When I told my husband, he smiled at me. It took barely a second before his acknowledging grin turned into a hearty laugh. And he gave me one of those indulgent, loving looks women who have been married for decades don't get enough of, but that's probably an entirely different column. Today, I have something else on my mind.
Here's the scene. It's early on a recent Saturday morning. We're in our kitchen and the coffee is almost ready. My husband is standing at the counter reading the morning paper. I'm being a little lazy. I've slept amazingly well and I'm greeting the day more slowly. It's fairly remarkable I'm not the first one awake in our household.
I think it relates to the fact that the day before was my last day of work — I retired after an interesting and varied 40-year work life that always offered me lots to think about. But today I have fewer mental obligations and a feeling of lessened responsibility. I feel incredibly clear-headed.
I give my hubby a morning kiss and say, "I think retirement is going to be wonderful. Now that I have less to think about, I'm fairly sure I've freed up new brain cells." That's when he smiles.
But it seems to play out throughout the day and week that follows. Omigosh, is it possible I might actually be correct? I seem able to remember things I typically would not have easily recalled in previous months. I am a better listener. My pace is slower and I am generally more positive. When someone engages me in a conversation, I stay in the moment more completely, and later I actually remember specific facts related to that discussion. My brain seems like it's functioning better.
In my more mentally alert state, I remember this phrase, "I used to think the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body, but then I realized who was telling me this."
That comment is from Emo Phillips, a comedian-philosopher. I recall it with minimal prompting. That's good. But pondering its meaning gives me additional pause. Just what is making me feel more clear-headed?
Buddhist teaching suggests, "Positive emotion will give birth to constructive and appreciative thoughts," which I interpret to mean I did not necessarily create additional brain space, but I am feeling relaxed and ready for the next phase of life. As a result, I'm also feeling more alert.
Or it could be even more basic. Improved memory function results if we get regular, restorative rest (seven to nine hours each night), a nutrient-dense diet (at least two-and-a-half cups of colorful vegetables a day) and regular aerobic exercise. Even something as simple as deep breathing makes a difference.
It took me decades to understand it, but I know now I have personally greater calmness and clarity when I attend to my breathing. Join me if you choose. Take a deep cleansing breath, in through your nose and out through your mouth, breathing out as long as you can. Do it three times, and then repeat regularly each day.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at email@example.com or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.