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.
I’ve written about some of the thought work I’ve been working on for the last two years or so, and I have a new thought I’m really digging: “I live aligned with my values.”
What would that look like?
I’d move: walking, biking for transportation and enjoyment, running, hiking, swimming, playing with my kids, skiing, yoga-ing, and dare I say, dancing? I’d be outside in all kinds of weather: in the garden, in the yard, in the neighborhood, in parks, camping. I’d be on screens, sometimes: for connection, for efficiency, for learning. I’d be off screens most times: for connection, for efficiency, for learning. I’d be decisive, willing to fail, and imperfect. I’d be avoiding plastic and new goods wherever possible; I’d be using a bike whenever I could.
I’d be living with less stuff in my home so I wouldn’t feel so stressed out about it, yet with enough to feel abundant and cozy. I’d be working actively to be satisfied with my material goods, including whatever home I’d be living in, instead of always seeking the greener grass. When making purchases I’d be taking the time to shop at the hyper local shops I treasure – right now, I could 90% live my daily life within two miles of my home and 99% within 10 miles. I’d spend money free of guilt and not second-guess purchases large or small – neither being unnecessarily frugal just for the sake of it, nor spending in order to avoid a small inconvenience or more importantly, avoid or create any feeling. I’d allow myself simply to spend money, and not attach many unspoken and vague conditions in order to grant myself the right to spend. In doing so, I’d assert myself as a full and equal financial partner in the household with the right to achieve my own dreams and desires regardless of my partner’s level of comfort. I’d either have to be comfortable with setting aside some of my earnings outside of the household pot and/or earning some more through other avenues in order to control these funds in the pursuit of my dreams.
I’d be fully present without guilt at work when at work, at home when at home, and with myself when with myself. I’d create community in, well, creative ways and breathe life into some of my many ideas instead of just letting them knock around in my head. I’d chance to participate in the community life in ways I feel called, while accepting that those ways can also feel hard and give me a bit of anxiety. I’d embrace the plans I set for myself, whether for daily eating and tasks, weekly schedules, or steps to meet long term goals. I would keep seeking the balance of being considerate to others while not really caring what they think of me, my plans or what’s important to me in the world. I’d love my partner in life for who he is, neither putting him on a pedestal nor expecting him to be anything other than exactly just the wonderful person he is.
I’d be soft on myself when I forget my journey and my vision – when I’m in Target the day after Christmas excitedly acquiring more plastic detritus – remind myself, love myself free of judgment, learn and move on.
I had a perfect little day yesterday. I was and am overflowing with gratitude.
First, I got to sleep in, then putz around the house unhurried and buying my husband a Xmas gift that I think he will love online for a great discount. (I have a conflicted opinion of Black Friday, but I do like to take advantage on items I’d planned to get anyway).
After that, we cleaned up/put away the fall decor items and got out the Christmas tree and decorations, and set about getting that all ready to decorate later in the day. The kids were soooooo excited to see the Xmas stuff come out again, especially their books.
Then we packed up our kiddies and goodies and headed to my sister’s for a belated Thanksgiving of delicious and simple foods, games and play. I made my family do an activity where we wrote down what we were thankful for and had to guess who’d written it. We laughed really hard. I kept them for a future year to look back on, though I’ll admit that may be wishful thinking!
We came home and finished the decorating (which is adorably lopsided), had a yummy leftovers supper and the kids went to bed with zero fuss in my big bed snuggled up on either side of me. And miraculously, I didn’t fall asleep myself, but just drank in those little bodies snoring there next to me.
I headed downstairs and decided I’d do some crafting, so I got out my Pandora and earbuds and fancy paper from when I actually scrapbooked and all the photos of why I want to lose weight that I printed weeks ago and got my creativity on. And doing so revealed a big aha! I don’t necessarily want to lose weight for the loss of the weight itself. I want to lose it so I can be active, mobile, adventurous for a long time to come. But I can have activity and adventure now. And I’ll only achieve the mobility part if I DO have activity now. I don’t have to wait to lose one more pound. So today, I went to yoga.
And to top it off, I got lost in the rest of a book and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished. I had to hide in the bathroom to finish it, but it was worth it. And since it was a YA novel, I didn’t have to stay up all night to get my lost-in-a-book feeling.
BEST. DAY. EVER.