Less and More

IMG 2747

There are few events in a life that engrave themselves on a memory as getting married or becoming a parent. That was true for me, and, while getting married was memorable, it was wasn’t as life-altering as the second part. For us, getting married was like continuing a really, long fun date. Becoming a parent, while just as fun, was fun too, but it was a lot more work. For me, becoming the parent of one and then two was memorable for another reason, and I did something yesterday that brought it all back. I cleaned.

Right before each of my boys was born, I was seized with an overwhelming urge to clean. Despite being on ordered bed rest, I could not contain the need to clean tubs and toilets, sweep and make beds. Fortunately, giving birth helped moderate – suffocate, actually – that desire. I do clean, but it’s usually prompted by impending company or the inability to reach the kids’ bunk without first checking for my health insurance card.

Yesterday, however, the cleaning bug bit. It’s been stalking me for the last few weeks.

We’re planning a train trip out west later this summer, and, after learning we couldn’t check luggage, I decided to take another look at carry-on strategies. I googled a few packing list ideas and found tons of people who have learned to leave the tonnage at home.

Most of our trips in the last decade have been by car, and the last train trip we took was when Jack, our twelve-year-old, was small enough to ride on my back. While our cargo rarely includes a separate case for makeup or shoes (we’re not that stylish), anyone who’s road-tripped with kids knows the packing list needed to accommodate the extra towels and toys and clothes required for even a small trip expands to fit the exact cubic footage in any vehicle you buy. Jack now dwarfs me, and his six-year-old brother, Superdude is catching up. Fortunately, the increase in height is indirectly proportionate to the number of toys needed to occupy them on a journey, and packing light seemed not only sensible but possible.

My pursuit of a smaller, more-flexible packing list coincided with my annual rotation of hand-me-downs. The hand-me-down rotation spawned a bigger-than-usual mountain of laundry as I got old clothes ready for the donation bin. We live off the grid, so every scrap of clothing dries on a clothes line, and most of it’s put there by yours truly. I was in the middle of a midnight folding marathon when it hit me – we need to start living lighter.

I spent most of the rest of the night folding and sorting and excavating my and the kids’ clothes, ruthlessly tossing in the bin items that had were too small or too worn or simply too unused. The sorting went on with other loads for a few days until yesterday when the building momentum turned into a housewide cleaning frenzy.

I started at the west end of the house and am now working my way east, adopting a scorched earth policy with baggage of all types. By the end of the day, I had four bags for the donation bin and three for the dump. In one room I could see more floor than stuff, and I could see the back wall of my closet.

I’ve lost a dress size in the last few weeks, and I know other clothes will fill some of the void if the weight loss continues. Jack will also need knew clothes by the end of the summer. When I go to buy again, however, I’m hoping I’ll remember the mountain I sorted down to a mole hill. It was not just an outgrowth of an epiphany prompted by a desire to clean less (that would be practically impossible). It was a desire to get more out of the little cleaning I do.

 

Hungry

IMG 2748

The same storm systems that spawned numerous twisters out west few weeks ago, brought unusually violent spring weather to southwestern Vermont last week. Six-year-old- Thing2 and I were just pulling out of the supermarket parking lot last Sunday when one of them hit. I’ve had enough near-death experiences to know that this was not one, but it was life-changing it its own way.

I should be too old to be nervous during storms. However, having spent 20 minutes two years ago waiting out a waterspout-turned-tornado while all the adults in the family leaned against a set of massive sliding glass doors to keep the wind from popping them off their tracks and flinging them into the room at my parents’ house in Michigan and then watching funnel clouds form to the north of I80/90 in Indiana last year, I will admit that I am afraid of thunderstorms. And last Sunday’s was a big one.

Just as we were turning out of the parking lot, we were surrounded by pink light and a deafening boom. My arm hair was standing straight up, and I decided to look for someplace to wait out the storm with my youngest child. We drove a few blocks, looking for a substantial building with a parking spot near a door. The lightning was frequent and spectacular, and bye the time we pulled into a fast-food place, my nerves had all but killed my latest diet.

My cell phone heralded our entrance into the restaurant by suddenly emitting a loud warning signal and severe, immediate weather alert. A few other phones began emitting the same alert (the company’s support rep would later tell me that this was part of their service). The warnings seemed superfluous and late at first, but as I read the company’s alert text, it became clear the storm was getting worse.

Thing2 usually carries his superhero persona (SuperDude) with him – costumed or not. As the wind whipped harder, however, the adults around us discussed the ferocity of the storm. The restaurant staff momentarily forgot their ‘posts’ and began chattering loudly with each other and the customers, and, noticing the nervous faces, SuperDude became a six-year-old for the moment.

I actually dread these moments. There are plenty of times when my job description entails soothing his fears – big and small, real or imagined. Usually, I enjoy the cuddling and the bonding. When I’m also scared, keeping Thing2 from feeling the fear is tough. It’s hard because I’m hoping he doesn’t figur out I’m telling him to not do what I’m doing (shaking in my boots), but it’s also hard because it’s the reminder that I’m the one for both of us to lean on and to show him the way.

At that moment the only thing to do was listen for more warnings and keep occupied. I ordered us some food, hoping carbs and a cheap, plastic toy would distract us both. The restaurant managers were wrangling the staff back to their posts now, and we sat down to eat.

Another alert sounded a flash-flood warning. Outside I suddenly noticed cars negotiating bumper-deep water and wondered if we should have found refuge elsewhere. The manager confirmed my doubts a few minutes later in an unexpected way.

The wind was subsiding. The lightning was not, however, and I was a little surprised to see two young employees heading for the door. I thought they were headed home, but the manager called out to them to leave their radios on the table with her. They complied and, rolling up their pants, went outside to clear the parking lot drains, jumping occasionally as lightning cracked nearby.

Had my twelve-year-old been with me, the sight of a manager prioritizing the safety of electronics over her more-easily replaced employees to ensure that a foot of water wouldn’t impede the sale of french fries for five minutes would have been an opportunity for (yet another) object lesson about the importance of studying. Instead it was an object lesson for me. My momentary appall at the complete disregard two human beings’ safety quickly shrank into shame, turning bitter the french fry I was eating.

Any comfort derived from the salt-and-carb salve was gone. I knew I financed this sort of thing everyday. I just don’t see it up close and personal. I waited for Thing2 to finish his meal. When the storm subsided enough we left, and, even though I’d eaten a full day’s calories, I felt empty. I knew, however, that I would only find whant I needed at home. I also knew that I could not keep coming back to that place on the GPS or in my own heart that helps my own apathy flourish.

Communion

Communion

I planted the other morning. It was stiflingly humid out, but I knew storms were coming to water my garden in the afternoon, and there was still one big bed to dig sow.

An hour later I sat down at my computer, soaked in sweat and spring steam. The earth that shelters two-thirds of our house was serving its purpose by keeping the room cool, but I wanted something more. There wasn’t time to shower, and I had more garden time planned after work, but little dots of dirt sliding down a sweaty arm can feel more like the creepy crawlies. When the rain arrived, I was strongly tempted to hit BRB (be right back) in the work chat room and head out for an au natural shower.

The Big Guy set the precedent for this last summer when he attempted to save water with a risqué hose down during a down pour. For a while, the only way to get my two boys clean (at the same time) was to wait for a swimming party, a rainy day or, preferably, both at the same time. Pond jumping is especially purifying in the rain, and only the din of thunder and misdirected parents ordering everyone inside can muddy the sensation.

Outside, the wind intensified, whipping the spindly white birches until their highest branches seemed as if they would sweep the forest floor. I abandoned any ideas about dancing the dirt away in the rain. I knew I’d need to venture out later to mulch anyway, spurring the need for another, if more conventional, conventional shower.

But getting the dust off wasn’t really the point. I knew what I really wanted. It was a cleansing I craved; it was a communion with the elements. But summer is young and I’ve just begun to tend my garden.

Homework

Going Green

It’s 5:00 AM, and I’m just sitting down to work.  It’s going to snow today, so I opened the vents on our big black wood cookstove to get the embers from last night’s fire heating again.  The running of the stove has become a rhythm that’s as comforting as the heat itself, but it getting to this point has been an education.

A friend of mine is the co-owner of one of Vermont’s finest country stores.  On any given weekday morning, a thick circle of pickup trucks and cars surround it as contractors and carpoolers stop in for pastries, beverages and – if they have the time – some steaming hot politics.  Weekends are just as crowded, especially during ski and foliage seasons, and you can always hear the store’s owners giving directions as first time visitors absorb the atmosphere.  They chuckle at the jauntily decorated mannequin by the register and the plastic sign that reads, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”  The owners manage to keep the place constantly smelling off fresh cookies or fried foods, and wide creaking wood floors complete the ambience.

The store’s welcoming atmosphere is why so many tourists, wandering the aisles, find themselves suddenly contemplating a move to Vermont.  They’ll start asking the locals and the proprietress about real estate or schools.  She always answers them honestly and good-naturedly, but she ends every Q&A with the same admonition, “Just do your homework.”

I was lucky enough to join a writing group with this woman and a few of her friends, and she and they became my first close friends in Vermont.  She was one of my many sounding boards as we began considering and then building an earth-sheltered, off-grid house.  She listened to our idea and my excitement, and, after encouraging me, put her hand on my arm and said very solemnly, “Just do your homework.”  So we did.

As we designed and planned and sub-contracted, I got to know every off-grid site on the web.  I acquired a three-foot high stack of magazines and books on everything from ‘High Thermal Mass Construction’ to ‘Heating Your Water with Your Woodstove.’  We had every issue of Back Home Magazine (a periodical for do-it-yourself off-gridders), and every time I met someone who was using solar hot water or solar panels, I ambushed them with a barrage of questions.

Almost a year after we broke ground, we moved in.  The walls were primer-ed and the rudimentary kitchen (which I later added to with tag sale cabinets) had only the bare necessities.  We had a pantry with no shelves, and were sweeping and mopping up dust for the first three weeks.  But the first day in the new house was a glorious, sunny June day, and we were overjoyed to see what we had hoped to see.  Our solar panels were charging the new batteries beautifully – even with our appliances plugged in.  We figured we had made our energy calculations accurately, and hugged each other.  Then the sun went down.

Suddenly the fridge we had brought from our old house made its presence known.  We watched the energy meter numbers plummet from the 30s to the minus 20s.  It didn’t take much calculating to realize that at this rate, our batteries would be sucked dry by morning.   We knew we didn’t want to keep our old fridge, but finances had kept us from buying the ultra-efficient one we wanted right away.  We also knew, however, the key to our success would be keeping our consumption low.  So it was off to the appliance store where we bought the least-consumptive fridge we could find. It was also the smallest fridge that could still be called a fridge, but it did the trick.

Again, we congratulated ourselves on our research and problem-solving, but we had just begun to scale the learning curve – and it was about to get steep.

One of the key components of our winter off-grid plan was our wood cookstove.  We had purchased it from a store that catered to the Amish community in Montana, and our plumber had installed water jackets in it for us.  These jackets would circulate water from our domestic tank to the stove using only the heat in the jacket water to propel it up and around the circuit.  The first day it was cold enough to have a fire without turning the house into a sauna, we lit one.  What we got was not a sauna, but a swimming pool.

About an hour into the first fire, we heard a roar from the back of the stove.  When the my husband (a.k.a the Big Guy) and I recovered from our shock, we went over to see what had happened and, as we stepped in a massive puddle, realized that the stove’s pressure safety valve had gone off, releasing the gallons of water that had heated to the boiling point.

This was not supposed to happen.  We had researched this thoroughly – we thought.  The Big Guy has an engineering background and, working with the plumber, quickly realized that our original calculations missed a variable when deciding where to put the stove.  Several weeks of cold showers later (we had to stop the water flowing to the stove) they re-installed the welded jackets and a small motor to propel the water.  The stove has given us a toasty house and piping hot showers for almost seven winters now.

Over the years, off-grid living has taught us a lot, but mostly it has taught us about ourselves.  Naturally, we have learned – as our friend still advises – to do our homework.  We have learned about the necessity of finding the delicate balance between principle and practicality.  We have learned how to make do and to do without.  We have learned patience.  But we have also learned that  the most fundamental education comes when you take the test, and while Life is pass or fail, as long as you’re still trying, you’re passing.  In any other venue we might be getting a strong C, but it’s a score we’re proud to post on our new super-efficient fridge.

 

A Slacker’s Guide to Going Green

Singin’ in the Rain

We found each other because we’re both a bit goofy, and that goofiness has led us all over the world.  Sometimes it has led us off the deep end, or so some of our friends and family thought when we decided to build an off-grid, earth-sheltered house.  In reality, it was one of the best decisions we ever made, and it has rewarded us in many unexpected ways.

When we moved to Vermont, we bought the quintessential antique farmhouse, but, after five years of paying the quintessential gargantuan wood, oil and electric bills that go along with any drafty, mouse-infested home, we decided to make a change.  The stint in Germany that preceded our migration to the mountains had exposed us to new and old ideas about building with heating and electric savings in mind.  We sifted through folders of clippings and evaluated any conventional and offbeat idea that popped up in the search engines.

Finally, we settled on the idea of an underground house.  At the time we didn’t plan to go off-grid – it was still just a fantasy.  But our site made bringing in the power more expensive than making it ourselves, and suddenly we had a new research project.  Ultimately, we ended up with solar power and hot water and a backup generator.  We bought the queen of wood cookstoves (my non-negotiable demand) to heat our house, food, and (in winter) our water.

We moved into the house in the fall, and, aside from having to quickly buy a much more efficient refrigerator, we noticed very few changes in our life.  Like most Vermonters – we already used a clothesline 90% of the time, we already had a garden, and we already worshipped our woodstove – but we still patted ourselves on the back for being so green.  The reality was we were (and are) slackers, and that was what drove most of our design and energy decisions.  It still does now.

So as the Big Guy walked into the house yesterday soaking wet, wrapped in his towel and carrying a bar of soap, I was amused but hardly surprised.  It was pouring out and after an afternoon fixing fences, washing off in the rain obviously seemed like a great idea to him(especially since we’re surrounded by trees and mountains and more trees), but I still couldn’t figure out  exactly what had motivated it today.

“Saving water,” he announced as he sauntered across the living room, leaving sasquatch-sized puddles on the concrete floor.

Later, as we were both not volunteering to mop up the water, I tried to decide what I love most about this house – the way it fosters zany outlets for our green and/or lazy impulses or the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere so that no one calls the cops when we indulge in them.