Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Keeping My Cards Close to My Chest



I am a person who always likes to keep something in reserve. I like to listen more than I like to talk. I come from a long line of introverts, all of whom tend to keep their thoughts to themselves, unless pushed. I grew up in a nice, stable extended family where everyone went to church, had a job, got married, brought up children and grew old together. No-one had fights or major dramas. There were no black sheep or skeletons in the closet. Everyone was just... nice. This is not a bad thing, by the way. Growing up loved and cared for by a bunch of genuinely kind people? Priceless. The problem with that is - I have a 'nice' filter. It is very hard for me to get beyond the superficial, or publicly explore the area outside the white picket fence that defines suitable topics for discussion for those descended from respectable evangelical Christians.

Our family are all introverts. And life-long conflict avoiders. And we believe in a Stiff Upper Lip and Just Getting On With Things. In our family we resolve tensions by a)pretending that nothing is wrong, b)smiling and c)talking about something 'nice' instead. The best way to resolve conflict as an introvert is not to have any. The best way not to have conflict is to decide that your problems/issues/tensions/emotions/needs etc, aren't really that important after all and to bury them deep inside while getting on with the much simpler task of being 'nice' in public, while being terribly sad, anxious, angry or resentful in private.

I found a man to marry who had the same kind of family and upbringing that I had, so we both brought our non-existent communication skills to the table. Then we broke the script, because no matter how hard we tried we could neither of us bear to live a life of emotions swept under the rug. But we couldn't express them in a productive way either, because we didn't know how. So we sulked. For twenty three years. Well, not the whole twenty three years. When it was good it was very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid.

Ironically, during this time we did what all the child raising manuals suggested, and taught our children how to use their 'I feel' words, and tried hard to listen and reflect back their feelings. I have a dear friend, Jane, who is especially good at this and I learned most of what I know about conflict resolution by listening to her working through conflict with and between her children over the many hundreds of hours we have spent together as parents. I was astounded. Conflict apparently isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it is a helpful tool to come to new understandings about each other. Who knew?

While nowhere near perfect I think I have done a reasonably good job of talking with my kids about difficult subjects, and helping them to unpack conflict. Unfortunately that did not translate to managing to be vulnerable and honest in my marriage, and so for that, and a multitude of other miserable reasons, we decided to part. There are only so many instances of sweeping problems under the rug and pretending nothing happened that a relationship can withstand. Interestingly, as soon as the worst had happened in our relationship, we were able to talk. I think we figured that since nothing worse could happen we could finally afford to tell the truth. While it didn't save our marriage, I think it was the saving grace of our relationship. We managed to part as friends and colleagues, and can continue to parent our kids while keeping communication open and honest.

That experience encouraged me to open up a little more to my parents. Over the last couple of years we have been able to have more conversations about difficult things. I don't find this easy, and neither do they, but we are trying. To give my parents all due credit, no matter what terrible thing I have done my life, whether it be leaving the Church or getting a divorce, they have shown nothing but love and kindness. We don't necessarily talk about it, but whenever I have asked for help, they have been there, every single time. I have never doubted that they loved me, we just find it difficult to have a conversation that isn't about "What we did this week that was Nice." We are slowly getting to be able to go beyond that, and I am very thankful, if slightly spooked sometimes. When my brother's marriage fell apart I reached out and we started talking about our feelings for the first time in.. well, really for the first time ever. I am so sorry that it took his marriage breaking up as the trigger for us to start talking, but I'm glad that we can. We are both a bit broken, and it is good to be able to say, "Hey, this happened. It kind of sucks," and to hear back, "Yeah, that happened to me once too. It passes. Hang in there."

Three years ago I started to go to the gym with my lovely friend Carla. I didn't know her well before that, other than that she is lovely. Turns out when you spend three hours a week with a friend in the gym, you really have to talk about something, or end up staring awkwardly at the wall while doing leg lifts. Carla talks about everything, from why her kids are driving her crazy today, to how naughty the dog is, to the frustrations of her latest medical appointment, to tensions in her extended family. "I love the gym." she says happily, "It's such good therapy!"

And it is. Sometimes I would quietly wonder why Carla told me everything about everything that was going on in her life. Not because it was boring - I absolutely adore to hear the stories of people's lives. Interesting people are like the best books and Carla is a born storyteller. But I wondered why Carla would make herself so vulnerable, telling me things that I would never dare to admit out loud. But her willingness to be vulnerable encouraged me to do the same. I started to tentatively share the small difficulties of my life, all the while feeling like a complete doofus. Then the larger ones. The day to day worries and anxieties that we all have. And what do you know, when you talk about your worries, they aren't so worrying. You know that old granny adage, 'A problem shared is a problem halved'? Well, those grannies were onto something. I had previously never bothered people with my problems, because there was no point - they couldn't fix them for me... but der, that's not the reason you share. The problem doesn't get halved because it gets fixed, it's halved because there is someone to sympathise, to laugh with over your silly troubles, to tell you that you are doing a great job.

So it has taken a lot of years to get to this point that I can (sometimes) share (some of) the details of my life with family, some friends, some colleagues. I have challenged myself this year to put more of myself out there into the light of day. Last year I forced myself to tell some colleagues that the reason I was taking an extra day off work this year was to do some writing. Then the first day into work this year I sat down in the staffroom for lunch and the first comment I heard was, "I hear you are writing a book?" I felt so exposed, like an ant crawling on a plate. I wanted to hide under the table, put my hands over my ears and rock. Which is, frankly, behaviour that this particular staff member sees all the time, and I am sure she would have taken it in her stride and been very kind. However, I took a deep breath and had a conversation instead, and it was fine and I didn't actually even get squashed, which is kind of what you expect when you are an ant on a plate.

Last week when I published my post about wanting to write I felt the exact same terror. After a couple of days I couldn't bear it any longer and didn't even get on the internet there for a few days, but of course I came back, and there you all were, being so kind to my exposed self, and telling me about your own secret desires as well. The best part about being a little vulnerable is the connection to the vulnerable spot in other souls.

I think I have come a little way along the the road away from Niceville. Not very far really. I am still terrified of potential conflict, and flee it on a regular basis no matter how good it may be for me. But with a little help from my friends I think I am heading along the rocky path to... where? Maybe a place where Nice isn't so important as Honest and Kind. I'll see you there. I might even write about it..

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I Must Stop Cleaning the House


Yesterday I had a cartoonish accident where I walked into my dark garden shed and stepped on a hoe whereupon its handle flipped up and whacked me in the eyeball. I now have a freakish red-veined eye with which to scare small children. That will be handy as I start work for the year later this week.. with all the five year olds.

I have taken an extra day off my work week this year as I want to do some writing - you know, the sort that is published, and someone pays you for it.. the trouble is, it is very hard to begin. Every day since they started school the girls have been coming home and asking, "Did you do any writing today?" and I have answered, "Well, not exactly. But look, I cleaned the bathroom!" The house is looking remarkably clean, and I have tidied some cupboards and done some gardening and walked the dog extensively.. but no writing.  I made yoghurt and sunscreen. And invited some friends over. And stewed a whole bunch of plums that a friend invited me to pick from her tree. And I picked some flowers and hosted afternoon tea for some old friends who are visiting Tasmania and staying with my parents. And now I have all these tomatoes I have to do something with..

Writing is the only thing I have ever really wanted to do since I was a child when I read and wrote all the time. I don't know when I lost that creative confidence, but I think I am terrified of failing at the one thing I really want to do so I never really threw myself into it in order to avoid the possibility of failure. I think it might be something I could have done while I was young and thought everything was possible but even then I found excuses. I got pregnant approximately fifteen minutes after graduating with an Honours degree in English Literature, I homeschooled my numerous children, I started on on-line children's book shop, and now I teach five and six year olds to write.. and in my spare time coach my own and friends' kids through their highschool writing and literature courses, and help friends with their writing and editing projects. It's like I have danced around writing my whole life without actually doing any.

Except here. This blog has been my lifeline to writing, my place to connect with other people via words. The most exciting moment in many of my days is finding that something that I have written has resonated with someone out there enough to have them write back to me. Thanks you guys.

Now I need you to tell me to stop cleaning the house and go and write some words already..


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Green and Thrifty




Most of my semi-regular Green and Thrifty posts aren't full of any extraordinary green or thrifty adventures - just the day-to-day bits and bobs that make our lives just a little bit easier on earth. But it is exactly those things that add up from day to day and week to week and year to year that save so much money and make a small but enduring environmental impact.

Early this month I did all the shopping at a small independent supermarket and the whole foods shop where I buy most of my dry goods from the bulk bins. Now I shouldn't have to go shopping with the car again until March. So far this week I have spent $16 at the green grocer's, and today I will send The Girl out to walk the dog and buy milk to make yoghurt. That should last us until next week for grocery spending.

This week we have been eating and cooking from the fridge. It is quite a small fridge, and what with it being shopping day last week, and the garden suddenly bursting with food, we have been very busy eating so as to have room in the fridge to store more. I am thinking it is time to start doing some preserving so I can store the garden produce somewhere other than the fridge!

We have been making zoodles (zucchini noodles) with our spiraliser, which is fun, and delicious.

I made three jars of sauerkraut, which is also delicious, and full of incredibly prolific probiotics at a fraction of the price of probiotics from the health food shop..

We did a lot of second hand shopping from op-shops and Gumtree, keeping our money circulating locally, contributing to charity, keeping stuff out of landfill, and saving our pennies.

The girls started school again this week, all kitted out in their hand-me-down and second-hand uniforms.. I managed to find a second-hand school bag for Posy (from my neighbour, actually. I had forgotten her daughter was leaving school). Whenever one of my children leaves school I offer to buy school uniform items from any of their friends who want to get rid of them. This way I have accumulated a nice collection of second-hand uniform, which is a real help, as it is unbelievably expensive when new.

We also covered all of Posy's school books with plain brown paper again. I discovered this excellent solution two years ago, and have been doing it ever since. The brown paper lasts all year which surprises me enormously, but not even any tears or rips, and then it is easy to recycle the whole book at the end of the year. So apparently it is not necessary to wrap school books in acres of plastic foil or bought plastic covers to keep them looking nice. And a roll of brown paper is much cheaper as well:)

This week I also took two bags of Posy's primary school uniform to a refugee family I know, and had a cup of tea with them. They have furnished the house Afghani style, with carpets and rugs and lots of large floor cushions. The floor cushions are beautiful, and I discovered (our conversations are mostly translated via the children) that the mother had sewn them herself with fabric she had brought from Iran (the family are from Afghanistan but had spent many years in a refugee camp in Iran). The cushions had that wonderful bulk and heaviness of old-fashioned down and feather cushions, and I asked what they were stuffed with - cut up old clothes! This is such an elegant solution for old t-shirts, I will have to remember it.

I have been washing my hair in the sink and taking very short showers, so must be saving on hot water, surely? Next week I am going to keep a record of daily electricity readings to see how we are doing.

This week from our garden we have been eating potatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, tomatoes, warrigal greens, spinach, lettuce, lemons, rhubarb, beetroot and herbs.

Tell me about your green and thrifty wins this week.




Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Universe Conspires With Me




We have had some marvellous second hand finds this week. First, The Girl wanted a blender to take back to her cupboard-sized kitchen in her apartment in Melbourne so she can make yummy smoothies and dips whilst studying Chemistry and Microbiology. We found one in the op-shop, still in its box and plastic bags, never used. Brilliant!



Then in a new op shop I had never visited before I found an ironing board. A few months ago my 25 year old ironing board broke, because I had stored it next to my fifteen year old washing machine. The washing machine had a fit, jumped across the floor and jammed the ironing board against the wall, crushing all its wheels and delicate bits. I tell you, the appliances in my house are scary. My drive to eliminate appliances from my house is not all about saving electricity and living the simple life - it is also about self-defence. For a few months now I have been ironing on a towel on the end of the dining room table. Don't feel terribly sorry for me though. I have all but eliminated ironing from my life. I do it by a)not caring and b)hanging shirts, school uniforms and my work clothes on the line on their hangers. They mostly dry mostly wrinkle-free. Well, wrinkle-free enough for me anyway! Still, ironing on a towel on the table is really not that efficient, so I am very grateful for my new board. I will transfer over the intact cover from the old board, and take the old board to the metal recycling bin at the tip. It has done much honourable work in its time:)

I decided I wanted a hand-held vacuum. And I hear you asking why Ms Vowed-and-Declared Anti-Consumer wants another appliance? Well, it is to replace my standard vacuum cleaner. Since I moved to a house with wooden floors I have used my vacuum cleaner about twice in nine months. I just sweep instead. And the vacuum cleaner doesn't have a home and I trip over it constantly in the back porch. Last week I spent some time trying to work out where to store it and wondering if I needed to build a cupboard, and then I thought, "Why not get rid of it?".. but then, how to vacuum the car? Anyone who knows me will be laughing their heads off right now, because I rarely if ever vacuum the car, and this is principally because I live in a house with no off-street parking, and I would have to drag the vacuum cleaner out to the street. Who am I kidding? It is mostly because I hate vacuuming the car. BUT with a hand-held vacuum cleaner I could bribe the children to do it. And then I could store it in a cupboard.

This is the most space age vacuum cleaner I have ever seen. I am worried it may actually take off..

So I hunted for one on Gumtree, and found one, also new, never been taken out of the box. It is clearly a theme this week. I negotiated a price with the seller, which was very brave of me, because really I find the whole process very scary, and went and picked it up today, and now I have an actual new vacuum cleaner, because its previous owner bought it, then moved house and decided she needed a stick vacuum instead, without ever actually having used this one.. people are odd, but I must say, it works out well for me.

I also bought some nice clothes and some more of my favourite drinking glasses, so I think I am done with the second-hand shopping for a while. I might stay home and read a (second-hand) book instead..

I feel good to have found what I need second hand, reduced the enormous inventory of unwanted goods, contributed to charity, kept money local, and spent very little, but I also feel a bit appalled at the amount of stuff that is out there, abandoned because someone wants something newer, better, different.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Meditation on Stuff


Michael Leunig

God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around.
Amen.

from A Common Prayer by Michael Leunig


I have always liked buying second hand - there is a little thrill of expectancy going into a junk shop or an op shop - you just never know what you might find. But while I enjoyed it, second hand shopping was just a hobby. I began trying to shop like this in earnest two years ago, when I started to feel too much disconnect between my values (a beautiful, clean planet for everyone, fair trade, equality) and the way that the stuff that I bought was produced. At first, I found the uncertainty of second hand shopping a little bit daunting. Then I started my year of Buying Nothing New which has turned into the-rest-of-my-life-of-mostly-buying-nothing-new. I still find the uncertainty of buying second hand daunting. Buying second hand involves not knowing when or where I will find what I want, it involves transactions with actual people. It means people give me stuff, which is wonderful, but I also find it hard to accept that, although I am getting better at the ebb and flow of the tide of 'things' coming in and out of my life. Sometimes I still do buy new things. Last year I bought a thermal cooker, a tea strainer, a spiraliser, several books, some plants, some fair trade organic underwear, some timber and a doormat. This year I will buy a solar hot water system, some PV panels and a rainwater tank. I already bought some paint last week as well, and school shoes and socks for my daughter. It takes a lot more angst these days to buy new things than it does to buy second hand. It seems abundantly clear that we treat the earth and each other so appallingly in order to get all this stuff, which turns out to be mostly inessential. If we do need to buy stuff, and sometimes we do, then let it be well-made enough to last a very long time, bought from someone local, and let's respect our stuff, which literally costs the earth.

This is a little collection of thoughts I have been working through on uncertainty, and the leap of faith that accompanies any venture into the unknown. Even the slight unknown of shopping outside the box:

There is a spiritual element to how we acquire the things that we need. If we go to a store to buy a particular widget, we generally come out of the store with that particular widget (and often a few extras as well..). There is very little unknown in this scenario. We are in control.

If we are buying second hand, or hunting for stuff that has been thrown away, or working out how we can make stuff ourselves, we are actually taking a little leap into the dark. There is an unknown space where we might land. To me this appears to require faith - in the universe, in the help of the community, in ourselves, that we can do this thing. Buying second hand might mean mooching around the tip shop trying out solutions for size in our heads. It might mean asking a friend for help in making something work. Collecting free stuff from freecyle or receiving it from friends or friends of friends means making social connections and all of this entails examining the way we view relationships and obligations and gifts.

We all live in a connected web of relationships, but when we buy stuff from stores, we have an illusion of independence and control. In reality, when we do that we are dependent on people far away who are giving up their dignity, health, and sometimes their lives to labour away in mines, out in the fields among pesticides, or underpaid on the factory floor in order that we can buy a cheap widget.

When we make awkward social contact with someone we may not know who is giving something away that they don't want and that we do want - well, it feels a little like we are dependent, but in truth, it is taking nothing from that other person, and we are receiving so little compared to the invisible transaction that happens when we buy stuff from the store. In fact, it can be a wonderful gift to another person for you to receive something freely given. When I was moving from a large to a small house, I was pathetically grateful to anyone who would come and take anything away from me so I didn't have to think about it any more! I heaved sighs of relief as furniture left the premises on its way to a good home.

Giving stuff a new lease of life, making new stuff from old stuff, accepting gifts from friends and strangers - all of this takes creativity and faith. It builds relationships. Buying widgets from the store builds walls between us and our neighbours, hurts people we don't know, and stifles our souls.

I am already a little way along the road of exploring the serendipity of acquiring things that I want and need without visiting the big box store. I want to make that more of a part of my life. Having said that, uncertainty is difficult! Control, even if it is an illusion, is hard to cede. Accepting and embracing the unexpected is a bit frightening. But also a bit magical.




Thursday, February 2, 2017

How To Wash Your Hair In The Sink




In the comments on my Electricity Challenge post, reader Marieann mentioned that she always washes her hair in the sink. As I am looking for ways to reduce my very long hot showers, I decided to give it a go. When I was little my mum washed my hair over the sink, but I wasn't sure it was possible to do it without help!

Later, after I had successfully washed my hair on my own over the bathroom sink, without having to resort to any esoteric yoga poses (which is lucky, as I don't know any), I checked my blog comments, and here was a wonderful comment from Heather, who had done exactly the same thing, and written a report and review!

Hi Jo-
Inspired by you, and in the spirit of research, I tried washing my hair in the sink today. I used a 2L pitcher, a smaller cup, and a rag, along of course with shampoo, conditioner, and a towel. Here is what I did:

1. Ran the water until it was warm, because I am a giant chicken about cold water. I caught the water in the pitcher to measure the flow rate- 1.5L of water in the 25 seconds it took the water to run warm.


2. Washed the toothpaste splatters, etc. out of the basin with the caught water and the rag. (The 1.5 L of caught water was more than I actually needed for this step.) Put the stopper in the sink.


3. Ran another 1.5L of warm water into the pitcher. Poured it over my head into the basin, wetting my hair. Squeezed out my hair, and scooped most of the same water back into the pitcher with the smaller cup.


4. Shampooed just my scalp, then rinsed with the water in the pitcher. I was surprised that less than 1.5 L seemed to get the shampoo out.


5. Put conditioner on just the ends of my hair (where it gets tangly). Drained the basin of the soapy water, bent over and rinsed the conditioner out of my hair with running water. This took about 30 seconds and so probably used about another 1.5 L of water or so. (I found that the water in the pipe had gone cold by this point anyways, so I will probably skip step 1 next time. It wasn’t that bad [squawk, squawk!] and warmed up partway through, so I finished warm.)

My hair feels as clean as it does after a shower, and only 4.5L of water! I can probably do it with a bit less next time, since I will run only enough water to wipe out the basin at the beginning. Now hair washing, body washing, and leg shaving can all be independent of each other, each getting done only when it needs doing! I’ll still spring for my nice warm shower now and again, though. 


BTW, my hair is a medium length- it just touches my collarbone. I might go a bit shorter to make the process less drippy, and to reduce the need for conditioner too. Thanks for the inspiration to burst out of my unthinking assumptions about ordinary life routines. I feel more than a little silly describing such a simple process, which our grandmothers wouldn’t have thought twice about, in such detail, but maybe another spoiled first-worlder like me who wouldn’t have otherwise thought about “breaking down the shower” will try it now.
--Heather in CA


Heather and Marieann, thanks so much for your comments; now all three of us can assure you that it is perfectly possible to have clean hair without having a shower:)

I like Heather's comment about 'unthinking assumptions about ordinary life routines'. Nothing we have done here is extraordinary, difficult or new. It just means thinking a little bit differently. In this case, trying something our grannies would have done. And it was fine, quite pleasant actually. I wandered around for half an hour with my hair in a towel, giving it a deep condition before rinsing off.

I have also been contemplating another of Heather's recent comments - she mentioned that she takes very short showers, but that once or twice a month she luxuriates in a long hot shower and truly appreciates it. And you know, unlimited hot water really is a huge luxury. In indulging in that every day we may be missing the wonder of it. So here is my new plan. Short showers when I need them. Washing hair over the sink. The luxury of a long hot shower once in a while when I really want one. 

Updated to add: I have just done my second sink hair wash, and I can report - not a drip on my face. Again I did a ten minute conditioning treatment while I read the internet, then rinsed with cold water. I read recently that while warm water is good for washing hair, cold is good for rinsing because it leaves a little conditioner in to do its good work. Not something most of us want to try in the shower, but because I only put conditioner on the ends of my hair, rinsing it out in cold was fine. It is also the quickest hair wash ever. Five minutes tops for my shoulder length and very thick hair. This is a keeper:)
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