Why Spring is the Best Time for Birthing Projects

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“Then there are those rare days … that dawn with a clarity that muscles its way into every home and studio and office, lending a crispness and cogency to almost every thought. … There’s a delicious radiance that seems to come from the things themselves, from even the tables and the plush rug, and when we step outside we can taste it in the air and in the way a few fluffed clouds rest, almost motionless, in the crystal lens of the sky. How far our vision travels on such days!” – David Abram

We experienced our first spring-like day this weekend — birds singing, sun shining, daffodils in full bloom, windows open. Ahhh.

All day I was bursting with ideas and creativity. For most of us, our employers, clients, or the accumulating bills insist that we keep making our to-do lists and checking off items right on through the darkest, coldest months. In many of my former workplaces, summer and winter were interchangeable. Not once did a manager suggest we adjust our work to be more in sync with our natural seasonal inclinations.

But these first spring days have a way of showing us how stubbornly linked our minds and moods remain with the seasons.

One of my friends manages an organic farm, and not surprisingly his life is more in sync with nature than most of ours. In the winter he rests or travels. Then in the early spring he starts working, gradually increasing his hours with the longer days.

But you don’t have to trade your computer for a hoe to get more in tune with nature. One independent author realized that winter was an excellent time to stay inside writing, whereas spring was the ideal time for book releases, so that’s how he arranges his life now. Some companies have started giving employees extra time off during the summer, since that’s when people want to be outside and with family. My dad, a freelance writer, took nearly every afternoon off in September for fall hikes.

I’m fortunate to have some flexibility in my working life, so I try to pay attention to nature’s cycles and adjust my life and work accordingly. But it’s not easy, because our modern lifestyle — climate controlled houses and vehicles, cities lit up around the clock, ripe tomatoes available year round — are so adept at inoculating us from nature’s whims. Planting a garden helps, since I have to pay attention to and cooperate with nature from spring to early fall.

But every spring I realize how hard I’ve pushed myself to keep running, biking, producing and working at full capacity right through the winter elements. I suspect winter colds and influenza may be nature’s way of saying, “Enough. Rest already,” since many of us are bad at heeding the weather’s hints.

It’s noteworthy that until relatively recently, many cultures observed the new year in March. These early spring days, with their “delicious radiance” do seem a perfect time for making resolutions, for birthing books into the world, and perhaps for opening new businesses and starting ventures. What might the rest of our work lives look like if could take our natural seasonal inclinations into account?

Do you adjust your work with the seasons? Could you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Ice Storm

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The Pacific Northwest got hit by another epic storm last weekend, which dumped close to ten inches of snow then covered everything with a thick layer of ice. The ice isn’t as fun to play in as snow, but it makes for beautiful photos.

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I couldn’t get enough of the brilliant pink buds encased in ice. What a wondrous image for February, when one day we were fawning over the first crocuses of the season and the next we were gliding through our neighborhood on cross-country skis.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Celebrate the First Day of Winter

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Saturday is the first day of winter and the shortest day of 2013. Seasonal shifts can be the perfect time to take a day off from routine or the holiday frenzy. Here are a few simple ideas for celebrating the new season:

Observe

Make a point of watching the sunrise and sunset. You probably won’t even have to set an alarm. At our house, it will rise at 7:44 and set at 4:37 on Saturday. (The good news is longer, brighter days are coming.) You can find out what time the sun will rise and set where you live here.

Wander

Take a hike, go cross country skiing, or go for a walk and look for signs of the season. Listen to winter’s music. Compare winter’s textures: dry bark, soggy leaves, spongy moss. Notice winter’s smoky scents.

Give

Find gifts for each other from nature. Exchange small handmade gifts. Make maple caramel corn for friends or neighbors. The key here is to keep it simple.

Feast

Serve up your favorite winter crops: beets, winter squash, potatoes, onions, kale, cabbage, or parsnips. We are fans of stuffed squash this time of the year, and I’m gearing up to try my first efforts at homemade sauerkraut. Lighting candles can turn an ordinary meal into a celebration.

Reflect

Spend some time relaxing together in front of the fire. Share one thing you’ve lost and one thing you’ve gained over the past year. Tell stories about your best and worst holiday memories.  Make wishes for the coming year. Reflect on the lessons of winter: the importance of rest, dormancy, and down time.

The key to seasonal celebrations is to make them simple and relaxing. The last thing most of us need is another stressful winter tradition. Our family’s celebrations are casual and fun, but we always enjoy pausing to notice nature’s cyclical dance.

How will you celebrate the first day of winter? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

August Field Notes

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August must have been the shortest month in history. At least, that’s how it felt for us as we swirled through a whirlwind of conferences, parties, birthdays, and projects. Fortunately, we also took some time out for a much-needed relaxing family camping trip just a few feet from the Pacific Ocean and a lovely hike in one of our favorite spots. I managed to capture some photographic evidence from those adventures, which I’ll share below.

What happened to the big New Urban Habitat revamp, you may be wondering. Well, change is coming! But, for a myriad of reasons, I’m postponing it until after I launch my dad’s anthology in November. Stay tuned….

For now I’m excited to be back to regular posting. I missed you all!

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Did you have any August adventures? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Celebrate Summer

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Thursday, June 20 is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun will bathe the Arctic Circle in 24 hours of daylight, and ancient monuments around the world will align with the sun.

Seasonal celebrations can be easy and fun. Here are a few simple ideas for welcoming summer this year:

Celebrate

  • Place a bouquet of roses, lilies, or daisies in your family members’ bedrooms while they sleep, so they wake to fresh summer flowers.
  • Find a special place outside to watch the sunrise and sunset. You can find out what time the sun will rise and set where you live here.
  • Eat breakfast outside.
  • Trace each other’s shadows throughout the day to note the sun’s long trip across the sky.
  • Display summer decorations: seashells, flowers, sand dollars, or whatever symbolizes summer in your family.
  • Play outside games, watercolor, or decorate the sidewalks with chalk until the sun sets.

Explore, Plant, or Gather

  • Gather Saint John’s Wort. Traditionally Europeans harvested these cheerful yellow flowers on the first day of summer, dried them, and made them into a tea on the first day of winter. The tea supposedly brought the summer sunniness into the dark winter days. If you don’t have any Saint John’s Wort in your garden, you might consider planting it. It is  a useful herb, and it thrives in poor soil with little attention. Find out more about it here.
  • Visit a U-pick farm to harvest strawberries, snap peas, or whatever is in season where you live. Find a “pick your own” farm near you here.
  • Take a camping trip. Light a fire at night to celebrate the warmth of the sun. Sleep outside. Wake with the sun.
  • Go on a nature hike. Bring along guidebooks to help you identify birds, butterflies, mushrooms, or wildflowers.

Eat

  • Make a summer feast. Eat exclusively from your garden or the farmer’s market to celebrate the bounties of summer in your area.
  • Host a “locavore” potluck.

Read

  • Read aloud from The Summer Solstice by Ellen Jackson.
  • Read aloud, watch, or put on your own rendition of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. For kids, check out the book A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Kids by Lois Burdett or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Kids: 3 melodramatic plays for 3 group sizes by Brendan P. Kelso.

Wishing you a happy first day of summer!

Need more inspiration for your summer celebration? Check out these resources:

How do you plan to celebrate the first day of summer? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

[Note: Do you read New Urban Habitat on Google Reader? It will be shut down soon. You can sign up on my blog to have my weekly posts delivered to your inbox.]

Redefining Wealth

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“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” – Henry David Thoreau

“In the new good life, the point is not to have the most toys, but the most joys.” – John Robbins

I was thumbing through a gourmet cookbook the other day, and the author recommended visiting farm stores to procure the most flavorful, just-picked ingredients.

I glanced out at my garden and felt wealthy.

Here we are harvesting fresh herbs, greens, and eggs every day just a few feet from our back door. The early spring sunshine probably deserves more credit than I do for all of this abundance. But I’ve invested plenty of sweat and love into that soil over the years, and I built something that feels very much like wealth.

When I hear the word wealth, I usually think of stock portfolios, IRAs, and 401Ks – the green stuff.

But when I think about what makes me feel wealthy, my mind jumps to other green stuff: my garden, city parks, wide open spaces, and the neighborhood fig tree that gives and gives and gives.

I also think of my close, connected neighborhood; my friends; and walking and riding my bike every day. I think of my kids and our unhurried mornings reading books, watching snails, and counting spiders’ legs.

Wealth is usually defined as an “abundance of items of economic value or material possessions.” But I wonder if it’s time for us to redefine wealth, at least in our own lives.

I’m not knocking savings accounts, retirement plans, or consumer goods. These things are important; they’re just not the whole story.

When we reflect on what makes us feel wealthy, we expand beyond our culture’s emphasis on property, assets, and commodities. We might think about good health, breathing clean air, living in a safe neighborhood, and having access to fresh produce. We might think about having more time.

And by redefining wealth for ourselves, we can ensure that we’re building the kind of lives and communities that make us feel wealthy. They might look a lot different than the ones we see on advertisements and on TV.

What makes you feel wealthy? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section.

[Note: Do you read New Urban Habitat on Google Reader? It will be shut down soon. You can sign up on my blog to have my weekly posts delivered to your inbox.]

Celebrating Spring

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We’re bringing in the season this week with lots of gardening, hiking, and spring cleaning. Here are a few scenes from our hike this weekend.

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We also plan to do some biking, now that we’ve inducted the newest member into our bicycling clan.

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Happy spring to you!

The Wisdom of Winter

Winter is the time of promise because there is so little to do — or because you can now and then permit yourself the luxury of thinking so. – Stanley Crawford

Photo: Matt McGee

Photo: Matt McGee

Oh February. I always find this month a little challenging. Short days. Rain. Fog.

Moreover, this February, a host of coughs, sniffles, sneezes, and most recently fevers have descended on us.

Around now it’s tempting to long for May, for the first strawberries and garden-fresh greens. For throwing the windows open in the afternoons and planting the garden and walking barefoot in the grass.

But the other day, when I emerged from our fevered nest, I was greeted by a handful of yellow crocuses dotting our neighbor’s yard. And I felt a wistfulness, not for spring or summer, but for the quiet, reflective days of this season, which is so quickly departing.

These days, we seem to think we can outsmart winter. We can arm ourselves with our electric lights and flu shots and vitamin drinks and continue to go, go, go.

I’m no different. I had all sorts of plans for February. A big project. Outings. Busy, packed days.

But so often winter demands a certain amount of stillness from us.

This month has brought me lots of quiet afternoons tending to sick family members, watching movies, knitting, and reading.

As crummy as it feels to be sick or to see those you love sick, I see wisdom in all of this. Slow down, winter tells us. Be still.

In the Mountain Rose Herbs blog this week, acupuncturist Dylan Stein advises, “Let’s take these last few weeks of winter as an opportunity to rest, to meditate quietly and to prepare our bodies for the bursting energy of spring.”

He recommends ingesting nourishing foods like beans, root vegetables, seaweeds, dark leafy greens, and walnuts, and gentle warming spices like cinnamon and ginger.

Likely, that’s where you’ll find me this week: resting, sipping on spice tea, and reflecting on the wisdom of these seasonal cycles of stillness and vigor.

My favorite spice tea:

1.5 quarts of water

2 teaspoons turmeric

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Combine and boil for 10 to 20 minutes. Strain.

Add honey to taste, if you wish.

Enjoy!

What’s your favorite winter food or drink? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Rev Up Your Creativity

Photo: John Mallon

Photo: John Mallon

“I’m going to make something every day in 2013,” I announced in December.

When I saw my friends’ responses, I thought perhaps this might be too ambitious an undertaking. However, I’ve really just decided to turn more of my attention to creativity this year.

Why? Well, when I peek back through the years and squint at the more unhappy periods of my life, I detect a common thread: I wasn’t creating much of anything. Maybe I was working overtime at a day job. Maybe I was in a season of editing instead of writing. Maybe I was just uninspired. But a dearth of creativity and a general malaise seem to go together. Which causes which? I’m not sure. But I know that when I’m working on a creative project, I feel more alive.

I know I’m not alone. Matthew Crawford, author of The Case for Working With Your Hands traded his job in a Washington think tank for a career fixing motorcycles, because “knowledge work” made him feel tired and useless. “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. I think we can all relate to that thrill of making or fixing something with our own hands.

In her book Lifting Depression, Dr. Kelly Lambert explains what might cause the burst of happiness creating gives us: “When we knit a sweater, prepare a meal, or simply repair a lamp, we’re actually bathing our brain in ‘feel-good’ chemicals.”

So this year I’m making things.

I’m off to a great start. In the last month, I’ve knitted half of a scarf out of bamboo silk, made kombucha and St. John’s Wort oil for the first time, wrote a handful of poems, brainstormed a new novel, and churned out quite a few drawings. Mostly I’ve had a lot of fun. But I’ve also remembered what makes creativity hard: there’s often a lot of groping around, stumbling, and failing involved.

But I’m going to do it anyway.

Perhaps you’d like to join me in paying more attention to creativity this year? If so, here are five things experts say can help stoke our creative fires:

  • Spend time in nature

A University of Kansas study of a team of hikers found that a four-day backpacking trip boosted the participants’ creativity by 50 percent. You might need to leave your electronic devices in your backpack to reap the benefits. Ruth Ann Atchley, the researcher who conducted the study, suggested the results may have been due to turning off the distractions of modern life as much as the natural setting.

  • Embrace boredom

Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire in Great Britain found that boring jobs encourage creativity. It turns out performing dull tasks lets us to detach from our surroundings and daydream. So committing to creativity might mean committing to some mental downtime.

  • Focus on the process instead of the results (or just dance)

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free,” the poet Rumi wrote. In an interview, artist Dana Lynne Andersen said that one of the biggest mistakes beginners make when sitting down to paint is focusing on the end product. To get her students focused instead on the process of being creative, she encourages them to dance. That makes sense, since dancing is a creative process with no real end product. It may be worth a try, and as Rumi points out, there’s really no reason not to dance.

  •   Learn from kids

One afternoon I watched a soccer coach force a group of elementary-aged kids to run laps around the track. They looked like deflated balloons as they trudged along, and it occurred to me that kids should really be coaching us on joyful, exuberant outdoor play. Similarly, young kids are experts in creativity. In a famous 1968 study, George Land found that 98 percent of three- to five-year-olds showed genius levels of creativity on a test developed by NASA. By the time the kids were 15, only 12 percent exhibited divergent thinking. And when the test was given to thousands of 25-year-olds, only two percent showed divergent thinking. So what makes kids such creative geniuses? They ask lots of questions. They marvel at things. They find any excuse to play. It’s a model worth studying.

  • Commit to practicing

All humans are creative. But a lot of us don’t commit to creative work, and perhaps the biggest reason  is that it forces us to confront our own mediocrity. We likely will never compare to the best artists, musicians, novelists, designers, and even home-brewers of the world. Of course, the one way we’ll get better is practice, and Ira Glass offers some wise words about recognizing your creative work sucks and doing it anyway:

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. … You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Here’s to a creative 2013!

What are you creating? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.