The Ache to Make

My daughter needs a new pair of pants hemmed. I dig through a jumbled box of vintage thread for the right color. I find it, gray the color of a mourning dove, wrapped on a wooden spool. I cut a length, thread a needle, and stitch at a backslash angle. I hope I’m also sewing some love into the hem.

I eagerly take refuge in tasks like hemming pants or pulling weeds or chopping onions, probably because what I do to earn money requires no movement other than typing and no strain other than the effort to keep my wandering mind on the screen.

My life would be unimaginable to most of our planet’s previous generations. Our ancestors lived by the work of their hands. They hunted and hoed. They cut stone to line wells, make fences, and build cathedrals. They turned trees into wagon wheels, bridges, and ships. Nearly everything they wore and ate came from their hands and the hands of people known to them.

Our hands do much less than theirs. I’m typing this on a comfortable chair in a warm house in the middle of a life much easier than my forbears could have dreamed for themselves. Yet I know my worst insomnia happens on deadline nights after I’ve made myself stay at the screen hour after hour. And sitting too long at the computer doing nothing more strenuous than moving ideas to documents makes me feel like a suitcase crammed with stuff, straining at the hinges and ready to burst. I want to MAKE something.

So, even though I’ve got another deadline looming and a community action meeting tonight, I’m going to get up from this desk to go do something with my hands.

As fiber artist Renate Hiller says, “our destiny is written in the hand.” I like what she has to say about the ache to make.

What hands-on work are you drawn to do?

You Are the Food You Think About

fast food changes behavior, junk food brain, fast food thinking,

There’s such a thing as “fast food thinking.”

There’s plenty of evidence that food choices affect our behavior. But here we’re talking about what happens when we simply think of fast food.

You don’t even have to eat fast food to see behavior changes. It merely has to cross your mind.

We think we’re in charge of our choices. Our moods. Our long-term goals.

Apparently not.

Marketers work hard to shape consumer behavior. They use neuroscience findings to figure out how to attract our attention. They use psychological research to manipulate our needs. Of course we rationalize, “I’m the exception. I know my own mind. Just thinking about fast food can’t affect me.”

Chances are, it does.

A three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Wonder why we all feel hurried? In the first experiment of the three-part study, half of the participants were shown subliminal images of six fast-food chains (McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s). The images were seen only twice, for just 12 milliseconds — much faster than the conscious mind can recognize. Participants who were exposed to these subliminal images rushed through tasks even though they were under no time pressure.

Wonder why eco-friendly, well-made products aren’t top sellers? In the next experiment, participants were asked to recall a recent fast-food meal before rating products. When they did so, they were more likely to choose time-saving as the best rationale for making a purchase over other factors, such as environmental friendliness, aesthetics, or quality.

Wonder what happened to saving money? In the final experiment, participants who briefly looked at fast-food logos were much more likely, when considering compound interest, to choose a small payout immediately rather than wait for a larger payout later.

Children are even more at risk from this “fast-food thinking.” Because their brains are still developing through the teen years, young people are much more vulnerable to techniques used by marketers. Child-development experts see all kinds of detrimental effects, including what psychologist Allen D. Kanner calls the “narcissistic wounding” of children.

The problem is more, much more, than fast food. It has to do with a daily bombardment by messages telling us we should have it all and have it quickly — even though neither leads to greater happiness. As Robert V. Levine noted in A Geography of Time, people actually feel more impatient when they have access to time-saving devices.

There are benefits to waiting. Things like patience and a rush of pleasure when what you’ve been anticipating is finally ready. Picking apples together, cutting them, and baking them into a pie takes time. The smell of the crust breaking under your fork and the shared exclamation as you take the first bites together: bliss.

This experience can’t compare to a McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve.

What we eat and how we eat may no longer satisfy one of our deepest hungers: the desire for connection to people, place, and culture. We see the results of that separation in our health and environment.

Contrast these slogans:

  • “Have it Your Way” (Burger King)
  • “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s)
  • “Your Way, Right Away” (Burger King)
  • “What you want is what you get” (McDonald’s)
  • “You can eat great, even late” (Wendy’s)

with this thought:

“As you eat, know that you are feeding more than just a body. You are feeding the soul’s longing for life, its timeless desire to learn the lessons of earthly existence — love and hate, pleasure and pain, fear and faith, illusion and truth — through the vehicle of food. Ultimately, the most important aspect of nutrition is not what to eat but how our relationship to food can teach us who we are and how we can sustain ourselves at the deepest level of being.”  ~Marc David

Living in a fast-food society changes more than our eating habits. As that recent study indicated, we unconsciously hurry other aspects of our lives as well. When we find ourselves “getting through” anything to get on to the next thing, we’re ignoring the here and now. We’re ignoring our lives as they are in this moment.

Let’s think instead of fast food as a metaphor, a symbol showing us that there’s another way to experience what’s right in front of us.

 

Originally published in Culinate 

fast food behavior, food related behavior,

A McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve can’t compare to sharing a slice of home-baked pie with a friend. (image: pixabay.com)

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

April’s Energy Fingerprint

April tragedy, energy fingerprint, life energy,

image: andrewpoison.deviantart.com

April is a month for blooms unfurling and songbirds hatching. A month when gray skies turn blue. It’s a changeable month that promises new life.

Or not. A friend recently asked, “What is it about mid-April that brings so much tragedy?” She offered plenty of evidence. Even looking at tragedy affecting the U.S., there’s a lot of it.

April 15

– Abraham Lincoln assassinated

– Titanic sank

– Great Mississippi Flood (1927, worst flood in US history)

-Boston Marathon bombing

April 16

– VA Tech shooting

April 17

-USS Iowa Explosion

-West Fertilizer Plant explosion

April 18

– 1906 earthquake in San Francisco

-US Embassy bombing in Lebanon

April 19

– Lethal end of the Branch Davidian standoff

– Oklahoma City bombing

April 20

– Columbine school shooting

– Deepwater Horizon explosion

Horrific events, every one. It’s entirely natural that our attention is drawn to such disasters, especially as they’re happening. Way back in prehistory, those who paid close attention when others were killed were more likely to avoid the same fate. Their bodies and minds were primed with vividly awful but useful information, hence they survived and passed along disaster-attentive genes. These days our attention is pulled toward all sorts of disasters, although the information isn’t useful in the same way. Too much attention to what’s wrong in the world, and we’re likely to end up with Mean World Syndrome.

Threat also compels us to engage our full potential, to “rise to the occasion” whatever it might be. No wonder that those who want us to marshall our resources for their own purposes try to convince us there’s a grave threat. This is done by football coaches trying to motivate teams right up to political pundits spewing angry conspiracy theories, because it works.

But rising to our full potential actually means we humans pull together in a crisis. Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at large-scale disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the greatest misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

By some counts, mid-April leans closer to tragedy than many other times of the year. But let’s remember, this month is isn’t defined by disaster. Instead, like every moment on Earth, it’s packed with constant, unsung acts of cooperation and beauty.

I dreamed once that what each of us contribute to this world, maybe to worlds beyond, is an energy fingerprint. All our striving and accomplishments are wisps, quickly lost to time, but this fingerprint of energy remains and affects all other energy. It’s the overall attitude that matters—grateful or bitter, loving or hateful, aware or dismissive.

Whether my dream has any truth or not, I do believe that even in the midst of tragedy we can choose an attitude of hope and compassion. Anger, fear, and vindictiveness isn’t the fingerprint I want to leave.

April tragedy, April curse, energy imprint,

Image:michammer.deviantart.com

 

This is a repost from our farm blog

On Being A Frugal Geek

cheap geek, materialism, frugal living, cheap interests, cheap homeschooling, There are plenty of assumptions about what geeks do. We own the most advanced technology. We see the latest movies, watch the newest series on subscription channels, play the most recently released video games. wouldn’t miss Maker Faire. If we collect anything, it’s probably awesomely obscure and sure to gain in value. All these things cost money.

I tend to geek out over less expensive interests. Outsider art, foreign films, poetry, recent neuroscience findings, nonviolence, mindfulness practices, the new acquisition section of the library—that sort of thing.

Still, stark economic realities have made penny pinching essential. Long ago I assumed I could afford more geeky indulgences once I got past pricey milestones like college, marriage, and new babies. Didn’t happen. Turns out sick kids, unemployment, and falling down houses are also expensive.

Instead, I’ve geeked out on frugality itself. I garden, preserve food, make homemade cheese, sew, repurpose, and concoct herbal remedies that look so vile my household prefers to stay healthy. I’ve advanced my career with little more than a not-so-new computer, a love of research, and library privileges. My kids have been dragged to every free concert and science program available, and know area nature preserves like their own backyard. They’ve become Makers almost entirely out of necessity, turning junk and other dirt cheap materials into marvels. Because every one of us goes deep into passions like forensics, turbocharger modifications, bagpipe playing, arachnid study, and advanced plasma welding techniques our dinner table conversations are strangely fascinating. We’re geeks all right, just frugal geeks. Maybe you are too. Mainstream assumptions about geeks don’t define us. GeekMom, where I’m a senior editor, agrees. As explained on the “about” page:

Being a geek is a state of mind, and that state of mind leads us to intensely explore our interests and approach the world with endless curiosity. When we want to get involved in something cool, we get really involved. In other words, we get geeky about it.

I know the research shows that frugal living benefits kids while materialism doesn’t. And I believe that living simply is good for the planet. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like a few geek frills, some day. More movies, newer gadgets, and the bucks to finally get to Maker Faire. While I’m dreaming, I’d like an invisible bike helmet too.

How does living frugally affect your geeky or not-so-geeky passions?

child

A New Curse Word

 relax your words,

We hear it all the time. Chances are we say it all the time.

I swear (hah!) it’s the curse of our era.

What’s up with you?

Busy

How’s work?

Busy

How are the kids?

Busy

What was your vacation like?

Busy

What’s next week like for you?

Busy

Ack!

We are busy, pulled in so many directions that we don’t have words powerful enough to describe how time starved we feel. Swamped, hectic, rushed, hurried, slammed, or crazy busy can’t come close.

I suspect that we aren’t busier, in terms of obligations using up our time, than someone our age might have been 100 years ago. Chances are those folks kept the house warm with coal shoveled into a furnace; worked long hours for poor pay in factories, mines, slaughterhouses or worse; traveled at low speeds to get where they were going; struggled to stay healthy in a population easily ravaged by flu, tuberculosis, polio, and other diseases; and put a lot of hands-on hours looking after their homes and families. Talk about busy.

But there’s something going on, because so many of us are constantly overwhelmed. I planned to have some handy studies to cite but the books I meant to consult, The Distraction Addiction and Time Warped were overdue before I’d gotten more than a few chapters in. (Partially the fault of more alluring library books like Someone, The Name of the WindAnd the Mountains Echoed.) And I was busy!

Since the sun’s magnetic field is about to flip, I’d be happy to blame our time hunger on a wavering magnetic sheet and extra cosmic rays but science tells us there’s not a noticeable effect.

Mostly, I’m tempted to point the finger at all those things fracturing our attention. I’m pretty sure that ample time for daydreaming and contemplation is essential to a sense of peace, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Which gets me back to the curse word of our times, busy. I’ve decided that using it is a form of negative self-talk. So I’m not saying it anymore. It is banished from my vocabulary.

My friend Margaret is sure that our perception of time will slow down to a more manageable pace if we replace frantically busy words with words that describe a slower, more relaxed attitude. Maybe then our lives will slow down too. She suggests words like,

meander

amble

mosey

saunter

dawdle

You may be flinging yourself from store to store to get errands done. But consider describing it to yourself as strolling through stores, pondering some purchases, relaxing in check-out lines. A time-shift may just happen.

But give that attitude shift time, lots of room-to-stretch time.

no time, slow vocabulary, slow conversation, self-talk

Delight-Driven Willpower

positive habits, joyous willpower, happy habits,

Willpower isn’t a trait mastered by the strongest among us. It’s a form of energy that wears down if overused.

When you exert a lot of effort to stop several habits, you may be subtracting the very energy necessary to fulfill your intentions. For example, if frugality is new to you, you might vow to give up the morning latte, lunch out, buying magazines at the newsstand, and scrolling through online stores. You may give up so many habits at once that your willpower is taxed and you find yourself spending more or drinking more or arguing more once the weekend arrives. I don’t have a spending problem, not even close, but I do have plenty of habits I’d like to drop. They jangle at me like annoying wind chimes made entirely of what I want to change about myself.

We’re more likely to be successful when we take on one or two changes at a time, letting them become comfortable patterns before adding more. It’s commonly said that it takes at least 21 days to create a habit. Not too sure about that. If it’s a rewarding new habit it may have significant sticking power in a few days. If it’s a tough habit to drop (like my departure from eating wheat), it may still seem alluring years later. I know all about this. (Pizza, why do you call my name?)

And we have to remember there’s typically a gap between what we know and how well we apply it to our lives. A big gap that extends through four stages of competence. No wonder it’s hard to change.

We often associate self-discipline with the loss of short term pleasure (lose weight, save money, stop wasting so much time on Facebook). But for some of us with pretty decent impulse control, self-discipline can too easily tip into self-berating. Negativity gets us nowhere. It’s essential to be attuned to the positive, to see how we’re making progress rather than focusing on where we’re going wrong.

I think we should use willpower to cultivate delight in our lives rather than seeing it as a way of dropping bad habits. Those lovely new joys we’re practicing may very well nudge out what we don’t want in our lives as a side benefit.

Oh, and one more thought. Sharing our goals is a way of augmenting our willpower. That’s why I’m sharing my list.

Delights to Cultivate

1. Be a person who wears interesting hats.

2. Lie in the grass whenever possible.

3. Lean toward single-tasking. (That means you Pinterest.)

4. Tune in to sensory pleasure: birdsong, soft blankets, wind in the trees, warm soup. 

5. Keep ice water by my desk to inspire hydration (not to inspire klutz moves that might dampen my keyboard or phone).

6. Say positive things about myself (no more predicting future klutz moves).

7. Sigh whenever I want to, because it stimulates the vagus nerve. Ahhhh, that feels good.

8. Go barefoot more often.

9. Send oddities via snail mail.

10. Use gifts given to me rather than setting them aside for “good.”

11. Develop life lists.

12. Stretch my creativity by sketching for fun, without judgment.

13. Be happy with what I’m getting done rather than focus on what I haven’t accomplished.

14. Go on out-of-the-ordinary dates with my beloved. Maybe I can talk him into glassblowing lessons!

15.  Dye my hair pink. Okay, maybe a few streaks.

16. Honor the wisdom found in doing nothing.

What delights do YOU want to cultivate?

positive willpower, habits of joy,

Image:pixoti.deviantart.com

Changing The World One Choice At A Time

 

small steps big change, history is small decisions, change world through love, daily choices change world,

ArtbyJude CC by 3.0

 

When I was growing up I was told I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard enough. The examples I was given at school and church were daunting. Heroes who did no wrong and martyrs who suffered for a cause without wavering. The media showed me examples too. People who were celebrities because of their talent for acting or playing games or for their appearance alone. All these people seemed larger than life.

I didn’t want fame but I did want to accomplish important things. I wanted to find the source of sorrow, injustice, and suffering so that it could be alleviated. The urge to do this was constantly with me and often overpowering. When I was very small I wanted to bring peace to every caged puppy or crying baby I encountered. I couldn’t, although I did absorb the misery I perceived, turning it into questions that the adults around me couldn’t answer. As I approached my teen years I searched for my own answers. I learned all I could about the world’s wrongs, hoping to find out why greed and cruelty happened. I committed myself to do something important. An ordinary life that did nothing to turn the world around seemed unthinkable. Whatever I did, it had to be big. My time on earth had to make a difference.

My quest to understand all that was wrong turned me in the opposite direction from hope. It showed me the worst of humanity. Slowly I came to realize that building on what’s positive brings greater possibilities into being. My days as an adult have proceeded without accomplishing anything Big. But I’ve come to think it’s the countless small actions, even thoughts, that truly have significance. We’re faced with these choices every day.

  • Do I wave to my neighbor, the one who condemns me?
  • Do I give the cash in my pocket to a street person or do I look away?
  • Will I cook tonight’s dinner from scratch, perhaps making enough to bring some to a friend recovering from an illness?
  • Do I turn from what I’m doing to truly look and listen when someone talks to me?
  • Should I go to yet another activist meeting, surrounded by often despairing people? Would it be better to write an article about the issue or simply to focus my energy on new possibilities that make the issue obsolete?
  • Do I fritter away time on tasks that feel like “shoulds” even though time seems to be slipping away like escalator stairs?
  • Do I read too much, blotting out my own experiences, or is it fine to indulge this obsession of mine?
  • Do I believe that humanity is becoming more aware, more kindly, more open?
  • And because my answer is yes, do I live that yes?

None of these are major challenges, but how I answer such questions is how I live my life. They have to do with how I conduct myself and how I see the world around me. The questions aren’t clear-cut, so it’s not always easy to discern where on the scale my answer falls. Leaning toward loving attention or apathy? Joy or bitterness? Eagerness or weary resignation? Considering larger implications or thinking only of my whims?

I’m undisciplined and prone to stubbornness, so I make plenty of choices that wouldn’t pass an ethical stink test. Still, each one matters.

We’ve been taught that only Big people with “real” influence make a difference. That makes us feel powerless. Chances are, that’s what Big money and those who control it want us to think. If we feel powerless we give up before we try. After all, the advertisements surrounding us insist our major choices have to do with what we wear, the cell phones we use, the cars we drive, the vacations we take. Oh and having teeth so white they shine like LED lights each time we smile. Larger social, environmental, and political concerns may keep us in a state of anxiety but are nothing we have any control over. Or so we’re told. Hush about unemployment and income disparity. Hush about erosion of Constitutional rights, climate change, drone strikes. Just stimulate the economy like a nice shopper. As soon as the Big experts are done distracting us with their divisiveness they’ll handle it.

That’s true only if we agree with the idea that Big matters. Because all around us is the present, which appears little and inconsequential, but isn’t. Acting in the present may mean choosing to slow down, to meet our neighbors, to take a deep breath and be grateful, to speak up against a wrong, to step outside and look at the sky, to turn off all devices and spend time with someone, to eat while savoring each bite, to do something difficult with no assured outcome. It doesn’t mean ignoring injustice or wastefulness.

A response in the present is corrective. Even fixing the largest problems requires small steps. Incremental progress, both in attitude and action, is behind great social and environmental change.  In fact, the idea that only Big change can fix problems is part of the problem. When bureaucrats or corporations institute top-down changes they often make situations worse. Real progress happens when the same people who are affected by a problem take power over the choices and act on that power. This rises from small choices, values elevated to action.

We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in the rainforest, as a consequence weeks later there are tornadoes in Texas instead of clear skies. The effect, coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, basically says that small change in one place can result in large differences later. It’s a fascinating look at chaos theory, but it also means nothing we or anyone (even a butterfly) does is without consequence. Just as a butterfly in Brazil has no way of knowing it may affect weather patterns a continent away, we often can’t predict the consequences of our choices let alone understand the long term impact. Our choices are those butterfly wings. Who I am today might be a disappointment to the determined child I once was, but I know now that worthwhile doesn’t have to mean big. How I fill a day is how I fill a life.

Right Now You Are Activating Change

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My mother tried throughout her pregnancies to get hospitals and doctors to change their rules. She wanted a natural birth, she wanted her husband with her, she wanted to hold her babies after they were born. Instead regulations were followed— every decision excluding her. That meant her labors were induced, she was given painkillers, my father had to stay in the waiting room, and except for standard in-room hours her babies were kept apart from her in the hospital nursery. Such procedures made it easier for the institution and less trouble for doctors.

By the time I had babies her futile requests were standard policy. Every woman was encouraged to have one or more support people with her, to room in with her baby, and to give birth naturally. It took change-makers to turn those policies around. Those change-makers were ordinary people who had a vision of something better. Some of them actively worked to see those changes happen but I suspect most of them simply talked, read, wrote, and otherwise carried on with what looked like everyday lives while activating awareness in people around them.

This is how real progress happens. Yes, there’s the much cited quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And yes, there are torchbearers for our big changes who are often misunderstood, even persecuted, while they lead the way. But lets not assume that we don’t qualify as “thoughtful, committed citizens” if we aren’t at the front of any movement. It’s about action but it’s also about attitude. Those attitudes make justice, ecological harmony, and peace possible.

Those “in charge” are often well behind the consciousness of the people they supposedly lead. Many in authority impose the same order, same rules, same limited thinking on people who have opened themselves to bigger possibilities. That’s true when we look at mainstream medicine, education, organized religion, finance and banking, government, science for hire, and multinational corporations. Such established institutions tend to become more rigid in response to vital change shaking their structures loose. The lower levels of moral reasoning that often hold those structures so restrictively in place (might makes right, or an eye for an eye, or conformity to norms) have less relevance when more and more people are in touch with deeper wisdom.

You may be activating change right now by the content of your conversations, the ideas you see taking hold around you, the way you stay informed, the way you raise your children and treat your friends, how you choose to spend your money and not spend your money, the way you make a living, the causes you advocate and believe in, and how you interact with our living planet. You, like so many change-makers, may already be living through deeply felt, personally lived ethics. That itself causes rippling change. Torchbearers of the last century who brought about so much good could do so because awareness shifted and deepened.

It may seem that small personal efforts make little difference when the problems facing the world are so huge. But bemoaning what’s wrong usually doesn’t effect much positive change. It may very well just entrench the feeling that we’re victims of all that’s Big and Bad. Instead we can see how truly interconnected everything is. Mind and matter, internal and external, thought and deed–all are aspects of the same essential aliveness in a universe where nothing is really separate.

My mother didn’t go looking for causes but when they were in front of her, she stood up for what was right. This happened often when she was a young registered nurse working in a large Chicago hospital. She defied rules requiring nurses to stop laboring women from delivering until a physician was present (perhaps to collect higher fees?). Nurses were expected to keep women from pushing, and in extreme cases, to hold back the head of the emerging baby. As you might imagine, some infants were deprived of oxygen or worse. My mother refused to follow the policy, more than once delivering a baby herself if the doctor didn’t arrive in time. She also refused to follow the policy that restricted incubators to private pay patients. When necessary she simply went to another ward, took an incubator, and faced the consequences. She got in trouble over and over. She did it anyway.

Once she had children of her own, my mother spent much of her life as what she’d call a homemaker. She did all sorts of good on a small level. She herself been a lonely child, perhaps as a result she was remarkably skilled at staying closely connected with and supportive of people. She functioned as a sort of informal Wikipedia for her wide network of friends, always putting her hands on an article she’d clipped so she could advance knowledge to help others. I often didn’t agree with her political opinions but I saw from her example that activating change often has more to do with living as if compassion is not just necessary, it is essential.

Who or what in your life reminds you that progress is happening, even on a small personal level? 

What’s The Perfect Age?

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There must be an ideal age floating around in our collective unconscious. This is such a fixed part of our media-driven culture that it’s hard to focus on it. But let’s give it a try. Allow a number come to you as you consider the following questions.

 What age do parents have in mind as they groom their kids for success?

 What age do kids have in mind as they imagine growing up?

 What age do older adults have in mind as they try to look and act younger?

I’m guessing it’s somewhere between 21 and 35, a time when we’re supposed to be brimming with youthful good looks and potential. Or maybe it’s not a number but just a fundamental belief that young adulthood is some sort of peak. Everything before that is preparation, everything after a slide toward old age.

Consciously or unconsciously, believing in this ideal age uses up a large part of all our other ages.

Consider how relentlessly the adult world prods children to get (or at least act) older. I know I’m somewhat guilty. I did my very best to savor the baby and toddler years but honestly, it’s hard. I found myself thinking that it would just get better after they finished teething, or could talk, or finally mastered toilet training. Even the most sainted in-the-moment parent will find him or herself bombarded with well-intended, future-oriented inquiries from others like, “Is she sleeping through the night?” and “Does he talk in sentences yet?” Such questions don’t stop as the child gets older, instead they have to do with bigger topics like academic abilities, athletic achievement, even popularity. Admiration is heaped on little ones who act much older than their developmental age, especially those children who exhibit social poise beyond their years, as if six-year-olds who act like six-year-olds are already somehow behind.

The pressure becomes more intense with each passing year. Parents often find themselves buying all sorts of educational toys and electronics, filling what could be free time with an ambitious schedule of practices and enrichment programs, and of course, pushing educational achievement. We’re told that these efforts “count” as if there’s a permanent record for eight-year-olds or 13-year-olds. There isn’t.

We’re assured that getting kids ahead in sports or hobbies will create passionate engagement, but research affirms that children build rewardingly intense interests when they are free to explore activities without adult pressure and interference

We’re led to believe that early academic accomplishment is the path to later success. Too often, that’s not true either. Success is closely linked to much more nuanced personal factors which develop quite nicely, research tells us, during free play, early participation in household tasks, conversation, and other experiences that foster self- control as well as an internal locus of control

Pushing our children toward adulthood takes us (and them) away from seeing that each of us are whole people exactly as we are. A baby is not an unformed child, a child is not an ungrown adult, an elder is not an age-ruined version of a once younger self.

Each of us is wonderfully unique. Of course we’re flawed and often foundering. But at the same time we are also brimming with emerging possibilities. We don’t have to paddle away from the moment we live in toward some ideal age. Doing so doesn’t just wish away right now, it also condemns every other age we live in to be something less.

Truly seeing our children and our elders as complete and whole, right now, means seeing ourselves that way too.