Lessons From Our Puppy


We adopted a mixed-breed puppy five months ago. She’s jet black with white patches, and she looks a little like a gangly raven. That’s probably why the women at the dog rescue named her Raven.

Within minutes of meeting her, four-year-old Ira declared, “Her name is Flower.” Many people have asked if we named her after the skunk in Snow White, so we’ve since re-watched that sweet scene (a few times). It would have been the perfect reason to name a black-and-white puppy Flower. But Ira had never seen it at the time, so it’s a strange coincidence.

Our house abounds with more puppy energy than usual these days. Two little boys and a puppy negotiating for attention with two elderly cats makes for a special brand of pandemonium — and a lot of joy. I grew up with dogs, but I’ve spent 15 years with feline companions. So Flower often astounds me. “She listens! She seems to like us! We can actually train her not to do something!” Of course, cats, the quintessential introverts, have no interest in such things.

Pets are a huge responsibility and expense. Americans spend 60 billion dollars a year on them. Lately I’ve been reflecting on what we get from these intimate inter-species relationships. Here are a a few of the lessons Flower is teaching (or reminding us of) these days.

You don’t need words to communicate

Dogs are experts at reading non-verbal cues and tone of voice. They watch us nearly as closely as our own infants and can supposedly read us better than chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest primate relatives. Scientists say humans and dogs evolved as companions over tens of thousands of years, and some theorize that wild dogs instigated the inter-species relationship by learning to understand our gestures.

For a long time, people assumed dogs were not as highly sensitive as they seem but were learning to recognize a cue, such as an angry voice. However a more recent study suggests dogs categorize humans’ varied emotional responses, which helps them attune to our moods. And the ability seems to be intrinsic (not learned). In any case, spending time with a dog is an amazing lesson in how much we communicate without opening our mouths and how much we can learn about people by paying attention.

Unconditional love

Empathy is powerful

One afternoon on the way to the dog park, Flower was a bundle of excited puppy energy. It had just rained and the winding trail was slippery. As we rounded a curve, Flower saw the gate to the park, lunged for it, and pulled me down. Thankfully I wasn’t hurt, and what happened next surprised me. Flower forgot all about the dog park. She turned around, ran to me, curled into my lap, and started licking my face.

I spend a lot of time with two little boys who are still learning the ins and outs of empathy — “It doesn’t matter if you’re sad, right Mommy?” But empathy seems to come naturally to Flower. And she’s not unusual in the canine world. A dog is more likely to approach someone who’s crying than someone who is humming or talking, according to one study. Let’s face it, relationships — human or canine — can be challenging. But a little empathy sure goes a long way.

Movement is fun

Last spring when we were at the playground, kids, aged nine and ten, were arriving at the nearby track for soccer practice. Their coach instructed them to run laps to warm up. They complied, but they looked miserable as they trudged around in a half walk, half run. Sadly they sort of resembled the adults who were jogging around the track for exercise. Meanwhile the kids at the playground darted around playing tag, scurried to the top of a play structure, and swung across monkey bars. It struck me that kids should be the ones coaching us on joyful movement.

Dogs too are excellent movement coaches. Flower never jots exercise on the end of her to-do list with a litany of chores. Moving is one of her favorite things, second only to food, and she never takes for granted the simple joy of walking or running or playing ball. Her zeal for moving helps us all add more of it to our days. Moreover, she reminds us that it can be our favorite part of the day.


Categories Don’t Always Fit

I’ve read that adopting a dog can help with loneliness, not only because you have the dog as a companion, but because the dog invites more social interaction with other people. It’s true. Our walks these days are filled with happy conversations with strangers. It’s amazing to discover how many people love dogs.

Many passersby are curious about what breed Flower is. She is about as mixed-breed as dogs get. We usually list off a few of the breeds we’re relatively certain she has — English Pointer, Australian Shepherd, etc. But that answer often does not suffice. Quite a few people are convinced they know what category she’s actually in. From Jack Russell Terrior to Bulldog to Border Collie, we’ve heard lots of different ideas. We people sure like our categories, don’t we? Flower’s a good reminder that dogs (and people) don’t always fit in one.


I loved having a dog companion when I was a kid, and it’s fun to see how much my boys already love Flower. (Unfortunately our cats are not such huge fans.) Training a puppy is not easy, but it has a way of reminding us what’s important. Besides, watching Flower chase her tail never gets old.

Dogs and your health


Want Healthy, Happy Kids? Walk With Them.

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Walking has always been my favorite mode of transportation. Yes, it’s usually the slowest way to get somewhere, averaging fifteen minutes per mile. But it makes me feel clear-headed and invigorated when I get to my destination. Thus I’ve long preferred striding, strolling, or sauntering to driving, riding, and even biking. That’s why I’ve commuted by foot to school and work most of my life, even when I was nine months pregnant.

My kids don’t exactly share my zeal for bipedal locomotion.

“You know, the car is faster,” four-year-old Ira patiently explains as we amble toward his preschool.

“One block, Mom. One block. Then we’ll turn around,” seven-year-old Ezra declares as we maneuver our puppy out the door for an after-school jaunt around the neighborhood.

I’ve never seen research on the topic, but the mental health benefits of walking seem to diminish rapidly when a child is trudging beside you complaining. So I’ve allowed and even encouraged the boys to grab their bikes on walks in the past. Wheels tend to help them move along at a nice pace, and their complaining wanes.

However, this year I’m on a mission to get my kids walking more. I love bikes, but I’m convinced walking, the upright movement that distinguishes us as human, is an under-appreciated key to good health. Moreover, not walking — 35 percent fewer kids walk and bike to school than they did in 1969 — may be causing a lot of problems for our kids (and the rest of us).

Walking is Anti-Sitting

Walking is not as vigorous as running or playing. But it may actually be the moderate intensity of walking that makes it so good for us. Why? It doesn’t tire us out, so we continue to move around for the rest of the day. However, those vigorous bouts of high-intensity movement we usually call “exercise” often encourage us to sit more. In one study, exercisers were 30 percent less active on the days they hit the gym. That’s a problem, because varied all-day movement seems to be the ticket to optimal health.

You’ve probably seen the headlines that sitting too much increases cardiovascular issues, even when people exercise vigorously several times a week. Excessive sitting is bad for kids too. Just three hours of uninterrupted sitting caused the blood vessels of girls, aged nine to 12, to restrict in a study. Unfortunately most kids sit a lot. Worldwide, children sit for about 8.5 hours a day.

What’s the antidote to sitting? Lots of walking. Walking is not only good for our hearts and organs, it’s good for the entire body. Riding a bike gets the blood flowing, however the hips stay flexed, our shoulders hunch forward, and our tails tuck. However, walking, when done in proper alignment, is the opposite of sitting. The movement elongates the spine and tones the pelvic floor. Biomechanist Katy Bowman calls it a “biological imperative,” because we must do a lot of it to maintain a healthy body, especially a healthy skeleton.


Walking Builds Healthy Bones

Experts say childhood is the best time to invest in healthy bones. According to the National Institute of Health, bone mineral density peaks around age 20 for boys and 18 for girls. Healthy bone mineral density both makes kids less at risk for childhood fractures and less likely to experience osteoporosis and fractures later in life. Alarmingly, more kids may have low bone mineral density than in previous eras, according to Orthopedic Surgeon Shevaun Mackie Doyle, perhaps because they get less activity and exposure to sunshine.

Biking gets kids outside, offers cardiovascular benefits, and is great for the environment when it replaces car trips. But it’s not so great for bone health, according to a number of studies. In studies, cyclists, especially those who ride on smooth terrain, have the same or even lower bone density than sedentary control groups. (Swimmers also have similar bone density to sedentary people, likely because both groups don’t bear their own weight while they’re moving.)

Walking not only builds healthy bones, it encourages kids to run, jump, skip, gallop, tromp, and tree-climb, all of which are superb bone builders.

Walking Improves Quality of Life

Walking isn’t just important for our bodies. It boosts mental health. It helps people attune to the environment, rather than their worries, and has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus and improve memory. Walking to school helps kids focus for the rest of the day and has been shown to reduce the need for kids to take ADHD medication, according to a British study.

Daily walks also boost immunity, decreasing people’s chance of getting a cold by as much as 30 percent. That may be especially alluring to parents as we enter another cold and flu season.

Maybe you’re already convinced about walking’s superhero qualities? Warning: your kids may not be. Mine complain walking is boring and say it makes their legs tired. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to make it more palatable.


How to Help Kids Love Walking

“You know, Mom, that was sort of fun,” Ezra remarked the other day after a one-and-a-half-mile walk to a school-related meeting. This walk is straight uphill, and a few months ago, he would have balked at the idea of it. So it was an exciting moment for me. However, getting him to this point required some effort on my part. The following tactics have made walking more fun for my kids and may help your kids enjoy walking more too.

  • Go Somewhere Fun

Whether it’s a playground or a birthday party, having a destination gets kids moving. One popular hike in our area is a winding uphill trek, but every kid I know hustles to the top. Why? There’s a swing up there.

  • Walk to School or on Errands

Walking is best when it’s used as a mode of transportation. That way, it becomes a seamless part of life, and kids and adults alike are less likely to think of it as optional “exercise.” Let’s face it, exercise is too often an activity we don’t enjoy that encourages more sedentary behavior for the rest of the day. It’s better to make walking routine.

  • Bring a Friend

Nothing seems to gets a kid moving like another kid. The instant a friend joins us, complaining vanishes as the kids race each other to the end of the block and scramble up trees.

  • Play games

A game of Red Light, Green Light or Follow the Leader is a sure way to get kids excited about a walk. We’ve invented our own walking game called Force Fields. Basically there are imaginary “force fields” we can fall into in as we walk, and someone has to rescue us with an imaginary rope or magic dust. The game relieves my kids’ fatigue and boredom quickly, and they have a great time thinking up variations, such as “whirlwind force fields” and “quicksand force fields.”

  • Expect to Carry Little Ones Sometimes

Little legs tire faster than ours, so our littlest kiddos will probably need to be carried sometimes. It may be tempting to bring along a stroller or backpack, and I do when we’re going a long way, but these tools can encourage more sitting than walking. So on shorter walks I leave them at home and expect to carry my four-year-old occasionally. Here’s what I’ve learned. When I resist carrying him, everyone is miserable. When I happily let him climb up on my back, he’s usually back on his feet and running around within a block or two. And the good news is, carrying little ones is something we’re built to do, and it makes our bones and bodies strong. Think of it as strength training with built in hugs.


Many adults are looking for ways to feel better, relieve musculoskeletal pain, and connect with our kids. At the same time, we’re worried that our kids get sick too much, spend too much time on the couch with electronics, or have trouble focusing at school. The solution to all of those problems and so many more is free and accessible to nearly everyone. Walk!


Do you walk with your kids? Have you found ways to make it enjoyable for them? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Build the Ultimate Sustainable Kitchen

Build the Ultimate Sustainable Kitchen

My article Build the Ultimate Sustainable Kitchen recently appeared on CustomMade. Click on the infographic below for tips on how to build a kitchen designed for sustainable living, including some on how to green any kitchen.

Click to Enlarge Image

Build the Ultimate Sustainable Kitchen

Build the Ultimate Sustainable Kitchen
Infographic by CustomMade

Sipping Sustainably

Sipping Sustainably: Green Breweries and Wineries

My article Sipping Sustainably: Green Breweries and Wineries recently appeared at CustomMade. Click on the infographic below to find out what forward-thinking wineries and breweries are doing on the sustainability front and to get tips on how to sip sustainably.

Click to Enlarge Image

Sipping Sustainably: Green Breweries and Wineries

Sipping Sustainably: Green Breweries and Wineries
Infographic by CustomMade

Keeping Your Harvest All Year Round

I’ll be sharing some of my recently published articles with you this week. They’re all accompanied by really useful, shareable infographs. I hope you enjoy them!

First, my article Keeping Your Harvest All Year Round: Winter Storage Dos and Don’ts appeared on Fix. Click on the image below to click over to it and discover lots of tips for keeping produce fresh without a root cellar.

Source: Fix.com


Living Big in a Tiny House


Photo by Tammy Strobel.

Photo by Tammy Strobel.

I haven’t been writing much here, but I’ve been busy! I have lots of articles coming, which I’ll share. I’m also determined to carve out more time to write here.

I reviewed Dee Williams’ The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.

72 Cities Cover

At 41, Dee Williams was a “nor­mal, middle-class, middle-of-the-road woman with a mortgage and a job and friends.” She worked as a state hazardous waste inspector and owned a 1927 Portland, Ore., fixer-upper that she shared with a rotation of roommates. She “went running and climbing and paddling, racing in a thousand different direc­tions at a thousand miles per hour.”

Then one day she woke up in an intensive care unit tethered to a urine bag, IV pole, and heart monitor, and the doctors diagnosed her with a potentially fatal heart condition. “It felt like death, or my mortality, or something bigger still, was leaning into my bed with the moonlight, clat­tering when I moved hangers in the closet, buzzing behind the sound of the shower running or my car idling in traffic,” she writes in The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir.

Soon after her diagnosis, Williams discovered an article about an Iowa City man who built and moved into a house the size of a shed. The idea of building such a little house—the process itself and the paring down it would require to move in—enticed Williams. “Somehow, it would shrink my life into a manageable mouthful,” she writes. Before long, Williams was drafting blueprints for her own tiny house.

Designing a house, even a very small one, involved some “outright panic” for Williams. She planned to live in the backyard of a house belong­ing to friends more than a hundred miles away in Olympia, Wash. Thus the house would need to fit on a trailer and be under 13.5 feet tall per Depart­ment of Transportation requirements. It would also need to withstand the rough shaking that transporting a house on the highway can present.

Excerpt from the book:

I thought I’d find something in all of this, and I got more than I bargained for. I discovered a new way of looking at the sky, the winter rain, the neighbors, and myself; and a different way of spending my time. Most important, I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want, but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money and property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.

I now this sounds cheesy, and in fact, it sounds fairly similar to the gobbledygook that friends have thrown at me just after having their first baby. But the facts are the facts: I found a certain bigness in my little house—a sense of largeness, freedom, and happiness that comes when you see there’s no place you’d rather be.

As she built, Williams experienced sore muscles, bumps, bruises, smashed fingers—and lost her ponytail after she accidentally glued it to her house. She also had a lot of fun. “Risking life and limb every day” distracted her from her potentially debilitating disease. And she erected an undeniably attractive 84-square-foot cedar-and-knotty-pine house that man­ages to look open and airy in photos despite its minuscule size.

In a society drowning in commer­cials, books, and schemes promising to deliver us from hardship, it might have been tempting for Williams to oversell downsizing. She resisted that temptation—The Big Tiny abounds with refreshing honesty, humor, and endearing quirkiness.

Williams admits that getting rid of her three-bedroom house full of stuff was more agonizing than she expected, and living in less than a hundred square feet isn’t always comfortable. She has no refrigerator or plumb­ing. She cooks on a single burner and sleeps with her propane heater off, because she’s afraid her house will catch fire. She estimates she’s happy about 85 percent of the time, about the same amount of time she was happy in her big house.

When she escaped the “mindless rotisserie of work and projects” that guided her in her old house, Williams discovered a satisfaction that came from getting to know herself. “Let­ting go of ‘stuff,’” she writes, “allowed the world to collapse behind me as I moved, so I became nothing more or less than who I simply was: Me.”

The house and its large skylight helped her connect with nature in a new way. “I like the excitement of the windstorms and the rain pound­ing down a thousand different ways, inches from my head,” she writes. She also has more time for drinking tea on her porch and chatting with friends, because she no longer has to juggle bills and worry about constant home repairs.

What Williams celebrates most is that her new lifestyle requires her to depend on others. She lives “in com­munity” with her friends Hugh and Annie, their two sons, and Hugh’s elderly aunt Rita because she’s located in their backyard and needs their run­ning water. Williams happily takes on the role of Rita’s caretaker in exchange for using Rita’s shower and occasion­ally her oven. “If more people under­stood how nice it is to have a sense of home that extends past our locked doors, past our neighbors’ padlocks…we’d live in a very different place,” she insists.

Williams’ enthusiasm for small living and her charming hand-built house have already helped launch a tiny house movement. The Big Tiny will encourage many more people to assess whether bigger and more means happier—proof that making something tiny can ignite something very big.

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

Check out my post about urban homesteading on the CustomMade blog this week, accompanied by some beautiful graphics. (I’ll have several more articles to share soon!)

Here’s a brief excerpt:

What is urban homesteading? In short, it looks different for every family. For mine, it means we live in a regular, ranch-style house in the city. In our backyard, we have a small flock of three chickens and a large vegetable garden that provides us with peas, greens, tomatoes, corn, squash, beans, and herbs. We compost. We cook nearly all of our meals from scratch, including bread, tortillas, and pizza crust, and we brew beer. We chop wood to heat our house, and we hang our laundry on a clothesline. We make most of our own household cleaners and personal care products out of simple ingredients, like baking soda and vinegar. Biking is our main form of transit. And we try to be intentional about the things we buy. For other families, urban homesteading includes keeping bees, raising rabbits, making clothes, or preserving food.

More than anything, urban homesteading is a mindset. It turns us from consumers who are disconnected from where our food and belongings come from into producers who use our hands to make some of what we need to live. Most of us have little desire to be as self-sufficient as the original homesteaders had to be and the back-to-the-landers strived to be. In my family’s case, we’re thrilled to take advantage of all of the wonderful elements of urban life, including farmer’s markets and grocery stores as well as chocolate, coffee, and cultural events.

Click to Enlarge Image

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution
Infographic by CustomMade

It’s release day!

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It’s been a busy two months, and I can’t wait to fill you in on our May and June adventures and more importantly on the happenings in my garden. But I just popped in to let you know The Garden of Dead Dreams is officially available! After many years of working on this book, this day is a little surreal. Both the eBook and print edition are available at a growing list of retailers, including Amazon. I’ll keep an updated list on my website. And I’m selling autographed print copies there, if you’d like one.

I’m also hosting a Goodreads giveaway for three autographed print copies. Feel free to sign up and spread the word!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Garden of Dead Dreams by Abby Quillen

The Garden of Dead Dreams

by Abby Quillen

Giveaway ends June 30, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

I’ll be back to more regular posting soon! Thanks so much for your patience.

Announcing . . . The Garden of Dead Dreams

I’m thrilled to reveal the cover of my first novel, which will be released in June!

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I’m also unveiling my all new website design at http://abbyquillen.com. Come on over! You can learn more about the book there, and I’d love to hear what you think of the new design.

As if there isn’t enough to be excited about over here, we’re celebrating that my dad’s anthology is a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in the creative nonfiction category! I know he’d be thrilled for the recognition.

I’ll be busy, busy, busy for awhile with house guests coming to stay with us, my sister graduating from law school (!), our usual end-of-school-year pandemonium, and of course, I’ll be preparing for the big book release while squeezing in as much time as I can in the garden.


So you won’t see as much of me as usual, although I’ll stop in if I can. (Hopefully I’ll have time for a book review, because I have some fabulous books to tell you about.) Until then, I hope you’re enjoying spring!

Oh, and you can sign up for my brand new newsletter below for occasional updates about my upcoming books, articles, interviews, events, and giveaways. (Don’t worry, I won’t flood your inbox, and I’m as allergic to spam as you are.)

Hello sunshine!

We’re making the most of a stretch of sparkling spring days with tea parties, egg hunts, and fun-packed afternoons with friends. I’m sure the rain will send us inside soon. See you then….