Monday, March 26, 2012

Big Meals Keep on Turning

(Photo Courtesy of Drew Shonka)

A friend of mine, whose child is on a very restricted diet due to some health challenges, recently commented to me that she had never realized before how much she used food to express love and comfort for her children. This got me thinking about how I see the married roles of food and love in my own life.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a mother who expresses her creativity through the planning and preparation of food. She pores over newspapers, magazines and cookbooks looking for inspiration. She watches the Food Network. She is kept awake during the night with menu minutiae before a big party.  One day, long ago, she told me that she saw the daily act of planning, cooking, and serving a meal as an expression of love from beginning to end. This tiny revelation, shared in a fleeting moment in the kitchen, changed my understanding of my mother immensely. My mother is discerning and does not suffer fools lightly. She often has a sharp tongue and a biting wit. But those who know my mom best also know that she is fiercely loyal, always dependable and a caring friend beneath the prickly shell. The recognition that the large percentage of her day was devoted to love and service, nourishing her family -which also often includes a large network of friends- was an awakening for me. Every recipe clipped, every trip to the grocery, every pot and pan scrubbed was an act of tenderness, easily overlooked.

 Of course now that I am a mother myself, I see how my time devoted to growing, planning and preparing food is laced with care. I have also been graced with dozens, if not hundreds of wonderful meals prepared by friends and community members. Which is to say that the older I am, and the more I examine the historical, cultural, and emotional aspects of food and our relationships with it, I am grateful to live in a community where food not only provides the basic calories necessary to make it through a day, but where it is appreciated as a form of beauty and creative expression; where the preparation of food, from farm to table is viewed as foundational nourishment  -on physical, emotional and spiritual planes.

When we first moved out to our small agricultural town, I was surprised and slightly befuddled to discover a whole new layer of food culture. First, the common practice of “potlucks” –for any and all occasions- was a new, and somewhat disorienting practice for one with stodgy Eastern roots. On a recent visit, my mother was completely shocked as I hosted a dinner party for 25 people from a prone position on the couch as I wrangled a crushing case of Lyme disease. The ability to give up control -to trust that others could and would happily put together a fabulous meal- has been a hard-won gift from living here.

But true awakening has come in the form of the “meal wheel”.  The meal wheel is another one of those "new-old" ideas that makes so much sense, has been practiced throughout history, amongst many cultures, but is being re-discovered and refined with the aid of technology.

A meal wheel is established under any circumstance of extra need: the birth of a baby, an illness or death, a natural disaster, or any other circumstance in which extra support is needed. Though friends and family have supported each other with meals for as long as memory serves, the beauty of the meal wheel is that it draws from a much larger pool than any one individual’s closest circle. My first exposure to meal wheels came over 10 years ago when many of my friends were still having babies. One person, usually a close friend of the person in need of support, would take on the task of coordinating the meal wheel and getting the word out. As time went on, members of the community –some closely tied, others just wishing to offer sustenance- would call the coordinator and sign up for a day (or days) to bring a meal to the family. It is such a simple task –we all make dinner as it is, so it usually is not a lot of extra trouble to double the recipe, and the provider can usually choose a day that works into his/her schedule with some ease. But when the simple offering of a single meal as a gesture of support is magnified and expanded by the invisible web of a wider community, the impact is profound. In our tiny town, recipients of meal wheels have often had meals delivered to their homes for more than 6 weeks. Let's face it. It feels good to offer support to someone in need. People want to help. And the gift of a meal is both simple and complete. It is an offering of nourishment to body and soul alike. Friends who have been the recipients of meal wheels report being both stunned and humbled by such outpouring of support. The body is nourished and the stress of having to think about food is eased, but more importantly, the tangible evidence of love and support from people they may not even know very well, has far-reaching repercussions. It is a ripple of love, returned in matching pieces of Tupperware.

These days, the meal wheel is even easier to implement. Gone are the days of day- planners and the good luck needed to catch someone on the phone at a convenient time. The most recent crisis to hit our neighborhood introduced us to a new, online grid called “Meal Train” making it even easier to plug in.

If you are interested in starting a meal wheel in your community, try using the Meal
Train website:

Try it and see how the nexus of food and love can transform a life.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Truth and Beauty in Death and Dying

When I gave birth to our first child at home 18 years ago, the idea of home birth was regarded with significant skepticism and resistance. Though routine practice in countries like The Netherlands, in the U.S. home birth was still predominantly considered to be the domain of 19th century women, crunchy new-agers, and hippies. It was, to say the least, an uncomfortable idea amongst my prep-school-educated, East Coast network of family and friends. Many of my closest friends and family members questioned our judgment and the wisdom of our decision, and my first-born was affectionately nicknamed “Little Tofu” by her adoring grandparents. Being the first amongst my friends and siblings to have a child, it was sometimes challenging to be a trailblazer. But nearly two decades later, one of my sisters and several of those same friends have themselves made the choice to birth at home, and my once-skeptical mother, having now attended four home-births, is as strong an advocate as any. Nationwide, the practice has become much more mainstream and is rarely regarded as an “irresponsible” choice, though still not the elected by the majority of women.  The point is, that today women and families are increasingly aware that they have choices when it comes to birth and that there are many ways to approach the same situation safely and with integrity. Exposure, fortified by positive experiences has allowed the initial resistance to slowly peel off, thus providing a gateway for new ideas to take hold.

More recently, in my small corner of southwestern Wisconsin another “old idea-reborn” has been evolving over the past decade, as our community has increasingly been exposed to the practice of home funerals, green burials, and death and dying with consciousness.

Though the dormant seeds had long been present, the movement sprang to life 8 years ago when a beloved member of our community and young mother of three passed away.  When the coroner inquired about funeral home preference, the woman’s mother replied that she “would like to bring the body home.” Though widely practiced throughout history, the custom of having a wake and/or funeral at home was very unfamiliar territory for most of us at that time. Nevertheless, a community of do-ers we are and if our friend’s mother wanted her body at home, by-gum we were going to make it happen. Neighbors, friends and family members sprang into action trying to knit together all the strands necessary to assemble a home vigil and funeral for our beloved friend. Women cared for the body, made arrangements and prepared meals. Men came together and crafted a beautifully simple casket from local wood stored in a neighbor’s barn. Family and friends grieved together as we planned the celebration of a beautiful life. The experience of family and community coming together, attending to all the details of a home wake and funeral, bonding through grief and celebrating life was the impetus needed for a group to form.

In the winter months of 2006, further inspired after attending a workshop on death and dying, Charlene Elderkin, Susan Nesbit, Kathy Doerfer, and Kathy Neidert formed The Threshold Care Circle in Viroqua, WI. The group set to work educating themselves on care of the body, dying at home, home funerals and green burials, eventually releasing a workbook: My Final Wishes. At the time, there were no other groups doing this work in Wisconsin, and the women received invaluable guidance from the Minnesota Threshold Network, a group formed not long before. The primary mission of the group is to educate the public on what options surround death and dying, gently guiding people to think about what their final wishes are before the time of death. The women did their work –researching, educating and supporting- quietly and diligently for years until, in May of 2010, our community was engulfed in tragedy and grief when two 18-year-old boys were killed in a car accident in the early-morning hours of Mother’s Day. Living in a town as small as ours, no family was left untouched by the heartache of this tragedy, and once again, the community rallied together. This time, however, there were more resources in place for grieving family members who might wish for an alternative to the traditional choices of funeral and burial. With the care and guidance of the Threshold Care Circle, the family of one of the boys chose to bring his body home, bathe him, and hold a 3-day vigil on their front porch.* The home-vigil was new to almost everyone who experienced it, and the family’s choice to do this undulated outward, reaching an unexpectedly large group of people. But in the midst of unimaginable despair, those who were sharing the experience were finding extraordinary moments of truth and beauty. All were profoundly moved and forever changed through exposure to such tender caring and collective grief. A wide segment of our community had been initiated into an alternative view of death and dying, and it deeply touched a place of longing and need.

Since that terrible day in May, the way that our small, rural community deals with death and dying has been permanently altered. Many others have crossed over, some before their time. But increasing numbers of people are considering their final wishes, writing them down, and discussing them with kin. Many are choosing to die at home, in the presence of family and friends. Home funerals and green burial are also on the rise, and the Threshold Care Circle has expanded its numbers and its reach. Just as with birthing, the human longing for intention around the processes and rituals of death and dying too often go unmet. The response of 4 women to a need-identified, has changed our community forever and continues to ripple outward.

*to read about this in more detail, read Elderkin’s article "The Call"  in Lilipoh magazine:

Additional Resources for Threshold Care, Final Wishes, and Green Burial:

Threshold Care Circle

“My Final Wishes”

Minnesota Threshold Network

Novalis Institute: DEATH AND DYING: Beholding the Threshold Consciously

Anne O’Connor: Death can be a moment that connects us, even as it parts us

Joe Orso: Midwifing death at home

Minnesota Public Television: End-Of-Life Choices: Through History

Considered the “grandmother” of the movement: Nancy Poer:

Green Burial: Natural Path Sanctuary

Green Burial: Kevin Corrado of Natural Path Sanctuary interviewed on WPR:

Finally! A Spark!

At my age, it’s always a great feeling when an “ah-ha” moment hits, and last week, finding myself with some unexpected free time, the clutter in my brain was freed up enough for inspiration to strike.

Having struggled from the beginning to find the right focus for the blog, it has finally become clear to me. From here on out, the blog will be titled “Sparks!” and will relay stories of small-sized initiatives that ignite and spread, with the potential to make big differences in people’s lives. Many of these inspirational stories will come directly from towns featured on the realsmalltowns website, but placement on the site is not a requirement for attention on the blog. A good example of such initiative comes from my home community when, in the late 1970s, a small group of local organic farmers banded together to form a small cooperative -now known as Organic Valley.

As one of the primary tenants of the website is to sniff out towns that are bubbling over with good energy and good ideas, the blog will now emphasize those ideas –a focus on what IS working in our country and emphasizing small groups of people working hard to bring big ideas to life.

I hope you enjoy the first installment of the new blog, launched from my hometown and featuring The Threshold Care Circle of Viroqua, Wisconsin. Please feel free to contact me through the realsmalltowns website if you have suggestions or ideas for other inspirational stories.