Tag Archives: mental-health

Living in the Moment

This past weekend, I was at a folk dance camp. Here’s a taste…

Imagine this:

You are in a community hall. On the stage, a band is playing traditional folk music, led by a fiddler. In the hall, people are dancing until the wooden floor bounces — the whole room moving in unison.

You’re all grinning like fools and sweating and your eyes sparkle with sheer joy and you are alive, right there in the moment and nowhere else.

(Read the rest here.)

What I’m describing is something called flow. With flow, you are wholly present and aware. You’re not thinking about anything but what you’re doing. You are doing it fairly well, and you’re enjoying doing it well.

If you find flow while doing something like dance, you are really inhabiting your body and your surroundings. Flow can also arise out of an intellectual exercise like writing, in which case your body and surroundings might tend to disappear as you dive deeper into the page. Either way, you lose track of time and you’re living completely in the moment.

Some other places where I’ve found flow include:

  • outdoor adventure sports — hiking, canoeing, kayaking
  • exercise — ice skating, rock climbing, swimming, yoga
  • physical chores around the house — gardening, building furniture
  • anytime when I’m outside of my routine, maybe walking somewhere I don’t usually go, and not too busy rushing to pay attention to where I am at that moment
  • partaking in the arts — reading, singing or playing music, attending a really good concert
  • travel

I find flow to be essential to my mental health. It can also make time seem longer — so if your weekends feel too short, maybe try chiselling out some time for flow and see what happens!

Your turn! Where do you find flow?

 

Winter Elegy

My father passed away eleven years ago this week, at the tail end of an unusually frigid winter much like the one we’ve just had.

I don’t know which season was his favourite, but he relished each of them. He didn’t fear or curse the cold — he took us cross-country skiing and walking in the snow whenever he could, until that last winter that he spent sick, in and out of hospital. We drove on icy roads and trudged in winter gear from the parking lot to visit him.

I wasn’t thinking about it then, but I suspect that’s when I began to hate winter.

For a long time he didn’t know it would be his last, only that he was very sick…and he was never sick. But he knew the possibility was there. He was not afraid.

When I was young, I used to love playing in the snow. Building forts, sledding, pretending I was an Arctic explorer or a princess in an ice castle (the budding writer at work). Later I tried skating and snowshoeing. Cross-country skiing was always my favourite, the clean sound of the skis in the snow, the glorious sensation of flying, the sleeping trees and pure white all around. I’ve done some of those things since he died, but nowadays I mostly just trudge.

On the day of the funeral, the winter finally broke, with a sky of clear Alberta blue, meltwater running in the cemetery. I like to think it broke for him, but then he didn’t mind the snow. Maybe it broke for us.

Even now, at this time of year I get melancholy. I still like a clean snowfall, crunchy snow and a clear winter sky, but as the season wears on, it wears at me too. I wait out the last cold days, just enduring the late-winter storms. Waiting for March to pass and spring to arrive, and life to come again.

 

Late Winter Blues

Right about this time of year, I always start to feel really ground down by winter. Christmas holidays are a distant memory, the February long weekend (Family Day in most of Canada) is over, and the Easter long weekend isn’t for another month or two. Post-holiday optimism and resolve have been dulled by the pressures of reality. The cold grey weather seems like it’ll never end, and I’m more than ready for some warmth and sunshine.

And yes, I’m taking Vitamin D and I’ve tried full-spectrum lights in the past. Last year I even contrived to run away to a hot climate for three months, but that’s not an option this year.

(Funny thing is, when I was younger I thought snowbirds — in Canuck-speak, that’s retirees who head south for the winter — were wimps. Now I totally get the appeal! Alas, I’m a looong way from being able to do that regularly, even if I did swing it once.)

Here’s something I wrote almost exactly two years ago: Surviving the End of Winter. Unfortunately, those strategies aren’t working so well this time. (Even the copious amounts of chocolate.) Mental health is a moving target, I swear.

So I’m turning the platform over to you. How do you cope with the late-winter blues?

#ROW80 Update

Despite the above, I’ve already hit 2.25 hours of novel revision this week — thanks in part to the aforementioned long weekend, and in part to having to prep pages for my critique group. Only another 1.25 hours to go! Jury’s still out on whether I’m actually making progress or stalled, though. Maybe the rest of the week will see things start to move along.

 

Cruel Self-Talk and ROW80 Check-In

Just a quick post today, because I’m going to send you over to a post I wrote yesterday at Turtleduck Press. It’s about New Year’s resolutions, changing goals, and how we talk to ourselves.

Here’s a snippet:

I’m doing a writing challenge that involves twice-weekly check-ins on my blog. If you read those posts, you might notice a lot of what sound like rationalizations or excuses. I’m busy with Real Life. I’m not writing a lot but it’s quality over quantity. Renovations also relate to my goal of “making space”.

But all of that is deliberate.

You see, I tend to be very hard on myself. There’s a little voice in my head that says I’m not working hard enough, I should be doing more, that story I’m working on sucks, look at how much those people on Twitter are writing, I only work 40 hours a week so there’s no reason I can’t write 10 hours a week, what the hell am I doing on the Internet, etc., etc. (And that’s just the parts that relate to writing.)

To be honest, I’ve struggled for a long time with this voice. It seeps into all aspects of life. It can find so many ways to say “You suck. You’re not good enough — you’re not like those other people — and you never will be.” And that’s not motivating; it’s paralyzing.

Even now as I type, I don’t want to write too much about it because I’m afraid to give it free rein, to let it gain a toehold in my mind.

Check out the rest of my post to find out how I’m fighting back. And please do leave a comment — I’d love to hear how you fight back, too.

ROW80 stats: only half an hour so far this week, as renovations are still eating my life. But I have high hopes for getting more words down on Thursday night and Saturday.

 

Making Space for Writing: ROW80 Goals

Last year, I was very busy with Life — not in a bad way, but it meant I didn’t do a whole lot of writing. This year, Life has settled down (knock wood). So I’m taking a step back, refocusing and recommitting to what it is I really want to do with myself. Which is write.

Specifically, I want to make more space for my writing. I hear myself constantly complaining about how busy I am. My house is cluttered so there’s no room to think. The Internet is an ever-present demon. And the writing I am getting done feels like it has stagnated because I’m not sinking into it as deeply as I could be.

So I am declaring this the Year of Priorities, AKA Project: Making Space.

It’s a multi-pronged problem, so I’ll be making a multi-pronged attack.

ROW80

First step: ROW80 (A Round of Words in 80 Days). This is a writing challenge where, unlike NaNoWriMo, each participant declares his or her own goal. It runs for 80 days, then takes a break and starts again. That means it’s not a mad coffee-fueled dash like NaNo. As I understand it, you’re supposed to take ROW80 a little slower, integrate your goal into your normal life, and work towards building habits.

My ROW80 goal: To spend 5 hours a week writing and/or editing.

(A week is counted as Monday to Sunday. Related tasks such as researching, brainstorming, and outlining may or may not count, or I may count them as half time, or something.)

I’m tempted to talk about gradually raising the goal, or about how much I hope to accomplish by the end of the 80 days, but I won’t. I have a long history of setting unrealistic goals, or “product” goals that don’t take into account the length of the process, and then beating myself up when I miss them. So this time I’m starting simple.

My current projects are:

  • Writing, editing, and posting a serial story for Turtleduck Press (I’m just finishing up Part 4 of a planned 5)
  • Editing a novel (I’m about 1/3 of the way through an intensively edited second draft)

But again, I’m only setting “process” goals for now.

I will say, though, that I intend to do those 5 hours a week in bigger chunks. In the past I’ve sometimes written in sprints of 10 or 15 minutes, which is great as far as it goes, but it’s not conducive to sinking deeper into the story. So I’m going to aim for an hour at a time, but again, that’s not an official part of the goal.

One of the Life things I’m doing is working on Turtleduck Press. As a member, part of my duties involves writing short stories, which will count towards my goal. Another part of my duties is editing other members’ novels, which will not count — I like doing it, but it doesn’t get my own writing out there any faster. Writing blog posts also will not count — only fiction.

Wednesday Check-In

I’ve done 2 hours so far this week — an hour each of writing and editing. It might have been more, but I had to skip Monday because of wrist problems. Still, I’m on track to hit 5 hours.

Other #ROW80 Members

I’m doing #ROW80 with a couple of fellow Turtleduck Press authors:

Erin Kendall

Kit Campbell

You can see the rest of the ROW80 participants here.

Go show them some love!

In future posts I’ll be talking more about my 2013 (because I did accomplish a fair bit, even if it wasn’t writing, and I’d like to celebrate that) and my plans and reasons for refocusing in 2014. In the meantime…

Your turn! Are you feeling too busy? What are your priorities for 2014?

7 Tips for Mental Health and Lower Stress During the Holidays

Christmas treeThe holidays can be a tough time for many of us. Whether it’s the pressure to be perfect, the tension of navigating family relationships, the weight of memories, or the sheer length of the to-do list, there are many reasons to feel like Scrooge or the Grinch at this time of year.

Here, then, are some tips for retaining your mental health.

7. Don’t try to do everything. Pick your projects and your battles. I don’t bake or send cards, but I do decorate my home and put lots of thought into my gifts. If you’re trying to make Christmas amazing for a small person in your life, for example, pick and choose the things to focus on — the ones they’ll remember. Years later, they won’t remember how many kinds of cookies you made, but they’ll remember a tradition of making gingerbread together. If you’re a writer, maybe December is the time to scale waaaaay back on your goals or writing schedule — the words will still be there in January.

6. Resist the pressure, both internal and external. You’re inundated with messages about using your dollars to make your loved ones happy. You want to find the best gift ever this year. Maybe your in-laws and your step-family both want you with them for Christmas dinner. Resist. You can do this.

5. Do focus on what you love about the season. This is where family traditions can come in handy. A particular holiday music album that you always put on? A visit to Santa? Decorating the tree together? Curling up on the sofa to watch holiday movies? None of those things are expensive or time-consuming or stressful — they’re just fun, or if they’re not, they should be. Linger on them, and enjoy.

4. Make time for you. If you’re an introvert, for example, you’ll still need me-time — that won’t change just because it’s the holidays. Stick to your exercise routine if you can, or your weekly ritual of going out for coffee on Sundays, or whatever else you ordinarily do that you love.

3. Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. Your tree might not look like it came out of a magazine (unless doing it that way causes you more happiness than stress), but it looks like you trimmed it your way. Your cookie-decorating skills might be lacking, but if they taste good, who cares? I promise your family and friends won’t notice, or if they do, they won’t care.

2. Plan something to look forward to in the new year. One reason the holidays get so much pressure is that after they’re over, there’s a long, dark slog until spring (at least in this part of the world). My significant other and I have started a tradition of a weekend getaway for mid-February, and let me tell you, it makes January go much faster. If a trip isn’t in the cards for you, try a concert, a party, or any special event that you can get excited about.

1. Do what you need to do. Above all, your mental health is the top priority. If that means skipping things, letting other things slide, staying home sometimes…well, so be it, and don’t let anyone (including your own Inner Critic) tell you otherwise. You’re worth taking care of.

Your turn! What are your best tips for staying sane during the holidays?

The Epic Battle of Sugar Cravings vs. Vegetable Smoothies

This week I’m over at Turtleduck Press talking about vegetables:

My household has had a steady (but not overwhelming) supply of zucchini for the last month. Zucchini grow fast, did you know? We picked the first one a month earlier than we were expecting after last year’s tomato crop. And we could have picked it even earlier, only we didn’t notice it. They’re good at hiding. By the time we realized we had one, it was thicker than a baseball bat. Whoops!

Partly as a result of our vegetable garden, my household has been drinking a lot of smoothies lately, full of varying and tasty combinations of greens, celery, apples, ginger, and fruit. I haven’t noticed any Popeye tendencies yet, though. I admit I was hoping for a magic food that would give me 100% more energy, 150% better digestion, 98% fewer mood swings…and, I can’t deny, 33% less tummy pudge. But maybe green smoothies can only do so much against a desk-bound lifestyle.

I go through phases. I find that when my mood is lower, I crave sugar; but conversely, drinking (or eating) less sugar doesn’t seem to have an effect on my mood. Sometimes I drink more lattes, sometimes more soda pop, sometimes hot chocolate. When I wasn’t working, I drank sweet chai (Indian-style tea) because someone in my family makes a fantastic chai. For a while I bought red wine regularly and tried to become a connoisseur; now I’ve given up and only have alcohol at restaurants.

These days most of my fancy drink needs, and some of my dessert needs, are being met by smoothies. I drink regular coffee and the occasional cappuccino or pop, and that’s pretty much it.

But winter is coming (I’m a Stark at heart) and I know what happens then. I get cold and want warm, sweet drinks. And my NaNoWriMo drink of choice is mildly caffeinated root beer. We won’t even get into NaNo snacks.

So…

Your turn! How do you combat cravings and stay healthy? How much does varying your diet affect your mood?

Confessions of a Wannabe Writer

Guys, I have a confession to make.

I’ve been putting out inspirational posts like 10 Ways to Follow Your Passion Without Quitting Your Day Job and After the Vacation: A Conversation with the Inner Critic.

But the truth is, my baby writing career is stalled like you wouldn’t believe.

I get home from work and the last thing I want to do is write or edit…even though I’ve been dreaming all day about how productive I’ll be when I get home. So I chat with my family, putter around on the Internet, and maybe squeeze out half an hour some nights, an hour if I’m lucky. Too many nights I get nothing done at all. I’m not a morning person, so I don’t write before work, and lunch hours disappear awfully fast.

My priorities are all wrong. I spend more time blogging and working on Turtleduck Press stuff than I do writing or editing my own stories. More time reading blogs than reading novels. I think Chuck Wendig has something to say about that. (See what I mean about reading blogs?)

Now, it’s true that I’ve had a busy and distracting couple of years. I bought my first house, went through another major life event that was all-consuming for months, and planned and executed a massive trip.

But all those things are finished and I’ve been back at work for a month and a half now, long enough to have gotten over the hump and back into the groove. Except…I struggled with these same problems before all the distracting stuff happened. It’s no surprise that they’re back.

I’m tired of not writing. Of taking weeks to edit a chapter because I’m only devoting a handful of hours a week to the thing I want to do most in all the world. (Don’t I?) Of still not having even one edited, polished novel ready to go out on submission, or out on Amazon, or out into the world somehow.

I feel like a poser. A master of self-sabotage. A wannabe doomed to failure because I don’t want my dream enough to work for it.

I don’t have any answers.

Help.

Your turn! Am I the only one who feels this way?

 

After the Vacation: A Conversation with the Inner Critic

Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol. 1Quick announcement: This week I’m over at Turtleduck Press talking about our new anthology and how far we’ve come in the three (!) years since we started.

This is my fifth week back at work after taking a six-month sabbatical. The feeling of my time off is fading quickly in my memory, and in its place is the Inner Critic. You know, the voice that goes “I had all that time off work! Why didn’t I write three novels AND decorate the entire house and garden AND run all those errands I keep putting off?”

(I’m reasonably good at shutting up the Inner Critic’s comments on my actual writing ability, thanks to NaNoWriMo. Most of the time, anyway. But that’s a post for another time.)

There are two sides to this problem. (1) My Inner Critic is really good at telling me how I “should” be doing more than I am, while ignoring the actual amount of time and energy at my disposal. (2) I am, in fact, really good at spending a lot of time at home doing nothing (but less time than my Inner Critic thinks).

So here are some of the things I did, in fact, do during my time off:

1. Spent almost 4 months travelling.

Roadtrip! The Rocky Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta.

Roadtrip! Coming up on the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta.

I spent 12 weeks in Asia and 3 weeks in Western Canada. During that time I wasn’t writing, except for irregular blog posts, because I was, y’know, busy. I did initially have dreams of travelling and writing lots of fiction at the same time but…well, see above comments about the Inner Critic. Not going to happen.

The Asia trip was planned long in advance, but the Western Canada trip was relatively last-minute; a family member was hitting a life milestone and I realized that hey, I wasn’t working, I could actually make it out to celebrate with her. Bonus: spending more time with my family than I’ve spent since I moved to Toronto in 2005. Am I going to beat myself up for that? No!

2. Edited novels.

Besides the travelling, my main goal for those six months was to further my writing career. No, I didn’t edit a whole novel like I was hoping (before I knew I’d be spending three weeks out west). But I did start a major content edit of one of my novels, got several chapters in, and didn’t run away screaming, which is more than I’ve ever managed before.

(If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t published any novels yet, through Turtleduck Press or otherwise, this is why. I have a ways to go yet before I’m ready for major publication! Short stories, though…you can see the ever-growing list over here.)

I also copy edited someone else’s novel in my capacity as editor for Turtleduck Press, wrote two parts of a serial short story for the Turtleduck Press website, and branched out into travel blogging. That’s not nothing.

3. Started a garden.

Baby tomatoes in our garden

Baby tomatoes in our garden

My significant other and I really wanted to grow vegetables in our new backyard. But we had only the vaguest idea of how to do it. We’re still very much beginners, but going from (figurative) preschool to Grade 1 took a lot of research and a lot of (literal) digging. (More about this in a future post!)

I took the lead since I wasn’t working and he was. We put some things in the ground, then I went out west for three weeks, and when I came back I had more planting to do and three weeks’ worth of weeds to get under control, all without knowing what I was doing (so everything took longer). That’s not trivial!

Of course, this project meant that my time, attention, and energy were divided. So even when I wasn’t travelling to far-flung locations, I wasn’t purely focused on art. But it made my physical world better and gave me some exercise to boot.

4. Relaxed.

Remember when you were in school and you had two months off every summer? And four months off during university (during which you were probably working, but at least that’s something different than studying, so it gives your brain a break)? I really, really miss that. I’ve been out of university for over a decade and I still miss it.

I’m thinking this is probably related to my being an introvert and someone who is easily over-stimulated (sometimes called a Highly Sensitive Person). I need a lot of down-time and peace and quiet. This year, I finally got it.

And hey, while I was  relaxing, I didn’t just stare into space. I read a lot (partly to make up for not reading much while I was on the road, but I came out ahead). I knitted. I bought garden implements. I tried to sort the many, many photos I took while travelling and write down some of the experiences I had. I got enough sleep for a change. And so on.

So STFU, Inner Critic. I needed that time, and I made good use of it.

And even now that I’m back at work full-time, my life as a writer isn’t over.

 

Your turn! Do you have an Inner Critic? How do you shut it up?

Long-Term Travel: 6 Tips for Mental Health

First, a quick note: I’m posting over at Turtleduck Press this week, talking about the “ooh, shiny!” of gardening and what happens when the initial obsession wears off.

Second, this is a travel post week. If you haven’t noticed, I’m alternating travel posts and general life posts on Wednesdays. Mondays are still for books and other media, and sometimes you get a bonus on Fridays with WANAFriday posts.

Last time we talked about planning for a long-term trip. This week, I’m moving on to what happens when you’re out there.

Your intrepid correspondent in the Malaysian jungle

Your intrepid correspondent in the Malaysian jungle

Long-term travel might sound like a dream come true, and in many ways it is. But it’s also exhausting, like running a marathon (er, not that I’ve done that…). If you’re travelling with a companion, you’ll want to avoid murdering each other. If you’re travelling alone, you’ll cope with loneliness at some point.

Here’s how we dealt with these challenges.

1. Have an idea of your travel style before you start…

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

For example:

  • We knew we didn’t want to go hostelling — been there, done that, wanted a room and preferably a shower to ourselves — but we didn’t need an international hotel chain to feel comfortable. We didn’t know at first where between those two extremes we would fall.
  • We knew we were okay with cheap-to-midrange restaurants, but wanted to avoid street food for the most part.
  • We wanted to take public or cheap transportation, but in relative comfort — in India that meant trains and auto-rickshaws rather than buses.
  • We identified the sorts of activities and sights we were most interested in — mainly seeing temples, forts, and other old buildings, but also some light adventure tourism and hiking, and just soaking up the feel of a place.

2. …But adjust your plans and standards as you go.

Breakfast area for our guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur

Breakfast area for our guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In Malaysia, our first guesthouse was a super friendly, family-run place…where the AC ran only at night, showers were shared (and out on the balcony!), and breakfast was DIY cereal. In India, our second guesthouse was another super friendly place in a historic home…where our 950-rupee ($20) room was right behind reception, so we could hear loud conversations for 16 hours a day, plus the attached bathroom was in a closet under the stairs, and the rooftop restaurant made all the construction noises from the back sound even louder.

In both cases, we decided to raise our rates a little and get a bit more comfort next time. (For this reason, we didn’t pre-book all of our accommodation.) We still stayed in family-run guesthouses that were a little rough around the edges, but that was part of the fun. We ended up paying about $30 a night (for two people) in Malaysia and Thailand, and $20-30 a night in India.

Conversely, by the end of our India and Nepal stint, I found myself getting a lot more comfortable with public squat toilets than I ever imagined I would. Turns out they are scary and gross, but nothing I couldn’t deal with.

Remember you’re in a very different country and culture. Practise being flexible!

3. Pace yourself…

Amer Fort near Jaipur. Amazing? Yes. But after six of them in a row? Maybe a little less amazing.

Amer Fort near Jaipur, India. Amazing? Yes. But after six forts like this in three weeks? Maybe a little less amazing.

If you’re measuring your travel in months rather than weeks, you can’t expect to see four sights every day and a new city every two days…you’ll burn yourself out! So mix heavy sightseeing days with quiet days, especially:

  • when you first get to a country — give yourself around 5 days to orient yourself in your first location, do a little sightseeing, and get used to the unique challenges of that country
  • after you’ve been doing a lot of sightseeing — give yourself at least 1 day of downtime
  • after you’ve been travelling for a while — give yourself 3-7 days of just vegging out in relative comfort

4. …And don’t try to see everything.

Six weeks in India might sound like a lot of time, but trust me, it’s not. You can’t see everything in a country. You probably can’t even see all the sights in a given city without burning yourself out after three cities. (Ask me how I know.)

So don’t try. See what you can, see what you’re interested in, see what you have time and energy for. It’s okay to let the rest go.

5. Know yourself and your needs…

Bukit Bintang 2

Open-air restaurant area in Kuala Lumpur — fascinating, delicious, and overwhelming

My travelling companion and I are both introverts, and Asia can be an assault on the senses (sometimes all five of them at once). We found we needed a lot of downtime (see #3). We also needed quiet spaces and solitude — another reason we didn’t want to go hostelling. So we spent a fair amount of time in our hotel rooms, on our respective netbooks. This confused people sometimes, but we were a lot saner for it. We even spent a few days apart, doing separate things.

On the other hand, when I went to Norway and later Ireland as a solo traveller, I got very lonely sometimes — even though I loved how liberating it felt (and yes, even though I’m an introvert). So if you’re travelling alone, you might need to seek out people. Hostelling is a great way to do this because there are lots of solo travellers. You’ll always meet people in the mornings and/or evenings. Sometimes you’ll even find travelling companions for part of your trip.

And yes, paying attention to your needs might mean you buy a hamburger once in a while because you miss Western food. That’s okay too.

6. …But stretch your comfort zone.

Deep-fried tofu in Bangkok -- yes, we ate street food after all!

Deep-fried tofu in Bangkok, Thailand — yes, we ate street food after all!

What is travelling for, if not for getting out of your comfortable routine and being open to new experiences — really living? Of course you’ll want to keep safety in mind. But being unsafe and being uncomfortable are not the same thing. Do try the squat toilets…or try the street food…or try haggling…or try ziplining. (We did all of those things — click through to read more.) Maybe you’ll love it!

You’re still going to be exhausted and overwhelmed and homesick at various points. That’s part of travelling, too. But if you follow these tips, you’ll enjoy yourself more and be less stressed.