Author Interview

I am transferring over some of the published author interviews I posted on my Facebook page. This piece appeared in the Calgary Herald more than a decade ago. Camilla Gibb recently published a memoir called This is Happy. She is a fascinating, brilliant woman and I can’t wait to read it.

Gibb finds her mature voice:
Political tale needed adult narrator

For the Calgary Herald
Saturday, April 2, 2005

By Candice G. Ball
After writing the original draft of Sweetness in the Belly from a child’s perspective, Canadian writer Camilla Gibb arrived at a devastating conclusion — she had to write an entirely new book. When she discussed the novel with her editor at Doubleday, it became clear that the story needed to be told by an adult narrator.

“I was trying to comment on grownup politics. I couldn’t do that from a child’s perspective,” she says. So the original draft of Sweetness in the Belly (Doubleday Canada, 420 pages, $32.95) became the “back story” — only about five sentences of it ended up in the final version. But much as she says she kicked and screamed and resisted, the rigorous re-write helped her grow up as a writer.

In Gibb’s previous internationally acclaimed novels, Mouthing the Words and The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, she mastered young voices. In her latest book, she examines the racially charged world of Thatcher’s London and Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia from an adult perspective.

The protagonist, Lilly, is a nurse, who grapples with her identity or “otherness.” As a white Muslim nurse raised in Africa and forced to flee to London, Lilly exists “somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present.”

As the daughter of two solitary renegades who’d met at Trinity College in Dublin in the 1950s and were drawn together “by the magnet of shared disenchantment,” Lilly spent her childhood living a nomadic existence in Europe and Africa. But her Bohemian existence came to an abrupt end when she learned her parents were killed.

During Lilly’s parents’ last journey back to Tangier, she received an introduction to the Qur’an from the Great Abdal at a Sufi shrine, where her parents left her, on the Moroccan edge of the Sahara. Although she wasn’t born a Muslim, once she experienced absorption in prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in her became still.

Her faith leads her on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia, where she struggles to gain acceptance as a white Muslim. In Harar, she also falls in love with an idealistic young doctor, Aziz. Just as their fondness transforms into love, the political upheavals wrench the lovers apart. Lilly flees to England while Aziz remains and vows to make a difference.

In London, Lilly becomes an integral part of the Ethiopian refugee community. As a volunteer for a community organization dedicated to reuniting exiled families, Lilly reads through the lists sent from Rome of recent arrivals who may have relatives in London. While she’s committed to family reunification, she admits her motives aren’t entirely altruistic: she wants to find Aziz and never stops yearning for him. Gibb, 37, recently spoke to the Herald about her new novel and shared her views on literature.

Candice Ball: Why did you want to write about Ethiopia?
Camilla Gibb: Ethiopia is a country we know so little about. Our exposure is largely limited to stereotypical images of famine. I lived in Ethiopia in 1994 and 1995 when I was conducting field research for my PhD in social anthropology. I was interested in the intersections between religious practices and political processes.
I always knew I wanted to come back to the material as a writer, but I had to become a writer first. You ask different questions as an academic, you look for different things; you attach yourself to “facts,” but in order to create fiction you really need to forget facts and create the space to imagine and invent.

CB: Why did you leave anthropology to pursue a writing career?
CG: I always knew I wanted to be a writer and have always written. In high school, a well-meaning English teacher suggested that perhaps I go and live a little before I started to write seriously.
In university, I was drawn to anthropology because it turns everything you think you know on its head. After finishing my PhD, the desire to write was still there, but now I was a trained anthropologist and supposed to be looking for a proper job. I kept the writing as a hobby — almost a dirty secret — but then it began to spill out and contaminate my days. I left academia to write full time in 2000.

CB: What impact does your academic background have on your writing?
CG: It informs everything I do as a writer. I’m concerned with the same themes as I was as an anthropologist — questions about identity, culture, relationships and meaning. Both writers and anthropologists are observers who stand at a certain remove from life around them and try and make connections and associations that are difficult to see when you’re otherwise busy living life.

CB: As an anthropologist, what’s your view of literature?
CG: I think it’s the most civilizing thing we create. I think it’s a mirror of our intimate lives; we gain access to people’s interior monologues and thoughts. In this way, we can learn what it is to be someone else, and that can enable us to have empathy and compassion for others as well as reassuring us that we are not alone.

CB: As you launch the book across Canada what do you hope to achieve?
CG: I think literature is a great starting point for dialogue about bigger ideas. For the past three years I’ve been so close to the text. I want to know if readers find it interesting, relevant or horrible. I look forward to those conversations. Canada is a good country for literary readings. People, especially in communities outside Toronto, make the effort to come out and engage.
In Calgary, in particular, I’ve had some amazing experiences — at Wordfest, at Banff, at the University of Calgary and the Alberta College of Art and Design. There’s a welcoming, vibrant community of writers, readers, patrons of the arts and academics interested in literature.

CB: What do you hope readers take away from Sweetness in the Belly?
CG: First and foremost, I hope people just enjoy it as a good read, one where you’re compelled by the plot and care about the characters. I don’t think literature should have a “point” or be pushing an agenda, but it can expose people to new things and ideas. I hope I’ve offered readers some interesting insights into Islam, Ethiopia and refugee experience. I hope I’ve undone some of the stereotypes we tend to be fed by the media.

CB: Tell me about the novel you’re currently working on.
CG: I am currently working on a novel that explores a community bound by isolation and “otherness.” The members of this community have an illness which I don’t fully describe or label. I examine the idea that these people have a legitimate culture. For instance, there’s a movement within the deaf community of people who argue that deafness is a legitimate culture and reject the idea of cochlear implants so that they can join the land of the hearing. I’m exploring the whole idea of normalcy.

Losing their religion or pursuing new paths?

I have written hundreds of magazine articles since I started working as a journalist in 1998, but this piece ranks up there as one of my favourites. It appeared in a Canadian magazine for high school students called What Magazine. I hope to take on the subject of alternative spirituality again. It’s time to put together a query letter.

Losing their religion or pursuing new paths?
By Candice G. Ball 
Source: What Magazine
Date: 4/1/2001

Many Canadian teens are abandoning the religious of their birth right — and seeking out spiritual alternatives. We wanted to know why … and whether this signals the demise of traditional religious.

You won’t find Stephanie Morgan burning crosses or publicly slagging the pope. But dissatisfied with the “rigidity” of her Catholic religious background, 16-year-old Stephanie from Prince George, B.C., is quietly pursuing her own spiritual path — one that is deeply personal and constantly evolving.

She’s not alone. An increasing number of Canadian teens are abandoning the traditional religions of their birthright — usually temporarily, but sometimes permanently — in their quest to seek out spiritual alternatives.

With the buzzing information highway, celebrities’ publicized spiritual journeys and revelations as well as exposure to various religious traditions at school and through friends, today’s teens are perhaps more knowledgeable about their spiritual alternatives than any other generation. This information presents them with the opportunity to explore and discover what feels good and what doesn’t, what answers the big questions that wake them up at night and what leaves those questions unanswered.

Alternative Spiritualities vs. Traditional Religions

Dr. James Mullens, Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, says there’s a constant human need for spiritual nourishment and that traditional religions don’t always fulfil that need for teens. “Traditional religions may seem a little old fashioned or like they’re something that belongs to an older generation,” he explains.

Mullens describes alternative forms of spirituality as a way to explore and expand spiritual awareness. In contrast, he describes traditional religion as an orderly, regulated, system. “Religion’s like the bottle; spirituality’s the wine. Religion is the form; spirituality is the content. The problem is there’s too many old, empty bottles lying around that you can’t get much from,” Mullens says. He claims that teens’ journeys are a search for the wine — or the content that keeps things interesting and vital.

Quenching the Thirst

It’s 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, and your parents are banging at your bedroom door, commanding you to put on your Sunday best and get your butt to church. Later, as you’re half listening to the sermon you’ve heard about nine times before, you decide there’s got to be another path to spiritual enlightenment — one that doesn’t interrupt your prime sleep time. It’s like the cod liver oil experience: you know it’s “good” for you, but you don’t like the taste or the fact you have to swallow it.

Mullens argues that some teens look outside their traditional religions for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that they were told they had to attend, had to believe. “They were forced to go to church … by their parents — and their parents didn’t really want to go, but felt the kids had to go. Second, teens may be doubtful of the power of spirituality of traditional religions because they’ve seen so many wars ostensibly fought in the name of religion,” he says.

There are other reasons. Stephanie Morgan dislikes the fact that the Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to become priests. “I don’t think it’s right. A woman can be just as in touch with her spirituality and God as men can.” She adds that Catholic views on gays and lesbians reek of homophobia — a phobia she doesn’t appreciate at all in individuals and institutions.

Another Good Reason: A Spiritual Path that Works Your Body

When was the last time you really worked your body when you went to church or synagogue? Sure some Jews put their whole body into prayer — rocking back and forth as they worship — but that type of bodywork has nothing on yoga, tai chi and the martial arts.

Because teens are very body-conscious, Mullens suggests there’s an attraction to the alternative forms of spirituality that incorporate body movement. “We’re not encouraged in most Christian or Jewish beliefs to stimulate our senses and focus on our body; if you’re a Hindu or a Buddhist, they [encourage] you to do yoga or meditation — exercises that are a part of your religion,” Mullens says.

With the growing acceptance of traditional Chinese medicine in Canada, teens aren’t the only ones who are looking Eastward for alternatives or practices that acknowledge the importance of the body, mind and spirit connection. British Columbia now regulates traditional Chinese medicine and it’s rumoured that Ontario may do the same.

Transforming the Self: The New Age Movement

Dating back to the 1980s, the “New Age movement” is hardly new, but today some teens are embracing the wide variety of practices and beliefs this movement straddles. Emphasizing personal transformation and growth, the New Age movement draws from a myriad of other movements and traditions like Theosophy, Eastern religions, the holistic health movement, Native American Shamanistic spirituality and Feminist spirituality. Like other alternative spirituality movements in the West, celebrities like Shirley MacLaine — the actress and author of several New Age books — and talk show host Oprah Winfrey have been big promoters of the movement.

Although Stephanie Morgan is leery of labels, she says New Age is probably the most accurate one to describe her spiritual path. “It is an incorporation of many different beliefs — like the chakras, divination, reincarnation,” Stephanie says.

She believes there are many gods and goddesses at work in the universe and that each person must find his or her own personal god or goddess. “I haven’t found my personal goddess yet, but I believe I’ll find my personal deity,” she says.

As part of her spiritual journey, Stephanie writes about her beliefs and reads voraciously. To date, she’s studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Wicca. Like other New Agers, she believes her spirituality evolves — it’s a process, a journey.

Nature Spirituality: Neo-Paganism and Wicca

Long after the major world religions attempted to snuff out the pagan, nature-oriented religions, teens are finding spiritual meaning rediscovering the ancient paths. In stark contrast to what are said to be God’s words, according to the Book of Genesis, proclaiming man is to have dominion over the fish, birds and every living thing, practitioners of Wicca and pagan religions believe in the interconnectedness of all living things. Plurality and equality are valued; patriarchal rules and hierarchies are frowned upon.

James Greenough was attracted to Wicca — a revival of the old religion of witchcraft — because of the freedom of belief it allowed him. “Not every Wiccan has the same belief, where, in other religions, everyone tends to believe the same thing,” Greenough says. Wiccans place great emphasis on freedom of thought and the will of individuals.

For 17-year-old James, the belief in the Goddess and God is the foundation of his faith, but he adds that the Goddess is more important. He also honours the four elements — earth, air, fire and water — and every aspect of nature. Although Wiccans typically form covens (a gathering or band) and engage in rituals, James doesn’t partake in group gatherings. “I consider myself more of a solitary witch,” explains the teen, also from Prince George, B.C.

He does, however, move natural energies and casts spells. “For me, moving energies involves putting positive energy into a stone and you can later draw upon that energy,” he says. The spells he casts promote well-being, like healing and feelings of love. He adds that he’s a fervent believer in the few rules Wiccans must follow, including never going against someone’s will and never harming anyone when casting a spell.

Designer Spiritualities

Mullens has observed another trend, which he’s pegged “designer spiritualities.” “Today we have a lot of choices. People are designing their own dimension[s] that arrive out of the alternatives that are out there,” he says.

On one end of the spectrum, there are devout Christians and Jews who dabble in alternative spiritualities — though they may not be aware they’re dabbling. They may gain strength and wisdom from the Bhagavad-Gita (a widely known Hindu text) or embrace the Chinese notion of yin and yang (the harmonious interaction of the passive, earthly, feminine force in nature — yin — and the active, heavenly male force — yang). Does this mean they’ve given up their religion? Absolutely not. “[Many] Christians read their horoscopes,” Mullens says. I don’t think that horoscopy has anything to do with Christianity and, during certain times, would’ve been considered a black art, but people read their horoscopes and they haven’t given up their belief in God.”

Kimberly Commodore has no problem reconciling the fact that although she’s a devout Christian, she feels more spiritual when surrounded by nature. The 16-year-old from The Pas, MB admits she feels more in tune with her spirituality in a forest or near a lake than she does at church. “It’s more natural. I feel uptight in church, with people watching my every move and telling me what to do.”

Kimberly views the earth as a living and breathing entity, so it’s hardly surprising she feels most at peace when she’s alone with Mother Earth. Every day, she ensures she’s doing all she can to protect the planet. “I don’t litter. I recycle. I want to preserve the earth. It feels good to know I’m doing something that’ll help every day.” The fact that she attends the United Church, while holding what were once considered pagan beliefs, doesn’t cause her to lose a second of sleep.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are people who completely reject their former religion and pick and choose from the alternatives available, literally designing their own religion. “There are people who say, `Okay, I’ll have nothing to do with my previous Christian or Jewish religious background. I have a statue of the Buddha, a statue of the Mother Goddess and I’m a vegetarian and I like to go to the Summer Solstice,” Mullens explains.

Does he find the mixing of traditions troublesome? Not at all. In fact, he sees rhyme and reason in it given that we live in a multicultural society, which encourages the acceptance of others. So why not religion too?

It’s Usually Better If Parents Butt Out

If you’re dancing around in the living room, wearing a necklace made of chicken feet or casting wicked spells on your family and peers, your parents are going to try and put an end to your spiritual journey.

But the reality is the vast majority of teens aren’t attracted to the dark side. Like Stephanie, teens are reading about Buddhism, Taoism and nature-centred religions. They’re figuring out what yin-yang means in their own lives, or if they feel closer to their God in church or in nature.

Stephanie’s parents have no qualms about her exploration of alternative spiritualities. “Sure, they’d prefer it if I remained a Catholic, but they’re very supportive of my studies. They want me to know what’s out there and to make informed choices,” she says.

And why shouldn’t they? Set against the creepy hiss of a modem, the bleeps and blips of computers and the constant drone of TV talk — the soundtrack in most Canadian homes — a teen contemplating a mantra is likely music to most parents’ ears.

Mullens believes most spiritual exploration is healthy and important. “We live in a very pressured, goal-oriented and materially focused world. We don’t feel good about ourselves unless we’re acquiring more stuff,” Mullens concedes. As he discusses our industrialized, computerized, mechanized society, he can’t hide his smile when he returns to the subject at hand — teens who are concerned about their spiritual well-being and are doing something about it. He stops short of yelling, “Bravo” and says it’s indeed good.

But will all these explorations put churches and synagogues “out of business?” Mullens says no way. He anticipates the majority of teens who have explored alternative spiritualities will return to their traditional religion when they get married and have their own children.

In the meantime, one could argue that alternative spiritualities are providing healthy competition to traditional religions that are no longer speaking to teens.

“There’s nothing dangerous about looking at Eastern religions or following Wiccan practices. I’m more inclined to think that traditional religions are recognizing the spiritual thirst out there and it’s healthy for traditional religions because they’re having to wake up and smell the patchouli,” Mullens says.

Certainly, many Christian and Jewish leaders have recognized it’s time to dust off the old texts and present teens with more palatable versions of Christianity and Judaism — and, of course, some ventures into nature, more music and poetry wouldn’t hurt.

But if the New Form Fits … Celebrate

Most teens — and adults — don’t pursue alternative spiritualities because they think it’s the cool thing to do. Searching for a form that fits comes from a deeper place — the restless place with the dry tongue and tough questions: How do I make sense of the world? How do I find the good in a world that seems so messed up? How do I feel at peace in my own skin?

One of the great things about spiritual exploration is that a few people will find precisely what they were looking for and won’t experience that spiritual thirst again. James Mullens and Stephanie Morgan are in complete agreement that when it comes to spirituality, ignorance isn’t necessarily bliss. “Let people explore and choose. You may find out that you’re a Taoist, or a Buddhist or a Jew. You may find that’s the form most suitable for your temperament,” Mullens says.

Stephanie is also a big believer in self-education and exploration. “The more I read about different religions, the more I evolve spiritually. I think it helps me grow. People who say `I’m Catholic and that’s it’ probably haven’t studied other religions. Maybe they’d be happier being a Buddhist monk,” Morgan says.

Maybe they would be.

Q&A with Social Media Guru Susie Erjavec Parker

Social media guru Susie Erjavec Parker

Social media guru Susie Erjavec Parker

Susie Erjavec Parker, the principal of SPARKER Strategy Group, earned a reputation as the go-to woman for expertise on social media. She has appeared on CTV, CJOB and CBC; she has been quoted in MoneySense, The Globe and Mail and Winnipeg Free Press to name just a few. Although she lives in Winnipeg, she travels to conferences across Canada, and most recently New York City, to educate people about the merits and perils of social media.

One of her most notable initiatives, Loving Hands Don’t Hit, began as a protest against Chris Brown’s slated concert in Winnipeg in 2013 (which ended up being cancelled), but the campaign took on a life of its own and gained national media attention. Loving Hands Don’t Hit raised awareness about domestic violence as well as funds that went to a women’s shelter.

Susie took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss her passion for social media, some current trends and the art of the tweet.

What attracted you to social media?

Social media was a natural evolution of what I’d already been doing for years. Coming from a background in marketing and public relations, and having spent years online, social media just made sense to me. When it started I could envision how it would change a monologue to a conversation. Brands and business would no longer just be able to get their stories out through the broadcast method, but now everyone would be able to participate in the conversation. I love that about social media.

Since you started your social media-consulting firm, what major changes have you observed in social media?

As far as advertising and brands go, it’s like having the Super Bowl every day. Brands don’t have to wait for the Super Bowl to make a splash anymore. You can launch a campaign anytime with compelling content. Brands have also learned that social media is ruthless when it comes to offensive or tasteless campaigns—and being called out for them. Social media being used to bring about awareness and social change has been inspiring. It’s fantastic how video is reigning right now. From YouTube to Facebook to Snapchat, and let’s not forget about my new favourite, Periscope, video is where it’s at this year.

Andy Borowitz, a humour writer for The New Yorker, quips “There is a fine line between social networking and wasting your fucking life” as his description on Twitter. He is joking, of course, but there is a flicker of truth. When do social media activities cease to be productive?

It can be a rabbit hole. You can login to check one thing and the next thing you know, you’ve lost two hours. That being said, sometimes the rabbit hole can take you somewhere you would never have gone natively but you learned or discovered something you will find useful in the now or near future. When social media ceases to be productive is when it’s taking away from your real-life relationships. Yes, online relationships are real so take them offline and meet for a coffee, face to face. Nothing can replace that in-person interaction.

There is a dark side to social media. People often hide behind anonymous handles and say some horrible things. What’s your advice on keeping out of harm’s way while engaging in various social media forums?

I always say when it comes to anonymous sections where people can post, “Don’t read the comments.” Anonymity can bring out the worst in people. There are ways to mitigate the risks of being online, but the sad truth is that trolls are out there.

Tell me about the art of the tweet. How do you help your clients find their own voices for social media?

One of my favourite parts of working with a new client is crafting that voice for them. Being online as a brand means being there for the customer. Being fun, upbeat, knowledgeable, and able to attend to any customer service questions or negative experiences in a tactful, professional manner. When we work with a client we treat the brand like it’s our own. Outsourcing social media means giving the keys to your brand or business to a third party. You need to have the utmost trust that we will exercise complete excellence with your social platforms.

Prairie Blues

moon

What she fears
is the starkness
this dry land where
trees are ink webs
against the blue-white snow

The land doesn’t lie
with lush palm trees
blue waters and small sky

The wind whispers, this is it,
make of it what you will.

the moon bleeds
blue blood
a mournful sight
on this cold night

the moon seems closer to her
than it has ever been before

She drives all night
blowing snow—
angels take flight

The Merits of Active Commuting

10703435_10152703071030042_1436081520_oIn 2008, when I lived in Calgary and often drove five blocks to a convenience or grocery store, I wrote an article about active commuting. Most articles I write don’t change the way I think and live, but this particular article made me a zealous convert to an active commuting lifestyle.

“Fit to Ride: Active Commuters Reduce Environmental Footprint, Save Money, and Improve Fitness,” appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Impact Magazine. As a part of my research, I interviewed a well-respected author and journalist, Gordon Jaremko, about his commitment to active commuting. What he said about active commuting, cycling in particular, resonated with me. “It’s just a fun, addictive way to get around that makes you know your community better, from its topography to its weather, wildlife, sights, sounds, and smells. A one- to two-hour bicycle commute is the complete opposite of spending time in a car. In a car, it’s expensive, dead, boring, and frustrating time,” Gordon said.

I instantly and completely subscribed to his view of active commuting. Since that day, active commuting has been my ideal, although I do fall short occasionally. When I moved back to Winnipeg from Calgary in late August 2009, I left my car behind. I dusted off my bike, got a good pair of walking shoes and began using my body to get around Winnipeg. I made a decision to live just outside the city’s core so I could active commute to my downtown job. Because I live near the chronically bottlenecked Osborne Street, cycling to work gets me there faster than driving. It also prevents me from starting my day in a road rage. I am not a morning person and I cannot think of anything worse than being stuck in traffic on my way to work.

Cycling is my favourite way to active commute, but many people walk, take public transit, roller blade or even run to work. When I use my body to get to work, I arrive feeling positive, alert and focused. Everybody knows that exercise keeps the body healthy, but it also keeps the mind healthy by reducing stress and activating neurotransmitters that help people focus.

Now I am not going to lie: committing to a lifestyle of active commuting ain’t easy. I walk around with baby wipes to clean myself up after a ride on a hot day or freshen up at my gym before work. I have business-attire wardrobe in my office. When I grocery shop, I do find it cumbersome to carry 30 pounds of groceries home from my local grocery store, but I do burn about 150 calories on the trek back.

Right now, I am a single, childless free spirit. I probably could not maintain this lifestyle if I had kids. Kids have lessons or need to be dropped off at birthday parties. Some of my friends who have children still make an effort though. For instance, a good friend in Calgary drops her son off, leaves her vehicle at one of the designated parking spots and then takes the CTrain the rest of the way to work. There are so many variations on active commuting and just about everyone can make something work.

Hopping on my bike in the morning, feeling the sunshine on my face (protected by SPF 60 of course), seeing people walk their dogs, hearing crows negotiate plans with their caws, and smelling freshly baked bread as I ride past the Fort Garry Hotel makes my soul sing. I just wouldn’t have that experience in a car.

What’s good for the mind and body is also good for the environment. By choosing to cycle to work, I am helping to improve our air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I am burning calories instead of fossil fuels. As a curvy endomorph-mesomorph hybrid, burning calories and building muscles is my only hope of staying compact and sprightly.

Now, it’s quite easy to tout the benefits of active commuting when the weather is beautiful. Come January, when the temperature plummets to -30oC, I know I will want to buy a car. But once again, I will look to Gordon Jaremko for inspiration. Legend has it that he tested out a new winter jacket during a work trip to Fort McMurray by walking to the airport with a temperature of -40oC. If Gordon can do it, I can do it. I love winter cycling, but it’s too dangerous in rush hour. Walking will be my active commute of choice in the winter. Stay tuned for reports about frosty, invigorating walks.

Into the Night

Silver moon
starless sky.
Tonight the wind howls
while the woman’s fingertips flutter
against her window
like moths
trying to escape the night.

Luminous—
her pearly flesh
is pulled tight
across tiny bones.

She could be one of Picasso’s ladies—
tortured by impossible angles
tongue-tied
trapped in a barren landscape.

Only an ethereal dance
of carved flesh and shadows.

Five strategies to beat the winter blues

advantage_straight_on_800

It’s 8:00 a.m. in Winnipeg in late August. The sky is the colour of nicotine-stained apartment walls. It’s no December sky, but it’s certainly not proper August light—and it’s only going to get worse.

For as far back as I can remember, the shorter days of fall ushered in a more sober, down-to-business mood. But some years, the lack of light put me flat out of business; and the December solstice, the darkest day of the year, usually marked my lowest low.

I’d start to feel draggy in October. I found it harder to get out of bed and my energy would start lagging around 3:00 p.m. In an effort to pick myself up, I’d often go for a sugary carb like a muffin. (Back in the ‘90s, we actually thought muffins were a healthy snack, not a carby calorie bomb). Invariably, I would get a burst of energy followed by a crash that would leave me feeling even more lethargic.

I also noticed a shift in my thinking. Self-doubt and negative thoughts would start to take hold in the fall; whereas in the summer, I could just brush them away like a pesky mosquito. Performing mundane tasks would suddenly feel overwhelming. I grew increasingly irritable with people and would occasionally say the things I would only think during lighter months.

By November, I would be in a full seasonal depression. I would gain weight from trying to perk myself up with the carbs, which would cause me to further spiral into a bad place. For many years, I had a winter wardrobe and a summer one.

By December, I felt like I was in a bleak, black-and-white Scandinavian film shot in the dead of winter and my life seemed futile and doomed. Every minute would be packed with more existential angst than Woody Allen film. Somehow I survived these winter funks, but it was downright miserable. When I finally got the official diagnosis that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) just over a decade ago, I felt relieved because the sleep specialist not only gave me a diagnosis; he offered viable solutions.

Over the years, I have mastered the art and science of combating winter blues. Here is my attack strategy:

1. Light Therapy

I start using a portable light therapy device in late August. My light therapy product of choice is The Litebook. Clinical research showed the wavelengths of light emitted by The Litebook likely assists in regulating the body’s melatonin levels. It also increases the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. I like the Litebook because they conducted clinical trials and it’s Canadian company. I use the device for 30 minutes each morning and it staves off that groggy, draggy feeling.

2. Exercise

Although it is often the last thing I want to do when I’m feeling lethargic and it’s minus 30 out, exercise instantly elevates my mood, clears my thinking and makes me feel vivacious. I exercise as much for the mental benefits as I do for the physical. I work out at least five times a week, and I feel best when I exercise long and hard enough to break a sweat.

3. Proper Nutrition

Although my body wants nothing but processed carbs, I’ve succumbed enough times to know that giving my body sugar and starch will only end in sugar spikes and crashes and weight gain. I strive to eat lean and clean because there’s nothing more depressing than popping buttons and splitting pants—and that is what will happen if I don’t watch it. When I fall off the wagon like I did last weekend (mmmmm BBQ chicken pizza), I do not sweat it because that will only lead to more self-sabotage, but I do get right back on the wagon.

4. No Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant and it’s full of sugar and empty calories. For those reasons, I abstain. I can remember years that I felt in tipsy good cheer, but it was an inauthentic buzz and I would always feel blue the next day. If you suffer from any kind of depression, putting a depressant in your body is generally a bad idea, although self-medicating with alcohol is extremely common.

5. Bright Lights, Sparkles and Charity

I used to despise Christmas and all the emotionally exploitative marketing and commercialization that goes with it. Railing against it, however, did not help my mood. Over the years, I have learned to love lights, the festively decorated houses and all the sparkly, glittery wrappings. I regard them as a kind of light therapy. I also make sure I have glittery toenails so I can look at the sparkles when I practise hot yoga.

Charity also helps. By focusing on those in need, I get into the spirit of giving. One year I was Santa to a senior. “My” senior provided a list of things she wanted and I shopped around for toiletries that I thought she’d like, consulted beauty advisors about what body sprays seniors prefer and got her a sweater the colour of the flower after which she was named. It did wonders for my soul and I get excited when I think about her opening all the goodies I put together for her.

So that’s what works for me. I could easily succumb to it and live like a nocturnal beast for half the year, but I do not like to waste time and suffer needlessly. Bright light therapy, exercise, good sleep hygiene, proper nutrition and sleep and soul activities keep me in good cheer even during the darkest days of the year.