Thursday, 27 February 2020

Small domestic triumphs

One of our most effective forays into living simply has been the decision to share a house.

Of course it requires daily discipline and forbearance so we don't melt down and kill each other just because somebody else has just put on a wash load as you walk through the door with an armful of laundry or because everyone watched last night's Pottery Showdown on catch-up telly without having the kindness to let you know so you could come and join in. 

In fact the challenges are the most revealing spect of the whole thing; if you want to build your character, share your home.

Our house is a good size but not abnormally large, and in particular the kitchen hasn't got a lot of storage. We don't all cook/eat together, so the freezer space, shelves in the fridge and dry goods shelves are allocated. The cats have a whole cupboard of their own because they are picky and treated better than royalty.

My food shelves (I have two) are not wide but quite tall. About the right height for a family size packet of cereal. Recently we've been trying really hard to cut right down on plastic packaging, assisted in our efforts by the arrival in our town of two re-fill shops — one (hurrah!) belonging to the whole food co-operative. So now we can get all our washing up liquid, laundry liquid/powder, shampoo, and dry goods in general, measured out into the containers we already have.

There is a particular brand of yogurt I really love, made by The Collective Dairy. My favourite, no contest, is this one:

So it comes, you'll have noticed, in 450g tubs, which then yields excellent size storage tubs, very helpful for taking to the refill store because the tubs stack and so do the lids, and they are lightweight and don't clash about and break, which are the problems of walking down to town with a bagful of glass jars.

They are also just right for freezing a bowl of soup or stew; very useful for batch-cooking — which is helpful in a shared house, stops us fighting over stove use when we all want a hot meal at the same time. Creates, in effect our own ready-meals.

This gives me permission to eat as much raspberry yogurt as I like. And now my storage shelf looks like this:

Oh — and the smaller containers with white lids at the front are Nutella jars — brilliant, you can use them as drinking glasses too. I like Nutella a lot. It is a very cost effective way of having chocolates, just taking half a teaspoon of Nutella. I find it lasts a long time, and then the jars can be used for the smaller amounts of dry commodities — salt, bouillon mix, herbs etc. 

So that was a pleasing step forward in re-using and re-filling.

In my ongoing efforts to get my clothes right I've also made progress, I think. 

I identified a set of realities about clothing and me.
  1. I put on and take off weight very easily. The need (both practical and psychological) to occupy a small space with little storage means I can't really have several sets of clothes in different sizes. At different times I've had just a box in an attic where I was sleeping, or two drawers in someone else's chest of drawers, or an under-bed drawer, and so forth. At the present time I have a good-sized closet that Tony made me, with room in it for a box for my out of season clothes; but I still need to keep the number of garments fairly few. As a result, gaining and losing weight has cost me a lot of money over the years, as I obtained and discarded clothes to fit. I realised it is essential that I have clothes to grow and shrink with me, or I will end up destitute.
  2. I like trousers but at the same time often feel somewhat undressed in them. Also they look better if they fit properly, so are less good for weight gain and loss.
  3. Hypermobility and autistic tendencies affect my choice of fabrics and shoes: soft, stretchy, flexible and non-itchy are essentials. 
  4. In the UK we have a lot of different weathers, and I walk or go by public transport a lot. It can be cold waiting at bus stops and walking makes you hot. We keep our house cool, but shops and churches usually whack the central heating right up. So it's very helpful to have clothing in layers that can be added or removed.
With these things in mind, I wear (this may have changed since last I wrote about it) on top a loose t-shirt with long sleeves (I hate short sleeves). Some of my tees have a crew neck, some a turtle-neck or roll-neck. All are soft cotton, and I carefully and completely cut out the labels. If I get thinner they are just a bit oversized, and that looks fine because the shoulders still fit and the necks are neat. If I get fatter it's just a more normal fit.

Over the tee I wear a cardigan or roll-neck sweater. Over that I wear a fleece gilet. I also have some knitted waistcoats (US vest) to wear over t-shirts for modesty or warmth on days when I'm not wearing a cardigan or sweater. I find I don't really need a warm coat. I have got one but I don't wear it much. I do have a raincoat for days when it's pouring down and I have to go out.

Then on the lower half of me in winter I wear warm tights and in summer long loose short johns. I get the biggest size so they're loose and baggy and come up longer (down to the knee). The elastic waist  keeps them in place well, and I can be thinner or fatter in them. And I wear skirts.

Recently I've made some skirts I wanted to show you because I'm really pleased with them.

I find if I simply gather a piece of fabric, the skirt is okay but a bit bulky and tragic-looking. On the other hand, if I buy skirts that fit, well sometimes they don't.

So I've been experimenting, based on a skirt I have that I like. 

The skirts I've made start with two widths of fabric. I stitch up the edges to be the side seams. Then along the top I make box pleats — how many depending on how wide the fabric is — to give a top width well wider than my hips (in case I get fatter). At the top of that I add a waist band into which I thread elastic the right size for what I am now; I can always add a bit or shorten it if I change size. This means I end up with skirts that aren't too bulky but are accommodating.

I made this one first, to go with brown/black/orange/cream/beige top layers.

Along the top of the waistband I add a row of stitching to discourage the elastic from turning over, as it sometimes wants to do.

The fabric is cotton homespun. I love it, but it's hard to obtain in the UK, so I get mine from Jubilee Fabric in the States. The actual fabric is very low in price, but the postage is eyewateringly expensive, and then I have to pay import duty and a handling charge slapped on top when it reaches England. So I pay three times the amount of the actual fabric cost. Which I guess is okay because I love cotton homespun (it's great in all four seasons and gets softer and softer with wash and wear), but the cost gives you pause for thought, does it not!

I made a second skirt in homespun. 

This has interesting effects. It is basically checks in a mid blue and natural cream, with a green line and a red line both criss-crossing.

The colours tend to merge and combine. So if I wear it with mauve/purple tops, it looks mauve/purple. If I wear it with pink it looks pinky-mauve. If I wear it with blue, it looks basically blue. If I wear it with green, it looks green-blue. Brilliant fabric, really versatile!

The most recent one I made is in cotton lawn. Where the cotton homespun is 45 inches wide, this cotton lawn just over 60 inches wide, so it makes a much fuller skirt which is handy because it's finer. Incidentally, it's important to wash the fabric before making anything, as both the lawn and the homespun shrink.

Here's the cotton lawn skirt:

When I sent for it, I wasn't quite sure what the finish/handle would be — it's nicer than I expected, very soft and matt and flannelly for so fine a fabric.

Being so much wider, it had twice as many box pleats and the hem seemed to go on forever! Making my own clothes is partly a kind of spiritual, peaceful thing: part of slow living. So I hand-stitch them, no machines.

I'm really pleased with the result. They have come out exactly as I imagined, perfect to wear every day and for any occasion, very comfortable and easy to walk fast in, warm in winter and cool in summer. 

So those are my small domestic triumphs.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Storms, perfect storms

Here in the British Isles it's the season of spring storms. The saying is that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, and just now in late February the lion is already roaring in wild winds and lashing rain. 

Such weather does a great deal of damage, of course, to roads and buildings. Frost damage creates pot holes and storms bring floods. 

Listening to the south-westerly wind gusting violently up the hill from the sea, I pondered on the exacerbation of storms by anthropogenic climate change. There has always been weather and changes in weather — we move in and out of ice ages which also have their summers and winters, the earth and the planetary system in which it sits have rhythms and patterns that affect us — but it is beyond dispute that the delicate balances of earth's ecosystems, the fragile web of conditions on which our wellbeing rests, are being damaged and dismantled by our our-consumption of resources, our over-intrusion into necessary wilderness.

We have, naturally enough, our climate change deniers, just as we still have among us those who believe the earth is flat, and one must hear them patiently and kindly because their views, arising as they do in defiance of all the evidence, probably stem from primal fear and a deep need for security and for everything to be comfortable and normal. I feel that too. But it is true that deforestation sets the preconditions for floods and droughts, which in turn set the preconditions for forest fires on a massive scale. It is true that temperatures are steadily rising worldwide, and that those who keep records are observing resulting changes in flora and fauna. It is true that chemicalised agri-business, GMO crops and industrialised farming on a giant scale create deserts. It is true that our present rate of consumption of what the earth has to give exceeds the earth ability to regenerate. It is true that unless we slow down we face Armageddon. Regardless of anybody's religious beliefs or political ideologies, these things are happening. 

Positive change is possible too, of course. If, now, we change our ways personally and individually, and work together nationally and internationally, we can slow down the effects of what is happening and extend the years of health and peace and bounty.

But as I sat listening to the persistent deep howling of the wind, it occurred to me that the increasingly violent weather resulting from climate change combines with the de-investment in infrastructure, the irresponsible pursuit of fossil fuel extraction and the enthusiasm for war, that are hall-marks of our corrupt governments, to create the conditions that result in perfect storm.

Greed is, ultimately, at the root of our predicament. It's what St Paul said — "the love of money is a root of all evil". 

Not in every nation of the world but in many of them, greed gives rise to corruption, bringing in its wake poverty, weakness, poor infra-structures, and more problems than we can fix. This is particularly problematic in the case of the Western powers of US and UK, because the damage of deep and widespread corruption in those countries' governments is amplified internationally by our pre-existent accumulation of power and wealth. Our wrecking ball is bigger than those wielded by Angola or Azerbaijan.

The storm sweeping up the valley this morning is the third in a row. English fields are flooded and in some cases homes and roads and public buildings too. Trees have fallen, blocking railways and roads, needing borough councils to respond very quickly. But meanwhile, our government with its policies of de-funding service provision of every kind, makes the response more difficult. Our roads were already in terrible disrepair before the storms. Our health service is in process of being systematically dismantled and sold off. Our weakest members of society — the old, the disabled, the mentally sick, young children, homeless people and people in poverty — have seen their assistance of every kind from government minimised and defunded, causing misery and many deaths. The problems are spreading and keeping all the while the funding to address them is being increasingly withdrawn.

Meanwhile, there is always money for weapons of war — it has always been the sport of the powerful, and war is very lucrative for a small élite. When the bombers left England for Syria our chancellor (George Osborne at the time) crowed in glee, "Britain's got its mojo back." But when the refugees in turn left Syria for the UK, the only investment in response from here was the funding of a huge fence on the French border, to keep out those whose lives we had utterly destabilised, to stop them reaching us. And in the howling storms of winter that we have exacerbated by our over-consumption, those fleeing theatres of war and the violence of instability and corruption exist on the margins in tents and wearing flip-flops — driven out and demonised by the greedy elites that brought this crashing down on their heads.

In times of insecurity and instability people reach instinctively for strength. Around the world, people have been seduced into voting for those who offered the rhetoric of power and security. Lies and empty promises have been swallowed and endless excuses made for the disastrous corruption that if we do not stop it will take us all down. The highway to Mammon's hell runs through the hearts of those currently in power In America and Great Britain. They will take every natural and political resource we have and use it to buy themselves toys. They are agents of ruin.

Building what is good and safe and sane and kind and wise takes a long time and a lot of effort; the disintegration of it can come about in the blink of an eye. It takes vigilance and faithful determination to build up and hold in place a strong society. And, lest there be any doubt, what makes a society strong is equality, care of the vulnerable, health care and education, commitment to peace, willingness to co-operate, integrity in the agents of justice, and choosing systems of manufacture and agriculture that are regenerative as well as sustainable.

If you read the Law and the Prophets of the Christian scriptures, you will find these same themes running right through them. Social justice, care for the poor, refraining from exploitation, the principles of Sabbath and Jubilee giving both human beings and the land a chance to recover. You will also find denouncement in the roundest possible terms of the actions of those who amass wealth without consideration of the poor, who make others suffer through their own ruthless greed. 

George Herbert, who wrote proverbs as well as poems, said: "Who spits against heaven, it falls in his face."  Toinette Lippe, in her book Nothing Left Over, said: "Problems arise where things accumulate." Both those things are true. 

I entreat you not to be one of those who are sleepwalking into the conditions for perfect storm. In case you think I am exaggerating the danger we are facing in the habits of our present governments, I recommend to you this inexpensive book, Moneyland. You can read quite a lot of it on the Look Inside facility without even buying it. It offers food for thought.

Thursday, 20 February 2020


Tangles of wire form part of modern-day reality. Here and there are those who escape it, like Emma Orbach, but most of us accept the Electric City as inevitable.

I don't mind it, though. My living space is small, but at any given time I have only a very few paper books — I pass them on once read. Most of my books, including the big, heavy ones like the Bible — are in electronic form on my Kindle. It means I can have both a tiny living space and a huge library.

My income is likewise small, and beeswax candles — which I love — are expensive. Candlelight is beautiful, and at the end of the day as night falls I like gentle ambient light.

The lantern hanging on the wall is a Taotronics one that I wrote about here. I charge it during the day when the solar panels are feeding our electricity supply, and its light easily lasts all evening — even in winter when the hours of darkness are long.

My charging station lives under my bed where I don't have to look at it.

It has plugs for my laptop, Kindle, lamps and phone. My clock is on my phone, too — I recently downloaded the "Clocks" app, which keeps a clock on the phone screen without going to sleep; so I can have it on a stand as a clock for as long as I want it. Really handy.

Then there comes a time in the late evening when I want to stop reading or writing, and just think and drift and reflect. So I turn off the lantern, and just have the candles on my wall altars.

These are the candles you can see in the photo of my charging station. They take 5-6 hours to charge up, and each one lasts a couple of days. They're these ones from Auraglow, that I wrote about in this post. I really love them. They aren't exactly like beeswax candles, but good enough; and if I fall asleep while they're still alight, there's neither danger nor puddles of wax.

I like to sit just quietly in bed at nightfall, in the peaceful "candlelight".

Then when I'm almost ready to fall asleep, I turn off the ones on the wall altars, and just have a bedside candle.

To keep warm through these icy winter nights, I have a hot water bottle. In the morning, the water in it is still warm, so I can use it for washing, to save running water down the sink until the hot comes through.

During the day, I wear layers:

And a hat — good for keeping my hair out of my eyes and plus it's a thinking cap that helps my mind.

At night, I wear socks and a knitted wooly dressing gown in bed. I haven't been cold even though the weather has.

Sometimes, if I want to read for a while before I go to sleep, and if my current reading book isn't on my Kindle but is a paper one, I have my reading lamp that looks over my shoulder from the little bookshelf tower Tony made me. It sits in the corner at the head of my bed — just right for my reading lamp. 

The reading lamp is also cordless, and I can charge it during the day at the charging station under the bed.

This is the book I'm reading at the moment (I've linked the picture):

The frugality of this lighting combination really pleases me. It means I can have everything from bright reading light, to peaceful lantern light, to quiet drift-off-to-sleep candlelight, but all of it is charged during the sunlit hours — so, low in cost for me and kind to the earth by abstention from fossil fuel electricity.

I wondered if, with constant use, some or all of the lights might stop working, but they haven't; they're as good as new. 

Tomorrow morning I have to be up early to unlock the porch for our organic food delivery — it arrives at about half past five!! 

To be sure I don't oversleep, I set the alarm on my phone — a very lifelike dawn chorus, a nice way to wake up.

Well — goodnight then. It's 10.15 now. Time I got some sleep. Alice and Hebe talk about catching the ten o'clock "train" that takes you off to sleep. I think I ought to make sure I'm on it.

Saturday, 15 February 2020


In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown makes the very good point that "priorities" is a misnomer. It's in the nature of the thing that you can have only one priority — that's what a priority is; the one most important thing.

Out of the complexity of life, I find it hard to sift my priority.

I've taken quite some time puzzling over this in respect of what I eat.

Several different factors matter very much to me.

My health is important. I am no big fan of prescription medication and will avoid the need for it if I can — and nutrition is a strong driver when it comes to health profile.
Recently I read David Perlmutter's book Grain Brain, which is certainly enough to stop and make one think. Perlmutter explains, in careful detail, how refined sugars and modern strains of wheat underlie many of the ills of contemporary society — diabetes, gout, cancer, Alzheimers, obesity, depression and heart disease, as well as other chronic degenerative conditions and ailments like fibromyalgia. All of them arise from inflammation fuelled by carbohydrate. The remedy — ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting — brings about weight loss and increased energy, and resolves pain. 
Others working in this field — Nora Gedgaudas, for example — strongly contend that the structure of dairy foods (the proteins, if I've remembered correctly) make them almost as problematic as gluten; she recommends most people avoid dairy.

For the most part of last year, I followed a keto diet, and it did me some good. It took down my fibromyalgia, initially, though this did return as a stress response even on a keto diet. I lost a lost of weight and gained energy during the year, and my dentist was delighted with my teeth. It wasn't unmitigated benefit, though. On a keto diet your body doesn't hang on to water. My eyes and skin became very dry, and my sleep very disturbed as I woke up two or three times every night needing to visit the bathroom. My gut, on the other hand, slowed to a standstill, and this became an abiding problem. In addition, socialising was in effect impossible without wheat, sugar, dairy or any other food with a significant carbohydrate content. It's something of a desert island diet, in my opinion.

Part of keto diet is eating meat that has itself had a low grain intake — pasture-for-life. It is obtainable by mail order in the UK where I live. Wild fish is also on the menu, and poultry; for preference game birds because they have had a natural life and diet.

Apart from abstaining from dairy, which I never managed for more than a few days at a time, I stuck doggedly to this for most of a year because I am horrified by the idea of Alzheimers, cancer and the ravages of diabetes. In the end, I am ashamed to admit, it was not any health disadvantage that caused me to cave in, but because I missed treats and outings. Going out to a café is one of the things I can afford to do. Joining in with family and church meals and snacks was something I missed. I really, really missed having porridge (oatmeal) for breakfast. I also felt dubious about the increased profile of meat in my diet — so much death — and the high quality food was rather expensive. To qualify for free postage on orders of meat mean placing a very large/expensive order each time.

Then there was the problem of packaging. It's hard to get meat and dairy products by mail order without a significant amount of packaging, much of it plastic. 

Meat consumption per se need not be an environmental problem. Pasture-for-life animals, on an organic farm with hedgerows providing a home for wildlife, are actually part of the solution. But trucking lamb chops from Yorkshire to Sussex, packed in plastic bags, is not.

I thought back to the 1960s and 1970s, before the astronomical rise of packaging, to consider how we managed our food. I read about the way people living more simply and in harmony with the earth managed their food. It seemed to me that seasonal fruit and vegetables, plus a modest helping of animal products, was key to it all. We used to get a loaf of bread three times a week from the village shop. We had a sack of potatoes from my uncle's farm. We ate the sheep we raised in our very large garden. We ate the tomatoes from our greenhouse, eggs from our hens, fruit from our orchard and vegetables (mostly pole beans and courgettes/zucchini) from our vegetable patch.  We needed to buy only things like flour, butter, tea, coffee and oats. None of us were fat. None of my family got cancer or diabetes or gout or dementia.

So, in thinking about diet, it seemed to me I needed to change my priority. The keto food had a cast-iron scientific argument underpinning it, but sent my budget and social life and personal happiness out of whack. Plus it relied on practices that aren't earth-friendly (plastic packaging, higher food miles, and animal products).

I re-thought things on the basis of low packaging. I could get fruit and vegetables and bread without packaging. I think if I pluck up courage I could negotiate with a butcher or fishmonger to weigh meat/fish into my own containers. There is a dairy that will deliver milk in glass bottles to my doorstep. I think some brands of butter are still sold wrapped in paper. The types of yogurt I actually enjoy are (sadly) available only in plastic tubs; I'd have to give that up. We have a couple of refill stores recently opened where I live, for simple household chemicals (washing up liquid, soap powder etc) and dry goods like oats and nuts. They also sell shampoo bars without packaging, jars/refills of tooth powder and bamboo toothbrushes.

There are a couple of downsides to this. One is that the organic versions available are expensive — not in comparison to costing the earth, I realise, but I have a limited budget even when high quality food is my priority, as it always has been. In the cheaper stores (supermarkets and market stalls) it is possible to get unwrapped fruit and veggies, but the unwrapped ones aren't organic — and, as we know, pesticides are no friend to bees, water courses or human health.

In addition to all this (I hope you aren't getting bored), it will be apparent to you, I think, that such pathways are very time and energy hungry. It takes thought. It means searching out diverse sources. This last year, because of a combination of the stress of traffic conditions in our urban location, diminishing income as I get older, and a desire to make some positive contribution to solving global warming, I made the decision to go car-less once more. My husband still owns and drives a car and I do accept lifts with him to places where, and at times when, he is making a car journey anyway (so, I went with him down to the town centre for unpackaged beetroot when he went to the doctor's surgery today), but I am trying to live much more locally and on foot — and to buy food produced locally with consequently low food miles; no more pole beans from Kenya and raspberries from Peru in the middle of winter. Passing through the world on foot actually works well with going from shop to shop — bread from the baker, lentils from the refill store, grapes from the greengrocer, fish from the where the boats come in — car use tends towards one-stop supermarket shopping. But the small and diverse way of getting groceries takes time and attention; it is more complicated.

As I sifted through for a priority — thinking about health of my own body, health of the land, economic prosperity for small local farms and businesses (another aspect under consideration), packaging, organic farming, levels of animal products versus vegetable products, levels and types of carbohydrates, risks involved in eating modern wheat, the importance of walking and travelling by public transport, thinking globally and acting locally, growing my own food and acting in favour of pollinators and wildlife — at times I have felt I was drowning in a maelstrom of considerations too numerous to weave into any coherent pattern.

Yet again, one more time, the familiar priority rises shining to the surface: the importance of living simply. It is the only hope I have of drawing all this complexity made up of so many elements into something workable. An essential component of this simplicity is relinquishment. I have a low income, on purpose, for a number of reasons — for a humble and lowly life inspired by St Francis; in support of my pacifist principles because if I earn above the tax threshold I support international government violence; because I want to support and grow the grace/gift economy not the reign of Mammon; because I want space, solitude and time to think and dream, rather that offering up all my hours to economic productivity; because I reserve the right to say "no" when I am asked to act against my principles; because I am getting old and tired. I think I have to accept that if I am to live within my small budget, then I cannot tick all the boxes in respect of my food choices. I can't afford massive boxes of organic meat, or to eat all organic vegetables, or to ignore the wild and homegrown fruits that are, frankly, palatable only with the addition of sugar (eg blackcurrants from the garden), or else themselves already have a high sugar content (eg apples and pears from our garden).

On the altar in my room where His Nibs and His Mother reign supreme, I've put a plastic pot to remind myself that recently someone found, on a beach, a yogurt pot from the 1970s. 

I have to accept responsibility into my daily practice for making some inroads into the horrific levels of plastic waste generation. My one life makes very little difference, I do realise, but what minuscule contribution comes from me should at least be positive.

About the keto, I do feel rather ashamed — a failure. There came a point when porridge with brown sugar, a bread roll with my salad, and a piece of cake sometimes, took priority over the scientific evidence of a wise path for maintaining my health into old age. It is true I don't use cocaine or drink vodka or eat gateaux at midnight; but I still don't feel proud of my keto failure. I sleep better, and I enjoy my food again, but I feel I may be laying the foundations for ill health in old age, and that'll be my fault entirely.  

It's difficult, isn't it — teasing out the pathway of priority?

Friday, 7 February 2020

Vic's forest home

This last couple of days I took the train along the south coast to visit my daughter Fiona. We had just the best time together, and I had the delight of getting to know two of her friends, who are just lovely.

I took some photos so you could meet one of them.

This is the forest near where Fi lives. 

On the edge of the forest, on private ground, her friend Vic has his home —

— where he lives with Kiera the dog.

This is Vic's home on the inside:

— with Vic in it making us a cup of tea.

His stove holds ashes from some very special places. I can't remember all the ones he said, but he has ashes from Vedic temples and Sioux sacred fires as well as his own fires. It's like a heart that holds the memory of sacred humanity.

Vic is a musician, and you can discover his work online here.  He writes here about the soul and pattern of the way he has chosen, and the music that inspires and expresses the life inside him. Here's one of his songs. He is one of those rare souls who is prepared to accept the discipline and put in the determination needed to live in the freedom of simplicity. It was a privilege to meet him.