Days well spent

A year ago around this time my hubby and I were finalizing our September trip to Ireland, and I was looking forward to taking lots of photos for this blog. A year ago we weren’t all living the pages of a science fiction novel.

We never know where life is going to take us, do we?

While we wait out this odd limbo we’re in, we think about what ‘afterward’ is going to look like. No one knows what the future will be, so to my mind let’s make the most of the unexpected time we have on our hands in the present.

Here in Ontario home renovations are booming – all those projects people have been wanting to get to but never had enough time.

There’s a bonanza of flowers and plants at one of our local nurseries, rows and rows of gorgeous colour and texture to explore like a yard sale in the Garden of Eden. I could have wandered through there for hours, but I wanted to get home with my treasures: a glorious flame-red canna lily to plant next to our moody purple smoke bush, and a vibrant pot garden.

I have very little skill as a gardener (didn’t get my mother’s green-thumb gene), but I love plants and I needed to add these two bursts of energy to the front of our house. I needed to add some brightness to what feels like a faded version of our world these days.

This is a great time to stretch yourself, to discover new things. In the ‘afterwards’, things will have shifted. I suspect we’ll be labelling things as “pre-“ or “post-“ COVID, and like any major upheaval the most successful survivors will be the ones who were most adaptable.

You’ve probably seen a TV show about the rambunctious troops of macaque monkeys that have taken over the city of Jaipur in India. National Geographic produced two entertaining series about these hardy little survivors called Monkey Thieves. The macaques and their rivals, the grey langurs, have been driven out of their normal wild habitat by the expanding human population, but they’re making the most of their new city homes. Macaques are extraordinarily adaptable – clever and resourceful, they’re willing to eat just about anything and sleep almost anywhere. Rather than dying out, they’re thriving in Indian cities to the point of becoming nuisances.

Koala bears, by contrast, are critically endangered. They eat only eucalyptus leaves, and of the 700 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, they’ll only feed from a tiny percentage. We humans have backed them into an ecological corner which they may not survive.

So this is a great time to, like the wily macaques, explore and find out what you can make use of. Try things you might not have considered before – who knows what you might find you like and are even pretty good at.

Early into our home ownership, as a young married couple in a bad economy (mortgage rates were as high as 18%) we couldn’t afford much in the way of Christmas decorations. I saw a beautiful grapevine wreath in a store that I just couldn’t swing, but we had a home-crafting store called White Rose that carried all the basics, and I thought that maybe I could make my own wreath for a fraction of the cost. I had no idea what I was doing – no inkling of things like glue guns, even – but my version turned out just as pretty as the store-made version, much to my surprise. Making my own holiday florals has been a passion of mine ever since – I hunt through different sources to put together very personalized wreaths and table arrangements to compliment our house colour scheme, and tweak them as I find interesting new objects I’d like to add or swap in. I did actually sell custom-made creations for a while, which was fun but not my ultimate goal so I didn’t keep it up.

A fresh Christmas arrangement that I put together every year

One of the things that did stick professionally was photography. During a summer job while I was in university that involved mapping a local conservation area for visitor use, I was asked to take some photos and put together a promotional brochure – not my forte as a biology major, but my brother had loaned me one of his cameras and I got some good photos of a Great Blue Heron on the edge of one of the ponds. I never had ambitions of becoming a professional, but over the years I’ve taken photos for a real estate agent, the college I worked at, and of course thousands of travel photos that allowed us to show the rest of the world to our non-travelling friends and family. I love to take photos that capture all the cool little parts of a place that are rarely portrayed in the destination marketing, all the personal experiences that have brought a place alive for us.

This photo of a pair of stuffed faux llamas decorated in all their finery in the artsy little city of Arequipa in Peru is one of my personal favourites. Arequipa is one of the coolest places in Peru but most tours unfortunately skip it. It’s full of culture and colour, though, as well as delicious food, an amazing convent complex that’s a small city on its own, and even the famous Ice Maiden herself, found at the top of Andes a few years ago. (More about Arequipa in an upcoming post!)

One of the biggest changes to my life occurred after I decided to get over my fear of public speaking. It has empowered me and transformed my life in ways I would never have foreseen.

Burdened with one of the most common fears people have, I was able to practice avoidance strategy until I began working at our local college and found myself having to say things in meetings. I absolutely dreaded even introducing myself. After a while, though, I got tired of dodging opportunities. One of the vice-presidents at the college had started up a chapter of Toastmasters and an acquaintance of mine who was already a member recommended that I join. Finally I got up the nerve to do it, although I lurked silently in a back corner of the meeting room for weeks. The members were kind enough to give me that space – otherwise I probably would have bolted in the first few minutes.

Eventually I started working on the speaking projects and got used to getting up in front of the room with the entire group of members focused on me alone. I wasn’t a natural by any means and I had to work hard at learning the basic skills, but I achieved my primary goal, to be able to say something in a meeting without freezing like a deer in headlights.

About two years into the program I was unexpectedly contacted by our local public library to come and do a presentation about Kenya – they’d seen some media about a trip that I’d run to Kenya for the college. My first instinct was to duck out of it, but I’d joined Toastmasters for a reason and I wanted to take this next small step. I was still pretty novice and quite nervous, but I had great photos and stories from the trip. I found myself enjoying the experience, something that I would have laughed at skeptically just a handful of years before that. When some of the attendees came up to chat with me afterward and told me that I was a good storyteller, I jumped a hurdle I’d never banked on.

I’ve done many talks for the library and other organizations since then. One of my favourite stories: all the while that I was doing a later presentation about Peru and Bolivia, a fellow at the far end of the front row was tapping into his cell phone. He wasn’t disturbing anyone, so I left it alone – all the other attendees seemed to be getting a lot out of the presentation. During Q&A at the end of the talk, I assumed that he’d be the first to bug out, but he startled me by asking if the remote temple of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes would be accessible from the town of Copacabana, which he was going to visit in a few months. I’d only included a handful of photos from the site in my presentation, as the brief finale of our trip on the way to our end destination of La Paz, but they’d made such an impression on him that on the spot he decided to see Tiwanaku himself.

When you can get up to talk to people and have a personal impact on their lives, that’s an amazing feeling. By the time I’d served on our regional board and also on the international team that developed the updated Toastmasters program in the past decade, I’d become a different person – comfortable in any situation, confident, well-spoken even in a pinch. Pushing myself to overcome the fear has opened a lot of doors and taken my life in so many new directions.

Dare to imagine what else you could be. Most people have time on their hands now, and there are plenty of opportunities to try out something different. Even if those different things don’t become your passion, at the very least they’ll have expanded your skill base, and in the best-case scenario they may send you on your own amazing journey to a new post-COVID life.

In the meantime, they’ll also serve as a multi-purpose way to pass the time, especially to take your mind off the news. At a virtual photography conference I attended last month, one of the speakers, Caroline Jensen (a Sony Artisan), talked about “Stress Relief in Your Own Backyard” through macro photography. This technique of focusing in on the close-up details of a flower, a butterfly, or any other pieces of nature, keeps you completely absorbed in the moment for hours at a time. She even recommends it as a way to help children cope with their own anxiety.

It opens up a new world in the familiar places we’re all currently restricted to. I live near the Welland Canal, and walking alongside to watch a fascinating ore freighter chug by the other day, I spotted a variety of pretty wildflowers growing along the banks, small enough that most walkers probably passed them by. Great practice for a photographer though 😊

Nature is one of our best sources of therapy during challenging times, and for the most part it’s free to access, especially if you don’t happen to have a back yard of your own to spend placid time in. On any walk in your local woods, you might spot a bright little chipmunk, or admire the sculptural forms of a fallen tree.

If you’d like to try out some macro photography yourself, you can find Caroline’s Quick Start guide here, along with some of her wonderful examples.

I’d like to leave you with a great short TED talk, just a little less than 10 minutes, that was mentioned during the photography conference. Louie Schwartzberg is a renowned photographer who’s spent his career taking time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, and what a magical gift it is to watch them do their thing. His talk includes wise words from a Benedictine monk that, although the talk was done in 2011, couldn’t be more applicable to our present confusion and uncertainty. It’s about how to appreciate nature and the world around us, and to take comfort in each day as the gift that it is.

From a fellow pet owner

Our late doggies, L to R: Ramses, our beautiful brown sugar-coloured first dog who we raised from a puppy, and Isis, our sleek black female rescue dog who joined our family a little later

I had something different planned for today’s post, but I saw a link to an article in an excellent newsletter I receive by email called The Red Thread Swipe File by Tamsen Webster, and I had to read it, and then respond to it.

The article is written by Eric Kaplan, a thought piece on the loss of his dog and how we deal with grief. He asked for suggestions to be sent to his Twitter account, but since I’m not on Twitter I felt I wanted to blog about it, having had to euthanize our own two dogs when they got old and terminally ill 16 years ago.

The fact that my hubby and I have never been able to get more dogs even after all that time will tell you something about how deeply we felt their loss, so to Eric I would first say: my heart goes out to you.  

Losing a beloved pet, or any great loss, is quite literally heart-breaking – you feel as though your heart has torn open and will never be whole again.

For all that, though, it was such a gift to have our dogs in our lives and I wouldn’t take that experience back for anything.

We learned a lot from our dogs. Their acceptance of life as it unfolds – their resilience in dealing with every illness that arose, from arthritis to heart problems, while still happily enjoying every day’s simple pleasures – helped us to work our way through our grief at losing them.  

For everyone, like Eric, who’s struggled with the paradox of trying to enjoy the highs of life amid so many lows, maybe this will help a little:

One of the things I’ve realized over several decades of existence is that life is going to throw sorrow at us no matter what we do, no matter how much we might suppress feelings of joy in case they jinx something.

The only way to balance out the lows is to enjoy the highs for the gift that they are.

I’ve had fibromyalgia for many years, and the good days are rare, so I have learned to the most of them! With enough self-care, there are not too many bad days. Mostly I have so-so days that are pretty livable. I can be like our dogs and make the most of every day.

As humans our initial reaction to misfortune is anger – understandably – but eventually, to cope and move forward, we have to reach a state of acceptance and look at how to manage things long-term. Animals, although we can’t know exactly what they’re thinking, seem to go straight to acceptance and change management. While they absolutely feel pain, sadness and fear, like we do, the next beautiful moment that comes along for them is embraced unreservedly. Watching a dog give its entire being over to rolling around in the grass, or chasing a Frisbee across a lawn, is a lesson in mindfulness.

Eric, I hope this blog finds its way to you (@ericlinuskaplan). Please carry on your dog’s legacy of how to live in the moment. It’s a good way to go on.

A little frivolity

Doesn’t it sometimes seem like the coronavirus is Mother Nature’s twisted April Fool’s prank? Well, if so, She didn’t end it after 12pm, the customary cutoff time, so according to tradition we may call Her the Fool for that.

Media opinion was divided as to whether April Fool’s should have been celebrated this year. CNN even pontificated about pranks during the “global cloud of human suffering”. Seriously? How is that description going to help my state of mind? I’m well aware of how many people have been affected by the pandemic, but we need some relief from the grim barrage of information!

Apparently a British newspaper posted a joke image of Prince Harry schlepping around Hollywood in baggy sweats with a hoard of toilet paper in a shopping cart. Harmless fun, I think.

We need to be able to stay as calm as possible while time passes tucked away in our little corners of the earth. And that means controlling what we can control, like creating an atmosphere of fun as often as possible to counterbalance the news.

Go for a walk in your neighbourhood, and be mindfulin the moment. I went for a walk this afternoon. The sun was shining in a bright blue, cloudless sky with a slight cool breeze on my face. I was tempted to let my mind wander, but I steered it back to enjoying the signs of life and Spring around me.

I could hear wind chimes tinkling melodically in the breeze in someone’s back yard. I saw a red-tailed hawk drifting lazily overhead while a bright red cardinal sang melodies in a tree I was passing; spotted tiny, cheery white crocus blooming at the base of a front-yard tree; watched buds emerging into the mild air. A fellow was out walking his dog while he scrolled through messages on his cell phone; I’m certain he missed all these things. Take the time to notice and appreciate all the bits of life as you walk – these things keep us grounded in daily reality during the surrealness of life right now. They show us that life is going onward and that every day brings us closer to the eventual end of the pandemic.

The other day my hubby had a package delivered from Amazon. The parcel service driver had rung our doorbell and left the box on our front stoop, but I happened to open the door just as he was rounding the front of his van. He waved at me and smiled, and I smiled, waved back and called out, “Thank you!”.

Not an unusual exchange most of the time, but I see so many people looking grim when we venture out to replenish supplies, and it was nice to share a smile that day. I know everyone’s worried and uncertain about the future, but we can brighten each other’s days by taking the time to at least smile and exchange pleasantries, even if they are given from a distance.

Since we’re all stuck at home most of the time, couples and families are under each other’s feet a lot more, and it will be easy to get irritated. So this week’s theme is frivolity, in honour of April Fool’s Day and keeping a sense of humour. It’s a way we can help each other chill out in close quarters.

The origins of April Fool’s Day are murky, but it seems to date back at least as far as the Middle Ages. According to the Museum of Hoaxes, a Flemish writer wrote a poem describing a nobleman who sent his servant on silly errands on April 1, and in 1857 citizens of London, England were fooled into going to the Tower to see an ‘annual lion-washing ceremony’.

By Unknown author – http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/Hoaxipedia/Washing_The_Lions/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9873207

Personally I’m not a big fan of practical jokes, although I’ve seen some pretty funny ones. The prankee, though, isn’t always amused.

April Fool’s is all about make-believe, though, isn’t it, and there are all kinds of ways to indulge in a little pretend-fun without offending anyone.

One of my preferred activities is to play board games and jigsaw puzzles. I play a killer game of backgammon, which my hubby refuses to play with me because of my admittedly uncanny ability to roll doubles. As a great alternative, though, we indulge in working on murder mystery jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles date back to the 18th century, and were originally pictures painted onto a piece of wood. They were then cut into pieces using a marquetry saw. The first puzzle is believed to have been created by a engraver and cartographer, John Spilsbury, in London England. It featured a map of Europe and was meant to be educational. Spilsbury called it a “dissected map”, and the idea caught on.

In the 19th century fretsaws were used to cut up the pieces, not a jigsaw, but the misnomer stuck. Eventually the puzzles began to be printed on cardboard, and became enormously popular during the Great Depression as a cheap form of entertainment that could be played at for hours – the same reason they still make a great activity during a similarly challenging time right now.

If you’ve never done a murder mystery jigsaw, let me introduce you to a whole new level of the activity! For these puzzles, the joke is a little bit on you: you don’t get to know what the picture is supposed to look like. You’re given a booklet that tells the story leading up to the murder, with clues as to what you should be looking for to put together the puzzle and solve the mystery. It’s diabolical, and engrossing.

You need a large dedicated surface and patience to put these together – they’re not solved in one or even a few sittings. My hubby and I took three weeks to put the last one together, starting after New Year’s when we got home from a holiday trip, and then on weekends and after work into late January.

Our strategy is to assemble all the edge pieces, just like a regular jigsaw, and then sort the remaining pieces into trays based on colour and surface pattern. Very slowly, with many adjustments and fiddling, patterns begin to emerge and the final story takes shape. Sometimes you step away for a day with frustration and a sore back, only to have an idea pop into your head – damn, I think I know where that piece goes! – and you’re back at it again. There’s a compulsion to solve these complex puzzles, and the mystery they portray.

If you’re a Titanic buff, you’ll love this puzzle, available from Amazon

Think of all the ways you can have fun with some make-believe. People have had ‘Christmas in July’ parties and Caribbean parties in the winter for ages, after all. How about a Pirate party, or an Alice in Wonderland tea? You can while away quite a few hours planning them out, putting up decorations, making delicious food, getting dressed up. Let your hair down, take some photos, and have a blast. In fact, I’d love for you to share a photo with me once you’re done!

If you’re a year-round Halloween person, if autumn is your favourite season, or you’re just looking forward to the fall when hopefully life will have returned more-or-less to normal, make something pumpkin-flavoured. Turn out the lights and light some candles, put on one of the movies I listed in my October blog, or another favourite creepy movie, and enjoy a little catharsis with the pretend-chills.

And a bonus for you, a background image I’ve created that you can download for free to keep on your computer screen to help keep things in perspective. Next week: The Skies of Africa, Part 2: Khwai.

Shelter in Place in style

Oh, what a world, what a world! moaned the Wicked Witch of the West in her wonderfully creepy castle on the hill, having unexpectedly been thwarted by a random bucket of water.

You had to admire her style. Although her world was in chaos – her sister and partner-in-crime had been crushed by a house, the powerful ruby slippers were out of reach on Dorothy’s feet and rival Glinda was helping Dorothy reach the Wizard – the Witch could torment Dorothy in the comfort of her own home through the magic of the crystal ball. Her servants, resplendent in their uniforms, were completely cowed by their mistress. A whole troop of devoted winged monkeys waited to run her errands.

Since we’re all staying close to home for a while, while the global media vigorously chases its tail, let’s make like the Wicked Witch, shelter within our castles and make the best of things.

If things start getting to you, it can be easy to start spiraling downward, but there are some effective ways to break that pattern.

Laughter is a great medicine

The cliché is actually true. Fortunately we have lots of resources to make us laugh, on television, funny memes and videos on the Internet, a humorous book… I find the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards website delightful, and each year I look forward to seeing the entries in the annual photo contest.

One of my own favourite wildlife photos from my travels captured a baby baboon giving its mother the classic ‘I didn’t do anything’ look.

Surround yourself with things that make you smile

Feather your nest, as it were, with things that cheer you up. Maybe it’s fresh flowers, or your favourite colours. I have a friend who collects anything penguin-themed; she has a small set of penguin figurines which get costumed for different holidays just because they make her smile. A long time ago I came to terms with being one of those people who’d live in a Halloween world year-round, and I do have a small number of select items that stay out all year, like this cute nesting measuring cup set I stumbled on a few years ago. How can you not smile when you’re measuring flour for a batch of cookies with a cheeky little skull?

Plan for something special down the road

Like the Witch cackling over her crystal ball, it’s a feel-good exercise to plan ahead. Indulge in some daydreams about putting together a post-pandemic celebration – a special family dinner, a nice trip – or even something sooner. My birthday is coming up next month, and as the likelihood of going out to a restaurant is slim, and as I love cooking and currently have the time to do it, I’m already planning what I’d like to make. Just because we’ll be eating at home doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy something delicious. Coming from a German background, I’m thinking of making sauerbraten, a tangy beef roast that needs marinating for several days. My recipe is from a German cookbook, but this one on All Recipes looks fairly similar. I went out today to pick up the roast and store it in the freezer.

Distraction/a little healthy Escapism

I consider myself something of an expert on this subject, having had chronic illnesses since I was a child and some deep family troubles in early adulthood. Sometimes you just need to take a break from the world. I love to read, and have a handful of favourite novels that I reread when I really need an engrossing escape. Sci-fi/ fantasy is my thing, so here are a couple of my older favourites:

The Eight, by Katherine Neville, a wonderful adventure about a female computer expert solving a mystery involving a mystical chess set belonging to Charlemagne across history and continents;

Summon the Keeper, by Tanya Huff, a funny and eerie story about a woman charged with sealing a tear in the fabric of the world inside an old, odd Victorian mansion in Kingston, Ontario, along with her crusty, old and very sarcastic cat — it has the best depiction of Halloween I’ve ever enjoyed;

and the modern Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning, about a young woman from Georgia who goes to Ireland to try and solve the murder of her sister, only to find herself in the middle of a world of nasty Fae and enigmatic, mysterious allies — brilliantly creative and well-written.

There are lots of movies that make me feel better – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, The Mummy (1999), Death on the Nile (the amazing scenery in this movie actually spurred me on to book a bucket-list trip to Egypt, and the ensemble cast is a delight to watch). I also love some older movies like Jason and the Argonauts, pure adventure and wonderful special effects by the late great Ray Harryhausen, and Forbidden Planet, also a favourite of tv crime-writer Richard Castle.

Practicing Gratitude

March 20 is the International Day of Happiness. While that might seem like a pretty tall order at the moment, studies have shown that the practice of ‘gratitude’, of reflecting on and recognizing things in our lives to be grateful for, even tiny things, can significantly improve our mood. It may seem too simplistic, but thinking of things you’re grateful for seems to press a kind of ‘reset’ button in our brains. If you’re skeptical, you read up on the neuroscience of it on psychology.com.

The theme of this year’s IDoH is Happier Together, “focusing on what we have in common, rather than what divides us”. That seems to be especially appropriate right now.

www.actionforhappiness.org/coping-calendar

Things I’m grateful for:

  • The Internet, which allows me to keep abreast of the pandemic situation where I live, as well as global news (in small doses only!), to stream television for some entertainment and relaxation, and to work remotely as per the college where I’m currently employed
  • The burgeoning spring weather, with some sunshine and milder temperatures to elevate our moods
  • I also have the time to resume weekly blogs and share some thoughts/tips on how we can all weather these times until things start to get back to normal. There’s so much gloom in the media, I’d like to offer the alternative!

I particularly like this suggestion on the UK Telegraph’s 365 + 1 blog, to go to sleep in a better frame of mind by thinking of three good things that have happened that day. Give it a try, it really does help.

Being nice to yourself and others

These are stressful times. Be kind to yourself and to others. It feels a lot better than being grumpy and mean. Be considerate and polite when you’re out buying supplies. Check on elderly or ill neighours to see if they’re okay or need anything. Have phone or video chats with friends and co-workers as an antidote to the social distancing we’re practicing, and share a laugh together. Go out in the fresh air and walk around where there’s some nature to absorb the peacefulness.

And finally,

here’s an excellent article by the BBC, Coronavirus: How to protect your mental health.

Next week, a virtual trip to Africa, one of the most amazing, stunning, evocative places on earth. In the meantime, if you’d like to share some of your favourite ways to keep your spirits up, or a few of your favourite books/movies/resources, please do. Also, be silly a little 🙂

What lies ahead?

Twenty years ago my husband and I celebrated New Year’s Eve with family on the cusp of the new millennium. It was a momentous turn of time’s great wheel. We brought out the china and crystal; I made a special dinner with beef tenderloin; our aunt suddenly manifested signs of a winter virus just after dinner when she vomited in the bathroom, and she had to go home before we cracked open the expensive champagne at midnight. So, a fairly standard wacky holiday meal.

We all wondered what the approaching century and millennium would bring as half the world seemed convinced that our own technology would doom us as soon as the computer clocks ticked over to a year with a new configuration. We even had acquaintances who sold a profitable business to live completely off the grid.

Hubby and I weren’t as convinced of impending disaster, although we did prudently stash a small stock of supplies in case the electricity system failed for a few days – all things that we could use anyway if nothing happened, which is exactly what happened. Arguably the greatest non-event in history.

It didn’t take long for the 2000s to become tumultuous, and we’re now in a time of great uncertainty about the planet’s future.

Having grown up on Star Trek, I prefer to keep that positive vision of the future, but here are trends I’ve noticed that aren’t helping anything:

  • Overpopulation – our planetary ecosystem can’t support our current level of population growth
  • Rampant profiteering – we can’t continue stripping our planet of critical natural resources, so (among other things) someone has to put a stop to big corporations who don’t seem to care that that they’re destroying the future of their own families along with all of the rest of us
  • Divisiveness – we all need to become truly global citizens, tolerant and accepting of everyone, every life form on this planet, and the planet itself as our magnificent and precious home
  • The “it’s all about me” attitude that seems to prevail now – we need to return to values of kindness and consideration for others, and to understanding that all of our actions have consequences and that we’re responsible for those consequences
  • Unbridled materialism, which I believe is a symptom of deep cracks in our society that no one’s addressing, along with things like increasing rates of depression, anxiety, irritability and stress-related illnesses

I think people around the world are frightened, but letting our fears govern our actions isn’t the answer.

If more and more people resolve to put the welfare of each other and the entire planet on a par with themselves, to become the light-filled beings we have the capacity to be, I think we can turn the tide. If you feel the same way, let’s start something!

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