Friday, November 5, 2010

Taming Hungry Ghosts

I've been stashing catalogs I've received in a pile, meaning to some day sit down and call these companies' customer service numbers and ask to be taken off their mailing lists, but thanks to the Hamline Midway Environmental Group, I found out an easier, quicker way to cut down on unwanted mailings--I went to this website and got busy.

Still, though, we have quite a few catalogs flowing in to the house these days. I've learned to just toss the women's clothing catalogs immediately into the recycling bin without even looking at them, because they tend to trigger an un-beautiful cycle for me: I leaf through them longingly, imagining myself looking as cool, kicky, and care-free as the models in the photos. I make wish lists of the things I want, agonize over the huge price tags, and then, occasionally, go ahead and order something. Typically, it does not transform me into a cool, kicky, care-free model as soon as I slip it on, and 3/4 of the time, I end up returning it, adding even more to the whole sorry endeavor's carbon footprint. So I'm learning not to even look and to buy clothes only when my wardrobe's worn-out state actually requires a trip to Second Debut, our neighborhood upscale resale shop.

I try to recycle the toy catalogs before they get in to my kids' hands, too, but sometimes they manage to nab one. My son spent most of his day today poring over a Lego catalog and constantly revising his wish list of Lego sets he'd like to have. My daughter grabbed a pen and circled things she wanted in a Target sale mailer.

I don't want to be shaming or judgmental toward them, especially since I'm oh-so-familiar with this compulsion, but I did want to find a way to talk about it with them.

Tonight at bedtime, with the lights out, lying between the boy and the girl, I mentioned noticing that they'd spent a lot of time lately looking at catalogs.

"And YOU spend a lot of time looking at Facebook," my son pointed out. I allowed that that was truer than I liked to admit, and that I thought there were some things in common between Facebook over-use and catalog browsing. Both, after all, were attempts to escape from the present moment in search of that elusive, missing something else that might somehow make us feel complete.

"I was wondering," I asked. "What do you like about looking at catalogs?" I tried to remember how I felt when my mother dismissed the music I loved when I was young as unlistenable garbage, how she insisted I must be trying to look unattractive with the clothes I wore. I wanted to understand what they were getting out of catalogs and look for the good impulses underneath the seemingly unhealthy behavior.

My kids talked mainly about how catalogs satisfied their curiosity about what kinds of toys were out there. They liked imagining what it would be like to have those toys.

"Is there anything that doesn't feel so good about looking at catalogs?" I asked.

My daughter said she felt disappointed when a catalog didn't have a lot of toys that girls would be interested in. Bridger said he didn't like that he was looking at catalogs so much.

I told them about what I liked about catalogs when I looked at them, but also what I didn't like, sharing my own feelings of desire, frustration, confusion, and wishful thinking.

"I mean, you know catalogs are designed to make you feel unsatisfied," I said.

"What do you mean?" my son asked.

"They're designed to make you feel like what you have isn't enough and you need more, so the companies can sell you more products," I said.

My son admitted that there was some truth to that.

We talked about ways we could all cut back on our particular compulsions--their catalogs, my Facebook browsing. I could agree to only look at Facebook a couple of times a week instead of several times a day. I could turn the computer off unless I had a specific reason to use it, so the Internet wasn't so easily accessible. For my kids, we talked about how they could look at the catalogs for shorter periods and put them away on a shelf or in a drawer, rather than leaving the catalogs lying around where they could see them more frequently. It felt so good to finally overcome my fear of seeming critical or judgmental and just come out with my concerns. It felt good to problem-solve together.

In Buddhism, which is the religion I feel most closely aligned with, there is a lot of emphasis on simply noticing emotions without judging them, labeling them, or trying to make them go away. Maybe that's a good place to start with these materialist compulsions. In the Buddhist hell realm, there are beings called "hungry ghosts," who try and fail to feed themselves using outlandishly long, unwieldy. The ghosts are only able to eat once they wise up and use those long forks to reach out and feed one another.

My hope as we head into this holiday season? That we find ways to truly nourish and nurture ourselves and others and don't spend quite so much time teasing our hungry ghosts with Internet browsing and glossy catalog dreams.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Composting for Glory

This summer, spurred by the Gulf oil spill and an encounter with a sea turtle, I did a lot of reading about climate change and peak oil (probably the most influential books for me were by Sharon Astyk). I peered into a brave new world of bullseye diets, recycled graywater systems, and yes, even humanure-composting toilets, and recognized that I wasn't quite ready to go to that world--at least not yet.

But I did try to make a few life changes--I planted an apple tree, a currant bush and a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, fertilized not with human poop but good old cow manure; I rode my bike and the city bus more, hung more loads of laundry to dry on a clothesline, and started composting much more consistently. I also had low-flow faucets and shower heads installed in our house, converted all our bulbs to CFLs, and had weather-stripping installed on our doors, courtesy of our local Home Energy Squad. Small steps, but it was a start. Today I want to reflect on some of the major things I've learned so far--to begin digesting some of the raw material I threw on the steaming compost heap of my life.

I think one of the most surprising things I learned this summer was how helpful composting itself really is. I didn't know that food thrown out and buried in landfills produces methane, a major greenhouse gas. Learning that definitely made me stop and think before I tossed food scraps in the trash rather than composting it. I also hadn't realized how much industrial agriculture is based on fertilizers made from petroleum products, and how using compost to enrich the soil can actually help sequester more carbon.

In terms of gardening, I still have a lot to learn about growing food in our backyard. My squash plants leafed out gorgeously, spreading rich green tendrils all over the place--then withered within a few days thanks to squash vine borers, something I hadn't known enough to expect and try to prevent. Next year I'll plant marigolds and nasturtium near my squash to try to deter the little buggers. My corn didn't really turn out, probably because I didn't plant enough for proper pollination (or so my CSA farmer friend Patty Wright surmised). My peas, beans, and tomatoes, however, were quite prolific. I'm grateful to have the luxury of making gardening mistakes and learning from them now, knowing that these veggies aren't something my family needs for survival.

There are many thinkers out there who believe that there may very well be a time when our families do depend on backyard gardens for survival, and that this time may be much sooner than we think. This, too, was a new discovery for me this summer. I had never really encountered the concept of peak oil, or at least if I had, I'd brushed it aside and not let its scary possibilities seep into my consciousness.

This summer, as I learned about peak oil, I began to transition from thinking that if people would just take action to save energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases, we might still be able to stave off major, cataclysmic change. I've stopped thinking that way. I think change is definitely coming, in fact is already here, and what we need to do is start learning now the skills we'll need to face those changes. This is no longer about trying to change the future, but about how to adapt to it.

The encouraging part is that the life changes needed to face climate change AND adjust to peak oil also lead us toward a kind of life that sounds healthier and more connected than the current way we live. It's about eating food grown in my backyard or on a nearby community farm or garden instead of eating food grown thousands of miles away under inhumane working conditions, wrapped in plastic, and then shipped across oceans and continents to spew out pollution that's poisoning our children's futures. It's about finding out if a neighbor has a tool I can borrow rather than buying my own, and about taking soup over to a neighbor when they're having a hard time. It's about learning to love staying home more and not searching for diversion by jumping in the car on a whim. It may be, sadly, about seeing far-distant people I love much less frequently, but it will likely also be about knowing people who are geographically close to me more deeply.

A recent commentor on this blog named Laureen beautifully expressed the mental shift we need to make:

"I've found that a lingering mental time-bomb of Industrial thinking is the idea that *we ourselves* need to relearn all that stuff. Our great-grandmothers knew a lot, but they didn't know everything. What they *did* know was how to leverage a community. How to be friendly with the people who had skills that they didn't, and how to make themselves useful to those people, so that everyone got what they needed and no one had to make themselves insane trying to know everything."

For now, I'm ready to settle in for a fall and winter of learning more, while this summer's leaves and grass and food scraps decay into rich, fertile compost for next year's growth.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Metro Transit with Young 'uns

I first took my son Bridger on a Metro Transit bus when he was a spiky-haired five-week-old in a sling. I wanted to take him to Central Library in downtown St. Paul to hear the Rose Ensemble do a free concert there. My gosh, was I ever eager to share the world with that boy. As it turned out, he did one of those mustardy, explosive, all-the-way-up-to-his-neck poops right before the concert, so we listened to the Ensemble's celestial singing while I changed him into a spare outfit in a nearby rest room.

I have to say, I really love riding the bus with my kids, especially since they are now well past the mustardy poop phase, thank goodness. We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with excellent access to high-frequency lines that take us to very cool places. We can catch the 84 a block and a half away from our house, and it runs every fifteen minutes, so you really don't even have to pay that much attention to the schedule--if you miss one, another will be along soon enough. We take the 84 to the State Fair every year, and occasionally to Minnehaha Falls. We've also used it to get to the airport, since it will take you right out to the light rail station. The 67 has a stop basically right across from our house, it runs every half-hour during the day, and is a great way to get to the State Capitol, the Children's Museum, City Hall, the Science Museum, and Central Library within a half-hour, easy, and no fuss with getting my youngest daughter in and out of her car seat or finding a parking place. Oh, and in the summer, no misery-of-getting-into-deathly-hot-car syndrome, since the bus is air-conditioned, and in the winter, no steeling yourself to climb into a rolling icebox and waiting with chattering teeth while it warms up--the bus is already warm.

In any season, my kids love barreling toward the long row of seats in the very back of the bus, letting the forward momentum of the bus slam them into their seats, laughing at the way it feels. They love pulling the cord to signal we want to get off. I'm not sure what else they love, but I know they rarely object when I say I want to take the bus instead of driving, and these kids certainly have no compunctions against objecting when they don't like something. I like the people watching you can get on the bus, and the way riding the bus is much more conducive to conversation.

This afternoon we took the 67 to the Irish Fair on Harriet Island, across the Mississippi from downtown St. Paul--a must now that Cass is taking Irish dance classes. I couldn't help gloating a little when I saw the "Special Event Parking $10" signs all along Wabasha. On the way to Harriet Island, Cass rested her head on my lap while I stroked her hair, something we simply don't get to do when we are in the minivan. Bridger leaned against me, reading a Garfield comic book. We arrived just in time to grab root beer floats before the sheepherding demonstration.

On the way back, Cassidy practiced her math skills by counting how many people were on the bus, adding when new people got on, subtracting as people got off, chanting a little song to help her remember: "Ten, ten, I love you, ten." I hope the young man in front of us wearing a very beautiful hat embroidered with a silver spider didn't mind her singing too much--he did have headphones on, so that probably helped. I was thinking how much fuller the bus could have been at that time of day, and wishing more people were taking advantage of the nice ride. I was noticing that the overwhelming majority of bus riders on this particular Friday evening were either African-American, disabled, or both, and I was thinking about what that says about the inequities in my city. I'm riding the bus for fun. A lot of people don't have a choice in the matter, and as writer and frequent bus rider Kevin Kling has pointed out, the members of the public who don't require public transportation have no business scoffing at public transit as some kind of expendable frill item or trivializing the impact of a route cut or reduced bus services.

I love that my kids are growing up accustomed to public transit--to the waits involved, to the need for having to time your arrivals and departures with the bus schedule. I love that they are getting the basics of how to read a bus schedule, how to pay your fare and use a transfer, and how to signal when you want to exit the bus, and that they have seen me ask a bus driver questions when I'm not sure I'm on the right bus or need help figuring out my route.

When I first visited cities without my family as a young woman in my late teens and early twenties, public transit felt mystifying and scary because I had simply never used it as a child. I was so afraid to reveal my ignorance, I didn't always ask questions when I could have, and I remember cringing when people I was with did ask (notably, on a journalism class trip to New York City, a friend of mine asked two hip-looking punk rockers which train would get us to "Green-witch" Village. The punks didn't bat an eye and kindly directed us to the right train, so I guess I needn't have been so snooty about my friend's mispronunciation).

I hope that when it comes time for my kids to head out into the world independently, all these bus rides we've taken together will give them a confidence I didn't have--the confidence to stride up to a transit map, squint quizzically as they puzzle it out, ask a nearby, trustworthy-looking stranger for help if needed, and then have faith that yes, this system is going to get them exactly where they need to be.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Little More on Taking Things Slowly

In one of my favorite picture books, All the Way to Lhasa, , a boy slowly leading an ox heads up the mountains to the holy city of Lhasa. At the same time, a horseman gallops toward the city, too. You'd think the boy would take much longer to get to his destination, but actually, it's the rider who wears himself and his horse out and doesn't make it, while the boy, taking things slowly, gets there first.

I know in my last post, I was rhapsodizing about the joys of slowness, but honestly, it's hard for me not to feel as rushed and heedless as that rider dashing up the mountainside. From what I can gather, climate change, political and economic instability, and peak oil could cause things to become apocalyptic around here pretty darn fast, and I feel dreadfully unprepared. There's so much I want to be able to do, and I want to be able to do it right now. I want to know how to can vegetables safely, know which local native plants are edible and which make good medicines, and how to use them properly. I want to know much more about gardening, about raising chickens in my back yard (a long-term goal if I can ever get my husband to consider it without rolling his eyes or shuddering), and about how to sew and knit and make more toys and crafts with my children. I want to have time to help with all the wonderful community projects already underway right in my neighborhood and city, and I want to get even more started--lately, I find myself eyeing lawns at parks and my local Y and imagining a patch of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers there. I want the time to connect with and learn from other people who've been working on these issues for a long time and know so much more than I do.

But I can't do all those things and be the kind of mother, wife, daughter, and friend I want to be (I'm already falling short on those things as it is). I have to slow down and do one thing at a time, one moment at a time, and try not to feel bad about all the things that aren't happening. It may be that things could change rapidly and for the worse. But it's also true that right now they aren't so horrible, and that I learn better when I'm not anxious and rushed. So I'm trying to be more like the boy leading his ox to Lhasa instead of that helter-skelter horseman.

I also feel in a rush these days to help my children learn the real joys to be had in working and helping out around the house, as well as in eating more fresh, varied vegetables and fewer boxes of Annie's Mac 'n' Cheese. I'd love for them to be more interested in helping around the garden, for instance (aren't kids supposed to adore gardening?). There are some jobs that they leap to help with, like planting seeds. Yesterday when my daughter saw me watering, she asked if she could do it herself, which pleased me greatly. But for the most part, they aren't really clamoring to help in the garden.

Today, I wanted to weed, and I asked my girl if she would like to help scoop some compost into the newly bared soil around our strawberry plants. I don't even know if I should be adding compost this time of year--that's what a clueless gardener I am, but it seemed like it might be a job that would appeal to her.

She said, no, but she liked the idea of simply adding some water to the dirt, playing in the mud, and making "hot chocolate" in old yogurt containers. Eventually she and to a lesser degree her brother ended up using the mud as body paint.

I thought, well, they're not gardening, exactly. But I'm getting something done out here, and they're learning to not be squeamish about dirt. So that's something. Slow and steady, yes? Slow and steady.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Delicious, Luxurious Slowness

This week was all about doing things I normally do, but doing them more sloooowly. I did my first try at biking to the co-op with my daughter Cassidy in her bike seat and carried a backpack's worth of groceries home. The next day, she and I rode the eight mile or so round trip to a library in another neighborhood to pick up a movie she really wanted to watch and my sun hat, waiting for me in the lost-and-found. My seven-year-old son was at the new community workshop for kids, Leonardo's Basement, making a wonderful dragon marionette all week. That gave Cassidy and me the time to scout out good bike routes around St. Paul that we might want to share with the whole family.

On our bike rides, Cassidy and I saw things we just don't when we're driving. We saw a community garden we'd never noticed before. We saw a swallowtail butterfly, and a decoration of stampeding horses on a house I've probably passed a hundred times but have never actually seen.

Another bonus: We could exchange smiles with pedestrians crossing the streets and with other bikers waiting for their chance to cross. We passed a woman getting out of her car who smiled at me and said, "You look happy!" Well I bet I did. When I am on my bike, I suspect I strongly resemble a dog sticking her head out of a car window and grinning for all she's worth into the wind.

Another slow thing I tried was hanging out my laundry on a clothesline. It didn't take nearly as long to hang the clothes up as I thought it would, and I actually enjoyed it. Instead of being down in the basement stuffing clothes in the dryer, I was out in the sun, talking to my daughter and watching her run in and out of the billowing sheets, listening to birds sing. It wasn't onerous--it was pleasurable.

"You've never hung out laundry before?" my husband asked, bemused. He is eleven years older than I am, born in the late Fifties in a family of nine kids, and he was so cheap in college and grad school, he once spent a summer sleeping on a friend's porch, paying minimal rent for shower and cooking privileges. He spent years living in a house in Montana with no central heat, just a wood-burning stove. I grew up coddled in the suburbs and didn't live in a house without central AC until I was in college. So my current toe-dipping into simpler living kind of makes him laugh.

I do know that if I always had to hang up my laundry to dry and always had to bike or bus everywhere--if it weren't a choice--it might be harder to enjoy it all so much. I also know that my ability to enjoy slowness is partly due to my privilege: I don't have to work two or three jobs just to be able to pay my mortgage and feed my kids, like many people do. I figure since I can live slowly, I might as well make the best of that privilege and try to save more energy and love and nurture my community as much as I can.

My son, touchingly, was enthused about my effort:

"Mom, you were so energy-efficient this week!" he declared.

Not too long ago, he and I were talking about how different the world will probably be when he's my age. He remarked thoughtfully, "Things are either going to be a lot better or a lot worse."

Let's go for better, my darling. Let's go for better.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Sea Turtle's Lament

I've always leaned toward doing the right thing to protect the earth's natural resources. But my desire to actually act on that hankering and make it less hypothetical really intensified this summer, in part because of an encounter with a green sea turtle.

My family was visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. We were in an exhibit called Hot Pink Flamingos, which focuses on how climate change is hurting marine plants and animals around the world. It was heartbreaking, even though the exhibit's creators tried to offer signs of hope and change.

For a long time, my two kids and I stood watching green sea turtles in their tank. I don't want to be maudlin or anthropomorphize too much, but as I looked into one sea turtle's heavy-lidded, ancient-looking eyes, I truly felt as if it were asking me a very direct question.

"We've lived here so much longer than people like you have. Why are you making it impossible for me just to live?"

The Gulf Oil Spill had already been hemorrhaging for over a month. I'd just read Thomas J. Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which brought to vivid life the problems of an overpopulated, warmer world with a rising middle class in countries like India and China, a middle class who might not react too kindly to the idea that they ought to nobly forego the conveniences and pleasures we've indulged in for years.

I can't stop thinking about that green sea turtle.

Full disclosure: I drive a minivan. My husband commutes 50 miles total every day to work in his Honda Civic. Our family is going on two airplane trips this year, and my husband flies a few more times than that for work. We own a big old house that consumes more natural gas every winter than most of our neighbors' houses do. I have a secret weakness for clothing catalogs and buying too many things online around Christmastime.

On the plus side of the environmental ledger, I do recycle. I buy many of my clothes secondhand. I turn out the lights when I leave the room and save running our window unit AC only for the most unbearable days of summer. I try to choose activities in my neighborhood that my family can bike to over activities we have to drive across town for. I buy mostly organic food and belong to a CSA. In many ways, our family is doing our part to limit our greenhouse gas emissions.

It's not nearly enough. As Sharon Astyk puts it in her life-changing book Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, people in rich countries need to stop waiting for their governments to do the right thing when it comes to climate change and instead step forward to reduce their own emissions by 90 percent of the average in their country. She and a friend started a "Riot for Austerity" aimed at cutting their own energy use and inspiring others to do likewise, and by 2008, there were a thousand people around the world taking up their challenge.

"If there are a thousand people willing to make a 90 percent reduction in their energy use, even though it is hard, simply because it is right," Astyk writes, "perhaps there are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands who might do so if they knew it was possible."

As she puts it, we may be fooling ourselves if we think buying Energy Star appliances is enough. We may need to just get rid of the appliances and learn to live without them.

I don't feel ready to go that far, but I would like to push my edge more. I'd like to leave the minivan parked more often and ride the bus and bike instead. I'm not quite ready to dump our dryer, but I'd like to hang up more loads of laundry to dry on a clothesline this summer. I'm not going to tear out our stove, but I am learning more about raw foods, which allow me to feed my family without heating up the stove.

I'm starting this blog in part to give myself some accountability for sticking with the effort instead of giving up when the novelty wears off. I'm sure I'll be documenting plenty of shortcuts and shortcomings, too. But I think it's important to start with where I am instead of focusing on all the ways I fall short if I really want to make this a lifetime effort. If it's going to work for the long haul, it can't be an exercise in Puritanical self-punishment and guilt. I'll start with what gives me pleasure AND seems helpful--like growing more food in my backyard and biking more--and try to add in a few tasks that seem daunting or boring, like sealing up cracks in my house's foundation, and keep going from there.

Please share your own stories by commenting. I have a lot to learn, and I'd love to learn from you.