Saturday, April 11, 2015

Of sticks and bricks and square footage

Boy howdy, I really--and I mean really--need to up my writing game.

So that quote is definitely, definitely Charles Peguy and as disturbing as it is to find writers' quotes attributed willy-nilly I decided not to get distracted with the bogus attribution as it's EXACTLY the sort of distraction that keeps me from writing.

Which, by the way, consists of neither tearing anything from my guts or pulling anything out of overcoat pockets. It's simply too much thinking, too much time spent phrasing and compiling in my head and not enough of the "screw it, let's just write something" that might lead to either gut-spillage or pocket-pulling-outtage.

Was it Madeleine L'Engle who said "Inspiration usually comes during work, not before it"? (No seriously, was it? I've always thought it was, but perhaps it's really Wordsworth.)

So here we go. The precipice is before us and leaps are about to be taken.

The two kids, my fella, and your correspondent moved house three times in a year (my last entry was right before the second of those three relocations, when Move Numero Three wasn't even on the horizon). And that, folks, was the breaking point. A combination of positively ridiculous/downright medieval tenancy practices here in the UK combined with a local housing bubble that tempted all landlords to kick their tenants out and sell up left us living in a village quite close to mid-Cambridge, very close to friends, local places, and everything we needed, for the exorbitant price of £1250/month, not including council tax or utility bills. (When I convert that into dollars it makes my head spin. Easily over $2k month shelled out before we begin to address the cost of food, clothing, entertainment, phones, car insurance, etc. To compare, when I moved from Tennessee in 2011 I paid about $600 in rent and never topped $1000 in monthly expenses).

At the time, there didn't seem to be any other option than to keep moving, keep renting, keep paying through the nose. I was working a very cushy job that afforded us the luxury of doing this, but the madness kept creeping in. A recent article I'm too lazy to search for now estimated that the average UK renter would shell out £500,000 more per lifetime than the average homeowner, thanks to insane fees and the high cost of constantly relocating. So, buy a house, right?

No way. As of last week, the cheapest house in Cambridge was a £250,000 dump in Cherry Hinton--not the nicest area of town--that was listed as 'needing plenty of TLC' (the second-cheapest accommodation available for purchase was a dingy flat at the stunningly low price of £175,000). After nearly four years of seeing friends and colleagues constantly struggle to find a room or flatshare, never even dreaming that they might one day own a home, it was clear that both buying and renting in Cambridgeshire are concepts utterly detached from both sanity and financial solvency. So, move to a different city, right?

Nope. My eldest is enrolled in a fantastic autism specialist school, the fastest-growing in the UK, and in the year since he was accepted there has made such fantastic improvement that I'd happily live in a cardboard box under the freeway if it meant he could stay in a that safe, stable, thriving environment.

Lucky cardboard boxes aren't necessary! My partner and I came up with what seemed like a brilliant idea. Why not resist the lie that is the poisonous renting/home-owning dichotomy and temporarily live in a caravan? We'd already met a local organic farmer who allows long term caravan park-ups on his field, complete with solar power hookups and shower/toilet facilities. Our expenses could be paid with the wages the fella makes, and if we lived very cheaply we could bank my salary so that in two years we'd have six figures saved--enough to go buy an acre or two and begin building our own. Genius, eh?


Something pithy about mice and men.

A combination of visa and employment woes has well and truly scuppered this plan. Instead of moving off grid in mid-June, we're now scrambling to get out from under our rented house which will become impossible to afford when I change jobs. Now, I reckon finding out that you're about to lose your main source of income, coupled with impending homelessness, would be the breaking point for most folks--but not us. There have been hard days, sure, but we have a dream of homesteading and we're sticking to it, even if the road from A to B seems impossible. (Can't walk it? Build a hovercraft!) The upside to all of this is that we had a plan to majorly downscale and strengthen our frugality muscles (which are located for me in the bra area--left cup to be exact--where I regularly keep my debit card) which meant that we were already on the lookout for a caravan. And remember that friendly farmer who was going to let us move onto his land in June? He's happy to welcome us as soon as we find a van to live in. Which brings me to...

Well. We haven't named it yet. But here she is.

The newest addition to our family is very tiny, and I'm going to be the first to say that she's too damned tiny and we will need to find a bigger one as soon as possible. On the plus side, she's in excellent condition and was sold to us at an extremely low price by a chap who must have been lobotomised to have offered her for about a quarter of the going rate.

Also, he had arguable taste in interior design but we'll let it slide.

So this--about 4 metres long by 2 wide--plus an awning is all the space we're going to have. So while the need to declutter and downsize was an accepted reality that I had a vague idea would manifest itself at some point in the future, just how downsized downsizing will be has finally hit home.

My son's bedroom, which is the smallest of the rooms in the house we currently occupy, has more floor space than what will be our entire home for the foreseeable future. It's not even about getting rid of clothes and toys we don't need--my fears at this moment involve where, for example, will I store the pots and pans?

Also, I have fears about that zebra-print couch and other fears about pooping where people can hear, but that's a post for another time.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Circling all 'round the sun---after three years of insanity . . .

The interesting thing is to see how little (in some cases) the sanity journey has progressed. And what strides have been made.

A little over two years ago, I managed to move to England with my previous partner, the two spriggans, eight large suitcases and a number of other smaller receptacles, such that our possessions fit into a total of 17 bags (including laptop cases, backpacks, a purse, etc). Pretty great downsizing, I thought at the time. To make a long story short, since then I've managed to simultaneously lose a partner/housemate and gain a houseful of stuff. (And an armful of amazing adventures! But also more stuff.)

Let's all pause for George Carlin to talk about stuff.

Ah, I feel better already. According to Unfuck Your Habitat, one of my favourite sanity-promoting tumblrs (you'd be surprised at how inspiring other humans' before-and-afters of junk kitchen drawers can be!) 'do what you can' and 'no excuses' are the two go-to mantras for unfucking your life. Not immediately opposing ideas, but I sort of feel like these two thoughts have been looping me in a dualistic cycle of inertia since I moved to the UK. One, I found myself struggling as a single mom of two children, one with special needs, in a foreign country--so 'do what you can' involved laxing on some pretty hard-won habits, such as not buying anything that wasn't recyclable, taking bikes or public transportation, not letting stupid crap toys come into the house to clutter everything up. Nope, we were right back to stressed-out ma giving the kids a ride to school in a huge diesel van eating plastic-wrapped cereal bars, simply so I could have a little sanity.

Errrr---no. It's made me feel unhappy and compromised, as if I let myself forget that the life I want for my children has to be . . . if not hacked into existence, at least steadily and stubbornly shouldered into place. So in the 'no excuses' vein, I began to itch to make changes. Emotional ups and downs and the seasonal blahs that make everyone in England dive onto their sofas or into their local pubs for six useless months of the year are no longer an excuse because a) there will always be ups and downs and b) England will always be England--rain and pubs can't stop me hoovering any longer!

There have  been two external motivating factors in my decision to revisit the sanity attempt. First, I had to move (quite quickly) about four months ago and basically chucked everything into boxes, meaning that rubbish, baggage, uselessness, and futility were all brought into the new flat and made constant companions: insane. Now that I'm moving again (in less than eight weeks) I'm determined not to bring a single bit of that with me. True, it won't be down to eight suitcases, but it will be pretty damned close.

Secondly--drum roll for the predictability factor--I met someone. Yeah, not as in the tidy-up-so-he-doesn't-think-you're-a-slob way, in the this-person-makes-me-want-to-be-the-best-version-of-myself way. (It's chilling to re-read that sentence; almost sounds like I'm ready to embrace adulthood after years of hedonism and trans-continental travel). Why is that important? Well, a shared vision of the future is one of those things that I've always lacked in partnerships. Not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, or not knowing how to fight for what I hoped my life would be, I happily adapted to other people's dreams and ideas because they sounded like a pretty good time and I had no better suggestion. This is different: we've been like two strangers who slowly and shyly began to realise that we might be able to trust each other to make hopes into reality. I first clued in that he might be more than just a guy for good times when, apart from religious trips to his garden allotment, he unwrapped excess packaging in disgust and muttered under his breath about it. Now he brightens my day with posts about plants you can regrow from kitchen scraps and sands the top off mini-casks of beer to use as garden planters. If I can convince him to build his own greenhouse, I'll make him a pie every Sunday.

Okay, yeah, I'm getting a bit gooey but surely part of sanity is figuring out what you want and being dedicated to finding ways of getting there. There's been an organic chili garden and a straw-bale house in the back of my mind since I was fourteen years old, and sod it--I've never been able to think of a better way to spend my evenings than drinking (bulk! with homemade almond milk!) coffee with someone I love in scavenged rocking chairs on a porch of our own upcycled design. Mother of god, if we're lucky enough we might end up watching sunsets from a glass house.

That's definitely my Cancerian romanticism nudging its sticky fingers into reality. Luckily, being a Cancerian also gives me bucketloads of practicality so along those lines I'm going to stop building zero waste castles in the air and go clean out a kitchen cabinet or two.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Start with the unseen

Simpler is better.

My elder sister provided the wisdom of the day, but it's apropos to how I spent my weekend. Said sister is currently knee-deep in the sort of unavoidable insanity that comes of moving from one home to another: not enough that you need to run around town deciding what box will house your family, life, and dreams for the foreseeable future; not enough that you also have to pack up all of your belongings and orchestrate the logistics of their transfer; there's also the inherent nostalgia-cum-weightless-uncertainty and general emotional turmoil (of children especially) that accompanies the move. All this, in three weeks. This morning, when she struggled to discern what she could begin packing, I suggested closets. Why not? All that stuff on the top shelves we never use anyway, it can be flung into a box relatively easily. "Good idea," she said. "Start with the unseen."

My sister really talks like that. Sometimes it makes life more manageable to have her repeat what you say in her special vocabulary/prosody.

This weekend we did start with the unseen by cleaning out the clothes in our closets. The method of taking everything out is very helpful, because standing in front of your clothes and trying to pull out piecemeal what you don't want is NOT conducive to actually achieving a full purge. Tricky little belts that someone gave you but are broken or sneaky shirts that you once fit into but now don't are likely to stay where they are. They appear to be part of the natural structure of the closet and remain rooted on their hangers. It's best to make the bed, pull the whole lot out, and start from there. Drawers too.

You have to love it. Meaning, do you really want to keep wearing it, or is it in there because your auntie knitted it for you? Don't succumb to heirloom guilt! (More info here if you don't have NY Times access.)

You have to wear it regularly. Seasonal clothing is necessary depending on where you live, so that "six-month" rule might not apply to everyone. Corollary: a formal outfit for weddings, parties, etc may be an exception you choose to make, if you can find a garment that is appropriate for multiple occasions. This is why the gods invented the little black dress. Alternatively, if you are invited to shishi cocktail parties only once in a blue moon, consider renting or borrowing from a friend.

It has to fit well. Here you need to be brutally honest with yourself, because a garment can be beautiful, a good deal, go with your shoes, etc ad nauseum but still not fit well. My only pair of black slacks actually doesn't fit me, and I'm uncomfortable every time I wear them. So I said adieu.

It has to be in good working order. Those perfectly good pants that "just" need a new zipper, that jacket that "just" needs to be taken in? Two things. First: if you liked it enough to have it fixed, you would have done that by now. You didn't, so it can go. Second: because it's busted, you haven't been wearing it. Therefore you don't need it, so it can go.

It helps to have a friend nearby. Someone to keep you on track. Also helps if this someone is relatively your size and of similar taste, for emotional reasons I will explain below. My friend kept me focused by repeating "Hesitation means no!" when I stopped to consider an item.

It's okay to see this in stages. I was able to do a pretty good job, but the scarf collection was barely dented. That's okay though . . . when I go back in a few months and do this again, I can do phase two. Rome wasn't built in a day etc.

Result: twenty large bags (sorry Mother Earth, we promise we're not buying any more plastic bags once we've used up the box) of family clothing, shoes, and costumes. An almost empty hallway closet. Much more spacious (simple!) bedroom closets/drawers. Further result: We're donating to the local shelter, and it feels good to know that others will be using what we really don't need, especially when it comes to the kid's clothes.

"Wait, you're not selling that stuff? Twenty bags of clothes is a decent amount of cash," you may say. Ahh, but yard sales are insane and require that we continue to hoard those belongings until we can set one up. Sorting and transporting goods to the various consignment stores is a drain on our time, and we are a one-car family so the nightmarish logistics of reselling are not conducive to sanity. My goal is to simplify. Dropping off unwanted items at a shelter, Goodwill, or Freecycling are all simple options that mean my house is decluttered in a relatively short amount of time. Could I use the money? Of course, I'm a graduate student. But I could also use the karma. We were blessed enough to have more clothes than we could ever wear, so giving them away seems like the right thing to do for us.

Downsizing Causalities: Somehow I convinced myself I could wear two bathing suits at once. Also, the scarf collection is still a hurdle. Which brings me to...

Emotions and Objects: In my anthropology research, I study identity (especially national identities and self-identification of immigrants or trans-nationals). One of the things that I find most interesting as a social scientist (and most disturbing as a human and Earth citizen) is that we construct personal identities around consumption. It's a huge business because it creates brand loyalty--- Just think of the happy little children singing "We are Flinstone kids" in the vitamin commercial. (Immigrants are especially targeted because manufacturers can tap into their sense of needing to maintain their original selves but still wanting to embrace their new culture . . . something along the lines of a "El Senior Pizza Hacienda" restaurant in a Hispanic neighborhood.) Because consumers are not immune to the adroit psychological manipulations of marketing firms, and because our society places acquisition of goods above sustainability, we have emotional difficulty letting things go---it begins to feel like we are losing a piece of ourselves. In my least Marxist and most pragmatic summary of this phenomenon, I'll just say that we have these genuine emotions of loss because lots of people spend lots of time figuring out exactly how to make us feel this way. Although not in relation to a specific brand, I am struggling with these emotions currently re: my scarf collection. One day I will post a picture. For now, let's just say that I consider myself a scarf person. Part of my identity is wrapped up (hah!) in my use of what is, let's face it, the perfect accessory.

On that note, it was helpful to have my friend Layla assist with the clothes purging because she took for her own use many garments which I knew didn't fit me properly or were unnecessary to which I still had an emotional attachment (mostly because I bought them overseas). It's easier to picture them being in her closet---where I can always borrow something back in a moment of weakness--- and if she ends up deciding they are not really suitable, she can donate them herself unseen by me.

Final wisdom: something unseen is going on with my fingernail. The picture above was taken in December, when (as you can see) I had a beautiful shapely nail (to match the beautiful shapely pepper that came with my Indian food). This photograph is my "pride goeth before a fall" moment, because ever since then that fingernail has been broken, brittle, pathetic, unseemly. I know that the unseen reason is because I've been sick on-and-off since January and likely need more EFAs (if I could get a flax seed oil IV drip, that would do it). But when one asks Our Lord Google what to do about this, there are a remarkable number of product suggestions. Polishes! Creams! Strengtheners! Hardeners, Conditioners, Stimulators! The eco market isn't any better. Vitamins! Herbal teas! Complexes! Organic cuticle butter! (What?!)

But because I was treated to my sister's practical sagacity this morning, I'll be eating a spoonful of coconut oil instead. Gotta start with the unseen.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Start with the smallest room

Simpler is better. We can do more with less.

We've been shut up all winter doing our best to accumulate dust, wreak havoc, and drive each other insane. Frankly, we have enough stuff to furnish two separate households. I know, because when we moved here almost three years ago, we did have two separate households which we cleverly merged into one. Double sets of dishes, towels, silverware . . . and let's not talk about the books. Inspired by Bea Johnson and her amazing family over at the Zero Waste Home we've decided to quit talking about minimalizing and simplifying, and actually do it.

I went room-by-room and made a list of things to get rid of. To appeal to my sociologist partner, I made sure to clarify my methodology:

Theory: Simpler is better. We can do more with less. It’s easier to take something out the front door once it’s out of a given room.

Method: Take objects out of a room (furniture can stay). Admire the enormous amount of objects. Contemplate immorality of consumerism. Only put back what has to go in.

Nota bene: We can come up with an excuse to keep anything. We should challenge ourselves to come up with reasons to get rid of something.

We began with the bathroom. In the past, whenever I've opened the cabinet above the toilet I've been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of bottled products. Whoo boy, the PRODUCTS. The cognitive dissonance encouraged by America's consumerist culture is simply amazing. We congratulate ourselves on recycling our used bottles instead of asking why we felt the need to buy these products in the first place. Serbian philosopher Slavoj Zizek refers to the hypocrisy of this feel-good consumerism as "cultural capitalism": i.e., buying fair trade coffee is a palliative which furthers our unethical economic system. (But it sure does make us feel like educated liberals to carry around our "Fair Trade Coffee" reusable mugs, eh?) Bea Johnson, an anti-consumerist goddess who is clearly leaps and bounds further along her path than I am, advocates a system in which necessity is addressed. What do we actually NEED to have? Can we simplify to products that serve more than one purpose (vitamin E oil is a cure-all for scrapes, cuts, bug bites, blemishes, etc) and get rid of those that are use-specific?

So we lined everything up in rows down the hallway--- it was pretty disgusting. Highlights: seven different kinds of deodorant (we only use one of them, but kept the un-used ones out of guilt); five bottles of lotion (various female friends have given me products that smell like grandma and thus were never slathered on); two hair dryers (I haven't dried my hair in ever! Why do I own a hair dryer?); two appliances for ironing/steaming clothes (the sanity for this escapes me, as we make it a point not to wear clothing that requires such time-wasting activities as manually unwrinkling wrinkles); and over a dozen of those little plastic medicine cups that come with saccharine rainbow-colored kids' medicines.

Result: two small grocery bags of trash (duplicate, expired, or unnecessary items whose containers couldn't be recycled), one small grocery bag of recyclables. Much tidier cabinets. I put small, almost used-up pots/bottles of eye cream, lotion, etc into the first aid box to use as "medicine," as the appearance of attending to a perceived injury is really what counts for kids (if my daughter stubs her toe and I'm able to use the last of the Burt's Bees Peppermint Foot Cream, it's better than just pitching it into the landfill).

Still to do: Reduce towels. If we are all using separate towels, we need about five a week. I think we currently have about fifteen in there. Stop buying single-use products and stock up on castile soap. Refill shampoo/conditioner from bulk containers (either at Three Rivers Market or Earth Fare, our only choices in town). Break addiction to toxic hair-removal cream. I'm an unenthusiastic shaver at best (it's been about 2-3 months for the legs, however---spring is coming and the limbs are due for depilitating ) but I'll need to find a solution. Bea recommends alum soap which I found hilariously advertised as "Feminine Virginity Soap". That appears to contain milk, however. Still, with a name like "Feminine Virginity Soap" it might be hard to resist the inherent comedy in attempting to get my partner to shave his face with that. And, obviously, resist and refuse to buy medicines, creams, body washes, and assorted other bathroom products that are a) unnecessary and b) contain toxic ingredients or anything that we cannot pronounce. Change the trash can in the bathroom to a recycle bin, as most of what goes in there is paper (i.e. cardboard TP tubes). Having to carry bits of plastic to the kitchen trash will raise awareness about what we're throwing away.

Affirmation time! (what we're already good at): using cloth wipes for runny noses, castile soap for washing, Diva cup and cloth pantyliners (this obviously applies only to me, but I'm going to make my habits a family victory), re-using towels, taking showers instead of baths, turning off lights when we leave bathroom. Also, my partner was fantastically ruthless and Spartan about what would go back into the cabinets. This bodes well.

For the future: somehow both the iron and the steamer made it into the linen closet. I remain a bit confused about that one. Also, there is a toilet issue. Some people advocate the selective flush, using the logic that it's rather insane to waste five gallons (or more) of water flushing two ounces of pee (or less). Governments in Albania and Brazil have advocated peeing in the shower, which I usually do ever since my sister turned me onto standing up to pee back in the 90s. When the kids were in diapers, I used the cloth diaper wipes as reusable TP (keeping the normal kind for guests obviously). None of these ideas have been met with enthusiasm by my partner. For now, we've resolved to put a brick in the toilet.

What, is all of this toilet talk making some people uncomfortable? Anthropology offers an insight--- Body Ritual Among the Nacirema. Summary: Our culture is bizarre. Deal with it.