Lately, a surprising amount of my energy is devoted to the task of not being terrified. I’m a person who suffers from obsessive anxiety, so even pre-Corona virus I was really, really good at washing my hands. Like, I already sang the alphabet song.
Now I sing Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Luckily, for me, I have enough other things to keep my circular thought patterns at bay: the task of keeping a houseful of teenagers and young adults fed, for example. Ever since my daughter’s acting conservatory closed two weeks ago, we’ve had six under our roof, which is double our usual number, including Greta, her actor boyfriend, and her dear friend who is also studying acting.
I was delighted to have them all here, refugees from the panic that has become New York City. I was delighted too, that I could cook for them, because that always makes me feel that I am caring for people. It gives me purpose, makes me feel that I’m literally making the people around me more happy and healthy by feeding them nutritious, homemade food.
The only problem is that I’ve never cooked for the Brady Bunch before, and I keep wondering where the heck Alice is. Between the fact that I make pretty much everything from scratch, and was doing all the dishes? Three meals a day? With no “Hey! Let’s go out tonight and give Mom a break!” in sight?
It has knocked me for a serious loop. I was going to bed exhausted, planning meals in my head, and waking up exhausted, planning meals in my head. Why, you may be wondering, didn’t I ask for help? I don’t know. Part of it is sheer stubbornness. Another part of it is probably my unconscious, deciding that it was better to be on the brink of exhaustion than to think about the scary things that are going on in the world right now.
Thank goodness, things on the Eve Exhaustion Front have now significantly improved. I finally started accepting help when it was offered (imagine that!) and even asking for it upon occasion. We set up a calendar of chores so everyone in the house is now contributing every day. And Greta’s friend made the decision to fly home to her parents, which made us sad to lose her company, but in sheer practical terms also meant one less mouth to feed.
That’s a phrase that strikes me as very old-fashioned: “one less mouth to feed.” It reminds me of stories about the Depression, and the Little Rascals short films that took place in orphanages (“Don’t drink the milk!” “Why?” “It’s spoiled!”). I think about the American Girl historical fiction movies with their young characters living through World Wars and the Depression and their fictional family members who died or disappeared and all anyone could do was bring you a casserole.
What does any of this have to do with No Garbage? In my mind it’s all connected. In fact, weirdly enough, all three of my family adventure-projects seems bound up together for me in living through this current crisis: sugar, clutter, waste. All of these themes have to do with how we live our lives, and- perhaps you’ve noticed?- currently how we live our lives has been thoroughly upended.
For example: my younger daughter, Ilsa, needed a quiet place to park her laptop and attend “school” every morning, and our under-used upstairs room seemed the obvious choice. But, truth be told, this “Hell Room” (the room I spent the entirety of my Year of No Clutter clearing out) has been backsliding into Hellishness for some time now. So I had some work to do.
Interestingly, I discovered some newfound decluttering energy, and Ilsa and I cleared a neat space for her with little trouble. I think it was easier than my past efforts because I had a practical problem to solve, quickly, and thinking practically changes me: it makes me not think quite as much about tomorrow and some future self, but about what we need now, today. I liked the change. So much so that I’ve continued to clean and organize the rest of the room since: if I can manage to clear it out still further it could also become another good space for other things… reading, relaxing, being. I was surprised to realize that all it took was actually needing the space, to make me more effective and efficient.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen we are running a tighter, more efficient ship as well. Yes, No Sugar taught me to cook things from scratch, and yes, No Clutter has been teaching me about planning and thinking ahead to avoid packaging. But this new normal has been bringing home cooking and planning in our house to a new level, and it’s pretty much all lunch’s fault.
Once upon a time, the midday meal in our house had been a “winging it” affair, an amalgam of leftovers, “just in case” foods (“Don’t we have a frozen burrito left in there somewhere?”) and school lunches. Now? Now we have meals. Planned ones. Only. Every day I make sure we have a hot, sit-down meal to feed five people three separate times. This is because social distancing makes our grocery shopping no longer casual- “oh I’ll pick up some milk on the way home”- but instead infrequent, targeted and specific. It is also because we are feeding more people, and therefore the only way I can be sure there’s actually enough food for everyone to eat. It’s a lot of work, for sure, and sometimes I get very overwhelmed, but it’s no different than our ancestors have done for centuries.
As it turns out— and I’m as surprised as anyone about this— living No Sugar, No Clutter and No Garbage all lead to the same place: being thoughtful and devoting the time. When people are nostalgic for the “good old days” they’re not pining for beef shortages and the Whooping Cough, I’m pretty sure what they’re captivated by, when it comes down to it, is the pace. Even the Little Rascals sat down for breakfast together. Being thoughtful about your space, your resources, your food, where the objects of our life come from and where they all go; devoting the time to put those ideals into practice… getting objects to people who will love and use them, recycling and reusing, cooking as much as possible from scratch. These all sound like old-fashioned ideals that many will tell you just aren’t possible in modern society, but all they require is being thoughtful and devoting time.
How do we want to live? What kind of people do we want to be? If we try to find a silver lining in this crisis it could be that it is forcing so many of us to stop running headlong through life, believing we don’t have time for things. Life is time. If we are alive we have time, and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t up to you how to spend it. What we, as a culture, need to do is stop ceding control of that time, those decisions about how we spend it, to someone or something else- our culture, our job, our technology, our expectations, or someone else’s.
Right now my daughter Greta is downstairs baking bread for lunch today. She won’t use sugar, create clutter or make any garbage in the process. Today we’ve done the best we can do, and that’s good enough. I know I was born with a truly exceptional ability to worry about the future, and that’s what comes easily. The harder part is reminding myself instead that today is what we have and often- often- that’s pretty darned good. The harder part is reminding myself to just be grateful for a family lunch at our table, and a still-warm loaf of bread.
Homemade bread nourishes you twice: it’s relaxing to make it and delicious to eat it.
Here’s my favorite bread recipe, what Greta made today. If you make it let me know how it turns out!:
Oatmeal Sandwich Bread
- 1 cup old fashioned oats
- 3 cups boiling water
- 1 1/2 Tbsp active dry yeast
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 cup barley malt syrup or brown rice syrup (in a pinch you can even use dark corn syrup, which is glucose not fructose)
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
In the bowl of a mixer, put a cup of oats. Pour boiling water over oats and let sit one hour.
At one hour, sprinkle the yeast, salt, and olive oil on top. Add the barley malt syrup and mix with dough hook. Stir in whole wheat flour. Stir in 2 cups of all-purpose flour. Then stir in 2 more cups of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing in between each addition.
Turn dough out onto a foured surface for kneading. Use the final cup of flour to add to dough whenever it gets sticky. Knead for five minutes, until dough has absorbed most of the final cup of flour and feels smooth. Place in a bowl and allow to rise for one hour.
Butter two loaf pans and heat oven to 350 degrees. After the hour has passed, turn dough onto counter, cut in half, and place each half in a bread pan. Allow to rise another 30 minutes.
Bake at 350 for 33 minutes. Remove bread from oven and allow to sit for five minutes before turning loaves out and letting cool on a rack.