After four long, active days of hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile I am not sorry to spend a few hours listening to podcasts and watching the Patagonian landscape roll by from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. As we wind our way out of the park towards the Chilean-Argentine border, we are treated to dramatic views of the Paine massif from various angles as well as a photo op with a herd of guanaco and one very distant and lonely flamingo. By the time we reach the border, the mountains have receded into the Patagonian steppe, which is all rolling grey-green and brown scrub under harsh blue sky. After some last-chance Chilean souvenir shopping we cross the border into Argentina and continue for hours more before seeing mountains again on the approach to El Calafate, a pretty tourist town and the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park.

Guanaco

A few years ago, I convinced some friends to take the Greyhound for three days and $130 from Victoria, BC to Austin, Texas so I have not only a great appreciation for the beauty of barren landscapes, but a high tolerance for long distance bus rides. Something about this bus ride, whether it was the previous four days of early mornings, poor sleep and physical activity, or the dehydrating air conditioning and hypnotic landscape of the bus ride itself, I could not handle. About half way through I began to nod off, occasionally waking up groggy and uncomfortable.

The roast lamb

I rallied in time for dinner with the rest of the group and went all in, ordering a plate of precariously stacked roast lamb and vegetables. The meat slides off the bone and is satisfyingly charred on the outside. Sadly, I barely make it halfway through the mountain of meat and root vegetables before exhaustion overcomes me in the form of mild nausea and light-headedness. Rather than pushing through the discomfort for the sake of the night out, I bought a bottle of Powerade and went back to the hotel for a full night’s sleep. I still regret not being able to finish, or fully appreciate, that meal but by missing out on one culinary experience I ensured that I was back in full working order to enjoy the next day’s glacier walk on Perito Moreno Glacier.

perito moreno glacier.jpg

Travel can be exhausting. The best trips tire you out and revive you in equal measure. The pressure to maximize your time in a new place and to experience everything on offer can backfire, though. Even on holiday, it is important to have downtime and listen to your body’s needs or you run the risk of burning out. My recent trip to Patagonia taught me this lesson in a number of ways.

Although I am in adequately good shape, I am not an experienced hiker. The main hikes on Intrepid Travel’s “Patagonia Trekking” tour are challenging, although the tour is designed to be manageable for a range of experience levels. The first hike of the trip gave me confidence. The second was one of two all-day hikes with some difficult uphill sections. I started the day at a steady, confident pace which deteriorated before even reaching the most challenging section of the hike – the last, uphill leg before our destination. By the time I returned to the campsite, far behind most of the group except one of the guides and another member of the group who was pacing himself, I was hobbled by burning toe pain and seriously doubting whether I could keep up with or enjoy the fourth hike which was said to be both longer and steeper.

almost near the summit

Two days later we set out on the fourth hike to Mirador del Torres, the grand finale of the W Hike. Somewhat refreshed, but still cautious, I paced myself from the very start of the walk. Instead of instinctively trying to keep up with the group at all times I focused on staying relaxed, breathing and maintaining an easy, sustainable pace. I soon realized that rather than falling way behind the others, the group ebbed and flowed around me as everyone’s energy and pace fluctuated. Sometimes I was near the front, other times at the back. I was able to make it to the summit of the hike feeling challenged but not frustrated or dispirited. Pinched toes eventually made me fall behind on the very last stage of the return to camp, but this time it did not affect my sense of accomplishment because I had maintained control of my experience throughout.

patagnia firebush

Slowing down, resting and taking time to myself when I needed it rather than rushing to keep up, to do everything and never miss out meant that in the end I was able to fully enjoy my trip without getting exhausted, sick or grumpy. When travelling, the tendency to overdo things comes from a desire to make the most of life. In daily life we often overextend ourselves out of a drive for productivity, desire for accomplishment or to be of service to others. Instead, without rest and downtime we become burnt out, anxious and more likely to flake on commitments. Saying yes and taking opportunity as it comes is important, but so is knowing when it’s time to go to bed – whether that bed is a tent in Patagonia or a queen sized mattress at home.

Before the memory of our family vacation fades too fast in the wake of getting back to work and school for my oldest, I wanted to take a moment and talk a little bit about some of the things I have learned about travelling with kids as a result of this Euro trip.

Background: I haven’t taken a vacation in 7.5 years. The last time I truly had a break from work, school and the hustle was my very first trip to Morocco in 2011 to visit my husband, meet his family, and check out the school he was building. I spent six weeks getting to know everyone and seeing some sights around the country including a trip to the Sahara through Marrakech, Ouarzazate and Merzouga, and side trips to Casablanca, Mohammedia and Rabat. Even though we travelled around a bit, it wasn’t a super touristy trip because we didn’t have our marriage license yet and so paying for two hotel rooms everywhere we went wasn’t feasible for extended periods of time. I spent most of the time between his family’s places in Marrakech and a small village 60km north called Attaouia. This was followed by a month in Florence six months later where I spent most of my time buying and devouring dozens of books from a boutique English bookshop just off Piazza Duomo. Shortly thereafter, I actually moved to Morocco to continue building our school and running classes for small children in it.

Since that time, I’ve had two marriage celebrations (one in Canada and one in Morocco, same marriage!), taught for three years, endured a horrific birth trauma with my firstborn, immigrated with my husband and daughter back to Canada, built a business, completed a masters degree, delivered dozens of lectures/workshops on Islam and anti-racism work to literally thousands of people, and had a second baby. Between motherhood, grad school and the pressures of being a veiled Muslim  woman activist in an era of rising Islamophobia and misogyny, it’s safe to say, I have felt burnt out for a long time. So much so that burnt out has been my new normal…for a while.

selfie
Well rested on the last day of our trip.

Fast forward to August 2018 when we decided to use our good ol’ Canadian parental leave to take five months in Morocco and you have me still juggling kids, full time work (business has been busier than ever, thank God) and everything else in between -only now, I’ve had all the uniquely Moroccan stressors added, ones that I won’t get into listing much but which involve weather extremes, bugs and cultural divides, especially in the village where we are staying.

Because Canadian passports only entitle you to three months in Morocco without a residency card, work permit or visitor’s visa extension, November started to loom on the horizon. I had zero intention of going through the hassle of getting my papers for a (relatively and comparatively) short stay so I decided we should do a visa run on a cheap flight to Europe.

I am one of those moms that cannot leave her children for long periods of time. My oldest – who is now a spirited and eternally stubborn five year old – has only ever spent two nights out of my bed: the night her sister was born and the night after. I haven’t been away from my new baby for more than an hour in the ten months since she was born. As a survivor and someone who lives with PTSD, this is what I need to do to feel secure and safe and I am alright with that. What it means though is if I do a visa run, my family is coming with me.

So I started scouring for flights anywhere in Europe from Marrakech and checking out sights and accommodations in each place. As I looked more and more, it suddenly dawned on me: why not take an actual two-week vacation? One where you set an email auto-responder and legitimately don’t check your inbox. One where your phone is set to airplane mode and you only open the Wifi to update your Instagram. Could it really be possible? Do I dare to eat a peach? Do I dare disturb the universe?

alcazar of seville
Tile detail in the Real Alcazar de Sevilla

In the end, my love of history and my husband’s indifference won out and I booked us for five days in Berlin followed by ten days in the south of Spain running the Malaga-Cordoba-Sevilla circuit. I only had mild nerves as I gleefully packed our bags, carefully estimating how many diapers and how much formula I could cram into the two smaller checked bags the budget airline allowed. But ultimately the nerves were for nothing: we went on to have one of the best trips of my life and I will savor its memories for the rest of it.

What made it so great?

People we know couldn’t believe we were attempting a Euro-trip with two kids. People called us “heroes”and “troopers”. I honestly didn’t know what all the fuss was about and I still don’t. With enough careful planning and some important things to remember, traveling with super small kids can be fun, rewarding even. Were there meltdown moments for everyone involved? Of course. Did they happen often enough to destroy our enjoyment? No. And in the process we had the time and energy to learn more from our kids about what they need and when they need it.

berlin
Guten Tag, Berlin

Timing is everything. First of all, lap babies fly free so why not take advantage of that fact? Go when your baby is a bit bigger but not too big that they want to walk around all the time. The perfect middle ground for us was almost 10 months.

Also, when you’re checking flights, try to pick ones with good check in/departure times as well as being mindful of when they will land and how long it takes to arrive at your destination. We found that booking early morning flights to destinations worked well because we could rouse our kids to get on the plane but then they would be so groggy as to pass out as soon as the flight took off, waking off somewhat refreshed on arrival. Baby was a bit fussy on the flight to Berlin but still napped most of the way.

Check your booking carefully. We booked holiday apartments and even a hostel instead of pricey hotels. But it wasn’t just a budgetary decision: we also needed access to a small kitchen everywhere we went so we could prepare kid-friendly foods and wash bottles. Two out of four places also had baby cots for us and the other two had furniture arrangements that allowed for safe sleeping regardless. Also, many bookings have specific check-in times and won’t allow entry before then – make sure you time your flight/travel to allow for you to get to accommodations as soon as you arrive. There is little more anxiety-producing scenarios than dragging a stroller, two de-planed kids and suitcases down narrow cobblestone streets. If you have to, request early entry and pay slightly extra if you have to. There was only one occasion where we had to sit around so we found a playground and parked the baby, her stroller and the luggage while our oldest got her pent up energy out.

malaga
View over Malaga

Hit the supermarket. Honestly, as much as I am a closet foodie and wannabe chef, culinary tourism isn’t really my bag. Especially since becoming Muslim when finding halal or even vegetarian options is nearly impossible. We were so touched that the breakfast at our hostel in Berlin actually had certified halal breakfast sausages and we occasionally hit a shawarma shop, but most of the trip involved getting fresh bread, produce, instant coffees and yoghurts at the corner shop. It was infinitely cheaper than attempting restaurant eats with a picky kid who prefers fresh veggies and simple food, and our pocketbooks were happy the whole trip.

Let go of the Euro-trip stereotypes. When a lot of folks think of backpacking across Europe, they think of late nights at pubs and days spent rushing from one sight to the next. Obviously as Muslims we have zero interest in clubs or bars, and ultimately we let our kids set the pace for the day. We booked enough time in each place to do one or two major things a day, interspersed with supermarket runs, playground breaks or outright Legoland visits. Having kids with us also meant hitting the sack when they did at 8pm after clocking 15-18,000 steps a day together.  And that was alright. In fact, it was ideal. We got so much more rest than we were used to and rising early to have a fresh breakfast and plan our route for the day became a beautiful routine for us. There were some days we just didn’t make it to all of our destinations either and instead we wandered around, taking in neighbourhoods outside the center and seeing different things.

Ultimately, you know your own family best. These are just some of the things we found helped us have a much-needed rest and to make the most of it together. Alhamdulilah for that.

IMG_20181124_193000_293
Plaza de Espana, Sevilla

16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

 

Content Warning: Discussion of Psychological Abuse, gaslighting, terms such as crazy

With November being Family Violence Prevention month, I want to talk about a form of emotional abuse that is perhaps more insidious than physical violence: gaslighting. As a specific form of emotional manipulation, gaslighting causes one to call in to question one’s own sanity. A partner purposefully (or sometimes non purposefully, through psychological defense mechanisms) attempts to exert control on the other by making them psychologically unstable.

This makes the gaslit partner have to rely on the other while they contemplate their sanity. Gaslighting makes you feel as though you are going crazy and, even deeper, like you’ve lost yourself. You begin to doubt everything that makes up who you are – your beliefs, your values, your worth, your reality. And when that happens, what are you left with? In some ways, you feel like an empty shell of your former self.

“He told me that I was the reason he was depressed and angry all of the time. He said that to me whenever I got angry about something he had done, or a poor choice he had made for the family. And it’s not like I acted bad when I was angry, I just wanted to talk it out.  It got to the point where I couldn’t let myself show my anger anymore, because somewhere along the line I started to believe that my anger was the problem, and not his behavior that led up to that. It’s actually funny to think that I believed my angry reaction was the problem, and not the fact that he stayed out all night with friends and got fired from work. But this whole thing had me going to different psychologists and counsellors for years, trying to get help for my “anger management” issue. Everything that went on in the relationship, we both started to blame on my anger. It took a long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t the problem”.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to recognize that you are gaslit, and how drained you have become. This can be extremely difficult, since one of the very side effects is believing you are the source of the problem. However, some clear signs you are being gaslit in a close relationship are:

  • constantly second-guessing yourself and your choices,
  • having trouble making decisions,
  • frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and
  • making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family or friends.

The next step is to ensure your safety in whatever way you can. If you are physically safe, the next steps in this process involves discovering yourself again, filling your “empty shell” once more. Here are small ways that can begin the process of rediscovering yourself:

Write down what you value. What do you value? Family? Spirituality? Respect? Write down your top ten and rank them from most valued to least. Then, think about ways you use these values in your life with others.

Write/type a paragraph on all the roles that you have. Ask yourself “who am I to others?” Perhaps you are a parent, aunt, cousin, friend, grandfather, teacher, etc. List them.

Carve out time to reflect on your own unique qualities. What makes you stand out from the others? Is it a quirky personality? A sarcastic sense of humor? Reflect on these positive qualities

Explore your character traits. The VIA character strengths can help you figure out your top character traits. This positive psychology tool provides you with a list of your top character strengths. Read the list and reflect on the traits. Do they accurately capture you?

Write a list of your qualities, beliefs, and values that guide how you treat others. Ask yourself based on your values, roles, qualities, and character strengths, which of these guides how you treat other human beings?  Then reflect on if you are being treated in the way that is important to you.

Validate yourself. Emotions are normal human experiences. The brain creates these emotions for good reasons – we can’t control our initial emotional reaction. (We can, however, start to control the way we behave when we feel emotions intensely). It is important to remind yourself that all of your emotions are okay to feel.

Check in mindfully on a daily basis.

Take time out of your day to do a brief mindful exercise.

S – Stop

T – Take a moment and take a breath

O – Observe what is happening in each of your 5 senses. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting? Observe what is happening internally. Non-judgmentally ask yourself “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What body sensations am I experiencing?” Just notice these things and move on.

P – Proceed

Take it from a survivor, it can take time to understand that you are not the problem. Like fuel to a flame, gaslighting can leave you feeling as though you’ve exploded into pieces of your former self. It’s time to collect those pieces and bring them back into wholeness once more.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Let’s face it – we’ve all been in a dark place called The Writing Slump. Writer’s Block is a phenomenon that happens to every writer at some point. When words start to escape you and ideas get stale, you need a reliable emergency kit for working through blockages and staying productive.

I plummet into the writing abyss of Writer’s Block when my mind is bogged down with a million different things, when I accidentally lose all hope in the piece I’m drafting or when the caffeine from my latte starts to wear off. To be honest, there are a million triggers that can send me straight to the writing slump but as a professional writer with constant deadlines looming, not writing is not an option!

How can you write yourself out of linguistic stagnation when taking a day or even a couple of hours off might not be an option?

Take a few deep breaths. If you find yourself torturing your pen or smashing your keyboard, close your eyes, let annoyance and frustration dissipate, and take a few deep breaths. Accept the situation with a serene mind and focus on getting back on the writing track. There’s nothing worse than savouring the emotions you might be feeling in times of a writing paralysis; rather, choose to tackle the blockage with concrete .

Fight the temptation to quit, because you won’t always have the luxury of taking long breaks or waiting for inspiration to kick in. The reality of writing – especially if you get paid to do it – is that you don’t have all the time in the world to polish off every sentence. Learning to combat writer’s block is key to becoming a successful professional writer.

Seek inspiration in the work of others. Is there a writer you find exceptionally talented or eloquent? Or a magazine you like skimming? Turn your attention to the content and style of fellow writers for fresh ideas, new phrases, and a spark.

Get caught up in technicalities. When your creative juices ebb, shift your focus to formatting, laying out your pages, assembling appendices. Writing is a multi-step endeavour that involves editing, fact-checking, revisions, approvals, research, and much more. Just because your word count isn’t growing, you can still be moving forward with your writing project.

Freewrite for two minutes. Zoom out your computer screen or open a new page in your notebook and write. Jot down everything that comes to mind on your topic. Even if you’re repeating yourself or words don’t go well together, refrain from judgement until the time is up. This well-known writing exercise can help ideas and sentences coalesce into a unique creation.

Tell a friend what you want to write – but currently can’t. Alternating between different modes of expression can help reset your brain. If your friend really listens, maybe they’ll even offer feedback. If no friend is available in the moment of a writing crisis, give your imaginary audience an elevator pitch about your topic.

Go back to the basics. Why are your drafting this piece? What’s the message you’re attempting to convey? Oftentimes, we get bogged down in perfect grammar, elegant style, active verbs, and paragraph transitions that we forget what we’re trying to say. In desperate times of a writing slump, be ready to sacrifice your eloquence (and polish it off when you ).

No matter how dissatisfying or dark your writing abyss looks like, it’s just another setback you need to power through. There is, probably, no single magic recipe for breaking out of a writing slump – so make your own soup.


Screenshot_20181023-160649Olga Ivanova is an Edmonton-based communications professional and writer with a knack for storytelling.

The notion of “inspiration” is exciting, romantic and, well, inspiring. Our mythologies of creativity tell us that the right synchronicity of circumstances will spark not only The Idea that will change everything, but the will and ability to execute it. In reality, sitting around waiting for inspiration to “strike” is about as effective as waiting for actual lightning to strike and start your campfire. Inspiration can be cultivated and sought out, though.

Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, no matter how much consistent work and practice one puts in. It is the encounters and experiences that excite, intrigue and teach us that generate and motivate creativity. Sudden, striking ideas do happen – but they don’t come out of nowhere, they are the result of a long-simmering idea suddenly coalescing as the last piece falls into place. To be creative, go out into the world and seek out inspiration. This can take any form you like, from getting back to the land and nature, to delving into works of philosophy for new ideas. Inspiration is all the little pieces of life that keep you motivated and keep you thinking until The Idea finally coalesces (or, more likely, is finally forced into being like molding a stiff piece clay.)

Do not shy away from engaging with others’ works of creativity as a source of inspiration. Far from tainting the authenticity of your creative expression with influence, others’ art can be a great source of inspiration. Most peoples’ original inspiration to become a writer, artist or any other creative was probably someone else’s work. Don’t be afraid to revisit that original inspiration in times of low motivation.

Art exists to provoke emotional and intellectual responses and to expose new ideas and perspectives, all of which are the essence of inspiration. In a sense, art is a short cut to inspiration! Whatever kind of creative you are, try to be open to what all kinds of creativity can teach you – visual art, performance, music, literature, digital arts….

A risk of relying on others’ art to inspire you in periods of low motivation and inspiration is that witnessing the peak of others’ creative process may stir up insecurity and fear. The doubting voice inside might just say “Well I can’t do that, so why bother…” The gulf between where you see yourself and where you want to be may become stark and intimidating. Remember that inspiration is also about learning. Look at work that you admire, or consider “better” than yours, as something to learn from rather than envy. What is it that you see in that work that seems to be missing from your work and how can you develop that missing piece? What technique and craft does that artist use that you can learn? If inadequacy and fear clouds inspiration, focus on learning and honing your craft.

Creativity requires consistent work, but it also needs to be nurtured with inspiration. Fortunately, creatives do not need to passively await inspiration: they can go out and find it. Part of the work of creativity is spending time immersed in others’ creativity, looking for the little pieces that will build and motivate your own.

 


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Trauma is used both to describe distressing events and the human reaction that occurs afterward. It is not simply one singular horrific event in time. It is a series of outcomes that affect every part of one’s being. Reasons for trauma can be large – Holocaust, wars, Residential Schools, internment camps. Trauma can also result from “smaller” experiences – the death of a loved one, a rejection from a friend, a breakup, a car accident. How someone reacts to such events are individual – and the physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions are not usually within our control.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a collection of symptoms that one may develop after a distressing event(s). These symptoms include: re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of the event, negative thoughts or feelings, and hyper-arousal. PTSD is a formal diagnosis for intense emotional pain. But what is it like to really live with the effects of trauma, big or small?

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”  ― Susan Pease Banitt

I have heard the following from survivors, paraphrased in my own word:. living with trauma is like not living your own life, like not being in your own body; a sense of floating; a sense of complete numbness;  a feeling as though your body is always on alert, as if it will never truly relax. The body is constantly in flight or fight mode, something that one gets very used to living with. Life becomes sped up, or slowed right down, as if walking through sludge. It becomes an existence colored by the quickness and vulnerability of life, and the reality and permanence of death, sometimes leading to the question of “what’s the point?” asked over and over again. Guilt comes easily, trust becomes impossible. One turns to drugs or alcohol to try and numb it all out, or to try to feel outside of the numbness. A life is truly changed.

But what happens when you experience these symptoms, but you are not aware of any traumatic events that have happened to you? Because trauma gets inherited in more ways than one, you may look beyond your past, and to your parent’s pasts, and even to the lives of your grandparents.

The well-known form of passing trauma on is through the way we are parented. The way we are parented as children can form the basis for what we are like as adults. If our parents experienced trauma and are living with symptoms like those listed above, it may affect one’s ability to be fully present as a parent. Moreover, if our trauma is directly from our parents, then we are likely to use the same harsh parenting style on our own children.

But here is the fascinating part. We can also pass on our trauma through our genes, not only our behaviours. Relatively new discoveries in the world of genetics have created a new field of study called Epigenetics. This is the study of the mechanisms that switch our genes on or off, or even alter genes completely without changes being made to our underlying DNA sequence. There are triggers in our environment that will determine if that pesky allergy gene we inherited from Dad will actually be expressed, or if that ability to be social and outgoing that we inherited from mom will be turned off. Backing up a generation or two, the genes that may have been altered in Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, due to their trauma, can be passed on to a developing fetus. Studies examining children of trauma survivors show that PTSD symptoms, such as nightmares, will manifest under stress, which is linked to inherited trauma through epigenetics.

A very relevant example of how we see this affect our society is in Residential School survivors. Many children today who have not been in Residential Schools, but have parents or grandparents who have attended these schools, are suffering from PTSD-like symptoms that have been inherited.

The good news is that epigenetic changes do not have to permanent. Remember, what you are exposed to in life, and how you design your children’s environment will affect if these genes are expressed or not. Moreover, trauma is overcome, through hard work, perseverance, and allowing trusted human beings to help us undo the responses that have occurred as a result of other human beings. We can heal our relational hurts relationally – in fact, there is some evidence this might be the best way. Everyday cycles can be broken, PTSD can be healed, family legacies can be changed, and genes can be switched. Compassion for this process is paramount.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.