Imagining

Autumn on the Oberg Mountain Hiking Trail Loop, Minnesota
The view I imagine while stuck in traffic.  Image: Autumn on the Oberg Mountain Hiking Trail Loop, Minnesota by Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0.

I popped Mari’s well-worn CD of Anne of Green Gables into the car stereo this morning and from the first lines was whisked to a comfortable home in my memory. My mom bought this book for me when I traveled with my aunt at the age of 9. Once I got through the wordy descriptions in the first page, I was hooked. I finished it and immediately began reading it again. I read the series countless times over the years, continuing to read it into adulthood on occasion. The books have always been an escape for me; I recall taking an Anne book and my lunch to a park near my engineering job, sitting under a tree and reading to forget work stress for a while.

It was a pleasant way to spend the commute – listening to L.M. Montgomery’s loving descriptions of the natural beauty of Avonlea, every sentence a mark of her craft. The activities of the characters were a reminder of the world pre-technology. Anne fantasized about living near a babbling brook and spending the night in a wild cherry tree; she didn’t spend all her hours with earbuds and a smartphone. Rachel Lynde observed everything that happened in the neighborhood because she wasn’t parked in front of a TV. An 8-mile horse-driven buggy drive was a pleasure, not a time-sucking chore as it can be today in a much faster car. I’m sure there will be a million more examples; I’m only on chapter 2.

For many years, it was my fantasy to live far from the bustle of cities and suburbs, in a country cottage with a large garden and abundant physical and mental space. My parents moved to such a place when I was in college, and on my occasional visits I loved the sounds of the owls at night and roosters and cows early in the morning, the always changing landscapes of the Shenandoah foothills, and the lack of busy-ness. Oh, there was lots to do: painting outbuildings, harvesting berries, making jam, weeding, hanging laundry, painting the long stretches of fences – but there was also time to climb into the hills and marvel at the views, to enjoy a visit with the sociable barn cat, or to just think. For about a decade until upkeep became too much work for my aging parents, it was a much-loved refuge for me from the various cities in which I lived.

When, as of late, I begin to feel a real need for that refuge, I know that I need to step back and reconsider commitments. When home feels less like a cabin and more like a hotel, I know I am too busy. Recently, the fantasies of moving to the country resurfaced, and I asked myself why. It’s been a busy few weeks back to work and school, and we’re all still adjusting: we will adjust. I have given myself the position of always-willing-to-drive mother for Mari and her friends; while this can take a lot of time, there are benefits, such as knowing they are all safe, and the opportunities for conversation in the car. This is also temporary and will likely ease by the end of the winter; after her friends have navigated Minnesota winter roads, I will be more likely to consider them safe drivers.

When I was finishing my grad degree, I realized I had always been waiting for the next stage. As a young child, like many kids, I always wanted to be older. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get to college. The rapid, always-changing pace of college suited me, but I was eager to finish. The summer job I had between college and grad school was perfect in that within a few weeks I was ready to be a student again. And then I was done — I moved across the country and I was on my own… to discover that the grass was not as green as I had expected.  After a couple of years I just wanted out of the corporate world. I realized that there was always something to be finished, always something new to begin that probably wasn’t going to match my expectations.

The stress of this time will pass, and I will have some fond memories of it. Doing what I can now to make each day enjoyable for all of us will give us each a better time now and better memories in the future. And part of making every day better for all of us means giving myself more breaks.

A year ago I read the idea of a “20-minute daily vacation” in Laura Vanderkam’s Off the Clock.  It’s time to implement it!

Thrifty Thursday: Bar Soap

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Image © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0

When did liquid soap become ubiquitous? I recall when I made the change for handwashing in my home; I had a cat that obsessively licked bar soap, and I thought it might be bad for her. Over time I became more aware of the environmental consequences of liquid soap: more fuel for transport; unnecessary ingredients, including some that have been shown to be harmful; all those plastic containers. Once Mari was old enough to hold a bar of soap, long after the cat had spent her 9 lives, we gladly made the change back.

Pros of Bar Soap:
– Minimal packaging
– Long-lasting
– No anti-microbials
– Easily available in unscented form, or naturally scented
– Soap dishes never wear out and are easy to “refill”
– Lots of fun options for soap dishes – beautiful china, interesting rocks.  I use seashells that we collected on a family trip.
– Lower cost per handwash
– Takes up less space in the cabinet, so easier to buy in bulk, with further cost savings
– Less weight for transport (liquid soap contains water, which weighs 8 pounds per gallon)

Bar soap demonstrates the green triangle about which I first read in a simple living book: if something is good for one aspects of health, budget, and the environment, then it is likely good for the other two as well. Three priorities met with one small effort!

Brunch on the Patio Plans

It’s a grey, slushy Saturday 2 days post April blizzard, my husband has been with my father-in-law at the clinic all day, and I’m needing happy, sunny thoughts of friends and summer.  So!  I’m going to “plan out loud” right here on the blog.

I’ve been missing a lot of longtime friends in the time since our littles have come along.  Many of them already had their own littles, or have had some since as well.  We have a fantastic back yard with a great deck and now a huge play structure!  So!  I was thinking a few months ago, why do we always stress out about a restaurant that we have to figure out where to go, where to park, and entertain the kids instead of talking and enjoying each other, all at the cost of approximately $1,000,000 for the meal?  We could be enjoying our backyard on unlimited time, a far cheaper meal, and the kids don’t even have to behave.

That time has come!

I want to have a menu that is the same every time, to save on stress, mainly.  The easier this is, the more likely it will be to happen.

I polled the members of a local women’s group about a set menu for friend brunches on the patio.  Requirements:  some kind of main that is gluten free (for me), and pretty much otherwise – just easy.  I posed the idea of an egg bake and they riffed on it.  These lovelies came up with tons of scrumptious ideas for meatless or meat-full, and other customizable ideas like fruit and yogurt parfaits.

Egg bake ideas:

  • With hashbrowns for the “crust” so it’s GF – saute the hashbrowns before adding egg & baking
  • Mushroom, asparagus & gruyere
  • Bacon, cheddar & chives
  • Veggie only for vegetarians, breakfast meats on the side
  • Sausage, onions & peppers with or without cheese
  • Tex Mex egg bake
  • Cheesy Croissant Brunch Bake with caramelized onion, brown sugar ham, sauteed spinach, cheese, and croissant crust (though I’d omit that for GF purposes)
  • Biscuits & gravy egg bake
  • Baked eggs with tomato, cottage cheese, Monterey Jack or Colby cheese, broccoli or spinach

Side dish ideas:

  • Cut fruit
  • Bread
  • Yogurt granola cups – bake the granola in the bottom of a muffin cup and top with yogurt, or just have yogurt with a bag of granola and some little bowls/cups
  • Mimosas & bloody bar
  • Baked bacon

 

 

 

February’s Conversation, in which we talk trash… reduction

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Photo: NASA

Ilse: When I was a kid, we lived in a suburban development at the edge of the woods.  My parents taught me to rake the autumn leaves onto an old sheet, gather the corners, and haul them either to the garden or into the woods.   Our next-door neighbors collected their leaves in trash bags and left them on the road for the garbage truck. My dad was incensed by this waste and, ignoring the mortification of his teenaged daughter, gathered these bags of compost-in-waiting, dumped them on our garden, and reused the trash bags.

What I’m getting at is, I’ve been learning waste reduction for a long time.

So, ladies: this month’s questions.

What inspires your waste reduction efforts?

Stephanie: I know I should say something altruistic, but the truth is, my primary reason is that it’s expensive to pay for trash removal for 9 people. Other factors affect it too. I have always intrinsically disliked wastefulness. I think that’s somewhat ingrained in the culture in our part of the upper Midwest. The dominant groups that settled this area, Germans and Scandinavians, tend to place a high value on efficiency, and waste is inefficient.

Kelli:  Three prongs here:  1) the forever-ness of plastic trash in particular, 2) the savings up front, as Stephanie mentioned, on the collection end, and 3) the challenge of it.

Ilse: I learned many low-waste habits from my efficient and thrifty grandparents.  As an engineering student, I learned how many materials are made, and the amount of energy that goes into making aluminum cans or glass bottles is staggering. The idea of using something once and having it forever occupy space in a landfill horrifies me.

What are the areas of low-hanging fruit?  That is, the 80% of results for 20% of effort or cost?

Stephanie: Getting my kids to quit breaking things would be a good start, but that’s more than 20% effort. LOL. Honestly, composting is a big one. In the summer I was pretty good about it, but the compost pile is out by my garden, which is about an acre and a half from my house, and kind of a trudge in the snow, and when it’s dark when I leave and when I get home, it’s harder to do. I need to start snow blowing a path to it, or even start a second compost pile closer to the house. The other one is food waste. I need to figure out how to better tackle food waste.

Kelli: I notice quite a bit more convenience food wrapping in the garbage can lately, particularly for precut and frozen fruits and veg.  I wonder where I can buy some more in bulk, or cut our own fruits and veggies. But I also know that it all comes with a tradeoff – while I can buy whole fruits and veg and cut them myself, I also have neck pain that is triggered by looking down at the countertop, and when I buy them bagged/frozen, I eat a lot more of them.  So will I be sacrificing healthy eating for the savings in plastic? I need to work on this thought. How can I have both? How can I involve my hubby in the chopping, for example? Also, would I need a salad spinner to accomplish it? Another area that would help a lot is to finish up potty training my youngest. She is close, and if we really did a dedicated push we could get her most of the way there.

Ilse: I agree, Kelli, that frozen vegetables are a huge time saver!  Some recycling places do accept those bags. What I’ve been working on recently is reducing non-recyclable packaging, large and small.  Given the choice between a doodad that comes in that awful hard plastic packaging and a cardboard box, I’ll choose the box, or, if an option, no package.  On the small end, I drink a lot of tea. I’m avoiding brands of tea that use plastic or foil wrappers.

What will you never do, even though it would reduce your household waste?

Stephanie: They will pry my toilet paper from my cold, dead hands. LOL. Also, ordering from Amazon. Holy packaging, Batman, but I’m a working mom who lives in a rural area, and delivery is my best friend.

Kelli: The only thing, I think, is cloth diapers.  We did it for a long time. We are done with it. I can’t think of anything else that’s off the table, though there are lots of things I am not currently doing.  Maybe I would not do one of those total bans on buying new items. Too stressful right now.

Also, would I really give up my car, even though we’re in a station in life where really, truly we could do it and it not be a huge hardship?  We live in a city well-provisioned with transit, rife with Ubers and Lyfts, and my son and I can walk 2 blocks to work/school and groceries as well as about 8 blocks to a pharmacy, ATM, several restaurants . . . we have everything we need within 2 miles at the most.  My husband needs a car to get to his suburban job, and my daughter’s daycare is not easy to get to on transit, so we’d have one vehicle for sure, yet we maintain and drive two vehicles.

Ilse: I love visiting places where I don’t need a car at all, but I don’t see us moving to the city anytime soon, and the transit options for my commute double the time.  And although we did cloth diapers, I’m with Stephanie on the TP.

What will you do this month to create new waste reduction routines?

Stephanie: I’m going to find a spot closer to the house for a winter compost pile. I’m also going to work on using leftovers for my lunches. I did that for a while, but my containers went missing, and I stopped.

Kelli: I think we will work on the potty training.

Ilse: Toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, dental floss containers, and deodorant holders are almost never marked for recycling, but I found a place to take them and will start a bin in the garage to store the empties until it’s convenient to drop them off.  I’m also going to look into cat litter options… last time I explored the alternatives was about 10 years ago, so maybe something better (and acceptable to our cats) has come along.

The Satisfaction of Uncluttered Space

 

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Blooming jade plant, California. My friends were amused by our surprise at flowers – outside – in January. We do have a cactus in our yard, though (under the snow).

It was cold last weekend – even for Minnesota in January. All of us, including the dog, were more excited about getting home than about taking a walk. I can never just sit around for very long, though, and with the outcome of our hygge conversation fresh in our mind, I began working on what was obviously needed around the house – tackling all the piles.

Maybe you know the ones I mean.

The basket of clean clothes, the hamper of dirty clothes, and the pile of worn-but-not-dirty clothes.
The papers to be filed, the papers to be shredded, and the papers of undecided future.
The random things that never got put away after the last two trips.
The piles of books on either side of the bed.

While I was at it, I vacuumed and dusted and washed the newly-visible surfaces. I took care of various small tasks, too. I cooked some new recipes and made foods for the week. I washed a stain off a lampshade that had been there, turned to the wall, for an embarrassing length of time. I turned some random soft fabrics into small blankets for the cat shelter. I changed the battery in my grandmother’s clock, which has been running slowly for a month (yes, I was procrastinating on a 5-minute task).

By the time I was done, the house had a whole new vibe – more peaceful than it’s been since… well, probably since the last time we had houseguests.  And when I sat down to read that evening and caught a glimpse of the room, I felt very satisfied and relaxed.

I am always gratified by the results of an organizing or decluttering afternoon, and I always imagine that someday, I will manage to always keep spaces in that condition, from the kitchen cabinet that always becomes disorganized to the dusty, cluttered laundry room.  And maybe I will.  While 10 minutes each day could greatly reduce the need for a monthly cleaning event, the truth is that many days I’m too tired after working, driving, and cooking for even those 10 more minutes.

So, to resolve this ironic loop of clean house is self care, but self is too tired to clean, I’m going to look to my family.  If 10 minutes will make a difference, that’s just over 3 minutes each – roughly one quick chore for everyone.  And here’s where I can use one of my strengths – designing a system.

 

Finding Hygge… a conversation that led us back to basics.

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Photo by Jenna Hamra from Pexels

(Ilse) Hygge is all over the media these past couple of years and our library has some lovely books on the subject, but I think I’ve known about it most of my life… it just didn’t have a name and wasn’t practiced to the extent that it is elsewhere. After reading about hygge, I realized that this is what I always loved about my visits to family in Germany – the focus on simple pleasures such as friends and family, the outdoors, and good food. All were often combined in a leisurely midday dinner or afternoon coffee outside. My grandparents’ house on Long Island was full of hygge, but somehow it always felt to me that it ended when I left… I didn’t feel the same anywhere else.

Before hygge awareness arrived, I had already adopted the “home as cabin” mindset. I think that some of my friends understand this, but not all. Honestly, we’ve mostly quit hosting since my return to full-time work, primarily because of my schedule, but also because I became aware of some house snobbery among a couple who are otherwise good friends. They do have a nice house, but I don’t feel a lot of hygge there.

What makes me feel a sense of calm and wellbeing in our house?

Good aromas… baking bread, spices, fresh air in the summer
Sounds of nature… owls in summer, rain in spring and fall, wind in winter
Snoozing pets… they are so easily pleased – a fleece blanket, a sunbeam, a lap
Coziness… in winter, ample warm blankets and throws, throughout the house
The right lights… reading lamps, LED candles on timers

(Kelli) I love it when it’s quiet.  Right now I’m up past my bedtime to get it.  With my kids at 4 and 2 right now, I’m craving quiet and introspection.  They are at a really fun age and I love it when they will snuggle me, which they will do with book after book (hygge) or with the TV (not so much).  We have a wood burning fireplace and it is sooooooo cozy when we have a fire! We’ve only done so twice! I really want to do that a few more times this winter.

I also finally figured out how to get my own little spot in the house, which is a little writing desk in our sun porch.  No one messes it up, or leaves junk on it, or litters it with crumbs. Since it’s very drafty I’ve put on a heater and usually use a blanket and light a little candle in there.  (In fact I just got up and moved so I could sit at my little desk).

Speaking of candles, I’ve come to embrace aromas a bit more, but I’m picky.  They have to be oh-so-subtle.

One million blankets?  Seems that’s yes. 😉

(Ilse) Ooh, quiet!  Yes. There is not enough of that in the world and it is so necessary after a busy workday.  In the summer, our screened porch is my refuge, and I love to sit outside but out of reach of the mosquitoes.  In the winter, I sometimes have difficulty finding quiet in the house and retreat to the library instead.

What would my dream house have that would increase hygge?

(Ilse) A windowseat looking out on the back yard, large enough for 2, or 1 and a very large pile of books.   An indoor garden of some type – some houses in warm climates have large planting areas inside the house (but I don’t intend to move for that feature!). Less clutter.

(Kelli) I think I’d live in the country so I could have a big bonfire area, or be outside under the stars.  I miss that about my childhood home.

What can I do in my present house to increase hygge?

(Ilse) We actually priced adding a bay window for a windowseat in our living room when we replaced our windows. Since it cost as much as all the other windows together, it was an obvious decision.

I’d like to figure out some way to arrange my houseplants to appear more garden-like. They are all in disparate pots all over the house.  I’ve recently seen some articles about houseplants being the new decorating trend, so I’ll look for some ideas. (whoever would have guessed that a small house filled with houseplants would become trendy?)

We could decrease clutter. This is a constant goal and we’ve made a lot of progress. The clutter takes a few predictable forms in our house: books, footwear (particularly in winter), and papers. Happily, decreasing clutter is almost always free except for the time. Here’s where to focus my energy!

(Kelli) I agree with the clutter.  It is just such a mental energy suck.  Looking around I feel overwhelmed almost all the time, which makes it hard to relax, be present, want to have people over, focus my thoughts on other things.  In one aspect, though, I want MORE items – and that’s to have more on the walls. We have had pretty spare walls for a few years after I put my foot down in this house of no “man cave” decor such as our former teeny little home had (vintage Northwoods, but still.  SO. MUCH. NORTHWOODS.). I want more family photos, and photos from our trips, and, ok, a few vintage northwoods items would be kinda hyggetastic.

(Ilse) Until I get back to creating a photogenic hygge-ful space, I’m going to channel my inner cat.  Sylvester finds hygge everywhere, and he spreads the hygge spirit with his rumbly purr and physical and temperamental warmth.  Warm blankets, fireplace, family, book, tea, purrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Welcoming the Long Winter

book_pages_reading_fireplace_flame-892494.jpg!dDecember was busy. Somehow we fit all the activities and travel preparations for the holidays into our usual routines, and that time had to come from somewhere. I know that one place I skimped was meals. No one complained, and maybe they didn’t even notice, but I did… I noticed in my added few pounds, in my craving for green vegetables, and in having to dispose of a few things from the refrigerator, which is never necessary when I’m on top of things.

But all of that busy-ness is long over now.. and I’ve even undecorated. The winter months are upon us, and it is likely that this weekend’s thaw will be the last until April. It’s time for those braising, roasting, and simmering recipes that heat and scent the house. Since we returned from our holiday travel, I’ve cooked more than I did for most of December, when I nearly emptied our freezer and pantry. The freezer is again full and our weeknights should be easy for a few weeks.

I spent about 4 hours cooking this weekend and turned out a large loaf of bread, a quart of homemade yogurt, pasta with broccoli pesto and chickpeas for lunches, raw vegetables for this week’s lunches, and a cabbage-potato dish. Our Sunday dinner was the rajma recipe from Merra Sodha’s Fresh India, and it was delicious. There’s another meal of that in the freezer, along with chili, lasagna, black bean soup, scalloped potatoes, and various cooked beans and grains awaiting some type of quick preparation. I am feeling caught up.

The biggest bonus of cooking ahead is the time to focus on other projects. And sometimes, especially this dark and cold time of year, a project is as simple as a good book.