How the Wheel of Wellness Can Help You Have a More Balanced Life

If you have ever seen a wellness professional, you probably have experience with some variation of the Wheel of Wellness, or Wheel of Life, exercise.  Though I know similar personal development exercises have crossed my path at various times in my life, it was not until I began my graduate studies, in health and wellness coaching, that I was more thoroughly introduced to this tool as a means of individual assessment of overall wellness.  Even in my lifetime, I have felt our cultural awareness of the mind-body connection evolve, at least somewhat.  The Wheel of Wellness seems to illustrate this greater awareness.  I will share some reflections of the insights it has prompted for me, both as a coach and a health-seeker, and how the Wheel of Wellness can help create a balanced life for you.

As a teenager, in the late 1980’s, before the Internet took hold, I remember spending hours in my room, immersed in a huge Mayo Clinic book, scanning through the symptoms of a myriad of diseases, trying to find a solution to my chronic severe acne and rather rapid weight gain.  Never having been given the framework of “wellness,” I felt there had to be an external fix that I had not found yet! Thankfully, in the subsequent decade, or two, my evolution seems to have followed the cultural trend. My awareness of holistic health and wellness expanded, prompting some “inner work,” and shifts in my lifestyle that improved my unwanted symptoms and quality of life.  

Thus, if you find yourself identifying with a symptom (ie. like having acne, being overweight, anxiety or experiencing physical pain), the Wheel of Wellness might help you zoom out your lens and begin to see the interdependent parts of your life that manifest in those symptoms.  This can give you more information about which resources you need to recalibrate the imbalances in your life. It is a visual tool to prompt new awareness to challenges you may not be able to articulate, otherwise.

Theory & Intuition

The theoretical model of the Wheel of Wellness was developed in the 1990’s, as a result of actual research in the field of individual psychology, from which some characteristics emerged that correlated positively with health, quality of life, and longevity (Myers & Sweeney, 2004).  However, despite its academic origins, from a creative standpoint, its components feel rather intuitive to anyone who takes the time to pause and reflect on the areas of their life that contribute to them feeling “whole” and balanced.

Accordingly, you can find varying perspectives on this original model all over the Internet.  And, while it definitely will behoove the wellness professional, or even avid personal development enthusiast, to understand the psychological underpinnings of the Wheel of Wellness activity, you do not need a degree or a professional to facilitate your understanding of this exercise.  All you need is a willingness to reflect honestly on your life and an openness to change. The Wheel of Wellness provides snapshot, or big picture view, of your current sense of balance, not a historical overview or road map to the future.  As such, it is an excellent tool for creating awareness of where you are in the moment.   

The Dimensions of Wellness

There have been many evolutions of the Wheel of Wellness.  Most contain six to eight separate parts, representing the different dimensions of our lives.  These dimensions often include the following items:

 

  1. Physical – representing our physical body, need for movement, nutrition and rest. 
  2. Emotional – representing our psychological well-being, our ability to manage the challenges of life and feel fulfillment. 
  3. Intellectual – refers to our creative outlets, ability to take on challenges that expand our knowledge and skills. 
  4. Social – referring to our sense of belonging, connection and support within our relationship circles. 
  5. Environmental – refers mainly to the immediate environment, which serves as the backdrop for our lives (ie. home life and workplace), but can represent the greater environment we occupy (ie. community) 
  6. Occupational – this refers to the sense of fulfillment one gets from their work.   
  7. Financial – refers to our degree of contentment with our financial resources, which impact our sense of security. 
  8. Spiritual – this can refer to the individual’s greater sense of connectedness in the world, or the ability to feel purposeful and attribute meaning to life in the big picture.  
Wellness Wheel w/ 8 domains - medium
Wellness Wheel w/ 8 domains – medium

While these primary dimensions of life are common to us all and provide a general overarching framework by which to examine our wellness, there is a lot of room for individual creativity when it comes to designing your own Wheel of Wellness and what a balanced life looks like to you.  For example, at this point in my life, my Wheel of Wellness feels something like this:

  1. Mind (Psychological/Emotional Health)
  2. Body (Physical Well-being: nutrition/movement & sleep)
  3. Spirit (Nature/the part of myself that feels connected to something greater)
  4. Connection (Social/Relationships/Intimacy)
  5. Purpose (Fulfillment/Creativity/Skills/Intellectual Pursuits)
  6. Money  (Security/Value)
  7. Environment (Safety/Home/Community) 
My Wheel of Wellness
 My Wheel of Wellness

Whereas, if you feel overwhelmed in your day to day life, unable to specifically pinpoint the source of this overwhelm, creating a Wheel of Wellness with more narrowly defined sections in each of the primary domains might help you gain some clarity as to where you need to direct your energy to achieve a better sense of balance.  For example, for the physical domain, you could break that down into nutrition, movement and sleep. There are no steadfast rules for this activity, but it is good to keep in mind the mind-body-spirit paradigm in relationship to the external world (environment & relationships), when brainstorming the parts of your wheel.  Once you decide on how to divide the parts of your wheel into the representative parts of your life, you, then, score each part on a scale of 0 to 10, to zero being the center of the circle, and 10 being the border of the circle.  

A Big Picture View

However you categorize the elements of your life, you should begin to get a big picture view of where your imbalances are on your Wheel of Wellness.  And, there will likely always be some! Even though I have training as a wellness coach, I do not have a magic wand or secret formula for balance in my own life, either.  Though the skills I have gained definitely help the process, there is always room for growth. For example, I feel particularly strong with my nutrition, emotional well-being and intellectual fulfillment.  My social life and relationships are good, but definitely impacted by energy and time restraints. The same could probably be said for my “spiritual life,” or connection with nature, because I feel like it is hard to prioritize getting outside as much as I would like these days.  Sleep has always been my nemesis, and probably ranks around a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. And, my relationship to money will likely always be a work in progress, though I am thankful for the abundance in my life. Does the shape of your Wheel of Wellness mirror the outer circle, or does the shape look more imbalanced?  From this perspective, you can see, by using the Wheel of Wellness to examine our lives, we get a broader view of the parts of our “whole” self and how we can better nurture those parts.

Wellness Wheel Example
Wheel of Wellness Example

Conversation & Support

And, there is no better way to begin to nurture your whole self than to open the conversation; to reflect on where you are in the moment and where you want to be, and to allow space for support from others.  When working with a health and wellness professional, the Wheel of Wellness is meant to be a tool to facilitate conversation and help provide the client with greater awareness. But, the same can be true when doing the exercise on your own.  Once you begin to highlight the areas where you feel the most challenged, you can use the exercise to open dialogue with friends and family who may provide valuable support, or to seek out further resources. You might even find the Wheel of Wellness exercise to be a fun thing to do with family members, good friends or a support group.  It will provide a wealth of rich conversation, offering the opportunity to share feelings, offer support and reflect on the topic of balance in their lives.

Building on Our Strengths

Accordingly, the Wheel of Wellness exercise will most certainly begin to provide you greater awareness of where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and how you can use your strengths to your advantage.  For example, maybe your biggest wellness challenge is your physical body. You certainly would not be alone. Many people find themselves overweight, inactive or struggling with illness, and this is what prompts them to examine their lifestyle, bringing greater awareness of how other areas of life influence, or are influenced by, the state the physical body.  

The Spare Tire

Back in 2004, I could not ignore that my physical self was one of the biggest struggles.  It was impacting my emotional health, and other areas of life, as well. I was concerned about my health and being wanted to be an active parent and good role-model for my, then, young children.  Adopting a holistic approach to weight loss, eventually, allowed me to move away from the restrictive yo-yo dieting pattern I had been in for a long time, overhaul my nutrition, mindfulness and movement practices, and feel more balanced in the “physical” realm of my current Wheel of Wellness.  

This extra weight, or “spare tire,” that I carried for so long, evolved into a symbol for me.  We carry a spare tire in our car for protection, in case we break down. But, we all know what the expression of “being a fifth wheel” means, too.  It is something or someone not necessary. My extra weight was not necessary, but it provided me security on my journey up to that point. But, then I broke down and needed to use the spare tire up, and let the fifth wheel go.

Focus on the Positive

Also, by visualizing this most notable area of imbalance on your Wheel of Wellness, you can begin to make note of all the positive in your life; areas where you excel.  Maybe you have a great social life, fulfilling career, balanced finances, and strong emotional health, but you just have not translated that success in other areas of life to your physical health.  This exercise can help you tap into your strengths and gain clarity about the steps you need to take to facilitate change. Of course, this prospect of change, no doubt, will impact your emotional well-being, to some degree.  And, round and round we go, always striving to move towards balance. This is what wellness is; a process, not a final result.

Asleep at the Wheel

Sleep is an area, for me, where this wellness process is most evident.  And, for many of us, it is an area we overlook with regards to our whole health.  I found it ironic that, during the time when I was learning how to use the Wheel of Wellness exercise with potential clients, my own sense of wellness was thrown off balance quite a bit.  The stress of trying to manage the studying and research needed for my degree, while fully immersed in family life with three kids, impacted my sleep and exercise routines significantly.

However, taking holistic perspective  allowed me to view the temporary imbalance in my Wheel of Wellness, as a part of tending to in other areas of my life, with the overall intention being to bring everything back into balance in the long-run. Even so, though I relied on my strengths of organization and time management during my studies, the experience, coupled with an earlier life circumstance of chronic sleep-deprivation with a sick infant, I am always reminded to be patient with myself when I am tired, but to prioritize good sleep, as much as possible.  Without adequate rest, we will not have the energy to strive towards balance in other areas of our lives.

Feeling Proactive in the Wellness Process

The Wheel of Wellness can give you a starting point for change, and the sense of engaging in the process of moving towards greater balance.  While we may not always “be in balance,” the intention to continue the work necessary to move in that direction can provide the emotional benefit of feeling purposeful and proactive, even in the face of life challenges.

The Wheel of Fortune

One example of a life challenge could be finances. Money, in my life, always seems to ebb and flow, rarely finding my preferred balance.  I have learned to ride this wave with relative skill, but am always working toward growth in this area. Many people struggle with their financial security.  There is no shame in this, though it does not feel good to be too out of balance in this area for prolonged periods. Our degree of financial security often correlates strongly to our emotional well-being.   

Because we often view money as something subject to chance and impacted by external, arbitrary forces, it can leave us feeling somewhat powerless to facilitate change.  While it is true that there are many external forces that can influence our security, being financially secure is rarely just the luck of the draw. There are many actionable and practical things we can do to feel proactive and increase our sense of security and abundance.  We can control the purchases we make, the energy we expend in exchange for money, the things to which we attribute value, and the support system we create to affirm our values. Using the Wheel of Wellness to assess our priorities and take action can definitely make us feel more proactive with regards to creating change.

Creativity & Symbolism of the Wheel of Wellness

Another aspect of the Wheel of Wellness that can be useful, is to make it an art-driven process, including color, symbols and metaphor.  This could result in a piece of functional art we use as a reference when we need a reminder to stay on track with our health and wellness goals.  Or, for those preferring the clarity of simple lines, it might become more of a statistical analysis, charting the elements of your life for assessment to keep in notebook for frequent reference.  Either approach is great. It is your life. So creating a visual tool to help you get an overview of the areas to which you want to shift your attention, is useful, however simple or elaborate you wish to make it.

Shape, Color & Direction

I love the symbolism of the “wheel.”  Its circular shape is reflective of the circle of life, containing all the elements that create our experience, and depending on your philosophical views, just keeps circling around, offering new awareness.  It could represent the Universe, containing our unlimited potential or our World, constantly working to keep our environment in balance. Also, much like the Wheel of the Year, with its seasons and corresponding festivals, our sense of wellness will often shift with the seasons of the year, as well as, the seasons of life.  But, there is always something to be celebrated.

The Chakra System & Wellness

If you wanted to take a more psychic or mystical approach, one could even use the Wheel of Wellness to correspond with our “aura” and the energy flowing through the seven chakras, each represented by a color and corresponding to specific areas of the body, emotions and spiritual components.  Examining blocks in this flow of energy could help us move towards balance between the mind, body and spirit.  Just like the domains of our lives, the seven major chakras within the body are interconnected, with the top three representing the spiritual, and the lower three representing the psychical, connected in the center by the heart chakra (Alcantara, 2017).   So, we can see how one could incorporate elements of the chakra system into the wheel of wellness activity, as a creative alternative.  In fact, the origins of the word “chakra” come from the Sanskrit word, meaning “wheel” (Alcantara, 2017).  What better symbolism to provide inspiration for seeking balance?

Another creative, or symbolic, way to look at a Wheel of Wellness exercise would be to reference the traditional Native American Medicine Wheel, which itself is a tool for healing.  As Ralph P. Brown (2014) notes, the Native Americans believe that illness is related to more than the physical body, but stems from imbalances, including the physical, as well as, mental, emotional and spiritual.  He outlines the basic directions of the medicine wheel, each corresponding to one of the “bodies,” to include North/Mental, East/Physical, South/Emotional and West/Spiritual. The wheel exists within the environment of Father Sky/Above/Occupation and Mother Earth/Below/Social.  This, essentially, outlines the dimensions of life, like the Wheel of Wellness, that encompass our sense of balance.

So, you can see, the parameters of the wheel are subject to individual interpretation, and the “parts of the whole,” can be symbolized by whatever aligns with your own vision for your life and your sense of well-being.  For many, symbolism and stories provide deep meaning and a sense of purpose moving towards balance. For others, more definitive descriptions of the domains on the Wheel of Wellness will be helpful.

Promotes Self-Care

Simply visualizing the domains of your life can make you more aware of the ways in which you can nurture yourself more fully to improve the quality of each area of life.   As such, the Wheel of Wellness serves to promote self-care and helps us to begin to define, and gain clarity about, the areas we may have been neglecting, as well as, what “self-care” really looks like to us in the context our our current lives.

The actions we need to take to improve the state of our physical body, for example, though often challenging, can seem easier to articulate; eat real whole foods in reasonable quantities, move daily, rest when needed.  Simple enough. Right? But, when we begin think about self-care in other areas of our lives, it can be easy to draw a blank. Where to start? More time with friends? More time alone? Work on my spiritual life? Connect to my community?  Find more fulfilling work? It can feel overwhelming. This is where the Wheel of Wellness can help us narrow our focus and begin to define the areas of priority for us.  

Let the Spirit Move You

For example, you may have been feeling a yearning for deeper connection, whether it be with humanity, nature, God, the Universe, etc.  But, working on our “spiritual life” can sound abstract and intangible. What does “being spiritual” even mean? Well, essentially, it refers to a sense of connection beyond just ourselves and the meaning we derive from, or attribute to, our universal human experience.  So, when we examine the “spiritual” domain of our Wheel of Wellness, we can start to dissect what that really means for us.

Considering this meaning, we can begin to ask ourselves questions.  From where do I derive a sense of connection to something greater than myself?  Where or when do I feel a deeper sense of meaning in my life? In nature? In community? In the creative process? Ok. Good. Let me go find ways to do more of the things that help me connect to that feeling.  What are those things? Well, let’s see… hiking, camping, taking a walk, just taking a time out to sit in my backyard and watch the birds, making time to write, draw, do art, attend community events for yoga and meditation, go to church, start a spiritual support group… keep brainstorming!  Now we have a list of some definitive things we can do to move towards balance in this area!   And, through creating this greater awareness, we begin to see how the Wheel of Wellness can help create a balanced life.

Round and Round We Go

This same process that we could use to examine our spiritual life and brainstorm actionable steps to improve that domain of our Wheel of Wellness, works the same to give an overview of the other areas on the wheel, including our emotional well-being, intellectual pursuits, social connections, our greater environment and occupational fulfillment.  We can work our way around the wheel, examining our feelings, priorities, fears, challenges and joys. It can help us explore our lives more deeply, bring more self-awareness, and enrich the process of being human. It only requires honesty and patience from yourself and a strong willingness to nurture your whole self to the best of your ability.

So, whether you are an avid personal development junkie, or just someone struggling to feel whole and balanced in this hectic world, consider the Wheel of Wellness exercise as a catalyst for change and the opportunity to take an alternative perspective of the feelings that may currently be weighing you down.  If you stick with the process, remind yourself of its value, elicit support where you can, and get creative, you will likely enjoy your journey around the the wheel! Be well!

 

References

  • Alcantara, Margarita. (2017). Chakra Healing: A Beginners Guide to Self-healing Techniques that Balance the Chakras. [E-book, Kindle Edition].  Retrieved from Amazon.com

 

 

Suggested Resources

 

 

Me & Darren Making Kombucha

THE ORIGINS OF OUR KOMBUCHA JOURNEY

Facilitating the cycle of the SCOBY, or making kombucha, has been a monthly ritual of ours for many years.  I am not sure what originally prompted our interest in this probiotic beverage. I know my father-in-law had dabbled with it way back, and we remembered his stories of friends that had touted the benefits of this “fermented mushroom” elixir.  We had tried a few times in earlier years to get a routine going with it, making a batch or two, but never with any consistency. Then, as kombucha became more mainstream and began appearing in regular grocery stores, we started buying it fairly regularly, as a healthier beverage treat.  After awhile, the cost of our regular consumption encouraged us to give making our own another go.

DOWN TO A SCIENCE

We experimented a bit in the beginning with different teas and sweeteners, but we quickly got it down to a science, just using an organic mix of green and black teas and organic sugar.  Our favorite tea is the Sun, Moon & Stars mix from Davidson’s Tea, which we’ve used fairly exclusively for years.  And, as with many things, once you find a system that works, it’s easier to keep it going.  We did have a few experimental batches in the beginning, but we soon streamlined the process, and with a little teamwork, we bottle the previous month’s batch, start a new one, and, clean up the aftermath in under an hour.

Our monthly kombucha process.
Our monthly kombucha process.

HEALTHFUL ELIXIR OR TOXIC TEA?

Just because we have the process of making kombucha down to a science, does not mean there is a lot, if any, scientific data to back-up any benefits to regular consumption of kombucha.  There are an abundance of anecdotal accounts of its healing effects, as well as, stories claiming its toxic impact on health. My husband and I have consumed, maybe 4 to 10 ounces each, most days of the week, for years, without incident.  While there may be health benefits, or even some level of toxicity, I guess it is minimal, because we have not noticed significant impact to our health, for better or for worse. We just enjoy the process and the taste, and allow ourselves to believe there are some probiotic benefits to the brew.

Nonetheless, when taking on your own kombucha brewing project, do your research, always ensure good sanitation, and make note of how you feel when you drink it regularly.  Your own experience will likely be the most useful information you will get, with regards to its health benefits. But, with its popularity these days, I suspect more studies and research will be done on the topic.  So, be sure to do an occasional Google search to stay up to date with the latest information and adjust your opinion of kombucha’s healthfulness accordingly.

Leftover SCOBY & starter liquid to pass on to a friend.
Leftover SCOBY & starter liquid to pass on to a friend.

SCOBY SEARCH

If you are brewing your first batch, you will need to get a SCOBY in some starter (just some unflavored kombucha from someone else’s previous batch).  Chances are, if you ask your on-line friends, you’ll be able to track one down with no problem. But, if your friend pool does not include kombucha enthusiasts and you cannot locate a nearby SCOBY, just head on out to your local health food store, or even grocery store, and get yourself a good quality bottle of UNFLAVORED kombucha to use as your starter.  It will take a little longer to grow a good-sized SCOBY, but it will usually do the job. Make sure the commercial brew is, in fact, real kombucha, and not some flavored fizzy beverage with added flavoring and sugar.

Our original starting batch in 2014, using Oolong tea bags, a SCOBY we bought online & a bottle of plain GTS kombucha for the starter liquid.
Our original batch in 2014, using Oolong tea bags, a SCOBY we bought online & a bottle of plain GTS kombucha for the starter.

We started our kombucha monthly ritual with a SCOBY we bought online years ago, like this one, as well as, one bottle of GTS organic and raw original flavor kombucha for extra starter liquid.  Since then, we have produced a surplus of SCOBY every month, saving some to pass on occasionally.  I have heard of people dehydrating the surplus SCOBY to make dog treats, but I think it makes good food for the garden, so we just put it in the compost pile to nourish whatever random things grow out there in our neglected garden patch.

Big SCOBY for Kombucha... plenty to share!
Big SCOBY… plenty to share from our 2 gallon jars!

CONTAINING THE BREW

We explored all the options for housing our symbiotic cultured concoction.  At one point, we tried the continuous brew method, using the bottom porcelain part of a water dispenser.  This method has its perks, with never really having to remove the SCOBY and just pouring fresh tea in every month, after using the spigot to fill bottles, draining the last batch down to just the SCOBY and a bit of starter liquid left in the container.  However, since we let our batches brew a full month, I found, from a sanitary standpoint, I just feel better washing the jars each month and starting fresh. Plus, the spigot at the bottom ended up being more messy than it was worth. Not to mention, we enjoy brewing in clear jars, so we can easily peek in and see what’s going on in there!

Continuous brew container for kombucha.
Continuous brew container for kombucha.
Continuous brew container for kombucha.
Continuous brew container for kombucha.

Next, we thought multiple half gallon mason jars would be easier to replace, store and move around.  However, we found that, accounting for evaporation, displacement by the SCOBY, and saving a cup as the starter for the next batch, doing two half gallon jars per month yielded less than a gallon of finished kombucha.  This did not seem like enough for our efforts. We could have simply done six or eight half gallon mason jars, but it seemed easier to just upgrade to larger containers.  If you are only brewing for yourself, these might be fine for you.  You really have to just get started, decide on how long your brew cycle is going to be, and how much you end up consuming each cycle.  That will help you gauge the best size containers for long-term use.

Two gallon glass jars for brewing kombucha.
Two gallon glass jars for brewing kombucha.

Eventually, based on our needs, we settled into some simple 2 gallon jars that have been a good fit for our routine.  We drink kombucha, at least, four to five times per week, our kids drink a little here and there, and we love to share it with friends and at potlucks.  So, brewing two, 2 gallon jars per months allows us to always have a bit of a surplus on hand.  These jars, also, allow the SCOBY to grow quite large, as well as, make it easier to remove the SCOBY, as unlike the mason jars, the top of the 2 gallon jars is not tapered.  We have had these jars for almost four years, and they are holding up great.  They are a little more awkward to carry or move around when they are full, but, I have no problem carefully carrying them a few feet to set in their monthly resting spot.   

 

The Sun, Moon & Stars tea from Davidson's Teas, is the perfect mix for kombucha.
The Sun, Moon & Stars tea from Davidson’s Teas, is the perfect mix for kombucha.

TEA TIME

Now that you have obtained your SCOBY, it’s time to make your tea!  Herbal tea will not work for kombucha.  The SCOBY feeds on the caffeine and sugar to grow.  And, you want a tea with no additional additives or flavors.  We like Sun, Moon & Stars mix from Davidson’s Tea, which we subscribe to bi-monthly on Amazon.com.   We use two 2 gallon jars, which requires about 3 and a half gallons of tea to fill, leaving room for the SCOBY and starter liquid.  Therefore, I need to brew a large amount of tea.

However, since I do not have a pot that holds almost four gallons of liquid, I simply brew a big pot (probably around 1.5 gallons) of very strong tea, and I add water to the concentrated tea in the final stage.  Since I am using loose leaf tea, I never exactly measure my amounts. But, I estimate I use around 3 cups of dried tea to make my concentrate, which is diluted when added to the jars. If you are using bagged tea, I believe the ration is around 8 bags of tea per gallon of water.  Again, the types of teas and quantities is something you have to play around with to find your preference. But, these are good guidelines to get you started.

After our tea is brewed, I boil another small pot of water, in which I dissolve the organic sugar (1 cup per gallon), that I add to the tea after.  For smaller batches, making one pot of tea, and dissolving your sugar right in that pot, while the tea is hot, works fine, too.  But, I have just got my own system going and it works well for the amount of tea we use.

Tea prepared in big bowl, ready to pour into 2 gallon jars to start new batch of kombucha.
Tea prepared in big bowl, ready to pour into 2 gallon jars to start new batch of kombucha.

When we first started making kombucha, I hated using plain organic sugar, as I avoid it in my diet wherever possible.  I thought maybe we could use more “natural” sweeteners like coconut sugar, or even, reduce the amount of sugar we used. These attempts never went well, producing funky mold or just a weird taste. Henceforth, I never skimped on sugar, but I am, also, careful not to add more than the necessary one cup per gallon.  Because we let our kombucha brew up to 30 days, starting with a little stronger tea and adequate sugar seems to produce a balanced flavor over that time, with most of the sugar being consumed by the SCOBY.  We have tried less sugar before, but usually would end up with a stronger, more vinegary taste at the 30 day mark. So, we stick with 1 cup of organic sugar per gallon of tea.

Finally, remember to let your tea cool to room temperature before adding the SCOBY.  High heat will damage the culture, or render it unusable. So, don’t get impatient. I make my tea several hours before we plan to start our batch, and go busy myself with something in the meantime.  

FINDING YOUR CYCLE

Kombucha can be brewed anywhere from 7 to 30 days before it generally starts getting a wee-bit too tart and vinegary for most people’s taste.  This is general knowledge we originally acquired from the Internet. But, we have, also, proven this to be true in our own experimentation. Going beyond 30 days starts crossing over into the vinegary realm.  The longer your brew it, within the 7 to 30 day window, the more sugar and caffeine the SCOBY gobbles up. At least, that’s how it been explained to us. Many of the commercial kombuchas are brewed for 7 to 10 days for the first round, then another few days after it is bottled and flavorings are added.  This results in a more mild and sweeter taste.

Temperature will impact the brewing process, too.  We’ve been told that between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal, and that higher temperatures will yield a stronger kombucha more quickly.  Our home’s artificially induced climate is generally set around 75 degrees, but we also use a kombucha heater strip to ensure consistency of temperature.

We like to brew right up to 30 days, bottle and flavor, then let sit for another 5 to 7 days before refrigerating.  When adding our flavorings (usually fresh or dried fruit, we throw in a pinch of dried stevia leaf, to offset the tartness, while keeping the sugar lower).  Most people that like kombucha and try ours enjoy it. But, we have had a few newbies to the kombucha experience say they feel like it was too strong or sour for their tastes.  And, of course, if given the choice, our kids would generally choose a bottle of store-bought, sweeter kombucha over our home brew. So, you really have to experiment with your preferred taste and adjust your cycle accordingly.  You can do this by sampling it after 10 days to test its sweetness, and every few days after, until you reach your desired balance of sweet and tart.

 

Bottling kombucha with flavorings
Bottling kombucha with flavorings

FLAVORFUL ADDITIONS

Since we always have a batch brewing, every month we start by bottling up the last month’s batch into 64-Ounce/Half Gallon Clear Glass Kombucha Growler Jugs, adding whatever flavoring suits our fancy that month.  You do not have to flavor it. We just like experimenting with different fruits and herbs, and enjoy the creativity and variety of flavors we end up with.  Our most common flavorings include:

  • Fresh, organic chopped ginger
  • Frozen organic fruit (whatever is left in the fridge from the smoothie stash… strawberry, pineapple and mango make good additions, as well as, mixed berries and cherries).
  • Dried organic fruit – we often use dried goji berries and dried mulberries as a quick and easy addition.
  • Dried organic stevia leaf (this is better for longer brew cycles, to offset tartness; we use about a tbsp per half gallon jug)

Once you’ve bottled your kombucha with your chosen flavorings, it’s time to set it aside on the counter, or less-trafficked area of your home, to do its work for a few more days.  At this stage, we leave our to “gather fizz” for another five to ten days. It usually depends on when we remember to stick it in the fridge, so it chills up to drink.

The Power of the Fizz - kombucha becomes naturally effervescent in the brewing process.
The Power of the Fizz – kombucha becomes naturally effervescent in the brewing process.

THE POWER OF THE FIZZ

While sitting, bottled with its flavorful additions, the kombucha will become naturally fizzy.  Many things seem to impact the degree to which it gets more bubbly, none of which we’ve been able to deduce with any clear logic of consistency.  So, the magnitude of force that can come from the lid can vary greatly, regardless of how long you leave it or what you add to it. We have had a couple volcanic explosions.  We’ll paint the ceiling to hide the stain someday. Accordingly, we learned, early in, to keep a firm hand on the lid when opening the final product, and to “burp” it a bit to test whether it is going to be a big “fizzer” or not.  So, be forewarned, and temper your excitement to try your new creation with caution when you open that first lid!

Kombucha makes a great gift or potluck contribution!
Kombucha makes a great gift or potluck contribution!

KOMBUCHA WISDOM

Kombucha is not just a beverage, or a potentially healthful addition to your lifestyle.  There is some ritual that becomes attached the process when you make it yourself regularly.  It becomes a thoughtful pause in busy routines, the catalyst for conversation at gatherings, and a unique gift for the holidays.  And, whether its long-term consumption will prove to be beneficial or not, the act of making it reminds us to be mindful of the moment, patient with the process, and reverent towards our natural environment that facilitates the transformation of tea and sugar into a probiotic-rich beverage.  Hmm… Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast… maybe in the SCOBY, there is a metaphor for the relationship between people and our environment. However, I’ll leave that for you to ponder while you gather your kombucha supplies.

Kombucha makes a great gift or potluck contribution!
Kombucha makes a great gift or potluck contribution!

DISCLAIMER

Despite many years of experience brewing it for our family, I do not claim to be an expert on kombucha, and my advice should be taken with a grain of salt (or a chunk of SCOBY).  I cannot be held responsible if you create a noxious brew of moldy or contaminated kombucha and proceed to make yourself and friends and family ill consuming it. Please do your research, ensure proper supplies and sanitation, and be smart with your experimentation.   Enjoy!

Kombucha in wine glasses
Kombucha in wine glasses makes a nice addition to a meal.

VIDEO:  HOW WE MAKE KOMBUCHA

A couple years ago, my husband and I grabbed the camera during one of our monthly kombucha-making rituals, and documented our evolving process.  If you would like a visual to put with my written kombucha story, feel free to head on over to YouTube and watch it.

 

Just a Recap of What You’ll Need to Get Started:

  • 1 to 2 gallon glass jar (We use these 2 gallon jars)
  • Breathable tightly woven cloth & rubber bands to cover the top of your jar(s)
  • Organic black and/or green tea (We like Sun, Moon & Stars mix from Davidson’s Tea)
  • Organic sugar
  • Water, preferably filtered
  • SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast)
  • A cup of plain kombucha from a previous batch (or someone else’s) for the “starter’
  • Flavorings (when it’s time to bottle your brew, you can add things like ginger, fruit or herbs)

My Raw Food Reality 2018

Who Doesn’t Love a Good Challenge?

In 2009, at thirty-six years old and a little over four years into my “health journey,” I guess I was primed for a challenge.  I had already released over 100 pounds and maintained good habits for quite a few years. My “good habits” consisted of eating a fairly balanced vegan diet, being mindful of calories and not overeating, and getting in some moderate exercise everyday.  This would have been a perfectly reasonable approach with which to continue on. But, I still ate some processed vegan foods, salty restaurant meals and plenty of decaf coffee, so I felt there was some room for improvement. Thus, when I happened upon a website promoting a 100 day raw food challenge, I was excited to participate.  

Why Raw Vegan?

To preface my recount of my raw food experience, for those of you not privy to what constitutes a raw vegan diet, it is loosely defined as consisting of whole plant-foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, all of which are not heated over around 118 degrees. Simple enough, right?  Advocates of a raw food lifestyle generally hold the belief that consuming primarily natural, unprocessed food is ideal for human health, as foods have more “life force” when their enzymes and nutrients have not been denatured by high temperatures.  Not to mention, eating a large amount of fresh fruits and vegetables displaces a lot of the crap that we eat on a standard American diet.  

For the most part, those who follow a raw food diet are plant-based or vegan, as I am, though some raw foodist may consume milk, eggs and meat in their raw form.  The way in which foods are prepared on a raw vegan diet include juicing, blending, dehydrating, soaking & sprouting, as compared to the usual cooking methods of baking, grilling, frying, steaming, etc.  There is definitely an adjustment period, but there are plenty of enjoyable and satisfying options on a raw food diet.  For the most part, those who follow a raw food diet are plant-based or vegan, as I am, though some raw foodist may consume milk, eggs and meat in their raw form.  The way in which foods are prepared on a raw vegan diet include juicing, blending, dehydrating, soaking & sprouting, as compared to the usual cooking methods of baking, grilling, frying, steaming, etc.  There is definitely an adjustment period, but there are plenty of enjoyable and satisfying options on a raw food diet. For some, it is a sustainable lifestyle all the time, whereas, for others, it feels too restrictive to adhere to 100 percent, but can serve as a baseline for good nutrition.

 

Gourmet Raw Food from Khepra's Raw Food Juice Bar @ DC VegFest 2011
Gourmet Raw Food from Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar @ DC VegFest 2011

Those that have followed an exclusively raw food diet long-term often report many health benefits.  I certainly learned to connect more with my body and gained clarity about the impact food has on mood, physical pain, and digestion.  I saw some health improvements in the beginning, though, aging, sleep-deprivation and stress probably account for the plateau I eventually reached on my heath path.  There is little science to validate the effectiveness of an exclusively raw vegan diet, as a life-long approach to disease prevention, as compared to a “clean” whole food diet, combined with other healthful lifestyle choices.  Of course, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts, both positive and negative, that you can find on the Internet, if is a topic that interest you.  Keep in mind that the length of time and resources each individual had when attempting a raw food diet will greatly impact their experience.

Following the Momentum

Incidentally, the 100 day raw food challenge experience was fairly easy for me.  The days went by without too much angst or resistance to change. This was probably because I already ate a fair amount of fresh fruits and veggies and was used to making a lot of my food myself. My excitement about this new found dietary path inspired me to acquire the protocol of standard raw food kitchen gadgets, including a Greenstar juicer,ceramic knife, newer Vitamix Blender,Excalibur dehydrator and aspiralizer!  I was excited! After the challenge completed, I was feeling so good, and was so inspired by the community of raw food enthusiasts with whom I had connected online, that I just kept going! Fueled, partly by curiosity as to how it would feel to do this long-term, it became a fairly effortless lifestyle.

 

Vitamix Blender & Smoothie
Vitamix Blender & Smoothie
Excalibur Dehydrator
Excalibur Dehydrator
Spiralizer
Spiralizer
Kyocera Ceramic Knives
Kyocera Ceramic Knives

Seeking Out Support & Inspiration

In the subsequent years, to stay connected and purposefully remain on my chosen dietary path, I attended a few raw food events, lots of potlucks and made the pilgrimage to Arnold’s Raw Food Cafe in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, which was always a treat.  I, also, attended the Woodstock Fruit Festival three times, which provided “real life” community and inspiring examples of people of all ages that were thriving on varying degrees of a raw vegan diet. Whenever finances and schedules allow, this festival will likely continue to rank at the top of my preferred vacation destinations.  It is so nice to go spend a week with a supportive and diverse group of health-seekers, share experiences and enjoy some of the best raw food around.

 

Arnold's Way
Arnold’s Way Trip 2010

 

The Woodstock Fruit Festival 2016
The Woodstock Fruit Festival 2016

And to support my food values, I even I organized a natural foods buying club out of my garage. This gave me great access to a variety of produce.  I continued this for many years, and still do some orders these days, which has been a community-building experience and made me love natural foods even more!  

 

Produce Buying Club in my Garage 2012
Produce Buying Club in my Garage 2012

Further, I frequented raw vegan potlucks to connect with other raw food enthusiasts locally.  I have always had a passion for potlucks, regardless of the precise dietary focus.  I find them to be such a great way to bring people together.  So, these activities, coupled with online connections, really helped me feel motivated to continue on with the raw food lifestyle, just to see how it evolved for me.

 

Raw Vegan Potluck 2015
Raw Vegan Potluck 2015

As such, somehow, eight years went by, just living my life on my divergent dietary path.  The experience taught me a lot about myself, my body, nutrition, food culture and what constitutes “health.”  But, that is not to say there were no obstacles along the way, some of which may have related directly to my dietary choices, and some may have been more correlated to emotions and life experience.  Nonetheless, there was some learning and new self-awareness, especially in the first few years.

The Reemergence of My Gremlin

I came from a past of disordered eating, including compulsive overeating and binge eating, starting in my late mid-teens, up until 2005, when I was 31 years old, and had had enough of the self-abuse.  For four years prior to commencing my raw vegan experience, I had been focusing on weight loss, mindful eating and food journaling, as a means of staying present with food. I had lost over 100 pounds, found a sense of peace with food, and thought I had “tamed my gremlin.”  After spending most of my young life tormented by dietary ups and downs, I finally felt hopeful that I was on the right track to maintaining balance, physically and emotionally, and was proud of myself for changing the trajectory I had been on and providing my, then, young children with a more balanced mom and role model.

Then, I decided to “upgrade” my diet and go all in with the raw vegan lifestyle.  I was feeling great for the first few months, with my simple fruit and veggie meals, homemade salad dressings and smoothies.  Things were feeling much the same as they always had. But, then I discovered raw vegan “gourmet” foods. I started creating more elaborate recipes, with nut and seed spreads, concocting raw cacao desserts and drizzling olive oil on zucchini noodles.  I discovered the whole world of raw vegan packaged foods, which felt like it made this lifestyle even better! But, amidst of these expanded “raw food” options, something unexpected happened. All of a sudden, I found myself struggling with the compulsion to overeat or binge on dense, fatty raw foods like raw granolas, cashew cheezecake, lasagnas, cookies, crackers, raw chocolates, or sometimes, even just fruit or banana ice cream.  Something had been triggered, and there I was again, dealing with some of the old feelings and cycles of behavior that I thought I had overcome years prior.

 

Raw Vegan Packaged Foods
Raw Vegan Packaged Foods
Raw Vegan Packaged Goodies
Raw Vegan Packaged Goodies

Raw Foods Learning Curve

There is a learning curve and adjustment period, when switching to a raw vegan diet.  Whole, uncooked fruits and veggies have to be consumed in greater quantities to reach the same degree of satiation that we are used to feeling on more condensed, cooked foods.  I really was not privy to this information in the beginning, but I quickly realized that my digestion felt a bit different and to remain comfortably full, I had to eat sizable quantities of fruits and veggies at my meals.  But, when I incorporated more gourmet meals, or packaged raw foods into the mix, suddenly that equilibrium was thrown off again, due to the higher fat content and greater caloric density. It actually took me a few years to feel like I really worked out the kinks and found balance again with my food routines.  I don’t know why I persevered, but, I felt like I was growing and learning more about myself on this path, and I wasn’t yet ready to abandon it. So, that found me around the 4 year mark, on my 8 year raw food journey. At this point, I had found my groove and was sure I was in it for life.

 

Raw Vegan Chocolates
Raw Vegan Chocolates

Still, there were times, in my day to day life, that I did not feel like I had the support I needed, or just felt like I was inconveniencing others with my choices, being a “food freak.”  I have had friends and family members tell me they couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, eat “as perfect” as I do. When I would hear that, I felt that maybe I had set my own dietary bar too high and not given ample consideration to the social and emotional role food plays in our life.  But, I was consuming the things I truly craved and wanted, not forcing myself to isolate myself from the world, trying to live up to some vision of perfection. 

Of course, contemplating these things was interesting, and would likely not have happened had I not taken on the task of revising my diet and been willing to question my beliefs surrounding food, including traditions, emotionally charged memories related to food, social constructs, my consumer habits, and existing scientific nutritional research. Actually, in 2014, it inspired me to enroll in a graduate program in health & wellness coaching, where I had ample opportunity to examine a holistic perspective of health and expand my understanding of nutrition. So, overall, the obstacles I experienced were few, were accompanied by useful lessons and new insights about myself, and never deterred me from my focus to see how life evolved eating primarily produce.

 

Fruit Bowl
Fruit Bowl

Revising My Raw Food Rituals

However, towards the end of 2017, after consuming almost 100 percent raw foods for over 8 years, suddenly, adhering to an “all raw” diet started to feel like more of a an arbitrary choice than a purposeful endeavor, given the context of my life as a mid-life mom, living in Western Maryland.  I know food is integral to my sense of well-being and the first line of defense against many ills and diseases. But, the energetics of food go beyond their nutrient profile and filter into the psyche. I had began to feel intuitively drawn to dabble with some cooked whole foods, with the same sense of curiosity that enticed me to follow the raw vegan path in the first place.  Also, it came at a time when mid-life had been forcing me to really acknowledge that the “nourishment” I get from movement, relaxation, relationships and time for creative pursuits was of equal importance as the food I consumed.

And, thus, a transition started in my mind before it quite took hold in the physical realm.  Drawing the line in the dietary sand, between raw vegan and whole foods vegan did take me awhile to do.  Making the shift felt like kind of a big deal, after having invested 8 years into this dietary experiment and lifestyle.  I kept waiting until I had a little space in my life to reflect and consciously play around with my routines. I did not hold the belief that eating 100 percent raw diet was a guarantee of health and longevity.  It is easy enough to look around at other humans and see that health and longevity have no prescription, but rather some very loose guidelines. So, there was no fear that I would be “poisoning” myself with cooked vegetables, as some raw food gurus have touted.  I had just hoped for a little more ceremony surrounding my first cooked food in years.

 

Kale Chips
Kale Chips

The Return of the Sweet Potato

Yet, time restraints often make eating much more of a practical endeavor these days, driven by the need for efficiency, cost-effectiveness and nutrient-density.  And, though I will always have a passion for a good salad, admittedly, I had gotten in a bit of raw food rut with busy schedules and waning energy. Brad’s raw chips had become a staple in my routine and I had become a bit of a kale chip junkie, getting a little over excited when I would travel and find a new local brand with exotic flavors.  But, as life would have it, amongst my kale chip adventures and salad-making festivities, life afforded me little time for reflection. I knew if I waited for a time when I could create space for some idyllic, meaningful, transitional moment to mindfully prepare and consume some cooked food, I would likely be waiting until the “empty nest” years of life, and that just felt ridiculous.

So, on a dull October afternoon in 2017, I took the gustatory leap and cooked sweet potatoes in the Instant Pot.  There, alone in my kitchen, hovering over the island counter, as I often do at mealtimes, I ate these practical root veggies with my usual dinner salad.   There, that was done. No fanfare ensued. And, for awhile, I enjoyed a monogamous love affair with sweet potatoes. But, eventually, we opened the relationship and shared the love with other cooked veggies, and even an occasional “grain,” like oats, quinoa and wild rice.  It was all very anticlimactic, and happened with ease.

 

Sweet Potatoes & Salad
Sweet Potatoes & Salad w/ Cashew Dressing

Raw Food Reflections

Having traversed the raw to cooked food spectrum, it does feel nice to have a few other foods “on the table” when the raw options are less than ideal, not good quality or expensive, but I do not feel like much else has changed.  As I moved forward with a few tweaks to my long-standing routines, over the next year, some new insights did arise, but, no significant changes in digestion, skin or energy have been apparent.  My raw food experience changed my palate significantly, for which I am thankful. I have continued to prefer and prioritize a “clean,” whole foods vegan diet and quite enjoy simplicity. In my best efforts to feel balanced, stay off medications, and, keep my weight, fitness and emotional health on an even keel as I get older, I hope my food choices, at least, mediate some of the crap my environment throws at me.

That about sums up my “raw reality.”  To many people, I am sure my dietary path seems impractical or “extreme.”  In fact, early on, when occasionally sharing about my dietary choices, I quickly realized that most people didn’t understand what a raw vegan lifestyle entailed, nor did they care to learn more.  Thankfully, I had no need to convince anyone that they should be doing exactly what I was doing. I didn’t even know if I should. For me, my food choices have always evolved organically and I have never forced myself to adhere to any guidelines or rules (for too long, though I often give things a thorough trial-run).  When trying new things, it is important to be mindful of their value and usefulness to your unique life, not simply their theoretical applications.

Side Note About Kids & “Restrictive” Diets

Being vegan has never felt overly restrictive to our family, barring the occasional “hangry” moment out and about, or a kids birthday party devoid of vegan options.  Because it is a conscious choice, based on compassion, once the kids had an awareness of animal agriculture and such, they were generally advocating for themselves with regards to checking if things were vegan.  For the most part, they had plenty of options, and the availability of vegan packaged foods has increase immeasurably, even in their lifetime.

Woodstock Fruit Festial 2016
Woodstock Fruit Festial 2016

Nonetheless, I was especially mindful to try to model a balanced relationship with food for my kids, even though I had some internal struggles along the way.   I recognized, that as they grew and expanded their own understanding, my food ideals were not something I should impose, but rather just share, despite my desire to keep them healthy and on a “clean diet” for as long as I could, before social pressures crept in.  So, though they tried many of the raw vegan dishes I made, I never considered trying to make them adhere to an “all raw” diet. It was my thing and not practical for them.

That is not to say that I am not an avid label reader, nor do I miss any opportunity to educate my kids (or any unfortunate bystanders) about what’s in their food and the health benefits of a “clean,” whole foods diet.  And, I definitely make food purchasing decisions based on my own ethics and values.  But, ultimately, they will have to navigate the environment of abundance (and excess) that we live in on their own.  I just hope that I have given them some things to think about as they venture out more into the world and take on the task of nourishing themselves.

My Advice to Dietary Adventurers

Thus, to those of you looking to improve your health, or interested in testing the boundaries of your social and emotional programming surrounding food, I challenge you to experiment with the variations of a whole foods, plant-based diet.  It makes space for new awareness to arise and can be very healing. On the flip side of that, food is just a tiny part of our whole selves, and forcing any dietary dogma that does not feel purposeful, or brings up a lot of resistance, can do more harm than good.  So, before embarking on any dramatic shift in your dietary patterns, know yourself, your motivations, and find yourself a supportive tribe. Make it a creative experience, not a set of rules imposed upon you by unrealistic ideals or the experience of others.

If there is one thing the raw food lifestyle taught me, it is that no matter which foods you are eating, or not eating, you will bring your habits and beliefs with you.  To get the most out of any experience, you have to continually question those habits and beliefs and align yourself with what feels right in the moment, even if it changes over time.   Meanwhile, nourish all the areas of your life, so you are well-rested, physically and emotionally balanced, creatively content and connected with others that support your growth, even if that includes crazy dietary experiments.  Food is a tool to fuel your creativity in this world, impact the environment around you, connect you to others and bring you greater self-awareness. Use this tool wisely.

 

 

Since mid-life is often a time when we feel the need take stock of our lives, it seems our 25th anniversary is the perfect catalyst for some self-reflection. The meanderings herein are my way of processing and organizing my feelings about marriage and my journey through it, thus far. Make of it what you will.

Quarter Notes

I am not quite sure how Darren and I find ourselves celebrating a quarter century of shared experience; almost 30 years, if you count dating in high school and college. Yet, here we are upon the doorstep of our 25th wedding (elopement) anniversary. I can only speak for myself with regards to this experience. But, having known Darren since I was fifteen years old has given me ample opportunity to notice how his brain works, and, though he would likely express it differently, I suspect we are on the same page… or, at least, in the same book!

I could share some trite anniversary sappiness about the joys of marriage, and my anticipation about what the next twenty-five years will bring. But, truth be told, it has not always been easy, and such sentiments would not express the full picture. And, though my anticipation for our future is real, the reality of our journey to the present cannot be summed up in an inspirational social media meme. Marriage has been the breeding ground for personal growth, fraught with communication hurdles, individual differences and moments of downright doubt and uncertainty. Yet, amongst these challenges have been many beautiful moments, fun adventures, lots of laughter and plenty of valuable insights, some of which I will try to articulate here.

Impulsivity

I had just turned twenty the month before we crossed the border and applied for our marriage license in Bangor, Maine. Needless to say, I didn’t really know who I was, or what I wanted in life at this point. But, I knew I wanted to figure it out together, and I had relative faith that when I arrived at this place of “knowing,” Darren and I would still be on the same path. If not, whatever. I would deal with that later. Impulsivity came easy at twenty. It felt good. We eloped and lived with my parents in Connecticut for six months, while I worked and we waited for Darren’s green card. 

It was an exciting time, marked by the contrast of rapid change and the patience required to do the work needed to facilitate those changes.  I plugged away at a temp job at an engineering company and, he spent his days working out at the gym, studying for the ASVAB exam, and, once he got his green card, doing a few manual labor jobs while he waited to start his military training.  After having spent the past few years serving in the Canadian Reserves, his sole focus was to serve in the U.S. military.  Despite the underlying risks, we rationalized that this was the best route for us to gain some immediate independence, travel opportunities and educational benefits.  Nonetheless, my impulsive nature had to be tempered a bit while we waited for the ball to get rolling

 

Manifesting

Then, just a little more than a year into our time as husband and wife, we moved to Italy, where Darren would be stationed for three years. This was one of those things in my life that I feel like I truly manifested, out of sheer clarity and desire. Ever since I had lived in Spain in my early teens, I knew I wanted to return to spend time living abroad when I “grew up.” A few years later, when I met Darren in Canada in high school, he was inspired by my European vision and made it his own. This shared focus eventually got us to Italy, via the U.S. military, when Darren enlisted as a helicopter mechanic.

Since then, I now see a few other clear manifestations of intent; those times when there was no doubt about what we wanted and the only thing standing in between us and the outcome were the steps we needed to take. The first of these intentions was to get our education. Whether this was fueled by social conditioning or a love of learning was a later point of contemplation, when we began thinking about homeschooling our own kids. Nonetheless, while living in Italy, I plodded away at my bachelors degree, and during his six year enlistment, Darren did the same. At the time, this felt purposeful and I [mostly] enjoyed the experience.

The next intentional pursuit, a handful of years later and back in the States, was starting a family. That took a little introspection, working on my health, and some medical intervention to get the ball rolling. But, three kids later, we had created a family that looked a lot like we had envisioned. Of course, there were a few unexpected twists and a whole new set of filters through which to see the world, too. No regrets there!

One last vision, though mine alone, but impacting both of us, was my conscious effort, starting in 2005, to bring my physical and mental health into better balance. Over the course of a couple years, I released around 100 pounds and a lot of emotional weight, as well. I am thankful for the support I always felt, as I navigated that challenging task and layed down some new neuropathways in my always-busy brain.

Other smaller focused endeavors were scattered around these milestones of travel, education, health and family. Some included career development, more education, creative pursuits, homeschooling our kids, and building community. It seems the first fifteen years of our marriage were a whirlwind of striving towards goals and “building a life,” whereas, for the most part, the last ten feel more like the “maintenance years.” But, even in the process of maintaining status quo, there are creative elements to sharing space, experience and time that have definitely been enhanced by our partnership.

Sailing Away

Yet, in between all these collaborative efforts towards growth, there were times of pulling apart; times when I felt we were not compatible for the long-run and times when I knew Darren felt the same. In the first decade, there was some therapy. It was helpful. Then, life took on a pace of its own. Though our choices have led us to have what would be characterized as a “traditional” relationship, with me fulfilling the role of “homemaker” and, Darren, that of the “breadwinner,” I have never felt traditional or stuck in a role that did not suit me. But, if I’m keeping it real, in the early years of parenthood, my financial dependence on Darren might be a factor in our long-term togetherness, in the sense that it gave me the need to pause and think before acting. Had I had my own financial autonomy, there was a time, or two, when I may have jumped ship when things were not matching up to my soulmate ideal, Oprah-empowered, romanticized vision of the relationship I thought we deserved. And, there was a time when Darren had heard enough Oprah quotes and wanted to take the whole ship and sail away by himself, too!

Thankfully, these experiences helped me learn, early in, that I was responsible for my own feelings. And, though I didn’t always feel understood, I did feel supported in my efforts to sort myself out. We learned that when we endeavor to really understand another person, we feel invested. When we sense the other person is equally invested, we feel we are creating something worthwhile and purposeful. And, meaning and purpose really are the good stuff; the armor that protects us against the apathy that can accompany aging, the fear of the unknown and the inevitable challenges life presents.
Though, with these challenges, there have been times when our understanding of one another has not felt complete, and our desire to “work on” the growth of our relationship has waned, mostly, there was patience, empathy and commitment to sticking with this joint endeavor to see where it would take us. And, as middle-age approached, a deeper appreciation for our shared journey seemed to settle in. That “soulmate” notion of mine had come to see the value of being life partners, each tending to our own souls, and learning the lessons that only existing in relationship can provide.

Communication

In the context of marriage, the need to focus on communication revealed itself slowly over time in our relationship. Coming to understand that good communication was something that needed to be cultivated and nurtured, not a skill we inherently possessed, was a lesson we had to learn through trial and error. The foundation of any relationship is built upon the capacity of those in it to understand one another and a willingness to do the work necessary to reach that place of understanding. The old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” has a statute of limitations. Whether it be a physical or an emotional absence, there is a threshold at which we stop creating connection when we are not communicating regularly and/or effectively. Communication is our most valuable tool within relationships and the fuel for the flame of love. And, I have definitely done my part to fan that flame over the years.

Boundaries

I will admit that in the early stages of our relationship, I likely tested the limits of Darren’s love for me. My youthful inner turmoil spilled out all over his placid demeanor and he often got caught in my emotional ramblings, philosophical debates and misguided efforts at communication and personal growth. Over time, I learned to “tame my Gremlin,” and recognized that the expression “don’t dish out what you can’t take,” is a solid guideline for any relationship. And, in hindsight, I can see where, without this dynamic of our distinct personalities, I might have missed the opportunity to move through these lessons with as much clarity and grace. And, I am sure Darren has received a few lessons of his own, too.

Parenting and Marriage

Becoming parents most definitely changed the landscape of our relationship, forcing us to consider, more deeply, the people we wanted to be. I cannot imagine any more profound teachers than my children. They shifted my internal compass away from navigating solely by my own ego, towards the instinctual path of selfless love. They provided the mirror I needed to see my reflection more clearly. Of course, I do not doubt that the complexities of existence could have conjured up some other life path to offer similar wisdom, but, parenting is definitely an efficient means. And, parenting in partnership provides an even better opportunity to know the stuff we are made of. Darren and I are no exception. The insights have been profound and the lessons have not been lost on us.

Marinating in Monogamy

As we became parents, and explored alternative lifestyle choices, like veganism and homeschooling, we naturally started becoming aware of other divergent paths, including the variations of healthy relationship dynamics that fall outside the social norm of monogamy. Early on, had the right opportunity presented itself, I am not so sure we might not have explored those variations, for better, or for worse. But, despite my hesitancy to label relationships or put love in a box, the default of monogamy, with its inherent flaws, always seemed most constructive for us. And, twenty-five years in, its parameters do not feel binding, but rather provide a context in which to narrow my focus, in a world that seems to pull it all over the place. I, also, have a strong sense that Darren and I genuinely want each other to be happy in this life, and work to have open communication, which, I think, allows us to feel like there is always room to grow.

Co-creating

When we are young, in our surge towards independence, we often question the institution of marriage, the need for financial partnerships, and the efficacy of lifelong commitments. I would encourage all young people to consider these topics! Though, I really didn’t. I just jumped in, eyes closed! So, maybe I would caution against too much scrutiny and throw out a reminder that relationships are the fabric of life. Within our social structures, our creative potential can be magnified. Whether it be romantic or otherwise, our connections to others create our story, through which the depth and enjoyment of our experience are dependent. There is only so much we can create in isolation; we need others. But, in hindsight, contemplating those needs early on and defining your own expectations can give you a head start in the relationship department, may save you some personal turmoil and expedite the productivity of your future partnerships!

We are Family

Twenty-five years into this endeavor, our relationship feels like a permanent fixture. We are family. I feel fortunate to have Darren in my life and I feel resolute in my commitment to my own personal growth and to our relationship. I appreciate the platform from which this partnership has allowed me to experience myself. Maybe there have been no Jerry McGuire “you complete me” moments, but, there have been many moments of meeting halfway, sharing the load and giving each other perspective. I take full responsibility for completing myself, for filling up my own cup and for communicating my feelings in an authentic and caring way. This love story may not be one that inspires feature films or steamy romance novels, but it is my story and it inspires me to show up fully and honestly. It has allowed me to experience love, with all its nuances and intricacies. And, it’s not over yet! With any luck, there will be time for more lessons, more moments of co-creative inspiration and the chance to know more of ourselves within relationship to each other.

Final Thoughts

Each marriage is as unique as the individuals that create it.  The examples and wisdom of other married people in our lives offer us information about what we want and don’t want within our own relationship(s), but should never be a steadfast standard by which we measure the success of our own marriage.  Marriage is a creative endeavor, with lots of room for subjectivity, personal preference and individual artistry.  It need not conform to any particular genre, and is measured by individual contentment, not external approval.  Accordingly, if I could give one piece of advice on marriage it would be to be kind; to yourself and to each other. From there, it will be easier to work out the rest. <3