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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A dose of wisdom or What Maya Angelou taught us

Sudhamshu, Flickr


It was time for another blog post. I had many topics on my mind. I wanted to write about pain (physical and psychological). I wanted to write about resilience (how essential it is in life). I wanted to mention the talk I gave at a retreat last weekend (about sexuality and the objectification of women).

Then I read the news and learned that Maya Angelou had passed away. So Maya Angelou it is. 

Her teachings will be the focus today. But where to start? Maybe I'll share my favorite quotes of her, and comment on them. Who knows, she might take us right back to some of those topics I wanted to tackle.

When you are done reading, please comment as well!

(Maya's quotes in italics; my own comments in Roman.)


Pain

"I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one." 

Pain, be it physical or psychological, can overpower everything else. I am known to pain. I have migraine headaches. The type that's so painful, you wish you were dead. That kind of pain annihilates you completely, rendering you unable to "be a pain". You just curl up in bed, cry, and hope for it to be over soon. 

With other pains, however - such as childbirth, pinched nerves, bad sprains, chronic arthritic pain, or even the occasional mouth ulcer, it's really hard not to become a pain for those around you. Pain does make one cranky. 

As for psychological pain: from experience, the worst pain comes from losing someone you love, either through their passing away or because they rejected you/broke your heart. That kind of pain makes you feel helpless because you crave the lost person, yet they are gone. 

Here the fine line lies in the fact that you want to avoid being a pain, but still have to ask for help and comfort. Never face grief or a heartbreak alone.


Resilience

"You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them."

There is no point in hoping for an easy life. It won't come. Admittedly, some have it easier than others. But what separates the men from the boys, and the women from the girls, is how we react to life's difficulties. As I like to say: In the face of uncertainty, your best tool is flexibility. In the face of adversity, your best weapon is resilience. It's okay to cry over spilled milk... for a short moment. Then you have to get into pragmatic mode: clean up the mess, pick up the pieces, learn from the experience, and move on. Know that sh** will happen again, but that in the meantime, you will enjoy life. 

My almost 38 years on this planet have taught me that life sends you the occasional euphoric moment alternately with the occasional terrifying moment, interspersed with a greater number of slightly pleasant, slightly stressful, or simply boring, moments. That's what life is made of. Deal with it.


Hope

“I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow."

Depression is widespread and although it is at least partly physiologically based, it also begins and flourishes because of depressive thoughts. Emotions can be overwhelming, and the physical substrate might need pharmacological help in serious cases, but one thing we can act on is our cognition: the way we reason, process information, and view and understand things. Do not let the dark cloud of depressive thoughts trick you into thinking that things won't get better. They will. As hopeless as a situation seems, losing hope is never an option. Because losing hope is akin to losing your soul. 


Personality and relationships

"I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights."

I think it was my mom who once told me that the best relationship test is to put up a tent together. Seems ultra simplistic, but working on a common task, especially a somewhat challenging one, can provide a lot of insight on both parties' personalities and their mingling. 

From a personality point of view, many things can happen when dealing with unpleasant things: you can either lose your temper, victimize yourself, or put a smile on your face and pull up your sleeves. I know which one I want to choose!


"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

As much as we try to convince ourselves of the contrary, our hidden agenda, in relationships, is to feel good (as opposed to making others feel good - after all, when we do make others feel good, the effect is that we feel good in turn). 

What feels good is to sense that we are important and valued in somebody else's eyes. People don't really want to hear how wonderful you are. They want to hear how wonderful you think they are. If you offer that to those around you, they will repay you a hundredfold.


Touch and affection

" I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back."

In fact, studies have shown that we have a better opinion of people after they have touched us (in an appropriate, gentle way of course). Touch is highly underrated in our society. A little bit of physical contact can go a long way. The problem is, we are afraid to cross boundaries. Yet we are willing to pay big money to lie down naked on a table and have a stranger manipulate us. (No bad thoughts here hey! We are talking massage therapy!)


Change

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain."

This is a huge one. We might not be toddlers anymore, the temptation to whine is still very strong. After all, whining is much easier than actually acting on things. But does it do us any good to complain instead of actually doing something to change the situation/change our attitude? The answer is in the question.


"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."

Any significant result hides a lot of patience, hard work, and probably a couple of failures on the way. We often forget that when we fantasize about a goal we want to achieve. Forgetting the not so beautiful steps that lead to the beautiful result turns the goal into a distant, unattainable dream. The trick is to stop dreaming and to start working.


Work

"Nothing will work unless you do."

Growing up, I was told many times that I was smart, strong, and beautiful, and that I would do grand things. But the most important quality I soon realized I needed in order to get anything accomplished was to be a hard worker. I might have thought that things would come to me easily because of my smarts and strength and looks, and they sometimes did, but what really takes you places in life is hard work. Sorry, slackers!


Courage

"Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently."

Courage is a little bit like resilience, in that it provides you with the energy and the motivation to keep going even in the most challenging situations. The first example that comes to mind is physical endeavours. Without courage I would have never become so fit or ran a half-marathon. Some people push it even further. I tip my hat to them.


Any thoughts or examples that come to mind to accompany those wonderful quotes?


Sunday, May 18, 2014

I'm sorry I hated you

NS, 2014



I'm sorry I hated you.

I will admit, I even considered leaving you.

But can I be blamed? You were so cruel to me, and to everyone else, this last winter.

This winter was so grey, so cold, so long. Mostly long.

I started wondering what I was doing here with you.

I was forgetting about all the good times we've had.

I was forgetting how wonderful you are as soon as the beautiful season is here.

I just came back to life as your nature did.

At first it was mostly a tease: a slightly warmer day followed by another snowfall - in April. As warmer days began to add up, and as we were only beginning to enjoy them, the black flies appeared. Seriously? Then it seemed like you were downright mocking us: no flowers nor leaves yet, but the weeds in full bloom - are you kidding me?

As May advances we can finally start appreciating you again. And we are determined to make the most of it. We know it's not going to last, and so we jam-pack our days with fun activities: a campfire with friends and a no less friendly Riesling; a morning hike along the coast; an afternoon spent lounging on the deck.


NS, 2014


NS, 2014


Nova Scotia, you just reminded me how I love your sights (so many beautiful shades of green and blue). Your sounds (the waves; the birds). Your scents (sea spray; pine trees). Your touch (my toes on your sandy beaches; my whole body floating on your waters). Your taste (the smoked salmon, mussels, clams and lobster I had last night).


A taking pictures of the white sandy beach we're headed for.
NS, 2014


Nova Scotia, when I think of it, there are so many things I love about you.

I love your friendly people and your small communities where everyone knows everyone.

Nova Scotia, your winters are long and your springs nonexistent. You're not always organized and efficient. You can be rather annoying. Sometimes you're just downright boring. Which is just as bad.

But Nova Scotia, you remind me that the best things in life are

1) free

2) worth waiting for

Today, when I set my feet on your shore, I almost cried. Just like I almost cry when, after weeks and weeks of driving the kids to their classes and leagues and practices, I finally get to witness them do wonders on the piano, on stage, in the pool or on the court.


R walking barefoot on the sandy beach - finally!
NS, 2014


Seal on the rocks
NS, 2014


For all this, Nova Scotia, thank you.

Just promise me you will never, ever do this to me again. Or I might leave for good.

(For more on Nova Scotia and the Maritimes, click here.)







Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mother Martyr

Rachel Kramer, Flickr


I just stumbled upon this article (click here), that describes the reality of parenthood and the reasons why young parents may appear boring to non-parents.

I liked this:

"Just bring the kids" is an option. But it is one that sucks. We often decline invitations to your fun events, not because they don't sound like a blast in general, but because we know, for us, they just won't be fun. We just can't focus on you very well when we have to simultaneously keep an eye on our kids, making sure they don't choke, drown in a randomly placed vat of water or get a head injury bumping into the pointy corner of a table. We spend a lot more time and energy worrying about keeping our brood alive than you might imagine.

And this:

Leisure time is so limited that we tend to spend it on ourselves (often by ourselves). Fitting in time to relax and engage in activities we enjoy can be so difficult that sometimes we think we are being a**holes to ourselves, for not spending enough time on our own. I'm not making this up. Getting a manicure or a haircut or a taking a trip to the gym requires creative scheduling, and everything else in our life to go according to plan -- our spouse's engagements, our kid's health, work obligations. A lot of our hobbies end up being things we can do at any hour of the day, on our own time, by ourselves: jogging, reading, writing or activities that can be done just as well at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m.

Those two examples apply more particularly to parents of babies or very young children. My kids are now 8 and 10 and unlike toddlers, they are not constantly looking for ways to harm themselves. They also have become much more independent, which means two things: 1) they can do much more without my help or intervention (freeing me to do my own thing), and 2) they don't even want me to be around at all times (freeing me even more).

Since I also trust my kids' abilities, I do not hesitate to put them in situations that some parents would not even consider, for example taking them to a fancy restaurant or on long road trips. I believe that children learn to deal with those kinds of things by being exposed to them, and up to now, I've mostly been proven right. Of course there are ways to do this; for the examples above, by bringing lots of entertainment along (which does not have to include electronics). But it's definitely doable.

This is nice. I remember different times, a few years ago, when my kids' constant needs did put a damper on my social life and my life in general. Nowadays, instead of doing things for my kids (like wiping their bum), I get to do things with them (like playing a board game or going on a hike). Needless to say, the latter is much more enjoyable.


Hike. Québec, 2013.



However, I think there is a personality matter to the way we approach parenthood, independently of our children's age.

One of the best pieces of advice my own mother gave me when I became a mom was to not forget my own needs (including the need to nurture my couple). Even if I was naturally tempted to be with my kids 24/7 - not because it's always fun, let's be honest, but rather because I innately felt that they were safest when with me - I always kept her advice in mind. That and my tendency to be rather independent in general allowed me to maintain a certain level of normalcy to my life.

Some examples?

Apart for the first 6 months, when baby needs attention and nourishment at night, and during which time you should get up and give them milk, I have never allowed my children to interfere with my sleep, unless they were seriously ill or had had a terrible nightmare. I don't know for you, but sleep is among my most primary needs, and if I don't get enough of it, I simply cannot function properly. Honestly, I'm a much better mom during the day after a good night's sleep. The value of sleep is highly underrated. Parents: cherish your sleep! Nurture it! It's no less than sacred!

Another example would have to be the involvement of my kids' daddy. Right from the start he was just as involved as I was in baby matters. Of course he could not nurse, but that's where the difference in credentials ended. Because daddy and I were both equally comfortable with baby(ies), it was very easy for me to just go (to a yoga class, to have coffee with a friend)... as long as I was back for the next feeding (and still, I could always pump and leave a bottle). I never left a list of guidelines. It was never necessary. I also never commented on the way daddy took care of baby. He's a grown-up, and those are his kids! Why would he not be able to take care of them? He changed diapers. Gave baths. (Even when they were newborns.) He fed purees. Did the whole bedtime routine. Over and over and over again. This whole way of functioning made me feel lighter, and I'm sure it made daddy feel more involved and competent. What's more, it created a strong and wonderful tie between him and the kids right from the start. The value of daddy-baby relationship is also underrated, and sacred.


A with daddy, some 7 years ago.



All parents make different decisions, and nobody is to judge other parents' choices. My only concern is that some parents do not seem comfortable with the choices they are making. Sacrifices are a normal part of parenthood, of course; sacrifices are the daily stuff of parenthood. But that does not mean we should become slaves of parenthood, or Saint Mother Martyr as I like to call it. Yes, our children will be the most important part of our life for a while, but they don't need to become the only part of our life.

One of the comments accompanying the above-mentioned article, by a non-parent, was that some moms cannot leave their kids behind (with a babysitter or just daddy), not even for a few hours, and that when they do, they only have one conversation topic: the kid(s) they left behind. Even as a parent myself, I have sometimes had a hard time with other parents who could not miss one minute of their kids' life, or who seemed unable to talk about anything else but their kids. I might have let one friendship go because of that. Everything that friend and I had built since we had met (many, many years ago, long before we had kids), had suddenly disappeared. All the things that we had in common, that we liked to do together or that we liked to talk about, were gone. My friend has ceased to be an individual the moment she became a mom. I grieved that friendship.

It does not have to be that way. Ninety-nine percent of my friends have kids, and most of them still find ways to have a life even though their family remains central. It's not always simple, but it's possible. We have to think outside of the box. E.g. Us missing one bedtime routine or one soccer game once in a while is not going to scar our kid for life! Kids (and daddies!) are capable of more than we think, and it does everyone good when we expect that much of them. I love when a parent, who is busy talking and gets interrupted by a child, says « can you please wait, I am talking right now » instead of instantly attending the child. I love when a parent lets the child carry his or her own backpack and jacket instead of turning into a transport donkey. It's in all those little details that our kids grow up and that we maintain a certain quality of life despite being parents.

Plus, if we let go of our life because we have kids, what are we going to do the day they leave the house and start their own life? Will we remember who we were long, long ago? Will we know who that person we share our life with (i.e. the other parent) is? By looking solely at the kids, we might forget to look at each other...

We might have a wonderful progeny, we still deserve to think about ourselves (no, it's not selfish), to attend to our needs, and to have fun, for goodness' sake!

More importantly, we have to say farewell to the omnipresent mommy guilt! We don't need to always be around and available to be a good parent.

If you are a parent, how do you make sure you still take care of your own needs?


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Confessions of a slacker, or the secret of happiness

Emery_Way, Flickr


I must confess something today.

Some 20 weeks ago, I wrote a post about the marathon training that was about to begin. Since 2009, I had not missed one Bluenose Marathon (running 5K the first year, then 10K, and finally the half-marathon last year). I was determined to try the full this year (or at least run a half again).

However, as it sometimes happens in life, things got in the way.

Weather

Oh, how I abhor blaming things on the weather. I have run in all kinds of conditions, from rain to black ice, from strong winds to -20 Celsius. But there lies my problem: if it gets colder than -20, I don't run. It's just plain dangerous (I am asthmatic, by the way). And this year, according to the experts, was the coldest winter since the mid-nineties (that is, in about 20 years). At the time slot my running partner K and I run, i.e. 5 am, it is usually cold. But this year in particular, it often dropped under -20, meaning we had to miss many training sessions in the first few weeks of the program.

Illness

Not only did Mother Nature fail me, my body did. In February, I caught something that could very well have been the flu. The real flu. The one that completely knocks you down for many days, and from which you need many more days to recover once you're finally out of bed. I will never know for sure what hit me this past February, but as far as my blurry memory can tell, it hit hard.

Injury

Then as March arrived and the weather slowly (very slowly) started to warm up, and as the last flu symptoms and the exhaustion had finally disappeared, I started having knee problems, which was bizarre since I hadn't been running very much. In any case, any attempt to run made it much worse.

By then I was already many weeks behind in my training program. So one fateful day, after too much frustration and disappointment, I made the difficult decision: I was not going to run the Bluenose this year.

Interestingly, I felt much better right away. I was - and I still am - okay with that decision. You cannot control everything in life, and this winter was just a very bad one for me.

But then I made a mistake. I also cut down on the gym workouts. I was very tired, after all. Then, some not-so-healthy foods crept back into my diet.

Luckily, good habits die hard, and I still did « relatively well » health and fitness wise. I might not be as fit as I was last year at the same date (scares me to think about it), but I haven't completely fallen apart physically.

However, there has been another, unexpected effect. A big one. And this effect is not physical. It is MENTAL.

Without the constant stimulation of challenging runs and workouts, and with the reintroduction of bad sugars and fats into my diet, something did go downhill:

My mental energy and my mood!

I don't remember the last time I felt as « blah » as this winter. Or if I do remember it, it was a long time ago.

It's fascinating to see how not working out on a daily basis, and how not eating clean most of the time, can change things in a matter of months. This winter I felt more tired, more impatient, more stressed, more negative. I also felt less energetic, less zen, less enthusiastic... in a word...

... less HAPPY.

To me, this is a confirmation that putting the right fuel into our bodies, and exercising sufficiently, does indeed (studies have been showing it time and again) play a significant role on what happens between our two ears.

Given the prevalence of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression in our society, I believe this to be extremely important! Anybody who does not feel so good mentally should probably, before attempting anything else, get moving and cut down on the junk!

(And by the way, wine and chocolate will NOT make you happy in the way that a healthy lifestyle does. Tried and tested!)

I might not have had the nicest winter, but you can be sure that I am back on track, and that I will remember this unpleasant experience with the slacker lifestyle!


Have you experienced the link between mental health and body health?



And now for more on the « Science of Happiness »,
specially delivered by the experts at UC Berkeley:





Monday, May 5, 2014

We're in this together

Monica's Dad, Flickr


Have you ever noticed? Sometimes the comments on a blog post are more interesting than the post itself.

This was the case last week: a couple hours after I published my list of « Good and Bad things that happen in life », fellow blogger Roy commented that the problems contained in that list were First World problems.

And he was right.

I have never NOT had enough food to feed my family (or enough milk to nurse, for that matter).

I HAVE - briefly - worried that my child would die, but that was more than 10 years ago, and thanks to an unlimited access to high quality medical care, she made it and went on to thrive.

I am, on a daily basis, aware of my luck (even though I'm also aware that some other people are luckier than me - such is life!)

I believe this awareness comes from hearing about - better yet, witnessing directly - how hard life can be for the majority of human beings.

As a child I lived in the Third World. I was not born there. My parents chose to go there to give a hand, through an international development agency. As most people who travel to help, we were soon humbled by the extent of the situation, and by the limits of our potential intervention. You cannot just go somewhere, impose a solution on people, and solve a problem for them - especially when part of the reason they're struggling originates from actions of your own culture (namely, colonialism).

Later in my childhood and teens, I read many books - and watched many movies and documentaries - about other struggling human groups; for instance, I became very familiar with the slums of Calcutta without ever visiting them.

(Two years ago, I did apply to be part of a Canadian delegation that would go to India to advocate for girl's and women's rights - a long interview process that involved writing numerous pages about my views and the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. My interview went wonderfully but they chose someone with more experience. Next time, maybe!)

All those images (from my life in Africa to my readings and the documentaries I have watched) have had such an impact on me that I don't go one day without thinking about it. Not one day.

On the one hand this helps me feel grateful - other people's problems are so much bigger. I did nothing to earn most of what I have in terms of quality of life - I was just born in the right place at the right time.

On the other hand it leaves me with a guilty feeling: as much as I try to help - mostly at the local level in the past few years, through regular volunteering and donating to those in need, and through simplifying my own life for the sake of the environment - I know I am only making a tiny, tiny difference in the world.

This is all disturbing. But never as disturbing as being caught in the kind of difficult situation so many of my human fellows have to face.

This weekend I watched a documentary about work conditions in clothing manufactures (in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia); I would be very surprised if any one of us was willing to exchange their life with that of the workers who make the very clothes we wear every day (and which we complain are too expensive). Yet the solution to that globalization problem is far from simple.

The economics are not the only issue that poses a threat to a great number (the greatest proportion, actually) of humans - there are also wars and threats to human rights. About that, may I recommend you get yourself acquainted with the way Sudanese women are treated; and that's just one sad example.

In the meantime, we First World people have our own problems, which seem ridiculously shallow in comparison, but which still have consequences on our lives - think of all those struggling with severe depression to the point where they don't want to live anymore. Their suffering is genuine.

Well, this wasn't a joyous post, but I believe it to be a necessary one.

Any thoughts?