Our friend Will Tottle, who shared a post with us on the emotional benefits that dogs can provide, has written another great piece on how music helps with mental health. You can read his comprehensive article here.
There are times when everyone can benefit from a change of scenery. When the comfort of my day-to-day routine becomes so mundane that I want to scream, I know it’s time to shake it up. I’m not talking about anything drastic—just enough change to keep life interesting. I know I’m not alone.
Of course, travel is one obvious way to change the view. There’s nothing like a trip to a foreign land to alter your perspective. I’ve had the good fortune to visit South Africa and parts of India. Seeing the Big Five (African elephant, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, and black and white rhino) from a jeep on an early morning safari or riding a took-took through the insanely crowded streets of Delhi are definitely effective ways to adjust your attitude and your outlook. When I look at photographs from those trips, I’m transported back to what I will always consider to be adventures of a lifetime.
If international travel isn’t in your budget, another option is exploring a nearby town. A few weekends ago, I drove three hours south and spent the weekend with a friend I hadn’t seen for a few years. Not only did we have a great time catching up, but we did what girls do best—shop. Saturday morning we went to the local produce market, and while we were in the cute downtown area, we checked out many of the local stores. Sunday, we went to breakfast and shared an enormous and delicious salmon-avocado-tomato bagel. By the time I got home on Sunday night, I was recharged and excited about the week.
Sometimes, as much as you want to get away, leaving town isn’t possible. Regardless, you can still change the scenery by altering your routine. Many of us are creatures of habit, and that can be a good thing. For me, a routine is what it takes to get things done. Most mornings are the same: coffee, write, exercise, and grocery shop. Afternoons are more flexible. Generally, they include more writing, phone calls, emails, cooking, and some socializing. Some days, I need to shake it up. Instead of the gym, I go for a hike. Instead of writing, I call a friend and suggest meeting for lunch, coffee, or a glass or two of wine. Instead of taking the freeway, I travel the back roads and explore streets and neighborhoods I’ve never seen before. Somehow, adjusting my schedule recharges my battery, improves my outlook, and adjusts my attitude.
The recent fires in California have filled my hometown with smoke, making outdoor exploration a bit challenging. Fortunately, I’ve been able to escape via movies on Netflix and by reading a few good mysteries. There’s nothing like binge watching and reading to change the landscape. Not sure what to watch? Rottontomatoes.com lists the best movies of 2017, the top 100 movies by genre, and the best movies of all time—and more! Looking for good books? Check out Goodreads.com. Read or write reviews, sign up for the 2018 reading challenge, and become a part of the community.
Finally, for some of us, “Tis not a change of scenery you need but simply change the way you look at the scene you are in.”
Author Shelly Biswell and her husband, Ken, at one of the many train stations they’ve passed through.
It’s been just over a month since we began using our Eurail Global Passes. At this point “global” is a stretch, as we’ve found it hard to leave each country – let alone each village and city we’ve been to. Seriously. Ken laughs because each place we have landed I’ve said, “I don’t think it could get any better”.
This has meant that our travelling has transitioned from “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” to “How about a week in______ (name some smallish town in Europe – we chose Camogli, Italy, and Annecy, France, for our extended stays)?”
I’ve learned on this journey that while it’s important to read and learn about a place, a language, and a people before you arrive, it’s equally important to put that information in context. For example, I’d heard from many people (personal experiences included) that Barcelona has a significant problem with pickpocketing. However, it’s not something we experienced or witnessed there. In fact, the only place that someone half-heartedly attempted to get inside my bag was at the train station in Basel, Switzerland (yes, the country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world). I say “half-heartedly”, because my would-be pickpocketer sidled up to me and started to unzip my bag. When I asked what he was doing, he looked me in the eye and casually walked off.
I’ve loved travelling by train and would take waiting in a train station any day over waiting in an airport. The stations we’ve been in have been safe, clean, and well-staffed. As a cultural crossroads, however, train stations often seem to be places where tourists can be at their most demanding. I admit to a few moments of cultural cringe, such as waiting in line behind the extremely loud and insistent English-speaking couple who had Canada flag patches prominently displayed on their backpacks (just saying, not fooling anyone).
Train stations are also where I have felt the most obvious and, at times, vulnerable as a tourist: “No thank you, we don’t need a ride or three-day sightseeing package.” “Wonder why there are suddenly so many gendarmeries here?” “Wait, did they just change our platform?”
We were in the small train station in Arles, France, and blithely showed up for our early morning train only to discover there was a rail strike. This was our own fault, as the days of the strike had been publicised in advance. There were two workers at the station – a cleaner and a staff person who had the unenviable job of explaining to tourists like us (all the locals had wisely made other travel arrangements) that we would not be catching our train as planned. Yet, this worker – who spoke just a hint more English than our limited French – found us a route using alternative means of public transportation to our next destination. On a day when most of his colleagues were on strike, it would have been so easy, and even reasonable, for him to shrug and point to the split-flap display that showed all the annulé trains. But he didn’t.
One important note about this interaction: Ken has been good about learning and using the language basics for the countries we have travelled in. Thanks to our eldest daughter, Haley, I’ve been practising French and Spanish using the Duolingo app. Admittedly, my thick tongue and pronunciations sound horrible even to me, but I’ve been attempting to at least start a conversation in the main language of the country we’re in.
At the Arles train station, you could see the staff person’s shoulders relax as Ken used his rudimentary French. Not to question the wisdom of Master Yoda and his sage advice, “Do; or do not; there is no try,” but in the case of speaking a foreign language, our lesson has been that it’s better to try, even if we have a shocking accent or don’t know all the right words.
In the scheme of things, perhaps our experience at the Arles train station seems of small consequence, but to me it symbolises the way so many people are willing to give their knowledge, their skills, their resources, and their time to help others – day in, day out. It is humbling.
I’ve just finished Elizabeth Strout’s thought-provoking book My Name is Lucy Barton. In it, her main character muses, “I have sometimes been sad that Tennessee Williams wrote that line for Blanche DuBois, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ Many of us have been saved by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that’s what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.”
I agree. This journey has reminded me to appreciate and pass on that kindness.
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram (shellybiswell).
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
3 1/4 cups cake flour (not all-purpose flour)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups blueberries
In a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and beat after each addition. Add vanilla, lemon zest, and lemon juice and beat to incorporate.
In another bowl, whisk together cake four, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Slowly add to batter. Scrape down the bowl as needed and mix until incorporated. Gently fold in blueberries. Chill dough in refrigerator for at least an hour and up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place rounded, teaspoon-sized mounds of dough on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Bake for 11-14 minutes until the bottoms look slightly browned (the edges should not brown).
Cool on a wire rack.
3/4 cup barley flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk (I use low-fat coconut milk, but regular, soy, or almond milk will also work.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 oz. assorted berries: strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries
Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter a 10-inch springform or cake pan.
Whisk two flours, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in egg, milk, and vanilla until just combined. Add dry mixture gradually, mixing just until smooth.
Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 325° F and bake until golden brown and a tester comes out free of wet batter, about 50-60 minutes. Let cool in pan on a rack. Top with fresh berries. Cut into wedges to serve.
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2 pounds baby potatoes (red, white, and purple)
salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
1 large thyme sprig
3 garlic gloves, smashed to a paste with a little salt
1 tablespoon chopped anchovy
1 tablespoon chopped capers
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound small French beans
4 large eggs
3 tablespoons roughly chopped basil
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes, bay leaf, and thyme spring. Cook at brisk simmer until the potatoes are firm but easily pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes. Remove and let cool.
While the potatoes are cooking, make the vinaigrette: in a small bowl, stir together the garlic, anchovy, capers, mustard, and vinegar. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Whisk again before using if the dressing separates.
When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, carefully cut into pieces 1/4-inch thick, leaving the skins on. Put the slices in a low bowl, season lightly with salt and pepper, and add half the vinaigrette. Using your hands, gently coat the potatoes with the vinaigrette, taking care not to break them. Cover and set aside at room temperature.
Top and tail the beans. Simmer in salted water until firm-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes, then cool under running water and pat dry.
To cook the eggs, bring a medium pot of water to a rapid boil. Add the eggs and cook for 9 minutes for a firm yolk. Cool the eggs immediately in ice water, then crack and peel. Cut each egg in half and season lightly with salt and pepper.
When ready to serve, season the beans with salt and pepper, then dress with the remaining vinaigrette.
Combine the dressed beans and potatoes, using hands to toss, and pile into a large shallow bowl. Sprinkle with basil and arrange the eggs on top.
It’s easy to forget to find joy in the journey—whatever that journey happens to be. A while back, I started going to a Speakers and Entrepreneurs Network meetup in Sacramento because I thought speaking to groups would be a great way to market Don’t Stop Now: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. Unlike a lot of folks who think public speaking is more terrifying than jumping out of an airplane, I enjoy it—once I’ve memorized the speech.
In April, I made the commitment to be a presenter at the July 5 meetup. I spent a couple of weeks writing and refining my twenty-minute talk. Then, I started memorizing it. That’s when the flashback to a high school speech contest loomed front and center. I’d memorized The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe. I got off to a great start. About half way through, my mind went blank. I froze. I waited for the words to come. They never did.
It was not my finest hour.
Since then, I’ve given many talks but none that required memorization. Even thought I’ve written the upcoming speech, memorization has been more difficult than I expected. I was starting to stress out about it, worried that I wouldn’t be able to commit 2500 words to memory. That’s when I got some great advice from Sandra, my friend and acting coach. “Find the joy in learning the speech, not just in delivering it.”
To find joy, I adjusted my attitude. And, I did exactly what I do when I write a book. I enjoyed the process of researching and writing—just as much as holding the final product in my hand.
Basically, I employed what the wiser part of myself already knows:
Every day, I learn another paragraph and practice what I know. I rehearse in my bedroom in front of a full-length mirror, in the back yard while I’m working in the garden, and in the car while I’m driving (to see how much I recall without looking). And, I’m having fun. My goal is to have everything memorized by June 20 and use the rest of the time to perfect my presentation.
So often we have our eye on the destination and ignore the journey. Focusing on the journey has made learning a lot more fun and much less stressful. While I’m using this technique to learn a speech, it applies to many other areas of life. For example, if you’re having a dinner party, make sure all the prep is as enjoyable as the meal. Same with planning a vacation. Make learning about the destination and planning what you’ll do when you arrive interesting and exciting.
In the words of the Indian educator and philosopher Srikumar Rao, “There’s no destination. The journey is all that there is, and it can be very, very joyful.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and figuring out how to deal with it is the pressing question. Overwhelm is what happens when you get too much of something. You can be overwhelmed by remorse, sadness, or by any emotion that you don’t know how to deal with. You can also be overwhelmed by people, places, and things, like the laundry, a traffic jam, or the news.
The cause of being overwhelmed is different for everyone. When I was in Los Angeles, I was overwhelmed by traffic. Now that I’m back home, I’m overwhelmed by the list of things I want to accomplish in a given day. I take one look at my to-do list, feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what needs to be done, and suddenly, I’m paralyzed. I know I need to make phone calls, write a new blog post, take the car for an oil change, and shop for groceries, but instead, I’ll plop down on the couch and read a book or watch something on Netflix.
Recently, I decided to conquer my beast. After looking at my list, I realized that the 25+ items fell into a few basic categories. Sorting the list into three main categories—personal, my writing business, Don’t Stop Now book—and prioritizing each item within a sub-list helped decrease my anxiety. The next step was to pick the most important item from each sub-list and assign a due date. Do I really need to get everything done today—or even this week?
I decided to limit to three the number of items that must be accomplished in a given day. There are days when I do more, but only because I’m on a roll, or feel inspired. What helped the most was putting the tasks on my calendar. For example, I go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. The grocery store is on my way home. Instead of shopping on Tuesday (because I always have), it’s more convenient and a time-saver to stop on a day when I’m already driving by.
Generally, nothing on any of my lists is an emergency. Instead of spending time agonizing over what needs to be done, it’s much easier to put it on my calendar in a logical place and just do it.
To summarize, here are the four steps I’ve been using to avoid feeling overwhelmed by tasks involved with daily living:
What makes you feel overwhelmed? What are you going to do about it?
Coping with stressful situations can be a challenge, but I came up with three ways to make it work.
I recently returned from a two-week road trip to Los Angeles and back. My daughter, who has had Lyme Disease for 15 years, decided it was time to try stem cells. She made the appointment, we booked an Air B&B, and headed south down the no-man’s-land of Highway 5. We took a short detour to Paso Robles for an overnight visit to see an old friend, and we arrived at our destination in West LA early in the afternoon.
The Air B&B was nice and clean, but our assigned parking space was tight—so tight that it took several attempts to get into the spot. The first time I parked, I had to crawl over to the passenger side to get out. Every time I parked the car, I held my breath in anticipation of hitting either the wall or the car in the next stall.
Then, there was the steady background beat of the traffic. And the traffic! Our daily commute from the Air B&B to the clinic was 3.5 miles straight down Santa Monica Boulevard to Beverly Hills. On most days, the appointments began at 9:00 and ended at 5:00. Our average commute time was 35 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic. How people live this way is beyond my comprehension.
While my daughter was at the clinic, I did the grocery shopping and made us healthy meals. Fortunately, both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods were close by, and I found a cute coffee shop within walking distance. Even though I had a GPS, not knowing exactly where I was going added to my stress.
I wasn’t surprised by any of this. During our two-week stay, I noticed that my back ached more than usual. At the time, I thought it was from sleeping on a different mattress. In hindsight, I realize that my stress was from the traffic and my fears of getting lost and hitting the wall or another car in my attempt to park.
Sometime during the end of the first week, I figured out three things to help me cope with stress: simplify, pay attention, and remember to breathe and stretch.
My daughter was undergoing treatment that had the potential to repair the damage Lyme Disease had caused. The stress of LA was a very small price to pay for a potentially large return.
Author Shelly Biswell and her husband, Ken, on a “less-travelled” street in Madrid, Spain.
Over the last couple of months, I have attempted to replace “should have” with “next time” in my language. So, instead of saying, “I should have planned my visit to Segovia so that I could attend Titirimundi (the International Puppet Theatre Festival)”, I try to say, “The next time I’m in Segovia…”
It’s subtle, but “should haves” keep me up at night, and somehow “next times” just heighten my excitement for the days ahead. One represents duty, the other represents possibility.
The poet Robert Frost was right, of course, “way often leads on to way”, so I may never get back to places, but the spirit behind our overseas experience is to live life with fewer checklists. To appreciate where we are and not focus so much on what’s to come.
As part of that, we’ve also learned that instead of trying to hit all the must-sees, it’s better to take a more indirect approach to learning about a place. Unintentionally, house-sitting has helped hone this skill, as the homes we stay in are usually far from well-known destinations. If anyone needs suggestions on what to do with 10 days to spare in Hatfield, England, for example, drop me an email and I’ll fill you in.
Even in places like Paris or Dublin we’ve found that just taking a side street can make a remarkable difference. In Dublin, we dutifully bought our Book of Kells tickets online because next to the Guinness Storehouse (which we didn’t do) that’s where tourists seem to flock. As the line weaved its way around Trinity College’s Old Library and tour bus after tour bus unloaded, we started to wonder if we’d made the right decision. We hadn’t. Whatever awe-inspiring experience we would have had seeing the 9th century manuscript was counteracted by being jostled from one room to the next with dozens of other people.
On the other hand, a local friend recommended a trip to Marsh’s Library, which turned out to be an amazing experience. Aside from a few researchers, we had Ireland’s first public library, which opened to the public in 1707, to ourselves. On top of that, a very knowledgeable librarian generously gave us a “private” tour.
Aside from our own personal fulfilment, there’s also the reality that we tourists are loving many cultural and environmental wonders to death. Ken and I have attempted to operate in a low-impact and respectful way, but I recognise that our mere presence at many sites means we can easily become part of the problem, especially during peak tourism times.
Sidebar: As I write this, Aotearoa New Zealand is considering a tourism tax. I know it will take time to get it right, but it’s a good first step in raising funds to offset some of the costs associated with tourism, as well as reminding people that they are accountable to protect and value the sites they come to see. A tax is something I would gladly pay as we travel from country to country.
For our trip, research and talking with people who know an area has helped us plan more creative excursions. I’ve also learned that I need to let go of my inner twenty-something self (fear of missing out) when it comes to must-sees. Sites such as the Eiffel Tower or the Matterhorn rightly serve as international shorthand for what’s amazing about this world, but they only hint at the depth and beauty of our planet. One really doesn’t know what’s around the corner. Although, as Robert Frost wrote:
“…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
-The Road Not Taken
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram (shellybiswell).