The Longest Night

By Christy Gualtieri

Can you hear it? The longest night of the year approaching?

I’ve always loved winter, and I think it’s because I grew up in Florida and I never really had one. Winter when I was a small child consisted of two days of 60 degree weather and the chance that I might really get to wear the one sweater I owned outdoors, and not just as a guard against aggressive air conditioning. When I was a teenager and moved to New Jersey I got to experience cold for the first time, and snow, and the days that grew shorter and colder and drove everyone inside.

And it’s that driving-everyone-inside thing about winter that I love the most. It’s our chance to sit in the darkness and have a really great shot at silence. Real silence, too- the kind that helps you realize that you are just one part of a really wide, beautiful expanse of life.

I found myself being more and more drawn to the idea of unplugging and finding silence in the most ironic of ways – through social media. I’d see accounts of people sharing their TV-free lives exploring the world, or gathering around a fire, or short videos of snow-covered woods, and I felt this longing to see what the silence means for myself (which yes, involves less time on social media). So I’m trying in this little pocket of time we have between the November and December holidays to really seek out that darkness, to find the comfort in it, and to surround myself in the peace that inevitably follows. I’ve noticed a change at home, just small changes: I feel more peaceful. My children act out less (slightly less, but less just the same). We all just feel better with attention focused on each other and not at something inanimate.

I know not everyone feels the peace in silence. I can understand why time spent in deliberate silence can be a threat. Real and meaningful time to yourself means you have to suddenly think about all the things you wanted to hide. You have time now to replay those mean words said to you, that embarrassing thing you did that you feel you’ll never get over, or the thing that happened to you that caused unspeakable pain.  And no one wants that. So you fill the silence with noise, with distraction, with and hope the grief and the discomfort will take care of itself.

But life very rarely works that way. Sure, those things might go away – but briefly, and it seems when they do come back they come back even stronger.

So I invite you to sit when you can, as late Fall slips into early Winter, and come into the silence. It might be a dark place, literally, for you, that works best, but it might not.  (I prefer to sit in the silence and light of our Christmas tree decorations, myself.)  And be led by what your mind discovers in the silence. My hope is that in that time of silence you have peace.  You find joy.  And you find a way to close the book on 2017 and open it, brand new and ready to begin again, for 2018.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and children, blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health.

The Artist’s Collective

Unsplash Photo by Karen Maes

By Christy Gualtieri

In the 2005 documentary film “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” director Michel Gondry showcases a variety of hip-hop and soul musical artists as part of a concert held in Brooklyn.  The concert, organized by comedian Dave Chappelle, was a chance to bring to one collective stage the many artists who had influenced him – and worked with each other – over the course of many years.  Along with being a concert film, “Block Party” presents interviews with many of the artists, who tell the stories of what it was like to work with each other both before many of them achieved fame – and what it was like to be honored later on as well-known cornerstones of the hip-hop industry.

Although the film is unique in that it revolves around these particular music artists (including Kanye West, The Roots, Erykah Badu, The Fugees, Talib Kwali, and Mos Def, among others), the idea of collaboration and community in the creative world is nothing new.  From writers of great literature to masterwork painters to film-making communities, there is a power in community that is recognized across the board.  Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was married to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her social circles included the poet Lord Byron and John William Polidori, the author of the first modern vampire novel.  Ernest Hemingway famously was close to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound when he lived in Paris; arguably, one of the greatest musical supergroups of all time was the Traveling Wilburys, combining the unparalleled talents of Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison; and Tim Burton hasn’t made a film without Johnny Depp in it for quite some time.

In short, there have been some glorious contributions to the creative world that grew out of collaboration.  Something special happens when a few people come together to create something bigger than themselves.  It reminds me of the John Dunne quote, “No man is an island.”  What we create impacts someone around them, no matter how small a way, and it can be a great encouragement to be an artist today, knowing that you are truly one in a million – an individual that is part of the many.

The greats, however, always know how to keep their individuality.  In “Block Party,” singer Jill Scott is interviewed by Gondry as she watches singer Erykah Badu on stage:

“I really love that woman.  We all have our own thing – that’s the magic.  That everyone comes with their own sense of strength, and their own queendom.  Mine could never compare to hers, and hers could never compare to mine…she definitely led the way for me and a lot of other sisters, and you know, I appreciate it.”

Later, when asked if she was nervous to be going on after Badu, Jill Scott laughs at length and looks at Gondry, coyly: “Have you ever seen me perform?”

What gives you your confidence? How much time have you spent – artist or not – comparing yourself, or your talent, to someone else, using them as your measuring stick? Do you see others in your community as people who value you, and lift you up, or are they people to be taken down? How can we use this time to evaluate who we are in relation to those around us? Just some thoughts for you.  I hope these questions lead to good answers for you!

Until next time, be well!
Christy

Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and children, blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health.

Always Learning

By Christy Gualtieri

My family and I are lucky to live on a street filled with young children, ranging in ages from newborn to thirteen, and it’s a lot of fun to hang out with quite a few of them on the walks to and from the bus stop on school days.

I’ve particularly enjoyed talking with the kids who are slightly older than my son, because they’re at this great age where they’re learning so much about the world but are so eager to continue to do so.  On the walk home from the stop I’ll ask a few of them if they’ve learned anything fun or exciting that day, but the answer is usually no — not because they haven’t, but because once we’ve walked up two enormous hills to get to our street, they’re pretty exhausted.

I thought it would be fun the other day to come up with a spot of trivia for them to learn on the way home.  As we walked by a car sporting a New Jersey license plate, I inquired of one of the second graders, a particularly adorable little girl with a cute pixie haircut,

“Did you know that New Jersey is known as the Garden State?”

“No,” she answered.  “Are there a lot of garter snakes there?”

“Maybe,” I told her.  “The part of New Jersey where I’m from didn’t have many gardens, to be honest with you.  Just a lot of cities.  But I was born in Florida, and they call that the Sunshine State.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.  There’s a lot of sun there.”

“What’s Pennsylvania called?” One of the kindergarteners asked me.

“The Keystone State.”

“Oh, probably because there are a lot of stones, huh?” Asked the second grader.

“Or maybe a lot of keys!” Replied the Kindergartener.

The girls nearly collapsed from their giggles, and I couldn’t help laughing along.  But it got me thinking about the things I learn from day-to-day, especially in a time in my life when I’m the most far removed from a classroom as I’ve ever been.

What do I learn now? How do I learn it? How can I use this knowledge to make our world a better place?

My husband is a hobbyist, and every year or so he tries his hand at learning a new skill.  It might be stained glass creating, or HAM radio operating, or gardening, but it’s always something that utilizes his brain and piques his interest.

I like to read, and I like to think I’m up-to-speed on current events, such as they are, but it’s hard for me to get through all of that information and figure out what to do with it once I have it.  I start many different books and hobby-type projects, and I do get discouraged.  But then I think of this great quote I read recently, by the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson:

“Whether or not you can never become great at something, you can always become better at it.”

It’s hard for me to admit, but it’s challenging! It’s not easy trying to shift my brain out of a comfort zone – taking time to learn something new, even if it’s just practicing a skill to reach new levels of “goodness” at it.

If you’re away from a traditional classroom setting right now, or not studying toward gains in higher education, what are you learning? How do you learn? What are some ways we can try to learn something new each day, to expand our little horizons?

Just a few things to think about!

Until next time, be well!
Christy

Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and children, blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health.

Taking Stock

Photo by Tim Graf on Unsplash

By Christy Gualtieri

When it storms at our home at night and the power goes out, as it sometimes does, my husband and I like to fire up the shortwave radio we own (don’t laugh), and try to catch a few stations.  It’s not unusual for us to come across shows featuring survivalists, folks who stock up on provisions in case of a disaster, and I will admit that while it’s practical, it’s something I don’t much think about.

Other people do, though. Recently, Costco announced that it would be selling food Emergency Kits that are meant to provide 1,200 calories per person per day for a year.  The shelf life of the food is 25 years; and while I may turn my nose up at it now, who knows? During an upcoming zombie apocalypse I may be grateful to have my daily serving of canned dairy and dried fruits.

More seriously, a recent headline announced that a survivalist who had amassed a great amount of provisions donated them to hurricane-tossed Puerto Rico – and just like that, something that had seemed so silly served a real purpose.

I do not have the cellar space necessary to accumulate a great amount of food and water to survive for very long if an enormous disaster was to come my way, but I do, from time to time, think about those who do.  Do they walk among their goods with checklists, making sure what they have is still edible and shelf-safe? Do they check their cans for dents, make sure their boxes are airtight?

It sounds facetious, but I don’t mean to be.  I actually admire people with the foresight and dedication to plan and prepare.  And I wonder how I might apply it to areas of my own life, especially when it comes to mental health, because it’s easy to forget.  I may think to myself, “I’ve been feeling pretty well these days, been keeping up with my therapy appointments, I’m good”; but if I haven’t been periodically checking in with myself, and asking after my water intake, or how much exercise I’ve been getting, or how I’ve been trying to keep my stress levels down by using positive self-talk, it gets harder for me to stay on top of my health, and it’s easier for me to feel worse.

If you’ve been feeling down, more anxious, or even depressed recently but aren’t sure why, try taking a few minutes to look over the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of your life. As the months of the year draw to a close, it might be a good time to “take stock” of where you are in your physical and mental health journey, and try to make a few tweaks, if necessary, before the stresses of the holiday season begin.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and son, blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health.

The Eagle

Title of Painting: Eagle Fishing on Lake Malawi
Painter: John Cyril Harrison

Written by Zaithwa Gwaza

The painting above is set in Lake Malawi; it’s the ninth largest lake in the world and the third largest lake in Africa.

Firstly, what attracts me to this painting is the eagle and its hard work and patience to be able to catch a fish in the lake; this is an incredible skill that eagles possess. Eagles are phenomenal birds, they work hard. When I look at this painting, it tells me that in life, discipline is very important. The eagle is a very disciplined bird, it has good vision and surely stays focused on what it wants – this is a life lesson to me.

Prior to coming to America, I was told by many people back home that I have to stay focused on my primary objective of being in the US; which is to work hard in my studies to be able to get my undergraduate degree. This is something that this painting reminds me of, the eagle is a bird, and the fish is always in water, therefore to be able to catch a fish requires intense focus. And, that is exactly what I need to do while I’m in the US; primarily focus on my studies. Additionally, it isn’t easy for the eagle to catch the fish, however, the eagle is still determined catch fish so that it can have food to eat. “No pain, no gain” is a philosophy that has been used since life on the world begun, and that also applies for the eagle.

Eagles have as many as a million light-sensitive sensory cells per square millimeter of retina; this is five times the amount allotted to the average. Their vision is incredible; that also speaks to me. In life, it’s important to have a vision for your life. For example, in my life, my single mother has worked hard and sacrificed so much for my happiness and well-being, therefore I envision myself being able to spoil my mother in the future and to help develop my local community back home (in terms of giving some people the opportunity to go to good schools). However, achieving this won’t be easy, so I need to stay focused and implement smaller goals in order to achieve this life goal. The eagle has good vision however if it doesn’t use this skill well, it won’t be able to get its prey. Therefore, that also applies to my life, I have been given the opportunity to come to the US, however, the ball is in my court, it’s my decision to work hard and to be able to sow plenty in the future.

Moreover, the background of the painting also communicates to me; it shows how the weather is about to change, from a bright cloudy day to a dark cloudy day. It reminds me of the sudden change that occurred in my life when I was 9 years old; my father passed away – life took a whole new turn. And, things like this can’t be anticipated. However, for me my father’s death is probably one of the things I’m thankful for; obviously, it’s not like I wanted him dead or anything, no, that’s not my point. The point I’m trying to make is that through my father’s death I was able to learn from it and I am what I am because of all my experiences, so I’m thankful to God for every single thing that has happened in my life. I was able to appreciate my family more, but also able to use this experience to comfort and help those around me. Everything that happens in our life to make us stronger, and in the end, it all works out for our good. Just like in the painting, despite, the weather changing, but this also can benefit the other parts of nature, such as crops.

Additionally, dark clouds aren’t always going be there forever, the clear clouds will come out again. That’s how life is, we all go through painful circumstances, but pain helps us grow. So, the background speaks to me about being positive, life isn’t easy; it was actually never meant to be easy. It’s important to be positive, yes, I will admit, it’s easier said than done, however, it’s always important to try look at the brighter things of life while accepting whatever hurdle is there. I’m thankful for everything I have, my life, family and even the fact that I was able to having a mother that didn’t ever give up on me. Lest I forget, I’m also very thankful I was able to come to the US to complete my undergraduate studies.

***

Zaithwa Gwaza is a student at Robert Morris University where he majors in economics. Among his many goals Zaithwa wants to own a family farm and launch a start-up business in his hometown of Malawi, East Africa. He one day hopes to use his earnings from these endeavors to help others pay for school.

Unwelcome Feelings

Photo by Naletu on Unsplash

By Christy Gualtieri

As someone who suffers from generalized anxiety — an overall sense of dread and worry regarding just about anything — I recently found myself in a strange place: a place of not really having anything to worry about.

Oh, I can find things to worry about – I do it all the time – but I’ve been trying to make more of an effort these days to sit with the surprisingly uneasy feeling of not-worrying.

And it truly was uncomfortable.  There was no immediate thing to be anxious about or worry over, and I wasn’t happy.  But I truly wanted to see what it would be like to be a person who didn’t worry so much, so I just tried as hard as I could to sit with that feeling, to make myself just not worry.

And among the feeling of discomfort was another feeling, one I wasn’t prepared to experience, really: BOREDOM.  I was bored.  (I don’t know about you, but when I worry, the adrenaline wakes my body up a bit, you know?) Could I find something among one of my friends to complain about? Probably, but I’m trying not to do that, either.  Could I utilize my favorite technique of tapping into the general unrest the majority of the world is feeling right now? I could, but then I’d end up feeling helpless and more depressed, so I decided to fight that temptation, too.

And much like little Wednesday Addams in the film Addams Family Values, when the stone-faced girl manages to smile and everyone is completely horrified, I grimaced my way through these feelings and sat with them.  I tried to focus on things outside of myself, but the more positive things this time, instead of the noisy calamity of the world I usually find myself thinking about.  I put my phone in my pocket for a few minutes, and I listened to the birds.  I thought about the joys my friends and my family brought to my life.  I remembered a funny joke I heard a while back and smiled about it.

I remembered all the things I had read about and discussed with my therapist over the past many years – deep breathing, self-awareness, and truly looking at the world around me, as plain and unexciting as it was.

These are all incredibly simple things, I know.  And they didn’t always work for me in the past, because my mind wasn’t in the state where it could calm down enough to think about something other than PANIC! PANIC! PANIC! All the time.  But it really worked for me this time, and as the darker and more disappointing feelings began to dissolve, they were replaced by the emotions of gratitude, and calm, and peace.

They’re still hanging around, these new emotions, even as I write this.  I know they won’t last forever, and to be honest with you, I don’t much know what to do with them.  But I like them.  And I want to encourage you, if you’re at a place in your journey that you can allow yourself some time to actually get to know these new feelings of not-worry, that you give it a try.  We’ll discover them together!

Until next time, be well!
Christy

Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and son, blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health.

Look For the Helpers

Photo by Tulen Travel on Unsplash

By Christy Gualtieri

The hurricane had been raging for hours.  We couldn’t see very much outside on account of the plywood boards my parents had put up to stop the windows from blowing in; but from what I could see, the rain was coming in absolutely sideways – like something out of a blockbuster movie.  The palm trees were bent over and pushed relentlessly by the wind, and as my parents and brothers and I huddled beneath a queen-sized mattress in our dining room, we heard the terrible screaming of the wind.  There was an awful noise – this screeching noise – in the kitchen behind us, which turned out to be our refrigerator physically moving from its place against the wall to the middle of the room.

It was the middle of the night.  As the sun rose and the storm ended, we were so relieved to hear a knock on the door, and the sound of my uncle’s voice, calling to us to see if we were all right.

We got up from beneath the mattress and when we got to the front door, were greeted with an almost apocalyptic sight: a flooded street, trees completely uprooted, even from beneath the sidewalks, a large tree down in our front yard.  Our house was still standing, but the home two doors down from us was not – it was complete rubble.  Part of our garage door had been blown away, leaving the inside of the garage soaked, palm fronds strewn everywhere.  My bedroom, too, had been damaged when the plywood had fallen off and the window had burst – but remarkably, we were all okay.  We were safe.

That was Hurricane Andrew, in 1992.  This past weekend’s storm – Hurricane Irma, which is still making its way up the Florida panhandle, was so much bigger.  Hurricane Harvey left so much devastation in its wake in Texas just a couple of weeks ago – unspeakable flooding, terror, and decimation.

Disasters like this can leave us with such a sense of helplessness.  The folks right in the middle of the storm are powerless to do anything against such a force of nature that they confront head on, and the people who are farther away, glued to the television and the Internet for updates feel as though they can’t do much so many miles from the storm.  As I read about Harvey and worried about Irma (and my family, still directly in its path) I found myself still feeling the way I did as a frightened twelve-year old dealing with the aftermath of such a terrible storm, not sure at all of what I could – and what I should – do.

Here in the greater Pittsburgh area, there are few other people that symbolize compassion, peace, and love more than Fred Rogers, the creator of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.  He knew that it was imperative for young children to feel safe and secure if they were to grow up to be healthy adults, and it was a mission for him on his show to speak about topics that were painful, difficult, and uncomfortable – but such a gentle way that his young viewers were able to understand them.

In an interview later in his life, he stressed the importance of “looking for the helpers” during catastrophic events:

“You know, my mother used to say, a long time ago, whenever there would be any really big catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers.  There will always be helpers.  Just on the sidelines.’ That’s why I think that if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, of showing anybody who is coming into a place to where there’s a tragedy, to be sure that they include that, because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

I find it such a comfort to know that I can be a helper in situations like these, that I can provide home, as small as it can seem.

And it does matter.  A few days after Hurricane Andrew hit, my family and I drove down to the town of Homestead, FL, which was absolutely devastated by the storm — there was precious little left of homes, possessions, everything.  We found a family there with young children.  We brought them supplies and played with their kids.  We were suffering, but they had it so much worse than we did.  So we did what we could to help, and it was a help.

I am many states and many, many more miles away from hurricanes these days.  But my capacity to help is still great – and yours, too.  If you find yourself moved by the horrible tragedies these multiple storms have caused, please do what you can to reach out.  It may feel like you’re doing nothing at all, but I promise, what you can give matters so much.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and son, blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health.