Treading Lightly and Changing the World

Treading Lightly and Changing the World

I have been having an internal debate lately. Here are the two arguments:

  1. Treading lightly: I love the idea of not taking up unnecessary space. Of letting nature be. Of not filling even the virtual world with my picture duplicates and papers from college. Of giving people the room to think and ask questions and feel comfortable and dance. Of treading lightly on this earthly journey of mine, and not disturbing what is already so good.
  2. Making a difference: Both in the world and in Christian tradition, we want to leave our mark. Most people would say that they want to be remembered. In the Church, we want to bring light to the darkness. We are co-creators. We take trees and we build houses, stone and we build cathedrals, gametes and we build persons. We want to change the world for the better.

As I write this, I realize that the two thoughts are not necessarily contradictory. I grew up in a family of boy scouts and one thing that really stuck with me is “leaving no trace”: every place you visit in nature should appear untouched upon your departure, or even better than it was when you first arrived. We made sure to pick up after ourselves and after those who came before us. When I first thought of that lesson, I thought it fell under the “tread lightly” camp. But we don’t just “leave no trace” of our presence, we pick up the litter of others as well. And so, we do leave a trace, in a way, by making it better.

The problem arises because we all disagree on what is better. Would it have been better for Europeans to have stayed in Europe and not colonized the Americas, unknowingly wreaking havoc through the spread of disease, and sometimes intentionally destroying through slavery, violence, and racism? Or is it good that many local traditions were fairly supplanted by the newcomers own culture, language and religion? Should we have fewer children and instead adopt those who need loving homes? Or is each person such a wonderful, marvelous entity that an attitude of “the more, the merrier” is appropriate? I’m not here to debate. In fact, I am very over that. But do enjoy a good ponder, and a healthy dose self-reflection.

I appreciate the trend of minimalism, as I strive to practice it. Living clutter-free, or as close to clutter-free as possible in America with a toddler and an infant, helps keep me sane. I remember as a kid trying to get my mom to sit down with us and just watch a movie, as she repeatedly got up to clean something, and I am now that mom. It isn’t because we are masochists, but because, as moms, our home is our kingdom. We are in charge. And when that which you care for is in dissaray, it is hard to think about anything else! The adage is true that an exterior orderliness reflects an interior orderliness – and, for me, and exterior chaos creates an internal chaos! So I keep our home simple. I started with clothes – keeping what we wear, what we love, and what we need, and getting rid of the rest. I’ve Marie Kondo-ed my kitchen cabinets, our medicine cabinet, our linens, and our sports equipment. I am an adrenaline junkie and this is my high: having space to not be distracted, to sit and relax or to dance to the Moana soundtrack for the 10,000th time. I have started to try to carry this clutter-free environment with me wherever I go. I keep in my car only what I use. I’ve deleted old files on my computer, unstarred what I thought at the time were important emails I will never look at again. And in my activities, I like to just be. I don’t want to do crafts that I will make and not use. I cook. I garden. I read. I watch my children grow and explore. I hold my husband’s hand. I’m seeking the best of both worlds: appreciating and respecting and transforming to help something become more of what it is, and what it can and ought to be.

I don’t want to make the world a messier place, but I also don’t want to think that it’s all on me to perfect the world, either. I want to tread lightly, and I want to bring light to the darkness. I want to harvest a dirty, gnarled root and turn it into a beautiful, delicious meal to nourish the bodies and spirits of those I love. I want to be changed by the beauty around me. I want to soak it in.  And I want to cooperate with that which is good around me to bring out the best in everyone and everything.

I want to be salt. Too much salt kills a dish. Too little does nothing. The right amount allows the flavor of the food to shine forth, while it steps silently into the background.

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As we dream of the simple life, let us not blame our children for technology

As we dream of the simple life, let us not blame our children for technology

As someone who grew up in an environment where my family had unhealthy relationships with screens, and now as the spouse of a man who provides for our family via screens and who likes to play videogames in his free-time, I needed to read this. Since I met him, I’ve been working on seeing them as tools – neither good nor bad until paired with our circumstances and intentions, but I certainly have my hangups and this article helps.

Beauty Will Save the World

Beauty Will Save the World

Reading this article by Humane Pursuits, and recent conversations with my self-employed motion designer husband have emboldened me to call myself and others to action: As Catholics, I firmly believe that we have to step up our game in the realm of beauty.

I know that I personally overvalue efficiency – why would I spend more on something when I can get something that works just as well for less? Because beauty will save the world. My husband works in beauty, in creating. My dependence on the success of his business has opened my eyes to the negative effects of my own short-term, function-oriented vision. If someone is willing to do a job he is trying to get for half the price and half the quality, many clients go with the cheaper. And who suffers, besides my family obviously? I would argue: everyone. Their company suffers, because even if they can’t really tell the difference between the two styles of product, the audience will notice that one has the it factor, and the other doesn’t. And the world suffers. It tells artists to stop making beautiful work because it is not wanted. No one shares crappy commercials on Facebook. But some of the most watched videos on YouTube are commercials that touch our hearts, inspire something within us, call us to something greater. Obviously, we need to be practical and prudent, but I would argue that beauty is a factor as important in our decision-making as function and cost. Otherwise, we begin to use and abuse things without orienting them to God, and we are tempted to begin to use people as well.

Minimalism and the Virtue of Detachment

Minimalism and the Virtue of Detachment

I was already getting into the minimalist movement via Marie Kondo* when my husband quit his job to start freelancing from home, I got pregnant with our second, and I lost my (part-time) job.

This pregnancy, I ended up getting rid of 10-15% of our stuff. Once the what felt like near-death symptoms of my HG wore off and I became more “normal sick” and mentally functioning, just mostly couch-bound, I hadn’t much in my control, many ways to feel productive, so I decluttered, and organized, and re-organized our house. A few weeks ago, I casually asked my husband if he ever used the holy water font by the front door, to which he responded while looking at me both imploringly and firmly, “Please don’t give away any more of our stuff before this baby is born.” Poor guy. It was a bag of donations for Goodwill every few days at one point. Plus a couch here and bookshelf there. But that’s just part of it.

I was, at first, living a privileged minimalism. I could get rid of something that didn’t “spark joy” in me and replace it with something cute with gold accents from Target or IKEA that did. Things have changed. Due to our current financial situation, with my husband being self-employed and a lack of regular paychecks in regular amounts, budgeting has been an adventure. We were already on the Dave Ramsey* bandwagon and at the beginning of this freelancing journey discovered You Need A Budget (it’s not free, but it is worth it). It has helped tremendously, says my husband. (I’m normally more involved with our finances but constant nausea isn’t super conducive to that.) YNAB is great because you tell each dollar where to go – it’s not designed to simply record where that dollar ended up going, and because it works with the actual money you have, not a theoretical amount that doesn’t align with your bank account. This has left us with the age old wisdom: if you don’t have money for it, don’t buy it. How has that been going for us?

My mom was great at buying in bulk, finding sales (maybe a little too great – “It’s on sale! If we don’t buy it, we will be practically losing money!”), and keeping every odd and end that passed through our hands for “someday”, “just in case”. I’ve definitely got her frugality, but her holding onto everything started to rub me the wrong way once I was in college and discerning religious life. I went away for a weekend with some nuns to learn about their life, and only brought with me a backpack with a change of clothes, pajamas, minimal toiletries, and a Bible. It blew my mind that you could live this way. We are talking about the girl who filled at 12 passenger van to move across the country for university, bringing even multiple sets of free weights which I lifted only when moving residences. Since getting married, I’ve been learning what I can and can’t buy from Costco. 50 lb bag of flour? Yes! We bake our own bread and go through it fairly quickly. Bag of nuts that I only use for a couple recipes? Pass. They have been sitting in my fridge for years. I still try to shop only from what’s on sale, but the hoarding thing is another story. If not minimalism, then simplicity has gotten under my skin. And while the end product of that is delivering bags of donations to Goodwill and a more open, more streamlined house, it starts, I’m learning the hard way, with my Amazon account.

I’ve always loved reading tips on our how to save money. It feels like entertainment that is also productive! And although the repetition gets old, I’m ever-hopeful that the next list will include an idea I haven’t heard before. The #1 suggestion listed is, almost without fail, cutting out Starbucks and either making your mocha-caramel-frappa-whoozie at home, or dropping it altogether. First off, I don’t like coffee. Secondly, due to probably both nature and nurture, I’ve never spent money on things I was taught to be extravagances. Like drinks. Bring a water bottle with you and fill it up. Not too hard. As a family, we already rarely go to the movies or out to eat. We stick to our grocery list when shopping and make ourselves leave the store or sleep on it to think it over before making a purchase. But then it hit me. Amazon is my Starbucks. Because we have a couple different accounts and I’m lazy, I didn’t tally up how much we have spent the last few years on Amazon, but I know I would be shocked by the number. No big purchases, mind you, and I don’t even buy clothes or shoes online because I’m annoyingly picky, but it’s sooo easy as a housewife to read a blog or hear a suggestion from an older, wiser friend and think, “That product would be so helpful! And it’s only $10! I’ll just pull it from my ‘household’ budget for the month. I’m doing my job.” Let me tell you: since my husband has been freelancing, our “household” budget has disappeared. Toothpaste, deodorant, soap, and toilet paper are the only non-food items we buy. Seriously. My recent Amazon order history is blank (except for some maternity underpants, but if your underpants literally made you throw up, you would think new ones were a necessity, too). When I first got into Montessori, I got major Instagram jealousy and thought I couldn’t educate my children well if I didn’t have every – or even one or two – wooden, naturally-dyed, organic things made by 7th generation German craftsmen with an affiliate link on a blog I liked. At first, I tried to keep up. Ahhh, my first experience of keeping up with the Joneses. A humbling one. Now, I don’t even DIY these activities. When my toddler is ready to sort by color, she doesn’t need anything I bought for the purpose. She doesn’t need a game I DIYed out of recyclables (that I went out and used and then saved for that purpose). She will sort her socks. And her balls. And her beads. Heck, with me stuck on the couch, she doesn’t even need me to model it for her most of the time. She will survive. And she will learn.

Another tip I read about to be thrifty is to have a “no-spend” weekend, or week, or even month. “Challenge yourself!”, the authors croon, “It will force you to be creative and work together!” Before this current stage of life, I could totally get down with that. Now? I laugh. How elitist I was! And how proud, I’m sure, my future self will see my current self as! It’s a constant temptation to see the good that others have, but to focus on the negative in our own lives. To wallow in our busyness and lack of time, and then we have kids! To mope over our financial situation, and then we lose our job! My life feels like a no-spend zone, I complained then, and I complained now. I thought not being able to buy red meat regularly was a deprivation, and now vegetarianism isn’t just a trendy lifestyle choice. But you know what? We aren’t starving – and some people in the world are. Not that my sufferings don’t matter because someone else has it worse, or even just different. It’s not a comparison game. It’s a humility game, if you will: seeing reality, including ourselves, for what it is, for what we are. Praise God. We have a home. And family and friends. We can feed ourselves and our children. We can put gas in our car to go to the park or to church. And if I really need new underpants, we will find a way to get me new underpants. I’ve heard it said, What if we woke up every morning, with only the things we thanked God for the night before? I am so grateful. I guess that’s what I’m learning from this whole experience.

I’m​ a list-maker, so I used to have a note on my phone with our immediate family’s special dates (anniversaries, birthdays, Baptism days, etc.) and next to each of those I had a gift idea. Whenever I came across or thought of another idea, I would extend the calendar , or even include less special days to make room for the purchases I wanted to make. It was hard letting that go. It’s difficult when something breaks to not be able to replace it. When people ask how you celebrated an event and you say, we went to the park or we had a nice homemade meal (like we do every week, but we did it with extra joy), it’s humbling. But this is our life. We are living this way by circumstance and by choice – but mostly by grace. This lifestyle is – I’m sure – closer to the reality of the “good ol’ days” than the idealized version expounding community and homegrown everything that exists in my head. I can see God’s hand at work, teaching me detachment, to stop creating needs for myself, to surrender my concerns over our financial situation to my omnipotent, omniscient, and most loving Father, to be grateful for every crumb on my plate and every sock I get to/have to darn, to, yes, enjoy the creative challenge of going without, to humbly let a generous friend buy us groceries​, and to just be – loving my people and using my things, rather than using my people and loving my things.

Plus, cleaning the house is a lot easier when you have less stuff to put away.

 

*Note: Any books, and almost any products really, that I recommend, I would borrow from a library or a friend if possible, and buy second-hand and locally if need be, to both save money and reduce waste.

My journey as a cook: Part I

My journey as a cook: Part I

After I graduated college, I moved to Spain to work as an English teacher and meet my Spanish, soccer playing husband (one of those two things actually happened). My first week or two were spent in a hostel while I tried to figure out where to live in the sprawling city of Madrid. Even though I was staying in a hostel, I cooked all my meals because who has money to eat out every day?! I remember my first day I went grocery shopping and it hit me for the first time: I don’t know how to cook.

This was a terrible blow to my ego because, for some reason, I thought of cooking as one of my hobbies. Growing up, I helped a lot in the kitchen. Being the oldest of the 6 at home kind of leaves no other option. But I only really knew how to be told what to do. Making my way through the grocery store, I tried to think of a dinner my midwestern mom would make a lot. I had it! Pot roast with potatoes, onions, and carrots! She would buy the meat from the Schwan man and it was to die for. I didn’t know what animal the meat came from, so I bought a couple slices of the cheapest deli ham, one carrot, and one potato. I would leave the onion for another day because it seemed a little extravagant. I got back to the hostel kitchen (after embarrassingly realizing that you have to weigh your own food, bring your own bags, and bag your own groceries in Spain) and looked for cooking utensils. I can up with a dull paring knife, a microwave, a coffee mug, and a spoon. I cut up everything, put it in the mug, added some water, salt and pepper, and kept adding more time on the microwave until it was edible.

And so began my cooking career.

To be continued…

5 things we are getting for our second baby, and 2 we aren’t

5 things we are getting for our second baby, and 2 we aren’t

With your first kid, there’s the baby shower. Everyone’s excited. Especially if that baby is also the first grandbaby. The cutesy stuff pours in thanks to generous and loving family and friends. Some of it you return so you have some practical stuff too. But what about baby #2?

Boy clothes – Our first was a girl, and this hunka munka is not, so despite my earlier attempts at gender neutrality, we will still need a few items. (The toddler’s favorite pajamas are her fire truck/helicopter/police car/ambulance/motorcycle ones. Butterflies are a close second.) But honestly, I’ve learned that summer babies don’t need a ton of clothes. If people gift us any (thanks for the cute, striped onesies, Nonnie!), I will be grateful. But on my “need” list for him are a couple t-shirts to go with his cloth diapers when we leave the house. We’ve got a hat, swim diaper, socks, pajamas, swaddlers, and blankets. At church, they are in the car seat asleep the whole time or under a blanket nursing, so he doesn’t need fancy clothes until he’s a little older, and then only one outfit. And maybe some trunks to go over the swim diaper because, who can resist. 

Baby carrier – While we already have a lovely Beco Gemini and a ring sling, we are a hiking family. For long/strenuous nature walks, we need something for each little person (don’t worry, we let them out often to run, but I don’t think the two year old can handle a 10 miler just yet). I’m looking into carriers that can put an infant on your back. We bought a hiking carrier with an external frame a while ago and hated it so we got rid of it. The Beco is great, but when I am hiking I prefer them on my back so I can watch my foot placement, and the manual says the back position is only for babies with neck control. I’m not waiting 6+ months to go on a hike guys. I need your suggestions on this one!

Mattress – And sheets. But no comforter or pillow. This is actually for the toddler, since she sleeps on her crib mattress straight on the floor (and has since about a year old, when I read about Montessori floor beds). I was going to get rid of the crib when we made that switch until I realized that if we had another (which we wanted) and they had to share a room (which seemed highly probable), I didn’t want my oldest smothering her little sibling with affection, or blankets, when I wasn’t looking. Our oldest stopped night nursing at 6 months (when I moved to the living room), so the plan is to put the babe in the room with the toddler whenever that happens in the safety of the crib. Which means that the toddler now needs a mattress! I’m thinking a twin, so it will last, well, until she moves out. I have made the switch to plastic-free, organic, natural jimmy jank in many areas of my life, and I know your face is pressed up against a mattress for like a third of your life beating in its contents, but guys, THE PEE! So feel free to try to convince me either way. We will just have to see what’s in the budget when the time comes.

Dresser – Not normally on baby registries, but with our first, we were in a one-bedroom so our dresser was also her dresser and changing station. For the past year, her clothes have been in baskets on toy shelves or on her closet floor. It’s time to upgrade. We did the measurements the first time around so we knew my husband who’s over a foot taller than me wouldn’t break his back changing a diaper on it, nor would I need a stool. So we are thinking the half-size, same height version of what we already have to go in their closet.

Carseat – #2 gets the hand-me-down. #1, the Costco multi-use on sale for $80 that’s been sitting on our dryer for 6 months.

What we are not getting:

Diapers – We did cloth for the newborn stage, so we are covered there. One is pink, but we got the rest as culturally gender neutral as possible. And it won’t kill him to wear pink. People confuse the sex of your kid even when she’s a girl in a headband with a bow and taffeta dress with roses on it and lacey slippers. One thing I learned with the first is that cloth can be so bulky, pants don’t really fit over them. You might see that as a drawback, but I see the silver lining! In the California winter, we just used leg warmers. And in the summer? Well, all he’ll need is a diaper!

Double stroller – Maybe we’ll change our minds on this. Many a woman is wiser and more experienced than I who swears by them. But, for now, my two year old walks just fine. I have not once had her ask me to pick her up because she was tired. Because she wanted love and attention, about every 5 seconds. But not for muscle fatigue. Plus, we’ve got at least two carriers that fit in the basket underneath the stroller if we ever need to swap! (Granted, no swapping will occur whilst babe still requires infant adapter and carseat. But it’s like St. Josemaría says: “Don’t create needs for yourself.”)

What wisdom do you mamas of more than one have to share?

Baby-proof vs baby-friendly: Making your entire home a “yes” space

Baby-proof vs baby-friendly: Making your entire home a “yes” space

There’s something about the term “baby-proof” that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s the pro-lifer in me, saying that babies aren’t dangers that we need to defend ourselves against. Maybe it’s just that I wouldn’t want something to be Hannah-proofed, because that would imply I couldn’t develop a healthy relationship with that object and treat it respectfully and appropriately, that the standard was set so low because not much was expected of me. I know that this is not what people intend when they use the term and that people love their children and simply want to keep them safe, but I believe these inferences are still fair.

This is why something clicked in me when I first discovered RIE, a philosophy of respectfully interacting with infants and toddlers that treats them as capable persons, rather than dolls that need everything done for them (no finger-pointing here; I use such an extreme comparison merely to emphasize what RIE values). RIE teaches that in our homes we ought to have a “yes” space, where our youngest ones are free to examine and touch, to explore, learn, and grow, without being told, “No!”. “No” can take many forms:

  • Get down!
  • Don’t touch that!
  • Be careful!
  • That’s not for you.
  • That’s not for babies.
  • That’s sharp!
  • Be careful not to break it!

You get the idea. 

Babies put things in their mouths. It’s a fact of life. But I think we too often buy into our modern consumerist and “expert”-led culture that implies only products created and purchased for teething can go in their mouth, and they have to by sanitized anytime they touch anything ever. Every family parents differently, so please don’t take anything I say as a criticism of your lifestyle. Some people value germ-free environments more than others. Some people have health problems where they need a more sanitary environment. I don’t fall into either of those categories, and I grew up with 8 siblings, so in our house, we ask two questions when the baby wants to mouth an object:

  1. Will it harm the baby? 
  2. Will it harm the object?

And we have to answer honestly. Will junior really suffer physical or psychological harm from chewing on that ball/pan/hat? No? Then, will it damage the object itself? Because we do want our children to treat their belongings well, to be good stewards of what God has given us. That means no eating books, or sister’s artwork. But that also gives freedom to play with objects in an unexpected manner. Blocks don’t have to be stacked one on top of the other; they can be stacked on top of Daddy while he is reading. Crayons don’t have to be used for coloring; they can be separated into different jars for fun! And things can go in baby’s mouths, whether that’s what they were designed for or not.

RIE, from what I have read, usually creates one (or more) rooms/fenced off areas in the house where the child can explore freely. Our house is fairly small and adding fences wouldn’t help that situation. So while our house isn’t entirely a yes space, our toddler is allowed everywhere in it, and often unsupervised. For us, this means that no dangerous chemicals or sharp objects are within reasonable reach ever. Parents of toddlers know what I mean by reasonable. My almost two-year-old daughter can slide a chair from the dining area to the kitchen counter, climb it, open the overhead cupboard door, and reach the knife block contained therein. She can physically do that. But we talk to her about safety in an open, respectful, and consistent way, and we know her pretty well, so we trust her not to do that. We do have areas that are more easily accessible to her that we still do not want her making a mess of. Under our bathroom sinks, we store toilet paper, and if she wanted, she could unspool all the Costco-quantity TP until our apartment was ready for Halloween in February. But we have asked her not to, we have shown her other areas that are more appropriate for her, and we have not shamed her for getting into messy things so that she sees them like some forbidden fruit that she can only play with when mom and dad aren’t looking.

When friends come over, they see all the spots that our daughter now generally ignores, and messes happen. But I want to give my daughter as much freedom as possible and appropriate, and I want her to know that we trust her. Even and especially from this young age.

We cover outlets, hide cords, and secure furniture to walls. Her bedroom, where she sleeps on a floor bed and has unsupervised access to everything therein every night, contains nothing sharp, poisonous, or otherwise dangerous. I love plants and they are within her reach scattered throughout the house, but not in her bedroom, because if they aren’t poisonous, their fertilized soil might be.

Yes, sometimes she gets into somewhere I wouldn’t necessarily want her to be, but she is not in danger. Things break, but so do people. I want her to know that broken things can be fixed or replaced, and that I trust her, and that she is capable of doing things well. Not to sound all hippie-dippie (although I could argue this concept as very Christian), but I would much rather things break, than break her spirit. And, honestly? We’ve used glass cups and plates with her since she began to wean and she has maybe broken four things in our whole house in two years. So while our entire apartment isn’t exactly a yes space, it is our daughter’s home as much as it is ours, and she is learning responsibility, self-awareness, and self-confidence day by day.