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

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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

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.

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Patchwork Living Bee post*

One with the Universe courtesy of Suvetar

Together courtesy of Morfa9977

Me, a Radical Homemaker?

radical homemaker, frugal, simplicity, homeschool, farm, peace,

Okay, radical sounds hip. I can live with that. But homemaker?  The last few decades that word has been a synonym for drudgery. Besides, ask my kids who really does the dusting and vacuuming around here. They do.

What’s radical homemaking? Shannon Hayes wrote a wonderful book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer CultureYes, I thought when I heard the term. Naming something gives it momentum. And the lifestyles of people defining for themselves what The Good Life is all about haven’t gone unnoticed so much as undefined. It doesn’t seem radical in the slightest to many of us who try to live simply, it just makes sense.

Thankfully Shannon pulls the pieces together. As she writes,

…each of us has a calling or right livelihood that enables us to serve the common good, and in finding this calling, we will be most happy. Few, if any spiritual teachings call us to seek the accumulation of money, stuff, power, or other purely selfish interests.  Further, in a life-serving economy, we individually accept responsibility for creating our own joys and pleasures.  We do not rely upon corporate America to sell us these things.  We take personal and collective responsibility for supplying many of our needs.  In taking these steps, we discover that true economic assets, unlike money, are intangible.

There’s nothing new about this. Most of our foremothers and fathers upheld frugality and scorned excess. Throughout history people have been growing and preserving food, making gifts, providing hands-on care for the young and old, repurposing materials, and finding meaning in pleasures that aren’t necessarily linked to spending money.

This sort of lifestyle simmers along quietly and purposefully while consumer culture runs at a full boil, generating heat over every new trend and news flash.

Somehow, in a world bristling with radical homemakers, I’ve been outed as one of the representatives. “A poster child,” claimed the journalist who trekked out to our little farm with her notebook in hand last week. I’m more comfortable interviewing others rather than being interviewed, but I put my trust in her expertise. I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to talk about trying to place our interests beyond the shallow values of appearance as I sat there wearing a thrift shop shirt that had to be 20 years old. Well, until the photographer showed up. Judging by the anxiety that generated I’m still the product of an appearance-indicates-worth society. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I gave up all hope of looking 20 pounds lighter or remotely put together and kept talking.

And laughing. Her questions struck me funny. In fact, she came right out and asked, “Don’t people treat you as if you’re odd?”

Maybe they do but I always thought that’s because I’m sarcastic and tend to sing songs with made-up lyrics.

I told her about homeschooling and the intrinsic value of meaningful learning. I told her about our local food co-op, about making homemade tinctures and about using things until they wear out.

I tried to explain why I preferred to make sandwich buns over the weekend for a party here rather than buy them. “Was it part of your philosophy?” she asked. “Was it cheaper?”

I haven’t priced such buns at a store, I told her. I ground the grain, used eggs from our chickens, milk from our cow, and honey from our bees, then kneaded the dough and baked them that morning. It cost almost nothing in ingredients and very little in time. Yet it had more to do with deeper choices. But don’t write about the buns, I said, it makes me sound really annoying.

I’m sure I’m annoying (just ask my kids) but also I’m pretty relaxed. I’m comfortable with weeds in the garden (nature doesn’t like bare dirt anyway) and stacks of reading material everywhere. I make homemade pizza all the time but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally succumb to the greasy allure of what my kids call “real pizza” from a little carry out nearby. We don’t have money for things like vacations or video games, we do have time to sit around talking long after dinner is over.

When I was fresh out of college I planned to save the world. I’m beginning to see it’s possible to do so, simply by saving what’s important right in front of us.

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Postscript: Thankfully I’m a small part of the finished article and the other radical homemaker piece I’ve been interviewed for doesn’t appear until this autumn in the Ladies Home Journal.

Going to Hope in a Handbasket


“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”             Arundhati Roy

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Fear sells. Blood and guts sell even better. What really grabs our attention? Out and out panic. That largely explains today’s so-called news channels, talk radio, actually much of commercial media. The worse it sounds, the greater audience share they grab and the more money they make. Trouble is, they also make up minds and harden hearts and plant misery where optimism could so easily flourish.

But they’re wrong.

Sure, it seems we’re in big trouble. Structures we count on to be stable are crumbling—finance, health care, education, consumption driven economies, us versus them mentalities, you name it.

Remember the parable of the mighty oak and thin reeds? The oak boasted of his immense girth and height, mocking the reeds all around him for their weaknesses. But the reeds could withstand wind, lightening and the weight of snow. The oak succumbed while the reeds survived, stronger than the oak in their ability to bend and stand again. Big institutions are fighting transparency, reform or annihilation with everything they’ve got, believing that strength means rigidity. Meanwhile a shift is happening on the grassroots level, as flexible and self-correcting as reeds in the wind.

Times of change are destabilizing and difficult, but ultimately valuable. After all, what’s broken, corrupt or simply no longer workable must be fully revealed before it’s healed or transformed into something much better.

Look more closely. Things are getting better all the time. In fact amazing evidence shows that we’ve long been on the path to health and harmony. Here are a few examples.

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We’re Smarter.

Intelligence continues to increase from generation to generation. 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: 27 points in the UK between 1942 to 1992. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Many 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 a ever more challenging world.

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We’re Healthier.

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 in the University of Chicago Magazine 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.

Fogel’s most dramatic proof of technophysio evolution was found by comparing Civil War veterans to subsequent generations. Researchers examined health and longevity data of 45,000 Union Army veterans, including over 6,000 black soldiers. Military records revealed that young American men of that era commonly suffered debilitating health conditions. Approximately 65 percent of men from 18 to 25 years of age volunteered for the Union Army. But arthritis, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease and blindness disqualified a quarter of them. And the military of that era wasn’t choosy. Incontinence and blindness in one eye didn’t disqualify a recruit. Even the youngest men lived with chronic disabilities. Fully one-sixth of volunteers between 16 to 19 years of age were rejected for serious health conditions.

By the time Civil War vets passed the age of 65, 68 percent of them suffered from arthritis, 76 percent from heart disease and over 50 percent from back problems. World War II veterans at the same age, in contrast, counted among their ranks 48 percent as arthritis sufferers, 39 percent with heart disease and 30 percent with back problems.

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 squalid diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, it seems we must expand our awareness to make positive changes here and now. That way our choices continue to benefit our descendants.

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We’re More Peaceful.

We function best through cooperation and harmony. Even our body systems are in greatest sync when we are peaceful, according to studies at the Heart Math Institute. It may be taking us quite a while, as a species, to get accustomed to living in larger settled groups but it seems we’ve come a long way in the last few centuries.

And peace is how our species has come this far, despite what history tells us. According to anthropologist Douglas Fry, evidence shows that for 98 percent of human existence on earth we lived in small nomadic bands that thrived precisely because warfare was avoided. He presents compelling proof in his book, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace
along with the message that human beings have highly developed capacities to seek and maintain peace.

Psychologist Steven Pinker points out in an essay titled “A History of Violence” that public cat burnings were a popular form of entertainment in the sixteenth century.  Although we pay more attention to atrocities now than ever before, the horrors of slavery, genocide, barbaric punishment and vigilante justice were accepted as commonplace a little more than a century ago.

Empathy for people of another race or class? Not a typical attribute even a few generations ago. Pinker notes, “Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler.”

As Pinker cites specific data, the good news gets better. For example, the homicide rate has declined from a rampant 24 murders per 100,000 Englishmen in the 14th century to 0.6 per 100,000 in the 1960’s (5.4 per 100,000 in the U.S. in 2008).

No matter what the angle, the view is good when we look at more recent U.S. history through this lens as well. Despite what ranting pundits and blaring news promos may indicate, crime rates have been steadily dropping per capita since the 1970’s.  Some analysts say by as much as 50 percent in 15 years.  Despite staggering economic losses, crime has continued to decline recently.

The ecumenical organization Project Ploughshares reports,  “Peacebuilding efforts do work. Although one conflict is too many for those being killed and wounded, there has been a significant decrease in the number and intensity of armed conflicts over the past 10 years.”

We’ve come a long way without direct efforts to educate each person in the ways of negotiation, mediation, intervention, reconciliation, heck, even listening skills. Imagine turning our attention toward cooperation and mutual respect. Surely acknowledging the human tendency toward peace welcomes greater possibilities for harmony in the years to come.

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We Care.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World
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.

Artist Chris Jordan has made a mandala of the names of those million-plus organizations.  His work is inspiring—-make sure you look at the images up close as well as the whole picture.

It’s time to turn our attention away from doom-shrieking media. While it’s valuable to be informed, such knowledge is useful only to the extent that it motivates us to turn more consciously in a positive direction.

A heavy heart, or worse, a hardened heart, makes it nearly impossible to raise a child or plant a garden or grow a benevolent future.

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Creative Commons image

Getting and Giving, Big Time

We haven’t gotten this far through brutal force or greed.

Nope. It has taken cooperation, curiosity and cleverness.

Ninety-nine percent of our time on earth as a species has been spent as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived without collaborating to find food, raise children and stay safe from large predators.

This is still true now no matter what 24 hour news channels tell us. Each moment of the day we’re more likely to react with compassion, calm interest or cleverness than with any form of overt negativity.

Cooperative efforts abound all around us. Perhaps we simply need to look at life-enhancing innovations we take for granted in a new way. Consider these examples.

Want to travel the world finding friendly strangers offering you a place to sleep for free? You can through CouchSurfing. Their motto encourages everyone to “Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.”  Started in 2004, this non-profit network has connected travelers with locals in 232 countries. This has resulted in nearly 3 million positive experiences, almost 2 million reported as friendships. People who never would have met are connecting, sharing experiences and developing greater cultural understanding.

How about Freecycle? Nearly 7 million members across the world make up this grassroots, non-profit movement of people who give and get goods for free in their own communities. The Freecycle Network, which started humbly in 2003, says, “Our mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.”

Or consider books set free to find new readers. Since 2001, BookCrossing members in more than 130 countries have shared millions of books with strangers. They’ve also enjoyed the treasure-hunt pleasure of finding books they want to read. It’s all part of an innovative network linking books and readers.  More local book-sharing concepts are springing up everywhere. Recently a small town in the UK transformed an unused phone booth into a book exchange. They outfitted the booth with shelves and waited to see if anyone would participate. Residents continue to share books and movies anonymously at the booth, which is always open.

Maybe you need a bigger example. There’s always the Internet. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain notes in a TED talk that the net itself is built by millions of “disinterested acts of kindness” and based on trust, curiosity and reciprocity.

Giving and collaborating seem to be an intrinsic part of human nature. That may be why people freely share their expertise by editing Wikipedia entries, providing support online or otherwise helping people they’ll never meet via the net. That may be why giving inspires people to greater heights of generosity or creative expression, even when the act remains anonymous. The blogosphere abounds with art, craft and music exchanges.  Increasingly this is taking place IRL more often too.  In October an art collective calling themselves the Future Machine transformed an unused newspaper box into a “Stranger Exchange.”  Located in Boston, the box features simple instructions on the side.

1. Leave an item; 2. Take an Item and 3. Don’t be a Stranger.

Their website offers a simple way to link people who give and take items in the box.  Items in the box have included a map of Luxembourg, AA batteries and an invitation to a long ago New Year’s Eve party. They’ve also included projects created specifically for Stranger Exchange such as artwork and a mix tape made in response to another mix tape found in the box.

A post about this phenomenon by Rachael Botsman noted, “Interestingly, the early ‘members’ of the Stranger Exchange seem be participating for similar intrinsic motivations that are fueling the open peer-to-peer movements such as Flickr, Wikipedia, BitTorrent, BePress and so on. For these systems to keep flourishing, people need to “give before they get,” a dynamic that is built on a new kind of trust, trust in people you don’t know or are not even friends with.

This in turn reinforces certain behaviors—collaboration, kindness, openness and honor—that are critical for sharing to happen between strangers. What’s interesting is that once people participate in these exchanges, they experience the proverbial “warm inner glow” and they crave that experience again. In other words, the altruistic action and indirect reciprocity becomes self-reinforcing.”

Botsman is co-author of a book coming out next fall titled What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. I’m looking forward to what the book will tell us about the rise in sharing, trading, gifting and swapping in communities around the world. I suspect it will have to do with the cooperation, curiosity and cleverness—-the foundations of our early survival and the building blocks of our shared future.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Erica Reid’s Flickr photostream