Reading for Joy

Two weeks ago, I had a revelation. I know, what a cliché. Those life changing revelations… pish-posh. And I know they say change doesn’t happen overnight, it’s true, at least somewhat true, but here’s the thing… sometimes we haven’t got a choice. Change has got to happen and it’s got to happen now. Well, two weeks ago I crashed and once those blurred moments finally passed I knew it was time to shake things up.

I’ll start by noting that over the past year I’ve been studying with Professor VanHerk at the University of Calgary. She is a Calgary based writer and has inspired me in a number of ways, though one in particular has taken hold. One day in class she mentioned that she doesn’t watch T.V., that she prefers to read. When she said this, I felt an instant wave of guilt and, if I’m being completely honest, a tinge of jealousy too. I’ll never be like that, I think. Over the past few years I’ve somehow become somewhat defeatist. I’m still productive. I still have goals. But I also lost faith in myself. I figured a bad case on chronic fatigue and general anxiety would plague me forever.

Well, this isn’t the case. Not at all. Two weeks ago I hit a real low and while the fall certainly hurt I hit the ground running. I became determined to instil change and to explore who I could be. My first action was to visit a bookstore. There, I asked myself…Can I become the woman I truly want to be? One aspect that defines this imaginary woman is that she is incredibly well-read. Meanwhile, I’d come to see myself as someone who would give into anxiety and binge-watch television for hours on end just to numb the mind. I kid you not. This was my aim. I wanted to turn my brain off.

My realization is that my aim should never have been to turn my brain off. Why on earth would I want to slip into a state of mental vegetation and watch The O.C. for hours on end? I think, now, that it is better for me to mould my thinking and change my habits. The difference between one and two, however, is that this second option requires a heck of a lot more work.

But the past two weeks have been interesting and I have come to see glimpses of the woman I strive to become. I mentioned in a past blog post that I also deactivated Facebook which has, quite miraculously, transformed my life in a number of ways. When my Professor claimed that she reads instead of watching television I initially felt heavy and sad. My brain’s not wired that way, I thought. I haven’t got that kind of mental energy. I never will. Apparently, this isn’t true. I’d just never given myself a real chance. I’d decided who I was before trying out my options.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved reading but when authors like Stephen King claim to read some 75 to 100 books a year I’d think Good luck Em. That won’t be you. But now I beg to differ. I’ve read a number of books over the past few weeks in addition to some random articles and a number academic works. (P.S. I am not saying there’s anything wrong with T.V. or that reading is better, only that it is better for me personally and my own mental health!)

Anyways, this desire for change was accompanied by a flashback. The flashback is of me reading Charlotte’s Web. Around that time I’d installed a sleep net over my bed and revelled under the twinkly white fabric, feeling as though my room belonged to a fairytale. I wanted to stay up all night with Wilbur and Charlotte, curled under a duvet. I couldn’t figure out why I kept having this particular flashback. For days I pondered, trying to understand its significance. Then I realized… There’d been a time in my life when books made me feel safe in the world and for this reason, I associate some of my most tender memories with books.

When I came to this realization I also realized that I’d strayed from this feeling. There are times in life when this is more prone to happen, I’m sure, such as having to read one book a week on China’s military history for a graduate level history class you never wanted to take in the first place while drowning in articles about absolutist monarchs. So reading, this year, became a matter of “do or die,” or, rather, “read or fail.” I would read until I felt sick with vertigo or bloated with information. Subconsciously, I do believe, I came to the conclusion that I’d feel this way about all reading. So, even though I knew I’d only have another month of heavy schoolwork, I decided to reincorporate “joy reading.”

The first couple of days felt strange, as I’d mindlessly reach for my television remote or type in “Facebook” on my phone but then I’d catch myself and pick up a book instead. In only two weeks, I’ve begun to crave books again and already feel much closer to the girl who, late at night, would hide under a twinkly veil, enraptured by Charlotte’s Web. 

Change does take time, but sometimes change is activated by a switch and can occur overnight. I believe this whole-heartedly. If something’s not right, there are solutions. Of course these solutions vary depending on a person’s outlook, brain chemistry, history or interests but they do exist. For me, my biggest obstacles as of late have been mental and books, it seems, have become my greatest antidote.

The Big Picture

What a week. As a result of personal struggles and a list of deadlines longer than my forearm I felt the need to take a week off from blogging. But now that I’m back I have something I want to talk about. A realization that recently popped into my mind.

As a writer, I’m constantly crafting the struggles of characters. I ask myself how their struggles will eventually shape who they become? I use my characters struggles to help develop their being, to force them to grow and change. In order to do so, I look at the big picture. I consider plot and look to connect my characters to their worlds through some identifiable struggle. I feel compassion for them. I offer them tools in order to overcome said struggle or, at least, to find a sense of harmony. And yet I do not offer myself these same tools. When I consider my struggles I experience a kind of tunnel vision, the result of obsessive and detrimental loop thinking. I often forget the big picture and rarely consider how my feelings will contribute to my own character growth.

It’s been a difficult week. I admit, stress had gotten the better part of me. My body felt shaky as a result of shot nerves and I felt exhausted, emotionally depleted and numb (and that list of deadlines is definitely not helping.) But I am a solution and goal driven individual. This is good and bad. It’s bad in that I suffer from a kind of performance addiction that causes me to feel perpetually terrified of “failure” but good in that it encourages me to seek solutions to my problems. So, goal-oriented Emma set off on a Sunday night adventure to the only place in the world that has remained 100% capable of “cheering me up” or “calming me down.” That place is Chapters. If I’m having a particularly bad day I’ll likely end up at Chapters, sitting on a carpet somewhere hunkered over a book and because I am goal-oriented, if I’ve arrived at Chapters with the aim of “feeling better” I may end up in the self-help and general wellness section. I definitely did last night and came home with yet another stack of books to offer my bookshelf (or rather, floor… because my bookshelf is full.)

Although the book I’m about to describe did not make it onto my stack of happy/helpful new purchases, it nevertheless inspired the realization described above. The book discussed the vital importance of storytelling and sought to reveal how various characters have been depicted in famous folk tales. I skimmed over the book briefly and felt no need to read about basic plot structures, but as I slid the book back onto the shelf I got to thinking. How is it that I sometimes feel more compassion for my characters than I do for myself? What can I learn from what I’ve attempted to teach characters I’ve created? To be honest, I could probably learn a lot. The old “you should take your own advice” comment is highly applicable to this situation.

This said, because characters are infused with emotion, what we read can severely impact our outlooks or current moods. This weekend, being in the headspace that I was, was probably not the best weekend to be reading Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg. While the novel is fantastic, its description as a “darkly comic and moving novel about the universal experience of recovering from tragedy” is certainly accurate. What did I read instead? How to be a Canadian by Will and Ian Ferguson had me in tears from laughing so hard. Only one other author has managed to make me cry and laugh out loud and that author is a favourite of mine. Bill Bryson. I highly recommend any of his books.

So I suppose this is a step towards learning to be compassionate. Realizing and admitting that maybe I needed some “light-heartedness” in my life and taking the steps to cast a little more brightness. I needed to laugh. Probably needed to cry too.  So thank you, Will and Ian Ferguson.

When I started this blog, I picked the tagline “on books, writing, tea and late night anxiety” because these elements, at least in my own life, are constantly at play with one another. But now I’m beginning to take a closer look at how these elements interact. How does what I read impact my anxious moods? What can I learn from characters I’ve created or characters created by various authors? I am approaching, and I apologize for the cliche, the next chapter of my life and I will attempt to navigate these new pages with the same patience and compassion I have shown my characters. For now, however, that list of deadlines is calling my name so I thank you for reading and wish everyone a wonderful Monday.

Saturday Mornings

It’s Saturday! I’m sitting in a light filled kitchen with a latte and a stack of poetry books. The door is swung open so I can hear the sounds of birds chirping in the trees outside my window. It’s a glorious morning, I’d say.

These glorious mornings are incredibly important to me. In fact, I find myself relying on them. Maybe more than I should, but such is life. It’s been a while since I’ve written a “healthy living” post so in the spirit of spring, I am celebrating life and the choices available to us.

For some reason, and I have no clue why, I’ve suffered from job anxiety my entire life. I’ve always been good at what I do and even if I love my job, I tend to get worked up and incredibly worried for no good reason. I currently work as a florist, a job that I adore, and this still happens. So I rely on mornings, on a few hours of undisturbed peace in which I can calm my thoughts with a cup of coffee and some reading.

I started my first “real” job when I was sixteen and I worked as a ski instructor in Fernie, BC. I worked in the daycare and spent my days taking adorable toddlers out to test their skills and despite my convincing princess or invisible bird acts, I found myself awake every friday night on the verge of tears. I’d sit in bed and contemplate quitting.

I’ll admit that one of the ways I coped back then was by seeking affirmation. At the time, I was dating someone who’d send me long and reassuring messages before work and I’d read them over and over until I felt semi-convinced. At sixteen, this seemed perfectly fine. But as I got older I started to realize that it wasn’t just my job as a ski instructor that would leave me feeling anxious. It was any job. Frankly, it’s anything time related. I do not like having to show up anywhere at a particular time and yet I must. The world we live in demands this of me.

Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t spend my life relying on significant others to text me before every shift or commitment. Here, and I don’t say this lightly… some anxiety is, ultimately, ridiculous. I needed an action plan, a way to help myself fall asleep at night and a way to decompress before starting the day.

In my second year of university I started waking up extra early so I’d have “me time” before having to give my time to someone else. This was a simple and yet surprisingly helpful discovery. Even one hour, one hour of personal reflection, reading, music or journaling could help prep me for the day and send me on my way feeling confident and energized.

This morning, apart from writing this post, I have picked up one of my favourite collections of poems. The Madness Vase, by Andrea Gibson is absolutely exquisite and I find myself falling in love with the collection over and over again.

The nutritionist said I should eat root vegetables.

Said if I could get down thirteen turnips a day

I would be grounded, rooted.

Said my head would not keep flying away

to where the darkness lives.

-Excerpt from The Madness Vase 

And I guess when it comes down to it, we’re all looking for what grounds us. For some it’s music or running or boxing. For others perhaps it’s painting or cooking or drinking. We’re all looking. I know I am, and it’s a long, tired search for some elusive uncertainty. But I suppose the most we can do is indulge ourselves. Perhaps we cannot figure out why, but we might figure out how.

I’ll probably always get anxious about mundane, time-related issues. There’s no logical answer as to why I feel the way I do and for years I fought against myself, told myself I needed to “get over it.” But the reality of the situation is that anxiety isn’t a ball you kick out the door, a ball that rolls down the street and never comes back. No, it’s a ball that bounces and sometimes we score and sometimes we send it flying out of bounds but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a game to play. A game that sometimes has rules. Rules that are there to be followed but sometimes get broken. Rules that assume we’re all on the same page but still, the ref calls “fault.”

So I’ve come to recognize that working with myself is the most I can do. We are, after all, our own best friend. Meanwhile, we are told to love others despite their faults and yet we are forever told to better ourselves, to grow and change and move forward, and while I second this, I have to wonder why we so often treat others with a patience and compassion we rarely apply to ourselves?

This said, work is calling my name so I wish everyone a peaceful Saturday. If you’d like to share your thoughts, please do so by commenting in the bar below!

 

The Joys of Journaling

I apologize for posting on Thursday instead of Wednesday this week. Life happens.

***

Several years ago I found myself sitting in a bright office with a therapist whose name I cannot remember. What I do remember was the sense of desolation and sadness I’d felt before entering that office. I won’t go into the details but in sum, I felt as though I’d lost control of my mental stability and was suffering regular breakdowns. So for a few months I’d take the bus down to Fernwood and sit on a tawny sofa, staring at a potted zebra cactus and nervously sipping water while my therapist led a conversation prompted by personal and painful questions. We established early on that while I felt out of control, I was still incredibly attuned to my emotions so we looked for outlets that might help me to linearize or organize these emotions. She advised journaling.

What helped me, in a time where I felt paralyzed by anxiety on a weekly basis, was journaling. Journaling and routine. I’ve never been any good with routine but I know, now, that it’s important for me to maintain some kind of regular activity. In my second year of university, living in Victoria, I attended school full-time in addition to working approximately 30 hours a week. I was obsessed, completely consumed by a desire to succeed financially, intellectually and academically. In the midst of all this craziness I began to fail emotionally. Journaling gave me a reason to sit down and remember where my priorities were at.

Ultimately, the act of writing helped immensely, but just the other day I found myself feeling lost. I could see the shadow of a certain self-loathing creature lurking around the corner. No, I thought, I’m so tired of this. I’m tired of feeling stalked by a creature that drains my energies. So I turned to my journal and not only did I write, I re-read my previous entries and discovered in them a kind of wisdom. I was able to ground myself, remember how I arrived at this point in life and could look to my past self for advice. Patience, I’d written again and again. Love and patience.

I suppose I’ve avoided talking about the “anxiety” part of my tagline “on books, writing, tea and late night anxiety.” Everyone, I do believe, struggles with some form of anxiety and yet despite this universality it’s incredibly stigmatized and the number of people who allow themselves to feel “broken” as a result of this is dispiriting. So I like to be honest. I enjoy maintaining a presence online but I refuse to pretend that life’s a basket full of cherries. We all know it’s not. Therefore, I’m willing to share my experiences. I am not ashamed to say that I’ve been to therapy and that I plan on going again. Nor am I ashamed of my brain. Instead, I try to work with myself rather than against myself. Journaling is one way I’ve attempted to do so.

Lastly, my love of writing and my anxiety overlap in a myriad of ways. Writing is the only thing that can get me out of a funk, but it’s also thrown me into a few. Journaling, for instance, helps me to feel calm and rational. Meanwhile, the thought of failing as a writer is enough to leave me sleepless and panicked. So to avoid more restless nights, I plan to make journaling a part of daily life once again. There’s something special about giving yourself time to reflect no matter how busy or overwhelming life might seem. It’s also a wonderful way to tame memory, since we all know how unreliable memories can be.

If you’d like to share your thoughts or experiences please leave a comment below. Happy Thursday everyone and thanks for reading!

Self-Help Books?

I’m really curious about self-help books. Opinions vary widely when it comes to whether or not they are “useful” which is kind of a pointless conversation considering everyone heals, grows and changes in different ways. What intrigues me, however, is not the concept of a self-help book but how prominent they are. Every bookstore has a diverse self-help section, myriads of books offering advice on everything from parenting to nutrition to depression. It’s an industry unto itself. Consider titles like “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin, “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt or “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama. The list goes on and on and on! Go to any bookstore and you’ll find books on the art of living, books that affirm your “bad-assness” and books that claim to offer keys to a happier life. These books sell. There’s a reason they crowd bookshelves.

My opinion on self-help books is very simple. If they help, great. If they don’t, find something that does. However, I will elaborate on my personal relationship with these books. As someone who does, indeed, turn to self-help books every now and again I’d like to say that, in my opinion, most of these books offer advice that’s “easier said than done,” the kind of advice you give someone who’s having an off day rather than an off month. This is, of course, the kind of culture we live in. These are the first five posts to show up in my Google search of “how to be happy.”

The 15 Habits of Incredibly Happy People – Sparring Mind

How to Be Happy: 7 Steps to Becoming a Happier Person – WebMD

10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy | Inc.com

10 Ways to Be Happier – Real Simple

3 Ways to Be Happy – wikiHow

Clearly I’m not the first to inquire into these topics. Why are we so obsessed with pursuing happiness? There are mountains of quotes advising individuals on the “perfect cure” to sadness or anxiety. “Be happy,” being the simplest, most obvious example. I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend wherein we debated the meaning of self-help books in our society. It seems these books are often over simplified or almost demeaning to someone struggling with, say, chronic depression or bi-polar disorder. They might be seen as undermining the weight of poor mental health by assuming that fresh air, a positive mindset and a candle-lit “me time” bath cures all. On the other hand, they often target “happy” individuals with advice on how to be “happier.” It’s a curious market.

I have a belief regarding healing stones, which I often compare to my opinion on self-help books. I don’t believe that various quartz crystals hold magical powers that induce love or happiness just like I don’t believe that self-help books trigger an immediate reversal of emotions. What I do believe, however, is that in the act of picking these items up we engage in an act of recognition, an act of recognition that reminds us something needs to change. So often, recognition is the first step to bringing about change. It is for this reason, that self-help books have helped me. They have reminded me that I need to push harder, fight for what I want.

Nevertheless these books are mass-marketed and hold an almost irreplaceable position in book sales. It’s an intriguing social phenomenon. Do you read self-help books? If so, why? I’d be curious to read any comments you might have so please feel free to share your thoughts below!

Notes on Escapism

When it comes to literature, there’s a lot of talk around “escapism.” We find solace in reading. Good books provide parallel worlds that entertain, inspire or encourage us in our lives. I’ve always been grateful for books. As a kid, I often felt closer to fictional characters than to the kids with whom I grew up so the notion of books as “transportive” is wholly familiar to me.

In those days, I read works that relied on fairies, dragons or castles to advance the book’s narrative. I understood escapism in terms of fantasy. In some ways, I still do. Even books grounded in realist perspectives offer opportunities for mental travel. “Fantasies” are defined by the act of imagining, so all books provide a fantastical element of some sort. The writing may present logical elements. A book, say, on start-ups would not be categorized as “fantasy,” but the reader’s ability to imagine themselves as launching a successful start-up is rooted in the brain’s ability to fantasize, in it’s ability to “escape.”

The reason this post is a part of my “healthy living” section is simple. I believe that “escapism,” however you wish to interpret the word, is essential to our mental health. I became obsessed with the concept of escapism while travelling in Iceland in 2015. The trip consisted of thirty days walking through empty lands, wild camping with my best friend and filling time by “recreating.” My “recreating” often consisted of throwing down my pack to lay in a field and read. I knew the two books accompanying me would become secondary companions (I brought “Island” by Alistair McLeod and “The Weight of Oranges” by Anne Michaels) but I’d never have guessed how much solace those books would bring me while sitting in the middle of nowhere. Likewise, I wild camped alone in Alaska last summer and binge read “Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis to distract myself from the thought of Grizzlies and Wolves.

When you do nothing but walk for days on end, often through lands that look the same for days at a time, the mind is given a chance to wander. I had no cell-phone, Netflix, chores, lists of errands or schedules to which I was bound. The freedom was glorious. But it was also frightening, exhausting and challenging. I contemplated some of my deepest fears, reflected on years of disregarded anxiety. The result? Occasional roadside breakdowns and a whole lot of crying. Thank goodness for it. Facing those issues helped me grow but, like anything in life, we must approach ideas or projects with care and patience.

Humans are generally very adaptable creatures, but we are also susceptible to shock. Too much of anything can feel like an overload. So where do books come in? While I’m deeply grateful for the lessons I learned and the realizations that came to me whilst backpacking, I couldn’t process those realizations quickly enough. For this reason, I used books as a buffer. I found a balance between facing difficult realities and letting myself escape. This balance was necessary to protect my emotional and mental wellbeing. Contemplating existentialism for days on end would surely drive any sane person mad.

The concept of escape through story is not new. Consider the phenomenally insightful and cherished book “Where the Wild Things Are,” written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The plot is well known. Max, parading through the house in an adorable wolf costume, wreaks havoc and is sent to bed without dinner. I’m guessing that most of us, in our childhoods, were acquainted with “time-outs.” I know I was. What an awful feeling, to be confined to a room, to feel bored or exhausted by weighted tears. But “Where the Wild Things Are,” is a kind of ode to our imagination. A reminder that human minds are capable of spectacular transformation.

So I’d like to take a moment to thank my brain. Perhaps you’d like to thank yours too. I thank mine for its ability to fantasize, to carry me new places, to protect me in times of sadness, stress or anger. “Escaping” to worlds livened by ink has, more than once, saved me.

Run: (Verb) To never have both feet on the ground at the same time.

Writers are notorious desk dwellers. We often sit for hours at a time, toiling away on some laborious project. Perhaps we crane our necks, slouch, place tension on our wrists. When I start to feel my back and shoulders ache in unnatural ways I find myself cursing books and computers, so while I love to read and write, I strongly advocate a physically active lifestyle. As it turns out, so do some of our most beloved writers.

I recently read Joyce Carol Oates “Faith of a Writer” and she spoke of her need to jog. In fact, jogging helped to inspire her writing. Changing up her environment offered both physical and creative benefits. She was famously quoted on the subject of running:

“Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think of what it might be. In running the mind flees with the body, the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.”

Meanwhile, Louisa May Alcott recorded in her journal that:

“I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state because it was such a joy to run.”

It seems that both historically and in the present day, many writers find that physical exercise offers a kind of escape. In a 2004 interview Haruki Murakami described a daily routine consisting of a ten kilometer run or a fifteen hundred meter swim. Some days he did both. Murakami claimed that:

“Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

Of course there are the Mark Twain’s of the world. The famous writer declared unabashedly:

“I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any.”

So if you’re not a runner or a fan of sports and if you support Twain’s disdain for exercise, I suggest a walk. A walk, to me, is as mentally freeing as it is physically beneficial. Changes in scenery break my obsessions and force me to refocus. As shown, many writers have been known to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines. Take Kurt Vonnegut, who took breaks between writing to do push-ups and sit-ups. Vonnegut is a reminder that physical exercise can be as easy as standing up, backing away from the computer and taking a walk down the block, sprinting a lap at the park or stretching the muscles in your neck.

So writers and readers alike, curl up in your favourite chair or hunker down at your desk but if the will to move comes knocking, don’t fear! You’re not alone. Embrace your body and in turn, your creative soul may also be nourished.