Be a child genius

Child in shark costume with sunglasses on

Aldous Huxley once said, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age which means never losing your enthusiasm.”

I would bet that many of us right now have lost some of our enthusiasm for life. Living in lockdown, not seeing friends and family, and filling our days with work, walks, books and chores without anything to look forward to is tough.

So how do we reignite joy and enthusiasm in our lives? Here are some thoughts, but I’m hoping everyone will leave a comment to help us all through this difficult time.

  1. Spend time with a child. Children help us see the world from a fresh perspective.
  2. Make a goal to try one new thing this week, whether it’s making a new dish, starting a new project, or learning a new hobby. When we learn new skills or focus on something fresh, our enthusiasm naturally emerges.
  3. Be curious and ask questions. The act of asking questions stimulates interest and enthusiasm. You can even ask questions of yourself like, “What do I want?”, “What am I grateful for”, or “What’s missing in my life?”
  4. Do something silly and that makes you laugh.
  5. Make a list of everything you love to do, and then take 15 minutes and do one of them a day.
  6. Plan a trip for when this is all over. It doesn’t have to be a big trip, maybe just an overnight getaway, but it will give you something to look forward to.

This week’s #HappyAct is to rediscover your zest for life. We can all be child geniuses. Now it’s your turn—what are your ideas?

My island getaway

Back Beach, Amherst Island

Usually about now, Dave and I and the kids would be heading south to the Carolinas or an island somewhere. Since a true island vacation isn’t in the cards this year, we thought we’d spend Good Friday touring a local island, Amherst Island.

Located just a few kilometres off the shore of downtown Kingston, Amherst Island was settled in 1788, when a prominent Loyalist leader, Sir John Johnston, was granted the entire island in recognition of his service and valour during the American Revolution. A second wave of immigration occurred in the 1840’s, when Irish immigrants settled in the area, with the population peaking at 2,000 Irish settlers.

Like most islands, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time the moment you drive off the ferry. We began our tour driving along the water towards the east end of the island, in search of Back Beach. Amherst Island is home to a large wind farm, and we marveled at the massive windmills in the fields on our way.

Wind turbine

We arrived at our destination and walked the long stretch of isolated pebbled beach. There were only two other people, a mother and her son walking in the afternoon sun. The beach itself was nicely sheltered, but as we walked toward the exposed point the April winds whipped all around us.

Girl on beach
People walking on the beach

After a brisk walk, we continued our tour, looking for wildlife along the way. We saw about 25 deer in total on the island, a fox walking along the beach, and lots of waterfowl.

Fox walking on the beach

The island’s most famous wildlife are its owls. Birders from miles around come to the island, which is on a major migratory path for owls, geese and other birds. We were pretty sure we saw a barred owl, which flew across the road into the fields, but weren’t close enough for a positive ID. (I saw another barred owl on my walk today and it was a beauty!)

On the western end of the island, the Kingston Field Naturalists have a property known as the Owl Woods. It’s not well marked so is tricky to find, but if you explore the property and take the time to look up into the thickly wooded trees, you may see a small sawwhet owl. They also have Purple Martin houses and blue bird houses lined along the road, but it was too early for bluebirds this cold April day.

Another interesting feature of the island is its stone walls. Amherst Island has the greatest concentration of historic Irish dry stone walls in Canada, a throwback to the days when Irish settlers inhabited the island. Up until 2019, the island hosted a Dry Stone Festival, where people come from Canada and the United States to learn the ancient art of building stone walls.

This picture of a typical dry stone wall was taken at one of our 4H family members’ houses. We hosted a barn dance at their place two summers ago for visiting 4H families on an exchange.

We finished the day with a walking tour of Stella, the tiny village at the ferry docks. There was an old blacksmith shop covered in punch tin and barn board, an old fashioned general store and a town hall. Before we knew it, it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

This week’s #HappyAct is to explore an island near you and experience your own island getaway. Happy trekking!

Blacksmith shop
Amherst Island General Store

Walk a labyrinth

Me at the Burlington labyrinth

A few months ago, I headed out for my regular lunchtime walk in a foul mood. Something happened earlier that morning and it was still bugging me. Just a stupid misunderstanding, but you know what it’s like when you replay it over and over in your head. Despite saying to myself, it’s stupid, let it go, I couldn’t.

I walked to Central Park in Burlington and to my left at the entrance of the park, there was a labyrinth. I stopped and read the plaque.

It said the Burlington Central Park Labyrinth was patterned after the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France that dates back to 1200. It is one of the few permanent labyrinths in Canada that is installed in a public place and is wheelchair accessible.

A labyrinth is a design marvel, an ancient, geometric pattern with a single path that leads into the centre. This labyrinth was a circle, the symbol of healing, unity and wholeness. It is meant to be an oasis for your mind, body and soul, and walking a labyrinth can calm the mind and restore balance.

I thought I might as well give it a whirl.

I started to walk the circular paths, and found myself at first focusing closely on each step, and the lines and patterns beneath me. As I continued to walk, I started focusing more on the journey ahead and my final destination. With each step, my mind began to free. I encountered unexpected twists and turns and just when I thought I knew the path to the centre, the path changed.

I became aware that I could take control at any time, by simply stepping outside the winding circle and give up altogether or walk directly to my final destination, but as I continued to walk, I discovered a strong desire to complete the labyrinth and a strange sense of elation and accomplishment when I did.

I stood in the centre and looked up. The weight on my heart and mind was gone.

This week’s #HappyAct is to walk a labyrinth and clear your mind and soul. Need help finding one? Check out this worldwide labyrinth locator. There are literally hundreds in Canada, many located in churches.

Burlington labyrinth
Burlington labyrinth

Of manors and mansions

Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland
Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland

The popularity of the Netflix series of Bridgerton has transported us back in time to another era. Set in the early 1800’s in regency London, it is steeped in the stories of lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses attending balls and paying morning visits in the drawing rooms and parlours of the grand mansions and manors in England.

I have to confess to be a little smitten with this show and period, and it reminded me of happier times touring towns like Bath in England, and manor houses across the English, Irish and Scottish countryside.

Most of the museums and homes used for the sets of Bridgerton are open to the pandemic (but closed now due to COVID), so you can plan to visit them soon.

The exterior scenes of the marital home of Daphne and Simon were shot in Castle Howard in York, while the interior shots were filmed at North Mymms Park, Wilton House, also used as Buckingham Palace in The Crown, and Badminton House in Gloucestershire. The Bridgerton’s house in town is Ranger’s House on the outskirts of Greenwich Park in London and houses a world-class art collection. And some of the scenes filmed at their neighbours’ house, the Featheringtons were filmed at the famous Number 1 Royal Crescent in Bath.

Now is a great time to do some armchair travelling and plan your next visit to a grand manor or mansion. Here are some of my favourites I’ve toured over the years:

  • Chatsworth House in Bakewell, England. The seat of the Duke of Devonshire, this majestic home in Derbyshire has stately gardens and is open daily to tourists. Chatsworth was the location for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberley in the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice. It’s famous for its majestic entrance hall, conservatory, and marble sculpture gallery, and themed gardens with water features.
  • Bantry House in County Cork, Ireland. We stopped at this stately home for an afternoon while touring the Sheep Peninsula in Ireland. Set on the outskirts of the market town of Bantry, it has magnificent views of the seaport and stunning gardens. It recently became a Bed and Breakfast.
  • Years ago, I was lucky to be invited for private tea at Brodie Castle in Forres, Scotland. My friend June and I had been touring the UK, and her parents’ best friends were the caretakers of this lovely estate near Inverness. At the time, the family still lived on the estate, and it was fascinating to get a private tour and get a sense of what it was like to live in a grand manor.
Chatsworth Hall, Derbyshire England
Chatsworth House, England: note this photo looks like a painting, but it is an actual photo I took when I was there
Entry at Chatsworth Hall
My best friend Leslie in the famed entry hall at Chatsworth
Statue gallery at Chatsworth Hall
The statue gallery at Chatsworth

Closer to home:

  • One of my favourite day trips for those of us lucky enough to live in Eastern Ontario is Boldt Castle. Built by American millionaire George C. Boldt on a heart-shaped island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands, the setting and love story of George and Louise Boldt will captivate you as much as the castle itself.
  • Paletta Mansion in Burlington: This 11,000 square foot mansion ranks amongst the finest great estate homes in the GTA.  It’s set on the shores of Lake Ontario and has terraces, boardwalks and a small stream running through it home to ducks and waterfowl. The day I strolled its grounds in January, there were couples who brought lawn chairs to simply sit on the terrace and have a coffee. It’s a popular site for weddings.

This week’s #HappyAct is to tour a grand mansion or manor, or at least plan to visit one soon.

Looking for a Spring escape when the borders open up? Stay at the Vanderbilt Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina for $149 a night.

Leslie again at the famous Royal Crescent in Bath, England, where the Featheringtons live in Bridgerton

Give someone a hand up

Come in we're open sign

Special guest post by Agent00$0ul”, marking the anniversary of COVID-19. It’s estimated more than 200,000 Canadian businesses could shut their doors permanently due to the pandemic. Let’s show them our #locallove.

“Hello, Ivan”.

He peered up at me from behind the register. A barrier of plexiglass separated our two masked faces. The part of his face I could see transformed to a quizzical look, one eyebrow raised.

“It’s been a year, my friend,” I said. I didn’t expect him to remember my order by heart like he did pre-COVID. 

I pulled a $10 bill from my coat pocket and slid it across the counter. “I want you to have this.”

He was surprised, but appreciative. He knew why I was doing it and I knew a few of his customers were doing the same. He put the bank note in his pocket. “Thank you.” 

I placed my order. The restaurant was nearly empty–three or four diners seated at tables separated by stacked chairs on tables wrapped in caution tape. The complimentary copies of The Sun newspaper, usually neatly stacked in a pile in a corner on the condiments table, were nowhere to be seen. Same too for the condiments themselves. It was high noon on a Wednesday. The scene was surreal…. the place should’ve been packed. 

The absence of customers gave me some time to catch up on things with Ivan while my comfort food was being prepared. I explained that the pandemic caused my employer to make the difficult decision to permanently close the office. I would be working from home until retirement. That decision removed the need for me to visit Ivan’s place of work at least once, maybe twice a week on a regular basis. 

Ivan always punched in my order before I made it to the cash, holding off on the drink selection because I was never consistent on that one, fluctuating between Diet Coke (stressed out and guilty I wasn’t watching my weight) and Cherry Coke (stressed out and guilty I wasn’t managing my office work). Either choice was fast food methadone, supplied by Ivan the enabler.

I have the impression that Ivan got to be where he is today because of some unfortunate past events. He’s a smart guy. An ‘it-getter”. Pleasant. Respectful. Sharing. Still, he plays the economic hand he’s been dealt every day without regret or remorse. His reality is a twenty-minute bus ride to reduced hours of work. 

He told me the pandemic has been hard on him financially. Hours have ticked up slightly since the restaurant reopened with limited seating. Prior to that all sales were curbside pickup, drive through, or Uber Eats. He hoped he would be given the vaccine soon since he was over 50 with pre-existing conditions. He was skeptical because he didn’t fall under the definition of “front line worker”. The irony wasn’t lost on me as he shared this information from behind the barrier of plexiglass between us.

As I returned to my car, lunch bag and Cherry Coke in hand, it felt good to have given Ivan a hand up, rather than a hand out. The circumstances were different than most “new normal” days that caused me to see Ivan on a work day.I probably won’t see him again anytime soon… possibly never. I should have given him $20. 

This week’s #HappyAct is to think of the folks in the service sector who have been impacted by this pandemic. Help them out if you can. I handed out $5 Tim Horton’s prepaid cards to the six stylists at my barber shop. $30 equates to 1 1/2 haircuts, I missed two cuts during the lockdown so I’m actually up $10. Consider helping out the service sector workers you have in your circle if you are able. Be the creator of your own happy act. 

I #ChooseToChallenge but respectfully

Author and her daughter holding their hands high in solidarity for International Women's Day

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. This year the theme is #ChooseToChallenge. The rallying cry is not just to celebrate women’s achievements, but to call out gender bias and inequality so “collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.”

As someone who has witnessed gender bias and inequality and tried to advocate all my life for gender equity, I will hold my hand high to show my support with women across the globe but with one important caveat: I #ChooseToChallenge respectfully.

We are living in very strange times indeed, times when even when you are trying to do the right thing and speak up, you can be vilified for your words.

Last month, actress Olivia Wilde praised her boyfriend, Harry Styles publicly on her Instagram feed for taking a supporting role in a film she directed featuring a strong female cast. She said “Little known fact, most male actors don’t want to play supporting roles in female-led films. The industry has raised them to believe it lessens their power (i.e financial value) to accept these roles, which is one of the reasons it’s so hard to get financing for movies focusing on female stories.”

The backlash was fast, furious and full of vitriol, accusing Wilde of praising Styles for doing his job or as one person said on Twitter, “the bare minimum level shit”.

What’s the lesson here? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

C’mon everybody. Speak up. Choose to challenge, but be damned sure you say the right thing.

I’m honestly getting really tired. Tired of people trying to do the right thing and being raked over the coals, tired of the haters, tired of the nastiness overshadowing the real, important conversations and hampering real change.

So yes, we must #ChooseToChallenge, but please, help make this world a happier and more productive place and #ChooseToChallenge respectfully.

My journey with repetitive strain injury

Blog post author in woods

I’ve often said it’s as important to know what makes you unhappy, as what makes you happy. For the past year, chronic pain has made me unhappy.

It all started a year ago when Covid hit and I began working from home. Those first few weeks were a blur. I worked long days on my sunroom couch in a bad ergonomic set up, putting in 55 hours a week issuing communications for my company.

In early April, I started to feel a pain developing beneath my shoulder blade. I quickly changed my workspace and set up a proper desk, but the damage was done.

As the pain intensified, to make matters worse, I stupidly kept working. I remember calling into some meetings lying on my bed sideways, because that was the only position where my shoulder didn’t throb. I couldn’t sit down for more than 10 minutes without searing shards of pain emanating up my back. At times the pain was blinding and I could barely concentrate.

I called my doctor, and he prescribed anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants. They helped, a bit, but it wasn’t until I was able to get in to see my physiotherapist that I started having success manage the pain. I was only one of three patients he was seeing during lockdown.

I also started heeding the advice of my health care professionals. I reduced my hours at the computer, took microbreaks, got a sit stand desk so I could work standing up half the day, and did eventually take 3-4 weeks off completely to let it heal.

It’s been a year and while my injury has still not completely healed, it doesn’t occupy my every waking thought now.

I wanted to share my story as a cautionary tale and to help others prevent injuring themselves while working from home. Here are some key things I learned:

  • People told me the pain should go away if you just change your ergonomic set up. This was not true in my case. I got a proper desk, set up a second monitor, got an ergonomic chair and sit-stand tabletop desk, anti-fatigue mat for when I was standing, and changed my set up several times. The pain did not go away.
  • With ergonomic injuries, if you start feeling pain, you’ve already been working too long. My physio and doctor both said you shouldn’t work more than 20-30 minutes sitting in one position and to take microbreaks throughout the day.
  • You need to give the injury time to heal. I didn’t. I stupidly kept working. I look back at it now and know I was crazy. I had lame excuses—now is not a good time, other team members were off on vacation or moving, it’s so busy. I thought of everyone before my own health. If there was one key thing (other than not injuring myself in the first place) I would have done differently, it’s I would have taken time off work immediately to allow my injury to heal.
  • The best advice I received was to keep moving. When I told my doctor, the pain subsided most when I was kayaking, he said I should set up my laptop on the top of my kayak. Any movement—walking, gardening, swimming, kayaking was the best medicine.
  • Get a hot tub. Seriously, if you suffer from any kind of chronic pain, a hot tub is so therapeutic. From April to June last year, the 30 minutes a night I spent in my hot tub was my only pain free time during the waking hours of the day.
  • Exercises are a must. Before I could even get in to see my physio, a good friend of ours who is a chiropractor set me up with a customized exercise program. I still do about 20 minutes of stretching exercises every day.
  • Be open to different types of treatments. In addition to physio, I went regularly for massages and also went to an osteopath for the first time. I didn’t know much about osteopaths, but in some ways, I think a few osteo treatments were more effective than any other paramedical provider. I tried every cream in the book, even marijuana cream.

It’s been a rough journey and I’m very relieved to say I’m much improved. One of the things I found most difficult was not knowing whether by continuing to work, I was continuing to injure myself, or just aggravating the already existing injury.

I have developed a newfound respect for anyone who lives with chronic pain. My heart goes out to you.

Finally, I want to recognize and thank all the people this past year who lent a sympathetic ear and who helped me more than you will ever know—friends who listened and sent me exercises to do, my family for their patience and concern, Latif Khoja at Sydenham Rehab Well clinic, Christina Marshall, my amazing massage therapist, Tony Barton from Barton Chiropractic and my wonderful doctor, Steve Ingo.

Stay in a luxurious over-the-water bungalow

Imagine your dream escape.

An over-the-water bungalow in a secluded locale

Silence and serenity your only companions

Gaze into the waters below and watch another world unfold

Every amenity within reach

There is nothing to do but relax

Except maybe curl up with your favourite book

Or wet a line and see if you can catch your dinner

Fresh grilled fish. A delicacy

The late day sun casts a reddish glow across the sky

Its yellow orb casting shadows over a breathtaking view

Until the moon appears, cresting the skyline

The end to another spectacular day in paradise

Thinking this isn’t possible right now? Well, think again. Come visit us any time in our beautiful over-the-water bungalow. Here’s a picture of our sweet little escape and of the fish I caught! And remember, you can always dream. The picture above was an ad I saw on TravelZoo. $1,899 for two to stay for a week at over-the-water bungalows in the Maldives, fully refundable. Hope this week’s #HappyAct made you smile!

Ice hut
Author with pike caught through the ice

Make love a daily ritual

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I promise each day
To say I love you

There are few words in the English language that convey such emotion as the simple, four-letter word love.

Just thinking of the word love makes you feel warm all over, giddy inside, happy and fulfilled.

I made a vow when I was quite young to tell the people I love that I love them every day. You see, when I was 12, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. I knew the day would come when I might not be able to say those words to her anymore, so we made a pact to say we loved each other every day. She died when I was 19.

I’ve continued that daily ritual in my marriage and with my children. Not a day goes by where I don’t tell them I love them.

If there’s one thing this past year has taught us is, life is short. This week’s #HappyAct is to make sure the people you love know how you feel about them. Don’t leave words unsaid.

Happy hearts day, everyone. And for those of you with a more amorous turn who like a play on words, feel free to make love a daily ritual too!

Living vicariously through others

Author on Dubawnt River in NWT
On the Dubawnt River in NWT

By special guest blogger Dave Swinton

One thing the pandemic has taught me is you can escape through the magic of Youtube.

When I was younger we were always looking for our next adventure. One summer when I was 13, a friend of mine, his father and I built and launched a pontoon boat made completely out of wood. With an old kicker motor and a thirst for what lay around the next bend, my friend and I set off every day to fish, swim, and explore the Grand River in all its glory. As I got older, and went off to school in Thunder Bay, we ascended the top of the Sleeping Giant and descended to the depths of Ouimet Canyon (if you haven’t heard of it, look it up). We hiked, skiied and snowshoed new territory every weekend. We ice fished lakes from dawn till dusk and purposely got lost because this is where we found our true selves. 

I’ve been to places few people have ever been. Whether it be a 9-day river trip in the Arctic or a safari in Tanzania, my thirst for adventure is never far from the surface.

But the inevitable dance with age is starting to catch up with me. Sore knees, hips, and shoulders are starting to diminish my dreams of trips. My mind is still filled with adventures. Hiking in the Himalayas, far north canoe trips, road trips, lost lakes. But who am I kidding, some of these may never happen.

I’ve had some willing partners over the years, some of who are now gone but my thirst for adventure continues. 

But I’ve found a new set of partners on YouTube. They have specialized camera equipment like GoPros and DSLR cameras and drones which make you feel like you are right beside them.

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a YouTuber named Foresty Forest. The man has literally converted his van into a liveable space and spends his days hiking and mountain climbing all the gorgeous peaks of British Columbia. His stamina for climbing is off the charts and sometimes he climbs multiple peaks every day. The vistas he captures are stunning and his minimal dialogue is very enjoyable. I’ve also hiked the Himalayas with a Nepalese man named Ram and his company Mountain Ram Adventures without ever leaving the comfort of my house. One day I’m fishing Lake of the Woods, the next night I’m canoeing in Quetico.

My thirst for adventure will always be satisfied.

This week’s Happy Act is to live vicariously through others, because that’s all we have right now.

Giraffe at Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Lake Manyara, Tanzania