Monday, September 24, 2012

Living in the Suburbs

I live in a city of about 30,000 people, 12 miles from our state capitol and a Big Ten university.  Most of the time I'd rather live in the actual city or out in the country.  Lucky for me, our house and yard are next to a 150 acre park, so I can see woods and farmland. Since this is where I am right now, and I like to live in the present, not in the past, nor dreaming about the future, then this is where I have to "bloom".

Luckily, my city didn't start out as a suburb.  It simply grew from a small town into a city because of it's proximity to the university and government.  Also, because it had more affordable housing than similar communities nearby.  My house is somewhat centrally located, meaning our family can walk to the schools, library, pool, parks, post office, grocery store, restaurants, and numerous chain stores. We can bike to our doctor and dentist if we want (about 3 miles).  There is no safe way to bike into the city-we have to navigate around a shopping mall without bike paths and the roads are NOT bike friendly.

I am limited in what I can do in my yard. My neighbor can have a barking crapping dog the size of a pony, but I cannot have 3 quiet chickens.  I'm sure it's for "health and safety reasons" but my city doesn't seem to care that people let their cats roam around free and the city doesn't enforce it's leash laws for dogs, so if you're a runner or walker be prepared to have dogs barking and jumping up on you with an idiot owner saying "He wont hurt you, he's just friendly".  So if my husband sees some guy walking past our house, my husband can run up and jump and lick the stranger and I can say "He won't hurt you, he's just friendly."

It's not as difficult living a sustainable life in the suburbs as you might think.  I walk to do a lot of my errands and I teach piano out of my home, so I don't use a car much.  That also means I don't have to buy a gym membership (or drive to one).  Our house sits on an East-West axis and on sunny days, passive solar gain heats the inside up into the 70s.  We don't have to run our furnace much.  We also keep our thermostat set at 60F at night and 65F during the day.  I save baking for cold days and wear layers in the winter. 

We have a pie-shaped lot on a cul-de-sac with a tiny front yard that faces north and a large backyard that faces south where my gardens are.  Our deck is always about 20 degrees warmer than the yard which means I have a variety of micro-climates AND get to be outside longer than my neighbors.  In the summer heat, we have an awning that we put up to keep the sun's rays off the deck and the house.  It cost less than $100 to make. 

I grow most of our produce and then preserve it for winter and early spring eating.  I also make most of the gifts we give (food, quilts, paintings...).  Almost every meal we make is from scratch, though not every ingredient is locally sourced or organic. 

I'm an introvert and homebody at heart, so going out to mingle in large groups of people is not on my to-do list.  I'm most content working in my yard or doing home "work".  I like people to come to me. I love to make food and host people in my home and I think I've made a nice, cozy comfortable place for people to relax and want to visit.  At least I hope so!

Moving into the city, would be great for my husband's commute to his position at the university, but I'd lose my gardens.  Moving to the country would be great as I could finally get chickens and get a wood stove...but that would mean a much longer commute for work and school.  So for now, I'm doing my best to embrace where I am, honing my crafts and skills for when I may actually need to rely on that knowledge on a daily basis out of necessity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Happy Autumnal Equinox! Blessed Mabon!

In our family, we pay attention to the earth and the passing of the seasons.  Like most people, I have my favorite time of year and that is Fall, which begins on September 22nd this year.  On this day (as with the Spring Equinox), Day and Night are equally divided.

I'm an earth mother.  My life calling is to nurture my children, other people, and the soil.  I pay attention to the changes in people and in my environment and celebrate and acknowledge them.  By celebrating the changing of the seasons, I reinforce my own awareness of the earth and my place in it.

As Mabon approaches this week, I will be fall cleaning in preparation for the coming cold and dark months when my family, along with the plants, will be resting, waiting for the days to become long again.  I'll decorate my home in the gorgeous reds, golds, and browns of fall.

The Autumnal Equinox is not a formal celebration here.  I'll make a meal of mostly local food, much of which will have come from my own gardens and drink our home brewed beer made from our own grain and hops.  Mabon is a celebration of the harvest and a time to show gratitude to all that we've been given during the growing season. Now would be an excellent time for me (and you) to donate food to your local food pantry.

As the light and dark will be in balance, so I will also try to be in balance through my daily meditation and yoga.  Now is an excellent time to start a gratitude journal.

Now is also a good time to take inventory of your food pantry.  Make a list of what needs replenishing and visit your farmer's market before the season is over.  Embrace the coming dark and cold by airing out your home, putting warm blankets and flannels on your bed, and going through your closets to bring out your warm clothes (and to donate what no longer fits).

Instead of grumbling about the coming cold weather, try living in the present and breathing in the smells of the decaying leaves and let your eyes be delighted with the riot of color that the trees produce and know that as the days begin to shorten, and the nights lengthen, this is just an opportunity to embrace the beauty of another season of nature.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Be Prepared for Economic, Climate, and Energy Uncertainty

We need to make changes to our way of life.  Politicians like to go on about how the American way of life in "nonnegotiable" and I agree.  We have to STOP our way of life if we want to leave anything for future generations that even closely resembles "the good life".  We don't save enough money (I know I don't), we eat too much "tan" food that consists of sugar and fat, we want it all and we want it NOW.  Like Veruca Salt in "Willy Wonka" , things aren't going to end well for us if we continue.

Change is best done in small steps.  Going cold turkey on your carbon heavy way of life is noble, but unreasonable and unattainable for 99% of us.  Small changes work best when trying to change any type of behavior.  Losing weight is easier if you simply start logging meals, then adding in some exercise a few weeks later, eating one more fruit or vegetable a day, etc.  The same goes for living a more ecologically conservative lifestyle.  Small steps lead to big leaps and changes in thought processes.

I just finished reading Sharon Astyk's book Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place .  It's about improving our lives with the resources we already have, becoming more resilient, and transforming our lives in the face of economic, climate, and energy uncertainty.  It is by no means a "doomsday" book.  It's more of a "pull your head out of your ass and be prepared" book.  My grandparents' generation seems to be last to do this as a matter of course.  My parents' boomer generation, the "disposable generation", as a whole, did not raise my generation (the Xers) to be planners or prepare.  My mom rarely had more than a few days worth of food on hand.  Not because we were poor, but because she just didn't.  To her, much of that way of thinking reminded her too much of how poor she was growing up in WV Coal country.

We need to rethink what is necessary in life.  We do not all need to live in big houses with cathedral ceilings, media rooms, 3.5 baths, 3 car garages, AC or heat going all the time, and stainless steel appliances we don't cook on. We don't even need to have multiple bathrooms.  Needs and wants are different.

My house is 985 sq feet above ground.  That includes 3 small bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and big enough living room for my piano and a television.  Our full basement is finished with a large family room, a half-bath, and my 8 x8 foot yoga/meditation/art studio. Five of us live in this house with about 1500 finished square feet. Luckily, our basement could be turned into a small apartment if any of our three girls ever had to move in with us with a family.  People lived in much smaller quarters and with more people for most of human history. If you are lucky enough to own a home, take stock of how you could change it to allow for relatives to move in if there comes a time, or think about downsizing.  Those cathedral ceilings are a serious waste of space and heat.

We need to get away from thinking that bigger is better.  We need to become more community centered and accept that in the coming years, we may not get the affluent lifestyle our parents or grandparents enjoyed with travel and a house all to our own.  We may go back to multigenerations living under one roof.  The era of selfishness has to end or we're all doomed.

Meet your neighbors.  Walk around your neighborhood and say hello to people. Take neighbors baked goods at Christmas time or invite them over for a beer on a hot summer day.  Hang out in your front yard once in awhile so that you can see what's going on, instead of just hiding in your house or on your deck.  I have excellent neighbors.  They're outside with their kids, we get together on a regular basis for informal bonfires or winter card games.  A few neighbors keep to themselves, but because most of us are outside so much, everyone at least recognizes one another. We've all helped each other with various yard or home projects and know each others' kids.  It's time for everyone to begin building that sort of community where they live. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Homemade Cake Doughnuts


I'm a firm believer in making my own junk food. There may be a lot of fat in frying food, but at least I can pronounce the ingredients!  These doughnuts taste much better than anything you'll get at a grocery store and remind me of going to visit my grandparents on their farm-my grandma always had homemade doughnuts on hand to dunk in her coffee.

3 1/4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 beaten eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup milk
1/4 butter, melted

Stir together the first 5 ingredients.  In large bowl, combine eggs, sugar and vanilla and beat until thick.  Combine milk and butter.  Add the flour mixture and milk mixture alternately to the egg mixture;  beat just until blended after each addition.  cover and chill for about 2 hours (it's a sticky dough).

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to about 1/2 inch.  Cut with doughnut cutter.  I get about 16 doughnuts and holes out of one batch.

Fry in deep, hot fat (the only thing I use our Fry Daddy for) about 1 minute each side or until golden.  Drain on cooling racks with dishtowels underneath.  While warm, shake in sugar or cool and dip in a glaze (I whisk a bit of milk into powdered sugar).

*to flavor the glaze, I'll use 2-3 Tablespoons of whatever juice or thinned down jelly I have on hand in place of milk.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Adapting in Place

Let me be absolutely clear:  I like to move. I have never felt compelled to put down roots anywhere. I moved a lot as a child until age 9 due to my father's job (the only way, at that time, to get promoted in the Federal government was by moving).  We settled in Appleton, Wisconsin which after having spent 4 years living outside of DC, I thought it was the whitest place in America where the people had an unusually high regard for cheese and sausage (two things I still don't really like).  I don't know if I like moving because I did so much as a small child, or if it's because that's the American culture, or if I simply have gypsy blood in me.  What I do know is that after 3-4 years in one place, I get itchy feet and start grumbling, wanting an adventure.  My husband and I had always moved every couple of years (cheaper rent, better rental, first house, newer house...) and then we moved outside of Madison eight years ago.

I love this area.  Madison is the state capitol and has a Big Ten university so this city of 200,000+ people plays like a much bigger city.  Drive 10 minutes out of the city and you're in rolling farmland.  I love being outdoors and the number of county and state parks to hike in and canoe in are great.  People don't look at me funny when I say I grow most of our vegetables and fruits for the year, that I don't eat much meat or that I like food called quinoa.

But still, even with all of this that I love about this area, a big part of me is ready to move on.  I'd like to live somewhere, again, where it isn't so damn flat and familiar.  When I travel to different parts of the country, with different landscapes, I get teary when my car crosses back into Wisconsin.  Not because I miss the state I live in, but because I miss the changing and sometimes angry landscapes of elsewhere.

My friend Todd's lake, that I painted.
I doubt that I'll have the opportunity to live and absorb another part of the country and I grieve that every so often.  Oftentimes, I end up going into my studio and painting the landscape I want to wake up and see and that helps.  It's easy to get caught up on what I don't have, can't have and forget to appreciate what I do have and what I can have. 

Southwest Wisconsin has rolling hills that often remind me of the Appalachians where my aunts, uncles, and cousins live.  In a few years, I'd like to buy some land in SW Wisconsin and build a small cabin.  If not to live in permanently, then to at least use as an escape.  I get overwhelmed by groups of people and I absorb others emotions which exhausts me and can put me into a downward spiral if I let it.  Here in the city, I escape to my studio to paint, meditate, or practice yoga.  It is understood by everyone in my home that unless there is blood, I am never to be disturbed in my "room".

So I work hard to adapt to this place, trying not to be resentful, and turn my home and yard into, if not my perfect place, my place. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Harvest Time is Here!

Small part of the harvest, early on.
 Late August into October is the busiest time of year for my gardens.  All of the work that I put into planning my gardens, starting seeds, planting and weeding has finally produced the bounty.  I grow food year round in my Wisconsin yard with the help of coldframes and hoophouses, but the amount of fruits and vegetables that ripen in the fall will never cease to boggle my mind.  Every fall, in about October, I swear I'm going to plant less next year.  Every January that garden porn comes in the mail and I'm lusting over seed packets for heirloom tomatoes, purple carrots, and weird looking squash. I grow enough in all of my gardens that we have homegrown produce until April or March in the freezer, dried in the cupboard, or in canning jars in the pantry.

Pressured canned veggies

 My mother-in-law bought me a pressure canner for Christmas several years ago.  The best present she's ever gotten me.  I confuse the hell out of my in-laws, which was always apparent in the bizarre gifts I'd get each year (a Snuggie?  Really?).  My gifts of canned "goodness" confused them even more.  My Holly Hobbie ways can be a bit hard to understand if you think supermarket produce actually tastes good...

More canned veg.

Right now I have about 30 pounds of tomatoes waiting to be skinned (unskinned? deskinned?).  It's an easy enough process of boiling the tomatoes for about 60 seconds and immediately plunging them into ice cold water.  Skin peels right off!  I'll start working on that this afternoon and freeze them until I have time to can them whole and make a lot into salsa.

So for the next month, I'll be frazzled and entertaining for those around me to watch as I try to get in all of the fruits and vegetables and process them during the first month of the school year (I teach piano in the afternoons).  By the time mid-October rolls around I am looking forward to snow!