Fighting the Mental Frost

How to dress to walk the dog.

How to dress to walk the dog, or: reasons to get a cat.

It is stupid cold outside: a breathtaking -11°F. For the lucky uninitiated, at this frigidity, nose hairs freeze and stiffen as you breathe in. You don’t dare cry outdoors, even if you’re late for work and your car door is frozen shut. Lettuce leaves freeze in the time it takes to walk from the grocery to your car.

I grew up in a dry land close to the sun where buying snow boots is more wishful thinking than preparedness. I am not blessed with the fortitude of Northern peoples to withstand six months of cold, dark hell. I don’t think many of them are blessed with it either; I know many pale skinned Northerners who struggle with Winter’s long, cold reign. I remember my first northern winter and thinking, “This is why these people drink so much.” (It also could have been because it was my freshman year in college, but I digress.) By February, the darkness and chill seep into my bones and despair sets in. It will not end for another 6-8 weeks and I begin to be mentally unwell.

As being constantly drunk for 6 weeks is not an option, I have found other ways of coping. My favorites are cheap and effective. Of course, I forget to do them and end up huddled against the radiator, eating mashed potatoes and weeping. But, when I remember to do them, they help.

Avoid the Idiot Box

I watch very little TV and few movies- 2-3 hours a week, at most. Empirical data from myself and children convinced me that television is bad for humans. Children’s behavior and attitudes are never better after watching TV; they are usually worse. If I consume more than 3 hours of TV within a couple of days, I am noticeably more anxious and unhappy. It makes my sleep less restful. Most TV is crap anyway. (Whatever show I currently love is excepted, of course.)

Escapism has its place in a northern winter, but TV for TV’s sake is a poor escape. It puts a mind in stasis. There have been times when I can’t even remember what I watched. When I turn the box off, my mind reverts to the same stressed, pent up state it was in before, except with a liberal sprinkling of anxiety on top.

Find other escapes if TV affects you negatively. Listen to podcasts/music/audiobooks. Go to bed. Talk to someone. Practice a hobby. Sort the socks. Do something besides sit in front of the TV/Hulu/Netflix.

Fill’er up with Happy

Jon Snow, you need a week in SoCal.

Jon Snow, you make me cold.

Last winter, I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, the first book in the Game of Thrones series. What a terrible decision- so much cold, and snow, and blood, and bloody snow. I could handle the gore; it was the snow, or Snow, that got me. I put it down until April.
In the depths of the winter that has already come, I seek out pleasing, diversions- silly British TV shows (watched in small doses,) audiobooks by comedians, or engrossing fiction or biographies in which winter is not a character and children don’t die.

Eat Live Things

When the snow flies, I am drawn to rich, fatty, carbohydrates and wine. However, when I haven’t felt the sun 3428573788_4f85b63636in months and winter’s cold fingers are tightening around my chest, I feel better when I eat some raw foods. The problem is that raw foods, like me in February, are always cold, and I only want warm things. Salad is nearly impossible to make desirable this time of year. Even the salty charms of feta cheese cannot draw me to a bowl of chilled vegetable. Bacon must be enlisted in a 1:1 ratio to lettuce to tempt me at all.

In winter, I try to serve something raw at each dinner: sugar snap peas, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, jicama, even fruit. I serve green leaves like a supplement, not a side dish. Everyone gets a pinch of fresh spinach leaves next to their vitamins, no matter what else is for dinner.

The easiest way to dose my family with raw veg in the winter is to juice them (the veg, not the family.) I always forget to do this until late winter when we all start getting sick. Children love to use the juicer and will suck down a carrot/orange/romaine blend without complaint. It tastes like sweet life in the bitterness of March.

Take Some Vitamin D

Because I haven’t made any of my own since October and will not do so again until April.

Let the Sunshine In

In the frigid north, it is colder when the sun is out. Clouds blanket the city, holding warmth in, but blue skies strip away warmth. When I can find a window with the sun streaming in, I stand there with the golden light filling my eyes, even for a minute. It’s better than nothing.

Sweat & Exercise

I can almost see your eyes rolling. I know; it’s a bit of a bummer. Pulling on spandex pants after a cold Christmas does not seem likely to

Simmons: He knows what's up.

Simmons: Good for what ails you…depending on what ails you.

improve one’s mood. Avoid the full-length mirrors and do it anyway. Or just do it in your house and wear your PJ. Who cares? Getting the blood moving reminds me that I am alive, even if the weather outside is deadly.

Winter is what got me started working out seriously. One February at 11:30 pm, I was paying a crew of men a revolting hourly sum to melt the 1’ ice dams off my roof. I was running out of money and there was still one damn dam to go. Stressed, worried by the water dripping down my inside walls, and a little furious at the whole situation, I decided to wear myself out doing mountain climbers- just to calm down. Gasping for breath and lying on the floor 4 minutes later, I was exhausted, but my mental state was much better, and I was a little bit hooked.

Now, I run for my mental health as much as for my physical health. There is something about the combination of rhythmic movement, sweat, a half an hour without someone yelling, “Mom!”, and the endorphins, that raise my mood more than anything else. Oh, the sweet endorphins. Sometimes, I run just for the endorphins. Being a user of these chemicals, I know that I need to run for 28 minutes to get a good hit, and I feel them hit my bloodstream. They are effective, legal, and free.

Exercise is also one of the only times I am actually warm during the winter. At the moment, I am writing this with a down comforter over my head and shoulders, and a space heater aimed at me. I walk around my house in shoes, sweater, hat, and sometimes a scarf for months at a time. Getting hot and sweaty, whether through exercise or sauna, feels so good during the cold months- bringing blood to the surface and opening pores that otherwise won’t open again until May. Even if you don’t want to P90X (and I’m right there with you,) getting in a steam room will give you the same glow without all the burpees. It’s a small wonder that the Finns love their saunas. Although, I am not game for the jump in a frozen lake afterward- madness.

You go first. I'll take pictures.

You go first. I’ll take pictures.

Warmth in Numbers

February/March is a social dead time. Holidays are over; the spring event season has yet to begin, and no one is thinking of barbeques or cocktail parties. People are hunkered down, waiting for Spring. If I can get myself invited to or arrange social gatherings with beloved and stimulating people, my heart warms and life is good.

Medicinal Grooves

When struggling with seasonal depression, I medicate with music. I choose it like a prescription drug- in accordance with what I need and what it can provide. It’s most effective when I can turn it up, close my eyes, and give it my full attention- so, when small people are asleep. This time of year, I take a lot of Haydn, early to mid Beethoven, Mumford and Sons, Cake, and occasional Metallica, AC/DC, Pink, and Randy Travis. I must be careful with those last ones; it’s easy to build up a tolerance and they quickly lose their effectiveness.

Bring Me [to] a Shrubbery!

I always forget this one and must be reminded of it by friends. In my city, we have a wonderful conservatory full of tropical trees, plants and lots of loamy smelling humidity. It is a relief to the skin and the senses to go in there and smell the plants, the damp earth, and see living horticulture. I will fill out a comment card the next time I go. I’ll suggest that they put deck chairs out in sunny spots and people can rent them by the hour and take the air and light for their health.
If you have access to an indoor greenspace- zoos, greenhouses, conservatories, go. Your skin and your mood will thank you.4308992311_e8bf512eed

That’s my arsenal. On occasion, it must all be employed at once to meet my mental health needs. I’m sure I’d be a good candidate for a light therapy lamp, but I haven’t looked into it. How do you cope with the cold, dark, icy white horror that is a Northern winter? I need all the help I can get… as long as it’s cheap and easy, or you’re paying.

Pharmaceutical Grade Solitude

The Value of a Good Time Out

December was a nightmare. It always is. Thus, the complete lack of postings here. We have been musicians our whole adult lives and December is busy season for anyone who sings or plays with any kind of skill. I only took one playing gig. Hot Swede more than made up for it with his (slightly insane) choir schedule and ad hoc gigs at church. I stupidly

8203770426_e3a7382ed5_nvolunteered to do the costumes for our church’s live Nativity. (It is so easy to say yes in October.) I had to make 6 adult angel costumes, in addition to finishing the gifts I was making for my own giving. I attended the children’s “winter concerts,” (If we‘re not going to do a Christmas concert, I humbly ask the public schools to save their “winter concerts” for January. Please.) did the daily everything, and solo parented while Hot Swede was singing all evening. I have never wanted Christmas to be over so badly. The weekend before the big day, Hot Swede got home from singing out of state (!), and I crumbled into about 289 pieces. I was completely used up, empty. I had a lot of work left to do and people to be kind to and I had no idea how I was going to manage it.  I needed to restock and repack my mental toolbox. I needed serious alone time.

I use pharmaceutical grade solitude, 100%pure, to calm my nerves and smooth my feathers. This isn’t a break from the people driving me nuts. It isn’t watching a movie by myself, or even going to the bathroom without someone knocking at the door and asking for something (although that would be nice.) Therapeutic solitude is free of other human input- no books, music, talk, art, conversation, people watching. It is a time to just be with myself, reconnect with who I am, find my balance and ground.  Lucky for me, I learned the value of purposeful solitude early.

In 10th grade, the experiential education department at my school sent a handful of us on a solo trip. We hiked into the mountains where we were given our boundaries and rules:

3400140191_9b165fe386_nNo contact, even visual, with other soloists, no fires, books, writing, no yelling except in case of bears. Our leader handed each of us a tarp, length of rope, and a Ziploc with the following: 2 hard candies, 2 oz of cheese, 2 granola bars, and a tortilla.  We treated our creek filled water bottles with iodine and each of us set out to find a secluded campsite where we would spend at least the next 24 hours completely alone.

Beforehand, I was curious as to how I would react to the experience. Would it be uncomfortable? Would I like being so alone? Would I spend it talking to myself or to God? It turned out that, as I couldn’t go anywhere, I had no other purpose except to be, and that’s what I did. I listened to the air, studied all the mosses and lichens in my little camp. It was so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I took naps in patches of sunlight, delighted in the sun-warmed rock.  I was asleep when the sun went down and rose when it did.

The experience didn’t change my life. There was no mountain top experience, just an opportunity to commune with the quiet inner voice that can be heard only when the loud outer voices, the ones that communicate with others, are not coming in or going out. I kept company with myself, listening and observing, and realized that I liked this girl and wanted to be kind to this person who is me. If that isn’t an important realization for a 16 year-old girl to come to, I don’t know what is.

Some people use solitude for prayer and meditation, and that has its own value, but there is something sweet and nutritive about listening to my own soul and body. It’s self-5712953278_9986cfe40e_ndating and therapy all in one- getting to know myself, listening, watching, not trying to change or solve problems- just understanding. It’s a chance to let mental knots loosen and unravel, a chance to stop reacting to outside demands, a chance to sort and restock the mental stores.

20 years later, my daily life is never free of other humans, and I take solitude very seriously, if infrequently.  The weekend before Christmas, with about 24 things on my to-do list, my husband, whom I had essentially not seen in two weeks, kicked me out of the house for some alone time. He is sweet and knew I needed it. He is also not an idiot; He knew his life would be better if I got some solitude.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

I ate breakfast that someone else cooked. I drove in silence. I’m a gal who likes to have music or talk on at all times, but not during therapeutic solitude. I ran one nightmare errand to the mall (barf) and got out of there as quickly as possible. Then, the best part- I went to the art institute because it’s beautiful and quiet and sat on the same bench for 1.5 hours. What piece of art took my attention for 1.5 hours? None. Art was too much of other humans. I sat looking out over a deserted snow-covered park, just breathing, just being. Stress sloughed off in big flakes and by the end, I was ready to go back to my life, picking up the gallon of milk that I knew we needed on the way home.

I am fortunate to have a healthy, inexpensive tool for renewal, and family who supports it. Massages are nice. Pedicures and manicures don’t appeal to me. Shopping is short-lived. Drinking, movies, and other escapes have their place, but they don’t make coming back to reality any easier. Medicinal grade solitude is it. It is what works for this woman who is never ever alone unless someone else helps make it happen.

Christmas Eve prep was done at 3 am; I was fine. Christmas day was fine; I even enjoyed it. My in-laws got everyone ice skates and we made good memories and better bruises. The day after was lovely. New Year’s Eve, hanging out with friends while our children watched a movie and fell asleep, was the top social event of the month.  And that day apart, given to me by Hot Swede, was the second best gift of the season.

Heavy Hearts Are A Drag

I feel like I’ve been in a fight for the past two weeks. I am not sick, and my life is as good as it was before, but I am beaten down and sad.

I am immensely grateful for the life that I have lived thus far. My loved ones and I are healthy. We have what we need and some things that we simply enjoy. I am married to a man who gets better with age. Most of the time, remembering these things bucks me up. But there are days when my heart and mind are too preoccupied to be coaxed into a better mood by mantras of gratitude.

230878032_c9b7c7fad9In the past few weeks, we’ve had two mass shootings (that I’ve heard about) in my country. There has been a slaughter of innocents in Kenya. A friend had a sudden death in the family. The list goes on and on. But it is not as if suffering suddenly increased. This stuff goes on every day. People kill, abuse, hurt, and murder each other every day. Since the dawn of humankind, we’ve been suffering terrible accidents, dealing with famine, drought, floods, terrible governments, and bad people.

Most of the time, I do what everyone else does with suffering that does not directly affect their lives: I acknowledge or ignore it, package it up and put it aside. It is natural, even healthy. It’s a survival mechanism. It is how we are able to focus on living our next moment to the best of our ability, because that is our job and it is the only thing we can do.93271166_99309d0468_z

Sometimes, I stagger under the weight of the world. I carry it around as though it is my responsibility to solve it. I can’t set it aside to enjoy the lovely moments of my life. And I am almost religiously compelled to acknowledge the goodness around me.5915158402_909365a296

If carrying the world’s sorrow helped anyone, I’d do it gladly. But it doesn’t. It impedes my ability to be a force for good in the small ways I am able. We can’t relieve the world’s hurt by feeling bad about it. Oh, if only that were the case. We only make ourselves and those around us unhappy if we try.

4569344254_798ef75908_zI hope it will pass in the next few days. It usually does. I am able to set down that huge burden and focus on promoting truth and goodness among my small circle of influence- chatting with the checkers at the grocery store, trying to raise good children, attempting to be a decent wife, smiling at strangers and looking them in the eye. You know- the small stuff.

 

 

 

 

When the world or private issues overwhelm you, you have my prayers and sympathies. I hope that you are soon able to straighten up and feel the sun on your face again.

3257992946_5c79431b91_zThe sculptures are all from the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway. It is an intensely moving place to experience, if you ever get the chance.

The Start of School

I am excited for school to start. My kids fight so much that I name them Israel, Palestine and Syria. That is not why I’m excited. We have been around each other 24/7 since June. That’s not why I’m excited. I’ve actually kind of enjoyed that, when Palestine wasn’t throwing rocks at Israel, and Syria wasn’t wailing about something. I’m ready because it is time.

P1010920We had a wonderful summer. I didn’t over plan it, like last year. We visited family, took some swimming lessons, and did minimal piano practice. We didn’t do camps, classes, sports teams, or any of the other extras that gorge on time and finances. I taught Bear to embroider. The kids played with friends, read and listened to books, did a lot of chores, and watched some TV. It was delightful.

I’m sure they would have liked to play baseball, attend camps, and other organized fun. Those are wonderful things- enriching, engaging, and good for kids. But my children get their heads pumped full of enriching, engaging activities throughout the school year. They do full days at school and take weekly music and dance lessons. If they do the prescribed homework and practice that goes along with these activities, their days are full. They are scheduled or getting nagged to work, from the time they get up, until they get ready for bed.

Summer is opportunity for contrast and a different kind of intellectual training. I’m convinced that after 9 months of cramming it full, the brain needs some down time to sort it all, put it away, forget that which it doesn’t want (to the chagrin of teachers,) and take some creative actions of its own design. Okay, so the forgetting isn’t great, but the sorting and creativity are at least as important to my children’s mental growth as is pushing them to do above grade level math. I suspect it is more important.

The best classroom ever

The best classroom ever

Unstructured time allows children time to listen to their own quiet minds and help them find resources within. They discover their own interests and practice navigating social situations without an adult overlord watching over them. They learn to amuse themselves and that being “bored” is a natural state for a mind unengaged. It is up to them to relieve their boredom, not me. (I do not create amusements at home. I make bubble solution, provide them with art supplies, take them to the library, and invite them to help me with household duties. That’s it.) Luckily, our neighbors and playmates have a similar philosophy about summer.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

Q wrote a neighborhood newspaper with her friend. They busked on a busy corner, playing tunes on a lap harp, fiddle, and a banjo. They made three dollars! They gave each other pedicures, which consisted of soaking their feet in water full of floating bits of lavender, rosemary, mint, and… chives. (Mmm, onion feet.) They rode scooters, bikes, ate berries and cucumbers out of the yard. They designed Halloween costumes and spent a lot of time talking. That is a summer well spent.

But all good things must end and too much unstructure fosters ennui if it stretches out for too long. They are showing signs of discontent. They loll around and sigh. Easy amusements have lost their charm. They bicker longer, harder and about sillier things. Bear can’t stand how AJ chews gum. AJ can’t ride her bike if anyone else in on the sidewalk for the entire length of the block. Q is sick of everyone.

They are ready for work. Structure, goals, tasks, and challenge are part of a vibrant human experience and it is time. Get ready, kids. School starts tomorrow. Sharpened pencils and clean notebooks full of expectation and promise await your well-rested brains. Work hard. Be good. This is the season of work. Do it as well as you did the season of play. Ready. Set. Go.

Going Paleo

3428573788_4f85b63636A friend of mine is thinking about trying the paleo diet and asked my thoughts on it. I thought I’d just post it here, so I don’t have to re-write this the next time someone asks me. I am, unequivocally, not an expert on anything. This is just my experience with this way of feeding.

Hot Swede and I did a Whole30 before Thanksgiving. Whole30 is a “jump in the deep end” of paleo- no dairy, no legumes, no sugars (honey, agave, excessive fruit sugars included,) no alcohol. It is intense, if you are starting from a SAD (standard American diet,) but it is the best way to see if paleo is worth the sacrifices. I recommend checking out the Whole30 community and joining if you are new to paleo. They offer a lot of support. We didn’t join, but I’d read the entire program and had already been eating low grain and generally low carb for a couple years.

When I was being really strict with it, I felt much much better. My energy was even throughout the day. I was less stressed out; I got upset with the kids less and better kept my cool when the stuff hit the fan. My loathsome baby belly hung out much less and I managed to drop 4 lbs of (probably water) weight. That is huge for me as my body is bound and determined to never drop below 135. Hot Swede also felt better and dropped quite a bit of weight, but he missed his booze and Doritos greatly.

Some things to consider:

Withdrawl:

4-5 days into Whole30, Hot Swede developed a horrible headache, a foggy mind, and was irritable for about 3 days. Absolutely no fun at all. This is very normal. It’s a shock to the system to remove all the easy carbs and sugar. He got over it and had no other ill effects.

Cooking:

If you don’t cook much, get ready. Go get an apron and a good knife, because you are going to do A LOT of cooking.  I have Melissa Joulwan’s cookbook, Well Fed and recommend it for anyone new to paleo. It is a no nonsense, let’s make this as easy as possible, kind of guide to paleo cooking. She has lots of ideas for getting unfussy, easily assembled paleo meals into your mouth. ($10 on Kindle.) Her mayonnaise alone is worth the price of admission and makes going cavewoman so much easier (because we all know that Neolithic people loved mayo on their mammoth.)

Bills, bills, bills:

You are going to eat a lot of meat and a lot of veg. If you’ve been filling up with cheap stuff like pasta, bread, rice, your grocery bill is going up. As is prudent, get grass-fed and pastured animals, if not those- get organic, if not those- buy lean cuts and drain away the fat. Here in Minnesota, Target carries Thousand Hills grass-fed beef products. Check out co-ops nearby for other tasty local animals. Costco has organic, but not pastured, ground beef and chickens at a nice price point. Costco is also brilliant for almond butter, olive and coconut oil. Amazon is where I’m getting unsweetened coconut shreds, since my local grocery stopped carrying it.

Keep in mind, as you gape at the price of meat, that your liquor bills are now $0 and your eating-out budget, I’m afraid, is near the same. Speaking of…

Eating Out and the Social Pariah:

Eating out paleo is hard. The prohibition on most common vegetable oils rules out the majority of salad dressings. The avoidance of gluten nixes any thickened sauce. Abstinance from sugar and cheese rules out pretty much everything else. If you are eating out with friends, check out the menu ahead of time and have a plan, and eat a hardboiled egg beforehand, so you are not tempted by the bread basket.

I HATE picky eaters. And eating paleo makes you a picky eater. I will confess that when in social situations, I eat whatever is served. The last thing I want is for my totally elective eating preferences to become the subject of conversation or an excuse for avoiding the hosts’ cheese plate (Besides, there’s feta on it.) However, when I partake of a decent helping of wheat based items and vegetable oils, I pay for it the next day. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Paleo snacking before a gathering is a good strategy to avoid going too far into the birthday cake.

I rarely even want to go out to eat at a restaurant anymore. It simply isn’t worth the expense and trouble that I will cause the waiter.

Give it a Go:

I love eating paleo. I feel amazing when I’m eating this way, but it can take a few weeks to notice positive changes in your body and mind. But what do you really have to lose? Bread (but you get coconut,) peanut butter (this is hard, but you can keep bacon, BACON!) eating out (but that’s expensive anyway.) And you can keep your coffee, enjoy occasional dark chocolate and maybe even a drink or two. Maybe.

I’d love to know your experiences.