide for their very best deals and compile this Top 20 list.”

It’s posted on Travelzoo, which is a free weekly newsletter (free sign-up required) sending you a list of the Top 20 travel deals they’ve found. It’s completely legit – several years ago I booked a great deal for flights to Tahiti and New Zealand PLUS 3 free nights accommodation in Tahiti (with optional upgrades for a pretty low additional price). Hubby and I had a great trip to a place that had been on our bucket list for a long time – Tahiti – and another place that always sounded really interesting but I never thought we’d ever get to, New Zealand.

The Anantara brand of resorts is famous for their stunning locations and architecture, and the Sahara Tozeur Resort in Tunisia will make you drool. The resort contains 93 suites, villas and pool villas. It offers “Arabian Nights culture and cuisine” and “Saharan adventures and explorations”, including this one that will excite all fans of the Star Wars saga:

Screenshot from the Anantara website of a visit to a Tatooine film set

The rooms are a serene but exotic desert fantasy:

Screenshot from the Anantara website

This image from a visit to the local Bazaar has me envisioning a chic white outfit like the one Ingrid Bergman wore in Casablanca when she and her husband visited the winding bazaar, and I would fill my carry-on with the treasures I’d find among the dusty passageways.

Screenshot from the Anantara web

If these screenshots, and the gorgeous gallery of images you’ll see on the Anantara website, inspire you to subscribe to the Travelzoo newsletter, there are a couple of things to pay attention to.

(1) All of the deals are available for a limited time only. The deal may only available on within certain departure dates, or may not be available on certain dates.

(2) Check the length of the deal and inclusions. This particular offer is for a 4-night stay with some additions:

“What’s Included:

  • Stay most dates through January 2023
    • $1499 … four nights in a Deluxe Sahara View Suite — these 850-square-foot suites come with a king or twin beds, daybeds, rainfall showers, deep soaking tubs and massive windows overlooking the Sahara
    • $2249 … four nights in a One-Bedroom Anantara Pool Villa — these 1,100-square-foot villas have outdoor dining areas and private plunge pools
    • Add extra nights to your stay for $215 or $359 per night (must be used with a four-night voucher for the same room type)
  • Packages are for two guests (not priced per person) and include:
    • Daily breakfast and dinner for two (excludes drinks)
    • A half-day desert excursion for two to visit Nefta city and film locations from Star Wars as you off-road across Saharan sand dunes (once per stay)
    • A two-hour Tunisian cooking class for two, where you’ll learn to cook — and sample — traditional Tunisian cuisine
    • Taxes, taken care of, except for a tourism tax of 1€ per person per night, which is payable on site
  • Not available: March 14-31; Oct. 22-31; Nov. 1-8; Dec. 17-31, 2022; Jan. 1-2, 2023″

You’ll need to activate a membership with Travelzoo to see the entire deal; there are no obligations, and the service doesn’t pester you with frequent messaging.

From North America, I wouldn’t fly all the way to Tunisia for only 4 days, so I’d add this on as a special treat while exploring more of the country for at least another week or more. Tunisia has much to see: desert landscapes, Roman ruins, lots of culture.

Anyway, this is a little inspiration to help you get through the late-winter doldrums, assuming you live in a place that becomes snowbound 😊 I’ll be dreaming of visiting this resort one day when adventure travel becomes more feasible, and in the meantime maybe I’ll cook up a nice dinner of chicken with lemons and cinnamon over a bed of couscous to be there in spirit.

Outside the box wellness: winter’s magic

It’s a disheartening time to be a Canadian. There’s a large philosophical divide between the truckers who refuse to get vaccinated and the thousands of us who believe that in a world-wide pandemic, the greater good supersedes individual contrariness. We thousands have all had the vaccine and are doing just fine, apart from a couple of days of flu-type malaise after each injection. The development of vaccines has meant that millions of people no longer die from diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria and polio. I don’t argue the truckers’ right to protest, just their complete disregard of how their gatherings are disrupting the lives of thousands of people who, I believe, have just as much right to avoid getting sick.

When my frustrations reach boiling point, I head out to spend time in the peace and beauty of nature. Even in winter, you say? Winter is a wonderful time to get outside. I bundle up, grab my camera, and enjoy the artistry of the winter landscape.

Snow forms complex patterns on the frozen surface of the Welland Canal
A bollard creates its own animal shadow — I see a horse’s head
What appears to be some kind of buoy forms a bright spot on the ice of the Canal
Multiple tracks in the snow — I think some are squirrel, one white-tailed deer, and other I’m not sure of
A gorgeous blue jay explores a thicket along the Canal
The white backdrop makes everything look sculptural, like these black benches and bright red dogwood branches
An unidentified tree has buds on it!
A picturesque fence draped with tangled vines
More anthropomorphism — an evergreen shrub is transformed into a hulking winged beast
Even the snow has patterns, from smooth white, to windy swirls, to these granules that I assume dropped down from the trees above

A winter breath of fresh air

After days of self-isolating, my hubby and I made a break for it to my favourite botanical garden. The air was fresh and invigorating, but chilly; I had to stuff my hands in my pockets between photos.

Even in its winter-dormant state, the garden is a lovely walk. There’s a sculptural quality to the landscape and everything in it that’s revealed by the absence of leaves. Above, my favourite path winds into the distance under a coating of snow, framed by fountain grass, dogwood branches in their cold-weather glory, and the silvery bark of a bare tree.

I love this big urn, although I’ve yet to get a photo of it that I’m happy with. It looks very regal and imposing as it introduces an allee of trees, but it refuses to share that with my camera. I’ll keep trying 🙂

At the big pond, I was fascinated by the formation of these white crystals on top of the layer of ice underneath. They remind me of snow-white winter birds, taking a rest between flights.

As the sun began to set, its light gilded the shape of this ice-rimmed opening above one of the fountains that spurt upward when the weather’s warmer.

Something had braved the ice on top of the pond when it was still soft enough to be imprinted with tracks. I believe these are rabbit tracks, although they’re rougher than if they’d been made in snow and harder to identify with certainty. Feel free to shoot me a comment if I’m correct or not.

I love taking photos of milkweed pods; an entire patch of them was looking very picturesque and textured in their winter state. By the time I finished taking multiple photos at this spot, my hands were freezing off, so it was time to head home for some steaming mugs of hot chocolate in front of our fireplace. We counted it a very good outing.

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

Victory lap

Another November has wrapped up, and I’m very pleased to once again have achieved the 50,000-word milestone with Book 2 in my urban fantasy/sci-fi trilogy.

This contest felt different than last year’s. I started Book 2 armed with the knowledge that I already have one completed book under my belt, so I knew i could finish before I even began. That’s one of the benefits of experience: you already know what you’re capable of. Next it’s time to find out how much you can grow.

I’d debated whether I wanted to start working on the second book before I heard back from all the beta readers for my first book. Maybe no one would even like Book 1. By the time I’d completed three edits, I was too close to the book to do anything other than email it to my test readers to see what their feedback was.

But Book 2 had lit its candle inside my head and refused to wait. This year, I found the first few chapters challenging in a way that I hadn’t last November: after the climactic ending of Book 1, how would I segue effectively into the next part of the story? Things heat up quite a bit in Book 2 — my protagonist has come to terms with her new life touched by the supernatural, but by the end of the first book she’d found herself in quite a pickle, and now more enemies are getting involved.

She has to think fast and evolve even faster, while trying to hold on to her own humanity. I’m having a blast writing Book 2, watching how my heroine handles everything that comes her way.

Last year I took a break from writing all through December and January, but not this year. I simply can’t lay the proverbial pen down this time.

My hubby has shared with me that he’s enjoying the book, even though it’s not his usual genre, but he’s saving more detailed comments until after he’s finished the entire thing. In between prep for the holidays, I’m waiting as patiently as possible for feedback from the beta readers, and I thank them all so much for devoting some of their precious time to help me.

I hope that all my readers are making some delightful plans for a little bit merrier holiday this year, while still staying safe and healthy. The pandemic hasn’t gone away — it’s evolving as well, so we must just keep plugging away as best as we can.

Time capsule fall festivals + photographic art

Fall festivals are some of our favourite activities — they combine great atmosphere, perfect weather for strolling, good food, beautiful colours, fallen leaves to shuffle through. Last year most festivals weren’t running, so this year’s batch are especially welcome.

The two we’ve attended so far couldn’t be more dissimilar; the only common denominator is that they perfectly captured a period in time, one in the late 1800s, the other a modern-day take on art-in-the-park.

I’m on the mailing list for the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton, Ontario. If you’ve been following my blog you know that it’s already one of my favourite places to chill out as well as take photographs, and I’m always excited to hear about special events. In early September I received notification of something really intriguing, called “Seeing the Invisible”, i.e. Augmented Reality Art. The marketing described it as:
“Visitors will engage …through an app downloadable to their smartphone or tablet and encounter 13 unique and interactive artworks dotting the…landscape…This cutting-edge AR platform forges new links between the RBG landscape and global artists, harnessing the power of art to connect people to the natural world.”

None of our group really had much idea of what to expect, though, until we got to the first piece of art. With the special app installed on our phone or tablet, when we were in proximity with the artwork, we were prompted to activate it, and suddenly we could see the image on our device: an enormous boulder floating in the air, which we could walk around, lie or crawl under, and have our photo taken with if so desired.

The artist was El Anatsui from Ghana, who produces works of art out of thousands of bottle caps wired together with copper, “thereby catalyzing the transformation of familiar, mundane objects into startlingly poetic works of art”.

There were thirteen art pieces in all, each with specific meaning and style. Some were accompanied by music; some could be walked into to see something different on the interior than the exterior. This piece by Timur Si-Qin was called Biome Gateway and represented a temple cave that connected the garden we were walking through with a parallel landscape on the inside:

The interior was quite startling, a “virtual sacred locus of contemplation”:

One of the most interesting pieces was a massive doughnut-shaped symbolic representation of the number zero and its impact on mathematics.

Apparently the work was originally created for the city of Abu Dhabi, with its diverse population embodying coexistence and peace. The surface of the entire piece is covered in geographic coordinates that represent all the countries of the world. I really liked the concept of this one.

My personal favourite, by Israeli artist Ori Gersht, was called Forget Me Not. It featured a large, visually spectacular arrangement of flowers:

,,, which, when a visitor was close enough to ‘touch’, then exploded, scattering petals through the air of the large lawn where the artwork was located:

It was meant to evoke the creation of the universe and the transience of everything on earth, and included a commentary by three scholars offering different interpretations, but I just enjoyed the effect of walking amid the flower fragments, which lingered in the air for quite a while:

The exhibit was specifically chosen to take place in botanical gardens, to connect nature, art and technology without disturbing the natural environment. It opened simultaneously in only eleven gardens around the world, and we were extraordinarily fortunate to be close to the only exhibit in Canada. If you’re interested in finding out more and perhaps finding a location you can reach, visit the Seeing the Invisible website.

The very next day we traveled back in time at Pioneer Day in Jordan, Ontario.

Jordan is a small community along Twenty Mile Creek that was the first Mennonite settlement in Canada. The settlers had come north from Pennsylvania in 1799, and with the rich soil they soon developed a flourishing agriculture community.

Today the village is charming and trendy in the midst of one of the premiere icewine destinations in Canada, but the festival celebrating the early pioneers in the Niagara Region has been running for 55 years, long before the region became a mecca for wineries. My father used to take us when I was a child, and I remember cool fall days watching apple butter being made in huge kettles over a wood fire, the scents of apples and wood smoke, crisp sausages on buns, and a great family day overall.

My hubby and I have continued going sporadically over the years, but this year in particular it seemed like a nice fall activity to do. There’s a brand new and very modern museum on the site, which perhaps detracts a bit from the back-in-time feel that I used to love as a child, but there were still plenty of old-time enjoyments.

An 1800s steam engine still going strong at the entrance
The Lincoln Concert Band added a nice musical backdrop to the event
Apples are still cooked down into thick, lush apple butter, although the fire underneath is a little less rustic than it used to be
Bushels of fresh apples waiting their turn
A replica of an old covered wagon — pretty uncomfortable looking, on the whole
A sample lesson in the original 1859 schoolhouse – a docent inside recruited children as volunteers for the lesson
A local blacksmith was creating heating metal in these coals to produce fireplace pokers
A very old headstone in the small Haines Cemetery, which holds the remains of early settlers
Freshly-made apple fritters drew a long lineup
One of the shopfronts in a quaint strip across from On the Twenty hotel, which is affiliated with the winery by the same name

The two festivals couldn’t have been more different, but they book-ended a lovely weekend in fine October weather. Let me just say, thank goodness for the coronavirus vaccines that are allowing us to gradually return to normality and the opportunity to attend events again.

I’m also very pleased to announce that some of my photographic art is now available for purchase as wall art or on a variety of products through my site on Fine Art America. If you’ve liked my work that you’ve seen in my blog posts, I’ll just mention that I’ve introduced a special collection called Gothic Dreams — art for anyone who has a darker side that especially comes out in October 😀 Please do check it out!