31 October 2012

A give and take Halloween

New Zealand seems to be divided over Halloween - half of us think it's wrong because it's not traditional here, and it's greedy and demanding, while the other half think it's great fun for children and that we should go with it.

The children themselves all want it, of course. Resisting the demands of mine to go trick or treating would be like leaning against a tidal wave (trust me, I tried).

So I've invented a couple of rules that seem to keep everyone happy.

1. We only go to houses where we know we'll be welcome. This is made much easier by a clever person on a nearby street who posted these leaflets into everyone's letterbox:

This way we're not imposing on people who don't want to be part of it, and, in the case of elderly people, might even be scared. It also means that there is no need to play a trick on anyone, because they are all waiting armed with treats.

2. We give as well as take. This year I baked about 200 little chocolate chip biscuits. Fool, I thought to myself, as I battled through the afternoon to get them done! But it was absolutely worth it to see the delighted surprise on everyone's faces as they were offered a treat in return.

And because I baked so many, morning and afternoon tea is taken care of for a few days at least. Then, when I think I've run out, I'll turn to the nifty stash I put in the freezer.

Later update: I've just read a post from the delightful Soulemama on how she deals with the challenges of Halloween. She has a candy fairy who comes to visit during the night following Halloween, and whoever is willing to leave out their loot as an offering is given books and art supplies in exchange. Appealingly wholesome, I think.

I'm delighted to note that my children have each arranged their lolly stash beautifully in a box, and eaten very little of it! I think that will all change after school today though...

30 October 2012

Flax flowers and other precious things

Today as I arrived home from school drop-off, my flax flowers beckoned me.

I planted the flaxes three years ago, frugally dividing three or so plants into about twelve. This year for the first time they are rewarding me with their beautiful flowers, which are crafted for the beak of my favourite bird, the tui.

I'd been walking past some home units, where elderly people live. A familiar tune floated out, and the sound was so rare it jolted me back to my childhood: it was whistled tunefully, melodically. Whistled the way that these days only people who have lived most of their long lives can whistle - elderly men, usually. A dying art, perhaps to be rediscovered one day. Do you remember when men used to whistle tunes? It made the air happy.

Then, almost home, I walked past a house that until last year was the home of some dear friends, who have now moved overseas. We miss those good people. I banished the sadness by remembering the Dr Seuss quote:

Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.

Then I rang a dear friend, whose fine body is being nibbled away by cancer. She hears only in one ear now, and can't smell, or taste savoury food, and that's on top of all the other bits of her that no longer work or have been removed, including those that would no doubt have grown babies if things had been different. I'd dreamt about her last night, and there was a tsunami, and death, a terrible dream that I know it will come true and I will be overwhelmed with the pain of it. But I loved talking to her - we talked about our respective flowering flaxes, and how we worry that our beloved cats will catch and kill a tui feeding from the flowers, and how we have both sown sweet pea seeds. The prospect of their divine scent thrills her, too, although she'll be denied that pleasure.

Then I looked around at the mess Anna had left on the floor, and remembered how she had run inside this morning to tell me of her discoveries - a blackbird corpse left by our cat, and two of our hens squashed into the nestbox together, both of them desperate to lay eggs that I will turn into nourishing food for my family.

How lucky I am to have my children and to be able to smell and hear and dream of the future! How important it is to grasp life's beautiful offerings every day!

29 October 2012

Doing too much

A cartoon in our paper recently, which is part of a series called ‘The Little Things’: a father arrives home from work, upon which the mother tells him “today we went to mainly music then swimming then fed the ducks and came home and I baked biscuits and roasted a chicken” (or words to that effect).

The title was ‘Doing too much’. 

Swimming lessons
Violin lessons

Sound familiar? It did to me, and I wondered if anyone would say that about me. Sure enough, when I saw Ian next he said, “Did you see that cartoon in the paper?” He was amazed at how familiar it was!

It's hard though, isn't it, when there is karate ballet tap jazz soccer hockey Spanish gymnastics music (instrument A, B and C) cricket tennis horseriding drama art cubs brownies.... all of which are absolutely fun and good for your children! 

Time to make mud pies - priceless.
But they are also expensive and exhausting. I for one now refuse to spend every afternoon taxi-ing children to one place or another, fighting traffic on the way home to an uncooked dinner. I learnt my lesson the tiring way.

I grew up with one constant thing - dancing - and the lessons, practice and competitions gave me enormous gifts. I don't wish I'd done everything else.

I want my children to fold paper planes, dig in the dirt, jump on the trampoline, build intricate lego cities, make huts, cuddle the cat and read books. I'd really like them to run wild with a flock of other children, but our neighbourhood's not quite like that, although we're getting closer to it.

More activities equals less free play and busy, poorer parents. The Milo New Zealand state of play report talks about children's desire for play and grandparents' comparisons to their own childhoods. You can read it here.

28 October 2012

Two ways with seeds

I think most of us these days know that seeds are good for us. They're vastly cheaper than nuts, with more or less the same goodies in them. I buy them in bulk from the Bin Inn, then put them into jars or containers to keep them fresh. Here are two of my favourite ways to use them.

In both cases it's much less work to do large batches and store them in jars until you need them.

Ground seeds

I use a mixture of linseed, pumpkin and sesame seed and grind them in a coffee grinder. I used to include almonds also, but they kept jamming the coffee grinder and burning out the motors (I went through a few before I learned my lesson - including a specialty nut grinder!).

I know you can buy a similar pre-ground mix (LSA, for linseed, sunflower and almond), but the oils in seeds go rancid very easily once the seed is ground. By doing it at home, and immediately transferring them to glass jars for storage in the fridge, you always have healthy fresh oils.

The ground mixture goes really well with breakfast cereals and porridge - about a tablespoon or two a day.

You can add them to cooking or baking, but the heat will break down the good fats.

To get any goodness out of linseed (flax seed), it needs to be ground, otherwise it just passes straight through us.

Tamari seeds

Years ago I tried a tamari roasted seed and nut mix at a market and loved it. I can't believe it took me until last week to get around to trying to make them myself. It is incredibly fast and easy.

I just tip a mixture of seeds - this time pumpkin, sesame and sunflower - into our preheated cast iron fry pan (no fat/oil added).  Then I splash in some tamari, which quickly bubbles then dries up, and I stir everything around for a couple of minutes. I use a medium heat. I've never measured the tamari, but I'd recommend underdoing it rather than overdoing it - try 1 Tbsp to start with.

When you first tip the seeds out of the frypan into a bowl, they'll be soft, but they'll quickly become crisp. Once cool, they can be transferred to a jar for storage.

I'd just use soy sauce instead of tamari, I suppose, but it's not gluten free and I have to think about that at the moment. I'm not sure what difference it would make, but I do know that soy sauce is better than tamari on sushi!

These are great in salads - consider mixing them into a roast root veg salad. Tomorrow I plan to try them in a sandwich and I think I'll be impressed.

The oils in them won't be as healthy as the ground seeds. But when you've tasted them you won't care.

I shared this post at Frugally Sustainable.

26 October 2012

The latest craze in our house

Parkour is where it's at in and around this house... up the walls, across the beds, over fences, and especially on the trampoline. There are plenty of descriptions of parkour if you Google it, and Youtube videos to watch, but basically it seems to be leaping from place to place and treating the environment as an obstacle course. 

It is making them stronger, fitter and happy!

25 October 2012

Can you do without a cleaning toothbrush?

No one who knows me could possibly call me a clean freak. I can only aspire to such a title, but with just a little part of me. The rest of me would rather throw the basketball with Jack, or sew, or do yoga, or browse home mags for creative house fodder, or write my blog!

However, a recent spate of boils on one of our bottoms has launched me into a hygiene frenzy, in the bathroom at least. Where on earth could those Staph bacteria that keep reinvading her previously smooth, creamy skin be hiding? I feel I have failed at housewivery. (Treat that as full disclosure: you may now wish to ignore the cleaning advice that follows.)

Scrubbing with baking soda and a wet toothbrush.
Here comes the foam - I added a splash of plain white vinegar.
Brilliant cleaning.
Which brings me to the value of an old toothbrush for cleaning. I have heard rumours that not everyone uses one. If you are such a person, I can highly recommend upgrading to this method - I don't know how else to get into the little corners and crevices, and around the bases of taps.

Thank you to my flatmate of about 20 years ago who introduced me to the old toothbrush method. GREAT idea.

Forever be gone, nasty Staph!

(Another boil-fighting tip: methylated spirits. Even powerful antibiotics didn't seem to be doing much, and we only made significant progress when I wiped the area with meths. An hour or two later much of the pus was gone. Boil ooze contains Staph bacteria that, upon soaking healthy skin, invades and causes multiple extra boils. That ooze needs to be dried up and sterilised, hence the meths.)

24 October 2012

Darkly intimate soil surprises

I got darkly intimate with our soil in the weekend. As I tucked little lettuce and zucchini seedlings into it, I noticed many little gifts that are thanks for our laziness. 

The biggest surprise was this patch of what I'm almost certain are basil seedlings*, babies of last summer's plants left to go to seed that have popped up in a shady spot on the south side of a compost bin. Just when I was thinking it still wasn't warm enough to sow basil seeds myself! 

(Northern hemisphere readers will have to flip their reality over for a while - down here the south side is the cold side, and we are meant to be in full spring warmth, although this morning we woke up to find roofs covered in frost! I can never remember one so late in the year. But the weather forecast told me it was likely so I had covered our tender seedlings.)

The basil - which is surrounded by similarly feral lettuce and coriander seedlings - had a better chance because of the lazy gardener mode I've recently dived into even more enthusiastically. This is thanks to listening to a radio interview with Fiona Eadie, head gardener at Larnach Castle in Dunedin (click here to see what stunning results she gets - I must go there soon). 

These are the points that have stuck with me since the interview:
- don't destroy the soil structure by digging in compost! Instead make a just-big enough hole for planting, and put compost on top of the soil. The soil organisms will transport the goodness downwards.
- mulch everything. Here's my favourite: when weeding, just lie the weeds down on the soil around the plants to act as mulch. That's how nature does it. She thinks thick layers of newspaper are great to use as mulch, too.

She was preaching to the converted - I've written about the joys of lazy gardening before - but I happily soak up further encouragement.

* later note: sadly, they turned out to be weeds. I watered and protected weeds from frost. They grew virulently.

23 October 2012

Highs and lows

When our son was born, he seemed like an angel sent unexpectedly to us: he was a 'mistake' baby. The best mistake in the world!

The other huge surprise that arrived with him was how much emotion I felt - more love and joy than I could ever have imagined (but subconsciously longed for), and harder times than ever before, when something was wrong with him and I was exhausted. But those low times were - and have since always been - buffered by the knowledge that this darling little chap was real and with us.

And so it is with so many of my experiences with these two children - the good and the bad, hand in hand. Take the other day, when Anna and her friend decided they should have a tea party in our bathroom, with banana smoothies in my best lady tea cups. All went well, if you don't count the etiquette breach that occurred when that they knocked back the smoothies like cowboys drinking whisky in a bar.

Then it happened. They set the boat they'd made sailing in the bath. The many tiny stones and beans that had been filling Anna's 'rainmaker' instrument would make great fish food, they decided.

Those little things did make a realistic pond base. All 500 or so of them. But getting them out of the bath? The girls didn't see it as their job, and although Anna tried, it was very hard. Even for me, and of course it was me that ended up doing it.

It's hard finding the right balance - letting their imaginations go wild vs. keeping the house reasonably clean and tidy. Sometimes it's one or the other, and the cutest and most fun things really are too much at 7pm for a tired mother who needs to get children bathed and into bed.

22 October 2012

Super chai latte, super easy

Ever since visiting the wonderful Elizabeth Cafe and Larder, where I ordered a soy chai latte, I've developed a bit of an obsession. Spicy, lightly sweetened hot soy milk...mmm. Before I started this dairy-free diet, I never thought I'd go in this direction, but the truth is that I have come to love warm, spiced soy milk.

This is what I do:

Add a Healtheries mi-chai teabag to a bit of boiled water in the bottom of a mug. Let it steep for a minute or two, then fill the mug with soy milk. Add 1/4 tsp mixed spice and a heaped teaspoon of bush honey. Microwave for about two minutes (purists would heat this in a pot - and of course use whole spices). Remove tea bag, squeezing out all its flavour beforehand. Goes very well with a ginger or coconut biscuit. Mmmm.

Alternatively, do much the same but don't worry about the teabag and boiling water - just mixed spice, soy milk and honey is great, perhaps with a dash of vanilla essence. (I've just been reading how to make your own vanilla essence at a neat kiwi blog I found; the post is here.)

20 October 2012

The creations of boys

Some boys came to play today... they are old friends who have become new neighbours! They immediately began creating with whatever they could find lying around (happily or unhappily, there's quite a lot to choose from).

Their creations are of quite a different style to those of Anna and her friends!

19 October 2012

Favourite part of our house

On these sunny-rainy-sunny days we've been having, which are extremely windy, I think this is my favourite part of our house:

Rain, shine or both, my washing gets dry! And I'm not running to get it in when the clouds gather. I love our carport!

It's a frugal and green thing to have, too, because I only ever use the clothes dryer to get rid of the last bit of dampness, and that's only needed in the middle of winter.

While I thought about this today, eyeing the flapping laundry in a superior, aren't-I-clever sort of way, I thought about other frugal and green things we have around the house.

We have a compost system, keeping a separate bin in the kitchen for scraps that don't go to the chickens or cat (the latter being awfully fussy). It's emptied into plastic compost bins outside (we have six, all bought second hand), which keeps things tidy to look at and toasty on the inside (heat speeds up the composting process).

The black plastic bags visible in the photo above contain raked-up autumn leaves, which we put in the bins as 'brown' layers between the green layers (weeds, kitchen and table scraps and lawn clippings). The chicken straw makes up other brown layers. We didn't used to add brown stuff, and the compost was smelly and anaerobic.

We grow fruit and vegetables - not enough to sustain us exclusively, but it helps a lot, and boy do they taste good. And we have the chickens, of course, and they eat food certain scraps that are otherwise hard to deal with, like fat and meat. Getting rid of food scraps on site stops the methane gas that gets released when food and garden waste breaks down in a landfill situation, which is anaerobic.

And then there's our feet. We live close to school, friends and shops, so we walk, scoot or bike as much as possible. (It's not advisable to click on the photo of my feet. They are another example of what I wrote about yesterday - practical, but not beautiful! They don't hurt and they carry me faithfully, journey after journey. Don't ask me what that lump is because I have no idea. All I know is that it appeared a few years ago and small children are fascinated by it, much like an amputation, an eye patch or false teeth on a plate, I suppose.)

So, how many of you clicked on the feet?!

18 October 2012

The beauty of ugly

In the middle of last night, I had occasion to realise how lovely ugly can be.

I was outside, breaking a leaf off this ancient aloe vera pot plant to rub its soothing gel over a poor, sore, itchy patch of Anna's skin. She slept peacefully for the rest of the night.

For years I've been thinking of getting rid of the plant because it looks so awful. However, recently I got scratched, irritated arms from gathering firewood, and a smear of the ugly plant's gel was magic. It stays, I decided.

Practicality over beauty is something that I've thought about a lot recently, particularly as I've been feasting my eyes on gorgeous home magazines that various people have kindly given me.

I've been wondering if studying these magazines, much as I love them, is analagous to poring over women's magazines that feature unrealistically beautiful people and endlessly discuss which celebrity has gained or lost weight and who's had cosmetic surgery? I suspect those magazines do terrible things for the self-image of women who read them. But do the home mags make us feel bad about ourselves and our houses because our rooms don't look like the featured ones?

Furthermore, are the people who live in those houses somehow happier or more 'together' than we are? I think we know that's not true. In fact, maybe it's the opposite: many of those people are probably mortgaged to the hilt and working like mad to keep their financial heads above water. One of the magazines I looked at recently showed the house of a young couple whose renovation was in the '$600-700,000' category!

Allow me to do the complete opposite of those magazines. Parts of our house have been renovated nicely, but, friends, much of it remains trapped in a once-fashionable redecoration (1980's). This is one of our bathrooms:

...but people get clean in it and it is not responsible for a cent of debt, so only one of the adults in our house has to go to work. Phew.

Happily, there is hope for the ugly aloe plant. When photographing it today, I noticed it's infested with snails, and I'm optimistic that regular doses of slug and snail bait might rejuvenate it.

Spot the snail (if you can be bothered). Can you see why Jack named it the dinosaur plant when he was little?

I shared this post at Frugally Sustainable.

16 October 2012

Learning to relax

When thinking about what to write for this blog, I look for happy, uplifting topics - and the more I look, the more I find! It's good for me and I hope it brings a little slice of pleasure to you, too.

But of course the real world has the flip side too - the darker undercurrent - a bit of yin to the yang. Recently in our little community, while my family remains happy and healthy, there have been marriage breakups, fathers of young families with terminal diseases, and other things I won't go into. A yin cluster.

I feel sad for them. I appreciate my blessings. 

Today I received an email  from my sister-in-law with a link to this site, and I am quite taken by it. It describes ways to deal with the stress of parenting, but many of the suggestions apply to people who aren't looking after children. If we are calm we are better friends, parents and spouses, and healthier, too.

Two points that struck a chord with me were:
1. When we are worried, hurried or anxious we get tense. Our minds have given our bodies the signal to respond to a threat. If we put ourselves through a little relaxation exercise one or a few times each day, it's a way of our minds giving our bodies the "all clear". 

Just focussing on one thing can do that. Breathe in, breathe out! From the tummy is good. 

One of my favourite things to do, when walking home after dropping the children at school, is to put my mind into swinging mode. I pull my mind into the centre of my brain (away from the front, where all the thinking happens) and let it rock from side to side with my steps. I feel like a child on a swing, lulled by the motion.

2. This second one is going to really help me: I cannot believe that I have got to age 39 without having spelled this out to myself before. It is this: 
Have a forgiving view of events and people. Believe that most people are doing the best they can, and accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world.
Thanks, sister-in-law!

15 October 2012

An easy science experiment

A year or so ago I discovered a book full of experiments for children to do. What makes it so special is that we almost always have all the required equipment - and that's not because we're particularly well stocked, it's just that the equipment is so simple. We've had fun with it.

On Saturday Anna and her friend asked me if they could do an experiment, but I brushed them off. So they did this one themselves - haven't they done well?

Untreated lilies
Lilies with food colouring in their water, after 3 days
We're yet to have the discussion about how water travels through the stems of plants into their leaves, but hopefully we'll get to it - perhaps next time we do some watering during a dry spell, and we can watch the leaves perk up.

The book, in case you're wondering, is The Usborne Big Book of Experiments. It was published in 1996. I think I found it at the recycling shop at our local dump, fortunately in great condition. I don't think I could have found a better experiments book if I'd tried.

14 October 2012

Teaching children to sew and upcycle - and a surprise

This morning it became clear that my planned sewing day was out the window: I had a big fat migraine that an early-morning pill had failed to cure. When I climbed out of bed at 10 am to get rid of the hunger pains, a not-so-nice surprise greeted me in the dining room.

Anna had decided to make a start on the owl cushion we'd decided to sew, which is to be based on the one above that we bought from a local market.

Having watched what her Mama did the day before while making a hot water bottle cover, she traced around her existing owl cushion on some greaseproof paper from the kitchen. She cut out the shape, then put it on the nicest bits of fabric she could find.

The problem? They were from my precious stash of fabrics that I'd been sorting through the night before with plans of sewing a cushion cover today!

This was her first try. The next one she cut around.

I was horrified and made a few loud noises, but part of me had wondered if she'd do that if I forgot to put away my stash when I went to bed. And at least the ones she chose weren't my favourite.

In retrospect, I mainly think how cute and smart she is to copy me so. It reminds me that I should be spending even more time teaching her than I do: yesterday I could have been explaining how to cut out a few centimetres outside the tracing line in order to leave a seam allowance, and that my sharp sewing scissors were the only ones to use for cutting fabric properly (I had explained that they must never use them to cut paper). I also could have told her that cutting out patterns is the same as cutting biscuit shapes from dough - you put the cutter/pattern right over to the edge, so you have the maximum amount of uncut fabric/dough available for future patterns, or biscuits.

This was part of yesterday's creating process, in which I made a new hot water bottle cover for Jack. His old one was made of wool - always my preference! - and lovingly knitted by Grandma when he was a baby. Now it's falling apart, and his ENT surgeon told us that to combat his dustmite allergy, all his bedding needs to be synthetic. I chose an old polarfleece jacket to make a new one from, which I can throw in the washing machine on a hot wash once a week or so. (I hate buying things new if there's a way around it.)

A perfectly good, outgrown Kathmandu polarfleece jacket
(I put Kathmandu in the category of made-in-China, kill the little
guy retailers, as I discussed yesterday - so I didn't care about
cutting it up!)

I made a pattern by drawing around the hot water bottle onto greaseproof paper.

The sewing was done on this reliable old lady of a sewing machine, more fully discussed here.

The finished product. I got the idea for the design from here - I love the cushions this lady makes. We have three of them, and I would have bought a hot water bottle cover from her, too, except she only uses wool blankets (all recycled). 

When I sew - which is not very often - the children love it, and invariably flock around to begin their own projects. If there's a friend present, he or she joins in. Yes it slows me down a lot, but it is so worth it to see those young brains growing by the minute. There's also a pleasant, engaged calm that descends over the house. They can both thread needles and sew simple seams now, and Anna ties her own knots.

We finished the sewing day by making Anna her own little needle case with the sewing machine. She did the sewing herself. My choice of hessian for the inside was pretty poor - you can see it falling out already! We'll replace it with felt one day. 

Doing this project and cleaning the day's mess off the dining table and floor meant that dinner wasn't ready until 7pm, but I think it's worth it, don't you?
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