It’s the simple things

Sometimes getting back to the basics of a great book and storytelling can help our mental health

By Starr Cunningham

As I was recently pondering topics for my spring column, I found myself scrolling through photos on my phone. Within a few minutes, I came across the one featured here. 

It instantly made me smile. There’s just something about the way the two little girls in the foreground are looking at each other that’s soothing to my soul. I’m sure it looks contrived, but it’s not. It’s actually just a random photo taken by a guest attending one of my book readings. It was shared with me on social media and I couldn’t help but save it to my own camera roll. I’m so glad I did!

Why? Because looking at this photo is good for my mental health. It captures so many positive mental wellness messages all at once for me. It has childhood literacy at its heart, with human connections dancing all around it. The little people are engaged, not by computer screens, but by a book, a stuffed goat, and each other. 

Sometimes mental wellness really is just that simple. 

As a child, some of my favourite memories revolve around my pet goat Gertrude. She was such an amazing addition to our family. She slept in our house, was best friends with our dog, and never failed to make us laugh out loud with her silly goat antics. 

She was known for eating everything: the toes on socks hanging on the clothesline, elastic hair bands, and entire bags of Oreo cookies, including the bag! You name it and she’d try eating it. 

Our days with Gertrude were long before the days of Netflix and cell phones. As kids growing up in the country we had to make our own fun and that often meant playing outdoors with Gertrude and our dog. 

As an adult, I’d often share stories of Gertrude and people’s eyes would light up. Believe it or not, it seems quite a few people have had pet goats at one time or another. 

It’s funny because goats are pretty trendy right now. There are bars, restaurants, and coffee shops named after them right here in the HRM. There are viral videos on YouTube with millions of views featuring the quirky little beasts. Why, you can even have a small toy goat mailed to someone you love with the tongue-in-cheek tag line “You Goat Mail.” 

When I wrote My Goat Gertrude and Gertrude at the Beach, I was hoping she would resonate with young readers. What I discovered is she seems to resonate with readers of all ages. I think it’s because of what she represents; simpler times, curiosity, and definite animal adorableness. There’s just something funny and lovable about a goat.

Beyond the two girls in the foreground of this photo, you’ll notice there’s a child in the background all snuggled into her mother’s lap. She also makes me smile because her reaction to reading a book is to get comfortable. It’s obvious she associates being read to with having quiet, down time. Now that’s good for mental wellness, too.

In a world full of monitors, apps and instant messaging, it’s comforting to know our children are still interested in old school fun. Spending time cuddled in bed with a good book or interacting with new friends at a local literacy event can go a long way toward teaching mental wellness techniques. 

And, let’s face it, quiet time spent sitting close while turning the pages of a book can be just as beneficial for Mom and Dad.

While some of my favourite childhood memories revolve around Gertrude, many of my favourite parenting memories revolve around story time with my kids. I started reading to both Nick and Lily from the moment they came home from the hospital. It was always a therapeutic way to wrap-up a busy day. I did it then because it felt good. Now, I realize it felt good because it was steeped in self-care. 

Every day here at the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia we remind people to do things that promote mental wellness. That includes healthy eating, physical activity, and achieving adequate amounts of sleep. But it can also mean sharing a quiet story with your little one in a calm and peaceful environment before bed. Sometimes, just like Gertrude and her quirkiness, it’s the simplest things that surprise us by providing the most joy.