Mindful Morning Coffee

I have been a coffee drinker for as long as I can remember. This addiction probably started in college when I was, to quote my Dad, “burning the candle at both ends.” Needless to say, I cannot start my day without my cup of coffee. Until now, I had always viewed this morning coffee ritual as a means to an end– the goal being to send a quick jolt of caffeine coursing through my veins to ready me for the day. I wasn’t thinking particularly about the experience of drinking the coffee, as I was solely focused on getting that caffeine buzz as quickly as possible. 

Recently, as part of my 2021 commitment to dive deeper into meditation, I have discovered how to enjoy my coffee mindfully. I was inspired by a guided “Coffee Meditation” by Pause to be Present founder, Cheryl Brause. In this meditation, which has forever changed how I drink my morning coffee, I have learned how to be fully present with my cup of coffee and to just enjoy being in the moment.

Mindful coffee drinking may sound like an oxymoron– after all, coffee revs you up and meditation calms you down. However, as Gloria Chadwick, author of “Zen Coffee: A guide to Mindful Meditation,” points out, by focusing on your coffee– and making it a special time to meditate– it can actually help you feel peaceful and relaxed. A guided coffee meditation may sound something like this:

Feel the warmth of the smooth mug between your palms.

Let the warmth seep into your hands and radiate through your body.

Watch the steam rise from your cup.

Notice the coffee’s creamy light brown color.

Breathe in the aroma. You can almost taste it now.

Bring the mug up to your mouth, feeling the mug against your lips.

Gently, take a small sip of your coffee.

Distinguish the slightly sweet, nutty flavor. 

Feel the warm liquid on your tongue and in your mouth.

Allow this warmth to flow down your throat and into your belly.

Let the warmth and the taste of that coffee soothe you.

As you drink your coffee, take the next few minutes to just enjoy being where you are… fully present and engaged, delighting in each sip. 

“No matter what else you have to do today, no matter what has happened prior to this moment, right now you’re here. Just you and that delicious cup of coffee. Each sip is an opportunity to drop into your life right now and savor just this moment.”

– Cheryl Brause, Pause to be Present, “Coffee Meditation”

This entire experience of blissfully relishing my coffee takes less than five minutes. I find it somewhat startling how just one sip of coffee can be so powerful– how it can fill me with such profound presence and awareness. Never again will I ferociously and mindlessly inhale my morning coffee. Interestingly, with this mindful approach to morning coffee, the caffeine still awakens me and helps me begin my day, yet the way I approach the day feels different, as I am now filled with a sense of calm, thoughtfulness and gratitude. 

Savor your morning coffee (or your tea, if you’re not a coffee drinker) and savor your life… beginning with this moment, right now. Slow down and smell the coffee!

Embracing Winter

Like many who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD,”) I find winter extremely challenging– a season to be endured but not necessarily enjoyed. This winter has been especially cold and snowy. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy sitting by a cozy fire, reading a good book and savoring warm, hearty foods. But I am mostly an active, outdoor person and I find it difficult to remain indoors for large chunks of each day. 

I wondered how those in the Scandinavian countries, who live with some of the longest, darkest winters, are consistently ranked as the happiest people in the world. Then, I discovered the research of Psychologist, Ida Solhaug, who traveled to the world’s most northernmost University in Tromso, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to ponder this question. In Tromso, the sun doesn’t rise from late November through January. Dr. Solhaug found that residents of Tromso literally thrive in winter and have among the lowest rates of SAD which she attributed, in large part, to their adoption of a positive winter mind-set. Instead of dreading the season as I do, the people of Tromso people view winter as a special time of year, full of opportunities for enjoyment and fulfillment. 

Embracing winter is a hallmark of Scandinavian family life. Kids play outside at school, wearing light-reflecting vests, even when it’s dark in the daytime and snowing. Dr. Solhaug contends that even if you didn’t grow up this way, you can still cultivate a positive wintertime mind-set as an adult. A key strategy in attaining this mindset is to get outdoors. 

Most warm-weather people, this author included, literally shiver at the thought of heading outdoors in freezing temperatures. But, as Dr. Solhaug explains, “Once you’re out there, something special happens. The cold actually feels good. You feel robust and vital, and you reap the benefits of being in contact with nature.” Even short amounts of time spent outdoors can improve our mood and boost our physical and mental health. Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, describes the benefits of nature as “OUTDOORPHINS.”  Simply put, people are happier when they are outdoors, assuming, of course, they are dressed appropriately.

With this backdrop, coupled with the knowledge that I always feel best when I am outdoors, I challenged myself to bundle up, get outside more and embrace winter– Scandinavian style. Here’s what happened…

Winter Adventure #1: Pond Skating. During a long stretch of bitter cold in January, all our neighborhood ponds and lakes froze, a rare occurrence in our region. During one very special weekend, a group of neighbors gathered to ice skate on one of the frozen lakes. Children and adults of all ages laced up skates, grabbed hockey sticks and frolicked on the ice, as spectators listened to music and drank hot chocolate. Neighbors chatted amiably and smiled joyfully at each other as we took in this magical real-life Norman Rockwell scene. 

Winter Adventure #2: Snow Day & Doggie Play. The next day, mother nature gifted us with a huge snowstorm in the Northeast– two feet of snow blanketed the streets, lawns and woods all around our house. I let the serenity of this winter wonderland envelop me, losing myself in the white vastness.

“Snow brings a special quality with it… the ability to stop life as you know it dead in its tracks.”

––Nancy Hatch Woodward

I took the dog outside to play. He frolicked animatedly, hopping like a bunny over the deep snowdrifts, rolling contentedly on his back and making doggie snow angels. I smiled at my pup’s childlike bliss as he played, reminiscing about my young children building snowmen, throwing snowballs and making snow angels. Pure, spontaneous and carefree play. My frenzied dog burrowed his entire head in the snow, then came flying out and shook his body, causing a cascading avalanche. And, for a few brief moments outside with my dog, I recaptured the simple wonder of a snow day. 

Winter Adventure #3: Snowshoe Hiking. For hiking enthusiasts like me, snow shoeing is a perfect winter sport that combines beautiful scenery, solitude and great exercise.  It is inexpensive, easy to learn and far gentler on the body than skiing or snowboarding. You can snowshoe virtually anywhere– in the woods or in a nearby park, field or across a golf course. This winter, I’ve caught the snowshoe bug. Each time I venture out, my senses are heightened. Trekking across our regular golf course, I am awed by the views and new perspective I have of the once-familiar golf holes, looking so different now glazed in white. Snowshoe hiking is always a rigorous workout, and even my husband (who does not like to work out) finds it fun and invigorating.

Winter Adventure #4: Lake Walk. One morning, after yet another snowfall, I walked around our favorite neighborhood lake. The sun shone brightly, illuminating the dazzling snow-covered trees. I relished this winter sun, which warmed my soul. I breathed in the fresh air and felt the cold burn my lungs. My cheeks flushed with the sting of winter. Still, I felt energized. My furry companion was enjoying himself as well, trotting along with wagging tail, stopping occasionally to burrow his head underneath the snow. We walked side-by-side in silence, one set of footprints, one set of pawprints, making fresh tracks in the powdery snow.

Embracing winter has reminded me that there are wonderful, magical moments in wintertime. But, as the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, it is easy to lose sight of the hope we felt as kids waking up on a snow day…. In adulthood, I am learning how to rekindle this wonder and revel in the joy of winter by shifting my perspective, as Lewis Carroll suggests.

As of this writing, there are 24 days remaining until spring. Until then, I will continue to embrace winter as best I can.

Dry January

What a long, strange month it’s been. If ever we needed a reason to drink, January 2021 supplied it. 

Like many Americans living through the Covid pandemic, I frequently turned to alcohol to help numb life’s stress and uncertainties. While alcohol quickly relaxed me, the peace and calm were short-lived. My sleep was fitful, my morning headaches more frequent. I felt bloated and unhealthy, though it was not always apparent, as I was mostly wearing sweatpants. I convinced myself that I needed to drink to stay sane. 

Enter Dry January. The annual tradition of abstaining from alcohol during the first month of the new year began in 2012 as an initiative by Alcohol Change UK, a British charity, to “ditch the hangover, reduce the waistline and save some serious money by giving up alcohol for 31 days.” Millions of people now accept the challenge, with more Americans partaking each year. 

For some, it’s a New Year’s resolution; others claim it’s a way to “detox” after the excesses of the holidays. Dry January was especially appealing this year, following the isolation, anxiety and loneliness of 2020, during which a majority of Americans upped their drinking to deal with pandemic-induced stress. A recent Nielsen poll found 13% of Americans participating in Dry January. 79% of participants attributed the decision to a desire for improved health; 72% said they were trying to drink less alcohol in general; 63% wanted to “reset” their drinking and 49% said they had been drinking too much during the pandemic. 

Having checked off all of these boxes, I determined that it was time to take a break and committed to a month-long hiatus from alcohol. I was psyched! 

On January 1st, I faced my first challenge. My husband and I were enjoying an outdoor dinner capping off our stay in Florida before our long drive home. As margaritas, mojitos and chilled glasses of white wine passed our table, I felt an intense urge for a drink. This was exacerbated by my husband’s ordering a gin & tonic (my go-to quarantine drink.) How could I stay dry for a month if I couldn’t make it through one dinner? Fortunately, my resolve won out and I ordered a seltzer with lime. Day one was in the books. 

I soon realized that I needed an alternative to alcohol– something fun that I could enjoy like a cocktail. Almost as soon as the thought hit me, I was greeted with a flurry of Instagram and Facebook ads for beverages like Seedlip (“the first distilled non-alcoholic spirit”,) Monday Gin (“a non-alcoholic gin,”) St Pauli Girl NA and Heineken 00. Who knew there was an entire product category of non-alcoholic adult beverages? I promptly ordered a bottle of Seedlip and purchased a six-pack of non-alcoholic beer. Although I’m not really much of a beer drinker, the non-alcohol beer tasted pretty good. (Side note: I wondered whether zero-alcohol beer gives you a beer belly… I did not want to find out.)

Meanwhile, on January 6th (our first full day home from Florida,) insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol. Additional political upheaval and the deadliest month to-date of Covid followed. My anger, fear and distress were compounded by personal challenges with Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD,”) which always rages during January– our coldest and darkest month. Suffice it to say, there were many days during January when I really craved a drink.

But somehow, I kept calm, sipped my original Seedlip cocktail (mixed with elderflower tonic, soda & lime juice) and carried on.

Today is January 31st. In a few hours, I will have survived Dry January. Not only am I proud of this accomplishment, but also, I have learned a lot about my relationship with alcohol and how it affects me. During the past month, I have slept better without alcohol interrupting my sleep cycle; I have also awakened with greater mental clarity, without the lingering headache that wine, especially, can give me. I feel less bloated and healthier overall. I believe it is important to listen to the messages our bodies send us– and mine is telling me that it feels better without alcohol. And I am not alone. 

A research study from the University of Sussex in the UK found that partaking in Dry January improves life in many ways. The study, led by Psychologist Dr. Richard de Visser, surveyed more than 800 Dry January 2018 participants. The respondents were still drinking less in August, seven months later. Additionally, participants realized other important benefits:

  • 93% felt a sense of achievement
  • 88% saved money
  • 80% felt more in control of their drinking
  • 71% slept better
  • 70% had improved health
  • 67% had more energy
  • 58% lost weight
  • 57% had better concentration
  • 57% had better skin

I enjoy drinking, but am now confident I can go a month without it. Dry January has been a good way to “sample sobriety” without being overwhelmed by the concept of never having another drink. I like how my body and mind feel and realize that a dry week or month is worth doing from time to time.

Beginning tomorrow, I think I’ll take a page out of TODAY anchor, Savannah Guthrie’s, book and try for a Dry-ish February. Drier than December, but a little less dry than January– the overall goal being to consciously drink less, without giving up alcohol altogether. 

Now, what better way to close out the cold, wintry, tumultuous month of January 2021 than with a nice, hearty bowl of turkey chili and an iced cold Heineken 00? Cheers!!

Kindness

Two days ago, we observed World Kindness Day. Here are a few thoughts about Kindness and how it can profoundly impact our lives. Especially now.

World Kindness Day was introduced in 1998 by a coalition of non-profit organizations and is celebrated internationally on November 13th. Its objective is to highlight good deeds in the community, focusing on the positive power of Kindness. Kindness is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. It bridges all divides–– race, religion, politics, gender and zip codes. Kindness is contagious; even the smallest acts can ripple and create a far-reaching wave of change. 

Kindness does not come naturally to everyone and some of us need an occasional reminder. This must be why Ellen Degeneres always ends her show with the mantra: “be kind to each other.” Once we are kind to each other, as Ellen urges, we realize how simple it is. Without going very far out of our way, we can do something nice for someone else and have a huge impact on another’s life…. sometimes without even realizing it. And, that act of kindness benefits both the recipient and the giver. 

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A SMALL ACT OF KINDNESS. EVERY ACT CREATES A RIPPLE WITH NO LOGICAL END.”

––Adam Scott

Many people go about their day with a smile plastered on their face, while underneath that seemingly happy exterior, they may actually be hurting, grieving, anxious or depressed. The smallest act of kindness from a stranger can change the entire trajectory of that person’s day or even life. But most of us are too caught up in our own daily grind to consider how a random stranger is feeling.

I suggest practicing Kindness and making it a habit. Being kind is actually quite easy and, once we do it regularly, it becomes our natural way of being. Then, those we have been kind to are likely to “pay it forward” and, little by little, Kindness will becomes the rule rather than the exception.

According to WMBGKind, a kindness initiative in Williamsburg, VA, there are five key components of kindness:

1. No act is too small— Whether it is holding a door for someone, smiling as you pass someone on the street or just being polite, acts of kindness come in all sizes.

2. There is no price on kindness— Kindness doesn’t have to cost money. Writing a note of encouragement or taking time to listen to someone can go such a long way. 

3. Kindness is inclusive—Kindness transcends demographics, race, religion and socioeconomic status. It is always an equal opportunity gift.

4. Kindness makes us better, together— Being kind to others creates a stronger sense of community, changing the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, and helps focus us more on our similarities than our differences.  

5. Kindness literally changes people— Giving makes us more empathetic and generous in our assumptions about others, thus enabling us to become more selfless and humble.

Yesterday, I comforted a tearful little girl who had fallen off her scooter. My golden retriever, Casper– who happens to be a pet therapy dog– and I approached the girl and asked if she wanted to pet Casper. Casper sat calmly while the girl stroked his fur… she hesitatingly smiled a little, then broke out into a full grin as she exclaimed: “he’s so soft and cuddly!” This small kindness undoubtedly made this young stranger’s day better and it also filled me with joy. I felt grateful that I was able to help someone else. (Casper was pretty happy too.) This is the power of kindness. I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes:

“DO THINGS FOR PEOPLE NOT BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE OR WHAT THEY DO IN RETURN, BUT BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE.”

––Harold Kushner, Rabbi & Author
Neighborhood sign with a universal message

Morning People

We have all heard the adage: “the early bird catches the worm.” I am not particularly interested in catching worms, but I am–and always have been– a morning person. Even as a teen and college student, when I stayed out until the wee hours, I still never recall sleeping in. Neither my husband nor my children are morning people. I think they are annoyed by my early morning perkiness as they drag themselves out of bed, bleary-eyed and exhausted.

My alarm clock each morning is our beloved golden retriever, Casper, who is most definitely a morning being. Every day at 5:45 am, I hear faint whining and, with one eye open, I pat the mattress, inviting Casper to join us. He happily jumps up on the bed, then snuggles in next to me to doze. This usually buys me an extra half hour, but I never descend fully back into sleep.

By 6:15 am, Casper and I are ready to rise. I wash up, brush my teeth, throw on a pair of sweats and we head downstairs. I let Casper outside and he runs crazy, high-energy loops around the backyard. I turn on the Keurig. While Casper eats his breakfast, I drink my coffee. That first sip of java, sweetened with almond milk creamer, is my single favorite moment of the day.  I savor it.

As the caffeine courses through my veins, I feel a “jolt” and immediately feel ready to attack the day with enthusiasm. Friends and family members who are not morning people will never understand the immense and complete pleasure I feel in this moment…

It is quiet and peaceful at this hour. The world is undisturbed. Despite all the events that happened yesterday, no matter how dismal life seemed, today the slate is wiped clean and we have a chance to begin anew. In my meditation class last week, we discussed the phenomenon of looking at the world through a “beginner’s mindset.” This means approaching life without expectations or judgment, but rather with openness, wonder and possibility. In the early morning hours, before the world comes to life, I believe that anything can happen today. Every moment represents a new beginning.

I am energized, both physically and mentally, in the morning. I try to exercise early in the day, while the adrenaline is flowing. Morning is my best time to think and to write. It is usually at this hour when I enter that exhilarating creative “zone,” where I happily discover that my musings write themselves: words effortlessly flow out of my brain and onto the page.

The only downside to being a morning person is that by 9 pm, I am struggling to keep my eyes open. As I doze through whatever program we are watching, my husband, ever the night owl, is wide awake and reading, usually until after midnight. This works for him because he won’t be up at 5:45 am with the dog.

In fact, by the time my husband awakes, I feel incredibly accomplished. I have fed and walked Casper, meditated, caught up on emails and social media, done a load of laundry, taken a 3-1/2 mile run, made a grocery list, watched the news, talked to a close friend (who is also a morning person) and written this blog post. I could probably use a midday nap at this point, but sadly, I am incapable of napping, unless traveling in a car or airplane. Nonetheless, I relish being a morning person and would not have it any other way.

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It is 10 am. What have you done so far today?

Lake Life

My husband and I are lake people. Our spirits are most alive here; our souls are at peace. We are relaxed, yet invigorated. This quintessential balance allows us to be our best selves.

migissunsetPerhaps this lakeside love affair began in our youth, as we both attended sleepaway camp in beautiful, idyllic lake settings. We now own a camp on a quiet lake in Massachusetts. We have spent the past 25+ years vacationing in the lakes region of Maine. This summer we have rented a house on Moose Pond in Bridgton, Maine, which feels like the perfect pandemic antidote.

As we near the end of our lakeside sojourn, I have been contemplating what, specifically, about the lake I find so appealing. As I write these musings from our screened-in porch, I soak in panoramic views of the lake, still covered in early morning fog. By 7:30 am, the fog will lift and the far shoreline, capped by Pleasant Mountain, will be visible.

 

I take it all in. The tall pines surrounding our property, blanketing pathways with their soft needles. The lake is a flat sheet of glass– ideal water ski conditions. The hammock rests invitingly under a nearby shady tree. I listen to the sounds of morning: the birds softly chirping, gentle waves lapping the shore and the whir of an occasional motor boat. My husband is out on an early fishing excursion and the rest of the household is sleeping. The world is still. I am breathing in solitude, serenity and peace. The lake provides a natural meditation.

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The lake is like glass in the early morning…

I enjoy quiet time reading in my dockside chair and lazily watching the boats pass by. As the day wears on, I will partake in the plentiful activities at our doorstep: canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, water skiing, swimming, cruising in the pontoon. It is a full, active day on the lake. I am energized.

The water is crystal clear, cool and refreshing. You can see straight through to the bottom of the lake where soft sand, smooth rocks and moss hug the floor. A swim in this fresh water invigorates– cleansing body, mind and soul.

As pristine as the lake is in early morning, it is even more majestic at night. In the evening, the rippling waves shimmer in the moonlight as loons cry out from across the water. We toast marshmallows in the campfire, tell stories, sing songs. It is magical. I cling to the joyful spirit and blissful calm that this setting instills in me. I am exactly where I need to be.

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Moose Pond at sunset (unfiltered)

I close my eyes and deeply inhale the familiar and comforting pine scent. I feel the caress of a gentle breeze off the water as my soul stirs with profound gratitude. Welcome to the lake life.

Of note… the photo depicted on The Nest Re-Imagined cover page was taken on Sebago Lake in South Casco, Maine, about ten years ago, at sunset.

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Quarantines: Extrovert vs. Introvert

I have learned a lot about myself during the Covid-19 pandemic and the pause it has engendered. In particular, I have been surprised to discover my introverted side. And I like her very much!

Those who met me during college or in my twenties probably considered me to be a “bubbly extrovert.” I was always in the center of the action, planning and organizing activities for my friends and family, attending large parties and reveling in it all. I loved being surrounded by people. While I had my own apartment, I hosted regular dinner parties and traveled with friends every weekend so I never had to be alone.

As I got older, I began to appreciate solitude. Little by little, appreciation grew into longing. Today, I literally crave time for myself. Being alone no longer makes me feel lonely. On the contrary, it allows me to recalibrate and recharge. This realization led me to wonder:

“Have I become an Introvert in middle age?”

I decided to dive deeper. I began with Susan Cain’s bestselling book (and TED Talk,) Quiet, in which the author dispels the misperceptions of Introverts in what she calls “a world that can’t stop talking.” She agrees with Swiss Psychologist, Carl Jung, that Introverts and Extroverts are not defined by being shy or being a leader (Introverts and Extroverts may or may not be either.) Instead, the differences lie in what someone finds stimulating as opposed to exhausting.

“Extroverts direct their energy outward– towards other people– and gain energy from such encounters, while Introverts focus their energy inwards, towards more solitary, thoughtful activities.”–– Carl Jung

Since social interactions energize extroverts, being alone deflates them. Introverts are the opposite. Small talk and cocktail parties leave them drained. Time alone, or with a few people they know well, recharges their batteries. They enjoy thinking, reading, tinkering or discussing a topic in depth. Many introverts are mistakenly labeled shy or anti-social. As Susan Cain contends, “introverts are not antisocial– just differently social,” generally preferring to spend time with a few close friends as opposed to extroverts, who prefer larger, more animated gatherings.

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Covid-19’s stay-at-home mandates have magnified the differences between Introverts and Extroverts, torturing Extroverts who need constant social connection, while providing welcome relief from social obligations for Introverts. In quarantine, Introverts are less likely than Extroverts to feel deflated, isolated or bored and more likely to feel energized, perhaps welcoming the lack of distractions to delve deeply.

Extroverts have embraced digital social interactions such as Zoom happy hours and online workout classes. But in between these virtual interactions, they feel frustrated and depressed and wonder when all of this will be over. Introverts, however, are reveling in this new normal. According to Lisa Kaenzig, the extroverted Dean of William Smith College who has studied introverted learners for years:

“The world has generally been a place where Extroverts are rewarded and Introverts are passed over. But the quarantines have changed those assumptions. While everyone is anxious and worried about the virus, the actual demands of staying home and limiting social interactions has felt like a boon to many Introverts. With everything that makes the world harder for them as Introverts, the world is better for them right now. They are adapting much more quickly.”

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In our “Quaranteam” of two parents and two adult children, we have one off-the-charts Extrovert, two Ambiverts (those who have characteristics of both Introverts and Extroverts) and one Introvert. In pre-quarantine life, my daughter, the extreme Extrovert, was the social director of her friend group and constantly engaged with others. She has taken working from home in stride, but is utterly disappointed that her “calendar has literally been wiped clean for the next six months.” No concerts or music festivals, no weekend travel, no bachelorette parties or weddings. Some days she feels angry and frustrated; other days, she’s downright stir-crazy. Although her downtime is filled with Zoom game nights, virtual workouts with friends and late-night DJ parties, she still has “cabin fever.” Like most Extroverts, my daughter gathers her energy from others. The only “others” around her these days are her mom, dad and brother… and the dog. (She did start an Instagram account for the dog.) It is a tough time for Extroverts.

For my introverted son, it is a different story. A sports announcer whose work is temporarily on hiatus, he has proactively taken on several new projects; he is networking virtually with other broadcasters and industry leaders, and he is mentoring other young broadcasters. With no in-person gatherings and few social pressures, he is free to focus on his passions. He is busy, engaged and content.

My husband is an extroverted Ambivert. He enjoys a balance of socializing and quiet time to pursue hobbies, read or watch TV.  He does not always need people around him to be happy. In quarantine, hubby has adjusted to a regular daytime work schedule, yet he also needs frequent Zoom-time with friends and family to stay connected.

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As a more introverted Ambivert, I have found a nice equilibrium during quarantine. The extroverted side of me needs a pace and routine to my days with some social connection. My introverted side needs peace and solitude to help me remain grounded and healthy. Early morning dog walks, meditations, long runs, reading and writing fill me with joy and purpose each day, while replenishing my energy. Despite all the challenges around us, I am centered and happy– and hopeful that I can maintain this balance in the world beyond quarantine.

Approximately one-third to one-half of people are Introverts. This means that most Extroverts have an introverted partner, family member or close friend. If you believe that “opposites attract,” then Introverts and Extroverts can complement each other and have a strong friendship or love relationship, provided both parties make a conscious effort to appreciate what makes the other tick. Being in quarantine together has accentuated this dynamic, giving these divergent personality types the opportunity to better understand and respect each other’s unique preferences and needs.

What will our post-quarantine world will look like? I know my extroverted daughter cannot wait to find out. She already has one foot out the door, with plans to visit a friend’s beach house as soon as the restrictions are lifted. My son and I, the more risk-averse introverts, are content and not rushing off anywhere. And, in this uncertain future, if we have more people working from home, if Zoom meetings and virtual social activities become standard fare, while large, in-person gatherings dissipate, introverts may find themselves in a whole new comfort zone.

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The New Normal– A Dog’s Life

Something is going on in my house. I can feel it in my bones.

Usually, I’m just hanging out with mom during the day while Dad is at the office. Mom and I take walks and play in the backyard– I love to fetch balls and hunt for chipmunks. Sometimes, I get to play with my canine friends like Gypsy, Skye and Farley. While Mom works at the kitchen table, I nap on the window seat. I keep one eye open in case some of my friends wander by. A few times a month, Mom and I go on pet therapy visits to hospitals, schools and day care facilities. Seeing all those special people and helping them to feel better is the best part of my week! Overall, my life has been pretty good…

But lately, everything seems different. I’m not sure what’s happening.

Dad is now working at home so he’s in the house all day. Dad mostly stays upstairs in his office but in the late afternoon he takes me out for an adventure. We go to our nearby lake and Dad roller blades while I run next to him on my leash. What fun!fullsizeoutput_5b22

My sister is now back in the house and she has taken over mom’s office at the kitchen table. My sister wears headphones and talks to her computer a lot. But while she’s not working, she gives me lots of love and attention. My sister calls me “Smushie” and is constantly taking photos of me, which I don’t mind too much. (Mom laughs and says I’m going to be on Instagram again, which I guess is a good thing– but I’m not sure…) My sister also likes going outside when she needs a break from work, and then I get an extra walk!

My brother, who lives far away, also came home to stay with us. I’ve really missed him– he hasn’t been here in a long time. My brother loves petting me and burrowing his head in my fur… sometimes he lays down on my dog bed and snuggles with me. I am so happy when my brother throws me the ball and the two of us get a little wild.

IMG_0954Meanwhile, there is a lot of activity in our playroom. A few nights ago, my sister led an exercise class– she was shouting instructions to people on her computer screen. Mom and Dad were doing the exercises too. I was hoping to take my post-dinner nap, but there was too much commotion for me to sleep. So, I decided to join the class, but the only move I could do was the “downward dog.” Whew– what a workout! Not sure I can keep up this pace…

Another new thing is happening. Instead of a few canine friends passing our house each day, now there are dozens of families with dogs parading by all day long. I wait and watch at my window seat, trying so hard to contain myself… but I cannot stop barking because the dogs are everywhere and I think it is one big doggie play group! My family is not amused at my constant barking.

I’ve also noticed that Mom is wearing funny blue gloves and she keeps wiping down countertops, doorknobs, faucets and the refrigerator door with a towel. What’s with all the cleaning? And, someone in my family is always at the sink washing their hands. They must be very dirty from playing outside with me all the time… fullsizeoutput_5aae

I overheard my mom and dad talking about the “Coronavirus.” They don’t seem to like it very much. Still, I love having my entire family around me. I get petted and snuggled all day and night, and I get to play outside and take lots of walks. I really do miss my pet therapy visits, but Mom says we can’t do our visits for a while until the Coronavirus threat is over. I feel badly because I know all my friends are probably disappointed that I’m not with them, and I miss bringing joy to their lives. At least I am trying to be a wonderful pet therapy dog to my family. I think I am doing a good job of comforting them and helping them to relax and breathe. fullsizeoutput_5a36

I’m not sure what this Corona thing is. I just know that I’m getting more attention, more snuggles, and that everyone I love is by my side 24-7… I am exhausted from all the walks, hikes and backyard frolics, but I am not complaining. I know I am one lucky boy.

Love, Casper

Minimalism

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Less is More, about how saying less and doing less for our children resulted in their stepping up, doing more and taking charge of their lives. Now, I have a variant  on this theme to share. By having less, I am feeling more. This broad concept of simplifying and reducing consumption in order to focus on more important undertakings is referred to as Minimalism.

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As empty nesters, my husband and I are contemplating our next chapter. We are preparing to sell our house and, in so doing, we are paring down our possessions. We have discovered that, with less stuff around us, we feel lighter and freer.

Over the past few months, we have been de-cluttering room by room. We have gone through hundreds of items– framed photos, photo albums, books, artifacts and knick-knacks amassed over 27 years of marriage. Some were collected from favorite trips. Others were gifts that we appreciated but had no use for and so were stored in what we dubbed our “tag sale room.”  (Whether or not we will actually hold a tag sale remains to be seen.) We recently picked through this room, filling plastic bins with school projects, award certificates, sports trophies and various other childhood keepsakes.

This is all very bittersweet, as every memento or photo triggers a wonderful memory. Our children were so sweet, so cute and so innocent… family vacations spent frolicking on the beach, Sunday AYSO soccer games with my husband coaching, camp visiting days, birthday parties… simple, everyday happenings we enjoyed as parents. But getting rid of the trophies and autographed camp pillows won’t obscure those memories. And the pleasure we derive from having a neat, clean and de-cluttered home far outweighs any pangs of guilt we might feel for discarding childhood mementos or storing photos in a box. With fewer possessions in our house, we can fully embrace what we do have and appreciate what is most meaningful.

This philosophy is espoused by authors, bloggers and documentary filmmakers known as The Minimalists who believe in letting go of sentimental items. They tell us that “we are not our stuff– we are more than our possessions. Our memories are within us, not within our things. Holding onto stuff imprisons us, while letting go is freeing. You can take pictures of items you want to remember. Old photographs can be scanned. An item that is sentimental for us can be useful for someone else.”

fullsizeoutput_5984The benefits of Minimalism are well documented by psychology and social work professionals. Our mental state is influenced by our environment, so a cluttered home or office can result in a cluttered mind. Simplifying and minimizing our living space may help us experience greater clarity and tranquility. According to Tamara Levitt, Content Director at the meditation app, Calm:

 

 

“Minimalism suggests that most of us spend too much time and energy focused on material things, which distracts us from the relationships and und undertakings that really matter. This lifestyle philosophy invites us to re-assess our values and ask ourselves what will actually bring a lasting sense of well-being. The idea isn’t to get rid of all our personal belongings or to cease consuming altogether, but Minimalism poses we clear out the excess clutter and unnecessary consumption so we can focus on the things in our life that are truly important…”

Friends who have recently moved have shared their joy of purging. Initially, it is difficult to part with prized possessions, but then we start to realize that it’s just stuff. It is not important. When we clean out our closet, parting with clothes we no longer wear; when we clear out furniture that no longer suits our needs and donate it to others who can use it; when we pare down our possessions to the few things that are truly meaningful– we can really feel the authenticity of our lives. When all the extraneous material possessions are stripped away, what remains is the real stuff– family, friends and our health. It is then that we realize how much we really do have.

As my favorite musicians, the Zac Brown Band, sing in their crowd-rousing song, Homegrown:

“It’s the weight that you carry from the things you think you want–I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.”

101 Days of Mindful Meditation

A few months ago, I was standing in a supermarket checkout line. The cashier in our lane was moving at a glacial pace. She meticulously scanned each item, while chatting incessantly with customers and co-workers. The customer she was ringing up had dozens of items. This was going to take a while. I could feel my stress and frustration escalating.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the person just ahead of me had a mere two items. I leaned in and said: “Looks like we chose the wrong cashier. You should go to the express lane– it will be much faster.” The woman smiled at me and replied: “that’s all right. I meditated this morning, so I’m good. Normally a situation like this would totally annoy me, but not any longer. Now I am calm and relaxed– plus, I get to talk to a nice person like you.”

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Wait, what? Was this person for real? She was perfectly content to stand in line an extra 15 minutes when she didn’t have to? And she attributed her Zen-like aura to having meditated earlier that day? I was intrigued.

I had heard a lot about meditation over the years and had even tried it a few times. I once attended a meditation class, had bought several meditation CDs (back when we had CDs!), and had also downloaded popular apps like Headspace and Calm. But when I closed my eyes and tried to focus on deep breathing, it just didn’t work for me. My mind kept wandering and I began to stress that I couldn’t master a simple exercise like meditation. After I few attempts, I rationalized not doing it anymore because I didn’t have time to meditate. That’s right– I couldn’t find 10 minutes a day for myself.

Back to that day at the supermarket. After seeing the benefits of meditation first-hand, I resolved to try again. The next morning, I opened up the Calm app (which had lay dormant for close to a year) on my phone. I was immediately greeted with the soothing, peaceful sounds of falling rain. I opened a chapter called Daily Calm and listened.

To be honest, I did not have a huge epiphany on that first day. Throughout the guided meditation, I found my mind wandering, as I thought about all the important tasks I needed to complete that day, emails I needed to send, people I needed to reach. I did manage a few moments in which I was able to focus solely on breathing and being present. But it was difficult. And uncomfortable. Yet, I was determined to keep going.

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About a week into this “experiment,” something shifted. I woke up and discovered I was actually looking forward to my morning meditation. But first I had to walk the dog. During the entire the dog walk, I couldn’t wait to get home and start meditating. This excitement was new– and welcome. Since then, I have practiced mindful meditation for 101 days straight. Most days, I meditate for just 10-15 minutes early in the morning. During that time, I am “all in,” focused on deep breathing, clearing my mind and being here. It is a liberating and exhilarating experience. This is now part of my daily routine and I cannot live without it.

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My adult children are tired of hearing about my meditation practice and how it has changed my life. They, like so many others who have not experienced mindfulness, think I am involved in some weird, spiritual, crunchy granola waste of time. I promise you, it is not that. This is something very real and meaningful that is making a profound difference to me.

Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations without judgment.”  Mindfulness, which includes the practice of meditation, forces you to slow down and pay attention to the here and now, which is challenging in today’s frenetic world.

We refer to meditation as a “practice” because, like most things in life, the more you do it, the more adept you become. And, it can take some time to feel comfortable. As adults, there are so many things we have literally been ‘practicing’ for years– whether it be our careers, sports and hobbies, or even relationships. Yet despite all the years of practice, we still have not fully mastered these things. I love that my meditation practice is a continual work-in-progress. Each day I meditate I learn a little more.

In just over three months, I have noticed subtle changes in the way I view the world and in how I react to situations. I am definitely calmer and more patient, and I tend not to stress as much over the little things that typically set me off.

“We have little power to choose what happens, but we have complete power over how we respond.”–– Arianna Huffington

My daily guided meditations force me to listen carefully to the inspirational messages imparted within, covering a gamut of topics including: confidence, understanding, obstacles, perfectionism, FOMO, everyday judgments, relationships, nesting, cravings, dreaming and more. They help me to reflect on important aspects of my life in new and different ways. 

There is definitive medical research showing a positive correlation between meditation and brain function. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ center, the amygdala, shrinks. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – thickens. The ‘functional connectivity’ between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain weakens, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration strengthen. According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh, the scale of these changes correlates positively to hours of meditation practice.

Research has also shown that mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness teaches us to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than to simply act instinctively, without understanding the emotions or motives that may be driving a decision.

It is comforting to know that my meditation practice is helping to improve my brain function and to reduce stress and anxiety. But even more importantly, I love the way it has shifted my view of daily life… I am now living more in the present, learning to be more flexible, letting go of perfectionism and relinquishing control over things I know I cannot control. Mindfulness makes me feel more like my true self… and I like that real self a lot more. I am less judgmental, less angry and more tolerant these days.

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The other necessary aspect of meditation is that it is an act of self-preservation. As we age, it becomes more and more important to take care of ourselves, both physically and mentally. I try to work out daily but if I miss a day, I become grumpy and irritable– just ask my husband! Now I find that missing a morning meditation has the same result– I just don’t feel quite right. For example, if I am traveling early, and cannot meditate, I force myself to do a bedtime meditation, just to help re-align my psyche. (And, what could be bad about Matthew McConaughey reading me a sleep story?)

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As adults, it is challenging and sometimes onerous to learn new skills and even more difficult to master these skills. At first, a mindfulness practice may feel strange and uncomfortable. You may get frustrated or impatient, as I did. But stick with it anyway… it definitely gets better. For me, meditation has already proven to be well worth the investment of time and effort. I feel more open to whatever life throws my way.

While I would love the opportunity to reconnect with the stranger from the supermarket and thank her for changing my life, since that is an unlikely option, the best I can do is pay it forward to others. I have many friends and family whom I know would benefit immensely from meditation, so I am sharing this gift with all of you. However, like me, each of you will experience your own personal mindfulness journey and determine how meditation may fit into your life.

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