Friday, May 24, 2019

Some Quick Advice for Michigan Teachers with MESSA Insurance

One of the insurance plans through MESSA that every union I know pushes is the short-term and long-term disability insurance.  Considering my health history, I always signed up for it.  I was always told about how easy the program is, how helpful it is, and how really every teacher should get it.  I believed that.

The Reality: yes, short-term disability is rather easy to get and maintain, and it's super helpful.  Long-term disability, on the other hand, is a nightmare.  Despite what MESSA says and promises, their overarching goal is to get as many teachers off the long-term disability as possible.  This is mainly due to their underwriter, Cigna.

See, MESSA's disability insurance plan is underwritten by Cigna, which means that Cigna is really in charge.  Now, MESSA's reps will tell you that they have final say over whether or not to keep a client on the long-term disability plan, but the reality is, they just don't question Cigna often at all.  Cigna is known in the medical community as one of the more evil insurance companies, so this situation is definitely not in a teacher's best interest.

When you apply for either form of disability, MESSA requires a mountain of documentation.  Every medical provider you have seen, including massage therapists and chiropractors, must turn over their entire file on you with visit notes included.  MESSA can request (highly recommend and pay for) specific tests and more as well.  In all reality, the point of the documentation, at least in Cigna's eyes, is to find something, anything, that can make their case that you're not disabled.  Given that they review your case every three to six months, that's many times in which you can get denied your insurance benefit that you paid for.

If you end up on long-term disability, MESSA requires you to apply for SSDI (the federal disability program).  They pay for the advocate (Carl isn't really a lawyer, but he's an amazing lay advocate with a phenomenal office), and when you get approved, MESSA deducts what you get from SSDI from your disability check from them, which is fair.  Since the process takes so long, you end up getting back pay since SSDI is retroactive to the date the judge says it starts, and MESSA takes almost all of that. 

My Advice: After everything I went through with MESSA, the best advice I can give you is to sign up for the disability insurance if you're planning to get pregnant any time soon or know you need to be out for a short time due to a surgery of some kind.  If those don't apply to you, take the money you would pay for that plan, and put it in a savings account you don't touch.  Buy CDs, and keep them rolling over.  Don't plan on the long-term disability benefit to be there.  Even if you do pay for the benefit, doing this is still smart.

My story: My doctor finally convinced me that I needed to go on medical leave.  I applied for and qualified for short-term disability, and that process, while onerous for someone who was quite ill, wasn't horrible.  Once that ran out and I was switched to long-term disability, that's when things got awful.  I was approved, then I was denied, then I had to fight that, I won it back, and then six months later, they bumped me off again by misreading the same document they'd misread the last time and putting too much evidence on one test that was done by someone who admitted at the time she really didn't know what she was doing (which I documented and explained several times).  If I'd had the money to get that test re-done, I would have and would have fought for my benefit, but I didn't, and so I lost my benefit due to a nurse at Cigna misreading my file.  When I lost my long-term benefit, I lost my MESSA health insurance, too.

I ended up qualifying for SSDI, though, using the same documentation that Cigna and MESSA said proved I could be an elementary teacher (I taught high school and middle school) or a correspondence teacher.  MESSA has definitely taken a massive chunk of the retroactive pay, but at least it means I'm done with them.

SSDI is nowhere near the monthly benefit that the MESSA disability benefit is, and our family finances have taken a severe hit.  Sadly, that's just the way it is, so it's going to take us a long time to dig out of this hole. 

Bottom line: Don't depend on MESSA to be there for you.  Don't listen to what they say: watch what they do and what they allow Cigna to do for them.  Set money aside, any money, anything you can, so that you have a rainy day fund in case you get really sick from the job.  Don't do what I did and trust that MESSA will always have your back.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Why I Garden, or, How We Try to Survive with High Food Prices

About a year ago, I lost my long-term disability benefit (due to shady practices, but I digress), and when my daughter turned 18 in the same month, our family income went down by a huge amount.  We still have two teen boys living at home (with the possibility of both of them on the high school swim team next year!), so our food budget couldn't take much of a hit compared to all the other areas of the budget we could cut or pare down.

Or so I thought.

I had been a careful shopper for years (being a single parent will do that to you), but we'd gotten into some bad habits, and there were other things I just hadn't thought of with my disability.  Now that I've finally qualified for my social security disability benefit, we will finally be able to pay some bills that we haven't been able to (praises be!), but things will still be tight.  Here are some things I've learned in the last year on how to survive with the high (and likely going higher) food prices.

1. Utilize that kitchen!
If you have a kitchen and, even better, a pantry area, the best way to start is to really evaluate it (I know, in all that magical spare time you have, but hear me out).  Stand in the middle and think about the tools you have, the ones you actually use, and if you can move things around to have even more food storage.  Do the same with the fridge (with kids, I have to do this every few months, to be honest).  Do the same with the freezer.  Can you get a deep freezer?  Is even a small one possible?  If you have a pantry area (even if it's just some shelves in the basement, like ours), take a good look there.

Then, once you've looked it all over and have a better plan in mind for use, take out everything you don't use, is expired, you don't like, doesn't bring you joy, and start a list of tools you need for cooking and prepping your own food.  Now, if you do use it but not often, can it go anywhere else to make room for a more needed item or food?  Don't throw out your grill tools in January is all I'm saying.  Keep in mind that the more specialized a tool, chances are, the less you will use it.  The more uses a tool has, the more likely you are to need it in an easy-to-get-to spot.

The idea here is that you (and other family members) are going to be cooking more.  You need an optimal space for both food storage and food prep.  You need good tools that will survive much use (if you can afford them at all, which is often not the case these days, but keep an eye out at estate sales, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and more).  Anything you don't use (that omelet maker from college, say), sell it.

1a. Make your own!
The point of having a good working kitchen is to make as much of your own food as possible.  This means you have to actually cook.  Figure out how many fast food meals or restaurant meals you can actually afford, and keep that limit tight.  Cook the rest of the time (or, really, all the time).  Cook in large batches, and then freeze or can the rest.  Use that crockpot at least once a week.  If you have an Instant Pot, get that thing out and working at least a couple of days a week.  Get on Pinterest for really good recipes and meal ideas.  Sheet pan suppers, casseroles, grilling, they all can really help cut your food budget.

If time is the real problem in cooking, get the others in the family involved.  There is nothing wrong with a middle school or high school aged kid doing at least one dinner a week for the family.  It's a good survival skill.

For example, I bake my own sourdough bread.  I have the time to do it in the oven, but if I didn't, I'd use a bread machine.  I can get 2+ loaves out of a five pound bag of flour (often goes for $3.50 a bag here), and since I grow my own sourdough starter (just flour and water and wild yeasts picked up along the way) and have water and salt on hand, I can make bread for us a lot cheaper than a comparable loaf would cost even at Aldi.  We tend to go through 1-2 loaves a week, and those are my double-sized loaves, so we really do go through a lot of bread.  Flour also keeps really well in the freezer, so when it goes on sale, I make sure to stock up.  I mostly do it for health reasons, but it's definitely been a boost to the overall food budget, too.

There's a simple joy that comes from making it all yourself, and this way, you know exactly what your family is eating and how much everything costs.

2. Plan those meals!
For years, I felt that meal planning just wasn't realistic for us.  What if I was in a fibromyalgia flare, what if the kids had a thing they hadn't told me about, what if we all really wanted pizza...  I admit now that I was entirely and thoroughly wrong.  Meal planning is critical for keeping food costs down.

I've tried a few ways to do it, and what I've found works best for our family is the monthly meal plan.  Each day of the week has a theme.  I'm thinking of changing those, but for now they are: Meat Monday, Taco Tuesday, Fish/Veggie Wednesday, Leftovers Thursday, Italian Friday, Leftovers Saturday, Big Cook Sunday.  So, at the end of the month, I go through the pantry, the kitchen, the fridge, and the freezer to see what I still have that needs using up.  Then, I get out my cookbooks and my iPad for Pinterest and saved recipes, and I plan them by the themes right on down the line.  I also make sure to check the calendar for nights when I'll need to use the crockpot or whatever.  Then, once that's done, I add all the ingredients that we need to buy to our shared grocery lists on Trello.  Since we get most of our money at the beginning of the month, that makes it easier to get to the three main places we shop for food and house stuff.

**Side note: Trello is a wonderful app for a busy family!  My husband and I use it, first and foremost for managing grocery lists, but it's also helpful for sharing to-do lists for around the house and more.  If you haven't looked at it, give it a try.  Best app I've found for managing all the grocery and market shopping.**

Lastly, make sure to put in the plan the occasional pizza night or special treat.  Put it in the budget, and keep that money aside.  There are times when you just need a cheap Costco pizza or two because all the best laid plans have come crashing down or whatever.

3. Know your prices!
It is really important to know where to get your food for the best prices.  It's also important to not spend every waking minute tracking down a sale and wasting gas to do so.  We have pared down the vast majority of our shopping to three stores, and what we get there is pretty consistent, so we know the prices.  We primarily shop at Aldi (if you haven't tried Aldi yet, you really should!), Costco, and a local market that has the best meat at the best prices (Kalamazoo Meat Depot!).  We also have a few local orchards, markets, and stores we hit, but they aren't the top priority like the other three are.

Before shopping, check fliers to see what the loss leaders are.  If chicken is on sale for a good price at one store, don't buy it anywhere else, just there, and adjust any meal plan accordingly.  That said, don't waste money on something just because it's on sale.  If your family doesn't like it, then it isn't worth the money at any cost.  For example, today, Aldi had frozen turkey breasts on sale, and I almost got one.  That's a lot of meat for a decent price.  Then I remembered that, the last time I made one, the boys didn't really like it, and I ended up having meat left over.  Same with certain veggies.  I don't need leftovers I have to figure out magic with because no one likes what I bought.  So, know your family, too, and be honest about what they will and won't eat.

4. Grow your own!
My husband and I have made it a priority this year to grow enough food to feed our family to the absolute best of our ability.  We have reclaimed landscaped garden beds and are in the process of getting them ready for planting (which will be Memorial Day weekend for most of the plants, earlier for some, later for others).  This means moving plants, adding to the soil, getting the hay for mulch ready, growing seedlings, and all the rest, and to be honest, I really can't do as much of that as I'd like due to my pain levels, but my husband is able to do a lot of it.  Once planting starts seriously happening, that means getting help, following the garden plans, and making sure not to waste all the time, money, and effort by not taking care of the plants once they're in the ground.  It also means planning what to do with all we harvest so there's no waste.

I will admit, I do like gardening, though I realize not everyone does.  Many people have done the math, though, and in the end, it's still cheaper to grow your own when compared to buying a comparable product.  Growing your own fruits and veggies in a sustainable, organic manner is almost always cheaper, though there are some up-front costs.

If you don't have much space, even just growing your own herbs in a windowsill makes a big difference to the taste and quality of your food.  Growing in containers in small spaces can really cut down on the food bill.  If you can't grow your own, then figure out the cheapest places to buy produce, and don't be scared to hit up farmers and people with big gardens.  See if you can exchange labor for food, join a CSA, or help out in any way.

5. Cut down on food waste!
This is a big one for our family.  Kids leave food out, no one eats up the leftovers, we forget about the zucchini in the fridge until it rots, you name it.  I have found a few things help with this, though, and we've been cutting down on our food waste quite a bit as the year has progressed.

  • Enforce leftover nights.  Leftovers are a fact of life when cooking, and they can't just get thrown out (that's money you're throwing out!).  We have two leftover times built into our food plan each week for this very reason, and it's been helping.
  • Enforce the meal plan.  Just because the kids are hungry now while you're out and about doesn't mean you guys stop for fast food.  Enforce the meal plan, and you're more likely to use up what you've already bought.
  • The adults need to pack at-work lunches starting with the leftovers first.  Kids often don't have good ways to heat up food at school, but if you have a fridge and a microwave at work, then you can heat up leftovers.
  • Have a bin in your fridge where all leftovers go, and put it front and center.  That way, it's harder to say you didn't see them at all.
  • Lastly, try to keep meat and/or dairy-based leftovers separate from everything else.  This way, if those go bad, they go in the trash but the veggie-based leftovers can go in the compost bin.
  • Compost!  We started getting serious this last winter about composting everything we can, even paper products and floor sweepings, and it's amazing how much less trash we produce and how much good soil we're creating for the garden.  Seriously, it doesn't hurt as much to throw out that nasty zucchini if I know that it's going to save me money in compost and fertilizer later.
6. Put it up!
Canning, freezing, and dehydrating are all important tools for keeping food costs down.  When tomatoes come in, putting them up (canning, freezing, and/or dehydrating) when they are ripe and at their best will keep you from buying tomatoes later in the year when they cost more and don't taste as good.  Doing freezer dump meals when you're able to buy in bulk, freezing up leftover sauces, or freezing the produce from your own garden all save money, too.  Growing your own herbs and drying them or using them to make flavored oils is vastly cheaper than buying those, even on sale.

If you are able to, getting fresh produce or meats in bulk really is the cheapest option.  You can get a much better price overall buying a whole chicken than the cut up pieces, and that is true for pork and beef as well.  

When it comes to canning, be sure to follow safe recipes (I love the Blue Ball Canning Book, but there are many, many good, safe resources) and the right canning system.  For acidic foods, water bath canning is fine, but for everything else, you'll need a pressure canner.  Not to mention good canning jars, which are useful for so many things that I find myself constantly thinking that we need more.  While Ball jars are the most common, there are other, cheaper ones out there that are just as good.  I personally prefer the kind sold at Big Lots.

7. Evaluate what you eat!
In the end, all of these guidelines don't mean much if you don't at some point sit down and really evaluate what you eat.  If you're buying a lot of boxed, prepared things, they seem cheap (Jiffy cornbread, 3 boxes for a dollar!), but in the end, they are almost always more expensive.  Sure, frozen pizzas are handy for when you don't feel like cooking or when the kids come home from school starving and all the leftovers got eaten up the night before, but they really are a hit to the bottom line.  If you price it out, vegetables are cheaper when fresh, frozen, or canned (check the salt and preservatives on those cans), much cheaper than when they are added in with other stuff to make a prepared freezer dinner or you pay someone else to take those same veggies to make you something in a restaurant.

One of the things my husband and I have found is that, due to budget, we are buying far less from the middle aisles of the grocery stores than we were before and instead are buying more fresh foods and food ingredients to make our own dinners.  It's added up to weight loss for him and better GI health for me.  It's another reason why I don't see us going back to the old habits or eating out more.

Also, small point: as a general rule, the fewer paid hands that touch your food, the cheaper it is.  The more meat is cut up, the more it costs.  The more food is processed, the higher the cost.  If you switch to real foods and cook and bake as a family, it's not just cheaper but also healthier.

As an aside, these are rules that work for us because we have a house with storage, a working kitchen, running water, etc.  When we had more money, we got things like a deep freezer, a FoodSaver sealer and the stuff needed for it, a stand mixer (really helps with bread since kneading is hard on me much of the time these days), and kitchen tools for cooking and baking.  While I see good deals at estate sales and on FB Marketplace, those don't help if you don't have the money for them or the place to use them.  If you are in that situation, please reach out for help.  It would be a blessing to people to help you with food, a place to live.  If you have reached out and are tired of hearing no and getting smacked in the face, please know that you aren't alone and you shouldn't lose hope.  The tide is turning in this country as more of us fight just to survive and are tired of the system being against us.  One more call might be all it takes.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Gardening and Medicinal Herbs

This year, my big garden project is adding in a medicinal herb bed (in addition to expanding the gardens and trying to grow enough food for all of us for a year--more on that later).  I've gotten to the point in my disability/medical journey that medicines just don't work on me, but herbs seem to help at least some.

In my medicinal herb bed, I'm growing comfrey, fennel, oats (for milky oat and straw), red clover, elderberry, motherwort, sweetgrass (that's for a local tribe, though), plantain, dandelions, garlic, nettles, and borage.  The sweetgrass finally got here today, so after that acclimates (and after the snow Saturday night melts on Sunday or Monday), I'll be able to get that in.  The red clover and garlic are up, as are some of the oats (I'm thinking the squirrels got to those, so I'll have to plant more seeds).  I've been transplanting motherwort I've found around the yard, so I think that will work out, and I even already got a tincture going of the new, young leaves, to see if it helps.

For other herbs, I'm growing bay laurel (for the first time in years--finally found a source in The Grower's Exchange, and I'm so excited!), Roman chamomile, chives, garlic chives, basil, lemon basil, thyme, lemon balm, lavender, green sage, golden sage, catmint, catnip (this one grows wild in the yard), more garlic, oregano, arnica, and some others I'm sure I'm forgetting.  Some are going in the Garden Tower, some in containers I keep by the pool, some in the kitchen garden by the back door, and some in the beds by the pool (more sun there).

This summer, I will be either foraging or going into the garden to get the herbs I need for trying new teas, tinctures, and more.  I'm really hopeful that the nettles will help with some stuff, but in reality, this is all fairly new to me.  In researching herbs and our family's various issues, I keep finding some that really might help me.  Even if it is just a little bit of help, that will be enough for me.  I'm still not used to taking tinctures (tend to put them in my water bottle since I don't drink alcohol), so I'm also looking into oxymels and other kinds of herbal mixtures.

As fo growing all our own food, that's a big project in process.  I read a few different sites with different recommendations for how much to grow, and then I tweaked them a bit since we don't eat as much salsa, say, as other families.  The big job this year, other than expanding the kitchen garden and using the Ruth Stout method on the back garden in hopes we can feed that soil and keep it productive, is going to be putting all the food up and then tracking it.  So, I've started a rough spreadsheet (on Google Drive so I can put it in my phone rather than try to remember where I put the garden binder), and I'm starting to get that set.  We plan on canning most of it, though a lot of the veggies are better frozen or dried.  Between our two dehydrators and our canning operation, we should be good.  Putting up the herbs in addition to the usual canning is going to be a real energy drain, but I hope I can get the kids to help even a little.

With the floods in the Midwest this spring and so much going on with global warming messing up the usual patterns, food prices are going to go up.  That means we have to grow as much as we can this year and put it all up so we have food available all the time.  With my medical issues and inability to take meds, I'm going to be growing and putting up herbs for use all year and doing what I can to get a better handle on this fibromyalgia.

Monday, March 25, 2019

It's Bread Day, So Let's Talk Sourdough.

I make bread from my sourdough starter once a week, usually on Mondays.  So many people act like making bread is really hard or really complicated, but it isn't that complicated, and honestly, with a mixer, it isn't too hard for me with my disability on most days.  If it is too difficult that particular day, I wait until the next day in hopes my pain will be better.  I use a couple of hacks to make it easier for me with my fibromyalgia, though, which I'm sharing today.

First of all, I stopped trying to make the perfect loaf of bread every time.  Seriously.  My bread is different every week, either due to using different flours or due to changes in humidity or how long I let it rise or whatever.  Since I eyeball so much of this process and wing it, the bread varies a bit.  My starter is a wild yeast starter, so that population changes and fluctuates a bit, too.  It's okay.  The kids still eat it, my husband always loves it, and if you put enough peanut butter on it, it's all good.  The bread is fairly forgiving of my pain and disability, and it really doesn't need a ton of manhandling or figuring.

I keep my starter in a quart jar with a plastic top in the fridge most of the time.  The fridge doesn't kill the yeast, just slows it way down, which is really handy on conserving spoons (energy in chronic illness talk).  I feed it once a week, leave it out long enough for it to settle and get bubbly, and then I put it in the fridge until the next time I need it.

When I feed my starter, I pour it all out of the jar into my Kitchenaid stand mixer bowl.  Now, I know most people say never to use a metal bowl for sourdough, but that's because so many bowls used in home kitchens are aluminum and not stainless steel.  Or, at least they used to be.  Stainless steel does not react with the sourdough, is used in commercial bakeries, and is just fine for using at home.  Anyway, I pour it all in, using a favorite silicone scraper to get as much out as possible, and then I use warm water in the sink to rinse out the jar really well and set it out upside down to drain.

When it comes to feeding or baking with sourdough, I have found that adding the liquids first works best.  So, when I feed the starter, I add about half a cup of water or so first, mix that in really well so it's uniform with no lumps, and then I add in about a cup of flour.  Once that's all mixed in (using my stand mixer on bad days, by hand if I'm doing well enough), I use my Ball jar funnel and fill the starter jar to about the 1.5 cup line or so.  That usually leaves me with the amount of starter I need for baking bread.

Quick note on flours: if you're going to get into bread making at all, you'll want a few flours on hand.  First, if you want to do a whole wheat bread much of the time, you'll need a good whole wheat flour.  I prefer stoneground myself, but honestly, I get whatever's on sale, usually King Arthur.  Now, there is some evidence to say that we all should only be using organic flour, and if you can afford it, that's your best option.  Our Costco sells a great one about once a year for a few months, a great organic all-purpose flour that makes for a decent bread flour, but really, nothing beats a good bread flour for helping to develop the crumb just right.  If your starter seems not to be as bubbly as it should when it's to room temperature and has been sitting out for awhile, then it needs a hit of rye flour.  Rye flour has the highest amount of wild yeasts in it, so it gives your starter a boost of more yeasts and different ones.  So, I usually keep on hand bread flour, at least one kind of whole wheat flour, organic AP flour, a multigrain flour (if I can find it--often makes a dense, good bread), and some rye flour just in case I need it.  There are so many good flours out there these days, and if you can find good prices or have a good bulk buying option, have fun finding what works for you and your family.

After I put the 1.5 cups of starter back in the jar, I am left with enough to start bread.  If I have too much, I put a half cup or so in another bowl or jar to use later for English muffins or pancakes or whatever.  When I have the energy or the need within a couple of days, I use that up.  If I have the energy on bread day, I get that other recipe's poolish going, too.

For my bread, I use this recipe and double it.  It has never steered me wrong.  I get out my kitchen scale, measure the water into the bowl with the leftover just-fed starter, mix that up thoroughly, then dump the flours on top and lastly the salt.  Then, I put it on my mixer for several minutes until it looks about right, and then I put a damp towel on top of the bowl and stick it in my oven with the light on for several hours.

Now, sourdough is a great kind of bread for us disabled types.  There's a lot of rest time in between each step, and the most is with the first rise.  If I'm struggling by the end of all this, I stick the bowl into the fridge to wait until the next day.  If not, I know I'm not baking bread until later that evening, and I usually wait for my second wind around 8 or 9 at night for the rest.  It's pretty forgiving stuff.

I stopped doing anything beyond shaping it and letting it rest before baking ages ago.  Doing a full second rise and then a third rise just seemed too much, and while it helped with flavor, it didn't do enough to warrant all that extra time and mess.  So, I just do a long first rise, dump it on the counter with some flour, knead lightly a few times, form a ball, and stick it in my big glass bowl I've already oiled.  Then, if I don't have it in me to bake it right then, I stick that back in the fridge until the next day.  If I do, then I put my cast iron pot (with the lid) into the oven, crank it up to 450, and get it good and hot for half an hour.  I dump in the dough, use a knife to slash it a bit, pop the lid on, and bake for 30 minutes.  Then, I take the lid off and reduce the heat to 425 and bake for another 15 minutes.  That's it.  I pull it out, put it on a rack to cool, and the family has bread for a few more days.

What's nice is that my husband and my son are both okay with helping, so if I crash after putting it in the oven, they can help with the rest.  I really need to teach my kids how to do this over the summer this year so they can take over entirely if needed.

While I don't have a problem with gluten like so many with fibromyalgia do, I have found that my bread is easier on my GI system.  It tends to be the only bread I eat.  With my soybean allergy, I can't eat most commercial breads anyway.  With this bread recipe, I don't have to think about sugars or oils, just flours, salt, and filtered water.  It is easier to make and easier on my system.  Now that it's a part of my weekly routine, I know I almost always have a loaf of bread I can eat sitting on the bread board in my kitchen.  Unless my son eats half a loaf after swim practice. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Baby Steps Toward Sustainability

It's been a rough couple of weeks around here.  Massive weather swings and strong storms have taken me out much of the time with pain, and all three kids have been sick but all with different things.  This has definitely messed up my plans for spring so far, that's for sure. 

Spring has been a bit slow to come this year, and we're all getting grumpy about it.  Then again, I remind myself of how things were when I was a kid, and March definitely was not a true spring month.  More like a late, grumpy winter spitting snow and ice at random.  Same with April.

Instead of working in the yard (which has only finally lost the last bit of snow yesterday), I've turned my attention to indoor issues with sustainability as well as more detailed garden planning.  One of the things that has been bothering me is the paper trash.

Recently, my husband and I decided to add in paper trash to the composter (our large, used turning bin that really does a nice job).  I'd been reading up on Pinterest on what can go into a composter from household trash, and it's a lot. Way more than we'd been saving.  So, I put bags in the bathroom, bedrooms, and next to the kitchen trash with signs saying what to put in there.  While getting the kids to put the paper trash in the compost bags is hit or miss, Robert and I have been getting much better at it.  In doing so, he and I have been floored at just how much of our trash is compostable and how much waste we have been producing.  And here we'd been happy that we'd cut down on our waste...  Seriously, it's rather something to go through a trash bag and pull out everything that you can put in the composter instead.  For the bathroom trash, it's about half.  Half!  It's amazing how much kleenex we've gone through this winter alone.

So, after seeing how many cotton rounds I was going through, I ran across a pattern for something similar on Pinterest.  I made one, and in a quick trial for my homemade toner (witch hazel tincture using lemon balm and some other herbs with a dash of tea tree oil), I was really impressed with how well it worked. 
So, this weekend when the pain was bad but okay enough for fairly mindless work, I made ten of these to use instead of cotton rounds.  I also used this from Pinterest as a base idea to make my own makeup remover solution from my lemon balm witch hazel tincture and got reusable microfiber rounds from Dollar Tree.
A trial of that tonight showed it to be quite the success!  Moreover, the round washed right out in the sink with a bit of soap, so that's drying in the used wipes bin.

With my son having a GI virus this weekend, the homemade antiseptic solution and reusable wipes (like these only blue, and I cut them down into fourths) have been getting quite the workout.  I have found that the solution really does dry out my hands quite a bit, so next time, I'm using gloves.  Still, it's nice knowing that the alcohol in the solution kills whatever has gotten him sick so the rest of us don't get it.

Eventually, I will need to replace the microfiber and synthetic cloths with all cotton in order to eliminate the microfiber waste in the water and all, but this is a first step, a baby step.  Next, I need to make more handkerchiefs for everyone, though the used kleenexes will definitely be put to use in the composter.

While the paper waste is something the worms like, it isn't good for us to use so much of it.  Paper towels, kleenex, paper napkins, cotton rounds, and q-tips alone filled two paper grocery bags for the composter today, and that's just in the last few weeks.  So much waste, and this is an area we can cut down in.  Now if I can just get the gardens planned out and start working in those to get them ready for planting...

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sustainability and Accessibility

We need to have an honest talk about the sustainability and homesteading movements when it comes to accessibility and equity.

I've been doing a lot of reading and research lately into sustainability and homesteading, mostly because, as a disabled stay-at-home mom, I am trying to find ways to cheaply feed and care for my family.  I've watched many YouTube videos, read many blogs, read through several books on permaculture and homesteading, and I think I've come up with some good ideas on how to change our gardens this year and make them more prolific yet easier overall to manage (in particular, implementing the Ruth Stout method and square foot gardening).

One thing I have not seen in all my research is any kind of discussion on how to do this as a disabled person.  I've seen a few videos and blog posts about homesteading in older age, but even those really did not discuss the elephant in the room: disability.  How can we convince everyone to follow the permaculture philosophy or employ sustainable practices in their homes if we don't make sure everyone has a fair and equitable chance to do so?

I'm reminded of the plastic straw debate I saw raging on social media this last year.  So many people exhorted one and all to give up plastic straws, some places even passed laws banning them, and everyone shared sad pictures of ocean creatures suffering from plastic straw debris.  Thing is, the disabled community online argued against it.  Some even wrote beautiful treatises explaining how there really were no good options for them and how they and others were treated online when they spoke up and said that they should be able to use what they need in a fair, equitable manner.  While plastic straws aren't sustainable, they are desperately needed by many in the disabled community (not to mention children and people with dental issues).  Shaming someone who needs a plastic straw because that's the only decent option available to them may make a sustainability advocate feel good, but all it does is make the other person arguing for accessibility feel like they don't matter.

I find myself dealing with this as I watch gardening videos and think of how I would be able to get around a particular garden, how I wouldn't be able to create that garden in the first place due to my particular disability issues, and how much physical labor is really involved for so many gardening practices.  While I have found raised beds that work with wheelchairs, for example, they're horribly expensive, which means they're out of the reach of most disabled people.

I find myself wondering, as I watch homesteading and sustainability videos or read more blog posts and stuff on Pinterest, if I can even do some of the things I see.  I know from personal experience that I cannot can food by myself.  I don't care if it's a simple job or one that is more labor intensive (I'm looking at you, tomatoes and apple pie filling!), canning takes more than I have most days, which means I would only be able to do it on the weekend with my husband's help or maybe for a couple of hours with my mom or my son.  Before I can even get to that point and put up the food, I have to harvest, often daily.  That's often not easy for me, especially if a storm is coming, but I have to harvest or the food we've worked so hard to grow will go bad or be lost.

For example, just getting food ready for the week takes a lot of energy I don't always have.  My stepson does better if I have after-school snack options already prepped and packaged for him every week.  That means that I have to stand in the kitchen and cut and weigh and put in bags (that I've had to wash and dry so as to save the cost of new snack bags, not to mention the environment) first this thing, then that thing, every week.  Some Sundays, I really struggle to make that happen.  Buying foods in bulk is another example.  Once we get the food home, I have to get the FoodSaver out, weigh out everything, put it in bags, seal each bag, and then carry it to the deep freezer (down a few steps).  My husband is really good at helping me (or even just taking over and doing it), but I often end up going to the store during the day when he's at work and then am stuck back at home alone dividing, bagging, and getting everything to a usable level.  Sure, it's all much cheaper than buying so-called convenience foods, and it's not like we have a ton of money lying around to burn, but there's still a cost in terms of time and personal energy.

I guess that's what I'd like to see from the sustainability/environmental movement: an acknowledgment that not everyone has the time or energy or health or whatever to do all of what they suggest.  I know that, per permaculture and homesteading best practices, we should raise animals, but honestly, I grew up doing that and know just how hard it really is.  I don't have it in me these days to wrangle a goat who doesn't want to go in the pen or chase after chickens to get them in the roost at night.  So, what other options are there?  What equitable, accessible options are there for those of us who need to do things more cheaply and better for the environment?  Please think of us disabled people, too, when you come up with your practices and philosophies.

If you have any good ideas, please post them in the comments!  Let's all help each other out!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Gratitude Can Be Really Hard Sometimes

On this Sunday after St. Valentine's Day with a month to go before Lent, I've had several reminders that I should be grateful.  In reality, I do have much to be grateful for.  I have a loving husband, a car that works, a church family that is kind and supportive in many ways, and today, I could walk.  Not perfectly, not entirely under my own power, but I could walk.

Ever since the flu shot last December, I have had a hard time walking.  I've gotten a little better in the months since, true, but when my fibro pain is bad, the walking thing and weak arms thing gets really bad.

Today, I could walk with my walking stick (that I use instead of a cane since it's a better height for me).  When I helped with the Sunday School class, I was able to stand for a few minutes here and there.  When I couldn't walk easily at all to get to the Communion rail, a lovely member of our church helped me get there and back.  The little Girl Scout who sold me my cookies carried them to my car while I concentrated very hard on putting one foot down, then the other, over and over without falling.

I am grateful I can walk.  My muscles burn now as I rest with my cat, Mr. Floofers, on my legs, holding me down so I can't go anywhere (he is a very needy cat).  I feel like I ran a mile when in all reality, I probably didn't even walk that many steps yet today.  The pain is rather overwhelming.

But at least I can walk.  I am grateful that I can walk.