Boulders mid-stream, topped in pillows of
White, bounty of winter,
Give way to stirring of spring - new life bursting forth
In limelight of lemon sunshine.
River current, icy and slow, now swiftens,
As burgeoning flows swell beyond banks.
Rising, rocketing, roaring.
Wandering, winding, wending.
Golden window to bed of sand and rock,
Framed in verdant blades and rotund shrubs,
Brightly splashed petals: pink, yellow, purple, white,
And reflection of deepest cornflower sky.
Orange, gold, red and brown - glowing lanterns of autumn
Drift downstream, breeze turning chill.
“Drink more water and stretch!” This was my go-to answer, years ago, for whatever ailed me or anyone I knew. It was only partly in jest. I was hooked on the idea that taking care of oneself and all one’s needs could be this simple. Plus, most people really could benefit from additional hydration and increased mobility.
A few weeks ago I posted about the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. In his book, Clear breaks down brain and behavioral science to actionable steps in order to drop bad habits and gain good ones. I thought his suggestions were useful, so I wrote about them in the hope of supporting other folks in their quest to change or implement their own bad and good habits.
But I have come to a new, more humble, perspective. It seems that humans lean more toward the individually complex rather than one-size-fits-all self-help books. Call me a slow learner of the obvious.
There’s a relatively new podcast, “If Books Could Kill,” that takes a hard look at many of the self-help and pop-science books like “Atomic Habits.” These books tend to be filled with easy, logical solutions that people like me embrace. The books the podcast discusses, a few of which I’ve read over the years, by and large call upon only the scientific work that supports the author’s ideas, if they cite scientific work at all. The authors also have a tendency to dumb-down complex ideas to spoon-fed simplicity. What this means is that the books ultimately do not offer the effective solutions their titles might suggest.
In the example of “Atomic Habits,” I learned from the podcast that for someone who has a difficult time developing good habits, this book was not helpful at all. James Clear does not seem to have ever struggled with implementing habits. The podcast hosts point out that they themselves have struggled with sticking to good habits, and if they were people who could and would take the steps outlined by Clear, they wouldn’t be struggling to begin with.
People who are going to follow the steps to develop the habit are fairly high-functioning in terms of personal habits, and will do the things necessary to follow through. But the person who has a hard time sticking to habits doesn’t need more steps. They need something to help them take the actions, and the book doesn’t identify or deliver that something.
This was mind-blowing for me. I happen to be a person who does not struggle with personal discipline and habit formation. And I thought that this was true for everyone. I thought that when people had a difficult time with dropping or developing habits they were not committed to change or didn’t have a good structure in place. I was wrong.
I wish I had the answer for what might help people in their quest for sticking to change that matters to them. Understanding why something is important enough to a person to make change, and keeping that why front and center in order to stay motivated seems like a good start.
Perhaps it isn’t that the steps outlined in “Atomic Habits” don’t work at all - perhaps it is that each person has an individual combination of things that work for them. For some people having a buddy for accountability and companionship during change is hugely helpful. For others a reward system works well. For still others it is the cueing that does the trick (gym clothes by the front door).
The bottom line is that, though many books try to sell us on easy solutions that work for all, there is not a single straightforward method that works for everyone. Instead, it is figuring out the elements that work for each individual that is the key for success.
Link to “If Books Could Kill”
Heads up that the language is R-rated.
There are many episodes that are not subscription-required.
Lastly, the two podcast hosts, Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri, are a hoot. My primetime for listening is when I’m in the kitchen, and it now takes me twice as long to do anything because I’m giggling hysterically. This is refreshing - learning while laughing.
The steady drum of rain against my wooden deck is the accompaniment to my keyboard tapping this evening. I look out at the multitude of miniscule rivulets slipping from the grey sky, aspen leaves and backyard grass growing a deeper green by the minute.
These daily rainstorms (monsoon is the change in the direction of the prevailing wind which causes seasonal change, rather than the rain itself - see below for more info) are the cherry on the sundae following a record winter snowfall - and subsequent melt. My favorite evening walk in May was next to Fish Creek, for as it thundered past all other sound and thought was obliterated. There were unexpected surprises near the Botanic Park along the Yampa River Core Trail: the icy-cold ankle-deep water crossing, the sunshine-yellow daffodils shooting up in temporary ponds.
It is mind-boggling, the haste of the water at this time of year. Slapping against rocks, jumping high into the air, and leapfrogging itself - this water means business. So fast and powerful it creates its own wind, evidenced by the nearby branches in constant motion. It rockets above, around, over, through, in an undisguised shameless display of desire to reach the far away ocean.
The reality is these eager flows won’t reach the ocean. Fish Creek joins the Yampa River, which flows into the Green River, the largest tributary of the Colorado River. Much of the water rushing past me in Fish Creek will get hung up in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and although what doesn’t evaporate will continue along in the Colorado, that once-great river now trickles out in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, shortly before reaching the Golfo de California (Gulf of California).
Yet the water keeps moving. In years of abundance, in years of drought. And the larger problem of water in the west drying up is not my focus tonight.
I think about the character of water in nature. It is in perpetual forward motion, morphing in sync with seasons and conditions. As spring turns to summer and the urgency of snowmelt abates, the waterways are serene - but still moving. Fish Creek flows all winter between snow-mounded boulders, and the Yampa glides along lacy banks of ice.
I think about older rivers and their wandering habits. They form meanders and oxbow bends, as they wend their way through sand, soil, and rock. Fish dart, birds swoop, dragonflies flit. Trees, grasses, and wildflowers thrive. These elder rivers loop and twist, touching more and different places, unhurried, bringing vitality, bringing new life.
“While a rainy season is part of a monsoon, a monsoon is more than just rain. In fact, monsoons can also cause dry weather. Monsoons are caused by a change in the direction of the wind that happens when the seasons change. In fact, even the word monsoon comes from the Arabic word mausim, which means ‘season.’”
What Is a Monsoon? | NOAA SciJinks – All About Weather
There’s a photograph near my dining table. My dad snapped this pic on a summer day, in a lush green city park. There are four behatted subjects: my grandmother, my mom, my one-year-old daughter, and me. My two favorite things about this picture are the suspicious glare with which my daughter is regarding her grandfather, and that we are four generations and the span of time that represents.
The photo is like a time-traveling window. I look through it and am in that day. I feel the hot July air on my skin, playground sand rough on my ankles, the slide scorching fingers and bum. I hear the high-pitched squeak of the swing chains being pushed to the max, the squeals of children playing tag. I see squirrels racing around and up the trunks of huge shade trees, bees buzzing amongst the red and pink blooms of roses a short distance away.
* * * * *
The above photo of Dali’s bronze sculpture La Noblesse du temps (Nobility of time) was placed in its current location in Andorra in 2010. The soft clock face draped over the tree intrigued me. Dali used the crown on the top edge of the clock to signify time’s dominion over humans. I am resistant to this idea of time lording it over us.
We can’t stop time, can’t stop the aging of our bodies and faculties. But stepping deeply into our recollections allows us to play with time. In that action of engaging with memories, we are time travelers.
Most of us can choose a snapshot from our childhood - a physical picture or a picture held in our mind’s eye. We can focus on the details of that memory and allow the sensations of that day to burst into our mind like popcorn popping. The smell of the wet earth after a hard rain. The feel of a cold dog nose pushing into the palm of your hand. The sound of a train horn moving down the track slicing through the still night. The taste of your favorite cookie, hot out of the oven, melting across your tongue. Each sensation gives way to others, a long hallway of memory doors opening one after another, until you are right back in that space and time. You have traveled there.
* * * * *
On the day of that four-generation picture of my family, I am a mom still new to her job. Slathering sunblock on little pudgy arms, tying the sunhat back on for the 81st time. In the picture, my hand is holding my daughter’s chest - holding her heart. A couple years later, we’d use our hands over our hearts at morning preschool drop-off. She’d be at the goodbye window (the crying window), and as she watched me walk to my car, we both knew I was in her heart and she was in mine all day long.
My daughter is now 17. Today we are adventuring - exploring colleges on a 3000-mile road trip. We are many many days down the line from that July park outing almost 16 years ago. I would not agree that the “time has flown,” or that “it goes so fast.” More than a few days of those growing up years were mighty long ones. I am blessed to have clarity of detail and feeling in myriad moments with my daughter. The more I recall, the more memories come in. The way you look at the night sky, and the longer you gaze, the more bright stars show themselves - until there are so many stars the sky is filled with light.
The soft breeze riffles the lime-green aspen leaves, popping out with abandon along gleaming white limbs. The ground is carpeted in purple and yellow wildflowers. Red, orange and purple tulips nod their heads, and yellow daffodils push up above lush grasses. It is spring, and birds are singing.
Bird song is an enchanting accompaniment to the vibrant visual of the outdoors, although it can go unnoticed if we don’t pay attention. The sound of birds singing is a lovely gift. It has real and measurable perks for humans, and serves specific purposes for the birds themselves.
Bird song benefits our mental health, according to a recent Washington Post article. Studies have shown that hearing birdsong decreases feelings of depression and anxiety, and improves mental well-being, even hours later. The studies found significant improvement with listening to audio clips, but being outdoors provides the added benefits of physical exercise and being immersed in nature.
Nature in general gives us a mental boost and reduces stress. As I wrote in my blog post Nature Nurtures Our Well-Being, being fully engaged with the experience is where we truly gain positive results. That full engagement requires deliberate focus - not always simple to achieve.
Has this ever happened to you? You’re wandering along, so lost in thought that you are completely oblivious to your surroundings. You are in a world of outer silence, inner noise. Suddenly, you remember that you’re out here to listen to the birds. Oops. You tune in. And, lo and behold, your ears are inundated by so much singing it’s like being at an open casting call for the musical Hamilton.
This has certainly happened to me, more than a few times. But when I stop to pay attention to the sounds in the treetops high above me, bird calls and song, shrill and low, short chirps and long bars of sweet music, I am blown away by this free concert.
Here are a few bird songs I’ve focused on long enough to take note of:
With all this music, I am curious: why do birds sing? This article (The Spruce: Why Do Birds Sing?) helped me understand why.
The main reasons birds sing:
In some bird species, only the males sing. A song can indicate - to possible competitors and potential mates - the capabilities of the male. A long, loud song is a mark of strength and endurance, and the ability to defend the territory. A more complex song indicates a male who’s been around long enough to skillfully accomplish that piece.
How lucky that the way in which birds communicate and strut their stuff is such a blessing to our ears. And how lucky too, that the sweet singing of birds benefits our well-being.
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT