Let’s circle back to buzzwords because they’re holding you back

A dictionary of ways to avoid annoying readers

Early in the pandemic, many of my friends laughed when they heard their partners talk in zoom meetings for work. One friend said, “I didn’t know they were bilingual.” It turned out my friend’s partner was fluent in Management Speak. On zoom, they engaged stakeholders in paradigm-shifting dialogue to elucidate considerations for the forward-facing journey. With their family, they talked.

Linguists have a term for this: “code-switching” describes the changes you hear when a teenager turns from talking with a teacher to chat with their friends, or when a person alternates between two languages in one conversation. It’s a great skill – being able to get your point across well in different ways with different listeners. If you’re talking differently to your staff and customers than you do to other people though, you risk sounding inauthentic. 

Why not use buzzwords?

  1. They are hard to understand. They can be common words used to mean something different within the business world. “Appreciate” often means gratitude, but when a manager says they “appreciate this is a difficult time, but you need to work harder,” they are not giving thanks.
  2. Staff and customers may understand what you say, but not trust you because of how you say it. The longer the words used and the more jargon-y they are, the more negative the reaction. Readers or listeners think there’s a hidden message trying to be softened through indirect and vague wording. They can feel put down too – as though the one using the fancy words thinks they’re better than mere mortals who don’t utilize formality in dialoguing. They use the word talk. (Honestly, could we please just strike the word utilize from all documents everywhere? I made a macro in Microsoft Word to do just that. It’s very satisfying.)
  3. Buzzwords tend to be exaggerations. This Ricoh media release for printers (yes, the machines that put ink onto paper) calls them “key enablers of agility and innovation,” and well, that seems less likely to encourage sales than “they put ink on paper well”.
"Business leaders identify print as a key strategic asset for growth and innovation. ... European business leaders have identified new printing technologies as key enablers of agility and innovation." from www.ricoh-europe.com.

What words do people hate the most?

Utilize. I think I covered this above 🙂

Paradigm. Send me your sentences that you feel MUST have this word in them. I’m happy to make them simpler and less annoying.

Capacity-Building. I hear from many people they’re tired of asking for help only to be told they’re going to have their capacity built up. What does that mean? Are you teaching a skill? Say so. Are you doing something else? Please tell us what you’re doing. I’m at full-capacity for BS at the moment.

Think Outside the Box. In a 2017 survey, Workfront asked which buzzwords were most overused and this one topped the list at 47% of respondents wanting the box to please be banished. (https://www.workfront.com/sites/default/files/resource/file_pdf/2018-05/2017-2018-state-of-enterprise-work-report-u-s-edition.pdf)

Synergy. This was reported as the second most-overused word in the survey mentioned above. It’s a shame because it was a lovely word before the business world discovered it, but I see immediate eye rolls when it’s used in meetings. It also topped the list of hated buzzwords in a survey done by GetResponse (https://www.getresponse.com/blog/the-most-hated-business-jargon-corporate-buzz-words).

A Doom of Zooms

A cat with its mouth open in front of a computer screen.
my zoom companion

Like everyone, I find it hard to sit in zoom meetings all day and tend to check-out mentally, so I play mind games that keep me focused. I’m me, so they’re word games. One day, I decided to write down all the buzzwords used in my zooms. First I had a team meeting, and except for me saying I’d “touch base” with them later that week, everyone spoke in plain English the whole hour. I was oddly disappointed.

Luckily … I had a management meeting next! It wasn’t even called a meeting! It was a Huddle. I carefully wrote “huddle” at the top of my page. I need not have been so tidy because the next hour was a riot of sloppy handwriting as I tried to keep up with the deliverables, alignment and leveraging points. Whew!

Why does this happen? The people I work with are doing great work in a friendly environment. It’s not a competitive place where people need to ‘signal’ their superiority by using the jargon of the day. I think it’s a mixture of habit and fear. Fear of having hard conversations.

On a town hall zoom in my community, I paid attention to the function of the buzzwords used and found most of them were roundabout ways of saying, “I don’t know,” or “I disagree.”

Q: “When will this project be finished?”

A: “We’re thinking outside the box to find synergy with our external partners for capacity-building.”

Ouch.

How can I change?

Pretend you’re talking to your family or friends. If they asked you, “What are you hoping to tell people at today’s meeting?” What would your answer be? Use those words. (Except maybe the sarcastic or swear words that slip into your personal conversations … a little code-switching to basic politeness is always welcome).

Show your written work to someone outside your usual circle at work, or better yet to someone you hope would be a reader – a customer, client or random member of the public. Say, “Please tell me how this looks to you. Is it understandable? How do you feel reading it?”

Practice kind, direct ways to say hard things. Practice saying, “I don’t know,” and “I disagree.”

Buzz

My shaded face looks back at me from the zoom screen with the start of a scream invisible to others.

“While I appreciate all players aren’t on the same page, we need to circle back to our core strategy with stakeholder engagement informing our paradigm.”

As toddlers learn to talk, they use the same word for asking, telling, and protesting. Understanding is noticing which it is.

She said, “I don’t know what that means.”

Women are taught to take up as little space as possible. Living out loud is dangerous.

It is easy to say, “I disagree.”

This is a poem I wrote for a writing class exercise with instructions for each line. The last line is a lie.

What jargon do you love to hate?

Spelling Rules Only a Canadian Can Love

Frustrated by your spell-checker? Learn to laugh at those squiggly red lines under our Canadianisms.

Whether you’re a Canadian writer or someone who comes-from-away writing about us, you need to know these spellings and vocabulary unique to canucks (the people, not the hockey team).

We start with a combination of British and American spellings. Then we mix in our own quirks and a heavy dose of Québécois French and Indigenous languages. We welcome newcomers and their languages. No wonder spell-check is confused!

a maple leaf of mixed fall colours on a boardwalk
Fredericton, NB

Canadian school kids enjoy these built-in excuses for mistakes on spelling tests – for you it may be a double-double load of extra work. 

Read on to lighten that load.

The basics: British or American spelling?

We consume American books and online information like a two-four at a bonspiel and never shifted fully to the metric system. Our english language roots are distinctly British though. I mean, I live in a city called London, with a Thames river running through it.

We differentiate ourselves from our neighbours to the south by writing cheques from our chequing accounts and doubling our ll’s in constructions like travelling or cancelled. The most common difference from the US (aside from an imperfect-but-functioning-democracy) is that we include “u” in words like colour, favourite and neighbour.

Not to appear too tight with the British, however, we use the American z in words like analyze and proselytize. We also have programs not programmes and if forced to choose US or British English in a spell-checker, we do better with the US.

But what is correct?

It depends. Both American and British spellings are commonly accepted. You can spell grey or gray, pyjamas or pajamas, and meter or metre. (Not center, though. We cling to our centres.) Large organizations have their own Canadian style guides, as do the press and the government. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary1 features highly in most guides, but it doesn’t have all the answers. If it’s vital that you get it right, hire a Canadian copy editor.

Unique to Canada

The Loony Bin

We have the queen on our money, but our system is dollars and cents not pounds and pence. They’re not American dollars though, the actual bills are a rainbow of Canadian pride.

We are (very!) fond of our one- and two-dollar coins called loonies and toonies. The loonies were named for our national bird, the loon, pictured on the coins. We spent beaucoup de time talking about what to call the two-dollar coin. I voted for doublooney, and the twooney faction put on a good campaign, but we landed on toonie. YES, the singular is spelled toonie. The singular of loonies is loony. Of course. In the interests of national unity, I will avoid ranting about this. Oh, the word rant specifically refers to a famous Newfie, Rick Mercer, wandering through an alleyway speaking truth.

“More Than Meets the Eh” 

(that’s the clever subtitle of Editing Canadian English2)

Our quaint inflection is spelled, eh, and pronounced ay as in hay. It’s not to be confused with aye which you’ll hear in the Maritimes, rhyming with b’y (bye) and meaning yes. B’y (plural, b’ys) means a whole raft of things, often used as “boy” or “guy” but also used in place of eh at times in Newfoundland. Bit of a kerfuffle, eh?

two wooden chairs shaped like fish
Witless Bay, NL

Words about booze have their own category

two-four is a case of 24 beers (some of us pluralize beer), while a twenty-sixer is a bottle of liquor that’s about 26 ounces (typically 750 mL now but the word stuck from our pre-metric days). A twenty-sixer is the same as a fifth in the U.S.A. We also love to sneak a mickey into a hockey game or curling bonspiel – it’s a small flask that fits into the inside pocket of our parkas.

a turquoise lake with trees and hills
Kalamalka Lake, BC

More beverages and food

Mmm coffee is almost as popular as booze. Timmies is what we call the ubiquitous Tim Hortons (there’s no apostrophe in it) coffee and doughnut shops (no donuts here). It’s where we’re likely to order a double-double, a coffee with two sugars and two creams. It’s not where we’d usually go to get poutine, a delicious mix of fries (chips to our British friends), cheese curds and gravy. For the good stuff, we might go to Vieux Montréal, though to be honest, most cities will have a fabulous version – ask the locals, I promise they’re friendly, eh.

Montréal, QC

Who knew?

If you’re a Canadian, don’t use the items below in your content unless you’re flaunting your nationality, which to be honest isn’t very Canadian of you. I was in my fifties and well-travelled before I learned that the rest of the world doesn’t know what a kerfuffle is, so who knows who I confused with it. If you’re not Canadian, enjoy this little cultural exchange, b’ys.

the CN tower and a lamppost
The 6ix
  • The 6ix
    Our famous b’y Drake made the term 6ix equally famous. It refers to Toronto (pronounced Chrawna – that’s a whole other post), the only part of Canada you’re allowed to say bad things about. You can spell it #TheSix but it will seem like you come-from-away – which is okay, we welcome newcomers with open arms.
  • Toque
    Bob and Doug had excellent toques. It rhymes with Luke and is our national hat. 
  • Stagette
    Not sure who came up with this spelling, but it refers to a stag (or bachelor) party, for women. A bachelorette or hen party.
  • Toboggan
    I once unknowingly put a mansplaining European in his place by using this word, forcing him to say he didn’t know what it was. Let me tell you, I SAVOURED spelling it out slowly. I didn’t know then, but it has roots as Canadian as maple syrup, from French and Mi’kmaq origin. It means a sled.
boy on a toboggan
Northern Ontario
  • This isn’t a spelling rule so much as just odd. We call coloured pencils pencil crayons, I don’t know why.
  • Serviette
    I personally love the spelling of this word for napkin. The -ette ending gives it a bit of sass by pretending to be full of class.

What else?

What quirks of Canadian spelling did I miss? What are your favourites? Comment below.

If you’re looking for a local editor, send me a message or read about my services. Take care, eh!

people in a swinging carnival ride against a sky with clouds
Western Fair, London, ON

1 Barber, K. (2001). The Canadian Oxford dictionary / edited by Katherine Barber. Oxford University Press.

Virag, K. (2015). Editing Canadian English: a guide for editors, writers, and everyone who works with words / editor-in-chief: Karen Virag. (Third edition.). Editors’ Association of Canada.

Photo Credits: All by Karen Lowry

Focus

I’ve spent years advising people to declutter their life because it will enhance their ability to focus. Clear away the nonsense and you’re left with what really matters, right?

I started out this pandemic with heartbreak about a writing and yoga retreat I’d looked forward to for months. As I realized it would need to be cancelled, I asked myself what I’d hoped to get out of it so that I could find another way to do that, to take the edge off my disappointment.

Oh, I’d put so much weight on it, so much expectation! I expected nothing less than to come out of it knowing who I was as a writer. What I wanted to write about. How I wanted to write. How to find my voice. What did I want out of the workshop? Focus. (And a complete self-identity, but that’s a bit much to explore here today.)

Expecting to be full of motivation and wanting the skills to achieve my yoga-fuelled writing dreams, I’d also applied to an online creative writing program to start later in the spring. Boosted by an encouraging response to my application and an encouraging friend ❤️, I fast-tracked my coursework and started just before COVID-19 gained a foothold in Canada.

It turns out that working in a pandemic at a full-time job made much more demanding by the pandemic, as a single mother of two kids trying to figure out their schooling and make future life decisions, and adjusting to the realities of staying home while people were getting sick and dying… is not an ideal time to find focus.

We all cluttered the house with our work and art and noise and music and puzzles (so very many puzzles; my daughter, one of our cats and I are obsessed). My son moved out of his dad’s and brought his second household full of stuff to add into the mix, along with the part my heart I lost the first night he slept under another roof more than a decade ago.

In time, we settled into new routines, new stillness and relaxation. I did online workshops about writing and gained new insights, if not quite a new identity. I took the first course in my writing program, on copy editing and proofreading, and WAIT A MINUTE. 

Wow, do I ever get a buzz from editing and proofreading. I dabbled in it for some freelance jobs, was already a member of Editors Canada and knew I liked the work, but I thought I’d chafe at the formality and rigidness of grammar pedants. I was so wrong. No pedants in sight, I dove into the ins and outs of the profession and spent all sorts of ‘leisure time’ soaking up more and more and more about it. I asked my contacts to send any work they had my way and landed a part-time job copy editing academic articles. I get a thrill with each project that lands in my inbox.

What about my writing? No worries on that front. I integrated creative non-fiction into my day job: I started a (hilarious, if I do say so myself) column in our staff newsletter and again, wow is that ever fun. I started writing a new book too, because of course I did (no, I haven’t finished my other two books, I was counting on the workshop to make that magically happen). I’ve got two overlapping writing courses through the summer, including one on digital content, so watch out for a whole whack of experimental posts in this space.

Really, this is a long-winded way to say, I’m changing up my website. I’m removing the references to my consulting and workshop services – those completely dried up with the pandemic anyways, and: FOCUS. It’s all about writing and editing now. I think of editing as decluttering the page to let the message shine through, and I’ve decluttered enough to know where my passions lie.

I Need to Explain my Search History

This story has nothing to do with anything, just a twitter thread reminded me of this hilarious saga so I thought I’d share. There’s no lesson or point other than it still makes me laugh years later 😊

My daughter Julia loves animals and always says she can’t live in a house without them. I’m a little sensitive to the idea of her not living here because of a traumatic custody battle years ago. I also carry a lot of guilt for accidentally killing one of her hamsters. So, yes, I drove ninety minutes (each way!) to buy her two baby Russian Dwarf Hamsters for her twelfth birthday. They were $10 each. Free hamsters are pretty easy to come by, but Russian Dwarf Hamsters were the only kind she wanted because they can share cages and not eat each other, unlike other hamsters. Animals that don’t eat each other seemed a reasonable birthday request.

She named the little darlings Twilight and Dawn before we even got back in our car for the drive home. I had to admit they had beautiful colouring, these baby boys from the large hamster habitat in the kijiji lady’s home (kijiji = Canadian version of craigslist). It was sad to take them from their family, but kijiji-lady assured me that they were old enough to be weaned at two weeks. It was after my daughter’s birthday already so we didn’t want to wait any longer and made the drive on their 14th day in this world. 

There’s a signal, like the bat signal but with high-pitched squeals of delight, that goes out through neighbourhoods when small animals are brought home. It’s only twelve-year old girls who respond to the squeal, though we all friggin’ hear it. They arrived in gaggles, fawned over Twilight and Dawn, and squealed some more to summon other tweens who may have been underwater or in outer space the first time. I overheard my daughter tell them, “Mom loves these ones so much more than the other ones,” which surprised me because she didn’t even know about my earlier hamster murder. But I did love them more; for some reason I felt very maternal towards them. 

To clear things up about the murder, it was an unfortunate fluke and it took at most a few hours or days off the little guy’s life. He was an elderly, lonely, ill hamster. His brother had died a couple of months prior, and he was nearing the end of his lifespan (which was approximately eighteen months, according to the stacks of hamster books that grew like weeds in Julia’s room). I struggled with the idea of paying a tiny animal vet to look at the growths taking over his body, but he was clearly in pain while also clearly staying alive, so I didn’t know what else to do. Julia understood the vet would probably ‘put him down’ so she said her goodbyes before going off to her dad’s house the day before the vet visit. She left and I picked him up to see how he was doing. His body spasmed in pain, I spasmed in surprise – my grip tightened, and that was the end of his pain. I told my daughter he died quickly but spared her the details of exactly how that happened.

Maybe that’s why I was so motherly with these little guys, maybe it was because they were so young and so very tiny. They grew quickly – their father’s name was Tank and he’d been the biggest dwarf hamster imaginable. After a few days of adjustment, they started eating and growing huge right before our eyes. We laughed about them being tanks like their dad, one of them in particular was round like a ball within weeks. We’d put him in the hamster ball and enjoy the awkwardness of this roly-poly creature trying to roll. 

I no longer have a facebook account, but when I did, this was one of my most popular posts:

Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 5:54pm EDT
Karen Lowry is celebrating baby shower.
I am now the proud grandmother (aunt? cousin twice removed?) of an undetermined number of hamster babies. Since we got our two (adorable) male hamster babies just over a month ago, I was a little surprised to find a litter of newborns (actually a week old... should clean it more often) in the cage this morning. There are so many hilarious things about this, I've been laughing all day - while finding fascinating websites like "3 Ways to Sex a Hamster"
hamster on girl's shoulder
This is a BIG dwarf hamster. Possibly pregnant.

Yes, one of our boys was a girl. At the tender age of barely-weaned she got pregnant by her brother. The weeks following were a blur of revelations: Hamsters shouldn’t be weaned until they’re three weeks old, they shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to get pregnant until about three months old, and incest is generally as frowned upon with hamsters as with other animals. Oh, and also, females are highly fertile right after they give birth. Which would be before oblivious owners even know they’re female.

So, another day, another unexpected litter of hamster babies. This poor little mother was still nursing her first litter when the second was born. Luckily, we hadn’t put her in the hamster ball to roll around during this pregnancy, small mercy. 

tiny hamster bodies in their nest
babies!

We also knew how young females can get pregnant and I got a bit frantic about separating out the boys from the girls. For the first time, I appreciated the elaborate set up of cages and tubes we had (we called it Hamsterdam) because it made it easy to create segregated living arrangements.

I would like to point out that telling the difference in genitals on baby dwarf hamsters is a near-impossible task, and is how we ended up in this predicament in the first place. I turned to the internet for help. For the love of all you hold dear, please don’t ever google “hamster sex” without a few other words – “differentiation” would’ve been a good idea, or “determining” at the start, wise. I had revelations I can’t unsee. Why on earth would so many people think to put a hamster there?!? And why would they post pictures of it? 

There may be a difference in the squeal emitted when there are extra baby hamsters, but it’s been too long since I was a twelve-year old for me to tell. The gaggles congregated again, this time doing their own googling (Supervised! So supervised!) but they’ve been raised right, they didn’t care about gender. They were looking up “ways to convince your parents to let you have a hamster”. Some were successful, despite our now fourteen young critters being a bit of a warning to most rational adults. 

We were also saved by a reply to my desperate-to-give-away-hamsters kjiji ad. A woman who does small animal rescue offered to take the mother and her new litter of babies. It was such a relief. This stressed out young mother was exhausted and the noise/smell/gawking gaggles were getting to be too much. Did I mention that Hamsterdam was in the dining room of our small hundred-year old house? That room is our main living space and our hamster village was consuming our lives. 

Before we got back home from dropping off Dawn and her newborns, the small animal rescue lady texted to tell us that one of the babies only had three legs. We weren’t sure if she was asking us if we had the missing one? But she found a special home with a friend for the three-legged babe, she just wanted us to know about it. She wanted to know the mother’s name, too. ❤️

We gradually gave away all but four males. Their lives were not without drama, but they were indeed all males and there were no further litters. Two of them lived long lives – one maybe setting a record for Russian Dwarf Hamsters, but we don’t know for sure because we never could figure out which was the father and which the sons, so we didn’t know the exact age of the father-brother-son who lived the longest. Anyway, by that time we had a firmly ingrained household ban on googling anything remotely related to hamsters.

We now live with two wonderful, male, fixed cats and have a whole lot of hamster cages and tubes available if you’re interested.

Dear New York City

My passion for the outdoors, for the truth of nature, is matched by my love for a city where the truth of people is on full display, vivid and syncopated. I was disappointed to cancel my upcoming trip there, but it was a small sadness, an excuse to rebook for a longer visit another time. “The city will still be there,” I said to my travelling companion when we made the decision a month ago, “it’s not going anywhere.” I watch now in horror as the city contracts, pulls into itself, trying to hide from this deadly virus. This is my love letter to a place I’ve never lived where I feel completely at home.

I’m writing to you both: The people who live in New York and the city itself, you’re inseparable. I miss you. I’ve been there amid the chaos of Christmas preparations and on hot days doing nothing more than laying in the grass in Central Park. I’ve been caught in rain (often!) and surprise snowstorms. Even with all the serious ways our lives are disrupted by the pandemic, I struggle to accept the insignificant fact that this will be the first year in many that I’m not with you for Easter weekend.

I crumple in pain when I hear details about the nightmare you’re living. Fear and death fill your small spaces that were never meant to be your only living space. The city that was your living room, library, playground, and kitchen lies empty, coming alive with noise at 7 each evening to acknowledge your heroes. I cry for the healthcare workers everywhere facing unimaginable trauma while worrying about their own health and their families’. I want to hug the parents of small children in tiny apartments, losing their sanity from the noise, the emotions, the never-ending needs for entertainment, movement, reassurance, and food. I want to say, it’s going to be okay, somehow.

New York, you changed my life in so many ways, so many times. My travel journals are filled with personal revelations. There is such joy in being fully myself while surrounded by others expressing themselves in their own magical (bizarre, entertaining, scary, fabulous) ways. Your energy is contagious. Every trip I hit a wall of exhaustion and then find myself walking around for another few hours, each step powered by the architecture, chaos, art, music, and the people.  Thank you.

Where is all the energy now? What happens to the electricity in the air from performance art, or the hushed exhilaration in each luminous room in each stunning museum? The phone conversations and arguments filling the sidewalks, or the press of a crowd to get into a reading at a bookstore? Are men bellowing out catcalls into the echo chambers of their four walls? Who warms the green chairs in the park? Who can hear the music? Is the Rose Room truly silent now, no comforting shush of pages being turned?

When alone there, I am invigorated and brave in ways I carry with me through the rest of my life. The first time in the city on my own I went to a dance show in Brooklyn, disoriented and apprehensive because of minor confusions, and I saw a sign advertising the event as being for “Adventurous Audiences” which filled me with both pride and a bit more fear. I never once regretted the risks I took.

With others, I ran a race around Central Park (in a kilt, though a friend suggested the underwear run was more my speed), ate food and drinks in fancy restaurants and tiny diners, tourist traps and holes in the wall. It must be true love I feel for the city, because every memory brings a smile to my face. I have nothing but fondness for even the smelliest alleyway where I had a juicy kiss. The kisser is long gone from my life, but I could show you the alley in a heartbeat. I don’t have to tell you you’re special, New York, you know it well. I just thought you might want to hear how much you matter to others.

What have I learned from you about the nature of people? The value of community in facing adversity: You look out for your neighbours. That everyone has struggles, they’re just tucked away inside homes in other places while yours are played out in the subway cars and on the streets. Now that you’re tucked away inside, please don’t forget that you’re not alone, whatever you’re feeling. You also taught me that while we’re all imperfect, we can always grow and change in unexpected – sometimes adventurous – ways. Thank you for that too.

I am devastated for you and looking forward to when we will be together again. I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with the place. ❤️

van with sign saying Interesting Items
Seems legit.

Social Distancing, Yurt Edition

Like many, I was heartbroken to cancel upcoming trips, while also grateful that we got the lead time here in Canada to cancel things before it was too late (hopefully). Because it seemed ideal for the times, we did go on our planned March Break adventure: We stayed in the middle of the forest, in an isolated yurt at a MacGregor Point Park a few hours north of home. (If you’re just here for the photos, scroll to the bottom 😊)

yurt in the forest
home sweet home

It was me, my two teenagers, and my son’s friend who joined us on the same trip last year. We’d had so much fun then that we booked a longer stay this time. On our drive up, they interrupted me belting along with my oldies on the radio to tell us about a woman in our home city testing positive, and she hadn’t been travelling so it might be the first evidence of community transmission. We felt lucky to be getting out just in time.

3 teenagers
the gang

Being immersed in nature is like living in a dream. I’d step out of the yurt early in the morning… and marvel at the stars and moon still sparkling. All through the day, we were one with the wind and sky and sun and trees and water. Even inside the air was filled with the clutter of geese honking in the evenings and bird calls in the morning. We chased sunrises and sunsets, spent hours on the shore of Lake Huron, hiked endless trails, and my daughter was welcomed into a family of red squirrels (though re-joined her original family for card games and meal times…).

But.

We shared the outhouses and a central full washroom with many other campers. I don’t know how many there were, maybe twenty, maybe forty, sixty? There were many more people around than last year, when the weather was icy. Or maybe the increase was that others also felt safer away from cities. The washroom had two small sinks and three stalls, and there were almost always other people in there. It’s hard to practice social distancing when you’re elbow-to-elbow brushing teeth with a family of four.

What had seemed like the epitome of isolation started to feel like a breeding ground for a new outbreak. We used lots of hand sanitizer and had a tub with water and dish soap in the yurt, but I cringed every time someone went to the shared space. Our last full day, I talked with a friend back home and heard panic and exhaustion in their voice. People panic-shopping, hard decisions to be made about what to close, chaos of setting up work- and learn-from home options, and general fear of others – the anxiety was overwhelming and it infected me too. I was in paradise and couldn’t truly relax. What tipped me over was the noise of kids playing in the forest by our yurt (and their parents yelling at them). I realized they’d just arrived. I remembered noticing a group getting set up at a site we passed on a hike earlier too. How much turnover was there each day? How many new dozens of people would be washing their faces in my sink?

I talked with the kids about it. Was I in a spiral of irrational fear, or was I right to be concerned? There was no obvious answer. The park is in a fairly rural area, and they’d just had two cases confirmed there as well – a couple coming back from a cruise, who had no symptoms but were checked because of their contact with someone with the virus. Had they spread it to others before they knew?

We came home a bit early, after sunset on the night before we planned to leave in the morning. One last sunrise missed, though it turned cloudy and snowy as we left so it was probably for the best. We’re happily hunkered down at home now, with fewer trees around but our own bathroom, and all sorts of places we can hike here. We have oodles of pictures and I hold the stars inside me. We’ll get laundry done and see how we can help others struggling through these strange times. Be well, friends.

Ease

In yoga the Sanskrit word sukha is used to talk about the sense of ease. Sukhasana – easy pose – is sitting cross-legged. When I came back to yoga practice after years away, the gentle, kind instructor of our beginner class shocked us one day by saying we wouldn’t start the class lying on our backs on our mats (soooo much sukha), rather we would sit in sukhasana. More shocking to my mid-40s body was that easy pose was anything but. My legs quivered, my hips ached, and I had to use my hands to hold myself in anything resembling crisscross applesauce. Many years later, I find it a soothing, relaxing pose. How did that change happen? Through practice, of course, but what kind of practice? I did not improve by pushing through pain or forcing it. I improved by finding what ease I could in the pose and relaxing into that. I sent my breath to my hips and legs, and they let me in a little bit more each time.

When you face difficulties in your day, how does your body react? What parts call out to you, quiver or ache?

When you hear those calls, send your breath there and ask yourself, what can I soften here?

What can I soften here?

It won’t fix your annoying colleague (not that I would know anything about that … *waves* at coworkers reading this …), give you more time before the impending deadline, or bring justice to the unfairness of life. It will give you a chance to think and choose your next action. Here’s the magic part: Choose an action that will soften the situation.

The challenging colleague? Maybe the ease comes from letting it go, walking away, and focusing on your own work. Perhaps you breathe kindness into the situation.

Deadline pressure? Pushing through the pain or forcing things will lead to mistakes and more pain. Find the balance between effort and ease, work near your edge, then back off when you feel the tension rising again.

As for injustice, well, I struggle most with that. What relaxes my frustration and angst is acceptance – radical acceptance, as per Tara Brach (mentioned in Welcome, 2020! and Self-Improvement and probably other posts too!)  – and a mission to overcome evil (and simple bad luck) with good.

If you’re arguing with me in your mind, telling me that these ideas won’t work, you’re making it harder than it needs to be. Ignore my specific suggestions, close your eyes (after you finish reading this…) and say, “soften” in your head. What pops up? Do that.

Ease isn’t something you make happen, you find it. You clear away the complications and overthinking and tightness you’re bringing to the situation, and behind the temporary mess, is ease.

Namaste.

Self-Care, Self-Soothing and More

Does the term self-care feel a bit icky to you? It’s used so broadly it had no meaning to me and conjured up images of Instagram ads for skin products. The idea behind it makes perfect sense: I care for my children, pets, friends, home … and for myself. But are skin products or having wine and popcorn for dinner while watching Netflix really caring for myself? Sort of. Sort of not. I was stuck on that ambivalence for a long time.

Along came this brilliant piece by Deanna Zandt (https://blog.usejournal.com/the-unspoken-complexity-of-self-care-8c9f30233467), shared by a friend who wanted to talk about the importance it puts on community and structural care as parts of the puzzle. [Zandt’s ideas about that are spot on – have a read, and we can chat about it if you like; it influenced my work in a non-profit and made me realize the limits of my own self-care.] AND, the article solved my sort of / sort of not dilemma, with the simple distinction between self-soothing and self-care.

These are both vital parts of staying healthy and happy, but the main difference (to me) is that it’s only self-care that leads to growth. It’s self-care that moves me forward to a place where I don’t need as much self-soothing.

What’s the difference?

Some definitions, though there are soft, permeable gray lines around all of this, no need to overthink the details:

Self-Soothing

Self-soothing describes activities that distract me or make me feel better in the moment. Examples (for me, this is one big ‘you do you’ exercise) are: scrolling down random internet rabbit holes, washing dishes in a big sink full of warm sudsy water, drinking, spending the day in pyjamas, crossword puzzles, writing with a juicy fountain pen. I could go on and on.

In fact, that’s what I learned from reading and reflecting on Zandt’s article. I do a LOT of self-soothing. Sometimes, I’m flustered or overwhelmed or hurt or irritated. I need to soothe myself. Often those situations are temporary or unsolvable, so my actions aren’t about the issue at hand, they’re simply about noticing my own state and working more gently through the feelings I’m having.

Other times, it’s a first step towards productive action – my vision of the way forward is cloudy and soothing my nerves will bring me to calm clarity, and I will see where I want to go.

And sometimes the soothing is saying f*ck it and doing something I know is ‘bad’ for me. I used to do a lot more of this: I think it came out of insecurity, not knowing who I was and rebelling against who my family and society was telling I was supposed to be. I wanted to be the kind of person who doesn’t take herself too seriously – drinks too much, eats crap, parties hard. Except I do rather like going to bed early, so the partying stopped a long time ago. And the drinking messed with my sleep, not to mention my wallet. So now I’m a person who gets great sleep and still eats crap more than I’d like. I’m bingeing less on food (shout out to Julie deRohan) and I still don’t take myself seriously.

Anyway, whether it’s curling up under a purring cat and re-watching Legally Blonde, staring out a window at work (my god I wish I had a window at work), or drinking, there’s a place for self-soothing. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that.

Self-Care

Self-care moves me forward. It underlies everything else. It’s not just something to do in response to a passing mood – it’s the habits, routines, and activities I build into my everyday life to feed the inner glow of my body and soul. It’s yoga each morning, eating food to energize me, sleeping lots, chatting with my kids, walking alone in the woods, saying no to things I don’t want to do, appreciating the sky each morning. It’s writing.

All of these things, and many more, help me feel solid and help me grow from that base, blossoming into the most delicious version of myself.

I come out of self-care activities not only feeling better, but also feeling better about myself. I’ve taken a step in an intentional direction, living the life I want to lead. It contrasts with when I’m acting out of rebellion, firing off in all directions, scattered and not getting anywhere. There’s a sense of future to self-care. What can I do now, today, to help me be where I want to be tomorrow?

canoe on calm lake
soothing self-care

And More

The point of Zandt’s article was that self-soothing and self-care aren’t enough on their own, we need to take care of each other, too.

I’ve had times where I thought I was taking good care of myself, but I also felt stuck – maybe it was self-indulgence, or constant self-soothing I was doing, and nothing deeper was changing.

A year or two ago, I developed a taste for non-alcohol beer and thought it was perfect. I’d get home from work, *need* a beer and be satisfied by cracking open a cold one. I’d enjoy it, then get on with my evening with a clear head, so clever. Except it didn’t feel all that much different than coming home and having a real beer – it didn’t affect my sleep the way real booze does, but otherwise, there was still a sense of dissatisfaction. I didn’t know why.

When I read the article, it became obvious. I was soothing myself, every single day, with my clever fake beer. Maybe … I could care for myself differently so that I didn’t need soothing every time I walked in the door from work. Needing a beer, fake or not, was a sign to attend to, to notice. Now when I leave work, I eat an apple on my walk home and my body feels less needy when I walk in the door, nice bit of self-care.

But I’m still usually in a crummy frame of mind after work, and an apple a day isn’t going to keep that away. So, I also made plans to move on from my demanding job in the years ahead, with supports from the world around me. The part about my job (ironically) that I enjoy the most is that I can help put supports in place to help others as well.

Noticing and addressing the underlying issues is the best care of all. (Though staying in pyjamas all day is a close second.)

Gifts for a (wannabe) Minimalist

I used to have a wish list on Amazon, but I couldn’t add the things I truly want. They can’t deliver on world peace or solutions to the climate crisis, and don’t seem to have any products to eliminate racism and sexism and ableism and ageism and all the other ways people are told they’re not worthy. They do have books that can change your heart, so does the library. There are some products that bring ease and joy into my life (hello, stationery), and I’ve received many lovely gifts to cherish in my life. I’ve also received clutter, and, frankly, gifts that were downright insulting (yes, an ex-partner did give me a book on how to improve a specific sex technique, I’m not sure that reflected well on either of us!)

I’m a big fan of Valentines / Galentines ❤️ What’s not to enjoy about telling people they matter to you? If you or your beloved don’t enjoy hallmark cards or jewellery, and flowers are overpriced, here is a list of gifts for any occasion, for all occasions*.

  • poetry
  • undivided attention
  • laughter
  • hugs
  • sunrises and sunsets and stargazing
  • a walk or a paddle or a bike ride
  • candlelight
  • music and dancing
  • plants
  • art

*please note that all occasions are enhanced by chocolate and wine, or peanuts and beer, or cookies and tea, fruit and coffee, you get the idea.

ALSO, it may be too late to get it delivered by Valentine’s day, but I can’t recommend enough: Peace by Chocolate. Learn the story, support the causes, savour the treats, and maybe you can buy a bit of world peace after all.

Resolutions and Setbacks

clashing clothing with pj pants
pj’s at work are the best

Blue Monday!? There’s a tradition at my workplace for Blue Monday, where people wear their brightest, clashing-est clothing to fight off the darkness and cold of winter in Canada. I’m not sure the science behind it is solid, but it does mean I get to wear purple polka dot pajama pants all day so I don’t quibble. (Okay, I did quibble the first year we did it, because everyone else forgot – including the woman who suggested it in the first place – and as the only one dressed ridiculously, I did get more than my fair share of curious stares from the public waiting area outside my office.)

One reason people can feel down in January is that they aren’t meeting their expectations for their New Year’s resolutions. Did you stop bringing lunch from home and end up getting fast food? Maybe you’re not going to the gym every morning at 5 a.m. like you promised yourself you would.

Common resolutions I hear about in my line of work are getting through all emails before leaving the office, or doing daily work on a big project rather than leaving it to a panicked rush at the last minute. One client went back and retroactively put her project into her calendar so it would look like she’d worked on it each day – not to lie about it to anyone, more as an aspiration, “I want to become the kind of person my calendar says I am.”

When you don’t meet the resolution you made, what story do you tell yourself?

The only true story is: Setbacks are part of the process of change. They’re a healthy, expected part of forming any new habit. There’s no need to over-interpret them, or interpret them at all.

When you aren’t following your plan, ask yourself, what do I want? What can I do today to move towards that?

If you want an empty email box, stop reading this post and go deal with some emails. If you want to eat healthier lunches, pack a healthy lunch for tomorrow – go, get the food ready, we’ll wait. If you don’t do those things, the same thing applies the next day: Ask yourself what you want and what you can do for yourself that day to move towards it.

Small steps, big steps, no steps, they’re all part of the journey. Steps backward are too – I think of them as my inner rebel, telling myself, “You’re not the boss of me!” They don’t mean I failed or that I’m a failure, they don’t mean anything at all. The next day, I get to choose again what step to take.

The client who back-dated work in her calendar? When she felt the urge to do that again, she simply saw it as sign that she was thinking / worrying about the project. Rather than fall down the rabbit-hole of tying it to her whole identity, she noticed the thought and jotted down a few notes about the project while it was on her mind. Sometimes, that turned into a longer, productive session, sometimes it didn’t.

Changing habits is like walking through familiar woods. You’ve already worn a clear path along that ridge and down to the pond. When you decide you’d rather go over to the meadow now, it’s hard to get through the untamed brush. From time to time, you’ll step back onto the well-worn path because its familiarity and ease are soothing. You may find yourself at the pond and not even know how it happened. It’s okay – the meadow is still there, and you can take a step or two towards it, each step making the new path easier to follow.

Happy January 😃

boy in forest, mouth full of raspberries
make your own path, you’ll find the best raspberry bushes there