MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Rethinking Junk December 31, 2014

Filed under: Be the change,Greener lifestyle — Michelle @ 3:55 pm
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During this break, I got the chance to read for fun again, something I haven’t done a lot since signing up to be a student again in August. I read the book Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter, and it opened my mind to the global world of recycling. Adam grew up as the son of a scrap dealer in Minneapolis, became a professional journalist and now lives in Shanghai.

Junkyard Planet

Recycling / junk / eyeopening book

The book explains what happens to our (recyclable) junk: e-waste, plastic, cars, metals, paper. It is not a pretty story, but it is efficient. Since our waste flows to the place where the biggest value can be extracted from it, and globalization made shipping from the west coast of the USA to China cheaper than shipping from California to Colorado, (think empty containers going back to China after delivering stuff) a lot of our waste ends up in China or other parts of the East. Cheap labor makes extraction and sorting of the valuable metals possible, something that would not happen here in the USA, where most of the waste would just end up in landfills if it wasn’t shipped elsewhere. Unfortunately, the extraction is not always done in a safe and healthy way, so there are two sides to this recycling story.

“Nothing – nothing – is 100 percent recyclable, and many things, including things we think are recyclable, like iPhone touch screens, are unrecyclable. Everyone from the local junkyard to Apple to the U.S. government would be doing the planet a big favor if they stopped implying otherwise, and instead conveyed a more realistic picture of what recycling can and can’t do.”

As an example, iPhone screens contain rare earth elements, that can’t be extracted from the glass. Paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. Plastic recycling is not very efficient either. Metals are different. Copper can be recycled indefinitely, but it is not always easy to get to the copper inside of a device or a cable. Thus the need of (cheap) labor, or (expensive) technology.

In the end, increasing the recycling rate isn’t going to save the world. We need to consume less, and waste less. Reduce, reuse, recycle: in that order. Or as Bea Johnson says in her book Zero Waste Home: Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. Junkyard Planet doesn’t give us answers, but it shows how the global world of recycling works. It is a very interesting read, if you are interested to know what happens to your junk after it leaves your recycling bin.


Review: Where am I eating? August 21, 2013

A couple of years ago, I read Kelsey Timmerman’s book, Where am I wearing? and wrote about it in this blog post about the different places where our clothing is manufactured. Kelsey now published another book, called Where am I eating? He visited 5 countries where his (and our) coffee, chocolate, bananas, lobster, and apple juice come from.

Once again he did a wonderful job of describing the people who owns the farms, work on the farms, or in the case of lobster, dive for the food we get to eat here in the USA. And once again he made me realize that it is not a black and white world. Food grown in the USA is not always grown in a sustainable way, and food grown outside of our borders do not always mean low wages or enslavement.

Kelsey’s book makes it clear we really do not have a connection to our food and the growers/harvesters/slaughterers of it. Yes, after reading Michael Pollen‘s books, we joined a CSA and try to buy as much from local farmers as possible. But who knew that 86% of the seafood in America is imported? Who knew that nearly 50% of the spiny lobster imported into the US come from Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua? Kelsey visited Nicaragua and describes the divers having access to inadequate equipment, no instruction, with disastrous results.

And then, my favorite “foods”, coffee and chocolate. I’ve been happily drinking Starbucks coffee for the last year since we moved and I don’t have access to our wonderful local roaster in MI. Reading about the C.A.F.E. Practices program, Starbucks’ own set of environmental and social standards, and what Kelsey found in Colombia, made me switch back to buying Fair Trade Certified coffee. This case shows again that it is always better to have a third-party certifier.

The chocolate situation in West Africa is appalling. I’m so grateful to organizations like Green America who keep companies like Hershey’s accountable for child labor in their supply chain. I hope someday soon all major chocolate companies will insist on Fair Trade certification for their cocoa sources.

Read this book and become more aware of the “who” of your food. Who grew it, who harvested it, who slaughtered it, and who dove for it? I recently learnt of the Japanese phrase “itadakimasu”. Said before a meal, it expresses gratitude to all who cultivated, hunted, or prepared the food, as well as to the animals and plants.  I hope I can live with some more “itadakimasu”, giving more daily thought to where my food comes from.


On inspiration, insight and ideas September 10, 2012

I’m back! We spent almost 2 months in South Africa this summer/winter, flew back to the US and moved 4 days later to Nashville, Tennessee. Our girls started new schools within a week, and my husband started his new job at Vanderbilt University. What a whirlwind!

My husband taking photos of the elephants in Addo Elephant Park (South Africa) in his Ubuntu t-shirt

I’m making new friends and contacts in Nashville, and trying to figure out our “system”. In Michigan, I knew where to recycle, where to donate, which farmer’s markets we loved, and we had our CSA that we belonged to for many years. In Nashville, they don’t take glass in the recycling: you have to take all glass to a special recycling place. I still haven’t figured out where to recycle batteries. The people I’ve asked, all said they just throw them in the trash. Not a good idea.

Regarding our language journey, I have found someone who gives Spanish conversational classes, and I’m looking forward to my first class tomorrow.

In between looking for a house to buy, and figuring out our new “system”, I feel like I’m finally ready to blog and implement some new ideas for MotherTongues. Whenever we travel, I always find new inspiration for MotherTongues along the way. This trip to South Africa and Botswana was no different. I’m looking forward to turning some of my new ideas into reality!


MotherTongues Manifesto February 2, 2012

Recently, I came across the Holstee Manifesto that has gotten a lot of media buzz. It has been made into a beautiful poster and a YouTube video and has inspired many people. I bought a Lululemon t-shirt and the (reusable) bag that I received it in, has their inspirational manifesto printed on it.

That made me think about a MotherTongues Manifesto. What is the ethos of MotherTongues? What inspires me to search for life-affirming words? What inspires me to use Fair Trade, organic cotton t-shirts to print these words on? What is the bigger picture? This is what I came up with. I hope you will enjoy, and find some inspiration for your own life!

ethos of a t-shirt company


Experiences instead of gifts January 12, 2012

Filed under: Be the change,Greener lifestyle — Michelle @ 8:06 am
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As the Christmas season fades behind us, I want to reflect on the season of gift giving. Maybe it was the woman who used pepper spray on others to get an advantage while waiting for the Xboxes to be unpacked, but it feels to me like the shopping frenzy is getting more extreme every year.

A couple of years ago, I did research on the Swedish word Lagom and designed a t-shirt to go with the meaning: Enough is as good as a feast. Lagom describes having just enough (food, clothing, shelter). You decide on your own “enough”, nobody can prescribe it to you.

Lagom changed my life. I became aware of how much stuff I bring into the house. I now ask myself if I really need it before I buy. I’ve started following Bea’s blog, read about the man who only owns 15 things, and become inspired to simplify, reduce, and pare down. I still buy way too many things that I regret, it is definitely a journey!

One year ago we spent Christmas in South Africa, and knowing we can’t bring back gifts in our already-stuffed-suitcases, we asked our family to give our girls experiences instead of gifts. The family responded by organizing a puppet show (and making it a wonderful afternoon to remember with friends and many kids), taking the kids snorkeling in the ocean and showing them what swims and grows there, and taking the kids to the beach for a fun day.

This year we were in Florida for Christmas. We visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter the dolphin from Dolphin Tale lives. The girls were in awe to see their first “movie star”.

I’m hoping that I can live into the spirit of Lagom more and more over the coming years: showing our kids that you don’t need physical gifts to celebrate, but that it is the experiences that you’ll carry in your memory forever.

How do you plan to find your own Lagom in your life?


2011 Ethical Holiday Shopping Guide October 28, 2011

I love looking at these companies and all the good that they do. A beautiful Ethical Holiday Shopping Guide, indeed!


Mushrooming in Italy July 6, 2011

Filed under: Greener lifestyle,Travel — Michelle @ 10:03 am
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Image: Christian Meyn /

I recently went hiking in Italy with my mom and sisters. Part of the fun for me, other than spending time with my family who I don’t see very often since we live on different continents, was learning some new things about life in Italy.

We walked past lots of mushrooms, and I learnt that you need to have a license to pick mushrooms. In some areas, you can get the license only once you attended a basic course and passed a test. Each region has its own regulations, and also its own picking calendar (days when mushroom picking is allowed), as well as the quantity of mushrooms allowed per person (usually 3kg per person per day). Placing the mushrooms in bags is illegal: you must use wicker-type baskets for collection to ensure that the mushroom spores are distributed as you walk through the woods.

Each year about 40,000 people suffer mushroom poisoning in Italy, so it is very important to be 100% sure your mushrooms are edible. In Italy, you can take your wild picked mushrooms to the local pharmacist or doctor who will identify them free of charge. Our Italian guide for our hike, told us that if you don’t take your mushrooms to the pharmacy and your guests die from mushroom poisoning, you can get tried for manslaughter! Definitely an incentive to make sure about your mushroom’s identity!

Wild mushrooms are the main ingredient in fettuccine ai funghi – some form of which are on many local menus in the Italian Alps. I can definitely recommend trying it!


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