Tuesday, July 28, 2015

book review - the life-changing magic of tidying up

I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile. Yet, I resisted the urge to buy an electronic copy, even though I read most of my books electronically. This one seemed like it needed to be a hard copy in my hands. I guess because it’s about stuff.

I visited my sister a bit ago. My sister and brother-in-law bought a big house about 15 years ago, with pool and 4.5 baths - nice spaces to raise their family. When they first bought it, it was spacious, but needed quite a bit of work. They’ve put a lot of work into it, but over the years, it has become, well, cluttered. Really cluttered. Really, really cluttered.

When I was visiting this time, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps my sister, who appreciates Eastern philosophy, might also enjoy reading this book. So we hopped off to an actual brick and mortar bookstore and got 2 copies.

The book is not your standard technical recipe for decluttering a house. It’s more about the relationship between you and your stuff. It’s about respecting and loving your stuff. It’s about being grateful, not for your stuff, but to your stuff. Thanking your stuff for doing a good job of whatever it is the stuff does.

It’s about gracefully letting go of the stuff you no longer love and that no longer serves your needs. Thanking it and letting it go on it’s way, out of your house.

My sister was a bit disappointed that Kon-Mari (as Marie is known) does not advocate parting with stuff that you no longer love and going out to buy stuff you love better. As in - I don’t love this bowl, but I need a bowl, therefore I’ll ditch this bowl and go buy a more beautiful and expensive bowl that I will love.  Not.  I think the buying activity is where we go so wrong. We do it too fast, without really considering if we will love (or need) this piece of stuff. This book is about how to decide between keeping and letting go, not getting more.

So we started reading aloud to each other while we did other chores (she’s renovating one of the bathrooms) and talking about stuff, literally. Kon-Mari has a pretty strict method to tidy and it was interesting to read and discuss.

The day before I left, we started in the wardrobe with the accessories. We got out a fresh trash bag to hold the items to be donated and got to work. Everything came out on the floor where we sat. Following the instructions, every item was handled, listened to and folded. Then it went back in the drawer or into the donation bag. Donated items were thanked for their service.

One of the things Kon-Mari discusses is folding. She prefers folding clothes over hanging them and claims each item has a specific way it should be folded. She offers suggestions, but says each items knows it’s own best way. At one point, my sister made a little jumping noise and exclaimed something like “This scarf really did just tell me I was folding it wrong!”. Maybe it did.

Once you have let go the items that you do not love, you can focus on tidying (or caring for) the ones you do love. Kon-Mari describes the things you love as the ones that “spark joy”. She encourages you to thank your stuff on a daily basis for it’s service. When you enter your home and take off your shoes, you say “Thank you, shoes.” While I’m trying to improve my gratitude practice, I hadn’t thought to extend that gratitude to my stuff. It feels good.

After returning home, my sister has been reporting on the number of bags donated and the change in her wardrobe, dresser and closet (yes, all three were full, as well as the auxiliary storage area, the floor).

She made an observation that gives me hope. She said it’s hard to say thank you to her clothes and then drop them on the floor. 

That’s the “life-changing” and “magic” part of this book.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

ice cream + me = bff

We're off to Rehoboth Beach, DE in 2 weeks and one of the many things I'm looking forward to is enjoying an ice cream on the boardwalk. In our rich country of large grocery stores with whole aisles devoted to frozen food, it's easy to take ice cream for granted. I beg to differ, ice cream is an amazing concoction. Think of how delicious and special it is. First, cream from a cow, then sweetness and ice. I revere the person who first thought to make cold, sweet cream.

When I was a child, I had a storybook by Tasha Tudor titled Becky's Birthday, in which part of the celebration of this young girl's special day was home-made ice cream, back in the days before freezers and electricity. A bucket with a crank and paddles, salt, ice and strong arms made ice cream back in those days. I loved looking at the illustration on that page; barefoot children licking the paddles in the sunshine.

We had it good growing up, though. We didn't have to crank any paddles. There was a Carvel stand down the road and my Dad would sometimes lead an outing there to get a cone on a hot evening after dinner. He, always chocolate. Me, black raspberry - if they had it, or chocolate if they didn't. Black raspberry was my favorite simply because they didn't have it every time, and, well, and it's purple!

For the two years we lived aboard Red Ranger, we had no freezer, so there was never ice cream at home. We rationalized our decision not to have a freezer by classifying eating ice cream as an experience, not an everyday necessity. Ice cream is so much better when eaten outside, anyway. I can remember one hot, sweaty afternoon in St. Augustine, FL, after a long walk to get groceries. We sat outside the store, sharing a pint, using the take-out plastic spoons - fortifying ourselves for the long walk back to the marina.

Late one evening, on vacation in Portland, OR last year, I stood in line on the sidewalk at Salt & Straw with my family and the neighbors and waited my turn for the store-made delights. I happily licked a strawberry-honey-balsamic-black pepper cone while my sister sampled the lavender. Our treats were all the more delicious for the opportunity to relax and chat in the long line.

This summer, we spent a day with sailing buddies in the bayside village of Cape Charles, VA where, at Brown Dog, I indulged in the daily special: beet and goat cheese. Hubby enjoyed his trusty favorite, chocolate. Hot afternoons with an ice cream - does life get any better?

Maybe my desire to eat ice cream outdoors as a special treat is just a way of rationalizing my decision to keep sugar out of my kitchen, but it's also part of my gratitude practice, part of intentionally enjoying thing I used to take for granted. I do have a freezer right now, but it's full of vegetables, soup, bean burgers, walnuts and bread. I don't want to keep ice cream in box from the grocery store in there.

I'd rather wait to enjoy ice cream outdoors at the beach.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

rethinking house

I was leafing through a high-end shelter magazine that was laying around my sister's house last week. (disclaimer: it was not hers, it was a freebie sent to her husband's business. Leave it. Suze.) It got me thinking about house.

What is house? In it's most basic form, house is shelter: shelter from the weather, animals, and enemies. House is what we build to keep the neighbors from picking through our stuff, goats from joining us at the dinner table and the hot sun from burning our skin.

Because house provides us with shelter, we get all emotionally attached to it and start calling it "home". I'm thinking about house, though - the bones of our shelter and how we use it, not the pride and longing and happiness we may feel when we think about it.

What is house? It's the place where we carry out many of the daily activities of living. We sleep there. We prepare and eat our meals there. We raise our families there. We work and play and relax there. We depend on the structure of our house to support these activities. We want a quiet and safe place to sleep. We want a cooker and running water to help us prepare our food. We want interior spaces to enhance our work and play and relaxation.

I think it's possible we may have gone a bit too far in our expectations of house. If this magazine represents our expectations of house, then house has also become art museum, spa, restaurant/cooking school, library, hotel and movie theater. Wait, didn't we used to go out and experience those things in public spaces? With other people?

We have been sold the concept that house now means all those auxiliary activities that we used to do socially. We have been conditioned through advertising to view house as all-inclusive retreat center where we should be able to have spaces and furnishings to do whatever we want to do - all by ourselves (or with our select friends). The companies that make home theaters, sectional couches and high-end kitchen appliances want us to build bigger and bigger individual palaces where we can spend lots of money on things that only we can use.

We need to rethink house. I think we need to reassess our expectations of shelter. House should function as a place to sleep, eat and be safe. The rest of our activities should be done outside of house.

Go to the art museum. The museums have better art than most of us can afford and they rotate it and provide some back story.

Go to the movie theater. Get excited about the drama with a room full of other people and experience the huge view and great surround sound.

Go to the library and find books you haven't already read.

Go to a restaurant and get a special meal. Eat ice cream on the sidewalk with friends on a hot afternoon instead of from your state-of-the-art freezer.

Put your visiting family up at a hotel instead of maintaining guest rooms that otherwise never get used.

Let house, just be house.

Tammy Strobel's Tiny House 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

leave it, Suze.

This week I met my sister's new puppy, Suze. She's just starting obedience training and one of the commands she is learning is "leave it".  This command is issued on our morning walks when she sniffs something interesting, when she picks up my niece's stuffed animal instead of her own (yeah, they looked the same to me, too), or when she shows interest in the running socks I forgot to put out of her reach. Leave it. 

It became my phrase of the week.

I'm a judgmental person. It's a bad habit I've formed over the years. My conversation is peppered with "You should...." and "You need to do it this way.". I've always got one up on you on how or why what you are doing is wrong and how my way is right.

In my mind I'm taking the obese person in front of me in line at the grocery store with the cart full of snack cakes by the shoulders and saying, "Come with me, honey, and I'll show you how to shop for the good food." In my mind, I'm explaining to the person who built a McMansion on good farmland why living small is better for the planet. In my mind, I'm telling that guy with the cigarette boat why he's just such a jerk. I'm so full of it.

But, these thoughts, and the words that come spilling out of my mouth before I've caught them, are the expression of a habit. I listened to a story on NPR yesterday about how children who have the habit of saying "Thank you." in public turn out to be optimists because they get used to the positive reinforcement of gratitude. (sorry, I can't find the link)  Habits are a practice. Practice makes habits.

I was lucky to find zenhabits blog several years ago and have used the habit formation techniques there to teach myself to exercise first thing in the morning and to stop eating sugar and junk foods (a work in progress, of course, but very nearly solid now). I know I have the tools to practice recognizing these judgmental thoughts and just. leave them. alone. 

And now I have a phrase to help me. 

Leave it.

Suze and Dad napping. Yeah, she's already one year old, but she's new to me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

pantry raid

There are a few things in my pantry that have fallen out of favor. In the past year, I've decided to keep sugar out of my kitchen. I'm finding it pretty difficult, actually. I enjoy me some sugar now and then, but I figured I can go out for a sweet treat if I really want one.

No sweets at home, (except when some wonderful friend gives us a jar of his Mom's preserved pears!) means baking activities are reduced. That leaves a few odds and ends in the pantry.

I'm not one of those survivalists that keeps 3 years worth of food around. If there is ever a trucking strike, I'm going to be the first one to go hungry. I have some soup stashed in the freezer in case of flu and some cans of tomatoes and anchovies, but in general, the fridge and pantry shelves have a vaguely lonely look to them.

I like to keep the pantry clutter down. Yes, pantry clutter is a thing. You know the stuff. Way in the top back corner of the shelf is something you've been meaning to use up for a few months years. You're not really sure if it's still good, but you keep shuffling it around when you look for the wild rice.

Slowly, I'm finding those things and setting them on the counter, in my way, to use until they are gone. It may mean getting creative with some recipes. The mostly empty tubby of coconut oil I bought in the Bahamas in 2013 sat on the counter for about 3 weeks, but now it's been consumed. I throw a few fennel seeds into dinner a few nights a week, because that jar is labeled 2012.

You've hear of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? And peanut butter and honey sandwiches? Well, we're eating peanut butter and molasses sandwiches, until the jar is empty! I will not waste food if I can help it. Food waste is a huge environmental problem. Wasting food means also wasting the water and energy used to produce and transport that food.

Ah, but the baking supplies. What to do with them? I keep powdered cocoa to make brownies. It's not getting any younger sitting on the baking shelf. What can I make with powdered cocoa that is not brownies?

(I love the internet!) Enter the mole sauce. I found a recipe to tweak and was delighted with the results. I ladled some over some tuna/chard/pinto bean stir-fry last night and it's a keeper.

Mole Sauce
1 medium onion, chopped fine
5 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 T olive oil
1 t dried oregano
1 t ground cumin
1 t cayenne powder
1/2 t ground cinnamon
4 c vegetable broth
3 T whole wheat flour
1/4 c powdered cocoa

1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over med-low heat.
2. Add onions, garlic and spices, cover and cook until onion is tender, about 10 minutes.
3. Gradually whisk in vegetable broth and cocoa and increase heat
4. Boil until reduced, about 35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Next up: 2 packets of dry milk of unknown vintage. Waffles, anyone? (and yes, I make them without any sugar.)

What's in your pantry? 
Set it out it on the counter, right in front of you, and use it up.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

parking, part two

We're visiting our old digs in Norfolk for Independence Day. Last year we watched the fireworks in the Elizabeth River from the cockpit of Red Ranger and it was spectacular, so we wanted to come again. It was great fun to be anchored in the river with hordes of other boats, cheering and partying on. Of course, thunderstorms are predicted, but I will prevent them with my intense yogic mental energy. Or not. 

Last night we did a short Granby crawl, starting at the Norfolk Tap Room where the bartender showed us pics of the Morgan 46 his friend just bought that day. On to the Vineyards to meet up with our (greatly missed, former) Tuesday Night Dinner crew. Such good times! 

As is my custom, I walked for an hour or so this morning up through Ghent (passed a wedding on the pedestrian bridge!) and back down Granby St. There was a super cool restaurant, Field Guide, that we visited a couple of times before we moved away (remember the time Waffletina set up there?!) that always had a huge bike pile outside the open garage door street bar. I remember thinking what a good place to remove the car parking space and put in a street bike rack. 

Parking and the acres of space allocated to parking is one of mypet peeves. I'm not a big fan of cars (although I have one now and acknowledge their incredible freedom and convenience) and I resent the presence of their parked carcasses in so much of our visual field. I followDonald ShoupPark(ing) Day and enjoy seeing pedestrian and biking communities take back some physical space from cars. 

Anyway, back to the bike rack. Low and behold, as I rounded the corner on Granby, this was my view. The bike rack I envisioned was there! Not only that, as I walked down towards Waterside (where the staff watches our dinghy, Scout, while we explore) there were 2 other reclaimed parking spaces. The downtown committee is doing a great job! Love to see this stuff! 

I'm wondering if some of this placemaking can migrate up to Richmond ahead of the big bike race this Fall. Hope so! Time to put some pressure on City Hall.

Friday, July 3, 2015

in love with boxes

I went to pick up my mail the other day and there was a package for one of my neighbors in a cute box with nice lettering - BIRCHBOX. I'm a sucker for packaging design. Yes, I'm one of those people - I love Apple boxes, so I was curious what this company was selling and what might be in that cute brown box. 

Not that I need to buy anything, of course, but I was thinking it might be some kind of food. I always like to buy food. What I discovered was disappointing. It wasn't food.

It was makeup! I'm sorry, not just makeup, but "high-end beauty, grooming, and lifestyle samples once a month, customized just for you." WTF is a lifestyle sample?

Why is this so disappointing?

1.  Tiny plastic makeup containers are almost never recyclable. The ocean is full of tiny pieces of plastic from our love affair with cosmetics (and water bottles, and disposable pens, and balloons, and, and, and...).

2.  Excess consumerism, that is buying things you don't need, is causing us crippling debt, a host of environmental woes and a pervasive sense of low self esteem because we don't ever seem to have "enough".

3.  Beauty comes from being healthy and taking care of your body. Women are sold a myth that we need to wear makeup to be socially acceptable. I was recently with some boating friends for a low-key weekend at a little resort town. One woman kept pointing out the fact that she didn't have her "face" on and it evidently made her uncomfortable to be without her makeup. She looked fine to me. How much emotional energy do women spend, feeling that their faces aren't adequate? When was the last time you saw a man put on his "face" before heading off to work in the morning?

I so wish BIRCHBOX sold food. I like food. I love their box design. I really, really don't like makeup.