Sunday, July 20, 2014


we live in a house.  there are trees in the back yard.  the trees drop twigs, which we collect.  a flame catches on the wood.  this is fire.

flour, water, salt, and oil makes a dough.  the dough is cooked over the embers of a fire, and turned.  we add tomato sauce, pesto, cheese, and wait.  this is pizza.

i print a pattern and cut and glue the paper into shapes.  i pin the pattern to cloth.  scissors cut the cloth.  i will press it and sew it with a needle and thread.  this is a shirt.

life offers us objects.  certain tools cut materials.  other materials join them together.  being humans, we like to make things, so we learn the skills, and make things for ourselves.  this is my life.

Monday, June 30, 2014

thoughts on virtue

Photo taken at Botanical Gardens in Asheville, NC
When facing life's pain, I feel a need to commit to a belief system that grounds me.  I guess this is what religions provide many people.  I've found that my beliefs have come to me as I reflected on my experiences and sought goodness and clarity through much of the chaotic struggle of life.

There definitely were times that my personal philosophies were wayyy off.  But forming them and expressing them to myself and then realizing how flawed they were helped me to eventually discard them with conviction, and then replace them with more appropriate beliefs.  Here's an example.  It felt like I was called to be a strong, self-sacrificing woman.  I could tell (I thought) that I was stronger than those around me, so I decided I'd follow Christ's example in taking in all the evils and darkness in the world and giving forth love.  In my friendships I focused on being there for others, but felt uncomfortable leaning on them.  After spending time with others, I could only relax and care for myself when alone.  I kept my deepest joys private.

Then came marriage.  Living with someone meant that my fundamentally unsustainable approach to relationships (giving too much, not really knowing how to take care of myself when others were around) eventually had to fall apart.  This wasn't a pretty process, but I am grateful for it.  I'm glad that I have had to struggle through the discomfort of asking for things I needed.  Instead of keeping my interests and desires secret, I've brought them into the open and gained freedom and joy.

Because I can recall forming the idea of being a self-sacrificing Christ-like hero, I was able to see and reject that behavior.  I identified it as self-neglect, which fostered resentment and frustration about the fact that my life wasn't going the way I wanted it to.


Here's another belief I've held for some time.  We could call it "Virtue is its own reward."  Not in the smug, self-congratulatory sense.  To me this means that there is no external reward for 'good' actions.  Good actions benefit you and are good because they are beneficial.  Bad actions are those which do harm to ourselves or others (usually ourselves and others).  Calling things "good" and "bad" isn't really necessary but it is a common shorthand.  Is it morally wrong to leave garbage on the beach?  Is it wrong to constantly think self-critical thoughts?  Why worry about whether it's wrong?  These are not healthy choices.  

Believing this helps me because it's not fear of punishment that directs me to make 'good' choices.  It's knowing that good/healthy choices are better for me and for other people in my life.

This also helps me to deal with encounters with people who are unkind or insensitive.  Rather than seething over their inconsideration, and becoming cynical that there is no justice, I believe that justice is always at hand, and the person who acts unkindly is hurting themself as well as me.  Of course it may be their own pain that causes them to lash out as well.  But to respond with nastiness towards others only deepens the pain and the separation from fellow-humans.

On a good day, I can hold on to this and remain grounded even when bad things happen, when people are selfish, or refuse to respond reasonably to polite requests.

On a bad day, I feel separate from others, lonely in my misery, and am probably just as 'bad' as anyone else, kicking a flower out of unhappiness and the need to spread my pain.  Not a good approach, and it feels bad, too.

A married man who has a habit of flirting with other women is hurting his wife's feelings.  She has a right to be angry.  At the same time, this man is hurting himself.  He is weakening his relationship with the person who could be his strongest ally.  Why would he do this do himself?  There is probably a reason why.  Dig a little deeper and understand that these behaviors have roots and histories.  It doesn't excuse the behavior, but it helps to have a different perspective.  Otherwise it just looks like there is a jerk who hurts his wife and gets away with it, and she just has to put up with it.


I travelled to Asheville, North Carolina for five days last week.  Mountains, music, and art, with a lot of creative and spiritually minded people.
Hiking off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

values and other thoughts

It looks like I blog about once a month.  Let me write something here before May ends.  Below you see my little friend Wendell who is taking a look at some tests I graded as the semester wound to an end.

Wendell loves to climb into the middle of whatever I'm doing.  I'm sure your cats like to do the same thing.  

One of my themes this month has been searching for what my values are.

Maya Angelou said courage was the most important virtue, because without it you couldn't practice any of the other virtues.  I saw a quote recently attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. that said something like "Without justice there can be no peace."  I wonder as I work my way through this year what my values are, what my religion is.  A bumper sticker I spotted once said "My religion is kindness" which resonates also.  I've always felt truth to be one I placed a high value on.

Simplicity and plain living continues to resonate as one of my values.  I feel happiest when my day consists of simple chores such as washing dishes, making bread, doing laundry, sweeping the floor.  When my life is orderly, most tasks feel simple.  I can be focused and do one thing at a time.  

I just finished reading "Daybook" by Anne Truitt.  It inspired me to write more thoughtful journal entries of honest reflection.  Her journal entries are so enriching.  It is truly amazing what you can discover by simply writing down your thoughts.  In my head, I go in circles, but on paper, I can end up making a few steps forward.

I continue to do research about home design principles.  My most valued text is "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander.  I began a project where I sketch out floor plans of all the homes I've lived in, and recall what was effective, what was awkward, what was cozy and immediately drew you in.  While buying a home and fixing it up is appealing, there is something about designing a home that I desire intensely.  It is one of my life's goals.  

Researching how homes work, finding out how furniture can or should be put together, how materials work, how humans feel when they interact with spaces and objects...all this fascinates me.  

Oh and I want to design my own clothing as well.  Perhaps I am a maker and designer first of all.

And I struggle with the fact that I am good at teaching math, but it seems to matter very little.  I try to have some fun with it, as much as I can.  But now that the semester is over, I am taking a hiatus from human interaction and trying to spend as much quiet time in nature as possible.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

what is wrong with this picture?

I have this rant I've been holding in.  About stuff that seems to be considered normal, but doesn't make any sense.  I saw this cartoon in the New Yorker that shows I'm not the only one thinking about it, which is a relief.

Corporations are certainly willing to bulldoze any pristine wilderness in order to create profits.  Environmentalists protest and are told that stopping the project will make a lot of workers unhappy--they need the jobs!

But all these companies are outsourcing jobs overseas, and lobbying lawmakers to pass more free trade agreements, so that fewer and fewer satisfying jobs remain.  The reason they do it is profitability, and an obligation to shareholders.  And who are the shareholders?  Well, anyone with a regular retirement fund, right?  So basically some wholesome middle aged person approaching retirement has a stock portfolio.  So the person's retirement fund needs to grow, but meanwhile, that person’s kids probably won’t be able to find meaningful work.

Am I missing something? 

I do not want any part in wall street and its sins towards the people and the earth.  so how can I prepare for retirement?  I’d like to own a home mortgage free—so I don’t make banks rich while paying off the house.  not sure if either one of these are possible, but maybe owning a home debt free is a way to care for myself in my old age.  or part of it. 

Modern life is such a trap and I’m trying to escape all the things that people take for granted as inevitable parts of the American dream:

1) college debt/loans
2) expensive wedding
3) mortgage
4) corporate job
5) retirement portfolio

I keep feeling pressured to capitulate, to join everyone, to not be such a weirdo and just be happier.  Of course I want to own a home, and to have a secure old age, not to mention to be able to buy clothes without agonizing over lives ruined in a factory in China to make my cheap t-shirts.

I read a profile of a Quaker, John Woolman, who seemed to agonize with many of the same dilemmas back in the 1700's.  In addition to being an early abolitionist, he was thoughtful how he ate, dressed, and worked, and how this impacted others.

The little I've read about him inspires me to stay weird and true to my vision of simple living in a way that is worthwhile.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

walking invisibly

"I now feel under-equipped if I walk out of my apartment without my mobile phone, but I used to travel across the world with almost no contact with the people who loved me, and there was a dizzying freedom, a cool draught of solitude, in that. We were not so monitored, because no one read our letters the way they read our emails to sell us stuff, as Gmail does, or track our communications as the NSA does. We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded."

-Rebecca Solnit
From this article.

I like the feeling of walking, paying cash, and reading a book or having a conversation.  All of these are activities that aren't monitored by corporations. 

The feeling of doing something real is different than the feeling of doing something online that others will be able to monitor.  You feel real to yourself, absent any witnesses. At times it seems important to blog about or post the important events of our life.  That posting makes them more real.  But there is a realness that the internet can't bestow on our life.

This past weekend our internet was out for 2 days.  Weirdly and inexplicably, we had access to youtube, and nothing else.  No one was able to explain this.  Now it is fixed.  It helps to be able to look things up.  But not having internet is a wake up call:  my life can be real without the internet connection.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

why does furniture matter?

At first glance, my obsession with interior design photos seems superficial.  I have a degree in mathematics--supposedly pure truth distilled down to its essentials.  Why is a math major scrolling through photos of people's living spaces and saving them to a blog?

Beautiful objects make me happy.  And I've learned to pay attention to the joy that springs up in the center of my chest.  

I took this photo while driving home in the snow yesterday.  This is the most lovely part of my drive.

But do things matter?  And why?

A handmade object made from wood tells a story of a craftsperson working with earth's materials and creating an object that has a place in a life of a human.

"The solace of physical objects"--this phrase jumped into my head one day.  When you have a real thing in front of you, it is evidence of the history of the object.  The object is made of materials, and it has a history.

What is it made of?  Who made it?  How was it made?  Even if specific facts are not remembered, the physical object tells the story somehow.  That's comforting to me.

When an object is made of a simple natural material such as wood, it tells of a connection to nature.

When an object is made by human hands, it speaks of time and attention, of skill and care, which is basically--love.

When you live every day interacting with something made of nature, and of love, your life is enriched.  It seeps into you without you even realizing it.

p.s. these wool socks that I bought for Adam are exactly what I'm talking about too.  100% organic wool, from Austria.  The only socks I could find that were all wool.  I live for finding these high quality objects.  oh yeah, handmade shoes too, and mine were made with undyed leather.

Friday, January 17, 2014

bench part II

My little bench is finished.  It is now functioning sweetly as a nightstand.

While this project was rather tiny and extremely simple, it was rich with learning experiences.

1.  I designed this bench by starting with a single board I must have picked up some time ago.  The board has functioned as a shelf for us (with the help of a couple of brackets).  After considering a 1:2 ratio (favored by some designers) and the golden ratio (closer to a 1:1.6 ratio), I made this bench with width:height and height:length ratios closer to 1.4.  I'm pleased with how it looks.

2.  Some Japanese woodworkers chose to leave their wood unfinished.  I have found that some pieces I've made have begun to age nicely with no finish at all.  This approach is better for pieces that won't come in contact with food or water.  Over many years, as a piece is handled and used, it develops a unique patina.  Only a long-term commitment to a piece of furniture will yield this look--unless you buy a pre-aged piece at an antique shop.  I have grown fond of the idea of keeping a piece for life, and then passing it along.  The rich patina would be accompanied by many memories associated with that piece of furniture.

(Perhaps a future post would describe some pieces of furniture from our home in Bolivia that live on in my mind and perhaps still influence me to this day.)

3.  Angling the legs outward (forming a 95 rather than 90 degree angle with the top) proved to make this project much trickier.  I had cut the pieces before I had finalized the design, and my cuts were made at 90 degrees.  I used a block plane and chisel to angle the top and bottom of the legs so the bench would rest correctly on the floor and meet the top snugly also.

With a power circular saw, it would be simple to set the angle precise and re-make the cut.  Having handicapped myself by getting rid of my power saws, I learned how best to correct my error with hand tools.

4.  I cut the pieces in order to be able to play with the design by physically positioning the pieces and seeing how I felt about different arrangements.  Having the design finalized before making the first cut seems very challenging to me.  However, in time, I hope to come up with a standard design that can be repeated.

5.  Cutting the notches first with the saw and then chiseling them out worked very well.  I have now prioritized having a sharpening system for my chisels.

6.  I don't know how I would feel if I made many multiples of the same piece.  Part of me thinks I would find the repetitiveness relaxing.

7.  It is important to me to make sure the piece feels good to the touch as well as looking nice.  I sanded every piece so there are no rough edges.

8. The joint above is imperfect!  Ah, imperfection.

9.  I chose to use glue and nails rather than screws.  I wanted this piece to be solid and I don't see a need to take it apart.  I have used screws with larger pieces and it's been convenient to dis-assemble a large table for moving.  However, the stability suffers.