Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What's Christmas all About?

Hard to believe (though easier for me as we now have snow on the ground!) but Christmas will be here soon. I thought it was the perfect time, now in October, to start thinking about what that means for me and my family. Last year, we talked my husband's family into exchanging names--one person to buy for rather than five. It worked surprisingly well and we had a fun time with it. This year, my family (there are 13 of us) is doing a Yankee Swap. So, that's 9 less adults to buy for. We're still buying presents for the three kids.

What will I do with all that extra time and money? Well, I definitely want to participate in Samaritan's Purse, Operation Christmas Child again. I think that was the most fun purchasing I did last holiday season. For those of you not familiar with the program, you fill a shoebox up with toys, non-melty candies or gum, and personal hygiene items like toothbrushes, etc., and drop the box off at a collection location near you. The boxes are combined at a central location and shipped around the world to children in need, who otherwise wouldn't have anything given to them. The organization asks for a $7 donation to help pay for the shipping and you choose the age group/sex of the child who you are buying for and label your box accordingly. It's so much fun to do and to imagine the child's face when they open their present.

Something else I want to do is sit down and decide what the most meaningful parts of the holiday season are for me. I want to do something in nature--decorate a tree in the middle of the woods with popcorn and cranberries and homemade edible bird feeders for the animals. I want to spend more time enjoying the sights and sounds and smells of the holiday. I want to make Christmas meaningful again, not just a slew of activities to get through until I collapse in the new year. And of course, I want to spend time focusing on the original, true meaning of Christmas for me, the birth of Jesus. Last year was the first in a very long time that I created an Advent wreath. Lighting the candles at each meal and reading a scripture verse was calming. I am considering no tree this year and very minimal, mostly natural decorations.

For a long time I thought, "Well, others will be disappointed if I don't do X, or if I don't volunteer with Y." But I have the entire rest of the year to volunteer my time for causes I believe in, it doesn't have to be just a one month/week/or day thing in December. And I'm sorry if I insult someone by not displaying the holiday decorations or ornaments they gave us--though in reality they've probably forgotten they ever even gave it in the first place!

So, here's my advice for you this season. First, read all you can about alternative/pared down holidays in books like the Tightwad Gazette, Unplug the Christmas Machine, and the One
Hundred Dollar Holiday.

And take some time now, before the rush begins, to determine what you do and don't like about the holidays. If you love giving gifts and can't imagine paring down, could you give gifts that have less of an impact on the earth and it's inhabitants? What about some consumable gifts like fair trade coffee and chocolates, or sweat shop free clothes or accessories? Want to spend more time in nature or creating new family traditions? Start talking to other family member now, don't wait until a week or two before Christmas. For many, many people the holidays are the most depressing time of the year. What could we do to help those who might be feeling down? Animal shelters struggle to pay their fuel bills as winter closes in. Can we help with that? Food shelves typically are bombarded (wonderfully) with food this one time of the year. Could we make a donation for future purchases when people aren't giving so much? Could we "adopt" a local family or elderly person and pledge to leave a box of food anonymously for them each month for the rest of the year?

Christmas is about giving: Giving hope, peace, warmth, food, love. It's not just about giving material gifts.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Fair Trade--Is it Really Too Expensive?

I just read an EXCELLENT article in Relevant Magazine, regarding fair trade items and why it costs more to buy them. A lot of times when people hear "fair trade" or "organic" they are immediately dismissive. "Oh, that's too expensive. It's just a lot of overpriced goods that aren't any better quality than any other products."

Weeeeellllllll, actually when one purchases organic or fair trade items, they usually are of better quality. More importantly, to me at least, is that I can buy these items with a clear conscience. Fair trade items guarantee that the folks making them get paid a fair wage and that they are working in decent conditions. Many, many times the reason we in the West are able to get such "cheap" items, be it food, textiles, or other merchandise, is because the people making the goods are are working basically as slaves.

As far as organics go, there is another two-fold benefit. Not only are you not putting potentially harmful chemicals into your body, but organic farming is much, much better for the earth and environment. Organic farmers also tend to treat their animals more humanely, and to take better care of their land and farms.

Sometimes in the U.S. I feel we have a "see no evil" mentality. Just because we can't SEE what people in under developed countries go through to produce us with our cheap goods, doesn't mean we shouldn't care about what's going on. It's our responsibility to find out where our goods are coming from and decide if we want to support a company that enslaves children or has horrible working conditions for its employees. I would bet you a million dollars that no company which utilizes these types of practices is going to stand up and tell you the truth about it for our convenience. We have to become socially responsible detectives and do a little digging on our own.

With that being said, there is a true and understandable concern regarding the price of some of these items. Believe me, I'm as cheap as the next tightwad. I rarely buy something if it's not on sale and more often try to make do with something else entirely if I'm in a very thrifty mood. I also buy a lot of used items. Thrift shops are some of my favorite haunts and a great place to get some of my favorite brands of clothes (Liz Claiborne, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic) for just a few bucks. I don't really "believe" in labels, but there is something to be said for the quality and fit of certain items. However, buying used is a fairly guilt-free indulgence.

The article in Relevant also quoted J. Matthew Sleeth, the author of my much loved, "Serve God, Save the Planet" book, who (I'm paraphrasing here) says that if cost is an issue, then we should consume less and still spend our money on the more expensive fair trade and organic items. Hmm.

Consume less. Imagine that.

I'm considering doing a fair trade/organic challenge for a period of time. I haven't worked out all the details yet, but I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Help for Dogs in Vermont. . .

Just wanted to post an update on my gloomy walk from yesterday. I couldn't stop thinking about that dog, so when my husband and I were on our way to a meeting at 5:30, I checked again and the dog was STILL outside. I was so angry. I spent most of the meeting, where I was supposed to be taking notes and acting interested, mulling things over in my head. What could I do? What could I do? On the way home we checked again, and the dog was still chained. By now the temperature had dropped. The dog was jumping up at the windows of the house, wanting to get inside.

My husband asked if I wanted to go back. I said yes, not sure what I was going to do. We pulled into the driveway and the lights were on inside, the television blaring. I said a quick prayer and walked to the door. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Hi, I just stopped because I was worried about your dog."
Owner: "You were worried about my dog? Why?"
M: "Well, it's really wet out here and she looks cold. You know, if you extended this chain just another foot or two, she could get into the garage and out of the rain."
O: "Oh, she's just out here to go to the bathroom. Don't worry, I take good care of my dog."
M: "Well, I was walking by this morning and I saw her out then. It's been raining all day."
O: "Nalah doesn't stay out. I always let her in at night. She's fine."

I might have mumbled something else before going back to the car. I knew I probably hadn't really helped but I felt better. At least I had the chance to say something.

First thing this morning, at 5:30, I drove back over to the house in my pajamas and a big coat. It was snowing by now and very cold. The dog was still outside, chained, and the house was pitch black. I guess saying "I always let her in at night," must mean something else to other people.

So, I pondered my options.

Luckily, my sister, Faith, remembered hearing about a fairly new organization here in Vermont which people can contact if they see an animal being abused or neglected. The name of it is the Vermont Humane Federation. Their Web site is here. In addition to the contact information, there are a lot of other good articles and legislative information, useful even if you don't live in Vermont. I was instructed by the site to contact my local humane society to file a complaint, which I did as soon as they opened.

Rusty, the helpful woman who took my call, stated that she and/or a local veterinarian would do a drive-by and then speak to the owner within the next day or two. I found out on the ASPCA Web site that in the state of Vermont it is a law that all cattle and dogs should have a minimum of a shelter to keep them from the elements. Rusty reiterated that, stating that dogs need at least a three sided dwelling with a roof if they are to stay outside. There is no law in Vermont currently that prohibits a dog owner from keeping their dog chained outside 24/7, however. According to the Vermont Humane Federation, if an animal advocate talking with an owner doesn't work, an animal is sometimes removed from the premises. I have a feeling this happens rarely though, and most likely in more extreme situations like starvation/beating/etc.

Sometimes I feel frustrated with the small town that I live in. In many ways it's wonderful--it feels relatively cozy and safe. I know a lot of people here. Life moves slowly. We don't have a lot of street crime, but poverty in the area does make drug/alcohol abuse as well as domestic/child abuse (and thus, animal abuse) a huge problem.

So, I wanted to post an update on the dog situation, and hopefully to share some resources that might be helpful to you. Check the ASPCA link out if you want information about your own state animal laws. I'll post any updates about the dog as I hear them. And I'm going to keep researching ways that I can spread the word about the Vermont Humane Federation and the local humane society in this area of the state.

And if you want to say a prayer for Nalah, the dog, I'm sure she would appreciate it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Gloomy Walk

It's raining today and chilly. I decided to bundle up and go for a walk anyway, I needed the fresh air.

It started out well, drippy with rain but the crisp, fresh air was so refreshing. And then I saw something so sad, that I literally felt it in my heart. A dog, a very young looking black lab, sitting in the rain, looking miserable. It had a chain on it's collar that was attached to a stake in the ground. There was an open garage door nearby, the but chain didn't seem long enough for him to get inside, out of the drizzle. He looked at me, pleading. I wanted to cry. I stood for a minute. Was there anything I could do? I wanted to run into the yard and yank the stake from the ground, bundle him up and bring him home with me. Instead I kept walking, feeling useless.

Why? Why do people have dogs if that's the way that they are going to treat them? Why would you leave a domestic animal with no shelter, no escape from the elements?

I continued my walk, my heart heavy. As I stared down at my feet, plodding along, I saw something else that made me sad. Sad and frustrated. The sides of the road were absolutely filled with garbage--used tampon applicators, fast food containers, jugs, bottles, wrappers, cigarette boxes. Just last spring a large group of high school students in the area cleaned up all along our road. It looked beautiful. Now it looks dirty and gross. I wanted to scream--why don't people THINK once in awhile! Why is it always the same people who seem to care and the rest who obviously don't?

What is wrong with people?

These are just two very small instances today. Of course, there are the larger, more devastating examples of people not caring--sexual abuse, human slavery, animal torture, cruelty of all kinds. But for today those two things were enough. Enough to make me feel that I'm not doing enough. Enough to make me feel discouraged.

I see why driving one's vehicle is much easier on the conscience. If I had been driving I never would have noticed that soaking wet dog. I would have zoomed past all the garbage and trash tangled in the grass and bushes. And I wouldn't have had to feel one bit of guilt or sadness.

Maybe if we walked more, it would open our eyes.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Little Cabin in the Big Woods

It's amazing the things you think you can't live without that you really don't need. My husband I and stayed in this adorable little cabin for a few days during our fall vacation last week. It was so peaceful. I've always wanted to go on a fall vacation and I was certainly not disappointed. There were hardly any people at the campground, though even if there had been our cabin was so secluded from the rest of the grounds that we probably wouldn't have heard them anyway. It was tiny (very, very small) but it had the basics. Running water (cold only), a cooking stove, a small fridge, pots, pans, dishes, utensils, a bed and a little dining table. It didn't have a bathroom but there was one nearby, just a short walk away. And there wasn't any heat so it did get a little chilly at night, but the cook stove helped keep things fairly warm after dinner.

I read a lot, and we napped, walked our dog, Peeka, talked and took pictures. It was so restful: No telephone, no email, no TV, no commitments. We actually talked about that--how rested we felt by only the second day. Time moved so slowly and it was lovely.

We tried to keep the vacation mentality going once we got home as we had a few days left to relax, but it's much, much harder here. The television went on. I had to check my work email account. We had to run some errands. I needed to make a few phone calls and a batch of thank you muffins for my Mom and sister who took care of the pets who remained here at home. The telephone started ringing, the lawn needed raking, the dishes had to be washed.

I can't help thinking though, that there must be a way to bring that peaceful cabin-in-the-woods feeling into our lives on a more regular basis. I noticed that even my thoughts, which had become slow as molasses in the woods, have returned to their jumpy, "don't-forget-to-do-that" ways. While we were away, my mind slowed down enough that I was thinking of only one thing at a time. I had time to really notice things like the gorgeous shades of the leaves, the smell of the neighbor's wood stove, the warmth of the little propane cooking stove, the sound of my breath and my heartbeat.

And those are basics that I want to focus on more. Less rushing, more savoring. Less stuff, more enjoyment. Less media, more time for what's important, for what's real. This post at Zen Habits sums it up really well.

So with that, I'm logging off of the computer and taking some time to study the leaves right outside my window. It won't be long before they are gone and all I'll have left will be the pictures.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Roasted Veggie Goodness

I've been a vegetarian since I was nine years old. Well, let me re-frame that--I was a vegetarian from the ages of nine and probably 22, but then I started eating fish occasionally. So I guess I'm not a true, official vegetarian anymore.

However, over the years, my interest in healthier eating has really grown. I was one of those unhealthy vegetarians for a long time, one that didn't care much for vegetables and wasn't careful about protein intake. That's all changed (thank goodness). Now I love most vegetables and I try to make sure I'm getting an adequate amount of protein daily.

One of my favorite ways to cook vegetables is to roast them. If you haven't tried roasting vegetables yet, you absolutely must. Roasting brings out the natural sugars in the plant foods, making them sweet, chewy-crisp, and delicious.

The sandwich above is one I came up with this week and is YUMMY! Plus, it's healthy.

Here's the recipe:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread a little oil around a cookie sheet and cut your vegetables up, laying them all around the sheet. Try to leave a little space between the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes, turn veggies over and bake another 10 minutes. (Tip: Vegetables that are hearty like portobello mushrooms, winter squash, sweet and white potatoes, carrots, etc., roast very, very well).

While your veggies finish roasting, toast a crusty roll and spread with a thin layer of wasabi or chipotle mayo (add a bit of wasabi or chipotle paste to the mayo in a separate dish and stir well). On top of that, add a thick layer of hummus, then layer on your roasted vegetables. Eat open-faced.

Afterwards, make sure you tell me if you eat this and how much you loved it--because I just know you will.

Happy roasting!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's 373 birds on a plane!

Yeah, that's winter alright.

There is a meaning behind this cold, icy photo though--it ties in with this awesome, inspiring story that you must read if you are an animal lover. As my Dad said when he sent me the link, "There's hope for humanity yet."

PS Okay, I know the article isn't really about Arctic penguins, but still. . . when you think penguin, don't you automatically think snow and ice?

Homemade Beauty

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
True, but sometimes the beholder doesn't see all the work that goes into the finished product. While a small percentage of women roll out of bed looking absolutely fabulous and stunning, most of us require a bit more work to get that way.
First comes the cleansing, then the toning, followed by the moisturising. Then there is the makeup application, the hair management (how do eyebrows sprout up overnight like that?), the hair styling, the finishing, the spraying.
And what exactly are we putting on and into our bodies by using all of these products on a daily basis? A lot of chemicals, some dye, fragrance and a lot of artificial crap.
If you have ever wondered where your moisturizer ends up after it seeps into your skin, or how those long-lasting lipsticks stay on your lips so long, or just what are all of these ingredients that we can't pronounce in these jars of potions and powders, I encourage you to borrow "Drop Dead Gorgeous", by Kim Erikson, from your local library. (This book is also available through my "Green Lending Library--see left sidebar for more info).
These book changed my beauty routine for good. Did you know, for instance, that some ingredients which the United States allows in beauty products have been banned in many European countries? And have you ever thought about transdermal medication patches like Nicoderm and pain patches? How do these medicines get into our system? Through the skin, our bodies largest organ. If medication can enter our system through the skin, where are all of these lotions and other beauty products ending up?
But don't worry--the book is certainly not all doom and gloom. Ms. Erikson offers many great resources for making your own beauty products as well as a comprehensive list of companies which use natural ingredients in their products.
Here are a few of my favorite natural beauty products to get you started. You should have most in the kitchen cupboard.
Baking Soda: Excellent at removing product buildup in the hair. Mix with shampoo at about a 1 to 2 part ratio (1 part soda to 2 parts shampoo) and shampoo as usual. Leaves the hair light and fluffy. Also works wonderfully as a deodorant. Sprinkle some in your hand and dust your underarms.
Oatmeal: Whiz up in the blender until just broken and store in your bathroom cupboard. Is an excellent, moisturizing exfoliant and very gentle on the skin. Mix into a paste by adding water to some oatmeal in your hand and rub over face. (Stand over the sink as it can be a little messy.) Rinse off and check out the glow.
Almond Oil: The most wonderful moisturizer I've ever used. Use 2-3 drops on your face after washing and massage into the skin. This is a light oil and will absorb quickly. Additionally, use as an all-over body moisturizer. Last year I went through a bottle during winter and it was the first time I didn't suffer from dry, itchy winter skin. (It's rumored that Jackie Kennedy used Almond Oil as her facial moisturizer.)
NOTE: I should confess here and now that I'm not a completely "natural" girl. I still haven't found a great eyeliner or mascara which is natural and will stay in place. I have switched to all mineral face makeup though (powder/blush), and lip gloss. Anyone have any great natural eye makeup sources to share?

Friday, October 3, 2008

I've posted before about my love/hate relationship with news. Of course, I love surfing the Internet, having a zillion bits of information available at my fingertips whenever I want. And it's lovely to research new ideas and possible writing topics from newspapers, magazines, and my RSS feed. But sometimes all that news gets me down. Floods and hurricanes, genocide and serial killers, starvation and war--it's hard to keep a positive outlook with so much negative stuff going on in the world.

But there's hope. If you're just looking for something a little more positive and upbeat to read today, check out Only Positive News. Not only are there some really great and inspiring stories posted here, but they have fabulous wallpaper on the site.

I wonder if they make that for houses?