Monday, December 28, 2015

August, September, October, November, December Accounting

To start with, my usual spiel:

Why not buy new? In a word, externalities. All of us who can access the internet on an electronic device, are more or less the 1% of the world's population who benefit unfairly from the sweat, habitat destruction, pollution, ill health, exploitation and death of the 99% whose lives are degraded in some way so that we can have machines to wash our clothes and make our toast, and have access to cheap t-shirts and chocolate.

One day I woke up and the invisible wake of destruction that trails behind my trips to Target suddenly became unbearable, so I have started on a different path to providing for my needs and wants, and those of my lovely children, dog, two cats and two budgies.

Here are my guidelines:

1 Make do with what I have.
2 Try to find what I need second hand - there is a world of stuff out there that needs to be rescued and used again.
3 Buy from a local craftsperson.
4 As a last resort, buy from a local, independent store, so that at least my money stays in my community.

Clearly, although I might be devoted to not buying new, I am not devoted to regular reporting, although I am quite a devoted record keeper, and write down everything I spend so that now I can provide a belated, boring, but accurate report of my purchases of 'stuff' over the last half of the year. 


In August I bought... nothing. That is not to say I didn't spend any money - we spent a ridiculous amount on groceries, went bowling, The Girl had her wisdom teeth out, I paid bills, but no stuff. Awesome.


Bought new: Paintbrushes, paints and canvases from the local art supply shop for Posy's birthday.
Zips from the local fabric shop for Rosy who has been making pencil cases for her friends as gifts all year.
Chicken wire and some timber for the chicken palace.
A new vacuum cleaner head for the pool, but I found a local pool shop to buy this from, so it was more expensive, but so much better quality than our old Bunnings one. It actually stays attached to the pool hose without duct tape..

Bought second hand: Books, clothes and certain bits and pieces which I put away for Christmas.

Teaset, blackboard, scarf and letters for Rosy.


Bought new: Paint for the front fence, batteries for gizmos and torches. 
Two pairs of shoes for Posy from a local shoe store, which is such a relaxing place, and the service is exquisite. The owner, who served us, kindly put an extra hole in the straps of Posy's sandals to accommodate her narrow feet.

Bought second hand: More books, clothes for the children, and doodads for Christmas.

A wee, vintage pudding bowl for The Girl..

...and a wee Chinese plate


Bought new: A magazine, New Philosopher. I found it at the airport bookshop. Love, love it. Might buy more.
A battery for my old, defunct laptop, which I bought from a little shop that sells batteries for everything. Now Posy has her own electronic device, apart from her dad's old phone that she uses as an ipod. She is very happy. She might write a novel.


Bought new: Socks and undies for the children. From Target. Yes, I know. Damn. Reason being, Rosy was going on school camp, and didn't have enough underwear for nine days in the wilderness, and I hadn't had enough forethought to order any from an on-line ethical undie supplier. While I was there, I bought enough for everyone. Also for camp I bought Rosy some clothes from independent local camping suppliers, and a new bed mat as ours died. We borrowed a backpack, as I couldn't find ours - later I discovered it underneath all the Christmas decorations in the shed.

But, here is the evil thing about department stores - while I was in the belly of the beast I discovered that I also needed to buy a dress  and t-shirts for Posy for Christmas, also PJs for The Girl. And while I was on a roll of destructive behaviour I also went and bought a top for Rosy at Myer, and three shirts for The Boy for Christmas. Candles and stickers for Christmas stockings. Guilty binge shopping!

Just before Christmas a Typo store opened up down town. Our girls have been spending all their pocket money in this delicious faux-vintage stationery store for years whenever they can get to Hobart or Melbourne, so I was coerced into spending some money there on Christmas presents. A calendar, a gift card, a box of wooden letters for card-making, a pen that is also a fan(!), you know, things that are vital to the advancement of the species.

I also bought some clothes for my dad for Christmas from a lovely local menswear store. You know, the old-fashioned kind where a nice old man who looks rather like a gnome, in black pants, white shirt, black waistcoat, with a tape measure slung around his neck, comes and asks if he can help you. I found a shirt that was actually made in Australia. Extraordinary.

Two new books, one for me, one for my brother. Because, you know, books.

Mineral make up and make up brush from The Body Shop

A fold-up, reusable bag and a reusable travel mug for The Girl for Christmas from a little kitchen shop in town.

Kitchen bits and bobs and Christmas decorations for gifts from the Oxfam shop.

Drawing pencils for Posy for Christmas from our art supply shop.

A saving grace for Christmas was the regular, local, pre-Christmas craft fair. I bought pretty things for each girl (and they bought something nice for me), plus some gifts for birthday party presents.

A framed print for Rosy, and a cactus in a home-cast concrete pot for Posy from the craft fair.

Bought second hand: More Christmas knick-knacks, of course. Including some for me:)

A new flower tin. Now there are two, it is officially a collection:)

Thoughts. Apart from my Christmas panic buying, I think this year went quite well. What I have learned is that shopping at those big box stores is all about convenience. We can get what we what at the moment we think about it. Any other option requires more planning, and that seems like an outrageous inconvenience to those of us who believe we should be able to have what we want whenever we want it. On the other hand, is that a character trait we want to encourage in ourselves and our children? Really, no.

On the other, other hand - yes, I have more than two hands because I am a mother - organisation and forward planning are just not my thing, so this method of acquiring 'stuff' is quite painful. Actually going out the door to go to the shops is like... well... do you remember The Little House on the Prairie books, when during the Long Winter Almanzo rides out in the teeth of a blizzard to find enough wheat to save the town until Spring? That is how I feel every time I am faced with the thought of shopping. Up until this year, the only way I could bear to keep my children in clothes and shoes was to brace myself, race around town for two hours, acquire everything I needed in one fell swoop, then limp home exhausted, thankful that I didn't have to do that again for at least six months. 

Sometimes I went second hand shopping, but not often enough for it to be a reliable source of stuff. I think that in order to dress everyone mostly second hand (which I thoroughly approve of) I would need to pop into a couple of op shops at least every fortnight, with a list of needs that is at least six months ahead of when those things are actually needed. For instance, I finally found a new (second hand) rash vest for Posy this Spring.. only nine months after I started looking.

Other thoughts. Shopping at small, independently owned stores is the best. I love talking to the owners about where their stock comes from, and discovering how passionate and knowledgeable they are about books/fabric/ukeleles/shoes/computer batteries. Amazing people. And I want to live in a city filled with tiny retail spaces run by passionate, knowledgeable people who can make stuff, alter stuff, source the best stuff, and provide impeccable service, and also provide dignified jobs for our children and fellow townsfolk.

So am I going to continue Buying Nothing New - yes, and I will be kicking it up another notch. I believe there is a way to revitalise our urban and suburban communities, and it starts with the way you and I live our lives every day. Stay tuned for the 2016 project..

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Saving Christmas


Oh, the joy of waking up on Boxing Day, with absolutely nothing planned except laundry and gardening, and hearing the rain starting to patter, then pour down. You know what that means? Now I have absolutely nothing planned at all, so I might as well stay in bed all day. From the sounds of quiet I expect everyone else in the house has the same idea.

I am also very, very happy because this is the first 'proper' rain we have had in about three months. We have had a very dry Spring, and a hot, dry December, and such rain as we have had has been in half-hearted showers, not a proper downpour. Here in Tasmania, which produces all of its home grown electricity via big hydro dams, we have been importing 40% of our electricity from Victoria for the last few months, via the Basslink cable laid across the seabed of Bass Strait, because our dams are down to around 25% of their capacity. Last week, the cable broke. Oops. It will take up to sixty days to fix it. I was listening to a Hydro representative on local radio who mentioned, as if in passing, that it might be a good idea for Hydro customers (ie, everyone in the state), to consider contingency plans... Mmhmm, you think so??

We are doing our bit to bolster the energy pool by producing about 50kW hours per day from our solar panels, but as they are grid-connected, if the grid goes down, so does our power. We have a gas stove-top and a gas barbecue, so we will be right for cooking and cups of tea (very important for morale), and we can swim in the pool instead of taking hot showers - however, the pool itself worries me, because in summer it only takes a couple of days with no filtration to start growing nasty slime. I'm still cross about that pool. The Man insisted on putting one in, and now he's gone, and I get to spend all Summer cleaning it... I do gaze at it thoughtfully sometimes, wondering if I could turn it into a fish farm, you know, like a medieval stew pond, send the children out to catch dinner..

But anyway, fingers crossed, if electricity does need to be rationed over the next two months, hopefully we get enough to keep the pool from turning into a giant penicillin petri dish.

All this is rather a long preamble to a discussion about Christmas dinner, which was lovely, by the way. What with our own family plus the two other families we always spend Christmas with, plus our grannies and another granny, and one of The Boy's friends who was home alone on Christmas Day, we had sixteen of us altogether sitting down to Christmas lunch, on the hottest Christmas Day I can remember here in Tasmania, topping out at 29C (84F). Usually we have lunch in our sunken courtyard right outside the back door, at a long table under a big umbrella. That is, except for the years when it a) rains or b) hails or c) is so cold that we actually light the fire (disclaimer, ok, b and c only happened once).

Benson wondering when the silly-hat-season will be over

Yesterday was so hot that we couldn't eat inside (no air-conditioning, many bodies) and I thought we would probably also roast like a traditional Christmas dinner in the courtyard (afternoon sun beating down), so I had The Boy and my dad move our table up under the pear tree in the back yard. Actually, we have a pear tree and a plum tree growing close enough together that we normally string a hammock between them, and they provided magnificent deep shade all afternoon for our table plus room for sixteen guests, plus one of the day beds from up at the pool, as one of our guests has recently had spinal surgery and needed to recline.

It was a wonderful solution - we were quite cool, and caught every breeze, were close enough to be able to watch the children in the pool, and as one of the guests noted, the difference between the shade of a tree and an umbrella is that the tree funnels hot air up through its leaves like a chimney, whereas the umbrella just traps it.

My actual point, which I am finally getting to now, is that previously on a hot day I shut up the whole house to preserve the overnight indoor coolth, and did very little except droop dejectedly in front of a fan. The outside seemed far to hot to venture into. Now I have realised that we have what is effectively a lovely outdoor room under our fruit trees that we can repair to during the long, hot afternoons of Summer. Up to now I have looked out at the shade far away across the burning hot lawn dead grass, and imagined that the house must be so much cooler than anywhere outside, but clearly I was wrong. Sometimes I just love being wrong!

Now, I know many of you are reading this and thinking, "Huh! 29C isn't hot!" But all I can say is that if you haven't experienced the Tasmanian sun, you can't imagine how hot 29C can be. My parents, who regularly experience 40C (104F) days in Adelaide both agree that in the full sun, Tasmania is much hotter than the equivalent temperature in other parts of Australia. Why? No idea. Is it the hole in the ozone layer right over Tassie? Or that we are further from the equator and the angle of the sun is different? Maybe it is our clear blue skies? No idea, but for whatever reason, we try to avoid the sun on hot days here.. it burns, it burns.. we often don't even use the pool on hot afternoons because the deck is so burning hot, even under an umbrella.

So now I am planning some thrifted wicker furniture to add to the hammock under the fruit trees to make use of another space in our little family estate, to expand the hours we can spend in the pool, to reduce the hours we need to spend in a dark room with the fan on. Honestly, I just can't believe I never spent a hot afternoon in the shade of our trees before. It makes me wonder, how many other corners of our property are totally under-utilised right now?

Here's hoping that your Christmas was as happy, warm (if only in the metaphorical sense), breezy and friendly as mine was, and that your Boxing Day is just as relaxing and non-productive as mine is.. left-overs, I just love left-overs..

Finally, a Christmas craft I feel I am really good at - tying string around Mason jars and filling them with baubles.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Pot Plant I Didn't Kill

This morning, as Benson-the-Friendly-Puppy and I took our constitutional, we met a tiny girl out walking with her grandpa. The tiny girl was carrying a red plastic spatula.

"Have you been cooking?" I enquired.

"No," replied her grandpa, "She is taking the spoon for a walk."

On a completely different note, last year I planted privet in the pot at the front door, in desperation as I have so far killed everything I have planted there. No morning sun, and fierce afternoon sun has killed many plants so far, and others have been killed off by blight, pest infestation, or gardener neglect (that would be me forgetting to water). But so far, fingers crossed, the privet is thriving. Here is the privet in December 2014:

Here it is today:

It would be several feet higher but for severe and regular pruning. This is the longest I have kept a plant alive at the front door, so hallelujah! I must admit, I have been watering it daily, which obviously helps. I have a jug on the kitchen bench which is exactly the right size to hold all the cold water that comes out of the kitchen tap while waiting for it to warm up.

The smaller jugs are also receptacles for waste water from glasses and drink bottles, plus the half-cups of herbal tea which I find all over the house. Sigh. Anyway, the privet loves it.

And, I knew you'd ask - yes, privet turns out to be useful as well as ornamental. Should I ever require a green dye, privet will supply it for me, as well as reducing noticeable grey in my hair when I use it as a hair rinse (possibly by dyeing it green??). Also it will cure my bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory infections, as well as acting as a powerful laxative. What's not to like?

Meanwhile, if you are tired of being conventional and want to give the neighbours something to talk about, why not rifle through your utensil drawer and take some of your spoons for a walk? This is guaranteed to be more fun than Christmas shopping.

Updated to add: As Fran noted in the comments - all parts of privet are poisonous. I remember when I first put it in feeling a bit like a wicked witch, flanking the front door with poisonous plants - surely very bad feng shui as well! This does not mean that privet is not medicinally helpful - think of digitalin or belladonna from other poisonous plants. However, I would no more munch on privet leaves if had pneumonia than I would make a salad of foxgloves leaves to treat a dicky heart. I am not a herbalist, and none of my posts on useful ornamental plants is meant as medical advice. I am rather hoping to share my wonderment of the enormous benefits of the common plants that grow all around us.

Apparently privet is banned for cultivation in some places as its flowers can cause eczema and other allergies. Also, horses can be poisoned by munching on privet hedges. As I am using mine for ornamental topiary balls, they won't ever have the chance to flower or fruit, and not many horses make it up the six steps to my front door... but maybe take these points into consideration before planting any at your place..

Friday, November 27, 2015

True Christmas Riches

Yet no matter how rich we manage to become, something human in us says our true worth is reflected by what we ourselves create.
John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables

Yes, Christmas is coming again, which always makes me feel a wee bit tired. My girls are very big on Christmas. Like every other sane person in the world, I like Christmas to be calm, family-and-friend oriented, and of course, not about stuff. But for children, it is about stuff, wrapped up under the Christmas tree. So my commitment to avoid the proliferation of stuff on the planet has led me to encourage my marvellously creative and artistic children to let their imaginations run wild and make lovely gifts for each other and me, using what we have as much as possible. 

Here are some of their triumphs:

A couple of years ago I commissioned The Girl to paint these canvasses for Rosy's room. She used old, painted canvasses that the girls didn't want any more, and painted over them with white ceiling paint from the shed. The minty green was a sample pot from the paint store, in Rosy's favourite colour. The Girl found the design on the internet, and transferred it freehand (yes, she is rather clever) to stencils made from butcher's paper and sticky tape. I would never in a million years have been able to produce such a beautiful product, but she is patient and careful, qualities that I lack.

In her turn, Rosy made this artwork for her little sister, Posy. We bought the shadow-box frame from some discount store (this was before we started our Buy Nothing New Year, but I have seen these in op-shops since..), and the Japanese washi paper from our local art supply store, which sells it by the sheet.

The pin wheels are made from the pages of an old book (I keep any of our op-shop specials that fall apart), and the buttons are from the button jar, something which every family needs to entertain the children on a wet afternoon (oh, and also because spare buttons are useful).

Rosy made a similar picture for The Girl: 

A washi paper background again, this time with origami butterflies made out of old sheet music that belonged to my mother. I love the juxtaposition of flying storks and flying butterflies.. I must recommend an origami book for every family with children. I don't know how many hours have been happily passed with the girls and their friends engrossed in paper folding around the kitchen table. And now they can make such beautiful objets d'art..

Speaking of which, the magnificent origami ball in the photo at the top of the post was made for me by The Girl for Christmas a couple of years ago, and is one of my favourite Christmas presents ever.

And, just to prove that although I am a reluctant crafter, I do turn my hand to a creative enterprise occasionally, here is a little project I created for Rosy's birthday earlier in the year. It is a wipeable whiteboard, except that it is, as you will note, actually black. I made it with a framed print from the op-shop ($1.50). I took the cardboard print out and spray-painted it black, cleaned the rather dirty glass, decided the slightly chipped white paint of the frame was the look I was going for anyway, and put it all back together. I did purchase a wipeable chalk-paint marker pen from the art supply shop, and wrote 'Happy Birthday' on the glass with it, and that was Rosy's birthday card. Since then a succession of uplifting remarks have appeared on it in Rosy's elegant handwriting. I particularly like this one..

This year, a selection of new and interesting home-made gifts is being prepared. As I write, Posy is busy creating a painted name-board for her classmate who is her Secret Santa draw for the class Christmas party. 

Meanwhile, my commitment to humble gifts continues, and jars of jam, home-made Christmas goodies and potted plants from my garden are destined for my friends, family and colleagues this year. 

Thursday night saw our Living Better With Less Group gather together for our 'Christmas do' with home-made Christmas snacks, and a present-swap consisting of 'Christmas in a Jar' (jam, chutney, lemon butter, vanilla syrup, home-made candles, home-cured olives, home-made cleaning products, and a bag of wonderful home-made compost!). I gratefully received an IOU for a soon-to-be-hatched Australorp hen to come and live with me in a couple of months' time:) I am always so happy to be back at the Living Better Group - it is like coming back to my tribe. The ones who get it. A simple life, home-made, not glamorous, but meaningful and real, and if indeed our "true worth is reflected by what we ourselves create," then we here are all rich indeed..

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Margaret's Garden

Earlier this year my mum and dad moved themselves across Bass Strait to come and live near me in Tasmania. They settled in the sleepy historical town of Longford, joined a local church, and proceeded to make dozens of friends, all of whom appear to be extraordinary gardeners. Last weekend Mum took me around the Longford open garden day. First stop, and my favourite of all the gardens was Margaret and John's place. Margaret and John are some of Mum and Dad's new friends, who run Aggie's Bed and Breakfast, with the rooms built and fitted out by John, and the garden lovingly planted by Margaret. It is one of the nicest, friendliest and most attractive gardens I have ever visited. All made out of bits and bobs and cast-offs that John picks up in his travels. It is not large, but is divided into private courtyards for privacy for the guests, which makes the garden seem much bigger. It makes me want to throw up some walls in my own garden and make a series of secret gardens, just like Margaret's..

Above is one of the courtyards, built around a big old eucalypt tree, hung about with fishing floats and bird houses, with a stone bench to perch on in the sun, planted about with ivy, and white false valerian.

This is a tiny corner of another small courtyard. Margaret has a particularly green thumb with the echevaria..

Of course, I was drawn straight to the vegie gardens. This one is raised behind a wee stone wall, built by John.

And this one, across the driveway, is backed by a hawthorn hedge, with a window cut into it to reveal the view of paddocks beyond.

Here is another hawthorn window, carefully placed in yet another tiny courtyard, so that the view can be appreciated while eating breakfast outdoors..

And after the vegie gardens, the chickens, are of course, the most important feature. John built their charming home, which they share with some elegant white doves.

I love this charming lady. I think brown chickens are absolutely perfect examples chicken-ness.

They are rather chuffed to find a cabbage in their string-bag snack buffet.

This is the other end of the chicken shed, and another part of the vegie garden. The faux paling fence is wonderfully ingenious - wire netting with slender palings woven through it. Even I could build a fence like that.. This is what I like about this garden - it is so simple, attractive and accessible.

Here is the outside wall of the next courtyard. Again, so simple, so beautiful. Paling-type fences, this time covered in roses.

Underneath the roses are hollyhock plants which will tower up in the summer, all around this gate which is straight out of The Secret Garden..

Climbing roses and foxglove spires. I love the little pots that pop up everywhere in the flower beds.

Here is Mum under the rose archway, entering the courtyard you can see in the first photo of the post.

Chickens, doves and bees. This is one happy garden.

There are treasures everywhere. Here, a wheelbarrow-full of spare pots - but one of them has a plant growing in it. Perfect:)

I asked Margaret about how she keeps all the echeveria looking splendid. She waters them every day. I know, even thought they are succulents. That is clearly why I keep killing mine. These are near the kitchen, so Margaret runs out with a tea-pot full of water for each of these beauties every morning.

 Dovecotes. Add a certain something to a backyard. I love the contrast of the severely clipped box cube with the fruit tree and the blowsy catmint lolling all over the lawn.

Again with the succulents. On a step-ladder! Can you see how much I am loving this garden??

More! More! I hear you say. Oh, but sadly I ran out of space on the camera. I hope you had just as much fun in Margaret's garden as I did. One day I will pop back and take photos of all the spaces I missed this time. I am so impressed at how much Margaret and John have managed to fit into what is really not a very large garden. By dividing it up into small, intimate spaces though, they have made their garden into a journey that reveals something new around every corner.. and shows how much can be done very simply, with imagination.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Banish Housekeeping Guilt!

Today I have an email to share from a lovely reader who contacted me recently with her housekeeping dilemma. She has kindly agreed to let me publish it and respond to it here:

I have been reading your blog as I've been trying to get myself organised so that life can be that bit easier.

I just wondered how on earth you went from being a really untidy person to a tidy one? I always feel that it would be so much easier if I could just tidy up as I go along. However, it never seems to happen. My husband and I go through phases and we might be tidy for a week but things then quickly slip.

I really liked reading your step by step blog but how do you find the time to do so much each day?  I work 2.5 days per week and I have a 6 year old and 3 year old and I just don't think I could have the time to be so thorough. Do you work?

Anyway I hope you don't mind me contacting you.  I'm always interested in how other people do it as I seem to spend my life in a constant state of guilt -  guilt if I do clean and I'm not with my kids enough and guilt if I don't keep on top of the house.

Of course, the original housekeeping routine I published here was written for a family of six by a stay-at-home-mum. I'm currently working on a plan for a household of four with a single mum working part time. But honestly, working out a housekeeping routine is the easy part. The hard part is unpacking the reasons that we feel so overwhelmed in the first place.

So let's start with that constant state of guilt, which, of course, dear reader, you share with so many of us. Guilt is such an interesting emotion. Let's contrast it with another emotion, shame. At first glance, guilt and shame might appear to be synonymous, but they are subtly different. Shame is our friend. Shame tells us that we have done something wrong, and shouldn't do it again. Yelled at the kids, kicked the dog, betrayed a friend. Particular actions that we don't want to repeat.

Guilt though, is an evil, amorphous black cloud that hangs over our heads and can never be assuaged because it has no parameters. 'Mummy guilt' stems from the ridiculous myth that mothers should be perfect, selfless saints at all times, and devote their lives exclusively to their children. Guilt about housekeeping stems from the equally egregious myth that our worth as women is linked to how close we are to that perfect internalised standard for gold-plated femininity - thin, pretty, compliant, devoted wife and mother, domestic goddess.

Not only does guilt condemn us to failure because no-one can possibly meet those standards, it condemns us because the goal-posts move all the time - just how 'pretty' is 'pretty' for instance? We can always be thinner, nicer or more devoted, because none of these variables are actually measurable, which means we will be feeling guilty forever.

Now, let's just stop here for one tiny minute and think about who stands to benefit from our constant sense of guilt? Oh, yes! It is the 'pretty' industry, the 'thin' industry, the purveyors of 'things' which will make us appear to be better and more devoted mothers (education, toys, cute kid clothes, cute kid accessories), and those who attempt to seduce us with Kitchenaid mixers and decorative tat, all the better to allow us to pose as Domestic Goddesses..

Yes, people, again I am angry at the proliferation of STUFF, this time not just because it is wrecking our future on the planet, but because it is making us feel terrible AS WELL!! We will never win at the 'perfect woman' game, so why don't we all just stop playing? We can take the power back into our own hands and decide ourselves what we are going to look like, how we are going to live, what values we are going to live by, and that actually, yes, we are pretty damn good parents..

Guilt is encouraged by powerful interests to make us feel constantly unhappy with our lives. Shame is helpful. Why? Because it encourages a measurable outcome. If I yell at the kids because we are always late, and I feel bad about that, then I can arrange the day so that we are not late, then I don't yell at the kids, and then I have succeeded. That's nice. Determining to be a more devoted mother, on the other hand, has no measurable outcome, so how will I know when I am there? Never, that's when.

So really, looking for actions with measurable outcomes is a wonderful remedy for mother guilt. Let's talk about spending more time with your small children. If you work for two and half days, then you have four and a half days each week with your children. Let's say they are awake fourteen hours a day - that is around sixty-four waking hours a week you spend with your kids. Wow! They are so lucky! I bet you are exhausted!

Now, I am hearing you in that it is possible to feel like those sixty-four hours are almost entirely taken up with household chores. As I wrote in my last post, housework will happily chew up all the time you devote to it because it never ends. There are always dirty dishes, dirty laundry and dog hair. These things never go away. Therefore the secret is to set limits.

If you can divide the household chores into daily chore lists, you can complete your daily list, then have the rest of the day to hang out with the kids guilt-free. Of course, there is no reason you have to do all the jobs on your list either. If you can work out an equitable system with your husband, and post a list of jobs on the refrigerator so that everyone knows who is expected to do which job on which day, then all the better. Only you know what level of cleanliness you are both happy to live with, so your list might be very different to your next-door neighbour's. But the key point here is knowing when to stop. This is one of the things I love about my workplace. I work from 9 to 3, then I get to go home. If we don't set the same limits with the chores we do at home, they will expand to take up the whole day. If you set the timer for an hour, then you are more likely to race through your daily jobs efficiently, then have time for play.

Next, let's talk about being tidy. I love your question about how I turned into a tidy person. So funny. I never did. I still have the capacity to exist quite happily in the midst of an enormous mess and ignore it completely while I read my book. What changed was that over time I decided that I want to live in a reasonably tidy house where I was reliably likely to be able to find my keys/glasses/library books/children when I wanted them. This doesn't involve a personality change, merely a boring set of routines.

I consider myself to be a flexible and spontaneous person, and the word 'routine' always set my teeth on edge, but oh, my goodness, it is so much easier to be creative when your environment is peaceful and organised. It's also easier to be flexible and spontaneous if next week's school uniforms are already washed and so much nicer to invite people over on the spur of the moment if you know there is somewhere for them to sit down when you all arrive home.

I think as a tidy newbie, it is best just to focus on the living areas (this is me by the way. I still dump things in my bedroom. It's all a work-in-progress). The key to being tidy here is to institute a morning and evening tidying-and-cleaning-the-kitchen routine, and what motivates me to do this is imagining how immensely pleased my future self will be to wake up to, or come home to a clean kitchen and tidy living room. In the morning before I leave the house I aim to: clear the breakfast table, wash the dishes, put away all the food, and wipe down the benches. I also make sure the living room is tidy. Sometimes this involves refusing to let the children leave the house until they have put all their things away..

In the evening before bed I make sure the table is cleared and wiped down, the dishes are done, food put away, benches wiped, and again, that everything is put away from the living room. If you have quite the cluttered living areas you might want to limit this tidying period to five minutes. But if you do five minutes twice a day, every day, you will have it clear and clean in a very short time. It generally takes me only a minute or two to do this job every day.

Friends of mine with small children have a system which seems to work for them - she puts the children to bed while he does the evening jobs, then the next night they swap. And what a wonderful way to regain some adult space in the house every evening!

The absolute best way to keep the house tidy with small children though, is to employ the kindergarten teacher technique. Every kindergarten room I have worked in is tidied up by the children three times a day. Yes, the four year olds 'reset' the table stations they have worked on, put away the toys they have been playing with, stack the chairs and spray-and-wipe the tables. Ten minutes before every break is reserved for this and because it happens three times every day, they are brilliant at it by the time they are five. If they can do it at school, they can do it at home. It requires us as parents to structure that into our schedule though. Ten minutes on top of the finding-shoes-and-bags margin every time we go out, ten minutes before every meal, ten minutes before bed. I have to admit, I came to this technique too late to try it with my own small children, and I am actually really terrible at remembering to do this, but the eleven year old (and her endless art projects) and I are currently working on it together...

Dear reader, I do hope this helps a little. While practical tips can be useful, the older I get the more I think that some of the most useful work we can do in our daily lives is to pay attention to our negative emotions, and deconstruct the stories that are making us feel bad. Life is too short to let society punish us for something we are not even doing wrong..

Always remember - being a good housekeeper is not a virtue. Having a clean and tidy house is pleasant and conducive to a calm and organised life. But let's not forget that it is only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Get those chores out of the way and then you can really start living:)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Housekeeping and Mental Health

I always feel immensely awkward writing about housekeeping. There are the world's excellent housekeepers, and then there's me, just muddling along. At any one time there are all sorts of messes, piles of, er, treasures, and egregiously begrimed windows decorating my house. But I came from a place where I was overwhelmed with housework and the demands of the day, to a place now where I can get on with my day, and the housework is just there in the background. Housekeeping is such an automatic routine now that I hardly think about it. In fact it can be very calming and grounding, working away with my hands as they confidently wash and wipe and fold and scrub while my thoughts are elsewhere. Why grounding? Because suddenly I 'come to' and find I have finished cleaning the bathroom, or folding the washing and it is rather a lovely surprise to know that my hands are so capable and sensible while my mind is so flighty! There is a sense I have now that housework has found a good and useful place in my life - I am not a slave to it, but it doesn't scare me either. I may have an almost permanently untidy laundry, but I have a living area that is calm and restful and clear, which makes me very happy indeed.

But again, perfectly clean and tidy my house is not, so yes, I do feel like a bit of a fraud holding forth about housekeeping. And yet - every week, dozens of readers come here to this site because they are 'overwhelmed by housework', so every now and then I go back to thinking about why I do what I do in the house, and share some of the revelations that have helped me. Today, I am reflecting on the role of housework in lifting my mood when I am unhappy or stressed. This may seem just a little too Pollyanna-like for all you sensible and healthily sceptical lifelong housework-avoiders out there, but bear with me..

When I think back to my days of a very messy house with too much stuff and no idea what to do about it, I realise that I was very unhappy. I was in an unhappy relationship, and it would be years before I would admit that to myself, let alone take a hand in resolving it.

Don't get me wrong, I am not blaming my untidiness on unhappiness - I have always been somewhat untidy, somewhat vague and disorganised, but I think that maybe our natural tendencies are exacerbated by stress. Some of my very good friends, who I like even though they are neat and organised, become clean demons when they are stressed. If they are unhappy or traumatised they clean the house, then wash the windows, then start cleaning the cracks at the sides of the drawers with a toothbrush. I must say I think this is a very useful response to stress.

My response to stress is to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. Another one is to distract myself by starting dozens of projects and never finishing any of them. Another is to re-read my entire Agatha Christie collection without drawing breath. None of these responses accomplishes anything useful, and adds a great deal more mess and stress to daily life.

I was in the garden the other day, buzzing about weeding and planting, and thinking that finally, after fifteen years I might possibly be getting to a place where I had put enough effort in to be getting the garden I wanted, and I wondered how it had taken so long, and why I couldn't have put those hours in years ago, and I realised, "Well, it's because I'm happy. It's so much easier to finish a project when I'm happy."

And this is indeed true, BUT it is not the whole story. I started to declutter and started learning how to keep house some years before anything changed in my unhappy relationship, and in the early days it felt like I was pushing boulders uphill just to accomplish the least little thing. But that was the key. Accomplishing the least little thing.

Last year, for some reason that is to this day completely unclear to me, I decided that I needed to be able to do ten push-ups. At that point I could do three, which I thought was a bit pathetic. I decided that every day for a month I would do three push-ups, but that on the first of the next month I would do four. Well, I did, and it worked. For seven months I did one more push-up each month, and now I can do ten. I presume I could keep going until I could do fifty in several years' time, but that would just be silly:) Ridiculous, I know, but it taught me something actually useful, far more useful than being able to do push-ups. Permanent change happens slowly. It is quite hard work, but changing one little thing and continuing to do it faithfully every day, and then periodically adding one more little thing adds up to great change.

Maybe for us messies our mess is exacerbated by unhappiness, and bravely looking at the causes of that unhappiness and beginning to resolve it is terrifying but liberating, and may make everything else easier. But by the same token, don't underestimate the power of a little organisation, a clean kitchen bench and up-to-date paperwork. Many years ago I read a lot about feng shui, and came to the conclusion that really it exploits the subconscious connection that we all have with our environment, and the intentions we have when we make the changes. I don't think there is a linear causal effect going on, but more of a powerful feed-back loop. When we take a little step to change our environment we feel accomplished, happy and powerful, which gives us the energy and motivation to take another little step. And maybe, just maybe, the more responsibility we take for changing our environment, the more we will be able to make the big changes in our life that lead to happiness as well.

There is a lot of air-time, mostly in advertising, but also in the self-help industry, devoted to the concept of self-care and 'me-time'. I have to say I regard this trend very warily. Not because self-care is at all a bad thing, but because I believe it is often applied quite wrong-headedly.

If you are a madly energetic Type-A person who responds to stress by ramping up activity, like my darling friends who clean the house when they are upset, then yes, learning how to calm down and take breaks is really very useful. But me? When I am stressed I go to bed, or read, or go straight to the internet. This is not self-care people, this is distraction and avoidance tactics. The very best thing I can do for myself is to face up to what I am avoiding, and have a little chat to myself. I ask myself about what is worrying me and I make a little plan of how I might resolve it, or who I might be able to discuss it with (I am not very good at sharing my angst and worry, but I am slowly beginning to understand that old granny proverbs such as 'A problem shared is a problem halved' are actually bang on the money). And do you know where is the best place to make such a plan? No, it is not under the covers, or between the covers of a book, or on a screen. It is while working your way down the list of chores for the day.

Washing the dishes, dusting and vacuuming are brilliant activities to do while resolving problems because they are completely automatic and leave your mind free to wander. And here's the thing - these jobs need to get done whatever your mental state. At the end of an hour when your house is clean, you have achieved something splendid, and the endorphin rush is marvellous. Then you have the energy to walk the dog, call a friend, and maybe even begin to resolve the issue. But the important point I want to make, is that for many people, self-care is not about taking a break, it is about achieving something useful, and giving yourself something to be proud of. And once the list of chores is completed, then a break is truly well-earned.

I find that any time I am in a situation where life is just getting on top of me, the worst thing I can do is go to bed and try and make the world go away. It never does. The jobs just pile up, and the sense of doom hanging overhead gets much, much worse. By that time, I am not only stressed by the original issue, but by everything left undone while I wallowed.

Mimi always has brilliant advice for getting things done, and she often quotes her mum, who would tell her, "Darling, just do one thing. Then just do one more thing." Sometimes I cannot face the thought of all I have to get done in a day, so I just concentrate on the one thing I need to do right now. Clear the breakfast things. OK, I can do that. Now do the dishes. Now wipe down the bench. Oh, and suddenly the kitchen is clean, and there is that little spark of self-satisfaction that will motivate me onwards and upwards.

This is not a situation where it is at all useful to get carried away making enormous plans though. Deciding whilst in a fragile mental state to declutter and spring clean the entire house is a very bad idea, because it is bound to fail, and then self-loathing sets in, and that is not fun. What is a good idea is to have a housekeeping routine with specific jobs for specific days. Mine can be found here, but it is very easy to write your own on the back of an envelope right now. Vacuuming Monday and Friday, bathrooms on Tuesday, laundry on Wednesday and Saturdays, dishes and cleaning the kitchen benches morning and night, tidying the living areas every evening before dinner, and every morning after breakfast. Or whatever suits you. Why is this important? Because then you know when to stop! Housekeeping is an invidious eater of time. It can keep on finding jobs for us forever. And that would be a terrible waste of a life. What we really want to do is to grow edible perennials or write poetry or do quantum physics, not endlessly clean the house. But if we don't have a lovely peaceful space to live in it is hard to concentrate on artichokes, iambic pentameter or neutrinos. So, on Monday morning after you have tidied, washed dishes, wiped the kitchen bench and vacuumed, you are done! The house is presentable, and you can get on with the rest of your day. You don't have to worry about all the rest of the jobs, because they have their own day. This is a system that kept our grandmothers sane, and we should always pay attention to the wisdom of grannies...

So here is the thing I have learned - housekeeping is really about self-care. It is kinder to yourself in the long run to do the jobs that keep the household running smoothly, because then life will run more smoothly. Tidying and vacuuming won't solve your anxieties or troubles, but it will make you feel better because you have achieved something positive, and made your house a nicer place to be.

Lastly, be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Sometimes you won't get your jobs done. This happens in our house several times a week. Self-loathing has never historically solved a single problem. Tomorrow is another day (although seriously, doing the dishes tonight will make tomorrow a much better day)..

Next time - a case study from a very lovely reader who is finding it hard to keep house, work and be a mum to small kids all at once. Fancy that:)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Edible Ornamentals - Sedum Autumn Joy

I have a very small front garden which I have stuffed full of beautiful edibles, with a few irresistible ornamentals and some medicinal herbs as well. Always room for more though. Today I added a tarragon plant, and contemplated what to replace the spent forget-me-nots with - there are now several square feet of earth all fed, watered, covered with a pea straw mulch and just waiting for a summer crop to fill the space. While I was pottering about the garden, weeding, feeding and pruning I contemplated one of my favourite ornamentals, the sedum Autumn Joy.

This perennial plant is a joy in all seasons. In Spring it pops up out of the ground, forming an elegant, tight green ball. Here it is, flanked by love-in-a-mist which is just about to bloom, with garlic chives in front, feverfew and giant artichokes behind and the apple tree in the background.

In summer it produces glorious pink flowers which are always covered in bees, and also beloved by our resident praying mantis family.

Image from

In winter its dead flower heads provide a beautiful sculptural structure in the midst of a rather bare perennial garden bed. It can be easily propagated by division, and just this spring I have discovered that it even self-seeds. So what's not to love? If only, I thought, it was edible or medicinal as well, that would just be the icing on the cake..

Well, as it turns out, sedums, or stonecrop, are all edible (click on 'stonecrop orpine'), with the leaves and the roots both apparently good cooked in stir fries, or used in stocks and soups (they are mucilaginous, so good thickeners). Some people use them in salads. I tried some, and to be honest, with a garden full of lettuces, I don't think the sedums will be my go-to salad ingredient.. I don't know, maybe very early spring is the best time to eat them. My sedum is about to burst into flower, so maybe it gets bitter then like lettuce does.

But, if I ever need a remedy for diarrhorea, piles, 'gnawing of the bowels' or quinsy (I didn't know what quinsy was, but keep coming across it in old novels so I looked it up and now wish I hadn't)... I will know exactly where to go.

Its other popular use is to stop mosquito or other bug bites itching. Peel off the sticky film (this is a little fiddly), and apply it to the bite. Now this is very useful to know when out in the garden.

I am so excited and surprised to discover that one of my favourite ornamentals is also useful. I suppose I shouldn't be, because every plant no doubt has some properties which make it of use to us, if only as a deadly poison. We have such demarcated gardens in the modern world. Fruit here, vegie gardens over there, medicine from the chemist, flowers out the front, but other times and cultures use everything they can get their hands on to keep themselves fed and healthy, and that is what I want my garden to be as well. Ravishingly beautiful, productive and useful.

PS: I will stir fry some leaves and report back on whether this is a good idea or not so much..

Updated to add:

Today's lunch: egg strips plus stir-fried broccoli, broccoli stems, broccoli leaves, SEDUM LEAVES, garlic chives and pickled ginger. Really very yummy. Couldn't taste the sedum leaves at all, as they fried down to nothing. BUT apparently they are very good for the liver and kidneys, like other bitter greens (dandelions etc), so maybe I will toss some into the lunchtime stir-fry occasionally, because, you know, health food.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Tom the Tomato Man

So last week, I smugly planted all my seeds, expecting they would all pop up in a matter of days as they generallyoften, occasionally do.. no-one likes a smug gardener though, do they? First, Benson-the-enthusiastic-gardener-puppy (otherwise known as That Bloody Dog) dug up all the tomato seeds. I haven't had a dog and a spring garden before. Well, now I know. Also, I was thriftily using up all my old seed packets, and the only seeds that the dog didn't find, the zucchinis, still aren't up yet (Best Before 2013). Fingers crossed. The only gardening success I have had this week is with the two packets of fresh seed I planted, lettuce and snap peas, in nice tall dog-proof planters. Thank goodness for that..

But the tomatoes! What to do? In autumn my friend Karlin and I visited a local gardener to buy some sauce tomatoes for making passata. His name is Tom. He is over ninety years old, and every year he grows dozens of tomato plants in his suburban back yard, and sells hundreds of kilos of tomatoes in the summer and autumn. What I didn't know is that in Spring he also grows hundreds of tomato plants from saved seed and sells them to local gardeners. I discovered this from the sign in his front yard when I walked past with the dog this week.

Well, wasn't this a serendipitous discovery? And while walking the tomato-eradicating dog too. Ironic. So I bought a dozen tomato seedlings. And seriously, if you live locally, you should too. I have never seen such healthy plants. All individually potted up, half a dozen different varieties, just bursting with health. Usually Tom takes them to Evandale Market over three weekends in the Spring, and sells them all there, but recently he tripped over the sill of his green-house, and has torn a ligament in his arm, so can't drive... and he needs to sell fifteen hundred tomato seedlings. Do pop over - 35 Amy Rd, Newstead. His is the house closest to the road - if you head up the driveway you will no doubt find Tom pottering about in the backyard. If not, bang on the door. He asked me to tell my friends.. so, friends, go buy a tomato plant from Tom.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Green and Thrifty

Some days my heart does little happy somersaults and I send thankful thoughts back to my past self who occasionally did just the right thing. Just over eleven years ago I was six months pregnant with Posy, and my very dear friend Karlin was helping me to plant two apple trees. Well, when I say 'helping', I mean, I pointed out where they should go and serenely folded my hands over the bump, while Karlin did the actual digging. And then I carried off a single clump of forget-me-nots from Karlin's garden to plant under the apple trees. Karlin's husband Ed was appalled. He had spent the last two years desperately trying to eradicate every last skerrick of forget-me-nots from his garden. He was convinced I had gone mad. But look! Sheets of forget-me-nots under the apple blossom. Yes, I have to weed forget-me-not seedlings out of the rest of the garden, over and over again, but I am convinced it is worth it. Next year I am planning pink tulips to peep through the forget-me-nots..

Anyway, how is any of this green and thrifty? Apple trees, gloriously pretty and produce food. Forget-me-nots - gloriously pretty and free, and reproduce themselves a thousand times over. I love my garden full of self-sown weeds:)

In other green and thrifty moments this week, I was given a bunch of kale from a friend's garden and cooked up an enormous warm potato salad with bacon and kale. I steamed the kale then tossed it with the bacon...

Then added rosemary, olive oil, salt and garlic aoli. That was lunch for everyone for several days.

This morning I washed the breakfast dishes then put all that hot, soapy water to good use cleaning out the fridge. There were some, ahem, casualties. But I also managed to save the last sad apples and pears and stew them with cinnamon for tomorrow's breakfast, and put a pot of vegetable and barley soup on to rescue the limp vegetables in the bottom of the 'crisper'.

Clearly, after that I needed to buy more vegetables, so I set out to do all errands that involved heavy lifting ( I am trying very hard to walk for errands that don't..). I came back with a 20kg bag of pool salt, a bale of pea straw, and exceptionally heavy vegies. 5kg of cheap carrots, which didn't fit in the fridge, so I chopped, steamed and froze half of them, for fast food when I need some 'veg in a bag'. And many large tubs of Greek yoghurt that were on sale. I really, really need to have a go at making some. Since I have banned just about every other food from the house the girls have taken to living on a yoghurt, oats, nuts, seeds and fruit mixture. We go through kilograms of yoghurt every week.

I went to the library just in time to avoid library fines. I am a star! And now I have a lovely new stack of delicious, delicious unread books. I just love the library:)

It is seed planting time. Once upon a time I fussed about with endless little pots of seedlings from August onwards. Now I just wait until the weather is warm enough and direct seed everything in the garden. I make tiny individual seed beds in the garden with a trowel full of compost to start the baby seeds off. So much simpler. And I still get ripe tomatoes more or less when everyone else does...

I love planting seeds. It seems just too easy. Of course, two weeks ago I weeded and fed the gardens, and put a little lime down, and sheep poo, and pea straw, and all of that nearly killed me, but today at 9.56am I decided to plant seeds, and at 10.04 I was done. Eighteen tomato plants, two zucchini, some lettuce and a few peas in pots.  I am determined to crack succession planting for lettuce and baby spinach this year (not a difficult feat, you understand, merely requiring planting some lettuce seeds every two or three weeks. Consistency. Not my thing).

Green and thrifty just goes on and on - as I am typing at the table, Rosy is in the kitchen making a banana cake out of the squishy bananas. Being thrifty is just so delicious.

Tell me about your green and thrifty week while I go and sample some of that cake...

Friday, October 9, 2015

What I Did On My Holidays

After the coldest winter in fifty years we are now having the warmest October. A mini-Summer during Spring. In slightly more northern states there has been a heat wave. Here in Tasmania we are merely gently thawing out, and cautiously exposing our alabaster limbs to the unaccustomed warmth and sunshine. After an insane week of cleaning last week, I spent the weekend quite unwell, and had to spend quite some time reading in the hammock to recover.

The old pear tree was in full, glorious bloom, and covered in hundreds of honey bees, several dozen tiny black native bees, which hover like dragonflies, and a solitary, rollicking bumblebee.

Despite wasting much time on the project, I could only manage a photo of a bee's backside. They were truly very, very busy.

So many lovely books, from a recent library raid. I won't bore you with them all, but - Elizabeth Gaskell! I haver never read anything of hers before, but have now remedied that. A contemporary and friend of both Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, her work reminds me most of the novels of George Eliot (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda). I loved the novel North and South which lays bare some very entrenched prejudices of Victorian society, and has some salient points of view about modern relations between capital and labour as well. I also had a volume of her Gothic horror short stories, which were intriguing but not amazing, all except for the tale of Lois the Witch, set in Salem at the time of the witch trials, which was frighteningly modern in these days of religious extremism.

But it hasn't all been about lying about in the hammock. I have nagged and encouraged all the girls to clean and vacuum their rooms, and throw some things away. They have also washed their windows, taken all of the winter bedding off and washed it, and cleaned out their clothes cupboards. My room is now home to large piles of clothing that needs to be sorted. Hmm, that wasn't quite what I hoped would happen. I have mopped all the floors, and the only rooms left to spring clean are the bathrooms. I am waiting for Rosy to make good on her promise to climb up on the ladder and clean all the mould off the ceiling (yes, I will be paying her well..), then I will attack the lower reaches.

Then, there is the garden. Our cold, cold winter wreaked havoc with my poor lemon trees, so now that there is little chance of more frost I have been pruning off the dead branches. Luckily lemon trees adore a good pruning once in a while, and hopefully these will bounce back. Next, feeding them prodigiously. Lemons love to eat.

I have also been transplanting perennials around the front garden while it has been the correct phase of the moon for transplanting. Soon, I will be able to plant the spring garden, and in anticipation have been weeding, digging and feeding various promising patches of earth. Come this time next year I hope to have a whole garden full of raised beds for planting, but this year the great project is the Chicken Palace, which is close to completion..

So, over to you. Books? Projects? Who has been Spring/Fall cleaning?