Relatively Speaking

There’s the tiptoeing around in the early morning, the absurdly quiet sex late at night, going to restaurants you avoid like the mall on black Friday, searching for your Tupperware containers that happen to be suffocating underneath your pots and pans.

There are more than 24 hours of driving time between me and my family, my parents are all retired, and we have the first grandchild, a giggly 2 year old with blonde curls. This means that they visit us frequently and for long stretches of time spanning anywhere from two weeks to two months. It is a long time to silently cringe as your child is fed all forms of unnaturally sweet confection on a regular basis, and to feel the immense pressure of entertaining or at the very least being around your family member constantly.

Old family patterns can creep back into your relationship and control your responses without you even noticing. As the youngest sibling, the “sweet” one, the automatic reaction I have is to be amicable, accommodating, and to absorb endless amounts of criticism disguised as advice or as innocent questions with a good attitude.
When I begin to sigh heavily and feel my words snapping like fresh peapods, I take a little time out for myself.

I think about the fact that two of my grandparents died less than twenty years from the age that my parents are now. I remember that soon enough I’ll be dropping off them off at the airport and will return home to an empty house, going back to the long mornings and afternoons with no adults to talk to. Soon enough Sierra will be asking “where’s grandpa?” And he will already be hundreds of miles away.

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Someday I will say goodbye for the last time. Maybe then I will remember the irritating little habits, the times they angered or upset me, but those memories will look like tiny crumbs compared to the enormous feast that makes up the soul and presence of this person; this beloved family member. As in all things, looking at a situation with a telescope rather than a microscope can help us to move forward in peace in our relationships with the ones that raised us, the ones that loved and knew us the longest. In this way we put our egos in check and choose grace and love to guide us in making the most of our time together with our relatives.

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Breaking the Tradition of Gift Giving and Recieving

We can go out into the woods, into a field, into the back yard to lay down on the lawn and fix our gaze up at the clouds rolling under the sky, we can still the mind just enough to hear the tiny whisper coming from the heart. This solitary stillness is important as a regular practice if we are to lead the lives we were meant to. There is too much business and external messages in the space of our regular lives of tasks and routines.

If we listen carefully, we will know what our heart is saying to us.

Sometimes what the heart tells is difficult to truly know. Often it just begins with an urging, or a reluctance, a joy or a sadness. This is to be expected- this is the language of the heart.

Once we receive its message, the next task is to hold it in our conscious mind and give ourselves the time and space to process it. We can always picture the message as we lay down to bed and request some guidance through our dreams or in our waking lives.

I heard something from my heart recently, and I recognized that it was a struggle that seemed silly, could be perceived as selfish and at the same time difficult to resolve. There are always matters which arise that present a challenge for us to reconcile.

My message was: I’m stressed about the upcoming slew of birthdays and Christmas that’s coming upon me. Why? I asked again. This time the answer came to me immediately. The presents. Presents are supposed to bring joy for both the gift giver and the receiver. There’s a whole slew of etiquette around gifts, and millions of entire issues of magazines dedicated to the tradition. There’s also enormous social pressure to comply with this practice.

I thought about calling this post Breaking Free from Expectations or Bowing Out of Obligation Gracefully, but the decision to decide to stop giving and receiving presents is really kind of a radical way of doing those things. It’s definitely not a simple decision to make, and unlike going vegan it’s not an easy thing to read about online. I personally am the only person I know to do this. Here is my reasoning.

I believe at a time long ago, when people didn’t have much, gifts were often desperately needed or perhaps were items that were handmade with love in a way that made them family heirlooms. The items gifted were used carefully and passed down, allowing a few to several generations of practical use. These days, most everything you can go out and buy was made in a factory or a sweatshop in China for very little pay, with cheap materials in a fast process that makes the item completely disposable and likely unsafe. This modern process has allowed people to buy many items for many people, for many occasions. What happens as a result of this? We have more stuff that we likely have no use for, we throw more of it away, more ends up in landfills, and we support cruel industries that cause destruction to the planet.

At first I thought of alternatives to this pattern. I could make everyone handmade gifts, yes, but not everyone can benefit from the same thing. Sending out little gift baskets filled with soaps and lotions made with organic ingredients and recyclable packaging would be very pleasing and useful to me, but probably would only be useful to a handful of my family members. Because of modern conveniences, people become attached to their particular brand or product for self-care, for food, for most everything that is consumed. Even their tastes in décor and fashion has become highly specific and individualized. There’s always Amazon wish lists so that you can be sure to get the person exactly what they need, or gift cards so they can pick for themselves exactly what they would like. But I had to ask myself, how is this any different than giving someone an envelope of cash in exchange for them giving you an envelope of cash? It’s completely soulless. On this level of monetary exchange I would always be the weaker party, as I have no income besides what I make from selling random things on EBay which puts me at the lowest income level of anyone else in my entire family or friend group.

Other solutions are donating to each other’s charities which is wonderful, or asking to only receive “experience gifts.” At first I thought that would be a wonderful solution, but so many “experiences” that I would want for my family had only one gift-type option: the gift of membership. These memberships to places like museums and parks were upwards of $75. I just didn’t feel comfortable asking for these in lieu of physical presents, as I realistically would only visit these places once or twice a year due to geographical distance.

“But it’s the thought that counts.” Yes I agree. So here is my thought on the practice. What I would honestly love to receive is a letter, or more preferably a phone call from anyone who cares about me on my birthday. Ditto for Christmas although I’m not Christian in the least and the holiday causes a lot of grief for me (the consumerism, hustle and bustle, going here and there and all the dang traditions that it forces). So to be honest I could care less about Christmas. In turn, I will make a commitment to calling ALL close friends and family on their birthday and Christmas to have a real conversation with them, to connect with them. If by any chance some of them are physically with me visiting, then going out and doing an activity they enjoy while we spend time together is what I will give. To me this is what is important and meaningful, the most precious gift.

So I’m announcing to everyone that I’m bowing out of the traditional form of gift receiving and giving. Not all of my family knows yet, some that do are understanding (let’s be honest- I’m already kind of weird so it’s not a huge surprise, I’m just getting more “out there” than I already was). Some are in complete denial and insist that they give me gifts anyway. That is fine. I will receive the gifts with a recognition that this person is in their own way trying to please me (though it’s strange that they would do what I asked them not to do to accomplish this) and they will get donated to a charity where they will be of use to others less fortunate than me. This may sound harsh but I know that I don’t want to add any more objects to my home, as I’ve only become happier in making the decision to let more and more items go.

From what little I could find online of people that have made this lifestyle choice, it seems like this takes a few years for your family to get used to. For me, that’s ok as I’m not trying to shove my ideas down everyone’s throat, I’m just making a change that will make my life more in line with my personal values.

As for my daughter, that’s something my husband and I will need to discuss further. I’m loving the idea of “Something they want, something they need; Something to wear, something to read” from us and a limit of one gift per family member.

This blog post has turned into a guide for bowing out of gift giving and receiving, but could also be useful as encouragement to bow out of anything that doesn’t make the heart happy. So let us continue to reflect, consider and take action to live a life filled with joy and peace.

Letter to a Former Vegan

Dear Friend,

I’m not here to pass judgement, I’m not here to lecture or go into detail about how the factory farming industries are hurting everyone and everything. I’m assuming you already know (if you don’t know, there are plenty of documentaries you can watch to enlighten you). What others do is their choice and I’m just here on my own journey with enough of its own hurdles and hardships. Recently going vegan was not a choice that I made out of compassion (although it was the first time I made the choice over a decade ago). It was not a choice I made for the environment, it was not a choice I made for humanity. It was a choice I made for my own health. Naturally when I decided to become vegan, I reached out to other people on the same path. Most vegans arrive at veganism through the avenue of choosing to face the truth about the horrors and atrocities suffered by animals in the factory farming industry, and they honestly just cannot bring themselves to eat meat without thinking about who it was, where it came from and what it experienced there. But more and more vegans are stepping up their diet choices to battle health problems that are exacerbated by the traditional American diet. This is awesome and I’m pleased this is happening more and more. But similarly to vegetarians trying to subsist on vegetables and rice, it’s not sustainable for the majority of us on this path.

Going vegan for our own health is enormously hard, because we’re only accountable to ourselves, we are only motivated by the benefits we reap. We have to say “no” to foods that would make our taste buds scream YES!, we can’t eat at certain restaurants or shop conveniently at some grocery stores. We can’t make the same meals at home as we used to. We have to get used to things tasting differently, and used to the fact that we will be the odd man out in many a social gathering, even facing stigma and occasionally ridicule. After struggling with all of it and still feeling the craving for meat, it can seem that abstinence from animal products is not worth the personal health rewards. We start to lose sight of what it was within us that made us make the switch in the first place as we feel the guilt of having these carnivorous feelings becoming too heavy to bear. But there’s a way to lighten that burden.

It becomes much easier and simpler if we remember that with every single vegan choice we make, we are saving not just ourselves, but our fellow creatures, the planet, and our fellow humans as well. We’re being the change, even when we can’t immediately see the change. Veganism needs us as much as vegans of all motivations need each other for strength of conviction in a world where we are immersed in a culture that deliberately creates vehicles designed only to get us to make choices in what we consume that support violence and destruction of our natural resources, our animal friends and even ourselves in the name of profit.

Making the decision to give up veganism to eat meat because there are just too many other problems with humanity and the world that need fixing first is merely looking too closely at just one small piece to a huge puzzle.

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Of course, we can continue to fight for what it is we believe in while being vegan. Being vegan does not mean we are willing to die to save the life of an animal- it just means we’re willing to make different choices with our diet than most- we’re willing to be just one part of the force for good in the world. It is not as complex as it seems. It actually requires no effort other than choosing food and consuming food, an activity that we’re already obligated as humans to be doing no matter what  particular cause we were fighting for. All that is required is choosing food that is vegan over food that is not. It cannot be over emphasized how amazing just this simple act of non-violence is for the planet. Even more than that, all of the problems in this world do not exist in a vacuum. They are interrelated and influenced by one another. The way we treat animals reflects the way we treat each other, the way we treat mother earth reflects the way we treat ourselves. It is all related on a spiritual level. Having compassion for IT ALL (including ourselves) is the solution.

Given that, we of course cannot devote our lives as one individual to every single cause that is deserving of our attentions- it is simply not humanly possible with time limitations of hours in a day and days on earth. But we can all make this simple decision at every meal and with every purchase. In fact, I’d argue that we should all make the best passive decisions (that is choose the more sustainable option whenever we have to do something anyway) we can. Toss it in the recycling bin instead of the trash. Buy the organic version. Buy the natural version. Buy from the mom and pop shop instead of Amazon. Go to the wildlife sanctuary instead of the theme park. Adopt a pet instead of buying from a breeder. If you do choose to eat meat, buy from a local small family farm. The power we have as individuals just passively consuming is substantial when it all adds up.

If you decide to stop being vegan, I will still be your friend. I still love my husband, my family and my country, my world even if I don’t agree with the choices that everybody makes. I’m just one person, and I do my personal best to make a difference with who I am and what I have. Consider this open letter to you, and everyone who reads it as more of an open invitation to joining (or re-joining!) the vegan movement, to joining the green movement, to joining the local movement, to joining ANY and ALL movements for good. Even just making positive actions in the world as often as you can helps- any intentional action at all helps. We mustn’t lose sight of the big picture, we mustn’t forget that we’re not alone. Let’s make a pact to follow our hearts and our passions, make steps toward our big dreams through our small decisions. Let’s shine our light in every place we can reach from our own little corners, and slowly but surely we’ll make change happen.

 

What I Gained When I Ditched My TV

I know I made a post a couple weeks (months?) ago about getting rid of my TV, and it’s been a process to actually do it. Gurus, Yogis, Hippies, and enthusiastic Waldorf families are among the first stereotypes of individuals that come to mind when I think about all the folks that eschew television. It was kind of hard for me to let go. There is just something that’s a bit all-American about the TV. It’s how you watch the Super bowl, the Macy’s Day Parade, the ball drop on new year’s eve, and presidential debates. It’s become an access point for the never-ending procession of “water cooler shows” as well as its currect incarnation of an endless opportunity to binge-watch Netflix. Even in children’s programming you’re up against the ever-wholesome Sesame Street.

I’d love to say that parting with my TV is a statement I’m making against our consumerist culture, but in truth I was making that statement from the time I moved out on my own 7 years ago, by not ordering cable or finding a way to even get local channels. At that point TVs were just kind of given to me, and the then-boyfriend brought along plenty of videogame consoles that allowed for DVD watching, and my long term relationship with Netflix became established.

Netflix has been a good friend to me. It has given me old shows I thought I’d never see again, has allowed me to see fascinating documentaries and weird foreign films. But when Sierra came along, and I saw how immersed her whole being became when I turned on a show, it made me uncomfortable. The situation became even more volatile when I would turn off the TV and she would spiral into a full-on meltdown. Of course it being a huge flat screen that was the focal point of our living room didn’t help.

As the popular book title suggests, I believe that TV really is a Plug In Drug. It stimulates parts of the brain where neurons connect, and this constant stimulation over time creates strong bonds in the brain that crave constant stimuli. This is the point at which the silence of an empty house can drive you insane. Having the nice big flat screen there staring at you is like a starving child sitting next to a casino buffet. It’s almost excruciating to resist partaking in the Netflix smorgasbord.

So to get down and dirty, here was my process in amputating my TV from our home:

  1. Cancelled Netflix, first the DVD subscription, then Netflix instant. This was pretty painful, although to ease the pain I started following more health-wellness-educational channels on youtube.
  2. I unplugged the TV. This part would have never happened had my husband been here, and it took several explanations over the course of the next few weeks to Sierra of why we couldn’t watch TV anymore.
  3. Selling the TV. Of course, I did this through Craigslist and found that the TV was worth WAY less than it had been when it was new (come to find out they came out with smart and HD TVs that made my simple Plasma display passé). I did begin to panic when the buyer was on his way over, but after it was gone I felt a definite shift in the atmosphere in my living room. It was a calm, simple peace. No more big black box staring at me!

Now the awkward part is I have a big bulky entertainment center with a gaping hole in the middle. I’m working on getting it sold, but so far no one has gone through with buying. I’d love to say we are free from technology all together, but I know that will probably never happen. I use the computer for so many things, and my old mac lets me watch DVDs so we won’t be media free anytime soon.

What I’ve gained: I don’t feel compelled to watch every hot new show that the networks spew out (Gain: Time! also Time spent being productive, or making memories as a family). I don’t feel like I need to run out and buy any new products I see in ads (Gain: Money!). And I don’t pay for any subscriptions (Gain: More Money!) I was able to put the money from selling the TV to a worthy cause (Gain: Good VIBES!). Now if I feel boredom creeping, I have to use my brain to think of something worthwhile to do (Gain: Creativity). Also notice that keyword *do*. When you don’t rely on TV to distract your brain from real life, you find yourself moving your body to get things done more. This is good for your health and also can contribute to an exponential amount of other positive possibilities in your life (starting a small side business, selling clutter, trying new recipes, starting a garden, going on a hike, etc.) Its sort of sad but true that I used TV as an anti-depressant as well. Whenever I was feeling lonely or down, a stand up comedy special would help me smile again. But now I don’t get the quick fix, or the band-aid. Now I have to really feel my emotions, which is sometimes uncomfortable. But I know that in a way, this is important inner work, to really experience the deep feelings. It’s part of the human experience and a catalyst for introspection and reflection.

Remember: You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. -Dr. Seuss

How to Fix Behavior Problems Fast and For Good

IMG_3359It’s a pill. It’s a drink. It’s a diet. It’s a book. It’s an electronic device! It’s timers, time-outs, charts, bribes and threats.

There are so many “specialists” and “experts” out there peddling their own brand of fix it products and methods to solve the most confounding problem behaviors we see young children exhibiting. As an enthusiast of early childhood education and child development (admittedly a more alternative-bended enthusiast), I can 100% guarantee that that entire first sentence up there is a total load of BS. I can tell you that for sure, because I’ve tried many of them both as a parent and an early childhood educator with poor results. There is no band-aid or magic bullet to quickly fix your child’s issues. There is no one-size fits all way to deal with behavior problems, but there is one simple concept that I promise will transform your child’s life and your life as a parent.IMG_2527

That concept is pretty straitforward: Maintain an authentic relationship with your child based on respect. This idea is so groundbreaking only because in our culture we have sailed so far off the shores of parent-child relationships based on respectful communication and real interactions. I first heard about this idea in my infant development class when my professor was speaking about the research of Dr. Emmi Pickler and showed us videos of the sagely Magda Gerber speaking so clearly about the needs of babies. RIE (pronounced wry as in the bread and stands for Resources for Infant Educarers), is an organization that is all about promoting relationships based on respect. Janet Lansbury is the modern version of a RIE spokeswoman (though this is not her official title) is an amazing blogger and has written many books including No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, which was a joy and a revelation to read.

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Later in my child development education, I would be put in the college’s NAEYC accredited program in order to be disillusioned when I saw toddlers being chastised by a teacher for dumping out bins of fake food (because let’s be real- this is exactly what I would do with fake food too!) So I worked up the courage and asked my professor if there was somewhere I could go that had more reverence for children. Thankfully, that professor allowed me to go to Simone’s Infant Care, a beautiful, play-based in home program for infants and toddlers that used the RIE approach with many principles from Waldorf education.

student teaching at Simone's
student teaching at Simone’s

It was here that the words from the RIE website really came alive for me. It was a priceless opportunity to be able to see Simone work with the children in such a gentle and respectful way. The children were all so happy under her care, and what a privilege it was for them to be able to attend such a happy place.

 

When I relocated to Texas I decided firmly that I would raise Sierra with RIE. At times it was hard to do so, especially with being geographically separated from my community and having a husband that was gone a lot. I sent my mentor plenty of emails and questions as I faced my issues. Even with all my training and education, I got frustrated with lack of sleep and joint pain from Rheumatoid Arthritis. I snapped and said things to my daughter that were far from respectful. I watched TV a lot when she was a little baby, I’m now sad to say. I also had a hard time maintaining a good rhythm in the home, as I was still trying (but failing) to lead the same old life of shopping and socializing with friends that I had before I gave birth. I also used an infant swing quite a bit in the first months.

My step dad Frank is staying with me, and last night he was watching me put her down to sleep. He said, “You’re the best mom.” I answered with something self deprecating, and he affirmed “You really are.”

After a pause, Sierra hugged my arm, looked up at me and said, “You’re my best friend, Mommy. I’ll love you always.”

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This was such a beautiful and precious gift from my daughter, but I also count this as a gift from RIE. Being exposed to, exploring, witnessing and practicing, failing, and practicing again the RIE principles over and over and over again has given me the gift of a relationship with my daughter built on respect. Without that foundation there, we would certainly not share the same level of trust and love that we do right now.

I’m struggling with one of my daycare Kiddos. He is full of energy, very assertive and carries the term “bouncing off the walls” into the literal realm many times a day. When he was smaller it used to be so easy to help him, with certainty to grasp his little hands and reaffirm that he may not hit others. It used to be so easy for me to calmly stop him from running, to acknowledge that he wanted to keep playing but that it was nap time now. Over time he has grown bigger and I have grown weaker and weaker in the joints of my extremities. I have fallen down painfully by trying to catch him running as he was dragging a wooden toy along the wall. As I’ve been desperately trying every method I can think of to gain his compliance, nothing I try with him has seemed to work. When I reach out to my professional community, everyone just agrees that he is a flight risk and it’s too big of a liability for me to take on with my condition. I’m beginning to realize that I cannot get his cooperation without laying that same foundation of a relationship built on respect that I have with my own daughter.

Tomorrow, I will start. I know it most likely won’t be very fast, but it will be For Good: For the Good of his little soul, and for For the Good of mine.

Not An Island: On Building Meaningful Connections

Last week I wrote about the one thing that has saved my marriage multiple times. This week I’ve been thinking more and more about my connections to those around me, and how the modern era has made us more connected in a million ways, but also threatens the very fiber of what real relationships are made from. As I think about all the people I’m related to, my friends, my professional contacts and my casual acquaintances, I can recall fondly all the things these relationships have brought me. I’m relatively introverted and this has made me very cautious on “putting myself out there”, but it’s also caused me to treasure and respect those relationships I have kindled.

I have a friend that I consider a friend because we have mutual friends, we’ve been introduced and have chatted in person on multiple occasions as well as conversed virtually- but when I introduced myself on a new online forum, of which this person was also a member, she introduced herself as if I were a total stranger. On another occasion, I attempted to make friends with a fellow army wife here at Fort Hood who was looking for friends, happened to be my age, was also a new and “crunchy” mama, vegan and also from a small town in California like me! We exchanged several long emails over the course of several weeks, but when it came time to actually meet up, she dodged my invitations. This surprised me as she was a very outspoken blogger with multiple thousand friends and followers. She frequently wrote about the problem of having dozens of internet friends but only a few “real” friends in her life, and about how she was lonely and longed for a real community.

These are two rare and outstanding women with whom I definitely could have and would have loved to have made that real genuine friendship connection with, but it their attention was just too scattered across various social media platforms for them to have the time or the energy to reciprocate that effort. This is a real problem that is plaguing our modern society. It’s a virus of being “overly connected” and “overly accessible” to the point that you are no longer available or you neglect to take that final step to form real connections with others in the form of meeting up for coffee, having them over for dinner or letting one another lament about current life dramas on the phone- person to person. This is kinda what I mean:

Of course, sometimes you’ll meet people that you just don’t jive with. Maybe they just can’t get past the fact that you don’t subscribe to their religious views or maybe you figured out over time that they caused you more problems than they were worth. That is OK. In those cases it’s best to just gracefully let them go without holding on to any grudges for your own peace. If you do meet a person that makes you laugh or that you can have a meaningful conversation with, or just find someone that you like for no particular reason, I beg you to please hold on to them! Don’t “throw people away” over a minor disagreement or because they flaked out on you once. Come to grips with the fact that they are who they are and you’ve gotta love them for the exact person they are without hoping that they’ll change or only sticking around for them when they are at their best.

Remember that it’s always a two way street. As much as you’ve got to say “yes” to hanging out once in awhile it’s important to reach out and make some plans with them as well. A call on a birthday or a special text of a picture of you that you don’t share with everyone on facebook can mean a lot to those friends that are maybe just too far away to hang out with regularly. It may seem obvious but your friendships, and also your romantic and familial relationships are the most valuable thing you have. *CLICHE WARNING* At the end of your life, when you’re taking your final breaths, are you going to think of your ten thousand followers on twitter? No. You’ll think of your daughter looking up at you saying “I love you, Mommy.” You’ll think of the Christmas you spent around the fire with your parents and siblings. You’ll think of all the people that grew old with you, the ones that showed up to your birthday party, the ones that were there to take your call when you needed to cry it out and made you feel hope again. The ones you shared moments of real connection with.

In today’s world it’s become a bit more uncommon to march over to your new neighbor’s house and introduce yourself, or to throw out an open invitation in a public forum to ride along with you to a concert or event.. It’s freakin’ SCARY to be that stranger to start talking to another mom at the park or try out to be in a band from a post on craigslist, to march up to your professor and ask for a different mentor than the one assigned you or email a total stranger to ask them about their careers. Sure as hell it takes a great deal of trust to put yourself out there. But you HAVE to do these things. These days it takes effort to find your “people” in life. Unless you live in a tiny town where you and your parents and their parents were raised, you have to build your community brick by brick. Remember that all these things I’ve mentioned are merely just ways to meet people- people that have the potential to become True Friends in your life, for life, if you let them.