Decluttering

I’ve been swearing – for years now, it seems – that I need to do a big clean out of the apartment.  Living here for over eight years and frequenting thrift stores as I do has led to the accumulation of a lot of stuff – piles of books, clothing, cookware, dishes, and all manner of other bits and pieces.  Since the apartment isn’t huge, this has meant that not everything really has a place of its own, and things get messy and disorganized really quickly.

Although I’m going slowly, I’ve already started the purging process.  At the end of April, I took 14 bags of donations to the thrift store – two of clothes, two of housewares, and ten of books.  (I didn’t think to take pictures, which I now kind of regret – the pile was impressive.)  While I’m a little embarrassed to have had so much to get rid of and that it barely made a dent in the stuff around here, I’m also really pleased to have it gone and moved on to a charity that will benefit from it and other people who will use it.

This is, however, just the start of the process.  One of my summer goals is to do a good bit of the decluttering that I keep saying that I need and want to do, but never really get around to.  My starting goal is to get rid of a quarter of what I own.  It feels a bit ambitious, particularly for someone who has a tendency to hang onto things, but I suspect that aiming high is the best bet.  Even if I fall short, I still get something accomplished.  On top of that, I find that as I get going the process becomes a good deal easier.

The other side of the coin is that I’m also bringing in less.  I got into a bit of a thrift store habit last year and I’m consciously avoiding that now.  Being out on my bike a lot meant that I was passing thrift stores pretty regularly.  Stopping for a bit of a browse became a common thing.  Admittedly, I got some pretty lovely and useful stuff – handmade pottery, wool blankets, a tomato sauce maker, and many great books – but I have enough and I certainly don’t need any more right now.  While I haven’t stopped going entirely – there are still a few specific things on my wish list – I’m being a lot more selective about what I choose to spend money on and bring home.

My ideal is simply to have a home that is a good deal tidier and more organized and that functions better, particularly in light of some of the projects I’d like to work on this summer.  I have a lot of things that I want to get to work on and having a space where there’s actually some room to work and that’s easy to tidy up would be a real boon.  On top of that, the nicer home is to be, the more time I spend here and the more relaxed and productive I am.  I spend so much time here that putting the time and effort into making it a good place to live is very well-spent.

Surfacing

River 1Much as I wish it were otherwise, work often gets the better of me and my time writing here becomes limited, if not nonexistent.  Such was the case this last semester – I had quite a few students (and lots of grading), an extra writing project to complete, and various other bits and pieces of life getting in the way, some lovely and some challenging.  Happily, the semester’ winding down and I have a good bit more time on my hands.  Of course, there are new classes to prep and conference papers to write and hopefully some publishing to do, but I feel like I’m surfacing again as I relish the slower pace of these last few weeks and ponder what else I’d like to do with some of my time.

One thing – a big, general thing – that’s front and centre in my mind is stepping up my sustainability and resilience game a bit more.  I’ve allowed the craziness of the last semester to let me slip a bit in terms of some of the standards to which I hold myself.  I need to take some time to get back to basics and build some new habits.  There’s a lot of room for things like producing less trash, reducing what I consume, eating lower on the food chain, and growing and producing more of what I eat and use.  I’m also excited at the prospect of simplifying my life a bit more.  Just yesterday I took a huge load (huge enough to actually be kind of embarrassing) of books and clothes to the thrift store for donation, and I’m only just getting started.  I’m hoping to spend a bit more time on projects that help with these goals and a bit more time here writing about them.  Living more lightly is something that’s always on my mind and I see the summer break as an excellent time to put theory a bit more into practice in a meaningful way.

Book report

For a long time, reading was one of my great pleasures.  I was constantly reading when I was younger – on weekends and after school, on vacation, at recess, and even late into the night when I’d sneak into the bathroom and read by the nightlight my parents kept there.  I could devour a book in a few days.  I never seemed to bring enough reading material on vacation that there wasn’t a point where we’d have to visit a book store to tide me over until we got home.

Sadly, this isn’t a pleasure that I’ve really kept up with.  Partly, I think it’s a case of having spent so much of my grad school life reading that it’s become more work than relaxation to me.  No matter how many interesting, intriguing, or thought-provoking texts I read, there was always an element of work attached to it.  The materials needed to be understood, evaluated, retained, and applied in very important ways.  This seems to make reading more of a high-pressure activity for me than the time to unwind that I’d like it to be.

On top of that, I had so little time for reading for pleasure that I also put a lot of pressure on myself to choose the perfect book for the limited time that I had.  I constantly felt like I wanted to be reading the “right” book, one that would entertain, enlighten, inspire, fit my mood, and allow me to relax all at the same time – a very tall order (too tall, in fact).  Unfortunately, the desire to choose the most ideal book out of the many that I have waiting to be read often means that I’d dither and debate so long that I’d rarely get to read very much at all, even to this day.

My hope this year is that I can get myself reading for pleasure again on a much more regular basis.  Practically speaking, reading is an inexpensive, engaging, mind-opening hobby that can be done almost anywhere.  But even more than that, I want to cry at sad books, laugh at happy ones, and rant at those that anger me.  I’d like to lose Saturday afternoons engrossed in reading a book on the couch and stay up until 2 am flipping through the pages of something that I couldn’t possibly put down.

In an effort to keep track of what I’ve been reading and buying, I’m going to try to do a monthly book report here.  I’m hoping that it will be further incentive to read more and to eventually relax into reading without the associations of work and the pressure to choose that are all to common these days.

During February, I read:

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
  • Auguries of Innocence – William Blake
  • Five Little Pigs – Agatha Christie
  • The ABC Murders – Agatha Christie
  • After the Funeral – Agatha Christie
  • You Can Buy Happiness (And It’s Cheap) – Tammy Strobel

I also bought (all used):

  • The Forest of Hours – Kerstin Ekman
  • What Are People For? – Wendell Berry
  • The Owl Pen – Kenneth Wells
  • The Morte D’Arthur – Thomas Mallory
  • Short Novels – John Steinbeck
  • The Winter Queen – Boris Akunin
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot
  • Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
  • The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker

Looking at these lists, it also strikes me that one of my aims should probably be to read at least as many books in a month as I bring home.  Books are a weakness for me – actually, it could probably be argued that they’re my greatest vice – and the fact that I can buy them very inexpensively very close to home has resulted in a vast surplus of reading material.  I’d like to make my way through more of what I have, keep what I love, pass along what I don’t, and build a collection of books that I really love.

Resolutions, habits, and goals, oh my

Although the new year is really just a completely arbitrary date, I often find myself wanting to set goals as a reminder to myself of the things that I think are important that I want to work towards.  Having a solid sense of what I want to accomplish still helps me to move forward, and also makes it all the easier to get back to the important things when I lapse or fall of the wagon.  I’m aiming a bit big here, but for the most part, these tend to be also things that I’m already working towards.  This usually means that my goals for the year aren’t really a huge stretch, really just a bit of a formalization of the things that I think are good to focus on.  I also see these things much more as goals to work on and habits to be developed, rather than strict resolutions.  To me, this feels like a gentler approach, which is nice because I don’t really feel inclined to beat myself up over fitting in only one yoga session in a week rather than two.

A lot of my goals are focused on different measures of health – it seems to be the theme for my plans for the year.  After a year of feeling off balance and unhealthy in a number of different ways, I’d like to start nudging things back on track a bit more.  This includes physical and mental health, but also bolstering my financial health, improving my position at work, and an ever-increasing focus on self-reliance.  My hope is that all of these points will feed into each other and help to support a life that’s healthier generally.

Health

  • Meditation – 15 minutes twice per day
  • Cardio – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Strength training – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Yoga – 45 minutes twice per week
  • Water – eight glasses a day
  • Veggies – five servings a day
  • Fruit – two servings a day

Financial

  • Have 20 no-spend days per month
  • Save $3000 towards my emergency fund
  • Save $3000 towards a house or land down payment
  • Save $3000 towards retirement
  • Save $1000 for self-reliance related purchases
  • Open a discount brokerage account
  • Switch health insurance to a better plan

Work

  • Submit two papers for publication
  • Present at one conference
  • Read one new article per week
  • Read one new book per month
  • Write 30 minutes per day

Personal

  • Donate to the food bank once per month
  • Have lunch with a friend once per month
  • Have tea with a friend once per week
  • Try two new recipes per month
  • Have one date night per month
  • Read 12 novels
  • Declutter one thing per day

Self-reliance

  • Do the Riot for Austerity again
  • Grow (and use) one jar of sprouts per week
  • Grow another container garden
  • Bake bread once per week
  • Ferment three different things
  • Learn to make yogurt
  • Can five different things
  • Knit a wearable article of clothing
  • Read at least one book each on peak oil, seed saving, breadmaking, fermentation, food systems, permaculture, and urban agriculture
  • Buy one self-reliance related item that I’ve been holding off on (pressure canner, dehydrator, grain mill, water filter, or garden tools)

Food storage solutions

It pains me to admit this, but today I threw out a relatively large amount of food.  I originally set out to start cleaning, rearranging, and decluttering the kitchen.  I soon realised that in addition to a nice assortment of veggies decomposing in the fridge, I also had a selection of nuts and whole grain rice that were well past their expiration dates, in some cases by years.  Being uninterested in the stomach issues that typically arise from eating mouldy or rancid food, I disposed of the lot.  Some went to my worms and some to the garbage.  As I got rid of it, I realised that I need to make some changes.  I’m good at the accumulating, but not so good at the management.  I tend to bring home a good range of tasty and nutritious food, but I don’t always get the best use of it.

We have a few things working against us.  We have limited space, so things get stuffed onto shelves and wedged into corners in various locations.  It becomes really easy to forget what’s stored where and how much of something we have on hand.  I also have a tendency to get excited about food and buy a lot of new things to try which has resulted in the acquisition of such things as 15 kinds of beans, eight kinds of rice, and dozens of different nuts, seeds, mushrooms, sauces, and seaweeds.  At the same time, we typically cook a lot of different kinds of food which usually leaves us with a lot of different kinds of ingredients and leftover bits and pieces from trying out new recipes or tweaking old ones.

I loathe tossing food, a problem that Wasted Food has a lot of good information on.  Throwing away stuff that once was perfectly good was hard to do.  Shameful is a good word to describe the feeling.  But as awful as actually throwing it was, I’m grateful that it forced me to think through how we store and use food around and to reconsider our current system (okay, okay…our lack thereof).  And so, when I needed a break this afternoon I sat down and drafted a loose five-part plan.

Part one is to use up what we already have. I’d like to not waste any more food if I can avoid it, so I’m going to figure out some recipes to make with the odds and ends and bits and pieces.  Tonight, that meant a dinner of spiced split mung beans and spinach.  The mung beans were the last of the bag and the spinach needed to be eaten before the holidays.

Part two is to figure out what we eat regularly.  The things we stock up on and keep on hand should be the things that we use a lot.  We seem to be doing well with things like rice, cornmeal, oatmeal, flour, lentils, pasta, tomatoes, broth, and sugar, but we still have a bunch of other things that don’t get used all that often.  Focusing on the things that we use a lot of makes the most sense, particularly given out limited storage space.

Part three is to try some new meals.  I need recipes for about ten of those different kinds of beans that I have kicking around, plus a whole bunch of other things (seaweed, I’m looking at you since I’m pretty regularly at a loss on this one).  While I’d like to stick with what we eat regularly, I’d also like to expand our repertoire of recipes that are really healthy and made from ingredients that I know store well.

Part four is to plan for new purchases.  Buying a bunch of food because it’s new and interesting isn’t all that useful if its just going to sit in the closet.  This doesn’t mean we won’t try new things or put them into the regular rotation.  It just means that I have to know exactly what we’ll be using something for before I put it in my grocery cart.

Part five is somewhat longer-term and involves setting up a database of foods that we have on hand.  It’s hard to know how much of everything we have stored, so a system where we can note what’s coming in, what’s going out, and what’s located where would be helpful.  I’m also hoping this will help me rotate food more effectively so we don’t keep opening new bags of beans or rice when there are older ones sitting in the closet – sadly, it seems that good rice doesn’t age quite the same way that good wine does.

This is pretty preliminary and I’ll probably need to tweak it as I go.  However, I’m hopeful that we can establish a system to reduce food waste.  Given the many different social justice issues throughout the world, I find it unconscionable to waste food.  It’s well past time that I find ways to better manage our food resources.

Outfitting a village

I’m generally against rampant consumerism, but these days I find myself thinking about buying things a good deal more than I usually do.  Apart from periods where I put myself on no spend challenges, I do tend to accumulate stuff.  I bring in books, canning jars, kitchen gadgets, yarn, clothing, tools, bedding, and quite a few other things that have proven to be useful as I try to live a bit more sustainably.  However, I also have a wish list as long as my arm that includes a variety of far more expensive items that are not so easily found secondhand: garden tools, clothes drying rack, pressure canner, grain mill, dehydrator, water filter, camp stove, and sun oven.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that I should use the resources that I have to go ahead and make these kind of purchases. The biggest one on my list is still some land – this is feeling like an increasingly pressing concern, but I’m not yet sure where or how given that my job status is somewhat up in the air and we’re not exactly settled.  But for now, I also feel as though I should purchase some of the tools that will hopefully help to make life a bit more sustainable and a bit more secure both here in our little apartment and hopefully in the future when we have our own place.

The real driving thought, though, is that I don’t just want this for me.  I see what I’m doing as acquiring resources at least for my family, if not for a village (as it were).  My parents don’t really share many of my fears about where the world is headed, and my mother actively seeks to get rid of as much as possible.  My husband is more understanding of my concerns, although doesn’t necessarily share them to the same degree.  Many of my friends share similar concerns, but very few are actively making changes in their own lives.  So when I buy reference books, canning jars, garden tools, or a pressure canner, I feel like I’m doing it not just for me, but for them as well.  Knowing that they aren’t taking any steps on their own makes me feel that one of the most important things I can do is plan to help take care of them as best I can.

To be clear, I don’t think stuff is going to save us, and its certainly not going to do so on its own.  I think we need community and knowledge far more than we need more things, but tools can help a lot, and good quality tools can be shared and used to do a lot of good for quite a few people.  While there are certainly times when I just want to save every bit of money I possibly can, it seems to me that if I have the resources to buy tools that may prove to be helpful to a range of people it might just be worth spending a bit of money after all and taking up some of the space in my apartment to store them.

I also see these purchases as a way to hopefully become more self-reliant and to save a bit of money.  A well-made clothes drying rack may be $100, but will save me $2.50 a load, plus the environmental costs.  A pressure canner may approach $400, but if I can buy and can food when it’s inexpensive and have easy meals ready to go, that saves a lot of money on food and possibly even some time at dinner time.  Good gardening tools aren’t that cheap, but they open up more opportunities for feeding ourselves and cutting down on grocery bills.  And, the more money I save, the more there will be left to purchase more tools, or just to help others.  While I want to do as much as possible for myself, I also want to be sure that I can take care of those I care about the most and help to foster the community and resilience that I suspect will become even more important in the future.

No spend November wrap-up

With November over, I’ve had a chance to have a look at the results of my no-spend month. I’ve spent about $150 less than I have for the past few months.  I think this is pretty good, particularly since that also includes the fact that I overspent a bit stocking up on food and toiletries, had two planned meals out with friends, and that we fostered a stray cat for a few weeks and had to buy a few supplies for her.  If I could do this most months, it would certainly add up over the course of the year.

Although the money is a nice reward and marker of success (such as it is is) the focus of the no spending challenge was to really consider my consumption habits a bit more broadly.  Although I don’t generally consume a lot, I’m continually trying to be aware of my shopping and cut back wherever possible.  I’ve dealt with a lot of the low hanging fruit already, so any other places where I can cut back a bit more are welcome.  Doing a no spend challenge every so often is a good way to consider what exactly I’m spending money on and to highlight where I can cut back even further.

With this in mind, one thing I was very aware of was the importance of not just putting off spending until a new month just so it wouldn’t count for November. I wanted to be aware of my spending and cut back more generally.  Putting it off to the future – and possibly spending more or even going over budget another month – just to preserve the illusion of being successful at the challenge wasn’t something I was interested in. It would be a false representation of my spending and would have defeated the purpose of the challenge.  If I needed something – actually needed something, and not just wanted it – I went ahead and bought it.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t really need that much.

My real weakness for the month was secondhand sales, which also wasn’t much of a surprise.  There were two in November – one that I forgot was happening and one that I didn’t know about until a week in advance – and they account for the remainder of my unanticipated spending that wasn’t toilet paper or vast quantities of rice and tinned tomatoes.  I spent $22 at a bazaar at the start of the month to buy some kitchen items, candle holders, books, and refillable pens.  There was also a thrift store sale at the end of the month. I spent another $19 on half-price books, most of them reference books for things like home repair, quilting, and sewing.  Did I need any of it?  No, not really, and I’m a little embarrassed by these transgressions.  I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of leeway on secondhand sales, though, and I got some great useful things for very little money.

I plan to keep this up as much as possible.  Expenses will always come up, of course, and I can’t say I won’t buy anything unnecessary ever again.  It’s pretty remarkable how effective this kind of awareness is, though.  Knowing that I was doing the challenge did have a positive effect on my spending for the month.  Even with a few secondhand sales, meals out, and extra food and household items, I still managed to spend a good bit less than usual.  Could I be better?  Of course, and that’s something I’m working towards.  For now, I’m pleased with the results of the challenge and looking forward to seeing if I can keep to my new and improved awareness going forward.