A Love Letter to Florida

There are so many things I don’t like about Florida. I hate the billboards on the highway. (I am glad the billboard trend has mostly avoided our home state.) I hate the strips and the widespread prevalence of fast fried food. I hate the intersections – many of them make zero logical sense – and the fact that everyone drives like a suicidal maniac. I hate the trash on the roads and the beaches and the despair of locals who have been robbed of their own resources by tourists. I hate the crowds and the smell of the overheated, unwashed masses. And yet, despite all these things… I am unabashedly in love.

For every one thing I dislike about Florida, there are a dozen things I adore. I love the buzzing of electricity from busy transformers. I love the music of the birds and the cicadas. I love the tropical flowers and the draping, spooky Spanish moss. I love that at any given moment you could have a magical, surprise encounter with a beautiful bird or sea creature. (However, I would not enjoy a surprise encounter with a shark or an alligator!) I love the rustling of the palms in the tropical breeze. I love the tiny lizards, bobbing their heads as they scurry over patios and fences. I love that the sea salt is so sticky and bountiful that you can see it dusting your skin. I even love the humidity; the trickle of sweat feels cathartic and cleansing. (But, for the love of God, please wear deodorant!)

When I look in the mirror in Florida, I see the most authentic version of myself. That’s not to say I’m not “me” everywhere else, but the brown skinned, glowing reflection- with her wild, salt laden hair barely contained in a beach-y wrap – is the woman I know I am meant to be.

Needless to say, I am a little bit heartbroken to be back in New England after our incredible trip to St. Augustine. While we were there, my wife noticed that our favorite food truck was hiring. It gave me serious pause. I doubt the pay would be high enough to cover my bills, but I could picture myself freelancing as a web-content writer in the cool shade of the morning and selling locals and savvy tourists fresh vegan-friendly wraps in the afternoon. The girls who took our orders and delivered our lunches were mostly dreadlock adorned young hippies. I imagined falling into the role of Hippie Mother Hen, dispensing peace and love over hummus and avocado.

Clearly, I got a little delusional. Life never turns out the way we picture it in our minds. When we’re lucky, it turns out better. Otherwise, it’s a lot grittier. The trick is to find the gift in the grit.

Another thing that struck me during our trip is how much I would love to be a travel blogger. Yeah, yeah. Wouldn’t everybody? But I don’t want to do it the traditional way. First of all, I could give a hoot about fine dining and fancy hotels. (However, I am VERY picky about where I sleep… but that’s another story.) And I am not particularly interested in international travel (although I do have an international bucket list and I wouldn’t rule it out). What I really want to write about is Americana. I want to see beyond the billboards and the bullshit and discover what lies at the crux of the United States. I also want to write about how it feels to travel as a sober person. For most people, vacation entails a week of uninhibited cocktail consumption. If this definition sums up your travel mindset, all I can say is that you are seriously missing out. Traveling sober means soaking in every last experience with a sharp, clear mind.

I don’t have the means to road trip the U.S. yet, but I can share about the places I do visit in my regular non-travel blog. So, without further ado, here is St. Augustine, FL, according to Autumn:

First of all, I have a confession to make. I didn’t one hundred percent abide by my minimalist and dietary principles on vacation. And that’s okay. I prepared to let loose beforehand. While we did shop for travel memorabilia and check out the local foodie scene, I am happy to report that I stayed well within the budget I set for myself. We also took liberties with dairy consumption, but I am proud to say that J.L. did not consume one ounce of meat. I didn’t quite squeak through as a dutiful vegetarian but I came close. I love that my wife is so excited about ethical eating; she was watching TV and I heard her yell: “Turkeys are our friends!” We ate many vegan meals at our rented beach cottage, including scrumptious grilled vegetables with fragrant rice and whole wheat bagels with tofu cream cheese.

When we did venture out, the food was some of the best I’ve ever eaten. We never had a meal that was less than three stars. I do my foodie research and plan our stops. If you’re looking for a list of delicious vegan/vegetarian eateries in St. Augustine, look no further:

  1. The Kookaburra: I don’t know how the food is at this coffee shop… but I can tell you that the coffee is hands down the best I have ever had in my LIFE. Order an iced Honey Badger or an iced Mocha Nut. Hell, get crazy and order both. Leave me a comment while you’re drinking it so I can weep with jealousy.
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    Kookaburra on the beach
  2. Crave: This food truck has an additional location in the same building as the Kookaburra’s beach shop. Convenience at its finest. Order a Happy Hummus wrap and sub the carrots/cucumbers with avocado. Then write me a thank you card. Again, the BEST wrap I have EVER had in my LIFE. I could eat there every day.
  3. Casa Benedetto’s Ristorante: I couldn’t resist the urge to have a plate of homemade Sicilian Alfredo while gluttonously imbibing dairy – BUT I have to say that it was the cannoli that really got me. My pasta was outrageously good – I would have liked a little more garlic in the sauce – but the cannoli was so cinnamon-y and perfect. J.L. loved her bread pudding, too. It’s a great place for dessert.
  4. Present Moment Cafe – If you’re strictly vegan, this is the place for you. It’s a little pricey, and the service is kind of slow, but the food tastes like the bomb diggity. I never believed in vegan queso – how can you have creamy cheese without the actual CHEESE??? – but I sure as heck do now.
  5. The Back 40 Urban Cafe – I had something called a “wet burrito” for dinner and, after stuffing myself silly, had to go back to our beach cottage and rest. It was a glorious feast.
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    My enormous burrito!
  6. Cousteau’s Waffle and Milkshake Bar – This is the place I was drooling over for months before our trip and it ended up being kind of disappointing. The Belgian waffles are out of this world but the milkshakes could use a little work. Still…it is my kind of bar and it has potential.
  7. Crucial Coffee – This one is last but certainly not least. After watching the sunset (including a manatee spotting), we didn’t want our evening to end. I was super pumped when we tripped over this coffee shack which was wonderfully situated on a garden with twinkling lights and shared table space. I had some kind of minty iced lemonade and J.L. had a crazy blended espresso drink with lots of chocolate and other delightful flavors. It was dreamy and delicious and I would consider selling a body part to go back.

So… I clearly indulged. However, I have to say that eating vegan/vegetarian foods, as well as preparing many meals at home, helped me NOT gain ten pounds like I did on vacation last year. No joke.

I’ve covered what to eat. However, what should you do? We did just about everything.(Well, everything except drink from the dank ass Fountain of Youth. Yuck!) That’s one of the greatest gifts of sobriety: you’re not too hung over to do things…and then you remember them in joyous, vivid detail. We met Maximo the crocodile, climbed to the top of the lighthouse, explored the Castillo de San Marcos, had a blast at the interactive Pirate museum, and walked through the historic downtown multiple times. But what other things did we discover?

  1. The St. Augustine Wild Reserve – We needed GPS navigation to find this place and, when we pulled in, my first impression left me feeling a little nervous. However, we ended up having an experience I will never forget. The St. Augustine Wild Reserve is a non-profit rescue reserve, which means all the animals have been saved from negligence, abandonment, abuse, and death. Unlike a trip to the zoo, you can feel confident that your money is being spent supporting a cruelty-free cause. You also get to watch tigers playing in bubble bath. Oh, and you get to see a thousand pound liger…and a bear who eats peppermints. (The sweet bear was smiling even though he (she?) had previously suffered immensely at the hands of man. His claws were beaten off with a hammer.) It’s pretty amazing to hear a lion and tiger growl in person…and even more amazing that the Wild Reserve is educating people about how wild animals are NOT PETS. Seriously, if you think domesticating any kind of wild cat or dog is okay, we can’t be friends. I don’t say that kind of thing very often, but I have to draw the line somewhere.
  2. Washington Oaks Gardens State Park – This park is an absolute must. It is tied with the St. Augustine Wild Reserve for number one thing to do. The former estate is breathtaking. I guess you’d want to make sure the gardens are in bloom before visiting – I’m not really sure how that works in a sub-tropical climate. Among a plethora of other things, there are citrus trees, roses fit for a queen, and ancient, mossy oaks. The park is situated between the ocean and the Matanzas river and you have access to both while visiting. I was so taken by the landscape that I could have wept. My heart is still bleeding several weeks later. As if the experience wasn’t magical enough on its own, we saw wild dolphins swimming in the Matanzas on our way back to our cottage.
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    Stopping to smell the roses
  3. Basilica Cathedral – I am not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person. There’s a BIG difference. And after watching The Keepers on Netflix, the Catholic church makes me sick. (I wasn’t a particularly huge fan before watching The Keepers, either.) However, this giant cathedral really struck a chord with me. There’s just a feeling in there. I guess that isn’t surprising given that people have been prayerfully visiting the site for four hundred and fifty years. You can sense the history in the air. It felt very meaningful to light a remembrance candle before stepping back out into the sunshine.
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    The Basilica Cathedral
  4. Ghost Tour – Laugh if you want, but a ghost tour is a fun way to get to know the history of an area. When we went on a hearse tour in Savannah, Georgia, it stopped right outside the renovated carriage house we were renting. Talk about exciting! This time, our tour wasn’t just about hearing the stories, it was also about trying to communicate. We even had those electro-magnetic meters. I went in feeling very skeptical…and I have to say that I probably won’t do a “communication” oriented tour ever again. However, that’s because I think a little boy ghost said hello to me before our tour guide even told us about the building or the ghosts. I had the experience all on my own… without the power of suggestion (other than the fact that we were on a damn ghost tour). I’m too much of an empath for paranormal experiences. Sensing energy intensely leaves me feeling vulnerable and drained. We also learned that Henry Flagler, whose buildings are some of the most recognizable in St. Augustine, was a womanizer and, well, kind of a big ol’ jerk. Flagler College is beautiful inside but you could probably skip Lightner Museum. It needs some updating.
  5. The Golden Gypsy & Grace Gallery World Folk Art – If you want something different from the usual tourist kitsch, search out these two fantastic gift shops. Though I consider myself to be a minimalist work-in-progress, my favorite items tend to be souvenirs from our travels. Some of the things I choose might still be kitsch-y, but at least they’re unique. This time, I chose Buddha and Ganesha figurines, a beautiful lantern, colorful flip flops, a bird adorned notebook, and tye dye shorts.

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My Ganesha figurine in its new home
If you had asked me when I was younger, I would have told you I NEVER wanted to visit Florida. In my mind, it was a tourist trap and an overheated snowbird oasis. And, yes, it is, indeed, both of those things. But it is also weird, spooky, and unique. It dances unabashedly to the beat of its own drum. It has its own magic. It jives perfectly with my wild heart.

For now, all I can do is write love letters to the palms and the sand, the cicadas and the birds, and each and every salty, humidity-wrapped surprise. I have to remember that dreams, even when they come true, dissolve into the grit of life. I have to honor that the Universe needs me in my cold New England city. I have work to do here. The gifts are in the grit.

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To Light a Candle

I am pretty proud of myself. I finally made an appointment to see the dentist. Granted, my bottom teeth are feeling alarmingly sensitive…but what really matters is that I have one foot in the door.

I know, I know: Not cool. But isn’t it funny how we only change when we are in pain? I think we are all guilty of it to some degree.

I wish I could say that pain didn’t motivate me to start looking at my eating habits. What I can say, however, is that it didn’t take¬†much pain. I’m not waiting for the situation to escalate or for some awful diagnosis to develop from continued unhealthy eating.

We’ve been cleaning out our freezer and pantry – eating through the last of our non-plant-based food items – and instead of savoring the cheese and butter, I have felt almost annoyed by the chore of slogging through all the dairy. Last Wednesday, we went to see Stevie Nicks and the Pretenders. Before the show, I ordered one “last” roll of my favorite sushi. (For the record, we haven’t given up on our commitment to spend less eating out. We had a gift certificate. ūüôā ) While it tasted delicious, I was acutely aware of how heavy it felt in my stomach. I worried I would feel too queasy to watch my rock’n roll goddess perform. Luckily, I rebounded… but another door slammed shut on my doubt. My body is ready for change.

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Our beautiful sushi platter. The roll on the front right is vegetarian!

After a night of fitful post-concert sleep, my wife and I dragged our tired selves to a new vegan juicery and cafe. (Who the hell can sleep after being in the presence of Stevie Nicks?) At first, the clubby music and steep prices at the eatery raised my eyebrow, but when our drinks and breakfast arrived, I felt surprisingly satisfied and inspired. The food was yummy and filling. Best of all, I didn’t feel gross after putting it in my body. It gave me pause to think that people will buy four or five $10+ cocktails in an evening without batting an eye, but one comparatively priced health drink might be considered over the top. Which product should we really value more? If your answer is the cocktail, we might need to talk.

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My smoothie (cold brew, banana, nut butter, almond milk) & vegan granola bar.

It seemed like a good morning to continue our foray into the world of veganism, so we went to Whole Foods to replenish our dwindling supplies. Instead of feeling limited by the lack of choice, I felt happy and excited to be proactively improving our health. At the check-out line, I braced myself for sticker shock but, because I had done my research, stocking up only cost us what I would usually spend on a week’s worth of groceries. It really helped to be at a different grocery store, too. There were a lot fewer processed foods jumping off the shelves – or maybe I just didn’t notice as much because it was unfamiliar territory.

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Our new fruit bowl

To be fair, I still have animal products in my system… so I haven’t started the withdrawal process yet. The food in my work environment also continues to pose temptation. However, I am feeling cautiously optimistic and creatively inspired. Having a yummy vegan treat and a successful grocery experience really helped build my confidence. I also saw a comforting film this week. It talked about how perfection isn’t the aim of eating plant-based food – it’s improvement. Eating nutritiously doesn’t mean never, ever¬†indulging. It means being healthy¬†most of the time. I feel like I don’t have to say goodbye to our yearly batch of cut-out Christmas cookies (which we tend to give away) or a birthday sweet. On the rare occasion I do have something unwholesome, I just need to remember that I have’t given myself license to have¬†all the unwholesome things. Embracing minimalism has also taught me that the rarity of an occurrence adds to its overall value. I think that philosophy applies to food. It tastes more decadent if you don’t have it every day.

The question is whether or not this philosophy will work in application. A complete abstinence approach has been the¬†only way to treat my substance abuse issues. I’m on a mission to find out if food will be any different. I will adapt my methodology accordingly and report back to you.

The other interesting factor the film touched upon is the importance of a likeminded support system. I’m really blessed to have a wife who is on board. It would be much harder to make these changes with certain kinds of food still in the house. I also draw strength from watching documentaries and following online communities. It’s interesting how the tenets of recovery are the same regardless of how the addiction manifests.

We really just need to fill the voids inside us with genuine connection and community.

When I started following a personal finance blog last fall, I never knew I was about to embark on this crazy journey. First, I changed the way I view money and consumerism. Soon after, I simplified the way I relate to my possessions and the items in the space around me. I also started to prioritize activities and eliminate those that were not adding any value to my life. Next, I assessed how to lighten my footprint on the planet and be kinder to my global brothers and sisters. Finally, I examined my relationship with food and found it sorely lacking. One thing has become clear: Recovery is about¬†so much more than stopping a behavior. It is about growing and growing and growing. It is about discovering the interconnectedness of all things. It is about wading beyond the shallows of life and finding joy and understanding in the depths. Recovery isn’t about stopping. It’s about starting.

I needed to open my mind. Putting down alcohol, drugs, awful relationships, and credit cards seemed like miracle enough. But the miracle was only just beginning to unfold.

This stuff is¬†exciting. It is so much better than getting drunk or high. And if I can have it, so can you. I want you to know that it is not only possible….it is¬†waiting for you.

Sometimes it still takes pain for me to change, but I’m finding that I am increasingly motivated by a plain and simple desire to be better than the person I was yesterday. When I got clean and sober almost eight years ago, I had a flame the size of a candle burning steadily inside of me. It was enough to keep me alive. Today, that candle flame has expanded into a blazing inferno. Every time I share with others, it ignites further still.

I have never been the kind of person who can sit down and shut up. It used to be about trying to control the world around me. Now I stand up and speak because I want to pass on the gifts I have been so blessed to receive.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Mangrove Musings

I don’t know much about Ernest Hemingway, but I can certainly understand why he chose to keep a home in Key West. Florida was never on my “must-see” list – I had always dismissed it as a tourist trap – but after visiting several times, I found myself surprisingly and unabashedly in love. If you can get beyond the strip malls and the dangerous highways, there is something both indescribable and intoxicating about the peninsula.

I love the South in general. The sight of Spanish Moss destroys me in the best possible way. I love the flowers, the birds, and the vague sense that everything is a little haunted…like energy from several centuries is trapped in the humidity.

After dedicating several trips to the Tampa Bay region, J.L. and I picked the Florida Keys for our belated honeymoon. At first, we questioned our decision. Although our rental house in Grassy Key was beyond breathtaking, the weather was initially very moody. The wind washed pungent seagrass onto our small beach. When the grass started to rot, the smell was hard to abide. Furthermore, we realized we had chosen an especially busy week. The traffic was so bad that we were unable to enjoy Key West or Bahia Honda park.

While we certainly encountered our fair share of challenges, J.L. and I were not about to sulk in such a beautiful place. I’m so glad we made that conscientious choice. ¬†We may not have posed for a photo at the southernmost point of the U.S., but we did stuff our faces full of mahi-mahi, spend a glorious day in the Everglades, get acquainted with a crew of rescued dolphins, watch gigantic fish swim in the lights underneath our dock, eat cheesecake by the fire, and swim like fiends in our ridiculous pool. All the while, the air was filled with the perfume of tropical flowers and tiny lizards scurried over every conceivable surface.

Our very favorite thing, however, may have been taking the kayak out to explore the little inlets near our rental property. We saw so many birds – most notably a crane – and a prehistoric horseshoe crab. In one cove, we floated in one or two feet of water, while below us there were literally thousands and thousands of upside-down jellyfish. It was a surreal experience.

While I will never forget the beauty of the Keys – nor the novelty of seeing a sea turtle in the wild or a crab crawling out of a hole in the forest floor – I am still haunted by some of the pollution I witnessed.

In one of the state parks, there is a sign informing visitors that the Keys are on a well-traveled shipping route and, unfortunately, the passing ships are responsible for much of the trash that washes up on shore. As if the sign wasn’t disconcerting enough, the volume of trash I saw trapped in the mangroves shook me to my core. There wasn’t much I could do about it from the kayak – or without an army of helpers – but the image made a lasting impression. I don’t remember seeing nearly as much garbage twenty years ago as I played on the pristine, rocky beaches of Downeast Maine.

One of the most amazing things about getting clean and sober is that the world begins to open up to you. I have been very blessed to travel in recovery; this year I am looking forward to visiting St. Augustine, seeing Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, and celebrating my 31st birthday in New York City. Before I got sober, I had never even stepped foot on an airplane. Traveling is most definitely a gift… but it is also a teacher. It forces you to see the world with fresh eyes. When I was active in my disease, I was too absorbed in my addiction to think about how my life impacts the planet or my neighbors around the globe. Today, not only am I self-aware, but I am also aware of the world around me.

When I wrote Losing the Mess, I shared about how I am striving to cultivate an oasis of peace in a chaotic world. I think that sometimes we can focus on the problems around us rather than attending to the issues within us. It is the perfect cop out: “How can I possibly work on myself when there are so many problems around me that need to be solved? It would be¬†selfish.¬†No one would dare accuse me of making excuses when I’m being¬†helpful”.¬†This armor we construct around our fear is more transparent than we think.

I have always been a very sensitive and altruistic person, so it took awhile for me to understand the concept of self-care and “wearing the world like a loose cloak”. When I took the burdens of the world on my shoulders, I didn’t realize I was adding to them rather than alleviating them. Working on myself is the best possible thing I can do to foster healthy relationships and heal our ailing planet.

It sounds counterintuitive… but most things that work are contrary in nature. Imagine if everyone in the world stopped fighting and worked on becoming the best person they could be. I think we might finally know peace.

I don’t have control over anyone else, though, so I can only focus on myself. This has become a key mantra for me in the past year: “Can’t control others, can only control myself”. Aaaaaand repeat. Because I forget just about every five seconds. Relating to the world from this perspective helps me maintain a sense of compassion. I am still far from perfect, but it has saved me from becoming an angry and jaded person.

In Losing the Mess, I talked about “skimming some of the murk from the swamp” by bettering the space within my control. I guess this post is about¬†how¬†I am continuing to explore that concept. It has been almost a year since my honeymoon and – coupled with the fact that I just recently watched the documentary The True Cost – I am beginning to push the envelope of personal change further still.

I never thought about the people who make my clothes. After watching¬†The True Cost, I am a changed woman. I love documentaries – part of the work I do with the Human Too campaign draws from the documentary spirit – but I think it’s easy to walk away from these visual educations and think: “Ugh! Society¬†sucks. Why can’t other people get their¬†shit together? Human beings are¬†gross. This world is doomed”.

Whelp, that attitude isn’t very helpful. And I don’t think that’s the kind of reaction filmmakers are trying to inspire, either. I admit, I looked at the footage of shoppers in various chain stores – and beating the shit out of each other on Black Friday – and thought “Murderers! Awful, awful people!” But then I stopped and thought: ” You’re the same.¬†How about focusing on how¬†you can do better?”

I don’t think I am going to single-handedly save the world by shopping from fair trade stores and rinsing out my plastic cups for recycling. But if I try to treat the environment and my global brothers and sisters with thoughtfulness and love, at least I can look back on my life and feel a sense of peace because I did the best I could with what I had. What more do we have to offer, really, than our very best?

Life feels so much better when you relate to it from a gentle place. I am interested in judging less and doing more. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It matters what¬†I am doing. I used to get offended when people in recovery meetings told me to “mind my own business”. Now I cherish that advice because it refocuses my attention on the one thing I can control: myself.

Here are some of the changes I am implementing:

  • Giving up bottled water. Although I am not willing to sacrifice my favorite seltzer, there will still be a whopping 48+ plastic bottles/month that no longer come from my household.
  • Recycling more in general. I need to stop being lazy and rinse out my yogurt dishes, margarine containers, and rare iced coffee cups .
  • Buying fewer articles of clothing, i.e.¬†not shopping for “fun”. (Seeing how much damage the garment industry is doing has taken the fun out of it for me.)
  • Researching earth and people friendly brands. Patagonia is my favorite. I also like the looks of Alternative Apparel for basics.
  • Giving up some of my favorite brands…like Victoria’s Secret. Vicky, the secret is out: You’re mean! We’re breaking up!
  • Simplifying holidays. There’s no reason we need to have presents stacked from floor to ceiling. (We got off to a pretty good start on this goal in 2016.)
  • Focusing more on consumable gifts. Experiences are much more valuable than things.
  • Adopting an attitude of longevity in spending versus an attitude of disposability. I do not need to replace perfectly good items just because it’s “trendy”. I will ask myself: “Is this item high quality and made to last?”

I’m not sharing all this on some mad mission to change the world. I’m sharing this because maybe there are people out there, like me, who are just trying to navigate this shit with some sense of dignity, grace, compassion, and peace. I know I don’t feel very peaceful when I’m railing against other people about what they “should” be doing. I feel peaceful when I make changes in my own life and share my story with others.

I think that’s what the process of healing often looks like: sharing your story and saying, “Hey, if you’re interested, I can show you how I got to this point in my life”. I know that’s how it worked for me when I was getting clean and sober. ¬†No one said: “You have to do it this way,” or “Hey, you’re pretty fucked up. Why don’t you pull your shit together?” People just shared about how they modified themselves and, if I wanted to make a change, I was welcome to ask them to show me the way.

I recognize that I am profoundly privileged to be thinking about these issues. My life no longer revolves around some form of addictive obsession. I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a reasonable amount of mental and spiritual wellness. My heart is overflowing with gratitude.

It always amazes me that the happiest people in the world are those who arguably have the least. It’s not the millionaire or the king. I want to emulate the people who find abundance in “enough”. Now that I don’t have to chase substances or behaviors, I want to stop chasing “more”. ¬†I want to honor the planet that sustains me and share my abundance with my brothers and sisters.