What’s Your New Year’s Prosperity Affirmation?

bart-simpson-chalkboard_www-txt2pic-comThis year I’m not doing New Year’s resolutions.  I’m doing New Year’s affirmations.

Remember when our teachers made us write things on the board 100 times in order to modify our behavior?  Well, maybe they had something in common with people like James Allen and Wayne Dyer.  And maybe they were really on to something.

I got an Amazon gift card from my son for Christmas.  So, I spent some time perusing the seemingly limitless choices, and then a light bulb when off.  Why not get one of Tom Butler-Bowdon‘s books?  Years ago I got his 50 Success Classics on MP3 and listened while I was driving.  I loved it.  It was just enough to get the gist of the classic works, already abstracted and synthesized.  And the bonus is his “In a Nutshell” where he gives you the key takeaway of the whole book.

So, getting his one book is like getting 50 books–and 50 great, time-tested books at that.

This time around, I chose 50 Prosperity Classics.   That choice may seem weird for someone like me, who writes about people like Peace Pilgrim and Charles Eisenstein and who basically feels that unlimited economic prosperity is going to ruin the environment.  But I looked at the list of authors in this book and they called out to me:  people like James Allen, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Friedman, Paul Hawken, Ayn Rand, Dave Ramsey and Muhammad Yunus.  If that’s not a diverse group of people to put under the prosperity umbrella, I don’t know what is.

What struck me immediately as I started to move through some of the authors was a common thread–the idea that manifesting prosperity is a matter of affirming your prosperity today.  And to me, prosperity doesn’t mean dollars and cents necessarily.  I’m not looking to be a millionaire, or own a better car than the one I currently have (a 2007 Prius), and I certainly don’t want more rooms to clean.  To me, prosperity is about thriving in a holistic sense.  Having physical needs fulfilled is part of it, but really, to me, it’s about creating conditions for your mental, physical, and spiritual being to thrive so that God can work through you.  Prosperity can be the happy result of unclogged spiritual plumbing.  Spiritual clogs can be fear, doubt, lack of imagination, lack of belief, and resignation.

A while back, I touched on Wayne Dyer and his book Wishes Fulfilled.  As a result of reading his book, I spun off with an interest in Anita Moorjani and Neville Goddard.   Reading the 50 Prosperity Classics I was reminded of these inspiring writers who join with James Allen, and Catherine Ponder, and Napoleon Hill in advising us to BE what we want to be NOW.  Don’t say, “I’m going to be healthier.”  Say, “I AM healthy.”   Don’t say, “I’m going to be able to pay my bills.” Say “I AM able to pay my bills.”

Once of the basic tools most of these folks teach in order to manifest prosperity in life is the use of affirmations, like  Catherine Ponder’s “I am the radiant child of God, my mind, body and affairs now express his radiant perfection.” 

Some people may think that affirmations are New Age-y and cheesy, but the most pragmatic, successful people believe in the power of the imagination–people like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, who simply affirmed and asserted their unique visions.  They didn’t let “reality” stop them from manifesting who they were and what they were here on earth to do.  Reality is what we make of it.  It’s not a wall–it’s the window of our minds, thoughts, and hearts.

All these prosperity books are replete with stories of people who were able to manifest their realities.  I might think those stories were fiction, if I didn’t have a story of my own, but I do.    Someday I’ll tell it.

Bottled Water: A Simple Question With a Complex Answer

In my last post I referenced the author and speaker Charles Eisenstein.  Because I “liked” his Facebook page I get posts about his travels and articles from time to time.  I’m going to reprint some excerpts from the one I got yesterday.  I thought it was so good, I would recommend that if you are interested, go to his site and read the whole article.

I really liked this article for a couple of reasons:

  1. I identified with the title Nestlé executive.  Having been a VP in a global marketing firm (and actually having had Nestlé as my client on a few projects) I could stand in her shoes, interested in doing the best job possible, both for the company and for the society it serves.   I could also identify with the young girl who asked the rather accusatory question–I certainly have my own questions about Big Business and its ability to serve the public good without further damage to the earth, simply because the goals of business and environmentalism are inherently at odds with each other in most cases.
  2. The simple question put to the Nestlé executive by a young student was about Nestlé’s manufacture of bottled water.  But the answer was not so simple, and that’s what I really liked about Eisenstein’s piece:  It acknowledged that there is no benefit to a black/white, either/or mentality.  There is no benefit to pitting Us against Them and pointing fingers, simply because  we’re all in this together.   The question of “shouldn’t you stop making bottled water” calls into question not only market supply and demand, but also the lifestyle we’ve chosen for ourselves that necessitates water on the run, the current state of our natural resources to which we have all contributed, and our personal stories we live inside–of the Evil Corporations rolling towards us, the Helpless Citizens, tied to the rails.    But Charles Eisenstein gives each of us more power than that.

Well, I’ll let you judge for yourself by linking to the article, The Lovely Lady from Nestle on this website.  The bottled water question is emblematic of the whole tangled web we’ve woven, and the need for all of us to take responsibility in addressing the pressing questions of our future lives on this planet.

I am providing some excerpts, reluctantly.  I would reprint the whole thing, but I don’t have the author’s permission.  Printing the excerpts is nothing but a hatchet job of a very lucid piece, so I hope you link directly to The Lovely Lady From Nestle by Charles Eisenstein

The Lovely Lady from Nestlé
Charles Eisenstein

At a conference recently I happened to overhear a conversation between one of the speakers, a vice-president of Nestle Corporation, and a college student who was questtioning the VP’s glowing portrayal of Nestle’s social and environmental policies.

The student bravely interrogated the VP about their leading beverage category, bottled water. “Do we really need such a thing?” she asked. And, “I understand you are using 40% less plastic per bottle, but wouldn’t it be better to use no plastic at all?”

To each query, the VP had a persuasive, thoroughly reasoned response. Bottled water meets a real need in a society on the go. And did you know that raw ingredient for making the plastic bottles is a byproduct of producing gasoline from petroleum? If it doesn’t go toward bottles, it will end up as some other plastic product or dumped directly into the environment. Glass uses way more energy to produce. And tap water is no longer pure.


The VP’s positions are unassailable unless we can expand the scope of the conversation. We have to ask questions at the level of, “What role do plastic bottles play in the accelerating pace of modern life, why is this acceleration happening and is it a good thing?” “Where does our busyness and need for convenience come from?” “Why is our tapwater becoming undrinkable?” “Why do we have a system in which it is OK to produce waste products that are unusable by other life forms?” And, “Is the ‘sustainable growth’ championed by Nestle possible on a finite planet?”


In fact, the corporations don’t have all the power at all. They only do within the framework of a universe of force. In a universe of love, things are not at all hopeless. If we see the VP and people like her as people just like ourselves, then they can change as we have changed. …Maybe there is a time for fighting, for matching force with force. But I think if we carefully examine our victories in social and environmental justice, we will find that it was the power of conscience, compassion, and love that powered those victories.

Some random thoughts on money

ImageMoney:  Just a means of exchange?

One day my great uncle, at that point a young lawyer, came home to find his wife, my Great aunt Florence, crying.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Aunt Florence tearfully told him that she had torn up an envelope, thinking it was junk mail, and later realized there had been a check for $100 in it, payment for a short story Uncle Edwin had written for Boys’ Life.  $100 was a good chunk of change back then in 1920, around the time this occurred.

“Acchh, money,” said Uncle Edwin, consoling her.  “It’s just a means of exchange.”

If only he were right.  Seems pretty simple and I guess most fundamentally, he is right.  But we attach so much more to it—our security, our identity.  We trade it for what we think will give us comfort, prestige, success, beauty, and an aura of intelligence and even wisdom.

“When you’re rich, they think you really know” sings Tevya in the musical Fiddler On The Roof

But what exactly are we exchanging?

So we exchange away, we exchange our lives for this means of exchange.  We labor. Too often it means working in jobs we hate, working for people who demean us or exploit us.

Then we get our paychecks, and seek ways to find recompense for the unfulfilling hours of our lives we’ve spent to acquire it — trading it for stuff to make us comfortable, prestigious, successful, beautiful.

Sometimes we find we don’t have enough of this exchange medium, so then we go further and exchange our future for it—we go into debt.   By going into debt we build walls between ourselves and our liberty, because now we have to work harder and longer servicing the debt.  We exchange our future for more exchange medium.

Ultimately this “means of exchange” winds up being the medium of our prison.  We have taken what would be a better guarantee of happiness—more time with family and friends and greater choice of right livelihood—for an illusion.

“Money makes the world go round”  sings the M.C. in another musical, “Cabaret.”

So, what if we took money out of the equation? 

What if we found a way to eliminate money from our lives?  Screeech!!!

I can hear the sound of the needle on the LP screeching to a halt—all the music stopping and all that’s left is silence as people think, “huh??”

But, we HAVE to have money!

If all of a sudden money went up in a poof of smoke, or if it were exposed as the illusion it truly is, what would happen?

Would we disappear from the earth?  No.  We might be more in touch with it.

Would we still have access to food, shelter, clothing?   Well, think about it.  Perhaps we would then learn to work cooperatively in communities and share labor and simple resources, like they do in Amish communities.  We would, as part of this shared community, cultivate and grows plants from real seed for real food.   We would share livestock, birds, and fish.

Wouldn’t our lives be pure drudgery?  How would we have fun?   Despite what people think in this high-tech entertainment world, fun is fundamentally available for free.  We’ve just forgotten how to have fun without paying for it.

Yes, Virginia, there is life beyond Versace, contrary to what the advertising world will tell you.    There is even life without money.  The birds do it, and the bees do it.

“Look at the lilies of the field.  They neither labor nor spin” says Jesus (Matthew 6:28)

So, what is a world without money?

I am not an economist by any means.  But I think it’s interesting to just sit for a moment and challenge the paradigm that we have to have money in its current form to live.  Really.  Think about it.  What if our current caste system, which is driven by our “net worth,” was gone?    What if there was a New World summit that could hammer out solutions for removing the source of social inequality, greed, misplaced ambitions, years of hard labor, and the idea of “retirement.”

Think about it.    Just imagine a world without currency as a means of exchange.

Sacred Economics

That’s what I’ve been pondering since reading a couple of books related to a concept called the gift economy.  The first, Sacred Economics, by Charles Eistenstein.  The book description:

“A broadly integrated synthesis of theory, policy, and practice, Sacred Economics explores avant-garde concepts of the New Economics, including negative-interest currencies, local currencies, resource-based economics, gift economies, and the restoration of the commons. Author Charles Eisenstein also considers the personal dimensions of this transition, speaking to those concerned with “right livelihood” and how to live according to their ideals in a world seemingly ruled by money.”

An Elevated Life

There are many, many ideas laid out in Sacred Economics, and there are so many provocative ones.  One of the primary ideas is that our current system promotes a scarcity economy, while a gift economy promotes a plentitude economy.  I love the fact that Eisenstein presents his ideas in a way that shows that by giving up some of our profane habits, we elevate ourselves to the sacred.   There is no reason to think that giving up money is going to diminish us—on the contrary, it will elevate us.  It will open up all kinds of opportunities for right livelihood.  We bow into service to a life worth living.  We serve each other and by serving one, we serve all.  This is not laying down our daily lives for a company that exploits, denudes, or deprives.   Eisenstein says,

“It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity, and forestalling our most generous impulses with the words, ‘I can’t afford to do that.’”

By the way, in keeping with the spirit of the philosophy of sacred economics, you can buy the book, or you can read it online for free.

The Appeal to our Self-Interest

The main reason for exploring this new way of thinking about money at all is one which should appeal to our self-interest:  Our current growth economy is simply not sustainable.

We are going to deplete all of nature’s resources and basically hand over our survival on this planet to the 1%, because income disparity will continue to widen, and the resulting impoverishment will run deep—even as the natural resources of the Earth dry up.    Something to think about.

Deep Economy from the Well of Community

The other book I read which is not specifically on the concept of gift economy but certainly outlines a transition to a more sustainable economy is Deep Economy by Bill McKibben.  McKibben, author of many seminal books on ecology and climate change, offers some interesting alternatives to a more sustainable way of doing things right in our own backyard.   For instance, simply orienting ourselves to our local communities will help right some of the inherent dangers in relying on giant corporations and foreign exports to drive our consumption.

In doing so, we build valuable social capital, and McKibben quantifies that social capital.  He shows us that the way we are living now–consuming mindlessly with false assumptions about true value–is built on faulty logic.  The same faulty logic that is used to justify working 40 hours a week simply because we think we“have to work”, even if by working we have to pay for childcare, car payments, transportation costs, work clothes and eating out.  The same faulty logic that justifies eating cheap, processed food, even when the long term costs in terms of our health will be so much greater.

Is All Growth Inherently Good?

It’s natural to think that all growth is good.  After all, nature is prolific in how it grows.  Human life is prolific in its growth as well.  So, it makes sense that we see economic growth the same way.  But not all growth is positive and life-affirming.  Cancer grows and cuts off life by upsetting the delicate balance of natural systems in the body.   Unrestrained economic growth is the same kind of cancer—taking over, dominating, crowding out the sacred connections to the broader, more organic systems in our communities and our culture at large.

We can go along on the current path, believing that “capitalism isn’t perfect, but it’s the best way.”  Or, we can open our minds to another way.   Improve the capitalism we have now.  Or come up with something entirely different.

Foodbyte #6: Even eating less meat is a miracle, so become a Lessmeatarian

The recommended 5.5 oz of meat a day represents a 30% reduction from the average 8 oz American's currently eat

The recommended 5.5 oz of meat a day represents a 30% reduction from the average 8 oz American's currently eat

“Even eating less meat is a miracle.” I love that quote by Thich Nhat Hanh (see his Diet for a Mindful Society). In keeping with Buddhism’s Middle Way, it acknowledges that being responsible for our planet and our fellow creatures does not have to be an act of extremism. While I’m sure most animal rights groups would disagree with that statement, I’d like to look at this logically.

Let’s look at three facts about meat consumption:

  1. Meat consumption at current levels (about 200 lbs a year per capita in developed nations) is a tremendous strain on our environmental resources.
  2. Meat consumption at its current levels forces the market to meet the supply by growing meat in extremely inhumane conditions.
  3. Meat consumption at its current levels is bad for our health

Now, three facts about people:

  1. The vast majority of people eat omnivorously.
  2. The vast majority of people value their meat-eating experiences. To them there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Plus, meat-eating is a very pleasurable experience, gastronomically, emotionally, and socially.
  3. It takes a lot of conviction and self-denial to become vegetarian or vegan. Many people go in and out of vegetarianism. I know a lot of animal-loving, nature-loving people who tried to be vegan or vegetarian, and found it difficult to sustain.

To me, I think it’s a LOT more realistic to motivate people to eat less meat rather than cut it out completely. Not only more realistic, but perhaps accepting collateral damage in the animal world by asking our meat-eating friends to simply eat less meat instead of no meat would overall save animal lives, save water, save land, save our health.

Think about two scenarios: One in which 20% of the US becomes vegetarian vs. another in which the entire population of the country is motivated to eat 30% less meat.

Scenario 1: At the rate of 200 lbs of meat eaten a year, if 20% of 300 million people became vegetarian, that would save 12,000,000,000 lbs of meat or about 30 million cows (assuming all that meat eaten was beef and that each cow yields 400 lbs of meat.)

Scenario 2: Getting the same 300,000,000 people to cut down on their meat-eating 30% (for example, say you reduced your meat-eating by one meal, or about 2.5 oz of meat daily) you save 45 million cows.

But, which scenario is more likely? According to a Harris Interactive poll in 2003, only 2.8% of people polled in the US said that they NEVER eat meat, poultry, or fish–which is the basic definition of a vegetarian (recognizing that there are lots of different kinds vegetarians, according to how strict you are).

To get that 2.8% up to 20% would be a tremendous challenge, because of ingrained attitudes about meat that I mentioned above.    If you are vegetarian, you might feel encouraged by a rise in vegetarian restaurants in midtown Manhattan, but just travel to Kansas City and talk to people about taking their meat away from them.

Maybe you could convince those same people, however, to try eating meat at only one meal a day instead of two, or two meals a day instead of three. So, you skip the bacon at breakfast one day. Or the cold cuts at lunch on another. You could educate them into realizing that that small gesture can make a world of difference in terms of their own health, and the health of the planet.

Mark Bittman, the food columnist for the New York Times offers a challenge on his website.  The Food Matters Challenge (named after his book, Food Matters), asks people to pledge to become Lessmeatarian–and to make a commitment  (and sign up on the website, if a formal commitment will help you) to reduce  consumption of meat, dairy, over-processed carbohydrates, and junk food.    As a motivator, you might want to read a great article of his, published in the Times on January 27, 2008 called “The World–Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.”

He is not a vegetarian.  Nor is Michael Pollan, who explored that option in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.   They both recognize that moderation and prudence are good things when it comes to taking responsibility for ourselves, our planet and our fellow creatures. 

Some of us may eventually evolve to eating less and less meat.  I did–in 1998 I determined to eat meat at only one meal a day.  Then I said that if I had the option, I would always choose the non-meat option.  Then I cut out meat and poultry entirely.  I do eat fish occasionally, and I do eat dairy.  On Thanksgiving I eat a turkey raised at a local poultry farm.  On St. Patrick’s Day, I eat corned beef and cabbage.

We all have our own paths to take and the path can meander.  God bless those who are dedicated to living out their convictions on a straighter, narrower path in terms of compassion for animals or concern for the planet.  But for most of us, maybe our commitment is to just cut down, and that’s enough.  That’s doable.

Doable–and a miracle in itself.

Little Houses


Photo montage by

Photo montage by http://www.designboom.com

I’ve always had a big thing for little houses, and so until recently I’ve been a square peg in a round hole, with all my friends and neighbors buying up into McMansionland for the past three decades.   

But now, it seems that petite-chic is in.  I recently read about the Clayton ihome, named with “a nod to the iPhone and iPod” but really representing the shape of the house, with a large core, and then a smaller “flexroom,” representing the “I” and its dot.  The prototype is 1,000 square feet, and is built with the environment in mind.   It includes solar panels and other eco-friendly features.   

Others drool over industrial-sized kitchens and massive great rooms, but I drool over the homes created by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company (see example upper left in the photo).   I first learned of these wee houses when one of the first owners, Dee Williams of Portland, was featured on the news.  I subscribe to their e-newsletters, because they have frequent workshops, with several this summer from coast to coast.  

Sarah Susanka, architect and author of many books on the topic of small spaces, speaks of a human need for specific proportions to make us feel safe and protected.  She says that while cavernous entryways are impressive, they do little to make us feel welcome.  What’s inspiring in a cathedral is not necessarily so in a home.   Frank Lloyd Wright was a master of proportion in architecture, using lowered ceilings in entryways to provide transitions from the outside, and being mindful that it is our own size that should determine the correct proportion for our living spaces.

Before this, by way of innate sense of comfort, had come the idea that the size of the human scale should fix every proportion of a dwelling or of anything in it.  Human scale was true building scale.  Why not, then, the scale fixing the proportions of all buildings whatsoever?  What other scale could I use?  So I accommodated heights in the new buildings to no exaggerated order nor to impress the beholder (I hated grandomania then as much as I hate it now) but only to comfort the human being.”  Frank Lloyd Wright, 1936

Grandomania!  I love that word.  It certainly describes what we have seen in our culture over the past decades.   Why should we live in places bigger than necessary for our own sense of comfort?   Sometimes we have dreams of entertaining big–and then we don’t have the time or money to actually carry that out.  Sometimes we need to accommodate our interests–we need a library, or a crafts room, or a kitchen with a baker’s station, or a way to simply store all the stuff we’ve accumulated.  

Sometimes I think it would be great to put all the stuff I have that is currently stored in the garage in the house, and then redo the garage into a little studio apartment to live in.   Have you ever noticed how cozy and appealing garage apartments sometimes seem?  I think about Cary Elwes’ apartment in “Crush” or Michael Keaton’s apartment in “Multiplicity” or Audrey Hepburn’s apartment in “Sabrina.”  

It seems worth exploring how to convert the need for quantity into a fulfillment of quality.   If you have less, you can make the less more with quality materials, design elements like wainscoting, coffered ceilings, columns and high quality windows and doors.   A friend I know has a big formal living room space–but no furniture!  She can’t afford it yet.  So she has this huge empty room just taking up half of her ground floor.    Why not buy less house, and decorate it in a way that reflects you, and make you feel good?  

Maybe it’s time for a housing recession in a different way–rolling back the neighborhood to smaller, more livable homes.  Maybe it’s time for our architects to design some kind of flex-home that expands and contracts to meet the needs of growing families–similar to what the creators of the ihome have done.   Maybe it’s time to mainstream all the great green ideas that architects and builders are currently dreaming up and creating.   Maybe it’s time for me to go clean out that garage!

Foodbyte #4: Feed your body, feed the earth

cater-to-the-earthIn today’s culture, the story of food has grown into an epic, with vast armies of processers, packagers, and people to cart waste away. The whole show appears so well-choreographed that it seems like it could go on forever…but it can’t. When we speak of “sustainable” foods, we mean foods that are grown in a way that maintains the earth’s ability to keep on growing, rather than farming like there’s no tomorrow. This is a whole new way of looking at food, with the earth as a character instead of just a backdrop. This is Catering to the Earth.–From the New American Dream website

New American Dream‘s website recently announced a new section of the site:  Cater to the Earth.   It was designed to inform its readers about the impact their food choices have on the earth.  It’s a really well-designed site with tons of easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate information.  

In it you will find the environmental, social, and health impact of foods such as beef and seafood, a food blog, and a glossary of terms to guide you through the complexity of language that surrounds the simple act of eating sustainably.

In keeping with the miracle of the ways of life and nature, what’s good for us is good for the earth.   When we compromise our health by eating “dead” food as well as food that’s been processed away from its natural state, the earth suffers, too.  

So, if you’re not going to eat healthier for yourself, think about your Mother–Mother Earth.  Do it for her.  It’ll come right back atcha.

P.S.  I’m keeping the poll open, so please take it and let me know the main reasons you don’t eat more healthily.

What does Tax Day have to do with Voluntary Simplicity?

successful-manI missed posting yesterday because of two converging deadlines–one at work and one imposed on me by Uncle Sam.  True to form as a world-class procrastinator, although I had diligently prepared my taxes on QuickBooks and had begun the filling out of TurboTax screens, I still had a couple of hours of work ahead of me yesterday.  I finally pushed the button at 10:37 p.m.–fulfilling my annual requirement as a citizen in the nick of time.

Unfortunately I owed money this year–I started a consultant business in May but didn’t set enough aside along the way to cover my tax liability. 

Thinking about how nice it would be to not have to write out that check, I started thinking about the many people ahead of me who opted out of paying taxes as an act of Civil Disobedience, such as Thoreau.

Other more contemporary folks have conscientiously (and legally) opted out of paying taxes to make a statement about intolerable social conditions, such as homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing and the environmentalist Jim Merkel.   They did it by choosing a life of voluntary simplicity.  So voluntary simplicity can be many things:  a way of life, a political statement, a spiritual journey, an antiwar protest, an act of solidarity among our poorer brothers and sisters, or a pact with the earth to protect and defend it.

The term “voluntary simplicity” is attributed to Richard Gregg, a Quaker who wrote a little pamphlet called “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” in 1936.   The pamphlet is published by Pendle Hill and can be downloaded for free here.   In it, Gregg describes what it is:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. For example, the men who tried to climb Mount Everest concentrated their thoughts and energies on the planning of that expedition for several years, and in the actual attempt discarded every ounce of equipment not surely needed for that one purpose.

Not surprisingly, his description ties in perfectly with the path to simplicity outlined half a century later by his fellow Quaker, Richard Foster the book Celebration of Discipline.

In addition to Richard Foster’s classic, another classic was born in the 80s–the book Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. Although he was inspired by Gregg’s writings, Elgin’s orientation to his own book on the topic is little more focused on the cultural and the collective vs. the more individual approach, while at the same time challenging us to accept our personal responsibility for the state of the world.   This book became THE definitive work for the volunatary simplicity movement of the post-Vietnam era.

I met Duane Elgin last year when he spoke at The Open Center in New York City.  The topic was “The World at the Tipping Point:  A Big Picture View of Our Future”–a program that he takes on the road.  It was quite positive and optimistic, and I was thrilled to get a chance to be a part of this pretty interactive discussion.    It was inspiring to hear his take on the future, which is filled with hope for the human race.  While he stresses that it is the individual choices we make which will prod the world into a transitional, transformative epoch, these choices have to start from a place that we may not even know exists for us:

To act voluntarily requires not only that we be conscious of the choices before us (the outer world) but also that we be conscious of ourselves as we select among those choices (the inner world).  We must be conscious of both choices and chooser if we are to act voluntarily.  Put differently, to act voluntarily is to act in a self-determining manner.  But who is the “self” making the determinations of behavior? … The point is that the more precise and sustained is our conscious knowing of ourselves, the more voluntary or choiceful can be our participation in life… The more conscious we are of our passage through life, the more skillfully we can act, and the more harmonious can be the relationship between our inner experience and our outer expression.

So, if you are really looking for a way to legally reduce your tax liability to the Federal Government next year, one way to do it is to adopt a life of voluntary simplicity–deliberately choosing what will feed your purpose in life, and discarding all the rest.  That may be the best tax shelter there is.

Foodbyte #1: Questions to Chew On about Eating

4424752For my birthday last week, my daughter gave me a book by Christopher D. Cook called Diet for A Dead Planet:  Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.  I haven’t really started reading it in earnest yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  As I mentioned in my early post about Lent:  A Tool for Simplifying, reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma set me off on a Lenten challenge to give up high fructose corn syrup.  In addition, it really incited in me an interest in food politics, and it ultimately changed the way I eat.   In fact, when I quit my corporate job last year to become a consultant, part of the reason I left was because I recognized that I couldn’t change the way I eat and simultaneously work the hours I was working. 

As a person who once made instant mashed potatoes for her son believing that she was making him pancakes, I obviously do not approach this point of view from the vantage point of being a food snob.  On the contrary, my goal in eating, most of the time anyway, is to be able to check it off on my daily to-do list.  I have always been a complete failure in the kitchen and relied heavily on the nice assortment of fast food chains lining the main thoroughfare of my town.  So, I realized that if I were to take my diet into my own hands, it was going to be a huge challenge.   I had to go right back to the drawing board.  And I think that as a nation we are starting to think the same thing.   We need to get back to basics.

Undoing our bad dietary habits will not be easy.  It will be like untangling a pile of fishing line.  Or maybe it will be more like breaking up a bar fight—because food certainly is a passion for many of us.  The way we cling to our eating patterns–well, as the old cigarette commercial used to say, we’d rather fight than switch.  It’s amazing how primal our feelings about food are, and if we can’t address this fact, we are going to remain absolutely impotent before the forces that are doing us harm.

And the forces are many– to name a few: 

  • The outmoded policies of the Department of Agriculture
  • Every corporation with a vested stake in what goes on the supermarket shelves
  • Our dual income, acquisitive culture which puts time at work before healthy home-cooked meals
  • Our personal cravings and sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), which have been exploited by manufacturers for profit. 
  • The slippery slope we have been rolling down for decades which has permitted us to accept some really outrageous industrial practices, and take for granted others which simply don’t even make sense.

To effect serious and long-lasting change at an individual level, it will take a slow digestion (excuse the pun) of why are are where we are in America today.  That is, we are exploding in an epidemic of cardiac disease, diabetes, and other diseases that can be largely controlled simply by watching what we eat and exercising.   And we really aren’t aware of the silent puppeteers pulling our strings and making our efforts doomed from the start.

Last year (around the time I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma), I was conducting an interview with an endocrinologist, who, when asked if her patients are unable to control their diabetes simply because they are non-compliant with their therapy, she said, 

“The patients want to do what’s right.  But they are sabotaged by the supermarkets.  They pick up bread that says ‘whole grain’ but they don’t read the labels to see that they are really highly processed.  I’ve had to literally write a list of the specific products that they should be eating.” 

Because of the complexity of this issue, and also because I am not a nutritionist or a policy analyst– just a concerned citizen–my intention here is not to teach, but to ask questions, and provide possible resources for answers.  So, I will be writing ongoing bite-sized pieces of information that may be helpful in building awareness and understanding about eating as well as tools to aid in making changes.  

Here are some questions that I have been asking myself for a year now:

  • Does it make sense that most of the farms in the US have become monocultures, when crop rotation has multiple economic and environmental benefits such as avoiding the build-up of pathogens and pests, balancing the fertility demands of various crops; avoiding excessive depletion of soil nutrients and improving soil structure and fertility?
  • If we are such a compassionate society, how can we tolerate the deplorable lives millions of sentient beings spend in factory farms and feedlots?    
  • Why are farm subsidies actually hurting our farmers?
  • If factory farmers “finish” cattle (i.e., get them up to proper weight for slaughter) with corn and corn byproducts to make them fatter faster, what do all these ubiquitous corn products in our food, such as high fructose corn syrup, do to us?
  • What do we have to gain economically and physically by investing time and money in  “real” food?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions for sure, but I’m trying to learn.  So I will be sharing information.   My goal would be to try to come up with solutions that are forward-looking–not: all women should quit their jobs and go back to the kitchen, but solutions that are relevant for the culture we now find ourselves in.   To that end, I welcome dialogue for brainstorming, so please feel free to comment.  Look for “Foodbytes” blog entries about once a week.

In the meantime, here’s a great reading list from Treehugger.com:   9 Must Read Books on Eating Well

If you only have 20 minutes to spare, here’s an interesting Ted Talk given by Michael Pollan.  You can watch it at work while you’re eating lunch.

Bon Appetit!

Richard Foster’s 10-Fold Path to Simplicity

Richard Foster is a Quaker minister and mystic, whose Celebration of Discipline is a classic in the books about spirituality. He writes frequently on the topic of simplicity, and in fact, has an entire book on the topic called Freedom of Simplicity. He believes that simplicity starts as an interior exercise, manifested later in outward practices.

To spur me on in my Lenten quest to let go, I turned today to one of my favorite chapters in Celebration of Discipline, which is called, appropriately, “Simplicity.” Here is an excerpted and abridged version of his 10 ways to achieve outward simplicity. I encourage you to get or borrow a copy of his book and read the chapter in its entirety, and to pay particular attention to his thoughts on inward simplicity, which I am not going to discuss in this post, even though that means I’m putting the cart before the horse to some degree.

  1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Cars should be bought for their utility, not their prestige. Consider your clothes. Most people have no need for more clothes. They buy more not because they need clothes, but because they want to keep up with the fashions. Hang the fashions!
  2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you. Learn to distinguish between a real psychological need, like cheerful surroundings, and an addiction. Any of the media that you find you cannot do without, get rid of. If money has a grip on your heart, give some away and feel the inner release. 
  3. Develop a habit of giving things away. If you find that you are becoming attached to some possession, consider giving it to someone who needs it. De-accumulate! Masses of things that are not needed complicate life. They must be sorted and stored and dusted and resorted and restored ad nauseum.
  4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry. Most gadgets are built to break down and wear out and so complicate our lives rather than enhance them. Usually gadgets are an unnecessary drain on the energy resources of the world. Environmental responsibility alone should keep us from buying the majority of the gadgets produced today.
  5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Owning things is an obsession in our culture. If we own it, we feel we can control it; and if we can control it, we feel it will give us more pleasure. The idea is an illusion. Enjoy the beach without feeling you have to buy a piece of it. 
  6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation. Get close to the earth. Walk whenever you can. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the texture of grass and leaves. Smell the flowers. Marvel in the rich colors everywhere. 
  7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. They are a trap and only deepen your bondage. Certainly prudence, as well as simplicity, demands that we use extreme caution before incurring debt. 
  8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech. ‘Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil.’ (Matt. 5:37) If you consent to do a task, do it. Avoid flattery and half-truths. Make honesty and integrity the distinguishing characteristics of your speech. 
  9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others. Do we sip our coffee and eat our bananas at the expense of exploiting Latin American peasants? In a world of limited resources, does our lust for wealth mean the poverty of others? Should be buy products that are made by forcing people into dull assembly-line jobs? Do we enjoy hierarchical relationships in the company or factory that keep others under us? Do we oppress our children or spouse because we feel certain tasks are beneath us? 
  10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God. It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good things. Job, position, status, family, friends, security—these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention.

Kicking Ourselves Out of Suburban Nests: Building a New Kind of Levittown


Tim Burton's depiction of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands--a surreal version of the truth

Tim Burton's depiction of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands--a surreal version of the truth

We form pictures in our heads of what we dream our lives will be like in 5, 10, 20 years.  Generally, our dreams are formed by happy memories, environments that have been comfortable and safe, our parents’ dreams for us, and pop culture cues.  

When I was fourteen I had a clear picture in my head of what my dream home would look like and it wasn’t a copy of the Brady Bunch house –it was an apartment in Greenwich Village.  Coming from a Connecticut suburb, I had no idea whatsoever what it meant to have an apartment in the Village, but I had read a story which formed romantic thoughts about having a little atelier overlooking Washington Square.  

My parents had lived the post-War American Dream.   My dad had built our little cape cod pretty much on his own, since his dad had given him a new lumber yard to manage when he got out of the Navy.  My brothers and I grew up there, walking to the neighborhood school past all the other little square houses on the way.    When we played outside, all Mom had to do was call out our names, and we’d go running.   It all seemed so safe, and each neighborhood was its own nest.

So, when I told my mother that my dream was to live in Greenwich Village, she said, “Mmmm.”  A couple of weeks later, she suggested to my stepfather that we go for a drive.  “Where shall we go?” he asked.   “Um, how about New York?  That would be fun!”  So off we went down Interstate 95 and into Manhattan.   I had been to Times Square and many of the the other midtown landmarks, and they never ceased to thrill.  But we drove out of midtown and the glitz got less glitzy, the buildings slightly greyer, until Mom managed to get us to a bunch of blocks that were a far cry from any romantic idea of New York in my head. No, suddenly I was looking at iron grates strewn with graffiti, unfriendly looking people lingering in doorways.  Where were the cute shops?  Where were the tree-lined streets?   Where were the artists in the park?   

“Well, honey,” Mom said twisting her head around from the front seat so she could fully appreciate the expression on my face.  “Here’s Greenwich Village!”   To this day I don’t know what small part of the Village she had taken me to, nor how she had so carefully avoided all the other blocks of downtown New York where the place of my imagination would have been realized, but her mission had been accomplished.  My face registered bewilderment and disappointment, and I never spoke of living in Manhattan again–at least until I was old enough to see for myself that my mother had been doing her typical Mom thing, trying to recalibrate my dreams to match the ones she had for me.   

Time Magazine’s provocative cover story this week, “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,”  Idea #2, Recycling the Suburbs by Bryan Walsh, nudged me out of any warm-fuzzy feelings about the type of neighborhood that I grew up in, and the type I raised my own children in.  Suburban sprawl may be on life-support.  Many will bid good riddance to the model of single family homes sequestered from the business side of town; double-width driveways and barbecue decks and the hum of riding mowers.  Towns where, if you decide to walk to the post office or convenience store and a neighbor passes you in their car, they assume your car has broken down and they offer you a ride.  When you say, you are doing it for the exercise and the pleasure of walking, they look at you funnily–as if to say, “Well then, why don’t you live in Manhattan?”

The reason suburbs may be doomed is because they are built on an outdated premise–that fuel will always be plentiful and cheap–and we now know that this is not true, which makes suburbia unsustainable.   But there are other reasons the suburbs have lost their luster.  The suburbs in many cases have failed to fulfill the promises they made.  The term “bedroom community” means that you’re only there to sleep because you spend so much time commuting to your job.   Isolation born out of this type of nesting has been written about in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  

Luckily, there are all kinds of visionary urban planners and architects and others who are trying to formulate a new model for the 21st century:   one of mixed-use areas, where retail shops and residences and offices come together holistically like many of the little towns in Europe that are still like that.  I remember being in Haversom, outside of Amsterdam, where you could bike or walk anywhere–and people did.  It was not unusual at all to see septuagenarians pedaling their groceries back home on their bicycles and what’s more,  the village infrastructure supported their efforts with bike paths that integrated with the pedestrian walkways and the roads for the cars.

The point is this:   Looking to a future where the American Dream is redefined sounds nice, but will require that some of us raised in subdivisions let go of nostalgia for the American Dream of the Past.   How do we reverse the trajectory from cape code to split level to McMansions and beyond?  For many of us, I think we need to detach from dream homes in our heads and ask ourselves questions like:

  • What aspects of community am I really looking for, and how do I expect them to be realized?
  • How much square footage do I really need, and can my need for space and privacy be satisfied with less?
  • Why do I want a lawn? 
  • How much do I value my time, and do I want to spend it commuting?
  • How do I define safety?  
  • How independent do I want my children to be?  What activities will foster that?
  • What aspects of my childhood home am I looking to re-create?   What dreams did I have for a home when I was young?  Are some of these emotional drivers still valid, or do they need to be re-examined or perhaps repackaged?   
  • What specific impact will my choice for home and neighborhood have on the environment?  It has been shown that city-dwellers have much less impact on the environment than their nature-seeking neighbors in the outlying suburbs.   How do I reconcile this with my personal need for a “best of both worlds” between city and country?

 If you still get misty at the thought of the Old American Dream, Bryan Walsh makes a great case for letting go of the past in this week’s TIME.   Perhaps we can all envision a new kind of Levittown with a new kind of community life that supports the environment, as well as our need for real community.  

Perhaps someday a young girl will have a dream of living in the suburbs, and so her mother will drive her into a world of dying strip malls, a world of neighbors who live isolated lives behind their manicured lawns, who leave the development in single-lane streams before the sun is up to get to work by 9.   And the young girl will say, “Mom, please take me back home–this place is scary!”