6 keys to living a long and happy life: Lessons from my 98 year old grandma

Baka & Deka on their travels

Today is the 10 year anniversary of my grandma’s passing. Baka was born in 1911 in Yugoslavia. She was married young, spent summers travelling to the mediterranean, had her first and only child (my mother) at age 40, moved to Sweden in the 60s to avoid political conflicts and then moved to Canada in the early 90s to live with us as a full-time grandparent.

She didn’t speak English, she couldn’t drive a car, she never had a job, but she was the Aussie definition of a “Legend” and she inspired everyone she met.

These are the lessons I learned from her about how to live a long, healthy and joyous life. And how to be a well and truly beloved human being.

1. Stay curious

I firmly believe that the reason Baka lived so long, with so much youthful abundance was because she needed to know. She read the Serbian and Canadian newspapers, she read books, she watched the news, she listened to the radio, she sat in her tufted leather chair by the front window and made sure to watch the daily school bus pick ups and drop offs (well past our own school days). She loved meeting our friends, boyfriends, neighbours…and calling up her friends in Serbia to tell them all the gossip. If we were eating something different that she’d never seen (nachos, Chinese food, etc.) she’d always want “just a little bit” to try. She didn’t go to university, I’m not sure if she even finished high school, but she was always learning and always willing to explore something new. She would have LOVED snapchat filters. Curiosity was the spark that kept her flame burning bright.

2. Stay playful

Despite not speaking English and not really leaving the house beyond the garden (I don’t know if she ever actually went out on her own without someone with her), she was beloved by all the neighbourhood kids and our school friends. Everyone who met Baka was instantly charmed. She always had this smile like we were all going to get up to some mischief and a twinkle in her eye that made you feel like you were in on an amazing secret. She was funny, somehow, without needing to speak the same language. She didn’t take life too seriously, she loved to tease and she was always ready to laugh. She basically became the neighbourhood’s grandma. Everyone loved Baka.

3. Never stop moving

I don’t think she ever owned a pair of running shoes, let alone workout gear (hah!), but she was someone who never stopped moving. When I read about Blue Zones (the people who have lived the longest), one of the key indicators is constant natural movement every 20 minutes. Subconscious habitual movement. She would spend the day cleaning the house, cooking, sweeping leaves, trying to clear snowy pathways or move the garbage bins out (to the point where my parents worried people would think they were forcing her to perform heavy labour haha), but she needed to be up, moving around and busy. I think this constant movement is what led her to be so mobile right up until the day she passed away. It kept her quality of life so high for so long.

4. Be physically affectionate

I will never forget what it feels like to hug and be hugged by Baka. The feeling of holding her hand. Or sitting on her lap…even when I was a grown woman and she had become shorter than me she would say “I’m tough, just sit!”. What we couldn’t always communicate to each other through her broken English and my 20 words of Serbian didn’t matter when she was such a solid, physical presence in my life. No matter what was going on, the power of a hug from her could fill me with all the calm and grounding I needed. It made me understand and realise the importance of touch.

5. Have faith, have rituals

Baka was religious…but not. She was the kind of religious you would also be if you were born in 1911. She would go to church on special occasions and she would cross herself when something was important. She had various rituals for various events: lighting candles, baking amazing sweet bread with a lucky coin inside (whoever got the piece with the coin would have good fortune), and fasting every Friday (no meat or dairy). She loved to tell fortunes with playing cards, and flipping over Turkish coffee cups to see your fortune. She had her things; we didn’t always know why or what was going on (although we wish we’d paid more attention now), but they brought some structure and grounding, a greater sense of purpose outside of our day-to-day lives.

6. Don’t worry, be happy

And finally, she was calm. She was steady. She was there for us always, holding space. Her room was a haven from whatever was going on in our worlds. If we were really upset she would give us a hug, entertain it for a few moments, but then smile and find a way to make things light. Sometimes that would be a trigger…“Baka!”, when all you wanted to do was wallow in your misery, but her lightness was contagious and you couldn’t help but feel like…well, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal after all. If you were in her orbit, things were always going to be ok.

And some other Baka wisdom I will never forget…

  • Always pull down the back of your shirt/cover your lower back or you’ll get sick!
  • Always have a switch/stick/something from the backyard to threaten a smack with (and be ready to say “I’m going to hit you with this!” but never carry through)
  • Always keep sweets in your drawer to give to your loved ones, be it a tin of mints or a few days old timbit in tupperware.
  • The best show on television is Murder She Wrote….oh Jessica! Honourable mentions to her other favourite As Time Goes By (she loved Dame Judi).

Volim te Baka, moje sunce 🌞

– Alex xx


The mystery of diet pt1: aka what the f*$k am I supposed to eat?

I haven’t written my health story on here yet, but suffice to say the last three years have been a bit of a witch hunt on my body. I read everything about everything in an attempt to find the magic diet that would cure my hypothyroid condition and Hashimotos (an autoimmune disorder). Spoiler: I never found it.

I tried many a diet: pescatarian, vegan, keto, gluten-free, sugar-free (including fruits and starchy veg), paleo, and an assortment of hacks I read for dealing with thyroid issues (i.e. no eggs, celery juice in the morning, no pork, etc.). All the diets sounded good when examined in isolation. They were clear, concise and promised a body that would feel the same. The problem was that I like to comparison shop…so I tried them all! I would research one heavily, try it, not see improvements, then go back to see what I had missed and go down the rabbit hole once again. I’d find another diet that would suggest the exact opposite and I kept hoping that one of them held the magic key that would make me feel like a healthy person again. 

When you’re ill, all you want is for someone to tell you “Do this and you will be better”.

The food witch hunt was not a success. I didn’t find my way out of my thyroid problems with any of these diets, but I did find myself with a real eating disorder. Almost every food can be ‘bad’ if you read the right article – I was paranoid of spinach at one point, then broccoli…seriously! I felt paralysed when choosing what to eat. I also felt intensely deprived. The stress and isolation of feeling like I wasn’t allowed to be free with my eating took a huge toll on me and added to the stress of my existing health conditions.

So here’s my hit list of foods that I’ve been told at one point or another not to eat:

Alcohol
  • Too much sugar
  • The mental effect: I always get a slight depressive, end-of-the-world feeling the day after that can linger for a few days. I have to constantly remind myself that I’ve had alcohol and that it’s not reflective of my true reality
  • Wine is so inflammatory for me and it makes me so sad! The social ritual of having a glass of red with friends was one of my favourite things, but I get hives and horrible hangovers. I didn’t have wine for almost a year and then tried ONE GLASS of biodynamic, organic Merlot and still had that tightness in my head feeling the next day (like an oncoming headache) accompanied with mild depression and anxiety. Just not worth it.
Corn
Cruciferous vegetables
Dairy
  • Full of hormones, allergens, and generally not good quality.
  • I recently had a convo with a girl who did her farm work  at a dairy farm that was an expensive, well known brand. She explained how everything was super clean and regulated, but the lives these cows live…it’s like watching a movie set in the future where humans are grown as body parts for other humans. No way for any living being to exist…even if its a ‘good’ farm. How can the milk they produce be of good quality to consume when they aren’t really living? The equivalent to eating vegetables grown in a garbage dump.
  • Even when I wasn’t a healthy, conscious eater (one of my favourite things to eat way back when was chicken fingers!) I knew I couldn’t have milk. The day after having it I would immediately breakout and have that onset allergy feeling.
Dried Fruit 
  • Aside from the fact that this is basically an addictive candy for me (another issue altogether), most dried fruit is made with canola or some other not-good-for-you vegetable oil and preservatives. Even the organic ones – they’re sneaky like that.
Eggs
  • Eggs also cause inflammation and allergies; feed viruses, bacteria, yeast, mold, Candida and other fungus; and trigger edema in the lymphatic system.(page 281)This book  lists eggs as a thyroid stressor (explanation of why is in the book), saying they feed viral infections and that viral infections are the underlying cause of autoimmune diseases. They were my main source of protein before (at least two a day), but after reading this I stopped eating them for months. I’ve since reintroduced them back into my diet, but always, ALWAYS organic…
  • I once went on a date with a guy from the RSPCA (animal welfare organisation in Australia) and he said he would never, ever eat chicken or eggs because they are treated horrendously, even when the label says otherwise. I think unless you can find the chicken that laid those eggs and see for yourself that it’s happy, the chances are probably pretty low that what you’re eating is nutritious.
  • Like corn, soy, and wheat, eggs are one of those things that are in a lot of processed foods. So you may be consuming more than you think – and they most definitely wouldn’t be organic.
Fish
Fruit
  • Supposedly not good for insulin resistance because they have too much sugar (I am NOT ok with this, hah). The problem is that they’ve been bred over time to be sweeter and this has had some huge effects, like with these poor monkeys.
  • Some are worse offenders than others. I’ll never forget watching an episode of Dr. Oz and hearing him say grapes are just little packages of sugar – that statement has haunted me for years…the things the mind holds onto. Berries are generally less sugary and more fibre, whereas melons, bananas, pears, and grapes (!) are sugar-ific.
Gluten
  • Creates an inflammatory response, even if you’re not coeliac. This is also like corn, soy, wheat, etc. where gluten is found in so many things that you are much more exposed to it than you probably know. The overexposure is what causes the sensitivity. 
  • If I ever eat bread ‘too much’ (like more than once in a day or multiple days in a row) I feel a distinct hungover effect, even with artisanal, organic breads. I can’t handle plain white sliced bread or french bread (sob) AT ALL and have immediate allergy flare ups.
Grains
  • These can also be like corn, soy, wheat, gluten, etc. where the general overexposure when it’s used as filler leads to sensitivity issues. There’s also this
Legumes (peanuts, beans, etc.)
  • I definitely have a reaction to too much peanut butter (but how do you stop at one spoonful???), my skin breaks out and I feel sluggish the next day.
  • Lectins and phytates are the big no-no associated with legumes, said to cause inflammation.
Nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, etc.)
Nuts
Pork
  • Called a virus aggregator by Medical Medium.
  • My whole body has a weird reaction every time I eat pork products. I knew this, but I didn’t actually piece it together till I read the Medical Medium thyroid book…probably because I loved bacon so much. RIP pork.
  • Bacon was just listed as a known carcinogenic by the WHO…eek. 
Refined sugar and other sweeteners
  • Duh, right? This includes honey, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, stevia…I do believe that the less we use to make things sweeter and the more we get accustomed to the natural sweetness of things as they are the better off we’ll be. The sweet high is the sneakiest addiction!
Soy
Vegetable oil, canola oil, palm oil, etc.
  • I haven’t used these to cook in probably a decade, but they’re probably what’s used every time you eat out, buy a snack (hi dried fruit), etc. 

It’s almost everything, right? At some point or another I have not eaten each of these things. It messed with my head, which in turn messed up my body even further. The result was that I became even more disconnected with myself. I didn’t know up from down, everything seemed like the enemy and I developed a lot of food related anxiety. It’s still there, but I’m very slowly trying to find my way back to myself and strengthen my intuition around eating.

So what do I eat now? How do I navigate this minefield? Well that’s for part 2…

Written by Alex

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