From kale to chaos – But I feel fine

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Last week started so well. Lots of kale juice and the fridge was overflowing with luscious greens and colourful, vitamin rich fruit and vegetables. Then the work week began… and the picture above summarises well how it ended.

It’s really hard for working mothers to find the time or the energy to put a healthy meal on the table every night. This week was particularly difficult because of the school holidays and the demands of work–I saw myself doing much longer days than usual. Even though I was working from home most days, by the time I shut down my laptop, I was feeling drained and guilty. It was the holidays and I had barely seen my children. Cooking a healthy meal wasn’t any longer at the top of my priority list.

I’m very proud of my boys, they behaved so well–played with their toys, watched tv, spent time on their electronics and ran outside with the neighbours. I only had to leave the room to feed them. But instead of celebrating that they are growing up and becoming independent, as the week progressed I was feeling more and more deflated. It felt like I was managing a cattle feedlot.

I know that research after research tells us that there is no negative consequence for children of working mothers. But I think mothers secretly worry that they are not giving their kids enough quality time and that this could have an adverse effect on the children. I don’t fear in silence anymore, I write about it instead.

My concern with this ‘quality time’ is what made me decide not to work full-time while my kids are still young. Although mind you, I work four days and more often than not I end up doing more hours than a full week of work. But at least this gives me the flexibility to wait for my kids at the school gate a few times a week. And at 2:55pm when the school bell rings, I know when I see them scanning the sea of parents and our eyes meet that they are happy that mum is there for them.

So back to my week, by Friday the house was a mess, it was raining and the kids spent the entire morning playing with video games, and the hot water system had stopped working – it was total chaos and I was growing increasingly irritated. About 3pm I had enough, put the kids in the car, drove to the shops, spoiled them with a sweet treat and let them spend their pocket money. It was my way of making up for the week in the ‘farm’ (and I needed a good dose of caffeine!). We browsed books and told jokes and stopped at every department store to look at Lego sets and Star Wars merchandising  (the new family fever). The sugar overdose made me feel guilty again but honestly, I thought bugger all health eating messages right now, I just want a break from the chaos of the week and connect with my kids doing something I know they enjoy.

Then we got home and I had to remorsefully throw away lettuce and bok choy that had passed the ‘use by’ date. You can’t have it all-or at least I haven’t pulled off having it all. But one thing I have is my breath to go back to. Sometimes it helps me make better decisions, other times it just prevents me from going totally nuts and at the end of the day it always reminds me at that with sugar or without, life can be… well, sweet.

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An overdose of wellbeing

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Today I had too much of a good thing

Exhausted. That’s how I’m feeling after a day of wellness. And I didn’t even manage to squeeze in a work out. Today I woke up with a wellness obsession. This happens to me from time to time, normally after I read a convincing article or book or speak to someone whose life has been transformed by a new diet. Like when I went crazy about fortifying my gut wall with good bacteria and ended up horribly constipated and three kilos lighter (for those who don’t know me I’m already skinny enough), thanks to my brother and his fermentation fever and the living creatures he was keeping in the fridge.

I think of myself as a health conscious woman. I exercise, I meditate and I eat my fruit and veggies. But for some inexplicable reason today I went to great lengths to have a naturally healthy day. This morning I did my normal meditation as soon as I got up – so far so good – but then, instead of my regular Saturday run, I got down on the floor for 20 minutes of yoga. Inversions! They filled my body with the anticipatory delight of how great this day was going to turn out.

Maybe it was the extra oxygen in my brain but suddenly it was borne in upon me that I had not used the juicer in a long time. That warranted a trip to the supermarket with a list of ingredients I had quickly Googled. And as I was at the shops, why not visit the health food store too, a good wellness warrior must have a pack of organic coconut flour in the pantry.

Two hours later I got back home and spread my plentiful harvest in the kitchen bench. Oh God, what have I done! There’s more foliage here than in the Amazon forest. It took me over two hours to wash, sort and pack my fruit and vegetables. By then, half the day was gone and the kids were hovering over the pantry. I offered them organic corn chips while I whipped up a quinoa and smoked salmon salad for a late lunch. They weren’t impressed. For desert I sliced fruit – victory, no processed sugar today!

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Colours of health

Of course, let’s not forget the wellbeing of the dog. Another hour quickly passed as I cooked his meat and veggies casserole and divided it in individual portions to freeze. Snoopy is the only family member that seems to appreciate my fits of wellness.

Then it was time for afternoon tea, or shall I say, afternoon juice. For the kids I squeezed ‘nothing but 10 apples’ as this is the Nudie juice I buy for them every now and then. When the juice is homemade though, the audience never shows the same enthusiasm. “It doesn’t taste the same mum, can’t you just get a normal juice?”. The jug is still in the fridge.

For me this was the moment I had anticipated since morning: my kale juice, yeah! Tons of nutrition in a single glass. It didn’t taste as bad as I expected and it did feel like I was nourishing my body and soul. I felt invigorated and thought I could repeat the dose tomorrow. This was before I went back to the kitchen to clean up the mess. Another hour of fun.

I finally sit down to do my writing and it’s 5:30pm and I’m wondering what to do with the lentils I left soaking all afternoon and I don’t think I’ll have time to make the coconut muffins. Man, I was inspired, but as usual I packed too much for one day. Unfortunately, I was carried away by my enthusiasm and wasn’t very mindful of my behaviours. On the flip side, I have a supply of healthy food that should fuel the family for a week and tonight I should sleep like a rock – and good quality sleep, you know, is vital for wellbeing.

Tomorrow I’ll continue my quest of finding the right balance.

What I see from down here

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I see a lot of people living with fear, including me. But our culture tells us that this is a weakness of our personalities, we have to be strong and say no to fear to be a winner: “Say I have no fear, be a hero”. I’ve tried to be a hero. It didn’t work. For people living with anxiety or depression, being optimistic, reciting positive affirmations or trying to be the resilient person we want to be does not change our diagnose. What has worked for me was to accept that to have fear is part of being human and can be managed but not all fears are created equal – some minds create nameless, unreasoning, unjustified distress that can be paralysing and insurmountable if professional help doesn’t come to the rescue.

When your neurotransmitters are not doing their job well and emotions have highjacked your brain they create fears that would be unthinkable for a ‘normal’ person. For example, a person who does not have a health anxiety won’t feel as threatened by the fact that 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85

And it can get worse. If you have a generalised anxiety, you don’t even need a trigger or a cause, you simply live in a constant state of worry and fear. You feel scared and you know that what you are feeling is irrational but you cannot help it and putting a brave face does not make dread go away.

When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety eight years ago, fear of dying of cancer ruled my life. For three months I had this all-consuming terror that stayed with me every waking moment and sometimes sleeping moments too as I woke up in the middle of the night in panic.

What I’ve learnt from my experience is that once you understand what anxiety is you can use a combination of tools to manage how to live with your fears. In my case, it made sense to start with medication to make the neurotransmitters do their work properly and reduce the chemical imbalance and the war raging in my brain. Once my mind became a bit calmer I was able to  incorporate therapy, meditation and yoga as part of my tool kit.

Unfortunately, no amount of coping mechanisms can change the fact no one is immune to health and mental illnesses and other tragedies of life. So, fear still pokes its ugly head. When that happens I pull the welcome mat (as well as the yoga mat) and let it exist. The simple fact of acknowledging it makes me feel better. I experienced this when my sister was being treated for breast cancer. Fear walked by my side during that period but thankfully I wasn’t paralysed by it. But if it wasn’t for the teachings of mindfulness meditation I’m not sure I would have coped as well.

I didn’t get to where I am overnight and some days are easier to manage than others. Sometimes I don’t even think I have anxiety but other times it’s clear that I do. I started sharing my story so that people leaving with fear know that they are not alone and that there is treatment.

I hope your fears are not so great but if they are seek help, the journey is not easy and it won’t turn you into a fearless super hero – but you will come out on the other side as a much stronger human being.

 

 

Missed the train and the distraction

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I felt the vibration. I could have waited until I got on the train. It was 5:58am and still dark but the light from my phone made it easy to find the ticket in my messy handbag.  As I scanned the ticket in the sensor I watched a train stop in the opposite platform. Luckily it was’t my train, I still had a few seconds, I thought. I looked at the phone screen and there was a Whatsapp message from a dear friend. Next time I turned my eyes to the platform my train was closing its door. How did this happen? I was at the platform and neither saw the train coming nor the other passengers hopping on–well, there was only a handful of them.

I was flabbergasted and for a few moments tried to reconstruct those few seconds in which I was totally disconnected from the real world. I’d never experienced something like that before. I know it sounds silly, it’s just a train but it was a surreal sensation – I felt like those seconds had not existed, that time had stopped. Weird.

This experience made me feel really cranky, I literally ran from home to the station and just got there on time. If it wasn’t for that Whatsapp vibration I wouldn’t have wasted 15 minutes waiting for the next train. Anyway, I decided to do a bit of mindfulness meditation. I’ve been spreading myself thin again and my meditation practice always suffer. As I had to wait I might as well use this time wisely.

In that desert and silent platform I could now hear the birds and the wind blowing the autumn leaves. I sat down on the lonesome green bench, put my headphones on and did 10 minutes of Headspace. At the end I was actually grateful to the universe that I missed my train. I felt calmer and centred and more positive about the busy day ahead.

I cannot let my meditation lapse. It’s not the first time I get in trouble in my commute because my attention has drifted somewhere else. Last time it happened, about a month ago, I got on the wrong train and had to get out in the middle of nowhere and catch a taxi back to the children’s school. Of course I was late and the rest of the day was was totally out of sync.

This morning it was only 10 minutes of piece of mind but I’m feeling energised and wanting  another dose before going to bed. I’ve set an alert in the mindfulness app for 9pm and am looking forward to the vibration.

Give them time to be kids

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The daylight slowly fades in the small backyard of our suburban home and the house is filled with the sounds of birds and children. The birds are retiring for their nightly rest but the kids show no signs of getting tired – or hungry! It’s 8:30pm and if I don’t insist they won’t come in for dinner.

Through the kitchen window I see my backyard transformed into a magical classroom where the children are exploring and learning and destroying my herbs garden. During daylight saving the kids end up going to bed at 10pm, but I don’t mind. At the end of the day I know they’ve been exposed to more sunlight than blue light from electronic devices and they’ve exercised their bodies and minds, not just their little fingers.

There is no denying that technology is an important part of children’s education but it saddens me that most children are spending more time staring at a screen than playing outdoors, reading, playing with friends or even interacting with a parent. The Department of Health recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children aged five and up but research suggests that over 58% of Australian children spend more than two hours per day consuming screen based media. The older they get the more they consume.

Those two recommended hours include screen time spent both on educational and recreational purposes but judging by my own kids, most of the time spent staring at a screen is unlikely to be on educational grounds. And what’s worse is that it’s more likely to be at the expense of time they were supposed to spend on good and old ‘free play’.

Free play for many children today means time on electronic gadgets. We all know they want and need to play with their devices – using their tablets, phones and computers wisely can be beneficial. But I think there is so much over parenting and over scheduling these days that children don’t have the time, and sometimes the freedom, required to strike a good balance between electronics and traditional play. And with limited time it looks like electronics always win!

As parents we have to think critically about how much we schedule or allow our children to cram in. My son this week announced he no longer wants to play soccer and I immediately went looking for other sports options. Thomas has turned down all alternatives, he said he just wants to be home. And that’s how it’s going to be. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my children won’t be traumatised or disadvantaged if they miss a sport’s season.

I don’t know if it’s just in my home but I find that when kids are not deprived of free time it’s easier to negotiate with them a better balance between screen and non-screen play, and once they engage on play that involves all their senses they end up forgetting about their devices.

When I look back at my childhood my happiest moments weren’t those in front of the TV watching The Flintstones or playing pac-man. One of my favourite memories is of my friends and I bringing home a litter of six kittens that we found in the neighbourhood. Childhood was about playing with other kids, exploring, getting into trouble, was about having time and being allowed to be kids.

Surely, we live in a different world today but while technology is an integral part of our lives and it is not our lives. I fear that without enough screen-free play our future adults will look back in their childhood and say that the best moments of their lives were spent on Minecraft. This will be a dull, conforming world, full of people disconnected to themselves and to others. But I still hope it won’t be so. I hope when the daylight slowly fades in the backyard of my grandchildren’s suburban home the house will be filled with the sounds of birds and children.

300 Words on Privilege

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Privilege: I’ve never had as much toys, books and gadgets as my kids have.

I struggle. I work hard. But I feel immensely privileged. I had the chance to choose whether to leave Brazil, my home country, and restart my life in a developed nation. There are close to 60 million people around the world that had to flee their homes due to war or persecution – they have nowhere to go, they have no choice. I was in a position to choose because I was born in a middle class family that knew the value of a good education. I had access to good schools and university and was able to qualify for a place in the skilled migration program. Of course I had to work hard to get there but my chances of having that opportunity would have been slim had I not had the privilege of my upbringing.

Until a few years ago I didn’t see most of my privileges as such – we don’t go through life looking for signs that we have more advantages than others, sometimes we even turn a blind eye. It can be very confronting to realise and acknowledge that many of our achievements in life are not attributed to us solely on merit. It can also be overwhelming because we are limited in what we can do as individuals to give others the rights they equally deserve. We can’t transfer or share a privilege with another person. As an individual I can’t give refugees the right to come and go, or an able body to a person with a physical disability, or shield social groups from prejudice.

It can be uncomfortable to become aware of our privileges and the inequalities that they create but it can also make us compassionate with ourselves we are all denied some privileges too and more empathetical towards other people’s suffering and misfortunes. Awareness can also help us stand up for equality and support policies that give everyone access to the resources they need and deserve.

How much awareness is too much?

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for almost three years. Well, truth be told I have lapsed here and there, but for the last few months, I have managed to maintain some form of meditation everyday. Mindfulness meditation has helped me in many areas, but most notably it has changed my relationship with my anxiety. No, meditation hasn’t provided a miracle cure – I’ve read of people who swear they have overcome clinical depression and anxiety with meditation but I’m yet to experience that myself. But meditation has helped me manage the anxious thoughts better and gave me some control over how to respond.

A byproduct of the practice of mindfulness is that I became more aware and compassionate with the suffering that goes on in the world. The flip side to that is that sometimes I can feel overwhelmed – there is too much suffering and my resources to help are limited. So one area that I thought I could help was by becoming a vegetarian – at least I would not be contributing to the suffering of animals. I always found it hard to justify our meat eating habits and eventually I made a decision to no longer eat meat.

I’ve been abstaining from meat for over seven months* and although it requires more planning and I end up having to cook meat for the rest of the family more often than not, I’m happy with my decision.  During this process I also learnt that meat consumption contributes heavily to our carbon footprint – so an added bonus to the vegetarian diet.

The problem was that changing my diet made me more aware of the link between what we eat and our health. I did some research and I read a lot about the benefits of a gluten-free, sugar-free, low carb diet, rich in pro and prebiotics and how this diet contributes to a healthier gut. I’ve found the research around the topic quite compelling, specially around the correlation between the health of your gut and your mental health. So I decided to give it a try, removing gluten and sugar from my diet. I was hoping go on this diet for two weeks but only lasted 10 days.

Unfortunately, in 10 days I did not see any benefits – I was feeling weak and tired, sometimes grumpy and more constipated than I normally get. I understand 10 days is not enough to consider this diet a fail but I got really discouraged. I thought I would see or feel something positive after 10 days to keep me going. Maybe I should have planned more (gluten and sugar at the same time, what was I thinking?) or spoke with a doctor before even considering it.

But I guess the bottom line for me is that it got me thinking if I am becoming too mindful of too many things. There is a limit to how many causes one can embrace, how many fights one can fight and how many problems one can solve. It does not matter how much mindfulness I practice, I cannot add one extra minute to my day – 1440 minutes is all I have and I already have a lot in my plate.

I can’t help being aware of what’s happening around me. I still want to be compassionate. I still want to be there for my friends and help those I can. But this experience was just another reminder that I need to be careful and not bite more that I can chew. And maybe a bit of gluten or sugar is something I can swallow after all.

 

* Confession: I’ve had a bit of fish – as I’m lactose intolerant, sometimes I end up left with very little options, specially when eating out.

 

I’ve reframed my picture of ageing this holiday

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Four years ago: my mum, very capable at 69, Balmoral beach, Sydney

We all dream of a picture perfect holiday, with white sands, blue beaches and most importantly away-from-it-all. My holidays in Brazil have had a good deal of perfect moments but I certainly didn’t get away from the catastrophes of living. It’s been very confronting to see how much my mum has aged in the last 12 months and hard work to let go of the idyllic view I held of ageing.

The vision I had for my parents in old age was dotted with time for rest and reflection and opportunities to do things they didn’t do when we were young but this simply didn’t eventuate. Of course I was conscious that ageing is a period of decline but I didn’t think my mum would walk the downhill road in her seventies. When dad’s life was cut short eight years ago I knew things were not going to be as rosy as I had pictured them but I was still positive about mum’s ageing. My expectations were reinforced when she came to visit us in Australia four years ago, on her own and full of vitality. Unfortunately I think that trip marked the beginning of her decline.

It’s been emotionally painful to see that the wonderful chef my mum once was can no longer cook a nice meal and the avid storyteller lacks the desire to entertain her grandkids with tales of a bygone era. Mum hasn’t been diagnosed with any age related illnesses but she has endured debilitating spinal problems, hearing and memory loss. She feels frail, alone and at times frustrated with her situation.  When I was growing up anger was a feeling I rarely saw mum displaying but she has a much shorter fuse these days. When I met my mum in this condition I felt a deep sense of helplessness and I wasn’t able to sleep for several nights thinking of ways to help her change her situation.

So, since arriving in Brazil I’ve read a good deal of articles about ageing parents and learnt a bit about the harsh reality of the elderly – the chronic health problems, increasing frailty and social isolation. The suffering of the elderly can be so severe that it can lead to depression and even suicide. In fact, suicide rates around the world are higher for people over 70 than any other age group.

In my eagerness to help I’ve made a few well intentioned suggestions and recommendations that were not interpreted that well by mum. When you lose your independence and control you become very reluctant to change. So instead of creating more friction and stress I’ve decided to change the one thing that I can control: my view of ageing. I have now accepted that my mum is no longer self-sufficient and that the parent I once depended on is now increasingly dependent on me and my siblings.

Once I was able to accept my mum’s ageing as a fact of life and something I have little control over I started to sleep well again. I’ve adjusted my expectations so as to lie within the realm of what is possible and as result improved my relationship with mum. This doesn’t mean I’ll sit down and watch my mum wither – I’ll still do what’s possible to relieve mum’s suffering but I’ll be mindful of her limits, feelings and desires.

These holidays I tried to get away from it all but found myself right in the middle and coming to terms with our mortality and shared vulnerability. It certainly hasn’t been the picture perfect holiday I expected but definitely one I will never forget.

The perils of auto-pilot when in transit

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Phew, we made it back to the plane – but only just! I was calmly browsing the souvenir shop at Auckland international airport as we waited for our lunch when I heard via the airport speakers the names Lucas and Thomas being called. I looked back at our table and the boys were there with Paulo so I thought I must have misheard the announcement. But a few seconds later I heard the speaker again, this time I devoted my full attention to it: “Paulo Emilio Pinto, Rosana, Lucas and Thomas report immediately to gate 4C – your flight is about to depart”. I panicked, I knew we were nowhere near gate 4C. I looked around and could not see my family – have they rushed to the gate ahead of me? I stopped for a few seconds to take a deep breath and refocus. I looked around again and found Thomas still with the restaurant pager in hand waiting for our lunch and Paulo chatting to an acquaintance. Surely they were oblivious to the threat that we were about to miss our long haul flight.

Now, this is a week before Christmas, you can imagine what would happen if we did lose our flight. So as we weaved our way through the crowd my mind was racing worrying about the prospect of having to cough up the airfares again and the nonprobability of finding four seats on a plane to Brazil anytime soon. It probably took us three good minutes to reach gate 4C but it felt like an eternity. All passengers had already boarded – there was no one around but two unfriendly woman who told us off for being that late. Guilty as charged but it felt like being told off at school, we felt deeply embarrassed. Surely we created more work for them – they had to get a bus just to take the four of us across the tarmac to the plane but a small dose of customer care would have made the this stressful experience a bit easier.

The bus trip to the aircraft was tense, we’re expecting an even meaner reaction from the flight crew as well as booing from the expecting passengers, stranded on the plane because we decided to have lunch. But as the bus approached the plane, we could see the crew looking out the door and to our relief, they still had a smile on their faces. High five to Lan Chile crew! We were directed to our seats without major embarrassment, just a few looks from our fellow passengers but no collective display of disappointment.

We almost missed our place because of the dam auto-pilot. We do this trip every year so we know the drill: we stop over in New Zealand for a couple of hours, go to the bathroom, pass through the airport security and then the foodcourt, before going back on the plane. We always keep an eye in the flight information display but this time we didn’t. We just went through the motion without really thinking much, not realising that the stop over this time was less than two hours. We were tired and hungry and that didn’t help but with all the mindfulness that I have been doing and preaching, I felt a bit silly that I was so mindless in this instance.

All ended well but we ended up boarding the plane with an empty stomach. The pager was probably beeping at our empty table in the foodcourt by the time we embarked and a lucky passenger must have just scored a free lunch.

Day of silence: nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to please

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The collective energy of 50 people doing nothing is powerful. We sat still this Sunday in the beautiful grounds of Kincoppal Rose Bay for a day of mindfulness. Fifty people in silence – sitting, walking, listening to the sound of nature  and just being. No one checking their phones or rushing to get somewhere or even saying thank you. Silence can be liberating.

My mind is usually as busy as an amusement park, always looking for distraction and entertainment, so a day like today, where focus on the present moment reigns, is very refreshing. After the session I’m clam and grounded and feeling blessed that I had this opportunity to share in a day of nothing with so many.

It’s reassuring to see that there are so many people trying to find an avenue back to the present moment amidst the chaos that life is in the 21st century. At the end of the day when we had the opportunity to discuss the experience, the comments revolved around the same theme: finding time and space to just be. We are all in the same boat.

Like everyone at attends a retreat, today I’ve renewed my commitment to stop rushing towards the future. But as I walk home now after a day of bliss, I know I will open the door to the chaos of kids, dinner, lunch boxes and work – my natural environment. The challenge is to bring awareness to these ordinary moments, which make up most of the moments of our lives, and be present to them.  It’s much easier to be calm and content when you get to lie down in your yoga mat. I’m putting the welcome mat to the ordinary tonight, I hope I’ll succeed and I hope that you will too.