The Right Books at the Right Time

Sometimes you come across exactly the right book at exactly the right time. A year ago, when I was in a funk and had lost my way, along with my sense of purpose, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” In it, she poses the question: “What is it you love doing so much that you would do it even if you didn’t get paid for it?” I could answer that without hesitation: I would write. The thing is, I hadn’t been writing; I had been moping. But her words prompted me to set her book down and pick up my phone, and within ten minutes I had enrolled in a writers workshop. The workshop ended up being a bust, but it had served as a catalyst by reminding me not to look for a crutch. I just needed to sit my butt in the chair and write. 

Two days ago, I was in a state of despair over the world. The corrupt, greedy, misogynistic men in office, the ones who lie, cheat, steal, and bend our American constitution to their will to hang onto their power . . .  These bastards dominating the headlines were breaking my heart so badly I was questioning my emotional capacity to endure. I cried so hard I worried I might give myself a brain aneurysm. But that evening, I arrived at my friend Kathleen’s to dog sit for a week. As Kathleen tried to console me, I happened to see she had Glennon Doyle’s new bestselling book, “Untamed,” on her shelf.  

I hadn’t read the book, in part because I am reluctant to pledge allegiance to any kind of guru (or clergy of any kind), including writers who have been placed on pedestals as spiritual leaders or healers. Even so, I was on Glennon Doyle’s mailing list and stayed on it only because her newsletters were short, mostly news announcements, and so infrequent they didn’t clog my inbox.   

Glennon’s latest email contained a sweet, well-designed, animated video. It told the story of a cheetah in a zoo kept in a cage: Tabitha. Glennon was disturbed to see how the zookeepers had tried to tame Tabitha, and was certain that, deep inside, Tabitha remembered her “wild,” remembered “she was a goddamn cheetah.”

The video, which I had seen the day before my episode of The Great Despair, was a story from “Untamed,” and when I got to Kathleen’s and saw the book, I wondered if there was some cosmic intervention going on, that my bat signal had been picked up by the universe and was sending help. I began reading it that night. And I didn’t put it down until I ran out of pages to turn. 

In “Untamed,” like in Liz Gilbert’s “Big Magic,” Glennon poses a question: “What breaks your heart?” She writes, “Heartbreak is not something to be avoided; it’s something to pursue. Heartbreak is one of the greatest clues of our lives. The thing that breaks your heart is the very thing you were born to help heal.”

Boom! 

But wait, how can I heal a whole world? How can I take on racism, sexism, environmentalism, and the infinite number of other “isms”? The list is way too long!

Ah, but Ms. Doyle knows this is what you’re thinking—what I’m thinking—and is right there with a response in the next paragraph.

“Despair says, ‘The heartbreak is too overwhelming. I am too sad and too small, and the world is too big. I cannot do it all, so I will do nothing.’ Courage says, ‘I will not let the fact that I cannot do everything keep me from doing what I can.’”

This was my despair described so accurately. My sense of powerlessness to change anything, to fix anything, to make the world better—and by better, I mean less racist, less violent, more equal, more just.

“Every world-changer’s work begins with a broken heart,” she says.

As much as I was inspired by “Untamed,” I didn’t, like I did with “Big Magic,” grab my phone and sign up to volunteer for a cause. I was still feeling too overwhelmed, too sad, and too small. And there are so many things breaking my heart that it’s impossible to narrow it down. Yes, I use pie as a form of humanitarian aid and contribution to society—to build community, spread kindness, and promote healing—but there has to be more I can do. I want to do more. But it’s just so hard to know where to start.

Author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (another spiritual leader/healer/author) answers this conundrum with a book title: “Start Where You Are.” 

Where am I? 

I am at my friend Kathleen’s, in Des Moines, Iowa, dog sitting. I have pen and paper here. I have a computer. I have a voice. And I have the ability to express my voice through my writing. This is a good place to start. 

And I have already started. I am writing my “World Piece” memoir, about my trip around the world during the summer of 2015, when I made pie in nine countries to promote goodwill and cultural acceptance. In the process of writing it, I am putting the pieces of my heart back together. And who knows? Maybe one day, when it’s published, someone will pick up my book and it will be exactly the right book at exactly the right time for them. 

And maybe, just maybe—GOD WILLING—things will turn around after November 3 and we can fill the headlines with stories of honest, empathetic people who want to help others instead of only themselves.

Stay Calm and Bake Pie — Episode One: Apple Pie

After two months in Tucson, I’m back on the farm in Iowa because….the virus. It feels good to be with Doug, Mali, Maybelline, Chaps (our lone surviving goat), and I even brought Peanut the Foster Dog along, though she is no longer a foster, she has been adopted as a permanent family member. And for a little chihuahua she is adapting very well to farm life. Dogs LOVE Camp Doug!

To keep myself busy — and to contribute something positive to the world during this most challenging time — I am offering FREE PIE CLASSES, though in the form of homemade videos. I am shooting these myself with Doug’s iPad. It’s not as hard as I thought. In fact, it’s been fun, and best of all it is taking my mind completely off the news!

This will give you something to do while you’re #STAYINGHOME. And I’ve kept my language family friendly so you can do my pie classes with your kids. ENJOY! And stay healthy!

 

Next episodes will be:

  • Mixed Berry Crumble Pie
  • Chicken Pot Pie 
  • Banana Cream Pie 
  • Key Lime Pie 
  • …and hopefully a gluten-free pie in there somewhere, by request. 

 Please follow me on my social media pages:

And subscribe to my YouTube channel.

 Love, Beth

How I’m Dealing with the Pandemic (And Other Anxieties)

I want to get back to being a writer, to writing the book I started in early December, or to scrapping that and starting a new one, even just to blogging, but I’m too restless. Like most people, I am sitting in a prickly pear cactus field of fear and anxiety. With the world as we know it ending and the constant onslaught of news and noise, it feels as if there’s no room for my voice. And not just that, but knowing the kind of online mob mentality that exists, how people too often gang up on you in a dog pile of mean-spirited criticism, I feel too thin-skinned and too vulnerable to put myself out there, to share my personal stories and my heart.

I have people who write to me, not just friends but also people who have read my books and blog posts, who encourage me to keep going. They tell me they appreciate my openness and honesty, and that they like my writing. (Phew! Thank you!) They also say they want to know more about my life. About what happened after I moved out of the American Gothic House. About where I’m living now. If I am still on the farm (aka Camp Doug, and Camp Dough.)  If I am still with Doug. If I still teach pie classes. What my next book is going to be about.

But here I sit, in the face of a global pandemic, facing a blank page on a Word doc and asking myself What is the point of writing? What the hell even matters anymore?

Staying healthy. Staying sane. Staying alive. These are the first things that come to mind. But the one thought that keeps pushing its way past the others to the surface of the survival pool is this: Helping others.

My dad taught me to be of service to others. My husband Marcus’s death taught me that doing nice things for others (like sharing pie) eases the heartbreak of grief. And now, as we teeter on the brink of economic—and possibly societal—collapse, my conscience is telling me to stop worrying about writing and just get out there and help the world in physical ways. Be of service to others.

I’ve reached out to people to ask what I can do. Social media and newsletters have also been a good source of ideas.

Here are few things of the suggestions—some I’ve already done—and things you can do too:

Donate blood.
I stumbled upon the American Red Cross bus on Saturday afternoon parked outside a coffeehouse and saw a signboard outside it that said “Emergency Blood Drive.” I hadn’t given blood in 18 years (since I’m prone to anemia) but I went in, my iron count passed the test, and I donated a pint.  They are having a shortage due to the virus forcing blood drives to be canceled. Doug, my boyfriend, has been a longtime donor and has given a total of 24 gallons over the years! Got blood? Trust me, if I can spare a little so can you.  Go here to find out where to give.

Foster animals. 
I saw a post somewhere, maybe on my Nextdoor app, that said our local shelter was in need of fostering for dogs and cats. I lost my terrier, Jack, in September and I’m not ready to get another dog, but why not foster? My apartment building allows pets and because of the circumstances the landlord agreed to waive the monthly pet fee. So I stopped at the shelter—only to check it out—and came home with Peanut, a six-pound Chihuahua recovering from a prolapsed uterus. She requires medication, which I am an expert at administering after two years of Jack’s insulin shots and heart pills, which is why the shelter asked if I would take a dog with medical needs. Peanut is quiet, cuddly, and very appreciative of the down comforter and heating pad I’ve provided for her bed. And she is excellent company during this time of social distancing. If there was ever a win-win, this is it. This need is not only in Tucson, but everywhere right now.  Check with your local animal shelter.

Feed the needy.
Schools are closed for classes, but their kitchens are being put to good use preparing food for kids and others who might otherwise go hungry. I sent an email today to offer help preparing, handing out, and/or delivering meals. I haven’t gotten an assignment yet, but I have my rubber gloves ready and my car tank filled with gas. Schools are doing this nationwide, if not internationally, so check what’s happening in your area.

Restock grocery store shelves. 
One thing we all need to do no matter what is eat. But if you’ve been in a grocery story lately you’ll see that the shelves are bare. This highly unusual sight of scarcity is enough to send anyone into a full-blown panic. Honestly, it could turn any rational person into a toilet paper hoarder. Just today I got an email from Safeway (they had my email because I joined their club card program last week) which said they need people to work in their stores. Someone needs to unload those delivery trucks, unpack those boxes, and replenish those shelves. Sign me up! I clicked on the application form, but apparently so did everyone else who got the email, because the site was down. I’d be happy to do the work and the heavy lifting, but I know there are people in more urgent need of the income and I hope they get hired.

Buy groceries for those who can’t afford them. (If there are still groceries to buy.)
It’s been fun (is “fun” the right word at a time like this?) to spend time on Twitter. I find the clever quips to be a source of intelligent and informed humor. But it’s not all snarkiness over there. Someone (and given the quick-paced, fleeting nature of the Twitterverse, I’ll never be able to track down who it was) posted something about paying for groceries for the person in line behind them, or giving money to the person in front of them who didn’t have enough to pay for theirs. And then someone commented that their Aldi Nerds Facebook group…

Wait, what?? There’s are Aldi FB groups?? How did I not know this given my super fan status for all things Aldi (especially their low prices compared to Safeway)?

…The commenter said her Aldi Nerds FB group was buying gift cards to give to people who needed food. It’s gestures like this that restore my faith in humanity and, yes, I am going to join that FB group immediately.

Make pie. And share it.
Of course I have to include this one. But given that I’m always preaching that “pie is meant to be shared,” well, how does one safely share pies during a “shelter in place” mandate? Do you leave a pie outside of someone’s door, ring the doorbell, and run? Or are you limited to sharing pie in your own house? Then again, some people are confined to separate rooms in their own homes. I don’t know all the safety aspects of sharing pie right now, but I do know two things:  One, people need to eat. And two, people need comfort and love more than ever. Pie is comfort. Pie is love. Pie is baked in a hot oven and surely 425 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to kill that motherfucker of a virus. Even if you can’t share your pie, the act of baking one is good therapy for calming the nerves.

Make music.  And share it.
A new friend of mine in Tucson has kids in their twenties who are musicians. One lives in San Diego, the other lives in Nashville, but both are currently taking refuge in their parents’ home in Oro Valley. They aren’t “hunkering down” watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram though, they are rehearsing for a Cul de Sac Concert! Like the Italians singing on their balconies, or the two kids playing cello for their housebound elderly neighbor, my friend’s kids are going to share the gift of their musical talents (and, boy, are they talented!) with the neighborhood, because sound waves don’t spread diseases.

Write letters to say “Thank you” and “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”
Yes, we are asked to maintain our physical distance for who knows how long. When will we get to see our parents and siblings and closest friends again? This uncertainty is what is driving so much of the anxiety. Thank goodness we can still communicate. I’ve been almost constantly on my phone or computer, texting, sending emails, sending photos, staying in touch with my people. But post offices are still open. We have stamps. And we can write letters in longhand, which has an added value. Dragging your pen across the page in curlicue lines or straight upright blocks slows you down causing you to be more thoughtful, which by the way, seems to be an overall theme, if not perhaps a “benefit,” of this virus. I wrote a few birthday cards yesterday. I wrote to my dad, who has been living on “the other side” for the past three years. (I’m convinced he can read my words.) I wrote a note of encouragement to a writer friend who was asking the same “why bother” questions as me (see first paragraph).  And you know what? I felt so much better after writing all this on paper. Not to mention, my eyes felt so much better being away from the screen. Handwriting is like pie in that it’s an endangered art form.  Let’s keep it alive. Next on the recipient list: letters to people I want to thank, just for being in my life, and a few to whom I want to say “I’m sorry.” More importantly, letters of thanks and encouragement to healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line to help us through this crisis.

Be a pioneer.
Also over on Twitter (I have never spent so much time on Twitter!) I saw a tweet from author Celeste Ng. The same Celeste Ng who wrote “Little Fires Everywhere” which is now streaming as a hot new series on Hulu. She listed the things she was doing during the lockdown, shutdown, slowdown, meltdown, whatever you want to call it.

“I am cooking from scratch, schooling my child at home, knitting and baking and making stock. This pandemic is turning me into a pioneer.” 

Pioneers got shit done. They did manual labor outdoors in the fresh air (which was so much cleaner before the industrial age came along). Their hard work gave them a sense of purpose and accomplishment and toned muscles. And skin far rougher than our 20-second hand-washing sessions are causing us. Be it pie baking, music making, hand writing letters, planting a garden, making soup, or canning jam, now is a good opportunity to spend quality time at home, to work with your hands, and reacquaint yourself with an era before Alexa could do everything for you without having to get up off the couch. (Don’t get me started on that subject.)

Get outside. 
Speaking of getting off the couch…  Do not underestimate the toll that the stress we are currently under takes! I’m lucky to be in Tucson where there are hiking trails through wilderness areas that make it easy to be outdoors and maintain social distance. I’ve been taking regular soul-soothing, stress-reducing walks in the mountains. (Not just good for the lungs, legs, and buns, but for burning the extra calories from all that stress-eating!) I want so badly to be of service to others, but you know that thing about putting on your own oxygen mask first is true. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. If you can’t get to a trail or a deserted beach to restock your inner grocery store shelves, maybe just step into the backyard and breathe in some of this rare, newly clean air. Seriously. Have you seen the articles going viral about how China’s sky is blue again, and dolphins are returning to the Venice canals? That should tell you just how badly we’ve been treating this planet! So turn off the TV, silence your phone, and pay your respects to nature. Which reminds me: my list of letters to write includes an apology note to Mother Earth!

⇹ ⇹ ⇹

This is only a short list of ways to be of service. There is always more we could be doing. The point is to just do it.  Don’t overthink it. Like bringing home a chihuahua when you have a preference for terriers, this is not the time for perfection. This is the time for taking action. So just jump in.

Of course, this is advice I could also apply to writing. Yes, I’m restless and anxious. But writing about that anxiety helps me feel less anxious. Yes, I am vulnerable, and not just to criticism and trolls but to the coronavirus. But I’m not going to let that stop me from living, from sharing my experiences, or from adding my voice to the crowded mix.

Because words do matter. Stories matter. And there can never be too many stories (or blog posts) because it’s our collective voice that tells the bigger tale. We don’t know where this current saga is going or how all it ends, but we are all part of it. We are in this together. We have to keep doing our best and help each through the confusion and struggle as it comes. Because when you strip everything else away, isn’t helping each other the true meaning of life?

As for all those questions about what I’m doing now, where I’m living, who I’m with or what pie classes I’m teaching, I’ll save that for another post.


You might also like these posts: 
Blogging in a Noisy World, and Why it Matters
What to Do With All That Privilege
There is Always Hope, Bea

World Piece: A Humble, Homemade Film About Making Pie Around the World





During the summer of 2015, I traveled around the world making pie in 9 countries. At long last, I have gotten the story down, but not on paper as you would expect. Instead, I taught myself how to edit a film using iMovie.

Forgive my amateur skills, but like I always say about making pie: It’s not about perfection!  I also tell my pie students, “It should look homemade!”

So that’s what you get here:

*  a heartfelt story
*  in the form of a homemade film
*  that’s as humble as pie.

I hope you like it.

More so, I hope it inspires you to connect with your friends, family, neighbors, foreigners, and strangers alike. Because now more than ever, we need to unite our world, to heal the wounds and bridge the divides, and what better way to do that than to sit down and talk over pie!

Make America Nice Again

This aired on Tri States Public Radio March 21, 2019   LISTEN HERE
The 2020 presidential campaign has begun and with it the Democratic candidates are descending upon Iowa. Flying in from all parts of the country, they are bringing with them the promise of new ideas, new policies, and, god willing, a new administration. 
The (media) circus comes to town

Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand are just a few of the contenders making the rounds in the Hawkeye State this month. These politicians and their entourages, along with the hoards of reporters trailing them, are traveling through our communities, gassing up their cars with ethanol, giving their speeches, shaking hands, and staying just long enough for pork chops and photo ops before rushing off to the next town.

It’s a privilege to live in the state where the journey to the White House begins, and to meet the candidates up close. 
But as the race gathers momentum, so does the outrage. 
The news channels—you know, the ones that serve up opinions and speculation and call it news—are all awash in analysis and criticism of each candidate. Commentators are scrutinizing them down to the most minute details of their past, going all the way back, as we’ve seen, to their birth. The coverage, even on public radio, gets so excessive I have to turn it off.
And on social media—a forum that amplifes both good and evil—a new round of vitriol and bickering between friends has already started.
For example, no sooner had I attended a Beto O’Rourke “meet and greet,” I saw a friend’s Facebook post attacking him with a viciousness that was unwarranted. Beto hadn’t committed any sin—he hadn’t mocked a disabled reporter or paid hush money to porn stars; he had merely announced he was running for office. The friend’s Facebook comments were so mean I wanted to blast him back with positive counterpoints. But instead of engaging, I took a calming breath…and then I unfriended him. 
Throughout my childhood, my parents engrained in us rules of conduct, like, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.” Now is a crucial time for everyone—citizens and candidates alike—to heed that parental advice.
During the last election cycle, in his video that went viral, actor Scott Siepker coined the phrase, “Iowa nice.” The term depicts Iowans as friendly, agreeable, hospitable, and showing trust in strangers. But “Iowa nice” needs to expand beyond our cornfields and cows. We need to be “America nice” instead of “America first” or “America great.”

Americans in general used to have the same friendly, hospitable and trusting reputation as Iowans. Sadly, that image has become tarnished. 
“America’s standing in the world has dropped catastrophically,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network think tank. 
Why? 
Because we aren’t being nice.
“Bombastic rhetoric and policies of Trump have given the country a serious branding issue,” US News and World Report states. They cite that in the Best Countries rankings of 2018, the United States dropped from fourth down to eighth place after Trump took office. 
However, as David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reminds us, “America is not its president [alone].” 
He’s right. It’s up to all of us to make America nice again. 
This year we have the opportunity to do that. We can elect a new leader, someone who will uphold our democracy and raise up our country. But we cannot get there without everyone being on their best behavior and acting with decency. 
That guy on Facebook slinging insults at candidates in his own party? That’s just a tiny sampling of how polarized, combative—even hateful—we’ve become. We’ve already divided ourselves into tribes, but this kind of rancor further separates us. Well, I’ve got news for you. We are all human beings, and we need to treat each other as the single species that we are. We don’t just live in one country; we live on one planet. And we need to take care of it and each other, no matter what our beliefs. We need to be tolerant. We need to be respectful. We—the media included—need to stop making such negative, inflammatory comments. 
In short, we need to be nice.
Let’s start by changing the vernacular. Instead of emphasizing the extremes between progressives and conservatives, let’s put party affiliations aside and focus on values—like integrity, equality, accountability, compassion. And here’s a big one: compromise. Because nothing—absolutely nothing—will change in Washington—or anywhere—unless we stop clinging so stubbornly to our own political agendas. 
The American ideal is not one of Us vs. Them. It’s about being united. Finding common ground is possible, but we need to keep the pendulum from swinging too far to either side. It’s vital that we meet in the middle and getting there starts by being more civil to one another.
Election Day is still a long way off and it remains to be seen who will be on the ballot. But let’s choose someone who makes bipartisanship a priority, someone with good manners.
Wouldn’t that be nice? 

Plogging is the New Jogging

This essay originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio (Macomb, Illinois)   LISTEN TO IT HERE

Sticking to my New Year’s resolution to exercise more and spend more time outdoors, I’ve been doing a weekly Sunday morning hike with two other girlfriends. Near Farmington, Iowa, we discovered miles of trails through Shimek State Forest, a managed plantation of timber. The park, which borders Missouri, is enjoyed by hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders—and, as we quickly learned, Busch Light drinkers.

In the winter months, when there are rarely horses on the trails, we hike in the section of the park designated for riding, which gives us more terrain to cover. After all, we are there to get a workout.

Our hikes take us deep into the forest to areas that you would expect to be pristine, but a glint of sun reflects off the ground catching our eye, as we hone in on an object that does not belong there, and then another, and another. Beer cans. Empty cast offs as if the woods—not to mention the ditches of our rural roads—were one big trash bin. Not to single out Busch Light, though that does seem to be the preference of local equestrians, we also find on the trails plastic bottles once filled with Gatorade or Mountain Dew, empty potato chip bags, candy bar wrappers, and some alcohol-spiked seltzer water called Truly, which judging by the number of cans seems to be a new favorite.

During our first hike we picked up as many cans as we could carry, stuffing them in our pockets if they weren’t too dirty and carrying them in our gloved hands if they were.

Thinking the litter might just be a one-off we didn’t bring bags with us on our second hike. But as the snow came and went, more and more cans appeared, like a trail of bread crumbs left behind in the woods, discarded as if aluminum were biodegradable and would magically disappear. We were so compelled to pick up the litter we took turns fighting our way through the undergrowth, getting scratched and tangled up in thorny branches for the sake of Keeping America Beautiful. I sacrificed my fleece jacket to the cause, improvising a garbage bag by zipping it up and tying off the sleeves, filling it with so much trash it looked like a Macy’s parade balloon.

By our third hike it sunk in: if hiking was going to be a regular thing, then so was picking up trash. We came armed with garbage bags and I started wearing my big backpack to carry out what we collected.

After one of our hikes, we posed with our bounty for a selfie, which I later posted on Instagram. The comments came flooding in, along with the revelation that there is actually a name for what we were doing. It’s called “Plogging.” A combination of the Swedish word “plocka upp” (meaning “pick up”) and “jogging,” plogging is defined as “picking up litter while running.” And like fitness trends are wont to do, this new sport is catching on across the world.

There are plogging organizations you can join, events you can sign up for, tips, hashtags, apps, grant programs, and a whole community of ploggers.

The Keep America Beautiful website, kab.org, where you can find all these resources, touts that “Plogging combines cardio and strength in your workout with every squat you take as you pick up litter to be thrown away or, better yet, recycled.”

Lifesum, a Swedish fitness app, claims that 30 minutes of plogging can burn 288 calories. That’s a half hour of trash collecting to work off one slice of apple pie, two Twix bars, or three cans of Busch Light. That’s right. Only 96 calories per can means we’re picking them up by the six-pack.

My friends and I may be hiking, not jogging, but we are definitely burning calories and doing a lot of squatting. We are also doing a lot of grumbling. With each beer can added to the bag we vow we’re going to write to Anheuser-Busch and suggest they run an ad campaign instructing their customers to dispose of their cans properly. Their commercials might also advise that littering is a misdemeanor, and those guilty of the offense—should they be caught out there, say, in the far reaches of a state park—can be fined up to $625 per occurrence in Iowa, even more in other states. What I don’t understand is why risk a fine when you can get your five-cent deposit back on every can? How hard is it to carry your cans to a recycling or trash bin? (Shimek State Forest offers them in several convenient locations around the park.) But what’s most confusing is why anyone would sully the very land they come to enjoy for its purity.

Plogging may be catching on as a positive environmental trend, and I hope more people join in, but how nice it would be not to have this extra incentive for exercise, how nice if more people would “give a hoot and not pollute,” because frankly, all those squats are starting to wear out my knees.

Radio Commentary: An Outlet for Dealing with Overwhelming Issues

Over the past few years I have occasionally written commentaries for Tri States Public Radio, but only when an issue bothered me so badly I was compelled to weigh in on it.

Apparently listeners appreciate the positive messages I try to convey as I was invited to contribute more commentaries, but this time I was given scheduled dates for them. One of those dates is today. (LISTEN HERE)

I’ve had weeks to come up with a topic, but there are so many issues bothering me that I didn’t know which one to pick.

  • Immigration
  • The separation of families
  • The nominee to the Supreme Court
  • Gun violence
  • Climate change
  • Trade wars
  • Russian election interference
  • The Mueller investigation
  • An unstable president who is one tweet away from starting World War III
  • Abortion
  • Voting rights
  • Gay rights
  • Civil rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Human rights
  • The right to safe drinking water
  • Education
  • Affordable health care
  • Taking a knee
  • Racial profiling
  • Catholic priests
  • The #MeToo movement

Oh, and, here’s one that really gets my blood boiling: Western Illinois University’s withdrawal of funding for this radio station.

I do my best thinking while out riding my bike. I live on a farm and have miles of traffic-free country roads where my mind can work out ideas while I’m working out my body. So to home in on a topic for this commentary, I headed out on my bike.

Each time I settled on a single issue, crafting the story in my head as I pedaled, my outrage only grew—outrage over injustice, incivility, oppression, deprivation, divisiveness, and more. As I thought about each issue it became so complex it would require a podcast series worth of airtime. Worse, my ruminations exploded into a mushroom cloud of emotion—my anger turned to rage, my vocabulary filled with profanity, and my heart ached so badly over my impotence to fix all our broken systems—that I had to scrap every one of my ideas.

This happened three days in a row. But each day, half way through my ride, lulled by being in motion, I stopped thinking and started observing the things around me. Soybean fields turning from green to yellow. Butterflies fluttering above the roadside clover. Pristine red barns. A farmer on his combine harvesting his corn in artistic rows. Horses grazing in a pasture. A hawk silhouetted against the sun. Maple leaves rustling in the breeze.

There was so much beauty right in front of me! As I continued to focus on this pastoral beauty, my anger and despair softened into a state of near bliss.

This is what near-bliss looks like.

According to science, my lightened mood was no accident.

A number of studies, as outlined by Jill Suttie in Greater Good magazine, prove that being in nature decreases stress, makes you happier and less brooding, relieves attention fatigue, increases creativity, may help you to be kind and generous, and makes you feel more alive. Research also shows that spending time in nature lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, relieves muscle tension, and decreases stress hormones.

An article on the CRC Health website states that nature leads to a sense of spirituality and an appreciation for powers larger than oneself, reminding us that individuals are part of the larger whole. “In a world bogged down by social pressures, standards of conduct, and the demands of others, nature gives people a chance to appreciate a grander sense that the world is…meaningful.”

These are not new revelations. The importance of being in nature has long been documented.

Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” 

Naturalist John Burroughs, wrote, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by all the negativity out there.

There has been a huge uptick in anxiety and depression caused by the current state of political affairs. Recent statistics from the American Psychological Association show that 59% of Americans say that the United States is at the lowest point they can remember in its history, and 63% say the future of the nation is a significant source of stress.

It’s vital that we don’t allow ourselves to be consumed by this stress, so I would add to Burroughs’ message: We go to nature to restore our wellbeing, to have the ability, fortitude and clarity we need to put our country, our democracy, our whole messy world in order.

So take a break. Get outside. Exercise. Pay attention to the beauty around you. Spend time in nature. The benefits reaped are an important step toward tackling that long list of issues and finding the solutions we so desperately need.

Now if we can just find a solution to funding Tri States Public Radio.

TO DONATE TO TRI STATES PUBLIC RADIO, go to tspr.org or call 800-895-2912

What To Do With All That Privilege

This essay also appears on Huffington Post. 
 


 

On Saturday night I dreamed I was in the elegant living room of an older wealthy woman. I stood next to her delivering an emphatic, tearful plea, insisting, “When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you.” Man, I was really crying. The scene was so vivid and visceral—from the walnut paneled-walls and red leather Chesterfield armchair to the woman’s gray hair in a neatly trimmed bob, to the dramatic and forceful delivery of my statement—that, unlike most dreams, I remembered every detail of it when I woke up.

“Pay your civic rent” with a gift card with
the request it be regifted to someone in need.

Shaking off the heaviness left by the dream, I went downstairs to have coffee and read the Sunday paper. One of the first articles I read was the “One Nation: I am an American” column, syndicated by the USA Today Network. The person-of-the-week interviewed was Gregg Rochman, a developer in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the first paragraph he said, “I grew up in an affluent area and I could have done anything I wanted. But, because of that privilege, I have a duty to share and to give back.”

Oh, snap! His comments were my dream verbatim. In Rochman’s case, he renovates historic properties into affordable housing. “We have a land with vast resources and a people capable of anything. Our advantages are used of the good of the planet and all its creatures—all people, all living things,” he said, before adding a sobering caveat. “Currently, Americans are divided from one another. We do not do everything in our power to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the cold, educate the poor and support each other with the goal of the betterment of everyone—even though it is within our reach.”

He is certainly right about that!

In addition to creating low-income housing, Rochman volunteers for New Roots, a nonprofit food justice organization that brings farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to food insecure communities. Essentially, it’s an affordable farmers market created because, according to the New Roots website, “Just like air and water, everyone has a right to fresh food” in order to be healthy and happy.

Then, in the business section of the paper, in between the outrage over the GOP tax bill and the Great Recession’s impact on economic disparity between urban and rural areas, there was an article about Suku Radia, the CEO of Bankers Trust, who is retiring. Based in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Radia is an Indian who was born and raised in Uganda and came to the U.S. as a young immigrant. While attending Iowa State University, his family fled Uganda after Idi Amin’s coup d’état leaving Radia with no home to return to. He stayed in Iowa, completed his education, and worked his way up to the C suite, achieving the status of “privileged.” The article was a tribute to how he used that privilege to help others. “Pay your civic rent,” Radia said, but not by simply writing a check. A philanthropist long before he had money, he understood the value of volunteering and, in 1976, began giving his time to help United Way. From there, “my feelings of duty, compassion and gratitude have only spiraled,” he said. As a board member in 2010, he visited 51 local agencies that received funding from United Way, with some of those visits causing him to weep in his car after seeing the vulnerable populations first-hand. He is quoted saying, “How can I be so lucky? I’m sitting there in a Lexus and my car’s probably worth more than the building in which the agency is housed. It was very difficult. Your heart just goes out to these folks.” Radia doesn’t only support United Way, he fundraises for numerous nonprofits—from Habitat for Humanity to the American Diabetes Association—and mentors 40 individuals to help them achieve their goals, and to pass along his message about the importance of giving back to the community, particularly to those in need.

 It felt a little eerie to read two articles in a row about using privilege to help others less fortunate—living examples portraying the exact sentiment of my dream immediately upon waking. Was it some kind of psychic message? A call to action? Or was it the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon—also known as frequency illusion—when, say, you buy a silver Volkswagen and suddenly you see silver Volkswagens everywhere you look?

The examples kept coming. Later in the day I stumbled upon an article online about a Korean couple in Salem, Oregon, who own a restaurant called Happy BiBim Bap House. Hillary Park and her husband close early on Mondays to cook for the homeless, paying for the ingredients themselves. They load their van with vats of prepared food, set up a buffet line underneath a concrete bridge, and serve hot meals of curry, yakisoba noodles, and corn dogs to up to 200 hungry people. Every week.

Another example showed up—in my own house.

I had been in a quandary over holiday gifts for my boyfriend’s family. They always have something wrapped up for us and I feel obligated to reciprocate in kind. Doug, my boyfriend, insists, “I don’t want to spend money on things they don’t need. I always give $500 to Camp Courageous in my family’s name. That’s my gift.” (Camp Courageous is a year-round camp with recreational activities and respite care for the disabled of all ages.)

“I know,” I replied, “but it’s awkward to not have any presents for them to open.”

While I scoured the internet for gift ideas, Doug came up with a solution. “You’re going to Aldi for groceries today, right? Here’s $100. Buy four $25 gift certificates. We’ll give them each one.” I wasn’t sold on the idea until he added, “We’ll tell them to give it to someone else in need. To pay their civic rent.” He smiled, acknowledging that he, too, had read the Sunday paper.

The words of my dream have stuck with me. When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you. I don’t earn much money, but I recognize my abundance of privilege—my college education, my comfortable home, my well-stocked refrigerator, my closet full of warm clothes, my lack of debt, and yes, my skin color. As we go forward into a new year, let’s all check our privilege by counting our blessings—and then share them. Let’s make a single resolution to take responsibility for helping others less fortunate and look for ways to give back, to improve our communities and our relationships within them. If we all do our part, we can begin to repair some of our divisions in the process. Like Gregg Rochman said, “We are privileged to live in this country. We are capable of anything.” There are positive examples to follow everywhere; all you have to do is look.

Making Noise for Women’s Healthcare

A Planned Parenthood rally on the banks of the Mississippi River.
I wonder what clever thing Mark Twain would have said about this.

Last week was kind of a big week.

On Sunday, I marched in a rally for Planned Parenthood in Burlington, Iowa. Why? Because Iowa is eliminating funding for any healthcare clinics that provide abortions. Well, this struck me as so ridiculous and short-sighted because I USE PLANNED PARENTHOOD for my annual exams and for other random gyno stuff that comes up. And believe me, something always comes up and you can’t just walk into a doctor’s office to see someone as quickly as you might need. And going to the ER is not a great alternative when it’s not an emergency.

I am way past childbearing years so birth control and abortion are not on my personal radar. But this is not just about me. REGARDLESS of what services PP offers, there are SO MANY WOMEN, especially in my rural Iowa area, who need affordable healthcare and PP is often the ONLY place they can get it.

Winding down Snake Alley

Obviously I am still worked up about this.

I wasn’t the only one to be outraged. A young woman in Burlington, Alexandra Rucinski (who is the subject of my essay), has relied even more heavily on PP than me. She was so upset about the clinic closures she organized last Sunday’s march–and got over 100 people to show up.

I marched too, but so what?  What good was walking through downtown Burlington going to do when 4 out of 12 PP clinics in Iowa were still going to close on June 30th anyway?

I laid awake at 4AM on Monday thinking about this—fuming actually—and an essay began to take shape in my head. Writing is my way of working my way toward a solution, or at least an understanding—or, if nothing else, a way to cope with some of the senseless bullsh*t that is going on in government. So after I got up on Monday, after I had my triple latte and walked the dogs and fed the goats, I sat down at my computer and wrote. I wrote until I found my way to an ending. I sent my story to two friends, one in New Jersey and one in NYC. They both said you HAVE to publish this. My friend Nan said, “Send it to the HuffingtonPost!”

My pink hair is still pink.

Encouraged, I first sent it to my local NPR affiliate, Tri States Public Radio. I’ve done several commentaries for them. And now, I am happy to report, I have another one to add to the list. I recorded my PP essay on Wednesday and it aired–twice–on Thursday.

You can listen here.

I had also followed Nan’s suggestion and sent my essay to the Huffington Post. I have been written about on HuffPo several times (for my pie endeavors), but I had not as yet written for them. Well, now I have!

You can read it here.

I went through the HuffPo vetting process and now I’m “in the system” so I can blog for them whenever I want. I will also continue to contribute to Tri States Public Radio as a commentator.

I’m not sure what I will write about next. But it will probably come to me around 4AM.

I ran into my pie-baking friend Esther Tweedy at the march.
We went out for ice cream afterward.