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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to s... tress

Topgold, Flickr

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea. (Isak Dinesen)

It had to happen. After a week of delightful and almost absolute freedom (i.e., little work, mostly play), the reality hits again: a big contract just landed on my desk, school starts in a couple days (meaning I have to both prepare my kids for "back to school" and prepare myself for the classes I will give), extracurricular activities will resume in a few weeks... in short, I am going to be very busy again.

Most of us have felt this kind of frenzy that accompanies periods of intense responsibility. It's not pleasant. It's not even good for you: in times like this, the hormone of stress, cortisol, is released, and if that lasts it can have a significant impact on your health.

What to do, then? I have put together a list of strategies to deal with stressful periods without going crazy.

1) Get organized

Acquire a good agenda, calendar, whatever system works for you, and stick to it. Write everything down. Read it every morning. Otherwise, and especially if you're a scatterbrain like me, you will surely forget something, plan two things a the same time, etc. As for material things, they need to be organized too! If you have to look for more than 2-3 minutes before you find something, it means you're due for a cleanup! As our grandmothers used to say, "a place for everything and everything in its place". Being a relatively messy person myself, I find putting things away to be a challenge, but honestly, it makes such a huge difference!

2) Prioritize well

It would be nice to stay on top of things in all areas of our lives, but if you're really busy, that's almost impossible. Make choices. Some things will have to give. For example, it's okay to slack a little bit on your house's cleanliness if that's the only way you'll have enough time to cook healthy meals. Clean food in the tummy is more important than clean windows, if you want my opinion. Other things, that don't seem absolutely necessary from the outside, will have to be maintained because they make you feel so good. For example, even when I'm very busy I maintain and cherish my social life: spending time with pleasant people I care about is the only way I'll retain my sanity!

3) Speaking of social life...

Another priority we should make is to manage our relationships well. Some examples include: 1) not letting interactions bear the weight of your stress (venting aggressively on others is NOT okay) or be dictated by a sense of urgency ("quick, quick, hurry, we're gonna be late!")  2) choosing who we interact with carefully (focusing on the relationships that are rewarding, letting go of the ones that don't feel so good). 

4) Oil the machine

If you are going to face periods of stress, you better be prepared. And that starts with the body: eating well, sleeping sufficiently and exercising regularly are invaluable tools that help us handle anything that's thrown at us. Neglect those things, and all of a sudden stress will feel... even more stressful!

5) Act, don't react

It's easy to get caught up in reacting. This morning, the kids noticed the dog's eye was infected again. Between exclamations ("eeeew!" "disgusting!") they didn't seem to think of the most logical thing to do: just go get the eye drops and put some in! While it's perfectly okay to have a reaction, don't let it linger. Act instead.

6) Find your own ways

Some say that you shouldn't read your emails until later in the morning. That doesn't work for me. I like to open my inbox fresh out of the shower, as I sip my coffee. Oftentimes I am the only one who's up, meaning I get to read and reply in a quiet atmosphere. In a similar way, I have never been able to exercise during lunch time, as many recommend. However, I do really good when I fit my run or workout right before breakfast, or after supper. I know someone else who goes against all mainstream advice by not having breakfast. It seems to work for him. That's fine! With trial and error, you will figure out your own optimal strategies.

7) Solve problems in due course

Not all situations can be tackled right away (exceptions include serious hemorrhage, in which case I recommend you don't waste a minute). Some situations require time and a careful assessment of what is going on as well as an exploration of the possible solutions. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt at a loss for a solution, unsure of the right course of action? I sure have. It is unsettling. We would rather solve everything on the spot. Yet my life experience has taught me that not seeing a solution does not mean there is none. It only means you haven't found it yet. Or maybe you know the existence of that solution, but are not ready to apply it in your life. Which is equivalent. The only cure in those cases is time. An ex-classmate of mine, who was questioning his current love relationship and wasn't sure what to do, once told me "It's okay. I'll cross the bridge once I get to it". I remember thinking "Wow, he's so laid-back!" But he was right. Rushing things does no good.

8) Remember that problems can be attacked from different angles

Think outside the box. See things in a new light. Don't expect everything to be either black or white. Nothing is that simple in life. What seems like "a very perplexing situation" or "an insurmountable problem" to the main character in the movie below is approached very differently by the people he confides in. "Inhabiting two worlds", for example, is not a possibility that fazes them. Quite the contrary, in fact. Take a look:

Midnight in Paris

9) Meditate

Some answers in life only appear to us if we sit in stillness for long enough. Rushing in all directions will not bring an answer, only exhaustion. So sit in stillness. Do not chase any thought. Do not judge any thought that comes by. Just welcome them. Observe them.

10) Number ten is yours! What are your strategies in times of stress and uncertainty?

Above all... don't forget to breathe!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Yoga by the lake

Chris Potako, Flickr

Monday night.

It's "Yoga on the deck night". For some 10 weeks, we have been meeting T, our yoga instructor, at the end of a long serpentine path in the woods. Every Monday we have been unrolling our yoga mats on a deck by the water for an hour and a half of strength, balance and flexibility (both physical and mental). Every week we push ourselves to our limits as we move through postures, then we find our stillness as we pause and observe.

Yoga has always been a gift and a blessing, but doing it outdoors maximizes the benefits. The view of the lake, of the trees, of the sky. The lapping water. The occasional loon. The scents of the forest. After shavasana, reopening your eyes to a ceiling of green leaves.

For our last class of the summer, T has planned a practice not on the deck, but on the floating dock. As soon as we set foot on it, we realize what we signed up for. It is wobbly to walk on. Never mind trying to keep your balance as you do yoga postures! The tree pose, which has always been my specialty, suddenly takes a whole other meaning. The crow pose, which I'm proud to say I master pretty well, becomes almost impossible to hold for more than 3 seconds. And you don't want to fall. For if you do, it's in the water you're going.

T tells us it's nothing. Earlier in the day, she was practicing her headstands on a surfboard!!! She shows us pictures on her phone as proof. We have nothing to complain about.

Call me when you've done that on a floating surfboard
Pasco Olivier, Flickr

Speaking of water, it contains its own elements of distraction. The fish (that jump out to catch their supper of insects). The frogs (that hop from lilypad to lilypad). The ducks (calling other ducks).

Then there's the sky. As the sun goes down it paints it in layers of pink, orange and yellow. While upside down I notice the same stripes of color reflected on the water. It's beautiful.

We finally lie down for shavasana. For the first moments, I keep my eyes opened. I am looking straight up when pop! the first star of the night suddenly appears, big and shiny.

I close my eyes. Time stops. There isn't a sound. With the sunset, the lake has become entirely quiet and still. All I can feel and hear is my own gentle breathing.

I don't know how long it lasts. When I reopen my eyes, it is dark all around. We slowly get up, roll our mats, and walk our way back.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Musical mood

Al King, Flickr

I made a fool of myself... again.

It wasn't my fault. It was music's fault.

We were out shopping for back to school supplies (yes, it's that time already!) This song (click here) was playing in the store. I got carried away. Thinking I was alone in the aisle, I expelled a loud (and high pitched) "Come See About Me!" As I did, I walked around the display's corner. That's when I suddenly found myself face to face with another customer. She looked at me with a grin. I apologized. She laughed. "Oh, don't worry, she said, I was singing along in my head too".

Yes, in your head. The way normal people do it. Meanwhile I was probably giving a show to a few more invisible customers! Ah, this will teach me.


Brought back to my senses by the sudden encounter, I stopped singing. And I started thinking. Isn't it peculiar that such a cheerful sounding song has such depressing lyrics? What's fun about crying over someone and complaining of desperate loneliness? Yet The Supremes sing it as though it was the best day of their lives.

When I came back home, I did a little research and I realized there are many songs that follow the same contradiction: happy melody, sad words. As a general rule (in Occidental culture and if you are not suffering from certain kinds of dementias such as Alzheimer's), people recognize a song as happy if the tempo is fast and the scale major. Conversely, a song in minor scale and with a slow tempo will be perceived as sad. There are many possible combinations within one song, but there usually is a consensus as to the general mood of a tune.

So why would musicians, who certainly know that, combine music and lyrics that have nothing in common? That remains a big mystery. For now, I shall content myself with sharing some prime examples of this paradox.

The French 
(see Theme for an idea of what is talked about in those songs):

(by Jacques Brel)
Theme: unrequited love

D'la Bière au Ciel
(by Jim Corcoran)
Theme: impossibility to make the first move until it's too late

Le Columbarium 
(by Pierre Lapointe)
Theme: death, a columbarium

Je chante
(by Charles Trenet)
Theme: starts happy, ends with a suicide

Tout le monde est malheureux
(by Gilles Vigneault)
Theme: everyone is miserable

The English:

Build me Up Buttercup
(by The Foundations)

It's my Party
(by Lesley Gore)

I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself
(by Elton John)

It's not Unusual
(by Tom Jones)

Ain't too Proud to Beg
(by The Temptations)

Proof that a song can be made happy or sad 
by singing it differently:

Hey Ya
(by Outcast)

Hey Ya, take 2
(by Obadiah Parker)
Same song, completely different spirit

Higher Love
(by Steve Winwood)

Higher Love, take 2
(by James Vincent McMorrow)
Same song; again, quite another spirit

Any favorites here? Any other examples?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Children's voices

This is the time of the year I hand over the microphone to my kids to let them tell us about their Summer. (See last year's post here.) It's a - subtle - way for me to make sure their neurons don't melt during the hot months. The "assignment" I gave this year was "Write about the best things to do in the Summer". They came up with the rest on their own. Again, I did not edit spelling, punctuation or grammar. It's "as is". Happy reading!

The best things for a kid to do over the summer
by A, 8 years old

On Sunny days  
Going  to  the  beach,  Playing  out  side,  Going  to  the  lake,  playing in the sprinkler, Play basketball,   Riding  your  bike,  Going  on  your  trampoline (if  you  have  one,) flying kites, having a campfire, making  new  friends, going camping, having play dates, and last but not least…
Have  fun!

On Rainy days
Play  board  games, playing with Lego or Playmobil, building a city for your dinky cars, sewing, Have  play- dates  or  sleep-overs ( if your  allowed) mabie  stay  up  later  than  you  normaly  do,  watch  tv   or  movies,  play  with  your  pets, (if  you  have  any), playing the piano, and...

Eat popcorn!

The top 20 things to do (and a few things not to do)
during the summer
by R, 10 years old

#1   Be as active as possible
#2   Be happy and make others happy
#3   Stay protected from the sun
#4   Stay connected to nature
#5   Hang out with your friends
#6   Keep hydrated (drink lots of water)
#7   Have colder types of foods like salads and fresh fruits (Don’t forget ice cream!)
#8   Have alone time at least two times a week
    #9   Listen to happy music (like this)
#10   Keep on doing schoolwork (but not too much)
#11   Get enough rest so that you are not too groggy every morning
#12   Go CAMPING!
#13   Go to an amusement park if you have the chance
#14   Play with your  pet (if you have one)
#15   Have playdates and sleepovers
#16   Go visit your relatives
#17   Go to fun camps that interest you
#18   Go hiking and swimming (if you enjoy it)
#19   Go to special places that you can not go to during the school year
#20   Have the time of your life


#1   Never fight with your sibling (well,  only when your parents are not watching)
#2   Do not spend a lot of time on your electronics or other devices (they rot your brain)
#3   Never ever make big messes you can not clean up; it just means extra work for whoever would have to clean it and would put them in a bad mood for the day
#4   Do not bore people  because it is  not nice , even if you do not mean to, and others do not really appreciate you as much after that
#5   Never have over two or three special activities per day (you could become spoiled)
#6   It is a bad idea to miss birthday parties (instead, go have fun. WOOHOO!)
#7   Do not forget how to swim (I am telling you from experience)

Note from the editor: That "What not to do" list sounds like the echo of my own voice at times. Number 3 cracked me up! I think my message has finally been heard!

Regarding children and summer, I invite you to read this other post about water safety. My one and only video is to be found there, too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

No title fits this post

Canoe gliding on the river
On the lake
Stumbling on a desert island
With a desert beach
Stillness and silence

Crackling fire
Lapping water
Whispering wind
A Mi'kmaq legend

A mattress of moss and pine needles 
A blanket of stars
A meteor shower

Mother Nature working up a storm
Animals finding refuge
People keeping still, humbled

A loon.