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 Going Green: One family’s journey towards Harmonious Seasonality#14

EnvironmentVol. I, issue 14: Suppertime
by Sherian Valenti

It is what it is and will be only what you make of it. Such is the beginning of my ode to the power of positive thinking and pure potential. It is the “what you make of it” part that I am working on this week.

School will be back in session in a few days, and in preparation for it, I have arranged my children’s violin lessons and dance classes, and prepared an outline of activities for my Girl Scout troop. I have not yet contacted my son’s football coach for this season’s schedule, but doing so is next on my list. As I have been very busy with all of this, spending hours on the phone and at the computer and attending organizational meetings, I am seeing a bump on my road Harmonious Seasonality: in order to meet both my sustainability goals and my commitments to my children’s cultural education, detailed planning and preparation are necessary, yet this hour-by-hour planning and preparation, otherwise known as scheduling, runs contrary to the natural flow and rhythms of the seasons with which I am trying to align myself. On one hand I am ready to agree that all the sports teams, music lessons, dance classes, art classes, and other after-school activities are simply too much, but on the other hand, I am ready to defend them as absolutely essential. How can we as parents achieve balance and moderation yet still maximize what in some cases is at best a marginal opportunity? ....

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The answer is perhaps in the old idea that if you do what you love, then what you do is not work.

Each year at this time I make up a general “schedule” of what needs to be accomplished each day of the week. Classes, lessons, sporting events, grocery shopping, house cleaning, bread baking, laundry, and bill paying each get assigned a time which ideally will be devoted to only that one activity. But since I am not naturally inclined to view routine as a good thing, and because I have learned from experience that schedules are very difficult to maintain, I create more of a “time budget” than a “schedule.” I even budget time for reading, for if I don’t get to spend some time reading each week I become very cranky. Yet despite the flexibility I think I have built into our plans, I consistently fail to keep to my “time budget” because although the classes and the lessons keep to their regular intervals, it takes only one unexpected visit from a friend or a particularly long, particularly interesting article online or a late day at work to throw the whole thing out of whack.

In my life, everything rests on suppertime. Our entire lives revolve around what I put on the dinner table and where it has come from. As a mother and as an individual passionate about sustainability, I know that the health and wellbeing of my children is inextricably linked to the health and wellbeing of our environment. Our strength, our health, and our future all rely on my choice of what to serve for supper. When I am doing the grocery shopping, I want to buy all-natural foods, without preservatives and chemicals and artificial colors or flavors that have not been modified from their naturally-occurring state. I want to buy whole grains and fresh vegetables and foods that are pure and natural and sustainably produced. I want these foods to be locally grown and minimally processed and packaged, and I insist that they be so. I am adamant about this, and I am becoming increasingly demanding in my standards as I learn more about commercial practices. But in being so, I complicate my daily life by removing from it most conveniences and shortcuts, as environmentally sustainable methods generally are more labor intensive and time consuming than their technologically advanced counterparts. And because I believe equally as passionately in the arts and the importance of being surrounded by beauty as I do in protecting our natural resources, I make sure that my children are involved in music and dance and art so that I feed their souls as well as their bodies, thus making better people yet further complicating our days.

It takes longer to walk to the store than it does to drive. It takes longer to bake bread than it does to buy it. Correlatively, however, I feel better when I have walked to the store rather than driven, and I am more satisfied when I have baked bread rather than bought it. The reward is greater than the effort, so I persevere, yet to make sure that we are on time for the dance class and the violin lesson, I need to make sure that the bread is baked in time to make the sandwiches and that the lunches are packed before the bus comes and that supper will be ready on time so that homework can be done and dishes washed so that we can get to bed on time so that we can get up on time the next morning so that the lunches are packed again and we can continue the cycle. But in a world of such extreme time pressure and obligation, one missed deadline, one day working late, one cold, driving rain, one migraine, or one spontaneously joyful event can throw the whole system into chaos, how can it all be managed?

It is what it is, but it will be only what you make of it.

Your son plays soccer. Does he do this because he wants to, or because you want him to? It is good exercise, it gets him outside, teaches him teamwork, builds social networks; there are many good reasons to play soccer. But does he play soccer because his friend enjoys it or because you tell him now it is time to go to soccer practice? Is he truly gaining the benefits of playing soccer which you reasonably assume he is? For as many great reasons as there are to play soccer, there are as many invalid reasons, and the theoretical benefits may not be realized in actuality. Your daughter takes piano lessons. Does she take piano lessons because you did, or perhaps because you didn’t get to take them when you were her age? Does she love playing the piano, or do you value the ability to play the piano? I am the first one to encourage piano playing, but only if the player loves playing.

Why do we make the commitments we do? What motivates us to enter into obligations? When we know that our children are only as healthy as their environments, and when we know that over-committing ourselves increases our use of natural resources (through increased use of gasoline, increased vehicle emissions, and other types of pollution), lowers our nutritional standards (by not allowing us sufficient time to cook nutritious meals and the corresponding reliance on fast and convenience foods), and contributes to sleep deprivation (by having to stay up late to do homework, chores, or other work after having finished the extra-curricular activity). The reward must be greater than the effort and the sacrifice in order to make the obligation worthwhile. When making commitments, we cannot do so just because that is what we do: we must make our choices with the knowledge of which shores the ripples from our wake will affect.

We could spend all our time discussing our priorities, but if we do not act on those priorities, what use is having determined them? You need a house to live in. In order to have a house, you have to have a job. In order to have a job you need to have a car. In order to keep the car running, you need to buy gasoline. Gasoline is expensive, so you need to have more money. But in order to have more money, you need to work more. This gives you less time and energy to cook dinner. You spend less time cooking dinner and rely more on convenience foods, but you don’t feel as well after eating them, so you have even less energy, and because you are working less efficiently, you need to need to work even more to make up for your inefficiency, so you become even more tired and begin taking ever more shortcuts, and each thing in its turn slides a little more off center, and soon it is no longer a cycle but a spiral.

I can think of a dozen more ways to explain it, a dozen common scenarios to exemplify it and forecast doom and despair, but it all comes down to the same thing: cook dinner from wholesome, natural ingredients, not a package claiming to contain wholesome, natural ingredients (or worse, a package that makes no such claim!), and nourish your soul as well as your body, and you will be less driven to consume resources and you too will be on the path to sustainability.

I fervently believe this. That dinner is the pivotal point in the success of our lives is an inescapable conclusion. And fortunately for me, I like to cook. I find both joy and satisfaction in it, but there are days when I am tired and it is late and I don’t want to cook. On these days what would I say to the person who does not like to cook, who is inexperienced in the kitchen and therefore feels incapable of cooking the meals which I am advocating as the panacea for all our social and environmental ills? What do I say? I can make this argument suit any occasion, and I can advocate simplifying life and reducing demands and slowing down, but this still will not make a person enjoy cooking, and if someone really does not enjoy cooking, what can I say to change that? If your daughter doesn’t like to play the piano or your son doesn’t like to play soccer, I would say don’t make them, yet I want every parent in the world to cook supper much the way I do, even knowing that I don’t always want to do it.

It is here that the brilliance of Harmonious Seasonality reciprocates by giving back to you greater than what you have given to it. This is where spontaneity becomes the welcome break in the continuous grind of the daily schedule. If one night this fall you arrive home tired and late, and there are no leftovers in the refrigerator, and you really do not want to cook supper (and who would at this point?), a spontaneous picnic supper on a blanket on the living room floor (without the television!!) of cheese sandwiches on wholegrain bread with carrot sticks and apples makes a fine, simple meal and diverts the anxiety and pressure of the day. If it is late summer and the general summer disorganization and the heat put you off cooking, cucumbers, corn on the cob, and tomatoes make a fine meal with minimal effort. It is as though you are serving summer on a plate, eating all the warmth and color of the season. Nourish the soul as well as the body.

It is what it is, but will be only what you make of it. When you are tired and don’t want to do what must be done, do the unexpected, change the focus. Sing and dance while you cook. Talk to someone you love while you cook. Invite the neighbors. Let your children do the cooking, even if it means having toast with peanut butter for supper. Eat on the lawn or in bed or in a tent in the living room. Living in Harmonious Seasonality means not only doing what is right for the environment, but what is right for the moment. Lives may hinge on dinner, but dinner doesn’t have to be highly structured and regulated to be wholesome and nutritious and environmentally sustainable. Living in Harmonious Seasonality allows you to step out of your routine and enjoy the life you are working so hard to extend. Nourish your soul, and your body will in turn be nourished through love and affection and joy.

I am not so naïve as to think that this is as easily said as done, but spontaneity and creativity cannot be subsumed by commitment and obligation. I plan on making enough supper on Tuesdays so that we will have delicious leftovers ready and waiting to be eaten on Wednesdays after our Girl Scout meetings, but if I can’t always manage it, I will not fret this year when we have an egg sandwich on a picnic blanket instead. As I structure our time, I will make sure that souls are as well-nourished as our bodies, secure in the knowledge that sometimes the same meal will serve both.




Copyright 2006, Sherian Valenti

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