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.

Step away from your screen(s)

An African sunset, truly magical

Since March 2022 I’ve been a local explorer. During the autumn preceding the COVID pandemic, my hubby and I had visited Ireland, and over the December holidays we’d spent time with a relative outside Nashville, TN, so at least we had those under our belts to hold us while we waited to see how the global disease was going to play out.

Some of our friends and relatives decided to travel outside the country, bucking the requests and advice of our government; we chose to stay within our province for the greater good. So if you’ve been following this blog during that time, you’ll have seen memories from all the local adventures I’ve been embarking on. On those journeys, there has been so much history and local culture to discover, and plenty of local beauty as well. Most of my, and our, best moments have happened out and about.

We have spectacular ornamental cherry blossoms in our area each spring, but hardly anyone goes out to see them

I was intrigued to see what advice a 100-year old traveller – someone who’s reached a milestone most of us never will – would have to offer, in a recent article posted on AFAR Magazine, and wasn’t really surprised to see that it dovetails with my own philosophy.

Both Deborah Szekely and I (and most of my friends) grew up in the decades before smartphones, tablets or even the internet existed. We had no other option than to really embrace the world around us and be in the moment all the time. It was a great time to travel, sometimes by the seat of our pants, and without the benefit of GPS, online city guides, or any kind of convenient app. That meant that we had to think on our feet, pay attention to our surroundings and form our own opinions.

Now, I see all kinds of travellers with their faces buried in their screens, completely missing what’s going on around them. They base their choices on the opinions of influencers who offer no guarantee that they know what they’re talking about, and often present false fronts on their media sites. People destroy popular tourist sites so they can take a photo of themselves looking cool, thus being a general nuisance and often ruining the site for any visitors that try to come after them.

This beautiful iris in the cloud forest of Peru only blooms one day a year; exploring by myself, I was the only person in our tour group to see it

According to the article about Szekely, her philosophy is “to find our own inner peace by looking away from our screens and immersing ourselves in the beauty of the world. And sometimes, the best antidote to doom scrolling is by going on a walk—not on the treadmill, but in nature—and by focusing our awareness on the birds and other wildlife around us, we’ll find “all kinds of answers.” “ 1

Building on that, if you look through history, political clashes come and go and the human race goes on. Devastating epidemics have occurred over the centuries – the Black Death killed 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, the Spanish Flu anywhere from 17 million to possibly 100 million worldwide – and humanity survived those with far less medical advances than we have today. Many people are working hard to save species and our planet.

Things you see on the side of the road deep in the African bush: an elephant refreshing itself in the hot afternoon sun

It’s important for us to stay informed enough to remain safe, but not to drive ourselves crazy with it. Conspiracy theories count on fear to help them spread, but wouldn’t you rather feel good about life and stop worrying that everyone’s out to get you? Sure, there’s bad in the world, but there’s a lot of good also, and that’s the kind of news I want to look at.

My advice builds on what Szekely has to say: stop living your life through an electronic device. Get out and actually live! The world is still very beautiful and there are plenty of wonderful people in it. But you’ll only experience all of that when you look up. Go someplace, see what it has to offer without any preconceived ideas, and make up your own mind about it. Learn to rely on your own opinions and judgements. Travel locally or travel abroad, safely and with full awareness of where you are. And then let me know what you found 😊

Look up, look down, look all around — you’ll be amazed at what you see

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

1After Living, Traveling, and Learning Her Way to 100, Deborah Szekely Has Some Advice for You, byChloe Arrojado for AFAR Magazine, May 10, 2022, www.afar.com/magazine/wellness-tips-from-100-year-old-legend-deborah-szekely

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

Bread of life

Today’s loaf of fresh bread — the Rapid White product

So, hubby and I are self-isolating for a few days. We’ve only been lightly ill; in any other year we’d just be treating this as a seasonal bug, and it’s strange to have to consider that we might have picked up the coronavirus. Provincial health officials stated a few days ago that anyone who has symptoms of a respiratory illness has a high probability of actually having the Omicron variant, such is its transmissibility.

I did a grocery run on Sunday, using all the proper precautions — surgical-quality mask, hand-sanitizer after I left every store, then washing my hands for 20 seconds when I got back in the house.

On Monday morning I started getting chills, aches, a headache, some coughing and possibly a mild fever. None of these are unusual for me by themselves (except the fever) — they’re just a fun part of having fibromyalgia. After popping Vitamin C and acetaminophen all day long, and waiting to see what might develop, by the next morning I felt substantially better. The Omicron variant has a shorter incubation period (as low as 2 days), but I had no other symptoms, so I put it down to one of my worse days with a chronic condition.

By Wednesday morning, hubby told me he was so achy he wasn’t going in to work. That is highly unusual; I can probably count on one set of fingers the number of times he’s stayed home over the decades. He spent most of the day wrapped up in multiple throw blankets. When he remained home again today, we decided to do the right thing and follow the province’s protocol to assume the worst and quarantine ourselves.

There’s no way to tell if we have the virus or not; we’re certainly not ill enough to go the hospital (not complaining!), but since we’ve had symptoms we can’t go out and get a couple of Rapid Antigen test kits to see if we even have the antibodies. So we’re ‘stuck’ at home, sitting by the fire with cups of tea and watching television — not the worst position to be in.

Fortunately we have plenty of the two most critical needs in stock: food and toilet paper 😉 We were running low on bread, though, and as a result, today became the day my hubby must stop yanking my chain about how much each freshly-made loaf has cost us so far after we invested in a bread machine last fall.

I began thinking about getting an automatic bread-maker — even though we didn’t really need to add another appliance taking up counter space in our modestly-sized kitchen — after some of my favourite commercial breads started adding barley to their flour mix. For years I’ve had to read ingredient-labels on everything to avoid things like soy and sulfites, both of which give me nasty migraines; after several unexpected migraines I wasn’t happy to be forced to add barley to the list. Barley can add fibre and help the fermentation of the yeast. Neither of those benefits did me any good, and I started looking into making my own bread.

After talking to friends with a variety of machines and conducting online research into features and user reviews, and after hubby suggested we buy a machine as a Christmas ‘house gift’, I made the decision to go for the top-rated brand, the one with the weird name, Zojirushi. The brand has had some negative reviews on Amazon, although most were very positive. I’ve been using it at least once a week for about a month and a half now, and have no complaints at all.

I chose the Virtuoso Plus model for one crucial reason: it makes Sourdough bread, and even makes the starter. My hubby and I were introduced to great Sourdough in California on our first visit. It should be chewy and distinctively sour, and since it’s been hard to find good Sourdough in our neighbourhood ever since, that was the first feature I looked for.

Our machine makes a very good Sourdough. The whole thing takes about six hours: a little over two to make the starter, after which you must directly segue into making the bread itself, another roughly four hours. The bread has a nice crust, good toothsome-ness, and a lovely tart flavour.

I didn’t jump into that at the beginning, though. I tried the easy Italian bread, because it didn’t require dried milk, of which I had none on hand. Carefully measuring the ingredients and adding them to the baking pan in the order prescribed (apparently each bread machine has a specific order it wants you to follow), I keyed in the correct Course on the control panel and nervously pushed START.

When the machine beeped 3 & 1/2 hours later, I was rewarded with a perfect loaf of warm bread.

Here’s how an automatic bread machine works (at least the one I have): After washing and some assembly — basically putting the little beater bars in place inside the baking pan, which mix the ingredients and knead the dough — you put the ingredients in as listed in the handy Recipe Book. If you’re making one of their suggested breads, you enter in which one (with Zojirushi they’re all numbered) and push the Start button. That’s essentially it, until 2 & 1/2 to 4 & 1/2 hours later the aroma of freshly-baked bread fills your house.

The image isn’t the clearest, but this is the control panel of the machine for today’s bread: Course 9, Rapid White Bread, to be finished at 3:45pm

Some breads have added ingredients, like Raisin Bread; the machine pauses and beeps at you to let you know when to add the raisins. I haven’t tried every single standard recipe, but the Raisin Bread is very nice, pleasantly cinnamon-y and tender.

The machine will also just make dough for you, which you can then take out and shape into a number of other bread-based things, like bagels or dinner rolls. For Christmas Eve I found a recipe online for making buttery Parker House rolls using a bread machine, and they turned out perfectly despite the fact that I messed up and put double the amount of butter in. (There must be a saying somewhere that you ‘can’t have too much butter in a roll’, or there should be.) For the Parker House rolls, I used the “Homemade” course, which requires you to manually enter the timing for each cycle of the process by pressing the Cycle button: Rest >> Knead >> Shape >> Rise 1 >> Rise 2 >> Rise 3 >> Bake. Depending on what you’re making some of the cycles may be set to zero, i.e. they’re not being used for your bread type.

I don’t know what other brands have, but there are several things I like about my machine:

a) The Rest cycle, which the machine uses to bring all the ingredients to the right temperature. When making bread by hand, bakers have to be aware of the temperature of the room at the time, and make sure none of the ingredients are too warm or cold. My machine eliminates that.

b) The default setting for the crust is “medium”, which produces the lovely golden-brown crust you can see in the photo at the start of this post.

c) Although the manufacturer states that the machine gets quite hot during the Baking cycle, I didn’t find it too bad. I still pull the machine out from under the cupboard, where it normally sits, to use it (away from my wooden cabinets), and use oven mitts to remove the hot finished loaf, but otherwise I find it not much hotter to the touch than our toaster, and during the preceding cycles it stays cool.

The only suggestion I’d have for the manufactures is to light up the control panel; it’s hard to read without using a flashlight.

I’ve read that many bread bakers find the kneading process quite therapeutic. All I can say is that I find the simplicity of the machine, freeing you to do something else until the incredible aroma lets you know that your warm, fluffy loaf is ready, is very therapeutic — especially on days when you’re under the weather 🙂

Here’s what the machine process looks like:

Choose the recipe;

Measure the ingredients, using the handy measuring cups that come with the machine, and place them in the Baking Pan in the order listed;

I dump my bags of bread flour into a plastic bin — much easier to measure the flour correctly

Place the Baking Pan inside the machine; mine has metal feet that click into place;

One critical tip: you must place the yeast (the darkest brown in the photo) so it doesn’t contact the salt – otherwise the yeast will be deactivated. I tuck the salt into the back right corner.

Close the machine’s lid and program the bread course that you want (as in the photo earlier in this post);

Take out your beautiful finished loaf!

Using oven mitts (the baking pan is hot when you take it out), you just turn the pan over and gently shake the loaf out onto a cooling rack. Then you’re supposed to wait for it to cool down, but I wanted to show you what the bread looks like inside when freshly cut:

A slice of freshly-baked, pillowy white bread

Your loaf will have indents on the bottom where it baked around the beater bars. They’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, but once you bite into the delicious bread, you won’t care.

Bite into a piece of this bread and then tell me whether you’re worried about how pretty it is 🙂

For breads where you take the dough out, let it rest, and shape it (e.g. there’s a great Party Loaf recipe included where you cut the dough into equal-sized pieces, roll the pieces into balls, and stuff the balls with something like cream cheese or chocolate), you can remove the beater bars before you put the shaped dough back in, or bake your dough in a regular oven (as I did with the Parker House rolls).

Our machine makes a two-pound loaf, which typically lasts us about a week. The bread is more delicious than anything I’ve ever bought in a bakery, even a really good one (truly). Plus, you can’t beat a loaf that’s still warm from the oven, but even at that our machine-made bread has taken several days longer to begin going stale than commercial bread does.

All in all, our investment has been an unqualified success. As long as I keep stocked up on a few basic ingredients, I can make us bread whenever we want, which will be delightful during our self-imposed quarantine. The machine will also make things like pizza dough, cake, and even jam, none of which I’ve tried yet, but I did order some whole-grain rye from Amazon to use for my sourdough starter, and I hope to try making a full-on hearty rye bread with caraway one of these days.

Today, since I had a turkey carcass left over from having made a turkey dinner on Monday, I decided a good turkey soup was just the thing to go with a fresh loaf of bread — healthy, cozy and nourishing. By my hubby’s cheeky calculations we’re probably down to about $50 a loaf now, but like any new toy the cost will go down the more we use it, and the pleasure we get from having this resource, as well as the comfort of knowing I can both control the ingredients so that I don’t get a headache and keep us well-supplied even as prices in grocery stores rise this year, have already paid for the gadget long before we reach that break-even loaf. And that will likely happen very soon!

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

Let’s make 2022 a thinking-outside-the-box year

A new year, but same old pandemic. We get our booster shot and continue to make the best of things, because that’s how we weather tough times.

This past Christmas, we actually got to have family over in small bundles — which meant days of cleaning up so many dust bunnies in surprising corners, multiple trips to the grocery store, and laying out a timetable for the entire final two weeks of December. It was all worth it, though, to be able to share some holiday time with the special people in our life.

The theme around our house was warmth and relaxation. Menus were unfussy, curling up on our living room furniture under lap blankets was completely allowed, an eclectic mix of holiday music played softly in the background.

Our nieces and nephews wanted to turn last year’s Christmas picnic into an annual tradition, so once again we took our hot air fryer to a nice spot in the vicinity to heat up a pot of Honey Mustard Sausages. We lit a fire in one of the barbecue stands that stay there all year (photo above), laid out all the food on a picnic table, and went back and forth between the food and the toasty warmth of the blazing wood. Apart from the sheer fun of doing something outdoors, one of the things that makes this occasion really special is the opportunity to just shoot the breeze among the six of us — something that doesn’t happen at big family gatherings. The picnic only lasts a couple of hours; once the sun starts to set the temperature drops dramatically. But it’s quality time that can’t be replicated in any other setting.

So, as we soldier on through more months of pandemic drama, find ways to create that kind of atmosphere — the kind that gives you a warm glow inside. Be mindful when you go out and about. Pay attention to other people around you; we’re all in the same boat and making life more pleasant all around will go a long way to helping each other get through these times. Turn grumpiness into kindness; it’s the best cure I know.

If you’re having trouble finding your inner kind person, I’d like to share with you two offerings by the organization Action for Happiness:

  1. Their Happier January calendar, with daily suggestions for small ways to feel better
  2. A special webinar, Wellbeing Skills – with Prof. Richard Davidson, on January 12th. It’s free and may give you some good ideas on how to manage your emotions these days.

And don’t forget to be kind to yourself while you’re at it. Nobody loves what’s going on, but we will get through it, just as generations before us have done.

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.