Friday, January 27, 2012

Crises in the making


So are we in a "great depression" now or not? I really don't know. I'm not a finance person, and I'm terrible with numbers. However, I hear stories every day now about how people have had to change eating habits, switching out meat for beans and legumes... how houses are being lost along with jobs that should have provided security for workers for years to come... how vital medications cost so much that people simply can't afford them. I think the answer is that we're certainly in A depression, but whether it's as great as the one in the 1930s I don't know.

I think the question I need to ask is, does it really matter? There are hundreds of thousands of people out of work. Food banks are over-stressed with new applicants. The wait to get into the unemployment office goes around the block and takes over two hours to move into the building. There's a lot that we could focus on that is negative, that will sap our strength and our faith. Focusing on the negatives doesn't do anything for us, and in fact might be part of the problem we're currently experiencing as a nation (and as a world!).

What is positive about this? Well, families are getting back together. You might not think about the joys of living with your parents when you're 40 years old but those joys are there. People are helping others more, mindful that the next person might be worse off than they are. Secret Santas paid off lay-away accounts at WalMart for those who would have had no gifts for their children. Backyard gardens (and now front yard gardens!) are sprouting up all over, because seeds are cheaper than tomatoes.

The world is in turmoil. We in North America are better off (even our poorest of poor) than people in many other nations. There's a vast difference between poor here in America, where the poorest are able to ask for monetary help and often get it, and the poor in less developed countries, like Africa. Our poor are very rarely so thin that their bones show and their bellies bloat.

It may simply be time to tie the apron strings a little tighter, make the penny scream a bit louder. I know that's how it is in our home. We can't afford to buy filet mignon like we used to, even for special occasions. We can't afford to pick up a new movie every Friday to watch with the kids. Often we can't afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and have to make do with frozen or even none at all. Yet we always make sure that we have enough food in the house. The bills are paid, just barely at times but still paid. It's tight, but we are able to work hard to make it fit a little less snugly.

I think the main thing we need to work on, on ourselves, is to let down our pride. We have to be able to stand up and do as this fellow from the 1930s is doing: advertise ourselves. We must be willing to do any work we can get our hands on, and not just look for high paying employment, even if that's what we would prefer to have. The work issue is a tough one, when we're bombarded with images of welfare recipients living better than we are (yes, that is a stereotype and yes I know it is not true of all, or even most welfare recipients... but it is the loudest group unfortunately).

I have read posts lately about people who raise their own food and store it, helping out others who haven't been able to purchase vegetables for their kids. One blogger talked about how she would "find" $20 bills behind people in order to help them out, knowing they would not take money from her while standing at the cash register. Another discussed the embarrassed folks cruising the beans aisle at the grocery store, trying to figure out how to feed a family on food stamps and cold air.

We might have to work harder. I bake bread now, a skill I was hesitant to learn and which I now am embracing whole-heartedly. It's sure not easier than picking up a loaf of nice crusty bread at the local store, and it eats up a whole afternoon once a week, but the results are healthy and filling, and I'm not afraid to send my kids to school with a sandwich made of it. Bought in bulk, the price of home baked bread is a clear savings.

We're planning out the garden, too, and how we'll feed ourselves this summer and beyond. How many seeds do we need, and can we trade something for them rather than paying? Yes, it means we'll have to be out there planting and weeding and harvesting, and then preserving. It's more work, hard work. It's work that pays off, though. Next winter we won't have to buy canned tomatoes, because we'll have our own again. Do you know how many cans of tomatoes and how many bags of frozen beans you need for a whole year? That's what you ought to consider growing this summer!

How are you going to cook your food? The kind of cooking we might be used to (fancy sauces, expensive ingredients) have to be put away in favor of the recipes our grandmothers and mothers knew. There are plenty of websites that have Depression-era recipes for us to learn from, and a good used book store (or Kindle/Nook free books!) will provide cookbooks with plenty of inexpensive alternatives. Learn how to buy bulk macaroni and make  your own baked mac'n'cheese. Learn how to cut down on meat, and how to prepare inexpensive cuts.

Perhaps this new Depression will be a turning point for our country. Perhaps it will cure our ever-expanding waist lines and halt our obesity epidemic. Perhaps it will stop our wasting and spoiling. I think it will have to, if we're to survive.

You might be asking yourself why I'm writing about this on my spiritual blog. I believe that we are undergoing a spiritual ailment, as a world. It isn't so much that our spirits are causing the financial problems, but that in walking away from faith based (any faith!) lives, we give in to the false idols of money, commercialism, over-indulgence. It doesn't matter to me which god or gods you worship, which church or synagogue  you attend, or how many times you bow down each day. What does matter is that you BELIEVE, and that you hold onto that belief and that faith as the cure for the depression (financial, emotional, spiritual) that we're going through.

Will faith make your job pay more? Nope. Will belief cause your fridge to suddenly be full of good food? Not at all. But faith and belief, in something or someone, will give you the strength to carry on until you find the better paying job or complete school, will allow you to hold your head high as you ask for your bag at the food pantry. Remember that the person next to you might be a computer programmer out of work, or a single mom desperately trying to finish her high school degree so she can do better for her kid.

More and more people at the welfare offices are wearing suits and ties, as the financial problems trickle upward. When you meet them in the food stamp line or at the local shelter, don't disparage them. Understand that they, too, are displaced and looking for help, and perhaps their pride is getting in the way of their journey, too. Be kind... because to be kind is to help both them and yourself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Moving Meditation

I decided to make bread today. I was making venison stew for dinner, and nothing tastes better with stew than fresh baked bread, still warm from the oven. Baking bread is still a new skill for me, something that requires a lot of attention to detail on my part. I still follow the recipes exactly, without any variation in routine, because otherwise I risk hockey pucks rather than loaves of bread. The recipe I use is out of a neat book called Bread Alone. It's one the hubby learned from and it has a good variety of recipes for delicious bread. What it also has is something it calls a "teaching loaf." You can manipulate it a bit, try different things with it, but the basic recipe, if followed, will result in a good (if not spectacular) loaf of bread.

The end result, as you can see, was quite good. I did one batch, which yields two loaves. Just to be contrary, I braided one loaf, and did the other as a "torpedo" loaf, the standard artisan bread loaf. I'm actually quite happy with both of them, although the crumb in the braided loaf was a bit under-done. Neither would have been hurt by five more minutes in the oven, but I'm glad they came out when they did. The hardest part, of course, is leaving the bread to cool for 20 full minutes before cutting into it. I had to keep reminding myself that the final 20 minutes of "cooling" is actually a cooking time. Cut into too early, even a perfect loaf of bread will seem a bit doughy; the cooking process continues for 15 to 20 minutes after the bread is out of the oven.

We had our bread with venison stew, and it was quite delicious. Hot bread, fresh butter, home-made venison stew with meat we'd butchered ourselves... you can't get much better than that!

The process of making the bread was what I wanted to touch on, though. I am fond of moving meditations, and find that using movement when meditating actually helps me to concentrate and follow my breath better. I've enjoyed tai chi (the 128 poses version), yoga, a split yoga-pilates combo, ecstatic dance, and some others. Kneading bread, though, is a whole other experience.

At the beginning of the knead, the dough is very sticky. It's almost like kneading cake batter that's sat out too long. It clings to your fingers, clumps around the heels of your hands... It can be annoying if you don't let yourself disappear into the back and forth motion of the kneading itself. If you do let yourself disappear into it, though... it's wonderful. The squish, the push, turn and fold, repeat. You just keep doing it over and over until the dough changes.

That's when my real meditation begins. There's a moment when the dough goes from being a sticky mess to being ... well, dough. It becomes a little tacky, but not overly wet, and it becomes doughy and elastic. That's when you work the muscles in your arms, when you push with your legs and the palms of your hands, when you can really lose yourself in the rhythm of what you're doing. There's a real joy to kneading, to the slight burn in the muscles of the shoulders if you aren't used to it.

I didn't meditate as much as I would have liked today, but there are more days to come. I had fun, I enjoyed kneading, and I loved what came out of the oven several hours later.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Salford scientists help create wind sculpture | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

Salford scientists help create wind sculpture | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

This is a picture of a gorgeous artistic wind chime created in England. It's a mix of both art and science, as sound scientists helped to formulate the way it would sit. The wind blows and it sings. I think it's quite lovely!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Warmth

This is the main way we heat our house. It's a (smallish, I suppose) parlor stove, circa late 1800s or early 1900s. It's pretty, and although it went through some abuse, it is not a bad little stove. It easily heats most of the lower level of the house (two bedrooms, a bathroom, a LARGE living room, dining room, kitchen, office space). It doesn't quite get through to the family room (which connects past the kitchen through double doors) or the upstairs, but hey, it's a parlor stove. It's not airtight, but it does run relatively well on a good load of wood. It burns down fairly waste-free, and doesn't produce as much ash as some of our old stoves have.

It's currently squatting happily on its three legs in our living room, burning away at a nice pace. Above it is a relatively large box that looks odd, and is called MagicHeat. It's an interesting contraption that "harvests" the heat that would otherwise be lost as it flits up your chimney. The internal thermostat clicks on at 150F, and off at 120F or so, blowing only hot air into your room. The thing raises the temperature in the main living areas by as much as 10-12 degrees! I admit that when Gray said he was going to install this thing, I was hesitant. It was expensive (though his parents bought it for us for Christmas, thank all that's holy), and it didn't seem that an ugly box on a pipe could do all it claims. Well... it does. And then some!

It has improved the draw on our chimney, warmed the house, lowered the smoke in the house (which is a long story I don't want to get into right now), and gives us an oral warning when the wood needs more stove. When the thermostat clicks off the fan, which isn't all that loud but is definitely easily heard, we know the heat is dropping down. That lets us get wood on while there are still nice, cherry coals glowing in the fireplace. I think our wood is also burning more efficiently, but that's just an opinion.

Having this stove in our living room has done a few things for our family. First, we like to congregate there, because it's many degrees warmer than anywhere else in the house. Second, it's just pleasant to be around a crackling fire, and our lovely cast iron fireplace has two little chevrons of mesh that allow us to watch our fire as well as feel its heat. Third, it's allowed us to set our thermostat to 55F and make it this far through the winter (albeit a fairly warm one) with only a  half tank of oil so far. Generally speaking, the only time the furnace goes on is if the fire dies out (sometimes in the morning this happens as the stove really isn't an all nighter) or if we have over friends who aren't inured to the cold like we are.

For me, this has become a place of refuge. I no longer hide away in my bedroom. I no longer have my computer in my bedroom, either. It's in the office, and there it stays. I go to it, rather than lugging it around with me. I've become much less dependent on this piece of technology. Don't get me wrong: I still use it, and love it. It simply has ceased to be my lover, my focus. This has resulted in a cleaner house, happier family members, children who are forced to clean up their messes while they grumble incessantly, and dinners that are tasty and healthy and rarely "thrown together" at the last minute.

The upstairs is a different category altogether. I will admit, the chill of the upstairs (usually hovering around 55F, though on very cold nights it will drop into the 40s occasionally) has me prefer to go up only for necessary rituals (my altars are in my room) and to grab clothing or to sleep. I love my room, and it is very much a sanctuary, but it's a cold one that forces me to bundle up. I have come to see it as a place to meditate while in a cocoon of blankets (yes, that really is me just before bed, bundled up almost to the point of being unrecognizable lol). I use a heating pad to warm up the sheets (while we do have coals I could use, I think it's not worth the fire hazard to take a pan of hot coals up to warm my feet at night *chuckle*) while I'm cuddling down, and then it goes off and I wrap myself up in the quilts and sheets and microfiber, and I drift off to a very restful sleep.

Nightcap
I have found that the sheer weight of the winter-weight quilts is a comforting thing. I've also come to understand, intimately, why people wore nightcaps and kerchiefs to bed prior to forced air heating! As you can see in the above picture, I have a blanket thrown over my head. This is because my bedroom wall is an outside wall, and it's cold when the wind blows. It will sap the heat out of my body through my head and leave me shivering. The simple application of a throw over my noggin leaves me toasty warm throughout the night. I'm surprised how much of a difference it made! I am thinking of asking for an actual nightcap for myself for my birthday (in just a couple of weeks! WOW!), because I think it would improve my sleep and warmth. I like the idea of having it ON me rather than wrapped around me, because it wouldn't slip off when I turned over, nor would I lose it when I get up to pee in the middle of the night.

In any case, this winter has turned out to be a very meditative one. I've had less feeling of stress and "run around syndrome" than previous years, and I just feel better about myself and my surroundings. It's been pretty peaceful here, and we've settled into decent routines that carry us from day to day with gentleness and love. My life is not perfect, by any means, but... who'd want that anyhow? I like my little deviations from normalcy.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Observation Seeds, 1 and 2

I'm sure many of you have seen this image before. What do you see in the picture? I see many things, but I always see the old couple first, looking at one another with an abiding love. I see the grail. I see Mexicans. I see a doorway. I see so much. Someone on one of the many blogs I read (I cannot remember who, and I wish I did!) had a writing seed challenge for January 2012. If I remember correctly, the idea was to take time to observe every day, and then write a few lines about what you observed. You could be general or specific, and there was no limit to what type of writing you could do. Poetry, prose, descriptions, point form bullets, everything was acceptable. I have decided to take on this challenge for the month of January.

On January 1st, I did the observation but didn't write about it. It's actually a common observation of mine, but it affects me so deeply that I feel I need to write it down.

January 1: I close my eyes, and the sound of the heavy rainfall beats on the roof above me. I know there isn't much insulation, and the room is cold. I am buried beneath my blankets, warm and safe but vitally aware of the violence of the elements just beyond the wooden skin protecting me. I can hear several kinds of water, in fact: the actual rainfall itself, the secondary bounces as it hits the roof, the dripping of excess water off the eaves, the lashing sound as the raindrops skitter past the trees that lean toward my room, and even the splash of water on mud far below my room at the back of the house. I love this sound, and it makes my heart swell with joy.

January 2: I can smell the wood cooking in the other room. Some of our wood is rather wet, and we're drying it on the top of the wood stove before putting it in to burn, and it gives off a particular scent so different from the smell of it burning. There's no smoke involved, although sometimes there is steam if the wood is wet enough. Mostly it is just a warm, woody, earthy smell that fills the house and makes me think of quiet.