Let Them Grow: Fresh Way to Engage Toddlers in Creative Free Play

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Sugar on Snow

31872072121_c5cb22e945_mGrowing up in New England means I was raised on snow. I never missed a chance to play in it, and more so, eat it. I have passed this down to my children, inherently, without knowing. Even the dregs of snow left on the street are tempting to my three year old. She sneaks handfuls from the flowerpots on Main St and shoves them into her own face. Her obvious passion makes me thankful that I had saved some fresh snow from last weeks storm as it opened a dialog about the dreaded “yellow snow” verses clean snow. It got me thinking about the best part of snow…sugar on snow and snow cream! This New England treat is a favorite of kids and adults both! With a little creative thinking it can be made into a fun sensory edible experiment as well.

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Off the Mat for March 2018: Coming Clean

Off the Mat: Coming Clean

Saucha – cleanliness – leads to a heart-mind that is happy, focused, not distracted, and ready for experiencing the divine light within.” Nicholai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga

My hubby and I are fighting about dishes. Mundane of the mundane, but increased demands on us both have bumped cleaning lower on our priority list. Our best intentions to wipe down the kitchen each night fall victim to email needing reply, uninterrupted phone call opportunities, exhausted naps on the child’s bedroom floor.

I’ve grown resentful of our stereotypical tension, his long commute leaving more housekeeping to me. I’m irritated by the clutter: yogurt foil left on counter, coffee splats dried beside compost bin, ever present pile of backpack, coat, mittens, boots, socks blocking the front door.

I’ve tried to be Zen about it. I can only change myself, after all, so if I’m bothered by picking up after them, stop. And I do, for a few weeks, anyway.

And yet my cataloging mind still tracks who used the spatula still beside the stove, whose bread crumbs remain, a trail leading to tidying undone. Bitterness builds along with the stack of junk mail and soap scum in the sink.


I lived by myself only briefly. Left to my own devices, I was less fastidious; it was my mess, only mine. I was only inconveniencing myself by leaving my one skillet crusted with sauce. No one to set an example for, no one over whom to retain moral superiority.

Because there is judgement in cleanliness. Judgement against the messy. I apologize as I clear flotsam and jetsam off of my passenger seat, flinging it into hatchback so a friend can catch a ride to the potluck. My generation – or at least my cohort – of overcommitted mamas one-ups ourselves with how little time we have to tidy the way my mother’s generation, or at least her circle, measured their value with the good housekeeping seal of approval. Their expectation of being next to godliness.

We all have our places – our passenger seat foot well or junk drawer or grimy fridge. Whether public or private, accepted or shame-drenched, being human is messy.

I find it reassuring that cleanliness, saucha, is the foundational tenet of the niyamas, the personal principles of yoga. Learning to treat myself ethically starts with care for my body and my personal space. When I wash windows or clear smears from the bathroom mirror, I can see the world more clearly. See myself more clearly:

  • Recognize the resentments and projections separating me from my hubby, and instead choose compassion for his exhaustion and stress.
  • Acknowledge being my mother’s daughter, concerned with appearances. If exercise is my priority and time is tight, I can go out in public with greasy hair.
  • Accept my OCD tendencies. I do prefer to function with less clutter and mess. I want to inhabit the here and now, present in my mind and body. Sweeping Os off the floor is practicing yoga.


Monday morning, I enter the kitchen and am immediately affronted by Sunday night’s pots and pans. I cooked. It’s not my job to clean them. But my frustration festers every time I pass the sink. So I wash the dishes. And ask the water to wash away my irritation. I grant myself permission to leave Monday night’s pots and pans to soak.

Tuesday morning, I come down to find them clean in the drying rack, replaced by my hubby’s soaking breakfast dishes. We are a work in progress.

Photo credit: Laurens Kaldeway


Ginny Hamilton

Pain specialist, yoga instructor, and Reiki Master Ginny Hamilton teaches simple & proven techniques to release pain & restore energy in the workplace, group classes & private sessions. She has put down roots in South Amherst with her spouse and young son. Daily she’s amazed by the beauty the Pioneer Valley offers, though her allergies beg to differ. In Off the Mat, Ginny explores how yoga’s physical and mindfulness exercises help her parent and how parenting shapes her yoga practice. www.ginnyhamilton.com

Learning Landscape: Putting Food on the Table in Late Winter

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

Learning Landscape: Putting Food on the Table in Late Winter

The February Landscape

Humans much prefer February (and its early season equivalent, December) to January for its lengthening days, warmer temperatures, and gentler storms. But for those whose lives are dictated strictly by the natural elements, February can be a harsh month depending on the status of local food stores.

During a mild winter, most animals will easily be able to find what they need in order to survive throughout the season. When conditions are harsh, however, food sources can become scarce while the effort necessary to access them can become much greater.

Whether a winter falls towards one of these extremes or is somewhere in the middle, it’s worthwhile to know how to identify, locate, and even consume a few common winter wildlife food sources. If you know who eats what and when, you’ll have a greater chance of learning to track local species. Monitoring likely meal sites over time can alert you to the patterns of the creatures you share your natural space with, and can bring you into closer alignment with the natural world.

Exploring outdoors in February is generally quite enjoyable; temperatures regularly surpass the freezing point, the sun shines often, and if you’ve been active throughout the season, you’ll likely have a good walking path packed down by late winter. This month, pay special attention to a few common wildlife food sources. Note the changes that each feeding area experiences to understand the role that it plays within the local ecosystem. Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Tape Town

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Tape Town

Now I am stretched thin as the tape. A sticky waddling baby slowly swaggers around looking to get into everything that his three-year-old sister is into. The challenge becomes affording both age groups an opportunity to play without shorting my infant of a great art experience or ‘dumbing down’ the project for the preschooler.  Here is a fun and easy activity to try out!

Tape Away

Masking tape is a fun and easy way to engage any age group’s fine motor skills and avant-garde art intuition. Masking tape from school suppliers peels easily from surfaces, has good rip-ability, and comes in every color. Pulling, peeling, and tearing the tape exercises little fingers and makes a beautiful temporary work of art. Use a plain wall surface or a large blank table. Let the children tear and pull and put on and take off the tape. The goal is not to keep a beautiful piece of  art, but rather to inspire and engage.

Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Aspiring to Reverence and Love

Aspiring to Reverence and Love

While his wife was pregnant with their one and only, my friend found himself chatting with a colleague’s husband. Impending parenthood seemed a safe topic. “The difference between hitting your kids and not is knowing when to leave the room,” the man volunteered. My idealistic father-to-be friend found this odd. Startling. Inappropriate. But he chalked it up to the teller’s awkward reputation.

Until their daughter was two and the truth of the conversation came flooding back on waves of shame, realization, and thankfully, restraint.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Life: An Unexpected Journey Through Dog Rescue and Adoption.

The Good Life: A Year of Thoughtful Seasons by Sarah Mattison Buhl

Any Damn Thing Can Happen: An Unexpected Journey Through Dog Rescue and Adoption.

A friend once said to me after a shocking turn of events in her life, “Any damn thing can happen.” The more revolutions I make around the sun, the more evidence I see of this understated truism. It is apparent in happenings both life-changing and unremarkable. Sometimes you win the lottery; sometimes the socks match up. Life after 40 is a game of chance, not skill. With luck, you will get to 50 on the right side of the grass, but along the way, you will be surprised again and again.

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YA Book Reviews for the Seasons: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

You may have heard that author Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. Ishiguro is best known for his 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day. More recently, in 2005, he published a haunting novel entitled Never Let Me Go. While Ishiguro likely intended Never Let Me Go to be read mainly by adult audiences, the plot of the novel focuses heavily on the main character’s recollections of adolescence. As such, it can be relateable and enjoyable for teens, especially older teens. This beautifully woven novel is the perfect, contemplative read for a snowy day, provided that you don’t mind a sad story. Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

Do you want to build a snowman, but its too dang cold for your little one to be out more then two minutes without getting frostbite? Winter is always a fun time to use snow and ice as a medium for art. As you know, toddlers can make art out of just about anything. Playing with snow in New England is a time-honored tradition. Real snow is the best – you can bring it indoors in bowls or pans and let your little one explore the cold without gloves in the warmth of your house. However, it melts. This led me to experiment with several fake snow recipes. I tried a bunch, but this one is the most realistic.

What is in it? 50/50 white hair conditioner and baking soda. It is that simple. It feels like real snow – cool to the touch and malleable.

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape for January: Tracking to Learn Winter Habits

Learning Landscape for January: Tracking to Learn Winter Habits

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

The January Landscape

January in New England is bleak. Deep snow covers the ground, and temperatures hover – unwavering – right around zero. Modern humans instinctively shy away from what we see as a harsh landscape, but all around us, creatures are going about their lives. If we project our human interpretation of winter upon the landscape, it appears dormant, bleak, perhaps even depressing – how could anything be alive within it? Yet all around us, the natural world is indeed very much alive, simply experiencing winter as another moment in its existence. Creatures roam about, insects are literally snug as bugs underground, and trees stand tall and unfrozen, filled with natural antifreeze.

This is not to say, however, that winter does not have an impact on nature. Each species changes its patterns in order to live in alignment with its surroundings, and just as January elicits certain behaviors and attitudes from humans, it does in animals as well.

You can prove this to be true yourself by exploring the natural world during this frosty month. Look for signs of life, and compare the winter habits of familiar creatures to their habits in other seasons. Notice how well they align with the conditions afforded by the season; their survival depends upon it. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape for December: Shed Light

The December Landscape

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

After the first snow of the season, December is blank – the blank white canvas the perfect backdrop upon which to begin to notice the particulars of nature. The early winter landscape is devoid of the brilliant color that marks all other seasons, and for once, the absence of all of nature’s magnificent detail is a treat! Suddenly, tracks abound, meal waste litters the ground, and scat is cast with abandon.

Without the richness of what the natural world usually has to offer, early winter draws attention to the things that otherwise blend in. The tracks of chickadee feet and blue jay wings; the apples smashed by deer hooves and pinecones decimated by chipmunks; fox, coyote, and a mysterious other – none far from the dooryard.

These small discoveries feel new in a snowy landscape; but is it possible that they’re always there? Learn the landscape this December by shedding light on that which surrounds you. Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: The Gratitude Muscle

The Gratitude Muscle

Gratitude is one of the decade’s buzzwords, printed in cheerful fonts on memes and magazine covers. And for a good reason: research shows that gratitude positively impacts cardiovascular health, immunity, and even our neurological wiring. Dr. Robert Emmons at UC Davis studies how gratitude changes the social-emotional area of our brains. He says that practicing gratitude is essential for our mental health.

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Book Review: Celebrate National Novel Writing Month with Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Published by Doubleday, 2011.

Happy National Novel Writing Month! Even though writing can be a fun form of self-expression for kids, teens, and adults, motivating yourself to write can often be challenging. Novels in particular require a great deal of self-motivation over a long period of time. Since 1999, the organization and movement known as “National Novel Writing Month” has encouraged amateur and professional writers to push themselves. Anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo, which asks participants to write a 50,000 word manuscript in a single month, between November 1 and November 30. That means an average of 1,667 words per day! NaNoWriMo helps writers across the country and beyond by providing “pep talks” from professional authors, and meet ups in real life so that writers can take a break from this solitary pursuit. Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Learning To Be Thankful

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Learning To Be Thankful

Being thankful is hard for any child, especially a toddler. Reminding them to say “thank you” is often my least favorite part of any interaction. “What do you say?” I ask, “It’s good,” my daughter says. “What else do you say?” I remind her using the sign for thank you “Use a napkin.”  She giggles and devours the apple the kind man at the orchard gave her. “Thank you. We appreciate it,” I say as we walk out.

Though it’s frustrating that my daughter may come across as rude and inconsiderate, I have to remind myself that she’s three. A three year old is thankful; they just don’t realize how wonderful it is to show it. This month we have been working on giving and sharing, and mostly learning about being thankful. We’re focusing on what it is to feel good when others do nice things for you. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, we came up with a few fall themed art projects that can be used as a “thank you” for all the wonderful things the people in our lives do for us! Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Water as Self-Care

How Things Work

What makes the car stop? How are car brakes different from bicycle brakes? Train brakes? Roller coasters? How do hydraulics work?

These questions pepper my days these days. Raised for sugar, spice, and everything nice, my mechanical engineering knowledge is woefully inadequate. Thankfully, in his updated masterpiece on machines, The Way Things Work Now, author David Macaulay and his illustrated mastodons describe the inner workings of the toilet tank, stapler, and radio, along with Wifi and RAM. And hydraulics.

I’ve been reading about the power of pressure. When a fluid is compressed, it exerts pressure in all directions.  A container not strong enough to withstand the pressure will leak or otherwise be damaged. Properly contained, the fluid will transfer the force of its power into the world around it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Life: We are Not the Weather

Hindsight Parenting: Meet Your Child Where They Are

Who She Is Is Just Fine With Me

When our children encounter difficulties, when they run into brick walls or have a problem that needs to be solved, we need to meet them where they are, help them grow with what they already have in a way that they can.

I have been working against my daughter, Ila, under the guise of “improvement” and the misguided statement “she must be able to do such and such in order to be successful.” I have been working against her, which in turn has been sending her a message that she is not good enough just the way she is, which, of course, is not a message I want to send her at all.

Confused?  Let me give you an instance:  Ila gets anxiety everyday before going into her kindergarten class.  When the door opens, and the teacher steps out, she buries her face into my legs, or if I am squatting down at her level she grips my hair or scarf with a vice-like hold.  I have to peel her off me by prying her fingers open and kind of giving her a loving pat on the bottom towards the classroom while her chin quivers as if I am torturing her. This, as you can imagine, is agonizing each day, and so I decided that as her mom, I needed to “right” it, fix it, and make it so the anxiety was gone.  I decided to start with a good heart to heart conversation. Read the rest of this entry »

Spooky Stories for Teens in Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

Monsters, ghosts, aliens, wizards, and magical librarians all make an appearance in Pretty Monsters, a multi-genre book of short stories by local Northampton author, Kelly Link. In her first book written specifically for a young adult audience, Link demonstrates her ability to blend elements of fantasy, magical realism, and horror together. The overarching thread of this enchanting collection is Link’s skillful voice. The author’s writing seems to be strongly influenced by fairy tales, a factor which gives her unique narratives a sense of familiarity even as they dazzle readers with imaginative twists and turns. Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Feeling Fall

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Feeling Fall

Fall is such a busy time for the valley. Apple picking, pumpkin patches, hay rides, and fall festivals. All of these adventures are well worth the visit, but you can also get your kids engaged with nature based craft and sensory activities that are easy and inexpensive. Here are a few:


You can use any fruits or veggies for prints. When doing veggie prints I find it best to use a small tray with only a dab of paint on it. Using too much will distort the prints and ink-pads can develop mold. I find that using tempera paint in small amounts is ideal. Allow your child to dab or roll the fruit and then splat it firmly onto the print paper (card stock or cardboard). I find that apple, lemon, and corn prints to be some of my favorites. I like the detailed prints that onions create, but they can really burn the eyes. Combining apples and lemons makes a wildly vibrant and vivid print.

Toddlers love industrious work. Let them enjoy the print making, but also exploring the fruit, taking out the seeds and even tasting it! Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Autumn Autonomy

Autumn Autonomy

“Safety is what we want for those we love. Autonomy is what we want for ourselves.”   – Atul Gawande

My childhood yard held ample trees: the willow planted in the wet culvert that didn’t grow gigantic like we’d hoped. The huge blue evergreen. The fragile mimosa we were chastised for climbing. The red maple I practically lived in the summer I turned eight. Read the rest of this entry »

YA Book Review: Back to School for the First Time in This Girl is Different

This Girl Is Different by J.J. Johnson. Published by Peachtree Publishers, 2011.

For lots of kids, parents, and young adults, September signals time to re-adjust to the schedule and lifestyle of school. For a homeschooler attending school for the very first time, this transition is much more difficult…and exciting! J.J Johnson’s young adult novel This Girl is Different centers around Evie, a homeschooler, entering school for the first time as a high school senior. This book flips the typical high school narrative on its head. Evie has to beg her mother to go to school. She wants to meet more people and experience a lifestyle she has only seen in movies. Before school even starts, Evie happens to befriend kindhearted Jacinda and Jacinda’s cute cousin Rajas, both seniors. But Evie quickly discovers that she knows less than she thought she did about the rules and cut-throat culture of public school. Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: First Day Blues

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Three years ago I wrote a post about (daycare / preschool drop-off) separation and how to make it an adventure. This year, I am the mom, not the not the teacher, and it is far from an adventure; closer to a nightmare.

My three-year-old daughter had no interest in the big adventures her new preschool had to offer. She consistently woke up in the morning adamantly protesting the plans we had made for her. In my mind, I see her sweeping into the classroom with pride and confidence, greeting her teacher and friends. Instead, I was kissing and reassuring, and then ducking through smiling faces trying to escape the sirens of my child calling for me from her teacher’s arms.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for September is Pupating

Nature Table for September

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

This month’s nature table was inspired by a likely seasonal catalyst, but is filled with very unlikely specimens, given where we started. What began as a discussion of seasonal foods has somehow evolved into the creation of a horde of young entomologists! (Or perhaps it would be more fitting to say that the topic has pupated.)

Rather than a collection of the numerous varieties of both cultivated and wild apples that can be found in orchards, farms, and backyards, this month’s nature table is a terrarium filled almost to capacity with more species of caterpillars than I, the head naturalist, have ever noticed while experiencing nature. We have the classic monarch, the hated hornworm, the fear-inducing hickory tussock, and at least twelve other species – some of whom we haven’t been successful in identifying.

How did we get here?

“Ms. Huntley, I have an apple tree at home!”

Most of us do around here.

“It’s so tall!  And it always drops apples on me while I wait for the bus!”

Mine are up to similar antics, yes.

AND it’s FULL of CATERPILLARS!  They’re eating ALL of its leaves!”

Oh – now we’re interested!

This moment – the one intended to spark a foray into local culture, local history, pollination, and a host of other topics – has steered us in a completely different direction. We discussed the eastern tent caterpillar with disdain, told stories of the browntail moth, and shared opinions on the legitimacy of using woolly bears to predict the severity of a winter. I thought we might return to apples the next day, or perhaps the one after, but young minds are not easily swayed, and now I am responsible for upwards of twenty impossibly small and squashy beings.

As it turns out, caterpillars are a perfect topic of study and are the easiest and most entertaining of all the live specimens I’ve allowed to be kept as “pets.” A simple terrarium with a few inches of dirt and a tightly attached screen lid is a perfect home, though I’ll admit that trial and error during our early caterpillar days lead to the unfortunate death of more than a few specimens.

Together, we’re learning how to watch them, how to identify them, and how to care for them. We’ll watch as some pupate and emerge as winged beasts before the morning chill lasts all day, and we’ll wait to see which ones burrow and make their grand entrance in the spring. We’re exploring new field guides, noticing details, and even conquering our fears – but the best part of our learning is that we are truly learning together. The young naturalists are at this point perhaps even more expert on the subject of caterpillars than I am. We’re truly in this experience together.

Common species in New England include:

  • Monarch
  • Milkweed tussock moth (caution: tussocks can feel like stinging nettle to some hands)
  • Hickory tussock moth
  • Tomato hornworm
  • Gypsy moth
  • Woolly bear
  • Cabbage worm

Tips for keeping caterpillars for study:

  • Collect a small portion of the plant you found the caterpillar on – it’s probably its food.
  • Mist your terrarium a few times a day; otherwise, it will dry out, the food plants will dry out, and your caterpillars will begin to dry out as well.
  • Give your caterpillars a few sticks to climb on.  Many of them like to climb, and others need sticks for their cocoons and chrysalises.
  • Keep a few inches of soil at the bottom for burrowing species.
  • Be sure to put your terrarium outside for the winter, but make sure it’s protected (unheated garage, tool shed, etc.).
  • Be prepared to struggle with identification!  There are many, many species, and it can be very difficult to find names for all of them if you’re not an expert.

Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011 as an intern and remained over the years volunteering as a community-based education correspondent until moving back to Maine in 2016. Robin is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin currently lives with her husband, cats and rabbits in Maine and is a 5th grade public school teacher.






Off the Mat: Sandwich Generation


Full moon shines through the camper van window, directly onto my face. I take advantage, risk the click of the door waking my guys. Upon arrival, we’d scoped the lay of the land: bathrooms, camp store, path to the beach. I head toward the latter, no need for a flashlight in the moonlight.

And have the beach to myself, so far as I know. Talk about a once in a lifetime opportunity! I sit. Listen. Think. Stretch some. Breathe. Notice. The movement behind me is my own shadow. I cast a moon shadow. Yes, it followed me, just like in the old song.

Weeks later… Read the rest of this entry »

YA Book Review: Romance, Fantasy, and Social Justice in Shadowshaper

August Review: Shadowshaper By Daniel Jose Older

Daniel Jose Older’s young adult fantasy novel Shadowshaper (Published by Scholastic, Inc. 2015) accomplishes a great deal in under 300 pages. On the surface, Older weaves an exciting, at times creepy plot featuring magic and romance. On a deeper level, he tactfully addresses several issues at the intersection of race, self-esteem, and body image for his main character Sierra Santiago. There is a lot for young, as well as adult readers, to analyze in Shadowshaper. Older raises important questions related to the ethics of anthropology, asking readers: Who gets to study whom, and why?
Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Rivers & Roads

Rivers & Roads

Imagine a world without roads. No highways, interstates, traffic lights, or roundabouts. For most of us, the only way of life we’ve ever known is shaped by our roads and the technologies that transport us – and what we consume – from place to place. Of course, many defining characteristics of modern life would be completely different or nonexistent without our modern road systems, but perhaps for now, we’ll focus on the implications that roads have on nonhuman entities.

Roads provide corridors for wildlife to move and feed along, but all too often are fraught with danger and death due to our mode of transportation: the car. A road might be likened to a river, providing a means to travel from place to place, but a true river is also a source of life and sustenance to all the creatures which depend on it. We have learned that cleaning up rivers benefits both humans and other species, and as is often mentioned, rivers are a crucial part of the proverbial web of life.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Life: A Thousand Miles Apart

The Good Life: A Year of Thoughtful Seasons by Sarah Mattison Buhl

A Thousand Miles Apart

This summer, writer Sarah Mattison Buhl travels to see her family in Wisconsin. She embraces the differences, and vows to look deeply at the issues.

We’ve lived in Massachusetts for five good years. It is a sensible fit for my family, and a culturally rich place to set root. I’ve appreciated the hard-working, New England sensibility. I share the long-standing social liberalism of the state. The rural quiet resonates with me, having relocated from Wisconsin. In fact, my adopted city reminds me a lot of the city from where I came. We are back visiting the Badger State this summer as we do every year, but I am noticing differences between Wisconsin and Massachusetts more vividly now than any visit in recent years. My east coast beliefs and my core midwestern values feel out of sync for the first time. I feel fortunate to be fluent in both languages. Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Take a Breather

Take a Breather

Stomach tense, not grumbling but hard, a potato sized stone sitting just below my ribs. Centered, which isn’t where my stomach is. So this is muscle tension? Breathe in more deeply and breathe out, focus on the potato. It softens, moves down an inch or two. Let’s try again. Yup, there it goes. And beautifully, the deep inhale harmonizes with a dissonant chord in the Bach cello piece playing on the stereo. Breathing with Bach.

Stomach looser, I now notice the scowl on my face, there since waking. Can I relax it with breath, too? Purposefully smooth the skin between and above my eyebrows. Feels a little surprised. The remaining frown below the spread brow feels sad. Feels like the moment of realization – whatever the realization might be – that tears are coming. Feels like disappointment. What can breath do for my mouth? I’ve heard it takes more muscles to frown. Is that accurate? In this day in age, it seems more of an effort to choose happiness, to concentrate on what’s working and what’s hopeful than on what’s wrong. Especially when hormone cycles resemble spaghetti bowl tangles more than predictable sine curves.


Letting breath guide movement is central to my yoga training. We teach what we most need to learn; I’m someone who holds her breath walking down the sidewalk!  Yoga breathing practices purposefully employ our inhale, exhale, and retention of breath to affect our physical, mental, and emotional health. Science now has the technology to explain how and why this works.

Researchers at Northwestern used brain scans to show how breathing through the nose affects areas of the brain associated with emotions and memory. A team at Stanford has identified jumbles of nerve cells that connect the brain’s respiratory center to the area in charge of alertness and attention. (If you geek out on this stuff like I do, this article in Neuroscience News describes the findings in understandable terms, down to a description of mellow mice.) One researcher described the almost 200 neuron subtypes as “well stirred spaghetti.”  This spaghetti tangle serves to calm. Breath is automatic and can be controlled through behavior, as well.

Too often still, I look outside of myself first – caffeine, conversation, therapy, vacation. I “should” myself with goal setting and exercise plans, social media challenges. Bemoan the lack of resources: money, sure, but also time, for self-care. And yet the simplest tool is right here, flowing in and out, rarely noticed except in its absence.


Teaching yoga class, I notice one of my students looking flushed and worried. I check in – she can’t catch her breath. There’s a slight edge to her voice as she shares how she’s trying to breathe deeply but not getting air and fears she’s triggered an asthma attack. In my best calm teacher voice, I instruct her to breathe out all the way. She releases a long, large exhale. Now there’s room for fresh air to come in. Oh! She smiles, breathing in deeply.


In the Sanskrit language, the word for breath, prana, is also translated as life force or spirit.  Some days, the only dedicated yoga practice I can muster is breath. Close my eyes. Turn attention to breath. Soften belly, gently spread ribs, lift collar bones as breath stretches me from the inside. Comfortably full, muscles lift from inside, gently squeezing air up and out of my lungs. Repeat. Long, smooth inhales. Full, complete exhales. In and out through my nose. Notice the movement breath creates. Sound like ocean waves. Unwind the strands of my mental tangle. Free my spirit.

[Photo credit: (cc) Lorianne DiSabato]


Ginny Hamilton

Pain specialist, yoga instructor, and Reiki practitioner Ginny Hamilton teaches simple & proven techniques to release pain & restore energy in the workplace, group classes & private sessions. She has put down roots in South Amherst with her spouse and young son. Daily she’s amazed by the beauty the Pioneer Valley offers, though her allergies beg to differ. In Off the Mat, Ginny explores how yoga’s physical and mindfulness exercises help her parent and how parenting shapes her yoga practice. http://www.ginnyhamilton.com


The Ripple: River Seasons

Stream Songs

Rivers, as flowing water, can be soothing to the ear, or overpowering with noise, depending on the river’s bed or soundscape. Protruding rocks may be the only visible evidence of what creates the sounds a river or stream makes as water tumbles over and around boulders and pebbles. Sounds of water have long been equated with well-being and are soothing to the human spirit; with recordings, practically anyone can listen to a river or stream and imagine the water flowing right outside one’s window. City plaza fountains around the world add to the well being of city dwellers and draw people to their sounds, providing a gathering place for relaxation and socializing.

As water levels often drop this time of year, during the summer, the sounds of moving water may become softened and even silent, to be restored by rain storms. Even slight waterfalls offer a murmur of sound if enough water flows past the stones. The sounds of flowing water in the mountains have been known to save people’s lives, leading them to safety, or at the least providing them with life-sustaining water. Even in winter, the muted voice of a stream can be heard flowing under the ice, and seldom here in New England does a stream freeze entirely.

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Let Them Grow: Make Camping with Toddlers Easier with these Tips

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Camping with Toddlers

We, meaning my partner, our almost three year old, and our eight month old, are on a camping adventure. This year to make our vacation easier and more enjoyable with the baby, we ditched the tents for cabins at our Berkshire getaway. Savoy State Forest and Mohawk Trail State Forest are spots places with cabins in the Hilltown. So, when I say “get away,” I mean it!

There is nothing but the lake the trees and the cabins. This are no playgrounds, camp stores, popsicle stands, or hordes of other children. It is just the four of us, surrounded by the crisp morning air, the ripples on the water, squirrels, and a camp fire.

This is what I love about camping. Checking out from the day to day and enjoying my kids and my partner, one on one. While there are no distractions, full-day or multi-day outings can be stressful adventures with toddlers if you are not prepared, relaxed, and ready for the adventure! I love these types of outings and find a sense of pride when I actually have a moment to sit back and watch the kids play engaged and happy without constantly tending to them. What’s my secret? Here are my secret tips for camping with toddler:

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Off the Mat: Independence


Heat has me up early. Serendipitous, since perennials from a neighbor’s garden need to get into the ground. With soil and space they’ll bloom beautifully without much assistance. At this moment though, they’re still dependent on me.

Once outside, I’m unwittingly drawn to the overgrown flowerbed by the patio. A mix of should and want rise within me every time my gaze lands here, which is often, given its location across from the kitchen window. It’s been a four year desire to clear this bed. I’ve toyed with it a few times, until shovel meets root bound resistance or halfhearted weeding leaves the area looking like a bad haircut.

Today, it’s less a decision and more a reaction. Oh, I guess I’m ready to do this. Perhaps due to dampness from recent excessive rain, this attempt feels easy – notably different from the last few times I’ve tried and given up. Separate bulbs. Root out weeds. Uncover perennial treasures left by a previous garden mama.

As a reasonable hour dawns, my house wakes up. We join briefly for meals but mostly go about our own Saturday projects. Weeding near the street, I hear my son and his friend squeal in the back yard. It occurs to me I hadn’t been monitoring their whereabouts at all. Focused on dirt and weed, lost in my own independent thoughts.  Read the rest of this entry »

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