Archive for November, 2014

Holiday traditions (the vegetarian kind)

I became a vegetarian in 1987. That was … 28 years ago, woah! It was my freshman year at Berkeley, and I attended the Berkeley Animal Liberation Front’s “film night” and watched a movie about factory farming. Needless to say, I lost my taste for hamburgers on the spot!

Of course, going vegetarian presents some immediate problems–especially during the holidays. If you’re a vegetarian like me, you know what I mean. For instance, every year on Christmas Eve my family serves salami slices and cooks up traditional German sausage from a special meat market in Fresno, California. Then, the next morning, they fry up eggs in the sausage grease. And consider Thanksgiving: When I first became a vegetarian, while everyone else was gorging on turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and “in-the-bird” stuffing, I was left with plain potatoes and steamed veggies and maybe a soft bread roll. Not exactly my idea of a feast.

Luckily, my mom—who is an amazing cook—began to rethink some of her dishes to make them vegetarian-friendly. Not just for the holidays, but at all of our get-togethers. And while I still pass on the turkey and gravy at Thanksgiving, she now makes a delicious stuffing “outside the bird” that’s even better than the original recipe (according to me and my sisters, anyway). And we are better about making sure there are lots of other options, too, so that everyone has a full plate. It has taken some time, to be sure, and has required the embracing of new traditions. But, here we are. And now none of us “goes hungry” during holiday feasts.

This year, I have to be more creative than years past. Due to health reasons these post-cancer days, I am now mostly dairy-free and gluten-free. Yesterday I cooked up some special dishes to add to the feast this year. I brought my new favorite comfort meal: Lemony Lentil & Kale Rice Bowl.

Luckily, dessert is never a problem when you’re a vegetarian! And though I have cut down on gluten and sugar a lot, I’m happy I can still enjoy my ancestors’ simple but delicious Küchen recipe once a year; it’s a special coffee cake my mom serves on Christmas Eve and morning.

For more meatless holiday meal ideas and inspiration; check out these beautiful recipes from Martha Stewart.

These are our traditions; what are yours?

5 ways to give back this Thanksgiving

First, dear friends, I want to wish you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. Are you staying close to home this year or traveling? I will be spending a cozy afternoon with my family at my parents’ house. My mom always cooks up an amazing feast.

With Thanksgiving just a day away, I got to thinking about the different ways we can give back and show our thanks this year …

1. Save a turkey. It costs just $30 to sponsor a turkey this Thanksgiving, thanks to Farm Sanctuary’s special Adopt-a-Turkey Project. The photos and bios of the turkeys available for adoption are guaranteed to warm your heart.

2. Visit an animal shelter with your kids, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren. The animals always appreciate visitors, and it’s a great way to encourage giving back at a young age.

3. Write a handwritten letter or card to a parent, friend or other loved one thanking them for something thoughtful and kind they’ve done for you.

4. Offer a free Reiki treatment to your vet or local shelter or sanctuary.

5. Donate to your favorite animal charity, shelter or sanctuary. It doesn’t have to be money (though they love cash!). Other helpful items include gift cards to a pet store, rope toys and chews, laundry detergent and bleach, paper towels, newspaper and hand sanitizer. If you’re not sure, most shelters offer wish lists of needed items.

What about you? I’d love to hear how you’re showing thanks or being thankful this holiday.

On kindness

“Kindness keeps the world afloat.” – Orly Wahba, founder of Life Vest Inside

I find that quote so inspiring. At times, the world feels as if it’s sinking. The news can be so overwhelmingly negative that you forget there are good people out there dedicating their lives to making a difference. Like Orly Wahba, whom I’ve quoted above. And like this newly married couple—they decided to forego a wedding reception and a honeymoon; instead, they are using those funds to travel around all 50 states to do random acts of kindness for animals, children, the homeless and so on. I love it! So inspirational!

Then there is The World Kindness Movement, which is dedicated to spreading kindness on a global scale. It’s such an amazing idea because the thing about kindness is it’s so infectious. Also, it really makes a profound impact on people’s lives.

Even science points to the importance of kindness. A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, sponsored by Dignity Health, found that patients treated with compassion and kindness healed faster, felt less pain and were discharged sooner. Click here and scroll down for an amazing infographic.

A kindness curriculum

I saw this firsthand while working as a teacher in the San Francisco public schools.  I felt like something was really lacking from our curriculum. Yes, the kids were being taught math, science, history, English and so on. But many of my kids were from some of San Francisco’s toughest neighborhoods. They lacked role models at home, were barely passing, and didn’t seem to care about their education. Sometimes it felt so impossible to reach them. Then I wondered … could kindness make a difference?

So my friend Kathy (also a teacher at my school) and I decided to develop a special curriculum on Kindness. She still teaches it to this day. We developed three units on the topics of homelessness, the elderly and animal welfare. Students spent a couple of weeks on each unit—reading, writing and discussing. We also had them create diary entries—putting themselves in the shoes of a homeless person, an animal at the shelter, and an elderly person in a home. What is their day like? How do they feel? And then, at the end of six weeks, they had to do a final project—either write a paper or volunteer five hours in the community (related to one of the units).

I was blown away by how inspired these kids were by our kindness project. The kids who hated school and never did homework—these were the ones spending their weekends cleaning out cages at the SPCA, then bringing videos in to share and report back to us all about what they had learned.

But perhaps what was most surprising was this: the A+ students—they didn’t want to get their hands dirty and volunteer; they chose to write a paper as their final project. Meanwhile, the kids you’d think are “headed for trouble”—these were the ones who enthusiastically wanted to go into the community and get down and dirty and help. Volunteering is the hardest choice, and they absolutely embraced it.

I learned that the kids who were not motivated at all, that I had such difficulty reaching—they were really able to connect and be kind when they started spending time around animals. The “tough kid” suddenly became kind and sensitive when talking about the kittens at the shelter. It was truly heartwarming!

Dogs and kindness

Now through my work with SARA, I’m able to see how acts of kindness can make an immense difference—even in the worst of circumstances. We recently had a SARA fundraiser, which raised more than $3,000 for our teachers in India who offer Reiki to street dogs. This money allowed them to teach animal shelter staff at TOFLA (Tree of Life for Animals), offer classes to the public, and “be” Reiki with the dogs who were dying. I’m talking about really difficult work here. One of my students was able to offer Reiki to a bunch of puppies that came in. They were too weak to survive, but she was there to train people and hold a space of love and kindness amidst all this pain and sadness.

Experiences like these are so meaningful to me … and I want to hear more! Please share your thoughts—and your experiences—on kindness.

P.S.: A wonderful TED talk on kindness and consequence, and some kindness ideas on Pinterest.

5 must-read picture books for animal lovers

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”  —C.S. Lewis

Kathleen and I were discussing our favorite picture books the other day. You know, the ones that appeal to grownups just as much as kids. The favorites from your childhood; the books you secretly hope your little one asks you to read over and over again.

With so many books out there for young readers, it’s nearly impossible to narrow down to just five. But because it’s Picture Book Month, here are five with animal themes that really stand out to us (and that our children have loved):

1. A Garden of Whales by Maggie Davis: In this heartful story about endangered whales, a little boy in his bathtub imagines he lives in the ocean and dreams up a way to save all of the world’s whale families. Beautiful illustrations accompany lyrical text in this picture book that will have your child loving whales—and believing that someday he or she, too, might be able to make a difference.


2. Tarra & Bella: The Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends by Carol Buckley: When Tarra retires from the circus, she finds a new home at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. But she’s lonely and doesn’t connect with any of the other resident animals—until Bella, a stray dog, arrives. Their unbreakable bond is tested when Bella gets injured, but Tarra stands by her side. This true story set to lovely photos documents what it means to be forever friends.


3. Anatole by Eve Titus: This is a sweet tale of keeping one’s honor set in one of the world’s most popular cities: Paris. When Anatole the mouse discovers humans consider rummaging mice to be dirty and disgusting, he is shocked! But instead of accepting this as a fact like everyone else, he’s determined to change their view of him. Though he may be just one tiny, insignificant mouse, he hatches a clever plan to help the humans and, along the way, regain his honor.


4. The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth: Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, this lovely picture book with beautiful watercolor illustrations tells the tale of a young boy who seeks answers to some of life’s most important questions. He asks his best friends—a heron, a monkey and a dog—but, unsatisfied with their answers, sets out to ask a wise turtle. But the answers to questions such as these can’t just be told, they have to be experienced—which the boy ultimately does, following a series of choices he makes rooted in kindness and compassion.

three questions

5. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell: Three baby owls wake up in their tree and wonder, where’s Mommy? As they wait in the night, each baby has different ideas about where she might be, but they all share a deep love for her. What a timeless message this book imparts to young readers: that Mommy (or Daddy) always comes back.

owl babies

Honorable mentions: Miss Spider’s Tea Party by David Kirk (sadly, this book is out of print, but used copies are available on Amazon); Time for Bed by Mem Fox; and Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff and Paula Kahumbu.

What are we missing? What are your favorite picture books?

{Lead photo © Charlotte Jensen}


Cutest vegan shoes

I gave up buying leather shoes a few years ago and never looked back. Vegan shoes get a bad rap, so at first I thought there would be slim pickings when it came to stylish, cruelty-free footwear. Boy was I wrong: I’ve found so many wonderful, comfortable (and popular!) options from innovative companies and designers entering the animal-friendly fray. Even celebrities like Anne Hathaway, Alicia Silverstone and Natalie Portman have been known to flaunt their ethical footwear.

I discovered my favorite pair of vegan boots by Madden Girl tucked inside a cute boutique in New York City called MooShoes. I absolutely love wearing them! But if you’re always on the lookout for vegan shoes like me, these other companies are worth a look, too: