creativity

JoyProject podcast: The Joy of Baking Birthday Cakes with Dana Phillips

The Joy of Baking Birthday Cakes with Dana Phillips

Cake sculpting is an art form, and gifting a personalized cake to someone is as much a source of joy for the giver as the receiver. Dana Phillips shares how she got started baking and decorating elaborate cakes as a promise to her children, and how it grew into a way to spread joy to so many others in her life. As a Certified Wilton-method cake decorating instructor, Dana takes us on her sweet journey through the wonderland of cake and gives us tips to help us bake and decorate with joy and confidence.

Topics discussed in this episode:
– How Dana’s children lead her to pursue cake baking and decorating
– Her favorite cake flavor profiles and designs
– Cake baking tips and ingredient substitutions to make delicious gluten-free and dairy-free cake
– Product brands for gluten-free flour and flavor extracts

Links to resources:

– Dana on Instagram — @pixiestavern
– Christa on Twitter—@christanyc
– Christa on Instagram — @christarosenyc
– Christa on Facebook — @AuthorChrista
– Christa on Medium—@christaavampato
– Christa on TikTok — @christanyc
– Christa’s website — ChristaAvampato.com
Wilton cake classes
King Arthur gluten-free flours and mixes
Earth Balance vegan butter
Thrive extracts
– Michael’s cake baking and decorating tools

About Dana: 
 “City girl who moved into the woods with a knack for making edible art.” As a young mom the one thing Dana thought would be the most memorable tradition she could create for her kids was customized homemade cakes for their birthdays. She’s 53 cakes in and her three kids who are almost all adults can’t imagine life without a cake from her. When she’s not baking she’s fighting for a better South for future generations, getting the dinner party and game nights planned now that everyone is vaxxed (nothing beats making good food for good people), disappearing into the woods to see the stars, and going on countless motorcycle adventures with her partner, Adam.

creativity

Spend time with trees to fight cancer

Blue Atlas Cedar tree in Central Park – photo by Christa Avampato

Last week I went to a talk by Dr. Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a botanist and medical biochemist. She’s also the author of one of my favorite books, To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. She was speaking at the New York Times event titled How Can Art and Technology Help Us Tackle the Climate Crisis? You can watch it on YouTube and Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s talk is from 1:55:35 — 2:30:38.

How forest bathing reduces cancer risk
In her talk and her book she advocates for 15 minutes of month forest bathing, particularly near evergreen trees, as a way to reduce cancer risk. As a cancer survivor, I do everything I can to prevent recurrence. Sadly, there’s a lot of nonsense out there and plenty of products that claim to prevent cancer. Most of it is just slick marketing taking advantage of people through scare tactics. But does this recommendation from Dr. Beresford-Kroeger have scientific research to back up the claim? Can 15 minutes a month with trees really help us reduce the risk of cancer? It does and it can. 

Numerous scientific studies (here, here, and here to call out just a few) have found that the biochemicals in our immune systems (collectively referred to as Natural Killer (NK) cells such as lymphocytes) are strengthened with even brief 15- to 20-minute visits to wooded areas and the effects can last more than 30 days. These research findings support Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s recommendation and the ancient wisdom she’s studied and accumulated her entire life.

Combining indigenous knowledge with modern medicine for optimal health
Now, does this mean we can substitute forest visits for regular checkups and exams with our doctors or forgo medical treatments if we are diagnosed with cancer? No, I would not recommend that course of action. Modern medicine found and treated my cancer, and I’m forever grateful for the care I received at NYU. But did I also benefit from good nutrition, exercise, my time in nature, and my determination to find joy every day to keep up my spirits during the darkest days of my life? Yes, I did. 

Preventing and fighting cancer requires a multi-pronged approach. We can benefit from ancient wisdom and modern technology. I used both to keep myself healthy before, during, and after treatment. I’ll use both for the rest of my life that I’m so fortunate to have. 

Why I still got cancer even though I live a healthy lifestyle
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Christa, you go to Central Park every day and you still got cancer. So how do you explain that?”

Yes, that’s true. I did get cancer even though I have no genetic predisposition to any kind of cancer, I eat a healthy plant-based diet, I exercise regularly, I’m a healthy weight, I control my stress levels, I spend a lot of time outside in nature, and I see my doctors regularly. Cancer is a sneaky set of diseases. It wears a lot of costumes and disguises in its attempts to thwart our immune system. Even in the best of circumstances, a cell can get past our immune system, not because we’re weak but because cancer is such a deft and relentless shape-shifter. All it takes is one microscopic cell. 

The Hudson Valley is a cancer hotspot
We also live in an increasingly toxic world, which can wear us down without our awareness. I grew up on an apple orchard in the Hudson Valley of New York State in the 1980s and 1990s. Sounds bucolic, right? In many ways it was. 

But what you may not know is during that time the rampant use of chemical pesticides was practiced all over that area. I have vivid memories of bright red tankers full of pesticides being sprayed in the air on neighboring orchards for months on end to keep the apples pest-free. Those farmers didn’t realize their sprays were poisoning our food, air, soil, and water. 

At the same time, General Electric (GE) dumped 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River from its capacitor manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York. Though they ended that practice in the last 1970s, the PCBs remain in the river sediment to this day. PCBs are known carcinogens (meaning they cause cancer). 

These practices of farmers and GE have partially caused the Hudson Valley to become a cancer hotspot. My family had well water. The toxic chemicals from the pesticides and GE’s practices seeped into the water table, not to mention were directly linked to our food and air. The truth is we can do everything right as individuals but collectively, the practices of others can harm us and we are powerless to avoid the impacts once they’ve happened. 

Though it’s difficult to prove, my cancer was likely caused, at least in part, by environmental pollution I was exposed to as a child. As the New York Department of Health explains, “Cancers develop slowly in people. They usually appear five to 40 years after exposure to a cancer causing agent. This is called the latency period. This is one of the reasons it is difficult to determine what causes cancer in humans. Also, many people move during this period of time, making it hard to link exposure to a cancer causing agent to where a person lives.” 

So, yes, I live a healthy lifestyle and yes, I still got cancer. But as my doctors always point out, because I was so healthy when I was diagnosed, I was able to withstand intense surgeries and treatments, and emerge on the other side healthier than ever. The combination of my good health, modern medicine, and indigenous knowledge saved me.

Fighting climate change is another way to fight cancer
Preserving and expanding natural areas and mitigating the impacts of climate change is another important piece of the puzzle to maintain our health. Said another way, our best defense is a good offense. We need to have nature on our side to maintain our environments, and that means we must care for natural and wild areas. 

This is why I advocate for the planting, maintenance, enhanced access, and expansion of forested areas, particularly in cities like New York where I now live and where trees are necessary for our health and wellbeing. Trees save and enhance our lives in so many ways by cleaning our air and water, lowering our stress levels, and enhancing our immune systems.

My forest bathing practice in Central Park
I’m fortunate to live near one of New York’s City’s green gems, Central Park. Forest bathing doesn’t mean you need to retreat to the far corners of the wilderness (though if you can, I recommend that kind of trip as well). Urban forest bathing once a month (or more) is highly effective, easy to do, and accessible. 

On a sunny Saturday, I went to Central Park with my dog, Phineas. For 15 minutes, we sat near a majestic Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica glauca) that stands near the Reservoir. The effects for both of us were palpable. Phin closed his eyes and went to sleep as I soaked up the sun and clean air, all the time quietly expressing my gratitude to this tree. 

When we got up to go home, I bowed to the tree in reverence for what this beautiful being had freely given me. “I’ll see you again soon,” I whispered.

I left with my heart and lungs full with all good things, thankful for what nature offers us if only we will take the time to accept her gifts and wisdom. When we take care of nature, nature can then take care of us. Go sit near a tree for 15 minutes once a month. You’ll be better for it. 

(Below are a few photos of me and my dog, Phineas, on our most recent forest bathing trip to Central Park).

creativity

Why we create art—inspired by the words of Scottish actor, Robbie Coltrane

“50 years on, my children’s children will sit down to watch these [Harry Potter] films. Sadly, I won’t be here. But Hagrid will.” -Robbie Coltrane, Scottish actor

This is the most true thing I’ve ever read about art and the motivation of artists. It’s our chance to be immortal, to get down stories and put them out into the world. They will be here long after we’re gone. Someone will see them or read them or hear them and a part of us will be there. Our energy, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our disappointments, our joy.

It will mean something to someone across space and time who we never had the honor to meet on this plane. And maybe they will feel less alone.

They will find in our art someone like them, someone who validates everything they’re feeling, someone who makes them feel seen and heard, who helps them see that they matter. Art is the gift that never stops giving. It becomes our home, in the truest sense of the word, the place where we will always belong.

This week we lost Robbie Coltrane, the actor who immortalized Hagrid, a character who is dear to so many of us. His memory lives on in his work and his art.

creativity

What will the world be like if we take no climate action now?

We hear a lot about climate change and how devastating the impacts will be if we do nothing. To save the planet is the reason I decided to go back to graduate school at University of Cambridge in Sustainability Leadership and pivot my career to focus on this cause. But what does a lack of climate action mean specifically, decade by decade? What happens to the planet, and to us, if we stay on our current trajectory? And just as importantly, where do we go if we have an idea for climate action?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has a 2-minute video outlining some of the specific impacts of continued climate change on our current path starting in the year 2030 and going through 2100. The impacts are sobering, backed up by scientific research referenced in the video, and outlined in the list below.

But all isn’t lost. We do have a short period of time right now to make massive changes to save the planet, the species with whom we share it, and create 395 million jobs with the transition to a nature-positive economy. Said another way, biomimicry and creating our built environment, products, and services based on nature’s design principles is the answer—we must transition to a nature-positive economy and society.

And if have an idea for climate action, WEF wants you to share that idea and get involved through their free online community portal called UpLink where you’ll find hope, information, data, and updates on climate action projects that are underway right now.

What does the world look like in the coming decades if we don’t take climate action. Here’s a sampling of that future:

The 2030s:

  • Ice caps and crucial ice sheets continue to melt, swelling sea levels by 20 centimeters [7.87 inches]
  • 90% of coral reefs threatened by human activity, while 60% are highly endangered
  • Dwindling crop yields push more than 100 million more people into extreme poverty
  • Climate change-related illnesses kill an additional 250,000 people each year

The 2040s:

  • The world has shot past its 1.5-degree Celsius [2.7-degree Fahrenheit] Paris Agreement temperature rise limit
  • Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Thailand are threatened by annual floods, sparking mass migration
  • 8% of the global population has seen a severe reduction in water availability
  • The Arctic is now ice-free in summer
  • Sea levels have risen 20 centimeters [2 feet] in the Gulf of Mexico, where hurricanes deliver devastating storm surges

The 2050s:

  • 2 billion people face 60-degree Celsius [140 degrees Fahrenheight] temperatures for more than a month every year
  • In much of the world, masks are needed daily–not for disease prevention, but to protect our lungs from smog
  • The Northeast United States now sees 25 major floods a year, up from 1 in 2020
  • 140 million people are displaced by food and water insecurity or extreme weather events

2100 and beyond:

  • The average global temperature has soared more than 4 degrees Celsius [7.2 degrees Fahrenheit]–and even more in northern latitudes
  • Rising sea levels have rendered coastlines unrecognizable, and Florida has largely disappeared
  • Coral reefs have largely vanished, taking with them 25% of the world’s fish habitats
  • Insects have been consigned to history, causing massive crop failures due to the lack of pollinators
  • Severe drought now affects more than 40% of the planet
  • An area the size of Massachusetts burns in the US every year
  • Southern Spain and Portugal have become a desert, tipping millions into food and water insecurity

This is a terrifying, painful future and it’s only a few years away right now. But again, we know what we need to do—create our built environments, products, and services to mimic those of the natural world. Biomimicry can save us and the natural world. This means we must:

  • exit fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources
  • restore, protect, and expand natural habitats and wild areas
  • end the use of single-use plastic and harmful chemical pesticides

None of this will be easy but the choice is truly one of life—ours and all the other species who are counting on us to change our ways and clean up how we live on this planet—or death. Either we choose to make these difficult choices now in our companies and governments, or we are forced to make them later when it may be too late. To learn more and get involved, please visit UpLink: https://uplink.weforum.org/uplink/s/. We have no time to waste and the planet needs all of us to take action.

creativity

JoyProject podcast: The Joy of Baking Challah with Vicki Eastus

The Joy of Baking Challah with Vicki Eastus

What could be better than freshly baked challah? Talking about baking challah with one of my nearest and dearest friends! In this episode of the JoyProject podcast, Vicki tells us how she got started baking challah with her daughter during the COVID-19 lockdown. She shares her baking process, the traditions of challah, and the joy and memories that food provides for all of us. We also talk about the storytelling community that brought us together and the stories that connect us to our past, to history, and to one another.

About Vicki:
Vicki Eastus is a lawyer, teacher, improviser and storyteller. A native Texan, Vicki declared herself a feminist at age 10 and started her long career as an advocate for women. She has been a campus advocate on sexual harassment issues, a lawyer for the largest group of women to ever successfully sue the government for sex discrimination, and a Title IX Coordinator. Vicki earned her B.A. in Russian literature, focusing on Russian formalist criticism and the distinction between plot and story. She carried those concepts into her legal career, bending traditional legal writing rules to make her clients’ stories more compelling. Now a professor at New York Law School, she integrates storytelling and improvisational techniques into her classes on legal analysis and advocacy. She has given presentations at national and international legal conferences on using storytelling and improvisation to teach legal analysis and to help law students find their legal voices.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • How Vicki bucked her fear and started baking her own challah with her daughter
  • Some of the traditions and history around challah baking
  • The memories and joy we can all find in homemade and home baked food
  • The inspiring work of Jose Andres and his organization, World Central Kitchen
  • The Instagram account @challahbakeoff

Links to resources:

creativity

A big milestone this week

This week marks 2 years since my early-stage breast cancer diagnosis. I worried I may never feel whole again. Now I feel great—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m grateful for every day and for everyone who helped me get here. Onward!❤️

For those now waging their own battles with cancer and to all the people who love and care for them, please know that healing is possible. There will come a day when you look back and see how far you’ve come and how far your life stretches out in front of you, full of dreams and hopes fulfilled. You’ll be there. Keep your eyes up. Keep your head up. Keep going. And when you feel like you can’t, please call me and I’ll remind you that yes you can. And you will.

creativity

I’m on my way to the U.K.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash. Taken at the Marble Arch in Park Lane, London.

I’m on my way to the U.K. to begin my dream of starting a graduate program in sustainability leadership at University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership. Such a mix of emotions at this pivotal moment in history— gratitude, elation, responsibility, nervousness, excitement, fear, anticipation. All of that is in my heart now as I start this path of purpose to hone all my business, science, and storytelling skills and experience to play a role in saving our planet, our stunning natural world, and all species, including our own.

When I booked this flight months ago, I had no idea how consequential this time would be for the U.K. and the world. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the beginning of the reign of King Charles III has brought a new sense of meaning to this trip. For decades, The Royal Family and especially King Charles III have been advocating for economic and social transformations to address climate change. King Charles is a graduate of Cambridge with a close association with the graduate program I’m about to begin, and I feel fortunate to be on this path in this place at this time. I will witness this moment in history, and will share what I experience by posting regularly here on this blog.

I feel a huge sense of responsibility and duty to use my time to protect our only home. This work is personal and professional for me. Everything I’ve been through in the past 2+ years, from the pandemic to my own successful battle against cancer caused by environmental toxins, has been fuel for me to take this journey. With the help of my doctors, modern medicine, innovative science, and my community of friends and family, I healed myself. Now I want to heal the planet.

I am willing to do whatever it takes. The changes we make (or don’t make) now will dictate how the history of our world unfolds for the next several thousand years. The consequences are that profound. We will absolutely turn the corner over the next few years. The question is what awaits us when we do, and that answer is up to all of us, individually and collectively.

I want to thank everyone who helped me to get to this place and cheered me on. There are so many of you who moved mountains and I promise to pay forward all of it. Now, it’s time to go have an adventure and personally witness this momentous time for Britain and the world. I’m excited to bring you with me.

creativity

JoyProject podcast: The Joy of The Great British Bake Off with Abby Anklam

The Joy of The Great British Bake Off with Abby Anklam

If ever there was a television show founded on pure joy, it’s The Great British Bake Off. Professional writer and home baker Abby Anklam joins us on the JoyProject podcast to talk about how she started watching Bake Off and her favorite parts of the show that make it a delight to watch. Abby also shares the bakes she tried at home that were inspired by the show and the bakes she plans to try after everything she’s learned as an avid watcher and fan. We also chat about her job as a writer and illustrator of children’s books.

About Abby:
Abigail Anklam is a writer and illustrator who writes books for young readers.

Growing up, she loved reading about fantastic adventures in incredible places and longed to have adventures of her own, just like Lucy in Narnia, Mowgli in the Jungle, or White Fang in the Arctic. So it’s no wonder that she left her Virginia home to find adventure in faraway places, like Arkansas, Italy, Arizona, & China.

During her adventures, Abigail has filled many roles. She has been a student, an actor, a zookeeper, an artist, a teacher, a bookseller, an archer, and more! She loves to learn new skills, visit new places, and try new things. Along the way, she’s experienced different ways of life, met all kinds of wonderful people, and learned about all sorts of fascinating animals. Many of those experiences and interests have found their way into her writing and art.

Right now, Abigail is working on her first children’s novel. It’s a mystery story that involves a bear, an animal trainer, and an escape from the circus. To read a sample of Abigail’s published work, click here. You’ll find an excerpt from According to Their Kinds, a collection of short animal-related stories (for adults).​

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • What makes The Great British Bake Off such a joy to watch
  • How Bake Off is different (and better!) than U.S.-based competition shows
  • What fans of Bake Off learn from the show and apply to their own baking
  • Those adorable illustrations of the bakes that have become a hallmark of the show
  • Abby’s work as a writer and illustrator of children’s books
  • The Story community where I met Abby
  • Junior Bake Off — the newest show in the Bake Off franchise now on Netflix in the U.S.
  • A quote about joy from Jaiya John sent to me by my wonderful friend, artist Rachael Harms Mahlandt

Links to resources:

creativity

My alive day — 13 years ago today

13 years ago today my New York City apartment building caught fire and I was almost trapped in the building. I used to think of this day as the worst day of my life. Now after all this time, I’ve made it into something that made me better. I became a writer and found Emerson. I learned the true value of my life. The PTSD I had got me into therapy so I could heal from trauma I’d had since childhood. It got me out of a terrible relationship and out of a job I hated. I adopted Phineas as an emotional support dog a year later.

A lot of people helped me in that immediate aftermath. They gave me a place to stay while I looked for a new apartment, helped me find my new apartment, gave me support at work, gave me the legal language to confront my landlord to get my deposit back and get out of my lease, let me borrow an air mattress, went to look at apartments with me, recommended a therapist, and 9 months before the fire had recommended rental insurance that saved me financially. So many checked on me regularly to see how I was doing. One recently checked on me after a large fire erupted in New York City earlier this year as he knows fires can still be a trigger for me. Healing takes a village, and I’m so grateful for mine.

Fire transforms everything it touches and it certainly transformed me. This healing was hard-won. I went through a lot of dark days to get here, almost ending it all at one low point. Though I’d never wish this experience on anyone, I wouldn’t wish it away for me. I have a few other big anniversaries of healing coming up. I’m not as at peace with those yet as I am with my fire. I hope time and distance will ease them, too.

creativity

How writers using multi-sensory storytelling will save the planet

Photo by Marc Wieland on Unsplash

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of The Little Prince (among many others)

Today I want to talk to you about how storytelling has a vital role to play in saving the planet. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been consumed with getting ready to start my new graduate program in Sustainability Leadership at University of Cambridge. I’ve completed my first set of assignments and the first (very long!) reading list. I’ve read well over a thousand pages of documents, reports, data collections, and science journal articles. I have 10 new books on my to-be-read list, many relating to the connections between the economy, nature, and societal structure. It will come as no surprise that much of it is bleak, and there is some hope sprinkled in here and there.

Here’s what I didn’t find on a single page I read: what will our world look, feel, sound, smell, and taste like when humans learn how to live on this planet in a sustainable way?

The science matters. We have to have the reporting and data to show what’s happening in real-time right now, and explain what can happen if we don’t turn things around and fast. We need the urgency provided by the dire warnings. The doomsday scenarios are true possibilities and we’re on a collision course with them.

We also have to give people hope by explaining all we stand to gain if we change our ways, systems, governments, businesses, cities, economies, and — here’s the kicker — our values.

For decades we’ve been obsessed with efficiency and convenience, and in the process have caused a massive number of extinctions and destroyed priceless ecosystems that we’ll never see again. We stand to lose much more if we don’t realize we must value nature because nature underpins every aspect of our lives and livelihoods.

We have no future without nature and we need to wake up to that reality.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would take to give people an experience of what a truly sustainable world will be like. How can we make it an experience that sticks with people long after the experience is over, motivates them to make changes in their lives, and causes them to demand change from the businesses they patronize and the governments of which they’re citizens?

How can we, in the words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, make them long for the healthy, thriving, clean sea, literally and figuratively?

I’ve been immensely inspired by the immersive exhibits that are all the rage right now — Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience and Imagine Picasso are two examples of the tech-centric, projection-based exhibits that are everywhere. In February, The New Yorker wrote a long, exceptional piece on this trend. For many years, I’ve been a fan of immersive theater like the wildly popular Sleep No More that’s a bit like Clue meets haunted house meets Eyes Wide Shut, complete with masks for all guests so you feel like you’re at a costume party. Since I was a child, I’ve loved choose-your-own-adventure stories. And let’s be honest; I still love choose-your-own-adventure stories.

So here’s my proposal — what if we take the:

  • technology of immersive art exhibits
  • participatory storytelling of immersive theater
  • user-guided choice of choose-your-own-adventure stories
  • science of climate change

to not tell, not show, but allow people to experience how climate change will look, sound, smell, taste, and feel if we continue on our current trajectory and if we make the needed, massive changes to save the planet, save ourselves, and save all the species who call Earth home? There would then we an online component that would connect people to one another and provide support for making the changes we need and charting collective and individual progress because as we know, what gets measured gets done.

Would that be a way to use multi-sensory storytelling as a tool to motivate people, open their hearts and minds, and give us a fighting chance at building a sustainable society together? If executed flawlessly and meaningfully with heart, I think this might be part of the solution we need that doesn’t yet exist. What do you think?