Life lessons

Life Lessons From the Mat: Rest Now

May 27, 2016

Photo courtesy windyschneider

After two weeks of reno chaos, I’m finally able to leave my house for more than the absolute essentials. Yesterday I indulged in the simple pleasure of my favorite local yoga class—Yoga for Stress Relief.

In this class, we use props such as bolsters, blocks and blankets, to help us hold restorative poses without straining and tiring our muscles. We let the props support and cradle us, allowing us to go deeper, hold longer, and really relax into the poses. Yesterday, as I have so many times before, even as I settled into a pose, I could feel my muscles clenched and tense, holding on even when they didn’t need to. I had to consciously relax them into the support beneath me. I could almost hear my body sigh with relief as the instructor led us through the day’s sequence and I began to let go of my tension.

It occurs to me that I do the same thing in other parts of my life. Even when support and help is available, I don’t ask for it. If someone offers to help, I don’t always accept it. I don’t use the resources available to me, just like I don’t relax and let the props do their job in yoga class.


Well, let’s see: independence (not to say stubbornness), fear of being a bother or a burden, a bit of control-freakishness, and a dash of the two-year-old’s, “I can do it myself!” Oh, yes, those are good reasons.

Even in our more strenuous classes, our yoga instructors remind us there’s nothing wrong with using props to make our poses more effective. Every body is different and requires different support to work its best. We are to listen to our bodies and give them what they need, both on and off the mat. It’s a lesson I’m slowly learning.

Aside from the obvious physical and mental benefits, the message of the Yoga for Stress Relief class is: “Rest now. You don’t have to do it all by yourself.” A good message for us all, and not just while we’re on the mat.

So the next time you need me, you’ll find me in savasana, supported by a folded blanket under my head, a bolster beneath my knees, and an eye pillow draped over my eyes. 

Rest now.

Gina Barreca

Joy Waits for an Invitation

May 25, 2016

Photo courtesy Karin Henseler

“Unlike bad times, however, good times aren’t bullies that break down the doors and barge in. Joy and pleasure are, instead, excellent guests and, as such, they wait for an invitation. You have to open the door to life’s best moments; you have to invite them in and welcome them when they arrive.

“To be honest, I’ve always found that it’s best to make a big fuss when good times appear at the threshold. You want them to feel absolutely at home. You wouldn’t want them to feel that, while you’re happy enough to see them, you were expecting a little more razzle-dazzle. They might not come again. They depend on genuine hospitality. You wouldn’t want them to think they’d arrived too late, or were deemed insignificant, or were weighed and found wanting.”
—Gina Barreca, “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?”

Everyday adventures

Happiness A to Z--26 Things That Make Me Happy

May 20, 2016

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”
—Guillaume Appollinaire

Just for fun, I arranged this alphabetical list of 26 things that make me happy. (Click on the highlighted words to go to a related post.)

  • Animals. Companions, friends and teachers. 
Miss you, Scout
  • Book stores. New, used, online—I’m not picky.
  • Chocolate. Yum. 
  • Drawing. Also known as sketching. 

  • Hugs. Few things feel better than a really good hug.
  • Internet. Font of information…and time waster. 
  • Journals. If I don’t write about it, did it really happen?
  • Kisses. Mwaah! (That’s supposed to be a kissing noise.)
  • Laughing. Right up there with hugs on the feel-good-o-meter. 
  • Massages. My back has been feeling a little stiff lately…
  • Naps. Say zzzzz… 
  • Orchids. A dangerous hobby. 

  • Pomegranates. Counting the months until pomegranate season. 
  • Quiet. Looking forward to some after our bathroom renovation is completed.
How do you like the new location for the tub?
  • Rocking Chairs. Rocking in one as I write this.
  • Singing. Love to listen to it, love to do it.
  • Tank. Need I say more? 

  • Underdogs. They have the best stories.
  • Vacations. I’m ready for the next one.
Walden Pond
  • Writing. Sort of a love/hate relationship, truthfully. 
  • Xmas. Hey, you try finding a happy thing beginning with X.
  • Yoga. Ommmm. 
  • Zone. As in getting in the, and sometimes as in escaping the comfort.
Tag, you’re it! What’s on your happy list? Please share in the comments.

Dorianne Laux

What We Don't Say

May 18, 2016

Photo courtesy Randy Storey

Introduction by Ted Kooser: After my mother died, her best friend told me that they were so close that they could sit together in a room for an hour and neither felt she had to say a word. Here's a fine poem by Dorianne Laux, about that kind of silence. Her most recent book is The Book of Men (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012) and she lives in North Carolina.

Enough Music

Sometimes, when we're on a long drive,
and we've talked enough and listened
to enough music and stopped twice,
once to eat, once to see the view,
we fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it's what we don't say
that saves us.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1994 by Dorianne Laux, “Enough Music,” (What We Carry, BOA Editions, 1994). Poem reprinted by permission of Dorianne Laux and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Boaty McBoatface

Link Love--Chaos Edition

May 13, 2016

For the past few days, our master bathroom has been torn up while we have our shower and tub surround rebuilt, and a new floor laid. As these things do, what started with a few tiles coming loose morphed into something much greater. Oh, well, after nearly 20 years, it’s time for a change. While I’m close to home supervising the work, comforting the cat (who’s having a nervous breakdown) and researching such fun home projects as “how to take wallpaper down” and “hanging a towel bar on ceramic tile,” here are some links that have kept me sane during the process:

Positively Present’s Dani DiPirro wrote this fine piece, “10 Things Happy People Don’t Do” for  Don’t get stuck in a negativity trap.

“Happiness is not a goal or a dream, it is a state of mind” is the first of “Eight Forgotten Truths About Happiness.”

This story cracked me up: an online poll to name a new polar research ship in Britain results in a hilarious choice. While the research vessel won’t be named Boaty McBoatface, one of its remotely operated sub-sea vehicles will be.  

For those of you navigating midlife with me, this thought-provoking post by author Brene Brown notes that midlife is not about answers, it’s about living the questions.

Lucky or unlucky, today is Friday the 13th.  Check out these 13 fun facts about the day. 

I’ve spent far too much time giggling at the antics of Simon’s Cat:

OK, back to the chaos. Hope you have a very happy (and lucky) Friday!

Demolition of shower in progress

Ernest Dimnet

What Destroys Happiness

May 11, 2016

Photo courtesy Dikaseva
 “The happiness of most people is not ruined by great catastrophes or fatal errors, but by the repetition of slowly destructive little things.”
—Ernest Dimnet


The One Thing That Will Really Make You Happy

May 09, 2016

What really makes us happy and healthy? According to the longest study of human development that’s ever been done, it’s not money, not fame, and not a high-powered career. According to Robert Waldinger, the (fourth!) director of the 75-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.” (Click here to see Waldinger’s TED talk on the subject.) 

That’s good news—because building close connections is something we can all do, no matter where we live, no matter how much money we have, or what kind of work we do. Waldinger noted that people didn’t have to be in a committed relationship, or have a huge number of friends to see the benefits. What mattered was the quality of the relationships. With that in mind, here are three simple ways we can improve our oh-so-important-for-happiness relationships:

Touch base more often. If you’re like me, you often take your friends and family for granted, missing out on opportunities to build closeness. One of my goals in 2016 has been to keep in better touch with those I love, using whatever method they find easy to use. Many of my loved ones live far away from me, so I’ve been texting, calling, sending messages on Facebook, even—gasp!—writing snail mail letters more often.   If they do live near me, I’m making more of an effort to spend time together. I feel more connected to my family and friends, and that makes me happier.

Show appreciation. Research shows that feeling appreciated is one major contributor to lasting loving relationships. Think about all the ways your loved one contributes to your life—does your spouse earn a good living? Is your mom a great listener? Does your son or daughter make you laugh?  What about that friend who never forgets your birthday? Let him or her know you’ve noticed and say thank you. We just hosted a big weekend family gathering and not only did everyone thank us, they brought us a card and gift! It feels good to be appreciated—and we’re also much more likely to want to host future family events because we know our family appreciates it when we do.

Love the one you’re with. Have you noticed that your partner (or child, parent, or friend) isn’t perfect, or doesn’t always behave just as you’d like them to? Yup, so have I. Instead of wasting time fretting about this, really see them, appreciate them for who they are, and don’t try to change them. Love them anyway. The following quote has helped me enormously (unfortunately, I can’t remember who said it): “Love them with your heart, not your ego.”

I feel lucky to have many close and loving relationships with family and friends, and knowing how important those connections are to my happiness and health only makes me want to work harder on staying close. It’s a simple pleasure within reach of us all.

How do you stay connected with the people you love?


When the Cranes Fly

May 04, 2016

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Early each spring, Nebraska hosts, along a section of the Platte River, several hundred thousand sandhill cranes. It's something I wish everyone could see. Don Welch, one of the state's finest poets, lives under the flyway, and here's his take on the migration. His most recent book is Gnomes, (Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2013).

With Spring In Our Flesh

With spring in our flesh
the cranes come back,
funneling into a north
cold and black.

And we go out to them,
go out into the town,
welcoming them with shouts,
asking them down.

The winter flies away
when the cranes cross.
It falls into the north,
homeward and lost.

Let no one call it back
when the cranes fly,
silver birds, red-capped,
down the long sky.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2015 by Don Welch, “With Spring In Our Flesh.” Poem reprinted by permission of Don Welch. Introduction copyright ©2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


Are You All Stressed Out? Great!

May 02, 2016

Photo courtesy Ryan McGuire

I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of stress. That is, until I read The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. She completely changed the way I look at stress—and at the challenges in my life. 

I first began to consider that stress wasn’t the demon it’s been made out to be when I listened to McGonigal’s TED talk on the subject (thanks to Laure Ferlita for sending me the link). At the time, my main takeaway from the talk was this quote: “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.” I’d been avoiding discomfort as much as I can, because I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and I don’t feel I handle the stressful aspects of life well. (To put it in McGonigal’s terms, I’m not “good at stress.”) However, McGonigal makes clear that there are consequences to avoiding the discomfort of stress, including missed opportunities and a limited future. She also notes that avoiding anxiety-producing situations has the opposite effect to making you feel safe, because it reinforces fears and increases your worries about future anxiety. Huh.

I’d sum up the book this way: Whether or not stress is harmful depends on your mindset. Change the way you perceive stress and you will change how it affects you. As McGonigal writes, “The same experiences that give rise to daily stress can also be sources of uplift or meaning—but we must choose to see them that way.” How do we do this? McGonigal offers several tools and exercises, or mindset interventions, to help us to make that shift. There’s so much good material in the book that I recommend you read it. In the meantime, here are some of the points I found most interesting:

One of the most effective ways to change how you think about stress is to determine and write about your personal values. This practice, according to McGonigal, makes people feel more in control, strong, loving, and connected. Even better, the benefits of this practice can be long lasting, even if you only do it once. Why is this so powerful? McGonigal reports that analysis of studies concluded, “When people are connected to their values, they are more likely to believe that they can improve their situation through effort and the support of others. That makes them more likely to take positive action and less likely to use avoidant coping strategies like procrastination and denial.”

Changing how you respond to the physical symptoms of anxiety and stress can help you see stressful events as challenges rather than threats.  Do you think anxiety drains you, or can you see how it can be a source of energy? The only difference between the rush you get when doing something fun/scary versus something scary/scary is how you perceive the event. When you feel physical and mental signs of anxiety and stress, tell yourself you’re excited. I used this concept recently when the horse I was riding spooked. All that adrenalin was helping me stay alert and focused! (Not to mention in the saddle instead of on the ground.) As McGonigal says, turn your “uh-oh” to “oh, yeah!”

Failure and setbacks are NOT to be avoided. McGonigal writes, “[People] view [failure] as something to avoid at all costs because it will reveal that they aren’t smart or talented enough. This mindset can creep in whenever we are at a growth edge, pursuing any goal or change that is beyond our current abilities. Too often, we perceive setbacks as signals to stop—we think they mean something is wrong with us or with our goals…”

A stress-free life is not necessarily a happier life. Interestingly, people who have a life without adversity are less happy and healthy than those who have experienced “an average number of traumatic events,” and they’re significantly less satisfied with their lives, according to McGonigal.

Yes, it is true that stress can be harmful under certain circumstances, notably when you feel inadequate to it, it isolates you from others, and it feels meaningless and against your will. While there may be times when these conditions are beyond your control, the strategies mapped out in The Upside of Stress can help you grow from stress, and learn to transform it into something positive.

Some books have made a huge difference in my life—The Upside of Stress is one of them. It left me feeling more optimistic about my ability to thrive under stressful conditions rather than curl into a ball and hide. Though I haven’t gone so far as to wish for stressful experiences, after reading The Upside of Stress, I feel better prepared to face them when they inevitably show up.

What stressful experiences have you found most meaningful?