Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Lessons from our first home

We purchased our first home eight years ago, just before we were married (I can hardly believe I've really been married this long!). It was a small, modest two-bedroom house. The total space was 70 sq.m., and some of it was taken up by a corridor and a utility room, so the actual living space was a lot less. The kitchen was old and crumbling. The yard was a blanket-sized space in front of the house, and another such space at the back, most of it taken up by a clothesline. It was located in a street of other such houses all squeezed in close (too close) together.

Still, we were excited, because this was our own home, and we could afford to buy it outright, without a mortgage. It wasn't perfect, but we made the most of it. There were great big grape vines at the back of the house, and they produced the sweetest grapes I've ever tasted, with skins so thin they nearly popped in the mouth on their own. We planted things in the little garden. We even built a tiny chicken coop for our first-ever chicks.

A bird on that old grape vine. How I loved it.

Because we were operating on such a tight budget at first, we moved in without making any improvements to the house, thinking we'd do that later, when there's more money (it never happened; three years later, we moved to a different neighborhood). Usually I'm all for being frugal and doing without what you can't afford, but there are some things I wish we had splurged on, things that are a lot more convenient to do before you've moved in, and which cost very little, compared to buying a house, such as:

- Painting the walls - goes without explanation. The walls in our house were rather dark which, together with the little space, gave a feeling of being cramped.

- Changing the locks - again, doesn't cost much and provides a lot more security.

- Installing a fence - since our neighbors were so close to us, having a fence would have given us a lot more privacy.

- Changing the kitchen cabinet doors - they were really crummy, and this made me feel a little dejected every time I went into the kitchen.

- Fixing water damage - the house foundations weren't high enough to give protection from floods and rain, and there was quite a bit of damp and mold we figured we'd deal with later, but never have.

One thing we never compromised on, wherever we lived, is having a good security system. Since we live in the Shomron, we soberly face the fact that we must be concerned about more than robbers. Thankfully, through my husband's connections we were able to get excellent security cameras (for free), and in our last two homes we've had dogs as well. In the past we also got motion detectors, but these cause a lot of false alarms when you live in an area with roaming wild animals such as wild boar and deer. The combination of security cam + good guard dog is the best, I think. 

If and when we go to a new home again, I hope we remember these little lessons, and make our home as nice and comfortable for our family, with as little inconvenience as possible, before we move in. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A quiet, simple life

My friend Leah shared this fabulous article with me. Judging from the number of comments, it's insanely popular, and for good reason. If you haven't read it yet, do, and I know you'll be blessed, as I have been.

Just like this lady, I have often anxiously asked myself: is this enough? Am I enough? And if you are asking yourself this question, know that the answer should be yes. Of course, we should all try and improve, especially as it concerns our relationship with G-d and with our loved ones. But on a very primary, basic, fundamental level it is important to remember that we were made by an Almighty G-d who made us, knows us, and loves us - just as we are, not as we can (maybe) be at some point in the future.

"What if I am not cut out for the frantic pace of this society and cannot even begin to keep up. And see so many others with what appears to be boundless energy and stamina but know that I need tons of solitude and calm, an abundance of rest, and swaths of unscheduled time in order to be healthy. Body, Spirit, Soul healthy. Am I enough?"

"What if I embrace my limitations and stop railing against them. Make peace with who I am and what I need and honor your right to do the same. Accept that all I really want is a small, slow, simple life. A mediocre life. A beautiful, quiet, gentle life. I think it is enough."

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Commitment to healthier cooking

When I graduated with a degree in nutrition from one of the best universities in the country, I knew a great deal about enzymes, hormones, and dietary regimes for various ailments, from diabetes to kidney dysfunction - but next to nothing on how to make healthier choices for simple homemade food cooked for basically healthy people.

Sure, I knew the basics - avoid over-processed junk, eat plenty of fruit and veggies, reduce sugar and salt. But I didn't internalize the importance of what comes into the process of making food: organic vs commercially grown produce, pasture-raised eggs and meat vs animals raised in crowded feedlots. I wasn't fully aware of the detrimental effects of commercially processed oils, or even sugar.

Fast forward a few years. I'm pregnant with my second child, and a friend sends me the wonderful book Nourishing Traditions. I gobble it up, fascinated. Some things I disagree with, but so many more make perfect sense. I discover a wealth of information about the diversity of diet and traditional food preparation techniques. My horizons are expanded, but I'm also discouraged. This is too much for a family who love their triple chocolate ice-cream and depend on the convenience of plastic white bread.

Slowly, bit by bit, I become convicted that health is a treasure in the sense that it makes everything else possible, and that it is my job, as the cook of the family, to make the most effort towards preserving and enhancing health. My means are ridiculously inadequate. I happen to be married to a man who isn't exactly on the same page; who doesn't just think that whole grains are nothing more than a nutritional fad, but who requests desserts, foods fried in large quantities of unhealthy oil, etc.

I yearn to exchange all the junk for an invigorating array of fruit and vegetables, for high-quality natural oils and whole flours, and excellent fresh meat, fish and dairy products. I yearn to remove all the temptations from us. I do so wish I could be the one who does the shopping, but unfortunately, this isn't practical.

More recently, reading Sugar Blues made me more mindful of the effect sugar has on people, especially children. It's actually chilling. Intelligent people lose all rational thought and consume foul junk like candy and soft drinks as if those were manna from heaven.

So, what do I do? I cook. I cook for my family. The ingredients are often inferior, but here's what I do:

I cut down on desserts. I've realized that I can spend hours working on a fancy layered cake, lovingly decorating it, and what I'm really doing is investing my time in a poison bomb that is detrimental to my family's health, because I don't have the whole flour, high-quality eggs (at this season), healthy oils and natural sweeteners that would make such a dessert even somewhat more nutritious than its store-bought equivalent. So, if I can't make a dessert or a treat that isn't an anti-nutrient, I don't make it at all. 

Of course, this has a downside, being that my husband, if he sees I've stopped making sweet treats, buys them at the store instead. Then he introduces something that is even more loaded with sugar and unhealthy oils than what I would have made at home. But my protest, in refusing to make such things, creates an echo that really serves to convince my family, bit by bit.

Same goes for white bread. Making bread from scratch is time-consuming, and I've repeatedly told my husband I don't see the sense in doing it if I end up with a product that, nutritionally speaking, is only slightly better than what I can buy at the store (though it does taste better). So, in the past weeks we've been experimenting with slow-rise breads made partially of whole grain (because my husband still claims that bread made entirely of whole grain is too dense for him). 

Of course, I'm doing my best in cooking a variety of real food - soups, stews, casseroles, quiches, meat, fish, and eggs-based stuff. In short, I'm doing the best I can with what I have, at this moment. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Shower power

My favorite time to have a shower is just before bedtime, so I can get into my cozy warm pajamas and thick socks at once. It's also practical to bathe kids after supper, once they've finished getting dirty for the day.  Lately, however, I was forced to re-evaluate this practice, due to us living in an area with plenty of power shortages in winter.

In Israel, most houses heat water using solar energy. Of course, for this to be efficient, you need to have plenty of sunlight. Israel is a sunny country, but there are those days/weeks in winter which are cloudy, rainy or even (in some areas) snowy. Also, days are shorter in winter so you have fewer hours of sunlight, and the water might get cold again before you shower. Then you need to turn on the water heater. Even if you don't mind the extra expense, it's not an option if there's a power shortage like we had this week.

So here's our new strategy: if there's a sunny day and our solar heating provides plenty of hot water, I take advantage of it while I can and we all take showers during the day or right after sunset, before the water gets cold.

An additional bonus of taking daytime showers or baths is that we don't need to waste electricity on heating the bathroom itself, or at least we don't need to heat it as much, because it's a lot warmer than it is in the evening.

I've also come to the conclusion that it's OK for kids not to take showers every day in winter. It's quite enough if their hands and faces are clean. For the baby, I prepare a pail of hot water (which can be heated on the gas stove) to wash his tushy as needed.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Educational attitudes

For a long time, I've felt that unschooling is the very thing for each and every child of every age; I've literally felt guilty every time I tried to teach reading or math, even if my children responded well, and doubly so if they bristled. After writing this post, and engaging in a very interesting discussion in the comments, I went through a process of in-depth introspection which convinced me that:

- It's quite alright and, in fact, advisable to actively teach children older than 6 to read, write and count.

- It's quite alright to gently but firmly enforce discipline in homeschooling, just as in other areas of home life (chores, meal times, times of visiting friends, etc).

- I'm not a bad parent if I sometimes make my children do things they don't like. I will occasionally encounter tears, tantrums, whining, and complaints, and my confidence as a parent should not be undermined by that. I don't need to be afraid that they will hate me for setting some rules, on the contrary (as long as it is all done with good intentions and a loving spirit). 

- I'm not destroying spontaneous learning or my children's interests/hobbies/curiosity if I introduce some structured learning into our day. The total of the basic subjects (spelling, reading, math) I aim to cover each day takes approximately two hours, spread through the morning: for example, an hour of math after breakfast, then a break and mid-morning snack, and another hour of writing/spelling before lunch. We don't have homework. So this still leaves plenty of time for the children to pursue their interests, do crafts, play outside, read, write, draw or look at picture books, meet friends, and so on.

I am still a big proponent of plenty of quiet free time, especially exposure to nature, for each child, every day. When I say "free time", I don't mean sitting in front of the TV or computer, naturally, but anything that stimulates curiosity, creativity and imagination: reading, crafts, dress-up, exploring the outdoors, etc. 

I have made a quiet resolution that I will correct my daughter's written work only during "school time", but not when she shows me a story she had written for her own and her sister's amusement (unless she specifically asks me to check her spelling). I believe that a child who perhaps struggles a little with spelling at this point, but who loves to write and does it all the time, eventually will become a better writer, with a richer language, than a child who does everything in a perfectly neat and orderly way, but only as a school exercise.  

This need for free time and unstructured play is felt by me especially strongly in the winter days, which are so short. I see school children coming home when the best part of the day is already gone - barely two hours left before sunset, when it gets too cold to be out. The children, as young as 6, are already so bogged down with homework that one of my daughters' friends told us last week she might not be able to attend the birthday party at our house because she has so much homework. This, I believe, is tragic. Surely little children deserve better balance.