Fostering the Flip Side of Gratitude

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Cajoled into seeing a friend’s obstetrician, the one she praised so highly, I came prepared with a list of questions folded in my jeans pocket. But I didn’t get a chance to ask about a doula, the Leboyer method, or anything else. The doctor walked in, greeted me and looked me over without performing an exam. Then he announced with certainty that I had “insufficient pelvic capacity.” He assured me that my petite size meant I would never be able to deliver a full-term baby.

“What do you mean?” I gasped.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “It just means you’ll require a Cesarean.”

I was six weeks pregnant.

I may have been young and expecting my first child, but I dared to question his judgment. He became indignant. A lecture followed about the number of babies he’d delivered. He went on about anoxia and brain damage, then intoned the words that surely convinced legions of women before me, “Do you want to endanger the life of your baby?”

That was all it took.

I never returned.

But how was this self-satisfied man to know if his assertion turned out to be valid?  I didn’t get back to him. Nor did I refute the next obstetrician whose office I also left after he told me my vegetarian diet would result in a sickly, underweight baby.

Although these physicians never knew if their dire predictions came true, I went on to deliver a 9 lb, 10 oz baby quite naturally. In subsequent years I had three more sizeable vegetarian-grown babies.

On behalf of each of my children I learned to speak up–forcefully and often. This pushed me right past the shyness I thought was an indelible part of my personality. Once I became comfortable speaking up I felt empowered to assert my feelings of gratitude as well.

According to Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude, regularly practicing gratitude boosts our health and well-being. Small acts of kindness also create a ripple effect, generating more compassion in others. Sometimes it’s easier to thank those who are close to us but it’s powerful to acknowledge people who are consequential strangers or people we’ve never met but whose efforts make a difference.

My gratitude practice often takes the form of appreciative letter to strangers. I leave a note for a waitress whose cheery demeanor has healed me of some common sadness. I send a letter to a nursing home administrator describing the tender affection I witnessed an aide show a patient. I send written kudos to the cast of a locally produced play. They don’t take long to write although occasionally I have to make an effort to find out where to send one.

Not long ago I was delighted to finally locate the address of a local school bus driver. I regularly wait in my car as he stops on a 55 mph road and in only a few moments backs into a narrow entry way with the grace and dexterity of a ballroom dancer. So I wrote a letter to explain that seeing him drive with such skill gave me the sense one day I too might develop true mastery in my line of work.

I never sign my name. I think it’s better to write “your customer” or “fellow traveler” or whatever fits the situation. That way it isn’t about me, it’s about a wider sense of appreciation. Although I have to admit, I benefit too. Looking for the good in a situation changes my energy in a positive way.

But really, paying attention only to sweetness and light ignores the shadow. People in positions of authority need to know when their judgments or actions are harmful. All of us can learn from mistakes, unless somehow we’re deprived of the consequences of our words or actions. Today, many professionals are well insulated from those consequences unless they reach litigation.

I don’t advocate griping or threatening. I’m talking about communication that fosters understanding. A simple letter can spare future clients, students or patients the same struggles your family may have endured. Of course this isn’t necessary when the situation can be handled right away. But how many of us have faced long term predictions of doom? A family bed is nothing but bad parenting.  Without this surgery you’ll end up crippled. Homeschool and you’ll have a maladjusted child on your hands. Ritalin is the only solution for that behavior. After years of hearing such pronouncements I have come to realize that updating a professional on his or her assessment is another form of kindness. It’s the flip side of gratitude.

If you choose to get in touch with someone for these same reasons, here are guidelines that have worked for me.

1. Be clear about your own goals before writing that letter or email. Wait until you can proceed without anger. The person you are contacting will be unlikely to learn anything unless you maintain a positive and respectful tone throughout.

2. Refresh the recipient about your situation as it was when you were last in contact.

3. State clearly and kindly that (as a physician, teacher, therapist) he or she is in a position to help many people. You assume that as a matter of professional interest it would be helpful to know about the outcome of a situation he/she assessed.

4. Sticking only to the facts, explain how in your situation their judgment or actions were misguided. Then update with pertinent details.

5. If relevant, include research or other data which the professional can use to gain insight.

6. Wish this person well. Don’t expect or ask for follow up contact.

The highest response to nay-sayers is to flourish joyfully in our choices. So I respond  to those who predicted doom for my children who were held long and nursed often, to those who judged our learning and lifestyle choices harshly—we are well. For that I’m endlessly appreciative.

Lets try, whenever possible, to find the freedom right beyond the boundaries of old ideas. To do that we need to share the insight that comes from experience. There, even the flip side of gratitude turns toward wisdom.

when professional advice is wrong, shadow side of gratitude, finding peace rather than revenge, gratitude's underbelly,

A version of this piece first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Natural Life magazine

Writing Hands image courtesy of Jggy

A Childhood Idyll by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Thanks To Mom, We Tried Turkey Farming

I offered to host Thanksgiving year after year. My mother turned me down each time. She liked hosting the family get-together even though her kids and grandkids lived close enough to visit weekly. She preferred her wedding china and linens to my mismatched dishes and homespun tablecloth. Mostly she wanted to ensure that the meal featured homemade white crescent rolls and a large Butterball turkey filled with her own stuffing recipe. She was afraid that her annoyingly whole foods vegetarian daughter might prepare something horribly non-traditional, like nutloaf with chestnut wild rice dressing instead of turkey. Valid point.

But her health kept declining. I took to coming over early on Thanksgiving Day to stuff the turkey with her and hoist it in the oven. We all came back a few hours later with side dishes. I always brought homemade crescent rolls that looked suspiciously brown and healthy. Our meals continued to be lively events and we worked hard to make sure my mother didn’t notice how much we all helped out.

I knew she’d reached a new low in her energy level when she offered to let me host Thanksgiving a few years ago. She said I had to agree to one condition. I had to make a real turkey (not a Tofurky, she hastened to add) and stuff it with her stuffing recipe. I had to promise. I wanted to cry, knowing that she was much sicker than she let on. I promised.

But there was no way I was going to cook a typical grocery store turkey. I know these birds spend their short lives in tightly confined spaces, eating foods that aren’t natural to them. We raise pastured livestock on our little farm, so we drove nearly an hour to buy a similarly pastured turkey directly from the farmer. I felt particularly solemn as I prepared that first Thanksgiving meal at our house, knowing it was difficult enough for my mother to get from the car to the house so she could spend the day with us. At least the turkey was a hit. According to the meat-eaters in the bunch, it was the best they’d ever had. It was also so juicy that it overflowed the pan. That’s something grocery store birds don’t do, even though they’re injected with a “7% solution containing water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphate and natural flavors.”

But that pastured turkey was astonishingly expensive. We thought we might be able to raise a flock of our own more cheaply. We were wrong. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nearby farmers gently told us that we were foolhardy. They warned us to keep turkeys “on wire,” indoors, and away from what they said were the disease-carrying dangers of grass. They said our plan to avoid feed pumped up with medications and synthetic vitamins would leave us with a dying flock. Online articles repeated these woeful predictions.

Still, the next spring we bought turkey chicks. They were raised in the warmth of an Amish kitchen until they were old enough to live outdoors.

On our place they lived in what’s called a “tractor.” This is a moveable coop, allowing the birds access to fresh areas to forage. My husband and oldest son built it with roosts and feeders. We soon learned turkeys toss food from feeders and don’t like to roost. Out came both of those modifications. Then to forestall problems with predators we added a moveable electric fence.

How much our rapidly growing chicks ate surprised us. In addition to the roots, grasses, leaves, and bugs they scratched up on their own we provided them with a locally grown and ground mix of seeds and grain. And we gave them fresh organic produce from the garden each day. They had strong preferences. One day they might eagerly eat cucumbers and squash, the next day they refused to eat those veggies but enjoyed tomatoes. They turned up their beaks at plenty of other treats, like broccoli and rutabagas.

We found turkeys quite interesting. When they’re young they peep and squawk. Then the gobble develops, something we found relentlessly amusing. Hens don’t gobble. They chirp and cluck in their own quiet manner while the toms are prone to showy displays of exaggerated feather fluffing. The toms gobbled at any noisy airborne attraction including Canada geese, crows, and helicopters. When annoyed, their heads turned iridescent blue and sometimes they engaged in snood-grabbing jousts. Our dogs were fascinated by the turkeys, but the turkeys showed little interest in creatures beyond their own genus.

All day, every day the flock had a visitor. A little brown hen moseyed up from the back of our property to visit her fowl friends. She stayed close. She pecked at grass and bugs, sometimes a few feet away and sometimes a few inches away. When we gave the turkeys a treat from the garden like a monster zucchini she’d cluck at me, waiting for her own piece. Quite often the turkeys, in their zucchini-enhanced exuberance, tossed flecks of what they were eating almost as if to share. Their friend the hen was right there waiting for those offerings. I never saw the turkeys peck at her.

What we learned about turkeys wasn’t entirely charming. Full grown turkeys are huge. Some of ours were over 80 pounds. Their poo, I’m sorry to say, was also huge. I never realized just how foul it was until I slipped and fell in it. And despite the overall health and vitality of our flock, once we factored in all the expenses there wasn’t any profit at all. Plus, after feeding and chatting with them for six months, it felt like a horrible betrayal to take them to the butcher.

This year we let the turkey farming venture go. We’re gratefully buying a pastured turkey, knowing that it’s worth the cost. It’ll be cooked with my mother’s stuffing recipe. I’ll also be using my mother’s china and linens. We’ll sit here at a table filled with friends and family, fully aware that our blessings include those made of memory.

I’ll smile this Thanksgiving at all who are here with me. I’ll leave the sob in my throat, choosing instead to share fond and funny stories of my parents who I miss every day. I realize now why every generation goes on celebrating even after the elders who made the traditions meaningful have gone. Holidays are a sort of bridge between past and future, a way of steadying ourselves with the idea that some things stay the same. When the time comes for me to pass along the honor of hosting Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll try passing along my mother’s stuffing recipe too.

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Image: Karuntribs



Poetry Diet

struggling poet, making money as a poet, appreciating poets, life of a poet,

“Favourite Poete” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.  ~Thomas Gray

The term Poetry Diet might imply a rare appetite. The sort of longing only appeased by words strung spare and stark, like a meal so desired that imagination keeps creating it anew.

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
~Mark Strand

Or Poetry Diet could imply hunger for that rare current some call inspiration, the elusive muse carrying phrases from ether to pen.

Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale ’til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

However in this case, what I’m calling the Poetry Diet is something much more mundane.  It simply means to eat nothing but what is purchased with money earned from one’s poetry. Reading, teaching, publishing, wearing them on your naked body, selling poems painted on scrap metal, whatever it takes. If I started a Poetry Diet now I’d be svelte in a week, thin rather soon. Before long, starving artist might be a literal (hah!) condition.

Surely a Poetry Diet would provide a vast incentive to write and, here’s the rub, send out one’s work. It could also leave the poet so imperiled that friends might stage a poetry reading to raise funds to feed the annoyingly hollow wordsmith.

Thus far I’m not dedicated or foolhardy enough to attempt a Poetry Diet. Mostly because I’m already trying to live by patching together the Essay Diet, Columnist Diet, and Editor Diet. But also because I know how long it takes from inspiration to paycheck. Right now I’m waiting for one of my poems to appear in Christian Science Monitor, two in Trillium Literary Journal, two more in J Journal. The total pay will amount to, well, let us not speak of actual numbers. I wouldn’t last long on the Poetry Diet. Surely that says something about the quality of my poetry but it also says something about our culture as well.

Poets aren’t very useful
Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.
~Ogden Nash

I hardly expect to live by poetry alone, although I have been sustained by the work of other poets in ways more vital than any meal. I long to see greater support for artists of all kinds. I have dear friends who devote their lives to perfecting a craft. They act, compose, weave, calligraph, paint, weld, invent, write, bake, work with wood, sing, and throw pots. They are driven to explore the intersection of art and cosmology, continually refining what it means to create. Yet most of them spend their days at jobs that are unrelated in order to survive. They wait tables or work in accounts receivable. Their real gifts emerge during precious hours plucked from mundane obligations.

It’s quite possible to attend a production at a local playhouse and see performances that shift the way you experience the world. You walk out a changed person for the extraordinary art you’ve enjoyed. Chances are that director, those actors, that playwright are unable to support themselves with their work, vital though it is.

I’m certainly not in league with those whose work is transformative. My poetry is about ordinary things like opening doors, moving stones, forgetting a name.

Perhaps I should head in a new direction—food poems. That way I’d feel nourished while contemplating the swirling curds and whey in the next batch of cheese I make. I’d also be answering Chesterton.

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.  ~G.K. Chesterton

9 Amazing Reasons To Be Optimistic

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If you could scroll through history searching for an era where you’d like to spend a lifetime, what would attract you?

Probably peace and prosperity. Probably a time when the arts flourish and science is open to new wonders. Probably too, a time period when people behave morally, care for one another, and uphold higher ideals than selfishness.

Does it make a difference to your answer if you don’t get to choose where on Earth you’ll be born?  Into what class, gender, creed, and ability?

You’ll probably want to stay right here, right now.

Our 24 hour media attention on what’s terrifying and what’s superficial steers us away from the big picture.  That picture, looking at the wider view, is actually pretty heartening.


1. War and global violence continue to decline.

Armed conflicts aren’t going up, they’re going down.

The world has seen a 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War era. Genocide is down 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished by 33 percent and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent. Even measuring from as little as 15 years ago, the number of armed conflicts has dropped from 44 to 28.

Why? Project Ploughshares credits peace building efforts.

Chances are, the reasons for peace are complex. Yet a stronger international resolve to focus on peace building and basic human rights is taking place. Imagine the far larger potential for enduring peace if we intentionally educate our children and ourselves in the proven methods of non-violence—-negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, even basic listening skills.


2. Freedom is stretching across the planet.

By evaluating variables including civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media it’s possible to assess how free each nation in the world really is. Back in 1973, 29 percent of nations were deemed free, 25 percent partially free, and 46 percent not free.

In a little over 35 years, the number of nations ruled by authoritarian regimes dropped from 90 to 30. Countries around the world considered to be free increased by 50 percent while those not free had dropped by more than half.

Independence has a long way to go. And what we may not recognize as positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval—may very well be ordinary people speaking up for freedom.


3. Affluence is on the increase.

A shifting focus away from war, conflict, and chaos means that countries are better able to meet the needs of their citizens. Those 151 countries deemed free or partly free account for 95 % of the world’s gross domestic production (GDP).

The number of people living in poverty has dropped by 500 million people, although most of those successes are in a few key countries.  Since 1975 the world’s poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world’s wealthy, meaning economic equality is increasing.

Of course, we make a mistake when we confuse affluence with well-being. After certain (surprisingly minimal) levels of health and safety are reached, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Current global conditions of institutional breakup, financial chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which seem to be (slowly) leading to long-term beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the limitations of short-term fixes and relentless economic expansion. Hopefully we’re also waking up to the reality that we’re in this together—rich and poor, developed and developing nations, young and old, left and right. We see in our own lives that what’s important can’t be measured by dollars alone. Things like good health, supportive relationships and a vital ecosystem.

There are plenty of other ways to define affluence. A fascinating measure of wealth lies in a quick look at how many hours of labor it once took the average worker to pay for light.  In ancient Babylonia it took over 50 hours to pay for an hour of poor light from a sesame-oil lamp. At the start of the last century, it would have taken the average worker a thousand hours to earn the money to buy candles equaling the light of a single 100 watt bulb. Today’s high efficiency lighting costs us less than a second of work.


4. Fewer people are hungry.

Hunger continues to drop although we have a long way to go. It’s staggering to realize that 925 million people are chronically hungry. But according to The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany, global food supplies increased 24 percent per capita in the last 40 years. In developing countries the food supply increased at an even greater rate, 38 percent more food per person. Since 1950, the real global price of food commodities has declined 75 percent.

No one should go hungry. The future of global food justice relies on efforts to restore and protect biodiversity, stop the spread of genetically modified crops, and assure water rights.


5. Longevity is improving yet total population faces a downturn

Fulfilling the cherished hopes of their parents, more children around the world are born healthy. Mortality rates for those under five years of age have fallen by 60 percent since 1960.

Meanwhile, life expectancy has risen 21 years since the mid 1950’s.

This doesn’t mean the planet will be too crowded. Overall population will continue to rise for several more decades but we’re facing a major downturn. Already birth rates are near or below replacement rate in countries all over the world. Increased education and affluence tend to inspire women, no matter what country they live in, to invest their time and resources in fewer children. As Fred Pearce clearly explains in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, our little Earth will likely reach a (painful) peak of 8 billion people around the year 2040, then the total number of human will begin to decline so rapidly that nations will struggle to keep their populations levels from slipping too low. They may create perks for becoming parents and incentives to attract immigrants.


6. Health continues to improve.

Studies conducted by Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate and economic historian at the University of Chicago, show that in a few hundred years human biology has changed in startling ways. We are more resistant to ill health, more likely to recover when faced with disease and less likely to live with chronic disability. We are also smarter and live longer. Fogel calls this radical improvement “technophysio evolution.”

An interview quotes Fogel as saying, “The phenomenon is not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.”

Fogel doesn’t necessary attribute the changes to genetic shifts.  Improvements in medical care, nutrition, sanitation and working conditions may cause epigenetic changes. These are shifts in gene expression that can last through many generations without altering underlying DNA.

Information amassed by Fogel indicates that chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and lung ailments are occurring 10 to 25 years later in life than they did 100 or 200 years ago. Interestingly, well-being may be more strongly affected by conditions each individual faces in utero and during the first few years of life than previously suspected.

These remarkable health gains don’t diminish our current struggles with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other serious health conditions on the increase. Despite the blessing of bodies more resilient and healthy than those of our ancestors of just 150 years ago we suffer the effects of environmental toxins and nutritionally inferior diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, we need to make the right choices to pass those benefits to our descendants.


7. Literacy rates continue to improve.

Global adult literacy rates have shot up from 56 percent in 1950 to nearly 84 percent today, the highest ever.

Women’s rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health and greater financial stability.


8. Intelligence is on an upswing.

From generation to generation, we’re getting smarter. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.

Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in the U.S. rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Plenty of explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.

According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children in India found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.

IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with an ever more challenging world.


9. Compassion is huge.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group.  Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.

There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more.  These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.

Humanity, which is clever and kind enough to bring about so much improvement for one another, is awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth. Unless we pull another planet out of the galaxy’s pocket in the next decade or two, we have to stop using up our precious blue green Earth. It’s time to turn our ingenuity to living well within our means. Peacefully, wisely, and with optimism.

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Hand Globe image courtesy of HapciuMadam

Hummingbird image courtesy of PhapPuppy