OBSERVE: A Few Ways to Experience Nature

Has the weather started to feel glorious yet where you live?  The season of growth, green plants, chipper fauna and warm air has finally settled in southeast Michigan.  Our dog often races outside in the morning to playfully chase a rabbit into the woods.  My daughters don sun hats on walks (as long as I can convince them to keep the hats on) and we seek early morning rather than late afternoon walks to enjoy comfortable outdoor temps.

Last week I hinted at the themes for the posts I’ll be sharing this week and the two to come.  I want to help you enjoy the outdoors, nature, and even (dare I say it?) social distancing more.  Call it mindfulness, meditation, relaxation exercises or scientific observation.  It will lower your blood pressure, hopefully help you feel a little better about this moment and notice something new about your life and environment in this moment.  To unlock some of the wonder, we’ll start with the most basic approach: observe.  

Look Around

On a hike, as you sit on a park bench, or look out a window. Learn the names of birds, bugs and/or plants (feeling lost, you’ll be amazed what google finds you with simple keys of your region, the color and shape of whatever you’re looking at). Keep a record of what you see, how many, how frequently, what time of day and where you see them.  You might find you really like to watch the sun reflect off a nearby river at a certain time of day, or that mist is worth getting up a little earlier to see float over your town in the morning.  Just a take a look around.

Close your Eyes and Listen 

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What do you hear? Are the sounds close or distant? How do the sounds feel in your body and especially your nervous system (e.g. soothing, jarring, familiar, unrecognizable)?  Are there few or many sounds? Are they of a mechanical, human, animal, or weather-related nature?  

Use your Nose

Smell the air outside. Bend down and smell some flowers. Do you like their aroma? Are the scents familiar? Try smelling different trees: leaves and trunk. Do you notice their differences? Smell the air when it’s dry outside, smell it shortly before a rainstorm and smell the air after a rainstorm.  What smells different after rain?

This is far from comprehensive, but a start to what I do with my girls outside.  Spoiler Alert: we never get bored.  We do have a lot of fun.  We’re learning a lot too. A couple of weeks ago we met our first rose breasted grosbeak.  I didn’t remember its name the next time we encountered one, but my 2 ½  year old quickly set me straight.  Maybe you’ll learn something from an unexpected source next time you are observing too.

SPENDING TIME OUTSIDE

Are you feeling weighed down lately, bored, or even a bit stir crazy (or actually crazy)? Is quarantine still happening where you live and maybe your kids are home with you?  My husband and I both work from home and have two little ones ever-present, so I feel you.  Here’s the thing: we’ve both been working from home for close to three years now, so we’ve had some time to work on and work out the kinks.  A HUGE element of keeping our sanity: 

SPEND TIME OUTSIDE.

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There is tons of research that backs up the benefits of getting outside.  The bottom line: outside time is beneficial. Getting out around more trees = even more calm for your mood and brain.  Getting outdoors and exercising has some additional benefits (especially for your heart, muscles and bones).  But just getting some fresh air improves cognitive performance: i.e. helps your sanity and job performance.  It is also something to do that is not screen time.

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I read and hear about a lot of parents concerned about or even feeling guilty their kids are getting tons of screen time…what else are they going to do?  Let’s just pretend it’s 1820 or 1920 and we’re in quarantine… pre: Netflix and Youtube, Smartphones and Tablets, even PC’s and TV’s.  What did kids do back then? There was plenty more time spent exploring one’s imagination and the incredible planet we live on. 

While reading Richard Powers’  The Overstory this spring, I found the characters Adam Appich and Patricia Westerford particularly intriguing.  They were full of questions and deeply observant of the natural world.  They studied trees and insects with more depth as children than I have, now well into adulthood.  I found them inspiring.  There’s no time like the present to get better acquainted with nature, so with my toddler and infant in tow, outside we go to observe, explore and create.  Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing ideas for getting better acquainted with the outdoors.  Maybe you’ll try some or even brainstorm more ideas.  Please feel free to drop any further suggestions in the comment section.

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Happy Getting Outside!

Show Up for Someone Today

I’ve noticed a pattern among people.  We fail to perform at our peak when we are tired or hungry.  Tired and hungry…talk about a total disaster waiting to happen. But when someone is less than rocking it at life, there’s an amazingly simple way to help.  

Just be there for someone.

My 2 ½ year old is perfectly capable of dressing and undressing herself. But whenever she is in what we call a “Maslow” state -missing one or more of her basic needs to function like her normal, happy self- (e.g. hungry or tired), clothes seem to stick to her body relentlessly and a tear-filled meltdown is nearly inevitable.

One night, “Maslow” had set in and the pajamas just weren’t going on. My daughter cried out in desperation, “I NEED HELP!”  I bent down, simply touched the fabric and told her, “You can do it.  I’m here, it’s okay.  Keep going.”  Sure enough, she solved her own problem in under 5 seconds.  I literally did nothing to help her with her pj’s, but having the sense of support, she felt comforted, calmed and empowered enough to resolve her own challenge.

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How often do people underperform simply because they feel unsupported?  Our world is filled with so many individuals, groups and societies who, not at all to say they are unproductive, but who struggle and can’t reach their potential because they lack the basic needs to be able to focus and perform at their highest ability. Food scarcity, hunger, exhaustion, lack of safety, financial hardship, loneliness, and the lack of stable housing are all very real challenges hundreds of millions of people face all over the world. They are refugees crossing the globe to seek shelter and neighbors on your own street looking for a friend.  

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We all need support from time to time. Some of it is physical or monetary and often it is just letting someone know you are showing up for them. Sometimes it’s as simple as a chalk message on the sidewalk or a phone call.  

Who can you show up for today?

 

 But the Bear Came Back, A Picture Book Review

Always wonderful, but especially perfect for this time in which many of us are missing the people usually around us, Tammy Sauer and Dan Taylor’s humorous and tender But the Bear Came Back touches home.  In Tammy Sauer’s laconic and lovely text, a boy grows increasingly perturbed by visits from an unwanted guest: Bear.  As Bear persistently returns, the boy’s frustration rises, as does the humor in this charming tale.  That is, until one day when Bear doesn’t come.  As the days pass (this book also packs in a lovely little lesson for kids on the days of the week), the boy comes to realize how much he misses his friend. butthbearcameback

Tammy Sauer’s powerful text empowers its reader to go after what you want.  It reminds you to be a little more kind and patient with those who bother you.  Dan Taylor’s colorful illustrations play up the humor that can lie in frustrating situations, while sensitively illuminating the broad spectrum of emotions this book touches on.

To enjoy a masterfully crafted book that may incite laughter, tears, and thoughtful conversation, make sure you read But the Bear Came Back.

Steady as an Oak

The wind blows a lot right now.  Maybe it always does, but I’m noticing it more these days.  I think we all do as we stay home…or if we are some of the few who need to go out.  We feel it in different ways, but it is all around the world. Whirlwinds of economic upheaval push down the market so heavily that oil prices are getting a swirly.  Heavy gusts of unemployment abound. There are tornadoes of sickness and tragically death. And when this storm passes, we’ll have a world with trillions of dollars of debt from recovery efforts to try to dig out from.  

As these gusts pummel us right now, I watch a forest of oaks that tower behind my house handle the natural gusts on a daily basis.  They are strong, thick, tall creatures, many of whom have stood for decades. Each planted as individuals once, they now intermingle above and below earth, an incredibly interconnected community, much like our own human society.  Because of their strength, I’m always amazed they have the flexibility to wave in the wind, but they do –all the time.  

Trees’ ability to move with the breeze, to lean and move based on what comes, to occasionally shed leaves, fruit, or even branches from time to time, then grow up and out again, is what allows them to stand the tests of time.  We could learn a few lessons from them right now as we likely all have to make some adjustments. Maybe this year our bank accounts or investment portfolios (for those so fortunate to have either) won’t be as robust as last year.  Maybe this year we learn to be a little more grateful for food banks either through dependency on them or the chance to fill them more so we can ensure our neighbors can eat dinner too. 

Perhaps this year we learn to truly appreciate our sanitation workers and that they keep our homes and streets clean as they risk their health and safety.  Maybe it’s grocers, agriculture laborers picking our food, the drivers who deliver letters, gifts and produce all over the world.  20200410_091042

The wind never blows forever.  There will be times it lightens, times it even stops.  We already have and will continue to lose some magnificent humans, businesses, relationships and opportunities through this storm.  But it won’t ruin everything. Destruction forges a space for new growth. It lays a foundation of new strength.  

So sink your roots deep to connect with who and what truly sustains you.  Lift your hands to help and sustain others however you can. You are not alone in the current struggle.  Let this storm move what it will on the surface. When we make it through, we will recover and keep growing.

 

Those on the Front Lines

For months the world has been watching the unfolding of what is perhaps the most unifying and isolating shared human experience in over a century.  There are plenty of mentions of needs in the medical community. Not a lot of in depth reporting on their experiences and concerns. The medical community is communicating inside their network though and their fear is very real and ingenuity astounding.

I have several close friends who work in hospitals.  My husband has been living in a hospital all week. The untold truth is: medical professionals are SCARED.  And rightfully so. I spoke with a doctor this week who couldn’t get the proper (N95) mask to wear in a surgery she participated in- there weren’t any.  When scared people flooded the market and bought up all the masks, they left medical professionals, who are risking and some even giving their lives to help those suffering, without this much needed protection.  Now there are doctors preparing to make their own protective gear, including face masks out of vacuum filters.

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Thank You 

To all the front line workers- you are making a difference.  Many more people were diagnosed this week than last week with COVID-19.  This information gives the world a more honest picture of what is happening and a better idea of who needs to be completely quarantined.  Thank you to those creating, dispersing, and working on the front lines to handle the tests.

Doctors, nurses, first responders, phlebotomists, techs, janitors, managers, laundry attendants, receptionists, food deliverers, pharmacists, and everyone else who works in hospitals and many other medical care professionals are out on the front lines 24/7 putting themselves and their families at risk.  They are saving lives! Thanks to all of them, more people recovered from COVID-19 today than died from it.  

Hospitals are doing what they can.

The challenges are momentous.  At the hospital where my husband is being cared for (for a vital, but non-covid-19 related procedure), he learned that  elective surgeries have been cancelled or postponed. He said it feels eerie with so many open rooms and few patients on the floor.  This is the calm before the storm. Lots of people are ramping up to work harder than they ever have. They are doing the best they can, but limitations make the situation far from normal.

You may not like being at home.  

A lot of people feel isolated, worried, perhaps even bored.  Do you ever think: I feel fine, and besides, I’m not going to visit my grandparents, or anyone over 70, so going into restaurants, bars or stores right now isn’t a big deal?  Do you worry about keeping small businesses afloat?  Your simple actions- of going out or staying in- do impact countless people in the long run.  Please do the whole world a favor and if your work outside home (for others) is not essential, JUST STAY HOME.

What CAN you do?

If you’re anxious, start by turning off the screens and taking some deep, slow breaths.  You can even take free yoga classes online for a month here. Buy a gift card -essentially an interest free loan- to those small businesses, get your food delivered (please don’t even meet the delivery person at the door right now), and meet up with your friends online or on the phone. 

 What if You Don’t Stay Home?

More people WILL get sick.  If you don’t stay home, more people WILL die.  A Washington Post article explains this in more depth with helpful diagrams here.. Even if you don’t feel sick, you could carry the virus.  Then more medical workers face more dangers. And as my brother shared with me this week: there will be more situations, he and many like him will face of having to make the terrible decisions already facing those in Italy of who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t.  They will have to watch people die, not because they don’t know how to treat them, but because resources are limited.  

Today YOU Can Make a Choice That WILL Save Someone’s Life.

So please, do the whole world a favor for the next several weeks.  Stay home. And know that by doing “nothing” you are doing something to make the world a little better in this strange and trying time.

 

A Moment for Appreciation

Do you ever have moments when you pause to just revel in how wonderful something is?  Perhaps a supremely meaningful compliment from someone at work, the smile on your child’s face when she looks at you, or the refreshing shower you take after exercising?

This weekend I spent a fair amount of time savoring a particular element of my life I appreciate.  While life with chronic illness  is an ongoing challenge -for about 40% of the population- we’ve had a particularly rough span in our family the past 7 months.  Basically my husband just feels lousy all the time, sometimes more than others. 20191129_122509

In spite of it, he continues to be playful, loving and always kind.  He makes a concerted effort to support our daughters’ rapid development and budding interests.  Every night he popcorns a slew of jokes to keep me laughing until I tell him we have to stop laughing and get some sleep.  He pushes through the clouds that darken his view of life and keeps poking holes for those around him to see the sunshine, even when he struggles to see it himself.

I am in awe of his warmth in a very cold season and tremendously grateful for it.

These days I don’t carve out a lot of time for journaling what I’m grateful for.  However, in place of a formal blessing at our table, we hold hands every night to share what each of us feels grateful for.  Perhaps tonight I’ll tell my husband how grateful I am for him.

What are you grateful for today?  If it is someone, have you let them know?

The Wolf, The Duck and The Mouse

Have you ever wondered what happened to that poor duck –swallowed whole– in Peter and the Wolf?  It is time to put your worries aside, for the answer lies in The Wolf, The Duck and The Mouse, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.  If you are not yet familiar with the comedic synergy of this New York Times best-selling duo, you may want to also check out Square  (or any of their shape books), caldecott winning Extra Yarn, or one of my students’ favorites, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.  Admittedly, I’m a fan of Barnett and Klassen, but my favorite of their partnerings is The Wolf, The Duck, and The Mouse. 

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In this tale, a wolf wanders the woods, in search of, like all carnivores, a fleshy meal.  Nothing messy, just a simple gulp takes a mouse into a world of darkness. To the mouse’ surprise, it is accompanied by a duck who was also swallowed whole.  In the wolf’s belly, the duck teaches the mouse how to live the good life, free of fear and full of dancing and dinner parties. One day, however, a belly ache and a hunter threaten the mere existence of the three animals.  Teamwork, courage and a hilariously unexpected plan save the day!

This book is perfect for 3-5 year olds and delightful for 2 year olds and older (I have a good friend who reads it multiple times a day –not because her baby loves it– but she does).  It carries with it the traditional Barnett-Klassen dry humor and whit, thoughtfulness and a Native American myth-like ending that explains a natural phenomenon in the animal kingdom.

Check it out from your local library or bookstore for a delightful read and leave a comment about what you thought of it!

 

  

 

Wonderful Winter pt.2: The Magic of “Hygge”

What do hot cocoa, fuzzy blankets, and a fireplace all have in common?  They are elements that can turn a cold, dark winter into something warm, cozy and glittering with light.  They all have the potential to warm one person or to be shared. These tools fall into the realm of what Norwegians call “hygge”. Most closely translated into English as “cozy”, hygge also involves an element of socializing, sharing this time of year with those near and dear.

Since my first visit to Michigan last February, I’ve heard a lot about miserable winters.  The short days, gray skies and frigid air wears on people. Yet ironically, according to the latest “World Happiness Report” created by the United Nations, the five happiest countries on the planet are all north of chilly Michigan.  Topped by Finland and followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands, these are all places where people have created cultures that embrace both the indoors and outdoors during the long, dark winters.  

The movie Frozen showcases perhaps the ultimate hygge hotspot: saunas.  There’s nothing quite like sweating profusely, wearing nothing but your birthday suit as you engage with friends and family in tight quarters-right?  Admittedly, I do enjoy saunas, but I think part of what makes them such a key part of the hygge culture is the element of socialization. Though the weather is cold and the sun shines far less in winter, sharing your days and nights with those you love can make the season “merry and bright.”

So… some ideas for enjoying the great indoors during winter:20200214_161213

BAKE, EAT and ENJOY warm foods and drinks.  Decorate and eat some cookies with a neighbor.  Sip some tea with a colleague.  Each winter I tend to find one or two new soups to make along with the perrenial favorites I can’t help but return to like miso and pizza soup.  Warm up from playing outside with some coffee, cocoa, or the lovely old tradition of wassail.  Bake muffins or bread and be sure to get your first taste while they are still warm.

PLAY, PONDER and READ something new or an old favorite.  While keeping up with current events via news and blogs is valuable (and I have such cozy memories of watching my grandpa read the newspaper in his leather recliner), there is something unique and wonderful about cozying up with a book.  Play games- do you have a favorite board or card game you can introduce to someone new in your life? Maybe you want to contemplate, discuss or even journal about some deep questions pressing on your mind lately.  We all process things a little differently: some better by ourselves, some better through discussion with another. What helps you?

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LAUGH and LOVE!!!  These final ingredients I can’t emphasize enough.  Open your heart to positivity- whether you need a pick me up, someone else around you does, or you are all just working on self-care to stay positive.  Carve out spaces for laughter; it is great medicine. Take care of yourself and share with others- it will help you find greater joy and reason to respect yourself.

A large part of the nordic cultures that are so happy- they value community and care for others as well as themselves.  So as winter drags and starts to feel long, consider some hygge traditions to bring yourself and others a little more light in a dark season of life.  No need to try to save the whole world today. Just try to make a difference for someone.

Wonderful Winter pt. 1: Exquisite Outdoors

If you’re one of the 10 million Americans or 30% of British who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, you’ll be happy to know that this week Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, so spring is expected early this year.  That is, as long as you trust meteorological predictions from a furry rodent the size of an overweight cat. If, by chance, you are skeptical of weather prediction based on old European folkloric traditions, perhaps some reminders of what can be done to enjoy the second half of winter may prove helpful.  This week let’s focus on ways to enjoy the outdoors since getting outside can be a great mood booster  and help fight the winter blues (a.k.a. Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD-it’s a thing, it’s not just you). 

20200120_093203Step one: bundle up!  If you think it’s too cold to go outside, add a layer or two, keep your head, fingers and feet particularly well insulated and get your heart rate up.  Maybe you like to get into the mountains on the weekends to snowboard, ski or snowshoe. On a more daily basis though, go for a walk or hike near your home.  When was the last time you went ice skating, rollerblading (we don’t all get buried in snow for 3 straight months) or played hockey? You may have a snow thrower, but do you have a shovel you could break out for a little endorphin-raising exercise?

Do you have a knack for building snow forts, snow people (why do we still call them all snowmen in the 21st century?) or instigating a snowball fight?  Do you enjoy looking for icicles, tiny buds starting to grow on the trees, or taking photos of a wintery wonderscape? My 2 year old can’t get enough of eating snow (we’re working on sticking to only the freshly fallen kind).  Plenty of kids love to make snow angels, “fairies” as we call them in our household. And who doesn’t still enjoy a good sledding run?  With ski resorts now offering sledding hills, clearly it is not just for kids.

While living in Denver (where it can range from -5 to 65 degrees Farenheit on any given day in winter), I often felt it was too cold to walk my dog or spend much time with my class of preschoolers outdoors.  As my husband and I contemplated moving to the northern midwest, I was really nervous about potentially having a baby in winter.  How do I keep a baby warm enough there?  How do/can I still get outside and exercise?  Nevermind SAD, I get depressed any time of year if I don’t get regular, frequent exercise and plenty of time outside.  But people do it, so obviously it’s possible. So I began to seek advice.

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 So…as soon as we moved, I went to a local consignment store and bought a few newborn buntings –different weights and insulation levels– just to be safe.  Well, my baby was born in December. After her first week at home, I started testing out all those warm baby clothes. Now I layer up, strap the baby to my chest and together, along with my older daughter and dog, we get outside for a walk or hike almost daily and everyone stays comfortable –minus the occasional breeze or lost boot. The key: warm layers and movement. 

So carve out some time to get outside each day and if you happen to see a little crocus popping up through the frozen ground, let it stand as a happy reminder that spring is just around the corner.