My mindful living challenge

… is to slow down.

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I am always going, doing, moving. Even after weeks of summer vacation, I found myself feeling pressed for time. I had hoped that feeling would disappear this summer, my first off in 4 years. And it was wonderful, fun, productive, and sometimes relaxing – but I found relaxation to be elusive. There are so many things that I want to do, see, learn, explore. Continue reading “My mindful living challenge”

Work Week Routines Part 2: Food

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During the years that I was a SAHM, I learned to cook. I had been cooking for over a decade by that time, not including my undergraduate years of pasta and sandwiches, but meal preparation prior to really learning to cook was time-consuming and exhausting and also created massive piles of dishes.

 

By “learning to cook,” I mean

  • cooking without a recipe, just creating things based on what I have on hand
  • looking at a recipe, and knowing what would need to be changed to meet our preferences
  • reading ingredients, and mentally compiling the aroma and evaluating it

Although I generally like to cook, I am not excited about it Mondays through Fridays after a full day at work. As in the routines mentioned previously, I’ve also tried to minimize the daily brainpower needed to get everyone fed.

Here’s what works for me:

Meal plans: I shop weekly, locations selected based on what we need and what’s on sale. Considering what’s on hand and the week’s evening schedules, I sketch a rough meal plan.

Freezer cooking: We have a freezer in the garage and it is one of my major timesavers. I use it to freeze:

  • extra servings from meals
  • sauces or other meal components
  • garden produce
  • any ingredients that are convenient when frozen, such as ginger cubes or cooked rice
  • foods with short shelf life, such as nuts and cornmeal

The night before a busy day, it is heavenly to go “shopping” in the freezer and find something to thaw in the fridge.

Make lunches: We all eat homemade lunches every day, and we all eat very different lunches every day (since there are only 3 of us, that’s manageable). Here’s what we prepare:

  • Mari’s Pasta: Pasta for dinner turns into a few extra lunch servings, packed for school in an insulated food jar.
  • Thom’s Meat and Potatoes: I cook large batches of meat or sausages, and slice before freezing, placing waxed paper between slices as needed. Each Sunday I remove a few servings and place in a container in the fridge. He has this with rice or potatoes and microwaves everything at lunchtime. Fresh vegetables are always available – carrot/celery/pepper/radish sticks or a salad.
  • My Lunch Salads: I prep salads 3 days at a time, on Sundays and Wednesdays. My salads are always different and might contain any vegetables I have available, plus beans or roasted tofu, nuts or seeds or avocado, berries or other fresh or dried fruit, and potato or grains. I put them in plastic containers ready to grab from the fridge.

(I know, 3 different lunches isn’t really simple.  But it keeps everyone happy.)

Vegetable prep: We eat a lot of vegetables, and they require work before going into any recipe. When I have about 30 minutes of time, such as on weekights after an easy dinner, I’ll work on veggies for the next night’s dinner or for our lunches. Fresh vegetables last longer when cooked, so I prefer to cook all the vegetables I buy within a couple of days and then use them throughout the week. For stir fry, I chop and freeze mushrooms and peppers, and other veggies I cut fresh.

Cook vegetables for many uses: I batch-cook my various vegetables individually, without seasoning, to use in different dishes. For instance, fresh zucchini or mushrooms can be roasted or sauteed and then stored in the fridge or freezer. Once cooked, they can be used on sandwiches, in salads, in chili, in omelets or frittatas, etc. I season the final dish and the vegetables just need to be added with enough time to heat through.

Buy frozen fruits and vegetables: Frozen berries are perfect for smoothies or yogurt parfaits. Frozen vegetables have no waste and no prep time.

Bread baking shortcuts: I bake all of our bread, using a few different methods that I’ll detail in a future post.

Please share your food shortcuts!  I am always excited about maximizing my kitchen efficiency.

Simplifying the Work Week

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Now I know why my aunt always crashed at the end of a workday. Photo circa 1970.

As we drove by a strip mall this morning, Mari said in a disappointed voice, “Oh, that says School of Music. I thought it said School of Magic.” I was disappointed, too. I’d love to have a place to learn time dilation without the constraint of relativistic conditions.

The best trick I’ve found is minimizing everyday decisions through routines. Although it’s hardly a substitute for magic, it can stretch the hours and keep my brainpower available to more important tasks.

I spent nearly 3 years in a job with long days, a long commute, and expectations of being available by text evenings and weekends.  I had no time or energy to do anything in the evenings, and because of my work schedule bedtime was a serious priority, even on the weekends.  I didn’t see many of my friends during the entire time I worked there.  I have changed jobs now to achieve better balance and lower stress, but any full-time job plus personal responsibilities results in many hours consumed.

I learned to prioritize every minute that was available to me outside of work. I gave up  a lot of perfectionism around the house and in the kitchen. Weekends are precious and I minimize errands as much as possible. In addition to stretching my time, this has an added bonus of decreasing spending. I created many routines to minimize the constant decisions and to smooth my exhausted transition daily from home to work.

Summer break is winding to a close now, and I need to revisit these routines in the coming week to lessen the shock that I will feel very soon!

Routines that work for me:

Car: I fill the gas tank on weekends, even if it’s half full, so that I never have to think about stopping for gas during a commute.

Clothing: Sometime on the weekend when I am putting away laundry, I  assemble 5 hangers of clothing for the week, based on the weather. All clothing items and accessories are there for each day, ready to be grabbed from the closet when heading for the shower.

Food: The night before workdays, I plan the next day’s food and ready lunches for packing. I don’t want to think about “what’s for dinner?” when I’m driving home. I have so much to say about food routines that I will save other ideas for another post.

Workday morning: I do exactly the same things, in the same order, every morning. Specifically, I grab my hanger of clothing, put it in the bathroom, run downstairs and start the electric kettle, take a shower, make my tea, care for the pets,  pack my meals, tea, and water bottles, wake Mari for school, and leave. I keep my work badge in the same place in the car so that I don’t need to remember it in the morning. For 2 years, I left the house at 5:30AM.  I was usually tired and did not want to awaken anyone else in the house earlier than necessary.  I leave in the daylight more of the year now, but this keeps me on track every day.

At work: I do particular tasks at certain times of the day, and always make a rough plan for the next day before I leave in the afternoon. I take copious notes, both written and electronic, to make follow-ups easier whether the next day or the next month.

Exercise: I prefer activities such as gardening, hiking, kayaking, biking, etc., but short, frigid, and icy winter days preclude most of them. When I have a break at work, I run up and down as many stairs as I can, and I walk after lunch. When I get home, we always walk Ms. Beagle, and this is a good winding down routine. Sometimes in the winter I take a Zumba class – it does wonders for my mood and back.

Sleep:  Relaxation time is mandatory relaxation in the hour before I go to sleep.  For me, this is reading with a purring cat on my lap, usually alongside Mari who reads or does homework with another cat.  I often have insomnia in the middle of the night and the next work day is difficult, but manageable if I get to bed on time to get a critical solid few hours of sleep before I’m awake.

There it is. Life, scheduled. Some may find it too regimented, but I find that planning the necessary tasks leaves me more time to enjoy.

How do you streamline your work days? I’d love to hear your strategies!

My Simple Living Story

sunflower bee watermarkThe simple life has appealed to me for as long as I can remember, viewed through such idyllic lenses as living in Heidi’s cabin and romping through Alpine meadows, creating in Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House writing attic, and conversing in Anne Shirley’s cozy college house rented with friends.  That my own houses never included a sleeping loft, usable attic, or the much longed-for window seat, or that my college living experience involved apartments with too much noise, too many roommates, and too many insects did not deter me, because, like Anne, I could always imagine.

As a child, I found my retreats in the woods, where I always had a favorite tree, and where I would go with notebook and pen to sit on a rock in the middle of the creek.  As a college student, I spent more waking time in quiet libraries with their companionable books than in my apartment. When I moved to the desert Southwest to begin my engineering career, my initial excitement at all of the new beginnings and new landscapes gave way to a feeling that something was missing. I was able to buy things I had wanted for a long time, but after each acquisition found that the want was just transferred to some new object, and that my happiness was unchanged.  I began to focus on saving for a small house and my frugal heritage was awakened. There was plenty of free entertainment in the great outdoors, hiking and exploring, and I began to cook with more variety than my former student diet. My small apartment kitchen reminded me of my grandmother’s house, and baking bread reminded me of home. I wanted my days to include random visits from friends, good food, laughter, a cozy and peaceful abode that was welcoming to all, and lots of quiet space to think.

A week at home between jobs turned out to be surprisingly pivotal.  My small house had become cluttered and crowded with stuff, much of it belongings I’d dragged around for years.  I cleaned out closets, cabinets, rooms, and garage and reveled in the cleared spaces. Around the same time, I discovered books that showed me my ideas about life were not unique, though they did not seem to be shared by any of my friends or coworkers.  I absorbed the ideas of Your Money or Your Life and felt nurtured by the meditative thoughts of Gift From the Sea.  A flurry of simple living books appeared at the library, and I read them all, and then I read them again.  How could I transform my life into what I was seeking?

The answer was a long time away, but I found it little by little, with a few dead ends or experiments, depending on your point of view.  I married Thom, who shared my do-it-yourself spirit as well as a love of books and science. I explored alternative career paths and applied to a graduate program in another field. I dreamed of moving to a small farm and read books on self-sufficient living.   Mari was born, we moved across the country for Thom’s career, and I put my engineering career on a much-appreciated hold. In our upper Midwest suburban neighborhood, I found the quiet that had been missing in our desert city.  I grew berries all summer, and created a vegetable garden. I breathed in the scents of line-dried laundry, autumn leaves, and spring rains. The sounds of frogs, rustling leaves, and owls filled the house at night. These simple pleasures nurtured my soul.  I also learned that managing the landscape in a lush environment was a challenge, and that I did not want to do it on 10 acres.

For many years I sought a non-engineering path.  I applied and interviewed for jobs; I volunteered extensively, and found some part-time writing work.  I took classes at the community college and rediscovered my love of science. Eventually, I returned to full-time engineering, in a role that I found more stressful than any of my previous positions.  I experienced complete brain fatigue on a daily basis, and weekends were more about recovery than pursuing personal interests. After only a few months there, I was looking for alternatives. The extreme environment pushed me to apply for jobs that were far from my background but that I felt would be more in line with my aptitudes and interests.  It also gave me energy to persist until I succeeded, although along the way I did dream about country living, tiny houses, moving to a new town/state/country, and just quitting my job and walking out the door.

At this time I am enjoying a new career that gives me meaningful work in an environment of growth and learning, more personal time, and more space in my daily life.  Space – that same reward that I found in decluttering my first house.

Unlike the simple living models I’ve followed from an early age, I don’t live in a rustic cabin in the Alps, or in charming Concord, Massachusetts, or in Avonlea.  I live in a small suburban house from the mid-80s that lies in a flourishing lawn of creeping charlie surrounded by my homemade landscape and garden. Most of the year, I work full time and do my best to balance the competing demands of work, family, house, and self.  My husband Thom, daughter Mari, and I enjoy books, learning, cooking, the great outdoors, and our cats and dog.   As I’ve experienced and observed my life, I’ve evaluated what brings me happiness and where to spend my life energy. I look forward to exchanging thoughts and ideas with you.

Home as cabin

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I am sitting on a front porch 1000 miles from home, listening to the birds (and writing, obviously). This is a neighborhood where people much like me sleep and wake, go to work, come home and work in the yard and cook and walk their dogs and play with their kids. But tonight I feel like I am in the lap of luxury, sitting on a cushioned wooden swing on an ordinary suburban front porch, occasionally hearing the buzz of a hummingbird amidst the chorus of songbirds. The owner has made a beautiful guest space and clearly loves to garden. I enjoy all of this as a guest. But if I lived here, it wouldn’t feel as much like vacation, unless I reminded myself every day that it is a place worthy of vacation. Indeed, it is; the vegetation is lush, the views alternate between mountains, lakes, and valleys.

It’s not that different from where I live, except for the mountains. On the commute to my former job, I passed three spectacular views each day: a lake, where I could see sunrise for part of the year, a river crossing with a view of a distant city skyline, and an immense wetland dotted with waterfowl. Each view calmed my brain and reminded me to appreciate the little things.

That is part of my “home as cabin” mindset: recognizing the beauty all around me.

One big difference between being on vacation and being at home is all the chores. The guest suite was free of lawnmowing, vacuuming, and various other chores and obligations. Although I rarely dust or iron, I can’t eliminate all chores at home. I can, however, change how I think about them. Weeding, dishwashing, cutting vegetables, and even vacuuming can be very meditative. Our house is a more pleasant place to be when it is relatively uncluttered and clean (and I do mean “relatively.”  It would never be mistaken for a museum.).

We take care of our home, and, in turn, it nurtures us.

 

20 Simple Summer Pleasures

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Cold watermelon on a hot day

The sounds of frogs, rustling leaves, and busy pollinators

The lakes

Camping with friends and families, slowing the pace for a full weekend

Watching and listening to a thunderstorm

Fresh-picked raspberries, fragrant peaches, dinner from the garden

A late evening walk in the comfortable twilight, watching for fireflies

Weeding amongst fragrant basil, cilantro, and rosemary

Photographing bees

Observing daily changes in the floral landscape

Finding volunteer flowers and vegetables

Watching seeds germinate and grow

Cool mornings and the respite of shade in the afternoon heat

Picnics (ants and all)

An unhurried bike ride past lakes and woods

Toasting marshmallows over a late evening fire

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the porch (and maybe ice cream, too)

Waking to a chorus of birds

Free outdoor concerts and plays

Earth’s amazing bounty, visible in the lush landscape and overflowing farmers market tables

What makes a perfect summer day for you?