The way of the walker: walking mindfully

Children walk wonderfully. We ancients tend to get stuck. (Image Archie Somerville 1856)

bootcamp2015-small 2

Post written in 2015, in which I offer more sage advice to myself about the simple pleasures of walking

Walking is one peg in the exercise programme that was part of my boot camp for old age, my year of looking intently at darn near every aspect of my life.  And there’s more to walking than mindless locomotion.

For example, do you generally amble, dawdle, glide, limp, lurch, march, meander, mince, pace, perambulate, plod, prance, prowl, ramble, saunter, shuffle, skulk, stagger, stalk, stride, strut, stumble, swagger, toddle, totter, tramp, trudge or waddle?

And how would you know?

Oops, is that the walking dead?

Have you caught your reflection in a shop window lately? Did it take you by surprise? Was that a reflection of the real you, a recognisable you, moving a familiar body along the footpath? Or did you catch a glimpse of someone much older than you feel?

Any way of walking is better than not walking, and your way is your way, unique and beautiful. Our walking style is an expression of who we are. If we can walk at all, we are blessed.

Yet we can tinker with our walking style. We are not doomed to continue with any habits we dislike. At least some of them can be modified, if we choose.

A comparatively new aim for me is to be mindful as I walk, to be aware that I’m walking. Trust me, I’m no model: my level of awareness varies hugely. And that’s fine: if mindfulness becomes a guilt trip, what’s the point? Do it your way, whenever, however. It’s not a competition and there’s no exam. Meditating as you walk or hurry on an errand or stride out in company or hike up a mountain or wander lonely through a host of golden daffodils? It’s all good. The thing is to be conscious of what you’re doing, at least some of the time: which is both simple and unusual.

Four ways of walking mindfully

1. Do a formal “walking meditation”: this practice formalises mindful walking to the nth degree. It usually involves walking slowly along a short path, totally focused on just one thing: walking. The subtle movements of muscles and joints from the soles of your feet to your neck, the quality of every sensation, the way your head balances on your neck, the touch of your clothing, the air you breathe, the way your spine moves, the sun or wind on your skin…

I’m no expert on walking meditation, so let’s move on.

2. Notice just one thing about your body. Go easy on yourself. You don’t need to plunge into a full monastic meditation: just check off one body part as you move along. You could focus on your thighs or shoulders or feet for a few steps, or just track the movement of air over your skin. You might be surprised at what you discover. Often, I consciously relax my jaw, because that’s a problem for me. I don’t need my jaw to walk, so relax, dammit!

3. Just look softly, and notice what you see. Sometimes I focus on something straight ahead, sometimes on the peripheral vision. The more you look around, the more there is to notice. Children to admire, cats to be acknowledged, paint squiggles on the pavement, fuschia buds begging to be popped…

4. Tread lightly on your thoughts. Mindfulness does not exclude thinking: rather, it means becoming aware of your thinking. Generally I try not to work earnestly on problems while walking—but again and again I’ll go for a walk and mysteriously, a problem will solve itself. A new thought pops up out of the blue, and quite unexpectedly you see that problem from a different angle. Such moments are common with writers: that’s why so many writers have a dog or live by the sea!

Do you already practise some of these habits?

Want to extend your repertoire a little? Take it softly, softly. This is not a duty. It will not make you rich or famous, but it may be rather enjoyable.

9 more tips for walking young, safe, and happy.


How do people in their 50s, 60s and 70s use technology?

Infographic from AARP report on older Americans and technology.
Infographic from AARP report on older Americans and technology.

How do people in their 50s, 60s and 70s use technology? How do we differ from younger people in our use of communication devices and social media? A report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) examines the current situation in the United States. Interesting!

Middle-aged and older people are no longer a bunch of reluctant beginners. We do use technology a lot, and we use it differently at different ages.

The infographic just scratches the surface: the report has different findings for subjects in their 50s, 60s and 70s. A few random facts:

  • Over half of people in their 70s use their computer for playing games
  • Most 50+ tend not to trust privacy protection on the internet, yet only a minority take steps to protect their privacy (I guess we’re not alone there)
  • Only 17% of those in their 70s use the internet to take webinars or classes, or watch how-to tutorials, a drop from 27% for those in their 60s
  • Among those under 70, text messaging has overtaken email as the tool most used to stay in touch

50+ use tech to communicate

How does your use of technology match the norms revealed in the AARP survey?

Of course, individuals won’t match the stats: you and I use tech and social media in our own sweet way.

At a glance, I’m more active on social media than most 70+ users, a keen learner, half-hearted about password protection and other privacy measures, a heavy user of the smartphone, and typically, lacking wearables. Maybe my birth certificate is at fault.

How about you?

Read more about the AARP report on Tech and older adults

Read the full report: Technology use and attitudes among mid-life and older Americans

Read Ronni Bennett’s take on this report: Time Goes By is always a great read.
Technology alert: Time Goes By is a Typepad blog, and opens in a new window

An old dragon in the year of the dog

Japanese New Year card by Isshu Fujiwara: Year of the Dog 2018
Japanese New Year card by Isshu Fujiwara: Year of the Dog 2018

So, the Year of the Dog is underway now, and so is my next year of life. Last Saturday I had a bunch of super-special friends here for a party, knowing that at my age, every birthday is a gift, a stroke of luck, and should be celebrated to the hilt.

I checked my prospects for 2018 in a desultory way. I’ve thinking about messages for those born in a Year of the Dragon — in my case, 1940.  Let me quote a couple of sources at random. I have no idea whether they have any authority and that doesn’t matter: they are starters for fruitful contemplation.

It is advisable that anyone born in the year of the dragon wears either a red  string around his waist or wears red underwear or red socks all year for protections from any challenges the dog may want to throw his way.

Low profile is the name of the game for the Dragon this year. Undoubtedly the Dragon is a well-­respected character and one to always be ahead of the field but everyone deserves some time off and 2018 is an ideal time to do so.

It will be a wise Dragon who rests on his laurels and even takes a sabbatical this year. (Daily Mail)

Dragons are advised to exercise extreme caution this year. And also restraint. Do not retaliate, not yet. Tolerance is key. Even endurance. What you endure this year can be a harvest. (Kiss925)

Does this astrological advice make sense for me in 2018?

Well, yes, sort of. I’ve had a tough couple of years with stuff comin’ at me, and now would be a great time to step back and take it easy. Thank you, Dog.

A sabbatical? Sure! In the good old days when academics had sabbaticals as of right, the word meant taking time off from their job every seventh year to refresh and renew and research and write.

As I’ve just completed my 77th year, the timing is perfect.

Not sure about the red string.

The New Year card is by my friend Isshu Fujiwara, and features the aptly named terrier, Joy. This is her year and she is extra joyful.

Fermenting foods to soothe an older gut

Fermenting cabbage, tea, and milk at home
Fermenting cabbage, tea, and milk at home

So much fermentation in my kitchen! How come?

Old digestive systems grow a bit cranky and tender. And it’s so irritating when you realise you can’t handle quite as much coffee as in your wild and wicked years of youth. But that’s not why my kitchen has gradually become a bacteria brewery.

For years I’ve eaten various fermented foods, including yoghurt, sauerkraut, cheese, wine, umeboshi, and miso. Now that science is demonstrating their many benefits, I’ve started making my own. It’s kind of fun, and I only do the easy ones. I began with sour plum concentrate and then kombucha to control a lifelong acid reflux problem: beats medication hands down.

  • Sauerkraut is working away in that blue and gold bowl under a bag of water. This one is from red cabbage. Great with Hunter sausage and boiled new potatoes.
  • Kombucha (fermented tea) is brewing in the pottery jar topped with a dish cloth, and another batch is having its second brew in bottles: I added lemon and ginger this time for flavour and to create more fizz.
  • Yoghurt? Home made is best but it’s far too tricky, so I make yoghurt from a packet.

King Kefir: best of all fermented foods is the easiest to make at home

home made kefir in jars
Fermenting milk kefir is ridiculously simple

I make kefir from skim milk with added calcium, adding a dash of cream to thicken it up. But you really can’t go wrong. The long-suffering kefir starter grains are hiding in their own slimy milk in the smaller jar, ready to work on the next batch. Kefir on porridge, kefir smoothies — anything yoghurt does, kefir does better.

Fermented foods are yummy but what work do they do?

You’ll find heaps of research on the subject in the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, if you’re interested. For older people, the benefits may or may not include the following:

  • may help digestion
  • may prevent acid reflux
  • may moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms — one small study so far suggests this
  • may help with depression
  • may help to control diabetes.

And who knows what else? The mysterious, pervasive, holistic function of our microbiota is a hot new playground for scientific researchers in numerous fields.

More information from trusted sources about fermented foods

Expressive Writing: simple DIY writing therapy for painful memories

Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!
Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!

Write over your troubles: that was the theme on Day One of our 2018 summer writing school.

In three short sessions, we followed the instructions of Professor James Pennebaker, which have not changed much since his discovery of this extraordinary process many years ago. He calls it Expressive Writing. Interspersed with those three sessions, we did some positive journaling exercises to increase objectivity, empathy, and optimism.

I offered alternatives to the Expressive Writing sessions, but everyone (I think) wrote about a personal experience. We shredded our writing ceremoniously after each session, and we didn’t discuss it: that’s a rule. However, half the members said privately that this had been highly effective for them, helping to free them from something that was hindering their life and writing.


What is Expressive Writing?

Pennebaker had a hunch that simply writing three or four times about a trauma, each time examining the story more closely, would favourably affect people’s health.

In his first experiment, he asked groups of students to write for 20 minutes on three consecutive days about an emotional event that still disturbed them. Each time, they were to express their deepest, most private feelings and thoughts around the event, knowing that nobody would ever see what they wrote. The second time, they were to go deeper and wider, perhaps exploring the context, the impact on themselves and others. And on the last occasion, they were encouraged to try and make sense of the event, using words like because, realize, understand.

Each time, what they wrote was destroyed, and they did not discuss the event or their writing.

He wanted to see if those students then had fewer visits to the doctor in the following year than a control group. Indeed they did, and their grades improved too. And so began a wave of research that confirmed that writing this way, within these constraints, could heal. Over 200 studies have shown measurable healing effects on groups with PTSD, chronic pain, cancer, asthma, psoriasis, and even fresh wounds. Today this form of writing therapy, along with variations, is commonly used in many countries.

Writing often heals, but sometimes picks the scab

Writing has performed its own mysterious therapy from time immemorial. You have almost certainly experienced the magic of writing: it makes you feel better!

However, writing about painful experiences can certainly backfire. I see scores of bloggers writing over and over and over again about the same disturbing event, and chances are that writing is making them feel worse, not better. I’ve done it myself, in a journal: initially it feels exhilarating, but if you carry on, the writing tends to become yukky and counterproductive.

By contrast, Expressive Writing has constraints of time and exposure and theme. That makes all the difference.

Cat playing with shredded paper
All that remains of a painful event: a few shreds of paper.

Why is Expressive Writing better than a diary?

Why does this work better than just writing about painful events in a journal or diary? Well, I don’t know, but these are my thoughts after having experienced both forms.

  • No talking is involved in Expressive Writing. There’s no therapist: you can do it yourself from written instructions.
  • The writing is private, it’s safe, and there’s no threat of exposure.
  • It’s like telling a secret without talking.
  • It’s the opposite of rumination, where an ugly event loops over and over in your mind, each time the same old story, your thoughts running along well-worn ruts. That story might have been comforting at first, reassuring you, getting your version straight. But when it gets stuck, you get stuck.
  • Expressive writing gently encourages people to change their story, to see things in a different light. It’s a therapy for getting unstuck.
  • Expressive writing has a time limit. You make progress — and then you stop. By contrast, writing in a diary has no end. If you keep writing about sad or bad events, it can lure you into an unhealthy cycle of self-pity or self-justification or resentment.

Why does Expressive Writing heal at all?

Nobody seems to know for sure, but these theories are plausible.

  • It relieves stress, especially for those who are troubled by an untold secret.
  • Stress relief improves the immune system.
  • Stress relief improves sleep.

If this interests you, you’ll find ample information about it online, and even a book of instructions:
Expressive Writing: Words That Heal by James Pennebaker and John Evans, on Amazon


Travel expands the culinary skills

Fondue on a table, bread on two forks dipping in
Classic Swiss fondue. Photo by Jerome, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How our repertoire as cooks expands when we travel! What startling new ideas bombard us at cafes and restaurants in exotic places!

As a newlywed, I spent four years living in Geneva, from 1960–1963. This experience made a momentous impression on me, and as for the food, it was bouleversant.

My food background: post-war, English-style cooking

Bear in mind that we came from New Zealand, and in the 1960s we were just emerging from a very basic meat-and-three-veg policy for meals. (I’m not complaining: my mother’s cooking was tasty and economical, and gave me a sound basis in nutrition.)

A typical New Zealand salad was iceberg lettuce sliced finely like cole slaw, mixed with all manner of extras and smothered in pretend-mayonnaise that was essentially sweetened condensed milk plus malt vinegar. Yuck.

Before marriage I had taken a course in so-called “Continental cooking”, learning a new dish every week. They were yummy, but rich and heavy: think Hungarian goulash and coq au vin. What I learned: if in doubt add wine and cream.

My food education: eating, talking, eating, drinking

My education in Geneva was organic. We were asked to dinner many times by my boss Peggy and her husband Ray. They were gourmets extraordinaires (sorry, the French keeps bubbling up) with an excellent cook, and they also introduced us to the glorious specificity of cafe life. Local specialties and celebrated chefs abounded, even in the smallest village. You went to Cafe X in the month of Y and ordered dish Z, which was famous throughout the land: everyone else knew that, but we had to be told—and taken.

Of course there were numerous cafe outings with other friends, and we did indeed frequently eat cheese fondue, raclette with small potatoes and gherkins, sauerkraut with  special and specific sausages (depending on the date and location), and so on. Wine, wine, wine, and kirsch featured strongly.

I lapped up these strange new comestibles and styles.

What I learned and never forgot

Back  home in New Zealand, we continued to have fondue parties for some years: they were fun. That’s a hefty dish, good for snow-bound winters in the mountains. Also, for years I made my own sauerkraut and croissants—because nobody else did.

But the most important things I learned were very different, and extraordinarily modern:

  • to include a side salad with every meal
  • to honour simple ingredients as an entree in themselves, without mash-up, for example asparagus or radishes
  • to respect freshness and simplicity
  • to serve smaller helpings
  • to pay attention when eating
  • to experiment when cooking.

These culinary principles influence me to this day. Thank you, Geneva!

Rachel on ski-slope in Switzerland 1962
That’s me, ready for my apres-ski treat. Every snack an adventure in Switzerland!


Puzzled, pleasured, and pacified by a city stroll


Plants in a puzzling perspective? Just shadows on the pavement.

The room they forgot at Massey University. And forgot and forgot and forgot.

Red doors to heaven? Just a Massey University thing.

Hard to see but this ngaio tree is populated by kaka, native birds spreading out from Zealandia, a conservation island in a city

Old ngaio tree near the Carillon? Yes, and can you see six kaka nibbling buds and blundering over branches?

Pet rabbit on a leash, resting in a jacket
Buddy-rabbit tucked into a jacket

Toy on a tummy? Just a Buddy-Rabbit tired after his big Saturday walk.

But I am refreshed by a tiny walk across Wellington. Such pleasure, such puzzles. Light and shade. Mini-eccentricities. New native bird life. Student with a rabbit on a leash.

I love my little city.

Daily Post prompt, photos rachel mcalpine cc by 2.0