A blog about health, wellness and well-being, with advice on how to achieve it... from your inner depth to your outer surface.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Poverty isn't about money

Geraint Rowland, Flickr


This is what I thought as I scrolled down the "what life below the poverty line looks like" pictures on this site (click here).

Admittedly, the first thing that comes to mind when you look at the pictures linked above might be something along the lines of "Come on, people, take charge of your own lives!"

It is hard to understand why people would

- give babies coffee (or soft drinks, as seen elsewhere)
- be extremely poor yet obese or a regular smoker or drinker (all that wasted money, some will say)
- have babies in the "wrong circumstances"
- etc.


But as my friend K's wisely remarked when, in my younger years, I started commenting on the way some of her students (she's a special ed teacher) were probably raised...

"Don't judge"

Many North Americans who live below the poverty line still do have a roof, heating, drinking water, food, some furniture, some appliances, some clothes. Their material belongings and income might not differ that much from those of people who actively choose simplicity - and are happy about it.

Which makes you wonder: why does it seem like "the poor"'s life sucks then?

The difference lies in that simple word: choice. There is a huge difference between choosing frugality and being forced into it because of external reasons (which are usually not good reasons, by the way).

More than once in my life I made the choice to live simply. At some point I did not own a microwave nor a TV, which is unthinkable to most. My weekly groceries were monastic. My spending money almost nonexistent. And you should have seen the size of that apartment! It all felt good because 1) I had made the decision myself and 2) I knew that my choice could be reversed if I decided so.

No matter how little money or stuff I was living with, I was still floating on the cloud of a happy childhood, a nice upbringing, a solid education.

I did not feel poor.

I am not in a position to judge.

Judging is the first mistake we make when observing people who are struggling. We assume they have total control over their destiny, if only they were willing to pull up their sleeves. We misunderstand the reasons underlying their "questionable" choices. Yet we have not walked a mile (not even a foot) in their shoes. What is their background? What are their circumstances? What is the society we live in doing for them (or against them)? What is their level of personal agency, real or perceived? Ever heard of the term "vicious circle"?

Things don't have to be that way. But it will take a whole lot of elbow grease to make them change.

Wealthy, educated and generally speaking privileged people don't always make the right choices. How can we expect those who had a rough start to make the right choices?

Don't judge.



Saturday, July 12, 2014

Knowing your limits - both the upper and the lower end

peasap, Flickr



It might seem like a cliché question, but do you know where your limits are?

And if so, do you respect them?

One good test is to ask yourself: "when I am hungry/tired/too hot/too cold... how long does it take me to attend to my need?"

Think about it.

The rat race we're in often leads us to oversee our needs.

I sometimes pride myself on being the antithesis of a diva (not in that I sing badly, but in that I am pretty low maintenance). However, that itself has its limits, and whenever I have trespassed them, it did not end well.

Last winter, for example, I worked wayyyyyy too much. Consequence: exhausted both mentally and physically, I ended up being sick for most of February. Me, the "never sick" person!

Luckily, others know better, and I am a good student.


  • With my mother I have learned that it's okay to take regular breaks to sit and have a snack when you're out shopping for a while. (I would just go and go until I practically collapse.)

  • With my father I have learned that the beginning of a headache has to be attended to, lest it turns into a full blown migraine. (They run in the family, and I have not been spared.)

  • With my friend A, a seasoned and well-rounded athlete - she is an IronWoman among other things - I have learned to pace myself: I would tend to start off hikes and runs way too fast. She calmed me down. (Very good advice: I now do much better overall at endurance challenges.)

  • With my little neighbor, L, who witnessed me packing my camping stuff, I have learned (following her advice) that bringing a good pillow is not superfluous. (She was right - I sleep so much better with my favorite pillow.)


Right now I am reading "Not Buying It. My Year Without Shopping", by Judith Levine. Some readers have accused her of not taking the challenge seriously, i.e. she complains about the luxuries she misses, and cannot wait to be allowed to spend again, when in fact she is still leading a comfortable life. I see the book differently. I think her journey illustrates clearly (and honestly) what happens when a middle class couple in their 50s, without children, attempt to reduce their consumption habits for the first time. Of course they have been used to a certain level of comfort and freedom. But you have to start where you're at, no? She does make some interesting points.






Taking breaks, attending our needs and being good to ourselves is no equivalent to overindulging and is not a waste of time. When done properly, it allows us to function more efficiently... with the added benefit of feeling better!

However, one must not forget that limits go both way. I believe we all operate best within an optimal range. Just as we need to give ourselves much needed breaks, we also need a certain amount of stimulation and challenge.

So, let me ask you again: do you know where your lower limit is, i.e. how much challenge you need in order to thrive?

And if so, do you make sure you do not remain below that stimulation level for too long?

I know my Vizsla has a clear need for physical activity, and a lot of it: if you don't exercise them sufficiently, many dogs (Vizslas in particular) will become "neurotic" and destructive.

I myself have noticed that when I fail to exercise sufficiently, my moods are affected.

Another example that's dear to my heart is that of gifted children; when they are forced to follow the regular curriculum, they can become bored and eventually disruptive. It's just like trying to drive a Ferrari at 15 km/h: it wasn't meant for that kind of speed!

As I was explaining to the kids today, certain forces contribute to maintain airplanes up in the sky (we had just witnessed a glider breaking free from the plane that had been pulling it), but slow the plane enough and it won't be supported anymore: it will fall. Same for bicycles. Same for people: their unique abilities have to be put to good use.


R, having just finished the junior version of the Spartan Race,
finishing in 2nd position in her category.
It was still a good challenge since she managed
to bruise a knee badly in the process.



We all have an ideal cruising speed. What is yours?

One final question for the road:

What do you think people's reaction is to someone who performs way above average in a given ability?

For example, in athletic ability? (the jock - not necessarily applicable to the pretty female athlete, who despite her huge talent might be known by many for her mouth-watering curves - I'm thinking of all I read about Eugénie Bouchard recently - not impressed.)

What about intellectual ability? (the nerd)

Do we react to it in the same way?

What makes us cheer? What makes us frown?

Why, do you think?



What about musical genius?









Saturday, July 5, 2014

What nature has taught me

Cabot Trail, 2014


Back from a wonderful camping trip to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, land of the beautiful Cabot Trail. Came back just in time for tropical storm Arthur to hit the shores of Nova Scotia; wouldn't have enjoyed being in a tent while ''The wind may be strong enough to blow the tattoo off your arm'' (dixit one radio announcer).

I have been camping since I was a baby, and apart from a few ungrateful years (between the ages of 13 and 16 approx.), I have always enjoyed it. Usually, the most basic the better: a tent, some minimal sleeping gear, just enough food and clothes. Which raises an important question: why on earth do we voluntarily make ourselves miserable sleeping in the woods with no modern facilities when we would be so comfortable at home?

That is because wilderness camping can teach one a few invaluable lessons, all the while being - against all odds - highly enjoyable! Here's why.

While camping I have learned...

... well, to begin with, I have learned a whole lot about fauna and flora, about survival skills and, depending on the specific spot, about historical facts pertaining to the the region. That is always fascinating to me. From the cultural point of view, in Nova Scotia I particularly enjoy Mi'kmaq legends. This time I have also learned about the Acadian culture.

... that wilderness sojourns are the best test on relationships. As my mother has always said, ''If you want to know whether you are compatible with someone or not, put up a tent together''. It is true that everyone's profound dispositions emerge in such situations. In our case I discovered that an enthusiastic 8 year-old can get a lot more done than an eye-rolling preteen.





... that a stroll in the woods with said preteen might be the most effective way to keep the communication lines open and to enjoy each other's presence.

... that the weak link in a group isn't necessarily the youngest. Both D and I currently have battle injuries that impede our hiking abilities (ankle and knee respectively), whereas the girls are top shape.

... that one is never too old to suffer from motion sickness on serpentine roads (luckily, stopping just long enough for your stomach's contents to settle, and having a black coffee, quickly solves the problem).


Cabot Trail, 2014


... that true campers are afraid of nothing, not even of changing clothes or even peeing between 2 open car doors on the side of the road.

... that there will inevitably be one member of the group who will insist on either a) wearing flip flops on a hike; b) not showering for a week; or c) any other mind boggling decision.

... that one group member will be annoying at any one point in time, and that it's okay as long as ''the annoying one'' isn't the same from one day to the next.

... that I'm less brave than I thought. A combination of D showing up unexpectedly in the dark and a neighboring camper snoring loudly scared the sh*** out of me this week. (This was bear country after all.)


Cape Breton Highlands National Park, 2014


... that the smallest specimens of wildlife will most likely make you the most miserable. Read: black flies, horse flies and mosquitoes galore.

... that the slightest change in weather can make a whole lot of a difference. For example, the wind picking up just enough to keep insects at bay!

... that small mammals can make a hell of a noise at night, leading you to think they are much bigger than they actually are.

... that all birds don't necessarily know that 3:30 am is no time to wake up noisily.

... that the beauty of nature is sufficient to keep one entertained and fill one's heart (except for road kill - I cannot count how many dead porcupines we saw, which led me to ask myself out loud ''With so many dead porcupines on the road, you wonder how many are in the woods'', to which D replied ''Well, probably none now!'')

... that unexpected surprises await you at the end of a long road. Examples include a beautiful waterfall at the end of a hike, and a National Park hidden at the end of a side road that nobody ever takes - in which case you have to be prepared for a detailed personal guided tour, for you are the first human being that poor park employee sees in days, and you are not to deny him the pleasure of finally explaining it all!

... that a story told by a kid is way more interesting that what actually happened. A alarmed a newly met friend by saying  ''We were hiking and there was a big waterfall and I fell down'', when in fact she fell from a height of about 1 meter on our way to the waterfall (and was more scared than hurt).


Cape Breton Highlands National Park, 2014


... that children are LESS bored when left to their own devices in the woods than at home with tons of toys. Even when driving for hours on end we never heard a complaint, and we hadn't brought any electronic device whatsoever. Here's what happens when kids experience boredom: they become creative! They invented games, composed songs, and enjoyed the scenery.

... that being sufficiently hydrated and fed, and kept at the right temperature and humidity level, is enough to keep one perfectly content.

... (following from previous) that one cannot underestimate the amount of water that will be needed on a scorching hot day, neither the amount of warm layers that will be needed on a cold night (that's where technical clothes and sleeping bags come in handy).

... that freezing Canadian ocean water is the perfect antidote to overheating on a hike by 35+ degrees Celsius.

... that chopping wood and carrying water might be the best antidote to modern life's downsides (such as superficiality, egocentricity, depression and anxiety).

... that I look perfectly fine without any cosmetics or jewelry or hair products. I even learned that I smell fine without deodorant - I had forgotten to take it but there was no consequence apparently. Food for thought.

... that if you get fir resin on your arm on the first day, it will not come off and will stick to everything no matter how much you try to clean it (on the bright side, it smells wonderful).

... that owning less and doing less does not make life uncomfortable and boring: it actually reduces stress and enables you to fully enjoy the simplest things, like looking at a campfire while thinking of... nothing at all.




... that a quiet campfire is an excellent prompt for spontaneous meditation... that is, until the neighbours' lascivious moans kind of distract you slightly.

... (nothing to do with with previous point, ahem) that doing things 50% slower makes them at least 50% better.

... that there is so much we don't need.

... that less is more.

... that traveling can take you much farther than distant places. Traveling can take you within yourself.


Cape Breton, 2014


What have you learned while in the wilderness?

I will go camping again soon... and I am looking for simple yet delicious camping recipes. Any suggestions?