Forest Bathing: No Soap Needed

Most of us cleanse our bodies on a daily basis, but have you ever given much thought to cleansing your mind and spirit as well? I’m not referring to traditional religious practice, although that may serve a similar purpose for some people. I’m talking about shinrinyoku — forest bathing.

Walking in the Michigan winter woods
A winter walk in the woods

In 1982 this term was coined by the Japanese government to describe the practice of walking in the woods for refreshment and escape from the hustle and bustle of urban environments. They recognized the health benefits of being immersed in nature and encouraged people to spend quiet time among the trees as often as possible to reduce stress levels. Scientists in Japan are conducting a range of ongoing studies measuring the physiological effects of various elements of the natural world, trying to quantify exactly how our bodies respond to nature. But even without knowing their results, I think we all know how good we feel when we get away from our desks and the concrete jungle, even if only for a short walk on our lunch hour.

Scientists here in the U.S. are also trying to establish objectively measurable evidence of the health benefits of nature. For example, a study at the University of Illinois came to some interesting conclusions:

Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.

Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.

The article goes on to explain that green spaces have more than just psychological benefits; they also have proven physical effects like helping you to recover quicker after surgery, improving your immune function, and even improving “functional living skills” among older people. In fact, I just read an article in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine that touts the benefits of “healing gardens” for dementia patients. Apparently these gardens are becoming more common at hospitals, senior centers, and even schools. I’m very encouraged by this, and I’ll have more to say about healing gardens in an upcoming post.

The scientists might need more evidence to satisfy them, but this is more than enough to convince me that I’ve named my blog appropriately: Nature [really] is my Therapy.

Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park
Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park

By the way, if you live in a location with lots of snow and bare trees right now (like I do), don’t despair; you can still get the benefits of “green”space without waiting for things outside to come back to life in a few months. All you need to do is decorate your home and office with pictures of flowers, gardens, rivers, or landscapes; then when you need a break, just gaze upon those peaceful images and feel your blood pressure go down, your breathing slow, your mood lift. If you’re skeptical that this works, try it. You’ll see.

Below are some photos of beautiful things I found because I was out looking for birds — I hope they make you happy too.

Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
A carpet of woodland daffodils
A carpet of woodland daffodils
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it's like in his world....
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it’s like in his world….

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources for those of you who want to read more:

Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine: Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793347/?tool=pubmed)

Science Daily: Green Environments Essential for Human Health, Research Shows (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419151438.htm)

Cranes to my Left, Cranes to my Right

Sandhill Crane in flightWe’ve all seen those wildlife documentaries where they show thousands of animals gathered in one spot; the one most people think of is the incredible migration of the wildebeests in Africa, right? Thousands and thousands of them running across the plains…it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be there to see something like that in person, but we just know it would be amazing.

Well, last Friday night, we got to experience something every bit as amazing as that, and only two hours from home. It was the annual gathering of the Sandhill Cranes in southwestern Michigan as they prepare for their southward migration. We’d been watching the daily count tallies from Baker Sanctuary in anticipation of our trip, and when the number hit 3,800 cranes a few days earlier, I started to get very excited. Heck, look how excited I got about our close encounter with just two of them last summer.

We had tickets to a special dinner event that night (more about that shortly), so we decided to go to the sanctuary beforehand to watch the evening fly-in. (Cranes come in to the marsh each evening before dusk to roost, then leave again in the morning.) We got there at 5 pm and I was very surprised to see at least a thousand cranes already populating the marsh. I couldn’t even begin to count all of them, but I’m sure there were more than a couple thousand by the time we left around 6:30. They were a hundred yards away from the closest viewing areas, so I was disappointed not to be able to get close-up photos. But I took a few shots of the large groupings anyway, and shot the smaller groups as they flew over our heads on their way down into the marsh.

The beauty of these large and majestic birds is part of the reason this is fun to watch, but the sounds are even better, in my opinion. The cranes call while flying and after landing, and the entire marsh resonated with their prehistoric-sounding trumpets. If I had to choose only to see or to hear these birds, I’d definitely choose to hear them! Here’s a link where you can listen to their calls. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Just imagine a bunch of birds with a wingspan of 5 to 7 feet flying overhead and making that gurgling sound…it’s one of the most entertaining bird spectacles I’ve ever seen. I tried to take some video to share with you, but the audio was cluttered with some irritating people talking loudly about what they had for dinner, or something equally distracting. (And don’t even get me started on the people who came out to a nature sanctuary and smoked cigarettes the whole time….omg!) Luckily there are plenty of videos on YouTube already — just search for Sandhill Cranes and you’ll get a bunch of choices to watch.

Cranes in formation

I’m so glad we watched the cranes on Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be such a cold and rainy day that we decided not to spend the day waiting for the evening fly-in the second time.

Just a small portion of the crowded marsh as the sun started to lower in the sky
Landing gear down….

Just about the only time these birds don’t seem majestic is when they prepare for landing, letting those long, gangly legs droop down below them. It always makes me laugh.

Bald Eagle (click to enlarge)
Pileated Woodpecker! (click to enlarge)

And lest I forget, there were other great birds in the area that night too. We watched two Bald Eagles soaring around a few times, and got to witness a beautiful Northern Harrier soaring low over the marsh hunting for his dinner. There were bunches of Robins, of course, and a few small songbirds that we didn’t pay much attention to. But I kept taking pictures of anything that flew past, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. Imagine my surprise when I got the photos uploaded and discovered that I’d shot a Pileated Woodpecker flying past! This is a great bird that I don’t get to see often enough. And I also found a life bird in one of the photos — a Ring-necked Pheasant was perched on a dead tree way back in the marsh. I’ve become used to using the computer to zoom in on trees looking for little birds, but this one was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it when I was scanning the marsh with my binoculars. What a fun 24 hours this was!

You Need Some Vitamin N

That’s Vitamin N as in Nature, and most of us are deficient in it. There have been lots of books and articles written about the health benefits of ecotherapy lately, but many of them are supported primarily by anecdotal evidence and sloppy research. But now we have proof that time spent outdoors is essential for mental health and positive patterns of social functioning, based on rigorous research conducted by Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois. She says, In greener settings, we find that people are more generous and more sociable. We find stronger neighborhood social ties and greater sense of community, more mutual trust and willingness to help others…. In less green environments, we find higher rates of aggression, violence, violent crime, and property crime — even after controlling for income and other differences. We also find more evidence of loneliness and more individuals reporting inadequate social support.”

I encourage you to follow the link above to read more about the study. If that doesn’t make you go outside, I don’t know what will! In fact, as I was gathering info for this article I had an urgent impulse to take a walk around our woods. So I did. And it felt gooood.

I’ve also been reading The Nature Principle, by Richard Louv, and find myself highlighting passage after passage for future reference. Did you know that exposure to the natural world can actually increase intelligence for some people? According to Louv, it apparently stimulates “our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative, even in dense urban neighborhoods.”

I think most creative types will be familiar with the inspiration that can strike during a walk in the woods or a stroll on the shore. I get lots of good ideas when I’m driving on a pretty country road, or even in the shower (I consider that “nature-like” since I’m in the water….). Other studies cited in this book (done by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan) suggest “that nature simultaneously calms and focuses the mind, and at the same time offers a state that transcends relaxation, allowing the mind to detect patterns that it would otherwise miss.”

I just found another book on this subject that sounds pretty good: Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. I’ve just ordered it and will let you know what I think after I’ve had a chance to read it. In the meantime, here are a couple of my recent “therapy pics.” Enjoy!

Ecotherapy to the Rescue

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”    — Frank Lloyd Wright

Mr. Wright was definitely right about that (couldn’t resist the wordplay). That was true again for me last week as I found myself in desperate need of comfort. You see, my cat Mickey’s jaw was broken by our vet during a “routine” dental cleaning. The next morning he had to be taken to a feline dental surgeon 60 miles from home to have the jaw repaired, so I had to find a way to pass the agonizing waiting time somehow.

I noticed that the surgeon’s office happened to be very near the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, so after I dropped Mickey off I headed for the gardens with my camera in tow.

I would have preferred to be away from other people that day, but despite there being dozens of little kids there on a field trip, the gardens still felt like a peaceful place. (Normally I’d avoid any place with so many kids, but they stayed mostly in the Children’s Garden, so it wasn’t too bad.) So I spent maybe 90 minutes wandering among the lovely perennial gardens.  It was interesting to note that the bees and butterflies were all going about their lives, even though I felt that mine was on hold for the moment. That realization might have given me perspective if my worries that day hadn’t been so serious. But in any case, I did enjoy the lovely aromas of the flowers and the bright sunshine.

Imagine the sound of dripping water on a hot day….

There were fountains too, and I spent some time sitting on a bench just watching the cool water dripping over a pile of rocks. Water is always soothing to me, whether it’s a still pond, powerful ocean waves, or a gently cascading waterfall. I think that’s probably common, but I have difficulty explaining why water is so calming. Sometimes it’s the sound of it, as with rain or waves. And other times it’s the feeling of it, as in the shower or when you go swimming. And I notice when we go kayaking that I’m soothed by the gentle bobbing motion of the kayak on the water surface.  Water is a true elixir of life. It’s precious not only to keep our bodies functioning from the inside, but also for how our minds respond to it.

You look at that river, gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds, you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass, the mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. And all of a sudden, it’s a gear shift inside you. And it’s like taking a deep breath and going, “Oh yeah, I forgot about this.”

That’s Al Gore speaking softly in the opening of his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” with a peaceful river image on screen.  (And another quote soon after that: “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States.” He got laughs for that one.)

I love this little guy!

Thankfully, Mickey’s jaw was “easily” repaired (in the words of an expert surgeon). He seems to be recovering well and should be able to eat hard food again in about another week. So we had a few traumatic days last week, but things feel much like normal again today and Mickey is calmly sitting at the window watching me as I type this. For today at least, we’re blessed with good fortune.

Diversity and Tree-Hugging

I came across the website for the Fledging Birders Institute (“FBI”) the other day, noticing that they’re preparing for a conference to promote diversity among birders. Here’s what they say in describing the reasons this is necessary:

As of 2009, more than 35 percent of Americans fall into “non-White” categories such as Hispanic, African-American,
Asian, and Native-American. Yet, even generous measures of demographics show that “non-Whites” comprise significantly less than 10 percent of the birding community. Clearly, birding
does not look like the rest of America. Such disproportionate homogeneity exacerbates already problematic threats to the sustainability of the birding community, the birds’ habitat, and, by extension, the birds themselves.

(From: http://www.fledgingbirders.org/CFABpurpose.html)

The FBI also runs a very successful program called the Fledging Birders Challenge, in which groups of kids cooperate to see how many species of birds they can find in their schoolyard or local community in a month. Isn’t that a great way to get kids interested in birds and conservation?

The diversity conference reminded me of a book I’ve been making my way through called Colors of Nature: Cultural Identity and the Natural World.  It’s a collection of essays by authors of various ethnic and cultural minorities about their perspectives on environmental and nature issues. One of the essays that really stuck with me is called “Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century,” by Robert Bullard. He argues that poorer communities — often those of minorities — are discriminated against in subtle ways like unequal enforcement of zoning and pollution laws. He gives some specific examples of instances where poor communities are taken advantage of by polluting corporations. But just when you start getting sick to your stomach from all that negativity, he gives the good news that some of these communities are beginning to fight back, oftentimes winning.

Every time I drive through the south end of Detroit on my way to Ohio, there’s a section where I have to hold my nose because the pollution is so bad. And while I’m driving through trying not to breathe, I look at the homes I’m passing. Those people breathe this air 24/7. And obviously, if you could afford not to live in a place like that, you wouldn’t. So this is a clear instance of the poor having to suffer worse living conditions than those with the means to live elsewhere.

Ok, to end this on a more positive note I want to tell you about one last essay from Colors of Nature. This one is by Nalini Nadkarni, a woman of mixed heritage (Indian/Hindu and Brooklyn/Jewish parents). She writes about the impact of trees on her life, from childhood through her professional career as an educator and researcher in forest ecology. She links trees to meditation through the shared process of breathing; trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen. She says, “Knowing this, in those dark times, I could merely look out at the maple tree in our backyard and be reminded that I am connected to other living things.” I like that. As I write this in the shade of our large cottonwood tree, watching the birds flitting around on the freshly-filled feeders and birdbath, I’m comforted by the thought that the tree is giving all of us life-sustaining oxygen. And it makes that hard work look so easy.

Go out and hug a tree today, won’t you?

A Week in the North Woods, Part Two

Ok, here’s the rest of the story about our vacation in Michigan’ s U.P.  I’m going to share more about our bird sightings here and show you pictures, most of which are blurry and/or distant shots, but exciting nontheless. (That reminds me, time to get that 400mm lens….)

Our last hike of the week was the Au Train Songbird Trail. It’s a 3-mile loop through heavy woods south of Au Train. We heard lots of birds but honestly, every time I stopped to look through my binoculars or try to take a picture, the mosquitoes absolutely mobbed me. That was frustrating because we really wanted to find out what those birds were! We were able to identify the waxwings and chickadees by their calls, but not much else.

This first picture has a great story to go with it. One evening I was sitting in my kayak on our little lake, concentrating on taking pictures of a beaver. It was so quiet. And suddenly there was a screeching overhead. Startled, I looked up just in time to see this Sandhill Crane fly over me, barely 10-15 feet above! (That’s why the pic isn’t in focus — it was focused for the beaver!) The other of the pair remained on the near side of the lake, and they called back and forth to each other for about a minute, so loudly that my husband came out of the cabin to see what was going on. Their calls remind me of those velociraptors in Jurassic Park –– very prehistoric-sounding. It was so freakin’ awesome! Ok, so here’s the resulting picture:

Sandhill Crane

This experience was so great that we’ve decided to go to Crane Fest in October. They say they counted over 6,000 cranes there during last year’s migration. That’s got to be a fabulous thing to see.

We also saw our first ever Red-breasted Nuthatch on this trip. Very nice surprise.

Here’s a gallery of some dragonflies and more birds from the week. (Click on pix to enlarge.) Enjoy!

Probably an Eastern Forktail
One of the emerald dragonflies – almost in focus!
Cedar Waxwing, aka Batman Bird
Belted Kingfisher
Solitary Sandpiper

And finally, one of the gorgeous sunsets we had at Cranberry Lake.

Sunset on Cranberry Lake

A Week in the North Woods – Part One

View of the lake from our dock

We spent last week in a secluded cabin on a small lake in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sounds good already, doesn’t it? Wait till I tell you more….

The cabin was on 28 private acres, with a 60-acre lake just steps from the front door. We took our kayaks with us and enjoyed them on the beautiful lake every day. Well, except for the one time it rained all day. Other than that, we were lucky with weather and got to go for three nice hikes during the week.  (I admit there was one unpleasant part of the vacation though: the mosquitoes. Oh man, I couldn’t step outside unless I was coated from head to toe with repellent. Those buggers are vicious! I’m home now, but my arms and legs are covered with bites. Phooey on them.)

There was fishing from the dock….
…and fishing from the kayak.

We both agreed that this was THE quietest place we’d ever been before. I think there was only one time we heard a jet ski from a neighboring lake, but otherwise it was extremely quiet. One night I even got out of bed to make sure I’d left the window open because I couldn’t hear any noise at all! That’s a very odd feeling for someone who’s used to hearing traffic outside her door all day every day. But I could definitely get used to it.

Au Sable Lighthouse

So where did we hike, you ask? We drove about 30 miles east of Munising and walked a mile and a half to the Au Sable Lighthouse. Not only is this cool because it’s the most inaccessible lighthouse on the US mainland, but as you walk along the shore of Lake Superior you pass the wrecks of several ships from the early 1900s. The lighthouse opened in 1874, but I guess this area was still too treacherous for some vessels. I’ll talk more about our bird sightings later, but on this hike we were thrilled to have a Bald Eagle fly right over our heads. It was our only sighting of our national symbol on this trip.

Shipwreck on shore of Lake Superior

Our second hike was in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, a real jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System if you ask me. We first did a 1.5 mile hike around a nature trail loop, where we saw a gigantic nest in a treetop. We thought it might be Bald Eagles, but couldn’t tell with out binoculars. When we got back to the nature center we found that they had a scope set up on it (duh) and it was an Osprey nest. We saw one parent and one youngster in the nest, and we think we saw another adult along our walk but couldn’t be sure of what it was. Wish I’d been able to get a picture of it because this was our first ever Osprey sighting. Gorgeous birds.

After that we killed time for a few hours, hoping to do the 7-mile driving tour nearer to evening hours so we’d have a better chance of seeing bird activity. We ended up starting the drive around 5:30 because we just couldn’t wait any longer. It’s a one-way only driving route with a speed limit of about 15 or 20 mph that passes between a whole system of marshes and woods. At the beginning we had our windows down but quickly had to put them up because of the swarms of black flies attacking the car. It felt like we were in a Hitchcock movie, with dozens of flies just hanging on the outside of the car trying to figure out how to get to us. Ick.  But after we made that adjustment, and despite the heat of the day, we saw Common Loons, a Red-breasted Merganser, lots and lots of Trumpeter Swans, lots of Eastern Kingbirds, an Ovenbird, Canada Geese, a Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gulls (of course), a Great Blue Heron, lots of ravens, goldfinches, and some other warbler that we couldn’t identify — looked like a possible Redstart or Blackburnian. Oh, also this Merlin, another first for both of us.

Merlin

I’ll talk about our third hike and put up some of the other bird pics in Part Two of the story…stay tuned.

By the way, right now there’s a flock of House Finches at our feeders, with several males and about 3 times as many females. One of the males is a very bright red — just beautiful!

The Enthusiasm of the Newly Converted

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising

I know I’m not the first person in the history of the planet to be an enthusiastic convert to a new idea or attitude, but it feels weird. Almost disingenuous. Here’s what I mean:

Almost eleven years ago when we first moved to Michigan from our longtime home state of Ohio, I wasn’t particularly thrilled, to be honest.  Not only did it mean I’d have to finish my Master’s degree at a new school (and lose credits for transferring), but I also had to leave my fabulous job at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, rated one of the best libraries in the country. I’d been working there for less than a year at the time, so I was heartbroken. Otherwise, much of my disdain for the state of Michigan came from my Buckeye blood and loyalty to my alma mater, I admit. We Buckeyes sing songs about the “…whole state of Michigan…”, if you know what I mean. So basically, my opinion of the state was based on complete ignorance.

Along the shore of Lake Michigan

For the first few years after we got here I still had some resistance to immersing myself into the Michigan way of life, always feeling more at home in Ohio. I still identified myself as “an Ohioan living in Michigan.” It felt somehow untrue to say I was a Michigander (or Michiganian, if you prefer, but they both sound weird).  And when I would listen to conversations among my native Michigan friends, or hear other Michiganders talking, I never really “got” why they seemed to be so proud of their state. I mean, it has Detroit, for crying out loud. We all know what the rest of the world thinks of that beleaguered city — and I was no different. At first.

After a few years I finally accepted that this was now “home,” but it wasn’t until we took our first vacation “up north” that I understood the awesome-ness of Michigan. (“Up North” means the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in local parlance. See, they even have their own language here!) It took us eight years to get around to taking that long drive up I-75, but it changed my feelings about Michigan permanently. I noticed that I started answering that traveler’s question — “where are you from?” — differently. I was no longer the Ohioan living in Michigan. I was just “from Michigan.” Not only was it simpler, but it felt ok.

The Mackinac Bridge, gateway to the UP

And more recently I find myself wanting to tell people the good things about Michigan, to stand up for it when I hear negative comments. (Don’t even get me started about Detroit….)  When I sign up for a new website, I often choose user names like “MichiganKim”, making my state of residence part of my online identity. Is that weird? I know I’ll never be a “true” Michigander, but sometimes I feel like I’m an ambassador teaching other people about the mitten state. Not that Ohio isn’t great too, but up here we’re surrounded by more lakes than you can shake a stick at, as well as fabulous parks, hiking & biking trails, and four — count ’em — four Great Lakes. Our lives have been changed a great deal by the easy access to all this nature, and I’d be very disappointed if we had to move away now. (Well, unless we were going to Hawaii or Alaska….just sayin.)

Along the way I found myself subscribing to some fabulous blogs that celebrate Michigan. There’s Michigan in Pictures, and Michigan Architecture, as well as the travel-related sites Pure Michigan Connect and Absolute Michigan. And speaking of travel, when you read this, we’ll be enjoying our vacation Up North once again. We’re taking our kayaks with us, and will be hiking and birdwatching too. I’m sure the time will go by too quickly, but I look forward to sharing some of the natural beauty of Michigan with you when I get back. (Keep your fingers crossed that we get to see a Bald Eagle…)

Wildflowers I Have Known

Garlic Mustard from our woods

After mowing our lawn today I needed to escape from the heat, so I took a stroll through the woods to see which of our wildflowers were blooming. I didn’t know what the garlic mustard was until I came back in the house and looked it up in one of my wildflower books (see the end of this post for the books), but there’s a ton of it. Apparently it’s a horribly invasive plant from Europe, so I’ll be pulling it all.

May Apples, also blooming soon!

I knew to expect the May Apples because I had discovered them a couple years ago. They’re not blooming yet but I have a picture of their flowers from last year. Since the flowers hang beneath the big green umbrella of leaves, I pulled one out of the ground so I could get a better shot of the bloom.

Creamy white flower hidden under the big umbrella of leaves

I’ve read that later in the summer this flower turns into a yellow “apple” berry — I’ll have to make sure to look under the leaves in August this year. According to “The Secrets of Wildflowers” by Jack Sanders, these May Apples were highly prized by native Americans, who used them for insecticides. Sadly, sometimes they were also used to commit suicide (the plant is poisonous — which probably explains why it survives right beside one of our heavily-used deer paths).  May Apple extracts are also being used now in the treatment of various cancers because they can block the division of diseased cells — now that’s a valuable plant.

I also found a huge patch of Lilies of the Valley that I don’t remember seeing before — what a nice surprise (pictures below). I think I need to explore our woods more often; I wonder how many cool things I’ve been missing out there? Even though we only have 2 acres of woods, we’ve never been to the far side of our property because the woods are so hard to get through. One day a few years ago I planned to walk all the way back, but when a dog started barking on the outer edge of the woods I high-tailed it back to the house. I guess I still have a bit of my childhood fear of dogs lurking around — I’d thought that was long gone.

Make sure to scroll down for the rest of the pictures!

Lily of the Valley, blooming soon!
Big patch of Lilies of the Valley
Field Guide to Wildflowers – Eastern Region
I love this book’s stories about wildflowers.

 

Flip-Flop Guy

As I sat in the library waiting for my computer to boot up the other day, I opened the book I’d just picked up from the “New Releases” shelf on my way in. Titled “In Pursuit of Silence,” it was about noise in our society, the reasons for it, and the history behind why we’re so noisy. As I read the first paragraph, a guy in flip-flop sandals walked to the cubicle beside mine and started to unpack his bag. I noticed him mostly because his shoes made such a loud and distracting sound, particularly in the otherwise mostly quiet library.

I chuckled to myself at the irony, and continued reading. A page later, after the flip-flop guy had made two or three noisy trips past me as he settled in, I read this in the introduction:

“I reached a point a couple years ago when I’d had it. I was as tired of hearing myself complain about noise as I was about the noise itself. I was time to do something. I wanted to understand whether my sensitivity to sound and longing for silence was ridiculous….”

Like the author, I’m constantly in search of quiet. I know my sensitivity to sounds is more acute than most people’s, and I really really really wish I could ignore all the things that I find so grating in the world, but it seems to be something hardwired into me. In some ways I feel it’s a disability, because I often avoid places and activities that “normal” people enjoy when I know from experience that I’ll be too preoccupied with the irritations to enjoy myself. That’s the worst part, really. I even skip my beloved weekly knitting group occasionally when I know I can’t deal with the noise of 8 or 10 women all talking at once for 2 hours. Sad, huh?

Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading this book very much.

I’ve had two other instances in life of reading a book and having that moment of realization that there are other people who deal with some of the same issues I do. I know it reeks of self-absorption to say this, but I feel I’m alone in my feelings so much of the time that any chance I have to feel less alone is a reason to celebrate.

Highly Sensitive Person cover imageThe first “aha” moment was about 10 years ago, when I discovered the book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You,” by Dr. Elaine Aron. I actually cried as I found myself not only described perfectly in this book, but was told that my “disabilities” were really wonderful gifts that should be cherished rather than suffered through. And even more importantly, about 15% of the general population is like me in this way. So I’m not alone after all! That book changed my life and I always keep it handy for the times I find myself being overwhelmed by the world.

The second time this happened was only a few weeks ago when I read “Refuse to Choose,” by Barbara Sher. I’ve been frustrated my entire adult life because of my inability to identify a single career path and stick to it like I was “supposed” to. This book labels people like me “scanners”, and puts forth the theory that we’re genetically programmed to be like this, having interest in everything under the sun and wanting to try a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The author, like Dr. Aron, claims that there’s nothing wrong with being like this, and people like me shouldn’t feel pressure or judgment from the rest of society to conform to their idea of what we should do with our lives. Sounds simple, but it was so liberating to hear someone else describe us in such depth and make suggestions for how to live our lives happily.

Our society has lots of words to disparage people like me: “Jack of all trades, master of none”, dabbler, superficial, fickle, shallow, self-indulgent…. and I could go on.  Here’s what the author said about the letters she got upon publication of this book:

“The people who wrote me were unbelievably grateful to hear themselves described in positive terms — usually for the first time. For years they had struggled to understand why they were so different from everyone they knew. They had spent years of their lives bewildered and frustrated. Many had gone to therapists for help but couldn’t follow the program they were given to choose one path and stick to it.”

She goes on to talk about famous people who were Scanners, like Aristotle, Ben Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci. Yes, yes, I think this book will be good for my self-esteem….

I’m not used to baring so much of my soul here (it’s scary), but I hope somebody out there will find something useful in all of this. Who knows, maybe one of you is a “scanner” or a “highly-sensitive person” too, and will be helped by knowing there are others like you out there.