Slow Living

Architecture by studio OLKRÜF

Until I lived in a ten-foot-wide row house, I never thought about how the size of my living space affected my consumerism. With little room for much and no storage space, B and I had to get rid of a lot of stuff when we moved in, and we got used to looking away when an awesome piece of furniture caught our attention.

Now, after nine years in this little house, I realize that while my dream house is a little wider and has more shelves and closets, I don’t ever want a huge space. I don’t have people to fill it; I don’t want to spend time cleaning it or paying for the heat and air conditioning; and I don’t need to fill it with unnecessary things. Not that you have to do any of that with a large home, but what’s that saying…nature abhors a vacuum? We seem to fill whatever space we have.

Graham Hill, a wealthy serial entrepreneur, learned this for himself. In a piece for the New York Times, he describes how, before the age of 30 and flush with cash, he bought a large home in a tony Seattle neighborhood and hired a personal shopper to help him fill it. Before long, he was plagued with the stress of so much stuff:

My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for.

Hill says it took 15 years of travel and falling in love to cure him of his need for stuff. Still successful, he now lives in a small studio apartment with six dress shirts, 10 bowls, and a fold-down bed. He says his space is small but his life is big:

Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.

I like material things as much as anyone. I studied product design in school. I’m into gadgets, clothing and all kinds of things. But my experiences show that after a certain point, material objects have a tendency to crowd out the emotional needs they are meant to support.

Reading Hill’s words got me thinking again about what kind of house I want to live in next, and the kind of consumer I want to be. It also made me realize that the home we have now could be used more efficiently, and be less cluttered and better organized. So I don’t have to wait: I can learn to live better in the space I have right now.

What about you? Could you live in a much smaller space with much less stuff? Could you imagine pairing down as much as Hill did?

Image: Haus Rüscher (designed by OLKRÜF) in de zeen magazine


by Alissa Lively


In my first post for SlowMama, I talked about the cyclical nature of living with children and how it can sometimes be a difficult adjustment. I must have been in a pretty positive place at the time, though, because I was working on enjoying that cycle and the little people that keep things constantly moving.

But, as I mentioned, life is cyclical, and this winter found me in a slightly less uplifted frame of mind. I realized that I’ve been backsliding into my old attitude of getting things done in spite of my children, instead of with and for them.

Unfortunately, I only had this realization in the middle of planning my five-year-old’s birthday party. As I was running here and there doing errands to make this party happen, the birthday girl was waiting at home, because I wanted to bang out as many stops as I could with as little distraction as possible.

When I finally gave in to her requests to come with me, we had so much fun picking out plates and napkins and oohing and ahhing over our pretty invitations that I forgot how much faster I’d be getting this errand done, or how more quickly I could be in and out of that store, if I were by myself. Instead, I was enjoying the little girl that all the effort was for and remembering why I wanted to celebrate her life thus far.

I’d love to tell you that my wake-up call brought about a lasting change in my attitude, but even in the completion of said birthday party preparations, I reverted back to my old stand-by of “you kids run and play so I can just get this done.”

So in an attempt to refocus my approach, I’ve started making small (read: heroic) efforts to incorporate my children into more of my daily activities, rather than treat them as impediments to finishing those activities. Some of my recent successes have been: including them in making our meals (chopping what they can, getting things from the fridge); cleaning up around the house (they’re obsessed with washing windows and dusting); and, most heroic of all, allowing one of my daughters to “help” me with the painting of our living room. Granted, her painting was of stick figures on the wall before I rolled over it, but we had a blast being together. I’ve noticed (again) that it’s more fun to embrace the chaotic and less-productive process with my kids than to ignore them in order to “just get it done.”

As our spring break draws to a close and the last leg of the school year looms, I hope that I can keep these changes in mind during the return to our regularly scheduled programming. Wish me luck! Or just give me advice: Do any of you dear readers have any thoughts/tricks/words of wisdom for me? How do you keep your kids involved and your lives running smoothly? I’d love to learn from your experiences!

Image: Alissa Lively


by Ann Waterman


In January, we said goodbye to our hip and sporty SUV and embraced the patently uncool minivan: Hello automatic doors, rear back-up camera, bluetooth phone, and room aplenty! Besides, being cool doesn’t matter when you have more cup holders than passenger capacity.

As much as I love all the family-friendly features our van boasts, the one feature we opted not to get was the television entertainment package (much to my seven-year-old’s disappointment). Part of the reason was financial — the upgrade would have cost more than we wanted to spend — but the other, more important reason was that we wanted to avoid requests to turn on the TV every time we got in the van. I’m not anti-TV, but I am anti-TV-all-the-time, and my husband and I felt it would be best for our family to simply steer clear of the temptation entirely. Besides, in the time we’ve gotten by without a television in our vehicles, we’ve discovered the wonderful world of audio books and great music to entertain the kids — why would we want to mess with such a good thing?

I picked up my first audio book while perusing the shelves at my local library. My son really loved being read to, and I thought he might enjoy listening to some stories while we ran errands around town. Boy, was I right! As soon as we came to end of the audio book, my son enthusiastically asked if I’d play it again. And again. And again. I counted down the days until the return date so we could pick up more audio books (for both our sakes).

Since that time, we’ve listened to many different books, as well as some really great kid’s music that even my husband and I enjoy. Our audio system serves a larger purpose than simply entertaining the kids, though: It’s become an important part of after-school learning (even though our kids would never think of it in those terms). Many of the audio selections we’ve chosen cover history, classic literature, and music education, but they’re presented in such an engaging manner that my kids eat it up — and mom and dad find themselves learning a thing or two along the way. Here are a few of our favorite audio picks for kids:

Rabbit Ears Listening Library — For classic stories and fairy tales narrated by great voices such as John Hurt, Denzel Washington, and Meryl Streep, check out this fantastic audio series. It delighted both my kids and me.

51nEfAT9YwL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX285_SY380_CR,0,0,285,380_SH20_OU01_ Tubby the Tuba — I used to love listening to this story (on vinyl, no less) about a tuba trying to be more than just the accompaniment in his orchestra and was thrilled to share it with my kids. It’s a nice way to introduce kids to orchestral instruments and the sounds they make.

The Story of the World — This is a four-volume series narrated by Jim Weiss (whose voice has been described as “liquid gold” by CNN-TV) that covers history from the nomads up to modern times and was specifically created for children. I was fully prepared for my son to declare it boring, but much to my surprise, he ate it up and listened to the 7- disc set of volume 1 (nomads to the fall of the Roman empire) about ten times over — I kid you not. He was into the series so much that he wanted to name his baby brother Julius Caesar (Theseus was a close second). Jim Weiss’s narration is captivating, and even my husband and I couldn’t wait to get in the car just so we could listen to it — well, at least on the first round.

Human history can be brutal at times, so you may want to use some parental discretion and be prepared to have some discussions with your kids about why people act the way they do. My son was 6 the first time we listened to the series, and while he had some questions that generated some good discussions, he was comfortable with the material.


Beethoven’s Wig — A musical friend recommended this series that grafts witty lyrics onto great classical masterpieces. The lyrics tell you a bit about each song’s composer and highlight certain unique characteristics of the song. It’s a little zany, but it will leave you and your kids in stitches and a little more educated about classical music.

Putumayo Kids — Let’s be honest: Some kids’ music makes you want to poke your eyes out (or at least pop in some ear plugs). This globally inspired series must have been created with adults in mind, because I’ve enjoyed every CD I’ve listened to. Each disc highlights music from a different culture and features lots of international artists. The music is fun, beautiful, and is a great opportunity to introduce your kids to different languages and countries.

We’re always looking to expand our audio collection. Do your kids have any favorites?

Images: Ann Waterman, Amazon



Before having her baby, Ann wrote about her hardest trimester of pregnancy — the fourth: those few months after the baby is born when everything is chaotic and out of sync and you’re all-consumed with the needs of a newborn. She mentioned — as did numerous commenters — that she hates asking for help, which is another reason the newborn days can be hard.

It got me thinking about this whole notion of asking for help — something so many of us find difficult to do. I know it’s certainly been true for me, though I’ve gotten better over the years. This past year in particular I made huge strides, as I had to ask for — and receive — help in some significant ways.

Most moms I know have a hard time asking for help — heck, pretty much everyone I know does. Why is this? I have a few theories. Personality comes into play: Some people are very independent and feel better when they can do everything themselves. Others are private and uncomfortable with having people in their personal space or “knowing their business.” Most of us just don’t like the idea of imposing on or burdening others, and we assume that asking for help fits that category.

Past experience can also deter us. If you’re an oldest child who’s used to being in control (ahem), asking for help doesn’t come naturally. And if asking for or receiving help in the past has been painful for you, it can be hard to go there again.

But I think a big part of our hangups about asking for help is cultural. In our society, it’s considered a weakness to need help; it’s interpreted as being incapable or irresponsible. In other cultures, needing others isn’t a weakness but simply a part of what it means to be human, a member of a family and a community. In fact, it would be considered rude and strange not to receive help in many cultures, especially during  a time of high stress, like a birth or illness.

If we truly believe in building more close-knit families and communities, it’s important to ask for help — and to receive it willingly. Depending on each other this way brings us closer, helps us learn from one another, teaches us humility, and makes us more grateful. I learned so much from the generosity of others this past year; it changed me and (hopefully) will make be a better neighbor, friend, sister, and parent for years to come.

What have you learned from asking for help? What makes it easier for you to ask for — and receive — assistance?

Image: Neil Krug


by Margaret Cabaniss


It seems like every few years a new study makes the rounds about how people with children are less happy than their child-free counterparts. According to an article by Emily Esfahani Smith in the Atlantic, that may well be true — but it misses an important point about what makes life worth living:

“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” [social psychologist Roy] Baumeister told me in an interview.

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

This is definitely true. Sherbet makes me happy, but it’s not going to give my life meaning or get me out of bed each morning. (Well, it might if I were Alissa, I don’t know.) More:

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.” [emphasis added]

Again, this makes perfect sense to me. No parent would say he or she necessarily enjoys the daily struggles and infinite little frustrations involved in raising children — but no parent I can think of would say that it isn’t worth every minute.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the child-free (like, uh, myself) lead meaningless lives. As Baumeister says, it’s a human impulse to reach out to others, to want to care for one another and contribute to the common good beyond ourselves — and that can look different for every person. Faith, family, service work, research, community engagement…we all find that meaning in a variety of different ways, and in ways that require us to move beyond our own pleasure or comfort to something deeper, more permanent.

It’s an insight that resonates with the idea of slow living: that we can find greater fulfillment in connecting with the people and world around us, which requires us to approach them with more care and mindfulness — and that even the smallest pleasures, by slowing down to enjoy them, can in turn point us back to those deeper truths.

The article closes with a final thought from Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist whose time in a Nazi concentration camp led him to these insights about the importance of meaning:

The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”

Read the whole thing here. Do those studies about parenting and happiness-versus-fulfillment ring true for you?

Image: Instagram user aquinus


by Abby Scharbach


As a homeschooling mama, my new year really begins in September when I brush the packing peanuts off my new curricula and carefully list my resolutions for the school year ahead. September is always full of hope and promise — but by the time January rolls around, I’m clutching to what’s left of my school-year resolutions as the hot rod of time accelerates. Somewhere in the midst of soccer, carpooling, baby naps, visiting relatives, holidays, and many, many meals, I lose my compass. January’s new year gives me a chance to pull over for a pit stop and ask myself: What did I want to accomplish this year?

Because I’m perpetually looking for new methods to make life with nine work well, I picked up a present for myself while Christmas shopping: a little book by Mary Carlomagno called Secrets of Simplicity.

Carlomagno challenges her readers to let go of some things in order to accomplish the new. For every activity I want to add to my life, I should have a corresponding thing to remove in order to make room for it.

Is this why New Year’s resolutions don’t work? Most of us want physical fitness, deeper relationships, creative work, and on and on, but we don’t take anything off our already full plates to make room for the new goals.

Above is a recent picture from a walk I took with three of my kids. I set aside my to-do list and fulfilled a promise to them: to take them bike riding that day. In the city, they can’t set out on bikes by themselves (like I did as a country-living kid), so I planned to load them into the car and go to a county park with a bike loop — but my eldest daughter’s midterms got in the way, and we didn’t make it. It was tempting to put the bike ride off; after all, the day didn’t go as planned, and there was dinner to make. But their bikes were by the front door, and their anticipation was palpable, so I squeezed a local bike ride in before dinner and work — and it was probably the best thing I did all week. The air was balmy, and the city was quiet as night fell. It was just the break from busyness that my soul needed — and as a bonus, I got to spend time with my littles. This is exactly the kind of thing I resolve to do more of this year.

How about you?  What can you take off your plate to make room for the goals that are important to you?

Image: Abby Scharbach. Abby is a homeschooling mama of seven based in Baltimore, MD.


by Ann Waterman

Ask any kid what most excites him about Christmas, and gifts are bound to be at the top of the list. There’s no question that gift-giving — and receiving — is one of the joys of the season, especially for kids, but it’s hard not to feel totally overwhelmed and bombarded by store retailers making it the whole reason for the season. If you’re like me, you’re probably trying to insulate your child from the  commercialization of the holidays and help them focus on the more meaningful aspects of Christmas. Here are a few ideas about how to do that:

Gifts of Self

Christmas is the season of giving, but we all know the best gift you can give is the gift of self — and it’s never too early to start teaching children this lesson. In our family, we sit down at the beginning of the season and write down little deeds of charity that we try to accomplish during the Christmas season (and hopefully beyond). For kids, it could be something like doing chores without complaining or making an extra effort to be nice to a sibling. We place them in an olive wood box from Bethlehem until the end of the holidays when we review them once again to see how we fared. They are personal and private, but the act of writing them down makes them more tangible.

There are lots of other ideas for directing children’s attention to the needs and happiness of others: volunteering with them at a food bank, having them make gifts for siblings or other family members, or making some cookies to bring over to an elderly neighbor. It doesn’t have to be something big, just something that helps them give of themselves.

Make Them Wait

Before opening presents on Christmas morning, my parents made us sit down and eat breakfast first. I used to think this was a special form of torture my parents derived to torment us — I swear it was the only time of year they had a second cup of coffee in the morning — but as I got older, I saw the wisdom of my parent’s ways. It took our mind off the gifts and helped us focus on what was more important — spending time with family. The wait was made more bearable with special breakfast fare, and as we grew older, we actually came to enjoy this Christmas morning routine.

Now that I have my own family, we have our own tradition of gathering before our creche, placing baby Jesus in the manager, and saying a little family prayer together before the gift opening revelry begins. Sure, the kids are writhing with impatience through the whole affair, but as they get older, I hope they’ll appreciate this little reminder of what our family is really celebrating.

Give Them Traditions 

Many of the gifts you give your kids will be forgotten by next Christmas, but they will cherish memories of special family traditions for years to come. Make a point to create a few family traditions during the season: They don’t have to be many or extravagant, but something you find enjoyable and that you can maintain year to year. I learned pretty quickly that you can run yourself ragged trying to implement too many traditions, especially during such a busy time, so I’ve pared down them down to just a few that are especially meaningful to our family. Your family traditions could be as simple as watching a favorite holiday movie together, gathering to light an Advent wreath each evening, or spending an afternoon making a gingerbread house — even if it’s pre-fab (promise I won’t tell). The point is to spend time with your children and create memories of the holidays that are more than just opening gifts on Christmas morning.

Manage Expectations

It’s helpful for kids to know boundaries and limits ahead of time, so why not apply this same wisdom to gift-giving as well? We tell our kids that Saint Nick brings three gifts — just like the Magi brought to the baby Jesus. There are also stockings and gifts from relatives, but our kids know what to expect and there are never any tears on Christmas morning. Obviously, what and how much you give to your children is a personal decision and will vary from family to family, but consider sticking to a specific budget or amount.

How do you make the Christmas season meaningful for your kids?

Image: Joseph Susanka


Slow Living for Sale

November 14, 2012

Chicken Coop

Have you seen Williams-Sonoma’s new product line Agrarian? It features beautifully made chicken coops, beehives, cheese-making kits, hammered copper jam pans, hand-crank grain mills, heirloom seeds, fruit trees, and many other things your wannabe slow-living heart might desire. Of course, it will set you back a pretty penny, but Williams-Sonoma isn’t exactly the place for discount shoppers.

Mainstream businesses who cater to consumers with disposable cash are capitalizing on a trend they can’t ignore: Whether you call it slow living, simplifying, back to basics, or something else entirely, there’s a newfound appreciation for quality craftsmanship, locally sourced products, DIY projects, and traditional ways of living. Of course, calling it a “trend” is misleading, since this impulse has been around for ages, but you know it’s hit the mainstream when Williams-Sonoma is peddling such wares.

Some people find this commercialization of slow living a bit comical, especially given that most Americans still don’t cook from scratch, claiming that they’re too busy. But my feeling is: Why not? These buyers might not be hardcore homesteaders, but every little bit helps. As an urbanite who’s had to admit she’s not cut out for the farming life, I can relate to picking and choosing what I’m going to incorporate into my routine. I experiment with things, and sometimes I fail miserably (completing a knitting project, anyone?).

So if a family in a tony suburb decides to buy a cheese-making kit from Williams-Sonoma and give it a try, more power to them. If a busy professional decides to try canning or baking something herself, I say good for her. The fact is, the tenets of slow living are still foreign to many people, but by experimenting and trying new things, it may lead to bigger lifestyle changes down the road.

Still, I’m guessing there won’t be boatloads of people buying the $1,299 chicken coop from Williams-Sonoma (though they do carry one for $399!). Those larger purchases require more commitment, so I imagine the real winners will be the canning kits, gadgets, colored twine, and seeds.

But what the heck, let’s play along: What would be on your Christmas wish list? Please tell Santa I want that hand-crank grain mill.

Image: Williams-Sonoma, via Edible Stories


Autumn Fever

September 20, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

Tomorrow is the last official day of summer, but the weather around here has already started feeling like fall. Usually, this would make me a bit antsy — I love fall, but I hate saying goodbye to summer – but this year, I’m actually embracing it. Maybe it’s because I did a bunch of summer frolicking this year, so I feel like I sufficiently carpe-ed that diem and am ready to move on… Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the change.

To get us all in the proper falltime mood, I poked around Pinterest to find a few things that are making me really excited for fall:

The colors. See above. I mean, come on.

The clothes. Plaid, jeans, and wooly socks — my favorite falltime uniform. I may have already started wearing flannel on days when it’s really still too warm for it, because you can’t stop me.

This smell. Enough said.

Being outside. Don’t get me wrong, I love the summer sun — but it’s also nice to get out and enjoy a bike or a hike every now and then without worrying about passing out from heat stroke. Plus I just love the feeling of being warm when the air around you is chilly and crisp. (Pro tip: A small flask of whiskey brought along on fall hikes really helps with the whole feeling-warm thing.)

The food. Yes, it’s an old joke by now that everyone loses their mind for pumpkin-flavored everything this time of year. And you know why? Because pumpkin-flavored everything is awesome. These pumpkin ravioli with browned butter, rosemary, and thyme (from Marshalls Abroad) are calling my name.

No, seriously: the food. Finally, it’s cool enough to warrant baking around the clock! I think I’ll start with these mini pumpkin spice donuts from Blue-Eyed Bakers.

Also, the drinks. Spiced chai. Mulled cider. The aforementioned whiskey. It is on.

What about you: Are you a fall lover? What’s your favorite part of the season?

Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


by Margaret Cabaniss

After a lovely couple of weeks visiting with my sister and her newly minted baby, I’m packing up to head home tomorrow. I’ll be back again soon, I know, but it’s times like these when I fantasize about being able to live just down the road from all my nearest and dearest, so that we’d never have to have these partings in the first place.

It just so happens that, in this Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, writer Jennifer Conlin talks about how her globetrotting family recently made a similar choice: After she and her husband suddenly lost their jobs, they not only moved back to her childhood hometown, they actually moved in with her retired parents and recently out-of-work brother.

It sounds like the setup for a bad sitcom, but Conlin says she’s been surprised by how well their new multigenerational living situation is working out:

My children did not want to leave their grandparents, who give them firsthand accounts on history homework and a nonjudgmental shoulder to lean on. Nor did my parents want to lose the tech support (the children have taught them to use e-mail and Skype) or their link to the latest lingo (I almost died when my mother said “junk” instead of “privates” when discussing the Anthony Weiner scandal with me).

I don’t know if my confirmed-bachelor brother will stay indefinitely, but I also don’t see why he would leave. Like a Victorian-age family, we cook and clean for the oldest male sibling, while he contributes to the household bills, calmly teaches my children how to drive and plays basketball with them in the driveway on weekends. I now see how smart multigenerational immigrant families have been throughout history.

I can definitely relate to Conlin’s story: It wasn’t that long ago when my own job situation suddenly shifted underneath me, and my living arrangements with it. Right when I was contemplating the possibility of having to scramble to find something, anything that would keep me afloat through the rough patch, my sister Amy and her family invited me to come live with them while I sorted myself out. After ten years of single life in the city, I was about to embrace family life in the country.

It could have felt like a massive step backwards (just to complete the picture, the room I moved into actually is in their basement), but what I felt instead was gratitude — that I had such wonderful family I could lean on, and a new place of stability I could work from. What’s more, Amy made it clear from the beginning that the gratitude thing was a two-way street: When I moved in, she suddenly had an extra set of hands to help make dinner, run errands, and entertain her recently expanded brood (which, according to her, is kind of a big deal). As a single person used to living more or less for myself, I suddenly felt like I had a real and important role to play in this new arrangement of ours; I wasn’t just a visitor, or someone wrapped up solely in my own little life, but a valued member of the larger family.

It’s funny, then, that this would feel like a lifestyle that needs defending today, when it was common just a generation ago (and still is, among immigrant families and other cultures around the world); my own parents grew up with extended family members in the house. And yet this article was published in the Times‘ “fashion” section, as if this were some exotic life choice or hot new trend she’s talking about here. Now, with the economy and housing market looking like they do, we may see it become the new normal again — and maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, my long-term plan was never to take up permanent residence in my sister’s house, as Conlin’s family did — and the arrangement still does come with its own complications and struggles, just like anything. Some family members have different values; others live or work too far away to make this a reality; and sometimes relationships within our families just work better with a little bit of space. Maybe I don’t want to stuff all of my family together under one roof; I’d settle for having them all just down the road…

How about you? Did you grow up with extended family in the house, or do you live with other family members now? If so, what did you learn from it? If not, does the idea appeal to you at all?

Image via Awkward Family Photos. Dressing in matching leopard-print pajamas may be just one sign that you and your family are a little too close…