Podcast Passion: Duolingo French

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I love the French language and I love listening to podcasts while I am out walking. Nothing improves my conversational skills more than listening in on native speakers. Duolingo French is my favourite language podcast that I have discovered so far. Every episode is beautifully presented, centered on an inspiring true story, told by the person highlighted.

The producers showcase different cultural perspectives and delve into issues such as equity, diversity, social justice and anti-racism, which I deeply value. I highly recommend that you check it out. It is a high quality listening experience. Let me know if you have any recommendations for podcasts that you love!

Polynésie, mon amour (Polynesia, My Love) Duolingo French Podcast

When the son of a Polynesian fisherman discovers the threats affecting his beloved island’s coral reefs, he teams up with a surf buddy to do something about it. A transcript of this episode is available at https://podcast.duolingo.com/french.
  1. Polynésie, mon amour (Polynesia, My Love)
  2. Mont-Saint-Michel, mon amour (Mont-Saint-Michel, My Love)
  3. Madagascar, mon amour (Madagascar, My Love)
  4. Lausanne, mon amour (Lausanne, My Love)
  5. Lyon, mon amour (Lyon, My Love)

Reversing Alzheimer’s Disease

Photo by Elle Hughes on Pexels.com

Neurologists, Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, created the Healthy Minds Initiative in response to the helplessness that they felt working within the traditional “sick care” model. After watching all the latest drugs and treatments fail to stop dementia, they set out to discover a better preventative approach.

Currently, approximately six million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. and 500,000 in Canada. It is the most common type of dementia. Every 64 seconds someone is diagnosed. This number is likely an underestimation of its true prevalence, as many people consider cognitive impairment to be a normal part of aging, and therefore never report it.

Two-thirds of individuals diagnosed are women. The likelihood of a woman developing Alzheimer’s disease during her lifetime is 1 in 6, compared to a man, which is 1 in 11. It is projected that if we do not take measure to slow the current trajectory, the number of people living with this disease will triple by 2050.

The good news is that Alzheimer’s is not a genetic inevitability and a diagnosis does not have to result in a death sentence. In fact, according to these two doctors, 90% of all Alzheimer’s cases can be prevented; and for the 10% with a strong genetic risk for cognitive decline, the disease can be delayed for ten to fifteen years.

Based upon their extensive research, the Sherzai’s have formed the following conclusions:

  • Physical exercise increases both the number of brain cells and the connections between them.
  • Chronic stress puts the brain in a state of high inflammation, causing structural damage.
  • Restorative sleep is essential for cognitive and overall health.
  • Meat and animal products are degenerative for your brain.
  • Education, learning and other complex cognitive activities protect your brain against decline.
  • Social support has an undeniable influence on the way your brain ages.

They developed a plan to promote the necessary lifestyle changes. They call the plan, “NEURO.”  It includes:

  • Nutrition: A whole-food, plant-based diet low in sugar, salt, and processed foods.
  • Exercise: An active lifestyle that incorporates movement every hour.
  • Unwind: Stress management in the form of meditation, yoga, mindful breathing exercises.
  • Restore: Seven to eight hours of regular, detoxifying sleep.
  • Optimize: Multimodal activities that challenge many of the brain’s capacities.

I have included two great interviews with the Sherzai’s below, with Rich Roll, where you can gain a solid understanding of their work. They have also written two books, The Alzheimer’s Solution, and The 30-Day Alzheimer’s Solution, as well as produce a regular blog and podcast on the subject.

“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is the visionary founder and executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson mixes commentary and reportage, against the true story of Walter McMillian, an innocent black Alabaman sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman.

Throughout the book, Stevenson provides historical context, as well as his own moral and philosophical reflections on the American criminal justice and penal systems. He ultimately argues that society should choose empathy and mercy over condemnation and punishment.

Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.”

Just Mercy is centered around unravelling McMillian’s case, revealing gross police and prosecutorial misconduct, while also weaving in stories of other death-row inmates. Stevenson does this to illustrate the common infringement of victims’ rights, inflexible sentencing laws, and practices of injustice that result in too many juveniles, minorities, and mentally ill people being imprisoned in the United States.

“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”

Throughout the book, Stevenson writes about the histories of different marginalized groups. He describes the racial history of the United States, from slavery through Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, to the current day. He argues that efforts to oppress and dominate black people have not ended, but have endured through new institutions and social practices; and mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor people and minorities, is the latest incarnation of systemic racial and economic violence.

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

This is an incredibly well-written and powerfully presented book. I learned a lot by reading it and I highly recommend that you pick it up.

Watch List: “Call My Agent”

I love French culture and the French language. As a way to build my skills, I am trying to watch more French content, and Netflix has some good shows on offer.

“Call My Agent!” revolves around the personal and professional lives of a tight-knit but dysfunctional team of charismatic Parisian talent agents. Called “Dix Pour Cent” (10 percent) in France, every episode features a string of cameos from well-known actors, such as Juliette Binoche, Monica Bellucci and Sigourney Weaver. 

The series is very well-done and I am enjoying it a lot. It is an extremely witty satire of working in the film business. The characters are both flawed and endearing. The story-lines are fast-paced and funny. The comedic writing, timing and delivery is impeccable. It is easy to lose yourself in each well-crafted episode and I highly recommend that you check it out. Let me know if you have any shows that I should see!

Shop Local: Massy Books

As we look for ways to meaningfully support anti-racism efforts and reconciliation, choosing to spend our money in a locally-owned, independently run BIPOC-run businesses is a great place to start.

Massy Books is 100% Indigenous owned and operated bookstore located in Vancouver, British Columbia. They operate on the ancestral, unceded, and occupied territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

The store opened its doors in June 2017, and in addition to books, it houses a performance space and art gallery. Massy Books is committed to supporting the local community, and it has partnered with non-profit organizations such as Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), The Writer’s Exchange (WE), and Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs (RAVEN).

Independently run bookstores need us, now more than ever, to choose them over online retailers and big box stores. Shopping at a locally-owned business generates three times as much economic benefit for your community versus shopping at a chain. Buying local also means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint. Lastly, it generates more income for the writers who create the books that we love to read. I would love to hear more about the local bookstore that you support!

Embracing Anxiety

Anxiety has been my constant companion since I was a young teen. It is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worry and physical changes like a racing heart. It is a feeling of being in danger, without knowing exactly why. People who experience anxiety tend to have recurring, intrusive thoughts and concerns. They may avoid certain situations or experiences. Anxiety can be debilitating: convincing you that hiding in bed is preferable to facing the outside world.

Over the years, I have learned that being a highly-sensitive person is a super-power. It allows you to see, feel and experience the world around you more deeply and in technicolour. You tend to notice details, make subtle connections, and understand complexity. You also empathize deeply. All of this goodness also lends itself to anxiety. The gift is also the curse.

In order to live at peace with my anxiety, I have cultivated some tactics, and I thought I would share them with you.

Movement

I move my body every day. Whether it be yoga, walking, or a high-intensity strength class, it is essential to regularly sweat and stretch. Movement helps to break the anxiety loop and grounds me in the moment. It connects me to my heart and breath. Whether I want to do it or not, I move every day, often several times a day. It is always worth it.

Nourishment

What you fuel your body with is really important. Over the years, I have given up caffeine, as it makes my heart race and anxiety soar. Sugar is another ingredient to be avoided. Many major diseases that plague us—including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s—are linked to chronic inflammation. My naturopath recommends following a low-inflammation diet as a preventative measure and I have found it to be a very useful approach.

Routine

Creating a daily routine is a way to keep small promises to yourself. When you consistently show up, and follow through on your commitments, you provide yourself with a steady and reliable source of internal support. For some strange reason, I often experience resistance to doing the things that I love the most (exercise, meditation, writing, practising French) but if I scheduled time for the activity, and I follow through, I never ever regret it. Even if it is only for five minutes, it still counts, and it fills me up. The important thing is to be consistent.

Acceptance

Anxiety wants to be in charge. It tries to protect you by imagining every possible scenario: often the most negative and scary. This is futile. The reality is no one knows what is going to happen and it almost never unfolds in the way we think it will. It is important, instead, to sit with the discomfort caused by the unknown and create space for it to just be. Anxiety needs to be thanked for its service and offered appreciation for what it is trying to do, which is keep you safe; but it also needs to be taken out of the driver’s seat, and moved into the back of the bus, where it can relax, look out the window, and enjoy the view.

Support

Aside from all of the personal practices that I have put into place, I am fortunate enough to have a counsellor to support me. The amount of time that I spend with her varies, depending on what is going on in my life, but I am grateful to have her there as a resource. Having a someone to talk to about my anxiety, and a place to access supportive tools, is incredibly helpful.

Privilege

This discussion would not be complete without acknowledging the privilege that I possess to make these choices for myself, and access these resources, as a white middle-class woman. I do not face the trauma, systemic racism and abuse that Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) do each and every day. The anxiety that they face is not even comparable.

Resources

Here are a few resources that I came across and thought worth sharing. The first is a short Instagram video from Mel Robbins. The second is a podcast from Rob Bell, with his wife Kristen, who experiences anxiety. Both women share a thoughtful perspective and some tangible tactics.

Holding Pattern

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

Life these days reminds me of the film, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character becomes stuck in a time-loop, and he is forced to live the same day over and over again. There is so little variance in daily life under COVID; it all feels the same. Our social circles are tiny, if not non-existent; we meet with colleagues via Zoom or Teams and rarely see people in person. Many of our activities occur within the walls of our own homes. I sometimes feel like a passenger gazing out of the window of a plane, circling above the airport, waiting for permission to land: waiting for “life” to start again.

We recently marked one year of living under COVID restrictions, and despite the many challenges, I have been reflecting upon the unexpected benefits. I can take my daughter to school in the morning and I am here when she arrives home. I no longer make the commute twice a day; and it is an easy transition from ending work to beginning our evening routine. My workplace has fully adapted to online collaboration, something which normally would have taken another decade, or more, to come to fruition. Our lives generally move at a slower pace. Less driving. Less commitment. Less rushing.

My main source of joy at the moment is spending time outside with friends and family in nature. We cannot currently do any of the things that we would normally do, such as travel, gather for dinner, or attend events, so the outdoors has become our playground. There is something so nourishing about being outside together. We hike and explore in sun, rain and snow. All it requires is a pair of waterproof hiking boots, a warm jacket and a trail app. My daughter has also become quite the little walker, so it is something we now look forward to doing together. There is so much beauty to discover in our local area, surrounded by trees, water and sky.

I have also discovered the joy of cold swimming. This global phenomenon gained traction at the start of the pandemic when people sought new ways to connect and combat depression. Coldwater therapy is known to support a range of health benefits, such as promoting good mental health, boosting the immune system, enhancing circulation, reducing stress and inflammation. I am hooked. I regularly meet with my friend for a weekly plunge in the ocean and it is always a fun and memorable experience. Not only is it a wonderful opportunity to catch up but my body feels electric all day after a swim.

Although “regular life” currently feels like it is on hold, I am grateful for the opportunity to discover new ways of spending time with loved ones, despite the restrictions. Nature is a remarkable phenomenon that should not be taken for grated. This pandemic has taught me to appreciate each and every day and to seek joy in unexpected places. I have also been reminded of how precious our natural surroundings are and how we all need to work together to actively protect these gifts: both for ourselves and for generations to come.

TED Talks: My Stroke of Insight

On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven- year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. As she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Taylor alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized she was having a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was completely lost. It would take her eight years to fully recover.

For Taylor, her stroke was a blessing and a revelation. It taught her that by “stepping to the right” of our left brains, we can uncover feelings of well-being that are often sidelined by “brain chatter.” Reaching wide audiences through her talk at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference and her appearance on Oprah’s online Soul Series, Taylor provides a valuable recovery guide for those touched by brain injury and an inspiring testimony that inner peace is accessible to anyone.

Returning Home

When I was eight years old, I fell off of a jungle gym backwards. I was resting against a rope, at the top of a ten-foot gangplank, and it suddenly gave way. I dropped to the ground, like a rag doll, and I hit the back of my head on the concrete below. After the initial shock of impact, I caught my breath, and I stood up in a daze. There was no one around. I was completely alone. I stumbled four or five feet forward and then I dropped to the ground.

I was surrounded by a warm, all encompassing bright, white light. I was the light and the light was me. I had no body. I was fully immersed in a gentle and loving embrace and filled with an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt like returning home. I was exactly where I needed to be; and I never wanted to leave. There was no sense of “I”, or a life before, just an indescribable happiness. After a period of time, an awareness grew that I could not stay, and I had to go back. I was then jolted into my body. Everything went black and I was filled with pain. I woke up on the ground and I crawled towards the house for help. It took many years for me to realize that I had not fainted that day. I had experienced a brush with death.

As described in this Scientific American article, near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia or shock. Approximately one in ten patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations report of leaving their bodies, and experiencing a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time.

NDEs share broad commonalities: becoming pain-free; seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel and other visual phenomena; detaching from one’s body and floating above it; or even flying off into space (out-of-body experiences). They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings. A jarring disconnect separates the massive trauma to the body and the peacefulness and feeling of oneness with the universe. 

Death requires irreversible loss of brain function. When the brain is starved of blood flow and oxygen, the patient faints in a fraction of a minute and the electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric, or flat. This implies that large-scale, spatially distributed electrical activity within the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, has broken down. Like a town that loses power one neighbourhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline, one after another.

Given these power outages, this experience produces the rather strange and idiosyncratic stories that make up the majority of NDE reports. To the person undergoing it, the NDE is as real as anything the mind produces during normal waking. When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. When oxygen and blood flow are restored, and the brain boots up, the narrative flow of experience resumes.

Until this point in my life. I have not shared my NDE story with many people; and from those I have told to date, I have generally received one of two responses, open and curious or utterly dismissive. In the end, I share my experience in the hope that it will be of service to others. I know what took place that day and it was real. I can clearly remember it now, even thirty-seven years later. It is beyond logical explanation. It was an expansive, spiritual encounter: not a simple trick of a traumatized brain. Having recently lost a friend to cancer, and facing the imminent death of two family members, this conviction provides me with a lot of comfort. “Life” continues on after a physical death occurs.

I recently watched the Surviving Death series on Netflix. The first episode explores NDEs and I think that they did an excellent job investigating the concept. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend that you check it out.

“Indian Horse” by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse is a stark, yet incredibly beautifully written novel by Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese. As one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous authors and storytellers, Wagamese’s body of work includes six novels, a book of poetry (Runaway Dreams), and five non-fiction titles, including two memoirs and an anthology of his newspaper columns.

Indian Horse tells the story of Saul Indian Horse. It is set in northern Ontario in the 1950’s and 60’s. It begins with Saul, a former minor league hockey star, recovering in a treatment centre for alcoholism; he is chronicling his life experience as a means of facing his addiction. Although a deeply personal tale, it is also reflective of the wider intergenerational trauma experienced by thousands of Indigenous residential school survivors across Canada.

It begins in the northern Ontario where Saul lives off the land with his parents, grandmother and older brother Ben. Saul is happiest when learning traditional skills and family lore from his grandmother. Both of his parents are residential school survivors. They desperately hope that living in the wilderness, away from their community, will save their boys from being taken away to from them; but despite the family’s best efforts, the boys are eventually found, and taken against their will.

Once Saul arrives at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, his experience is harrowing: the students are subjected to beatings, sexual abuse and ritualized humiliation. The school is not designed to teach them to thrive in a new world but to break their spirits and erase their traditional ways of life. Although exceptionally difficult to read, Wagamese truthfully reflects the dire reality experienced by thousands of children across Canada: chronicling a dark chapter in history that should never be forgotten.

A form of hope arrives for Saul when an idealistic young priest introduces the older boys to ice hockey. The priest takes Saul under his wing, and allows him to play, even though he is younger than the other players on the team. The reader observes eight-year-old Saul exuberantly clearing the snow off the ice for the school team and practicing stick handling in the pre-dawn hours using frozen horse turds for pucks. Saul has a natural talent for the game and, like all great players, he visualizes complex plays before they unfold on the ice. He is soon outplaying the older boys, and he is eventually given permission to board with a family in Manitouwadge, so he can join the Native Tournament Circuit.

Saul finds love and acceptance in his new home: both with the Kelly family and his team, “The Moose”. He enjoys camaraderie with his fellow players both on an off the ice. But as Saul’s opportunities increase, so does his exposure to the overt racism and discrimination of the 1960s hockey world, and Canadian society. Saul’s rise up through the ranks of the minor-league is swift but it is also fleeting. He is stripped of his passion for the game and he ultimately walks away from his dream: adopting the nomadic life of a drifter. After many lost years, he hits rock bottom. With some support, he eventually finds his way home, rediscovering his connection to the land, his people, and himself.

Wagamese’s use of language throughout this novel is masterful. He is an incredibly skilled storyteller, with an uncanny descriptive power. I especially appreciated the visceral way that he captured Saul’s experience playing hockey; it helped me to understand the joy of the game. Throughout the book, I found myself stopping and rereading sections, just to take in its richness. Indian Horse is one of the most heart breaking and heart opening books that I have ever read. It is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and a stunningly beautiful piece of literature that everyone should experience.