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This is good weather to share some of the enjoyable ways we’ve been saving money.
But first, here’s the 1934 Disney version of Aesop’s fable “The Grasshopper and the Ants.” This time of year always recalls this cartoon to mind for me. I sympathize with the grasshopper even as I usually feel like an ant. It’s the old Martha and Mary tension– industry and enjoyment, preparing and being present. And it also picks up on a theme I’ve been stewing over this year: the place of the artist in consumer culture. (Choose your own socioeconomic/ political subtext. For inspiration, read up.)
On my best days, I know that with a little effort and some creative thinking, I can balance work and play. Everyone, whether ant or grasshopper by nature, should still have time and freedom to play his or her fiddle.
1.) Make your own laundry detergent.
In Portland we are blessed with many purveyors of goods for the so-called urban homesteader, like the Portland Homestead Supply store, Naomi’s, or People’s Co-op.
Do you know of other sources for the harder-to-find ingredients, like soda ash and castille soap bars? Please leave a comment.
Your laundry soap will be unscented unless you use a scented bar soap. You can choose to revel in scentlessness, or add a few drops of your favorite essential oil.
Mix and store the following ingredients in a lidded bucket or a cardboard box, and keep a smaller amount handy in a yogurt container or jar. When washing cold, be sure to blend the soap with a little hot water to dissolve first. Otherwise, you may end up with chunks of the stuff on your clothes, or streaks of the laundry soap if it has a color added (like Fels Naptha.)
Laundry Soap Recipe
1 part baking soda
1 part washing soda (soda ash, sodium carbonate)
1 part Borax
1 cake grated laundry (Fels Naptha) or castille soap
2.) Make your own shampoo and conditioner.
Thanks to my dear friend Barbara, and her discovery of Pioneer Thinking, with this recipe I will probably never again buy a bottle of shampoo. It’s not that shampoo is so terribly expensive– I often find great deals on good quality stuff at Grocery Outlet. The clincher for me has been how much healthier my hair and scalp feel. This is a gentle, simple application that works with your natural oils. It took about a week and a half for the oils in my hair to adjust, and I just wore a headband or did some kind of updo.
1 Tbsp baking soda
8 oz warm water
optional drop of essential oil
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
8 ox warm water
optional drop of essential oil
Blend each well and pour into separate squirt bottles. Be sure to close securely, or in warm weather, fruit flies will appear out of the woodwork and go right for the conditioner. I typically condition about once a week, finding I don’t need much more than that. I’ve halved the recipe and keep it in a smaller bottle.
3.) Make leftovers go further– and get more delicious.
Lyle and I are big oatmeal eaters. We buy a giant bag of oats at Cash N Carry and go through it like a couple of horses. Nevertheless, we have yet to become adept at measuring, and often end up with extra cooked grain that I hate to just chuck in the compost bucket.
I’ve inflicted upon Lyle many failed experiments in Old Oatmeal Cookery, but recooked oats never seem to regain their fresh-cooked appeal. I’ve attempted stove top pancakes, binding cooked oats with eggs and flour, and frying them in a pan like a pancake. Fail. Gross, eggy, burnt fail. This summer, I blended the grains into a smoothie with frozen berries, flax, and milk. I was the only one who enjoyed this beverage.
Then I checked out Lotta Jansdotter Handmade Living from the library, and discovered the Aland Pancake, a custard-like preparation that calls for cream of wheat or pureed cooked grains. In about 25 minutes, we had the most decadent, simple little breakfast. Bells rang, angels sang, the sun parted the clouds. A voice said, You have found the key to eternal oatmeal life. I said, Lyle, calm down.
1-2 cups cooked grain (oats, rice, quinoa, all three), pureed smooth in a blender
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup -1 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamon as preffered
optional raisins and walnuts
Heat oven to 425. Grease a little casserole dish. Beat the eggs and milk in a medium sized bowl, then add everything else. Mix well, and adjust consistency as needed. You want it relatively thin, like pancake batter. Pour into the dish, and bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden on top. Serve with butter and jam, or a simple berry compote with plain yogurt.
4.) Love your library!
That the miracle of the Aland Pancake should have come from a library book is no surprise. The library has always been heaven for reclusive bookworms like me. But it’s a good place for fun money-saving, too.
Ditch your Netflix account (if you haven’t already) and start working your way through the library’s collection of DVDs. I’ve found a documentary on Shape Note singing, a guide to lap-swimming, Oscar-winning dramas like Wit, foreign films, cartoons, public broadcasting profiles of great historical figures. What fun! Be the cool one who brings home the edutainment.
If you’re always in the car and still have one of those old-fashioned CD decks, think about checking out a book on tape, or brushing up on your minuets, jazz classics, and Celtic harp. Best news: if you don’t like it, at least you don’t own it.
If your library is like ours, it probably has a fantastic back-issue collection of newspapers and periodicals. Check out a stack of New Yorkers or spend a spare hour reading a lesser-known journal or newspaper.
Teach yourself Norwegian, German, Farsi, or Spanish. Language changes relatively slowly, so don’t worry if the beat-up book and CD combo was made in 1998. Check out the bulletin board and see what’s on offer in your community. There might be origami classes, knitting groups, kids’ story hour, or brown-bag lunch lectures on art and literature.
What’s going on at your library?
5.) Stay in and tune in to each other.
While we’re trying to cut back on spending and focus on what we love, we’ve been making some changes in the way we entertain ourselves. The biggest one has been cutting back on eating out– challenging because Portland has such a wealth of talented chefs, even hiding out in tiny food carts in vacant lots. Though it’s quite possible to eat well on $5, it all adds up.
We’ve been staying in more to cook dinner together, or with friends. You can create the expansive, time-free feeling of dining out with just a few candles and a bottle of wine. Plus, there’s no server hovering for your table, and no check to politely argue over. There is nothing as luxurious as a long dinner and great conversation, even if it’s a simple meal of soup, bread, and salad.
Still, we try to do something special every so often, too. On our last date night, we were planning to go to a museum, dinner, and a movie. We ended up at Powell’s after the museum, and bought a book on visual business-planning called The Creative Entrepreneur. After dinner, we skipped the movie and got out the art supplies instead. The book will last us far longer than a few hours in the theater, and I loved working on a creative project together.
6.) Join your community center.
I love my local ‘gym.’ What it lacks in fanciness it makes up for in character and fun.
I lift weights next to joke-cracking grandpas, swim laps alongside the water aerobicizers, change in the locker room next to the flustered mom with her joyfully naked toddler. Running on the treadmill, I can look out the window and see tiny ballerinas making their way to class. There’s a morning calisthenics group in the basketball gym with a loyal following, all of us rotating through the circuits to do push-ups, jump rope, or lift free weights. I can sign up for T’ai Ch’i, yoga, Zumba, or calligraphy.
I get so much more out of my community center membership than I did from the brandname gym I used to go to, with a lot less attitude and intimidation. No one is going to try to sell you on some new special, or make you sign form after form of small print.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a city whose community center programming hasn’t been cut, join in. Maybe even consider teaching a class.
What are your favorite ways to stretch a dollar?
Love. Food and shelter and warmth. Resources, health. Poetry.
You can see the cold hanging in the air this morning, and my husband gives me a ride to work, my bike in the truck bed so I can run some errands after my shift. I feel renewed by conversation with morning coffee drinkers, and a canvasser for Oxfam named Alexandra, who I stop to talk with on my way to the library.
Trees in brilliant red and gold along the river, exchanging a smile with joggers and other cyclists as I ride, the glint of sun off the water, and bundled-up tourists photographing the bridge. My heart fills with love for the city I live in.
But that love also wars with images and reports of violence– nowhere in the mainstream press, and hard to follow in the alternative press– against the Occupy protesters, here in Portland and in Oakland, Berkeley, New York. My heart goes out, but I did not go out to join the protests in my city. I thought the Occupy camp packed up peacefully here on Saturday night. I read the news, but the news was wrong.
Riding past Chapman and Lownsdale squares on my way to the public library, fenced off and bare, police standing watch. Where will all the Occupiers go, the ones who always sleep out, every day a protest? Where will they sleep, as it gets colder and darker? By bike, it’s harder to miss all of the sleeping figures bundled against cold, their supplies of bottled water and grocery bags. They could be any of us. They could be me.
I’m in and out of the library in a hurry, running up the stairs to find two books of poetry I need for my studies, then back down again and out onto my bike, so I can get home before nightfall.
At home, I read the poetry newsletter I get by email, and learn police in New York threw away over 5,000 books from the Occupy Wall Street library. In Berkeley, former Poet Laureate Robert Hass was among those beaten and injured in the protests at Berkeley. Then the open letter on the Occupy Portland site.
I connect to the writer’s closing words, echoing my own feelings from today: Portland is better than this. Portland is one of the most incredible places in this country, and it is not because of its amusement park, or its weather, or its well known tourist attractions. What makes this place so amazing is its people. We stop at cross-walks for pedestrians, we say hello to each other in the checkout lines, we enjoy our environment and our parks, and we sometimes are just a little bit strange.
Thank God for strangeness and strangers. Like the writer above. Like this poet and rabbi, who I don’t know but whose words help. I should be writing about Leave of Grass, reading Seamus Heaney’s North, but instead I am writing to you, whoever you are.
I’m wondering what Whitman would do. Wouldn’t he be at Ankeny plaza this Sunday afternoon, in love with everyone there? I open my book to Song of Myself, and read again:
In all people I see myself, none more and none a barley corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
I’ve been up to my eyeballs in reading and writing for school, enjoying it immensely but also seeking more balance with life-giving things– like fresh vegetables, regular sleep, getting to some kind of church on Sunday, and more swimming. There’s a theme here of routine and commitment, which doesn’t feel too far off the mark in terms of what has been on my mind lately.
The body, working.
The quality of care for my body as I work influences the quality of work I’m able to produce. Ambition and pride can make me think all kinds of things are a good idea, such as staying up until midnight and then getting up early to continue working. Such as drinking far too much coffee. My body lets me know of its borders and limitations, reminds me to rest through subtle and then increasingly loud signals. It’s so important for me to include a full day of rest, a full break from the books, in the outline of what I think I can accomplish in a week. Let me remember this this week, and next week.
The body of the poem, working.
The form of a poem– patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, where the line breaks and why– does its quiet or not so quiet work, and changes everything. It occurs to me that I’m taking Anatomy 101, too, only with different flash cards and no coloring book. Maybe I should make my own Poem Anatomy Coloring Book…
A body of work.
One of the great joys for me about this program is how it motivates and supports me to read what I have always meant to read, what I have longed to read but felt daunted by or too busy for. Reading the Divine Comedy is not something I would have undertaken on my own a year ago. Though far from the totality of Dante’s work, it’s his masterpiece, the amalgam of all his poems before and after. Ciardi writes, in his translation of the Purgatorio, that “no one can ever finish reading it. There will always be a new way of viewing the elements. But if no man can finish the poem, any man may begin it and the the richer for having begun.” I sure feel that way.
The body of a book.
I love the physical presence of books, and the inheritance of books. I wanted to share some photographs of two books that mean a lot to me, as a way of showing how the book as an object can be as much a part of the reading experience as its contents.
I’ve had on my shelf for ages the complete works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. My copy of Leaves of Grass is the copy my mom gave my dad when she was 19, as they were just beginning their relationship. Its pages are brittle and yellowing, the whole thing smelling of mildew from a leak in the garage roof. But the inscription on the front flap is still her young voice, a present tense written in a rounder version of the handwriting I can see her letters to me today.
Reading it now, as a married woman, thinking about who they were when they read these words, and who we’ve all become, is part of the experience I bring to the page with me. Whitman was a poet of the body, and though the body of his poems has aged over one hundred years, it hasn’t lost any of its strangeness and power.
The second book is the copy of Emily Dickinson’s complete poems, which my parents gave me for Christmas when I was all of ten years old. The inscription is in my dad’s wonderful loopy writing, encouragement from both of my parents to keep writing, keep creating. The whole book is stained in salad dressing from a spilled lunch, when I used to lug it around in my high school backpack.
These are three of my favorite words.
Here is an amazing story about all of them, the sort that will inspire you to make kind mischief.
It begins like this: Once upon a time, anonymous magical paper creations began appearing in libraries all over Scotland, beginning with a “poetree” left at the Scottish Poetry Library. As they continued to appear, the creations became symbols of hope for the future of the library in the Google Age…
(It’s quite possible that all of my favorite words live in Scotland, which has a Poetry Library and a Storytelling Centre.)
This is the thin time of year when goblins come out, thoughts become equal parts gloomy and gleeful. Are you a good witch or a bad? Depends which way the wind blows. The impulse to create magic or predict doom can feel like a single coin, waiting to be flipped. Choose magic. Read this story, make a batch of pancakes, have a cup of coffee…
I was at a party, doing the what-do-you-do chat with strangers, and mentioned that I write poetry.
“Oh,” said the nice, bespectacled woman I was speaking with. “I like poetry. Well, some of it. Like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins and Sharon Olds. Because I really feel like I can get their stuff. Most of the time, I’m afraid I’m not going to understand it.”
If I had a dollar for every time… well, I wouldn’t be a broke, happy, latte-making poet. (Actually, I’d probably still be most of those things, but with less debt.)
I’ve heard it before. People don’t read poetry because they don’t get it. For some reason, though, the way this particular would-be poetry enthusiast phrased her position gave me pause.
It wasn’t so much that she picked up a collection of poetry, read a poem, read it again, read it a few more times, and did not understand it. It was that she was afraid she wouldn’t understand it. So afraid, in fact, that she didn’t even pick up the book to begin with. Prior experience reading poems– whether in the classroom or the privacy of her kitchen– and perhaps social anxiety, had proven to this reader that poems cannot be trusted to make sense.
We moved on to other subjects, and I learned that she had some wonderful artistic projects brewing in her own life, involving collage. I suggested she read Alice Notley, a poet and collage artist whose work I enjoy, even if I don’t always get it. What I didn’t get around to telling her, whether because I didn’t know it or couldn’t articulate it at the time or was more interested in her own projects, is that you don’t need to understand a poem on an intellectual level in order to get it.
Many times I read and read and read a poem, and don’t understand it in a way that I can articulate. Some arresting image or texture or mood stays with me, something valuable to carry away with me from the wreckage of the poem on my consciousness. This is a perfectly valid way to get a poem.
Denise Levertov writes: “Recall the sense of the word ‘intelligence’ as ‘news,’ and suppose that the poem brings to us, not we to it, some news that we can’t get any other way; its intelligence is something we must experience, something we must let happen to us, not something we are compelled to reach out and grasp by force, as if we were something that must happen to the poem.” She then goes to on suggest reading the poem aloud, in a “resonant bathroom,” with all the taps on if you must, so that no one can overhear you.
However you choose to read poetry, Dear Reader, I want you to trust poetry again. I don’t want you to be so afraid of it, you don’t even bother trying anymore. I want you to know there are many ways to experience poetry.
I’ve been gone awhile, marrying the love of my life, feeling our circle of friends and family surround us with incomparable support and kindness. I have been busy reading and writing poetry, reading and writing about poetry, reading and writing about reading and writing… just not here on this blog.
I’m thinking about all of this in relation to my work as a poet– past, present, future.
How can I be a better steward of poetry? How can I bring it into my own life even more, and share it more with the people in my life?
I’m looking for your input, assistance, and ideas.
On a philosophical and project-oriented level, I’m interested in your own experiences with reading poetry. Do you share this reader’s view of poetry? What are your poetry-reading habits? Do you buy many poetry collections?
On a practical level, I’m thinking about simplifying my blog and website. Can you offer advice or assistance with domain mapping, basic design, redirects?
On Being Unable to Read is a reflection on a sudden and uneasy inability to read, and the splitting of a library that once belonged to two people. It seems that the two– the distracted mind, the break-up– are interrelated. But while Cornell is unable to sit down as she once could with a big book, getting lost for hours, she can read poetry– a few lines here or there while making coffee. And she experiences what she calls “pockets of reading,” those few times when she does find herself able to read again.
“Not to read is to feel pain, often: the pain of loss, knowledge, and smallness. Reading dulls the pain of the knowledge of mortality, which is self-knowledge,” she writes.
I can identify with this. Even at the mildest edge of the spectrum, the desire to read bears hints of this will to avoid, to escape. But I also see that desire to escape the self looping back around toward the desire for self-knowledge. Story transports the reader, loosens her from the bonds of her current reality, the humming refrigerator with the bills clipped to the door. Reading, she is wrapped up in another life, yet also in conversation with her own life story, on some deep and tranquil sea floor in her self.
Interspersed in this meditation: selections from The Way of the Pilgrim, Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking my Library,” lines from Elizabeth Bishop, Gregory Corso, Tolstoy, Dickinson.
“It’s necessary to come to a temporary rest in order to read, even to a flash point of comfortable boredom,” Cornell writes. “This is true for wirting– telling stories– also…. a culture based on quiet, repetitive work– a culture now mostly lost to us– is the only real climate for the creation of narrative.”
She writes about reading the books of her youth again, and about the mystical quality of book-finding which most readers have experienced: the rare book or the right book appears right in front of you at just the right time, in a bookstore off your regular route or square on your best friend’s coffee table. She writes about sitting down at a poet friend’s desk, house-sitting, and writing poetry for the first time. Throughout, there’s a deep sense of humility and wonder grounded in the experience of someone who loves beauty and has overcome a painful loss.
I am particularly grateful for the concluding paragraph, a crescendo of parting words that read like those of someone about to go down at sea. They are fighting words, saving words:
“Some things I’ve learned: Everything can come apart. The practice of reading can come apart. Even a life can come apart, into big fragments, like an egg. When it does, it must not be repaired like a clock; it must not be repaired at all: it can’t be. If your heart is broken, it’s broke; you can’t make it like it was before. The rhythm of it will never be the same. There aren’t many things you can profitably do in a crisis like this, which may last years, but there are a few. Read. Look. Pray. Whatever those words mean. If you can’t pray, pray. If you can’t look, open your eyes. If you can’t read one book, put it down and let another find you. Pay the high price now, the low one later. Let those who preceded you do much of your work for you. I’m talking about Dostoevsky, Whitman, Proust—and many you haven’t heard of yet. Make art, make friends. Be in awe of books as objects, as intelligences. Finally, when reading, let books become an ambient extension of you and you of them—but only for the duration, after which, become yourselves again.”
[Maybe you know, or maybe you don't, that Cornell was married to Jonathan Franzen for twelve years. I didn't know, and a Google search of the author's name retrieves only entries which highlight this fact. Her work itself? Where is it? I could only find this NYT review. If you know where I can find more of Cornell's work, leave it in the comments.]
The anthology as a whole is helping me steer a little closer toward my final thesis, which I plan to write on, of all things, women and poetry. Which women? What kind of poems? I dunno. I’m trying to figure it out. Why do women need to reclaim poetry? Why do I get irritated by the predominance of men in the so-called literary canon? What canon? Who made it up? What if I love Beowulf and The Metamorphoses and The Odyssey and still wish the women did other things besides tear their hair, beat their breasts, and turn into trees? And how do I read and write through all of the glaring holes in the lineage I’ve inherited?
It’s almost like I have to acknowledge and bash directly through the brick wall in front of me, while simultaneously pretending there was never a wall to begin with.
As I am also currently writing an article on women, biking, and business in Portland, I have been thinking a lot about the ways we tokenize the experience of minorities– which is to say, perspectives belonging to those who aren’t white and male– in thought, speech, assumption, action, inaction. I interviewed writer and cycling advocate Elly Blue for the story, and she had some interesting things to say about this.
“Women are either seen as outliers or not seen at all,” she said. What about writing, so to speak, in medias res? That is, in the middle of the story itself, where the perspective being offered is not considered special or different, but just one perspective out of many equally-valid and interesting perspectives? This normalizes those perspectives, Blue said, rather than reinforce their otherness.
Internet wanderings led me to Alexander Chee’s blog Koreanish, in which there is a post on the merits of Glee:
“One thing I’ve realized: whether you love it or not, you have to give it credit for how it is quietly a show with the most Asian American actors on television, and it is set in Ohio. That is awesome all on its own. Whatever else you want to say about it, between the major characters and the minor, the Glee universe is one where Asian Americans have storylines that are not always about being Asian in America. Or even being Asian While American. And for that reason, I can watch it and not feel creeped out, because while I did not grow up in Ohio, it looks like my world, even despite its other comedic distortions.”
Inevitably, media distorts and obscures larger truths in the pursuit of the fraction of truth that’s possible to convey in 1,000 words, 30 minutes, or 140 characters. But what if it is possible to get the frame out of the way and let the story through?