Contributor Archive

Taking Ourselves Off Automatic

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

[Dear Friends letter from our sister site Isabella Catalog.]

I’m having an issue with the trees and plants in my back yard. After over 10 years of everything thriving, something’s not right. Several of my favorite trees are starting to die, and the arborists I’ve consulted speculate that the trees are just getting so much water that the soil doesn’t have a chance to dry out enough to suit these particular trees.

The solution? Completely turn off the irrigation system and water by hand, selectively giving more or less water to appropriate parts of the yard. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ was my first reaction. I’m used to my sprinklers coming on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For 5 minutes. In the dark of night. While I’m sleeping and not even aware that anything is going on out there. So convenient. So automatic. So clean and hassle-free.

But you know what? It turns out that the mandate to get outside and hand-water my yard is the best thing that could have happened to me (yard-wise, anyway). As I stand there with hose in hand, looking, really looking, at each and every plant and tree, I find myself infinitely more connected to my little corner of nature. I marvel at how abundant and big the succulents have gotten since I planted them 2 years ago. Time to divide them and give them more breathing room. I notice the Staghorn Fern isn’t doing so well in the spot I had it, and I search out a better place for it. The delicate spray of my hose finds and showcases a perfect and exquisite spider web I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. The Gardenia needs some fertilizer, and, whoa, there’s a bird’s nest I hadn’t noticed!

(more…)

Letting Them Fail

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Last spring and summer I was hooked on watching a webcam from a Barn Owl house in southern California. Molly and McGee, the two owls living there, were in the family way, and I was fortunate enough to be online when one of their owlets hatched. In the following weeks, there were stunning live views of McGee bringing food (rats, gophers, etc.) back to the nest and Molly feeding the owlets. Eventually Molly was able to leave the babies alone and hunt, too, as their growing appetites became true forces to deal with. Little by little, as the scrawny, homely owlets exchanged their wispy down for gorgeous brown and grey feathers, things changed. Molly and McGee weren’t around as much. They still brought food, but now the babies had to rip the flesh, themselves, if they wanted to eat.

As the owls grew bigger and bigger, the owl house seemed to get smaller and smaller. Eventually, the oldest one (they hatch just a few days apart) started to hang around on the outside perch at night, surveying the surroundings. Molly and McGee were still delivering food, but it became apparent that the oldest owl would soon be expected to find and return with his own meals. But first he had to actually fledge — fly from the owl house for the very first time. After hours and hours and several nights of what I’m going to call ‘getting his nerve up,’ he launched himself through the air, returning just a few moments later. It was a stirring sight, and I was humbled by somehow being a part of a phenomenon that occurs countless times every day on this planet.Then came the night he knew, and Molly and McGee knew, that it was time for him to find his own food and get it back up to the owl house. We viewers didn’t get to see him find his prey, but he had me on pins and needles as he struggled to get the rodent, half his size, back up to the owl house. It took what looked like a painful number of tries to succeed, but eventually he did, and Molly and McGee didn’t interfere throughout the effort.

As a parent who has had to watch my own children struggle at certain points during their lives, it was excruciating to see the owl try and fail, try and fail, over and over again. Yet, with each attempt, he was figuring something out. He was tiring, but he was also getting stronger. And whatever you call ‘confidence’ in owls, he certainly was growing in that as well. Now he’s out on his own, being a perfect owl, somewhere. Molly and McGee knew every step of the way what to do when, and what not to do. There are some aspects of Nature that you just can’t argue with, no matter what. As challenging as it may be for parents to watch our kids experience failure and learn from it, I think we would do well to take this lesson from Molly and McGee to heart.

When the Student Is Ready…

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

My “to do” list is ridiculously long. Couple my written list with the “to-do’s” that pop into my head when I’m not near pen and paper, and it’s almost comical. The number of balls I’ve got in the air is crazy, and frequently the balls hit the ground and/or I don’t accomplish all of what’s on my list. A good part of the time, I’m running in several different (and inefficient) directions at once. I mean, I recently scalded my hand as I was steaming milk for my cappuccino while simultaneously pouring boiling water over green tea leaves!

So, when an opportunity came up last month to rescue a 15-year-old “throw away” dog at the shelter where I volunteer, I figured, why not?

Now, I already have an aging, blind dog who is nearly my constant companion. Being blind, he’s very cautious about all of his movements and thus walks slowly (very slowly!). Truly, walking Homer is about the only time that I walk the speed of a normal human being, and over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at taking a deep breath and simply moving at his pace. It’s part of the “Homer package,” and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, as challenging as that is for my Type-A personality.

My newly-rescued dog, the new “kid” on the block, Tobin, is a Dachshund, which means he has 2-inch-long legs. If anyone can walk even more slowly than Homer, it’s Tobin. (Well, he’s walking fast, but he covers so little ground with those legs that he makes Homer look like a Greyhound.) I can’t even walk the two old guys together because their gaits are so different. With Tobin on the scene, I “get” to slow down even more and do it twice as much because now I have two dogs. During these times, my “to do” list must go on “hold” and the balls I’m juggling are suspended mid-air while I tend to this new — and slow motion — addition to my life. Resistance is futile. I am finally learning the meaning of “saunter.”

There’s a Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” These teachers can appear at any time, and they can simply be experiences or situations, rather than anyone/anything living and breathing. And as much as we may resist having these teachers in our lives, it helps us to learn the lesson more easily if we remember that, when class is over, we’ll be a better version of ourselves. It’s obvious to me that a teacher recently appeared in my life, and he most certainly didn’t take human form!

As another year draws to a close and a new one begins, here’s to our teachers, whoever and whatever they may be. And here’s to sauntering!

The Chinaberry Commitment

Monday, September 20th, 2010


The collection of items on our website is the result of literally thousands of hours of work by our staff. We are a small company, so those thousands of hours should say something about our commitment to offer you an intelligent and thoughtfully-selected collection of items. From games that we actually play (you wouldn’t believe how many games have unclear instructions) and toys that we kid-test (and you wouldn’t believe how many problems we find in that process) to items for the family and home that we have used and loved and books that we read cover to cover (and reject thousands), the Chinaberry catalog is a one-of-a-kind catalog.

So, what you find here is the cream of the crop. And while I can’t pass up a good game, love watching a child have fun with a cool toy, and appreciate something that will make my life better at home, there is simply nothing like a book. Books can make us wonder, astound us with what has occurred in the past, make us more compassionate, make us more able to stand up for what we believe in, make us want to get outside our comfort zones and maybe do something, and make us better people. The fact is that a game, a toy, or something for the kitchen just isn’t going to change us or change the world, but a book can light the flame that will do just that.

And this is why it is very significant and disheartening to us that we have had to decrease the number of books we are offering you in the catalog. We devote more time than you will ever know to reading books and then choosing the ones that are great read-alouds; will make you and your child laugh together, think, or talk; will ask your early teen to think about more than the typical teen in our country is thinking about; or that you, as an adult, might find to be a worthy escape when you have a moment to yourself. Unfortunately, so many of those who receive our catalog go to the giant online book source (we all know who it is) to buy the books that they’ve read about in Chinaberry, that our company can no longer continue to devote the same resources to finding great books. If the Chinaberry catalog is of value to you, we ask you to spend your dollars with us if you find a book here that you want. We know it is tempting to get a bargain, but independent booksellers like us survive only because of customers who value our service and take the extra step to support it. We ask that you take this into consideration when choosing where to buy your books. And to those of you who have loyally supported us throughout the years, we offer our heartfelt thanks — your orders are what have kept us in business and for that we are truly grateful!

What Are Your Favorite Books From Childhood?

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Over the years here at Chinaberry, I’ve grabbed the last copy of many books when they went out of print or when we take them out of the catalog to make room for new ones. Little by little, this accumulation of books has grown to nearly 20 boxes in our warehouse. We call them “Ann’s Grandma Boxes” (for when there might be a grandchild or two to give them to) and going through them every once in a while is a sweet walk down memory lane.

Reading to my children was one of the highlights of my life, not just as a parent, but as a human being. I remember those books more than the ones I grew up with, and there’s a good story about my book experiences as a child.

I was a handful of a kid. Apparently I never stopped moving. And since my birthday fell in mid-October, I had to wait an extra year before entering Kindergarten. I can’t even imagine my mother’s relief when naptime finally rolled around, but needless to say, it was always too soon for me! The only way she could get me to settle down was to lie on the bed with me and read a picture book — one of only several that we owned. Being read to always worked like magic and within minutes, I was sound asleep. The thing is, to this day, it takes a lot to keep me awake when I read a book because (I’m assuming) the opening of a book signals some part of my brain that it is now time to sleep. Naptime (not even bedtime) was the only time I was read to. Oh wait. There was a Golden Christmas Carol book in the house that I would grab when I saw my father arrive home from work. In the dead of summer, no less. Dragging him immediately to his easy chair (not even giving him a chance to settle in), plopping on his lap, and singing our way through the book was my idea of heaven. The neighbors were probably shaking their heads at the strains of “Silent Night” coming from our house in July.

I suppose it’s strange that the founder of a company that has become known for its discerning selection of children’s books for 28 years was seldom read to as a child. Go figure. But just remembering some of those sweet and sleepy times made me think it might be fun for others to pipe in with their favorite books from childhood and the early reading years. So…let’s hear ‘em! I’ll bet you anything you’ll find some old (book) friends you’d forgotten about when you read others’ lists.
Have fun!

Ann

It’s a boy! And a girl!

Friday, June 18th, 2010

After nine long months of dreaming, planning, building, and decorating, we’re finally ready to announce our big news: Chinaberry had twins!

Meet Jake & Ella, the newest addition to the Chinaberry family. Created by the original Chinaberry kids, Elizabeth and Evan (some of you may remember them from our earlier catalogs way back when), Jake & Ella brings our mission of raising children with love, honesty, and joy to a new generation of discerning parents.

When Chinaberry launched its first catalog almost (gasp!) 30 years ago, our message and values attracted a community of people who were decidedly noncomformist. From vegans to homeschoolers, homesteaders to tree-huggers, our customers back then didn’t exactly swim with the mainstream. But over the years, as “Chinaberry babies” started having babies of their own, we have happily witnessed a slow but meaningful culture shift among parents. “Tree-hugger” is a badge to be worn proudly, and urban-dwellers are planting their own backyard organic farms. “Unschool” play groups are popping up across the country, and everyone seems to be talking about making healthier, more conscious food and lifestyle choices. It would seem, Chinaberry parents, that we’ve all done something right after all.

Now, catering specifically to those with babies and toddlers in their lives, Jake & Ella offers distinctive, sustainable toys, wellness products, and resources for nurturing creative, compassionate children. With a focus on environmental and social responsibility, Jake & Ella draws on three decades of Chinaberry’s experience to help the new generation of parents make natural, conscientious choices for their littlest ones.

Beyond its online boutique, Jake & Ella’s blog and social networks are building a community of unconventional and thoughtful parents, ones who wish to give their children the knowledge and inspiration to make the world a healthier, more wholesome place for all of us. From the latest news in environmental health to alternative thinking on child development, Jake & Ella’s online communities cover topics often ignored by the mainstream but essential in navigating the increasingly complicated business of raising a healthy family today.

Celebrate with us! Stop by our store, peruse our blog, connect with us on Facebook for interesting news bites, special offers, enticing contests, and banter with like-minded people. And if you like what you find, please let your friends know! Now through July 31, 2010, we’re offering a special deal for our Chinaberry family: Spend $50 or more at Jake & Ella and get $10 off your order. Just enter the code CBFAMILY during checkout to receive your discount!

We know you’ll be as smitten with our exciting new bundle of joy as we are…

Paying it Forward

Monday, October 26th, 2009

There’s a man here in our area who is called the San Diego Highwayman. Sixty-something, he is a gardener — not only a backyard gardener, but a gardener sewing the seeds of kindness on our interstates. A former mechanic, Thomas Weller spends a big chunk of his time cruising local highways in his own “Search and Rescue” station wagon, on the lookout for someone having a roadside emergency. He says there’s just too much anger, distrust, and fear in this world and by offering a helping hand he hopes to be doing a little to make the world a kinder place. It all started 40 years ago, when he plowed into an Illinois snow bank and would have frozen to death had it not been for a stranger who helped him out. When he asked the stranger how he could repay him, the Good Samaritan simply told him to pass along the favor to someone else.

The San Diego Highwayman has been paying it forward ever since — to the tune of about 5,000 favors. When someone he’s helped asks how to repay him, Mr. Weller simply hands him a card that says: “Assisting you has been my pleasure. I ask for no payment other than for you to pass along the favor by helping someone in distress that you may encounter.”

Now, I’m thinking that if you’re “lucky” enough to be stalled on the freeway shoulder with an overheated radiator, a flat tire, an empty gas tank, or any number of problems, and the San Diego Highwayman pulls up behind your car, it could be a life-changing experience, or rather, a world changing experience. Such blatant and dramatic acts of kindness don’t happen that often, and I think that being the recipient of such an act would be impossible to forget. Having been on the receiving end of Thomas Weller’s generosity and caring would change the way we respond when faced with an opportunity to be of assistance to someone in need. One act of kindness can multiply exponentially if enough of us pay favors forward.

Not too long ago, the Highwayman pulled up behind a couple of cars, one disabled and the other assisting. Pleased that another person was out there willing to help a motorist in a pinch, he asked the do-gooder why he’d stopped to help this stranger. The man replied that a while back, his wife had had a blow-out and had been helped by a man who gave her a card asking for no payment, but rather to return the favor to someone in need.

May we all be on the giving end this holiday season, in some form or another, knowing that our actions could be smoothing the rough edges of life of someone in need. I think that Mr. Weller, sower of seeds of goodwill, would be first to tell you that the pleasure would be nearly all yours.

Finding Gratitude Every Day

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

When I was a child, my father made a ritual of coming into my sister’s and my bedroom for our goodnight prayers. These weren’t the prayers recited by rote in school or church, but rather his own words to convey what he wanted to say at the end of the day. Even now, I can still remember at least part of this same-every-night prayer. As we lay there in a darkened room, he always started by saying ‘Thank you’ for a myriad of things: our health, shelter over our heads, food on our table, a good school…’ Then he’d segue into various appeals for continued good health, happiness for all of our friends and neighbors, peace in the world, etc. To my child-like sensibilities, it seemed that good health, shelter, and a good school were things that everyone had, and priority should be placed on the ‘request’ part of his spiel. But there came a night when my big sister piped in with her thanks for something, and before long, I was adding my own thanks to the line-up: for my rabbit, the fact that it was summer, or the fun hide-and-seek game with the neighborhood kids my parents had let us stay out past dusk to finish.

It seems that no matter our religious or spiritual inclination, it is part of the human condition to ask or say a prayer for something. Even if we don’t make a big, elaborate deal of it, we ask for you-name-it: good weather for the company picnic, a victory for our team, an improvement in the economic climate, the end of the drought in Africa, etc. But I think that giving thanks just doesn’t happen as often as making a request—at least it sure doesn’t with me. I find myself whispering a plea much more often than I acknowledge something for which I’m grateful. Yet I’ve committed myself to finding gratitude every single day, and that’s probably because my father made it part of our lives as kids. Having learned early on that I have countless things to be grateful for, I can almost always find a bright side to even the lousiest day. My bet is that we all have a myriad of things to appreciate. Whether it’s the roof over our heads, the rain on our thirsty garden, the luxury of being able to fill up the gas tank, or the fact that we still have our eyesight, the list is nearly endless.

And that’s why I think that Thanksgiving is one of our most meaningful and sweetest holidays. Hopefully, we take the opportunity to reflect on the good things in our lives. It gives us the chance to build a celebration around one single quality: gratitude. It gives us the chance to move beyond the ingrained sense of self-entitlement so many of us in our country have and look at life from a position of a grateful ‘I have’ rather than ‘I want’—a position that will not only enhance our own lives as well as our children’s, but will truly make the world a gentler and more caring place.

Safety or Insanity: What the Press Didn’t Tell You

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Remember the lead-in-toy-paint scare during the Holiday season of 2007? While we all remember the recalls, the most significant offshoot of the situation is a law known as the CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Information Act) which Congress passed the following year - an election year. A well-intentioned but deeply flawed law, it has resulted in the demise of many small businesses and cottage industries and economic hardship for all but the most enormous of companies.

As written, this law made felons out of handcrafters of one-of-a-kind children’s items, including organic and natural wooden toys and baby afghans sold at craft fairs (unless the finished item had been tested — often redundantly — by one of a handful of accredited labs in the US at a cost of several thousand dollars or sent to overseas labs, both of which typically result in the destruction of the item itself). Incredibly, the law also has the potential to make criminals of anyone having garage sales and reselling anything (clothing, bedding, toys, books printed pre-1985, etc.) for children 12 years old and younger if any item is found to be out of compliance with this law. For a short while, libraries and schools were anticipating having to dispose of, in hazardous waste fashion, all of their books for children 12 and younger. There are still storerooms of boxes filled with books printed before 1985, which are currently banned as children’s products.  Schools and libraries are no longer planning to dispose of post-1985 printed books, but science programs are still being held hostage by the rigid regulations, resulting in at least one school using posters to teach geology rather than using real rocks, and leaving others without access to items like microscope bulbs due to the necessary lead solder used to make them. The absurd fact is that CPSIA law covers virtually anything — not just toys — for children 12 and under — even shoes. Using the logic that made CPSIA a law, we should never let our kids go barefoot outside because the lead content naturally found in dirt could easily exceed the legal allowable lead content for anything intended for kids 12 and under.

Keep in mind that there were already laws in place concerning lead in paint in toys when the 2007 situation occurred. What we were seeing and hearing about at that time were toys that were not compliant with existing laws and should have never ended up in the U.S.  What would have made sense to ensure child safety with regards to lead paint would have been to enforce these existing laws. Instead, in a knee-jerk and politically-driven reaction to public concern, our legislators passed a law that has been, and will continue to be, tragically, the undoing of many makers of the very best and safest in children’s products. What started out as a law with bipartisan support has now become good ol’ politics. Congress has continued to push back scheduled meetings about the CPSIA, leaving everyone involved scratching their heads and guessing how to best move forward to comply. (There are more interpretations of this law than you can shake a stick at.)   On top of all this, there have been 11 proposed amendments that are going nowhere.

This is a law that is so monumentally extreme and cumbersome and, in our opinion, misdirected, that it will benefit few but huge retailers and toy manufacturers, and most importantly, not parents and children. Ironically, many of the toys we want for our children - those that are lovingly hand-crafted, inspire creativity, are made with the purest of materials, and won’t end up as landfill after several months of use - are now unavailable to us because of CPSIA. Ironically, what will make a toy CPSIA-compliant are expensive material and component testing that is cost-effective only in vast quantities — which brings us back to toys “made in China” in most instances. A bizarre turn of events, eh? And while European toy safety standards have typically been recognized around the world as the most stringent, many of these toy manufacturers have discontinued doing business in the U.S. because this law is so clumsy and unnecessary, safety-wise. It is a sad day when Grandpa in Minnesota, who crafts wooden toy trains in his garage, has been put out of business because he can’t afford several thousands of dollars of component testing, while factories in China the size of football fields - many with questionable regard for workers’ health and the environment — spew out toys made of plastic because they can afford the testing.

While this law has squandered literally millions of people-hours of those interpreting it, researching it, communicating about it, and attempting to be compliant with it, it has little to do with safety. Ineptly reported by the media, and passed in knee-jerk fashion by Congress, CPSIA is changing the landscape of items we can offer our children. Our legislators have created this mess and parents should be aware that their choices for items they purchase for their 12-and-under kids are being drastically reduced.

For more information about CPSIA, please visit the following sites:

http://www.cpsc.gov/about/cpsia/cpsia.html

http://learningresourcesinc.blogspot.com/

http://www.whatisthecpsia.com/

“Searching” for Peace

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Maybe this is common knowledge, but did you know that it’s possible for a website with a “search” feature to keep track of all of the words typed into the “search” box? When you think about it, it’s an amazing tool that can be used to find out just what people are interested in, eager to know about, or are looking to buy.

I tell you this because during the start of the Iraq War, we noticed a huge surge in the number of searches on our website for the word “peace.” The conflict was on all of our minds, no matter where we stood politically. We were worried, scared, and not at all comfortable with the fact that our country was at war. So a lot of us were searching for anything that said “peace” — whether it was the word, itself, the peace symbol, a dove, or anything, really, that communicated hope for a sense of harmony in the world. But now, with the war headlines much smaller, the number of searches for “peace”? Not so many.

I’m pretty sure most of us would agree that the absence of war does not equal peace. And I’m pretty sure most of us would agree that just because we no longer hear daily war casualty numbers doesn’t mean that peace resides in the Middle East. One could say that what has replaced the war headlines — the world economic crisis — is certainly a situation riddled with anguish, fear, and despair — many of the traits of war, itself. So, I’m wondering if, judging from the decrease in the number of “peace” searches on our website, many of us believe that we now have less need to think about and work for peace. I hope not.

Because — and we’ve heard this a million times — peace comes from within. It needs to begin very close to home. It might begin with finding something to be grateful for and for sharing your gratitude with a smile for those you meet. It might begin by picking up an extra bouquet at the farmers’ market for your neighbor who doesn’t get out much. It might begin with taking a deep breath and waiting a moment before you open your mouth to vent to someone. Or maybe by volunteering your time to an effort that makes the earth a gentler place. I guess what I’m saying is that for there to be greater peace in the world, there needs to be greater peace in our own, personal worlds. Internet searches for the word “peace” are fine, but the real search begins within.

The Mug of Peace(available at our sister site, IsabellaCatalog.com) At first, it was the irrepressibly cheery colors of this hand-painted ceramic mug that caught my eye. What really sold me, though, was the small peace sign embossed into its side. I just love starting my day with this optimistic mug. Whether paired with tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, it’s the perfect gift for all your peace-loving friends. Microwave and dishwasher safe. [Review by Janet Kelly]