Wellness Wednesday – Building My Happy Place

One of my goals this year is to meditate more often. I’d begun to get into the habit back in the fall of 2017, but fell away from it before I’d gotten far enough in for it to be a real habit. I’ve followed through a number of times this January, each for a ten-minute stretch. I use Insight Timer, an app recommended to me by my friend Becca (Lost in Books), set to an ambient “Raindrops” sound. The app is free without ads and there is no talking throughout the meditation unless you ask for it, and you can set it to complete silence as well. I like the Raindrops setting because it sounds more like a river running over rocks with wind blowing through trees. It reminds me of the summers I spent out at the Frio River growing up. There’s a little series of musical notes that plays periodically which doesn’t sound like wind chimes, but reminds me of them as well.

In the past when I’ve meditated, I’ve tried to empty my mind and focus on my breath. However, last week I asked myself something that I haven’t asked in awhile: Where is my “happy place?” Where would be my ideal setting, the place where I would feel most serene. I haven’t asked myself this for a long time, because the answer has been rooted in the past. As I said back in December, though, I’ve begun to let that past go. It seemed an appropriate time to revisit the question.

To my surprise, a place immediately blossomed in my mind when I began my meditation session. I was in a screened-in porch surrounded by trees – live oaks and mesquite trees and bald cypresses, many hung with ball moss and Spanish moss. The wind was blowing. In the distance, I could hear a river running over rocks, though I couldn’t see it. The porch had wood floors covered by a large homemade oval braided rug. I sat on a comfy armchair, legs curled underneath me, a round table to one side with a book, a journal, a notebook, and a pen on it. I was in my pajamas, held a cup of coffee, and had a cat purring on the chair beside me. The temperature was warm without being hot, and there was a breeze tinkling through wind chimes. It was either sunrise or sunset – didn’t matter which – and I watched the sky transition while I drank my coffee.

The image was so startlingly clear that I could sketch it if I had any measure of artistic talent, and it was a whole sensory experience. I could feel the breeze and the steam off my coffee and the cat’s purring. I could smell the river and trees and the dewy ground outside. I could taste the coffee. I could hear water and rustling leaves and wind chimes. Even my pajamas were specific – a ribbed tank top with loose soft shorts that I could feel as if I were currently wearing them. And while it’s true that I’ve always wanted a screened-in porch like my grandmother’s (complete with oval braided rug), this particular porch was nothing like my grandmother’s. It was wholly my own. It felt right.

Back in 2015 when I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and began the KonMari process, I skipped the “before you begin” section of visualizing what you want your life to be. Situationally and mentally, I was not in a place where I could answer that question. Now, thanks to letting go, I’m starting to get into a good place to ask. Of course, I live with other people, and my idea of an ideal life will not be the same as the four others here, who will all have different ideas. But I have my own spaces in this house, and one day hope to have a place that is purely “a room of my own,” as Ms Woolf says. Now that I’ve begun to create that happy place in my mind, I have a lot more direction in reality. I’ve started on that path that I’ve found so elusive for much of the last five years.

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Song of Blood and Stone, by L. Penelope

The barrier between a magic land and a non-magic land is breaking. War threatens. Out in a remote cabin on the non-magical side, Jasminda is unaware of the impending danger. Her entire family has passed away before her, and she struggles to keep her home in the face of her country’s prejudice, as she is half-magical from a mixed-race family. Jack is trying to escape from the magical army he infiltrated as a spy, and stumbles upon Jasminda while gravely injured. She tries to heal him and help him on his mission, but as always missions aren’t clear-cut and may do more damage than good in the process.

This is the book I should have started 2019 with! This was fantastic!! Everything about it was good – the writing, the conflicts, the characters, the pace, the integrated world-building, the folktales that began every chapter. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this book but I will now sing its praises to everyone. I cannot wait for the next volume in the series. Things I particularly loved:

– There are a lot of “twists” that are obviously coming, but the characters aren’t surprised by them and often figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. Twists and revelations are often in books, but it’s rare to see characters figure them out almost immediately rather than having to stumble along in ignorance forever and be intensely surprised when they’re revealed.

– None of the characters were wholly good or evil. Everyone had reasons behind what they did, whether those actions were good or bad.

– Multiple political viewpoints were addressed, with valid reasonings (if not always compassionate reasonings) behind each of them. People didn’t always act rationally, and sometimes they found strength and compassion through growth while others found only greater hatefulness and spite.

– Deeply-rooted personal and societal prejudices were not easily overcome, and in some cases not overcome at all. Folks who held nothing against people different from them still easily used derogatory slang, not thinking their words hurt or meant anything bad. Folks who discovered that their long-held belief systems were based on a lie didn’t change, but created new belief systems to accommodate their old thoughts. Nothing systematic can be overcome even at the advent of miracles, and this book doesn’t pretend otherwise.

– (mild spoiler) Jasminda isn’t a “chosen one.” She ends up the center of things by pure circumstance and family heritage, and in the end, her magic is weak and unable to help much in the ultimate conflict/crisis. Other, stronger magical folk have to step forward, and Jasminda has only her personal strength, determination, and grit to rely on. In a book that pits the magical against the non-magical, it was wonderful to see a woman with magic rely on her non-magic strengths to succeed.

I loved so much more than these but I don’t want to create a novel here in this post. I do want to note one small thing regarding the book’s label. I’ve seen a lot of people mark the book as young adult on Goodreads, but this is not YA. Jasminda may be nineteen, but there are a lot of adult topics and adult scenes written out. This comes with a potential trigger warning as well –  there is attempted rape in this novel. However, if these things aren’t problems for you, I highly recommend getting ahold of Song of Blood and Stone.

Posted in 2019, Adult, Prose | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday Coffee – A Bizarre Experience

Y’all probably remember me saying on multiple occasions that when I read a book too fast, I feel really sick afterwards. I don’t suppose I’ve ever really elaborated on what “sick” means, because it’s not just a blah feeling. I feel literally sick, with symptoms similar to a head cold (swollen throat, stuffy nose, headache, sinus swelling, etc). This is a very mild version of something I experienced often in adolescence and my early twenties. I’ll give three examples of the worst times:

Early high school, the day before a swim meet, I played Super Mario all afternoon at a cousins’ house. My family didn’t have video games at home, so this was unfamiliar. I spent so many hours doing it that I began to get sick. That night, I dreamed of the video game in black and white all night (I only ever dream b&w when I’m ill) and the next morning I had the stomach flu and had to miss my swim meet. No one else in the family was sick or got sick afterwards, and the symptoms disappeared as soon as the video game kept racing through my head.

Sophomore year in high school, a friend gave me a cassette of U2’s Zooropa to listen to and copy. I listened to it on my walkman to see if I liked it, then used my dad’s reel-to-reel cassette recorder to transfer onto a blank tape. It was an old machine with only normal speed, so I listened to the album a second time as it recorded. Then I had to listen a third time to make sure it copied correctly. The album was vivid in both lyrics and music, and about halfway through the third listen, my ears and throat began to hurt. I got a fever, and my dad took me to Urgent Care. I’d developed ear infections in both ears and strep throat. I hadn’t been exposed to anyone with either.

When I was pregnant with Morrigan, Jason and I needed to replace our old computer. We did a lot of research to try to get the best product for our needs and for cost-effectiveness. I knew nothing about computers and hardware at the time, so my research lasted roughly 15 hours straight. I’d gone too far and I knew it too late. I had a fever and aches all over and spent the next day in bed with some kind of sinus infection/cold that disappeared as soon as all the specs and images from my research stopped racing through my mind.

Over the years, I’ve learned (mostly) to stop before whatever sensory information I’m taking in becomes too much and makes me physically ill. The read-certain-books-too-quickly-or-too-long is one time when I tend to fail at that. I don’t binge-watch TV or spend too much time on one activity or another. Even during events like Readathon (after making myself VERY sick the first time), I’ll break up the time with non-book activities and switching media often. Despite people telling me that those illnesses were purely coincidence and happenstance, the physical consequences of taking in too much information in a short time period, or spending far too long with a single focus, have been consistent for me since adolescence. I usually know my limits and try to respect them.

However, I’ve never, ever met another human being who also experiences this. I’ve never even heard of anyone experiencing it. Until this week. While reading Aspergirls – which I admit, I abandoned 75% of the way through after it began pushing the “vitamins are better than medicine for mental illness” myth – the author related a story. While she was visiting historic sites in Boston, she took in too much in one day. She says:

I had taken in too many things for my brain to process. I had unnecessary images and sounds in my head that needed releasing. As I tried to sleep, these pictures played in my mind like a kaleidoscope, each one appearing and then morphing into the next. … While it was happening, my temperature shot up to a fever. My body was frantically working to “rid” itself of this invasion as if it were a virus.

I admit it: I cried. Actually, reading that was extremely distressing and I’ve yet to pinpoint exactly why. But in spite of my distress, there was also a sense of reassurance that my experiences aren’t just imagined or coincidence or “in my head.” Someone else in the world has a body that reacts the same way as mine to too-much-stimuli. It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d find, and it was really strange to suddenly stumble on those experiences in someone else after decades of feeling isolated in this respect.

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City of Broken Magic, by Mirah Bolender (audio)

Once long ago, a weapon was created to use against magic. Inevitably, it backfired, and infestations of hungry monsters spread across kingdoms, popping up anywhere they could take root. Only Sweepers are qualified to destroy these infestations, and the job is dangerous. In the city of Amicae, there are few Sweepers – just Clae and his apprentice of three months, Laura – because in Amicae, people believe government propaganda that claims their city is immune to infestations. Unfortunately, when no one pays attention and no one believes, a city can become a breeding ground for massive infestation.

This was my first book of 2019, and I have very mixed feelings about it. Let me get the negatives out of the way first. One is just a small thing and has to do with the book cover and description. The cover contains the line, “If it’s magic, which wire do you cut?” which implies there will be something related to disarming bombs, but there are no wires or disarming bombs or anything of the sort in this book. It’s misleading, and the book description (back of book, Goodreads) is also misleading. Plus, the book description contains a major spoiler for something that happens in the last 50 pages of the book. So avoid the official book description if you dislike spoilers!

The other negative was a bigger issue for me. There was a whole lot of expository world-building almost up to the end of the book. Sometimes the action would stop for a paragraph or two of exposition to describe some part of the world (like the money system), and sometimes it took the form of explaining history and backstory and magic to people who didn’t know (an apprentice, a foreigner, a reporter, someone who didn’t know what Sweepers actually did, etc). The explanatory sections kept cutting into the story and the transitions between action and stop-action-to-explain were sometimes awkward. World-building is hard when it comes to entirely made up locations with their own magic systems, governments, history, cultures, food, religion, and so on, but a lot of world-building can be built into the story more naturally, and some of it can simply be cut. The reader doesn’t need to know the denomination of all the coins or the varying kinds of religions in the city when neither have any bearing on the characters or story. You expect some of this kind of exposition in the beginning of a fantasy novel, but by page 350? It got tiresome.

The thing is, the story itself was phenomenal. I loved the magic system. I loved learning about infestations. The action was awesome and the pace – excluding exposition – was perfect to keep me racing through without feeling rushed. The opening chapter is one of the best I’ve ever read. (I really can’t express how much I loved it – read a sample!!) I loved the characters and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next book will bring for them. I really want to know what’s going to happen to a specific character (who shall remained unnamed lest there be potential spoilers). All those things were so great that this book would have been an early contender for best-of-the-year if not for that one big negative. That’s what made the book such a mixed experience – all this good stuff that got thinned out by the one persistent irritation. It might not be something that even bothers another reader, but it certainly affected me. I’m definitely planning to read the next book in the series, and I have my fingers crossed that with a sequel, less world-building (thus less expository time-outs) will be required!

Performance: I half-read, half-listened to this book. I had a physical copy out from the library and the audio from Audible (read by Natalie Naudus). Naudus did a great job with the reading, but her pace was at that in-between stage where it was too fast for me to listen to my normal 1.5x speed, but too slow for the 1.25x speed. I kept it on the lower speed, not wanting to miss details, but then ended up stopping and picking up the book instead. The physical book helped me with vocabulary I’d heard but hadn’t seen spelled out, and it was great to have in waiting rooms during multiple appointments for my kids while they were on winter break. Then I’d switch over to the audio for exercise and housework and other activities. I’ve never gone back and forth like this from print to audio. I’ve switched from one to the other before, but never constantly shifting. It was an interesting experience. I’m glad I have the audio copy because I’m definitely going to want to listen to this one a second time.

Posted in 2019, Adult, Prose | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Wellness Wednesday – The Double-edged Wine Sword

Let me tell y’all a little story. 2009-Manda was at her highest weight ever, and she went in to get blood tests done. Her blood tests were generally bad, but the number we’ll focus on here is HDL, or good cholesterol. Her HDL was very low, at 34 (HDL is supposed to be greater than 39). This was expected, since 2009-Manda was about 100 lbs overweight.

Fast forward to February 2012. Feb-2012-Manda had lost about 70 lbs and was only a couple pounds away from being officially overweight instead of obese. She went in for blood tests, which were generally good – except for her HDL, which was at 34. That’s right. Despite the doctors saying that HDL should go up a point for every six pounds you lose, Feb-2012-Manda had an identical HDL level to 2009-Manda.

(2009, Feb-2012, Dec-2012)

And it gets worse. Fast forward to Dec-2012-Manda, now having lost almost 100 lbs and only a couple pounds shy of a healthy weight. Where is her HDL? 28. Another 30 lbs lost meant a drop of 6 points. Isn’t it meant to go the other way??

(2014)

Now we get to the good news. In December 2014, 2014-Manda (who is the same weight as Dec-2012-Manda) takes another blood test. Suddenly, her HDL has jumped up to 49! Hallelujah! 2015-Manda does even better with 58, despite regaining 40 lbs. 2016- and 2017-Manda stay up high as well, despite regaining 70 lbs from her lowest weight down in the 2014 time period. This new heavier Manda is only 30 lbs down from 2009-Manda, but her HDL looks phenomenal. Why??

I’ll tell you why. Wine. Back in December 2014, when my HDL suddenly jumped to ideal numbers, my doctor asked me if I’d started drinking wine. I was surprised. Indeed, I had started drinking wine. Before 2013, I didn’t drink alcohol at all. I just didn’t like the taste. But a couple times in 2013, I tried out a few wines I liked, and in the fall of 2014, I started attending wine tastings and drinking more regularly. My doctor told me that regularly drinking moderate amounts of red wine often causes an increase in HDL, particularly in women. Who knew? (Well, scientists knew, but I didn’t.)

Personally, I suspected at the time that the increase had more to do with eating a more paleo diet. Not the paleo part itself, but the cutting out of all processed foods and sugar. I didn’t eat a lot of processed foods or sugar to begin with, but the cutting out of all could definitely affect my blood tests, I thought. Only, I didn’t continue with paleo after that fall for unrelated reasons, and yet my HDL stayed high despite regain. Until April 2018.

April-2018-Manda went in for blood tests after cutting out most sugar for about five months. She’d also cut out alcohol for a little over a month before these tests. She was astonished when her HDL dropped to 42. Not too low, but certainly a lot less than she’d been maintaining, and nearly 15 points below where she’d been six months earlier. She was uneasy, but decided to continue to keep away from alcohol because she was actually losing weight since she quit drinking it. But then the catastrophic summer happened, and wine reentered the picture, as well as lots of processed food and eating out and stress. When Oct-2018-Manda took blood tests, she was less than two weeks out from a very indulgent cruise and expected her numbers to be atrocious. Turns out, they were all better than in April – in fact they were the best they’d been in several years – and her HDL popped back into the 50s.

(2018-Manda & 2019-Manda, 7 of 9 lbs dropped between tests)

Which leads us to Jan-2019-Manda, who had blood tests done only 12 weeks after her last. During the gap, she’d had no alcohol and a loss of almost 10 lbs. But what happened? All her numbers got worse, and her HDL dropped to frickin’ 36. That’s right, folks. It seems that in order to actually lose weight, I must cut out alcohol, but if I cut out alcohol, my HDL drops to way-too-low. I’m more than a little irritated that these two things are mutually exclusive.

But you know what? HDL be damned. When I’m drinking, even a tiny amount, I don’t lose weight, I start getting depressed, and I just don’t feel good. Plus, I’m now on a sleep medicine that has a bad interaction with alcohol, so it’s just not going to happen. My doctors are going to fret over these new low HDL numbers, and I’m going to have to point out that at my lowest pre-alcohol weight, my HDL dropped to 28. Apparently my body is just like this. It’s frustrating, but beyond sabotaging the rest of my health, I have no idea how to make that any better.

ETA: I found my post (on another blog) about my December 2012 HDL results. My reaction: “The reason this is so frustrating and confusing is that I am doing everything that they tell people to do to raise HDL cholesterol. I’m losing weight, I exercise a lot, I don’t eat a lot of processed foods or trans fats, and I eat tons of tuna, nuts, olive oil, avocados, nut butters, fruits, veggies, and all the other things they tell you to eat (except salmon, which I don’t like at all). And yet, my HDL continues to go down!” Sounds familiar, Dec-2012-Manda. I sympathize.

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Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty

Last book of 2018!

Nine people attend a 10-day health and wellness retreat run by a fanatical woman determined to make permanent improvements in all her guests. That’s the general premise of the book, with chapters narrated by each of the nine guests, plus the three primary employees of the retreat. Frances is the main narrator, a 52-year-old romance writer with back pain and heartache. She treats life as one big (mostly-fun) story and enjoys figuring out backstories for all her fellow guests. I’m not going to go through each of the other characters, but they all have interesting stories and perspectives, and their lives collide in what will end up being a very memorable week.

This book was fascinating. I always worry going into Moriarty’s books after that one bad experience, but so far I’ve mostly enjoyed them. This was the same. The book started off rather lighthearted, interesting, and funny, then took a bizarre twist into very very intense. There’s a lot of crazytown going on here, but I won’t say more and possibly reveal spoilers. I was spellbound through the second half of the book, couldn’t put it down. I’m not usually one to gawk slack-jawed at trainwrecks, but I couldn’t look away from this one.

And all the conclusions…you have a lot of guests here and a huge cast of characters, and they all need some wrap-up. It was handled very well, I thought. I felt satisfied, sad, giddy, and appalled by various endings. It felt exactly right, which was just what I needed to end the year’s reading!

Posted in 2018, Adult, Prose | Tagged | 7 Comments

Sunday Coffee – Entering the New Year

I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to 2019. You know how you sometimes keep writing the previous year on dates for a month or two into the new year? I’ve been writing “2019” on my dates since October. Heh. And we had a doozy of a new year’s eve to ring in 2019. My brother-in-law got engaged, my kids were all spending the night with friends or grandparents, and Jason and I got a date night to ourselves to snuggle up and watch a movie. I went to bed a few hours earlier than him (because really, you don’t stay up to midnight when you often wake up at 3am with insomnia!) and had a good night of sleep despite fireworks. I woke up to discover I’d hit a weight that I hadn’t seen since last June, and was only three pounds higher than my lowest weight of 2018. Progress!

Back when 2018 began, I bought a bag of river pebbles. For months, I put a pebble in a Ball jar for each happy moment I experienced. When Morrigan brought home the above frolicking-cats bowl for me from Japan, I transferred the pebbles there. The picture above represents all my happy moments in 2018. It was a tough year, but there were many good things. How many? I don’t know. I didn’t count. But the bowl was heavy, and I think that’s really what matters – the weight of those happy moments, comforting and full.

To bring in the new year, I began a new daily journal (my sixth since I began keeping one August 2013). These are Italian handcrafted journals from Barnes & Noble, with enough pages inside to last a bit more than a year. It just so happened that my last journal ended on December 31st (first time for that!) so I could begin entirely anew on January 1st.

I then started my first book of the year. This is one I’d looked forward to for months now and I was so happy to receive it from the library not long before December ended. I began Tuesday morning, before collecting my children from various sleepovers and taking the family out to see Into the Spider-Verse. It was AWESOME. We all loved it, and we got to come home to dinner and games with a family friend, which capped off the night perfectly. It really was the best way to enter the new year!

PS – I was really sad to watch the poor Seahawks lose to the frickin’ Cowboys of all teams last night. Though I’m really glad I was watching the wrong part of the replay when they showed the gruesome injury so I missed it. That whole bit was heartbreaking and scary.

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