Archive for simplicity

Doing things differently

During the past year or so, as I’ve been reading more and more about food issues, peak oil, climate change, etc. I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking. The things that always felt kind of normal to me – like shopping at Target – make me feel guilty in new and wonderful ways. Now, instead of feeling guilty for simply spending money, I feel terrible in a layered-lasagne sort of way. First, there’s the money, of course, then the consumption of resources, then the environmental impact that went into manufacturing whatever it is that I’m buying, then the fact that I’m helping support a store that doesn’t necessarily uphold my preferred standards of doing business (local, sustainable, fair-trade, fair labor), then there’s the ultimate disposal of said item (slow, toxic-leaching disintegration in the ocean or an artifact in the landfill?). I’m sure, if I thought hard enough, I could come up with a few other reasons to add to my guilt heap.

Today, I was shopping to buy presents for three birthday parties my son is going to this week – one for a neighbor and two for classmates. As I’m driving, I’m listening on NPR to stories about the terrible earthquake in Haiti. Let’s see, I could donate the $30 I was going to spend on the three gifts to help relief efforts in Haiti, but somehow I think the parents and kids who invited us might not be so appreciative or understanding. Now, Legos, which is what I set out to buy, are at least not complete junk and find many creative uses. They are almost indestructable and definitely re-usable. Still…how can I even be thinking about going to Target when tiny children are being turned away from orphanages to fend for themselves on the streets of Haiti! Why am I buying more plastic crap for kids who have no need of more toys? Why am I, not even ranking  as middle class in America, so fortunate and others so dirt-eating poor?

 I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I am thankful that my son was invited to these parties. He loves to be included, and of course, to have fun. But part of me also feels a bit strange that these school families have far more money  than my family will likely ever see and here I am buying them more stuff they don’t need.We have been invited to three parties for kids from school so far this year and none of the invitations has said “no presents please,” or “in lieu of present, please donate to…” My son goes to a $16,000 a year school. We are on financial aid and pay a tiny, tiny fraction of that amount – another something for which I am greatly appreciative. I am trying to view the gift as a “thank you” for inviting my son to the party and to let it go at that. 

Still, could I have done things differently? Yes. I could have bought books from my local independent children’s bookstore. That, at least would have been more in line with my values. I was trying to please my son, who said that his friends both liked Legos. And, I didn’t want my son to be embarrassed when his friends opened gifts that they may not have been that excited about. I could have given them something useful – warm socks, art materials…I don’t know.I could have made a donation on their behalf and just left it at that. Am I just trying to meet expectations that weren’t there? Would the parents even have cared? Or would my son be banned from future birthdays or become the kid whispered about when the parents mingle at future parties? Maybe, in light of the bigger things in life, it just doesn’t frickin’ matter.  Live and learn, right?

I could start whining here about how all of the fun has been taken out of nearly everything that I used to think of a commonplace and normal – birthday parties (festivals of excess), running through a sprinkler in the summer, for instance (waste of water). Or, getting a cup of coffee out (was it a local business? fair trade? how much fossil fuel was used transporting it or in the manufacture of the cup or packaging? the landfill – oh the landfill). In truth a lot of the fun has been zapped in the keister because I am simply more AWARE. My actions have consequences. Whether I want it to or not, my being on this planet makes an impact  I have a freakin’ footprint! Once you become aware, you can’t go back. This leaves me with a couple of choices:

a.) I can choose to ignore the impact and consequences of my actions and live pretty much like most people in industrialized society. Shop, shop, people. The economy is tanking, afterall! We must do our part. And, while you’re at it, why don’t you pick up some Big Macs and fries for the whole family?

b.) I can learn to enjoy life in new ways, try to minimize my ecological footprint and encourage others to do so.

Once the Buddha became enlightened, did he say, “Screw this enlightenment thing, take me back to the palace!”? I think not. Do scholars give up their books and attempt to return to an illiterate state? Well, I suppose there have been a few who became hermits and didn’t do the world much good for all of their brain power. Still. Would it be ethical for me to ignore the state of the world and continue to live an unconscious life? Probably not. 

Jesus, I’m not perfect by any means. I probably rank with Al Gore – simultaneously cattle ranching and living in huge, luxurious houses and flying around the planet doing some fairly good work in talking to others about global warming. I do find myself becoming self-righteous at times when I compare myself to others and their planet-trashing ways. I’ll think, “Look at that Hummer (the roads are ruled by SUVs and trucks here in Denver)! Who do they think they are?” and I’ll stick my nose in the air ever so slightly as I speed by in my 10-year-old Subaru wagon. Does awareness come with an attitude? Or maybe I should take a more enlightened approach to enlightenment – everyone is doing the best that they can given what they have. Ugh! There’s some monster inside of me that is repulsed by that do-goody talk. We’re not doing the best that we can! Christ, we’re stupid and lazy and immoral and we need to get off of our infomercial-watching, Cheeze-it fattened butts and do something!!! That’s really what I want to scream. 

And then, there’s lil’ ol’ me. We (my family) do live fairly simply. We garden. I bake my own bread. I preserve food for winter. We try to conserve our water and energy use. I try to support local businesses and local food. We buy used (furniture, clothes). We recycle. We’re vegan (I hear livestock are the number one problem in global emissions – not to mention polution). I wash and re-use baggies. I compost our kitchen waste. We buy green and organic.

Yet, we drive a bit (about 10,000 miles a year). Our city’s public transportation is pretty inadequate for places we need to get to and we’re very pinched for time when we change the guard to balance child-care and our two jobs. I’m not exactly volunteering my time anywhere because I have no time to give unless I paid someone to be a mommy to my kids during the day. As it is, I work three nights a week and a full day on Saturdays outside the home. Our family time suffers, but the kids at least have one parent caring for them at all times – few exceptions. Did I really need a new sofa to replace the 35-year-old, twice re-covered hand-me-down sofa? Probably not. And now, I’m regretting the purchase. I use our clothes dryer almost daily, though I do hang some loads outside. Do I have any place turning my snooty nose up at those who don’t do as I do? I struggle with this and it certainly doesn’t make me happy. Perhaps that’s one other thing I need to learn how to do differently.


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Next Year

I blogged yesterday about a few things I already do to try to lessen my impact on the environment and to ease my family into the hardships that may be coming. Now, I’d like to talk about the future.

Every year, as the first frosts turn my tomato plants to mush (no worries, green tomatoes already safely inside), I start to make plans for next year: what to grow, where to put it, what didn’t work out. In the middle of winter, when the first seed catalogs start to arrive, I’m already rarin’ to go.

This year, I did much better about harvesting and using what I grew – even if that meant giving away some of our produce so that someone (other than our compost pile) could make good use of it. If I’d had a dehydrator, I would have been able to put up small quantities, but our tomatoes, especially, didn’t produce enough at one time to justify canning. Strange year. Lots of rain, but no real hot weather until the very end of summer. 

This upcoming year, I’d like to tackle some projects to make us even more self-sufficient and to ensure that we utilize our small harvest to the utmost. 

Plans for Next Year:

The Garden

  • Build trellises for cucumbers
  • Don’t bother growing my own melons
  • Expand herb garden to include chamomile, dill, and reintroduce lemon balm (in pot!) and borage
  • Get better at drying and using my herbs
  • Plant more plum tomatoes and can sauce, whole tomatoes, salsa, etc.
  • Try growing quinoa
  • Order more garlic for next fall’s planting (Music and Siberian varieties were delish
  • Plant at least double the potatoes I grew this year and larger varieties – keepers. Don’t bother with fingerlings (except for seed stock I saved this year)
  • Order two more raspberry canes (Caroline)
  • Order 1 – 2 more fruit trees depending on space and pollination factors

Building Projects

  • Build or acquire solar oven and dark colored pot to cook in
  • Build solar food dryer
  • Bees? Consider building top-bar hive over winter. Read up on this and be sure of city ordinances and safety factor for kids

In General:

  • Can more of our own produce or produce from farmer’s market 
  • Go to pick-your-own organic strawberry place and get enough for jam and dried berries
  • Host 2nd annual Kitchen Garden Open House
  • Paint some signs for our garden (once I decide what to call our “farm”)
  • Vermicompost?
  • Find bulk (hopefully local) resources for dried beans and some grains and order more
  • Build up enough food stores for three months
  • Put together my tofu press and try it out
  • Create more food storage areas in the house
  • Salvage, thrift, and garage sale more

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In all earnestness

I haven’t been able to blog in a few days – a week? Heck, when was my last post anyway? I have a two-year-old who hasn’t napped more than 20 minutes a day for a while now. I’m hoping today will be different. But then, I’ve hoped that for the last week…and well then I’d hear little feet making their way across the floor to my in-home library where I write. Darn it! So far, so good today. I’ll get on with it.

“Most of our citizens wake up in the morning and worry about the morning commute and getting the kids to school and paying the mortgage and thinking about a new car or vacation…and this is simply too narrow a scale of thinking to address the problems that we have.” – Joseph Tainter, professor and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (quoted from the documentary The 11th Hour)

I watched the documentary The 11th Hour the other day and have been inspired to get with the program and really take steps to ensure that our family’s carbon footprint is small – though our being vegan is already lessening our impact in a big way. Sometimes, other than shelling out $20, 000 to convert our house entirely to solar or kissing our cars bye-bye, I feel a little lost about how just to go about what I should be doing. I’ve read a couple of books, but they were more along the lines of Al Gore recommending we trade our incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents. Done that, duh.

I’m also delving into Sharon Astyk’s new book Independence Days:A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation which arrived yesterday. She says, and I believe her, that we have a moral imperative to take on the actions that lessen our impact on the planet. And, gulp, that we owe it to our children and future generations to do without and experience a bit of discomfort (like lowering the heat) so that they HAVE a future. Now I really feel guilty about all of my excuses – how I don’t have time to preserve much food or hang the laundry; how I can’t stand the cold and keep my heat at a toasty 67. But, I should give myself some credit for all of the things I DO (or have done) and all of the future projects I plan to attempt in earnest. 

I recently emailed Ms. Astyk and told her how much I admired her efforts, but made some glib comment about how I bet my house is cleaner (she’s admittedly laid-back about housekeeping). So, when the real crises start to hit, my family will be freezing (we have no heat other than our boiler) in our very tidy house and begging for food. Her family will have adapted fairly well and have ample wood heat and enough food to last the winter. What an ass am I?

 So, in the hope that I am actually making progress in my goal of being more self-reliant and in lessening my impact on the environment, here’s a list of what I have already done.

Things Done:

  • Replaced all bulbs with compact flourescents
  • Buy used clothing and household goods whenever possible (I could still improve a bit in this area and hunt out garage sales)
  • Cloth diapered my first son. Tried with my second, but no matter what I did, he got terrible rashes on his legs, so now I use 7th Generation diapers and feel guilty every time I throw one out. I tried a few times to switch back to cloth, but no luck
  • Vegan diet and lifestyle
  • I keep a pantry  – enough to last (I hope) about two weeks. Plus freezer in garage (obviously useless if we lose electricity).
  • Breastfed my kids forever (the first for 3 1/2 years, the second is currently two) thus eliminating the need for icky and expensive formula
  • I buy about 99% organic groceries and other products from our small health food store and try to avoid the mega corporations, though that’s next to impossible since they’ve all been bought out
  • I buy in bulk when possible (though our “bulk” commodities come pre-packaged)
  • I shop weekly at the farmer’s market to support our local growers and get to know them
  • I joined a CSA last year, but found that even a half share was too much for us with our own garden producing so much and I like being able to pick my own produce at the farmer’s market. Still, I recommend it for people who don’t garden or make it to the farmer’s market each week.
  • Tore up 2/3 front lawn this year and converted it to vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals (mostly xeriscape types)
  • Planted two apricot trees and raspberry patch(raspberries should give us a harvest next summer)
  • Four large raised bed veggie gardens, herb garden and strawberry patch in back yard
  • Raise 97% of my own vegetables from seed, including heirloom tomatoes
  • Took a class on herb gardening and herb use
  • Took a class on water bath canning
  • We recycle as much as possible
  • Canned and or froze a good amount of peaches, peach jam, red currants, raspberries, rhubarb, cherries, green beans and zucchini
  • Actually accomplished a fall planting of lettuces, bok choi, tatsoi, kale, and spinach this year!
  • Joined a local urban homesteading group. Though I an seldom attend meetings because of work/childcare conflicts.
  • Hosted our first annual kitchen garden open house – complete with heirloom tomato tasting and informational handouts
  • Am trying to monitor our electricity usage (checking out a wattage meter from our local library -cool huh?)
  • Am washing most of our clothes in cold water
  • Occasionally hand a load on the clothesline (could improve MUCH in this area)
  • Our cars are old (10 years or more) and we won’t buy new again. I’d get rid of one car if I could find a feasable way to accomplish errands without a car during the day. Biking isn’t safe for the route my husband has to take and he takes our eldest son to school with him in the mornings. Given enough time, however, I can bike to my part-time job at least part (or most) of the year. Working on that…
  • We take mostly driving vacations and usually fairly local in-state ones 

I could do more. And, I’m working on it. I need to take this much more seriously. It weighs on me. Every time I do something like throw away the last of the cherry tomatoes that didn’t get eaten or put another load of laundry in the dryer, I see Sharon Astyk peeking over my shoulder sadly shaking her head.

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Been here…what a relief


My family (the Thomases) in the good ol' days

I’ve become an avid follower of Sharon Astyk’s blog ( where she writes about peak oil, climate change, and adapting in place. Her words are inspiring and terrifying at the same time. I’ve been reading along these same lines for quite some time and can’t seem to stop myself from devouring ever more literature on these topics – bleak though it may be.

Obviously, we can’t (we meaning industrialized nations, especially the US) continue to consume resources at our current rate and, to be honest, we’re looking at some fairly dismal times ahead. I’m panicked to think that we’ll be pretty poor – poorer certainly than I have ever been in my lifetime. But not poorer, hopefully than my family in previous generations (see picture above).

My maternal grandmother pretty much went barefoot all summer and used to cringe when she’d talk about the chicken poo that would squish between her naked  toes. She hated chickens as a result. She grew up in a house without electricity or running water, and heated, I think, by a cookstove.

When I told her and my great aunt that I was interested in the way they used to do things – particularly canning – they both asked why in the world I’d want to do that? So much work. Work, I imagine, they happily gave up when food became cheaper and easy to come by at the local store.

My great grandmother and great grandfather, Bessie and Herb, were both great gardeners and knew the names of all kinds of plants. I like to think I inherited some of their skill in this area and am passing some of it on to my kids. We practice recognizing seedlings poking through the soil in our garden and talk about the plants we see in neighbor’s yards when we take walks. I’m no great gardener by any means, but I do raise nearly all of my own vegetables from seed and every year is a grand experiment. I’m getting better, for certain and am quickly learning that books are definitely helpful, but nothing beats experience.

From childhood visits, I remember family gathering in my aunt’s cool basement in Missouri to can produce. My grandparents, great grandparents, and a couple of great aunts and uncles kept a 1/2 acre garden at my grandma and grandpa’s “farm” and my aunt kept a smaller one in her back yard. I don’t remember the actual canning proceedings, just people gathering and the jars lined up on shelves in my aunt’s basement. The kids – all of the cousin – played pool. My memory is pretty fuzzy about all of this and only my great aunt, Mildred, would be able to confirm or deny the details. My grandma Mary Helen passed away this spring  – sadly without giving me too many details to go on. How I wish I had hours of taped interviews or transcripts now. 

I did ask my grandma how they gardened. Did they compost? Did they spray? She said they used chicken manure for fertilizer and one time her daddy used to much because he burned all of the plants in the garden. They didn’t compost that she remembers and when new chemicals and fertilizers came along, she thinks they used them here and there – like Miracle Grow, for example. She talked about growing sugar cane – something I didn’t realize could be done in Missouri or Kansas. She talked about when the Great Depression came, her family didn’t feel it much because they always had enough to eat. They had apple trees and a garden and chickens, at the very least. 

My mom talks about how when she and her brother and sister were little, they would get one pair of flip-flops (shoes) to wear in the summer and when those cheap shoes wore out, they went barefoot. They didn’t have money for extras, but they always had food. She said birthday parties weren’t about masses of toys and that she remembers giving a pack of nice panties (underpants) to close friends for their birthdays – something that was practical and useful.

My mom also remembers helping my great grandma do the wash once a week using a wringer washer and hanging it on the clothes line. It literally took all day. And sure, on top of that, there were three meals to fix from scratch.

Part of me is nostalgic about the “olden days, ” the lean times that I never even experienced. For a time, as a young adult, I really wanted a washboard so that I could wash my clothes in the bathtub. I’m sure, if I’d had a stash of bacon grease and knew where to get lye, I would have tried making my own soap as well. I had my great grandma’s recipe, afterall. But imagining and doing are two different animals. Now that I’m grown up and run my own household and realized how difficult it can be to get through a day- even with modern conveniences to help – I’m scared poopless about how I would do all of the daily stuff I do now without, for instance, relying on electricity or the grocery store. Still, if grandma did it, I can probably do it too, though probably not as skillfully and with a huge learning curve.

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Excess Under Control

Yesterday, we celebrated my littlest son’s 2-year birthday. I was determined this year not to get carried away buying gifts for Bodhi and to buy him mostly useful things. Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the whole experience and he was too. He got a set of ceramic Eric Carle dishes (something he’ll hopefully hand down to his kids someday), a wooden garbage truck, a few books, Croc shoes (for helping mommy in the garden), a shirt and jacket, and a toy horse from his brother. The garbage truck and a some of the books were from me/us (mom and dad) and the rest from other relatives. It felt like just the right amount and he wasn’t overwhelmed with a smorgasbord of toys. So far, the Croc shoes and the horse get the most attention. Apparently orange Crocs are a necessary accessory when galloping his horse through the house. 

Seems like with my first son, I went a tad overboard. Ok, I’ll admit it: we’re drowning in toys. Our house is like a day care center – a toy or game for every stage of development. Indeed, I believe the neighbor kids prefer playing over at our house – just for our toys.

With my first little guy, Cedar, I was always going to toy stores to get just one more little thing. I’d collect them in my closet until the next holiday or big event. I used some of them as bribes when we were potty training him (a very difficult and lengthy task, in his case). I bought new trinkets whenever we were about to take a long car trip. I bought things because…well, because the toys these days are pretty darn neat. Ok. I bought toys because in my childhood, I would have like to play with these nifty things. But oh, how those little things added up. Boxes and boxes of little things. 

My theory with my first son was if he had enough stuff, he might be entertained just long enough that I could oh, I don’t know, read a few pages of a book or pay the bills or cook dinner. Let me tell ya, it didn’t work. Out of all the shelves and boxes of toys, he plays with just a handful of things at a time and they are seldom things that even belong to the same set. He often takes our things – tools, pens, paperclips, things he finds lying around the house and adds them to his collection. And, when Cedar was little, he mostly liked to do what I was doing – dusting, cooking dinner, mopping the floors, gardening…

My generation was certainly not deprived of toys, but we didn’t have nearly the selection (not that the majority of toys these days are anything more than plastic junk from China). For Christmas, we usually got one “big” thing that we really wanted (a special doll, a dollhouse, an erector set, a kitten) and the rest was something like clothes and books or maybe a stuffed animal thrown in the mix. 

In my own defense, however, I’m not solely at fault. The generosity of our  large combined family has played a considerable part in our plethora of toys. And, we’ve tried, when we bought larger items, to buy “educational” or quality wooden toys from Europe. And, some of those, I don’t regret buying. Our wooden play stove and it’s accompanying play food and pots/pans has seen a great deal of use. But the rest of the junk, I just keep sorting through and “purging” when the mood strikes me. At least some other kid will get the pleasure of playing with our hand-me-downs.

As for the future, I’m striving to make our gift-giving and receiving ever more simple. Fewer things means things more appreciated, less money spent, fewer consumed resources.

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