Mindfulness in the garden

Yao Garden, Bellevue Botanical Garden

Yesterday, I attended a class called Mindfulness in the Garden: Autumn Awakening.  In this ninety-minute outdoor program, about twenty of us engaged in heavy breathing, teasing our senses and Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku in Japanese).  Sound risqué? Not with a temperature of fifty-five degrees, fierce winds, and the occasional raindrop.

My sensual journey included shivering, squeezing my hands under my armpits and attempting to mindfully ignore my discomfort.

But the actions of breathing, and paying attention to all aspects of the environment that surrounded us kept me from dwelling for long on the chill.

The class took place in a botanical garden I often visit. By visit, I mean circle the grounds fast enough to raise my heart rate while also stopping to take photos. Yesterday, none of that was permitted: no selfies, no haste, no talking.

Yao Garden, Bellevue Botanical Garden

One definition of Forest bathing is simply spending time in the woods. And so we stood quietly, inhaled and exhaled and felt the ground under our feet. We moved at the speed of starfish and stopped every few seconds to look closely at a particular plant or a tree, finger a leaf or two, stick our noses into the last rose of summer, pay attention to the water gurgling under a bridge, and listen to leaves rustling overhead. I even stopped on the trail, peered into a thicket and waited until I saw a leaf fall, one leaf.

We also gathered in a grove and thought about our relationship to the trees encircling us. We inhaled oxygen produced by the trees, and exhaled carbon dioxide for their benefit.

The effect of the class was to still my monkey mind, introduce me to dozens of plants and leaves I’ve never noticed on my fast walks, make me focus on what I was doing, not on what I was going to do later, and feel content. There are more benefits, which Japanese researchers have discovered. These include

  • Boosted immune system functioning
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep.

And to achieve these results is uncomplicated. No equipment needed. No number of repetitions required. No knowledge of botany. Only a good coat and boots in winter. Next time, I will pay more attention to the coat.

 

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The thrill of finding your ancestral roots

  • Recently a friend posted on Facebook — in all caps — her excitement of learning that her ancestors came from Northern Nigeria and that she was a “full Fulani woman. I found my home. My heart is full.” In response, another friend said, “I think the feeling of connectedness that arises when we are able to trace our ancestors to a particular country and culture must be embedded at the cellular level.  It’s so powerful.”

I understand that feeling even though I have ancestral ties to many places and, thanks or no thanks to ancestry.com’s growing databases, these sometimes change. However, for every loss of one motherland there is usually a gain of another, and I take pride in being a mix of nationalities.

Since retirement, my husband and I have traveled to Europe, Ireland and several Northern countries. On our first trip, we spent a few days in Amsterdam.  Walking down city streets surrounded by Dutch pedestrians, he said, “I feel like I belong here.  These are my people.” His DNA results support this claim.

The next step was to visit the lands of ancestors whose names we knew.  My great grandmother came from Sweden. I felt right at home in Stockholm, especially when people spoke spoke Swedish to me.  Bergen, Norway, the port my husband’s great grandmother sailed from, became a special city to us. And I fell in love with Ireland, which was the home of a great-great grandfather.

I agree with my friend’s comment, “My heart is full.” There is something special about knowing where you came from, and coming from many places, which seemingly makes you root-free, is also a plus. You can pick and choose which cultural paradigms you want to accept from each country.  The Irish are famous for storytelling, so I’m thrilled with that connection. My husband and I also call ourselves Vikings because of what ancestry.com says are our Scandinavian, Northwestern Europe and British, Scottish, Welsh and Irish connections. The Vikings inhabited all those places.

The other bonus that come from searching for your ancestors is that millions of others are doing the same thing.  Today I heard from a woman who said one of my grandfathers was a brother of her grandmother. She’d even met my mother once. We share the same Irish ancestor and have both traveled to the counties in Ireland where this ancestor lived.

While joy comes from knowing what countries your ancestors came from, learning what they did when they got to the U.S. offers both good and bad news.  I believe some of my English ancestors who settled in the southern states were slave owners.  Contrast this to my husband’s Norwegian ancestor who became an artist and painter of French china in Wisconsin. (The photos here are of her work and that of her daughter)

One bit of advice to readers whose family members are still living.  Ask questions while you can.  At some point in your life you will regret not knowing more about your ancestors and their lives, even if the answers aren’t always what you want to hear.

 

 

Posted in intergenerational, personal reflections, travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Responding to the autumn blues

Molbak’s

Before I retired, which means when I was nine years younger, I always claimed to prefer autumn over all other seasons.  Spring with its gentle rains and slow-sprouting leaves was too pastel, too wimpy.  Autumn meant bold oranges and reds, windstorms, and leaves piling up everywhere, ready to skitter and dance when I walked through them.

One of my biggest arguments against autumn is that daylight vanishes for months. When I worked, I used to leave home in the dark, get home in the dark, look out my office window at two p.m. and ask my secretary if it was bedtime yet. My schedule has changed, but the dark days persist.

Given this gloom and doom picture of the season I’ve been painting for myself, I decided to make autumn a very active season, keeping so busy I won’t notice how dark it is outside. And, given recent developments in national politics, by accident, I’m also providing myself with plenty of distractions from the twenty-four hour news cycle.

My October calendar is nearly full. One Shakespeare play. One book group. One writing workshop. Two musical performances. A mindful walk in the woods with a talk on shinrin- yoku, Japanese “forest bathing.” Two movies. Two author lectures. Lunch with longtime friends. Two other lectures. A little over the top perhaps, but all good ways to nourish me during the season when the weather and darkness fails to do this. My husband will share most of these activities, and if the weather gets too dreary there’s always a cat, a couch and a fireplace.

Molbak’s

Despite perhaps going overboard with one month’s schedule, I haven’t forgotten that small activities can be as rewarding as the large events. Today, we went to our favorite nursery. Walking through all shades of green and swaths of many colors (even cacti have colorful blooms) gave me an emotional boost and cost nothing.

October will be here tomorrow.  I’m going to rest before heading to the starting gate.

Posted in aging, seasons | 1 Comment

She’s nearly ninety-nine

Every so often I think about death, especially when I’m with a group of friends that started out one size and ended up smaller. I have one friend – her name is Eleanor — who by virtue of her age should remind me of death but never does.  In fact, she seems immortal. 

I’ve written about Eleanor before, but that was way back when she was 94 or 95 and now she’s 98 and 1/2, which she routinely rounds up to “going on 99.” 

Recently, I interviewed her to learn her secrets of aging as they relate to a healthy mental state.

As a guide I used a sort of memoir, “On the Brink of Everything Grace, Gravity and Getting Old,” by Parker J. Palmer, who looks back on his life in such areas as work and vocation, staying engaged with the world, and staying engaged, creatively, with the young.

Work and vocation.  Eleanor’s list is too long to include here. Her careers range from journalist to costume designer to drama teacher. She’s a founder of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and still actively involved. Recently, she hosted a buffet for thirty of the organization’s leaders who were in town for a conference.

When I first met her, we were both enrolled in a writing program through the University of Washington.  She was ninety. She has taken at least one writing course every year since then.

Creative time with younger people. Palmer suggests that as we age we benefit from spending creative time with people younger than we are.  Eleanor is a writer and she hosts a writers’ critique group twice a month (with dinner). At “going on 99,” whether it’s in courses or in the writers’ group, she has no choice but to spend creative time with folks much younger than she is.

Engaging with the world. Eleanor is way ahead of most retirees in this category. “I get out of the house every day and announce my age constantly. I talk to everyone, everywhere.” Her local librarian saves books for her.  She’s well known by the tech staff at the Microsoft store near her home. The woman who hands out free food samples at Costco attended her last birthday party.  “Successful aging is really being genuinely interested in other people. I feel like everyone is a sibling or maybe I’m their surrogate mother.”

But wait, there’s more. She says she has “unbridled curiosity, pays attention to the moment,” though she’s “often undisciplined and unfocused.” She explains the latter, saying, “I grew up wild in a family of eight children, which shaped who I am now. As a child, day and night I was attentive to tangible and intangible details, always alert to the potential for conflict.”

Besides having good genes – her doctor describes her as an outlier – and an outgoing nature, Eleanor attributes her long life to sleeping eight hours a night, taking no medicine, having curiosity, reading avidly, and questioning authority, especially doctors.  

Because I believe Eleanor is immortal,  I look forward to finding out whether her “secrets” list changes once she reaches 100.

Posted in aging, health, inspiration | Tagged , | 7 Comments

My Irish vacation in limericks

I
Donegal, Limerick, Kilkenny and Kerry
Roll off the tongue as do Mayo and Derry.

Magical names for Irish Counties,
Each one filled with a wonderful bounty.

All dressed in green like the Irish fairies.

II
We drove a loop round the Emerald Isle
Country lanes mile after mile.

Cliffs, castles, and surf among the day’s sights
While jigs, reels, and polkas enlivened our nights.

Ending each satisfying day with a smile.

III
Guiness and Bushmills were brandnames we learned,
We sipped the whiskey and our throats did burn.

We tried to develop a craving for stout,
But often ended up pouring it out

For never did our tastebuds turn.

IV
We heard about Irish nationalist thought,
And saw Kilmainham gaol where rebels were shot.

The potato famine led to mass starvation,
And the Irish flight to other nations.

After losing the battles they once fought.

V
Up north we heard firsthand of the Troubles,
Thirty violent years of struggles.

When the planting of homemade bombs,
Disrupted any sense of calm,

Reducing neighborhoods to rubble.

 

VI
We took pictures of every statue and rock,
For selfies around the clock,

Shared our work through social media,
Posted ratings on Expedia,

And shopped in every tourist spot.

VII
The journey is over, the learning profound,
Seeing our photos still astounds.

Fellow travelers become Facebook friends,
And with ordinary routines we all contend

Including the problem of unwanted pounds.

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Ireland: fifty shades of green (and gray)

My husband and I spent the last few weeks on a tour of Ireland, sans laptop, which was wise because I wouldn’t have had much free time to write anyway. The challenge now is to pull together bits and pieces of what I experienced into a few coherent blog posts.  Since jet lag is still dragging me down, I’m starting with a photo essay, because the “Emerald Isle” poses beautifully whenever anyone holds up a cell phone or camera.

Sitting in an airplane seat built for a body the size of a hedgehog, with a comfort level of zero on a scale of one to ten, I began to question my choice of Ireland as a vacation destination.  I had two reasons for wanting to go:  friends’ photos and positive comments on Facebook, and family history I’d uncovered showing an ancestor from Londonderry County or Derry depending on the resident’s feelings about being part of Great Britain. Halfway over Canada neither of these reasons seemed compelling. Ireland was rural.  What was there to see but sheep and cows? And my  great-great grandfather emigrated to the US in the 1800’s, so finding signs of him in Ireland today was unlikely.

As it turned out, Ireland’s rural setting — peaceful, quiet and undisturbed  — was much of its appeal.

Sheepdog at work.

When I searched through my collection for photos with green, I realized that nearly every scene involving grass or trees also included clouds, usually gray ones.  Ireland weather is not for those seeking a vacation of sun and sand; they’ll find both here, but should pack a wetsuit not a bikini.

Houses or doors also can be green, part of local communities’ efforts to vie for Tidiest Town status. If a town rates high on the tidy scale, residents continue to work hard to raise their total points for the following year’s rankings. A town can never be too tidy.

It’s not important to have Irish ancestors to make the trip.  But don’t be surprised if one or two are hiding on some limb or other of your family tree.  More than 1.5 million people left Ireland during the potato famine, 1845-1851, and most came to the U.S.  That explains why nearly everyone on our tour spoke of having Irish family connections. Even without personal connections, Ireland is worth visiting for its astonishing geology, fascinating history, and friendly, helpful people. Even worth nine plus hours searching for a place to put your elbows in your airplane seat and sitting with your knees in your face.

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Good reasons to have a purpose in life

Gordon has found his purpose.

What’s your Purpose in life?  I’m thankful only a few people have asked me this question, because it made me squirm.  “Purpose” with a capital P has always seemed like a divine gift that directs its holders to make service the focus of their lives, like fighting at the national level on behalf of a particular species on the endangered list.

Since I retired, volunteering has been a side gig, something I’ve done a few hours each week. My big goal has been to write and publish a novel, which clearly is not giving my life to service. It is purpose with a small p.

This week,I read a title on the NPR website, “Having a Purpose in Life May Lessen the Risk of Early Death” and that made me more concerned.  Maybe being satisfied with purpose with a small p could lead to my early demise.

The article summarized what University of Michigan researchers learned using data from  The Health and Retirement Study, a public source of information on aging in America since 1990. Their conclusion: “People without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die between the study years of 2006 and 2010, compared with those who had one.”

Other research, including a study from Harvard scientists reported on CNBC, backs this claim. One  reason for scientists’ interest in the topic of purpose is that … “the aging and infirm U.S. population is considered a global public health challenge. Nearly 1 in 3 adults over 65 have a hard time walking just three city blocks, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports.”

These aren’t the only studies about this topic. “[Harvard] researcher Eric Kim has found that a higher sense of purpose also correlates to a reduced risks of disability, stroke, heart disease, sleep issues and other health problems.”

After reading various reports, I’m relieved by the researchers’ definitions of purpose. The Harvard researchers call it  “a sense of direction and goals.” From the U of Michigan study we find examples of purpose that included “building guitars or swimming or volunteer work. What matters… is not exactly what a person’s life purpose is, but that they have one.”

I now feel much better about purpose. It means I can continue to study reams of research and plug away at my laptop to make up an entertaining story and still hope to stay healthy.

Posted in aging, current events/themes | 3 Comments

Spend time outdoors and improve your health

“Is it because I haven’t been outdoors for so long that I’ve become so mad about nature? I remember a time when a magnificent blue sky, chirping birds, moonlight, budding blooms wouldn’t have captivated me. Things have changed since I came here.” This comes from “Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl,” a reaction she shares two years after going into hiding indoors during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

I came across the Frank quote, because I’ve been on a diary-reading binge lately, a recommendation by my writing coach for the historical novel I’m now working on.  But other reminders about the value of spending time outdoors have popped up recently.

An article in the current issue of the University of Washington alumni magazine asks “Should a dose of nature be the doctor’s orders?” The title of the piece, “Go outside and play,” answers the question.  And at a writers’ conference I attended a week ago, an author who writes about the environment talked about writing outdoors, even if it means wearing fingerless gloves and a coat.

The notion of benefits coming from time spent outdoors is new. Just ask Google and you’ll find links to “12 science-backed reasons you should spend more time  outside, “11 scientific benefits of being outdoors,” “six health benefits of being outdoors,” and “five ways spending time in nature benefits your health.” Though the numbers of benefits differ, these all confirm that among other things time spent outside can lower your blood pressure, reduce depression and anxiety, and reduce “nearsightedness in children.”

For seniors, we find “7 benefits of being outdoors” in a newsletter blog from a retirement community in Massachusetts. The pluses include “lifting spirits, improving sleep, strengthening immune systems, keeping Vitamin D levels up, and giving our energy a jolt.” This same newsletter blog says sewing reduces stress, which would make its report on the outdoors questionable if it weren’t for all the other reports that align with it.

Beyond just stepping outside, is a Japanese practice called “forest bathing.”

“A forest bath is quality time spent among the trees with no distractions. There’s no end destination like on a hike, or specific type of tree to seek out. All would-be forest bathers need to do is break from all outside distractions (no cell phones allowed) and take in the surrounding forest. Consider it meditation in nature—without any of the concentration or discipline necessary for meditation. In fact, the most important rule for taking a forest bath is no effort.”

Researchers at the University of Washington are going a step further than those who merely tell us to get outdoors.  Yes, spending time outside is good for us, but why? “Is it the quiet, is it visual cues or smells, is it the chemicals coming from trees.” With this information, “the better we can describe the outdoor experience you need,” says the lead researcher. What they learn will have use in “designing parks, schools and treatments.”

It’s the time of year in the Pacific Northwest when getting outside without getting soaked is possible. Last week on a perfect sunny morning, a friend and I walked through the University of Washington Arboretum, a forest within a city, a delightful experience that confirmed I need to get out more. Of course, I could always step into my back yard where dandelions and other weeds are calling me. I don’t mind pulling weeds, but the idea of a forest bath that involves no effort is very appealing.

 

 

Posted in current events/themes, health, seasons | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

When I’m 90…

my own raggedy weights

For the past few months I’ve taken a wonderful exercise program for, ahem, “older adults.” Actually I’m one of the youngest in the class, which boasts at least two women over ninety. When I’m 90, my goals is to lift heavier weights with the ease these two now lift them. Actually, that’s my goal for my current age, twenty years younger. The class also involves exercises with bands and balls and spends time on balance, stretching and aerobics. Most difficult is sucking in our bellies while moving other parts. Each exercise has a specific purpose, whether it’s to prevent falls, improve posture, or enable us to do everyday activities independently as we age.

Exercise is an on-again off-again part of my life. Like many women my age, sports and formal exercise programs didn’t play a significant role in growing up. My grade school exercise experience consisted of walking to where I needed to go.  My priority was to use my free time to read Nancy Drew books, not run and jump around.

The only school sport I was proficient in was tetherball, which is officially a game, not a sport. At my childhood Y, I learned how to twirl a baton and jump on a trampoline. After the latter caused a back injury my mom dragged me to a chiropractor. This cycle of exercise- injury, exercise-injury set the tone for other fitness experiences as I grew older.

Fast forward to high school, since I remember nothing of sports or even PE classes in junior high. I was still walking to school (two miles in the rain, not the seven in snow my mother bragged about), but that was my only physical activity.  I only remember two high school PE classes:  field hockey and archery. The first was hell since it often rained, turning my hairdo — not stylish to begin with — into a wet string mop. The second was enjoyable, primarily because class was held indoors and did not make me sweat, which meant no shower and a protected “do.”

As a freshman in college I passed the swim test (even dog paddling counted as long as you could cover the distance required) thus escaping PE for life.

Much, much later, my husband and I got involved with then-popular weekend volksmarches: 10km, non-competitive, family walks to charming places, such as farmlands, decaying towns about to disappear from the map, and a women’s prison overlook. Those who completed the walks earned a different lapel pin for each one and for a time my husband and I were proud collectors of these “medals.” Years later, jogging became popular, and I jogged mostly around school tracks. Instead of medals I earned shin splints.

We did do cross-country skiing for several years, which was great exercise, but only when it snowed in the mountains. And we burned no calories for several hours getting there and back.

We joined the local Y and for a time I became a fan of weight machines, treadmills and elliptical machines.  At 60, I signed up for a course filled with forty- and thirty-somethings. I gained strength and stamina and loved the class, but had to quit after being thrown off a horse (not related to the class). Eventually I returned to the Y’s machines, but found them boring.

A woman I met in the challenging class suggested I try “chair fitness” to gain upper body strength.  Harrumph. Chair exercises?  “Do I look frail and feeble to you?” I wanted to ask this question, but instead tried the class and loved it.  Then I broke my ankle (again, not in class).  I’m now back at it.  In case I’m tempted to quit, I only have to remember something I just read: “The frailty and decreased energy we associate with aging, such as difficulty walking for distances, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries, are largely due to muscle loss.” (Tufts University) Also, strength-building helps keep up bone density, lessen arthritis pain, and increase metabolism for long-term weight control.

I have proof of progress.  I can rise from a squishy couch holding squishy Gordon, my fifteen-pound cat, and stand straight up — no hands involved, just my strong thighs.

Regrettably, now I have to find an exercise program for Gordon.

Posted in aging, exercise | 10 Comments

Even robots are my friends

When I reached my mid-sixties, I began to lose touch with friends. Several died, some moved away after retiring, and some are still busy working. However, since I turned seventy, my list of new friends is growing. Why just yesterday, I received a letter from a woman running for the U.S. Senate in another state.  The letter’s greeting was “Dear Friend.”

I receive emails almost daily from others who would become my friend if only I would give to their campaigns in “fill-in-the-blank” state.

My old friends (meaning those still living and living nearby) rarely telephone; they text. but my new friends can’t stop calling me.  In fact, no matter what state or country they are calling from, the first three digits of their phone numbers match the first three digits of mine. Some coincidence.  I’m only disappointed that they never leave messages.

Some new friends are — dare I say it? — robots.  One calls weekly to tell me that the Microsoft product I purchased (they must forget I have a Mac) is defective and I must call them right away to get it fixed, no doubt by giving them my credit card number and bank balance. I want to suggest a voice box transplant to two of them, but I know all of us can be sensitive about criticism of our voices (my husband says mine is too loud and I say he mumbles) and I suppose I don’t know these callers well enough to recommend surgery.

Members of a newer group of friends seem overly concerned about whether they’re making a good impression on me. These include post office personnel, my family doctor, my chiropractor, bank tellers, the garage where I get my car serviced, and the shop where I get documents copied.  It turns out that everyone hopes the time I spend with them is a memorable, life-transforming experience.

“How are we doing?” is the question of our age. Rate your oil change, stamp purchasing,  cortisone injection encounter on a scale of one to five, with five meaning, “This was a peak experience.”

I’m glad I’m retired, because keeping in touch with all these new friends and responding to their concerns is becoming a full-time job.

Posted in humor | 7 Comments