Thursday, February 27, 2014

Squaring the circle

So I tried to slow down, but I didn't manage it. I'm not sure how much is my skill (or lack thereof) and how much the line of work I'm in is inherently incompatible with slowing down and simplifying.

There's just so much and I'm just so far from getting it right the first time. Redrafting the same document four, five, six or more times is so down-heartening. Today I was in the office from 8.30 in the morning until 8.10 in the evening, with about twenty minutes to eat lunch. I was almost nodding off at my desk but when certain things just have to be done before you leave, what choice do you have?

It's frustrating because I know that the later I stay, the more tired I get, the worse and less I sleep, which means the next day I'm less focused and less productive. It's a negative cycle but I don't know how to break it. I've reached the tiredness point - I haven't been here since just before my exams when I was 18 - when I find blank walls utterly captivating because they're so calm and my brain gets to rest.

I still think it might be possible - I still want it to be possible - to have a full-time ambitious career in an area I care about (public policy) without sacrificing all other areas of my life. I so want there not to be an irreconcilable conflict, but I'm beginning to doubt this.

It's not all bad news - tomorrow I have the day off and my father is visiting. I'll have time for a little housework, a little baking perhaps, and some gazing at blank walls. I've got a cup of tea next to me (my own home-prepared combination of chamomile, calendula and lavender) and you lovely people to talk to. And I'm indulging in one of the most comforting and least taxing books I know - 'Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer' by Jane Brocket. It is technically a recipe book, but each recipe is introduced, talking about who eats/drinks it and in which book, musing on memories of reading them, and taking me on a delightful tour of childhood memories. They are all recipes as enticing in imagination as in reality, especially as the imagination supplies the environment - on Wild Cat Island after a midnight naval battle, or in front of the range wrapped in a shawl in the Little White Cottage With The Thatched Roof.

Picture nicked from

I'll be back tomorrow with a more positive frame of mind.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Jonah week

I'm having one of those weeks, and it's only Tuesday. I keep making mistakes at work - silly little mistakes, and several big whoppers. Of course this happens the week of my review. Of course.

One of the principles that we strive for - whether we are simple living, homesteading, minimalist or any other related philosophy - is resilience. It's in many ways a more useful concept even than sustainability, in my opinion, focusing on building the ability to absorb shock locally. Resilient food chains focus on local rather than organic, for example.

Resilience is a personal skill too - the ability to adapt to a changing environment, to dust oneself off and keep on putting the nose to the grindstone.

Today I am practicing resilience at work. I'm taking a deep breath, making a cup of tea, and taking a few minutes to be warmed and cheered by the early spring sunshine. I'm slowing down - rushing means more mistakes - doing each thing that comes my way carefully and checking it before sending.

One thing at a time - that's at the heart of simple living, isn't it? By doing one thing at a time, and focusing on doing it well, we get far more done than when we try to multitask, constantly connected to multiple inputs. One thing a time, one foot in front of the other. The weekend will get here, and with it my seeds for my new garden, a visit from family, and maybe even another batch of yoghurt.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Our own adventures

I'm having a very decadent Sunday curled up with a cup of tea and some Narnia films. And I'm pondering on the subject of adventures.

Something I have observed is that, in my own procrastinating-y escapist-y way, I tend to watch films, read books or blogs etc on a given subject rather than living it. Rather than doing the washing up, running a mop around this place or getting the sewing machine out, my instinct is to watch Little Women for the thousandth time or delve into the archives of another simple living blog. I find it easier to experience my adventures vicariously through other people's experiences than to knuckle down and have my own.

I think I am getting a bit better at this - at turning away from the screen to pick up a broom or some knitting needles. Slow progress, but progress it is.

But I do wonder why it is so hard. All stories are on some level about the adventure of life, and you can have an adventure without ever going beyond your front door. Yet real life sometimes seems less entertaining than the fantasy world, where we see all the sweeping vistas and epic battles and profound moments without the drudgery, the endurance, the battles to drive onself on which take place every day, every hour, every minute. 

Whether we're battling with a Tolkien-esque mountain or simply trying to work through a backlog of dirty laundry, it seems monumental, overwhelming, and we have to take one step at a time. But climbing the mountain seems more glamorous; we definitely underestimate the challenge - and thus the satisfaction  (I hope) - of small battles, unnoticed but important achievements, in every day lives.

I often feel so far from where I want to be that I wonder why bother. Why not just stay on the sofa in my pajamas with endless cups of tea?

If the characters - and real historical figures - in our favourite stories had stayed on the sofa revisiting their favourites, they would never have had the adventures we love to read. So I'm just going to pause the film now to do some washing up. If I can use other people's adventures to motivate my own, then it is a positive force in my life, not just a tool for procrastination.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Frugality vs minimalism

Every time I set myself to some decluttering, I end up facing the same dilemma.

We all struggle to let go of clutter with sentimental baggage attached - we might not need, want or use it any more but we still struggle to let it go. That's totally normal, and in fact I am feeling as though with some items it's only a matter of giving myself time to build up to it, or even better, finding a better 'tribute' to that person or experience.

However, a huge proportion of the clutter in my life is not sentimental baggage, but practical things. Stationery, for example - half-used pads of paper, slowly drying pens, battered ring binders, dividers with the ghost of previous uses and crumpled document wallets. The leftovers of various packs of notepaper and cards, usually intended for thank you letters and now collecting dust.

This kind of thing just takes space. HUGE amounts of space. But I struggle to let go of it because it seems wasteful - surely the frugal thing is to hang on to these, and use them? The very rare occasions when I need something and dig it out of my pile rather than go out and buy something seem to reinforce this, even though the frequency pales in comparison to the way my heart sinks every time I open the cupboard door and see this:

And then what do I do with it if I can let it go? Chuck it in the bin and consign it to landfill? Most of this isn't recyclable, but also isn't any where near good enough condition to be sold. I could donate if I knew anyone who would use it, but how on earth to I identify a charity in need of basic stationery?

I think this is probably a fairly typical dilemma faced with decluttering. In an ideal world, I just wouldn't have accumulated this stuff, but I have and I need to face up to that and work out how to move forward.

The most ridiculous thing about all this is that I'm wasting so much time and energy worrying about something so unimportant. Maybe the easiest thing is to just chuck the whole pile out and be careful what I keep or buy in future - but that just feels so wasteful!

Friday, February 21, 2014

A simple living story - not mine, her's

Hello all! I have the day off today and I'm working through my chaotic paperwork, sorting and filing and decluttering as much as possible. I'm looking forward to the space on the shelves, but at the moment I'm still in the piles-of-paper-everywhere stage. Sometimes it just has to get worse before it gets better!

In my browsing, I've come across an old article in The Guardian written by a journalist who took a year off for health reasons. The unexpected year of domesticity surprised her - but I don't think it will surprise you, I think we're all discovering the hidden joys in our homes.

You can read her story here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A good feeling

Finding presents for people is difficult.

You think and research and brainstorm and argue with yourself about your budget and do some more research. You find some options but they're not ideal, they feel a bit too much like a 'token' gift, given as an alternative to giving nothing, an empty gesture.

And then you find it.

It's something they are going to love. It's something they would never think to get themselves. And it's within your budget.

It's a wonderful feeling. There's a joy in this, in spending the time to come up with something that feels so right, that I know will communicate something to the recipient that I've made some efforts to understand where they are in life, that I've noted their interests and habits, that I wanted to give them something they would enjoy, with none of the 'strings' that some presents come with (perceived or otherwise).

Looking back, my presents are beginning to take on a certain pattern. I like to give people experiences. Not just a blank voucher, but to find an unusual or nice trip that they will enjoy but probably wouldn't think to do themselves. It sometimes involves buying a specific voucher from the place themselves or a company that build or curate 'experience days', and sometimes calling up a company and asking if they can do me a voucher as a one-off, explaining who it's for and why I've chosen them.

There's often a small supplement - something homemade, usually, or small consumables. This is the space I can bring the crafts I love but which are viewed with suspicion by my family - a small handmade token alongside a 'main' gift means a personal touch which they can value without feeling they've been given a gift which reflects my interests more than theirs.

 This kind of gift giving does take more time and effort, but I'm finding it's worth it not only because I'm able to give people more thoughtful, more personal gifts, not only because I'm spending less money, but also because the whole process is more rewarding and satisfying for me too.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Washing up: A philosophical meander

Today I was going to share a bit of a rant, as the demands of my job have been rather high recently, but I decided that was too negative and I'd rather focus on a slightly more positive aspect.

Do you have a focal point, a part of your life or home where you see the progress you have made and (in your mind's eye) the changes you still want to make? This is mine:

It's the window to the balcony, next to the kitchen sink. This is the window I gaze through as I dry the washing up every day. In the mornings, I get my first glimpse of the sun welcoming me to the tasks of my day. On clear evenings, I watch the full moon loom large, asking silent questions without answers and keeping watch over the sleeping rooftops.

In the summer, the clotheshorse sits just outside this window and I can see the clothes moving in the breeze. In the winter, we use this space as extra cold storage and you can probably find the beer for the next rugby match out there.

Just in front of the window is a row of jars reminding me that that we now cook so much from scratch that we need to keep the flour, sugar and oats within easy reach, that I make my own breakfast cereal, and the shopping list reminds me that we plan our meals and weekly shops with care. The empty dishrack and shiny clean draining board make me smile.

I can mentally see the changes I have yet to make. The first potted plants of my urban veg patch will be here - herbs and salad leaves, within easy reach of the kitchen. I've been thinking about making some bunting from some of the fabric offcuts and old clothes in my ragbag. The window is rather dirty and I hope to try cleaning it with homemade cleaners soon, so the light can stream in even more. There may also one day be curtains here - perhaps lace or net to let the light in, or red check gingham because sod it, tradition is underrated.

This is a space I come back to several times a day and each time, I slow down and I think about how after every meal ever cooked, someone had to do the washing up. After they signed the Versailles treaty in 1919. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis. At the battle of Waterloo. At every moment in history, people still need to eat and someone still has to scrub the pots and pans. I wonder what they thought as they did it? Did they feel the weight of history hanging around them like a cloak, or were they grumbling about some dried-on food?

It makes me feel connected to everyone who ever washed a plate, it starts me thinking about the unobtrusive rhythms that shape the lives of everyone, from a President to the UN Secretary General to seemingly insignificant employees and people at home, little cogs in big wheels making society work. 

So today I'm consciously revisiting this space to give myself a bit of a hug and remind myself that simple living isn't so much about what you do or have or make, but how you approach the tasks and rhythms of your life - slowing down to savour them, thinking about the meaning behind them, and taking pride in a task well done - even if it is only the washing up.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Simplicity in the city

I am fairly sure I am not alone in the yearning for a little more space to experiment with simple living. Probably one of the most basic tenets is trying to raise your own food - plant and animal. Whether you want to be sure that your food has been organically, ethically and locally raised, or whether you are just intrigued to learn more about where food comes from, the difference between eggs from different birds and breeds and the commercially unknown variations on 'standard' fruit and veg (golden beetroot, yellow raspberries, purple carrots and so on), I think many of us want to explore this arena - certainly I do.

However, this takes space. Yes, you can grow food in pots on balconies, and yes apparently you can even raise quail in a (largeish) balcony, but you certainly can't get a goat or a milk cow to supply your home dairy, or have a large enough apple harvest to fill your pies through the winter. And moreover, I certainly would not feel comfortable raising quail or any kind of animal on a balcony because even if they only need something like 1-2 square feet per bird, it would still feel wrong not to house them somewhere they can peck at grass and bugs and suchlike.

So what do we do? Well, we can certainly live vicariously through other people's farming endeavours. I am personally really enjoying Kate's tour of Purple Pear Farm for International Year of Family Farming. We can read up and educate ourselves on how to plant a vegetable garden and how to manage livestock, or begin practicing some of the skills that might come in useful, such as combing and spinning a fleece, or making yoghurt and cheese.

However, far more useful and far more satisfying for living a simpler life now is to focus on those things that are as easy - or in some cases even easier - in an urban environment.

(1) Transport

Ever hear people talk about the challenge of becoming a 'one-car family'? It's not an uncommon phrase on some simple living blogs and podcasts (particularly in the USA, I think). It sounds weird to me. I don't know any family with two cars. We don't even have one. Why would we need one? Why spend money to sit in long traffic jams and then spend ages trying to find a parking space? We live a twenty-minute walk or less from parks, metro stations, supermarkets, bars, restaurants, farmers markets, and both our work places. We can walk to the city centre in 40 minutes, or take the metro and be there in 25. So take advantage of public transport, bike lanes and your own two feet - and think smugly of all the CO2 and all the hard-earned money that you are not wasting on car use.

(2) Community

You might just have noticed that population density is rather higher in cities than more rural areas. That means a whole lot more people to share things with. Whether farmers' markets or knitting groups, cookery courses or opportunities for political engagement, there's probably far more in your city than outside. Find something that feels right for you in your area and get involved, even if just once a month.

(3) Small living

If you live in a city, the chances are pretty high that you live in an appartment. Space will be limited, and the cost of upgrading to a larger home will probably be discombobulatingly high. Think about using the space you have now more effectively, try to reduce the amount of stuff you have and streamline the time, effort and money it costs you to maintain your home. Think about how your routines support the life you want to have, and consider making your own green cleaners. You might even open up some space for trying new things like stockpiling and preserving.

(4) Simplifying your diet

You may not be able to grow your own - yet - but you can certainly work on how you will use them when you do. Start meal planning, shopping on a budget, and exploring local farmers' markets where you can try lesser known vegetables. Have a go at preserving - make strawberry jam when it's in season and cheap, or pickle beetroot. Learn to bake bread or make yoghurt or brew beer. Whatever you do, focus on things you like and enjoy, and start slowly.

Rhonda Hetzel over at Down to Earth encourages us to 'bloom where we are planted' and it is so true that we feel dissatisfied when we focus on what we can't do, but enriched when we focus on what we can. Start here, now, where you are.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I don't know if it's my imagination but this year I feel much more aware of the gradually lengthening days. I've even looked up on an online sun calendar when I can expect to still have daylight after I get home from work (not until late March and the clocks go back) and I'm really feeling the benefit of a few more minutes each morning. The sun also feels slightly warmer, slightly brigher, and I am beginning to feel that spring really is on its way.

I've been making an effort recently to try to look up. Walking to and from work, I realise I'm powering along, head down, gaze blindly following patterns on the pavement and mind racing on some work issue, when I could be looking up and around me. The first time I did this, I caught a crystal clear night sky, with stars and a crescent moon glowing brightly. It was so clear and so bright that I could see the shadow of a full moon behind the crescent. (I tried to take a photo but it's just a grey blur.)

Now I am beginning to notice the first buds emerging and unfurling on various trees. (I wish I were better at identifying trees - I can manage oak and chestnut and birch, that's about it).

I wish I were better at getting out and using this sunlight - going for walks or runs, there's three parks within a fifteen minute walk and the forest at the edge of the city is only twenty minutes or so by bus, and yet it always seems so far, when I could be tucked up with my knitting and a cup of tea.

Yet I think there are numerous ways that some of the simplest simple living activities make you more aware of the changing seasons and their impact. The speed at which bread rises, for example, or how long you need to leave laundry hanging outside. We brought our clotheshorse in to the spare room when it got so cold and wet outside that the clothes would no longer dry, and I'm looking forward to being able to put it out again. And when your clothes are on a line outside, you are much more tuned in to whether it's raining or windy, and when you need to bring the clothes in.

So I'm looking forward to getting outside more as spring arrives - whether finally planting out some pots on my balcony, hanging my laundry outside again, or going for more walks. Do you have any other suggestions for things to do to get outside?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Slower means faster (knitting)

I keep getting so much done! I don't know quite how it works, that I feel much more relaxed and less rushed, and yet I get so much more done on my days at home. (Note: this doesn't apply to workdays.) I meet friends and do laundry and bake bread and do ironing and still have time to sit with a cup of tea and knit.

Today I sewed together the panels of the cardigan I am knitting. I've been super excited about this, and waiting for a weekend when I can get the sewing machine out without feeling rushed. I actually finished all but one of the pieces in February but then had to wait for more yarn to arrive from the UK as I'd run out (and had to do quite a bit of research to match the yarn, as I bought this years ago and most places no longer stock it.)

It's actually beginning to look like a cardigan now! Super exciting! Now I'm picking up the stitches around the neck to knit the neckband in, and then just the button and buttonhole bands to go! This will soon be finished and and I can't wait to wear this - the first full garment (rather than scarves/gloves kind of thing) that I've knitted and I'm so surprised by how quickly it knitted up, and how much I've enjoyed the very visible, tangible progress of watching the knitting grow.

I'm really beginning to feel the impact of slowing down, consciously trying to be present in what I'm doing rather than having something on 'in the background', and giving each task my full attention. I finish sooner, do a better job, and feel motivated to move on to another task. I still have a long way to go yet before I feel fully on top of all aspects of managing my home and, well, my life, but I am really enjoying the journey.

And you? Any Saturday craftiness to share?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The sinking fund

I never used to be very good at saving money, and through much of my student years I lived at the very edge of my means. At the time I don't think the concept of paying back my student loan had really sunk in, but I didn't take on credit card debts as many other students did, partly thanks to my parents helping me out with rent.

But even though I didn't save anything during these years, I was very aware of the value of having a small cushion in the bank. I vividly remember my astonishment when, at my first full-time job in the first year of full financial independence from my parents, I discovered that one of my colleagues (now a good friend) was living from paycheck to paycheck. She was upset because the salaries were taking an extra day or two to enter the accounts (I think owing to a delay in authorisation somewhere in the chain) and she was worried about paying the rent. I was confused - can't you just pay it from last month's salary, or your savings? But she didn't have any, and a delay of even 24 hours caused her huge stress and worry.

On the narrow boat we used to share with other families, there was a sinking fund. This was a tupperware which everyone paid into when they came onto the boat (so it was directly linked to usage) and this pot paid for any repairs that were needed - ie when the boat is sinking, you have the funds to deal with it.

My boyfriend and I both have sinking funds - in fact we have three, a joint one to cover repairs to the flat or other unexpected joint expenses, like the washing machine gives up the ghost and needs replacing, and one sinking fund each. We have enough that if we both lost our jobs tomorrow, we could live for a year with no income, which gives us a cushion to find other jobs or failing that, sell up and move elsewhere. I think it's definitely a good goal to aim at - a 12-month cushion against whatever may come, to give you time to deal with a crisis, to take stock of where you are and to take action before you find yourself pushed to take on debt or make rushed decisions that will have additional costs further down the line.

This cushion was really not so difficult to build up - I have worked out a budget allocating portions of my monthly income to mortgage payments, bills, food, social/hobbies, travel and savings. I set up a monthly standing order from my current account to my main account, so that the savings account grows almost without me noticing. I have still not perfected the art of sticking to a budget, and every year find I have forgotten something, but at the end of the year I usually find I have added to my sinking fund. (This was not the case last year - there were a number of family health issues and I dented my savings to travel back to the UK several times at short notice. I was grateful to have the sinking fund there to dip into for this unplanned expenditure).
My sister is about to take the step to full financial independence this year. She lives with my mother at the moment and is about to make the leap to renting her own place. I've been rather unpleasantly surprised at the advice she got from my parents on saving money. I suggested trying to save even ten pounds a month, as it all adds up, with interest. My mother agreed - 'then at the end of the year you have enough to buy a new coat!' My father urged her 'not to be like your sister and save so much money'. I doubt she would be able to build up a 12-month cushion any time soon, as living costs are much higher in London than Brussels, but I think my sister will find that life is less stressful if she has a growing sinking fund in the bank, even if it's just one week's rent, and I hope she'll be able to give saving even a small amount a try. I have to say that I think she has been far more sensible with her money, and far more disciplined about sticking to her budget in flat-hunting, than I was a few years ago, so I think she'll be just fine.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mince pie, anyone?

This evening was staff drinks at work and we're taking it in turns to introduce a national theme. Tonight it was the turn of the Brits, so there was ale, cider and pimms alongside scones, cheese and biscuits. My contribution was mince pies - in part because I still had quite a lot of mincemeat in the fridge.

After my - ahem - less than entirely successful first attempt before Christmas, I'd felt rather discouraged, but this time I used a different recipe - this one by Mary Berry - and it came out beautifully. The pastry was perfectly cooked with no soggy bottoms, and the cranberry jam and mincemeat went beautifully together. Definitely one to be repeated! And it was quite straightforward, no need to chill the pastry or anything.

They went down a treat - none left - and as I still have one more jar of mincemeat in the fridge, I might make another batch. I'm feeling quite proud of these - pastry is not my strength by a very long shot, so the successful avoidance of the soggy bottom is something I am rather pleased with.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

And next up... Yoghurt!

Thank you all for your advice on my dilemma last week. I have decided on my next challenge. As I am struggling so much with limiting and organising my stuff, in the end I decided to go with the option which did not involve buying any new kit or any ingredients which would need to be stored. For yoghurt, I have everything I need already in the house except the milk, which is easy enough to pick up.

After much reading, I decided to try incubating the yoghurt in the oven overnight. I had a slight mishap when I added the yoghurt starter while the milk was still over 80 degrees... Funnily enough the starter separated and didn't look yoghurty anymore. I realised my error, and prepared another starter which I added after the yoghurt had cooled. The jar spent the night in a slightly warm oven wrapped in a towel, and I popped it in the fridge in the morning. And lo! it had set!

Please excuse me while I do a happy dance... This has rather made my day, it's been a long, stressful, busy, hectic couple of days and very far from either simple or slow. I've also been rather cross and crabby, and a bit snappy at everyone, so I'm pleased to discover that checking on my jar of yoghurt has raised my spirits and put me in a more positive frame of mind for tomorrow.

The real test is of course the taste - I have't opened the jar yet but will let you know the verdict when I do. I've also realised that I have unintentionally made more than twice as much yoghurt as I normally eat in a week, so I might just have to make some cheese to use up the rest. (Sigh. It's a hard life.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Project 333 - Week Four

So four weeks in, and I am still absolutely loving every day of this project. Here's why:

(1) It has totally tansformed my morning routine.

Some days I would try on two or three outfits before finding something that I was happy with. I would frequently run out of clean underwear or socks, or discover that the shirt I wanted to wear with that jumper was in the wash, and have to pull something out of the dirty laundry basket. No more. Now I know that everything is laid out, clean and pressed, and it just takes me a matter of minutes to put everything on. No more stress.

(2) I dress more professionally.

Some days I would end up going to work feeling underdressed. Often I would pull out something at random in the half-light of a winter's morning, crumpled from the back of the wardrobe, and discover tomato juice stains down the front after I got to work. Now I plan my outfits in advance, everything is hung up or folded neatly, and my work clothes are ironed regularly. I am also wearing my smarter clothes more (full suit, button-down shirts) simply because they are among the items I kept in by 333. (Ironically, I used to have three full suits in my wardrobe and never wore any of them. Now I only have one, I wear it almost once a week.) I've received on average one compliment a week from colleagues about looking smart/pretty/nice, which has never happened before.

(3) I dress with more intention and more variety.

Most weeks I would wear the same pair of trousers every day, and sometimes the same shirt or long-sleeved top as well, just rotating the jumpers on top. Now I have a variety through the week and a variety each day - I make sure one of the items I'm wearing has a pattern or texture, I rotate through my trousers and shirts, and never repeat a full outfit more than once a fortnight. I never normally wear jewellery or scarves as accessories but I'm starting to reach for certain items, and I am quickly learning which are the most versatile pieces.

I thought I might share some examples of outfit combos I have never tried before this project but which I really, really like:

This is the shirt I replaced the buttons and buttonholes on - looks loads better. The subtle stripes and dark buttons work really well with the pale blue-green jumper.

The scarf was made for me by my lovely friend Kaylie, and the colour and texture really bring some depth to this otherwise rather boring outfit.
(4) I am more on top of the laundry.

I'm doing one load of normal clothes a week with one load for gym/running kits, leaving me plenty of time to wash towels and bed sheets during the week, so I'm changing towels and sheets more frequently too. I never used to do ironing and always put off folding clothes and putting them away until the next load came out of the laundry. Now, simply because the volume of clothes going through the system is less, the work is less daunting and less stressful.

(5) I am becoming more picky about wearing warm, comfortable and feel-good clothes.

In fact, of my 33, three items have not been worn at all, and three items have been worn only once so far this month. One pair of court shoes gives me sore feet because the heels are too high. I've known since I bought them that they were a mistake but I couldn't bear to get rid of them because I paid a fair bit of money for them. But if they cause me pain, why wear them? I need a pair of court shoes for work but I should get a comfortable pair with a lower heel. These shoes will not make the cut to the next set of 33. Another item is a thin long-sleeved top to be worn open over a strappy top. It's lovely but far too thin for this time of year, nowhere near warm enough on its own and it doesn't layer well. All lessons for my next selection of 33.

In conclusion, I am a definite convert to Project 333 and have already started to think about which items I might carry over to the next set, and which should be swapped out, and which should go altogether (I'm looking at you, painful shoes). I realise I could definitely give myself more variety out of 33 items than I have this time around, but even as it is I am enjoying it. It even seems to be catching - my boyfriend asked me to help him go through all his suits and shirts, and we donated a huge bag full of clothes that didn't fit him any more.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Slow Living 2014 - January

Better late than never... This year I am again joining Christine over at Slow Living Essentials for her Slow Living Month by Month series. I've found it a useful way to reflect on how much I have really achieved in a month - slow progress can be easily overlooked - while highlighting the areas I really would like to do more. This year she's changed the name slightly - Slow Living Monthly 9 - but it's the same principle, a look back at what I have or haven't done in a few key areas.

{NOURISH} Oh so much fruit salad! So much fruit salad for breakfast with organic yoghurt and homemade toasted muesli, such a yummy start to the day. And I have been taking in more lunches from home, which had rather tailed off towards the end of last year. Soups, leftovers from dinner, and freshly prepared salads - with some variety and some new discoveries such as yellow beetroot. I've also been baking more - bread and cookies.

{PREPARE} Erm not so much. I did mean to pickle some beetroot but I missed the season and there's very little left in the market. 

{REDUCE} Project 333 paving the way for epic clothes donation. I'm also making a skirt from a mpair of my boyfriend's old trousers - and absolutely loving the fact that this is totally free, so I don't feel any pressure to get it right. It's an experiment.

{GREEN} Not sure if it counts but I've started sweeping the kitchen floor regularly, meaning less frequent hoovering needed of this area.

{GROW} Still nothing... I really ought to order some seeds soon...

{CREATE} I finished the curtains in January, finished the buttonholes on a charity shop shirt, made a tablecloth and knitted most of a cardigan from my stash.

{DISCOVER} Can I put Project 333 twice? This really seems to have transformed my wardrobe, my morning routine and my whole attitude to clothes. It's making me think totally differently, and now I feel well on the way towards a pared down, simple wardrobe made of well-fitting, versatile and largely handmade items using natural materials and traditional techniques.

I've also discovered a nature reserve about twenty minutes away by bus - thanks to some friends who suggested going for a walk there. Unfortunately I didn't take my camera but it was glorious. And they have working horses (oh my god those guys are HUGE) and sheep and a little tea room and craft workshops and it's really really cool.

{ENHANCE} Besides the odd trip down to the local market, I think most of my energies in this have been put into blogging more regularly and discovering yet more simple living inspiration in the blogs of others.

{ENJOY} Lots of it! I'm having a lot of fun with all this. And we've had friends over for rugby afternoons - the pub wouldn't let us book a table, so we decided it would be easier, cheaper and more fun to have our friends here. And it was.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Simple living songs

Continuing my music theme from yesterday, I thought I'd share one of my favourite songs which is very much in line with the simple living philosophy. It's by Chris Wood, an English folk artist who is not nearly as well known as he deserves to be. English folk music has often been the music of commentary or protest, a response to the changing modern world, an ordinary man's view of great events, and Chris Wood writes and performs songs very much in this strain.

He's written songs about the financial crisis, evolution, the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, and love songs about couples in retirement. They're all beautiful melodies and thoughtful lyrics, so I would very much like to share as several of them are on simple living themes. Take a trip also over to his website - his latest album is available for purchase and download directly from his website, and his music is also on Deezer. (I'm afraid I don't know about Spotify.)

One of my favourites is called 'The Grand Correction' and includes lines such as 'the backgarden's planted with spuds from fence to fence', which always makes me think of that BBC series The Good Life.

Another is about a refusal to sell a rural home to city folk looking for a retirement house - probably his best known, and I think it's beautiful. It's called 'The Cottager's Reply'.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Background music

I'm back! Sorry for my brief absence. Two reasons for this - firstly, work has been incredibly busy and stressful. I have been repeatedly reminded that rushing work just means I make more mistakes and have to go back and do it again.

Secondly, last night my lovely boyfriend took me for a rare treat, a classical music concert, for my birthday. We saw Bryn Terfel singing various operatic exceprts and it was brilliant - he's not only a good singer, he's a brilliant performer and entertainer. He thoroughly deserved the standing ovation and the riotous applause at the end.

Image from
I was thinking on the way home about music, and how I listen.

When you're at a live music event, you're fully there. (Or at least you should be - anyone checking emails when Bryn Terfel is singing needs their head examined). I turned off my phone and focused totally on enjoying where I was, and it's very rare that I'm so present, so switched off from distractions and worries and a constant stream of reminders. I enjoyed it so much, it made me wonder why I wait for such rare and special occasions to be totally present in one experience. Why do I allow experiences and pleasures to be diluted by allowing interruptions in?

It's been quite a while since I sat and fully listened to a piece of music. I often listen to music, but it's normally background music. It's a kind of escapism really - by listening to music or the radio while I'm at work, I'm trying to half-pretend that I'm not there. That's not a very good practice, and to be honest it probably reduces my focus and my productivity. I'm thinking I might challenge myself to a week of no headphones and see how that changes the time of day I leave.

Using music as background noise also means I don't get to think about the music itself - to learn to understand or appreciate it, to develop preferences and favourites. I haven't 'discovered' a new piece or a new artist for quite some years. As you may be able to tell, my music tastes tend towards the classical, and the pieces I love most are those I know well, so that each note is a memory of another listening experience, and a reminder of the person I shared it with. With the first note of Die Walkure last night, I was standing with my dad in our old living room, bums resting on the radiator, listening together, while my Dad identified the different themes and marvelled at the precision of the brass section. It also reminded me that we haven't done anything like this together for far too long.

Many longer pieces of music take you on a journey, and I loose out on that when I instead have fragments beamed into my ear while I'm also having a conversation. I can vividly remember when I was given a CD of Karl Jenkin's 'The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace' for Christmas - when I arrived home I flopped on my bed with the liner notes and listened to the whole thing from beginning to end. I have a far better sense of what that is about, and how the different segments fit together, than many pieces I know snippets of nowadays.

So four lessons from a wonderful evening - be present, turn off distractions, make new memories, and follow the journey from beginning to end.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How much is too much?

I'm struggling with a dilemma. I am chafing at the bit to start another 'bit' of simple living. I'm torn - yoghurt? a sourdough starter? ginger beer? soap? - and I'm also keen to avoid biting off more than I can chew. 

I know that at the moment I feel on top of the 'simple strands' I'm already doing but I know how easily, how quickly it can become overwhelming. You only need to skip a few days for things to feel heavy again. I really, really want the changes I made last month to last - not just another month, but for good. 

I'm holding back on several fronts to try to make sure I am progressing slowly and sustainably, but I also don't want to limit myself overmuch when I'm feeling so enthused by my simple living journey, when it seems to be 'taking off' and I'm beginning to really feel the positive feedback loops.

I'm considering several factors. Yoghurt probably involves the smallest outlay - I have everything except the milk - and the most immediate reward, but I know that once I start making my own yoghurt, I'll want to carry on. Another set of tasks to be encorporated into my routine. I don't want to end up eating croissant from the supermarket for breakfast simply because I've run out of homemade yoghurt (yes it has happened before when I ran out of homemade cereal) - that would undo so much progress.

Soap is another possibility. It's a much bigger challenge and I would need to buy most of the ingredients, but I could probably make 6-12 months' worth of soap in one batch. That's quite tempting. That's quite a result from an afternoon's work.

I've been meaning to get around to trying to make ginger beer for some time, and I have pretty much everything I need - apart from a cloth to cover the jar with. I keep meaning to crochet a doily from leftover cotton yarn but it's another one of those things that I never get round to.

Finally, I want to take on the next decluttering challenge. I've known what the next project is for a while. Last month I tackled my wardrobe head on - this month I want to tackle all the paperwork and stationery cluttering up cupboards and shelves. You wouldn't believe how much there is and how badly organised, and I'm determined to clear some space.

Ah. Indecision. What next? Or is it still too soon after my last changes, should I focus on consolidating them? Please tell me you also face the same tricky decision.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Vintage chocolate chip cookies

As some of you may know, I have been hitherto entirely failed to resist the chocolate chip cookies at work. They are terrible, industrial, mass-made biscuits that can last about a year in the packet. They don't even taste nice, they're just moreish.

Last month for the first time, I resisted the call of the biscuit jar all month. No cookies at work. (This doesn't apply to other biscuits, crisps, croissants... but I'm picking my battles - one at a time!) I'm keen to wean myself off this frankly addictive crap - eating real cookies is a far better option than the cardboard stuff from the supermarket. I wouldn't touch a plastic-wrapped cake or plastic-wrapped waffle - so why do I persist in eating plastic-wrapped biscuits?

So to reward my success and make the shop biscuit less appetising, it only seemed logical to bake chocolate chip cookies at home. I haven't made these for ages - if in fact I ever have, not sure - so I'm sure I'll have to bake a few batches before I perfect them. I used this recipe from BBC Good Food - it is called 'Vintage chocolate chip cookies', and I couldn't resist the vintage. I made them over the weekend and they disappeared very quickly, so this is definitely a recipe to be repeated!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

There's so much time

When I first came to the concepts of simple living, slowing down and doing it yourself, I thought it would take a lot of time. Baking your own bread takes longer than buying it from the bakery, no? And so on across the board - we are exchanging our time for better quality, more ethical or more personalised products - food, clothes, household, leisure etc. 

This weekend has been very slow and simple - and yet I can't believe how much time I have. I keep looking at the clock incredulous that it is so early, that I can still do so many other things with my day.

Yesterday we had friends over to watch the rugby, so pretty much the whole afternoon was absorbed with drinking, eating, cheering and chatting. The morning was taken up with the weekly food shop. Yet somehow I had time to do a load of laundry, the week's ironing, some crochet, and make a pot of soup from leftover veggies from last week - with enough for me to take some into work next week.

Today, even after a lie-in and clearing up after yesterday, I have found time to make a batch of breakfast cereal, bake bread and prepare a pot of fruit salad for the week, in addition to tackling some paperwork. My boyfriend and I wandered around the local market (I picked up some yellow beetroot - a new discovery!) for a while, and later played a board game with a pot of tea. I've still had time to sit and read a book, to watch the skies turn orange, and to drink several cups of tea.

And now, I have plenty of time to sit down and work on this... A mystery? Ahah! All shall be revealed.

Where did all this time come from? What did I used to do before that took up so much time, and has since been dropped? I haven't been aiming to do anything, pushing myself to do more - just taking it slowly and savouring each activity. Where did the time come from?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Reflections on January 2014

For the last year or two, I have tried as regularly as possible to join in the Slow Living Month by Month series, started by Christine over at Slow Living Essentials. It's definitely a good tool to reflect on what I've done each month and remind myself of many areas where I don't do as much as I'd like.

However, I do feel that there are two or three key challenges which are becoming major themes in my journey, in this blog, and it would be good to take a moment to reflect on those separately and more informally.

So, January. First month of the year, traditionally a time for much-touted new beginnings and overambitious resolutions which last all of three days. I can't even remember what my resolutions were, but I am definitely feeling more purposeful in general, more on-track in terms of where I want to be, and also more content with where I am now, accepting that life is a journey.

Clutter - Living well with less

One of the biggest changes this month is that I have started Project 333. For the uninitiated, this essentially means putting 80% of my clothes and shoes in the basement, and living with 33 items of shoes and clothing for three months. I was a little nervous, and thought I might end up recycling the same few outfits on endless loop, constantly running out of clothes and stressing about the laundry. 

In fact, I'm loving it. I'm wearing loads of variations that I've never worn before, and have started to receive compliments on my clothes/outfit at least once a week from friends and colleagues, which is definitely new. Caring for my clothes becomes less daunting, with fewer of them to worry about, so I no longer scrunch worn clothes into a ball at the back of the cupboard. Clothes clean enough to be re-worn are hung up or folded. Clean clothes are ironed. Shoes are polished and waterproofed. Damages are repaired. It's all just much more manageable, and much less work. I'm even doing fewer loads of laundry.

It's also making me rethink how I approach my clothes, and I'm very slowly starting to improve my wardrobe - so the clothes are better fitting, more colourful and just more of an expression of me and my life. I'm already mentally preparing to let quite of lot of the clothes in storage go when I change them around in April.

Routines - Making housework easy

This month I've been holding back on urges to be ambitious and plan lots of routines. I'm focusing on allowing new habits to evolve however and wherever is easiest. Basically, the stuff I do that has an immediate positive feedback gets repeated, until it sticks. Taking more care with my clothes, it seemed the next thing to do to set out an outfit for the next day every evening. Doing the washing up in the morning before going to work makes the evening's pile less daunting, makes a more pleasant kitchen for my boyfriend to bake in, and offers me a moment of domesticity before work. 

The latest evolution is an extension of that. I got sick of the dirty floor one evening last week and cleaned it. And it was so lovely I wanted to keep it that way, so I've started sweeping the kitchen floor each morning as well. It takes me about three minutes but it makes such a noticeable difference. But I'm trying to be careful not to add to this - I want to give myself time for each new habit to become normal.

Self-discipline - Resisting temptation

I do struggle to motivate myself to not eat the chocolate bar, to go for a run, to get off the sofa and do the hoovering, to pay the bill that came in the post. I'm trying to improve my self-discpline in general, and finding that at the moment it really comes down to food and sport.

Basically, when I eat fruit salad and yoghurt for breakfast, I have MILES more energy and mental clarity during the day than just about anything else. Ditto for having a soup or salad for lunch, rather than a sandwich, and ditto again for snacking on fruit, vegetables and nuts through the day rather than less healthy options. It sounds sickeningly healthy and I'm not yet sticking to it everyday but it makes a very obvious difference to how I feel and thus on every other part of my life. My big achievement this month is that I HAVE NOT EATEN A SINGLE CHOCOLATE CHIP BISCUIT ALL MONTH. (NB this does not also apply to other kinds of biscuit, but I'm still going to celebrate it as an achievement.

The same goes for sport. If I get out for a run, I feel so much better afterwards, and yet it's still a struggle to motivate myself. A job with long hours is too easy an excuse not to do sport, and the same goes for the swimming pool's opening hours, the terrible weather outside, a sore back etc. I've done a little better this month than some, but I'm still not close to where I want to be (half an hour, five days a week).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...