Small Acts Count

I bet your iPhone can’t do this

I often take the bus around Charlottesville, when it’s raining or I’m too lazy to bike. I’ve noticed something on the bus, and actually, just about everywhere. You’ve probably noticed too. The phones. Everywhere. People are constantly looking down at their phones. I would guess around 8 out of 10 people sit and look at their phones while they’re involved in some other activity, whether that is riding the bus, walking, having dinner, or waiting in line. It’s pretty much an endless list. So many opportunities for genuine connection with others are lost this way. I’m guilty of this habit as well, but it is one I am working on Small Acts to manage.

I didn’t get my first cell phone until I got my first car. There wasn’t a real need prior to that, even though I wanted one because I thought it was “cool.” It was one of those blocky Nokia’s with the infamous snake game on it. Oh, how the technology has changed. I resisted getting an iPhone for several years because I didn’t want to be so absorbed by the virtual world. That too has changed, but I don’t upgrade every time a new option is available. I’m proudly sporting a 4S and will until I literally cannot use it anymore.

My sister is fourteen and she probably got her first phone at age ten. Smart phones, mini-computers basically, are so ubiquitous now, especially in the “developed” world, that young children are already addicted to them. I have seen very young kids, maybe around age two or three, throw tantrums when daddy takes his phone back. Kids will get them at younger and younger ages.

Let’s stop for a second

What is this doing to us? Why are we so addicted to our phones? I know there are countless studies, articles, and opinions already out there on this, but media is my passion and media is at the root of this behavior. We’re addicted to ourselves and to each other. We’re addicted to information, memes, selfies, and basically spending a lot of time judging each other and ourselves based others’ “approval” of our posts, photos, or videos.

We need approval. I believe we are trying to use social media as a way to feel loved, included, and connected to each other, but at what expense, and does it actually measure up to the real thing? We have dinner with a spouse, but we don’t talk, we just sit silently, each in our own digital world. Is being on your phone really that much more enjoyable than having a conversation with your partner, or does it say something about our attention spans for each other and relationships?

A missing piece

The world has changed. What is socially acceptable has changed. Technology has made communicating much much easier, but what are we really communicating? Where is the value in all this noise? Communicating via social sites, text, and email lacks an essential piece of communication: non-verbal communication. Only with facial expressions, gestures, verbal characteristics, such as tone of voice, (which we all know isn’t conveyed through text very well), and even touch can we truly engage with each other on a human level. What messages are we sending, and what do they convey about our values as humans? What messages do we want future generations to look back on and learn? If there is no real value in it, then why do we do it?

What it comes down to is consumption. We’re consuming social media via our phones and tablets at an astonishing rate. In less than 10 years the percentage of all internet users who also use social media went from 8% in 1995 to 74% in 2014. New social sites are popping up every year. As we continue to produce and consume more media, the cycle continues and grows. We are addicted. Our kids see us stuck in these virtual worlds so they think they need to be there too, and they will be. They already are.

Consumer culture

I think it also perpetuates the cycle of consumption in the real world, or maybe it’s the other way around, and is perpetuated BY our real world consumption. It’s just a habit we’ve, almost unconsciously, grown into and adopted. If everyone consumed natural resources at U.S rates, we would need three to five planets to sustain ourselves (and this is a statistic from 2007). Something goes viral, then it’s over, on to the next one. The same mentality goes with fashion, phones, computers, and cars. There’s the latest and the greatest, and then there’s something newer and better.

I’m not proposing that we continue to share the “Charlie bit my finger” video forever and cease expressing our creative abilities. Social media is one of the most powerful tools man has created and can really catalyze powerful change in cultures and revolutions. It is a great way to share information and show support for causes. It’s a great tool to communicate with people from your past or old friends that live in different towns. However, most of our consumption is without limit or purpose. Why do we care so much about the latest cat meme? Are we really that bored with our real lives and the people in them that we feel we must escape it with silly nonsense on the Internet? Perhaps it is the desire that maybe, just maybe, our next “home video” will go viral, and we will get our fifteen minutes of Internet fame? Are we afraid of other people or afraid of being alone? It’s time to get out of our comfort zones. Only then do we truly flourish and nurture the true spirit of growth and humanity.


Our media habits are mutating into something I think we will look back on and regret, but how do we stop that beast, and is it even possible? If you care, then yes, it is. All it takes is a couple Small Acts. Boundaries and choice. The same applies with all other obsessions. A boundary to resist the urge to check Facebook, reject someone on Tinder, or post a new vine while we’re at dinner with our family is a Small Act that slows down this cycle and can help ease our addiction to media and technology. Our resources are not limitless. Eventually the rare minerals required to produce an iPhone or laptop will run out. We might find more at the expense of habitats and forests, but those will run out too.

Boundaries can be a challenge to set and uphold, but they are key in making real change in habits and behavior. More than likely, our social media use has decreased our ability or desire to do so, which is all the more reason to practice this Small Act.

If I am with people, whether I know them or not, I try to stay off my phone. I try to resist the urge to even check the time. Sometimes I end up talking to those people on the bus and making new friends. Sometimes I just observe. Whatever I’m doing, I try to practice mindfulness and appreciation for the present moment. I am alive, I’m participating in this moment, I’m not trying to escape it, and that’s okay, that’s enough. There is a profound beauty in this stillness. I work on approving of myself. More importantly, what I do share when I choose to spend time on the Internet, has purpose, meaning, and value toward instigating positive change, in my opinion.

What about the next generation?

How will our future generations see themselves and treat our planet if their current example emphasizes the importance “look at me, I’m always on my new best phone, check out what this cat is doing” over “here’s how I’ve helped someone today or showed compassion?”

“Real generosity toward the future consists in giving all to what is present”

— Albert Camus

Want to be happy? Make friends with plants

I walk over to my office window. My house plants greet me. I say hello to each of them. I look over their leaves. I visually check the moisture level of the soil and add water where necessary. I love them. I pay very close attention to one of them, a small maple tree I found in my front overgrown flower garden in Black Mountain as I was cleaning it out last spring. It would have never flourished in that spot so I pulled it up and planted it in a small pot. I’ve been carrying it around for almost a year now. It’s just getting ready to shoot out some new leaves for spring, and this is very exciting to me, as I almost killed it in an overheated window at my office in Rhode Island during my short stay there.This is my routine nearly every day when I get up for work. Those plants really do make me happy. They are living things, each with it’s own character. These plants give me something beautiful to turn in my chair and look at whenever I’m pondering the solution to an IT problem or a I need to take a mental break. I sometimes look to them for inspiration when I’m working on a story. They make me smile.

The natural anti-depressant

I recently found an article floating around the web indicating that plants, and tending to them, actually do a lot more than the credit they’re given. Working with plants outdoors, and the soil in particular, is especially beneficial for mental health, stress reduction, and happiness. A specific type of bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil increases the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin production is key to happiness. The effects of coming in contact with this bacteria while gardening were found to produce the same results as anti-depressants such as prozac. Serotonin also strengthens brain function and is found to increase learning capacity. House plants are also linked to decreasing stress and anxiety, especially in the workplace and at school.

Plants are the champions of Small Acts, without even having to try

It doesn’t stop there. House plants actually have a positive impact on your health and improve overall wellbeing. It’s pretty common knowledge that plants absorb C02 and turn it into oxygen, but they also clean the air of other indoor pollutants. NASA conducted very thorough research about the topic and concluded that “both plant leaves and roots are utilized in removing trace levels of toxic vapors from inside tightly sealed buildings. Low levels of chemicals such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde can be removed from indoor environments by plant leaves alone.” Some of our polluted outdoor air comes inside with us, not to mention all the Volatile Organic Compounds, found in many household products, polluting our indoor air. A few houseplants are a great remedy to this health hazard.

Stay focused

Plants improve concentration and memory. They provide a calming effect while working that helps improve accuracy and focus, which allows for higher quality results. A study found that being around plants or nature while performing a task can “increase memory retention up to twenty percent.” I strongly believe that the natural beauty and better air quality that my plants provide helps me tremendously as a “telecommuting” employee.


We often see plants and flowers in hospital rooms, but they really do provide added benefits aside from a nice aesthetic touch. Plants inside or visible outside the hospital room were proven to decrease the time it takes for patients to heal. Horticulture therapy, where patients are tasked with taking care of plants, has proven to be effective in the rehabilitation of patients following brain injuries and other conditions.

Improve your relationships

I find this one to be one of the most profound reasons to adopt some houseplants or get outside and do some gardening. People that spend extended time around plants were found to have stronger relationships with others and are more likely to be willing to help others. Interacting with and caring for plants increases our aptitude for compassion and empathy. I believe our world needs more empathy, or, the ability to understand how others feel. Maybe then, there would be a little less judgement, and a little more acceptance. It is especially important to teach these skills to children, as their behavior and actions define the future. Caring for plants helps kids understand the fragility of life and external environments, but event as adults, we could all stand to cultivate a little more compassion and appreciation for our planet.

Return on investment

The great thing is that plants are relatively inexpensive, especially compared to the benefits. Investing in a few for your window sill is a Small Act worth your time and money.

How a community garden will steal your heart

Let’s talk about food. Things are changing, and they have been for some time. Even back in the 70’s when the convenience of “engineered to withstand packaging and shipping” processed food took over, there was resistance to that beast. The resistance could have been due to poverty or simply for a love of growing their own food. Either way, the food movement is now, and it’s growing stronger each day. I attended a luncheon organized by the Virginia Green Building Council earlier this week, and was truly inspired by the stories, charisma, and passion Tanya Denckla Cobb expressed. She recounted her experiences, journeys, and stories surrounding this food movement across the U.S.Tanya is an Environmental Mediator at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia. She has been involved and researching this food movement since the late 80s. She is the author of, Reclaiming Our Food, which explores the movement in great detail.


As we eagerly listen and munch away on our sandwiches from Mona Lisa Pasta, Tanya encourages us to pipe up about why people are interested in this food movement and to think about what the motivating factors are surrounding the movement. Why do we shop at the farmer’s market or choose local foods? Why do we participate in community garden programs? She reiterates our responses: that there is a desire to regain a trust in our food and to re-establish a connection to our food. Of course, we also just want better tasting, less engineered processed food. We aren’t the only ones. Tanya wants to show us the motivation for urban farming and the food movement and the explore the impacts.

Healing lands and communities

She begins our journey in the heart of Philadelphia, PA. GreensGrow is a community garden that was started by two chefs who basically said, “We want a better tomato. We want a tomato with explosions of flavor. We need local tomatoes. We need a local farm.” Of course, having a farm in the middle of the city might sound impossible, but these two chefs and the community transformed an abandoned and contaminated lot into a beautiful productive flourishing urban farm. After an 18 inch concrete cap was poured on the site to remedy the contamination, they started with hydroponics and then moved to using raised beds. Now they offer educational tours, cooking demonstrations, and have greenhouses for year round production. What was once an eyesore and health hazard to the community is now a nationally recognized leader in urban farming.

I’m halfway through my caprese sandwich on focaccia, and we’re traveling to Boston, MA, which is also a mecca for urban farming. The South End and Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust consists of 16 community gardens and pocket parts. Upon visiting some of these gardens Tanya was impressed by how the people are “ingenious and creative in finding ways to use spaces in communities.” Some of the garden plots were using the space in all three dimensions to grow food. These gardens were started in the 1970’s and are an integral part of the community’s identity. They have been passed down from generation to generation. After the Boston School of Public health conducted soil testing in some of the gardens, they realized it was contaminated with creosote from the railroad ties that were generously provided to create structure for the plots. Upon proposing that the gardens be closed, the community vehemently protested, which has opened up a whole new field of research on ways to clean the soil and remove the contamination to save the gardens. Growing collards and sunflowers will remove some toxins from the soil over about a five year period. Ultimately, the ties were removed and a mixture of two parts healthy soil to one part contaminated soil was deemed acceptable.

Now we’re on the other coast in Portland, OR. A once termed “shut in neighborhood” where crime, drugs, and trash prevailed, and no sense of community existed makes a dramatic shift. A small garden was installed in the center of this public housing complex. Subsequently, the people in the apartments started interacting with each other regularly, crime rates went down, they started cleaning up, and they said no more drugs in our neighborhood. It transformed this neighborhood so much so that the public housing authority asked the organizers to set one up in all of their public housing complexes.

Another Portland, OR public housing community was the recipient of a Hope VI grant, which aims to revitalize the worst public housing projects into mixed-income developments. A community garden established in one of these developments really is the heart of the community. Without the garden there wouldn’t be much interaction between the different cultures or income brackets. The residents of the development formed the Seeds of Harmony Garden Committee to put serious thought into what they wanted to get out the garden and what they wanted to grow. Ultimately, they wanted it to be about sharing ideas, culture, and love.

The gardens do more than heal lands and communities. They also allow individuals and communities to flourish, and can be a center for professional and economic development. Janus Youth has been very instrumental in the development of several urban farming programs in low-income neighborhoods in the Portland, OR area, one of which is the Seeds of Harmony Garden. They aim to unite the various cultures in the community, encourage entrepreneurship, provide employment and job skills training, and facilitate youth development by providing leadership opportunities at Food Works, a three acre certified organic farm.

Now we journey a little farther up the West Coast. Seattle, WA has made strides toward allowing public lands to be used for private profit, something frowned upon in many areas of the U.S. The result has been very beneficial to those low income families that take advantage of the P-Patch Community Gardens. They can grow produce, which they can both sell at farmer’s markets and use to feed their families. The P-Patch gardens are much more though. They really are a place for all members of the Seattle community, and “are places to share love of gardening, cultivate friendships, strengthen neighborhoods, increase self-reliance, wildlife habitat, foster environmental awareness, relieve hunger, improve nutrition, and enjoy recreational and therapeutic opportunities.”

Hopping back to the East Coast, one of the most impressive stories of passion, entrepreneurship, and economic development is Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, MA. A community of migrated Puerto Rican farmers gazed upon a vacant lot below their apartment building. The area was the poorest in Massachusetts after the loss of many tobacco harvesting and paper mill jobs. The members of the community knew what to do, they knew how to grow food, so they were perplexed as to why they were not able to feed their families. Finally, they decided to do something about it. They occupied the abandoned lot and built a garden incorporating vibrant colors into the structures. They put so much work and detail into the gardens. When Tanya asked “what if the land owner comes back and wants to take over?” They said, “so what? We’ll go somewhere else. It’s better to light a candle than curse the dark.” Eventually, they further developed and opened a co-op, restaurant, and use the space to help other members of the community start small businesses. Finally, they realized they needed large plots of land so that they could train others how to farm. They acquired a 30 acre inner city farm where they focus on food systems, economic development, and agriculture.

Kids are the key

Above all, one of the primary motivating factors of this movement is health. Two-thirds of the population in developing nations is overweight or obese. Just as the push to recycle saw success when kids brought home school projects about recycling and “dragged the parents along,” so too will the food movement, and an emphasis on eating healthy, buying local, or growing your own. Community gardens are popping up at schools all across the U.S. It might start out as an after school garden club, which gets the parents involved and funds are raised to actually build the garden. Next, the kids have recipe contests or tastings to get familiar with the vegetables. Then the cafeteria serves the food from the gardens on the lunch menu. The kids’ garden is incorporated into all aspects of the curriculum to further emphasize its importance. Finally, the child starts to educate parents about the vegetables. Tanya found in one circumstance, the parent didn’t even know how to cook the vegetables after a kid actually chose brussel sprouts, when he could have anything he wanted in the store!

Small Act grows big results

On closing, Tanya expresses that she hopes she has demonstrated “how a seed can be planted that can transform and heal spaces, identities, our health, and our communities.” These gardens perfectly embody how a Small Act can blossom into something much greater with more meaning than just food on a dinner plate. The essence of this movement is about love and community. It’s about reclaiming our land, and reclaiming our food.