This Month On The Homestead: Breathe Deeply, Expect Nothing, Add Carrots
January delivers a stark reminder that the holiday festivities are finished and that snow is in residence until May. January meets us with a grim reminder that we ought gird ourselves for consistency of weather and of activity. It’s a month of monochromatic sameness.
But January is also the time for decluttering and new recipes and woodstove worship. It’s an exercise in locating beauty in the mundane. In finding stillness among the snow-soaked trees and contentment in early nights and still earlier sunsets.
I come to you this month with a disjointed, realistic picture of how our month unspooled. Of what we did and didn’t do, of what our life was like.
Welcome to my series documenting life on our 66-acre Vermont homestead, which we moved to in May 2016 from urban Cambridge, MA. Wondering about the financial aspects of rural life? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown as well as my monthly expense reports.
Expect Nothing Time
I was feeling guilty that I hadn’t taken the kids outside enough this winter. So I made a sort of New Year’s resolution-type-thing to take them out every day. In the snow and sleet. In the ice. We suit up and trek out. I also made a resolution to not drink alcohol on Mondays through Thursdays, which in retrospect, might’ve been ill-timed with the whole going-outside-with-two-toddlers-thing every day.
It’s so much easier to stay inside by the wood stove, to draw and paint and read books. But we need the fresh air and we need the challenge. I miss our languid summer days spent mostly outside, but I need to embrace the 95 months of winter here in Vermont and I need to press forth into the tundra with two toddlers. And you know what? They do pretty well out there. Sometimes. Other times, I have to tandem-carry them back to the house, weighted down as they are by boots, coats, and hats. I can’t leave them out there for fear of frostbite and wild animals. Otherwise, they’d be on their own. This is Cross-Fit for parents.
I’ve come to realize that time outside with my girls should be “expect nothing” (or “want nothing”) time, a concept I learned from the RIE parenting philosophy. I used to try and accomplish something while outside with the kids: hiking (exercise), gardening (productivity), teaching about nature (educational). But that approach always ended in frustration. If there’s one thing toddlers hate, it’s your plan for the day.
So I’m trying to embrace “expect nothing” time. We go outside and I let them lead. I let the baby toddle ahead in the snow and lead us up the driveway. I am witness to their discoveries. Previously, I tried to create “idyllic childhood memories” via snowman-making and sledding. But my kids don’t want to do that stuff yet–they’re too young. What they want to do is tromp through snow, throw snow in the air, lick snow, and stomp patterns with their boots. So, I follow their lead and don’t try to explain or intervene or educate or (God forbid) get any exercise. We move at the pace of a tiny 23-month-old in snow boots (that’s sloth-esque, in case you’re wondering) and we absorb it all. As a type A, anxiety-prone, OCD-ridden, over-achiever, this is not my MO. But it’s a new year and I’m a new me and I will do this for my children. At least, I will try.
January is good for expect nothing time because really, nothing specific or of import happens in January. It’s cold, there is snow, and we pass a head cold between family members on loop. There is no point at which all four of us are healthy at the same time. Hasn’t happened yet. Am not holding breath. In fact, I’m…
I stood on our back porch in my bathrobe one January morning, looking at the sunrise pictured below, and I took four deep breaths. We have a thing in our family about four deep breaths. We are forever kneeling down with one child or the other and breathing with them through moments of strife. Since toddlers are comprised of 87% strife, that’s a lot of deep breathing.
Awhile ago I realized that I, too, should take the deep breaths. Instead of instructing my children to breathe, I now breathe with them. Then I realized I should take the four deep breaths on my own too. Not just when I’m averting a tantrum, but when I’m calming the tantrums inside myself.
So I stood out there on the porch, while my husband doled out the bananas and oatmeal and spoons on the other side of the picture window with the same view. I stood there in the ice cold morning and breathed.
Now let’s be clear about where this ‘four deep breaths’ idea came from. Let’s pay homage to the guru, the guide, the wise one who delivered this message of repeated inhalation. Oh yes, it was Daniel Tiger.
What’s It Like?
What’s it like to raise kids on a 66-acre rural homestead? I think it’s probably a lot like raising kids anywhere else. Except that we have to specify that the friendly bears and coyotes populating children’s literature are not like real coyotes and bears. That real coyotes and bears (who live in our woods) do not want to hold your hand and paint rainbow-colored ice cream cones. That actually, they want to eat you. So, those are sort of awkward conversations.
Also, there’s the fact that our kids are able to play outside by themselves because there’s no traffic–no road, actually–and no thieves of children (other than the aforementioned wildlife, which we’ve amply addressed). Our kids know how to harvest tomatoes from our garden, how to pick apples from our orchard, how to climb trees and run through creeks and roll in mud. They know how to destroy a plum crop and pick blackberries without getting too many prickles embedded in their hands. They know how to stack wood. They know not to eat poisonous berries and only once did one of them do so, but they were fine, and so only one decade was shaved off my lifespan.
Then there’s the things they don’t know. Things I grew up doing every day. They don’t know how to cross a street. They don’t know what stoplights are. They aren’t familiar with the concept of strangers because they know everyone in town. They’re not well-versed in crowds. They’ve never been on public transportation and they don’t know that most people can see their neighbor’s house from their own. We will educate them on these urban ways as they grow up.
We will go to New York City as a family and have the girls navigate the subway system and order lunch at a cafe and give money to sidewalk musicians and walk down 5th Avenue like locals. We will do our best to round out their worldly knowledge. But for now, I’m content that they have time and space to roam, create, and explore. And that one of Kidwoods’ first complete sentences was “wild animals; don’t touch them,” which sounded like, “woll ammos; no touch dem.” And that, thanks be to God, I captured that on video.
One Week Into 2020: A Reflection on my New Year’s Resolutions
Pictured below: my home, through the snow-drenched trees, lit up in rebuttal of a 4:39pm January sunset.
Not pictured: one recalcitrant toddler whining of cold hands. And she’s not wrong, having discarded her mittens and coat long about when we passed the barn. Also not pictured: a second toddler, smaller, but more convinced of her invincibility, intentionally slipping on ice/dirt, followed by guffaws that can only come from someone who does not do her own laundry and has never broken a bone.
Further not pictured: me, the mama, proud that we’ve made it outside every single day this month. Yep. All seven days. I’m now realizing that will sound more impressive later in the month.
To me, the new year feels like raw kale. Inevitable, cleansing, unwanted. What I want is to continue languishing in holiday decadence. What I need is to face that I turn 36 this year and (still) need to work on my posture. What I need is to accept that the shiny strands of hair near my part are not blond. They are grey. As I did 5 minutes of yoga the other night , I realized I’m very happy with my body, with my life. I am not in the best shape ever. I do not have the best hair/clothes ever. But I do have the best perspective ever (at least thus far in life. I can only hope it will get better). I am coming around to acceptance and contentedness. I am coming around to me. Or maybe I’m just coming around to laziness. I’m fine with that too.
Pictured below: mid-winter woodshed with smallest family member for scale. These nine cords will sustain us for this winter, next winter, and the winter after that. This is the culmination of so many of my dreams. Two babies, nine cords, a woodshed built by my husband, some snow. I am a happy person, a grateful person, a warm person.
Mr. FW restocked our porch wood rack in January. However, he didn’t fill it entirely because in past years, we’ve had a bunch of wood leftover on the porch that had to be re-stacked in the shed come summer. This year, he’s working on a Just In Time inventory management system for porch wood and the goal is to not have a bunch of wood in need of being carted back to the woodshed in June. The porch rack was down to under half a cord when he restocked it, and thus far, we’ve removed 2.5 cords from the woodshed, leaving 7.5 cords remaining.
We’ve burned a cord and a third so far this winter, which is less than we’d burned at this point in previous years. This is due to the fact that it hasn’t been as cold this year and also to the fact that our wood is drier. As we improve the drying regimen for our wood (i.e. having it in a proper woodshed and drying it for several years), we seem to increase efficiency. This is because more of the wood BTUs are converted into usable heat, as opposed to producing steam to dry out the moisture in the wood (this lack of efficiency is why you don’t want to burn fresh, green wood if you can help it). Based on our limited data set, it seems we’re getting more efficient per cubic foot we put into the stove. In past winters, we’ve burned a total of three cords; we’ll see how it pans out this year.
May we all be as happy as a kid eating an icicle in a woodshed. Kidwoods was determined to create the perfect snowman the other afternoon and popped up to the kitchen door to request accoutrements.
I supplied her with a scarf I’d knitted years ago (if you knew my knitting capabilities, you’d understand why I sacrificed this scarf). A few minutes later she was back, requesting sunglasses and a carrot as further adornment.
Five minutes after that, another carrot was requested in light of the fact that the first carrot had been eaten. The pure joy, sheer bliss, and easy happiness of such a life: of wrapping scarves around lumps of snow, of eating whole carrots in the freezing cold, of pretending to be an alligator down the hallway to bed.
May we all find such simple, exhausting and thorough contentment. Maybe the secret is more carrots?
This Month’s Life Lesson From Glamour Shed
Pictured at right: Glamour Shed in unadulterated form. No editing. No filters. No retouching. Glamour Shed is a boss and not concerned about her lack of paint, missing windows, and roof situation (which is poor to quite poor).
Glamour Shed is living her best life every day. She doesn’t do diets or exercise (being a shed limits this capability). She doesn’t buy new clothes or get manicures. She doesn’t even shower. She just does her bad self. Day in, day out.
Her beauty is her function, not her fashion. Her beauty is her utility and strength, not her exterior. Her beauty is her resilience and reliability, not her hair. Glamour Shed, you rock it sister.
Being Outdoors Without Kids: A Vignette
I need to be alone and outside at least once a day. Ideally, that is accomplished through solo hiking. Less ideally, that is accomplished through taking out the compost bucket unaccompanied.
A large number of illnesses struck in January, which meant that people were home from school, most people could not handle themselves, and other people could not go to daycare. Also, there were fevers. And our internet went out. It was a confluence of stuff I don’t like. And one mid-January Saturday morning? I felt rage.
Deep inside me, visceral rage bubbled against the number of times I’d antibacterial-wiped the doorknobs. Rage against the painful fissures in my hands from repeated washing–a vain attempt to avoid illness. Rage at the constant laundering of sheets and towels and blankets and sheets and towels. Rage at the watercolor paint sprayed up the dining room wall, north of the highchair where a sick Littlewoods painted happily, until she didn’t and flung her paint up, watching it drip down.
How can I expect my tiny children to use their words and be kind if I myself, a very grown-up woman, can get so angry? I can’t. And so, I went hiking. I didn’t feel great and Mr. Frugalwoods felt worse, but we agreed I needed fresh air. So I spent an hour trekking through our woods, past deer, coyote, and snowshoe hare tracks. I communed with them in silence. I sweated and paused and inhaled and reflected. As I crested the final hill, my house came into view and I sped up. My lungs pushed out icy air too cold to keep and I could not slow down. I needed to be back inside, back with my loves. As badly as I needed to leave them, I needed to return. That is the way of it these days.
It’s All In The Cropping
One kid was screaming at the top of the hill because she didn’t want to sled with us and the other kid was screaming at the bottom of the hill because she did sled down and didn’t want to walk back up.
So there I was, betwixt two tantrums–both echoing off the hills–with this glorious view. It’s really all in the cropping, no?
Being Indoors With Kids: Also A Vignette
Hello, hi, here we are, with too much going on in the kitchen, my hair in a weird part, our hideous green plastic countertops on display, and all of Kidwoods’ school lunches for the week lined up behind us. Also the dishwasher is open, plus you know Littlewoods ate some of that raw egg while I wasn’t looking. It’s an imperfect thing–parenting, homesteading, cooking from scratch–and I have to say, I’m not a fan of pastel-washing it. Nope. Kids are not always clean and smiling and matching. Nope. Kids are not always posed in front of coordinating backdrops and those weird letter board things that look like they’d take a really long time to write anything on. Nope.
Kids do not frolic through fields of sunflowers while holding hands and smiling. At best, they do this: the older one whisks eggs while the younger one whisks water and they only jab one another with their respective whisks twice. We concocted this ill-conceived egg/veggie bake together, but it wasn’t done in time for dinner, which led to a dual meltdown and me realizing I should’ve started this project at least two hours–if not two years–earlier.
But this is real life. This is how it goes down. So no, my kitchen is not pristine or painted white or cloaked in granite. And no, my kids don’t match, nor are they particularly clean here. And I obviously did not wash my hair that day or in the recent past. But I’m ok with it. I’m ok with all of it. Because this is where I am and I am stifling shared laughter with my husband (who is behind the camera) and I am thankful I’m alive and in the company of these two whisk-wielding loves. Additional material: see earlier note about “coming around to laziness.”
End Of Month Check-In
We did not make it outside every day, but we made it outside quite a bit; much more than we did the month before. Mr. FW and I stuck to our goal of not drinking Mondays through Thursdays, with allowances for a few social occasion slip-ups. I realized that both of these “goals” or “resolutions” are nothing more than new habits. We’ll continue on with them into February, we’ll keep honing these goals until they become automatic.
How do we accomplish the stuff we want to? How do we stick to resolutions and goals? We change our habits. I am trying to enshrine the stuff I want to do as habit. Whatever you want to be? Do it every day. Put yourself on autopilot and run along those repeated grooves. I’m trying to create new tracks this year. To find new and better systems. If you want to save more money? Make it harder to spend money. If you want to go outside everyday? Make it routine. Make it unavoidable.
Make it hilarious to watch this tiny person (pictured at right) ascend this hill day after day. She is undaunted. She does not realize how small she is and how big this hill is. This is her reality and she sees no irony and no impossibility. She does it every single day. And only sometimes does she lie down in the snow and cry for me to pick her up.
Towards the end of January, a friend made the observation that we–as humans–try to portray perfection when in reality, what other humans need is our humanity. I’ve been chewing this over for days and I find myself wanting to be more real. More vulnerable. So, I ask you: how can we help each other? How can we communicate the fraught challenges of parenting without patronizing or placating? How can we talk about our financial concerns without fear of judgement? How can we create an environment of support without judgment? Probably through honesty and a realization that “expect nothing” time is good for adults too.
It’s equal parts, this whole homesteading/mothering/writing thing: perfection, frustration, anger, fulfillment. There is no success without disappointment. There is no achievement without loss. There is no ideal without disillusionment. What I’ve realized is that there is beauty and love and actual, tangible happiness in getting this close. We will never be at utopia in this life, but we can come close–if we lower our expectations, and broaden our acceptance, and admit our our faults, and love beyond measure. And lower our expectations.
After moving here, we decided to have solar panels mounted on our barn roof. My full write-up on the panels is here and I include a solar update in this series. This is the only way for me to remember that: a) I have solar; b) you all would like to be updated on it.
In January, we generated 120 kWh, which is on the low end, but not the lowest. For reference, in January 2019 our panels generated a paltry 70.4 kWh and in July 2019 we raked in 907 kWh.
Since our electric company offers net metering, we’re able to bank our summer and fall sunshine for use in the winter, which keeps our electric bill low year-round, even when the sun isn’t shining.
This has been your solar production update. You’re welcome.
Want More Fotos?!
Join me there if you want more of our frugal woods. Some folks have asked about this and yes, I do try to post a picture to Instagram every day and–unlike with many other things in my life–I actually have a pretty good track record.
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How was your January?
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