Sense of Nature


the only blooms we see so far, the cute little willows…

Yesterday felt like winter. Today, finally looks like spring.

Tis’ the season in Vermont, where every few hours it seems the weather changes. Sun and warmth are taken over by clouds and rain or a sudden chill, keeping us inside.  It can mess with our moods in such a profound way, sometimes making-or -breaking our whole outlook for the day, including our focus and drive.

On one of the two or three nice days we have had so far this spring, determined to get a little outside time, I met my husband at his office and we took a short hike up a steep cobble on his lunch hour. He tends to plow up through the woods, never the trail, scaling steep rocks and downed trees, never looking back to see how anyone else is doing. That’s fine with me, and I’m used to it, but I don’t particularly like steep, and am convinced that boot-makers have some conspiracy going where they never put a rugged-enough tread on women’s boots. Even when I purchase the same boot my husband gets, in women’s sizes, I’m slipping and sliding, and he’s got the rough tread to keep on going.


the view from the top!

As he went straight up, I poked along in a safer, more round-about way, checking from side-to-side to see if there were any instances of green or new growth. I still managed to meet him at the top. It felt amazing to be outside, and we made a pact to make this happen every week where he isn’t traveling. It’s great exercise. Fantastic to get fresh air. And when he hasn’t left me too far behind, we actually have time to talk, think out-loud a bit, and not be interupted every few minutes by an 8-year-old who’s current fascination includes bizarre what-if scenarios involving Minecraft zombies and creepers and skeletons.

As we worked our way down back towards the office, our conversation drifted back to a reoccurring topic: the virtues of taking it outside. “See, when you climb over rocks and go down mountains, it’s really great cardio and great for the core too” says my hubby, “and I’m outside in the fresh air, not inside staring at the ground, a wall or a DVD, I feel much better after being out in the fresh air”.  He thinks I don’t agree, but I don’t dispute this at all. I love being outside, wouldn’t trade it for the world.  What he is actually trying to do is convince me we don’t need to do any additional strength training beyond what we would get on a hike….that’s where we differ.

I’m not out here today for the physical effects, but for my sanity! After this first hike of the year, I was walking on air, feeling great for the first time in months.

I am convinced I think much more clearly after even just a short walk by myself or with my dog, because when I’m outside around the trees, looking and listening to the sound of the river, the birds, and away from everything else like cell phones and computers, my mind wanders and I usually come back with a long list of ideas to write down about how to approach my goals. I have actually started scheduling my walks earlier in the day to be more productive, because I know it’s part of my thinking process. I also have a son who has enough energy for about 5 kids, and have found just by observation when he is outside looking for something, whether it’s frogs, salamanders or bugs, or his most recent find, a praying mantis egg sac, he is truly in his element. Calm. Happy. Engaged. Focused.

look mom! soon we’ll have 400 mantis babies in the house!

Currently I’m reading an eye-opening book called Last Child in the Woods-Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. I was interested in reading this book for my son of course, but also because I believe we as people, as parents, need this for ourselves.

The basic premise of the book is that kids are not outside enough. They are too scheduled. Kids in suburbia and in cities have a tough time finding any place to play freely and safely, and that some locations, even rural areas, are so highly-regulated because of liability and restricted use, it’s causing kids to come inside, play video games, watch tv, and sit on their rear-ends instead.

This of course adds to a host of issues including obesity and attention problems, among them. And with technology today, people trade information for experience. They think they know everything because they can Google it. But in actuality, technology does not encourage any of us to be hands-on participants in nature,  just observers. Being a participant brings out healthy development of the senses, sparks creativity and “can improve cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression“.

Being an observer, not so much…

Louv says “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health, (and also, by the way, in our own.)” and “most parents have an acutely tuned sense of responsibility–to the point where they consider relaxing and leisure, for themselves or their children, a self-indulgent luxury. By taking nature out of the leisure column, and placing it in the health column, we are more likely to take our children on that hike–more likely to, well, have fun“.

The book goes on to describe examples of how natural landscapes and gardens have been known as restorative, and therapeutic for as far back as two thousand years. He notes studies indicating positive effects to people just by seeing a little green, or a natural setting out a window. Louv mentions research into “green exercise” is ongoing, and mostly for adults, and they “seem to benefit from “recess” in natural settings” as these settings help rejuvenate, restore and calm anxiety and depression.

I know I haven’t done the book justice with this short synopsis, because the message of the book goes in many different directions, but I love this, and agree wholeheartedly. Not just for kids, for us too, because who are we, but just grown up kids? A few days ago on my morning walk as I was thinking about this book, it made me wonder if there was an exact time in my life when I stopped thinking like a kid, and became this responsible, serious person I am now. When did I stop being a creative person? I had always loved hands on art projects and drawing and writing as a kid. I’m guessing my gradual decline in creativity started when my marketing career began after college, where I suddenly became a numbers person.  And then I wondered, was there an exact time when suddenly my need to be alone, or to have space and time to think, went away? Well, it never went away, I just stopped allowing it to happen, I’m guessing the moment my son was born.

Regardless, it isn’t right. There’s no reason I can’t reclaim that creativity, calm and focus, I just need to work at building a new, and more consistent habit.

The sun is peeking out, I can see from the window. A few willows are blooming and red-winged blackbirds and chickadees are singing away. No time for a hike and fitness debate with the husband today, but a quick walk down by the river with Balsam will wake the senses and get me through the day. I hope whether you are at work or home, you can stop, look and enjoy a little time outside today, even if you only have few minutes to peek at a little green.

Remember, it’s not an added luxury, it’s for your health too.

Happy spring!

More information about the Children and Nature Movement:

Last Child in the Woods

A Stairwell in Suburbia

Museum stairs: challenging to some, not to others…

At times it’s tough to get back into the health mindset on a Monday, but after a road trip, a reality-check from my mother-in-law, and a stairwell, today I’m actually kind of inspired to get started.

This newfound enthusiasm, after a weekend of poor eating choices, isn’t coming from some magazine cover telling me I can “Melt off 10 lbs!” just from reading this issue. Or from my junk email inbox with a message screaming “Want to Rock that Bikini Body this Summer…here’s how!??!”. Umm, yeah, I just got that one a few minutes ago…and it’s not from looking at photos Jillian Michaels looking perfect, although I do think she’s awesome, I’m guessing the photo is airbrushed and I’ll never actually look like her no matter what I try…

Do quick fix strategies and images of perfect people, keep me inspired? Not really…at least in the long-term

Nope. These don’t do it for me, at all.  These messages may cause short-term guilt and negativity to jump-start a little action, but they don’t keep me going long-term.

What is keeping me going this week? Some observations from a family trip to suburbia, in a town outside of Rochester, New York.

In contrast to where I live in Vermont, where we have two country stores, a library and little else, this town is all about big-box stores and chain restaurants. And we needed those stores because we had to purchase computer supplies for my 86-year-old mother in law. We spent the morning accomplishing our mission, but when we were ready to have lunch, hmmm, tough choices for those hoping to eat something relatively healthy. No quaint little cafe exists in this town, serving organic, local, grass-fed foods with right-size portions. The options: Fast Food? Ick. Hot Dogs? Apparently something super-popular in the Rochester area. No thanks. Applebees? I have a son with food allergies and I hear they aren’t great with that. Red Robin–oh, yeah, I heard they are a chain that gets the allergy thing. So that’s where we went.

My cute little "non-suburb" town...

My cute little “non-suburb” town…

Looking over the menu, it looked to me like the best non-salad choice was the fish sandwich, so I ordered that with sweet potato fries, thinking to myself, I don’t do this very often, It’s great to have a splurge meal every once in a while. Oh, and a margarita, I forgot I had one of those too! Yes, a splurge. I sat back, happy, relaxed, and took in the atmosphere, my eyes landing on the people at the tables around us.

A woman in her eighties eating a gigantic ice-cream sundae, probably bigger than her head, dining with what looked like her extended family. A couple, in their twenties, dressed all in black with matching dyed black hair, hamburgers oozing, soda-slurping. A table of middle-aged women with frizzy hair, laughing and talking and gesturing wildly, probably on their lunch break from work. And everyone eating way, way, way too much food. But having fun.

Can't we go here for lunch? Not in the Suburbs....

Can’t we go here for lunch? Not in the Suburbs….

I wonder if these folks are “regulars” and eat like this all the time, or are like me, on a once-in-a-while splurge?

Sadly, most looked like they did eat there everyday.

After lunch, it was time to do something fun so we set out to find the Science Museum.  In the car, my thoughts started to turn on me, like they usually do, from happy and relaxed to scorn. Why did you have to eat so many fries? Were they really that good, they really weren’t. Did you really need to eat every little drop of it? I put the negative thoughts on hold at the museum, where once inside, my husband and son ran off and started climbing four floors of open stairs to the top floor, while my mother-in-law and I tried unsuccessfully to catch them. As we were climbing, I looked down at her. She was a little slow, but I have to tell you, she was doing just fine with those stairs.

She didn’t complain. She didn’t ask me to find an elevator instead.

Mother-in-law Dorothy w/her granddaughter Brooke...

Mother-in-law Dorothy w/her granddaughter Brooke…

How many 86-year-olds do you know who can do that?

She and I decided to check out an exhibit on Native American villages, something most dinosaur-and-fossil-seeking kids had no interest in, so we had this whole quiet wing of museum to ourselves for a little while. I asked her whether or not she might come back to this museum with friends, since it’s so close to where she lives, and so beautiful. She would love to, she said, but basically none of her friends could walk around the way she does. The conversation drifted from the museum, to the fact that she is at this age where she is losing the people around her more and more. She became a widow about 8 years ago, but most recently this winter, she lost her best friend.

Later, back at her house, I started thinking about her lifestyle and pieced together some of the other conversations we had that weekend. My mother-in-law has a high-strung dog who needs to walk a few times a day. When I tried to help her bring sheets down to the laundry area, she said, oh no… she deliberately bought the house she is in now because it has stairs, so she could keep moving, and she will strip the beds and do the laundry herself. No problem. She drives everywhere, even in snow. After a few scares on black ice, I avoid driving in snow at all costs. When I mentioned that she just shrugged and said, “well, I need to do what I need to do, the store, lunch, class, so I drive”. She takes exercise classes a few times a week at the Y, that include weights and stretching and all sorts of movements. She, ironically, is a caregiver/companion to her daughter who has limited mobility from back surgeries, and to another younger friend each week.

I am thoroughly in awe of this woman. She makes me think a lot about my two grandmothers, both died a few years ago, but lived similarly active lives and were independent and happy and fun and young until the end. And to my dad, who I lost way too early, who was always on his bike rides and stretching and moving and still happily doing financial consulting and keeping his brain exercised, where others his age were slowing down.

This weekend was just a great reminder to me about why I want to always keep activity and health top of mind. Sure, it’s great to look good, “have Rock-hard Abs!” and “a bikini body by summer!!!”, like the women’s magazines like to remind us, but honestly, I think this message is all wrong. Inspiration to make changes, and to keep us focused on what is important doesn’t come from looking at perfect photos of models, we all know that isn’t attainable for most of us. Long-term inspiration comes from real people who live real lives. We see these people all around us, and make the decision about who we want to emulate, and the reverse, who we don’t.

I want to climb those stairs when I’m 86.

And I want to be confident to drive in snowstorms in Rochester.

And I want to have a yippy dog I still need to chase and bend down to pick up, and be able to do these things myself.

I hope I’m not the last healthy one left, as my mother-in-law seems to be, so will try to inspire my family and friends to keep their health top-of-mind as well.

Yes, we can sit back in the booth at Red Robin, and have a margarita and endless fries and whatever, and that’s ok once in a while. What isn’t ok, is getting mad at ourselves for living life a little when we need to, and then giving up on our health goals when we don’t think we have measured up… we need to be off as much as on, or at least I do, to stay committed for the long-haul. The chain restaurant staff won’t start singing “Here comes a Regular…” next time I walk in for lunch…

So it’s Monday, and I overindulged this weekend. But my mind is back where it needs to be, thanks to my mother-in-law, and I’m ready for the ebb and flow of the good and bad, and the careful balance it’s going to take to manage my healthy, active future.

How about you? Do you have role-models who keep you motivated? Would love to hear your stories…

Master your Mud Season


Mud Season has come early to Southern Vermont.

Yesterday I didn’t get out much, but was told it snowed in every town surrounding us, but not here in my own.

It’s really strange. Most of the other snowstorms plaguing New England this season have eluded us as well.

What we see?  Just Rain. Cold. Mud. Slush.

To add insult to injury, and adding more to my glum outlook, I managed to injure myself while walking with my lab, Balsam. Heading towards the river by my house, the mud was so squishy and wet, I hurdled unceremoniously down what I thought was a path, but what was actually a mudslide.  I finally came to a stop when my arm got hooked on a peace of rhebar left over from when the forest service came onto our property to do some work last fall.

My coat ripped. My legs covered in mud. My arm vibrating, I thought, note to self:  Bog Boots are not made for wearing in mud. Next time, I’ll remember…

Ego wounded, I slowly made my way back to the house, where my son helped cover my new wounds with a collection of Tow-Mater and Lightning McQueen band-aids.

This time of year?

It’s not the most inspiring.

And I’m guessing it’s like that for you too.

The thought of another few months of this irritates me; so after some thought, I decided it’s time to reposition the role of Mud-Season in my life.

No more sulking.

No more complaining about cabin fever.

And about how fun Vermont is in every other season but this one.

I need to make the most of this down time, and start thinking about setting some personal goals for the rest of the year, so when spring is here, I’m ready.

And for now? At least it’ll give me a positive outlook and something to look forward to.

I only learned about personal goal-setting a few years ago, but I should have started a long time ago, when I first realized I had lost sight of my hobbies and interests.

I moved to Vermont for a new job  when in my 20s and single, and was experiencing my first mud season in early 1996.  I didn’t know too many people yet. One weekend day, bored and with nothing to do, I hopped in my car and drove an hour and a half to Albany, New York.  I thought, well, it’s the closest city, I’m sure there are things to do there. Lots of shops. And lots of people.

But I was wrong.

In Albany, I just walked around for a few minutes. I poked in a few stores. I had lunch. But I really didn’t want to spend much money.

And about a half hour later, realizing my mistake, I made my way on the long, curvy, dull drive back to Vermont.

What I learned? Shopping and going to stores is not a hobby. Eating out is not a hobby. These are just activities to pass the time.

What else could I do, living on my own, when I was bored?

I had no idea.

Before I moved, I primarily spent my time working and commuting. And in my spare time, shopping, going out with friends to eat, or to see a movie or concerts.  But if someone asked me about my hobbies or interests, aside from a little reading and lots of music, I think I would have been stumped to find more to add.

It finally occurred to me “When in Rome, I need to do like the Romans”, right? When in Vermont…?  Skiing and snowshoeing in winter. Mushroom hunting and hiking in spring. More hiking and gardening and bird-watching and river-rock rambling in summer, and leaf-peeping and more hikes in the fall.

Learning about wildflowers and trees and edible plants and all things nature–that’s where I spent my time after that.

Who would have thought someone like me, this product of suburbia, could morph into a nature-girl.

But I made the transition well over time.

Today, the need for personal growth, learning new skills, and finding new hobbies is even more important, because it’s really easy for our sense of self to just slip away. We have way too much responsibility. With the work day no longer 9-5, our attention is constantly diverted away from things that are important to us. Our spouses and kids, of course, are the top priority, and the house upkeep next. And our community and schools need us too.

The list keeps growing and pulling us in every which way, except the one leading to any personal satisfaction, creativity and growth.

To keep progressing over the last few years, I started to set my sights on confronting activities I always thought I would dislike, and vowed to  never, ever, ever do.

And have found when I succeed in turning a “never“, as I call them, into a hobby, it’s amazing for building confidence. And one success turns into another, and another, and another…

My experiment started a few years ago, when my friend Mary dragged me to a Yoga class after I repeatedly told her I wanted nothing to do with group exercise. Well, guess what? I was nervous. I had never done yoga before. But,  I LOVED it. And we continued to go every Saturday throughout the summer until the program ended.

I always said I would never, ever do exercise videos, because I hated those too (although, as with the yoga classes, I had never tried them before). Well, since the day I nervously forced myself to press play on that video a few years ago,  I  continue to challenge myself through some pretty harrowing programs that now, even after the fact, I still can’t believe I ever did.

How’s that for building confidence? I never would have known I was capable of doing a pull-up, and many other scary-looking moves, but hey, now I do!

A non-fitness challenge I tackled a few years ago was learning to fly-fish. My husband is into it. I always said I didn’t want to learn. Why? No reason. I just assumed I wouldn’t like it.  I signed up for a weekend course, with my friend Kiernan for moral support, and loved it, took a second class last summer, and am continuing my education this spring because I still have a ton to learn. I wrote about this experience if you want to check it out later….

This year, I forced myself to get back on skis for the first time in about 15 years.  And ice skates too.

But I haven’t been back to an exercise class for 3 or 4 years, so maybe that’s something I need to change this spring.  Since it has been awhile, I went back to being scared of them.

Another goal I have is to step up my vegetable gardening skills. How I’m going to do this, I’m not sure.  But this is a good time to figure it all out.

Think about it.

Do you have abandoned hobbies that you are scared to go back and try?

Is there something else you want to learn?

I’m not talking about things for you to do with your kids, because they like it, what are you personally interested in?

I have been really inspired by some of my friends lately. My friend Susanne started felting as a hobby, and has now made it her business. My friend Lynn took some painting classes last year, and is now a full-time artist. Eve gave snowboarding and strength training a try last year–very brave! And is continually challenging herself with some really cool knitting and textile projects.  Kiernan learned to fly fish with me, and is still working on it, but continues to challenge herself with different workout classes, even after the longest days and at strange times, because they offer her some much-needed time for herself.

I met a very inspiring woman during my second fly fishing class last June. She was in her mid-50s, and a teacher. She told me that during her summer breaks she finds one new activity to learn, and works on it all summer. Most of the other women in that fly fishing class were there because their husbands “sent” them. They were scared to death, and didn’t really want to be there. But this gal, Mary, was there because she thought it would be really cool to learn, and on her own too. And she does something like this for herself every year!

I love that.

And want to be just like that.

So what about you, are you with me?

Take a chance.  Carve out some time.  And start planning…

I can see the clouds-lifting, the mud drying, and the confidence-building already.