7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

My article about urban homesteading was featured on CustomMade blog this week, accompanied by some beautiful graphics. I’ll have lots more articles coming out soon! Jump on over to my portfolio or Contently page to see my latest published work.

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

By Abby Quillen

I grew up in a fairly typical late-20th-century family. We lived a few blocks from the center of town. We bought all of our food at a chain grocery store—and much of it was instant, frozen, or packaged. I’d never spent much time around livestock or farms, but at a young age, I longed to grow a garden, bake bread, and cook from scratch.

When I was in college, I pored over back issues of Mother Earth News and devoured Living the Good Life, Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir about homesteading in Vermont, which helped launch the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. At the same time, I loved living close to a city center—riding my bike and walking everywhere, spending the afternoon at the library or swimming pool, going to book readings and events, and living close to my friends. It was hard to imagine leaving all of it behind, although I always thought I might.

When my husband and I were considering buying our first house, we realized we might be able to combine the best of urban living with the best of the back-to-the-land movement. We weren’t alone: Around the time our son was born in 2008, a lot of people were talking about “urban homesteading.”

What is urban homesteading? In short, it looks different for every family. For mine, it means we live in a regular, ranch-style house in the city. In our backyard, we have a small flock of three chickens and a large vegetable garden that provides us with peas, greens, tomatoes, corn, squash, beans, and herbs. We compost. We cook nearly all of our meals from scratch, including bread, tortillas, and pizza crust, and we brew beer. We chop wood to heat our house, and we hang our laundry on a clothesline. We make most of our own household cleaners and personal care products out of simple ingredients, like baking soda and vinegar. Biking is our main form of transit. And we try to be intentional about the things we buy. For other families, urban homesteading includes keeping bees, raising rabbits, making clothes, or preserving food.

More than anything, urban homesteading is a mindset. It turns us from consumers who are disconnected from where our food and belongings come from into producers who use our hands to make some of what we need to live. Most of us have little desire to be as self-sufficient as the original homesteaders had to be and the back-to-the-landers strived to be. In my family’s case, we’re thrilled to take advantage of all of the wonderful elements of urban life, including farmer’s markets and grocery stores as well as chocolate, coffee, and cultural events.

In some areas, urban homesteading has become mainstream. Where I live in Eugene, Oregon, nearly everyone I know has a vegetable garden and a flock of backyard hens. It’s no wonder the movement is picking up steam. There are many excellent reasons to celebrate the revolution.

1. Homegrown food is safer, more nutritious, and tastes better.

When the latest salmonella or e-coli outbreak dominates the headlines, it’s comforting to know exactly where your food comes from and how it’s raised. And because vitamin content is depleted by light, temperature, and time, freshly picked produce grown near your house is more nutritious than conventional produce, which is transported an average of 1,494 miles before it reaches the grocery store.

An even more delicious reason to celebrate homegrown food is the flavor. Gourmet chefs use the freshest ingredients they can find for a reason. The first time I cooked one of the eggs laid by our hens, I couldn’t believe how large and yellow the yolk was or how delectable it tasted. And it’s easy to appreciate novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s zeal for sun-ripened garden tomatoes. “The first tomato brings me to my knees,” she writes. “Its vital stats are recorded in my journal with the care of a birth announcement.”

2. Urban homesteading encourages healthy movement.

When I started gardening and making more things around the house and yard, I noticed a side effect: I felt better. It’s not surprising. Digging the dandelions out of a raised bed, brewing an India Pale Ale, and peeling potatoes fall in line with the sort of daily activities most important for maintaining a healthy body weight, according to research conducted by Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic. In Levine’s study, people were fed an extra thousand calories a day. Those who did the most daily non-exercise activity (as opposed to deliberate exercise for fitness) gained the least weight.

Non-Exercise Activity Helps Maintain a Healthy Body

And in a nine-country European breast cancer study, of all the activities and recreational exercise women partook in, household activity—including housework, home repair, gardening, and stair climbing—was the only activity to significantly reduce breast cancer risk.

We hear a lot about the dangers of sitting, and most of us have to sit for some part of the day. But increasing our movement in our daily lives can make a huge difference for our health and the way we feel.

3. Urban homesteading helps families connect with nature and the seasons.

Growing up in Colorado, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time hiking and camping. Gardening has given me an even more intimate connection with the natural world, since now I must work with it as a co-creator. And it has given my two young sons a wonderful relationship with plants and seasonal rhythms. They love the garden and beg to help plant seeds, pull weeds, and harvest. Every time one of them asks me if it’s pea or fig season yet, or recognizes an edible plant in someone’s yard, I smile. Those may seem like simple things, but for me as a kid, produce was something that was shipped across the country and delivered to a refrigerated section of the grocery store.

4. Urban homesteading is thrifty. 

It’s no coincidence the urban homesteading boom coincided with a worldwide economic recession. If you build your soil, save seeds, and tend your garden well, you can save hundreds of dollars on organic produce each season by growing your own. Keeping chickens can also save you money. We estimate that our eggs cost $3.35 a dozen (in organic chicken feed) at the most, compared to $5 to $7 for similar eggs at the health food store. However, we were lucky to inherit our chicken coop, so others may have to include that expense as well.

Cooking from scratch saves us the most money. It’s not just that making stock, microbrews, and bread products from bulk ingredients is cheaper than buying them. As we’ve become better chefs, we’re also not as apt to go to restaurants, which used to be a huge drain on our finances.

Save Money in the Garden: 5 Tips for Thrifty Growing

5. Turning a lawn into a homestead makes productive use of land and supports healthier ecosystems.

In the memoir Paradise Lot, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates recount how they transformed their backyard—one-tenth of an acre of compacted soil in Holyoke, Massachusetts—into a permaculture oasis where they grow about 160 edible perennials. What was once a barren lot is now habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms. “Imagine what would happen,” Toensmeier writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”

Most of us don’t have the skills or desire to garden on the scale that Toensmeier and Bates do. But by planting a few vegetables, herbs, or fruit trees, we create habitats for birds, butterflies, and pollinators. And by composting kitchen waste, chicken manure, and fallen leaves, we improve the ecosystem that supports all life.

6. Gardening and creating things boosts the spirits.

Author Matthew Crawford traded his job at a Washington think tank for a career fixing motorcycles because working with his hands made him feel more alive. “Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day,” Crawford writes.

We’ve all experienced the thrill that comes from making or fixing something. In her book Lifting Depression, neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert explains that association. “When we knit a sweater, prepare a meal, or simply repair a lamp, we’re actually bathing our brain in ‘feel-good’ chemicals,” she explains. Lambert contends that in our drive to do less physical work to acquire what we want and need, we may have lost something vital to our mental well-being—an innate resistance to depression.

I can attest to what Lambert says. Almost nothing is as satisfying as appraising a finished scarf or jar of sauerkraut, or cutting the first slice off a loaf of homemade bread. I have no doubt that creating something with my hands every day—even a meal—is imperative for my mental health.

7. Urban homesteading encourages families to live, work, and buy more intentionally.

These days, before we buy something impulsively, my husband and I are more likely to ask ourselves some simple questions. Can we make, fix, or do this ourselves, and is it worth the time and energy? Sometimes the answer is no. For me, canning and making clothing are not worth the effort. But just asking these questions makes our family more intentional about how we live and work, and what we buy.

As a society, we’re often encouraged to make decisions based on two variables: time and labor. When it comes to household tasks, it’s usually seen as preferable to save both time and labor. While making a stew will take longer and require more physical work than buying a can, the process is enjoyable and good for the body. In addition, the homemade variety is healthier, tastes better, and brings greater satisfaction. Equations look different when you add in all of the variables.

I hardly think of my family as urban homesteaders anymore, because the parts of the lifestyle that once seemed foreign and daunting, such as gardening, composting, and cooking from scratch, are now routine. They help us stay connected and make our lives feel richer. It’s powerful to produce some of what we need to survive, especially food.

Growing Cycle

Click to Enlarge Image

Pause. Relax. Breathe. Plan.

Photo: Rennett Stowe

Photo: Rennett Stowe


Last week, I realized I lost a lot of images in my blog conversion. It was an awful feeling to scan through my older posts and see years of pictures wiped out. I spent a night feeling pretty devastated.

But the next day, as I scrolled through old blog posts looking at the damage, I couldn’t help but look at the other things too, like all of these words I’ve worked so hard to write week after week, year after year. All these stories, memories, and ideas. How much my kids have changed. How much I’ve changed.

So often we don’t take these moments to pause and reflect on how we’ve evolved and where we’re going. We keep navigating forward, one foot in front of the other, without stepping back to reflect, analyze, brainstorm, and strategize.

That’s why I’ve decided to see The Case of the Missing Photos (Have I mentioned Ezra is crazy about mystery novels right now?) as a message to do just that.

So for the next two weeks, I’ll be taking my own little managing retreat to think about my business, my writing, and my short and long term goals. I’ll be pausing, relaxing, breathing, and planning.

It feels like the perfect time to think about the future and growth, with the sun shining and the flowers and trees just starting to come to life here.

As for all of those lost images, I’ve thankfully recovered quite a few and have some tricks to pursue for the rest. I’m ever hopeful, and I’ll see you back here in a couple weeks!

Have you taken time to pause, relax, breathe, and plan lately? Do you need to? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

7 Ways a Kitchen Timer Can Improve Your Life

Photo by Michael Cory

Photo by Michael Cory


Someday I will spend a few weeks at a cabin in the woods or an isolated beach house with no clocks. I’d love to let nature’s rhythms and my own perception take precedence over the ticking of clock hands. But right now my life requires some scheduling, and I’m embracing the power of a simple tool that most of us have on our cell phone, oven, or stuffed in a cupboard somewhere — a timer.

Here are seven ways a timer has improved my daily routines and might improve yours:

1. End procrastination

At the beginning of January, Copyblogger’s Sonia Simone advised bloggers to set a timer and write for 20 minutes every day in January. I didn’t think much of it. I have to write for more than 20 minutes if I want to finish anything, I thought to myself. But I heeded Simone’s advice, and I was far more productive last month. Committing to a short amount of time eliminated my resistance to getting started. And once I’ve started, 20 minutes nearly always turns into more.

2. Prevent sibling fights

My boys inspired my love affair with the timer. At two and five, they finally play together. They also squabble a lot. “It’s my airplane.” “Mine.” “Mom, he took my plane.” “He hit me, so I had to hit him back.” You get the picture. Well, would you believe that a timer puts a stop to all of it? Each boy gets two minutes with whatever toy is en vogue and then they switch. Researchers believe humans are hard-wired to desire fairness. Sure enough, once my boys know they’ll get equal time, the fighting stops. It’s magic.

3. Tame cleaning pitfalls

Housework: it can be hard to get started on it or it can eat up your entire life. Setting a timer solves both problems. We often set one in the evenings or on weekend mornings, turn on music, and clean together as a family for 30 to 45 minutes. It’s amazing how much we get done in a short time and how much fun it is when we do it together.

4. Improve focus at work

The Pomodoro Technique teaches people how to manage work time better using a kitchen timer. The idea is to get everything ready for a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and stick with the task until it dings. Then take a break and do it again. Do this all day long, and you’ll train yourself to stop multitasking. I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique, but I utilize another technique that encourages me to schedule my work in small, focused units – working at home with two little boys.

5. Limit mindless activities

A timer is not only great for helping you to get started and focus, it can help you stop wasting time. Most of us have seen hours dissolve while blog-hopping or scrolling through status updates, and it never feels great. Next time you go online, decide what you want to do there and set a timer. The trickiest part is forcing yourself to actually stop when it dings. But in my experience, mindful online time is more fun and fulfilling.

6. Ensure quality time

Many childhood development experts say that connected parenting requires 30 minutes a day of undivided attention. Marriage likely improves under similar conditions. With dishes, laundry, and deadlines always looming and sometimes taking over entire sections of the house, it can be tempting to drop each other off the to-do list. But a simple timer can help you reserve time for connection.

7. Carve out alone time

According to studies, meditation can relieve anxiety, lower blood pressure, boost immunity, reduce inflammation, and on and on. But I wonder if part of meditation’s power is in simply setting aside time every day to be alone and do something quiet and restful. I imagine you’d notice benefits from setting a timer and walking, exercising, stretching, playing music, or mindfully doing anything everyday.

Have you discovered ways to use a kitchen timer to improve your life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Ditch the Life Coach and Do the Daily Chores

july garden 005

“When I was thirty five, I looked up one day and realized that I hadn’t had a life. … I had a hint of what I’d been missing. Laundry. And not just laundry, but what laundry gives us: an honest encounter with ourselves before we’re freshened and fluffed and sanitized. Before we have ourselves put together again.” – Karen Maezen Miller

When I quit my job to work at home, I was perplexed by the chores that swelled up to fill my every waking moment. “I can be on my feet every second, never stopping, and still the house is a disaster,” another mom lamented to me. I nodded. My boys are gifted at making messes. Recently, when I left the room for thirty seconds, they managed to cover every inch of the living room with a couple of board games — tiny tokens and piles of cards and fake money strewn everywhere. When I first started at this mothering thing, it was tempting to dream about hiring a housekeeper or paring down our wardrobes to two pairs each or replacing all of the dishes with disposables. But soon I realized that the chores were like any other problem. What they needed was my attention.

My feelings about the daily chores have transformed remarkably over the years. They’re messy and monotonous and always there like a gnat buzzing around your head. But as Karen Maezen Miller so beautifully points out in Hand Wash Cold, they are life. And they are incredible life coaches. It would be silly to trek across the world in search of the meaning of it all or to hire an expensive life coach when we can likely find all of the answers we need right here in the dishes and laundry. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned from the daily chores:

It’s impossible to do anything well if you can’t focus on one thing at a time.

I used to do a few dishes and then wander over to the washing machine and start filling it and then start making a bed and then head back to the dishes for a few minutes and on and on like that all morning long. Then I realized that I felt distracted and frenzied, and nothing at all actually got done.

So I started making a simple checklist. I forced myself to do one thing all the way until the end, crossed it out, and began the next thing. Sometimes this was not easy. Everything in me told me to walk away from the sink. But I stayed. I washed every single dish. I put them away. And then I moved on to laundry. The chores whipped my distracted mind into shape. I probably don’t have to tell you that this focus and discipline transformed my work and every other aspect of my life.

It’s therapeutic to work with your hands.

I like doing the dishes. There, I said it. I do them after every meal and every snack. It’s easier to stay caught up. But in the winter, when the house is cold, I also gravitate toward the warm, sudsy water. Combined with the meditative work of dish washing, it feels, well, healing. My two year old seems to know this. He can spend all day perched at the sink “washing dishes”.

In Lifting Depression, Dr. Kelly Lambert says that when we use our hands and see tangible results from our efforts, our brains are bathed in fell-good chemicals. In this way, all of the daily chores can be as therapeutic as the dishes – making beds, sweeping, folding laundry. We’re using our own two hands to transform our world and make it more beautiful. There’s power in that.

It feels good to do things for other people.

My husband and I used to never fold each other’s laundry. I’d fold and put away my own and the kids’ and leave my husband’s in a basket for him. He said he preferred it that way. Then he got really behind for quite a few weeks, so I folded and put away his laundry for him and discovered something surprising. It made me happy. I felt great to help my husband. He works hard for our family, and here was something I could do to make his life easier.

It probably shouldn’t have surprised me. Helping people makes us happy. A number of studies show that people who give time, money, or support to others are themselves happier and more satisfied. Chores are an act of giving and serving each other. And oh how grateful I am when my husband makes dinner and does countless other chores every day.

Happiness is not something we find, it’s something we make.

There’s no doubt, the chores can be miserable. I’ve spent enough resentment-packed afternoons cleaning the house to know that. But they can also be a lot of fun. When I was a kid, I regularly ate breakfast at my best friend’s house. Her parents made hearty, delicious breakfasts, but what I loved was what happened after breakfast. They turned on music and the entire family cleaned up together. We had a blast talking, singing, dancing and cleaning together, and by the time we left for school, the entire house was spotless. That’s when I realized how magical chores can be. My boys aren’t quite old enough to be real helpers yet. But music or a good podcast are wonderful at transforming the chores into something I look forward to. After all, it’s up to me to make the chores into something that adds to my life.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to life.

Housework may seem innocuous and unassuming, but just beneath it lurks a minefield of gender politics. Many an online forum and a kitchen table have exploded over who should take care of the children and do the housework. And most of us probably carry around scars and baggage from those feuds.

But the chores have to get done. We have to figure out what works, not for politicians or activists, but for us, for our marriages, for our kids, and for our families. And in doing that hard work, the chores can offer us a profound lesson in looking inward and negotiating the sort of lives we want.

What lessons have you learned from the daily chores? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Welcome to New Urban Habitat 2.0


Thanks for your patience. I’m still tinkering, but my big move and redesign is mostly done. If you usually read in a reader, come on over and take a look around!

Last week, we found out what it takes to bring Eugene, Oregon to a standstill. Eight inches of snow and seven days of freezing temperatures. School was cancelled for five days, leaving my teacher husband at home. When I first moved here eleven years ago, I chuckled when we experienced a dusting of snow and everyone panicked and raced home from work.

But this storm was icy, even by Colorado standards. The temperature was nine below zero one morning. Of course, it doesn’t help that the city is ill prepared for snow and ice, so traffic (and sidewalk) conditions were treacherous until the temperature rose.

We did every snow-related activity we could think of. Cross-country skiing around the neighborhood. Check. Careening down steep hills on sleds. Check. Snow angels. Snowball fights. Snow people. And that was just day one.



I should mention that we’re not used to having my husband at home. It’s not that we don’t love having him. It’s just that our routines suddenly seem like a foreign language. Laundry? Nap? Play dates? Deadlines? Work?


It always takes awhile for us to adjust and start getting things done, which usually coincides with his return to work. The good news is, he usually emerges with a special appreciation for the challenges and absurdities of the work-at-home life. “What you do here,” he said on Friday, after filling us in on his first day back at work. “It’s not easy.”

I must confess that as much as I loved gliding through our stilled neighborhood as fluffy snowflakes fluttered down and a layer of white carpeted the houses and towering Douglas firs, I was thrilled to see the green grass and vegetation reappear yesterday. We went on a bike ride to celebrate, with bonus points for anyone who could find one of the last remaining piles of slush to ride through. Perhaps I really am becoming an Oregonian.


Can Money Buy Happiness?

Photo: Aaron Patterson

Photo: Aaron Patterson

Money’s a horrid thing to follow, but a charming thing to meet. – Henry James

Several months ago, I realized that money makes a lot of people miserable. In our household, paying bills was a source of anxiety, and many of my friends were feeling a similar financial squeeze. An older friend came into a sizable sum of money, but it didn’t exactly bring him joy; he vexed over how he should invest it and whether it would be enough for retirement. Then two close friends got into a feud – and I suspected a monetary transaction was at the root of it.

That’s when someone introduced me to the concept of the gift economy, which Charles Eisenstein articulates in his book, Sacred Economics. His contention is that money has “contributed to alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth.”

“One of the things I talk about,” says Eisenstein in a beautiful film about the book, “is the sense of wrongness that I had as a child. I think most kids have some sense that it’s not supposed to be this way. For example, that you’re not supposed to actually hate Monday and be happy when you don’t have to go to school. School should be something that you love. Life should be something that you love.

Eisenstein and other gift economy proponents argue it’s time for us to move toward a non-monetary economy.  “We didn’t earn any of the things that keep us alive or that make life good. … We didn’t earn being able to breathe. We didn’t earn having a planet that can provide food. We didn’t earn the sun. So I think that on some level people have this in-born gratitude. … In a gift economy, it’s not true the way it is in our money economy that everyone’s in competition with everyone else. In a gift economy when you have more than you need, you give it, and that’s how you receive status.

Gift economics is compelling, and Sacred Economics, the book and film, are worth exploring. The Creative Commons, wikis, and open source are examples of successful gift economies in action, and I’m sure we’ll see many more in the future. Eisenstein says he tries to bring the ideal of a gift economy into his own life by, for instance, letting people pay whatever they wish for the materials he self publishes.

The chain Panera Bread has famously experimented with pay-what-you-can ideas, and locally, a few institutions are experimenting with gift economics. “We don’t sell anything,” the founder of a non-profit school told me. They do, however, actively fund-raise for monetary donations, which begs the question of how removed these institutions are (or can be) from the money economy.

On a personal level, I fear turning away from money would be as dysfunctional as chasing it. The gift economy seems to reflect something that many of us feel – an inner ambivalence about whether it is “good” to make money, to spend it, and to have material things. But money is here to stay. The question is: can making and spending it be a source of good in the world and in our lives?

Judy Wicks insists it can. I recently reviewed her memoir Good Morning, Beautiful Business for YES! Magazine. She opened Philadelphia’s famous White Dog Cafe, one of the first restaurants in the nation to feature local, organic, and humane food. The business made millions, which Wicks used to create sustainable business networks and build local economies across the country. “You can find a way to make economic exchange one of the most satisfying, meaningful, and loving of human interactions,” she writes.

Wicks inspired me to think about how I can transform earning, saving, and spending money into a more satisfying, joyful, and meaningful part of my life. To that end, I’ve been taking a moment when bills arrive to connect them with what I’m paying for. For instance, as I examine our electricity usage or mortgage bill, I remind myself of our warm, cozy, comfortable home, which brings us ample joy. I’m already noticing a new emotion arising when the postman drops off a stack of bills – gratitude.

I’ve also been exploring how I can use money to make the world better, even if in a micro way. I’m budgeting a little cash every month to give away anonymously. What a powerful exercise! I’m amazed by how hard it is to let go of cash. But it feels fabulous to use money, which is so often a source of discontent, to spread a little joy.

There’s no question that money and the pursuit of it causes a lot of misery and devastation in the world, but I hope I’m on my way to a healthier, more joyful relationship with it in my own life.

Do you feel conflicted about making and spending money? Have you found ways to make money a satisfying, joyful, and meaningful part of your life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

The Cost of Things

Caped Avengers 009

The past two weekends, my neighbors held a yard sale. Apparently my boys could smell commerce happening nearby, because within moments of awakening, they were at the window. “The neighbor has a tent on his lawn,” Ezra announced. Both boys spent most of the weekends outside asking questions and fondling nicknacks or glued to the window watching people come and go.

“We need a canoe.” “Ball next door!” “Mom, can we go look at the games again?” “My boat.” They managed to tote home a number of odd things from the free box, including a stained white plastic ball that looks like it came from the antenna of a Jeep, a telephone that would have been state-of-the-art when I was Ezra’s age, and a wide-brimmed hat that fits no one in the house.

These finds joined other relics that Ezra’s lugged home over the years, including a couple of other land-line telephones, a broken audio cassette recorder, and a microphone. Apparently our compulsion to collect stuff starts at a young age, and it only seems to escalate from there. On our recent camping trip, I was amazed by all the things people bring to “get away from it all” – super-sized motorhomes, patio furniture, dog beds and crates and yards. Of course, we toted our share of stuff back and forth from our car, although fortunately we were severely constricted by its compact size.

It’s not that I don’t love stuff. Every time I turn on my washing machine, drop into my bed at the end of the day, or turn on my computer, I am thankful for the material things that make our lives better. My goal is not necessarily to have less. I’m not on a mission to pare my belongings to 100 things as many bloggers have amazingly done. I just want to be intentional about what I bring into my life. I want to spend my money, time, and attention on things that bring me happiness and satisfaction. And I want to try to keep in mind a purchase’s entire life cycle: where did it come from and where will it end up?

In this issue of YES! Magazine (all about the “Human Cost of Stuff”) Annie Leonard says it well: “I’m neither for nor against stuff. I like stuff it’s well-made, honestly marketed, used for a long time, and at the end of its life recycled in a way that doesn’t trash the planet, poison people, or exploit workers. Our stuff should not be artifacts of indulgence and disposability, like toys that are forgotten 15 minutes after the wrapping comes off, but things that are both practical and meaningful.” (My review of Judy Wicks’ Good Morning, Beautiful Business is also in this issue. Check it out if you see a copy!)

Visiting second-hand stores helps me be more intentional about new purchases. All those cluttered shelves of hardly used, outdated appliances helps take the sheen off the marketing and shiny newness in box and department stores. Recently Ezra and I wandered through several used stores together. He’s been wanting a Leap Pad learning system, because he loves playing with his friend’s, and I heard used stores tend to have vast quantities of them. When the first three stores didn’t have one, Ezra was desperate to bring home something – anything. He insisted he would be happy with a pair of butterfly wings, a toy cash register, or a toy laptop instead of a Leap Pad. I convinced him to wait until we checked out the last store.

They had exactly what Ezra wanted, and it was just $5. “I’m so glad we waited,” Ezra beamed as he hugged his new Leap Pad. I’m hoping he learned something about being intentional about purchases. And for now, fortunately, the yard sales are over; please don’t let any of our neighbors open an ice cream cart.

Do you try to be intentional about your purchases? Do you have any tips to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Working At Home With Kids: A Survival Guide


When I decided to work at home a few years ago, a lot of people thought I was crazy. “You can’t work at home with little kids,” more than a few told me. On occasion (think: screaming toddler, ramshackle house, hungry cats, imminent deadline), I’ve agreed.  The work-at-home parent life is not always easy.

But most of the time I love it. I get to hang out with two charming little boys, spend lots of time outside and in my garden, see friends most days, and write. It’s a pretty wonderful gig. Here are some tricks I’ve learned to make it work if you too are doing the work-at-home life or contemplating it.

  • Divide the day

In the mornings, I do the house chores, including making a healthy lunch and sometimes dinner in advance.  Mid morning, we often meet friends or go to the park, on a walk, or to the library. In the afternoons, I work (during nap and preschool time and when my husband gets home). By dividing the day this way, my kids know what to expect, and I rarely have to multitask home and work tasks.

  • Reprogram your relationship with time

I worked outside of the home for more than a decade, so it took me a long time to shift to a work-at-home mentality. When I was gone all day and got home at 6:30 or 8:30 in the evenings, my main cooking concern was short preparation time. Now, I have plenty of time. So I can easily make nutritious meals that require little effort but lots of cooking time, like beans, grains, and stock. We rely heavily on those staples for most of our meals.

  • Plan, but not too much

For a long time, I made detailed to-do lists every day, which helped me remember everything I needed to do to manage a house and business. Now I’ve mostly gotten the house chores down, and I’ve discovered a new deceptively simple trick to stay on task with work. Right after I wake up, I think of the one thing I want to get done during my work time. I can’t believe how much this helps me prioritize and focus.

I’m also learning when to ditch the plans and take advantage of the perks of working at home. We’ve had some insanely nice weather this spring, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to revel in it. My garden is grateful too.

  • Schedule alone time

This year, I started waking up at 5 and going on a run or walk before my family wakes up. It’s completely transformed my days. I savor that quiet time outside (especially now that the sun is up and the birds are singing), and I have infinitely more energy and patience all day long.

  • Fill their tanks

When Ezra went through a hitting stage awhile ago, I discovered a magical solution to almost any behavioral problem. After trying nearly everything else I could imagine, I told Ezra to come sit on my lap for a few minutes when he felt like he wanted to hit his brother. He did, and the hitting completely stopped.

No matter how busy I am, I try to remind myself that it’s easier to give one-on-one attention each morning than to manage the whining, tantrums, and fights that ensue when attention tanks run low. Likewise, lots of outside play and regular high protein snacks work miracles.

  • Silence is golden

A few years ago, I read an article by a police officer who responds to domestic violence situations. The first thing he does when he enters a house is walk around and turn off all of the background noise. He says usually a radio and TV are blaring. It took me a long time to realize how much noise can affect a household. I listen to a podcast or turn on music for a while every day. When it’s on, I really listen to it. Then I turn it off. We all get along a lot better when we can focus on and hear each other.

  • Turn off notifications

I heard that they design “you’ve got mail” bongs to stimulate the opiate receptors in our brains. Maybe that’s why it’s nearly impossible to ignore one when you hear it. I check my email about three times throughout the day. Other than that, I keep it closed. The same is true for Facebook and Twitter, which I allocate a small window of time to each day. Trust me, I learned this lesson the hard way.

  • Beware the learning curve

Managing a house and business and parenting at the same time requires new skills, tricks, and tools. For me, it took about two years to feel somewhat competent, which leads me to my last point and the giant caveat to everything I’ve written above….

  • Be ready for change and setbacks

Every time I think I’ve got the work-at-home parent life down, things change. One of the kids goes through a monstrous (three-year long) bout of separation anxiety. Another gets four molars in two weeks. An editor emails with an amazing opportunity the same week everyone in the house gets the flu. It’s inevitable.

And finally, the most important thing I’d recommend for the work-at-home life is an awesome partner. My husband watches two little boys while he’s getting ready for work most days. Then he gets home from a long work day and usually makes dinner while I work. There’s no doubt about it, he’s the rock star behind this operation.

Do you work at home with kids? Do you have any tricks, lessons, or hacks you’re willing to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

(Note: Do you read New Urban Habitat on Google Reader? It will be shut down soon. You can sign up on my blog to have my weekly posts delivered to your inbox.)

Happy Earth Day!

rainbow tree

In honor of the holiday, I’m posting a column my dad wrote for the April 21, 2011 Denver Post. I have a cameo appearance, and I love my dad’s hilarious and true take on how we should celebrate the day.

Replace Earth Day with Binge Day

By Ed Quillen
The Denver Post

Earth Day is Friday, and as a loyal resident of Earth, I want to celebrate properly.

I may have already found the wrong way to celebrate. In 2003, I was invited to speak at an Earth Day rally in Alamosa. Being rather immodest, I accepted.

But my 170-mile round-trip drive must have damaged the ozone layer or accelerated global warming or otherwise worsened whatever we were worried about eight years ago. The gathering in Cole Park was pleasant, but there were generators growling and smoking to provide electricity for the amplifiers. This didn’t strike me as especially Earth-friendly.

And when my stage turn came, I followed Peggy Godfrey of Moffat, who’s a cowboy poet or cowgirl poetess. However you describe her, she’s a great performer. I felt like the local garage band that somehow ended up appearing after the Rolling Stones. Peggy is a hard act to follow.

This was clearly not an appropriate Earth Day commemoration for me. But what would be?

To find out, I called the greenest person I know, my daughter Abby in Eugene, Ore. She has a big garden and keeps chickens. She and her husband, Aaron, don’t own a car; Aaron bicycles 12 miles each way to his teaching job. Abby’s always on the lookout for local foods and gentler ways to run her household — for instance, she washes her long brown hair with vinegar instead of commercial shampoo.

(I should point out that we did not raise Abby to turn out this way, as we had a car but no chickens. It’s a choice she made after graduating with honors from the University of Colorado Denver with a degree in history.)

“So how do you plan to celebrate Earth Day?” I asked Abby, expecting to hear that she’d be at a big rally in a downtown Eugene park.

“I know some people who are driving clear up to Vancouver, B.C., for an Earth Day festival.” She laughed at that irony. “But for us, it will be pretty much the same as any other day. I’ll feed the chickens, gather eggs, tend the garden, take Ezra (their 3-year-old son) for a walk, hope he naps long enough for me to get some writing done — what I do most days.”

Abby’s got the right idea here: If you care about the environment, forget about Earth Day trips and celebrations, and live simply every day. When you think about it, focusing on the environment once a year doesn’t make much sense, especially when that celebration often involves burning a lot of fuel.

But there does seem to be a basic human need for annual celebrations, and to that end I propose a yearly Binge Day.

On the other 364 days of the year, we would live simple green lives with local food and drink. We would walk, bicycle or ride public transit to get around. We would eschew gaudy imported novelties, fad electronics destined for quick obsolescence and other trashy food, goods and geegaws.

In other words, we would live prudently and sensibly, following adages like “Waste not, want not.” The global economy might contract on that account, but it seems to be doing that anyway.

On Binge Day, though, we could pig out on champagne and corn-fed prime rib. We’d rent a Hummer or an Escalade to drive to the shopping mall for an orgy of conspicuous consumption. We’d ignore the recycling bins and just toss our abundant trash in a barrel. And after the once-a-year Binge Day blowout, we’d go back to living sensibly.

Add it up, and Binge Day should be about 364 times better for the environment than Earth Day.

I’m editing an anthology of my dad’s columns. To find out more about it, visit edquillen.com. How are you celebrating Earth Day? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Pruning Season: Practical Tips for Simplifying Your Life

ukulele days 029

It’s the time of year when we prune the rosebushes in our backyard down to a few stalks. For several weeks afterward, they look stark, straggly, and half-dead.

Then an amazing thing happens. By May, they transform into vibrant, healthy bushes overflowing with blossoms.

It’s life-changing to witness this process time and again, because it exemplifies how powerful it is to get rid of what you don’t need.

So around this time of the year, I inevitably find myself taking inventory of all of the stuff in our lives — and feeling a tad buried.

For much of January, I feared I’d never see the floor in Ezra’s room again. I’m in a never-ending battle with the end table in our kitchen, which magnetically attracts loose toy parts, tools, and scraps of paper. And I avoid our garage altogether, because I fear I won’t make it through the piles of detritus without spelunking gear.

But I also can’t help but peek back at where we’ve been and celebrate some successes in our quest to live better with less stuff.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a secret to simplifying. It’s not about having less. It’s about figuring out who you are and what you love. Then you can keep and celebrate the things that make you feel alive and happy — and donate or discard the rest.

  • Wardrobe

It’s tempting to think if you have the space to store extra clothes, there’s no harm in keeping them around. But rifling through the stuff littering our lives takes a daily toll. Last year I got rid of more than half of my clothes and all but five pairs of shoes, and every day I feel lighter and happier because of it. Less laundry. Less stress. More space.

Here are a few tips if you’re thinking of dramatically paring down your wardrobe:

1. Your motto is, “If in doubt, throw it out.” Repeat it often.

2. Take the time to figure out what kind of clothes and shoes you really like. You can learn more about what colors look good on you here. And you can explore what styles look good on you here (women) or here (men).

3. Get rid of anything that doesn’t fit right, isn’t flattering, or is damaged.

4. Be aware of emotional attachments to certain clothing items, which make it harder to part with them.

5. Never welcome new clothes into your wardrobe without saying goodbye to some first.

6. Be gracious but judicious about gifts. I’m thankful that my sister gifts me lots of slightly-used clothes. But I’ve had to learn to be a little bit picky about which ones I keep and which ones I pass on to somebody else.

  • Personal care items

Over the years, we’ve traded all of our costly, chemical-laden, heavily-packaged personal care items for simple, safe, inexpensive alternatives. In every single case, the alternatives work better. But the real pay off is how much lighter  our lives are without half-empty plastic bottles and tubes cluttering our bathroom drawers and counters.

If you’re on a mission to downsize your personal care items, here are a few of our favorite swaps:

1. Baking soda and vinegar for shampoo and conditioner.

2. Castile soap for face and bar soap.

3. Castile soap or homemade tooth powder for toothpaste. (Scared to give up commercial toothpaste? So was I. Then I did, and I was amazed. I have cleaner teeth, healthier gums, and no more tooth sensitivity.)

4. A mix of 50/50 baking soda and cornstarch for deodorant.

6. Salt water for mouthwash.

7. Coconut or olive oil for lotion.

Tip: If it feels drab to swap colorful sweet-smelling products for simple alternatives, consider packaging your homemade personal care items in jars, making beautiful labels, and using essential oils to jazz them up.

  • Toys and kids’ clothes

I’ve heard of four-year-olds who clean their rooms, but Ezra is allergic to cleanliness. He delights in transferring all of his toys and books from the tubs, drawers, and shelves I use to try to maintain order in his little corner of our house to the floor.

The other day as I was muttering about the disorder, Ezra diagnosed the problem. “I like it messy, Mom. Then I can find everything.” It was a huge breakthrough. I realized that I’m not going to keep his room clean no matter what I do. So I let it go.

Of course, we still need to get inside his little kingdom, so I decided to try an idea I’ve heard about. I packed up a couple of boxes of his toys and put them in the garage with plans to pull them out in a few weeks in exchange for different toys. The goal is to keep a revolving carousal of toys. That way even when every single toy in the room is on the floor, we can still open the door and move around. So far it’s working great.

We’ve also been purging clothes, books, and toys as Ira outgrows them, and I stumbled onto a brilliant idea to make that easier. An acquaintance of ours throws an annual children’s toy, book, and clothes swap. Parents bring what their kids have outgrown and trade them for things their kids can use now. It’s amazing! You can pare down, hang out with friends, and save money all at the same time. And they’re casual and informal affairs, so it would be easy to organize one yourself.

As the weather warms, we’ll need to sharpen our clippers and tackle some areas desperately in need of pruning, like, ahem, the garage. It’s nice that we can arm ourselves with the glow of a few past successes.

Are you trying to live better with less stuff? Do you have tips, successes, and ideas to share? I’d love to read about it in the comments.