School Photos

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I got to take the school photos for Mustardseed’s school. This amounted to close to 3,000 shots in 2 days. For only 111 students, ha! I was completely exhausted at the end of both days, but also really satisfied. I guess I should state that I’m not a professional photographer. I don’t even consider myself a good amateur. I just thought it would be nice for the kids to have a memento of their year, so I suggested it. Then, of course, I got all nervous that it was going to be a complete disaster, so I hyperventilated and then looked up poses and some videos on outdoor portraiture and slept barely at all.

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I’m so pleased with how they turned out. I may be deluding myself, but I think they actually look like something a family might want to frame and put on their wall. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. It was a little nerve-wracking making sure I was reading the light right and using my settings to good effect, but I just compensated for my insecurity by taking many, many shots of each kid. (Something has to turn out, right?)

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I’m really proud of the photos, given my limited experience, but the best part was getting to know Mustardseed’s schoolmates better. I got a few minutes with each of them and make small talk. I found out one is recording an album and plays several instruments. Another is off to college next year. One girl can swim the length of a pool and back in 26 seconds. One boy spent weeks helping his younger brother learn lines for the school play. Many of the kids were warmer and so much politer than I realized or assumed. (Shame on me!) And of course, some usual teen insecurities were on display, but also—maybe because of that—a tenderness, vulnerability, and beauty in each of them.  I’m not really the kind of person to get all sentimental, but I mean it.

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My memories of school photography are not the best. I’ve never been photogenic, the kind of person that knows how to appear most flattering in a photo. When I was in school, you got one snap and that was it. You never got to preview the photos or pick your favorite. I’ve got some doozies that ended up in the yearbook. Everyone from my generation does. It built character…or something. So it was fun to make it a positive experience for them, letting each kid see the photos on the spot and see how good he or she can look. If I had had to do it with a film camera instead of digital, I’d have gone bananas. God bless those poor photographers who had to capture entire schools of squirmy, awkward kids, never knowing what would develop!

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It was also really fun taking Mustardseed’s school picture. We did have a little trouble with a bee. It hadn’t bothered anyone else all day. That may have something to do with the fact that Mustardseed’s hair smells like a lush tropical forest with all the product she puts on it. All in all, I think she turned out beautifully.

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When I Taught Refugees

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In the summer of 2003, I was a year out of college with liberal arts degrees, listless, not sure what to be when I grew up, and chagrinned that apparently, I had grown up without figuring this out yet. During college, I had taught English to foreign university students and corporate expats, so a friend suggested I apply at a place she used to work. It was a small English school on Houston’s busy Westheimer corridor that mostly subsisted off contracts with the government to teach refugees.

Now it’s impossible to mention the word without conjuring all sorts of political and moral judgments in one direction or the other, but I assure you at the time, the only preconceived association I had was The Fugees’ 1996 hit remake, “Killing Me Softly.”

The director of the school tossed me into teaching night classes: English Monday/Wednesday/Friday and computer with the same students on Tuesday/Thursday.

Job #1: Teach them language for how to conduct transactions at the bank using words like withdrawal slip, deposit, checking account, savings.

Challenge #1: Most of them got here days ago, are still looking for jobs, and certainly don’t have bank accounts, much less savings.

Challenge #2: Lincoln Ford, my Liberian student, doesn’t read, so withdrawal slips are going to be difficult.

Lincoln was about my age, 23 or so, and had never been taught to read. He had been in camps for years. But he was eager to learn. He showed up an hour before class so we could work on phonics and sounding through Dr. Seuss books. (This was my first time teaching someone how to read.) Lincoln had what I now recognize was probably dyslexia. He had a terrible time remembering letter sounds and couldn’t string the sounds together, but his enthusiasm never dimmed. He beamed at me every time he got something right, and he was so proud that he was learning to read.

Merone and Daniel were twins from Ethiopia. Merone had gorgeous orange corkscrew curls and a spitfire personality. She kept her brother and all the guys from the Ethiopian contingency in line. Not long into the summer, she invited me to her sister’s house, where she was living, to have an authentic Ethiopian meal. This is where I learned to love the thin, spongey bread, injera, and spicy meat. That day, I came the closest I ever will to being a coffee-lover when she pan-roasted, ground, and brewed a batch of coffee, only sweetened with sugar. If it were all like this, I thought, I could get on board.  She and I developed a friendship, once or twice going to smoke hookah and sit on the patio of a local place. She would tell me about her new boyfriend, an American co-worker from the hotel where she had gotten a job as a housekeeper. A year later, she and her sister were at my baby shower giving me tips. Last I knew, she had married the guy.

Lino was my Sudanese polyglot. He was one of what have been called the Lost Boys, boys who were spared being massacred by the northern Sudanese militias like their parents were, only because they were away from the villages tending cattle at the time. To avoid being conscripted into those same militias or killed later, bands of Lost Boys, usually organized by the oldest among them, a kid maybe 15 or 16, walked up to a thousand miles to cross into Kenya for safety, where they were housed at UN camps.

One of my tasks with my students was to help them put together resumes. I thought this was a little ridiculous, given that most of them were applying for jobs like hotel housekeeper, grocery store stocker, and construction worker, but this was part of what was required according to the government contract. It was during this process that Lino’s qualifications came to light. Not only had he completed an advanced mechanics course available at the UN camp and extensive volunteer work for other residents; he also spoke 6 languages. The others vouched that he spoke them fluently. When I asked how he learned them all, he explained quietly and matter-of-factly how one was his mother’s, one his father’s, another he acquired from his best friend, and so on.

Dieudonné wore gold wire-rimmed glasses. His name meant “given by God.” He spoke with an endearing French Congolese accent—when he spoke—but he took his time to do so, not because of the language barrier but because he was a deliberate, pensive person. It took a while for him to warm up and trust me, but once he did, it was the best feeling in the world when he would ask me a question because I knew that he was trusting me to know the answer. He was about 4 weeks into a later fall class that the school decided to cancel half-way through. There weren’t enough students enrolled to justify paying a teacher. “Don’t worry, we’ll still give you your certificate,” they said, but Dieudonné was angry, insulted at being condescended to, and disappointed. He didn’t want a piece of paper; he wanted to learn English.

Ali and Kasim reminded me a little of the Iraqi Night at the Roxbury guys with their unbridled exuberance and incessant, if as yet hard-to-understand, commentary. Ali was a giant of a man with a close buzz cut who towered over me as he told joke after joke. Kasim stood maybe 5’5” and had a mop of black curly hair and a moustache. They were both REALLY excited about the Internet and showing me things they had found on it. They also were both extremely proud to be in the United States and held this country in the highest regard, as they told me on numerous occasions.

James was the reason we ended up playing computer whack-a-mole. About 60 years old, when he transferred into my computer class, I discovered what he needed first was not to learn what a spreadsheet was or how to draft resumes but how to work a mouse accurately. This led to the discovery that until my class, many of my students had never been on a computer at all. Some, especially James, found orienting themselves spatially on the screen and clicking and double-clicking with good aim quite daunting. Of course! I thought back to what it had been like for me to use a mouse for the first few times. Why would it be any different for my students if they had never done it? So instead of heaping an impossible task on them, we found a simple online game where they had to click on the moles popping up all over the screen. That and using actual boxes and file folders to show them how the computer was organized was a lot of what we did.

Martha was the girl with the big doe eyes. She hardly said a word, even when spoken to directly, but smiled often and wide. She attended class with her fiancé, Noah (who looked seriously like Lawrence Fishburne) and brother, Amin, who loved to tell me about the Blue Nile and other things in Ethiopia.  Martha was a great seamstress, the others told me, though she just smiled and looked at her lap when I asked her if that was true.

Moi was from another class, but somehow we got to know each other in the break room. He was Sudanese, too, but unlike my other Sudanese students, he was from the north of Sudan. He told me he had numerous brothers and sisters, of whom he was the youngest. His dad, a dissident, had gone missing years ago. No one knew if he was still alive or not, but the chances weren’t good.  This was the most I ever talked about the past with any of my students. It’s not that I wouldn’t have if they had wanted to, but I knew from reading, that what some of them had experienced was likely so horrific they couldn’t be blamed if they never wanted to mention it again, much less to me.  Moi and Lincoln Ford and two others ended up coming over to my mom’s for Thanksgiving that year. As a hostess gift, Moi made me a drawing of a palm tree, told me about interesting natural features in Sudan, and said he hoped one day I’d get to see them.

Anwar, for some reason, is the student that sticks with me the most. About 40 years old, Anwar had been a teacher in Sudan before going to Egypt as a refugee and becoming a bricklayer for some of the beachside resorts in Sharm al-Sheikh. Lanky, with a bald patch encircled by slightly graying, wiry hair, and with a thick moustache, his eyes twinkled. He was an excellent student, a quick study. He told me, more to encourage me than to boast about himself, “Teachers are very respected in my country.” And he, almost 20 years my senior with loads more experience, always afforded me that respect to the utmost. Maybe that’s why he’s the one with sticks with me. The humility I felt being treated like that when I knew he was likely the better teacher in the room by far, and the one deserving of respect in that regard.  Once, when I jokingly confessed to not being a very patient person, he cocked his head to one side, no smile on his face, and said, “Oh, that’s not good. Teacher must always be patient.” And he meant it.

Anwar didn’t have the high spirits and effusiveness of Ali and Kasim, but he was hopeful. He seemed like someone who had been burned before but who was cautiously optimistic.  He was glad to be here, and things were looking up, his face seemed to say. He was learning the ropes, getting settled into his apartment and area of town, learning the bus route to the school, making friends with the guys who were his roommates and neighbors, also refugees and usually considerably younger than Anwar, a fact about which he always seemed slightly bemused.

One evening, Anwar came in a few minutes early for class, though, crestfallen. His smile was gone, and he rested his forehead in his hand. “How are you, Anwar?” I asked as usual.

“Not good, Michelle” he said. “The lady from the YMCA (his refugee caseworker) took us today to apply for a job. The Arab grocery store. She take other guys, too. When we get there, we fill out the papers. We wait a long time. The owner, he came and called some guys. We wait some more. He call more guys. We wait to the afternoon. He call all the guys with, you know, lighter skin, to the back. All the guys from his country. It’s only guys like me, with skin like me, still sitting there. Then he say he got no more jobs. They all full. Michelle, why that happen? That happen always in my country. In the camp, they tell us that don’t happen in United States. They tell us no one ever do that because of your skin. They say all that matter what you can do. That happen here, Michelle? People do that here?”

And then I had one of the most unenviable tasks I’ve maybe ever had, of telling Anwar that while the United States is a country where people can make a good life for themselves if they work hard, and even though it is illegal to not hire somebody because of what they look like or where they’re from, it does happen sometimes. It’s not okay, but it does happen. I felt exactly like what I would feel years later as a parent who has to be the one to break a hard fact of life to their child gently so they don’t hear it more harshly somewhere else, but who sees the innocence fade from their eyes like embers in a fireplace.  And maybe that is also a reason I’ll always remember Anwar.

I ran into one student, Peter, about 7 years later, receiving his citizenship at the same ceremony as my husband. Imagine, out of that whole basketball arena, and of all the basketball arenas of citizens that are made every month or so in this city, and had been for all those intervening years, the coincidence of getting see him there so many years later, dressed up in his suit and tie, towering head and shoulders above everyone in the room, and taking his oath on that special day. I don’t keep in touch with any of my former students. Several of them moved to different cities. Life got busy. I’ve never been able to find them on Facebook.  By now, many of them are probably residents or citizens.  Some may have returned home. But I do wonder about them from time to time, especially recently.

How We Become Professional Homeschoolers

Recently, someone I knew asked a group of us homeschooling moms what she needed to do to get started homeschooling her children. Of course, if you hang around homeschooling women for more than 5 minutes, you find out they have lots of strongly held opinions! We were more than happy to oblige with advice. Miraculously, we seem not to have run her off from the proposition.

There is such fear for most people without teaching degrees (and with them) of being inadequate to the task of homeschooling. Of not knowing how to do it. Of handicapping our own kids (and being the only one that everybody can clearly point the finger at). As we locked in our decision to homeschool 8 years ago, I felt that.

Some of that has lessened. Look! Phew! She can read! She’s doing pre-algebra! She knows what happened at Waterloo!

But in another way, as the years have gone by, the fear has tightened.  If I had put her in school in 1st grade and she was behind, it would have been no biggie, but now that she’s in 5th, is there an ever-widening gap that she wouldn’t be able to make a comeback from? Can she write okay for her age? If I put her in a public school science class, could she hack it? WILL THIS DECISION END UP LIMITING HER OPPORTUNITIES???

If you’re new to this and feeling that way, let me just say that that fear just shows with what trepidation you’re coming to this task. I don’t want to sugarcoat homeschooling and say that it’s the picture-perfect lifestyle where children turn into angels and always magically soak up the delight of learning and everything just falls into place. I think there’s sometimes too much of that, in the name of protecting homeschool’s reputation. I don’t want you to be unprepared for those hard days that do exist. What I DO want, what my message is to you, is that if you truly put your hand to the work and seek out the support and resources and are willing to learn and grow and change, you CAN do justice to your child’s education. You CAN homeschool.

Even listening to the way this sweet mom phrased her question, as well as the act of trying to formulate an answer for her in my mind, were a great exercise in putting myself back in those shoes of being a total newbie and feeling bewildered. Frankly, while it’s great that there are more and more resources out there now, I’m kind of glad there weren’t as many when I started or I would have been on total circuit overload trying to figure out which! of all! the amazing! resources! to use! (Oh wait, that’s me now.)

Still, just as with weight loss, I think it’s safe to say it’s axiomatic about homeschooling that you’ll drive yourself bananas trying to measure progress from day to day. The real progress–in your kids and in you–is seen over a matter of years. Drop by drop.

Sometimes, cautiously receptive acquaintances at parties will inquire, “Okay, but how do you know what you have to do with your daughter for school?” I take this to mean that they want to know how I know what subjects need to be covered, what to use to cover them, and how to implement these resources. On one hand, looking from the outside, I can see this as a reasonable question. After all, this party acquaintance hasn’t been immersed in the homeschooling gig for the last 7 years or more. Things that to me are obvious as an elephant are complete enigmas to them.

But they weren’t always obvious to me! And the fact that I have accumulated the know-how that I have–which is by no means much, in the grand scheme, but which is WAY more than the zilch I knew when I started–owes to this drop-by-drop principle. It worked for me, and if you’re starting out, it will work for you, too.

The answer to how I know what to do is that I have voluntarily dedicated lots of time, since my daughter was 2, to researching all the facets that come into homeschooling.  Here is a partial list of things I’ve studied and things I’ve done:

  • what kids need to know at what stages
  • what the different streams of thought are on how to educate children
  • what products and books are out there to accomplish this
  • what games and activities can be done to spark interest
  • I’ve checked out books from the library and bought them from Amazon.
  • I’ve scoured different classic book lists.
  • I got a hold of the grade-by-grade book list from the private classical school I attended as a girl, as well as their scope and sequence.
  • I’ve looked at the grade-by-grade scope and sequence for public schools in my state.
  • I’ve analyzed the suggested college preparatory track on the HSLDA’s website, which is based on their study of what an array of colleges are requiring for admission.
  • I’ve hung around more blogs than I care to admit to.
  • I’ve gone to conferences.
  • I’ve camped out for entire days at the local homeschool supply store, comparing the content of books and curricula.
  • I’ve picked the brains of moms who’ve successfully gotten multiple kids into productive adult lives following being homeschooled.
  • I’ve studied motivation, child development, and learning styles.
  • I’ve gotten to know the ins and outs of learning disabilities and giftedness issues that apply to my family.
  • I’ve brushed up and amplified my knowledge on a wide range of academic subject matter.

In short, I’ve taken a self-cobbled degree in education. Homeschool education.

As in many professions, there is ongoing professional development. As in most professions, if you don’t know how to do your job, your client (in this case, my daughter) will make sure you know it.  You will get feedback, and it will drive you to do better.

People’s concerns (and that’s really what I look at them as, well-meaning concern) seem only partly allayed by this explanation (which I always give more briefly than here, to spare their eyes from glazing over). I think they see that in my case, I probably have gained the expertise, but they are unnerved by there not being someone from outside/above/on high who just makes sure. What if it were someone operating with less good faith? What if I didn’t feel like learning all this expertise? What if there were gaps in my expertise? What if I learned and taught my kids stuff most people disagree with, stuff people consider ignorant? A parent could conceivably do that.

The latter two things definitely happen in varying degrees, but I think it’s the first that really throws people for a loop.  How can we be sure that someone really attains all this–let’s call it what it is–professional knowledge, without someone standing over their shoulder and driving them towards it despite their human nature to want to slack? How can we be sure without some degree program or certification?

And I think that speaks to something that’s deeply ingrained in our society, which is a belief that without an outside impetus, a person couldn’t possibly want to do the work or the learning just for the sake of it or for the sake of the fruits of it? (In this case, the fruits are well-educated, inquisitive kids who want to learn and who are equipped, yes, to provide for themselves in the world.) The assumption that, if given the chance, someone will try to cut corners and pass themselves off as something more than what they really are. The assumption of a lack of integrity and therefore, the need for objectivity that can’t be fudged.

I’m not sure I have an answer for that because, in general, I’d say that tendency is pretty prevalent. Yet I know that’s not what goes on in my own family, and while I have seen a few instances where I felt justice wasn’t being done to the kids in question, for the most part, I see parents who are earnest and well educated enough to teach kids at least as well as the public schools or to connect their kids with the teachers or resources they need in lieu of themselves. After all, is it any great advertisement for our public schools to say we’re dubious that most people who are the product of them are fit to impart essential knowledge to the next generation?

As an aside, I think another reason for the “how do you know what to do” question is that, as a society, we seem to look at anyone under 18 as alien spawn with three heads who only communicate in Klingon or High Elvish and that, therefore, it requires an advanced degree, not in the subject matter (math, science, literature) but merely in how to even approach, manage, schedule, wrangle, and impart anything to these curious beings.

Well, after the week I had recently, I’m not so sure my daughter isn’t from another planet than I am! But it seems to me we’ve made Education into such a highly specialized field and enshrouded it in such mystery (compounded by the fact that it really does take quite a bit of skill to handle a room full of restless natives who are only friendly in varying degrees and who outnumber you significantly, rather than your own kids) that we can’t fathom that anything shy of government training (teacher certification) and a structured 4-year degree could possibly equip us for the task.

I have the utmost respect for teachers and do not intend to belittle their training or the function they serve in our communities. My intent is to show that a homeschool parent who diligently applies herself to the task of preparing herself (as most, motivated by their children’s well-being, are wont to do)–yes, even a regular, ordinary mom like you–can certainly craft training for herself that is equally valid and equally or better suited to the task of educating the several people on whom she is the expert, in a home environment.

If you are just starting out your homeschool experience or still contemplating it, take heart! To borrow a line from the U.S. Army, homeschooling is the toughest job you’ll ever love. My advice to you is to simply start soaking up what’s out there, little by little. Just start with what you need right now. When you have extra blocks of time, you can learn about issues, subjects, or grades that will come down the road. Rely on friends in person or even online, on your library, on great homeschooling blogs. Find out what works for your family and what doesn’t. There will be trial, and that means there will be error. Ditch stuff that doesn’t work!

All the while, keep in mind that joy in exploration and relationship are the most important things even to academic success, and let those rule the day.

If you’re new to homeschooling, what do you worry about? Or what questions do you have? Veterans, what are your best tips and resources?

3 Stupid-Easy Ideas to Satisfy When You’re Craving Sweets

An epiphany for me has been that, as a person with hypothyroidism, I really SHOULDN’T be on a very low-carb diet. More than most people, hypothyroid people need a certain level of carbohydrate to aid in the conversion of T4 to T3 so it’s usable. That’s a process that’s already impaired in my body, and I don’t need to get in the way of it more, thinking I’m doing something good for myself and trying to conform to what “the experts” say I should do.

What I have experienced with the times I’ve tried to do anything very low-carb is that I’m an absolute zombie, and that’s not really what we’re going for, right?

An aha! moment came, though, was when I realized that that need is part of why I gravitate towards sweets like a moth to a flame. My body senses that I need carbs and that I’m in deprivation mode (although that deprivation might be of protein or fat just as well as carbohydrate). When my tank is low in whatever way, my body wants that quick shot in the arm. It wants to feel better fast. And it senses that the coke or ice cream will indeed make me feel better fast. People talk about feeling so awful when eating badly, but I think that’s part of my problem: I don’t feel awful–at least not right when I do it. As a more systemic trend, yes, but right when I do it, I actually feel an intense relief and and even maybe a momentary bit of euphoria. I think that’s because my “right now” needs are getting met.

Here’s the thing though: I could meet my needs for carbohydrates in another way that doesn’t also come with a biological tax.

The way I’m choosing to meet those needs when I eat sugary things, bread, pasta, chips, crackers, and other simple carbohydrates comes with a definite downside down the road: diabetes, liver problems, continued thyroid problems, dental cavities, depression, and more, some of which I already experience. Few people experience those things when meeting their carb needs through vegetables, certainly, or even through moderate intake of potatoes, yucca, plantain, and sweet potato.

Secondly, if I’m proactive about it, I don’t back myself into a corner where I feel desperate for the quick jolt. When I let myself go hungry completely, or when I don’t feed myself the things I need to feel truly satiated–saturated fat and protein–then I get wild-eyed, weak, and sapped of energy, leaving me vulnerable to bad decision because I need to regain my energy quickly.

So the solution is to think a bit ahead and not neglect myself by postponing a meal too long or by not having enough fat and protein and to realize that while carbs are vital and necessary, there’s a smart, healthy way to get them that won’t cause collateral damage.

Once I’ve gotten myself into a jam, I’m usually so sapped of energy that I can’t even think straight, and I certainly don’t have the energy to prepare something that would truly nourish me. So it’s important to keep on hand a few things that meet this criteria but are extremely easy to pull together on a moment’s notice. (I also love to have a go-to list for what to pick up at the grocery store, so that if I’ve been out and about without eating for too long, I don’t reach for the candy bar at the checkout aisle or drive through a fast-food line.

Olive Oil-Smothered Lubneh with Veggies

Lubneh is a Middle Eastern milk product that is somewhere between yogurt and cream cheese, with a wonderful, pillowy texture. Unlike cream cheese, it spreads easily straight out of the fridge. It’s a little tangy and definitely lends itself more to savory flavors. The traditional way of eating it is to spread a bunch in a thin layer on a plate, drizzle olive oil all over it, and then sprinkle salt, pepper, oregano, and minced garlic on top. Plant a few olives near the center for garnish and sprinkle with a little parsley, if you like, and you’re groovy. The virtue of this dish is that it’s gives you two kinds of healthy fats at once. Plus, it gives you an excuse to eat fresh garlic! (If you don’t like that, just eliminate it. But seriously, if you don’t like garlic, we can’t be friends. Seriously.)

The traditional “vehicle” to get this stuff into your belly it, of course, pita bread. But never fear! Cucumber rounds and strips of bell pepper make great, tasty shovels as well. If you like celery or baby carrots, they could work, too. Eating a massive plate of lubneh always satisfies me and is easy enough to prep that I can fathom making it, even if I’m running on fumes.

Nuts & Apple

Nuts are not my favorite thing. It’s not that I hate them, but when I eat them, it’s more in the way that people take their vitamins. Not with a lot of relish. I was heartened to read that an ideal serving of Brazil nuts is actually just 4 or 5 nuts. No wonder I don’t usually want more. Maybe you’re a nut lover or maybe not. When you’re woozy with hunger, I can’t promise nuts will make you feel instantly awesome the way a soda might. But eat as many as you’re body seems to direct you to (maybe a handful, maybe somewhat more) and give it 10 minutes. I think you’ll find you’re tided over, even if you don’t feel a dramatic shift.

Apples are a great companion for nuts because you’ll get a little sweetness and a little sugar, but it’ll come wrapped in a lot of fiber so it doesn’t hit your bloodstream all at once. Plus, apples are very portable, so you can throw them in your purse or the car for when you’re on the go.

Pepperoni

I feared cured meats for a long time, but there’s evidence that we really needn’t fear the nitrites used in the curing process. Certainly, some nitrates are better than the damage done by long-term dependency on sugar instead. Animal protein can be tricky to get without a lot of cooking. Keeping a cured meat like pepperoni or prosciutto on hand in the fridge can give you some quickly.

Brie or Goat Cheese

Some cheeses pack a powerful punch of fat in small portions. Brie and goat cheese are two delicious cheeses that are much higher in fat than cheddar or Monterrey jack. You usually don’t have to have a lot to feel satiated. All real cheeses make good snacks. If you’re looking for something you can take with you, provided it won’t sit out for a very long time, consider some of the laughing cow cheeses.

Yogurt with Fruit

Yogurt is a great, satisfying snack, but I personally haven’t gotten used to having it salty or without so much as a drop of honey. What I have found makes it sweet and palatable enough it to put some strawberries or other fruit in it. We usually keep some frozen strawberries on hand for smoothies anyway. Those don’t go bad and can be had year-round. I like to pop a few in the microwave to thaw them just enough, and the juice that comes out is nice when it distributes throughout the yogurt–though fresh strawberries are just as good. (I know, microwaves have their drawbacks, but one problem at a time for me.)

Canoli without the Shell

Ricotta is an alternative to yogurt that’s denser and creamier. It pairs great with some chopped pistachios, a little bit of 80%+ dark chocolate and a bit of vanilla. It’s like a little piece of Italy–only Italy is covered in carbs and this isn’t!

Bacon

Get yourself a pack or two. Broil them for about 10 minutes. Keep them in the refrigerator. Insert into your face. Need I say more?

Guacamole & Veggies or Jicama “Fries”

Again, the problem with guac (as with many dips) is not the avocados, which turn out to be great for you and very satisfying. It’s what you use to get it into your mouth (usually corn chips). I admit, there is something lacking in the crunchy department with this, but a bell pepper or a piece of jicama still gets the good stuff in your tum and tastes good. There are paleo chip options, but those require prep, and we’re going for the completely lazy, no-think-ahead options in this post.

Jerky

If you, like me are thinking “Step into a Slim Jim!”, I’m here to tell you, jerky can be so much more. I have never been overcome with love for jerky, but a few years ago, I noticed Krave jerkies at the store, and I really like them. This comes with a disclaimer, though, that Krave is NOT sugar-free. You’ll get about 10 g of sugar in every ounce of jerky, so weigh your options. Way better than a soda, but especially if you’re in detox mode, sugar is still sugar. Taht said, they are delish. If you want to get into the realm of making your own, the Krave flavors could be a source of inspiration, but again, this post is all about stupid easy option.

Peanut butter Banana Milk Fortified with Coconut Oil

As I said, I don’t usually crave nuts, but lately, I’ve been wanting peanut butter. I found an inexpensive brand with no sugar or any ingredients other than, uh…peanuts. Although Laura Scudders’ gets a layer of oil on top that some people might find less than ideal for sandwich-spreading, I’ve been dumping two large spoonfuls in a shake with a cup or 2 of milk, a banana, and a handful of ice. With the right coconut oil, this won’t taste like coconut but will get you some wonderful medium-chain fats, which will also further satiate you and up your calorie content for the day. (I’m not much for calorie counting, but I do know I’m aiming for about 60% of calories from fats other than trans or polyunsaturated fats–so, saturated, medium-chain, and monounsaturated is what I’m going for–and I know this boosts me in the fat department.) Something to keep in mind with this is that a banana is pretty high-carb, so you have to weigh for yourself what else you’ve eaten lately. If you already had a sweet potato for lunch and 6 apples, this is probably not your best choice, but if your other eating has been mostly veggies, meat, and fat, a banana shouldn’t stall weight loss or otherwise hurt your health.

Sugar-Free & What Changed for Me

When it comes to reaching for your ideals, there is no substitute for having that someone in your life who sets the example and inspires you.

For quite some time, I haven’t been where I would like to be in terms of health and, as an offshoot of that, appearance. To be honest, despite having a lot of knowledge about nutrition and health, I had kind of thrown in the towel when it came to actually acting on that information.

I have a number of health issues that I’ve been sticking my head in the sand about. I’ve felt incapable of making change. I always intend to do better and then, the next day, I find myself back doing the very thing I know does not serve me best but which serves me in that moment. Buying that Dr. Pepper, staying up late into the night, or whatever it happens to be. How’s that for being a slave to your cravings?

Well, this past week, for the first time in a long time, I’ve been able to change that—and to do so in a way I’m feeling is sustainable—and I’m so excited to share with you about it.

Hello, my name is Michelle, and I’ve been sugar-free for 7 days. No Dr. Pepper, no Starbuck’s chai lattes, not even fruit juice or that sneaky little sugar in ketchup and the like. The only sweet I’ve had has been a little bit of fruit.

What made the difference?

For one, I’ll be completely honest: I’m not liking the mirror lately, even less than usual. I know that’s not popular to admit to these days because of the whole movement against body shaming and everything, but these feelings exist and I think there needs to be a safe space to acknowledge them. I’m getting a little older, and I haven’t been feeling like the person I see in the mirror really reflects who I am anymore. I know I have to come to terms with the fact that sooner or later, I will age, and that I must cultivate true beauty in my heart. But on another level, I think it’s okay to be a little dissatisfied sometimes, when it’s within reason and well-founded. It can an inner alarm bell that prods you toward better health. Maybe I simply reached my threshold.

But frankly, that’s happened before without there being something to catapult me from “I want to change” to “I feel I’m capable of changing.” Without the second factor, perhaps I would still be sitting around simply dissatisfied but not taking action about it.

The second thing that happened was that a good friend posted her photos after doing the Whole 30. She looks amazing! What’s more is she suffers from thyroid disease, like me, one of the things I always let stand in the way of my success. It got my wheels turning. At that time, she said she didn’t know how much she’d lost because she hadn’t been on the scale, but a few weeks later, she said that after 56 days, she’d lost 20 pounds.

Twenty pounds. That’s basically my goal weight, so that number really hit home. I think that’s when I started to say to myself that maybe it really was possible and worth the sacrifice to not only lose the weight but all the other health improvements that come with changing how you eat and getting more active. If she could do it, maybe I could do it, too.

Learning to Respect What Works for Me

I would call this “listening to your inner dieting voice,” but my inner voice says to eat ice cream…

Back in January, I asked for the 21-Day Sugar Detox for Christmas and set about doing a detox. It stunk. In the past, I had experienced the initial few days of no-fun withdrawals and then they were over. This time, they continued for Two. Weeks. At which point I tapped out and began my REtox.

Upon seeing my friend’s success, I looked into the Whole 30, and it’s about the same as the strictest level of 21DSD. I had only been doing the easiest one, where dairy and gluten-less grains (like rice) are still allowed. Given the level of deprivation I felt with 21DSD last time around, I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea to try something more restrictive. So I don’t choose to do either of those programs right now.

Instead, I’m adopting an approach that is less rules-based and more common sense, and I’m taking one step at a time.

Registered dieticians will tell you to get 45-65% of your calories from carbs, 20-35% from fat, and 10-35% from protein. Fat, particularly saturated fat, has been vilified. Reading Nourishing Traditions and later, blogs like bionutritionist Chris Masterjohn’s blog Cholesterol and Health, have really helped me to see what a myth that is. Since, more and more respected mainstream sources have come out with information that saturated fat is not connected to disease after all. Many people believe the target range for fat should actually be more like 40-60% of calories, particularly saturated fat! And people like Gary Taubes have helped me see that the calories-in-calories-out theory of weight gain and loss just doesn’t pan out.

So many people are having success with lifestyles like Paleo, Whole 30, and 21DSD (which are all low-carb, no-processed diets). Yet one concern for me is that lowering carbs too much can actually have a very counterproductive effect for thyroid patients because our bodies use carbs to help us convert thyroid hormone. I believe this has been a problem for me and a wall I’ve run up against when trying to stick to other diets. Paleo guru Mark Sisson recommends keeping carbs under 80 g, and under 50 g, if you’re trying to lose weight. Yet Chris Kresser warns that hypothyroid people should keep their carbs a bit higher at 15-30%.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never been likely to become a calorie counter, and I’m not going to start now, but I do think it helps to have a general idea of what you should aim for, to help you know what a day of meals might look like or how often you might be able to have a bit of rice.

My Personal Eating Plan

So here’s what I’ve settled on for myself. Now that I’m looking at it, it’s actually a 21DSD with no restrictions on fruit.

  • Aim for around 1850 calories, but not count calories religiously, just ballpark it.
  • About 25% carbs, 15-20% protein (as desired), 55-60% fat
  • Absolutely NO sugar. No sodas, ice cream, candy, added sugar in sauces and dressings, fruit juice, and for now, even honey
  • Eat fruit of all kinds in moderation
  • Strive to get a lot more fat and protein in, and reach for these when I’m flagging or getting cloudy-headed between meals
  • Get at least 8 hours of sleep
  • Not sweat, for now, the fact that I can’t afford grass-fed meats
  • Include beans and lentils
  • I’m already gluten-free, so continue with that, but within my allotted carbs (about 116 g, based on my weight, activity level, and body fat percentage), try to get the bulk of them from vegetables and fruits, starches like sweet potato, yucca, plantain, and a little potato
  • Not worry too much about starchy vegetables, as long as I’m pretty close on the ballpark carb count
  • Allow myself brown or white rice or quinoa once or twice a week, but I’m still not sure corn is such a great idea
  • Avoid caffeine for now

Y’all, I’m so excited and proud of myself. With the exception of a slightly bumpy first two days (made better by some fruit), this week went great, and I’m feeling able to keep going. What eating plan has worked for you? Do you have any go-to tips for sticking to a healthy eating plan? What was your “Aha!” moment that enabled you to take action for better health or weight loss?

Small Is Significant

The motto of The Mustardseed Chronicles is “small is significant.”

I personally have struggled so much with this idea in different ways. Is what I’m doing on a daily basis as a mom of true value? Is my snail’s pace toward my goals really getting me anywhere? Do my current limitations of time, money, and who-knows-what-else make my aspirations hopeless? If I put myself out there to the world in the form of publicly presenting my ideas and projects in their current, raw form, will I get dismissed? Maybe I should bide my time until I can pull together something more presentable.

Maybe you’ve asked yourself these types of questions at some point as well.

It’s taken me a long time to be more gentle with myself on these things, to strike a balance between loving myself enough to insist that I strive toward my ideals and loving myself enough to be gentle and patient about my progress and my failings.

Not that I’m now a beacon of wisdom on this subject. Every now and then, I’m nothing but a big puddle of saltwater. But I do feel like I’ve gained some perspective, and I want to use it to encourage other people.

So I suppose it’s fitting that the inaugural post here be an outgrowth of that motto. Because, well…I have a confession. The little seed for this blog has been in my mind—the domain even reserved—for over a year now, and I haven’t taken the first step because I didn’t have it “all together” yet, didn’t have just the right thing to say.

Well, I’m throwing that to the wind and just starting, so here goes: Hi!

Is there something you’ve been holding back on, too? Something that you’ve been waiting to get “just right” before launching? Something that you’re being hard on yourself about not accomplishing or sticking to (because, hey, why shouldn’t you be, it’s important, right?)?

I would love to hear from you about it, but more importantly, let me encourage you to take that tiny, imperfect, messy step, just like I am here, right now. Let me urge you to let that step, the thing you can do in the place you are right now, be okay and be good enough.

This isn’t sentimentality. This isn’t letting your accountability slip. This isn’t letting yourself off the hook or a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card.

Ultimately, this is truly the most fruitful, nourishing way to move forward.