Sunday, August 29, 2010

Teach me how to play

I had just dropped off my daughter at her Kendo lesson (Japanese bamboo sword fighting) and was contemplating what I would do for the next hour and a half until it was time to pick her up.
In that end of town, there is a store that I like to visit. It is called Serendipity Books and Gifts. The sign on the door says "Happy discoveries by chance" and that has proven true for me over the years. More than once I have found just the right thing at the right time.

At the back of the store I heard a man's grovelling voice behind a screen. I saw a sign that announced that Brian was giving Tarot Card readings today, $15. for 15 minutes. I was intrigued. I went to the cash to chat with P.J. the shop's owner. I had not had a reading in ages and for some strange reason, I felt compelled to ask "Any chance I can see Brian today? Is he fully booked?" P.J. replied that as luck would have it, she had one last slot available an hour later so I took it.

The first card that Brian turned was a Two of Pentacles. "Spirit is telling you that you need to build more time for play in your life." Brian went on to explain "You have invested a lot of time and energy in setting up your business. You have been worrying about your ability to succeed in these tough economic times but it will be just fine. You are on the right path. It is time for you to enjoy life a bit more. Lighten up. Have some fun."

I guess this advice would be valuable for most people in this day and age but the importance of play really resonated with me. Play, or the lack of it in my life, has been weighing on my mind these last few months. This is going to sound silly but I am not sure that I know how to play.

I was one of those kids that acted more like an adult than a free-spirited child. It seems like I have been serious and responsible forever. My mother says that as a child I would cry often. It was not a whining cry or a cry of for attention. I cried because I was truly sad as if I was carrying the weight of the world. I repeated the same words over and over again "Pleure, pleure, vivie" (Sylvie is crying and crying) as big tears rolled down my cheeks. In many of my childhood pictures I am either crying or dead serious. Poor kid!

While my sisters invented all sorts of games where they pretended to be wild adventurers, pirates, nurses, animal trainers and restaurant chefs, I sat idly on the sidelines as an observer. My favorite past time was reading and pretending I had a class full of students that I was teaching as I wrote on the blackboard in our basement. My sisters would be cavorting outside, climbing trees, hanging upside down from the swings, spraying each other with the water hose squealing with laughter while I would sit quietly reading or staring into space thinking. Yes, I did wish that I could join them in their games but I did not know play.

So here I am, almost fifty, still not knowing how to play. I can't help it, my mind is focused on the running "To Do" list of my life: do the dishes, do the laundry, do the groceries, drop off and pick up the kids, write the proposal, write the report, work on the website, etc. I play this little game with myself. I declare that once the work is done, I will have time for play. But as you know, the work is never done. I think that my biggest challenge is to give myself permission to get off the merry-go-round of activities even though there is still work to be done. Maybe, to start with, I actually need to schedule some play time. Maybe, I need to enlist the help of loved ones who are good at making time to my husband for example. Maybe, I need to not make play a goal to attain but simply a state of being.

While we were on vacation in Cape Breton, we went on a whale watching boat tour. The boat captain warned us that because there was a strong north wind and lots of waves, it was hard to spot the whales. In the early afternoon tour, they had not spotted a single one. He gave us the option of coming back another day free of charge. Everyone stayed on the boat hoping that we would be luckier than the last group. After close to two hours of scanning the waves for whales with no luck, the captain turned the boat around and headed for port. We all felt deflated. The sun was shining and the coastal scenery of the Cape Breton Highlands was awe inspiring but...we had not seen any whales. All of a sudden, a black form jumped out of the waves to our right. The captain cranked the motor and headed towards the whale. It jumped again. We all ran over to that side and pointed our fingers towards the whale excitedly. The children were squealing with delight. The adults were just as pleased but less exuberant. Many tried to capture the moment on camera and shot hundreds of pictures (my husband has 20 minutes of video showing mostly waves with the odd black fin popping out for a few seconds!) A little girl next to me said to her mother that watching the whales was even better than the shows at Walt Disney World!

We got lucky. We found a pod of pilot whales and followed them for a good half hour. We saw at least three dozen whales. At one point, they were surrounding the boat and we could see them from all angles. There was a baby whale that jumped alongside its mother in perfect unison. They were such a joy to watch. Every time I saw them jump, my heart smiled and skipped a beat. We even saw a school of dolphins making perfect arches above the waves three and four at a time. Nature gifted us with a rare sight.

Maybe nature can teach me something about play. The whales do not worry about balancing work with play. Every day brings its share of work - looking for food - and play - frolicking with friends and family. They just follow their heart's desires. There is no daily agenda. No mission statement. No strategic plan. No guilt. The work and the play just happen...all in good time.


I guess writing this blog has inspired me. I just came back from "playing" outside.

It is the end of August and we are in the midst of a heat wave. It was 36 degrees with the Humidex factor today. It is Sunday but I have been working on my computer most of the day. I wanted to go out for a bike ride today but there was too much work to get done so I kept postponing it. When I looked out the window from my office, I noticed that the sun was beginning to set. I was just a few lines short of finishing my blog. It will be too late for a bike ride by the time I finish I thought sadly, or...maybe not! I dropped everything, quickly pulled on some workout clothes and got my bike out of the garage. The sky was streaked with pink ribbons. The air was mild with still a tinge of the day's heat. I could smell the sweet scent of the clovers in the field. I decided to tack on a couple of extra kilometres to my route even though it was beginning to get dark. I "raced" home so I could make it before it got completely dark. I accelerated my pace, pushing my limits. I felt my heart pumping and the wind on my face. And I smiled. I was having fun, without even planning to!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Seize the day

I have been reading a book entitled The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. The author had an epiphany one rainy afternoon as she was riding the city bus: ״The days are long, but the years are short. Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter. ״Rubin decides then and there that happiness would be her new life project for the next twelve months. She focused to improve her life as it was - no exotic trips, no impulsive change of job or change of life-partner. Rubin wanted to cultivate happiness in her own backyard. Every month she boldly tackled a new set of resolutions that were key to her leading a happier life. The book recounts her adventures and the lessons learned, some surprising, and others predictable but comforting.

The book had been calling to me for a couple of months now. Every time I went to the bookstore (which is quite often - books are one of my favourite things!) my eyes always spotted the blue cover of The Happiness Project book. I would pick it up, look at the back cover and the inside cover and think. ״Wow, this is cool. I wish I had the guts to do the same thing. ״Then I would put the book back on the shelf with a sigh. For some odd reason, a week ago I saw The Happiness Project book again, picked it up and marched right to the cash. I purchased the book without a second thought. I guess, I was finally ready to read it and absorb the lessons...

The book is inspiring me to seek more occasions to be happy or would it be more accurate to say that I am now looking at my life with a different pair of eyeglasses? Rather than creating new reasons to be happy, I am appreciating more the key ingredients to happiness that are already in my life. Sadly, I think that I have become numb to the little joys of my life. I take them for granted. I don't really taste my cup of freshly ground coffee in the morning, or smell my luxurious mango scented shower gel or feel my husband's hugs with all my senses. I am blessed. I have so many things to be thankful for but I forget to acknowledge all the goodness in my life.

When I was away in Victoria (BC) in July, I got reacquainted with the carefree Sylvie is passionate and has a zest for life. I had missed her so much. It is great fun to hang out with her. The vacation Sylvie is so funny and playful. She has an adventurous spirit and is unafraid. On the last day of my trip, I was feeling sad. I realized that I did not want to go home and that scared me a little until I recognized that what I was dreading the most was who I become at home. The home and work Sylvie is stern. She is a task-master and a party-pooper. She has an endless ״ To Do״ list and does not feel good until every item has been scratched off the list (which, by the way, is NEVER!). She can't rest because there is always work to do. If, by any chance, a loved one manages to drag her off to have some fun somewhere, there is a part of her that stays behind worrying about the stuff she needs to do.

Even though I am aware that I have a split personality (I guess that is partly due to the fact that I am a Gemini...) and that every time I return home from a trip I resolve to have the vacation Sylvie become friends with the home Sylvie, things don`t change much.

So that is why when my good friend Mandy phoned yesterday and said ״Hey Sylvie, Brenda and I were thinking of going to the Island this evening and watch the sun set. There is a astronomical phenomenon occurring right now. About 45 minutes after sunset, you can see a planetary triple play starring Venus, Saturn and Mars. We can just hang out and chat and watch the stars come out. What do you say? Want to come join us? ״

I am thinking: ״This is absurd. Why would I want to sit on a beach to wait for stars to pop out in the sky! It is a waste of time. I am tired. I just want to stay home and catch up doing the laundry. My husband Ed came to the rescue and convinced me to go: If nothing else, you will get some fresh air and some quality time with your friends. We should go. ״

Gretchen Rubin`s words were resonating in my head ״Act the way you want to feel. Although we presume that we act because of the way we feel, in fact we often feel because of the way act. ״ Research has shown that if people put a smile on their face (even if it feels artificial at first), the act of smiling will bring about happier emotions.

If in fact I was truly committed to becoming happier and bringing more of the vacation Sylvie into my everyday life then I needed to say an enthusiastic YES to Mandy's invitation. I have to admit that I could not muster much enthusiasm at first and I grumbled all the way there. Poor Ed who has to put up with my sour puss moods!

Once I got to the beach and saw the smiles on friends faces I started to mellow a bit. I liked the feel of the soft sand beneath my feet and the colourful hues of the sky as the sun was setting. We found some rocks to sit on that still felt warm from the rays of the sun they had absorbed during the day. We settled in, five adults well passed their forties and a couple of teenage boys who came along for the ride, snacking on chips and chatting. We were waiting in anticipation for the planets to show themselves. My husband had a fancy IPhone application that showed us the night sky and the location of the planets from where we were standing and we kept scanning the sky. We shared the binoculars back and forth. We patiently waited for night to settle and for the stars to appear. Meanwhile we enjoyed watching the waves make their way to the shore, the seagulls diving into the water to catch a fish, the blue heron's majestic flight as it searched for the best spot to catch his dinner. Time slowed down. We adjusted our rhythm to nature's rhythm. We were content just being a witness. After a while I realized that I felt at peace and content. I named that feeling: I was feeling happy...

One of the exercises I have done while reading the book is create a master list of the things that bring joy to my life. On the left margin of a sheet of paper I wrote vertically all the letters of the alphabet, A to Z. Then I started listing all the things that start with the letter A that bring me happiness like Art, angels, and antiques. Some letters like U and Z were tricky, but I managed to find at least one thing for each letter. It was a fun activity that made we more aware of the reasons I have to be happy. I keep thinking of new things and add them to the list. Creating the list has made me more conscious to the happiness in my life. I mentally check off an item from the list when I recognize it in my everyday life. This helps me be more mindful and grateful for what I have.

I will be away on vacation for the next couple of weeks travelling to the east coast to commune with the Atlantic Ocean so I will not write again until August 29. In the meantime, I challenge you to create your own happiness list. Please let me know what you find out about yourself in the process.