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.