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Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


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Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.

I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers.  It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass.  To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord.  Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use.  Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.

We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.

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We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.

Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.

What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why.  Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now.  And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging.  We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”

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I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.

I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.

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Yes! Magazine: Living Right on the Wrong Side of Town


I wrote this piece on the recession and how it has affected my family

To Exurbia and Back in One Short Year


A long time ago, we lived on Tatooine with no one but ghosts for company. And an empty porch swing, rocking fore and aft in the wind.

Here is my shareable post about that:

There was this one time we lived with ghosts.

Back when I had a real job, we lived in a planned subdivision that was specifically designed to foster the feeling of community and car-free convenience. Out in exurbia, it was far enough away from city center that it discouraged all but the most determined of commuters. We moved there after our family grew by the addition of two more children, at the same time the apartment complex we occupied downtown suffered the fate of its neighbors and was converted to expensive condominiums. Based on my income level and the seemingly-endless economic expansion, we knew we should buy a home but hesitated to commit before exploring our options more fully.

We scoured Craigslist for rental houses and put out feelers with everyone we knew north or south of the city. What we found in our price range were, without fail, located in shabby suburbs with high crime and troubled schools facing closures. It struck us that we were reconciling ourselves to suffering from the kinds of things that were supposed to be plagues of urban living, without any of the cultural benefits. Downtown had become a bastion of the moneyed, and though I was making a comfortable living as a self-employed sales exec, we could no longer afford the space needed for a family of five.

Complicating matters was the fact that we were a one-car family with a stay-at-home parent. I was on the road calling on accounts most of the time, while my husband stayed home to care for our three young children. Downtown living had suited us well, allowing as it did access to shopping, cultural events, and the kind of idle distractions that are sanity savers for otherwise isolated parents. However, after much desperate searching, we conceded that there was nothing remotely acceptable or affordable anywhere within city limits. We left the elementary school we loved, and grudgingly and sadly abandoned a neighborhood that had once been full of long-time city residents, now being forced out in turn.

I had a decent attitude about suburbia; like many children of the seventies and eighties, I was filled with good memories of the sort of freewheeling adventures kids concoct when left to their own devices. Sure I was an urban snob of the arugula-eating variety, but I had been lucky enough to spend many long years of my young-adulthood living in a few of America’s most celebrated cities. One thing I knew as I approached middle age as a parent of three impressionable young souls: I didn’t want to helicopter-parent them to death, something rampant at the tiny pocket playgrounds in our increasingly affluent city surroundings.

So after abandoning our efforts to find anything charming or safe or tolerable at all in suburbia, we drove further south past miles and miles of undeveloped acres and overgrown patches of wildflowers. Eventually, commercial districts began again, and we drove past one gloomy, treeless subdivision after another. When I had lost hope, we finally reached what would become our Valhalla. Sure, it was technically tract housing, but there was a distinctly retro flavor; the houses had shingles and window boxes and were painted in amusing sherbet pastels. White picket fences–plastic ones, but *still*–bordered each and every small lot, and every house was outfitted with a big and welcoming front porch.

There it was: our exurban paradise, on the far fringes outside of the deteriorating suburbs. Access was limited into the neighborhood, with only two or three unwalled entrances and a wide pristine arc of fenced golf course, marked “no trespassing.” Busy rural thoroughfares bordered each edge of this encampment, a thousand houses strong. We drove through and I oohhh’ed and aaahhh’ed at their spotless (if slightly uninviting) new elementary school. I pointed excitedly at the three playgrounds (which oddly all had the exact same play structure installed, an amazingly damning detail I came to find.) There were no privacy fences in sight. There was even a tiny business park with a doctor’s office, hair salon, and cafe. It was clear that every effort had been made to make this a new sort of subdivision: one that hearkened back to times when people could walk to market and school, where neighbors spent time in the evenings on their porches, chatting amiably with passers-by.

Oh, I wanted it. I wanted it BAD.

We moved into the new house over one long weekend. The streets were strangely empty, but as a longtime city dweller I was accustomed to the polite privacy people grant each other in close quarters. The emptiness, however, lingered. No one came to introduce themselves–but to be fair, we didn’t go knocking on anyone’s doors, either. Pristinely-manicured lawns contrasted with ours, which was already growing slightly wild. My husband and I spoke somewhat nervously about the unknown tyrant of the planned development: the HOA. We’d have to buy a lawnmower.

Things it was hard to miss, right away: most people drove their children the half-mile or less to the elementary school. There was never a single person sitting on any of the lovely front porches. We would sit out on ours, while the wind whipped through in that way that it does in rural Texas. We’d see the bright lights from the high school’s football field, and against that, the dark silhouettes of oil derricks on the horizon.

 We were there for months, and we hadn’t yet laid eyes on any of the neighbors on either side of us. When we were home, we often positioned ourselves on the couch that faced out the windows, and beckoned each other excitedly when a car slowed somewhere on the block. We theorized that maybe these sweet houses, so perfect as to be reminiscent of a movie set, housed super-secret meth labs, perfectly and expertly camouflaged. We marveled that we didn’t know anyone’s name on our block, and didn’t even know where to take a letter that had been mis-delivered.

I know we couldn’t have been the only family that took a daily constitutional on the three-mile perimeter that looped the neighborhood, but our forays were so utterly solitary it became downright spooky. The cafe was small, depressing, and also perpetually empty. What was this? The mailboxes were at the curb, we knew people had to walk at least that far. Without any privacy fences we could see into everyone’s back yard, too, but I never spied a vegetable garden.

We hung coir baskets with ferns on the front porch, but they got decimated within days and turned into nests for aggressive bird families. This confounded us until we realized it was because the trees were all small and new, with pliable trunks and bright tender leaves. Nothing could rest on those limbs, no kids could climb them. And then we noticed there were no squirrels, either.

One day I tried to walk to the post office. After I made the circuitous exit from the development, I found myself pushing the double-stroller through knee-high nettles and brush on a busy street with no shoulder to speak of, with drivers slowing to ask if I needed help, and did I know this wasn’t a safe street for walking? We never made the trek again, much less the two-mile journey that would have taken us to the nearest supermarket. To get there would involve crossing a ravine and concrete drainage ditch, as well as a wall of bramble and several sets of foreboding fences.

The children grew weary of the identical playgrounds.

For awhile, my husband and I couldn’t quite make eye contact with each other when we talked about the move we had made. The dam finally broke when our oldest child came home and said kids were saying the president was the antichrist, and that the apocalypse was nigh. Then we began acknowledge that mistakes had been made. We had wanted a place that would give us the things we valued from living center city, such as a vibrant pedestrian-level community. There were kind families there without a doubt, and over the course of the single year we spent there, we did eventually become casually friendly with a few. We always said “howdy” and smiled, as that is the Texas way, and we are nice people.

You know what happened eventually? We had the mother of all yard sales, packed up a UHaul, and drove cross-country to start fresh somewhere entirely new. This time, we picked a crumbling old house in the middle of a small city, across the street from Wild Bill the tattoo artist and Puma the reclusive hippie, next door to Carlos the eccentric fruit hoarder, and on the same block with a mortuary, a pawn shop, a little bodega, and a soup kitchen.Trucks and cars pass us as we sit on our shabby front porch, and swarthy homeless men walk past and ask for change. You can hear live music from the busy nearby park on summer nights. On the day we moved in, the single woman who lives two doors down pushed up her sleeves and went to work unloading the UHaul with us before we even found out her name.

Her name is Heidi.

Reflecting on a Year of Shareable Living


(reprinted from my blog about surviving the recession over at shareable.net)

I’m writing this on Earth Day, 2011. I’ve watered the seedlings in the raised garden beds; the tomato plants have blooms, and the variety of squashes and pole beans are straining upward, still small but impressively strong, with their broad leaves facing toward the sun. Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of this spring, red all the way through, without the slightly-too-tart tang of previous early-season pints. We tried to savor them, to make them last, to appreciate each strawberry for how it’s slightly different from the rest. The way the sparkling flavor and the seeds make it taste almost carbonated, like a festival, a joyous clarion heralding the long sunny days through the power of sensory memory.

even the tween helps with bed-building

even the tween helps with bed-building

Our raised beds are new. We erected them in an unexpected place: atop the concrete pad of our unused driveway. The symbolism was not lost on us.

The other day, an acquaintance posted a status update on Facebook that she was newly car-less, due to a failed transmission where the repair exceeded the cost of the vehicle itself. I added a comment to the thread, something along the lines of “try going intentionally car-free, and see how it feels! It might work for you,” probably followed by a smiling emoticon to make sure she understood I intended no pressure. (I’m sensitive to sounding like a tree-hugging crank.) Immediately after I posted that, though, someone else wrote, “WHATEVER. Living without a car in this age isn’t realistic in ANY WAY, unless of course you’re Amish. But even they have horse-drawn carriages.”

A little over one year ago, we sold our car and embarked on a new phase of our family’s story. Looking back over that year, I’m remembering the freedom we felt at making the decision to liquidate and downsize, to buy ourselves time during a time of financial crisis that had come to a head. It started with just a couple text messages floated in the middle of the day, back and forth with my husband, in which we decided not to replace the car we were selling. “Screw it,” I typed. “I’m thinking we should consider not getting another car at all. Let’s just outfit everyone for biking instead.”  I was surprised when he wrote back, “Tell me more . . . ”

group effort

group effort

There were some hard lessons learned in the early days, straight off. One thing you realize is how important it is to fully plan each day’s outings, making sure you have all equipment and necessities for every task. My husband had to do the six-mile ride between our house and my son’s swimming lessons four times in one day, when he arrived sans swimsuit and towel at the first go-‘round. Ouch. We had a few other debacles that stick out, mostly during the long rainy winter, when there was someplace we had to be, with cold wet miles stretching between us and the destination, and not enough time to make alternate arrangements. I assure you, a rain-soaked skirt clinging to your thighs after getting caught in an unexpected downpour on the way to your oldest child’s choir performance is not an enviable experience.

Our learning curve has been long, not steep. I expected we’d have all this mastered by now, but we still cheerfully fail at every turn, sometimes in fantastic ways. It seems like each lesson squeaks uncomfortably through an opening cluttered with the comforts we once enjoyed. Oh, interesting, we can’t haul home four-foot-long planks of wood on the bike trailers, what now? Hmmm, can’t fit both preschoolers and that fifty-pound bag of chicken feed, I guess I’ll have to make this seven-mile bike ride again, alone next time . . .

Hilda the hen

Hilda the hen

I’ve written a lot about the ways simplifying has brought new color, beauty, and grace to our lives, but the real gift is much harder to put into words, but it is this: the year of strife has opened us to a way of living that is so much more reliant on how intertwined we are with our neighbors and friends. We had some dental and medical crises come up this year also, and because of our situation, we were open to some unconventional arrangements with our caregivers. Our dentist greets us with hugs; her staff has cared for our children for hours on end, with crayons on the floor and the kind of barefoot comfort that feels like family. The dentist hopped into her car between patients and drove me to the endodontist. Just being open with your needs can result in surprisingly-loving connections with those you’d least expect. Our letter-carrier was reluctant to deliver the foreclosure notice she worried would devastate us, and even suggested we not sign for it. The diner owner sent us on our way after a rare meal out, trusting us to return after our debit card got unexpectedly declined (turns out it was a clerical error, whew.)

Once we took the bus to the supermarket, but found out that the bus we had taken to get there was the last bus running that route, and that we’d be stranded. There was a moment of regret and frustration with what seems to be at times a constant barrage of small obstacles, but then relief and comfort when we realized there were literally a half-dozen or more people who would be able to come scoop us up in an instant, whenever needed.

Social resources, for us, have proven more valuable to our lives than financial resources. Or rather, when financial resources are less available, social resources fill in the gap in a more rewarding way, like replacing a missing table leg with a gold-painted cherub holding its arm upright. Instead of finding a lid for the jar, you get a bouquet of flowers to put in it.

apple and pear trees are "blooming most recklessly"

apple and pear trees are “blooming most recklessly”

I don’t mean to overstate the case. What with our landlord’s foreclosure crisis, the scary era when we were waiting for biopsy results, and the thefts we’ve (thankfully, rarely) endured, there have been threats to safety and security coming from every direction. But it is no exaggeration to say that this has been the watershed year of our lives, in the best possible of ways. Things and people have fallen away, but what has taken occupation in exchange has been everything we didn’t know we needed.

The other day, we built new raised beds in our unused driveway. A truck dumped the delivery of beautiful soil into a black and loamy heap on the sidewalk, and neighbors came over with shovels, advice, cold beers, and spare seedlings. We’re all planning for a big harvest trade, maybe a “family” grill-out with all the folks on our ragtag block using the zucchinis soon to come in that charmingly vulgar, over-abundant way that they do. Our chickens have been loud but prolific, and true to the roots of Easter celebrations, there are plenty of eggs for all of us right now.

yep, those are eggs from our hens--undyed!

yep, those are eggs from our hens–undyed!

How I Stopped Worrying And Learned to Love the Dumpster


(reprinted with gratitude from my blog at shareable.net)

Would you climb into this? What if there’s good, organic food for your family within?

Today, I pulled some bags out of a dumpster and dug through them for food, and I plan to do it again. There’s lots of goodness going to waste, and getting what we can use from the castoffs makes a difference for my family while we struggle to cover our grocery bills. And although it marginalizes me, I would rather root through these dumpsters than buy my family the kind of processed, low-quality food that better conforms to our budget.

Two years ago, I was staying in hotels that were so fancy they had subtle “signature fragrance” wafting gently from the air vents. I strode purposefully through airport terminals with my high heels clicking, and pulled my carry-on bag while holding four-dollar coffee drinks. I admired leafy lobbies from glass elevators, and shook hands firmly with company presidents. My fingernails were expertly groomed, my hair elegantly highlighted and bobbed. I could get macadamia nuts and a mimosa from the mini-bar, on company dime. I resisted that most of the time.

The first month of the Great Recession, my commissions from working as a salesperson in the natural products industry were reduced by about two-thirds.  Within six months, I was making one-tenth of my typical income, and ultimately, the companies I represented abandoned the independently-contracted sales rep business model altogether. I scrambled and took what I could get to bring something—anything—into the bank account, but for almost a year, we were forced to live on our savings while we reconfigured.

Some of the skills that served me in my professional incarnation have translated well to a life living on the economic edge: cheerfulness, ability to network, persistence, and being willing to turn over every rock to find the treasure. And surprisingly, it has been a natural evolution to this thing that I’m doing, this sifting through what is rejected as imperfect, in order to take care of my family.

I’ve gotten tips from those who have gone before me: check on the legality of dumpster diving in your town. Bring a box-cutter with you. Tuck your pants into your socks. Try to befriend a store employee for insider information, and you may have to be patient in your searching, as dumpsters that “give” are hard to find. Bring a partner to provide lookout, and a long stick for dragging out treasures. Don’t go behind a closed fence to access a dumpster, leave everything neater than when you arrived, and leave graciously if requested to by a store employee or a cop. Also, you can just ask at most places for day-old bread, no diving required.

Other things to look for in addition to bruised and imperfect produce are just slightly out-of-date packaged foods. Much has been made about the arbitrariness of these expiration dates, and indeed, they are unregulated by the federal government. Terminology is so inconsistent as to be troubling: “best if used by . . . ?”  “sell by . . . ?”  The best rule of thumb is to refrigerate perishables as soon as possible, and utilize your common sense as well as your other senses in order to assess whether something is good to eat. Much of the risk is in deterioration of the quality of the nutrients in food, and less about true acute risk of illness.

Peering through a bag of rejected broccoli from the garbage for signs of brown or yellow patches is something I couldn’t have imagined doing just a few short years ago. Before my work got downsized, I was the kind of consumer who shopped with an eye for quality alone, without much thought to price at all. Back when I made an embarrassingly-good living, my view was that food is underpriced and undervalued in our culture, and that since I could afford it, buying the best was not only good for my family, but good for the farmers and manufacturers. I joined the Facebook page: “I’d Rather Spend More Than Shop at Wal-Mart.” Food, Inc. was my manifesto, and Michael Pollan and Morgan Spurlock my high priests. Nothing entered the house that wasn’t free-trade, free-range, sustainable, grass-fed, organic, or ethically-produced.  Oh, and of course, local if possible. If it could have been blessed by Tibetan monks, I’d probably have opted for that, too.

And now, for the last two years, we’ve been living far below the federal poverty level. We sold our family car, canceled the cable and Internet, and stripped ourselves to the bare minimum of comforts to ride out these tough times. Even with that, we still rely on food stamps and the WIC program to bridge the chasm between our grocery budget and what is actually required to fill the larder. Until our youngest two are in school and I can find some sort of work that’s biking distance, this is our lifeline. Still, it’s nowhere near enough. Food stamps are only sufficient if you feed your kids ramen noodles bought in bulk quantities, cheap meat, Doritos, and non-organic milk. Giant, cheap crates of cereal, not those precious little boxes of flax flakes they sell at Whole Foods. The WIC program allows for a couple of organic and vegan choices, which is astounding progress. However, it’s all just a drop in the bucket for the needs of your average family.

What was once the territory of gutter punks and urban squatters, dumpster diving has become less-taboo for the parental set. One young woman I talked to says she dumpster dives with her mother; it’s become, for them, just another family resource for living a healthy lifestyle. And it’s not just about the free food, it’s about living in a way that’s in harmony with your values—saying “no more” to our culture of conspicuous waste. “I do it in Berkeley,” one diver tells me. “There’s a dumpster here that’s like diving into a big salad.” She took up juicing and eating a mostly raw diet to keep up with the cycle of abundance, not too bad for being “poor.” Others have a cooperative of sorts, where certain gatherers do the diving and then distribute. “Because it needs to be secret,” says Jessica R., “people only share information with close friends and those with whom they share food. I once lived in a household that survived largely off a weekly ‘delivery’ from a nearby store. But only the people who actually went to pick up the food knew where it was, and they wouldn’t tell the rest of us.”

Dumpster diving is just one of the ways the New Poor are trying to survive. There’s also growing your own vegetable garden (food stamps pay for seeds,) and sharing information with your neighbors about local fruit trees (called “gleaning.”) You can trade harvests with each other, and many trees are even on public property. Some communities have informal groups on meetup or craigslist where they share information about local micro-crops. In our Northern California region, you could probably live on blackberries alone in late summer. And I have plucked pomegranates and grapefruit on walks to the park with the babies more times than I can count. We’ve registered our fruit trees at neighborhoodfruit.com, so that our harvest is available to share, and so that we might reap part of someone else’s.

I search for deals on healthy food. I spend a lot more time searching through Costco, where you can get a gargantuan box of organic raw spinach for three bucks or so, as well as apocalypse-sized bags of organic brown rice and steel-cut oats. It’s easy to preach against big-box stores and faux-organic agri-business when your family has plenty of food money, but when times are very lean, you have to make some hard choices. Though we used to get CSA delivery, we had to give it up due to the precipitous cost and the fact that we couldn’t use our food stamps to pay for it. We were also practicing vegans for awhile, but have let that go as well, in favor of what we can get more cheaply. My rationale is that, at least, most of what we bring in is fairly wholesome and minimally-processed. Well, okay, except for the Cheerios and government cheese.

There is a strange sort of shame in wanting the best when you have so little allotted for your family’s needs. I’ve talked to so many moms who’ve suffered reproving looks or even disparaging comments when they’re buying organic, high-quality food using a food stamp card. The judgment being made is this: how dare you opt for quality over quantity? How dare you want better food even if it means less food for your family? I think a lot of people want to see us cliché Whole Foods snobs get our comeuppance, now that the economic downturn has leveled the living standards playing field. They want to witness us realize that the way we’ve been eating is an elitist luxury, and that, indeed, it’s not feasible for a family that’s struggling financially to make these ecological, ethical, and political choices with our grocery shopping. I know that I was raised by parents who roll their eyes at what they perceive as organic snobbery, and that my years as a strict vegetarian were seen as youthful arrogance.

And I’m late to this party: there are communities, websites, and documentaries on the subject: notably, Dive! by filmmaker Jeremy Seifert, which has won accolades in scores of film fests and green events. Jeremy says, “Experience that initial rush, shame, fear, and exhilaration of ‘stealing’ trash and eating it will change you in good ways.” In an NPR interview, Seifert asserts, “if you Dumpster dive and actually eat trash, it becomes normal for you.” Waste is built into the food chain at all levels, so there is a connection to issues related to pollution, soil depletion, pesticide abuse, and utilization of fossil fuels. Put it all together, and, says Seifert, “the devastation to the environment is immense.” In a short, entertaining forty-five minutes, Dive! also points out some hard realities regarding the shameful waste of over 96 billion pounds of food every year in the US, while so many families go hungry in our communities.

Today I was thwarted in my searching through a usually abundant dumpster by the addition of landscape compost on top of the normal refuse. This particular dumpster is beyond disgusting, make no mistake. It takes psychological coaching to overcome the streaks of grunge and rust that coats the walls. I wear gloves and change clothes the moment I get home, leave my boots outside, and scrub my hands thoroughly.

For me, there was a gradual shift to what I found embarrassing as I went from being affluent to being poor. Of course there’s the waiting in government offices and applying for food programs, taking the bus, and shopping only at thrift stores. Many of us are sharing these experiences as we slide down through this Great Recession (oh, wait, isn’t it supposed to be over?)  But still, obtaining food from a dumpster is a radicalizing act, and I was excited to take that step. Our family has used this time to reassess our values, and I think we’ve been doing a better job teaching our kids to question our culture of waste and over-consumption. Much of the last two years has been about regaining perspective on our own family’s wasteful habits, and at how we took abundance for granted. You can make all kinds of politically-correct choices with what you choose to buy, but it’s the buying itself that is such a big part of the problem. Feeling hungry has been motivating, and humbling. Having the chance to learn about and talk with “freegans” made me more comfortable with crossing the taboo of scavenging for food.

My favorite dumpster today yielded a small haul: organic, fresh basil in a sealed package, and a bag of organic gala apples that was open at the top, but otherwise in perfect shape. I pull it out and head for home. I keep a brown paper grocery bag with me for hauling it in my bicycle basket. I investigate everything for evidence of bugs, mold, or spoilage. I arrange the produce in an attractive pile in the refrigerator crisper.

I’m hoping that, ultimately, I can gather enough extra food to donate some to the homeless people who frequent our neighborhood.  We live in a little square of paradise bordered by the rail yards, a large shady park with welcoming benches, a greenbelt that runs along a creek with well-concealed homeless encampments, and a Salvation Army that provides food bank groceries, showers, and hot meals for those who are down-on-their-luck.  But what I’ve seen from this nearby food bank is all highly-processed, nutrient-poor, low quality boxed and canned goods.  We have pear-, apple-, and orange trees in our yard, and I bring bags of extras to the park; sometimes I leave them the grass near a sleeping body. There’s just so much.

Why can’t we gather and redistribute to those around us? Grocers should be taken to task for throwing anything fresh or high-quality into the dumpster. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that President Clinton signed into law in 1996 was designed to relieve grocers of liability for any incidental harm that may come from sharing their food waste. I’ve printed a copy of it, I’m carrying it with me from now on, and I’m tempted to gently confront store management if I start noticing abundance in the dumpsters near us. I feel like I just might be waking up to true food activism: beyond the “locavore” movement, past Monsanto’s crimes and the battles for organic standards, there is the reality that our garbage cans are full of good food, while people—families, children—go hungry.

It’s been a long, humbling road from driving my gorgeous, silver, piously “fuel-efficient” SUV with the leather seats and satellite radio, parking at fancy grocery stores and spending three hundred dollars on a cart full of provisions, the most exalted groceries money can buy. I’d toss in ingredients to make the world’s most rarified smoothie out of acai and goji berries, frozen wheatgrass juice, hemp seeds, a three-dollar organic peach, and raw cacao nibs. I thought I was voting with my dollar. I’m starting to realize that taking the dollar out of the equation altogether might be a better solution. Now I bike around to the back of those stores, and pull out from their trash what we can make use of. What might be useable to someone else, I take out and carefully place it alongside the dumpster. I have to be alert so as not to run into a raccoon or an angry store employee. And I pedal back home to my family.

Rainy Day Tribal Parenting


(originally published as part of my ongoing blog of surviving the great recession, on shareable.net . . . with love and gratitude to Jeremy Smith and Neal Gorenflo.)

Corbyn’s oldest daughter has three mommies and one daddy. All photos of Corbyn’s kids by In Her Image Photography.

One evening last week, we rode our bikes in a long caravan to an open house at my oldest daughter’s school: me, my husband, my ex-partner Mimi, her partner Patty–and all three of our children.

Somewhere along the way, what had initially been a light sprinkle turned into an insistent rain-shower. We didn’t lose momentum; our pack kept making its way over railroad tracks and through puddles, without slowing or sharing concerned glances. It’s just rain. We interact with weather so much more, traveling this way, and who cares if we arrive soaked? It’s freeing, living at the margins–when you’ve stepped away from some of the busy-making currents and you find yourself apart from the others, squatting in the tidepools, holding something and regarding it curiously.

I am doing a better job parenting, now that we have let go of so much. There was an intensity to our days when business travel often took me far away from my children, and when our downtime was divided over the seductive demands of television, Internet, commerce commerce commerce. Others do it better than I did, I’m sure.

We don’t make clean breaks; our parenting is messy, as with our haphazard style of co-sleeping (every combination, sometimes several different iterations in one night, especially the kind of nights when fans are whirring, and blankets are kicked off in the swelter). Now the days take on a framework defined by things like the wilting garden plants that need our attention, and the warmth of the slides at the playground and whether they will burn your bottom and if we should wait ’til the shadows grow longer.

That rainy night at the elementary school open house, we made a tribal appearance–for my ex-partner Mimi is the other mother of my oldest child, Rainer. Mimi and her partner Patty live a half-mile away, and it is they who facilitated our relocation from Texas to California in the midst of our recession-driven crisis.

We had been sharing custody of Rainer for five years, trading off school years, summers, and major holidays. When things came to a head financially and professionally, we joined forces, sold off some belongings, rented trucks, and made it out here to ride out the crisis and, also, to unite Rainer’s caregivers. (Patty has lived here all her life, and Mimi and I have an amazing network of support here as well.)

The agreement was always that we are in this together, and that our broken and vulnerable contingent would find strength and security in the tribe. Since that union was forged, more jobs were lost–and gained–but we weather those storms as a group, and not alone anymore. If one has a bill that cannot be paid, another is there to find spare change under couch cushions.

My husband and I have two children of our own. They belong to Mimi and Patty as well, now. They insist on seeing each other, loving each other, being a family . . . even when the bonds and tangles become too sticky for us grownups, making us retreat to our separate corners. We spend all holidays together, and since no one we know can afford to fly anywhere to visit relatives these days, we have begun to form our own traditions. Doing the charity 3K run for hunger on Thanksgiving felt that way: all seven of us, trading stroller duty and snapping photos in our matching shirts.

For awhile, there was the default arrangement of group dinners on Sunday evenings, but that faded in favor of a more relaxed approach, and now we get together when it works, though our efforts as parents are negotiated on a near-daily basis. No matter how evolved the relationships, the communications in regards to coparenting are high-intensity, with a lot at stake. Care is taken, words are chosen wisely.

There’s little separation between households; we are reliant on each other in ways that are complicated and demanding. Add to that a little girl who is entering the morass of puberty and middle school, and, well, let’s just say I am thankful there are four of us, ever vigilant, passing the baton and trading duties.

I was a single mom once, briefly, long ago. I remember the stress of our insular world, the house of cards I built every day to do this, by myself, balancing and trying to breathe and knowing I could never be at ease or unfurrow my brow. I can’t imagine that, now.

That evening, we bicycled in a row across the miles in the rain, and I could see all my children, and they were happy, muddy, wet, and safe.

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