Sunday, January 8, 2017

Lifestyle Reboot - December: Gifting Responsibly

All right, friends, this is it. The last challenge of my year. I had kind of hoped to be ready for a completely zero waste month by this point but I'm honestly just not there yet. The thought of trying to do the holidays waste free was a bit too overwhelming. My family is very supportive but old habits die hard and this is not the time to make a thing of it. So, at some point in 2017, I expect to get there, but for now I am continuing to focus on making better choices from where I'm at.

For December I decided to do my very best to gift responsibly, trying to find something for each person that still fits within my personal ethos. My goals were to shop locally and sustainably as much as possible, buying secondhand or making things where possible.

Overall, I was pretty happy with how everything came out. I was able to find local sources for almost everything and half of my gifts were food that I know will be enjoyed, rather than items that will simply be tossed out in a couple years. Honestly, I am actually kind of proud of myself. I put a lot of thought and effort into each gift in order to find something that would be appreciated by each person on my list while sticking to my values.

The downside of all of that thought and planning was that it made the whole process kind of stressful and rather time-consuming. Homemade gifts are awesome and I really enjoyed making them, but it takes a bit of time to gather all the materials and then actually make the gifts. I also ran into a little bit of trouble shopping at local small businesses because they didn't always have the things that I wanted when I needed them, which meant trying several stores around town and rethinking some of my gifts.

While I feel really good about my choices and I think they were very much appreciated, it was kind of a big hassle. I'm not sure how I would have made it work if I had a family to take care of and without the added benefit of winter break (perks of being a teacher). The whole thing sounds great in practice and I'd really like to continue to gift in this way, but the experience really made me appreciate the convenience of stores like Target, where everything is in one place and you can know, with reasonable certainty, before you even walk in the door if they are going to have the things you need. That seems like an incredible luxury.

All in all, I think it's worth it. I think that the extra thought that went into each gift was appreciated by the receiver and I think it's important to vote with my dollars, so to speak, and spend them supporting the businesses that I want to thrive, no matter what I'm shopping for. However, I appreciate the need for balance. It's going to take some time to find the places in town that do consistently carry the things I need, so that it isn't a hassle every time. And there are some things that I'm just not going to be able to get locally. Which means that, if it's really something I can't live without, it's ok, every now and then, to just run to Target. 

Lifestyle Reboot - November: Sourcing Responsibly

There are a lot of things about living in the Midwest that I really appreciate. Low cost of living, not a lot of traffic, generally helpful, friendly people - these are all things I love. It is not, however, the most progressive part of the country, which means that, as I've mentioned before, I sometimes struggle to find sustainable options for things locally.

After spending almost the whole year avoiding fast fashion, I have had to accept that shopping exclusively secondhand in my city is probably not a sustainable long-term option. There aren't very many options outside of traditional thrift stores like Goodwill, which means that I often end up spending many hours searching at several different stores for the things I want and sometimes I can't even find them at all. At a certain point, it's just not really a feasible option, so I decided to devote this month to finding some acceptable alternatives.

Since I've already committed to avoiding fast fashion for the year (and, really, the foreseeable future), there wasn't a clear daily goal or restriction for the month. Instead I made a point to spend time throughout the month researching brands and companies that have solid policies for sustainable, low impact sourcing and manufacturing.

My main focus right now is replacing bras and undies. A very cursory search for sustainable intimates reveals a wealth of options, including several round-ups of ethical brands. Here are a couple that I found helpful in my search:

There are a lot more and each company has its own focus and sustainability practices, so do take the time to read about a company before ordering to make sure it meets your own criteria. I wasn't able to find what I was looking for in the bra department, but I did order some new undies from PACT Organic that I am pretty happy with. They focus on organic cotton, so they also sell socks, hoodies, leggings and tops for both men and women. It's a great option for sustainable basics. I found that a lot of the brands on these lists sell more than just underwear, which is awesome if you find a brand you really like.

Other clothing brands I discovered this month that I'm interested in:
Icebreaker - merino wool outdoor and activewear
Satva - organic, sustainable yoga clothes and basics
Tonle - uses remnant material from fast fashion to create limited edition lines of adorable clothing

I am also in the market for some new shoes. My current fast fashion options are wearing out and I'd like to replace them with more high quality basics that will stand up to changing fashion trends and can be repaired as needed. I haven't ordered any yet, as I think I can make it through the season with what I've got, but I did find several companies that have some great options when I am ready to pull the trigger.
15 Ethical Shoe Brands for Every Occasion

Overall I was glad to find that there are so many options out there. Not every company meets all of my criteria, but I'm glad to see how many organizations are trying to do better. I was disappointed to find that there are still some things I just can't find. In those cases I plan to do the best I can and then try to take care of what I buy so that it doesn't have to be replaced very often. I think that the main take aways are just to take the time to actually read about what practices are being used by a company before supporting them.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lifestyle Reboot - October: Thank you and you and you...

This year I decided not to wait until November to get on the thankfulness bandwagon. At some point toward the end of September I rediscovered the stack of Thank You notes I had acquired over time and decided that it would be a good idea to put them to use, thus spawning October's challenge.

My goal for the month was to send out 2 boxes worth of Thank You notes to people in my life, essentially thanking them for being in my life and for the role they've played in making me who I am. I have been trying to make a point generally to actually share with people more of the things that I think and feel about them. Things like, "I'm proud of you." or "I appreciate you." or "You did that thing really well." I think that so often we think these things but they never get communicated to the other person, which is a shame because they are so nice to hear and can be so meaningful. I liked this challenge as a very concrete way to continue to push myself in that direction. 

In the end I wasn't quite able to finish out both boxes, though I got very close. It was an interesting exercise to think about who in my life I appreciate enough to send a card to that also wouldn't find it socially awkward. It can be a fine line. At any rate, it was really nice to spend the month on the lookout for things and people to be grateful for. It also felt really good to explicitly tell people why I am grateful for them, especially people that I've never really told in person. It feels good to know that they know now. 

Overall, I would consider this month a success. If you're looking for something geared toward being more mindful and developing a more positive attitude in your life, I would highly recommend some kind of gratitude practice. Even just looking for small things to be grateful for can have a big impact over time as your biases start to skew towards noticing more and more of the positives that are often overlooked in favor of focusing on the negatives. Confirmation bias, it's a thing and it, like any other power, can help or hinder in our lives, so we might as well use it to our advantage. Consider it a brain hack. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lifestyle Reboot - August/September: The Comings and Goings of Foods

How are we halfway through October already? It seems like fall just happened all of a sudden out of nowhere. One day it was 90 degrees and the next it was time for pumpkin spice everything. Time has seriously gotten away from me. I actually wrote this post 3 weeks ago but I wanted to do a final edit before posting and then somehow it's now. Oops. No matter, today we get back on track with some lifestyle updates!

Even though the last 2 months have flown by and I have not had a chance to sit down and blog, I have been keeping on with some lifestyle adjustments. Coincidentally, one habit has to do with where my food comes from and the other is all about what I do with the bits I don't want or can't eat. I've been really focusing on both simultaneously since I got home so it doesn't really work to say one is for August and one is for September, but I figure 2 habits, 2 months, it all works out.

Starting with the purchasing end of the conversation, I have been making a very concerted effort to buy as much food as I possibly can from the farmer's market each week. So far this is going well. There are enough options around me that, even on weekends when I have found myself in another city, I have been able to make it work each week to buy the bulk of my produce as well as cheese, meat, bread and honey straight from the farms that grew or made them. It can definitely be a little bit of a hassle and I still have to make a (much quicker) grocery store run most weeks because there are some things that I just can't buy locally (sadly, no lemon trees here). But I think it's worth it to know exactly where my food is coming from and to support the local farmers that put so much work into making that possible.

I haven't been doing the best job of keeping track, but so far it seems like I am spending about the same amount of money as I would at the grocery store with the added bonus that I get to know the people that grew my food. I have really appreciated the dialogue that goes along with buying food straight from the people that made it. I can ask them about unfamiliar vegetables and how their animals were raised and they can tell me all about them, often followed by tips on how to cook the food and maybe even a sample. I have some stands that I love to visit just because I really like the people that run them and I enjoy supporting them. The whole experience just makes me feel far more comfortable about what I'm putting into my body and I find that I really value the food when I'm eating it because of what went into acquiring it.

Shopping at the farmer's market has the added bonus of being far easier on the environment because the food isn't traveling so far to get to me, which means less waste in the shipping process from packaging and fuel. And since I bring all of my own bags, I can avoid most packaging on my end. All in all, I think it's a win and I plan to maintain this lifestyle change for as long as the farmer's market is open.

Not only have I been much more thoughtful about where my food comes from, but I've also been very purposeful in what I do with all the bits and pieces I can't eat. I started getting in the habit of collecting compost way back in June but at the time I didn't yet have a dedicated compost bin, so I was just dumping it in my friends' garden. This worked but I really wanted to have a more sustainable solution that I could manage on my own. I also wanted it to be as low-maintenance as possible.

Looking at the wealth of information on the internet, I found that most sites that talk about apartment-specific options focus on worm bins, which I'm just not sure is right for me. There are some definite benefits but it seems much harder to maintain the proper environment for them and I'm really not sure that they would make it through the winter. I also discovered a Japanese system called bokashi that uses microorganisms to break down food, including meat and dairy scraps. This actually is a pretty attractive option, but it involves investing in a whole system, which I'm just not sure I'm quite ready to do. I would definitely encourage looking into it, though. It's pretty interesting and great if you're wanting to keep something inside.

In the end, I opted to go very low-tech and inexpensive. I found several tutorials for compost bins made out of large plastic totes or garbage cans. Plastic is not my favorite option, but it's durable for something I intend to have for quite awhile and I couldn't think of another way to make something comparable that didn't involve a lot of tools/skills/time I don't have. So, I took a trip to Menard's and found a 20 gallon black plastic tote for $5. I also bought a small shovel for turning the compost. Then I just used the biggest drill bit I had to drill lots and lots of holes in all four sides, the bottom and the lid. (Pro-tip, make sure your drill has been charged at some point in the last 2 years before starting this project.) After cleaning up all the dislodged plastic (easier said than done), it was ready for stuff.

I put it out on my balcony and, based on what I read online, started it with some shredded cardboard and brown packing paper (since I don't have yardwaste), a bunch of organic potting soil that had been sitting in pots after I gave up on trying to grow plants, lots of water, and the food scraps I had already collected that week. I'm not really sure if potting soil is going to work, but the internet suggested dirt and it's basically dirt, right? I figured I should use it for something since I'm really not planning to grow anymore plants.

I've been continually adding food scraps and toilet paper tubes for the past couple months and it seems okay. I've just been keeping a bowl of scraps in the fridge as I cook throughout the week and then dumping it as it gets full, which is working well. So far the compost bin is kind of swarming with fruit flies and I'm not really sure what that means. I appreciate that it's helping to keep them out of my kitchen and they are pretty much contained inside the compost bin, but it's unclear to me if they are really supposed to be there. To be honest, I don't really know what it should be doing, so I'm just rolling with it for the moment. I know that less and less composting will happen as the weather turns colder, so I think it's going to be awhile before I actually know if it's working. I guess we'll see what happens. Don't worry, I'll keep you posted.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Sun's Out, Thumb's Out

Hello! Welcome back! Well, welcome back to me, I don't know what you've been doing all summer. I've been on vacation basically all summer and I'm not even going to try to be diplomatic about it, it's been awesome. I'm going to take a small departure today from the recent theme of this blog and throw back to its roots as a space for me to share my experiences abroad. Don't worry, we'll get back to our regularly scheduled lifestyle challenges soon but today is all about travel. Feel free to ignore this post if that's not your jam.

I visited several destinations this summer but, most recently and probably most interestingly, I spent roughly 3 weeks in Iceland. It is a stunning country full of lovely people and I highly recommend it as a travel destination. It was so incredible, in fact, that I honestly don't even have the words to describe it. I'm not sure I've fully processed everything yet and I'm not even going to attempt to do so here. Instead, I am going to focus in on one piece of my trip that I think really contributed to making it such an amazing experience.

The country is an island with a main highway called the Ring Road that runs all the way around it in a big circle. The best way to see the country is by car, with the general idea being that you drive around the ring road stopping in each region and making detours all along the way. This is awesome, except that a) car rentals are super expensive and b) even if I did rent a car, it means I would be driving around by myself for 3 weeks. This is not my ideal when it comes to travel. Iceland does have a fairly extensive bus system, but they are also pretty expensive and the timing is just not what you want it to be. However, for the adventurous traveler, there is another, much more fun alternative: hitchhiking.

I know, I know, I know. Hitchhiking is dangerous. Never get in cars with strangers. (Even if they have candy...ok, especially if they have candy.) And, in this day and age, in most situations, I would agree with you. However, Iceland is a little bit of an outlier. It is an incredibly safe country, with very low crime rates and it also still has a culture of hitchhiking. People do it pretty regularly, and it's one of the only places in the world where I feel like it's safe to stick out my thumb. Which is precisely why I wanted to give it a go.

Ride, ride, ride, hitchin' a ride...
Real talk: hitchhiking is awesome and I kind of want to do it all the time. I won't, because I don't think it's actually safe in most places, but that fact makes me kind of sad. I wish that it was still a thing people could confidently do more often because it's great. It's not a perfect way to travel and it's definitely not as convenient as having your own set of wheels, but, if you are interested in meeting new people and having random adventures, it's the best way to travel. Plus, ride sharing is great for the environment and much more enjoyable than sitting on a bus.

I was pretty nervous before I started, and, honestly, it's always a little bit stressful just because it's so unpredictable. I was so unsure about how it would go initially that, the first couple times I got picked up, I almost cried because I was just so glad someone had given me a ride. It was surprisingly hard for me to stand and watch all the cars that didn't want to pick me up go by. I felt equal parts frustrated when there was clearly plenty of room in the vehicle and amused to watch people's reactions, which included waving, ignoring me, smiling and gesturing an apology (usually because their car was completely full of stuff and/or people).

My companions for a movie about Iceland's volcanic past.
What really made it worth it were the people that did pick me up. They were a pretty even mix of Icelanders and fellow travelers and I was struck again and again by their kindness and willingness to hang out with a stranger. Almost everyone at least wanted to chat, most were willing to go out of their way to make sure I got where I was going and many were happy to bring me along for an adventure. Over and over again, I was blown away by how willing people were to help me. I fully expected that people would take me as close as they could to my destination and then I would walk or hitch the rest of the way. Instead, most people were happy to drive out of their way to take me exactly where I needed to go and many offered other help as well. One woman actually drove by as I was walking toward the main road from a parking lot, reversed, and then offered me a ride before I had even started hitching. Another guy who lived locally offered me his number when he dropped me off in case I needed anything while I was in town.

There's a waterfall hiding back there.
Aside from reaffirming my faith in humanity, the best part was the people that were willing to take me along for whatever adventure they were having. I feel like almost everything I did, and certainly most of the best things, were because of the people that I met catching rides. My second ride was with a British girl about my age that was driving around the island on her own. She picked me up in the morning and together we stopped at several of the tourist spots on the way to where I was going. I ended up traveling around with her for almost a week, having all sorts of awesome adventures that I hadn't anticipated. An Icelandic couple that picked us up took us on a random hike into a canyon to find a stunning waterfall hidden in a crevice in the back. They were absolutely adorable and also enjoyed telling us about landforms in the area as we drove through (unicorn mountain was a personal favorite). A group of Icelandic and Danish gentlemen invited me to join them for a movie about the past volcanic eruptions on the island. They also picked up some Icelandic snacks they wanted me to try, waited for me while I checked into my hostel and bought me a beer while we hung out and waited for the movie to start, and then paid for my movie ticket to boot, all of which was entirely unexpected.

This trip was definitely about letting go and just rolling with the punches. I met a lot of people in lots of random ways that led to many many excellent adventures. Hitchhiking was a huge part of that. It was a very good lesson in what is possible when you let go of expectations and just let yourself be present in the current situation. My strategy of having basically no plans whatsoever really only let me down once in 3 weeks and all that happened was I spent several hours of my day waiting at a bus stop, which ended up being a great opportunity to journal. I feel like the trip was a great lesson in being open to unexpected opportunities and a reminder of how I want to live my life - focusing on being truly present and realizing that sometimes the best plans are no plans at all.

I have a hunch that at least part of what makes Iceland such a safe place for hitchhiking is related to it being a generally rural and relatively inaccessible place. Though I can't factually back that up, I couldn't help but draw a number of parallels to the more rural, agricultural areas of the Midwest. It seems to me that living "out in the country," or, in this case, on a remote fjord, tends to lend itself to developing a culture of helping and caring. In a more remote setting, supporting each other becomes an important part of making sure everyone can thrive. Regardless of the reason, I'm glad to know that such a place still exists in the world and I'm so grateful I got the chance to experience it in this way. Thank you, Iceland, for expanding my horizons, teaching me about life and just generally sharing your stunning self with me. I look forward to our next meeting.