health

Making time for the benefits of doing nothing

This will sound strange to anyone who is currently raising children but when I reflect back on my childhood, in spite of being surrounded by adults, very few of those people consistently intersected in my daily reality in a way that felt as instructive or as memorable in the same positive way as the kids I interacted with back then.

Now that might be directly related to my own personal experience or it might actually be related to all children’s degree of freedom back in the 1960s.

Because of my birth order, later than the rest of my siblings, by more than a decade, what I recall most about my childhood has to do with my own time: how I spent that time, the time I spent with other kids and especially the time I spent with my best friend then. We were like a world unto ourselves, the most important humans in each others lives. That realization surprises me as I write it down and I question myself. Is my memory accurate? I think a little harder about important people: my parents, my twin brother, my older sisters, and yes, I think my memory is painting the hierarchy of their priority accurately.  

I remember having a lot of time to myself, especially in the summer, to do whatever I wanted. We made our own decisions when to come and go, when to play tennis across the street or go to the playground at the other end of the park, or to peer into our empty classroom windows across the park. We would go to Woodward’s a few blocks away, to the library a few blocks over, to the vacant lot where big kids would tease us about the mythical spotting of Big Foot. Our circumference of exploring in a city the size of New Westminster was relatively small but still allowed for ample freedom.

Other than eating meals with my family, the occasional special outing, and camping in Osoyoos for a few weeks in August, I was a free agent. I could and was expected to amuse myself. To read. To play the piano away from the rest of the family in our basement “rumpus room.” It felt in some way like there was an understanding that adults were not to be bothered because they were too busy with their own lives and had no time to waste, or at least that’s how it seemed to me as a child.

As a result, I seemed, like all kids then, to spend a lot of time in my own company or the company of other kids.  We’d explore their basements. We’d climb backyard willow trees. We’d play tag with all the neighborhood kids spreading out like the enemy across yards. We often played board games or sat and did nothing on the couch, to daydream, to negotiate what to do next, to think of ways to amuse ourselves in those endless stretches of summer days.

When we took off from the house in the morning there was no consideration of adult interventions due to cellphones or any of the compelling feelings of urgency we now have around checking e-mail. Technology’s advancement had been paused in our lives and was stuck then at the good old rotary dial phone or the Walkie Talkies we got for Christmas that only really worked between very short distances.

I’ve been reading this book, Solitude, In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris. The author refers to UBC researcher, Kalina Christoff, Ph.D., who studies spontaneous thought and mind wandering.

“Given enough solitude and enough time, the mind shifts into default mode and begins to pan through connections that at first seem wholly random,” she says, adding that the “randomness is crucial.” “The power lies in the fact that in this state the brain censors nothing. And it then makes connections that it would never otherwise make. Mind wandering is managing much more than personal memories and a sense of self. The wandering mind is also solving problems in the real world.”

Think of how little time, if any, most of now spend just sitting and staring out the window or being without our cell phones in hand or very nearby. We have no time in our day for mind wandering as a health conscious, creativity-boosting decision.

And certainly, it seems that most children have almost no down time. Every minute is filled with video games, scheduled activities, organized playdates, parents checking in on their whereabouts or directly by their sides.

When I compare my childhood experience to that new reality, it brings me such feelings of absolute claustrophobia on behalf of today’s children. Luckily, they don’t know what they’re missing.

On my recent trip to Quebec, I sat on the plane, a seat apart from a little girl from Salt Spring Island who was traveling on her own. Her relatives would be waiting for her in Toronto.

She was such a self-assured child. Calm. Confident. Able to meet a stranger and engage. Able to use her time and remain okay. In chatting with her, I learned she is a young student at a special school on Salt Spring called Wolfkids an outdoor education school. At her young age, she said she’d even participated in an overnight in the woods, as part of the school’s experiential learning.

I wondered if that is what made the difference in her maturity levels and independence or if it was just related to her own family? I was sure she had spent time daydreaming for extended periods of time even though she was mostly glued to her IPad during the flight.

Christoff speaks to daydreaming as an inherently creative process because the daydreamer is then open to bizarre new thoughts and options. The book refers to some of the greatest inventors: Einstein, Isaac Newton and how retreat and solitude can and have led to intellectual advancement.

It made me wonder how such lack of downtime might be impacting the creative thinking of today’s children. Or has the advancement of technologies merely shaped it in more sophisticated ways? More importantly, how has the lack of solitude, away from the influence of adults, impacted their ability to shape a truly unique self, to create boundaries that prevent some pathological merging of parent and child to such a degree that the child might take even longer to define a unique sense of self.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to just sit and observe, to notice the scents in the air, to pay attention to your random thoughts, cumulus cloud ideas, that inevitably drift by, the occasional one stopping you in your mental tracks with that feeling of an epiphany found?

And then I wondered, would it be philosophically wrong to add such unproductive time use to a weekly To-Do list?

After a funeral

I could not bring myself to feel enough to cry over your ending here.

Why would I?

You have moved into your element.

Christian beliefs actualized.

A joy too big to describe.

In on the secret.

Maybe it is us you now shed tears for

in that place where

you are always dressed in red

cheeks hurt from smiling so much

celestial wings wrapping you with the love

we can only imagine, the kind

you’d sought ever since your father left and

you’d steeled yourself against

heartbreak arriving in that same way again on any chilly spring morning.

None of that earthly business left now.

No need for words where spirit plays.

Comfort before worries have a chance to surface,

making you wish you’d accepted,

unconditionally,

that of course everything was always going to be alright

In life.

In death.

Understanding trauma through storytelling

photo by gayle mavor. Art by Suzanne Fulbrook.

I went to a panel at the Growing Room Festival on Saturday called “No Way out but Through: Writing about Trauma.” The panelists were: Evelyn Lau, Christine Lowther and Sonnet L’Abbe with Elee Kraljii Gardener as the moderator. 

I was invited to be one of the active listeners. I’m not sure who suggested me. Someone, I suppose, who knows that I’ve taken quite a few counselling and related courses (eight to be exact) as pre-requisites to a Masters in the past few years. Poet Jonina Kirtan was the other active listener.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, nobody needed to talk to us.

Let me rephrase that. Some women may have benefited from sharing their feelings. There were no outward signs (except coughing) to indicate that. The thing about coughing is maybe you have a cold or maybe your emotion is being manifested through coughing.  Who’s to say.

How strangely serendipitous it should be that I would find myself being invited to that event because what some of the panelists had to say set off a bit of a light bulb moment for me in understanding that some of what I’m writing about is, of course, trauma-related. And if I re-examine some of the things I’ve been writing about from that perspective, it’s much clearer to me how to focus the stories and perhaps my entire manuscript with that in the background as the “golden thread” of explanation.

Evelyn Lau spoke to how she needed to be completely in her own space, in silence, in order to have the psychological space to work through her stuff.  She spoke about forming her commitment to writing long before a commitment to people.  “When talking hasn’t worked, writing is all that’s left.” And she also reminded us that trauma can also translate, eventually, into strength.” That, I believe, for me, has absolutely been true.

As a writer, a storyteller, you have to decide who you serve. Do you serve the writing or do you serve the people around you? Christine Lowther recalled hearing that (from Evelyn Lau) and as a result, (and she’s not alone in this experience based on what I’ve heard from other writers), she’s had relatives not speak to her for periods of time because of some of the things she’s written.

I think it was Elee Kraljii who said “the closer you are to a trauma, the more catharsis feels like the impetus for the writing. Years later, however, if you are still writing about it, it can feel psychologically damaging.”  Interesting insight to mull over.

Christine Lowther has been writing/re-writing about one specific image left over from a childhood experience, approaching that trauma and having new memories surface to add new layers and different ways into the story.  

She recalled having some student say to her 20 years ago, “Well, I hope you’re not going to be writing about this 20 years from now!” And she still is.  And maybe that’s what every writer is doing. Writing about the things that were the impetus for writing in the first place, in only slightly revised ways, but with layer upon layer of new insights impacting the words on the page.

Sonnet has this incredible project where she’s using Shakespeare’s sonnets to write around and interject her own writing over top of them, layering her experience as a woman of a Guyanese, South Asian and African mixed descent over some of the most seminal works in British colonialism.  I hope I understood that correctly.

I don’t know when trauma became a commonly referred to word but it didn’t exist when I was growing up. Or if it did, the depth of understanding related to it is greater now. At least that’s how it seems to me.  After a lot of therapy, some education and my own insights, I can’t help but see how that term – trauma – gets loaded with so much misinformation and misunderstanding.

Our stories, after all, are just our stories. They don’t come with labels alerting us to the clinical box they might fit inside. We can so easily forget to recognize how the scenes we’ve been a part of in life can be defined clinically in ways that we can so easily overlook. Sometimes that acknowledgement, not just in life, but on the page, can not only lead us to be kinder to ourselves, but to a more cohesive narrative.

Harvest dinner: Good for the heart in more ways than one

I went to an annual harvest dinner on the weekend, hosted as it is every year by friends Penny and Gwen. Each year, for the past five years, about eight to 10 women gather around Penny’s dining room table or  to be more specific, a menagerie of hidden tables pushed together and covered by matching cloths.group2016

Penny always does the hosting because she loves to host. She may also be the most experienced hostess and she has all the accoutrements in the form of china, plates, glasses, vases and the artistic touch of an interior decorator.

We each bring a dish made using vegetables that we either grew in a community garden plot or on our patio or off the windowsill with, at the very least, herbs adding to the flavour of the dish, even if it wasn’t grown from scratch, wrenched from the dirt, with our own citified hands.

tablesetting

And just to be clear, nobody is acting as the food police. We don’t get stopped on the way in demanding to know what part of the dish we have in hand that we grew ourselves. We all know who the guerilla gardeners are.

It’s always such a nice treat because it’s about the conversation and the gathering, the tasting of the food, and the kind of back and forth that happens when people (who want to be together) come together across a table. Devices are scarce, except for the hurried photo taking right before we dig in. We’re engaging and listening.  We’re admiring the dishes and the way Penny has creatively styled the table for the gathering.

foodrule

Silently, as the evening unfolds, I know all sorts of memories must get whetted from the experience. Memories of childhood meals and romantic dinners between two. Meals that we hated as kids. Francis told a story about two meals that her mother actually allowed them, as kids, to hold their noses while they shoveled in the food because she knew it wasn’t very good. There’s even the memories of the people who may not be around the table this year who always enlivened the experience in the past. To name names, Shona is working through CUSO on a new social enterprise of a working farm, the first of its kind in a specific area in the Philippines.

I always walk away thinking, Why don’t I do that anymore? And the answer has to do with how I feel about my current apartment. I dream of what it would be like to actually live in a space where hosting a dinner party would really make sense because of the size of the kitchen and the size of the table.  I enjoyed having people over in the past.doukka

I think of that as another fallout of real estate prices in Vancouver that doesn’t get talked about, that is, the number of people, especially those who don’t own, who live in places that are not very amenable to socializing in the way that’s conducive to entertaining.

It’s easy to say, it’s all about the company, but in fact, that’s only partly true. In reality, the entire package – friends, food, and environment – create the experience. I know that because I think of the dinners that really stand out for me.

I think of my friend Anne who lives on the Sunshine Coast and all the incredible meals – rack of lamb, sockeye salmon, pork medallions – that her husband Bob and her have cooked for me over the years in their beautiful homes.

I think about Donna, a former co-worker, and what a fantastic cook she is and how much she always puts into every meal she cooks for company. I think of when my eldest sister was alive and the meals she hosted.

Of course I think about Pauline on Salt Spring and how I managed to gain 10 pounds when we’d wiling away the winter evenings that first winter at her table.  I think about how spoiled I was by Linda and Tom on Salt Spring. Linda busy preparing weekday dinners in the kitchen while I dropped by after work and hung out with Tom in the living room catching up on the week’s news until dinner was ready. Brat. I’m a brat! But they liked doing it. I didn’t make them. Honest! They kept inviting me.

And recollections of the occasional fancy dinners that Don cooked at Christmas in his tiny cabin on Gail and Michael’s property. And then, most significantly, I can’t help but think of my own mother and all the meals she cooked over her lifetime.

Being single, I have not had to experience the drudgery of the daily getting dinner on the table for a large family, not to mention cooking for the annual special occasions. The amount of shopping, prep and clean up that went into that reality is mind boggling. I look back at those rituals that I observed as a child, so far removed from my current reality, and I marvel at how my mother didn’t just collapse.  She had my elder sisters to help but still, she had to orchestrate the entire production. And multiply that scene across the world. Women working. Men mostly showing up, eating, then retiring to the sofa. It was a time when Sunday dinners with the silverware, white tablecloth and good china, because company was coming, was not the exception but a bi-weekly routine.

This year, we were asked to bring a Food Rule, an idea that Gwen had because she had read Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules, an eater’s manual.

  • Avoid food products that contain ingredients that a third grader cannot pronounce
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
  • It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car …

These make me laugh. Others are more serious.

At these gatherings, we’re usually asked to share something – a poem, a drawing, a thought – focused on the year’s theme and of course this year’s request was to bring our own Food Rule.

I’ll leave you with this one: Think lovingly about the people you are cooking for because making food for them and sharing it is a form of love.

Got any of your own food rules? We’d love to hear them in a comment.

Walking and social media and a blast from the past

About six weeks ago, I had a gallbladder attack so severe that I had to call an ambulance. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to call an ambulance for yourself but it’s a really hard thing to do. It always seems to be required at 3:30 am when the dark and the silence closes in to make the decision even starker.

Now, I figured out pretty quickly that it must be a gallbladder attack because three years ago, I thought I was having a heart attack that turned out to be a gallbladder attack. This time though, I just put two and two together. Besides, I’d made the horrible mistake of eating an entire bag of Salsa Fresca rice chips that night and I don’t even really know what Salsa Fresca means but to my gallbladder it meant, “Are you #@!! kidding me?”

About a week afterwards, the episode still vivid, and the tenderness of my right side subsiding, I decided to make a few changes. They recommended surgery but I’m kind of a surgery-over-my-dead-body kind of gal. Especially when lifestyle and food choices are the problem. Why convict my innocent, abused gall bladder? How about taking some personal responsibility?

I Googled extensively. I punched in the words gallbladder and liver and all sorts of “natural” remedies popped up.  I settled on assembling this beet, carrot, apple juice, apple cider vinegar concoction which required boiling the carrots and the beets first and then blendering them so as to drink it through a straw (so as not to stain my teeth). I chose to forego the natural remedy that required the ingestion of Epsom Salts but claimed to rid the body of gall stones, in contrast to medical papers that refute such a thing is naturally possible.

I started taking a Milk Thistle supplement for my liver. I stopped drinking alcohol, except if the social occasion and my mood dictated that I felt like one drink. Everything in moderation. Even moderation. I stopped drinking coffee, at least on a daily basis, as a way of not starting the morning with a spoon full of sugar because black coffee is not something I desire to ever acclimatize to. Now I just put on the kettle and squeeze an organic lemon of its juice and drink that first thing. Good for the liver.

I’ve started eating much better, following the philosophy of that guy Michael Pollan and the example of my friend Gwen. “Eat. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

And, I started walking. I bought a pair of Skechers which helps me to feel like I’m walking in slippers. I put on a pedometer (because I’m old school and don’t want to send the money on a Fitbit) and marked off the days that I walked. In August, I walked between 2 and 4 miles, sometimes 5 miles max. on all but four of the 31 days, not including the tiny steps around the apartment, around the block walking.

I also knew I would need some accountability and inexplicably the first person who popped into my head was Gary. It’s kind of weird that I should choose him since I haven’t seen him in 18 years when we met on a trip through the Yucatan and into Chiapas.  We hadn’t even kept in touch in the last decade although I did see him for one day sometime around 2005 when he came to Squamish for an Outward Bound course.

gary

Gary, 18 years ago in Chiapas

He seemed like the perfect accountability buddy to me: super fit and on the other side of the country. He couldn’t really get in my face should I get lazy. I’m sure it seemed alarmingly weird that I should contact him for such a thing but to his credit, without missing a beat, he was ready to play along.

It took just one sentence from him complaining about someone he knew to really drive home my lack of commitment to exercise.  He said, and I quote, “I have to get up and go to work every day and drive, sometimes 90 minutes back fighting traffic and she can’t even spend one hour of her entire day getting some exercise.” Hello! Was he talking about me? He might as well have been. And that’s how it began.

Now six weeks later, I feel like I’ve really hit my stride. Five miles takes about 1.5 hours. The  circumferences that my legs are carrying me is ever-widening the way circles push out from the center when you drop a pebble into a pond. At this point I have to remind myself that I’m not aiming for Forrest Gump wannabe, I’m just trying to get a little exercise on a mostly daily basis and it’s working. At the same time, I’m experiencing the beautiful side effects of all sorts of weird and interesting ideas flowing through my consciousness that seem to be a direct result of the body’s physical movement.

I text Gary when I’m done. “5.1 miles. 10,817 steps. Fav time to walk? Late Sunday afternoon. Just got back” He texts me back. “Wow.”  “That’s great.” “You’re getting more exercise than I am.”

And, of course, we text about more than walking. We’ve learned a lot more about each others current lives in the process. In the meantime, I’ve lost 9 pounds and my gallbladder has been happily silent.