Steps to Take When the World Seems Like a Terrible Place

February 8th, 2017 § 1 comment § permalink

Following an emotionally exhausting political season, the month of love has finally arrived. Let’s welcome, with open arms, the sweet exchange of molten chocolate lava cakes and mysterious handwritten notes. But, amidst it all, let’s not forget to regroup. Perhaps you, during these past few months, have been through a cumulative trauma that has left you feeling a bit rattled. Below are steps to take any time it seems difficult to ignore the injustices all around. Keep the list close by to use anytime you’re feeling glum. It will make you and those around you have a little more hope and faith in humanity.

 

  1. Be Nice to Yourself

Take care. Embrace drinking chamomile tea or chocolate muffin milkshakes, but also eat real food—food that is good for you. Watch inspirational episodes of Wonder Woman or Batman. Leave affirming messages on your own phone. Write sappy slogans to yourself and hide them inside cabinet doors. Better yet, post them proudly on your fridge—“I really am amazing!”

  1. Unplug

Take a break. Go outside. Reconnect with the natural world. Walk to a nearby playground, or head deep into the woods. Search for animal tracks, skip stones on an icy pond, go cloud watching, or start a winter journal. Learn to meditate. Sit still. Breathe.

  1. Connect with Others

Seek support. Reach out and strengthen connections with your family and community. Join forces. Surround yourself with inspiring people. Hug and be hugged.

  1. Do Something Helpful and Good

Be nice to someone else. Engage in small acts of kindness. No kind act is too small or too big—give a free ukulele lesson, hand over the best slice of pie, leave a big tip, write an apology letter. Simple, everyday gifts can provide silent strength to all parties. Be thoughtful and purposeful with your giving.

  1. Create a Vision

Darkness can provide a great backdrop for keen insight. Think constructively, and your brain will soon fill with electrifying ideas. Keep a positive tone and listen to your inner voice. Set short, obtainable goals to pick yourself up and make a personal plan for a day, a month, or a year. Visualize where you’re heading. Get excited about the future.

  1. Take Action

Roll up your sleeves, step out of your comfort zone, and do something good. Improve your world with your own actions. Just a tiny input from you is enough to get things rolling. Find your voice and use it. Pick a cause and get involved. Call or write a letter to someone important. (HERE is a helpful link.). Make your voice heard. Create something new and useful. Now is the time. Do what you can and do it with gusto.

  1. Be Patient

Allow yourself to heal. Remember to start simple. Remember that life is a journey.

  1. Love

Train your mind to be grateful. Appreciate your talents, your uniqueness, and your brilliance. Acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of your surroundings and the people around you. And love it all, with all its imperfections.

 

 

 

The Walk

May 7th, 2012 § 7 comments § permalink

When I am an old woman, thin white crazy hair like whispers, I will wear electric green.  Today I walk in the woods—your smallish calloused hand in mine.  You say someday you’ll live here.  In a cave.  I will visit you and bring berries.

Long before you were here, we ran wild deep into the trees, and cut willow whips and made critter traps with pocketknives and hatchets. We skateboarded home, poison ivy all up our arms, tadpoles in hand, helmet-less.  We piled into old 8-track tape rust wagons, small brown limbs and inner tubes everywhere, no seatbelts, no sunscreen.  Heads out of windows like pups licking air.

You are amazed.

But we did not crash.  We did not die.

Don’t use your teeth, you will crack them, I say.  Wash your hands.  Don’t fall.  Don’t throw rocks.  Zip up.  Watch your thumb.  Check for ticks.  Don’t poke your eye out.

Today we laugh, you say, mouths open wide.  Today we climb the highest tree, higher than any squirrel, and lean our bare backs against the bark.  And listen for waxwings.  Way up there.  Today and tomorrow we do not care.

You say great ideas come from great walks.

And just like that you have changed me.

 

 

Your Wild Backyard

January 18th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

When my workday has ended, and I have carefully put to bed my small spicy accomplices, I look forward to at least a light snack and a footrest in recognition of my achievement.  It would be a shame if this did not happen.  I am sorry to say, this is the case with many hardworking beings—nimble industrious laborers who endlessly whirl about finding food, making babies and cultivating crops only to return to, well, an empty snack bowl and an unfurnished apartment.

Small beings have the same basic needs as you and I—food, water, a place to live, and a healthy environment.  Amphibians, birds, small mammals, and beneficial insects—many of these busy little creatures, neither destructive nor aggressive, are an important part of our ecosystem.  However, due to fast-paced environmental change and habitat reduction, it has become increasingly more challenging for them.

It is easy to encourage these critters and to be good neighbors.  Generally, larger areas with diverse vegetation have greater species diversity, but a well-laid-out modest backyard with a variety of food, cover and water can entice a wide assortment of wildlife.  The relative location of food, water and cover is what creates usable wildlife habitat.  Below are some simple steps to take.

  • Do nothing. Allow half of your garden to remain unmanicured.  Leave some wild, untamed areas in your backyard.  Allow the weeds to grow up and the insects to move in.
  • Go organic, or minimize pesticide use.  Use compost, not chemicals.
  • Reduce the size of your lawn.  Instead, plant a wide variety of flowering native plants to attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, ground beetles, rove beetles, lacewings and praying mantises.  Choose long-blooming, nectar-rich flowers and plants that bloom at different times of the season.
  • Feed them and they will come.  Plant bushes and trees with edible fruit. Don’t snip dead flowers.  The seeds within them provide essential food for many animals. Leave fallen trees or leaves in place whenever possible to allow birds to hunt for insects. Keep birdfeeders stocked with thistle, safflower and black oil sunflower seed.  If you start feeding, don’t stop during the winter months.
  • Landscape with features that appeal to you.  A bed of vibrant flowers, a shady spot under a tree, a privacy hedge, colorful fall berries, and evergreen winter shrubs are pleasing to everybody, including backyard critters.
  • Add a birdbath.  Birds need a dependable supply of fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing.  The best birdbath mimics nature—gently sloping, shallow, and shady at ground level.  Change the water once a week.
  • Provide nooks in the backyard with a variety of nesting material.  Hang concentrated stashes in tree crevices, berry baskets, or mesh bags. Fallen leaves, unraked twigs, dry grass, straw, pet fur, sheep wool, feathers, bark strips, pine needles, small sticks and twigs, yarn, string, and thin strips of cloth all make excellent nest materials.
  • If you have a birdhouse, add a roost box.  Birds only nest during spring and summer.  Overwintering birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and small woodpeckers require large nesting cavities during winter months.

Be patient.  Depending on your property size, it may take several years to see all the desired results.  Make a plan now, and, come spring, put out a vacancy sign.  Give vegetation time to become established, and the tenants will move in.

Soon, you will receive tiny handwritten messages regarding extra storage space, laundry and parking facilities; high-pitched calls about hooking up teeny home theater components and keeping microscopic exotic pets; and little notes about room service and spa treatments.

 

 

52 Weeks of Mail: The Handwritten Letter

October 11th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

A small box in our attic keeps a venerable collection of handwritten letters—creased college ruled, plain white, plicated, ripped and rumpled, with simple sidebar sketches and thoughtfully-replaced strikethroughs—addressed to faraway places I used to live.

Someday my girls will read them.

Let us gather our senses and make an attempt to preserve the endangered handwritten letter—the numbat of the communication species.  Though archaic, its value is of utter importance, since it is clear to me that no love e-mail or text message will ever be folded and carefully bundled in a small attic box and kept for years to come.

This week, join me and my family.  Write and send one handwritten personal note, card, letter or postcard each week for one full year.  Begin right HERE.

 

Summer

August 2nd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Summer family to-do listSo sorry I haven’t stopped by lately.

 

It’s

summer,

you

know.

Rules are Made to Be.

July 14th, 2011 § 30 comments § permalink

Summer arrived while I wasn’t totally paying attention.  The days got hotter and longer; the girls got stronger and picked the first sweet fruits of tomato, zucchini, cukes and sugar snap peas.  We watched the sparrows fledge; the supersmart baby rabbits devour the perfectly perfect crispy radishes; the catbirds feed their saucy fledglings, (and we carefully buried the one that did not make it); the ladybug larvae tyrannize the meadowsweet aphids; the swallowtail caterpillars eat the parsley, change from third to fourth to fifth instars, and then magically transform into camouflaged chrysalises.  Now it is here.

But summer is deceiving.  As carefree as it appears, with its crazy messy hair, p.j. pancake breakfasts, sandy wet beach towel floors, puzzle-piece days, and lazy late sleeping girls, it reminds me each year of this: small people can get really out of hand.

Because in the summertime something happens between my two joined-at-the-hip girls.  Something spellbinding.  Yes, they have always loved each other.  There has always been idolization and fierce protection and love, love, love.  They get each other.  “Let’s pretend….” one of them says, and they make funky paper reading glasses and make handmade paper pets that play together with intricate social relationships, and they make each other laugh so hard that they make me laugh at them laughing.

But as the school year comes to an end, we are here.  And it is just us.  And so it is now that quickly things can change.  The “on purpose” bump, the “stolen” crayon, the intentional pinch—it is time for them.

 

And I think that if you and I are going to continue with our great friendship, you’re going to have to admit that you, too, at least occasionally have small people in your house that get completely out of control.  In fact, it is true that once, in one such moment, my small sweet one pushed a chair down a flight of stairs.  And then threw in a five-fingered scratch from shoulder to wrist.  To my mom.  On purpose.

Sometimes during the hot summer it is like they are putting themselves together by tearing me apart.  Building themselves out of tiny collected pieces of this, that, him, her, me.  And so, because of this, sometimes you just have to go back to the source of something and let it wash over you.  Sometimes you just have to review the rules.

I know this much is true.  Our rules are simple and we make them together.  They range from “Drink your Milk” and “No Pushing” to “Be Kind” and “Help.”  In earlier years, as a visible reminder, we wrote them on a family chalkboard and kept them nearby.  More recently, I permanently painted them on an old stretched canvas.

To replicate this project, you will need an old canvas or scrap wood (size is up to you), wood stain or paint for background, paint for lettering, small- and large-tipped paint brushes, a sanding block, chalk or transfer paper, and a your trusty list of family-generated rules.

First, prepare your canvas.  It need not be perfect.  In fact, the more rustic and unfinished, the better. Prime, roughly paint all sides, allow to dry, and sand edges with a sanding block.  My friends Lea, Helen and Susan (who, unlike me are superstar painters) would proceed at this point to paint the rules freehand.  Instead, I prefer to print them out supersize, cut each word or phrase out, and place them strategically on the canvas.  With transfer paper and a sharp pencil, trace the outline of each letter onto the canvas.  Remove the paper.  Fill in using teeny paintbrushes.  Allow to dry.  Lightly sand the canvas.

Just a note:  I suggest you not follow my black canvas background lead on this one.  Envisioning a chalkboard-like background, I painted a black oil base over my scrappy canvas.  I then hand-painted our rules in white.  Don’t do this.  Instead, either lightly stain a wood background or paint a light-colored background on canvas or wood.  You will avoid the headache of transferring letters onto a dark background.  Uggh.  If you are chalkboard-obsessed like me (we have five), you will not heed this warning.  In that case, use white chalk as a transferring agent instead of transfer paper.  Thoroughly rub the chalk on the back of each paper rule printout, and then use a sharp pencil to transfer the word or phrase onto the canvas.  Remove and fill in with paint.

On another note:  Our rules are referenced incredibly often.  Choose your rules wisely.  For instance, beware of ones that may slip in like “Get Muddy,” “Ask Questions,” or “Try New Things.”  Outcome may be entirely different from your original plan.

And on another note:  Surely some of you will think of easier ways to do the job.  Feel free to reveal any tricks of the trade.

You should see my house.

June 30th, 2011 § 7 comments § permalink

Laundry PileI am prone to hiding sparkly scraps and bits away in cabinets and crevasses and corners—tiny morsels of futureday or of yesterday or the day before that, when discovered, stir me up and pour me out.

Due to this, more than likely, at any given moment, someplace in our small house is completely trashed.  At quick glance it is presentable, almost impressive, really— flat surfaces somewhat clutter-free, trashcans fairly empty, dirty clothes in (or sort of near) hampers, bathrooms sweet-smelling.  Behind the scenes is another story.  In fact, a mighty tome.  For, I have found that while I may be coming out on top in one area, there’s always another area someplace else crumbling.  And looking like crap.

The thing is that if you and I are going to continue to be great friends, you are going to have to admit that you, too, at least occasionally have a comforter made of wrinkled t-shirts and rumpled undies, a 3-day old mephitic lunchbox filled with crusty spilled yogurt and sour milk, and a dead bug or two in your apple bin—that is unless you are superlucky and have hired a lovely bi-weekly housecleaner person.  Or live with your parents.  And in that case, you should just skip this post and move on to the next.

I think it’s time that we all stop apologizing.  That we all just agree and shake hands right this very minute and stop responding to “Uggh.  You should see my house,” with a sweet syrupy “Well, you should see my house!”  I think it’s time that we make a pact.

It is no longer working for me.

And I’m ready, when you come over and open the single kitchen drawer that we have—overflowing with eight (incomplete and mismatched) sets of silverware, grater, bottle opener, pruning shears, chop sticks, timer, scoop, pizza cutter, rubber bands and clips, corncob holders, lemon reamer, and zester—that you will not only overlook the jumble, but will suddenly exclaim, “My, oh my!  Did you make these fruity popsicles?  They are fresh and fabuloso!”

And I will reply simply, “Oh, yes, friend.  I did, in fact, make them.  Thank you very much.”

I am waiting for you.

A Bird in the Hand

June 15th, 2011 § 9 comments § permalink

ChickadeeTwenty thousand years ago, before the babies arrived, before the Era of Massive Laundry, I spent some time living in the woods.  It was during this time that I could smell the dusty sweet scent of an approaching storm, could lean on a tree and determine its type by the bark, could work out which direction the fox was heading from its tracks, and could decipher just about every forest snap, cackle, and peek—separately noting, unriddling and interpreting each sound in my mind.  Each revealed something of importance— bird-twittering love, hawk overhead, nestlings being fed—and each evoked a vivid image of feathers or fur and a sense of belonging to it all.

I did this unknowingly.  Would just sit there and listen.

I am rusty now.   And everything takes more work.

Field GuideThis spring at our house we’ve been making homemade field guides for these kinds of things.  And we’ve been trying to get a good look and listen.  We hold hands and hold our binoculars and hold our sharpened pencils and little guides, and we just sit there and listen.

PhoebeThe past two weeks were spent attempting to find out who moved in next door—a hardy fly-catching little guy, with a creamy belly and olive-colored wings.  And just this morning we got a good look at him while heading out to school.  A phoebe.

Looking at nestThere are over 10,000 species of birds in the world.  About 925 have been sighted in North America.  In New York’s Hudson Valley, where we live, there are just over 100 commonly breeding species.  With practice, these birds can, of course, be identified by sight.  But a good birder can identify a species just by hearing their call or song.  There is something to be said about “seeing” a bird with closed eyes.  Some species like our cedar waxwing have just one single simple call.  Others, like our brown thrasher, can sing over 2,000 songs.  No kidding.

NestlingsLearning bird songs takes patience, perseverance, persistence and a great deal of practice.  Ideally, while in training (which could literally, if you are like me, take a lifetime), you would befriend  (or preferably marry) a spirited warmhearted nature-lover, who, energized by your incessant pestering, repeats excitedly, “That’s a Dark-eyed Junco; Yup, that’s a Dark-eyed Junco; Yes, sir-eee, Bob!  That’s a Dark-eyed Junco; You got it!  That’s a Dark-eyed Junco.”  And just when it’s fairly clear you’ve perfected it all—well, just that one single passerine—the same patient friend will suddenly announce “That chipping sound is an alarm call of the Dark-eyed Junco, but the call before that was it’s contact trill note” and so on and so on as the tireless bird goes through its repertoire of 200 zillion sounds.  That’s an actual number.  It is potentially overwhelming.

My birding advice:

  • Listen to one instrument, not the entire orchestra.  Pick out the piccolo, then the oboe, the cello, the bass, etc.  Find individual notes from each instrument.
  • Learn one or two common local birds first.  Use these calls and songs as the standard for new ones that you hear.
  • Imitate what you hear.  If you can, count the notes and sketch the bird and the sound.
  • Use gimmicks.  If a bird sounds like a perky R2D2, then take note of it.  You can use your own gimmicks, putting words to a bird’s song, or you can use the widely accepted ones—called mnemonics.
  • Use field guides and online resources like Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Song Mnemonics, Nature Songs and What Bird
  • Write everything down and keep it close.

Nestling in HandWhy?  Birding provides a fantastic opportunity for us to connect to the natural world.   It allows a deeper understanding of habitat requirements and intra- and inter-species relationships, provides an even playing field—with both parents and kids starting at the same level, actively listening and working together for a common purpose, and requires no fancy terminology, musical training or conceptual framework.  By putting a teeny, feathered face on the world outside us, birding helps foster a sense of unity with nature and prompts interest and involvement in local green issues.  It can help teach an environmental ethic and can demystify basic ecology concepts.

More importantly, it can stimulate curiosity and passion.  Like you’ve never seen before.

Mnemonics we often use:

Bubble, bubble, glee-gleek 

Cheer-a-lee, cheer-up….

Cheer-a-lee….fancy Robin-y song

Cheer, cheer……woop, woop, woop

Robin with sore throat, and Chick burr

Chik-a-dee-dee-dee

Chipping trill (mechanical)

Chirping trill (softer than Chippy)

Chirr, chirr, chirr

Conk-a-ree

Drink your teeeeeeea!

Drop it, drop it!  Cover it up! (repeat)

Fee-bee

Here, here, come right here, dear

Here I am.  Where are you?  (repeat)

Meeee-ew…. and mocking phrases

Oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada

Cheeva, cheeva, cheeva, cheeva

Pee-a-wee…. Pee-yer

Queer, queer, queer

Teacher, Teacher, Teacher

Three-A….. Three-A

Wich-ity, witch-ity, witch-ity

Whinny (downward)

Whinny (evenly-pitched rattle)

Wik, wik, wik, wik, wik, wik

Wolf whistle, squeaky squeal, clucks

Who are you, you, you (sadly)

Yenk, yenk yenk (with a cold)

Zeee-zeee (high-pitched crickets)

Zee-zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee

Zur-zur-zur-zree!! (raspy)

Cowbird 

Robin

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Cardinal

Scarlet Tanager

Black-capped Chickadee

Chipping Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-winged blackbird

Eastern Towhee

Brown Thrasher

Eastern Phoebe

Northern Oriole

Red-eyed Vireo

Gray Catbird

White Throated Sparrow

Tufted Titmouse

Eastern Wood Peewee

Red-headed Woodpecker

Ovenbird

Yellow-throated Vireo

Common Yellowthroat

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Flicker

Starling

Mourning Dove

White Breasted Nuthatch

Cedar Waxwing

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

Just walk outside and listen.


Keeping Quiet

May 27th, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

Water feetNow we will count

to twelve

and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for a second,

and not move our arms so much.

It would be a peculiar moment,

without rush,

without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden uneasiness.

Fishermen in the cold sea

would do no harm to whales;

and the peasant gathering salt

would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green war—

wars of gas, wars of fire,

victory without survivors—

would put on clean clothing

and walk alongside their brothers

in the shade,

and do nothing.

What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about.

If we were not so devoted

to keeping our lives in motion,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a great silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth is teaching us

when everything appears at its end

then everything is, in fact, living.

 

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

 

Pablo Neruda

 

The Times

April 26th, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

LunaThere have been moments at the end of a long sleepless night followed by an even longer day crammed with laundry and dishes and kid-carrying and skirt-tugging topped with a fever or two and a pinch of thankless whining, when my patience is shot and that recycled-glass-half-full feeling has all but vanished.  There have been times when it is all just too much and, admitting defeat, I’ve cried uncle (or just cried) and have simply surrendered.

To my little team, these very same moments are at the end of a long sleepless night followed by an even longer day of sitting a restless little body in a chair or on the floor for hours and wishing to somehow concentrate and think hard amongst the squawk and talk and clatter and bump of wild, passionate little people; topped with scattered ideas about how things and people work or are supposed to work, and a pinch of hunger.

When all is said and done, I wish I could just take a gigantic breath and listen.  Just listen.  For sometimes, many times, these are the times that give us the best stories to reveal in years to come.  And sometimes it is within these times that we grow.

 

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