Lessons From Our Puppy

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Our house abounds with more energy than usual these days. We adopted a mixed-breed puppy five months ago. She’s jet black with white patches, and we named her Flower. Two little boys, a puppy, and two elderly cats make 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 astounds me. “She listens! She seems to like us! We can actually train her not to do something!” Our cats, 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 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.

Empathy is powerful

One afternoon on the way to the dog park, Flower was a bundle of 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. 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. A little empathy sure goes a long way.

Movement is fun

Dogs are excellent movement coaches. Flower never puts exercise on the end of her to-do list after 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.

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Categories Don’t Always Fit

Adopting a dog can supposedly ward off 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. 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 usually does not suffice. Quite a few people are convinced they know what category she’s actually in. From Jack Russell Terrier to Bulldog to Border Collie, we’ve heard lots of different ideas. We humans 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.

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

My article about urban homesteading was featured on CustomMade blog this week, accompanied by some beautiful graphics. I’ll have lots more articles coming out soon! Jump on over to my portfolio or Contently page to see my latest published work.

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

By Abby Quillen

I grew up in a fairly typical late-20th-century family. We lived a few blocks from the center of town. We bought all of our food at a chain grocery store—and much of it was instant, frozen, or packaged. I’d never spent much time around livestock or farms, but at a young age, I longed to grow a garden, bake bread, and cook from scratch.

When I was in college, I pored over back issues of Mother Earth News and devoured Living the Good Life, Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir about homesteading in Vermont, which helped launch the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. At the same time, I loved living close to a city center—riding my bike and walking everywhere, spending the afternoon at the library or swimming pool, going to book readings and events, and living close to my friends. It was hard to imagine leaving all of it behind, although I always thought I might.

When my husband and I were considering buying our first house, we realized we might be able to combine the best of urban living with the best of the back-to-the-land movement. We weren’t alone: Around the time our son was born in 2008, a lot of people were talking about “urban homesteading.”

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.

In some areas, urban homesteading has become mainstream. Where I live in Eugene, Oregon, nearly everyone I know has a vegetable garden and a flock of backyard hens. It’s no wonder the movement is picking up steam. There are many excellent reasons to celebrate the revolution.

1. Homegrown food is safer, more nutritious, and tastes better.

When the latest salmonella or e-coli outbreak dominates the headlines, it’s comforting to know exactly where your food comes from and how it’s raised. And because vitamin content is depleted by light, temperature, and time, freshly picked produce grown near your house is more nutritious than conventional produce, which is transported an average of 1,494 miles before it reaches the grocery store.

An even more delicious reason to celebrate homegrown food is the flavor. Gourmet chefs use the freshest ingredients they can find for a reason. The first time I cooked one of the eggs laid by our hens, I couldn’t believe how large and yellow the yolk was or how delectable it tasted. And it’s easy to appreciate novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s zeal for sun-ripened garden tomatoes. “The first tomato brings me to my knees,” she writes. “Its vital stats are recorded in my journal with the care of a birth announcement.”

2. Urban homesteading encourages healthy movement.

When I started gardening and making more things around the house and yard, I noticed a side effect: I felt better. It’s not surprising. Digging the dandelions out of a raised bed, brewing an India Pale Ale, and peeling potatoes fall in line with the sort of daily activities most important for maintaining a healthy body weight, according to research conducted by Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic. In Levine’s study, people were fed an extra thousand calories a day. Those who did the most daily non-exercise activity (as opposed to deliberate exercise for fitness) gained the least weight.

Non-Exercise Activity Helps Maintain a Healthy Body

And in a nine-country European breast cancer study, of all the activities and recreational exercise women partook in, household activity—including housework, home repair, gardening, and stair climbing—was the only activity to significantly reduce breast cancer risk.

We hear a lot about the dangers of sitting, and most of us have to sit for some part of the day. But increasing our movement in our daily lives can make a huge difference for our health and the way we feel.

3. Urban homesteading helps families connect with nature and the seasons.

Growing up in Colorado, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time hiking and camping. Gardening has given me an even more intimate connection with the natural world, since now I must work with it as a co-creator. And it has given my two young sons a wonderful relationship with plants and seasonal rhythms. They love the garden and beg to help plant seeds, pull weeds, and harvest. Every time one of them asks me if it’s pea or fig season yet, or recognizes an edible plant in someone’s yard, I smile. Those may seem like simple things, but for me as a kid, produce was something that was shipped across the country and delivered to a refrigerated section of the grocery store.

4. Urban homesteading is thrifty. 

It’s no coincidence the urban homesteading boom coincided with a worldwide economic recession. If you build your soil, save seeds, and tend your garden well, you can save hundreds of dollars on organic produce each season by growing your own. Keeping chickens can also save you money. We estimate that our eggs cost $3.35 a dozen (in organic chicken feed) at the most, compared to $5 to $7 for similar eggs at the health food store. However, we were lucky to inherit our chicken coop, so others may have to include that expense as well.

Cooking from scratch saves us the most money. It’s not just that making stock, microbrews, and bread products from bulk ingredients is cheaper than buying them. As we’ve become better chefs, we’re also not as apt to go to restaurants, which used to be a huge drain on our finances.

Save Money in the Garden: 5 Tips for Thrifty Growing

5. Turning a lawn into a homestead makes productive use of land and supports healthier ecosystems.

In the memoir Paradise Lot, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates recount how they transformed their backyard—one-tenth of an acre of compacted soil in Holyoke, Massachusetts—into a permaculture oasis where they grow about 160 edible perennials. What was once a barren lot is now habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms. “Imagine what would happen,” Toensmeier writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”

Most of us don’t have the skills or desire to garden on the scale that Toensmeier and Bates do. But by planting a few vegetables, herbs, or fruit trees, we create habitats for birds, butterflies, and pollinators. And by composting kitchen waste, chicken manure, and fallen leaves, we improve the ecosystem that supports all life.

6. Gardening and creating things boosts the spirits.

Author Matthew Crawford traded his job at a Washington think tank for a career fixing motorcycles because working with his hands made him feel more alive. “Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day,” Crawford writes.

We’ve all experienced the thrill that comes from making or fixing something. In her book Lifting Depression, neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert explains that association. “When we knit a sweater, prepare a meal, or simply repair a lamp, we’re actually bathing our brain in ‘feel-good’ chemicals,” she explains. Lambert contends that in our drive to do less physical work to acquire what we want and need, we may have lost something vital to our mental well-being—an innate resistance to depression.

I can attest to what Lambert says. Almost nothing is as satisfying as appraising a finished scarf or jar of sauerkraut, or cutting the first slice off a loaf of homemade bread. I have no doubt that creating something with my hands every day—even a meal—is imperative for my mental health.

7. Urban homesteading encourages families to live, work, and buy more intentionally.

These days, before we buy something impulsively, my husband and I are more likely to ask ourselves some simple questions. Can we make, fix, or do this ourselves, and is it worth the time and energy? Sometimes the answer is no. For me, canning and making clothing are not worth the effort. But just asking these questions makes our family more intentional about how we live and work, and what we buy.

As a society, we’re often encouraged to make decisions based on two variables: time and labor. When it comes to household tasks, it’s usually seen as preferable to save both time and labor. While making a stew will take longer and require more physical work than buying a can, the process is enjoyable and good for the body. In addition, the homemade variety is healthier, tastes better, and brings greater satisfaction. Equations look different when you add in all of the variables.

I hardly think of my family as urban homesteaders anymore, because the parts of the lifestyle that once seemed foreign and daunting, such as gardening, composting, and cooking from scratch, are now routine. They help us stay connected and make our lives feel richer. It’s powerful to produce some of what we need to survive, especially food.

Growing Cycle

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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….

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Hopeful Weekend Links

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Blood Moon Will Be a Sight to Behold During Total Lunar Eclipse – Ben Brumfield, CNN

Parking Lots Demolished as Driving Wanes – Romy Varghese, Business Week

bring your own cookies – Karen Maezen Miller, cheerio road

10 Things Creative People Know – Peggy Taylor and Charlie Murphie, YES! Magazine

20 Things Every Parent Should Hear – Beth Woolsey, Five Kids is a Lot of Kids

The Best Time of the Day for Creativity – Kevan Lee, Lifehacker

Celebrate the First Day of Spring

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Finally . . . the first day of spring is March 20! Here are some simple ways to celebrate.

Explore

Go on a hike and identify wildflowers if some are sprouting in your area. Or visit a local farm and see if you can get a glimpse of calves, lambs, or chicks in the barnyard.

Play

Fly a kite. Or make dandelion or clover chains and wear them as spring crowns.

Gather

Hunt for spring flowers, cherry buds, egg shells, a bird’s nest, and other signs of spring. Decorate the house with crocuses, daffodils, tulips, or dandelions.

Observe

Watch the sun rise and set. (You can find out what time it will rise here.)

Plant

Sow seeds. Have each family member pick a favorite flower to plant. Designate a special garden, and make a ceremony of it.

Read

Check out this list of novels “where the characters blossom and where there is hope in the midst of struggles, like flowers on bare branches.”

And don’t forget about the kids. Check out some of my family’s favorite spring picture books:

  • Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic by Steven Schur
  • Spring by Ron Hirschi
  • Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

We also enjoy reading aloud from The Spring Equinox: Celebrating the Greening of the Earth by Ellen Jackson.

Eat

Make a spring feast with the first crops of the season. Dandelion leaves, steamed nettles, and asparagus are delicious spring greens. Other traditional spring foods include eggs, ham, and sweets. Eat outside if weather permits, or have a picnic on a blanket in the living room.

Make

Attract birds to your yard by making these easy Audubon-approved bird feeders out of peanut butter and bird seed.

Or create your own traditions to welcome spring this Thursday.

Resources for seasonal celebrations:

The Artful Spring by Jean Van’t Hul
Ceremonies of the Seasons by Jennifer Cole
The Spring Equinox: Celebrate the Greening of the Earth by Ellen Jackson
Together: Creating Family Traditions by Rondi Hillstrom Davis and Janell Sewall Oakes
The Creative Family by Amanda Blake Soule

Do you have plans or ideas for how to celebrate spring this year? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Hopeful Weekend Links

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These two young artists quit their jobs to build this glass house for $500 – Ilyce R. Glink, Yahoo News

We Warp Time – Laura Grace Weldon

Clean naturally with essential oils – Mother Earth Living

How cooking can change your life – Michael Pollan, RSA Shorts

Tiger Mom, Helicopter Dad, you both have it wrong – Melinda Blau, Shareable

The benefits of biking – Kelly McCartney, Shareable

Hopeful Weekend Links

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How green microbeweries stoke sustainability – Peter Brewitt, Orion

The full-fat paradox: Whole Milk May Keep Us Lean – Allison Aubrey, NPR

How to Change the World – Renee Tougas, Fimby

60 Plus Nutrient Dense Recipes That Any Kid Will Love – Kristen Marr, Live Simply

Some good news in the farm bill – Karen Stillerman, Union of Concerned Scientists

It took this man two hours a week to change the world – Sage Cohen, The Path of Possibility

5 Ways to Make February Fabulous

It feels like the perfect day to revisit this post (and I’m still in need of a fabulous February tradition if you have ideas to share).

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“In the coldest February, as in every other month in every other year, the best thing to hold on to is each other.” – Linda Ellerbee

So maybe I was a tad optimistic in that title. Perhaps I should have stuck with “fine” or “fair”. We are talking about February, after all. I often find this month a bit, well, challenging. All of the newness of the year – the parties, the resolutions, the bowls of black-eyed peas – too often give way to the realization that there are lots of cloudy days and long cold nights to go as my little corner of the earth rotates back toward the sun.

I love winter. It just has considerably more appeal in November, when sweaters,  crackling fires, and root vegetables are still novelties. Apparently I’m not alone. A quick Google search turns up dozens of articles and blog posts entitled, “February Sucks,” lamenting everything from Valentine’s Day to midterms to sinus infections.

But this month, I decided I will not just quietly cope with my February malaise. I’m on a mission to pull February from its shadowy reputation – at least in our house. In August, as we’re sitting outside watching the sun set at nine and eating vine-ripened tomatoes, hopefully we’ll say, “This is nice, but remember February?”

Maybe you can use some February mood-lifters too? Here are five ways I’m hoping to rescue this poor wreck of a month:

1. Plan the Garden

What’s the next best thing to eating those first sweet, crunchy snap peas and juicy raspberries? Dreaming about them, of course. And what better way to do that then to sketch out some garden plans? Last year, planning was my key to gardening success, and I learned a lot from what worked and didn’t work. I’m looking forward to spending some February afternoons with a cup of tea, some gardening books, and my sketch pad.

If you don’t have space or desire for a garden, you could plan some containers for your deck, or a window box, or adopt a house plant. Just glimpsing plants has been found to speed the recovery of surgery patients and improve workers’ job satisfaction. Hopefully plants can help rescue February too, a month altogether wanting for more shrubbery.

2. Invite someone new over for dinner

We have new neighbors, who also happen to be old acquaintances, and we’ve been meaning to invite them over for awhile to welcome them to the neighborhood. February is calling for a break-up in the old routines. Why not invite someone new over to your house too? It’s the perfect excuse for a feast. Eat. Play some games. Discuss ways to spruce up February.

3. Create something everyday

Around this time of year, after all of the baking and the making that comes with the holidays, I often find myself in a creativity lull. Dr. Kelly Lambert might say this explains why February is so challenging for me. She asserts that cooking, knitting, sewing, building, or repairing things with our hands and seeing tangible results from our efforts bathes our brains in feel-good chemicals. I know she’s right. I feel much better when I’m creative. “An art or craft everyday” is my new February motto.

4. Listen to music

Music – notably up-tempo music played in a major key – makes people happy. Research indicates that listening to music we enjoy triggers the release of the natural opiates known as endorphins. And in studies, music has been found to boost surgery patients’ immune systems, lower stress in pregnant women, and reduce complications from cardiac surgery. I know music makes everyone in my house happier, and yet I often simply forget to turn it on. I hereby proclaim February the month of music. We will listen, sing, play, and dance.

5. Start a new tradition

Okay, so I’ve come up with a few ways to improve the next couple of weeks, but what about next February and the February after? I mean, if I’m going to make this a legendary month, we need a tradition that we talk about all year. Should we make valentines? Or truffles? Go on a scavenger hunt? Take off for a weekend getaway? I haven’t decided yet … I’m hoping you’ll share your ideas.

Do you love February, or at least like it? Do you have any fabulous February traditions? I’d love to hear from you.

How to Surround Yourself with Brilliance

Photo by Joshua Rothhaas

Photo by Joshua Rothhaas

When I told my dad, a freelance writer for more than 30 years, that I was going to make a go at freelancing in 2009, he joked that I might try “something more remunerative, like looking for dropped change on the sidewalk.” He was exaggerating of course, but he was right that freelancing is not the easiest way to make money. It is, however, an amazing school.

I’ve learned so much from generating ideas, pitching, interviewing, researching, crafting articles, working with editors, and polishing pieces. If I had to pluck out one lesson to share from my freelancing adventures, it would be this: ask more questions.

It sounds simple, but learning how to interview people changed the way I approach everything from my friendships to my parenting to my writing. People love to share their stories. All you have to do is be curious, ask questions, and listen. It’s a sure way to improve any relationship, project, or boring activity. And you’ll likely find out you’re surrounded by fascinating geniuses.

7 Ways a Kitchen Timer Can Improve Your Life

Photo by Michael Cory

Photo by Michael Cory

 

Someday I will spend a few weeks at a cabin in the woods or an isolated beach house with no clocks. I’d love to let nature’s rhythms and my own perception take precedence over the ticking of clock hands. But right now my life requires some scheduling, and I’m embracing the power of a simple tool that most of us have on our cell phone, oven, or stuffed in a cupboard somewhere — a timer.

Here are seven ways a timer has improved my daily routines and might improve yours:

1. End procrastination

At the beginning of January, Copyblogger’s Sonia Simone advised bloggers to set a timer and write for 20 minutes every day in January. I didn’t think much of it. I have to write for more than 20 minutes if I want to finish anything, I thought to myself. But I heeded Simone’s advice, and I was far more productive last month. Committing to a short amount of time eliminated my resistance to getting started. And once I’ve started, 20 minutes nearly always turns into more.

2. Prevent sibling fights

My boys inspired my love affair with the timer. At two and five, they finally play together. They also squabble a lot. “It’s my airplane.” “Mine.” “Mom, he took my plane.” “He hit me, so I had to hit him back.” You get the picture. Well, would you believe that a timer puts a stop to all of it? Each boy gets two minutes with whatever toy is en vogue and then they switch. Researchers believe humans are hard-wired to desire fairness. Sure enough, once my boys know they’ll get equal time, the fighting stops. It’s magic.

3. Tame cleaning pitfalls

Housework: it can be hard to get started on it or it can eat up your entire life. Setting a timer solves both problems. We often set one in the evenings or on weekend mornings, turn on music, and clean together as a family for 30 to 45 minutes. It’s amazing how much we get done in a short time and how much fun it is when we do it together.

4. Improve focus at work

The Pomodoro Technique teaches people how to manage work time better using a kitchen timer. The idea is to get everything ready for a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and stick with the task until it dings. Then take a break and do it again. Do this all day long, and you’ll train yourself to stop multitasking. I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique, but I utilize another technique that encourages me to schedule my work in small, focused units – working at home with two little boys.

5. Limit mindless activities

A timer is not only great for helping you to get started and focus, it can help you stop wasting time. Most of us have seen hours dissolve while blog-hopping or scrolling through status updates, and it never feels great. Next time you go online, decide what you want to do there and set a timer. The trickiest part is forcing yourself to actually stop when it dings. But in my experience, mindful online time is more fun and fulfilling.

6. Ensure quality time

Many childhood development experts say that connected parenting requires 30 minutes a day of undivided attention. Marriage likely improves under similar conditions. With dishes, laundry, and deadlines always looming and sometimes taking over entire sections of the house, it can be tempting to drop each other off the to-do list. But a simple timer can help you reserve time for connection.

7. Carve out alone time

According to studies, meditation can relieve anxiety, lower blood pressure, boost immunity, reduce inflammation, and on and on. But I wonder if part of meditation’s power is in simply setting aside time every day to be alone and do something quiet and restful. I imagine you’d notice benefits from setting a timer and walking, exercising, stretching, playing music, or mindfully doing anything everyday.

Have you discovered ways to use a kitchen timer to improve your life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.