05 February 2012

What Will You Choose? (Feb. 2012)

Two of my friends moved recently. Both of them called me, independent of each other, to tell me that A) they have too much stuff; B) they feel immensely liberated as a result of purging much of their stuff; and C) they are committed to not mindlessly re-accumulating an excess of possessions.

Which is music, naturally, to my ears. But not just because I’m a professional organizer and want to help people de-clutter. Teaching people how to let go of too many things is often where I come on board, but what I really want is to teach people how to ride the Sidestepping Materialism train from much earlier in their journey. Imagine having not acquired all your stuff in the first place!

And yet our culture pushes us toward purchasing. Our economy depends upon ever-widening spirals of growth. (Wasn’t it Edward Abbey who said that “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of a cancer cell”?) Our society is focused on production and profit, much more so than on relationship and sharing. Which means that, as a society, we value things over life and treat each other, our environment, and other living beings accordingly.

What if, instead of putting our life energy into accumulating possessions, we made our relationships our primary focus? What if we stopped buying all but the truly necessary (remembering that beauty is also necessary, as is joy) and gave our time, instead, to creating healthy relationships and healing the world around us? What if we stayed mindful of the urge to fill our emptiness, our longing for meaning and connection, with yet another acquisition and, instead, reached out to connect with another living being? What if we chose love over things?

Last month I wrote about pondering the meaning of life and what matters, as well as how to choose actions that will make the most positive difference. I continue to think about these matters, especially as people I love approach the end of their lives. And I continue to return to love – acts of love, not the abstraction of love – as being the most important guiding light. (Certainly, as we lie on our deathbed, our stuff isn’t what we look back on as having been important.)

Sometimes I think that love is the most revolutionary act of all.

Quotes of the Month

What if the point of life has nothing to do with the creation of an ever-expanding region of control? What if the point is not to keep at bay all those people, beings, objects, and emotions that we so needlessly fear? What if the point instead is to let go of that control? What if the point of life, the primary reason for existence, is to lie naked with your lover in the shady grove of trees? What if the point is to taste each other's sweat and feel the delicate pressure of finger on chest, thigh on thigh, lip on cheek? What if the point is to stop, then, in your slow movements together, and listen to birdsong, to watch dragonflies hover, to look at your lover's face, then up at the undersides of leaves moving together in the breeze? What if the point is to invite these others into your movement, to bring trees, wind, grass, dragonflies into your family and in so doing abandon any attempt to control them? What if the point all along has been to get along, to relate, and experience things on their own terms? What if the point is to feel joy when joyous, love when loving, anger when angry, thoughtful when full of thought? What if the point from the beginning has been to simply be?
– Derrick Jensen

In being with dying, we arrive at a natural crucible of what it means to love and be loved. And we can ask ourselves this: Knowing that death is inevitable, what is most precious today?
– Roshi Joan Halifax

“I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.
– Diane Ackerman

I am only so beautiful as the character of my relationships, only so rich as I enrich those around me, only so alive as I enliven those I greet.
– Derrick Jensen

Happiness is love, nothing else. A man who is capable of love is happy.
– Hermann Hesse

Recipe of the Month

Heart-Healthy Oat Bran Muffins

2-1/4 cups oat bran
1/4 cup flax meal (optional)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 cup sugar (or maple syrup)
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Beat in
1-1/4 cups milk
1 egg
2 overripe squirshed bananas
1 teaspoon vanilla

Raisins, apples, blueberries, or blackberries
Walnuts or pecans could be nice, too…

Put in muffin tins lined with paper liners (they don't rise much, so go ahead and fill almost full)

Bake at 450 for approx. 15 minutes, until browned.

Makes one dozen muffins and a small loaf.

Where to from Here? (Jan. 2012)

New Year’s Day, and I’m sitting here wondering what words of wisdom to impart. What could I possibly say that has meaning and that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? I certainly have no interest in writing about resolutions or goals, or even getting organized.

And yet, January 1st offers us a symbolic opportunity to examine our lives, our desires, our direction, offers us a symbolic moment in which to plot a different course. Who do we want to be and where do we want to go? What really matters – to us, to the world – and what are we willing to do to align our lives with that answer?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately, mostly within the context of how to make the most positive difference in the world, especially in relationship to the land. What matters most? To me, the answer always comes back to love – of my people, my animals, and my piece of earth. (Note: I do not use “my” in a possessive sense here, but in a relational one.) My question has been: staying true to my nature – i.e., using my skills and talents within the scope of my interests, a criteria that I believe is necessary in order for any of my actions to be sustainable – what actions can I take that are founded in love and increase the well-being of those entities I treasure – be they two-legged, four-legged, winged, rooted, or flowing? What changes can I make that will make this world a bit more lovely and whole?

My answer keeps coming back to “I don’t know.” I know what I want. I want my property to be self-sustaining and off the grid. I want to have my loved ones gathered near so I never need to worry about being so far away from them if (when?) the electricity and communication lines go down and gas becomes either unavailable or too exorbitant for me to drive to see them. In my dreams, we all live within walking or biking distance, and between us we grow enough food and have enough clean running water to provide for us all. But this is a pipe dream, if only because there is no way all my loved ones would come live here. And I have neither the know-how nor the oomph to make my property self-sustaining. (Although I welcome help, if anyone out there wants to pitch in!)

And so I come back to reality, wondering what I can do. I can tend my chickens and share their eggs. I can plant a vegetable garden and share the produce. I can gather friends around delicious meals and build connections. I can remember to say “I love you” in both words and deeds every day. I can continue to learn, and share what I learn with others. And yeah, I can help you get organized so you can share your gifts more readily.

But is this enough?

I guess the other thing I can do is to continue listening for guidance.

May we all be blessed with wise guidance and the courage to go where we’re led.

Quotes of the Month

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more.
– John O’Donohue

You see the earth as a bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament in the black sky. It’s so small and so fragile – you realize that on that small spot is everything that means anything to you, all of history and art and death and birth and love.
– Russell Schweikart

If you follow your own thoughts, if you follow your own morals, if you choose to protect those you love most, and to protect your landbase (presuming that you love your landbase, but if you do not then you can choose something else), if you choose your own battlefields, what battles do you choose? What do you do? How do you act? Who are you?
– Derrick Jensen

A humble life dedicated to a great purpose, becomes great.
– Paul Brunton

Recipe of the Month

It’s Dungeness Crab season! Here are the best crab cakes I’ve ever tasted.

Sweet Potato Crab Cakes with Citronet

Sauté one sliced leek and one small red bell pepper in butter until soft but still brightly colored.

Boil one garnet yam (approximately ¼ pound) until soft. Remove skin.

Mash the yam with:
1 egg
Sautéed leek and red bell pepper
1 teaspoon fresh minced oregano
1 teaspoon fresh minced parsley
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ pound fresh crab meat
2/3 cup panko

Form into cakes. Coat each cake with a bit more panko, then sear in hot oil until deep golden brown.


Place in a small pot and bring to a boil:
5 ounces Martinelli’s apple juice
1 lemon (zest and juice)
1 or 2 limes (zest and juice)
¼ cup sugar
pinch of salt

Once boiling, whisk in a slurry of ½ Tablespoon corn starch and 1/8 cup cold water. Allow to simmer for 30 seconds, then add in 1/3 cup of diced roasted red peppers.

Remove from heat and use as a bed on which to serve the crab cakes.

Spirit of the Season (Dec. 2011)

My life has opened up wide of late. It is as if the universe has decluttered my heart and time, forcefully removed anything and everything that no longer serves my highest good in order to create room for something new, something yet to be revealed. I can kick and scream and protest, or I can accept these changes with a soupçon of grace, staying open and willing until that mysterious something new is unveiled.

I have no idea what or who is on the way, nor when it will arrive. I only know that I have far too much time on my hands, and that the message has come to me from several directions that I should use this time to be of service. I am a firm believer in “doing the footwork and turning over the results,” so I have started being of help where I can, figuring that whatever steps I take now are leading me to where I need to be. I spent three hours on Sunday stuffing envelopes for Democracy Unlimited; today I proofread a directory for a nonprofit organization; and I am on the waiting list for the next training through Schools of Hope, through which I will help a child with literacy skills, primarily by reading to them every week.

Not much, but these steps are a start. It’s funny. I went to hear Derrick Jensen speak last week, and afterwards went up to him to tell him that I’d just fallen in love with him and to give him my card. We spoke briefly, and then he thanked me for my activism. Did he think that I was a political organizer? I always laugh when people assume so, saying no, that’s the other side of my family. (My cousins are all political activists.) I almost corrected him, almost explained that I am not an activist, that there is nothing to be thanking me for. But I didn’t.

Later, thinking about the concept of activism, I realized that maybe I am an activist in my own quiet little way. If the personal is political, then how I live my life is a form of activism. I raise happy organic hens who provide delicious, inexpensive eggs for six or seven households. I live as lightly and as consciously on this earth as I can. I love as many people and critters as I can. I move through this world with honesty and kindness and compassion, with a smile and kind words for strangers, and a hug for the guys at my grocery store. I cook delicious meals and feed friends whenever I can. I teach people how to be more efficient so that they can be their best in the world. And I donate money and, when I have it, produce from my garden to Food for People.

Which brings us to Christmas and this season of giving. By now, you’re probably deep in the thick of it, sucked into the vortex of rampant consumerism. I don’t suppose I can convince you to side-step the seasonal insanity, especially if you are among those who truly enjoy the giving of presents. But can I entice you to reframe your concept of giving, if not to replace the giving of things, then to augment it?

Here is what I ask of you: instead of stuff, give of yourself. Ask yourself, “Where can I best be of service?” And then go there. Do it. Be of service. This is what the season is really about. It is about coming together as community, sharing our stored bounty with each other in celebration, helping those who need help, gathering around the fire for warmth as we brave our way through the long cold nights and too-short days. It is about making sure that those who need food, have food; who need shelter, have shelter; who need warmth, have warmth; who need love, have love. We all have something important to give. For goodness’ sake, let it be a gift of real value, a gift of service and heart.

Quotes of the Month

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. – The Dalai Lama

When I am searching for the ways to stay in love, I hear Maharajji saying, 'Feed people, serve people, love everybody, tell the truth.' So I serve more … and I find myself more in love. What is wonderful is that the love lies not outside as a reward, like a gold star for being a good helper, but within the act itself. For when you offer yourself in service, it opens your own heart so that you may once again taste the sweetness of your own heart’s innate compassion. – Ram Dass

Your life is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God. – Eric Butterworth

Recipe of the Month

Winter Salad

Wash and cut beets into 2 to 3 inch chunks. Drizzle with olive oil and bake until tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle, then remove skins and slice.

In a salad bowl, combine:

Sliced roasted beets
Toasted pecans
Satsuma tangerine segments
Sliced green onion
Crumbled gorgonzola or feta cheese

Toss with dressing made from:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/8 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cloves crushed garlic
a splash of maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste

Attention, please... (September 2011)

The signs have been revealing themselves for a week now. A subtle change in light, cool mornings, spider webs sparkling with dew. “Fall’s here,” people are saying, “can you feel it?” This morning I turned on the hot water faucet to undeniable evidence: the water was cold coming out of the tap.

We know the seasons are changing because we notice the little details. And isn’t that what makes life so delightful, all those details? Certainly they’re what bring my life joy. Listening to the hens cackle all morning, inhaling the perfume of pennyroyal as I walk past the pastures, eating a sun-warmed blackberry straight off the cane, noticing the barber-pole swirls of bark climbing a redwood, petting a purring cat (or three)…

A couple of weeks ago, on a quiet mid-morning, grey with coastal overcast, I was hanging my laundry on the line in full faith that the fog would burn off to reveal yet another blue summer day. The cats were nearby, as they always are when I hang laundry. Zachary was licking Jules’ forehead, a tender grooming that inevitably leads into kitty wrassling, while Ochosi watched and Henry Hunter wondered how he could get in on the action. The chickens were roaming, scratching and pecking and clucking – those who weren’t in a nest getting ready to lay an egg – and some of them gathered around my feet, waiting to have their rears scratched, their tail feathers ruffled. As I pinned my damp clothes to the line, I realized that I was completely, peacefully happy, that it is on mornings like this when I’m hanging clothes out to dry that I am most content. To be engaged in such a simple task, surrounded by happy critters, with each sense alive to beauty: colorful clothes against a backdrop of pastoral river valley and wooded hills; birds singing; chickens and cats carrying on; a subtle scent of ozone and cut grass; soft perfect-temperature air… these are my perfect moments.

Principle #8 is to Slow Down and Pay Attention. I call it the Zen practice of being organized. As you move through September, notice the details that make you smile, and give them a quiet, appreciative nod. Your life will be richer for it.

Tip of the Month

Krishnamurti wrote: “When you concentrate on a subject, on a talk, on a conversation, consciously or unconsciously you build a wall of resistance against the intrusion of other thoughts, and so your mind is not wholly there; it is only partially there, however much attention you pay, because part of your mind is resisting any intrusion, any deviation or distraction… If you listen both to the sound of the bell and to the silence between its strokes, the whole of that listening is attention. Similarly, when someone is speaking, attention is the giving of your mind not only to the words but also to the silence between the words. … [B]e all the time aware so that your mind is all the time attentive without being caught in the process of exclusion. … If your mind has space, then in that space there is silence – and from that silence everything else comes, for then you can listen, you can pay attention without resistance. That is why it is very important to have space in the mind. If the mind is not overcrowded, not ceaselessly occupied, then it can listen to that dog barking, to the sound of a train crossing the distant bridge, and also be
fully aware of what is being said by the person talking here. Then the mind is a living thing.”

Years ago, when I taught fourth grade, I would have my students close their eyes and just listen for a few minutes, noticing what sounds they heard. It was always surprising to realize how many sounds we tuned out. As an exercise in building awareness and attention to detail, try it. Close your eyes and listen. That’s all – just notice. What do you hear?

Quotes of the Month

One instant of total awareness is one instant of perfect freedom and enlightenment. – Manjushri

Do not seek with cold eyes to find blemishes, or the roses will turn to thorns as you gaze. – Sabisistari

If you pay attention at every moment, you form a new relationship to time. In some magical way, by slowing down, you become more efficient, productive, and energetic, focusing without distraction directly on the task in front of you. Not only do you become immersed in the moment, you become that moment. – Michael Ray

Attention enables us to step back from our waking dream, while at the same time bringing us closer to a true encounter with our life. It serves to clear out all that we add to this bare moment, and lets us see it as it is. – Philip Martin

Recipe of the Month

Claire’s Stuffed Zucchini

Quarter two large (not gargantuan monsters, just decent-sized) zukes. Place them face down in a 9 x 13 Pyrex with a bit of water covering the bottom. Cover the top with foil and bake until the zucchini “meat” is tender. Remove and allow to cool enough to be handled without scalding your fingers.

While the zukes are baking, sauté
1 diced onion (medium, yellow or white)

When the onions are translucent, add
8 to 10 sliced mushrooms
3 to 4 chopped garlic cloves (good sized; if the cloves are puny, use 8 to 10 of them)

Once the mushrooms have cooked, remove from heat and stir in
1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon of yellow curry powder (to taste)
1 to 2 teaspoons of dry thyme
2 to 3 Tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce

Use a spoon to remove the zucchini “meat” from its shell, and add the “meat” into the onions/mushrooms/garlic. (Leave the shells, face up like little empty rowboats, in the Pyrex and remove the extra water.) Use the spoon to mash the zucchini so that it doesn’t have any lumps and is blended in with the onions, etc.

You will have extra liquid in the mixture at this point, thanks to the zukes. (Note: this is not the liquid you removed from the Pyrex. That was to be discarded, or reserved for a veggie broth, or something.) Add enough bread crumbs (I use seasoned) to sop up the liquid, making the veggies a solid – but not dry – consistency.

Mix in about 1 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese.

Spoon the mixture back into the zucchini shells (they’ll be heaping once filled).

Bake, uncovered, at 350 until nicely browned, about 20 to 30 minutes.

… and the livin’ is easy (July 2011)

The days stretch long, work has shrunk to a trickle, and I’m enjoying every moment of every day, even more so when the sun deigns to shine upon our coastal clime. It is okay, I have decided, to play. And to paraphrase Cat Steven’s, “oh Lord, how she plays and plays, for that happy day, for that happy day.”

Summer in Humboldt is bursting with activities. Within the past two weeks, I have paddled kayaks in the bay, laughed myself silly at not one but two showings of Dell Arte’s “Mary Jane: The Musical,” picnicked atop a craggy rock overlooking wooded valleys and distant mountains, explored a 30-mile-long back road through undeveloped woodlands and fields, attended a Crabs double-header, and danced at the free Thursday night concerts on the boardwalk. This coming weekend I join friends for a showing of the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s annual free play in the park down in Berkeley. (For those of you who don’t know, they do not perform mime; they are one of the country’s leading political theater groups). Later this summer I’m joining another friend for a few days at her cabin in Kirkwood. And I’ve got tickets to see Willie Nelson in early September. (Yay!)

I’ve been playing at home, too. The chickens, of course, provide endless amusement, as do the cats. (Yes, I’m easily amused.) The garden offers flowers for arranging and vegetables with which to devise tasty dishes. The library keeps me supplied with mind candy (I’m still on a Terry Pratchett run), and my friends gracefully and repeatedly whoop me at Scrabble. Even hanging laundry out to dry provides delight, as does walking 2.5 miles most evenings as the light moves through its golden stage into dusk and the skunks skip at a safe distance through nearby pastures.

And then there are the things I’d still like to do: camp along the Mattole, kayak at Big Lagoon, catch a few more plays, and of course see the new Harry Potter movie when it arrives. Summer is so brief; already the days are shortening, although I am practicing fervent denial of this fact. And life is short. So I encourage you to play, too, whatever play looks like to you. And if you’d like company, give me a call. I may just be free to come along.

Tip of the Month

Summer vacation often means travel. I am not going to tell you how to organize for travel (although I can talk you through how to organize your car if you’d like). Rather, I’d like to share the most important lesson I ever learned about traveling: let go of expectation. Every single time, no exceptions, that I’ve gone into an experience with expectations, I’ve been disappointed. When I’ve been able to go in with an open mind, however -- when I’ve been able to simply experience a situation or person or place as it is -- I’ve enjoyed the experience. The best travel tip I can offer is to go with the flow and accept things as they are, see the beauty and joy and blessings in what is instead of what we’d hoped would be.

Quotes of the Month

As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer expectations we have, the more good things of life become unexpected gifts that we accept with gratitude. -- Etty Hillesum

Why fill the heart with hopes? Leave it empty for God. -- Robert Mertens

Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. -- Alice Walker

It is simple. We are where we should be, doing what we should be doing. Otherwise we would be somewhere else, doing something else. -- Richard Stine

Mistakes are the portals of discovery. -- James Joyce

For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain. -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Recipe of the Month

Peach Galette

Preheat oven to 375

Prepare a crust using:
1 cup flour
½ cup cold butter
1 Tablespoon sugar
about 5 Tablespoons of cold water or milk
(Optional – a small sprinkling of cinnamon)

Roll out and place on a cookie sheet.

In the center of the rolled crust, artfully arrange peach slices in concentric circles, leaving about 3 inches of the crust uncovered. You can sprinkle the peaches with a bit of sugar, or not, depending on the sweetness of the peaches and your preference. I find this comes out fine without any sugar.

Fold the crust on top of the peaches, leaving the center fruit uncovered.

Bake until a rich golden brown, probably about 45 minutes.

Moving Beyond Yourself (June 2011)

"Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time." – Shirley Chisholm

Generally, we think of service as something big – something, indeed, to do in our spare time, and how many of us have much of that? But service is in the little gestures, too. And it isn’t limited to other humans.

I was thinking about service recently as I went about my daily chores of tending to the chickens and cats, and pulling (endless!) weeds in the garden. I realized that my chores were a form of service to the animals and land for which I have accepted responsibility. I serve the critters by making sure they have fresh food and water, clean shelter, medical care, and affection. I serve my land by safeguarding it from poisons, working compost back into the soil, and keeping it beautiful.

And the land serves me – nay, all of us – in return. Last Tuesday I harvested my extra artichokes and took them to the Food Bank. A client there was delighted to see fresh produce brought in by an individual; she thanked me. As I explained to her, I’ve been homeless a few times over the years (never on the streets, thank goodness – and the kindness of friends), and there was a time when my partner and I needed the help of a local food bank. These days, in part because of my service to the land, I have bounty to share, so I do.

Several years ago, I wrote a somewhat controversial article for a professional organizers’ newsletter on ethical organizing. In it, I talked about not being in this business for the money, but to be of service. Helping others become organized is a gift with which I was blessed. I use this gift to make the world a better place, to help others remove obstacles so that they can share their
unique gifts. If someone is serious about wanting my help, I’ll find a way to give it. Sometimes, when I feel so guided, I work for free – simply to be of service.

Service doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as putting chairs away after an event, or listening to a friend who needs an understanding ear. Or it can be a larger commitment, like walking dogs weekly at the animal shelter or volunteering at your favorite nonprofit. (Years ago, I volunteered with an adult literacy program, teaching adults how to read.) What matters is not so much how we serve as that we serve.

Tip of the Month
Service takes the focus off ourselves. It humbles us, removes us from our ego, includes us as part of the whole instead of keeping us separate. If you are feeling lonely, overwhelmed, depressed, or otherwise off balance, stop what you’re doing and go be of service. Get out of yourself by giving of yourself. Not sure what to do? Call me (707-268-8585) and I’ll talk it through with you, help you explore options and come up with a plan – my service to you.

Quotes of the Month
Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service. – Mother Teresa

There is nothing to make you like other human beings so much as doing things for them. – Zora Neale Hurston

If someone listens, or stretches out a hand, or whispers a kind word of encouragement, or attempts to understand a lonely person, extraordinary things begin to happen. – Loretta Girzartis

The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them. – Benjamin Jewett

Recipe of the Month

At Saturday Farmers’ Market, Claudia’s Herbs has their unbelievably beautiful China Rose garlic available now. Here’s my favorite use of it.

Claire's Bruschetta
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the topping by chopping the daylights out of the following ingredients
and then combining them in a bowl with salt, pepper, and olive oil. (Start with
1/4 cup of oil, then add more if you so desire.)

Topping Ingredients:
One small onion, preferably sweet – Walla Wallas are good
LOTS of garlic – 6 to 8 decent-sized cloves
One tomato (diced, don’t chop this one as finely as the other ingredients)
Basil – somewhere between 1/2 cup and 1 cup’s worth of leaves

Slice a sourdough baguette (seeded is tasty, if it’s available) in half, lengthwise.

Place the slices, crust-side down, on a cookie sheet.

Generously spoon the topping onto the two halves of baguette.

On top of this, place grated cheese –fontina, emmental, gouda, or parrano work well – as thickly or thinly as you like.

Put the whole shebang in a pre-heated 350-degree oven and bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown.

Devour (but not too quickly – food doesn’t taste as good when you’ve burnt your tongue!)

A Midweek Walk (May 2011)

“When before the beauty of a sunset or a mountain, you pause and exclaim, ‘Ah,’ you are participating in divinity.” -- Joseph Campbell

Thursday morning found me out near Whitethorn, a rural area in southwestern Humboldt County, with a few extra hours on my hands. I decided to explore a bit, see where the road went. After navigating my way to the end of the paved country highway and down a few miles of rutted dirt road, I found myself at Needle Rock, part of the Sinkyone Wilderness, where I parked the car and started walking north along the narrow trail. Oh my God – what beauty! The ocean was to my leftt. Conifer-covered hills were to my right. In front and all around me were rolling, verdant pastures studded with clumps of wild iris. There wasn’t another soul in sight. I was in heaven.

In contrast, I remember the last job I had when I lived in Oakland, 18 years ago. I was the office manager for a chiropractor, working in a building – like so many buildings in Oakland – that had bars on the windows. Spring would come and I’d be aching to be outdoors. Instead I was behind bars, feeling chained to the desk and phone. Short of playing hooky, there was no way I could be out in God’s country on a Thursday morning.

Around that time, I went to hear Vicki Robbins speak about her book (with Joe Dominguez), Your Money Or Your Life, and learned about Voluntary Simplicity and living an authentic life. Over the ensuing years, I endeavored to create a life that allowed me to live in synch with my values, a life that gave me ample time to be of service and connect with Mama Earth.

I have created that life. How did I get here? Mostly by living simply, not buying or owning too many things and thereby not needing to work full time to support the typical American pattern of conspicuous consumption. But also by staying aware and making conscious choices based on my values. So now I can spend a weekday hiking through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth instead of being (energetically) chained to a desk.

And if I can do it, so can you, if you decide you truly want to. Of course, my version of the simple life will look different from yours. Not everyone wants to raise chickens and vegetables and bake her own bread, or live in the country with a sky full of stars at night and deer out the kitchen window in the morning. This is my version of the good life. I encourage you to envision yours, and then begin making it real.

Tip of the Month
Make a mind map of your perfect life. What does it look like? Feel like? Smell like? What time of day do you get up and go to bed? Who shares your daily life with you? What activities are you doing? What skills are you using? What are your motivating values? Fill in as many details as you can think of, and then ask more questions of yourself and fill in even more details! And then, if you’re willing, share your thoughts and vision with me. I’d love to see your dreams and support you in making them come true.

Quotes of the Month
…simple living is living in balance between poverty and excess, in a way that supports rather than entangles our existence as whole human beings. It requires learning the difference between our needs and wants, the necessary and the superfluous, the useful and the wasteful; it requires preserving what is vital and eliminating the extra – considering what is good for the rest of humanity and the Earth as well as what is good for ourselves. When we identify what our true needs are and how we can satisfy those needs, we can begin to pare away the excess.” -- Debra Lynn Dadd

In the rush of modern industrial society and in the attempt to maintain our image as successful persons, we feel that we have lost touch with a deeper, more profound part of our being. Yet we feel that we have little time, energy, or cultural support to pursue those areas of life that we know are important. We long for a simpler way of life that allows us to restore some balance to our lives.” -- Ram Dass

Recipe of the Month

Cream Cake with Fresh Strawberries

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Grease an 8-inch square Pyrex

1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup cream
1 large egg

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Top with fresh sliced strawberries (sweetened if desired).

If you’re feeling really decadent, whip up some fresh cream, too!

Washing Away Winter (April 2011)

"Spring makes everything look filthy." 
- Katherine Whitehorn

Well, look there. That’s where my second cookie sheet disappeared to. And how’d my earring get back there? Amazing what we find when we move the stove…

I had a few requests to write about Spring Cleaning, which I agreed to address this month. To get in the spirit, I decided to begin the process for myself, starting with cleaning behind my stove. Not too bad back there; the expected dirt and dustballs, and only one tiny, dessicated shrew.

Why start with my stove? Well, partly because it’s easy to move, which makes it a simple success. But cleaning baseboards is also a quick, easy success, and I didn’t choose to start with them. I began in the kitchen because I associate Spring Cleaning with Passover, when we remove all the chametz (anything that has or can leaven) from the home. I am by no means thorough or orthodox in my approach to cleaning for Passover (technically, I’m not supposed to start until the new moon), but it’s as good an excuse as any to get behind the stove and wipe down the cupboards.

I have a friend who used to give me a hard time because I sweep my floors (almost) every day. But I can feel the difference energetically when I sweep; it lifts and removes not only dirt, but the energy that has drifted to the floor and begun to stagnate. Spring Cleaning removes a winter’s worth of stagnation from our home. It’s when we open the doors and windows, shake out the rugs, and wash everything we can think of – when we sweep and rinse months of cooped-up energy back outdoors.

Spring Cleaning is also one of several opportunities throughout the year to get a fresh start, to begin with a clean slate, if you will. Some people consider our inflated (risen) egos as another form of chametz. Which means that this time of year can also be a good opportunity to take a thorough inventory of ourselves and to remove the stagnations and impurities, the inflations, from within. Who knows? Maybe when we look inside – like when I looked behind my stove – it won’t be too bad, and we’ll even find something valuable that we’d thought we’d lost.

Tip of the Month

Remember: being clean is NOT the same as being organized. I’m organized. But living in the (muddy) country with four cats and heating with a wood stove makes it near impossible to keep my house clean. Tidy, yes. Immaculate? Hah! I don’t even try.

Still, being organized makes cleaning easier. Less clutter means less obstacles and less work. And applying a couple basic principles can help. Specifically, Keep It Simple Sweetie encourages us to:

Make a list of the projects we want to accomplish (so that we don’t have to hold it in our head, which can be stressful and ineffective).

Then do them one at a time spread out over time, rather than exhaust yourself trying to do them all in one day.

Principle #12, Ask for Help, is another life-saver. This can be anything from sweet-talking a strong friend into moving the fridge to coercing the kids into wiping down the baseboards. Or getting your good buddy to come over and keep you laughing while you work. If you can afford to do so, you could also hire someone to Spring Clean for you.

Quotes of the Month

All Nature seems at work.
Slugs leave their lair

The bees are stirring, birds are on the wing,

And Winter slumbering in the open air,

Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring. -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This outward spring and garden are a reflection of the inward garden. -- Rumi

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. -- Carl Jung

Strive each day to make your life purer, richer, and more luminous. You will subtly and imperceptibly lead all of creation heavenward. -- Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov

Recipe of the Month
Southeast Asian Shrimp/Rice Noodle Salad

Chop and lay out on a large platter:
One small head of lettuce (I use red butter)
A healthy handful of fresh cilantro
Several sprigs of fresh mint

You can also add a grated carrot and/or sliced green onions.

Top the vegetables with approximately 4 ounces of cooked rice noodles (Maifun).

Cook shelled shrimp in a dry skillet. (I am generous with the shrimp, usually allotting 9 or 10 for each person. Wood’s Wild American White Shrimp is especially delicious, and wild caught.) Place the shrimp on top of the cooked noodles.

Drizzle dressing over the salad, and sprinkle with toasted peanuts.

Dressing: (adjust to taste)
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
6 Tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon sesame oil
4 teaspoons sugar
grated ginger

Spring in the Balance (March 2011)

March first, and the winds came blowing hard ahead of the storm. They came not, however, from the south or west, from where we usually receive them, but from the east, the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings.

Because spring begins on the vernal equinox each March, this month speaks to me of both balance and hope. It’s a time when we begin to emerge from winter, when we become more active, energized by the winds and the increasing light.

And yet, like those gale-force winds that came tearing through, it also seems to be a time of extremes. These weeks leading up to the equinox are a time of dawn-to-dusk fasting for Baha’is. Catholics practice abstinence and penitence for Lent. On Purim, celebrants are instructed to get so drunk that they can’t tell the difference between “blessed by Mordechai” and “cursed be Hamen.”

But we can’t sustain extremes. We need balance, equanimity, harmony. The equinox marks the point when light and dark are equal. Picture a teeter-totter: the equinox is that pivotal resting point when both sides are equal. At the same time, spring is filled with joyous hope. The natural world is bursting with new life, and we become infused with creative energy, budding with possibilities. So we must create balance between our physical needs – the chores of daily existence – our imagination, and, because spring is also a time of spiritual renewal, our soul. We must pace ourselves through our days, give ourselves time to dream, and to connect with those things that give our life meaning and joy.

March came in like a lion. In theory, at least, it will go out like a lamb. Hopefully we can find a middle ground for our own energy, a sustaining calm and steady breeze.

Happy Spring!

Tip of the Month
A friend of mine is seeking to deepen his spiritual practice. He realized he needs two things to make this happen – inspiration and structure – and that the inspiration comes from immersing himself in spirituality by going on short retreats. He has found that the experience of immersion energizes him enough to sustain the inspiration and adhere to the structure of a daily prayer practice.

Which area of your life is out of balance? What is it you’re not doing that you want to add into your life? Take a day or two to immerse yourself in it, to charge your batteries and find your inspiration.

Quotes of the Month
When you were born, you cried
and the world rejoiced.
Live your life
so that when you die,
the world cries and you rejoice.
– White Elk

For every person who has ever lived there has come, at last, a spring he will never see. Glory then in the springs that are yours.
– Pam Brown

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.
– Eleanora Duse

A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.
– David Steindl-Rast

Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray, where nature heals and gives strength to body and soul alike.
– John Muir

Recipe of the Month
(I stole this one from Epicurious.com and modified it slightly.)

Cream of Asparagus Soup
2 pounds asparagus
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
5 to 6 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Cut tips from 12 asparagus. Reserve for garnish.

Cut stalks and all remaining asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces.

Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened. Add asparagus pieces then cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add 5 cups broth and simmer, covered, until asparagus is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

While soup simmers, steam reserved asparagus tips until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes.

Purée soup in batches in a blender until smooth, then return to pan.

Stir in crème fraîche, then add more broth to thin soup to desired consistency.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring soup to a boil and whisk in remaining tablespoon of butter.

Add lemon juice and garnish with asparagus tips.

Getting Clear About Love (Feb. 2011)

Love is the opening door
Love is what we came here for
No one could offer you more
Do you know what I mean?
Have your eyes really seen?
-- Elton John



Valentine’s Day.

I conducted an informal survey in the women’s locker room at the gym recently. What, I asked, do you want from your partner on Valentine’s Day? The answer was unanimous: I want to feel special. I want him to think out of the box, to do something unusual, out of the ordinary, something that shows a bit of effort. Never mind the chocolates or flowers or diamonds, they said. Just show me I’m loved.

On the one hand, I completely understand this sentiment – I feel the same way. On the other hand, I feel sorry for the poor guy being faced with these expectations. What a set-up for disappointment and failure! How’s he supposed to know what will make his gal feel special, what is sufficiently out-of-the-box? Unless she tells him, that is. But then it isn’t a surprise, and somehow we want these poor guys to “love us enough to know.”

Centuries ago, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov advised: “You can meditate in thought, but the most important thing is to express your thoughts in speech.” Granted, he was talking about communicating with God and not your sweetheart, but I think he has a point.

We need to speak up, to be clear about our hopes and expectations, about what makes us feel loved and appreciated. Love isn’t something we prove to each other. It’s what we share with each other, nourishing and supporting each other on this journey to become better people and make the world a better place. The more clearly we communicate our needs and expectations, the more effective we can be in our creative and healing work.

Speaking up wasn't always easy for me. I recall too many times when I sat quiet, thoughts running over and over through my head and never making it to – let alone through – my lips. Needless to say, I didn't have the best of relationships back then, either. I don't remember how or when I found my voice, only that I learned to speak my mind and found that doing so usually made life better, not worse. With practice, speaking up got easier, although there are still times when I feel frightened to do so (usually because I'm making assumptions about how the other person will respond), but – remember last month's tip? – I don't let fear stop me.

A side note: This is being emailed a day late, on Groundhog Day (February 2). Many, many years ago, a co-worker (with whom I was hopelessly, unrequitedly in love), answered February 2nd when another co-worker asked when Valentine's Day was. And so I find a certain humor and small pleasure in this Valentine's-Day-themed newsletter going out on Groundhog Day.

Tip of the Month
Principle #6 is to set boundaries, which includes clarifying expectations. This month, notice your assumptions and expectations, then communicate them. Speak up about what you really want; don’t expect anyone to read your mind. After all, when we assume, we make an ASS out of U and ME.

Quotes of the Month
“Love has nothing to do with what you’re expecting to get – only what you are expecting to give – which is everything. What you will receive in return varies. But it really has no connection with what you give. You give because you love and cannot help giving. If you are very lucky, you may be loved back. That is delicious, but it does not necessarily happen.” – Kathryn Hepburn

“Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe of the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.’ Love is not, by its own desire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble, and unrewarded.” – Wendell Berry

“God, as love, is constantly expanding, flourishing and creating new patterns for the expression and attainment of joy. When our minds, through focus on love, are allowed to be open vessels through which God expresses, our lives become the canvases for the expression of that joy. That’s the meaning of our lives. We are here as physical representations of a divine principle. To say that we’re on the earth to serve God means that we’re on the earth to love.” – Marianne Williamson

Recipe of the Month
Almond/Chocolate Lace Cookies

Preheat oven to 350.
1/2 cup (one cube) butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons 1/2 'n 1/2
1 Tablespoon flour

When melted, stir in
3/4 cup finely ground almond meal

Place 5 or 6 teaspoons of batter on a well-greased and floured baking sheet. Give them lots of space, because they'll spread out wide and thin.

Bake for about 8 minutes. Remove, allow to cool for a minute or so, then place face down on a paper towel to finish cooling. Repeat with the rest of the batter. You should wind up with 24 to 30 cookies in all.

Once all the cookies are baked and cooled, drizzle them with chocolate made by melting about 1 ounce of cocoa butter and 4 to 5 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chips together.

Place the chocolate-drizzled cookies in the fridge so the chocolate can harden.

Beginning Again (January 2011)

And here we are, January first, the start of yet another calendar year. A chance to begin anew, make changes.

There are plenty of folks out there right now writing about New Year’s resolutions and how to successfully implement them. You don’t need that from me, too. The main reason I chose new beginnings as this month's theme, despite it being such a predictable topic, is that I find my own life undergoing huge shifts. At the risk of being too personal (yeah, right, since when did that ever stop me?) – I’ve fallen in love and am finding my heart and life turning down a new, unexplored, exciting-and-scary road. The quote by Jalaja Bonheim spoke so loudly to me that I chose it as the focus for this month’s newsletter. I’ll let it speak for itself; nothing more (except more quotes, the month’s tip and recipe) from me. Oh, and of course, much love and blessings to you all!

Tip of the Month

Don’t let fear hold you back from your dreams. They say that courage is fear that’s said its prayers. I have a poster on my wall that reads “Who do you want to be? Believe it and you will become it.” So, go ahead, feel the fear, say your prayers, then do it anyway. And if you can, have fun in the process!

Quotes of the Month

“We achieve true wholeness only by embracing our fragility and sometimes, our brokenness. Wholeness is a natural radiance of Love, and Love demands that we allow the destruction of our old self for the sake of the new.” – Jalaja Bonheim

“If the wind were to stop for one second for us to catch hold of it, it would cease to be wind. The same is true of life. Perpetually things and events are moving and changing…. We can only understand life by keeping pace with it, by a complete affirmation and acceptance of its magic-like transformations and unending changes.” – Alan Watts

“Woodworker Ch’ing carved a piece of wood and made a bell stand, and when it was finished, everyone who saw it marveled, for it seemed to be the work of gods or spirits. When the Marquis of Lu saw it, he asked, ‘What art is it you have?’ Ch’ing replied, ‘I am only a craftsman – how would I have any art? There is one thing, however. When I am going to make a bell stand, I never let it wear out my energy. I always fast in order to still my mind. When I have fasted for three days, I no longer have any thought of congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends. When I have fasted for five days, I no longer have any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness. And when I have fasted seven days, I am so still that I forget I have four limbs and a form and body. By that time, the ruler and his court no longer exist for me. My skill is concentrated and all outside distractions fade away. After that, I go into the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees. If I find one of superlative form, and I can see a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not I let it go. This way I am simply matching up Heaven with Heaven. That’s probably the reason that people wonder if the results were not made by spirits.’ ” – Chang Tzu

“If you do not perceive the sincerity within yourself and yet try to move forth, each movement will miss the mark.” – Chuang Tzu

Recipe of the Month

Mushroom Soup with Caramelized Onion

(Adapted from Fields of Greens by Annie Somerville)

½ ounce dried porcini
olive oil
2 yellow onions
6 cloves garlic
1 pound white (button) mushrooms
¼ pound shitake mushrooms
½ cup dry sherry
soy sauce
5 cups mushroom or chicken stock
salt, pepper, fresh herbs (optional)
lemon (optional)

Soak ½ ounce dried porcini (boletes) in ½ cup warm water for 10 minutes.

While porcini are soaking, begin caramelizing two yellow onions in olive oil over medium heat with a pinch of salt and pepper.

When porcini are done soaking, remove them from their liquid (save liquid!) and add them to the onions, along with 3 finely chopped garlic cloves. Continue to caramelize over medium heat, gently scraping pan with a wooden spoon to keep the onions from sticking, until they are a rich golden brown (about 25 minutes).

While the onions are caramelizing, sautee ¼ pound of sliced shitake mushrooms and 1 pound of sliced white mushrooms in olive oil until they’re golden. Add 3 more finely chopped garlic cloves, cook briefly, then add ½ cup of dry sherry, the porcini water (from soaking) and a splash of soy sauce. Once the sherry has cooked down a bit, puree some of the mushroom/sherry (to make the soup thicker/richer). Add the pureed mushrooms and remaining mushroom/sherry mixture to the pot with the onions and porcini. Add up to 5 cups of either mushroom or chicken stock and cook for another 20 to 30 minutes.

If you’d like, add cream near the end. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Optional: serve topped with freshly chopped herbs – parsley, thyme, marjoram. You can also add a splash of lemon juice.