Tuesday, October 27, 2009

If I Ran the Zoo

(I'm on a kind of Dr. Seuss kick these days....)

Last week we took the kids to visit the Bronx Zoo. Therefore, I also got to re-visit my ambivalence about zoos in general.

Of course, the Bronx Zoo is one of the better ones. Most of the enclosures (with the notable exception of the polar bear exhibit - YIKES!) are not so bad, and they are given some enrichment activities. They have animals there that do not exist any more in the wild, and I had lots of chances to talk with Bess about extinction, and habitat loss, and hunting, and "do you think the animals like being here?" and respect. I do think there is nothing quite like the experience of hearing a lion roar twenty-five feet away from you to help people get a very real connection to the natural world.

That said....they're still in cages (okay, "enclosures"; To-may-to, to-mah-to). They're still away from their natural habitats, and unable to exhibit many of their natural behaviors. It may be good for the species, but I don't think anyone could argue that the individual animals benefit from their captivity. I just don't know.

As for Harry, he was in a pretty foul mood that day. I don't really blame him, he got two molars the next day:

I'll try to get up some more photos later, but Blogger isn't feeling cooperative today and I'm done fighting with the computer for right now.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cultivating Compassion

I have been a little spotty on the blogging lately. I am focused on my thesis, which is about how parents can help their young children to be humane. I just sent my introduction to my advisor, who gave me some phenomenal feedback as to a major element missing from my project.

Namely, this: why bother? Why do we want to teach our children to be humane? What's in it for them?

Good question. I've been giving it a lot of thought, and quite honestly I'm coming up seriously short on answers. It feels good to be compassionate, in my opinion, but why? Is it some complicated "Selfish Gene" calculus that tells us if I'm nice to someone today, they'll be nice to me when I need them tomorrow? Is it a social construct, related to religion or a secular Golden Rule? Why does being nice make us happy?

I'm open to suggestions, but in the meantime I turned up something worthwhile in my research:

A Guide to Cultivating Compassion in Your Life

Check it out. I especially like #3, the Commonalities Practice. "Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life," etc. Good stuff.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hate Doesn't Heal Anything

Yesterday I went to the Natural Living Conference put on by the Holistic Moms Network. It's a wonderful, inspiring event every year and this one was no different. Naomi Aldort spoke in the morning, and though I think she can be a little hard-core on the Attachment Parenting thing sometimes (especially her view on schooling) I got a lot of great ideas from what she had to say. There were lots of great vendors and it was nice to connect with some friends during lunch that I don't get to see very often.

The first afternoon session was a breakout session, and I attended a talk by Pamela Rich about the Heal Your Life work of Louise Hay. I was so impressed by the speaker - she was genuine, real and funny. She said a lot of thought-provoking and profound things, but one thing really stuck out in my mind. She asked us to think of a limiting thought we have, and one woman volunteered that she often thinks about how polluted our world is.

As background....the Heal Your Life work (as I understand it, anyway) is based on the idea that our thoughts are creative, and that we can transform our experience of reality by changing the way we think about it. I believe this to be true; however, the participant had a valid question. The world just is polluted, no matter what we think about it. In fact, perhaps by choosing to ignore the pollution around ourselves, we may even contribute to the problem. How can we transform this thought in our lives into something positive?

I thought Pam's answer was fantastic, and something that we all can incorporate into our lives. We cannot change other people's behavior, but what we can do is hold people in compassion and understand that they are doing the best they can with the knowledge and information they have in the moment. Nothing, she said, has ever been healed by hate. The only way we can heal anything is through love.

Wow. How true.

What an amazing lesson this is for parents and for activists. We may not like what someone is doing - hitting her brother, eating meat, dumping toxic chemicals in a local river - but the only way we can ever make a positive difference is by choosing love. Getting angry at our child for hitting someone else only escalates the anger - instead, we can choose to feel compassion for a child who is so angry or frustrated that her only way of expressing herself is through violence. We can judge someone for eating something we wouldn't, but that only closes off our hearts (and theirs as well, probably) - instead, we can choose to be thankful to the animal who sacrificed his life to become another person's food. Waging a war of words with a corporation over their polluting practices will most often result in a stalemate, where we judge them as irresponsible and they judge us as fanatical - instead, we can choose to find common ground and start to build a friendship from there.

As Pam said, forgiveness does not imply in any way that the other person's behavior is at all okay with us. It simply means that we let go of our anger about it, and accept the situation for what it is, and move on. I love that - it goes along with the whole Buddhist idea that suffering comes from our failure to live in the moment. The past and the future are not real, but when we remain attached to what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future, we suffer. If we can let go of that and simply live in the present, our anger disappears. What a beautiful, peaceful, sustainable world we would live in if everyone did this!

Friday, October 16, 2009

First Snow

Yesterday we had our first snow of the season. It wasn't much - a couple of very wet inches, barely enough to make a snowball or a snow angel, but definitely enough to make everything white and sparkly. I know a lot of people don't really like the cold wetness of winter in these parts, but I love it and I think it is pure magic.

Somehow, the house suddenly feels smaller when it begins to snow, but in a good way. When the weather is nice the windows are open, the door is usually open to allow the comings and goings of dogs and kids, and it feels like the outside is an extension of our house. But when the winter comes, suddenly the outside becomes less like an extra room and more like a photograph that we look at through the windows. I love the cozy feeling of being hunkered down inside, together, making our traditional first-snow meal of chili in the crock pot and drying mittens and boots in the laundry room. Especially when we don't have anywhere to go and anything we have to do, and we can just sit on the couch cuddling under blankets and reading a book, and time becomes long and lazy, the passing of hours almost too slow to notice until it's suddenly night and time to have dinner, take a nice warm bath and slip into some toasty PJs.

This morning, Bess and I were up early hanging out in the living room, and she called to me excitedly to look out the window. There were three of our neighbor deer grazing in the snow in front of our house, and they all picked their heads up to look back at us. There were still a few flakes falling and it reminded me of a holiday card, so beautiful, serene, sublime.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Global Climate Change - What's Trash Got to Do With It?

In honor of Blog Action Day powered by Change.org and the final day of our trash reduction Eco-Challenge sponsored by the Northwest Earth Institute, I decided to try and count the ways that reducing our trash output reduces our greenhouse gas production.

1. Less fuel burned to ship trash to landfills.
2. Less methane produced as trash degrades in landfills.
3. Less packaging produced = less fuel burned to produce packaging.
4. Also less fuel burned to mechanically package products, and to ship packing materials.
5. Recycled products require less energy to produce than products made from virgin materials.
6. Using fewer raw materials requires less destruction of carbon-sequestering plants such as trees.

Anything else you can think of???

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mindful Parenting Meditation

So, I'm on a big mindfulness kick right now. Bear with me.

One of my big struggles is being present when I'm with my kids. I'm not one of those moms who loves sitting on the floor playing trains for two hours (not that I've met many who are, now that I think about it) and my mind is always racing with the dozens of other things I could be "getting done" with that time. When Bess was very small I found a quote by Patricia Clafford that I really liked and hung it up in my home office:

The work will wait while you show the child the rainbow, but the rainbow won't wait while you do the work.

I try to remind myself of this, that the laundry and the bills will always be there but I have only a short time to spend with my children before they grow up and away. So here is my new Parenting Meditation:

Breathing in, I know that the work will wait.
Breathing out, I know that the rainbow will not wait.
In breath, work will wait.
Out breath, rainbow will not wait.

Try it!

Monday, October 12, 2009

I am home.

The day and a half that I spent with Thich Nhat Hanh and the monastics of Blue Cliff Monastery was nothing short of amazing. I left feeling rested, energized and inspired, and anxious to learn more about Buddhism. We had two dharma talks

morning chants, lunch meditation, deep meditation

and the most amazing walking meditation outside on streets closed to traffic.

I've always been fascinated by the lessons of compassion, peace and patience taught by Zen Buddhism, but could never quite figure out how to incorporate a practice into my life. I am anxious, after this weekend, to find a way to do so.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Peaceful Action, Open Heart

I am very excited that I will be spending tonight and tomorrow learning from the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. So for today, a quote:

"A bodhisattva is someone who has compassion within himself or herself and who is able to make another person smile or help someone suffer less. Every one of us is capable of this.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Garbage is Boring.

There, I've said it. Boring. B-O-R-I-N-G. We've been doing this challenge for less than a week, and I don't know what else to say about it. I'm tapped out.

We're still doing it, of course. Buying food with less packaging. Carefully recycling. Composting. Re-using. Blah, blah, blah. It makes a difference, and it is definitely an area where my family NI (needs improvement, in the jargon of kindergarten report cards) but...it's not sexy. And it's not fun to write about buying carrots that are tied together with a rubber band instead of a plastic bag.

I am finding myself thinking that this BORING factor is one of the biggest obstacles facing the environmental movement. We know we need to save power, save fuel, throw out less stuff, decrease our carbon emissions, and those are the really important things. But when I surf around looking at "green" blogs (and believe me, I read a lot of them, though I am aware that there are probably literally hundreds of thousands that I've never heard of), these things are rarely mentioned.

One of my pet peeves are "green" blogs that feature frequent giveaways. I am sure that these contests drive traffic to the blogs, but is that really green? Should environmentalists be looking for the next slightly-lower-impact-product (and figuring out ways to ship said product to a reader who is potentially thousands of miles away)? Or should the goal be to decrease consumption overall? Are eco-friendly clothing/books/toys/whatevers turned into garbage any less frequently than their less-green alternatives? Is the green product boom just a way for us to continue our consumerist mindset while feeling less guilty about it?

So...I've digressed from garbage. But I'm sure you'll forgive me. Garbage isn't any less boring to read about than it is to write about.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Homemade Notebook

One of our family's big areas of focus during our Trash Reduction Challenge is to find other ways to use "garbage". For one thing, it reduces the amount of things we throw out, but for another, if we can make things we need out of things we already have, we don't need to buy as much.

This weekend, Bess wanted to create a nature journal where she could draw and collect leaves and flowers, so we made one ourselves out of things we otherwise would have thrown away - scrap office paper, cardboard, and packing paper.

There are several websites that show how to make fancy bound books at home. I can't vouch for any of them since I haven't used them, but if you're really interested in the official way to do it, a Google search will return more ideas than you know what to do with.

First, we cut two pieces of stiff cardboard slightly larger than a standard sheet of office paper, and a piece of packing paper slightly larger than the two pieces of cardboard with a small space left between them for the "spine" spine of the book. We glued the cardboard to the paper, and then wrapped and glued the edges.

Next, we took about thirty sheets of scrap office paper and punched holes in them using a three-hole punch. We used twine to tie the papers together so that they would lie flat.

We glued the first and last pages to the covers so that the edges of the paper were in line with the inside edges of the cardboard covers. We propped up the inside pages so that the covers could dry without the pages sticking together.

And - voila! Bess decorated the cover and we're ready to journal!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Just Two Words

Today's thought for reducing waste:

Diva Cup

Need I say more?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Garbage Haiku

Our family is participating in the Northwest Earth Institute Eco-Challenge, and our challenge is to reduce the amount of trash we produce as a family. When I told my husband that the goal is to throw out less garbage, he asked me, "Then what are we supposed to do with it?" Make less, silly!

So in honor of the start of our challenge, I have written a Garbage Haiku:

We toss too much trash.
Two full cans a week sometimes!
This week, just one bag?

I'll continue to blog on our progress throughout the Challenge, which ends on October 15. If you'd like to make a pledge on behalf or our family, please click here.

Friday, October 2, 2009

An Auspicious Day

AhimsaMama would be remiss if she did not take a moment to acknowledge Mahatma Gandhi, who was born 140 years ago today.

Here is my favorite explanation of the concept of Ahimsa - it comes from a conversation between Gandhiji and Dr. Howard Thurman, an African-American minister and writer:

...without a direct active expression of it, non-violence to my mind is meaningless. It is the greatest and the activist force in the world. One cannot be passively non-violent. In fact 'non-violence' is a term I had to coin in order to bring out the root meaning of Ahimsa. In spite of the negative particle 'non', it is no negative force. Superficially we are surrounded in life by strife and bloodshed, life living upon life. But some great seer, who ages ago penetrated the centre of truth, said: It is not through strife and violence but through non-violence that man [sic] can fulfil his destiny and his duty to his fellow creatures. It is a force which is more positive than electricity, and more powerful than even ether. At the centre [sic] of non-violence is a force which is self-acting. Ahimsa means 'love' in the Pauline sense, and yet something more than the 'love' defined by St. Paul, although I know St. Paul's beautiful definition is good enough for all practical purposes. Ahimsa includes the whole creation, and not only human. Besides 'love' in the English language has other connotations, and so I was compelled to use the negative word. But it does not, as I have told you, express a negative force, but a force superior to all the forces put together. One person who can express Ahimsa in life exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


As my readers know, I love books. LOVE them. I had a library built to house them in my house. I still have boxes of them in the attic, even after filling all the shelves in my library. I use them as decorations, as furniture, as friends, as escape...I cannot fully express my love for books. Like, my list of my greatest loves in my life would do like this: my kids, my husband, and then tied for third would be my mom, grandmother, sister, and my books. Okay, maybe books would be fourth, but it would be close. ;)

I like to own my books, because I like to loan the ones that move me to other people - to set them free, as it were. However, I have come to realize that not only is this expensive, but it is not exactly green. There are many things about the publishing industry - paper, printing, distribution - that give me pause. I started trying to buy books used, but that's still expensive. Now, I try to take them out of the library, and then only buy them if I really feel that they are a necessary addition to my personal collection. Luckily, the reference librarians in town here are just lovely, and don't seem to mind tracking down obscure titles from libraries three states away. So far.

Anyway....I just came across a website for a company called Better World Books, and I am in love with them! They sell new and used books (with no shipping charge) and donate a portion of their proceeds to high-impact education and literacy organizations around the world, such as Books for Africa, Invisible Children, Room to Read and Worldfund. They sponsor book drives and collect used books, saving them from landfills and turning them into money for literacy projects. I love it!