The Art of Doing Nothing

I’ll be vacationing soon in Florida, something I haven’t done in over thirty-five years. I have been to Florida since then, of course, but always for work, and once for a wedding, and I can’t say that I have felt all that deprived.

I don’t consider myself a beach person, and while I have flopped about on the sands of both Carolinas, I can say that what I liked most was coming in from the beach around 3:00 p.m. and getting cleaned up for dinner. Drinking coffee early in the morning to the piercing cry of sea birds is dramatic in its way, and I will give the ocean this–no matter how hot it is, right on the water there is always a breeze.

So those three things, going out to eat, ocean breezes and drinking coffee with sea gull just about does it for pegging my fun meter. Don’t like to shop, don’t deep-sea fish, can’t golf, I burn. So, yeah. That’s about it. It’s not that I am cranky, it is that I don’t ask much of the ocean and it asks little of me, and we think this is a lovely arrangement.

But when my friend, Jackie, asked if I might want to tag along for a girls trip to Perdido Key, with her and a friend, I gave it serious consideration. Low-key, she promised, a place that is beautiful and possessing of absolutely nothing to do. Bring a book. Bring two. We will each do whatever we want. Some may get up early and walk on the beach. Others might sleep until noon. Whatever. No pressure. No worries.

Okay. I’m in.bird

It’s not that my life is stressful. In fact, I would say it is relatively stress-free. I am busy, it is true, but I’ve worked hard to strike a balance, and mercifully, events beyond my control have cooperated. I remember one beach vacation to South Carolina where I was so overwhelmed with work that for the first few days I could only manage lollygagging by the pool in a semi-comatose state, and it wasn’t until the week was almost up that I finally came to and wanted to run and play with the others. Too late, sadly, because they had exhausted themselves early in the week while I was sleeping.

As a person with mental health training, I tell you absolutely that I embrace the need we all have for recreation, vacation, downtime. Even the simplest change of scene can regenerate us, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. A drive in the country, remember those? Anything that takes us out of our ruts and has the potential to surprise and delight us.

My vacations and time away, though, tend to revolve around some other, more specific task. For years I have piggy-backed a few days of fun at either end of a conference or work obligation. Even when I travel to the Czech Republic it is work, and more often than not I am seeing the sights someone has set up for me, not the ones I have planned to visit myself.

My colleagues, of course, are being good hosts and I appreciate it, feel lucky that they are. But it lets me off the hook in a way, and I have learned to be content with a stolen afternoon here or there. It’s fun, but not so satisfying. And even this girls trip to Florida wasn’t my idea, but let’s not dwell on that. I said I would go, and I am going.

I have purposely given no thought to this this trip, have decided to pack the night before by throwing in my bag a little of this and a little of that, because, hey, its the beach and I am ‘way past cute little shorts and spaghetti straps. If memory serves, for all the clothes I packed when I was in my twenties, I wore the same shorts almost all week, except to dinner, of course, and my most versatile garment was the least soggy beach towel that I wore like a shawl, a burka, a serape, or a sarong. I am a grown-up woman of some abundance. I own an actual sarong, one I don’t leave home without.

I’ll take my books. Leave my calendar at home. Just me, the girls, an open road. Drive south, turn east, as the sea gulls lead the way.

 

color beach walk

Fall Garden

He is very proud of his hands, my young colleague, who stops by my office on a regular basis. He comes at my calling when I am stuck, as I am so often, when I attempt to navigate the platform upon which we teach on-line classes.

Jason is one of the experts, and he doesn’t so much tell me what I’ve done wrong as he commandeers my office chair and, like Merlin with silent incantations and divinations, fixes my mess while I play around on the iPhone.

Last week he was proud of his hands. They were calloused. He presented them to me, palms up, when I asked how things were going, what he’d been up to. “This is what I have been doing”, he said, as if a quick glance at his hands was all the information I needed. He has been preparing his yard for winter, reseeding, aerating the ground, digging and raking and I am not sure what all. His calloused and blistered palms mark him as more than one of the men of the great indoors, and that is how he likes it.

photo of lantanaMy own yard could use some tidying up before fall sets in, but I neglect it with purpose, and I don’t know why. The flowers in my little English border are cranky and overly physical, the bully Lantana overwhelming her delicate neighbors. The garden phlox is spent, but hangs on like a beaten but determined boxer, all heart, with their battered heads drooping onto their chests.

The chickweed and spurge have so completely integrated with my annuals that I quit pulling them out and treat them like filler, the baby’s breath in a bouquet. Broadleaf plantain climbs my capitata yews and I wince and work to convince myself that, really, it might be considered an ornamental. The impatiens are leggy, the gerbers dead on their feet, and my geraniums, which I have hopes of overwintering, have gone on a hunger strike or some such nonsense, and look quite dreadful.moon vine flower

Blooming comes late to my yard. The tomatoes show up later than my friends’ tomatoes, regardless of how early I plant them. My pal, Alice, had pulled up her moon vine before mine deigned to join us topside to put on a show. I use this excuse to be in no hurry to clean up my garden, but really, I think it is sloth.

Then, too, there is also something about pulling up living things, even though they have lost their vigor, will no longer produce. If a plant isn’t brown and rattly, I just can’t get rid of it. Even when I am sick of looking at it. I always think, just one more weekend and I will make ten gallons of pesto before I yank the basil. Just half an hour tomorrow and I will harvest the parsley, freeze it for winter, so as to astonish my guests with the freshness of my lasagne deep in winter.

But those days come and go with no action and my yard looks like it needs a visit from the city. Or maybe it is the finality of the thing that gets me. Once I clean up my garden I won’t smell dirt again for seven months. I will miss that.

Then, too, the best part of porch life is all the green, in every direction, shot through with red, and pink, purple and yellow. An autumn porch is nice, but brittle in its way.

There are times I wish I were a poet, because I admire them beyond all reason. Just as I sat down to think about this, a poem came across my desk that I wish I had the talent to write. In her poem, “Lines Written In the Days of Growing Darkness,” Mary Oliver has said with such economy and grace that with which I fumble. She gives us this these bookends, with such loveliness in between.

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descendsdried leaf sepia

into a rich mash, in order that it may resume…

…So let us go on

through the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

We need our poets most in autumn, I think, to see us through the winter.

My Ten Books, In No Particular Order

I have my feelings hurt, you all, and here’s why.  I don’t live on Facebook, but I check in almost daily and I will admit to taking the odd quiz from time to time. You know the ones, those are little tests from places like Buzzfeed.com, with titles like, “How Posh is your Vocabulary?” How Many Famous Artists Can You Identify?” “Which Harry Potter./Hunger Games/Game of Thrones Character Are You?”

long buzzfeedThey are fun little diversions but I almost never post my scores, and sometimes my scores are quite noteworthy. It’s enough knowing I can identify twelve of the fifteen world capitals from a single picture.

For the past several weeks, though, there has been circulating on Facebook a challenge to “name the ten books that have had the most meaning to you”, or something like that. I don’t know the exact wording because no one has shown the slightest interest in my ten books, and therefore no one has posted this to my page.

No one.

I have friends who have posted their books and then challenged several of our other friends to list their ten books. I read their lists with interest and enjoyment and, finally, disappointment when I realize my name is not on the new challenge.

Fine.

It doesn’t bother me, but my pals should know that I have 750 words, every week, right here to do with what I please.

Uh-huh. That’s right.

Here, then, in no particular order, is a list of ten books that have significance for me.

1.  “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion. This is a series of essays and articles she wrote during the Sixties. Every essayist should own this book. Non-fiction writers should include her in their  evening prayers.

2. “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Besides sounding so cool when I say his name, it was this book and Marquez who introduced me to magical realism, and he did it so deftly that I didn’t even know what was happening until someone explained it to me.

nancy drew book cover3. Any Nancy Drew mystery. Carolyn Keene was, in fact, a pseudonym for a host of ghostwriters for the series. Nancy had it all-a roadster, freedom, talent,  two pals and a sometime boyfriend to mess around with her and help her solve crime.

4. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written by Harper Lee. I knew, even as a kid, that in this book every word worked. It was a big story, too, although when I first read it I was too young to fully appreciate that.

5. “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read this as the secret garden gate with birdan adult, but loved it like a child, reading to myself but hearing my grandmother’s voice.

6. “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. I read it almost every Christmas season. It is a joy to be able to finish one of his books in a span of less than a month.

7. “101 Famous Poems.” My mother had a slim and leather-bound copy in the living room bookcase, and I read it cover to cover and back again. I loved the poets’ pictures, set in ovals like cameos. When my siblings got on my nerves or I got on my own, I retreated to the living room and spent a quiet hour reading poems and thinking deep thoughts.

8. “The Inheritance of Loss,” by Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize, and I loved this book, even before I knew it won an award. I have recommended it to many friends, most of whom have tried to read it and didn’t like it, at all.  Which might explain why it is no longer in print. Even so, I found the story compelling, with threads of India, Great Britain, Nepal and New York City running through it, and the writing breathtaking. But that’s just my opinion.  Apparently.

9.“Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen. It was one the few books in which I have underlined passages and I return to them again and again. Sometimes it is just a sentence. Sometimes a paragraph or more. Just stunning writing.

Isak Dinesen
Isak Dinesen

10.“Me Talk Pretty One Day,” by David Sedaris. Because it made me laugh, out loud, and all over the place.

That concludes my list of ten books. Let’s hope something interesting happens for me to write about before next week, because there is also a challenge circulating about one’s twenty favorite movies. I’d like to spare you that.

Sitting Is the New Smoking

If you have been paying attention at all, you know that sitting is the new smoking.

Wow.

It doesn’t take a mental giant to know that sitting too much is not good for you, but the new smoking? That is extreme. Except that maybe it isn’t.

When we think about the soaring obesity rates among children and then think about how much time children spend in front of video games, it makes some sense. I know what you are thinking, you are thinking, Greta, it is because they are not exercising, period, not just because they are sitting.

But new research suggests otherwise. According to recent studies—and there have been a slew of them—sitting for hours a day will shorten our lives, age us, and make us vulnerable to all sorts of health issues, from cancer to diabetes to obesity. And further, even if you run regularly, exercise hard, you are still at risk if you come home and flop of the couch after your hour run.

Sitting for periods of time triggers signals in the brain to reduce telormerescertain enzymes, it messes with our insulin, and it frays the little end caps of our chromosomes, called telomeres, and this  speeds up aging and disease.

Even working out regularly at the gym is not enough, since many of us are sitting for hours on end at the office, at home. When our big muscles, like our legs, aren’t working, then our metabolism slows down. In essence, we are built to move much, much more than we do, and the fix is actually easier than you think.

Stand up more. Just that. Make yourself do it. Standing for just three hours a day for a year can have the same calorie burning impact on us as running ten marathons.

marathon runners legsTen marathons, people!

One British journalist decided to stand for an entire month, all day long, every day, unless she was involved with something that absolutely required sitting, like driving her kids around. She lost two dress sizes, although she reported that she made up excuses to take the kids places, just to sit for a little bit.

Her doctor said that she was silly to attempt that all in one fell swoop, because it can be bad for your back and joints and feet to shock them so, but still, she made her point.

I wrote in this space a few columns back, about all the fitness bands I have purchased and I gave the impression I wouldn’t buy another one. Well, I lied. A week after that column ran I went out and purchased the Polar Loop because my friend, John, has one, and I thought it was cool, and my friend, Susie, also has one and I think she is cool. This really is the fitness band for me for these reasons.

It is super light and comfortable, and I think it looks really good, not so obviously sporty, although upon seeing it, someone asked me if I was on house arrest. What I like about it is this. It gives me  non-athlete, information I can embrace. It tells me when it is time to move, and it also gives me suggestions for reaching my fitness goals for the day.

I can jog for 45 minutes, I can walk for an hour and a half, or…wait forpop dress standing on raileit…I can stand UP for three hours and fifteen minutes. That’s right. Just being upright chips away at my goal. The little manual that came with it even gives suggestions—dusting, cleaning, baking.

Baking! Part of a legitimate fitness regime! When I sync my Loop to the computer, it shows me how much time I have spent in bed, sitting, walking, running, and upright. It is shocking to see how much I sit. Even on days when I am active, all that sitting.

I have a colleague who has rigged up a standing desk and I am working on doing the same. I can’t quite figure it out, but I will. I have been whittling away at the number of hours I spend sitting, but it is harder than you would think. It is liberating to think that doing even light chores is part of my fitness plan. Research has told us for years that we are built to move, walk five miles a day, eat what is naturally provided, get some sun. And now we we can all be marathoners without  ever actually running one.

Sign me up for that.

The Happy Valley Effect

Right now I covet her boots. Those boots, the black boots she wears as she goes about her duties as the cop in charge of Happy Valley…a valley that is beautiful, but not so very happy, populated as it is withCatherine head shot folk–mostly young ones –living lives of drug-addled desperation. I have spent hours on line trying to find the exact boots that my new hero, Sarah Lancashire, as the no-nonsense, middle-aged police sergeant, Catherine Cawood, wears to work in Calderdale, nestled in west Yorkshire.

It is Calderdale that gives us the ironic name, Happy Valley, something the local police call their town because of drug problems there. “Happy Valley,” you must know by now, is the newest offering on Netflix and was the most talked-about show in Great Britain when it first aired in April, 2014.

It is now one of the most talked-about shows this side of the pond and with good reason. It is so very, very good. Or to use their word over there, brilliant. This six-episode BBC production, written by Sally Wainwright who also writes “Last Tango in Halifax,” had over six million Brits tuning in and biting their nails each week, and now, lucky us, we can binge watch it to our hearts content and bite our nails, too.

The main character, Catherine, is a 47-year old grandmother, raising her dead daughter’s child, a responsibility she shouldered at great cost to her marriage and relationship with her surviving son. Lanchashire in the starring role will be familiar to us as Miss Audrey, in “The Paradise” and as Caroline in “Last Tango in Halifax.”

ad_136301444Catherine is raising 8-year old Ryan with the help of her sister, a recovering heroin addict, Clare, played by Siobhan Finneran. What I love best about the character Clare, besides the fact that she spends her time volunteering in a homeless mission, gardening in the allotment, and preparing meals for her sister and nephew, is that she is played by the same woman who gave us that awful O’Brien on “Downton Abbey.”

In this role, she is sweet and supportive, loving and sometimes at a loss, and I am thrilled to have a reason to really like her—the character and the actress–after all the torment O’Brien put us through.

The plot of “Happy Valley” centers around Catherine and her life eight years after the suicide  of her daughter. She gets up every day and does a difficult and physical job, and she does it as a strong woman, not the caricature of the strong woman we are often treated to in the US entertainment industry.

She is kind, funny, and a good cop. She can also knock open a door with her shoulder and runs after a drug-selling ice cream truck, which of course she doesn’t catch, but she looks like sCatherine and Twiggyhe might, were she a bit younger. She pulls smart aleck smack-heads out of their cars by the fronts of their jackets, young males bigger than she.

And we believe it, believe it all, because this is not a jiggly kind of cop show, because Sarah Lancashire as Catherine is substantial and fierce in her fleece jersey and hi-vis vest. Then she goes home, worn out, and reads to her grandson, and we believe that, too. She carries the show on many levels, because, ultimately, it is her character’s story. She gives us Catherine in a package we want to receive.

catherine at cemeteryIn a strong but nuanced performance she shows us how Catherine moves through her day with competence and good humor, and we see with the subtlest of expressions the grief she still carries and the obsession that burns for Tommy Lee Royce, the man she blames for his part in her daughter’s death.

Tommy Lee Royce

And we we understand it, or want to, because we care about her now, and we feel a little like Clare, making pizzas while holding our breath, hoping Catherine can keep it together when she discovers that Royce is now out of prison.  Even so, this is no stoic repressed cop.  Catherine is all business.  Yet, when life’s events overtake her, she cries, and freely,  and she is a more compelling character because of it.  She cries as she should, as we all would.

Many reviews of “Happy Valley” refer to Catherine as a flawed woman. Too easy, I think. Catherine as Wainwright has written her and Lancashire portrays her is this–deeply human, a person suffering and persevering.

Heroic. catherine and daughter-in-law

In pain.

But living.

Committed, ultimately,  to doing the right thing.

I’d like to think that Catherine Cawood is out there keeping me safe. And I’d like to know where she got her boots.

 

 

I’m So Bored

blank page with ???For the first time in a long time I am sitting in front of the computer with a mind as blank as the page before me.  Everything going on in my life right now bores me.

It’s hot and I complain, even though in summers past we have been treated to this miserable weather for weeks on end, unlike this summer where it has had the good grace to show up right at the end, and isn’t all that awful, longevity-wise.

It arrives just as I rededicate my life to walking, so a new plan is in order.  I have mapped a little chart that has me walking four blocks, then six, followed by eight, until such time —along about February—when I can clock a couple of miles, no sweat.

Even so, I wait until almost dark with I think it will be cooler, but, of course, it isn’t.  If I were totally honest—which I hate to be, by the way—I might confess that I walk at dusk so you can’t see me, huffing and stumbling a little.  I tell myself I am old, and need to pace myself, and so far it is working.

All two days of it.

I have devises sort of my own little “couch to 5K” program, tailored around my slovenly but comforting ways.

Also, I am bored with books. At least the ones lying about around here.

On a hot and steamy car ride my pal, Janice, mentioned a couple of Icelandic mystery writers.   In my ennui IIndependent People Book Cover summoned up Amazon and ordered three of their  books, due to arrive later today.  The ordering gave me no pleasure.

Nor does the prospect of a package excite me  and I feel like a character in a Fellini film, all dour and drab in black and white, who sits around and discusses the existential angst of the postal service with someone just off camera, instead of a little kid who rushes toward the brown paper box resting on the doorstep, the one with her name on it.

I’ve even stopped shampooing my hair.

I know, I know, you just had a little rigor right there, didn’t you?  So did I when I saw the first articles pop up on-line about celebrities and ordinary folk who haven’t shampooed their hair in months, years.

For all the scintillating titles, as you delve into the article you will discover that it isn’t that these women—for it is always women—are not washing their hair, it is that they are not shampooing their hair.

Shampoo, apparently, is a vile and destructive thing, with ingredients like paraben and sodium lauryl sulfate, which is found in industrial chemicals, and all of it wreaks havoc on our hair and scalp.  Shampoo strips our hair of natural oils and that necessitates the use of conditioner to vainly attempt to replace them.

Then, according to the “no poo” web sites, this sets up a vicious cycle in our systems with our bodies over-producing oils to make up for the damage we have done, and if we just left everything alone, our heads would produce, after a time, the perfect amount of oil to give us luxurious and voluminous hair.

Frizzy hair will be tamed, lank hair will be revitalized and bulky with body.

So, yes, in my boredom, I have done this, am still doing it, in fact.

The thinking goes like this.  We need to restore the proper pH balance and this is achieved by the use of two available–and cheap–household products, baking soda and apple cider vinegar.

First, make a mix up soda and water in a glass and work that into your hair.  You won’t  get suds, obviously, but done right, your hair will feel, if not squeaky clean, at least squeaky.  That right there is your alkali.

apple cider vinegarFollow this with the same amount of apple cider vinegar and water, rinsing as you go, keeping your eyes closed because vinegar is an acid.  If you should forget and open your mouth, no worries, it tastes a little like salad dressing.

They say it can take a while to see the full effects but I don’t know.  I had dinner with my mother the first day I tried it, and she said she thought my hair had more body.

To be exact, she said, “I’ve looked  at that hair for years and I think it looks better.”

Thanks, Mother.  Perhaps my boredom is paying off.

Better Living at the Bottom of a Bog

summer

Here we are at the dead end of summer. Never mind that summer isn’t officially over until sometime in mid-September. It is over for most of us when school starts up.

And cruelly, school began for some of us in the first week of August.

Queen Walking at BalmoralJust as the Queen is heading to Balmoral for her summer vacation with lovely hikes in the highland hills, teachers and children here are heading back to classrooms and smart boards and lunch money and those odd little pouches of milk.

August was the month of swim lessons when I was a child, not that I ever mastered the sport. Lessons began after the pool had closed for the day and I remember long rides home wrapped in a soggy towel, lips blue and teeth chattering from the sudden coolness of evening.

When did we make the back-to-school switch to early August from after Labor Day? Is there any chance of going back? I need just one month more.Swim Lessons

Toward that cranky end, let me share with you some things I discovered this summer to help us all make little changes in our lives or perhaps see the world differently. The new school year is a great time to turn over just one more leaf before the dark days of January when we make resolutions in earnest.

Dr. Robb Rutledge of University College London says that the secret of happiness is really quite simple.

Lower your expectations.

He and his research team have discovered that our day-to-day wellbeing does not reflect how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected.

Then, being scientists who are compelled to do what scientists do, they wrote a complicated mathematical equation that can accurately predict people’s happiness.

It makes some sense, really. Remember the old saw, “he who expects nothing is never disappointed?” It’s sort of like that.

New school years, new resolutions are fine and dandy, but perhaps we will have a happier time of it if we just sit back and let it happen, calm-like and wise.

And this. New research, and, of course—a new product–is on the market in Great Britain promising the fountain of youth in an attractive little jar. It seems that a Bill Kenny, from Croghan Hill, Ireland has launched new skincare products made from peat bogs found on his property. The thinking goes like this.

If the peat in these bogs can beautifully preserve the skin of a 9000 year-old body, why couldn’t it stop our skin aging dead in its tracks?

Why, there is no reason, no reason at all.

ime-mummies-around-the-world-7I have seen bodies mummified in peat bogs and I can tell you they look fabulous. Creepy, but fabulous. Their skin is almost frozen in time, with laugh lines and little furrowed brows, and they are burnished to a lovely hue.

An analysis of the material in Mr. Kenny’s peat bogs has been shown to contain high levels of antioxidants and antiseptics. He even tells his own story from childhood when he severely burned his hand and his mother thrust it into a peat bog, where, miraculously the pain ceased and his hand was restored to health, almost at once.

His product line is called Ogra, and the 100% peat face and body mask sells for a mere $66.00. I don’t know if it is available in the US yet, but when it is, I am getting some. Kenny’s bog is only fourteen acres and how long can it last, once the secret is out? OGRA products

Now I know you may think I have given with one hand and taken with the other here, what with that early talk about low expectations. But honestly. While we are going about our day, expecting very little and achieving happiness in the process, there is no reason why we can’t look good while we are doing it.

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