The science of sunshine

The last few days have been really quite beautiful here in Blighty. The sun has been shining, the birds have been tweeting and the blossom is venturing out into the spring.

Everyone in our household is happier. We’re pretty content to begin with, most of the time, but in recent days it has gone up a level. We have more energy, we have more patience, we are more hopeful and I can only attribute all of these overnight changes to the weather.

It’s not a secret that sunshine improves your mood but the level to which it has done so this year has made me ponder.

It’s also not a secret that we Brits like to talk about the weather but on this occasion it’s a little deeper than that. I’m curious to know why this increase in natural daylight and warmth can have such a tangible effect on us. In the same vein, I’d like to understand why drinking water makes me feel better, why sugar makes me feel worse and why exercise is so difficult to start but so rewarding when done.

I know the basic principles of brain neurons and hormones but I’d like to understand it a little better in order truly to move towards a healthier lifestyle designed to treat my body the way it was created to be taken care of.

The problem is, I’m not quite sure where to start. I read a fantastic book recently, which I’ve blogged about before, called The Brain. It was informative but very accessible and what I learned helped life make a bit more sense. I’m looking for something similar, but that takes it to the next stage, looking at the science of sunshine and exploring what lifestyle choices we can make to give our bodies and minds the opportunity to thrive.

If anyone knows of such a book – could you link it my way…?

In the meantime, I’m going to soak up some Vitamin D, revel in this deeper-rooted calm that has taken up residence inside me and see if I can coax it to stick around.

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Silence and simplicity

“My own and others’ expectations of how my day is supposed to unfold guide my hours up until the hour when I lie down again to sleep [emphasis added].”

Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge

Each day can be walked through without conscious thought. If nothing goes awry, the day can unfold without effort, on autopilot, following set instructions or plans. But without waking up to the present moment and realising the impact of our own and others’ expectations, days, weeks, months and years will pass with no growth, no deep rooted contentment and no adventure. That’s not what I choose for my life.

“The present hurts, wrote Pascal. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves.”

Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge

There is nothing new under the sun” and yet we search for it constantly. We crave temporary fulfilment and grasp at it when anything longer term requires investment. Dwelling on the past or living for the future have their places but living in the moment, finding silence and time for contemplation, prepare us better for life’s inevitabilities and nourish our souls.

“Experiencing rather than over-thinking. Allowing each moment to be big enough. Not living through other people and other things.”

Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge

It takes humility to declare that each moment is big enough. It takes discipline to accept and relish that our life is full of moments that may not all be monumental but that are big enough. It takes determination to experience the present and know that it is enough.

That’s a whole lot of things to work on but the pursuit of simplicity is, in my mind, worth it because it is one of the things at the heart of contentment – learning to be satisfied no matter our circumstance.

One Day

One Day I’d like to live in a house with a garden. I’d like it to have space for a library so that my husband can immerse himself in books and those he has penned can have their own pride of place. I’d like a kitchen with space to create delicious dinners and bake fun treats. I’d like a play room for the children and enough rooms so that each child (hopefully 2 or 3) has their own nest and we still have a spare for guests.

My husband I both have a vision of this house. Our images seem to match and we dream of it fairly frequently. But it’s not just the house itself that we want, it’s the lifestyle and choices it represents and that go alongside it hand in hand in our dream.

We’d like the flexibility of work that allows us to raise our children mostly ourselves, encourage them to love learning and give them opportunities to explore. We’d like to welcome people and for them to enjoy being in the moment, to relax, cast off their burdens and feel blessed by our home, our food and our family. We want to practice hospitality, enjoy the seasons in their most basic and beautiful forms and we want to teach our children to do likewise.

I’m often impatient for this house; for this dream. I catch glimpses of it so often but am never able to connect the dots between our lives now and how we get there. But somehow, I trust we will get there, because it’s not just the house, it’s a God-given desire to create a place which others can also call home. A simple and genuine home free of fear and judgement for our children, friends, family and strangers.

So until then, I must simply learn patience and practice hospitality, enjoying the seasons and creating a warm environment in readiness and preparation for One Day.

The curse of comparison

Look at your life for a moment. In isolation from every other person’s life, are you happy with yours? If you didn’t know that a colleague had a bigger house, a friend had more children or an acquaintance had a higher paid job, would you be satisfied with your life?

Comparison is ugly. Not only does it make us compare tiny segments of other people’s lives to the entirety of our own lives, it takes our eyes away from what we do have.

If we were truly to compare our lives to others, then we’d have to take their good with their bad. We can’t be jealous of one element of their lives without taking into account everything else that makes up their daily living. They may have something you want but they inevitably will have other things that you’re thankful you don’t have to deal with.

It’s worth remembering that to someone, your grass is greener than theirs. To others looking in, those Instagram photos, job updates or home improvements are exactly what they are aspiring to in that moment. They won’t see the in between, the struggles, disappointments or failures.

It’s the one time in life when blinkers are acceptable. Usually, a life led wisely demands a broader perspective, to consider the needs and circumstances of others and to see the world beyond our narrow existence. But when it comes to comparison, we are free to put those blinkers on, block out the lives of those around us so that all we see is our own. If there are things we still want to change or we’re unhappy with, we can work at figuring out how to move forward, where possible, but only if those areas and dreams are free from ties to a life lived elsewhere.

Comparison is a curse. Why indulge it when the alternative is thankfulness for the blessings in our lives, which leads to greater contentment and peacefulness? If we weren’t so caught up in contests and races, the answer would be a no brainer.

Friendship, community and serving

“Friends voluntarily tie their hearts to one another.”

This beautiful quote from Tim Keller’s The Way of Wisdom reminded me just how important it is to invest in the people around me.

One of my goals for this year was to find ways to serve others. That doesn’t mean signing up for a rota or doing a few random good deeds. It means an intentional* shift in the way I think, the way I interact and the way I look around me. It means going out of my way to be there for my friends. It means sacrificing my time if needed so that others come first. It means making it a priority to check in with my friends; to find thoughtful actions or ways to make sure they know they are loved.

And it extends beyond my friends. Serving others is hugely rewarding, even when you don’t know them well. It is a privilege. The number of times in the last few weeks, people have served our new little family and when I’ve tried to express my huge gratitude, they’ve responded: ‘Are you kidding me?! It’s a privilege to be trusted and brought into your family.’

That mindset – that others can get deep and genuine joy from serving others and even consider it an honour, no matter how much of a stranger – still staggers me but I want to cultivate it. By serving others, we are serving the Lord; Jesus said when you serve others, you serve me (Matthew 25:35-40). Serving the Lord is what we were created to do, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it brings us joy!

As a start, I’ll try to check in on my friends more regularly, send more snail mail, try to say ‘yes’ more often and invite people round for a good meal that inspires community. From there, we’ll see how it goes!

Shabbat shalom.

 

*Apologies for the cringe-worthy Christianese but I felt it was appropriate here…

July intentions

I used to be incredibly goal orientated. Truth is, I still am, but with a 2 month old baby, achieving those goals has become increasingly difficult – even the simple ones. I used to get so much done each day, let alone each week or month. I loved the focus and the sense of accomplishment.

Being a Mama has taught me so many new things. Some of those things are:

  • the importance of being in the moment,
  • that small, simple tasks can be a real achievement and
  • that getting everything ticked off a list can’t be the source of my satisfaction.

June is half way through and we’re off on holiday next week so I’m looking ahead to July to some simple things that I’d like to do that are almost entirely centred on wellbeing:

  • Drink 2 litres of water a day (with this bottle which makes drinking water surprisingly enjoyable!)
  • Successfully plan friend’s hen do
  • Do a Quiet Time every day, no matter how short
  • Start a new book
  • Consciously look for ways to serve others
  • Review 6 month New Year goals
  • Start Tae Bo
  • Keep up to speed with CBT course
  • Invite someone round for dinner and plan a really fun meal that gets me back in the kitchen (including aperitif!)

We will see how it goes!

 

Trapped in the shadow

My husband possesses what I consider to be a quite remarkable character trait: he doesn’t worry about something until it happens, at which point he sets about dealing with it.

I on the other hand am capable of worrying about the most random, usually highly unlikely but equally highly imaginative scenarios, with great passion and backed up by research which I am quite certain is based on profoundly reliable sources.

He sees today and how today will impact tomorrow. I see a year ahead and wonder how I’m going to get there. Both have their merits but his method allows considerably more room for joy in the present.

If I turn off social media and answer the question my infinitely wise big sister asked me: “If you had nothing and nobody to compare it to, would you be happy with your life today?” The answer would be a resounding ‘yes!’

But this life and our culture forces its timings on us and its ticking hand and encroaching demands fool us into believing that something else is better. It robs us of our patience and tempts us towards things we never needed to know.

So I shall turn off social media for the next little while and instead of looking at other’s lives, I will try to divert that energy into rediscovering the beauty in my own. For it’s only by false comparison that my life looks dull. By returning my attention to my immediate surroundings, I have realised that the only reason my life had lost its shine was because I had trapped it in the shadow of another.

Memory triggers

Scent is the biggest memory trigger. As I was making breakfast this morning, I caught the smell of fresh coffee and it made me smile. In fact, it made me very happy for that moment. There are other smells that have a similar effect on me:

Brewing coffee or fresh coffee grounds – my Oma and Opa always used to put on a pot of coffee first thing in the mornings and my happy holidays in Germany always started by waking up to the smell of coffee. It made me feel like I was waking up to a new day, to new possibilities.

Freshly cut grass – I mean, who doesn’t? I even have hayfever and I still love it! It reminds me of carefree summers, of innocent play, of the loaded possibility of fun that the summer months promised.

My mother’s perfume – a simple comfort. My mother always smells good.

Roast dinner – coming home from Church on a Sunday to the house smelling of a roast was so wonderful. It was a routine, it was familiar and of course it smelled delicious!

Bonfires – Autumn is my favourite season so the smell of bonfires is a welcome reminder of the joy that is to come

Crisp air – some may say it doesn’t have a smell but I promise you it does. When I’ve been cooped up indoors all day, then emerge into the cool evening and inhale deeply, my shoulders relax and my head clears. Especially when I’m in Germany by the woods where the air is steeped in oxygen, this smell simply gives me some perspective.

I could probably add to this list indefinitely but for now, those are what trigger happy memories and remind me that the simple things in life are, without doubt, the best.

Escapism and the importance of creativity

Creativity is critical to contentment. It makes sense when you think about it. This world is a thing of beauty, designed by the ultimate Creator. It is inspiring by its very nature.*

The joy of creativity is that it offers us an escape from the rubbish of this world by transporting us temporarily to another reality. Really good creativity returns us to our lives with either renewed resolve or at least a clearer perspective. A good book, film, piece of music or art all have the power to reach a part of us that is untouchable by the rest of the world.

I find my escapism in movies – it’s why I’m so interested in film production and why, when I was younger (and still today), I used to sit in the cinema and wait until all the credits had rolled before leaving; I wanted to see the names of the people who had created this story that had pulled me in and made me ponder life.

My husband’s creative outlet is writing and he’s outrageously good at it. When I read his words, I am transported to Cairo, to France, to a time when life was different; not necessarily better or worse, just different. As well as entering into another world, there are phrases hidden throughout his work that capture elements of life beautifully. Through artistic prose, he explains what usually cannot be articulated.

This realisation of the importance of creativity has been quite ground-breaking for me. As Elspeth Thompson writes in The Wonderful Weekend Book: “We neglect our creativity at our peril.” Whatever our medium, we are all creative – be it in an acknowledged art form or simply in the way we find solutions to problems and use our initiative. If we suffocate this instinct in ourselves, it can have quite grave consequences. I’d go as far as to say that neglecting our creativity can be one of many triggers of illnesses such as depression. When we’re forced to conform to a rhythm of 9-5, sat at a desk in an office, many of us are moulding ourselves into something we were not born to be.

It’s no wonder then, that when my previous jobs have narrowed the scope for me to use my creativity, I have very quickly grown bored, stifled and moved on. When I’m not allowed to use my brain, to find a way to practice my creativity, my inner calm becomes agitated and I look for ways to rediscover that balance.

I’m thankful that my husband realised all of this long ago and has been pursuing ways to use his creativity. He has rejected the contemporary lifestyle of 9-5 in favour of living a life that far closer resembles one that is lived to its fullest. He is embracing his God-given gifts and creative instinct and he has made himself and our marriage more joyous in the process.

*pun completely intended

Why I love the American lifestyle

…as told through my rose-tinted glasses.

Ask me when I have been at my happiest and I will tell you, when I’ve been in America. Recently I’ve been trying to figure out why that is.

Standard American workplaces get c.10 days of holiday a year. We get around 25.

Until Obamacare kicks off properly, Americans have to pay for their health insurance. We have the NHS.

Americans have a work ethic that is fierce compared with the European work-life balance.

So what is it?

I think, for me, it’s that people and family always trump money. The generosity of spirit across all of the Americans I have met has been overwhelming. Their hospitality is genuine and all-encompassing and ultimately, certainly for the Americans I know, real life and real relationship take precedence over whatever demands this world makes.

I realise that my perspective is warped and that Americans as a nation are pursuing a Western dream and are often completely oblivious to the rest of the world. But even in their naivety they prioritise family and people.

I’m not sure how I, as an introvert, would truly survive state-side but I’d like to think that I’d embrace a work hard, play hard lifestyle, frequently interspersed with alone-time of course!