Thursday, March 8, 2018

March Musings: Mindfulness, Amelie, and Romanticism

We learned about the Romantic Period in my Humanities class yesterday, and I left filled with the words of John Keats and the art of Caspar David Friedrich. The Romantic perspective on life and emotion and creativity is (needless to say) quite inspiring, especially with its emphasis on the uncontrollable, terrifying, beautiful nature of the natural world, and when I got home, I took a little bit more time to really pay attention to what was going on around me. 
The birds. 
The flower leaning delicately against the edge of a vase on the kitchen counter. 
We don't notice these things as much as we should, and, while this is partly due to a lack of time (bills, work, etc.), it's also partly because we've become accustomed to the fast pace of life. I wrote about this a bit in my last post, and it's on my mind again because I was at work (substitute teaching for the win) the other day and noticed that, as soon as one activity came to an end, my students immediately needed to know what was coming next. Next. Next. Next. They were so anxious for the future that they completely missed the present, and what's sad is that one day they'll be grown up and look back on their lives and realize just how quickly time slipped away. But we've become dangerously comfortable with speed and stimulation. It bothers me how often my heart rate quickens and my jaw clenches when I'm waiting longer than I thought I'd be for something or when I'm uncertain about the future. I'm a worrier. I angst about whether or not I'll be able to control what's going to happen in my life, and little schedule changes can throw me for a loop. But I wasn't always like this. I was once much more flexible, patient, and calm, and I'm realizing that the constant bombardment of information and stimuli that we're all exposed to nowadays has a scary effect on our brains. Our attention spans are getting shorter, and today it's harder for us to focus on and appreciate things than it was forty years ago. 
The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain. (Kevin McSpadden, TIME Magazine)
I keep thinking of Amelie Poulain in the movie Amelie. (You know, the beautiful Jean-Pierre Jeunet film about the quirky girl with the cute haircut and infectious optimism?) Amelie is genuinely fascinated by the simple things in life. She lives each day with love and enthusiasm and adorable uniqueness, and she's never scrolling mindlessly on the Internet searching for things to compare herself to. If she were, she wouldn't be Amelie, and the world would be such a sad place without Amelie in it! 

Lately, I've been reading some books on yoga and mindfulness, and a theme I've come across is that mindfulness practitioners maintain their childlike fascination. Note that "childlike" doesn't mean immature or unworldly; it simply implies that one is open and receptive and interested. Instead of beginning each day with baited breath and angst, we could "inhale lots of love in" (as Adriene Mishler would say) and "Carpe Diem" (thank you, Mr. Keating of Dead Poets Society). By living with compassion for ourselves and what's around us, we could help make the world a better place. I'm not trying to get all cliched here, but wouldn't it be nice if we all felt love for one another? Change starts from within.
One of my best tips on going "within" (from someone who's still trying to get there, LOL) is to think about the things that make your spirit happy and that make you feel connected to the world around you on a deep level. My brother, for instance, is genuinely enthusiastic about insects. He's even got a blog about it (, and his love for the environment motivates him to do his best in school and be the best version of himself because he believes that, if he tries hard enough, he can help the planet heal. So far, he's managed to convince many of his classmates not to step on stink bugs, and that's a big accomplishment for insect-lovers everywhere ;).
So what is it that inspires you to be the best version of yourself? Know that it's totally okay not to have a single defined passion! You don't have to be a die-hard super-fan of any single thing . . . just look out at the world with compassion and interest like Amelie does. Cracking creme brulee can be an amazing experience in and of itself, regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a culinary aficionado.

<3 Frances 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Stepping Out of the Spiral

I watch the empty boxes in my calendar fill up more and more every day, and I have a new appreciation for the quiet moments in between this and that. I know I still resist pause and stillness, but I'm realizing more now just how important it is to step back and take a deep breath and then act form a place of intention instead of just dropping into the spiral and letting it take you away. Move with life, not against it, and draw your energy from compassion and gratitude and thoughtfulness, not stress and anxiety. This is a practice I am definitely a beginner in. 

My grandmum's Pema Chodron and Louise Hay books seem particularly relevant now, and I keep wishing that my grandmum hadn't died so young. I thought fifty-eight was old when I was little, but now I realize that she should've been around longer than that. Ghosting immunological diseases and a heart that felt too deeply pushed her too far, too fast, and I'm grateful for every day she woke up and hid arthritis and inflammation behind a smile and pretended she was okay. I have to think of her every time I feel scared or uncertain or resistant and remind myself that there is so much to be grateful for and that, if I really want to do something good in the world, I need to step out of my spiral.  
It's very easy to get caught in the drama and energy and push of the moment. We spend so much time staring into the addictive blue light of our screens that the world can at time seem to be made up entirely of what's online and what's glorified by our society as "admirable" and "worthy." Just this morning I read Zan Romanoff's article on the culture of fitness:
The deification of “better, harder, faster, more” can also be damaging to so-called “healthy” bodies, ones which are relatively fit and free of injury. The fetishization of never-ending accomplishment, which thrives by one-upping itself, can create a perpetually striving mindset that’s very good for selling class packages, but very bad for finding any kind of actual mental peace. And so the same drive that brings someone into an exercise class, and keeps them attending even when they’re tired and it’s tough, can become a liability when the challenge facing them is that they need to take a week off. 
It's great to appreciate your physical self and want to take care of it, but Romanoff's article brings up a good point: our modern, Western culture has developed a fitness class obsession. SoulCycle. Barry's Bootcamp. CrossFit. When taken too far, fitness can become dogmatic. Doctrinal. 

If you're not pushing yourself, you're not trying hard enough. 
If you don't hurt, it doesn't count. 
If you're not ___, you're nothing.

But why do we think this way? Movement is part of a healthy lifestyle, sure, but it's not the be-all, end-all, and it's not as complicated as we make it out to be. Fitness classes are a luxury, and everyone's "healthiest version of themself" is different. Some people are sick. Some people are in pain. Some people have dealt with an unhealthy relationship with exertion. The bottom line is that movement should be for mental health and physical refreshment, not to achieve some sort of media-hyped body goal or to fuel an obsession. Prioritize compassion, love, and a positive mindset. Let the rest unfold.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Daydreams, Music, and the Olympics

Songs are like books. They keep us company. I've been listening to a lot of Florence + the Machine lately (and Kate Bush and the Smashing Pumpkins and Lykke Li, lol), and I found a quote by Florence Welch that I think is a good reminder to all of us to embrace our inner children every now and then:

From EnglHub

Did anyone get a chance to see the opening ceremony for the Olympics last night?  I was really excited to get to see some of it with my younger (but much taller) brother. He and I spend a lot of time together . . . we used to eat lunch together every day in high school, which people thought was bizarre because teenage siblings usually aren't best friends.  But there's nothing quite like getting to be fully and unapologetically yourself with someone who knows the extent of your introverted, ridiculous awkwardness! Anyway, the opening ceremony was really beautiful. It captured so much of Korean culture in such a magical fairy tale way--complete with phoenixes and giant white tigers--and at the end, there was a performance of John Lennon's "Imagine" that almost made me cry.  Here it is, in case you missed it:

Beautiful, isn't it? I'm very excited for the figure skating portions of the Olympics. It's like seeing a ballet performance, and the flexibility, strength, and grace of the skaters are amazing.  They can spin and leap and jump while on ice. Meanwhile, I'm over here trying to sort of/almost do a semi-decent Natarajasana (Lord of the Dancer) in yoga. (And now I feel all yoga-y because I just used the official Sanskrit term for a pose for the first time.)

The "ShibSibs" (from NBC)

I'm sending sweet thoughts for everyone on this second Saturday in February.  The time around Valentine's can be difficult sometimes, but please remember that you are loved <3, and please take some time to show yourself some loving-kindness, too. In my research on movement and creativity therapy right now, I've found that cultivating compassion for ourselves and others is just as important for well-being as movement (I hesitate to use the word "exercise" because it can be anxiety-provoking) and wholesome nourishment (not dieting!) are. I've been feeling stressed out lately because of some personal stuff and because of some new jobs that I'm excited about but also nervous about, and taking time to breathe and ground myself has been very helpful. So is this video here by Michelle Elman:

If you haven't watched Michelle's TEDX Talk, you definitely should. It's incredibly moving and beautiful.

That's all for this morning. Now back to my essays :).  Big hugs for everybody!

<3 Frances

Friday, February 2, 2018

Starting a Home Yoga Practice: Calm Over Chaotic

Between yesterday's Super Blue Blood Moon and the start of a new month, it's a perfect time to embrace change and work on cultivating more compassion. Yay! Here's an adorable little picture to get you psyched for warm fuzzies:

From We Love Cats and Kittens 

I've been doing a lot of research lately into the science of empathy, compassion, and overall wellness, and something I've found mentioned over and over again is mindfulness. Yes, the whole "mindfulness" thing is definitely trending right now, but it's so much more than a fad. In its sincerest, most basic form, mindfulness is a mind-body healing practice that has roots in almost all traditions and philosophies.  Prayer, meditation, contemplation . . . they're all forms of mindfulness practice, and they have profound mental and physical health benefits.  Some of the biggest of these benefits can be boiled down to the simple phenomenon of stress reduction. Mindfulness practices help you breathe and decrease your cortisol levels. Less cortisol means better sleep, better skin, and a happy tummy.  It can also help you interact with others more positively.  If you're not freaked out all the time, then you can engage with the world in a more open, optimistic way. (See picture of Amelie Poulain below for inspiration.)

From tumblr
One of the most fun ways you can practice mindfulness at home is by finding hobbies and activities that activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that calms you down) and give you an outlet for expressing yourself.  Yoga and dancing are two of my favorites. I remember a few years ago, back when I was running running running all the time, a friend who I admired as being very compassionate and Amelie-like told me that she felt "so calm" because she'd done yoga, and I had this mini-paradigm shift. I think that intense exercise can be wonderful for many people, and I adore 1980's aerobics videos, but for personal health reasons, I've recently had to shift to more traditionally "relaxing" forms of movement.  Like increases like, and because my stress hormones tend to run very high, I need to focus on slowing myself down more than I need to focus on speeding myself up.  I resisted yoga for a very long time because staying still and breathing deeply don't come naturally to me.  Every time I saw a magazine cover or a TV advertisement, there was an image of a sweaty girl in Lulu Lemon doing pushups and panting, and I felt drawn to that sort of intense movement. I felt that I needed to push myself as hard as I could, but the harder I pushed, the higher my standard became.  Soon, nothing felt "challenging" enough, and I couldn't get the endorphin rush needed to reduce my cortisol levels until I'd "hit the wall." 
Note to self: hitting the wall isn't always a good thing!
A few weeks ago, I started doing yoga at home with my mum. The only sort of "cardio" I do comes from cleaning, teaching, the occasional impromptu dance practice, and walking around campus. At first, the shift from cardio junkie to wannabe yogi was challenging because my body was so used to pumping itself up on energizing cortisol hormones every time I went to "exercise," but I'm starting to embrace relaxation and restoration over pushing myself.  And I can actually almost get my heels on the floor in downward dog. OMG.
The reason I'm sharing this isn't to give a big long post about my life and what I'm doing for movement because I know that stuff isn't important. There are WAY more important things going on in the world right now, and I spend 99% of my time thinking about school, the news, writing, library books, my job, my pets, my family, and getting into a speech & communication disorders program at university.  But because yoga has been so helpful for my mental and physical health, I wanted to write about it here just in case anyone out there is resisting mindfulness practices the way that I once did.  The media makes it look like we have to push ourselves hard all the time, but we don't. Move like you love yourself, and if that movement doesn't look like what you see in Nike ads, don't sweat it.
Anyway, if you're looking to start a yoga practice, here are some links that will help you out :). Adriene Mishler's YouTube videos are warm and inviting and encouraging, and she has something for everyone. I strongly recommend her 30 Day "True" program, which ran throughout January but is still available as playlist on her channel.  I also love Lesley Fightmaster's videos.  She has several beginners' playlists, and I enjoy her meditation videos, too.  SarahBeth Yoga is another good channel. The video for IBS and colitis is very helpful.

Yoga With Adriene:
Lesley Fightmaster:

Love and light!
<3 Frances

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Things Like Stars and Yoga and Podcasts

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?”  

It's Virginia Woolf's 136th birthday today! She's one of my favorite writers, and when I was accepted to study English at KCL last year, I couldn't believe it because KCL was the school she studied at. I obviously didn't end up moving to London and attending KCL, but I keep the letter from them on my desk just because I like seeing it.  And it's a more positive reminder of Virginia Woolf than the movie The Hours is.  I love The Hours for its tragedy and depth, but if I watch it again I'm afraid I'll end up an emotional wreck.  Are there any particularly heartbreaking movies that you feel drawn to?  I have a hard time not watching sad movies or reading sad stories because they're so powerful.
From Wikipedia

Speaking of which . . . this month, I discovered the On Being podcast.  Whenever I'm doing work-work, school-work, or house-work, I like keeping company by listening to podcasts, and the On Being show is amazing. Perhaps the best description of it is from the pod's website:
On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? We explore these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors. We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact. 
I'm hoping to write more here later about episode suggestions, but if you have the time, you should definitely listen to the episodes with Marie Howe and Matthew Sanborn.  Howe's episode is perfect for Virginia Woolf's birthday. It's about "how language . . . has a power to save us," and it explores the way poetry brings experiences to life and makes us each a little less lonely.  Sanford's episode is about feeling compassion and appreciation for our bodies, and Sanford's story is incredibly compelling.  Paralyzed as a 13 year-old, he now teaches yoga to everyone from those overcoming physical disabilities to teens battling eating disorders, and his perspective on life is eye-opening. You really have to listen to the episode or read the transcript to get the full impact of his thoughts, but one of the things that he said that stood out to me the most was that, instead of focusing on ways in which his body isn't working, he focuses on all the amazing work it does just to keep him alive. Wow. It's beautiful.
From Daily Mom
The last little tidbit for this morning is (cue fun music) morning yoga! Yay! There is a lot of struggle and disconnect and resistance in the world right now, and stress is something that we all experience on a daily basis. As you may know from previous posts of mine, I've been working to combat the body-image/control issues that have resulted from anxiety, and when I'm stressed, I have a tendency to want to move into GOGOGOGO mode. 
But Ayurveda teaches us that like increases like. If you're freaked out and high-strung and do activities that build on those feelings, then they're just going to get worse. So I've had to hang up my "harder, faster, stronger" fitness mentality and focus more on softness and flexibility, which I've come to realize may actually be better for my health than constantly pushing the limit was.  Truth is, running fast and far may be exhilarating for some, but for me it usually just meant feeling wired.  I got high off the endorphins, but then all I could think about was the endorphins and when I'd "hit the wall" again . . . which is bad!  Now that I'm foregoing heart-gargling intensity for yoga, I'm finding that I'm thinking a lot more clearly. I've always appreciated yoga, but I never realized just how true all those "yoga changes your mind" stories are. The past three days, my mum and I have done short Yoga With Adriene or Lesley Fightmaster videos together to detox after work, and during one of Adriene's detox videos, my mum and I actually managed to really breathe for the first time.  We didn't take those shallow stress breaths we normally take but rather long, deep breaths with audible exhalations, and it was really freeing to be loose and fluid, not tight and rigid.
So if you're feeling anxious or knotted up or under pressure, maybe take five minutes (yes, just five minutes) and try a little "feel good" movement with Adriene.  See? I'm making it easy and putting the video right here, just a click away :).

Much love and light!
<3 Frances

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Be Your Body's Friend

School and work are back in session now after the holiday break, and awards season is here, too. That's less relevant to day-to-day life, but I admit that, as a filmophile, I really do enjoy hearing about seeing what shows/movies/screenplays/etc. are recognized every year, and my mum and I share the guilty pleasure of talking about red carpet fashions and hairstyles.  We also always appreciate that there's been a recent movement towards more diversity in body image, with people being more honest about photo editing and makeup trips. Media representations of what is "normal" still have a long way to go, but at least there is more awareness nowadays that most of the images that we see aren't realistic.

On a related note . . . I posted a few days ago about New Year's resolutions and the value of flexibility, nourishment, and self-respect over restriction and limitation and self-hate, and I want to touch on this again as it relates to facing our fears and moving forward with our lives so that we can be happy, productive, meaningful members of life. I know from experience that it can be easy to become very obsessive about things/rules/etc. that we see presented to us in the media. Dieting and fitness-ing are super "in" right now. If you're in Lycra and have a SoulCycle habit, you're cool.  Beautiful.  Successful.  And while I'm all for people doing things that make them happy and healthy, there are times when the pressure to be the Lycra-SoulCycle-chick is actually super detrimental to us.  When we congratulate ourselves for making our lives small and for hyper-focusing on things like what we're eating and how much we're exercising, we limit our potential to do meaningful things and we put our health at risk at the same time. It's a double-whammy! 
Here's the truth: all our bodies are DIFFERENT. While running long distances may be fun and healthy for one girl, gentler forms of movement may be better for another, and the sort of lifestyle choices we make are subject to change over time based on what our situations are. 

Don't compare yourself to other people.  
There are much better things you could be doing with your time!

I know, I know--this is much easier said than done.  One of the reasons I'm writing this is that a few days ago I a had a revelatory moment while standing in the middle of Goodwill with my mum. We were dropping off a donation and popped into the store to quickly take a peek at the racks of old sweaters, flannels, and dresses, and I realized just how much I needed to fix my perception of wellness.  In the past, I too fell victim to so much of what the world tells us about what is "healthy," and I've been working on getting over many of the "rules" that I've set for myself over the years.  With the new year here, I'm committing to a lot of things (the environment, writing, reading . . . .), and one of them is to finally break away from the limiting beliefs propagated by our image-focused culture. 

We're surrounded by so many edited, filtered images and presentations of "health" that our expectations for ourselves are totally distorted.  We look in the mirror and expect to see features that are for many of us physically impossible, and, if we do achieve the renowned "thigh gap" or "six pack," it's often at the expense of our health in other areas. I saw a fitness ad recently that said "Once you see results, you're addicted."  This message made me sad because changing our bodies can become addictive, and if taken too far, it can mess up our lives in really big ways.  The things that we obsess over controlling eventually control us. Don't sacrifice your mental and physical health and your ability to live a meaningful life just because our culture glamorizes hardcore fitness and dieting.  

Much love today!
<3 Frances

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Girls of Art Nouveau

I'm sad to admit that I never knew who Frances and Margaret MacDonald were until just recently.  Their art is the intersection of fantastical and Victorian, and in many ways their paintings seem to have emerged from a book of Celtic fairy tales or an Isadora Duncan dance.

All images from JSTOR.

Frances and Margaret were one half of the "Glasgow Four," a group of artists who came together in the 1890s at the Glasgow School of Art.  The other two members of the Four were Margaret's husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frances' husband Herbert MacNair. Together, the sisters and their spouses took an innovative approach to artwork that incorporated watercolors, mysticism, and nature, and Frances and Margaret were particularly innovative in their depiction of women.  They captured the feminine in a way that appealed to Victorian grace but contradicted Victorian rigidity, and the girls they painted took on the qualities of faeries.  

They drew from Victorian Puritanism and Celtic Spiritualism and created ground-breaking pieces. Elongated bodies and a characteristic dreamy palette are ever-present. Colors are light, neutral, metallic, natural and mythical at the same time. And yet, there are touches of modernity, like geometric symmetry and the use of squares. (Green)

Sadly, Frances died in 1921, at the age of 48.  It is suspected that her death was a suicide. Margaret made no known artwork after 1921, and she died in 1933. I can't help but to imagine that Margaret's reduction in productivity was at least in part related to the loss of her sister, and I'm grateful to have learned about the two of them and their beautiful work. Their paintings are like looking into a dream world--something fit for the Fairy Pools of Scotland's Isle of Skye!

<3 Frances

Further reading:

"Glasgow and After"

"Margaret MacDonald"

"The Scottish Sisters Who Pioneered Art Nouveau"