So Happy Together

Co-housing, a form of communal living launched in Denmark, sans the back-to-the-land 60’s hippie vibe, has interested me for close to 20 years, and it coming up on my radar once again, a combination of my age and my realization of how closely the principles of cohousing – community, shared resources, resilience, environmental values – align with those of the Transition movement. And also because, via Transition, I’m learning about urban planning and even participating in some ‘interventions.’

Suburban sprawl, even as pretty as the lushly-planted, pool-and-tennis-court sprinkled complexes such as the one I live in, doesn’t support a healthy, well-functioning community, let alone enlightened society. A shopping mall is not the village green, although Teens and Tweens do their best to make it so. We became successful as a species because we are social animals, and that may be how we will figure a way out of the mess we’re in now. So I find it puzzling that we have accepted design that expresses a preference for privacy, even anonymity, over community; that values speed and efficiency – cars and service vehicles at the expense of pedestrians or bicycles; that submits to conformity and obedience. (Checked your HOA rules lately?)

Being in my early 70s with an older spouse and many friends in the same age cohort, has sharpened the focus on issues of isolation and loneliness, and what it looks like when the care (cleaning, repairs, financial management, etc.) of a home you once shared becomes your sole responsibility. In cultures (including the one I was born into) where elders are valued, these issues don’t exist.

I never want to wind up in an assisted-living facility or senior residence. These artificial environments are like permanently moored cruise ships, with every need attended to, except the need to feel needed, to contribute to something bigger than yourself, to feel connected.

We have to design for the way people really want to live. And, in many instances we are beginning to.  Senior cohousing, ‘granny’ flats, i.e. moving in with the kids, and NORCs – naturally occurring retirement communities — like the Beacon Hill Village in Boston, to name a few, where people remain not only in their homes, but as contributing members of the larger community. Whenever we can share space and not duplicate infrequently-used possessions, we all benefit, and so does the Planet. For this aging yogi, for all those reasons, an ashram looks good.

On the other end of the age spectrum, it is no accident that the Millennial generation is flocking to walkable cities, inventing ways to live and share space, equipment, work, that seem more inspired by Seinfeld than The Brady Bunch. Think also of AirBnB, and even Couchsurfing (for the truly adventurous traveler), two more recent variations on the sharing theme. For Angelo, a young Italian I was chatting with last night at the Transition meeting, enjoying a year of study in the U.S., courtesy of his host family, is just how things are done back home.   Humans are endlessly creative in response to change, and the evidence of this lifts me whenever the news about climate change, peak resources, and corrupt regimes gets too dire.

As much as I quake at the idea of another move, I find myself thinking more deeply about what would support us better in the next phase of our life. Where to next? And when?

cohousing photoWe discovered cohousing around 1997 while living in Hoboken, NJ, a small town that, in those days, was best known for being the birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra. The town hadn’t completely outgrown its somewhat seedy past and wasn’t without issues. But we loved our 100-year-old redbrick townhouse and the town itself for its walkability – a word yet to be invented – the friendly neighborhoods, the mom and pop stores, and easy access to New York where I had a strong client base. But change was happening fast as long-promised waterfront development began, bringing rising home values and a soaring real estate tax that would soon become unsustainable, even for a two-income couple. Gentrification has its price. A lot of people like us cashed in and moved out, making room for a younger professional crowd.

So that Spring, we attended a cohousing conference at the Liberty Village Cohousing in Libertytown, MD, to learn more about this new way of housing ourselves. A few months later, we had organized visits to four other cohousing communities, including two in Canada. Three of the four were in early stage development; one, a couple of years old. In retrospect, we might have taken the plunge then had we come across an established community. Most take years not months to go from idea to reality, and many enthusiasts claim that it is the process of dealing with whatever comes up – difficult local ordinances or neighbors, a failure of the group to gel, integrating new people – gives a community its particular character. But most important, the consensus-based approach to planning, designing, managing and maintaining your cohousing community requires a lot of patience. Perhaps this time around, we might be ready.

I was able to check up on the four we actually visited, a prerequisite for membership. Cantine’s Island in Saugerties, NY, is a village within a village on the Esopus River. Trillium Hollow, which won a spot in the cue because our married children lived nearby in Portland, Or.  Windsong, in Langley, about 45 minutes outside Vancouver, an architecturally designed cohousing community where we were invited to share a meal and spend the night. The entire community was under glass, a reminder of those cold Canadian winters. Finally, Quayside, a brilliant joining of existing buildings on a corner of a block in North Vancouver. Of all, the best fit: urban, no two spaces alike, a great intergenerational vibe. Glad to say, all are thriving!

Read more:

History of Cohousing

Senior Cohousing

2013 Walk for Our Grandchildren

Here I am with three of my five grandchildren, the reason we (my husband and I) will be joining the 2013 Walk for Our Grandchildren this July and rallying with’s  Summer Heat campaign in front of The White House, July 27.  We mean to hold President Obama to his inaugural promise on the environment.

Me and the Brothers Cole

I’ll leave the arguments over whether global warming (or climate change, if you prefer) is caused by humans to those who believe there is value in assigning blame.  I believe it was settled by James Hansen decades ago.  We are taking responsibility for what happens next because it will affect the young people in this photograph and our other two grandchildren, and millions of children who did nothing to deserve the mess we are leaving them, and will have to deal with the consequences of our profligacy.

I don’t know if this walk on Washington will have the impact on the power base that other walks did, for civil rights, women’s rights, the end of the Vietnam War.  And it certainly won’t mean that I will stop shrinking my carbon footprint by all means possible: food choices, energy, transportation, consumption in general.  If Colin Beavan could go ‘no impact’ in Manhattan, the least I can do is go ‘low impact’ in Florida.

Walking the walk also doesn’t mean that I am giving up on the Transition movement (not when founder, Rob Hopkins, took his first flight since 2006 to make his case to American funders), although I am learning how challenging it can be to find common ground beyond personal agendas, my own included!   We all need to do more, much more, than recycle, reduce, reuse, and sooner rather than later, without any certainty that they will change the future.  As  Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, May 27, inaction is a “march to disaster.”

Food in My Kitchen

Emalee veggies

See this basket?  All of it came from my friend, Emalee’s backyard, a no-till vegetable patch established in 2012 with compost from the city of West Palm Beach (you have to provide the truck, some muscles and a wheelbarrow) and still going strong.  I came home with Japanese eggplants and tomatoes in abundance.  What to do?

This morning, I started chopping and slicing and sautéing, O Mio Babbino Caro playing in the background, and by noon, I had the base for a Vegetable Korma — I’ll add the yoghurt just before I serve it — and a caponata from the Kripalu cookbook series (a good way to preserve tomatoes and eggplant).  The curry was going to be our lunch, then my spouse called from the dentist to say he needed to have an all liquid lunch.  So, I quickly turned some broccoli, CSA and home-grown, into a soup.  Here’s the recipe for the Broccoli Garlic Soup:

Two cups of tender, washed broccoli stalks
4 cloves of garlic mashed
2 T.  olive oil
1/3 – 1/2 cup of water
Sea or kosher salt to taste

Put everything into a heavy saucepan, cover and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and the broccoli stalks are tender but not mushy.  Time varies, but about 7-10 minutes should do it.  Pour it into the blender jar.  Add water to just cover and puree until smooth.  Serve room temperature with a dollop of yoghurt on top.   The broccoli prepared this way is delicious as a side as well, and I have Dr. Andrew Weil to thank for the basic recipe.  I’ve used it for green beans and broccoli rape, and it’s simple and good.

I realize that many people, e.g. the single mother of two in A Place at the Table , the documentary about hunger I’ve been writing about, do not have ready access to fresh, local produce.  And that’s something that can change as more people start-up community gardens in  urban ‘food deserts’.  But there is also much she could do with staples like lentils, black beans, and chick peas, if there was somewhere she could go to learn.   Great nutrition for her kids and herself at very low-cost prepared without fancy pots or gadgets, now that’s social action through food, and well worth working on.   

Since seeing the documentary, I’ve been surfing around looking at food bloggers, especially those with a social conscience, and yesterday, I hit a bonanza.  The Giving Table.  I like their slogan, too: Doing Good With Food.  On April 8, bloggers were invited to add content to their sites in recognition of hunger in America.  There is a ground-swell of passion for solving this intractable problem and it gives me hope.

Eat Local and Fresh, Help the Planet (and Yourself)

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating is the kind of book that induces humility in even the most ardent enthusiast of local foods and all the environmental reasons this choice makes sense (i.e. the high cost of food miles, for one). I speak from experience. Mea culpa, I find it really difficult to give up tea (Assam, Ceylon), coffee (Costa Rica) and even papayas – although why Publix and Costco keep importing these from Belize when they grow in our backyards is a question for another blog post.

So I was really happy to see that Don Hall of Transition Sarasota is doing well with his local food guide and festival – Greater Sarasota’s Eat Local Resource Guide and Directory, now in its third year. Imagine! A whole week dedicated to exploring what’s in season and available locally. It is exactly the kind of action that engages people, climate politics – and even politics – aside. For me, signing the 10% Local Food Challenge was a no-brainer. It’s a little step everyone can take that leads to bigger steps.

Farmers Markets make sourcing locally relatively easy year round here in South Florida where I live, although be aware that not every vendor is offering 100% local produce. You have to ask the question. I am totally crazy about Diane Cordeau and Karl Frost of Kai-Kai Farms for their dedication to growing sustainably and delivering a box of beautiful food to us and other CSA members at the market every two weeks. On off-weeks, I can also pick up whatever I need to fill in at a discounted price. No, it isn’t ‘cheap’ food and it certainly isn’t fast, um, you have to actually cook it. The truth is, cheap and fast are inaccurate because the long-range effects of the processed food industry will be calculated in poor health, obesity and lives foreshortened.

To that point, I was surfing around today and came across Stephen Colbert’s interview with Dr. Robert Lustig a few weeks ago. You really need to watch it. Kudos and deep gratitude to our comedians for having the courage few politicians do!

The Seat is Going Anyway…

This summer, I want to be in the Northeast for about a month, to visit family and friends, give my yoga practice a boost with a few days at Kripalu Center in The Berkshires, and slake my thirst for art and culture in New York City.

Along with millions of other Americans, I hear the siren call of summer ‘elsewhere.’ Except that I am trying to figure out how to travel with the smallest possible carbon impact. I share my dilemma with a friend who is bemused that I am considering taking a train (awful food, noisy) because I believe flying takes the biggest toll on the environment. Yes, I know the seat is going anyway.

Probably driving is the least bad way to haul me, spouse and stuff some 1,600 miles in one direction and back. I have driven up and down the East Coast enough times to own a dog-eared Road Atlas with notes about interesting food stops (Gulf oysters at St. Augustine Beach), good radio stations, clean toilets, as well as places to avoid. When planes were temporarily grounded after 9/11, we drove from California to New York, four nights, five days on the road. I’ve never added up all the miles, but the call of the open road is pretty well out of my system. Anyway, driving a fuel-efficient car even with two passengers doesn’t beat traveling by bus — hands-down the most energy-efficient, least carbon-loaded way to get anywhere. Hey, rock stars do it, albeit in luxurious coach-style.

Truth is I’m more of a homebody than I used to be, even before I began to be alarmed about the environment enough to do something personally. Come to find out that when you add up heating/cooling, washing and drying clothes (a biggie) and even computer usage, our homes are where we burn through the most energy. Yikes!

If you find yourself agreeing that it’s our obligation as world citizens to take our contributions to climate change personally, you’ll find a lot of helpful calculators on the Internet. Here’s a gem I just stumbled upon which handily compares itself to other popular ones:

You may be surprised as I was to discover that you can do more good by giving up meat and walking and/or biking more than you drive, than by swearing off flying (obviously, frequent flyers were not included in the tally). Another nugget that I am definitely tucking into my toolkit for future reference: traveling by cargo ship across the Atlantic, then using train and bus to get around.

You might want to poke around some of Michael Bluejay’s other sites as I did. In fact, I was having so much fun, I had to remind myself that I was in the midst of a blog post about my travel dilemma for this summer!

I’ve got my sights on The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, one couple’s answer to saving the planet,, in a future post.

Healing Our World and Ourselves: Notes from a Conference

I write this — a documentary about The Eagles in the background — from Courtyard by Marriott down the road from The First Unitarian Church of Orlando where the Healing Our World and Ourselves conference is being held. This afternoon, keynote speakers, attorney David Cobb of Move to Amend, Sister Pat Siemen (Catholic nun and attorney) of the Center for Environmental Jurisprudence at Barry University on ‘the rights of nature’, and Canadian psychologist/addiction expert, Bruce Alexander, made for an electrifying panel on how their areas overlap and intensify each other. Some highlights from my notes.

Pat Siemen: “The planet has a right to exist.” She is part of a group working to introduce ‘the rights of nature’ into a new Florida constitution in 2018. “[We must] let the Earth teach us how to be.” Faith-driven initiatives have sparked movements for justice and human rights because ‘spiritual practice helps people sustain their efforts for the long haul.’ There is no ‘away.’ “We can’t sustain our lives without sustaining the Earth.” “We have to rediscover our ecological identity; unless this is our core, we can’t make the right decisions for the future.”

David Cobb: Move to Amend is much more than campaign finance reform, it is a movement to restore democracy. [Transitioneers, take note] Law follows culture [therefore] organizing at the community level, educating ourselves out of the existing paradigm, starting a new chorus, are the way to go. [We must reject] the ‘creation myth of the USA.” Cultural blindness has to be unlearned. Real change happens when people raise hell. The law is not about justice; it’s about consistency. I take you seriously [because you are here]. I take responsibility for doing the best I can. I release the results. [My comment: Right out of the Bhagavad Gita].

Psychologist/addiction expert, author of The Globalization of Addiction, Bruce Alexander: This is the first conference on addiction and the environment. It is not a coincidence that addiction and the destruction of the planet are happening at the same time. “We can’t win until we are brave enough to look at the machine itself.” The field of psychology has not contributed to solutions to environmental issues. Self recovery and social recovery are [or should be] the same. “We all want to live in a way that is good.”

There was also some lovely music including Samantha Moffatt on the dulcimer, and Dock Street performing an original song: Rights of Nature.

Tomorrow I’m on a panel (representing Transition Palm Beaches) to interact — “how can we help” — with the keynoters. An exercise in improv and courage which is definitely out of my comfort zone. I won’t let the sound of my own wheels drive me crazy.

Campus Divestment Campaign for the Rest of Us

Inspired by the Do the Math tour — and the math itself — I thought we might follow the lead of colleges and universities all over the country who are going fossil free. Naively perhaps, I dropped an email on the subject to our portfolio consultant at a well-known brokerage firm. Here’s what I wrote:

Thanks for your recent email and message addressing our concerns about the fiscal cliff and other political issues. Actually, we are far more concerned about climate change as the issue that trumps them all, and we want to make our investments support our values. Please purge our portfolio of fossil fuel and related companies. Here is a list provided by the campaign that has been used for the divestment campaign at universities and colleges across the country:

Easier said than done for the individual investor. After a couple of weeks of research, we got a phone call advising us that there were few mutual funds that met our SRI (socially-responsible investment) criteria. We were given the names and ticker symbols of two, with the caveat that neither fund could be recommended as meeting our overall investment targets. In short, they were more volatile for the conservative investment profile we had helped to create. In other words, we were on our own on this one.

What to do? What would Warren Buffet do? Apparently, he likes solar, healthcare and banks for Berkshire Hathaway, and he has convinced eleven more billionaires to give away half their wealth to charity.

Hmmm, could I take a page out of the Big Dog investment playbook? I was reminded of the conversation we had with a financial advisor a couple of months ago to whom we had come with the same concerns. She thought creating and/or preserving wealth (even in distasteful industries), enables one to fund causes in which one believes. It’s another way.

Speaking Up

Public speaking doesn’t terrify or immobilize me, but it’s not my favorite pastime by a long shot. I greatly admire those who can speak extemporaneously, precisely and with passion. I’ll add it to my bucket list. In the meantime, I look for and respond to any opportunities to speak about Transition because I figure the more I do of it, the easier it will become and the better at it I will be. But it’s not easy to strike a balance between reminding people of how bad things really are and inviting them to engage in a movement that, at the very least, suggests a softer, more resilient impact could be possible. So, now I’m gathering my energy for a presentation at my Unitarian Universalist congregation next week, and wrestling to get the words I want to say down on paper.

I dislike grandiosity in others and try to scour it from my own writing or speech. Yet I could not resist using quotes on the environment from President Obama’s inaugural speech. After all, his words are a major breakthrough in acknowledging the threats posed to civilization by climate change. They represent to me an intention, a direction, even if I have reservations about just exactly how ‘we will respond’ when his administration is also committed to supporting conventional energy production, fracking included. (And there’s the rub. As Einstein famously said: “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”)

What resonated with me was the phrase ‘We the People’ which Obama repeated several times. So, in the context of climate change, the word ‘we’ seems less about reassuring us that the government (and technology) will handle it, and more of a challenge to us all to take responsibility for how we have been, and may still be, contributing to a worsening environment, and where we can change our behavior. That is essentially what the Transition movement aims at: behavior change, one individual, household, neighborhood, town at a time, so that it will all add up to cultural shift from — as the saying goes — ‘Me’ to ‘We.’ That it may just work is what keeps me hanging in there, one blog post, speech, email or conversation at a time.

The Invisible Problem

This morning, while I did some kitchen chores, I listened to the Moyers & Company segment on climate change. Not one to soft-pedal the truth, Moyers had this to say about climate change action: Get it wrong and it’s over, not just for the U.S., for planet Earth.

Moyers’ conversation was with communications expert, Anthony Leiserowitz, who explained why, although the majority of people accept that climate change is real, it still remains an invisible problem. In part, this is because we humans are hard-wired to respond to immediate threats. We do not do as well with what seems remote. Because most of us don’t see what is happening, except for those polar bears, perhaps, it is out of mind. The Media has been notably reluctant to address the subject, but that is beginning to change.

The failure to adequately raise the alarm is complicated by many things, including the successful campaigns of disinformation that sow doubt. But it is also a communications problem itself. Or rather several. We who are working to change minds on climate change action have to learn to craft the message in ways that our diverse audiences — Leiserowitz says there are “six Americas” when it comes to the subject — will hear and respond. I recognized instantly that I am in Category 1: The Alarmed, those who accept that the majority of scientists and climatologists can’t be wrong, and want to — and are — doing something about it, however small that effort may seem weighed against the magnitude of the problem.

My efforts to communicate and educate so far have been focused within faith communities because addressing climate change, and the related issues of peak oil, indeed peak-everything, is both a moral issue and a social justice issue. As Katrina taught us, those who have less will suffer more, probably sooner, and take longer to recover — if they can at all. Although, as Anthony Leiserowitz pointed out, Hurricane Sandy didn’t discriminate between liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, million-dollar shore communities or small working class towns, material recovery has come soonest to those who could afford it. How we respond to the mutual threat of climate change is a matter of conscience, or should be.

There is such a thing as enough

“Speak the truth.
Speak it loud and often, calmly but insistently,
and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power.
Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence.
All growth is not good.
The environment is a necessity, not a luxury.
There is such a thing as enough.”

Speaking truth to power was a phrase that cropped up a lot during the last election cycle, so much so it lost its power.  Here it is reclaimed with credit due.  What if we could tell these truths?  Make them our own True North?   How might that change how we are as friends, neighbors and citizens?  How might it change the world?  Consider this an invitation to think about it with me.