Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Burrow

This post is part of a series on homes that inspire me, as part of mulling over what my dream house looks like and to help motivate my decluttering. 1: A cob bungalow | 2: The woodsman's cottage | 3: A minimalist cabin | 4: A narrowboat | 5: The tiny appartment | 6: The crafty home

I've been listening to the Stephen Fry Harry Potter audiobooks on my walk to and from work. It's actually really good fun, rediscovering nuggets of the stories I had forgotten or missed first time around (I read the first book for the first time about 15 years ago...). Audiobooks are also a good way to savour a book - I tend to skim read, I do it so much at work that it's a habit and it's very difficult for me to read every single word on a page, particularly if I've read the book before. The audiobook helps me slow down and enjoy every image the author conjures.

It's been reminding me of my wonderful, wonderful trip around the world of Harry Potter with my friend Kaylie. Harry Potter is but one of the worlds we have shared together - if I tell you that she is most definitely a kindred spirit and we once discovered Narnia in the snow, that should give you some idea. She took me around the World of Harry Potter and all the sets, and I was very interested to note that the set I was most drawn to is The Burrow, the home of the Weasley family.

It's the opposite of minimalist. It's cluttered and chaotic and bursting with people and activity, but it's so personal. It's a place you would instantly feel at home, slumped in a battered but comfy chair under a hand-knitted blanket with the smell of stew on the stove, a fire in the grate and someone playing a prank on someone else. Far too boisterous for you, but entertaining nonetheless. I would love to live in somewhere like the Burrow - if I had magic to help with the dust, the washing up, the hoovering.

I love the personal touches and souvenirs - drawings on the wall, photos freezing individual moments, finds from forgotten places, and of course the famous clock. I so want a home full of reminders of all the people and places and things that I love. The balance we're trying to strike between minimalist and personal is not - quite - there. You wouldn't know this home was mine, ours - it could easily be someone else's. And I know that there are only two things stopping that - my lack of courage in my own vision, and my lack of discipline for making it come alive.
So, a clip of the Burrow to encourage me to stick my cousin's drawings, my grandmother's photo and my homemade bunting on the walls. (I hope I'm not violating copyright by sharing - if I am please let me know and I'll remove it!)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Slowing down at work

It's been a long old week and next week will feel longer - lots going on at work, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it's interesting work, and I'm really enjoying the sense that I'm increasingly competent and increasingly confident in what I do. On the other hand, long hours mean tired Nickie with no time for housework, crafting, or quality time with friends and family.

A few months ago it got very busy and I started showing early signs of burnout, so I've been working on several tips and tricks recently to try to manage the stress so it doesn't have such an impact on my health. I thought I'd share a few tips for slowing down in a busy work life here with you:

1. Tortoise not hare.

When you rush because you're busy, you make mistakes and have to go back and correct them. (Or at least I find this). This is stress-making for you and your colleagues. When it's super busy, it's even more important to take an extra moment just to check you haven't made any silly mistakes or typos. I'm finding that by telling colleagues I'd like a little more time to get it right and then delivering a better document, they are more relaxed with me about deadlines because they know they can rely on me. I know the work is piled high but better to do it once well than several times badly.

2. Avoid stimulants.

Coffee and sugar make me jittery and I find myself navigating peaks and troughs of energy. I'm finding that limiting the coffee and drinking green tea and water really helps me maintain a steady focus and keep a good pace of work. Eat fruit, raw vegetables and nuts as snacks if you get hungry, and avoid a heavy lunch. (Some people at my work eat pizza or lasagna every day - I have no idea how they avoid falling asleep afterwards.)

3. Tune out the stress.

Offices are noisy places, especially open plan offices. People are talking on the phone, having impromptu team meetings, receiving text messages and tap-tap-tapping on keyboards. Block it out. Bring a pair of headphones and listen to something online or on a music player if you have one. Music is good - programmes like deezer or spotify allow you to stream music free. Radio is also possible - BBC radio is available anywhere in the world for free. Personally, I'm preferring the many youtube videos offering 10 hours of the sea washing up and down a beach, of crickets or birdsong, or meditational noises like wind chimes. I can almost feel my heart slow down as I breath more deeply.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Article: Let's start a revolution

Just stopping by briefly to share with you an awesome article: Let's start a revolution - by axing our personal debt

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stuff in and stuff out

I'm gradually building up to another round of decluttering. 

In some ways this is ongoing, as I add things to the 'to donate' box or to the bin as I come across them, and I'm trying to be a bit more disciplined about my craft piles by cutting up scraps of fabric and old clothes into patches for a quilt and digging out the odds and ends of cotton yarn for dishcloth knitting.

However, I do feel the need for a more comprehensive approach, and reflecting on my decluttering to date I've realised two things.

Firstly, I'm pretty good at decluttering within clearly defined categories with clearly defined homes. Decluttering my wardrobe is well underway with Project 333, and I've made a fair dent into my bookshelves and my DVDs. Even with my craft supplies I'm making some slow progress. 

What I struggle with is all the in-between categories. The miscellaneous piles and cupboards. The stuff that hasn't been mentally filed into a category and  physically filed in a dedicated home. I tend to move it from place to place but actually until I decide how I want to use it and find a system that works, this is never going to get anwhere. 

This is partly a procrastination topic - many of the things lying around are projects awaiting my attention, like photo frames waiting for photos, and many are new categories like gardening supplies that don't yet have a home. The Cupboard of Chaos is the worst offender here - with odds and ends including spare lightbulbs, storage for presents and homemade body lotion bars muddled in with fertiliser, coat hooks waiting to be mounted and the duvet.

Remember this? The rest of the cupboard looks the same...

This challenge is feeling much more manageable thanks to my second realisation. I've spent so much time bemoaning my inability to let things go that I have overlooked one important thing - I don't buy stuff. I almost never buy anything anymore, and my most recent acquisitions have generally been direct replacements - new jeans because the old ones were worn out, for example. Books given to me as presents are balanced by books I give away or sell in turn.

I'm also getting better at acknowledging that even though I'd love to do something in a vague and undefined way with my jeans rather than throwing them away, I have many projects on at the moment and I should not queue up anything more until I've made some progress. This means I have 'stuff in' under control, and so the level of stuff that I have is fairly static. This should mean that actually I can declutter very easily because I don't have to deal with the influx - I just need to stop procrastinating and decide where things should live rather than shoving them into cupboards.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why simple living is for politicians too

This morning I was sitting in conference listening to influential people talk about what the European Commission should do for the next five years, and I was struck with one overriding thought. All the questions posed were around how the Commission should be structured and how it could achieve its goal. No one questioned what that goal should be - there was absolute consensus that Europe's number one goal should be growth, competitiveness and jobs.

I think there's a piece of that conversation missing. I think we urgently need to talk about what kind of Europe we want to build, to have a more nuanced picture of where we want to get to. Yes, we want to encourage creative people to establish innovative companies that generate jobs - but to me there is more to it than that. We're not asking about the non-economic cost of that growth.

One of the things that has consistently rung true with me in my simple living journey is the basic tenet (gleaned I think from Thoreau) that the cost of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. This should apply in politics as much as when we declutter our wardobes. If we generate jobs at the cost of, for example, the health of citizens, or at the cost of our environment, or at the cost of a quality food chain, then have we really gained? How about if we generate growth and jobs by damaging the health and wellbeing of other parts of the world? I know it's very naive but I do think we should also try to ensure that our actions - and our policies - make the world a slightly better place rather than a slightly worse.

I know that these issues are not being overlooked. I'm aware of a lot of discussion and debate about investing in the future, in health, in environment, in education. I hear people making the point that some policies (such as investing in energy efficiency) are good for the environment and for competitiveness or growth. But I think we need to ask the question, and keep asking it.

This really reminded me of why I am trying to combine simple living with the career path I'm on. Much as simple living often seems to us a philosophy and a lifestyle for the countryside, for slow days in the garden and knitting on the porch and stew simmering on the porch, rather than for someone who is permanently attached to a smartphone, but I really believe that this is a lifestyle than can - should - must be compatible with all walks of life. More than that, I'd rather live in a country governed by people with an appreciation of the simple life than by people who aspire to ten bedrooms and a sports car. That's why I come back from work to hang laundry out on the balcony, wash dishes and cut up used clothes for patchwork.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My missing month: Lessons learned during my blog absence

So. What was I up to during the last month? You won't be surprised to hear that I've been working a lot, and also a fair bit of travel (some work, some play), which has meant several weeks when I've only been at home for a few nights. From this month, some things really stand out.

1. I love my minimalistic wardrobe.

When you're packing for a six-day trip which encompasses a business trip somewhere very hot and sunny with a personal trip somewhere probably cold and grey (the UK), and through an administrative error it transpires that you don't have any luggage booked in the hold for the flights, what is your reaction? Sheer panic? Thanks to Project 333, I managed to pack with only one fairly modest carry-on bag and with no stress at all. In fact, I didn't wear all the 'combinations' I'd allowed for because the weather in the UK was unexpectedly nice. 

This caused some humourous moments when we arrived at the business trip, me with my tiny overnight bag for six days, and everyone else with HUGE GREAT BIG SUITCASES. (Most of the guys had bigger bags than the girls, interestingly). I quite enjoyed the incredulity it prompted.

2. You'd be surprised at what Muggles like us can fix.

We're all about the repairing and mending in the simple living club. We sew buttons on, we mend tears, we might repurpose or upcycle a damaged table or stained sheet, and it's not strange to see weird and wonderful receptacles used as planting containers. We'll paint walls and put up shelves, but some things we generally think should be left to the professionals - in my book, plumbing and electricity. Anything that could kill you or damage the structure of the building is a bit of a no-go zone.

Not so for my boyfriend. Water has been constantly running into our toilet bowl for some time now. It's annoying and it's an expensive waste of water. We did have a look in the tank and thought it was build up around the outlet valve causing it not to shut properly, and started putting bicarb and vinegar down it regularly, with no success. This weekend my boyfriend amazed me by working his way round the inside of our toilet flush mechanism to identify the problem. After removing and taking apart the inlet valve, he found the problem - a tiny rubber diaphragm (about 3cm across) was degraded and this was causing a constant drip-drip of water into the tank, which was then flowing into the toilet bowl through the overflow mechanism. 

We took the dodgy diaphragm to the DIY shop, found a replacement, put the valve back together, and voila. Toilet fixed, at a grand cost of €6. I am supremely impressed, and convinced that provided you turn off water and electricity supplies at the mains/entry point to the flat before you start poking your fingers in, we could probably fix more things than we realise.

3. Gardening needs more than watering, it needs planning and execution.

During my busy period, I have managed to keep watering the surviving plants every few days. Most small seedlings have died because I didn't have anything to plant them out or up into, but my beetroot looked like a small jungle. I was starting to worry I would get sick of beetroot, that I would run out jars to pickle it all.

Then I picked some to roast for lunch. This is what I got:

I'm a gardening noob here and this is my first attempt at beetroot. I'm guessing that this is the result of (a) not thinning the beetroot seedlings and (b) letting the soil get too dry at some point and so become more dense/caked. (If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!)

It's very clear that my loose plan wasn't much of a plan at all, and I need to have something like a rough schedule and a clear idea of what will be planted where and when before I touch any seeds. I'm still on the hunt for cheap things I can use to plant on the balcony because I continue to refuse to fork out €10 for a low-grade plastic pot in the gardening centre. I feel like it kind of defeats the point of the exercise.

So that's what I've been thinking. How about you? Any standout moments from the last month?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Two steps back, three forwards

Life is definitely more of a rollercoaster than an ice-skating rink. That would be challenging but predictable. Who needs predictable?

Progress in life is generally two steps back and one forwards. There are always set-backs, challenges and unforeseen circumstances, but then we find our rhythm again. I've been very busy at work recently but over the last few days I have really enjoyed rediscovering simple satisfactions - my first batch of homemade yoghurt in a month, breakfast scones with a pot of coffee to start the Sunday, and slowing down to savour the ironing, the washing up and sweeping.

In this, I am very much enjoying having Rhonda Hetzel's book Down to Earth, which my lovely lovely sister gave me for a belated birthday gift and which is just perfect for dipping into for a moment of reflection and not a little inspiration.(If you haven't discovered Rhonda's blog then you need to follow this link now.)

Even though the housework, balcony garden, this blog and myriad other aspects of my simple living journey have fallen by the wayside in the last weeks, I notice that each time I come back to simplicity with renewed focus, renewed energy and renewed efficiency. This is partly because of the accumulation of skills and basic equipment (so I can now whip up a batch of yoghurt on demand without needing to do research) and partly because each time the whirling world of work and social life draw me away from simple living, it's even more blissful to come back to it, even more satisfying to gradually find a tidy, clean home emerge from the chaos. 

It's like taking a really deep breath, the sense of a knot of tension unravelling in your stomach that you get when you walk out of a major client meeting that you've been really anxious about.

So hello, everyone. I'm back. What did I miss?


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