Thursday, January 30, 2014

Should we try so hard to preserve ourselves?

The cultural trend of today is the individual's (versus the society's) self-preservation. We are told not to have many children, so that our body doesn't lose its youthful shape and our lives can be better fitted into that tight frame called "modern life". 

The fashionable thing is to have children when you are over 35, too, so that you can begin your career properly. Every time - and I say this from experience - the biological time-frame of fertility is discussed in front of academically oriented 20-somethings, there is a general uproar: "are you telling us our ovaries are nearing their expiry date?!" - want to know my guess? Soon, the subject will be banned as offensive. 

We are told we need "time for ourselves", and plenty of it. While time to refresh ourselves is of absolute importance, there is no arguing the current emphasis is a lot more on time for ourselves than time for others. We get so much time for ourselves that we are now, on average, close to thirty when we get married. Do you recall Sheila Levine? She decided to kill herself because she was 30 and single. That is wrong, of course - but now her situation wouldn't even stand out, because there are so many 30-something singles and no one's even raising a fuss.

And if you have a certain talent or what is called a "calling"? Boy oh boy, are you entitled to anything and everything. Wherever you go, your feet aren't supposed to touch anything but a smooth red carpet. Everyone else come next. 

It appears, however, that this cherishing of the individual doesn't really do us very much good as a society. We aren't healthier or happier than we were a couple of generations ago, and we are more frazzled and detached from our community and our extended - and sometimes even nuclear - family. 

What many refuse to say out loud is a controversial truth that goes thus: we are not really all that important. Oh, don't get me wrong. Certainly we are precious in G-d's eyes, as His children, and every human being deserves to be respected and valued for being made in His image. But other than that, our highest importance is made by our being a thread in the web of family and community, by our relationships with others. We don't stand alone. 

I know mothers of many children who look, by any standard, very good. Not supermodel-good, but good, and in many instances better than women who had no children at all, or "only" had one. The health of the mother must be preserved - not in the vain way of trying to hold on to the 20-year-old form, but in knowing that a mother must eat and sleep well, and be refreshed spiritually, in order to be able to take care of others.

The people you love are, in a way, you, because by serving them you are shaped into something new - which means that spending time with them is actually, in a way, "time for yourself" too. 

And I maintain that even if you are a Nobel prize winner, or a very great artist, you are still, on a deeper level, defined mostly by your relationships. There you get support and inspiration for your work. I always feel a twinge of disappointment when I read up on a favorite writer, composer or artist, and discover they broke up their home and left their children to be raised by others, often not seeing them for years, or went through divorce after divorce. To me, real success in life cannot come without successful relationships. Even if you are a great individual and reach considerable achievments, what good is it if you end up all alone?

It is so good to have someone to care for. It is so good to know there is someone to care for you, when you need it. By the way, I'm not talking only about families with children here. Of course, if you have children at home, you probably don't need to think too hard where to apply your gift of giving - you are probably on your feet most of the day as it is! But there were many people who were single and/or childless, and still made a great positive impact on the people around them. It is so good to give someone what they need, in the simplest way. A hot meal on the stove, clean clothes, a conversation of friendship, timely sensible advice. Where would we be without those?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Surprise egg


Today, when I went into the coop to collect eggs, I found a new one in addition to the usual two I pick up every day. 

Left to right: a commercial store-bought egg (we'll soon be able to quit buying these!!), our free-range egg, and the small mystery egg I found today. 

I didn't spot the hen who laid it, but I suspect it's the little pullet who hatched in our incubator from an egg that was supposed to be Polish. I'm pretty sure she's not pure-bred, though, as her crest doesn't come up to scratch. 

Looking forward to spring, more eggs, and chicks! 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The economical impact of frugal living

Joluise writes:

"Unfortunately the economy of any country hinges on the residents of that country spending money. If everyone were as frugal as you, the economy would almost grind to a halt and unemployment would increase."


That is an interesting point and one I never seriously thought about - mostly because we frugal, re-using-repairing-recycling, make-it-do-or-do-without folks are a very marginal part of the population and, though many people would like to save money, a lot less people are truly willing to make the change and live more simply and slowly. A walk through the average shopping mall is enough to convince one of that. People keep buying, and will keep buying unless something truly drastic happens.

Please note that I never said we should stop spending money altogether. I merely questioned what we should spend our money on. We buy food, clothes, household supplies, chicken and dog feed, and more. Even the most down-to-earth, self-sufficient homesteaders who grow most of their own food, sew their own clothes, etc, have to rely on money to buy tools, seeds, livestock, fabric, and much more. The money economy is here to stay. 

Also, I didn't imply that everyone should be as frugal as we are now. I don't consider frugality so much an ideal to be upheld, as a tool to be used. I certainly wouldn't say no to a new stove and a clothes dryer for those rainy spells, if we could easily afford them. Nor would I object to eating out once in a while, or going on a vacation. Our priorities right now, however, are different. We are a family living on a single income that has not always been stable, and if we want to survive and thrive on what we have, and put something into savings so we might one day own our home, we must do without some things. It is much more than just "doing without", though. It really is empowering when you learn to do more on less. It is empowering to know you are not helpless; if you know how, you can trim away a lot and still live happily and comfortably. 

In my opinion, the true danger to economy lies not in people who spend less, but rather in those who spend more than they can afford. Do people who live extravagantly and go into debt boost the economy? Are people who eventually have to apply for government assistance, and can't make an example of responsible finances for their kids, an asset to the economy?

I'm not saying everyone's guideline should be to spend as little as they possibly can. That is a personal decision. I do, however, believe that healthier family budgets in individual families would lead to a healthier society and, by the by, to healthier economy as well, though there might be a temporary slow-down. I believe our current economical situation is unsustainable and we will need to undergo some forcible changes anyway. We rely too heavily on imported food and cheap Chinese manpower (read: slave labor). Will there be a crisis? Perhaps, but it's not going to happen because of people who are taking responsibility for their personal finances. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

All day, every day

Like every mother, I would like my daughters to grow up the best of friends. And they are certainly very attached to one another and play nicely much of the time. Because they are so close in age, they can do pretty much everything together. It's really heart-warming to look at them drawing together at the table, or observing a tortoise they found in the yard, or kneading little bits of dough into bagels and pretzels that will go in the oven together with the challah I'm making. 

However, many mornings we are waken up by horrendous screeching, which usually means that someone snatched a toy away, or someone pushed or, as a friend of mine very wisely put, they are simply "fighting over dead air space". 

I know this is normal. A quick search of the web produces results which state only too plainly I'm not the only one with a problem of sibling rivalry. Some people offer advice such as "make sure each child has a room and toys of his own, so they don't need to share as much" or "send them to different schools". I don't believe this really solves the problem; I probably have to deal with more sibling rivalry because we are home all day, every day, together - but it simply means the issue is always on the table and we can't avoid working it out (if we want to keep our sanity, that is). 

Then there's the fact that we most often have to rely on our own resources. We only have one car, and my husband uses it. We live in an outpost. This means we can't just pop into the store, the post office, or the swimming pool - all those things require planning. My children, unlike almost any other children I know, don't go to extra-curricular activities. Of course, neither did I as a kid, and it didn't hurt me - I just made up my own. I drew, wrote stories and poetry and, in my teens, learned a foreign language all on my own. But it still makes me feel a flutter of panic when I consider that another five-year-old goes to ballet class, sculpting class, and an English class. We don't buy any workbooks or "education advancing" equipment. We just rely on plain old paper, pencils, paint, books, basic craft supplies, and whatever we can make out of it all. 

What we do have are surroundings of beautiful nature and interesting wildlife, books, the Internet, and each other. We also have a well-meaning Mom who often fails to keep her temper but always gets up next day and tries again. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Child allowance benefits and parental responsibility

This is something I've been wanting to write about for a while, but somehow never got around to. I mean the reduced child allowance the Israeli government has implemented. Some economists have hailed this reform as a sign of a new era, some frazzled parents bemoaned it and said it will lead their families into a financial crisis, and others have said that no one is really in the loss, because most of the money saved by reducing child allowance will be channeled into government-funded daycare and preschool, after-school programs, dental care for children, etc. 

I am no economist and so perhaps what I'm going to say is too simplistic, but as far as I'm concerned, I would prefer a reduced income tax to an increased child allowance. Let us keep more of our own money, and we will be able to take far better care of ourselves! 

Another point is that this new policy makes a statement which, at least to me, is quite plain: We used to give you money to help you raise your children, but now we no longer trust you to make good use of that money. We will therefore take it away and instead give you what WE think your child needs. 

The government wants us all to be working as much as possible, so that we pay more income tax, and so we buy more, thus "boosting the economy". 

The government wants our children to be in daycare at as young an age as possible, and it wants our school-aged children to spend as many hours as possible in school. It is interested in "working women", not mothers who keep their young children at home with them. 

* Don't forget that the elite of Israel's founders were kibbutznik communists, and some of them still speak of kibbutz communal child rearing with nostalgia. Don't forget that Israel is, as far as I know, the only country in the world which enforces compulsory military service for women. A victory of equality or a national disgrace?

The government isn't interested in frugal housewives who save their families money by being economically savvy. It doesn't want us to save, it wants us to earn and spend. 

This, together with the lowering of compulsory education age in Israel to 3 years, makes a worrying trend of government interference with our children's upbringing and education. Thankfully, we can follow the famous slogan and "Just Say No" to manipulations from up above which are supposed to dictate to us how we must live our lives.

My personal bit of financial advice is, try to avoid relying on any government benefits if you possibly can - you never know it, a revolutionary minister of finances might pop up any time and take these benefits away from you, to replace with something you need like a fish needs a bicycle (free daycare for babies who stay at home, free dental care for children who don't need any, etc). In our case, child benefits go into an account which is solely used for savings. We don't even know exactly how much we get each month, and we never see it in our "everyday use" account so we don't come to rely on it. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

A comeback of small-scale farming?

Our society used to be mostly agricultural. It revolved around the nuclear and extended family, a close-knit community where people usually lived their whole lives, the family farm, the village, the artisan tool-maker, and everything small-scale and personal. For better or worse, the Industrial Revolution put an end to that kind of life and propelled us to a world where manual work is scoffed at, and agriculture is seen as something menial or boring.

Yet this did nothing to change our nature. As living beings, we were made to interact with other living beings. It is good and healthy for us to tread earth, smell flowers, pick fruit off trees, take care of animals, and make occasional escapes into nature. People who live in small apartments in big cities find an outlet for this healthy instinct by growing plants in pots, keeping an aquarium and a cat, and venturing out to the country from time to time. The words "farm", "country", "rural", "pastoral", "village" still bring up pleasant nostalgic associations (compare them with the associations you get when you hear the words "factory", "industry", "rush hour", "traffic" or "highway"), and some people even find out that they are inherently incapable of living the city life anymore, and drop their perfectly good jobs in order to cultivate a piece of rural land, such as in Marcel Pagnol's splendid novel Jean de Florette

We still yearn for the simple, cyclic, gentle and healthy rhythm which can be found in nature, the earth, and the seasons.



Photo source: eartheasy.com

Last weekend, I picked up the Israeli Shabbat leaflet "Olam Katan" ("Small World") and was genuinely interested by an article which suggested that modern technology and means of transportation make small-scale farming/homesteading possible even for people who don't want to, or can't make this their main source of livelihood. It is entirely possible, the author argued, for a family where both spouses hold a regular job to also keep a small homestead on, say, on 1 square km of land. Such a homestead can include a barn with 3-4 dairy goats and a dozen chickens, a small vegetable garden, and some fruit trees. Furthermore, it was argued that Israel has enough unexploited land which is suitable for agriculture. Such land, according to the author, could be divided into small homestead plots and handed out or sold inexpensively to anyone who would like to start a homestead or a sustainable small-scale farm. Thus many more people can live a healthier, closer-to-nature life, while also creating a strategical advantage for Israel by preventing Bedouin clans from illegally taking over empty lands. 

While I would like, and am ready, to believe that a small-scale farming/homesteading revolution is possible, I also think the only way for it to happen is by individual people making it happen in their private lives. I don't think it will ever be encouraged or supported by the government, for many reasons, here are just a few:

1. The government will never, not in a million years, hand out land or sell it cheaply (if it did, I'd be the first to stand in line!) - it will reap big bucks by selling land to big contractors, who in their turn will reap their big bucks by erecting tall buildings with cramped over-priced apartments. 

2. Small-scale farming/homesteading will never be encouraged on a government level because commercial farmers hold too much power. 

3. A family living on a homestead will very likely have a rewarding, satisfying life; the more they grow, the less they will buy, not only in the way of food, but also in other areas. Shopping will no longer be needed as a recreation. They will move away from the temptation of big stores and shopping centers. In the evening, they will hurry home to milk their goats and water their tomatoes. Such people, for psychological and logistic reasons, are more likely to buy only what they need, which means the government will lose money by way of taxes each of us automatically pays when we buy in a licensed store. People who succeed in their little homestead venture might also discover they like it so much they will possibly opt for a less demanding, lower-paying job and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle - and then the government will lose money by way of income tax. Some economical guru up there is bound to figure it out, and the government will never - not in a million years - agree to lose money, even for the sake of promoting a healthier and happier society. 

Finally, I do know a family who does more or less what the author suggests. Both spouses hold regular jobs, and they also have a small plot of agricultural land where they work on weekends. However, they only have trees, not animals or any plants which need to be looked after on a daily basis. If you want to keep goats and chickens and a vegetable garden, it would be more difficult to do with both spouses working a full-time job outside the home. Personally I believe a much more workable arrangement for such a small homestead would be a husband who works a regular job outside the home and does the heavy work (digging, putting up fences, fixing the barn) on, say, a Friday morning (remember, it's Jewish homesteaders we're talking about!) and a wife who works in the home and does the regular maintenance (watering, pruning, milking, gathering eggs, feeding the animals, etc). 

However, it is a joy for me to know that other people, like me, indulge themselves in dreams of a world where families work together, more food is produced locally, and giant chain stores are cheated of part of their profit because people realize they don't need so much stuff. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Am I the only one?

Shabbat is over, and another week begins. We spent this past Shabbat with a family of friends - a nice couple with their four little children - and talking with them left me deep in thought. 

Our friends are a religious family in their thirties. They live in a nice comfortable home with a small garden and a big mortgage. He is a software engineer; she is a teacher. Both are happy with their lot and are really very nice people and dedicated parents.

Their day begins at 6 AM. By 7:30 the whole family is out of the house. The children are dropped off at preschool and daycare, where they stay until around 16:00. They have lunch and some afternoon activities there, and after they are picked up by their mother, they are driven to some more extra-curricular activities almost daily. At around 6 PM they get home, eat dinner, and are in bed by 7 to begin everything all over again the next day. 

Am I the only one who feels this is a little too much? 

In contrast, our day begins at a leisurely pace around 8 AM. We get up, feed the animals, have breakfast and do the chores, and engage in a wide variety of activities until lunchtime. If the weather is nice we may go out for a walk or work in the yard. We may settle at the table to quietly draw or write. Legos are taken out, dough is on the rise, a friend stops by for a visit. Questions are asked. "What do you think will happen if we mix bicarbonate and vinegar? Are all the germs gone from my hands now that I've washed them?"

I can honestly say we don't sit around and get bored. I feel our days are pretty full. But suddenly I was hit with the full impact of what it would be like to juggle home, work, and four children aged 5 and under with their all-day-long activities. I don't think I could do that; so I was left wondering - is this nice well-meaning Mom doing too much, or am I not doing enough? Am I lazy, or is she over-active? I suppose the answer is neither - our lives are just very, very different.

There's a very neat Hebrew word used to describe a child's or adolescent preschool/school occupation. It is "misgeret", which literally means "frame". So, it figures a school and extra-curricular activities "frame" the children's (and, by the by, their parents') lives. And to me, somehow, it seems excessive that a child's entire day should be "framed", from the moment they get up and until they go to bed. 

I won't even touch the question of money right now (and rest assured, preschool and daycare and extra-curricular activities for four kids cost a bundle in Israel). Suppose I could easily afford to put our life in such a nice shiny "frame". Would I want that? No, I guess I would not. I guess I'm just not a fan of "framing" altogether. 

Obviously we do have our limits. We chose to have them by choosing to live as Orthodox Jews. Our lives move to the rhythm of seasons, holidays, and days of the week. We get up, work, eat and sleep at reasonable hours. But not every hour and every minute we live is scheduled. We live at a gentle and quiet pace. Perhaps I am spoiled to have it - the more I think of it, compared to what others have, the more I consider it a luxury. But I love it; I cannot help it.

Tomorrow we will begin all over again. We'll feed the chickens and read children's books. I'll look up at the sky and decide whether I should hang the laundry inside or out. I'll see the school bus pass by. We will, probably, learn something new. 

I'm looking forward to it. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The meanings of "want"

Just odd thoughts floating in and out of my head today...

I've been thinking of the word "want" (perhaps, as a non-native English speaker, I am more prone to linguistic introspection). Though "want" is a simple word, it has several meanings, among them:

"To desire; to wish for"

and 

"To be in need of" (as in "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want"). Incidentally, in Hebrew the word used here is "echsar", from the root ch.s.r, that is, to lack or be missing something. 

For me, this is very symbolic. Because, when we "want" something, we can stop and think whether we wish for it or need it

There are many things I want, in the sense of wishing I could have them - but I know I don't want them in the sense of needing them. 

Photo: it is the season of narcissuses again

This is also an exercise in faith because, looking back at my life, I realize that there was never, ever a situation when I didn't have what I needed. There were many times when I couldn't have what I wanted, but my needs were always taken care of. And much more than my basic needs of food, clothing, shelter. I have had very thoughtful, kind, timely gifts which were in themselves, and in the way they were given, nothing short of little miracles.

Right now, our family is in a kind of complicated situation, financially. I would rather not go into details, and I have long debated within myself whether I should mention it at all; it shall suffice to say we need faith, and the memory of G-d's constant, kind, generous benevolence to us throughout the years, to know that surely we will not be forsaken. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Our elusive broody

Some time ago, she started disappearing for an hour or two each morning and - a most suspicious sign - wouldn't come running along with the others during feeding time. This made me suspect she is stashing her eggs in some secret spot, but as much as I tried, I never could track her to it. 

Then one night she didn't come to roost, and I was worried - but next morning she re-appeared with puffed-up feathers, a characteristic clucking voice and an overall deranged broody hen look - not something I would expect in January, but there you go.

I did a thorough detective job watching her for an hour or two while I sat outside in the sunshine with my crochet work. Then she began walking away, and I followed - to her hiding place inside a bush, where I found a clutch of 16 (!) eggs. 

Normally we wouldn't think of raising chicks at this season, but since she went to so much trouble, and since we'd love to get chicks from that set of parents (both gorgeous), we fixed a nice safe protected place for the broody in the coop and transferred her with all her eggs during the night. 

In the morning I discovered that she had abandoned the eggs and went to back to her old (now empty) spot. 

I picked her up again and, this time, locked her with the eggs in a secure cell. She clucked indignantly for a while, but then seemed to understand what is expected of her and settled on the eggs. It's amazing how such a little hen can contrive to cover so many eggs and keep them all warm.

She has been sitting all day now. We are hopeful.