Tune Your Harps to Cheerful Strains

i think i like surrounding myself with things that affirm life as meaningful

There’s a famous dictum that comes out of the early days of coding and computer building: garbage in, garbage out. In its original context, it had to do with a phenomenon where poor input data resulted in flawed outputs. Growing up, though, I heard it most often applied to music, of all things.

Most of the world has utterly unprecedented, constant, near-instant, near-infinite access to music. Growing up we had car radio, then customizable satellite radio; MP3 playlists burned onto CDs, then streaming playlists on smartphones. If you don’t mind ads, you can instantly call up pretty much any song ever performed online legally and for free; if you do mind the ads, you can do the same advertisement-free for pennies a day (or pirate it all illegally, which is also easier to do than ever). Obviously you already know all this, but our ancestors—even our grandparents—would be astonished at this development.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and utilize this recent capacity for instantaneous music selection. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a playlist on Spotify right now, in fact. But I started to wonder, is there is a dark side that needs to be addressed? With the removal of all the resistance to finding and listening to music—whether that was trekking down to a concert hall or running to the record shop—has something good been lost?

Practically everywhere you go, there’s a speaker somewhere playing some kind of music. We’re in the car, at home, at the gym, at work, wherever, and if nobody is actively talking to us—bam! In go the headphones, on goes whatever playlist or album the algorithm showed us first today, or whatever radio station the car is dialed into when we start the engine. Perhaps this isn’t always bad. Again, I’ve done this plenty of times, whether it was to muffle the sound of an obnoxious roommate or neighbor, to create a sense of privacy in a crowded library, or to try to relax after a stressful day. I don’t want to give up the ease-of-access that allows for these moments of escape. But I eventually had to admit to myself that sometimes that access was bad.

A lot of our music-listening is done uncritically because it’s easy and instant. Music has become a sort of white noise: a lot of times we’re not really listening—it’s really only on the outskirts of our consciousness, but it’s there influencing us nevertheless. Sometimes it’s obvious that this is bad; my husband and I went out to a coffee shop recently and both brought books to read, both of which required a hefty bit of focused reading to get the most out of. Like most coffee shops, the place was playing some mix of “alt/indie Millennial pop/rock” (you know, the stuff you had on at least one Pandora station circa 2010) at a decently loud volume. The tyranny of pop music has made it difficult to really chew on a deep thought or have a serious, intelligent conversation in most public places (and is likely deadening our capacity for music appreciation, too).

I think there’s something worse—perhaps even a little sinister—going on, though. When we get numb (or, worse, addicted) to listening to music, we become numb to what exactly that music is communicating. I know I had. The college lifestyle encourages a sort of insane, round-the-clock consumption of music. And putting aside, for the moment, the discussion about how that alienates people from one another—which is likely also true—it’s worth thinking about what kind of consumption that encourages. You get bored listening to the same stuff when you’re listening to music that often, so you start seeking out novelty. You start clicking around on whatever random playlist or station the algorithm offers you, whatever is trending and popular, and slowly, over the course of weeks, if not months or years, you find yourself listening to stuff that’s more brutal, more grating, more vulgar, more inhuman than you were before. At least that’s what happened to me. And the more music I listened to, the less it seemed to console me like it used to; the less it made me feel better, and the more it made me feel worse.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Odd as it may sound, that phrase has leapt into my mind from time to time with some pangs of conscience over the past couple of years. I started realizing that, yeah, I felt kind of miserable all the time, and maybe the miserable music I was listening to wasn’t helping matters. Maybe music is good when made and enjoyed correctly, but maybe it can also be bad. Maybe poor habits of consumption can lead you into a musical and moral quagmire, a place bare of the good, true, and beautiful that has nothing to offer your dilemmas other than sugar-coatings followed by more dilemmas.

I’d listened to smatterings of classical and sacred music in college, but the pressures and stresses of grad school and the last year pushed me to listen to more of it, as well as think a little more deeply about why I was listening to it. I found that the pop stuff I used to have on loop while working affected my mood in a different way than the new stuff. So much pop music now, whether or not it comes out and says it, is just so bleak. The whole thing, musically and lyrically, is functioning in a world without concrete meaning or absolute truths and goodness—and you can’t ignore that forever.

I’ll provide an example. Here’s a song I had on a playlist I used listened to decently regularly:

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think Billie Eilish has talent and creativity. Some of her stuff is off-putting to me, but some of it isn’t (hence, why I had this song on a playlist). This is definitely one of her more “upbeat” songs, and I chose it because I don’t think this music video is as actively disturbing as some of her others; she isn’t being burned with cigarettes or putting spiders in her mouth or coughing up slime. (If you are not familiar with her music videos, all of those are real things from three different videos.) Her work is certainly more musically interesting than a lot of the stuff that was popular when I was a teenager (her primary demographic), and it’s also less lyrically facile than what they used to play at school functions back in my day. So while it’s not as empty artistically, there’s still a sort of an empty view of the world—it’s dark, it’s bleak, it’s a bit alienating.

That’s not to say that you can’t deal with serious, dark things in music. Here’s a piece of music I found in the past year or so that’s captivated me:

This is “When I am laid in Earth,” or “Dido’s Lament,” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. If you’re unfamiliar with the mythic source of this composition, the short version: in the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, an account of the legendary beginnings of Rome, the queen of Carthage, Dido, falls in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas is told by the gods that he can’t stay with Dido (he’s got to go found Rome, after all), and Dido sings this song before killing herself as Aeneas sails away.

So, yeah, kind of a downer…and yet, isn’t there something really different about this song in comparison to “bellyache”? This sadness touches on something deeper, more meaningful? I think that stems from a fundamental difference in how Purcell and his contemporaries viewed their world versus how our own contemporaries view ours. Billie Eilish’s sadness is malaise, it’s nihilistic, it’s bored. Purcell’s grief is redeemed, as it were, by its nobility, its tragedy, and its poignant beauty. Listening to Eilish on repeat makes me feel sort of numb and depressed; listening to Purcell on repeat would probably also make me sad, but in a somber, momento mori kind of way, the serious, not-despairing kind of feeling you get from looking at a still life painting. Sure, it’s sad, but there’s still something here that affirms life as good; it’s the kind of sad that makes you want to hug the people you love—a kind of sadness which is good—not the kind of sadness that makes you want to stare at the wall and yell at your mom—a kind of sadness which, I think we all can agree, isn’t good.

There’s plenty of not-sad classical music, too, and there’s plenty of more contemporary reimaginings of classical, baroque, renaissance, or other eras of music. The godfathers of “Gypsy Jazz,” Django Reinhardt and his group the Quintette du Hot Club de France, here with Eddie South, considered to be the first jazz violinist, have a delightful little riff on a Bach piece:

This isn’t “old sounding,” it’s not “formal,” it’s not “stuffy”—but there’s something about this that makes you interested in living life, in other people, as opposed to feeling churlish and hostile to the world around you. It’s not about being edgy or catchy; it’s trying something very new for the time, to be sure, but it’s still trying to sound good, to be beautiful music, just in a new way. It’s very human music.

And, before you ask, yes, I do think there’s music that’s being made now that fits this description, too. Not only are there some really interesting re-interpretations of classical pieces of music, but there are some musicians making their own stuff that I think is human and good. I think Johnny Flynn is a great example of music that, while definitely having strong roots in older musical traditions, is new, creative, interesting, and good:

There’s poetry and movement here. It’s lyrically and musically interesting, creative and new, but not sacrificing tried-and-true musical pleasantness for novelty. It’s decently simple: it’s a love song. It’s sweet. There’s meter, rhyme, melody, harmony, familiar movement, and none of it is terribly complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s so very refreshing, so evocative, so good.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this—that’s always a possibility—but I don’t think that I am. I have noticed that, as I’ve become more aware of the things I spend my day listening to (and maybe even choosing not to listen to music my every waking moment and instead learning to enjoy quiet and silence), it does help my mood.

Like it or not, “garbage in, garbage out” is true for more than just computers: the stuff with which we surround ourselves day in and day out influences our mood, our thoughts—maybe even our heart. I think I like surrounding myself with things that affirm life as meaningful; I think I like creating a listening world that encourages gratitude and reflection; I think I like to tune my harp to cheerful strains:

What about you? What do you think? What kind of music helps spark wonder and joy for you?

Where have you been?

Welcome back to abovetowne.

If you are reading this blog post, there is a good chance you have noticed (or are now realizing) that I have gone on a rather protracted hiatus from writing on this blog. You may well be asking, “Where have you been?”, a question I have been posing to myself a lot over the past couple of weeks, as well. I have some thoughts on this, and I hope you will indulge me in a bit of self-reflection here—though I promise to keep it brief and to return to more typical work after this.

I began this website at possibly the worst time in my life to start a blog, about one year ago in the summer of 2020. A year previously, I had gotten married to my college sweetheart, Jonathan, and, a week into our marriage, we moved to St. Louis, where we would both be attending graduate school. After a summer internship at Concordia Publishing House (an experience I absolutely and unreservedly loved), I began a doctoral program in Early Modern European History, which was what I studied as an undergraduate. Within a few months, I realized that I was not cut out for academic life.

This struck a pretty harsh blow to my sense of identity; I was a high-achieving student—and always had been—with a keen interest in learning, writing, and teaching. But all the excitement I felt, all the creativity and joy I had experienced in classrooms throughout my life, quickly faded away, leaving me depressed and confused. I decided to change programs and instead get a Master’s degree, which would only take two years to finish, and which I did finish last month. As you can imagine, the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years were each deeply challenging in their own ways, adding to the anxiety and difficulty I felt, both as a student and as a teaching assistant. I also was working multiple part-time and freelance jobs in order to support Jonathan and myself, which certainly added to the chaos. In addition to all that, I had an ovarian cyst rupture in August 2020, which my doctor thinks may have been due to the stress I was feeling. This event began with a morphine drip and a CAT scan at an Urgent Care and ended (well, sort of—it is technically on-going) with the diagnosis of an unrelated but still unpleasant and painful gynecological condition, which, you guessed it, is also worsened by stress.

After about a solid month of finishing, defending, and submitting my thesis, wrapping up the semester with my students, and attending to a number of pressing projects at my other jobs, I have finally caught up, at least enough to take a breath and look around for the first time in what feels like forever. For reference, I have been doing schoolwork on weekends most of the year since the ninth or tenth grade, nearly ten years now! And while this sudden lifting of my workload after such a long time is in many ways a relief, it is also a bit of a shock.

I’m realizing that, for nearly a decade of my very short life, I have exerted absolutely crushing pressure on myself. Workaholic doesn’t really capture it; I idolized my academic work, to the point of sacrificing nearly everything else—including, as I painfully realized last year, my health—in its pursuit. And, like most sins, in addition to being simply wrong, it also wasn’t good for me, in body, spirit, or mind.

This has taken me a long time to realize, to which my ever-patient husband can attest. And still, this realization alone is not enough; there is still the monumental task of figuring out how to do the right thing going forward. I’m realizing how stupidly anxious I’ve driven myself to being—how pointlessly I’ve tried to push down and ignore the values that I hold dear, even my personality and interests. Not only that, but there were even parts of me that started changing, and not for the better, in this prolonged disordering of priorities and needs.

I want to do art again. I want to read for pleasure again. I want to share how I really think and feel again. I want to speak openly about my faith and about Christ again.

It’s a slow process figuring all of this out—figuring out where I’ve been and where I’m trying to go. I hope to share some of what I’m doing with you all now that I have the time and am in a better spot. I’ve got a lot of things I’m really excited to share with you, and I’m thankful for your patience with me during the very quiet first year of this website.

I’m excited to finally explore abovetowne with all of you. 🙂

A poem (or hymn) from the evening

I made myself a little corner of quiet the other night and wrote a little poem, or hymn, depending upon how you look at it. I hope that it gives you a moment of comfort, consolation, and peace.

My Lord has written His sweet name
Upon my feeble heart;
His promise every day the same:
Never from me to part.

In waters pure my Lord did take
My every sin away,
For He did full atonement make
And for my soul did pay.

Jesus, the Son of righteousness,
Ascends to heav’n above,
Yet dwells here too, with forgiveness,
In His bless’d meal of love.

Praise Jesus Christ, Savior most bless’d
And Holy Spirit, Lord
And Father, three-in-one confess’d;
I am to Thee restored!

Words of Strength and Promise

I recently contributed several devotions to an upcoming teen devotional, Words of Strength and Promise, coming out early 2021 from Concordia Publishing House. It was such a blessing to work on this project, and I hope that it brings readers the Law to convict them of their sin and the Gospel to point them to Christ Jesus, who has taken away the sins of the world, and your very sins, too. You can check the book out and download a sample here: https://books.cph.org/words-of-strength-and-promise-for-teens

Some music to brighten your day

I made a playlist a few days back to share with the students in the class I TA for. I listen to a whole lot of music—I’ve got one of those old timey-looking Bluetooth radio/speakers and I play stuff through it when I’m home working, reading, or writing. I thought I’d make a really eclectic playlist of stuff that’s all just really good music. So, enjoy.

A Normal Person’s Guide to Living Sustainably

Over the past year or so, Jonathan and I have slowly integrated more sustainable choices into our day-to-day life. By that, I mean we’ve tried to use stuff that has no or substantially less plastic packaging with simpler, “cleaner” ingredients, we’ve simplified our routines, and we’ve sought to support smaller, responsible businesses. We have a combination of reasons for doing so (which I’ll discuss below), and it’s been a work-in-progress, but it’s been a net positive for us in a multitude of ways.

I should preface this by saying I’m not a hippie, I’m not “crunchy” or “granola” or anything like that. I do still use bleach around the house, have toilet paper, and maintain a medicine cabinet with regular drugstore medication. But, there are a lot of little changes that we’ve made that produce a whole lot less trash and are a whole lot better for our own bodies, the welfare of the people employed in making the products, and the local landscape and waterways. The perfect “zero waste” lifestyle is impossible, but it is good to cut down on the amount of single-use plastic you use (that’s why it’s the first “R” in reduce, reuse, recycle!). It’s easy to go overboard and make sustainable life choices into an idol, though, and like any other form of self-righteousness, that’s a false religion. It’s not about proving how much better you are than other people; instead, it’s about using the freedom we have in Christ to serve our neighbor and be good stewards of the things given to us.

What does it mean to “live sustainably”?

By “living sustainably,” I mean making consumer choices that do the following things:

  • support small, family businesses so families and communities can thrive
  • use ingredients/raw materials that are safe for the people using and making the products
  • don’t harm the natural environment in the communities where they are made or disposed of
  • come from secure, ethical chains of production that are resilient to sudden change, so that you’ll be resilient to sudden change, too!

Why do this?

It was several things for Jonathan and me. Primarily, as Christians, it’s important to be good stewards and to love your neighbor. The information coming out about Uyghur concentration camps and forced labor links to major companies really put things into perspective: it’s not right to give money to companies that use slave labor! By supporting small businesses, you help families and communities prosper. Further, it’s becoming more and more obvious that plastic recycling isn’t a viable long-term solution—this whole sustainable thing was first set off when the town Jonathan and I are from announced they were ending their recycling program because it was too expensive to continue. That’s really when I realized how much plastic we were producing. Mankind was given dominion over the land and the animals, and trying to keep the land and seas clean is part of that. There’s also the financial side of things; a lot of the sustainable stuff is about streamlining the number of products you use. Though sometimes it costs a little more upfront to purchase a more natural product, we’ve found that they work better and last longer than the old stuff we were using, meaning we save money long-term. Also, it encourages us to work smarter and harder with the stuff we’ve already got, rather than just buying a new cleaner or cream or gadget to use and then toss. Simplifying our routines has resulted in less red on the ledger, and less mess around the house, too. All of that means we have more money and time to spend on the things that matter most.

Additionally, from a “Classically Conservative” (à la Roger Scruton) position, we live in a partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” We have been given such magnificent places to live and work, and we ought to maintain those places so our children and grandchildren can also enjoy them. We miss the point when we talk about “saving the planet” or “the environment”—no one person can actually do that. But, one person can make a difference in their local community, helping to keep it a clean, healthful place to live, filled with local wildlife and real nature.

Finally, and perhaps most pragmatically, Jonathan and I both have allergies and sensitivities to some of the stuff that’s in more conventional household products. Jonathan is allergic to sodium-lauryl-sulfate (SLS), a foaming agent that’s found in everything from shampoo to toothpaste to shaving cream. We noticed that Jonathan was getting these horrible canker sores and really aggravated acne from using different toiletries that contained SLS; once we switched, it all stopped. It’s extremely difficult to avoid it entirely, so we’ve opted to prioritize sulfate-free, especially in our hair and skincare, and use more naturally sourced/less processed alternatives when it can’t be completely avoided. Additionally, I am really sensitive to a lot of skincare and makeup—I had to completely overhaul my entire face routine after my moisturizer, eye cream, foundation, and concealer all started making my face burn! After switching to “clean” beauty products, not only has my face stopped burning (hooray), but I’ve also had healthier skin in general, with less acne and way fewer styes.

Sustainability is ultimately about stewardship, not one-upmanship.

Sustainable Solutions

A quick note: none of these are affiliate links. I have no idea how to do that, and I’m not really interested in making a commission off stuff anyway. These are just suggestions for things you can do on your own or types of things you can purchase—and I’d love to hear what you do, too!

Household Cleaning

Dishes: Refillable dish soap + Swedish dishcloths + beechwood scrubby things

One of the first (and easiest) things I switched over was my dish washing stuff. Our apartment doesn’t have a dishwasher, so we switched to a refillable glass thing of dish soap, Swedish dishcloths, and bamboo pot-scrubbers. Fair warning: in my experience, natural dish soap generally does not work with conventional sponges, so you kind of have to go the full nine yards on this one.

We use Cleancult’s refillable dish soap dispenser and get their dish soap refills about once every two months (it lasts FOREVER!). The dispensers hold a lot more soap than they look like on first glance, because they’re shaped like a triangle; I always freak out when we “go through a lot” in the first week or two, but the rate that the soap sinks slows down once it gets to the wider bottom-half. They’ve also just introduced some new scents to play around with, too, which is fun.

Additionally, because you need natural dish cleaning implements to make full use of the natural dish soap (it doesn’t suds-up like conventional dish soap), I use Swedish dishcloths. You can find them practically everywhere now, and with every possible pattern imaginable. I got mine from swededishcloths.com because I liked the happy cow ones. 🙂 The cloths are made of tree pulp, so they’re compostable! Also, you can run them through the washing machine, boil them, or clean them using whatever cleaning stuff you use around the house when they get gross. They last forever, and are a fantastic way to replace regular dishwashing stuff, as well as use in place of a sponge or paper-towel. I use the kitchen one like I’d use a kitchen clean-up sponge on the stove top, and I have a seperate one for cleaning off the counters in the bathroom.

I also use a natural pot brush, which you can find all over, though I got mine from Package Free Store. It’s made of beechwood and union fiber and is like the best thing ever. It cuts through stuck-on crud better than anything else I’ve ever used. Seriously. Keep it dry so it doesn’t get super cracked—mine is cracked, but it doesn’t affect its ability to be a mean, green, cleaning machine. They also seem to last forever. I’m still on my first one. Did I mention they’re extremely inexpensive, too? Win-win-win.

General cleaning and hand soap: Fizzy tablet magic

Over the past several months, I’ve been replacing the hand soap around the house and the everyday cleaners I use with Blueland, which is a subscription program where you get some really heavy-duty reusable, refillable bottles one time and some fizzy tablets every couple of months (all in paper, compostable/recyclable packaging). Fill the bottle up with hot water, pop in a tab, let it fizz, and boom, you’ve got hand soap, bathroom cleaner, multi-purpose spray, or glass cleaner. They also carry laundry stuff and dish stuff, too. I like how much plastic it cuts out of my trash can, and I also like how easy it is to store! If you like to make sure you’re not going to unexpectedly run out of cleaning stuff, this is a good brand to check out.

Laundry: Biodegradable laundry pods

Laundry was really tricky to figure out because of Jonathan’s issues with SLS. We finally settled on Dropps, which use a more naturally-sourced relative of SLS that’s found in coconuts (it’s in a lot of the stuff we use, too). I use the stain and odor formula to fight exercise/St. Louis summer stink. I’m curious about their oxi-booster things, though I haven’t tried them yet. They’re also a subscription service, which is nice. If you wash with cold water like us, you’ll want to make sure to use the little mesh baggie so it dissolves fully. (Full disclosure: the zipper on mine broke off, but it still works fine so I still use it.)

Bathroom stuff: Safe scouring stuff

Our apartment is a bit older, so sometimes the porcelain fixtures start to look nasty. I found this stuff called Bon Ami, which is just an old-school scouring agent. It’s hypoallergenic, only has five ingredients, and is SUPER cheap: I think I paid less than $2.00 for it at the store.

Literally everything else: vinegar, baking soda, and/or lemon juice

We also use a lot of white vinegar around the house—it’s great for cleaning stainless steel cookware (I just bring it to a boil, let it cool, then wash as normal). I also use it to clean out my retainers (ha!), toothbrush, razor, and shower curtain liner. Baking soda is also great to cleaning off gunk; I’ve used it on the little baking tray in our toaster oven a few times. I’ve heard good things about lemon juice, too, though I have less experience with that.


All the hairs on your head: Bar shampoo and conditioner

Jonathan and I both use bar shampoo and I use bar conditioner from Ethique, a New Zealand brand that’s totally plastic-free, all natural ingredients, and has some really cool stuff working directly with family farms for their ingredients. Also, Target has started carrying their stuff! I use Mintasy shampoo and the Guardian conditioner, which really helps my weirdly dry-and-oily hair. Ethique recommends putting them in a place where they’ll stay dry and offer in-shower storage containers (which we call “soap houses”), which does help them keep their longevity. We both really like them, though it’s a little strange getting used to them. They also seem pretty easy to travel with, which is neat. There’s actually a lot of bar shampoos out there, and I’ve also heard about people making their own, which is a little too adventurous for me at the moment, but sounds interesting!

Body + shaving cream: Bar soap

Body wash stuff is probably the easiest thing to get with zero plastic and clean ingredients: regular old bar soap. We have a friend who makes his own soap, which is FANTASTIC, but until Dan goes public with his business, Ethique also makes good bar soap that lasts forever. (We like the pumice, tea tree, and spearmint one.)

I’d also check out getting a little soap stand (we use a bamboo one, so it’ll be a little sturdier in the slippery shower) and a soap saver bag, which helps you get the most out of your soap and adds some ~exfoliation~ to your soap experience. Or something. Both have helped us get more out of the bar soap we use.

Shaving: all-metal razors

Jonathan and I both use all-metal razors and switch out the blades, which not only keeps a TON of plastic out of the trash, but also saves us a whole bunch of money. Since we obviously have very different shaving needs, we needed different razors. He uses the Albatross flagship butterfly razor (and also their shaving soap), and I use the Leaf razor. A year’s worth of blades for Jonathan costs only $25.00, which is pretty fantastic. Mine is pretty close to that. And, both do blade recycling programs, which is also super cool. I was nervous about switching to “safety razors” but we both knick ourselves way less often and save a ton of money to boot.

Shiny teeth: Tablet toothpaste and plastic-free toothbrushes

One of the strangest things I’ve switched over to is tablet toothpaste and wood/bamboo toothbrushes. There’s a lot of different options on the market for sustainable oral care (including old school tooth powder or metal toothpaste tubes), but I use Bite. It’s really strange switching to “tooth bits” you have to bite down on, but it’s been pretty fun, too! Bite also makes floss and mouthwash, too, though I haven’t tried it yet. It cuts down on those really hard to deal with soft plastic tubes, and it also means a lot of mess in the bathroom.

Wash your face: Face soap

I’ve struggled to find a face soap that I really like since I was a teenager. I’ve finally found one that I like, once again thanks to Ethique: I use their Bliss Bar, which is for dry skin. It’s fantastic. I use it twice a day, and my face feel clean and hydrated (not all tight and dried out like it did with other cleansers!) all day afterward. It’s awesome.

Smell less bad: Bar deodorant

I’ve been on the no-aluminum, no-antiperspirant train for a LONG time, but I recently made the leap to package-free deodorant, also from Ethique. It’s a little funny rubbing a square on my underarms every morning, but it works great and is free from baking soda, too, which can cause a lot of problems for people too. Like any aluminum-free deodorant, you might need to reapply if you’re doing heavy activity, since it doesn’t actually stop you from sweating (which is good—you need to sweat!). I keep mine in an old jar so it stays fresh and keeps its scent.

Lady Faces

Lotion, but for your face: Bar moisturizer

I have very dry skin, and have struggled for years to find a good moisturizer for my face. Again, Ethique came to the rescue with the Perfector moisturizer bar. You get three little lotion bars in the set, and they have been holding up really well so far. My face feels healthy, which is always something I struggled to find in moisturizers. It doesn’t make my face oily, either! I keep mine in a little Ball jar to keep them fresh.

Acne even though you’re a grown-up: Roll-on thing

Even though I’m an adult, I still get acne. Boo! I have struggled for a while to get it under control, and I’m realizing now that a lot of it had to do with being stuck in a cycle of over-drying and over-moisturizing. Remedying that has helped a lot, but so has this roll-on acne treatment from Plant Therapy. It’s an oil blend, and I don’t really understand how it works, but it does! (I’ve also used their wart treatment before and it works great, too!)

My face looks weird: Refillable pressed-powder foundation

After my concealer started making my face burn, I decided to streamline my routine and go with more natural products. I like using a powder foundation as opposed to a liquid one; I prefer a light coverage makeup, and Alima Pure Pressed Foundation with Rosehip Complex has been perfect. I love the coverage and the blending, and it doesn’t make my face feel gross. Though it’s not completely plastic-free, it is refillable, which cuts down on a good bit of waste, at least. It’s also pretty competitively priced, especially compared to other “clean” beauty brands.

Crayons, but for your face: Color for lips, cheeks, and lids

I LOVE a multitasking makeup purchase, and those neat lip/cheep/lid crayons are a great example of that. I like Axiology’s Of the Earth Lip-to-Lid Balmies quite a lot. I use the sort of neutral-browny one for eyeshadow and go back and forth between the pink and the red for my lip color and blush. They seem really small, but it’s because they are packaging-free and are actually normal size.

Grandma mascara: Cake pigment

For my mascara, I decided to go old school and try cake mascara from Bésame. I haven’t completely gotten the hang of it yet, but the gist is you gently wet the pigment cake (I keep an eye dropper with my makeup stuff to do that), swirl around the brush, and then apply as normal. It’s a pretty big change and I’m not totally used to it, but it’s been a fun adventure so far.

Man Faces

Men have crazy hair: Hair and facial hair styling products

My husband has also helped spearhead our sustainability project, and one of the ways he’s done that has been through his styling products. My husband absolutely loves Lox Hair Wax Co., an American-made, veteran-owned small business that makes all natural hair products with sustainable packaging. He styles his hair and chops sideburns using their Styling Cream and Beard Oil. They smell wonderful and don’t aggravate his acne or allergies, which is a home-run in our house.

Gotta smell good too: Aftershave balm

My husband had issues with razor burn and knicks, and also tries to keep his face naturally moisturized for his acne problems, and for all of that he also uses Lox’s Bayonet Butter Aftershave Balm. It’s fantastic, and it’s a good way to get him to remember to moisturize his face.

Food Time

Keep things fresh: reusable containers and beeswax wraps

Food storage was a big source of plastic in our house, but no longer! We’ve switched to all glass and ceramic food storage, primarily Corningware and Pyrex. We also use beeswax food wraps—which you can find lots of places, but we bought from Package Free Shop—which are super nifty, great for the fridge or on-the-go.

Lunch to-go: Metal lunch pails

With two full time students, we carry lunch out a good deal. We’ve switched to this cool little metal lunch pails, which you can find all over the place, though ours are from World Market.

Hydration nation: Reusable bottles and mugs

Jonathan is an Eagle Scout, so he’s a big proponent of hydrating. His go-to water bottle is the classic Nalgene, which, yes, is plastic, but they hold up for forever and considerably reduce the number of disposable bottles you go through. I’ve tried other water bottles and this has been my favorite. I have a really bad habit of dropping water bottles, so the glass ones are out for me, and the metal ones always get smashed up from, well, being dropped constantly.


Mightier than the plastic sword: Refillable fountain pen

I go through SO MANY PENS. As I enter the phase of my grad work that involves less in-class, on-campus work and more at-home, read-a-book-until-my-eyes-fall-out work, and looking into the future where I will likely be working from home in some capacity, I thought the refillable fountain pen might be a good option for me. Jonathan loves him a good fountain pen and highly recommends the website JetPens, which is where I got mine. I have a TWSBI ECO-T in mint blue, but they’ve got like a million different ones to pick from. It writes amazingly, and it really encourages me to have better penmanship, a very recent development for me.

Keep your phone safe: Compostable and recycled phone cases

Phones need protecting, but phone cases usually end up in landfills. Not with Pela! What’s super cool with them is they also will take back their own or competitors’ phone cases and recycle them into new ones, which is pretty neat. My iPhone 7 needed a new case, and I’ve been really happy with theirs. If only they’d carry one for the Light Phone, which is what Jonathan now uses (and I plan to switch to once this phone ceases to be usable).

Bye-bye bugs: Peppermint spray

I learned this one from a friend’s mom (Thanks Mrs. A!): to keep bugs and critters out of your home without spraying a whole bunch of chemicals everywhere, try spraying a mixture of water and peppermint oil around the door frames and in the corners of your house. Bugs don’t like peppermint; they don’t really have “noses” but they don’t like the smell and will generally stay out.

Another worm’s treasure: Composting

The latest thing that we’ve made an attempt at is composting. It’s a little weird doing it in an apartment, but composting is surprisingly easy and low-maintenance, according to this article Jonathan showed me. We usually keep our things in empty jars and then take them to the composter on campus, though you can also just start a pile in your backyard.

I read therefore I am: Yes, I still buy physical books

Jonathan and I do love a good book (or, like, hundreds). Jonathan has been on the Kindle train for a LONG time, and he tried to get me into them for YEARS. I used to have a Nook when I was a kid, and though I liked some elements of it (looking up words easily is a huge plus when you like nineteenth century Brit Lit), it just didn’t really jive with me long-term. Jonathan kept trying to convince me to try the Kindle, and I held my Luddite nose up in the air at it for a long time.

Over the 2020 Covid Quarantine, however, we went to stay with my parents and I had to lug a suitcase full of books home. It was pretty annoying. And I still didn’t have everything I wanted! Jonathan finally convinced me, and I decided to spend a little of my stimulus check getting a Kindle Paperwhite. Let me just say: I have been win over. I love it. I don’t read everything on it, mind you—I still love a good physical book, especially if it’s something really meaningful, a textbook, or, of course, a signed copy. But it really is great for your “reading while out” books, and the cost savings in ebooks is really quite staggering, especially if you like older stuff or are an avid Kindle couponer like me. I also got into Audible back in January, which has been a great way for this grad student to cram in some extra book time while doing chores around the house, driving, grading, or doing homework.

I do still buy or (grab off the seminary’s free shelf) a good number of physical books. I really like getting used books, though, mainly for the price savings, though I did just get a new (and signed!) copy of the wonderful English Pastoral by farmer and author James Rebanks. (Sidebar: I had a hiccup with my PayPal after my credit card information was compromised, and let me just say that I had the BEST customer service experience I’ve ever had with the lovely man from Waterstones on our transatlantic phone call. It literally made my day.)


I have been pleasantly surprised again and again by our little sustainability project. It’s saved us money, kept a whole lot of trash out of the landfill, and is helping us get more connected with small businesses and more directly support communities at home and abroad.

I’ve also seen how easy it is to go overboard with this stuff, though. You can’t become a Pharisee about this stuff—or anything else, for that matter. It’s not about being better than other people or justifying yourself by your consumer choices; it’s about caring about your neighbor and being a good steward through the sorts of products you buy or the things you do around your house.

What do you do to cut down on waste, save money, or support local/small businesses?

God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.

This has been a weird month.

About a month ago, I had an ovarian cyst rupture. It caught me completely off guard—I was driving to the library when, suddenly, my whole lower abdomen was seized in indescribable pain. For almost three weeks afterward, I continued to just feel off, whether it was more painful spasms or discomfort from the free fluid in my abdomen. Around the time that resolved itself, I realized that all of my makeup was giving me various skin reactions. This did have a precedent, thus at age 23 I officially joined the scores of women in my family who have sensitive skin. And, finally, this past week I somehow managed to accidentally poison myself with too much magnesium. I thought I had developed some kind of stomach problem overnight, but instead I had failed to compare the contents of the vitamins I take and managed to overdose on a supplement. I’ve never had this rapid a succession of health problems—albeit relatively minor, in the grand scheme of things—and it’s all left me a little self-reflective, unsurprisingly.

It was Thursday. I hadn’t been able to enjoy my regular tea-and-toast for breakfast or mid-day snack all that week. I began to think that maybe the worst of my stomach problems were over, but really, I just couldn’t take it any longer: I was going to have my tea and my toast. My hypothesis was correct—I was fine—and I called my mom.

As I recounted my little experiment to my mother, I broke into tears out of nowhere. A little embarrassed, I explained, “I just really missed my tea. I’ve been so sad!” (Of course, the lack of caffeine was probably also not helping, but really, the warm goodness of tea itself was the main thing, I promise.)

Going through a makeup routine. Having tea and toast. Sitting upright, alert and pain-free. These are all things I do everyday and think nothing of. But they’re also all things that were, however briefly, snatched away from me in the past month. And when they were restored, I realized a little bit more clearly the preciousness of this blessing. These common little habits and abilities, though with varying degrees of essentialness, all gave music and meaning to my day. Their absence was grief; their return was treasure.

“Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”

Martin Luther

Martin Luther once said “Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.” I think about that quote a lot, especially now with how chaotic my life—and everybody’s lives—has been lately. I get so distracted thinking about all the “big” things I need to do: how I need to catch up on this book review, work on that chapter in my thesis, figure out the next big thing to do after I graduate, whatever. And though I’d rather have it another way, I’ve been repeatedly bonked on the head and reminded not to ignore the precious blessings right in front of me.

I took a walk while writing this article. It was a beautiful, cool fall dusk.

I think that our culture has rigged us to dream so big that we miss out on reality. I think our sinful nature tricks us into hating what is truly good, right, and beautiful in this world. We spend our daily lives chasing after things like prestige, the acceptance or respect of others, fame, money—all the while missing out on those precious moments of quiet, normal, peaceful, beautiful human life. I’ve spent a good portion of my young life in the pursuit of the uncommon—surely if I just do something big and important enough, I can fill that aching hole in my chest. I just have to find and do that big, important thing. But the things got bigger, more important—more stressful, more challenging to achieve, and always less and less fulfilling. Like a junkie, the highs of uniqueness started to wear off and the common became unbearable. But in chasing after mountop experiences, we miss the cool, sweet-smelling shade of the vale below. Those sweet things given to us to treasure—husband and wife, children, neighbors, house and home, community, church—become a nuisance, a distraction, a thing that prevents us from getting what we want.

And then life smacks you in the face and you realize that what you wanted wasn’t as good as what God had already put in front of you. That a quiet afternoon with tea and toast was better than anything you would have designed for yourself. That you’d cry with quiet, humbled joy when your silly little routine was restored.

I have been trying to take my days slower. That’s in part for my health—this month’s issues are likely brought on from several years of grinding myself down with work and anxiety, a method that, though productive in the short-term, was completely unsustainable in the long term. We’re meant to be gardens, not factories. But, I’ve also just found myself so much more joyful when I’ve slowed down and enjoyed the understated, slow beauty of common blessings. When I stop treating common things like distractions unworthy of my time and effort, but recognized that they were blessings—whether it was a breakfast of tea and toast, an interruption from my husband during homework time, a Saturday afternoon of housework, a walk from the apartment to the compost pile on a breezy fall dusk—I realized anew my smallness (and silliness) and our Heavenly Father’s goodness. I was driven, once more, to the commonest experience of all: to repentance, for looking so fixedly at myself that I stopped looking at the people and things that God had placed around me to bless me and be blessed by me.

I’ll end with this thought: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, as Christians—especially as Lutheran Christians!—our faith is a collection of wildly common things. Bread and wine. Water. The spoken word. Music. Our redemption was accomplished by a human man being nailed to wood. God uses, loves, and redeems common things. Christ Jesus became common in the incarnation, taking on normal flesh-and-blood in order to save us. I think by taking time to be thankful for the common things in our lives, we can always remind ourselves that God loves common things—that God redeems common things, and so they are not to be scorned, but cherished.

My tea as I write this post.

I’m still glad I made that chicken pot pie: a fable

Sometimes the sweetest joys are the ephemeral ones

Last night, I achieved quite the feat: I may have created the best chicken pot pie of all time. Or so my husband tells me. We were recently given a huge crate of free vegetables, so I decided I’d try my hand at making a chicken pot pie entirely from scratch to use some of them up. I had to tweak the recipe a little, but boy oh BOY, was it delicious! You can probably tell from the picture.

The vents were lopsided, but, oh well.

I was so happy with how this turned out. It took three hours, after all! What I did not consider, however, was that I have a long history of food sensitivities. My greatest enemy: high fat/high dairy meals. Many a fancy pizza parlor trip reached heights of culinary ecstasy, only to be followed by hours-long stomach cramps afterward. Well, my friends, not only did I create the perfect chicken pot pie recipe; I also created the perfect knock-me-out-on-the-couch-for-five-hours stomach ache recipe. Apparently heavy whipping cream and a half-pound of butter will do that.

But as I sat sipping ginger tea and nibbling on my PB&J at lunchtime—the first real meal I had managed all day—it dawned on me: I didn’t really regret making that pie. Sure, I regretted the stomach ache, and I was bummed that, for my own health and wellness, Jonathan would be the sole executor of the leftovers. But also, despite the gastrointestinal rigamarole, I was still proud of and glad to have made the silly thing.

I’m finishing up my master’s degree this year, working on my thesis while taking a class and doing some TAing in these Coronatimes. In all honesty, I am discouraged with my work most of the time. I rarely complete all my tasks for a given day, and often I feel as though the work I have done is uninteresting and unimportant (because, in all honesty, it usually is). I became disillusioned with the idea of pursuing a doctorate—my original plan—about a year ago when I realized that career path—that way of life—didn’t speak to my values anymore.

(I promise this blog post has a happy ending—it has to since it’s my first one!)

I took a long, hard look at what I’ve wanted to be throughout my life. My answers throughout grade school usually involved some combination of author-mom-hobby farmer-archaeologist-space shuttle engineer. While the latter two proved a little outside of my grown-up wheelhouse, the other ones have really remained the same. I had forgotten how much I had dreamed of having a little farm until my husband started talking about how he wanted one. It wasn’t until I rekindled my love of knitting and painting that I remembered how much I wanted to stay home and make things with my children one day. And it wasn’t until I started writing outside of my schoolwork that I remembered how badly I wanted to share my words with the world.

Wait—wasn’t this about a chicken pot pie and a stomach ache? Yes, and it still is. I don’t regret making my chicken pot pie even if I got a stomach ache, just like I don’t regret going to grad school even if I’m not going to be a professor or cleaning the house even if I have to knock off homework early to do so. I think that God lets us make mistakes, have more on our plate than we can handle, and get stomach aches from really tasty food to remind us that we’re the creatures, not the Creator. We all get lost in our heads and think we can do anything, and then something comes along and knocks us on our bottoms and reminds us, “No, you can’t, because you’re a little sinful human being living in a fallen world, and that fallen world includes getting an upset stomach when you eat foods with a high fat content.”

But my tale of pie of Icarus-like tragedy reminded me, too, that we don’t always get to pick our vocations—but that doesn’t make them bad. “Distractions” from our real work are God-ordained, and often they actually point us back to what’s really important. My stomach ache today threatened to make all that hard work of crust-making and chicken-boiling and veggie-sautéeing seem like a big, three-hour-long distraction. It threatened to bring back the gloom I try to stave off in my day-to-day life. But it wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t a distraction. I made a delicious meal that my very busy husband can still enjoy. And did enjoy, by the way—he (somewhat apologetically) scarfed some down on his dinner break before heading back into work, going out of his way to underscore just how good it was and just how happy he is that I made it. “We’ll just use regular milk instead of heavy whipping cream next time,” he says, “and maybe take a Lactaid, just to be safe.” He says he found a recipe for a “regular meat pie” that we could try next, “Since the crust is the best part, anyway.”

But I don’t regret it. I’m still glad I made that chicken pot pie.