Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to Start a Compost Pile

The short version of this post:

Composting is awesome! Just make a pile of dead leaves, and bury your kitchen scraps in it. Boom. You’re saving the world.
I love this drawing so much, but I have no idea who made it! Does anyone know the illustrator so I can credit them?

The long version of this post:

Home composting is a vital step in living a less wasteful life. In an average American residence, up to 40% of the contents of the garbage can are kitchen scraps that could easily be transformed from slimy carrot ends into rich black earth. I’ve always thought composting was kind of cool, but I didn’t see the point unless I was actively keeping a garden. After all, food scraps will decompose in the landfill, right?

After some reading, I learned that, no, they don’t— at least, not for decades. Organic matter needs light, air, and water to decompose, three elements that you won’t find in a landfill. As the scraps slowly decay without oxygen, they release methane gas, which is much more harmful to the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide that a compost pile at home produces.

With this in mind, I’d love to encourage everyone to have their own compost pile, even if they don’t garden. Organic material breaks down quickly— you won’t be overrun by dirt, I promise. Finished compost can be left on the ground, used for mulch or fertilizer, or offered to your gardening friends.
I read a couple books on composting that made it sound way more difficult than it was. True, if you want to make the scraps decompose at an optimal rate, you need to use science. However, for the casual compost-maker, your only goal is to let things rot without them getting smelly. That’s super-easy. 

How to build a basic compost pile:

1. Find a spot in your yard. I just dump my compost against the garage in a pile, although it’s probably better to have a container of some sort, such as three wooden pallets lashed together, or a circle of chicken wire. 

2. Get a stockpile of dead organic matter, like dry leaves or straw. Offer to rake your neighbors’ yards and take their leaves. Put all this “brown material” in a pile.

My kitchen compost bin
3. Start collecting food scraps in a container in your kitchen. Don’t include dairy or meat, but veggie or fruit scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, bread/pasta, and freezer-burned food are okay. I also throw in paper towels, bits of cardboard, and non-diseased, non-weedy yard waste. 

4. When the container gets full, use a shovel or pitchfork to bury the scraps in the pile of leaves. 

5. Keep doing this. Try to keep the pile moist so rodents don’t nest in it.

6. Every couple weeks or so, take a pitchfork and turn the pile. If you expose any slimy kitchen scraps, cover them up with dry leaves, then water the whole pile again. If it’s smelly, you need to add more dry matter. In the summer, the scraps break down very quickly, while in winter they don’t rot at all. 

You can speed up the process by turning the pile more often, cutting the scraps up smaller, and keeping the pile more consistently moist than I did. But for me, it’s a lifestyle choice more than it is a source of finished compost. When I toss potato peels or yellow kale leaves into the bin, I know that they’re destined to return to my soil and help others to grow in their place. It’s a wonderful first step in “closing the loops” of a yard’s ecosystem by allowing the waste of one function to become the starting point of another. 

Plus, watching the scraps disappear is like magic— a bit of magic that, for the sake of the environment and our overcrowded landfills, everyone needs in their life.

P.S. If you live in an apartment, here's a helpful article for composting indoors.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

This Week (Memoirs, Mantises, and Caterpillar Slaughter)

Meet Harold, the resident praying mantis. My phone's camera wouldn't focus on him, but he's cute!

This is my last full week of summer break before I start teaching classes again, and I feel like I’ve been making good use of it. I’ve been baking, working in the yard, and reading a ton. Also, I’ve been working steadily on my PCT memoir, although it’s still a challenge for me to focus on the most important parts. I feel like there’s no continuity if I just hit up individual stories that happened several days apart, but I have to tie them together somehow, because I can’t tell everything (that’s what the blog is for!). As usual, writing a short version is much harder than a long version.
Pictured: garden-fresh basil,
before it was made into pesto. 

Dramatic, thoroughly-housewifey event of the week: I addressed the first big insect infestation I’ve had in my garden. I’d noticed holes in my kale, but it wasn’t until I walked outside and happened to see a wasp wrestling a green caterpillar to death that I realized the source of the holes. These little green inchworms were everywhere on my kale, and my first guess was correct— they were cabbage worms. Like the good organic gardener that I am, I spent the next hour and a half hand-picking the caterpillars off my plants, aggressively spraying the plants with water in between to shake them off. 

As I was spraying the kale, a praying mantis (who I had found in the lawn last week and placed in my garden), clambered to the top of the plants, looking startled. I held out my hand and he quickly climbed on, and I moved him out of harm’s way. He’s a cute little guy! I named him Harold. 

In my caterpillar hunting, I killed at least a hundred of these cabbage worms, plus several who had already built chrysalises. Doing so oddly unsettled me. H.C. Flores of Food Not Lawns describes weeding as “playing God,” and this was a similar feeling. Who was I to decide that all these caterpillars should die so that the kale might live? Why were my needs and desires the only factor I considered before killing all these tiny creatures? How did I fit into the cycle of life and death that plays out on a small scale in my garden? The whole experience was more thought-provoking, and more disturbing, than I expected. The emotional response fits into a larger internal conversation I’ve been having about my consumption of meat, although that’s a post for another time.
I picked these guys off the kale even after I thoroughly washed it.

On a more positive note, I planted a bunch of seeds last week— spinach, carrots (fifth time’s the charm!), and peas. I’m hoping that the scorching sun doesn’t kill the seeds before they get started. We’ll see how it goes!

At any rate, I hope you guys are having a good week!


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Happy Birthday, National Parks! (Part Two)

Continuing my list of national parks I’ve visited...

Sequoia, 2014. This is the first national park the PCT passes through, but we were on the backside, so we didn’t actually see any giant sequoias, just their younger (but still impressively big) cousins. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48, is on the edge of this park. 

View from Mt. Whitney

King’s Canyon, 2014. Other than the traumatic (but, admittedly, gorgeous) Forester Pass, this was one of the most beautiful parts of the Sierra: fir trees, dramatic cliffs, crystal-blue lakes, and photos that make me wonder, “Was I really there?”

Yosemite, 2014. Again, on the PCT we only skirted the outer edge, so I haven’t seen any of the iconic sights, like Half-Dome. The scenery was pretty, but mostly I remember Yosemite because we ate gigantic burgers after a week of near-starvation. Best meal ever.

There was scenery...

...but mostly, there were burgers and salad. Om nom.

Lassen Volcanic, 2014. I had never heard of this interesting park before we hiked through it. Mount Lassen is a snowy peak surrounded by a landscape of obsidian, pumice, and pine forests, full of dramatic views. Again, we hiked along the backside of the park, but it was beautiful.

Crater Lake, 2014. Crater Lake will make you question reality—  the lake is so big, so impossibly blue, so unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. This was another park on my bucket list that I was excited to finally reach, and the PCT skirts the rim, making it a great place to take in the vastness of this crater filled with 10,000 years’ worth of rain and snowmelt. Also, the lodge had really good hot cocoa, which we drank while waiting out the hail.

Mount Rainier, 2014. I love the Cascades mountain range, and Rainier is the crown jewel. The surrounding area is a brilliant supporting cast: craggy peaks, alpine lakes, glaciers and firs, slopes covered in huckleberries. Absolutely worth the 2,300-mile walk there.

You can see Rainier's peak, disguised by clouds, immediately to Zach's left.
See the mountain peak hiding again?

North Cascades, 2014. This is my favorite national park I’d never heard of before. Tucked away in northern Washington, it is a park full of mystical sights: firs cloaked in the mist, steam rising from the impossibly-steep mountains, creeks threading down the crumbling slopes, larches glowing yellow in the autumn. This was the last national park on the PCT, and by that point I was so happy to be near the end that the beauty of the landscape almost made me cry. I’d love to return someday, especially to the magical town of Stehekin.

Top Three National Parks on my Bucket List:
Yellowstone— my brother worked there for a summer, and he said that even in three months he barely scratched the surface of all the amazing stuff there is to see.
Glacier— just from what little I’ve seen of Montana, it looks incredible.
Denali— because Alaska is cool!

Where have you been? Where do you want to go?

Friday, August 26, 2016

Happy Birthday, National Parks! (Part One)

I totally missed the National Park Service Centennial yesterday— whoops! Well, Happy Centennial to our national parks a day late, and also Congratulations to all the Park Service people who keep these national treasures up and running!

I’m grateful that I’ve gotten a chance to visit 12 national parks in my lifetime (seven of those while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail), and hope to visit many more in the future. I’m proud that America has worked together to preserve these areas for generations to come. In honor of the centennial, here’s a run-down of the parks I’ve visited and why I love them:

Great Smoky Mountains, every year for most of my life. On my family’s yearly vacations to visit my grandparents in North Carolina, the Smokies were our go-to camping spot. We’d always camp by a creek so us kids could try to catch minnows, skip rocks, and cool off after a long day of hiking to waterfalls. At night, storms would blow through, rattling our tent, and we’d tell goofy stories to entertain ourselves. Some of my fondest childhood memories are here.

I don't really have any good photos of them, though...

Everglades, 2011. (I forgot to put this in my first draft!) I had the privilege of visiting the Everglades both in the daytime and at night, which are experiences I’ll never forget. Walking along the trail, I watched ‘gators strewn across the grass like stone statues. Herons stalked in the shallows, cormorants perched on the railings, and I looked out at the grasses standing knee-deep in clear water. Also, I spotted a Purple Gallinule, which had been on my bucket list since I was a kid. At nighttime, we shone our flashlights on alligators drifting beneath the boardwalk, then hiked through the forest, watching weird green fireflies. Simply incredible.  

Zion Canyon, 2011. My couchsurfing/HelpX hosts in Salt Lake City took me to Zion while I was staying with them— I had dreamed of visiting since I was a kid, and the landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen! I hiked to the top of Angels Landing despite my fear of heights, which was an accomplishment I’m still proud of.

Looking off the edge of the cliff at Angels Landing

Grand Canyon, 2011. The Grand Canyon was everything I hoped it would be— vast beyond comprehension, beautiful beyond description, alien and incomparable. I couchsurfed with a host who had an RV, and we spent three days hiking, crashing a party for Canyon employees, and watching the sun set and rise over the North Rim. Zach and I hope to hike to the bottom someday.

Petrified Forest, 2011 and 2012. This eerie desert landscape, once a swamp full of trees, has a haunting feel to it that is both unsettling and fascinating. Located roughly in the middle of nowhere, this park is dazzling both in the details (fragments of petrified wood, huge cross-sections of logs scattered across the sand) and the landscape (the painted desert is exactly what it sounds like). Definitely worth the stop if you’re in the area.

Zach and I hiked this path that snakes through "the pyramids."

Redwood, 2012. Zach and I visited here together, hiking a loop through these ancient, impossibly huge trees and along the coast. Near the end it got dark, and I remember a breathless speed-walk of the last mile or two, winding our way through the moss-drenched forest. (I’m honestly not sure if we were on state park or national park territory for that particular hike, but close enough!)

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the seven we hiked through on the PCT!


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Farmers Markets: Pros and Cons

Bounty from several weeks ago: Swiss chard (I cut off the roots and planted them in the garden, and they grew new leaves! A couple months later, I'm still eating them), pastured eggs, strawberries (sweetest berries I've ever had), parsley plant (since devoured by the rabbits), chive plant (still alive and well on my front porch), sweet basil (likewise flourishing), heirloom tomatoes, natural deodorant, homemade soap.

On most Saturday mornings for the past couple months, I’ve been packing up my backpack with reusable bags, grabbing a fistful of cash, and trekking my way to the St. Charles Farmers Market. Sometimes I only buy a dozen eggs, or a couple tomatoes; occasionally I’ll buy so much that it’s hard to carry it all home. I have a love-hate relationship with the market, as I am encouraged by my higher ideals and discouraged by my love of convenience. In the end, it’s a matter of figuring out whether the pros outweigh the cons for you. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Con: It’s inconvenient...
Zach works at Walmart, and it’s definitely easier for me to ask him to grab some peppers on his way out than it is for me to walk a three-mile round trip just to find out that no one is selling peppers today. A once-a-week farmers market requires clearing your schedule just for that activity, something that may not be feasible for busy people. 

It's a really cool instrument.
Pro: ...but it’s a fun experience.
The St. Charles Farmers Market, while smaller than most, has live music and pretty booths to peruse. I always like seeing what the farmers have each week, as well as looking at home-baked bread, woodworking products, hand-crocheted hats, seedlings, jams and jellies, and other miscellaneous items. When I’m in other cities, going to a farmers market can be a great tourist attraction! (I’d never seen someone play a hurdy-gurdy until I visited the market in Bellingham, WA.) 

Con: There isn’t consistent selection or much variety...
Whenever cookbooks (which are usually written by someone who lives on the coasts) talks about finding “heirloom carrots” or “quail eggs” or even “rutabagas” at “your local farmers market,” I sarcastically laugh at my book. I’m grateful to have a market within walking distance (which is more than most people can say), but I can never go there with a list because I never know what will be available. Also, farmers sometimes sell out quickly, which is why The Saga of Trying to Buy Pastured Eggs before They Sell Out has been an ongoing struggle for me the past few weeks.

Pro: ...which encourages you to eat with the seasons.
Other than Blizzard flavors at Dairy Queen, I had no concept of seasonal eating until recently. People are designed to eat different foods at different times of the year, when the produce are at their peak freshness. (In other words, there’s no reason to eat a fresh tomato in winter.) If you buy most of your produce at the farmers market, seasonal eating will happen naturally, and you’ll learn to enjoy food straight off the vine, rather than packed away, shipped across the country, and artificially ripened. The selection at a market may be limited, but whatever you get is going to taste amazing!

Con: It’s more expensive...
When the eggs at Aldi are selling for 79¢, buying a $4 carton of eggs requires a strong belief in the quality of the product. If you shop regularly at the farmers market, your grocery bill will go up.

Pro: ...but you’re supporting local farmers.
In the case of the eggs, that extra $3.21 is worth it to me because the eggs are coming from hens who roam around and eat bugs all day in the sunshine, rather than living in a factory farm. I want to support people who believe in keeping chickens this way. Small farmers can’t hope to afford to sell their goods at a competitive price to industrial, government-subsidized farms. At a farmers market, you can meet the people who are growing your food and understand what they value. A lot of small farmers grow their crops organically (though they can’t afford the certification), or at least more ethically than big-business operations (for instance, a local strawberry farm mulches with straw instead of disposable plastic, and only sprays pesticides when the plants are seedlings, rather than the ripe fruit). Small- and medium-sized farms are a cause that I believe in, so I’m willing to support them. Whenever I feel stressed about spending that much money on produce, I remind myself, “Imagine that you’re donating $5 to support local agriculture... and you get free tomatoes.”

Farmers markets aren’t feasible for everyone, and like I said, I still have mixed feelings about the clash between my ideals and the practical world. Still, if you’re looking for a fun, seasonal activity that supports local and sustainable agriculture, it’s a great place to start.


Monday, August 22, 2016

This Week (Wanderlust, Demolition, and a Whole Lot of Cornfields)

“People say that Missouri is just one big cornfield. That’s not true at all! ...This is a soybean year.” 
~a Missouri joke I heard somewhere

An old photo, along the Katy Trail. I didn't take any pictures yesterday because I was experiencing the moment.

This weekend has been packed full of stuff. I volunteered for several hours at a beer booth at Festival of the Little Hills to raise money for the Frenchtown Heritage Museum, then stayed up till almost midnight that night playing board games with friends (even a couple rounds of Nerts, a stressful card game that has driven me to violence in the past). Yesterday, between church, spending time with family, and taking a scenic drive to Alton for dinner, I felt like I had three days’ worth of activities packed into one. Wonderful, but tiring!

Today, Zach and his brother Francis have been working on a room in our garage, tearing off the walls to prepare for turning it into a habitable space for Francis to rent. While they demolish stuff, I’ve been folding laundry and washing dishes and listening to Beatles and The Who, as usual.

After I wrote the mini-series about contentment last week, I found ample opportunities to practice what I preached. A breath of cool weather washed over St. Louis, bringing the promise of autumn— as well as a sudden, intense, always-experienced-but-somehow-never-expected surge of wanderlust in my heart. I blame Tolkien for conditioning me to feel that September is the month of travel (but it does work out well, with air fare dropping significantly after Labor Day). I looked at a map of the US and poked around restlessly on Google Maps. I distracted myself. I tried to allow myself to feel the wanderlust without judgement. I read Rocket Llama’s comics about her PCT hike (they are AMAZING). I started work on my own memoir, even though it hurt. I played a lot of piano and sang impromptu songs about my feelings, because that’s how I roll.

Yesterday, I finally told Zach, “I feel like I need to get out. Can we go eat dinner in Alton?” Alton is a tourist town across the Mississippi River on the north side of St. Louis, a stop on the way to my favorite hiking spot, Peremarquette State Park. Zach agreed, and we hopped in the car, windows rolled down to enjoy the cool air.

Instead of taking the fastest route, a web of highways through North County, we headed straight north from our house. Here, about five minutes of driving takes us out of St. Charles and into the outskirts— the remnants of the small-town living that once dominated the area. Here we see a racetrack with bumpers made of old tires, a building with heavy columns and a light-up Budweiser sign out front, dilapidated farmhouses next to modern bungalows (taking their chances on the floodplain), a white VFW post with neat rows of picnic tables out back, a red-tailed hawk perched on a telephone pole, teenagers joy-riding in tractors, forests with gravel roads delving into them, a mailbox painted like an American flag, a factory churning out smoke, ditches filled with water from the latest flood dotted with great snowy egrets, wooden signs for the Alton Lake Sailing Club, parking lots for people’s boats, a roadside stand selling peaches, huge power lines stretching into the distance, and acres upon acres of cornfields, brown for the harvest. Errant clouds drifted across the sky, and the sun was low, casting a golden glow over everything. 

As we drove, I felt my muscles unknot and my body relax. I looked over the vast floodplain, details great and small that are both familiar and new. My family always used to take this route to Peremarquette, the long drive’s anticipation being part of the experience. Nostalgia rose in my heart, not only for the past but for the present moment. I imagined myself old and gray, talking to my grandchildren, telling them how I remember when that Super-Mega-Suburb-Complex was just a giant cornfield. I almost cried thinking about it. But then I perked up and told Zach, “Or maybe they’ll just turn this whole area into a wetlands preserve and heal the land of the damage the farming’s done.” That was a better idea. I was going with that.

I leaned back as the miles rolled by, gazing into the distance at the columns of white rock jutting out from the green bluffs across the river. And I smiled, because despite any pull I have toward other places, despite how much I might struggle every time autumn arrives, I know that I am a Midwestern gal, through and through. My roots are here, not trapping me, but nourishing me. This is home. This is mine. This is right here, right now— and it’s beautiful.


Friday, August 19, 2016

To Those Who Read My Ridiculously Long PCT Memoir

Some of you, a dedicated (or crazy) few, read the blog series in which I chronicled Zach’s and my 2,660-mile journey. It was a long series. 226,511 words, to be precise. And some of you were along for most or all of the journey.

First of all, thank you. I don’t think I can properly convey how good it was for me to post my story, knowing that people were listening and understanding what I went through. 

Now, the real purpose for this post. I may... or may not... possibly... be kicking around the idea of taking this monster of a blog series and distilling it into a book. POSSIBLY. It’s a massive undertaking, and my teaching job is about to start up, and I have a busy semester ahead... but the idea of actually making a proper book out of my journey has come to the forefront of my head.

So I wanted to ask those of you who read some or all of my story if you would answer a few questions for me:

1. What were your favorite stories from the blog series? (Bonus points if you can identify the common themes of the stories you liked.)

2. What part of the writing was your favorite— description, dialogue, stories about trail angels, stories about other hikers, thoughts, something else?

3. If you were to pick up a book about a PCT hike, what kind of story would you be looking for— a travel memoir, a series of fun stories, a thought-provoking slice-of-life narrative, a picture of day-to-day trail life, an inspiring follow-your-dream novel, something else?

Thanks in advance for your help!


Thursday, August 18, 2016


I love trees. I have a Tolkien-esque appreciation of them, forming emotional attachments to particular trees in the way that most people do to pets. I love the many-toothed leaf mosaic of silver maples, the deeply-creviced bark of pin oaks, the minty taste of sassafras twigs, the towering heights of a Douglas fir, the tart fruit of the mulberry. But if I had to pick a favorite kind of tree, I would say cottonwoods.

These huge, fast-growing trees love the river, and survive through the summers even when they’re knee-deep in flood waters. Their knotty limbs give homes to squirrels and orioles, food to woodpeckers and beetles, and lookout spots to birds of prey. Cottonwoods turn green before the other trees stir in the spring, and in mid-August, the large heart-shaped leaves begin to fade to yellow before the signs of autumn show up anywhere else. In between, they release their seeds in clouds of cotton, much to the chagrin of anyone with allergies. In late spring, when I walk through the park, it looks like it’s snowing.

My favorite part about cottonwood trees, though, are the way their leaves move in the wind. The leaves have a long stem and a waxy finish, so when the breeze stirs them, they flutter wildly, clacking against each other, their shiny surfaces catching the sunlight. As a kid I called them “tambourine trees” because of their glimmering movement and the magical clattering sound.

Last weekend, I walked through Frontier Park in the morning, watching the river gleam silver under the cloudy sky. I felt a rush of honestly cool air— something I hadn’t felt since spring— and I heard the cottonwood leaves rattle in the wind. I looked up to see the yellow-tipped leaves tossing back and forth. I breathed out into the cool air, and felt my eyes grow watery. Summer is drawing to an close. Autumn is coming.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Further Reading about Contentment

Here are a few articles that have shaped my perspective in the past few months. All of these blogs are well worth following, too!

All You Need, You Already Have by Zen Habits. The practice of gratitude that he suggests has been life-changing for me.

Owning Less Is Great. Wanting Less Is Better. by Becoming Minimalist. This sums up the perspective shift that’s essential for contentment. (Also, Joshua Becker’s book, The More of Less, is really good! I like the way he defines minimalism not as “getting rid of stuff,” but as living a life focused on what is most important.)

Have You Missed Your Life’s Calling? Probably Not. by The Art of Simple. A great reminder to combat worry by living the life we’ve been given.

Take a Walk Around the Lake by Be More with Less. A wonderful post about focusing on the gifts of life that are right at our fingertips.

What articles/books/blogs would you add to this list?


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Finding Enough

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
~Ecclesiastes 5:10 

At what point do I have “enough?”

In my journey to discover contentment in a deeper way, this is a question I keep running up against. What defines “enough” for me, and what does that look like on a practical level? 

Trying to address this issue is hard for me, because aside from a brief stint in my teenaged years, I’ve never spent much money on material goods. I don’t try to “keep up with the Joneses” in obvious ways. I’d rather run my shoes into the ground than get a new pair. I make do without, and would rather think about buying stuff than actually buy it. I’m a utilitarian at heart— I don’t enjoy owning things, only using them.

As such, I don’t often identify with blogs about materialism or greed because they don’t specifically address the way I feel about material goods. A couple years back I learned that I have a strange brand of materialism— I defined myself by what I didn’t buy instead of what I did, thus drawing my identity from stuff. I’ve been keeping an eye on that part of my personality, but in my journey toward greater contentment, I realized that a more normal, straightforward kind of attitude about material goods is so deeply ingrained in me that it took me this long to notice it.

As I was talking about in my previous blog post, the root of this issue is comparing what is to what should be— and letting cultural norms define what should be looks like.

For example, for a long time whenever people would ask if I was buying such-and-such expensive thing, I’d just laugh and say, “No, we’re poor!” Or, when we moved into our 830-square-foot house, I battled feeling like we didn’t have enough space because the house was smaller than “normal.” I’ll often look at something I want to buy and think, with a martyred sort of attitude, “We can’t afford that.” 

Buying the house was one of my first wake-up calls— I was shocked by how pouty I felt, even though it was obvious that this was an awesome house we were blessed to own and my standard was completely arbitrary. It’s uncomfortable to feel greedy emotions when your logical side can clearly see that you’re being ridiculous. But it’s a good sort of uncomfortable. It makes you think.

And so I cycled back to the question of “What is enough?” This is where it gets tricky, because everyone has a different definition. Is “enough” being able to pay your bills without draining your bank account? Is it having enough cash to visit the doctor for a check-up every other year? Enough so that you can buy a new couch or take that cruise you’ve been talking about for ten years? Does “enough” mean that you can afford a smartphone, organic tomato sauce, medical insurance, takeout pizza every Friday, a trip to visit your family in Oregon, a root canal for the tooth that’s rotting out of your head, a cup of nice coffee, a date at the dollar theater, a set of matching dishes, more than two pairs of jeans, a remodel of the moldy bathroom, Christmas presents for everyone, craft beer, nice athletic shoes, a set of essential oils, a Coach purse? 

The answer is different for everyone, and in thinking about this question, it’s essential to focus on ourselves instead of judging other people. The moment you start dragging other people into this problem, you’re grappling with that fantasy “should be” world again, which is less than helpful. Forget about other people— what is enough for you?

As a North American with no debt and a steady source of income, I began to realize that I was telling myself an untrue story by thinking of myself as “poor” compared to other people. Zach and I are low-income by North American standards, but we are definitely not poor. We live happily, and quite comfortably, on our income. I realized that my vocabulary and my perspective had to radically change.

Here are some practical steps I’ve been taking to find “enough” in my life.

Say “I’d like” instead of “I need.”
This one is harder than I thought it would be. Usually I use the phrase offhandedly— “I need another pair of jeans.” “I need to pick up some milk.”— or humorously— “I need a phone like that!” “I need a vacation!” But words subtly shape our thoughts, and this is no exception. Your brain moves nonessential things from wants to needs, and that creates a mindset that is not suited to contentment. Changing my vocabulary is very important: saying “I’d like” instead of “I need,” even for items that seemed perfectly normal to “need,” such as eggs, another bookshelf, or a pair of tennis shoes to replace my broken ones, is powerful.

Treat everything like a luxury.
I’m honestly not sure how well this would work across the board, but for me personally, it’s been a game-changer. It happened pretty naturally after we got off the PCT— after five months of living with only food, water, basic shelter, and one set of clothes, I became extremely grateful for running water, chairs, fried food, and a host of other luxuries that I took for granted before. Whenever it rains (especially when said rain gets in the way of plans I’ve made), I try to always say, “I’m so glad I’m not hiking in this,” or “I’m so glad I have a roof instead of a tent over my head right now.” Drawing my attention to this simple contrast helps me to remember the luxury that I live in every day.

Cultivate gratitude.
Yes, you know. Everyone says this. Gratitude is the cure for greed, “Create an attitude of gratitude,” other corny sayings, etc. etc. But it’s a cliché for a reason. When I was struggling with depression over the winter, I took a walk along the river almost every day and wrote down what I saw that was interesting or beautiful (“Today, a cold breeze stirred the frozen sand, blowing the grains like a tiny desert storm”). Every day, I’d read over my previous entries and remember what I had seen each day. Again, a gratitude journal sounds trite, but noticing the little things you’re thankful for really does start to shape your perspective over time.

Change your definition of “enough” to fit what you already have.
Honestly, not everyone has the basics they need. But the vast majority of North Americans, myself included, can look around themselves and see that they have enough. More than enough. I have beans and rice in my pantry, books on my shelves, a nice walking trail nearby, a roof that doesn’t leak, friends and family, a dresser full of clothes, a jar full of change. Right here, right now, without changing anything, is enough. The key to this shift in perspective, though, is truly believing this on a gut level. It takes practice and determination. But this new view on life is definitely worth the work.

For me personally, this year has been an exercising in learning that I really do have everything I need, and so much more! This practical contentment has made me feel much more rooted and solid, not to mention more grateful— not only for my possessions, but for my life in general.