Month: November 2013

mo money mo problems or stumble out of bed and bumble to the kitchen, poor myself a cup of ambition*

gardening, green living, lifestyle, Uncategorized November 29, 2013

I had a long talk with my husband today about where we are going and what we are doing and why. We have a problem with money. We don’t have enough of it. However, when I think of the life that I truly want to live, money doesn’t figure in too much. So, what is it that we need money for? Food, shelter, healthcare, entertainment. That just about covers it right? Oh, education. Yikes, that’s a big one that we will be paying a for a long time.

On the other hand, what are some of the ills that plague modern life, ills that may require more money? Stress. Boredom. Poor health. Lack of exercise. Sedentary living. Not enough time with family. Not enough time doing things we enjoy. Low quality food. Lack of sleep. Anxiety. Depression. Alcoholism. Obesity. These are huge. These ills are in the newspapers every day. Enormous amount of ink is spilled and money spent on mitigating these side effects of our lives.

The majority of these negative by-products of our lives are the direct result of earning money.

When I think of the job I left, my life looked like this: Get up early, hear the alarm, fight the feeling that if I could only sleep for 45 more minutes everything would be okay. Convince myself to go on a run/do 30 minutes of yoga. Shower, get dressed with an eternally insufficient wardrobe, drink coffee, pack a lunch, eat a quick breakfast, kiss my husband and out the door for an hour commute. Try not to get to angry about the other drivers on the road, try to enjoy the sunrise, try not to be impatient. At work a strange combination of intense boredom and intense stress. Constant onslaught of deadlines and ticking clocks. Excitement in the courtroom, adrenaline, fast thinking and talking, satisfaction with occasionally helping make something better, frustration with being unable to make more things better. Intensely draining responsibility. More filing and boredom. Back in the car for an hour. Home, not as tidy as I’d like, fight with husband over that fact, figure out dinner, watch TV, drink beer, go to bed. Wash rinse repeat. Every day counting down the minutes until 5 o’clock, the hours until Friday. Weekends clean the house, do the shopping, drink a little too much one night, try to do something fun with husband (such as go to Target or a local nursery), go on long run, Monday comes too soon.

My life was a constant battle between not having enough time to do any of things I needed to do, and not enough time to do any of the things I wanted to do. Sure, my job was exciting, sometimes fulfilling, often stimulating, and I didn’t hate it. Was I living the life I really wanted? No. Did I even know what that looked like? No. Now that I have had so much time to think through all of this, I realize that maybe it isn’t just a necessary evil. Maybe a 8-5 life, living on weekends isn’t an inevitability.

So, we were talking about it today. If I really am not going to go back to law for a while (maybe ever), then I need something to do. The first step is to figure out what we can do to lessen our dependence on money. We still need to earn it, and hope to earn enough to pay for a good education for our son and the ability to travel. We are working towards going into business for ourselves in landscaping, but that is still in the future. If my time and energy is not going to be spent earning money, then I need to be doing something to partially replace the need for it. I am doing that first by providing child care for our son. Our next biggest expense by far is groceries. The plan is to build a greenhouse and actually try to pull off growing enough food for our family to eat. People have done it in the past, people do to now. I’m fairly confident I can pull it off. We are planning a solar powered greenhouse that can grow year round. (We live in the mountains and have a shortish growing season and cold winters). I need to grow enough, consistently, and with enough variety to keep us satisfied. Me managing a large year round garden has benefits that extend beyond the food production and cutting costs. It is something I enjoy, it is a source of exercise, it will give me an opportunity to teach my child about many things, it will fight cabin fever, it will give us another beautiful space to spend time, and it is good for the environment. So there it is, another step towards a big shift and an attempt to escape the 8-5 gerbil wheel and all of the woes that accompany it. It also takes care of one of the two necessities according to Cicero and provides a food source for the zombie apocalypse.

Here is a link to the greenhouse we are looking into. It is a relatively expensive investment on the the front end. It won’t be expensive to maintain once built and established, and will quickly earn it’s keep in saving us from paying for child care and all of those expensive organic, locally grown veggies that we buy. growing spaces

I leave you with the following thoughts from the great Herman Melville:

“There is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable affliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid- what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

*title credits: The Notorious B.I.G., Aesop Rock

black friday

lifestyle, minimalism November 29, 2013

It is the day after thanksgiving. Many others have already pointed out how interesting it is that we celebrate our blessings, then go shopping. I have never participated in Black Friday, and I assume there are a great many Americans out there who haven’t either. That doesn’t make me immune to the consumerism that underlies it. (Off the subject, I am finding all of the self righteous anti-black friday ranting almost as distasteful as wallmart itself.) In fact, I spend a great deal of time online shopping. I don’t actually buy things all that often but I do spend time looking at things, thinking about things I want.  This is at complete odds with my ideals, and yet I enjoy it. Is it wrong for me to enjoy it? I don’t know, probably not terrible, I do know I should probably be spending my time doing things that are more enriching, more fulfilling, more wholesome. I’m not sure if I am giving myself too much of a hard time, or not enough.

Part of it is that it is just so accessible. Iphones, tablets, laptops, even good old fashioned catalogs. There is also something about desire itself that is seductive. I don’t actually gain too much pleasure from owning, I actually derive a decent amount of satisfaction from ridding myself of possessions. What it is it exactly about wanting? We learn from Buddhism about the idea that desire and expectations lead to stress/dissatisfaction or dukkha. As we approach the holiday season and as I continue writing, I am thinking hard about how to raise my son free of this burden of wanting. I also need to rid myself of this burden somewhat if we are to continue living on one income, and not a generous one at that! I am not sure I know how to do it since I spend so much time with desire myself. On the other hand I want to give him things, and there is a pleasure in giving and receiving gifts. I don’t want to be so strict in this line of thinking that I do away with some good things as well. Further though my family isn’t particularly extravagant about gifts, people like buying things for children and I don’t want to be the mother that takes gifts away from her child. This like so many other things seems to require balance.

One of the most striking memories I had was upon returning from Africa had to do with this. When there I barely had internet, no TV, and no cellphones. (That was before smartphones anyway). I had books, and those were even somewhat difficult to come by. Once I returned to the states I was inundated with TV, billboards, radio ads, and whatever else there is out there constantly working away at our minds. Almost immediately I decided that I wanted a new lap top. Then immediately after having that thought, I was shocked with myself. Both for having had the thought (I didn’t really need a new lap top), and for the lack of having such thoughts while I was gone. It was probably a combination of being immersed in a different, less consumer driven culture, a lack of constant exposure to advertisements, and being surrounded by real need that drove back all of those wants and desires for things that plague me today. (Most of my desires were for things like hot showers and cheese pizza). The fact that I lived quite happily without much and without wanting much for quite a while reminds me that it is possible.

How do I create a world for myself where these needs and wants do not exists, or maybe are just quieted? I think it is probably part discipline and part habit. So for the weeks leading up to and during our biggest buying season, I am going to try to turn a blind eye to the sales, stop making wish lists, and go on a fast from wanting. I will still get presents for my family of course, but I already have those mostly figured out no shopping required. My son will get snow boots and a kitchen stool. For now however, I am not going to flip through the ikea catalog dreaming of a beautifully appointed home or browse amazon for whatever random things I feel I need from those warehouses. I will delete emails with special deals. I will be happy with what I have, and if I need to imagine improving my situation as daydream fodder, I will imagine improving by doing not buying. I WILL sort through the difference between need and want. Perhaps if I can break the habit of wanting, I will be more free to enjoy what I have. My blessings are many after all, a lovely family, a lovely home in a lovely town, a dream to reach for, very naughty pets, and loved ones within reach. In addition to those wholesome things, I have plenty of kitchen gadgets, a tablet and an iphone, attractive boots for the winter, a good car and any number of the other more base material things that populate our modern lives. (Are snow tires a need or want?) Besides the spiritual freedom from the constant dissatisfaction of not having what you want, there is a practical aspect of not wanting what you can’t afford! Anyway, here’s to fasting until christmas at least, happy holidays, and Black Friday.

if you have a garden and a library…

lifestyle, minimalism November 26, 2013

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. – Cicero

When I was a teenager, I had a trunk in my closet filled with my most prized possessions, in case I had to take off at a moment’s notice. I left college and moved back to my home state with only what I could carry on an airplane. While traveling I relished living with only what I could hold in one back pack. During grad school, I lived in a one bed room apartment with a blow up mattress and an easel as my only furniture. I could be packed and moved in one day using one trip in my small sedan. I loved it. Up until now, my possessions have been limited. I now live in a three bedroom house with a carport, a garage, a barn, and a multitude of closets. We have furniture galore and a billion random things. I am continuing in my quest to reduce this burden. I have made it through the kitchen, living room, and dining room. So far I can say this, the space is easier clean and more pleasant to be in. However, i will never be able to move quickly because I have boxes and boxes and shelves and shelves of books.

Books. How do we deal with books? They have an inherent value, they are attractive, and we tend to get attached. Nothing will ever make me get rid of my duct taped copy of Aristotle’s works. Who doesn’t like to flip through the federalist papers during election season? Let us be honest, aren’t we proud to have all the books we have read, whose content or point we have long forgotten, on display? Or is that just me and my base prideful self? In any event I have managed to pare my books down to two categories: classics and books I have yet to read. Cook books, art books, and gardening books are exempt. One reason I keep the classics around is that they are classics. Just that. Sometimes I like to re-read, sometimes I like to search for a quote. Mostly I just look at them and try to remember. Also, when I was a little girl I used to love perusing my father’s book shelves. I would look forward to the days when I could tackle the more mature reads, and was proud when I could enjoy something from that shelf rather than limit myself to the brightly illustrated covers at the school library. I’m not positive if having all these books around will inspire my son to take pleasure in the one way we can truly experience the world through the eyes and mind of someone else, but it couldn’t hurt and may help. So there it is, I have talked myself back into my library, the books stay. How else could I remind myself about the virtues of Jack Kerouac’s rucksack revolution of the Dharma Bums without it?

The temptation to only have the bare necessities is so strong that it is at constant tension with the pleasure and perhaps necessity of having some things. Part of this exercise of editing the dependence and attachment to physical things in our lives involves deciding what should remain. Here is another reason to keep the classics around, because Cicero offered some excellent guidance to this end!

So here I am. I am in my 30s, I have a family and am a mother. I can not jet away at a moment’s notice. My rucksack revolution has taken a different form. The wandering is over for now, I have different things to explore than the curves of the earth. My books are my roots, not shackles. Now for the garden…

the africa emails: the misadventure that never happened

travel November 21, 2013

“Wed, 03 Sep 2003 
I am taking refuge in the internet cafe.  Another trip to the market during rush-hour.  After a while, the smell of smoked fish and raw meat becomes overpowering, and when a tray full of pig legs passes right beside your head, your stomach starts to become upset with the conditions.  Not to mention the 30 second intervals of random people wanting to speak to you. Ehh, Obroni!  Where are you from? What is your name?  I love you lovely ladies.  and on and on.   So, here I am again.  I am finally becoming accustomed to life here. People carrying incredible loads on their heads no longer startle me, and the bustle and smell of this city is starting to become normal.  The multitude of tiny shops called “Jesus Saves Salon” and “Grace of God fashions” are no longer surprising in their numbers.  My mornings are very peaceful (aside from the music that begins sometimes at 7am), which is necessary to prepare me for the assault of the day. The word obroni is now a permanent part of my awareness, and my relations with people are never without its accompaniment.  It has become a bit discouraging where making friends is concerned.   The KNUST campus doesn’t have more than 20 white people in its student body equal to that of UW’s, and the population is mostly male, around 75%.  This makes me a white female first and foremost and I have not had more than one conversation that wasn’t completely centered around that fact, implicitly or explicitly.

Next weekend, just two of us are headed to Togo for the largest voodoo festival in W. Africa.  Apparently we can only take a bust to the border town in Ghana and then have to walk to the next town.  I am very excited about that mini adventure.”

I can’t seem to remember or find a separate entry on this side trip. It is worth talking about. Togo is especially worth thinking about at a time when so many people are discouraged even disgusted with the United States. It is so easy to take it for granted. Getting to Togo was an adventure in itself. I felt safe in Ghana, but had it been almost anywhere else, I think our journey would have been dangerous. There were late nights in empty villages when we didn’t know where to find the next leg of the journey, etc. Crossing the boarder from Ghana to Togo was palpable. The security we felt as two females traveling on our own with absolutely no way to blend in, was gone. We didn’t really speak French, so that made things more difficult. I can’t find anything about this on google right now, but we were told that several students were shot recently in Togo by the government, which was still a dictatorship at the time. A cab driver also told us how to wrap our money in our wallets so the police wouldn’t take it. That was on our trip from the border Into the city. We felt the absence of a stable government, it was like the floor had dropped away. I have never felt less safe in my life. I will never forget the feeling of believing you were truly on your own, with no recourse in a foreign land. Our government is flawed, it fails in efficiency at times, our law enforcement is as well- but on the whole it keeps us safe. We don’t even know how much it does until we set foot on soil where that isn’t true. (This was only my experience by the way. Togo in 2003 may very well have been a fine place for its citizens and other travelers for that matter, I really don’t know.)

Another part of what gave that trip darker tones was the voodoo market. I will post pictures, these are all in film and must be scanned. This is also not a comment on voodoo as I don’t know much about it, but the market had skulls of animals I will never see alive. It was strange and fascinating. We did visit a voodoo priest and he gave us a prayer and some talismans for safe travel. He did something which was supposed to bind us to the talismans. I still have mine, I have been oddly afraid of getting rid of it. Those dolls gave us a scare later on. Man always fears what he does not understand, and dead things as well.

Once we were finished with the market, we were off to the country side to get closer to the festival. We thought everything would be booked up. We had to use guide books for everything, because Internet was not widely available. It was also 2003 and the resources were different, so we relied on the trusty lonely planet, which was sometimes accurate and sometimes not. We couldn’t take a cab directly to the hotel where we were staying. We had to take one to an outpost, at which point we had to wait for a messenger (a boy on a bike) to go to the hotel to get us transportation. Once we got there we were isolated. Very isolated. We had to rely on the same boy on a bike to get us out if we wanted to.

The location itself was beautiful, beachside, and peaceful. The place itself was decidedly creepy. There was once a zoo of sorts on the property, and we inspected it when we arrived. We walked among what we thought were empty cages in a state of decline, until we noticed that they were open. Then we noticed various primates in the area and decided to head for check in. As we were (nervously) walking away from the zoo we heard a galloping behind us and turned in time for one of said primates to run smack into the back of my roommate’s legs. It was terrifying. The animal did not take interest in us beyond that encounter and loped away. Once we reached the check in desk, it was clear we were the only guests and there appeared to be only one person running the hotel. The solitude and the remoteness combined forces to enhance the eeriness that was mounting in our imaginations. Still undeterred, my roommate and I went down to the beach to take in the view. As we sat on the sand, the man who was running the hotel just stood above us, watching us. Perhaps and even probably there are plenty of non threatening explanations for this behavior. It was however, immensely disconcerting to us. Any one of the details on our trip on it’s own would have been a tolerable quirk of traveling in a very foreign land, but they were all coalescing in a very threatening manner.

We finally made it to our little cabana or palapa or shack or whatever you want to call it. It had one bed and mosquito netting and a door with no lock. Delightful. That night, was one of the most frightening nights of my life. What was I afraid of exactly? I didn’t know, and that is what made it so frightening. The wind began to howl sometime in the night and my roommate and I awoke suddenly to loud thud. Being startled out of sleep, neither of us could identify the source until it happened a couple more times, it was coconuts falling onto the roof of our shelter. We decided the next morning to head back to Ghana. I was relieved to find that she was as uneasy (terrified) as I was.

Nothing actually happened to us, at least nothing actually overtly threatening while we were in Togo. It was just one of those instances where our internal alarms were firing, and we took heed. Perhaps we were never in danger, perhaps we would have made it to the festival which would have been strange and wonderful and one of a kind. Perhaps not. I have not fled in fear in very many instances in my life, and have actually taken what might seem like stupid risks in my travels. It is hard to identify whether fear is justified or not, whether it is instinct keeping you safe or an irrational emotion bent on deterring you from adventure. That I have been in other situations which seemed unsafe but where I felt no fear, tells me that I can rely on instinct to some degree. In any event, I am grateful for these experiences, and even more grateful that they are the exception and not the norm in my life. I feel that this is true in a large part because of our great country. (I am not using this ironically or fanatically). We may be in something of a state of decline, but there is a lot about the United States that is still great. This is a another gift these travels gave me, and it inspired in me a desire to participate in advancing the interests of my community (great and small) which has given me so much. We benefit so much from where we are lucky enough to be born, that a great many of the benefits aren’t clear until you experience their absence. Happy holiday season.

the africa emails: getting settled into other

Uncategorized November 20, 2013

Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Scan 6-a kitchen

Thu, 28 Aug 2003 13:32:42 -0500
Subject:
“I am not sure what day it is or how long many days ago it was since I last wrote.  Time moves very differently here and I feel as if it has already been a month since I have been gone.  I am pretty sure that each day feels like a week.   It is so different here.  I am currently sitting in an internet cafe in downtown Kumasi (Adum), it is pretty hot and everyone in here is listening to the Kumasi vs. Accra basketball game on the radio. When a goal is scored, I can hear the entire marketplace cheering.  Its quite amazing.  I am getting more and more used to this place, I am starting to pick up some Twi and can argue with the cab drivers enough to get my ride to downtown for one and a half dollars.  Every time a twi word comes out of one of our mouths, people start laughing and sometimes clapping.  It seems that the effort is both appreciated and entertaining.  My roomates and  I have purchased some raid and have done battle with the insect world that lives with us.  A hotplate and a can opener later, we have full blown meals of canned tuna and boiled water for tea!  I am almost finished with the 5-day long process of registering for classes.  I am doing both drumming and guitar (I have decided finally to buy a guitar because it is such a great opportunity to study with Koonimo), there is philosophical and religious aspects of Ghanain art, and I finally spoke to the resident photographer for KNUST today and have full access to the darkroom (he is also getting me all the necessary supplies, imagine, a university faculty member being more than accomodating!). “. I never actually ended up getting to work In a darkroom, at this point we were still functioning as if we were students in the United States. Though the hospitality we received was un-paralleled, the classes were somewhat pointless (except for the music classes). We were kept apart from the rest of the student body, and our classes met infrequently and irregularly. As I mentioned above, time moves differently over there. People would also fail to show because they were sick with Malaria on a shockingly regular basis. From a formal education standpoint, the trip was something of a failure, however, I learned more in those months than any since (except for perhaps when I studied for the bar exam, and I have forgotten probably 90% of that while these lessons remain vivid!).

“My friends and I have befriended a penpal of one of our party and have been getting the inside scene on Kumasi.  We visit Alfred and his friends in Abo Abo, the Muslim distric of Kumasi and they show us around the neighborhood.  I ended up on one of the street corners one night getting Twi lessons along with my two roommates from half the neighborhood.  When our friends returned from their errand, they found the three of us surrounded by a crowd of people drilling us on the days of the week… clapping and correcting.   I have never felt so safe and welcome among strangers before.  These neighborhoods are incredible.” This night stands out particularly in my memory, it is just something that would never happen in the United States, or many of the other countries I have visited since. Perhaps people have better things to do than teach three foreigners their language, and that is what made it so special. It was seemed genuinely mutually enjoyable. The interaction was so pure and basic, just trying to communicate with other people because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, with some time on our hands. I’ll never forget it, and could probably spend a long time trying to pin point exactly what was so special about it.
“The gap between classes is fairly large and there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle class.  Walking around Abo Abo at night is like walking through people’s living rooms.  They are all sitting around in and outside of tiny homes pounding foo foo, crowded around radios, boiling water, and chatting. That is another incredible thing about this place.  Unless you are in the marketplace or the campus, people seem to be mostly sitting around or sleeping in during the day.  People walk slowly here, and after a week of running around campus in this humidity, I have the same pace that seems to have no destination nor desire for one. I won’t even try to think up an explanation for this observation, but I do remember the stark difference between being always on the go, always having something to do and just not. I also try to achieve some balance between these two ways of living. Taking time to simply interact with other humans, or to just sit and think, is important. It is difficult for me as I have relatively recently emerged from the legal world, one that is constantly driven by deadlines and schedules. I learned in Africa that there is a definitely metaphysical difference when your relationship with time changes. We all know to some extent how time is relative, that waiting makes minutes tick by while pleasure makes them speed, however that, however this observation is nothing compared to the possibilities that exist. The word “now” actually means something different in Africa. (I say Africa, and not just Ghana only because I spent a few months in South Africa after leaving Ghana. I can’t actually speak about all of Africa, but I began to suspect that the continent has some very real unifying characteristics and ways of life, the relationship with time being one of them). .

“We are also getting tutored in the local music, hip life and high life.  Everyone is incredibly friendly and accomodating.  I also only see about 1 other white person (if that) a day besides those in my group…I am starting to stare at them as much as I get stared at now.  I immediately start wondering who they are and what they could possibly be doing here, which makes it easier for me to be constantly on parade. Another interesting thing is that no one knows if we are american, british, german or any other white person that speaks english for that matter.  I am always asked, sometimes I am dutch, sometimes german, sometimes canadian… when my true origins are discovered there are handshakes and smiles. More often than not chance encounters conclude with email address requests. Everyone is interested, in what, I haven’t quite decided, but I do think that the friendliness is on the whole quite sincere.  I have also resolved to err on the side of naivete as opposed to cynicism on this trip in order to avoid tainting my interactions with this place, which has already proven to be more different then I could have ever previously imagined. I am not sure how much I am going to be able to get downtown to use the computers once school starts on monday, and I absolutely refuse to use those awful machines at school… so, I would like to ask for postal address’s.  I would love to write letters to anyone who sends me an address (there is so much going on at every moment that it seems impossible that I can’t talk to any of you about it) .  I am pretty sure that phone calls are
farther out of the price range then I had previously thought, not to mention that telephones are not overly accessible.   I hope all of you beginning classes are enjoying them and that everyone else is having a good time as well.  I miss everyone, mostly proper in-door plumbing, but all of you as well.  (As,far as I can tell, many a restroom consists solely of rooms with holes in the floor, if that at all.)
PS Thank you to everyone who wrote me back, its great to hear from you.  It is good to know that the us still exists (though its existence will never be as absolute as it used to be)  and what you are all up to.   It is no small thing to read emails from friends and family in this none-too-familiar place…”
At this point, I was getting settled into being a stranger in a strange land. The most lasting thing about that is the knowledge that our reality is not absolute as we believe it to be. Even the time that we move in is not necessarily so. It is freeing to remember that so much of the structure of our reality has to do with where we are from, it also means that a great many of our problems are as well. If I remember to take my day to day world as less of an absolute, then it becomes a little lighter.

the africa emails: cape coast

travel November 14, 2013

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While ruminating on living with less it is hard not to think of how very much less much of the world lives with. About ten years ago I spent six months in Africa, mostly Ghana and South Africa. I learned so much in that six months and I really think that experience colored and drove so much of who I have become. It is especially important for me to think about this as we are drawing close to thanksgiving, a time to count blessings. Remembering Africa also helps me keep perspective when considering the importance of or lack of, a garlic press at a time when the Philippines is suffering so terribly. It’s not that I believe in austerity for its own sake or that I must forgo all pleasure because suffering exists, it’s just important to keep it all In context. To that end I am going to start editing and posting what I wrote during my time in Africa as I try to focus on what is important in this one. These were written as group emails to close family and friends. Here is the first.

“Hi family and friends,

I have very little time, email here is impossible…things are incredible here- we just got to school two days ago and have been travelling around for the past week.  We walked on rope bridges, got laughed at, stared at, touched, and also welcomed by various villiages.  I saw the slave castles and that was pretty horrendous, especially after visiting the fish market that is right beneath it….”

I wrote extensively about the slave castles, but these writings were lost In a hard drive debacle. There is a memory that has never left me. We saw the dungeons where there was still a mark on the wall that measured how high the level of blood, excrement and other bodily fluids rose. We walked through the airy and beautiful rooms where the slave traders worked. Saw the canons pointing to see, passed through the previously one way door marked with a skull and crossbones. After taking in one of the relics of some of the worst human behavior in history, we descended into the fishing village that sits in the shadow of the castle. There, we took in some of the persisting effects of the slave trade. It seemed to me that the village could not have changed much since the castle itself was built. We saw the man powered boats returning from sea with their haul, and we walked along the banks of the coastal waterway where booths and stalls were set up. It was still very early in our time in Ghana, and we still unaware of the effect we had, and hadn’t yet developed the sensitivity to how much we had in comparison to those around us. I remember some of our group taking some photos of women who were cleaning fish. I caught a look on one of the unwilling subject’s face, she was posing in a mocking caricature of the activity that was being photographed. She knew what the photographer had in mind, some beautiful national geographic like glimpse into another world, and she knew that the romanticism is all that would be captured of HER reality. It struck me powerfully, the two different lines of human history converging on the grounds where the effects of horrors committed by one group remain still. Where our relative wealth could arguably have come at the expense of those that surrounded us. I don’t want to get into too much guilt, as it is not mine. I did vow to myself to be sensitive, to treat my hosts as people and not subjects of study, and to always remember the capacity for suffering and cruelty that exists in mankind. Finally, though I am not saying that I necessarily have more or that others have less to be grateful for, the people of Ghana for instance, as I cannot speak for others. I do know that my camera would have fed many people. That was the first of many many days where I was acutely aware of what I had to be grateful for in life

“Okay,  I just bought more time, 15 minutes for1000 cedis… lets see, we went to one villiage and they made us dance with them, it was quite a work out but more than that it allowed a connection that had not yet been made.  I have never felt more like an alien in my entire life, and never has there seemed to be such a massive divide between two groups belonging to the same species.  There is much more of a language barrier here than I expected.  Everyone speaks english, but at varying levels and our respective accents make understanding very difficult sometimes. The weather has been fabulous driving around the coast was incredible. the savannah is very beautiful as was seeing the rainforest. I saw the later from the canopy which was almost too high up- we had to go on the bridges one by one and I was the first to go, trembling and taking deep breaths along all seven death bridges! The markets are incredible… huge and full of all kinds of fun smells and strange looking fleshy things and people yelling ‘white person’ in twi at you.  The kids that live in the settlements on the sides of the roads all run after the bus in big groups pointing and jumping up and down and laughing.  One of our company has a green mohawk and it has attracted more attention than I had believed possible.

Our accommodations are less than desireable and have some quite discouraged. A first glance into my new home provided a nice view of old mattresses crawling with bugs, cement floors, and not a small amount of dirt.  However, a couple encounters with giant cockroaches later, one cold shower, and falling asleep two nights in a row to the incredible noise in the Guss Hostel, and I am quite at home.  We also have a gecko in the bathroom that keeps spiders at bay.  

The food, oh the food.  I will never eat rice again and i have only been here a week.  I have been brave with ordering and have paid for it with meals of crackers and water.  Yesterday, the dish i ordered had a smell that turned my stomach, not to mention the fish bones poking out of the ‘stew’ that looked like the contents of some large carniverous stomach.  Not all of it is hard for me to eat though, the plantain is good and so are the boiled yams.  There is also this really hot chili sauce that is good on steamed rice.  I haven’t had coffee all week and can’t wait to figure out how to make tea in our ‘kitchenette’. That is not nearly all, but time is up and I don’t suppose anyone wants to hear every detail… I hope all is well wherever this thing makes it to. I miss you all and will send individual replies as soon as i figure out a better way.”

living with less

lifestyle, minimalism November 12, 2013

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I have been thinking about how to spend my time pushing our family towards our goal. What is our goal exactly? To spend more, if not most of our time doing things we love or enjoy… Making our short lives meaningful. There are blogs in the gazillions about homesteading, minimalism, mindfulness etc. I suppose if there are so many people writing about this, it could indicate a small cultural effort to re-define purpose and time. I don’t feel like I am writing sentences that haven’t been written a hundred times already. I know I am a chicken raising, organic food buying/soon to be growing, cloth diapering, yoga doing, apple (the company and the fruit) loving, lifestyle blog writing cliche. I also drive a clean diesel station wagon, sometimes I mock myself.

It doesn’t matter though. These are good trends, even if they are marketed and packaged and adulterated and whatever. It is happening, and each minute I spend writing or doing one of these things is one I spend doing something I enjoy, something that is good for me and something that teaches my son a little more about trying to focus one what is important. I am not above television marathons, and I check my Facebook feed probably as often was most teenagers. I like eating greasy pizza and sitting on my butt. I am just trying to not take myself to seriously, to fall into self righteousness and holier than though writing. It is annoying and there is plenty of it out there. I am not sure anyone will ever even read this, and if they they do, I am not sure that they won’t shake their head and move on to Facebook thinking that they just lost 5 minutes that will never be retrieved. Moving on. Living with less.

When we moved into this house, it was more or less just as my stepmother left it when she left for the Mayo clinic not knowing she was never going to return. Some of her family had come in and organized some things, but her make up was here, her dish washing sponges in the sink, and salmon was in the freezer.

By the way, she and my dad had been divorced since I was in college. I suppose this makes her my ex stepmother, and she and I never properly reclaimed our relationship after the divorce. However, she very much raised me, and sadly it wasn’t until after the sudden death of her son that she and I slowly started moving back towards eachother. Something I had hoped would be aided by birth of my son, whom she was apparently never destined to meet. Anyway, to quote the movie Clueless “you divorce wives, not children.” She is and was my stepmother.

So, when we moved into her house 8 months after she passed there was a great deal of emotional and physical baggage that accompanied it. I was overwhelmed by the endeavor, my husband was working long hours, and I had a small baby to care for. My wonderful friends, the same I endured high school with, gathered to help. We went though everything. Silverware, old medication, boxes of photos, dog leashes, cleaning items, old journals, several old printers, you name it. It was an enormous task. My stepmother lived in this house since my dad built it 20 years ago. Before she died, one of the things she said was, I can’t go, I have left everything a mess. Things were a mess, but it got me really thinking about all the stuff we leave behind when we die. All the things the we bought. For each item, she spent time working to earn money to purchase it, only to have me throw it out or deliver it to good will. It seemed disrespectful of me and at the same time, it made the act of acquiring things seem all the more pointless.

I do not mean this to be in any way and indictment of how my stepmother lived, she was a beautiful person who was dealt a painful hand, but still managed to live her life well. Perhaps better than most, but my authority on the topic is lacking. I am commenting on how we all live. Do you or do you not have a defunct printer in your garage, or some expired medication in your bathroom?

I entered this house bringing with it some baggage of my own. At some point in my legal education, I developed a horror of clutter. This was furthered as I entered a job where my caseload was borderline unmanageable. It definitely had to do with the hyper organizational legal thinking that is the benefit and bane of a legal education. It was also a survival tactic, the only way to tackle something unmanageable is to take it bit by bit and to prioritize, especially with a constant onslaught of deadlines and actual potentially dangerous (to someone) consequences. So, efficiency and organization became important to me. Couple this with living amidst someone else’s lifetime worth of stuff, and you have a really crazy making situation. Oh, and add a new baby and all the new mom nesting tendencies that go with it.

I got rid of things by the truckload. Our things, her things, things people inadvertently left on the countertop, my cat’s things. It all had to go. Much of it did. Here I am, nearly a year later, and we still have so so many things. We kept many of the the nice things, potentially useful things, random sentimental things, still so many things. Now I am on the verge of another purge and I truly want to simplify, get us down to only what we really need and really love. This is partly because I hate clutter, this is partly because I like a tidy house, and this is partly because I have a sneaking suspicion that the less we have, the less we will think we need. This is one more step closer to less dependance on the two societal shackles whose grip on us I am seeking to loosen Money and Insurance. I am not sure how stuff and health interacts, but I am not working on developing a dogmatic system here anyway.

I started with the kitchen. When I clean my closet I use the ‘have I worn it in the last 365 days’ rule. I used some tips from the all knowing Google to build on this. Kitchens are an easy place to collect stuff. There are a lot of potentially useful items that you really don’t ever use. New York Times article on point. “I’m looking at you, garlic press.”

So here are the questions I asked myself:

1. Have you used it in the past year?
2. Do you have another item that serves the same purpose as well as others? (Knife vs. garlic press).
3. Is it beautiful AND you love it or use it?

the choice

lifestyle November 10, 2013

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Here goes. A little over a year ago, I was a young attorney with a budding career and a plan. My husband was a graduate student in a Landscape Architecture program. We had a house, we had a trajectory, and then we had a baby. When our son came along, things started to change, predictably, priorities began to shift. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were in the middle of a massive change. I cried every time I thought about going back to work after three months of maternity leave. My husband was gone for long hours, stretched too thin, and we fought. We fought a lot.

Gradually, some ideas crept into our heads. I could NOT go back to work. But I had been working towards that job for years. But where would we get money, insurance? How would we pay my loans? Jim could drop out of school. But he had been working so hard to get there. What else would he do? What about our plan? Our vision, as a professional couple, me a fast paced trial attorney and him a landscape architect changing the landscape of our city, began to crumble. We realized that the vision left very little room for what we really were: a family.

Some time during that fitful period of fear and uncertainty, I read an article from the New York Times about longevity in Greece. It wasn’t the longevity that I was interested in, it was the lives in the article that were so captivating…these particular islanders described a life of waking naturally, gardening, cooking, drinking wine with friends and early nights to bed. Sigh, if only. We started to think, why not? Why if that was the life we really wanted, why couldn’t we have it? Money. Insurance. The idea would not leave our heads. The alternative, our alternative, our reality was so different. Early waking for a bustle of activity, preparing ourselves and our child for the day out of the house, away from each other. Dressing, brushing teeth, diapers, breakfast, then out the door, our son off to be raised by strangers, my husband and I off to our grueling days. Exciting, stimulating, even rewarding, but grueling. Then a return home to repeat the process in reverse in preparation for sleep. A life to be lived on weekends, where we would squeeze family time in with chores and the occasional recreational activity. Friends? They had already begun slipping away in the sleepless frenzy of very early parenthood and graduate school. There had to be another way. Was there another way? Here is a spoiler: at this very juncture, we haven’t found the other way, but we are still trying.

These crazy ideas, quitting school and jobs, leaving our newly remodeled home, began to form into plans. Finally, the decision was made. The notices sent. We moved from the relief of release of anticipation into the frightening clutches of uncertainty. We turned our lives in the city upside down and move to the small town I grew up in. Mountains, fresh air, my family and lifelong friends close by, a step towards Ikaria. The all important question remained, what were we going to do about Money and Insurance? insurance was obtained with the help of the federal government. My husband got a job in the local ski area while we waited for my recently departed step mother’s house to be vacated so we could move in, next door to my father and on the very same road I grew up on. I stayed in the city with the baby, two and a half hours away, while my husband worked long hours on the mountain for $8 an hour. He missed our son’s first christmas. Finally in the middle of February, we made the haul north to the mountains.

So here we are, a year after our son’s birth. I became ‘just’ a stay at home mom. My husband went from graduate student, to a landscaper. We struggle with money. I struggle almost daily with the loss of our vision, our plan, and am constantly tempted back into it. If I took a job as an attorney, we could be financially secure again, I would no longer be ‘just’ a stay at home mom. My husband wouldn’t have to work in retail over the winter. We would be step closer to the old reality and a step farther from our Ikaria. I would miss the sometimes very long days I spend with my son, the breakfasts we enjoy as a family before Jim goes to work, and the energy I currently devote towards motherhood would be spent on trials, police officers, judges, and other attorneys.

I sometimes feel crazy, I spent all of this time and money to become an attorney, and the law degree sits in the closet with my other degrees, collecting dust and interest. Other days I feel completely confident that what I am doing is right. I am spending my considerable energy on the dearest things in my life, my son, my family, my home. In discussing this struggle the other day with another stay at home mom, we came to the conclusion that in this day and age, we are the radicals. We are forgoing all the fruits of a rewarding, and hard won career, fought for by generations of women before us, for the pleasures and struggles of a life at home with a child. Vacuuming, diapers, and cooking have replaced suits, deadlines, and constant interaction. Sometimes I feel isolated. Sometimes, I feel bored. I do tear up, however, when considering leaving my son in the undoubtedly capable hands of a local day care for 40+ hours a week.

So here we are, I recently turned down what was previously my dream job. My husband makes a whopping $14 an hour. We are trying to figure out how to bring our grocery bill down without compromising the quality of food we eat. The dream of our grecian island life hasn’t left us, but logistics remain an issue. One thing I have to confess is that we are blessed with some capital. I inherited money from my step mother, had some money invested that was gifted to me by my grandparents, and my family continues to help out. They have been extremely supportive of our probably irresponsible decision to cast ourselves into financial uncertainty to allow me to be home with our son. For these reasons, though we struggle, our standard of living is way above what would otherwise be possible, and really we are quite comfortable. I am afraid that we wouldn’t have had the courage to make the changes we did without this considerable safety net. The problem remains, we obviously don’t want to live off more than we can bring in and are trying to save the money we have for our son’s college etc.