Pesach cleaning, schedules and resentment

Purim will soon be here – which, at least in our household, means we’re already busy cleaning for Pesach. Some people actually relish the chance to scrub out every little long forgotten nook and cranny, but I’ll admit this isn’t my favorite season. Our day to day life, while simple, is full – and when extra cleaning creeps into my schedule, it feels like a thief trying to rob me – of peace, tranquility, adequate rest, time with my children and the very limited time I have for hobbies and personal projects. All gives way to cleaning the top of the kitchen cabinets, because maybe some long-lost crumb had found its way there somehow.

I realize all these spots – the tops of kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets, pantry shelves etc – do need to be cleaned some time, and without Pesach looming on the horizon I would have little incentive to do so. Still, I can’t love the feverish business of these spring weeks – especially as the lovely weather is so inviting to be out.

My husband usually contrives something to make things easier for me. For example last year we needed to replace our stovetop,  which was done just a few days before Pesach so that I could simply throw the old one away without bothering to clean it. Another year, we had a new refrigerator delivered shortly before the holiday. But of course we don’t replace our kitchen appliances every year.

I always find it ironic that window-cleaning, the traditional Israeli pre-Pesach sport, should take place at such a particularly unlucky season – full of sand storms and dusty rains. Rationally I would say there is no point in cleaning the windows on the outside till the summer. But of course everybody still does it, including me.

This year I have a detailed schedule which will, hopefully, get me through the next six weeks with my sanity intact. Every day I get up knowing what I need to do, and when I’m done I hang up my mop and dust rag. I don’t try to outrace myself, knowing that no matter how hard I drive at those kitchen cabinets, there will still be plenty to do the next day.

Moving at a turtle’s pace, slow and steady

The rewards of making bread

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Above: a fresh, hot out of the oven, deliciously smelling loaf of bread with onions, caraway seeds and poppy. It was made, in concession to my family’s preferences, with instant yeast and half whole wheat, half white flour. 

Bread is one of the most rewarding and cost-effective things you can make in your own kitchen – anything you bake yourself will save you money, too, vs. any store-bought bread of comparative quality. Far from being time-consuming, it simply requires some planning ahead. Here is the total time it takes to produce a beautiful loaf like the one I made yesterday afternoon:

  1. Mix dough – 15 minutes, more or less, including kneading.
  2. Wait for dough to rise: this varies according to weather, flour used, and yeast (instant or sourdough starter). Can be anything between 1 and 24 hours, but during this time you don’t need to babysit your bread – you just put the dough in a warm place to rise and go on doing other things.
  3. Punch dough down after it has risen – 1-2 minutes.
  4. Wait for dough to rise again: the second rise is usually shorter.
  5. Roll out/shape into loaf (or loaves): 5-10 minutes.
  6. Bake: 20-40 minutes, depending on size of loaves and heat of oven.
  7. Clean up: 10 minutes max.

Total work time: 30-40 minutes. This really isn’t so much at all, when taking into account the deliciousness of the bread and the fact that I know exactly what I put in it (olive oil, organic maple syrup and home-grown eggs, vs. cheap commercial oil, white sugar and I don’t know what else).

So roll up those sleeves, take out your rolling-pin and get to mixing, kneading and baking. You can read more of my posts about bread-baking here, here and here.

Getting the chicken coop ready for spring

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Check out my latest Mother Earth News post, about preparing the chicken coop for spring:

“Though we’re still in the deep of winter, days are beginning to lengthen and, at least around here, spring really seems to be just around the corner. The spring-like feeling is validated by the new grass – as winter is the green season here – and by the narcissuses and cyclamens that are beginning to pop up.

Our chickens pick up the cue of longer days and generally resume laying around February, even though it’s still cold. The young pullets hatched at the end of last season – say, September or October – are generally ready to start laying in February or March.”

With warmer weather, greens all around, and a steady supply of fresh eggs, I begin to look forward to a productive spring and summer for our little flock, with lots of eggs, new layers as last autumn’s little pullets mature, and of course the excitement of new chicks, which will probably begin arriving around late March or April.

A Guide to Buying Second Hand

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Buying second-hand – clothes, shoes, tools, books, toys, furniture – can save you a whole lot of money and give you high-quality products at the fraction of the cost – if you shop wisely.

An item’s value drops by the very fact of it not being brand-new – if I buy a pair of shoes, wear them once for five minutes and give them away to a second-hand shop, someone else can buy them very cheaply even though they are, essentially, good new shoes. Looking for such gently used items can be a very rewarding challenge.

On the other hand,  there are thrift shops and there are thrift shops. Not long ago I visited one which was packed with stuff, but everything was in such disarray that I was discouraged from even browsing and went away without buying anything.

A good,  well organized thrift store is well worth being put on your local map and visited regularly.  My top tips for making the most out of thrift shopping are the following:

1. Check the quality – there is no guarantee and often no returns in second hand shops, so before you buy, carefully look for any tears, rips, stains, dysfunctional parts, etc.

2. Be a regular.  Ordinary stores are somewhat predictable; second hand ones are full of surprises.  Make it a habit to pop in once in a while so you don’t miss new great finds.

3. Resist the temptation to buy too much because it’s cheap.  Remember, the goal is to save on what you really need, not fill your house with stuff.

4. When buying used furniture,  beware of wood pests.  You don’t want to risk infecting your whole house – getting rid of wood pests is a troublesome and almost futile task.

The things you will never regret

In our previous home, we had a separate room for a home office. Such privacy is very convenient, but it is also the pitfall of the computer junkie (which, I admit, I am). I could tuck children into naps or, at a period of time when I didn’t have any children young enough to need naps, I could let them watch a movie – while I got into the office to check my emails, etc.
The problem is, the “etc” only too easily turns into watching silly YouTube videos, participating in draining online discussions, making frivolous Google searches (“why does the top point of my left ear sometimes itch?”), and keeping up with the social media. The power of the click is just too alluring.
Of course, there are also the good things – reading excellent helpful articles, writing letters to friends, taking care of personal projects, working on my books. However, the good things are even more dangerous, in the way of justifying an extravagant amount of time spent on them. If you watch a video of a cat playing the piano, you’ll feel guilty for wasting your time after five minutes. But knitting how-to videos are okay, right?

Unfortunately, I became feeling entitled to that office time, alone behind closed doors. It was my time; I needed it. So when naps were broken, or squabbles interrupted movie time, I became unreasonably frustrated. I don’t have an exact estimate of how many hours were spent on lawful pursuits, and how many on mindless web browsing, but there is no doubt a large chunk of my time could have been better employed.

In this house, I have one computer in the living room for everybody’s use, faulty internet connection and a little one that really isn’t a very good sleeper. And I’m happier than ever; this change has been the best thing that could have happened to me. It taught me to prioritize; on a good day, I might have half an hour after lunch for answering emails, browsing ads, etc, and if I’m not too tired there’s an hour or two at night when I can write, read, research information or watch a movie in peace and quiet.

The thing is, when I look back on times enjoyably spent with my children – whether reading together, or taking nature walks, doing crafts, playing games, even just watching a movie together – I can’t think of one hour I would rather have spent doing something else. Even if a baby is colicky or teething, it means a night of precious snuggling with someone who needs me, just then, more than anything. I might be very tired, but I have no regrets.

But when I remember my “me” time, my feelings are not so unequivocal. There are many pages I wish unread or unwritten, many videos unwatched, many games unplayed, many conversations unspoken. Not because these things were bad in themselves, but because they took away from the truly important things I should have been doing.

You will probably never regret spending time with your children. The same cannot be said of other things, be it personal projects, volunteering, hobbies or social commitments. I keep that in mind every day, and it makes all the difference.

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Speaking on another matter, I’m very excited to tell that my upcoming novel, Wild Children, is now on Kindle Scout – which is essentially an Amazon-based contest the winners of which get their book signed up and promoted by Amazon. You can read the book description and first chapter and, if you feel it deserves to be supported , nominate it on its Kindle Scout Page.

Working in our pajamas

There are some days when, if it weren’t for the necessity to go out and feed the chickens, I’d probably remain in my fuzzy pajamas all day long. As the critters do need to be fed, and as someone might pass by and wonder at seeing me in pink pajamas and fluffy socks at midday, I get dressed, put on my muck boots, and trudge out with a box of feed in hand. Moral: if you want to have more motivation for self-discipline, keep animals. If nothing else, it will make you get dressed properly in the morning.

For most families, structure is something integral to every day. They get up, fly through the routine of dressing and breakfast, and everyone goes off their own separate ways for the days. For those who both work and learn from home, the situation is very different. We are pretty much in each other’s hair every day and all day long, and that is by necessity a mess-generator (both physically and mentally). Structure is important; it doesn’t have to stick to conventional routines or hours, but it must be there.

One of my favorite homeschooling resources, The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, has a chapter on schedules called Structure, or Can We Wear Our Pajamas to School? Here’s a quote:

“Often families who start out with a fairly rigid structure find themselves becoming more relaxed and flexible as they grow more comfortable with homeschooling, whereas those who began with an informal and casual style may discover the need for more structure.”

We’ve been in both these places. Some years ago, a homeschooling friend told me that in her family, and in all homeschooling families she knows, later hours and more flexible meal times for kids are the norm. I bristled. Not with us! Dinner at 6, bath at 6:30, story time at 7:00, bedtime and blissful silence by 7:30. And you know what, for a long while I adhered to these principles religiously. But I paid dearly for it. Stress, tension, and constant chafing with my kids became the norm. On the other hand, I wouldn’t adopt my husband’s suggestion of just letting them run about until they drop off from sheer exhaustion. These days I’m more flexible, but I do know, and so do my kids, that once we’re on the track of dinner-baths-reading time, it leads to bedtime and that’s that.

Another great quote from The Homeschooling Handbook:

“Figuring out which part of which ideas will work for you is not easy. Often the ideas you find most attractive and expect will best fit your family don’t work for you at all. Or they work for a year or two and then suddenly seem ridiculous. Just remember that your kids are growing and changing and the relationships among you all are changing as well. It’s unrealistic to expect homeschooling to remain the same in the midst of those changes.”

His Help

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When I was first married, I had a certain mental image of myself in my mind: not just a wife and mother at home, but a wife who does absolutely everything in the home, which is her exclusive domain, with no help from anyone. It was a nice image, but it was unrealistic. The truth is, I was unaccustomed to housework, I was an inexperienced cook, and I soon had two small children. I was under stress.

It took me a long time to realize that my husband, in fact, is quite capable and willing to lend a hand in order to promote the things that are important to him – such as cleaner floors and more diverse dishes – and what’s more, actually enjoys doing some of the cooking and baking. His pita bread is famous around the neighborhood.

It took me even longer to let go of the feeling of inadequacy when my husband takes over some of the household duties – another of my unspoken convictions being that, since he works such long hours, when he’s finally home he’s supposed to have perfect liberty and leisure. Somehow, it never seemed to work. Eventually I realized it takes both of us to finish the Shabbat preparations at a reasonable hour, not because I’m lazy or disorganized, but because even though I am, in fact, busy doing my duties at home every day and all day long, there are things I just don’t get around to soon/often enough, through no fault of my own.

Now, there are many things around here which are my exclusive property, such as dishes, laundry and diapers. There are, on the other hand, things my husband does on a regular basis, such as grocery shopping and fixing things around the house. And there is what I normally do but what he lends a hand with, such as washing the floor and cooking.

There are women in my neighborhood who would rather invite their mother or sister over, or hire household help, than accept help from their husbands, the premise being that there is women’s work and there’s men’s work. And you know what, in some cases it might be true. I, however, have come to terms with the fact that I’m not just a stay-at-home Mom, but a SAHM who gets a great deal of help from her husband – and grateful for it. I realized that well-functioning arrangements are better than idealized expectations, and that pride leads to unnecessary stress. It took me a long time, yes, but I finally got there.

Today I know that, the nature of work in and around the home being constant and never-ending, there will always, no matter what, be more than enough left to my share, even deducting anything my husband can reasonably do. Therefore, I accept whatever help I can get with no qualms and with a lot of simple gratitude.