There Is No Try

As an aspiring Essentialist (just learned this term the other day—love it!), I get very little syndicated content sent to my inbox. However, I do subscribe to Nilofer Merchant’s essays because I love her style and her ideology.

Yesterday, an essay titled “‘Tried’ Is No Longer Enough” landed in my inbox. Nilofer had decided to raise up her voice in response to the tragedy in Ferguson. In the introduction to the piece, she writes:

Each of us is living in working in places where “those in charge” doesn’t match up to “those who are affected”. And that gap between those “in power” and “the powerless” is to me a central source if not the source for so many issues.

This struck a chord with me, because my husband and I have had similar conversations related to mental health as I struggle with the second edition of my forthcoming book. How do I communicate to readers the power relationships that are present in the mental health discourse (i.e. the mental health “script”)?

The script that says that medication should be used as first-line treatment for kids with behavioral and emotional problems.

The script that tells us that mental illness is the result of a chemical imbalance, so it’s an individual issue.

The script that places more value on profit and control than people and compassion.

This is indeed a source for many issues.

She continues, “If there’s one message I’d want you to read, it’s this: see what you can do in your own community. Don’t watch history get made, go make history by making things better.”

Well, that made me perk up even more.

There are so many things wrong with our world. Many of these problems have detrimental effects on our children’s mental health. It’s exhausting to read (and write) about it—let alone do something about it.

Most days I waver between wanting to “go make history by making things better” and escaping to a tiny cottage in Scotland to read, write, cook, take long walks, nap, and do nothing. However, as of right now, the tiny cottage in Scotland is not on the horizon, so I’m stuck with making history—in my own small way.

I told you last week about speaking to the entire school district about mental health. I didn’t try to speak about mental health. I spoke about it. There was a slide up on the big screen that said “Everybody has mental health… Teachers, kids, & parents!” Bam. No getting around it. We must consider teachers’ and children’s mental health in order to optimize learning—and it’s a community effort. Tonight, I’m meeting with a group of brave parents who want to make history by promoting mental health in our community. It’s time!

This is not to brag about my community activism efforts (why would I?). Rather, it’s to show that there are things we can do right now to address some of the problems we have. It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to be a speaker or a writer. Indeed, some of the most effective change makers are the ones in the middle of everyday life doing their thing. It’s the teachers who look their students in the eyes and teach unconditionally. It’s the family therapist who doesn’t assume behavior problems equal mental illness, but gets to the core of the problem by involving the whole family. It’s the doctor who uses medication as a last resort for kids. It’s the parent who questions the status quo of the mental health system and demands comprehensive, integrative care.

The most important thing is to do something—not just try to do something. Because, in the words of one of the wisest creatures ever, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

When leaders say they are “trying” but unable to accomplish their goal, what they are really saying is they haven’t made it a priority. ~Niolfer Merchant

(Credit to my husband Todd for the Yoda quote—it came in response to sending him Nilofer’s essay and inspired this post.)

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Thank God for New Days

Yesterday was tough. I woke up early to prepare for a presentation to the entire school district about promoting mental health. As soon as I turned on my phone, I learned that one of our key presenters was not going to make it due to illness. “We’ll figure something out,” I texted. “No worries.”  (I also sent a virtual bouquet and some love, for good measure.)

I spent most of my morning mindfulness practice “figuring something out.” Then I walked our dog—still figuring. I devised a plan that I thought would work well. To make a long story short, the morning took many twists and turns until we ended up almost as planned with a substitute presenter taking our ill friend’s place.

It worked out.

However, during my presentation, everything that could go wrong went wrong. The audio didn’t work for the super cute mindfulness video I was going to show at the beginning of my presentation to set the tone. So I had to rush into CASEL’s core competencies ahead of time, stumbling over words in the process. In order for the audience to see the screen, somebody turned the lights out, so for the rest of the presentation, I stood in the dark looking out over dim faces in the large auditorium. And somehow, I skipped one of the most powerful slides in the deck.

Although I got great feedback from the people I talked to after the presentation, I felt like I hadn’t done my best work. I was drained. The rest of the day didn’t go much better. I came home and ruminated until my husband gently reminded me, “it’s in the past.”

I crashed at 8 p.m.

Today, on the other hand, was awesome. After nine hours of sleep and a morning at the office, I worked at my favorite spots (the co-op and a local coffee shop, Java Johns). During lunch, a colleague came up and told me I did a good job on yesterday’s presentation (thanks!). After work, I rehearsed with a group of talented singers and came home to a cooked dinner. Later on, I chatted with one of my beta readers, a college student, about my book and she told me she wanted all her friends to read it (yay!). And to wrap up the day, I hung out with my high school senior (where did the time go?), and we laughed until we cried as she assembled this tweet:

Thank God for new days!

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On Knowing Too Much and Blogging Paralysis

BLOGWhen I started blogging almost ten years ago in the fall of 2004, I blogged for fun and because I could. I didn’t really think about my audience, what they would find valuable—and I didn’t care at all about being found in search engines (in fact, I found it creepy that people who didn’t know me would read my blog).

I wrote a lot of posts those first months. Forty-three in October and forty-four in November.  The posts were short and sweet—200-300 words (sometimes way less than that). I was my quirky (weird) self. I didn’t capitalize post titles… (One of my favorites from this time: what’s important)

After a few years of this, I started learning more about blogging. I figured out that WordPress was the wave of the future and that blogging was a great way to establish oneself as an “expert.” So I created a WP blog about how to overcome product management struggles (yes, I really did). It was pretty successful. I learned the importance of getting involved in niche blogging communities by commenting and linking to similar sites.

In 2009, I got tired of blogging about product management and wanted to write about my newfound interest in sustainability and simple living. So I started this blog. I was still quite prolific, writing several posts each week. I started to read about blogging best practices—how important it is to bring value or entertainment to your audience and write really high-quality content. I also started learning about something called search engine optimization (SEO) that made your website more “findable” in Google and other search engines. My posts got longer and more involved. As a result, they took longer to write, so I wrote fewer posts. And the past couple of years, while I’ve been working on my book, I’ve really struggled to keep the blog alive and have fun with it.

The point is, the more I’ve learned about writing for the web—what works, what doesn’t—the less fun it’s become and the fewer posts I’ve created. It’s like I have blogging paralysis because I know too much! Well, I can’t really unlearn what I know (that would be bad for my day job), but I can stop taking myself so seriously, get back to basics, and enjoy the process (and not spend hours crafting a single post).

I’m ready to get back to the heart of blogging: as an art form and as a way to express in real-time how I feel about this life and this world we live in. As a dialogue between me and you. I shall write what I please, but I will make it worth your time.

I hope you will enjoy the change.

NOTE: This will replace my weekly Sunday email, because I had to get this out, and I don’t want to spam my tribe.

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I’m Going Wild!

Go Wild CoverI learned of Dr. John J. Ratey‘s work through his book Spark, which discusses the impact of exercise on the brain (spoiler alert: good impact). Since then, I’ve been recommending this book to everybody and also reference it in my upcoming book.

So you can imagine that I was quite excited to receive a pre-ordered copy of Ratey’s new book Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization (co-authored with journalist Richard Manning) on my Kindle a few weeks ago.

I started reading and realized that Ratey, Manning, and I agree on a lot of things (no surprise there). We agree that many of our afflictions stem from our less-than-healthy lifestyles. We agree that some of the most important keys to physical and mental health are nutrition, exercise (movement), rest (sleep), mindfulness, connection with nature, and reliable relationships (or a tribe). And we agree that living more like the way we lived when we were evolving as a species is ideal (albeit somewhat challenging in our society).

We are designed to be wild, and by living tamely we make ourselves sick and unhappy.

Inspired to Go Wild

Even though I’ve written about a lot of the same things in my book, Go Wild really inspired me to make some changes—or upgrades—to my lifestyle.

Nutrition

Want to go wild? Here’s how. Don’t eat sugar, not in any form.

On August 1, I’m going to cut out sugar and start the process of eliminating grains and processed food from my diet. Between reading Go Wild, Grain Brain, Year of No Sugar, and Food and Behavior in the past several months, I’m re-convinced that sugar is evil and that we’re probably not supposed to eat grains, especially refined, modern grains. And processed food is a no-brainer. Who really feels good after eating manufactured food stuff? (But it’s so convenient!)

I’ve stocked up on veggies from our CSA, fruits and berries, nuts, smoked salmon, eggs, and roast beef. I plan to eat a wide variety of food, which is one of the book’s key points related to nutrition. Maybe I’ll start buying veal on Amazon. (Yes, that’s a thing.) Or maybe I should just befriend one of the many hunters in our community…

Movement

Movement builds our brain because movement requires a brain.

I’ve been a fan of “moving naturally” ever since I heard that term in the book The Blue Zones. The Go Wild authors recommend doing a variety of movements à la CrossFit. CrossFit looks super cool, and maybe I’ll look seriously at it at some point soon, but mostly I’m excited about doing more trail running.

I’m mostly a treadmill runner—to save my knees. However, I’ve found that trail running is also okay for my aging joints. There are amazing trails just a short bike ride away, so on weekend mornings, I slap on some bug spray, don my BugBand, and head over to the wooded bluffs. Running in nature makes you extra wild!

Sleep

Everyone needs eight and a half hours of sleep out of every twenty-four.

Ever notice that you have a more difficult time controlling your emotions (and being a nice person) when you’re sleep-deprived? I talked to a couple of mental health counselors recently, and they both said that they tell their depressed clients (mostly college students) that if they can only do one thing, they should make sure they get enough sleep.

I typically get seven and a half hours of sleep on a good night. Ratey and Manning recommend eight and a half hours of sleep for every twenty-four. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t have to be continuous sleep to be valuable. As long as you get the right quantity, you’re good. I kind of like to sleep, so I’ll definitely be going to bed an hour earlier so I can fit that extra hour in.

Mindfulness

A calm brain is like a still lake. ~Richard Davidson

When we practice mindfulness, we are able to participate in life—what’s happening right now—rather than always thinking about things that happened in the past or worrying about the future. This is the best state for our brains, and it helps us handle distress and difficult emotions. It also allows us to be more focused.

I’m excited to be taking a six-week introduction course to mindfulness through Mindful Schools right now. It’s been very helpful to help me establish a formal practice (ten minutes of focusing on my breath every morning), but also provided a deeper understanding of mindfulness in everyday life. I highly recommend it!

In Sum

To summarize my commitment to going wild(er), I will:

  • Eliminate sugar and grains from my diet over the course of the next 31 days.
  • Enjoy a round of trail running at least once a week.
  • Sleep eight and a half hours most nights.
  • Practice mindfulness daily for at least ten minutes.

Have you taken similar steps in your own life? Do you think I’m crazy? Let me know in the comments.

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Everyday Activism

ac·tiv·ism n. The use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause.

Thus reads the definition of activism in The Free Dictionary. And I suppose this illustrates well the traditional perception of what an activist does. Hugs trees. Marches with placards. Hunger strikes.

None of these activities appeal to me.

Yet, I consider myself an activist. (It’s in my Twitter bio, so it must be official…)

Tabita's Twitter bio

We All Need to Act

One thing I’ve realized during my two and a half years of researching mental health-related topics for my upcoming book, is that we need to enact major social change if we want to optimize our children’s mental health. For this to happen, we need lots of activists. Everyday activists.

It feels like traditionally, activism has been an all or nothing mindset. Either you’re out there on a regular basis picketing, collecting petition signatures, and handing out leaflets on the street or you’re sitting at home doing nothing.

Fortunately, the world has changed. There are lots of ways to get involved and make a difference—even if picketing isn’t your thing. And it’s okay to start small. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Three Steps to Everyday Activism

  1. Become educated on the issues. For example, before I started my research, I didn’t know what “Citizens United” was or this Supreme Court ruling’s impact on politics. Now I know that it allows corporations and other groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on swaying the public one way or another during political elections. This means that corporations and other groups have way too much influence in our political process. People should decide election outcomes, not Big Money. (To get an awesome introduction to Citizens United, check out The Story of Citizens United vs. FEC.)
  2. Make a commitment to vote. And encourage others to do the same. Due to Big Money’s influence on politics, people feel like it doesn’t matter if they vote or not. All politicians follow the money anyway, so what’s the point, right? The point is that it is our civic duty and right to participate in the election of our leaders. I was shocked to find that only 58.2% of us voted in the 2012 general election. We need to send people to Washington (and our local governments) who will fight against Big Money in politics and look after the needs of everyday people.
  3. Pick one focus area. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of work that’s needed to create a society that prioritizes happiness and health over consumption and wealth. There are so many organizations working on everything from raising the minimum wage to parental leave policy to mindfulness in schools. You probably feel drawn to a few different areas based on your individual needs or interests. Narrow it down to one area and invest your time there. (But keep abreast of other important issues so you can contact your representatives and let them know where you stand.)

Places to Start

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Like I mentioned above, there are a number of organizations that facilitate different levels of everyday activism. I’ve listed a few here:

Beyond writing as activism, I have chosen to focus on bringing mental health awareness, mindfulness, and social emotional learning to our local school district. It really doesn’t take much to get started. Just invite a few people with similar goals over for an informal discussion and see where it leads. You can accomplish a lot with a handful of people and a common vision.

How Are You an Everyday Activist?

Let me know in the comments below.

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