Why Should You Care?

The unyielding darkness has started to seep into the Northern Hemisphere. Abbreviated sunlight in November has always affected my mood, challenging my natural buoyancy by the stagger and sway of light deprivation. And this year we have an additional force to reckon with: a metaphorical shadowy veil that has been draped across our world.

Even in these pitch dark moments I see opportunity. We have a chance to stand brightly in the darkness and call out all for which we stand: peace, love, joy, beauty, grace, wisdom. The sanctity of life remains untouched for our willpower and minds remain free, even if we feel shackled by political, environmental, social, cultural and economic realities. We can make a difference. Show up for what you believe in in a non-violent, loving way. Others will notice and may be encouraged to do the same.

Self-care is especially vital when we feel this vulnerable. My hot water bottle has become my trusty companion, feeling its warmth on my lap as I type words and phrases and lines, sometimes blurred by distraction and an urge to check in on the world to see if it’s alright.

My sister graciously shared her strategy for comfort. A shower and a nap are the best remedies for sorrow. With gratitude she feels the spray of instant warm water that she knows so many in this world do not have. A mid-day respite, bowing to the altar of Slow, reenergizes the fuzziness and frayed edges. Jumpiness is replaced by a Zen-like calm and we return to that greater part of ourselves that knows this too shall pass.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, to quote REM, but it is not the end of the world. Apocalyptic thoughts leave no room for positive ones.

If you are struggling with how best to care for yourself, consider this:

  • Switch off the noise – both internal and external. Surrender to your need for rest when you require it.
  • Minimize your exposure to online vitriol. It won’t help you, but will only serve to fuel confusion, wrath and disconnection.
  • Eat vitamin-rich food. Especially now as the sun quickly genuflects to the horizon, Vitamin D is essential. Ensure you get natural sunlight. Compensate with supplements if you cannot.
  • Connect with others. Isolation feeds insanity. Gather your tribe.
  • Hug more often.
  • Watch a comedy. Laughter heals.
  • Express love and gratitude.
  • Respect our differences. Remember that you may appear as foreign to someone else.
  • Create a safe environment for dialogue with people you meet.

Why should you care? Because you can. Because you do. Because caring for self is the first step in caring for others. The opposite of love is indifference. Recent events have shown we are not indifferent, although we may feel powerless. Your power begins within you. Embrace the power of Slow. The result of its force is mightier than any politician on the planet.

Capturing those Fifty Bits

The slant of morning light tells me fall will be awakening soon. The dusting of leaves on the city sidewalks layer over the summer’s heat. A gust of wind sweeps them skyward as a crow calls over the sun-scorched meadow.

It has been a fun-filled summer and although it is not over yet, I can feel the urge to brace myself for the darkness that will come.

It always does.

Perhaps it is the wisdom of my years that has settled in, but I have started taking things for granted less and appreciating the moment more. A soft afternoon with my life partner’s aging mother. Laughter in the kitchen with my teenaged children. Drawing boundaries. Saying no here. Saying yes there. Capturing the essence of life in the here and now so that when darkness descends, I will have the rich memories of days filled with light and delight.

Living off the racetrack makes paying attention easier. As a result, I have experienced the most marvelous things. Throughout my wanderings this summer, I stumbled upon a delightful book whose American author, Bob Nease, happens to live on a vineyard in Italy. With my commitment to Slow, I would have preferred a week-long interview at said vineyard, to which he invited me. Given other commitments, we opted for an email exchange instead.

He kindly sent me — upon my request — his latest book, The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results. It is based on a simple premise: the human brain processes millions of bits of information at every moment, but only fifty of those bits seep into our awareness. In fact, he claims, our brains are wired for inattention and inertia. With our limited ability to pay attention, we may harbor good intentions but because we are most often on autopilot, we don’t act upon them.

Anyone who signs up for a year-long gym membership come January 1 knows what I’m talking about. We want to live better lives. Then we do what we always do with little effort to really change things. That is, unless you have a pain point so strong, you simply have to take action. Or the other option seems more appealing.

Trained as a medical professional with a large dose of engineering who worked for years at Express Scripts, Bob has designed ways to out trick our wiring to make the better option the more convenient one – or at least the more obvious choice based on our ever-slacking attention span. He offers all kinds of engineery-type arguments, most of which are extremely amusing. I found myself trying really hard to pay attention to his logical thinking. Sometimes I failed because although his writing is clear and very well thought out, I was more aware of not being aware than of comprehending what he was saying. I may have to gather my fifty bits and give the book another read because I do think what he has to say is extremely important. I have managed to make it palatable to a handful of friends. The book itself came up in conversation so much that I found myself quoting from it nearly every day.

Therein lies the lesson. We cannot cruise through life without mindfulness. It’s a richer one when we pay attention -or at least try to. And even if we don’t always understand what is happening, what others are saying or what we ourselves are doing, there are ways to improve our thinking and actions. And to cherish the moment. Right here. Right now. With every bit available to us.

Driven to Distraction

Back in my high school days, my pokey Chemistry teacher doubled as our driver’s ed instructor. Clipboard in hand, side hairs carefully placed over his balding orb, he would patiently smile, take a deep breath and invite two students at a time to drive him first around the parking lot, then around town, then on the highway. I’ll never forget his paternal tenor as he gently reminded us to “keep both hands on the wheel.” It never would have occurred to him to say “and both eyes, too.”

But today, instructors everywhere will have to remind their students of much more than the 1o-and-2 rule (left hand at 10 o’clock; right hand at 2). The automobile industry has started placing infotainment centers in the dashboards of their cars so people can remain connected even when they are on the road.

Um. Who thinks being able to Google while clocking 80 on the speedometer is a good idea?

I’d dare say no one.

According to a recent AAA study, people who played around with their in-car infotainment systems were distracted up to 27 seconds – even after they placed their attention back on the road. The study suggests that “just because a driver terminates a call or music selection doesn’t mean they are no longer impaired — impairment lingered up to 27 seconds after a task was completed.” Our cognitive ability is hindered even if we chat hands-free on our mobile devices.

Major automobile companies believe they are giving consumers what they want. In truth, they are. But what we want may not necessarily be good for us. Hyper-connectivity doesn’t lead to safer roads. It leads to distracted driving and ensures that one of the major causes of death in the United States remains automobile accidents.

One day we will have pervasive wireless access on airplanes too. My only hope is the pilot stays offline. With both hands on the wheel and eyes on the sky without a television to info-tain him during long-haul flights.

Are you with me on this one?

 

The Rise of Fast Fashion and the Demise of Humanity

Andrew Morgan set out to tell a simple story. He wanted to talk about our clothing, what exactly we wear, what it says about us and its impact on our world. At first glance, you might think his film THE TRUE COST is about anorexia as he shows paper-thin models getting ready for photo shoots and fashion jobs. But very quickly the viewer realizes the film tells a much broader tale about how just a few brand names have dictated how fast the clothing industry runs today.

TC_logo_WoPBefore watching the film, I had never heard of the term fast fashion. And yet it is an industry that touches every part of our lives the world over.

In the last decade, the clothing industry has changed dramatically. As late as the 1960s, 95% of our clothing was made in the US. Today 97% is outsourced to developing countries, made by human hands at a fraction of the price it used to be. The price of clothing has dropped significantly, while the cost of producing the clothes has increased. Who pays for the price suppression? The people who make the clothing. The sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, for instance, make just $3 per day in unsafe working conditions. It is appalling.

Why has the clothing industry gotten so fast? And what is fast fashion after all? What used to be an industry based on cycles like Nature itself – with the introduction of winter/fall and spring/summer collections, the fashion industry now produces new styles on a weekly basis. Large brands have identified our insatiable desire for stuff.  In a recent Skype interview, Andrew told me, “We live in a consumer-driven, very fast-paced world. The rate of acceleration is startling. Change at that pace means a lot of things and people fall through the cracks.”

Clothing – made from cheaper and cheaper materials – gets tossed aside or virtually thrown out at such ridiculously low prices that it is impossible for other companies to compete at higher, more realistic prices. The result is a run toward the cheapest labor possible to ensure costs remain in check and profits remain high.

But at what cost? Andrew says his film is meant to address the disconnection that globalization has created in our world today. “I read an article about Rana Plaza (the deadliest garment factory accident in history). I asked myself how is it possible that I am not aware of the origin of my clothes? THE TRUE COST started out as a film that impacts human beings and the environment. It kept expanding as I started to see the interdependencies. It is about understanding the intersection between the psychology, economics and lack of regulation in the fashion industry. There is a profound set of questions about the state of human beings in 2016. What does it mean to live in a world of outsourcing the production of our things?”

Out of sight, out of mind – that is the issue with fast fashion. We don’t see the laborers – often separated from their families as they work endless hours for extremely low wages in buildings that crack, collapse and kill, such as the Rana Plaza tragedy that claimed over 1,000 lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. And if we hear about it, we quickly experience compassion fatigue. How could we possibly make a difference in those people’s lives? They are so very far away.

But the film raises other issues as well. Most harrowing perhaps is the environmental impact of our greed for something new in our closet every week. The lack of environmental regulation in India, for instance, is allowing poisons to be dumped into the Ganges River. The impact of pesticides on the cotton fields of Northern Texas is another example.

Here are some statistics to put things into perspective:

  • Each year we purchase 80 billion pieces of clothing.
  • That equals 400% more than the amount of clothing we bought just two decades ago.
  • The average American discards 82 pounds of textile waste annually, which translates to 11 million tons of textile waste from the US alone. Most of this waste is non-biodegradable, sitting in landfills for 200 years or more while releasing harmful gases. Where does the disposed clothing go? You guessed it. Oftentimes it lands up back in the developing nations who produced the clothing in the first place.

This topic may seem overwhelming. And it is. But what I learned from Andrew’s film and my conversation with him afterwards is that we can make a difference. It is not about boycotting products made in Bangladesh or other developing nations in which working conditions are less than ideal. It is about shaping our behavior and the story we tell ourselves in a different way. It is about redirecting our consciousness to a different level. Pretty soon, as we begin to examine our choices more closely, we start to shift our perspective. Little things such as using cloth shopping bags instead of accumulating plastic ones in the back of our pantry or utilizing rechargeable batteries instead of buying new ones every time start to impact our world in positive ways.

When we go shopping, we can ask ourselves, “Do I really need this item? Do I love it? Will I take care of it for a really long time? Is it of high quality and will it last? Can I repurpose it if needed?” Sustainable shopping can go a long way in combatting the issues Andrew addresses in his film. Consumers do not have to buy products created under unconscionable conditions. If there is less demand, things will have to change toward a more positive end.

The US economy is based on expansion. But it’s like a balloon. At one point, it will pop because endless expansion is physically not possible (even the Universe will stop expanding one day). The truth is we have grown up in a role as consumers, which is actually very disempowering for the individuals. According to Andrew, it has made it easy to have an apathetic life. Born into so much privilege, we have an enormous amount of influence on how the world is shaped. Tragically, we do not have the sense of responsibility that goes with that influence.

We need to start asking ourselves a simple question, one that informs everything about us. “What are the choices I am making?” As The Power of Slow suggests, your life is a compilation of the choices you make. If you have been living in a story that you are bystander, watching history unfold, it is time to reclaim the field for yourself. For the good of your life. For the good of your children’s.

“I want to inspire people to hope-filled action,” Andrew says. “The greatest lie of all is that you can’t contribute. You can’t separate things. This is not just about clothes. It’s about greed and power and fear. Who is telling the story, to what end and to what end is that story being embraced? How was it ever deemed okay that the prosperity of a few can be built on the suffering of so many others?”

It is a very good question indeed. Andrew wishes to invite us all into a bigger story. A better one in which fashion is not fast, but decelerated to a sustainable pace in which everyone gets what they need.

It is time to stand up to the lies we have been told, that somehow happiness can be purchased – often at a discounted price. Happiness can’t be bought, despite the messages we see every day claiming otherwise. In a recent TedX talk, Harvard professor Robert Waldinger, the head of the longest study on happiness in history, states the secret to happiness, regardless of socioeconomic status, has been found to be connection with other people. Love, not stuff, is the answer.

Love starts with the choices we make for ourselves and – ultimately – for the world we wish to live in. What step can you take today to move toward a better world?

Expectation Management and the Crush of Instant Everything

Disappointment comes from the mind, forgiveness from the heart. When faced with frustrating — and frustrated — reactions, my instinct is to run for cover. I have to fight it like a wasp at a beer garden. Chasing away the feeling of dis-ease isn’t easy. Nor is it really possible. The more I push, the deeper the feeling entrenches itself in my very being. It’s like getting lost in a labyrinth with no conceivable way out.

The only thing left to do in moments when the world seems to be speaking a different language than yours is to sit with it. Allowing for bad feelings takes away their power. Fighting them simply feeds it.

When I first learned German, I had to learn how to be comfortable with not really knowing what was going on, what people where saying or what might happen next. It has been a life lesson to remain centered without proper information. And when you get false information or misinterpreted data, that’s when things can really fall apart. Add to it someone else’s blame or lack of understanding and it starts to sting like a bee.

We have so many ways of communicating today – now more than ever. And yet the quality of that communication has been replaced with fast and furious texting, emails and instant messages. I don’t know about you, but I’m not made for this instant world. Instant, in many cases, has taken the place of intimacy.

Speaking to the God within everyone is my intention. Sometimes I fail. Miserably. My ego lashes out; feelings get hurt (including my own) and I start to wonder how I got to this place. My best friend then reminds me that I too am a perfectionist, albeit a reluctant one. If I could just ease up those expectations for a moment, things would be a lot easier. But then she reminds me that that is who I am and why I get to live the way I do. I never stop questioning, even when I sometimes don’t really want to hear the answer.

“It is a privilege to live out who you really are,” she advised.

I think it is a necessity.

Slow is where I am meant to be and having recently listened to a number of people feeling the crush of instant everything, it may soon be a world that more people join too.

The Appreciation of Depreciation

Nothing measures the passage of time more than watching children grow. Or trees that suddenly shoot up to the sky. Or cars that have served you well that suddenly show signs of aging.

My loyal sports car has a few rough edges now. It failed to pass inspection, showing its depreciated value for the first time since I bought it seven years ago.

“It’s time to invest in your lifestyle,” my love said.

He is right.

I naively thought I might be able to replace my car with another one for a reasonable price. The car dealer suppressed a laugh.

“Ma’am. I don’t think so.”

I could almost hear my sports car sighing with relief when I decided it was time to put some money into repairing it back to health.

Car repairs stress me out. It’s beyond my comfort zone (and I’m used to a certain level of uncertainty. It’s the basis of my entire career!) But there is something about motor oil and grease and loud banging noises that throw me off balance. So I asked my love to escort me to the repair shop for a consultation. He nodded, hmmm’ed and made other sounds of affirmation as the mechanic rattled off the things I’d need to make Herman (yes, that’s my car’s name) well again.

It’s amazing what happens when you’re in distress like that. The mechanic agreed to work with me on the price and the timing. He really wanted to help me. I was astounded by his generosity. And grateful for giving my car what it needs.

Whenever things break down, whether it’s a car, device or household gadget, there is always opportunity to look behind the curtain to discover the remarkable people who will come to your aid. Or the experience of not having that thing work and what it feels like when you are without it.

We are so accustomed to everything functioning as we want it to, including ourselves. And when things — and other people – don’t act as we wish them to, it’s a chance to examine our own expectations.

Life is full of mystery. And I have gained a new appreciation for the depreciation of things. How else would we see the magic lurking just beneath the surface of All That Is?

 

 

 

The Frenzy of Immediacy

Ping. Click. Bing. Bloop. Blip. Huuuuuunnnn!

How often do you hear these sounds on an average day? And each time you do, your attention is pulled away from what you are doing to what someone else wants you to know.

Parenting in a digital world is a lot different than the pre-digital age of raising kids. You can’t get away from the demands as easily. In fact, you are on your guard 24/7, thanks to smartphones and other devices.

Just recently, my teenage son discovered the power of pissing Mom off by simply sending an evocative text message claiming this thing or that — because he wanted things a different way after all. Falling prey to the frenzy of immediacy, I would give him a reaction every time. I thought I was being a good, attentive mother, addressing my son’s needs, responding with discipline or reward, depending on the circumstances. But then, just this afternoon, as another ping, whirl, bing message hit my iPhone’s screen, I realized I didn’t have to give in to the temptation to give a reaction at all to my son’s complaining that he didn’t want to go to tutoring, despite our agreement this morning (and last night — and last week!) that he would. I could remain silent, not pay attention, ignore him. Just this once.

I realized what I had done all these months. With my immediate responses, cajoling, explaining, reacting, I had filled the space where his conscience should be. He didn’t have a chance to listen to his inner voice because it was replaced by my own. So I waited to see if he would indeed hear it. Within four minutes, he sent a third and final message that agreed he would go to tutoring after all. Even though he felt he didn’t need it.

He had been given time to review the countless conversations we had had about the importance of being your word. Of doing what you say you are going to do. To do things that are right, even if they are sometimes uncomfortable.

In our modern, gadget-saturated world it is tempting to react to every little message that crosses our path. It’s exhausting. And unnecessary. Sometimes sleeping on it is better. Looking at things with fresh eyes, instead of frenzied ones, can reveal the truth behind the situation. But what we need — above all else — is to give ourselves the time to digest what is truly important.

In a world drenched with information, silence is golden – more often than we think.

Junk in the Trunk

According to United Nations University, the world created 41.8 million tons of electro-trash last year. Who was at the top of the list?

The United States: A whopping 7.1 million tons of old computers, laptops, smartphones, television sets and more stemmed from US households in 2014 alone. The study argues that, per capita, the US created less junk (22.1 kg per person) than the UK (23.5 kg per person). But if we were to take that argument, Australia would be up there with them (20 kg per person, but with “only” 500,000 tons of electro-trash). And China, that behemoth of electronic gadget manufacturing, tosses 6 million tons a year out the window. With 1.4 billion people, China’s average drops to 4.4 kg per person.
Infografik: Jeder Deutsche produziert 21,6  kg Elektroschrott im Jahr | Statista

More statistics (in German) at Statista

The statistics are distressing for many reasons. Our behavior is not only bad for the environment, but it also presents a broader issue of our relentless consumption for All Things Gadget-Like. At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I pine for the days when the only video games we could play were at an arcade. When your quarters ran out, you were done. Today we are on a never-ending cycle of data transfer from thumb to brain and back again.

I am just as guilty as the rest. My old PC is gathering dust in the corner. Should I sell it? Would anyone take it? Could I donate it to someone?

US-based charity organizations are emerging to handle some of the electro-trash we create. Hope Phones is a charity that safely recycles your phone to fund healthcare programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Phones4Charity is another organization that works with affiliate groups to donate cell phones for good. In Europe the European Recycling Platform helps organize compliance and recycling efforts for electro-trash and more.

So it’s not all doom and gloom. A lot has been done to reduce our electronic footprint on the Earth. But a lot more can be done. Recycle your stuff. Mindfully remove all that junk from the trunk. And think twice before buying more gadgets than your thumbs can handle at once.

The Shocking Truth of Gadget Usage

Their heads were bowed. Their eyes were lowered. For a moment, I thought Manhattanites were in mourning again. Only it wasn’t 2001. It was 2008. And everyone I saw on the street was looking at their smartphones.

I haven’t lived in the United States since 2003, but every time I visit my family there, I am amazed at the changes I see. The Digital Revolution hit the streets of New York well before it hit any part of Germany, or so it seemed at the time as I cruised through Times Square in my airport shuttle bus.

Just a few years later, our gadget usage has become so extreme that we multitask constantly.

At the end of November 2014, Discovery Communications reported that 82% of its viewers checked their smartphones while watching television. I see my kids doing it. Sometimes I am tempted to do it too.

Split-screen living is nothing new. Maggie Jackson lamented about the pull of our gadgets in her book Distracted in 2008. On a rainy spring day in New York City, I met with her after her book came out. She helped me formulate some of my thoughts on our digital gadget usage that later became part of The Power of Slow.

And now this: According to a recent Nielson study, Americans use electronic media more than 11 hours a day. If you sleep for eight hours, that is only 5 hours without electronic input.

Yikes.

If I am to believe my eyes (and not this study), people use their smartphones for more than 1.25 hours a day. We use them for everything — for entertainment, business, personal messaging and even for getting up in time in the morning. I am as guilty as the next, checking emails while waiting in line, updating my status on nature walks and life-caching when the mood strikes.

We are living in a Brave New World. Maggie Jackson was right. Our attention is eroding. Mindful living is at risk.

 

Infographic: Americans Use Electronic Media 11+ Hours A Day | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

If you think it is any different in Germany, well, it is not. More than half the population uses a smartphone now.

So what can we do?

  • Leave your phone the next time you head for the hills (or the woods).
  • Conduct a digital diet. Turn your phone off (all the way — airplane modus doesn’t count) for at least an hour each day.
  • Free yourself from Facebook. A few months ago I spent seven days Facebook-free and was amazed at how much leisure time I suddenly had.
  • Read. Don’t know a good book? If you like a good love story, pick up a copy of  Me Before You by Jojo Moyes or The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.
  • Exercise (sex counts!).

Life is about more than ‘likes’ and texts. It is about personal connection and affection. Put down your phone and look your kid in the eye the next time he asks you a question.

Get offline and into life. Every day.

It is the Journey, Not its Destination

Computers get tired. Smartphones too. Every once in a while they get sluggish after all the work they’ve done. They need to be switched off, left alone for a little while and given a chance to reorganize all the information we have put into them.

The human mind is no different. On occasion we too need time to reboot.

It is uncomfortable to move outside of the familiar. In fact, it can be downright terrifying. “What if’s” crop up in our heads like dandelions on a lawn. We grip the ledge of our dreams, hoping we never, ever make a mistake. But missteps and errors are every part of the process. The most painful part is not in taking action, but in our own judgements about those actions.

Take time off? Fire a major client? Rethink what’s next without a safety net?

Major life changes don’t usually happen in an instant. They are typically the product of years of thinking, dreaming and wishing things were different. Then one day you wake up and discover they can be. Sometimes all it takes then is one decision that will turn your life around forever.

The cool thing is that one decision then leads to another and another and another. And before you know it, you are a decision-making machine. You suddenly find yourself in flow, cruising down the River of Life, riding the white waters with ease and grace. Those scary rapids don’t seem so scary after all when you come face to face with them. In fact, the roar of the water gives you great courage to move forward – for what other chance do you have but to bring them into your fold?

Have you ever tried resisting a river current or an ocean wave? Most of the time Nature has its way. It is the same in life.

As my wise thirteen-year-old son recently said, “You have freedom of choice and can decide which path to take, but the truth is you will end up where you are meant to be either way. It is the journey you determine, not its destination.”

I’m in for the ride. Are you?