Friday, January 31, 2014

Finding the balance

Welcome to everyone dropping by from Rhonda's blog Down to Earth! I hope you enjoy my musings.

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Most days, I feel that my simple living philosophy and my challenging job are in conflict.

Today, I feel that they are in balance. Mostly because I managed to take a half-day's leave, so I very much have the best of both worlds. (Maybe part time is the answer?) I had a very full morning at work, and then came home to hoover, put on a load of laundry and settle in with a cup of tea for a little reflection and some crochet.


I've been thinking a lot over the last couple of days why I feel such a sense of satisfaction from the few parts of homemaking that I am on top of - having a clean, tidy kitchen; having fresh bedsheets on the bed or in the cupboard - compared to the frustration of never quite being good enough at work. I think it's largely because I am my own boss at home - I set the standards, and I know (at least at the moment) that I am making slow, steady, sustainable progress. This in turn allows me to take pride in what I am doing right, without letting the areas where I still have so far to go from bringing be down (much.)

Even though I have a boss - or several - who set their standards of success, why not try to take the mindset I have at home into the workplace? Focus more on standards I set myself rather than those others set for me, think more proactively about what I want to give at work, allow myself to structure my workload and my day to help improve my focus as much as possible.


I know that I work much better when I am focused - the kind of focus you get in a competitive judo match, when you have to stay loose to be able to react quickly, remain somewhat detached to be able to pick up on subtle cues and read your opponent's body language, and think clearly on your strategy, without getting distracted by passing thoughts. I don't often find this mental place at work but I think in general I am far less likely to let small but essential tasks slip through the cracks, more tuned in to the details, and also contribute to a more positive atmosphere in the team. In contrast, when tense and stressed, I make silly mistakes, beat myself up over them, and get defensive when confronted on them.

The more I think about it, the more I see ways I could use work to practice some simple living skills. More efficient practices, better focus and mindfulness, less distraction and procrastination. Being organised, knowing where things are, planning ahead, doing today whatever I can to reduce tomorrow's workload, facing up to challenging decisions or difficult conversations and tackling them head on.


Today, I'm just enjoying a cup of tea on a relaxed, sunny afternoon at home with my boyfriend - a very rare but wonderful treat.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Genius!

I was browsing through some old posts on Homestead Lady, which I have discovered through the weekly Homestead Barn Hop, and one Homestead Lady post links to this post over at Green Eggs and Goats on how to make your own knitting needles.

I kid you not.

 Image shamelessly stolen from Green Eggs and Goats

This has utterly blown my mind. Making my own clothes, spinning my own yarn, preparing my own fibres, even making my own drop spindle - all things I had thought of and researched, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be possible to make my own knitting needles.

These also look really easy and super cheap! I can't wait until the next time I need a pair of needles so I have an excuse to try this. And you get nice wooden ones too - I always get metal because they're cheaper but they are so heavily they often fall out of my work and that is deeply frustrating.

Yay for the internet. I wonder what I will discover next?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Live to work or work to live?

I work for a consultancy, which means that the workload varies hugely because each individual client will bring you ad-hoc projects which you need to do to their schedule, rather than asking them if they'd mind until you've cleared another client's work off your desk. 

This means that very very occasionally I have very little on my plate, and a lot of the time I am juggling multiple projects on very different issues on tight deadlines, while still having to complete certain daily, weekly and monthly tasks supporting my colleagues. (For example, I check a large number of websites and compile a summary email of relevant developments every day).

This is to some extent the nature of the sector, but the level of work we handle is also a reflection of the company in general and my boss in particular. My boss works crazy hours - 11pm on a Friday and 6am on a Saturday - and gets frustrated when I'm not immediately responsive. It should be noted also that senior staff are paid by the hour, while I get paid until 5.36 pm and every minute past that is unremunerated.

I think we have very different ideas of a normal workload in this sense - I am happy to muck in on a weekend if a completely unforeseeable crisis arises and we have to do damage control, but not on a regular basis or a matter of routine. I enjoy (most of) my work but I also enjoy time at home, and I need time to unwind, destress and switch off in order to carry on juggling the next day without dropping any of the balls.

I think in many ways we (society in general, not just my company) need to change things around. The goal should not be working until 11pm, but that all team members are stretched, challenged, envigorated and then sent home at a reasonable hour. Whether through taking on more staff or changing how the work is handled, the goal should be for everyone to leave at 5.30 or at the latest 6. When I leave at 6.30 I always feel I have to apologise to my colleagues for leaving so early, even though I know that working late means I don't sleep well and then work much slower the next day.

I don't want to have to choose between a fulfilling and challenging career, and being able to be home in time to eat dinner with my boyfriend, and do a little knitting. Why do they have to conflict, why is there a tension? And this is without having children - I can well imagine that being a far more frustrating part of life to be conflicting with workload.

I would like to see companies reward and incentivise employees who can manage their workload effectively within a shorter working day, rather than creating a culture that normalises long hours and effectively penalises employees who leave earlier.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Top tip: Weaving in the ends as you go

I recently shared this tip with Kate over at Purple Pear Farm and some of her readers came nosing round here to find out more. If that's you, welcome!

This is a tip I developed because I am a lazy crafter and I hate weaving in all the ends after a big project - especially as many ends as you get from a stripy crochet blanket. There are two methods - the simple and the slightly more complex - but both will work well in any pattern in which you are crocheting a row in colour A and then a row in colour B.


The easy method

Change yarns as normal. Once you have a loop of the new colour on your hook and are ready to begin the first stitches, hold the two yarn ends (old and new colours together) along the top of the last row of stitching. As you crochet the next row, these ends will be caught in the new stitches (see below.) After a few stitches, just trim the stubby ends sticking out and carry on along the row.


The slightly more complex but still easy method

The reason for the second method is that if the two colours are strong contrasts, the end of the new yarn can sometimes peek out visibly against the row of old yarn it is now held against.
This time, hold the yarn end of the OLD colour along the last row and catch it in the new stitches as above, but AT THE SAME TIME hold the yarn end of the NEW colour along the 'active yarn' and use them together, so you will effectively be using a double yarn for the first few stitches. (The picture below should make that clearer.)


I hope these work for you - let me know if they're not clear and I'll post some more pictures. My preferred pattern is Lucy's ripple pattern from Attic 24. If you haven't stopped by, it is a haven for all things crochet so go check it out.

Do you have any favourite tips for finishing as you go?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Project 333: Week Two

Another update, and I am still enjoying the stillness that comes from opening the wardrobe every morning to reveal - space. It's so calming. I don't think: oh shit what can I wear? My outfit for the day is laid out if it is a workday, otherwise I can easily pull something together based on my mood and planned activities. It's quick and stress-free.

I am still taking better care of my clothes - hanging them up, folding them neatly, ironing them after washing - and my shoes - wiping off dirt, polishing and waterproofing the uppers. This is also easier than normal because I am needing to do fewer loads of laundry. This does surprise me, I was expecting that I would run out of clothes quicker and need to do more loads, but in fact I always seem to have plenty of options to wear and we're down to one load of laundry a week, rather than 2-3. Less clothes washed each week means the prospect of ironing is much less daunting.

I am increasingly aware that almost none of my clothes actually fit me well, in the same places - clearly I have broader shoulders and longer arms than the average, and longer legs. Tops and shirts generally also are not a brilliant fit across the back and bust, or around the waist area. And my trousers and skirts are not the most flattering style across my hips.

This might sound as if my clothes look awful and misshapen on me - not at all! They look fine - but fine is not okay any longer. If I only have a few clothes, I want to invest the time in making sure they all look and feel fantastic. I'm making gentle progress with my current clothing project(s) - knitting a cardigan and converting a pair of my boyfriend's trousers into a skirt.


Finally, I am again struck that small changes have unexpected knock-on effects. Doing fewer loads of laundry for clothes means I can wash bedsheets more frequently and with less stress. I have rarely changed the sheets more than twice a month, and sometimes less, simply because it takes me so long to get the sheets laundered around my other jobs. Only one load of laundry a week means I can easily fit a bedsheets load in as well, which in turn has meant clean sheets every Friday evening since I started this project. Still at the beginning, of course, but it's such a pleasure to sink into the freshly made bed!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A narrowboat

Following on from some previous posts (here, here and here) about living in small spaces and homes built using natural materials, I'm going to share a space from my childhood. We used it for holidays rather than living in it full time, but I keep thinking about it as I ponder efficient use of space, and the qualities I want from that space.

We used to have a part share in a narrowboat, which meant we split the maintainance costs with several other families and had three weeks or so a year on the boat. I absolutely loved it! And not just in the warmth of summer - we also spent time on the boat as late as November and as early as February.

We had plenty of mod cons - cooker, oven, even a bathtub. Beds for everyone which folded away in the day (the bed I slept on became an L-shaped sofa in the day, with a collapsible table to turn it into a dining space.) The space use was super efficient, with cunning storage area hidden in walls, floors, under seats. Everything also had to be very secure, in case the boat rocked, so things were always shut out of sight. There was still space for a solid fuel stove, and you can just imagine how cosy it was to snuggle under one of the duvets in front of the fire as the nights drew in. I particularly loved the sound of rain on the roof.

I didn't take many pictures of inside the boat, but here you can see the kitchen beyond the bed - this space became living/dining area in the day.

Being on a boat (even for a  few days), you really have to think about the things you use, and the waste you produce. Everything has to be brought on the boat and taken off it. You take short showers, turn lights off, and use as little loo paper as possible to prevent blocking the tank. The rubbish bin is a plastic bag hanging on a hook in the kitchen. You're more in touch with how life's comforts are delivered - I have clear memories of several mornings/nights waking up freezing around 5am and going out onto the bow to change the gas bottle to restart the heating. (Before you ask, at this point I was around 17 in age so mucked in with the chores along with everyone else, especially as my father has a back condition which means it is painful for him to lift any weight.)

However, what I love most about narrowboats is the way they bring the outside in. Precisely because it is so narrow, with windows on every side (even if just little portholes), you can always see outside. Always, whichever direction you look in. The boat is small inside but also has outdoor space at either end and along the roof, where my sister and I often used to sit on a summer evening reading books and taking pictures of the sunset. Sometimes we stayed there while the boat was moving, and had to listen out for the cry of 'bridge', whereupon we would lie down flat and watch the underside of the bridge pass just above our heads.


A narrowboat travels at around three miles an hour - a comfortable walking pace, and I would often walk along beside the boat with my mother, jumping on and off the boat with ropes as we went through locks. The whole pace of life on the canals is slower, and friendlier - in the years that we used the boat, we only ever once passed a boat whose crew did not greet us as we passed. Everyone says hello and often exchanges a few pleasantries about the weather or the nearest pub on the canals - the boaters, walkers, anglers and others. When you add to this that the canals are beautiful, passing through some of the loveliest areas of the country, and you can moor up anywhere along the paths, you can easily imagine a gentle evening sunset over a boat moored next to a field full of sheep, with no sound but birdsong and the sheep bleating. I would love to live along the canals for precisely this tranquility.


Before I met my boyfriend, my immediate life plan was to live on a boat. They are much cheaper to buy than a house and the UK network gives you access to many major towns and cities, including central London, but the major problem with this is that moorings near major towns and cities are seriously expensive. I don't think liveaboard life is an option at this moment in time but it may well be again in the future. In the meantime, perhaps I can tap into some of the tricks and tips and joys of my time on narrowboats?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Experimenting

There's a lot of pressure that comes with trying to simplify. Not externally, but from ourselves. We look around at far more developed 'simple living' practices and feel that we're not doing enough. We look at the perfectly organised, minimalist cupboards and think guiltily of the topsy turvy pile of stuff at the back of the wardrobe. And every step can be fraught with not-good-enough not-fast-enough not-frugal-enough challenges. I'm really beginning to accept that this journey takes time, takes patience, and will also probably involve quite a few more tantrums.

This is why I really like Amanda Soule Blake's recent post about getting past her spinning block. We need to let go of the idea that everything must be perfect, and accept that learning and experimenting will mean some yarn that can't be used, some bread that can't be eaten, some clothes that can't be worn.

With this approach, I have this week vemtured my first ever attempt at making cheese. I found a recipe online that seemed the very simplest imaginable, in techniques, labour, ingredients and equipment. I am reluctant to invest money and space in a new kit before I know if this is a craft I will really use, but this recipe (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, published in The Guardian) seemed very doable.


Basically, mix yoghurt with spices and leave to drain. That's kind of it. The main challenge was finding a set-up allowing this to drain in the fridge for several days. I used a mixing bowl and wooden spoon but think next time I'll use a jug (smaller surface area needed) and cover it with a bit of tin foil to prevent the whole fridge from smelling a bit yoghurt-y. (I actually quite like the smell - tangy - but my boyfriend was less enamoured).


This morning I took the cheese out and put it in a clean jar with some olive oil. I think maybe it should have drained a little longer, as it was still quite wet, and I think maybe I need to try different ways of packing it to reduce the amount of olive oil used.


I'm using the whey to bake bread. (I was thinking of trying to make ricotta with the whey but decided to tackle one challenge at a time. Maybe when I get the hang of this cheese I can start experimenting with the next one!


I've had a little taste, although I'm saving most of it to have with the bread rolls, and it's cheese more by texture than flavour. It's very gentle in taste and mostly a platform for the flavours used - salt, pepper, lemon zest. A little too much lemon and not enough pepper or salt in this first batch... I think plenty of experimentation is in order for this recipe - there are endless possible variations with different herbs and spices. Maybe with some cinnamon and honey, and then rolled in poppy seeds. Or chives and black pepper. Mmmm...

Any favourite combinations or other suggestions? Have I tempted you to have a go at this?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Organic routines

I have recently been mulling over the commonalities across the individual and unique simple lives - mine and those I see in my geographic and virtual community. I think routines is probably one of them. Whether it's a routine for milking your goat, a routine for baking bread, a routine for getting yourselves out of the house in the morning, we all have routines.


I've made several attempts in recent years to develop my routines to encompass more of the activities I want to undertake. Ideally - in the fantasy life in my head - my routines cover all aspects of housework, cleaning and maintenance, as well as my own health and wellbeing. I go running, I mop the floors, and it all happens easily and almost invisibly because it's routine.

As anyone struggling with self-discipline will know, anything that is already routine is SO MUCH EASIER than pushing yourself to do something out of the ordinary. I want to bring more activities into this.

However, I've made several attempts to 'construct' routines. Last spring, I sat down, listed all the jobs that need to be done on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis and divided them up, breaking them into one thing a day throughout the year. It was beautiful and balanced and it lasted about three weeks before it just fizzled out. It was too much too quickly.

Last autumn, I tried again with something smaller. I tried adding one small task - wiping down the bathroom sink - to my morning routine. That also lasted about three weeks before it just fizzled out.


This month, something rather unexpected has happened. Rather than setting out intentionally to add something to my routine, something has just, well, fallen into it. I've started washing up the breakfast dishes before I leave the house. Haphazardly. I wasn't setting out to do it, I wasn't planning a New Year's routine change. It was something I just happened to do on my first day back at work this year - no particular reason, it just occurred to me to do it, as I was running a little early for once and looking for something little to do in that time - and somehow I've kept on doing it.

It's teeny tiny but is having a rather welcome impact on my life. It means I go to work feeling already ahead with the day, feeling in control, feeling good about having achieved something, even something so pathetically small. It means the washing up after dinner in the evenings is less work, which in turn means I procrastinate about it less, do it earlier and have more enjoyable evenings. I suspect it makes for a cleaner, more pleasant kitchen for my boyfriend to cook in because he's even done a bit of evening baking (normally reserved for the weekends.)


It also means I get to do something domestic in the morning. To be honest, and I can't believe I'm saying this, I am starting to find washing up rather relaxing. It's slow. It's meditative. As I wipe the bowls and put them back in the cupboard, I can look out on the balcony at the early morning sunshine and think where I am going to put the herb pot, I look around the tidy kitchen and feel good about the newly oiled chopping board all warm and golden. It gives me a moment of slow and simple living before my mental space and energies are drawn into my job.

I'm not stressing about this. I hope it stays but I'm not going to push myself. I'm now at just about the three week mark, so this might also fizzle out, but I hope it doesn't. I wonder if there are any more habits which might just naturally fall into place? I rather like the idea of organic routine-building, each new leaf gradually unfurling one by one, and no clear idea where the next will be.

Do you have any preferred methods for adapting and building routines?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tooled up

I've been thinking a lot about what defines simple living recently, about what is at the centre of it and what links the very different simple lives that are chronicled in various places. Some live in cities and some on farms, some are young and single or in couples like me, others have young families or are nearer retirement age, and we're scattered around the globe. Are there a few key principles that we share?

I think there are a few basic 'tenets' that apply to simple living wherever you choose to live it. With the proviso that 'we figure they're more guidelines than actual rules', because tenet number one is that we all have to forge our own paths.


The common theme I want to address today is tools. Whatever life we lead, whatever activities we undertake in whatever environment, we all use tools of some kind. Living more deliberately leads us to think about our tools a little differently, I think - they are assistants who make a task a little easier, and we begin to reward this contribution by looking after them. I never thought before about whether I cleaned the mop and bucket after cleaning the floor, and I didn't even realise you could clean a washing machine.

Now this seems obvious, basic - if the washing machine smells of mildew, then the clothes I wash in it will do so too. If I don't regularly replace or clean the sponge and cloths I use for washing dishes and wiping surfaces, they will just become breeding grounds for bacteria and will leave my home dirtier rather than cleaner.


Cleaning tools, cooking tools, crafting tools. The shower head, the mattress, the sewing machine, the kettle, the laptop. All will benefit from some kind of maintenance and will perform better. If you were running a company, you would ensure that the essential machinery was cleaned, inspected and repaired in good order, so why should it be any different for the home?

One further addition to the list of tools. Project 333 has got me thinking about my clothes as I haven't before, and I think they should also be added. They also need to be cleaned and mended with an understanding of their construction, and they can also make our activities (from work to weeding) easier or more complicated.

Of course, it can just seem like another task, another chore in the endless round of work that is keeping a home, but as I was oiling the wooden spoons I found myself meditating on this theme. It's more than just another thing to do - it's about understanding how the tool works, what it needs, and what to use to deliver that. Knowing which oils you can use for wooden spoons, knowing how to clean a washing machine with baking soda and vinegar (digression: is there anything in this world which cannot be cleaned with baking soda and vinegar?), knowing that vinegar dissolves the limescale in a kettle or a shower head.


We're chemists, after a fashion. With a basic understanding of microbiology, woodwork, engineering and computer science thrown in for good measure. And I find that level of understanding feels rather empowering. (When I have it, at least, which I don't always. Which is very frustrating!)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Resisting

Today I have a hankering for chocolate. I have resisted the chocolate biscuits in the jar for almost two and a half weeks, which I think must be a record, but today I feel the call. I’m observing a rather unexpected ‘strategy’ which the cravings are using. They tell me: You’ve knocked this. You have developed the self-control to say no to a chocolate biscuit. Therefore you can also say yes. 

This is very sneaky. As I think we all have cause to know and bemoan, each time you say no to the chocolate biscuit makes it a bit easier to say no next time, and each time you say yes makes it a bit harder. I might be able to say no now, but I know that if I say yes once, that will probably make me say yes again and then I’ll be back at square one eating half a packet of biscuits *cough* in a sitting. 

So far I am resolutely resisting. For how long?? I have a theory that if I wait long enough, the industrial biscuits here at work (which have a shelf life of two years!) will not taste nice anymore and that will make it easier to resist, like the first McDonald’s I had in about three years - I was really looking forward to it, I’d missed it and resisted it, but when I bit into the burger it was disgusting, I couldn’t finish it and I’ve never craved fast food since. 

So much of the food we are sold now is so divorced from its origins - a biscuit which lasts two years can’t have much in the way of real butter, eggs or milk in it - that we’ve lost a taste for real food. Like children who grew up during rationing in World War Two, who were so accustomed to the taste of powdered egg that they preferred it to fresh eggs. 

This is really a process of educating my tastebuds and my palate to savour fresh, nutritious foods and discard the crap. The first part is complete - I really enjoy sitting down to a bowl of homemade soup or stew, or a fresh salad. You can just feel it doing your body good, you know? I just haven’t yet fully weaned myself off the processed snack foods - even though I infinitely prefer the taste of a homemade cake or scones to the industrial biscuits.


I will continue to resist the call of the chocolate biscuits. Not thinking about the chocolate biscuits would help...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How homemade is it?

I’ve been pondering this question for a little while, after reading this post over at Taylor Made Ranch. How homemade is it?


We met up with some friends over the weekend. These friends are also living a simple life, although I don’t think they have defined it as such. They aspire towards having a farm or smallholding, they make the most amazing walnut wine, use cloth nappies with their small son, and knit lovely homemade gifts. (They gave me a fabulous hat for Christmas.) We were talking about how do-it-yourself and many of the old skills so often discussed, rehearsed and learned in the online simple living community - cooking from scratch, making your own cheese and so on.

We were discussing whether something is really homemade if you get a kit. If you don’t source and measure the ingredients yourself, but everything comes pre-measured, pre-washed, pre-prepared, and you just have to mix it and stick it into the oven. A posher version of instant cake mix.

I would see this approach as a stepping stone or halfway house. For instance, my little cousins make their own Christmas cake. They are able to do this at the age of 8 and 10 because they get a kit, with all the candied citrus and dried fruits included. When you’re learning - at whatever age - it’s a great way to get started, minimising your risk, your initial outlay, stacking the odds in favour of success.


But I think you should ideally want to move past this. If you are baking your own cakes but ALWAYS buy pre-measured kits, for years, then this feels a little like cheating. It also undermines the cost saving side of doing it yourself, which I feel is important.

However, how far should you take this? Where is the line? Is a half-baked loaf which you bought in the supermarket and finish off in the oven for ten minutes homemade? (By the way, whenever you see somewhere offering sandwiches or bread ‘baked in store/here’, this is what they mean.) I bake bread using flour, yeast, water and salt - but I don’t grind the flour myself, or grow the grain. The yeast is shop-bought, not a homegrown sourdough starter.

I frequently find myself wanting to take things ‘back’ a notch - to go from mending a jumper to knitting a jumper to dyeing the wool to spinning the yarn to carding the fleece to shearing the sheep… At what point is it homemade? It’s a sliding scale, rather than an either/or.


I sometimes feel that it’s not enough, I’m not doing enough of these things, but I keep reminding myself that as with a cake kit, it’s a stepping stone. My first cheese will probably be made from shop-bought yoghurt, but my second might be from homemade yoghurt using shop-bought milk, and maybe one day I will have a goat for milk in the back garden.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Project 333: Week One

I thought I'd share some initial thoughts after the first week of Project 333.

So far, it's not too hard - I'm not running out of clothes, but I am starting to think more about variety. I don't want to wear the full suit more than once a week, if that, but I am playing around mentally with different options to combine with it. I reach for my jeans, realise they're in the washing machine, and find myself pushed to put together an outfit I wouldn't normally wear, but find I actually quite like.

With fewer clothes, I am caring for them better. I hang them up after I've worn them. I'm more prompt at mending them, and I'm beginning to occasionally iron one or two. I might even polish my shoes. (Hold the front page.)

Mending the zip on my jeans

I've also found that I quite naturally plan my outfits. As I'm hanging up today's work clothes, I pull out an outfit for tomorrow. For the first time I'm thinking about how frequently I wear certain colours and shapes, trying to maximise variety from the clothes I have. This makes getting ready in the mornings a lot easier. Blurry-eyed and half asleep, I can pull on the clothes I set aside the night before and feel reassured I will not get to the office and realise that there's tomato juice stains down the front of my shirt and the trouser hem has come undone. I also don't have to rummage around to find socks or a belt, because it's all laid out.

I think this project is changing how I see my clothes. Rather than consider something 'ok', I wonder why each item should not be better than that? I am starting to see where clothes don't fit, to really notice where they are uncomfortable, to notice that my shoes let in water because they are not wide enough for my feet and the join between sole and upper has worn through. How is it possible I didn't notice all this before? I guess I just chucked something in the cupboard or on the shoe rack. In fact, I don't think I have any items of clothing which fit me, are comfortable, and look good. Everything is one of the three. Why not all of them?

I'm beginning to work on my 'ideal' wardrobe, starting with projects I've had queued up for years some time. I'm starting by converting a pair of my boyfriend's old work trousers, which no longer fit but are really good fabric, into a skirt. I'll keep you posted on progress.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

A minimalist cabin

This post is part of a series on homes that inspire me, as part of mulling over what my dream house looks like. Part One | Part Two

After losing pretty much everything in the economic crash and housing bubble burst, Carmella and her husband found themselves without a home and without jobs. Cue a serious rethink about what they wanted from life and a relocation. But they needed somewhere to live, a transportable habitat (I can't bring myself to refer to this lovely cabin as a 'mobile home') to house themselves and their family.


So they designed a small wooden cabin, just 62 square meters (or 665 sq ft to those of you on Imperial). And somehow - how how how?? - they fit two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a spacious living room with  a kitchen and a dining area. The whole house is wood painted white, it looks so light and spacious, and all the little design touches are so intentional, so beautiful, so much an expression of this family and what they have chosen to bring with them. They've clearly had a difficult journey but they've also clearly built themselves a truly lovely home.

 
Even the end table has a really lovely story of its own. I've always dreamed of living in a home where every single thing has a story to tell, and they are living exactly that. It is possible!! Who knew?


I am so impressed and intrigued by how they manage to use space so effectively, to get so much valuable living area and so much clever storage and room for a family with kids in a space that is smaller than my flat. How much comes down to the design and layout of the space itself, and how much to how you use it? This cabin makes me wonder how much more I could do with the space we have.


They've also brought this in for a very small budget. That kitchen counter? It might look like soapstone but it's plain old plywood, with clever paint treatment. All over the house there are clever tricks and tips that turn normally unused space into functional design features, like the blackboard panel over the electric fuse box, or the specially designed cupboard over the fridge which holds baking trays and tools.

You can read all about their story, and enjoy the gorgeous photographs of their lovely home, on their blog. (If you can't follow the link, it's called Assortment. Google it already.) All photos are from the blog, used by kind permission, and I really urge you to go browse and take a look. The cabin has also just featured on the cover of Country Living, so there are even more lovely photos over there. If you're inspired to build your own house along the same lines, they do even share the plans...

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Slow and steady

It takes time to build a slower, simpler, more deliberate life. It doesn't happen overnight. But it's easy to get impatient, to be super enthusiastic, and to try everything at once, make a total shift. It's very tempting to try making cheese, baking bread, planting a garden, making soap, sewing a tablecloth and knitting a jumper all at once.

The problem with this is that it's overwhelming. Each new skill, each step, takes time. There are new skills to learn, which may take years to fully develop, and possibly new materials to get to know. Then you will need to experiment to see how the new 'thing' fits into the rest of your life, and how you can best use it towards your goals. In all this there will be much trial and error, with a good helping of frustration. 

There may well be tantrums, and I have had plenty - over bread that just wouldn't form a nice, bready dough but insisted on remaining very wet. Over beeswax resolutely adhering to a measuring jug. Over curtains that became all twisted as they were sewn. Over struggling to stitch a buttonhole on a shirt.


Focusing your efforts on one 'thing' at a time - a new skill, a new habit, a new recipe - means that you give yourself the time and space to get to grips with that one thing more fully. Once you have achieved a degree of comfort, even if not proficiency (ie your bread isn't perfect but it is edible) you can think about adding something else in to the mix.

Throwing yourself headlong into a multitude of crafts and activities just makes it more likely that the frustrations will win out, and you'll give up. Focus instead on conquering just one thing, and treat it as an exercise in focus, in patience, resilience, self-will. Multitasking just means doing several things poorly instead of one thing well, I have found. Focusing on one thing allows you to progress further quicker in that area. You notice your progress, you can feel proud and that motivates you to keep going.


Each activity also very naturally opens up 'extensions.' You might start experimenting with recipes to try your own thing. Baking bread might lead you to try other forms of grain, get a small mill to grind flour fresh, or make your own butter to accompany it. That might in turn lead to trying out scones and biscuits using the buttermilk, or a foray into homemade costmetics as buttermilk is so good for your skin. Perhaps buttermaking draws you into cheeses, or handling grains prompts you to try brewing beer or making barley water. Let your journey evolve naturally. Start from where you are and see where it leads you.

I have really been trying to keep this in mind recently, as I am definitely experiencing a renewed focus on the simple, deliberate life. I am continually tempted to get some cushion inserts so I can make cushions for the living room or do a workshop in woodwork, pottery or jewellery-making, or have a go at making cheese, soap, yogurt or beer. These are all things I want to get to but I am continually reminding myself to slow down, to consolidate the gains I've already made this month, and to take the time to enjoy where I am now, enjoy the journey, rather than focusing on a 'destination'. In fact I think I will probably never feel I am doing 'enough' simply because there will always be more things I want to do, to make, to explore - but I'm beginning to see that as a good thing!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Revolution or tradition?

I am fortunate enough to live in a very international city, surrounded by people from different parts of the world. For the people around me, the choices I am making as part of this simple living journey have different associations and connotations than they do for me.


For me, simple living is my revolution. It contrasts with what I suppose I could call ‘the family average.’ As a teenager I spent a fair amount of time knitting and doing cross stitch, rather than getting drunk in the park. (Don’t get me wrong, I did my bit of getting drunk as a student, but that’s a different story. And I still crocheted my first blanket in my last year at uni.) When my mother refused to teach me to darn my socks (“Just buy some more!”) I taught myself using the 1940s Make do and mend booklet.
This is just one thread of our family story, not the whole story. We also used to pick strawberries to make our own jam, and my mother taught me how to knit and to sew, so there are many useful and precious skills and values that were taught to me, but I am unusual in focusing so much on these things, and I think it is fair to say that while my family would say they share many of the values behind simple living, I am the only one to prioritise them and identify them as a philosophy in quite this way. It certainly feels like I’m making a different choice, even if the underlying principles are not really that different.


For my friends from different backgrounds, it’s another story. I first realised this when I met one of my closest friends for a cup of tea in cafĂ©. We were drinking hot chocolate, and in Belgium they always put a little sachet of sugar next to the mug. (Because, y’know, it’s not sweet enough already…) She put her sachet in her bag. When I asked why, she explained that she always took these unused sachets of sugar home and kept them by the kettle for use in tea or coffee. It’s already paid for in the price of the drink, after all, so why waste it? 

This frugality was rather unexpected, my friend is not struggling to pay her bills, always dresses in high quality clothes, and often goes out for dinner, to the cinema, to the theatre and so on. I was intrigued, but of course it all made sense when she started talking about her childhood growing up in 1980s Poland. As she put it, ‘child of communism.’ They always had to be careful with what they used, not necessarily because they were poor, but simply because so many goods were hard to come by. She told me how much she used to enjoy darning socks (enjoy!), and shared a number of tips that her mother used – old clothes turned into rags for cleaning, for example. For her, these tips and tricks are things she is glad she doesn’t need any more, but she can use them when she wants to. They’re not something to be rediscovered, there’s no reskilling involved – it’s just an attitude of not wasting.

So of course, I offered her my sugar sachet, and now whenever we meet for coffee she leaves two sachets up. (Neither I nor my boyfriend drinks sugar in our tea/coffee). I also started thinking about frugality differently. My friend is not a spendthrift, but even when she’s out having fun, she’s making sure she doesn't waste anything she pays for.

It’s a similar story with my boyfriend, who comes from South America. I see this with how much money he thinks is a reasonable amount to put aside for the future. My parents encourage saving – but they encourage putting a little aside each month, to enable you to buy a new coat or go on holiday later in the year. 

For my boyfriend, who remembers economies crashing and Presidents changing so fast you could blink and miss one, who saw businesses collapse and jobs disappear, saves to be independent. He doesn't take it for granted that he will always have a job, or that the government will step in with assistance for those struggling, and he knows that the worst can and sometimes does happen. He saves so that if a crisis comes, whether that’s ill health or a family emergency or losing a job, or something bigger, we can weather it a little more easily. 


It’s dramatically changed my saving attitude too. He suggested – and I agreed – that a sensible ‘buffer’ or emergency fund should contain enough money to enable you to survive for a year without income. If we both lose our jobs tomorrow, we have twelve months – time to look for a job. Time to sell our house if we have one, and move to somewhere smaller with a lower rent. 

This attitude is contagious – I am also much more careful with money generally now, much more aware that the world is less secure than it seems from inside the Western bubble, and aware that just because life is good now doesn't mean it always will be. That doesn’t mean we hole up in a nuclear bunker and prepare for the apocalypse, but it does mean that I appreciate what I have now much more, knowing that it is not certain, not automatic, not a right recognised by the impersonal universe.
For many of my friends and my boyfriend, many of the aspects we are discovering as part of a simple living journey – living with a budget, reducing waste, mending rather than discarding, planning and saving for the future – are not new concepts but basic tenets which are known to, even if not practiced by, most people. While some people in the more developed world might consider that this simple living approach is weird and alternative, to much of the world, this is just basic life skills.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Little things make a difference

I'd like to share the last hour of my life with you, because it illustrates some of the little and yet not so little changes that are taking place in my life.

Say six or even three months ago, I would have come in from work, utterly shattered, and spent an hour, or maybe two, slowly recuperating my sanity through distractedly browsing the net, reading blogs, or rereading some of my favourite old books either physically or as ebooks on my laptop. I would have accomplised precisely nothing, felt bad about it, procrastinated about doing the washing up and finally gone to bed late, and not really very refreshed.

The first difference: I put my work clothes away. I never normally do this, because my wardrobe is such chaos that it's a hassle. I wear my work clothes until I go to bed, and then I shove the clothes in a crumpled pile to the back of the wardrobe. Now, there is space for every garment in the wardrobe so I hang them up as soon as I get home, and put on my jeans.

The second difference: I folded and put away the clothes from my last laundry batch. Normally I wait until the space is needed, which often means trying to remove clothes while my boyfriend simultaneously hangs his gym kit to dry. There's not really enough space. Today I didn't mind doing this because there aren't many clothes to put away, and I no longer need an MSc in Jenga to fit them into the wardrobe.

The third difference: Looking at how crumpled my shirt was, I decided to iron it. And a few other items. Once I'd done one, it looked so much better than the others that I even ironed one of the shirts already hanging in the wardrobe. I haven't ironed a thing in months, but when you only have four or five items to do, it's surprising how little time it takes.


The fourth difference: When I made my tea, I realised that the bin was full. So I emptied it. I know it sounds pathetic, but this is kind of amazing for me. Normally I agonise, procrastinate, feel guilty etc for some time before I get around to doing something like this, but today I saw it was full and just emptied it while I was waiting for the kettle to boil.

The fifth difference: I decided that while I was up and doing things, I may as well put on a load of laundry.

Wow. As I write this now - feeling alert, not too tired, and with a cup of green tea next to me - I feel really quite good about the first hour of my evening. I think I can chill for the rest of the day. So much progress, but I really find that if something allows me to get started, it's much more straightforward to just keep on going. Just having space in my wardrobe started a chain of events that has made my evening both productive and relaxing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A friend and five lessons learned

This post is addressed to, and inspired by, a very dear friend of mine. She is a kind, thoughtful, intelligent and creative person, who gives far more of herself than anyone has any right to ask, and she has consistently been a far better friend to me than I have been to her.

This lovely friend of mine is grappling with a major personal challenge. Owing to a number of factors which I won’t go into, but which are absolutely and in no way her fault, she is caught in a tangled web of self doubt, self criticism and perhaps even self hatred. She knows she needs to get out of this web, but that is a lot easier said than done. I can tell her how wonderful a person she is until pigs fly, but this is not a journey I can make for her, it is entirely hers. 

While she is in an unusually difficult position, I think to some extent we all want to change ourselves and our lives in some ways. Break bad habits, break bad relationships, do the thousand and one things we always dream of doing but never really believe we can. We sort of half believe that, in fact, we could get up at 5am and run 10km and come home, renovate the bathroom, still be at work by 8 etc. Whether it’s a sport thing (I’ll get fit), a diet thing (I’ll eat healthier), a work thing (I’ll be more dedicated), a craft thing (I’ll finish all my projects), a homemaking thing (I’ll clean the whole house top to bottom)… 

We’re all caught between thinking we can do everything and thinking we can’t do anything, so we end up doing nothing and feeling like failures. At least speaking for myself, I have generally found that I think to myself that I should go for a long run and get some exercise, but feel discouraged or defeated before I even put on my shoes and end up rewatching an old tv programme on my laptop eating crisps or chocolate. And it seems normal when you’re there, even though from the outside it’s easy to suggest that maybe going for a walk would be a good halfway point. 

What I’ve found is working for me (at least at the moment, and life is always a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back business for me) is setting infinitesimally tiny goals. My goal today – the entire day – is to take the rubbish out. My goal for today is to write a letter. My goal for today is to not eat the croissants provided at work. (That one always fails). It’s easier to set a goal to do something than not do something (easier to eat a piece of fruit than not eat a biscuit, even if eating the fruit then helps me not eat the biscuit…) 

I don’t want to tell my friend that I know how she can ‘fix’ the tangled mess she finds herself in. What works for me won’t necessarily work for her. And I do know how effing frustrating it is for people to roll out their tips and tricks and make it sound so easy, when I know it isn’t. 

But this blog is really about a journey to try to shape a life more deliberately and intentionally, and there are a number of things that have helped me with my journey so far. I haven’t really seen much discussion of self-discipline on simple living blogs, but I think it’s the foundation of my simple living journey in many ways because the ideas, projects, crafts that are here would still all be in my head without it. It’s something I’m still working on, every day, so this post is as much a reminder to myself as a very long-winded and beating-about-the-bush way of saying to my friend: I can’t fix it, but maybe some of this will help?

1. Set small, easy goals
Really, really, really tiny. Today I will go for a two-minute walk in my lunchbreak. Today I will eat an apple. It doesn’t feel daunting. Try to keep the goals positive – I will – rather than negative – I won’t. Plan when you will fit it into your day, ideally with a cue (I will eat an apple when I get home from work/with my lunch/when I finish checking my emails). Minimise the effort involved – make sure you don’t need to go out to buy something. If you need something, prepare it in advance and take it with you. Make sure it doesn't depend on other people.

2. Choose the path of least temptation 
My office is essentially built like a square with the middle missing. From the kitchen to my desk, there are two possible routes. When I’ve made a cup of tea, I tell you, it’s a hell of a lot easier to decide to walk back along the route that doesn’t have a biscuit tin than it is to walk past the biscuit tin without taking a biscuit. Try to build your day to avoid temptation. Always stop in at the bakery? Walk a different route, or along the other side of the road. Always end up going straight home instead of to the swimming pool? Take a bus that doesn’t stop near your house.

3. Be your own cheerleader 
What mental messages are you sending yourself? Even if you tell yourself that you can, is there still a negative voice saying ‘you won’t do it anyway’? Squash that voice. Go on. Shove it out the door. And turn the lock. Or if you can’t, drown it out. While you are doing your small challenge, or preparing to do it, talk to yourself – or sing, or recite, whatever helps. When I go out for a run (and run isn’t quite accurate, it’s lots of walking with intermittent jogging), I am constantly saying (more like shouting) to myself: You’re nearly halfway! You’re already nearly halfway! You can do this! Think how good it will feel when you finish! Think how wonderful it will feel all the rest of the day, the rest of the week! You’re making yourself fitter and stronger! You’re building your willpower and your self-discipline every second that you keep going! Look, you’re still going! You can do this! (etc…) And I’m finding that very gradually the voice that says ‘wouldn’t you rather be watching Downton Abbey with a slice of cake?’ is getting quieter and easier to ignore. 

4. Feel pride in even the smallest achievement 
Even if your goal was to eat an apple, feel good when you do it. Setting a goal and delivering on it should feel good, regardless of the goal. And the positive feedback loop helps motivate the next goal. Even if that is only eating a pear. Treat yourself (in some way that doesn’t undo the progress you’ve made). One of my treats is to take a long soak in a hot lavender bath with one of my favourite books. If you plan on repeating or building on your small goal, track it. An excel spreadsheet, a pretty notebook, a scrap of paper pinned to the wall – so you can look at it and think: Yes! I did that every day this week! 

5. Forgive yourself and keep going 
If – WHEN – you slip up, because we all do, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t feel bad. Don’t let one slip ruin a good week. Remind yourself that to fall, dust yourself off and face up once again to the challenge is something that has always been difficult, and is a theme handled in many classic stories. Remember this example from The Horse and his Boy
“In other words," it continued, "you can't ride. That's a drawback. I'll have to teach you as we go along. If you can't ride, can you fall?"

"I suppose anyone can fall," said Shasta.

"I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?"

Monday, January 13, 2014

Project 333: Day 0


Remember this? This was my closet on Friday. Cluttered and messy, mixing summer and winter clothes, and dominated by dark.

Now check this out:


How much better does this look? How much calmer?

So you've probably guessed by now that I'm having a go at Project 333. The rules are roughly 33 items of clothing and accessories for 3 months. Normally you exclude underwear, socks, pajamas and running kit, but I am also excluding: outerwear (coat, scarves, hats, mittens), my handbag, jewellery and a pair of sturdy walking boots I only really use when it's snowy or icy. This makes me look really wussy but even this will be a severe challenge. 

A confession: I have never in my life 'put together an outfit. I pretty much throw on the first clothes that come to hand, which are usually the clothes I wore yesterday. I don't really have a style, I hate clothes shopping and I never buy fashion magazines.

Having said that, though, this project is already making me think about my clothes slightly differently. They are after all a fairly essential tool of life and need to be up to scratch for my various activities (sturdy and practical for housework, smart and professional for work, and warm and comfy for around the house.) I have ignored this part of my 'armoury' up until now, largely thinking that it doesn't hugely matter and I can't do any better anyway. Now I'm starting to think that I've been selling myself short.

I told you that I set out to write down 33 items from memory and realised my wardrobe consisted largely of dark and muted colours, and of unimaginative cuts (lots of v-neck sweaters worn over v-neck shirts). I have over the last few days been thinking up a 'dream' list of 33. If I could build a wardrobe from scratch, what would it look like? And to my utter astonishment, when I sit down and think about it, I actually have a very clear idea of what this would like look. And it's colourful, varied, textured, smart but fun, pretty but not fussy... All the things my current wardrobe is not.

It's incredible. I'm drawing little pictures of dresses with asymmetrical collars and thinking of the exact shade of red, and sketching out some cardigans and jackets to go with it. Have I discovered my inner fashion designer? And this is so much more fun than poring over magazines or traipsing round clothes shops. I'm starting to ask myself questions about clothes - real and imaginary - that I never have before, which are actually very relevant to the whole question of living with less, of living well with less.

Not just will this item suit me - the colour, the cut - but how will it complement what I already have? Can I combine it with several other items in a range of outfits? Will it cover different situations - work, home, social, travel? Does it add a new colour or shape to my existing range? Does it have some interest - a pattern, an aysmmetry, an unusual colour or other design feature? I have never cared about these things before but I think this is in part why I have arrived at this point. Most of my clothes are block colours, symmetrical and half-length, so I generally walk around looking like two-thirds of a less colourful Neopolitan ice cream. One half black, one half blue.

I'm wondering if I can perhaps try this year to make some of these 'in my head' clothes? Bring about a handmade wardrobe that is both functional and beautiful? A small, versatile, interesting and above all personal selection that can display my creativity, imagination and (growing) skill?

Not a small challenge by any means, I've only ever made two garments...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Woodsman's Cottage

Following on from my post last week on the cob bungalow, I'm sharing another house that evokes a feeling I can only describe as yearning. It genuinely looks like a fairy tale cottage.

Those of you who live/have lived in the UK may be familiar with the tv programme Grand Designs. It's been on the air for a good ten years or so, and it's brilliant. It's about people who are building or renovating their own houses, and the houses are always odd or unusual. Anyone interested in an eco-friendly self-build, I recommend taking some time to watch some of the episodes because there are quite a lot of these - a self-heating home dropped into disused quarries, a house built from local materials around an old tree which forms the centre of the circular stairway, a house built from polystyrene blogs... However weird and wonderful, trust me, there's been one on Grand Designs.

One of the best programmes of this series - and the presenter Kevin McCloud's favourite, apparently - is the house built by a chap called Ben Law. Ben is a woodsman who makes his living by sustainably managing an area of forest. At the beginning of the build, he had been living under canvas in the woods for the best part of a decade. Part of his income comes from charcoal burning so he had to stay onsite to manage the fire risk. It had taken him ages to get planning permission, and in the end it was only granted with a very very unusal condition - Ben is the only person who can legally own the house. He cannot sell it - if he leaves, the house will be torn down.

 Photo: www.ben-law.co.uk

Ben builds the house by hand with the help of volunteers, using traditional building techniques used centuries ago but rarely today. The materials are local - wood from the forest, mud from the pond, strawbales from a local farm. It is entirely off-grid, with electricity generated from a wind turbine, heating from a wood-powered range, and a composting toilet. By the time Kevin goes back to visit some years later, Ben is also growing most of his food.

The magic about this house is that it is a celebration of natural materials, particularly wood, from start to finish. Every piece of wood is individually selected and prepared, and there is a huge range - wood left with the bark on, wood peeled, wood aged and weathered. Different trees, different sizes and ages, different formats. It's beautiful. So go ahead, take a peek, and also check out Ben's website.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A permaculture life?

Hello and welcome to everyone visiting from Purple Pear Farm, where Kate has been kind enough to link to this blog. I've been reading through her blog and musing on the meaning of permaculture.

In my local collective garden here in Brussels, there are a small number of potager gardens (the closest thing to an allotment here, but a fraction of the size - less than a metre square). One of the conditions of being allocated on of these potagers is that you have to observe the rules of permaculture as it is understood here. This means that you can sow seeds, but are not allowed to remove weeds, hoe, turn the soil, or add compost or fertiliser. Permaculture here is defined as planting stuff and then leaving it entirely alone.

This is not quite the same concept as I've seen expressed elsewhere. As far as I know, permaculture in the English-speaking world is based around practices which are sustainable and could be maintained permanently. This definition allows a more active human role, something akin to stewardship perhaps, where you can manage the soil by ensuring that manure or compost replaces the nutrients taken up by plants etc. (Please forgive any inaccuracies here - I'm no gardener!)

The kind of simple life that I - and I'm guessing you my readers - are trying to built is very much based along the same principles, but in different ways (financial, emotional, physical). Make sure your spending is at a sustainable level, that you can match what goes out with what comes in. Built relationships and communities which nourish rather than numb or drain one another. While we all work hard, either at home or in the workplace, we need to make sure that we get the food, sleep, exercise, and down time to keep ourselves physically and mentally healthy to continue working the next day.

What I like about this concept of permaculture (at least as I've understood it) is that it is about balance. It doesn't mean not spending on the things that matter, but making sure that spending can be sustained not just in the short term while you have an income but in the far less predictable long term. Living without possessions may work for some, but the important thing is that your life is not drowning in clutter. This seems a good way to evaluate what I'm trying to do here - not am I living simply, or even am I living simply enough, but am I living in a way that I can continue to enjoy and thrive indefinitely? And I think the answer to that is definitely yes!

Friday, January 10, 2014

What am I wearing?

I’ve been reading recently about Project 333, and I’m building up towards giving it a try. I’ve been gradually identifying clothing items and shoes to be given away and donating them one small bag at a time, through my declutter-one-thing-a-day efforts. I’m plateauing a bit, though, so I thought limiting my daily access to clothes by putting the rest in a box and out of sight for three months might sharpen my focus.

Project 333 basically means selecting 33 items of clothing and accessories to wear for three months. You can read more about it here. There are some exceptions - sport items, pajamas, underwear and socks - and you can make your own exceptions or change the numbers around, but it seems to be a good way to evaluate what you are wearing and how you are combining clothes. One advantage is that it is seasonal so only really involves focusing on one part of your wardrobe at a time.

Reading about this in my lunch break today, I thought it might be interesting to try to list the 33 while at work. Without looking. If I had to choose 33 items of shoes, clothing and accessories from memory, which would they be?

Around number 22, I realised two things. Firstly, I was running out of items to put. I couldn’t think of anything more from my wardrobe that I particularly like wearing. I still can’t think of a 33rd item. Secondly, almost every single thing I wear on a regular basis is black, brown or blue. There are one or two grey and white pieces but in general there is very little variety in colour, and it’s all very drab, dark and dull. Towards the end of my list I tried to think of more colourful items which I could use with a wide range of outfits but pretty much only came up with the red scarf and purple pashmina (both gifts.)

In fact, almost all the more colourful, dynamic or expressive pieces in my wardrobe were gifts. I seem very reluctant to experiment with brighter or lighter colours, and I’m not entirely sure why, but now I’m looking at my wardrobe more critically and seeing the gaps, which I never have before.

My wardrobe seems at first glance to include plenty of colour, but now I realise it is almost entirely summer clothes that I would not wear to work - short-ish skirts, floaty dresses, strappy tops. Why? Why no purple jumpers, or green dresses, or very pale blue blouses? Or even light grey? I realise I wear a uniform - dark trousers, pale shirt, block-coloured v-neck sweater. Why no patterns? Why no shape?


In the interests of honesty, I am sharing my wardrobe as it is at present. As you can see, apart from the red skirt and the red hoody (neither of which I can wear to work), it's pretty dark. And very cluttered and chaotic. My boyfriend jokes that this is so messy because a racoon has moved in and is using my clothes to build a nest.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

How do you define a simple life?

Where is the line? At what point do I qualify as living simply?

Reading some of my favourite blog archives, I have been meditating on the question of whether or not I do in fact live a simple life. How is it defined and who decides? I feel that I'm endeavouring to build a simple life, but I don't know if I'm there yet. Does my job (long hours, round-the-clock availability, high pressure, tight deadlines) automatically disqualify me, or does it show that you really can build a simple life regardless of where you are in your life?


I've certainly embraced some aspects - making some of my own clothes, household linens and decorations; making cards and gifts; decluttering (or trying to); mending and re-using rather than discarding where possible; using green cleaners. So much seems missing - food preparation and preservation, stockpiling, growing food, keeping animals. We're living busy work-ruled lives in an inner city appartment, not working at traditional crafts close to the land.

However, I realised that a lot is missing from this picture because I'm focusing on my simple life, rather than our simple life -  myself and my boyfriend. He does most of the cooking - his father is a chef - so it's easy for me to overlook those elements that he takes primary responsibility for. 


We plan all our meals every week, which helps us control our spending on food. Every meal is prepared from scratch. Every week I look at our supermarket trolley and ask myself "would my grandmother recognise all these food items?" I expect the packaging would horrify her, but I'm confident she'd recognise all the food inside it, bar the occasional more exotic fruit and vegetable items. It's all fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, cuts of meat, basics like flour and sugar, dairy products like butter, eggs and yoghurt, and canned vegetables and pulses.

So we're eating real food, and all our meals are prepared from scratch. Even breakfast is almost entirely homemade - toasted muesli, fruit salad or porridge. We've also been exploring the art, or perhaps science, of making jam and preserves. The impetus for this often comes from my boyfriend but it's an activity I enjoy in large part because we can do it together.


Perhaps most importantly, though, when you take our life together as a whole, there is a strong focus on spending time together, and with friends and family. We have people round, we go out, we have quiet nights in with pizza and board games, we curl up on the sofa to chill under a homemade blanket. So while there are many check boxes of simple living that we don't tick off, at least not yet, but I think we have the central focus right.

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