My Parenting Secret – the Four Elements

Mothers everywhere know that special type of chaos when their young children are overdone. Call it Cabin-fever, witching-hour, or the full moon – sometimes it seems like NOTHING helps to stop someone from bursting into tears every minute and whining “Brother looked at meeee” or “sister sniffed at meeeee”. This kind of behaviour REALLY sets me off and my bad mood further fuels their bad moods. 

There are many things about parenting that leave me just stupefied and gobsmacked. My daughter says “he called me stupid!” My son says “that’s because she is ruining my game!” Sometimes I don’t even know how to respond other than say “Don’t call her stupid,” and “don’t ruin his game.” So far my success rate for solving these grievances is low.

While I am far from an expert child-whisperer, I thought I’d share a simple framework that often works to reset us when my children are grumpy over-done chickens. I call it the Four Elements.

Earth. Air. Water. Fire. You know, those 4 elements. 

These elements were the Ancient Greek way of understanding our universe and they believed that the world was made up entirely of these 4 elements. This elemental theory also extended to medicine and it was believed that these elements are also reflected in 4 human temperaments and the 4 humors found in the human body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm). The Ancient Greeks believed that health and wellness required the balance of these temperaments and the humors of the body. 

Of course, we know now that these theories were wrong. I’m of course not suggesting we revert back to 2000 year old medicine when raising our children. But, I have found in my parenting experience, that in moments when my kids are overtired, overstimulated, overdone, and just generally cantankerous – applying the 4 elements to our physical space really helps. 

One thing I try to remember when raising my kids in this modern high-tech and human-made world we live in – we are still human beings and our brains haven’t structurally changed over thousands of years. We haven’t really evolved. We humans still have the same brains as our ancestors thousands of years ago. We have the same brains as our hunting and gathering ancestors and fellow contemporary humans who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Yes, our brains have learned different things, but they aren’t further *evolved*. We have the same instincts. 

Instinct is a funny thing – sometimes you don’t know why something feels wrong or right unless you tap into that instinct. I take my neighbor’s dog with me when I go running around my downtown Sunnyvale urbanized landscape. One thing I’ve noticed is that the dog will go out of her way to not step on a grate or manhole cover or other construction type thing covering a hole. Even if the cover is flat and wouldn’t seem to be a claw-tangle risk. I wondered why this is – why would a dog jump over a metal cover to a hole? My childhood dog, Canon was the same. He would not walk over a metal cover on the sidewalk. If I think back to her instincts as a dog in the wild, any dog would be wary of something similar to a thin layer of ice covering a body of water. It just feels unsafe. 

As another example, sitting across the table from my child, I can take my hand and crawl my fingers across the table like it’s a tarantula spider skittering towards them. My children jump every time. And then they try to murder my hand. Which I deserve.

Structurally our brains are the same now as they were 2,000 years ago. And so while the Greek’s understanding of the human body was not scientific, at the time *they did think it worked* probably because balancing these humors *did* work to some degree in the same way the placebo effect works.

So here are four things to try next time you and your kids are losing your minds and you are Googling child-free all-inclusive Mexican resorts. 


Take your shoes and socks off and go put your feet in the grass or the dirt. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Go to the beach (if you live near one) and walk barefoot on the sand. Lay down on the grass and look up at the underneath of a tree. Study the clouds, feeling the hard earth behind your back. I call this “grounding”. I don’t know why, but feeling the earth between my toes or on my back just feels right.

For my Canadian readers who spend half the year under a blanket of snow, might I suggest laying down in the snow in your winter wear to rest and look at the frosty trees and winter sky, the snowflakes floating down towards your face.

Or if it’s -30 and way to effing cold for that, maybe put your hands in a big bag of rice. Or let your kid play with a container full of dried lentils or beans. Stomp some (washed) feet in the lentils, pour the lentils through your fingers, mimicking some of the sensory input the earth gives us and playing with things that grew from the earth.


We live in an ocean of air. We cannot live without it. Of the three things that sustain human life – water, food, and air, going without air will kill us the fastest. Yet despite how critical it is for our health, we have become so accustomed to living inside, we forget how good it feels to take in some deep breaths of fresh outside air.

Of course not all outside air is fresh air or good for us. In California we are often subjected to months with poor air quality from surrounding wildfires. Sometimes it’s healthier to stay indoors with air filtration systems. We all must use our senses, primarily our sense of smell, to assess if the air around us is safe to breathe.

But sometimes we’ve just been inside so long, my nose can’t tell if the house is full of stagnant air. But our moods are in the garbage, I’m short with my kids, my kids are crabby with one another, I’m yawning, feeling sluggish – to me that’s a sign – we need some more oxygen! Air!

So here are some I do to let the air around us improve our overall moods:

  • If the air quality outside is okay, I open the windows to your home and get some more oxygen inside. Simple but effective!

“I’d like to give this place a good airing….it smells of a thousand meals.”

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Windy Poplars

  • I take out the trash, food scraps, run the dishwasher or washing machine, clean out the fridge. We might not notice bad smells after a while but they are still there and we are still subconsciously smelling them.
  • I get us outside for a walk. I feel like water cleans the body but wind cleans the soul. I love the feeling of wind swooping and swirling around me on a walk. Taking my kids around the block or on a longer walk with a stroller or wagon makes a huge difference.
  • When my kids are bickering in the car, I try putting all the windows down for a bit and just let the wind wash over us in the car.
  • When I was trying to get my son to sleep as a baby, he loved to fall asleep in front of a fan with air blowing on him. It helped a lot to calm him down.


We humans have been using water to clean and care for our bodies for a long time. And while we haven’t always known of the link between human health and environmental cleanliness, our efforts to understand the science date back to Ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates himself, when he wrote the book “Airs Waters and Places” in the 4th or 5th century BCE. Ancient Greeks loved to bathe, and Romans famously loved to bathe in luxurious public bathhouses. Yet by the middle ages, people had turned their backs on bathing.

“Then in the Middle Ages, the spread of the plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene and what they might do to modify their own susceptibility to outbreaks. Unfortunately people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapors to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years most people didn’t wash, or even get wet, if they could help it – and in consequence they paid an uncomfortable price. Infections became part of everyday life. Boils grew commonplace. Rashes and blotches were routine. Nearly everyone itched nearly all the time. Discomfort was constant, and serious illness was accepted with resignation.” – At Home, Bill Bryson (p. 681).

It truly blows my mind that for long periods of human history, we didn’t think it was good to clean our skin with water.

I’m glad we’ve culturally moved beyond a society-wide phobia of getting wet, and I often use water to reset our moods. While the generations of Middle Agers who never got wet disprove my theory that feeling clean is a human instinct, I still think it’s critical for our mental health in 2023. I don’t know what the mothers in in the year 600 CE were thinking.

My kids get a bath every second day after supper and before bedtime, but you know what? There’s no rule. Throwing them in the bath tub at 2 in the afternoon is allowed. I am allowed to give my kids more than one bath a day. There is no bath police.

And while they are contained in the bath full of warm water and bubbles and toys, I attempt to reset my own mood by practicing a little gratitude.

Did you know that a gallon of water weighs eight pounds? A standard bathtub filled to just below the overflow holds 42 gallons.

Back before modern plumbing and hot water heaters, scullery maids used to have to heat the water in the kitchen and carry 336 pounds worth of hot water upstairs in cans so that one fancy person living in fancy house with scullery maids could have a bath. Even though we now have the technology to pour hot water directly out of the faucet into the tub, much of the world’s population continues to live without this basic luxury.

Oh man am I ever so grateful for modern plumbing. For water treatment. For hot water that just comes out of my taps.

Sometimes there’s no bathtub, or time for a bath. So here are some other indoor ideas of how to use water to reset the mood:

  • Fill up the bathroom sink with soapy water and a few bath toys for kids to play in.
  • Fill up a mixing bowl with water and send the kids outside (weather permitting) with some plastic measuring cups and buckets to practice their scooping and pouring.

  • Drink a glass of cold water. Seriously, this helps me so much. Sometimes all I need is a glass of cold water and I feel so much better. Drinking it through a straw I think is also helpful at calming an over-stimulated sensory system.
  • I feel better when I’m clean, so sometimes that just means washing my hands and my feet, or changing my socks. Taking the time to wash hands with soapy warm water and enjoy it, rather than just complete the process as quickly as possible, really helps reset the mood. It helps so much with kids too.

Some days in California, it rains (it is infrequent, but it happens!) Some times it rains for weeks at a time and we can go crazy if we just stay inside avoiding all the rain. There is so much joy in rainy day walks if you’re dressed for it!

One rainy day my grumpy toddler and I went to explore the drains at the tennis courts near our house. He was mesmerized and it ended up being a good day.

If you’re wondering, my son is wearing Crocs rainboots (so lightweight!) in a bigger size with merino wool socks inside (keeps the toes warm even if water gets into boots from puddle splashing), Reima rainpants (very waterproof!), and a Hatley lined jacket (waterproof and warm!). My stroller (Thule Urban Glide 2) has the Thule raincover on it.


I’m really not sure what it is about fire that calms down over-wrought children. Maybe it’s the beauty of the flame, maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the power and the danger of an open flame. But it works.

We humans have been using fire for about 200,000 years. Gathering together around an open flame to cook, or tell stories at night is an intimate part of human social connection. Not just for cooking food, or providing us light in darkness, we use fire for reverent moments and to facilitate social connection.

  • We light candles on a cake to celebrate someone’s continued existence on earth (Happy Birthday!)
  • We light candles to honor the dead, like altar candles lit on Day of the Dead. Or last year on the winter solstice (the longest night of the year, December 21st), I lit a candle to remember and grieve my mom’s passing before all the joy and merriment of Christmas celebrations began.

  • We gather around a lit Christmas tree to celebrate family, community and love.
  • We gathering with friends and family around a campfire to sing songs and share stories. When I was 17, my friends and I would gather around firepits in backyards or parks to just hang out, have a fire, and connect with one another. These are some of my fondest memories of my childhood. There’s something about the way a campfire lights up our loved ones’ faces that speaks to sharing and vulnerability.
Watching a bonfire with grandpa at the family farm

Now, not everyone can have a campfire on a bad mood day, especially in California. But there are other things we can do to inspire our connection to others and appease our minds with reverence.

  • Light some candles. These could be home decor candles, or maybe tapers in candle holders on the table with a meal. I light candles during our Friday morning tea time. I also make a point to have candle-lit dinners whenever my husband is out of town and it’s just me and the kids at witching hour.
  • Dim the bright human-made lights and get some cozier atmosphere going. Did you know that these days you can buy all sorts of colour temperatures for lightbulbs? Even if you don’t have a dimmer, you can change our your bright white lights for a more orange/firelight like glow.
  • Go sit in a sunny spot and let the sun’s warmth warm your skin.
  • Make a point to light candles in honor of something – a birthday, a death, an important gathering.
  • Include lighting rituals in your yearly rhythm – light altar candles on Day of the Dead, light candles on the winter solstice to acknowledge the darkness in us all and remember those we have lost, attend a local Christmas tree lighting ceremony, or make your own ceremony at home turning on (or off) lights during a holiday season that your family celebrates.

So there you have it, my four elements parenting secret.

When you’re feeling the cabin fever coming on, say to yourself, Earth, Air, Water, Fire. What can I do to bring any of these elements into my life right now?

Have you seen these four elements work in mysterious ways in your life too? Do you have any ideas for how to earth, air, water, fire in the long afternoons? I’d love to hear your ideas!


Ultimate Train Book Recommendations List for Kids

There are few things in life that I can say with absolute certainty that I believe to be unequivocally true; but one of those things is that having a rich library of living books is essential to life, especially for children.

I believe children need books and even more than that -they need excellent books. They need books that inspire them with big ideas, that are written in beautiful language, that do not talk down to them. Children’s books should expose children to a world of artistic styles through the illustrations, the prose, and the poetry.

Charlotte Mason (one of my educational gurus) wrote:

“One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.”
― Charlotte Mason

So I try to bring the absolute best books into my home for my children. Life is so short and childhood is even shorter – why spend even one bed time reading a book that is awful?

My son is obsessed with trains. He absolutely loves them. He loves playing with trains, riding trains, learning about trains, watching train videos, visiting train museums, and reading about trains. As such, we have accumulated quite a repertoire of train books – and I only keep the best.

So I’ve combined these two loves – my love of the best literature, and my sons love of trains into this ultimate list of train books. There are over 50 books recommended in this list.

We love train books so much in our house, I’ve started hosting a train-themed story time at a little historical model railroad museum once a month. Little kids come in to see the model trains and I read a few train-themed stories aloud to them. It is great fun and my kids enjoy it a lot. So not only have I read many of these books to my own kids, I have read them out loud to a room full of 4 year old train enthusiasts who listened with rapt attention. It’s not just my kids who like them.

I’ve grouped the books by read-aloud age (though there’s also a holiday section near the end).

Ps: If you click on the picture or the affiliate links provided, they are Amazon affiliate links. I am grateful if you do want to purchase any of these books to use my links, as I receive an extremely small commission.

Train books for Toddlers

The Train to Timbuctoo by Margaret Wise Brown is a pleasure to read out loud. It is a poem, rather than a story with a plot – but the words read aloud are a delight to roll off the tongue. I love saying “throw out the throttle and give it the gun”. Little babies enjoy the cadence of this book.

Freight Train by Donald Crews is another book with a wonderful rhythm for babies. When my son was younger and was having a meltdown over something, I would start reciting “the train runs across this track, red caboose at the back” and it almost always calmed him down.

Sleep Train by Jonathan London

The Little Red Caboose by Marian Potter is a classic for the little ones. Until I read this book to my son, I had no idea that cabooses contained the brakes of the train.

Steam Train Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld is a fun poem to read aloud and we love the illustrations.

Train Books for Preschoolers

The Little Red Train storybooks by Benedict Blathwayt are very engaging. We love the detailed illustrations and the stories are exciting. Little Red Train To the Rescue we actually re-enacted with our wooden train set – setting up a wooden train set that mimicked what the train went through in that story. It was a fun way to explore reading comprehension through play.

Hey! Get Off Our Train by John Burningham. This is a great book for introducing environmental challenges faced by animals.

Choo Choo by Virgnia Lee Burton. I’d actually recommend springing for the hardcover edition of this one, only because it comes with a downloadable audiobook read by the author’s son, Aris, to whom she dedicated this book. We love Choo Choo. Choo Choo crops up as a character in many of my son’s original stories.

Shortcut by Donald Crews is suspenseful and exciting. It leaves kids on the edge of their seats! It also reminds us why we never walk along the train tracks.

The Littlest Train by Chris Gall is about a little wooden toy train that gets lost off the train table and goes for an adventure. My son loves how the illustrations represent toys he actually owns.

The Little Train by Lois Lenski

Three Little Engines by Bob McKinnon is a sequel or perhaps a spinoff of the Little Engine that Could.

The Train by David McPhail. I love it when the illustrations tell even more of the story. This is a captivating story of a little boy’s dream of being a conductor.

The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet. This is probably our number 1 favourite train book. Before my son could read, he had memorized this entire book and could recite it word for word. We read it a lot. It is fun, told in rhyme, tells a story and has a clever ending.

The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper is a classic of children’s train literature. I love the original unabridged version by Watty Piper.

The Subway Mouse by Barbara Reid is a story of a mouse who lives underground on the subway tracks and dreams of finding the end of the tracks where there is fresh air and sunlight. It is not really about trains, but about subways tracks – so if you’re trying to get your little train enthusiast to consider topics other than trains, this is an option. I love Barbara Reid’s clay art for the illustrations.

The Last Train by Gordon Titcomb is a book based on a song by Gordon Titcomb. We like reading this book and then listening to the song.

Subway Sparrow by Leyla Torres is about a bird stuck in the subway. People from different backgrounds and speaking different languages come together to help this little bird out. It’s not a book about trains but about the unifying experience of people riding in the train together.

Longer Picture books for School-Aged Kids

Thomas the Tank Engine – Original classic editions by Rev. W. Awdry

I am going to recommend this box set of smaller books because the kids love to hold these small books in their hands. Each book contains five original Thomas stories. They are the original stories read by Ringo Star/Alec Baldwin in the Thomas the Train show from when we were children. (The one with real model trains, not animation). I think the original stories are much better than the newer simplified versions.

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey is such a cool story! It is a true story about a man who built an early underground pneumatic train under New York City.

Locomotive by Brian Floca is excellent. It teaches about the immigrant experience taking the train across the West of the United States. Through the story it also teaches geography and facts about trains.

Ten Mile Day by Mary Ann Fraser this is a great story historical story about building the transcontinental railroad and the rivalry that existed between the two railroad companies. It explains how the rails were laid and all the jobs people worked in a gripping story of competition.

Steam, Smoke, and Steel by Patrick O’Brien. In first grade, we have talked about our family tree and our ancestors. This book was a nice complement to that because it goes back in time through a person’s ancestors and all the living experiences with trains through history.

Farewell to Shady Glade by Bill Peet is another favourite in our home. It tells the story of a band of animals whose home is destroyed by suburban development and must relocate via train.

Christopher Vine has written a treasure trove of science and engineering books about a little boy and his grandpa who build a model train they can ride between their two farms. Peter’s Railway is the first in the series. It is very long and will take you several days to read to a younger child. Christopher Vine also writes shorter stories for younger children. My son’s favourite is Peter’s Railway The Great Train Robbery. If you are shopping for a dedicated train enthusiast, you can also do what I did and buy everything Christopher Vine has written in the Peter’s Railway series directly from his website with international UK shipping. He has a package deal for the entire collection.

Children’s novels about trains

While my son’s independently reading skills are quickly maturing, I love to read novels out loud to him that are currently above his reading level but not beyond his oral comprehension level. Below are some train-themed novels we have enjoyed. You could also opt for an audiobook version of these novels for the younger reader.

The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell. This is book 1 of a 3 book series.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman ranks very high on my personal list of best of children’s literature. Lev Grossman’s writing style reminds me a lot of Harry Potter. The world of the Silver Arrow is both magical and believable. I love the intersection between trains, magic, science, and saving endangered animals.

The Golden Swift by Lev Grossman is the sequel to the Silver Arrow and we also loved it. I hope Lev Grossman writes more stories about this world and these characters. The audiobooks read by Simon Vance are also excellent listening for road trips.

I Survived the Wellington Avalanche by Lauren Tarshis. This book pushed my son to the next level with his reading. He loves trains, he loves catastrophe and crashes – this book combined these two loves. He read this one out loud to me in a wonderful progression in his education and I actually really enjoyed the story as well.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. I have linked the BBC Radio drama audible audio production instead of the written book only because we haven’t read the entire book yet but have listened to this radio drama dozens of times. My son loves it.

The Cricket in Times Square by Garth Williams. This one doesn’t technically have a lot of trains in it, but it takes place in a subway station, and my son and I loved it.

Non-Fiction Train Facts Books for Kids

In non-fiction books for kids, I mostly look for ones that have a single narrative so they aren’t too chaotic when reading aloud. However, my son does love to look through encyclopedia style and lift-the-flap books as well on his own, so I include the ones I consider the best from a graphic design perspective.

C is for Caboose by Sara Gillingham

Trains by Lynn Curlee

Train – John Coiley. I tend to not like encyclopedia-like books but I think this one does a good job of putting together an overall narrative and the pages aren’t too busy or difficult to follow.

Trains by Gail Gibbons. We love Gail Gibbons books! Whenever I’m looking for a non-fiction book on a subject I always check what Gail Gibbons has written about it. They are always engaging, well-explained and usually told in a single narrative, as opposed to a bunch of little disconnected pop-outs.

Trains by Ian Graham illustrated by Stephen Biesty. As lift-the-flap books go, this one is beautifuly illustrated with a nice balance of information and visuals.

The Transcontinental Railroad by John Perritano

The Big Book of Big Trains by Megan Cullis

Seymour Simon’s Book of Trains. Seymour Simon is a great non-fiction author for children’s literature. His books are written in a narrative and are full of big ideas for children to ponder after the book is finished.

The Stourbridge Lion by Karl Zimmermann.

Holiday Train Books

There’s something about the holidays that just screams “trains”, right? We love our Christmas train we set up around the Christmas tree each year and we enjoy special Polar Express style train rides at different historic train parks in California at Christmastime. Here are some books that combine the magic of the holidays with the magic of trains.

On Christmas Eve by Margaret Wise Brown

The Christmas Tree Who Loved Trains by Annie Silvestro illustrated by Paola Zakimi

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Train Activity Books

Books that have kids searching and scanning are really helpful for eye-strengthening exercises as they learn to read. Here are a couple train-themed ones!

Can You See What I See Toyland Express by Walter Wick

Richard Scarry’s Busytown Seek and Find

So there you have it – my ultimate list of train book recommendations for kids. Have I missed any of your favourites? I’d love to hear from you!

Getting More Sleep

My daughter loves grocery shopping with me, which works out well because she’s actually a fun shopping buddy. She’s a foodie too, so we enjoy choosing which foods we will eat the coming week. Like most three year olds, Violet has many many “wants” and shopping can easily become a nightmare with this age demographic and their demands. Thankfully for me, right now, Violet is satisfied with merely adding her desires to her “wish list”, an invisible list I keep in my head. We stroll around Target and she points at things and says “ooh I want the princess sandwich bags  on my list! And the pink straws  on my list” and I will say “I’ve added it” and she will squeal with delight and exclaim “I have the longest list in the world!” Yes my darling, you do.

I also have a pretty long list of wants, though now at the stage of life where I feel restricted by square footage and interest rates, my wants are less tangible. I want long-term health. I want a close relationship with my husband and my children. I want time. I want to be inspired. I want a friend to run errands with. 

And unlike my daughter, who is still innocent of the responsibilities life throws at us, I have a list of “shoulds”. I should drink more water. I should make smoothies. I should take my kids to the beach. I should clean the toilets. And the big one for me these days…I should get more sleep. 

I also want to get more sleep. My entire wish list could just be “I want sleep” and I’d be satisfied. 

Good sleep is critical to our health, and yet it is not spoken about very often. Growing up attending public school we took a health class that touched on nutrition, sex education, the harms of drugs, and drunk driving – but I don’t think we ever learned about the importance and benefits of sleep. Perhaps if we did learn about the science of sleep in high school, we would have learned that the science points to a change in the natural circadian rhythm (the hours in a 24 hour day in which you feel tired) of teenaged-brains the world over. Teenagers naturally shift to staying awake later at night and sleeping in until late morning. If you have a hard time waking your teen up in time to make their 8 am class, there is brain science to explain it – it’s like waking you up at 3 am. 

According to Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Why We Sleep, sleep helps our bodies heal and reset from a day of living. A good night’s sleep before a day of learning helps us retain information, and a good night’s sleep after a day of learning helps secure what we’ve learned in our memory.  Sleep helps our bodies fight off infection and recover from injury. Sleep even helps control our hunger – when we get too little sleep, hormones that signal hunger are more elevated, driving us to eat more than we need. When I complain to my husband about life or health or just anything really, the solution I should prescribe to myself is SLEEP. I know it. Professor Walker’s book confirmed it. And yet, it is evasive.

It seems I have been on a quest for better sleep for years – searching for the perfect pillow, creating a bedtime routine, actually following the bedtime routine, eliminating alcohol from my life, cutting down on screen time after 8 pm, cutting back on any caffeine after 12 pm – all of these things have helped me get better sleep, even though I do most of them imperfectly. Despite my honest efforts, I wake up almost every single night between 3 and 4 am and lay awake for an hour or more. Sometimes I never fall back to sleep before my alarm goes off at 6 am. Some nights I work myself into a perfect storm of sleeplessness, putting threats and coercion into the mix in my brain. If I don’t fall asleep right now, I’ll be too tired and grumpy to do all the things I want to do. Of course, putting ultimatums on myself has never worked to bring back the sleep fairy.

And then one day, I read a passage that released something in me and helped a lot.

“Night after sleepless night, I tossed and turned and worried. Why couldn’t I sleep? What was the matter with me? My life was stressful, but no more so than usual. I’d tried hot milk, reading in bed, soft music, even a visit to the doctor, but still I couldn’t get more than a few hours sleep. I was in a panic!

I spoke about my concerns [with a friend]. What had helped him was to accept the situation fully and admit that he was powerless to make himself sleep. In retrospect, he said, his sleeplessness had been a blessing; it had kept him too tired to get into trouble.

I realized that the same was true for me. In­stead of worrying compulsively. […] lately I’ve been too tired to be overly involved in anything that wasn’t my concern. I had often prayed to be released from my obsessive worry,and now, in an unexpected way, my prayers seem to have been answered.”

Courage to Change, Al-Anon Family Groups

I am learning to trust that when I do my best to sleep, my body will respond with the amount of sleep it needs to do the tasks it needs to do. 

Not every task needs to be done. I am a body with limits and to everything there is a season. 

In this dark corner of physical and emotional exhaustion, I found a freedom that no one but me has ever expected me to do it all. I can rest when I need rest. And my body gave me just enough sleep to get through the biggest emotional priorities and nothing else. And that’s okay. 

I am happy to report that I now sleep through the night probably 6 nights a week. Letting go has been a gift.

How is your sleep? How could you improve your sleep? Could you let go of trying to control your sleep and just let it be?


Ps: This post contains an Amazon affiliate link. If you’re interested in reading Dr. Walker’s book and you click on the hyperlink above I’ll get a small commission. It’s just one small way you can support me in my blog and I’m so grateful!

Children’s books about death and grief

In August 2022, my mom died. It hasn’t been easy being a mother to young children (ages 6 and 3) through this period of grieving my own mother, and while their memories of my mom are so beautiful, sometimes it was also difficult to answer their questions about what happened to Grandma Gale.

My daughter, age 3, took to drawing lots of pictures of Grandma Gale. Here are some of her pieces.

This is a picture of me holding my mom’s hand in the hospital.
A picture of Grandma Gale before she died.

My son really took to books about death, grief, and life. These were very helpful in answering his 6-year-old questions about what happened.

If you’ve lost a loved one, I am so sorry for your loss. Perhaps these books will help you navigate this loss with your young children.

In The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup, Fox dies and his animal friends gather around and share happy memories they had with fox as they process their sadness that he is gone. A tree grows in the place where fox laid down to rest and it shelters the animals in their future lives, just as we carry memories of our loved ones forward in our lives.

What Happens When a Loved One Dies by Dr. Jillian Roberts was my son’s most requested book in the months after my mom passed away. He’s very science-minded and likes non-fiction books that explain things. This book was a gentle and accurate way to explain what happens when someone dies. It answers questions like “What does death mean?”, “Do people die too?”, “What is a soul?” “Why do I feel sad?”, “What can I do to feel better?” and words like funeral, heaven, afterlife. Even though it includes words like heaven, it is explained in a broader context – that are are many different ideas and beliefs about what happens after someone dies. Some people believe this, some people believe that. It was a good explanatory read to my son who was encountering a lot of these concepts for the first time.

Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen was another gentle but accurate way to explain death to children. It focuses on how every living thing has its own lifetime.

Tomie de Paola is one of my favourite kids authors. We are loving his autobiographical series (26 Fairmount Avenue) as family read-alouds and Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is in a similar style. It tells the story of Tommy’s love of his great-grandmother and how he feels when she dies. It’s a beautiful story and my kids love it.

The Invisible Web by Patrice Karst is not so much about death but about the interconnectedness of people both past and present. It is a lovely story about how we are still connected to our loved ones even once they’ve passed away.

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon is similar to The Invisible Web – it is a poem about the interconnectedness of the world and how we come together in community as part of living. My kids and I had conversations about all the people that came to Grandma Gale’s funeral and how she knew them all and how her life connected us to all of them.

Someday by Alison McGhee is more for me than for my kids. I don’t actually think it was written for children, but for adults. It brought me a lot of comfort in losing my mom, reminding me that it is part of the circle of life, and that losing my mom is what is naturally supposed to happen (and not the other way around, a mother losing her daughter). It mentions different kinds of grief and loss through the stages of life – like a daughter going off to college, and a daughter losing her mother when she herself has a child. It’s a real tear-jerker for me.

Hopefully these books are helpful to you if you find yourself in a similar phase of life. If you have any you’d like to recommend to me, please reach out to me!

I have applied to the Amazon Affiliate program for these links above, so please know if you click and buy through my blog I will receive a small commission from your purchase and I am grateful for your support!

Overnight in San Francisco with Kids

Back at the start of our homeschool year, I planned out a few rewards to motivate my son to complete all that was required of him each day. Every day that he completes all the things on his school schedule, he gets a stamp. The stamps accumulate to earn him different rides on public transit. He loves trains so this was highly motivating for him. My son really struggles with transitions and also really dislikes having his time managed, so the transition from free play all day to homeschool expectations was rough, and this chart really helped. Here is an example of his train ride rewards chart.

The plan was to take an overnight trip as a family to San Francisco once he had earned the BART, San Francisco streetcar and Caltrain levels. We live about a 50-minute drive south in Silicon Valley and walking distance from a Caltrain station. So we planned to walk to the Caltrain, take Caltrain to the BART transfer station at Millbrae, and stay at a hotel walking distance from the Powell BART station on Market street. Then the following day we would ride the San Francisco streetcar on Market street along the Embarcadero.

I found a hotel in the area with an indoor pool (The Intercontinental) and booked us in for one night December 27. Of course we got sick. So I rescheduled for two weeks later. Then we got sick again. So I rescheduled for two weeks after that. That weekend was absolutely pouring rain and I didn’t want to trek and walk in a downpour with two kids so I rescheduled again for mid-February. Then that date came along and my kids had fevers, so I rescheduled it AGAIN for this past week. Thankfully because I joined the free IHG rewards program when I booked the hotel and I booked directly through their hotel website rather than a third party site like Expedia or, it was no problem at all to shift the reservation this many times.

Finally we set off on our journey on a Saturday morning in late February, walking to the Sunnyvale Caltrain station from our home. We each carried one backpack and my husband had a plastic bag with the kids swim floaties in it. That was it – an overnight trip with the kids with just some small backpacks – it was the lightest I’ve ever traveled since becoming a parent. Finally no stroller, no travel potty, no diapers, no teething rings or pack n’play. What even is this life of freedom?

We transferred to the BART and bought clipper cards to use for the rest of our transit journey.

I’ve had a few people message me asking about my son’s backpack. It is from Amazon.

Sadly the BART has a reputation of being sketchy AF and ridership is way down. I am happy to report that we had no problems, a practically empty car both times we rode the BART and both times our fellow riders seemed to be physically and mentally well. There were several cameras in the cars, signs about the rules for riding, advertisements for how to text the BART police, BART employees around, as well as BART police presence at the stations. I was worried about the BART station at Powell street in SF but other than it smelling like “old oil” (which is how my son described the smell of marijuana) we did not see anything alarming. We thought briefly about trying to use the bathroom there (because 3 year olds can rarely wait), but there was actually a security-manned line for access to the toilets, which I guess is reassuring from a safety perspective but the security guard kind of just gave me a tight-lipped tiny headshake to say “no, trust me, no”. Yeah…on second thought maybe a BART bathroom is not the place for a child.

We found the exit and walked the couple of blocks to our hotel. We checked in and took the elevator to the 28th floor of the Intercontinental on Howard street. Our room had a beautiful view. And a beautifully clean bathroom.

If you look to the right of the tallest building you can see a bit of the Golden Gate Bridge.

We were getting hungry for lunch, so we headed nextdoor to the Westfield mall food court for some Blondie’s Pizza, Shake Shack burgers and Korean BBQ. I love a good food court feast!

A couple blocks away from the mall food court was the Children’s Creativity Museum, so we checked that out for a couple of hours and the kids had a great time creating masterpieces.

Making crafts from the mystery craft kit.
Making a stop motion animation video with a Lego scene he created.

Then we took the kids to play at a playground next to the museum. Nearby there was also an ice skating rink (indoors), a bowling alley, two movie theatres, the SF Museum of Modern Art, and several performing arts venues.

I had been wondering how safe I’d feel in public spaces in downtown San Francisco because lately the media paints SF as being some sort of dystopian hellscape with criminals and drug addled zombies everywhere. I didn’t notice anyone who fit that description actually at all. Maybe it was that I was expecting a lot worse so was pleasantly surprised, or maybe they’ve really worked hard to clean up the parts of SF frequented by tourists and young families – but at least in the blocks around the children’s museums and the shopping malls, it seemed quite safe in the daylight hours we were out.

We went to a second nearby food court and then headed back to the hotel for a swim in their INDOOR heated pool. And this pool was warm! Like bathtub warm. It also had a hot tub.

Picture from Google Images – but this is what it looked like.

After swimming for a couple of hours with the kids, we took them for dessert at the hotel restaurant and then the kids were so tired from our day that they basically put themselves to bed. I didn’t even know they could do that.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel restaurant again (there were other places nearby but this was convenient) and then another long swim at the pool. We were offered a late check out, and headed back to the room to pack our backpacks just in time to grab lunch before heading on the SF streetcar to the Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium was really fun – the kids had a great time with all the hands on science exhibits. My son is really into pendulums and just wanted to see one pendulum. Well to all you fellow pendulum lovers out there, I am happy to report the Exploratorium delivers at least 15 pendulum exhibits. You will not go home without seeing at least one pendulum.

My favorite exhibit was the beetles and maggots case where they put in dead rat carcasses so you could see the state of decomposition over 5 weeks. Of course I forgot to take a picture, but I’m sure you can imagine it. So yeah, there’s something for everyone at the Exploratorium!

Then it was time to head back to our home in Sunnyvale. We walked to the Embarcadero BART station from the Exploratorium, which took us about 30 minutes at a tired 3 year old’s pace. We caught the BART, transferred to the Caltrain and walked home in the rain.

All in all, a great overnight away in San Francisco with our kids!


PS: One of my favourite Canadian bloggers, Krysta Shippelt at the.Shipshow, inspired me to stop making excuses and start making memories and travel more with my kids. Krysta is my cousin-in-law (is that a thing?) and I am honestly in awe of her strength. She traveled with her 4 kids in wintry Canadian conditions to the mountains while her husband was away for work. And to throw in an extra challenge she takes all 4 of them swimming. Alone. Oh and did I mention her youngest is 18 months old? Another time (when they had 2 kids) they flew to New Zealand to go camping. Undaunted by a long flight, jet lag, a million things that could go wrong (and sometimes do), they just travel. If Krysta can do it, I can too. And so can you. See her blog here.

Hey reader! I’m trying something new and putting a few Amazon affiliate links to products I like and use. If you’re looking for a new backpack for your train-loving kiddo, maybe consider the one in my post!

Homeschool Tea Time

One thing my family looks forward to at the end of a long week of homeschool is our Friday morning tea times. It’s the perfect way to cap off a hard week of trying, struggling, encouraging, focusing, refocusing, praying (or cursing) under my breath, repeating, repeating, repeating.

On Friday mornings, we begin by getting our Right Start Math lesson out of the way. If I’m really organized and following my own advice, I have oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough in my fridge that my daughter and I mixed up the day before, while my son was at his drop-off music class. I plop some cookies onto a cookie sheet with parchment paper (so I don’t have to clean later) and put them into the oven to bake while we finish math. The promise of fresh-baked cookies is a great motivator to get through that last math lesson of the week. But life is busy and I am a mere mortal, so more often than not, nothing is freshly baked.

While I collected this from thrift stores, if you want a similar look right now, you could check out these bowls and/or these plates on Amazon.

After math is done, my daughter and I set the table for tea time. We use the fancy blue and white dishes that I have been collecting at thrift stores for years, a tablecloth or placemats, candles, and a tea pot. We plate the freshly baked cookies or (more realistically) pull some Oreos or Graham crackers from the pantry to set nicely on serving plates. We cut up some fruit, prepare a bowl of yogurt, or make some toast. We put on the kettle to make a small pot of tea. And since my son won’t drink tea, we get him a nutritional chocolate shake to pour into his teacup.

Some banana bread from the freezer and some Graham crackers from the pantry.

As an aside, I am obsessed with this little teapot I got from Amazon. It’s pretty, just the right size for 2-3 cups of tea, and it has a tea strainer inside for looseleaf tea. I also love double espresso mugs for my children’s tea and chocolate milk – the double espresso cup size is perfect for little hands. While I collected the plates and bowls from thrift stores, if you want a similar look right now, you could check out these bowls and/or these plates on Amazon.

After setting the table (with candles of course), I gather up our Friday books and things: a children’s Bible (I am partial to Desmond Tutu’s Children of God storybook bible and Elizabeth F. Caldwell and Carol A. Wehrheim’s Growing in God’s Love story bible because of their diverse illustrations and progressive theology); our chapter book read-aloud (my kids are really enjoying the Tomie DePaolo autobiographical series about the famed author’s childhood); a book about our bodies, how they work, and how to take care of them; a poem from a book of poetry; a short chapter from our book of nature stories; a few pages from a book about an artist; and a new picture to look at by the artist we are studying.

We light candles and eat our treats, practice our table manners, and I read small portions from our different books. I then ask the kids to tell me back in their own words what we read about and we have a family conversation over tea about our school week.

After tea time, the kids get time for free play before we head out for our weekly nature walk, followed by swimming lessons and then takeout for supper on Friday nights.

A lovely way to end the week.

Of course my house looks like a bomb went off – Fridays are so busy there’s very little time to clean, but what’s a little mess for a lot of memories?


Ps: To my readers, this post contains Amazon affiliate links. It’s just a small way you can support me, if you’re inspired by what you’ve read. I am so grateful for your readership!

Weekly Homeschool Planning

I’d like to write about how I plan for our homeschool week, but every time I try to start it just feels like it’s far too much to explain because behind the simple structure I have designed to make it easy for me to know what we are doing daily and weekly – there is a lot. I get bogged down feeling like I need to start at the beginning, because really that’s where the planning starts – at the philosophy underlying everything we do, but it would be the length of a book to start there.

And who has time to read that?

So in an effort to just share a bit more about how we homeschool, I’m just going to write about what I do on Sunday afternoons.

I have a master spreadsheet that I call my “forecast”. The forecast, like the weather, can change depending on what we’ve got going on, but generally it tells us what lies ahead.

I created this spreadsheet by first putting the weeks of a “term” in columns along the top. The number of weeks in a term is somewhere between 7-12, depending on when breaks fall. Changing terms every 12 weeks also makes for a more manageable sized spreadsheet.

I print off the spreadsheet and tape the three pages together to make one long spreadsheet that I fold up and put in a binder.

In the rows are the subjects we cover in a week of homeschooling. There is a lot that goes into the why and what and how of these subjects. To explain that would be an entire book chapter, at least, and Charlotte Mason wrote 6 volumes on the subject, so I’m not going to attempt that in this blog post and just leave it there. Though one important thing to note is that each subject takes only about ten to twenty minutes per day that it is scheduled. Overall, each of our school days is about 2.5 hours of concentrated “work”.

Under each subject are the days of the week that we do that subject. I schedule one portion of one book per subject per day. Or, for purchased curriculums, like Right Start Math, I schedule one lesson per day. Some subjects we do every day (math, writing, reading, drawing) while others are once or twice per week.

For example, on Mondays when we study Geography, we read one chapter or lesson from the book Living Geography (about 3 pages) and we read one word entry in our Geography A to Z dictionary. It’s not a lot of content.

A key part of the our day’s work is the kids narrating back to me in their own words what we just read about. So after we read our pages from our geography books, we talk about places we’ve been that reflect what we’ve just read, we look at our globe, we look at maps, we go for walks around the neighbourhood, we draw our own maps.

Then on Wednesdays when we cover geography again, we read one chapter from the book Jenny Goes to Sea by Esther Averill, a book about a cat that sails around the world as a ship’s cat (a working cat charged with keeping the mice and rats out of the ship’s cargo).

On Fridays we go for a nature walk and geography naturally again comes up again as we walk and explore different landscapes, often pulling together things we read earlier in the week into real-life wanderings. Charlotte Mason called this the Science of Relations – when learners bring together different things they’ve learned and apply it to new contexts.

But I’m getting lost again in the details. So back to the point of this post – once a week, on Sunday afternoons, I sit down with this spreadsheet that I have printed off (I like working off paper) and I fill in the blanks of the Skeleton Schedule I created for our week. Every week I print off a blank Skeleton Schedule and fill it in with the chapters or lessons we will be doing that day. Because of the master schedule It takes about 10 minutes to fill these papers in and I’m ready to go for another week.

I also include a spot to put our meal plan for the day and key things I want to remember to focus on that day, if any. I don’t always fill that part in.
Also, I’m far from perfect and despite my best intentions, we have never, not once, practiced piano for 10 minutes after supper because to be real – I’m tired and I don’t want to make my kid do one more thing. But other than piano, we *usually* are able to check off everything in the skeleton schedule every day.

Every morning (or night before if I really have my shit together) I gather the books off the shelf that we will be using for the next day. I keep all our schoolbooks and school materials on a shelf in the dining room where we do our school work at the dining room table.

Other daily school materials like notebooks, every day school supplies, I keep in a basket in the room as well. But how I organize all the stuff that comes with homeschooling preschool and grade 1, is a blog post for another day.

How do you organize for your week ahead?

Verb not Noun

Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, I am seeing many people online choose a word to focus on for their year ahead; Words like joy, freedom, vitality, strength, and truth.

I have also been doing this for the last few years, but of course the end of the year comes and I don’t even recognize the word I chose for the year because life derails my aspirations. Even when I decide not to set specific resolutions but rather an intentional word for the year – the universe says “nice try” and I find myself reflecting back on the year and seeing it had an entirely different theme to what I anticipated.

I don’t know about you, but so far for me, the decade of the 2020s has sucked. 

2020 started off great and I had the best of intentions to cultivate more “adventure” in my life, only to reflect back on 2020 and find that the theme of the year was “home”

In 2021 my word for the year was “health” and while I did get my own health back on track that year, the idea of “health” took a complete u-turn as my mom suffered a rare CVST stroke in October of 2021. All of a sudden I had to be confronted with the reality that sometimes, despite our best efforts to take care of our health – shit just happens. The word for 2021 ended up being “unpredictable”.

I entered 2022 as a ball of anxiety and worry. I chose “peace” for my word, but my year was anything but peaceful. My mom’s health continued to decline and she was hospitalized several times. Looking back at my Resting Heart Rate from my Apple watch data, I bet you can tell when.

Devastatingly we had to pull her from life support at the end of August after near-constant seizure activity in the scar tissue of her stroke made a life-worth-living an impossibility. My word for 2022 ended up being “anguish”.

To be honest, I’m not super optimistic heading into 2023. The world seems to be heading towards a financial crunch and lately it seems my kids bring home a different virus every week. So I’ve been considering my word for 2023 very carefully. In previous years my intentional words were all nouns; all changeable and redefine-able by the other words around it in a sentence. I had a boring adventure. It was a year of haphazard health. My mom now rests in peace. My intentions in this decade have all been words easily derailed by forces beyond my control. 

So this year I’m choosing a verb. Something I do. Something I do slowly, or beautifully, or happily, or gratefully, or angrily, or tearfully. But still, a verb is something I do and I control. This year my verb is “create”.

I consume a lot. I eat. I read. I watch. I buy. But I don’t create nearly as much. My consumption is passive and procrastinatory. My consumption is usually not even that good for me; I drink too much caffeine, I eat too much sugar, I buy junk from Amazon to fill a right-now need, I re-watch the same things on tv. I consume to avoid the more difficult task of creating. I don’t write very often any more. I often feel like I need to read another book on the subject before I could possibly write about it with any informed opinion. But really, five books on the subject is *probably* enough for a blog post. I get takeout or eat chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs as often as I cook. I buy things that I could make. It’s just easier to consume. It’s safer to consume. It’s more comfortable to consume. But creating fills me with more of a sense of self-worth and purpose, which, I am told (from all my reading on the subject), are two cornerstones of happiness.

Creating takes more time, so the next thing to do, now that I’ve decided on my “verb”, is carve out time in my weekly rhythm to “create”. Some of the ‘consuming’ time will have to go out the window, along with those intentional nouns. Can I set aside one evening a week to write instead of read or watch TV?

What about you? Do you choose a word to focus your year ahead? Reflecting back, how have your intentional words panned out over the year? Would you like to try a verb-year with me? What is your verb?

What happened to my brain during this mind@&*# of a pandemic

I just finished reading  “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” by Vivek H. Murthy, who is the current Surgeon General of the United States. It was a fascinating read, made even more interesting knowing that it went to press just as the pandemic started – so Dr. Murthy wrote about the medical impacts of loneliness before the world had to isolate from loved ones for months at a time. The research and the advice in this book are even more salient these days – two years into a pandemic where humanity’s social fabric has been shredded.

There is a lot worth discussing in this book, but one part that really sat with me and challenged my thinking is the following passage.

“The Paradox of Loneliness”

“If Loneliness is so bad for our health, it would make sense that we would do everything in our power to connect with other people at the first sign of social isolation. Often, that’s just what does happen. When the biological process works as designed, the anxiety we feel in the first flush of loneliness will motivate us to find “our people”: We’ll go home to Mom. Or hug our spouse. We’ll help a neighbor or call an old friend. If we’re able to find and connect with people we trust, and if they’re responsive and genuinely understanding, the loneliness will subside and our stress state will recede. This is how most of us get through situational loneliness, such as the lost feeling that can descend when we move to a new town or start a new school or job.

But it’s not always easy to find or make those connections. When we become chronically lonely, most of us are inclined to withdraw, whether we mean to or not. John Cacioppo [professor of social psychology at the University of Chicago] determined that our threat perception changes when we’re lonely, so we push people away and see risk and threat in benign social opportunities. John’s widow, Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who was his close collaborator and has taken on the role of continuing and expanding his work on loneliness at the University of Chicago, found that lonely brains detect social threats twice as fast as non-lonely brains. This may seem like a paradoxical response to a mechanism that evolution designed to prevent isolation, but from an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense.

When our ancestors were separated from the safety of the group, they needed to react defensively even to marginal threats, since they might well turn out to be lethal. But in modern life that same hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats. Fleeing into self-preservation mode, we’ll avoid people and distrust even those who reach out to help us. With prolonged loneliness, we’ll decline invitations and stop answering the phone.

Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security, which can appear to others as self-involvement. These two elements – the threat perception shift and the increased focus on self – are key parts of the hypervigilance story that makes it difficult to engage with others when we’re lonely.

Then the reactions begin. Those who’d like to help start running away, leaving us feeling even more alone. Before long we’re trapped in a vicious cycle of suspicion, jealousy, and resentment. Loneliness thus fuels more loneliness until the fracture leads to severe alienation. Clearly, the solution is more complicated than telling someone who’s lonely to go to a party or “just be with people”. (emphasis mine)

As I digested this passage, I thought of the time earlier on in the pandemic – when we were all sheltering-in-place here in Santa Clara County for most of 2020. We were not allowed to see anyone outside of our immediate home unit. We were not allowed to drive outside of our county lines. Only essential businesses were open. At first the posts on my Facebook were encouraging – people coming together and saying we can flatten the curve if we all stay home. But gradually, as the loneliness settled into our brains, we became more antagonistic with one another. In our county at least, lines were drawn – if you wore a mask, you were a good person. If you didn’t wear a mask (or you didn’t wear it properly) you were the problem and the reason people were dying from covid (even if you didn’t have covid and therefore couldn’t possibly pass it on). 

This period of time was pretty distressing to me because my four-year-old son would absolutely not wear a mask. I had many friends and other parents online tell me it was my parenting – I wasn’t modeling wearing a mask, I wasn’t choosing the right kind of mask, I wasn’t doing some magic parenting trick to get him to wear a mask. Because my son wouldn’t wear a mask, I had several friends who would not spend time with us even outdoors. We were not welcome at places like the fully-outdoor San Francisco zoo or our neighborhood playgrounds. We were told that my son was not welcome to pick up halloween candy from the end of a driveway if he wasn’t wearing a mask. A security guard came up to him in the outdoor library plaza and told him to put on a mask or we couldn’t pick up our books. We were told at a shoe store that we couldn’t buy shoes from them if he didn’t put a mask on.

I felt stared at and judged everywhere we went. My son began to internalize his struggles and his self-esteem plummeted as he became more socially excluded. Finally, I asked his pediatrician for an exemption letter and he wrote us one immediately. The psychological and social harm of long-term isolation and exclusion were costing us much more than the mask was possibly protecting us and others from covid-19. As we were able to socialize more, his hypervigilant state calmed down and he began wearing a mask.

Of course, all of this I experienced through my own lonely-brain lens. I was defensive and I pulled away from people who I perceived to be a social threat to us – I’ll call them “the mask police.” Even friends who were clear with me that they understood my son’s struggles and it was okay – I still perceived them as a social threat and I pulled away. It’s like I couldn’t get my brain to stop. I had a hard time trusting others and I felt bitter. 

Meanwhile, the “mask police” were themselves also functioning in a “lonely brain state”. They saw my unmasked son as a threat to their safety and in response, they pulled away from me. To repeat Dr. Murthy’s quote above, “hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats…Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security, which can appear to others as self-involvement”. We were all in our own states of hypervigilance – and we saw different things as threats to our health and safety. The more isolated and lonely we became, the more likely we were to jump to conclusions about someone and stick them in a box we labeled “bad people”. 

This hypervigilance came up again when the vaccines came out. Our lonely brains saw unvaccinated folks as threats to our well-being, even when we were fully-vaccinated against the virus and thus, unlikely to die or even experience hospitalization. Rather than lovingly talking to our loved-ones about how worried we were about their health, our hypervigilant brains blamed them for our continued isolation and saw them as a threat to our survival, even once we had antibodies to the virus we feared. I regret many conversations I had with loved ones during this time as I tried (without success, I might add) to convince them of the benefits of vaccines by speaking unkindly and threatening to socially ostracize them. To anyone I hurt with unkind remarks or social pressure, I am truly sorry. Now that my brain is less lonely and I no longer feel like I am in a state of hypervigilance, I see your humanity. Being in a state of hypervigilance doesn’t excuse anyone’s bad behaviour, but at least I can now understand why my brain seemed to be so angry with people whom my heart loved.

Online social networks like Facebook did not help with the lonely-brain at all. Maybe Facebook made us feel more socially connected, but it was a facade. It was more of a social distraction than quality social time with others. It was also a great place for people to vent their frustrations about anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers out into the void without really considering the human face and individual struggles and stories behind people’s choices. My lonely-brain became even more lonely reading Facebook posts in the Sunnyvale Moms Group about how kids who aren’t masked should have to leave the playground. I was in a psychological tail-spin.

So what is the antidote to the lonely-brain phenomenon? Connection. Face to face connection. Conversation.

Something changed for me when I started using the app Marco Polo to connect with a few close girlfriends every day. Marco Polo allows you to send a private video message to friends. It’s like leaving a voicemail on someone’s phone, but it is a video. The only people who can see the video are the ones you sent it to. I could send videos sharing my life and my thoughts to one friend, or to a group chat of a few friends. As moms with busy schedules, it is hard to find time to connect with other moms on Facetime or in person – but Marco Polo helped us see into each others’ lives when we had to be apart. In time, my lonely brain felt better and even though it wasn’t in person or live, it was still better than text or the impersonal void of a Facebook newsfeed.

This past year, I’ve been trying to get my family back “out there” and to engage in community again. I believe it is vitally important to our mental and physical health. I started volunteering at the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum, I started attending Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church, I signed my kids up for gymnastics, music class and boy scouts. We started having neighbourhood kids over to play at our house. My husband returned to work at the office. I started asking friends to go for early Saturday morning hikes with me. I gathered a group of moms together to celebrate our strength through this pandemic. All of these activities helped heal my lonely brain. 

Though I will also admit, that one thing that surprised me, is how exhausting it was. Even though I believe socializing with others is vital to my mental health, I found myself unexpectedly wiped out by many of my social interactions. 

I’ve heard from many others who say the same thing – before the pandemic they loved to socialize, they loved to host, to attend events. And while they still feel drawn to try these things again, the very activities that used to energize them now leave them feeling depleted. 

What is up with that?

Could it be that we were all just closet introverts with highly trained extroversion muscles that have gotten weak over the last two years of the pandemic? Is socializing a muscle that can atrophy over time? Or could it be that we are all very empathetic people and we can easily feel the emotions of those around us? With everyone so tense in these gatherings (for a variety of reasons), perhaps we take on that tension and just feel exhausted at the end of it all?

I’m thinking it’s perhaps a combination of the two. I do feel the energy in a room as palpable as I can feel the carpet underneath my feet. Being around tense, nervous, anxious, and upset people leaves me feeling the same way. I also think perhaps all the efforts that come with socializing are muscular – and these muscles get stronger the more you socialize. My social muscles needed for groups larger than three people are weak and just like any other muscle, need to be exercised little by little.

What do you think? Can you look back at parts of your pandemic experience and say, “yes, I think I was pretty lonely then and maybe that’s why I said those hurtful things”? Is it easier to comprehend the dissension and friction in society these days when we look at it through a lens of loneliness? Can we forgive those who have hurt us these last few years by recognizing that they were an isolated, lonely human and in a state of hypervigilance? Can we see that their brains had been hijacked by an instinctive drive for survival? Something for us all to consider as we try to move forward beyond the pandemic.

6 months sober today!

Today I am 6 months alcohol-free. I started cutting back last January as part of a weight-loss goal, but I noticed as I cut back, that the nights that I didn’t have any wine, I slept better. I also felt less anxious the next day. I realized that I had been self-medicating with wine to help calm my anxieties, but in fact, it was making it worse.

At first, cutting back was really hard. Like embarrassingly hard. (2020 was rough y’all and I maybe relied on the wine a bit more than I should have….) I realized that a trigger for me for pouring a glass of wine was coming down the stairs after my kids were tucked into bed. So I stopped coming down the stairs after I tucked them in. I bought a kettle and some chamomile tea and I put it with a mug in my bathroom. Instead of coming down the stairs, pouring a large glass of wine and flopping on the couch to watch tv, I stayed upstairs in my bedroom. I drank sleepytime tea and I read. I cut back drinking gradually – drinking less each week than I had the week before, eventually going several weeks between glasses of wine. And then June 28, 2021 I decided to go a full year without alcohol, just to see how I’d feel. So far, it has been life changing for me. I‘ve never felt healthier or stronger. I don’t know that I’ll ever go back.

I used to say, I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a glass of wine.

Now I say, I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a good night’s sleep and to not feel anxious tomorrow.

Anyways, I share this as hopefully an encouragement for anyone trying to kick any bad habit, but also to explain why I’ve shied away from evening gatherings where there would be an expectation of alcohol. I am finally feeling like I’m getting to a place where I can go out with friends and have a club soda and not feel like a loser or worse, feeling like I’m making other people uncomfortable by not drinking. 6 months in, my mind doesn’t really default to or crave wine very often anymore; but it is funny how old neuro pathways can spring up on you – a couple of months ago, I went through airport security and before my mind thought about finding my gate, it thought about finding the bar.

More than anyone, I need to thank my husband for quiety supporting me on this journey this year. Keeping our home dry, and being my cheerleader in his no-pressure no-big-deal-if-you-fail way.

Below is a picture of the books I read in 2021, while I stayed upstairs and drank tea. I recommend them all, but my favourites were: Secondhand, The TeaGirl of Hummingbird Lane, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, and Longitude.

❤️ -Heather