Collecting Stories

How did it all begin? I was not a kid who grew up hearing family stories passed down through the years or who had heirlooms throughout the house that connected to people from prior generations. I grew up in the same town that my mother did so her family was close by but we rarely saw them. My father’s mother and sister were in a state on the other side of the country so on one hand I can count the number of times I saw them. I never even saw a picture of my father’s dad until 2000. The fact that I fell in love with family history and stories is remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that once I started asking questions and expressing interest, people started sharing. People came out of the wood work to connect with me, to help me, to share what they remembered.

It all started in grade 07. In those days Home Economics and Industrial Arts were required courses for graduation – sewing, cooking, and family studies one half of the academic year and woodworking, metal shop, and drafting the other half. It was in the family studies class that I created my first family tree that would set the rest in motion.

All we had to do was go back to our grandparents on both sides of our family. I ended up placing hand-drawn images with color codes for eye and hair color, height and weight, place and date of birth/marriage/death, and any additional information I discovered. It was multiple poster boards long when it was finished. I over-achieved on the project but what it really did was ignite my curiosity. I held on to that project for years until it finally fell apart from old age.

When my father became sick I felt compelled to return to that project. I felt compelled to know and understand more. Compelled isn’t a strong enough word. I was drawn to it by something deep within me. When I look back, in the beginning I was trying to hold on as tight as I could to my dad, then I was trying to ensure he would not be forgotten, and then I finally realized I was attempting to reconnect with ancestral memories that had long been forgotten from time and neglect. None of us exists in complete independence. We are all linked by our ancestry and our place on this amazing planet. I was seeking connection to my ancestors and to the universe. This compulsion led me to uncover generations going back further than I ever imagined. It is not just about bringing back names but also their stories. I still have more people and their stories to uncover but the stories that have already emerged connect our family experiences to colonists, soldiers, immigrants, reformers, politicians, reverends, doctors, dentists, blacksmiths, farmers, and more. These are people who are connected to the events that are memorialized in the narrative of United States history as well as the history of other countries. As I have discovered their stories, I have rediscovered this history in a deeply personal way. I have become the custodian of their memories, recipes, stories, and experiences with one charge – to keep it and them alive.

I have also come to understand the importance of making the time to honor my ancestors as a means of connecting with others and the greater energies of the universe. It is about connection. Empowerment. Healing. Resolution. At various points in my life I have been drawn to the tradition of the ofrenda and with each time I have grown deeper in my understanding of it. Dating back to ancient Mesoamerica, the purpose of the ofrenda is to remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones in the family, and to keep their memory and stories alive. It is a celebration of life, not death. It is joyful, not sorrowful. It is a welcoming of the spirits, a chance for them to sit and visit a while.

And so, I have uncovered more family members than I had ever hoped to find. People have been placed in my path to introduce me to long forgotten family members who I would have found through the long trail of research but whose stories I may never have heard. I would like to believe that this is because the spirits have recognized that they are welcome here. That if their stories are shared with me I will help them continue to be remembered.

Our girls are beginning to understand the importance of remembering loved ones so that they continue to live on in their new lives that come from death. Photos of our ancestors now live on a family tree in our dining room, and we are beginning to add tokens at the top of the tree that represent each of us. Our ancestors are with us at every meal, they are with us every day. I’m counting on our girls to keep the stories alive.

If you are interested in beginning to collect your family history and stories, just START:

Simply write down all the names you know, their relationship to you, and any dates you know about their lives: mother, father, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, etc.

Talk to your relatives to find out what they know and what they remember about family members. Ask about their dreams, their loves, their challenges, their victories, their strengths, their weaknesses, their joys, etc.

Audio or video record your conversations with your relatives, and make notes at the same time. This will enable you to refer back to the recordings and notes as you dig deeper into your family history and to share the recordings with future generations.

Render a family tree diagram from the information you have gathered.

Travel to places you know where your family members lived – this may be visiting a house or a town or a country. You never know what new information will come from seeing the house, town, or cemetery.

For more information on rendering a family tree diagram, visit the National Genealogical Society for free charts and templates.

Death Books – It can’t be as morbid as it sounds

My mom died a year ago yesterday. After my dad died I struggled with the tensions and conflict between death and life. After my mom died last year I noticed that my  relationship with death has evolved dramatically since my dad’s death in 1997. I am now able to look at death and see it for what it is, part of the entire circle of breath. Part of the journey. I no longer see death as an end. A void. I no longer fear it. I respect it. I no longer run from it.  I see it as something to sit with and be transformed by.

When my mother passed away last year, I realized I was now the oldest living female in our family. That was when I started thinking of myself as not becoming older but becoming elder. Elder like the old medicine woman or the old wise woman or the woman who is the keeper of the family knowledge, stories, and special potions. I learned that I was at an age that in many traditions, including yogic and Nahuatl for example, is seen as a time of rebirthing with all of the wisdom that one has from the past. And, it seemed to feel right.

As I comtemplated this emerging role for myself, I reflected on all of the knowledge I had acquired from the elder women in my life and family. With a desire to not have it all be forgotten, and a desire to ensure that all will be okay when it is my turn to exit, I commenced upon the creation of our family Death Book. It really is not as morbid as it sounds.

In the early years of married life I had begun making seasonal menus and companion grocery lists for each week. It was a means to survival. Organization in the world of a growing family with young children. The menus streamlined costs, shopping time (the lists were efficient), and reduced the need for the question, “What’s for dinner?”


These seasonal menus and shopping lists became the foundation of our family Death Book. The book contains 7 sections:

VOLUME 1:

  • Family Recipes 

VOLUME 2:

  • DIY Seasonings
  • Sauces & Extracts
  • Beverages
  • Breakfast & Brunch
  • Appetizers
  • Soups & Stews
  • Dinner
  • Slow Cooker
  • Sides
  • Salads 
  • Dressings

VOLUME 3:

  • Breads
  • Bars
  • Muffins
  • Cakes
  • Cookies
  • Muffins
  • Pies
  • Snacks
  • Other Sweets

VOLUME 4:

  • Canning
  • Freezing
  • Fermentation
  • Culinary Gifts
  • Body Care
  • Cleaning
  • Essential Oils
  • Around the House
  • Family Remedies
  • Other


VOLUME 5:

  • Cleaning Plan

VOLUME 6:

  • Holiday Traditions

VOLUME 7:

  • Emergency Preparedness

These recipes and the information provided are all time tested and treasured by our family. They are the ones that I hope my girls will take with them and continue with their families some day. In fact, I have already found them using the book when they are in the making mood and decide to make drop biscuits, cookies, or room sprays. Volume 4 is particularly special to me as it contains the magic – how to make candles, how to can strawberry preserves, how to make deodorant, what to do for a sore throat, and so much more. These are the actions that are easily lost over time. I hope that by compiling all of this into one book my girls can pass forward some of these special aspects of our family. By doing so we will continue to live on. 

Since I embarked on the Death Book I have discovered that others have done similar things. Check out:

Heather Bruggeman – Heather blogs at Beauty that Moves. Her approach was to create individual family binders filled with recipes. As she says on her IG, “if something were to happen to me, they’ll know how to keep this ship sailing. (Though I’m sure they’d find their way just fine without these.)” She can be found on IG at https://www.instagram.com/heather_bruggeman/ 

Melissa Coleman  – Melissa blogs at The Faux Martha and has released a book The Minimalist Kitchen. Her new book grew out of an attempt to organize her kitchen in a manner that works for her. The process she implemented grew into her book containing all of her kitchen ingredients and her families favorite recipes.

Good vibes and sunshine

The temperatures have broken! The polar vortex has moved on. Candlemas has come and gone. The sun is different as days lengthen. Good vibes and sunshine.

Good vibes call for good smells. The diffuser is going. Oven baked potatoes are cooking. Doggie is nested by the fire listening to mellow tunes. One daughter is still sleeping and the other is reading. Such a nice way to ease into a Sunday morning. 

We have five diffusers throughout our house – each bedroom, living room, family room. Right now the ones in the living room and the family room are going. Why do we use diffusers?

Though they seem safe, scented candles are one source of indoor air pollution. When burning candles, whatever is in the wax is dispersed into the air. Burning candles that are full of petroleum byproducts, chemicals, and waste products puts all of that into the air in the room. Some scented candles don’t use natural based scent compounds. Some contain trace amounts of organic chemicals, including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, and naphthalene. Check out this article from the EPA for more information about candles as a source of indoor air pollution. Some scented candles also have lead in the wick. In fact, the University of Michigan released a study showing that 30% of candles in the USA release lead into the air. When burning a candle you are breathing it in everything the candle is emitting.

It’s been decades since I have burned scented candles. If I choose to burn candles for ambience, I burn 100% beeswax candles from Bluecorn Beeswax or I make my own.

There are a number of studies that suggest that using essential oils can:

  • reduce stress
  • improve mood
  • purify the air 
  • aid in calming

To review more on aromatherapy with essential oils visit the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Our diffusers are used every day. Diffusing essential oils in our home is a great way for everyone to experience the benefits of essential oils. The diffuser takes an essential oil and breaks it down into micro molecules and disburses them into the air. Ours diffuses well in an average-sized room (200–300 square feet), and the ultrasonic mist gives any space a spa-like atmosphere. 

We use our diffusers at night to prepare for sleep. We use them during homework time and reading hour. We have one in each of our cars – this is when I truly need peace and calming blends! One travels into the kitchen when particularly stinky food is being made in order to help meditate the smell. We keep pitchers of water next to our diffusers, at the ready, so that there is very little effort expended to get the diffuser going. 

So often the quality of my entire day is tied to the way my morning begins – walk with the dog, morning warming beverage, meditate, first cup of tea, yoga, and what’s in the diffuser. While I may experience relaxation, alertness, motivation… most importantly it smells so good!!! Smell activates memory for me so different combinations of essential oils will take me back to different places, times, and emotions.

  • Lavender + Orange + Thieves + Cedarwood = candy canes
  • Cedarwood + Lemon +Rosemary = living on islands in the Chesapeake Bay
  • Douglas Fir + Frankincense + Sandalwood + Lavender + Wild Orange = campfires

Today, as thoughts are turning to planning this year’s garden and day trips for spring family fun days, the good vibes are created by Bergamot + Lavender + Geranium + Lemongrass. 

Why do you use a diffuser and what essential oils do you love in your diffuser?

Getting outside every day.

I worked outside as an educator at the beginning of my teaching career, about five years. Day programs, overnight programs, and extended overnight programs. Living in tents or on boats or houses on islands, sleeping in sleeping bags, rising with the sun, and canoeing or sailing under the stars. In the summer it was the bugs that were intense. From late fall until early spring it was the cold temperatures, ice, and snow. But I loved it. I learned that I could tolerate any weather as long as I had great gear. Or as they say in Norway, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” 

As I have gotten older I have also learned that inside can be pretty great too. Homemade candles burning, snuggly blankets, fire in the fireplace, warm beverages, diffuser going, and cozy wool socks. Cozy is good. I have had to make an intentional decision to find time to be outside each day or I would just cozy up and hibernate all day long. 

Being outside feeds my soul. I just feel better when I am connected to the outside world. I enjoy feeling the elements around me. I enjoy experiencing the natural rhythms of the local environment. There are so many health and wellness benefits as well. Vitamin D levels go up. Exercising the way the body is meant to move – gardening, walking, biking. Improved concentration and sleep. Improved immunity. Even just walking can make a difference – check out this article from Harvard about Walking Your Steps to Health.

There’s also an inner resiliency and acceptance that comes from being a part of something bigger than ourselves when we are outside, especially in more wild environments. 

Although we do not live in Minnesota or Maine our darkness and cold is real. Darkness from 5pm until 7am and temperatures that dip into the single digits with wind chills below zero. The darkness is the part that can be a challenge for me. I wrestle with it every year. An inner turmoil between loving the winter and detesting the darkness. This year I made the decision to love the darkness in a new way. In fact, to celebrate it as a time of renewal and reflection. To accept it as a blanket that is here to snuggle me throughout the shorter days. 

I brought the stars inside with me more this year than any other year – twinkle lights in the kitchen window, in jars in the dining room, the upstairs hallway. Candles at dinner each night and a candle in the northeast corner of the kitchen as I cook. Fires in the fireplace. We are slowly making our way to Candlemas on February 2nd where we will read The Candles by Hans Christian Andersen, eat crepes, make beeswax candles, and celebrate the lengthening of the days. It is the halfway point between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.

I also made the decision this winter to ensure that I get outside every day – both in the 4am darkness and in the afternoon light. Our daughters as well. It’s not always easy for the girls to get outside as their schools don’t provide opportunities during the day or they cancel recess the minute the weather changes to something that someone somewhere has determined is undesirable. We have to intentionally carve time when they get home each day. It’s not always easy to do that but we are working on it. The weekends are a different story.

Today we will be at the farm and exploring our own outside space at home for hours.




I know that afterwards we will all feel better, more connected, happier, and ready to sleep at the end of the day. How will you get outside today?

For more information on getting outside with kids every day check out:

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Akeson McGurk. She can also be found on Instagram @rainorshinemama

Also on Instagram check out @thebackwoodsmama for a daily dose of inspiration.

Labels and My Nighttime Skin Care Routine

Reading the labels opens up a whole world of what one is choosing to put on one’s body. I began paying particular attention to my skin care products when I was in my 30’s and was breaking out like a teenager. I started reading labels to try to identify what my skin was responding to. My realization was that so many of the ingredients were synthetic and highly-scented that it was hard to distinguish the culprit.

It was during this time that my dear friend Suzanne traveled to Scandinavia and told me about how the women wash their face with olive oil. It seemed like an odd choice but when I considered the benefits of olive oil – antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial – it seemed plausible. I then researched more on the art of oil cleansing, and I tried it. I have now been washing my face at night with olive oil for almost 25 years. 

This is one of the best changes I have made. I keep a small bottle of oil in the bathroom that I refill as necessary. I have been known to repurpose small little bottles as well as purchase small little bottles like these from mountainroseherbs.com

from mountainroseherbs.com

I love the fact that that what I am putting onto my skin is also something that I am comfortable ingesting. If I run out of oil for my skin, I just run to the kitchen to refill my little bottle.

The oil cleanse method is not a fancy and complicated process. It could become so if I was interested in blending and concocting my own special oil blends. I am all about simplicity so my oil of choice is Bragg’s Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Everyone has to find the oil that works best for their skin. It might not be olive oil. It might be hemp seed, jojoba, avocado, rosehip, or another oil. Bragg’s has been great for me.

from www.amazon.com

I love the way my skin feels. I find there is no need for me to apply nighttime moisturizer except for the occasional Vitamin E oil or Copaiba essential oil around the eyes.

Do your own research before trying the oil cleanse method. Start here at: https://theoilcleansingmethod.com/

A snowy Sunday and warm bread

It’s snowing today. It’s beautiful and sparkling. Still crisp and clean, waiting for people to begin marvelous adventures.


Snow makes me crave warm and cozy foods that I can enjoy by a fire. So, let’s talk bread. Bread. One of the most basic things people eat. It has many manifestations across cultures but all have some sort of bread equivalent – whether yeast or non-yeast – in their traditions.

Look at that label on the bread from the grocery store. How many words do you know? How many can you pronounce? Chances are you see things that have you thinking, “I have no idea what that is.” Most of those ingredients you see are part of the process used to ensure that the bread can travel long distances from factory to store, and still be fresh until someone eats it. Chances are it also includes unnecessary amounts of salt, sugar, and fat.

But bread baking at home takes a ridiculous amount of time, right? Bread is about intention. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. It doesn’t have to usurp all of your free time. But it is a choice – a choice to make something, a choice to know your ingredients, a choice to act. For my everyday bread, most of the work is done at night while I am sleeping.

6 cups flour – I use 3 cups sprouted whole wheat and 3 cups sprouted spelt

3 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup warm water sprinkled with 1/2 teaspoon yeast

3 cups warm water

Mix everything together. I use a KitchenAid mixer with a paddle attachment. At this stage I often add in other items such as: sunflower seeds, gluten free oats, flax seed, etc. Shape into a ball and cover; I leave mine on the counter or sit it in the oven. Just make sure it is a safe place where it won’t be disturbed so the ingredients can do their work.

6 to 24 hours later, dump the dough onto a floured surface and shape into a loose loaf. Cover with a bowl. Place a covered dutch oven – I use a cast-iron dutch oven – into the cold oven and turn it to 450 degrees F. Set the timer for 30 min. In 30 min, transfer the loaf into the dutch oven, seam side up. Cover and bake for another 30 min. Remove the cover, and bake for an additional 5 minutes or so until golden brown. Cool on a rack.

This is our daily bread that is used for sandwiches, cinnamon toast, French Toast, everything. For me, it is most perfect when it has cooled just enough to slice and is paired with a cup of tea.

Read the labels on everything. Not just the nutritional information (calories, fat, sugar, etc.) but the ingredients as well. Reading the labels opens up a whole world of what one is choosing to put inside one’s body. What is one thing you have been surprised to see in the ingredients list on a food label?

Daily strokes of effort

I play the flute. I have since I was 10 years old. Classically trained straight through college. I still have memories of practicing for hours. I loved it and had time for it back then so it was welcomed.

But as life does, time begins a cycle of ebb and flow, and I began to find it difficult to “make the time” to play. It had always been one of my main releases. One of my main go-tos in order to decompress and get lost in another world. Without those types of venues the weight of the every day world can be daunting.

I have always assumed that I needed the same amount of time to play as I did when I was 18 years old. I was wrong. It wasn’t until a wonderful vocal music teacher said to me, “It is important that they touch their instrument daily. 15 minutes. That’s so much more important than practicing for 2-hours a day.”

William James said it too: Daily strokes of effort.

We now know from neuroscience that the brain maintains its plasticity and malleability throughout our lives so we are able to create new habits whether we are 22 or 72. And, that’s what playing my flute is all about – creating a new habit. Or in my case, re-creating a habit. We as humans are drawn to things that are easy and convenient. What the music teacher and William James have in common is the reminder to make it easy. To quote, Shawn Achor, I needed to “put the desired behavior on the path of least resistance.” I needed to lower the energy needed to start playing my flute so that I would start playing my flute.

In this spirit, I now have a flute stand. My flute and music now have a place of honor by a window and are always ready and waiting for me. I feel drawn to it every day, and am delighted in the reconnection I am making to the creation of music. As I was preparing to play yesterday it occurred to me that it is the same with any small changes in one’s daily life. Set the intention. Take a baby step forward. If thinking about it is all that can happen today, okay. Tomorrow go one step further. After a while it becomes a purposeful, intentional practice.

For more information on Shawn Achor’s research related to positive psychology check out his book: The Happiness Advantage.

Knitting and the New Year

I love knitting. My dear friend Dawn had a bumper sticker on her car: I knit so that others don’t have to die. It always made me laugh because of all the reasons I know that went into her putting it on her car. She is a true textile artist. Her works are amazing and are imbued with emotion and passion. They are almost magical in their uniqueness, creativity, and beauty. For me, I’m really good at scarves, dish towels, and wash cloths. I come to knitting with a deep desire to create. I have dreams of sweaters and socks that never materialize. But that’s okay. Knitting for me seems to be about something else. 

Knitting has always been like the canary in the coal mine. Or should I say,  the lack of knitting has. When I am on vacation, I knit. When I am relaxed, I knit. When I have blocks of time, I knit. When I can shift to slow a couple hours before bed, I knit. I notice that as my stress increases, as time begins to run swiftly, my knitting time decreases, until there is simply none left. The most recent knitting dry spell lasted over one year. When I look back on that year I know all of the crazy things that happened in the intervening time, and how I lost my knitting. Last year was a year where I was challenged with negativity in my work life and upheaval in my personal life. In fact, there was a moment where they collided as my mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away after a short but fierce battle. But through all of that, isn’t that precisely when I should have been knitting?

My current knitting project

I am reminded of a YouTube video that came out in 2015, Relax, Breathe & #LetGo – Find Your Sanctuary. In this video women in the UK provide advice about appreciating life’s precious moments and making time for the important things in life. This video pops back up in my life every so often. Usually it emerges at a time when I need to be reminded about slowing down. This time it came in a blog post by Si on French By Design. And, it came at precisely the moment when I could feel something trying to emerge.

I have spent a good bit of my time looking backwards. Perseverating on what might have been, why things happened, how I got to a particular moment. As 2019 approaches I am choosing to let go of all that no longer serves me. Over the past 108 days I haveĺ been participating in a virtual pilgrimage with over 200 people around the globe. A pilgrimage of community and connection based in living our yoga and finding love, grace, beauty, and inspiration around us. When I started this pilgrimage I did so for many reasons, the most important of which was that I could feel something cracking open within me. Something that had long been unacknowledged but is always there within me, because it is part of me, was trying to get my attention. I could hear the voice even if I didn’t acknowledge or listen to it. Now, I have decided to settle into it and see where it takes me.

And so, between inspiration of the pilgrimage and the video, I have made space to knit again. Very purposefully. Very intentionally. Without regard to outcome or expectation. For me, knitting is like meditating. Knit 2 Purl 1 becomes a mantra. My breathing slows. My mind clears. I feel refreshed when I have completed several rows. I am not sure where this transformation will take me, and I am no longer trying to foresee the outcome. I am okay with not knowing. Because I know within me is everything and I have everything I need. I am stronger than I think.

If you have not seen the video, it is worth taking a few moments to watch it.  Relax, Breathe & #LetGo – Find Your Sanctuary https://youtu.be/ltVPj6-5xpo

If you are interested in the 108 day pilgrimage, you can find it here: http://brittbsteele.com/

Get Up, Wake Up – Things my dog has taught me

Last year we adopted a 2.5 year old purebred bullmastiff named Winston and our world changed. I love big dogs. My last dog was 140 pound female mastiff-lab mix – a true gentle giant. There is nothing better than wrapping your arms around a great big dog when your spirit needs to be lifted. But, that’s not what my dog has taught me. 

I love sleeping. The whole act of being in bed. Diffuser on. Crisp flat sheet. Cozy duffet. Pillows. It’s perfection. And so, I love to sleep. Always have. Long leisurely wake-ups are my favorite. When I can take my time, stretch a bit, see the trees out of the window while still reclining. It’s just lovely.

I arrive at work around 6:45 am so I am accustomed to getting up at 5am. I can remember when I was doing my student teaching 30+ years ago that my cooperating teacher, Bob, awoke at 5am every morning. He explained that the opportunity to sit with his wife, drink coffee, and read the paper before heading off to teach helped settle him into the day.  That seemed so foreign to 21-year old me. Until Winston’s arrival I would get up every morning at 5am, and one day I realized that Bob was right. There is all of the family craziness I have to attend to – lunch boxes, laundry, dishwasher, etc. – and I enjoy getting up early and taking care of all of that before anyone else is awake. Plus, I have my own time to ground and set intention for the day through yoga and meditation. 

When Winston arrived everything changed. We have been walking every morning at 4am. It sounds crazy even typing those words. My focus has been get up, then wake up. After all, I don’t want to upset my giant puppy. I get up, get dressed, and we go. At 4am for a 1.5 mile walk. In all weather. During this time, when we are walking in the dark, alone, he reminds me of the necessity of slow intentional living. The importance of slowing down, making time for things that matter, not rushing from place to place.  The opportunity to listen to the sounds that most people miss, especially the owls, as I slowly begin to wake up I can hear them in the treetops. The opportunity to see the one deer that every year crosses our path. Only one deer. Only one time each year. But always in the 4 o’clock hour. The opportunity to turn into my heart and listen. To be transformed just by being open. To breathe in the new day and exhale into the universe light, peace, and love. When we get home, and I am awake in mind, body, and spirit, I can begin my morning routine: yoga, meditation, getting myself ready, and preparing the house and kids stuff for the day. It makes for a better start to the day and I find I am better equipped to manage what the day brings my way. Winston, on the other hand, goes back to sleep until the girls get up.

For more information on the American Bullmastiff Association Rescue Service visit: http://bullmastiff.us/rescue/

How I got to this moment – Part 2

Growing up I was acutely aware of death. My grandfather died in 1945 at the age of 55. My father was only 14 years old at the time. When I reached 14 years I was keenly aware that I was the same age my dad was when his father died. When I reached my 15th birthday I breathed a sigh of relief, my dad was still alive. My dad was 50 years old so I still had some time before he was the same age that his dad was at the time of his death. When my dad reached 55 years old I breathed another sigh of relief, we had made it – I was 20 years old and he was still alive. My grandfather’s death had a tremendous impact on my dad’s life experience including where and how his family lived. I knew my dad thought about his mortality – a lot. And, I knew he worried about dying young like his father. He rarely mentioned it but it was always omnipresent.

My grandfather’s death had a tremendous impact on my dad’s life experience including where and how his family lived. I knew my dad thought about his mortality – a lot. And, I knew he worried about dying young like his father. He rarely mentioned it but it was always omnipresent.

My dad had his first stroke 10 years later. It was followed by two more strokes, kidney failure, and total system failure. The saga lasted for four years. He made it to 66 years of age. I was 30.

My immediate response shifted back and forth from fear of illness to fear of health. My migraines became intense and frequent, my weight climbed higher than it had ever been, and my neck hurt most of the time. I knew I was out of kilter when I went to the doctor one month after my father died and for the first time in life my blood pressure was elevated. This was when I found yoga. I hoped it would help release my mind and my fears. It did. I began to learn to leave it all on the mat.

Slowly I began to discover how to live my life in a way that supports longevity and health. I didn’t want to live a long life if the quality was poor. And I didn’t want to live a quality life that was short. I wanted to be able to sit on the porch with my children and grandchildren and teach them the stories and the traditions of our family. But most importantly, I wanted to be able to still hike, canoe, swim, ride waves, play, etc. with them. I wanted to be able to inspire in them a love of the natural world that can only come by deeply interacting with it. I wanted them to know me to be like the 70-year old Outward Bound instructor I met who could still run rings around all of us much younger instructors.

To do that, it meant that I had to look deep inside and figure out what needed adjusting. This took a long time. I continued to be a vegetarian, and then I went back to eating chicken and turkey, and then back to vegetarian. I became a vegan when I discovered that dairy was causing my adult acne. I exercised, and then I didn’t, and then I did. I targeted what I believed to be the areas for change based upon the traditional notions of diet and exercise that I had been exposed to my entire life.

I gradually began to understand that I needed to think of my body as an ecosystem and my health and wellness as indicators of ecosystem health. Each decision I was making had its own impact but if I could think like a system and create a plan for myself I could improve my overall health and wellness. As I began to listen to my body and to understand the cues it was giving me I began to see how to move forward.

I continue on this journey because I believe it is a lifelong journey, especially as a woman. I believe that as we age and our body changes so too does our need to reassess the ecosystem and to make adjustments to support it. Right now, it looks a lot like whole foods plant based. I continually struggle to achieve the optimal distribution of vegetables, beans, fruits, fiber, while maintaining the protein levels I need as well. This includes striving to avoid processed foods, refined sugars, caffeine, toxins, and minimizing gluten. I avoid them, not because a health and fitness expert told me to avoid them, but because I have discovered that my body does not respond well to them. I’ve learned to eat in a way that my body responds to positively. This is what is working for my ecosystem right now. I no longer fluctuate between craving and withholding of certain foods. I have more energy, no migraines, my skin is clear.

I have discovered how important intention and listening are to my health and wellness. I practice yoga and meditation. I swim and run. I listen to the signals my body is sending. I remain active doing things I enjoy like gardening and walking the dog. I haven’t hit the age that my granddad was when he died, and I’m quite away from my dad’s age. But now, I am hopeful, not fearful. When people see me swimming and ask me what I am training for, my answer is simple: I’m training to be 85 years old.