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

Valuing every day

Ancient headstones, Glendalough, Ireland

I often feel that it’s sad how quickly we want Fridays to arrive (and the fact that there’s an entire restaurant chain called TGI Fridays speaks for itself), but some weeks are legitimately dismal and call for a drink by their end.

This has been one such week for me, still feeling poorly from a virus, and attending the funeral of a friend’s life partner, who died suddenly sitting in his living room chair (from a heart attack). I am heartbroken for my friend, who lost her beloved of more than 35 years with no warning or time to prepare, and for his family as well — at the service, everyone just seemed shell-shocked.

There’s not even very much we can do to help our friends under these circumstances, apart from being company through the grieving afterward, and these events have a ripple effect, prompting us to feel insecure about the safety of our own partners in the wake of the devastation we can see in our friends’ faces.

Grief is gut-wrenching and painful, but I offer you this excellent essay, The Awe of Being Alive, that I happened to come across this week. The writer talks about what value such traumatic events have in our lives, having lived through one himself. For my part, feeling deep grief affirms the love we have had for a person, or even a beloved pet, and that it was a great gift to have had them in our lives.

These events also remind us to cherish every moment we have with a loved one, because life can change in an instant, and to try to make the most of every day.

Go out and do wonderful things now, as many as you can. Don’t wait for a day in some misty future that may never come.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, or spend your time worrying about what other people think. Be true to yourself, be a nice person, in some small measure leave the world a better place than when you entered it. Those are the things that truly matter.

World Kindness (Every) Day

Image courtesy of https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/world-kindness-day

This will be a short post, as I have a virus and my head is on strike, but I did want to mention that yesterday was World Kindness Day, and that’s something I really believe in.

In a world with a lot of daily stressors, it’s easy to be grumpy, short-tempered and so wrapped up in your own issues that you forget to take other people into consideration. I think we’re all guilty of it from time to time in varying degrees, but sometimes you run into a person who is so toxic to deal with that it taints your entire day.

My best antidote to that is to go out of my way to be kind to someone. I’ll make someone a nice cup of tea, or make a point of chatting with a stressed store clerk to make them smile, or give a Tim Horton’s gift card to a homeless person so they can get a hot meal. These small acts of kindness are my way of putting some good karma back into the world.

If each of us can take the time to be kind, to give someone a break or the benefit of the doubt, even just to smile at people, we could make the world a much nicer place.

In the words of Brooke Jones, Vice President, The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, ” Kindness starts with one. One smile. One compliment. One cup of coffee. One conversation.” Find out more about being kind at the Random Acts of Kindness website.