Letters from the road

The Mindful Life

Want to Protect the Environment? Prepare to be Shot.

Originally featured on elephant journal May 6, 2017

I grew up thinking “green” was a dirty word.

No one in my family would identify as an environmental activist, let alone an eco-warrior—but they do care about the environment.

My dad and I are often—almost always—on opposite sides of local resource arguments. We debate, we raise our voices, we disagree, then we sit down and have a nice family dinner together.

We’re privileged to debate civilly. For many, arguments about the environment are a matter of life and death. Reasoned discourse is giving way to deadly violence around the world.

Caring about and advocating for our environment shouldn’t be a death sentence. I was horrified to learn recently that this past year will top 2015 as the deadliest year on record for environmental activists according to Global Witness.

Environmentalists around the world are defending forests from big mining corporations, the last mountain gorillas from poachers, indigenous land use rights from unscrupulous government officials, and urban communities from pollution.

They are also dying by the hundreds.

Just last Saturday, April 22, 2017 activist and author of I Dreamed of Africa, Kuki Gallmann, was shot in the abdomen by men at her conservation ranch at in northern Kenya. Dozens of others have been killed or wounded in the past few weeks.

Each year, in recognition of the courage and sacrifices of incredible grassroots activists, the Goldman Environmental Prize honors the efforts of six individuals working for environmental sustainability and justice.

On April 23, 2017 this year’s recipients were announced. They include a Congolese park ranger and former child soldier reporting on bribery by oil companies, a Slovenian organic farmer fighting air pollution, a third generation activist from California fighting industrial contamination, an Indian social justice leader, an Australian farmer fighting against coal development, and a Q’eqchi Guatemalan indigenous land rights activist.

The prize recognizes individuals whose lives are often endangered by their work. Indigenous land activist and 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, Berta Cáceres, was shot and killed at her home in her native country of Honduras in March, 2016. She was targeted simply because she spoke out about ancestral land rights.

What can we do to support these eco-warriors?

1. Speak truth to power.

In this age of “alternative facts” and dismantling of the United State’s Environmental Protection Agency, it’s more important than ever that we stand in solidarity with facts. Especially ones that are unpopular with those in power.

We can follow the lead of people like Michael Cox, who wrote a scathing letter to the new head of the EPA when he recently chose to retire.

2. Teach our kids to care.

There were some great signs at this past weekend’s March for Science. Especially the ones made by young people. My little one and I marched around our living room since our local march was unfortunately scheduled during nap time.

When our children see our communities standing up for science, they learn that environmental protection is important and integral to our society. Let’s remember our childhood curiosity and celebrate what we don’t already know.

And, good news! Bill Nye the Science Guy is back! Although his new Netflix show is intended for adults, the original series is still great. I hear “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” is also making a come back. Let’s make science cool again.

3. Pay attention.

Did you know more than 140 Virunga park rangers have been killed on duty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? I didn’t either.

I know baby goats doing yoga in sweaters are much more enjoyable to watch than the depressing news, but we need to pay attention.

“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” ~ Henry David Thoreau

4. Give.

Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s time. Support organizations that are doing good work. It’s especially imperative to look for organizations working in our own local communities. For those working internationally, check out these three to start:

>> Global Witness, which investigates and reports on environmental and human rights abuses.

>> Grassroots International, which advocates for environmental and social justice by tackling climate justice, human rights, food sovereignty, movement building, resource rights, and sustainable livelihoods.

>> The Nature Conservancy, which focuses on ecological conservation of land and marine ecosystems in partnership with local communities.

5. Share.

Tell a friend about the six incredible environmental activists the Goldman Environmental Prize honored this year. I recently bought a set of Women in Science postcards from my favorite local book store. I’m going to write notes and send them to friends who inspire me.

We can’t do this work alone. Let’s encourage and educate each other. Burdens are easier shared and accomplishments are best enjoyed together.


Are Houseplants as Green as We Think?

Originally featured on elephant journal April 27, 2017

Our Fetishism with House Plants.

While searching online for baby-proofing tips, I came across an article about common toxic indoor plants. In a flash of embarrassment, I realized I knew nothing about the plants gracing my home.

I expected the baby-proofing basics—hiding cords, finding cap thingys for electrical sockets, elevating curtain drawstrings, and picking up all the appetizing detritus perfectly sized for little hands and curious mouths. But—toxic house plants? That’s a thing?

Besides being told that we need specific plants for Feng Shui and better air quality, how much do we really know about the plants sharing our homes? We may know how to keep them alive, but do we know much more?

I’m not exactly a green-thumb, but I didn’t even know what types of plants we have. Some were passed on from the previous owners of our house and some I bought from our local grocery store. Most I’ve managed to keep alive.

Hanging in my living room I have one vibrant vine varietal that I can now name—devil’s ivy—also known as the golden pothos or money plant. It sprawls across the ceiling and drapes around our big south-facing windows.

When I recently visited Dubai, I noticed my mother-in-law has the same plant in her desert home. A couple of weeks ago, on a trip to Hawaii, I saw the same plant while out on a hike. Did I mention I live in Alaska?

At first I thought this was a great example of how globalization has brought us closer together. But once I was past my ‘Kumbaya’ moment, it dawned on me that this might not be the sweet fairytale it seemed.

I belatedly asked: Is this plant toxic if ingested? The unfortunate answer was easy to find—yes.

So, house plants. Where do they come from? Why do we have them? Are they sustainable?

Although we have been living in tandem with house plants for millennia, it wasn’t until the height of European colonialism did house plants really take over our lives.

Think the Palace of Versailles, or the great houses of England. King Louis XIV had a thing for orange trees and exotic animals. In addition to ‘discovering’ new places, explorers/imperialists were sending exotic plants back to their patrons. Heard of cocoa? Coffee? These plants didn’t land on European soil by accident.
Growing exotic plant varieties was an indication of wealth and privilege—and became big business. Think sugar plantations. The transatlantic slave trade was built upon Western European—and later white American obsession with plants native to warm locales. Tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, rum, and sugarcane.
Then came the ability to grow hot weather plants closer to home. With the invention of the greenhouse, tropical and subtropical plants could now be grown in non-indigenous colder climes.

So—what about the Devil’s Ivy that has climbed its way into many of our homes?

Devil’s Ivy is a quintessential house plant. Its long trailing vines and spade-shaped emerald leaves often grow from a hanging basket. Think jungle—because unsurprisingly, that’s where it comes from.

The plant itself is originally native to the South Central Pacific Ocean. More specifically, the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia—which is still an overseas country of France.

The devil’s ivy in my own home was one we inherited with our house. I’m unsure where it originated, but I suspect it came from a clipping—kind of like friendship bread or a SCOBY. Most likely, it was shipped up to Alaska from an out-of-state nursery.
Most likely it was shipped up to Alaska from an out-of-state nursery. Maybe it was even smuggled. I’ve seen French Kiss. Although I doubt most smugglers sound like a sexy French-speaking Kevin Kline.

The unfortunate truth is, by breeding and transporting plants like devil’s ivy around the United States and around the world, we’re seeing the propagation of monocultures. In Hawaii, devil’s ivy is considered an invasive species. While many of us are privileged to house this plant indoors, it is threatening the biodiversity of delicate ecosystems.

I’m unsure of the import policies for Devil’s Ivy in Dubai, but exotic faun —cheetah, tigers, and lions—were only recently banned as pets. Pets.

Are house plants as green as we think?

There is an estimated $18 billion in the American floral industry. It’s also consolidating at an astonishing rate: “Since 1992 the number of florist shops in America has fallen from 27,000 to 15,000.”

This means fewer local nurseries and greenhouses. Most cut flowers—about 65 percent in 2013—were imported from Colombia alone.

I have an incredibly talented friend who owns a flower shop near my home. I was delighted to learn that she sources almost all of her florals locally. She grows some plants herself and others she buys from local greenhouses. But she is in the minority.

The way we grow house plants is also deviating further from nature: “Micropropagation has enabled plants to be produced in huge numbers, with small sections of leaf grown on in Petri dishes in a laboratory. The resulting plants are genetically identical, and bulk production means they are now affordable—a third or even a quarter of the retail price of 15 years ago.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my house plants. Especially during our cold dark winters. I love having a bit of fresh green that reminds us that the snow will eventually disappear and the sun will return.

I’m not suggesting that we give our house plants up, but what if instead of buying mono-cultured house plants, we commit to supporting our local greenhouses and learning the origins of local indigenous plants?

Perhaps we grow sustainable, eco-friendly plants instead. We can find local programs that get us outside to learn about the plants in our own back yards.

Next time we’re debating buying a fully grown house plant, let’s look at the label to see where it came from. There’s a deep-rooted story sitting in that humble pot.


How a Dress with Pockets Can Cure Everything.

Originally featured on elephant journal April 26, 2017

I love my dresses with pockets.

I have at least four. One in cream linen with fuchsia and lavender wildflower print, one in white muslin with burnt orange embroidery, one in slippery man-made fabric with hot pink ornate vases, and one in studious black cotton with white lace.

Most importantly, they all have functional pockets.

 Any time I was sick growing up, my mom’s advice always included putting something nice on (after drinking a glass of water, of course). As a teenager, I humored her. I didn’t believe there was any way that getting out of my comfy pajamas would actually get rid of my headache. Until, of course, I got out of my comfy pajamas and my headache went away.

My mom was unwittingly channeling Chögyam Trungpa and his teachings on inner drala. Psychologically, it’s similar to “fake it until you make it,” and I can attest that it works.

When we look good, surprisingly we feel better.

Dressing is a way of communicating with the world around us. For better or worse, we dress according to gender norms, wealth, religious beliefs, activities, culture, age, body shape, and the weather. We most often dress for others before we dress for ourselves. We meet work dress codes, uniforms, and society’s relentless expectations.

Getting dressed each day can quickly become a chore.

But we have a choice. We can choose instead to dress joyfully.

My teenage self would be loath to admit it, but my mom was onto something. In the same way that clearing and cleaning the space around me instantly improves my mood, I always feel better after putting on an outfit and jewelry that I love. It’s like magic. When I lived alone and insomnia kept me up in the middle of the night, I’d try on my fanciest clothes just because it felt good to do so.

A dress with pockets is the epitome of a simple, joyful outfit.

When I put on one of my dresses with pockets, I instantly feel like I’m invoking the elemental energy of the universe that Trungpa speaks about. I imagine that I exude sophistication with my lovely dress, but in reality I’m just being practical, with pockets filled with ChapStick and tissues.

I’m not exactly a fussy dresser. I’m a new mom who considers pants a luxury, let alone a swipe of mascara. I wasn’t always this way. There was at least a solid year or two in middle school when I wore blue eyeshadow. Every day.

Now when I’m exhausted and can’t possibly drag myself off of the couch and out of my pajamas, I put on a cute dress that I hope I can breastfeed in (or else I’ll flash whoever else is nearby) and earrings that I hope my baby won’t rip out of my ears. Sometimes, I can only wear said outfit until the next hungry cry or watery burp, but even those few minutes are enough to shift my mood for the better.

Wearing a dress with pockets is like carrying around a secret.

Every time I wear one of my dresses with pockets and some kind soul compliments the style or color, I immediately beam, stick my hands in the pockets, and declare, “And it has pockets!” I can’t seem to help it. It’s as if I’m sharing my secret with others so that they too can marvel at how a pretty dress can be more than it initially seems.

I think this is why I love a dress with pockets. It’s a metaphor for how we all want to be appreciated for more than just how we look on the outside. We crave somebody to recognize our depths and the things about ourselves that may not seem exciting, but which make us unique, clever individuals.

A dress with pockets is something special.

When I step into one of my dresses with pockets, my mood immediately improves. This one small act brings me joy.

“A great deal of the chaos in the world occurs because people don’t appreciate themselves.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

So let’s defy the chaos and appreciate ourselves. Wearing a dress with pockets may not cure all ails, but taking the time to intentionally invoke joy in our lives will.


Decadent, Raw Vegan Truffles even the Carnivores in your Life will Love. {Recipe}

Originally featured on elephant journal April 16, 2017

Many moons ago, I was vegan.

I never adopted a raw-food-only diet, but I surrounded myself with plenty of people who did. Now, not so much.

 My husband proudly tells my family that he “cured” me of my hippie-food ways. He likes to think so. Deep down—actually not so deep—I’m still a pure food foodie. I just camouflage these tendencies by eating almost everything now.

But there are a few holdovers from my vegan-dominated diet that will never disappear from my life. This raw, vegan truffle recipe is one of them.

It was inspired by a friend from college. She made a variation of these and I devoured them, even though they weren’t meant for me. I kind of felt terrible, but not enough to actually stop eating them.

I’m not always good at following recipes. When I cook, I make most dishes based on the ingredients on hand. This drives my husband nuts. He’s an engineer, so when he cooks, measurable numbers rule the kitchen. He will often make a dish without ever tasting it before serving. I find this sacrilegious, but it works for him.

Me? I cook with approximations. I cook based on what I’m hungry for, or what happens to appeal to me. Sometimes, dill makes it into every dish I prepare during the week. Sometimes I crave fresh mozzarella and it sneaks into my shakshuka recipe.

I use a lot of loose guesstimates when measuring too. I make a Moroccan carrot soup, and it’s different every single time I make it. Sometimes, I vary the ratios based on my mood. Because of this, I’ve never actually written down one of my recipes—until now.

This means that I had to whip up a new batch of these truffles—oh no! And sample a few—or a lot. They’re practically vitamins, so feel free to splurge a bit. I won’t tell.

The recipe makes approximately 20 truffles—not including the two I ate while making them.

*Note: I think music in the kitchen is a must, so I always have something playing. I like my food to be imbued with the essence of what I’m listening to. When I think of truffles, I think of France. For this recipe, I suggest the Rupa & The April Fishes Pandora station.* 

Ingredients: 

1 cup pitted dates coarsely chopped (Medjool dates are divine, but don’t despair if all you can find are Deglet Noor dates. I live in Alaska—I know the struggle.)
1/2 cup raw, plain cashews
1/3 cup unsweetened, desiccated coconut
2 tablespoons chia seeds
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Approx. 1 tablespoon liquid coconut oil for sealing the truffles
Approx. 1/4 cup cocoa powder in a bowl

Five easy-peasy steps:

1. Combine all ingredients in a blender—except for the coconut oil and cocoa powder—and blend. The mixture will be sticky and crumbly.
2. Scoop a spoonful of the blended ingredients into coconut oil-greased palms and roll into a bite-sized truffle—my husband defines this as about 1 inch in diameter.
3. Roll the truffle through the cocoa powder generously and place on a plate—or your mouth. No judgment.
4. Repeat with the remaining truffle mixture.
5. Voila! The most decadent raw, vegan truffles. Place in freezer for at least five minutes for best results.

They’re delicious directly out of the freezer, but you can also allow them to warm for a few minutes before inhaling/eating responsibly. I’m not actually sure how long these will keep. They’ve never lasted more than a couple of days in an airtight container in our freezer. Enjoy!


Why I’m Writing my own Obituary.

Originally featured on elephant journal April 1, 2017

I once read that big publications ask journalists to keep obituary drafts on celebrities so that they can quickly publish in the event that one of them meets their ultimate demise.

Although this seems morbid, it’s also practical. I was recently reading a 3,500 plus word obituary published within hours of the death of a public figure in Ireland, and I was struck by how deep and thorough it was. In comparison, the obituaries of beloved local members of my community—oft written by loved ones—were rather shallow and fleeting.

This bothered me.

We’re all a bit voyeuristic. I can’t be the only one who reads obituaries of people I don’t know and have never met. The obituaries that I find most touching are the ones that reveal the humanity and uniqueness of a person.

How did they live in ways like no one before them? What can I learn from their lives? What stories did they embody in flesh and bone that will live on in the memories and hearts of those still here?

I started considering my own life and what I want to be remembered by. There are the basic facts: name, date of birth, age, eventual death details. But aren’t we all more than just dates and numbers?

My brother and I have had a long-standing pact that we will write each other’s obituaries. He has the same infatuation with language that I have, and a keen ability to reveal truths.

But instead of leaving it all up to my brother (and to chance), I decided to draft my own obituary.

Let me be clear: I’m not doing this because I think we should live in a state of fear that death is around every corner; rather, we should live in the knowledge that life is full and we carry it with us always.

And yet, thinking about death freaks people out. It’s unpleasant at best and nihilistic at worst. I tend to be incredibly superstitious—which goes against all of my agnostic, science-based beliefs—but what are we if not a jumble of contradictions? I don’t necessarily think I’m tempting fate. I’m a healthy, late-twenties, married new mother. Statistically, I should have a long and happy life ahead of me.

But.

But life and death happen. I think in the West we have an unhealthy fear of death which leads to a lot of the neuroses that infringe upon living. I’m guilty of it too. Who wants to think about death? Not many of us. Regardless, whether we like it or not, death happens. Approaching death mindfully can alleviate some of our existential fears.

Crafting my own obituary started out as a writing exercise, but I think I’ve stumbled onto a beautiful life lesson.

Writing my own obituary has taught me to live. 

By distilling my experiences down into the essentials, I’ve discovered the places in my life that are full and the spaces yet to be filled. I am family and relationship rich. I am travel rich. I am embodied life rich. I am chosen-career rich.

It has helped me decide where to go. What part of my life have I not yet lived that I want to show up in my obituary?

It’s helped me realize what I’m proud of and what I shy away from. What experiences from my life do I want to share with others? What do I want to keep secret? What do I want others to know that they don’t already?

I’m using my obituary as a compass guided by the loves in my life, my passions, my accomplishments, and my quirks. I’ll regularly ask myself not only, “How do I want to be remembered?” but more importantly, “How do I want to live?”

What mark do I want to leave on the world? What contribution have I yet to make? Where do I want to go, and what have I been too scared to do?

I’m incredibly happy, and I love my life. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to grow, to adventure, to live on the edge of something new and raw. Writing my own obituary has taught me the essential components of life. Where I come from. Where I’ve been. My relationships to others. My education. My travels. My service. What I hope to give to the world.

My obituary has taught me not just to look back, but to look forward. To lose no time creating my life here in the present, and to intentionally chart my way through the unknown waters to come.

In my current obituary draft, I am most proud of my relationships. But that’s not all that I am. We crave being seen and understood. I’m no different.

When the time comes that my obituary is no longer a draft, I hope it reveals a taste of the essential truths I’ve spent a lifetime uncovering. I also hope that my brother shares that I lived and laughed with a full heart.

I’ve learned more about how to live while writing my own obituary than I ever expected.

I’ll leave you with the first phrase that jumped to mind when I started crafting my obituary:

She loved words. She loved to read them and write them. She didn’t love to spell them.

Here’s to living a life full of obituary-worthy stories.

 


Do we need another Reason to Adore Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38960035

Originally featured on elephant journal March 15, 2017

About a month ago, while crossing from the United States into Canada, two men lost almost all fingers to frostbite in their desperation to seek refugee status.

“Asylum seekers are illegally crossing from the US into Canada in growing numbers hoping to receive refugee status. One small prairie town in southern Manitoba has become the nexus point for migrants who have lost hope in the US.

Mohammed says he once viewed the US as a beacon for human rights and a place that welcomed newcomers but ‘when we came, we didn’t see that.’”

Where is our outrage?

Like most Americans, I am ashamed to admit that I’ve become jaded to the plight of refugees. We read about climate refugees fleeing water shortages and famines. We hear about Syrian refugees fleeing bombs and desolation. We see boats filled with children drowning on a weekly basis. Rarely does the latest tragedy pierce our comfortable bubbles and actually force us to stop and think about what is happening outside our families and our homes.

I was horrified—stomach in my mouth, tears streaming down my face—while watching the interview with these two men. Being from Alaska, I grew up with a healthy appreciation of the seriousness of frostbite. But that’s not why. This isn’t happening in Europe or the Mediterranean—this is happening here at home.

Instead of finding the “Land of the Free,” and rather than waiting to see what policy changes come next from the new administration, desperate immigrants are leaving the U.S. and walking across the sometimes frigid, snow-covered border into Canada.

Sound familiar?

Many of the undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. from Mexico are Central Americans fleeing from violence in their home countries. It’s an ongoing American delusion to think that we have a monopoly on freedom and democracy.

Although Canada has its share of immigration and refugee challenges, instead of fueling a climate hostile to immigrants like we are seeing in the U.S. today, Canada is stepping up and putting compassionate kindness into action. Not only is Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a self-proclaimed feminist, he is personally and actively welcoming immigrants into our great, northern neighbor:

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada,” he tweeted.

What can we do?

First, donate to a worthy organization. There are a lot of good people out there doing a lot of good work. Find a group that calls to you and consider a monthly contribution, even if it’s only a few dollars. One time donations are great, but sustainers keep the lights on from month-to-month.

Second, volunteer. Don’t have the cash to give? Donate your time. The best volunteers reach out and ask what an organization needs. Many need volunteers to help out in less sexy ways—like filing or stuffing envelopes or making phone calls. Set egos aside and get ready to be of service.

Third, walk your talk. Take a leaf out of Prime Minister Trudeau’s book and cultivate basic goodness. We can’t all house refugees or immigrants in our homes, but we all can treat others with respect. Holding U.S. citizenship shouldn’t be a litmus test to kindness. Let’s lift each other up and ensure no one else loses a finger to frostbite fleeing from the world’s richest country.

I think Chögyam Trungpa says it best:

“Helping others is a question of being genuine and projecting that genuineness to others. This way of being doesn’t have to have a title or a name particularly. It is just being ultimately decent.”