Thursday, July 28, 2011

Responding to Suffering Far Away.

I've been thinking about the drought in the Horn of Africa: the drought is devastating and many people are dying of starvation. In the context of this kind of suffering, it feels petty to think about simplicity. Frugality, maybe, if it means rerouting our money towards alleviating poverty (whether that is effective is another conversation). But simplicity feels a bit of an obnoxious "life focus" when people are dying of starvation.

As you can guess, I'm going to argue that simplicity is not peripheral or obnoxious, even when there are acute global needs. I think it can be a response.

I count friends and colleagues who have stories that involve months of walking, lack of food, illness, giving birth under trees, and worse. Yet even as one friend reflects on the tragedies in her past, she describes the isolation and alienation she feels now, in the U.S. She's desperately trying to make ends meet in U.S. terms (college for kids, health care coverage for kids, supporting family still in refugee camps), and she's constantly feeling out-of-place in U.S. society. I don't think this sentiment reflects ingratitude. She's not complaining. I think it speaks to two things:

Firstly, our immediate circumstances are relative: even if we've been through incredibly bad times, relatively better times can still feel genuinely hard. Secondly, I think it shows that isolation in U.S. society is really, really painful. Being on a treadmill of work and money is something that's somehow happened to us, and it is powerful to think about building a different society right here, even in the midst of monumental suffering elsewhere.

This observation is not meant as an attempt to normalize or draw comparisons across totally different scales of suffering. It is also not a prodding for us to feel bad about feeling bad. Or to minimize the very real structures of work and school and insurance and debt that make it hard to do things differently. Simplicity is also not the answer to all the problems in the world.

Rather, I suggest that one response to suffering is to be radical-- sometimes simplistically so-- about choices we make in the day-to-day. Not out of guilt or to make our lives artificially perfect. But in recognition that some core things are true, and that in our own bumbling way, it is an act of love and grace to figure out how not to be caught up in creating or retaining wealth. I dream that maybe that will segway into tangible hands-on doing something I like for my community or one a little removed (see biltong factory), but in the space between those dreams and The Now, there's a time in which just doing life "well" matters.

It's hard when it feels like a choice between health insurance and full-time work or no insurance and a sense of insecurity. And there's pressure for full-time work to be self-actualizing and so on. All the more, those who say (in a genuine, non-creepy way) "we're so lucky, or we're so blessed" may be pioneers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Homeschooling for Skeptics

I've long been skeptical of homeschooling, partly out of prejudice, partly out of laziness, and partly because of my politics. I'm not sure how many readers here occupy a similar political space, but I wanted to share some of my evolving thoughts-- very specific to our case and to the fact that I've never actually homeschooled.

Until recently, I'd  most encountered the Christian fundamentalist side of homeschooling, which seemed driven by fear of "the world".  Like the U.S. approach to terrorism earlier this century, I really dislike fear-mongering. One of my goals is to deal with my fears well, so that they're not what drives my actions.

I also have a strong belief in government's role as a potential equalizer; people in poverty can't simply lift themselves out by force of will-- more than that, I think there are things that make it virtually impossible to get out of poverty (poverty of various kinds, not just financial). With that belief comes some hope in public schools as an equalizing force. So, in the framework of public-private-homeschool, private school would probably be my least favorite (it's also really expensive, and you guys know I'm cheap).

But as the internet changes the world in fundamental ways and makes learning more accessible, I wonder if traditional schools are really serving the best learning interests of the poor or the rich. If schools only benefit the poor of societies to the extent that high school certificates or university diplomas are currency in our world, then is that a real or artificial benefit? Will young people have meaningful, learning-filled childhoods, adolescence, and young adulthoods in schools? For some kids, I think the answer is yes. But for many more, schools are babysitting zones to keep kids out of the way for chunks of the day so parents can work. I think this because sometimes Eug and I joke about how soon we can send Noah somewhere school-ey so we don't feel so astoundingly busy.

As Eug and I break out of the 9-5 two-parents-working-treadmill of work, stuff and life, it starts to feels wrong to train Noah to conform to that same system. If school is preparation for the "real world" and we think that world kindof sucks, then maybe instead of preparing Noah for the "real world" we can prepare Noah for the world we dream of. If school is often the only place children meet people who are different from them, perhaps that just means our home must become that space. It's risky, and Noah will always have a say-- I'm not doing a social experiment. Homeschooling is mainstream enough that kids can still pursue whatever career they like: medical school, law school, whatever.

I'm using heady language, and I don't mean to be so abstract. Basically, school might waste a lot of Noah's time, and a lot of our time. School in South Africa, Korea, and the U.S. all seem to be unnecessarily stressful. I'm not certain that stress over tests and exams is really valuable or character-building. I look over the exams I have been most concerned about over the years, and I find I can't actually remember anything I studied so hard. From what I can see, schools have only gotten more test-driven and stressful.

I think there is unavoidable life pain- death of friends and family, AIDS, cancer, malnutrition, poverty, conflict, divorce- and learning to deal with that kind of pain will be important. But grades, ranking, etc? These are artificial ways of measuring people's worth-- it presents pain that can be postponed indefinitely because the later one feels it, the less deeply it penetrates. It's important that my doctor knows their anatomy and physiology, but that trajectory doesn't extrapolate all the way back to the womb (here there are preschools that have wait-lists because they're considered Harvard's incubators). I would prefer my doctor learned to be a caring, interested, interesting human being the first 18 years of their life. 

Laziness and Other Practical Considerations
I also wasn't sure we'd have time for homeschooling.  I'm still not sure, but I think we just might. It seems like a good thing to make time for. We're not thinking of a little schoolhouse at home, with classes and such. We're thinking of learning that is more organic. My dad taking Noah up a mountain. My mom introducing him to crafts. Eug's mom teaching him to paint. Teaching him violin, woodworking, cooking, reading great books, basic graphic design.  The basics, you know.

If we factor in the hour or so in the morning, and hour or so in the afternoon that might be spent driving/walking a child to and from school or getting their special lunch meal ready, you've already got two hours to spend teaching. Then, add in the time spent stressing over homework, shopping for school uniforms, time spent earning the money to pay for school fees and associated costs (in the South African case), and you're getting pretty close to the few hours of hands-on teaching that's necessary to help a child learn. It's telling that six hours per week is the number of class hours recommended for students who take time off school due to illness. That's all.

I'm not saying we'll definitely home school Noah, or that I have any judgement whatsoever on parents who send their kids to school-- I've been a parent for a grand 14 months. I'm suggesting that perhaps homeschooling offers a new dimension of simplicity that is surprising and unexpected to someone with my traditional educational background. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Inspiring, Exciting Urban Gardens in Boston (Part 4)

Perspectives on Boston gardens wouldn't be complete without a look at a community garden. This is my old community garden:
One thing I love about the community garden is the transfer of skills that takes place between new and experienced gardeners. What amazes me is that the beginners are (after two or three years) growing gardens anyone would be proud of (I speak as a beginner beginner):

I love that this master gardener (above and below) makes his garden into a total mess of edible plants. I have no idea how he does it, but his plot looks like a forest. When you look more closely, you see that almost everything is intentional.

squash and onions side by side...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What I'd have on My Gift Registry if Eug and I could Marry Again

Of all the things in life to regret, this one is pretty minor, but it's a place where it's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of needs and wants and end up with a ton of unnecessary stuff. In our case, it also set the tone for our first year or so of marriage, and meant we had to work backwards quite a bit to get to equilibrium in our little, overstuffed apartment.

When Eug and I got married, we'd both been living in large, chaotic communal households for some time. Before that, we'd both been living in our family homes or in college dorms. None of these places provided a good picture of what we would need once we were married. So I looked on the Target and Macy's websites, and just ordered everything I thought we could need: Towels, a blender, plates, etc, etc, etc. I wanted to have enough that I didn't seem stingy to Eug. The registry was just one thing on our wedding planning to-do list, but I was also after a sense of plenty. I wanted stuff we'd never buy ourselves. I didn't worry much about cost because it wasn't my money, and I figured people would just contribute whatever they could. Which is embarrassing now, but at the time it seemed normal.

As we sell and give away most of our stuff, I wish that we'd just asked for money or donations to Kiva or something.

The reality is that we didn't need most of the stuff we got, and we've spent the subsequent five years learning to let go of the stuff we thought we needed. We could have bought most things much more carefully and cheaply ourselves (though Amazon is probably the best way to get exactly what you want), in small quantities and gradually. When we were waiting for Noah, I managed to hold back my buying impulse because of what I'd learned from the wedding registry experience.

Things that we (I) thought we needed but didn't:
A waffle maker (and some other appliances).
A full set of pots and pans. We use some, but we don't need 4 different pot and pan sizes.
The Absolute Best Set of Knives Ever. Just two really good knives would have been better and cheaper.
Extra skillet (why, I'm not sure).
Two sets of utensils.
Millions of towels (someone will always give you towels, be brave and don't ask for them)
Two shower curtains (one is plenty.)
Multiple lamps.
The Giant Pot.

Things that have been really useful
Pyrex containers

For us, it was hard to have a good sense of what we needed before we married. So many things could have waited, so that we could spend time building up towards our equilibrium, rather than having to try to build down.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What If I'm Not Counter-Cultural After All?

I've noticed as I've been looking at gardens around Allston, that I'm not necessarily counter-cultural. In my neighborhood, there are bikes everywhere. There are people growing things, everywhere. People walk to their neighborhood parks. There are elders harvesting grape leaves, and people going through the recycling for usable parts. There is seaweed drying on clotheslines. There are clothes drying on clotheslines. Sure, there are a lot of dunkin'donuts cups around the neighborhood. But we all have our vices.

It dawned on me that the young hippy crowd, students, and the elderly seem to do some things in a similar way.

I wonder how important the "counter" in counter-cultural really is to me. When I push up against consumerism and materialism, it gives me little spurts of righteous indignation; it spurs me on and gives me something to rail against. When I studied history, we used the word "deconstruction" to death. We deconstructed this paradigm and that paradigm, until we were left with lots of bits.

But the wonderful thing about the sustainability movement is that it doesn't just reject the system (including consumerism, etc), it embraces something (slow food, recycling, frugality, minimalism). There's something beautiful in rethinking and re-constructing. Something powerful in taking ownership and not just being critics on the sidelines, even as we acknowledge that yes, many systems are both very powerful and very wrong.

In the U.S., the step of rejecting certain things is important. In South Africa, it may be less so: there's a strong culture of reuse, grocers charge for plastic bags, you'll never be offered coffee in a paper cup to go (although Starbucks is coming, apparently), small cars are hip, and so on. That said, Woolworths, the closest thing to Whole Foods, packages their fruits and vegetables to death, middle-class houses are large, and once you've finished reusing, the recycling market is weak. Given these different contexts, what I'm hoping is that I can gain momentum that's sometimes inspired by the rising tide of sustainability around us, but that I'm convicted independent of what's "normal" around me.

Which leaves with original and un-original things I'm hoping for before we leave for South Africa: I'd like to go these last few months in Boston without acquiring any plastic bags, reuse the plastic bags I have, avoid throwing anything useful or recyclable away during our move, and not get any drinks in plastic or paper cups. As a family, we'd like to sell $2,750 worth of stuff to pay for our travel to South Africa.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Inspiring, Exciting Urban Gardens in Boston (Part 3)

This garden took me by surprise: Close to Brighton Ave, it's very large and productive. In a row of similar houses, gardening has become the norm. The garden is covered in large raised beds, with old carpet placed between the beds to keep out weeds. The garden looked like it had been built up over several years, and that the plans were still in motion. You could sense a bigger vision at play.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Noah found a bike (in the trash) on the street!
Check out my German Bike.
Anyone who might like it once the summer is over, is welcome to it!

We also picked up a Kleen Kanteen on the street. We didn't steal it. It was under a parked car. Without a lid, but lids can be arranged, I think...
Welcome to the Family, Fourth-Born Kleen Kanteen 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Traveling Free for Six Weeks.

When we decided to move to South Africa we were left with some choices over how to get there.

We're going to be traveling for almost six weeks at a total cost equal that of just traveling directly to South Africa by plane. And at definitely much less cost than traveling to SA by plane and living for 6 weeks in either SA or Boston.

For those of you who might want to try to travel "creatively", I wanted to detail how we're doing this. There are plenty of reasons why this particular itinerary wouldn't work for you. Don't let the peculiarities of this itinerary stop you from imagining another trip that really works for you.

This is the trip:
By Plane: Boston-Phoenix (7 days in Sedona) -Atlanta (1 day)-Milan (9 days) 
By Boat: Genoa-Cape Town (18 days, with stops in Barcelona, the Canary Islands, Senegal, Namibia).

This is the total cost:
$2,750 for three people.

We'll have money reserved for food and gifts when we're not on the boat, so it'll come to more than this, but much less than we'd ordinarily spend on a regular month at home.
A flight for the three of us from BOS-SA costs almost exactly $2,750 ($1250 X 2 + $250 for infant in arms.) So instead of paying $2,750 for the flight, we're paying $2,750 and visiting Eug's dad, our friends in Italy, and taking an amazing boat trip to Cape Town.

Why this trip works so well for us:
  1. We won't have a vacant home waiting for us. We also won't be paying for insurance or gas on a car. 
  2. We collect miles, and we're not afraid to figure out ways to use them.  We have a credit card that we try to use for everything, we sometimes get (free) credit cards for the sole purpose of getting the sign-up bonus miles (usually 25,000-50,000 miles).
  3. We're doing this between full-time jobs, So we're not taking (non-existent) vacation time.  Some of the time, we'll still be working.  Other times, we'll hopefully be pursuing some big writing dreams (for Eug) and some other big dream (for me).
  4. We're blessed to have friends and family that will take us in. We're going to Sedona and Milan to visit people, which is also a great way to see new places (through our host's eyes).  We can't travel quickly or try to do too much with Noah, as he crashes after too much activity.
  5. Both of us have at least some location-independent income.  While we're traveling, we'll do some work so we won't be giving up all income while we're traveling. That said, we will have few expenses other than those we've already paid for (the cost of the cruise and flights), so it's probably ok if we don't do any work whatsoever.
The Specifics (other small things that help us travel cheaply)
  1. We leave at the end of the month, so that tenants can move into our apartment by Nov 1.
  2. One way-tickets to Phoenix cost about $125 each, with Noah traveling free. Some one-way tickets are really expensive, so getting a cheap one way was a huge part of keeping our costs down.
  3. From Phoenix, we'll get a ride to Sedona, where Eug's dad lives.  We'll spend about a week with Eug's dad and his family.
  4. Our flights from Phoenix-Milan (via Atlanta) cost 60 000 miles each, with only $5 per person in taxes. By traveling to Milan, we actually save a lot in airport taxes as compared to other European airports-- taxes can often cost upwards of $500 for three people (babies must pay tax on international flights), so $15 is truly amazing.  We also save a lot by just having one stopover.  Delta has probably the worst frequent flier program, but we have lots of miles with Delta so we're using them up on this flight.  We had to search almost every day until a good flight came up.  I have to give Eug credit for this, as he persisted in finding a really good route for us. I was satisfied as soon as we found a way to get to Milan using miles, but Eug persisted until we found a non-stressful itinerary. Traveling with a baby, two direct flights with a long layover is much, much better than multiple flights with short layovers.  We'll go to a cheap hotel in Atlanta (hopefully paying in miles again), catch up on some work, relax and probably take a swim in the hotel pool. (the alternative was traveling continuously for over 26 hours).
  5. In Milan, we'll stay with friends. I've been wanting to visit these friends for a very long time, so I'm so grateful that somehow it worked perfectly that we'll see eachother. It'll be Eug's first time in Italy; I have a massive sense of anticipation waiting to see how he'll like it.
  6. From Milan, we'll take a train or bus to Genoa, where we'll get on the Melody, a boat made famous by being hijacked by Somali Pirates. It's an older boat that spends N. Hemisphere summers in the Mediterranean, and S. hemisphere summers in the Indian Ocean.  The trip is so cheap (900pp +taxes for 18 days, with Noah travelling free, for a total of about $2,500) because they have to get from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean in between summer 1 and summer 2, which is called a "repositioning cruise". For those of you who are interested in taking a boat as transportation, repositioning cruises are a great way to do this, because they're generally much cheaper than other cruises. Of course, again it works for us because we're actually trying to get to Cape Town.  International one way plane tickets are notoriously expensive (more than returns, often). We're super excited about the cruise because food will be provided, and because we'll be largely without internet, and we'll see places along the way.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How We're Clearing House

Some minimalists become minimalists quickly because of a dramatic life change, or because they're exhausted by all their stuff. We've become so because we lived in a little apartment, and after that have moved three times in about the space of a year. Part of what drives me towards minimalism is the idea that some wealthy people (yes, you're wealthy) are stressed out by their stuff, which doesn't sit well with me. I don't want to be in a position where my wealth is a burden to me. On that heavy note...

While the 100-thing challenge is seductively neat,  it's not really about getting down to some magic number of things, but to getting down to the things we use very frequently. I think our default setting is to over-value the function or value of an object while underestimating the costs of ownership-- particularly the costs related to cleaning and to having a larger space or having furniture to keep stuff in.

As we move, I'll catalogue every item we own, because it'll be doable and fun and slightly weird. Doable, fun, and weird: that's a killer combination.

Anyway, so I recommend moving if you want to have less stuff.

I'd also advocate starting WAY in advance of an upcoming move. In our family, when we're pressured for time, we throw good stuff away. The more time we have, the more we can sell stuff (we just got $450 for old camera gear), or find good homes for things-- or even re-purpose things before giving them away. An example of this is pictured below-- I loved this skirt very much, but it was very old and the elastic had long since given in. So I've decided to make my first quilt with it. I don't have a sewing machine, so it'll take a while, and it might be pretty awful but it'll be a work of love.
Skirt is now in pieces. Now to learn to sew... And to have time... cough..
But I'm not moving
If you're not moving, I've found method of putting things away in a faraway cupboard helpful. This is how it works: put things in boxes or bags, and mark the date on the bag or box, and tape it so you'll know if you get into it. If you need something from the box, you can come at any time and retrieve what you need. But if you don't, then sell/donate the contents after six months. The seasons make this more challenging here in the very seasonal Northeast- perhaps a year is a more practical timeframe here. But you get the picture.  If something is stored year in and year out, maybe you don't need it.

Wearing 30 items for three months has been really helpful in helping me to let go. Rather than forcing myself to imagine life without X clothes item, I just had 30 items in my cupboard. The rest seemed less important, because of how incredibly easy it was to not have a crowded cupboard. As the three months have passed, I find myself more and more willing to let go of clothes I thought I needed. The process has been very emancipating.

Books are a challenging area for me, a self-appointed clearing house expert. But, despite how smart they make me feel, the reality is that the books I read are almost always from the library or electronic. I don't read the books I own. They just look pretty.

But, really, you kinda need to move
Reading this, I feel more convinced (unless you're super self-controlled) that moving, or living in a relatively small space, or some other significant life upheaval, are pretty important if you don't want to have excess. That, and not starting with too much to begin with. Which I'll talk about another time.

Here's a few things we sold or gave away in the last eight months:
A lot of clothes (including most of our suits, and a lot of Noah's clothes)
Toaster Oven
Deep freeze
Chicken rotisserie (?!)
3 Bookshelves
100 books or more
Our college and university degrees (almost, by mistake)
Cameras (several, from Eug's MFA days)
IPod nano
The list will grow until it's shorter to list the things we still have...

[If you love geranium, an orchid, or pathos, we'd be very excited to pass them on to you if you're in the Boston area.  They're in painted white ceramic pots.]

Monday, July 11, 2011

Inspiring, Exciting Urban Gardens in Boston (Part 2)

This is the second part of my look at small, unexpected edible gardens.  I've started in Allston, which is my neighborhood. Allston is a diverse mix of first or second generation immigrants, students, yuppies, with a backbone of older families who have lived here for a very long time (usually people whose children are already grown).

Just off Brighton Ave, I noticed a house with vegetables lining the side of the house:
Concrete Gardening at its best
Tomatoes line the gate, with peppers in pots about a foot behind the fence
Just across the road is a beautiful awning made of grapevine. Someone was harvesting the grape leaves when I walked past.  I love that it's become part of the house, and provides this beautiful shade, not to mention edible leaves and grapes.

Next door to the house above, was a house that, at first glance, was all lawn. But as I came closer, I noticed that they actually had potted tomatoes, basil and fennel. Perhaps the soil in the garden itself has issues.  Even one pot of food feels like a reminder of where our food comes from.

Lastly, very close to our house is a small garden with a peach and lime tree.  The lime tree was so tiny (two feet at most) yet so fruitful.  

Peaches in the city...

Friday, July 8, 2011

On Baby Sleep

Our child still does not sleep through the night.  He got un-night weaned when we went to Korea, and hasn't looked back.  At some point, he's going to have to stop breastfeeding.  Ignoring for a moment the fact that I'm writing a post about it, I'm actually much less stressed about it than previously. Can I also just reassure you if none of the books worked for you?  They didn't work for us either.  Well, I guess I didn't try too many, because the cry it out thing just isn't for me, at least not until Noah is 18 months old. At that point, the universe shifts.

We decided that we'd just get rid of the crib.  A sign of resignation, and a look towards our move to Cape Town, where Noah will be 18 months old, have his own room, and where we can just shut the door and ignore him.  Kidding, kidding. I'm hoping we can cut the door in half and just shut the bottom half.  Probably kidding on that, too.

Noah is sleeping on his small mattress which is next to our small mattress, and overnight he creeps closer and closer to me.  He usually sleeps with his head on our mattress.  We're no longer worried about him suffocating and such, so he's on a duvet to try to disguise his own little mattress.  And it kindof works.  I say kindof because a couple times a night, he's sure he needs food, and I'm not terribly interested in arguing that point in the middle of the night. So I try to enjoy his tiny neediness, and reassure myself that he's only 13 months old, and he only has to start learning he's not the center of the universe at 18 months, right?

That said, we are placing a lot more limits on him, and I don't try to explain the mysteries of the universe as I'd started to when he was six months old. I'm accepting that, just as he needs to be the center of the universe a little while longer, he also doesn't understand too many long sentences.  He has to go to sleep, he doesn't have the option of going onto the street (NO), electrocuting himself (NO), eating the junk we're eating (NO), eating flies (NO), putting my cell phone in the toilet (NO) or being annoying (STOP BEING ANNOYING).  In brackets are the explanations I currently provide. Some are more helpful than others, I'll let you guess.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Power of Online Community

I used to think that if a community is virtual, then by definition it is not real.

But online community is also a means to meet like-minded people and galvanize ideas in a way that's hard to do in person, because we might never meet in person. Online networks are real because they catalyze real transformation. So I'm trying to be a part of good blog conversations, rather than just a spectator or consumer.

I've been thinking about where the tipping point of helpful-less helpful takes place for me. I love writing on this blog; it gives me a measure of accountability for life changes, and it's fun, and sometimes I hear from you (which is lovely, may I hear more).  What is perhaps less helpful online is the validation I get from checking my e-mail, blog stats or Facebook.

I've spoken on this blog about media fasts that I usually do about once a year.  This year, we'll be taking a boat for about 18 days in November-December, and during that time we'll be completely unplugged (well, actually we'll still be writing but there won't be internet). I was cured of my NYTimes addiction when they started their paid subscription service. Less because I couldn't check articles, more because I was just annoyed at them. I'm going to limit looking at blog stats to once a week (but know I value you, my one reader in Iran, I value you a lot!).

Have you had any good (or bad) media-fasting experience? Is there a particular media that's more or less helpful to you?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Frugal Minimalism (without the New York Times)

I'm a huge fan of apartment slideshows. I love looking at other people's houses.

Especially the people featured in the New York Times (they always seem to be Danish or Swiss or Polish or...), with their sprawling rooms with one spotless white chair and a single red flower artfully displayed in an invisible vase. Where do they keep everything? Why the one $300 000 chair?

I realized this mix of admiration and incredulity highlights these two values of minimalism (which the designer homes featured on the NY Times know something about) and frugality (which usually they don't).

I want to make the case for a brand of minimalism that embraces frugality.

In the big things, there's already a ton of overlap between minimalism and frugality:

1. Having the smallest house you can. By having few things (particularly as little furniture as you can get away with), you can feel comfortable in a much smaller space.

2. Transportation. Both minimalist and frugal peeps (?) dream of going without cars.

The place where there is sometimes tension between frugality and minimalism is in the (not universal) minimalist desire for the one perfect "thing". Or the willingness to pay a lot for beauty or brilliant design. I'm there. I totally understand that desire. But I'd argue that often, we shouldn't pursue it. Firstly, because nothing is perfect; our sensibilities change and what is perfect today is not perfect tomorrow. Secondly, because it can produce a sense of restlessness about what is, and make us continue to buy stuff in the search for perfection.

Particularly for those of us with children, there's something beautiful in relaxing into the fact that our houses are not New York Times minimalist, that the sheets are rumpled and old and we don't have the perfect way to hide our shoes in a secret trapdoor at the entrance of our house. That our pots and pans are just shoved into the cupboard any way they'll fit. And so on.

Mindful minimalism could mean gradually finding the number of things that make you think less about things and more deeply about all the other parts of your life. Though we might end up just thinking about things and money until we get down to your personal golden level of minimalism. Which seems to defeat the purpose, as it makes more sense to enjoy the journey. So I think I'm a proponent of simple systems (one in, four out; one thing out every day, etc) that allow us to gradually figure out what works to get us to where we're thinking less about stuff and money. Whatever gets us there...

While frugality sounds frumpy or evokes some negative self-denial for some future gain (where you still have the desire but you hold yourself back), minimalism highlights self-denial as a discipline where you benefit in the present because you're actively looking to fulfill deeper, more life-giving desires. I'm inspired by this kind of minimalism!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Inspiring, Exciting Urban Gardens in Boston

The next few weeks I'm going to highlight gardens around Boston: tiny, unexpected, beautiful gardens. I'm inspired by people trying to grow food in small spaces: it's incredible how much you are growing, but it's also landscape-changing and norm-changing to notice people growing even a few beans in their front gardens. In Boston proper, most back gardens are very shady because space is a premium, which leaves only the front garden for producing food.

To start, I wanted to share pictures of this totally unexpected sight: two tiny spaces at the entrance to a parking lot up Glenville Ave in Allston- at first glance they seem to be filled with weeds. Then I look closer, and I see beans, strawberries, fennel, nasturtium, basil. Beautiful and unexpected guerilla gardening here in Allston.