There’s a reason why so many cultures have used storytelling in a myriad of ways over history, but one primary reason is it’s a way for people to connect to each other, to understand things, to know what to pay attention to, and to heal from past wounds. Kathryn Nicolai has always been a storyteller and somebody who told herself bedtime stories as a young child to fall asleep. For someone with a condition called aphantasia, which is the inability to visualize mental images, overlapped with a severely deficient autobiographical memory, Kathryn is always present in the moment, a state that she celebrates in her book, a collection of bedtime stories called Nothing Much Happens. She returns on the show with Timothy J. Hayes, Psy.D. to dissect some concepts from her book and share why she finds the small mundane details captivating and something to enjoy and be grateful for. She also talks about her podcasting journey and how she’s using the platform to use her voice to reach out to people by telling stories.
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Celebrating The Present Moment With Kathryn Nicolai
Kathryn Nicolai is the Owner of Ethos Yoga in Holly, Michigan. She is also the Creator of the enormously successful podcast Nothing much happens. Her book Nothing Much Happens was published in October 2020.
Kathryn, welcome. Thank you for joining us again.
I’m glad we’re back, Tim. Thank you for having me.
I wanted you back because we want to talk about this book titled Nothing Much Happens: Cozy and Calming Stories to Soothe Your Mind and Help you Sleep, which is vitally important for many of us.
It’s based on my podcast, which has now over 30 million downloads and has hit the top of the charts in lots of countries all over the world but it goes a bit deeper than the podcast. I found that a lot of people, for various reasons, maybe they didn’t have a great relationship with technology or they had too big of a relationship with technology and they didn’t want their phone by their head at night but they needed a different way to consume this content. I also wanted to add some things to it. There are these beautiful soothing illustrations by an artist named Lea Le Pivert and there are meditations and recipes and self-care practices that are all meant to envelop the reader in this world where things are a little simpler and a bit slower.
You’ve accomplished that beautifully. I want to compliment you for choosing the illustrator and the illustrator for matching this content. The soothing and calming that are in the stories are beautifully matched with these illustrations.
That was important to me. I have a condition called aphantasia, which means that I am incapable of visualizing anything. I don’t have an inner eye. When I was first talking with the publisher about what it would look like, they said, “What do you imagine?” I said, “Nothing.” I can’t imagine anything. I had been collecting a board online of various artists that I thought would be a good fit. We started with about 25 artists between the ones I picked and the ones that Penguin picked and right from the beginning, Lea was my favorite. Day by day, we’d cross off a few more people.
At the end, they said, “Who is it?” I said, “For me, it’s Lea.” They said, “It’s Lea for us too.” One thing that resonated with me about her artwork is that it was already inclusive. There were all kinds of people in the world that she drew and that was important to me because that’s the world I write about. I always want people to see themselves in the story that they can imagine themselves in it. It was such a thrill to me to see the world that I’ve been writing about because I could never see it without her.
What gave rise to the podcast? What is it that takes you to storytelling?
I’ve always been a storyteller and I’ve always told myself bedtime stories as a young child to fall asleep. It was a way to self-soothe. I’ve always been entranced, especially having someone tell a story. I remember the first audiobook that was back when it was books on tape that my dad checked out from the library for me when I was eight years old. He had to check it out every two weeks for four months because I wouldn’t stop listening to it. Partially because I don’t have this visual element to my imagination, speech, hearing a story being told was captivating to me. That’s probably why I started the podcast as being able to use my own voice, to reach out to people and tell a story.
How long have you been doing the podcast?
The podcast is several years old.
What is the title?
I’m curious about the aphantasia description. What happens when you’re hearing somebody tell a story or reading a story? Are you visualizing it? Do you remember your past events visually?
No. I have no visual capacity at all inside my mind. I can’t imagine, for example, my face. If I close my eyes, I couldn’t imagine my own face, anyone’s face or any object at any time. Usually, aphants will use the term conceptualize because imagination implies image. There is a visual image. For us, we are thinking our way through a set of facts or things that we understand. I noticed that I, in the description of the podcast, have always said, “If you wake in the middle of the night, think your way through whatever you can remember from the story,” because that’s how I experience it. I imagine for people who visualize, they might well see their way through but for me, it’s about understanding a series of bits of information.
I have had the thing, it’s nothing like what you’re talking about but in a different way, it’s different from other people. If I’m out with somebody and we’re thinking about opening a new office or putting in some furnishings or adding, if there’s an old couch that needs to be replaced and they’ll say, “How do you think this would look in there?” If we bring this thing into that room, I can tell you, I like it or I don’t like it but to visualize this thing fitting in that space or how it would look next to that doesn’t work, the ability to memorize and compare.
That was how I first realized that I had aphantasia. Most people with aphantasia don’t think that you all are being literal when you say, “Imagine. See it with your inner eye.” We think that you’re not literally meaning that you can see it. We were renovating our house and I remember my wife would ask me, “What if the cabinet in the bathroom was black instead of white.” I would look at her.
What do you mean?
She would say, “You don’t like it?” “No, I have no idea.” To me, it was like having a bag of marbles and going, “What colors of marble will I take out next?” It’s impossible for me to know unless you take it out and show it to me. She’s a super visualizer and she can easily figure out what goes where. That was when I first started to notice that my brain worked a little differently. For aphants, often we do have problems with memory. There’s an overlapping condition called severely deficient autobiographical memory that overlaps with aphantasia for a lot of people and it does for me too. That means that there are big chunks of my own life that I don’t remember but I find it freeing. It keeps me present. In some ways, the combination of those conditions makes me the person to write this book because I have what I have in front of me, which is the present moment. That’s what my book always celebrates.
It reminds me of what you highlighted here at near the end of the book where you said, “Thanks to Mary Oliver for all of her words, poetry, instructions. The instructions were to pay attention, be astonished and write about it.”
She’s such the patron saint of mindfulness, of being able to stand in your own life and observe even the small, mundane details and be astonished by them. Find them captivating, find something to enjoy and be grateful for in the experience of them. I often talk about yoga but it’s true with my writing too that our lives are made up mostly of small moments. There might be some big moments at the end of your life, a handful, the moment you fell in love, the day a baby was born, the day a dream came true. Most of our days are small moments, you’re washing the dishes, you’re taking the dog outside, you’re getting into bed at night, they’re small. If those small moments can become more meaningful because you pay closer attention then your whole life becomes more meaningful, has more value.
It’s David E. Martin who talks about how the vast majority of moments in our lives are monotonously good and safe. He’s talking about it in terms of the way people catastrophize, spin-off, what if and they build all this worry about the future. He’s saying, “You don’t have to have a lot of faith and hope. You can go on the fact that the vast majority of moments in our lives, the car didn’t blow up, the avalanche didn’t sweep us away, etc. It’s monotonously good and safe.” If we can learn to be aware of that, that’s the mindfulness thing. Be here in this present moment. I do have enough at this moment, I have enough heartbeat, breath and physical comfort to survive. In a way, that’s part of what you’re doing in these stories is bringing us into these moments. I don’t want to turn over to the Kindle and flip back to the foreword but talk about how you introduce why you’re doing this and what you hope the stories will provide for people.
I opened the book explaining that if you’re feeling anxious, if you are sleepless, you are not alone but we can learn better habits around sleep hygiene. There’s hope. There are these ancient techniques. I say that storytelling is old magic and sleeping now is a modern superpower. There’s a reason why many cultures have used storytelling in a myriad of ways over history but it’s a way that people connect to each other. It’s a way for people to understand things, to know what to pay attention to, to heal from past wounds. I don’t take storytelling lightly even though my stories aren’t about much. I explain to my readers at the beginning of the book that it’s a simple technique. You allow yourself as you read to soak up as much detail as you can because the stories are rich in sensory details.
I like to lean into how things smell or sound or taste or feel. That’s because there’s no dramatic action. You get to lounge around in the mood that each story creates. Once you read a story or two, you close the book, turn the light off and then you take your mind and rest it in that place you created. It’s a familiar, maybe even slightly nostalgic place that’s safe and rich in detail. What that does is it moves people off of the default mode network of the brain, that background static that can eat away at us. Especially if you wake up at 3:00 in the morning and you feel the wheels starting to turn, that’s the default mode network. In order to go to sleep, you’ve got to get out of default mode. The best way to do that is what they call the task-positive network. Your brain needs a job to do. The job that we give it with my stories is to think your way through the process of being in this place, of smelling this thing, of hearing the sound. People from all over the world tell me, “I never thought it would work but it worked like that.”
I’ve experienced it for myself. I have often gotten myself into that. You mentioned sleep hygiene and some people may not have heard that term but it’s paying attention to all the aspects of the environment around which or in which I hope to fall asleep. It’s the preparation, the sound, the light, food or no food. These days, a lot of people are finding out the benefits of heat, weighted blankets. It’s all these things that might contribute to me creating an environment that facilitates my sleeping. I’ve enjoyed the idea of the mellow music, the soothing music sometimes the instrumental, whether it’s classical or another type. I find your stories too much the same thing. I’ve even done it in combination. I’ve got the light music going in the background and reading the story from your book.
That’s setting yourself up for the right experience. It can even be something like I find that I sleep better if I make my bed something about coming into my bedroom and seeing that my bed has been made, it gives me a feeling of order and being taken care of. I sleep better in a bed that’s made, also knowing that I need to have a time limit for when I stopped looking at screens. They remind me that my own sleep is important. It’s a way to care for myself. It can be pleasurable. That’s what often the component that I find missing for folks when they want to do something like mindfulness or meditation. These are important internal work but sometimes they can be quite difficult.
When you’re getting started, you need a little spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If people’s self-care plans don’t include satisfaction and pleasure, they’re missing out on a big part of what a person needs. That’s why I feel like if you can write into that sleep plan, that routine or ritual things that feel good to you, you’re going to want to do them. You’re going to look forward to going to bed and it’ll make it a lot easier to set your phone down, to step away from work and enjoy it. It should be pleasurable.There may be a handful of big moments in our life – like falling in love or when a baby was born, but most of our days are small moments. Click To Tweet
I’m thinking of people that they start to rev up with anxiety as sleep time approaches because they have a fear that they’re not going to be able to sleep. It is beneficial to use this approach. You lay it out ahead of time, pay attention to all these various environmental factors and you do something like the music or the storytelling. I highlighted one of the chapters where you start talking about words and I got that gift from my dad having a facility for language and words. People used to joke about reading the dictionary. I don’t like to read the dictionary so much as I like to read the books that tell me about the history of the words. You’ve got a couple here about doxography. Do you remember that one? Pretty writing about simple stuff.
It could be the title of my book.
That’s what I thought about it. How do you pronounce the one that is the irresistible desire to squeeze something cute?
Gigil. It’s a Tagalog word. When I wrote that I thought, “Wait until I have to read the audiobook,” because I had to learn to pronounce a lot of new words but that was fun.
That’s one of the reasons I like audiobooks because when they have these names or these words, I like to get somebody else’s idea about how to pronounce them. You were talking about having the aphantasia where you can’t visualize things, I have to try and have a way to pronounce it. It’s okay if it’s the wrong one as long as I use it consistently throughout the book. We then start talking with somebody else who’s read the same book and they’ve got a different pronunciation. That was one of the chapters that caught me in the beginning. It’s a fascinating book because it’s not about much.
No, there’s not much action. It’s all about mood and sensory details and a bit of nostalgia thrown in. That’s what I always think of as the recipe for each of these stories.
I would add relationship. There’s an aspect of the relationship that I found going through the various stories that I want to commend you for the idea that it’s a relationship without all the drama trauma.
I feel like connectivity is such an important theme in human beings and wellness. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted all of this to happen in the same little town, why I put a map in the front. I want you to know that maybe that the woman who owns the bookshop holds the door at the bakery for the couple that goes to the apple orchard. I feel like a lot of us, especially this 2020, when we’re so isolated are craving that feeling of community and seeing the way that people connect to each other. That’s a big part of how I write. I specifically write, when it’s a romantic relationship, without any gender markers so that whoever you are, however your life works, whoever you love, you can imagine yourself in the story, populate it with the people who are special to you. That’s another part of that inclusivity. That was important to me.
I get so much of the benefit from that conceptualizing small town, in part because I’ve always enjoyed living in smaller population centers and yet there’s a book titled Tribe where they talk about how, when you have a crisis, people come together and all of those lines of distinction get blurred and it’s about all the best of people come out. Not when they’re living on top of each other in cities, day-to-day routine, isolated in their boxes but when a crisis hit. A lot of that small-town living, my experience has been, it brings people together because you don’t isolate. When you’re walking down the street, you say hello to people because you’re going to see them again tomorrow or next week.
I went out to Northern California for my second job after college and I was waiting to get a full-time job, so I was substitute teaching at the high school. I had a junior in high school who didn’t think he had to pay attention to anybody. That was a part-time job I had. Another part-time job I had was round the clock healthcare for a grandfather who was in his last few weeks of living. That young man at the high school who thought he didn’t have to pay attention to the teacher, I ended up escorting him and somebody else to the principal’s office.
One morning when I entered the door at Grandpa Marshall’s house, here’s the junior. I opened the door, he’s looking at his substitute teacher that he treated rudely and I’m the caretaker for his grandfather. It’s a small world, it’s a small town. Your behaviors have consequences and how that can blend into connection because I’m not carrying a grudge from the way he acted in high school and I’m welcoming him into his grandparents’ kitchen. I got that flavor as I read your stories.
That’s by design and something that sometimes people feel nostalgia for or they’re missing out on because they aren’t living in places like that or they aren’t feeling connected or the community that they are seeing every day is online where there isn’t that accountability for your behavior. People can often say and do things that are quite hurtful and then turn off their computer or phone and walk away from it. I quite like the idea of this interconnectivity in a community where it matters.
I get the sense from it that it holds us in a different way, that we feel, in a sense, a level of safety even though there is that accountability. Sometimes we might have anxiety about how the ripple effects of our behaviors are but at another level, there’s a strength and a holding of us in those communities.
I feel lucky that I live in a neighborhood like that. We often are reaching out to each other and catching each other in those moments. Somebody needs help with childcare for the day somebody’s running an errand for a grandparent and does anybody have this or that? People say, “I’ll leave it on your porch. I’ll be over in five minutes.” That’s incredible how much we need that fellowship.
It nurtures us in a different way, in a way that the electronics simply can’t, in a way that the constant plugged into either a news stream or entertainment devices can’t. As you recall the book and the different times you’ve talked about it with people, what’s another aspect or a story that you want to talk about from this book?
I lost my grandfather. I will talk about the story that I wrote for him. It’s called The Asparagus Patch. It was a story that I had thought about for a while but I wasn’t quite sure how to write it. It’s a story about when you are not sure if your memory is real or a dream. A lot of us had these experiences from childhood where we remembered doing something amazing but we can’t figure out how we would have ever ended up in that scenario. It’s about the narrator driving out to her grandfather’s house to visit him and she sees some hot air balloons as she comes down a hill. Where my yoga studio is there’s a hot air balloon placed there. I’ve had that experience of turning a corner and suddenly, there are 5 or 6 in the air in front of me. It is an amazing thing.
She remembers this memory that she realizes must’ve been a dream. She goes through a couple of those moments and she finally gets to her grandfather’s house. They spent some time picking up kindling in the yard, which is something I did with my grandfather a lot. There’s a line that comes straight from my grandfather. He used to have a horse chestnut tree in his yard and we’d pick up the horse chestnuts. He handed me one day and said, “Put this in your pocket and an elephant will never step on your foot.” I have that one that he gave me in my jewelry box. He was an optimistic fellow. It’s called The Asparagus Patch because he died at 96 and he put in a new asparagus patch.
He was an optimistic fellow. He was like, “Let’s put one in because I’ll want the asparagus.” We’re talking a minute ago about that catastrophizing and that what if thing and that wasn’t something that he did. He had seen a lot. He was a veteran of World War II, raised a family in Flint, Michigan and had seen a lot in his life but it didn’t take that optimism away from him. The night that he passed, I went on Instagram and asked people to read the story. It was comforting to me to know that people were reading about him all over the world.
Have your feet stayed safe from elephants?
I haven’t heard that one before from a grandfather until I read it in your story. I love the idea that there’s a little illustration of the shoots coming up and you or the granddaughter’s asking, “How long before you can eat those?”
He was a great man.
Did you say he lived to 96?
Ninety-Six. He would have been 97. It was a hard loss because we couldn’t be together. It wasn’t safe for us to be together. We did a lot of Zooming and things like that. He’s my mom’s dad, who was my last grandparent. My folks live in South Carolina, we’re in Michigan. We couldn’t come together. It’s a difficult time for grieving because those normal processes that we go through, even if they’re unpleasant, we don’t like them. They do serve this purpose of making you feel like you closed the last pages of his book. It’s a strange time to be grieving, as many people are this 2020.If people’s self-care plans don't include satisfaction and pleasure, they're missing out on a big part of what a person needs. Click To Tweet
I gave a talk on a friend who taught me about this used to call it termination but that was before the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. People didn’t like that term anyway. Years later, as I was teaching other people about it, they said, “You’ve got to have a better title.” I said I’ll call it Saying Goodbye to Good People Without Saying Goodbye to Good Memories. I gave the talk for years. It was back in 2015, I finally got a version where I was able to record it. It was in a workshop setting in front of 10 or 15 people. It has an associated PDF file that has three pages of categories that I can use for that process to try and stimulate memories and cataloging the relationship and the memories.
It might be a little challenging for somebody whose memory-challenged, having difficulty with your autobiographical memory but this thing might help trigger some of it. It’s a different time for all of these people who are grieving. One of the best things about a process like this, saying goodbye to good people without saying goodbye to good memories is that it’s not dependent upon the other person being here or reciprocating. It’s an internal process I do to relive the good, the bad, the not so good, the life lessons, catalog them, lock them in, rehearse them and through that process feel all of the negative emotions and demonstrate to myself the fact that it’s not too much.
I can face the sadness and the upset and I don’t have to turn away from the memories. I can turn and look at them and I can welcome them. We have several people who are going through that. They attend our support groups. It’s important to start talking about it and helping people understand that while it would be preferable to be able to be there and hold a hand and hug someone, it isn’t a complete negation of the ability to do a grief process or a termination process.
We’re going to need to do much of that work in the next few years. We’ve got many people who are grieving but are traumatized. Putting people back together after all of this, we’re going to need a lot of tools like that.
We talked about the trauma the last time we talked when we were talking about your yoga studio and practice and how so much of it is body-focused and energies retained in the energy system we call the body. I like to mention for people Peter Levine’s work, In an Unspoken Voice, one of his latest books that talk about that in great detail. It’s important to recognize that these things we call traumas or the upsets that a professional would label trauma are discernible. We can figure them out and they are energies that we’re either willing to see and let flow through us or we’re not willing to see and so they stay locked down in us. You were mentioning breath techniques and some stretches or poses that you know are effective for that.
I’ve been working out going back to basics lately with breathing because there are lots of fancier techniques but breathing is available to everybody. It’s free. It is our most basic biological function. A couple of adjustments in the way that we breathe can bring huge benefits to us. We don’t hear about it enough but this is not any disputed science. This is well agreed upon science among those who study breath and the physical therapists who work with airway problems. If you’re not breathing through your nose, at least for the inhalation, you’re not bringing enough nitric oxide, which lingers in the sinuses and bonds to the oxygen molecules into your prefrontal cortex. This is going to cause problems with focus, you’re going to feel more anxious, you’re going to be in your fight or flight response more, you’re not going to sleep well, it can affect your digestion to function your entire body, things like executive function.
I’ve been working on helping my students to remember the basics of breathing through your nose while you’re awake and while you’re asleep, it is truly essential. At least that the inhale goes through the nose. If it can come out through the nose, that’s great but if it needs to come out of the mouth, that’s okay too. I thought we might do a nice breathing exercise where we’re going to breathe in through our nose and out through pursed lips. This was one that I would recommend for vagus nerve stimulation because the exhale is longer than the inhale is 3X as long, which leads to vagus nerve stimulation. It also regulates the nervous system in general. This is a good one for I’m feeling anxious, I’m scattered, I’m all over the place, my nervous system is too stimulated.
I’m going to count it out for us. Why don’t we do maybe five rounds? We’re going to go in through the nose for a count of three. When you exhale, you’re going to purse your lips like you’re breathing through a straw. Sometimes I tell people, “Carry a straw with you in your bag. You could use a straw. It’ll help you exhale more slowly.” Let’s take first an inhale and exhale in through the nose and sigh, breathe in for 1, 2, 3, purse your lips, breathe out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Breathe in 2, 3, pursed lips out, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. One more, breathe in 2, 3, pursed lips, breathe out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, breathe in and sigh. One more time, breathe in and sigh.
Often after I do those, I like to be still for a moment and notice how my body regulates its breathing. A lot of times, when we are feeling more anxious, we’re breathing too much. We are hyperventilating or breathing in too long and too deeply. We often think about oxygen being the cure-all and carbon dioxide being a bad thing but your body needs a balance of those gases. Most of the time, it will regulate itself but sometimes we become dysregulated because of the world we’re living in. I found that a useful practice to restore the balance.
There are tools for that. The straw is one. There is a nice metal necklace with a tube that’s got some Japanese symbols on it that people can buy and carry around their neck. I have people that touch it and it reminds them because if they’re in public, they don’t want to put the device in their lips. I’ve had therapists that have recommended that they’re using it for their own personal benefit and it helps them do what I’ve been coaching people to do for years. It’s like what you did, comfortably fill your lungs and then make sure the exhale is 4X to 8X longer than the inhale. You don’t pressure it out. You resist it out. A whole system slows down in response. We should unfortunately wrap this up. Are you doing anything online other than your podcast, which is Nothing Much Happens?
My book, Nothing Much Happens, it’s available anywhere. You can buy an autographed copy from NothingMuchHappens.com or go to your local independent place, Amazon and all those places have it. I do teach yoga several days a week, online Zoom classes through Ethos.yoga. I’m going to teach a free class that’s going to be about breathing. I’ll probably have that regularly up on my website because it’s one of those basic things that people need. I have some other exciting therapeutic projects coming out with my content but until all the contracts are signed, I’m not supposed to talk about it.
Put me on your list to be notified when those things get published and then we can schedule another interview. This is delightful. Thank you. Congratulations on the book. I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I recommended it to a few people already and hopefully, more will hear about it through this episode.
Thank you, Tim. I enjoyed talking to you.
Thank you. Take care.
Kathryn Nicolai is the Owner of Ethos Yoga in Holly, Michigan. She’s also the creator of the successful podcast, Nothing Much Happens. Her book Nothing Much Happens was published in October 2020. She is an architect of coziness, writing soothing stories that both ease the reader into peacefulness and teach the principles of mindfulness so that waking hours likewise become sweet and serene. She leans on her years as a yoga and meditation teacher to seamlessly blend storytelling with brain training techniques that build better sleep habits over time. She lives in Michigan with her wife and three dogs.
- Ethos Yoga
- Nothing much happens
- Nothing Much Happens: Cozy and Calming Stories to Soothe Your Mind and Help you Sleep
- In an Unspoken Voice
About Kathryn Nicolai
Kathryn Nicolai is the owner of Ethos Yoga in Holly Michigan. She works to help students connect sensation and emotion in an empowering and productive way.
She is also the creator of the podcast Nothing Much Happens; Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups and her book of the same name is coming out worldwide in the Fall of 2020.
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