Engage The Window Box Effect

beauty heals, finding the positive, reversing urban decay, building a neighborhood,

CC 2.0 by ahisgett

When I was in college my professors enjoyed crushing what was left of our youthful optimism with miserable statistics about how bad everything was and how rapidly it was getting worse. (Even their cynicism was too small to envision our current issues.) I remember a semester-long course that had to do with reversing urban blight. After being taught about this dire and growing problem we were introduced to the standard remedies. Our professor scornfully dismissed every effort to reverse urban blight. The worst thing that could be done? Coming in from outside the community to impose a do-gooder solution. The only right thing to do was a vast overhaul of our economic structures. (Those structures are even shakier today.) I wrote sufficiently miserable papers to get an A but was left with quiet despair in my ever-hopeful heart.

Soon after that class I read about one woman’s experience of urban blight. She’d lived in the same house for decades, watching her neighborhood decline. There were few jobs and the ones available paid poorly, with no benefits or job security. She sadly listed the local businesses that had left, leaving her area with no grocery, beauty shop, or movie theater. The only places that remained were bars and corner stores selling little in the way of real food. People lost their homes and landlords took over, rarely keeping up the property. The city lost revenue, doing little to keep up with residents’ complaints. It seemed to her that young people were lost too. They swore in front of tiny children and their elders, hung out all hours on street corners, got into public fights, abused drugs. She was quoted as saying that people complained they got no respect from young people, when really the young people had no respect for themselves.

The reason she was being interviewed? She was credited with beginning a tiny urban renaissance that was evident on her street and slowly spreading through the neighborhood.

Here’s how it happened. She’d been in poor health and adjusting to widowhood. Her home had been well maintained over the years but like many wood-sided homes, it began to look shabby when too much time went by without new paint. After her husband died she didn’t do well keeping up with yard work and because the street had changed she rarely sat on the porch as she used to do in years past, chatting with neighbors and greeting young people by name as they went by. It wasn’t just friendliness. When everyone knows everyone, word of misdeeds travels home quicker than an unruly child can get in the door. And when a child really knows the elders on his or her street, they have many more potential role models to benefit them as they grow up. That’s the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child.

This woman wanted to do something. All she could afford was a few packets of flower seeds. She got out on a spring day to plant the seeds in her long-unused window boxes. She started sitting on her porch every afternoon after watering them, greeting those who went by even though she didn’t know them. Renters in houses where her friends once lived began talking to her. By the time the flowers were in bloom she noticed a difference on the street. She said that people were sweeping their porches and planting flowers of their own. Because they were trying, she got out there to do her part, attempting to take better care of her lawn, telling people who passed by that it was a good way to get exercise she needed. Every time she couldn’t get her mower to start she’d ask a teenager walking down the street to help her. Then before starting to mow, she’d ask for his or her name, shake hands, and thank that youth for doing a good deed by helping her. She made sure to greet those young people by name every time she saw them afterwards.

That summer one family painted their front door. Someone else cleaned up an empty lot that had been a dumping place for trash. People started sitting on their porches, waving to each other, stopping for conversation. It began to feel like a neighborhood again. Building on what’s positive is powerful indeed.

There are plenty of ways people are revitalizing their communities these days. They’re reclaiming empty lots as gardens or play places for their kids, running micro-businesses out of their homes, starting up tool-shares and neighborhood work groups. They’re using social media to connect and collaborate with each other. They’re mentoring kids in the neighborhood and finding ways to get kids more involved in the larger community.  Studies show that urban gardens and other revitalizing efforts make a difference, reducing the crime rate and fostering all sorts of positive relationships. An old theory, kind of the flip side of what I’m calling the Window Box Effect, was called Broken Windows Theory. It posited that minor examples of breakdown (like a few broken windows) leads to greater disorder, dragging down not only the appearance of an area but also leading to crime and property damage. This has largely been disproven because crime is actually deterred when people know they have the power to affect their communities and benefit from strong networks within those communities.

Sure, we have a lot to work to do rebuilding our sorry infrastructure and easing the ever-widening income gap. But it doesn’t hurt to remember that noticing a little beauty can amplify the greater beauty that’s everywhere, waiting to bloom.

There are plenty of ways to apply the Window Box Effect.

Tell me how the Window Box Effect works in your life.

Will Fracking Affect My Family?

fracking affects your food, fracking affects your air, fracking affects your water,

Equipment arrives at this dairy farm. (Image: fafaohio.org)

Have you heard about fracking? It may seem like it will have no impact on your or your family. But take a look at the facts.

A dairy farm not far from us is the first in our area to begin hydraulic fracturing. This process was developed to extract formerly unattainable gas and oil from rock a mile or more below the surface. Unlike old style wells bored straight down or at a slant, these go down and then proceed horizontally. Using a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals the rock is fractured (hence the name) to release fossil fuels. This is commonly called fracking.

I went to look for myself. The bucolic farm is snuggled along gentle hillsides. An Amish buggy went by as I took in the dissonant sight of Holsteins grazing and huge rigs marked Halliburton parked just off the narrow rural road. Drilling hadn’t started. I wondered if fracking chemicals could possibly affect those cows and wind up in their milk. How many of us know where our yogurt once grazed?

I’m as energy dependent as the next person. But I wanted to know more about fracking, especially how it might affect my family and community, so I started hunting down information.

Sorting through the confusion

fracking chemicals in your food, what frackers don't want you to know,

My husband and I attended a public meeting held to promote leasing by landowners. There were lots of glossy handouts and a power point presentation. The speakers said that 60 years of gas well drilling had never caused a health or safety problem. I found the same reassuring claims by the oil and gas industry in advertising campaigns and online reports. Friends who’ve already signed fracking leases repeat this too.

It seems to me they’re blurring the distinction between decades of experience in vertical drilling methods and the much newer process of fracking. It’s not hard to find incidents around my hometown of older-style wells causing trouble. That includes homes with explosive levels of methane as well as a house explosion linked to inadequate cementing of well casings. Apparently such problems have occurred in both vertically drilled wells and fracked wells.

But technically, assertions that fracking is safe are largely true. That’s because industry and government regulatory agencies use the term “fracking” only as it relates to the actual process of pumping fluids into the ground to break apart rock. So when they make claims about fracking safety, they don’t include what happens while drilling, constructing the well, setting off explosions, dealing with blowouts or well fires, storing waste water in open containment basins, vapors emitted from condensate tanks, open flaring to burn off gasses, transporting waste, injecting waste water into deep disposal wells, or at any point in the future when the wells may leak.

That’s convenient, because a University of Texas study found that these are the activities actually contaminating air, water, and soil. So both sides are “right” in the fracking debate. The industry is correct when they say that fracking is largely safe because of their limited definition of the word. People concerned about the environmental and health consequences lump all activities associated with the process under the term “fracking,” making their claims of risk correct too.

Maybe this is one reason why media coverage of fracking is so confusing. For example, the standard fracking-related practice of disposing of waste in deep injection wells has been linked to earthquakes inColoradoOklahomaTexas, and Arkansas according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. In my home state of Ohio earthquakes have also been linked to this disposal method, although the state continues to accept fracking waste brought in from other states. Last year Ohio injected 12 million barrels of waste deep below her surface. But plenty of media outlets, quoting the same studies, run reassuring headlines like “Don’t worry much about quakes and ‘fracking’” and “earthquake rise, fracking not to blame“ even if farther down in the article it’s noted that earthquakes are associated with deep injection wells used to dispose of fracking waste.

I think it’s time we developed a new word or phrase to discuss the issue more clearly. For now I’ll use “fracking-related activity.”

Disclosure and rights

fracking and water shortages, fracking chemicals evaporate into the air,

Those of us who live in areas said to be rich in shale oil are being romanced. Industry representatives hold open houses. Lawyers eager to get a share of leasing money by selling pooled rights do too. I’ve paid close attention at these meetings. The emphasis is mostly on how much money can be made. We’re told that those who get their land drilled first will have the highest yields and the most money. One speaker demonstrated with a straw and a cup of soda, showing that wherever drillers (his straw) first pierced would have access to the most gas (soda) below. He slurped loudly, then asked if anyone thought he’d leave much behind for those who leased their land later.

Many participants eagerly signed up. Any concerns raised were quickly soothed. At a meeting held in a rural church we were told that landowners would be left with trees, grass, and a single wellhead providing substantial income for 30 or more years. Big money, restored land–sounds good, right?

The promise of a hefty income rising from the ground well below our feet comes at a time when many Americans are reeling from unemployment, poor housing prices, and debt. And all over the country, property owners like small to medium dairy farms are losing their livestock and often their land because they can’t turn a profit. Fracking seems like a life line.

But when I talk to people who have already signed a lease many are upset, believing they haven’t gotten as much money as they deserved. Others believe they’ve been lied to about the environmental impact. Surely there are happy lease-holders out there, I just keep running into those who feel they’ve been deceived.

At an open house meeting last fall, a conversation between an Ohio property owner and industry representatives was tape recorded. The property owner asked about chemicals used in fracking. He was told, “We don’t put any chemicals down in the ground. We just use regular, fresh water.” Another industry representative coming into the room later said the process uses household chemicals like dish washing detergent.

These are common claims. At one meeting we were told that fracking chemicals are no more dangerous than cleaning products in the average home. Cheerful articles online tell us that the same chemicals using in fracking can be found in hand sanitizer, fabric softener, even hot dogs. (I’ll take a brief look at why that’s not the whole story in a bit.)

And leases may be misleading. A New York Times review of 111,000 documents showed that most homeowners aren’t aware what rights the industry takes.

  • A majority of leases do not require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination or damages to the land.
  • Even if state regulations force industry to replace contaminated drinking water, not all costs are covered nor are needs of crops or livestock included.
  • Many consumer protection laws do not apply.
  • Some leases deduct costs such as hauling to or from the site.
  • Energy companies can use the property to build roads, store chemicals, cut down trees, run equipment 24 hours a day, and build containment ponds (in some instances covering them with dirt rather than hauling away the waste).
  • Few landowners are fully aware that their property becomes, in essence, an industrial site.
  • Some homeowners’ insurance policies will not cover problems related to fracking.
  • They also may not be aware of a potential loss in property value.

But local citizens have very little control over fracking. Depending where they live, fracking may occur under cemeteries and in state parks. Some cities as well as colleges are considering lease offers. Despite regulations that normally zone residential areas apart from industrial areas, drilling can take place near homes and schools. Residents in ColoradoTexasWest Virginia, and elsewhere are advocating for stronger regulations to protect schoolchildren from the noise and dust generated by these sites. In some areas drilling sites are only required to be 350 feet from schools and 200 feet from homes. (In New Mexico, one school playground is 150 feet from a well.) No matter how vehemently citizens object, the ability to pass local ordinances regulating gas and oil producers can be superseded by state or federal regulations. This provides the industry rights normally not allowed under the law.

For example, in 38 states you can’t say no to fracking on your land if others in your area have already signed leases. It’s called by all sorts of names such as “mandatory pooling” or “compulsory integration.” This means a horizontal drilling line can run under your property whether you want it there or not. It’s really eminent domain by private enterprise. Such laws make it easy for gas and oil representatives to tell people they might as well sign up, because underground reserves will be extracted anyway. That’s the reason people we know are signing leases. That there’s no legal recourse shocks some homeowners when drilling begins.

For many of us, fracking operations (called “plays”) seem like a distant threat. But they’re taking place not only in rural areas but cities, suburbs, and park lands with several hundred thousand new wells scheduled for drilling in the next few years.

Will your area be fracked?

Economics

fracking the next economic bubble,

We also heard lots of talk about how much good this gas and oil will do to boost the local economy and help our nation to get back national energy independence. These are laudable goals. I’m not sure they’re more than optimistic projections.

Any talk of jobs is likely to generate enthusiasm in our still flagging economy. Those of us living in shale oil areas have been told that an employment boom is around the corner. In Ohio we’re assured that our state will see 65,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in wages within two years. But analysis of data from states already experiencing a fracking boom finds only a modest rise in employment, even when factoring in supply chain jobs and increased spending by workers and landowners. Looking more closely at the numbers, it’s clear that the majority of the energy paychecks are going to out-of-state contract workers who handle drilling and hauling.

They don’t have the most enviable jobs. Oil field workers are exempt from certain safety rules, leading to a higher rate of accidents than other industries. In one state alone, police found that 40 percent of the 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected were in such serious disrepair they were taken off the road. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fatality rates for oil workers are seven times the national average.

Fracking-related activity actually places a heavy burden on municipalities. The industry estimates over 200,000 new wells will be fracked across the U.S. in the next decade. Each one requires 500 to 1,500 truck trips to haul equipment, water, and waste. Massively increased traffic brought by these heavy rigs is likely to hasten the deterioration of roads and bridges. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) puts out regular report cards on the country’s infrastructure. They note that bridges are normally built to last 50 years. The average U.S. bridge is now 43 years old. Overall, the ASCE gives U.S. infrastructure (including roads, bridges, and water supply) a grade of  ”D.”

It costs in city services as well. Police have reported increased calls in some areas due to the surge in temporary workers associated with drilling. And first responders such as fire fighters and paramedics may not have the equipment, training, or funds to handle new perils that come with drilling and disposal operations.

Maybe this is the price we have to pay. After all, we’re told that fracking is a reliable means to achieve energy independence. I hear lots of these talking points repeated in meetings and in print, often along with some patriotic fervor tossed in for emphasis, but it isn’t easy to figure out energy facts in all the hubbub. As a concerned parent and citizen, I’m still trying to sort it out.

Here are some things I’m mulling over. The U.S. exports more gasoline than it imports, so energy independence isn’t as simple as the “drill, baby, drill” signs I see in my community. And shale oil, which can be extracted along with natural gas from the fracking process in some areas, is more expensive to extract and refine than crude oil. But most of the energy generated by fracking comes in the form of natural gases and liquid gases such as ethane, propane, and butane.  Over the last ten years this industry has spent 20.5 million dollars on donations to Congress and 726 million dollars on lobbying to continue steering subsidies toward fossil fuel, keep regulation minimal, and boost incentives.  Government policy decisions are locking in tax dollars for years to come on natural gas incentives based on industry and Wall Street speculation about the amount of gas that can be extracted. It will cost 700 billion to convert just some of our coal-fired plants to natural gas, a pricey venture when estimates of these reserves keep dropping.

At the same time, reports from financial and energy sectors indicate such speculation is shaky. Huge investments made in leasing and supplies are not returning profits as projected. The U.K.’s Financial Times called it the next economic bubble, comparing it to the financial disaster caused by real estate financing. For some companies, such as Chesapeake Energy, the bubble may already be bursting.

It’s not just a financial bubble, there’s also a gap between the industry’s wildly optimistic estimates and the realities of extraction. Petroleum engineers note that initial production rates are high but dropping. Although President Obama’s State of the Union address repeated industry claims that we’re sitting on a 100 year supply of natural gas, a week later the Energy Information Administration revised its estimatesof Marcellus Shale gas downward by 66 percent and overall potential U.S. reserves by 40 percent. ASlate report takes a close look at the numbers. The estimated supply actually lumps  ”proved reserves” (meaning it’s known to exist and is recoverable) with those that are “probable,” “possible,” and “speculative.” In other words, most of the so-called surplus of gas may not exist or be recoverable. Only an 11 year supply falls into the “proven” category, and that’s if our usage doesn’t go up. As Slate dryly notes, “By the same logic, you can claim to be a multibillionaire, including all your ‘probable, possible, and speculative resources.’”

Government and industry continue to insist that a boom is on although a well-by-well analysis notes that gas production is much flatter than hyped and “the gold rush is over.”  The number of drill rigs operating in North America continues to fall and production per well, on average, declines by 44 percent per year compared to 23 percent for wells in traditional gas fields.

Some people we know who have leased their property worry that the companies owning their leases are simply speculating in land and will sell those leases to foreign companies. I held up my hand at one meeting and asked an industry representative if any leases might ever be sold to non-U.S. companies. “Absolutely not,” I was told. “This is about American energy independence.”

I came home and looked it up. All sorts of huge foreign companies are buying up rights. For example, the Australian company BHP Billiton bought 4.75 billion worth of shale assets in Arkansas, the French company Total will pay 2.25 billion for shale assets in Texas and 2.32 billion for assets in Ohio, and the Chinese firm, Sinopec, is spending billions to scoop up assets across the U.S. from firms like Devon and Chesapeake. Selling these assets is, of course, the prerogative of any company owning them. Obscuring the truth about it to landowners before they sign the leases doesn’t seem to be a priority.

The fracking boom (or bubble) isn’t limited to the U.S. It’s taking place or about to in CanadaArgentinaChinaMozambiqueRussiaPolandIsraelAustralia, and elsewhere.

Health and environmental considerations

fracking and health, fracked air, fracked water,

We also attended public meetings run by several area groups hastily formed to oppose fracking. They brought speakers in from across the state and beyond. I listened to Joe Logan, a representative of the Ohio Environmental Council, explain how fracking-related activity can affect the food we eat. His charts showed that heavy metals and chemicals migrate into air, soil, and water. These contaminants can diminish crop yield, affect the health of livestock, and imperil organic certification. He noted that current laws are not sufficient to protect the food supply or food producing areas from the effects of fracking.

I listened to Doug Shields, former member of the Pittsburgh City Council, explain how fracking-related activity is exempt from major environmental laws that currently protect the public. The oil and gas industry does not have to comply with key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Environmental Policy Act, or the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.

A local man stood up with a jug of brown water from his once clear well. Since his land was fracked the water has been foul smelling and murky, although state officials told him it was okay to drink. Another woman said brine was dumped on a road by her house and when she paid to have it tested it was found to contain chemicals associated with fracking, although state officials declined to investigate. I talked to many other people at these meetings: college students, farmers, retirees, mothers with small children living near active fracking sites. The information they shared was alarming. Here’s a little of what I’ve been able to confirm.

Each fracking operation takes 1.2 million gallons to 5 million gallons of water, sometimes more. Each additional time a site is fracked more water is required. Water stress (an imbalance between water use and water resources) is fast becoming an alarming global issue. When water is withdrawn from natural sources for drinking, irrigation, and other typical uses it normally finds its way back into the global water supply. But a substantial portion (15 to 40 percent) of the water used in fracking operations is left deep in the ground. What does come back up (called “flowback” as well as “produced water” which naturally occurs in shale) is often put in deep injection wells for long-term storage. This method not only edges up the potential for earthquakes, it also takes much-needed water out of planetary circulation.

Chemical components make up only about 0.5 percent of fluids used in fracking-related activity, the rest being water and sand. This sounds like a reassuringly small amount, until you multiply the millions of gallons of water used per fracking site with the number of sites being fracked. Some estimate that 20 tons of chemicals are used per million gallons of fracking fluid. (This number does not include drilling fluids and other chemicals that augment fracking-related activity.)

2011 Congressional report lists 750 known fracking chemicals in order of most common usage. Here’s a partial account of those used in highest amounts.

Some of these chemicals are indeed similar to chemicals used around the home. But a 2011 analysis found that 25 percent are carcinogens; 37 percent are endocrine disruptors; more than 40 percent can impair the immune system and nervous system; and three-quarters can irritate the eyes and lungs. It’s important to remember that some chemicals are toxic in concentrations much less than one part-per-million and the synergistic effect of most chemicals is largely unknown.

The fluid that comes back up also contains ingredients that didn’t go in. This means naturally occurring matter such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (including benzene, toluene, xylene), radioactive materials (including lead, arsenic, strontium), even acidic microbes. It also means chemical compounds created by the reactions of chemicals during any stage of the process. Claims of air, ground, and water pollution due to fracking-related activity are often dismissed by industry and government officials because some contaminants are considered “naturally occurring.” And let’s not forget the water’s salinity. Fracking wastewater has two to three times more salt than sea water and more than 180 times the level considered acceptable to drink by the EPA.

Although the industry insists that all chemicals used in fracking are on the record there are still rules in place allowing them to claim chemicals are proprietary or to disclose what’s used only after the drilling has been completed. In several states including Pennsylvania and Ohio, physicians are bound by a “gag rule” which prevents doctors from sharing information about symptoms, diagnoses, and disease clusters related to fracking chemicals even with other doctors and public health officials. Some doctors say they’re not sure if the laws permit them to inform patients either. Frightening stories abound, like the one about a nurse treating a gas field worker whose clothes were drenched in chemicals. She fell ill herself.  While she was in ICU with multiple organ failure the worker’s company refused to identify those chemicals. Turned out that story was true. (Her state of Colorado now has forms to get that information although doctors are still bound by non-disclosure rules.) Limited information hampers the ability ofmedical practitioners to link health problems to environmental contaminants.

How do these and other toxins linked to fracking-related activity get into the environment? Here are a few routes.

  • Leaks and spills during transportation, mixing, or other fracking-related activity. The industry reportsmillions of gallons spilled in one state alone.
  • Liners that leak or burst, spilling fluids into the soil. Birds and other wildlife are known to be affected.
  • Exhaust from diesel trucks and diesel generators running day and night.
  • Flaring of gas (burning into the air), venting of gas (directly releasing into the air), as well as air release via dehydration units and condensate tanks.
  • Evaporating unknown quantities of chemicals into the air from open containment “ponds” of fracking waste. Misters often spray the liquid in the air to speed up the process. This is standard across much of the industry.
  • Contamination of ground water at depths used for drinking water, typically caused by failures of well casings but also possibly due to increased permeability of rock layers.
  • Inadequate treatment of waste water at sewage plants.
  • Use of “treated” fracking waste from water treatment plants mixed with sludge to be spread on parks and farms.
  • Waste water released into surface bodies of water.
  • Spraying treated fracking brine on roads to control dust or melt ice, a method approved by Ohio EPA and used in many other states although the U.S. EPA advises against this practice.

Burning natural gas itself is cleaner than other forms of fossil fuel, as long as larger environmental costs of the energy-intensive and toxic process of fracking aren’t added to the equation. In fact a Cornell study concluded that as much as eight percent of the methane in shale oil leaks into the air due to fracking, twice the amount released by conventional gas production. Since methane is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2, researcher Robert Howarth concluded that shale gas is less “clean” than conventional gas, coal, or oil.  Studies released by the American Petroleum Institute and American Natural Gas Alliance show much lower methane emissions. Reports and research funded by the gas and oil industry tend to find results more favorable to that industry, putting the science itself into question.

There are always risks in fracking, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said in a recent speech, but he believes the public has been alarmed by “manufactured fear.” As he sees it, the biggest problem is “taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks.”

For a variety of fracking perspectives, check out YouTube. You’ll find plenty of videos presenting the industry’s viewpoint, as well as stories of people living near fracking sites, and this quasi-humorous skewering of what’s being called an industry-wide cover-up of fracking dangers. It’s hard to find footage simply showing what a fracking operation looks like, but here’s one filmed by a Penn State extension service.

I went back to take another look at the dairy farm near us, now being fracked. The area was covered with heavy equipment. A few employees outfitted in fire retardant suits, masks, and hard hats worked in the distance. The quiet morning was filled with noise. Gray dust rose in the air and my throat burned.

When I set out to find out all I could about fracking I didn’t anticipate such disturbing information.  I couldn’t have known fracking would soon intrude on our lives. I recently learned that fracking leases have been signed within sight of us to the west, north, and south. I’m concerned about our land where our cows graze and our chickens scratch. I’m concerned about my family’s health. And I’m wondering if you’re concerned too.

fracking waste grows food,

This is what fracking looks like. (Image:fafaohio.org)

First published on Wired.com

25 Ways To Spread Some Kindness

Image: SweetOnVeg’s flickr photostream

1. Take your compliments about an employee to management. Chances are you’ll never see the impact. Chances are, it’ll be greater than you imagine.

2. Give up a great parking space for the car behind you. Parking farther away simply gives you more exercise.

3. Call an elderly relative or neighbor once a week to chat. You may think you’re enriching that person’s life. They’re enriching yours too.

4. Hold the door open for the person behind you.

5. Write a thank you note. To see the powerful impact this practice can have, check out A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.

6. Write an anti-thank you. Sure, it seems counter-intuitive but it’s a way of using a  negative experience to help others.

7. Leave money in vending machines, especially in hospitals and detention centers.

8. Leave a positive review for a local business on Merchant Circle, ThinkLocal, or Yelp.

9. Listen. You know how it feels when someone really listens to you. They look into your eyes, they react to your words, and you feel understood. Check your listening skills against the Scale of Attuned Responses.

10. Research shows that newborns bond with parents using scent. Help out by knitting or crocheting a crib blanket via Blankets For Deployed Daddies. The new dad transfers his scent by sleeping with it in his pillowcase for several nights, then sends it home in a sealed bag.

11. Give genuine compliments. You might want to challenge yourself to give compliments to five or ten people a day. It keeps you on the lookout for truth and beauty. Tell a clerk she has a lovely voice, a child that his smile made your day, a loved one that their eyes are beautiful.

12. That kid who keeps hanging around, looking as you grill dinner or wanting to talk while you wash the car? He may be longing for encouragement. Even a few kind words may be the kind of mentoring he needs.

13. Help budding entrepreners through Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Make your money go farther by lending to a Kiva project.

14. Greet new people on your street with a small gift such as a houseplant or plate of cookies. The neighbors you’ve never met? Try online resources to connect such as i-neighbors or front porch forum.

15. Give gifts that do some good.

16. See an act of aggression? Get involved even if it seems like none of your business. That’s a kindness too.

17. Set books free. Donate them to a good cause (a nearby school, your library’s book sale?) or leave them ala Book Crossing to find new readers.

18. Donate pet food to the nearest animal shelter. While you’re there, offer to walk a few dogs.

19. Patronize kids’ car washes and lemonade stands.

20. Be aware of newcomers to your workplace, school, church or other organization. Make a point of greeting them and introducing them to others.

21. Keep duplicates of your child’s toys and books in the diaper bag. When you encounter fussy children, offer an extra to their parents.

22. Smile. Find out 10 ways this face stretcher benefits you as well as those on the receiving end.

23. Donate blood. One pint of blood can save up to three lives.  

24. Designate a tiny container as your family’s Pass It Forward box. Tuck it somewhere one member of the family will find it (under the bed pillow works) with a little surprise inside (a loving note, a handmade coupon for an unexpected perk, some chocolates, a drawing, a map of a place you’re going that day, a compliment). That person is expected to put something else in the box and leave it for another family member, so kindness can circle around and around.

25. Set a good example, be kind to yourself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTXMTptqGwI

=

Use Your Body Up

While waiting with other members of our food co-op, someone who should think of other ways to start a conversation asked me a cuttingly critical question. I couldn’t even come up with an answer. That’s not like me. The best response I could muster was a fake laugh, as if to acknowledge that she must have been joking. (She wasn’t.) Her question seemed to be more curious than mean spirited but it forced me to think about how other people see me.

I thought I’d let Beauty go, along with her twin sister, Shame, long ago. Apparently not.

Some people look amazing all the time and at any age.  They know what clothes are in, what accessories to use, how to walk in fussy shoes gracefully. I’m impressed by them even if they seem like a species only faintly related to my comfortably slouchy self.

My presence makes people who are fashion backward and technologically inept feel much better about themselves. Clearly there are perks for hanging out with me. But apparently I give so little thought to my appearance that others might come away with the wrong impression. As my questioner put it, “You really leave the house looking like that? It must be easy when you don’t care.”

I do care.

I care about practically everything.

It’s exhausting.

I churn through my days trying, and sometimes succeeding, in doing what good I can do even if on the smallest scale. I talk to people and animals kindly, try to listen more than react,  and when I’m upset ask myself what darkness in myself lets me see shadows elsewhere. I write about natural learning and sustainability and peace. I support good causes and when times are hard, as they tend to be, I attach myself to hope like a barnacle.  This leaves very little energy for personal beautification. Heck, I rarely muster up the ooompf to keep weeds from towering over my vegetable plants so there’s no way I’ll get around to using a blow dryer or nail polish. I’ve never had the money let alone the inclination to have a manicure or pedicure, go to a spa, or have my hair styled. Well, I’ve never actually had a hair style….

When I came home I emailed a few close friends. I explained I’d been at the co-op, where we unload a truck and do other labors befitting less-than-great clothes, so I wore jeans and an old embroidered cotton shirt, my hair tied up and scuffed clogs on my feet. Because I’m no saint, I described the unflattering horizontal stripes of the shirt my questioner wore and how it was a so tight that her form-fitting pants pushed bulges of flesh through at least three of those stripes. (I try to be non-judgmental. That day I failed.) Then I asked the most important question. I’ve never steered that question to appearances before. My friends were all ridiculously nice when really, I was hoping to know if it’s time to start dying my hair or stop wearing my daughter’s hand-me-ups.

I know we broadcast something about our self-esteem via our appearance. Still, I’m not any more motivated than I was before that day at the co-op. I tweezed an eyebrow once, back when I was a teen. It hurt at the tears-in-my-eyes level. Won’t do that again. There’s no way I’ll bother wearing earrings or remembering hand lotion.

But I’ve realized an appearance-based truth from all of this. My body, like everyone else’s body, gets used up by life. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Years of changing diapers, gardening, canning, washing dishes, kneading dough, and taking walks no matter the weather have left me with creaking knees and hands that belong on someone much older. These are all ways of using my body for a purpose. When I stroll off the planet I want to know that I’ve enjoyed all the health, vigor, pleasure, and meaningful work my body can generate.

During yesterday’s walk the wind was intense and it started to rain. My face and hands were pelted with icy drops from a beautiful still-bright sky. I should have left the house with a scarf and gloves but I didn’t turn around. I walked right into the wind, letting it toss my hair as freely as it blew the last leaves off the trees. I felt completely alive.

enjoy your body not your looks, beyond beauty, beyond body perfection, die used up,

Aja-ann Trier /www.etsy.com/shop/SagittariusGallery

The Bomb & Me

alive because of the bomb, believe in fate, anti-war, nonviolence, anti-nuclear activist,

Why do we take any one path in our lives? Perhaps a mix of choices and abilities are simply stirred in the cauldron we call childhood. Or maybe there are elements we can’t fathom.

Here’s one reason for my wonderment.

I was one of those kids who worried about every chained dog and crying baby. I wanted to understand why the world contained cruelty and more, how I could fix it.  When I was ten years old I learned about the splitting of the atom. It struck me with cold horror, although I couldn’t articulate why. Before that I assumed most adults were looking out for the welfare of kids and trees and animals under their care. But once that information sank in I was afraid that grown ups were terribly misguided. When I asked questions I found out my country had dropped two atom bombs on Japan and that it now used nuclear power. Adult logic suddenly seemed like a fairy tale. It wasn’t until years later that I heard what J. Robert Oppenheimer, called the “father of the atomic bomb,” thought when the first one was detonated. A verse from the Bhagavad Gita came to his mind: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Cold horror indeed. Even on sunny days I thought about death.

As the child of conservative parents, I don’t recall any family discussions about nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, pro or con. The few times I asked I was told the bombs had to be dropped to end the war and nuclear power was a safe, clean form of energy. I kept to myself the chilling fear I felt whenever I thought about the splitting of atoms. That is, until my father’s old college roommate was in town. Before his visit I was told he was a smart man who had done well for himself. (In other words, little girls must be extra polite.) And I knew my father hadn’t seen this friend since before I was born. All good reasons to mind my manners and listen quietly to the adults talk. Which I did, until I heard him mention he was an engineer for a nuclear power plant. I gasped (not a polite response) and asked him about the dangers of radioactive waste.

He gestured to the light switch on the wall dismissively, asking, “Do you expect the lights to go on or do you know how to generate your own electricity?” As a child still afraid of the dark, I didn’t have much to say. But his response didn’t ease my concerns. That experience taught me to get the facts before I introduced a subject and also to do something about my concerns. Thank you sir.

I’m sure my ten-year-old self would be disappointed with me. I haven’t devoted myself to freeing the world of nuclear waste and nuclear weapons, nor to advancing peace. But it’s an issue that has resounded in my life. I worked with anti-nuclear weapons activist groups for years and taught nonviolence workshops even longer. I campaigned and testified against the opening of two nuclear plants in Ohio (unsuccessfully) and against a five state radioactive waste dump (successfully). When my children were small we attended Hiroshima Day observances each year, floating traditional lantern boats with messages of peace to commemorate the lives lost.  We also hosted a child from the Chernobyl region for five summers, a child we grew to love and whose health is still threatened by elevated background radiation in her homeland.

Then I learned what splitting the atom meant to me, personally.

My father never had much to say about serving in the U.S. Navy in the closing months of World War II except that he had been a radar man. But in the last years of his life we heard more. He told us about one day in particular. He and the entire crew of their ship were called on deck. They thought it was to formally welcome a new commander. Instead they were given a classified briefing.

They were told all leaves were cancelled and all communication with home would be heavily censored. Their ship was being retrofitted to leave for an upcoming top-secret coordinated air and sea attack on Japan. Their ship would be third in line of the first fleet. It was considered a “sacrifice” ship. My father, a quiet religious teen who got drafted right out of high school, faced certain death along with the rest of his shipmates.

A very short time later, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. My father lived to attend college, become a teacher, get married, and have a family because of the unspeakable violence wrought by those bombs. I am alive because of those bombs.

That I’ve felt driven since earliest childhood to advance a peaceful, nuclear free world now seems to have roots more mysterious than I can comprehend. I don’t know if that’s destiny at work,  but it calls me to believe that our paths are far more complex than we imagine.

fate, destiny, predestination, peacemaker, Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Five Ways Frugal Living Benefits Kids

simple living best for kids, frugal best for family, saving money develops character,

Photo by Peter Klashorst

Sophie is a single mother raising a five-year-old boy. She’s working to establish her own house cleaning business after losing her job nearly two years ago. Sophie and her son live in a small trailer home.

Marissa and Jack run a thriving dental practice while raising five-year-old twin daughters. They live in a suburban home on several acres.

The five-year-olds from these families are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. But their parents are raising them in remarkably similar ways. Frugally.

Although Sophie would prefer a more reliable income, she wouldn’t spend a cent more than she already does on herself or her son. She adheres closely to simple living tenets. Sophie grows as much food as possible in a community garden plot and makes meals from scratch. She and her son fully enjoy the free benefits of the local library and park system. On weekends, Sophie’s folk band crowds into her trailer for practice sessions. Her son is already learning how to play the harmonica and fiddle. Sophie believes he should rely on his imagination for fun rather than on toys. When she does buy him gifts, they tend to be modest items such as crayons or socks, or ones that have long- term use such as simple tools or sheet music.

Marissa and Jack choose to live simply in their own way. They buy clothing and their children’s playthings from thrift stores, exchange only homemade gifts, and emphasize having fun outdoors. They carefully consider expenditures based on their ethics. Health is a priority, so they buy only organic foods and when they deem it necessary they pay for alternative medical treatments. Supporting the arts is another priority so they invest in original works to hang on their walls and regularly attend plays, concerts, and gallery events. They strongly believe in the importance of international travel. When they go to far-off places, they get around by bike or local mass transit, a method they find brings them closer to the cultures they’re visiting.

Many of us are living more frugally. It certainly eases financial strain. It also makes a difference in wider ways, from reducing our ecological footprint to promoting social justice.

Today’s relentlessly materialistic culture tells young people in every way possible that their identity is built on wearing, playing with, and using the very latest consumer products. That’s a heavy tide to fight against on the home front. But that tide is worth turning.

Living simply puts the emphasis on exactly the conditions that are best for our kids, now and as they grow into adulthood.

simple living best for kids, cheap and happy families, non-commercial living

Image courtesy of woodley wonderworks.

Shelter From Commercialism

Humanity has always raised her children with the stories, foods, rituals, and values of particular meaning to the people close to them. While there are undeniable benefits to today’s connections and conveniences, a major drawback is the way advertisers have insinuated themselves into the lives of even the youngest children. Nowadays, a child’s stories, foods, rituals, and values are more likely than ever provided by the marketplace. And we know what’s preached there – that meaning comes from what can be bought.

Every year, a 15 to 17 billion dollar marketing industry is aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s effective. It’s estimated that 565 billion dollars in purchases are influenced by four- to twelve-year-olds.

Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, notes in Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, that psychological and neurological research is used to exploit the vulnerabilities of children. She writes, “The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists – in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before.”

These strategies are not only employed in advertising itself but are embedded in Internet sites, video games, television, and movies. They’re designed into packaging, implicit in many playthings, and nearly ubiquitous in schools.

Young people have minimal defenses against such tactics. Children under the age of eight aren’t even able to understand the persuasive intent of advertising. And studies show that a network in the brain necessary for many introspective abilities – forming a self-image, understanding the ongoing story of one’s own life, and gaining insight into other people’s behavior – is profoundly weaker in young people. Those brain networks aren’t fully established until adulthood. Just at the stage when selfhood is forming, our children are most vulnerable to the messages of a consumer culture.

Those of us who live simply shelter our kids in different ways and to differing degrees. No matter what approach we take, it’s neither possible nor desirable to shelter teens the same way we shelter toddlers. That’s why it’s vital to raise our kids to be critical thinkers with a strong sense of self. Then they’re empowered to make their own fully informed choices.

Delayed Gratification

This is a biggie in the “you’ll thank me later” department because kids who are able to delay gratification are much more likely to do well as they grow up.

We model delayed gratification each time we choose to save, make do, or make it ourselves. We demonstrate it when the whole family adds coins to a jar until there’s enough to finance an anticipated event. We teach it when we help children find ways to earn and save for their own aims. And we show that it’s expected whether our kids have to wait to see a movie until it’s available at the library or wait until the next birthday for a new pair of jeans.

This may seem negative, particularly when popular culture constantly screams “have it now” and “get what you want.” But there are enormous positives. Our children become familiar with the pleasures of anticipation, which multiplies the eventual delight when a goal is reached. They also begin to internalize the ability to delay gratification. That is pivotal for success. In multiple studies (cited in Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence) children who were able to defer gratification grew into teens and young adults who were more socially competent, better able to deal with frustration, more dependable, reached higher educational attainments, and were effectively able to make and reach long-term goals.

Delayed gratification is related to impulse control. Research shows that a child’s ability to control his or her impulses at an early age is predictive of success even decades later as a healthy, financially stable, and positive member of the community.

There are many ways to help kids gain the positive coping skills that help them control their impulses and delay gratification. It may be about waiting, but the outcome is extraordinary.

family values and simple living,

Image courtesy of Lorena

Happiness

Despite advertisers’ images of happy children playing with new toys and giddy teens dancing in designer hoodies, the facts are glaringly obvious. Things don’t make us happier. Children seem to understand the “time is money” conundrum. When their parents spend more time away from home earning an income, they have less time to spend with the family. In a nationwide poll of American kids ages nine to fourteen, ninety percent said they’d prefer increased time with friends and family over material possessions. And when asked if they could have one wish to change their parents’ jobs, sixty-three percent said they would like their mom or dad to have a job that gave them more time to do things together. Only thirteen percent wished their parents made more money.

The more materialistic young people are, the unhappier they tend to be. According to research cited in The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser, people who hold materialistic values are more likely to suffer from a whole dumpster load of problems. This includes aggressive behavior, insecurity, depression, low self-esteem, narcissism, even physical maladies. And when people place high value on material aims, they’re prone to have trouble with interpersonal relationships and intimacy. Materialism is also related to less independent thinking and lower value placed on being “true to oneself.” Of course, we want to spare our kids this festering personal mess.

How? We recognize that a sense of well-being depends on intangible qualities like warm interpersonal relationships, reasonable autonomy in one’s choices, exactly those things that money can’t buy. But what’s interesting is that materialism and unhappiness seem to “cause” each other. We all know people who exemplify this. Unhappy people tend to seek status and satisfaction in more transitory ways such as acquisition and appearance. When they do, they feel a temporary boost in happiness, which reinforces even greater materialism.

Studies show that happiness has much more to do with experiences than with possessions. A family camping trip will provide more lasting pleasure than a large purchase. That may be due to the way we access memories. Long after the experience is over, we have fuller sensory-based recall that’s invariably richer than any a purchase can provide.

It’s important to model a cheerful approach to simple living for our kids, but that’s not enough. To ward off materialistic attitudes, our children need the personal strength found in self-worth. That self- worth tends to come from supportive relationships and a sense of accomplishment. In a marvelous example of synchronicity, these are precisely what simple living reinforces in our daily lives. We consciously choose to do for our- selves, to spend more family time together, and to focus on active rather than passive entertainment.

frugal families, simple living benefits children,

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Creativity and Enthusiasm

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy by enrolling them in supervised activities. And they provide kids with plenty of distractions like toys, video games, and television. Unintentionally, these efforts teach children that fallow time is undesirable. But brain studies show that daydreaming, contemplation, even that uncomfortable condition we identify as “boredom” is vitally important. These natural periods of down time are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

If we expect children to resolve their own boredom without resorting to electronic or other distractions, we help them access a wellspring of ideas that seem to come from nowhere, a wellspring they discover within. Frugal living is one way to preserve a slow pace and minimal distraction load, letting our children become familiar with generating their own ideas.

When we live frugally, we also tend to avoid popular methods of “enriching” our children’s lives such as academic preschool, specialty classes, coached sports, and other paid programs. That saves on fees. It also fosters the kind of expansive learning that’s natural for our species. Research continues to show that when adults are highly directive and exert influence even in the form of rewards or evaluation, their efforts actually diminish a child’s motivation, enthusiasm, creativity, and ability to innovate. Well-intended efforts to hone a child’s abilities through early instruction tend to be counterproductive.

That’s also true of play. Our kids don’t need expensive toys or games. Children’s creativity and resourcefulness flourish when they play without the structure imposed by most playthings. Imagination flows freely when they use what they find in the backyard to play act, build hideouts, or create their own games. In contrast, a toy linked to a movie release or a game with structured rules has predetermined uses and children are much less likely to innovate.

Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughn write in Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that, “play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.” It enhances development in areas such as emotional health, social skills, motivation, confidence, a sense of justice, and much more. Young people who maintain a playful nature into adulthood are, according to Brown and Vaughn, remarkably well suited for success. A playful adult is more flexible, humorous, optimistic, and efficient. They note that throughout life, “the ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”

When our frugal homes provide plenty of raw materials necessary for play without up-to-the-minute popular toys, we’re putting into place the best conditions for sustaining creativity and playfulness.

value of chores for kids, kids delayed gratification, kids impulse control, non-commercial kids

Image courtesy of Catherine Scott

Self-Reliance And Responsibility

There’s a resoundingly positive impact on our children when we include them in the real work of maintaining our family home, yard, vehicles, and more. Children growing up in frugal households often have regular chores. While some complaining is natural, chores help children understand how things work. They see the benefits of saving as they do calculations for the family budget. They recognize what happens if they forget to take the dog out or don’t bring the laundry in from the line before it rains. They take extra pleasure in the warm fire from firewood they helped to stack. Chores also enable children to master useful skills that will help them become more self-reliant adults.

Taking on early responsibility brings long-term consequences. A study, starting in the 1930s, followed men from young adulthood to death. These men had very different lives; some were affluent Harvard graduates and others were impoverished inner city residents. The men who helped out with regular tasks starting at a young age were most likely to enjoy stability and good mental health.

And there’s more evidence. A long-term study followed children from early childhood to their mid-twenties. What led to success? Balancing all other variables, it was found that the best predictor of a young adult’s success was participation in household tasks at a young age. And we’re talking resounding success – including educational attainment, high intellectual capabilities, a career, and good relationships with family and friends.

The optimum age to get started is three or four years old. According to researchers, starting in the preteen or teen years doesn’t have a strong association with success, although children who take an active role early continue to help out as teens. It’s important to gear the task to the child. Parents should take care to present tasks that aren’t too difficult and that fit the child’s learning style, and not to “pay” for tasks directly or through an allowance tied to the work. Researchers also suggest that children be involved in choosing tasks, perhaps through family meetings or rotating chore charts.

They key to success may also lie in the sensory riches gained by hands-on tasks. Those of us who live simply tend to do more for ourselves. We may grind our own grain and make our own bread, we may raise chickens and barter the extra eggs for a local beekeeper’s honey, we may fix rather than replace what’s broken. And when our kids take part they also gain learning experiences that apply to many other areas of life.

Neurologist Frank Wilson explains in The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture that brain development and hand use is inextricably connected. And Wilson found a transfer effect. As he studied people who were masters in all sorts of fields (surgeon, puppeteer, and guitarist to name a few), he found each of them had engaged in regular hands-on efforts during their formative years. Whether they grew up doing farm work, playing a musical instrument, or helping grandpa build birdhouses,Wilson says the hand-brain link activated “hidden physical roots . . . of passionate and creative work.”

Starting our kids on tasks at an early age blesses them with self-reliance and a greater likelihood of success. It also demonstrates to them day after day that their efforts are needed. A child can see the outcome of his or her efforts in a meal the whole family worked to get on the table. It feels good. It feels even better is when a parent says, “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.” There’s not a commercial product out there that can create the same genuine satisfaction.

Sophie’s little boy and Marissa and Jack’s twin daughters know that satisfaction. Their young lives have ample time for play, working alongside adults, and warm family conversation. The children soak up their parents’ values while learning and growing largely free of commercial influences, at least for now. Their parents have never met each other but they have the same focus. They see simple living as an integral way to bring forth a more conscious and life sustaining future for their children.

Natural Life Magazine  July/Aug 2011

Learn More

All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty by Audrey D. Brashich (Walker Books, 2006)

Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet B. Schor (Scribner, 2005)

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel by Jean Kilbourne (Free Press, 2000)

Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn (New Press, 2004)

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (Bantam, 2006)

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, Christopher Vaughan (Avery Trade, 2010)

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser (The MIT Press, 2003)

The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-meant Parenting Backfires by Wendy S. Grolnick (Psychology Press, 2002)

What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy: Tips for Parenting in a Commercial World by Betsy Taylor (Grand Central Publishing, 2004)

Commercial Free Childhood

Alliance For Childhood

New American Dream

The Trouble With Principles

what should a poet do, living up to one's ethics, sticking to principles,

Image courtesy of amythepirate.deviantart.com

I’m struggling with a decision that should be easily made. It isn’t a heady question of global importance. Nope. It’s much more mundane.

It’s a question of principle.

sigh

I’ve spent some time (and even more time ) writing about how the Teach & Test approach to education screws up our species’ wonderful inborn drive to seek out learning and retain that learning.

I’ve also spent a bit of time writing poetry. I authored a collaborative chapbook (long since out of print) back when I wrote poetry in partnership with nursing home residents. My poems are published here and there for the six people who read tiny literary journals and the three people who buy small press poetry anthologies. And a collection of my poetry, Tending,  has been published.

The engine fueling a non-fiction writer’s work is entirely different than the inspiration that sparks a poet’s poems into being. The non-fiction writer wants to get ideas across. The poet wants her words felt.

These two motivations probably shouldn’t tussle.

Today they are. That’s because this poet was asked something that made this non-fiction writer snort. A poem of mine, published last year in the Christian Science Monitor, has been selected for use in tens of thousands of high school assessment tests.

Yes, those same tests I rail against.

I don’t for a moment assume that my poem was selected on its merits. The piece happens to be riddled with imagery and metaphor, well suited to torture teenagers with questions designed to make them further detest poetry.

But I didn’t turn down the request right away. I’m not sure why (except that I’m a weak weak person to whom they’re offering $350 for the rights). The very concept violates my principles.

I also have the desire to let that poem stay alive. Poems live only while they’re read or when their lines are remembered. Most poems have a lifespan comparable to that of a mayfly. And yes, I have a ridiculous hope that one teen in the midst of a test might feel the poem.

I’ll probably send the official multipage form back with permission denied written where my signature should be. But I haven’t done it yet.

What would you do?

(And if you’re curious, here’s the poem.)

*

                        Why the Window Washer Reads Poetry   

for Michael, who carried poems in his work shirt pocket

 

He lowers himself

on a seat they call a cradle, rocking

in harnesses strung long-armed

from the roof.

*

Swiping windows clean

he spends his day

outside looking in.

*

Mirrors refract light into his eyes

telescopes point down

photographs face away,

layers of dust

unifying everything.

*

Tethered and counterbalanced

these sky janitors hang,

names stitched on blue shirts

for birds to read.

Squeegees in hand they

arc lightly back and forth across

the building’s eyes

descend a floor, dance again.

*

While the crew catches up

he pauses, takes a slim volume from his pocket

and balancing there,

36 stories above the street,

reads a poem or two

in which the reader is invariably placed

inside

looking out.

*

Laura Grace Weldon



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

Letting Beauty Go

Beauty rarely shows herself nowadays.

It’s been years since I thought I owned her, but I remember our time together well. At first she was small, shy, and had more in common with cuteness than Beauty. Yes, I coddled her. I lavished hours on Beauty and the attention showed.

“Best not get attached to Beauty,” I was warned by people older and wiser. They told me the day would come when ordinary measures wouldn’t be enough to control her. They also told me that there was nothing I could do to change fate. Eventually Beauty and I would be parted forever.

I tried to deny it when the first chin bristles showed up. I pretended the increasing girth didn’t put me farther from Beauty. I ignored other tendencies like messy habits and gleeful snorting.

Time passed. Beauty was well on the other side of cute and would soon be taken from me for good. So I did what no one I know has ever done. I opened the gate to her pasture and made a path to the woods with apples, corn, and banana bread. Beauty was wary but followed her appetite. When she was well into the forest she heeded her instincts and kept walking toward freedom.

I don’t often get a glimpse of her these days. When Beauty shows herself I see that she is huge, bristled, her snout trembling as she smells the air. She seems gloriously happy. Let Beauty go. You’ll both be free.

*

*


Recommended post When Girls Think Their Looks Mean Everything

Woman and Pig by Wade Schuman

Free Pig

On Living Happily with Less

living on less, the shift, RFK, gross national product,

My husband is the bee inspector for two counties. He meets interesting people every time he goes out to another apiary. If he lingers after the heavy work of opening hives, the conversation invariably heads in the direction of self-reliance. People tend to talk about making home and equipment repairs, canning and freezing a garden’s bounty, earth-respecting ways of farming, living on less. It seems everywhere around us people are doing what they can to save. They’re also working harder to connect with others who have experience and talents to offer.

After two years of searching for full-time work my husband is well acquainted with these topics, but also because we’ve spent decades trying (sometimes with slapstick results) to live well on less. We make do, repurpose, and enjoy frugality without making a fuss about it. It’s a work in progress, as we’re still trying to gain reasonable proficiency in skills our great grandparents took for granted.

The times we live in are tossing millions of people in this direction whether they go willingly or scream all the way. It isn’t easy. It probably isn’t fair either. Our current economic downturn came after a long slide of wealth slipping from middle class hands into the tight grip of the wealthy. Nearly 8 million jobs are gone, many possibly for good. Yet the richest among us have actually increased their holdings.

Some of us have lost the illusion of security. Some of us have lost much more—jobs, health care, pension funds, and homes. All of us have been forced to grow a little. That’s part of a larger shift. Insecurity pushes us to pay closer attention to our core values. We’re recognizing that purchases don’t really buy happiness and as a result, saving more than we have in decades. We’re doing more for ourselves and still reaching out to help others.  We’re as ingenious, adaptable and happy as we choose to be.

The shift is even more noticeable when we see certain long-established structures around us breaking apart, with more cracks appearing every day. Just look at what’s happening to prescribe-and-placate medical models, inflexible financial institutions, condemning religious frameworks, and rigid corporations.

But these current conditions of breakup, economic chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which are (slowly) leading to beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the weakness of limited thinking and short-term fixes. 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, a vital ecosystem as well as economic security. Even the word “wealth” is derived from the Old English term “weal” which means “well-being.”

Less than two months before he was assassinated, RFK said in a speech,

“…America is deep in a malaise of spirit:  discouraging initiative, paralyzing will and action, and dividing Americans from one another, by their age, their views and by the color of their skin and I don’t think we have to accept that here in the United States of America.”

He went on to say,

“For too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things…  The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.”

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

redefine the GDP, frugal living,

Time to clarify what we mean by well-being—for ourselves, our economy and our future.

*

*

 

 

 

*

 

 

Patchwork Living Bee post*

One with the Universe courtesy of Suvetar

Together courtesy of Morfa9977