Making and Breaking Habits

I’ve often come across the idea that it takes twenty-one days to create a habit, but in my experience, it takes way longer than that, fifty days at least, which is why I resolved to blog every day for the last fifty days of 2017. And here I am, sixteen days into 2018, and still posting a blog every day. I’m to the point where, if I don’t feel like writing something, I would have to make a special mental leap not to do it.

Of course, daily blogging takes its own mental leap to continue the habit because often there simply is nothing to say. But here I sit anyway.

(Wait a minute! Back up a bit. What was that? Only sixteen days into the new year? Really? It feels like months.)

I’ve also read that it’s supposed to take twenty-one days to break a habit, though from the struggles people have with trying to give up smoking, it seems as if it could take anywhere from twenty-one days to infinity to stop. But when it comes to breaking a good habit, such as daily blogging (assuming that blogging is a good habit), it would take a single day. If I made that leap to not blog today, then it would be easy to make the same leap tomorrow, eroding the impetus, and so the habit would disappear.

Oddly, when it comes to my not eating wheat and sugar, I am already at the “mental leap” stage where I have to stop and think if I feel like a treat, though it has been but twenty days. Not that the habit is engrained enough to truly be a habit. It will take at least thirty more days for that, and even so, it will take a single day for the habit to disappear. And it will disappear when I take my Pacific coast trip — I already know that. After all, the initial idea for the trip was to make chocolate turtles in honor of my mother. And after the habit is broken, who knows how long before I will be able to cultivate the no-sugar habit again.

But that’s a problem for another day.

Oftentimes it’s impossible for me to cultivate a habit because something interferes before the habit is established. For example, I’d planned to try to lift light weights every day to strengthen my upper body and especially my wonky arm for when I go on that brief backpacking trip this May, but the thing that interferes is . . . me. I simply don’t feel like pushing myself, especially on the days I have hand pain. But we’ll see. Maybe after the fifty days of no sugar and wheat are up and they’ve become an engrained habit, I’ll look to establish the lifting-weights habit.

Or not. Sometimes I think being disciplined is highly overrated.

But for now, I’m sort of enjoying the game.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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Is it Really so Important to Label Ourselves and Others?

My four-mile saunter today wasn’t quite as exciting or as heartening as yesterday’s. The pack weight was the same, the distance the same, but various parts of me ached at different times. (I haven’t been able figure out how to stop the slight chafing of the shoulder strap, but it’s possible it’s a design defect of the pack since it was mentioned in at least one review.) Still, I met the challenge. And the whole experience was fabulous in its own way.

Although I might be sore, and I might be staggering a bit after all that effort (I have a hunch I didn’t eat enough yesterday), my mind is at rest.

It’s always a joy getting away from the city, even if my “wilderness” is just the expanse of desert beyond the neighborhood. Out there, by myself, there are no labels. There is just me, whatever that might be.

I sometimes call myself a writer but only when it pertains to my books. I don’t call myself a blogger even though I blog more than write. I don’t call myself a hiker even though I hike more than blog. I don’t call myself a dancer even though I dance more than hike. And I don’t call myself a sleeper even though I sleep more than all of those activities put together.

Most especially, in today’s world where gender is such a hot topic, I don’t bother to place myself anywhere on the gender spectrum, nor do I place myself anywhere on the political spectrum.

I am.

What more do I need?

What more do you need?

Is it really so important to label ourselves and others?

I’ve been deleting “labelers” from my Facebook page, even those I’ve kept because I thought it diplomatic not to delete them during past purges, but I am tired of all the labels we slap on others. Ists and isms. Gender classifications. Political views and identity politics.

Even if people deserve being called racist or sexist or ageist or bigot or anything else, why say it? Labeling makes us feel superior because we, of course, are none of those things. Labeling puts people in what we feel is their place, and keeps us from seeing their greater (or lesser) truth.

One thing that grief taught me is that we are all works in progress, even those we dislike or those who anger us. We are all on our own personal Ferris wheel, filling every one of the buckets, but the wheel keeps turning and so all the buckets are us at various moments during the day, at various times during our lives. It’s only when someone dies that the Ferris wheel stops, allowing us (perhaps) to see each of their many parts. By labeling a person, you put a spoke in their Ferris wheel as relates to you, stopping it at that particular view of the person. You never see all the rest of the buckets. Never see that beyond your label, the wheel keeps turning.

I tried to explain this to a friend who insists that I am opinionated, though I do not think I am arrogantly and conceitedly assertive and dogmatic in my opinions. (Which is the definition of opinionated.) And every time she tells me I am opinionated, she uses the same example, “You don’t just say ‘I don’t like Meryl Streep,’ like other people do, you say, ‘I hate her.’” Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I ever thought about the actress, can’t remember the last time I spoke her name, can’t remember the last time I saw one of her movies, but apparently, years ago when we were discussing movies and she was extolling Streep’s virtues, I said I hated the actress. And forever after, in my friend’s mind, that proves I am opinionated.

(As an aside, I told her that the one-time friend who called me contrary was perhaps the most contrary person I ever met. The person who called me negative was so negative I could barely handle being in her presence. Before I could suggest that this friend turn the opinionated finger to herself, she said, “I can see where this is going.”)

So, here’s a thought. What would happen if everyone stopped labeling everyone else? Calling someone racist ignores all the blatantly unracist things the person does. Calling someone leftist ignores . . . etc, etc, etc. But even if they were consistently racist (or whatever label you put on them), why say it? It might not make the world a better place if we stopped the labels, but it sure would make Facebook a much more pleasant place to hang out.

Meantime, there is always the desert, where there are no labels. Just sand and wind and sun and me.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Sad Story of Chocolate

I try to stay away from current issues because — well, they are current, and my focus is more on timeless topics, such as being, connecting to the world, creating meaning. But today I read something that irritated me so much that here I am.

According to the article, global warming will cause the extinction of chocolate in the next thirty or forty years because it’s getting too hot to grow cacao plants.

Um, no. I’ve known about the chocolate demise practically my whole life, long before the term “climate change” was ever coined. The threat to chocolate is that cacao trees need the shade of the rain forest to grow seedlings, the soil of the rain forest to nourish them, and full sun to grow. So chocolate farming is done on the edge of rain forests on cleared rain forest land. And rain forests are geared to go extinct in about forty years. So, no more rain forests, no more chocolate.

As a citizen of the United States, I am not one to talk about clearing forests. The land here used to be covered with vast forests, but the first thing any settler did as they moved west was clear the land. In fact, so many of the stories in our readers as schoolchildren were about those great folks and their great work ethic as they chopped down the great trees to build this great country. Cutting down trees has for hundreds of years been considered a good thing to do. It would be hypocritical of me, as one who has enjoyed the “benefits” of that destroyed primeval forest, to castigate others for doing the exact same thing.

But the truth is, half the world’s rainforests have been cleared in the past one hundred years, and at the rate they are continuing to be cleared — every year an area the size of England and Wales is gone — the rain forests will be erased in forty years.

If the rain forests were only cleared to grow chocolate, that would be one thing because the demise of the forests would be quite slow, but it’s a huge business — not just for the trees themselves, but the land for palm oil, soy, rubber, cattle. Not only does a percentage of the carbon dioxide emissions come from the downed forests — 12% — the forests themselves help clear human made pollution from the atmosphere. And with no rain forest, the pollution builds.

By the time the rain forests are gone, the population of Earth will be way over nine billion folks. (Hopefully, minus one — me.) What interests me is how few people talk about overpopulation anymore. Such an unpopular topic! How dare anyone suggest that people limit their reproduction or, horrors, not reproduce at all. But then, no one really wants zero population growth because zero population growth also means zero corporation growth. No growth, no profits.

Still, when I was young, I made the decision to ignore my own ticking biological clock and listen instead to the world’s ticking biological clock. And so I have no children. My footprint on this earth ends at my death. I met a woman my age recently who has more than sixty-five grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What could I possibly do to the earth in my lifetime that would equal even one tenth the effect this one woman has? Even if I never did anything to conserve, to recycle (recycle in the old use of the term meaning to use up and wear out), I would have done my part, but I walk very softly on this earth. I don’t need governments to try to change the climate for me, don’t need pundits to scare me with worst case scenarios, don’t need reactionaries to tell me how best to live my life. I’m doing everything I can for the world as it is.

Well, except for chocolate. I do sometimes eat chocolate.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Sauntering

John Muir, an early advocate for the preservation of the wilderness, was involved in the creation of some of our national parks. Since so many hikers (those who have heard of him, that is) seem to revere him, I always assumed he was an avid hiker. Not so. He once said, “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike!”

He continued, “Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

This might be only Muir’s interpretation of the word saunter because most definitions say the origin of the word is unclear. And yet, there is this from another source: “Usually the pilgrims [to Saint Terre , the Holy Land] — traveled in caravans for safety. Many saints, and good priests and bishops, from the East and West, preached against what they often saw in such journeymen as a spirit of uncertain and sometimes even scandalous restlessness. The French coined the word saunter to describe such peripatetic meanderings of vagabond types on their way to Saint Terre.”

Sauntering, with its connotation of a spiritual ramble, is exactly what I do. Even though I use the term “hike,” the truth is, I don’t really hike. Or even walk. I saunter. I stop to look around. Breathe in the ambiance. Listen to the stillness. Smell the air. Feel the holiness of the land. Touch the spirit of the place. Sometimes even reverently touch a rock or a tree. (Or, not so reverently, the ground, if I trip.)

I used to go on group hikes, but even though there is supposed to be safety in numbers, I never felt safe. I always had to “hike.” To go at their speed. To hurry to catch up after stopping to savor a place. So not my idea of a proper wilderness experience!

Although my dream is of an epic hike, for me the challenge and the joy would be the time spent on the trail, not the distance traveled. Although thru-hikers deny that that hiking one of the major trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail is a competition, there’s really no other way to describe it. The competition might not be against each other, but there is definitely a race against time, the weather, even one’s own ability. There are only so many months to travel the trail before the winter snows make hiking impossible, and so sometimes grueling paces have to be set. And sometimes people try to break the record of how long it takes to hike the trail.

Not my idea of a spiritual journey or even just a good time.

Now a saunter — yep, that’s for me.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

 

New Year’s Letter to the Newly Bereft

I’ve been corresponding with a fellow who lost his life mate/soul mate a few short months ago, and after the holidays, he emailed me, telling me how unimaginably difficult it was going into the new year without the love of his life.

I wish I had comforting words to say to him and all the others who are new-born into the world of grief, or a bit of wisdom to help them get through this terrible time, or even a pat of encouragement, but I have no comfort, wisdom, encouragement. All I have is the truth. As I wrote to this new friend in grief:

Yes, it is unimaginably difficult. There is no way to sugar coat it. All the firsts are going to be hard — the first Christmas, the first New Year, the first Valentines day, etc. etc. etc. And such days will always hard.

I wish I had something more to offer than simply a validation that what you are feeling is normal and right and to be expected. Doesn’t help with the pain, though, does it? Sometime this year you will go through a period of peace. Savor that against the long haul. Because it is a long haul.

Wishing you a new year of health and peace.

Whether you are looking forward to a new love or looking back to your lost love, I wish you all a new year of health and peace and renewal.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Courage to Grieve

I’ve mentioned before — many times before — that I started writing about grief when I got frustrated with all the misconceptions of grief I found in fiction. And I continue to write about grief because the misconceptions continue.

In the book I just started to read but probably won’t finish, the guy’s very rich wife was murdered. When he told his wife’s secretary about the death, the secretary cried a few minutes, vomited, then took a deep breath, and said, “No more tears. We have to be brave.”

He, of course, had been “brave” from the beginning, and hadn’t shed a single tear. Had no trouble breathing, thinking, planning, and yet, his dead wife was the love of his life. I can understand a writer not wanting the character to succumb to grief, and I can understand the writer not knowing the full impact of grief, not just tears and sorrow, but the horrendous physical and mental changes that occur when you lose someone who has meant everything to you — changes that you cannot control, and changes that (if you’ve never experienced them) you cannot even imagine.

What I cannot forgive is that “we have to be brave” sentence. Blocking out grief (to the extent that it can be blocked out), is not bravery. It is rank cowardice. (I’m not talking about people blocking out grief because of shock or a true inability to accept the truth. I’m talking about a fictional character deliberately blocking out grief in a misguided attempt at being brave.)

True courage is facing the loss, experiencing grief in all its permutations, going where grief takes you. And that means tears, explosive anger, inability to breathe or think and the dozens of other insane ways that grief flogs you. I understand the character’s need to find the murderer in a timely manner, but you don’t do that by blocking out the grief. You use grief’s own energy — and your own anger — to catapult you into action. Blocking the grief enervates you because it takes a huge dam of energy to shut off grief’s demands. (Only people who have been in that situation know that you don’t go through grief; grief goes through you. Grief is the one in control.) And the block only lasts so long, anyway. Eventually, like any tsunami, grief will break through the dam with greater energy than if you’d have had the courage to face it in the first place.

I know I’m being idealistic here — a character, especially a male thriller/adventurer character must be macho no matter what (with only miniscule chinks of vulnerability to shed light on the true depth of the character), but the stereotype still perpetrates the myth of grief that so many of us believe — that we must not cry because we must be strong at all costs and we must be brave and tears make us weak.

Tears do not make us weak. Tears actually make us strong because they relieve stress of all kinds and enable us to continue when we think we can’t. Maybe there wouldn’t be so much nastiness in the world if people would just let themselves cry. If cowboys had wept, the west (at least the mythological west) would have been a more genteel place. But then, there would be no “westerns.” And if soldiers wept . . .

Well, now I’m getting ridiculously idealistic. But the truth remains: it takes courage to grieve. Refusing to face grief because of a fictional need to be brave is cowardice. Pure and simple.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Have a Wonderful Penultimate Day!

“Penultimate,” means the second to last in a series, and today is the second to last day of the year, which strikes me as something special to celebrate. We have all, even the most curmudgeonly among us, at one time or another celebrated New Years Eve or New Years Day, if only with the purchase of a new calendar or a perfunctory toast with a bit of bubbly, but it seems as if this day is just as worthy of a toast as those two more iconic days. I mean, how often does one get to use the word penultimate? For that alone, I will pop open a bottle of sparkling apple/pear juice and toast the day.

Being cognizant of the second to last day of the year also gives us a chance to ease gradually into the end of a year/beginning of a new year cycle. Too often it seems that one second it is the old year and the next second it is a new year (I’m being silly here because obviously, that is the way things work), and celebrating this day gives us more of a buffer, an extra day to reflect on what was and what we hope will be.

20171230_111436.jpgBesides being penultimate, today was worthy of celebration in itself. For me, anyway. It was a gorgeous day, a perfect day for a practice hike. So I shrugged on my trainer backpack (my real backpack but with minimal weight) and headed out. That I could even walk three miles with ten pounds on my back and two pounds on my front (a fanny pack flipped to the front to make the water bottles more accessible) is something to celebrate. Even more — for a few minutes during the trek, I stopped feeling all that weight, which makes me think I will eventually be able to add more without any trouble. (Well, a little trouble. I was trying to make sure I stood upright instead of leaning forward, and I must have forgotten to tilt my hips forward to lessen the hip arch, and I can it feel it in my lower back. Ouch.)

Still, a little pain never hurt anyone, and pain in itself is something to celebrate. It means we’re alive! And that, for sure, is something to celebrate.

So, have a wonderful penultimate day!

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Time Warp

I went to the grocery store today, and for a second, I felt dizzy, as if I had stepped through a time warp. I could have sworn Christmas was just a few days ago, that the new year hadn’t even started, but this is what I saw:

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Valentine’s Day? Already? Tell me it isn’t so!

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Up Over and Down Under

An Australian friend believes that the Southern Hemisphere is on top, and the Northern hemisphere is down under because as he says, “Australia is slowly sliding down towards the Equator and the Northern Hemisphere, and as the force of gravity makes things slide down not up I know we are on top cos we are sliding down, See?”

Makes sense to me. And a whole different way of looking at things. It gets tiring have to be up all the time. If we were naturally down, any sort of “upness” would be a special bonus, not a requirement. We’d still have the weight of the world on our shoulders, but at least it would be understandable since the weight of the world really would be on our shoulders.

Calling the hemispheres northern or southern is merely a local designation in relation to earth’s poles. In reality, a globe spinning in space has no up or down, no south or north. From that point of view, the same gravity that is pulling Australia toward the equator is keeping us all from spinning off into the heavens.

Whew! I feel upside down now, not really sure which end of me is up. I just hope gravity holds long enough to keep my feet on the earth for as long as I live.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Fun and Clever and Unique

I love talking about my books, though I seldom get a chance. Luckily for me, the following conversation with my sister was caught on text!

SISTER: I’m into chapter 6 of Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare and I have so many questions and comments!!!!!!

ME: You like it, though?

SISTER: Love it! It’s fun and clever and unique. Is the cover photo actually one of your dance mates?? Is there a Deb character in your class? How fun that you condensed your family into one representative sister and brother.

ME: Almost all the people are real. Yes there is a Deb, though she is a composite character and caricatured a bit. The first few chapters tell the true story of the story so the cover is exactly as described in the book. The woman on the floor is Grace, the one who suggested the project.

SISTER: That is so fun!

ME: Many of the conversations in the book actually took place. Buffy really did say, “I’m not the one who volunteered to be the victim.” Oddly, after the book was written, Grace asked how I picked her. She had forgotten the whole thing was her idea.

ME: Perhaps the only truly fictional character is Pat. I’m not sure she exists. 🙂

SISTER: Pat???? Are you referring to Pat in the Hat? Trust me, she’s very real.

ME: It was fun writing as me. I didn’t have to worry about a character arc. Just show my feelings. It’s amazing how much of those first chapters are as they happened.  The cops kept showing up (going to lunch at a nearby restaurant) and it was a bit freaky to see them when we were talking about killing Grace.

SISTER: And btw, it’s very surreal to be reading a book by Pat featuring a character who is Pat, while texting with Pat (the writer? the person? the character?) hah!

ME: Now you know how it felt writing the book. I kept thinking Grace was dead, and then she’d show up for class. At one point, I really did consider asking one of the lunching cops what the procedure would be if she died, and I remember thinking, “I don’t need to ask. I’ll find out when she’s dead.” The whole thing was totally surreal.

SISTER: I can imagine!

ME: Don’t be surprised if your “surreal” comment shows up on my blog.

SISTER: For the record, I don’t mind being quoted.

ME: Remember that blog I did when I asked you  if it was bizarre reading a sex scene written by your sister? Well, that is one of the highest “hits” on my blog because of the juxtaposition of those two words: s e x and sister. You would not believe how many people in the world google, “how to have s e x with my sister,” or “how to get my sister to have s e x with me,” or the ever popular, “how to f*** my sister.” Truly bizarre.

SISTER: OMG, that is wild. And in the vernacular of today: ew

ME: I know. Totally ew.

Let’s hope this blog doesn’t have the same ew factor.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.