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….

IMG_7353

IMG_7365

IMG_7384

IMG_7422

IMG_7412

IMG_7442

IMG_7475

Hopeful Weekend Links

IMG_7292

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

first day of spring

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. Some of my family’s favorite spring picture-books are: Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic by Steven Schur, Spring by Ron Hirschi, and 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

IMG_7174

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

IMG_7169

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).

IMG_7074 (2)

“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.

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

This is a guest post by my sister, Columbine Quillen. Last week she lost her white German Shepard Sierra, who was a sweet, happy, loveable member of our family for twelve years. Here she recounts some of their adventures and reflects on life’s big questions. (Plus, everyone loves a good bear story, right?) I hope you enjoy it.

sierra 3

I’m shocked by my melancholy. Perhaps this loss is hitting me so hard because Sierra was such a fixture in our lives — not only a friend and a companion, but a part of the house. A part of the neighborhood. She was often the first face I saw each day poking her head into the bedroom.

I met Sierra because she was (my future husband) Brad’s dog, and Brad had a crush on me the summer of 2002. I was living with my parents in Colorado and running races. I often ran 10 to 15 hard miles in the mountains in the morning and then mountain biked another 20 miles in the afternoon. Sierra had as much energy as I did, so Brad often asked me to take her with me. I didn’t always want to, because Sierra was a bundle of energy who had sharp teeth and didn’t understand acceptable play. But my mom didn’t like me being alone in the backcountry, so I always agreed.

That was the beginning of many miles spent alone with Sierra in the wilderness. One time we climbed a peak in the Sangre de Christos, some of the remotest of the Colorado Rockies, and we went down the wrong drainage. We must have bushwhacked two to three miles of 2,000-3,000 feet of decent. When we were above timberline I could see where we were and which way to go, but when we dropped into the trees I felt scared and exhausted. Sierra seemed to know the way, though, and I kept with her. Eventually we found a small creek which turned out to be a tributary to a creek that was on the hiking trail. Sierra was a phenomenal athlete and sure-footed backcountry mate. I always felt safer when she was with me — except once.

IMG_20130419_153112_295

When she was still young, we were running on a steep trail near my hometown. At the top of the climb where the trail levels out, Sierra wandered off into the woods and rustled up a bear!  Talk about motivation to run!  Sierra looked at me with the most gleeful look, like “Yeah!  Look what I just did!”  We got out of there as fast as we could, although I don’t think the bear had much interest in us. Some old ranchers told me that bears don’t like people or domesticated dogs, so if they know you are coming they will get out of the way. “Make your dog noisy,” they advised. So I put jingle bobbles on her collar, and we never saw another bear or house cat again.

When I met Sierra, she did not swim. She would only wade out to her knees. This drove Brad crazy.  He gave up his promising career at Hewlett Packard to live his dream of creating the greatest database of whitewater river runs in the nation. He had traveled all over the country running whitewater. Being on a river was the most important thing to him, and his dog would not swim!  Brad tried to get her to swim by taking her out on a pier on a lake and dropping her off. However, that made her even more timid around water and made Brad seem like a real jerk every time he told the story.

In the summer of 2003 Brad decided to teach me how to whitewater paddle, which to this day is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. We would go out to a lake so that I could practice my strokes and roll. Sierra was not happy when both of us were out in the water. She’d pace the shore barking a pitiful bark that made it sound like we were poking her with hot coals. We kept calling out to her, and finally one day she came in. It was the cutest thing in the world. She was so stressed out, holding her head up high. She swam to our boats and then swam circles around us like a shark. Later, when Brad was teaching me how to surf in a kayaking hole, Sierra became a beautiful river swimmer, using the current to propel her across the water. It was amazing to watch.

sierra 2

The last few years have been challenging. Law school has a special way of beating up and tearing apart the human soul. My father passed away from a heart attack in the middle of the night. My grandmother died. My long-time colleague who I also enjoyed paddling with died of cancer. Another friend who appeared to be perfect health died for no explicable reason at the age of 27.

When these tragedies struck, I was not surrounded by a community of support and nourishment. We had moved to a town away from everyone we knew so I could go to law school. I was taking an over-loaded course schedule while working and couldn’t lean on my friends at school, since they also had no free time and were trying not to buckle under the enormous pressure. Every day I got up and forced myself out the door. But I was depleted by the end of the day. I’d trudge through the door, and Sierra would bound up to greet me. A rock in times of hardship. The greatest listener who ever existed. A place of warmth and reassurance.

Sierra had the gift to make those around her smile and feel good. A few months ago Brad left his bike at the train station, and he asked me if I could pick it up. It’s a couple of miles over to the train station, so Sierra and I walked there. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out, and all of the trees were full with golden and fiery red leaves. On the way back I rode Brad’s bike, and Sierra trotted behind me. Everyone who passed beamed at me, but I knew their smiles weren’t for me. When I glanced behind me, there was Sierra smiling the brightest smile, her ears back, running her old dog teeter totter trot with her jingle bobbles swaying back and forth with each step. The sun beamed down on her, golden leaves raining in the background. What a magical sight to behold.

sierra 4

With all of the loss I’ve experienced in the last few years, I can’t help but ponder life’s big questions. Every culture has stories to explain why we’re here, what we’re supposed to be working toward, and what happens to us when we die. I don’t know which story is right. But I do know that everyone who I’ve been close to has qualities that amaze me. And maybe if I can incorporate more of those qualities into my life on a day to day basis, a little bit of that person can live on.

My father was an amazing storyteller who was gifted at building community. My colleague was an amazing whitewater boater who never said no to a paddle. My 27-year-old friend had a gorgeous smile that she gave away continuously without ever expecting anything in return. Sierra was always ready to go. She had a great vigor for life. She lived life to its fullest and always found something to enjoy, no matter the circumstances. Certainly all of my friends, and my dad, gave more to the world than these simple qualities, but these are some of the things I hope I can embrace in my life and keep shining onto the world because of their inspiration.

To Sierra: Rest in peace. You made me a better person, and for that I will always be thankful.

IMG_3674

Columbine Quillen wrote this essay for New Urban Habitat. She and her husband Brad live in Portland, Oregon, and she will graduate from law school this spring.

Photos by Columbine Quillen.

Feeling stuck? Slow down.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu

Photo: Tristan Schmurr

Photo: Tristan Schmurr

 

Full confession: I like fast. I like to move fast, work fast, learn fast. My dad used to tease me about how quickly I walk. “That’s not walking; that’s sprinting.” I love running and zipping across town on my bike. I like page-turners.

But I’m embracing the power of slow.

Anat Baniel, a clinical psychologist and dancer, teaches people how to overcome limitations and find joy in their lives. She guides people through deceptively simple, gentle movements, which she says rewire the brain to learn. She’s had amazing success helping children with severe disabilities learn to walk and live full lives.  One of the nine essentials in her method is slow.

“Fast, we can only do what we already know,” she writes. “That is how the brain works. To learn and master new skills and overcome limitation, the first thing to do is slow way down. Slow actually gets the brain’s attention and stimulates the formation of rich new neural patterns. Slow gets us out of the automatic mode in our movements, speech, thoughts and social interactions.”

I was reminded of the power of slow recently when I learned to code eBooks and revamp my websites. Frustration dissolved when I let go of hurrying and simply allowed myself the time and space to learn. The process became fun.

I’m astonished at how quickly problems evaporate when I simply ease my foot off the gas pedal, whether it’s a toddler tantrum or a disagreement with my husband or a piece of writing that’s not coming together. And slowing down transformed the way I cook and eat.

But I’m the most amazed by how slowing down can instantly transform the way I see the world. The moment comes bursting into life. My senses turn on. Everything is rich and vibrant and alive.

I still like fast. I just realize that it has its place. Fast is best when we’ve taken the time to learn something and already mastered it. “When we do something fast, and without tension, it can be both exhilarating to do and exciting to witness. Our brains are built to turn slow into fast,” Baniel writes.

But to grow and change and to really experience our lives, we must harness the power of slow.

I am fortunate to live with true experts in slow. When a walk turns into an opportunity to inspect a blade of grass or watch a snail inch across the sidewalk, I’m usually tempted to hurry my boys along. But when I crouch to inspect a pile of rocks or listen to two crows calling to each other, I am nearly always grateful to have such brilliant teachers in the art of slow.

Have you learned to embrace the power of slow? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.