Monday, 19 March 2012

It's All Relative

Today was Good Food Box day, something I usually write about at Aunt B on a Budget.  It’s here at B on Balance today because it’s got me thinking about gratitude, and about relative degrees of wealth.

Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of grumpy about our food.  Every time I open the fridge, I’m greeted by the same few vegetables.  Our budget demands that we eat whatever produce is most affordable, and that usually translates to what is seasonally available.  At the far end of winter here in Canada, that ain’t much.  Lots of root vegetables and cabbage in our diets these days.

Our monthly Good Food Box purchases provide most of our fresh vegetables.  These boxes provide tremendous value.  We purchased two of them this month.  The contents of one are pictured above.  For $20.00 we received ten pounds of potatoes, six pounds of carrots, ten pounds of onions, two heads of lettuce, two packages of snap peas, two bunches of celery, two heads of green cabbage, six pounds of apples, six pears, and twelve oranges.

My reaction to the contents?  I'm so tired of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage!  I would kill for some asparagus!  Some fresh rhubarb! 

I won’t pretend that this is admirable but it's how I've been feeling.  I’m a pretty good cook and open to new ideas.  I actively seek out new ways to prepare familiar ingredients.  But I’m bored.  I’m longing for the flavours of spring.  Local strawberries seem like a distant dream to me.  Boiled new potatoes with mint, sandwiches dressed with pea tendrils, Easter Egg radishes; I hunger for them all.  It's not what I sat down to write about though.  

This afternoon I came across a video about a man in India who, as the result of an encounter with a starving man, put aside his job and made feeding and caring for the less fortunate around him his life’s work.  I looked at some of the emaciated people in that short film and realized that there are a great many people would measure me as very wealthy indeed.

I have enough food to eat every day and it’s nutritious, tasty food at that.  An inconceivable number people are hungry.  Even within our community I know people for whom, for at least part of each month, a single bowl of canned soup and a tuna sandwich served at the food bank is the only meal of the day.

I have a roof over my head, and not just any roof.  My home is comfortable, warm, and even quite pretty.  I live in a safe neighbourhood, rich in trees and blessed with parkland, yet I know people right here in town who can barely manage the rent on a single room.  I know that my home is palatial compared to the shelters in which most of the world’s people spend their entire lives.

I have safe, clean drinking water piped directly into my home.  Increasingly, this is a luxury in much of the world.

I receive regular medical care; something denied to the majority of the world's population.

The realization of my comparative wealth is not new to me, nor am I saying a single thing that is new to any of my readers.  Why, then, am I writing this at all?

Because I needed the reminder.

It’s not wrong to long for the flavours of spring.  When they come, I’ll appreciate them all the more for having waited to taste them, but it’s important—no, essential—that I understand the worth of what I have.  In much of the world the contents of those Good Food Boxes would seem like an amazing blessing.  And they are.  And I need to remember that.

Saturday, 17 March 2012


These are my hands.  They’re not pretty but, for as long as I can remember, they’ve looked like this.  Okay, maybe not so wrinkled in years past, but I’ve always kept my nails short and my hands have always shown signs of hard use.  Skinned knuckles, cuts, burns, scrapes—they’ve all been there; testimony to the fact that I use my hands a lot.

To be honest, I never really gave much thought to pretty hands.  For much of my life, the idea that hands could be viewed as objects of beauty didn’t even occur to me.

I can clearly remember the first time I understood that some people place importance on the appearance of their hands:  

I was in my middle thirties and I’d gone out shopping with a friend.  I’d just paid for a small purchase and was walking away from the till when my friend remarked, “I’ll bet it really upset her that she broke that nail.”

It struck me as odd that my friend had noticed the clerk’s broken nail and that she’d thought it important enough to remark upon it.  I hadn’t noticed it.  I hadn’t even looked at the clerk’s hands.  Then I looked at my friend’s hands.  I saw perfectly manicured nails, smooth skin, and pretty rings.  The penny dropped.

When I’m interacting with people, I focus on their faces.  When I walk away, I can almost always tell you the colour of a person’s eyes and hair.  I can often describe their manner of speech and identify their accents.  I can tell you if they made eye contact with me, if they said please and thank you, and—if it’s a business transaction—assess the quality of the customer service I’ve received.  I often notice if they are tired, frustrated, patient, polite, hard working (or not), enthusiastic, or thorough.  I sometimes notice what they’re wearing.  But can I describe their hands?  Pretty nearly never. I have no idea if their nails are long or short, if they are wearing rings, if their hands are delicate and pretty, or utilitarian like mine.

This may be because I’m not a person who gives a great deal of thought to her appearance.  I try to be a slob and I do like to dress in a manner that’s appropriate to my social situation, but I don’t go to the salon or spa, I don’t wear make up, and I spend as little money as possible on my clothing.  I’m not criticizing people who do spend time and money on this stuff—more power to you if you care to make the effort and can find the time to do it—it’s just not important to me.

A person who looked at my un-pretty hands might surmise that I work them hard, and they’d be right.  I’m blessed with a great curiosity about the world around me and that curiosity manifests itself in a desire to learn about, see, and make new things.  I always have several projects underway.  My hands are busy cooking, and painting, and sewing, and building, and, cutting, and sanding, and gluing, and typing.  They work in unison with my eyes when I’m taking photos , or drawing, or making art.  They work in unison with my heart when I’m preparing food, making gifts, or providing care.  They are the tools with which I express the person that I am.

Lately I’ve been thinking more about hands.  My own are less reliable than they used to be and it’s caused me to take them less for granted.  Now I find myself looking at other people’s hands. 

I notice the width of my husband’s hands.  I see the scars on his fingers, the age spots, and the blunt nails.

I notice that my younger daughter’s hands are quite beautiful, with graceful long fingers and soft skin.

I notice my niece’s fingers, still rounded with childhood, and how—like mine—they busy themselves with projects and crafts.

I notice the near transparent skin of the elderly woman waiting beside me at the doctor’s office; how a tracery of blue veins maps the backs of her hands, and how her wedding ring fits loosely on her finger.

Marvellous, miraculous tools, these hands.  I’m glad I notice them more these days, and grateful for how well mine have served me.

Special thanks to Laurel Gedge-Perez for the photo.

Friday, 9 March 2012

On Soap and Patience

Sometimes I learn life lessons in the most unexpected ways.  Take liquid hand soap for example.  The last thing I expected as I learned to make it was a tangible lesson in expectations and patience, but there you go:  You take your lessons where you find them.

We’re on a pretty tight budget these days.  I'm always on the lookout for new means of getting by while spending less money.  The Internet is a big help to me in this regard.  There are lots of other families out there facing similar challenges, and they’re busy blogging about it; sharing ideas and recipes that will help make ends meet.  It’s a great resource.

One day, as I was browsing through Pinterest, I came across a blog on how to make liquid hand soap at home.   It first caught my eye because the photos are quite beautiful, and when I read the text I thought, “What a good idea! I can do this.”  

Do you ever make an impulse buy and then keep whatever it is you bought on hand even though you don’t really have a use for it?  I did that with some locally made sage and blackberry soap. Because I loved the fragrance, it had been sitting in a jar in the bathroom cupboard for more than a year.  We rarely use bar soap for washing our hands though, and never use scented soap in the tub or shower, so it wasn’t serving any purpose at all to keep it there.

I decided to turn that sage and blackberry soap into a batch of liquid soap.  The blog I found on Pinterest said that a single bar of soap would make a large quantity of liquid soap, so this idea would be frugal in two ways:  I’d be reducing household waste by making use of that impulse purchase, and I’d be getting liquid soap at a lower cost than when I buy it ready made.

The ingredient list for the liquid soap was pretty simple:  A bar of soap, some glycerine, and some water.  The blog suggested that I could buy the glycerine for $2.00 or less and that I use filtered tap water.  Further research on line suggested that distilled water would be a wiser choice than tap water because it would give the soap a longer shelf life.  There are only two of us here.  Longer shelf life seemed an important attribute. 

I set out to the store with $5.00 in hand and ended up coming home to get more money.  The glycerine cost $3.19, plus tax, and four litres of distilled water cost $1.99.

I noticed that two litres of my favourite commercially made liquid hand soap was on sale for $3.88. I was beginning to question the cost of my experiment but I was committed now and would follow through.

With my ingredients on hand, I set to work.  I brought 10 cups of water to a boil, removed it from the heat and stirred in a cup of grated soap (grated on my box grater) and a tablespoon of glycerine.  Then I waited for it to cool.

The blog I was working from told me that, as the soap cooled to room temperature, it would thicken into the slithery consistency of a commercial liquid soap, but at room temperature mine was watery. 

Perhaps I did something wrong. 

Perhaps I used too much water. 

Hoping to achieve a thicker consistency, I heated it back up and added another cup of shredded soap and another tablespoon of glycerine. 

At this point, the cost of my experimental soap was creeping ever closer to the cost of the sale soap at the store, and it still had a watery consistency.  Unwilling to throw good money after bad, I put the soap aside thinking, “We’ll use it anyway but I won’t make it again.”

Then a curious thing happened.  

Overnight, the soap thickened into a semi-solid mass.

Walking away from that soap for a few hours turned out to be exactly the right thing to do.  It needed time to set up.

Because of the extra shredded bar soap and glycerine I'd added, the finished soap was so thick that I couldn’t pour it through a funnel.  I transferred some to a pump bottle to see if it would pump, thinking that if it was too thick for the pump to work I’d put it back in the pot and stir in some more boiling water.  Despite its curious viscosity though, the thickened soap worked well in the pump bottle and felt almost identical on my hands to the liquid soap I buy at the store.

Would I make it again?  


There was enough glycerine in that bottle to make at least two more batches of soap, and there was some distilled water left over.  If you were planning to make it this soap in a large batch and store it, three bars of soap, two bottles of distilled water, and a single bottle of glycerine would yield you about thirty cups of liquid soap.  Choosing a less expensive bar soap would greatly reduce the cost of the finished product.  

Broken down for cost using Ivory bar soap (on sale this week for $0.87/bar), that thirty-cup batch of liquid soap would cost me $9.78, plus taxes.  That’s quite a lot of soap for the price.

And the life lesson?

That was the most valuable part of this whole process.

I was reminded that things don’t always work out the way you expect them to right away.  Sometimes they require a little time.  Don’t give up on something just because it doesn’t immediately appear to be what you wanted.  Sometimes, if you wait, it turns out just the way it should.
original soap recipe courtesy of Altelier Cecilia Rosslee
label source: