The Domestic Arts

One of my greatest regrets as an adult is not having paid more attention when my grandmother and great aunt were doing things.  Like most children, I flitted from interest to interest, each for a duration that might be exhibited by the average myopic hummingbird.  As a result, I can sew passably well, but not very, I can and do cross stitch periodically, I sort of can make a granny square with a crochet hook and not much else, and I possess an odd requirement for Bleeding Hearts and Johnny Jump Ups to be planted wherever I live in order for it to feel like home.  All that said,  I have never truly mastered any of the domestic arts.

And arts they are.  Gram and Aunnie, as they were known to those of us in the knee-high-to-a-grasshopper set, knew them all.  Quilting, knitting, crocheting, tatting lace, sewing, cross stitch, embroidery, gardening.  I have pieces of their work scattered throughout my house, and memories of them knitting in their armchairs each afternoon.   When it came to teaching they were patient, seeming to know that teaching children was a short-term thankless task with long term results.

I think of them often when I wander out to weed garden beds.  Gram, whose home started out on a fairly quiet road that eventually became busy, would take off her shirt in the heat and weed and plant in her very robust white, pointy bra.  “Gram, people can see you!” I would say.  “I don’t give a damn” was her response.  I doubt I’ll ever feel a need to plant flowers without a shirt, but if I do, I hope it’s with the same attitude.

I thought about them again today as I, in shorts and a t-shirt paired with muck boots fed and watered chickens, ducks and bunnies, and planted two bush apricot trees.  They didn’t raise animals or cultivate fruit trees, but they would have appreciated it, I think.  They were believers in home, most of all.

When my best friend first came to visit me here at Sithean, she said that the house fit me like a glove.  But it isn’t just the house, it’s the land too.  There’s something about digging in the dirt and collecting eggs that makes it feel like I belong.  Every day I find something new here, and I know instinctively I will never tire of it.   Which is why often, whether I find myself  cleaning out the refrigerator, or planting flowers, or cutting into fabric to make valances for my dining room, I feel so very satisfied.   I like adventures, but if I could never travel again my life would not lack a thing.

Someday I’ll learn more of the domestic arts that I forgot to pay attention to, but for now, I feel an overpowering gratitude to the two women who first taught me that making home is as important as being home.

flower May 2018

 

 

 

 

Sweat Equity, Leaning In, and Balance

The other day my best friend and I were talking about some things, and she gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.  ‘Everything in your life, you put sweat equity into.  Fitness, your house, your garden, even cooking almost everything from scratch.  I’m not going to grow a tomato from seed, I’m going to buy it.  But you, at your core, are about the time and effort you put into things, that’s what you value.”

There was more, of course, but it hit me square between the eyes, because it was so true – everything in my life is work, and that often feels overwhelming.  But much of it is work I choose – I prefer the tomatoes I grow.  I like the feeling of building, creating and improving.  I don’t do everything myself, far from it, and I get lots of help.  But at the end of the day, I choose to make muffins and cookies from scratch, I choose to grow food, raise chickens, run 10 miles in a single morning and so on.  Yes, they are all work, and no, I don’t have to do any of them.  The reality is that I like to do all of them.  Maybe not all of them at once, which is what happens in the spring when it’s a mad rush to get the yard cleaned up, the garden ready, take care of baby animals and still be a mother and meet the demands of my career, not to mention the regular life stuff, such as grocery shopping, laundry, and dishes.  And sleep?

To me, the effort I put into things is as important as the end result.  I like to go out to eat, but the food I make at home is just as good, if not better in many cases.  It’s gratifying to sit down to falafel or Pad Thai or even simple spaghetti and meatballs you have made yourself, and cooking is relaxing, once you start.

There’s lots of quotes about the journey vs. the destination one can throw out, but I found that learning to enjoy the process was not always simple. Some things, like cooking and weeding, I just enjoy.   Others, like yard cleanup, spackling, or long runs, I merely tolerated – necessity, but not things to be enjoyed.

That is, until I started to realize just how good it felt to finish a project and realize I was the deciding factor in how well and how quickly it was done.  There’s a zen in creating, and accomplishing, even when it’s not comfortable.  A 10-mile run for me may never feel easy, but it always feels good, if that makes sense.  The idea that you can choose what feels like work was fairly revolutionary for me, and was the difference between barely finishing a 5k and my first half marathon. If I can gift anything to my kids, it’s not to take as long to figure that out as I did.

No one has to choose to build a 48′ garden or spend their Sundays on long runs, and you definitely can buy great falafel, although if you want to try it, here’s an easy, delicious recipe.  Most of us have to balance whether we want to spend time or money on something, and I won’t lie that I frequently come down on the spend side.  But most of the time it’s my time and effort, at least in part, that makes my life what it is.

But.  It’s also exhausting at times.  I’m not going to lie to you.

When I recently took almost 5 months off from work, unpaid, supplemented with a bit of consulting work on the side, a lot of people were surprised.  I was too.  After years and years of juggling parenthood and a demanding career, travel, not the glamorous kind, the kind where you get home at 2 am and are up at 5:45 again to make the kids breakfast, an old house, a huge yard and lots of moves, and I was just….done.  I had Leaned In with dedication.  But I was tired I would sometimes walk around the house on weekends, going in and out of rooms and not know what to do.

Done enough to take savings and investments and an exit package and walk away, without certainty about what would happen next.

And here’s what did happen: I slept.  I did house projects.  I spent time with friends and family.  I made my kids blueberry muffins in the morning instead of Rice Krispies.   I went to yoga when I normally would have been in meetings.  I trained for a road race.  I started seedlings.

Sometimes I did…absolutely nothing worth mentioning.

I’m the better for it.  I don’t think everyone should quit their jobs, of course not.  And I still think that lots of things are better if I put effort into them, most things.  I would always rather make things from scratch.  And eventually of course, it was time to pick up the strings of my career and go back to work.  And what do you know, I was energized and motivated in a way that I haven’t been in years, and it was noticed.

I regret nothing.  Not a dime of income lost.  Not a meeting missed.  Not that I didn’t get the kitchen painted.   And now it’s spring again – busy season here at my tiny little farmlet, and maybe I have even more to do than ever before.  But never again will I sign up for a life where I can’t take a random Monday to paint pottery with my kids, or where I miss our baby ducks first swim in the pond.   The name of the game now is balance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Wisdoms or Something Like That

Robert Frost wrote “The Road Less Taken” in 1916, and it has been lauded as the ultimate paean to following your own path.  The reality of the poem is a little fuzzier, and Frost alluded quite a few times to the irony of regret for what’s on the other path.  It’s easy to get caught up in what could have been.  The regret for zigging when you might have zagged comes for all of us.

I write this sleep deprived, with a very busy day of client work and chores ahead, plus I have to drive to get my kids who have been with their grandparents for a few days.  Last night I chose to spend time with a friend rather than cleaning the house and the bunny hutch like I was supposed to.  I might regret that today when I am getting ready for company for dinner, but then again, I had a wonderful evening, and that too, is valuable.  The vacuum will be there, waiting.  Sometimes nachos and conversation is the right choice.  Almost always, actually.

I wander off the path in life regularly.  If someone asked me how I got to where I am today, the conversation would go something like “Well, I started out going over here, but then I stopped in this field of sunflowers for a picnic and found this other path so I went there, but that one was a bit to brambly so I tried this…”.  I’m a huge fan of taking alternative paths to whatever destination you want to get to.  I always have goals, but I never assume the bullet train is the best way to get there.  Sometimes it’s on foot, stopping off to see the sights.  It’s a complicated way to live, but somehow I always get where I want to go.  From my messy, complicated, beautiful life I have learned a few things, often the hard way.  There’s still so much more to learn, but these are the things I live by, when I don’t forget and lose perspective.

Don’t only spend time with people just like you
Most of us have community -friends, family, neighbors, colleagues that are just like us.  Maybe they like hummus more than guacamole or watch basketball instead of action flicks, but commonality is the name of the game, be it lifestyle, kids activities, or politics.  But it is from those that are different from me in culture, background, perspective and choices that I learn the most. There’s more than one way to live and experience the world, and seeing it through other’s eyes is going to make you a bigger, better person. Plus fun.

Comparing yourself to others is the worst thing you can do
It’s hard to avoid, I admit.  It’s so easy to look at others who have more money, perfect outfits, perfect marriages, kids who eat their broccoli without an argument.  They aren’t always fighting some secret bad thing either, maybe everything is really just good for them.  But looking at other people’s assets and finding your own lacking is a quick way to feel bad and not much else.  Set your goals, check your compass, and go towards what you need.  You don’t actually want their life or their spouse or their broccoli anyway, you want your own version.  Trust me.  Your broccoli is just as good.

Navel-gazing is going to stop you from living 
Self-introspection and awareness are important, but so is actually doing stuff.  Don’t get so caught up in self-examination you forget what you are here for, which is is live, to build community, to add love and good things to the world, be that anything from bad puns to fostering kids to feeding the neighbor’s dog while they are away.  Look up and out most of the time.  I promise you will feel better about yourself and be surrounded by far more love and support as a result.

Exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk
I know, I know, you are busy, and when you aren’t, you are tired.  I get it.  I really do.  Taking the time and effort to build in an exercise routine is hard,  It isn’t always fun.  But here’s the thing – you will feel better, look better, and you just might find your mind working better too.  Those endorphins do eventually come, and when they do, they are awesome.  We all have 15 or 30 minutes a few days a week.  Use them.

Money is just money
Sure, having some is way better than not.  But money as a sole scorecard of success is toxic, and culturally, it seems more and more like that’s the only measure that seems to matter.  Money typically takes our life energy to accumulate, and our life energy is ultimately finite. Here’s my take – give away enough of your time to make what you need and a little on top.  Know that if you lose some of your assets to job loss, divorce, illness, home repair….well, that’s not fun, but it’s not the end of the world either.  Money is handy, but it is not the measure of a person or the value of your life, it is merely an exchange vehicle.  Put it in it’s place, and your decisions around it will be cleaner and less emotionally charged, and chances are it may make you more generous overall.

If not you, who?
This is one of the hardest things I have learned.  I always assumed that others were smarter, more creative, more competent than I was.  It took a great deal of time to learn that my perspective, my creativity, and the way I think were something that no other person can mimic.  If you are waiting for permission to write, do art, start a company, speak about your experiences, consider this permission to stop waiting.

There is more right with you than wrong with you 
So go ahead, wear the pink kitty hat when you need to, screw what everyone else thinks. kitty hat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Small Improvements to Your Wallet, Your Time, and Your Footprint

It is almost feeling like spring these days – still cold some of the time, but more and more days are over 50 degrees, Forsythia and Crocuses are everywhere and the trees are in bud all over.  It’s been raining a lot lately, and today it decided to snow.  Still, I am choosing to believe in Spring’s imminent arrival, mostly because otherwise I will just be one more grumpy New Englander.

It’s about time to move the ducks outside to the coop.  They are big now, and need more space, and honestly, they are very messy.  Adorable, with great personality, but their bin needs cleaning out every day, and even then the smell is hard to miss.  We started with 4, but one, a little Campbell duck named Gingersnap, didn’t make it past the first week, declining food and failing to thrive.  It was heartbreaking to see her go, but accepting that I am going to lose some of my animals is part of the deal.  Still, it was the first time I had lost a little one.  The other 3 are thriving though, and are taking daily swims in my downstairs bathtub.

I am no model for homestead or environmental perfection  – I work, which often involves travel.  I use my dryer.  I am busy and use shortcuts that sometimes have more packaging than I would prefer.  I am often time-constrained too.  In other words, pretty much like everyone else at my stage of life.

Despite that, I try very hard to reduce my footprint and my expenses whenever possible, and often those things go hand in hand.  When there’s an opportunity to simplify or improve my life as well though, I jump on it.  Here are 3 things that cover all of those areas – they save money, they are cheaper, and they make life easier all at the same time.  You can get everything at the grocery store at the same time you go for anything else, no special trips.  If your store doesn’t have essential oils, try Thrive Market or Amazon.

  1. Homemade laundry detergent
    Making homemade powder laundry detergent is a money-earning chore for my daughter.  Every month or two we mix up a batch and I pay her a dollar. The ingredients are inexpensive and they last.  Plus, the laundry smells amazing.  I buy Borax and Washing soda maybe every 10 months, at about $4 each.  I was using leftover hotel bars of soap (free) from my business trips, but I do like the Fels Naptha better, and that’s $1.19 a bar.  Essential oil lasts for about 6 batches at $7.93 per bottle – I use orange because I like it, but any scent will do.  I figure it’s about $3.31 for me to get a 2-month supply of laundry detergent, which is way better than any generic brand.
    Ingredients
    2 Cups Borax
    2 Cups Washing Soda
    1 Bar Fels Naptha Soap
    Generous glug of essential oil

Grate the soap with a cheese grater and mix all the ingredients together well.  Store           in a covered container (I use a quart-sized food storage container).  1.5 scoops                     handles a large load of laundry

2. Dryer Balls
I like the Woolzies kind, although I freely admit that’s the only kind I have ever purchased.  Every month or two I remember to drop some essential oil on them so the laundry smells better, but even if I forget there’s no static and no dryer sheets to buy or throw away.  My dryer balls are several years old at this point and still look and work great.

3. Pots of Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs are expensive, and even for city dwellers or those in small spaces, herbs on the windowsill are a good investment.  Seeds are cheap – your gardening friends may even plant you some free of charge.  Pots don’t have to be flower pots – leftover pasta sauce jars work and look nice too. If nothing else, Basil, Rosemary, and Parsley are high use and low maintenance.  Give them sun and water and you should reap the benefits year round.  No more herbs to buy, your dinner guests will be impressed by your ability to whip up a Caprese salad with your home-grown basil.

It’s fair to say that these are not things that are going to save massive amounts of money or time.  But they are three things that are easy, satisfying and good for the environment.  Few things are going to cut a mortgage in half – almost none, actually.  But little things add up, and the satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself is priceless.Laundry detergent

The Worth of Things

I recently finished a book called ‘The Sparrow’.  By and large I loved it and simultaneously found it very difficult to get through – the book is well written, the premise fascinating, but sometimes it moved frustratingly slowly.   I finally finished it, after picking it up and putting it down for a few months, on a plane ride last week.  And yet I can’t get one of the final pages out of my head, in which a conversation takes place between a Jesuit Priest, broken in spirit and body, and a fellow priest.

“What were you before?  A nurse?  A therapist?”
“Not even close.  I was a stockbroker.  I specialized in undervalued companies.”
Pause.
“It involved recognizing the worth of things that other people discounted”.

I am not always a patient person, and I tend to want things done, done correctly, and done right now.

So the fact that I ended up in a house built in 1850 that needed so much immense care is kind of amusing.  I like old houses, I like land, but the list of things I could and will spend money on here seems near-endless, and what feels like almost perpetual stuff happening that impedes progress can be daunting.  Yesterday I started yard cleanup again, and after making some headway I had to look around, sigh, and go back inside.  Tired from a long road trip in the car for a road race, then spending multiple days onsite with a client, and not nearly enough sleep had exhausted me, and instead of seeing progress all I saw was work.  I know it will get done, but yesterday wasn’t that day.

I’ve been working on a wish list of all the things the house wants and needs, and that I want and need for it.  It would be lovely to endure a few months of renovation and have it all done at once, but that’s not how it is going to roll – I want to do all the renovations in cash, which means a slower cadence.

My house sat on the market for a long time – the previous owner was reluctant to make the kind of updates that make houses appeal to most buyers, like adding a third bathroom or updating the kitchen.  I saw plenty of houses that were fully renovated and likely much easier to manage than this one – for a working single mom, it seemed almost nuts to sign up for this kind of effort.

But as I’ve said, this house is also special, the bones of it are perfect, and I know we belong here.  There’s only the 3 of us, so extra bathrooms aren’t important right now, and 2 of the 3 are reasonably small, which makes any space constraints more manageable.  Sure, more closets would be wonderful, but so is less stuff,

The upside of a slower cadence of remodels is I get time to think about what I really want at any given time.  I’m not just pointing out a pretty picture in a magazine and saying “Give me that.”  I have to think, really think, about what time and resources and available help can gain me, and as a result, I’m determining the true value of each item to me and to the house.

Sometimes those things get supplanted by what’s needed – a roof was on the critical path list after a tree fell on the house, and even with insurance there was out of pocket cost to me.  The house needed a new roof anyway, and now a big item is crossed off my list.  Same thing last summer when I realized that without a massive chimney repair there was a good chance a windstorm could take the chimney off the house.   Those are the kinds of things that make non-essential renovations even further down the list.  Yeah, I want to renovate the bathrooms, but this year I choose to invest in basic infrastructure and the garden.

I reaped the benefit of other buyers undervaluing this place and walking away.  I have vision for it, and I know what it will become.  But what it already is was enough – underneath chipped paint, old sinks and tangles of weeds is something inestimably beautiful.  I lose sight of that at my own peril.  I remind myself I don’t want to buy the magazine picture.  I want my hands in each and every change and improvement, not because I am especially perfect at it, but because I want the craft of turning this place into what I see in my mind, and the gift of seeing the value that is already there.

My house is a metaphor for my life – 5 years ago I was where I had always wanted to be in life materially and financially, but I was also very unhappy.  Today my life is infinitely messier and more complex, and far more full of those moments where I sigh and go sit down because it’s all so much work,  but I am so much happier.  Every day it gets better, not because it’s all perfect, but because I am in exactly the right place at the right time, recognizing the worth in what other people discounted.  House with new roof

The First Year – December & January

Sithean Winter SunsetI painstakingly chronicled the first year of our lives at Sithean.  There’s something about this place that called out to be written down, from the magic of the winter sunsets, to the 60 year-old asparagus bed that still produces, the wall of white lilacs that suddenly blooms in the spring, and more.  Each day here brings surprises, and the first year was like watching a slow-motion movie plot unfold.  Sithean has a personality all her own, and I think she likes becoming a farm once again, albeit a tiny one.

The house, which once sat about a third of a mile down the hill from where it currently lies, started out as the servant’s quarters for a large farming estate.  Today the estate house serves as a wedding and event venue, and it is fairly common for us to hear, as we step out the door “…by the power vested in me, I now pronounce you…” during the summer months.   Far from being a detraction, constant celebrations of love just next door only adds to the magic of the setting.

Sithean has 3 human inhabitants in addition to the endless wildlife, chickens and 2 domestic bunnies.

But in the first couple months after we arrived, it was just us.  Me, and The Adorables, aka my children.

In retrospect, moving to my tiny New England farmlet from South Florida in winter was probably the best decision I could have made, because it allowed me to begin settling in without having to juggle a garden and yard work.

Possibly, just possibly, I should have picked some other time to arrive than 3 days before Christmas.  My Mom flew down to road trip with me, 1472 miles in 5 days, with a few adventures tossed in brought us home at 1:23 in the morning on December 21st.

Somehow the holiday got pulled off, although I’m still not exactly sure how, with lots of excitement by the children and lots of exhaustion by the adults.  Everyone pitched in.  My ex had arrived 9 days earlier to do the walk through for my house and get a Christmas tree – we decided that under the circumstances pulling off 2 Christmases was impossible, and so we joined forces to try and make just one happen.  2 nights after we arrived I went to my parents to sort and wrap all the gifts I had shipped to them.

His Mom brought the turkey.  My parents had made us Christmas cookies.  The furniture arrived the day after we did, and the dining room table was set up just about an hour before Christmas dinner was plated.  The house was full of boxes, not all the furniture had arrived, but we at least had a couch and beds, and Santa found his way to us.

But in January, I felt like a string had snapped.  I was exhausted, and daunted by all there was to be done.  Still, like a knot, I pulled one string at a time.  I brought out cookbooks I hadn’t seen in ages and started cooking, having almost forgot how much I enjoyed time in the kitchen.  I began planning the garden.

I was on the road every other week,  trying to balance a demanding career, motherhood, and the needs of my new environs.  Which is why adding to my responsibilities just a few weeks after we arrived seems counter-intuitive, but became the thing that grounded us here.

I had given away the chicken coop and supplies when we moved to Florida a few years back.   Sithean had no outbuildings other than the garage, so I thought chickens would have to wait a year until I could buy or build a coop.  But enter next door – they had chickens that ranged and wanted to replenish their flock, we wanted chicks, and the first joint experiment emerged as a result.

The effect on the kids when 6 little fluffballs arrived was striking.  My daughter remembered chickens and bunnies, my son had been too young.  She still mourned her first home, because it represented the time when we had been a family unbroken.  But tiny cute creatures that need constant love and attention are hard to resist –  in some way, the chickens  made this a place where we would build a life.

It was the sign of transition from ‘new house’ to ‘home’.

The Little Things

I always know it’s spring, even if the weather doesn’t agree, because it’s baby season.  Not the human kind, those with very tiny feathers.

Last year was the first co-chickening endeavor with my neighbors.  We lost a lot of them though – our chickens range freely, and hawks and coyotes are a perpetual risk.  Just last night we lost Sweet Pea, our last Buff Orpington chicken.

Melissa, my neighbor, and I agreed that it was time to try a rooster again, but because we need to quickly augment a flock that is now down to 6 chickens, this morning we went to get 8 new baby chicks.  It takes more than 10 to keep both houses in daily eggs, and we can go up to 18 residents in the coop.

We somehow came home with 4 baby ducks as well, which has been my daughter’s dream for almost a year.  The ducks will live with the chickens in their coop when they are older, but for now, 2 shaving-filled plastic bins fill my house, and little shaving droppings are everywhere, no matter how much I clean up after them.

I wouldn’t trade it though, I adore chickens, and I think the ducks may be even more fun.

Chickens can have overhead – feed, heat lamps and heated waterers in the winter, and shavings for the coop.  But in comparison to their willingness to consume most of the leftover food in the house, as well as the fact that they lay an egg a day each, eat ticks with abandon, and their waste fortifies the soil, the overhead is worth it.  I never feel like we waste food here, because adult chickens will eat everything from week-old macaroni and cheese that got lost in the back of the fridge to the wilted lettuce from yesterday’s salad.

All they ask in return is a safe place to sleep, food and water.

So back to babies.  Those tiny little balls of fluff grow fast, but there’s nothing like a newly hatched chick nestled asleep in your hand to make you appreciate life.  And chicks are a great life lesson in responsibility for kids.

But most of all to me, chicks are a tiny – literal and figurative – sign of spring.  Spring is the season for babies in nature, of starting over, of renewal.  And most of all, of the human capacity for love.

Happy spring from my home to yours.