Monthly Archives: December 2013

Although “the holidays” are quickly slipping past, books are a form of holiday that are readily accessible at all times of the year. (You may want to set aside one of your days off to read this post; as fair warning–it’s rather long.) A friend of a friend on Facebook recently posted about “the 10 books that have stayed with me” and, as a result, I started to think about the 10 books that have stayed with me. 

There’s a part of me that would like to be shaped fully by the Western canon, but that wouldn’t do justice to many of the most important themes in my life. Instead, I find that many of the books that have stuck with me the most are “children’s literature,” not really classic literature (though some are deemed “children’s classics”). They are books that present role models, figures whose actions and character traits I can aspire to, but whose inherent characteristics are not so far from my own. It’s not that I need middle-class white American heroines to rule the day, but I am more likely to believe that I, too, could do something wonderful if a character much like myself–even a fictional character–has gone before me and done it.

This is the question of representation, which is a tricky thing to talk about. School often shines a bright light on this issue. In third grade, I was the only non-Catholic in my year, the only non-Catholic out of 75 kids (and one of only a handful in the entire school). Lutheranism is significantly different from a theological standpoint, but the difference is relatively minor in a larger context. Yet it was still clear that I was The Other, and not only during the most overt moments of differentiation like when I would go up to the Eucharist with my arms crossed, mummy-style, over my chest.

In other years, I would feel a different pang when I went to the houses of much wealthier friends. I might be the one getting the starring role in the school play, but I wasn’t the one going home to the two-story columnar aquarium so large that it had to be cleaned by professional scuba divers. Surrounded by a circular marble staircase leading down to the full-size basement arcade. In school, you are not in “the larger context,” you are in a specific group of people and while the metrics change, there is always measuring up.

There is a sense in which I benefit from structural racism as a white person, but this has never been the dominant narrative of my own past as I think of it. Instead, I think of immigration and industrialization. Though my parents both have post-secondary degrees, that’s extremely unusual in my family; many if not most in their generation didn’t go to college at all. Higher education is still a serious question in my extended family, and that’s often stood in stark contrast to the families of many students I’ve been in school with. While that’s not a problem for me, it presents me with a different perspective from many of the people I’ve found to be my peers, as does being female, as does being white, being an American citizen, etc.

It is not necessary to fit the exact same demographic as a fictional character to be able to enjoy their story. Empathy is developed partly by finding links between ourselves and others we perceive to be different from ourselves. The links are always there; we are all human. But part of human nature–in ‘real life’ as in the schoolyard–is finding our own tribes and sticking to them. Fiction can help us be more empathetic. But for hope, and possibly for action, we need to see ourselves in some way.

The books that have really stuck with me have struck a chord in me somehow. Looking over the list, I can see major elements of myself in the various protagonists. At the same time, I find myself stumbling over ideas presented in these narratives in my own real life. I wonder how possible these ideas–and actions–would have been without early naissance in well-written works. Much as I’d like to be able to take credit for my better characteristics, I think a more accurate acknowledgement would go to the people I’ve met and the books I’ve read.

And the books I’ve read? Beginning in 2007 with a New Year’s Resolution I’ve actually managed to keep, I have maintained a list of all the books I have read since then. As I write this, the number is 283. More importantly, I can remember a few of them. But most of the books that seem most influential and most memorable predate this list. There is a thematic pattern of self-sufficiency, independence, social justice, finding one’s relationship with the natural world.

Equally or more important, these books share a pattern of unlikely protagonists. Young, female, outlaw–or all three–describes the main character in each of these books. They’re unlikely and, to some extent, underrepresented. In a demographic sense, all three categories certainly make their way into literature, but often at the expense of positive characterization. Plus, it should be noted that many of these books are not literature in a sense; many aren’t in ‘the canon’ and that speaks as much to what we value within our society as to the quality of the work itself.

And, after much ado about nothing, here is the list:

Matilda, by Roald Dahl

Thinking about books, my mind zooms to Matilda, by Roald Dahl. If you think you know this story based on the movie, you don’t; please go back and read it. The book’s heroine, Matilda, has a sense of inner fortitude and peaceful resistance that, in my opinion anyway, is morphed into something more revengeful in the movie. The plight of Matilda’s favorite teacher is also a more nuanced and profound thing in the book. But that is to be expected.

This is a book about a girl lacking the kind of specialness we tend to see portrayed in female characters. While small and unassuming, though, she also lacks a lot of the vulnerability we often see painted onto female characters. She finds refuge in books and the kindness of her teacher Ms Honey as much as in the telekinetic powers she discovers within herself, yet we also sense that she isn’t necessarily seeking refuge–she does not turn to books in a sort of despair, but rather for the simple pleasure of reading to herself. She is unflustered in the world, and it is this demeanor that always impressed me.

And while the first part of the book is more about Matilda’s life in relation to her family and her school, the second half vividly portrays a certain social injustice–I forget the specifics of the case, but there are essentially a few small factors which add up to Ms Honey being totally impoverished (factors such as unfair inheritance laws, I believe, as well as something relating to her teaching position) and an incredibly cruel headmistress being quite wealthy. There is a profound lesson in there about Ms Honey’s ability to be hospitable on extremely meagre means and an equally profound way of showing that tangible wealth is not always equivalent to goodness of any sort. But of course, since it’s Roald Dahl, these are Lessons, they are simply a very good story.

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George

After Matilda, I had to pause for a moment. I’ve read so many good books! But this isn’t really about good, it’s about what sticks. Have these books influenced me? Or do I recall these books because they reassert values I already align myself with? Surely there is some interchange here. For the books I read when I was very small, surely there must have been some impact on my later thinking. But even now, I have the same sense of exchange, despite the inability to hold a literal dialogue with a book.

I should probably have Walden on this list, but I don’t. While it was the centre of my undergraduate thesis and it is still a text I go back to, I’m not sure I’m ready to have it on a “stuck with me” list. Maybe in a few years. Instead, I’m thinking chronologically again, back to My Side of the Mountain (by Jean Craighead George). I don’t remember many specifics of this book, except that the boy lived in a tree and made everything and went to a public library and the bird was named Frightful.

What I do remember is that this kid made it, alone, and, like Matilda, in a sort of quiet way. As I remember it, it didn’t come across as a particularly dramatic story; it was very plausible and very deliberate. And this sobriety made it seem more real, more doable. I must have read this when I was eight or nine, if that. I was always frustrated by my age–too young! Always too young.

Although there are stories about stand-out youngsters, age matters so much, and in such a particular way when you are young (also, I suspect, when you are old, though I have no experience with this yet!). It is extremely frustrating to find yourself out of sync with others your age, whether you are “ahead” or “behind.” One of my favorite school experiences was having a reading group created just for me one year, so that I could read real chapter books instead of the short texts the rest of the class used. The next year I was in a different school, still reading way above grade level, and I was forced to make just one book last the entire schoolyear. Books like My Side of the Mountain got me through, though I had to read them covertly (when the teacher wasn’t looking).

Throughout my childhood, I often had the sense of being ready for certain things without being allowed to do them. Obvious examples are driving, voting, drinking. There were less-obvious matters, too. When I was 12 or 13, I went with a neighbor family on their summer vacation to babysit their three kids, and in an outdoor market I was mistaken for the kids’ mother. Although totally dependent on the parents to drive and pay the bills, I was put in charge of the kids during the entire holiday. I woke them up, got them dressed, made breakfast, kept them occupied (and covered in sunscreen, no small feat with three blondies under the age of 6 at the beach), made them lunch, started dinner, fed them dinner, cleaned them up, and put them to bed. I felt supremely competent and ready to get out in the world. But of course it would be years before I could even leave home.

My Side of the Mountain was a story about a child being independent–and being competent about it. The beauty of the story for me was in the protagonist’s ability to problem-solve. Over a decade passed since I read that book, but I have found myself working on dugout canoes (as a historic museum interpreter), trying to tan hides, building a raft. These actions have always brought a sense of dèja-vu; I think I can blame that on My Side of the Mountain. For me as profound as Walden, this book came first.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter

But in more recent times, I’ve read several books about self-sufficiency that I can’t stop thinking about. Farm City (Novella Carpenter), Possum Living (Dolly Freed), and Goatsong (Brad Kessler) all immediately come to mind. Farm City is the book that currently has me on the fence about grad school; I read it several years ago and I’m still inspired by the resourcefulness of Carpenter and her tenacity in pursuing a lifestyle that is in accord with her ideals despite circumstances that many would immediately deem prohibitive. If you’re thinking about urban farming at all, you need to read this book.

Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money by Dolly Freed

And everyone should read Possum Living. The best I can describe it is as a straightforward if exceedingly eccentric primer to life. In its eminent practicality, it is a beautiful thing. Freed goes beyond the realm of commonplace “practicality” and offers solutions to everyday economics that are, in their own way, innovative. She reframes the world. While I don’t plan on fishing for turtles anytime soon, I still recommend this book in a heartbeat.

But of these three, the book closest to my heart is Goat Song. My love of goats should hardly be news to any regular readers of this blog, and that didn’t start with this book. However, Kessler’s account bridged the literary essence of pastoralism and the rudimentary facts of life lived pastorally. In this, two parts of me felt joined: the side that longs to literally roll in the hay and the side that can always be found curled up with a book.

Though I read both Farm City and Goat Song prior to my undergraduate study of Thoreau’s Walden, these works were significant stepping stones on the way to my eventual topic and the way I approached it.

As I thought about this list, it was difficult to avoid association. These books sprang to mind in a cluster, though Goat Song had to edge out The Island Within by Richard Nelson. On another day, The Island Within might have won out. Nelson’s work was another I used in my thesis, but for the purpose of his post I decided on Goat Song in part because it grabbed me outside the context of that project. When I was given the book, I wasn’t ready for the amount of power it would have for me, but it worked, it took hold, and I’m still thinking about it years later (three years later, according to my Excel spreadsheet).

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Another ‘cluster,’ if you will, are To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) and In Cold Blood (Truman Capote). Written by friends, emphasizing justice, and probing for empathy, the are books I also happened to read fairly close together (in July and April of 2009, respectively, though only four books apart as this was a slow year as far as reading went).

What struck me hard when I started reading To Kill a Mockingbird is that I went through a good portion of the book before knowing the gender of the protagonist. “Scout” as a name doesn’t reveal itself easily, but neither does the prose. Although discussion of the book is typically framed around Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, the book is very much told from the perspective of this young girl.

And while reading it, I reacted most strongly to the issues of gender–not race, though I realize that’s a if not the central theme to the work–both in the court case that goes to trial and in the way Scout behaves and characterizes others. With Scout, I found a narrator I could relate to–female, but not really feminine; aware of typical gender constructs and complications without really allowing these to dictate her own beliefs and conduct.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

At the same time, I could also relate to the sense of observation, the perspective of a young person trying to make sense of the world. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was only months away from attending college. I felt more than ready, but I also (and still) felt young, and knew myself to be an outsider to the workings of the larger concerns of the world.

In Cold Blood is a different story. What it showed me more than anything was the value of seeing the other side. There is always an “other side” and almost always the other side is equally human. Criticized for being too sympathetic to the criminals in this story, this book really is toeing a line. It is difficult to have sympathy for criminals, but I think we probably need the most sympathy for people we define as criminals–and I think that largely because of this book. 

What I also find amazing about this book is the richness of the text itself. From an English geek standpoint, it’s a fascinating work. As a work of literary nonfiction, it is a prime example of that genre.


Merry Christmas! Happy New Year’s! Joyeux Noël! ‘Tis the season to feel really, really far out of line if you are anything but happy. And hence this post.

If you are as content this holiday season as the goat in the manger, feel free to skip this post!

If you are as content this holiday season as the goat in the manger, feel free to skip this post!

For many people, the holidays are not guaranteed to be a manger of belly laughs. Some churches are holding “Blue Christmas” services, services celebrating the liturgical season while allowing for grief and being generally “blue.” For people who have recently lost loved ones, the first (and second, and third…) holiday season can be almost traumatic; it’s the first holiday season without them.

There are other thefts of joy: difficult families, low finances, being alone during the season of togetherness. While I think it can be possible for the general cheer of the season to draw us out of personal woes, I also believe that unhappiness has its place, even in the holiday season. It’s not always possible to have the kind of chipper cheerio that seems to be requested–if not required–of the general populace this time of year. Sometimes feeling a little down can become magnified in juxtaposition to the celebratory atmosphere around us.

This year, for me, will be the first year I don’t sing Once in Royal David’s City as the prelude to my church’s Christmas Eve service since I was first asked to do it eleven years ago. Although the song takes less than five minutes to sing, it’s something many people in the congregation look forward to. For some regulars, my Christmas tradition–really the only one we have in my family–has become part of theirs.

While that feels like the most significant difference between this Christmas and previous Christmases, it’s also the first year I’m not going to be “home”–at all–for the holiday. Last year was the first year I had rum in my midnight eggnog; this year is the first year I won’t be standing around the kitchen island with my parents (and whomever else we’ve dragged in each year) drinking eggnog and eating as many chocolate-dipped apricots as possible before opening presents after church. I won’t have lit luminaries with my dad to form our part of the illuminated line down our street. I won’t wake up on Christmas morning with a stocking at the foot of my bed, placed there sometime in the middle of the night by my mother.

Looking back over recent Christmases, I can start to draw out some patterns. The eggnog, the luminaries, the stocking. My memories are grounded in repeated objects, repeated gestures, repeated scents and tastes and sounds. These patterns are true, to an extent, but they also serve to mask the underlying, inevitable changes constantly occurring regardless of our annual rituals.

For a few years, our little dog was part of the Christmas proceedings, even meriting his own little stocking one year. One year it snowed on Christmas Eve and when we took him out for his midnight walk–as soon as we got home from church–I remember letting him off the lead and racing him home in the snow swirling under the streetlamps with the most enduring of the luminaries still burning. That’s still one of my fondest memories, period. But the next year it didn’t snow. A few years later, we had had to put him down in May–he wasn’t around at Christmas at all.

Although our little family unit–me, mom, dad–has been a constant my entire life, we’ve had a different motley crew around each year for dinner and for church. One year we press-ganged so many of our dinner guests into singing with the church choir that they formed half the group. Other years it has just been us three. All of these configurations work. All of them are good.

From my own perspective, the most meaningful changes have been the ones that show progression. The first year I sang Once in Royal David’s City, I stood on a step stool and had to be miked. I couldn’t hold the descant against just my mother singing the melody line, let alone the entire congregation. I gradually stepped down from the step-stool, still reaching the microphone; then, the microphone was made redundant, too. Finally I learned the descant part and could sing it against my mother, then against my mother and the choir.

At dinner, my role has evolved to the point where I have taken an almost equal role with my mother and father; with guests, I am as much of a host as either my mother or father, rather than needing to be served or assisted as a child. There are fewer presents for me under the tree and more from me. I’ve gone from getting the virgin eggnog to being the one mixing the eggnog and getting the nutmeg just right.

A lot of this sense of progression has been positive. But a lot of this change is also terrifying and uncomfortable.  As I’ve written about before, I think about adulthood a lot. My job is to take care of two young children, so as I’m newly thinking of myself as an Adult, I’m simultaneously confronted with developing children on a daily basis. Watching the way they perceive the world, I sometimes have a pang of bitterness that the world doesn’t work the way they seem to think it does–that the world isn’t all about playing and eating food that magically propels itself onto the table.

The biggest difference between this year and all the years before it, for me, is finding myself totally outside the gravitational pull of my family home. While there are a lot of things I won’t miss (like spending a good part of the holiday in transit between sides of the family that live several hundred miles apart), this total break from the traditions of any previous years is jarring. I’m finding myself floundering, unsure of what is expected from me in my current circumstances, both from the family I current live with and my actual family, and my friends scattered across the globe.

Without the familiarity of the season, it is more difficult to get swept up in its sense of celebration. I feel a bit like I do when I completely mess up a reel in set dancing, or a page of music slips off the piano as I’m playing. It’s not tragic or irreparable, but I’m forced to concentrate differently–not on the spirit of the event, but on the how and where and when. Although most of the year feels like this constant churning of details and logistics, the holidays have always been a time when that pace is both quickened by special holiday preparations (the bazillion cookies?) and slowed by time off work, getting very little sleep, and spending a disproportionate amount of time with candles in church.

While I’m daily concerned with how the effects of global warming will manifest themselves in the next few decades, I think these changes will probably feel rather like this Christmas feels to me. It’s a little bit different than years past–in some ways wholly different–but there are traditions I can still grasp on to. I was able to sing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City as a solo at the Anglican church I’ve been attending here in Lyon. The traditional French way of celebrating Christmas is remarkably close to my own family’s version, so my roadmap in that respect is not changing all that much.

Our technologies will change. Our food systems will reorganize and redevelop. Our housing preferences are already starting to align with more energy-efficient, adaptable building models. We are growing up, in a sense. But whether or not we mature collectively, we will be faced with different circumstances. We will find ourselves in a world that isn’t a science-fiction new reality, but rather a changed reality, one we can recognize and link to the past but which is undeniably different. We may find ourselves (as I am now) needing to be simultaneously more self-sufficient and more oriented towards larger communities.

We tend to think that global warming will be a problem for our children. Undoubtedly. But it will most likely also be a problem for us, especially if we are living in “the developing world” or anywhere near water. As a population, we are underprepared for the challenges ahead of us, yet individually I think we can still have some hope, not only because “people out there are working on it,” but because change and adaptation are rhythmic aspects of all living. The holidays are an especially good time to take a pause and consider not only our own circumstances–miserable (or joyful!) as they may be–but the world as a whole.

After all, the holiday after Christmas is the New Year–another chance, a time to embrace change.

And with that, I bid you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

This gift guide is probably a little late in the season, but if you’re like me, you’re still working on your list–possibly not even onto the ‘checking it twice’ stage of things. Also, this isn’t really a gift guide. Though, who knows, you might use it as one.


Every year around Christmas I get fed up with the same issue: we busy ourselves with a lot of materialistic rituals in place of paying attention to The Thing Itself. If you’re Christian, which you should be if you’re celebrating Christmas, winnow down the Christmas story and it’s the essence of humility and forgiveness. Here is a wee lad, born in unfavorable circumstances in every imaginable way (illegitimate pregnancy? check. on the run from a manhunt before you’re out of the womb? check. Mom consigned not even to ‘the bad hospital across town’ but a shed with a passel of cows? check.), and yet this is the light of the world.

In hindsight, we’re really good at getting ready for Christmas, because we’ve had a few thousand years for marketing departments to get their acts together. Beginning sometime around Halloween (not always after), we’re inundated with snowmen and Christmas trees and gingerbread men and a whole host of characters designed to… do what, exactly? We start off with a situation none of us would want to be in ourselves and end up with this crazy weird party thing in which most American kids are probably getting the idea that the twelve apostles were actually reindeer.

The family I live with recently made up a song about “Baby Jesus, Lying in a Manger,” with an uptempo beat that makes a manger seem like a cool place to hang out. Having spent a good amount of time with hay, I can tell you first hand that a manger is not where you want to give birth. I have gotten scars from “lying in a manger,” okay? 

If you’re not Christian, I can see why you’d want to get in on all the “fun,” and I can certainly appreciate having an excuse to throw a party in the bleak midwinter (though technically Christmas falls only a few days after the official start of winter, it usually does feel pretty bleak already). So, throw the party.

And in the meantime, it is nice to recognize friends and family. It is nice to give gifts. As with Valentine’s Day, while I’m not a fan of the holiday at all, I can fully support the notion of taking time out of our normal routines to pay extra attention to the people we are closest with and to really be mindful of our love and gratitude. Seriously that’s brilliant, that’s lovely.

So for heaven’s sake, don’t get tied up in knots about exactly what to get so-and-so. Spend as little money as possible and give as good gifts as you can figure out. When in doubt, buy something consumable that will be appreciated (i.e. chocolate, alcohol, nuts–obviously it’s important to make sure the giftee isn’t lactose intolerant, a recovering alcoholic, or allergic to nuts…) or donate money to a worthwhile cause in someone’s name (at risk of beating a dead goat, I always recommend Heifer Project International as it is both apolitical and self-perpetuating, addressing possibly our most basic and universal need–food).

If you know someone well, it can be nice to demonstrate that understanding by giving something that makes you think of them. This is not to say that consumables or charity cannot fill this requirement, though. My dad usually wants nothing more–at all times, I think–than nuts, chocolate, and beer. Knowing someone’s favorite brand of whisky is often invaluable, in my experience. My mother usually has something practical, like a spatula, on her “wish list,” although often she’d rather choose it herself–for someone like this, it might be nice to offer to go shopping with the person, and then pick up the tab.

I think it can be argued that the point of giving gifts is as much about making ourselves feel like good givers as it is about what we’re giving, or who we’re giving to. But I’d also like to point out that the gift itself still matters. Giving something which ultimately proves to be a burden to the giftee is not much of a gift, is it? Rather than striving to show off your personal purchasing power and shopping fortitude, try not to worry about the exterior aspects of a gift–the cost, the brand, the wrapping–and think about instead what it took to produce the item and how well it will be appreciated by the gift receiver. For many people, a meaningful letter will be just as appreciated–and probably more appreciated in the long run–then an expensive sweater, for example.

The one Christmas hymn which always makes me tear up is In the Bleak Midwinter, on the line: What I can I give him. The newer version of this hymn cuts out the first “I,” so we’re left with “What can I give him,” but there’s a very different sense here, I think. “What can I give him?” is the kind of open-ended question that seems to have no real answer (“nothing”). What I can, I give him suggests that we all have something to give, no matter how humble our circumstances–after all, the baby in the manger is supposedly bringing us eternal salvation, forgiveness, etc., etc., and is just a wee lad in a jumble of cow fodder.

[Note: watching this version–link below–of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” I realize I may be incorrect about the lyrics–this may be a Lutheran/Anglican question, not an old/new version. Not sure. All I know — I grew up singing what I can I give him.]

I know I really push the goat thing, but I’m going to say it one more time. Heifer Project International is a fantastic charity doing fantastic work. Their solution to social justice is a perpetually empowering one that miraculously self-generates (i.e. goats have kids!). And they don’t just do goats! (As their name implies, the project began with cows.)

Heifer Project International Gift Catalog

photo 2 copy 2

Don’t give live animals! (Folks, this ain’t really a stable.)

Don’t give a “gift” that is just going to get thrown out right away

Don’t give a “gift” that says something mean or judgmental about the giftee

No whoopee cushions except for 8-year-old boys (do they make biodegradable ones?)

Remember that “smells like Christmas” is often code for “smells like Pinesol”

Re-gifting is okay. Re-gifting something to the person who gave it to you in the first place isn’t.

If it costs $40/month to keep the gift going, it’s not much of a gift [i.e. beware the gifts that cost more to have than to give].

No but seriously don’t give live animals.

Taxidermy might be okay, though. 

Cute, but not an ideal Christmas present. Except for me.

Cute, but not an ideal Christmas present. Except for me.

If you want to give someone a goat, try this kind.

Twenty-one is a pivotal age for the U.S. citizen. It marks the legality to buy alcoholic beverages and is considered something of a turning point for “adulthood.” Being 21, I think a lot about the concept of “adult.” Walking around with two kids under the age of 5, I’m aware that both of these kids could be my biological kids (whoa). That feels super adult. Writing my own holiday letter to friends and family–adult. Taking public transit–adult. Desperately clutching my Metro map?–not adult. Being freaked out about buying stamps in France–not really adult either, no.

One thing that definitely seems like a marker of adulthood–at least to me–is being able to competently handwash clothes. This is something I never did at home, but I started doing it a bit in college–demi-adult. The thing about that, though, was that I never seemed to get anything particularly clean. I’m not sure exactly what I was doing wrong, but I now know how to do it right. 

Image from Queensland Women’s Historical Association

Perhaps you are already fully an adult and think this is a little bit ridiculous. Fine. But perhaps you are like me a couple years ago, trying to handwash delicate items every which way with little success.

Of course, you can hand wash anything–not just delicate items. My best tips come from my friend Elizabeth, who studied abroad in Ghana for a semester and joined the ranks of Ghanaian women washing all their clothes (and their families’ clothes!!) by hand. As someone who doesn’t generate a lot of laundry personally, I find it useful to handwash approximately 25% of my laundry. The remaining laundry can go in one load, which cuts down on the number of loads I have to do and the total washing time (not to mention, of course, energy and water usage).

The laundry I choose to handwash typically has either elastic straps (bras) or lace (underwear) or some other special fabric (velvet mini skirt). Other good candidates are: sweaters, heavy wool socks (not really for the sake of the wool socks, but for the sake of everything else in the load of laundry which would otherwise get covered in pilled wool), any handknits, and dresses or blouses with weird mixtures of fabrics. Also: anything with strong dye when you first buy it (to prevent it dyeing your other clothes!).

Unfortunately, women’s wear is particularly prone to being delicate and fussy. While I try not to buy anything that requires dry cleaning, I have ended up with a few pieces I don’t quite trust to a washing machine. And I know my underwear with last longer with gentle hand-washing than being thrown in the cycle with my jeans.

I digress. Here is the practical info:

  1. Sort your laundry!
  2. Sort everything you want hand-washed. Make micro-loads that will comfortably fit in whatever vessel you have for water. (You can use a stopped-up sink easily; a plastic basin can also work nicely. If you want to do a bunch of things or a large sweater, a largish basin or bucket can be helpful, and you can use a tub or shower to fill it up and rinse out.)
  3. Add a bit of detergent to your water as the water is running so the soap gets well-dispersed.
  4. Add your first micro-load.
  5. Swish around in the water a little bit. This is the “agitation” part. Try to get the soap really into the garments by squishing the fabric in the soap suds, etc.
  6. Leave for approximately 20 minutes to soak. This is (funny enough) one of my favorite uses for my iPhone: the excellent timer under the clock menu.
  7. Agitate again, check for any spots you especially want to work on. Hold stuff to one side of the basin and empty dirty water. Isn’t it weirdly satisfying to see how dirty your dirty laundry really was?!
  8. Refill container with clean water. Depending on how dirty things were, I either leave them to soak for 10-15 minutes in clean water, then rinse again with fresh water, or just agitate in the clean water and continue on.
  9. Squeeze out as much water as possible. Try to bunch up fabric and squeeze it together rather than wringing it, as wringing can have a stretching effect.
  10. Lay whatever out on a dry towel. Roll up towel around garment(s) and press firmly. This removes a shocking amount of water!
  11. Hang in a well-organized way on your drying rack!