Review: Still Life

Still Life
Still Life by Louise Penny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautifully written and murder mystery don’t often go together, but this book is an exception. Louise Penny crafts a wonderful cast of characters against the backdrop of Three Pines village in Quebec. I was often struck by her poignant observations on human nature. When the junior investigator sees a sign in a mirror that says ‘you’re looking at the problem’ and turns around to look behind her… This book is so good that I think I will need time to digest it rather than gobbling up the next in the series. Still Life is set to become a classic in the cozy village mystery genre.

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Review: Design for Murder

Design for Murder
Design for Murder by Carolyn G. Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy the relationship between Annie and Max, and the interesting cast of characters that Carolyn Hart creates. The murderer wasn’t hard to guess in this book. I found a couple of the characters seemed more like caricatures too. Maybe not the best book in the series, but a nice way to pass a rainy evening or two.

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Return from Exile

Hello lovelies!
I’m barely re-surfacing after an exhausting 6 weeks applying to school for social work. Yep, I’m taking the plunge again … Last time I was in grad school studying anthropology. That was when fibromyalgia hit and I had to withdraw. I’ve spent the last 18 months trying to figure out what could come next. It has to be something part time, that primarily involves sitting and talking. I can only do computer work with voice to text software, as my shoulder trigger points get all achy if I type. I can only read with a fancy book stand. I can hand write and text some, but not enough for extensive paperwork. I’ve thought of things like being a nutritionist, acupuncturist, English teacher and therapist/counselor.
The last one ended up making the most amount of sense. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a psychologist, and it’s something I’ve always been interested in. Generally I’ve always wanted to be in a ‘helping’ career and been fascinated by people. Before fibromyalgia that translated into international development (think organizations like UNICEF, Oxfam, Save the Children) and studying anthropology (society and culture).
Studying social work qualifies me to be a counselor/ psychotherapist/ mental health worker where I live. It also would let me continue with international development or a lot of other interesting things like immigration settlement work if I regain my health. I like not shutting doors. I found some flexible fast track bachelor of social work degrees online and one class based one at home.
It was incredibly stressful to get in touch with profs from my previous university for references. I had a terrible experience with the onset of fibromyalgia and trying to stay in school. My supervisor told me I didn’t have enough of a ‘go-getter’ attitude when I asked for accommodation! No one wrote me after I withdrew to see if I was ok. I was so miserable day after day trying to wring as much work out of myself as I could, even as I lost abilities like typing, reading paperwork without a book stand, sleeping, sitting for long periods etc. I have been looking ahead ever since I left to the future, and it was really hard to look back.
It was tough trying to organize the logistics of assembling all the documents and sending them to the different schools through brain fog. Writing a ‘personal statement’ was not as bad, but I noticed the differences in my energy and ability to think clearly and it was frustrating. I also didn’t pace myself like I should have because I wanted to get it over with!
I actually missed my ‘normal’ fibro life. I missed my weekly qi gong, stretching, strengthening, meditation. I felt the difference of not doing it too! I missed blogging, library talks, coursera courses, coffee with friends etc. But it felt good to have a challenge that would move me forward in life. I’m looking forward to taking classes online (part time of course), practicum/internships and maybe one day being a fully fledged counselor!
Wish me luck! I’m already planning my back-up for “when I don’t get in” (I’m a glass half empty type). Need to think positive!


I’ve dropped of the face of the earth during the last week, because all of my energy has been taken up with a new project – volunteering at a local hospital. It’s the same hospital where my pain clinic is located, so it made sense to volunteer there. I have been thinking of volunteering for a long time, but felt very intimidated by the whole idea.

Fibromyalgia dropped in on my life like a tonne of bricks during graduate school and forced me to stop everything. My symptoms developed over a 6 month period and took away my abilities piece by piece. The process left me feeling incompetent and unsure of being able to do anything. It doesn’t make sense; I know theoretically that it was pain not ineptitude that forced me to stop. Yet, it was a damaging experience  –  trying to get  the right combination of extensions, sick leaves and accommodations to successfully finish my workload, only to find that nothing was enough except stopping altogether . I stayed in a bubble for over a year after I withdrew from my program because of it.

I have been slowly going crazy in my bubble and knew I needed to do something about it. I have had some success doing online (free!) university courses with Coursera (and recently discovered that my local library has some courses on DVD about art and literature). I have been looking for an exercise class to join. There is a tai chi organization that offers gentle health promotion classes near me. Also, my local YMCA apparently has gentle aqua fit classes in a warm pool. The problem with these ideas is that they cost money and I am always worried about if I can really do it or not. Volunteering is perfect because it is free and also, because you are giving your time, it can theoretically be on your terms. Also, as a person living with a chronic illness, I think it is beneficial to find a way to feel helpful or useful. In line with cognitive behavioral therapy, it is good to focus on the positive aspects of your circumstances (if I compare living with fibromyalgia to my old life I feel down but if I can compare it to having cancer or other terminal illness I feel grateful).
I chose the hospital after looking at a number of positions because they wanted a 4 hour commitment, once a week, during day time hours. A lot of positions wanted more hours, on evenings and weekends, or involved computer work. (I have some severe trigger points around my shoulder blades which prevent me from typing. I use voice to text software for blogging and e-mails. This means I have to do it at home where talking to myself doesn’t look quite as crazy! The software is also a bit clunky which is why I can’t blog more). I will be at an information desk on one of the hospital floors. This seems to suit my body fairly well because I can either sit or stand and talk with patients. I can also put my backrest and seat cushion on the chair to help me get through the full shift. I also feel like it is a good position to start with. I was nervous about beginning with patient visiting or something because of needing to appear cheerful and ‘on’. Dealing with pain and mood swings makes me question whether I can appear chatty and upbeat on demand.

I originally applied to another hospital network, but their bureaucratic approach was really getting me down. I already deal with enough of the medical system bureaucracy as the patient without having to deal with it in my free time as a volunteer! When I went to make an appointment with occupational health to show them my vaccines were up to date and they told me I had to wait five weeks for the next available appointment I almost gave up. Finally, I wrote the hospital I finally did get a position with, and they had me come in for an orientation just a few days later. I was so nervous before my orientation and my first training shift. That made me feel doubly crazy because why was I so nervous over a little volunteering commitment? It seems like since my fibromyalgia diagnosis I have generally been more anxious about things that I used to be. I also relate it back to when I was first diagnosed. I think going through that process where the abilities you took for granted get taken away makes you feel like you can’t take it for granted that you have any ability. There are also many more things to be anxious about – will I be able to make it every week? What if the chair hurts my back? What if someone asks me to help lift or carry something heavy? Will I  look weird with my backrest and cushion?

This story has a happy ending. I did my first shift on my own this past Monday. I was able to help a few very lost and confused patients find their appointment locations (why do they always design hospitals to be like mazes?). It felt good to be helpful and I could feel my inner extrovert perking up a little bit. Next time I need to bring a magazine or two for those dead in between times. I also need to buy a pair of black pants because skirts are definitely not cutting it in this frosty fall weather (sadly, no blue jeans are allowed). I think that this will end up being a very positive baby step in the right direction for me and I encourage everyone else who can to give volunteering a try.

I think volunteering with organizations that focus on health issues is less daunting. Hospitals, seniors centers, the arthritis society, etc. are more likely to be accommodating. For example, my fiancée works with a health nonprofit and he has noticed that at health fairs the arthritis society volunteers have had their materials couriered for them. Nowadays, there are also online volunteering opportunities, which might be more appropriate for some people. I did a quick Google search and found a good article here which mentions opportunities like United Nations Volunteers. There is definitely a lot more out there than your local food bank and I think volunteers often feel like they end up taking more away from the experience than they contribute because it is usually very rewarding.

Nerding Fun

coursera ancient greek course

Coursera: Online learning

This is the key to my mental sanity. Free, open, online courses in almost any subject you can think of. I first learned about this incredible website last March and my first course was on ancient Greece. This is a topic that has always fascinated me but I never had a chance to take a classics course in university. Since then I have nerded my way through Intro to Psychology, Nutrition, and now Human History.

The format that Coursera uses is very flexible. Their website basically hosts university courses which professors at partner universities have voluntarily put together specifically for Coursera. Each week a series of video lectures are posted totaling 1– 3 hours. In some classes, the professor posts additional readings to be done. Assessment usually involves quizzes and peer-reviewed assignments. Of course, doing the homework is entirely optional. If you choose to do it you can earn a “statement of accomplishment”, but otherwise you can just enjoy the lectures. There are also discussion forums you can participate in. It can be very interesting because students come from all over the world, so there is an enormous diversity of opinions.

Coursera has really exploded during the past year. There are more than 4.5 million students signed up for more than 480 courses offered by 85 universities.

I spent many enjoyable hours at cafés with my tablet learning from the video lectures. I really don’t know what I would do if innovative websites like this were not available! I hope that this inspires some of you out there to give it a try!

Reading that Makes You Happy


Dec-30-(24) (Photo credit: theloushe)

Why is it that award-winning, critically acclaimed books are always so damn depressing?  It’s good to explore all facets of human experience, I suppose, but just because an author takes on heavy duty subjects doesn’t automatically mean their book belongs in the English canon. For my first witness, I call Jane Austen. Enough said.

The ordinary everyday, the commonplace, the regular relationships between families, neighbours and community all offer rich storylines. Tackling difficult subjects in a lighthearted, understanding manner is an underrated ability. Also, I think we have a need for archetypal stories of ‘coming of age’, ‘love conquers all’, etc. Critics can call it predictable. I call it enjoyable.

Since fibromyalgia, my appetite for potentially depressing reading is gone. Reality is ‘real’ enough. I want escapism. I’ve avoided all books except for funny, lighthearted murder mysteries. Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody or the Agatha Raisin series are particular favorites. Maybe it sounds like a contradiction but the well-ordered world where the bad guy always gets caught by the hilarious heroine is reassuring.

In an effort to branch out, I found this perfect list of uplifting fiction that will leave you ‘feeling like life is still worth living’. When I saw Pride and Prejudice and the No 1 Ladies’ detective agency on the list I knew it was the real deal. It’s nice to get back into reading and exploring the world from my armchair again. I’m half way through the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and it’s great!