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We All Need A Little Hygge

My parents were both Danish, so I grew up hearing that language all around me. My first words were in both Danish and English, likely in that order, and it wasn’t until I started school that I realized they were actually different languages.

There are words that seem to be unique to a language, and hard to translate exactly into another. For instance, one of my favourite Danish words has always been “pyt”. It is said in response to something that is stressful or frustrating. And when you say it, pyt is almost like spitting. So it works really well when you’re fed up. “PYT! Let it go…”

You may have come across the word “hygge” in the last few years, and perhaps you even know what it is. But for those of you who haven’t heard of it before, I will explain.

Hygge actually originated in Norway, but first appeared in Danish writing around the 18th century. It is an old, but still very relevant and common practice that has become more popular all over the globe lately. Pronouncing it is your only challenge: the “hy” part sounds sort of like you’re hacking up something that is stuck in your throat. And then add a “ga”. Saying HOO-ga comes close.

The Scandinavian languages are all rather guttural, and Danish is no exception. There are certain letters and pronunciations that are difficult to demonstrate. Danish has often been described as sounding like German, but with a hot potato in your mouth.

But what exactly is hygge? It’s coziness and comfort. A long hot bath. Reading a good book by a crackling fire. Lots of lighted candles. Warmth, soft music, good food and friends, all of those cozy things. Being out in nature is hygge, as is a feeling of gratitude.

In Danish, there is the word “hyggebukser”, or hygge pants. Those are the pants you love to wear, but rarely in front of anyone else. Maybe your pajama bottoms or sweats. In fact, if you’ve been working at home for the last few months, you’re probably wearing them a lot anyway. I mean, if no one can see, who cares? That is hygge.

There’s also the word “hyggesnak” which is what you might think of as cozy conversation. You know, a nice chat with an old friend about comfortable topics. No politics or anything that could be controversial. Politics is definitely NOT hygge.

For me, hygge is sitting out on the back deck on a summer morning with my thermos of coffee and my cat on my lap. I have been known to stay there until noon. As long as my husband doesn’t turn on the radio to blast the news, that is. The news these days can ruin everything, can’t it? All I want to hear is the birds.

Many times over the years I’ve had my friends over for smørrebrød, which is a Danish meal that literally translates as “butter bread”. These are open-faced sandwiches made with dark rye bread topped with all kinds of delicious treats. You might use different cold cuts, shrimp or other fish with fancy garnishes. And lots of butter. I usually make Danish red cabbage along with the sandwiches, and serve up some pickled herring too. We drink Aquavit and Danish beer or “øl” and feel the hygge. (You probably noticed that letter ø. That’s an extra letter in the Danish alphabet, which also sounds somewhat like you’re gagging.)

These days, of course, having friends over is not possible in the same way. So instead, we spend time every week on a Zoom chat with a glass of wine.

Your idea of hygge might be different from mine, and that’s okay. The point is that however you do it, it has to be something that makes you cozy and content. Happy, even. And with fall and winter looming, we’re going to need lots of hygge to get us through.

And we’ll hope for a better 2021. Because, you know, PYT to 2020!

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A Very (COVID) Birthday

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, my mother threw me a surprise birthday party. Well, the “surprise” part didn’t happen. My neighbourhood friend Kenny sort of gave it away early on. We were playing at his house a few days before and he couldn’t help saying “I’m so excited! I can hardly wait! Oops!” covering his mouth and giggling. I knew something was up.

On the day of the party, my mother sent me across the street to play in the park, while she secretly decorated the back yard. When she called me home, she put a blindfold on me and took my hand to lead me outside to the yard. It was very still and quiet, until I heard a giggle. Yep, it was Kenny. He just couldn’t keep quiet.

My blindfold came off to reveal all of my neighbourhood friends gathered to celebrate my birthday. It was a wonderful day.

Birthdays are a far more complicated event for parents these days. Theme parties, dress up parties, movie parties, adventure parties…you name it, there’s a way to make a kid’s party out of it. It’s exhausting to think about.

But this year…

Yes, this year, it’s a whole different story. Suddenly you can’t just book a party room at the movie theater, or arrange for a pool party at the rec centre for your kids. Even something as simple as my little surprise party in the back yard is better left for another time.

There have been some pretty inventive alternatives, though. Decorating the front yard in birthday balloons and paraphernalia, for instance, so that people can honk and wave happy birthday. Or sending your child an “animal gram” in the form of a video created for them with their favourite animal.

A birthday parade is a big hit this year, with friends and family decorating their cars and driving around in a fancy show. There are even virtual scavenger hunts and, in some special cases, the local fire department will drive one of their big trucks by the house and turn on the siren as a birthday wish.

My oldest adult daughter’s birthday was not ordinary this year, but not because of COVID. It took place back in mid-February, before there was any thought about Armageddon. We were in Hawaii, where she had never been, to celebrate a special year of accomplishments for her. We even went to a Luau the night of her birthday to celebrate. All was well in the world, and it turned out that she had the most normal birthday out of all of us.

Because by the next birthday in our household, my husband’s in early May, we were full fledged into the pandemic. I wasn’t ready to go into the mall to buy a card yet, even though the mall had opened by then. I ended up creating a book of photos from a big trip we took a couple of years ago, and making the card myself, the one pictured here, after researching some ideas online. We ordered in some food, had a little cake with candles, and did our best to make it normal.

This past week, my other daughter and I had our birthdays a few days apart. We’re in a different kind of birthday routine now, adjusting to a new way of doing things. In fact, it’s my birthday as I’m writing this. I’ve spent most of the day doing what I love to do, writing and painting, so it doesn’t take much to find my happy place. But right now there’s some whispering in the kitchen, and a match is being lit.

Something’s going on.

I swear, I can hear Kenny giggling…

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Canada Day – A Different Way

Last week, I asked a few of my students what their plans were for Canada Day. Usually, that’s just a casual question you ask when a holiday is on the horizon. This year, however, the responses were decidedly different.

They would stop for a second, stare off somewhere, maybe chuckle, and shrug their shoulders.

Some had definite plans. “We’re going fishing,” one said. That seems safe enough. “Off to our cabin for a couple of days,” said another.

But most had no plans at all. No picnics or barbeques, no street parties, no fireworks or live shows to watch. Not even the usual Canada Day show from a stage set up somewhere in Ottawa, with all the Canadian stars and politicians in attendance.

Oh, there were other shows. Some live streaming and some on TV. But we’re getting used to those new formats now, aren’t we? They’re either live from their living rooms or some kind of “virtual” celebration. Or ninety-three people singing Oh Canada on Zoom.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’ve come up with a lot of wonderfully creative ways to celebrate special occasions lately, from solitary graduations to drive-by birthdays and weddings, and holiday car or bicycle parades. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to celebrate, and we Canadians love to do that. Especially on Canada’s birthday.

Normally, our family would either go down to the lawns of the legislature and be a part of the living flag, or maybe over to Fort Rodd Hill to celebrate our nation’s birthday there. At night, from our back deck, we always hear the fireworks going off. And the inevitable screech of seagulls flying above as they escape Armageddon.

My husband and I decided that this Canada Day it was time to see and be with our friends. In person. We have a great group of four couples who golf together, spend Christmases and birthdays together, and have done so for many years. It’s very unusual for us to go any longer than a month or two without seeing each other in person, but the last time we had been together as a group was last Christmas. That’s more than six months.

So we decided to host a back yard get together at our home on the afternoon of Canada Day, where everyone would bring their own appetizers and beverages, and we’d all sit an appropriate distance apart and just spend some time together. And it was great. It was wonderful to laugh together again, to share our COVID stories and experiences, to catch up on each other’s news and views. It lasted about 3 hours and it was perfect.

Three years ago, on Canada’s 150th birthday, I wrote a blog about having recently returned from Europe on our first big vacation there. I remember, very vividly, seeing Labrador through the plane’s window on the flight back, marveling at how massive Canada is and how little I’ve seen of it. It was a wonderful European vacation, but it was an especially warm feeling to come back home.

But this year, on Canada’s 153rd birthday, to be honest, I was really just happy to be here. Weren’t you?

We Canadians might have our disagreements. Okay, who am I kidding? We have lots of disagreements. We are certainly not perfect and still have a lot to work out for ourselves. But in spite of our differences, I think most of us would agree that we are darn lucky to live in this great country. And that has become so much more evident in the last few months as we’ve negotiated this strange new and frightening pandemic.

One very important reason for our luck is that we’ve had some well educated and intelligent people leading us through it all. And our humanity has been brought to the surface; instead of fighting each other, we’ve come together to help each other. We’ve learned to follow the protocols, listened to those who know what they’re talking about, and put up with new, uncomfortable rules. It’s been rough on a lot of us, and we’ve still got a long way to go.

But, Oh, Canada! I’ve never been prouder to stand on guard for thee.

Take A Listening Walk

One of several versions of the painting "...Image via Wikipedia
For those of you who’ve waited with baited breath (not!), I guess it’s been awhile since I last posted here.  My excuse is that it’s summer and I have been out of my routine as well as out of the city for at least part of that time.  I drove my candy apple red Mustang convertible to Banff, Alberta.  Oh, yes, and I took my husband too :-).  It was quite the adventure, and certainly a good way to get to know a new car.  I’m tempted to write a whole blog post just on driving one of these days, but then again, maybe I shouldn’t.  I couldn’t believe some of the drivers I encountered, especially on the stretch between Penticton and Banff!  On the whole, however, it was a wonderful trip.

Instead I want to write about something I have been doing in the last few weeks as a way to counter some anxiety attacks I’ve been having.  This kind of anxiety is new to me…it seems to rise up suddenly out of nowhere and becomes very physical in nature with tightness in the chest and perspiration and an all around fearful feeling.  From what I have read about menopause, anxiety or panic attacks can often be a symptom.

The worst thing to do when you’re having a panic attack or anxiety is to try to push it away.  In my Buddhist readings, I’ve often come across the idea that “aversion” or trying to push something away, is not the way to deal with anything, whether it’s an emotional reaction or an uncomfortable situation.  What that often does is simply magnify the anxiety or discomfort instead of getting rid of it.  What you are taught to do, essentially, is to go through it, feel it fully and then let it go.  Anxiety is one of those things that can be made stronger and more powerful the more you panic about panicking!

So what I have been doing, not as a way to get rid of anxiety, but a way to train myself to be more in the moment, is to go on “listening walks”.  Aside from watching where I am going (which is essential!), my whole attention is on listening, not to the thoughts going through my head, but to the physical sounds of the world around me as I’m walking.  The louder sounds are obviously easy to hear, but what I try to do is listen for the more distant sounds, like a faint hum of the city, or maybe a small plane in the distance, or voices a block or so away.  And as I hear each one, I identify them to myself.  A car door shutting, a baby crying, a crow squawking;  just like that.

It does take some practice, believe it or not, because the mind wants to work things out when the body is in motion.  It wants to plan or organize or evaluate all kinds of things, and it is so tempting to be drawn into those trains of thought.  So the idea, similar to meditation, is to gently bring your attention back to identifying sounds.

Now this may sound mundane and boring, but over time I have gotten better and better at keeping my attention on sounds, with the result being that I give myself almost a half-an-hour of complete calm.  Walking is good anyway, but doing this mental exercise makes it even more beneficial.  So if you’re not into meditation, but you want to find a way to relax your brain…take a listening walk, and I promise you’ll find a new sense of calm.

And I ALSO promise that I will be adding more posts more frequently in the next few months if you’re willing to read ’em. 🙂

IJ

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Happiness Is Over-rated

A smiley by Pumbaa, drawn using a text editor.Image via Wikipedia

A good friend of mine writes a weekly column in our local newspaper and over the last couple of weeks he has been focusing on the topic of happiness. We are, many of us, often consumed with the desire to be happy, and look for it in the wrong places (or in the wrong things, whichever the case may be). He includes a number of lists written by others, including psychologists, of things you can do to improve your happiness quotient.

While I agree with most of the points in those lists, like fostering a positive attitude and stopping to smell the roses, so to speak, I think there’s another underlying factor at work. 

Sometimes we try to pop a “happiness pill” when we are clearly not. And when we try to sweep our misery under the carpet instead of addressing it and then letting it go…all of the happy pills we take won’t work.

In other words, trying to be happy can sometimes be more about going into denial and can only make things worse. I’m not saying that we should wear our misery on our sleeve and making everyone else around us miserable too. But when there are underlying problems, pushing them aside won’t help.

I say this because I have dealt with depression myself and have family members who have experienced clinical depression and even worse, bi-polar disorder. In the latter case, it can only be treated with medication, which truly is like popping a “happiness pill”. But depression can’t be overcome simply by happy thoughts alone.

Outside of a serious or clinical case of depression, I think people are often contributing to their own unhappiness because of their expectations and the feelings of entitlement. Happy is what we “should” be and when we aren’t, then something is terribly wrong.

The fact is that even in the course of a day, you can easily bound from sadness to happiness and back again…and this is completely natural. If you expect to be deliriously happy all of the time, you are truly kidding yourself, and you will ultimately be disappointed. Buddhists say that the real problem is not the state of happiness or unhappiness, but clinging to one or the other.

Trying to cling to a happy state seems obvious, but why would we want to be miserable?

Actually, we often LOVE being miserable even though that seems an oxymoron. We love going over and over unhappy events in our minds, perhaps mentally punishing someone for some past hurt. Self-pity can itself be rather addictive.

I think the word “happiness” itself has probably been used to death and sort of comes with its own baggage now; perhaps “contented” or “at ease” are closer to what we can achieve.

Have you ever felt contentment about something? It is not a “high”, but rather a quietening of the mind and completely relaxing. If the whole world could simultaneously experience even five minutes of contentment in the true sense of the word, I’d bet you that after the five minutes was up, much of the hate, anger, violence, desire and greed would be alleviated for the following five hours. Can you imagine? Just five hours of world peace.

So here is my list for ways to achieve contentment:

  1. Feel and experience an emotion completely, then let it go. If you pay attention to the natural process of any type of emotion, it ebbs and flows. So let it.
  2. Just sit and breathe, and think of nothing but breathing
  3. Be in the moment, and if you’re having trouble doing that where you are, go for a walk and pay rapt attention to every thing you see, hear and physically feel. Do everything with rapt attention.
  4. Take a nap…naps are very refreshing
  5. Follow the serenity prayer; change the things you can, don’t try to change something you cannot, and learn the difference

These are just five points, I’m sure I could think of more over time. Each of them has given me a sense of peace and contentment in past, but it does take effort to remember and apply them. Even if only one of them stands out or works for you, keep using it and I know it’ll help you to relieve some of the misery and stress of your daily life.

Most of all, stop expecting to be happy, and ironically, you’ll probably start to!


IJ

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