Posts Tagged ‘simple living’

“If you keep an open bough, the singing bird will come.”

That was a poster I had in my room as a teenager.

Each year, around New Years weekend I make space for the year to come:

  • I transfer birthday, anniversary and other commemorative occasions to my new calendar (my one remaining paper-based calendar – the birthday reminder/pretty art calendar in my home office)
  • I go through the cupboards and the refrigerator and toss things that are past their usability
  • I go through the medicine cabinets and do the same

Then, sometime soon thereafter I go through the rest of the house – clothes, decorations, and, for me the bibliophile, the Big Deal – the Purging of the Books.

A friend had told me that bibliophiles past 50 must institute a rule of ‘one in, one out’ lest they become buried under an avalanche of books.  While not rigorous in that application, my rule is “no new book shelves” – so my books have to fit their current space.

For those readers in the Chicago area, I’ve stumbled upon a great resource the Chicago Books to Women in Prison project.  This group (which also has a Facebook page) collects paperback books (no hard covers allowed) and ships them to women in prison.

I LOVE taking my books there as it seems like a triple win:

  1. Most obviously, I achieve my goal of clearing space for new books to enter my life
  2. The books I am releasing get recycled – they will be read again – and most likely more than once
  3. It’s a tiny mitzvah -a good deed, bringing joy to someone who could really use some

Maybe you don’t live in Chicago.  Maybe you’re not much of a reader.  But I’ll bet there is something in your house that you have too much of it, that might be useful to others.

I feel pretty sure that we don’t own our stuff – it owns us.  So if you want to invite spaciousness, newness, and exciting opportunities into your life, you might try creating an open bough on which those bluebirds of happiness can land.

At a minimum you’ll have less stuff to tend to and thus more free time.

Do you do any routine “purging” of stuff?  When? What? How?  As always, I really want to know – so add your comments to the conversation!

And may the singing birds you attract this year delight you and surprise you with goodness.

If you keep an open bough, the singing bird will come

If you keep an open bough, the singing bird will come

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We’ve started a ‘mini-cohousing’ experiment here where I live.  Four households (five, if you include my friend Bill who doesn’t live in the neighborhood but often teams up with us) have joined forces to share more, buy less, and to help one another.

At our initial meeting David & Katja said they have a compost bin behind their garage and that we are all welcome to use it.  I composted all last summer, when my friend Bill had his community-based garden (his town has a plot of land where people who don’t have space to garden where they live can have gardens).  It has really tugged at my conscience to just throw food scraps out since fall.  So I was very excited at David & Katja’s offer.

I’ve seen some fancy composting containers for sale, and if I had a household of more than one person it might make sense for me to get ‘more stuff’ and spend the $20 to get one.  But it’s just me here and Bill came up with a very simple system last summer.  I use 2 different 1-gallon Ziploc bags.

First, I fill bag 1 – putting in my fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds (and I believe I can put eggshells in but I want to make sure David & Katja are okay with that in their compost).  I eat a fair amount of fruits and veggies so I can often fill a gallon bag in 4 days or so.  Put stuff in bag, zip it up, put it in the fridge so it doesn’t smell.  Continue til done.

Once the bag is full I get it to the composter – in the summer that means Bill takes the bag and dumps it directly into his garden, now I walk across the street to David & Katja’s composter and just dump it in.

Then I wash bag #1 and while it is drying (my drying rack is to put it over the top of one of my 2 metal water bottles, near the garden window and let the sun dry it), I use bag #2 as above.

Simple.  Easy.  Cheap.  5 household, 1 composter.  I don’t know how much David & Katja paid for their nice composter, but this site has a variety of options in case you, too, want to start composting.

How about you?  Do you compost?  If so, tell us about it!  If not, tell us why.  Is this something your neighborhood or farmily could do?  Join the conversation – I really want to know!



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A few days ago I wrote about sharing a shredder with my friend Bill – a baby step towards the cohousing future we want to create.  And a way to live more lightly on the earth, be frugal and not have too much stuff!

Yesterday I got another opportunity for the type of neighborliness, “We’re all in this together” vibe I’m seeking to have more of in my life.  My dear friend/neighbor Julie texted me asking if her husband Pete could borrow my Forester mini station wagon to take their daughter Madelyn to band practice.  Julie had their minivan and Madelyn’s stand-up bass would not fit in Pete’s Saab without putting the neck of the bass out the window in our very cold Chicago winter evening.

Often I’m home in the evenings, but I had plans to meet with a bunch of women last night.  My friend Kay had been feeling a bit down and when we had tea earlier in the day said she’d like to go with me (she’s actually the one who introduced me to this group).

So I called Kay, asked if she could drive me to/from the gathering – she said yes.  Texted Julie back that it was a go.

Then, I remembered my conversation with Kay about how frustrated I am that the nutritionist I saw a few years ago seems to have been right – looks like I ***am*** allergic to almonds.  I had, alas, just bought a big $12 bag of almonds last week.

So in some very nice synchronicity, Pete used my car to get Madelyn to/from band practice.  Kay and I had more one:one time to talk in our rides to/from the group.  I gave Kay the bag of almonds – I was pleased to give them to someone I knew would appreciate them – she was pleased for the unexpected treat.

Cohousing.  It’s a more formal, structured way to ensure neighborliness and community and resource sharing.  Right now I live in a little suburban house in an ordinary neighborhood.  But I’m creating more neighborliness and sustainability every day.

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It’s Ideas Day here at Taking it to the Streets

I promised you more about Judith Schor’s thought-provoking book, “Plenitude” and though a day later than I had hoped, here I am.

The book’s premise is that we’ve turned a corner economically and ecologically (not in a good way) and we need to find a new way of being if we are to survive.  As the book jacket proclaims “Our usual way back to growth – a debt-financed consumer boom – is no long an option our households, or planet, can afford.  Responding to our current moment, Plentitude argues that through a major shift to new sources of wealth, green technologies and different ways of living, individuals and the country as a whole can actually be better off and more economically secure.  Sustainability is at its core, but it not a paradigm of sacrifice.”

As regular readers of this blog know, I embrace many of the principles of Buddhism, with one that particularly appeals being “the Middle Way”.  As someone very prone to black and white thinking, it’s nice for me to always remember that there is a third way. This book presents just such a sensible solution.

The first part of the book outlines in a manner both academically dry (why ARE economists so very dry?) and simultaneously enormously alarming that the sky is indeed falling.  It’s filled with charts and numbers and footnotes about all the things those who stand to gain by what Schor calls the BAU economy (Business As Usual) don’t want you to think about.  What we’re doing is NOT sustainable.  Not even close.  This bus is headed off a cliff and picking up speed fast.

Just when you are beyond the “oh, shit!” moment she switches gears and in Chapter Four, “Living Rich on a Troubled Planet” begins to lay out her plenitude plan: “It is time to reclaim hours, build skills, invest in people, save more and perfect the art of self-provisioning.”

If you read the types of blogs and books that I do – on simple living, minimalism, sustainability, economics – these themes are familiar.  What’s unique is that Schor, a former Econ professor at Harvard, now at Boston College, has a clear understanding of the laws of economics, economic history – and she has a very broad worldview.  Her reasoning seems very sound and her argument is compelling:

BAU is not going to work (or, as Bruce Springsteen puts it “they say these jobs are going, boy, and they ain’t coming back, to my home town….”).  The alternatives presented (pretend that it will work and thus accelerate the apocalypse OR living a life that feels penitential in it’s ‘hair shirt’ denial) are unappealing.  But there is this third way of plenitude. And we can all do it. And we can start now.

I used to tell my colleague Marc, in our cut-throat corporate culture “act or be acted upon!” and I think of that now.  Schor’s first dictum – time wealth – is another way of looking at underemployment and unemployment.  She argues that working less not only makes for happier people, but frees up time to do the other things she suggests:  improve your “social capital” (non economists might use the words “friendships”), “self-provision” (i.e., gasp! cook your own meals, fix your own house, maybe grow your own food).

But this isn’t the hippie back-to-the-land movement of my era.  It’s back-to-the-land marries technogeek as I said in my last post.  As she says “Self-providing is great, but it needs advanced technology to be liberating.”

I like how she advocates a quilt approach (my words, not hers) to life – a bit of a mainstream job, patched to a bit of self-provisioning, patched to a bit of an entrepreneurial enterprise. 

She also takes on big banks (I love that about her!) and argues that by having more small enterprise and less debt, we can self-fund and not have to be backed into a corner by “too big to fail” (and i might add, seemingly too big to jail, though not if I ran the joint).

In her discussions of social connections and sustainability she touches on cohousing, near and dear to my heart.

In fact, this whole book seemed to codify and give academic credence to a way of life many of us are already embracing.  I remember back in the insane 80s and 90s I had a few colleagues from My Fancy Corporate Job over to my wee hippie house.  Seeing my tiny house, my old, modest car and knowing my “rank” at work I could see their heads spinning (“where DOES her money go? Up her nose? Is she just DUMB?”).  I am grateful for my wise father from whom I learned so much about money and life for helping give me a headstart.

Like so much of life, I think if people try to force-fit life to go back to BAU Economics there will be a lot of stress and negative emotions – a sense of lack, of unfairness, of missing out.

That’s so not how I see it.  I agree with Schor when she says that the time from 1980-2008 was the true aberration.  A lot of what she proposes would not have seemed innovative or radical to my grandparents – much of it was the norm WAY back in the day.  Think of it as a return to sanity but with better coffee and the Internet – I mean, really? That sounds delightful to me.

She questions the economic “physophilia” (Love of growth – ah, these academics – where DO they come up with these things!) and cites all sorts of writers and thinkers to say “this is NOT a given, folks, that growth is good.”

The whole book was thought-provoking, but Chapter Four “Living Rich on a Troubled Planet” is, I think the best.  I’m already plotting how I can move more quickly into my OWN life of plenitude.  So maybe not back to my grandma’s time, but “going back to the ways of my youth, I’m gonna go back and be how I want to be” (Jethro Tull) – hang out with friends, live simply, do things on our own.  Be our own bankers.  But with good coffee. And the Internet.  I’m there! — You?

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Sundays are Spirituality Day here at Taking it to the Streets

“Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Non-being is the greatest joy.” – Lao Tzu

How little we value contentment!  One of my women’s circles got together to usher in Spring and our group leader, Anne, led a meditation on “loving what we love” with talking about contentment – how we waltz right over it as we focus on our goals (what we want) or complaints (what we don’t want).  I think contentment is focusing joyfully on what we have.

Today my friend Annemarie and I were searching for tax returns for her recently deceased partner.  I’m the executor of Becky’s estate and so I have to file taxes.  It wasn’t a very fun task, but a necessary one.  Amidst the jumble of financial papers we were trying to sift through I found a wee scrap of paper with a great quote about contentment (the quote I was looking for when I found the Lao Tzu quote).  The gist of it was to be happy with what is.  It kind of felt like a little wink from Becky amidst the piles of receipts and tax forms.

I’ve noticed that joy and contentment have been unlikely yet insistent companions since Becky’s death. The suddenness and shock of her departure – way too young, happening way too quickly – awakened me from my slumber.  Life IS!  I AM! 

Contentment is more subtle, less voluble, less passionate, more serene.  It’s like a burbling undercurrent that rides under those Bigger Emotions.  It’s where I go so much more easily now, realizing that the sturm und drang are distractions.

I’ve thought of that Zen story about the monk being chased by a tiger who gets chased to the edge of the cliff.  In the gorge below are hungry animals (lions? I can’t recall) who will surely eat him – at his back in the tiger.  As he begins his fall from the edge of the cliff he grabs on to a tree limb, and, suspended above the hungry animals finds a perfectly ripe strawberry – and he revels in the taste of the strawberry.

I’m so not there yet.  And I’m not sure what Lao Tzu is up to with his “non-being is the greatest joy” – but the other part of his axiom rings quite true to me.  Watching friends get sick and die, I realize hourly that health IS the greatest possession – no doubt there.

And I’m really coming to befriend contentment.  Ya, wild joy and passion are more exciting.  But don’t let contentment’s quiet demeanor make you pass her by – I think really? She’s the real deal. 

It’s really, really really good to be alive. And knowing it? That’s the best.

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Mondays are Physical Day here at Taking it to the Streets

I think there used to be a commercial on TV with the tagline “It’s not NICE to fool Mother Nature.” – did I get that right?  I don’t watch TV so I may be off, but those words, with a scolding tone, came into my head tonight as I both marvelled at the glorious nearly-spring late afternoon light (but at 6 pm…..) and simultaneously marvelled (not in a good way) at how crazy exhausted I was from last night’s time change.

A friend told me that when her children were wee she had to spend a week before the time change ratcheting up (spring)/down (fall) their bed time so it could work and they wouldn’t be up an hour before or after she was.  I get that!  I wish my Mommy (oops, that would be me now) had done the same with me.

Which got me to ruminating about all our “good ideas” on being better than nature.  Things like:

– Hormone Replacement Therapy so you don’t get hot flashes (but you get a bonus prize instead – breast cancer!)
– Margarine so you can save money – with our Cracker Jack surprise of trans fats and heart disease
– Labor saving machines – so we can move our bodies less – and then pay our personal trainers or our gym (or just get fat)

Nature and our bodies are so amazing.  My question is why not just let it be?  Rather than dink around with clocks and time, why not look at the way we run things like we are all robots (working 9-5 et al).  In terms of food I like Michael Pollan’s advice about not eating things our grandparents (at least for my generation) would not recognize.  Eat real food.

And as for hot flashes, I’ve not heard one story of a woman dying from them.   But breast cancer – uh, yeah, that IS dangerous.

It’s not NICE to fool Mother Nature. And while I’m enjoying the fading light outside my window now, my state of exhaustion all day seemed a bit pricy for something I could have had for free if work were based on what we produce not hours spent sitting in chairs.

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Building on yesterday’s post here’s my initial proposal to start a TRUE revolution in this country.  The America I grew up in was the leader of the world in virtually all measures – not a plutocracy, with people’s day-to-day quality of life falling behind. I think we can use the Army of the Unemployed to turn this ship of state around.  Please dialogue with me – this is simply an initial offering.


  • LifeSchool – learning what we REALLY need to know; each one teach one
  • BodyShop – real HEALTH with CARE – taking back our bodies, not turning them over to BigPharma
  • Earth Forces (the REAL “Green {Hats}”)
  • S.O.S. – Save Our Society

Program overview

We all have talents and abilities.  The unemployed, the retired and the generous have time to donate.  There are ghost-towns of empty buildings available.  Instead of “wasting time in the unemployment lines, standing around waiting for a promotion” (nod to Tracy Chapman); instead of waiting for the government or (imho, worse yet) the corporations or the rich – let’s roll up OUR shirtsleeves ala Greg Mortenson and turn this ship around.  So this is all about things regular people could do by, for and with each other (remember the Gettysburg Address).  OUR country – not the rich people’s or the corporations (or, to give a nod to my friends on the right – of the government).


Let’s set up free schools with volunteer teachers and administrators (or – someone who can write grants, write a grant to get money for building space and a SchoolMom/SchoolDad – someone to organize the thing).  “each one teach one” – people who know things can teach people who want to learn those things.  I see 5 initial curriculum:

  • Strengthening your Self (personal skills, including a tie-in to BodyShop)
  • Strengthening your Relationships – relationships of all kinds:  parenting classes, negotiating skills, marriage-strengthening, getting along at work, etc.
  • Work and Money Skills – Create your own job, find a job, job skills, money 101, investment classes, frugality, buying a house, anti-foreclosure classes
  • LifeSkills – cooking, plumbing, fix your car, write a grant, gardening, etc.
  • Save the World – getting beyond yourself to help your community, the world, how to make a difference, setting up your own Grameen-Bank-like skill/money co-op, etc.

BodyShop (REAL Health CARE – taking charge of your own health)

  • Natural Healing classes of all kinds (herbs, Chinese medicine, ayurveda, first aid)
  • Fitness Camp – personal training you can do at home with very little equipment or info about cheap gyms, etc.  Free classes (spin, aerobics, circuit training)
  • Food & Nutrition – cover basics, nutritional defense for specific diseases, build your immune system, fast and easy nutritious meals, eating healthfully when you’re broke, good food for people who don’t like to cook, etc.
  • Cooking classes – beyond just educating – big kitchen, group cooking, hands-on fix a meal.  Use Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution idea – learn a meal, then teach your neighbor.  Eating healthfully, inexpensively with meals that are tasty and easy/fast to prepare.
  • Emotional Health – things YOU can do to help with what ails you – EFT, support groups, exercise, nutrition, mentoring

EarthForces (Green Baseball Hats? – smile and nod to the other Greenhat guys…)

  • Classes on sustainability
  • Green your home
  • Habitat-for-Humanity like group to focus on weatherizing homes for the poor, elderly, infirm, etc.
  • Johnny Appleseed Corps – tree planting  – help people, public spaces, unused land – fill it with trees
  • WaterWorks – water conservation – from in your house to in your country – water action!
  • Garden Guerrillas – turn this land into food  – teach gardening, encourage community gardens, ask to put gardens in unused land, etc.

S.O.S. – Save our Society

  • Take back Food:  localvorism, CSAs, food co-ops.  Move AWAY from the industrial agriculture that is killing us and is outrageously inhumane to animals.
  • Take back Money:  Buy local! Say no to Big Box stores
  • Take back Money, Part 2:  barter economy, skill banks, stop outsourcing your life

What’s Next?

Your “yes, we can” ideas.  I’m sure some of you have 100 “that will never work” ideas, which you are welcome to ponder while we move into action ala Greg Mortenson.

What I’m interested in:

  • Feedback on these ideas
  • YOUR ideas – what else can the army of unemployed, under-employed, retired or generous folks do with their ‘spare’ time?
  • Interested folks.  You don’t have to be local.  I somewhat suspect Chicago is not the only town that could use an initiative like this.  Start a school/movement/group in YOUR town!
  • But if you are local and would be interested in seeing what we could collectively create let me know – send an email to lifeschool.chicago@gmail.com

“We can change the world.  Rearrange the world.  It’s dying.” (nod to CSNY for lyrics, nod to YOU for wanting to change the world).

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