30 March 2011

Environment: Home as Temple

We've all heard the old saying, "Your body is your temple." As a Pagan, my home is also my temple, as it has been for countless other Pagans through the ages.

In ancient Rome, the home was the primary place of worship. There were temples - both state run, like the temple of Vesta and the domicile of her virgins; and also the temples of the various cults from around the empire. However, daily worship was conducted in the home: before the lararium and in the kitchens of every residence.

The ladies of the household were responsible for ensuring the fire was always burning in honor of Vesta. The male head of household honored the spirit of the family - the genius. A variety of other household gods were honored: the lares were the family ancestors, but later (for patrician families) included patron deities. Penates were protectors of the household, especially the pantry or larder. There were spirits of the door, the door hinges, the threshold, the land or location, and more. Daily rituals honored the gods, the household and family spirits with prayer, offerings of food, wine, oil, milk, salt and water.

These rituals are not much different than those in the thousands of Hindu households in India. Daily devotion and ritual, or puja, are performed to honor the family's patron deities and ask for their blessings, protection and guidance.

The home is also the primary place of worship for modern Pagans. When the earliest covens, circles and study groups were forming in the 1960's, 70's, 80's and 90's, they were almost exclusively held in the living room of one of the members. Few of us have the resources - either personally or communally to provide for a separate and independent temple or place of worship. Even were we to develop the resources to build temples for Pagan worship, our structures are much different from those of the monotheisms as we are all clergy: there are no parishioners or congregants in Pagan religion.

Most people, if the organization and home economics experts are to be believed, rush around for an hour trying to hide messes and make common areas look presentable before company arrives.  Even I have assisted in many a frenzied cleaning spree hours before a ritual, sabbat or other religious event was to occur in someone's home.

A few things happened however, to make me rethink how I was managing my household. I quickly came to the conclusion that I was not being respectful of my home, my belongings or myself - especially myself. We seldom entertained at home when I was growing up, and when we did, I never felt comfortable having people in the house. I never felt relaxed and fretted constantly about my guests' comfort. Plus, by the time I was done helping my mother and siblings scrub the entire house before our friends arrived, I was too tired to really enjoy their company.

So even though I still retain a certain discomfort with having people over, my household is home to many cultures and many deities. There are the Gods of my heritage, the Gods of my partner's heritage, and the Gods that call to me. Additionally, there are the household Gods, our beloved ancestors, the spirits of the land and the little people. Why was it okay to have a home in disarray if people weren't coming over? I already had a house full of Gods and Goddesses - didn't they deserve to be shown the same deference and respect I would show to human guests?

I had read many blogs, sites and books on home organization and cleaning. It wasn't until I found the FlyLady that I was truly blessed with a program that works. I went all in and cleaned my home, ceiling to floor in a little less than two weeks.

Part of the reason it took me so little time was because for about five years previously, we had been making a concerted effort to declutter our home. We had sold, given away or thrown out hundreds of things by then - so all I really had to do was whip out the all-purpose cleaner and get to work.

I treat housework as though it were a sacrament, a sacred ritual of purification. I crank up inspiring music that I can sing along with and sometimes dance to, I use cleaning products with oils consecrated to particular purposes mixed in. My cleaning tools are consecrated - my vacuum cleaner, duster, mop, and especially my broom are all tools in the art of magical housekeeping. I talk to my ancestors, commune with my favorite household Goddess, Hestia. I offer up my sweat in joyous dedication - how blessed I am to have a home to clean!

When I set house wards, I'm not just putting lipstick on a pig - the house is both physically and spiritually clean. Energy flows better and it is more abundant. I find I am no longer wasting time on distractions - focus is more easily achieved. And when I am done, and my home sparkles, I can light candles for my ancestors and for my Gods and feel proud to offer them hospitality in our home. And when beloved coven members come to the house to meet, I can spend my energy preparing a pot of tea and fully participate in our conversation.

28 March 2011

Money: Calculating Your Real Salary

In my favorite book on personal finance, Your Money or Your Life, authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin spend an entire chapter discussing the calculation of one's real salary - information that is later used to better inform choices around spending, saving and budgeting. At its heart, calculating your real salary is a cost/benefit analysis.

First, Calculate Your Time
Depending upon your job description, industry, title and company structure, the time you devote to your job can vary widely. Additionally, if you are a salaried employee, it can be even more difficult to determine how much time you actually put in when you are expected to check emails frequently or come in on weekends or holidays.
If you are in management, or in a profession that regularly requires you to do additional work at home, check email/blackberry after hours and/or work on weekends or holidays, it is best to record your hours like you record your expenses as described here.

Example: For the sake of simplicity, let's say you earn a salary (after taxes and deductions) of $52,000 annually. Since there are 52 weeks in a year, you make $1,000 a week. If you work 40 hours a week, you earn $25 an hour.

But wait, there's more...

How much time do you spend getting ready in the morning? This extra time may be negligible if you don't dress any differently at work than you do on the weekends, but for many people, getting ready for work takes longer than their routine on the weekends or when they're on vacation. Add this time to your work hours.

How long is your commute? Do you stop to pick up breakfast or donuts and bagels for the office on your way to work? Add this time to your work hours.

How long is your lunch or dinner break? Even though you aren't officially "on the clock" you are still either at your job site, or nearby - often with colleagues or clients. Add this time to your work hours.

Example (continued): Earlier, we calculated that your work week was 40 hours. However, let's say you spend an extra half hour getting ready in the morning. This adds 2 1/2 hours to your work week. If your commute is 1/2 hour one-way from your home to your work, this adds another five hours to your week (provided you work five 8-hour shifts per week). Let's say you also take an hour lunch break everyday, adding another five hours to your work week. Now your work week is 52 1/2 hours instead of just 40, bringing your hourly earnings to approximately $19.05.

Next, Calculate Your Work-Related Expenses
Consider the old adage, "It takes money to make money" and you'll understand this next section. There are things you must buy in order to maintain your job: gas money or public transportation passes; special clothing, meals, continuing professional education and more. This is where tracking your expenses over several months comes in handy...

Transportation: You have to put gas in your car to commute to work, but don't forget to include other car-related expenses such as insurance, registration and maintenance. Don't forget to include your car payment if you don't own your vehicle outright. This is easier for a car or truck that is used exclusively for work, but you can estimate the percentage of use of your vehicle for work-related travel for an all-purpose car.
If instead you use public transportation, multiply the cost of a monthly pass by 12 months and then divide by 52 weeks to find the weekly amount. (Example: A monthly pass costs $40 x 12 = $480 annually. $480/52 = $9.23 per week.)

Appearance & Clothing: Do you wear suits and ties to work? Do you require a uniform? Maybe coveralls or work boots or other special clothing that you don't normally wear outside of work? Don't forget any special grooming, accessories or cosmetics that you need to look appropriate for your job, but wouldn't normally wear during your personal time. Don't forget to include dry cleaning costs. Refer to your expense log to determine an average for annual clothing expenses and divide by 52 to calculate a weekly cost.

Meals & Snacks: Do you eat out for lunch? Do you stop by your favorite cafe on your break? Do you buy your lunch at the company cafeteria? Don't include meals with clients or colleagues that you are reimbursed for through an expense report.

Other Job-Related Expenses: Did you buy a briefcase or bag for your laptop that you were not reimbursed for? Do you take classes, exams or re-certification workshops that you pay out-of-pocket? Do you belong to professional organizations, networks or clubs? Do you subscribe to industry-specific periodicals, journals or other media to enhance your job skills? What about tools, reference materials or supplies that enhance your ability to do your job? If you travel for work and must use a personal credit card for airfare, hotels and meals which are later reimbursed through an expense report, don't forget to include any interest or other fees that you pay while you are waiting for your expense check.

Example (Continued):

Transportation Expenses (weekly):
Gas - $40
Insurance - $15
Registration - $3
Maintenance - $18
Total: $76

Appearance & Clothing (weekly):
Clothing: $20
Dry Cleaning: $15
Total: $35

Meals & Snacks (weekly):
Coffee Drinks: $25
Lunch: $50
Total: $75

Total Expenses (weekly): $186

Your Real Weekly Salary:

Base Weekly Salary: $1,000
(Less: Weekly Expenses) -$186
Real Weekly Salary: $814

Hours Worked per Week: 52.5 hours
Real Hourly Salary: $ 15.50

This means that for every 15 minutes of your life, you are earning $3.88. Is that latte or smoothie worth fifteen minutes of your life? Is cable television worth three hours of your life? Some other things to think about...

  • Do you enjoy your work?
  • For the amount of work that you do, and the level of education you have, years of experience, etc., is your Real Hourly Salary a fair wage?
  • Do you find yourself having to "self-medicate" to relieve the stress of your work? (i.e. drinks after work, other mind-numbing activity to decompress, etc.)
  • Do you find yourself living for the weekend? your next vacation? retirement?

Next week, I will discuss a couple of things including using your expense log and your Real Salary to make some informed decisions for your spending and some strategies for getting out of debt.

25 March 2011

Health: Some Thoughts on Weight

I've been troubled for a few weeks; my first post about excess weight and health didn't really go the way I had hoped. I stepped on some land mines, was confronted with some of my assumptions, and felt as though I expressed myself poorly; but I hope to move forward and do better. I knew this was a difficult, challenging and touchy topic, but I don't want to be afraid to discuss something so important.

1. Health is a Spectrum
I see health as a spectrum - on one side, you have optimum health; on the other, disease. Hopefully, everyone is making choices that point toward the optimum health side of the spectrum. Where an individual falls on this spectrum is in many ways subjective and it is comprised of several different factors. Depending on your age, family history and personal history, some markers may include blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, TSH levels, estrogen or testosterone levels, quality of sleep, blood cell counts, oxygen levels or body fat percentage. The significance of these markers will be different for everyone and only you (and your doctor) know your body well enough to determine which factors are of most concern for you.

2. The Biosphere Loves Diversity
Bodies come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. Not everyone can be a size 2, nor does everyone want to be a size 2. The supermodels don't even really look like that - their photographs are so heavily photoshopped that no human could ever look like the "people" on the covers of the various magazines. Hell, even if Barbie was on crack cocaine, she couldn't be that thin and disproportionate. There is no magic dress size; there is only the appropriate size for you. If you don't think beauty comes in every size, take a look at this.

3. There are Many Roads to Rome
I've been reading about alternative and integrative medicine long enough to know that everyone's health plan needs to be customized. Some need more vegetables, some need more sleep, some need to supplement their diet with various herbs and vitamins. Some people respond to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), others do better with Ayurveda, and yet others do best with western medical protocols. Everyone is different - listen to your body.

4. The System is Rigged
Getting healthy and staying healthy is hard work. Corporate America is sabotaging you, as are your health insurance actuaries. There are "food" companies out there who spend millions of dollars making their "food" as tasty and addictive as possible. Then they spend millions more on studying your psychology so they can successfully market this cheap, nasty "food" to you. It is inescapable - junk food is everywhere and it is very, very, very hard to run from its siren song. From the heavily subsidized crops like corn and sugar to the dollar menus, it can sometimes feel like choosing between the lesser of two evils. Don't hate on yourself because you succumbed to the corporate machine. Just do better next time. If you need some aversion therapy, try reading this or this. The movie was too hard for me to watch, and I had to turn it off mid-way through. Though, the movie "Supersize Me" was frightening and entertaining all at the same time.

5. The Metrics are Skewed
I used to think that the BMI was wonderful. Now not so much thanks to this and this. In a nutshell, BMI is a nice way to determine obesity in large populations, but not in individuals. It has been suggested that the insurance industry loves the BMI to justify charging you (and your employers) higher premiums. Use the waist-to-hip ratio instead.

6. Overcoming Inertia Sucks
I enjoy runner's high and that light and clear feeling you get after a long vinyasa yoga class. I actually like kicking the crap out of a heavy bag and the feel of the wind in my hair as I fly down a mountain on my bike or snowboard. If I actually enjoy these things, why is it so hard to get motivated to go do them? Like everyone else, I've had long periods of time where I consistently went to the gym or to yoga class or went out for a run. Then something happened: a minor injury, work travel, out of town guests - something always seemed to get me out of my routine. Boy howdy is it hard to get back on track!
I've also been on my various healthy eating kicks where I swear I'm going to make every meal from scratch. A few weeks go by - I stew beans and vegetables, make salads five times a week, make everything vegan or gluten-free or macrobiotic or whatever. But then, all my enthusiasm just gets deflated and I find myself choosing between ordering a pizza or going out for pho.
The best advice that I can offer (and that I try to take myself) is don't let anything derail you. Do less or go with less intensity, but don't let off the gas. Inertia can take weeks, even months to overcome if you let it settle in around you.

7. But Let's Not Bullshit Ourselves
I am a typical American - I am fat. I started gaining weight in college. Now, most people would say that it's common to gain the freshman 15 - since it's your first time away from home and so on. Only, I had lived on my own for nearly a decade when I started university (I was a late bloomer). At one point, I actually wished aloud that I had a malfunctioning thyroid or that something was wrong with me so that I would have an excuse for being fat. But that's all it was - an excuse. Do I really need to talk about how screwed up it was that I was wishing disease on myself to justify my obesity?
No, there was nothing wrong with my TSH levels or anything else. I had simply let myself go. This is not to say that there aren't people out there who have real medical problems that cause them to gain weight. There are a variety of reasons people gain weight and not all of them are because they are doing something "wrong". But in my case, I was fat because I was sitting on my ass (studying) and drinking way too many mochas with extra whip. I suspect a lot of people are like me - they are fat because they aren't exercising enough and they have a crazy sweet tooth.
When it's been cold and rainy (like it has been lately), or I'm in the middle of reading a really good book, the last thing I want to do is strap on some running shoes and go burn off last night's dinner. But, I also know that if I had not been getting regular exercise and eating healthier foods that I wouldn't have been able to get through the public ritual I ran last week. I celebrated Ostara outdoors, in the cold wind and rain and I'm not sick! Last month, I got through four full days (and nights) of Pantheacon and I didn't get sick. This was only possible because I've been taking better care of myself. As a priestess of the Gods I serve, I am committed to maintain a strong body so that I might continue to do greater work. What great work could you do if your body was stronger?

23 March 2011

Environment: Container Gardening

The Spring Equinox was last weekend - indicating the allotted time to plant our garden.

I spent the first seven years of my life on a small farm. My mother maintained a sizable vegetable garden and had many creative (and sometimes labor intensive) methods for preserving, storing and using our bounty. She made pickles - both sweet and dill - from our cucumbers. She canned lots of other veggies, and even made her own tomato sauce, paste and stewed tomatoes that we enjoyed year-round. She was an avid proponent of organic gardening long before grocery stores put a "9" in front of the SKU number for produce.

Organic produce can be quite costly and I thought I could grow my own at a significant savings. Additionally, because we rent the home we live in, we didn't want to make any costly or semi-permanent changes to the landscaping. To resolve this dilemma, we explored container gardening.

My mom, the ultimate green thumb, told me about the Earth Box and recommended it as an ideal solution for container gardening. She mentioned seeing them for the first time at a home & garden show and bought several to share with my grandparents. That first year, they picked over 10 pounds of tomatoes from their plants.

I like container gardening because I can control all the variables: soil, water, fertilizer. Also, with the design of the Earth Box, I don't have to worry about weeding, though occasionally, I do need to put out snail and slug bait (that is safe & non-toxic to other animals). Set-up is quick and easy; you can have an entire box planted in about ten minutes.

We have since gone on to add dwarf citrus trees in large pots and potatoes, peppers and salad greens in grow bags. I now have lemons, limes and oranges almost year round. The potato plants yielded enough yukon gold tubers to last almost two months.

Not only do I get to enjoy fresh produce, I draw all kinds of lovely critters to my yard. Hummingbirds are here daily, sampling from the lemon blossoms while bees buzz around the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash and the flowers I plant to draw them in.

We also maintain an Aerogarden indoors for culinary and medicinal herbs. This year, we planted cilantro, chives, basil, calendula, lemon balm and dill. I cook a lot of both middle eastern and Thai food, so between the cilantro, dill, basil and kaffir limes, I stay pretty well stocked.

This year, we decided to add water barrels to our garden. Summers in Silicon Valley can be very warm and it's easy to lose thirsty vegetables like cucumbers if you don't keep them watered. In an effort to save on our water bill this year, we took advantage of the rainy season by collecting it in large barrels. We were able to acquire two large barrels from a friend and make our own rain barrels. If money is no object, you can buy some lovely ceramic rain barrels like the ones here, but we were trying to save money, not get featured in Sunset magazine.

The benefits are multifaceted and I recommend that even apartment dwellers take up container gardening. It makes your patio, yard or balcony beautiful; it relieves stress to play in the dirt and it saves money by providing delicious, organic produce that is as locally grown as you can get. It puts you directly in touch with Nature and the agricultural cycles which we, as Pagans, celebrate. Last but not least, it's really fun and satisfying to enjoy that which you have sown.

21 March 2011

Money: Making Decisions About Spending

Have you ever thought about what motivates you to spend your money? What drives you to choose a certain brand or option over another? Is it something you've always bought? Do you always look for whatever is cheapest or on sale? Have you had a good experience with that particular item? Did a friend or relative recommend it to you? Does your purchase benefit an organization or cause you support?

In order to make decisions about how we spend our money, we need to be conscious of our values. There are no right or wrong answers - just an opportunity to develop a greater awareness around how we spend our money.

Over the next month (or longer), I recommend writing down every cent that comes into or out of your life. You can use a small notebook, a smartphone app, sticky notes or whatever appeals to you to write down every penny you spend and every penny you receive. This exercise will yield lots of useful information for future calculations.

One thing to keep in mind is consistency is very important. At first, you may notice that you alter your spending habits because you don't want to have to write it down. You may want to procrastinate - you tell yourself you'll write everything down at the end of the day. Don't wait! Write everything down as soon as money comes into or out of your life. Don't round numbers up or down - write down the exact amount. The longer you can maintain this exercise - the more accurate the information will be because it provides more longitudinal information.

To clarify, the water company invoices me every other month. I also pre-pay my auto insurance six months in advance (to take advantage of discounts). If I only wrote down my expenditures and income for one month, it will give me a very skewed picture of what my average expenses and revenues are and make it more difficult to create a workable budget or calculate and plan for other financial concerns. Gathering detailed data over multiple months generates more accurate data.

Next week, I will discuss how we can organize this data into useful information such as creating a budget, calculating our real wage and aligning our values with how we use our money. For now, just write down everything you spend or receive/earn without judgment. No shame, no blame - detach from any emotions you are feeling and just write it down as objectively as you can.

18 March 2011

Just a Quick Note Today...

I'm preparing for a public Ostara ritual tomorrow with South Bay Circles and don't have time for a more in-depth post. 

Meanwhile, the Pagan community is raising funds for the work Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres) is doing in Japan. So far, they have raised over $20,000 and are hoping to donate at least $30,000. I urge everyone to support this effort; you can make a donation here.

16 March 2011

Environment: Home Fires

The devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan are weighing heavy in my thoughts today. It's difficult to come up with something pithy or even useful when there is so many homeless and injured across the ocean from me.

I am reminded of goddesses of the hearth and home - the centers of daily worship in Pagan practice. I am fond of Hestia, the original lady of the house who kept the homefires burning. But tonight, I light a candle for Fuchi, the Japanese goddess of fire and for Sanpo Kojin, Japanese god of the hearth. May the Japanese people find warmth and the comfort of good food tonight.

So mote it be!

14 March 2011

Money: Emergency Funds

Everyone has unexpected expenses which crop up - car repairs, sick pets, appliances or plumbing that malfunctions and so on. As Dave Ramsey, a popular Christian financial planner says, it isn't a matter of if these crises will happen, but when. Unfortunately, most people seem ill prepared to deal with life's curveballs and they find themselves deeper in debt to solve these problems.

Ramsey recommends starting with an emergency fund of $1,000 if you are in debt, but this number may be higher depending upon your location, number of dependents and so forth. I've read that the average unexpected expense is $700 - enough to blow anyone's budget and create a debt cycle that is difficult to pay off.

Emergency Funds for Debtors
I will tackle the issue of debt in a forthcoming blog, but for our purposes, credit obligations include credit cards, debt consolidation loans, personal loans, car notes, student loans (less than $30,000) and all other types of debt excluding mortgages.

If you have any of these types of obligations, you are in debt and need to throw all your resources towards saving up a minimum of $1,000. Once that money has been set aside for emergencies, do not touch it unless you have an unexpected crisis. Should an emergency occur while you are working towards paying off debt, use your emergency fund to pay for the crisis. Do not use credit cards to solve your problems - they just create a deeper pit for you to crawl out of. Once crisis has been resolved, divert your resources to building the emergency fund back to $1,000.

Emergency Funds for the Debt-Free
If you are already debt-free, or once you satisfy all your credit obligations (except your mortgage), you can now focus on saving up the rest of your emergency funds. Minimally, you should set aside three months of living expenses and ideally six months or more. Depending upon the size of your mortgage payment (if you have one), you should be able to save up the remaining emergency funds fairly quickly now that you are no longer in debt.

How much is enough?
Money, like food, provides for some emotional needs. Depending upon a variety of factors, some will desire a bigger cushion of emergency funds than others. Calculate your living expenses for a month - don't forget to include:

  • Rent or Mortgage
  • Insurance (Home, Auto, Medical/Dental, Life, etc.)
  • Utilities (Water, Power, Waste, etc.)
  • Phone
  • Groceries (don't forget your pet food!)
  • Incidentals (gas, public transportation fare, household supplies, etc.)

Some people feel secure if they have three months of expenses saved, others want to have a year of living expenses put aside, plus an extra cushion. There are no correct answers - it only depends on your personal circumstances. When calculating how much is enough for you (and your family) consider:

  • the age of your vehicle(s)
  • pending major home repairs
  • age and health of pets
  • age and health of dependents
  • insurance deductibles
  • age and condition of major appliances

Where do I keep it?
You want your emergency funds to be liquid - or in other words, easily accessible. While it is acceptable to leave the greater portion of your emergency funds in an interest-bearing savings account, ideally you can stash $500 - $1,000 in cash in a fire-proof safe. By having cash on hand, you will have funds available to pay for emergencies even when the banks are closed. Be sure to have a variety of denominations to use - not everyone accepts bills larger than $20.

11 March 2011

Health: Emergency Preparedness

In the late hours of yesterday evening, I learned that Japan had suffered a massive earthquake and hundreds, perhaps thousands were dead or injured. Tsunami warnings covered the greater Pacific Rim: Philippines, the Marianas, Hawaii, Guam and the west coast from Alaska through Canada on down to Mexico. My prayers and thoughts are with the Japanese people as they struggle to rescue the injured and bury their dead.

I thought this would be an appropriate time to review some ways to be better prepared for emergencies of all kinds - in effect protecting the health of ourselves, our pets and our families. Every region has its own typical natural disasters; I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so earthquakes are our concern.

Adults should be vaccinated for the following diseases:
  • HPV (for individuals 26 and younger)
  • Meningococcal (for college students who live in dorms or other dormitory-style housing situations)
  • MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) if there is no evidence of immunity
  • Td Booster (tetanus and diphtheria) every ten years
  • Varicella (chickenpox) if no evidence of immunity
Basic Emergency Preparedness
I recommend purchasing a thin loose-leaf binder, thick page protectors and some 8.5 x 11 paper for this organizational project. Because of the extremely personal information to be contained in this binder, it should be easy to grab in an emergency, but not something easily accessed by anyone other than responsible household members.

Your first page should be a "You are Here!"directory:
  • Home Address
  • Names and all phone numbers (clearly labeled: cell, work, etc.) of all members of the household
  • Directions to your home
  • Names, addresses, directions and phone numbers for:
    • Physicians of every household member (clearly labeled)
    • Dentists of every household member (clearly labeled)
    • Veterinarian
    • Emergency Room
    • Urgent Care Clinic
    • Emergency Veterinarian (if your regular vet isn't a 24/7 clinic)
  • Local Police Department Non-Emergency phone number
  • Sheriff's Department Non-Emergency phone number
  • Poison Control
  • Wildlife/Animal Control
  • Local Fire Department
  • Water Department
  • Power/Utilities Company
  • Roadside Assistance or Auto Clubs (ex: AAA)
  • Insurance Agent and Claim Hotline (include policy numbers)
  • Telephone Company
You will want to include other important information such as social security numbers, medical insurance group or account numbers, insurance policy numbers, vehicle information (license and VIN numbers). Other information which may be helpful to have on hand include:
  • Contact information for nearest relatives
  • Pet vaccination records
  • Auto Mechanic
  • Contact information for neighbors or closest friends
  • Optometrist
  • List of medications
  • Credit Card numbers and expiration dates (don't forget the security code on back just in case!)
Fire-proof Safe
I believe everyone should have a fireproof safe. The following items should be kept in the safe:
  • Birth Certificates
  • Passports
  • Social Security Cards
  • Other legal documents: adoption papers, marriage/divorce papers, immigration documents, green cards, etc.
  • CD or USB drive backup of important computer files and financial information
  • Deeds
  • Titles to Vehicles
  • Spare keys to autos, house(s), and other locks
  • Emergency Cash (in a variety of bills)
  • Other Valuables (jewelry, coins, etc.)
Other Household Emergency Procedures
Know where and how to turn off the following items:
  • Hot Water Heater
  • Gas Main
  • Master Circuit Breaker
  • Water Main
You should keep fire extinguishers near:
  • Fireplace(s)
  • Stove
  • Barbeque
In a pinch, a box of baking soda will put out a grease fire on the stove.

Disaster Essentials
Years ago, we purchased some medium-sized trunks with wheels that are ideal for storing emergency gear. I've seen appropriate storage options at most of the discount and big-box stores. Your "trunk of relief" should contain the following:
  • Two (or more) gallons of drinking water
  • Food (ease of access and preparation - think energy bars, meal replacement shakes, instant soups, etc.)
  • Powdered sports drinks (You are under stress - you will need the electrolytes and minerals these provide. Try to find a low sugar version)
  • Pet food
  • Small bowls and cups (I like the collapsable silicone versions of these made for campers and hikers - they are lightweight and easy to pack)
  • Leashes for your pets
  • Rain Gear
  • Blankets
  • First Aid kit & pain relievers
  • Feminine hygiene products, tissues and toilet paper
  • Small ziploc bag of travel size toiletries
  • Flashlight
  • Duct tape, rope & batteries
  • Radio & Cell phones
  • Change of clothes and accessories (hats, boots, gloves, etc.)
  • Medications
  • Cash, ID and Emergency Binder
  • Pocket or utility knife
  • Deck of Cards or other portable games
If you are forced to evacuate, this box of emergency essentials should keep you and your family fairly comfortable and safe - even if you must stay the night in your vehicle. Also, try to keep your pets with you - they are at terrible risk if you have to leave them behind. Keep in mind, most shelters will not accept pets, even if they are in crates. You may also want to take a firearm with you (provided you have one and know how to use it).

Auto Safety Preparedness
A crisis is not the time to discover your spare tire is flat or that your windshield wipers are cracked. Keep your car in good repair - get regular oil changes, keep your tires inflated to the manufacturer's specs, check your battery for corrosion and replace it every five years, rotate your tires every 3-5,000 miles and replace them when the tread wears thin. Know where your car jack is and make sure you know how to use it. I like to keep a portable power pack in my car (like this one: http://www.duracellpower.com/portable-power/power-packs/powerpack-300.aspx) since it has an air compressor, enough power to jump start my car and plug-ins for phone rechargers.

Be safe out there everyone, and if you can, please donate to the Red Cross to help the people of Japan impacted by this terrible earthquake.

Addendum: Magical Tools & Other Valuables
Sometimes, I forget to add things that are specific to Pagans. I suppose that it is so ingrained, that I figure it goes without saying...

If you must evacuate your home, I recommend taking the following items with you:

  • Book of Shadows or other journals, books or oathbound materials
  • Cords (if your path uses them)
  • Athame or ritual knife
  • Other magical tools: wands, pentacles, chalices
  • Divination tools: tarot cards, runes, pendulums, yarrow sticks or coins, etc.
  • Images, statuary or other items critical to your practice

I have a medium-sized wooden trunk that can be easily locked and will protect my tools for travel. I also enjoy scrapbooking as a past time - it makes grabbing irreplaceable family photos much easier. Family photos will be especially important if honoring ancestors is a part of your practice.

09 March 2011

Environment: Letting Go of Stuff

It seems redundant to write that I love my stuff - but I do. I don't have much stuff anymore (it's taken years of dedicated culling to get to this point), but the stuff I have is useful and brings me joy or makes my life easier.

There was a time however, when I was much more impulsive about buying things. I used to collect beanie babies; though I have the good sense to be embarrassed by it now, I was crazy about those little bean bag stuffed animals. In retrospect, though they were cute, I really enjoyed the rush of locating obscure toy shops and finding beanies I did not yet have - especially if I got a "good deal". Soon, I had added Barbies and Star Wars action figures to the things I collected and spent a great deal of money.

I lived in a tiny apartment in San Francisco back then and had no room to display the fruits of my ceaseless searching and purchasing. Every one of my beanie babies were carefully packed away in hard-sided plastic boxes after gently placing a plastic protector over the heart-shaped Ty tag. Barbies and action figures were, in collectors-speak "mint in box" and stored similarly in large plastic bins. All of these bins were stacked neatly in the closet, from floor to ceiling.

One day, it was like a bolt of lightning struck me. Suddenly, it felt like the walls were closing in and I felt suffocated by the amount of stuff I had. The sheer amount of plastic I had was appalling enough! I put an ad on Craigslist and had a "garage sale" in the lobby of my old-fashioned apartment building. I sold all the barbies and action figures and several of the beanies too. I unloaded books, kitchen items, clothing - all kinds of things. At the end of the day, I ended up taking the remaining beanies and walking up the four flights of stairs to give them to a neighbor whose daughter loved them. Although I made a few bucks from my sale that day, in reality, I had lost hundreds of dollars. Maybe even thousands...

I know from experience how traumatic it can feel to even consider selling or donating stuff that one has accumulated over the years. We feel guilty donating or selling gifts received, we feel ashamed and perhaps cheated if we get rid of collections or impulse purchases, we worry that we will waste money if we relinquish tools, household items or decorations - even if we haven't used them in years. We ask ourselves, "What if we need them again?" Some of us even may feel as though we will lose status if we shed items that might be useful to others, especially if we take pride in being the person with all the stuff.

The easiest way I have come to tackle clutter and excess is to start by picking one room at a time. There is no rush, we didn't fill our homes and cars with stuff in a day. I bring two big boxes or garbage bags; one is 'Stay' and one is 'Go'. Sometimes I will set a timer for 15-20 minutes and move as quickly as I can, tossing items into one of the boxes. When the timer goes off, I take the box or bag of 'Stay' items and put its contents neatly away.

The 'Go' box is further divided into three piles: donate, sell or trash. The trash is usually the easiest to dispose of and I take that out to the large bin outside immediately. The pile for donation goes into a box or bag and is taken out to my car for delivery to a donation station. I like Goodwill the best because they provide jobs for handicapped and underprivileged individuals - don't forget to take a receipt for your tax return - especially if you itemize deductions.

The sell pile is the most tricky; large or fragile items that would be costly or difficult to ship usually go on Craigslist. Items with a higher monetary value end up on eBay, while more specialized items may go on internet forums or bulletin boards with a classifieds section. Once in awhile, if I have a Saturday to kill, I'll have a yard sale.

The lightness I feel after de-cluttering a room is difficult to describe, but it can build momentum so that eventually the entire house is free of unused, broken or outdated stuff. An obvious benefit is that it is far easier and faster to clean and maintain my home.

07 March 2011

Historical Earnings and Net Worth

Last week, I discussed a bit about the nature of money and promised more information about calculating one's real salary and net worth. The calculation of real salary tends to be involved as it requires hard numbers from a variety of sources. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be focusing on those sources and calculating those necessary hard numbers before we put it all together.

In corporate accounting, the accountant's equation looks like this:

Assets = Liabilities + Capital (or Stockholder's Equity)

In personal finance, the equation is written a little differently:

Assets - Liabilities = Net Worth

The easiest method for calculating net worth is to start with your assets:

  1. List your largest assets; for most individuals this includes real estate and vehicles
  2. Next, list your "liquid" assets--checking and savings accounts, CDs, IRAs, 401(k)s, stocks, bonds, and cash on hand
  3. Next, (and this is the most time-consuming part) you will want to take an inventory of your other assets: household goods, clothing, jewelry, tools, collections, etc. While you are cataloging these assets, I highly recommend taking photographs of valuables and keeping a list of serial numbers, model and part numbers and other identifying information. If tragedy strikes, it will be far easier to file a claim with your insurance company with a complete catalog of your belongings.
Add items 1-3 to get your total assets. If you like a more detailed schedule of assets, item 2 represents your Current Assets and items 1 + 3 equal your Fixed Assets.

Next, we will move on to your liabilities:
  1. List all your major debts. This includes mortgages, car loans, student loans or other large debts with a repayment schedule. These are considered long-term debt.
  2. List all your revolving debts including credit cards and personal loans. These items, plus the current period payments from your long-term debt are your current liabilities.

Add your liabilities from items 1 and 2 above to get your total liabilities. Next, subtract your total liabilities from your total assets to find your net worth. If you have more assets than liabilities, you will have a positive net worth. If however, your debts are more than your assets, your net worth will be negative. In rare cases, you may end up with a net worth of zero should your assets equal your liabilities.

Obviously, a negative net worth is not ideal, but don't panic; it is a situation that can be reversed.

Before we move on to historical earnings, I want to point out that it's tempting to forgo the complete, detailed inventory of one's stuff. It can be very tedious and time consuming. There are a number of reasons I encourage people to do the inventory anyway; for one, as I mentioned earlier, it provides a detailed accounting of valuables for use in insurance claims and/or police reports should tragedy strike.

Secondly, it gives one a clear picture of the amount of stuff they own and how much it is worth monetarily. This second reason can be used in several ways: it makes de-cluttering one's home much easier as it gives the individual more information to decide how to handle their belongings. Items that are no longer used can either be sold, donated or tossed depending upon their monetary value.

Also, another benefit is that once you have calculated your historical earnings, an inventory of your assets will give you a clear idea of what you have to show for all your hard work over the years. You may find that you have made poor choices as to how you have used your money (or life energy). Conversely, you may find that you have wisely used your money on purchases and have useful or valuable assets. Either way, you won't know for certain until you have completed a detailed inventory of your assets.

Unless you have kept meticulous records of your income over the years- everything from allowances, babysitting money, after school jobs or paper routes to a full-time career as an adult, calculating your historical earnings will be based on estimates.

Some other sources of historical earnings information include:

  • Social Security statements
  • Tax returns
  • W-2 forms
  • Paystubs
  • Check registers
  • Savings account passbooks

When you add up all the money that has come into your life, you will get a clear overview not only of how much prosperity you have created for yourself, but also your natural habits around money. When your historical earnings are viewed in conjunction with your asset inventory, you can see how you have either squandered or saved over the years.

04 March 2011

Health: Our Bodies, Our Weight, Our Magic

Health is the foundation for prosperity; the quality of one's health has a direct effect on one's ability to not only earn a living, but to enjoy the fruits of one's labor. A state of optimum health means having a strong digestion, a consistent and high level of energy throughout the day, the strength, endurance and flexibility to do a variety of tasks, a robust immune system, a clear mind, clear complexion and lustrous hair and nails.

It is not easy to maintain health in modern America. Lots of people make obscene amounts of money from pushing unhealthy "foods" and the medications, weight-loss programs and treatments required from a lifetime of eating poorly and getting little physical exercise. It requires a near-constant vigilance to eat well and get the amount of physical activity needed to maintain even a moderate level of health.

Admittedly, I'm reluctant to discuss this topic for fear of offending those who seem to think the only appropriate response to the growing obesity epidemic is polite silence. Let's face it, as an acquaintance of mine once wrote, "The Pagan community doesn't photograph well." Take a lap around any Pagan festival or gathering and we seem to be riddled with chronic health problems, bad teeth and obesity. I have also observed that on the whole, we eat poorly and do as little physical activity as possible.

I am not a fat-basher; I am not filled with disgust or hatred when I am in the company of those who are overweight. I am related to and friends with lots of overweight and obese people and I confess that currently, I am heavier than I would like to be. I love my fat friends for the same reasons I love my slender and athletic relations and acquaintances; they are funny, intelligent, kind, creative, witty and I feel good when I spend time with them. My concern for my overweight friends and family is for their personal comfort. They are often in chronic pain and I hate to see anyone, especially someone I love, suffering in discomfort.

My favorite aunt suffered her entire life because of her weight. She was diabetic and grappled with all of the problems diabetes causes: poor eyesight, numbness in her extremities, heart and kidney problems, arthritis and joint problems. Eventually she had to use a wheelchair because the cartilage in her knees was worn down to painful bone-on-bone contact. She couldn't get the knee replacement surgery that would have restored her mobility because of her obesity and other related health problems. It isn't uncommon for the women in our family to live to 100, but her life was truncated by her excess weight. She eventually died a few years ago - she was only in her late 60's.

Expense is another problem related to being overweight. Many people in my life who are overweight must take a fist full of pills to control their blood sugar, their blood pressure and their cholesterol levels. These medications are very expensive and often I see them compromising on the health care they could receive in favor of a pharmacy plan that provides their medications at a reduced rate.

Lastly, and more specific to the Pagan community - our health affects our magic. Not many of the Witchcraft 101 books mention how much physical endurance it really takes to run energy for rituals, sabbats and spellwork. I've observed that many Pagans get sick or run-down after a festival or major ritual. They aren't healthy and strong enough to manage the amount of energy they are using and end up depleted and ill. We need to be fit - mentally, emotionally and physically - to practice strong magic.

So, why is the Pagan community so chronically overweight and unhealthy? I have a few theories which I will share below:

Pagans are a brainy bunch with an increasing roster of PhD's in our community. We read a great deal and love to talk shop with other Pagans, Heathens and Witches. We value the intellect and learning, often to the neglect of other aspects of the self.
According to the Pagan census, the majority of us work in the computer science field and lots of us love to play video games. Many of us are crafty, enjoying needlework, knitting and crochet. These activities don't burn many calories, unfortunately. In fact, the first time I had to start paying attention to my weight was when I went to college. The intense study sessions, library visits and classroom time meant I spent a lot more time sitting than engaging in physical activity.
The tendency for Pagans to live in their head seems to lead to a dissociation with their body. They simply are more interested in thinking than doing.

Lack of Grounding
The most popular and sexy parts of magical practice seem to exclude the body - astral projection and possession work  - actively concentrate on the psychic rather than the physical. Many Pagans seem to get attached to the high one experiences in sacred space and in the concentrated presence of invoked deity.
To use a different model to illustrate what I mean--it seems Pagans are most often operating from the 5th through 7th chakras. They seldom engage, let alone integrate their personal energy with the 1st through 4th chakras. This "head in the clouds" default position means that Pagans are not functioning in a grounded manner, resulting in a neglected body and physical environment.

Extended Adolescence
This theory is what I like to call "You're not the boss of me!" Pagans tend to be distrustful of authority, if not downright defiant of it. I suspect that there are Pagans out there who rebel against their parents, medical research or other authorities in favor of having cookie dough for breakfast. They eat like they would have liked to when they were fifteen, but now they can, so they do.
There are also feelings of injustice in this group; they feel put upon having to watch what they eat and exercise, so they cry, "It's not fair!" and continue to eat poorly in brazen challenge to what they know to be true.

Monotheism Carry-Over
Pagan refugees from some of the more strident monotheisms seem to suffer from discounting the value of their body. Because they were taught that their body was inherently dirty, sinful or temporary, they tend to focus exclusively on their spirit. The concept of the body as a meat car for the spirit is as common and persistent as it is pernicious. It isn't possible to embrace a religion that says, "Thou art God/dess" and hold that the body is merely a vessel for one's spirit without creating cognitive dissonance.

Everything Goes
Pagans value diversity and have created a community that is safe for those who may otherwise feel like an outsider. Unfortunately, I think that this laid-back, everything goes attitude has fostered an environment anathema to discipline. Many Pagans simply don't care about their body and promote an acceptance of unhealthy behavior as a condition of being accepting of diversity. To admit to caring about the body is akin to admitting to being shallow.

Ignorance & Laziness
If Pagans applied themselves to learning about nutrition and exercise with the same zeal that they employ in their spiritual study, this would cease to be an issue. Learning and practicing new habits can be tedious and difficult - learning to eat more healthfully and consistently getting exercise is no different. These new skills and practices don't have to remain drudgery - exercise and learning to cook can be fun. Lots of community centers, kitchen supply retailers and gourmet food outlets teach cooking classes. Grocery stores like Whole Foods regularly offer tours and classes on shopping for and creating healthy, balanced meals.
Community colleges, dance studios, martial arts schools and intramural sports associations offer a variety of alternatives to dressing up in spandex and hitting the gym.

Lack of Self Love
Ultimately, I think that health problems stem from a lack of self love and respect. If we loved ourselves, we would honor our body and honor our boundaries - and demand that others do as well. We should treat ourselves with the same generosity of spirit, compassion and respect we treat others. Frequently, we comfort ourselves with tasty, but unhealthy foods instead of observing and serving our real needs. Additionally, there is seldom immediate feedback when we abuse ourselves in this way - it takes awhile for the pounds to pile on and the health problems to make themselves urgent.

Perhaps many consider these issues to be personal; I agree that people's relationship to their body is often sensitive and fraught with painful experiences. Many Pagans have very good reasons for not wanting to fully inhabit their body. I do think however, that ignoring this issue is not the correct way to deal with it. We need a great deal of healing in this area and should seriously consider the most effective methods for increasing the physical vitality of our community.

02 March 2011

Environment: The Things We Own

As I meditated on what to write about today, it occurred to me that perhaps I should clarify what I mean when I use the word environment. Environment is a big word that encompasses several parts. There are the macro-level or public parts: the earth and nature, with their own issues including climate change, pollution, and overpopulation. There are the micro-level elements or personal spaces including individual homes, offices, studios, and cars. The in-between environments: neighborhoods, community centers, covensteads, markets, cities, towns, temples, parks and other places which share characteristics of both public and private environments.

For the purposes of this blog, I intend to begin with and focus on personal spaces. Eventually, I will include the spaces shared by community in the discussion, but my interest lies in the environments of a more personal nature. As a practitioner of magic and as a Pagan whose religious practices are primarily within my home, I feel that this type of personal space has the deepest impact on my psyche, health and ability to comfortably commune with divinity.

You might notice that I do not include the body as a part of personal environment. I reject the assumption that the body is merely a meat vehicle for one's spirit. I reject the concept of the body as dirty, sinful or an otherwise source of problems and pain. I do believe my body is me; it is not the total expression of me, but it is me. Your body is you, and should be respected as such. I will address this further on Friday, when I discuss health, where I believe it is appropriate to discuss this magnificent, complicated and fascinating expression of self called a body.

Humans form attachments; it is part of the human condition. The Buddhists claim that these attachments are the cause of all suffering. We form attachments to other people, ideas about ourselves, outcomes and expectations and even inanimate objects. While I agree with the Buddhists that we should cultivate more consciousness around our attachments, we part ways when it comes to a solution. Ideally, Buddhists would like to develop a compassionate, detached relationship to all. I however posit that it is in our best interest as humans to develop discernment as to which attachments will best serve us and to discard the rest. Knowing that pain and suffering may be the result of becoming attached to a lover, a beloved pet, a precious object is a risk I take gladly for I have glimpsed the great rewards of loving attachment.

Have you ever lost a precious object? Broken a favorite item? Had a cherished belonging stolen? The anguish we experience when we are deprived of our things is a result of our attachment to them. Yet, when the things we love are whole, we treasure them and take great pains to care for them. We keep them clean and in good repair; we carefully store them, even purchasing special cases or boxes for precious objects; we insure them and guard them protectively.

Have you ever stopped to consider how much emotional and mental energy is spent on tracking the things you own and love? How much money, time and effort do you spend to maintain treasured belongings? It probably doesn't occur to you to calculate those costs of ownership, because it is a labor of love. We seem to automatically care for the things we love. But what about objects you don't care about so much? An old, chipped coffee mug; a pair of pants that no longer fit; a never-been-used waffle maker. These are objects that you have in your home, but seldom use and have no sentimental value.

Then there is the clutter; the electrical cord to who-knows-what, dried out pens, junk mail, rubber bands from produce eaten long ago or the Sunday paper. It is stuff you put in the "junk drawer" or in a pile on a desk or table or in a basket or a closet. You tell yourself you might need it someday, or someone else might need it someday; someday, someday, someday. Sometimes, we cling to outdated or outmoded objects because they remind us of a time in our lives we deem to be happier or more vibrant. I suspect some people keep things that are no longer useful, but may be useful to others in conjunction with an attachment to an identity or story about themselves they wish to retain. They want to be the person with all the great stuff that no one else has, as if they will be called upon to be the props warehouse for community ritual drama.

You have a relationship with all the things you own, whether or not you love them, use them, or even remembering having them. All of these relationships require mental and emotional energy - even the clutter. Some things are useful, some give us joy, but others still require the mental energy to ignore them and then later hide them when company comes over. If you live in a large home and own lots of things, the burden of many objects is great. One can also have an enormous amount of mental clutter--we will cover this in a later blog.

Some things to consider:
  • Clutter makes us run in circles
  • Clutter makes us feel depressed
  • Clutter makes us "fight" all the time
  • Clutter steals our freedom
  • Clutter wastes time
  • Clutter causes stress
  • Clutter takes our space
  • Clutter makes us inefficient
  • Clutter costs us money
  • Clutter causes us embarrassment
  • Clutter causes safety hazards

Some questions to ask yourself:
  • Do you find yourself spending a lot of time looking for things? 
  • Do you sometimes find things in your home that you forgot you owned?
  • Do you feel tired, lethargic or otherwise run-down and have no other medical reason for feeling this way? You might be suffering from too much stuff.
  • Do you argue or fight with the people with whom you live? Do you have a contentious relationship with your neighbors? If you find that you have a lot of conflict in your life, it is probably caused by excess.
  • Would you be able to save money on your housing costs if you could move? Have you been stuck in your present home because you can't bring yourself to consider packing all your stuff to move house?
  • Are you frequently late to appointments because you can't find your keys, your gloves, your bag, etc.?
  • How much money could you save if you had less things and could live in a smaller home? How much money do you spend each month on storage?
  • When is the last time you entertained in your home? If you haven't had friends over to visit recently, you may find that you're too embarrassed by your clutter to invite friends and family to your home.
  • How often do you find that you trip over your stuff? If you had a house fire, how quickly could you get your pets, your family members and yourself out?
Next week, I will describe some strategies for decluttering your home, office and car. For now, I suggest you spend some time considering your relationship to the things you own. Bring your attention to how you feel when you see or use your things. How is your breathing? Is it shallow and quick? or relaxed and deep? Do you smile when you look at your things? Do you feel drawn to touch or handle your things? or do you tend to ignore or not see your belongings?