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Almost There!

Another week has flown by.  Again it was a busy one.  Classes went well, marking is never ending, and the end of term is just that much closer.

I once again haven’t done much with respect to food this week.  I have my very basic staples and have been surviving on those: milk, yogurt & cheese that I make, the very last of my bread, the last of my frozen ratatouille, a little parsnip soup, yogurt & frozen berry smoothies.  I also broke down and added a few non-local items to keep at least a little variety in my diet.  Two weeks ago I had lunch at Veg Out in London, which was absolutely amazing.  I ordered a quinoa & avocado salad, and a banana, coconut & date smoothy.  I couldn’t eat them fast enough!  Clearly my body was really craving some of the ingredients in those meals.  So I decided to buy some dates, some coconut milk, a few bananas, some quinoa and a few lemons.  I haven’t made the quinoa salad yet, but the other stuff has been gobbled right up.  Fortunately I was able to find these items in the organic section, and the bananas were fair trade.  The way I devoured them tells me I need to broaden my nutritional intake as I’m clearly not getting enough of something!  So I’ve decided to allow these items into my diet from time to time.  This is added to salt, pepper, olive oil, various vinegars (although I mostly use apple cider vinegar, which is local, and I really want to learn how to make my own wine vinegar as soon as I have a spare moment), rice and a few other cooking basics I use to supplement my stores in winter.  I have to say this has made me a little more peppy, even if it’s just in my mind!

I had planned on spending a few hours this afternoon doing some cooking, but instead I continued to tackle my house.  I have really done a lot of work on it over the last couple of weekends and it’s starting to look quite good.  I have been making a point of being social, going out on at least one weekend evening, and even dating a little.  So I’m getting my house ready to receive and entertain.  Come the end of term (only three weeks away!), I intend on inviting people over for Christmas dinner parties and so on.  I also have a couple of visitors coming to stay for a day or two in early late November & early December.

Through this process of revamping my home, I’ve really become aware of how much our environment is a reflection of our state of mind.  At the same time, the reverse can be true.  So by changing our environment, we can change where we’re at mentally.  Simple, yet complicated.  And very cool.

As such, I’ve also been working hard at turning my bedroom into a real bedroom.  When I moved into this house, I was sharing with a friend.  My bedroom is large, and so I set up my office area at one end of it.  When she moved out, I started to work in the dining room.  Over the last couple of weeks I’ve made this more formal, bringing down my bookshelves and all my books and much of my paperwork.  Having this all in plain sight on the main floor of the house will require that I keep things well organized and tidy, which is a good thing.  And my bedroom is now free of any “work” vibe.  It’s also free of much furniture as well, and that needs to be addressed.  But it’s a clear space that I can now turn into something relaxing. A friend recently pointed out to me how important this is, and I agree.  So one more room to overhaul, and then I’ll be all set to get back to focusing on food and training my dogs.  And given how bored my dogs are, and how empty my pantry and freezer are, this can’t happen soon enough!

 

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Almost Ready for Winter

Another week has flown by and winter is clearly starting to settle in.  While the temperature has remained comfortably above freezing, the leaves are gone, the harvest is almost over, and everything has turned a sleepy shade of brown.  In short, Mother Nature is settling in for her long winter’s nap.

I am settling in for winter as well.  I have purchased and now neatly stacked roughly six pick-up trucks worth of wood with which to heat my house for the coming months.  My landlord said this should be enough, but we’ll see.  At least this year I know exactly how much I am starting with (8 face cords), and come spring I’ll know if that was enough for not!  Even if I don’t spend another winter here (and I do not intend on doing so, although never say never), this will give me a good feel for how much wood is needed to heat a moderate size house during a Southwestern Ontario winter.  I love heating with wood so much that I fully intend on doing so wherever I live in the future.  So this is good knowledge to have.

I’ve also almost finished winterizing the rest of my house and yard.  I still have a couple of items to break down and tuck into the shed, some temporary fencing to dismantle, and a few last ceramic pots to empty and put away.  I hope to do this tomorrow as it’s supposed to be warm and sunny.  I also want to clean my car out and put on my snow tires.  I may also rake up some leaves to mulch the little garden beds I built up this summer in hopes of saving what little grew well.

Inside I need to dismantle the room that has the leak.  I am going to use this room as storage for things I don’t need right now but don’t want to get rid of.  However I will remove all linens and other things that can be damaged by dampness.  The room only leaks (so far) to the extent that one wall starts to get very damp and puckers after a lot of rain, but I don’t know what to expect over the winter as the roof continues to deteriorate.  The landlord informed me that he will not be fixing this, so I have to shut off the room.  Technically I could withhold rent, but I don’t want to get into that kind of a struggle.  I simply do not have energy for it, and I don’t really need that room anyway.  I love the house and the landlord welcomes my animals, so it’s a trade off.  Likely I will simply pack up and move out come spring and not worry about it.

I have spent the past week focusing on re-claiming my balance, and I seem to have done a good job of it.  I continue to sort through the remainder of my stuff, organizing and purging what I don’t need.  My house is feeling a little more zen every day, and a little more ready to receive.  This weekend I picked up a cute little red loveseat for the living room (second hand, thanks to Kijiji!), so I now have somewhere cozy for guests to sit.  The room is welcoming and I want to spend time in it for the first time since I moved here 18 months ago!  It’s hard to move into a space constructed by someone else and make it your own.  It took pulling everything out of the room so that I could envision how I wanted it before I was able to set it up this way.

I have also made a very conscious effort to spend some time on myself every day this week, and that is making a really big difference in how I am feeling.  Even if it’s just 10 minutes of meditation as soon as I get up in the morning, my mind is remaining clear and calm, and I feel centered and capable of handling what comes at me.  The days I teach that’s all I’ve been able to do, but the other days I have claimed a little more time, doing yoga or just sitting quietly out on a sunny rock in the woods and enjoying ‘being’ while the dogs hunt mice and frisk about.

I still have done very little cooking, but I fortunately keep finding things in my freezer to keep me going.  Last weekend I purchased a second freezer (for only $30, again through Kijiji – what a wonderful resource!) that I am going to stock over the Christmas holidays so that I will be able to eat well next semester. I’m excited to have this additional freezer space at last, and am in the process of finding ways of organizing the food I have currently to keep it accessible.  I may have one freezer for meat, and the other for everything else.  I’ve been researching local, grass-fed beef and now have the room to buy at least a quarter, if not half a cow.  I have already purchased two lambs from the wonderful farm I bought a lamb from last year.  I go through roughly 150lbs of meat a month (nearly all for the dogs) so this extra freezer is going to make a big difference.

Today I started some sourdough bread for the first time in weeks, as well as a double batch of this superbly delicious chocolate sourdough cake (most of which will be brought to work) with the leftover sourdough starter.  I made this chocolate cake recipe a few months ago and it was probably the best I’ve ever made.  Topped with butter icing, it’s out of this world.  I also have a milking that I need to process into yogurt, butter and cheese.  That will be it for today.  I hope tomorrow to make some soup.  Oh, and at the market this week (London’s Farmers Market, the closest one still going strong this time of year) I purchased a bunch of leeks to chop and freeze for winter soups.  With these leeks I finally have the basics for the coming months, even if my pantry is a bit sparsely stocked this year.

Finally, with my centre of balance back, I have been working effectively and have made considerable progress academically this week.  This feels really good and I’m back to enjoying what I’m doing.  Today I have some grading, and some planning to do for the week’s lectures, as well as a little research for next term’s courses.  Too much work to make time for my dissertation, but one more productive week like this and I may actually be in a position by next weekend to get back to writing.

The last few weeks have been really tough, but they have taught me much and I am in a better place for the struggle.  The most important thing has been the recognition of how important it is to keep space open in my life for me, for just being instead of always doing.  Even a few minutes a day makes an astounding difference.

Reclaiming Balance – Part II

I thought I had set my last entry as ‘private’ but for some reason it still got published.  I struggle over how much to ‘put out there’ so to speak, in terms of revealing what’s going on with me personally.  Writing is one of my main ways of figuring things out.  A dialogue with myself, so to speak, that helps me sort out what’s going on in my head.  I can re-read it later and reassess.  I do hold back a fair bit from this public forum – but I also deliberately put some things out for public viewing.  I’ve had readers react negatively to this, but I actually have a reason for doing this.

Life is a struggle, and trying to live life even somewhat outside of the mainstream is really tough at times.  I have read many blogs that provide all sorts of fabulous information on how to live more lightly with our Mother Earth, but this info is often presented in a way that suggests that these efforts are easy.  That anyone can do it.  And while it’s true that the changes I’ve made in my life are simple – each one on its own that is.  The sum-total shift in living has been extremely hard.  Indeed, impossible at times.  And so I share this struggle because I don’t want people to read my blog and feel badly, or offended, or – worst of all – give up what efforts they are making, because they cannot find time in their life to cook everything from scratch, or they still use plastic bags or whatever.

What I am doing is an experiment in social change, and I put myself through a lot of strife in the name of ‘research.’  I have come to believe deeply in what I am doing, but I have also become quite clear on how the changes I’ve made in my life are not something that can be implemented on a wide-scale within the current neoliberal (i.e. free market) capitalist model of our economic system.  This system, as I alluded to in my last post, drives people to have to work more and more and more, while earning less and less.  I read an article yesterday that pointed out that the average American now works one whole month more per year than they did 25 years ago, while real wages have declined since 1972.  It’s no wonder we’re all at the ends of our ropes most of the time!  How on earth are we supposed to be also cooking from scratch, growing some of our own food, and avoiding toxic plastics and chemicals?  Furthermore, 70% of the American economy, again according to this article, is driven by consumption.  In short, we are in a vicious cycle of shopping and working (as beautifully depicted in the Story of Stuff video).  Indeed, when I lived and worked in the US, this was exactly my experience and my observation of those around me.  Things are less stressful in Canada, but we are heading in this direction in a big hurry.

So now that I’ve returned full-time to the working world, all of this is hitting me at once.  I’m tired and have been spending little time focused on what is most important to me.  The result is that those elements of my life that I cherish most deeply are slipping through my fingers like sand.  My relationship failed, my pantry is almost empty, my dogs are untrained and bored.  My house is a catastrophe.  My life has become solitary.  And all this after just two months of full-time work! Of course much of the trouble I am sure is readjusting to such a crazy pace of life, but it’s also making it very clear to me just how stressful life is for most people.  It’s the ‘stewed frog syndrome’ so to speak.  When it happens gradually, we don’t  notice the constant  ratcheting up of pressure that is cooking us.  When it happens all of a sudden, we are scaled!

I have been scalded.

So what to do about this?  This is my new challenge.  I am determined to figure this out.

This weekend I didn’t work.  Instead I spent my time focusing on getting what I can back into balance.  I slept.  A lot.  I did yoga.  I hiked my dogs.  And I cleaned my house.  Actually, I didn’t just clean my house, I attacked it!  I tackled my long ‘to-do’ list and got on top of a lot of things that were constantly nagging at me. I purged things I don’t need, or that left me feeling cluttered.  I even dragged my landlord’s ugly couch out of the living room, put up shelves along the windows and placed all my plants and books around the room to make it cozy and inviting.

I’ve decided to adopt an ‘if you build it they will come’ approach to my home and life.  By this I mean I need to live the life I want to be living, not just think about it.  This is what I did this summer – I fixed up  my house so that it could simply but comfortably welcome guests.  I cooked up a storm so that I had plenty of food for any visitors.  I kept good bottles of wine in case the mood struck us.  In short, I made my home inviting and lived in it as if I expected it to be full of love, and that’s exactly what happened!

And then this fall things got busy.  I let my guard down, I let things slide.  I took on too much.  And before I knew it, the space in my life for what made me happy quickly closed.  I justified this based ideas that I could put this on hold for a few weeks or months, and on the conclusion that no one would come visit me out in the middle of no-where in winter, so why bother?  Well of course no-one will come if there’s no space for them here!

And as for putting things on hold, this was a big mistake.  With the intense pressures of today’s society for us to put all that is important on the back burner in the name of earning an income, constant vigilance is in order.  We must guard that space, defend that balance.  We must work on it constantly, even if we only have a few minutes a day to do so.  How to accomplish this?  Well, that is now my challenge.  I need to figure out how to keep a roof over my head while simultaneously keeping room in my life and heart for friends, family, love, food, community, nature and of course, myself.

This is not going to be easy.  But even after two days of taking some time to focus on balance, I am feeling like a new person.  Rested and in a peaceful surrounding, my heart is on the mend and I am once again feeling energetic and happy.  I have created some space in which to find my centre, just as in the dream I had a few nights ago where I walked into the zen-like room and felt good.  Now I must defend it, nurture it, help it grow.

Reclaiming Balance

Saturdays have become my chore days since I’ve been working full days every other day of the week.  Come Friday I am so exhausted that there’s just no way that I can do anything mentally taxing on Saturdays.  Plus by then my house is a complete disaster, the fridge is empty, the dogs are going stir crazy and I’m on the verge of completely losing it.  In fact, the last two Fridays in a row I think I did take a bit of a dip off the deep end.  Amazing what exhaustion can do to one’s perception of reality.

I didn’t get a lot done today, but I did manage to get the dogs well exercised and make it to morning Market in London.  This is the first time I’ve been to the London market since last spring.  All the local markets are now closed, so I have to drive the 50 minutes into London to get my “local” veggies.  I was happy to find several well-stocked stalls of produce, as well as other goodies, still available outside of Covent Gardens.  Even better, the produce stalls were all either no-spray or certified organic.  For some reason I have been really craving fresh greens and was delighted to find salad greens still available.  I also bought a bunch of leeks (to chop and put in the freeze), some carrots, radishes, tomatoes and apples.  These are nice additions to my stores of squash and potatoes!  I should be able to make up something tasty with all that.

I also picked up milk today, at last.  The last milking I had ended up going bad before I could do anything with it.  While usually raw milk turns itself into cheese when it sours, for some reason this pail-full developed a really off smell that convinced me to pour it down the toilet.  The lid had been off slightly and I suspect it got contaminated.  I did drink a little to test it and it seemed fine (and I didn’t get sick), but I decided better safe than sorry.  Tonight I am absolutely going to get the milk processing before bed so this doesn’t happen again.  A week without milk, yogurt or cheese was a very long one indeed!

I had hoped to get some cooking done today but I just wasn’t up to it.  In fact, it’s only 8:15 and – once I get some cheese started and the rest of the milk bottled up – I’m going to bed.  I really hope that I can sleep tonight.  Last night I tossed and turned, dozed and started, all night long. After a week of extreme sleep deprivation, I was simply too tired to sleep!

Today I was a useless mess.  Now, I will admit that this is not simply because of long hours and little sleep.  I have some things going on in my personal life that are really taking the wind out of my sails.  But there’s a feedback loop happening here: the joyful part of my life that kept me energized enough to work way too much has been damaged by working those very same long hours.  The wonderful balance that I had this summer, the balance that created space for people and relationships that made me so happy, is now gone.  And as a result, despite really loving my job, I’m miserable.  Life is about more than work.

Ironically, this is not the first time I’ve arrived at this point.  I recall very clearly right now hitting a similar wall with my last full-time job.  Exhausted and frustrated with no time for anything else in my life.  Crying driving in to work.  Crying at work.  Arriving home and crying in my car until my landlord came out and helped me into his kitchen and poured me a couple of very stiff drinks and fed me Cheerios.

No landlord here to get me drunk this time, but I have myself – wiser and more experienced now.  Actually, part of me is even analysing my personal experience and placing it in the context of my examination of Capitalism.  According to Marx, the only real source of profit is what he called ‘surplus labour.’  This is the labour you get out of a worker above and beyond what it costs to maintain that worker.  The more surplus labour you can get, the more profit you have.  This is why companies move to developing countries, where the cost of maintaining the worker is so low.  The other way to maximize this surplus is to get as much work as possible out of your employee.  This is what happened when I was working at my last job, and it’s happening again now.  I am paid a fixed salary for a job, and then I work as many hours as is necessary to do it.  These hours are simply way more than I ever expected.  I doubt I even make minimum wage.  And the way to keep people willing to do this excess work is to maintain a high enough level of unemployment that they are afraid to quit.

Despite this fear (which I do feel), I have come to the decision today that I need to reclaim the balance in my life.  I want to get back to having space in my life for joy.  For cooking, and eating with friends. For yoga.  For playing with my dogs.  For love.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

Don’t worry, I am not going to quit my job.  I love teaching and am really looking forward to my next courses.  My students are a lot of fun and I’m learning more than I ever did as a student.  So all round it’s a great experience.  However, I simply cannot maintain this pace. Especially not at this low salary (did I mention that I have a part-time job on top of teaching full-time, and still can’t make the bills for this falling down house?).  I’ll hang in until April, but next year I am going to do something else.  At this rate there is no way I’m going to finish my dissertation in time to apply for full-time jobs for next fall, so I will need to work part-time again.  But for the low salary, I am going to find a job that requires much fewer hours.  I was thinking of finding a non-profit that could benefit from having someone with writing skills, or something like that.  Indeed, perhaps such an experience will improve my teaching skills down the road, giving me insight into the world of non-profit, which I have never worked in.

This decision feels good.  It gives me light at the end of the tunnel, and hopefully will help me find the balance in my life again.  I don’t know what I’ll do or where I’ll live, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.  For now, one day at a time.  Once I can find that inner balance again, and hold true to myself, the universe will provide.  It always has, and I have no doubt it will again.  I just have to have faith in myself.  I will start tomorrow.  For now, goodnight.  I am looking forward to a peaceful night sleep.

Food Is My Anchor

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday.  Not the kind that solves all of life’s problems and allows you to live happily ever after.  I’ve been waiting for that epiphany for years and suspect it will never come.  No, this epiphany was just a small one, but it has led to some serious reflection and, although it’s really too early to tell, perhaps somewhat of a paradigm shift.

I had a tough day yesterday.  While I took Saturday ‘off” to catch up on house chores (and spent the entire day hauling wood, and working on my house & in the kitchen), I put long academic work days in on Sunday (8 hours), Monday (10 hours) and Tuesday (18 hours).  This after working every day the previous week.  Not surprisingly, by yesterday morning I was a mess.  I haven’t felt that bad in a long, long time.  Exhausted and frustrated, I choked back tears on the way to work.  Well, actually I let them flow, worried that if I held them in I’d end up bursting into tears in the middle of a lecture or some other horror.

There’s a reason they call what I’m doing the ‘sessional trap’, for that is exactly what it is.  I’m working way too much to get my dissertation done, and as a result am not going to be eligible to apply for full-time jobs for next year.  Not to mention that last week I found out that the position I had hoped would be opening up likely won’t.  And while I really love teaching – I mean, I am enjoying this more than anything else I have ever done in my life in return for a pay cheque – the thought of doing another year of sessional work is overwhelmingly depressing.  Despite how much I’m working right now, I’m not even earning enough to make ends meet.  To be financially solid, I’d need to add one more course to my workload.  I simply cannot imagine doing this without going insane.

As such, as I was driving in to work yesterday, I was trying to envision other options for my life come April.  Exhausted as I was, everything looked pretty bleak.  I saw myself in the sessional trap for years, wasting away, my dogs getting old without ever getting a chance to seriously work sheep.  Or even get exercise.  Me getting old without ever… well, doing anything else but work.  Yes, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself!

Once in London, I remembered that I needed to pick up cream for my class. I bring a kettle and a coffee maker to class, and provide light snacks for my students.  Bringing snacks for 25 students when I can barely pay rent is not exactly a financially savvy thing to do, and I’ve debated with whether or not to continue.  However, I strongly believe that eating together, and eating good healthy food, is necessary for this type of setting.  Without something to prop them up, they simply cannot make it through a 3 hour class.  So I’ve been going to the market and picking up big baskets of pears or apples, or fresh bread and the like.  And I’ve noticed a huge difference in their ability to participate and last the full length of the session, not to mention a lovely atmosphere in the classroom as they gather around the coffee pot, and discuss philosophical topics while  munching on local fruit.  Every crumb and drop is gone by the end of class, so clearly they need it.

Not wanting to risk the political implications of bringing in raw milk, every Wednesday morning I’ve been stopping into a health food store and buying a small bottle of Harmony cream.  Yesterday, however, I was very tempted to skip getting the organic cream in a glass bottle and just grab a bunch of creamers from the cafeteria.  In my miserable, self-pitying state, I thought I could cut myself some slack just this once.

I thought about it, and thought about it.  And then I realized that this just made me feel more miserable.

So I turned a few blocks early and stopped in to Lyn-Dys’s health food to buy cream.    There was one bottle, and it was marked down half price due to a pending expiry date.  Perfect.  Serendipity?  I then poked around the store for a few minutes and spotted some fair-trade, organic bananas.  I decided to get a bunch of those as well.  I almost never buy bananas, but figured the students would enjoy and I’d hold a couple back to make muffins for next week.  Bananas are good brain food after all.

As I got back into my car, I noticed that I was feeling a lot better.  I’m sure in part that talking to another human being after several days of complete isolation helped quite a bit.  My solitary life in the country can get downright lonely when other things get out of balance.  But I think what really made me feel better was sticking to my guns about food. I wrote in my last post that I can’t bring myself to buy industrial food because of the knowledge I have about it’s social and environmental destructiveness, but I realize now that this is not exactly it.

Perhaps it’s not it at all in fact.  I realized at that moment that the reason that I am sticking so doggedly to this way of eating is because, sometimes, it’s the only thing I can do that seems to make any sense.  It’s something I can control.  Something I can believe in.  Something I can do to slow the out-of-control spiral our world – and at times, my life – seems to be caught in.

Healthy, local, ethical food gives me something solid to stand on.  Cooking, baking, preserving.  Fermenting.  Eating.  This gives me a base on which I can build the rest of my life.  It gives me a platform upon which to rest.  I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone else, but it is now quite clear to me.  I hear people every day lament that they don’t have time to cook or prepare food from scratch, or go to the market.  Letting these things go, these essentials to life, is giving up a basic element of control.  The most basic perhaps, and intimate; the control over what we put into our own bodies.  Giving this up is giving in to the system, the system that demands that we work such crazy long hours, that we live apart from those we love, that we put off doing the things we hold dear in our hearts, often until it’s too late to ever do them.  The more I study the structure of our extremely messed up social system and the more I understand the forces that tear apart all that once made sense in the world, the more I need to hang on to this.  To food.  Real food.  I’m not supporting it.  It supports me.

The Struggle Continues

I had an interesting dream last night.  I was living in some kind of two story apartment, or possibly house, and when I came into the living room & dining room area, it was almost completely empty.  There were a few pieces of furniture and a picture or two, and that was it.  While a bit stark, it had a calming and zen-like atmopshere.  I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done a good job here.  Now to work on the next level’ and I headed upstairs where a considerable amount of clutter still waited.

My life, once again, has moved into a phase of uncertainty.  If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that this is a pattern.  A pattern that comes from having contract work that lasts only 8 months, followed by four months of unemployment.  Repeat.  And whenever I feel uncertain, I get a strong desire to clean, sort, and purge.  I think it’s a displaced outlet for a need to control but an inability to do so.  As the dream suggests, I have accomplished a lot in that department, but there’s still more work to do.  This weekend I’ve been tackling my to-do list with quite the fury.

While it is not even quite November, I’m already worrying about April.  Time is flying by at an insane rate and I’m having to make decisions about my next step before I’ve even completed the first half of this one.  Jobs are starting to be posted, future opportunities discussed.  The most likely scenario is that I will be doing contract teaching at the university again next year as it is highly unlikely that I will find full-time work at this point.  The competition is too stiff, and without publications in addition to dissertation in hand, I just don’t measure up.

While I absolutely love the courses I’m teaching, the prospect of doing this for another year is at times depressing.  I’m working very long hours for little more than a poverty line income, and have a schedule that makes it just about impossible to have any balance in life, let alone finish the dissertation or get things published.  I must teach at least five courses or I cannot make my rent.  To put things in perspective, a full-time work load for faculty is three courses, and most find that exhausting.  I have no time for a social life, no time for my dogs.  No time even for food prep, although I’m trying to do something about that this weekend.  I have been managing to make one large something every week – pot of soup, a casserole, or whatnot, that I end up eating all week, along with fresh cheese, yogurt and soaked oatmeal.  Throw in apples and pears, and the occasional pepperette from Fieldgate Organics, and that’s my diet.  Oh, and I keep finding loaves of bread in the freezer, thank goodness.  I don’t remember when I last had time to bake bread.

Despite all this, I refuse to break down and buy industrial food.  Well, I have eaten the occasional meal at the cafeteria, but this week it was only once.  Otherwise I am still managing to stick to my principles.  The main thing that keeps me going is that I know too much about what’s in industrial food.  To me it simply is not food – it’s toxic chemicals.  That, and it’s a system of oppression, marginalization, and environmental destruction.  When I look at it, I can picture the people, animals and land that suffers due to it’s production.  Or rather, I cannot NOT picture it.  My mind floods with images.  That makes it easy for me to avoid, for the most part.  And when I do give in to spontaneous hunger, I usually feel gross enough afterwards to get back on track in a hurry.  Not to mention the guilt over the ridiculously wasteful packaging I end up staring at afterwards.

I think things will get a bit easier as I get better at organizing my classes, and also as I build a library of lectures and readings that I can implement.  Right now I’m doing everything from scratch.  The learning curve I’m on is tremendous, and I’m actually really enjoying exploring all the material I need to know in order to run my courses.  In the long run, this will serve me well.  In the short term, I feel like I’m trying to jog up Mount Everest.

Yesterday I took the whole day off from any academic work, and just focused on getting caught up around my house.  I finally got around to ordering wood for the winter (the main source of heat in this house!), and spent several hours moving and stacking the equivalent of three pick-up trucks worth of wood.  I had three more loads delivered today, which is waiting on the lawn.  I’m not sure my back is up to moving any more wood today, however.  Perhaps tomorrow.

I also emptied my composters, sifted out the good compost, turned what remained and put it back into the bins.  While doing so I went through my refrigerators and pulled out all the composting veggies I had never gotten around to cooking or preserving.  Such a waste, but there’s something very calming about looking at an empty fridge for me right now.  A full fridge screams food chores, and I feel guilty and tired just thinking about all that I *should* be doing.  Last week – for the first time – I didn’t even have time to process my milk.  Two liters of cream and 6 liters of beautiful, fresh milk, all went sour.  Fortunately the dogs and cats thought that was pretty delicious, so it don’t go completely to waste.  I have another milking waiting right now, but I will get to it today.  Just as soon as I finish un-burying my kitchen.  What a catastrophe!  But I did some work on that as well yesterday.  And again this morning.

While I don’t know where I am going to live past April, I am fairly certain that it won’t be here.  This is a beautiful place to spend the summer, but I shouldn’t be even staying here this winter.  The house is in such bad shape that it is becoming unhealthy.  One of my near-future chores will be to dismantle one of the bedrooms because the roof is leaking badly enough that things are going to start to mould in there.  I’ve been pestering the landlord to fix it since May, and a couple of weeks ago he said he simply was not going to do it.  I guess he’s just waiting for it to collapse completely.  That very well may happen – last winter the soffits blew off on the north side of the house, and the whole roof looks like a saddle.  Shingles end up all over the lawn every time a windstorm comes through.  So I need to get my stuff out, and seal it up that room, and hope the leak doesn’t spread.  I have to seal all my windows too, which makes me cringe.  You know how much I hate buying anything plastic, and I know of no other alternatives for sealing windows.  And there are a lot of windows in this house (one of it’s best features).

Just an aside, while I complain about the state of this house, I am sitting by the fire, looking out through a panorama of windows at a stunning valley of fall colours.  I live in a falling down shack, but I have a million dollar view and that really makes up for a lot!

Because I don’t know where I will be in the spring, I couldn’t bring myself to spread my nice compost on the gardens here.  Even with good soil, they produced very poorly, being too shaded.  So I put it in a large rubbermaid container and will tuck it away in the shed for now.  Likely I will bring it to my parents’ house for their gardens.  I have more or less commandeered the vegetable garden at their house, and last weekend planted garlic and onions while I was house & dog sitting for them.  I can’t seem to not grow something, even if I don’t have my own yard!  I didn’t get to eat much of what I planted this past summer but my family sure enjoyed what came up.  That made the effort very worth while.

One other important task I got done yesterday was getting my dried herbs into jars.  This is actually a fairly time-intensive process.  Between the herbs collected at my CSA, and the few that did well in my garden, I managed to harvest quite a good haul of rosemary, thyme, basil, sage, and mint.  I have a little oregano and Anise Hyssop as well.  And parsley.  I also have a nice little stash of camomile, lavender and calendula for teas.  I had bunches of all these things hanging around the house.  Now nicely dry, I had to pull the leaves off their branches – all done over a few sheets of clean paper – and then pour this into tightly sealing jars.  I didn’t preserve any herbs last winter and I really regretted that, so made it a priority this year.  Herb gardens are easy to get going and produce prolifically with little effort.  They also grow well in containers.  So while I didn’t get any veggies going this year, at least I accomplished this much.

Well, time to get down to my courses. I hope to finish up around 6pm tonight so that I can spend some time getting a nice venison stew going (thanks to the kind man who delivered my wood for the bonus of a couple of nice venison steaks!), and perhaps a pot of soup.  And of course a batch of cheese and butter.  I also have some red peppers cut up, waiting in the fridge to be turned into jelly.  If they haven’t started to rot, I hope to get to that too.  Next weekend, maybe I’ll get a chance to bake bread.  Fingers crossed!

The Other End(s) of the Food System

Stealing a few minutes to write here, although I should really be spending any writing time on my dissertation.  But hopefully this will get me warmed up!  I’m currently house sitting for my parents (in Niagara).  I brought academic work, and of course the animals, but being here means I can’t spend any break time doing stuff around the house.  This means I can do at least a little catching up on my poor blog!  Of course I did go to market this morning (downtown St. Catharines has a vibrant Saturday morning market, although it is shifting more and more towards non-farming vendors) and bought some veggies to make soup.  I brought with me about four liters of whey left over from cheese making this week and am going to turn it into a nice soup for lunches next week.

This week was yet another stretch of insanity.  While in September I was still able to get up in the morning, do some yoga, a few house chores and a little cooking, as well as more of the same in the evening, I am now rolling out of bed and hitting the books.  Days that I teach I am typically finishing up my lesson plan over breakfast, while days that I am home (which seem to be very few and far between of late), I am simply work.  And working.  I really have no idea how I’m going to survive next semester with another 30% increase in my workload.  But I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

While I don’t usually go to campus on Thursdays, this week I was invited to get a brief talk in celebration of World Food day.  As such, I headed off to campus to work there.  I got little done, being available to students and others who needed to talk with me.  The ‘talk’ was fun – only a handful of people showed up, so we sat on couches and discussed the struggles around shifting towards a more sustainable food system.  It was to be followed by a showing of the movie “Food Fight”, which I have never seen.  The trailer suggests that the movie is a big plug for eating local, based on improved taste.  It appears to imply that the transition is simple – just buy local.

I couldn’t have watched the trailer at a worse time.  Exhausted and cranky, it infuriated me.  This may be surprising, coming from a dedicated locavore.  And I need to watch the film to say anything further about the contents.  Likely it’s a wonderful movie, so what I have to say from here on in is not directed at the film.  It was just the spark that really set off a blaze in me that day.

What upsets me is the myth that is being perpetuated that if we simply buy local, we’ll solve all our problems around food.  I’m afraid to say it, but this is simply not the case.  Buying local is a very big step, and is very important, but it’s not the panacea many are making it out to be. The bottom line is, shifting our buying patterns – substituting one product for another – does nothing to address the source of the problem that is making our food system such a mess.  In short, it does not change, or even seriously challenge, the system at hand.

System is the key word here.  Wikipedia succinctly defines a ‘system’ as “a set of interacting or interdependent system components forming an integrated whole.”

Integrated whole.  This is what is overlooked when we focus on one part only.  When we talk about buying local, we are only looking at one of the ‘interdependent system components’ of the whole food system.  This food system does indeed include food producers; they are a major component.  But it also includes other components, such as animals, the environment, food workers, businesses, distributors, supermarkets and – very importantly – eaters.  For us to develop a truly sustainable food system (and by sustainable I mean a system that can carry on indefinitely), we need to address the sustainability of each of these (and others I have missed) system components.  Until we focus on all of these aspects, we are not going to effect change in any fundamental way.

There are some really important issues here that I will talk about in greater length at some point in the future.  For example, the importance of ecological sustainability in food production.  Just because food is produced locally doesn’t mean that it is ecologically better.  Much local food is still produced using harsh industrial methods, and toxic pesticides and herbicides.

Furthermore, local food doesn’t necessarily mean social sustainability.  Yes it helps local farms, and this is very important.  I buy just about all my food directly from really wonderful farmers and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But you have to do your homework and know what practices your purchasing is supporting.  This is easy at farmers markets, where you can ask the producer directly (or even visit their farms in many cases) but buying ‘local’ from the grocery store leaves open the possibility that your produce comes from large factory farms that employ migrant workers.  In some cases, these workers are forced to work under terrible conditions. In fact at times the term ’employ’ is barely applicable.  Right here in Southwestern Ontario there are migrant workers from Latin America & the Caribbean (and elsewhere) who are  forced to work under near-slave conditions.  I am only just learning about this and will write more as I become more knowledgeable.  But it’s shocking and needs to be addressed.  Just a few weeks ago, two such workers died of chemical exposure.  While the exploitation of migrant works is also true of non-local produce, my point is that buying ‘local’ does not guarantee that you avoid supporting this despicable practice.  For more info, read this, check out this website, or watch the documentary El Contrato.

In addition to these issues, what upset me so much on Thursday was the frustratingly unsustainable aspect of the role of the eater within the food system.  Sure ‘they’ are offering cooking courses and there’s plenty of noise around reclaiming cooking skills and doing basic canning and so on.  All wonderful in theory, but in practice it plays out quite differently.  Thursday morning I was rushing around my house, feeding my crew and myself, making cheese, trying to get some yogurt going and otherwise process the 9 liters of milk I had picked up the night before.  Ever try processing 9 liters of milk in 20 minutes?  Give it a try.  I guarantee it will make you VERY cranky.

I also realized that I had forgotten to take lunch out of the freezer the night before.  Lunch being a jar of ratatouille, the only thing I’ve managed to make in the last month.  Fortunately I made a gigantic batch and have eaten it for lunch and dinner ever since.  I love ratatouille (thank goodness), but this is getting ridiculous.  Eating the same thing day in and day out also is a contributing factor to being cranky, no matter how tasty it is.

I dashed off to campus, lunchless, milk fermenting away on my stove top, and bought my lunch at the cafeteria. Blech.  I ended up buying dinner out too.  That at least was better because I managed to wait until I left campus and went to a nice little independent restaurant that makes great Mexican food from scratch.  Letting my blood sugar drop makes me, you guessed it, cranky!

Friday I rolled out of bed, tossed the dogs outside, and poured my fermented milk into some cheese cloth to strain for the day.  I then desperately rushed about doing some basic cleaning of the disaster zone my kitchen has become, before dashing off to campus for the day.  Still cooking all meals from scratch (although an increasing number of meals have consisted of bread, butter, fresh cheese and milk), but without time to clean up, things are completely out of control.  My floors are disgusting, although kept somewhat clean by dogs who lick up the spills I have no time to mop.  I’d be mortified to have someone come in my house right now.

I arrived home at 6pm last night, packed, loaded the car and drove to Niagara for the weekend.  Before leaving I filled my composter with all the beautiful vegetables I had purchased over the last few weeks – hoping to cook and preserve them for the weeks and months to come – which were moldering away in my fridge.  Such a waste!  I did throw a bag of red peppers in my car, along with the jars of whey, two half dead leeks and 4 liters of cream (two of which are likely soured – perhaps I can make sour cream?) needing to be turned into butter.  Hopefully I can at least tackle that over the weekend.  At market I picked a few more items for soup.  Good thing I don’t mind simple eating.

I am exhausted and frustrated, but stubborn and determined.  Because I am a ridiculous idealist, and because I know too much to give up and go back to industrial food, I will persevere.  But few of sound mind would take this on I’m sure.  Perhaps if you have supportive family members who can pitch in and help out, for certainly year-round local eating is a multi-person job, it might be easier to sustain while working and having the semblance of a social life.  But for the most part how I eat is not feasible for most people.  My friend Angela, who stayed with me this summer, called this week to say she’s going insane trying to make dinner from scratch for her family every night.  She doesn’t want to give up either, but is spending just about every minute of her day not spent working or managing her kids, doing food-related work.

Our current food system both dictates, and sustains, our frantic lifestyles.  As a society, we work too much and have too many other demands on our time to allow food to return to being the central focus that it needs to be.  And until it is, the food system will not change.

The bottom line, at least in my humble opinion, is that until we address all components of the whole food system, until we make food production both environmentally and socially responsible and sustainable, and until we restructure our society such that we make it a priority for people to have the time not only to cook but to can, freeze, preserve, ferment and root cellar (as well as to learn all of these practices) we will not have a sustainable food system.  Simply buying ‘local’ is not enough.