The Benefits of a Jigsaw Puzzle

I do not think I have ever purchased a jigsaw puzzle until recently. I have always loved going to my brother Dave’s and sister-in-law Judy’s house because there always seems to be a giant puzzle on their dining room table. It’s fun to just go over and start working on it and then meander off. There can be one person working on it or five and there is never a set agenda like “I’ll work on the pink flowers” or “You work on the fluffy white cloud.” You are free to choose if you want to work on it or not. My earliest memory of working on a puzzle was at Brant Lake in the Adirondacks as a babysitter for my next door neighbors, the Suiters. We would spend an entire week in a lakeside cabin with a puzzle in the works. So thus far, my memories of working on a puzzle have always been a team effort.

Fast forward to a global pandemic in 2020. I started seeing friends posting completed puzzles on social media. I was envious. I wanted a puzzle. I wasn’t sure why. I had no idea if I could complete one on my own. I just knew I wanted one and I just had to give it a try. Whelp, there were no puzzles to be had. Target was out, Walmart was out and even Amazon was backordered. Puzzle sales are apparently 370% ahead of 2019. Finally, after about three weeks as well as a lost package, having to select another puzzle and purchasing a puzzle mat, I finally received my puzzle. It’s a circular 1,000-piece puzzle and I have to say, it was intimidating. But here I am some 10 days later, and I have finally put the whole thing together all on my own! It is a triumph! It’s been a unique experience. This is what I learned.

The benefits of putting together a jigsaw puzzle:

Preparation

I was glad that I had seen (thanks, Dave and Judy) that it is possible to have a puzzle mat to keep whatever progress you have made in one piece. I was afraid that it might take me months to complete the puzzle. What if I had a dinner party or something, what would I do with the puzzle? I know one thing for sure, I was not going to not finish that puzzle just because of some dinner party (yes, I know I am not going to host a dinner party in the middle of a pandemic). I wanted to be prepared to store the puzzle come what may. I carefully considered which table to put the puzzle on, rolled out my puzzle mat and broke open the box. The puzzle finally arrived after I purchased the puzzle mat, but I knew I wouldn’t have started the puzzle without a way to safely store it. I imagine that if I had started the puzzle without the preparation, I would have been anxious about having to move it. I even thought about buying a card table so I would be positive that I would not have to take the puzzle apart before it was completed. It took me almost a month of preparation but I’m glad I was prepared.

Memory

Putting a jigsaw puzzle together helps with your short-term memory. It’s funny because your short-term memory is a muscle that you can practice. I can remember when I was a cocktail waitress some thirty years ago — I could remember everyone’s drink in the room. If one guy put up his finger for another drink, I knew right away that it was a “Dewer’s with a splash of soda and a twist.” Over the last week, I could scan pieces for specific colors and “arm” widths or corner pieces and remember what I was looking for (or sometimes not). As Jan Bowen wrote in her blog, “Short-term memory is enhanced as clues are retained for solving puzzles. Imagination is also stimulated as the bigger picture is incorporated.” As Brandpoint Content posits, “Short-term memory is enhanced as clues are retained for solving puzzles. Imagination is also stimulated as the bigger picture is incorporated.” I haven’t noticed the benefits yet but I do find I’m less worried about memory tasks I need to do like “pick up some bird seed” or “make sure to call Mom.”

Left and Right Brain

Having both regions of your brain collaborate is good for making better connections. It helps tap into tasks typically found in the right region like expression and creativity and the left region like logic and critical thinking. As Brandpoint Content wrote, “When you are doing a jigsaw puzzle, both sides are engaged, according to Sanesco Health, an industry leader in neurotransmitter testing. Think of it as a mental workout that improves your problem-solving skills and attention span. It’s no surprise that Bill Gates admits to being an avid puzzler.” I have to say that I frequently have been stymied on writing blog posts of late and once I started working on this puzzle, I felt more able and excited about writing.

Relax

I know I have been on digital and screen overload over the past two months of quarantine and exhausted from working from home. Having a hands-on activity that was sitting on my kitchen table for the past week and a half has been a terrific respite. If I was on back-to-back Zoom calls for three hours, I would go to the kitchen for a 15-minute puzzle break. It was nice to have something in a completely different room that didn’t require me looking at a screen or on a device. As Jan Bowen wrote, “Perhaps the busy hands, calm mind best explains the meditative impact puzzles have but research shows that puzzles do in fact simultaneously activate our brains while relaxing us psychologically. They put our brains into a meditative state.” There is the dopamine hit when a piece fits in place. With a 1,000-piece puzzle, that’s 1,000 hits of dopamine. I found that it settled me down and helped me slow down my pace.

Bowen posits, “I think we do puzzles because we have a relentless urge to create order out of chaos.” I have to agree. I think in a time where there is so much out of my control, having the ability to put order and pieces in their place is very satisfying. I was initially intimidated by the prospect of putting 1,000 pieces of chaos into order but the end result is very gratifying.

Missing Daddy

My father passed away on July 12, 2019. Our family was going to gather on what would have been his 95th birthday on June 19, 2020. Due to a global pandemic and my mother still being under quarantine in her senior living center, all that is off. We won’t be able to celebrate his life as a family. I realized I can celebrate him with my words.

Grief is a fickle thing. I won’t lie and tell you that I think about him every day. I certainly did in the months following his death. In the last few months, it’s been sporadic. It might be a commercial about a father teaching his teenage daughter to drive or a mini-series about Ulysses S. Grant, and suddenly I evaporate into tears. I miss my father even though I am so grateful he died last year. It gave us the chance to visit him (pre-COVID) as he slowly succumbed to congestive heart failure.

Here are the things I miss about Daddy:

Unflappable

I challenge anyone to tell me a time when my dad lost his temper. He rarely raised his voice and only did so to tell his opinion in a heated debate. When my two brothers and I were kids there was a lot of rough housing, teasing and taunting that took place; my father was loathe to intervene. He headed up field trips to Gettysburg and Washington, D.C. as a history teacher and always managed to return rebellious and raucous teenagers home with rarely an incident.

My boyfriend Roy and I have been watching the miniseries called Grant about Ulysses S. Grant. There are many references as to how calm and cool Grant would be in the middle of a battle and to be able to keep his wits about him. I think of all the challenges my father dealt with as a sailor on a schooner during a hurricane. As a Merchant Marine traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic in an oil tanker with a sheared-off bow during World War II. He was never a man who was easily roused. 

I think of him when a co-worker loses their cool. I think of him when I lose my cool. I miss seeing my father and being able to watch him be unflappable.

Wanderlust

The biggest road trip of my life was with my family. We traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States and then from the Western provinces of Canada to the Eastern ones when I was eight years old. My father loved a view. He really loved the view of a mountain in particular. Whether it was the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada or the Canadian Rockies, my father (who drove our old Ford station wagon and 24-foot trail for all but 10 miles of the trip) would always pull off to an overlook…to have a look. 

I remember rolling my eyes as an impatient eight-year-old as my father would marvel at the view. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the marvelous opportunity my parents were giving me to see so much of the U.S. and Canada. After retirement, my parents traveled the world from Russia to China to Australia. He was always intrigued by foreign cultures, politics and natural beauty. He had wanderlust. I think of him when I see a tall mountain peak or hike to the summit of a trail. I miss and am grateful for my father’s wanderlust as he instilled it in me.

Patience

I have never been as patient as my father and have always been envious of it. He was the best grandfather. He traveled to my children’s marching band competitions, wrestling meets and football games. He never cared how far it was or how long we might sit in the cold or hot humid stands. He was just happy to be there. My son’s football team might be losing by 40 points but he’d be sitting there on the cold hard bleachers until the bitter end.

My father was the man who would patiently walk around the neighborhood with my then 2-year-old daughter reading license plates. At the ripened age of two, she was able to read all the letters and numbers on a license plate, all because her grandfather encouraged her to read. It reminds me of the times when I was in grade school and putting on plays in the basement. He was always willing to pay a quarter for admission and would sit through some haphazard, ill-conceived play for the love of his daughter. I think of him often during this pandemic and how easily he would have dealt with this big pause. I miss his patience and try to summon it often to cope with plans that are scrapped or delayed.

Wisdom

Anyone who lives to 94 is wise. They have survived catastrophes, wars and circumvented fatal errors. My father studied at eight different colleges and universities. He actually went to the University of Pennsylvania and attended West Chester College at the same time without one knowing about the other. My parents scrimped and saved their entire married life in order to send all three of us to the university of our choice. My father was a revered mentor to several young men that he taught in school or who he met as a counselor at a boy’s camp called Camp DeWitt. He was sought after for his advice and counsel for decades after their first meeting. My father’s opinion was one that I always valued. I remember the difficult decision to leave my first husband when I had very young children and countless responsibilities. I valued his opinion above everyone else’s. I never wanted to disappoint him. I miss his advice and counsel. He was the wisest man I’ve ever known.

I remember being with him on his 94th birthday. He was hunched over with an oxygen tube but was still able to read the book “Benson Noice Junior the Great” written by his namesake grandson as a grade school project a decade or more earlier. We all sat in his room as he told stories about his life. I was surprised that he talked about seeing both of my children being born and how miraculous it was. I will always remember kissing him goodbye for the last time in person and him telling me, “I love your blogs.” I find my father in all kinds of places now. In the wind, on a sailboat, at the top of trail or a scenic overlook. I may be missing him but he is there if I just pay attention.

The Art of Paying Attention

I have been working from home for over two months now. It is late spring, and my lakeside home has been a hub of activity. It is not the sort of activity most of my coworkers have in home schooling, piles of dishes and fighting over what to binge on Netflix. The hub of activity is the birds, reptiles and furry mammals that happen by my backyard. The thing is, I must assume that all of this has gone on for the almost two decades I have lived in this home. Perhaps it is the lack of distraction of getting kids to soccer practice, or worrying about getting to work on time, or maybe it’s that the pandemic induces a pause button that has been pressed–overall, I have been paying attention to all that surrounds me a lot more recently.

Here are some thoughts on the art of paying attention:

Turn off the distractions

Turn off the television, the phone, the computer and the tablet. I can remember way back to when I first lived alone after my first divorce. I always came home and turned the television on for background noise. It helped me cope with being alone. Now, I have the compulsion to look at my phone for notifications. It’s all just distractions from being present and taking notice of what is around us. As Harriet Griffey wrote for The Guardian: “Continuous partial attention – or CPA – was a phrase coined by the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone. By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.” This is difficult for me but I am trying to keep my distractions to a minimum.

Single tasking

I have taught a terrific class by Franklin Covey called 5 Choices. In that class, I’ve done an exercise where we time everyone task switching from writing the number 1, the letter A, then the Roman Numeral one and then back to the number 2, letter B and Roman Numeral two and so on, up to Roman Numeral ten. When they are then asked to write the list by each category numbers, letters and then Roman Numerals, they cut their time in half. It’s a dramatic example of how task switching slows you down. Multitasking is a myth. We are just slowing ourselves down and getting less done. I am completely guilty of sending a text to answer a colleague in the middle of a meeting or scanning through my emails. But when I focus on the present moment and pay attention, I feel less scattered, more involved in what is happening and much more aware of my surroundings. Try and focus on just one thing.

Look outside

I’m not sure if it’s because the four walls in my house are the same every day and seem to feel like they are closing me in as I cope with working from home, but I have found myself looking outside with increased frequency. My home faces northeast and the sunrise each day is something I have always looked forward to. It may influence why I typically get up at 5AM but I really enjoy the surprise of what kind of sunrise it will be. Will there be clouds, fog or clear skies? Will there be rain or wind? Will there be pinks and orange or just deep blue before the sunlight streams through? I never know but I look forward to that moment. I meditate facing the window to look out at the sunrise and am always surprised that each one is so unique. It changes minute by minute as the colors morph and spread or succumb to the sun. Looking outside gets me to focus on paying attention.

Take notice

Every year, the dynamics of my backyard changes. This year, we have had a contentious battle between three male mallards and one female mallard going on for the past week. The female seems to be mated with what appears to be the middle-aged male. The middle-aged male is constantly running off the younger male if he gets within ten feet of the female. The oldest male by contrast is sitting around napping most of the day oblivious of the fighting between the two younger males but if he walks towards the spot where the female is, the couple flies off. I can get completely caught up in whether they are parents to the younger male or if he is just the pestering younger brother. There is the gymnastic squirrel who is able to access any bird feeder known to man and the stress it causes my poor dog, Baci. There were eight turtles hanging out the other day, bobbing their heads above water. What brought the turtle convention to my backyard that day? There is the regular family of swifts who nest in a drain pipe next to the lake and they always put on a show in the early evening by grabbing insects swooping above the water. This is likely because now I am home all day every day but noticing what is going on has really connected me with the nature around me.

Express gratitude

I put my hummingbird feeder out about a month and a half ago.  It sat vacant for weeks. And weeks. I started googling hummingbird sightings on the east coast and eastern North Carolina seemed sparse. I began to panic that my feeder was clogged up. My boyfriend Roy brought me a new feeder and reported that his mother had plenty of hummingbirds just an hour east of me. I never know what attracts a species to inhabit my backyard or to not. Last year I had a nesting pair of Little Blue Herons and this year they are gone. Three years ago, I had battling hummingbirds dive bombing each other over the feeder. There is a Great Blue Heron who is a constant. They are frequently standing on my lake bank or strutting around my boat slip.  Tall and majestic and glorious in flight. I am so grateful for each sighting.  When I was sitting at my kitchen table yesterday, there it was, the elusive hummingbird scouting out the feeder. A tear came to my eye. They were back. Pay attention but be grateful for what shows up.

Awareness and attention to the natural world helps me escape the heaviness of this pandemic. It is ironic that I find escape in staying at home.  It takes putting aside the myriad of distractions and focusing on the present moment and what is available. What are you paying attention to?

The Silver Lining to a Pandemic

I try to be a glass half full kind of person. Positivity is one of my top 5 strengths. Searching for a silver lining helps me dampen down my anxiety.  I acknowledge that there is an enormous, incalculable, downside to this pandemic. I saw a picture this last week taken in India where people had not been able to see the Himalayas for thirty years and now could. I realized that as bad, uncertain and catastrophic this pandemic is, there is some upside.

 Here are my thoughts on the upside of this pandemic:

Less air pollution:

This has really caused me pause. I live in eastern North Carolina and I never figured that air pollution was really an issue. I must tell you that I’ve noticed that there are more stars at night. I’ve noticed that the sky seems so much bluer. I thought it was an aberration. But if NASA can see the difference from satellites, maybe there was some truth to my observations. As Marina Koren wrote for The Atlantic, “As cities and, in some cases, entire nations weather the pandemic under lockdown, Earth-observing satellites have detected a significant decrease in the concentration of a common air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, which enters the atmosphere through emissions from cars, trucks, buses, and power plants.” So, step outside at night and look up at the stars. They really are brighter – your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

Changed soundscapes:

I live pretty far from a highway and my home is usually quiet. I typically hear birds chirp and geese honk. I have noticed in the last month that it has been more of a cacophony of avian sounds. As Laura Rawlins wrote for Focus for Health, “Some regions of India can see the Himalayan Mountains for the first time in 30 years, cityscapes are smog-free, and you can find a stream of twitter threads about people asking if birds are chirping louder these days or if that is just the effect of less pollution, noise and the like, in the atmosphere.” Koren wrote, “With so many people staying home—and public-transit agencies cutting service as a result—there’s significantly less noise from cars, buses, trains, and other transportation. Erica Walker, a public-health researcher at Boston University, has taken a decibel meter with her on her socially distance walks, and she has been stunned by the measurements. “It’s a lot quieter,” she told me.” It’s surprising that because cities are quieter, people can finally hear the birds. In my case, I feel like there is a population boom in the variety of birds causing the change in my soundscape.

Kindness:

I’ve noticed an increase in kindness. Last weekend, when my boyfriend Roy and I hiked for the first time in two months, there was a palpable ebullience. Hikers smiled and had a spring in their step. In my neighborhood, the abundance of families and couples taking strolls is evident and everyone is waving hello even if you are a stranger. I’ve had anonymous cars in front of me in a drive-thru pay for my meal. Strangers pull aside in the grocery aisle. Everyone on zoom calls is wishing everyone well as we sign off. As Rawlins wrote, “We can all restore our faith in humanity, because kindness is trending amid COVID-19. There is an abundance of stories of people going out of their way to help. Whether they are getting groceries for their elderly neighbors, sewing masks for medical facilities, or even taking care of a newborn baby when the entire family tests positive for COVID-19, it’s clear that this kindness surge is just as contagious as the virus itself.” I’m grateful for the kindness that bubbles up from this pandemic.

Presence:

I have struggled with all of my plans being on hold. I have felt groundless without a destination to look forward to. I am sad that my one of bucket list items won’t be achieved this year (I wanted to visit Alaska to have been to all 50 states). On the other side of that is an awareness of what is present right now. I have to thank Roy for that. Roy has an appreciation for the moment right now. It’s might be stopping to look at Purple Martins swooping the sky, or admiring countless gaggles of Canadian Geese with their broods of chicks, or noticing a (what seemed like a shark size) carp swimming next to our kayak. Focus on right now. The stars in the sky, the sunrise or sunset, the cup of hot tea, the warmth of the blanket or the tap of the rain outside. Instead of striving to get to my next destination, I can be here right now. Appreciate what is here right now.

A year from now, this may likely all be a memory, or it may not. I just want to try to experience it and pick through the array of changes in my life to find the moments of good. I want to accept the pause and find what is available now. Is there an upside for you in this pandemic?

5 Steps to Embrace Uncertainty

I’ve been waiting for a sure thing for most of my life. The sure thing can show up in many ways. The right career. The right spouse. The right house. The right car. The right vacation. The right business. I can remember going to the Brandywine Raceway, a racetrack near my home in Wilmington, Delaware as a kid. I always bet on the favorite horse to “show.” To “show” in horse-betting parlance means to come in at least third. I was always betting on a sure thing. I usually, after some ten or so races, came out a buck or two up by the end of the night. I was very risk averse and wanted to make sure I won. Don’t we all want the sure thing? Don’t we all want to pick the winning horse?

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The truth is there aren’t many sure things. We assume the sun will come up and we’ll take our next breath. The majority of things are unplanned and uncertain. Embracing uncertainty is not easy, not comfortable and not natural for most.

Here are five ways to embrace uncertainty:

  1. Be OK with the unknown

I secretly want to be clairvoyant. I want to know that if I get my degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration that I will one day run an entire hotel chain. While I received that degree, the closest I ever was to running a hotel was cleaning hotel rooms at the Hotel DuPont. I didn’t know that when I applied to Cornell University.

I was hiking with my boyfriend Roy this past week. We could have hiked two miles, one mile, up to the summit or down by the river. Roy was fine with whatever path we took. He was OK with the unknown. The benefit of the unknown is that it won’t disappoint. It won’t come up short. The path unfolds as it should, whether it be rocky, full of roots, ascending or descending, blocked by downed trees or spectacular views. It is as is should be. The unknown unfolds to become known. Life unfolds the same way with the unknown becoming known. Be OK with the unknown.

  1. Let go of the ideal

For me, perfectionism breeds procrastination. I will put off starting because I am not confident that I can complete it or make it perfect. I started this blog over eight years ago. It’s only been in recent years that I have embraced what Anne Lamont calls the $hitty first draft. I just let it write. I rarely go back and edit. I just write and let what will be, be. If I wait for an idea to fully percolate, fully come together, to become positively perfected, I will delay; I will hesitate. Don’t wait for the ideal time to go for the promotion, marry your soulmate, have a child, start a book, or open a new restaurant. Life is messy. There are rarely times where things will be ideal. Embracing uncertainty means letting go of perfection and accepting the imperfect.

  1. Lean into fear

Fear lives in your amygdala in the back of your head. When you and I are in our amygdala, we can’t do our best thinking, which generally happens in our prefrontal cortex. Fear hijacks our brain. A hijacked brain wants to fight, flee or freeze. Sit with the fear for a moment. Or a day. Or a week. Fear dissipates as you let it rest. As Meg-John Barker wrote for Rewriting the Rules: “During the time of uncertainty we need to refrain from acting however tempting it may be to do so. This may also involve asking others to give us the time that we need rather than giving in to their demands to come up with an answer. Thus, it can also be quite a socially radical thing to do in a cultural context of quick fixes and immediate responses: being prepared to say ‘I don’t know what I think about this yet’ or ‘I’m not sure how best to respond, let me get back to you’.” I think that leaning into fear does not mean “barging into fear” or “freezing into fear” but leaning slowly into fear. Reflecting into fear so that you can use your prefrontal cortex to best understand the uncertainty.

  1. Accept being uncomfortable

I’ve spent most of my life trying to be comfortable. I’ve avoided conflict to stay comfortable. I didn’t challenge that status quo with many of my relationships. Whether it be a spouse, boss or child, I didn’t want to make waves. I didn’t want to assert my opinion and potentially cause friction in my relationships. Even if I avoided conflict, the friction still existed. Avoiding the uncomfortable had no impact on the certainty of my relationships. Just because I’m accepting what is comfortable doesn’t make my future anymore certain. Relationships still fall apart even if you are trying to make them comfortable. As Barker wrote, “Whilst leaning into pain can be incredibly hard, the clearer picture that we gain when we face these things that we are so used to running from can bring a massive sense of relief, once we’ve taken the time to really look at them.” By accepting the pain and getting uncomfortable, it helps reveal the true nature of my relationships. Being uncomfortable sheds light on the uncertainty.

  1. Two beats longer

This idea is from Brendon Burchard’s book, The Motivational Manifesto. Burchard recommended having things last two beats longer. I love this idea because it’s all about being very present in this very moment. Feel the couch you are sitting on, the warmth of the blanket, the breath of your lover, the glint in your dog’s eyes. Be here right now and accept this current moment. Good or bad. Painful or sweet. Being here right now makes what is going on very certain. Certainty is in the moment right now. Appreciate it. Embrace this moment. Let go of what happened and what might be in the future and be here right now, just two beats longer. The present moment is certain. Count two beats longer.

Uncertainty is always present. Moving forward regardless of failure, safety, or certainty is just part of the equation. Letting life unfold is magical and is as it should be. What do you do to embrace uncertainty?

Getting Back on the Trail

Some of the best memories of my life were made outside on a trail. By trail, I mean unpaved, meandering, gravely, dusty, sometimes root-twisted, frequently tree-covered, rock-strewn path. In early May in the year of COVID-19, North Carolina reopened their state park trails. It was glorious. My boyfriend Roy and I headed out early on the Elliott Coues Nature Trail at Fort Macon State Park on May 9th. This trail is like coming home for Roy in particular. He has hiked this trail since it opened and hiked it countless times with a 40-pound backpack to train for his Appalachian Trail Thru hike in 2019. It was the first trail we hiked, when we first started dating some two years ago. It was exciting to be able to get back on our “home” trail.

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Some of my observations about getting back on the trail:

Fort Macon State Park

Fort Macon is located at Bogue Banks near Atlantic Beach along the North Carolina coast. It is the second most visited state park in North Carolina (after Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks). It has a fort that was built in 1826 and it was the site of the Civil War battle, Siege of Fort Macon, from March 23 to April 26, 1862. Besides the restored fort and visitor’s center, there are both surf side and sound side fishing, nature trails, ranger guided tours, swim areas and bathhouse. It is both a historic site and unique because it has both the intercoastal waterway on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The Elliott Coues Nature Trail encompasses marshes, maritime forests, and sand dunes and covers 3.2 miles. It’s a lovely moderately challenging trail with overlooks along its diverse ecosystem.

Ebullient

This is the word that Roy used to describe the many folks we met on the trail on the first day we were permitted access to what he refers to as the “Jewel” of Carteret County. We were both struck by everyone’s mood as we passed what seemed like 20 or so different parties along the trail. There was palpable excitement to be out in nature and free of our computer screens, four walls and monotony of quarantine. Outside of one group of teenagers, everyone smiled and greeted us with what could be described as joy. It was infectious. As one group passed by with eye contact, broad smiles and “good morning”, there came the next. It was almost like a feeding frenzy of excitement and discovery.

Families

It was amazing how many families were out on the trail. I would guess that probably 80% of the groups we passed were families. This is quite unusual on this trail. Most of the hikers we used to pass were either joggers, mountain bikers or pairs hiking together. There were kids in strollers, backpacks and toddlers trying to navigate up a sand dune. There were families of 7 or more with dogs in tow strolling by. Maybe this was because the visitor center and fort were closed, or maybe they were all suffering from the same cabin fever we’ve all had, but it was still terrific to see so many people taking in the nature trail together.

Birds

Fort Macon boasts over 300 types of birds. Having the marsh and estuary on one side and the ocean on the other creates a large diversity of birds. Just on this one morning we saw egrets, ibis, seagulls, pelicans, sand pipers and hawks. I have been trying to improve my photography skills and one particular set of birds was flying overhead close to the end of our hike. When I looked it up later, it was the elusive night hawk. It was amazing to watch these stunning birds swoop and dive high in the air. There is a designated bird nesting area that is closed to the public right along the beach to encourage the migration and nesting of birds from April until September.

Flora

The trail itself is a loop. We typically start on the marsh, sound side of the trail which covers about 1.5 miles through dense thickets of wax myrtle, eastern redcedar, yaupon and live oak. There are boardwalks over the mud and marsh where miles of estuary and smooth cordgrass blankets as far as the eye can see. This is in stark contrast to the last mile and a half of the loop which is parallel to the Atlantic Ocean and is tucked into sand dunes and thickets of cedars. The highest parts of the trail have scenic overlooks of the entire coast down to the eastern tip of Bogue Banks. There are miles of sand dunes and sea oats and shoreline.

I’ve always had wanderlust and, perhaps, what I have missed most during this pandemic, besides seeing my family, is getting out and experiencing the wonder and joy of the unexpected on the trail. It’s never the same experience and I know I will never take it for granted again. What do you love about getting out on a trail?

6 Ways to Boost Your Immune System

I flew to San Francisco the first week of March right as the first cases of COVID-19 were cropping up on the west coast. I hesitated before I flew out. A friend from work recommended I not go. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m a sober, non-smoking, vegan. I really think that my risk of having a poor outcome even if I am exposed, is pretty low.” I felt that my immune system was supercharged; there were many changes I made to my lifestyle to feel that way. I also realize that unless you watch videos by Dr. Greger on nutritionfacts.org or interviews with Dr. Barnard, you aren’t likely to know about some of the science behind boosting your immune system and how increasing your plant intake can improve your health.

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It’s ironic that what has made me feel like a bit of an outcast over the last two years may be my superpower. I’ve ducked out of networking events that had an open bar and ice sculptures laden with crab legs and shrimp. I’ve turned down invitations to barbecues with whole hogs and Miller Lite on tap. Four years ago, I’d have been the first to the bar and had my plate overflowing with succulent roast pig. I admit I smirk a bit when people lament on Zoom or Facebook that they will be drunks by the time we get back to “Normal”. I wonder if it’s a veiled cry for help as we all cope from the stress of cabin fever, strained relationships or isolation.

Here are 6 ways to boost your immune system:

Stop smoking.  I’ve quit smoking several times in my life and I know that it’s incredibly difficult. At this point, I’m close to twenty years without a cigarette and I remember the turning point well. My five-year-old son came out to the front porch where I had my evening smoke to say, “I can’t wait to grow up and smoke just like you.” Yes, to this day, I believe this was orchestrated by family members, but regardless, I quit within a week. For good. As Dr. Michael Ford, an internist, wrote: “COVID-19 is a novel respiratory disease that can damage the lining of the air sacs in the lungs. In severe cases, COVID-19 affects breathing, and patients may even need ventilator support. And those with lung disease are more vulnerable. If you’re a smoker and need a reason to quit, let this pandemic be your reason.” Quitting smoking is the number one thing you can do to boost your immune system as a modifiable risk.

Be Sober Curious.  I love this new phrase on embracing sobriety. I spent many years trying to modify my drinking to no avail. If you’re not willing to drop it completely, try at least reducing the quantity. As written by John Murphy in MDLinx, “Adding stress isn’t the only strike against drinking alcohol during this infectious pandemic. Alcohol use, especially heavy use, also weakens the immune system, which may reduce the body’s ability to cope with infectious diseases and potentially lead to a greater susceptibility to pneumonia (a severe complication of COVID-19).” In home-bound schedule less days, it can be easy to start moving your alcohol consumption to an earlier and earlier start time. Think about alternatives like seltzer and lime or mocktails by Seedlip. Knowing that you are boosting your immune system with each additional hour of sobriety bolsters your health and may motivate you to leave alcohol behind.

Sleep more.  My boyfriend Roy is a sleeping champ. I think he gets 9-10 hours of sleep a night. I get closer to 7 hours of sleep (which is good for me) but it’s made a difference in my ability to cope and, I believe, it’s improved my health. “Sleep is when the magic happens; it’s when the whole system of the body is revitalized, Dr. Ford says. Scientists are still discovering all the ways sleep improves our health, but the REM (rapid-eye movement) cycle of sleep is particularly important. For instance, people with sleep apnea — a disorder in which an individual awakens right before entering the REM cycle of sleep — have higher rates of memory problems, mood disorders, heart disease, and possibly cancer.” Getting enough sleep can boost your immune system.

Reduce stress.  That’s a tall order in the middle of a pandemic. I find that meditating every day helps center me; connecting with friends and family helps ease the isolation. “Cortisol, the stress hormone, reduces the activity of the immune system. Stress can also impact our sleep. When you’re anxious and you’re turning things over in your mind and can’t stop thinking about them, your sleep will be negatively affected by that,” says Dr. Ford. Having a coach is another way to reflect on your anxiety and concerns and reduce that stress. Think of ways to reduce your stress to bolster your immune system

Plant-based. My reflections around feeling like an outcast for being a vegan are not an illusion. Matt Ball of One Step for Animals wrote that “The only group viewed more negatively than vegans were drug addicts.” So you might end up feeling like an outcast, but the upside is your health can improve. Meat and dairy add to inflammation. As Dr. Greger wrote: “Foods that may be especially helpful include apples, tea, cocoa, gluten, kale, and Ceylon cinnamon. Chronic diseases are associated with inflammation and include heart disease, cancer, obesity, and arthritis may be prevented or even possibly reversed by a plant-based diet, whereas chicken and eggs may play a pro-inflammatory role.” I have been able to get off all my medications and avoid statins by embracing a plant-based diet. Don’t feel like you have to take all meat and dairy out of your diet. Start with meatless Mondays or just having it on weekends. I think you’ll find that your tastes will change.

Get outside.  I think this is twofold. Get out in nature and get some movement. “We see that people who are aerobically fit tend to get sick less often than people who don’t exercise regularly,” Dr. Ford says. I know there are some stay at home orders that limit getting outside but at least get some movement indoors. I’m able to kayak, bike and walk where I am and I can tell you that I feel 100% better when I get outside and get active. Even if it’s a 5-minute walk, it’s going to help your immunity.

This is a long list and can be overwhelming in such anxious times. Try just one thing. Smoke one less cigarette today, take a 5-minute walk outside, try a plant-based evening meal or try a 5-minute meditation. It’s all good for you. Your body is a temple. It needs to be honored and can be rebuilt one brick at a time. What do you want to do to boost your immune system?

5 Tips on Motivation While Working from Home

I was able to hear a terrific webinar from Dan Pink last week in which he applied the work from his books, Drive and When. As I suffer through the borderless days of working from home, I found his insights informative and useful. I think it’s important to note that Dan has been working from home for over 9 years and, although it’s the new normal for me, this is old hat for him. His office is in his garage and he is clear that when he enters his “office”, he is there to work.

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It’s comforting to realize that there are thousands of authors, speakers and consultants out there who have been doing this for years. There are best practices we can all take away from their experience to inform our own, as we use the end of our dining room table or our laps on the sofa to be industrious.

 

Here are some of the tips on motivation while WFH:

 

  1. Show up at the same time.  It is so easy to hit snooze, roll over and give it another 10 minutes. After all, you don’t need to deal with the commute or press your blouse. Why not luxuriate in the extra 10, 20, 60 minutes of found time? Dan brings up a good point that the decision of when to get up, to get dressed, to show up for work are adding to your decision fatigue. It slowly starts to exhaust you as you make each decision like, “Well, if I sleep in 15 minutes, I can take a shower by 7 AM or I can save another 15 minutes by not taking a shower and sleep in another 30 minutes and maybe skip breakfast and I can exercise at the end of the day and save another 30 minutes…” Pretty soon, you are running to make that 10 AM standing meeting and wondering why you are exhausted. If you set a time to get up, keep it. Save yourself the decision fatigue and energy of negotiating with yourself all morning as you roll around in bed. Set your wake-up time and your start time for work and make sure to keep it.
  2. Most Important Task.  Dan calls this MIT. He suggests writing it down. What is the most important task you have to do today? Memorialize it by writing it down on paper. I can see why this eliminates some decision fatigue, as it makes clear what the most important task is and keeps you from falling into the trap of distractions. Today, my MIT is writing this post. So far, I have avoided starting the dishes or watching an overdue webinar. I’m clear on my goal of finishing this post. It helps keep me focused on my goal. This reminds me of the book by Brian Tracy called Eat That Frog. Its title serves as a great analogy that you need to bite off and address the biggest, gnarliest task of the day first thing in the morning. MIT or frog, write it down and get to work. When working from home, it’s easy to slide into a thousand tasks; from doing laundry to walking the dog to scrolling social media to signing up for a new online photography class, instead of addressing the most important task.
  3. Pomodoro Technique.  Dan espoused this technique developed by Francesco Cirillo and who knew it would be so useful in the era of COVID-19. As Dan described it, set a time for 25 minutes, work until the bell rings and then take a 5-minute break. As I look back over the last two months, I realize that I was getting overwhelmed when I ran a gauntlet of meetings from 7:45 AM until 9:15 AM without a break. I needed to rest my brain. To use the bathroom. To get a glass of water. To disconnect for just a moment. In the first few weeks of WFH, I felt depleted by 10 AM. Now I understand why, just because I could run the meeting gauntlet, doesn’t mean I should. I conducted an online facilitation yesterday and I made sure we took several breaks to let folks recharge. It’s amazing what a 5-minute disconnection break can do for you. Try the Pomodoro Technique.
  4. Find your purpose.  It is nice to have a life’s purpose. But it’s especially imperative when taking on a new project or writing a blog piece to understand the “why” behind your work. As Dan suggested, maybe you get a picture of the person you are intending to help. I am imagining a friend of mine who is overwhelmed by trying to home school and work full-time remotely. I imagine them reading this post and how it might help them. As Dan said, it’s not about the how, but the why. I can get wrapped up in the minutiae along the way of getting something done, instead of the overarching reason for writing. I want you, my reader, to have a clear takeaway that will help you feel less overwhelmed and motivated to see your tasks through. Whatever that task may be, whether it’s 8th grade algebra, month-end reporting, or  feeling accomplished at the end of the work day from home, find your purpose for taking on the project.
  5. Self-compassion.  I know way too many women who are perfectionists and recently read women are picking up more of the slack. This whole WFH thing is driving them crazy. They are upset because they missed the deadline for completing their budget, their kid didn’t get an “A” on their science project, they’ve worn the same yoga pants all week, they desperately need a haircut or they’ve ordered take-out for 7 out of 7 dinners this week.  It is completely okay to not be okay. The biggest lesson for me over the last two months is to have self-compassion. I like when Dan said: “Treat yourself as you would a friend.” I think of all the self-criticism I can have about the extra weight I’ve gained or the workout I skipped yesterday. We are all just trying to get through this the best we can. Be compassionate with yourself, above all.

There is a giant recalibration taking place for me. It’s the realization that I need to find my new operating system to keep motivated and thrive. In the first few weeks of this pandemic, I just wanted to survive. Now I realize I need to figure out how to thrive. Instead of using popsicle sticks and duct tape to get through, I need to figure out the new operating system that will make me feel empowered to compassionately move forward. What are you doing to stay motivated WFH?

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

There. Be with that for a moment. I read that line in an insightful post from Marita Fridjhon, the CEO and Co-Founder of CRR Global. She wrote an eloquent piece called “The Case for Taking Space: A Bigger Picture Approach.” I am writing this article in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve found myself on auto-pilot when friends and co-workers ask, “How are you?” and I, on auto-response, say: “Good. And you?” No. Actually, I’m not good. I’m not okay. I’m getting by. I’m coping. I’m trying to find some semblance of control. I so appreciate when there is permission to not be okay, whether I give that permission to myself or it’s offered by someone else.

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Here are some thoughts on being not okay:

Don’t rush.  Marita writes: “Let’s not rush through to the ‘everything is okay’ stage. Otherwise, the steam is going to continue to build and reactivity is going to direct our choices. Instead, we could take some time to be with this. To process what we’re going through and to grieve what is lost.” This resonates for me. I want to push through to get on to the next step. I don’t want to scrap a trip to visit my mother in her new home on the west coast. I want to wave a magic wand and make this all go away so I can get on an airplane (again) and just go. My absolute fatal flaw is impatience (inherited, ironically, from my mother). I want to skip all the chapters and get to the end of the book and see how this all ends. This is like pushing a rope, it’s frustrating and gets me nowhere closer. Don’t rush.

Feel the feelsThis is not the time for a stiff upper lip. I think of Marita’s analogy of continuing to build up steam. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of steam billowing out of people. The steam shows up as anger, frustration, tears, shutting down and stonewalling. Co-workers crying at work (virtually), managers popping off in knee jerk reactions, and directors passive aggressively ignoring urgent requests. Some of us are releasing the pressure while the rest try to keep it bottled up. Let the pressure go. It doesn’t need to be public but don’t be surprised if it is. I was taking a walk two days ago listening to a podcast and suddenly, there were tears streaming down my face. Marita wrote, “Take the pressure off yourself to be super positive and cheery so that you don’t end up feeling stressed about being stressed or sad about being sad. These emotions are understandable and taking space to honor them will help you to eventually shift them into something else.” Let go of the pressure and feel the feels.

You have permission to just process.  You have a hall pass on your exercise regime, starting your book, clearing out your closets, learning guitar, planting a garden, reading War and Peace, and painting. It’s fine if you do and it’s fine if you don’t. Take time to reflect on this experience and see what is present for you. It’s great to invite others to process as well. Marita suggests asking: “What’s been the most challenging thing for you about working from home?” I’ve tried this out and it can have humorous results from, “I’ll be a big fat drunk by the end of this” to “I had no idea my dog was so neurotic” to interesting insights like, “I like these four walls, I just want four different walls.” I need to give myself permission to be lazy. To process. To let go of expectations and be safe.

A step back.  Marita posited, “Before we innovate and create, we need to take space. If we create space to process reactivity, we can choose to respond differently. Instead of letting fear and worry drive the show, we can step in with the response pattern that will best serve us, and others, in the situation.” For me, this is about slowing down and letting things be. It’s allowing what will happen unfold and to be an observer. I let go of my inclination to be the fixer and to have the broom out in front of the mess before it happens. Taking the space to be curious instead of consumed by anxiety and dread. I wonder what career my daughter will pivot too.  I’m curious if my son will be able to compete in Korea in October. I’m curious if world travel will be as accessible going forward and how will my life change if does. It’s about stepping back and responding with an open mind and heart.

Annie Grace wrote an interesting quote, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay, We’re All Not Okay.” There is that comparative suffering where we feel guilt for not being in worse shape. Not exactly survivor’s remorse but close. It’s okay for me to suffer even as there are those who are suffering as well. Process this time in our lives and try not to skim through as fast as possible. Be present. Be safe. Be here right now.

How to Stop Comparative Suffering

Brene Brown has a new podcast called Unlocking Us, which is phenomenal and very timely as the COVID-19 pandemic creeps across the globe. The title of the podcast I listened to was: Brene on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth and Settling the Ball. Comparative suffering is a new concept to me, although I have been in its clutches for weeks! I’ll feel pouty because I’m suffering from cabin fever on my third week of house arrest…err, stay-at-home order. But then there are the 450 employees my dear friend just had to lay off. How can I possibly have it as tough as she? And what about the employee whose stepfather is in the ICU suffering from the virus in a medically-induced coma? Shame on me for even whining about being cooped up. What Brene made clear was that we are all suffering and that comparing our suffering helps no one. In fact, it hurts us.

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There is a new vernacular for this comparative suffering: The Hardship Olympics.  I love this quote from Erica Layne: “So what if we all agreed not to evaluate, dissect, tally, and rank each other’s pain right now? What if we opt out of the Hardship Olympics and make a pact to lead with compassion instead?” What do you say we opt out and embrace compassion?

Here are some suggestions on stopping comparative suffering:

Empathy is not a finite resource.  Empathy is standing in someone else’s shoes and understanding how they feel. This ability is infinite. So, if I can empathize with my friend’s big layoff, I can also empathize with my daughter’s unemployment claim taking more than three weeks; and I can empathize with my co-worker’s fear over her stepfather’s condition. One does not get negated by the other. I think of the practice of Tonglen and how it’s possible to take on each other’s pain and suffering of each situation regardless of size. I can empathize with all of New York City, Italy or the continent of Asia. There are no limits to empathy. There’s no need to dole it out by severity or size. Practice empathy without limits.

Comparison is the thief of joy.  Theodore Roosevelt famously said this. There are so many inherit issues with comparison. First, you rarely if ever know all the facts. Second, it steals valuable time that you could spend elsewhere. Third, there is no end to it…ever. So, if my co-worker vents about working from home while home schooling her three kids, I need to just listen and be present. It’s not the time to bring up your other co-worker with three toddlers or your friend who just lost his six-figure job. Comparing someone’s suffering to someone else’s just makes them feel guilty. I am completely guilty of this and I’m trying hard not to engage in one-upmanship in the suffering department.

Listen to understand.  Stephen Covey posited this many years ago. If your coworker is venting about working until midnight so he can help his son get his schoolwork done, actively listen to him vent. Ask clarifying questions like: “How many times this week did you work until midnight?”, “What sort of support is available right now?” or “What other options have you thought about?” This is not the time to shame them. No need to bring up how many people died in Spain today or how many kids your sister is homeschooling while working for a bank. Just be present and listen. It’s our deepest need to listen and be understood by someone. It’s the greatest gift you can give, and you can even do it remotely, over the phone, video conferencing, or a safe 6-feet apart. Give the gift of listening.

Connection.  Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Connection during social distancing and virtual work is an enormous hurdle right now. I’ve been working on this for the last two weeks. I’ve tried and failed to FaceTime with my eighty-five-year-old mother, but we were able to connect “old school” on the phone. I finally was able to FaceTime with my children yesterday and it was terrific to see their faces and listen to them joke with each other. I rarely talk to either of my brothers, but they have both called me in the last two weeks. My boyfriend Roy and I drove to New Bern to sit on his mother’s deck at a safe distance from his sister, brother-in-law and mother. It’s reassuring to see folks. To have evidence that they are safe and sound. To connect with a joke, compare store lines and mask usage at your local grocery, or give Netflix recommendations. Think about ways to connect.

It’s also important to forgive yourself. None of this is normal for any of us. We were used to handshakes, hugging and sitting on the same couch as our relatives. This is just another challenge we need to take on. It’s fine if you aren’t perfect at this and can take just one small step for now. Maybe it’s reaching out to one co-worker, friend or neighbor with an email of appreciation. What step can you take?