I Spy Something Green

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. – John Muir

Hiking, sleeping, and eating – it was a way of life for three full blissful days. It had been too long since our last vacation, and my husband K and I were overdue for some time away from the obligations and routines of our daily lives. We counted down the days in anticipation, packed up the car, and then hit the road to Hot Springs, Arkansas!

Road trips are the best. I always pack an arsenal of things to keep me busy in the car onlyVersion 2 to spend most of the time gazing out the window and daydreaming. I felt substantially more relaxed just an hour after leaving town, and I think our dog Cora felt the same! Gradually I noticed that the roadside trees seemed to loom taller and glow a brighter green as we got closer to the national park. It was all we could see for hours as we drove down the highway, and I joked, “I spy something green!” That evening after arriving at the hotel, we ordered a giant cheesy pizza from room service and kicked back watching cartoons. We made it!

Version 2We kicked off our first full day in Hot Springs with an indulgent breakfast (a free perk of staying at Embassy Suites), me piling my plate high with biscuits and gravy galore! I had to fuel up for a day of hiking after all. As soon as we hit the trails in the national park, K and I were mesmerized by never ending waves of green. Everything was lush and in full bloom, and we trekked in silence for quite a while, simply enjoying this time together in nature. We hiked uphill and downhill, over rocks, and along well-traveled trails, getting lost in our thoughts and then stopping to take photos of whatever caught our eye and pulled us from our reverie.

Back at the hotel giggling at more cartoons, we drifted off to sleep, Cora included. I am not typically a nap taker, but I lapsed into a deep sleep that day and the following two days of vacation. I slept more than I have in a long time, and I felt more refreshed than I have in a long time as well. We dined out that night at Copper Penny Pub in downtown Hot Springs, inhaling our hot comfort food and enjoying a pint of the local brewery’s wheat beer (my favorite).

We spent the next day at Garvan Woodland Gardens, a botanical garden and natureVersion 2 preserve on Hamilton Lake. Cora was very enthusiastic about the koi pond, wishing with all her might that she could jump in and catch one! We also caught sight of a cute fuzzy chipmunk just before he skittered back to his home under a large rock. Again the waves of green stretched on forever and the brisk wind rustled through the trees creating a soothing soundtrack as we hiked, catching glimpses of the cool blue lake just beyond.

The main attraction of Hot Springs is of course, the hot springs. Historic bathhouse row downtown consists of a string of old bathhouses, some still operational as such while others have been converted into other attractions. Thus, our trip would not be complete without a trip to the spa. We relaxed in the thermal pools at Quapaw Bathhouse before venturing into the steam cave, a dry sauna designed to look like the old thermal caves used by Native Americans believing that the heat from the hot springs had just as much healing power as the waters themselves. It was K’s first sauna experience, and while I don’t think he’d do it again, I’m glad we got to do it together.

IMG_0554We also went to the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has been well maintained and now functions as a museum. Wandering those halls is like a trip back in time to the age when the bathhouses were a highly popular destination and both men and women spent all day there, relaxing and socializing. I loved the old tile floors. We had lunch at the Superior Bathhouse, which was converted into a restaurant and microbrewery that makes beer from the local spring water. It was delicious, and they also played the best music mix of 90’s grunge rock as a backdrop for our meal.

After spending so much time inside however, it was time to return to nature and trek through the forest on our last hike of the trip. It was warm and sunny, so the lizards and squirrels were out. The ticks were also out unfortunately and we spent a good deal of time pulling them off of Cora’s feet, but it was worth it. She had a great time, as did we. Once again we fell asleep that night watching cartoons and slept soundly until the next morning when it was time to pack up and return home.

The best things in life aren’t things – they are experiences. Taking a short vacation to experience nature in all its bright green glory and to spend a few days simply relaxing and enjoying life gave K and I renewed energy and vigor for when we returned home. We all deserve an escape now and then, and an escape into nature is always fun and satisfying.

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93 Reasons: An Exercise in Gratitude

The psychology of happiness has become a popular field, and experts consistently tell us that a major key to creating happiness in our lives is through gratitude. The ability to appreciate what we have instead of fretting over what we don’t increases our sense of satisfaction and leads us to see the goodness in life more easily from day to day. It also makes obstacles seem less overwhelming.

I consider myself a thankful person, but I know that there is a depth to life of which I am not always aware, comprised of moments that wash over me without barely any recognition on my part. I wanted to experience a deeper sense of wonderment and gratitude towards my world.

I decided to take the experts up on their suggestion and focus on daily gratitude. They say to keep a gratitude journal and write down what you are thankful for every day, so I did. Every evening for a month I reflected on my day and wrote down three things that I appreciated.

The first challenge I encountered was simply remembering to do it, but I stuck with it. I aimed never to repeat the same thing and theorized this would be challenging as well, but almost immediately I noticed that my entries were not as general as I expected. Every day was very different when I looked at them close up, and it was never a challenge to avoid repeating the same subjects over and over when I focused on the details.

The question of what I was thankful for was harder to answer on bad days and I found myself sighing in frustration while staring at the blank journal page. But then I would realize the problem: my attitude. Sure, the bad parts of those days at first glance cast a shadow over my gratitude, but it was up to me to part the clouds and let the light shine through on my day. I simply had to change my focus.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Inspiration: When it strikes, it’s a creative sigh of relief followed by a rush of excitement.

Music that moves me: I heard a song for the first time that stopped me in my tracks. I could do nothing but listen to it, captivated. The second time I listened to it, it moved me to tears. I’ve listened to it twenty more times since then.

Ghost stories: They are a fun indulgence for my imagination. They can be scary, funny, mysterious, and interesting. I love them all.

Unexpected hugs: I interviewed for a promotion at work and it was nerve-wracking. Afterwards, my co-worker gave me a big hug and told me she was proud of me.

Cozy sweatshirt: I bought this vintage-style soft sweatshirt on a whim and felt guilty about how much I paid for it until I wore it for the first time. I wear it almost every week now. It’s my favorite.

Mistakes: For the first time ever my local Thai food place got my takeout order wrong. The dish they made by mistake looked good though, and it was a dish I had never tried, so I told them not to worry about the error and accepted the food as it was. I ate the entire thing! It was delicious!

1980’s pop music: You have to dance! It’s happy and weird and fun, and the music videos are silly and ridiculous. An ‘80s dance club was the perfect choice for my cousin’s birthday celebration.

Strangers who make extra effort to help: When picking up my dog’s expensive epilepsy medication, the pharmacist showed me how to find an online coupon for the medication that cut the price in half. She even added the coupon information to my account so that the discount applied automatically for refills.

Spaghetti: Sometimes a big bowl of spaghetti bolognese with a glass of red wine is the perfect thing at the end of a rough day.

Challenges: They push me to see things in a new way and to think creatively to find solutions. I learn something with every challenge I face.

As the weeks passed, rather than waiting for the end of the day to reflect on my gratitude, I found myself recognizing those moments in the present and feeling thankful in real time. Some days I had five or six things I wanted to note in my journal. On those days the gratitude swelled in my chest and I felt overcome with emotion. More than once my eyes became teary with happiness.

Ultimately, keeping a daily gratitude journal works. Try it, and see what happens.

I wish for you an abundance of wondrous moments that fill your life and your heart with joy, that give you reasons to wake up and feel happiness every day. They are there already. We just have to be open to seeing them.

Photo via Visual Hunt

Letting Go of Things

“Every life needs a little space. It leaves rooms for good things to enter it.”
Sarah Addison Allen, The Peachkeeper

We need space to grow and change and breathe. That’s true mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.  When K and I moved in together four years ago, it was a merging of two households into one. We owned a lot of the same things (toasters, bed linens, sofas, televisions, etc.) and decided together what to keep and what to toss. Though it was quite a lot of work, it allowed us to start the next chapter of our life together without being overrun with unimportant stuff.

Four years later I found myself standing in the living room, looking around me and feeling suffocated. It felt like we had too much stuff. Much of the excess I couldn’t see since it was stuffed into cabinets and drawers, but I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it. I have never been one for having lots of possessions, and I always keep a running stash of things to donate, but it was still easy to accumulate things. I knew it was time to minimize, but the task seemed daunting.

One night I watched a documentary on The Minimalists, and there I found my inspiration. (Check out their website The Minimalists) I realized I had been holding onto a lot of things for sentimental reasons. I had memories tied up in these items, but they were hidden away from view and I wasn’t enjoying them; I was passively owning them. It was time to stir up the past, dive into the nostalgia, and let go of some stuff.

I started with the easy spaces: clothing closets and drawers. I dug in deeper than usual, letting go of shirts and dresses that reminded me of events and encounters but that I no longer wore. From there I built momentum. I tackled my desk drawers, closet shelves, the kitchen cabinets, and lastly the storage cabinets in the pantry where I uncovered a trove of treasures, including:

  • One of my first friends in college was a rugged survivalist. I didn’t believe in the extent of his skills, so he proved them to me by hand-making me a rope for camping purposes and wound ribbons of my favorite colors into the strands. It was frayed and coming apart and it was time to let it go.
  • Our sweet dog Toby passed away last February from heart failure. (You can read about it in A Recent Loss: Grief and Gratitude.) We still had his collar, his leash, his warm winter jacket. I put his things in the pile of items to donate to the animal shelter so that another dog can benefit from them.
  • My first 16mm film project was a series of black and white short clips I hand-spliced together to convey tone and emotion. I learned a lot about my creative style from that project and have grown in many ways since then. The images I captured are seared into my memory, and now there is space for new projects.
  • When my little brother was pre-school age, he performed in a dance recital. He dressed as a soldier with the other little boys, marching and dancing with fervor, a smile on his face. Using my camcorder I made a mini-documentary of the event, even interviewing him before and after his stage time. I recorded many fond memories with that camcorder and was happy to learn I could recycle it.

Sometimes we aren’t ready to let go of things, and that’s okay. As I was cleaning out a closet, I pulled out a photo of my husband’s junior high class. He agreed that I could throw it away. I set it aside, and he picked it up to study it, peering closely at his teenage self and friends from yesteryears. I saw the look on his face. He wasn’t really ready in that moment to let it go and decided that we should keep it for now.

Keep the things that have deeper meaning for you and that you would miss. Display them in a way that you can enjoy them rather than treating them as forgotten items shoved away into a drawer. I have mementos onto which I am still holding. When it’s time to make more space, I’ll face them, but all in good time. We can let go of only so much at once.

I did let go of a lot of things though and it was hard, but it also felt cleansing. When all was said and done, I stood in my living room, looked around, and reveled in the fact that I felt lighter. I couldn’t see them but I could feel the pockets of open spaces around me. I felt less like I was hanging onto the past and more like I was making room for the future.

To live a more minimal lifestyle, you don’t necessarily have to live in a tiny house or give up 90% of your worldly possessions. Just aim to keep only the things that bring value and joy to your life, and make plenty of space for the good things to come.

Photo via Visual hunt

The Best Kind of Drive-Thru

I never cease to be amazed by the vast array of creatures that populate our planet. The creativity of nature is evident in every species, and to see them up close and interact with them is a treat that fills me with pure joy.

When I was growing up, my parents sometimes took me to a drive-through wildlife park. The park staff handed us huge buckets of animal food to dole out to the free-range animals as we encountered them on our drive. I remember being wide-eyed with both terror and excitement as a buffalo stuck its entire head through the car window to partake of my food bucket. He was an impressive beast, and he left a lasting impression in my childhood memory.

This past weekend the hubs and I along with the in-laws ventured to a nonprofit wildlife reserve spanning 1800 acres featuring a 9-mile drive-through park. I felt giddy sitting in the back seat of the truck with my hubs holding a bag of food pellets, thinking of the times I had visited similar places as a kid. We drove through the entry gates and started our adventure.

Immediately we could see deer and wildebeests wandering the open range and we watched them in awe. I scrambled into K’s lap eager to see the animals on his side of the truck. I leaned over him and out the window to take photos, but as we circled around deeper into the park, we encountered a slight roadblock. K said, “It’s a velociraptor.” and I leaned back img_9582away from the window.

Two emus stood in the middle of the path, their long legs and toes reminding K of a Jurassic Park predator. Their wild amber eyes, feathered scowl, and wide pointy beaks didn’t make them appear any less intimidating. They peered in at us through the windows we had rolled up in our nervousness, but they were incredible to watch as they displayed their curiosity towards us as we squeaked past them.

img_9630I’ve seen deer before in the wild, but it’s a rare treat to get so close them. Along with young bucks and does were sweet little babies, watching with hopeful eyes as we approached. The variance in their colors and patterns and shapes made each one unique, and I wished the park let us dole out more food treats to these small furry creatures with stick legs and soft faces.img_9724

The horns of these creatures were astounding. Some were long and curved, others wavy and thin, some thick and curled, others like tree branches growing out of the tops of the animal’s head, like the fallow deer, which is similar to an elk. The bravado of their antlers balanced with their calm temperament as they patiently waited at the edges of the road for us to drive up to them and give them food. We laughed noting this was like a reverse drive-thru, them waiting and us driving through to bring them something to eat. I locked eyes with an elk as I gave him some food and wished we could be forever friends.

img_9688As we came around the next corner, the graceful saunter of the giraffes brought us to a stop. They stretched their long necks to reach to tastiest leaves jutting from the treetops and then moved towards us with ease, their heads disappearing over the top of our truck, too tall for us to see. One leaned its head down towards our window and ate the food out of our palms before moving on down the road. We watched them in awe and eventually pulled ourselves away to continue on our adventure.

As we drove towards the end of the park, we came upon img_9735a jumble of zebras. They turned out to be the comedians of the place, leaning in through the car windows and opening their mouths wide to say, “Food please! Just toss it in my mouth!” They were incredible with their straightforwardness and their iconic stripes.

We ended the trip as we started it, with a scary bird encounter. An ostrich set us in its sights and headed straight for us. It greeted us by pecking at the front of our truck and then peered in anxiously through our windows, pecking the top of the truck a few times as well. We agreed he was there to make sure no animal food left the park. He was going to make sure he got the last of it! K bravely rolled down the window just enough to toss out the rest of the food. The ostrich gobbled it up and strolled down the road towards the next victim.

No matter how many animal encounters I experience, I always find myself in a state of wonderment at all the different types of creatures that occupy the earth and the uniqueness of each one. It reminds me that we aren’t the only animals living out our lives as best we can and renews my respect and love for nature and all the animals it encompasses.

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A Wish List

We have a tendency to get lost in the hype of the Christmas holiday. We stress about all the gifts we have to buy, the money we have to spend, the obligatory office parties and family gatherings. In all of the chaos and commercialism, we sometimes forget to appreciate this time of year and the opportunities we have to bring joy to others through the act of giving.

It’s the season of giving and it’s the season of getting, and this year my husband and I decided to do something a little different.

At the beginning of December, my dad called me for quick chat and asked if K and I knew yet what we wanted for Christmas. The hubs and I started talking about our wish list last year in fact, so I was ready with an answer.

K and I feel happy and satisfied with all that we have. If there is something we want or need, we buy it ourselves, and we realize that we are truly fortunate in that regard. Our situation may not always be this way, but this year we felt like we would be asking for things just to ask for them, and that didn’t feel right.

This year we have one thing on our wish list: donations to the Humane Society. Our local chapter is nonprofit and rescues and rehabilitates not just cats and dogs but also horses, donkeys, bunnies, guinea pigs, etc. It is where I adopted my dog Cora six years ago, and she has been my shadow ever since. (You can read about her here: A Rescue and a Birthday) This rescue organization and the animals they save have a holiday wish list that is much more dire than ours.

When I shared our wish list with my dad, he seemed disappointed at first. Many of us enjoy looking for and finding that perfect gift to give to a loved one. My intention was not to take the fun out of giving for him or for anyone else. I explained to my dad that we would of course be grateful for any gift he gave us but since he was asking, we felt like we have more than enough “things” and what we want this year is a donation to the Humane Society. He is a dog lover as well and understood my point. I later emailed him instructions for how to donate money as well as how to buy specific items from the organization’s Amazon wish list, like food and supplies, and have them shipped directly to the shelter.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my friend N shared the sad news that her dog had passed away. Anyone who has lost an animal best friend knows what that kind of grief is like, the feelings of loss it entails. N is a big supporter of adopting rescue dogs, as am I, so I decided to donate to the Humane Society on her behalf. On the website, I pressed the “donate” button and got a surge of energy! I have dropped off donations to the shelter but have never made a contribution online. It was so incredibly easy and felt so satisfying that I decided to keep going and donate more on behalf of others and of myself. I have gotten myself a few gifts this holiday, but I believe this is the best one.

It’s easy to get lost in the craziness of the holidays, but perhaps one way to keep things in perspective is to donate to those in need. While the Humane Society is my pick as it is near and dear to my heart, there are many other organizations out there that welcome anything we can give.   Spend some time at the homeless shelter or food bank. Participate in the angel tree adoptions at the office. Donate children’s books via Barnes and Noble’s local giving initiatives. It’s a simple way to give back and stay in touch with the spirit of the season.

Happy giving and happy holidays!

Photo credit: Aaron Jacobs via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA

 

Social Scene

It’s a Saturday night. What’s on the social calendar? The hubs and I can opt to go to a party, go over to a friend’s house and hang out, or spend the evening with just the two of us. We choose the latter. We almost always choose the latter.

Social scenes set the stage for all the various versions of ourselves to surface. We show different sides of our personalities depending on the situation. When K and I were first dating, we socialized with others frequently. We were getting to know each other, and spending time in a group is a guaranteed way to get a stronger line on someone’s character and personality.

However, a friend once told me that one of the biggest challenges in a relationship is other people. They influence your interactions with each other. Just like the atoms that make up our world and everything in it, when under observation by others, we have a tendency to change. We’re susceptible to our environment and who is around us.

I remember the first time I saw another girl openly flirt with K in front of me. I heard a rushing sound in my ears and my heart started to pound. I got mad. I was apparently a little jealous and possessive of K as I learned in that moment, and it influenced my social interactions the rest of the evening.

After the initial stages of dating and getting to know each other, K and I found ourselves spending most of our free time with just the two of us, and we have continued that habit since moving in together and getting married, not simply because it is convenient, but because we enjoy each other’s company. We are best friends. We are also both introverts. We like spending time alone, and we like spending time alone together. So why hang out with other people?

There are quite a few reasons actually, reasons that I have discovered as K and I have recently been slowly but actively seeking out new friendships and better nurturing our current ones as a couple.

There are many opportunities to learn from other people, but those opportunities only present themselves when we actively engage with them. Every conversation I have with someone leaves me a bit wiser in some way, whether it’s in regards to newfound facts or in the art of reading people or making successful small talk. Every interaction is beneficial. Social interactions open our minds to new things, new ideas, and we experience that as a couple. Our discussions with others add to the topics of conversations we later have just amongst ourselves.

In social situations we also learn to read each other’s body language and facial cues. I become hyper aware of K when he and I are with other people. I feel even more conscious of his presence and find myself watching him and his mannerisms, looking for any indications that he is uncomfortable or bored. It’s important that we make sure our partners are included in the conversation and that we remain aware of each other’s feelings and comfort levels in the situation. We have to work together to stay united, to not embarrass each other, play off of each other’s discussion points, joke casually and easily without giving too much away. These situations allow us to practice and become better at looking out for each other, reading each other, and being better partners overall.

We also see different sides of each other’s character as part of social interactions.   When at dinner with my longtime friend who K was meeting for the first time, he asked questions and cracked witty jokes. I could tell he was trying hard to make a good impression, and make a good impression on her, and his efforts meant a lot to me. When we spend time with our friends with kids, K plays with the little ones and makes them laugh so much they can hardly breathe. It’s a light and silly side of him that warms my heart.

I know that when we walk into a room, we are in it together.   Social scenes have become adventures on which we embark together, and we are letting more of the world in a little at a time. We are growing and learning and having a great time. But I think my favorite nights will forever be the ones we spend with just the two of us.

A Sanctuary

“By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.”  Albert Schweitzer, The Teaching of Reverence for Life

The animal rescue organizations in my city work miracles. Teams of people dedicate themselves to taking care of homeless and neglected animals while others donate money or adopt the animals if they can. But what about the animals that are not domesticated? What about the wild and exotic animals, kidnapped from their homes, sold on the black market, used for profit and then tossed aside when no longer valuable? Who helps them, takes them in, gives them forever homes?

The nonprofit exotic animal sanctuary I visited last weekend is a quick turnoff from the rural highway. The rust colored iron gates blend with the muted landscape remaining unnoticed by thousands of daily travelers. We pull into the small, gravel parking lot and check in at the equally unassuming office building for the tour, which costs only the amount you are willing to give, though they recommend $20 per person.

I am not sure what to expect. Perhaps it is like any other zoo in which the intentions behind its existence are good but the disconnection between human and animal is evident. I am relieved to be wrong. It is unlike any other animal place I have visited.

There are bars around the fenced enclosures to keep us from getting too close to the inhabitants. Our guide requests that we silence our phones and not crouch down when taking photos. The predator instincts of these animals are alive and well, and it is ill-advised to trigger them. This is not a zoo. This is not a place where you can shout at the animals or tap on the glass to get their attention. The caretakers do not allow any activities that upset the animals that live here. It is a safe place for them to live out their days in peace and comfort. This is their home, and we are guests.

A wide-eyed lemur greets us from his enclosure as we enter the sanctuary. He is happy to img_8857see us and shows us his long, fluffy tail. He likes visitors and the extra attention.  The bears mostly ignore us. Their enclosures lead to a large plot of fenced acreage where they roam freely. The ones we see through the fence snooze lazily in the shade or snack on fruit.143160330141819img_4158 Nine of these bears were rescued after a PETA sting operation and needed be moved to a new home as soon as possible. With the funding of game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker, the sanctuary completed the construction of the new bear habitat in less than 90 days.

whitetigerSome of the animals are uncomfortable in the presence of people. One tiger becomes tense when people stand along one side of his enclosure, so we do not linger. We walk to the other side as he follows us, and when we reach it, he begins nudging his giant red ball around and then lies down to gnaw on a huge stick. He is a beautiful creature with thick white fur, brown stripes, and paws the size of my head. Some enclosures we are not allowed to visit at all in an effort to avoid subjecting the animals to discomfort or unease.

The animals here come from all over the U.S. Some were pets. Most were used for profit and kept around only as long as they were submissive and valuable or until they were confiscated. Sadly there are still people in the world who lack respect and compassion for other creatures. So often it is about money and usefulness. It is rarely about a mutual relationship or love.

A traveling roadside circus headed out of town one day stopped by the sanctuary. Their orangetiger2tiger had stopped performing, and they were going to dispose of him if the sanctuary could not take him. It is for this type of scenario that the sanctuary is never at capacity. The caretakers make sure they always have room for emergency rescues. They welcomed the circus tiger with open arms. He lives in the sanctuary safe and sound, never again having to endure the abuse imposed on him by the heartless.

The care provided by the sanctuary includes nutritional plans comprised of whole foods and the occasional treat such as snow cones for the cats and birthday cake for the bears. The animals have toys and pools for play and relaxation. The best part though is the emotional enrichment. The caretakers, including a renowned animal behaviorist, simply spend positive quality time with the animals. It minimizes the animals’ stress and anxiety. The behaviorist spends time inside the enclosures and even takes naps with a trio of tigers he has worked with since they were cubs. For other caretakers though, benches set up outside the enclosures allow people to sit in safe proximity to the animals in an effort to help them grow more comfortable with their surroundings and with human interaction. People who donate monthly to the sanctuary can participate as well. Some people read to them. Some even sing to them. It is a rare opportunity to experience a connection with these beautiful and wild animals and improve their quality of life in captivity.

150160204114634dsc_2620Last year the sanctuary became home to two gray wolves. When they first arrived, they were fearful and skittish, but every passing day they feel more at ease. As I stand nearby, one of them walks through his pool to get a closer look while the other wolf paces back and forth, still a little anxious and unsure. It is through emotional enrichment that they are making progress. They are going to live the rest of their lives here. It should not be a life lived in fear.

It is a relief to know there are people to pick up the pieces of these animals’ lives; to nurture and care for those that have been abused, mistreated, cast aside; to provide a home for those who can never return to their homelands. We must have respect and show compassion for life and nature. The ability to do so is one of the great things about being human.

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Photo credits: most taken by sanctuary but are of actual animals we visited while there