Social connections affect focus

Use of social media is known to impact our focus negatively. Social media had one fantastic benefit during the peak of the pandemic. Online connections, when fostered intentionally, can have a positive affect on focus. I recently started reading Michelle Obama’s “The Light we Carry”. She begins by discussing her use of small things to regain focus when bigger things become overwhelming. She took up knitting, among other things, during the pandemic. I was reminded of the many hobbies that many of us re/started during COVID isolation.

I also started knitting (again) after years of not picking up my knitting needles. I completed 1000 piece puzzles again. Worked on my photo organizing that had become neglected. And I wrote.

connections with self through writing

What interests me most about all of this is that many of us did not only take up or reactivate hobbies that we hadn’t participated in for ages. Many of these hobbies (new and old) were trending across the world.

When used with intention social media can aid connections

When we talk about the value of social connection we often refer to the negative impact social media has had. It has affected the quality and depth of our social connections overall. Yet, we used the same technology that has been creating disconnect and lack of focus, to make connections with people. People we otherwise were disconnected from because of physical isolation. And when we did so over common interests, goals and concerns, we did so meaningfully.

Introverts were relieved to have a little (or big) break from “peopling”. Many extraverts were struggling with loss of contact with people… Some of us found new people online… Others found new ways to connect with the people who were normally in our lives but suddenly not due to physical isolation. We mastered zoom and video calls to make family get togethers happen virtually. We learned how to “tiktok”. New interests were discovered while making new friends.

social connections affect focus

There was a nationwide shortage of yeast when so many took up breadmaking – many for the first time  Then shared the spoils on social media – or left gift packages on the neighbours’ doorsteps.

The thing about social media is that it’s really only effective when the user is highly active. Unfortunately that online activity can have a negative impact on in-real-life relationships. Unless both (all) parties are equally as active and are interacting with each other on the same platforms. When trying to be that highly interactive online while engaging in-real-life activities it tends to take away from the depth of in-the-moment experiences (think selfies and hashtags) while distracting from the actual experience.

connections affect focus

Connections affect focus

But during the pandemic we’ve been using social media to substitute for some of those lost connections. And when doing so while engaging in typically solitary activities we found ways to connect with ourselves as well as others. It only stands to reason that those improvements to lost social connections during isolation affect our ability to focus.

Did you take up any new hobbies since COVID-19? How have you connected socially in new or increased ways?

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Intentional connections

Living with intention is more than just setting goals, and visioning exercises, it is living in the moment – making intentional connections to people, places, self. Starting a new year is often a time that we consciously consider our lives, perhaps even take stock, and consider what we’d like to have/do differently.

I’ve been on this journey of self-reflection for a long time. Things have changed over the years. Some changes have been somewhat radical while others have been the natural consequence of days, months, and years passing – changes that we have little to no control over (i.e. children growing; getting older, etc.)

Some changes come about without me  putting much thought or effort in – that my have resulted in “life” deciding for me – about choices that I could have had more say about – had I been living more intentionally.

This is true of the connections I’ve been thinking, learning and writing about – whether they be connections to self, place, others, etc. If I am not intentional about what connections I make, and how, my connections are less abundant and lower quality/depth.

Intentional social connections

For instance, a long-time friend and I get together every week to let our dogs play together, and then walk them. If we were not intentional about doing this regularly it would likely happen far less frequently if at all. For a few years after I moved back to the community, we meant to see each other much more often than we did – but it was so easy to let weeks and even months pass by without seeing each other.

The decision to connect while walking the dogs came about when I got a puppy who needed a LOT of exercise and stimulation. The choice to walk together also allowed for us to connect meaningfully. We talk about what is happening in our family, personal and professional lives. We talk about the latest books we’re reading and often times we “solve the world’s problems”.

Sarah & I, along with a couple of other mutual friends get together occasionally over coffee/tea or a meal. Last winter we started a tradition of making wreaths together for Christmas. Both of these examples have things that work as well as our weekly walks – but tend to be less effective ways of connecting.

Our tea dates are fun, and we usually catch up on things of importance to us all. We’ve known each other for thirty plus years, long enough that we care about and understand the back stories involved in our day to day. But we’re not very intentional about making these dates happen. Sometimes we see one another fairly regularly. Other times months will go by without even talking about the next tea date.

Intention AND authentic connection

Our wreath-making workshop has been more intentional, in that we plan ahead a month or more to decide on a date/time/location and what we’ll do. We have a lot of fun. I wouldn’t change anything about it. But we don’t really get to connect more than the immediate what is happening around us. We’re occupied with the tasks at hand, eating lots of good food, and enjoying the company of some other friends, including some of the kids. I wouldn’t change a thing, but it cannot replace our tea dates and those conversations.

If we became as intentional about the in-between coffee dates as the annual wreath-making, our wreath-making would be what it is – the change we all crave. Now, don’t get me wrong – we get to have a fantastic time together – and leave with a beautiful fresh wreath that lasts long after Christmas, thanks to Rachel’s tutelage!

There are many things that I could do differently with intention. Connecting with friends is one of them.

What would you do differently if only you were more intentional?  

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Traditions build connections

It is through our traditions that we build and strengthen connections with loved ones. Holidays (and other milestone dates) can be equally as joyful as they are sorrowful. It can seem easier to try to avoid these dates, but they come and go whether we choose to engage with them or not. The thing is, choosing to connect with the event/date/day can be comforting and help us move beyond the pain, if we let it.

Building traditions strengthens our connections

That’s one of the best things about traditions, if we build them with our loved ones and connect with those rituals, we will always have those traditions to draw from in times of need. That isn’t to say that there is never pain associated with the memories, but the pain will give way to the love, joy and the connection we share(d) with others when we continue to carry out those customs.

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
― Gustav Mahler

Whether it be, birthday cakes with coins baked into them; stockings filled by Santa, left at the foot of the children’s beds and opened on Christmas morning; New Year’s Eve spent with family, playing board games and listening to the latest music gifted to us; or birthday meals of the honored guest’s favourite foods, shared with family and friends… it can be easy to focus on the loss of loved ones, or the days gone by, and become overcome by the grief associated with that loss. Sometimes that is exactly what our hearts need. For a time.

Whether it comes after the sorrow, or with joy, these rituals can also be the best way to remember and celebrate lost loved ones, or times of the past (indeed, even another lifetime). They can also be a great way to connect our present to our past and to our future.

Traditions connect generations

When my girls were young, we continued traditions that had been a part of my childhood, and my parents’ childhoods. We also started new traditions that belonged to us alone, especially after their father and I split up and we began a tradition of shared, yet divided, time together. I wanted them to feel as loved as ever, and to know that life goes on, even in a new form. But I also wanted to create memories that would be connected to nothing that caused any of us pain. We built new traditions of our own, while also honoring some long-lived customs of our families’. We found a balance that meant our holidays always felt special. And as they’ve grown and moved into the beginning of their adult lives, they take many of those traditions with them, and will start some new ones of their own.

Mindfully carrying out traditions

Some days I find myself engrossed in vivid memories of my mom, brother & sister rushing with me to see what was under the Christmas tree, as my dad observed from within – camera at the ready, capturing those looks of pure delight on our faces. At other times, I carry out the motions without a conscious thought about why they are so special to me.

I used to feel guilty about the times that I wasn’t feeling up to or even conscious of not taking the time to honor and cherish the past. But I’ve come to realize that not only is it part of the process of life to move on and make new memories, it is also how our psyche survives – and thrives. Just as allowing those memories to flood our minds and hearts when they come can be.

Whether it’s taking time to remember the loved ones who made cherished ornaments for the tree as we decorate for the season, or those who gave us gifts or baked goods, by making some of those very recipes to share with those of us who carry on… traditions bring stronger connections to those around us, those before us, and to those yet to come, by sharing in them right now.

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Connections through movies

Last weekend we watched one of my favourite comfort movies – You’ve Got Mail. I found connections to others’ emotions through movies. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this movie, but I hadn’t watched it for a long time. I suppose it’s a good sign that I haven’t felt I “needed” a comfort movie for a long time and that I still I didn’t “need” the comfort from it now either.

I love the book shop that You’ve Got Mail is centred around, and I hate that it doesn’t get saved – but then it I guess that just makes it all the sweeter when the odds are overcome and the grand-daughter and grandson of the original Shop Around the Corner (letter writing) romance flick come together.

Connections through movies (about bookshops)
Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

Connecting with others’ emotions in movies

I’d forgotten about the whole connection to grief in the story. Every moment that Kathleen speaks of her mom takes me right to that place of heartache at the loss of my mom. Kathleen aways spoke of her mom with a lot of love and a little hope that she was doing enough to make her mother proud. Like Kathleen, I can’t help but think about how I am/am not doing great by mom and her memory… that I wish I were further along with my creative endeavours.

When my mom died, I wrote letters to her… and then wrote back to myself imagining what mom would have said if she were still here with me today. The first year was filled with all of those firsts that are experienced without a loved one. But as the years passed, there have been unexpected moments, and mostly the milestones and holidays that seem to bring on the overwhelming grief. It’s better than feeling consumed by it, but some days, it hits almost as hard as when we first lost her.

Processing emotions

As we watched this old favourite of mine, I found myself tearing up over small moments that I don’t recall ever having any affect on me in the past. Connections through movies have helped me at times. We often look for comfort from things that will distract us. For me sometimes what I really need is to be overcome by the emotions that have been fleeting.

Connecting with the hard feelings and actually experiencing them is the only way to really grow and experience further emotions, from sad and angry to joy and happiness.

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Connections in theatre

When I moved “back home” I had no idea that our local theatre would bring me the connections I needed. Shortly after my mom died I returned to the place I think of as my home town. I’d been away for fifteen years. It’s not where my family are from. But it’s the place I called

the longest – and kept returning to.

Making friends overcoming nerves

Moving to a small town as a single adult – with or without children – it is hard to make new connections. Lucky for me, my youngest daughter wanted to audition for a part in our local community theatre production of Annie. Being a new girl in town she was especially nervous – so I told her that I’d audition with her. We were both cast in our first theatre production and had such a fun time and made many new friends and connections.

I’ve always supported my girls’ ambitions, but I especially loved supporting their interests in performing. Whether it be singing, dancing, or acting, performing is such a great way to grow – in self confidence, self acceptance, and friendship.

Since we did that first show together, my girly has continued to do more theatre, dance and singing.

I’ve been back on stage but I became involved more backstage over the years. I have lifelong friends that I have performed with in highschool, and again since returning to theatre.

Growing through connections in theatre

The thing about community theatre is that every single person involved is growing and developing as each rehearsal passes by. It is not a just a figure of speech when it is said that there are no small parts, only small actors. Choruses are the key to fantastic musicals, and often the most fun part to be a part of. Crew, from backstage to set building and props to costumes and tech, are the backbone of a show.

Every show I’ve worked on has been so different, but one thing remains a constant – the friendships.

After spending 3-6 months together in the theatre– working hard, growing, and having fun, our connections become like a family. From musicals to drama, local cultural stories, to farces and classics, every one of those shows has at least one moment that stands out. And every one of those moments involves a connection to others.

Even more than the opportunity to create something in theatre, the connections with co-creators, the connections with the audience, and most importantly the connection with self is invaluable.

I can’t think of a better way to be connected in this world than working together as a team, taking an audience to a place they will only ever experience in THAT moment.

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Hobbies that help us make friends

At different stages of my life I have made friendship through the different hobbies I have pursued. I have moved a lot in my life, both as a child and an adult. One of the first things I do when moving to a new community is join a group of some kind. The more I connect with the hobby/activity itself personally, the more it seems friendships are formed while doing them.

When my children’s father and I split up, I moved to be closer to extended family. But didn’t live in the same community as my family. I had taken up running and belonged to a very social online running forum. I had a ready-made running group to hook up with in-person up my arrival.

Since moving to the community we live in now, I’ve been involved with the local community theatre. We are just wrapping up a production, and last week before the show opened there was a conversation among cast & crew about how they came to be in this community, and what a fantastic second family the theatre had become.

I have joined just about every hobby/group/club pictured here at one point or another throughout my life and always make new friends along the way. I encourage you to try one yourself!

Hobbies are great for making new friends

Hobbies are great for making new friends

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Love, loss and legacy

We don’t often think of our legacy until we’ve experienced profound loss. My first experience with loss was when my maternal grandmother died at 59. I was 11. We were a transient (federal police force) family. We had just moved from north west Canada back to south east Canada after 7 years away. We had a couple of months before Nanny became ill. She died 8 weeks later of what appeared to be cirrhosis of the liver (due to hepatitis that she’d contracted while working as a nurse years earlier). My mom stepped in to ensure Nanny’s legacy lived on.

Living with loss

25 years later, my mother became suddenly ill, with many of the same symptoms. Mom died within eight weeks as well – of pancreatic cancer that had presented as secondary liver cancer. My daughter, also the first grandchild, was almost 11. 

love, loss and legacy

Mom knew she was dieing and spent every moment she felt well enough taking care of things. We went to the funeral home as a family to make arrangements. We met with the minister who would conduct her service. We went through all her clothing, jewelry, and creations (she was an artist) together and she decided what she wanted to give to whom. Mom and I talked about how she coped after her own mother died while she had 11, 9 and 5 year old children to care for. Mom’s health deteriorated so rapidly that every time we started planning for the next eventuality it was immediately upon us. 

Distraction in busyness

I spent the last two weeks staying with mom & dad to help with her care as she’d decided to remain at home for her final days.

For months afterward, I helped dad take care of things, from funeral arrangements to closing up their winter property in Florida (and sorting and packing mom’s things so he wouldn’t have to do so alone). I realized months later that I’d not allowed myself the emotional space to really grieve. So, I took a rare opportunity when I found myself home alone one weekend, and I sat down with all of our photos, and I relived memories with mom and sobbed for hours. Those stories are some of the legacy that will not be a loss as we continue to share them.

love, loss and legacy

Relationships after loss

Since losing mom, our family dynamics were forever changed. I grieve the closeness of our family as much as I grieve my mom. And while it’s gotten easier to cope- it still hits me hard and often suddenly. 

Mom died the day after my 37th birthday. But to me my birthday really felt like the day we lost mom – it was the day she really wasn’t herself anymore. And for years when November rolled around, I found myself withdrawing and dreading both dates. Mom was the one who had always made our birthdays special. So not only did I no longer have her to do that for me, but I couldn’t separate my birthday from those memories of her death. 

Love, loss and legacy(ies)

We had not taken enough time to record the legacy of mom’s family’s legacy. And a few years later with the loss of my grandfather, many of the stories that told the legacy of our family were gone.

It’s 11 years this month, and it’s become less intense and less frequent, but it still comes upon me without warning at times. November is still a difficult month for me. But it comes in waves one day at a time and no longer everyday of the month. 

Losing mom taught me to make the most of my life. She said she had no regrets, and I want to be able to say the same. This means not letting the hard things stop me from living. It means living with intention.

Connecting with lost love and new

Mom had a knack for connecting with people. She didn’t let loss stop her. My parents were both air force kids. As a child they moved even more frequently than we did when I was growing up. And everywhere we lived, or visited, mom left her mark on people. She is remembered for her vibrance, warmth, and friendship. 

If my only legacy is that I too have made connections with people that will be remembered beyond our immediate interactions, then I will have a lived a great life. Just as she did. 

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Connection in Autumn – a time of change

Autumn has always been one of my favourite times of the year. I love the change in colours in nature, love the sweater weather, and I used to be very fond of Hallowe’en, and the connection to change happening all around us.

I have always loved change, and Autumn feels like the symbol of change. Spring is when everything wakes up, summer is growing a season, autumn is harvest time, then a beautiful show of colour, with winter for rest.

connection with the change of autumn

Lately though I have been feeling like fall comes too soon, and then becomes a bit of a non-season. Thanks to climate change, in Nova Scotia the leaves change colour and fall rather quickly, and then we’re left with this in-between, not-quite-winter-blahness until about January…

Interestingly, it feels very much like a representation of the current stage of pandemic-times. We are in the midst of some kind of change, yet the next thing, or return to our cyclical seasons of life, seem to be never really on the horizon. We’re not getting the winter rest. Fall feels like it’s never-ending.

connection with the change of autumn
connection with the change of autumn

Social connection in the autumns of life

It’s no wonder we are feeling such an impact on our well-being. Social connections that once were so important, became almost non-existent. Even the most extraverted of people became quite insular or have been especially restless and lonely while spending much less time connecting with people “in real life”.  Some have found it to be a time to strengthen family connections or have leaned into the superficial connections of social media.

Rebooting life

I found that I enjoyed the reboot of our initial limited access outside of the cocoon of our homes. Then I became quite a homebody and was not reaching out to anyone outside of my cocoon, apart from work. And now, I find myself struggling to re-establish the social connection that I most enjoy – partially fluttering from a few close friends and family members to wanting to expand the perimeter of my circle to other friends and acquaintances.

I feel resistant to the sorts of social activities that I used to be drawn to, while at once yearning for them.

And we keep waiting for that rest that just doesn’t seem to come.

As an introvert, I enjoy the solitude that often comes with winter. But after a very long autumn of solitude and uncertainty at once, I’ve been ready for spring. I want everything around me to wake up and to see growth in everyone and everything…

connection with the change of autumn

Connection with the change of autumn

Many people that I know of have been reconsidering and re-evaluating, and re-engaging in the things that matter to them. It’s the willingness to be open and vulnerable, to accept others where they are at, and to initiate and engage in the things that matter that will change the pervasive feelings of loneliness and belonging all around us, through authentic social connection. If autumn is a time of change, then we’ve been changing long enough that some significant connection should be yet to come. And if we’re in a crisis of human connection, then with intention and by seeking to help others, we can make that change. We must.

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Book of Boundaries (a book response)

I recently had a Net Galley reading of the Book of Boundaries by Melissa Urban.

Like “It starts with Food” Melissa has written an easy-to-read practical guide.

I really appreciate the sample scripts that make it easy to visualize how to use boundaries in different contexts.

Even better I love that Melissa has included qualifiers for when setting a boundary might not be appropriate. ie. in the case of a friend bailing frequently – when they may – in fact be experiencing some difficulties like depression or some physical health challenges. I personally live with chronic pain and do find myself either cancelling or not making firm commitments to plans because of the uncertainty of how I’d be feeling. I really appreciate that when I use my clear and kind boundaries about staying home that my friends understand and still extend invitations again the next time.

Or how someone not respecting your boundaries could be red flags (i.e. in intimate relationships).

This book is a great tool for people who have difficulty establishing

healthy boundaries in a variety of settings.

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Connecting with grief after loss

When mom died, I spent the first several months helping dad take care of things, taking care of my girls, and otherwise going through the motions. I did not spend time or energy connecting with my grief. As we approached a year after her death, I found myself with an opportunity to spend some time alone. I knew that I hadn’t really allowed myself to process my loss. I also knew that I needed to experience and live through my grief if I wanted to live a life being present in the moment, feeling all the feelings.

Live through the grief

Since losing mom, I’ve had more than one occasion to offer solace to a friend. The most important thing I could offer, next to acknowledging their hurt, is to allow yourself to live through the grief. It cannot be avoided, but by allowing yourself to connect with your grief and experience the pain you can move through it.

One thing I know is that we cannot numb feelings selectively. If we numb the tough feelings, we also numb the joyful ones. So, if we want to have the full experience of life, and of joy specifically, then we must allow ourselves to experience the full extent of the heartache too.

Be intentional

So, on this date back in 2012, I sat myself down on the floor of my living room, with family photo albums from my childhood, and my girls’. And I intentionally relived the memories captured in those photos.

As I allowed the memories of family gatherings like movie nights at the corporal’s mess at Canadian Forces Station – Inuvik; Christmases with my Grampy (mom’s dad); family reunions at our home in Arcadia – like when all of the immediate McCourt Family came together for a couple of weeks one summer; and watching from the sidelines as my little brother performed in his Christmas concerts… I found myself sobbing. I sobbed until my head physically pained me. I cried for the loss of future memories with mom. I cried with gratitude for the life we had together. I cried for my children who would never know the joy of sharing their next milestones with their Nanny.

It was a purge of sorts. Not that it took the memories away, but it took away a cloud that had obscured them from me as I had been blindly walking through the days, weeks and months following mom’s death.

The pain of loss doesn’t ever go away entirely, and sometimes revisits us suddenly. But as time passes the pain becomes less intense. The human experience means that everyone one of us will experience loss of a loved one, if we are fortunate to live long enough.

Preserve their stories

Anderson Cooper has a new podcast, “All There Is”, about grief and loss. Interestingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about many of the same things he talks about. In his first episode he speaks of the importance of sharing the stories of his family with his children, so that the stories will live on. By sharing stories of our departed loved ones, we keep them alive within us. These stories shared with lost loves are also a part of us, and the only way to preserve them is to share them with those we care about and who care for us.

That’s a project I’ve been working on since before my children were even born. I have been gathering family tree research, photographs and other mementos. But the part that I’m still missing is recording a lot of the stories. Many of those stories have now been lost with my mother and grandparents’ passing. I’m trying to document some of them now.

There is no winning against grief

In the second episode of “All There Is”, Anderson Cooper speaks with late night talk show host Stephen Colbert. One of the most profound things Colbert says is that “…grief is a doorway … to another you.” He is so right. It is impossible to experience grief and not be changed by it.

One thing that those of us who have lost loved ones all eventually learn is that there is no holding grief off. There is only pausing it, until it rears its head again. And it will continue to do so, until we live through the experience of it. Colbert said “…we think we can win against grief. We think we can fix it. But you can’t. You can only experience it. And to fully experience it you have to accept that it’s real. The loss is real.” … “Grief is not a bad thing. Grief is a reaction to a bad thing. Grief itself is a natural process that has to be experienced.”

Accept support

If you have experienced a loss and not allowed yourself the grace of connecting with grief, be gentle with yourself. But don’t let yourself off the hook, it will only sneak up on you when you least expect it. Rather, allow yourself the space and accept support when it is offered, by talking about your loss with people who care. Talking is a form of acceptance and will help you to come out on the other side of grief. As Colbert says, you will arrive at a place where you can enjoy the beauty of life and the world, in spite of its grief.

One of the most profound ways that we can live an authentically connected life, is to have the courage to suffer. And with suffering, eventually comes healing and growth.

Have you been trying to win against grief? Has some offered help that you can accept and talk through your grief with? Making the space to connect with your grief will help to connect with joy as well.

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