Tag Archive: wellness


rice pudding

I woke this morning knowing that I was going to make rice pudding for breakfast. Despite the simplicity of its preparation, I have only made rice pudding three times in my life, so the strength of my conviction that we were having rice pudding for breakfast is somewhat of a mystery.

rice pudding

Photo Credit: cyclonebill; Licence: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I know that rice pudding is traditionally a dessert but it is definitively labelled in my mind as a breakfast item. I know that my mom made rice pudding when I was a kid, and I can only assume she served it for breakfast, thereby creating the association. But I can’t trust my memory. My memories of childhood are so poor that I think I must have been in a coma for half my life and no one is telling me. I wish I were joking, but the reality is that most people I know can relate their childhood experiences in vivid detail while I sit there smiling politely, wondering what’s wrong with me.

My apparent childhood blackouts aside, I can say that rice pudding is a comfort food for me. I didn’t wake feeling any particular desire to be comforted, but when I sat down with my family to eat the pudding, a smile burst forth on my lips, and a warmth circulated through me.

When the kids were finished eating their pudding, both boys came to me separately to thank me for making them a delicious breakfast.  Zachary, my 3-year-old, actually made a point of finding me upstairs where I was employed in the glamorous task of cleaning out the bathroom sink drain. He gave me a hug, thanked me for breakfast, and then on his way down the stairs he commented to his mother that the rice pudding “was sooo yummy.”  Clearly, the rice pudding was a hit.

Sometimes my kids are so sweet I can only assume they have an agenda. And sometimes they do.  But then there are the occasions where their sweetness is genuine.  For all the times their antics make me think I’m going to lose my mind; for all the times I am driving to a symphony of sibling rivalry and I toy with the idea of  stopping the car and dumping the kids by the side of the road;  for all the seventeen thousand times I’ve had to tell one of them to stop picking his nose or to wash his hands or to flush the toilet or to sit up straight at the table or… or… or…  Those rice pudding moments make absolutely everything right again.

Today, I am thankful for… well, rice pudding, I guess.  I’m thankful for these talismans of tradition, the vehicles into which we pour our comforts and memories and transmit them to our children to be carried forth into future generations.  For some, they are lockets, or vases, or figurines.  For me, it is rice pudding.

I picture my boys, older.  Maybe they haven’t achieved something they worked hard for, maybe they’ve lost someone special to them, maybe work is stressful.  Then maybe they start cooking some rice on the stove and the soft bubbling of the thickening liquid calms them.  They add their milk or cream, then vanilla, cinnamon, raisins, reducing everything to a creamy consistency and filling their homes with a sweet aroma.

And if their memories of their childhood are better than mine, maybe they’ll remember the stillness of that one Sunday morning when the sun peeked through the window and they ate a breakfast that warmed their bellies, while they sat with people they loved and in whose presence they felt safe and happy. And maybe they’ll have little ones who will give them big hugs afterwards and thank them for yummy breakfasts.

Then maybe, for a little while, the world will be right again.

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shutter

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

gracefully

elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

For most of my life, I’ve had the goal of aging gracefully. Even at my still reasonably youthful age of 31, it hasn’t been easy. To start, my hair started receding when I was in high school. There’s nothing that feels particularly graceful about someone guessing you’re 30 when you’re 18. Especially since people usually guess low.

“It’s just the way you carry yourself. You seem older.”

Sure it is.

There’s also nothing particularly graceful about your future in-laws telling your future wife to check your ID to make sure you’re not some geezer going after a younger woman. Okay, in fairness, I was singing Geoff Stephen’s Winchester Cathedral with my wife’s grandfather at the time, and I did know all the words. And they didn’t actually use the word “geezer.”

In university, I liked to chase caesars with margaritas. Now I just chase them with antacids.

Then a male friend told me the other day — swearing me to secrecy — that he feels like he’s getting wimpier with age. I told him I felt the same. Little things that wouldn’t have caused me to flinch before are now excruciating.

A milestone was reached the other day when I went to the dentist to pick up my new night guard. Not that it has anything to do with age because I’ve evidently had a very slight misalignment of my jaws as long as I’ve had adult teeth, but as I’m sitting there lisping to the hygienist through the apparatus, I couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious. I kept reminding myself that Christian Bale wore a night guard in American Psycho, and he was the very picture of youth. Or, at least, I hope he wore a night guard. Don’t tell me if he didn’t; I don’t want to know.

When you find yourself trying to extract comfort from drawing comparisons between yourself and a fictional psychopath, you know you have problems.

Mark Twain’s witty remark to Edward Dimmit that “the first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity” now haunts me like a warning instead of  joke.

I know that aging gracefully is supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, accepting — even embracing — the changes that come with life, and not resigning ourselves to stagnancy.  I’m trying to follow my own tenet but, heck, maybe I won’t have to resign myself to stagnancy: maybe stagnancy doesn’t give a damn whether I resign myself.  Resistance Is Futile.

One time I got stuck on the dementia floor of a long-term care facility.  I had gotten into the elevator, but the elevator was called to a different floor, and I got out without realizing.  When I turned around to call the elevator again, the buttons were locked behind a Plexiglas cover.  Stairwells were locked behind doors which would trip an alarm if opened.  I started to wander through the halls filled with people with somewhat vacant expressions, searching for a staff person to let me out, my mild amusement at my mistake of getting off on the wrong floor rising rapidly to panic.  My brain goes ludicrous places when I panic.  I started thinking: what if they think I’m a resident here? How am I going to prove I’m not?  What if they never let me leave?

When I eventually found a staff person and told her that I couldn’t get off this floor, she joked without missing a beat, “me neither: I’ve been here since 1994.”  If you spend your days face-to-face with dementia, I suppose it’s healthy to develop a sense of humour about these things.

Then today, while waiting in line at the bank, an elderly woman said to her granddaughter — with genuine fear evident in her voice and in the expression on her face — “I’m just so worried about falling on the ice out there.”  Ice can be treacherous, but it never occurred to me to be terrified of going out when ice is on the ground.  But it makes sense.  A fall that, to me, would result maybe in a pulled muscle or minor strain can mean broken bones that never heal to person whose bones have brittled with age.

My point is: it’s easy to preach the virtues of aging gracefully when you picture yourself aging well, doing all the things you used to be able to do.  It’s easy to say “accept change” when you’re assuming the changes are going to be positive.

Taking care of ourselves is vital, but sometimes we’re a ticking time bomb no matter what we do.  My uncle has taken extremely good care of himself his whole life.  Or, leastways, my aunt has taken extremely good care of him.  An active lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating — all the good stuff.  Several years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.  Bang.  Quality of life diminished.  Resistance Is Futile.  Sure, he manages his health well, but let’s not pretend that everything’s “same as usual.”

On the other hand, there’s my friend Keith.  75 years old.  Drinks whiskey like I drink water.  Smoked since he was 14.  Broken every bone in his body, some more than once.  This is not a man who decided to navigate Life carefully.  But he’s one of the most active people I know.  This man just might outlive us all.

Or Patrick Stewart?  Let’s all stop pretending that man hasn’t tapped into some Elven elixir of life.  Yes, he’s aging but he looks better and better every year.

I think what I’ve learned is that we don’t know what the future holds.  Maybe I’ll live to 100 and still have use of all my faculties.  Maybe I’ll develop early onset dementia (some days, a case could be made that it’s already started).  Maybe I’ll die tomorrow.

None of these are new observations or thoughts: existentialist musings have been crystalized in history.  But for me, it emphasizes not just the old adages on seizing the day and living life to its fullest, but also the pure blessing of life.

Today, I am thankful for every molecule of breath in my lungs, for every beat in my heart.  If they’re my last, so be it.  If it gets harder to suck in that breath, or pump out that beat, too bad.  Right now, I Live, I Sing, I Dance, I Laugh.  Right now, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me.  I’m golden.

A Christmas Tale

mother reunited with child

Photo Credit: Joshua Adam Nuzzo; Licence: Editorial Use Authorized

In a former life, I was a Child Protection Worker, which is the type of job that earns praise from some, and boos and hisses from others.  It’s an exhausting and nearly always thankless job, though that isn’t the reason I left it. Challenging though the position was, it was the intra-agency and inter-agency politics that ultimately drove me away. The problem with employment that carries with it a great deal of liability is that everyone is eager to “pass the buck.” If you’re the type of person who is in the job because you want to do something good, it can become very frustrating to work in an environment where people want to be competitive instead of cooperative.

That sort of environment also tends to breed a more intrusive way of working with families. My informal statistic from personal experience is that 99% of the parents with whom I had involvement were not bad parents. Sometimes they were victims of bad circumstances, sometimes they just hadn’t had good parenting role models themselves, but all of those 99% wanted to keep their children safe, and maybe just didn’t know how. The other 1% were bad people and — perhaps unfortunately — you can’t licence baby-making. Having not come from the circumstances that the 99% group  had experienced, I didn’t really feel I was in a position to judge. Other workers had a different opinion.

Mind you, this wasn’t my experience in all of the child protection agencies for which I worked, but it was my finding in 2 out of 3, and that’s enough to make me feel there is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed before we as a society can effectively ensure positive outcomes for children.

I don’t want to downplay the incredible work that Child Protection Workers do.  There are a lot of children today whose lives have been improved, and a good number whose lives have been saved, because of a Child Protection Worker.  I just want to illustrate: the job ain’t any picnic.

Several years ago, I was involved with a single dad and his kids, and it eventually became necessary to remove the children from the father’s care.  The man was riddled with addictions and his children were subjected to the most appalling neglect.  The children — a young boy and older girl — didn’t have much hope of being reunited with their father. Although it was always my intention to work with parents such that their children could be returned to their parents’ care, it was clear early on that this father didn’t want to put in the effort.

The children’s mother was absent. Rumours were that she, too, was addicted to crack cocaine and the children had not seen her in two years.  I anticipated that these children would become part of “the system.”

It is required by law to expend a great deal of effort in seeking out parents of any children brought into care, and so I began searching for the mother, not holding out much hope of finding her, or finding her to be a parent who could provide appropriate care to her children.

Then, one day, I managed to locate her.  She’d gotten off the drugs, was receiving treatment for her addictions and mental illness, and was working hard to turn her life around.

I am not going to say that this mother didn’t have a lot of obstacles to overcome before she could adequately parent the kids but, after my initial conversations with her, I arranged a visit between her and the children, and it was clear that she was extremely motivated to care for her children.

There was one question I had to ask, though: why had she abandoned her children?  I understand that addictions take over a person’s life, and pretty soon nothing much matters but where to get the next high.  It’s a condition that deserves pity, not ridicule. But I had to know the answer if I had any chance of convincing a judge that this woman had been sufficiently rehabilitated to be a good caregiver.

She told me a harrowing tale of having left because she was so terrified of the children’s father, who had abused her.

“Didn’t you worry about him caring for the kids?”

“Of course!” she replied.  She then told me that she had even gone back with an intention of taking them from him, but she realized, as she was bringing them outside into the snow, that she couldn’t provide them the care they needed.  So she left, and fell into a two-year depression, laden with drugs and all sorts of self-abuse.  It was a decision she regretted, but she was ready to make amends.

Readers, it took a long time, but those kids were eventually placed in their mother’s care, and it was a happy ending for them.

The mother lived about 400km away and I had to transport the children to her home.  I was buried in work, though, and the only day I could do it was December 23rd.  It’ll be a nice Christmas present, I thought.

That day, a fierce blizzard raged.  Coworkers tried to encourage me not to drive the children that day.  I looked outside and figured I’d driven in a lot worse before.  I wasn’t anxious to do that long drive in such conditions, but then the thought of calling up their mother and saying that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas didn’t appeal to me either.  So, in a decision that hindsight later rebuked, I felt that, if I drove slowly and carefully, I would be able to make it without incident.

I drove into the storm, so it got a lot worse as the trip wore on.  I also had to drive through a stretch of Ontario that had no gas stations for a couple hundred kilometers, no lights, and no cell phone signal.  There were steep hills and, a couple times, as I inched my way down one, I prayed that the person behind me would be just as cautious.  I began to realize what I wished I had realized earlier: I can be careful all I want; it’s the other drivers who might kill us!  One wrong move, and the mother’s Christmas present might be her precious children at the bottom of a frozen lake.

I’ll alleviate your anxiety now by saying that we made it safely to their new home — albeit about 4 hours later than I had planned.  An incandescent Christmas scene awaited them, with sparkling tree, shiny wrapped gifts, and warm beds.

Today, I am thankful for the capacity of people to change.  No matter the profound depths to which each of us might descend, no matter what bad decisions we might make, no matter what abuse we subject ourselves to, there is always a chance that we might turn it around and make a life worthy of awe.  That is what these children’s mother did, and the beautiful difference she made in her children’s lives cannot be measured.

My professional relationship with the family now long severed, I can’t tell you how everything turned out for those kids in the end.  Work with the family was transferred to another agency shortly after the children were placed in their mother’s care.  I checked in about a year later, though, and am pleased to report that they were still doing well.  Of course, like any family, they had their bumps in the road, and I’ll even acknowledge that their bumps were maybe a little bigger than the bumps most other families experience.  But despite the obstacles they faced, there was a lot of love in that family, and I can confirm something I have learned from experience: with enough love, pretty much everything works out alright in the end.

a morsel of gratitude

cornucopia

Photo Credit: Jina Lee; Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Today was one of those days.  You all know them.  Just as I was starting to feel like I was getting back on top of my workload at work, I was dealt a blow when I learned of a decision made higher up the ladder that translates to a major undertaking being dumped on my lap for the next few weeks. That pile of tasks on my desk was just officially pushed to the back burner.  I worked late in an attempt to get a head start, and to put out a few fires.  Then I picked up the kids and arrived home to start making dinner.

Like a lot of people, I’m so exhausted by the time I get home most days that my kids are lucky they’re not fed a bowl of chips and some HoHos for dinner.  But one of the commitments I’ve made to my children is to make an effort with dinner.  I want to serve them good, healthy food to help their bodies and minds grow.  I confess my love of cheese sometimes results in an over-representation of it in my meals, but I try to pack the meals full of nutrients too, using fresh vegetables and foods as little processed as possible.

My boys are pretty good eaters.  My eldest loves vegetables, and both boys will eat lots of things lots of kids (and many adults) won’t: fish, seafood, mushrooms, spinach, etc.  But I still get my share of whining, and after coming home from work feeling defeated but still putting the effort in to make a nutritious meal (that I thought was delicious), I was deflated a little more to hear the tiny violins start playing.

“I don’t like this.”

“Do I have to eat the onions?”

etc.

And then my 3-year-old — the same one whom I’ve asked twice in the last three minutes whether he has to go to the washroom, the same one who has twice replied “no” — suddenly starts squirming in his seat.

“Do you have to pee?” I ask.

“Yes!” he exclaims, his eyes betraying panic.

Knowing it’s an emergency, I throw him on my hip and bolt up the stairs, only to feel a warm sensation spread down my leg as I reach the bathroom.

By the time I got him cleaned up and get us back to the dinner table, my originally comfortingly warm dinner was now stone cold.

And while I scowled into my tilapia and (cold) warm vegetable salad, I searched my mind to find some morsel of gratitude from the experience.  Gratitude is my refuge against the chilling tendrils of bitterness which, on occasion, start creeping into my heart: if I can shift perspective, I can chase away the sting of antipathy.

So here it is: Today, I am thankful that, as a child, my parents (more specifically, my mom) exposed me to the types of foods my kids might be disinclined to eat.  You might feel ripped off by that one.  Don’t. There are lots of people in the world who grew up eating a lot of junk, so are at a disadvantage in knowing how to prepare for themselves or their children the sorts of foods that will keep them healthy.  I had the benefit of a mom who, long before the nutritionist craze that pervades our lives and the media, exposed me to good-for-me foods so that they wouldn’t be foreign to me.  I am grateful for that, and I hope that, one day, my kids will be thankful for it too.

(But I won’t hold my breath).

alive

baby

Photo Credit: Carin Araujo; Used with Permission

Shortly after I turned 1, my mother was holding me in her arms while I burned through a fever.  Suddenly, my eyes rolled back, and my body began moving rhythmically. I was having a seizure. While my father held me, my mother ran frantically to the house of a neighbour, who was a registered nurse.  My father has told me that, while he held me, I stopped breathing.  My mother returned with the neighbour, Vedra, who took control of the situation and, before long, I began breathing again and recovered.

A few months later, I had another seizure.  It was my brother’s birthday, and my family was planning to go out for dinner, but I had a fever and my mother suggested that my father and brother go out without us.  I began having the seizure and, again, Vedra came to the house and I recovered.

It was the last seizure I had.  I do not have epilepsy and the seizures were febrile, meaning that they were caused by a high fever.  It’s not an uncommon thing to happen to young children, who sometimes lag in developing the nervous system mechanisms to effectively control body temperature.

When my son was born, I was a worried that the problem might be genetic.  Every time he had a fever, I was terrified that it would happen to him.  What would I do?  During my first seizure, I stopped breathing.  Without a combination of several factors, I very likely would not have started breathing again, and what if my son wasn’t so lucky?

Today, I am thankful for a lot of things.  First, I am thankful for timing.  I had the seizures while I was being held by a parent and both my parents were present. My second seizure happened just as my father was about to leave the house. A few minutes later and my mom might have been alone, and I might not have fared so well, because it would be hard for one person both to respond to my needs in the moment and also seek help.  When my son had his fevers, I kept thinking: what if he has a seizure while he’s in bed?  He could stop breathing and I would never even know.

Second, I am thankful that my parents had the sense to run for help.  I think my mother rebukes herself for not really knowing what to do (I always say that perpetual guilt about one’s children is a sign of a good parent) but, really, which of us thinks straight when we perceive our children are in danger?  Once, while camping with Gregory (my eldest) and my friend Sarah, I asked Gregory several times not to walk along the seat of the picnic table, because I had the Coleman stove running, boiling water, and I was worried he might fall and either knock the pot of boiling water on himself, or set himself on fire.  Moments later, while he started walking along the bench again, he fell, with his arm hitting the stove.  That was when I made a complete departure from sense, which is a nice way of saying I went nuts.  I started alternating between screaming at him about needing to listen, and hugging him and asking him if he was alright.  He was perfectly fine, but in my mind, I had already decided he had burned himself, and I was panicking.  In the case of my seizures, I think that having the good sense to run to a neighbour who could handle the situation was the best anyone could expect.

Third, I am thankful that a registered nurse lived nearby, and that Vedra was able to help.  She is one of those every day heroes I like to talk about in this blog.

Without all of these things, I don’t know that I would be alive today, and that is certainly cause for gratitude.

freedom

freedom

Photo Credit: David Niblack; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Today was a difficult day.  Sometimes, working in mental health, you have to do things that feel wrong.  You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s right.  Sometimes, you’re even successful in convincing yourself of that.

Today, after having gone before a Justice of the Peace to argue that a person needs to be taken to the hospital to be assessed, I had to show up at that person’s home with police.  I had to help demonstrate at the hospital that she is ill enough to be involuntarily admitted for psychiatric assessment.  I had to stand by while she hurled a barrage of verbal assault at me for doing this to her, all of which was valid, even if what I was doing to her was necessary.  I had to wait with her in a cold, unfriendly hospital room for 7 hours while the hospital system tried to get its act together.  I had to ask her if there was anyone I could call for her, knowing as I asked what the answer would be: there is no one.

And through all of that, all I could think is how awful this entire experience was for her.  Here is this poor, lonely woman.  Her illness prevents her from understanding what is happening or why it is necessary.  All she knows is that she is surrounded by people she believes intend to harm her.  She is helpless.

Today, I am thankful for my freedom.  I am thankful that I am not plagued by a mental illness which necessitates involuntary confinement.  I am thankful that, in my home, I feel safe from the possibility of police showing up and taking me to a strange place when I haven’t done anything wrong.  I am thankful that I live in a place where I can express what I think, feel, and believe, knowing that, although I might be persecuted, I’m unlikely to be prosecuted.  I am thankful that I am not targeted because of my race, ethnicity, religion, or sex, and that I feel safe to walk through my city, day or night, without any significant fear that I will be attacked.  I am thankful that I live in a democracy. I am thankful for my freedom in so many ways. Most importantly, I am thankful that, if any of these things ever happen to me, I am not alone.

What does freedom mean to you?  Tell me about it in the Comments.

an ubiquitous liar

It used to be that, whenever I felt sad, I would watch Schindler’s List (1993) or some equally horrific film about the atrocities committed by people against their fellow men and women.  Telling people this always led to quizzical expressions in response.

“Why on earth would you do that?” they would ask.  “Doesn’t that make you more sad?”

Oddly, it didn’t, and not because I’m secretly a sociopath.  I found that, most of the time when I felt sad, it was really me just feeling sorry for myself.  Watching a film about people who suffer considerably more than me helped me appreciate what I had going for me.

As time progressed, I discovered that there were occasions when I would spiral into a very dark pit of despair, with feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and hopelessness swirling around me, mocking me with sharp tongues.  I learned that no amount of exposure to the plights of others could lift me from those depths, no effort at counting my blessings could cheer me.  I came to call those occasions “depression.”

man looking out the window at rain

Photo Credit: Jiri Hodan; Licence: Public Domain

I started this blog a few months ago because  I wanted to stop feeling angry and cheated at the misfortunes in my life.  I’ve had my share of life disasters, but I also have a supportive family, a job, my wife, my children, my health, etc.  Stopping each day to acknowledge something beautiful and wonderful in my life is a way of realizing that my blessings far outweigh the little crosses I have to bear from time to time.  Starting this blog was my own personal brand of cognitive-behavioural therapy, and a heck of a lot cheaper than a shrink.

And it worked!  On the whole, I have been much happier.  Those moments of sadness were more easily chased away.  But depression has still lingered at the sidelines, waiting for me to trip over my self-esteem so that it can fly in and attack me when I’m down.

Some of you might have noticed a period of absence this past weekend where I wrote no posts of gratitude.  Depression had been haunting me all week and finally got the better of me.  It was saying a lot of horrible things about me, and I didn’t feel grateful for much.

Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) often says that depression is a liar.  I agree with her.  The challenge is getting yourself to acknowledge that when depression is sitting on your chest and you’re gasping for air.

Today, I am thankful that my periods of light far exceed my times of darkness, both in length and in frequency.  Others aren’t so lucky.

The Peggy Project

Seven years ago, I was couple of weeks into a new job when I met Peggy.  She worked in administration and was generally acknowledged as being the most unpleasant person in the organization.  I was encouraged to avoid her as much as possible.

My first few encounters with Peggy left me feeling that the consensus among my co-workers was startlingly accurate.  I was fortunate, though, in that my job did not bring me into contact with her a great deal.

One day, while passing her in the corridor, I made a snap decision.

“Hi, Peggy!” I said with a broad smile. “How are you?”

She looked at my coldly and walked right by without uttering a word.

The next time I passed her:

“Hey, Peggy! It’s great to see you! How have you been?”

…and so on.  My idea was this: either Peggy is really a softy at heart and I just need to break through her icy exterior by making her feel liked, or Peggy is really as evil as everyone believes and being effervescently cheery will annoy the hell out of her.  Either way, I win.

The first few times I did this, Peggy responded coldly.  After that, I managed to get a mumbled hello.  Within a few months, she was smiling back and asking how I was in return.  And a few months after that, she was stopping to have a chat with me.

Clearly, Peggy wasn’t evil.  Possibly afraid of getting hurt or rejected, she had decided to be the first to reject others and prevent anyone from getting close.  As anyone can guess, this was successful in preventing her from being hurt by someone she trusted, but didn’t make her any less miserable.  Showing interest in her helped build trust, and the guard walls were gradually dismantled.

grumpy old man illustration

Illustration Credit: Author Unknown; Licence: Public Domain

Since then, I’ve tried the same approach with several other people, and I came to call it all an extension of “The Peggy Project.”  The same result has always been achieved.  The most recent success was with a server at a coffee shop I frequent for my daily java fix.  This woman just never smiled.  Now not only does she smile, but she smiles a lot, and she has one of the most fabulous smiles I’ve ever seen, which makes me happy in turn.

I haven’t done anything special, and I haven’t changed anyone.  I wish I could say that I invested more energy in trying to show interest in everyone I interact with, but that is most definitely an area on which I need to build.  Maybe I had some impact on the change in the coffeeshop server’s outward personality, maybe I didn’t.  It’s entirely possible that she was just going through a rough period in her life when I first began interacting with her, and later got through it.  But I’d like to think that showing her that no amount of rancor on her part was going to dissuade me from being pleasant to her played at least a small role.

I don’t encourage this approach for someone who is just having a bad day.  But if it’s a chronically cranky curmudgeonly crab, put your Peggy Project into high gear! 🙂

Today, I am thankful that people are always so much more than the sum of their outward behaviours, so exceedingly different than the “person” they present to us at any moment in time.

I believe the key to unlocking those hidden complexities is to be genuine and show interest.

What do you think?  Or, better yet, have you tried The Peggy Project approach?  How did it go for you? Please tell me in the Comments.  

ageless

Today’s post is a short one; it’s simplicity demands no elaboration.  While in Ottawa earlier this week, we stopped in to visit my aunt and uncle, two septuagenarians whose lifestyle would convince you they are in their twenties.  My aunt, Carolyn, learned several months ago that she had cancer.  Her oncologist didn’t think her chances were great.  A few months later, after a bout of chemotherapy treatment and an operation, she attended for a medical appointment and was told she was in complete remission.  The oncologist reported he had never seen a case of such radical recovery.

Both my aunt and uncle have been extremely active all their lives.  They have travelled all over the world, including visiting exotic locales most would never dream of visiting.  They have canoed, ridden bikes, walked, run, danced.  They have their tiny share of health problems, mostly genetic, but you would be hard-pressed to find a healthier pair of people in their 70s.  While we were visiting, my aunt was talking about how they had gone for a long bike ride the week before, and then for a swim in the St. Lawrence River.  She is also teaching a folk dancing class each week, and they have a trip to Germany booked in October.  It was a bit inspiring for me when I’ve known people in their 60s who already seemed like they had given up on life.

elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

Today, I am thankful that we have — to a large degree — control over our bodies.  If we take care of them, then age really does become a state of mind.  Yes, no matter what we do, our bodies will break down.  That is inevitable.  But I am grateful that there are changes and choices we can make that will stave that off for a little while: it’s the greatest tool we have to fight the ravages of time.

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