do interesting things

July 31, 2010

It was while I was in the process of moving into a house two blocks away from where I was living that I had long conversations with every neighbor who I’d often briefly encountered during the year when I had lived right next to them.

The quirky man who lives next to my garage heard me sanding an old table and brought over about twenty different electric sanders to see what worked the fastest. The plant man whose garden I had an impressive view of from the roof where I grew my plants saw the sad little pine tree my roommate had thrown away and carried it into his house with confidence there was still some life left in it. The small old woman who lives across the alley happily, and extremely slowly, carried our unwanted kitchen supplies into her house. “I used to do things like move a street over from where I lived,” she said on her way. “That was when I was young and ambitious. My parents thought I was crazy.” My parents, overhearing, smiled and nodded. These are the ways that life changes with age.

And yet, throughout the process of wheeling my container garden up the street to my new house on an old Radio Flyer wagon I’d received from a lovely woman on Freecycle, and while disbursing all our unwanted belongings to the neighbors, and as I restored my trash-picked furniture, I was convinced again and again of the notion that the key to life is to do interesting things. Things that spark up conversations with people you would never meet otherwise. Things that remind strangers of what they haven’t considered doing since they were young. Things that raise eyebrows and elicit questions because they aren’t typical. Collecting conversations and interactions with people in every which way.


a walk to where I go

July 7, 2010

“Wanna walk to Squirrel Hill?” I asked my housemate on a day the weatherman had just informed me would be “oppressively hot.” It was a 2.5-mile trek across Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Each way.

She looked at me like I was crazy. “Well…” she mustered with a disapproving look on her face. She was sitting at her computer looking at pictures on Facebook. “Do you have anything else to do today?” I offered as the only reason I had for why this was a good idea. It worked.

So we set out on our trip. I was inspired by my 60-year-old coworker who lives in Squirrel Hill and walks to and from work every day in East Liberty. Most of the people I work with drive the four blocks down the road to get from our main offices to our food pantry, but this alternative mentality of walking several-mile distances daily seemed so appealing. Usually I bike everywhere, but something about the steady clarity of walking matched the slow-motion mood of the oppressively hot day.

The walk wasn’t great.

By what we decided was the halfway point, we were sweat-dusted and had drained our water bottles in us. We stopped at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts to browse the air conditioning. Our flip-flopped feet were blistering and aching. We stuffed leaves between skin and shoe to dull the pain.

We made it to Ten Thousand Villages, the destination we intended to reach, and back. Even with the difficulties—and likely because of them—walking along with us, it felt like an adventure. Much more than rolling in a car to a store could have. It reminded me of when I lived in Uganda and no one paid much attention to time because everyone walked most places and the journey was just as important as the destination.

The journey is just as important as the destination.

The morning was a bit more frigid than I’d hoped.

But I shoved the covers aside in an attempt to force my body to turn itself vertical and consequently awake.

The chilly greeting of life after bed.

The sunny forecast for the day had put my plans into motion to reinstate my summerly bucket showers. These involve a bucket half-full with warm water and a cup to distribute it over my head and body.

I stand naked in the still tub and dump the first cup over my head. And I remember. Remember the four months I spent doing this daily in Uganda. How the dorms at the university where I stayed had installed showers that offered only too-cold water for the American students who found trouble considering cleanliness apart from a constantly flowing stream from above. But the Ugandans knew better and taught me to warm water in a bucket and make my own streams flow.

Something I can never forget.

a bucket of water for bathing

spinning winter wheels

January 29, 2009

snow-crusted desire Two questions seem to frame my day at work now that the the weather has become frigid, ice-stormish, and snowful:

Upon entrance I hear, “I know you didn’t ride your bike today!” (generally paired with a why are you so crazy expression).

When I leave, I either receive “watch out for car doors” sarcastically offered or “be safe” from the more serious workers as I roll my bike onto the elevator.

Not only are such bike-related comments my day-frame, but people constantly question me about my decision to devotedly peddle the trip between my home and work.

Yesterday I was questioned why I ride my bike to work for the 121st time. So I provided 121 answers: Because I live close to my work and I want to take advantage of that fact. Because I’m interested in not polluting more than I already do. Because I want to live simply by not owning a car. Because it saves my house transportation money. Because it wakes me up in the morning. Because it means I can go and come whenever I want. Because I get to daily be a part of outside instead of glancing at it during dashes from inside to other inside. Because it’s not too big of a hassle to me. Because it’s good for me in endless ways.

But mostly the answer is that I can’t think of a good enough reason why I carry my with snow-filled eyesshouldn’t.

There are occasional days when I have second thoughts. Like yesterday and today when the weather forecast was “Pittsburgh: closed.” While most of the city holed up in basements with bottled water to hide from the predicted world’s worst snowstorm, I was blinded by watery snowflakes and trying not to get splashed on by water kicked up from cars while pedaling down the small snow-free strip in the middle of the streets.

And I’ll do it again tomorrow.

nothing so small

January 22, 2009


I’ve fallen in love with scraps.

I recently decided to make a quilt, and the hefty task has left me scouring the earth to compile the scraps of other people’s lifestyles. With my recently acquired best friend freecycle, I’ve found myself traveling to various porches and doors of strangers where fabricked surprises like portions of a grandma’s old clothes and patterned remnants of childhood fetishes have been bagged and discarded into my hands.

I must admit that I acquired a lot of junk in my fabric scrap collection endeavors. It’s inevitable to encounter actual garbage inside of piles that other people consider garbage enough to get rid of. But I’ve also collected millions of mismatched pieces that I suspect, if combined in exactly the right way, might actually create something almost good.

I recently accompanied a friend on a trip to the fabric store to acquire large sheets of fabric for the quilt she’s planning. It was great to have endless options before our eyes, but it was also terrifying. New things generally make me a little nervous. Those dumb dollar signs have a way of amplifying mistakes. And there’s such great potential for mistakes in quilting and in life.wasted1

I’ll stick with scraps.

So now I have piles of various shapes and styles of fabric scattered about my floor waiting to be endlessly ironed, monotonously sorted, tediously combined, and slowly transformed into something beautiful with endless histories residing inside.

have less, live more

January 12, 2009

Lasposter-tv-sm4t year I got really interested in the idea of a buy nothing Christmas, so this past Christmas I found myself scrambling for thrify and creative ideas that would result in me having nice and at least somewhat desirable gifts to give to each of my family members.

This is what my efforts led me to discover:

I rediscovered that the idea of gift-giving is quite a beautiful thing. When making all of my gifts, I found myself still dwelling in the stress of time limitation. But it seemed like the hours I spent working on someone’s gifts sort of forced me to keep that person in my mind: what they like, what they need, how they’re doing, etc. These things became more important than how much money I had left in my Christmas budget.

So now that Christmas is over, I thought I’d post some of the creations I gave as gifts that took a good amount of thought and time and improved my whole Christmas experience (and hopefully that of those who received them).

I did a screenprinted-like shirt for my brother-in-law:


It just takes making a stencil with freezer paper, ironing it to a plain shirt, and then painting over it with acrylic paint and a sponge paintbrush. It makes for a nice screenprint look minus the costly materials and the ability to make multiple copies of it without making the stencil all over again.

For my sister I made a sketchbook out of recycled paper and fabric:


I pieced together fabric scraps to make the design on the cover then I collected lots of nicely-colored used paper and sewed designs on the pages and bound them with a sweet criss-cross binding design.

I also knitted her some glittens or mloves or whatever you call the combination fingerless gloves with mitten cap things:


For these I used the fluffiest and warmest yarn I could find and combined a couple patterns and made some of it up. Here’s a good pattern for some similar gloves.

I also quilted some pot holders for my mom. And for my dad I made handmade paper by creating pulp from old paper scraps. Then I used my ancient typewriter to fill the pages with my poetry.

I can’t remember the last time before this past Christmas that I was more excited to give gifts than get them.

I’ve recently added a typewriter to my meager collection of writing-producing materials, which now includes a typewriter, a large pile of scrap paper, a box of pens and pencils that may or may not still contain ink or lead, and I suppose I must also include a computer.

When I began asking around for any people willing to donate me old manual typewriters, I received such questions as “What are you going to do with one of those things?”, “Are your fingers really that strong?”, and the infamous “Why do you need a typewriter when you have a computer?”

The answer to all these questions is easy: too many old things are much cooler than modern developments that have replaced them. A typewriter (especially for the dream-driven writer) is one of these things.

I’m indebted to Freecycle, my new favorite website, for directing typewriter-desiring me toward a friendly person who lives nearby and owned a manual typewriter that hadn’t felt a finger across its keys for 20 years. With a function as cool as it sounds, Freecycle joins together groups of people who like free things. Once you join a local group, you can easily post items that you’re looking to acquire or post things that you have and you don’t need and would prefer to donate to someone who will use it. I actually got so many typewriter offers that I had to sift through them. Freecycle has also been useful for providing my housemates with milkcrates and fabric scraps. It’s quite the website that can connect us in ways we would never find otherwise and give us the chance to share.

So now I spend rainy days sitting on my porch hammering down letters, making keystrokes loud enough for all the passersby to hear and give me a quick questioning glance, and watching each letter swing up and hit the paper as it slowly moves across. I’ve found the need to keep a pen nearby to cross out mistakes, but so far I’ve found my typewriter to be quite conducive to decent writing and good perspectives of the world.

I recently visited the Ecological Footprint Calculator, a website that has you answer questions about the foods you eat, the type of house you live in, the waste you produce, the transportation you use, etc. Then it calculates the amount of land area that would be needed for everyone in the world to live just like you.

I took the quiz. The results? If everyone lived like me, we would need 3.6 Planet Earths to provide enough resources for all.

I can’t ignore the fact that my priviledged Western lifestyle reinforces systems of poverty and inequality. If the earth doesn’t even have enough resources to support everyone living like I do, then what right do I have to consume such an unfair and disproportionate amount of the world’s resources?

There’s a slogan that says “Live simply that others may simply live.” I used to wonder how my attempts to live simply would really allow others to “simply live.” Statistically, the difference of one person consuming less resources may make a minuscule difference in the world when considered relative to the whole world population.

But it makes an enormous difference in individual lives. In The Irrisistable Revolution, Shane Claiborne discusses the importance of grounding simplicity in love:

Simplicity is meaningful only inasmuch as it is grounded in love, authentic relationships, and interdependence.

This means that simplicity is not a means to live frugally so that we will have more money saved up for ourselves. Instead, it is contentment with sharing what we have. Simplicity is not a competition with others or with ourselves about who can live with the smaller amount of materialistic goods. Instead, it is a challenge for any standards based on materialism and a response from our role in a society that unquestioningly buys into the values of consumerism and materialism. It is learning that we are not self-sufficient and that we need to rely on each other in more ways than our individualistic lives have allowed us to imagine. It is an acknowledgment that there are structural injustices in the way our society is run, and we do not have to accept something as right solely because it is the conventional way that things have been done.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a lot to say about our failures to correct the more subtle injustices that surround our daily lifestyles, and his words contain just as much truth for today:

At the end of the twentieth century most of us will not have to repent of the great evil we have done, but of the great apathy that has prevented us from doing anything.

This weekend I went on a camping trip with our church’s youth group full of city kids, most of whom had never ventured into the woods to sleep before. It made for an entertaining evening filled with instruction on tent construction and etiquette and their sounds of awe at the realization that wood really does burn to make fire. The next day, I escaped the hot sun to spend some time lounging in the shade. Since I was living closer to the land than usual, I thought this would be an appropriate time to read my library book of Wendell Berry essays, Citizenship Papers (Berry is a farmer/writer/cultural critic who has a lot of wise ideas about good ways to live).

As I looked up from my reading to see a young boy from the youth group drop an entire tomato into the dirt and proceed to toss it in the trash bag because it was “dirty,” I thought about the fact that this very tomato was born in the dirt. The large disconnect that exists between the food we eat and the dirt it came from contributes to the “profound failure of imagination” that Wendell Berry describes in his essay “In Distrust of Movements“:

“We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history (human or natural) beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams, and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. And that is, in fact, the conventional economic assumption. . .

Money does not bring forth food.”

I know that my imagination has often failed in this way without even realizing it.

This past spring I helped out at a wonderful organization called Joshua Farm in Harrisburg, PA. When Kirsten, the woman who runs it, informed us that part of her mission for the urban farm was to educate kids living in the city that the food they eat comes from the ground and not the grocery store shelf, I chuckled. Everyone knows that food doesn’t come from the grocery store… but maybe subconsciously we don’t. Our general concern is that we have the money needed to acquire our food, and we don’t concern ourselves nearly as much with the health of the land and the weather conditions that are the real reasons we have food. As I worked at Joshua Farm each week, I discovered that I was the urban child that this farm was educating.

Jesus for President (my most quoted book of the summer) poses the question,

“How can we fully love the Creator when we’ve grown so far from the creation?”

I’ve spent much of my summer marveling at the first garden I’ve ever had. My dad and I work on it together, and our neighbors generously let us grow it in their yard. I can’t believe how different the experience is to collect my food from the ground that I’ve watched and cared for all summer.

It’s making my imagination fail a little less.

I had to get to the library today to return my non-renewable overdue book—otherwise another 5 cents would be added to my library bill that has steadily grown toward the $10 limit ever since I paid it the last two times. The question was how I would get there.

As I contemplated riding my bike on the 2-mile trip, all my inclinations decided to argue against this idea. My dad raises my bike seat every year to “keep up with my growth,” but since I stopped growing years ago, my bike seat height has surpassed me by a good four inches. While I could maintain balance last year with my freakishly strong tip-toes, I discover that this year’s seat growth has made it impossible to ride without instantly falling over. Additionally, a giant hill stands between me and the library, the bike’s brakes squeak, the gears only almost work, the thermometer on the bedroom wall reads 92 degrees, my library card is conveniently connected to my key chain right next to the car key, and the family car that gets decent gas millage sits unused in the driveway, patiently beckoning me to take the easy road.

I knew the right thing to do, so I got out the ratchet set to lower the bike seat to a workable position, chugged a nalgene of ice water, and began pedaling past the family car and the giant hill to get to the library.

As I was riding, I remembered adjusting back to American culture from studying abroad in Uganda last summer, and my favorite recommendations for remaining sane and living simply were to use the seemingly limitless access to entertainment goods that the library provides and to ride my bike. Now that I’m more comfortable in this country (although still experiencing steady sensations of discomfort, as I always intend to), it has become too easy to jump into the car to drive walkable or bike-rideable distances. And it has become almost as easy to convince myself that I need a new bike so I can commit myself to riding it more consistently. Today’s Frazz comic indicated just this tendency.

But for the time being, I’ve convinced myself to be grateful for the screeching brakes and constantly clicking gears of my dependable old bike that alert the entire neighborhood when I arrive. My goal is to fight the tendency for betterness & increased seeming perfection and realize the living beauty that dwells in the imperfections. It brushes my face like the hot breeze of riding the loud bike I got for my 14th birthday up the big hill on a scorching hot day to get to the library.