Somehow turning the decade to 2020 gives me the feeling that a lot of time has passed… suddenly. Everything feels like a long time ago. This is compounded by the fact that I recently turned 50. As someone who tends to be very commonsense and logical, and who also spends a lot of time doing math, I don’t have any particular feelings about the number 50, but it has made me think more deeply about many things, including years past and years remaining.
While my family followed what was to teenager me an excruciatingly simple lifestyle, it wasn’t until I was out of university and on my own for a few years, working in a very fast-paced industry, that I began to explore simplicity on my own. I’ve honed various aspects of frugality and simplicity for the past 25 years or so.
In every simple living community or book I’ve observed or read, I’ve seen discussions of “how is simple living different from frugality” or “how is simple living different from minimalism?” The conversation always meanders through various ideas and opinions before someone reminds everyone that simple living is about choices – making choices to have choices.
This week, some of the choices I’ve made to make life simpler are
- I’ve been more deliberate about practicing the 1980s style of smartphone use proposed by Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism, which is to turn on the ringer and leave it near the front door. That is to say, I’m treating it as a phone instead of an appendage.
- I dug in and began the unpleasant pre-work that I’ve been avoiding for months for our 2019 taxes. It took about 3 hours and now I don’t have to dread it anymore. “Just begin” nearly always gets me through things like that.
- I cooked ahead last weekend for scheduled long work days. It made those evenings much more relaxed.
- I skipped Mari’s band concert after a long day at work. It was the first performance I’ve missed in 8 years of band and orchestra. This particular concert is held annually in the high school gym, which has dreadful acoustics, and parents sit on the (extremely uncomfortable) bleachers. The ratio of time that Mari played to time I would have spent to be there was about 1:8.
- I contemplated making a baby blanket for an acquaintance’s baby shower, and then bought some favorite board books to share instead. The yarn or fabric would have cost the same as the books, and not everyone values handmade items. I’ve made many crocheted baby blankets and patchwork baby quilts over the years, and generally enjoy turning out a pretty present, but this month I decided that I had other time priorities.
What made your life simpler this week?
I sat with a pencil and scrap of paper in a silent room and waited. All week I had that feeling of jammed thoughts and ideas… they just couldn’t come out in the daily hubbub. And no matter how many times I demonstrate to myself that I don’t need a huge slab of time for the mental productivity to begin, I continue to wait for an unplanned day or afternoon, an event that probably will never come.
Since I was quite young, no matter how long the journey, I always packed a book to read, paper, and pen (my mental image: 10-year old me and a stack of books in the backseat of the car on the 10-minute drive to the grocery store). I still do, because even though most of my actual writing takes place on a computer, it nearly always begins on paper, as a captured thought or some random scribbles that were part of my problem-solving process.
Today, my default when given a small block of time is to spend it swiping on a smartphone. I’m aware of it, but I still do it, and I see countless other people do the same every day. What I know is that this never gives me a feeling of time wealth. Most of the time I don’t learn anything new or useful, and those minutes just disappear from my allotted lifetime, completely insignificant.
But one morning last week, I sat with pencil and paper instead, even though I had only about 18 minutes. There was nothing initially… maybe a minute of sitting, poised to write. Then I began with the usual lists.. nothing interesting, but useful in planning my week: the meal plan, the tasks and schedules, the shopping list. The simple act of writing turned on my brain like a switch, and ideas began to flow.
I am posting this to remind myself to let the silence in. The thoughts swirl all day, every day, and I know that I lose most of them. Monkey mind is a specialty of mine. Picking up the pencil invites creativity to visit, and that can happen anywhere I might have turned to the phone.
For most of my working life, I’ve eaten breakfast at work. It saves time in the morning and allows me to extend my overnight fast by at least an hour. My current routine is to arrive at work about 30 minutes before my hours begin, which gives plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and to care for the houseplants I keep there, while also allowing me to commute ahead of the worst morning traffic.
Many days, my breakfast is dinner leftovers. Stir-fries are quite good cold, which prevents any vegetables from becoming overcooked. Soups and stews are warm and filling, perfect for a winter morning. I really love baked pumpkin steel cut oats; I modify this recipe, reducing salt, butter, and maple syrup – it’s tasty warm or cold. But an easy breakfast standby that I’ve enjoyed for decades is variations on berries, yogurt, and granola.
Pint-sized (16 oz) mason jars are my favorite way to transport any food that has the potential to be messy (That said, I don’t send them in Mari’s bag, which is tossed around throughout the day). They never leak, they store easily in the refrigerator, the contents are visible, and they take up little space in the dishwasher, unlike plastic containers.
Berries, yogurt, and granola requires a little advance work (I make the yogurt and maple-cinnamon toasted oats), but this can be done in batch mode, and the jars can also be prepared in batch mode.
Packable Yogurt Parfaits:
Per container, add
About 1.5 c frozen berries (they will shrink substantially as they thaw)
2-3 Tbsp flaxmeal
Shake the jars from side to side to move the flax into the berries
Add 3-4 Tbsp plain yogurt
The jars are too full for the oats now, so I pack those in a separate bag or container; they’ll be added just before eating, after stirring together the yogurt and berries, and they remain crunchy. Store in the refrigerator; the berries will be thawed in 24 hours or so.
My toasted oats are crunchy and lightly sweetened. Here’s how I make them: Position both oven racks near the center of the oven and preheat 300F. Oil 2 large baking sheets. In a large bowl, mix 8-10 cups of old-fashioned rolled oats, 2 T cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. Sometimes I add other spices – allspice, ginger, nutmeg, etc – experiment and see what you like. Add about 1/4 c maple syrup and stir well. Pour onto the baking sheets and spread to an even thickness. Bake for 20 minutes, then swap the locations of the baking sheets, and bake for another 15-20 minutes. I store this in the refrigerator or freezer in a large jar.
These toasted oats can also be used as a topping for fruit crisps. Bake the fruit first, covering the pan with a baking sheet, until the fruit is as done as you like. Then top with the toasted oats and return to oven just until warm.
Are holidays ever as carefree as we expect? For as long as we’ve been married, Thom and I have spent Christmas at the old family house where his mother and aunt live. They are now both experiencing memory and physical issues, and this year’s visit was alarming, sad, and stressful at multiple levels.
I packed as I always do for the trip – a book plus my Kindle, some crocheting, a pad of paper for anything I need to write, some work, my laptop – but hardly touched any of that. There was a lot to deal with and at the end of each day I was exhausted. There was no mental space to be creative or studious.
So it was fortuitous that the weather made us drive home a day early, giving us an entire weekend before the return to work. Freezing rain, sleet, and snow kept us at home for the first day, but luckily our pantry and freezer can always yield some meals without fresh inputs. The coziness of home was a perfect antidote for the chaos, clutter, and stress of our trip.
No one ever knows what a new year holds, but after realizing the full situation of my in-laws (which had not been apparent in phone calls) and how much their mental status has changed since our visit 6 months ago, this year feels more uncertain than usual. In addition to the emotional pain of watching the slow march of dementia, their care is likely to require multiple roadtrips and unanticipated financial support. The other big question mark of this year will be Mari’s college decisions – where, what, how, and, of course, how much… cost.
I’m not a New Year resolutions maker. I usually try to make change whenever motivation strikes, and that is rarely after our big holiday road trip. But in light of the mental, emotional, and physical reserves that I expect to draw on this year, I have already begun some lifestyle improvements. My goal is to make my brain more resilient to the aging process now, building habits that will make a big difference today and in the future. I do not want to experience the memory loss that I see in my mother-in-law, who completely forgot two conversations that we had on separate days. I also do not want Mari to be burdened with caring for me in a few decades when she should be building her own adulthood. I watched my parents care for my Oma, who lived with dementia for at least 10 years, during which she slowly lost her memories and her personality.
Some years ago I ran across an article that detailed improvement from various phases of dementia in 10 specific patients. It was a remarkable finding because, as most people are aware, there is no drug that can do this, and no protocol had previously been found to delay or improve dementia. At the time this caught my eye because a cousin was noticing the beginning of dementia in her mother, so I saved the article and sent it to her.
I found that article and reviewed it. Turns out the author is Dale Bredesen, who published the book The End of Alzheimer’s a couple years ago (along with another peer-reviewed article of research findings). I’m reading the book now, but the article was a good head start. I already had a fairly healthy lifestyle, and, like most people, knew where improvement could be made, but this is extra motivation to improve my sleep, diet, exercise, and habits. It turns out that weighing a little less isn’t enough for me to avoid sugar, but avoiding dementia is.
Today will be a beautiful day, sunshine on fresh snow, time with family and close friends. A perfect way to begin a new year.
Today was cooking day. Although my weekend cooking routine results in a kitchen disaster one day each week, it generally is much more efficient; I can reuse pots and pans with just a quick rinse between vegetables, for instance, the oven can cook multiple dishes, and I can reduce kitchen time significantly on weeknights. While Mari dyed her hair blue and Thom mowed the backyard despite the falling snow, I made cardamom raisin and oat sandwich breads, yogurt, a wild rice and vegetable salad, tapioca pudding, and Mari’s lunch lasagna.
Of all the ways in which our 16-year old has surprised us, one I really was not expecting was the return to dietary preferences typical of a toddler. We’ve always eaten a wide variety of fresh foods, and the sudden rejection of some foods was quite a surprise to me. To be honest, though, Mari does still eat many things that I know her friends don’t (case in point: the teen who picked all the vegetables out of our lo mein dinner), even though she would probably eat pizza for every meal if left to her own devices. Her lunch of choice so far this academic year is spinach lasagna, so I’ve been making a lasagna nearly every week. My pan makes 8 servings, which is perfect for one weekend dinner plus 5 lunches.
Yesterday a college student said to me, “You are very organized. How can I be more organized?” I was surprised; we have worked in the same office for a couple of years, but I am not sure why I would seem any more organized to her than would the average person. But I do know that weekend cooking makes it much easier to keep the family fed , and also allows me to have more time to exercise, read, spend with my family, and catch up with friends during the brief after-work hours.
Orion is high in the sky now on my early morning walks with our dog. Today is a perfect, crisp autumn morning, with a lovely chill in the air. Our hours of sunlight have rapidly decreased and the frogs and crickets are subdued when I can hear them at all. The rustling of the leaves, near peak color now, is this season’s music.
The first autumn that I lived in Minnesota, I was so happy to observe all these signs of the season that I kept the windows open all the time even though I was freezing, having just moved from a climate in which the average day was 50 degrees warmer. I had moved to the desert Southwest with great excitement 10 years earlier, but had not anticipated how much I would miss the annual cycle with which I grew up.
It’s very cold here in the winter. There are days when the streets and sidewalks are too icy to walk safely. Some days it’s a horrible time getting to or from work – and some winters, like our last, it’s like that most days. But I learned that observing and experiencing the cycle of the temperate climate four seasons is absolutely essential for me.
This is the final month in the garden – I’ll be raking leaves and using them to cover the vegetable and herb beds (which allows kale and lavender to overwinter), cutting back summer’s amazing greenery to allow for new growth in the spring, and putting away irrigation lines, watering cans, and shovels. By October I’m always ready to put the garden to bed for winter, to allow time for festive holidays, indoor projects like sewing and writing, and baking, both savory and sweet, which fills our home with warmth and delicious aromas all winter.
This weekend, Thom and I will spend as much time as possible in the sunshine and garden… walking, raking, listening to the birds, talking. Mari will go to a gigantic corn maze with a friend. I’ll harvest the last of our apples (perfectly tart Harelsons) and bake a pie in honor of my mom, who makes the world’s best pies. All simple and frugal activities – and all so rewarding in body and mind.
What feeds your soul in autumn?