Monday, July 27, 2009

Stuff. Who Needs It?

Decluttering continues apace. Every Wednesday morning I pass a Salvation Army bin in my wanderings, and each week for months now I have had at least one, sometimes two shopping bags to donate. Sometimes garbage bags full. And there are bags behind my bedroom door ready for unsuspecting friends who drop by - children's clothes and piles of books. I was very excited when a friend revealed she was pregnant - more opportunity for sharing the joy! It amazes me that I still have stuff at all, but I do. Extraordinary. It all requires close inspection bearing that maxim of William Morris in mind - 'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.'

Coasters? Several sets for wedding presents. I have carted them around for far too many years. And here's the thing. I have never, ever owned a piece of furniture that requires a coaster. Out they go. Beautiful baby albums that I have never filled in, and honestly, never will. Out they go to somebody who is far more devoted to chronicling their child's first year than I ever was! I own seven frying pans, and only ever use three. They will be the next to go. And book lovers! It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bibliophile needs to own every single book she has ever read. Whisper! While it is heart wrenching to see books carried out the door by the carton load, it is sublime to consider a newly organised book shelf, with books only one deep, instead of piled precariously in front of each other, to the constant danger of passing small children. And I think I will probably be able to get through most days without consulting biographies of eighteenth century dramatists, or the entire works of several really dreadful Romantic poets, or The Man's collection of appalling crime thrillers that he reads on planes (and then never reads again). There is always the public library if such an emergency occurs.

And in other news - several months ago I had an ironing basket that contained the ironing, last season's ironing, several homeless cushions, most of the mending, plus a bag of candy canes (I could have sworn, when I made that Christmas Eve mercy dash on Santa's behalf, that I had bought candy canes. Now it turns out I was right). Now I don't even have an ironing basket! I threw out most of the clothes, which were only there because we didn't really want them, staged a marathon ironing effort over three nights with movies, and ever since have just piled up the ironing on the laundry bench, and ironed whenever the pile reaches the bottom of the window sill, which sadly, is about three times a week. Still, no pile, which is a joy. And a very small mending pile, which I am steadily attacking in the evening whenever I am awake enough after dinner.

While I am completely enjoying throwing things away, I'm still not finding any part of me that finds cleaning entertaining. Not even deep down. I am loving the whole clean thing when it happens, but then I also get more correspondingly grumpy when the five people I live with inevitably mess it up again. I am still searching for that Zen-like state where 'doing the dishes while doing the dishes' meets a 'noble acceptance of frightening results of combined creative forces of four year old and nine year old plus three of their friends.'

My challenge for myself this week is to clean up after every meal 'like I was never there'. This is the standard I set for the children when they ask if they can be more than usually 'creative'. They rarely quite get there, but they are getting minimally better as they get older. So this is the plan. After every meal, no one escapes until the dishes are done, table wiped down, food is away, and there is only a feeling of pleasant fullness to indicate that the meal ever happened. The family have been under martial law for several days now, except when I forgot several times, and they escaped. I have found two things so far. One is that the children are more likely to keep the kitchen clean if it is already clean. Two - the joy of walking in to a perfectly clean kitchen in the morning makes getting up seem almost worth it...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Teaching Revelation

It has taken a long while, but I have finally figured out a way to teach our foreign language of choice, French, that keeps everybody happy - cooking classes. What could be more French than cooking classes, and why did I not think of this sooner? For some years I have been conducting occasional French classes along the lines of thoses I had at school - conversation, flashcards, puppets. None of which ever inspired any of the children at all really. We have fun little French soirees every few weeks with my French friend Em and her children, and they are much more successful, as she graciously puts up with us murdering her beautiful language. The Domestic Goddess always cooks something deliciously French for these occasions, and one day when pressed for time, we cooked and practised our French at the same time. Sudden interest! Children diving for the dictionary and our French recipe book to look up cooking terms. The four year old suddenly producing entire French phrases. We talk about the ingredients, and measurements, we ask for things politely, and count and sing as we stir. And nobody is whining at all!

Maybe the difference is changing from passive to active learning; maybe it is not having me as teacher, but all of us as fellow learners; maybe it is because cooking is fun and sitting still being told stuff is not. Whatever, it works, and we all know the definition of true happiness is a half hour with absolutely no whining.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Why I Am Now Darning Socks

Many years ago, when my Granny would come and visit me, she would shake her head at the holey socks I always wore, start rummaging around in my sock drawer, and next week would return with a bouquet of freshly darned socks.

'But Grandma', I would say, 'They are only $2 socks. When they wear out I'll just buy more.'
'Well, now you won't have to, dear,' she would reply with a small, satisfied smile, while no doubt secretly appalled in her Depression-era raised soul at the profligate ways of the younger generation.

I remembered her last week as I contemplated the ladder in the toe of Rosy's expensive ballet stockings. I haven't really ever darned anything since Grandma taught me how as a teenager, but decided to try. I don't have a nifty wooden darning mushroom like she did, but The Ever Practical Man suggested the stainless steel coffee tamper that we use with the coffee machine, which worked perfectly, flat on top, rounded at the sides, and beautifully smooth so as not to snag the stocking. Darning really is a very satisfying art. It is really just a fiddly form of weaving as you can see in this incredibly boring but informative video. I used one strand of embroidery thread for Rosy's stockings, which turned them into a work of thrifty domestic art, whilst leaving me slightly cross eyed. Then, totally inspired by my small success, I kept on going. One strand of black embroidery thread for the black dress socks that the men of the house wear to work and school, and some stitches in time to save nine, sewing up all the tiny holes in the girls' socks that I would have previously ignored until they got too large and had to be thrown away.

Suddenly, Grandma's passion for darning began to make sense. It is about cherishing and respecting what you have, whether that is expensive ballet tights or two dollar socks. As I sit in the evening and darn it occurs to me to think about the people being paid a pittance to make these socks in the first place, half a world away, and to wonder if there isn't a better alternative. It makes me wonder, too, how much of our income I am frittering away on 'disposable' cheap socks. And that brings me back to the issue of 'stuff' again. Some months ago I set out to become the queen of clean, but somewhwere along the way it all became a giant exercise in decluttering, because you can't clean clutter. And then I realised just how much stuff we have that we don't need, and then I realised how much stuff we waste, which was a horrifying revelation for someone who thinks she cares about the state of the world we live in. I am now more determined than ever not to let all that 'stuff' in through the door. The more I sit and darn and think, the more I am convinced that the mindless attrition of cheap socks (please substitute your own current bugbear here - plastic happy meal toys, perhaps, or new electric kitchen gadgets)isn't respectful - of ourselves, because we are kidding ourselves if we think new socks are the key to happiness, of the planet, because buying new socks is a colossal waste of resources (and where, I wonder, did I imagine all those old socks went - to a lovely sock retirement farm somewhere? Or was I convinced that elastene is somehow compostable?), or of the people who make the socks in some revolting third world factory, maybe with child labour, maybe with unsafe working conditions, certainly without a reasonable wage. Bad socks! Will be going on the Do Not Buy list.

Darning can become quite a subversive activity. You have been warned.