Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Public discourse

Let me begin by lifting up my former father-in-law. He and I are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but he is always interested in my opinion, always listens respectfully to what I say, and he is no one's puppet. He goes out of his way to learn from others, especially those who feel or think or believe differently than he does.

He and people like him are the best hope for this country.

I have been so disappointed this week in every side's discourse, if you can call it that, around Sarah Palin's presumptive nomination as vice-president. From the Democrats' side, it's been shocking to read that she should be "forced," as a conservative, to stay home and take care of her kids. What, we only believe in feminism for women who think like us? It's one thing to call hypocrisy on Phyllis Schlafly, who really did advocate for women to stay home while she enjoyed a distinguished public career, but as far as I know, Palin has not said similar things. And what about the esteemed Mr. Palin? Doesn't he bear some responsibility for rearing the children as well? Or does that automatically redound to Mommy?

It's been even more appalling to read hints that Palin bore her Down syndrome child solely for political purposes. Here I thought the meaning of pro-choice (which is legally extended, thank God, even to those who are anti-choice) was that women have a choice, not an obligation to abort. My most charitable response is that such sentiments are counterproductive.

Of course the Republicans and right-leaning pundits have had some pretty boneheaded things to say too. I'm sorry if I can't believe that being mayor of Wasilla teaches you any more about how the Senate works than your average high school civics class, or that I should do anything but laugh out loud when someone suggests that Alaska is right next door to Russia and therefore qualifies as a kind of classroom in foreign policy (hey, did you forget about Canada? or is that just a state in your book?). But at least nothing I've seen from them this week has made me ashamed of my humanity.

Both sides get demerits for discussing Palin's, uh, physical attributes. Really? Is this the 21st century?

My prayer is to be a little more like FFIL.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Puppies, puppies, puppies

Meet Hazel, the newest member of the Simple family. She is the sweetest, calmest puppy I have ever met. She is also the smartest, chewiest puppy I have ever met, which means that my brand new copy of Walter Brueggemann's The Word Militant now has a considerable chunk out of its hard cover.

At least she has good taste.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When it hits the fan (Or, who are the people in your neighborhood?)

When I talk to my friends back in the rural northwest, where an anti-government, quasi-apocalyptic ethic has reigned for decades, there is a common beginning to sentences: "When the [stuff] hits the fan," meaning, in this case, when the economy falls apart, when there is no petroleum energy to rely on, when food and water sources dry up, when infrastructure crumbles. When, not if.

I have to say, although I'm no conspiracy theorist, a combination of childhood traumas and adult misadventures has always predisposed me to think this scenario could happen. Self-reliance, or what I think of as tribal reliance, is a virtue in my book, and everything I've written about in this blog, and most of the decisions I've made in my lifetime, can trace their heritage to that belief. Over time, I've modified my vision of the Good, so I can see grace in other kinds of living, but I remain fused to an ideal of doing for myself where possible.

Longtime readers of this sporadic blog will remember that last year I tried to cut my driving in half compared to the previous year's mileage. I shaved quite a few miles off but failed to reach my goal, and put most of the blame at the feet of Suburubia. If work and school and play are all 7-10 miles away, I reasoned, and public transportation remains largely out of reach, no wonder I can't stop driving. Houses in Suburubia are approximately 200K to 400K less expensive than comparable houses in the city, so moving is not an option (and when I say comparable I do not mean opulent). I have grown accustomed to grousing about being "stuck" in the suburbs, although I love my house and its burgeoning collection of fruit trees. Thus, Suburubia has seemed at best like an inconvenient vessel for a convenient place to live.

But I am a bit of a crank (see above), and when the national anxiety level starts to rise over gas prices and suburban living, I am motivated to think against the grain.

This is all a fancy and long-winded prelude to a simple tale: last night I decided to find out how many places to get food (not including my back yard) were within easy walking distance from my house. "Easy" is defined here as how far Progeny is willing to walk without whining or wishing out loud he were playing Yu-Gi-Oh instead. He and I have sometimes walked to the Blimpies that is a part of the gas station convenience store on the main road, but I was looking for something a little less generic and more nourishing. I found--

* Innumerable convenience stores in a half-mile stretch (eight? ten? is this about brand loyalty? a better selection of malt liquor?)
* Three wings places
* A better than average Jamaican restaurant
* A homestyle-cooking-to-go joint
* Two iffy American-Chinese places, one serving pizza as well
* An Ethiopian sports bar
* A KFC/Taco Bell combo
* A slightly horrifying grocery store, which nevertheless has organic milk, a little bit of produce, and a great selection of Bosnian and Vietnamese food items
* There were also two package stores and a "gentlemen's club," but I did not stop to inquire about the availability of food.

Now, I have been to a few of these venues before, and driven past and made note of each of them at some point or another. But I had grown used to thinking them as part of the suburban landscape, only worth escaping. Now that gas is $4 a gallon I can finally see what has been right in front of my face. This too is a place where people live, and eat, and recreate, and work. It's time for me to stop being a tourist in my own neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I buy nothing!

Well, my neck is considerably better, although it will never be a hundred percent. I guess that's like saying I will never be 28 again. I've been able to go out and plant trees and transplant bulbs, which makes me considerably happier.

April may be the brokest month, so it's an interesting experiment to celebrate Buy Nothing Month. Many people are familiar with Buy Nothing Day, which occurs every year on Black Friday, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving. The name has always sounded suspiciously like Black Monday or Black Tuesday to me, although I think it's meant to evoke quite a different feeling.

It's one thing not to buy anything for a day, but a month is turning out to be quite another. Exceptions are made for necessities: food, medicines or medical equipment, fuel, and--luckily for me--gardening supplies if used to grow food. There are no official exceptions for clothing, birthday presents, media, or entertainment, although Crunchy Chicken has kindly set up a Sunday confessional at her blog for us to expiate our marketing sins.

Actually, the confessional turns out to be the reason for this post. It has been fascinating to see what various people of a simplicity turn think are necessities and what are not. Some of the supplicants itemize what to me seem like huge outlays, with accompanying justifications, while others confess things that I wouldn't even give any thought to before buying: three pens, vitamins, postage. One of the ongoing conversations concerns eating out, whether it's more or less wasteful than eating at home, whether or not the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and so forth. It's all very interesting food for thought. What are your necessities?

(P.S. The title of this post turns out to be a big fat lie, for I too have sinned!)

Friday, March 21, 2008


The books all say you're not supposed to prune your camellias until after they've bloomed, but mine are so spectacularly loaded this year that the branches have begun to split. So I went out with the pruning shears and tried to mitigate some of the damage. Branch after branch of lovely flowers fell to the ground, and the bush is still full (although looking kind of scalped).

The service on Good Friday in my congregation is an Adoration of the Cross. Instead of the standard bulletin, everyone is given a rose, and during worship, we place our roses on a rough-hewn cross in the middle of the sanctuary, where the altar table usually stands. In the old Roman Catholic mass, "Prosternimur corpore ante crucem, mente ante Dominium" (While we bend down in body before the cross we bend down in spirit before God).

I wish I could bring my camellias.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A healthy planet for all

While this blog is on hiatus due to a herniated disk (mine, not the blog's), I'd like to direct you to an article in the always-thought-provoking magazine The Sun. In it, David Kupfer interviews human rights advocate Van Jones, who limns the links between environmentalism and social justice much better than I ever could.

Once again, a hat tip to Colin Beavan.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Find of the Week

Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann, 2005--I was looking for something on my favorite online independent bookseller recently, and saw this on their top 10 sellers list, half price. Like many people of my age and station, I have a 20 year-old crock pot in the cupboard that I use primarily for soaking and cooking dry beans, because I can't be bothered to babysit them on the stove. Since I am making a concerted effort this year to eat less insta-food (i.e., shells and cheese three times a week), I decided to take a chance on this book for inspiration and convenience.

Reader, I am inspired. This is not the cream of mushroom soup casserole slow cooker of yore. The authors give recipes for breakfast foods, rice dishes, side dishes, meat dishes (if you're into that sort of thing), desserts (mostly combinations of stewed fruits--yum!), and of course, the old standby bean pot. So far Progeny and I have made homemade applesauce, overnight oatmeal with last year's frozen blueberries, and roasted root vegetables. It's not that we couldn't make these things without a slow cooker, and if I didn't have one I wouldn't rush right out to buy one, but the fact that they're so much easier to make encourages me to make better use of this resource that was otherwise gathering dust behind the toaster. I don't want to betray copyright, so I won't reproduce it here, but I'm excited to try "Your Own Blend Overnight Porridge." See if your library has this gem.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Subarubia had a big gas leak Tuesday night, leaving 2000 residents without heat. Although the gas company claims to have restored service, in reality they need to go door to door to reconnect everyone individually, for obvious reasons. I am car blogging today because I don't want to miss the technician, but it's below 40 in my house right now (the thermostat only goes down to 40), which is a little chilly for sedentary work.

There goes the idea of making bread today.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Living in the material world

Colin Beavan, over at No Impact Man, has this post about his coffee date with Juliet Schor, whose work includes Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. He asks Schor if Americans are too materialist, and she replies that the problem stems rather from our not being materialist enough--in other words, we don't pay enough attention to the material right in front of us, and hence misuse it and throw it away, whether it be (and here I'm embroidering) in the form of consumer goods or people.

I think she's right on the money. The false dichotomy between spiritual and material is responsible for at some of the worst excesses in our society. As I said in my comments on the post, to value spiritual values over material values leads rather quickly to, for example, the James Watt apocalyptic view of creation, where depredation doesn't matter because the rapture's coming soon anyway. Yet the spiritual traditions that we commonly think of as being most least materialist are all about giving material its proper weight, neither too much nor too little. Chop wood, carry water. In Christian terms, if the spiritual is all that matters, why bother giving God a body?

By the way, the last time I wrote about Beavan, I was rather uncharitable. I've been following his blog now for several months, and I think he's the real deal.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Alter ego

My presence in the blogosphere these days is mostly limited to making unhelpful comments on other people's blogs. I have seemingly become everyone's environmental harpy, a role that I do not relish, and the beams in my own eye and practice could build a McMansion. However, and this is where I struggle, I think I actually do have a body of simplicity knowledge that might be helpful to someone, if only I can figure out the right forum. This blog was supposed to provide that to me, but I can't seem to find a voice that isn't pure preachiness. Maybe I need to go with that? Obviously there is a soapbox reformer inside of me who is dying to come out.

Let me begin this new career with a rant that I've been forcing back for months, and that is "how to be a water conservative." Common wisdom in Subarubia and surround is that, in the midst of a severe drought, the best thing to do with water is to make sure it goes as directly as possible back to the river whence it came. Considering that my state has been in considerable trouble over its bogarting of shared resources, this makes a kind of sense. In order to meet obligations to folks downstream, we treat and return the water we use.

Only, a river isn't an aqueduct. Treating it as though it were is an exceedingly short-term solution. In a healthy system, water returns to the ground, which holds it like a sponge and bit by bit releases some of it back to the river, some of it into biomass (a not-inconsiderable reservoir), some of it to evaporation (i.e., rinse and repeat). Holding water in the ground is a buffer against both drought and flooding, which is why paving over massive areas of land increases the dangers of both. Obviously that doesn't mean that the best expenditure of potable water is to water the lawn or the golf course, but it does suggest that recycling graywater toward native plants and trees, or storing and using rainwater, is not "irresponsible," as a letter to the local Big Newspaper suggested. Unfortunately, mine seems to be a minority opinion.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Plant dreams

I don't even have all the fruit trees in their proper homes yet (it's 32 degrees and drizzly), and I have ordered more plants. Are you ready? An American hazelnut (I planted its sibling last year, so it's not as lonely as it sounds), a Sitka alder (I'm a very long way from Sitka, but alders grow well in clay and are nitrogen fixers), and [fanfare please] a dwarf date palm. The last is a total experiment, but even if it doesn't flower, I think it'll look cool off the screen porch.

So, as of some indeterminate but near date in the future, these will be my edible or medicinal plantings:

Black haw
Black Arkansas apple
Callaway crab
North Star cherries
Rabbiteye blueberries
Saffron crocus
Passionflower (Maypop)
American hazel
Dwarf date palm

I'm on the fence about whether annuals will follow. Perennial gardening gives so much more bang for the buck, and it's beginning to be true that local vegetables are easy to obtain, either at farmers' markets or from all of my friends whom I turned on to CSAs.

It's a start. For the last few evenings, however, I've been curled up in the easy chair making lists of items for next year: a Jeffrey pine, a couple of pawpaws, a sweet woodruff, bulbs for decoration, and a nice black cohosh. . . . Oh, and a good hedge shears.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Corporate Intervention

Crunchy Chicken has an excellent post today about Proctor & Gamble's campaign to keep South African girls in school (which they might otherwise miss) during their periods by providing menstrual products and even constructing new bathroom facilities for the schools. I don't watch enough tv to have heard about this before, but it sounds benevolent, doesn't it?

Not if the project a) creates a new and not insignificant source of pollution by incinerating and b) creates a dependency on consumer products that the girls cannot afford--think free infant formula, although of course the scale of perniciousness is different.

Before you say "Whoa, whoa, Simpleton, isn't this another example of disparaging use in the developing world of products you yourself enjoy?" Mais non, gentle reader. (If you have a significant buy-in to cultural "ew" buttons, you may want to avert your eyes during the next paragraph.) I've been using homemade non-disposables for years. If you're not a seamster, there are lots of other options out there. Crunchy mentions the Diva cup, while Etsy carries some more conventional alternatives (which are cute and hip, by the way). And so Crunchy's blogpost suggests that sewing may ultimately be a better alternative than being buried in paper products.

I'm not trying to talk you into anything here. If you've considered the alternatives and have a system that works for you, rock on. And clearly there may be other factors involved in African life (lack of water for laundry comes to mind) that make disposable products more feasible in the long run. Even still, my response is to look for the cynical side of corporate "benevolence."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Soul of a Man

Sometimes the best antidote to despair is Bruce Cockburn. Oh, that and 300mg of Wellbutrin.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Too much in my head

I am having to write yet another in a series of autobiographical essays in this school/scholarship/candidacy process. I know that it is a genre that I need to master for reasons beyond the moment, but I hate it. I hate it. I am not good at self-revelation in a vacuum. Ask me any direct question, and I can answer at length, but I will size up my answer as part of a dialogue rather than a soliloquy.

I met someone the other evening who shares (no, exceeds!) my interest in growing things, and we had a multi-hour conversation about fruit trees. In fact, we closed the neighborhood coffeeshop. While we were talking about jujubes and cherries, I was on confident ground, but when he asked me about my experience at seminary, I started hemming and hawing. So many conflicting emotions, and no way to do justice to all of them. There is too much going on in my head; that's one part of the blogpost title, but I also live too much in my head these days, and not enough experientially. It seems to me that I need to do a little metaphorical trepanation, let some of my demons out and some fresh air in.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Monday, Monday

Reverend Mommy passed along a little bit of wisdom that just charmed me: Monday was officially the gloomiest day of the year. I guess I had a bit of a delayed response; my gloomiest day was probably Wednesday or Thursday, but I'm happy to know it's not just me and my broody northern genes.

Without a compass

I have been reading The Golden Compass aloud to Progeny, who is not quite seven.

I'm smart enough to know that this is not really appropriate reading material, but we were led here by a slippery slope. First he saw the ad for the movie while we were at another movie, and begged to see it. I reasoned (rightly) that he would be so entranced by the armored bears that seeing the movie would not occasion any emotional or theological difficulties, so we went to see it. Also, I should mention, we have read all the Harry Potter books, bowdlerizing them in the early years, but increasingly less now. And I have a Bruno Bettelheim-like regard for reading fairy tales to children in their original form.

After the movie, inevitably, Progeny prevailed on me to read the books, which I effectively dragged my feet about for a while, but eventually I caved, and we're gobbling up chapters (that would be a truly egregious pun if I had meant it). I am trying to trust myself to come up with the right answers (or the right questions) when we come to the hard stuff. It's helpful that Pullman draws in the concept of intercission slowly, and through rumor (and of course Progeny already knows about it from the movie). It's harder to figure out how to talk about Dust, and why the Oblation Board is so afraid of it, and how this connects--and disconnects--with my own beliefs about the institutional church.

I tell you, I'm trying to trust myself, to stay loose and observant and responsive like a fighter. Like Lyra.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Blogroll, please

I've been spending much of my blogging time lately at other people's blogs, especially those with a simplicity flavor. Please visit some of my new finds, at right.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Corridors of Breath

I just said goodbye to five days of company--talkative company at that--and I have nothing left to say. In an effort to shame myself into writing more, generally, I am hereby attaching a poem from my once-upon-a-time master's thesis, which will blow my pseudonymity for the approximately six people still alive who have read said thesis, should they happen to be reading my blog and yet not know it's my blog. C'est la vie. This poem is based on a passage from Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, one of my all-time favorite books, and it is dedicated to him, and my friend Phil.

Corridors of Breath (Solveig at Tule Lake)

Solveig awakes in silence
the uneasy drift of wild grain and rice
the language she holds in her mouth
breaking down like a fine clay

One marsh hawk hangs for an instant
over the distant internment camp
It is an old story, like winter
like a boy gazing through wire
at the snow geese returning

And a knot of teal rises and churns
along the shoreline, the sound of wings
against wings, against air
They are not at home here
They are at home in motion

And now a chiaroscuro of the geese
against black water, their voices
incongruous, the sound of metal filings
But what does she know of birds?

There is a language she holds in her heart
spilling bead by bead into the blood
She is learning to read an alphabet
scrawled in willows under early snow

And the noisy punctuation of snow geese
in formation as they roll into a headwind
seamless movement bringing thousands
to the ground, gently, like falling leaves

For days she has been listening

Thursday, January 17, 2008


* Progeny was home sick yesterday from school, so we melted down the myriad candle ends we'd been saving into one giant pillar candle. My experience is that said pillar candles never burn as well as commercial ones because you have to get the wick perfectly centered, and I am not meticulous enough to do that well, but Progeny thought it was great fun anyway.

* While he was amusing himself with books on disk (briefly), I planted two apple trees before it started snowing.

* Company's coming tomorrow, so I should be cleaning house and/or planting the other four trees. Instead I am blogging. And reading blogs.

* I am still mulling over an article from the NYTimes Magazine. No Impact Man has a post discussing whether or not collective action can be moral action (or more accurately, whether the article's author thinks it can). Anyway, it's all tasty food for thought. I'd love to hear what you think about either the article or the discussion.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Clutter fly

Of all the simplicity-related topics that circulate through my social circle and community, I hate the decluttering conversation the most. It gets bandied about most frequently in January; you know the one I mean--

"I sorted and gave away 50 pounds of old clothes this week."
"Oh, that's nothing. Partner and I are going through our basement and freecycled two couches, three chairs, a lamp, and an armoir."
"I told my kids they're not getting another toy this year unless they give three away."

I'm not sure why this brings out the curmudgeon in me. Certainly no one thinks that decluttering is actually a bad thing, even dyed-in-the-synthetic-fiber materialists. Maybe it's the relative certainty that the 50 pounds of clothes will be replaced in time with other newer, clothes, that furniture will be drafted for new decorating purposes, that grandparents or friends of the family will augment the toy stash until the ratio goes up rather than down.

Now for full disclosure. I am the worst clutter hypocrite in the entire world. Several years ago, I gave away the most rococo kitchen gadgets I owned (electric tortilla maker, anyone?) and have managed not to replace them with anything too awful. I do keep--and use, several times weekly--a bread machine. In the summer, I make smoothies with a blender. Other than that, I've reformed. In every other aspect of my life, however, I am a hoarder. Scraps of fabric must be saved because some day they may become a quilt. I buy books and hold on to them forever because, hey, they're books. Books aren't really material; they're ideal. I have a tendency to fall for the newest organic growing panacea (mycorrhizal sprays, micronutrient soil tests) and justify it by saying "It's not for me; it's for the earth." Oh, please.

If you are beginning to see why I find decluttering a painful subject, don't tell me. In any case, I have slowly begun to reclaim my bedroom (aka the bowling alley), which has been the stash-everything-when-company-comes room for so long that the boxes I use to throw things into madly are in boxes which are in boxes. There is no organizational principle. My friend L. says this is because I am a "creative messy," a term I think she got from some organizational guru or another. If you or someone you love is a creative messy like me, please tell me what has worked for you in terms of, say, being able to find your financial documents at tax time.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Too cool for school, or anything else, for that matter

Monday has arrived. I moved the trees, still in their box, into the entryway last night because it was supposed to get down to 30, which it did. With wind chill, it's about 22. Not so good for planting trees, either for the trees, which would be shocked after spending the night in 58 degree temps, or for their planter, who is feeling somewhat stove up in the cold. Yes, I used to live in Minneapolis. Why do you ask?

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Did I say the fruit trees were coming later in the month? I must have meant yesterday. Holy cow, it is the middle of January; I'd better get the garden in. /sarcasm. However, a friend of Progeny's is coming over in a few hours to spend the weekend with us, and I foresee that the help of two six year-olds is too much help. The trees will just have to hold it together until Monday.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Seed season

I am having a happy day, and it inspires me to think I may be able to plunge into the discipline of maintaining this blog a little more regularly. Seed catalog season is always a hopeful time for me anyway; maybe I love the idea of the garden even more than the thing itself. By late July or August I'm usually hot and bored, whether or not (perhaps especially if) the garden is producing well at that point.

I have six fruit trees coming this month, and I'm signed up to take a series of (sub)urban beekeeping courses a little later in the winter. (Ha! Winter! It's 51 degrees here today.)

My Simplicity group is talking about food this year, and I am going to make a concerted effort to eat more locally grown and less-processed food. I find this is more of a challenge with Progeny around, since he would happily eat nothing but McNonFood and balks at anything that was once grown in the ground, but we need to bloom where we're planted, and I'm currently planted in a household with a six year-old.

Since I'm making this grandiose gesture toward transforming my life, inquiring minds may well wish to know how I did with my last year's resolution. The answer is not so well, by one measure. I did not nearly make my goal of driving half as much as the previous year. However, I did shave off nearly 5,000 miles (which I achieved mostly by not leaving metro Hotlanta) and got a used car that gets better gas mileage. I haven't done the actual calculations, but I'll bet my carbon footprint took a big dip. (I also got a new furnace and a new tankless water heater, which were not exactly voluntary purchases.) So on the balance, I am happy with my progress but not feeling particularly self-righteous--always a danger when I meet my goals!

And while there are lots of interconnected reasons for buying locally (I'm sure you'll get to hear me pontificate about them), a big one is saving on the cross-continental and even global energy costs of catapulting one's food around. So I'm looking forward to this year and this garden. May it be a happy one for you too.