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English: A photograph of Froot Loops breakfast...

Don’t say no.  Say HELL NO!

True confessions time:  Three boxes of ready-to-eat cereal sit in my pantry.  I have a box of Wheaties and Rice Krispies that I use for cookies and rice krispie treats, plus a box of fruity-o’s cereal bought on impulse for Little Bird at Trader Joe’s (and which she has hardly touched).

In general, though, I boycott processed grains and sugar in boxes.  The cereal industry pisses me off.

Did you know that cereals advertised to children contain 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium compared with adult-targeted cereals?  This is the opposite of great, Tony.

Children see more ads on TV for ready-to-eat cereals than any other category of packaged food or beverage.  What’s worse, the cereal companies advertise their least-healthiest cereals the most!

In 2011, 6- to 11-year-olds saw more than 700 TV ads for cereals on average (1.9 ads per day).  Preschoolers (2-5 years) saw 595 ads (1.6 per day).

You can read more about this at www.cerealfacts.org.

It’s ironic.  What started out as part of the health and vegetarianism movement in the late 1800′s has turned into an industry that targets the most vulnerable population – children – by pushing sugar crack through “fun” characters like Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula, and so on.

I’m going to go out on a limb here:  in my opinion, this behavior is heinous and just plain evil.

Okay.  Now I shall step off my soapbox, and offer a positive alternative.  Here is a recipe for breakfast cereal that is easy-to-make, deliciously crunchy, just-sweet-enough, and even – gasp! – moderately healthy:

Almond Maple Granola

Ingredients:

3 cups rolled oats

1 cup chopped almonds

1/4 cup wheat germ

1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (optional for coconut haters)

1/3 cup sunflower seeds

6 tablespoons pure maple syrup

6 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons warm water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup raisins or other dried fruit of your choice

Directions:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Lightly grease a cookie sheet with sides (or use a Silpat, as I do).

In a large bowl, toss together the oats, almonds, wheat germ, coconut, and sunflower seeds.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, brown sugar, oil, water and salt.  Pour the liquid over the oat and nut mixture, and stir until evenly coated.  Spread out on the prepared cookie sheet.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until evenly toasted.  Mix in raisins.  Cool and store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Finding Nemo (video game)

In the movie Finding Nemo, the “natural blue” fish Dorie sings:

Hey Mr Grumpy Gills
You know what you gotta do when life gets you down?
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming swimming swimming
What do we do we swim, swim, swim
OH HO HO How I love to swim
When you WAAAAAANNTTT to swim you want to swim

This keeps going through my head these days, because frankly, life has got me down.  Why is it that trouble comes in clumps?

Let the Airing of the Grievances begin:  (1) a week and a half ago, my elderly mother got knocked down by some supermarket automatic sliding doors and has been suffering the aftereffects from that freak accident; (2) Little Bird has had intense nasal congestion and swelling the past week, along with a terrible cough, which has made sleep problematic for all of us; (3) My Guys’ father is in declining health; and 4) to top it all off,  My Guy and I caught a weird stomach flu bug the night after Thanksgiving and are still trying to recover.

I thought of Dorie at zero dark thirty last night, when my face was wedged against the bed rails on Little Bird’s bed, while Little Bird snored like a buzz saw in my ear.  Just keep swimming, I thought.

I don’ t have any spiritual insights to help me through this, not really.  Sometimes life is hard, and the best I can do is try to remember to let go and simply accept what is happening in the present moment, without judgment.   At least it lifts a little of the mental burden of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?”

I guess Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” says it about right, although most of the time I feel like screaming in protest rather than living into the attitude of this prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

In other words, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

Just when I was wondering what I was going to write about next, Little Bird handed me a lulu.  We were driving in the car to her tumbling class, and here’s how it went down:

LB:  Mommy, some people can’t see very well.

Me:  Mmm-hmmm.

LB:  And some people can’t walk very well.  And some people can’t hear very well, right?

Me:  Yes, that’s right.  We are all different.  (pause while I’m trying to think what to say next.)  What do you think about that?

LB:  I like it!

Me (internal sigh of relief):  Yeah!  It would be really boring if we were all the same, wouldn’t it?

LB: Yes.

Me (seeing teachable moment):  God loves us all, Little Bird.

LB (without missing a beat): God loves to shake his little booty!

Me:  Laughing.

Now, I’m not crazy about the fact that she has already, at 3 1/2 years old, internalized the idea that God is exclusively male.   But I love the image that sprang into my mind when she said this — an old white man, with a long white beard, shaking his booty and having a great time doing the cosmic dance.  It might look something like Mr. Natural:

Mr. Natural (comics)

It expresses something fundamental about the nature of God that I, for one, want to connect with more fully:  God is joyfully exuberant, God loves to move around and shake things up, God is loose.

Once upon a time, after a painfully introverted and lonely adolescence, I found that kind of joy, through dance.  I was a new student at U.C. Berkeley, living off-campus in a private home, and was overwhelmed with the hugeness of the place.  In desperation, I applied to live in one of the student cooperatives around campus.

Of course, the student coops are run and operated by students, so they tended to be wild and woolly places.  You would think that shy, sheltered me would wilt in such a place, but instead I thrived.  I had found my people — quirky, intelligent, off-beat, and funny.  And the parties!  Hoo, mama.  That was where I finally loosened up, let go, and learned how to dance.

I moved,  I shimmied, I shook my little booty.  There was no self-consciousness, no thinking involved at all — just sheer joy in movement.  I have never felt so free in my life.  I was pouring out energy, a waterfall of sheer joyfulness shared with all those around me, who were also dancing with abandon.

This self-giving, ever-moving quality of God is well-described by the fancy Greek theological term perichoresis.  First used by the Church Fathers, the term refers to the mutual indwelling and intersecting of the three persons of the Trinity: God the Father/Mother (sorry, I just had to); God the Son; and God the Holy Spirit.

I love Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault’s take on this concept in her book The Wisdom Jesus:

The Trinity, understood in a wisdom sense, is really an icon of self-emptying love. The three persons go round and round like buckets on a watermill, constantly overspilling into one another. And as they do so, the mill turns and the energy of love becomes manifest and accessible. The Cappadocians called this complete intercirculation of love perichoresis, which literally means ‘the dance around.’ Their wonderful and profound insight is that God reveals his own innermost nature through a continuous round dance of self-emptying (p. 72).

Well, my college dancing days are long over.  And I’ll be honest: time has hardened me.  Fear, disappointment, and maybe just the passing of time have formed a brittle shell around my heart that sometimes seems impossible to crack.  It’s hard to admit, but there it is.

The challenge is to keep my heart open to change and possibility and love.  The challenge is to stay loose.

Fortunately, Little Bird and My Guy have come into my life to help me.  Life is fresh and new for Little Bird, and her heart is wide open.  My heart, in turn, is unable to resist her.  She dances and I dance with her, and we spill love into each others’ buckets.

As for My Guy, by nature he is predisposed to enjoy change, rather than resist it (like me).  When he is not being a rocket scientist, he loves weird activities like conscious dance, going to drum circles and sweat lodges, and communing with our backyard on his shamanic journeys.  His predilection to try new things invariably pulls me along, and I am forced to look at life in different ways, and to stay open.  What a nut.  God, I love him.

We are not perfect — we get annoyed with each other, frustrated and resentful.  Just this morning in a fit of pique I threw a roll of toilet paper at My Guy.  Well, not directly at his face, but definitely in his general direction.  We are human beings, not God.  But God is within us and around us, and we overspill into each other, giving and receiving in turn, making the energy of love palpably “manifest and accessible.”

How is the energy of love manifest and accessible in your life?

Even before we moved to the Santa Cruz area — epicenter of the local food and do-it-yourself movements — I started to experiment with making stuff from scratch that I was used to buying at the store.  I enjoyed the notion that, instead of paying a mega-corporation to make a particular foodstuff for me,  I could make it at home — and it would be tastier, more nutritious, cost less, and use less plastic to package.

It’s my small way of sticking it to The Man (said with a sneer and single-finger salute, well out of sight of Little Bird).

Granted, I am a stay-at-home mom, so I have a little more time to futz around in the kitchen than moms and dads who also work outside the home.  But yogurt is one those things that, if you have a smidgeon of energy left in the evening, it’s easy to put together.  All it takes is milk, some yogurt from the store to act as a starter, and some dry milk powder.  In terms of equipment, you need a pot, a food thermometer, and a heating pad.

Dry milk, starter yogurt from the store, and milk is all you need for homemade yogurt.

For God’s sake, don’t go out and buy a yogurt machine!  A waste of money and cabinet space.

I found my yogurt recipe and method in The Complete Tightwad Gazette, a compilation of a newsletter published from 1990 to 1996 by Amy Dacyczyn.   It’s the Bible for scrooges and tightwads, a 950-or-so page tome filled with tons of tips on ultra-frugal living.  I honestly use it more for inspiration than actual ideas, but I do regularly turn to page 751, where you can find her thoroughly-researched method for making homemade yogurt.  It is so reliable that I have never found the need to look elsewhere.

Here it is:

Homemade Yogurt

  • Put two tablespoons of “starter” — plain store-bought yogurt with the words “live cultures” on the label — in a small bowl and let it warm up to room temperature.  If you do this around dinner-time, it should be ready to go by the time the kiddos are in bed.

This is my starter. I used two frozen cubes of Trader Joe’s organic yogurt, and let them defrost and come to room temperature.

  • When the starter has come to room temperature, put a quart of milk in a large saucepan.  Whisk in 1/2 cup of dry milk powder.  Heat the milk to 180 degrees.  (Note:  this is not the time to multi-task!  In a flash, the milk will boil over and make a huge mess on your stove.)

You can kinda sorta see that this milk has reached 180 degrees on the thermometer.

  • Turn off the heat and let the milk cool to 115 degrees.  Whisk in about 1/2 cup of the warm milk to the starter.  Add the starter-and-milk mixture back to the saucepan of milk and whisk well.
  • You can then pour this either into a large bowl (cover with plastic wrap) or a quart jar (screw on the lid).  Place the bowl or jar on a heating pad set on “low,” cover with a towel, and cover all that with a large soup pot.  Incubate for eight hours.

My pre-yogurt is ready to sit on a heating pad all night.

And here it is, covered with a towel and then a canning pot.

That’s it!  If you get this going at night before you go to bed, you can wake up in the morning to fresh yogurt.  Pretty awesome.

Little Bird is not what you would call a “restful” child.  She stopped taking naps around age two, and the concept of quiet time has never caught on with her.  She craves constant attention.  She sings, chatters, and asks questions nonstop all day long.  On the rare occasion when she runs out of things to say, she blows loud and juicy raspberries.

I wouldn’t change her a jot, and it is pretty darn draining to my quiet, introverted self.  It’s probably number one on my list of top ten things that are hard about parenting:  insufficient amounts of quiet to keep me sane.  So I am writing this post to help me remind myself of simple things that can help me find some inner quiet, even when external quiet is not an option.

Here are a few:

Look at a Peaceful Image

Take a look at this:

Stillness

This image makes me think of Jesus, going off to one of his “lonely places,” to be present with God in silence.  It immediately and wordlessly takes me to a place of inner stillness where thoughts cease, and there is simply a spacious awareness of being.

Take One Conscious Breath

For one breath, be fully conscious.  Close your eyes, and be aware of the breath coming in through your nostrils and entering your lungs.  Feel your abdomen rise, then fall.  Don’t try to change your breath or control what is happening.  Simply be present to your breath and attend to what is happening in your body at that moment.  In that moment, as Eckhart Tolle says, “you are aware of awareness.”  If you like it, do it again.  And again.

Try doing this at odd moments during the day, and see if it makes a difference in your quality of life and state of mind.

Slow Down . . . Way Down

Just as an experiment, try doing something really, really slowly, and see what happens.  For example, I was taking my pooch, Sonny Brown, for a walk one day.  He was dawdling as usual, and I was getting really impatient to be back in the house doing all the things on my to do list.  Like they were so important.

I got fed up with the hamster in my brain, turning his wheel over and over the same thoughts, so as an experiment, I slowed down my steps to a snail’s pace.  I noticed each movement of my foot as the heel landed on the ground to when the ball pushed off again.  And, as I slowed down, time also slowed down.  I became aware of all the beauty that was around me: the plants, flowers, sky and earth; the miracle that was my body; my friend dog walking beside me.  It was as if I could suddenly hear on a deeper level of my being all that the plants and the natural world were saying to me.

You can do this anytime:  while washing the dishes, slicing carrots for dinner, cleaning the house.  All of life can become a spiritual practice.

Take a Dose of Vitamin Nature

Stop what you are doing, and go outside.  Look at a tree, or a flower, or the clouds in the sky.  Even if it is only for a second, really see it — without thought, without judgment, without labeling.  In our modern world, we tend to be starved for connection with nature, and not even realize it.  And it’s not the amount of time you spend in nature, it’s the quality of time that is so important.  You can be in the most beautiful place in the world, but if you are not present to it, you might as well be in a padded cell.

Connect with the larger natural world around you, and your soul will expand.

Listen to Something Really Beautiful

I’m not sure that this takes me to a place of stillness, but I couldn’t resist sharing this YouTube video of K.D. Lang singing Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” at the Juno Awards.  It is six minutes of transcendent beauty:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_NpxTWbovE

What do you do to find stillness in the midst of your everyday life?  Please share.

I love writing about food. Everything in my life should be appended by a footnote reading, “oh, and by the way, here is a recipe.” What can I say? I find it energizing, in a restful kind of way.  Or maybe vice versa.

This might account for the . . . shall I say, bipolar attitude of this blog. Half the time I write about spirituality, self-care, parenting — deep stuff. The other half is recipes. Not as deep, but twice as delicious.

Currently, I am drawn to the topic of making kitchen staples from scratch.  Since our move to the Santa Cruz area — capitol of DIY everything and the local, organic, sustainable food culture — I have gotten more serious about making food from scratch that I used to buy at the grocery store.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but mainly it’s because it is fun.  I enjoy the cheap thrill I get when I make something awesome that I used to pay a mega-corporation to make for me.

So get ready for a series of “DIY kitchen staples” blog posts. I’m talking stuff like homemade soup stock, yogurt, bread, peanut butter, and granola.  Easy, delicious, and cheap.

Homemade chicken stock is very forgiving of mistakes.  If you don’t have one or another of the following ingredients, it’s no big deal.  It will still taste better than anything you buy at the store.  Here’s how I do it:

  • Whenever I buy chicken for dinner, such as a rotisserie chicken, I save the bones in the freezer.  When I have a few carcasses, I throw them in a big stock pot.  (It really does help here to have a stock pot. However, if you don’t have one, you can make a smaller amount of stock using just one chicken carcass and fewer vegetables.)
  • Gather together the following:
    • 2-3 cloves garlic
    • 1-2 onions
    • 2 carrots
    • 2 stalks celery
    • 1 green bell pepper
    • some fresh herbs:  parsley, thyme and sage are all wonderful.  Rosemary might be a bit strong unless the soup you are going to make from the stock has rosemary as a component.
    • A few bay leaves, either fresh or dried.
    • My “secret ingredient” is about 8-10 whole cloves.  They add a wonderful spicy something to the whole mix.

My chicken bones, vegetables and spices all ready to go.

If you don’t have one or another of these ingredients, don’t sweat it.   Look carefully and you’ll see in the picture above that there are no garlic cloves.  I forgot them!  A cardinal sin, I know, but the stock that resulted is delicious nonetheless.

  • Peel the onions and carrots, seed the pepper, and chop everything into big chunks. You can peel the garlic cloves and throw them in whole.

  • Put everything in the stock pot and fill it with water so that most everything is covered. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so it comes to a gentle simmer. Let it simmer for anywhere from one to three hours.

    Here it all is in the pot.

  • Put a strainer inside a big bowl and empty the stock into the strainer. After the stock has drained, throw away the chicken and veggies. Refrigerate the stock overnight, then in the morning, skim off the fat that has risen to the top.

    After spending a night in the fridge, all the fat rises to the top and you can skim it off, leaving you with a rich and flavorful fat-free broth.

  • That’s it — your chicken stock is now ready to go. You can use it in a soup such as my Pumpkin-Lentil soup, or you can freeze it. Then, on some cold winter day, you’ll pull it out and make a soup that warms the cockles of your family’s heart.

Taking Stock

A nagging sense of frustration has been nipping at my heels lately.  I am certainly busy enough these days — taking care of Little Bird, taking care of the house, taking care of the veggie garden, taking care of the animals.  I am a caregiver, yet lately it all feels like a bit much.  It is time to take stock and see where the imbalance lies and what can be done about it.

I hope you will indulge this rambling discourse on the state of my life, as I see it.

Looking Back

It’s been almost a year of craziness.  We moved from our very urban life in Pasadena to Northern California in November of last year, and lived for two months in a hotel while we found our house and closed escrow.  We moved into our new house in the semi-rural Santa Cruz mountains in January.

For about six months after our move, we went through some crazy illnesses — sponsored by Little Bird’s preschool buddies — and my mother’s move into a retirement community and sale of her house.  These events, combined with the dislocation of the move, were very stressful to me.  Like a pebble dropped into a pond, the ripples of my dislocation spread in my little family unit.  Little Bird became crazy clingy to me, and My Guy became over-protective and exhausted from carrying so much burden.

Finally, our lives here are smoothing out.  I can take a deep breath, look back, and see how hard it really was.  But I’m on the other side of that now.  My health is back, I’ve lost seventeen pounds, my back only hurts a little, and I can sleep again.  Thank you, Baby Jesus!

Looking Forward

     Home and the Natural World

To be honest, I don’t feel entirely integrated with my home yet.  This life is so different from what I’m used to:  in Los Angeles, we lived in a two-bedroom condominium overlooking city and freeway, with no outdoor space of our own.  Now, we have an actual house with a third of an acre of backyard.  Talk about an embarrassment of riches!  It’s hard to know what to do with it all.

Since we moved here I have noticed that my comfort zone is definitely indoors, working in the kitchen or reading in the bedroom or living room.  I’m not a natural gardener, and I feel hesitant about working in our garden, like I might offend or hurt the plants somehow.  I have a long ways to go before I’m fully comfortable and at home in our outdoor space.

Yet, we have the most amazingly generous land around and beneath us.  Our peach tree literally showered us with hundreds of white peaches.  The neighbor’s Bartlett pear tree rained down delicious pears into our yard for weeks.  My summer squash grew into the size of alien spacecraft.  Sun Gold cherry tomatoes voluntarily sprang up in odd parts of the yard.  Every turn of the season, the garden gave us wonderful surprises.

I had no idea how estranged I had become from the natural world after living in the city for so long.  I look forward to becoming more comfortable in it, and receiving with gratitude the gifts it brings.  I think that if I just spend an hour or two outside each day, it will make all the difference.

    My Own Self

I have become aware recently how ingrained is my habit of not taking care of myself.  Our culture  encourages us to put everything and everyone else ahead of our own needs.  Women are supposed to put other peoples’ needs ahead of our own. Men are supposed to put the needs of work ahead of their own.

I think the most important thing I can do is to continually remind myself that I am the most important person in my life, that I matter.  I have my own needs that must be attended to first, or else my well will run dry. To use another great metaphor, in the event of an emergency landing, I need to put on my own oxygen mask first, then put on Little Bird’s.  Otherwise, we’ll both go down.

I still have much to do to become mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy — establish a regular centering prayer practice again; find  a new spiritual director; start doing some regular physical exercise again; and connect in a meaningful way with other people, i.e., make some new friends.

And finally, I come to perhaps the most important thing for me:  my writing.  Ironically, this one is hard to write about.  I have suffered for many years from the dual convictions that I both need to write, and that no one has any interest in what I have to say.  I won’t go into the whys and hows that that second bad seed got planted inside me, but suffice to say that it has created great frustration for me almost my entire life.

I think that I may be finally ready for a change.  On a car trip to Los Angeles recently, I became dimly aware of  a series of thoughts running through my head on a semi-conscious level  (from “so and so wrote a book about exactly the topic I am interested in” to “it looks really good and has gotten really good reviews” to “there’s no point in me writing at all because it’s already been done, and much better than I could do, so what’s the point.”).

In a rare burst of insight, I stepped back and observed those toxic thoughts from a healthy distance.  I realized I had been hearing thoughts like these all my life, which were designed to keep me from failure and disappointment.  These thoughts were like a brick wall separating me from the writing life that I want and need.

There is no magic button to delete these thoughts and feelings from my psyche.  They come from a deep place of hurt and fear inside me.  However, what I can do is this:  keep working on being aware of them when they rise up inside me. Simply giving them a space and observing them compassionately will free up space inside me to do what I really want:  to continue writing.

And as a pledge to myself, now that Little Bird is in preschool again after summer break, I promise to give myself the first couple hours of that me-time.  Instead of going home and immediately starting work on cleaning up the messy kitchen or doing laundry or any of the hundreds of household tasks pulling at my sleeves, I am going to the local coffeehouse to write.

And now that I have done so, I’m going home to clean the kitchen!  I’ll see you again soon.

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