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:)