Inspire Me! blog

Have a Day of Imagination

Imagine that you’re spending the summer in a villa on Lake Geneva in 1816. The weather is terrible – it will become known as ‘the year without a summer’. In April the year before, a little-known volcano in Indonesia, Mount Tambora, erupted so powerfully that its ash cloud reached almost 27 miles high, into the Earth’s stratosphere, and it’s still affecting the world’s climate over a year later.

The days are dark, cold and rainy. Stuck inside the villa for the most part, your host Lord Byron suggests that, to pass the time, everyone there should come up with a good ghost story.

This is easier said than done – writers usually work from inspiration, not on command. Then one night you all spend an evening of discussion about the nature of life, and whether a corpse could be reanimated by applying enough electricity, based on the discoveries of Luigi Galvani just a few decades previously.

The gloomy weather and macabre discussion infect your thoughts. Perhaps you have a vision such as young Mary Shelley did:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

That imagined scenario prompted her to produce one of the most original horror stories ever written, Frankenstein.

What a rich life we lead when we use our imagination.

As kids we have nothing but our imaginations; we haven’t experienced much by the age of four, or seven, or even ten, so we make up wildly creative worlds to play in.

If we retain that capacity for crazy ideas and creative mental leaps, as adults we can come up with amazing concepts.

In the 1820s, Charles Babbage created his Difference Engine, basically a mechanical calculator, but it was the forerunner of our modern computers.

J.R.R. Tolkien created such a powerful alternate world, Middle-Earth, in his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories that he continues to inspire generations of fantasy writers and readers to this day.

Albert Einstein famously developed the theory of relativity by first imagining what it would be like to travel so fast that he could catch up with a beam of light.

Several years ago at work I was on a committee to organize the annual Appreciation Day for staff. The morning schedule always included a team-building activity based on that year’s overall theme. One of the most successful activities we ever devised was inspired by the Harry Potter theme: build a dragon.

All the materials were provided. Since the activity was only 30 minutes long, we decided to give the teams a head start by demonstrating how to build the core of the dragon quickly with shoe boxes and tape; after that they could create the rest of the dragon as they wished. We had a big table strewn with all kinds of decorative materials, from pipe cleaners to feather boas, for them to use. There were no rules; we’d be judging the dragons based entirely on how cool and interesting they looked!

After the demo, we waited nervously to see if the teams could come to a consensus on how they wanted their dragon to look, or devolve into arguments, or decide the whole thing was too lame.

The room quickly erupted in sound and motion. It was clear that the teams were fully engaged and having an absolute blast.

When time was up, the creativity blew our committee away. Each dragon was completely different, and some departed entirely from the body mock-up we’d offered. We did award a prize, to much cheering, but I’m not sure it mattered because the staff had already enjoyed themselves so much.

In the past year, people were extremely creative during the pandemic lock-downs because there wasn’t much else to do while we, much like Mary Shelley and her companions in 1816, were stuck inside, but there’s no reason we can’t continue to think that way as the world slowly begins to move on.

There’s an event coming up this Saturday in New York City called the Day of Imagination. It’s described as “an ode to idealism — a space for the presentation of the most thrilling, ambitious, wildest “dream projects” of musical artists from across the world” – and it gave me the idea for this blog post.

While we’re still dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic and the continual bad news in the media, how about taking a break for our own personal Day of Imagination?

Regularly taking the time to engage our imaginations is healthy, even critical. It’s well known by science that stretching our brains is something we need to do, especially as we get older. For example, as reported by CNN, a study by neurologists in 2015 found that “people who engaged in artistic activities… were 73% less likely to have memory and thinking problems, such as mild cognitive impairment, that lead to dementia.”

If you took an entire day to just live in the realm of your imagination, what would you do?

Would you buy some materials and paint a picture, or go out into nature and photograph all kinds of little details you’ve never noticed before?

Would you read a book in a genre that’s new for you? Play with Lego blocks? Do some free-form writing in a journal? Start that vacation scrapbook you’ve been planning for years?

Would you, just for fun, do something way outside your wheelhouse? Maybe you might try your hand at writing a ghost story, or a horror story?

Albert Einstein, in an interview for the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, said, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Step away from the troubles of the world for a day, whether it’s by yourself, or with friends or family, and spend a day being like children again. Sometimes they’re smarter than we are.

What do rising global temperatures mean for all of us?

When I was growing up, fathers made skating rinks for their kids every winter. Once the snow began falling my dad would make the wall for the rink, and then I tried to be patient while he decided when it was cold enough to flood the space and let it freeze. New ice skates were common gifts under family Christmas trees.

There was always enough snow to make snowmen and snow forts, and ‘snow days’ were regular occurrences. By the time I was married just ten to fifteen years later, my hubby and I bought cross-country skis to enjoy winter more instead of grumbling about it, but we rarely got enough snow to use them.

Within the past thirty years, according to the World Wildlife Fund, “the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95%.” Within less than one lifetime, my hubby and I have noticed a significant change in our local weather, and we live in a very temperate zone. Changes in other parts of the world have been much more dramatic.

WWF predicts that by 2040 there might be no ice in the Arctic. That’s a horrifying thought – our majestic polar bears would then literally have no place to survive. Here in Canada we’ve already been experiencing dramatic shifts in temperature, from frigid polar vortices in winter to heat waves in the summer, which this year have led to catastrophic fires in parts of the country.

I’ve been extremely worried ever since the Greenland Ice Sheet began seriously melting several years ago. According to WWF, “if it melts entirely, global sea levels could rise 20 feet.”

Read more at “Six ways loss of Arctic ice impacts everyone”.

August’s stunning report by the IPCC told us that over the next 20 years the temperature of our globe is expected to increase by at least 1.5°C. That may not sound like a lot, and like you I wondered why that amount is so significant, so I did some research.

That increase in global temperature would result in extreme hot days “in the mid-latitudes” (which includes most of North America and Europe above the equator, and below it most of Australia and about the bottom third of South America), becoming 3°C hotter (5.4°F) than pre-industrial levels.

There will be more droughts and heatwaves; hurricanes will become stronger; there will be more wildfires, more insect invasions, more disease, less food. If you want to watch a truly frightening film about what our future could be like if we don’t start making changes, watch Interstellar (2014).

So what can be done? Following the KAIROS climate action calendar, I looked at Day 10, which says to “learn to laser talk”? I had no idea what that meant, so more research was required. The LASER acronym appears to mean “Leonardo Art & Science Evening Rendezvous”, and represents an international program of gatherings with artists, scientists, and scholars presentations and conversations. Apparently there have been quite a few regarding our global environment and climate change, which you can read and watch to start your own conversation.

I found examples on the website of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), as well as a great overview resource about Climate Change and how to solve the growing problems, CCL Canada LASER Talks Booklet updated November 2020. I encourage you to download the PDF – it’s 38 pages long but so well organized that it will be easy for you to sift through the information. You’ll have a much better understanding of the economic issues and viable solutions.

Sections I found especially useful were:

  • “Carbon Pricing 101”, which explains the heavy costs associated with carbon pollution and how they tend to land on we individual taxpayers instead of on the corporations that generate the most greenhouse gases.
  • Six ways of pricing carbon pollution, how that could be done more appropriately and how that would take the burden off middle- and lower-income citizens.
  • There’s an interesting section on Canadian Family Wealth Distribution. The document tells us that “the top 1.0 % quintile of Canadian families possess more than a quarter of all wealth in Canada” and pay the least taxes toward the federal budget. The same applies to Canadian corporations. The income from more equitable taxation could be used to invest in better sources of fuel.
  • Data about where Canada’s damaging emissions come from.
  • Why Canada’s relatively small percent (<2%) of global greenhouse gas emissions still really matters: global responsibility and cumulative impact, the leverage we could gain from being leaders in environmental recovery, the increase in jobs, lower costs from dealing with climate disasters, and what should be foremost on the minds of all Canadians: improved health.

We still live on a beautiful planet. Let’s ensure that future generations do too.

For love of our global home

Here in southern Ontario the heat of August has finally broken, and it’s been an absolute delight to be able to open the windows of our houses to let fresh air back in.

We’ve had hot summers before, so this year’s wasn’t anything new, but around the world the signs of climate change are unmistakable – melting polar snow, widespread forest fires, increasingly powerful hurricanes.

A study of impacts globally during the past 50 years (1970 to 2019 ) from weather, climate and water extremes, has shown that climate-related disasters are now five times higher than they used to be, with an enormous cost to the local economies. It’s been estimated that the fires in British Columbia this summer cost $600 million dollars just to fight them, much less the lives lost, compromised health and damages to homes and business disruptions.

Last month the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released an assessment of the current dire condition our planet is in: we must take action immediately in order to prevent a catastrophic future in as little as twenty years. Some of the changes that have already happened will take hundreds of years to reverse..

Lots of people are working on the problem, but it’s our job as average citizens to understand the seriousness of the issue, to value what we’ve been blessed with until now and to help in any way we can.

KAIROS Canada, a coalition of religious organizations across denominations, along with advocates from around the world interested in human rights and the preservation of our planet, has designated September as Climate Action Month, and as a graduate in ecological and environmental science myself, I’ll be following some of their initiatives throughout the month.

If you’re wondering what you can do, KAIROS’ 30-day Challenge Card will give you some ideas:

You can download the 30-Day Challenge ACTION Card for yourself and track your actions.   

Today I’m fulfilling Actions 2, 6, 18, 20 and 27 all in the same post. I engaged in some Forest Bathing today in a local conservation area called Woodend on top of the Niagara Escarpment to absorb all the healing aspects of a simple walk in the woods and to collect samples of the beauty of nature all around us to share with you. Here’s just a little of what I found.

Cool, aromatic trails through the forest
Tiny flowers have amazingly elaborate structures
Clearings contain a complex layering of inhabitants, through which white butterflies dance from flower to flower
Throughout the area massive blocks of dolomitic limestone create jumbled landscapes
Nearby, this bark-less fallen chunk of tree has strange markings — maybe trails of subcutaneous insects that once lived there?
Another fallen trunk sports a collection of woodland fungi
Forest bathing is all about taking a break from everyday life and letting the sights, sounds, scents and healthy atmosphere of a forest replenish you. It’s important to notice all the layers; here the trail underfoot is dry and cracked from the heat and limited rainfall of the past few weeks.
Wild rose shrubs dot the airier edges of the forest, now sporting their rose hips, or haws, for the transition into autumn
This fallen trunk houses an ethereal spider web and accessories of dried leaves
A patch of bright red berries on the sunny forest fringe
Wild apples (crabapples) hang temptingly for the region’s white-tailed deer population
A wide path cut through part of the woods draws visitors in with its peace and shade

All of that in one tiny corner of our world, free for anyone to enjoy. Imagine if in twenty years or so none of that was there.

Bees, for example, are in great danger of disappearing, and that would be disastrous. Bees pollinate 80% of the world’s plants – including more than 100 different food crops: fruits, vegetables, forage for dairy and beef cattle, herbs, spices, nuts, medicinal plants and the many ornamental plants we love in our gardens. Without the humble little bee flitting around, working away, we all face starvation.

Forests clean our air. They also shelter thousands of species of animals around the world. According to Reset.org, one 100-year-old oak tree every year binds about 5,000 pounds of carbon and gives off enough oxygen to support eleven people. At the same time, the roots absorb about 40,000 liters of water from the soil every year, which it “sweats out” through the leaves to work like a giant air conditioner. On top of that, the tree filters about one tonne of dust and pollutants from the air.

Without trees, we all face climatic disaster.

I think a lot of people believe that humans are the only important species on the planet, but they’re so wrong. Earth is a massive interconnected system that depends on millions of creatures, both plant and animal, to function properly. Without all of them, humans are doomed.

How can you help? By supporting everyone who’s working so hard to change things for the better. Recycle, sign petitions to our governments, support the plants and animals we have left.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that more than 37,400 species of all kinds are currently threatened with extinction, but the actual number is even higher because there are many more species that simply haven’t been assessed yet – or even discovered!

International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, www.iucnredlist.org/

Every species counts. One petition that came to my inbox today illustrates the importance of everyone making their voice heard so that our governments realize we want them to preserve our planet, not big business.

Would you allow someone to dismantle your own home bit by bit, until there was nothing left to shelter and nourish you? Of course not. So let’s not let big business do that to our global home.

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

Steam heat

We’ve been living in a regional sauna lately — heat warnings most days this month. I go out as little as possible when the weather’s like this, mainly for groceries and to water our drooping garden plants.

By late August I’m longing for cool autumn weather — which looks like it’s still pretty far away — so for this post I’ll share some photos I took on one of the rare rainy days a couple of weeks ago, up at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington. My brother and I spent some time strolling Hendrie Park, until the rain became torrential, lightning flashed and thunder boomed all around us. We felt sorry for the two wedding parties there that day!

Just looking at these photos makes me feel cooler; I hope they affect you the same way 🙂

Widespread cloud cover took the edge off the heat while we walked the pathways.
Magnificent rust-toned sunflowers nodding way over my head
I like the contrast of these fluffy Teddy Bear Sunflowers with their huge shiny leaves
An explosion of colour against cool green leaves
Dragonflies welded together in a mating dance landed briefly by this crimson water lily
These soft creamy day lilies reminded me of sheer lacy curtains waving in a summer breeze
Spot the Monarch butterfly
Pale lavender roses epitomize coolness
The stormy sky reflected in a pond shortly before the rain blew in

Wherever you are, I hope you’re keeping cool while this month burns its way into the history books.

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.

The little writer that could

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can write a novel…but I didn’t for a couple of decades, or more. Actually, I’ve been jotting ideas for a very long time. With every approaching milestone birthday I’d set that date as a deadline for writing a book, but it never came to pass.

You see, nothing new ever happens unless you take a chance, take that first step outside your comfort zone.

I have finally finished that first book, and I did pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. I typed “The End” on August 1, and thought I’d run out to get a nice new bottle, but as fate would have it, all the stores were closed for our Civic Holiday. Drat! I hunted through the stock of wine in our rec-room bar, and finally found one old bottle that someone had given us for a gift a while ago. It was dusty, and debatably drinkable, but it was the only option, so after dinner we opened it up, hoping for the best. Luckily, it was still potable, although I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t.

What really mattered, of course, was the achievement, and even if the book never gets published, the fact that I wrote it means a great deal.

I’ve backed up the files onto two separate portable drives, and am determinedly leaving the pages to rest for a while. It’s been surprisingly difficult to step away – I have so loved telling the story of my tarnished heroine and her adventures into the supernatural – but during the down-time I am getting caught up on quite a few chores that took a back seat for the past few months, so that’s a good thing anyway.

Editing will begin in a couple of weeks, coinciding with the return of kids to school at the beginning of September. I wonder if that may be fate; as a child I always loved restarting school each autumn. I may have grumbled about homework and occasionally day-dreamed about being outside on a beautiful fall day if I was bored in class, but I loved the atmosphere of learning.

Learning to me is one of the greatest gifts in our lives. There are so many fascinating things to explore about our world! Today is World Elephant Day, for example, and I just read that elephants have about 150,000 muscles just in their trunks, which are remarkable appendages that they use to drink with, breathe with while wading in deep water, and pick up food with – anything from small twigs to large fruit and grasses. When we were in the Okavango Delta of Botswana we watched one elephant rip up great hanks of grasses with its trunk and stuff them into its mouth.

I learned a great deal from writing my novel, and for anyone who thinks they’d love to write as well but are too worried about their ability to finish to even begin – as I was – I can tell you what guided me to that final page:

  1. I had a good idea of what my heroine’s journey was going to be – in other words, a plan. I would have found it virtually impossible to start cold turkey. Maybe some writers can do it that way, but I couldn’t.
  2. I was worried whether I’d have enough of a story to tell, but as the heroine’s journey went on, a lot of events fell logically into place. After all, every action has consequences, and I was interested to see them play out. Sometimes the results surprised me as much as they did the heroine, and that was half the fun!
  3. I wrote every single day throughout November to get to the desired goal of 50,000 words. That was really important to me – it was my barometer to decide whether I was capable of producing an entire book. Every successful author’s advice has always included one particular message: perseverance is key.
  4. Embarking on this project was a big leap of faith, but I didn’t want to reach the end of my life (some day in the far distant future, I hope) without having at least tried. At the beginning I worried about all the same things as other would-be authors, I’m sure: am I worthy, can I fill up an entire book, can I come up with believable dialogue… In the end, my journey was as intense as my heroine’s, and we both discovered new things about ourselves.
  5. Every big project looks intimidating at the beginning. The road to success consists of achieving one part of the big picture at a time. Writing that first chapter wasn’t too bad, and then the second, then the third…and one day eight months later the last.
  6. Finishing the book has given me an enormous confidence boost. If I can do it once, I can do it again – for Books 2 and 3 in the trilogy (for which I’m furiously jotting down ideas even now), and for a couple of non-fiction books I also want to write.

Goals and journeys are only ever achieved by taking that first wobbly step into the unknown. I’m nervous about editing my draft, wondering how painful/frustrating it’s going to be, but I forge ahead in the knowledge that I have a dedicated group of beta readers waiting excitedly to see what I’ve created, and I can’t wait to show it to them. I hope they love it as much as I do, even if parts of it stink and need revising. Then, like the Little Engine that toiled determinedly over the crest of the hill, I’ll be able to say, “I thought I could”.