I was listening to Scarlet Begonias by the Grateful Dead this morning. I caught myself smiling. My pulse and breathing slowed. I was immediately transported to a road trip in 1982 when I first heard this song. Driving down Route 213 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, car windows open, the warm summer breeze blowing through the car. Farm fields all around. Sun shining bright. I was reminded how something as simple as a song or a lyric can alter my entire mood and perspective. “Once in a while you get shown the light In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
The Grateful Dead was speaking about the yogic path long before I ever learned about Bhakti yoga, asana, svadhyaya (self study), and mantras! February has always been a hard month for me. Dark. Slow. Emotional. Things that challenge my stability and balance seem to happen in this month. That might be an overstatement but it has always felt that way. I have always looked forward to the end of February and the beginning of March. This year was different. I found the light in all sorts of places. As I set an intention at the beginning of the month to relax into February, to accept myself and what happens as what is, I found light and lightness. When difficult things occurred, I named it, claimed it, and tried to set it free back out into the universe. I connected deeper to making to let my creativity have a means of expression. I opened my awareness to the daily practice of paying attention, morning meditation and chanting of mantras that speak to my mind and heart. And, each time I found light, I found myself finding it more often. February was a great month. I found it refreshing and invigorating. As February ends and March begins I take the following lessons with me:
Be. Here. Now. -Ram Das
It’s not about how much I do. It’s about showing up and paying attention.
Each moment, and my response to it, is a choice.
Bring it always back to the breath.
Relax into my heart and I will see the light.
Light is everywhere – even in the strangest of places.
I have deep memories of growing up that involve food. My mom cooked every night. We were not a family that journeyed to McDonald’s or Burger King. Nor did we experience boxed macaroni and cheese or Twinkies or Lunchables. My mother was never more excited than when her Southern Living or Gourmet magazine came.
I remember when I has about 10 years old my family went for a Sunday drive and we discovered a roadside farmer’s stand. That began a weekly habit of driving every weekend to Beverly and Donald Burton’s farm to pick up fruits and vegetables.
Around that time the “egg-man,” as we called him, began to deliver farm fresh eggs directly to our house on Saturdays.
Labor Day weekend meant canning tomatoes. A couple of weeks later was applesauce. We always had some of Nannie’s (my dad’s aunt) hot pepper sauce around. As I grew up and began to figure out my own life I carried these traditions with me and added to them (canning and freezing of more fruits and veggies; making vanilla, mustard, breads, pasta; having a root cellar).
I became a vegetarian during my last year of college. This began without any intentionality whatsoever. The college I attended did not serve the most appetizing options in meat. So, I stopped eating it. After I graduated, I couldn’t afford to buy it, as I was making $2000 a year in my first job (1988) and $75 a week in my second job (1989), so I continued to not eat it. During this time I began to read and learn more and more about our food system’s impact on our environment – both physical (Earth) and human (body).
What I learned was astonishing, and it made me angry. How could we be destroying our own bodies as well as our planet? From manufacturing to marketing, our perceptions of food are shaped by what we see around us. The big food companies have figured this out and use it to their advantage. Sugar, salt, fat are the cornerstone of the mass production of food. This trio ensures flavor as well as preservation for long shipping distances. I read about companies efforts to find the “bliss point” and to enhance the “mouthfeel” so that consumers will purchase their products. And, how they appeal to our desire for ease and immediacy. The result is an epidemic of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and obesity.
Then, there is the impact of factory farming: pharmaceutical drugs administered to farm animals, downstream water contamination from leaching waste pits, environmental racism in the location of factory farms, more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry, ocean dead zones, rainforest destruction, mercury contamination of fish, and so much more. To me this just seemed to contradict ahimsa at every turn – respect for all living things and not causing harm to others.
From everything I learned I came to understand that the most powerful way I could combat this manipulation, harm, and destruction was to choose not to engage in it as much as possible.
Our family has supported a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) program, and the egg man continued to deliver to our house until he passed away in 2008 or so. We still travel to the Burton’s farm on weekends, and for the past 14-years we have supported a farm that delivers dairy, eggs, fruits, veggies, our Thanksgiving turkey, and so much more directly to our house. We are fortunate that our local farmer’s market is open all year. Our girls have had the experience of knowing where their fruits, veggies, eggs, dairy, and cheese come from. They have met the farmers and walked the fields, and they have met the cows and fed the calves.
February 22nd was National Community Supported Agriculture Day. Community Supported Agriculture is a term that was first coined in the 1980s. Since then CSAs and the philosophy behind CSAs has spread across the country. From CSA Day’s website:
“CSA stands for “community supported agriculture,” which is a direct-to-customer business model for farmers. In the traditional CSA model, people pay for a season’s worth of produce (a membership), sometimes months in advance. The CSA member then receives a box of fruits and vegetables every week throughout the harvesting season. This is great for the farmers because they get the revenue when they most need it to get ready for the growing season.”
If you are interested in Community Supported Agriculture or farmer’s markets this is the perfect time to check them out as CSAs are taking new sign-ups and farmer’s markets are preparing to open in March and April, depending on location and if they are not all-year round. For more information visit:
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.
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:
Sauces & Extracts
Breakfast & Brunch
Soups & Stews
Around the House
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 Marthaand 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.
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.
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.