Friday, September 28, 2012

Gardening and Living out a "Calling"

Our latest shelf, with Eli guest starring. Our kitchen is becoming functional!

I recently enjoyed this post about being an introvert. It made me think of the famous quote by Eric Liddell in Chariot's of Fire, who wondered whether he had to be a pastor to fulfill his calling: 

"I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." 

For me that story and Darren's post both ask the fundamental question of whether we have to try to change who we are in order to have an impact or "live out our calling".  

Having made this big move to South Africa, I am often in a rush to figure out why we're here and how we're going to start a revolution, change the world, be inspired, be inspiring. I say that jokingly but also dreamily. I know I have to change and grow, but also that the things I'm hardwired to love are somehow meaningful.  

I am not a great gardener and I don't have any special insight into how to make our tiny space into a place of beauty and productivity and peace and lots of food and... but I feel amazing when I try to grow something and try to make something where there wasn't something previously. It feels like something I can do to bring a little heaven to earth right now, if only internally. Making a beautiful space in a fairly concrete-filled treeless street is my offering. 

It's not very beautiful yet, but I see potential in what's growing this spring. You can check out our "Before" pictures to see what the front and back spaces are like:

I'm always on the hunt for old tires. They make extremely hardy tomato pots. In the end, this tire will just have one tomato. In the end there will be only one...

We have two blueberry bushes, just beginning to get blueberries.
We have one lemon tree, given as a gift, in a pot. It's beautiful.

Although they don't produce anything I really enjoy my bonsai as a sort of microcosm of trees in a small space.

In the front area, I have over thirty plants in self-watering soda bottles. Because they're hanging, there isn't a big problem of pests, but I am interested in ultimately scaling up and trying bottle towers to conserve water and space.

We're just coming out of winter so the lavender and rosemary need some extra love.

I'm growing granadillas (also the little ones in the photo below) to try to hide some of the burglar guards and hopefully grow a lot of fruit. Granadillas have become my favorite fruit, but they're fairly expensive so I'm experimenting with space, sun, water and worm castings to see what seems to make them happiest in their pots. 
In the end, there will also be only one. Though I'll just transplant the others into big pots, if they're doing well! One can never have too many granadilla vines. Well...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hippy Judgements and Holding Beliefs Loosely

I recently read a manifesto of beliefs by a hippy mom, and one of her beliefs was about crotch-dangling baby-carriers. Which is a big area of concern in hippy circles. I recognize the irony in starting a post about judgement with a judgement on an anonymous blogger, but bear with me. It struck me that while I'd probably jump on the anti-certain-kinds-of baby-carrying bandwagon as quickly as the next hippy, it's not really something I want to be about. I don't even want to be about breastfeeding or natural childbirth or baby wearing or eating sprouted grains or socialism or living in a tiny house. If it sometimes seems like that's what I'm about, please forgive me.

That sense of smugness that I feel when I'm out with Noah and Eli and feel superior to other moms for this or that reason is also absolutely not what I want to be about. Which is sort of tough when one is way off the beaten track. Our family seems different from those we meet, which means that a) we're not from around here, and we arrived with different norms and b) we've thought a lot about things that we want to do differently from mainstream consumerist Western culture. So it's hard, when I feel different from other Cape Town moms, to not default to figuring out how exactly I'm different and defend my choices internally.

This has also made it hard for me to write about much recently. I'm really into all these strange-to-outsiders things, but they're not the core of who I am nor do they necessarily constitute what it means to live a blessed life. I think a blessed life has everything to do with relationships- with ourselves, with others, and with God. Working meaningfully but less, consuming less, and raising our kids constitute a blessed life for us- in a very deep and meaningful way. But at my core, I want to be remade into a person of grace, not a person who has figured out attachment parenting or sustainable living.

I'm going to keep on trying to write about attachment parenting and sustainable living and whatever else we're experimenting with, but I don't really know what we're doing. My yardstick on our progress towards the good life is not measured by our carbon footprint or how quickly my babies are potty trained. It's not measured at all, but maybe I know it when I see it- when I have expansive space to appreciate and connect with people wherever they are.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


It's caterpillar season in Cape Town and Noah has found his new obsession. If I'd posted this yesterday, this would have been a post about how amazing and nature loving and gentle our child is. When he found a caterpillar eating our pomegranate tree, he figured it had plenty of food but maybe not enough water. So he took a lemon peel and poured water to offer the caterpillar, unbidden. I could think of other things to do the caterpillar, but I held back for Noah's sake.

I use lemon and orange peels as mulch, to keep cats from pooping in our trees and plants.

Indeed, the caterpillar drank.
Then today, when I picked up Noah from my parent's house, he re-enacted today's encounter with two caterpillars. It involved stomping and caterpillar death, at grandpa's suggestion. Which is to say Noah is a normal two year old, and is easily influenced.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Assigning Value

Eug and I live in a little house, and our lives are affordable enough that we can each spend just a few hours on paid work each day. We spend a lot of time with our children and, rather remarkably, recently found that we have time to clean the house. There is no real reason not to invest time and energy into being brave with our vocations. We live pretty modestly for this very reason. We are in this lucky place where our lives need not center on money.
One of the first things in our house that is just there for beauty (that top shelf). The crates are how much fruit and vegetables we consume every week. 
But I still constantly turn to money as a way of measuring value, and it's hard to get away from the fear that there may not be enough, or that we won't get our "fair share"- fair pay, fair recognition, a fair assessment of my dissertation so that I can move forward somehow.  

As I try to follow Jesus, I want to learn what it means to hold money loosely, but also how to assign value without thinking of money first. On the frugal-minimalist-sustainable spectrum, I tend to be frugal first. My first gut question when Eug started making beer was "is it cheaper than buying it?", even though we've never bought beer in our lives, so the question is largely irrelevant.

We keep on adding shelves, and I seem to have begun a love affair with glass jars. Who knows how it will end.
I have a similar reaction to a lot of things, and struggle to separate my worth from my earning power.  After all, it's our cheapness that allows us this kind of life in the first place, right? Well, yes and no. One of the most influential books when Eug and I were paying off debt was "Your Money or Your Life", which equates money spent with the real number of hours required to earn that money. But thinking about spending in these terms, particularly after getting free from debt, can be a dangerous source of pride or inadequacy if it's used too simplistically. Money is a blunt tool that fails to take into account the nuances of our real needs in community and in family. It is a fickle source of security.

I'm keen for my goals to be about adding value without necessarily having that value translate to money. This means that my to-do list is re-oriented towards how I can bless myself and other people the most. It's not centered on what people who influence my pay/earning power or Eug's pay want from us, but on less tangible value, both in the short term and the long term. Still pretty vague, but I'd love to hear from you on how better to make this leap. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to Make Non-toxic Sunscreen

In recent years people have started writing about the toxicity of commercial sunscreens, and it also seemed like one way to reduce plastic consumption, so I decided to try to make our own as it starts getting hot here in Cape Town. 

In contrast to our pediatrician in Boston, our pediatrician here in Cape Town didn't recommend sunscreen for babies.  From what I've read, I finally feel persuaded to find a hat I actually like wearing for the summer, and to do the same for the kids. Barrier protection against the sun- when you're in the sun for more than the usual out-and-about- seems to be the best line of defense. The sun is also a good thing so a little exposure is ok. This sunscreen will allow us to hang out on the beach a little longer. We'll be using this sunscreen when we're at the beach and pool, and if we go for long hikes. Zinc oxide is not totally innocuous, but it basically provides barrier- rather than chemical- protection against the sun at a micro level. I was careful not to buy nano zinc, which is apparently sometimes absorbed into the skin. 

This sunscreen takes about 10 minutes to make, has just three ingredients, and rubs on easily. 

The three ingredients are as follows:

2.5 tbsp of zinc oxide (this apparently makes about 20 spf- you can find more accurate measurements online)
Beeswax- about half a cup, melted.
Apricot kernel oil or some other oil- 1/2 cup-3/4 cup*

*South Africans, apricot oil is available at the pick n pay in Tokai and I'm sure many other places. I have a lot of beeswax and zinc oxide thanks to a visitor from the U.S., but if you know where to get these ingredients in SA, I know people would love to know in the comments.

I melted the beeswax in a makeshift double-boiler. It's quick and easy, but I'd suggest just using the jar you're going to store the sunscreen in, or using an old tin can if you have it as the pot was quite difficult to clean. While the water is still cool, place the oil and wax in the jar until it melts.  Then remove the jar before it gets too hot, then mix in the zinc oxide. Be careful to get the zinc oxide straight from the bag into the mixture- don't inhale!

Done! It rubs in nicely and smells pleasantly like honey.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Food Evolutions

As some readers know, I made a big push to plan meals earlier in the year. Then I scrapped the meal plan and I'm slowly coming to a happy medium. The meal plan didn't always work because it didn't give me the flexibility I needed to buy the food that's in season and cheap. Plus it brought out my crazy side, which my family shouldn't have to see every single day.

I've adopted a new way of shopping. I just estimate how much we eat during the week, and buy that much. We buy a lot of fruit. My general goal with shopping is to avoid all packaging, and not to waste any food at the end of the week. So as we come near to shopping day, I try to finish all produce except root vegetables before getting anything more. I buy carbs- flour, pasta, rice in bulk from Macro and the nearby Korean store.

I've been on a food journey with you these last few years, and some things have stuck, others not. While theoretically I want to eat only unprocessed oats, the reality is I need both whole oats and rolled oats, both brown rice and white rice, because I don't always remember to soak foods. 

So for this stage in our lives, where I'm trying to be part of a home that's pretty peaceful, a few things are working well: The food I buy from the grocery should have just one, preferably unprocessed ingredient, and I should know that ingredient. This idea is from Michael Pollan. My exceptions are cheese, which I don't yet make myself, chocolate (sometimes), and occasionally bakery bread.

I no longer have a grocery budget. I used to try to keep my grocery spending low, but I'm beginning to think abundance in food- good, healthy, plentiful food- is surely as important as anything imaginable. Maybe even as important as giving or showing our kids the world! So as we gradually find better sources of foods I try to extricate myself from all guilt associated with buying better, more expensive food- often in smaller quantities- so we're not buying much meat or cheese. I acknowledge this is a luxury, and my goal here in Cape Town is, over the course of five years or so, to get to know the producers of all of our family's food. Join me in the journey if you can!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Our first visit to Groot Constantia Wine Estate

We recently visited Groot Constantia Wine Estate, one of the oldest and largest wine estates in South Africa. It's a fun place to walk around and take in the beauty that is Cape Town. You feel like you might be in a park in Spain or France- the pressed earth paths and very old (Dutch style) houses make the time and place ambiguous. There were a lot of tourists when we were there, and several Chinese tourists started exclaiming and photographing us when they saw our family.

The estate is at least partially publicly owned: it's free to enter and walk around.

everything is that beautiful shade of spring green at the moment.

This weekend was the crossover point between Cape Town and Boston- the first couple of days that Cape Town was consistently warmer than Boston. I think it'll be warmer until mid-late May.

The vines are only just starting to get their new shoots and leaves for the year.

No baboons today, but I can testify to their scariness- last week a baboon snuck up and stole bread at the Tokai market, and he was so big I felt immediately threatened. I miss those tiny (though naughty) Durban monkeys.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Montebello Design Center, Newlands

A beautiful place to explore, even with tiny kids.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Day-to-day Creativity

Nasturtiums are everywhere, growing weedlike on river banks, in fields, and anywhere else that'll have them. Noah has to fill vases with them every day. He has to get his fix. Better than licking doorknobs, I suppose.
I'm not a crafty person, and I wouldn't describe myself as "creative", but right now I'm inspired by the idea of creativity. 

For a long time I thought of creativity in terms of artistic talent.  Yet rather than just being about working with our hands or creating beautiful things, creativity is about our innate human desire to create- to bring new worlds to life. It's juxtaposed with our destructive bits, not with our less creative bits. In these terms, our words or actions can create or destroy. I was always taught this as a child, but the emphasis tended to be on trying to avoid being destructive rather than thinking through what would create, or build up.

It is perhaps a reflection of the entitlement of my generation that I have to create meaning in cleaning. Or perhaps previous generations found similar meaning? Over the past couple of weeks, I've found cooking and cleaning to be creative. Cleaning (and often, cooking) tends to fall under the category of drudgery in our household. As drudgery, it must be equally shared for peace to rule in our house. As drudgery, there is always simmering anger against those who produce more stuff to clean. As drudgery, it's at most a sacrificial act. As drudgery, we do just enough to stay healthy and pass muster with visitors. As drudgery, it is something that I must endure to get to the stuff I was created to do, the things I dream of and hope for the world and so on. 

Yet as a creative action, cleaning is a means of creating beauty in our midst: It was dirty, now it is clean. It is part of what I was created to do. Yes, I was born to clean my house. Those big dreams I have never involve cleaning but they also never involve a dirty house. So my big dreams must somehow include cleaning. Perhaps it is all just mental gymnastics, but it feels different to value cleaning as a creative act. It is creative to restore our house from something run down and under-valued to its former glory, to strip away many years of neglect. To see something beautiful and try to somehow reveal it- to ourselves and others.

In these terms, it is no longer therapeutic to get things ready-made or buy cookie-cutter solutions to our problems. It is less attractive to buy more time to work. The day-to-day stuff are full of creative opportunities, and they keep my paid work grounded in meaningful reality. I want to affirm your creativity in the mundane. I used to think creativity was Da Vinci, but now I think it's every tree we plant, every plant we water, every attempt we make to help our children grow into great men and women, every time we try to fry an egg well or wash our plate after we use it.

I've been saving the yellow string from the big bags of oranges, and making these driftwood and shell creations with Noah. It's the closest I'll probably ever get to crafts.

An extraneous 11 seconds on Noah drumming, because it's nothing if not creative.
Noah is drumming to the soundtrack for the week in our house,  from "Fun", a group we discovered while watching the Amazon Kindle announcement. We're not so creative to shun the great minimalist capitalist invention of the kindle.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Candles, Beer and Finding our Place

This past week we visited Montebello Design Centre in Newlands. It's a lovely place for families to hang out and explore. The small nursery is beautifully well-designed and personal, and gave us plenty of ideas for our tiny concrete garden. This is what we got while we were there: 

A resident Kenyan artist sold us these upcycled candles. He melts old wax to make these candles from old soda cans. I'm going to take them back after they burn out, and ask him if he can use up the leftover wax and the cans again.
Montebello is almost too perfect. It's an artist utopia, the cafe is a tent with a huge sprawling tree in the center, and the nursery evokes a secret garden. If it were in Boston, there wouldn't be a but (or the "but" would be further away and easier to avoid thinking about?).... 

...But in Cape Town, you can't escape the juxtaposition of these havens which seem to shield us from the gritty reality just one street, or one suburb over. Informal settlements are supplying labour to our cities, and they've been compared to both concentration camps and refugee camps, though they have no walls. At Montebello, white South Africans would never know that we're in the tiny minority. I don't have any wise answers, and I can't speak to social change at the political level, but I think the tension is something we have to grapple with and make decisions about. Can these enclaves exist if there were no informal settlements? What will South Africa look like in twenty years? What should it look like?

So I'm working on using the car less and trying to find haven on the next street, or even inside our own home. I want to be fully invested in our community, even as I show Noah and Eli the beauty of the ocean and the mountains around us. We live near to a very beautiful river, the Liesbeek,  with incredible bird life. I took Noah there yesterday and found it full to the brim of plastic waste- we retrieved an old plastic crate (to the amusement of a couple of lookers on- it's more difficult to get things from a river than one thinks, and more disgusting). There were also homeless men living in a small island on the river, using tarp as a makeshift tent. 

Lives that revolve around car-transport can easily bypass those parts of the city that are scary or dirty, bouncing us between artificial realities, rather than making our immediate neighborhoods really work or confronting our fears of the unknown. I speak to myself: our lives have quickly become car-oriented, despite not having a work commute, but I'm beginning to see alternatives: I signed us up for a library card so we get our reading material from the tiny Obs library, we visit the park and the river, and Noah is gradually getting used to spending time at home, inventing games as we imagine our garden as it's own haven. Although Eli is too young for the bike seat, Noah goes for rides with Eug and we are so excited at the news that Albert road is going to be getting a proper bike lane. The roads in Obs are very narrow- often too narrow for two-way traffic, yet cars park on both sides of the street and trucks get stuck after they take a wrong turn and wind up in our neighborhood. I wonder if we can imagine something different- a truck free neighborhood?

In other news, Eug bottled his first batch or beer. Noah took on the important role of bottle cap provider, and I am the resident dumpster diver- for bottles and crates. Dumpster diving in Cape Town is totally unromantic: whereas in Boston I was looking for great food and even beautiful furniture, here I'm looking for bits of wire, plastic crates, old bits of wood, pallets, and old glass beer bottles. And they're pretty hard to find. 

Although we don't dress him very well, Eli is still just about as awesome as anything.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Unfortunate Combinations of English and Korean

Living near to my mom-in-law for the first 16 or 17 months of his life, Noah was exposed to a fair amount of Korean. We weren't sure if he remembered those times.

For the longest time we thought he only said "No!", not "Yes!" We were concerned for his language skills, and he seemed frustrated at being misunderstood.

Then, a few months ago we realized that he uses the Korean word for "Yes", which happens to be "Ne", and the English word for "No". Unfortunately, "ne" sounds a lot like "no", and until a few months ago they were indistinguishable, even to us. Which has made for a lot of confusion as we enter the season where "yes" and "no" seem to be the most important words in a toddler's vocabulary.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rhythm or Lack Thereof

EeCheng left after her two week visit, and we find ourselves possibly-maybe-maybe settling into some kind of rhythm. No. I'm not being honest. We don't have much of a rhythm. The advantage of not having proper day jobs is that we can decide each day what we feel like accomplishing. The disadvantage is that we are not grounded by knowing what's ahead of us- which is sometimes important for tiny kiddies.

Right now, I have my day's tasks and there are things that aren't going to get done, but it's ok. I have done a little work, given a lot of kisses, tried not to scream at my screaming 2-year-old, and right this moment I need to tell you that Noah gave back the iPod before the battery died. [Sorry, I'm gloating. Unlimited Kipper is somehow working- Noah no longer watches it much. Now if only he'd get over chocolate.] 

We've had major life events almost every week for about a year. There's still a lot to be done in terms of our settling into life here in Cape Town. I still haven't bought car insurance, house insurance, called the electrician to ask about the power failures, applied for Eug's permanent residence, got my proposal through Human Research Ethics, put up photos on our walls or fixed our living room light fixture. [Please God don't let the house burn down]. Overall, those things are relatively minor. I feel like there's nothing standing between me and Real Life. This is it. And we have enough time. We have the same amount of time as everyone.

I think sometimes I use landmarks to stop me from working on things- "it'll be better when..." Despite our best efforts, our house is always a mess. We always have one more load of diapers. I always forget to pay the Telkom bill until the last minute. Rather than think that a solution will appear some magical moment in the future, it seems to help to acknowledge that this is our life right now. This is it. If things aren't working now, then it's good to find tiny, stepwise solutions for them, to the extent possible. Solutions for low bar stuff- avoiding swarms of fruit flies, remembering to clean the sheet if Noah pees on it in the night, not running out of clothes or smelling bad. We're not yet at exercise, pretty toddler room decorations, painting the outside walls. Those are for next month or next year.

That said, here are some cool, unrelated things from the last week:
  • Soap nuts. Homemade detergent without borax sort of doesn't work for us. So I ordered soap nuts and borax from the internet and asked EeCheng to bring them over to us. The borax didn't arrive in time but the soap nuts did, and they are awesome. We haven't had time to strip the diapers of detergent in a while, and were having leakage problems. No longer. I think the soap nuts have very little residue. Soap nuts can also be purchased from Wellness Warehouse in Cape Town, but if you're in the U.S. revel in the fact that you have Amazon. It's a precious, precious resource.
  • The lovely Sammi Taylor wrote a piece for Brett on Singleness, and I just wanted to give her a shout out. Check it out! Brett is spending some time with The Simple Way, a group I've spoken about here a few times.
  • Check out Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention for mid-week inspiration. There is much I don't know about politics. But I saw substantive positive changes working in a U.S. government job under Obama. Despite deep cuts to the Public Health Budget, money became available in parts of my work that really seemed to have an impact.  
  • I have access to an old giant 240L bin to convert to a worm bin! Watch this space to see a tutorial on how to do this. [uh...if you have any ideas on how best to do this, please tell me.] We've been overwhelming our current farm, so I'm excited to increase our volume of scraps, and maybe even become a source of vermicompost in our neighborhood.