The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.

In Troubled Times: Tenaciously Hopeful

I first posted this on January 2, 2017, right after the presidential election. I’m putting it up again as a reminder of how important it is to take care of our mental well-being in troubled times.

Recently, I’ve noticed more articles on staying grounded in joy and hope, even when surrounded by fear. Perhaps such articles have always been part of the general social media discourse and I am only now becoming sufficiently calm to notice them. But I rather think (hope!) this is a trend. In me, it certainly is. After the initial rounds of fear and trepidation, the constant adrenaline wore off. I’m not naturally a person who enjoys being fearful; from my experience training dogs, I suspect it’s not an appealing state for most of us. Some, I suppose, enjoy the “high” of confrontation, even violence, but I’m not among them. Harming others and myself is not where I want to live my life.

I see also posts affirming commitment to action, often in terms of “We Will Fight On!” and I’ve been resisting the urge to jump on that bandwagon. (Also the “Organize the Resistance” brigade.) It all sounds so necessary, a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. And is just as unrealistic for me as remaining in that state of terrified fury.

As unhealthy.

I am not objecting to others following the paths to which they are led. Resisting fascism and protecting the most vulnerable are inarguably vital to our survival as individuals, communities, and a society. I am thrilled that people have the drive and knowledge to organize such resistance. I will be right there, cheering them on. But I won’t be in the forefront.

It’s taken me a long time, coming from a family of dyed-in-the-wool organizers (labor unions, radical politics, war resistance, etc.) to come to terms with not being one of them. Undoubtedly, seeing the cost to my family played a role in my reluctance. I’ve marched in my share of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, written a gazillion letters, painted an equal number of signs. But it’s not where my heart is. I’ve seen the joy in the eyes of those for whom this is their passion, their “thing.” I want to hug them all and say, “I’m so glad you’re out there, doing this for both of us.”

The fallacy is that making the world a better place is an either/or proposition. Either I’m out there, making headlines by facilitating events of vast numbers for the people’s revolution (as an example), or I’m sitting at home, knitting while Yosemite burns.

The fact is, any social movement happens on many levels. There’s the outward, banner-headline, political level, one that often requires organization on a national or international level. There is a community level, supporting your neighbors, particularly those in need. Soup kitchens are just as necessary as demonstrations outside the White House, although they serve fewer people. Taking care of ourselves and our families is yet another.

Quiet, mindful actions that focus on compassion, justice, and unity need not be limited to small numbers. In fact, outward activism must be balanced by inner activism. We can all find where we are called to act along that spectrum, and we can move back and forth (or in and out, whichever image works best) with circumstances, experience, and energy levels. What a relief to realize I don’t have to pick one thing or level of involvement!

So what speaks to me right now is remembering joy. The year to come is almost certainly going to be full of occasions for grimness if not despair, so I don’t want to start off that way. I want to fill up my “savings account of hope” as much as I can, cultivating those people, places, and things that lift my spirits. I want to never, ever let go of believing we can survive this, kindness and persistence will triumph, and no matter how dark it may seem at the moment, love will win.

I refuse my consent to fascism. I also refuse my consent to despair.

I affirm that I will cling tenaciously – relentlessly – to hope, and I invite you to do so, too.

In Times of War: How Will This End?

At best, uncertainty is a difficult emotional state. We live in a world of routines, reliable cause-and-effect, and pattern recognition. We don’t need to test gravity every time we take a step, which is a good thing. We make assumptions about how people we know well (or people in general) are going to behave, based on their past actions. (Erratic behavior, whether due to mental illness, substance abuse, or misreading body language, can be traumatic, especially for children.) We anticipate many things, from the functioning of traffic lights to our own digestion to the reaction of a deer suddenly come upon in a meadow, based on our understanding of “how things work.” We use these strategies all the time without thinking about it. Having a reasonable sense of how events will unfold frees up mental (and physical) energy and gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Unexpected things happen, of course. Most of the time they’re ordinary bumps and bruises like burned dinner, a sprained ankle, a higher-than-normal electricity bill, or a traffic ticket.  They can be terrible: 9-11, a hurricane, the wildfires that swept through my part of the country a couple of years ago and resulted in my family evacuating for a month. A death in the family. Often we have little or no advance warning: it’s over, leaving us stunned or horrified or grief-stricken. We don’t get to vote on what happened, we only get to pick up the pieces afterwards. At other times, we have advance notice, like the wildfires or other weather events (but not earthquakes, lived through a couple of big ones, too) or Covid-19. We grab the kids and the pets and get out of town; we wear masks and stay home, and so forth. Even if there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves, we often have a pretty good idea how things are going to go. Not always, of course. I remember staying glued to local news while camped out in our hotel room, anxiety eating away at me as the fires got closer to our house; I’d go to sleep certain that in the morning, our place would be ashes (but it survived with only a little storm damage).

I think war is fundamentally different. On a day-to-day basis, for those in the fighting zones, it must be like a monstrous union between the Chicxulub impact, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the Black Death. Adrenaline fight-or-flight panic overload survival time, one blast at a time. But for those of us watching the catastrophe unfold from afar, anxiety takes over as the dominant emotion. Watching one horrific event after another taxes our ability to pay attention to the present moment, and that is normal. It’s in our DNA to anticipate what will happen next. In our minds, we flee to the future.

Where will Russia strike next? What weapons will they use? What can we do to shield Ukrainian civilians? Will anything come of the peace talks? What will China—or India—do?

Enter the pundits and op-ed writers, predicting everything from the economic collapse of Russia and Putin being deposed, to Russia bludgeoning Ukraine into surrender to plots, to assassinate Zelenskyy to even wilder speculations. They speculate about increasingly grim futures: Is this a prelude to nuclear war? The collapse of Russia and a worldwide recession? We gobble up the columns, even though they often leave us feeling even more anxious and wretched than before.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I think the answer lies in how predictability lowers anxiety, and the greater the stakes, the stronger the allure of a promised outcome. Not-knowing is a hellish limbo, and all too often it’s more intolerable than believing an authoritative voice with a fixed answer, no matter how grim.

I’ve started avoiding those opinion pieces. I see headlines while I’m scrolling through news, but I’m getting better at not clicking on them. Instead, I remind myself that masking anxiety with visions of doom is not likely to help anyone, beginning with myself. The truth is that I don’t have a crystal ball—and for sure the pundits don’t, either.

Working myself into a lather harms impairs my ability to think clearly. It cannot affect the outcome of the war.

Powerlessness is hard, and in evolutionary terms it’s dangerous. But when it is our true condition, the best way to manage it is by seeing it for what it is, and then finding ways to make a big difference in our own lives through good self-care and a small difference in the world.

In Times of War: A Flood of Horrific News

After the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote a series of blog posts, “In Troubled Times.” In them I explored my evolving feelings of disbelief, shock, horror, despair, fury, and rising determination. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became our mantra. I hoped that my words provided solace and inspiration to others, and the process of putting them down did for me.

Now we face new, often overwhelming challenges to sanity. I find myself reacting to the news of the war in Ukraine, and yet being unable to look away. Then my friend, Jaym Gates, wrote this on her Facebook page, posted here with her permission.

Be really careful on social media for the next few days, friends. A lot of footage of Russian Federation war crimes, torture, rape, and murder just came out from Mariupol and other occupied cities. It is *horrific.* While it needs to be seen, shared, and remembered, it is going to be extremely traumatic to engage with.

If you’re a survivor of abuse or trauma, in particular, please be especially careful.

And send support to Ukraine if you can. What’s happening there is awful beyond words.

 My daughter, a psychology student, spotted this article by Heather Kelly in the Washington PostHow to stay up-to-date on terrible news without burning out.

It can be hard to look away from your phone and live your life while terrible events are unfolding, Kelly writes. There’s an unrelenting flow of images, videos and graphic updates out of Ukraine, filling social media, messaging apps and news sites.

It’s important to stay informed, engaged and even outraged. But it’s also important to pay attention to our own limits and mental health by taking breaks, looking for signs of burnout and consuming news in the smartest way possible.

That means setting some ground rules for the main portal connecting us to nonstop tragedy: our phones [or computers]. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Give yourself permission to take a break

It is okay to hit pause on the doom and go live your life, whether that means going outside with the kids or just losing yourself on the silly side of TikTok. It’s necessary for everyone’s mental health.

  1. Take time for self-care

A break is not a few minutes away from Twitter. Start with real breaks of at least 30 minutes to an hour so that your brain has time to come down from what you were last watching or reading. Ideally, you’ll put your phone down and take a technology break … or do some activities known to help with stress reduction, including exercise, mindfulness and meditation, journaling, engaging in hobbies and other activities you enjoy, spending time with family and friends, and doing faith-based activities if you practice.

  1. Change your news habits

Disinformation like propaganda is designed to capture your attention and elicit strong emotions, which can contribute to any anxiety you’re already feeling. Instead, stick with reputable sources. If you can wait, opt for deeply reported stories at the end of the day over constant smaller updates. Avoid using social media for news, but if you do, follow sources and people that contribute to your understanding of an issue rather than those that just generate more outrage.

  1. View your phone in black and white

In your smartphone’s accessibility settings there is an option to make the screen black and white instead of color. Some studies have indicated that turning this on leads to less screen time.

  1. Know when to ask for help

Look for signs that you are burned out or experiencing serious anxiety. First, consider whether you’re predisposed to reacting strongly to a particular issue. Anyone who has personally dealt with similar trauma or war in the past might find constant vivid social media posts about Ukraine to be triggering. [Italics mine.]

In conclusion: be kind to yourself, friends. Practice healthy boundaries and filters, and good self-care. Ask for help, whether it’s a friend or family member screening news for triggers, or a companion on a hike through the redwoods. Find safe people to reach out to. I’ll be writing more about our journey together.

 

Guest Blog: B.A. Williamson on Being a Bipolar Writer

On Being a Bipolar Writer

By B.A. Williamson

It’s pretty hard to write this right now. Each sentence is taking a conscious effort. Why? Well, I’m depressed. Unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances. Cancelling all my book launch events and conference panels didn’t help.

There’s not always a reason. Occasionally this just happens. But I can say this depression is “just a phase” without any hint of condescension, because for me, it’s true. I’m bipolar.

Sometimes I just want to lay on the couch and escape. Hours of video games are good for this, though not exactly healthy. I suffer from the emptiness and lethargy that is familiar to millions of sufferers of depression.

What’s less familiar is the other side of the coin—my manic episodes. I have unlimited energy and focus, and can dive into projects for hours on end, and the words just flow. Everything I write is the best thing anyone has ever written. (Impaired judgment is another symptom.)

Manic energy can be a superpower, if harnessed correctly. I can hit any deadline, tackle any obstacle, and breeze through it with the confidence of a narcissistic tiger owner. But as I said, it’s a double-edged sword. The crushing writer’s despair is even worse, and can wipe out all the progress I’ve made.

Writing helps. Getting things out on the page helps. During a depressive episode, it takes a monumental effort to sit down and get moving. But even as I type this, it has become easier. I do feel better. I’m not agonizing over every punctuation mark, and hey, I’ve produced about 250 words so far! Halfway there.

Routines help, too. And outlines. The less you have to think, the lower the energy it takes to get started. I don’t have to think, just check the outline, do what it says, and follow the routine. They also keep me moving at those times when I’m balanced, and don’t have that supply of manic energy to rely on.

Whenever I want to give up before I’ve even started, I tell myself to write three sentences. That’s the rule—three sentences, then you can quit. Anyone can write three sentences. My seven-year-old can write three sentences. And to this day, I’ve never stopped at three sentences. I may only get a few paragraphs, but that’s still overshooting my goal by quite a bit.

So when my precious (fictional) girl Gwendolyn Gray started showing the same symptoms, I was hardly surprised. In fact, it fit my story very well, and I had a compelling and unique character arc. I work with middle schoolers, and they suffer from depression and anxiety at alarming rates. Anyone shocked? Think back to middle school. It’s a terrifying, stressful, horrific experience for many of us. Now we have the awareness and language to properly describe the toll it takes on our kids. But conversations about mental health are all-too-often relegated to the land of Young Adult, while our adolescents are talked down to or treated as if their problems couldn’t possibly be all that bad.

I felt it was really important to show a story where a character grows up, and kids could see a reflection of their own struggles. As Gwendolyn struggles with larger-than-life monsters, readers can see a reflection of their own struggles that can feel so much bigger than themselves. And as her external struggles are a metaphorical mirror for their own, her internal struggles create a much more literal parallel. Her internal reactions give them something to relate to, and see themselves taken seriously. Continue reading “Guest Blog: B.A. Williamson on Being a Bipolar Writer”

Coping With Winter Blues

Painting by David Cox (1783-1859)

 

As the year draws to a close, I reflect that it’s been, as Mark Twain put it, “One damned thing after another.” Some good, some not-so-good, some most excellent, some terror-inducing. Whatever is happening, however, I remember the mantra, “This too shall pass!”

Life sometimes sideswipes us with occasions for rejoicing or unspeakable tragedy, but hard times run in cycles. It’s important to find ways of reminding ourselves of this rhythmic nature. Outward-facing periods of great vigor and challenge are followed by periods of apparent stagnation. These fallow times can feel like the pits of despair when nothing seems to be changing (except for the worse) and no matter how hard we engage with the problems in our lives, we seem to make no discernible progress. Winter is never going to end; all our senses convince us of it. We are never going to find “the one,” or sell that first story. And we’ve heard enough tales of folks who actually never do find a partner or make a sale that we are sure we belong in that group. As the days shorten and snow or rain turns into mud, we become even more certain the sun will never return.

That’s when I need black belt survival tools. My mantra (above) is one of them. Here are some others that work for me.

  • Every day, I speak with someone who loves me.
  • I try to do a daily act of kindness in a way that I will not be found out.
  • I try to begin each day with trust and end it with gratitude. These can take whatever form seems good to me on that day.

What helps get you through winter blues?

Where Gillian is Peeved

Every time I am invited to a Christmas party, I have to decide whether I should go. If it’s a friend asking me to share their celebration of their Christmas, I accept with joy. If it’s a public or professional event that’s called a “Christmas Party”, one of the implications is that if I don’t accept Christmas as a part of my life, then I am not really acceptable as I am, with my own views and culture, in that environment.

Not that the organisers articulate it in this way. Recently, when I asked a professional group what they meant by “Christmas” they explained that it was secular. While this was perfectly acceptable for them, they demonstrated that a secularised version of a religious celebration was seen as acceptable for all shapes of religion and belief because they explained to me (and they know I’m Jewish) that it was secular for me, too. This tells those of us without Christian backgrounds that there is a certain way we should live our lives.

How the lead-up to Christmas is depicted in Australia is related to this. There is an “Advent” book box being advertised right now. It takes the word “Advent” (which refers to a very particular coming birthday) and one can open one wrapped book a day from 1 December until Christmas Day. I’m told it is, also, not religious. But there are never any book boxes for the festivals of other religions. Instead, we are all asked to accept the redefined religious words for Christianity.

Whether these explanations work for me, for you, for someone else, depends on our background.

For me, it creates a disjuncture between the home and the outside world. The values in my home are Jewish, and my parents taught me that I should not celebrate others’ festivals for myself. Why? It’s an acceptance that their religion takes precedence over my own. In their homes, that’s a sign of respect. In my home, why don’t my own traditions and belief take precedence? In public events and shared places, explaining that a thing is secular not only sets the Christian festival as something that is shared by everyone (when it, frankly, is not) but it also rubs it in that my views do not matter.

The fact that someone explaining Christmas to me as secular shows how they set their own atheism in a cultural context. It also demonstrates that they’re not listening to people who have different contexts.

Cultural respect and religious respect involve understanding how the person we’re talking to sees the subject we’re talking about. This entails accepting multiple interpretations of an event. Do you leave someone out of a group because they can’t eat peanuts? Or do you make sure that there is shared food everyone can eat?

This is my annual rant on the subject. Shorter than usual because it’s 1 am here and bed beckons.

I shall skip the Christmas party, because I’m not convinced the person organising knows much about Christianity. Also, I won’t buy the books. Instead, on the day of the party, I shall tell anyone who wants to hear my two favourite miracles for St Nicolas (the children and the bones, for anyone who has had to suffer my tale-telling) for the party is on his holy day and he’s the bloke who became Santa Claus. I need to practise what I preach, in other words. If you who want to hear about the pickled children and how they are Santa’s backstory, please ask.

On the book-front, I’m doing my own thing. I will send book parcels on behalf of anyone who wants to give presents to friends and family in Australia. This is actually not my response to the religion issue. It’s my response to books being a bit difficult to buy and to international mail being a lost cause. If you know anyone wants to give presents to anyone in Australia over the next few weeks, check here: https://gillianpolack.com/sale-until-18-december-or-until-the-books-run-out/

I have nothing against presents (I adore presents), after all. My objection is to people who insist that my own background doesn’t matter a jot.

How Stories Save Us

Stories can heal and transform us. They can also become beacons of hope.

Quite a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult personal time, I came across a book about the inherent healing power of telling our stories. No matter how scattered or flawed our lives may appear, as we tell our stories, we gain something. Patterns emerge from seeming chaos, and our lives begin to make sense. It may be dreadful, agonizing sense, but even tragedies have order and consequence. I found that over time, the way I told my story changed, reflecting my recovery process and new insight.

The mirror side of story-telling is story-listening. While a confidential diary or journal can be highly useful, having someone hear our words can be transformative, especially if all that person does is listening. Not judging, not analyzing, not wondering how to respond, just taking in our words, a silent partner on our journey. Often we feel less alone in retrospect, no matter how isolated and desperate we might have been at the time. Additionally, a compassionate listener invites us to be kinder with ourselves.

Perhaps this is how Twelve Step programs work, apart from any Higher Power mysticism or Steps: that by simply hearing our own voices relate our histories, and having the experience of being heard, we open the door to viewing ourselves through the lens of new possibilities.

Personal storytelling calls for discretion, of course. Although it may be true that “we are only as sick as our secrets,” casually (or not-so-casually) violating a confidence from someone else is not the same as choosing to include the listener in our own private lives. Some of us never learned healthy boundaries about what is safe to share, and when, and with whom. We, or others, can be harmed by indiscriminate broadcasting of embarrassing, illegal, or otherwise sensitive information. The kind of storytelling I’m talking about, on the other hand, is as much about the journey as it is the facts.

Stories can get us through dark times by giving us hope and inspiring empathy. Stories work by creating a bond between the narrator or central character and the listener/reader. Who wants to read a story about a person you care nothing about? And if that appealing character has a different history or journey, or learns something the reader never experienced, so much the better. We accompany them into darkness and out again. Continue reading “How Stories Save Us”

Coping Strategies in an Ongoing Pandemic

From time to time, I focus on an article that in my estimation offers valuable information or reflection on the stresses of the times. These last four years have presented one crisis after another. And now a pandemic that threatens not only my life and health, but those of my loved ones and friends. So it’s a good time to review what enhances our resilience and remind ourselves that we are indeed resourceful. We are not always so, and not all of us are at the same time. Not every piece of advice will seem appropriate to each of us. One of the many benefits of community is that we can remind one another of our strength, we can role model sanity and self-care, and those of us who have hope at any given moment can carry those of us who are mired in despair through the dark hours.

We’ll get through this. Together.

On to the article: This is by Craig Polizzi, a PhD Student in Clinical Psychology, and Steven Jay Lynn, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, both at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Your coping and resilience strategies might need to shift as the COVID-19 crisis continues

The authors highlight three strategies we might use to reduce stress and rebuild our lives, even while the pandemic is still raging. This is going to go on for a while, folks, so let’s see what we can do to make the best of this episode in our lives.

 

Cognitive reappraisal involves reframing the way one interprets an emotional or stressful event or situation to regulate or neutralize its harmful impact. You can think about working from home, for example, as an opportunity to spend more time with family, engage in hobbies or get caught up on projects, rather than as a threat to job security. This strategy tempers the kind of all-or-nothing thinking – such as “the world is unsafe,” “I cannot do anything to help” and “our leaders know nothing” – that can take people down a road of anxiety, worry and mistrust of others. Instead, reappraisal helps you move toward healthy perspectives on stressful situations, dampens negative emotions and boosts positive emotions and keenness to participate fully in life.

 

Problem-focused coping can be another helpful strategy. It frames a stressful situation as a problem to be solved and fuels planning and the search for practical solutions. For example, people who know they feel worried or depressed after consuming news can plan to monitor and control the timing (such as not before sleep), nature and amount of news they consume. Effective problem-solving increases positive emotions, self-confidence and motivation. It also lessens the psychological impact of stressors.
As society opens up, you need to weigh the pros and cons of shopping, eating in restaurants, or seeking medical treatment, informed by the best available evidence. Problem-focused coping can help you make decisions about whether an activity is safe and consistent with your personal values and the needs of others.

Lovingkindness meditation can help you get through trying times. It involves contemplating and generating positive feelings and tolerance towards yourself and others. Combining lovingkindness meditation with empathy for those with different political views, for example, can help heal frayed bonds of friendship when social support is most needed. Pausing each day to embrace love and kindness counteracts self-blame, guilt, feelings of alienation and social isolation.

And anything that increases the amount of compassion and love in the world is surely a good thing.
For the complete article, click on the title link.