Simple Advent, Part 2: Some Favorite Things

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Advent begins tomorrow,  so I wanted to do a post with a few favorite books, etc. I have listed 6 Advent books below, and I actually own 2 or 3 more. It’s a problem, guys.  Anyway, for this Advent I’m going to pick two of them and put the rest away for another year, for the sake of simplicity.

The past few weeks have seen most of the Christmas shopping done, all the little stocking things wrapped for the children (thanks, Mom!), and the house cleaned out of many bagsfull of objects we no longer need. I even hand-washed all our wool sweaters. And made fig jam. Things aren’t perfectly clean or organized (right now as I type the floor is strewn with clutter, there’s a pile of dishes in the sink, and heap of laundry on the bed). But it’s a bit better than it was a month ago.

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This morning we went and chopped down a tree at the sweet farm where we’ve gone the past 6 years now. The farmer gave us a hay ride around his property, to the kids’ great delight, and we got to watch him feeding his horses, so Margaret was in heaven.  We drank cider in the barn. And the tree, a good 6 footer, cost us $20. I’m mortified past belief to admit that we also bought a wreath for the same amount of money. Wreaths seem like a sort of unparalleled extravagance to me, but we just did it anyway.

For Reading, Advent devotions:

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Hallelujah: A Journey Through Advent with Handel’s Messiah, ed. Cindy Rollins. I got a real, printed copy of this from here, though they’re sadly out of stock for the year, and I love it. This slim volume walks you through selections from Handel’s Messiah and has little essays, poems, hymns, reflections, recipes, and family traditions from a number of contributors.

WinterSong. Christmas Readings by Madeline L’Engle and Luci Shaw. Poems and reflections. A dear friend sent this to me unexpectedly a few years ago, and it’s been one of my favorites. It has chapters starting with Early Winter and moving through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and then readings for the New Year and Late Winter. In case you’re like me and really want Advent to last from early November through the End of January. This book can make it happen.

Watch for the Light. Advent readings selected from the works of the likes of Kathleen Norris, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luter, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Madeline L’Engle, T. S. Eliot, and Karl Barth. This is a favorite.

Light Upon Light, by Sarah Arthur. “A literary guide for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.” Written by a lady who went to Duke Divinity at the same time as I did. Poems and selections from novels, etc. George MacDonald, Hopkins, Chesterton, Donne. Just all the wonderful people, plus some newer voices. And scripture readings. I haven’t read this one cover to cover yet, but it looks promising.

God With Us, ed. Pennoyer & Wolfe. Another one I haven’t read, but I’m looking forward to it. It includes some pages of artwork, Giotto’s Nativity fresco, and a few others.

Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite. A poem a day (with reflections) for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. So yes. I also haven’t read all of this one (I might have bought 4 different Advent books last year). But I’ve heard it highly recommended!

For reading, other:

This little essay: “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke” (On buying less junk.)

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For Listening:

Handel’s Messiah

Tsh Oxenreider’s Simple Advent playlist on Spotify. Especially if you’re of the super-Advent-purist camp and don’t listen to any actual Christmas hymns until Christmas Eve (or Christmas Day). I’m not personally of that persuasion, despite the  earnest entreaties and exhortations of our Anglican pastor. I’m too much of a Scottish Presbyterian at heart to hold too tightly to any extra-biblical notions of the liturgical calendar. If it were up to me, we’d sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” every week in church.

My acoustic/folksy Christmas playlist on Spotify. (I made this from a compilation of music I like and recommendations from some people in a facebook group, and I haven’t listened all the way through to see if everything is 100% perfect, but so far I really like this list!)

Light of the Stable. Emmylou Harris’s 1979 Christmas album. I do not even know where r how to begin describing how much I love this album. Dolly Parton sings on it. This is the Christmas of my childhood, the music I remember along with the smell of the Murphy Oil Soap my mom scrubbed our floors with and the cinnamon oil she dripped onto little rings around the lightbulbs.

Waiting Songs  An absolutely perfect Advent album put out by Sandra McCracken and co. For children, but it’s one of my favorites to listen to whether the children are around or not. Some tracks are simple piano, some a little more folksy.

Decorating & Other things:

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We don’t have much space for storing seasonal decorations; we have Christmas lights and ornaments, and a good stack of children’s Christmas books, and that’s about it. We just don’t have extra surfaces for decorative objects, and too many things on what little wall space we have make me feel claustrophobic. And this. So we don’t decorate too much. If anything, I’ll put some oranges or nuts or pinecones in a bowl on the table. Cranberries in a bowl are beautiful, too! I’ve also bought some fun Christmas things at thrift stores. A vintage tablecloth, a vintage and very faded Santa hand towel, etc. Will is really into making paper chains to count down for things (we have one to count down until winter (above), and another for Christmas), so we have those. I think Will might be old enough this year to make a popcorn chain that we’ll probably wind around the branches of a tree for some birds.  I want to really resist the idea that buying stuff is going to make a holiday of any kind, let alone this one, better. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers/Little we see in nature that is ours” etc.).

(Also, please know that of course I intend no judgment at all if lots of Christmas decorations are your thing. I think the more twinkling lights and garlands and mistletoe and whatnot the merrier. These days are dark and I say hooray for any small ways we can bring cheer to our homes and the people who inhabit and visit them.)

My other thing is just one of my life favorites right now: Sniffle Stopper essential oil blend from Plant Therapy. This has been an amazing relief for my allergies, and it also smells like a spruce forest. I have a little candle diffuser like this one, only not as pretty, that I diffuse oils in pretty much all the time.  I also love their version of thieves, Germ Fighter, which has cinnamon and cloves and citrus and rosemary. And just plain grapefruit oil. To me, it smells just like Christmas morning. (And grapefruit essential oil can supposedly help a little with the winter blues.) So we have of those three burning almost at all times. (You can also simmer some orange or grapefruit slices or skins, rosemary, vanilla, cinnamon, etc. on the stove for a cozy dose of holiday spirit. I sometimes save orange peels for that very purpose.)

 

 

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Simple Advent, Part I: Pre-Advent Cleaning Out (Making Space When Your Space isn’t Perfect)

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So yeah, it’s been forever. Life has just been well, so much. Too much for doing much (any) writing. And here and there I remember this poor, sad blog, and I become mortified that it’s on the internet for anyone to just see, and I desperately want to delete it, and, well, that might happen sometime soon. But before I do!

A few weeks ago, I realized that it was almost Advent.  Now, I love Advent. I love the entire season. I love Christmas lights and frosty nights and lighting candles and the thought of sitting serenely on the couch on late December evenings reading Advent devotions while listening to Handel’s Messiah and drinking cup after cup of peppermint tea. But the reality of December (especially now with two little ones) ends up being a lot of chaos and stress about what to buy for whom, late night present-wrapping, and frantically mailing packages on December 22nd, plus all the pressure of trying to make Christmas cookies, do meaningful Advent crafts with the kids, and generally feeling overwhelmed by stuff to do and too much stuff piled up everywhere.

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So I had the brilliant idea to use November to clean as much Stuff as possible out of our house. And to finish Christmas shopping, wrapping, and mailing. Even stockings.* So that the season of Advent isn’t dominated by frantic Amazon shopping and feeling paralyzed by decisions in over-crowded Target aisles.  And so that I’m not feeling crushed by the stress of having way too much Stuff in a really small space. And having to make all the decisions about what to buy for people. All of that. (*I fully realize that there are a LOT of really organized people out there who already do this every year and get everything done early. I did not invent the idea of Christmas shopping early. I am just not naturally the most organized, planning ahead type of person, so for me this feels like a personal victory. So I’m writing this for those of you who haven’t been ready for Christmas since October! And for any of you who have, I would love to know your secrets!)

But my disorganized self– over the past two or three weeks I’ve tried simply to get as much stuff out of our house as possible: I’ve returned library books, lent out things we aren’t using right now to people who wanted them, returned borrowed things to the sweet friends who lent them: a tiny dress sewn by a friend that Margaret wore for Halloween, tupperwares, books. I’ve taken loads to Goodwill, two different consignment stores (I made $40! No big deal!) And I’ve been deep cleaning random parts of the house, going through closets and drawers and ruthlessly purging. I even mopped. But, by gum, this house is going to be clean by December!!!! (Also, because everyone cares, the word “clean” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root, “gel”, which means Bright! and Gleaming!)

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I also packed up most of the kids’ toys and put them in some out of the way tupperware bins.  Will just has a set of wooden blocks out, and some trucks. And he has played with them with intense focus for over a week. So we have spaces on shelves, open floors. Nothing is perfect at all, but I feel like we have a little breathing room.

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I know that November is already half gone, but I have been so inspired by this that I wanted to share it nevertheless. I don’t have a 5 point plan for you to follow, but the basic idea is: get rid of stuff. Maybe make some lists of what you need to do, and do those things. Get rid of some more stuff. My dad’s idea for Christmas is, instead of everyone buying gifts for everyone else, have a huge bonfire and burn a bunch of things that you don’t need! In the process of getting rid of so many things these past few weeks it’s made me realize, truly, that the less we have the happier we are. (I’m optimistically calling this post Simple Advent, Part 1, because I have lots of thoughts about simplifying this season. But whether I actually am able to ever write the subsequent posts remains to be seen.)

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(And. Of course pre-advent cleaning doesn’t mean things will be perfect. Taking some loads to Goodwill won’t magically make all of life well. The whole of Advent leads up to a story of a birth in a stable. It was Jesus in the midst of imperfection and mess.  Jesus in the midst of what otherwise looked like failure and shame and not-the-way-it-was-supposed-to-be. We can’t perfect life by cleaning. That was Martha’s plan, and it didn’t work out the best for her, right?)

Advent is the beginning of the church year, for those who follow the church calendar, and it does feel nice to be approaching this Beginning by preparing a bit. Getting the hard things out of the way, sweeping the cobwebs out of corners, simplifying as much as possible. So that when Advent begins I’ll have space to breathe. And I’ll be ready and waiting with a good stack of books and my cup of peppermint tea.

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Homemade Rice Flour and Licorice Exfoliator (& Some Books about DIY Skincare)

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I wrote this post a few years ago, and since then I’ve been saving a ton of money by making a lot of my own skincare items.  I just cleaned our linen closet out, where we keep all of our extra bathroom things, and I’ve found several glass jars of various creams, one of which may or may not have been made out of tallow because of some crazy blog post I read a few years ago. And in the same clean-out I threw out the remnants of a probably $10 container of some organic exfoliator I had bought at the health food co-op last year. It just didn’t work very well, and I wish I had saved the $10 and just gone back to making my own exfoliator (recipe below).

I’ve been re-inspired about this after recently reading a few lovely books (Skin Cleanse and The French Beauty Solution) that both contain a bounty of skincare recipes by women who know their stuff. There are obviously about 70 billion blog posts written by random people with random make-it-yourself skin care ideas (of which yes, this is one), and I’ve used a lot of them. (I’ve used this recipe for deodorant for over 3 years now I think. Costs pennies, and uses zero plastic.) But I do think it’s helpful to have a book or two written by a somewhat qualified person if you really want to learn more about making your own skincare products.

ANYWAY. Adina Grigore, the author of Skin Cleanse compellingly lays out how companies market skin care products to us by making us believe that our skin is too oily, too wrinkly, our pores are too large, that we are deficient and ugly and we need their product in order to be beautiful. I think it is deeply important and good for us to learn how to care for our whole selves, skin and all, with gentleness and grace, and that sometimes skin care products are part of that. But for some reason, reading Skin Cleanse made it click with me that I do not want to literally buy into that whole scheme. I will NOT be a cog on the wheel of the mass marketing of skincare products. Also, I can’t afford to buy all that crap.  So I’ve been using some of the Skin Cleanse  and French Beauty recipes. Buying 90% fewer skin care products in stores.

Which made me remember this exfoliator, some version of which I’ve used off and on for years now.

So. One of my favorite skin care products of all time (which I have bought exactly once in my life, now over 8 years ago) is Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant.  It is a super fine powder that you mix with water and use wash your face.  It isn’t abrasive at all, and it made my skin feel unbelievably lovely.  It contained oatmeal, rice powder, and licorice root extract, among other things.  When I ran out all those years ago, I decided to make my own version of it instead of buying a new (very expensive) bottle.

The first time I made this I used my coffee grinder to grind brown rice.  Unfortunately, my grinder wasn’t able to get the rice fine enough, so I bought some rice flour at the grocery to use instead. I just kept the bag in the freezer and have used it for subsequent batches. (I also added goat’s milk powder, as it is part of the skin regimen recommended for oily skin in Absolute Beauty, a wonderful book on Ayurveda and health/beauty/skincare).  This stuff is wonderful, and has such a calming effect on the skin.  Here’s the recipe:

Rice flour and Licorice Cleansing Grains

Mix together 3 T brown rice flour, 3 T oat flour, 2 T milk powder* (doesn’t have to be goat’s milk), and about 1/2 t. licorice root powder (probably easiest to find in capsule form. I used 3-4 capsules, gently broken open (discard the capsules)).  Mix together, and put through a sifter if the milk powder is clumpy.  To use: Once or twice a week– Remove makeup first, if wearing makeup.  Mix about 1/2 t. powder with lukewarm water and massage gently over damp skin.  Rinse, and pat dry.  (You can also mix into a thicker paste and leave on your skin for 10 minutes as a mask.)

Store in a clean salt/pepper shaker for easy dispensing!

*Some people may be sensitive to the milk powder.  If you have a milk allergy, obviously don’t use this ingredient, and if you experience any irritation, discontinue use.

Licorice root is soothing to the skin, anti-inflammatory, helps with acne and eczema, and is often used in skin-brightening products.

Rice powder is also used to lighten skin and clear the complexion.

Milk powder contains lactic acid, which is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) which works as a gentle exfoliator, promotes the production of collagen, and helps improve skin texture.  It is also hydrating and has anti-bacterial qualities.  Helps to even out skin tone and diminish scars.

 

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I Almost Bought a Yogurt Maker, but Then I Didn’t (or How to Make Yogurt Without a Machine)

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So guys. A month or so ago someone posted a video about plastic on Facebook, and even though I have seen multiple documentaries about plastic already and considered myself to be pretty responsible in that area (I mean I usually bring my own bags to the grocery store for pete’s sake), for some reason it finally sunk in. Plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks down more and more, finally into tiny pieces, invisible to the naked eye, and saturates the ocean, all the water everywhere, and our insides. And plastic is really not that great for our insides.

And I know there are a lot of other things, maybe even a lot more pressing things to worry about than the multiplication of plastic particles in our little world, but for some reason I just started caring about this. But if you are caring about something else and don’t have the energy to care about this, just do not worry about it. Or if you are using all your energy just to survive day to day, then please carry on and also do not worry about it. This is just where I am right now. So I have been on a quest to reduce the amount of plastic we are buying new. To live a slightly less disposable life.* (Because guys, recycling is not the answer. It might turn plastic into something else plastic that can be used a bit longer, but in the scheme of things, when you purchase plastic, whether you recycle it or not, you are contributing to the overall volume of plastic in the world. We shouldn’t really feel good about recycling, um does that make sense? It’s a huge bummer, I know! I’m sorry!)

I know no one is reading at this point except maybe my mom, because no one wants someone to tell them that recycling is basically as bad as not recycling, but I’m just going to keep on writing (hi mom! I love you!) anyway. Because, the yogurt maker that I didn’t buy.

Anyway, most of the new plastic I end up buying is food packaging! It’s really hard to buy food that doesn’t come in plastic! And knowing myself, my brain will explode if I think in all-or-nothing terms here. It would be next to impossible to eat completely plastic free (though i might try an experiment with that next month!), but I’m trying to just buy less. Less food in plastic. One of the first things I did was to buy a few of these bags, photo below, from this sweet woman on etsy! For buying things in bulk. (Both the natural food co-op and the Wegmans where I do most of my shopping sell a lot of things in bulk. I’ve bought all my herbs and spices in bulk for years, plus a good amount of grains and beans. It’s cheaper. But I’ve always used the plastic bags the store provides. Until I bought these little bags! I’m not trying to be all like, “Wow, I am so amazing because for the past two weeks I’ve used re-usable bags at the grocery store.” That is really not what I’m trying to get at here, y’all. What am I trying to get at, then? Well, that I almost bought a yogurt maker, but then I didn’t. So back to that story.)

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So anyway, one of the plastic things I buy fairly regularly is yogurt. Well, I mean, the yogurt isn’t plastic, but the container it comes in is. You know what I mean. Plain, full fat yogurt. In a big plastic container. So I decided that I would finally just buy a yogurt maker! I’ve wanted one for years, and I’ve tried so many times to make homemade yogurt without a machine, but always with disappointing results. Who has time for that?! So I started looking at cute little yogurt makers, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one. I didn’t want to spend the money, and where in heaven’s name would I put it (our kitchen is tiny, have I ever written about that here? We have one drawer in our kitchen. One. Drawer.).  And what is the machine part made of, anyway? Plastic.

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So I decided to give it one more try without a yogurt maker. I knew some people used coolers for this (because you have to keep the pre-yogurt milk, whatever in the world it’s called at that stage, at a certain temperature for at least 8 hours), so I thought I would just try it. One time. So I boiled some milk, let it cool, stirred in some yogurt I had bought (I bought fancy French yogurt in a glass jar for this! It was cheaper than a yogurt maker!), put it in a quart-sized glass jar, and filled up another quart sized glass jar with boiling water. I put both jars, standing up, in a little rubbermade cooler we have, with the top closed. Left it overnight and in the morning, yogurt! It literally couldn’t have been any easier or less messy. There was one pot to wash out.  I kept the yogurt in the same glass jar in the fridge. The second time I made it I may have forgotten that I was supposed to be bringing the pot of milk to a low, gentle boil and was doing bedtime things with children and heard a horrible hissing sound coming from the kitchen, which turned out to be the milk boiling over into the burner. So I turned it off, waited until it was cool enough & stirred the yogurt in and figured it would probably be a huge failure but I didn’t want to waste 4 cups of good milk. Then, into the cooler with the jar of hot water, and in the morning, yogurt. No plastic, no machine. See here for a similar recipe. (She pours hot water right into the cooler & uses a thermometer; I don’t use one, I just bring the milk to a low boil, except when I sometimes bring it to a high, scalding boil, and then cool it until I can leave my finger in it for 10-15 seconds.)

So anyway, here’s to baby steps of buying less plastic. I definitely know that no one is reading at this point, but if you are, maybe consider thinking about one small way to use a tiny bit less plastic? Try to remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery (or ask for paper instead). Buy something in bulk (spices, in particular, are exponentially cheaper if you buy them in bulk, and you can just put them in the empty jar of whatever spice you just finished). Wash and re-use ziplock bags! Even just try to buy the larger size of peanut butter or a bag of 16 tortillas instead of 8, and freeze the other 8 for another day. …….. Baby steps. Here’s my pinterest board “Life With Less Plastic.” Here’s a blog with some other ideas for using less plastic, if anyone is interested. And another blog with some good ideas.

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*Did I ever tell you guys the story about when Wendell Berry came to Duke when I was in grad school there? And how for some insane reason I didn’t go hear him speak, but I heard from other students that someone had asked a question along the lines of, “What’s the best thing that we as divinity school students can do?” (given what he had talked about in terms of farming, care for the earth, etc.). And how he said we should drop out of school and become stone masons. Or something along those lines. PLEASE nobody quote me on this, because my memory is horrible (and because I obviously wasn’t even there). But I don’t know, somehow is the spirit of Wendell Berry following me around and urging me to slow down enough to bake bread every once and awhile, or to make my own yogurt? (Ok, obviously not, but there’s something about planting gardens, and gleaning in fields and baking bread with oil and pulling up water out of a well for someone who is thirsty, making lunch for people who are hungry. There’s much about living in a way of peace and gentleness. And tending to all the household tasks because these are the things that Christ did for us.  Having enough time to partake of a meal and do the lowest kind of washing. I’m not trying to say that if you buy any plastic at all it such a terrible thing, or that trying to waste less is somehow the essence of the gospel. But I do think we have lost sight a bit of the dignity of ordinary things like washing dishes and making bread, and we usually are in quite a rush not to be doing those things.  So anyway, here’s to slowing down a bit, wherever you find yourself, whether you’re making yogurt or packing lunch boxes or sweeping the floor for the 4th time today. Slowing down enough to be gentle with ourselves & maybe just maybe also with the world. Because Love prepared us a feast and bid us with gentleness to sit and eat. And of course, she said it much, much better.

A Game Changer (Or, How to Get Kids to Eat Kale).

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Guys. I don’t want to be that person who’s all “This kale chip recipe changed my life.” But Y’ALL. This kale chip recipe changed my life. Although it’s not so much a recipe as a cooking temperature. 250 F. They won’t burn! (Ok, well they might if you really, really leave them in long enough.) I discovered this tip in a cookbook called Nourishing Meals that’s based on the blog by the same name. Her blog has a recipe for some sweet and spicy kale chips, a recipe that is also in the book, and the two times I’ve felt like making the sauce it has been so worth it. (I’m not going to write out the recipe, but check out the link for sweet and spicy kale chips above & just use olive oil and salt and follow the rest of the recipe, if you don’t want to make the sauce.)

The reason the kale chips are un-pictured is that they literally can’t survive long enough on the pan, let alone in a bowl or other container, for me to photograph them. Because all of us love them. (I didn’t even write about this when I originally posted this yesterday, but the main reason these chips have been amazing: The little people love them. LOVE THEM. Kale chip crumbs end up sprinkling the entire kitchen floor, but now that it’s warmer I’ll just send them outside.  Victory is mine.)

House Meals (wisdom about food from, of course, Tamar Adler)

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A dear, precious friend of mine posted an article on Facebook last week called “Everyone Should Have a House Meal.” I read the caption of the article, and I thought, “Wow, that sounds just like Tamar Adler.” And because of that, and because the article seemed to be about basically one of the great passions of my culinary life (simple, repeatable meals) I started reading it, and lo and behold, it WAS WRITTEN BY TAMAR ADLER. Who wrote An Everlasting Meal. Which is one of the most beautiful books ever written in the history of food, or of almost anything else.  So of course this article (and you have to read all the way to the end), made me nearly weep with joy.  Because she’s someone who isn’t telling me that I should be cooking new, ever fancier meals every single night of the week! With all of the ingredients! From all of the websites! A little confirmation from at least one woman, that it’s ok for dinner to come (yet again) from an egg.

In this particular article she discusses the beauty of having a house meal. A meal that you can throw together with almost no thought. You have the ingredients, it’s simple, healthy-ish, and sustaining for body and spirit.  Hers, she said, was eggs and greens. Ours is always some variation of beans. (I don’t know why that picture above has a picture of Tapatio in it, because our one and only hot sauce love forever and ever is Texas Pete.)   Beans and tortillas. Or beans heated up in a skillet with some salsa & eggs. Sometimes beans and rice, but almost always, tortillas. If we are feeling extremely rich, some scoops of avocado. Or “bracamole,” as one of our small people is calling it these days.  Oh! Sometimes some fried plantains!  A creative economy is the fuel of magnificenceHere are 5 other of our house meals, or simple suppers, as I called them.

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A friend of mine recently had a baby, and all the church folks signed up to bring meals, and I sent her a bag of fancy-ish tortillas and a ball jar of black beans that I made (& some good beef with taco seasoning, because, well postpartum and iron) and some salsa and a lime and some tortilla chips. In retrospect, maybe I should have sent something fancier, but it felt like I was sending her literally the greatest feast imaginable. Our House Meal.

Post Script About Mending Clothes

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(What the road looked like a week or two ago. And the waterfall beside our house, covered in snow last week, and two little snow elves. Also, it was 9 degrees yesterday morning. Winter is starting to get the better of me…..)

Well, the more I thought about what I wrote yesterday the more I realized probably most people are already mending their clothes and sewing on buttons and that sort of thing. I didn’t mean to make it sound as if I have suddenly discovered this incredible secret of life! Or that I am so amazing because I sewed! Wendell Berry would probably not be all that impressed.

I think it’s just something that mostly never occurred to me, or at least, something that my sweet mother always did for me and I never had to worry about, so stitching up a few holes my very own self felt like a grand accomplishment. But I meant my post yesterday in a self-deprecating way: I was and am proud of myself, yes, but also any four year old girl a hundred years ago could easily sew a thousand times better than I can. Everyone sewed all of their clothes! We have tiny doll clothes that my mother’s grandmother sewed by hand, that are some of the fanciest, most detailed little things imaginable! So I really meant to say, isn’t it sort of strange and sad how far we’ve come from those days, that a grown woman feels accomplished from (badly) sewing up a hole in a sweater? That’s what I meant to say.

(Below, actual picture of laundry on our couch, because such is life, and words on the side of a church in downtown Ithaca  that are balm for weary souls.)

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In Praise of Mending Clothes

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IMG_6927One of the things you start realizing when you read an inordinate number of books about French beauty and style in order to fend off the temptation to wallow in self pity that it’s late March and still 20 degrees outside, is that French women (typically) buy nice clothes. Excellent clothes of quality. Made of fabrics not derived from petroleum.

(GUYS, does everyone know that fleece is really bad for the environment? That stuff just keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller particles and then it’s just in the water/air/our bodies FOREVER. That is a whole other thing that I am going to start going on some rants on soon, but for now I’ll just leave it. Except, PLEASE DON’T BUY ANY NEW FLEECE PRODUCTS EVER AGAIN! Buy something on eBay or the thrift store if you really need fleece in your life that badly, but holy cow.)

Ok, sorry. French women (and men). They buy well-made clothes in fabrics like silk and linen and cashmere and cotton. Clothes that are made well, and made to last. And to last not just for several years, but for decades. (Obviously, they don’t keep everything for decades, and this is just a broad generalization, but in general they seem to have a slower pace to their consumption of clothing than we do. And also obviously, there is a growing trend towards slower consumption here that is heartening to see. And this documentary, which everyone has seen, right?). This means that they have relationships with tailors and cobblers.

In one of the truly most frivolous books I have read about France recently (by an American who has lived there for decades) I read this:

“French women are frugal, and they rely on a handful of ‘enablers,’ those men and women who allow them to keep their clothes and accessories in pristine condition, sometimes for decades.

“Monsieur Cotte is one of my enablers. He is my shoe man… He has saved shoes I thought were lost forever, sewn sandals back together, and re-soled (and re-soled) some of my favorite shoes, and… has dyed several pairs multiple times. I had a pair of yellow slingback ballerinas. When it became clear the yellow was beyond salvation, he dyed them fuchsia; when fuchsia was over, we moved on to Bordeaux. I figure they can one day be navy and, finally, black. He dyed my camel suede ballerinas bottle-green…” (Guys, I think I’m too mortified to even cite the book this quotation is from! But I can’t not do that, because, well the Honor Code, so fine. It’s this book, p. 198. Please do not judge me!!!)

I mean, this is just such a different way of thinking about clothes and shoes. And most of us are just going so fast in life that we don’t have time to think about repairing shoes or mending clothes. (Or wait, does everyone already do this?!) There’s a calmness and a slowness in the French way that seems so appealing. What if we really just own the same couple of sweaters for years and years? What if we just wore the same dress to church every week? What if we spend $100 on a pair of real leather shoes instead of $15 on plastic ones at Target, but then keep them for years and have them mended and dyed, rather than throwing them away? (And sigh, for the record, I am running out of shoes in almost every category of shoe that I own, but I can’t bring myself to spend money on quality new ones, nor can I bring myself to spend any amount of money on cheap ones! I don’t really know the way out of this shoe-buying impasse, but maybe I’ll keep you all posted….)

What I mean to say, is that yesterday I stitched up a little hole in a wool cardigan that my mom sent me recently (which she bought second-hand from somewhere!). I didn’t have the perfect color of thread, and the finished product also isn’t perfect. But I mended it!  It’s mended! And I also, in the very same morning, as my children were running around the house like banshees, stitched a seam that had come undone in a little silk tunic that I own. I could have probably had a seamstress do both things for hardly any money. But somehow it felt like a small act of resistance to do it myself. Resisting consumption, resisting the temptation to think, “Yay, it’s broken, now I can get rid of it and get a new one!” I don’t know. I think Wendell Berry would be proud.

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[Also, your clothes don’t have to be particularly fancy in order to justify mending them. I bought a couple of linen dresses for $12 last summer at Old Navy, and they didn’t have pockets, so I asked one of my sweet friends who also happens to be an excellent seamstress if she would put pockets in for me. She did!  And last year I hemmed up, my very own self, a pair of linen pants (also from Old Navy, actually) that were too long. But also, about linen pants: My sweet mother bought me a pair of linen pants from a NICE store last summer, and they looked and fit incomparably better than the Old Navy ones every did. They’re linen colored, which as any woman with tiny children knows is a perilous choice, just begging for tomato-sauce fingers or raspberry jam or mud, but because of my frivolous reading of books about French clothes, now I know that they can get stained and then I can just dye them navy, and then black….]

So anyway, here’s to cobblers and seamstresses and dye and thread and buttons! To slowing down enough to be content with what we have & learning to fix and live joyfully with a little patched hole in a wool cardigan. (Although read here for a post script about mending clothes, alas.)

Some Frivolous Books about France (for March in Ithaca, or If for Some Other Reason You Need a Little Extra Joie de Vivre, or How to Learn to Do Almost Anything Better)

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So, I made a goal last fall that I would EMBRACE this winter with JOY and VIVACITY, and to not complain one single time about the weather. And guys! I’ve sort of done it! (And for the record, it was 3 degrees two Sundays ago. Fahrenheit, not celsius. That’s -16.1111 degrees Celsius, if anyone cares.)

It’s been a discipline, but I’ve caught myself actually enjoying the winter so far, for the most part.  And yet now, in the middle of March, it is still really cold. Under 20 most of the time, and for at least the next 10 days. This is when winter in Ithaca starts to get real, and you remember that you will not feel anything close to warmth until May.

So for the past few years this has been the time of year when I start reading all the books about France I can get my hands on. Or blogs about French cooking, and I make lots of chocolate cakes…. Because at this point in the winter I need a little inspiration, a little extra help to find beauty and delight in the midst of these ordinary days in a tiny apartment in the frozen tundra.

And if anyone knows how to find joy & loveliness in daily life, it’s the French. In fact, they do almost everything, well, better. They dress better, they have better posture and overall poise, they are healthier, slimmer, consume less, eat (much, much, much) better, and generally are amazing at life. Ok, they’re not perfect, and I’m not saying I agree 100% with maybe all the hedonism or moral aspects of their culture, but if you’re on a quest for Joy in the midst of an everlasting winter I can assure you that lessons can be learned from the French.

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[My only caveat is that I read these deliberately in order to enjoy my own life here, which is decidedly not very Parisian or south of France or eating mussels on the coast of Brittany in August. And not to use these books to think thoughts along the lines of “My life would be so much better if I lived in Provence, etc.”  And I fully admit that many of these books are incredibly frivolous. Like, The French Beauty Solution and things like that, with chapters about grape cleanses and how to do your makeup. It’s a rather indulgent habit, but France is my one weakness (to paraphrase the oft-repeated quotation by Miss Lane from this delightful show).  BUT nearly every one of these books helps me to find small ways of savoring my actual life (rather than simply longing to live in Provence, which of course I do, but which doesn’t help me very much to thrive right here where I am). How to enjoy food a bit more, drink more water, how to move more slowly but with more grace, how to make everything from my wardrobe to my house neater and more beautiful, how to have elegant tea-drinking rituals, etc.]

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I usually start with re-reading French Women Don’t Get Fat. I’ve owned this delightful volume for over 10 years and I re-read it almost every year. Not as a manual for losing weight (though it would be incredibly helpful, if anyone needs help in that area), but as a manifesto for how to savor food, ritual, seasons, and life in general. The author explains that Frenchwomen simply know how to care for themselves well (without feeling guilty), how to derive great joy from simple pleasures, and how to feel indulged (rather than resentful and harried, which is probably my default) in the midst of daily life.  There’s a lovely passage toward the end where the she talks about the “little nothings of daily pleasure that are actually quite something to us… We have so many words for pampering– gater, dorloter, bichonner, se chouchouter— but we don’t equate it with decadence. It makes us enjoy life more, from moment to moment, and keeps us from seeking too much consolation from any one pleasure, such as food…”

And since having children I also re-read Bringing Up Bebe this time of year.  Not that I agree with every single aspect of French parenting, but it’s a delightful read and helps me remember to be calm, not to feel guilty for taking a bit of care of my own self, and to sometimes wear something other than yoga pants. (This book also has one of my favorite stories about a French woman ever: the author, an American, and her family went on a trip with a French family they knew, and the French husband went out one morning early and bought a baguette and brought it back, and when he did, his wife purred contentedly, “J’adore cette baguette.” (“I adore this baguette.”) Not jumping off the walls with excitement, but just a deep, calm sense of joy and delight– about a baguette. I think this thought now when I drink my morning coffee– I adore this coffee, etc. A slight shift towards joy. It works.)

I also requested from the library The Elegance of the Hedgeho, a French novel that was recommended to me a few years ago by a dear friend. It’s lovely. One of my favorite novels.  So I’m re-reading that (although I also somehow got myself in the middle of a potty training book— I’m gearing up to train little person #2, eek!– and a book about super-runners in a remote Mexican tribe that’s turning out to be surprisingly thrilling and one of my new favorite books of all time).

And then I was telling all of this to a friend of mine from church, and she said that she had a stack of French novels (these below, minus the Elegance of the Hedgehog) she would lend me! So my spirit is richly supplied with French literature of varying qualities.

Anyway, here’s to finding beauty & simple joys in the middle of winter, or in the middle of whatever dreary or hard season you might be going through. And to huge piles of books.

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Free Jesuit Retreat for Lent

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Have I written about Pray As You Go at all here?  It’s basically one of the true joys of my life right now. Produced by some Jesuits out of England, it’s a podcast that walks prayerfully through one of the day’s lectionary readings and offers some questions for guided prayer. Along with the most beautiful music.  There is also an app and a website by the same name that contain some longer meditations and guided scripture readings/prayers. I just opened it up, looking for something to listen to as I try to slowly bring a bit of order to the chaos of our kitchen while the two imps are sleeping. And oh what a gift, there is a Lent Retreat, based on the last words of Christ. I’m out of fancy candles, but I’m going to light some tea lights and make a cup of tea and start listening. (Calling it a retreat is a bit generous, but there is something that feels good and luxurious about calling it that, something nurturing and sustaining.  I’ve taken to having in-home retreats when John has to travel for work, which is often, but maybe more about that later. Anyway, here’s to creating little spaces to breathe right in the middle of dreary March days when everything is messy and things aren’t going quite as brightly as they maybe could, bringing some calmness and joy into the work of dishes and laundry, and for tending to one’s soul in the midst of the “howling waste of the wilderness,” to quote Anne of Green Gables and the book of Deuteronomy.)