Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Homemade Tomato Sauce and the Challenge of Eating Well

Summer is here in the desert and it’s what I imagine the dead of winter is like in the Northern part of the USA. Everything slows down, people get a little cranky and lazy and if we do gather, we linger together until the middle of the night when we hope to enjoy the air cooling off to below 100 degrees. It’s not a big time for projects, or maybe I should say it’s not a big time for lots of little projects. If you are going to expend time, you commit, taking on something big and “worthwhile” to justify the time, energy and honestly sweat. (The term “sweat equity” totally could have been created here.) So, hopefully I won’t gross you out when I say that our project involved food.

I’ve been fascinated lately by trying to understand what goes into making food items that I often use. Food like nut-milks, cheese and tomato sauce. Part of my fascination is how energy-consumptive it is to make these things. Another part is my fascination with how it actually works to make it. I am not a great cook, but I’m a person who will watch endless episodes of “How It’s Made”. I get fascinated with the “how” but the “doing” is always a crapshoot.

This to say, when my partner told me we could buy 15lbs of heirloom, organic tomatoes from a local farm at a great price, I immediately agreed.  We didn’t really have a plan, which in hindsight may have been a bit more responsible. However, when we were confronted with the boxes of tomatoes on our table, we had a brilliant flash – to make homemade tomato sauce. (We did briefly discuss canning the tomatoes, but as I have a fear of poisoning myself and people I love, we settled on cooking and freezing.) I mean really, how hard could it be??

I scanned a couple of recipes and assumed I had it figured out. We started chopping, and chopping, and chopping… everything (the counters, us, the floor) was covered in tomato juice and I was a little worried what would be left to cook. We only have two pots, so we decided to make several batches of sauce.

We started with sautéing about 2 cups of onion in each pot along with a clove of garlic in 2tbs of oil.

Chopping, chopping, chopping tomatoes continued. When the onion and garlic were turning clear, we added some of the tomatoes (enough to fill the pots).

At first I had it covered, not realizing that for it to reduce, it needs to cook uncovered…Did I mention it was 108 outside? So, the mix cooked and cooked. After about an hour we added ¾ cup of unsweetened Coconut milk in each pot to give it a slight creamy taste.
And it cooked and cooked...

After about 2 and ½ hours we realized that we were only going to be making 1 batch, 2 pots worth of sauce. Hot, tired, very sweaty and crabby I was tempted to pelt the remainder of the tomatoes at my partner who was giving me a hard time for not closely reading the recipes. However, he then delicately saved himself from my fantasy when he suggested making Gazpacho. He’s really the cook in the family, intuitively whipping it up in the blender with jalapenos, onion and cucumber. (If you’re curious why I’m the one doing the cooking, visit my earlier post)       
Four hours later, we settled for a chunky sauce. It’s supposed to “cover the back of the spoon”, but it was more like a chunky tomato soup. Yet, the most important thing was that it tasted AMAZING! Sweet, fresh and creamy.
It was wonderful when we made it the following week over gluten-free pasta. We froze about 5 mason jars for future use.

 Not being a great cook, is something I’ve never apologized for. We have to eat, I do my best, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What I do think is important, is to look at what we bring into our bodies and understand what’s in it or how it’s made. This is a lofty goal for me. As a physically Disabled person I’ve ate and used my share of quick (sometimes processed) food. I don’t apologize for this because it was often what I needed to feed myself. In my current endeavor, I’m finding that it’s difficult to bridge the world of “instant” with “self-care” because, if we are honest with ourselves, good stuff for our bodies generally takes some time to prepare. This doesn’t mean that we need to sit around and beat ourselves up for quick choices either. My perspective of late is to do the best I can and then let it be good enough. I’m done with the shame game around food.

So part of my life-long goal in healthy eating/cooking is to try and understand what I’m putting in my body, not in a judgmental way, but in a curious and fun way. Not sure cooking for 5 hours in the dead of summer will be a repeat event, but it makes for a good story, and now I know how it’s made!

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Truth About Succeeding In Life

I felt a little obvious staring from my corner table in the coffee shop as I watched her propping up colorful books, full of secret treasures and colorful notes. Standing them up on their ends, stacking them on top of each other, angling them just right in the light, she took photographs, yet another way to document her journey. Finally, I couldn't help myself. I had to tell her how brilliant I thought her idea was. She generously shared with me her plans to host a blog all about journaling. She wanted to help other people learn to how to express themselves in colorful and dynamic ways.

I was inspired and it made me think of my history with journaling. I've kept journal since I was nine years old, not always consistently or with detail, but nonetheless I've been keeping a steady stream of information about my life committed to paper. My journals swarm with all the emotions and things unsaid that a child struggles with as she grows into an adult. I recently went back and read through all of my journals as preparation for the book I'm writing on self-care. It was a pretty big undertaking, sucking up several days (actually weeks if I want to be honest) and involved me dutifully trying to dissect the pieces of “me” from the reactions I had to people trying to mold me.

And as a disabled kid, I had a lot of people trying to mold me! There were daily doses of adult expectations on how my body should be moving, what it should look like, plus the heavy expectations that if my body wasn’t going to be “normal” then my mind would have to make up for it. Everything seemed like a big test on whether or not I would “succeed in life”. As a kid this term, "succeed in life" seemed more like a thinly veiled threat adults would throw at me when I wasn't doing what they wanted. As I grew up this term evolved into more of a test whose outcome would determine how happy I would be as an adult. It was a struggle, and you think that that would be most of what I wrote about, but that would be wrong. I laughed as I went through journal after journal in my early preteen years that mostly centered around boys.

It's interesting to go back and read what made an impression on you, what your real feelings were about certain events in your life. Journaling is a type of documenting, for me I write because I have to write. It's often how I process to understand the truth below my reactions and feelings. However it wasn't until recently, inspired by another friend of mine Rachel, that I started making my journals something beautiful, creative and expressive. Now getting a new journal even if it's going to be filled with everything from the trivial to the prophetic enjoys a process of exploration that includes a collage of pictures, words and colors. I think it reflects what I've learned now as an adult about "succeeding in life". I have learned that success is more about being true to my heart, having courage to take the big risks, and doing my best to ignore what everyone else thinks about that.

Current collaged journal
(Living Simply Note: Buy an old or "boring" journal for cheap and decorate for class and flair!)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

An Important Debate

People-First Language is finally starting to be truly debated in the Disability community. I really appreciated this author’s thoughtful response.

“This graphic came across my Facebook page in April. It took me some time to discern all the things about it that are problematic.
At first, all I could see was a problem with the intent of the text: the idea that one has to choose between seeing the person and seeing the disability.”

Read more at:

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Myth of Culture As Dangerous

I live in a place where literally it has been outlawed to teach my culture to children. I live in a place where I have the shortest time in the country to decide what to do with my body if I become pregnant. I live in a place where I have to exhale a sigh of relief that the lightness of my skin saves me from suspicion of being illegal, although I’m first-generation Mexican-American on my Father’s side. I live in a place where oddly being disabled is the least of my oppressions, but I wonder when that too will come under attack.

As a Mestiza (Mexican, Indigenous, White) adult I am just now learning what it means to be me. I long for the way to open where I have a glimpse into my value and can understand my inherent worth.

Lord knows I was never taught that in school. In Jr. high and High School, returning to school after being broken apart by surgeons, my body manipulated to function in a less-disabled way (it was supposed to make me more functional, I hoped it would make me less of an outcast), I returned to classes where I was determined to fit in. In class, we learned about what gang violence was, not from our own very personal experiences but from the book the “Outsiders”. We learned about Helen Keller but only about her less threatening “miraculous” childhood, not the socialist, radical activist she grew into, and we read Crime and Punishment. This book fascinated me, how the school had no problems indoctrinating students with the idea of murder for a higher purpose.

In school, I never learned about the Mexican and American war. I never learned about Cesar Chavez. The only glimmer of depth was being taught every year about the horrors of slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow and sharecropping with a short nod towards the Civil Rights movement which we were told had fixed it all. Every year I was taught Racism was in the past.   

I grew up going through Border Patrol check points, always deeply guilty that my light skin saved me from suspicion. We joked about smiling and “acting white” although in my child-mind I wondered if that wasn’t what I was already doing most of the time. 

In school, I never read a book by a person or color, let alone a Mestiza like me. I never heard the reflection of my voice, my culture, my family’s way of telling 3 stories at once to make sure we all got heard. Listening hard was never rewarded.

I’ve lived my life thinking that my discomfort day after day was because I was Disabled, never quite fitting in. Never mind that all my friends of color had dropped out by senior year. It wasn’t until I watched Precious Knowledge that I understood a deeper truth. Tom Horne (old AZ school superintendent) talked about the danger of culture and the need to be taught that we are all individuals. The only thing that being taught I was an individual did for me was to teach me to be silent.

Watching the teachers of TUSD’s Mexican-American studies program talk to their students was like sinking my tired and strained muscles into a warm bath. They were explaining the world, not in a new way, an indoctrinating way, but in a way that felt like home, in a way I could understand. Students were treated not just as individual minds dealing with logical actions and thoughts, but as spirits weaving the stories of their souls. Community was not ignored but honored.

Turning to my partner later that night, I let him see the tears of relief I was shedding. I told him that I never felt as comfortable in any of my classrooms as I did for the few minutes sitting inside the camera filming at the TUSD’s Mexican-American studies program. It was a relief. And even though it has been disbanded and deemed illegal, it does continue to birth new gifts.  As a writer it gave me one more piece to believe in my own voice.

Precious Knowledge Trailer

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Living Simply Tips - Re-useable Coffee Filters and Cloth Napkins

I scrunched up my nose as I wiped down our outside table with a rag wondering if the washing machine really could get out all this dirt. It may seem silly, but when we decided to switch from paper towels to rags, I had in my mind images of cute sanitary spills that I could swoop in and wipe up. You know, like the commercials for paper towels. I had temporarily forgotten all the nasty stuff I sometimes wiped up where I was only too happy to throw it away. My generation grew up with this idea of “disposable”. It had somehow never dawned on me that there was another possibility, like washing a rag. 

I’ve been inspired lately by library books I’ve found on re-using materials and items that I, in the past, would have thrown or given away. For example, re-using tee-shirts. You can cut up a tee shirt into squares, sow a border around the edge of the square and ta-da, you have a cloth napkin that’s soft and absorbable.

I also invested a little time and money into a couple of yards of Muslin fabric to make re-useable coffee filters. It was easy. I bought it from the store, washed it and then cut out squares which I use as coffee filters, (see directions below). I love them cause my coffee actually filters better using them.  

If you are a loose-leaf tea drinker, I’ve found a system to make cleaning out the tea leaves easy. Make tea in a teapot, using loose-leaf tea. When you go to pour it, pour it through a mesh colander into your cup. The colander collects the leaves. When you are done, swish some water in the teapot and dump out over/through the colander. Then bring the colander to the trashcan or compost can and turn over and “whack” it on the edge so the leaves fall into the can. Easy clean up!     

Couple of lessons learned – Wash rags separately as its own load, not with your clothes. Wash coffee filters with your darks. I found the muslin picked up dirt etc. if I washed them with the rags.

You can always keep some paper towels for things you find too gross to try and wash out, but you may find as I did that the truly gross items to clean up are a lot less than I thought.  I hope that you too will be inspired to make a switch.

 To make cloth coffee filters:
(Make sure to wash the Muslin cloth before starting the project.)
Take a piece of un-died Muslin cloth and a current coffee filter that fits your coffeemaker. Trace the filter, adding about 1 and 1/2 inch border. (It you want, you can sow around the edges to finish it. I didn’t and they work fine.) When you go to make coffee, wet the cloth filter and place in the coffee maker overlapping the extra cloth around the edges of the basket, tucking the edges under the basket as you place the basket inside the coffeemaker. This keeps it from flopping over into where you put the coffee. Put in the coffee grinds and make coffee. For clean-up, bring filter to trash or compost bin and shake (gently) the coffee grinds out. Then rinse the residue out and put it aside to wash.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reports from the Other Side

The struggles I’ve shared concerning the transition to working creatively from home and supporting our family’s shift to living simply are discussed in-depth in a book I’ve been reading called Radical Homemaking: Reclaiming Domesticity From A Consumer Culture. Shannon Hayes does an amazing job of unpacking all the issues I sit with. My internal squeamishness around being the “woman at home” trying to do most of the cooking and managing of food resources, my (and I admit) ego concerns about not having a role that’s paid and yet desperately wanting to move away from participating in the consumer circle of consumption.

Hayes uses two terms like opposite sides of a coin, “life-serving economy” vs. the “extractive economy”. “[The] extractive economy – where corporate wealth was regarded as the foundation of economic health, where mining our earth’s resources and exploiting our international neighbors was accepted as simply the cost of doing business – to a life-serving economy…where our resources are sustained, our waters are kept clean, our air pure, and families can lead meaningful and joyful lives.” These definitions were the words I have been searching for to describe the tension I felt when working to be, in the words of Grace Lee Boggs, “a more human, human being” to others and the world around me. Before transitioning out of my job, this tension made me feel perpetually guilty for being so exhausted after a day of work to be unable to actually practice these values I held so dear.

In writing about self-care practices for social change makers, I’ve been told by people in discussions that self-care is only for those who can afford it. Yet, who’s defined what self-care is? Corporations have carefully crafted a message that even self-care must be bought and this has been, like a Ping-Pong ball, refracted throughout our consumer culture. We are told that we need certain brands of lotion to feel comfortable in our skin, a gym membership to be fit and expensive vacations to have a break. None of these options are the only ways to take care of ourselves, but we are told it is so, over and over again. How do we move through the information we are sold to the truth?

It’s a question and path that I no longer feel quite so lonely on. Radical Homemakers patiently holds your hand as you wade into the confusion of wanting to be a “good feminist” and the desire to be “successful” through the messiness to the different choices some are making.

I’m definitely still processing what I’ve read so far. None of the interviewees were openly disabled, however there was a parent of a disabled child interviewed. Interestingly this parent used the term “Disability Culture” to describe the medical industrial complex and the system network that defines Disability as something to be fixed or "normalized". It made me cringe a bit, reminding how much work needs to still be done to connect parents and disabled folks themselves to how the Disability Community defines Disability Culture, as a cultural, political and social understanding of the experience of Disability.  My reaction reminds me as with anything where people are gathered to share honestly, it brings up all of our own stuff. However, it does connect for me on the foundation of longing we all have for a life and society that has an understanding of human dignity.

I’m looking forward to reading more and discussing this book with other people. As a community we sit in the confusion of what we are told will make us successful, contributing members of society and yet the reality we know in our guts is a sinking feeling about the price that path takes (on so many levels). It’s great to see folks starting to explore a different way and share their experiences. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

The question of being our full selves...

Part of my choice to live simply is to have the space and time to work on a book project. I originally thought I’d leave my job, do some contract work on the side and get writing! I’m slowly learning that the creative process is wholly different from anything I’ve done before and that it’s a balancing act; contract work with the art of writing.

It was a little embarrassing how much time I needed to rest and recover from my previous job. Part of my being so depleted was that I had accepted the demand to do the work of two employees in running a national project and another part of it was the experience of working as a younger Disabled Mestiza (Mexican, indigenous, white) in an organization of non-disabled mostly older white women. As I work on this book around self-care for people doing social change/activist work, I’ve found myself coming across the question again and again; how important is it exactly to be your full self in the work you do? This is beyond not feeling comfortable to share political beliefs or family dynamics in the workplace. This is literally the expectation of communicating in certain ways, or approaching conflict in a certain way. 

I’m not sure if I’d even have examples of this if I weren’t married to a white man from the Midwest. Through doing our own work over many years to understand our cultural differences and perspectives, we’ve come up with ways to understand each other better. For example, our cultural understanding of respect is very different. In Latino culture, generally if you respect someone then you tell that person what you think/feel, even if they happen to be your superior. If you do not respect someone, then you politely nod or whatever, you don’t share. Generally, in white culture, my partner has helped me understand that respect is equal to being polite. Not sharing your views or opinions is respectful, that you would share your opinions or thoughts (especially with superiors) only if you had no respect for them.

A second example is how to best say “thank-you”. Generally in Latino culture it’s not just saying “thank-you” that’s important, but also the sharing the story. So if someone gives you a bowl, it is important to not just say, “Thanks” but to also share how the bowl was used and maybe even how using the bowl made you feel. My partner has explained that generally in white Midwest culture, saying “thank-you” is sufficient, that sharing the story can often make people defensive, like, “Why wouldn’t they do _X__ for you” or “Why are you making such a big deal out of a bowl?”  

A third example is around communicating in groups. When my family and friends first met my partner, they kept asking me what was wrong, why was he so quiet? When I asked my partner, he said, “Cause I don’t know when to talk!” We generally have at least 3 conversations going at once (both listening to and contributing in), and we can be loud, talking over music, cooking, etc. With my partner I had to learn how to let him talk through a thought, for us to talk one at a time and on only one subject. I do this to varying degrees of success and he tries to own his privilege that we as a society work from his comfort zone.

Obviously, these differences can cross cultures, but my partner who has moved to the Southwest from the Midwest often thanks me for our work to understand cultural differences between us, as he is then able to do his job working with Latino folks in a more consistently respectful way.

These examples, along with others we’ve learned, have helped my partner and I be more equitable in the cultural ways we interact. However, I’m left with the question of what’s right for me with the activist work I am committed to. I spent many years learning the hard way different cultural ways to act, to be “professional” (often what’s comfortable for white/dominant culture) and then only acting myself with friends and family. How much do we risk to be who we are? This question is essential to self-care especially for people of color involved in social change work.

It is always a huge risk for me to act natural, from my comfort zone, especially because I have light skin and can look white. It confuses white people why I’m acting so “weird” (while also giving me privilege that others don’t have to get in the door). When I have tried to risk bringing my whole self into the work I do I’ve faced a high cost, which I feel like now I am only beginning to understand. Some of things I’ve observed are; sometimes I am straight up ignored, people on a committee will joke and laugh with me, but not take my suggestions seriously, and my asking questions seems to be a quick way to give any power away. I’m usually the “only one” of something, be it Latina (their recognized term, I use Mestiza) or Disabled, in a group. I can’t count the number of times, from committee meetings, to planning meetings, to staff meetings, that I have suggested something and people have ignored it and then later in the conversation, someone else suggests the same thing and people think they are brilliant. I’m often confused by concepts, like “wearing different hats” that people discuss as a way to manage doing things they actually disagree with and when I refuse to go against something based on principle (even when I offer to compromise) I’m treated like someone who then never needs support or grace.

There is more to this that I long to unlock. I feel like I’m grasping at something with the tips of my fingers. That if I could just dig deep enough, there might be a tool that one could use to negotiate with. As activists or people who work for social change, we all have examples of excluding pieces of who we are to come together to make “change” happen, but especially in activist communities where diversity is said to be appreciated, what ways have people or organizations found work for people to be their full selves?

If you have a good story you’d like to share about the practice of being your “full self” in the work you do for the upcoming book on activism and self-care, I’d love to hear from you!