A year of light

A new year, and a new decade. Let’s hope that the world becomes a better place — lately it’s been feeling like we take two steps back for every step forward.

New beginnings are always hopeful things. I prefer to be optimistic, and so, while everyone worries about climate change, I’d like to share this charming article with you about sheep in Scotland who have been consuming more seaweed and are belching less methane as a result. It’s a start 🙂

With the growing trend of ‘flight shaming’, here’s a cogent look at approaching reducing carbon emissions in a less confrontational way. I believe travel is a powerful force for understanding and peace, and would argue that there are millions of people around the world who depend on the travel industry to make ends meet. While a lot of criticism has been levelled at travellers, there are industries that have been degrading our environment for decades and need to be examined. Clear-cutting, mining and monoculture farms in the Amazon and other jungle regions have caused an enormous amount of damage, for example.

However, I do love train travel and road trips. We were in Tennessee for the holidays, visiting a cousin, and if you’re looking for a place to spend your holidays in 2020, you might want to consider the Nashville area. We attended two light displays:

  • GLOW Nashville at First Horizon Park, a magical light display with skating rink, tubing slides, shops, and more, and
  • Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood Estate, where the magnificent Cheekwood Mansion is decorated to the hilt, and after dark the grounds turn into a holiday wonderland.
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood

I can also recommend a great Mexican restaurant in Nashville, Uncle Julio’s, where we could have made a meal just of the scrumptious queso appetizer, and we all enjoyed our entrees — I had a fantastic salad with smoky grilled shrimp.

We also ordered a chocolate pinata for my hubby’s birthday. It comes out on a big tray with a wooden baton for cracking it. Our excellent waitress recommended hitting it from the top so that all the goodies inside — fresh strawberries, churros and chocolate empanadas — land gracefully on the tray (instead of spraying sideways onto the hitter’s lap). It was great fun and very delicious. Stop in if you’re in the area!

Personally I don’t like making formal resolutions, but for 2020 let’s all incorporate dreams, imagination, serenity and kindness into our lives. That’s a good start too.

Make the holidays your own

Do you look forward to or dread the holidays? I’ve been in both frames of mind — depends on what you have to look ‘forward’ to, doesn’t it?

This time of year, with longer darkness and — at least in my part of the world — an ever-present chill in the air, bears considerable emotional impact.

With all of the season’s challenges, it’s really important to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Have some quiet times, soften the lighting, play a board game or watch a gentle movie.

One of the nicest Christmas breaks my hubby & I ever had was the year he got a bad cold. He wasn’t dreadfully ill, but tired and bedraggled enough that we had to bow out of all invitations.

We spent our days snuggled up inside by our Christmas tree, with a fire crackling, mugs of hot tea and our favourite movies on the television. I made chicken soup and other comfort foods that didn’t tax my hubby’s tummy. When my hubby snoozed in his favourite chair, I read or indulged in some retro paint-by-number artistry (which is not as low-demand as you might think, and remarkably engrossing).

It was probably the most relaxing Christmas we’ve ever had.

One Christmas a few years ago, we, with our nieces and nephews, decided to take over Christmas dinner at my hubby’s sister’s place and have soup and grilled cheese. She was slightly appalled at not putting on a big meal, but she was outnumbered. Several of us brought tabletop grill pans, and everyone contributed something interesting — my hubby and I brought the perfect grilling bread (golden and crispy on the surface, but soft and chewy underneath), our niece made two pots of soup, people brought their favourite kinds of cheese and some delicious add-ins. We banished my sister-in-law from the kitchen and created easy, delicious melted masterpieces in very short order. Then we all sat casually around the dining table and shared the goodies.

My family’s holiday celebrations centred on Christmas Eve. One year, after several busy weeks at work, I decided to keep things simple. I made a huge pot of chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo a couple of days ahead. All I had to do to serve it was reheat, put out a basket of fresh crusty bread and a big salad. My parents were no longer alive, but my brother came with his kids, partner and her kids, and my mother-in-law wasn’t going anywhere else so we invited her as well. The recipe turned out to be delicious, granted, but I think the cozy and simple meal struck a chord, because that enormous cast-iron pot of soup got cleaned out, even with a big bowl of delicious English trifle waiting on the sideboard.

There was a Christmas when we had both families over and expanded our meal to invite our neighbours from across the street, who had lost both their son and daughter-in-law that year and were now raising their grandsons. We weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable enough to join us, but they did, and our families welcomed them, and it made for a really special Christmas.

The point of holidays, whichever you celebrate, isn’t to drive yourself crazy tracking down gifts, or make everything look like a Hallmark moment, or grit your teeth while relatives behave badly.

Warmth and fellowship are the point. Spend quality time with people who matter to you, and include people who or hurting or would otherwise be alone. Have easy, good food and easy laughter. Put aside differences, because lost time can never be recaptured. Be kind to each other.

I wish for you whatever brings you peace and contentment this holiday season.

Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to our American family and friends. It’s important that we all take the time to realize the good things in our lives and be grateful for them. Verbalizing some quick gratitude thoughts in the morning can turn around a bad start to the day — it seems to rewire our emotions. If you don’t believe me, try it. Wherever you are, dear readers, I hope that you have things in your lives that you can be genuinely grateful for. If you’re of a mind to share some, please do in the Comments.

All the best, Erica

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.

The search for peace

I remember exactly what I was doing on September 11, 2001. I imagine that most people do. Some events are so impactful on a global scale that they are forever etched in our collective memories.

I was sitting at my desk in a common area at our local college, working away, when someone came out of an office and said, “There’s something going on in New York.”

The internet was still in its early days as a news source, but several of us crowded around our colleague’s live stream to watch, stunned, as events unfolded. I can recall watching the second plane fly into a tower; it was so surreal that it was hard to absorb.

Word spread quickly and I think most work ground to a halt as the Library set up a big TV screen in the lobby. No one knew what to do. This horrific event was unfolding before our very eyes, and all we could do was watch.

The 9/11 tragedy had ripples for a long time afterward.

The skies were eerily quiet for days while a no-fly rule was in effect. Friends with relatives in New York City were glued to their television sets. Everyone wondered how the aftermath would play out.

I live in a community close to the Canadian-US border, with hydroelectric plants and a number of big factories, so most people that I knew experienced some anxiety over the possibility of our own attack – although I suspect that scenario was on most people’s minds in North America.

In the height of irony, astronauts on the International Space Station, a cooperative venture bringing nations together far above us, could see the smoke plumes and struggled with their own sense of helplessness – you can read their poignant point of view in an article on Space.com.

Six years later, when my hubby and I went on our first African safari, airlines still had considerable restrictions on what travelers could bring on board, and we became very creative at packing economically.

9/11 changed our modern landscape, and there has been endless speculation about why it happened. Like most historical events, we may never know all of the truth, but I think we can agree that global peace continues to be a series of forward steps alternating with backward steps.

I believe that the root of conflict is a lack of respect for someone else’s right to hold a different point of view, and I believe that one of the ways we can work toward global peace is to travel.

It’s really difficult to hold another place or culture at arm’s length, to put a psychological wall up, when you’ve been there in person and met the ordinary people who live there, work there, try to provide for their families, laugh, feel pain, feel sorrow. It’s hard to turn away from animals and environments in need when you’ve walked among them.

We have met so many wonderful people on our travels. We have seen the magnificence of places like Africa and the Amazon Jungle, and know how critical they are to life as we know it.

Life thrives in the quiet places of our planet. Beauty and harmony are there. Find those places and their inhabitants, and understand why all the parts matter.

As a counterpoint to the sadness of 9/11, and the many ongoing conflicts in the world, one movement we can embrace is Forest Bathing. The name may sound silly, but bear with me on this.

Forest Bathing is a Japanese practice that promotes wellness by spending mindful time in a forested area. Nature is healing. Buildings, as beautiful as some of our constructions can be, are artificial environments, surrounded by cities that often don’t include much green space. Our increasing urbanization is separating us from the planet that has nurtured us for eons.

September 7th, this past weekend, was International Forest Bathing Day. The practice is really catching on world-wide, and there is likely at least one certified guide within fifty miles of you. Of course, anyone can do forest bathing for themselves, but you need to be able to do it slowly, taking the time to notice all the beauty and enjoy the serenity.

Find your centre, your inner core of peace and connectedness. I’d love to hear about it.