4 Fixes for Winter Pandemic Overwhelm

As I write this, it is February of 2021, a year into the pandemic. I thought this whole thing would have blown over by now. I thought we would be back in the communal workplace, making business travel plans and I’d be free to use my passport. Nope. In the last week or so, I’ve noticed articles about how this pandemic could last for upwards of 5 years. What?

My dog is great company and a terrific, if not needy, co-worker but I want to get back to the office. I want to run into random co-workers walking down the hall or by the water cooler. I want to be able to reach out to that co-worker who lost their son last year and find out how they are coping. I want to see the latest pictures of several coworkers’ grandchildren. I want to be planning the annual field day events. Nope. It is not going to happen. Not anytime soon. Perhaps never.

By now, like me, you have probably adapted to the “new normal”. You have your home workspace figured out, you have your Zoom background dialed in, you have your wardrobe culled down to Zoom tops, yoga pants, slippers, and earrings you can wear under a headset. Now in the winter of our discontent, we need to figure out ways to punctuate the work day so that we are not working ten-hour days without a break. We can’t cheat and do back-to-back Zoom calls. I have some ideas on how to close the stress loop even if you can’t get outside.

Here are 4 fixes for winter pandemic overwhelm:

  1. Move.  As in, move your body. Let’s assume you live in Minnesota and it’s minus 20 degrees outside. There is snow everywhere and ice on the sidewalks. Figure out a way to move inside. Put your phone on a charger in a separate room (this will also stop you from blindly screen scrolling). Put dishes or clothes or groceries away, one item at a time.  Walk to the farthest bathroom when you need to wash your hands. Watch a yoga YouTube video (like this one from my yoga expert friend Susannah), dance to my boyfriend Roy’s favorite dance music, “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells, stretch, lift weights or do pushups. As written by Michelle Bihary on Harvard Business Review, “If space is a big constraint, try standing at your desk to improve your metabolic health. Alan Hedge, Professor of Ergonomics at Cornell University, recommends using a 20-8-2 breakdown to guide you: 20 minutes of sitting, 8 minutes of standing, and 2 minutes of moving for every 30 minutes at work.” In order to move, you will likely need to revamp your schedule to give at least ten-minute breaks between meetings.
  2. Mindfulness.  Mindfulness does not require being a monk in a monastery. It does not mean you empty your head of all thought. It is really about just being in the moment and paying attention to your body (instead of your head…i.e. thoughts).  I have been trying out three apps recently: Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer. A trend in all of their meditations, and sleep stories (yes, they have sleep stories you can drift to sleep on); the trend is inhaling for 4 beats, holding for 4 beats and exhaling for 6 beats. If you can do this for 5 cycles, you will be less stressed and overwhelmed. It closes the stress loop. As Bihary wrote, “A simple practice is to take five deep breaths, five times per day. When you concentrate on breathing deeply (as we do in yoga), you’re disengaging yourself from distractions, lowering your heart rate, ingesting more oxygen into the lowest part of your lungs, and stabilizing your blood pressure — in turn, lowering your stress level.” Being mindful can be as simple as taking a break to intentionally breath deep.
  3. Grateful.  Being grateful reduces stress. Bihary espoused, “Gratitude practices and expressing appreciation have long-lasting positive effects on the wiring of our brains. Research shows that gratitude takes our attention away from toxic emotions by helping us focus on more comforting ones. People who consciously count their blessings tend to be less depressed. When we feel grateful, it increases our levels of dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel happy and enhancing our moods.” My gratitude journal has morphed over the years from an evening to a morning event, from three things to ten things; and now to my current habit of writing five things I’m grateful for (almost always people or my dog, Baci) and one thing I’m grateful I actually physically did like “drove safely, hiked or maintained my sobriety.” Figure out what suits you and give it a try.
  4. Connection. There are those out there who have way too much connection with their spouse, roommate or homeschooling children. By far I have seen that the folks who seem to have suffered the most with working from home are those that live alone. I live and work alone from home for most of the week and am fortunate to spend the weekends with my boyfriend. Finding ways to connect can be tricky depending on the current local requirements. Let technology be your friend. I am super lucky that my daughter Natalie has started calling me weekly via FaceTime. It makes a huge difference to see as well as hear her. My family has orchestrated a few family Zoom calls that have been a huge bright spot as well. In the book Burnout, connection is one of the many cures for closing the stress cycle although the book was written pre-pandemic. Figure out ways to connect with coworkers and family on a more casual basis like virtual trivia nights or family feud. Make time to connect with others on things besides production reports and customer complaints. 

Bihary had another stress booster that I haven’t tried out yet but will throw out as another suggestion: blowing bubbles. I love blowing bubbles but since I don’t have a grade school kid in my house, I haven’t stopped at a store to pick a bottle up. I’m putting it on my shopping list though! If there is something that incorporates deep breathing and being in the present moment it is the magic, fun and fragility of blowing bubbles. I hope you try a few of these fixes for the winter doldrums. If there is any way to get outside for even fifteen minutes, that is super effective too. What is your favorite winter doldrums fix?

What Holds Women Back

I have been coaching for over ten years. I’ve coached women and I’ve coached men. The things that my female coaching clients are struggling with are completely different than those of my male coaching clients. After reading How Women Rise and Burnout, I’m starting to realize that there is a pattern to the obstacles that many women face. 

Here are my thoughts on what holds many women back:

Perfection

Humans are not perfect but it doesn’t mean we don’t try, sometimes at great lengths, to be perfect. As written by the Nagoskis in Burnout, “You have the goal of ‘perfection’ which is an impossible goal, as you start the project or the meal or the outfit or the day, and then something falls short of ‘perfect’, the whole thing is ruined. And sometimes if your goal is ‘perfect’, some part of you already knows it’s an impossible goal, so you think about your project, or meal, or outfit or day, knowing you’re never going to achieve your goal; so you feel hopeless before you’ve even begun.” So many of my clients are setting expectations that are completely unachievable. Perhaps it’s the hurt of negative feedback that makes us set our expectations to unachievable heights. Or we remember our parents admonishing us for falling short on our third-grade math test and promise to do better, or it’s airbrushed Good Housekeeping photos that create an unattainable goal of the perfect dish or bedroom suite. Let in the wabi-sabi and perhaps just do the “trying your best” approach. As written in How Women Rise under Habit 7: The Perfection Trap, “Perfectionists usually struggle with delegation. If you have super-exacting standards, it stands to reason that you would have difficulty letting others do their jobs. And monitoring people’s efforts is time-consuming.” Accept not being perfect.

Humility

Most of my clients who are women sit around waiting around for others to notice their accomplishments and rarely, if ever, claim them themselves. It seems so utterly unfeminine to boast about how great you are. In How Women Rise this falls under Habit 1: Reluctance to Claim Your Achievements and Habit 2: Expecting Others to Notice and Reward. Women, including myself, typically don’t want to be seen as the braggart down the hall who is always claiming their victories, no matter how small. And we can sit around and wait for someone to come along and suddenly realize all the achievements we’ve had and expect someone else to notice and reward it. I would consider this all humility and humility is not good marketing. I have coached many women who are terrified that they are really imposters and will be “found out” and terminated. These are women who have had tremendous success in their careers and are surprised when their boss call’s them a “rock star” or puts them up for promotion. The secret is to acknowledge and own your achievements and, please, please, please, do not contradict if someone acknowledges your achievement.

Pleasers

In the book Burnout, this is called Human Giver Syndrome. This is partially defined as, “Believing you have a moral obligation – that you owe it to the world – to be happy, calm, pretty, generous, and attentive to the needs of others. Givers may spend years attending to the needs of others, while dismissing their own stress generated in response to witnessing those needs. The result is uncountable incomplete stress response cycles accumulating in our bodies. This accumulation leads to ‘compassion fatigue’”. In How Women Rise, it’s Habit 8: The Disease to Please, “If you’re a chronic pleaser, chances are you know it. And you are probably aware of how it holds you back. Maybe you routinely say yes to task and jobs that you know will eat up your time but bring you little benefit.” I have countless clients who have a very difficult time saying no and mounting overwhelm from the accumulated stress. If you want ideas on how to complete the stress cycle, read this. Find ways to say no and to make space to close your stress cycle. Pleasing others long-term will likely hold you back and exhaust you.

Expert

In How Women Rise, Habit 3: Overvaluing Expertise, “Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have. But if your goal is to move to a higher level, your expertise is probably not going to get you there. In fact, mastery of your current role often serves as a useful strategy for keeping yourself in your current role.” In my career, I can think of countless men that were promoted who were clueless on the details of the jobs that reported to them. A woman isn’t going to even apply for a job that she doesn’t feel that she knows at least 80% of. A man? He’ll apply if he’s got 20% of the skills. There is no problem in being an expert at what you do especially if you find the job fulfilling and want to stay where you are. If you want to move up? You’ll have to let go of some of the details and accept that delegation will need to be part of your success. If you want to rise, let go of being the expert.

I think back to when my son was making a cake over a decade ago. The cake batter was all wrong. I wanted to take over. He demanded, “Let me fail.” It has many of these parts wrapped up in that statement. I wanted to be the cake expert, I wanted to please him by taking over and I wanted it to be perfect. I had to let go and walk into another room and let the mistake unfold or not. It went against every instinct in my body. Perhaps I am hardwired this way as a woman but I am trying my best to rise and move beyond.

Crossing the Mile-High Swinging Bridge

In January of 2021, my boyfriend Roy and I traveled to Boone, NC. We’ve been taking short road trips mostly in North Carolina to avoid flying and to steer clear of sudden changes in travel restrictions imposed by other states. We stay in hotels that have kitchenettes so that we don’t have to depend on local restaurants to have decent vegan food. After several trips to the coast this fall and winter, we decided to head to the mountains. I had ulterior motives in selecting Boone: I knew I had some unfinished business on top of Grandfather Mountain, crossing the Mile-High Swinging Bridge.

My first trip to Grandfather Mountain was in 2011. My parents, my son Benson, and my brother Dave decided to travel up the mountain while on vacation visiting my Uncle Jim and Aunt Diana in Beech Mountain. We drove up the winding road to one of the four peaks that make up Grandfather Mountain, Linville Peak (5,295 ft). We took the stairs and came upon the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, America’s highest suspension footbridge. It’s a 228-foot suspension bridge that spans an 80-foot chasm at more than one mile in elevation. It was windy that day. It was pretty warm to be on a mountain top but there were sixty or so folks milling around crossing the bridge to the higher pinnacle on the other side. Benson and Dave crossed immediately. I froze. I stood there and watched my 17-year-old son clambering on the rocks on the far-off pinnacle. I was overcome by fear. All I wanted was for my son to come back across that bridge and to be next to me. There was no way I was crossing that bridge and all I wanted to do was to go down that mountain before someone I loved was hurt. Unfinished business. 

The Mile-High Swinging Bridge

My experience crossing Mile-High Swinging Bridge:

Windy

I looked at my weather app that morning and it was showing negligible wind in Boone. The weather called for partly cloudy skies, calm and highs in the 50’s. No rain, no snow. This was the day to attempt my crossing over that bridge. Of course, regardless of what the weather is at the base of a mountain, it has little to do with what is on top of the mountain. I think I was deluding myself that it would be calm and not windy on top of the mountain. When Roy and I drove to the top, the wind was gusting upwards of 50 miles per hour. I was wavering. In my mind, my next trip to this infamous bridge was going to be on a calm day. As with most mountain tops, wind velocity increases with altitude. I had not put that into my equation. This was my chance, gusts or no gusts, Roy and I marched up the stone steps to the bridge. 

Support

I wasn’t setting foot on that bridge without Roy to hold onto. When we arrived at the bridgehead, there were five or so folks milling around on the other side and the bridge was empty. There is a large warning sign that says that no more than 40 folks can be on the bridge at one time. I knew there was no turning back now. The bridge was empty, my support was by my side and I was going to cross, gusty winds or no. I knew we could go at my pace. There would be no one holding us up or bearing down from behind. The bridge is about six feet wide and 228 feet long, so not having anyone else on the bridge was optimal. I could hold onto Roy with one arm and the other on the railing. I felt supported. I kept thinking of the thousands of folks that had crossed that bridge and it was still standing. Roy went at my pace as we crossed the span. The bridge itself would sway and the wind created a type of music through the metal planks. I was surprised by how loud it was but somehow it distracted me from my fear. I remember thinking that the midpoint was clearly marked on the bridge and what would be so bad about just turning around and heading back? At least I set foot on the bridge, right? I kept going, marching along to the intended destiny of the pinnacle at the other end of the bridge. We made it.

One Way Back

When we arrived at the end of the crossing, Roy was pointing out how structurally sound the bridge was. I have no idea if he was trying to allay my fears or if he really thought it looked exceptionally sound. He was pointing out the infrastructure as we stood on the paved landing. I knew I had no intentions of scrambling on rocks, I had enough of heights at that moment. Why test fate? There was a young woman with a small baby who was waiting for her husband to come back down from the rock scramble. I could tell she was as frightened as I was. I thought for a moment as I stared back across the span that perhaps there was a trail that I could take down from this precipice. No way. It was cold, windy and I didn’t have any gear even if there was a trail down from that spot. The only way out was back through. I wanted to immediately traverse back. But of course, there was a family making their way across the bridge with a toddler leading the charge. Yes, a toddler. Did I mention I am super impatient? Once the group with the walking toddler was across, I looked at Roy and said, “Let’s go first and get across.” We made our way back with a large family behind us. I’m pretty sure there were less than forty of us on that bridge, but I for one was not going to stop to count!

It’s exhilarating to step into fear. Crossing the Mile-High Swinging Bridge has been on my bucket list for ten years. Sometimes the wait seems to make it inevitable. I knew that if I ever had the opportunity to be standing at that bridgehead again, I could not let the chance to cross slip away. I remember Roy asking when we first got to the parking lot, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I wasn’t sure, I was resolute. When there was a second chance to conquer my fear, I had to take it. I’m proud of myself for taking on the fear and, even as I hyperventilated on the crossing while the deafening noise of the wind whistled through the planks, I stared fear in the face and walked through. It was life affirming.

Pandemic Indulgences for a Sober Vegan

The things that I covet have changed in the last year during this pandemic. I’ve been sober for over 3 years and 95% vegan (cheese is my kryptonite) for over 2 years. A succulent duck breast with an aged Cabernet or Cambozola cheese with prosciutto and figs and a buttery Chardonnay are a distant memory. What does a chef do in isolation with her 13-year-old dog? Well, for one, I keep cooking. I have found new ways to indulge my cravings for good food and interesting beverages. New ways to scratch my hedonist itch.

Here are my new indulgences to get me through the pandemic:

Nespresso

I’ve had a Nespresso machine since staying at a boutique hotel in Chicago that had a Nespresso machine in the hotel room. It’s a coffee and espresso maker that brews one cup at a time with centrifuge technology. The capsules come in degrees of roasting darkness and region-specific roasts like Cuban, Colombian or Ethiopian. I have specific roasts I like: Stormio and Half-Caffeinated. I like that the coffee is made by the cup so I don’t end up wasting a pot of coffee on little old me and I like that I can brew a decaf at 4 in the afternoon. Perhaps it’s the sense that my apartment is a luxury hotel and instead of heading to the bar for a martini or the outdoor café for an espresso, I enjoy my own little café at home on my couch, no mask required.

Dam Good English Muffins

This is a recent revelation. My dear college friend, Susannah sent me a gift box from this English muffin maker for Christmas. Now I’m hooked. They are preservative free, vegan, dense and chewy. My favorite is the multi-grain muffin. Toasted with avocado oil butter and a cup of tea and I’m in luxury heaven.

Dandelion Chocolate

I stumbled on this place in the Ferry Building in San Francisco where Dandelion Chocolate has a small store front which, pre pandemic, had bits of chocolate to taste of their country specific small-batch, bean to bar craft chocolate. It reminds me of wine tasting and each chocolate has its own unique character and flavor nuances. In addition, they have the absolutely best Horchata (a Mexican rice drink) I have ever had. It’s made with cocoa nibs, hazelnut, almonds and rice. To die for. In the meantime, I stay close to home with my single-origin chocolate bars from Tumaco, Colombia and Wampu, Honduras.

Rancho Gordo

I’ve been a CBS Sunday Morning fan for over 30 years. About 4 months ago, they interviewed the owner of Rancho Gordo. I was mesmerized because Rancho Gordo sells heirloom beans. If you are a vegan, you are definitely eating beans and Rancho Gordo sells beans I have never even heard of.  Here are some of the varieties they are currently selling on their website, Alubia Blanca Bean, Desi Chana, Mayocoba Bean, Santa Pinquito Bean and Hidatsa Red Bean. Never heard of them? Yeah, neither had I. I searched the website and they had several recipes for each bean they sold and many were vegetarian or easily made into vegetarian. So far, I’ve made four different recipes and the beans are amazing. Each with their own character. We had large white kidney beans in a dish the other night that tasted like gnocchi. Not only are the beans great but it’s encouraged me to think outside the box on taste profiles. I made a recipe of cauliflower, capers and flageolet beans last week. It brings adventure to my vegan palate.

Teavana Tea

I try and stick to herbal or decaf teas and I have to admit I first discovered Teavana at Starbucks. First of all, they have really cool tea bags that look like a completely translucent pyramid. The Peach Tranquility is a great herbal alternative to a dark roast coffee or latte. When I found out that the grocery store sold Teavana, I started trying other flavors like Citrus Lavender and Mandarin Mimosa. Since giving up alcohol, I try to be careful not to go crazy on caffeine and Teavana herbal tea is a must have alternative.

Honey

I realize that a classic Vegan would not eat honey but this is one of the luxuries I still imbibe in. There is the famous Manuka honey that is made in Australia or New Zealand and has antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. I have added it to tea and hope to benefit from its properties. I recently purchased some honey from Asheville, NC that is incredible drizzled on the Dam Good English Muffins, hot out of the toaster. I also use it in a flax meal energy ball recipe instead of maple syrup.  It’s not cheap but heck I’m not going to drink the whole thing at once anyway.

I’ve been reading the Sober Lush and what I love about the book is that it invites you to be a hedonist without alcohol. I’ve had to adopt some of the ideas to my vegan constraints but being a sober vegan can frequently feel like deprivation. The book has enlightened me that there are things that I can still indulge in regardless of being tied down to home. It’s the little (sometimes expensive) things that brighten my day and bring me joy in uncertain, confusing times. How do you brighten your day?

4 Gifts of Sobriety

I walked away from Chardonnay and gin on July 8th, 2017. I was never a “low-bottom” drunk. Never convicted of a DUI. Never slept in a gutter. Never lost my job or home to excessive consumption. Never drank at work. I just had a habit of having a drink (or three) every evening. After years of cutting myself deals like only drink after 7 PM, or only on the weekend, or have a glass of water between each drink, or only two glasses; I found that I could not moderate. I always let myself down. It’s like the Lay’s Potato Chip ad from many years ago, “Bet you can’t eat just one!” All my negotiations with myself ended in disappointment. I could not, would not, moderate. 

I was two months out from my ex leaving me with a home ravaged by a hurricane. I was trying desperately to find something to hang onto. Something to ground me. I found a new meditation practice called the “Happiness Program” from the Art of Living; the instructor suggested that we abstain from alcohol over the three-day weekend. I didn’t. I couldn’t. A friend had invited me to a Tai Chi class at 7 PM at night. I could not possibly attend anything at 7 PM at night without having a glass of Chardonnay. I realized, “Cath, if you are pregaming for Tai Chi, you’ve got a problem.” Then another close friend texted me a book suggestion shortly after we had celebrated my birthday, The 30-Day Sobriety Solution. I was taken aback. It felt like the world was conspiring to get me sober. The final “straw” was the leader of the Art of Living was going to be in Boone for a free meditation on July 9th. The event was at night and there would be no alcohol. I wanted desperately to go. On July 7th, I took my last drink, and started the book. On July 8th, I went to see Wonder Woman at the movie theater at 4 PM so that I could be in theater at the dreaded, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” hour. I’ve been sober ever since. It has not been easy but it has been worth it.

My 4 gifts of sobriety:

Present

I am fully and completely present. For good or bad, I am experiencing everything. Embarrassment, anger, sadness, loneliness, excitement, anticipation, joy, awe, connection — I feel it all. I feel the feels. It is never dulled, numbed or erased. I can remember looking forward to the numbness, the buzz, the burn of the alcohol going down my throat. What was I escaping from? The present moment. I feel the crunch of frost on the grass as I walk my dog at 5 AM, I see the glint of blue on a bird as it flies off in the forest, I hear the siren break the silence on a Saturday morning, I smell the orange of the tea as I type. It’s all the there. The gift is being able to experience it without the veil of alcohol.

Memory

I can make memories; I can create memories. Perhaps it’s part of being present, but I can remember standing on the desolate beach of Ocracoke, I can feel the wind on top of Mount Washington, I can remember magically gliding across the Everglades with people I cherish the most. Nothing lives in a haze anymore. I have always marveled at my daughter’s amazing memory. She can catalog every movie or television show we’ve (I’ve) ever seen. I suggest we watch something, and she’ll say “Mommy, we saw that five years ago.” Now I’m creating those memories and keeping them. I remember being with my dad for the last time. His hair askew, his tiny frail body lying on the narrow bed, his oxygen tube, him thanking me for my blogs. It’s all there. Fresh, real and alive. The gift is being able to recall a memory of it in vivid technicolor.

Untethered

There was a time when I had to make sure I was stocked on my drink of choice. I had to keep a minimum inventory. It’s much like when you go on a car trip. I would think about drinking a Grande Latte and where the next bathroom might be in an hour. Now I am untethered. I have no expectation about whether a restaurant serves alcohol or if my friend will stock the brand of Chardonnay that I like. There is no burden of planning ahead. There is spontaneity in the moment without the trappings of booze. It’s freedom. I am free to float through life without the need of tying myself to some substance. I am enjoying the gift of being untethered.

Savings

Sobriety has brought the gift of saving. I was nowhere close to retirement three years ago. I was fully prepared to work into my 70s. The surprise it that not only have I been saving all the money I spent on wine at home, but also on all the places I would go to “enjoy” a glass of wine. The collateral damage of wanting a glass of wine while traveling meant spending money and time at places just to imbibe. Trips five years ago were planned around some beer or wine experience. I’ve been reading a book my daughter recommended called The Sober Lush. The authors talk about indulging in raw honey like New Zealand’s Manuka honey. At $34.99 for a 8.8 oz jar, that’s outrageous. I wouldn’t even bat an eye at spending $40 for a bottle of wine at a restaurant 5 years ago. Now I indulge in simple pleasures like honey but I’m not going to drink a bottle of honey in one night. The gift of sobriety is the savings of time and money.

I was talking to a client who was trying “Dry January.” She struggled most with the hour between 4:30 and 5:30 PM. The ritual of the day wind down and the glass of wine to punctuate the day. My answer has been club soda with lime in a wine glass. It’s effervesced, sparkling and celebratory. That feels like a lifetime ago now. The tug at five o’clock is gone and replaced by the gift of being fully alive in the moment. And there are countless gifts from being sober; probably the most important of which is the preservation of my health. In the 30-day Sobriety Solution they have you take a selfie on day one and then again on day thirty. The transformation was startling. Gone are the puffy eyelids, the bloated face and inattentive stare. Beneath it all is a vibrant, grounded woman wading out of the river of alcohol to awaken to a brand-new day on dry ground — Transformed.

5 Reasons to Get Outside

It’s early January in 2021. I’ve been cooped up inside for what seems like a decade, due to the weather, working remotely and avoiding social gatherings. Every day is blurs-day. I don’t know where the weekend starts and ends and I have this horrible habit of starting work earlier and earlier — like 6 AM early. Might as well start work because it’s not like I’m going to binge Netflix at 6 AM on a Wednesday. The borderless day bleeds into weeks, months and seasons slip by unnoticed. I feel like this is my new reality.

My dog Baci and I, getting outside

I realized after reading the incredibly insightful book, Burnout, that I really need to get outside more often. I needed to actively look for ways to close my stress cycle and getting outside was the best way to reset my body and well-being. Once I read the book, it seemed like articles started showing up in my news feed that espoused the benefits of getting outside. 

5 reasons to get outside:

Forest Bathing

This is a Japanese concept. As written in Ask the Scientists, “Long before smartphones and self-driving cars, Japan deemed ‘forest bathing’ an essential part of its national health program. With forest bathing, the soaking isn’t literal. Bathing takes on a new meaning—immersing yourself in the natural environment.” So in 1982, folks in Japan realized the benefits of taking a nature bath by simply getting outside in nature. I have a few choices about where I take a walk, several are through a neighborhood of homes and two choices are in an actual forest. While I feel better after both walks, the one through the trees feels more restorative. I can’t take a forest bath on my couch — I need to get outside.

Embrace Winter

As temperatures started to drop here in Eastern North Carolina back in November, I started blowing off going for a walk with my dog. “It’s too cold. I don’t know where my gloves are. It’s so much easier to stay inside.” Then I read an article called “How to Embrace the Joys of Winter This Year” and read that Kari Leibowitz, a Stanford University interdisciplinary graduate fellow in psychology, recently spent a year in Norway’s Arctic city of Tromsø. Folks in Tromsø have really low rates of seasonal affective disorder. “Mindsets don’t just shape what we think; they also shape what we do,” Leibowitz explains. “If you have the mindset that winter is full of opportunity, then you’re more likely to look for those opportunities.” I needed to start looking for opportunities instead of dismissing the temperature outside as a hinderance. I have to say that although the trees don’t have leaves, the winter light is amazing and the temperature is invigorating. I’m embracing winter and getting outside.

Boosted Immunity

As written in Ask the Scientists in 2017, “Healthy doses of nature will help prepare your body fight. Here’s how it works. A study published in 2010 evaluated the effect of forest bathing on immune function. For a group of Japanese adults, a three-day trip to the forest increased the number of white blood cells in their blood. These levels of white blood cells stayed elevated for more than 30 days after their adventure in the woods. White blood cells are crucial to your immune system. They help your body battle germs by recognizing pathogens and harmful intruders with the help of antibodies.” I’m fortunate as I have not been sick at all during this pandemic. Most likely because my circle is small, namely my boyfriend Roy and my dog Baci. I shop and go through drive-thrus but my exposure is pretty low. Perhaps all those walks through nature are helping boost my immune system as well.

Calm the Mind

As I get into my workday, I try and set getting a walk in as a priority. I’ll start looking at my schedule and think, where can I get a walk in and do I have enough time to take a walk on a local greenway. As written in Ask the Scientists, “Spending time outside improves mood and reduces feelings of anxiety. We can focus better in nature, and our improved concentration can help us address feelings of stress and anxiety. Self-esteem can also receive a boost after time spent wandering outdoors. Peace and mental clarity are a big reason why being outside is important. Find it by adding time in nature to your mental healthcare regimen.” After spending 30 minutes outside, I am able to refocus on work and I am more content. It also sets up boundaries to my day so I’m not riding an endless wave of Zoom meetings. I punctuate my day will doses of getting outside.

Short Term Memory

As espoused in Ask the Scientists, “Nature could be the answer to remembering names, not forgetting your keys, and taking better notes in class. There is growing evidence that both short-term and working memory can be improved by time spent outside. At the University of Michigan, a simple experiment backed this theory. Two groups of students were given a memory test and then assigned to take a walk through a garden or down a city street. After their walks, the participants performed the memory test again. Those who walked through the garden improved their scores by 20 percent. No consistent improvement was observed in the participants who walked in the city.” This may be why I prefer the walk in the forest rather than the neighborhood. I can’t tell you if I’ve noticed a better short-term memory but I definitely feel more refreshed and creative after taking a walk in the woods.

I’ve really tried to make it a priority to get outside. I started it to close my stress cycle. It’s also drawing a clear line between Zoom meetings; a boundary of sorts. Now I’m focusing on taking the extra ten minutes to get out into nature. I almost always take my dog, Baci, as well. I’m getting the triple benefit of spending time with my dog, getting movement in to my life and getting outside. Give it a try and see what you think. Get outside.

Memories of My Grandfather

Otto Wenke was born on the shortest day of the year, December 21, 1897 in Olean, New York. He was one of eleven siblings and his mother died when he was a small child. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and went on to study business in Buffalo, NY. He served in the Navy. He met my grandmother, Mary Hammond, and eventually had a son, David, and daughter, Mary Ann (my mother). My grandfather, often referred to as Daddy-Ott, was an accountant for DuPont. DuPont was one of the first companies to occupy part of the Empire State Building after it opened in 1931. At one point in his career, he worked directly in New York, but eventually, my grandfather and his family landed in Wilmington, Delaware where DuPont was based. And that is where me, my brothers and my cousins all grew up together in close proximity to my grandparents.

My grandfather, Otto R. Wenke, aka Daddy-Ott

My grandmother Daddy-Mar (crazy name for a grandmother, my oldest cousin Claire is responsible) died in 1962, one year after I was born. I have no memory of her but I have a multitude of memories of my Daddy-Ott.

Here are some memories of him:

Wenkeville

Every Labor Day weekend, the Wenke reunion is held in Olean, New York. With 11 siblings, some of those siblings ended up having upward of nine kids, meaning a multitude of Wenkes who grew up in Olean. There is even an area of Olean called Wenkeville! The family reunions garner upwards of 300 folks every year who get together and sing German drinking songs, remember their ancestors, play games and eat. We went several times and I can remember them all calling my grandfather “Gros Uncle” as he was the only remaining sibling of the original eleven. He was revered. Everyone came to see him and would give their kind regards. I felt like he was a celebrity. He was always in his element at the Wenke Reunion. What I appreciate most is that he wrote a history of his family to chronicle the escapades of his sister, Clara (the rebel), his father’s truck garden that helped keep the family afloat, and mapped out the various Wenke cousins on the family tree. I was always proud of being Ott’s granddaughter especially in Wenkeville.

Traveler

My grandfather was a traveler. He took a trip to the West Coast with my grandmother in the late 1950’s and accounted for every penny of the trip. The whole trip came to $724 with notable entries for 533 gallons of gas for a total of $202, 20 motel room nights at $181 and meals and snacks at $182. I think of how incredibly brave this was to head out on an 8,800 mile trip across country without a cell phone or GPS. That is wanderlust. After he retired and my grandmother passed away, he would travel to Florida, Canada and the west coast on his own. He always memorialized the trip with photos and meticulously wrote in his block pencil handwriting each location and person in the photo. Between my dad and my grandfather, I can understand why I love to wander.

Gardner

I lived in the same home in Wilmington, Delaware from the age of two. We lived next to park land and we had an enormous rock garden behind the house. The entire garden was the hard work of my grandfather. I’m sure he was inspired by the local DuPont estate, Longwood Gardens and the Butchart Gardens from his travels to Victoria, B.C. I can remember as a child that my grandfather came over every Saturday, without fail, to work on that garden. Dogwood, azaleas, impatiens, pansies, lilies, hens and chicks, and a maple tree. He had them all blooming throughout the spring and summer with nary a weed to disrupt his work of art. I can remember his voice coming in the front door of the house, “Hello, anybody home?” and sitting down to a hot cup of coffee, taking a sip and saying “hot ta ta.” He was a man of habits and we were able to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Babysitter

Fortunately for me, I am the youngest of his grandchildren. As I was growing up and my mother returned to work, my grandfather cared for me on many occasions. What I remember most is escaping from the house in his Maroon Skylark Buick and riding “down the valley”, which included Beaver Valley Road, its hills and the Brandywine River. I loved to go gliding down in this big air-conditioned car with my grandfather behind the wheel and the farmland streaming by, honeysuckles perfuming the air. Even into high school, my grandfather would pick me up after swim practice or take me to a doctor’s visit. I could depend on him no matter what.

Piano

My grandfather had a grand piano in his apartment. He played it beautifully. In fact, he played piano when he was a teenager at silent movie houses. I had little appreciation for his talent when I was a child. I can remember visiting his apartment and him setting out block puzzles for my brother, Rick and me to play with and him playing his piano. It’s not until I tried to play the piano in elementary school that I understood what tenacity and practice it took to play the piano the way my grandfather did.

Regimented

My Daddy-Ott was regimented. Perhaps it was his motherless German upbringing, or becoming a parent amidst the Depression, but my grandfather was uniquely suited to being an accountant. He wrote in his diary every day of his adult life. Each day was memorialized with the external temperature and his daily activities in a brief 7 to 10 sentence paragraph. I believe you could set your watch to my grandfather’s activities. He was a devout Phillies fan and listened to the radio to follow their progress. I can remember crying when they won the World Series in 1980 because I was happy that my Daddy-Ott was alive to witness it. My grandfather and I had two struggles that I recall. Once when I was about 5 and he was babysitting me around lunchtime. He insisted that I could only have plain milk and I threw a tantrum over wanting chocolate milk. I can’t remember who won but boy, I remember us both being stubborn over who should prevail. For a brief year, my grandfather lived with my family, while I was in high school. Every Saturday night he insisted on watching The Lawrence Welk Show. This was excruciating for me. I loved Pink Floyd and Yes, and there I was suffering, listening to Polkas and watching bubbles float above the Lennon Sisters. What I would give to spend an afternoon watching Lawrence Welk with my Daddy-Ott now — although I’d still insist on chocolate milk!

My Daddy-Ott was a fixture in my childhood growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. He was there for Sunday dinners, Mother’s Day at the DuPont Country Club and escaping down the valley in his Buick. How fortunate I was to have a grandparent close by and involved in my upbringing. We always ended our Sunday dinners by my grandfather asking if we were “sufficiently suffonsified”? I have no idea where this expression came from but it’s basically asking if you are sufficiently full. He lives in my heart now and in my memories. I love you, Daddy-Ott.

The Things I Hold On To: My Artifacts

In the last year, I went from a 3,000 square foot house with three garages down to a 1,000 square foot apartment sans garage. That is a lot of culling out. Boiling down to the essence. I have found the artifacts that matter. The mileposts of my life that I want to hold onto, at least for now. As my friend Janine said, “Someone told me that 3 moves is like a fire and I have found that to be true.” Well, I’m not quite there yet but shedding has been the name of the game for the last six months and I have come to understand what I value.

Here are some of the artifacts that I am holding onto:

Staffordshire England Dogs

This is a pair of porcelain dogs that have stared out at me unfazed for my entire childhood on the shelves of my parents living room at 10 Majestic Court in Delaware. When my parents moved to New Mexico about five years ago, I was given custody of these dogs. It is ironic that my parents had porcelain dogs because we never had a family dog growing up. These dogs were a surrogate of sorts. They are even more important to me because I remember seeing them in my grandfather’s photo albums. They were originally in my grandparents’ home which makes them so much more revered. I think of all the family members these dogs have stared out at and what stories they could tell. I think of the Twister games in my parents living room, the Easter egg hunts, and my grandparents sing a longs around my grandfather’s grand piano. Oh, if those dogs could talk.

Some of my artifacts: Lego Airplane, Glass Blocks, Lapiz and Copper Tree and the Staffordshire Dogs

Wolfard Lamps

I think my mother purchased these lamps in Northern California. Wolfard’s are made in Cotati, CA so it would make sense that she bought them after moving to California. I was so fortunate that my parents lived about a block down the street from me in Windsor, CA. We spent most holidays and birthdays around my mother’s elegant dining room table and the glow of the Wolfard lamps. I have owned these lamps since my parents move, and Roy and I lit them this past Thanksgiving in my new apartment. I was worried that there was not enough oil in the lamp to stay lit but miraculously they glowed for hours. I think of the joint April birthday celebrations for my daughter and her twin cousins and my parents 40th wedding anniversary that my first husband and I catered. They were all lit by the glow of these lamps.

Brazilian Basket

My first husband Orlando and I traveled to South America in the late 1980’s. The end of our trip was trapsing through the Amazon jungle near the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon River. We had paid for a private guide to travel on the rivers and explore the shacks and villages in the jungle. We fished for piranha, canoed in dugout canoes, watched monkeys swing in the tree branches above and walked along a trail to find a woman weaving baskets for sale. We bought that basket. I’ve held onto it through two marriages and cross country moves. I wonder where that woman is now and what she would think of the journey that basket has been on. Now it sits in my office and it’s much less pliable than when I first purchased it, much like myself. The basket may be stiff and cracked, but it has traveled the Western Hemisphere.

Lego Airplane

My son built a Lego airplane on wheels as a child. It isn’t that pretty but it is my son’s creation. I have had it on my office shelf for the last decade, at least. When my son came home to say goodbye to our lake house in September, I asked him to repair his plane. He immediately knew where the misplaced parts belong and reassembled his creation for travel to my new apartment. It’s a piece of him, wherever I land.

Lapiz and Copper Tree

My children and I traveled to Medellín, Colombia four years ago for the Christmas holiday. I remember buying the copper tree on a plaza near our Airbnb while shopping with my daughter, Natalie. Another handmade artifact from South America that always reminds me of that trip. It was a terrific adventure with my children as adults and that piece reminds me of it every day.

Glass Blocks

I have had a glass block for many years that I have thrown shells, pebbles, feathers and drift wood into. About two years ago, my first block started to fill up so I purchased a second. I have pieces and parts of so many beaches and mountain tops and trails. It’s a testament to my travels. Goat Rock, St. Pete Beach, Mount Washington, Lake Winnipesauke, Machu Picchu, Bohemian National Park, Ocracoke, Lake Mattamuskeet, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Assateague Island, Spotsylvania, Gettysburg, and various spots on the Appalachian Trail. It’s all there. The pieces and parts of my travels. I hope I need another glass block to continue to memorize my travels.

There is so much that I have let go of over the last four years, and it’s lightened my load considerably. It’s helped me reconnect to the things I truly value and understand my roots. The things I value don’t have to be expensive, or beautiful, or sturdy, they just have to touch my heart in some way that connects me with my family and friends and my travels. What are your artifacts?

Completing the Stress Cycle

About a month ago, my insightful friend, Janine Allo posted a podcast on LinkedIn by Brene Brown called “Unlocking Us”. On this podcast, Brene interviewed twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski on the topic of How to Complete the Stress Cycle. I ended up listening in, then subsequently bought their book, Burnout. I went on to recommend or send the book to any woman I could think of. It is just that profound. There are a multitude of brilliant ideas in the book but the most impactful for me is the idea of completing the stress cycle.

Stress is pervasive, especially in the isolation and uncertainty of a pandemic. We are hardwired to pick up stress from work interactions, technical snafus, personal disappointments, loss and general lack of control. But once the stressor is gone, the combative meeting is over, your friend slams down the phone, or the strange looking man has passed down the street, your stress cycle lives on.

As written in Burnout: “One thing we know for sure doesn’t work: just telling yourself that everything is okay now. Completing the cycle isn’t an intellectual decision; it’s a physiological shirt. Just as you don’t tell your heart to continue beating or your digestion to continue churning, the cycle doesn’t complete by deliberate choice. You give your body what it needs, and allow it to do what it does, in the time that it requires.” I’ve been looking to complete all open stress cycles (and there are MANY!) and it’s been an experiment. 

Here are some of the ideas on how to close the stress loop from the book:

  • Movement – Walk, run, hike, ski, swim, jump, skip, gallop, downward dog, dance, salsa, pirouette, saunter, bench press, jumping jacks, scoot, wiggle, jiggle, or twist for 20 minutes to an hour. Move your body. It’s the same sort of construct as Amy Cuddy’s posits on the power pose. Put your body in a position of feeling powerful and your brain will follow. Engaging in movement puts your body back in homeostasis so your brain closes the loop. It’s like your body says, “Hey I’m OK” and your brain follows along and says, “Whelp if the body says we’re OK, then we must be OK.” This is the Nagoski sister’s biggest recommendation in order to close the stress cycle. They say that it’s not the same amount of time or same activity for all folks or situations (even identical twins have different types of movement for different lengths of time). So, if the twenty-minute run worked yesterday, it may take a one-hour hike today after the contentious budget meeting. Get moving to close the cycle.
  • Breathing – As written in the book, “Deep, slow breaths down regulate the stress response – especially when the exhalation is long and slow and goes all the way to the end of the breath, so that your belly contracts.” When I coach clients and they are in the middle of a hectic day, I frequently take three minutes for long deep breaths to clear the space. Inhale for 5 beats, hold for 5 beats, exhale for 10 beats and hold for 5 beats. It’s almost miraculous how this clears the energy of anxiety and stress so that we can focus.
  • Positive Social Interaction – This is the most difficult cycle closer in the middle of a pandemic when you can’t even smile at the cashier from behind a mask. But you can wink or say “Thank you and have a nice day.” It takes effort. It means getting dressed for work in the morning and turning on your camera to try and connect with coworkers. It means connecting with those in your “bubble” or complimenting your assistant via zoom on her earrings. As the sisters write, “Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place, and not all people suck. It helps!”
  • Laughter – I think of Dick Van Dyke singing the song “I Love to Laugh” in the movie Mary Poppins. I do love to laugh. Laughing with others like I did during a virtual bingo game for thirty coworkers last week was such a positive boost. Sophie Scott posits, “We use an ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions.” I think of Roy, a southern boy, trying to teach me how to say “Fish” the down east way which is pronounced (completely incorrectly by me) as “Feeessshhh”. I’ve yet to get it right but the laughter in mispronouncing it is closing the stress loop.
  • Affection – This is yet another difficult cycle closer if you are isolated during a pandemic. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons so many are suffering from unclosed stress cycles. If you have someone in your “bubble” try either a 6-second kiss, a 20-second hug or petting a cat for a few minutes. As the sisters write, “Like a long mindful kiss, a twenty-second hug can teach your body that you are safe; you have escaped the lion and arrived home, safe and sound, to the people you love.” If you walk your dog while you exercise, you are getting the double bonus of movement and affection. Affection closes the loop.
  • Cry – Yep. It’s OK to cry. Let those tears stream down your face. It releases toxins and closes the cycle. In the book, they recommend finding your favorite tearjerker movie and bringing out the box of tissues for your favorite part. Close the stress loop by crying it out.
  • Creativity – I didn’t write a blog post for about 8 weeks. I was selling my house, moving and had a huge workload. It turns out that not writing was actually counterproductive. Writing could have helped me close my stress loop sooner. So here I am writing my sixth post in three weeks. I had no idea how therapeutic writing was until after I read the book, Burnout. So, write, story tell, paint, play your banjo, cook, color or create videos. Find ways to express yourself and close the loop.

So how do you know if you closed the cycle? I’m still figuring that out. I must say that since I started walking more with my dog, practicing twenty second hugs with Roy and writing blog posts again, I am calmer. I love the book’s metaphor: “It’s a gear shift – a slip of the chain to a smaller gear, and all of the sudden the wheels are spinning more freely.” I’d love to know what works for you. What helps you close your stress cycle?

Moments of Awe

I think it was happenstance that I found myself returning one year later to the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Thanksgiving Weekend. This time, it wasn’t my idea. Here it was a long weekend, the middle of a pandemic, my children not coming home, so why not socially distance at the beach with my sweetheart, Roy? Although I love the Outer Banks, on our trip in 2019, the weather was cold and dreary so my expectations weren’t set very high for 2020. Perhaps it was the low bar for expectations, but this year had many surprising, awe-inspiring moments that I won’t soon forget.

Afternoon sun on the beach at Ocracoke Island

My moments of awe:

Tundra Swan

On our way to the Outer Banks, we stopped once again at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. This place feels like it is about two hours from civilization; indeed the closest grocery store is probably in Swan Quarter where the ferry docks. There are miles and miles and miles of driving the backroads of the Inner Banks where the only thing to count is roadkill. When we arrived at the refuge, it was socked in with fog. Roy and I were not hopeful that there would be many migrating birds which is one of the main draws in going. 

We arrived at the viewing deck and to our surprise there were hundreds of Tundra Swans and Canadian Geese floating in the marsh. The awe-inspiring moment came as I was filming the birds who were surrounded by fog. I could hear hundreds of swans flapping their wings and honking in flight but could not see them initially, until the fog slowly lifted and the swans appeared magically to land in the marsh next to the swans, who had arrived earlier, cooing lowly on top of the water. It was a ballet with the bright white flashing wings of the flying swans in formation and the low moan of cello-like base notes floating below. Awesome.

Ocracoke

The last time I was at Ocracoke island was about fifteen years ago when my children were young and we were headed for a visit with my good friend, Susannah and her family, in Avon. Ocracoke is a barrier island which means that the only way to get there is by ferry. The ferry starts in one of three very remote places: Cedar Island, Swan Quarter or Hatteras. The shortest ferry ride is from Hatteras, so Roy and I headed out and arrived at the ferry station in Hatteras at noon. We waited an hour to get on the ferry and then spent another 75 minutes on the ferry taking an absolutely crazy, circuitous route; I was a little worried we were headed to Swan Quarter instead of Ocracoke. 

It was overcast, it rained and finally, our journey was over. Upon our arrival to the remote island, the sun came out, as if on cue. We drove several miles on the spit on land between the ferry station and the town of Ocracoke. Roy pulled off along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and I walked the boardwalk out to the beach. It was 2:30 PM in November and the place was desolate, high tide, and the sun was glinting on the water as waves crashed on the barren shores. We were alone on what felt like the end of the earth with nothing but 40 feet of sand between me and the North Atlantic. Nothing but crashing waves, a flying pelican and a shore bird meandering along poking the surf. There are these moments when you feel isolated yet part of something so much bigger. I could only stand there in awe and take it all in.

Sun

As Roy and I drove back from our return ferry in Hatteras, we were trying to time the sunset as we drove up what is the narrowest sliver of road called Highway 12. It is one of the rare highways where you can see the vast intercoastal waterway on one side the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. As we approached Rodanthe, we pulled off on the intercoastal waterway side of the road. There, surrounded by marsh and sand, we watched as the sun slipped below the surface and we faced the limitless water of the intercoastal waterway, knowing that there was the mainland out there somewhere but impossible to see.

The next morning, I woke up early to head out to the Kill Devil Hills beach to watch the sunrise. I was taken aback as I arrived at 6:30 AM only to find some twenty other hearty souls standing or sitting strewn along the beach waiting for the sunrise as well. We all faced the same altar – the East. Patient, quiet, communal, as we witnessed that instant where the red sliver creeps above the horizon to commence another day. Same sun, same barrier islands, same water and such continuity. Awe-some.

I need these moments as I have endured some nine months of isolation. Awe is available in isolation, it’s a matter of discovering it. It is seeking it out, letting it surface and accepting whatever shows up. What moments inspire awe in you?