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On Sunday, I went to see the author of one of my favorite books of all time called, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

I was really geeked out to see Eric Brende speak in person.  For me it was the equivelant of meeting Yoda or Mr. Miyagi – someone that can set you on a new way of looking at the world.  This is the guy that got me on the path of thinking more closely about the value of community, working together, and working with our hands in real work.

My pen couldn’t write fast enough as I tried to jot down all of his bits of wisdom.  It was fantastic, and I left charged up and ready to face the world.

Then the week happened.

Our house has been hectic and school has been tiring.  On Monday I sent two students to the office for throwing around  the F-word.  I sent another to the office for constant disruptions (I counted 7 disruptions in about four minutes).  Last night, we needed an impromptu family meeting.  I am just plum wore out by the end of the day.

It’s no wonder that the life that Eric Brende speaks about is so appealing.  Brende, an average Joe, went to live with an Anabaptist community (even stricter than the Amish we have around here), for 18 months. He liked what the community had to offer, so he and his young bride stayed for three more years.  He currently lives simply in St. Louis.  He makes a living selling soap and running a rickshaw service.

My friend Julie D. and her daughter at a historical reenactment event

The two messages that I took away from the book were that community is essential for us to function as functional human beings, and that work without shortcuts can bring joy and harmony to our lives.

I read his book back in 2006, shortly after it came out and have consciously and subconsciously taken many of the truths to heart.

I’ll break what I learned from his lecture, and how it is meaningful, into a couple of posts, as I’m still digesting it.

There are a couple of communities in which I am a part of.  One of my favorites is the spinning community.  When I first moved into the country, anyone that found out where I lived and that I wanted to raise sheep kept asking, “Have you met Julie D.?”  My answer was always no, but it was really weird how many people asked me this.

Finally about nine months into my country living journey I met this mysterious woman.  Julie is a treasured  friend.

Julie raises Angora goats, a few sheep, bunches of cats, chickens and ducks.  She lives in a gigantic pole barn that was retrofitted to serve as a house, with a massive great room, and a loft that goes around the edges of the upstairs.  Julie introduced me to spinning (wool, not the bicycling exercise), like a pusher offering drugs.

When she sat down to teach me to spin, I offered to pay for the roving I was using, “Oh, no,” she said, “I’ve got plenty.”  I was hooked.  At the time I wasn’t teaching, so my evenings were pretty stress-free.  I bought my own wheel, and spent my evenings spinning lumpy yarns.  Which also meant, that I needed to learn to crochet.

One of the best parts about meeting Julie is her ability to make friends and invite them into her home.  Several times a year, she invites her friends and friends-of-friends, to bring their spinning wheels, crochet hooks, and knitting needles to spend the day at her house working on projects.  Everyone is working, talking, making new friends, and of course eating yummy potluck food.  The day flies by, and new friends are always made.

This past Saturday was the latest spin-in as they are called.  My daughter has learned to love these days, as the kids gather to go hike trails, hold kittens, or sled down a fabulous hill only to warm up by the wood stove with hot cocoa.

Julie's daughter (in green) is the pied piper of the younger children. They flock to her.

It’s a community.

On Saturday, I saw women that I hadn’t seen since I sold my old home.  I enjoyed the company of others.  I wish that there were more times for me to connect with others.  It would have been fantastic to have a friend or two to can with this summer.  To get into the rhythm of cutting, stirring, cooking, and boiling for a whole day, with the melody of friends’ stories and laughter.

Just a few of the women from the spin in last weekend

If only there were time to slow down and do real work, instead of playing wack-a-mole all day long.

Brende talked about the natural rhythm of our lives, and how we are playing each part of the orchestra separately these days.  In days past, we would have exercised, cooked, eaten, socialized, and learned as part of our daily routines.  Today, we have compartmentalized everything.  We can’t enjoy life because we can’t hear how it plays together.

Finding a community that complements our tune is a good place to start on our journey of putting our selves back together.

When do you feel in rhythm with your life and the life of others?

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Jeremy and I were sans kiddos this weekend, as all of them were with their other parents.  This is our putzing-date time.

We went to the local farmer’s market for cider and greens, dropped off some pickled hot peppers to a friend.  After waking Kevin up (sorry!) and giving him the pickled peppers, we went to the second hand store to buy cloth napkins so we could get rid of the paper ones for good.  It was a jackpot day because the thrift store had all cloth napkins half-off.

Woot.

We also purchased two climbing roses on sale for $2.50 each and a drying rack that we had been eyeing at another thrift store so we could dry our clothes without the dryer in the winter.  On the way home, we spotted two rain barrels at a garage sale for $45.  A pretty good price we thought, now we can collect water and water the garden next summer without running the well.


It was a banner day for making our lives a little more green.

Sure we spent a lot of green, but everything was at bargain prices.  All of the things that were purchased were things that we’ve been talking about for ages.  The roses, well, that comes out of my allowance for October.

Our car was so full, Jeremy had to go back with the van to pick up the rain barrels.

What the heck?!

Hey!  I thought that we were supposed to be downsizing, cleaning up, and simplifying our life!

Mmmm.  How does this all work anyway?  To use cloth napkins, I have to purchase said cloth napkins and bring them into my house, and unless I want to do laundry everyday with six kids that spill a lot of milk, I need a lot of them.  If we want to collect your rainwater, we have to bring home rain barrels.  If we want to dry our clothes in the winter, we need a clothes rack, because if you drape wet sweaters on your antique wooden chairs when wet, you’ll ruin them (ask me how I know).

I even had to buy loads of jars in order to all that canning I talked about.

Why do we need so much stuff?

Here’s the part that got me going on all of this today…

When we returned mid-afternoon from our spending spree, we noticed a buggy without a horse across the street, where our daughters’ friend used to live.  There was an Amish woman in the garage sorting through the junk that the family had left behind when they moved out in the middle of the night a few weeks ago.

We went over to see what they were up to, and offer the services of our van if needed.  The house was trashed.  There had been a flood in the house that no one had told the landlords about.  The dogs that had lived there tore up the doors.  The garage was covered with piles and piles of stuff.  In the piles were trash, clothes, shoes, broken toys, beer boxes, a broken fridge, a karaoke machine, scads of take out pizza, and a box for a 54 inch flat screen television.

The family left because they had not been paying their rent.  Whether or not they couldn’t afford it or just didn’t want to, I don’t know.

The woman doing the sweeping was one of the owners of the house.  She was saddened by the way the family had taken care of their belongings.

“There is probably more than $1,000 worth of broken things and clothes in this garage.  I don’t understand why they didn’t take care of the things that they had.  If money was tight why didn’t they take better care of their clothing?  Clothing is expensive,” the woman commented.

The garage represented well more than $1,000 worth of items neglected, consumed, and abandoned.

Our landfills represent millions and millions of dollars wasted, neglected, consumed, and abandoned.

So what can we do about it?  We’re Americans after all.  We consume things.

Jeremy and I offered to help take items of any usefulness to Goodwill.  After all, it was easier for us to haul it in our van, than in the buggy.  I took everything home and gave it a good washing, and hung it on the line to dry.  What wasn’t in good enough shape for Goodwill I cut up to use as rags.

What can we do about our consumption? I think our Earth is grand and I want to protect it, but I still consume things.  Now I consume a lot of green-earth-saving things, but I’m consuming none-the-less.  I don’t have a great answer.

Here’s what my old man and I have been talking about to try to eliminate the consumerism from our house:

  • Buy as much as possible second hand. It’s really wonderful to save money.  But, it’s also great to get some more use out of something that may have ended up in a landfill.  My favorite haunts are garage sales with girls selling lemonade out front that look to be a couple inches taller than our girls; Goodwill; The Mennonite thrift store in town; and then the more upscale consignment clothing store.  We also shop at the second hand furniture store, and small groceries that sell dented cans, overruns, and products nearing the expiration date.
  • Try to limit the amount of stuff that comes into your home. This one is really hard.  All of the kids bring home papers from school each day.  Each one of us brings items into the house, maybe one small bit by small bit, but it adds up.
  • Don’t watch T.V.. We do watch videos in our house, and sometimes we’ll watch our online funnies.  We hardly ever watch television though which limits the amount of commercials we and our kids see.  If we don’t know that a new product exists, it’s much harder to want it.
  • Get rid of stuff. I am terrible at this one because I’m cheap.  I would love to have a cleaner house, but I’m afraid that I might need that thing someday.  But, by keeping all of the little doodads, I can’t find the things that I need when I need them, and may be tempted to buy a new one.  We realized last week when the kids were sick that we had five thermometers.  Unless we need to take simultaneous temps, I’m sure that one would do.  I’ll keep you posted on how this one goes for me.
  • Don’t buy junk you don’t need.
  • “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” said William Morris, one of the fathers of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the last century.  Most American homes are filled with all kinds of lame junk that is neither useful or beautiful; so donate it, repurpose it, or use it for kindling.

True Confession: I am far far far from being anywhere near perfect or even really good about less consuming. But I want to be there.


I know that I do want to fully appreciate the items that I own, and take good care of them.  I have a pair of sandals that I spent $80 on 10 years ago, and they finally had to be retired this year.  That averages into eight bucks a year to wear those great shoes.  They were a quality product, and I took good care of them.  What if everything we owned was of quality, and we took good care of them?  I bet I could get by with one pair of sandals, don’t you?


I don’t know what the answer is to get us all off of this rat race of consumerism.  The Amish woman across the street today was never on it.  She consumes stuff, but really only what she and her family needs.


What ideas do you have?  I’d love to hear them.

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I remember my mom canning when I was a kid.  She had a great big garden until I was in third grade.  My mom is a home economics teacher, did all four years of 4-H, and grew up on a farm.  So home preserves were second nature for her.  But at the beginning of fourth grade we moved from the country and into a subdivision and that was the end of canning.  I haven’t talked to her about it, but I don’t think she missed canning all that much.

About 8 years ago, she gave me all her canning stuff and it sat in my basement.  I’m not even sure why I wanted it at the time, but I had it.  Three summers ago, my mom helped me can salsa.  It was kind of a fiasco, because the power went out after I had heated up the salsa, and we had to do the hot water bath on the propane grill to finish.  I only canned the salsa, but I did make some freezer sauce and chili starter that year too.  Mom showed me how to use the grinder-skin remover thingy, how to put the lids on the jars, and how to cook them long enough to pop.  That was the only year that I canned before my divorce.  The salsa must have been good though, because my ex took several jars with him when he moved out.

This year, in trying to reconnect even further with my food, I decided I was going to can and freeze as much as possible from our garden.  I may have gotten carried away.  

Broccoli started our summer strong.  I blanched and froze broccoli every three or four days and filled a drawer in the deep freeze.  I froze green beans, corn, strawberries, and raspberries. I also froze lots of herbs, which I hope will work okay in dishes through the winter.  As the tomatoes started to get ahead of me I quartered them and threw them in the freezer too until I could deal with them.

Then came the salsa.  I am a darn good salsa chef.  I don’t really have much of a recipe anymore, but I have a feeling for how much of what to throw in. The family all pitched in and we canned nearly four gallons of salsa.  As we were prepping the veggies for the pot, we talked about how great this would be as a chili starter, and who we would want to give them to as presents.  Then, it didn’t really seem like enough.  On the next Saturday, I canned about three more gallons of salsa.  This time, I made some green salsa too.

We pickled hot peppers with garlic and onions.  Jeremy made hot pepper jelly.  We tried making green tomato pickles, and made a ton of them.  It will be a couple of weeks before we know if the sweet and the dill pickles turned out okay.  I canned tomato juice, and some tomato sauce.  The tomato sauce took ALL day to make, and I only ended up with about six quarts, I’m not sure its worth the fuss.

Canning is making a comeback.  A friend of mine posted photos of the applesauce she made, while another friend suggested swapping canned goods over the winter.  Great idea ladies.

I am seeing canning posts all over the internet.  Maybe it’s just because I am an eco-rural-living-local-food-nutjob, but it seems to me like people are taking an interest in it.  In the last two days I’ve seen canning classes on two different sites.  The latest local harvest newsletter describes how to get started in canning.  So does the latest issue of Yes! magazine and even Etsy, which is a website for arts and crafts, not for agriculture.

It’s a ton of work.  The kitchen gets hot.  And it is really, really messy.  The satisfaction is high.  It’s great to crack open a jar of homemade salsa.  I feel like I am eating a decadent dessert when I sprinkle frozen raspberries on my yogurt.  Life is good when the food comes from your own garden.  If you can’t can or don’t know how, freezing is a super simple way to store away the summer yummy.

Canning can be beautiful.  Shelves stocked with home canned goods look neat.  The kids are really excited to give salsa and pickles to their teachers at Christmas this year.  And I’m looking forward to enjoying my hard work from the summer.

For technical information on canning: National Center for Home Preservation and the Ball learn to can site.  I also picked up a great book on freezing from a garage sale, and there are lots of great books check out Betterworld Books to find a used copy.  Be careful about the information you use to can and freeze.  It is possible to botch up canning, so follow recipes carefully to avoid illness.

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I’ve lived in the country for about 5 years now, and this first year in this home, and I’ve never had a clothesline. Not a real one anyway. At my old house I strung a line between two trees and hung out some of my wash. The biggest problem with that method anyway was the trees. It was completely shaded. I know it was dumb, but that’s all I had at the time.

This year I wanted a real clothesline: the really sturdy pipe kind that my mom used to have. The kind that bees make their nests in to torture small children. I wanted something sturdy that would last until I was old with just a fresh coat of paint every now and again.

I went to the local home improvement store thinking that they would either have strong metal poles, or some sort of kit to make a wooden clothesline. After all, they sell readymade mailboxes. The selection was disheartening. They did have clotheslines. My choices were the pop-up umbrella kind made of flimsy metal, a more traditional clothesline made of flimsy metal, or a $90 clothesline made of a bit less flimsy metal. I checked every store around and no luck.

It’s not like I live in New York City or Downtown L.A.; I live in a rural area. I was getting frustrated. I drove 40 minutes to the touristy Amish town, where the Amish Craftsmen sell their wares. I found a great store that sold outdoor items like porch swings, little wooden wishing wells, backyard chicken coops, and lanterns. They had clotheslines, but the same wimpy ones that the big box stores had. I asked at the counter if they new of anyone at all that might be able to make one custom order. The man at the desk referred me down the road to another Amish man that made outdoor play equipment and deck furniture.

When I arrived, I asked if he did custom orders. When explaining what I was looking for, he sounded like he didn’t necessarily want to do it. But, he was willing to give me some tips to build it (I’m handy, but not when it comes to a saw). He pulled out his notepad and began sketching what the design should look like if it were to be sturdy enough. I was beginning to think I would have to measure angles and learn about bracing.

My seven foot studs with wash that I left out last night.  Oops!

As he got into his design I think he convinced himself that it might be fun, “I think I have some 10 foot 4x4s back there, and I think I already have bolts long enough.” He agreed to my project for 40 bucks a post.

Hip hip hurray!

Two weeks later I had my posts. I proudly dug the holes and filled them with quickcrete and strung the lines. Since then, I think we’ve only used the dryer three or four times. I strung a line low enough for the kids to hang their own clothes. At first it seemed like a lot of work, but I think that the girls are getting into the swing of it now. They help one another hang their clothes, and will willingly come out to help me with sheets and towels. I think my 13-year-old stepson is a little less enamored by it, but he doesn’t complain.

We have 6 people in our house. With about 8 loads of laundry per week, we’ve saved probably about $25 so far this summer, but more importantly kept about 350 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. I think many Americans have forgotten that nature can really do a lot for us, if we let it. We can fit about 3 loads on the lines, so there is never the Saturday morning laundry back up that we often have.

In our effort to slow down and simplify, the clothesline has given us all an excuse to get outdoors and slow down a bit.

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When I was eight, I wanted to be Amish.  I spent my early years growing up near Fort Wayne, where there is a large Amish population.  There was something magical about the idea of riding in a horse drawn buggy, giving up my phone, and burning lanterns while reading books before bed.   I was addicted to “Little House on the Prairie” at that time.  In my mind, being Amish would be like stepping back in time, and I would get to be Laura for a while.


Today I live in an even bigger Amish community.  Many of my neighbors are Amish, Conservative Mennonites, and Apostolics.  I guess I never really realized how many levels of “plain” there are until a Conservative Mennonite girl in a calico dress, finishing up her 8th and final year of school, was telling me that one of her classmates came from a “really plain” family.


Today, as a slightly older than my husband 30-something mom of one, and step-mom to three, I still find myself wanting to be plain.  But now I see the advantages differently than I did when I was eight.  I see the advantage of having home-cooked unadulterated meals, taking time to hang the wash on the line, going to bed more or less with the sun, and getting up when the light is still beautiful in the morning, living close to all of your family, and having friends to around to visit with and help one another with the seasons of life.  I see the benefit of community, the benefit to staying out of debt, the benefit of having someone home to be there for the children, and the slower pace in which the outside world sucks you in and drains your blood.


Throughout the last 30+ years, I have always felt kind of weird about wanting to be plainer than the rest of the world.  I never cared about designer clothes, or hair and makeup.  For a short time, I wanted a fancy job, but that quickly passed.  I’ve tried on a variety of careers, areas of study, and even a handful of entrepreneurial endeavors that led to disappointment.  And now I teach high school students how to be well adjusted adults through the context of environmental science.  


My husband I are striving to simplify our lives.  We grow a lot of our own food, even canning and freezing the excess for winter, we compost and recycle, and have given up T.V. (except for the occasional Cosby Show DVD).  But life still feels hectic, like the outside world is reaching in a trying to suck us in.  As a stepfamily, we have opportunities and speed bumps that keep us from making choices to simplify AND keep everyone sane.  


Luckily, I am married to a man that loves conversation, scheming, and possibilities as much as I do. I am excited about this journey of simplification. We won’t become Amish anytime soon.  They probably wouldn’t take us anyway.  But on the plainness scale, I’d like to move down (or is it up?) toward the plain side of things a bit more.  At this point, I have very little idea of what these realities mean, and where this journey will lead.  


Possibility is fantastic.

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