Monday, December 30, 2013

Deprivation vs. contentment and what we have been up to

Winter goes on, and though - thankfully - no new snowstorms are likely to happen soon, it's a very chilly and rainy evening and I'm very thankful for warm sweaters and socks, hot tea, and a roof that doesn't leak. 

While I know that in a large part of the world people are preparing for new year celebrations, here we have nothing out of the ordinary, and just go on with our usual pursuits: housekeeping with its myriad various tasks; learning; arts and crafts; and projects that pop up now and then, such as installing a toilet seat or cleaning up the solar panels. 

Oh, and I found out the lens of our camera is shattered just as I was trying to take a shot of some magnificent snow-capped mountains. So I didn't capture either that or the many narcissuses that are now in bloom around here. Cold seems to do them good.

Something that popped into my mind today was this: there is a vast chasm (though it may be in mindset only) between spending less money and feeling bitter and deprived because of that, and spending less money while feeling content with what you have/what you can afford. The first just makes you cheap. The second makes you thrifty and economically savvy. Pining for what you don't have is slavery; being content with what you have is liberating.

There is a vast difference between saying (with a long face): "oh no! This year, there will be no eating out for us, no vacation, no cell phone upgrade, no new furniture - what misery" and saying (with a cheerful face): "This year, we will be creative. We will try new recipes in our home, invite friends over, explore the area where we live, search the thrift stores and giveaway lists when we need something, and feel satisfied with how much we are saving." 

There is a vast difference between saying, "the food prices are rising so there is nothing the consumer can do - the government must fund our food" and saying, "yes, the food prices are rising, so we will be even more creative. We will clip more coupons, raise more things in our garden, harvest wild-growing foods, and keep chickens." 

You might say, "I wish we could have that new car. I wish we could have a bigger house. I wish I didn't have to stop and think twice before buying something." Or you might say, "I might be able to buy this, that or the other thing, but I prefer not to. My money is saved in order to enable me to have more financial security/pay off the mortgage/buy a house without a mortgage (even better)/enable us to have a parent at home. I know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, and I'm content with my lot." 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top money savers

While browsing the Simple Living Forums, I found a lovely thread discussing the most effective measures for saving money (unfortunately you can't view threads on the forum if you're not a member). After looking through, it appeared that people found the following things most helpful:

1. Cooking from scratch. This really is a no-brainer. As a rule (though there might be exceptions), ingredients cost less than food. Flour is cheaper than bread, vegetables are cheaper (not to mention healthier!) than pre-packaged soup, and whole chickens are usually cheaper than chicken parts (and you can use the carcass for making rich soups and stocks). Dry beans are cheaper than canned ones. Oh and of course you get an even better return of your investment if you grow your own.

2. Making your own cleaning products. Here I honestly can't offer much insight. I have yet to make my own dish soap or laundry liquid, but I do clean with a mixture of vinegar and water, and the windows, mirrors and taps come out squeaky clean. I will probably look into homemade replacements for fabric softener once my stock runs out. 

3. Buying the best quality you can afford. This can be a double-edged sword, because it's easy to get carried away. Recently, a neighbour of ours wanted to get "the best" antenna for his internet connection. Well, he got something that could probably transmit a signal from Mars. It was ridiculously expensive. We, on the other hand, did a careful evaluation and bought something adequate that does the job. On the other hand, it doesn't pay off to buy something cheap and of low quality that will soon fall into disrepair.

4. Growing a vegetable garden and raising your own livestock. To this I would add gathering wild foods, or taking advantage of abandoned fruit trees. We do that every year. A garden is excellent, though I'm not very good at that - for now we just grow what the chickens won't eat. This includes some herbs, and recently I planted some onions, garlic and leeks - the chickens don't seem to fancy them. 

A warning about raising livestock - it might take a lot of investment in time and money before these ventures begin to pay off, especially if you run into unexpected trouble. All the chicken owners we know have had their flock demolished by a fox, a mysterious disease or a stray dog at least once. Most goat owners lost does and/or kids because of a kidding that didn't go as it should have, or else had to pay a large vet bill. These things are heart-wrenching and highly discouraging, apart from the cost.

Also, I will add from experience that after we began raising chickens I got very much into fancy breeds. It took a lot of willpower to remind myself exactly why we began raising chickens - not for showing, but for providing fresh healthy eggs and saving a bit of money. Mix-breed layers will do just as well for this purpose. Of course, this doesn't diminish my love for fancy feathers and crests, but I wouldn't spend money on something like this - we might obtain chicks or hatching eggs by bartering, though.

5. Thrift shops and op shops. A very good idea and there isn't much to add. There are enough people who have more clothes and things than they can ever need, want or use - and some of that inevitably trickles into thrift shops. I know, because I used to be one of those people! Right now I'm wearing a sturdy denim skirt which was priced at a second-hand store at 3 shekels (less than a dollar). I have worn it at least 3 times a week these past two winters, and it's perfect for working around the house and yard.

There are of course many other great ideas, such as stockpiling, mending and repairing things, revising your internet and phone bills (you might find out you're actually paying for something you aren't using, or paying full price when you are entitled to a discount), but time is too short to expand on each of those right now.

It seems to me this often boils down to a difference in attitude - would you rather do it yourself, or pay for the convenience of having someone else do it for you? There isn't a right and wrong or black and white in this, it's all a matter of priority in every specific area of your life. 

What are your top money savers? 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Has it really been five years?

I am sitting today and, like every mother, wondering - has it already been this long? Where does the time go?

I hear her playing and chatting with her younger sister, and I can hardly believe that this baby, only five short years ago, was nestled in my arms, so tiny, so helpless, so absolutely wonderful in all the infinite possibility of her new life. A bundle of joy with a mop of dark hair, so very precious and beautiful.

Now she is learning her letters, helping me in the kitchen, playing, dancing, gathering eggs, snuggling with chickens, enjoying nature walks and just being what she had always been, a precious child. Thank you G-d for five wonderful years with our darling Shira, and may there be many more.

This is an old photo, but I love it so much. She is so full of concentration here, absolutely engrossed in some last-year's leaves and a grapefruit that had fallen down from the tree. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

The journey of life

While going through a couple of old posts, I had stumbled upon a post from exactly a year ago, where I told that Tehilla is nursing no longer. I can hardly believe it has really been a year - it seems like almost yesterday I still held her to my breast! Anyhow, I thought I'd share this little "graduation anniversary" with all of you - I am so happy with the breastfeeding journeys I took with both my daughters, with all its trials and challenges. Yes, it was sometimes hard, but mostly enjoyable, and we persisted and gently moved into the next phase of our lives.

In many places it is now culturally unacceptable to breastfeed toddlers, so many people miss out on obvious things about this experience; such as, nursing an older baby or a toddler isn't the same as nursing a very young baby. You can tell a 2-year-old "later", and they will understand, unlike a 2-month-old. You don't need to burp a toddler. You don't nurse as often, and you are aware that the breastmilk supplies only part of the child's nutritional needs, as the baby or toddler eats more and more solids. It is usually a gentle, gradual, child-led process which isn't at all like what many might call "weaning". It doesn't involve abruptly "snatching away" the breast in one day, nor ridiculous ideas such as sending the nursing mother away for a week-old "holiday", risking plugged ducts and severe congestion and paid that comes with weaning all at once, nor a crying, confused baby who doesn't know what is going on and is often given a bottle anyway because he isn't really developmentally ready to rely on solids alone. 

I never weaned either of my daughters, though when Tehilla was two years old I decided to test whether it would be alright to skip nursing her in the morning (such a busy time) and just feed her breakfast at once. I found out she was happy enough to go straight to breakfast. I'm so happy I never had to have any "weaning battles" like I've heard about from friends, neighbours and family. I never experienced any congestion when my children stopped nursing because it happened so gradually. 

And now we are moving on. From diapers and breastmilk we have graduated to read-alouds, letters, numbers, fun discussions, nature walks, and so many of the incredibly fun, challenging parts of parenthood. It's wonderful, it's hard, it's a blessing, it's a frustration, it's a rollercoaster, it's a gentle sway of a lullaby, it's beautiful, it's fragile, it's so, so, so good, for it is life itself. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

It was a cold, cold weekend

All over Israel. Which just proves sometimes one has to eat one's words - I have repeatedly said that we have very mild winters, that it never snows, never freezes, etc, but the past weekend proved just the opposite. It snowed heavily in Jerusalem and in the Gush Etzion settlements, and what's worse, several settlements were disconnected from electricity and had no running water (presumably because the pipes froze). Whole families, including women about to give birth and very young children, are only being evacuated now. I suppose that, precisely because summer here is a much more dominant feature than winter, we simply aren't prepared to handle so much snow.

Taking all this into account, and remembering how last year the only narrow road leading to us was blocked by a rockfall, I felt really lucky that we were able to take off in time on Friday, and spend the worst of the storm and cold in the much better insulated home of my in-laws. Still, it was so cold that we all climbed into one bed for our Shabbat midday nap and slept there bunched up together. When we came home, I felt no difference in the temperature between outside and inside, which just shows you how great our insulation is. We turned on everything we could: the a/c, the radiator, and both ovens (with the doors open, to let the heat out).

Today we are facing a new trial: our water heater had stopped working, so until our landlord can fix it we only rely on our solar panels for hot water. I can only hope today was sunshiny enough, because otherwise there will be no showers. 

"שיתוף פעולה בלתי רגיל". גוש עציון מושלג (צילום: אביה מקובסקי)
Photo: snow in Gush Etzion, from Walla! news.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Winter is coming

... or actually, it's already here with all that accompanies it - power shortages, leaks in the roof (the repairs done at the end of last season are now being tested) and high heating costs.

I like the house we live in, truly I do, but it has some inherent construction flaws which can never be fixed. One such flaw is planning; I have no utility room, for instance, and that's a big drawback for me. Another is insulation. We can try to improve, and have made some improvements, but for as long as we remain here, we will always be very quickly influenced by the weather outside. It will be cold inside the house in winter, and hot in the summer. 

So... it's cold. And rainy. And dark. What can one do, besides turn on the air conditioner and the heaters and let them work at full blast, along with lighting lamps all throughout the day? This extra toll on the appliances and lights will be seen in the electricity bill at the end of the month. Electricity usage, along with food, is another important variable of the household budget - the everyday decisions we make (turn on the air conditioner, run another load of laundry) are soon displayed in the bill we get.

A nice solution when it's cold is to just get under the blankets with your kids and a good book, and cuddle and read stories. This is personally my favorite one, but it has its downsides (housework still needs to get done...). So what else do we do to keep from shivering?

* Dress warmly. It may sound trivial, but for many people, wearing layer upon layer of clothes is seen as an inconvenience. So, the choice is yours: are you willing to have your electricity bill skyrocket so that you can walk around in winter wearing nothing but a T-shirt around the house? This doesn't sound like a good trade-off to me, so right now I'm wearing warm pants, a warm skirt over them, a long-sleeved T-shirt, two sweaters, knee-high socks and warm slippers. If it gets even colder, and I assume it will, I will pull on another pair of socks, or perhaps warm stockings.

* Have a cup of tea. A nice hot cup of tea is good to warm both body and soul.

* Have something bubbling on the stove. Winter is a great time for soups and stews that simmer for a long time, making the kitchen cosy and warm - and for baking too (the oven uses up electricity, of course, but if you have some baking to do anyway, you might as well do it on a particularly cold rainy afternoon). Everyone can then gather at the big kitchen table, play games, work, read, do lessons, and enjoy the warmth. And of course when you get a bowl of thick steaming soup with some fresh bread, it gets even better! 

* Move around. On a rainy day, you don't just get cold because it's cold; it also has to do with the fact that you are cooped up inside, without the chance to do your usual vigorous yard work. So find something to do around the house that will get you moving and your blood flowing. I like to do ironing on rainy days - besides the activity, the iron itself is hot, and I like to warm my hands on the hot just-ironed fabric. If you have nothing else to do, just turn on the radio and dance around the living room.

* Light candles rather than turn on the lights. Sure, candles cost money too, you'll argue; but it so happens that candle-making is a hobby of mine (though I haven't made any new candles in a while), and I have a big supply of candles I had made which aren't quite nice enough to be given as gifts. So I lose nothing if I light them in the middle of a dark rainy day. Besides, candles provide warmth as well. If you have a stock of old dusty candles you haven't used in a while, you can take it out and give it a try. 

* Go to bed early. The longer you stay up, the longer you will need to keep the house warm and lit. If you can, go to bed early, put on warm pajamas and socks, and snuggle under a couple of thick blankets. Try to make the best of the natural daylight this way. Besides, in the winter we tend to sleep more, so the earlier you go to bed, the easier it will be to get up in the morning.

* The water heater. My personal downfall is that I just forget to turn it off. We really need to set up a timer for it, such as we have for the Shabbat hot plate. Also, if one day it rains and I know with a fair degree of certainty that tomorrow we're going to have a sunny day, I may skip showers for one day and take advantage of the solar heater the next day. I mean, it's winter; it's not like we're stinking sweaty like we might be after a hot summer day. If I knew I could just turn the water heater on for an hour or so, I'd do it, but because I know how bad I am at remembering to turn it off, I try to avoid turning it on to begin with. 

Wishing everyone a nice cozy winter and lower electricity bills! 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

To own or not to own

We used to be home-owners, and I loved it - though I wasn't exactly in love with the house itself, it was good to own it, especially knowing that our home was purchased outright and we didn't owe anything to anybody. When we went through a period of unemployment, we did not have the pressure of paying off mortgage or rent. 

Later things worked out for our family so that now, we are living in another place, and renting. While I am much happier where we live now, I would love to own a home again someday, even though perhaps owning isn't always better than renting. Being a renter does have its benefits, however, there are also drawbacks:

When your lease comes to an end, you are at the landlord's mercy. Not long ago, our first two-year lease ended, and we didn't renew it until the very last moment, because our landlord kept putting off the signing of another lease. This made me suspect that they are looking for other renters who would be willing to pay more than we do. I also suspect that, had someone like that been found, we would be facing the choice of either paying more rent or looking for a new apartment at a frantic pace.

When there are repairs to be made, not every landlord is as good as another. Basically, so far our experience in this house tells the following: if a repair is needed and our landlord can do it himself (he's a real handyman), he'll do it cheerfully and willingly. If it is something that takes money, such as requires to buy materials or hire a professional, we'll go back and forth and negotiate with him, and eventually pay for it ourselves. We have a contract that states the landlord isn't responsible for malfunctioning air conditioners and other utilities. 

On the other hand, renting does give more flexibility. If there is a temporary financial crisis, we can move in with family at the end of our lease - but if we were paying off a mortgage, things would be far more complicated. We'd have to sell the house, and most likely sell it cheaply because of the pressure to be rid of a mortgage we are no longer able to pay. 

To sum it up, owning the roof above your head is an important part of sustainaible living, but if this comes with taking a huge mortgage upon yourself, the cause is defied by the means. The question is, is it possible to buy a house in Israel without a mortgage? I think it is, if:

a) You won the lottery;
b) You received a large inheritance or
c) You (an average family with an average income) saved money for a few years and have a sum that equals most of the house value, and you are willing to buy a fixer-upper in a cheaper area. 

If you work from home, it doesn't really matter where you live, and you are lucky to be able to snatch up a lovely old house in a remote corner where nobody else wants to live - one man's trash is another man's treasure, so to speak! It can also work if you are willing to undertake a longer commute, or be creative - instead of making the entire way by car and thus wasting a lot of time each day, some people go to the nearest train station, park the car there, and continue to work by train, which makes long-distances commute possible. 

So, there really isn't a single solution for every family,  but I do wish you all affordable housing in good areas and much luck in whatever choice you make. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reviewing our grocery shopping habits this year

Though we are Jewish and so this month doesn't bring on the end of a year for us, I think now is as good a time as any to review our grocery shopping habits, and how they have changed in the course of the past year. 

Food comprises an important slice of every household budget - a slice that is likely to grow, as food prices are rising. Food is one of the variables of household consumption, together with electricity, water, clothing, entertainment, and miscellaneous purchases. It's an area where we can exercise a lot of creativity (as opposed to, for example, rent). 

So... I know I have recently expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that I am unable to do the grocery shopping myself, and that this way many things that weren't on the shopping list end up in the cart, but a fair examination of our pantry, refrigerator and freezer showed that we have actually improved a lot in the past year, in points such as:

* Shopping less often. We have managed to go down to one, perhaps two shopping trips per week. This is partially due to more successful list-writing. When composing the shopping list, I began to write down not just things that we almost ran out of, but also things that ran just a little low. Also, if we forget to buy something, now we most often just do without it for a few days, until the next shopping trip. 

* No more diapers. This sounds trivial, but a year ago we still had to buy diapers for Tehilla. Sure, I only put her in diapers at night since she turned 18 months old, but still this was a considerable expense, especially because we used to buy the higher-quality brands since anything else would give her a rash. 

* Less pre-packaged foods. In particular cookies, cakes, sweet rolls, etc. There was a time when I decided that we'll consume less sugar if I bake less. I tried that, and the result was only that my husband started buying cookies, cinnamon rolls, etc, which of course contained much more sugar than what I would have put into my homemade treats. I returned to baking, and now my husband knows he can almost always find a cake or cookies at home to serve with tea to the family and guests, and he buys less sweets. Of course if it depended on me I'd bake less and serve platters of dried fruit, nuts and such like, but one has to be realistic. If the choice is between my homemade cookies and cakes and store-bought ones, it's obvious that mine are the healthier and cheaper variety.

We also buy less spice mixes, which are mostly a waste - it's much cheaper to use basic spices, though a mix might be more convenient.

* Less store-bought bread. We do buy bread for sandwiches in the middle of the week, but I make our Shabbat challah. This saves a last-minute dash to the store on Friday (during which other things, some of them unneeded, were bought along with the challah). 

* Better-stocked shelves. I now have a larger variety of beans, grains, lentils, rice, pasta and such like inexpensive versatile basic foods which I can make into frugal meals. 

Speaking of frugal meals, most of the meat I cook these days is made in the form of a stew with a lot of rich sauce that can be spooned on rice or pasta or soaked up with bread. For example, last Thursday I made beef stew. On Thursday evening, we ate couscous with some of the liquid part of the stew. On Friday night and Saturday we ate the beef. On Sunday I took what was left of the stew - mostly liquid and little chunks of meat that fell apart - and cooked it with some leftover rice for a few minutes. This made an excellent lunch, and a total of four days' worth of meals - not too bad. 

Next grocery shopping goals: buy less soft drinks and disposables. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Should we reduce birth rates to save the planet?

I participated in an interesting discussion on the Simple Living Forums, which brought up the much-debated question of Should Birth Rates Be Reduced In Order To Save The Planet? The moderators eventually closed the topic on account of it being too emotionally/morally charged, but I felt so much dissatisfaction with the general spirit of the discussion that I thought I'd bring it here, to my humble blog. 

One point which I contributed to the debate, and which people often forget, is that generally - generally! - speaking, large families live more frugally. Of course someone might say, "this isn't true, I know a family that has ten kids and they are all extremely wasteful", but statistically, at least in Israel, large families own less vehicles per person - Charedi families often forego car ownership altogether - travel less by car and much less often by plane, have smaller houses (if you count space per person), buy less new clothes per child, and generally live a more frugal, sustainable life. Some will, because of this, define large families as "poor". I disagree. Sure, you usually need to be more economically savvy to raise a large family, but so what? If a large family has enough to feed, clothe and educate their children, to live debt-free and put something into savings, but not enough for luxuries such as trips abroad and lots of new gadgets, well, I think it's all to the good of both that family and the planet.  

Another point is that though the population of our planet is growing, this isn't happening at an equal rate at all regions. While some countries experience a growth burst, others are in a population decline - and ironically, those who propose to reduce birth rates, and indeed boast of doing so themselves, are often precisely those who live in countries where the population either hovers around the same number or is even in decline. There won't be more food in Africa if there are less children born in Sweden. 

In fact, I would argue that there might be less food in under-developed countries if more cradles in the West remain empty. A country with a dwindling slice of young working population is a country heading for a serious economical crisis. It is a country struggling to fulfill its obligations towards the elderly population, which requires proper care - which is supposed to be funded by taxes paid by those who work. Countries which are experiencing an economical crisis won't have much to spare for the Third World. Not much can be accomplished without manpower. Just an example: not too long ago, Israel and other countries voluntarily sent forces to the Philippines after the natural disaster that struck there. It wouldn't have been possible if we simply didn't have enough people to go around!

Very importantly, even in one country there may be over-populated regions and other areas which are severely population-deprived. This is true for Israel as well. The center is very densely populated, while the north and south are far less so, which leads to certain Bedouin tribes illegally taking over lands with no government control. The solution wouldn't be to have less children, but rather, to encourage people to move into areas which are less densely populated. If the government sees this as a goal, it can be accomplished by reducing housing prices and creating places of employment, such as, a fund for high-tech centers which are willing to move away from the densely populated areas. Just an idea. 

Someone argued along the lines of, "well, if developed countries reduce their birth rates, they can fill the empty slots of their work force by immigrants from over-populated under-developed countries". De facto, this really is what is happening all over Europe. You tell me how well it is working out. I see a flow of poorly controlled massive immigration from Third World countries as a potential disaster. Such immigration can cause an already weak economy to topple over altogether. Currently, Israel is suffering the consequences of a feeble-handed government which let in a flow of so-called refugees (but for the most part really immigrants seeking a better fate) from Sudan and Erithrea. Why is this a bad thing? Because we are over-populated? No; because these people are an anti-social element which drains, rather than replenishes, our country's resources, at the same time increasing levels of crime. If we had less people of our own, our situation would have been even far worse, because we'd have less hands to cope with this unsavory lot of illegal immigrants.

Statistically, the more educated women are, the less children they have. In the Western world, this statement is defied only by a small population slice of religious Jewish and Christian women who, by choice, have large families though they are in possession of a good education and access to birth control. Such women, instead of being condemned as a burden on the planet's dwindling resouces, should be applauded for raising a morally sound, resourceful, sustainable, well-rounded and hard-working generation. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"... And her worth is far above pearls"

The Jewish sages believe that the financial well-being of a family largely depends on the wife (though the husband is the one who is supposed to be the main provider). There are lovely spiritual explanations to this, such that a peaceful and loving home draws the blessing of G-d, but I also think there are some very practical reasons to why a woman can make or break her home, financially included.

There is of course the basic fact that nothing influences emotional, spiritual and also financial success in life like a good marriage. Working together as a team, having the same vision, journeying together towards common goals, consulting each other and valuing each other's opinions is good for just about any endeavour, while the lack of this, when it feels like the two spouses are just pulling in two opposite directions, can be draining and exhausting. 

Another thing, and this is something very, very important, some women are unaware of the deep intrinsic need of a husband to make his wife happy. It is of vital importance to a man to feel that his wife is content with what he can give her. And, opposing this, nothing discourages a man like a wife who always grumbles and is never content, and feels like she deserves to have all the goods of the world at once, disregarding the family's situation.

I guess I should say as a preamble (although I think it's obvious) that I believe there is nothing wrong in enjoying nice things, new clothes, a spacious house, eating out, going on trips, etc, etc - if it is affordable. Now, of course I'm not in a position to tell anyone what they can or can't afford, but I'll say what I believe to be the wise medium. If a family is out of debt, and the house is paid for, and they enjoy a good income, and are able to put something into a savings fund (for the children, for emergencies, etc) each month, why, then, they are lucky, and in the right position to treat themselves. But for many, many people this isn't the case, and don't get me wrong, but many times men see clearer than women about these things. I believe this is because women, generally speaking, have a more developed aesthetic sense, and therefore place more value in things like a big, handsomely fitted up house, new furniture, new appliances, nice clothes, jewelry, etc. 

Of course there are also men who spend money on "men's stuff" such as gadgets, sports, etc, when circumstances call for thrift. But, as I am writing generally to women and for women, I will concentrate on our side of the coin. 

Unfortunately, some women don't only fritter away the family money - and please note I am not making a distinction between "his" money and "her" money, because I believe that money earned by either spouse belongs to the whole family - but drive their husbands into reckless financial decisions, such as buying a bigger house, and taking on a bigger mortgage, than the family can afford. The consequences might be disastrous.

On the other hand, in hard times - lack of work, disability, unexpected expenses, etc - nothing cheers up a husband like a content wife who looks into the future with faith, and is ready to make the best of what the family does have. The crisis will likely pass, and when better times come, the husband will have more confidence to go on, because he will know from experience that, should something out of the ordinary happen again, he has a cheerful companion he can rely on. The worth of such a wife is, indeed, "far above pearls". 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Two-color cookies

On a lazy morning, what can be more fun for a Mom and her two little girls than making a batch of these interesting-looking cookies?

For the basic dough, I just used a simple recipe for cookies. It doesn't matter really - to get the pretty two-color effect, you can use any recipe that gives you nice workable white dough.

Once you have made your basic dough, divide it into two parts. Add some cocoa powder to one part - just enough to make it brown. Then pinch off a bit of white dough and roll it between your hands, making a longish rounded "worm". Do the same with a bit of brown dough. Twist the two "worms" around one another, roll into ball, flatten slightly and place on baking sheet. Very easy and fun for children and adults.

Put into the oven and be careful not to overbake. I like my cookies only just done, even before the edges have started to turn golden.

Then make a pot of tea and enjoy tea and cookies as a family, or call a friend to come along!

Monday, December 2, 2013

The winds were blowing...

... and the house was shaking.

This winter, we haven't got much rain so far, but we have had a lot of windy days and nights. Two nights ago, I pulled the blankets over my head, trying to block out the howling of the wind and go to sleep, but it was no good. The noise kept me wide awake, and even worse, I suddenly had this horrible certainty that the house had never shaken like this before, and that next thing I know, we will all find ourselves falling down the side of the hill, among the broken remains of walls and roof.

I felt ashamed about waking my husband, who was sleeping peacefully, but couldn't help it. "I think the house is going to collapse," I told him.

"Relax," he said, "We have had winds like this before."

"But the house had never shaken like this. I'm sure it hasn't. What if the roof is blown away? Maybe we should just grab the children and go?"

"Go back to sleep. You'll see, it will be quieter in the morning."

It was. When I woke, the windows were rattling, but the house was still standing, and it even had its roof on top of it. I went outside to feed the animals. The chicken coop was a disaster. It was secured in its place by thick ropes tied to large rocks, so it didn't topple over, but only barely. The Silkie cage was ruined by the wind, and the birds were walking around the yard, looking surprised at so much freedom, and not coping very well with so much wind. The nesting boxes were scattered over the floor (thankfully no eggs), as well as some boards I have neatly stacked next to the wall.

There are many people who live in houses where they hardly have a notion of the weather outside. Their living space is fully air conditioned; they have another apartment above them rather than a roof, so they might not know if it's raining. They go everywhere by car. Wind doesn't even phase them. But around here, I feel we really live close to the elements. The house doesn't have very good insulation; cold drafts come from the cracks beneath the door. The roof is made of tin, so a rainstorm creates an overwhelming noise; rain, wind and dust often create problems with electricity and internet connection. 

Every day of our lives, we tread the earth. We have lots of eggs in spring and summer, and only a little in winter. In the summer I collect figs and carobs, in the autumn olives. Herb plants bloom in spring and attract humming bees. We eagerly await the end of winter and anticipate chick season. 

And, though I would very much like a house that is better protected against the weather, and do hope we'll have such a house someday, I believe there is also a priceless lesson in this vulnerability we are currently experiencing. It teaches us that we are not truly in control; it teaches us to make do without what we can't have at the moment (comfy warm bedrooms, internet, electricity, hanging the laundry outside). It teaches us to make the best of what we do have (quiet days, time for working around the house, time off yard work). That is a valuable experience our family will always have, even if in the future we move to a different place.