Monday Miracles: Session Two

Yes, I am aware that it is nearly Tuesday and I am therefore rather late in writing my Monday Miracle post.  This Wednesday, I will be one of the fortunate people to be in the presence of his Holiness, the Dalai Lama.  (If you would like to watch a simulcast of the lecture, you can find more information here.)

His Holiness is world-renown for his dedication to his people and to spreading his message of love and peace, despite his lifelong persecution by the Chinese Government.  His determination has always given me hope: hope that there are people who believe in change as I do and will continue to believe in it, and hope that I, too, have reserves of strength to persevere through the difficulties I face in my own life.

In a world which says “No, you can’t”, or “No, we can’t”, the Dalai Lama tells us to treat everyone and everything with continued compassion.

Be kind whenever possible…It is always possible.

His Holiness is one of the few prominent religious leaders who preaches this kindness with such consistency, irregardless of religion, race or personal creed.  He believes that not only should we show compassion towards each other, we also must treat the earth with love because it is our home and sustainability is our only option for survival.

These pillars of his message move me more than most because they transcend the condescension often found in religious teachings.  One does not have to follow His way to be “right” or “good” or “saved”.  There are many paths in his Holiness’ view.   He is rather forward about his thoughts on religion and the part it should play in our modern world.  Take for example, his idea of science and Buddhism:

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

Now, I grew up in a religious family where science was well-respected.  But never did my grandfather, who is very reasonable, intellectual pastor, discuss the possibility of his religion changing because of science.

I’m going to keep this Monday Miracle post short this week and I hope that if you are unfamiliar with the Dalai Lama, you will seek out his teachings.  And never forget how powerful your words and actions can be to another human being: they matter.

Be well, do good and spread the love.

Wishing on a Star

As I was driving home tonight, I looked up at the crisp clear night and the stars nearly took my breath away.  Their majesty speaks words I never could, and I wish that my photographs captured their beauty better.  For those of you who don’t get to see many stars because of city light pollution, and for those of you who are lucky enough to marvel at them regularly, here’s a small taste of what is outside my window right now:

If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you’ll see so many more stars!  At the bottom of the photo, there are five stars that make a slightly-funky looking “M”.  That’s Cassiopeia, the vain Greek mythological queen, and she’s one of the constellations that you use to find Polaris, the north star.  It’s always a comfort to me when I see her in the sky, as though I’m home wherever I am in the world.

And I’ll leave you on a somewhat humorous note here at 1am.  It’s freezing here so I’m forced to snuggle up in the most amazing sleeping bag ever made (yes, it’s a Western Mountaineering!) as I write this post:


Good Night!  I wish you many beautiful dreams of starry skies!

Monday Miracles: Session One


Each day we are bombarded with what major media calls “the news”.  It’s almost always depressing or sensational, leaving many of us to feel despondent and isolated from solutions to seemingly enormous problems, or so I believe.  In light of this onslaught of bad news, I’m officially beginning a new weekly series which I like to call Monday Miracles.

In this world of doom and gloom about the environment, we need to remember that there are people who are working to change the situation, finding creative solutions to the problems we all face.  I’ll start this first Monday with a program with which I have been involved over a number of years.

Based in an often-neglected section of the Bronx known as Hunt’s Point, Rocking the Boat “empowers young people challenged by severe economic, educational, and social conditions to develop the self-confidence to set ambitious goals and gain the skills necessary to achieve them. Students work together to build wooden boats, learn to row and sail, and restore local urban waterways, revitalizing their community while creating better lives for themselves.”

Kids don’t just build boats

at Rocking the Boat, boats build kids.

Photo Credit: Joaquin Cotten

Photo Credit: Joaquin Cotten, Art Director, Rocking the Boat

Adam Green never thought that he would end up running a non-profit.  He just wanted to build a boat, so he got a group of students together at the public junior high school in East Harlem, New York City where he was volunteering and they built a basic plywood skiff.  They launched their boat in the school’s pool because there was no where else to go.  Fast forward to today, and RtB serves over 3,000 students a year through their programs.  Quite incredible, right?  They’re involved in environmental stewardship and conservation on the Bronx River, as well as being responsible for keeping their students off the streets and out of trouble.  Honestly, though, my words pale in comparison to Daniel Martinez Patino’s:

Since then, I’ve become more outgoing. I feel like I’ve grown. I take things a bit more seriously and I look forward to accomplishing a goal. I see the beauty in nature, now more than ever, and I see the art in boatbuilding and woodworking. The best part is all the skills I’ve mastered. My favorite memory is getting into the very first kayak and canoeing down the Bronx River, awesome.

They are an incredible bunch of people who are dedicated to changing the problems in the neighborhood by teaching students to be conscious of the environment, of their neighborhood and of the impact they have on both.  Their voices matter.  Their actions have potency.  I encourage you to check out the program (and donate to it!), as they are helping to train the leaders of tomorrow and I, for one, think they should be applauded, over and over and over again.

Photo Credit: Joaquin Cotten, Art Director, Rocking the Boat

For the Beauty of the Earth, or How I Rediscovered My Inner Spark

This weekend, I’ve had the immense pleasure of visiting a dear friend of mine, Kristen, a talented organic farmer who lives on the edge of the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York.  Kristen has one of those beautiful souls that shines through everything she does and says, and visiting her is always like returning home.

As we spent yesterday afternoon covering her lettuce beds in preparation for a possible nighttime frost, I was reminded of how intensely satisfying I find being connected to the earth.  This week has been particularly rough here at Sustainable Shanti with many potentially big, heart-breaking, but necessary changes looming in the near future, and as I struggle to come to terms with these decisions, getting my hands dirty in the soil and laughing in the sunshine was incredible medicine for my achy-breaky soul.

Sitting here in front of the wood stove with a cup of excellent coffee warming my hands, I am able to slow and take stock of life as it currently presents itself.  I believe in giving thanks for those who make our life journey easier, and I am grateful for friends like Kristen, who light my path when I can’t find my proverbial headlamp.  Despite the bumps in the road with Sustainable Shanti this week, Kristen and her farm remind of me of why I care so deeply about our planet earth and how we treat it: it is our home, the place that provides us with sustenance to live.  In return, how can we not find a piece of our hearts to devote to nurturing stewardship in its honor?

While I am a firm believer that we each have an opportunity to change our daily habits into more earth-nurturing ones, Sustainable Shanti is my greater giving platform.  My dream is that it will enable me to not only help others take better care of themselves by utilizing nature’s bountiful sustainable gifts, but I hope it will eventually provide the opportunity to support other women as they embark on their own entrepreneurship journeys.  This business isn’t just a money-maker in my mind; it’s a platform to create positive change in the world.

Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we cannot survive without the planet on which we live.  There is no other alternative.  With that in mind and the dirt still under my fingernails, my resolve to teach love of planet and of self has been reaffirmed.  No matter what changes I will have to make to keep Sustainable Shanti going, I will do it because I cannot stop caring about my home.  I hope that you all will join me in some way on this journey to be well, do good in the world, and spread love to all whom you encounter.

Vile Vinyl

Alright, it’s been a while since I last wrote, but it’s time to get back on the proverbial blog wagon.  The other night I went to a film screening of the documentary Blue Vinyl (available on Netflix), hosted by the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice at the Aperture Gallery in Chelsea, NYC.  If you’re in the city, be sure to go see their current exhibit, “Petrochemical America”.  As an art student in college, I was always warned about the dangers of cutting polyvinyl chloride piping (aka PVC) on the power saws because the dust can make you sick, but I had no idea just how toxic this insidious material is to our lives, to the lives of those who make it, and to the environment.  And it’s EVERYWHERE!

Everywhere??  Yup, everywhere.  PVC, also known simply as vinyl, has permeated so many facets of our consumer culture that it seems amazing life functioned before its invention.  Some of the most well-known forms of vinyl are PVC pipes, vinyl shower curtains, vinyl flooring in schools, vinyl siding for houses, children’s clothing and toys, garden hoses, disposable medical supplies and even those old vinyl records–basically any plastic with a #3 on the bottom.

So let’s break down the problems with this plastic beyond “it’s toxic!”  There are major problems with the material from the beginning to the end of its life cycle.  The chemicals used to make vinyl are highly toxic, and scientists have shown that there are links between workers’ exposure and greatly increased risks for liver damage, bone softening and rare forms of liver cancer known as angiosarcoma.  Additionally, the communities where the vinyl factories exist are being poisoned by the toxins release by the factories.  Dioxin, a small family of potent carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals), is a by-product of the manufacturing process and is released into the air.  They have been linked to severe health problems including cancer, endocrine disruption (meaning they interfere with the reproductive system), endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects and impaired child development, and finally, reproductive and immune system damage.

That’s right….the people who live in the communities surrounding the factories are literally breathing in toxic air.  Is the name Erin Brockovitch starting to pop up in anyone else’s head?  Or is that just me?

The lights of the chemical factories in Cancer Alley, a section of the Mississippi River that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo credit: Richard Misrach. From “Petrochemical America”, Aperture Gallery, NYC.

Hang in there with me: we’re far from done.  To make vinyl flexible, a la the ubiquitous smelly shower curtain, additives called phthalates are added to the production line.  No surprise, they are extremely toxic and carcinogenic, and are linked to severe health problems including increased asthma rates, reproductive problems in boys including decreased sperm counts and genital mutations, and cancer.  Naaaasty.  Heads up, ladies cause phthalates are also on the list of the top ten most dangerous chemicals in cosmetics.  They are pervasive to say the least.

Alright, so the factories are poisoning their communities and workers….let’s move on to what happens when vile vinyl hits you, the consumer.  We have all experienced the joys of opening up a brand-new shower curtain: that smell that makes you suddenly not want to be in the room!  The shower curtain is “off-gassing”, also known as the evaporation of volatile chemicals.  This process can continue for many years after the initial installation, meaning that you are constantly being exposed to these chemicals in your home, your car, your schools and your office.  Are we having fun yet???

Vinyl can also be dangerous to consumers if it is burned, such as in a house fire.  The very innocent-looking vinyl siding suddenly becomes a toxic hazard to you and your neighbors. Think about how sick people have become from their exposure to the World Trade Center towers burning.  (N.B. The people closest to me will tell you that I have strong feelings regarding discussions of September 11, 2001 and abhor its mention in most circles, but it is one of the best-known examples of the extreme dangers of burning vinyl.)  We sheath our houses in materials that can potentially kill us and our neighbors.  Is the convenience worth it to you?

Lastly, let’s look the end-stage of vinyl’s life.  Because it is not a recyclable plastic, there are only two other options for disposal: burning it in incinerators, the dangers of which I’ve already covered, and dumping it in our landfills.  The latter option means that a material which is harmful throughout its life now sits for untold centuries, without degrading in a safe manner.  Plastics don’t degrade in the same way that organic materials do.  They photo-degrade, meaning that they break up into smaller and smaller more toxic particles, which enter our water supplies, our fish populations and ultimately, us, the animals we raise and eat, and the plants we grow and consume.

Before you throw your hands up in despair, let’s look at solutions to this massive problem.

Life did exist and function quite well before vinyl came onto the market.

First of all, avoid buying it wherever and whenever you can!  Be an aware consumer.  Building a new house or building?  Find out what’s in those building materials.  Don’t buy PVC piping–use copper or HDPE pipes.  The Center for Health, Environment & Justice have many resources to get started in learning about their campaign to remove PVC from our lives.  You can check it out HERE.  They are currently working to get the New York City Public Schools to go vinyl-free in their buying habits and are happy to answer questions.

I’ll leave you with this ultimate question when it comes to any toxic material: what is it worth to you?  By buying and using products made from vinyl, we are making a moral decision on whose life is worth more.  Are you willing to buy a product that you now know harms those who make it in order to have a more convenient or less expensive lifestyle?  Making environmentally-friendly choices involves being aware that there are other peoples’ lives at stake in this world and in the future.  What are they worth?

Be well, do good, and spread the love,

The Big Deal…Or How I Acquired a Computer

My friends will tell you that I am one of those few hold-outs who has refused to buy a new computer for years (six if we’re going to be exact).  I have wrongly been called a Luddite by many, as if my refusal is an affront to their technologically-obsessed world.  I simply place value in other areas of life.  However, while I may admittedly be decidedly stubborn, I am not completely illogical or unreasonable.  Reality presented me thus: I started a new business (yay!), that runs in large part online.  Ergo?  I need a computer.  And since I believe in buying something once and keeping it for years and years and years (note: my hiking boots are twelve years old and still look new despite having walked all over the world; I’ve had the same flip cell phone for three years…are we getting the picture yet?), I wanted the best bang for my bucks.  So I went to many computer stores, had many break downs and panic attacks, and walked out a few months later with a MacBook Pro.

Now, I know that most people who own Macs think they are the best things in the world.  They rave about how easy they are to use, how gorgeously designed they are, and on and on and on.  Blah.  Blah.  BLAH.  Me?  I don’t mean to sound like an ungrateful spoiled American, but I hate owning a computer and each time I open this machine of supposed beauty, my stomach wants to chuck its cookies.  But what is it that makes me react so viscerally to something that shouldn’t be traumatic?  This question deserves some further contemplation in my opinion.

Over the past few years, I have built a life that places the majority of its value in people, small businesses, local community, and environmental wellbeing.  I buy my bars of soap from my farmer’s market, along with my raw honey, eggs, veggies and bacon all the year round.  I buy sustainable, fairly-traded, organic, shade-grown coffee from my old college coffee shop in Providence, Rhode Island because not only do they support all those adjectives, they support an organization called Coffee Kids.  If I’m going to drink a liquid made from beans which have been shipped around the world, I want them to do the most good they can.  Rarely do I go to an actual grocery store. I support the best bookstore in the world instead of ordering through Amazon because I believe in having incredible resources, which are able to keep their physical doors open.  I only use Goodsearch instead of Google because even my web searches can generate a little more good in this world.  My cell phone company is a non-profit, which lets its members choose where the profits go.  I’m a traditionally-trained wooden boatbuilder who loves her a beautiful old schooner with her sails full of wind–need I say more?

Yeah, I know I sound a bit fanatical.  It’s really more a matter that I make very conscious choices of how I spend money.  They are active choices, positive choices that make my life feel generous, aware and fulfilled.

And make no mistake, I am not rich according to my bank account.  However, I believe fiercely in putting my money where my mouth is, even if it costs me a few more dollars.

So what’s the big deal about buying a Mac, besides the small fact that I swore that I would never own one?  It’s the complete anti-thesis of all the values which I hold dear.  It is a large company, with a not-so-great environmental and humanitarian track record in places like China, where I used to live.  Its entire existence focuses on planned obsolescence, instead of longevity.  My dollars go anywhere but locally and the carbon footprint of my shiny new machine is annoyingly bigger than just about anything in my life currently (courtesy of Apple).  I feel like I’ve been duped into a world which I’ve tried hard to avoid, where there is little connection to the rest of my life or my core being.

How I’ll learn to live with this irritating dichotomy, I’m still looking for that answer.  At least for now, I can more succinctly answer the big deal question.  What are the things in your life to which you feel you’ve had to acquiesce, even when your gut tells you it doesn’t fit?  And how did you make peace with the inherent contradictions?

50 Ways

I couldn’t have said it better myself, so instead, I’m simply going to share something from the No Impact Man Project.  Check out 50 Ways to Help the Planet.

Why not pick one habit to adopt each week?  It makes change a whole lot less painless!  And the planet will thank you for it, as will future generations.  Every small change adds up to a lot.

EWG takes on Toxic House Cleaners


The word is slowly starting to get out that many of the products used to clean houses across America contain toxic ingredients.  Johnson & Johnson just announced that it will remove toxic chemicals from its products by 2015 (you can read the press release from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics here), and while I’m happy to hear the news, I believe it should put on high alert every person who uses their products currently.  Don’t you wonder what’s in your window cleaner, for example?  Or you dish detergent?  Or what, exactly, makes you whites whiter in the wash?

Lucky for us, the Environmental Working Group has published a new guide for consumers: EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.  Here you can look up the household cleaners you use, and find out what is in them and how toxic they are to your family’s health.  Did you know that all you need in your cleaning arsenal is baking soda, white vinegar and Dr. Bronner’s castile soap?  With these three simple, non-toxic ingredients, you can clean your entire house without any of the harmful chemicals that nearly every mass-market cleaner contains.  Your body, and your wallet, will thank you.

By the way, did you know that Sustainable Shanti is a member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics?  We believe people should have access to safe, effective and holistic products that benefit them and the planet.

Help the Honeybees

After watching the 2009 documentary, Vanishing of the the Bees (you can view it on Hulu here), I decided it was time to talk about bees and the beauty of honey, because afterall, the entire Sustainable Shanti line contains raw organic beeswax from Tremblay Apiaries.  Have you heard of a new problem called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD?

Relatively new on the scene of beekeeping, CCD has major impacts on our environment, our ability to produce food and thus, on every human’s food supply because without the honeybees and their work as cross-pollinators, we wouldn’t be able to pollinate and grow our food.  Essentially, bees are leaving their hives and never returning, abandoning their queen bee and any larvae left in the hive.  This behavior is not normal and scientists in America are searching for answers.  While the scientific community has not pinpointed a main cause, many beekeepers who raise their bees with only organic practices, believe that there is a obvious connection between the currently accepted beekeeping practices and CCD.

So what are these “accepted” practices?  And how do they differ from organic methods?  And does it really matter?  Commercial beekeeping has evolved to use massive doses of pesticides and antibiotics in their hives in an effort to pre-emptively fight the mites and other pests that are natural predators of honeybees.  Would you want your house sprayed with chemicals?  Would you stay?

Another common practice in commercial beekeeping is to use a sugar-syrup solution as food for the hives once the honey has been removed from them.  Seems pretty harmless on the surface, but essentially, the bees are feeding off high fructose corn syrup.  Think about feeding any body HFCS for every meal and the effects that it has on them instead of eating whole foods.  Bees need real food in the same way humans do.

The third common practice has long-reaching consequences.  Commercial bees are literally trucked across the country in order to pollinate different monocrops (don’t even get me started on the monocrop issue!): almonds in California, blueberries in Maine, cranberries in Massachusetts…you get the picture.  The hives are loaded onto flatbed trucks and can be on the road for 4 to 5 days with little food and water.  How would you feel after such a journey?  Not too happy, right?

There are additional problems when the bees arrive in their monocrop havens: there are pesticides used on those crops as well.  The types of pesticides have changed over the years and it was with the introduction of a type of pesticide called neonicotinoids that brought the biggest cases of CCD.  These chemicals have a longer-term affect on honeybees because they are used as a seed treatment and often work their way into the nectar of the plants.  As you can see in Vanishing of the Bees, the honeybees are immediately disoriented when they become covered in the plants that have been sprayed with the neonicotinoid pesticides.

So what can we do about it?  Seek out local honey and talk to your beekeeper.  Find out what she or he thinks of CCD and the pesticides to which our honeybees are exposed.  Buy raw honey–yes, it can be more expensive than what you find in the bear bottles at the grocery store, but it is so much better for you!  And the taste is beyond compare.

Our honeybees need our help, and without a doubt we need our honeybees.