Tag Archives: Simplicity

The Tale of the Coveted Cookies

No, this is not the beginning of a fairy tale. It really happened years ago when I was a teenager, and I thought it would be an amusing story to share with you as the holiday season ramps up.

My mom comes from a fairly large extended family. Both of her parents had many siblings, so both sides of her family tree used to have large potluck dinners every December to give everyone a chance to spend time together over the holidays.

 My maternal grandmother’s side of the family included a White Elephant gift exchange in their gigantic Christmas get-together. Every family unit – which was roughly defined as a couple (or single person) and any children under the age of 20 they may have – was asked to bring one wrapped gift that would appeal to an adult of any age.

One year, mom had no idea what to bring for the gift exchange. What she did have was a little extra time on her hands and an empty decorated tin from a previous Christmas. She whipped up a quick batch of chocolate chip cookies and put as many of them as would fit into the tin. It was such a pretty box that she didn’t bother wrapping it in festive paper.

In a white elephant gift exchange, a member from each family is allowed to choose one wrapped present. Everyone then sat in a semicircle of chairs. One by one, they opened their gift and then decided whether they wanted to keep it or trade it for one of the other opened presents.

This was a decision that could be made only once. After your turn ended, you’d either hold onto your gift for good or have it “stolen” by someone further down the line who preferred it to whatever it was they had unwrapped.

When mom’s gift was opened by a cousin, he grinned. The next person to open their gift quickly “stole” the cookies from the first person.

This happened a few different times throughout the course of the game. I don’t remember who finally ended up with them, but it was funny to see adults become so playfully competitive over a tin of cookies. (Granted, they were delicious cookies!)

While I haven’t participated in a gift exchange in many years, I think of this story every December.

Sometimes the best gifts really are the simplest ones.

If you’d like to make these cookies for yourself, here is the recipe. It’s every bit as delicious as it sounds, and the cookies are quite easy to make as well.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/3 cups Crisco (or margarine)
2 cups sugar
1 cup brown sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons vanilla
4 1/2 cups flour
1 package chocolate chips (about 340 grams or 12 ounces)


Mix the Crisco, sugar, brown sugar, and eggs  together until fluffy.
Add the baking soda, salt, and vanilla. Mix well.
Add the flour in one cup at a time. Mix well.
Stir in the chocolate chips.

Spoon the dough onto lightly greased cookie sheets.

Bake at 350 Fahrenheit for 6-7 minutes or until golden brown.

Makes about 6 dozen cookies.

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Now Is the Perfect Time to Start Practicing Mindfulness

The autumn and winter holiday season is right around the corner.

In the past, I’ve felt kind of like discombobulated like the glass of water in the picture on the left for several different reasons: I’ve felt pressured to participate in religious rituals I disagreed with; I do not enjoy the wasteful, commercialistic side of the holiday season; I miss the sun when sunset begins to happen before 5 pm in November and December.

Whether you love the extra hours of darkness and the festivities of this portion of the year or, like me, are not a big fan of them, they’ll be here before we know it.

This will the first holiday season I will have ever been through as someone who meditates and practices mindfulness regularly. I have already seen positive changes in my life as a result of these new habits. It’s going to be fascinating to see if they make the end of the year more enjoyable for me. My best guess is that they will be!

If you haven’t started practicing mindfulness yet, now is the perfect time to begin. Let’s talk about why this is so and what to expect if you decide to add this habit to your daily routine.

Mindfulness Isn’t a Quick Fix

No, this isn’t going to be one of those blog posts that promises to improve every part of your life in five easy steps. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of that writing style or of the idea that reading a single article is all someone needs to make big changes in their life. Few people are that simple or that easily swayed.

There is also the fact that learning how to stop and focus on the present moment takes time. While I am gradually getting better at brushing away unhelpful thoughts and keeping my mind focused on what is currently going on, I still have a long way to go.

This is by far the biggest reason why I strongly recommend getting started with this habit as soon as possible if it’s something you’re hoping to get benefits from over the next few months.

If you want to be able to live in the moment at the end of the year when you’re at an event that you find stressful or over-stimulating, practicing now will make that day easier than it might have otherwise been because you will have already gotten into the habit of quietly focusing on the moment instead of thinking about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.

Mindfulness Is a Lifestyle Change

Think about practicing mindfulness the same way you would if you wanted to learn a new language, strengthen your muscles, or play a new instrument.

All of these skills take time and effort to master. I’ve never heard of anyone becoming fluent in a new language in a day or a week. The same can be said for learning to play the piano or swing a kettlebell.

While the basics can be figured out fairly quickly if you’re motivated, it will take sustained effort over much longer periods of time to really reap the rewards of your hard work.

Mindfulness requires that same attention to detail. When I first began meditating and doing my best to remain in the present moment when I wasn’t meditating, I didn’t notice any major changes in how I thought or felt.

It took a while for me to fall into the habit of doing it regularly, and even longer for me to learn how to use it to relax consistently.

Mindfulness Is Worth It

I wish I’d started practicing mindfulness regularly many years ago. There were several false starts over the years as I slowly figured out what did and didn’t work for me.

While I understand why it took me a while to where I am today, I sure wish I could have had a cheat sheet to both warn me about the techniques my brain would not find helpful well as to tantalize me with all of the positive effects of mindfulness if I kept plugging away at it.

If there were a way for me to give you a tour of my mind and show you all of the small but still wonderful improvements I’ve made as a result of this habit, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Since that isn’t currently possible, I’ll tell you that my mind wanders a little less now than it used to. It’s easier to return to the present moment when it does go scampering off into the furthest recesses of my brain.

I’ve also come to love my daily meditation sessions and mindful moments. They are such a nice way to pause and immerse myself in the moment before moving on with my regular routines. It’s going to be interesting to see what other benefits I discover over the next few months as I become even better at the skills i’m currently practicing.

In short, mindfulness is worth every ounce of effort you put into it.

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Try It Another Way

monday-blogs-1I’m going to get today’s point across by telling you a few stories.

The Dryer Game

The laundry facility I use is small, crowded, and often quite busy.

There have been times when every single washer and dryer is in use when I’ve shown up with my dirty laundry.

Once there was even a line of people waiting to snag a washing machine the second one became available. That was one overloaded day, pun intended.

Some people do like wait around for an available machine. After trying that once and getting frustrated by the folks who like to let their clothing hang around in the machines for hours after they’re done washing or drying, I started making rules for myself.

If all of the washers and dryers are claimed, do not pass go or unload your laundry basket. This game was doomed from the start.

If a few washing machines are free but all of the dryers have just been claimed, come back in 30-60 minutes. Some of the machines will probably be free by then. If they aren’t, try again on a different day.

If there are enough washing machines right now and at least one dryer looks like it will be free by the time you’ll need one, start the laundry immediately. Not everyone uses all of the time on their dryer, so you could end up with far more dryers than you actually need.

It’s easier to take your chances on this when a few of the dryers will run out of time in the next thirty minutes or so anyway.

monday-blogs-3Rethinking Steak

Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time might remember that I’m not a big fan of meat, especially red meat.

I react to it the same way many people seem to react to vegetables: a part of a balanced diet, but definitely not the fun or enjoyable part.

(When I was a kid, I actually ate a plate full of lettuce as my after school snack every day. That’s how much I liked and still like vegetables!)

The other night I went to a friend’s birthday dinner at a restaurant that is known for its steaks. There weren’t a lot of other dairy-free options on the menu, so I ordered a steak for my meal.

Historically, I’ve asked for well done meat because I thought that the red juice you see in cooked steaks was blood. The sight of it completely grossed me out. It was only recently that I learned what it actually is, though, so this time I decided to order a steak that was cooked to medium instead of well done.

What a difference that one decision made! My steak was juicy and delicious. It’s still not something I’d want to eat more than occasionally, but it was a much better meal than the steaks I’ve had in the past.

Tying It All Together

Sometimes trying things another way makes all of the difference in the world.

What problem or situation have you approached from a different angle recently? How did that work out for you?


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There’s Such a Thing as Too Much Simplicity

Comic by Grant S.

Comic by Grant S.

Many visitors are surprised by how little my husband and I own.

We live simply in a very small apartment. We don’t own a car, couch,  dishwasher, washer, dryer, table, chairs, or a lot of the other stuff that most people have in their homes.

I’m happy with what we do own. It’s enough to cover all of our needs (and most of our wants), but it never feels overwhelming.

There are some people in the simplicity movement who’ve pared it down to just 100 items, including stuff like clothing. It works well for a lot of them, especially if they travel a lot or don’t make many meals at home.

For me, that would be too bare-boned. I don’t particularly like washing the dishes, but with my allergy to milk it would be tricky and expensive to eat every meal out. (It would also be much less healthy).

And I like owning enough clothing that I don’t have to do laundry every week. If a pair of socks counts as 2 items, you could only own a few of them before they took up too much space in the 100 item count.

The trick to any movement, I think, is to use it only to the extent that it works for you. I don’t talk about our voluntary simplicity on this blog as often I used to because it’s so well-integrated into our daily lives.

What about you? What movements have you dabbled in without committing to everything they have to offer?



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Product Placement: The Future of Advertising?

About six months ago Drew and I cancelled our cable subscription. We’ve been watching our favourite television shows on our laptop.

Losing commercial breaks and all of the stuff advertisers want us to think we need was refreshing. I wasn’t expecting it to affect me as much as it did and does because when we had cable we rarely if ever paid attention to commercials. That time was usually spent by going to the kitchen for another snack or finishing up a quick chore.

Yet when we cut commercials out of our television habits I slowly noticed that I was less and less interested in new stuff just for the sake of having it. I’m happier to wear things out or use them up now. Even though I’ve never been the type of person to, say, buy a new wardrobe every year I did grow tired of what I owned more quickly than I do now.

And then I began to notice something creeping onto the foregrounds and backgrounds of some of my favourite shows:

Product Placement

A few characters gather together for a meal. Rather than sipping a cold drink from a glass tumbler they now drink name-brand juice or fortified water whose labels just happen to be in view of the camera.

They haven’t written what they are drinking into the dialogue (so far…) but until I train my eyes to only read on command I can’t help but know their beverages of choice.

Is this the new face of advertising?

If it is there is at least one advantage: the show doesn’t have to take a break to flash a product at us.

But every time it happens I’m momentarily jarred out of the world that each television show creates. When I watch a program I buy into certain assumptions about the way TV-land works:

  • Vampires were born to mope.
  • Female superheroes fight better in skimpy clothing.
  • Women who wander into dark alley ambushes need a man to rescue them.
  • If two people despise one other the first time they meet it means they are destined to fall in love.

Sometimes these assumptions are turned on their heads (see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer). At other times they are not (see also: Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

To this list I’d also add:

  • TV-land packaged food is manufactured by imaginary companies.

Part of the allure of fictional stories is the promise of escaping into another world for a little while. Product placement ruins this aspect of it for me.

The question is, in what other ways could products be marketed to us if fewer and fewer people are watching commercials?

What do you think?

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Verbing Valentine’s Day

This post was originally going to be a rant about everything about Valentine’s Day that makes me uncomfortable:

  • The rampant consumerism.
  • The assumption that the best way to woo someone is by buying stuff.
  • The cookie-cutter approach to what is of the most unique and personal aspects of each of our lives. No two romantic relationships are alike! What works for one person or couple may be worthless or even harmful advice for another.

Instead of talking about what is wrong with Valentine’s Day, though, I decided to list more meaningful ways to show affection to a significant other. (Last year I wrote a post about why I don’t celebrate Christmas. Many of the points made there also apply to Valentine’s Day for those interested in re-evaluating holiday traditions in general.)

My philosophy of love, so to speak, is pragmatic. I’m generally uninterested in traditional gender roles or grand gestures. Love is an action verb in my family of origin, not a monologue. With this in mind let’s begin….

Verbing Valentine’s Day

Accumulate small gestures. It’s easy to say, “I love you!” Paying attention to small details consistently over time takes more work but it also shows that you’re in tune with what your SO likes, needs or wants.

Say I’m Sorry, Thank You. Apologies and appreciation are the axle grease of life.

Show anger gently. How you act when you’re mad is a far more accurate representation of who you are as a human being than how you treat others while in a good mood. I’ve never known anyone in a conflict-free relationship! How disagreements play out when they do happen, though, is a good indication of how healthy the interactions are between you.

Keep certain things private. Some of my most uncomfortable conversations have been with friends who  complain about their SO in ways that they’d never attempt if he or she could hear what was being said. Yes, sometimes advice from a close, trusted friend can help you navigate a tricky situation but be careful about what is said and how you say it.

Offer to help. There’s nothing better than hearing this phrase when you have a time-consuming or difficult project coming.

No, nothing mentioned today can be bought last-minute at the drug store or ordered online. As someone who is allergic to most chocolates, wears all two pieces of the jewelry I own every day and has never figured out what to do with flowers or stuffed animals I don’t resonate with the romance memes of western culture.


What do you consider to be a romantic gesture? How do you show your SO how much you care about them?

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Cable-Free: One Month Update

Now that we’re about a month into the new TV season I thought I’d give an update on our cable-free experiment.

So far we have had little to no trouble finding most of our favourite TV shows. At times I do have to wait a day or two for certain shows to become available for download, and certain ones are not always easy to find, but once I figured out that my shows will show up eventually it quickly became part of everyday life.

The price of individual iTunes episodes turned out to be a little more expensive than we had originally thought, so we did cut back on a few shows that, while interesting, didn’t seem worth the extra two to three dollars per episode. Small amounts here and there can add up quickly by the end of the month! I’d like to see the price come down for individual episodes on iTunes in Canada, especially for the half-hour programs. Right now it costs less to rent some movies that it would to rent two episodes of a sitcom that, added together, only provide about 45 minutes of entertainment.

It doesn’t make sense and I honestly think they would make more money if the price for individual hour-long shows went down by a dollar or two and if half-hour shows were just a little less expensive than that. At this point, viewers have a real disincentive to choose shorter programs when we can watch an hour long show or a movie for the same amount of money.

Download speeds do seem to vary quite a bit depending on the time of day. We’ve learned to download our shows first thing in the morning if at all possible, as they seem to finish more quickly that way. Downloading more than one show at a time also seems to help speed up the process. (Or maybe it just seems that way because I have more than one show to look forward to? 🙂 )

If there’s one thing I haven’t missed one bit, it is commercials. I can’t stress enough how nice it is to avoid these interruptions, especially in our drama and scifi/fantasy shows where it is very common to cut away at the most inopportune scenes. Once or twice now I’ve stumbled across a traditional television program while away from home. No sooner do I begin to become interested in a program than a commercial pops up. These interruptions are becoming an excuse for me to wander away from the screen and do something else every 5 minutes. I think I’m losing my tolerance for commercial breaks as I don’t remember noticing them so often in the past!

As the weather grows colder, Drew and I are spending more and more time indoors watching our shows, reading and surfing the Internet. The temptation to follow more and more interesting shows is only going to grow for us as winter approaches and the average daily temperature drops closer to freezing. I’ve been trying to come up with alternative (and free or inexpensive) indoor activities so that we don’t spend too much time staring at computer or television screens.

Honestly, I wish we’d done this a year or two ago. The benefits far outweigh the occasional slow download time, new episodes that take a little extra time to show up, or the temptation to begin watching more and more programs over time.


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Scent Pollution

One unexpected advantages so far of not  having cable TV is that I no longer need to argue with the commercials.

Candles. Dish soap. Body wash. Laundry detergent. Fabric softener. Deodorant. Hand lotion. Feminine hygiene products. Shampoo. Mouthwash. Toothpaste. Wood polishers and other cleaning products. Disposable dusting clothes. Everything is scented these days.

If I want the scent of fresh lemons in the kitchen, I will buy some fresh lemons to cut, peel or juice in there. If I want a living room to smell like flowers, I’ll….go admire the fresh bouquets at someone else’s house.  If I want to bask in the scent of  fresh laundry, I’ll head over to the laundromat and wash some of our clothing. (What does fresh smell like, anyway?)

Part of the problems is, I think, that marketers believe that clean has a scent. It doesn’t or at least not the scent of rainwater, fruit, flowers, sunshine or oxygen. Clean dishes/clothes/houses smell like nothing at all. That’s why we wash them. Clean people soon develop a faint aroma unique to their own body chemistry, but that’s nothing to be worried about. Making you smell like you is exactly what your body is supposed to be doing!

On the rare occasion now that I catch advertisements for scented things the entire scented-life-stuff industry seems even more ridiculous than it was before. Especially when one considers that scents mix. It isn’t just one scented product, after all, it’s layer upon layer of them- a noxious mixture of hairspray, cologne/perfume, body wash, mouthwash and shampoo on each person in the room, plus  the aroma of any scented candles/wall-plug-ins as well as a faint whiff of any strongly scented cleaning products that have been used in that area recently-  that were never intended to be inhaled at the same time. Because of this they clash. Sometimes horribly.

I have no love for any of it. Which is why I reserve the right to argue with the faulty logic of commercials who try to convince us that adding extra scents to products that don’t need to be scented to work properly is a good idea by any stretch of the imagination.


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Living More With Less

A few weeks ago Teresa from Thoughtful Eating recommended that I read Living More with Less by Doris Janzen Longacre, a book about the connection between social justice and simple living from a Mennonite perspective. This book illustrates a few of the many reasons why if I was ever going to go back to church it would almost certainly be a Mennonite congregation.

Most of the books, articles and blogs I’ve read about simple living are focused on the benefits of those things for us as individuals. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a more frugal lifestyle for personal gain but Longacre’s focus on the often mindless waste of resources in the west and her description of how changing these habits can benefit others as much if not more than it helps us was a breath of fresh air.

My favourite section of the book involved a list of imaginary development problems that were commented upon by people who lived outside of the United States.  Topics ranged from building energy-efficient public transportation to connect small towns across the U.S. to living without disposable goods to using fewer kitchen appliances and less energy when cooking. Their suggestions for these problems showed how difficult it can be to offer realistic solutions for systemic problems in cultures that you know little or nothing about.  Yet people in the west often give similar well-meaning but misguided advice about which seeds to buy or irrigation systems to use when the people who actually live in that society already know that those items or ideas aren’t going to work for their community. I had never thought about this before and it was a section I re-read several times.

The second half of the book contains tips on getting the most out of what we do use whether it is the clothing we wear, the food we eat, the homes we live in or the celebrations we have for weddings and baby showers among other events. These tips ranged from how to use vinegar to get rid of soap scum to how to build your own home in the side of a hill or out of recycled materials.

One of the biggest drawbacks to many the techniques described in this book, though, is that they require a lot of time and skill. Maintaining a vegetable garden, preserving food safely, cooking every meal at home from scratch, sewing your own clothes, building or retrofitting an eco-friendly home out of recycled materials…none of these things are easy to do when one is already working a full-time job elsewhere. This is something that is feasible for families who live in a rural setting and can devote at least one adult to learning and doing all of these activities. It is more difficult, though, for the 79% of Americans who live in urban areas (80% in Canada) or the 61% of  women who work outside of the home. (59% in the US).

I recognize that this is partially a matter of cultural differences between 1980 and 2010 and (to a degree) cities and rural communities. To be fair, the introduction does say:

Approach this book as if it were an invitation to a treasure hunt rather than a summons to a final exam. Doris Longacre has no interest in legalism or works-righteousness.

One of the things I respect the most about Longacrue is that she isn’t dogmatic about the application of every suggestion in this book.  I don’t know if I’m romanticizing the Mennonite community or if I have just happened to continuously  meet people from that background who approach even their most strongly held convictions with humility and grace but this is something that I deeply admire about them.

I do wish, though, that one of Longacres descendants would write a sequel to this book that addresses the societal shifts of the last generation or two and offered more examples of simple living for the sake of others for everyone outside of the breadwinner dad, stay-at-home mom and several young children model of life. I can only imagine what sort of creative solutions have been hammered out over the last three decades.


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On Not Celebrating Christmas

Growing up and into the first few years of adulthood I celebrated a more-or-less traditional form of Christmas with my family. I don’t observe it as a religious or secular holiday any longer for several reasons.

Christmas and Religion. I don’t celebrate Eid, Hanukkah or Yule because I’m not Muslim, Jewish or Neopagan. Why, then, continue to celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas when I no longer necessarily identify myself as a Christian?

Simple Living.  I’m content to live a fairly simple life, buying only what I genuinely need whenever it is that I need it.  A well thought out gift can mean the world to both the giver and to the receiver, of course, and I’m grateful when other people give gifts to me but it has been my experience that most gift exchanges are neither necessary nor discerning of what the receiver actually needs. There’s only so much clothing one can wear at one time, food one can eat, books one can read, gift certificates one can redeem and electronics one can enjoy in an hour or month or year. I’d rather wear out what I already own before I acquire more possessions that aren’t going to be put to good use.

Consumerism. I’m not ethically comfortable with the consumeristic and materialistic values often associated with this season. What should be a loving, joyful time of year often instead becomes busy, expensive and stressful. Showing love for family, friends and your significant other has somehow mutated into a social obligation to prove your feelings by buying them nice stuff. There’s something very wrong about that.

Giving and receiving are wonderful parts of being in a relationship or social group but neither of those things should be boxed into one event a year or limited to what is sold in stores. The best gifts I’ve ever given (and received) have been labours of time and love. Many people are comfortable both giving gifts over the winter holidays and throughout the year. This doesn’t have to be an either/or choice, of course, but giving spontaneous gifts of time, or attention, or advice, or help with a special project, or yes sometimes even actual physical objects throughout the year works better for me.

And then there are the exceptions to this rule. Technically I’m sure that my nephew doesn’t need any more stuff, but I also believe that Christmas is holiday for children. When I was little there was nothing more magical than opening up presents from the grown-ups who loved me on Christmas morning. Even the smallest gifts from them made me giddy. So I do make exceptions for young relatives. I’m slowly learning that I prefer to give special trips or other experiences over adding yet another toy or game for my brother and sister-in-law to trip over…but ultimately I’d give him almost anything that his parents approved of when Christmas or his birthday rolls around.

Occasionally I am able to spend Christmas with my family in the U.S. A few family members absolutely adore Christmas so I’m flexible when we get together during that time of year. So far we’ve had one surprisingly un-observant “Christmas” – we didn’t exchange presents or decorate but we did have home-cooked, sit-down meals together. Over that same trip I also attended a Sunday morning Christmas service at a local Mennonite church with the family. It was a gift of sorts for my grandparents and great-aunts to be surrounded by so many members of their family on one of the most family-oriented Sundays of the year.

Several years ago my grandparents organized donations from teens and adults in our extended family to send two or three care packages to a Mennonite charity in Africa that provides personal care items and some very basic medical supplies to adults who have been diagnosed with AIDS. Assembling those packages is one of my all-time favourite memories of them.  If my family wanted to exchange gifts the next time we’re all together over Christmas I might suggest that we do something charitable  again but would be willing to go along with the original plan if that was the majority decision. As much of a cliche as this is to type relationships are more important than my preference not to celebrate the commercial aspects of this holiday.

You may be wondering why I’m bringing this topic up in August, months before the average person begins to think about this sort of thing. I have two reasons for doing this. Number one: retail stores are just now or soon will be receiving their first shipments of winter-holiday-themedmerchandise which will so overflow their storage rooms that it will probably ooze onto store shelves within the next month or so. After working in that environment for so long I automatically begin thinking about these things at the end of summer. Only 125 days to go! Number two: If anyone reading decides to change their gift exchange preferences, now is the time to mention it to friends and family.


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