Christmas morning this year began at 4.55am. I thought we had grown out of pre-dawn Christmas starts, but when Posy hopped into my bed on Christmas morning it was with a request to "Please look in my ear - I think a moth crawled into it." I have to say that in twenty three years of parenting I have never had to inspect a child's ear for moths, which just goes to show that there is always a new experience round the corner. Thankfully there were no moths, but as we cuddled back to sleep I was struggling with my Christmas resolution for this to be a day with gratitude to the forefront.
Later as I woke with the sun shining in and I realised it was almost eight o'clock, there was my first moment of gratitude, and I lay and watched my twelve year old baby sleeping angelically and drank in the wonderfulness that is a sleeping child, one who still needs me everyday, if only to check her for moths, and that is a moment to treasure.
More moments of gratitude - I was running around madly getting things done, and getting lunch ready to take out and being grumpy about the fact that my parents were about to arrive and all the girls decided to have a shower and use the bathroom when I wanted a shower, and the breakfast dishes and late night cooking dishes hadn't been done yet, when a little voice inside my head slowed me down.
Here is the truth - my parents don't care if the house is immaculate, they come over because they love us and like to spend time with us. How lucky am I? And sharing a bathroom? Hey, running water is such a privilege. Plus, when I had two bathrooms I had to clean two bathrooms, and that was no fun at all. So when my parents arrived I was still in the shower, and we had presents and fruitcake then Mum and the girls helped with the dishes and Mum rinsed all the lettuce for salad and we all managed to get out the door in time for lunch, gratitude and tempers intact.
Lunch with friends was splendid, as always. Gratitude is easy when you get to spend time with kindred spirits. Here is my gift from my dear friend Karlin - she is a great gardener and very funny. What could be better than a joke gift that is useful and homegrown? I am absolutely using this idea for my work secret santa next year..
Back at home and The Boy arrived on Boxing Day to stay for a couple of weeks which is an unmitigated joy. We had to juggle the sleeping arrangements. The Girl has been here for a month already, and she is upstairs sharing the attic with Rosy. The Boy is sleeping in Posy's room, and Posy is now sharing with me. Later next week when The Boy's partner arrives I will give them my room and I will sleep in Posy's room on a mattress on the floor. I had a brief pang of regret for the large house I left behind, where all the children had their own room. The children themselves have had many pangs of regret over this. But, playing musical bedrooms at Christmastime is a long and honourable tradition. I remember squeezing into cousins' bedrooms like we were sardines, and queueing for the bathroom and getting into trouble Christmas 1984 for using up all the hot water at my aunt's house one day. I mean, I know I like long showers, but I was fifth out of the six persons having a shower that morning.. (clearly there are still residual psychological issues..)
Close quarters means getting in each others' faces a lot, but that means we are forced into relationship - no bad thing in a family of introverts. Conflict resolution is a good thing, right? Last night as we all sat around the table playing a card game with one of The Boy's friends who had popped over for dinner, well, the gratitude was easy. There was just enough room around our small table, but 'just enough' - that's all we need, isn't it?
This is what I am seeing from a few days of attempting to practice gratitude as often as I can remember. I don't have to feel good to feel gratitude. First I search for the good in a situation. Then I feel good. Gratitude is not an emotion, it is a deliberate intent to look for good. And here is the truth. For me it is not hard to be grateful. I have a wonderful life, full of the all the good things; family and friends and hot water and good food and a roof over my head. I don't need to spend any time at all being grumpy and irritable and judgemental and demanding. And yet I do. So going forward I will be practising some gratitude and slowing down to find the good that is all around..
December the twenty fourth is very hot here in Launceston, with blue skies and heat haze on the mountains (we always look twice at heat haze, to make sure it is not smoke). Our wee cottage is very small, and dark with little rooms, like a burrow, which makes it marvellously cool in the summer. Rosy's attic and the kitchen do get the full glare of afternoon sun though. This means that she has been forced to come downstairs from her lair and mingle with the hoi polloi this sunny Christmas Eve. It also means unbearable summer sun in our eyes which beats down on the only kitchen bench space all afternoon, so this morning I bought a bamboo blind, and The Girl and I installed it outside the window. It is providing marvellous and wonderful shade which is a huge relief, especially for The Girl as she is whipping up a glorious dark chocolate pavlova for tomorrow's lunch, and making pastry for mini caramelised onion tarts. She and I are very proud of our DIY job, especially as it involved teetering precariously on a ladder.
We spend our Christmas lunch with three other families, all the assorted grannies, plus a smattering of waifs and strays who have no other Christmas plans. Each year we have the same menu. Sometimes we think we'll change it up, but then can't bear to because it is all so yummy. Everything is as local as possible, and it is all served cold. We have platters of cold stuffed turkey, ham with fig jam, and smoked salmon with cream cheese rolled up in crepes. We all have gardens so there are myriads of interesting salads - I'll be doing a green garden salad with masses of sugar snap peas from the garden. I have discovered tarragon - it has the most intriguing and delicate flavour when tossed through a salad. I will also be roasting a tray of vegies tonight to make a roast veg and feta salad with toasted pumpkin seeds. There will be local cheeses and marvellous condiments, because none of us can resist making new preserves. The Girl will make her signature chocolate pavlova for dessert, topped with cream and raspberries from a friend's garden. Then all the enthusiastic folk will pop down to the local pool for a swim, after which we will smash up a home-made gingerbread house for afternoon tea (in case anyone is hungry). After that we will come home and nap and well, I think we will just nap.
Today in preparation we are eating very sparingly. I ate peas and strawberries out of the garden for breakfast and we had apples and crackers with cream cheese for lunch, and the girls are helpfully eating up all the fruit so we can fit the salads in our little fridge. We will have salad and boiled eggs for dinner, and no doubt Posy will attempt to just eat eggs.. then Rosy will make us more fabulous egg nog, which is a specialty of hers, then we will go to sleep under the shining stars and dream of a world of peace and goodwill.
I'd love to hear about your Christmases, when you have a minute.. or your Solstices or Hannukahs or your cunning plan to hibernate and pretend Christmas isn't happening at all..
Wishing you all the joy of family, friends and feasting..
Updated to add: First Christmas cooking disaster - I was pre-heating the oven and chopping up vegetables when I smelled burning, and ran shrieking to the oven where I had singed the pav that The Girl had left cooling in the oven all afternoon. Aargh! Luckily The Girl is very calm and assures me that she can trim the edges and cover it all with lots of cream and all will be well. Deep breaths now..
I love vegetable soup. It is immensely comforting and calming. It is so much more than the sum of its ingredients - it is a warming and nourishing hug for the digestion. It is also the thriftiest meal of the week.
How to Make Nourishing Vegetable Soup:
First, persuade someone else to cut up the onion while you wander into the vegetable patch to pick celery leaves (celery is a notoriously difficult vegetable to grow if you want it to look like the celery at the greengrocers. It demands continuous water and nourishment, but never fear, grow it unsuccessfully anyway and cut its wonderfully salty and mineral-rich leaves for all your soups and stews, and buy stems of celery from the greengrocer for your salads..).
Once your onion minion has rushed out of the kitchen to find a handkerchief to stem her tears, it is safe to return and rummage through the vegie bin. I like to use ghee to cook onions, as it has all the goodness and flavour of butter, without butter's annoying tendency to burn. Cook the onions slowly and tenderly while you discover what else there is to throw in the pot. Tonight I found three small wrinkly potatoes, two limp carrots, a small and only very slightly mouldy piece of pumpkin, and half a packet of baby spinach that Rosy-the-spinach-fiend refused to eat, because it was from the farmer's market, and didn't look like supermarket spinach.. of course the secret to vegetable soup is that there is no secret. It is a glorious melding of whatever 'needs eating up'.
I chopped all of this 'seen better days' veg up and popped it on top of the onions along with several cups of vegetable stock and two handfuls of red lentils. Actually, if there is a secret to vegetable soup, it is red lentils. These boil down to an indistinguishable mush and give the soup its thick and hearty rustic nature. It all bubbled away for half an hour and then we ate it. We didn't have any bread, so we had crackers instead. I just had more soup. And there is some for lunch tomorrow. Life is good.
Here is an update on my campaign to avoid the supermarkets - well, turns out, shopping locally requires forward planning. This is not my strong suit. I ALWAYS discover that there is no milk at about half past seven at night when there are no local shops open. That is also the time that Posy remembers she needs a block of chocolate to make truffles for her teachers for Christmas, and the cats realise that they have run out of cat food (those cats really need to get their act together). That is when I sigh deeply and take the dog and slink out to Coles. Again. I have had to do this at least once a week since I swore to avoid the evil supermarkets forever.. However, in the spirit of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, I am celebrating the huge, vast majority of our food that is coming from local sources. I am finding new and interesting treasures every week. I am trying to remember that the butcher down the hill opens Wed to Sat, and that the greengrocer stocks milk and is open until 6.30. I discovered that a local company makes the best tortillas I have ever eaten, and that none of us will actually die if there is no milk in the house, because herbal tea is actually a thing. And you never know, I might even learn to plan ahead.
In the Christian calendar there are feast days and fast days. My English and Scottish ancestors would have observed the great feasts and saints' days of the liturgical calendar and also the fasting days that preceded them. Many of the world's religions still observe times of fasting to clear the mind and encourage a focus away from the material world and towards the spiritual, but our secular society has chosen to keep the great feast days of Christmas and Easter, and drop the fasting altogether. Here in Australia the most sacred fasting day in the Christian calendar, Good Friday, has been turned into a marketing opportunity for an enormous slap-up seafood buffet.
Excess and restraint, feasting and fasting, are two sides of the same coin, the yin and yang of the cycle of living. The natural cycles of the year encourage feasting and fasting as well, with late summer and the autumn harvest giving us a time of feasting, and then the late winter, early spring 'hungry gap' before spring greens come on providing us with a natural time of fasting. A recent diet trend encourages intermittent fasting on the basis that our paleolithic ancestors would have had irregular access to food, and that the feast/fast cycle is how our bodies evolved for ultimate health.
However you look at it, whether for its spiritual or physical benefits, fasting has been part of our past and is part of many cultures today - but not ours. We appear to be very uncomfortable with the idea of voluntarily consuming less than we can. Our society is predicated on the value of More. Even when we put ourselves on diets, they are usually anything but simple. We have invented an enormous dieting industry that makes eating less somehow complicated and expensive.
I am tentatively exploring facets of the simple life, and what I am looking at now is food. There is so much of it all around us in our incredibly privileged enclaves, and so little of it in so much of the rest of the world. Recently I have been trying to ditch the supermarkets and shop as locally as I can for food. We didn't eat a lot of processed food before, but now there is even less in our kitchen. The children are continually complaining that we have no food. This is not even a little bit true, but what you mostly get when you shop locally is ingredients. We have a kitchen full of ingredients that need a little work to be rustled up into food. We can have boiled eggs in five minutes, an egg salad in ten minutes. Rosy has just made us Christmas egg nog in five minutes from local eggs, cream and milk, and rather non-local nutmeg, sugar and vanilla bought at the whole food shop. But the fact that there are five minutes between us and our snacks has curbed a lot of mindless snacking, and the fact that the ingredients are full of flavour and also quite expensive makes me want to cook them simply and let them shine.
Local meat is eye-wateringly costly. I buy it from the farmers who have tended it, killed it carefully and butchered it superbly. They generally tell me how to cook it as well, and I take great care with it and its taste is transcendental. Meat eating has been elevated to a ritual, like the Sunday roast in granny's day. And like the Sunday roast, the left overs are also carefully consumed and the bones made into soup stock. This is a once or twice a week treat. For the rest of the week we are happy vegetarians, with homegrown or local vegies and eggs filling our bellies. See, right there, by deciding to place some limits on our consumption, we have created a little feast and fast cycle over the course of the week. Our meat days are a bit special, fill us up, build up our bodies, but also require a lot of digesting.. and then we balance that by eating gently nourishing eggs and broth and vegies on other days. Also our budget evens out with a large expenditure on meat being balanced by vegies and beans and lentils for the rest of the week.
December is often a month of parties so that by Christmas we are are not as thrilled as we might be by our mid-winter or mid-summer feast. I am thinking that in order to highlight our feast day this month, at our place we might do some gentle fasting for the remainder of the days leading up to Christmas. I just looked up the rules for fasting for different religions and I find it fascinating that these guidelines for eating were developed in a time when food was not at all as plentiful as it is now. It is almost as if fasting was developed as a form of rationing, and as such possibly helped communities to survive lean times as food could only be consumed sparingly on many days. Mostly, fasting in religious traditions does not mean a complete abstinence from food, but merely eating smaller meals, or less of them, and refraining from including certain groups of foods, mainly meat, and sometimes dairy and alcohol as well.
For many Christian traditions it seems that a vegetarian or vegan fast without alcohol was required on Wednesdays and Fridays, with other fast days throughout the year, particularly before Easter and Christmas. I find it interesting that this is almost what we have found ourselves doing with our budgetary constraints which have accompanied eating local. With a roast, plus a left-overs night, plus a chicken dish, we are left with four vegetarian days a week, only one or two of which might be vegan, the others with eggs or yoghurt. Sometimes we also go out to eat, so there is generally another meat night as well once every few weeks. Our vegetarian meals are mostly very simple - soup and bread, or a tray of roast vegies with feta and chickpeas; salad with roasted pumpkin seeds and hardboiled eggs tossed through, or our quick favourite, a fry up of eggs, mushrooms, spinach and haloumi.
We live in the midst of a cornucopia of plenty. Every day can be a feast day, which leaves no room for gratitude and joy for a splendid meal, and is bad for the planet and bad for our health. Imagine the benefits of sometimes choosing less. The more I simplify my life, the happier I find myself becoming. Simple food is one of the great blessings of my life, because food is wonderful of itself, and I would rather read about food than cook it! If you would like to read about how to keep food simple, try Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace.It is my favourite book about food. So far. It is particularly special among books about food in that for Adler, food must be treated with care and reverence. Even the peels and stalks are worthy of saving and transforming into broth.
And I think that this is what we have forgotten in our bubble of protected plenty - food is precious. It keeps us alive and strong and happy. Maybe if we have a little less of it, sometimes, from day to day and season to season, we might appreciate it all the more when we gather together to feast.. so here in our wee cottage we will be eating vegetable soup and a salad or two over the next week in preparation for some serious feasting come the 25th..
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!"
How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss
I imagine your house looks a little like mine this Christmas - maybe like us, at the beginning of December you pulled down crates of Christmas from the attic. Maybe like us you put together the fake tree from Target, maybe like us you have an eclectic collection of department store baubles and lights, the lovely wonky Christmas decorations the children made in kinder, the beautiful hand-made Oxfam decorations, lovely hand-crafted treasures and the candy canes from the $2 shop.
I imagine that most of you, like me, have spent many years feeling uncomfortable about consumerism at Christmas and tried to steer your family towards more meaningful ways to celebrate. A couple of years ago, tired of the proliferating Christmas tat I decided that enough was enough and that we didn't need to spend another cent on Christmas decorating, ever. Recently I read this rather disturbing essay on the real home of Christmas where thousands of young Chinese men and women churn out our Christmas wreaths and Santa hats and I actually felt ill at the state of our society that demands this kind of mindless and demeaning work from people out of mind and far away so that we can celebrate a religious holiday mindless orgy of consumerism.
Now, I am not intending to turn into a Scrooge-like figure of uncharitable grumpiness, or attempting an Oliver Cromwell-style Christmas ban. I think Christmas has many redeeming features. Hope and peace and joy are truly excellent endeavours. Taking some time out to consider goodwill towards, well, everyone, seems like a refreshing change. Gathering together with family and friends and neighbours to eat, drink and be merry has much merit. Thoughtful and restrained gift-giving, especially to those who really need it, seems like a pleasant and useful thing to do. And decorating our houses for fun and to make our December merry? Well, who doesn't like a bit of pretty with their cheer? I certainly do, but I don't want anyone in China to slave away for my Christmas festivities any more. I just don't, so here is my plan.
First, I won't be buying any more Christmas tat, ever. Second, I will care for what I have. I will sew the bells back on the Christmas hats and glue the Christmas decorations back together. The earth's resources are finite and so caring for what we have, whether it is Christmas decorations, clothes, cars, or public infrastructure, is a way to slow down the demand for raw materials and keep stuff out of landfill. Third, I will send Christmas bits and bobs away with the children as they leave home to share the joy so that they won't be buying Christmas decorations either.
And last of all, I will decorate with what I have. Like you, I have a lot, including a double set of drawers full of craft supplies that somehow never seems to diminish even though I refuse to buy more. Here are some Christmas decorations my clever girls have made over the years:
Felt angel on a dolly peg
The felt Christmas magpie..
Paper mache bauble
Yesterday The Girl made origami stars out of wrapping paper
...and Posy started a paper nativity scene she is blu-tacking to the wall.
This is The Girl's origami crane string made out of pages from a book that fell apart.
I don't actually do craft, but I can tie string around jars, which I did last Christmas:
And this afternoon I picked bottlebrush from the garden and stuck pine cones in a vase and on a cake stand. I am so all over the Christmas decorating!
And yes, I do realise that tea lights are made in a factory in China, but I have about fifty left from the box of 100 I bought two years ago. I am saving the little foil containers, and I bought a big chunk of local beeswax and Posy is going to attempt to make beeswax tea lights for me..
There are so many ways to celebrate Christmas without going to the store. Our homes and our lives are so full of things already - why add to them? Let's give some away, mend some, make some, arrange what we have, and make Christmas a little oasis of grateful thankfulness for the many good things in our lives..
Yesterday afternoon the patch of backyard next to my vegie garden looked like this. It was annoying me no end. I had spent all morning buying lovely Christmas things at the Christmas market at a big old hall with lots of wood panelling and twinkly Christmas lights and then I spent all afternoon in bed reading Snuff by Terry Pratchett for about the fifth time because it is a truly excellent book, and eating the chocolate I bought to put in the Advent calendar, and then I went outside before dinner, and this.. it really didn't fit into my lovely day at all.
Mmm, no better from this angle. You can see the tiny spot I cleared last week to put in a teepee of beans. I had to bring down the hideous plastic chair that I found in the garden when I bought the house because the radio only works in the back garden at waist height. And here is one of the beautiful wooden day beds that The Man made for me as a parting gift before we broke up the partnership. He really is lovely. But sadly, it is about to be eaten up by the garden triffids. Which is a pity because the girls come outside to read their books and sun themselves and I don't want them to be eaten up by the garden either.
Sometimes I can come up with good excuses to get back into bed with another good book, and sometimes I can put on my Ignoring Hat, which is often quite effective, but sometimes I just have to get the shovel out of the shed and put my back into it. Which is exactly what I did, while The Girl and Posy made dinner (The Girl is home from uni for the summer. Happiness and general extra-person-to-make-dinner-joy). The horrible and vile triffid-like weed plague which I imagined would take about three weeks of full-time hard graft to quell looked like this after an hour:
Clearly I seem to have a very unrealistic view of the efficacy of hard work. This is because I spend so much time in bed reading instead of actually doing any. This morning I got up at dawn (aka 8.30am) to do some digging while this space was in shade. My main job was to make the space level enough to fit both day beds, which kind of worked out although my spirit level says, "Not quite there yet," in its most pernickety voice. This job means I win a 'get out of gym free pass' for the next week. I currently cannot move any of my limbs. In the process of moving lots of dirt I also dug up approximately one hundred and twenty thousand jonquil bulbs, each of them wrapped lovingly around with yards and yards of twitch grass (substitute the name of the worst invasive grass from your area with mile-long rhizomes and no redeeming features and you will know just how much fun I was having). Disentangling them was quite jolly, and now I think it is time for a little lie down.
Possibly next time I get tired of reading on the weekend (ho ho) I will get some decomposed granite delivered for a nice hard surface under the daybeds. Hopefully that will happen before all the weed seeds germinate (too late, they are probably doing that right now).
I have managed to carve out a little extra vegie patch. I think this will be the corn and bean patch.
Gratuitous photos of my vegie garden:
We are eating rhubarb, lettuce, spinach, rocket (arugula) and various herbs (plus one strawberry) and have peas, beetroot, capsicum, chillies, celery, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and squash coming along.
Here is the crazy enthusiastic potato patch.
And the tomato plantation.
And a baby cucumber in the tiny teepee I made to protect it from being kicked over by the hooligan blackbirds.
That is my weekend in the garden. Sometimes I get a little tired of my garden. It can be so needy..
Did you notice that it is almost that time of year again? Christmas can be insane and draining, and if you are like me, the shopping might just send you into a decline. But there are ways to make it meaningful and pleasant. Firstly, have a conversation with family about present giving. Let's face it, most of us don't need more stuff. Most of us who aren't children might enjoy a minimal present Christmas. I must admit I am peculiar in that presents aren't a big thing with me. If someone were to bring me a cup of tea in bed, a magazine and a chocolate-based comestible and say, "There's your Christmas," I would be well pleased. We need to talk about Christmas and stuff with each other and with our kids. Let's find out what is really special to them about Christmas. Maybe we just think it is presents. Maybe they would be happy with less, as long as there is still family and friends and food. Maybe they like our funny Christmas traditions best, or visiting the Christmas lights or Christmas stockings. Who knows until we ask?
One of the best ways to make Christmas meaningful is to think about how we can give to people who really don't have all the stuff they need. I feel like I need to make this more a priority in my own life this year, so I will be chatting to the girls about how we might include this as part of our Christmas preparations.
Still, presents are part of Christmas, so here are some of my favourite Christmas gifts and shops:
Second hand bookshop/op shop: Two categories - books that look new. An awful lot of people get rid of books they never even read. Can you imagine? And vintage books - my favourites are classics, and vintage non-fiction in an area of the giftee's interest. Vintage gardening, DIY and cooking books are wonderful.
Gifts of service: Last year the girls and I gave my mum (who is not an enthusiastic baker) the gift of a cake each month. To be honest, I think we have missed a couple of months, and owe her more cake. It's a reminder to know yourself when planning gifts.. One of my friends hired Rosy to dust the house each week for his wife's Christmas present (she hates dusting..). The gift that keeps on giving!
Oxfam: Shops that exist to bring beautiful craft from fair trade co-operatives all over the world. They also stock fair trade chocolate and spices. What's not to love? Oxfam Unwrapped and the TEAR catalogue of Really Useful Gifts also provide brilliant un-gifts - chickens, pigs, education, water, you name it, you can give it to someone who really needs it..
Practical gifts: Yes, the ones you would have bought them anyway. I love to have a non-consumer Christmas, but my children like to open lots of presents so I buy them underwear, pyjamas and clothes and wrap them all up separately:) Underwear can be local or fair trade. I have also bought some lovely scarves, clothes and jewellery from op shops.
Magazine subscriptions: Rosy has asked again for me to renew her favourite magazine subscription for Christmas. Oh yes, I can do that:) Here are some magazines that either I or my friends subscribe to and we all share:
Single issues are also brilliant in the Christmas stocking, along with fair trade chocolate. Because who doesn't want to spend Christmas morning reading and eating chocolate??
Tools: Actual old, vintage tools from second hand shops which are beautiful and will last forever, including kitchen tools like rotary egg beaters and those exciting mincing machines which clamp onto the table top (my granny used to mince up the Sunday roast leftovers to make into sausage rolls with one of these). Last year my gift to The Girl, who was leaving home, was a collection of wonderful vintage kitchen ware to take with her. I had collected it over the course of the year in second hand shops and had such fun..
Camping Shops and Cool Gadgets: Choose an independently owned shop and buy useful tools for camping and saving power at home - wind up or solar charged torches, head torches (nothing is more useful for collecting wood from the woodshed in the dead of winter - no hands!), pocket knives, stainless steel drink bottles, solar lanterns. I have my eye on one of these kettles for picnics, camping and outdoor cooking in the backyard. I have also just bought myself a thermal cooker which I am hoping will reduce our gas stove top usage over summer, keeping us cool and saving fuel.
Local Artists and Artisans: One of my favourite things about art by local artists is that they enable us to re-envision the place in which we live. I bought a painting from a friend many years ago which is an abstract of a local waterfall. It just evokes a Tasmanian forest for me and makes me happy every day. Local artisans are sometimes hard to find, but also sometimes make extraordinary useful and beautiful things. This year I have discovered the recycled metal knives of John Houndslow Robinson. One day, after much saving, I plan to own one of these knives. I am also coveting a copper saucepan and one of these leather handbags. None of them are cheap, but all of them will last a lifetime and beyond.
Craft Fairs: We have a Christmas market on in town next weekend - all local artists and crafters displaying their wares. Brilliant, and you can hardly get a more local present than that, except:
Home made: OK, I am not the best person to talk about this. Home made for me is very hard work. That is why I go to the craft fair. But I do make jam and home made cleaners in nice jars, especially the bathroom cleaner paste. I am considering knitting dishcloths as well, knitting squares being something I can do. Good old-fashioned baking gifts for neighbours are a great way to keep up the goodwill on your street as well (even better if you get the children to do the baking).
Gifts for Making Things: For her birthday I bought Posy a book on making lip balms, lotions and hand creams, plus the beeswax, shea butter, essential oils etc to make them. This has been a huge hit with her, and the bonus is enough lip balm and hand cream to last us for the next decade. I know what I will be getting from her for Christmas! One of Rosy's favourite gifts as a cheese-loving 12yo a few years ago, was a cheese making kit from a good friend. You can buy all sorts of kits from this home-based business in Melbourne (we have bought candle making equipment from them).
Food: This is generally the easiest local product to buy. Making up hampers of local plus home made food in baskets bought from the op-shop actually sounds like a fun thing to do..
Wrapping: Wrapping paper is terribly wasteful. Over the last few years I have been collecting gift bags from op-shops, and fabric drawstring bags as well. Our Christmas is heading towards waste-free, with the bonus of mess-free as well:)
Christmas is always about gifts for those we love, and let's take care of that in a way that works with our values of taking care of each other in our local communities, and taking care of the planet. And then, let's spend some time thinking about taking care of those who really don't have enough this Christmas, or at any other time, and put them on our Christmas list as well.
Tell me about your plans for a Christmas that makes you happy..
God knows I've tried to be an excellent housekeeper over the years, but it just never sticks. I get distracted very, very easily because the world is full of such marvellous things. So I have decided to cease striving for excellence in housekeeping (actually, the people who live with me would deny that 'striving' is ever what I do in relation to housework) and accept that a C average is all I am ever going to achieve, and learn to happily live with that.
Practical Tips for the Average Housekeeper: Simplify, simplify, simplify: Less stuff, less mess, less cleaning, more time to follow delightful distractions wherever they lead..
If it isn't broke, don't fix it: Some people adore interior decorating and faffing about with table decorations and moving furniture about. One of my friends rearranges her furniture and accessories every season. My grandmother, on the other hand, never moved anything in her house throughout my whole childhood. Even when she moved house she arranged everything in the new house exactly the same as the old. I am with her. (Almost) everything in my house has a place, and it can just stay there now for the next decade or two. It means I don't lose things (well, except my glasses and keys, and even they have a place now. If only I could put them there on a more regular basis) and can clean and tidy on autopilot.
Important note: buying useless decorative crap always creates more mess, clutter and cleaning. Just don't do it. It won't make your house look better unless you are an excellent housekeeper who likes to dust. Having less stuff and less mess will make your house look better.
If your living areas are tidy, your house will look clean: Five minutes tidying in every room after dinner. Kitchen, dining room, living room, hallway. Shoes, papers, toys, clothes, all go away. The jury is out on books. Are they mess or vital life support? I have a lamp table with a lamp and all our current reads. No knick-knacks, just pure, unadulterated books. This is useful as we can always find our current book there. I also have a shelf on the bookcase in my bedroom dedicated to library books, so I can always find them when it is library day.
If the kitchen is tidy you will feel calm and happy (well, maybe calmer and happier than if it isn't): Do the dishes after dinner every night. Straight after dinner. Every night. I manage this about six nights out of seven. It is not always me doing the dishes, but I have to be foreman. Doing the dishes also implicitly includes wiping down the benches and the stovetop and sweeping the floor. Cleaning the kitchen every night is boring and tedious, but joy comes in the morning..
Strategy: Clean and tidy smarter, not harder. What are your areas of greatest mess and annoyance? How can you make this area much easier to keep clean and tidy? For instance, my girls do endless craft. I used to have an art and craft room which was always a hideous eyesore. Now the craft 'room' is the dining room table and the craft drawers right next to it so that it all has to be tidied up by the next meal, back into the drawers right next to the table. It may as well be as easy as possible. Maybe if you sew you could have a sewing cupboard next to the dining room table to store your sewing things. Anyone who regularly does any kind of project could benefit from keeping an empty cupboard space right next to the dining table so that there is a quick tidying solution that doesn't involve traipsing all over the house to put things away.
Other strategic triumphs: My girls never used to put their shoes in their wardrobes, but kind of threw them near the wardrobe. Now they have big plastic shoe tubs, and can throw their shoes at them to their hearts' content. Rosy's dirty clothes basket was across the room, while all her dirty clothes piled up next to her bed. So I moved the clothes basket next to the bed.
I always pile up papers and mail on the bench right inside the kitchen door. Now I have a basket right there so at least it looks intentional, and when the basket overflows I know I have to sort out the paperwork.
It's all about zen. Don't fight the mess, understand the mess, and work with it..
Mess containers: There is always annoying detritus in a house, no matter how much you declutter. Give in, and just find something to put the mess in. I have a small basket in the kitchen for all the tiny things that don't have a home. It stops them cluttering up the windowsill. The mess in the bathroom is always bobby pins and hair bands belonging to the girls. I now have a tub in the vanity that I throw all stray pins and bands into.
Cleaning the bathroom: There is something about cleaning the bathroom that is more annoying than almost all other cleaning tasks. I haven't cleaned the bathroom for two weeks now, but I have cleaned the toilet and the basin, so it mostly looks and smells clean. In my new house I have discovered the great secret that is the shower curtain. If you pull it fully across you can't see that the tub hasn't been cleaned for two weeks..
Close the doors: No matter what I do, my children have appallingly untidy rooms. I expect yours do too. Just close the door.
Move to a smaller house: Best thing I ever did from a housekeeping point of view. At our old house we renovated to make our house almost twice as big. What were we thinking? Cleaning two bathrooms is definitely more than twice as awful as cleaning one. If you have a lot of children they can effortlessly mess up a large house in about the same amount of time as they can mess up a small one..
Are you also an average housekeeper? Are you resigned, or still fighting the good fight? Do you have strategies to stay sane and prevent chaos while pursuing other interests? Please share:)
The world I want to live in has markets instead of supermarkets, and little local stores and cafes where you can buy everything you need within walking distance of your house. I want to buy beautiful and interesting things made by artists and crafters. I want to be able to stop by and see the people building my furniture and making my bread. I want to have relationships with the people who make my food, and chat with the old ladies of the neighbourhood in the post office and meet friends at the greengrocers.
I am blessed to live in a neighbourhood where all these things are possible. I can and do shop locally and by the choices that I make about where to spend my dollars on a weekly basis, I am aiming to make my country great again, a place where neighbourhoods provide jobs that are also meaningful work and we all have safe, liveable communities.
I would like to be able to say that I never venture into the giant, ugly dens of iniquity that house the mega corporations of death, destruction and despair, but that would be a rank lie. Damn, those supermarkets are convenient! They stock everything under one enormous and extremely ugly roof. It's cheap. It's there. But it is evil incarnate. They look so innocuous. They will sell you wholesome things that you need like apples and bread and socks. But don't be fooled. They exist to make enormous profits for their owners and shareholders. That is their only mandate. And if you live in Australia it is very difficult indeed to avoid spending your dollars at one of the two major supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, or at one of their many subsidiaries - Target, Kmart, Myer, Big W, Bunnings, Dan Murphy's, Liquorland, Officeworks. In fact, there would be many Australians who rarely shop anywhere but at one of these stores.
So why is this a problem? Again, these major publicly listed companies exist to make a profit. They are not investing in local products, they are hunting out the cheapest products, and driving down prices at the farm gate to win more market share with cheaper prices for their customers. Farmers are being forced off the land because there comes a point where you can't produce an apple or a celery stick any cheaper.
There are numerous stories of nefarious deals when one of the big chains arrives in town - local hardware stores forced out of business when Bunnings signs exclusive agreements to prevent suppliers selling to the locals. "Brand bombing" when more big chain retail stores are opened than can be sustained by the local population - once the local opposition has closed its doors, the big retailer closes all but one of its stores as well, and that is the end of any alternative shopping experience in town..
And yes, there should be some serious government regulation to prevent this, but honestly, we have done it to ourselves. We have let Coles and Woolworths take over our country and turn it into a giant, dreary suburb where everything is the same. Where is the joy and interest of small family businesses? Where is the fun of tiny quirky shops with interesting jobs for our teenagers? Where are the fair prices that will keep farmers on the land? It's up to us to keep our local shops open and our farmers' markets running. An enormous diversity of small business gives millions of people a chance to live their own dream and make a dignified living with meaningful work. That is a really good place to start to make any country a great place to live..
So this is my challenge to myself. Less convenience, more adventure, colour, interest and good conversation in my local shops. Which means I need to pop out now to walk the dog and buy some bacon before the butcher's shop shuts..
Spring is certainly springing around here, although it could be warmer down here in the chilly south. I have mustard greens growing madly. What does one even do with mustard greens? Anyone?
Baby peas with their tiny tendrils waving about as they twine around the pea sticks (apricot tree prunings).
While walking the dog on the river path the other day I found a huge patch of native river mint, so I brought some home in a doggy bag! While I was planting it (in a tub. Mint will take over the whole world if you let it..) I also took the opportunity to take my common mint, Moroccan mint and round leafed native mint out of their too small pots and pop them in the tub too, so they can all fight it out together. May the best mint win! I will keep the tub under the garden tap so it gets all the moisture that the mint family loves. In the garden I have also found woolly apple mint, so I think we have the
mint family nicely represented here at Chez Blueday.
Due to an exceptionally wet spring we have an exceptionally enthusiastic snail population this year, and I have been struggling to keep my direct seeded baby plants uneaten, so I have taken the drastic step of planting seeds indoors. Gasp! This is not something I normally do, due to its requirement of constant and consistent watering and maintenance, but needs must.
I have found that wooden clothes pegs make excellent seed markers. I have been doing my seed planting on the kitchen table, using a spoon to add soil to pots. This is much more convenient than crouching over seed trays in a windy garden. I can see why people build potting sheds.. but why bother when you have a perfectly serviceable kitchen table? I am sure hardly anyone has noticed the potting mixture all over the floor..
Made a trellis for cucumbers and melons out of tomato stakes, apricot tree prunings and string. Projects that involve string and sticks are absolutely my level of DIY. We will call it rustic upcycling shall we?
What are your spring (or autumn) garden projects? Or are you the type of person who feels that gardening is best left to Other People (much like me and DIY)..
Paneer is a fresh, white cheese that you can eat right away. It is particularly straight-forward to make, its only ingredients being milk and lemon juice. It is traditionally made in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and is often added to curries. It makes a great protein addition to vegetarian curries, having the advantage that it doesn't melt when heated, instead providing velvety nuggets of goodness in a curry sauce. I particularly like it in a vegetarian tikka masala...
Last month Kim from our Living Better With Less Group turned up in my kitchen to show a bevy of interested potential cheesemakers how to make paneer.
We started with two litres of whole milk, poured it into a saucepan and brought it to just under a boil, then added 4 teaspoons of lemon juice (2 teaspoons per litre of milk). A litre is more or less the same as a quart for the US imperialists out there..
Take the milk off the heat and wait for the milk to curdle. It will take a few minutes. What you are looking for is curds like this. If they are a little smaller, don't worry. This was the biggest curd we could find in three large saucepans of milk! If there are not many curds forming, add more lemon juice.
Now pour your curds and whey mixture through a colander or strainer lined with muslin set inside a large pot. And really, only muslin will do for this job. We also tried cheesecloth and a tea towel, but the weave on both was too fine, so we had to use the loose-weave muslin for all our batches of cheese.
The liquid that strains through the muslin is the whey, and it is useful to keep that for baking, preserving your paneer, or feeding to the dog to make his coat shiny.
Now make a Christmas pudding style bag with the cheese in the muslin, and squeeze out excess whey. My official photographer did not get a photo of this step, but I am sure you can imagine it. Pop the muslin bag in a small bowl or pot and pop a heavy object on top to squeeze out even more liquid. After half an hour or so, unwrap your Christmas pudding cheese parcel, and you will have a small but delicious amount of home made cheese!
You will feel very proud of yourself! You can eat it in a couple of days (store it covered in the fridge) or if you want to keep it for longer, up to a couple of weeks, add a little salt to the whey to make a brine, and cover the cheese with it, and refrigerate it. The cheese will be firmer after a couple of days in the fridge.
And here is an idea I have had - you know you see marked down milk at the shops that is near its use-by date? I have never been able to think what to do with that other than make large amounts of custard (not an unworthy scheme, of course), but now I can buy it up and make it into cheese. Hurrah! Waste not the unwanted milk at the back of the dairy case. Equally, the milk at the back of the fridge that may be about to go off..
Thanks Kim, and all the hilarious bunch of wonderful people that make Living Better With Less a joyous way to live xx
Everywhere I weed or dig in this garden I turn up another old brick, so I decided to make a garden path. Really, it was necessary as every time I tried to fight my way through the undergrowth to the vegie garden I required gumboots and a mattock. As you can imagine, this project took some time, especially as I am easily distracted in the garden. Below you can just see the beginning of the path curving around at the top of the photo. This was a couple of weekends ago.
Here it comes. But very slowly. Every few minutes, distracted again. A baby apricot on the apricot tree, a rose bud, a volunteer tomato seedling, a bird, the cat.. anything will do.
But finally this afternoon it is finished! This is not a high tech DIY project. Some people faff around with cement and sand when they build a brick path. I simply dig the bricks into the soil, then brush more soil over the top to fill up the cracks. After a few weeks of tramping it down as I walk on it, it will all become quite stable. It is already ten thousand percent better than pre-path days, due to not requiring a mattock to get to the baby lettuces.
Yes, indeed, that is the cat drinking out of the watering can. You'd think he didn't have a nice water bowl of his own.
During one of my moments of distraction I was annoyed by some plastic flower pots on top of the old wood pile opposite the kitchen window, which have been sitting there since I moved in. When I went to remove them I found an untidy pile of bricks and an old wooden pallet under the wood pile, with the whole sorry affair knee deep in weeds. Because I was procrastinating about building the brick path I hauled it all away with enthusiasm, and underneath it all I found this tiny little square of paving, just right for two chairs and a cup of tea with a friend. It gets sun in the morning and shade in the evening - perfect! I am continually amazed by what I am digging up in this garden!
So here I am, with a new garden path, and a tiny new courtyard, a bit of sun, a lot of rain - what more could a gardener want?
One of the many wonders of a backyard vegie garden is that you can beat commercial growers not in spite of, but because of, your small scale. It would be foolhardy indeed for a commercial grower to start a tomato farm here in Tasmania, unless they have several very large greenhouses, as late frosts can sneakily decimate baby tomatoes even up to November. However, if you have a small plot of backyard tomatoes, and by some miracle have remembered to check the forecast, you can cover up your tiny crop with old sheets (you can also use horticultural fleece, but one of my creeds is, why buy horticultural fleece when you have a stack of old sheets?). If your baby tomatoes are slightly bigger you can crack out the mini greenhouses (er, plastic bottle tops) that Bek has cleverly fashioned for her delicate snowflake tomato babies.
The other thing you can cunningly exploit in your backyard vegie garden is micro climates. I have mentioned before that lemons and other citrus aren't grown commercially in Tasmania because it is too cold. But practically every old Tasmanian garden has a lemon tree tucked in a warm corner. This is where suburban and urban environments can really come into their own - the built up nature of the town creates warm pockets - next to sunny walls, or black asphalt roads and driveways. There are often frost-free patches next to houses because the walls have absorbed sun during the day and release the heat slowly at night. Working out all of the intriguing quirks of your property through the seasons is fun, and can be very rewarding. One of my friends owns a 1950s brick house which has a small garden patch in a sunny sheltered corner where two brick walls meet, with a concrete path in front. This small patch was clearly the perfect place to plant a Tahitian lime and a mandarin, and these are some of the healthiest and most productive citrus trees I have ever had the privilege of cadging fruit from (well, in actual fact I am showered with generous gifts of this fruit, as it is so ridiculously prolific, and I have lovely friends).
Anyway, having managed to dodge Thursday night's frost I am hoping for balmy days and warm nights to encourage the baby tomatoes to reach passata size:)
I'll leave you with a front garden food forest. Here is someone who knows how to make a suburban garden work very hard indeed. Give me two years and I'll be there..
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (17) and Posy (12). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much..