Brain Food

20161213_183954Last night I drank caffeinated green tea after dinner and it kept me awake half the night. When I finally gave up on sleeping, I went downstairs and watched the YouTube videos of Dr. Daniel Amen. The guy knows the brain inside out and is passionate about the care of this amazing organ. Ironically, sleep is one of the brain’s critical needs.

And I’ve known this. I’ve stressed the importance of sleep to my kids over the years, to the point of sounding like a broken record. When we haven’t had enough sleep, we don’t function as well, we are more prone to poor eating habits, skipping exercise, irritability and accidents. I knew it would not bode well for me to be wide awake at 3 a.m., and yet I was not sorry to be taking in Dr. Amen’s knowledge.

20160602_170831-2Diet and exercise are also critical to healthy brain functioning. We know this already, right? But I usually think of these things as important for my body and my heart. Rarely do I focus on the fact that I am caring for this incredible, elastic bundle of nerve cells. And what really makes me want to jump up and down is how the brain’s upkeep affects our overall happiness in a BIG way. Our mood, judgement, creativity and attention are all  results of the brain. I would say all those things together affect the spirit. As Dr. Amen says, when your brain works, your life works. 

What are you feeding your brain? 

That is the question I am going to ask myself from now on.
20160503_111231I am feeding it eight hours of sleep most nights, plus exercise and meditation. And I am feeding it some pretty yummy things too, like spaghetti squash and shredded zucchini and quinoa stuffed peppers and salmon over spinach. 20160801_171519-1

 

Our brains needs a lot of water, and of course, intellectual stimulation and empowering thoughts. We can nurture and stretch our brains, or let them atrophy. We can feed them well or neglect them.

We can literally grow and heal our brains by making healthy choices. 

I’m drinking the decaf tea tonight.

My brain has some sleep to catch up on.

 

 

 

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The Art of of Self -Care

stock-photo-48674142-artist-brush-painting-picture-of-beautiful-landscapeIt has in fact occurred to me that not everyone is as passionate about simplifying as I am. Not everyone thinks that organizing a closet or an office is fun. Therefore, someone can like the idea of simplifying, but not actually ever do it. Which is perfectly fine if the idea of it is only mildly appealing anyhow.

Like so many things- exercising, losing weight, getting healthy, changing careers, creating a beloved project, giving up sugar- it is easy to like the idea of it, and quite a bit harder to do it. I suspect that to make any lasting change, we first need to fall in love with the idea of it.

We all know that doing something new, even if it’s for the best, requires bypassing that well-worn groove our old habits have created in our brain, in order to start on a new path. The new path can be steep and muddy, thick with brush, a tangle of overgrowth. We haven’t been here before, so the first hundred steps are difficult, prickly and tiring. It requires so much energy, so much of our will.

If the reason for starting down this path is not compelling enough, then who in their right mind would bother? It’s too much damn effort and life can be challenging enough without forcing ourselves to do unpleasant things on a regular basis.

If the reason for starting is not compelling enough…

The goal has to be compelling. We have to be able to envision what we want and to feel excited about the possibility. What would it look like? What would it feel like? Whatever our desire or goal is, big or small, I think that we  have to believe it will feel fantastic to reach it.

We are creatures of habit, and if we cannot imagine the rewards of something different, then that well-trodden path, the one of least resistance, will pull us back every time. Why wouldn’t it? It’s familiar, easy, and takes very little effort to travel that way. These samskaras as they are called in yoga, are deeply embedded patterns and they usually don’t change easily.

I like to think of self-care as an art. This implies that we are the artists of our own lives and have the liberty to choose our medium. Maybe simplifying does not appeal to you, but maybe something else does. (I would argue that simplifying will help you reach any goal, whatever that is, but I don’t want to be too pushy here).

I use the term self-care because I think that anything we really want that doesn’t do harm to ourselves or others is by its very nature, self-care. Greater fulfillment, a better relationship, more energy, resources, a sense of peace, a fit body, an aesthetically pleasing environment, writing a book or painting a masterpiece; getting more sleep or earning more money or having more time…..you fill in the blank… It is all self-care.

So here comes my pep talk for making your desired result more compelling:

Self-care–meeting all of your needs- does feel amazing.

It is worth it. The rewards are great.

What are they? Feeling lighter, freer, healthier and clearer, more in control of your life. Intuition is heightened, energy is increased, the right opportunities and people and ideas show up in your life.

And the momentum! One step down that new path, then another and another and it starts getting easier and then other good things get easier. For example, have you ever noticed when you work out you want to eat healthy afterwards? Or if you get rid of clutter in one room you want to go on to the next? When you get enough sleep you are clear headed and efficient, and everything goes more smoothly. One positive choice leads to the next, moving you forward. You gain traction, you notice little miracles, you put your life in order.

Momentum is awesome.

And then instead of trying to figure out how to get rid of the patterns you don’t want in your life, they are simply being replaced, or squeezed out, by the new things that you do want.

Full disclosure: Left to my own devices, or my natural temperament, I am the worst at breaking old habits and creating new ones. I have an Inner Brat who wants what she wants when she wants it (ice cream for lunch, while I sit around getting nothing done and make my blood sugar level rise? Yes please!)

I often want absolute convincing that a new pathway will be greatly rewarding before I will begin something new and good. I need research and experience and even signs from a divine source that this new way will be amazing. But the problem with this is that rewards often don’t become apparent until we’ve begun. We can’t experience it until we experience it.

I needed to know that writing and exercising nearly every day, even when I don’t feel like it, as well as mindfully choosing what I eat, and including meditation or yoga because that is what keeps my on the path-will be worth the effort.

But I couldn’t know it for sure until I did it.

And when I don’t do it, my day feels lacking, I am out-of-sorts, dissatisfied.

So if you have some desire for something new and better, whatever that is (you get to pick! ) I want to save you weeks or even years of resistance. I want to tell you that whatever it is you want, if it comes from your Better Self, your Higher Self, your Real Self, it will be so freakin’ worth it!  It can’t not be. I want to tell you that the burdensome path you may be avoiding is covered in gold, but you won’t see it until you are on it.

Self-care in every form will never let you down. Positive change is exciting and rewarding every single time, even when it starts out scary or daunting or difficult- perhaps especially when it starts out that way.

The act- the actual physical act– of beginning down that difficult new path, whatever that is, is pretty quickly rewarded. You won’t have to wait long to notice the fabulous results, and as you continue, step by step, the whole landscape comes into view, your own sweet masterpiece.

Farewell my sweets

It has been over a year since I wrote about my sugar habit in this post: https://musingsimplicity.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/sweet-surrender/

Not much has changed. You could say I’m mindful about consuming sugar, but really I’m just aware of how addicted I am. No matter how much I engage in healthy habits, this sugar thing has got me beat. I find it easy to embrace a healthy lifestyle in all other areas but this one. It is the stubborn habit that has followed me around my entire life.

But it’s a new year and never too late for change. Recently, I read Gretchen Rubin’s article on habits:

http://www.gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2012/10/back-by-popular-demand-are-you-an-abstainer-or-a-moderator/

She proposes that when it comes to managing indulgences, there are abstainers and there are moderators, and life is easier if we identify which one we are. I want to be a moderator. That sounds so healthy. So moderate. Everything in moderation, right? But alas, I am not a moderator. Not when it comes to sugar.

With sugar, I want what I want. One means two means three. There is no saving dessert for later or tomorrow, because if it’s there, I’m going to have it. Now. And if I have it one day, I must have it the next.

I tried the eating sweets only on special occasions idea of moderating, and I failed. Every occasion became special. Not just birthdays and holidays, which by the way, seem to come around an awful lot. But it was also special when my husband brought home Ben & Jerry’s from the grocery store. And it was special if we found ourselves near a bakery where we could get cannolis. And it was special when it was the weekend or the kids were home or we’re out to dinner or…

You see how that goes?

And there was the pre-sliced cheesecake I bought from Trader Joe’s and told myself I’d save  for Thanksgiving. When my husband asked if we could perhaps break into the cheesecake before the holiday, I was adamant. No, of course we can’t! Then I fessed up. We can’t because I’ve already sampled two pieces. If anyone was going to sample the cheesecake, it had to me. Obviously.  I was the sugar addict after all.

Then there was Christmas day when I walked into my parents’ house and headed straight to their freezer where I knew they stored the whoopie pies. I helped myself to the over- sized dessert before anyone had even begun the meal. It was like I was five years old again, but it was less cute now.

But recently, I think I hit rock bottom. On a mini-road trip with one of my daughters, we left the Norman Rockwell museum and were back on the road. My daughter decided she wanted an ice cream cone, and with limited choices nearby, would settle for a McDonald’s vanilla cone.

She is a person who can indulge in sweets moderately, so of course I obliged. Once I placed her order in the drive thru, I drove to the second window to pay. I was happy with myself that I had opted to abstain from the dessert. This was a rare event: being in the presence of someone else eating ice cream and not having any. Actually, it had never happened before.

It was then that I remembered the Mcflurry- that soft serve ice cream with the candy mixed in. I wanted one. I began my internal battle: to have or not to have, my superego and my id wrestling it out right there in the drive thru. We’d already ordered. The server handed me my daughter’s cone. It was time to pay and leave. I asked her to add a Mcflurry to our order. Seeming a bit annoyed, understandably, she said okay and walked away.

Then an alarm went off. A loud, ear piercing alarm sent the employees scurrying around inside. I should have left. Surely they were facing a bit of a crisis, maybe even a fire. For all I knew, they were being held by gun point at the cash register. Clearly, it was time to move on from the Mcflurry. But no, I wanted it dammit. I waited. And waited.

Eventually the girl reappeared, flustered and holding my sugar fix. I tried to pay her and she waved me away. Just go.

My daughter was in hysterics, laughing. At least I had amused someone.

Am I out of control ?

Then I remembered the gum.

Many years ago I was chewing a piece of sugarless gum when I felt a filling loosen in my mouth. It scared me and I instantly spat the gum out. I never chewed gum again. Plain and simple, I simply decided in that moment that I would not chew gum. I feared my filling would come out and it just didn’t seem worth it. I’ve never questioned it or even reassessed the choice. I just am someone who does not chew gum now. Period.

It was easy. It’s only gum, after all. I had no real attachment to gum.

But my point is this: I am an abstainer when it comes to something I think is not good for me. A clean break frees me from the decision, the attempts at moderating, the assessing  how much and when and where. If I think it might do me harm, I am better off just taking it off the table.

I think forty-something years of attempting to be a moderator of sugar consumption is enough time. I surrender. My body is talking to me and my mind is trying every which way to reason and bargain and promise. But alas, my body wins. I must say no.

Perhaps someday I will be able to moderate sugar.  Maybe I will become one of those people who can take two bites of cheesecake and then declare that it is too rich to have any more. (In the words of my sister, anyone who thinks cheesecake is filling hasn’t seen me eat cheesecake).

But for now at least, I am an abstainer. It is time to admit this and try it on for size. I am changing my belief about myself. I used to be someone who ate sugar regularly, and the more I had, the more I wanted.

Now, only now, I am someone who doesn’t eat sweets.

No dessert for me, thank you. I don’t eat dessert.

I hardly recognize those words. I’ve never said them before. Change is good.

Some say sugar is every bit as addictive as cocaine, and heroin. I know there are going to be moments when I will want to sell my soul for a brownie. But eventually, it will pass.

My body will thank me. My mind will thank me. Life will be sweeter without the burden of this sugar habit, this sweet poison that has followed me around relentlessly. Alas, I will be free.

My name is Dana. And I don’t eat sugar anymore. medium_7774382226End of story  .

College in a nutshell

The college search should be simplified. As a society, we have made such a fuss about it, such a monumental drama; a lengthy, stressful, anxiety inducing task.

It’s a lot of work to apply to college, I know. But we don’t have to make it even harder on ourselves or our kids by making it into more than it is. It’s a four year education. Four short years. And it’s not going to entirely mold junior into the person he is meant to be. If you zoned out for the first eighteen years of his life, writing a big check to a fancy college- or to any college- is not going to make up for this time.   And if your child has a certain temperament, let’s say a challenging one, that’s not going to miraculously change in these four years. And if she is a party animal, searching recklessly for happiness, college isn’t going to save her from that either. There will just be less supervision.  And if she’s already happy and good? Then she’s happy and good.

So let’s stop making college into something it’s not. It’s not a stand in for parenting. It’s not a guarantee for success nor a ticket to happiness. It’s a campus, some classes, peers galore (is it really the best thing to lump them all together with very few adults for them to interact with? I wonder about this one, but whatever); it’s a great privilege, an opportunity, and a financial decision.

We start the process way too early, in my opinion. Talk about rushing things. Do kids really need to start touring campuses sophomore year? That’s age fifteen, or sixteen for some. They aren’t even driving yet, and it’s just two years after middle school. Middle school. Think braces and skinny jeans. Most kids don’t know what they want to do when they grow up at this point, because they are busy growing up. At least they were until they started to hear the anxious, overzealous roar of the adults chanting College. College. College. Let’s start obsessing now. Do you know how many times these kids could change their minds about what they want to study between age fifteen and eighteen? Do you know how clueless they may be about which college is best for them? And about exactly where and how much of your hard earned money should be spent? I think we should all just chill out until at least junior year. And even then, let’s stop acting like which college they go to is the most important decision of their lives. What they do while they are there, or what they do afterwards, may be crucial, but where they do it is probably not.

Because mostly, it’s about the food. Why does it seem hardly anyone takes the food into consideration when searching for a college? These kids are going to be eating there three times a day, minimum. Food is a big deal. It affects mood, health, weight, brain function. Heck, it affects happiness. I was thrilled to read that my daughters’ university was ranked second-best in the nation for their campus food. I love knowing they have high quality fare at their fingertips at every meal- locally grown fruits and vegetables, delicious and diverse meals prepared by top notch chefs.

Four years is not long, unless you are feeding yourself crap. Then it is many, many days, several times a day, down the road to sluggishness, moodiness and weight gain. Now this is life changing. Habits are life changing. Lifestyles are life changing. So please, let’s stop freaking out about where our kids are going to go to college. It’s making them anxious and ungrateful and hurried.   And it’s making us crazy. Take a deep breath, and if you’re going to go on a tour, start with the dining hall. Afterall, you are what you eat.

 

Fermenting veggies simplified

ermented

I’m not big on chemistry projects or growing mold, so I closed my mind off to fermenting foods until recently. When I could no longer ignore the exceptional health benefits of fermented foods, I searched for the simplest, quickest way for a novice to try it. Here it it is, vegetable fermentation simplified.

What:  A process of lactofermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch of the vegetable, creating desirable lactic acid.

Why:  Fermented foods are probiotic powerhouses. Fermentation creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics, thus healing the gut (the largest part of our immune system).

How:  Chop various vegetables, including either cabbage or cucumbers. (optional: add seasoning such as garlic, ginger, pepper, mustard seed). Pack them tightly in a mason jar. Mix 2 cups of water per 1 tablespoon of good sea salt. Pour this brine mixture over the veggies, covering them. Place a dry piece of cabbage on top, weighing it down with a clean rock (this is to keep the veggies from rising above the brine). Put mason cover on tightly and store in cabinet for 4-7 days.(Loosen lid to release pressure once per day, just for a few seconds, without letting air in).  After the week is up, you can eat the fermented veggies or store them in your fridge for up to six months.

Simplify: a discipline alternative

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We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle

Discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most. anonymous

I recently had a revelation. I simplify because I lack discipline. It’s one of those facts that you’ve known all along but comes into focus one day. For me, simplifying takes the place of discipline, and then leads to happiness.

Looking back, I’ve never really been disciplined.  I can blame that on my temperament, my upbringing, or anything else I can come up with, but it just never came naturally to me.   I remember starting on a strict diet when I was a teen, and how my parents did not have to worry that it would get out of control.  My diet lasted three days. I got consistent exercise only in the fall, because that is when I played a sport. If I didn’t show up, there would be consequences, people mad at me. I required structure, demands, few choices.

Fortunately for our daughters, they seem to take after their father.  I’ve never had to remind them to do their homework, eat their veggies or get some exercise.  They dedicated themselves to rigorous ballet classes and AP courses. And they studied their way through freshman year of college.  I remember sitting through a preprofessional ballet class with one of my daughters when she was contemplating switching to a more serious and structured dance school. I thought the class seemed dreadful, confining, boring. When the long ninety minutes was over, we left and I thought well, that takes care of that. I thought of the time and money we would save by not ever coming back. Her response was just the opposite. “I have to have this”, she said, longing in her eyes.

I don’t like stagnation and I know that to move forward, to fulfill my goals, to be happy, demands commitment.  So I do some things that seem to require discipline and focus, like practicing yoga, for instance.  And simplifying in ways that make sense to me.  But I don’t do these things because I am disciplined.   I find discipline only because I do them.

Without simplifying, I don’t stand a chance. I know that if I have too many things in my own way- on my agenda, in my head, on my plate, I will never make it to that yoga class. I won’t sit down and write if I am distracted by all the things I have to do afterwards or did before that. If I am tripping over things on the way to my desk, I may never make it into the chair. Eliminating all that I can, except what matters the most to me, is how I actually stay consistent with those things that matter.  Like most people, when I’m overwhelmed or tired, I am at my weakest. So my method of finding- or rather replacing- discipline is to remove the things that I can which keep me from what I want most.  If I am clogged and cluttered with the extraneous, I can’t see the path I know I want to be on, let alone move forward on it.

I simplify my diet by organizing my pantry and fridge. I streamline my wardrobe by only keeping what I like. I unriddle my exercise routine by committing ahead of time to a workout or scheduled yoga class.  I focus on what I want by eliminating from my agenda that which I don’t, as far as it is in my control. And only then, when I have pared down as much as I am able to, will I make the choices that give my life a forward momentum. One good choice leads to the next, and good things happen. Dreams come true.

Simple things that I love

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Mason jars have made a comeback, partly due to the resurgence of canning.  These jars have been around forever, yet have become a new shabby chic trend. Now they are wedding centerpieces, candle holders, Christmas gifts filled with muffin mix or soup or crafts. I love them, not just because they are BPA-free and dishwasher safe, but because they are clear and unfussy. I am a sucker for anything polished- rustic, so I am on board for this trend. They are the “where have you been all my life?” containers, and I am in love. They match any decor and can be bought inexpensively, by the case. They come in many sizes, and are easily replaced, given away, and stored. I use them to hold grains, and to make chocolate and vanilla chia pudding. I fill them with a breakfast mix that can be stored in the fridge the night before, shaken, and eaten or brought on the go in the morning. Mostly, I just love how simple they look and feel.

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I’m not real big on accessories, especially if they are big, cumbersome or complicated. But I am a fan of the Infinity scarf.  I find most scarves to be too long for me, and I struggle with how to tie them so they don’t take me over. But I like the idea of using a simple piece to add a splash of color to a basic black or white blouse. So when the infinity scarf was born, I embraced the trend. They fall obediently over a t-shirt and can be easily and prettily tucked into a jacket.  When it comes to accessorizing, my love goes to infinity.

Lists. Nothing trendy here, just pen and paper. I am not sure I could ever give up my lists. I have them going all the time- grocery lists, to do lists, to write lists, books I want to read lists, and then there is the never changing list, such as whose birthday is when. I like to have sticky notes readily available to jot things down on, then add them to my lists. Songs, items, things I want to google, podcasts I want to hear, authors I want to be.  I recently started keeping my lists in a small binder. I’ve divided it into “to do” “to write” and “to buy”.  I love knowing all my lists are in one place, and can be torn out, added to, or rewritten. A new blog post or essay idea? Ran out of yogurt? Came across the name of a book I must read? I simply must list it.

Olive oil.  I’ve liked cooking with olive oil for as long as I’ve been cooking. I also love drizzling it over avocado and tomato salads. But I have a new use for olive oil which has  reignited my appreciation for it. Hair. Yup, I recently learned, thanks to chef Giada De Laurentiis, that this oil is great for the hair. I guess it’s not surprising that Giada would get her beauty products from the kitchen. But after years of trying many products on my sometimes unruly, curly hair, I never would have thought of this one on my own. Thanks, Giada. I love it.