Devastation in Puerto Rico

Shelly Johnson, Martha McCormick and I planned to travel to Puerto Rico this Tuesday. Next Step was chosen to present at the North American Association of Environmental Educators’ (NAAEE) Annual Conference in San Juan this week. Our presentations were planned, and we were looking forward to learning about a place we had never visited.

Instead, we have anxiously followed the news as two storms approached and hit the island, and through the weeks since. Here are some of the things we learned–

  • Eighty-four percent of the population in Puerto Rico is still without power nearly one month after Hurricane Maria.
  • According to the Washington Post, only 63 percent of the islanders have access to clean water.
  • Just 60 percent of wastewater treatment plants are working. Food supplies and medical systems are inadequate.

People are dying. Three weeks of recovery, yet so many US citizens continue to live in devastation.  This is unacceptable.

If 3 million people were suffering in a different part of the country, perhaps even Iowa, I can’t help but think the response would be different. Constant media coverage would put a spotlight on the slow recovery. A stream of politicians would visit. Certainly, the president of the United States would not be threatening to abandon relief efforts.

Obviously, our conference was cancelled. The organizers have scrambled to make some of the conference topics available online. We’ve been invited to submit the materials we would have presented to a virtual conference site.

Here are some of our plans. Focusing on these projects has been difficult because my mind dwells on the families living in such desperate circumstances in Puerto Rico.

SESSION TITLE: Keeping Environmental Education Programs Fresh: Aligning with Next Generation Science Standards
SUMMARY: Naturalists’ interactions with school groups have a major impact on the next generation. By tweaking programs as school curriculum evolves, naturalists can expand their outreach.

  • Participate in an interactive online NGSS scavenger hunt to learn about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
  • Align your own programs to NGSS with a template. An example is provided as well.
  • A description of Next Generation Science Standards, tips for aligning programs with the standards, and sample before/after lesson tweaks are in our slides. Contact us for a copy.

SESSION TITLE: Teaching with Mini Wind Turbines and Solar Panels: Opportunities and Challenges 
SUMMARY: Renewable energy production is on the rise, offering both benefits and challenges for our next generation.  Learn about these technologies as well as strategies for incorporating them into STEM learning experiences for students.

  • Experience a sample activity from our middle school renewable energy curriculum: VIP interviews.
  • To explore opportunities and challenges in renewable energy, take on various perspectives from the assertion jar. Find the Assertion Jar lesson in our middle school service learning curriculum.  This renewable energy add-on provides specific statements.
  • Build mini circuits using materials from the Teachers Going Green teaching kit.  Then search for energy lessons on the website.
  • If you would like a copy of our slides, please contact us.

Even though we don’t get to travel to Puerto Rico this year, our hearts are with the people of that small island. If you’d like to donate to the recovery efforts, here’s a link that may help you decide the best route to do so.

Unexpected Turns in Life

When asked where we live, I joke that my husband & I live in a halfway house. We are renting a place located half way between our previous life and our next life. You see, we sold our home in Beaverdale, where we’ve lived most of the last 20 years. We are building a new home in the country but it’s not finished. So, we live halfway between.

The opportunity to buy land in the country was unexpected. And, more unexpected was that we wanted to buy the land and live there. We had decided the house in Beaverdale was the last time we would move. And, the land was the “farm” my family bought and moved to the summer of 1973 when I was 10 years old.

An unexpected turn in my childhood, moving from the suburbs to the country. I threatened to run away when my parents made me move to the farm, away from all my friends. We moved anyway. The farm came to represent turbulence and change, the unexpected. I tried to go there as seldom as possible after my parents split up and mom moved back to the area we’d lived pre-farm.

So, I was surprised that I wanted to buy it when Dad passed away. But, perhaps the thing you have expected while reading this, I learned the land on which that farm sits is not the origin of the turbulence and pain. I love the land. And, I am half way home.

Let’s Figure It Out

As we go spinning around the sun, we tend to mark anniversaries. I have one coming up tomorrow. It’s been 11 years since I cleaned out my desk at Iowa State University Extension in Polk County and started my work here at Next Step. I was there til 8 pm on my last day! Who does that?

Someone who is way too invested in work? One who has trouble letting go? Or maybe a person who has bitten off more than she can chew?

Probably all of the above, and more. Just this spring I threw out a box of slides I brought home from work eleven years ago. I was cleaning up my studio and came across several unfinished projects that brought a lump to my throat. I really wanted to make that apron, string those beads and create that lamp.

One thing I appreciated when I started Next Step was time to plan without feeling pressured by multiple deadlines. As my business has grown, and we’ve gotten busier, I sometimes feel hurried again. But the pressure has never gotten as great as it was when I was doing youth development work, writing grants, managing staff and all that went with it.

Owning my own business provides a lot of freedom, but it can be pretty demanding too. The roller coaster of work and no work can be scary. It’s much harder to know if you’re really good at what you do, kind of like looking into fun house mirrors. And of course the variety of people can put you off balance.

Balance is always a challenge. It helps to know your priorities. For a while I had this order–children and other living things, work and me. That’s changed significantly since the kids are grown. Some say if you don’t take care of yourself you don’t have anything to give others, but that’s still a tough sell for me.

I think these secrets to life, love, happiness are ever emerging. After a few careers and nearly 67 trips around the sun, I’m still learning. That’s what makes an adventure!

Make Art. Cats Do

It’s winter in Iowa. An odd winter, but winter nonetheless. No snow to speak of; temperatures vacillating wildly from single digits to 40s and 50s. Yesterday an ice storm hit, but today temperatures in the 30s have melted it all away. No winter wonderland for us; we’re yearning for sunshine or snow to color gray winter days. I’m not the only one in the house with cabin fever.

Slipper Art by RosyThe cats have started doing art projects. This morning Rosy created the slipper piece, artfully arranging one of her catnip toys in my sheepskin slipper on the carpet by the front door.

Food Art by SilviaSeveral days ago my daughter sent me a photo of her cat Silvia’s work in her food bowl.

Tater continues to refine a fiber piece on the arm of our favorite brocade chair, in spite of consistent and considerable discouragement. Art Critics!

I have a book called Why Cats Paint: A theory of feline aesthetics. I tried to get my cat Bitsy to paint a number of years ago, with limited success. Cats are famously independent after all.

Bitsy and Martha paintingShe did check out the pastels and help me watercolor. I’m pretty sure I have some samples of her work tucked away in my drawer for refrigerator-quality projects. But now that Silvia and Rosy are showing real promise, I will definitely be organizing some cat-friendly studio space.

If cats can make art, we certainly can! Get over any fear that you “can’t draw” or that you’re “not creative.” Get out that yarn, those beads and baubles, tissue paper, scissors and brushes. Clear away the clutter and paint your world. It may be winter, but we don’t have to be stuck with gray and white!


Suit Up and Show Up

Nobody died. But it feels like a tragedy of major proportions. We have a president-elect who has openly expressed contempt for women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, disabled people and LGBTQ folks. What have we done? How do we respond to this?

I honestly don’t know, but I have some thoughts in this first 18 hours or so of pondering. My first reaction was that I don’t know if I can live in a country so hateful. Sometime around 2:30am the sky was bright, and I looked out several windows for the quarter moon I expected to see.

Instead I saw the sky filled with stars, unusual in the middle of Des Moines. The view of Orion’s bow and arrows gave me my first glimmer of hope.The constellation Orion

Somehow this morning I was still hoping to wake from a nightmare. But the stomach ache was real. What to do?

I got out of bed, put on my walking clothes and went for a walk. The sunrise was beautiful; the autumn colors magnificent. I decided my best response is to suit up and show up. Get dressed and do the work as best I can. Every day.Autumn leaves

We will need to take bigger steps as citizens if our country is to survive in any semblance of peace, fairness and justice. Take it local. Stand up for people who have way more at stake than I do. Be fierce, but diplomatic. Be a nasty woman, but with grace.

You Can Too

I can sweet talk, oh yes I can, but I choose to speak forthrightly. To declare, to proclaim. Speak now; find evidence later. But DO find the evidence. Don’t skip the hard stuff.

I’m known for outbursts, oh yes I am, but I choose to use my passion something like a fire tempers metal. Temper words. Anneal my words in the heat of experience. Smooth out the roughness.

I can be crazy, oh yes I can, but I deny others the chance to call me loose cannon. Crackpot. Be first to call myself out. Keep my options open.

I can lay on the schmooze, oh yes I can, but I choose to find traits in others worthy of my praise. A smile. An act of kindness. Acceptance of a responsibility. I choose to celebrate the precise. The smallest feature, the tiniest act.

I can storm, oh yes I can, but I choose to find the sunshine peering from behind the cloud. Go back to bed; start the day over. Again and again. Be the gentle rain that nourishes rather than the torrent sweeping the world away in its path.

I can wheedle, oh yes I can but I choose to drive a hard bargain. To pitch my position. Speak of what might be. Paint a picture of injustice and find solutions. Try my darnedest to get you on my side. Then end as friends.

How to become friends? Get to know each other. Isn’t that the way? Easy to dislike what you don’t know. So much more difficult to put down your friend than the one you’ve never spoken to. The person you have so much in common with.

How to talk to strangers? Break down the walls. No battering ram, no bullets through plate glass. Stone throwing is so Middle Ages. But perhaps a hammer and chisel picking at a small depression in the mortar. Expanding it bit by bit until it is the size of a peephole. Oh! Now I see you! Soon I can place my ear against the hole and you your mouth. Soon we can crawl through and stand beside each other. Progress is painful but necessary.

I can speak harsh words, oh yes I can. But I can heal too. With a touch. With a word. With a smile.

Make Space

While I was in Akumal I dreamed I gave birth. Don’t worry; someone whisked the baby off before I could do any damage. But dreams of giving birth are really about transformation and creation.

Vacations are for getting away from routines, exploring places that are a little uncomfortable. This trip especially gave me a chance to question my “way of life,” to reflect on my addiction to “busyness,” my hesitation to have down time.

So I came home and changed my calendar.

Changing your calendar doesn’t seem like a very big deal. But you haven’t seen my calendar! Seriously, every journey starts with a single step. I changed my calendar  to give myself space for reflection, mindfulness and a new routine.

Over the last year, I’ve begun teaching art classes for the Des Moines Art Center Outreach Program, and I’ve become a certified yoga teacher. Teaching five or six classes a week wrought havoc with my old routine where I usually spent mornings working at my desk or in art class.

Now most of my mornings I’m out and about so when I got home I set aside three afternoons a week for “office time.” Sometimes that will include a power nap, reading, yoga or time in the garden and art work.

The real thing I’m transforming isn’t my calendar. I’m creating space in my life for reflection, planning, playing art, moving my body, making a home and other adventures.

Remember! Having an adventure means you don’t know how things will turn out.

Start with Hope

I met with a colleague this morning; she’s launching a freelance career in marketing and communications. We talked about our Be the Change dinner discussion series, and what we hope to accomplish. I’ve thought a lot about how hard it is to communicate in concrete terms, but I came a little closer this morning.

I often feel overwhelmed and helpless when I think about all the problems confronting the world today. When I feel that way, I don’t do anything. Yet I know there is a lot of power in doing something, anything. In fact, the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines is hosting a class called “The Power of Just Doing Stuff” right now. I’ve heard it’s great.

But there’s more than that to Be the Change dinner discussions. Most of my friends are passionate about one thing or another. I’m interested in a lot of  issues, but I’ve had to narrow it down to social justice. That’s still really big, but it’s easier to get my arms around than climate changeguncontrollocalfooddeathpenaltyhealthcarereform.

Then there’s the fear associated with addressing social justice issues. Will anything result from my work? Will I alienate people? Will I endanger my job? We’ve got to look at those fears and figure out whether they’re real and what’s at risk?

Once I know what’s at risk, or think I know, I have to decide whether I’m willing to take that risk. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. So be it.

And finally, what if I can’t see any results of my work? Throwing starfish back into the sea can be tiring, especially when there’s no way of seeing whether they live or die. So I hang on to Rachel Naomi Remen‘s words, “What if what you’re doing right now, is exactly what the world needs at this moment?”

Hope and Courage to Be the Change” will be the topic for Thursday, February 6, 2014. Register for any one event that includes a healthy dinner of fresh, seasonal ingredients for $30 at Christopher’s Restaurant, 2816 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines (Wheelchair Accessible). Pay by cash, check or credit card the night(s) of the event(s).

What were you doing?

I grew up at Disneyland. Every time relatives visited from the Midwest, we took them there. There was no wearing jeans in those days. My brother Leo and I were four and three years old the first time we went. Mother dressed us up, me in my dotted Swiss pinafore, Leo in a white shirt, and dark shorts and shoes. You enter and leave the Park through Main Street. Sometimes as we walked out through the gate, Walt Disney was sitting on the balcony of his apartment waving to his guests.

Each time we went, we spent a good deal of time buying giant dill pickles from a barrel and listening to the party line at the General Store on Main Street. The Disneyland Band wandered the streets. On that first visit, the director invited me to lead the band. As he tried to hand me his baton, I reached for my little brother Leo, and I waved that baton with our arms around each other’s waists.

As we grew older, we pushed Grandma around the Park in a wheelchair, and she said that was scarier than any of the rides. We always twisted mom’s arm until she went to Tom Sawyer’s Island with us, the only place in the Park where you could wander on your own. We would get mom on the suspension bridge and swing it until she screamed. That didn’t really take much. She was scared of everything. Sometimes we got her into the “Indian canoe” where she swore she “never put all her weight down.”

Disneyland is the perfect fantasy. It offers a glimpse to the past and future. You can totally leave the present behind. Our family changed when we were there. The kids got to choose.

Leo is in 6th grade and I’m in 8th. We share the same recess and lunch periods, play together and go home for lunch together. We run across what was once an orange grove, then a field where we fought dirt clod wars and is now an asphalt parking lot that fills to the brim for five Masses each Sunday.

Usually we kneel as the Angelus rings from the Church bell tower, but all the rules are broken today. We burst breathless into the kitchen where mom is ironing; a starchy steam rising from my father’s dress shirt. A sweet smell, warm of the kitchen, mingling with the yeasty scent of bread dough rising.

The counters and backsplash are tiled blue slightly brighter than Wedgewood. Weekdays when he’s not traveling, Dad makes tall glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice, eggs, bacon and toast for breakfast. Mother’s plugged the iron in on the wall between the nook and telephone corner. She’s wearing a housedress, her hair neatly cut and curled. She turns up her hearing aid as we walk in.

It’s November 22, 1963 and Sister Mary Hope just announced over the Intercom, “President Kennedy has been shot!” We run into the kitchen to tell mother. “Is he dead?” “Yes.” “Good.”

I’d like to say my heart stopped. I’d like to say my own political ideas changed in that instant. I’d like to say the news cracked the shell of prejudice and stubbornness that was my worldview. I can’t.

Since the early nineteen-ninetys I’ve known big changes come to me after depression. Maybe that’s true of my high school-length depression as well. When I return to Bishop Amat High School after my first year of college, no one recognizes me. I can’t vote or drink, and I’m just getting my driver’s license. But I can protest. I can march. I can boycott class. Years later my mother will ask me, “When did you become a Democrat?”

Be the Change

Next Step Adventure is offering a series of dinner discussions called “Be the Change” on Thursday evenings beginning January 2, 2014 with “Be the Change in Your Body.” All of the events will be held at Christopher’s Restaurant in Beaverdale. Register here for one event at $30, which includes a healthy dinner of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Or register and prepay for all five events for just $125 ($25 discount).

Many a conversation ends with a statement something like, “Well now that we’ve solved all the world’s problems…” Then we go on to the next discussion. I often feel more overwhelmed by the issues of the day at the end of the day than I did at the start. But Rachel Naomi Remen says something like, “What if you’re exactly what the world needs right at this moment?”

I love that, and I work to keep it in mind as I go through the happy and sad events in life. A dear family member was killed in a car accident a week ago, and it feels pretty hard to believe that all is right with the world. I know death is part of life. As Thich Nhat Han says, “We need to see the garbage as beautiful because the garbage is in process of turning into the flower.” So, I’m looking for peace and understanding.

Would you like to get some clarity and support for being the change you wish to see in the world? Then join us for a series of dinner discussions at Christopher’s Restaurant. Here are the topics for the five sessions:

  • January 2–We experience the world through our bodies, our senses and movement for our whole lives. We’ll discuss how to get back into our bodies and engage in life.
  • January 23–Join us for a lively discussion of lobbying, letter and op ed writing to be heard in the political arena.
  • February 6–Where is the courage to create change in times of big problems? It’s hard to be hopeful, but we’ll chunk down problems, explore how vulnerability enhances connection, and cultivate optimism.
  • February 27–Focus on being present in life through meditation, putzing, art and yoga. Whether through formal or everyday practice, mindfulness improves mental health.
  • April 3–How to improve our relationship with mother earth? We’ll explore things to do outdoors, eating a more sustainable diet, conserving fuel and decreasing stuff.


  • Martha McCormick–artist, yogi, transition coach, facilitator, teacher, entrepreneur
  • Kyla Cox–urban farmer, activist, community organizer, Zen student, counselor
  • Sonni Giudicessi–manager, yogi, political organizer, athlete

Attend one or all discussions at Christopher’s Restaurant, 2816 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines (Wheelchair Accessible). Register here for one event at $30, and includes a healthy dinner of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Register and prepay for all five for just $125 ($25 discount). Please send a check or money order to Next Step, 3615 Adams Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310 by November 18th, or pay by credit card the night(s) of the event(s).

Questions? Ask Kyla at or 515-689-7255