Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Nature as Nurturer


The Well-Gardened Mind, The Restorative Power of Nature

By Sue Stuart-Smith

Scribner Trade Paperback Edition, May 2021

I’ve long understood the mental and physical benefits of communing with nature, either by taking a walk in a forest, spending time gardening or simply being around plants and flowers. In Sue Stuart-Smith’s illuminating, The Well-Gardened Mind, she presents a series of fascinating case studies and evidence to underscore the positive impact that the natural world can have on a person’s life and well-being.


Stuart-Smith is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has worked with patients whose lives have been transformed by pursuing various horticultural activities. She provides many examples of how people suffering from depression, trauma and addictions have felt more at peace with themselves and more purposeful in life by embracing the natural world.  


Her book begins with a tale about her late grandfather, a World War I veteran who had been a prisoner of war. Upon his release after the War, his pursuit of gardening became a lifelong passion. He was employed for a time as a gardener, and for the rest of his life, gardening provided a kind of therapy that helped him cope with the traumas he faced during wartime.


The positive impact of gardening can have health benefits for everyone, not only those who are suffering from trauma, addictions or mental health challenges. Stuart-Smith tells of a program run by the New York City Department of Corrections and the Horticultural Society of New York, where prison inmates are given the opportunity to tend gardens. The curriculum combines elements of horticultural therapy, vocational training, and ecological awareness.


The Hort program, as it is known, provides a welcome haven within the prison grounds, where inmates work in a relaxed environment and feel a sense of satisfaction in tending to and watching their flowers, plants and vegetables grow. Incredibly, among inmates who attend the program, the rate of re-offending is 10 – 15 per cent, compared to 65 per cent for those who don’t participate in the program. One inmate, Martin, who wasn’t keen on joining the program at first, soon grew to embrace it. Martin had this to say about his experience: “The sense of physical freedom in which the possibility of a different way of life can be glimpsed.”


This is a book that is well researched and endlessly quotable. While reading it, I kept jotting down quotes about the restorative effects of gardens, flowers, fresh air and philosophy. (“As children, and let us not forget it, as adults, too, we need to dream, we need to do, and we need to have an impact on our environment. These things give rise to sense of optimism about our capacity to shape our own lives.”) Each chapter begins with a quote by a well-known writer, poet or scientist. One of my favourites is by neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks, who wrote: “In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”


One of the most moving sections of The Well-Gardened Mind concerns Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. Stuart-Smith makes multiple references to Freud, who had a lifelong passion for flowers and gardens. He particularly enjoyed orchids, and friends would send him orchids on his birthday every year. During Freud’s final months, as his health was declining, he surrounded himself with flowers and a garden, and he took pleasure in viewing the abundant greenery within view. This anecdote hit home with me personally: during my late wife’s final months in palliative care, she would spend her days in our living room, staring out the window at the evergreens, the birds and the forest. The view of wildlife and nature gave her a sense of peace and calm.


Stuart-Smith’s writing style is clear, concise, elegant and highly descriptive, as shown here in her depiction of gardens:

“The garden is a place that brings us back to the basic biological rhythms of life. The pace of life is the pace of plants; we are forced to slow down, and the feeling of safe enclosure and familiarity helps shift us to a more reflective state of mind. The garden gives us a cyclical narrative too. The seasons come around again, and we have a sense of return; some things are altered, some things are the same.”

Some books speak to us at specific periods in our life. The Well-Tended Garden is one such book. I picked it up at a time when I had assisted in a few landscaping projects, and I’ve recently started buying plants of various shapes and sizes for my home. Horticultural activities had never interested me before, but now that I’m doing it, I enjoy it. I feel as though a whole new world has opened up to me, and I have learned that plant life - aside from its visual appeal - does indeed have a salutary effect on my mood.


After reading The Well-Gardened Mind, I have a deeper appreciation for nature and our relationship to it. As many lives today revolve around computers, technology, isolation (Covid-19) and working in congested cities, it has led to higher levels of stress, loneliness, and depression and feelings of emptiness. This book shows how connecting with nature, either by planning a garden, planting flowers, working with soil or taking a leisurely in the woods, can lift one’s spirits and bring a renewed sense of joy and purpose and to our lives.


The Well-Gardened Mind is a book well worth a second or third read, and definitely book club worthy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

These Brief Shining Moments

“Like a wind crying endlessly through the Universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we were, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.” - Harlan Ellison

I’m driving down Sherbourne Street in Toronto on a March afternoon with the car windows open, and I’m thinking about the apocalypse. We’re one year into a deadly pandemic and everyone outside is wearing a protective mask. People seem determined to get where they’re going, without fanfare, without smiles or nods. Further on, to my right, a makeshift campground has been erected on a patch of brown grass, and a few banners are flapping in the wind. I can’t make out the messages. A few people are mulling around the tents, guarding their turf. The mood appears to be one of weary resignation. I’m struck by the absence of any joy, happiness or urgency. I pull my car over to send a text message and notice a few graffiti-adorned storefronts that are shuttered. Across the street, a thin, middle-aged man wearing jeans is smoking a cigarette and pacing nervously back and forth, as if he’s waiting for someone. He seems to epitomize the mood on the street: agitated, fearful, and confused. Something tells me that this pocket of Toronto is a microcosm of the entire city during this time. If I had a mental image of what Toronto would look like if the world suddenly ended, this would be it.


This is a wonderful city but it’s also a wounded city, fractured by a year of lockdowns and restrictions, hardships and deprivations. Many businesses have closed down, some forever. Covid has taken a devastating toll: Over 100,000 cases of Covid have been reported in TO year over year, and close to three thousand people have died as a result of it. There are reports that Ontario is expected to go into another lockdown soon as infection numbers keep rising.


And yet - the lifeblood of this great metropolis still pulses. It’s not visible on sidewalks or street corners. It’s hidden, behind closed doors, in houses, apartments and condos. I’m visiting my son, who turns 27 today. My daughter is there too. Over the course of the evening, we get caught up, drink beer, play trivia on Zoom, and share a meal in a happy and relaxed atmosphere. This reunion with my children is a rare treat, as most of our communication for the past year has been through phone calls, FaceTime or text messages. This visit packs more emotional weight because of our isolation and separation, and because my late wife’s absence is felt more acutely during these family occasions. I drink in each moment like a parched wanderer who’s discovered an oasis and can’t stop slaking his thirst.


If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that people are the most precious things in our lives. Our relationships with friends, family, colleagues and neighbours provide emotional comfort and joy, they help define us and bring purpose to our lives. During the pandemic, I’ve come to appreciate those relationships more than ever. I feel for those who have had little or no physical contact with others since Covid began and are suffering from loneliness and depression. I feel for the elderly, the homeless and the sick who are on their own, without loved ones to care for them. I feel for young parents who are struggling financially and frontline healthcare workers who are working long hours and feeling burnt out. I feel for those who have lost their jobs and who are struggling with mental health challenges and hanging on by a thread. I feel for those who have lost loved ones to this dreaded virus and have been deprived of bedside vigils. A recent New York Times article talked about people who are so mentally exhausted that they literally spend hours staring at walls, unable to think, work or move. In the media, we hear the outrage, the anger, the fear, the criticisms, the conspiracies and the anxieties that have defined much of the public responses to this massive disruption to our lives. All things considered, I am one of the lucky ones during this pandemic: I work from home and I am grateful for the creative work I do, for my customers, for my good health, for my children, and for my circle of family and friends. Recently, I’ve come to the realization that at the end of our days, it’s not material possessions that give our lives meaning (that’s not to suggest that homes, work, careers, cars, toys, and trinkets can’t give us pleasure.). Rather, it’s the people who loved us along the way, the times we shared with them, and the memories we created. That’s the essence of a well-lived life. Oscar Wilde understood this when he wrote: “Who, being loved, is poor?”


The pandemic has reinforced our need to love and be loved. It has underscored our fundamental need to connect deeply with others, whether physically, spiritually or electronically, and it has prompted us to become more introspective, too. Many have taken to re-examining their lives, and have made new discoveries about themselves. Prior to Covid, prolonged soul-searching might have been viewed with a dismissive rolling of the eyes, but not any more. With lockdowns and restrictions, and deprived of social interactions, we are now exploring our inner lives with wide-eyed gusto, pursuing pastimes such as meditation, yoga, cooking, painting, crosswords, photography, journaling and, in some cases, adding them to our daily routines. These new pastimes nourish our souls and provide much enjoyment. As a result of this personal development, a strange phenomenon has occurred: We have learned to slow down, become better listeners, and are more empathetic. Random acts of kindness have broken out in communities across this great land. In June, 2020, a group of 10,000 volunteers in Chatham-Kent raised two million lbs. of food in a single day for local residents in need. Stories about personal and corporate goodwill are commonplace but rarely make the headlines. Our hearts are brimming with gratitude over things we once took for granted, such as clean drinking water, electricity, food, medicine, cars, clothes, healthcare, pets, libraries, the Internet, and the list goes on.


Soon the infection numbers will go down, and our lives will resume as before. Many who lived through the pandemic will be shaken by the stresses and traumas that they have encountered. Some will remain angry, cynical and broken by their experiences. Each of us will need to figure out what we’ve learned from our experiences and how to apply that knowledge to improving our lives and the lives of others, or whether we squander this opportunity and blithely go back to our old ways, patterns and habits. The choice is ours.


This pandemic may seem like a soul-destroying apocalypse, and for those who are suffering, it is, but it has also been a wake up call for many and has, I believe, shined a light on our better natures, ushered in a world where friendship, gratitude, love, caring, patience, tolerance, kindness and the pursuit of happiness have redefined what it means to be human. It has allowed many of us to examine our lives with greater honesty and to make adjustments where necessary. For when we stop long enough to smell the roses, we discover what a joy it is to be alive, to breathe in the fresh air, to talk to a friend, to help someone in need, to stare with wonder at the beauty of a Coneflower in bloom or a brilliant sunrise at dawn, and appreciate in those fleeting moments how precious life is.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

No Place Like Home

I’m sitting alone on my deck on this hot June evening as the sun fades and the forest crackles with cicadas, crickets and other creatures of the night, and I’m reminiscing about the wonderful occasions that brought family and friends together in this home over the past 32 years, and the cherished memories that are part of our family history. Soon I will move away and start a new life elsewhere, but tonight countless memories are dancing in my mind’s eye. I see my daughter, Emma, bright-eyed and smiling, hitting a Piñata with her friends on her 7th birthday. I see my son, Jaret, sitting on the living room floor, tearing open a Christmas present (Pokémon) and the joy alighting across his sleepy face. I see my late wife, Lisa, garnishing a leg of lamb (rosemary, from her garden) for our neighbours and seeing the love and pride in her eyes as our guests oohed and awed over her culinary magic. I see a Saturday in April when Mom visited with an armful of goodies and feeling happy to spend an afternoon with her as our children bounced around and tired themselves out. I see my Dad sitting on the deck with his body hunched and his fists curled on that fateful Sunday afternoon (he passed away at his home that night). I see kids’ birthday parties, Easter weekends, Christmases, lavish dinners, movie nights, lazy nights, nights of single malt scotch, paper routes, Halloween costumes, kitchen renovations, VCRs, Dr. Seuss books, stuffed animal cushions, Lego bricks, impromptu BBQs, and sleepovers - memories flood my brain and tears stream down my face as I realize how quickly a lifetime has passed and how fortunate I’ve been to have lived and raised a family here. Life is a gift; and it happens in the blink of an eye. One day you’re changing diapers and the next minute you’re helping your daughter move into residence at university. Yesterday Jaret is running around a poplar tree in the backyard, carefree and cackling with laughter, and today he is a young man working and living in Toronto, and that same poplar tree has grown tall and firm and stands as a symbol of permanence in a world that’s constantly changing. Our home was a centre of gravity, a place of laughter and tears, of growth and celebration, of nurturing and healing, of dreams and disappointments. It bristled with life, vitality, laughter, daily loads of laundry, meals sizzling on the stove and nightly bedtime stories. Where did those years go? What does it all mean? Does anything matter in the end? Today, my children having long since left the nest, this house stands silent and empty. I feel imprisoned by the past, and I don’t belong here anymore. I’ve had my time, and now another family will take up residence and create their own memories within these walls. ‘There’s no place like home,’ said Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz,’ in one of the most poignant scenes in movie history. ‘There’s no place like home.’ Suddenly, she is transported from a nightmare back to her home in Kansas, safe and comforted by loved ones. Our home has been a special Kansas, too, a welcoming place where everyone, family, friends and strangers alike, felt loved and wanted. As I recall the past and contemplate my future, I realize that the saddest word in the English language is ‘goodbye,’ and we say it so casually to people and places all the time. As painful as it is, I must now say a bittersweet goodbye to the life that I knew, goodbye to a home that was and is no longer, a home that offered warmth and protection and whose memories will sustain my children and I for years to come and provide fond recollections to those who visited us. At the end of the day, we are all just passengers on this strange, wonderful and exhilarating trip of life. We must be grateful for all that we have been given and, as we move on to new pastures, trust that life will unfold as it should. Honour the past, but don’t stop living for today or planning for tomorrow. Tonight, as the skies darken and a gentle breeze ruffles the maple trees, the past is brilliantly alive again and a kaleidoscope of memories come pouring in. There, just inside the patio door, I see Emma as a fifteen year-old, tapping out a song on the piano as the soft notes drift outside into the hot summer air; and over there - Jaret and I are playing mini sticks in the family room and he’s scored on me again while the smell of fried chicken and exotic spices wafts in from the kitchen. And over in the dining room, our extended family is seated for a Christmas feast as playful voices animate the room and we tear into our turkey and dressing. And there, somewhere over the rainbow, I see my dear Lisa smiling with the angels, proud of the beautiful memories she created in a home that she blessed with a lifetime of love, tenderness and joy. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Churchill's Finest Hours

The Splendid And The Vile, by Eric Larson

Published in 2020 by Crown, an Imprint of Random House

There is a strange irony in reading a book about a nation under siege when, at the moment, the world is under siege from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The nation under siege in this true-life tale is Great Britain, and it’s the start of World War II. Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile” covers the period from Winston Churchill’s appointment to prime minister in 1940 until the American official entry into the war in December, 1941. This is a period where Britain is fending off continuous naval attacks and aerial bombing from Germany, a period when Churchill’s leadership is put to the test.

Larson dramatizes that leadership by focusing on Churchill’s inner circles, including his family members, close friends, chiefs of stall and fellow politicians, and provides an intimate picture of how this extraordinary man managed to keep his country together during the early years of the war. We see Churchill interacting with his wife, Clementine, with his secretary, John Coleville, with Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), with U.S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, along with dozens of military and government officials. The word that kept popping to mind about Churchill in this story is ‘indefatigable.’ The man was possessed of seemingly superhuman energy and boundless faith. He firmly believed – and inspired his country to believe – that Great Britain would ultimately prevail in this war. He served as a powerful symbol of hope when his country was being beaten and hope was in short supply.

However, as much as Churchill inspired his countrymen to ‘never surrender’ with his words (“…I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”), he was still a human being, capable of moments of self-doubt and bouts of depression. And he was not averse to feelings of empathy, as is illustrated in this passage of Churchill surveying Bristol after a bombing raid:

“As the train departed, Churchill waved at the crowd from the window, and kept waving until the train was out of sight. Then, reaching for a newspaper, he sat back and raised the paper to mask his tears. ‘They have so much confidence’ he said. ‘It is a grave responsibility.’”

One cannot imagine how this great leader coped with the nightly bombing of London, Coventry, Bristol and other cities, night after night, month after month. His country was losing the war, and losing it badly, and yet his determination never wavered.

One of the techniques that Larson uses to great effect in this story is bringing the German perspective to life. Throughout the German bombing raids, and periods in between, we see the stratagems of Hitler, Hermann Göring (commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe), Joseph Goebbels (Minister of Propaganda), Adolph Galland (German flying ace), and other key figures in the German military. Using diary entries and other documents, the words of the German military leaders come to life and add a thrilling element to this narrative.

Reading about a man who was so right for his time, readers will naturally look for examples of Churchill-type leadership today, during the current global health crisis. Where are the true leaders who will inspire us to persevere? Where are the words of hope and faith that will make nations fight on and believe that better days lie ahead?

“The Splendid and the Vile” is essentially a story about leadership in a time of crisis. It’s a story about the thoughts and actions of a single man and how he used his incredible gifts to inspire a nation to keep fighting and never give up. Indeed, Larson has done a splendid job showing us what true leadership looks like from the inside.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

My European Travelogue - London to Thessaloniki (1982)

I am pleased to report that I have self-published my first e-book on Amazon. The book is called 'My European Travelogue: From London to Thessaloniki (1982),' and it's a series of diary entries and photos from a solo cycling trip I took through England and Europe in 1982. Thirty-seven years after the fact - it's never too late to become a first time published author.

My European Travelogue is free to read if you subscribe to Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service. For those who don't have Kindle Unlimited, the cost of the book is $4.62 Canadian. Here's a link to my book on Amazon.ca. 

The tools available for self-publishing on Amazon are straightforward and easy to use. I would recommend this platform for any would-be authors looking to self-publish their work.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Running To Feel Alive

"Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction." - William James

On a chilly Saturday morning, about a year ago, I met two members of a local running group called Run Georgina for the first time, and I joined them on a run. At the time, I recalled the old Groucho Max maxim: "I would never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member."

Actually, never having joined a running group before, I didn’t know what to expect. I was unsure if my athletic performance would measure up.

Fortunately, the two Run Georgina members made me feel welcome. They accommodated my slow pace and even stopped several times so that I could catch my breath. On that first run, we completed a 10 km route along Lake Drive in Jackson’s Point. I have been a runner for more than 15 years and have had great running partners, but running with a group was a different experience altogether, and it felt good.

Throughout the winter and spring of 2018, one group run led to another, and another. Over the past year, I have participated in more than 160 group runs and met other members of Run Georgina, some of whom have become close friends. We have run in all seasons, in single-track forests, on ice-covered lakes, in the pouring rain and in the sweltering heat. There is something empowering about being outdoors and running with friends – it produces a sense of community and belonging, and all of life’s problems seem to fade away.

Reflecting on the past year, I am proud to say that Run Georgina has become like my second family, and I'm grateful to be part of such a congenial bunch. The group has inspired me to improve my running fitness beyond what I thought possible - to the point where I achieved a PB at a half marathon last October (2:05). Plus, I’ve registered for my first 30 km race (Around the Bay) in March and my first marathon in Toronto, in May. I'm not saying this to boast, but to share with others the benefits of stepping out and getting involved. Making a change in your life literally starts with taking that first step and, in this case, taking it with fellow runners has made the journey incredibly fun and enjoyable.

Starting a new venture or stepping outside your comfort zone can be scary. But, never let fear, apathy or age stand in your way: I'll be 60 this year, and I’ve never been fitter in my life. I’m looking forward to achieving new running milestones and helping others achieve theirs in the months and years ahead. Consistent running produces many positive benefits for one's mental and physical health. In my case, increasing the frequency, distance and intensity of my runs (and being part of a running community) has helped me cope with difficult personal circumstances, enriched my life immeasurably and given me a deeper appreciation for the sport.

Stacey Allison, the first female American climber to summit Mount Everest, once said, “You find your talent, and see how far it will take you. You do what makes you feel the most alive.” As you improve as a runner, and enjoy the fresh air, the beautiful surroundings and the fellowship of other runners, it will make you feel more alive.

For solo runners who have never run with others before, or who have done so sparingly, I urge you to make the effort to join a local running group. If you are new to the sport, consider registering for a running clinic in your area. You will form new friendships, enhance your health and enjoy the benefits of belonging to a wonderful and supportive community.

Last, but not least, a heartfelt thank you to three members of Run Georgina, in particular: Celine Tallian for her inspiration, encouragement and companionship; to Mike Bedley for his mentorship, feedback and wisdom; and to Mike Carroll for his kindness, humour and friendship; and to the other members of the group whom I’ve had to pleasure of befriending and running with over the past 12 months and who have encouraged me to keep reaching for the stars: Sue Noel, Valerie Garcia, Lorinda Mundy, Roger Mundy, Jason Girvan, Diana Scheddin, Alex Cebrynski, Erin Eastman, Dwayne Rogers, Andrew Rae, Robin Brunet, Gillian Hanlon, Robert Marinzel, Blair Aeiou-y, Sandi Porter-Thornton, Jeremy McLeod, Jeff Kloosterman, Lisa Groves Leask, Nathan Liss, Amy McIntyre, Sorin Petri, Barbara Wojdylo-Prud'homme, Tom Wilson, Ian Barron, Jim Willett, Esther Burger, MC Pace and Judy Breadner Colley.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Operation Mincemeat: a masterstroke of intelligence and deception

Operation Mincemeat: How A Dead Man And A Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis And Assured An Allied Victory
By Ben Macintyre
Published in the U.S. by Broadway Paperbacks, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

In 1943, two British naval officers devised an improbable plan to fool Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, a plan so bold and audacious that it could never get approved, let alone pulled off.

Except the plan was approved by Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower and, against all odds, it succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of many. It's widely believed that the implementation of this ingenious plan succeeded in altering the course of World War Two.  

The true story of how the British and Americans deceived the Germans is told in Ben Macintyre's thrilling book, "Operation Mincemeat" (an earlier book about the events, The Man Who Never Was, was published in 1954 and it quickly became a best seller; a movie of the same name was released in 1956).

The plan was to create a fake identity of a purported British airman and arrange for the body to wash ashore in neutral Spain. The dead body would contain official documents confirming Allied plans to launch a surprise attack on Greece, when the actual attack would take place in Sicily. If the Germans believed that an attack on Greece was imminent, it would strengthen its resources in that area and leave southern Italy relatively exposed. At this point in the war, the Axis powers held an iron grip on Europe; the Allies needed a weakly-defended entry point in which to launch an assault, which would aid them in eventually liberating Europe.

For the plan to work, an extraordinary degree of luck and good fortune had to play into the Allied hands. In Spain, the Nazis had a vast network of spies and informants working in that country, and many of these agents needed to believe the ruse and pass false information up the chain of command. The opportunities for error were enormous. It's interesting to note the various forms of communication that were employed in fabricating this ingenious hoax - including letters, memos, diaries, newspapers, and good old-fashioned rumour and gossip.

Macintyre describes the lives, backgrounds and motivations of all participants with a superb sense of pacing and detail. At times, Operation Mincemeat reads like a thriller with sudden plot twists and mounting suspense. No detail is overlooked, from the intricate planning and choosing of a body to creating a fake identity and transporting the body to the coast of Spain. It's no accident that Ian Fleming (creator of the James Bond series) and Alan Hillgarth (an adventure novelist)  were among the officers who took part in the ploy.

Here, Macintyre sums up how a single, simple idea took shape and wound up changing the course of history:
"Amateur, unpublished novelists, the framers of Operation Mincemeat, dreamed up the most unlikely concatenation of events, rendered them believable, and sent them off to war, changing reality throughout lateral thinking and proving that it is possible to win a battle fought in the mind, from behind a desk, and from beyond the grave."
"OperationMincemeat" is an incredible story about an incredible chapter in the history of World War Two, and I give it two thumbs up. 

Nature as Nurturer

  The Well-Gardened Mind, The Restorative Power of Nature By Sue Stuart-Smith Scribner Trade Paperback Edition, May 2021 I’ve long und...