Thursday, December 31, 2009

I'm joining the Compact for 2010

In anticipation of joining the Compact for 2010, I headed over to American Eagle today to buy my son a new pair of jeans. I have my fingers crossed that my thirteen year old son won't grow this year and that the three pair of jeans he now owns will tide him over until year end. Somehow, I know this won't be the case and I will be forced to find pants for him at a resale shop. Looking for used kid sized pants that don't have holes in the knees or stains is pretty impossible, so I am worried. Even as I write this, I am thinking about how Ryan probably will need new shorts this summer too and maybe I should order some for him online tonight before I officially join the Compact at midnight.

The Compact is a group of people that decide to avoid purchases of new products for a full year with the exception of personal care items and food. Recycled and used items are allowed in place of new purchases. I have considered joining the Compact in prior years but felt I did a pretty good of managing purchases on my own. Lately, living in a more style conscious area, I have found myself more influenced by consumer goods and really would like to stem the flow of stuff from entering my house. Since moving here six months ago, I have purchased (or received as gifts for Christmas) three new pairs of pants, four t-shirts, three long sleeve shirts, three fleece shirts, two pairs of shoes, 3 scarfs, a hat, and two down sweaters. Unfortunately, in the month prior to moving here, I picked up about eight other articles of clothing. Yikes, all total, probably enough stuff to keep me clothed for many, many years.

In the days leading up to the start of the Compact I have felt the challenge of not buying anything new for a year sounded easy, but as I sit here writing about my purchases in 2009, I am worried. Obviously, I am much more caught up in stuff than I have been willing to let myself believe. In my defense, I think of the ironed patches covering the holes on my bedsheets, my ten year old car in the drive, my antique bedspreads, shoes in my closet I have had forever, and many, many other old goods I own and use. I am reminded that not all the stuff I have in my life has to be new. Maybe it is just the clothing...and the shoes...and the coats. Yes, that really is where my problem lies, but it probably is in other areas that I am not even aware of as well. Starting the Compact and thinking about not buying anything for a year will shine a light on where I need to make changes. As I think about it now, after writing this post, I am afraid. The challenge doesn't sound easy anymore and I hope I am able to live up to the challenge. I want to be successful because I understand from others that have participated in the Compact before me that much insight can be gained about what really is important in life. A big lesson for the cost of a few less pairs of pants.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Labyrinth Journey for the New Year

Surrounded by woods and down a slight hill from the road, I was immediately drawn to the labyrinth at a retreat center in North Carolina while celebrating New Year's there six years ago. Beckoned to its edge, I soon found myself journeying to the middle of the labyrinth all the while wondering what gift I would receive as I reached its center. But the center held no gift for me that day. Later on, after giving it some thought, I realized the gift was in the walking of the labyrinth, the contemplation one does while moving along its path.

Many times, I find myself approaching life the way I approached the labyrinth that day. I rush forward, wondering what I will receive after I complete a task, or once a holiday is upon me. Most of the time, I am let down when a gift doesn't materialize. Maybe my hard efforts go unrecognized or the good times I created don't last long enough. Even now with Christmas past, I find myself looking toward the next holiday or activity and wondering what I can do to make that time special. Rushing toward that place with excitement and wonder, giving little thought to the days preceding it. Life sometimes feels like little fits and starts, days to hurry through as we work toward those days to savor. Hurry and slow.

Obviously, I didn't embrace the lesson the labyrinth wanted to teach me that day in North Carolina. To go slow along life's paths and enjoy the entire journey. While I seemed to have heard the message to go slow sometimes, I hadn't learned how to live slowly each and every day. So as in most cases with life when something isn't learned, the problem usually circles around and comes back at you. The labyrinth beckoned to me again today. Not in the same way it did all those years ago, but while on the Internet this morning as I read the web page of a UU church. The word "labyrinth" jumped out from the page, seeped into my brain, and immediately felt like the solution to what had been making me feel unsettled for days.

I felt an immediate urge to go walk a labyrinth and this time to do it with more contemplation. To go slow and take it in and to be open to what it wants to show me about my life. Many websites on the Internet talk about labyrinths being metaphors for your life's journey such as the quote below found on the website Lesson's 4 Living :

"Your life is a scared journey. And it is about change, growth, discovery, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply, listening to your intuition, taking courageous challenges every step of the way. You are on the path...exactly where you are meant to be right now...And from here, you can only go forward, shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing and courage, of beauty, of wisdom, of power, of dignity, and of love.

~ Caroline Adams

There are many ways to walk a labyrinth- while walking in person, with your fingers on paper, or even virtually while on your computer. I am thinking I would like to replicate the setting I had when I walked my first labyrinth and have found one located in a wooded site not too far from my home by using the labyrinth locator on the Labyrinth Society website. Walking a labyrinth and thinking about my life's path- a good way to start the New Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Everybody's here...

Bulldogs, Labs, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Poodles, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers were just a few of the dogs that had the run of the beach on this beautiful winter day. I wondered if some kind of special event was happening at the beach when I arrived due to the packed parking lot, but soon discovered the "event" was nothing more than an opportunity to enjoy some time outdoors with your favorite furry friend. The picture above really doesn't do the scene I happened upon justice because I found it difficult to capture all one hundred or so dogs frolicking on the beach in one shot. It was one of those, you have to see it to believe it kind of things.

The best, most hopeful thing about this whole experience, was witnessing the many people out in nature on this winter day. They weren't at the mall looking for after Christmas markdowns and they weren't sitting in front of the TV letting advertisements encourage them to buy stuff. Almost a year ago, I wrote a post called "Where is everybody?" after spending the day skiing in a Chicago area nature preserve. In that post, I wondered where everybody was on that beautiful winter day. Thankfully today, I get to title this post "Everybody's here". Even if it means I can't have the beach to myself, I love to see many people choosing to spend time in nature. It gives me hope that more and more people are discovering the benefits of spending time outdoors.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Simple memories...Christmas tree ornaments

Every year, as I drag my ornaments up from the basement and open the box they have rested in untouched for almost a year, I am reunited with the memories they have held for me. The heart shaped ceramic ornament given to me by my mother-in-law the Christmas before my husband and I married.

The gingerbread man wooden cut out from '87 with my then 1 year old son's name written in marker, purchased by my grandparents who are no longer with us at a Senior Center craft bazaar.

The "Baby's First" Beatrice Potter ceramic ornament given to me by my mother the year my first son was born. A dough ornament made by me of my son's small hand print.

The ornaments made by my children when they were in preschool and kindergarten.

A glass ornament given to me recently by my 93 year old great aunt. This ornament hung on her tree for many, many years and I hope to continue the tradition by keeping it safely on my tree until I hand it down myself.

The green and white glass MSU (Michigan State University) bulb that hung on my brother's tree until he recently passed. A lifelong lover of Michigan State athletics, this bulb given to me last Christmas by my mother, reminds me of all the joy my brother felt while attending MSU sporting events.
Along with these ornaments are those of places my family and I have both visited and lived, people we have known and other important events worth remembering. The whole collection, dangling from the branches of our Christmas tree and gazed at during the evening with the lights all aglow, emanates the warmth of love.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Simple gifts...why I send holiday cards

Opening the mailbox throughout the month of December always brings great joy! Whether receiving a Christmas card from my mother whom I talk with frequently by phone, a friend whom I haven't heard from in a year, or a new acquaintance down the road, keeping in touch via holiday cards has been an important way to build and maintain friendships over the years.

I just received a card yesterday from a woman who lived below my husband and I when my oldest son was born 22 years ago. Through the exchange of yearly Christmas cards, we have maintained our connection and grown richer as I have shared my life with her and her with me. I have enjoyed hearing about her children's successes and more recently, those of her grandchildren's.

I still exchange cards with friends from high school, roommates from college, co-workers from long ago, and friends from every one of the eight or so states my husband and I have lived in. These cards remind me of the community of people I have in my life, especially when I am new to an area and it is easy to feel disconnected. These cards, arriving at my door, bridge the distance between my friend and I and make me think of the time we once spent together.

So, even though it takes lots of effort to get out the pen and address the cards and to line my kids up to take a Christmas picture, I do it. Not so much because I want to share my news, but more so because I know if I do, I will hear back from my friends about theirs. As our news has changed over the years from sharing the births of our children, to sending them off to college, now it is shifting to our children getting married and having children of their own.

Time passes, but some things never change I hope. In this fast paced era of emails, sending holiday cards allows for a tangible form of connection that is hard to beat. Holding a card in your hand, gazing at a picture of your friend and their family, or just reading their handwritten sentiments, makes me feel special and brightens my day. A simple gift that carries a big punch.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Slow Living during the holidays?

With a desk top full of things that need my attention, sadly this is the only picture of my house presentable enough to put on my blog right now. Much of the rest of my place has been let go while I pursue the things that must be done to prepare for the holidays. The moving of furniture to make room for guests, the hurried meal preparation mess left in the kitchen, the half put up decorations sitting around, laundry stacked on the bed, the tree bare and undecorated. Am I the only one whose house is in such complete disarray? Does the slow way of living, savoring every moment, result in less being done around the house and consequently a messier house? How can it be possible to do it all slow, especially now?

With less to do at other times of the year, slow living is easier to accomplish. But for the busy month of December, I need to rethink how I have been doing things. I need to stop trying to do it all for the holidays and pick and choose just a few quality activities that bring meaning. It is impossible to make gifts, write cards, stitch up reusable cloth gift bags while preparing a local slow meal, all while cleaning my house and attending homeschool holiday parties. Unfortunately, trying to do it all, even if it fits the bill of being a quality family activity, makes the holidays rush by without really enjoying family togetherness.

All that being said, I think I will cross a few things off my list, especially those things that bring little reward. I will decorate and clean less, choose easier recipies when cooking, and not worry if the holiday cards don't make it to their destinations by Christmas. Instead, I will play games with the kids, and take them to a few museums, but not worry about what the house looks like through it all. I will visit with family and take the dog to the beach, but not care if the wash isn't done. I am going to try to live slowly and simply, and do less overall. Wish me luck as I pursue slowness starting...tomorrow! This afternoon I have to take Ryan to rock climing...then come back home and make dinner, work on cards this evening, finish the laundry and....wait, did I not learn anything from this post???

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Celebrating the Earth this Christmas

How in the heck did the winter solstice celebration- historically held on the shortest day of the year in December- get hijacked into Christmas? Or I should say, how did we allow a celebration that embraced nature and the coming of light to evolve into a consumer holiday stuffed with gifts that none of us really need? Every year, as Christmas draws near, I struggle with the needless buy, buy, buying that I see happening all around me. While I do agree with the efforts to help those that are truly in need at this time of year, most of us are not in real need. We certainly don't need a flat screen TV, a new sweater, or a gift certificate to Toys R Us.

Before you dismiss this as being written by a grumpy Christmas hating Scrooge, think again. I don' t hate giving, or helping, or caring. I just wish we could GIVE to the earth by not wasting its resources, HELP clean up the part of the environment that we have destroyed by our carelessness, and CARE enough to not buy things we don't really need.

Need- what does it mean to really need something? That can be a really hard question to answer and it means different things to different people I suppose. I wish all people would spend more time thinking about what need means and determine that they really don't need all they think they need. I can be really good at convincing myself that I need a new pair of jeans when really, I don't. I understand that cultural influences encourage me to buy so I try to counteract those impulses and do everything I can to not buy. Many people are less apt to think about why they buy and if they really need something. For them, buying becomes a mindless act.

This buying without thinking becomes ever more rampant at this time of year when Christmas tends to open the buying floodgates. We are forced to buy stuff or make stuff for those on our list and for what reason? Because the Wise Men brought gifts to Bethlehem and we want to be seen as good ourselves? Because buying gifts for everyone on our list is expected? How many times have you purchased a gift, knowing full well that the person didn't need the gift you were buying, but it meant fulfilling your obligation to get them a gift? Why does it have to be that way?

Well it doesn't. While it can be near impossible to change the way things have always been done, change needs to begin to take place in the way we celebrate Christmas. Our planet can not handle this indiscriminate wasting of its resources in this manner. I am not proposing we cut out Christmas altogether, but we do need to cut way back.

Here are some of my suggestions for a more Eco-friendly Christmas:

1) Spend time in nature throughout the year and begin to understand that we are not the only animals on the planet that need to use the earth's resources. Come to understand our waste is destroying the habitats of many plants and animals and that this destruction ultimately affects us.

2) Fall in love with some part of the natural world. Become connected to it, learn about it, and begin to know that every action (such as buying lots of stuff) negatively impacts nature. Hopefully, before long, it will pain you to buy goods because you will come to understand that your gain, is nature's loss.

3) Join an organization that does work to help protect the environment. You will find the people you meet to be intelligent, amazing, thoughtful people. Through this organization, you will find a sense of community that may be lacking in your life.

4) Spend time with your children and think about the world you will be leaving for them and their children. In my lifetime, I can already see the skies are not as clear as when I was a child. What will it be like for my grandchildren?
5) Get to know yourself. Spend time with yourself and develop some passions. The time spent on these passions will reduce the amount of time you think about spending time in the stores buying junk. Fill yourself with knowledge, not stuff.

6) While I think it would be great to have Christmas move toward becoming a non-material gift giving holiday, until then we need to figure out a new way to buy gifts for one another. How about starting a tradition where the people you buy for send you a list of what they need and will use? That way you can get them the cookbook they want instead of the sweater they will never wear. Every year, each member of my family makes up a list of the items they want for Christmas and we share it with each other. These items are wants but are they true needs? Needs that we can't live without? No, but they are perceived needs and these items will be loved and used by those that receive them and not just take up space in the closet. Hopefully, as time goes on, we can chip away at what we think we need and get better in touch with our real needs, thus reducing what we buy, which will reduce our environmental impact even more. This reducing of our needs is a process and it takes time, like all changes.

7) There are many low impact gift options such as food, museum memberships, writing love letters, restaurant gift cards, movie tickets, or spending time together. Making handmade items can be a thoughtful gift option, just make sure the recipient really needs what you make for them. Knitting a scarf for your grandma who already has three scarfs wastes resources in the same way buying her an unneeded scarf would.
Maybe you have some other ideas of what we can do to reduce our holiday impact, yet still make this time of year joyful. Rather than joy being felt by having a tree surrounded with gifts and the stockings brimming with trinkets, joy can be felt just in the being. Being surrounded by those you love and spending time in nature. Maybe the real meaning of Christmas is giving to the planet we call home.
O our Mother the Earth,
O our Father the Sky,
Your children are we, and with tired backs we bring you the gifts you love.
Then weave for us a garment of brightness;
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness,
That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,
O our Mother the Earth,
O our Father the Sky.
~From the Tewa Indians of North America

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dog Beach

Obviously we weren't the only ones thinking a day at the beach with our dog would make for a great outing during the rush of the holidays.
Having just moved from landlocked Illinois, this was our dog Layla's first visit to the beach. She couldn't wait to rush to the water's edge and check it out.

Not too sure about getting her feet wet. Feels too much like taking a bath...

Back on solid ground...chasing a ball still remains her favorite thing to do.

Gosh guys...can't we do this everyday?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter Beach

Ryan and I headed out to the beach today and had the place to ourselves. The wind, the water and the winter was all ours. Something about being alone, away from people, especially in a natural place appeals to me. Allows me to think and process my thoughts more fully. Crowded city streets and crowded desks distract me and make me forget those things that are most important to me. Make me forget how I most want to spend my time with this one life I have to live.

Even today out on the beach, I still felt a bit of distraction. Was not fully present in the moment, somewhat oblivious to the beauty around me. Proof that I need to get away more often. Proof that my life has been too busy lately. Rather than rush about this weekend, preparing for the upcoming holiday, I am going to take my dog out to the beach and let her romp and play and let her pure unadulterated joy become mine.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Supporting family traditions

This wonderful wooden carved Santa was on hand to welcome us to the Jones Family Farm this morning as we arrived to cut down our Christmas tree. After discussing with my husband and son the environmental impacts of cutting a tree and possible alternatives, we decided to continue with tradition and head out to the tree farm. My thirteen year old son has never known a Christmas where we didn't find and cut our own tree, so of course his vote was to do what we have always done. My husband mentioned that the many other environmental practices we participate in would balance out this particular indiscretion. As I saw it, within the realm of having a natural tree, we had three options.

1) Cut boughs from local evergreens and bring them inside. This option was quickly nixed by my son and husband as not providing the proper Christmas atmosphere. While I felt this would be the best zero waste option, I had to agree with them that it would not be the most rewarding option after establishing a tradition that involved enjoying the sight and smell of a real Christmas tree in our home.
2) Purchase a tree from Whole Foods. The pros behind this decision would be that we could walk to get the tree and bring it home. Also, Whole Foods would plant five new trees to replace the one we purchased through their Trees for the Future program. The cons would be that the trees would not be local and were transported long carbon producing distances.
3) Purchase a tree from the Jones Family Farm. We ultimately decided to go with this decision because it would allow us to support a local farmer while spending some quality time together as a family. The drawback to this decision would involve us driving quite a distance to the tree farm, but we figured our overall reduction in driving since moving to this area far outweighed the impact this one trip would make.

This exercise in considering my impact in regard to a Christmas tree has made me decide I would rather not change meaningful family traditions for the sake of eliminating any potential environmental impact. Family traditions contribute to the joy of living and should be preserved when possible, as long as they are not overly impactful. Any environmental cost of maintaining these traditions can be offset by reducing yearly miles driven, energy used, or waste generated. The pain from reducing my household heat or buying less will be easier felt than changing those traditions our family holds dear.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Zero Waste Christmas Trees?

My local Whole Foods store is advertising Zero Waste Christmas Trees this season. These trees are live fresh Christmas trees cut and transported to New York from a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am confused by the label "Zero Waste". Obviously, it took a considerable amount of water resources to grow these trees and energy resources to cut them and bring them to my area. Zero Waste? Maybe after the tree is used and mulched back into the earth, the result would be zero waste, but when considering its total impact, it really can't be called zero waste.

In fact, I don't think any type of Christmas tree can be considered zero waste- not the artificial type that gets used year after year, or the live type which appears to be more natural and less environmental costly. Given that all Christmas trees make an impact of some kind, is there any real zero impact sort of solution that one can make in regard to Christmas trees?

Looking back to the origins of the Christmas tree, it seems Pagans had the answer on how to celebrate using no waste methods. During winter solstice celebrations, evergreen boughs would be cut and brought into homes as decorations to celebrate the return of the light. Nature respecting Pagans could not bring themselves to cut down an entire tree for something as silly as household decoration.

So maybe that is how we have gone astray. Rather than use just part of an evergreen tree to celebrate the holidays, we have moved to a place where we destroy the entire tree. Our disconnection from nature has allowed us to feel comfortable doing this. Taking clues from the Pagans, we can find some zero waste options. How about decorating a live tree that stands in your yard and not bringing a cut tree into your house? Or try cutting some boughs from a tree and bring them inside. I even read a post somewhere about how you can cut branches from an evergreen and arrange them in such a way that they look like a Christmas tree.

My family tradition is such that we cut a live tree each year and look forward to the experience of heading out to a local Christmas tree farm to find that perfect tree. The time spent as a family walking on the farm and drinking hot chocolate has always been a special time of togetherness. How do I change tradition for the good of creating zero waste? I think it would be pretty difficult and herein lies the problem. If I am unwilling to change my traditions for the good of the planet in this one area, how many other ingrained practices do I have that I am unwilling to change? Many I am sure, and that is what scares me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lowering your thermostat to 55 without having your family complain.

My dad lives in Michigan and doesn't turn his heat on at all during the entire winter, relying on the heat that seeps through the common walls of his neighbor's condos to provide just enough warmth to keep him from succumbing to hypothermia. Knowing my family would not want to pursue such drastic measures, yet still wanting to reduce my energy impact, I have devised twenty-one simple ways to survive the winter while keeping my thermostat set at 55 most of the time.

1) Acclimate to colder temperatures.
It takes awhile to get your body used to colder temperatures. Start by lowering your thermostat every few days while adding more layers of clothing until you find your comfort zone. Last winter, I needed the temperature to be at least 68-70 degrees to be comfortable. This winter, I kept the heat off through October and November and find that I can now be cozy in a range of 60-65 degrees.

2) Turn down the heat to 55.
The University of Minnesota Extension Service suggests lowering your heat to 55 or 60 degrees at night when wrapped in bed with warm blankets. I take this suggestion one step further by applying it during the daytime as well. I have two heating zones in my house, one downstairs which contains the kitchen and family room and the other upstairs which has the bedrooms. I keep both zones at a constant 55 degrees and only turn the downstairs zone up to 65 between 5 pm and bedtime. Because my house uses hot water radiators to heat, I find they maintain comfortable temperatures for about 2 hours after I turn them back down to 55 for the night. On the flip side, my forced air furnace in Illinois made the house feel cool within minutes after scaling back temps for the night. Notice what your furnace does and adjust accordingly.

3) Use less rooms.
Figure out the one area of your house where the entire family can hang out and only heat those rooms to 65 in the evening when everyone is home and gathered together, keeping the rest of the house always at 55. This winter I moved my computer downstairs so that I could work at it in the evening when the family room was warmer. Being together in one room also provides for more family time to play board games or just allowing time to talk.

4) Only warm the rooms you use.
Close the doors to the rooms you are keeping the heat down in. Hang drapes or sheets between arches so that heated areas don't lose precious heat to the cooler areas. We hung a spring rod between a large arch from our heated family room area to the foyer which leads upstairs to the cooler areas. We then ran the rod through the bottom of an old sheet to form a curtain which traps warm air downstairs. Despite the sheet being thin, it is amazing how much heat it holds in.

5) Cover your windows with plastic.
Just before the cold weather set in, I bought some plastic window coverings from Home Depot. These inexpensive coverings are made to fit various window sizes from small to patio door size and form a seal around the window which keeps out cold air beautifully. I covered the three air conditioning units in my house and can no longer feel a breeze when standing near them.

6) Surround yourself with down.
I happened to have a very comfortable down of those thin ones with good fill power, which I started wearing in the house as the weather got colder this fall. At first it felt silly to wear a jacket in the house, but as the days went by, I got accustomed to it and it felt more normal. I now find my down jacket is the last thing I take off at night and the first thing I put on in the morning. It is the single most important thing which allows me to keep my heat down and I really couldn't survive without it. Make sure your down is either 600 or 800 fill. The larger the number, the better the down quality. Something called "Down alternative" is not a good alternative for keeping you warm I have found.

7) Keep your core warm.
I find that as long as my core is warm, then I will be warm. I haven't had to resort to hats or gloves yet this year because it just hasn't been cold enough. I also haven't had to wear long underwear either, but figure it will come in handy as the weather gets even colder. For now, keeping my core warm has been enough. Whatever material you use to keep warm- be it wool, fleece, or down, make sure that your core is covered adequately and the rest of your body will stay warmer overall.

8) Invest in a down blanket.
Again, I must mention down. There is nothing like a good down comforter to keep you warm in a 55 degree room at night. It only takes a few minutes to warm it up with your body heat and then you are toasty for the duration.

9) Don't set your thermostat to auto heat in the morning.
When I wake in the morning and slip into my down coat, I find that I have enough residual heat in my body that I don't need to step into a warmed-to-65 degree room. Before you switch the heat from 55 to 65 first thing in the morning, gauge how you are feeling and determine what your plans are for the day. If you will be leaving soon for work or such, why warm your place for only a few hours? You may be surprised that while rushing around in the morning, you don't have the need for much heat and can skip jacking up your thermostat until you arrive back home later in the day.

10) Eat and drink warm things.
I start each day with a cup of coffee and some hot oatmeal. The act of moving about and preparing my food helps to keep me warm while eating the food warms me from inside. It also feels good to stand over a hot stove and take the chill off while stirring the cereal.

11) Use other people's heat for free.
Admittedly, it does start to get cold in a 55 degree house after a few hours in the morning, so at that point, I tend to head out to a heated place like the library or coffee shop to take advantage of the free heat. Kinda like using public transportation- the subway is using energy whether we are riding on it or not and the same is true of the library. It is going to be heated if I am wandering the stacks or not, so I may as well take advantage of the free heat it provides by hanging out a bit.

12) Let the sun shine in.
Before I leave the house on sunny days, I make sure that my blinds are open on the south side of the house to take advantage of any ambient heat that may want to stray through my windows and help to heat the house up. I keep the blinds on the northern colder side closed to keep out the cold.

13) Get outside.
When it is only 55 degrees in the house, stepping out into 35 or 45 degree air feels relatively balmy. Taking a walk helps to get my blood flowing and warms me up perfectly. The sun on my face feels great and lends me the benefit of much needed wintertime Vitamin D.

14)Stay active in your house.
Usually after a morning of running errands and soaking up free heat at various places, I am then faced with returning to a cold 55 degree house. This can be the hardest time of the day, especially on cold and rainy days. Sometimes, I give into the temptation and turn the heat to 65 in my downstairs zone. Other times I get busy doing laundry or cleaning which keeps me moving (and warm) until the evening.

15) Cook your meals at home.
Why buy precooked meals and bring them home when you can make meals yourself and gain the benefits of heating your house in the process? I found this to be particularly true on Thanksgiving Day. While it was cool outside, we didn't need heat inside with warmth of the oven and the body heat of our guests. Again, before you turn up the heat, think if the heat from the stove will do the trick.

16) Layer your clothes.
I suppose this goes without saying. We have been hearing about this for a long time now, but it really helps to keep you warm. Typically I wear a t-shirt, thin fleece shirt and then my 600 fill down coat and find I can stay warm while alternating between moving about and sitting in a 55 degree room.

17) Tuck your shirt in.
Again, this simple trick goes a long way toward keeping you warm. I find if I am feeling cold, if I simply tuck my t-shirt into my pants, I will be warm. Try it.

18) Be engaged.
I tend to get the coldest during the evening if I am siting at home reading or watching TV. Rather than let the cold seep into my bones and force me to think about turning up the heat, I find if I get engaged in a conversation with my son or husband or we play a board game that involves talking or laughter, I forget about the cold and find I feel warmer.

19) Wear a scarf, socks, slippers, and maybe even a hat.
Wearing a scarf is key. It goes a long way toward keeping your body heat locked in and is comfortable to boot. Socks and slippers make a huge difference in how warm I feel too, especially if they are closed slippers with a back and sides. I haven't had to wear a hat in the house yet, but I bet if I did, I could keep my heat a bit lower from 5-10pm.

20)Take showers differently.
Nothing like taking off your warm clothing for a shower to ruin your attempts at keeping the heat down. In order to stay warm after your shower, take all of your clothes into the bathroom and put them back on the minute you dry off. Don't forget to put on your down coat right away will help keep the warmth of the shower acquired by your body trapped in for a good long while. Wash your hair less frequently...cold hair makes for a cold person. Besides, it isn't good to wash your hair too frequently anyway.

21)Sleep with your dog.
Last of all, use the trick my son uses to help keep him warm- sleep with your dog. I am not sure if there have been any studies done on the warming properties of a dog, but my son manages to sleep in a T-shirt with a thin blanket each night and never complains about getting cold.

Maybe after reading this, you may think I am just as crazy as my dad or that we both are genetically wired to put frugality above common sensibilities. You may also feel that your family wouldn't adopt any of these methods without complaint, or you may think that they would just as soon move out than do any of the above. I say, give it a try. Adopting one or two of these ideas could help to reduce your energy impact if it results in lowering your thermostat even a few degrees. If you are interested in how low others are willing to set their thermostat (so that I don't appear as the only crazy one), check out the "Freeze Yer Buns" post at The Crunchy Chicken.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Buy Nothing Day???

Above is a picture of what Times Square looked like on "Buy Nothing Day" this past Friday. Every store on the square was jammed packed with shoppers which made navigating through the thick crowds all but impossible. Sadly, the buy nothing message put out by Adbusters seemed to have done little to put a dent in the shopping madness of these folks. When will we figure out how to stop shopping and start living?

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Some things never change and the excitement of spending time with a cousin is one of them. The time I have spent with my various cousins over the years has always seemed special despite the number of years that pass between visits or the number of years between us in age. Having the same grandparents and other relatives brings about a comfortableness that isn't found in many other places. My cousins know me, understand where I come from, and generally accept me as I am. I anticipate the same will be true for my kids and their cousins as the years go by.

This Thanksgiving brought together my kids and their cousin Cassie who lives in Michigan. My youngest son Ryan and Cassie are only four days apart which makes for an especially close connection. I myself also feel a close connection with Cassie because she is the only child of my brother Erik whom died last year. She is the bridge to him for us, and I am the bridge to him for her. Without each other in our lives, we will have lost something very valuable.
Even though her visit here was short, Cassie was able to tour the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island along with Central Park and Times Square. On Thanksgiving morning we took her to Rockefeller Center to watch the NBC Today show in the plaza and then watched the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade afterwards. Cassie gave Ryan a running commentary about who was who in the parade, her being much more celebrity aware.

Later on, my kids and Cassie worked together in the kitchen to make the sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and green beans for our Thanksgiving meal. Togetherness- that is what I was thankful for this Thanksgiving. To watch my kids building the same sort of memories with Cassie that I built with my cousins all those years ago.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

United Nations visit

Yesterday Ryan and I left the country and we didn't even need a passport. As we entered international territory at the United Nations, the only thing required was to pass through a security checkpoint.

Once on the grounds of the UN, Ryan's interest was soon piqued when he noticed a statue of a gun with a knot in its barrel. After entering the building, we quickly signed up for a guided tour and then used the hour until our tour started to visit the exhibits in the lobby and check out the gift shop and bookstore in the basement. The lobby exhibits were devoted to explaining the mission of the UN and were done in a way that appealed to all ages.

The guided tour lasted about an hour and started out by explaining the UN's history, and we then viewed gifts received by the UN from member nations. In the next section of the tour, the eight Millennium Development Goals of the UN were explained which were 1)End Poverty and Hunger 2)Universal Education 3)Gender Equality 4)Child Health 5)Maternal Health 6)Combat HIV/AIDS 7) Environmental Sustainability and 8)Global Partnership.

After an exhibit on disarmament and humanitarian aid provided by the UN, we visited the General Assembly Hall where the 192 members of the organization come to discuss global issues. The members were in session when we visited and it was interesting to hear and see them at work.

Both Ryan and I enjoyed our tour and found it fascinating to hear about why the UN was founded and also to learn about their on going efforts to bring about global peace.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fall Colors

You don't have to drive too far from the city to happen upon a beautiful place to take a hike.

I am amazed at the beauty of the trees in the Northeast. While Illinois praries are beautiful themselves this time of year, it is great to be able to experience a forest full of hardwoods as they change.

We saw mostly brillant yellows and oranges, not the reds I had expected. Maybe the maples had changed already and I missed their display.

No Impact Experiment- Friday, Water

Water is the final lifestyle change that the No Impact Experiment tackles. You are asked to look at the footprint of your water and then see how you can make changes. After calculating my water footprint, I was surprised to see the majority of the water I use yearly comes from food production. While I don't eat a lot of meat, it was interesting to see that meat production used the most water of any other food item I consumed, coffee was the second highest. The water footprint asks for food volume in kilograms but I found a handy calculator that makes the conversion from pounds to kilograms.

There are many suggestions on how to reduce water consumption in the water section of the how-to manual of the No Impact Experiement and most of them I already practice. Run full loads in the washing machine and dishwasher, reduce shower lengths, don't run the water when you brush your teeth etc... but nothing I could change in this area would make the kind of difference reducing meat consumption would make. Amazing! Based on these findings, I am going to reduce my meat consumption and work on cooking more plant based meals.

This week's No Impact Experiment has opened my eyes to the fact that the biggest changes I need to make are those centered around food. Changing how I eat will reduce my impact in every area of the challenge we covered this week- trash, transportation, energy, and water. That by changing my diet, I will be making the most profound impact possible for me at this time. I can see how the packaging of my food items contributes to trash, how its delivery from distant corners of this country contributes to transportation costs and energy, how its production uses up energy and water. Now I just need to do the work to figure out how to make the changes.

With making changes in mind, I spent Saturday reading a book called, "On Good Land, the Autobiography of an Urban Farm" by Michael Ableman. The title pretty much tells you what the book is about, but it is also something more. A gentle reminder of the importance of maintaining a connection to the food we consume and the rewards that will come as a result.

Friday, October 23, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Thursday, Energy

For today's part of the No Impact Experiment, I was asked to look at ways to reduce my power consumption by going through each room of my house and listing everything that uses energy. I then was asked to determine if I was going to eliminate or mitigate use of that item. Rather than going through each room writing things down, I decided to look at the situation in a more holistic way by looking at my energy use systems- the lights, heat (or A/C in the summer), laundry, electronics/appliances, and water heater- and discussing each below.

The area of lighting is where I can see that I need to make changes. In my old house in Illinois, I used energy efficient CFL's in every room and this rental I am in now has recessed lighting with flood light type bulbs. Both the dining room and living room are set up so that if you flip the switch on the wall, no less than four of these lights will come on at once. They put out so much energy, that last week when it was cold in the house, I noticed a two degree rise in temperature on the thermostat in the living room about an hour after I turned the lights on. From now on, I am going to make the use of these lights off limits and use floor lamps with CFL's instead. Other than that, we are very good about keeping all unnecessary lights off and using natural lighting or even candles to light the way.

I am doing a pretty good job in regard to heating. Last week was pretty cold here with highs in the 40's and lows in the 30's and I only used my heat for a few hours around dinner time to take the chill out of the air and even then, I only heated the living room. Because our living room is zoned separately from the rest of the house, we just ran the heat in that room and hung drapes between the living room and the other rooms to keep the heat in. We left the bedrooms unheated and slept quite comfortably in our 50 degree bedrooms under down comforters. I figure as long as the low temperatures stay above freezing, we can keep the heat off in most of the house. When it does start to go below freezing, I will program our thermostat's to stay at 50 degrees all the time with the exception of the living room which I will put at 60-65 degrees when we are at home. I use a thin down sweater to help keep me warm or wrap up in a down sleeping bag when reading.

In regard to the laundry, I don't use the dryer, having given that up long ago and only do about three loads in the washing machine a week. We wear clothing over and over again and only throw it in the wash when it really needs it.

Electronics is an area where I don't know how I can change much more than I already have. While I would love to get rid of the TV and could live quite happily without it, my family enjoys watching sports and a few other shows each week. We don't own an energy hogging plasma TV so that helps keep the energy use down at least. While I could live without the TV, I would find it harder to live without the computer. I find that I am on it each morning for a few hours and could certainly do a better job of turning it off when not in use. I do turn off all electronics overnight with the use of a power strip and unplug other appliances when not in use to avoid phantom power.

The use of hot water for showers is where we could certainly make changes. I noticed that I took longer showers when the weather was colder last week and need to be more cognisant of that. Also, my 13 year old son tends to take very, very long showers. I timer of some sort would come in handy. On the upside, I only shower every other day.

This exercise was very helpful in making me notice some small changes I could make that would result in energy savings. Because I have been aware of my energy usage for a long time and have made lots of changes in this area already, I don't feel as overwhelmed as I did in the trash part of this experiment. I am glad I am blogging about this because I will have a concrete idea of what I need to work on going forward and it will be harder to walk away and go back to my old habits.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Wednesday, Food

Today's challenge in the No Impact Experiment was about trying to reduce the carbon footprint of your food by eating more locally grown foods, eating less animal products, and by purchasing foods with less packaging or processing. Oh no, I'm afraid shopping at Whole Foods isn't going to get me through this one.

Nevertheless, I marched off to Whole Foods yesterday to do some grocery shopping with this challenge in mind. I figured I could pick up some veggies and something from the bulk bins and put together a lower impact meal.

Unfortunately, I took Ryan with me and he immediately began rushing about the store trying to toss his favorite items into the cart. The first thing he tried to put into the cart was some store prepared salsa verde in a plastic container. I explained to him that we were trying to reduce our use of packaging and buy local. He begrudgingly put the salsa verde back as he explained to me that he needed to eat and that everything in the store comes in some sort of packaging.

I wandered over to the bulk bin area to look at the offerings. Of course none of it was local which left me in a quandary. Go for less packaging or less local? Which was worse? It was then that I remembered Colin had included a carbon calculator in his how-to manual which helps determine how to eat with a lower carbon impact. Wish I had checked that out before heading to the store. Given the array of decisions and choices, and none of them being good ones, I began to feel very overwhelmed and defaulted to shopping as I normally would. I rationalized my decision by figuring I was at least in Whole Foods supporting organic farmers from near and far, some items with lots of packaging, others less so.

As I walked home from the store, feeling badly about all of the processed, packaged, non-local foods in my bags, I thought about all of the changes I need to make to be more in line with reducing my food's carbon footprint- most of them not easy. Changing the way you do something can't happen overnight. Sure, I could have picked some of the lettuce I grew and made a salad and then heated up the stew I purchased at the farmer's market and made a lower carbon dinner for this challenge. But I can't eat stew and salad forever and wanted to be aware of what I need to do to make lasting change. To think the process through.

At first glance, I realize I need to reduce the amount of food I buy that contains lots of packaging and make more homemade items. For instance, I could skip the boxed cereals and purchase oatmeal in bulk. Or I could make my own muffins from scratch using flour from the bulk bins rather than store-made muffins encased in plastic. All this translates to spending more time cooking in the kitchen which I am not sure I am prepared for. So much to think about and process. Like I said at the begging of this challenge, this No Impact Experiment goes way beyond recycling and using cloth bags to carry your groceries in. It is a true challenge.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Tuesday, Transportation (and Trash)

Today, as part of the no impact experiment, I was asked to make changes regarding the way I transport myself. This part of the challenge was easy for me because I already walk or take mass transit most of the places I go so I didn't feel a need to change anything. But I find myself still struggling with the whole idea of not creating trash.

Yesterday's New York Times had an article called "Nudging Recycling from Less Waste to None"
which talked about how the zero waste philosophy is moving from the the fringes to mainstream with the simple concept of producing less waste. The article talked about how some communities, restaurants, and schools are composting food waste on a large scale basis and others are reducing the amount of trash they send to a landfill with their recycling efforts. I see these efforts as an attempt to reduce the back end of the waste stream. To figure out the best way to handle trash once you have made it.

But what about the front end of the stream? To not allow trash to enter our lives to begin with? To not only reduce our purchases, but to also avoid disposable cups or napkins and to reduce the packaging food comes in. Given how things are currently being done with the proliferation of disposable items constantly being thrust into your hands through out the day, it is easy to forget that every disposable item you touch needs to end up somewhere and many times that somewhere is a landfill.

Thinking about how to reduce the front end of the stream is where I lack awareness, yet if I placed my focus on making changes in this area, ultimately there would be less of my waste to deal with at the back end of the waste stream. Below is the trash I encountered yesterday and the changes I could have made to reduce it:

1) Instead of using a Starbucks disposable cup and food wrapper, I could have brought my mug or used their real mugs. I could have brought a cloth napkin to place my bakery item on. Starbucks gives you a .10 cent credit for using your own mug and your own insulated mug keeps your coffee warmer longer than their thin paper cups.

2) Instead of picking up the museum brochure, I could have looked at it online ahead of time or used it while at the museum but made sure to give it back at the end of my visit for reuse.

3) Instead of using paper napkins at the restaurant, I could have brought my own cloth napkin.

4) Instead of gum wrappers, I could have passed on the gum purchase.

5) Instead of having a drink from a disposable plastic bottle, I could have brought my own metal reusable water bottle or used a water fountain (if you can find one anymore).

6) Instead of making dinner using items with lots of packaging, I could have looked for ways to buy in bulk to reduce trash.

I pretty much have failed the trash part of the No Impact Experiment so far. I think I tried to reduce my trash on the front side of the waste stream on Sunday and Monday, then got frustrated yesterday and went back to my old ways. Kinda like going on a diet and realizing it isn't much fun. While I do a great job of handling the back end of the waste stream through recycling, I feel determined to change what I bring into the waste stream to begin with.

So much of our country's emphasis is on recycling after we have consumed. There is a concern if we were to reduce consumption, that the economy would be negatively impacted. This is a backwards way of looking at things. To say, "Lets just keep on using up the earth's resources so that our economy will hum along" A sinking ship bails water to stay afloat, we need to bail on the consumption so that the earth can continue to support us.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Monday, Trash

I have just completed day two of the No Impact Experiment and I found Monday's focus on trash to be particularly overwhelming. We were asked to save all of our trash on Sunday so that we could analyze it on Monday and look for ways to reduce our waste steam. Saving my trash made me aware of how much I take the trash can for granted and I found myself constantly telling my family not to eat all of something because then we would have to add the wrapper to my Sunday trash pile. But it really couldn't be helped. All of our food comes in some sort of disposable wrapper...cereal boxes, yogurt containers, soup boxes etc...

Luckily, the No Impact Experiment comes with a how-to manual and provides lots of great suggestions on how to reduce your waste impact. Many of the suggestions regarding trash I already do. For instance, I don't use paper towels or paper napkins at home and have replaced these items with cloth. My menstrual pads are cloth, I use baking soda for deodorant, and my cleaning supplies are mostly homemade, all which helps to avoid plastic containers and paper.

But, food packaging is where I cause the most harm. I never buy in bulk and use those grocery store provided plastic bags to put my produce in. I buy lots of stuff from the deli which are placed in plastic tubs and also contribute plastic to the waste stream from the Chinese take-out place up the road.

I guess because I am able to recycle most of my trash, I figured I didn't need to worry so much about the source. If the plastic tub from the deli is recyclable, then I can just toss it in the recycling bin and it will be almost like I never used it right? Before long someone would be wearing my plastic tub on their back in the form of a fleece jacket made out of recycled plastic. A good thing maybe?

Monday's trash day opened my eyes to the fact that I need to do a better job not allowing trash into my life. It will require big changes in how I shop and will probably be the hardest part of this No Impact Experiment for me. For the remainder of this week, I have to save my trash and see where I can make changes. It makes me nervous to see my trash pile up and to not send it off, out of sight. It's unfortunate that we don't all have to live with our trash more certainly would cause more people to take a harder look at the choices they make.

Monday, October 19, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Sunday, Consumption

This week, I am going to blog every day about my experience performing the week long "No Impact Experiment". This experiment is the brainchild of Colin Beavan of the blog "No Impact Man" and Huffington Post and encourages people to rethink how they are personally using the earth's resources. Each day of this week a different subject is tackled in the experiment- everything from shopping habits to transportation to the trash you create. Believe me, this goes way beyond recycling or using cloth bags to carry your groceries home. It challenges you to really think about the choices you make and their environmental impact. Not in a depressing way, but in an empowering way.

The "No Impact Experiment" started yesterday with the topic of consumption. It asked you to write down everything you planned to purchase this week then delete what you could live without. For the remaining items on your list, you were asked to think if you could get them second hand or borrow them. I immediately started to panic because with the weather turning colder, and my 13 year old son having shot up at least an inch a month this past summer, I knew he needed new clothes and I planned to order them this week. I am ashamed to admit that I myself had also been eyeing another pair of new shoes. I immediately thought to myself, why am I being asked not to shop this week? I haven't bought a thing for weeks upon weeks before this. Or have I?

This close up examination of shopping habits for this week is making me think that maybe I don't do as good of a job as I think I do. Little purchases here and there don't seem to add up to much, but collectively they do. Colin asks that just for this week I try not to shop and to replace the time I would spend shopping doing something I enjoy. Granted, with the weather turning warmer again tomorrow, I can see how I can put my son's cold weather purchases off until next week, but what will that accomplish over buying them this week? Maybe it will give me time to rethink the purchase. To possibly borrow clothing from my husband for my son or to check out the local thrift stores.

In the "No Impact Experiment: How to Manual", Colin provides information on how to green your purchases when you decide beyond a doubt that you need an item. Lots to think about. Going online and shopping is too easy, too handy. A few clicks and key strokes and you have something on its way to your door. Maybe something you really don't need.

Colin asks in his how-to manual, what is the hardest part of decreased purchasing? For me, I think I create a need and want to fill it immediately. I find a niche in either my wardrobe or my kids and try and fill it, justifying the purchase because they or I don't already have something like that. Sometimes I buy an item only to find out we already have plenty of those sorts of things hanging in our closet...that really there wasn't a niche needing to be filled. Just me needing to be filled I suppose. Now I see why Colin suggests doing something else with your time rather than shopping. The alternative activity will fill you more and bring you more happiness than an article of clothing ever could.

I have known that hiking along a trail is more rewarding than shopping and would always choose hiking over shopping, but I have never thought about how when I feel like shopping, I should just go hiking. To use an activity I enjoy to erase away the desire to shop. To not default to shopping given some perceived need. To fill those weak moments, early in the morning or late at night where it is just too easy to go shopping online, with some other alternative activity.

Lots and lots to think about but for now, I will take Colin's advice and get off this dammed computer, away from the lure of online shopping and go do something else. But what?

Friday, October 16, 2009

One thing at a time...slow schooling

I think I finally have Ryan's learning style figured out. When learning something new, he likes to totally immerse himself in it. To do it for hours and hours on end until he feels like he has mastered it. That is why homeschooling works for him and school didn't.

One of the complaints Ryan had about school was that he would get engrossed in one subject only to be pulled away from it when it was time to move onto the next subject. Everything felt undone and his learning felt scattered, piecemeal. Homeschooling allows him to focus on whatever his current interest is for as long as he would like. This past summer, his interest was reading and he read every Matthew Reilly book written, one after the other. He seemed to always have his head in a book- on car trips, in bed or at the dinner table.

This fall I haven't been able to get Ryan to pick up a book, His interest has shifted to rock climbing and that is the only thing he wants to do now. To challenge his mind and body as he scales walls and climbs boulders. We have been to the gym to climb three times already this week and will go again tomorrow. He is obsessed. I am impressed with his determination and motivation to learn this sport.

This makes me think differently about my approach to educating Ryan. In the past, we have operated more like a school by encouraging him to tackle many different subjects at one time while allowing him freedom in how he learns his different subjects. With this new awareness of how Ryan may learn best though, I think we should use more of a block schedule which would let Ryan focus intensively for weeks at a time on the one thing that most interests him. Granted, a few other subjects such as math and science would be done each day, but the bulk of the time would be devoted to one thing.

Does that mean if Ryan wants to do rock climbing the rest of the year, then that is how he will spend the remainder of his school year? Nope, I figure after about 3 months, his interest will fall back to a normal level and he will get engrossed in yet another new thing. Kinda like how he progressed from reading to rock climbing. In the meantime, I enjoy seeing the drive and desire on his face as he tries to boulder or climb harder and harder routes. To know that this same perseverance will take him wherever he wants to go in life.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Museum of Modern Art

See that kid wearing the white hoodie sitting in the middle of the couch in the picture above? Well that is Ryan hanging out waiting for Mike and I to finish our tour of the Museum of Modern Art after having decided he really doesn't like modern art.

Not even the beautiful colors of Monet could dissuade him.

Though he did rally a bit when viewing Ron Arad's "No Discipline" gallery of unusual chairs and other futuristic designs.

Luckily for us, we took advantage of the High 5 Tix offerings which offer low price museum and theatre tickets to teens in order to expose them to the arts. Through this program we only paid $2.50 to gain Ryan's admission to the musuem (or the comfy couch he retreated to).

All was not lost though. I have found Ryan discussing many of the things he saw at the musuem that day. He seemed particularly fond of an all black painting that really upon closer inspection holds other colors. Viewing the painting requires patience, a slowness in order to really see all of the picture. A call to slow down I suppose.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good walking shoes needed

When I lived in Illinois, my walking mainly consisted of going from the house to the car to the store. Sometimes I ventured further and walked along a sidewalk or a path in the woods. For these short jaunts of less than a few miles, any sort of shoe would work, even flipflops if need be. For that reason, I never gave much thought to owning a true walking shoe- one that would be comfortable all day as I covered many miles.

I first discovered my need for comfortable shoes after I found myself spending more of my time getting around by foot rather than by car. Traversing many miles from coffeeshop to farmer's market, library to Whole Foods usually left me with some sort of foot discomfort. It didn't take me long to discover that Teva sandals and Keen shoes offered up the comfort needed to go for many miles all day.

Interesting how my life used to center around the automobile and the required considerations of reliability and mpg and how now I am more concerned about the quality of my walking shoe and how many miles I can go in it all day.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Community through far flung online friends

Yesterday Ryan and I spent the afternoon at the park. It was a beautiful warm fall day and as I watched Ryan run around with other kids in our new-found homeschool group, I finally had a sense of peace that we had finally found our niche here. It hasn't been an easy road, especially due to the fact that we moved here at the beginning of summer when many homeschool groups are inactive in this area.

It was community found through online access which allowed us to bridge the gap from Illinois to here. For Ryan, he stayed in contact with his Illinois friends by playing XBOX online with them. While I am not a big fan of computer games, I made an exception to his online time this summer because I knew how important it was for Ryan to stay in contact with them in order to keep his sanity. A teenager without friends to talk to can be a difficult kid to live with.

I myself was able to stay connected via email with not only my Illinois friends but with many others I had made over the years. This contact kept me sane as I spent my days in a sea of unfamiliar faces. Moving can really unhinge a person. Everything is new and different and it takes so much energy to figure out how to do the simplest things. So much of what I took for granted in Illinois no longer applied here. So it was incredibly refreshing each day to return to my inbox and see that I had received a message from a friend.

As I build new friendships here and feel less dependent on my email inbox to provide my only source of companionship, I feel more balanced. I have a sense of gratitude that I have many wonderful friends I can stay in contact with online whom can offer up a safety net of sorts when I needed to be supported, but also that there are many wonderful people I am beginning to meet in this area. Life is good.

Note: Picture above is of me with my closest Illinois friends, taken just before moving here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Slow Schooling, Making Connections

I started using the term Slow Schooling this year because it best describes my approach to how I homeschool my thirteen year old son. When I took Ryan out of school three years ago I didn’t want to do school at home, but instead wanted to embrace a learning philosophy that would allow learning to unfold in an environment suited to my son. Ryan disliked the way school broke learning up into fragmented parts, forcing him to memorize bits and pieces of knowledge that he had no connection to. Soon after taking Ryan out of school at the beginning of 4th grade, I discovered unschooling which allows learning to be child directed, encourages parents to have a hands off approach, and trusts that the child will learn on their own accord, at a pace that is comfortable to them.

Through unschooling, I thought I had found the perfect solution for Ryan. Allowing a child to learn what they want, how they want, when they want. It really sounded great in theory, but putting it into practice can be difficult, especially when there is a lot of disagreement in the unschooling community about how to properly unschool and the conflicts based on semantics are divisive. Those that radically unschool feel that their kids should not be taught anything at all unless learning is initiated by their children and anything else is considered a form of coercion. Eclectic unschoolers allow for freedom in some subjects but teach others and feel radical unschoolers are not properly preparing their children for the challenges of life. These differences play out in negative ways and resulted in dividing the community I was a part of four different times over the space of three years. Hardly a supportive and enriching community for children to be exposed to.

Desiring a move away from the negativity of unschooling yet looking for a form of schooling that shares some of its philosophies, I discovered Slow Schooling. Based on the same idea of the Slow Food Movement, where you form connections to the food you consume by knowing the farmer that grows your food, Slow Schooling allows children to form connections to what they are learning. By embracing hands-on, experiential learning, Slow Schooling allows kids to understand why they are learning what they are learning and how it connects to the broader world. The emphasis isn’t placed on learning facts but more on the learning experience and forming deep connections to the material being taught. It requires searching for new ways to make learning exciting and is called Slow Schooling because quality learning can’t be rushed.

Under the banner of Slow Schooling, I still let my son select much of what he wants to learn, but I round out his education by teaching him the things he may not choose on his own. Last week for instance, I encouraged him to read his Oak Meadow science lesson which discussed living organisms that are neither plants nor animals. After reading the short lesson, he had to choose between one of five projects to do. He decided on the one that required him to go to the grocery store and find examples of protists, monera, and fungi in the food we eat. From that experience, he decided he wanted to make dinner based around one of those food items. So last Friday, we ate the mushroom soup (fungi) that Ryan had prepared from one of our favorite local based cookbooks called “Hudson Valley Mediterranean.”

As I sat at the table eating my soup, I couldn't help but think about all of the connections my son experienced that day. Those made as he discovered that the seemingly obscure things he was learning about in science are all around us in the grocery store. That cooking for family exposes him to not only the subjects of math, science and home economics, but also serves another purpose. One which brings family together at a table enjoying the connection of being together in community.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Slow Schooling...A Day at the Beach

The blue sky and crisp breeze called to me today, coaxing Ryan and I outside and down to the beach. Math would have to wait. Science could be done on Monday. But today, we were going to take advantage of the beautiful fall day and go look for some sea glass.

Walking slowly, heads cast downward, scooping up sea glass along the way, we soon were distracted with the many other things the beach offered up. Hermit crabs scuttling out of our way in the mud flats. Snails and small fish in the tidal pools. Egrets, Cormorants, and Seagulls maneuvering through their habitats. With these discoveries came the questions. How do shells form? How do clams dig? How is sea glass formed?

I know if we had spent the day inside the house, heads inside Ryan's text books, we would not have made as many discoveries. Nor would Ryan have asked as many questions. The touching, seeing, feeling...experiencing is what made it all so memorable and hopefully will lead to future learning. I am thinking it would be fun to get some guide books about shore birds and shells. We even have some rocks we picked up that need identifying.

Taking it all in...slowly. Without an agenda for our day and not being in a hurry, allowed the day to unfold for us. By being present in the day, mindful of what we were experiencing, we were able to appreciate all that came our way.

These words were written on a plaque affixed on the huge rock Ryan was sitting on in the picture above. So very appropriate for this day and for every day...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why do I blog?

My son asked me the other day why I blog. I thought about it a moment and told him that my blog acts kind of like a mission statement for my life. It allows me to think about and focus on those things that are most important to me. With so many choices and paths to choose from, life can become scattered and too busy if I try to do everything. But the act of putting into words, those things that are most important, prevents distractions and allows me to stay on my path. My path is not always straight. It usually circles around and back, bringing in new information and ideas, allowing for the constant evolution of my life's mission statement. Have you ever thought about why you blog?