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Cultural Collapse Disorder?

I’ve been going around looking at all different shapes and sizes of blogs that are doing things similar to what I want to do here, and with a very few exceptions the majority seem to be nothing more than product placement pages.  Now, I am all for promoting the small business owner, craftsman or artisan (as I hope to be one myself someday), but isn’t that saying something particularly telling about our lives and cultures today?  It leaves me with a funny taste in my mouth and the question of why must we buy things or think about buying things to feel validated?

I don’t want this blog to turn into product placement.  There are enough people out there who are apparently more than happy to do that.  I used to read Design*Sponge every day, and about a year or so ago I noticed that it was nothing more than a product list of upcoming (or already arrived) designers with the occasional content piece thrown in haphazardly.  I’ve hopped on over every now and again since then, and I’m hoping the infusion of new blood will help up the content again instead of just posting more things to want or buy.  Lord knows I know how hard it is to come up with content on a regular basis, which everyone can obviously tell from the sporadic posting here.  Still, which is better – quality or quantity?

I don’t have answers – I don’t even fully know the depth I want this blog to encompass yet – but I do know when I see something I don’t want.  There is a part of me that truly misses the days before the internet and widespread cell phones even though I fully embrace connectivity for the most part.  I miss having time to digest information before someone demands a response.  I miss people having time to fact-check what they say before broadcasting their opinions to the nation or entire world.  But on the other hand, I love the fact that I can much more easily find pockets of people who share common ideas and interests – I don’t miss the isolation and ostracism of my youth in the slightest.  I wonder now that we’re all inundated with information and stimuli that it isn’t all about finding balance… knowing when to shut off the cell phone or do something outside instead of sitting in front of the TV or video game console or computer.  By not being chained to a cubicle for nine hours a day, I find myself much more able to step away from the computer.  Much less needy for the constant information to keep my brain awake while doing repetitive, fairly mind-numbing tasks.  This doesn’t even encompass the fact that I lost ten pounds within six weeks of being free of the office and look healthier than I have in the last five years, or the increased mental stability and balance I’ve been able to cultivate.

The country is jumping on the organic bandwagon from beauty products to food; clothing to home products.  Why is it then that businesses are so adverse to an organic environment?  Why do we shy away from an organic lifestyle?  I’ve yet to work a job where I’m not left twiddling my thumbs on a regular basis because I work efficiently and businesses, by nature, are not.  Why not just pay someone to do their job, do it well, and however long it takes them is however long it takes them?  Why not pay for quality of work instead of quantity of time?  I don’t think I will ever understand why people are viewed as a commodity, as a resource which is uniform and equal when they are most definitely not.

It reminds me of a snippet from the book “Fruitless Fall” which is about the growing Colony Collapse Disorder epidemic of honey bees plaguing the United States.  The author talks about how when placed in a “natural” hive (one mimicking the shape of a hive in nature), the Italian honey bees relearned how to eject the varroa mites naturally, which has been a problem plaguing them for years in the Langstroth hives (the box-style, uniformly regimented artificial hives) where they just seemed to ignore the mites altogether and resulted in devastating the population in the infected hive.   Perhaps I’m making too loose of a connection or not taking into account enough variables, but what does this say about people who are forced into the regimented monotony of big business?  Those virtually living a cube farm for the majority of their waking hours?  That they just forget how to take care of themselves?  That they just trudge on, day in and day out without regard to the parasites that are eating away at them?  I can’t say I have the answers, but this most definitely struck a chord.

I’d much prefer to live an organic lifestyle.  To have time to be a person.  To have passions and goals that don’t revolve around the latest “it” gadget or “must have” product.  I am a consumer, yes.  I still love shopping.  But I’ve noticed in the last few years that instead of buying mostly products, I’ve shifted to buying materials, supplies, ingredients or components.  I want to be able to provide for myself, to understand the process to make what people want and need.  I can’t hope to learn everything in a single lifetime, but I sure as hell can try.  And from what I’ve experienced so far?  It’s far and away more satisfying in the long term for me than just going to the shop and throwing money at my wants and desires.  I am excited and infused with ideas and possibilities, looking forward to the adventures in life.  Isn’t that what living is all about anyway?

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Fall gives me very little time to myself, very little time to mull and ponder and very little time to do any sitting around.  Fortunately or unfortunately, fall has swept in a bit early this year or maybe it’s just the extra-lateness of Labor Day that’s throwing me off.  The temperatures plummeted as everything else exploded.  I got a bushel of absolutely gorgeous plum tomatoes for sauce making from Latham’s on Long Island, my freezer was bursting with gallons upon gallons of berries (it figures that the year which decimated my garden by the end of July was the one to have a bumper crop of berries) and gosh darn it, I picked up a new hobby which perfectly corresponded with the new chilly nights (how did I ever get along with only one scarf before?).

This means I have been up to my ears in domestic projects.  I successfully put up thirteen pints of tomato sauce, which caused far more duress this year than previously as apparently my vintage jars have decided to start exploding mid-water bath.  There is nothing that sounds more like nails on a chalkboard to me than the sound of a mason jar exploding in a vat of boiling water… but it’s even worse.  It’s the sound of hours of hard labor going completely down the tubes.  Needless to say, much colorful language ensued in spite of the fact that my visiting mom was actually in earshot.

After a nice long skulking tirade about the sauce fiasco, I decided I was tired of using an old carpet runner to keep my chest freezer shut (yes, it was that full) and put up about twenty jars of blackberry jam.  That was at least (mostly) stress free.  They even set up properly, which was a relief after the issues I had with my strawberry jam in June which had finally managed to set sometime this week.  Jams really shouldn’t take the better part of two months to set, but I’m glad these finally did.

I also had gotten a shipment of plants courtesy of Pat and Bill, so there was also an entire day out rearranging the front garden to fit in all of my new pretties while getting rid of some Home Depot sale table hostas the previous owners had practically covered our full sun front yard in.  I think I managed to put a crack in the hickory handle of my shovel attempting to get one out that was nearly three feet across.  Of course, I got distracted part way through when a detour to the back yard to plant some gorgeous perennial begonias happened and I ended up digging all of the potatoes out of the vegetable patch.  The yukon golds and red bliss’ must’ve caught the blight bad, as I think I only got about six or eight of them total, but the “mistake” la rattes, bless their little tater hearts, performed beautifully again.  The mistake was I never actually planted them.  I must’ve missed some seed potatoes when I dug them out last year, and they nestled their way into interesting patches of the garden which ended up in 10+ pounds of fingerlings for me.  With the late blight claiming half of my garden this year, I am not complaining in the slightest.  I have learned my lesson – always order seed potatoes from Seed Savers Exchange because their stock will kick the local garden center’s stock’s tuckas.

…and I haven’t even started to get into the fact that I finished my first scarf and am two feet into the second (and much more complicated) one.

So today I need to just sit back, breathe and remind myself that I am not an awful human being for not yet getting to the drapes that need to be hemmed for the bedroom, or that wrap skirt, or those eggplants in the fridge that I really just need to hold out for a couple more days so I can make a few trays of parm for freezing for easy winter meals.  It will be okay, life will go on and no one will hold it against me that I keep shoving a few projects back into the dark corners of my house and mind so I can attempt to barely manage to keep up with the bounty of the season.  Oh, and don’t forget making a trip out west to go to the yarn warehouse of course… all of that hard work definitely deserves some kind of reward!

Stitch-n-Bitch

While I was down on Long Island I sat down with my mother to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages but never really had the time or mental space to accomplish – I finally learned the basics of knitting.  I know, I know… I have a problem with collecting hobbies like some collect original issue Star Wars action figures.  But this is really something I’ve tried to do a few times, but do to various stresses and pressures it never really fully sank in, and I’d get frustrated and never finish the little piece that I started.  I think I’ve done this two or seven times already.  So instead of picking up the not-so-nice ball of acrylic yarn leftovers from the 80’s which I have tried to learn knitting with the past three times, I went to the new local yarn store in the town my mom grew up in to get something halfway decent that I could actually make an item with.

Why, oh why hasn’t anyone told me about little local yarn stores before?!  Now, I suppose I should preface this by saying that I sew.  I sew actual garments that I wear out in public (without shame, mind you), and occasionally tailor things for friends and family as long as they don’t mind my pinch-n-stitch method.  I have a fabric stash – a mighty fabric stash.  One might even go so far to say that I have a fabric problem.  But it’s all good – I’ll use it eventually right?  If the apocalypse happens, I’ll be more than prepared enough to outfit myself and my closest fifty friends for the remainder of our natural lives or fifty years, whichever comes first – this just isn’t the type of disaster preparedness that the Red Cross and federal government have been pushing in the last eight years.  But back to my point – the local yarn store may be my undoing.  The textures and colors are simply sumptuous, and if your local yarn store is worth its weight in salt there won’t be a thing in there that you don’t nearly immediately covet.  This sensualist immediately found herself in yet another version of heaven.

Wouldn’t you know that good yarn helps you to actually learn to knit as well?  I bought a hank of Cascade 220 in a grey on grey twist to make a nubby seed stitch scarf, and after only just over a week I’m down to an apricot sized ball of yarn and desperately trying to teach myself how to bind off so I’m ready when the time comes.  There are only two errors, and I figure if I take my sewing skillz and do a little applique and embroidery work, no one will ever be the wiser.  It pays to get decent materials, and somehow even through the mid-90 degree heat this past week I diligently sat in the mornings and evenings knitting away.  Thank the heavens that I have a very patient and hobby-tolerant husband.

I came to find something else – knitting can be as relaxing as many claim it to be once you get into a pattern.  No, I can’t knit and watch TV or hold an engaging conversation yet, but the blankness in one’s mind as the pattern repeats in your head is oddly soothing.  It’s almost like the meditation phase of hatha yoga where you clear your mind and focus solely on the present, taking each thought that enters your mind and letting it go.  

There is a certain peace in this.

The Room to Grow

P&B House

I spent this past weekend visiting friends and family on eastern Long Island.  One could easily say that my time spent there as a wistful youth was not particularly pleasant, but time has mellowed old ills, and there are a few things that are there which I haven’t found anywhere else.  One of those things is the homestead of my mother’s good friends, Pat and Bill.  It takes truly interesting and unique people to make a truly interesting and unique home, and Pat and Bill certainly rise to the challenge.  Avid gardeners, weavers, rug hookers, preservers, knitters, chair caners, furniture makers and about a dozen and a half other things that I’m sure are slipping my mind at the moment fill their home and the lives of people they know with so much handmade beauty that sometimes you feel you’re going to burst at the seams with good will.

P&B Weaving Barn

At the end of the gravel driveway is a barn that contains a sampling of the diversity of these two people and the landscape they’ve created – the onions lie drying on the floor next to a chair mid-caning and a slew of antiquarian farm equipment which really makes one stop and wonder whether they actually do still get used at harvest time (and you sincerely hope they do).  You can’t help but feel inspired and motivated walking around, as everything here is tangibly infused with lifetimes of care and knowledge.  I know that when I visit here (and I always must make several trips if I find myself in the general vicinity) that I will receive a warm welcome from both the place and the inhabitants, and I will leave, albeit hesitantly, with a renewed sense of well being and the inspiration to try something new or to just embrace life to the fullest.  I hope someday I can cultivate that sort of environment to share with others that may stumble across my path.

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Cherries Sized

This question was posed to me recently by my husband while I stood in our kitchen one night last week for several hours pitting 20 pounds of sour cherries by hand (well, with the aid of my trusty OXO cherry pitter as well).  I suppose for some people it’s not.  For some people spending four or five hours on your feet preserving the harvest because fresh fruit straight from the farmers market, orchard or farm itself just won’t wait for you to “feel like it”  could easily seem like hell on earth.  For me though, the concept that I can crack into one of these babies come February when the rest of New England is braving crowds and snowstorms to hit FoodMaster or Market Basket for sickly looking, cardboard tasting produce makes it more than worth the aches, pains and occasional creative cussery that these activities immediately cause.  As far as I’m concerned, I live in an area where not making some effort to can or preserve isn’t even an option if I want to eat well, deliciously and responsibly.

I am fully aware that I impose a great deal of this on myself because of my personal choices and beliefs – but just because these things are hard work or difficult does not mean that there isn’t a little bit (or a lot in some cases) of joy in them.  Yes, cherry pitting is a pain.  However, the smells coming from a kitchen that’s preparing the hot pack fruit more than make up for it and no one can deny the beauty inherent in an old school glass jar of cherries in their own juices.  And well, the fact that I got a full pint of tart cherry juice boiled down into syrup to flavor my homemade sodas with is just the icing on the cake.

In the end, I had to answer him that yes, it is worth the effort.  After all, the most worthwhile things in life often aren’t easy and the things we find fundamentally satisfying often aren’t effortless.  I know I’ll be grinning like a fool when I pull a tart cherry pie out of the oven this winter, and everyone can’t help but taste the hot July sun in every bite.

Since moving into our home a little over two years ago, I’ve been busily “renovating” the modest gardens around the house.  There were some good bones, but at best the plantings and layout were a manic hodgepodge of “if it’s different, it’s better.”  The first summer here was focused on the front yard, transforming it from meadow gone wild (which looks absolutely hysterical in a not so good way when you’re in a nearly urban area) to having some form of loose structure and rhythm.  Last summer was about tearing out about a third of the grass in the back yard to put in a well-organized and extremely useful vegetable patch/kitchen garden.  This year brought about tearing out another chunk of the grass in the back yard to put in a perennial herb garden.

If you couldn’t already tell, I really don’t like grass.

There is something that is so satisfying about good landscaping.  Now, good is a relative term, but if I look at the gardens this year (the third summer) versus that first year I see so much more wildlife on our tiny patch of land.  Obviously, I’m not the only one who’s happy with the changes.  Even in this oppressive July heat, I can sit back and enjoy all of the work that I’ve done and know that it’s not just benefiting me.  The sheer number of bees is a huge positive, what with all of the Colony Collapse Disorder in the past few years and seeing the cucumbers and pumpkins forming while the tomatoes ripen means I can pass this on to family and friends over the upcoming months.  It’s truly amazing to me that a little elbow grease and a little faith can give so much back in such a short period of time.

Simple Pleasures

Not working a full-time job has given me time to reflect and complete things at home that I’ve literally been trying to finish for the better part of two years.  Thank heaven for small favors, right?  But I’m left with this niggling feeling about jobs and working that just won’t completely dissipate, and I can’t figure out where the concept of actually living became so devalued in today’s American society.  When did we become too busy to actually enjoy the processes of life?

A few weeks ago I put up 41 half-pints of strawberry jam (half of that being strawberry vanilla), and on completing my handiwork when all was said and done came an immense sense of satisfaction that I had taken the time and effort to do something that positively impacts the lives of the people I care about.  That, apart from bringing the simple pleasure of the taste of perfectly ripe June strawberries in the dead of winter, also contributes to the well-being of the person without preservatives, agricultural industrialism or marketing.  Is there a reason why crunching numbers or answering phones have become more respectable careers than maintaining the health, happiness and general wellness of ourselves, friends and families?

Perhaps the best memories of my childhood were spent outside in a garden or in the kitchen with my mother.  There were also the years of constructing furniture, porches, decks and finishing the second story to our house with my father.  We did things together, we made things with our own hands and ended up improving our quality of life because of it.  I went on into my adult life knowing how to preserve fruits and vegetables, bake most types of desserts with ease, operate basic power tools and an innate ability to look at a plant and have a general arsenal of tools to be able to make it thrive.  I didn’t realize until later on how happy I would be to have endured some of those absolutely socially terrible years in the country – in the end, they gave me skills I could have never learned in an urban area.

I’ve been given the opportunity to reflect on my life and my goals due to the economy, and I’m taking this very seriously.  What will be enough to let me enjoy life while working or otherwise?  I’m not so idealistic to believe that any job I take will fulfill my life, that any career I choose will be enough to hold my interest endlessly without having the ability to evolve over time.  What are the things that make us happy on a daily basis?  What are the things that enrich our lives if only we’d take the time to stop and notice them, integrating them into our daily existence?  This blog is serving as an exercise to help us find out and act as a reminder when everything goes topsy-turvy.

I have no idea where we’ll go from here, and there is excitement in the possibilities because the only other option would be fear.  Maybe it’s that little bit of Abigail Adams that’s rubbing off on me – or maybe it’s my mother, as the two seemed to share a fantastical amount of fortitude and resilience in the face of adversity.  The only things you can work with are what you already have, and with a little ingenuity, smarts and general craftiness I’ve seen first hand that one can in fact make something out of nothing, lemonade out of lemons and even make money grow on trees – and none of these things are feats you can accomplish within the confines of a cubicle.  For that, the superior domestic engineers in my life earn my respect far more than any VP of Executive Marketing ever could.