Sustainable Closet, In Practice

Don't Feel Bad

In recent years we have been coming to a deeper understanding of our world and the damage that we inflict upon it.  There is no doubt that it is depressing; it can really get to a person.  In the same vein, if you follow sustainability topics related to apparel, textiles and fashion, you quickly become overwhelmed, reaching the conclusion that it is both difficult and expensive to make 'good' choices.

But You Can Still Be Friends

Isn't it always the case that after you break up, the other party pulls it together and then you can't remember why you wanted to break up?  He gets off the couch, quits the fantasy football league, shuts off the TV, and finally starts the company that he kept talking about while you hung around offering encouragement...he loses ten pounds, he starts cooking, he goes dancing...basically he does all of the things that you had wished could happen while you were together, but he does them with someone else.

Houston is doing that to me a little bit right now.  I have been hanging around, waiting for Houston to come into its creative own, looking for signs of creative life.  Hints of it surfaced here and there, but still it has sometimes felt difficult to actually find people to do creative things with.

Last week, literally weeks before our departure, a new place opened for people to rent space and make things.  People close to me know that I have wanted to try this for sewing; every time I pack up my heavy machines that do not get daily use, I wonder why more us don't share these things.  I have even sketched out a rough idea for a business model.  But the constant moving has stopped me from actually going for it because I was terrified of having to leave it behind.  Anyway, I'm not bitter that someone else did it first; I'm happy it exists because it makes so much sense.  I'm just disappointed that it didn't happen two years ago, when I could be part of it.

Regardless, Houston, you are looking better already, and I'm sure it's not out of the question that I will be back.  Maybe we will make things together at some point in the future.  In the meantime, good luck to Houston Makerspace!

(I couldn't help but add the photo of this cool bus stop bench around the corner.)

Make Stuff and Carry On

Selling a house is a drag, and I can report that trying to sell a house while home alone for a month with a seven-month old is an extreme drag.  I felt pretty good for the first three weeks but this week my spirits are low, I can't lie.  While it may not be a long time in the life of a home sale, this month feels to me like it may never end.

Since my time is largely spent either alone or with a couple of sweet creatures who can't understand a word I'm saying, I have a lot of time to think.  As a result, I have wavered occasionally about our plan...too soon?  Too much?  Not the right time?  At other points, I have started to consider even more drastic options, like keeping the house and renting it out instead of selling it, or just getting an apartment in Minnesota but not really making a final decision about the house in Houston until next year.  We made the hard decision and now I just want to get started on the next phase.

In the meantime, I have stolen a few hours here and there for making things.  I can't get involved in anything too messy or complicated, in case of a sudden house-showing evacuation, so that eliminates a lot of what I was hoping to work on this year. But on the other hand, there are other projects; patterns and projects which can still provide both opportunities for learning and also just the pleasure of making.  I recently made this bag from a pattern in a cool book called Linen Wool Cotton.  It turned out that the pattern had some mistakes, but the book remains beautiful and inspiring.


It is New Year's Eve, a holiday that I adore.  I'm a new-year super-geek.  Even home with only a sleeping five-month-old and a glass of champagne, missing my husband and feeling a smidge lonely, I still love the new year.  It is a holiday of closure but also possibilities, and I especially love possibilities. Everything is all fresh and tidy and optimistic again.  A new year feels like a free pass to try and do things better this time, even if it wasn't great last time.

I like making goals (much more positive than "resolutions", in my opinion).  I dislike the news stories  I've heard this week which lament the overall failure of resolutions; I am certain we achieve what we truly mean to achieve in the course of year. My goal lists from past years, with all of their markings and charts and tracking sheets, prove this. People fail at their resolutions because they don't commit to the next steps.  The chasm between desired outcomes and starting points requires doing the work:  putting one foot in front of the other, more days than not. More interesting news stories would be stories of resolution success.

Sometimes I proclaim my goals to the universe, but this year, my one big goal shall remain relatively private, mostly because I feel shy and a little nervous about it. This violates one of my goal-achievement beliefs, which is that making it public keeps you accountable.  I have told those few folks who are on a need-to-know basis but otherwise I'm playing it close to the vest for now.  I know those people will help to keep me honest, and I know what I need to do.  Or at least, or I know where to start and I have a vague notion of what I need to do.

I have also noticed in the past that I, like most, probably, work on the goals that feel most comfortable and approachable, more than the ones that feel less natural and more forced.  The good news is that as a result, some of my past goals, especially ones that include food and exercise, have become more habitual. Therefore, I feel that I can relax the pressure on those a bit this year in order to give energy to that which feels harder right now.

So, if I only make one uncomfortable scary goal, what will happen?

Wait and see.

Happy 2014!

Happy Birthday!

My husband left today to go back to work in Angola.  Today is also his birthday, and he was feeling a little old and slightly less than awesome when he left the house at 6:30 this morning, so I feel compelled to proclaim to the cyber-world some things that are awesome about him:

He is an Eagle Scout.
He's wicked smart, even though I do have to call him on occasional BS.
He once let me take our shared family vehicle out of Canada, away from him, for six weeks.  In the middle of winter.
He not only got over his childhood feline allergy in order to date me, but is now almost as close to my cat as I am.
He says 'yes' to me when a lot of other people would find ways to say 'no'.
He understands the importance of plane tickets, road trips, and Minnesota.
He also understands the importance of champagne and sparkly things.
He's hot.
He does excellent impressions of people that amuse us.
He agreed to try living without a TV for me.
He is always up for picking up the take-out.
He's a great dad.
He works hard, even though he might disagree with me about that.
He is a soothing presence during sometimes-stressful family gatherings.
He sings the lyrics of rap songs to the rhythm of lounge music.
He goes to bed early most of the time, and makes it seem normal.
He eats in a seemingly effortless healthy, moderate way (I admit that this can be annoying, but over time I've grown less annoyed and just plain grateful as this quality does seem to be contagious).
He goes to Ikea for me, and to the Galleria with me.
He makes fun of me, he makes me laugh, and he makes me better than I would otherwise be.

Happy Birthday, honey!  We miss you already.

Another Festival of Quilts

I can't believe it's been a year since I went to the Quilt Festival here in Houston.  Suddenly it's that time again.  I heard on the radio this week that the festival draws over sixty-thousand attendees and that quilters spend more money on quilting than hunters spend on hunting and golfers spend on golf, which kind of boggles the mind.  Regardless of the hoopla, I just go to see the amazing display quilts from around the world.

It is bizarre how everything is different in my life than it was a year ago, and it all started just after the festival last year.  Last year I hung around the festival with my camera for hours, exploring and admiring the art.  This year, I raced around the festival with my camera in my diaper bag and my baby in the stroller.  I held my breath for most of the time and finally did a slower, more leisurely stroll only after I was certain that I had seen the highlights, lest I miss anything if the baby erupted.  But he hung in there, and I enjoyed a decent overview.

I was not as taken with this year's quilts as I was with those from last year, but they were beautiful and inspiring nonetheless.  The highlights for me this year were other details, like the fact that the friendly and enthusiastic ticket-taker at the door greeted me with "You must be from Wisconsin!", which was remarkable since I had never seen him in my life.  Even though I'm not from Wisconsin, from down here Minnesota and Wisconsin are essentially the same thing, so I was willing to consider that an accurate statement. Then I realized that he figured it out because I was wearing a sleeveless top and it was only 72 degrees outside.  For Houstonians, this constitutes a chill in the air.

Another aspect of the festival that amused me this year that I didn't notice last year was the husband's lounge.  It was a walled-off area in the back of the convention hall equipped with a big TV and a bunch of comfy armchairs and lounge chairs.  Pretty smart, and thoughtful, in my opinion.

There was something else I noticed this year that had nothing to do with quilts.  I noticed how many people in the world love babies.  As a person who has always feared them desperately, this fact never ceases to amaze me.  A sleeping baby in a stroller is a grandma magnet, and I was in a convention hall overflowing with grannies.  It's really fun walking past people who reflexively smile and get a little dreamy, giggly look on their faces when they look at your tiny companion.

Regardless, there were also beautiful quilts.  Here is a sampling of what I saw:

Start With an Onion

It can be hard to get excited about making dinner.  But it never fails, as soon as I get my lazy tush into the kitchen and get the chopped onion into the pan (because don't all recipes start with that?) the awesome smell of caramelizing onion cooking causes me to forget my resistance, and to relax in general.

People ask me often if I cook while my husband is overseas and they are surprised to learn that I do.  For me it is not strange for cooking to sometimes be private and solo; I starting learning to cook while living alone in my first apartment, and lived alone for much of my twenties.  While eating at restaurants a pastime that I have enjoyed as much as most in my age group, cooking still strikes me as a critical life skill, not mention a good pillar of long-term health.  My skills have been slow but steady enough in their evolution.  Interestingly, and perhaps leading to my willingness to cook even when no one is looking, I experience cooking as nice creative outlet of the hands-on variety.  For now anyway; I'm sure motherhood could change that, although I hope it doesn't.

Just as the onion lights my cooking fire even when I'm just not feeling it, books and fabric and yarn ignite my sewing and design excitement, especially if I'm not sure where to start.  I recently splurged on a book like that; it has some beautiful images that remind me why textiles and sewing make me excited.  I am particularly enamored because I have been harboring a big crush on blue colors for a couple of years now.  Here are a few images from the book:

I was also having a hard time getting inspired with ideas for our nursery (nursery-slash-guest-bedroom, more accurately).  Babies do not come naturally to me, nor does the soft and sweet vibe that I see in so many photos of suggested nurseries.  I kept coming back to some hand-dyed cotton knitting yarn that I had picked up at a craft fair in NYC years ago while visiting a friend.  I was working on knitting a baby blanket with it, so when her mom offered to make us a quilt in our choice of colors, I suggested those same colors: red and orange, turquoise and indigo, in a variety of shades.

Still, in spite of that, I had no vision for the rest of it.  Especially with the room already full of home office and guest bed furniture and my husband on the other side of the planet with only a fuzzy timeline for return.

Not to worry; I found my inspiration when I went home in June, right where if I'd been thinking, I would have expected to find it: the flea market that I've been going to with mom since I was a kid (see photo above) and a place where in high school I even found a prom dress, a vintage flapper dress that mom altered and that I've been known to still wear once in a blue moon.  

The market occurs every Sunday, as it has for 45 years; since long before Anthropologie figured out that people would pay hundreds for shabby-chic objects that their buyers found in France for a few Euros.  I'm not as devoted a flea market attendee as my mom; I'm willing to skip vendors that I don't find promising and I do get distracted by some of the old-looking new goods that have crept in over the years, while she easily finds beauty in objects you couldn't pay me to bring home.

Regardless, that's where it came together.  A wall shelf made from metal and wire fashioned into a canoe-style boat washed in an aqua color (old-looking but new), and a metal minnow bucket with orange print (actually old but clean and free of minnows), to be transported home in my carry-on back to Texas. Our little guy will surrounded by reds, oranges, and blues and more importantly by some evidence of his Northern roots while he gets comfy in his Southern home.


We are three weeks into the new year.  Into our resolutions, goals, promises and lists.  Which means that many people, myself included, have likely reached the feeling of discomfort that occurs from venturing into unknown territory and not feeling great about the results.  Suddenly we wonder if the goal was silly, or if we are not good enough, or if we have wasted our time.  And very often, we slink away to lick our wounds, letting the new goal slide off the table, no harm done.  But why do we feel uncomfortable?  And how do we build that bridge between old familiar skills and new desired expertise?

I have so far been essentially meeting the weekly goals I have set for myself, with some minor deadline tweaking, and with hints of the aforementioned disappointment.  For example, since one of my goals is to learn to bake bread, I am working to accomplish it by baking one loaf per week.  The first loaf I made went mostly according to the recipe and I was tickled when the dough actually rose, just as the recipe suggested it would.  I did, however, forget to add salt.  So, it looked nice, but tasted less than fabulous.  Then last week, I made the dough on time, but it turned out that there was no time to finish the baking process until today.  Since I'm within one day, I will still count it for last week's loaf.  And I am still required to make one this week.  So...progress, but definitely no artisanal bread just yet.  Obviously.  What we forget is that in the beginning, everything feels hard.  We have adult, gourmet expectations, but our skills always begin as elementary.  Time and patience are required.  This is not surprising, but it is easier said than managed.

I have successfully engaged in the expansion of my cooking repertoire by trying at least one new recipe per week, as planned .  The two standout recipes so far are one for tsasiki, and one for homemade (no box, real cheese) mac 'n' cheese.  

So things are proceeding nicely in the food department.  However, I'm disappointed with my performance in the craft, fashion and sewing department.  I loved the illustration class that I took last spring.  I was originally intimidated by the notion of drawing, but as it turned out, I was a strong student and benefited from the teaching of an excellent instructor.  Doing the work that he taught made me feel more confident and more creative.  

For that reason, this year I set the goal of creating one new illustration per week, to also include one new garment per week.  My intentions with regard to this goal are to build my skills, gauge my enjoyment of the process and also to explore my potential as a designer who can move beyond creating occasional and individual garments, into the realm of one who can imagine cohesive looks for collections.

I describe all of this in order to explain my frustration that while this feels like it should be the most important goal on the list for me, since it affects other short and long-term plans, it is the goal with which I am struggling the most.  Which brings me back to this conundrum of how hard it is to get ourselves to do new things that feel fuzzy or uncomfortable.  I have been giving it some thought over the last couple of weeks, and have concluded that it is easier to get myself to cook because I already have strong comfort with cooking basics.  Plus, ever few hours, we have to eat.  Since eating cannot be avoided, it's easier to get started in a timely way, and must be frequently repeated.

So here I am today, with last week's drawings not yet complete, this week's looming ahead, plus this weekend's dough rising ungoverned on the counter.  I'm not employed by anyone else, and yet I'm somehow way behind schedule.  It feels shameful.

My suspicion is that this is how new goals fall off of lists and are forgotten.  In the process of trying to improve the quality of our lives, we can end up feeling inadequate and unsure of ourselves.  It's tempting to pull back and to forget the resolutions, which actually means that this is exactly the moment to keep going, and not throw in the towel.  In spite of a missed deadline, or an inadequate loaf, the goals can still be met.  More importantly, the process of chasing them will still improve the quality of our lives.

In conclusion, it's time to stop writing in order to finish the baking and double down on drawing before another evening sneaks up on me.

Pursue Happiness

A program on the radio that I've listened to recently featured several TED presentations related to happiness.  One of the speakers, Barry Schwartz, concluded that "the secret to happiness is lowering expectations."  Not a romantic notion, but difficult to refute, as I happily snuggle further into a city that I thought I would hate.  Another speaker featured on that same program  concluded that too much choice increases dissatisfaction and also increases paralysis.  My husband and I can support this theory; while we have long appreciated options presented by his work, we have also suspected that the buffet of possibilities before us made our heads spin and sometimes threw up distraction barriers as we labored to make a more definitive life plan.

However, whatever the methodology, I am thrilled to report happiness.  Inside my gut, bubbling in my heart, leaking out onto my face regularly.  We have made lists, done comparisons, laughed and cried and imagined, and finally, decided not to move home to Minnesota.  Decided to remain here, in Houston, in order to prevent having to be separated while he is at work.  Making a hard decision like that was tricky enough, but the the truth is that my effervescent fountain of happy welled up from what followed, as we certified the first decision with a concrete second one: I fell in love with, and we are in the process of buying, my first house.

I am a slow bloomer; many of my peers have already owned real estate in one form or another.  My interest in doing so was delayed for quite a long time, first by my limited new-teacher budget, and then by our endless household mobility.  But even without those limitations, I didn't really feel like buying a house.  I didn't want to be the owner of a furnace, or the keeper of a yard.  I was truly baffled by the assumption that all Americans want this.  Renting offers flexibility, and if you do it right, especially after the housing crash in recent years, renting can be just as financially responsible as owning.

Fast forward to last weekend, when I fell in love with a house.  It was a rapid-fire and impossible courtship, a little bit parallel to the one I experienced with my now-husband.  While there are great reasons for this house to be the right house for us right now, moving into it does offer a few significant challenges, mostly related to its diminutive size.  Regardless of the circumstances, which included fighting off other suitors, and shaking the tree pretty hard to secure short-notice financing, we managed to sign our purchase agreement, and the only cloud lingering over my little happiness party is the unlikely possibility of something interfering with our projected mid-September closing.

So last night, while working in my sewing room, I listened to the radio with renewed interest.  This is my home now.  When the membership drive starts, I will be available here, as a resident, to donate and  to volunteer.  When there is a neighborhood meeting, it will be in my interest to attend.  When the Texas Matters program came on, and the doctor being interviewed lamented the miserable condition of women's health care here, that became my problem, not someone else's problem.  Pretty soon, I can call my senators, sign up for my CSA, and plant my herbs in the ground instead of in pots.  To me, that is the magic of buying a house...the commitment made to the place, even to the very ground that you are standing on.

I have no idea how many years this will be home, but that's ok.  It is enough for now that very soon, we can stay somewhere that is our own.

Quiet Across the Tropics

It's funny living in a place where each hourly weather forecast on my radio station features the phrase "and it's quiet across the tropics", or something similar.  I'm sure it's normal for people raised on a coast, but it's new for me.  I have also noticed that when there is something brewing, but the diagnosis remains uncertain, you might hear a phrase like "there are no immediate concerns in the Gulf".

Anyway, for the moment, it is quiet across the tropics.  Every day the high temperature hovers between the low 90s and 100-ish, and every afternoon, almost without fail, there is a 30 percent chance for a thunderstorm, but rarely does it organize itself into actual rain.  I often hear a rumble of thunder, and see big gray clouds for a little while, but just as commonly, the formation disperses before depositing any precipitation.

In the meantime, after days of home-alone quiet and a brewing pity party comprised of my own small matters, I decided it was time to get out of the house.  I went to check out a local business about which I have been curious, that specializes in southeast Texan food.

It was just a small outing, but as usual, seeing something new perked me up.  I came away with goodies, such as sorghum syrup (kind of like molasses, I learned), a local batch of barbecue sauce, a new salsa to try, and pretzel buns.  I also saw at least three delicious-sounding sandwiches in the deli, with sides that included mustard potato salad, cabbage slaw with lime dressing, or roasted corn, all of which I look forward to trying with my husband when he is back in town.

April Progress Check: 2012 Goals

Unbelievably, 2012 is over one-third complete.  It's time to check how I'm doing on my goals for the year.  I was a little scared to look when I realized how much time has passed, but it looks like I have at least taken minimal steps for most of them.

Let's review:
  1. make a business or organization plan: I've been reading a little on how to make one, and brainstorming business names and concepts, but that's all I can's tricky!
  2. make a patio herb garden: See photo's only basil and mint so far, but it's better than no herbs.  The mint does not seem to be responding well to the hot sun on the patio, even though the tag said "full sun".  If anyone has a suggestion, I would love to hear it.  We'll see how the basil seeds do.
  3. exercise at least 30 mins 3x a week: So far, so good.
  4. get a tattoo: The results here are similar to the business plan goal, some reflecting and doodling, but no definitive action to date.
  5. put down roots: Here again there is progress, of the fuzzy variety.  We have identified some land that we want, and are preparing to make an offer, hopefully in the coming week or so.  I am giddy, and scared to death, having never purchased anything more expensive than a car in the past.

Field Trip: Houston Zoo


We went with our neighbors to check out the Houston zoo, and it was good.  Zoos make me a little sad; the animals look bored, so I end up feeling guilty and a little depressed about the state of the world.  On the other hand, almost every display shared information about conservation efforts and care for wildlife, so that seemed positive.  The displays offered abundant opportunities to give money to those conservation efforts, and there is probably no better way to get people excited about contributing than to actually connect them to the animals.  
I would like to learn more about what conservationists and other wildlife experts think about zoos.  In the meantime, seeing some big cats, majestic giraffes and something called the kudu that I didn't even know about, was a great way to spend a pretty spring morning.

Those Who Can't...Need to Take Their Own Advice

After the Mardi Gras dress marathon, I lost my sewing mojo.  I felt pleased about having made a dress, and wearing it.  However, when I saw photos of the dress in action, I was disappointed.  All was fine when I was standing still, but any photo that captured motion showed gaps between the fabric of the dress and my body, reflecting deficiencies in my still-beginner sewing and design skills.

In the weeks since then, I had thoughts of withdrawing from my courses, I applied for a bundle of office-y, non-fashion jobs, I considered selling my sewing machines and I even pondered dismantling my beloved home studio.  It is embarrassing to think of having taken three semesters of apparel design courses, and to still be intimidated by installing a zipper.  My carefully cultivated haven of inspiration and workspace was starting to feel like a farce and also a waste of a room could be used for other things.  I'm an imposter!  My ideas are multiplying, but my skills feel stagnant.

All of this questioning led, predictably, to a great questioning of the path and a mingling of regrets and small panic attacks.  Inevitably, a great malaise settled on me, hood-like, compounded by normal business-of-life trials and annoyances related to cars and health and taxes and the like.

However, my funk is lifting and it's time to get back to it.  I need to follow some of my own advice.

Let's review:

Last July, I commented on my need for persistence and for taking the long view, in addition to reflecting on the wisdom of some past great thinkers.  Last August, I noted how nice it was to be under a temporary contract, because of the freedom it provided.  Additionally, it is important for me to remember that when I work full-time at an office, I generally feel as though I'm dying a slow death from stale air and bad coffee. Also, it took me a year and a half after moving to Calgary to get that job, and I've only been living in Houston for four months.

In January, I set a goal of making a business plan, even if it's too soon and I don't know what I'm doing.  And finally, just a few days ago, I reviewed the usefulness of boundaries with regard to creativity.

Given all of that, I reorganized my sewing room to take stock of what needs to be done.  I knew that there were some half-baked projects lurking, but now that they have been unearthed and grouped, I understand the enormity of the problem, and probably the source of my blue mood: I feel ornery and unsuccessful because I haven't been persistent enough to be successful yet.  My skills won't improve if I keep starting new projects when the current ones become complicated.  Conclusion: for the moment, time to stop applying for random jobs and to instead focus on finishing unfinished business.

In Search of a Little Mexico

The first time I went to Mexico, as a teen-ager on a Spring Break trip, I thought I would be annoyed visiting somewhere so full of tourists.  I had just completed a year as a Rotary Exchange student, and we had been brainwashed to believe that the only way to experience a new place was to experience it's daily life; how locals conduct their day-to-day affairs.  If we were identified as American by locals during that year, we had failed the cultural test.

As it turned out, I was slightly annoyed by tourist trappings of  Cancun, but my curiosity about daily Mexico overruled my disdain for the standardized vacation chosen by my peers.  I was more interested in the taxi drivers than the goings-on at the nightclubs, and I was intrigued by the hair-braiding ladies in the market and the brands of food in the downtown grocery store.  I noticed women of all ages with tummies showing a little, or shorts that were quite short; they seemed so comfortable showing their skin, regardless of their shape.  To my body-obsessed eighteen-year-old brain, this was amazing.  Now, it is very logical to my thirty-five year-old brain: it's about comfort in the heat.

I have been to Mexico three more times since then, and each time, I loved it.  I would go multiple times a year, if I could.  In fact, it is the only other place besides Minnesota where I have hoped to live with my husband.

These feelings about Mexico, combined with many, many positive interactions that I had with Mexican students learning English, led me to feel that life in Houston and it's proximity to Mexico would very naturally lead me to a better understanding of Mexico and more frequent interactions with true Mexican culture.  I consider it a great misstep to have not studied Spanish in college and for the most part I consider the general American attitude toward Mexican immigrants both unbelievably heartless and incredibly short-sighted.  Mexico should be viewed as a neighbor and asset, albeit one that could some help at the moment.

In the meantime, on a smaller scale, I'm on the hunt for all things Mexico in Houston.  I am afraid that I shouldn't have assumed that it would be easier than it has been so far.  My online searches have revealed little, leading me for the most part to Tex-Mex restaurants, most of which serve food that Americans love and think is Mexican food: bland refried beans and enchiladas covered in a pile of melted cheese.  But I have all kinds of time and more checking to do, so I like my chances.