Spring tonic

When we bought our house, it came with just under an acre of poorly manicured lawn lined and studded with small, overgrown perennial beds and a 10 x 30-foot vegetable patch that had been allowed to completely go to seed. The perennials were mostly unfamiliar to me; I was new to the northeast and had no idea what was native and what was introduced. So I surveyed the entire lot, took photos of all the vegetation, including the “weeds.” I listed the ones I knew and set about identifying whatever I didn’t.

Over the intervening years, I’ve made the acquaintance of hosta and azalea, Norway maple and arborvitae, hydrangea and sedum, black raspberry and rhododendron, phlox and loose-strife. But thriving just outside my garden gate was a showy native perennial no doubt sited as an ornamental: Rudbeckia laciniata.

R. laciniata is sometimes called green coneflower or cut-leaf coneflower. The Cherokee call it sochan, and traditionally harvest the young leaves as a nutritious early spring green. (Imagine if collards were perennials.) Eventually the plants will grow six or seven feet high, with small, nodding flowers resembling their cousin, Black-eyed susan.

This time of year, if the weather’s clear, I like to wander out just before sunset and gather whatever young, edible greens I can find in the yard and garden: dandelion, walking onion, chive, crow garlic (Allium vineale), society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea – a native of South Africa, favored by the Zulus), wild mustards, sorrels, ramps, nettle tops, day lily shoots, and sochan. All get chopped and tossed into a small greased cast iron skillet – alliums first until soft, then the rest until just wilted. Sometimes a shallot finds its way into the pan. Often, a small amount of bacon get involved. Salt and pepper. Throw in a dash of vinegar or pickle juice, deglaze the pan, and then fold the greens into omelettes, stuff into baked sweet potatoes, stir into mashed potatoes, add to soups, stews, and curries, or just have them plain with hot sauce and extra vinegar.

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When life gives you lemons

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My boss’s family is from Italy. Every summer, he makes limoncello, which requires the zest of several pounds’ worth of lemons. A few days ago, he dropped nearly four and a half pounds of whole, peeled lemons on my desk. So I went home and juiced all those lemons, froze some of the juice in ice cube trays for future recipes, and made lemon bars. It was the first time I’ve busted out my KitchenAid mixer (mon dieu, it’s heavy!) in ages.

I felt like a contestant on The Great British Baking Show, crouched with my face near the oven door window, trying to decide whether or not my crust was truly set and golden brown enough. I am beyond pleased to report that they turned out exactly like my mother’s, and reminded me of every school, church, and library bake sale I ever attended as a child. No soggy bottoms here! And I got to christen my thrift-store Dansk baking dish, which turned out to be the perfect size for this project.

Spring cleaning

“The first step in crafting the life you want is to get rid of everything you don’t.”
― Joshua Becker

I’ll tell you a secret: when I was a little girl, I would sometimes daydream about becoming a nun. Now, this desire was not solely driven by obsessive religiosity. I was raised Episcopalian, which offered all the Old-World charm of ritual, carved wooden pews, the altar, candles on tall sticks, vestments, stained glass windows depicting the stations of the cross, silver Communion chalices, incense at Christmas midnight mass, and just the right amount of Latin…without the obsessive guilty angst of Roman Catholicism. We were rightly called “Catholic Light.”

No, I wanted to be a nun because I loved the idea of living in utter simplicity, and having my own little spartan room with a bed, a chest, a peg, a desk, a chair, and a rug, and owning so few personal effects that I could fit them all into one suitcase. I loved the idea of wearing the same outfit every day. I imagined spending my days in a large communal vegetable garden, or helping prepare meals in the kitchen, and spending my evening hours reading, writing, or in contemplation. I wouldn’t have to earn money. I wouldn’t need a car, or a mortgage.

The idea of spending countless hours attending worship services didn’t appeal quite as much, so I didn’t focus on that – although I did like the singing. I just wanted to live simply and peacefully, free from the pressures, decisions, competition, and superficial distractions of everyday secular life. Oh, how I envied Julie Andrews, before she became silly and confused and went off to be a governess, and then a wife and step-mother to six children, like an idiot.

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Don’t do it, Maria! 

Obviously, I didn’t end up in a convent. (I can hear my college friends howling with laughter as they read this.) But I never stopped yearning for a simpler life, with fewer possessions, less stress and anxiety, and more time to spend on things that add real value to my life and support my physical and mental health.

Over the years, I’ve had a rather bulimic relationship with stuff. I tend to accumulate things (clothes, music, books, furniture, kitchen goods, old magazines, art supplies, DVDs, memorabilia, free things off the side of the road that I think I will possibly find a use for one day) until I reach a point where I feel completely overwhelmed by it all. I become lethargic, depressed, anxious, irritable, and unable to concentrate – at which point I’ll undertake a massive purge. And then, slowly, I’ll accumulate new stuff.

Lately, I’ve been thinking really, really hard about how I spend not only my money, but my time, my space, and my energy. I’ve noticed that the fewer things I have, and the less visual clutter around me, the calmer and more energized I feel. I’m better able to focus and think more clearly, because I’m keeping track of fewer things, making fewer choices, and have fewer distractions.

I notice that when I have all the things, I don’t see any of it. The more books I have, the less likely I am to read any of them – instead I just keep buying new shiny titles…and usually don’t read those, either. And how many times have you purchased something, but couldn’t find it when it came time to actually use it (because you have too much stuff)?


“Clutter is the physical manifestation of unmade decisions
fueled by procrastination.” 
― Christina Scalise, Organize Your Life and More

So K is a little anxious about my decluttering efforts. He wants to know what my “goal” is. I haven’t stopped thinking about that since he asked me. I’ve had a lot of vague, nebulous reasons for why I’m doing this (again), but it now occurs to me that the foundation of it all is to live deliberately – in every aspect of my life. Doing so feels just extremely liberating to me. It feels like agency. To do otherwise feels like victimhood. “Oh I don’t know why we have that…it’s taking up a lot of space, and we never use it, and it’s not my taste, but it was my grandmother’s, so….”

Honestly, fuck that.

We have so many things “just because:”

  • Because we picked it up somewhere, so long ago that we no longer even remember, and now we just have it because we do.
  • Because it belonged to a now-deceased relative.
  • Because we might need it someday.
  • Because I liked it once, a decade ago, when we had a different house, with a different decor.
  • Because I was really, really into that topic/hobby for a year or two, or five.
  • Because although we never ended up using it, or it’s broken, or no longer suits our needs, we paid good money for it years ago! 
  • Because we don’t own a truck with a dump sticker anymore.
  • Because our children might want it one day. (Odds are, they won’t.)
  • Because we just don’t want to deal with it right now. And “right now” can so easily turn into “ever.”

Yeah, no. I only want things in my house that I’ve made a conscious decision to keep, because I find them to be a) useful, b) beautiful, or c) both.

To that end, here’s a sample of what I’ve been up to over the past few weeks:

  • I went through all of my clothes and donated about three quarters of them. Anything that no longer fits or that I never really wore in the first place is gone. I will never be a size six again, and I am okay with that.
  • I also cleaned out my desk drawers, my office supplies, my recipe binder, my underwear and sock drawers, and my jewelry box.
  • I went through all of my arts and crafts supplies – because at one time I thought I was going to learn to create beautiful calligraphy, and learn to paint with watercolors, and take up scrapbooking, too. But years – decades! – go past, and I haven’t actually done any of those things. So I pared everything down to two fountain pens, my favorite inks, and my very favorite stationery, a couple of good-quality drawing pencils, a small but complete drafting set, and a white rubber eraser – all of which fit easily inside a single, decorative box. All of the rest of my supplies, I either donated or gave away to friends I knew would be thrilled to have them. I also donated a bunch of random blank postcards and greeting cards I’d either found for free or on clearance, but would probably never use.
  • My little car’s dashboard has half a dozen or so little compartments. I’ve never understood what on earth they’re all for. After a good clear out, all they contain now are my registration, proof of insurance, manual, a pair of sunglasses, a phone charger, a packet of tissues, and a copy of my sister’s latest CD. I keep a few reusable grocery bags in the back, along with an ice scraper that spends its summers in the garage, and two lightweight safety orange vests for hikes during hunting season. That’s it. I wiped down all the surfaces, cleaned the windows, spent a dollar to vacuum out the carpets, and now it feels wonderful and spacious and clean.
  • Together we culled, reorganized, and relabeled about a dozen years’ worth of household files. We can now keep all our relevant files (including seven years’ worth of tax documents) in one small, portable file box.
  • I’ve decluttered my online accounts and – especially – my social media accounts. This deserves a separate post.
  • Most challenging of all, I went through boxes of photos and assorted mementos from my childhood up through college, and culled those as well. For years, it’s been a huge stumbling block for me. Sentimental items are generally the most difficult things for most people to part with. I’m not finished with this task, but I’m off to a strong start. I’ll talk more about that in another post.

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I’ll never join a convent (not that they’d have me). But I am determined to simplify my life, to pare it down to just the essentials – to have fewer things, but deeper experiences. To create my own sanctuary. And most of all, to live deliberately.

If you want to live more deliberately, here are a few blogs, podcasts, and films to get you started:


 

Have a question? A recommendation? A tip to share? A topic you’d like me to address? Hit me up in the comments.

Treating myself, without cheating myself

Our household ban on purchasing non-essentials is still in effect. All in all, we’ve saved enough this past month – despite some unexpected veterinary bills – to put a little extra toward our mortgage.

We’ve reached the age where, if we need something, we only want to buy it once, and be done – rather than buying something cheaper (and of lesser quality) again and again. In the long run, this actually saves us money. A passage by one of my favorite authors illustrates this concept beautifully:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

― Terry PratchettMen at Arms

So last month, I treated myself for my birthday – I bought a “forever” purse. It’s a simple, classic style (a “foundational piece,” as they say in the biz) made of high-quality leather, goes with everything, and comes with a 100-year warranty. I initially found it on this website – a fantastic source for high-quality items with great warranties that you only have to buy once.

Now, this purse retails for over $200, but I knew that if I paid that kind of money, I would never be truly happy with it. I would always want it to be slightly better, somehow, to justify that kind of an expenditure. So I was patient. I set up a daily email alert through ebay and, after a few weeks, found one in practically new condition for $50.

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Isn’t she beautiful?!

Considering how many mediocre-quality purses cost $50, I can feel especially good about this purchase, which feels more like a long-term investment than a frivolous splurge. And I absolutely love it! I donated my old purses to our local charity thrift shop. Instead of half a dozen “meh” bags, I’d rather have one really good one. While cheap materials start falling apart almost instantly, high-quality materials (with proper care) are durable and only look better with age. I hope to be delighted with this purchase for many years to come.

Choice paralysis

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Yesterday, K and I drove to a neighboring town 20 minutes away on a grocery run. We first stopped at Aldi for the bulk of the items on our list, but needed a couple of things only available at another, much larger supermarket. “You grab the cat food,” I said as we passed through the automatic doors with all the determination of Henry V rushing into the breach at Agincourt, “I’ll find the greens, and we’ll meet back at the self-checkout.” He went left, plunging into the labyrinth of shelves in search of the pet food aisle, and I went right, into the produce section.

And, like a traveler wandering into fairy land, I completely lost myself and all track of time, utterly overwhelmed by a wall of green. There was iceberg, and Romaine, and red Romaine, and radicchio, and arugula, and spinach, and baby spinach, and mesclun, and something called “spring mix,” and about a thousand other varieties and combinations from which to choose – and there were multiples of all of those varieties and combinations, offered by different companies, and all of it encased in plastic bags or clamshell boxes, like jewelry. I finally selected a bag of baby arugula from the salad monolith, mostly just to break the spell and retreat, but I felt a nagging uncertainty about my choice.

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I decided to make my mother’s recipe (it was everyone’s mother’s recipe, really, during the Seventies and Eighties) for tuna noodles. But this required me to purchase a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup – something I hadn’t bought in years. So I drove to the supermarket, found the canned soup aisle, and instantly found myself in that same state of paralysis. The wall of soup was higher than my head and reached several yards out on either side of me, and while I saw cream of mushroom soup with roasted garlic, and cream of mushroom soup containing 25% less  sodium, and 98% fat-free cream of mushroom soup, and “Healthy Request” cream of mushroom soup (is that low sodium AND fat free?), and “Ready to Serve Low Sodium” cream of mushroom soup (how is it any more “ready to serve” than any other canned soup? does it generate its own heat?), and cream of both mushroom and chicken mixed together (what unholy alliance is this?!), I could not for the life of me locate a can of simple, basic, cream of mushroom soup – an item that used to be a pantry staple. After what seemed like an eternity of fruitless searching, I finally located my quarry, down near my feet on the very bottom shelf, almost as though they didn’t really want me to find it at all.

When I finally shouldered and elbowed and minced and wove my way through the throng of carts and bodies to reach the self-checkout area, K was waiting for me, looking dazed. We quickly scanned our purchases and practically ran for the exit. Back in the car, still staring into the middle distance, he said, “You know, I now understand why some old people get to the point where they never want to leave their houses.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

If you set out to create an experience specifically designed to induce anxiety, you could not do better than the modern supermarket. Firstly, they are enormous. You can wander for days, searching for basic things – and they always put the bread and milk in the furthest reaches of their cavernous spaces, forcing you to trudge through miles of snack foods and assorted plastic junk to find them. Secondly, the amount of visual stimuli is overwhelming: a cacophony of brightly colored advertising signage, stickers, blinking lights, special offers (but read the fine print – which I am less and less able to do these days, even with my reading glasses). Everything is vying for your attention all at once. The modern supermarket bombards its customers with so much choice and visual noise that it’s frankly a wonder anybody ever finds anything. By the time I’m done with my weekly shop, all I want to do is go home and crawl into bed with the lights off and the covers pulled up over my head. Forget putting things away, much less cooking. I’m exhausted.

And I’m only 48, and in relatively good health. I cannot imagine how it will feel in 20 years. Oh wait – yes I can.

A decade ago, when we suddenly found ourselves in dire need of belt tightening, one money blogger advised that in order to save on groceries, I should pore over the various supermarket sale circulars that arrived weekly in our mailbox, compare prices and make notations of what stores had the best prices on various items, and then comprise my shopping list by store. So I might drive to one supermarket for, say, canned tuna and pasta, and another for milk and lunch meat, and yet another for oranges and bread, etc. At the time, I did not question this advice. For me the bottom line was, well, the bottom line: the total of my grocery receipt. It did not occur to me then to factor in other things, like the price of the gasoline I was using to drive all over town to save ten cents here or fifty cents there, or the inordinate amount of time all this took.

Today, there are so many other factors to consider besides price: pesticide residue, carbon footprints, packaging, plastics, supporting local farms, and the ethical treatment of animals – and that’s before you even broach the topics of gluten, or sugar, or industrial processing.

So K and I discussed all of this on the drive home, and came up with a solution to simplify our shopping, minimize our choices, save a little money, and preserve a bit of our sanity while still broadly supporting our values. We’ll buy our fresh produce, eggs, and dairy from weekend farmers markets and from farm stands located along our work commutes. We will continue to forage for wild greens and mushrooms in season, preserving as much as we can for the winter months. We will buy our canned goods and pantry staples at Aldi (smaller stores, less crowded, less choice, less visual noise, good prices, bring your own bags, and no loyalty cards to sign up for). We will order any vitamin supplements or over-the-counter medications from Amazon (I suggested K try this and he’s still thanking me). And if I must venture into the awful uber-mega-supermarket, I’ll do so early in the morning when it’s less crowded, and buy a month’s worth of whatever we need from there at a time.

Are these choices perfect? Of course not. They are not, in every instance, the least expensive. They are not always (or even usually) carbon neutral. They sometimes involve plastics, and buying processed foods from huge multinational companies. But they’re good enough for us, in our personal circumstances, at this particular stage of our lives. Because never leaving the house simply isn’t an option for us, and neither is producing all our own food. This is the best we can do, for us, for now.

What choices have you made to preserve your sanity in a world of endless choice?

Resources:

Thoughts on recycling textiles

I am so ready for spring! I am itching to dust off my sewing room, which resides in an unheated outbuilding. I now own not one but two sewing machines…and don’t fully know how to operate either one of them. So I keep stitching things by hand. I’m becoming more and more interested in recycling old clothing and other textiles, not just because it’s inexpensive (or free), but because it can be fun, creative, and extremely satisfying. 

Rummaged through our rag bin and pulled out a pair of jeans, a pair of khaki cotton pants, three men’s dress shirts (two of them all cotton), a pair of flannel pajama bottoms with a torn crotch, and a cotton rag. 

Darned the tear in the crotch of the pj pants. It took a long time and I probably should’ve just patched it, but it was good darning practice. They’re a little tight on me, so either someone will wear them or maybe they’ll just go back into my scraps pile.

Took apart the pair of worn-out jeans. I told a friend that I was worried I’d get over excited and tear out a hem or a seam I’d later wish I’d left alone. She replied, “That’s just part of the journey.” And I immediately felt calmer, and even more eager to get ripping. I’ve learned that ripping seams is incredibly therapeutic. Accidentally removed the pull from the zipper – whoops! But quickly reminded myself, “That’s just part of the journey,” after my initial panic.

The waistband is perfect for a shoulder strap for a bag. And I really love the color changes from dark blue to faded denim where the seams were turned under. The frayed white threads provide so much interest and texture. I never would’ve seen a pair of old jeans like this if I hadn’t taken a pair apart. I can really see how it’s constructed, which will be instructional later, when I start constructing new things. You learn so much from taking things apart. I even got out my iron, laid out a bath towel on the floor, and ironed out the pieces. 

Mended a worn area on the elbow of one of K’s wool jackets. Ripped out my first effort. Second effort was much more careful, but I just couldn’t see very well. I used black thread against a dark background, and did my best to make the mend as invisible as possible. I’m not entirely happy with the second mend, but it’ll do for now. Managed not to snag the lining, so good for me.

Brainstorming window treatments that provide light, privacy, visual interest, and insulation in winter, and are also easy to sew, easy to clean, and use as little material as possible (and are therefore inexpensive). To that end, I’ve decided to make reversible, flat panels for each window. They will hang on tension rods, and I’ll do some decorative stitching across them that will allow them to be hung at various lengths.

Stopped in at a local thrift shop. I found a few really nice pieces – some of which I’d potentially like to use for material. Mostly cottons and flannel, and a small woven wool blanket. I even found a set of sheets for C’s bed, and a twin flannel plaid duvet cover that needs a little love. I’m considering inserting another twin bedspread (or two if they’re worn thin and soft) – and boro stitching the whole thing in large stitches, and kind of turning it into a quilt. I couldn’t say the price of any of these items as none of them were marked. The total bill came to just over sixteen dollars.

 

Future Projects:

  • a little roll-up sewing case
  • Curtains.
  • A satchel purse with a cross-body shoulder strap.
  • Assorted smaller bags.
  • A “faux-dori” wallet.
  • find one of those indigo cotton jackets and embellish it with stitching
  • a scarf
  • cross-shoulder pinafore smock apron thing, in canvas, or linen. Maybe both.
  • pincushions made from the Harris tweed coasters I brought back from Scotland but don’t use. I could put some stuffing between them, sew the edges together, and in an hour have myself a pin cushion that will forever remind me of my trip to Lewis.

I love making the most out of as little as possible. With cooking, foraging, sewing, mending, gardening – I just want to be clever and work smart and be creative and transform things from trash to treasure.

Any time I can avoid spending money, yet end up with something useful and beautiful, I feel a little bit freer. Like I won a tiny battle. Like I slipped out of a snare.

 

Make do and mend

My way of going about things is not always the most direct. My thoughts swirl, coalesce, disperse, and coalesce again – a murmuration of starlings over an open field. It can take weeks, months, even a year or two to get from thought, to intention, to actually doing a given activity. But doing things can be expensive.

I don’t think, “I’d like to try X,” and then go buy all the stuff I need to do X. Instead, I first look around my house for things that could be used or repurposed for X. It’s amazing, the useful bits and pieces that suddenly reveal themselves, once you start looking at your things in a more flexible way. I keep my eyes and ears open to opportunities to do or learn about X. Maybe there’s a free class at my local library? Maybe someone on Craigslist or my local Buy Nothing group is giving unwanted X supplies away? I add “X supplies” to a list I keep on my phone of treasures to look for at yard sales and thrift shops. I tell everyone I know that I’m looking for certain things. I start shaking things up at home, maybe rearranging furniture, just a little bit. Shifting. Making space. Being patient.

Currently, X = mending clothing.

Now I would no more go out and buy new supplies to mend clothing than I would buy new bones to make stock. The point of both (to me) is to creatively turn bits and pieces that would otherwise be discarded (i.e., garbage) into something useful and beautiful (i.e., gold). I find this deeply satisfying.

Gathered up all of my sewing things into one place: needles, pins, thread, embroidery floss, seam ripper, measuring tape, darning egg, and various scissors. Somewhere in my house still lurks a crochet peyote button pincushion; I look forward to finding it again. I also gathered all of my scrap fabrics and notions into a couple of large plastic shopping bags so I can move things from room to room and be able to see it all at once. A thing you can’t find is a thing you don’t have.

Noted any items still needed, and set out to find them secondhand. Purchased a packet of darning needles and a few hanks of embroidery floss; found two embroidery hoops and a few squares of scrap fabric at our village thrift shop. Altogether, I spent around ten dollars. The only things bought new were the needles and the floss.

Then I had a good rummage through the laundry, sock drawers, and closets, looking for clothes or other fabric items in need of repair or no longer used. This turned up the following:

wool socks with threadbare heels

wool socks with threadbare heels,

 

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jeans with a hole in the pocket,

 

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and a badly torn fitted king sheet that I stopped mending only when I ran out of cotton thread.

I also took apart a too-small canvas hat and saved the pieces for scrap.

I have no idea how to deal with my ends, and I could really use a piece of tailor’s chalk. My sore fingertips remind me to find a thimble, too.

Thank goodness I’ve been sick all weekend or I might not have accomplished anything at all.