Summer Picnics (with Less Plastic)

DSC_2648Words (or at least my words) cannot begin to express the rapturous joy with which we emerge from the bitter desolations of the subarctic winter and enter, with bare arms and faces pointed to the bright and finally warm sun, the glories of spring.

And what do we do in these precious days of warmth, me and little crew, but pack our bags in the morning with sunscreen, half a gallon or so of tick spray (a homemade concoction that includes citronella and geranium bourbon essential oils, hats, towels, extra clothes, water bottles, and enough food to count as lunch. Apples, bananas, pb&js, little pieces of salami, cashews, some type of chips if we have them on hand, etc.   And we go out for as much or the morning as remains after I have packed all of our sundry things, and we have a picnic for lunch. Once we manage to leave the house and set forth, I feel like a combination of the 1994 movie version of Marianne Dashwood going out for a walk on a soon-to-be-stormy day and Fraulein Maria going out with the children in their curtain clothes, with baskets and guitar. See that look on her face? This is basically us:

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Anyway, whatever your days look like this summer, whether frolicking through the Alps or tumbling down rainy English slopes or perhaps just hiking on whatever paths might be free and not subject to the oppressive taxation of the State, I hope they involve some form of eating food outside.

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I’ve been trying to use as little plastic as possible for these excursions and for life in general otherwise, and I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve been using to pack food that don’t involve ziplock bags.  I have neither time nor inclination to expound here all the various evils of plastic,* but suffice to say: it’s ugly** and it’s bad for us and every other living organism on the planet. So we pack up our little snack lunches in various cloth bags, metal tins, etc. Here’s what we use:

My top 4 Reusable Things for Picnics (and Snacks in General):

  1. Water bottles. We use these Kleen Kanteen ones for the kids, with these (somewhat leakproof) green lids. The kids each have one and only one, so we keep good track of them and they go everywhere with us. I have a stainless mug that I carry hot tea in on cold days and cold tea in on hot days.
  2. Cotton zippered pouches. The pouches made for snacks are expensive! And lined with plastic! But mostly, they’re expensive. So after wanting to buy snack pouches to replace small ziplock bags for about 2 years now I finally bought these little canvas bags. (They come in various sizes– one version we bought is smaller, and has 2 separate zippered pouches, and the larger size has a little loop that is nice for little hands to hold on to.) These are not waterproof, so you know, they’re not for yogurt or spaghetti and things like that, but we weren’t really using ziplock bags for those things too much anyway.  They are great for grapes or pretzels or nuts and dried fruit, etc.*** Depending on the size, these cost $2-3 per pouch and come in sets of 4-6.
  3. Stainless steel containers of various sizes (similar to these) for stuff that might leak, and anything else, sandwiches (though we also put sandwiches in the cotton bags), leftovers for John to take to work, etc. We own four: 2 small circular ones, the large one shown in these pictures, and another one that’s about the size of a sandwich. (Here are some similar ones, with silicone lids.) They’re a small bit pricey– we’ve collected these four over the course of about a year, one at a time when they’ve gone on sale at Wegmans. I’m sure they’ll get lost at some point, but as with our stainless water bottles we make a point to keep track of them precisely because they cost a bit more, and it has never felt like a burden to do so.
  4. Cloth napkins. Buy fancy linen ones or find any old kind at the thrift store, or use cotton handkerchiefs. For wiping faces and hands and wrapping up a bundle of sandwiches, etc.

Before we had the pouches and the stainless steel containers I would wrap up our sandwiches and various things in cloth napkins or put them in some of our glass pyrex jars with lids. We generally pack finger foods so we don’t need utensils. I’m all about the cost effective fruit, so we mainly stick to apples and bananas.  Little ball jars with lids would make a good and inexpensive snack container. We usually don’t take a cooler, but if we’re bringing meat or cheese or something and it’s particularly hot out we might.

(We also used, and still sometimes use, ziplock bags of various sizes, but I wash all of them, even the small ones and reuse them. Because, see below).

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Anyway, I hope I haven’t been too preachy! Hoping, for us and for all two of you (hi mom and dad! I love you guys!), that this will be a spring and summer of picnics, mountain wandering, and Ivanhoe reading. And maybe a tiny bit less plastic.

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*i.e., the harm they do to animals, the harm they do to people, the fact that MOST OF IT NEVER GETS RECYCLED, or the fact that even if it DOES it takes an enormous amount of energy and creates an enormous amount of pollution to do so, and even when recycled, the fact remains that it’s still plastic, it still exists, and all that will happen to it is possibly be used for a period of time by people and then ultimately break or be broken down in some form, over some time period, into invisible molecules of plastic. Also, please consider the human beings who work in plastic factories. Can you imagine spending most of your waking hours in a ziplock bag factory, breathing in the fumes of melted plastic? Living next door to such a factory? Is it morally acceptable for us to use these things while other people are breathing in those fumes all day, every day? Just so that we can continue to bustle about in our frantic lives at faster and faster paces, tossing food into ziplock bags?

**If you’re not convinced by the envorinomental/human health arguments about plastic, please consider the aesthetic elements of it. We are affected and shaped by the things that surround us, at least to some extent, and if we learn from earliest infancy**** that food comes primarily out of plastic pouches or tucked in plastic bags, what does it teach us about the purpose and quality of food, about nourishment, both to body and soul, and about how we interact with the world around us? The latter part of that question, I fear, is becoming answered increasingly with choices of convenience and cheapness, reflecting that at heart, we care neither for the consequences upstream of our ziplock bags (what about the people who work in the factories who produce them; or downstream, after the plastic has served its fleeting purpose and we have thrown it into the trash, and our ziplock bags and baby food pouches and squeezable yogurts and coffee cups come to visit us and our children and our children’s children in the form of microscopically small particles of plastic in our water and all of our food.)

*** And yes, most of these foods come packaged in plastic. I know. I try to buy as much as I can from bulk bins, but many things are sadly more expensive to buy that way….. Perhaps more soon about my paltry attempts to make good choices on a tight budget in the grocery store.

**** This is going to sound really aggressive, but y’all it is possible to feed babies otherwise than out of plastic pouches. I fed two just fine with zero of them. Plastic is not healthy for us, and just because companies put baby food into it doesn’t mean that it’s safe and healthy for your baby to eat it. Even if the food inside the pouch is organic, it is now organic food with plenty of leeched plastic in it.  If plastic food pouches are your deal and it’s how you survive, then keep on with it, sister. I have used and still use plenty of plastic other areas. But astonishingly, miraculously, human babies have managed to be fed throughout, and even to survive, their infancy without such contrivances for millennia. But then, people also have managed to survive without cars, coffee, bathtubs, electricity, seltzer water, libraries, etc.., and I use those things plus others quite liberally. And most of the food I buy comes in plastic, even though I make every effort not to.

So anyway. here’s to muddling through, doing what we can do do whatever we’re doing. And here’s to picnics and summer, whatever the food might be packaged in. (Just this very day– this is a few days after I wrote this post originally, because of course I felt the need to edit it extensively– I took Margaret out to a park and she had a little snack bag of freeze dried strawberries from Aldi, so in essence no different than pouches, and if I calculated the price per pound of it it would cost more than gold. So much for all of my preaching about plastic and frugality.)

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7 Lovely Places to Buy Used Clothes Online. (Or, How to Spend Less But Buy Better. And Ya’ll, I Bought Some Jeans.)

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A friend of mine recently mentioned that she doesn’t love most of her clothes and wants to rebuild her wardrobe. But also doesn’t want to spend any money. I completely resonated with this, especially the not wanting to spend money part.

(I’ve gotten rid of the 80% of my clothes I like the least, so most of what I have left I like pretty well. Read here for my advice about creating a new wardrobe just buy eliminating the clothes you like the least, if that’s where you are; that post was written about getting rid of fall clothes, because that’s the season it was at the time, but it could just as easily be applied to your spring wardrobe, if it happens to be spring where you live. It’s still definitely winter here, so we’ll just move right along and I won’t be one tiny bit jealous that you’re wearing linen and flip flops and basking in the sun!)

Anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, well the past few years, about building a new wardrobe when you don’t have much (or any) money to spend on it. Simply because we live in such a spall apartment I haven’t had room to keep a ton of clothes, so I’ve become a minimalist out of necessity. And through the process I’ve realized that it is so, so, so freeing to own fewer clothes.

And also through this process I’ve realized that the things I love the most are generally pieces that I spent just a little more money on. Not always, but usually.  For example. When I was a freshman in college I spent $50 or $60 on a black cowl neck sweater from J. Crew. (It was one of maybe 4 or 5 clothing purchases I made in college that wasn’t from the thrift store or Target.) BUT that sweater has lasted for 17 years (yes, I am old) and it’s still my favorite sweater. If I could go back in time I would have bought 2 in every color they had.

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As another example– 2 summers ago I found a linen dress (with pockets) at Garnet Hill that I adored, and I bought it when it went on sale. (I spent $70 on it, I think). But I have worn it every day (when it’s not in the wash) during the summer, for hikes with the children, splashing in creeks, and to church. (The $70 still felt extremely spendy though, so last summer I didn’t buy any clothes, other than a couple of t-shirts. And I may very well buy nothing this summer, because of this guy, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Well, and because of her. Somewhere she says, about clothes, that she already has “more than plenty.” Yes and Amen.)

BUT I think the mentality of wanting to buy quality clothes can lead down a path of simply spending too much. Over the past few years as I’ve tried to be more conscious of buying better quality clothes I’ve ended up, more often than not, just not buying anything at all.

Because what if you really can’t afford the price tag of nicer clothes? 

Enter the world of online consignment stores. Here’s the thing: once you buy almost anything brand new in a store and take it home, its value drops by about half. Possibly a bit less than half if you never wear it and it has the tags, but the point is– you can find nearly new clothes in pristine condition for half or less than what they cost if you buy them brand new. (If you’re not as worried about the actual cost of clothes, there is also the environmental/ethical side of the clothing industry, which makes purchasing secondhand simply the best way to buy clothes, in my humble opinion.)

So probably everyone is familiar with Thred Up. But here are a few other stores to try. It can be really overwhelming to sift through so many listings, but if you can figure out some brands that you LOVE but can’t afford new, just keep a list of those and start searching.  (I’ve learned about a lot of super pretentious brands from this blog that I could never afford, but which I look for secondhand online, see for example, her post about blue jeans.) (Or, in any of the below stores, just search by quality materials– linen pants, linen dress, silk camisole, etc., and see what comes up.)

I haven’t bought any clothes in the past few months, used or otherwise, but I’m hoping to buy a pair of really good quality jeans from one of these stores below soon. (My current (one) pair of jeans are at least 3 years old, I think actually 4, from the Gap. They are so stretched out and faded it’s getting quite pathetic.) (UPDATE: I actually JUST bought a pair of J Brand jeans from The Real Real, see below. They were $55. Guys. I have been wanting a nice pair of jeans for literally years. Now we’ll just have to see if they fit!)

Anyway, enough of all of that. Here are some places to try if you’re looking for lovely, secondhand clothes (or shoes, bags, coats, etc.):

7 Lovely Online Consignment Stores (Other Than ThredUp)

  1. Tradesy Everything from the Gap to Louis Vuitton. Super easy to search by brand, color, price range, size, etc. You can search for “linen pants” or “silk dress” etc. and then refine your search by size, price, etc. (Referral link: you get $20 off a $50 purchase, and I get a $10 credit!)
  2. The Real Real. Basically the same as Tradesy. Some really insanely expensive stuff, but also more reasonable items. [I JUST bought a pair of J Brand jeans from here. It’s my first purchase from this place, so I’ll let you guys know how everything works out once the jeans come!] (Use referral code for $25 off your first purchase).
  3. Slowre. This is a smaller website that specializes in selling secondhand clothes that were produced ethically. Eileen Fisher, Elizabeth Suzann, etc. I haven’t bought anything from here (everything’s still quite pricey, but worth a look!).
  4. Poshmark. Less fancy than the above, this store features clothes sold by their owners through the Postmark website, sort of like an eBay just for clothes. Again, as with the others, it’s really easy to search by brand, price, etc. And since you’re buying directly from an individual you can contact the seller and haggle a bit on the price. (They also sell kids’ clothes)
  5. Vinted.com. Similar to Tradesy and The Real Real.
  6. WornWear for used Patagonia clothes. I’ve never bought anything here, because it’s all really expensive, but I browse every once in awhile because there’s a coat I love of theirs I’d like to find used. (And here’s a similar website for used REI clothes & stuff.)
  7. Ebay.  Just wanted to throw this one in there. A good place to look if you’re searching for a specific brand. You might not find what you’re looking for, but it’s worth a look.

A few more notes: all of these stores are also places where you can send in your unwanted items for store credit or cash. The only place I’ve actually done this is ThredUp, and it’s super simple. (They mail you a bag for free, you fill it and mail it back. They deduct some from what you earn to pay for the shipping.) Just check the various websites for instructions. Just be prepared to get a lot less money back than you think you deserve. (Remember: clothes lose an insane amount of value as soon as you wear them once.)

The other thing is that I don’t know how easy/hard returns are for these stores. Just check before you buy. ThredUp has free and easy returns. Make sure you take that into account.

Read here for advice on buying secondhand clothes for kids.

(Also, if you can’t find something secondhand that you love, try Everlane for ethically produced basics. Their new underwear line looks amazing. And hell yes to their underwear models. Amen.)

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5 Ways to be Awesome at Buying Used Children’s Clothes (Or Your Own)

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DSC_2562Guys, I’m just going to be really honest. I’m way more persnickety about children’s clothes than is befitting of someone in our income bracket. I like for my children to be dressed, at all possible, in wool, linen, and organic cotton items of navy, white, black, gray, and red, that are handmade in France. However, I also have approximately a $0 budget for clothes for myself and the children, and while I occasionally exceed that budget by a bit, I can say that I have bought fewer than 5 brand new items for each of my children since they’ve been born (they’re 2.5 and 4.5 right now), other than some socks and, as Will has gotten older and shoes are harder to find, a couple of pairs of shoes. Everything else has been hand-me downs, or thrift/consignment finds, with a few things bought used on eBay or ThredUp. I’m not saying that to brag at all, because it would be quite possible to spend a ton of money only buying secondhand things, but just that it IS possible to dress children decently without buying a ton of new things.

Probably, if you’re reading this post at all, you already are interested in buying secondhand clothes. Other than the quite obvious reason that you can save enormous amounts of money (even if you are buying the cheapest new clothes available– sometimes I look at the prices of kids’ clothes at Target and I CANNOT BELIEVE HOW MUCH THEY COST!!!!!!!!), there’s also the insane human and environmental impact of the clothing industry. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but everyone has seen this movie, right? Every time we buy some new clothing item, that’s a ton of pesticides poured on the cotton it’s made from that lead to health problems for the cotton farmers, toxic dyes that pour into rivers and streams, not just poisoning any little river creatures, but also the human beings who have to drink that water, and heavens to betsy if anyone is purchasing new clothes made out of fleece or polyester!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It shouldn’t be legal to sell that shit. Please, please, please, if you want to buy everything else brand new, at least do not buy new clothes made out of fleece or any other synthetic material. Buying used will literally save you thousands of dollars if you do it well, and it’s a just and humane way to shop if you can’t afford to buy all your children’s clothes from places like this.

Ahem. Now that no one except my parents are still reading, if I’m that lucky, I’ll continue.

(And, also just before I dig in, I will say that for some people it makes sense to buy more things new than used– one friend of mine has 3 children, all girls, so if she buys good quality, new items, she knows they will get used by all three girls. Since we have a boy and a girl, it’s harder to justify buying new. So I’m not saying that everyone needs to do exactly what I do. This is just what works for us, for this season. I think it’ll get a bit trickier as the kids get older, too. But for now, it works.)

(Below, Petit Bateau rain coat I found at our consignment store. It was $20, but it’s a size 6-7, which means we can roll up the sleeves for Will this year, and then he can use it for the next year or two, before Margaret then uses it for another year or two. So I think we’ll get at least 4 years out of it. Maybe 5.)

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So, for anyone who’s interested, here’s how we do it:

1. Beg and Borrow. Well, we mostly haven’t had to beg, but we’ve been offered bags upon bags of hand-me-downs from friends and cousins. (If people hadn’t offered, I would have asked. I have absurd hopes and dreams for how I want my children dressed, and zero pride.) Only keep what you like/need (see #2) and pass on the next to another friend, or (if the person who gave the clothes to you doesn’t need them back) take the rest to a children’s consignment store if there’s one in your area and use the cash or store credit to buy something that you like or need a bit more. (Or give the cash back to the friend who gave you the clothes! It’s hard to keep track, but I try to give $ back when I can!)

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2. Only keep/buy what you REALLY need and like. The fewer clothes you believe that you need, the fewer clothes you can own, and therefore, the fewer you will buy, and the more money you will save. Voila. Just because it’s a good brand or a jaunty little red canvas raincoat that was made in France and only costs $15 at the consignment store, doesn’t mean you have to buy it.  Same thing with hand-me-downs. You don’t have to keep them all just because someone gave them to you! Each of my kids gets 1 dresser drawer for clothes, for pjs, underwear, socks, shirts, pants, etc. Outerwear goes elsewhere, but everything else: one drawer. So we have room for 4-6 shirts, 4-6 pairs of pants, etc. I could (and probably will) write a whole other post about a minimalist wardrobe for kids, but I will just say that I prefer to buy basic colors– blue, gray, white, black, red. If you read any book published in the 1950s or earlier, you’ll see children dressed mostly in those colors. I do have some pink and flowery things for Margaret, but mostly I want my kids to look like characters in Robert McClosky books (like this less known but EXCELLENT one).  The other reason for this is that when I stick to buying basic colors, I can pass them down from Will to Margaret. Red pants, black pants, yellow raincoat, breton striped shirt, wool sweater: they work for both genders. Bright green Ninja Turtles raincoat/bike helmet, rain books, tennis shoes, t-shirt, not so much. Ditto with anything hot pink and princess-y. (If we ever have a third). Although maybe what you REALLY like is different: brighter colors, etc. You do you. But know what you like (or your kid likes) the best, and let go of the rest. Kids don’t need that many clothes. (Especially if you make them take their shirts off when they eat messy food, if they’re younger than 3 or so).

(Below, organic cotton dress, $3.95.)

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3. Know the good brands/buy natural fibers. Boden, Hanna Andersson, Crewcuts, Petit Bateau, Garnet Hill. I also like Circo and Gap, Etc (see #3a.).  Know them, but don’t buy them new.  (Also: cotton, linen, wool, silk. They hold up better, look better, feel better. Check the materials before you buy.) So for example: I used to babysit for a family who got a catalogue for Serena and Lily, and I would drool over everything as I turned page after beautiful page during the babe’s nap. Haven’t thought of that brand in years, but today I checked to see if the consignment store had any crib sheets (because we just switched Margaret into the crib, and the only sheets we have have seen 2 years of wear from an older brother, so I thought it might be nice if she could have a sheet of her own, you know, and right there in the bin of crib sheets was a Serena and Lily sheet! For $3! So I bought it. Photo below. I never in 5 million years have considered buying it new (I just looked them up and they’re $38), but because I vaguely knew that brand, and knew that it should be excellent quality, I grabbed that sheet and didn’t need to look at the rest). Anyway, if you are, like me, an insufferable snob about quality, know which brands hold up and look good. Keep your eyes open for those things and skip the rest. Even if it means you leave empty handed sometimes. Also, if you really must buy fleece, buy it secondhand, but really, fleece and everything else made out of plastic belongs in whatever subterranean depository our government has for nuclear waste. It is that bad, and it shouldn’t be legal to sell. (We have some secondhand fleece jackets, etc., one of which is a vintage red coat with a pointy hat that I love, but really, just please, please never buy anything new made out of fleece. It needs simply to go out of production.)

3a. Ok, this is related to #3, but very important! Nice brands are all well and good, but if you’re always worrying about something getting spilled or feeling more nervous about the clothes than you really should, maybe reevaluate a bit? I bought Margaret a white linen dress at the consignment store when she was under 1, and it was so, so, so darling, but I couldn’t bear to have her wear it because food! And crawling in the dirt! etc! Also, I was trying to look up pictures of my kids dressed all adorably in their second-hand ensembles for this post, but in pretty much all of our pictures someone is wearing a costume or a bike helmet or is half buried in the sandbox or has ice cream dripping down her arms, etc. Which is as it should be. We never quite attain the Robert Mccluskey simplicity or Breton charm of my ideals. And we’ve had enough bloody noses, stomach bugs, and strawberry/blueberry/raspberry juice stains to know that white frilly clothes are not our friend.

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4. Know where to shop. We have 2 different kids’ consignment stores in Ithaca, one which only sells up to 3T, but the other, Mama Goose, sells all ages, plus maternity, shoes, toys, books, coats, etc. (Mama Goose is an exceptional store, and the only reason I’ve been able to buy so many pretentious clothing items at such good prices! I don’t know what I would do if I lived somewhere else!) I shop less often at the Salvation Army here, but I’ve found a few good things there! There’s also eBay, ThredUp (use this link for $10 off!) and Poshmark. I haven’t bought anything from the latter of those, and maybe 3-4 things total from each of the former. With ThredUp you can search by brand or type of clothing you’re looking for, with filters for size, color, etc. I bought some really cute Crewcut shorts and a Makie sweatshirt for Margaret from ThredUp two summers ago (the shorts in size 2T so she wore them when she was 1 and 2). Last year I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t buy something from the summer Boden catalogue for her, and instead I looked on eBay for used Boden things, and I found a pair of the cutest ever strawberry print shorts for maybe $6. Which is, admittedly, expensive for used shorts. And, per #5 (see below), I bought their size 3-4, so they were too big for last summer, but hopefully they will be the every day shorts for this year, once it warms up, which, of course, will be about 5,000,000 years from now. (Per #2, I’d rather have one pair of shorts for her that I LOVE than 8 pairs that are only so-so.)

5. Buy a few sizes up (but not too many sizes up). If you buy a size 6 raincoat, your almost 5 year old can wear it for 2 years, see? (And I actually promise you that your child will survive. We’ve done that also for winter coats, and it works quite well.) Or if you find a cute, 3T swimsuit last summer that consists of matching swim shirt and shorts, and fits your then 2 year old as long as you take a little tuck in the shorts, she can wear the same suit last summer and then this coming summer. I’ve found that some brands fit on the small side. So my 4 year old wears a Breton striped shirt (Boden) that says it’s a 6-7. The sleeves are a little long, so we roll them up. Today I found a little size 6-7 striped t shirt for Will. I’ll either have him wear it this summer or wait a year. So you can buy early and have a child wear something an extra year, or buy early and save it, if it’s a really good find, for when they’re old enough to wear it. As long as you’re not stockpiling too many clothes, this saves a lot of money in the long run. (See below– size 4-5 denim skirt WITH TINY POLKA DOTS! Couldn’t resist. So we’re tucking it away until next year.)

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Now I know that the only person left reading is my mom (which is fitting, because she is the one who taught me the joys of the thrift store) but I will just say that most of these principles apply for buying second-hand clothes for yourself. Except for buying sizes ahead of where you currently are, one can hope. Buy less, buy good, buy simple. And do your mending.

(And I’d love to know where other people shop for kids’ clothes! Anyone else buy used? Make their kids wear coats 2 or 3 sizes too big? Any favorite secondhand finds?)

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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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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.

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.