Just try this out, will you!

I’ve been working through a marketing book about honing your message, and one of the questions the book asked its readers was ‘What ticks you off more than anything?’

I had to think about that for a few minutes, since I have a number of pet peeves, like everyone. Eventually one thing particularly came to mind: people who always refuse things.

I’ll readily admit that my hubby and I are more adventurous than just about anyone we know personally. There’s very little we’ll say “no” to, whether it’s a new restaurant, a new activity, a new place to visit.

My mother-in-law said to us once, as we took her to a favourite restaurant in Toronto whose entrance was located down a back alley: “Where do you find these places?”

Well, I explained, a couple of years previously we’d arranged tickets to a theatre performance of Argentinian tango, and we thought it would be fun to have a themed dinner beforehand. I found a book on all the ethnic restaurants in the city, then looked up all the Latin or Spanish restaurants and picked one. It was a fortuitous choice and we’d been going there ever since. Best sangria ever!

In our house we have a standing rule: guests can’t refuse food without at least trying it. (Before they come over I always check on any food issues first, of course.) Once tasted, if someone doesn’t like the dish they certainly don’t have to finish it, but that rarely happens. Most food is delicious if it’s made well, and even if someone’s tried out a dish in a restaurant, that’s not a guarantee that they’ve had a good version of it.

All of us have likes and dislikes, as the interesting individuals we are, but so many people seem to have a much bigger negative list than positive.

Such a narrow little world they create for themselves. They won’t even give something new a chance, and really, how do you know if you’ll like something otherwise?

People who look for perfection and absolute order will always be disappointed. Half the fun of doing anything is being surprised by it – the random roadside café on a trip that served great food, the movie you didn’t expect much from that turned into great entertainment, an outfit that looked blah on the hanger but amazingly good when you tried it on (just bought one of those the other day, as a matter of fact 😊 )

Imperfection makes things interesting. Possibly our all-time favourite golf course is in rural Tennessee. It’s not upscale by any means – it could certainly use a little TLC around some of the greens – but the layout is spectacular and adventurous between and across two flowing rivers, and both times we’ve played there’s hardly been anyone else there. We love it so much that each time we travel down there we make a point of seeking it out.

Our favourite eateries tend to be family-run ethnic restaurants with really great, unpretentious food that feels like you’re eating at their home.

On trips we like to get away from our hotel and wander the streets in town to see what’s there – a great shop on a small street in Paris that had shelves and shelves of inks and writing instruments; food trucks along the harbour in Papeete, Tahiti, where we had fantastic small plates under awnings in the pouring rain; a shaman shop in Cuzco, Peru where I bought a cool carved and feathered gourd rattle.

What experiences we would have missed if we always looked for the posh and controlled! We’d never have met a group of school girls at a temple in Bangkok who asked if they could practice their English with us, or the little alpaca who wanted to have a taste of my hubby’s pant leg in Peru, or have rattled through the crazy dusty truck ride to find the local camel market in southern Egypt.

We’d have never had a Yorkshire barkeep explain what a “vicar’s collar” is (a poured beer with too much foamy head on it), or spent an evening on the banks of the Nile singing Egyptian folk songs with the boat crew, or even discussed our subsidized health system in Canada with an interested waiter in New Orleans.

Stop saying “no” to the unfamiliar, or the less-than-perfect. Approach everything with curiosity and an open mind, and you’ll never be bored. The world is full of fascinating things to explore, if you’re only willing enough to enjoy them exactly as they are.

Choices in difficult times

Is it just me, or does this cloud look like a balloon animal?

I needed another stress break today, so I went on an impromptu trip to one of my favourite places that’s appeared in my blog several times, the botanical garden at the Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Falls.

One of our neighbours has two dogs, one of which hates being outside if all its people are inside. It’s a dog thing – some don’t mind being outside in the yard, but the majority I’ve seen only want to be out if their humans are as well. When dogs are stressed, they bark until the stress is relieved.

The barking went on for over forty minutes; this had been going on all week, every day throughout the day. Today I’d had enough and went over to speak to the family. I’d planned to talk to the parents, but they weren’t home, and I chose to speak to the son about the issue. I was polite, but angry.

I was at my wit’s end; we’ve had ongoing issues with this family since they moved in. Things like repeated trespassing, damage to the adjoining fence by the son over a year ago that the father promised to fix but still hasn’t, and other issues I won’t list here.

What I should have done, though, was ask the son to put the dogs in the house and to have his parents contact me.

These are challenging times and we’re all feeling the strain. Even though the world is making great progress against the coronavirus, we’re not out of the woods by any means; we can just see the outer edge of the trees. A lot of people have lost loved ones, lost a job or a business, been affected by political issues. We’ve all struggled to stay sane in general.

The father came over to our house later in the day and asked that in future if something’s bothering me I should be speaking to them, not the kids. That’s a fair request, and it’s the choice I should have made.

Everyone is irritable, as much as we try not to be. All we can do to mitigate that is try to be as considerate of others as possible.

Be nice to the store clerk, keep an appropriate distance from others in public, drive responsibly – be a good neighbour, which, although I had good reason to be fed up today, I didn’t do the best job of either.

I read an article the other day that complaints about neighbours have escalated in the Ottawa region in the past year, and I’m sure other communities have experienced the same thing. Our region also holds quite a few tourist attractions, where we’re still having issues with visitors misbehaving – sometimes, sadly, those visitors have lost their lives doing risky things.

We’re all stressed, and looking for ways to blow off steam in the craziness of 2020-2021, but let’s try to do it respectfully, and safely.

I had an issue that needed addressing today, but I could have handled it better. The whole situation bothered me so much that I had to get out of the house for a while. I relaxed as soon as I started walking around in nature. The gardens were busy today, but everyone was calm and considerate; nature is a great way to chill out. I’ll share with you some of the peace and beauty I found, as at least a virtual stress break in case you need one too.

One of the pretty paths to stroll
This was labelled as a ‘Blackberry Lily’, although the name seems odd so I’m not sure
I need this for my Halloween garden!
Several crab apple trees dot the gardens, all full of fruit
The paths at the gardens are so serene to walk
These strange plant bodies are near my favourite pond; they weren’t labelled, but they look like roots of some kind?
Quite a few frogs croaking in the pond
Lots of these pretty blue flowers in the water
A blue jay enjoying his crab apple
No idea what this tree was, but it was lovely
A pretty pink flower shows off its interior
Still trying to find out what this podded plant is – does anyone know?
Beautiful juxtaposition
Unidentified statue by the rose gardens
Shrub rose
I was sitting on a handy branch on the interior of this tree to take a break from the sweltering sun
I loved the layered mix of colours in these beds
Detail of the beautiful veining on the canna leaves
A cheerful honeysuckle flower

All photos are by me and all rights reserved.

Reflections

Apologies, folks — I was busily working on the final handful of chapters of my first novel and neglected to post my blog last night!

It’s now been about nine months since I took that first step in creating a book out of the ideas floating around in my head for years. I embarked on the NaNoWriMo November event last fall just to see if I could actually put together the first 50,000 words of a book. For many years there was one thought that held me back: what if I put a lot of time into a writing project and it goes nowhere. In other words, could I actually produce something cohesive to begin with, and see it through to completion?

The answer to that, of course, is that I would never find out if I didn’t try. So last fall I decided that I’d make the attempt — one month wasn’t too much to devote to it, and if I didn’t get anywhere, at least I would have given it a shot. But if I did get somewhere…

I joined one of the NaNoWriMo writing groups; there are hundreds of them in all kinds of configurations, for like-minded writers to chat and support each other. Mine was a small group, comfortable for sharing ideas and questions, and for cheering each other’s progress.

I had a very rough outline for the first novel of what will someday become a published trilogy, I hope — just the Inciting Incident, a few key points of the protagonist’s journey, and the climax. On November 1st I began writing.

When you announce your project on the NaNoWriMo site, your profile allows you to record your progress towards the ultimate goal of having written 50,000 words by the end of the month. I calculated how many words I’d need to write each day (on average) to achieve that goal — to me, that would be a measure of whether I could produce an entire book. And every day, I stuck to it.

You receive badges for a variety of milestones, including whether you write every day, and I wanted that badge to appear, because it meant that I was staying on track. Some might dismiss this approach as gamification, and it is, but as a novice novelist, I found it to be a great motivator.

Soon I had one full chapter under my belt, then a second, then more and more. As I wrote about my protagonist and the challenges she was facing, the story began to flesh itself out. More and more ideas kept popping into my head: what’s going to happen next, how will she react, what if this twist took place? The garden of my book kept growing, often in ways I didn’t anticipate.

My protagonist has taken me along on her journey, not the other way around. One of the things I discovered, and have enjoyed the most, is that the characters in the book have to a large extent taken on a life of their own. They are complete beings in my head, who often say and do things that surprise me, and that’s been one of the things that has kept me writing — I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next!

I can’t speak for everyone who’s tried to write a novel, but for me there’s only been the odd day or two of what I might call ‘writer’s block’, and that’s just been when I wasn’t sure how the next scene should start. When that happened I let the story stew in my head for a couple of days, and soon an idea would pop to the surface.

Our subconscious mind is powerful, if we give it a chance to participate. My best writing has come when I let it flow instead of trying to force it into submission.

My biggest problem, to my mind, has been the flood of ideas, not the lack of them. The novel has become so much larger than I expected. Each chapter sows a bumper crop of possibilities, and very often I have to consider whether that patch of unusual but interesting flowers will add to the story or detract from it. Usually I include them anyway, figuring I’ll leave the weeding and pruning to the first edit.

So in a week or so, after months of challenging but really enjoyable work, I’ll be typing the words “The End”. I plan to uncork a split of champagne. After decades of jotting hundreds of ideas, writing and discarding, and numerous aborted starts, I will have finally written a book. Whatever else happens from there, I will be able to check off that item on my bucket list.

Of course I hope to publish it, even if I decide to take the self-publishing route on Amazon. I think I’d like to try and find an agent, though — but that’s still months away. First, I’ll post to my NaNoWriMo group that I’ve finished it. Then I’ll put the book aside for a month, as per the organization’s instructions — we are to just leave it be for a while. I have a few other things to catch up on in the meantime (like weeding my actual garden in our backyard).

In September, instead of going back to school, I’ll be hauling out the book and doing my first edit: I’ll read the whole thing en masse, and fix things. I’m sure I’ll be tweaking some of the wording, and I’ll spot discontinuities — something I wrote in one chapter that either doesn’t match or wasn’t followed up on in a subsequent chapter. Hopefully there aren’t too many weeds, mostly beautiful flowers.

Once that’s done to my satisfaction, I have a crew of enthusiastic beta readers who are eagerly, I’m happy to say, waiting to read the book and give me feedback. I’m really looking forward to that part — I hope they enjoy the story, but I want to hear what parts of it aren’t working. I’ll need to know where the story might fall flat, where a scene doesn’t make sense or is hard to follow, where the plot has bogged down or dropped the ball, and certainly if the climax is exciting enough. After I review their feedback and make the necessary changes, I hope to have a book I’m proud of, one that will attract an agent.

While all this furious writing has been going on, my hubby and I have gotten our second vaccination, as have most of our friends. The second shot left us a little under-the-weather for two to three days, but nothing that wasn’t manageable, and now we’re confident that we can hold up well against any bugs.

The fact that the world’s researchers were able to come up with a viable vaccine in such a short time is almost miraculous. By contrast, researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine against malaria for decades. I know a lot of people worry about the short timeline, which necessarily means that testing was minimal, but in Ontario alone the number of cases has dropped from over 4,000 a day in April to less than 200 a day now. That’s a massive decrease, partly enabled by the lockdown to contain the spread, but in greater part because of the vaccinations.

In a week or so, I’ll be able to go to see the new Jungle Cruise movie with friends. Our little movie group hasn’t been able to get together in over a year. I consider us all very lucky — we lost one Christmas out of the pandemic, and spent a few months holed up in our homes. Aside from unrelated illnesses, which surely were a challenge during the past year-plus, those of us who took the precautions have stayed safe. Now we can begin looking ahead again, cautiously for now, until Covid-19 becomes a historical footnote, like smallpox.

I dream of finishing my complete trilogy, and maybe one day signing a copy for you in person at Comic-Con, where we can safely shake hands and chat. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous denouement to this grand writing adventure I’ve been on?! For anyone who’s had a long-time dream and been too afraid to start it — too worried about whether they’re worthy, or have the stamina/perseverance, or rich-enough soil to germinate their idea — there really is only one way to find out. You’ll likely surprise yourself with the result!

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise stated, and all rights reserved.

A book question for my readers

Hiking through the Hooker Valley in New Zealand

I don’t know about you, but the world is making me crazy. Not literally – not yet at least lol – but in a manner of speaking. Here in Ontario we’re entering our third lockdown, amid ongoing reports of people partying, breaking all the rules and creating superspreader events.

The longer people flout the need to wear masks and avoid gatherings, the longer this pandemic is going to drag on, and on. Surely as a global village we can unify and do something for the greater good?!

In the meantime, while I’m mostly stuck in my home again, I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is the April version of National Novel Writing Month.

I’ve had several ideas for a non-fiction book in my head for a while, and this month seems like the perfect time to get one of them rolling. What I need, though, is your help in deciding which book to write.

Here are the three possible topics. I’ve had requests over the years for all three, and I would love to hear from you which one you’d be most interested in reading.

  1. Travel memoir with photos – My hubby and I have been chased by a hippo in Botswana, ridden a runaway camel across the dunes in Egypt, walked with lions, helped schoolchildren practice their English in Hong Kong, and explored remote temples around the world. We’ve been to six of the eight continents and had numerous adventures – a lot of which were unplanned, including five hurricanes, a bush fire, an earthquake, a tornado, bombings and much more. Along the way, we’ve learned so much about the world, and about ourselves, and met so many wonderful people who’ve reaffirmed our belief in the essential humanity of the amazing planet we all call home.
  2. Stepping outside your comfort zone into a larger life – There’s a saying that the world begins outside your comfort zone, and it’s one of the truest things I’ve heard. Comfort zones are reassuring places to spend time in, but they’re also traps that keep you from growing. Growth = confidence + resilience + agility in challenging times, and we have no better illustration of the need for those qualities than right now. Learn how to break the chains you’ve wrapped around yourself that keep you from making the most of your life.
  3. Using your bucket list as a chart of stepping stones to the life you’d like to lead – Bucket lists are fun things to dream up, but they can also be incredibly useful. In fact, they can change your life. For example, one of my biggest items many years ago was to overcome my fear of public speaking. Originally it was just so I could stop freezing up in meetings, but the journey took me so much farther than that and has opened more doors than I would ever have thought possible. Imagine what you could dare to dream – and then go on to accomplish!

With enough input from you, I can get a sense of which book I should tackle first. I’ll announce the chosen topic in next week’s blog!

All photos on this site are by me unless otherwise specified and may not be used without my express permission.

One step forward, two steps back: the dance of progress

This month the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This is an interesting event for me because it shouldn’t need to exist. It shouldn’t require a special occasion to recognize the contributions of women.

When I was in university studying biology I spent a couple of summers working for different sectors of the government. There were an assortment of female and male students, and most of them were great to work with, but I still remember one fellow in particular who declared that he would never work for a female boss. I can still picture him spitting out those angry words.

Women’s rights have come a long way in my lifetime, but I still see so much divisiveness.

We consider ourselves modern, at the pinnacle of human achievement in recorded history, yet we continue to devalue people who are different, whether it’s another gender, skin colour, religious belief, or any other number of other characteristics that diverge from our own. Every creature on this earth has a place, whether it’s human or non-human, and deserves to be able to live in peace and harmony.

One of the things that my hubby and I have learned on our travels is that people all over the world are the same as us: they live, love, laugh, cry, feel pain. They want the same things – to be able to provide and care for their loved ones, and to be treated with dignity. They may choose to live their lives differently than we do, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We need to get over our fears and embrace other styles and viewpoints; there’s often a lot we can learn.

We’ve encountered remarkable people wherever we’ve gone. One of my favourite stories involving women comes out of Kenya, the first African country to start offering commercial safaris.

Kenya is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s also highly developed, meaning that the game reserves you visit on safari are in pockets separated by long roads edged with civilization. The main roads are in decent shape, but once off of those your driver spends their time playing dodge ball with numerous, sizeable potholes. It’s impossible to drive in a straight line on the country roads, and vehicles constantly zigzag back and forth across lanes to avoid the biggest ruts.

We were amused by the experience – until our guide couldn’t avoid one gigantic hole on the road to the Masai Mara Reserve. With a big bounce and a loud bang, the left rear tire of the van was shredded.

So there we were, a guide and six passengers, stuck in the middle of nowhere, just miles of lion country and the odd tiny Maasai village. We all clambered out of the van and watched in the dry-season heat as my hubby and the guide removed the damaged tire and tried to put on the spare.

When the old tire was off, they discovered that it wasn’t actually the road that damaged the tire – when leaf springs meet pitted asphalt, they don’t come out of it well. Our leaf spring had been dislodged and bent, so it wasn’t just a matter of changing the tire. They struggled for a while but the vehicle’s jack wasn’t able to lift the van high enough to get at the spring.

By that point, we’d begun attracting a lot of attention from the nearby village. Quite a few people came over to us with various things they thought might help, from crowbars to odd pieces of wood and metal.

Nothing worked, though, until the village’s matriarch brought out an old exhaust pipe, slowly walking over with her wonderfully wise face. Like all great matriarchs, her wisdom and experience saved the day. I took this photo of her after a few of us got back into the van briefly to get out of the blazing afternoon sun.    

My hubby was able to use a couple of rocks and smash the leaf spring back into its accustomed spot, and the spare tire was bolted into place. We only managed to limp about a mile down the road, though, before the jury-rigged system gave out, and our guide had to radio ahead to our lodge for rescue.

For a different kind of adventure, I recently stumbled upon a great movie called Maiden, the true story of Tracy Edwards, who at the age of 24 took on the male-dominated sport of yacht racing by putting together the first all-female crew in the famous Whitbread Round-the-World Race.

Many influences shaped Tracy’s determination to take on the challenge, not least the early death of her father and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive man.

Tracy ran away while still a teenager and began working as a cook on a charter boat, still trying to work through the emotional baggage. She fell in love with sailing and after a lot of cajoling was able to sign on as cook on one of the yachts participating in the 1985 world race, but even after sweating the more than 25,000 miles of rough open water with the all-male crew, she never felt truly accepted by them, and became resolved to enter an all-female crew.

Through reminiscences by Tracy and all the young women who signed on, and actual footage from the time, the movie documents Tracy’s ads for a crew, the derision she received, and the exhausting quest for a sponsor when no one was willing to take a risk on a crew with no men. She did eventually find a single sponsor – and I won’t spoil things by telling you who it turned out to be – and she and her fellow adventurers spent a year repairing a used boat.

By the day of the 1989 race departure, the crew of the boat now named “Maiden” had been thoroughly trashed by the media and some of the male crew on other boats, a variety of whom were also interviewed throughout the film. No-one beside Tracy and her crew believed they would even finish the first leg of the race from Southampton England to Uruguay. All the men expected them to give up partway and turn tail back to England.

I’ll let you discover what happened as the ladies of the Maiden battled calm spells, raging seas, cold so severe that snow often coated the deck of the boat, and endless days of non-stop rigging and navigation. I will only say here that those remarkable women made history in a way they never expected.

The movie has streamed on several stations lately, and hopefully one of the services like Netflix or Prime Video will pick it up. If you can catch it, you won’t regret watching this testament to what people are capable of when they strive to achieve something bigger than themselves.

Small but not insignificant

I sat in on a really interesting webinar today, hosted by Action for Happiness, whose resources I’ve posted on this blog before. The topic was “Mindfulness made easy”, and although I try to regularly practice mindfulness anyway, there’s always something to learn.

Before I elaborate on the content, I just wanted to comment on the irony of many of the attendees constantly posting messages in the Chat box. If you’re not all that familiar with the concept of mindfulness, it basically means to be fully ‘in the moment’, i.e. to pay attention to where you are, what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Seems to me that the point of a webinar on Mindfulness would be to pay attention to the webinar.

Anyway, there were three great ideas discussed during the session that I thought I’d share with you as we’re all coping with a long, restricted winter:

  1. If you have trouble focusing on being in the moment, break it down into a tiny chunk that you can practice daily. As an example, the speaker, mindfulness expert and best-selling author Shamash Alidina, told us how he’d had trouble meditating, so he changed tactics to doing just one mindful breath each morning. Nothing too tough – just taking a deep breath until your entire lungs are filled, then slowly letting the breath out (it should take longer to let out than to have breathed in). He also recommended doing what he called a “1% smile” along with it, that is, a tiny partial smile which most of us can manage even on days where we really don’t feel like smiling at all. You may even find, as many of us did during the webinar, that trying to generate a teeny smile has the opposite effect – we wound up laughing.

He found that he could easily do that one special breath every morning, and even on bad days he felt good about accomplishing that one thing, which made him feel like doing more of it, and soon he did more than one breath, and so on.

This technique is recommended for incorporating any new beneficial habit into your life. For people with fibromyalgia, for example, it’s really challenging to begin an exercise program because even an amount so small that most people wouldn’t classify it as exercise makes you feel bad. Today, I did 5 minutes at a slow walk on our treadmill, followed by 8 stretches with an ab roller – and this evening, inevitably, I’m feeling beat up. But it’s not so bad that I won’t continue doing it.

I can tell you, though, that for someone who used to play a vigorous match of squash almost every single day when I was in my thirties and healthy, only 5 minutes pf walking feels ridiculous. But that’s my reality and I’ve learned to be okay with it. And acceptance is part of being kind to yourself.

  • When something is stressing you out, apply the “Pearl Habit”: reframe how you react to a stressor by, each time that it happens, using it as a prompt to give yourself some self-kindness. Alidina talked about a woman he knew who was being treated badly (psychologically) by her ex-husband during divorce proceedings, so each time that took place she began treating herself in some way. After a while she found that she wasn’t as sensitive to his attempts to push her buttons because she was dissipating the hurt and anger effectively, and eventually he began to stop doing it so often because she wasn’t reacting.

I really like this idea, since we all have stressors we can’t avoid – noisy neighbours, aggravating co-workers, rude shoppers, etc. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I like to turn an occasional bad encounter around by doing something nice for someone else, but this technique of doing something nice for yourself would be a wonderful resolution to ongoing aggravation, wouldn’t it? The next time something happens to push your buttons, try it out and see what happens.

  • An author called BJ Fogg did some research into the emotional lift we get when we accomplish something positive, even if it’s a small thing like doing that one piece of mindful breathing, and he gave that emotion a name: Shine. And we can cultivate it. We can make a point of celebrating the small things in our lives, the little successes that we accomplish.

This is the perfect time to do it. We can practice gratitude (consciously expressing gratitude for three to five things each day, or when we’re having a bad day), but we can also consciously Shine.

Here’s a personal example I can give you. London (England) has always had a thriving theatre scene, and the first time we visited we wanted to see at least one musical. But it was before the days of the internet and easy online booking. Our travel agent had a list of what was playing at that time, so one day I worked up the gumption to place a call to a well-known ticket agent in New York called Edwards & Edwards. I’d never done this sort of thing before and was also very shy in those days, so I was nervous – but determined. When the call rang through, they were pleasant and helpful, and I snagged two really good seats for one of the big hits, a musical called Chess. (You may remember its hit song, One Night in Bangkok.) When I got off the phone, I was so excited I spent a couple of minutes jumping up and down in exultation and yelling “Yes, yes, yes!” It wasn’t a big thing, but it felt really good to me.

Even if we’re not jumping up and down, let’s take pleasure in the small things we can accomplish during our troubled times.

Here’s something you can do that will not only give you a great feeling of success, but also something delicious to eat: make a pot of home-made chicken noodle soup. Have you ever done it? It’s so easy and so much better than anything you can buy in a store. Here are two ways to make it.

  1. The Quick and Dirty Method

I discovered this when I was laid up with a bad stomach bug a number of years ago. It was highly contagious and spread through a good portion of both staff and students at the college where I was working. The illness manifested really quickly: one evening in January I was feeling perfectly fine, but at about 2:30am I woke up feeling edgy and then had to make a desperate run to the bathroom to vomit. I didn’t make it all the way, so my poor hubby had to clean up a mess on the hall floor, and then hold my head while I vomited several more times violently into the toilet. I was exhausted and couldn’t stay awake for more than an hour at a time, and I couldn’t stomach any food. The only thing I was able to eat for a day and a half was fresh watermelon – my intrepid hubby searched several stores to find me some in the dead of winter.

On the third day, after the hydration and sugar from the watermelon had helped, I thought I might be able to manage some chicken noodle soup, but I was too tired to be on my feet for long. I sent my hubby on another shopping trip, and just threw all of the following items together in a big pot: chicken breasts, organic chicken broth, a package of pre-diced onions + celery + carrots, salt, and a small bag of gluten-free noodles. Then I flaked out on the couch again while the soup cooked for 30 minutes.

It was delicious, and studies have shown that home-made chicken soup has healing properties. I’ve made that version many times since then, whenever one of us has been under the weather, and the only change I’ve made is to use chicken thighs instead of breasts – they hold up better with the boiling/simmering and have more flavour. Here’s the ratio I use to make at least two dinners’ worth: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, 3 litres (quarts) of good-quality broth, 1 good-sized piece each of carrot + celery + cooking onion (chopped), and only about 100 to 150g of pasta (I prefer lots of broth, and adding too much pasta will make it too much like stew); add salt and pepper to taste at the end. I’ve found that a certain amount of saltiness helps settle a queasy stomach, so I like my soup a little on the salty side. That’s it.

  • The Old-fashioned From-Scratch Method

I don’t recall my mom making chicken noodle soup from scratch – she kept a lot of either Lipton’s or Campbell’s around the house because I had an ongoing case of tonsillitis and I was sick on a regular basis. My parents tried to take me for surgery when I was three, but I’d had a bad experience with a doctor as a baby and I shrieked as soon as I saw the hospital. By the time I turned five, though, I’d gotten past that, and I even asked the surgeon if I could see my tonsils after the operation. He was amused and kept them for me in a jar of formaldehyde. They were in such bad shape that to this day I remember what they looked like: a pair of lumpy white spheres with black specks. (There was much speculation at the time that I’d grow up to be a doctor, but I became a biologist instead.)

After my hubby and I began dating, I discovered that his old Polish grandmother, who loved to feed people, made a great chicken noodle soup from scratch, and I promptly abandoned store-bought.

This version too is quite easy, just a bit more time-consuming, but a lot of us have time on our hands these days.

Make the stock first:

  1. Roast some inexpensive chicken that has bones and skin (a pound of wings that you might have sitting around in the freezer will do) in the oven until the pieces brown a bit. Both the bones and the bits of fat under the skin add a lot of flavour to your stock, as does the browning.
  2. In a big Dutch oven or stock pot, put the browned chicken and any juices from the roasting pan, along with two litres of good broth and a litre of water (the broth gives a little extra boost to the stock), one cooking onion with skin on and cut into quarters, the centre 3 or 4 stalks of a bundle of celery including the leafy heart, and a hefty unpeeled carrot cut into chunks (give the vegetables a bit of a scrub first). Add 2 or 3 dried bay leaves, about 12 peppercorns, and a teaspoon of coarse sea salt. You can also add a few cloves of garlic if you want. If you want to add a little zip to your stock, toss in a couple of dried chiles broken in half.
  3. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the stock simmer, covered, for an hour or so.
  4. Strain the stock by either pouring the contents of the pot through a colander into a big bowl, or by scooping out the solids with a slotted spoon. The poached vegetables are quite good to snack on, by the way.

Make the soup:

  1. Put the strained stock back into the pot and add: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, another onion peeled and chopped, a carrot chopped (wash but leave the peel on – it’s full of nutrients), and a stalk of celery sliced up crosswise into about 1/8” thick slices (at the wider end, cut the stalk in half lengthwise to keep the slices fairly consistent in size). Add chopped fresh herbs if you have them (parsley or dill are nice), or a teaspoon of dried. Bring to a boil and simmer for about half an hour.
  2. Cook your pasta separately, however much you want to use (remembering that pasta swells as it cooks).
  3. Once the soup has cooked, drain the pasta and add it to the soup at the end, along with salt and pepper to taste. (In the Quick method, the pasta is cooked right in the soup, which tastes fine but adds some cloudiness to the end product.)
  4. To serve, put a piece of chicken in a bowl and cut up into small pieces, then add the broth, vegetables and pasta. Enjoy!

The idea of mindfulness is to set aside all the detritus we carry around most of the time – worrying about the bills or the appliance that sounds like it’s going to fail soon, avoiding the coronavirus, our kids are fighting, and on and on – for a little while to take a breather, to just appreciate something nice we’re doing at the moment. A lot of the time we forget to do that.

Making a wonderful pot of soup on a cold winter day is the perfect antidote to both the weather and your mind running around in circles. It’s nourishing, comforting, and feels really good to produce. Life doesn’t get much better than sharing that soothing deliciousness with your family or someone you’re keeping in contact with who needs a pick-me-up. Let me know how you make out 😊

If you’re having trouble coping with the heightened state of worry we’re all in these days, check out the many free resources and webinars offered by the Action for Happiness organization. I think you’ll find some really good ideas to help you.

Next week: getting ready for another fun holiday to celebrate: the Lunar (Chinese) New Year coming up on February 12th.