Greening Christmas: Trees and gifting

The Tree
The last time I wrote about a Christmas tree, we were using an artificial number that I found abandoned in our building’s basement.  That tree served us well, but for the past two years, we’ve had the real deal (the artificial tree is still hanging out in the basement, just in case there’s a year we aren’t able to get a real tree).

On Saturday afternoon, Matthew and Gabriel headed out to PaPa’s (Matthew’s grandpa) to cut a field tree (i.e., a tree growing in an unmowed field where it would eventually be cut down anyway).  These field cedars are not what you find at a tree lot (or a Christmas tree farm — we saw lots of those in Oregon!).

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They all have a sweet, Charlie Brown Christmas vibe, and I’m totally good with that.  Of the few that were about the right size, Gabriel picked this one, and Matthew cut it down with the “chainsaw.”

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Bicycle rack?  Christmas tree rack?  Same difference!  Not quite as cool as hauling your Christmas tree by bicycle, though (the distance to Matthew’s grandpa’s rules out that option for us).

We had a bit of a debacle with the tree last year, due to an inferior tree stand.  My MIL came to the rescue with a much better hand-me-down, and we had no problem getting the tree in place this year.

We didn’t have time to decorate it on Saturday night.  Gabriel waited very patiently until after breakfast on Sunday morning, and then we got down to business.

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We have a nice assortment of kid-friendly (read: sturdy) ornaments for the lower branches.  (Tip: if you run out of ornament hooks, unbent paperclips work very well.)

Tree, trimmed!

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Official tree-trimming dance?

 

Green wrapping
I swear I started a post on this topic a year ago, or at least took some pictures, but I cannot find said pictures anywhere.  My strategy last year involved using pages from the December issues of our [free] local foodie magazines (Sauce and Feast).  There were lots of festive pictures to go around (think cute cookies, candy canes, etc.), and it worked well.  I’m planning on doing more of the same this year.  Receiving blankets also make great reusable gift wrap!

Experiential gifts
This type of gift requires no wrapping.  Remember that time I wanted to be Pink?  Specifically, the high-flying, aerial artist on display at the Grammies (and throughout her 2013 ‘Truth About Love’ Tour).  Well, it turns out that there are aerial arts gyms in St. Louis.  We looked at classes at Bumbershoot Aerial Arts last spring, but the timing wasn’t right.

When Matthew brought it up in November, there was an “Intro to Silks” class that worked for us, and I suggested we do it as our Christmas present (in addition to taking care of Christmas shopping, this route made it a bit easier to swallow the price).

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We’re doing pretty basic things, but our instructor didn’t waste any time getting us on the silks.  The above photo is a bit deceiving — my legs are in a wide V-shape, and NOT straight out to the sides.  Our third class is tonight, then we break for two weeks, and finish with three more classes in January.

Pre-loved gifts
I’ve been thinking about getting Gabriel a doll house since his birthday this summer.  Though he doesn’t know he wants a doll house, I think he would enjoy playing with it (and I would enjoy doing it with him).  I didn’t want to break the bank on this purchase, but I also wanted something decent.

I’ve been checking Craigslist off and on since mid-November.  I had my eye on a Plan Toys model with an asking price of just under $200, complete with furnishings.  That was still really more than I wanted to spend (especially since I don’t know if G will enjoy it), and so I waited.

Two weeks ago, another option popped up, also made of wood (brand is Ryan’s Room, which I’ve never heard of), asking $100, and very close to where we live (it would have been tricky on the longtail, but I could have easily biked it home, if we had a flatbed bicycle trailer).  It’s not perfect, but it’s in pretty good condition (I negotiated $20 off the asking price).  I’m really looking forward to watching his reaction on Christmas morning!

Gabriel is very into playing doctor.  We have a pieced together “doctor’s kit,” and I love seeing the creativity he uses in creating doctor instruments.  I didn’t want to undermine that creativity by running out and buying a plastic play doctor set, but I liked the idea of adding to his medical kit, so when I stumbled across an awesome, real (I think — we’ll see!) stethoscope at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, I snatched it up.

That about does it for us.  I’d love to hear about other great experiential or pre-loved gifts — please share your ideas!

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Biking in an autumn-y Christmas wonderland

Today brings a return to seasonal weather, but I made the most of the unseasonably warm weekend with three nights of Christmas light biking.

We kicked off the weekend with a family trip down Candy Cane Lane.  We arrived just as it was getting dark on Friday night, and we had the street almost to ourselves.  It was a challenge to bike slowly enough to take it all in, especially with a wiggly passenger on board.

Said passenger informed me that Nativity scenes are more correctly referred to as “Away in a Manger.”  Of course, the appropriate response to biking by an Away in a Manger is to begin singing the eponymous song.  (“Jingle Bells” is also a popular song to sing while biking, along with “Walking Biking in a Winter Wonderland.”)

On Saturday night I ventured out with bikey friends Mónica and Mike.  We scoped out even more lights, starting with Snowflake Street, before moving on to Candy Cane Lane.  On this trip, the place was packed, with a block-long line of cars in each direction, waiting to access Candy Cane lane.  We didn’t butt in line, but we did take advantage of the flexibility of bicycles by hopping off and becoming pedestrians.

After walking down Candy Cane Lane, we hopped back on the bikes and continued down Murdoch Avenue, which led to the discovery of “Angel Avenue” (Prague Ave. between Nottingham and Murdoch).  I loved the house on the SW corner of Prague and Murdoch — the entire front face is covered with teeny, tiny lights.  And then there was the house with the crazy lights synched to Christmas music.

We ended our bicycle tour with cookies and hot chocolate.

Gabriel and I went out again on Sunday afternoon.  It wasn’t dark yet, so there wasn’t much of a light show, but we found some fun decorations.

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Christmas dino on Snowflake Street

I was really tempted to detour by Ted Drewes for some frozen custard, but it was close to dinner time; practicality and my desire for G to eat a good dinner won.

We walked down Candy Cane Lane, checking out the sand sculpture in daylight.

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Sandy Santa

On the way home, we swung by Angel Avenue, but it still wasn’t dark enough to see any lights.  While Candy Cane Lane is the big draw, I preferred some of the other streets:

Angel Avenue > Snowflake Street > Candy Cane Lane

Now I just need to get Matthew and Gabriel to Angel Avenue when it’s dark!

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Making soy milk — Part 2

I didn’t mean for yesterday’s post to be a teaser.  I really thought I’d actually be writing about making soy milk, but when I sat down to write, there was just too much background and context for one post.  But I’m back and ready to get down to business!

The machine
I borrowed my friend’s Soyabella soy milk maker.  The website has a number of recipes for both soy and nut milks, though you have to go to the product manual to get the weight of soybeans to use for the most basic soy milk recipe.

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Making soy milk
At it’s most basic, soy milk requires soy beans and water.  You start with dried soybeans (available in the bulk section at most natural food stores).  I had not one, but two small bags of old dried soy beans sitting around, from other times I’d intended to make soy milk, but I decided I should start with a fresher product. The Soyabella manual called for 70g-95g (2.5oz-3.5oz) dry soybeans per 1L batch.

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As with all dried beans, the first step is soaking, either a quick soak, or an overnight (at least 8 hour) soak.  Once I had my hands on the machine, I wanted to make soy milk that day, so I went with the quick soak (add enough water to cover beans by an inch, bring to a boil, simmer 2-3 minutes, then remove from heat and soak 2-3 hours).

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After that, you add the soaked, drained beans to the grinding chamber, add the appropriate amount of water to the pitcher (I used filtered), push the “Milk” button, and voilá, about twenty minutes later, you have soy milk.

As suggested, I added a pinch of sea salt.  I also reluctantly added a bit of sugar (I switched to buying unsweetened soy milk about three years ago, and I don’t miss the sugar (7g per cup in my usual brand/variety) at all).  However, there’s a very good chance that there’s something sweet-tasting (stevia?) buried in that “natural flavor” portion of the ingredient list.  For my homemade version, I started with about 1 T. of sugar in 1 quart of soy milk, which comes out to < 3g sugar per cup of milk.

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Initial results
The initial results were rather, “eh.”  It tasted very beany.  Granted, it is made from beans, but somehow, the soy-bean-only store-bought versions (TJ’s and WestSoy), while not exactly delicious, lack the pronounced beany flavor in my homemade product.

Inspired by a friend’s very positive review of Califia Farms Coconut Almond Milk, I had purchased some coconut cream in hopes that it might lead to an equally delicious soy milk.  (I did not try the Califia product myself, but I glanced at it in the store, and was duped into believing that it consisted of three ingredients: water, almonds, and coconut cream.  I like to think I’m a pretty good label reader, but a glance at the product link above reveals this milk is not as “pure” as it claims (for shame!):

Contains Less Than 2% Of The Following: Sunflower Lecithin, Sea Salt, Potassium Citrate, Natural Flavors, Gellan Gum, Carrageenan, Vitamin/Mineral Blend (Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin D2, Vitamin B12, Vitamin B2), Monk Fruit Concentrate.

So, maybe the coconut cream is not really the secret to this tasting good.)

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Anyhow, I bought two different brands of coconut cream, and a coconut cream powder.  In the end, these helped a bit, but they were no miracle fix for the beany milk.  This batch was okay for making oatmeal and using for pancakes and waffles, but not inspiring otherwise.  It was usable on cold cereal, but didn’t pass the sipping test.

Other varieties
Not yet dissuaded in my quest for tasty, homemade soy milk, I started playing around.  My second batch of milk in the Soyabella was actually the walnut and almond milk, which is soy free.  The taste was decent (no beans = no beany taste), but it quickly separated into a particulate-heavy bottom and a watery top.

I did some research into eliminating the beany taste in homemade soy milk, and settled on the following fixes:

  • removing the hulls from the soybeans
  • adding a few peanuts to the blend
  • additional cook time for the finished milk

I first tried a batch just removing the hulls.  It tasted better, but I wasn’t satisfied.  The next round, I cut back the amount of soy beans and added a few [soaked] peanuts.  Once the soy milk maker did it’s thing, I dumped the milk into a pan and simmered on very low for about twenty minutes.

The result was WEIRD.  It might have tasted okay, if I was able to get past the texture, but, no.  I’m guessing the stove top cooking, in addition to the cooking that happens in the maker, overcooked it, because the result was ridiculously thick and gloppy.  Adding more water after the fact didn’t help.  I got through this quart by using it primarily for oatmeal.  It was not good for cold cereal or sipping, and I didn’t want to waste good chocolate by using it for hot chocolate.  (In the interest of full disclosure, my other variable here was that I didn’t use only soy beans — I mixed things up a bit by using some black beans, but I really don’t think that was the problem.)

Another method
Some of my research into reducing the beany taste led me to recipes that don’t require a soy milk maker (here and here).  These recipes, which had seemed so daunting before, didn’t look so bad now.  The basic process was the same, minus the convenience of a single machine: soak the beans, grind with hot water (in a blender), filter (using a nut milk bag), and cook (on the stove top).

In the Soyabella, the milk “cooks” while still in contact with the filtered soy bean remains (known as okara).  I was curious if this arrangement (which you can’t avoid if you’re using the machine) intensified the beany flavor.  Armed with a blender and a nut milk bag for straining, I was ready to ditch the machine.

Ingredients

70 g beans (I used mostly soy beans, but I substituted a few chick peas), soaked and hulled
20-30g cashews (raw, unsalted), soaked
1 L boiling water

I pureed the [soaked] beans, nuts, and boiling water in two batches in the blender; filtered it through the nut milk bag; and simmered it on low, stirring frequently, for about twenty minutes.  I added a pinch of salt and 1 T. of sugar, and, hold on to your hats . . . .

. . . . it tasted good!  I actually enjoyed sipping this milk, and it passed the cold cereal test, wonder of wonders!

Back to the machine
To test things a bit further, I returned to the soy milk maker and used the same bean-cashew blend as above.  The result was okay, but, for better or worse, definitely not as good as the non-machine version.

On the one hand, I don’t have to run out and drop $100+ on a soy milk maker.  On the other hand, while making soy milk without a dedicated machine is not as daunting as I’d feared, the machine version requires less hands-on time than the blend, filter, heat and stir on stove top method.  Adding that time up every week could make the not-quite-as-tasty machine version an okay compromise.

Check back for one more post on final thoughts including ease of clean-up, using the okara, cost comparison, and health effects of going “carrageenan-free.”

 

 

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Making soy milk — Part 1

Looking back, we’ve been talking about making our own soy milk for over two years now, when a friend first offered to let us try her soy milk maker.  For one reason or another, it took me quite awhile to actually take her up on the offer.  (You can make soy milk without a special machine, but, to a newbie, those recipes seemed complicated and labor intensive.  I bought soy beans, intending to try, but it never happened.)

Why make your own

  • Save money???
  • Reduce packaging waste (soy milk packaging is recyclable, but reducing >> recycling!)
  • Avoid additives in store-bought soy milk, particularly carrageenan
  • Better taste than carrageenan-free, store-bought options???

I could write an entire post on that last bullet point, but we’ll try the brief version.  Carrageenan is a “natural” additive,  derived from a type of seaweed, used in food as a thickener and/or emulsifier to improve flavor and mouth feel.  It’s found in many processed foods, not just soy milk.

WebMD says carrageenan is, “safe for most people in food amounts,” but the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) gives carrageenan a “Caution” rating, stating “May pose a risk and needs to be better tested. Try to avoid.”  (For a full report on carrageenan and human health, with links to peer-reviewed research, see this publication from the Cornucopia Institute.)  There is evidence that it may be especially prudent for individuals with Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome or other GI disorders to avoid consuming carrageenan.

I am not affected by any GI disorders, but the CSPI’s “Caution” rating was enough to make me want to investigate alternatives, and store-bought soy milk is the main source of carrageenan in my diet.

Soy milk consumption
When it comes down to it, I don’t consume all that much soy milk.  I’m not drinking three 8-ounce glasses per day.  In fact, I rarely drink soy milk at all.  I consume 1/3 to 1/2 cup a day in my oatmeal.  Some days, that’s it.  Other days, I have a bit more, either in hot chocolate, with cold cereal, or, very rarely as something I sip with a cookie.  A bit more slips into my diet some days via our homemade pancakes and waffles, but I think it’s safe to say that I average less than one cup of soy milk a day, total.

My other concern, of course, is Gabriel.  I would estimate his soy milk consumption at about 1/2 cup most days.  While he likely consumes a bit less than me, his body is smaller than mine, and perhaps more vulnerable to questionable ingredients.  As far as I know, Gabriel does not suffer from any GI disorders — he doesn’t complain of stomach pain, and his bowel movements are regular.

Store-bought options
A few years ago, I decided it was important to eat organic soy as much as possible.  This decision was not necessarily for health reasons, but rather to avoid GMO soybeans (avoiding the GMOs is also not necessarily for health reasons; for me, it’s about avoiding big agribusiness that threatens small-scale, local growers and food systems).

Based on availability and price, my go-to, store-bought soy milk is Silk Organic Unsweetened, which is readily available at most grocery stores, sold refrigerated in a half-gallon carton.  Sometimes I’d mix things up and buy the equivalent store-brand product at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  The ingredient lists on these products were pretty similar: water, organic soybeans, carrageenan, sea salt, and “natural flavor.”

For carrageenan-free options, I tried Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Organic and WestSoy organic unsweetened.  Both of these come in aseptic quart cartons and do not require refrigeration until after opening.  Ingredients are simply water and organic soybeans.

To me, the carrageenan-free options were missing something in the taste department.  They were fine for my oatmeal and for cooking (e.g., making pancakes), and okay for hot chocolate, but not particularly appealing on cold cereal or for sipping.

Making my own
Part of my motivation for making my own was to see if I could make something that tasted good, without carrageenan and other “natural flavor” additives.

The other motivation was the waste factor: the store-bought options without carrageenan only come in quarts (vs. the half-gallons size of Silk and similar products).  Smaller quantities mean a higher packaging to product ratio, so by switching to the [quart-sized] carrageenan-free option, I was going to be generating proportionally more trash.  Uck.

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L to R: Trader Joe’s (sans carrageenan), homemade (with soy milk maker in background), and my beloved, tasty (but maybe not good for me?) Silk

Plus, what exactly is in the lining of those aseptic containers?  Nothing beats a good, old-fashioned glass jar!

When I started questioning carrageenan, my friend again offered to let me borrow her soy milk maker.  The timing was particularly good, because her family had taken a break from using it.  It’s been great getting to try the machine, and the resulting product, before committing to buying an appliance just for making soy milk.

I’ve been experimenting with it for three weeks now.  I’ve tried straight-up soy milk, plus a number of variations: adding coconut cream, a peanut soy blend, a cashew soy blend, and even a version that used some black beans.  Tomorrow, I’ll report back on the results!

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Still breathing

I feel like my last post needs some kind of follow-up.  I have a back-log of “regular” posts (at least in my head), but jumping right into, “and here was my experience making soy milk,” doesn’t quite seem right.  So, here we go . . . .

Colorblind
Claiming that one “doesn’t see color” is a cop-out.  First, unless you actually have some type of visual impairment, it’s total B.S.  Claiming that I walk down the street and don’t notice the color of a person’s skin would be like claiming that I don’t notice whether that person is male or female.  Our brains automatically take in and process this information.  Noticing skin color is not good or bad.  It just is.  It’s what we do with this information that is important.

Second, claiming to be color/race blind actually undermines progress in addressing racial disparities.  This article in Psychology Today breaks it down well:

Colorblindness creates a society that denies [minorities’] negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives . . . . And if you can’t talk about it, you can’t understand it, much less fix the racial problems that plague our society.

Claiming to be “colorblind” insulates us from wrestling with difficult topics like white privilege; disparate police practices, like racial profiling and unequal use of force; and a broken justice system.

White Privilege
Back in September, I requested a copy of Shelly Tochluk’s Witnessing Whiteness.  I was not able to be part of the YWCA-led group that was reading the book.  I started reading the book, but I just couldn’t get through it.  Not because I disagreed with Tochluk or struggled with the concepts, but more due to the writing style.  I think having a group would have helped a lot, in large part because the book just felt so academic.  I wasn’t expecting a “fun” book, but I just couldn’t get into it.  I’m wondering if Tim Wise’s White Like Me, would be a better starting point.

That said, I think one of the better analogies for thinking about white privilege is running a marathon (would like to give credit, but don’t remember where I heard this).  We’re all running the same marathon, but white privilege means that you get to start the race at mile 10, while someone else, just because his/her skin is a different color, starts at mile 0.  And then maybe your course looks a little different as a white person: fewer hills, or at mile 20, you get a “skip to mile 22″ card.  Or maybe you’re white and born into poverty, so you don’t quite start at mile 10, but perhaps you start at mile 5 and experience some of the other benefits along the course.

Police practices
Objecting and speaking out against minority deaths at the hands of police officers doesn’t make one “anti-law enforcement.”  The reality is, we have serious problems.  This is not one “bad” officer, in one city.  This is a systemic problem throughout the United States.  The expectation that law enforcement exist to “serve and protect” should not depend on the color of one’s skin, but it does — here are the names and faces.  And it’s enough of an issue that it’s caught the attention of the United Nations.  We have a problem.

In our current “justice” system, police officers are often treated as if they are above the law.  There is little incentive for trying to diffuse situations rather than immediately resorting to force.  If you follow one link here, please read this article, written by a former St. Louis police officer.  It speaks volumes about the issues we face.

If you want to take action, sign this petition to reform how we investigate police misconduct, so police officers are held accountable for their actions.  There are legitimate alternatives to using lethal force (including avoiding escalating things to the point where it’s even considered), but it is becoming clear that without real disincentives to using lethal force, police have little reason to discontinue business as usual.

It would be nice to live in a cozy little world where “police aren’t the bad guys.”  Have I benefited or received help from police officers?  Absolutely!  But your experiences, and the degree to which you agree or disagree with the statement that “police are the good guys,” probably depends in large extent on the color of your skin.  That’s white privilege.  That’s racial injustice.  And it needs to change.

 

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I can’t breathe

As I read the news from New York City yesterday, about a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death, after the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, my chest was tight.  I recognized my body’s reaction and reminded myself to breathe.  Because I could.  Because no one’s hands were around my neck, cutting off the oxygen that these human bodies require to live.  And with that thought in mind, it was pretty hard to get rid of the tightness in my chest, the rock in my stomach.  As well it should have been.

I don’t know where to start, so I’ll share some words from my friend Dan:

‘To all you people who think of Mike Brown and say, “just don’t assault a police officer and you won’t die,” I give you Eric Garner.

To all you people who think of Eric Garner and say, “just do what the officer tells you and you won’t die,” I give you John Crawford.

To all you people who think of John Crawford and say, “he should not have picked up that gun that was for sale at Wal-Mart and he would not have died…”

To all you people who think of [12-year-old] Tamir Rice and say, “he should not have played with a toy gun…”

I am tired of you waiting for the “perfect” case to understand that this is real. The people that you see protesting are not making this shit up. It is racism. It is real. We have a problem.’

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Photo credit: D. Stout

On Saturday, I participated in a small demonstration at a busy intersection in South St. Louis City.  This peaceful action, organized by a local Unitarian church’s “Standing on the Side of Love” group, took place in the same ZIP code where I live: the whitest, wealthiest ZIP code within city limits.  At midday on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, this intersection, near a Target, Schnucks, and other retail locations, was hopping.

Within minutes of gathering, a woman stopped at a red light told us that we needed to “go back to Ferguson.”  She continued to try to engage those in our group, blocking traffic in the right travel lane through at least two light cycles.  How dare we bring this issue to her nice, quiet, monochromatic neighborhood?!?  How dare we stand there quietly on the sidewalk making her feel uncomfortable?

Not long after that, the police swarm began.  My friends who were walking to join us saw ten police SUVs speeding down the street with their lights on.  Before long, our group of 30 or so demonstrators had attracted an equal number of police vehicles, each vehicle carrying multiple officers, for a likely ratio of 3 [fully armed, riot-gear equipped, zip-tie handcuffs at the ready] police officer to every 1 demonstrator.  Oh, and some National Guard thrown in the mix, just for fun.

Two officers came over to talk to one of the organizers.  I don’t know exactly what was said, but I guess they decided to “let” us stay (on the public sidewalk, where we were breaking no laws), though they had no intention to de-escalate the police presence.

It was an interesting ninety minutes.  We received a number of friendly honks (as a bicyclist, you get good at discerning these) and waves, but there were certainly nasty looks and comments (shouted from the safety of cars) as well.  These, to me, showed that the organizers had picked a good location for this action.

We had a single incident of a very riled-up man (red sweatshirt guy) jumping out of his car to confront us.  The following minutes were tense.  Most of the group wisely chose to not engage, leaving the discussion to a well-prepared organizer.  Red sweatshirt guy finally calmed down, and before he left, I overheard a fellow demonstrator sharing his story, his experiences, of being a middle-aged black man, harassed by the police (on multiple occasions) for no reason.  Red sweatshirt guy actually seemed to be listening.  I have hope that, just maybe, a tiny seed was planted.  Face-to-face encounters, where we actually listen are SO important.

As planned, the demonstration ended after ninety minutes.  As Matthew and I walked back to the library, where we’d left our bikes locked up, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like one of the disciples, waiting for someone to say, “Were you with [them]?  I think I saw you with [them].”

I’d naively assumed that most of the police that responded had quietly slunk away, but no, they were just one parking lot over.  We had to walk right by them.

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This photo probably shows about half of the police vehicles that responded.  The rest were staged across the street in another parking lot, with the National Guard.

At the time, I had not yet read about police response to demonstrations after the no indictment decision, including injudicious use of tear gas (a chemical weapon).  Amnesty International has sited some specific concerns about police use of force against protestors here, based on reports from their trained, on-the-ground observers.

These first-hand accounts are also important:

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At best, the system is broken.  At worst, it’s working as designed.  Militarized police acting on decades of inherent racism, wielding weapons against unarmed people with impunity. My chest is tight.  But I can still breathe.  Unlike Mike Brown, unlike Eric Garner, unlike Tamir Rice, I can still breathe.  And so I will continue listening to stories that are hard to hear, will continue to feel uncomfortable with the privilege my skin color confers, will continue to feel sick at the injustices that just. keep. coming.

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Mindfulness: Changing my brain

Last week, I was excited to see a link to a study which found that mindfulness practice (specifically the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program) actually changes the brain.  Turns out that the study is old news (from 2011), but it was the first I had read about these specific findings, which used before and after MRIs to look for changes in specific regions of the brain.

The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

The use of imaging just adds to the already large body of evidence that supports mindfulness practice for both mental and physical health.

My Practice
I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my last mindfulness class!  At that class, the instructor invited us to set short- and long-term goals related to our practice.  My short term goal was to make/find a journal to record my ongoing practice, since I suspected the accountability of recording my practice would be important.  I went with functional over fancy: a two-pocket folder with prongs and some lined notebook paper.

With my short-term goal accomplished, it was time to tackle my long-term goal:

For the next three months, I will engage in formal mindfulness practice for at least 25 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

I finished the class having logged six weeks of regular mindfulness practice.  It was important for me to set a goal that would keep that momentum going and increase the chances that this would be a lifestyle change and not simply a phase.

Five weeks into that three month goal-period, I am happy to report that I’ve been sticking sticking with it, which included maintaining the practice over the holiday weekend (so important!).   I am averaging 25-30 minutes per day, six days per week (I almost used six days per week as my goal, but in the interest of making sure the goal was realistic and achievable, and increasing my chances at feeling successful, I stuck with five days).

I rotate between simple seated meditations (just focusing on the breath), with or without guidance; the body scan; and mindful [guided] yoga.  I’ve also branched out a bit, incorporating some of Tara Brach’s guided meditations in some of my sitting practices.

Even on the days when making time to practice is a challenge, it is always worth it.  Some days, I feel fairly calm and centered throughout the practice.  Other days, those 25-minutes feel like a constant effort of bringing my mind “to heel.”  Such is mindfulness practice.

While not one of my official, written goals, I would very much like to build on my half-day mindfulness retreat experience (and my practice, overall) by participating in a longer retreat.  To that end, I am investigating nearby weekend-long mindfulness retreat options.

While a bit belated, I would like to give thanks [again] for discovering mindfulness, for my mom’s gentle encouragement, for Matthew’s support, and for the resources (money, time, transportation) to participate in Masterpeace Studios’ Mind-Body Stress Reduction Program.

 

 

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