Sisterhood

Let me introduce you to my sisters: there’s my animal and plant enthusiast sister with a heart of gold; there’s one who is too smart to get sucked into anything at all, but always lingers on the sidelines, ready to intervene on a moment’s notice; there are my artistic and spiritual geniuses, who understand the depth of life and intricacies of human relationships better than most scientists; there are sisters who astound me to no end with their strength and resilience; there are those sisters who are nothing short of speech magicians, oh! If only that magic would last! There are sisters who can carve hearts made of stone with their insightful altruism; there are those whose courage and determination are unmatched; there are sisters who despite their regimented lives, find meaning and joy in all the important things in life; there are sisters who bind together and forge forward because only unity with compassion can break the odds; there are those whose wits and savvy are only matched by their unflinching strength of character; there are sisters who thankfully are as resilient as they are smart; there are some of the most determined intellectuals I have ever met, who still manage to love beyond bounds; there are some who never cease to amaze me with their insight and thoughtfulness; and then there some, whose desire for meaningful connections informs everything they do, no matter how big or small.

These are the women I most admire, these are my dearest friends, these are the people I have been able to count on, and who have counted on me, at some point. These are the meaningful bonds that I have been fortunate to sew so far. These are the women I learned and continue to learn from. These are the examples I wish to share with you, so that you may reap the fruits of their wisdom. It’s great to have it, but it means so much more when you can share it!

In the coming months I hope to share with you some stories about my dear sisters. What makes them extraordinary people? Why do we have such a meaningful bond? How did, or does their experience impact me, and how can it help you?

I have been privileged to have befriended many extraordinary people, and I would like you to meet some of them, because there’s no reason why their impact on me shouldn’t positively impact others as well. I hope that you will feel inspired, as I continue to be, by these remarkable ladies.

Featured post

Safety

I’ve become a blogger initially to provide a platform for my Caterpillar Café project, but it has broadened its scope to achieve the same aim: to gather different people and ideas, and get them to know each other, grow together, and make our worlds richer and more meaningful through our interactions. What the Caterpillar Café offered to me and many other women in post-war Tripoli, is what I wish to replicate here, on a wider scale: a safe place to be the best one can be.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m a cat with many hats, and this affords me the luxury of having experienced a wide range of situations, from a variety of perspectives. What this has done to my Weltanschauung, is broaden it to the point of uncanny flexibility, but it has also taught me that despite the devastating consequences of prejudice and ignorance, the solution to most problems is quite simple: knowledge.

I’m not talking about the knowledge you get from studies and books, which can sometimes be deceptive, as it gives you a false reassurance that you “know what you’re doing.” I’m talking about the willingness of each individual to spend time truly listening to each other. This isn’t too far removed from the principle of charity in philosophy, but let’s stick to one line of thought for now.

Being willing to set aside one’s own “expertise” and engaging with genuine interest in a collaborative fashion with someone, is truly freeing, and enlightening. It permits you to let go of your need to “rescue” anyone you see doing things differently, and it allows you to let go of the burden of having to impose your solution through authority. This isn’t to say authority has no place, just level with me. I see this as a mother trying to teach my kids how to take care of themselves. I’ve seen this as an educator with students trying to make sense of new material. I’ve seen it as a white looking European playing and interacting with refugees, immigrants, and people who looked or sounded less “European” than I did. I’ve experienced it as someone who looks like a foreigner in her own country. I’ve even experienced it as an academic who put forth an unusual approach to the study of Renaissance literature, as well as in classes where my faith was picked apart and dissected with no consideration for the spiritual benefits it brings to its adherents. And I’ve applied it successfully in each and every one of these instances.

This skill, which I’ve taught to students, teachers, and volunteers, and I’m now sharing with you, is called providing “cultural safety.” You may have heard the term before, as it’s nearly two decades old. It was coined by a Maori nurse, when she described the need for it among health professionals (predominantly Caucasian) who work with Aboriginal patients. This is how she describes it:

“Where there is no assault, challenge or denial of [one’s] identity, of who [we] are and what [we] need. It’s about shared respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and experience, of learning together with dignity and truly listening” (Williams, 1999).

I just came across this quote a few years back, and it basically summarizes everything I’ve been trying to do all my life with everyone around me. I am willing to listen, and give of my time and patience, but I expect the same in return. I am not willing to accept a priori judgements, without reminding myself that generalizations are never universally applicable.

Just think about it: have you ever been to the doctor complaining about an ailment, only to be misdiagnosed or simply discharged with a prescription for over the counter painkillers? I’m not saying that sometimes that isn’t the solution, but all too often, it really isn’t. My father complained to his doctor for over a year about back pain, before he was finally sent in for x-rays, only to find out he had extensive cancer that was pressing against his spine. My second cousin (who was more like an uncle to me) was sent home when he walked into the emergency room complaining of malaise and severe dizziness. Doctors and nurses thought he was drunk  just by looking at him, he hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in decades. If they had bothered to listen, or even just smell his breath, they would have known he was having a stroke, and perhaps he’d still be with us. I’ve just read about countless African American women, who get substandard pregnancy care, simply because their needs are dismissed. Of course this has implications for the unborn baby, and among other, uncountable instances of prejudice and injustice, African American women predominantly, though not exclusively, suffer from what already in the 80’s was coined “weathering” (premature aging due to stress).

On a more global scale, we are constantly being fed images of areas of the world that “apparently can’t get anything right,” and “only know fighting and violence,” so “we need to go and rescue the poor civilians” all the while resolutions for cease-fires are vetoed, democratically elected leaders go unrecognized and are effectively de-commissioned, pleas for specific and limited aid are ignored, agreements to sit and discuss peaceful solutions are hijacked… and wars rage on, civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire, and the media has a feast at their expense.

When will we learn to listen?

Collaboration, kinship, reciprocity, mutual trust and respect, these are all essential ingredients for a viable future, for our children, for our neighbors, for our nations, for our environment (yes, the environment has rights and should have a voice too: we are as dependent on it as it is dependent on our willingness to respect it).

Cultural safety provides us with the certainty and confidence that “those people” are actually capable of knowing what they need, and will tell you so if given the opportunity. True help isn’t interference, pushing one’s own agenda, or giving what one side may think “they need.” It’s about listening to what people need, trying to see things from their perspective, and working together toward a mutually agreed upon solution that works for everyone.

It’s possible that they will overcome their circumstances with our help and eventually return the favor in kind. But the primary aim is to provide a safe environment for the issues to be discussed openly and respectfully. The fact that we’ve given our full attention and respect, offered all the help we could offer, without arrogance or pretention, should give us all pause to consider that this gesture alone, if done by all, could possibly change the world for the better.

 

Re-bloging Just For Fun!

Bismillaahir-Rahmaanir-Raheem O Allah, keep me safe until Ramadan, keep Ramadan safe for me, and accept it from me. Aameen. Oh, Allah! Grant us Barakah (Blessing) during (the months of) Rajab and Sha’ban, and allow us to reach Ramadan. Aameen. The month of Ramadan is gradually upon us and we pray that Allah (S) spare us […]

via Funtastic Activities/Crafts To Get Your Kids Excited About Ramadan (+ Printables) — MuslimahLifestyleHub

Happy Earth Day!

You’ve all heard me harping on and on about plastic pollution and it seems some of our efforts to reduce the amount of plastic we use are finally paying off! A recent study by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) has found that the number of plastic bags on the seabeds surrounding the […]

Rebloging this awesome collection of tips to minimize plastic waste! Check out her blog! It’s a treasure trove of great advice!

via Zero Waste Wonders — Bella Green

Capsule Wardrobe

 

Here is the Minimalist Wardrobe I promised I’d write about . In this blog I hope to cover a fair bit of material, so let me lay it out in point form, so you know what to expect before spending any more time reading what is likely going to be a fairly long post. First off, I’ll be addressing the general definition, pros and cons of a Minimalist (or Capsule) Wardrobe (CW). Then I’ll go into the various considerations to keep in mind when establishing your CW, should you decide it’s something you’d like to try. More specifically I’ll briefly cover staples (or core wardrobe essentials), style, climate, lifestyle, body type, taste, and color palettes, sorting, practical issues, exclusions, and other details.

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What is it?

Basically it’s an attempt at simplifying one’s life, by getting rid of surplus clothes that are taking up space in your closet, which are wasting your precious time whenever you need to decide what to wear, and when you need to move them, sort them, wash them, etc.. It is estimated that most women in North America (and probably in other continents as well) own an average of 115 pieces of clothing, about 30% of which are new (with tags still attached) and about 40% of which we rarely use, leaving us with really 30% of items of clothing that we actually like and wear on a somewhat regular basis. This brings the number of necessary purchases down to about 35 pieces of clothing. This is the number most proponents of CW suggest, some place the number at 24, others closer to 40. The number isn’t all that important, what matters is the fact that most women, and you might be included here, purchase a lot more clothing than they wear, wasting money, feeding the fast fashion industry (learn more about the fast fashion industry here), and adding to needless consumerism (here’s a pretty thorough overview), and spreading what’s been dubbed affluenza (read more about affluenza here). If this is something you see in your life, and it bothers you, then you might want to consider a CW.

Considerations

There are a few considerations to keep in mind before you decide to go the CW route. First of all, does your lifestyle permit you to drastically cut down on your clothing possessions and purchases? If you work in the fashion industry, or are expected to wear something new and original on a regular basis, then a CW is going to prove nearly impossible. If you wear several hats and each one requires a different style of clothing, a CW just won’t be very practical for you (say you work in an office in the morning, you run an afterschool progam in the afternoons, and you work in a restaurant at night, you might need a different set of clothing for each job). If you are pregnant, you might want to consider a CW for your pregnancy and post-pregnancy look as well, the temporariness of your body shape might encourage you to minimize the number of items you wish to purchase for this brief period. But if you know you go through a lot of clothes because they simply get too ruined to be able to use for extended periods, then a CW might not be for you. If you’re simply not ready to forego your shopping sprees, and you adore having a constantly changing wardrobe, then the rest of this blog won’t be of much interest to you.

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There are pieces that can be dressed up or down fairly easily, so a variety of uniforms doesn’t necessarily have to be an impediment to building a workable CW, but it does require a lot of thought. Just so you rest assured, athletic wear and evening wear (ceremonial gowns, cocktail dresses, and the like) don’t have to be included in your capsule wardrobe, neither does underwear (meaning everything you wear under your regular clothes), nor does footwear, or accessories. Of course, if you find that you’re going overboard with footwear and accessories, it might be a good idea to cut down on those, but you don’t have to include them in your CW number.

Pros and Cons

The disadvantage of having a CW is that you’ll have a lot less choice, so you’ll have to pick your items very carefully. Depending on how you look at it, this could actually be an advantage, as you’ll be unable to waste as much time trying to figure out what to wear every morning. Another disadvantage is that your clothes will have to be of good enough quality to last you the whole season, and you’ll have to take good care of them so as to keep them wearable. The flip side of this is that you won’t be wasting money on fast fashion clothing that goes through a long line of workers, leaving the actual seamstresses with barely enough to live on. Buying good quality, ethically made clothing means you’ll be encouraging businesses with fair trade practices and discouraging sweatshops. It’ll also mean you’ll be less drawn by fashion changes, and lean more towards classic looks that last longer, as your clothing will be worn for longer as well. This will automatically lead to less surplus garbage, and hopefully, eventually less pollution as well. Perhaps most directly relevant to you is that you won’t be as tempted to buy clothes that don’t fit into your capsule, so you’ll spend less money for things you don’t need, and less time looking through clothing racks.

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Ideally, a CW leads to a more conscientious consumer, who appreciates what she has, how it’s made, and she actually uses it more. Even if you decide not to fix a determined number for your CW, I think most of us can benefit from a little simplification, and a bit more appreciation.

What should you consider for your CW?

First of all you need to take into consideration the weather in your country of residence. Do you have four very distinct seasons? Then you should have four very distinct CW, one for each season. I live in a climate that has one really long season, two that transition into and out of it, and a very short one. This means that most of my clothes can be worn for three seasons, in layers, with a small number dedicated to the coldest months, and a small number just for the hottest weeks. There are climates that are clearly defined into only two seasons: the wet and the dry, with temperatures fairly stable throughout the year, this calls for two CW, with most of the clothing spanning throughout the year and a few items specialized for wet and another few dedicated to the dry weather. You get the idea. You can establish core pieces, or staples based on your style, your uniform (what you wear for work), your lifestyle, and what suits you best (color, fabric, and shape). These are most useful and versatile if you keep them in your favorite neutral colors, and you can work around them with other, more colorful pieces. You can read more about this under the Color Palette section and beyond. Honestly, unless you’re a chameleon, there likely are colors that clash with you, so it would be wise to look into this subject a little further.

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Style

What’s your life style? Are you an outdoorsy person, do you cycle to work, have a long commute, or walk to work rain or shine? Are you required to wear formal attire at work (dress pants, buttoned blouse and jacket), or are you more flexible? Do you have a dress-code for outdoors and another for indoors (as I do)? Your answers to these questions will determine which pieces of clothing you really need, and which you can do without.

What’s your fashion style? Do you like to look elegant and sophisticated, or are you more interested in comfort and practicality? Are you attracted to prints and loud fashion statements, or do you prefer an understated simplicity? Prints and loud fashion statements usually spell frequent change, as these items normally don’t fall within classic styles, but are really fashion forward, setting or following any given trend, rather than taking the basics and adapting them. But it doesn’t mean you must relinquish the idea of a CW, you can make a lasting statement, provided you can stick to it, and not get bored after a month or two. Generally speaking, however, prints go with the flow of fashion, and they will become clearly outdated much more quickly than solid colors, especially neutrals. I’m not suggesting you should give up on prints, just perhaps save those for your special occasions wear (as I do), or for accent pieces (like scarves and other accessories), rather than making one complete outfit out of prints. Prints are also easier to combine if they’re kept at a minimum.

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Body Type

You probably already know what flatters you and what doesn’t. There are many descriptors commonly used, such as pear, apple, banana, hourglass, straight and triangular shape, and more refined ones like skittle, column, square and rectangular. I find that these can be useful, but they are nevertheless guidelines, not strict rules, and they certainly don’t cover every body shape under the sun. So you don’t necessarily have to label yourself with any of these to have a successful CW. For hijab wearing Muslim women in particular, these guidelines are even more general, as we tend to want to cover everything and not emphasize anything. But this doesn’t mean you have to look frumpy, by any means. You can simply adjust the guidelines so as to de-emphasize areas that you find problematic, and evening out proportions, if that’s an issue. For example, someone with short legs and a long waist, will look for high waisted dresses, or princess cut blouses, or scarves and necks that drape around the shoulders to give the illusion of a more even distribution above and below the waist. Women with wide hips will want to avoid bulk and horizontal lines around the hip area, choosing longer cardigans, high-waisted bottoms, and prefer detailing near shoulders and neck. Curvy women might prefer softer, thinner, more flowy materials to stiff ones, as they will look much larger than they are with boxy clothes. Petite women might opt out of one solid color from top to bottom, as they will look minute. Generally speaking horizontal lines go where you want more width (to de-emphasize length, for example), and vertical, continuous lines where you wish to achieve the opposite. Large blocks of color fair well with taller people, whereas small patterns go better with smaller people. For fabrics as well, drapy, thinner fabrics are more forgiving than starchy, thicker fabrics. There are plenty of books published on this issue, vloggers all over youtube have posted about this, and there are a myriad of body type calculators to ease your precise categorization. I personally find that none of these apply to me in particular, because of my hijab requirements, and my specific proportions (which fall in between categories or on several, depending on the criteria), so although I do suggest going through some of them to get a general idea of how to navigate around your wardrobe and avoid common pitfalls, I don’t think you absolutely need to stick to any particular formula, unless of course you do fall exactly under the same exact categorization no matter which criteria you apply, then you’re lucky, and you’ve got your work cut out for you!  If like me you can’t identify with any particular fruit, continue reading!

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Color Palette

You likely have some idea of which colors make you look radiant and healthy, and which make you look flushed and sickly. You’ve probably gotten comments about it all your life, so you’ve learned that certain colors (like pure white, black, bright or muted colors) make you look drab and boring, while others automatically make you look more refreshed and energetic. This has to do with the pigments in your skin, eyes, and hair, as well as cultural associations with any given color. There’s a complete guide published in the 80’s which has paved the way for all subsequent color-mapping schemes, it’s called Color Me Beautiful (see the book here), and it has become an industry in its own right, with consultants and a wide range of products offered and delivered all around the world. You can probably find that book, or any newer version of it at your local library, or your favorite online bookstore, determine which season you are, and have the fabric swatches that best suit your particular season sent right home to you. You might even decide to have a consultant help you figure it out. They offer parties for you and your friends to join in the color-sorting fun! Or you can take an educated guess by watching any number of videos on the subject. I highly recommend Justine Leconte’s youtube channel (click here to watch her 60+ videos on fashion). She also goes into a good amount of detail on almost all the subjects I cover here, which she aptly collected together under the heading of Capsule Wardrobe. So if you have any more doubts about what to do after reading this, head over to her website and take a look at her videos.

Perhaps more importantly than the color palette, since it’s quite intuitive, is your undertone. Basically you can have a warm, a cold, or a neutral undertone. A warm undertone means that you look good in warmer colors: colors on one end of the color wheel, which range from red to yellow. You have a warm undertone if the veins under your wrist appear to be green. You look better in gold than silver, for example. If your veins look blue or purple you have a cool undertone, and you’ll look better in colors that are closer to blue in the color wheel, and silver looks better on you than gold. If you can’t tell whether they’re blue or green, or if you have some blue and some green veins, then you are considered neutral, and any color (within those that agree with your overall look: bright, muted/soft, contrasting or uniform) would look good on you, and you can easily wear gold and silver interchangeably.

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Once you’ve established which colors look best on you, you need to take out of your wardrobe all the colors that clash with you, and get rid of them for good. If you don’t feel comfortable in them, it doesn’t really matter how beautiful they are in and of themselves, you will always feel uncomfortable, and that will show through, so get rid of them.

Colors and styles that you are completely comfortable in, and that you know they make you look alive and ready to get to business are more likely to get worn, and help you exude confidence. You want the clothes you wear to bring out the best in you, you don’t want them to be the be all and end all, they should not speak louder than you, they should reflect your own inner voice, not mask it.

If your wardrobe reflects all the colors of the rainbow, then I highly recommend you keep going to the next section!

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Sorting

Make three piles out of the clothes you own (start with the upcoming season):

1) OUT: in this pile you place clothes that you don’t like, don’t wear, don’t fit, if they don’t look good on you, they are impractical, and/or you haven’t worn them in a couple of years. These need to be given away to people who will love and wear them. If they’re in new or almost new condition, you might be able to sell them. If you don’t know anyone who would like to have them, then donate them to the nearest women’s shelter, or a charity of your choice. They might be just perfect for someone else, just not you. If you’re doing this CW with a friend, you could even exchange! Have a clothes swapping party and make an event of it! You’ll also get some free and tailor made advice that way! Just make sure you only invite close friends who aren’t trying to raid your closet!

2) IN: Clothes that you love, wear, find practical, that fit well, and go well with your style, your weather, your color palette, and can be combined with other pieces to form a stable CW. These items you keep, and count, to ensure you have enough of them, and in good enough shape to last you the year, or at least one season. Family heirlooms and items with significant sentimental value you may want to store safely, but not necessarily keep in your wardrobe.

3) MAYBE: Clothes that you like, look good on you, fit nicely, but that you haven’t worn in a few seasons, put in a trial period pile for one season (the season in which you’d normally be wearing them), if by the end of it you find you haven’t worn them, let go of them. They can be tossed into the OUT pile. The ones that you’ve worn, or can use in another season go into the IN pile as an interchangeable piece or layer for your core wardrobe, if you find it’s a versatile piece that you’ll wear.

Practical Issues

If you know you need casual and formal, ensure you have enough items to cover you in each style, with the possibility of some overlap. As a mutahajjaba I have a variety of styles depending on what I do and where I do it. I need to have practical and comfortable clothing that is either long and wide, or can be worn in layers, for anything I do in my leisure time outdoors or indoors with people coming over informally. I need to have more formal clothing for when I work, and I like to have a few casual and a few formal pieces that I only use with people I don’t have to wear hijab around, such as at women’s parties, with female guests, nuclear family celebrations, and the like. In order to minimize the amount of clothing to cover this variety, I prefer to layer up and layer down, dress up and dress down individual pieces. I find cardigans perfect for this, as they can cover bare arms, thighs and rear ends nicely without changing much else. Skirts come in very handy as well, since you can wear shorter blouses with them, without compromising on hijab. Wide-leg pants are another great alternative, but you sometimes need a longer blouse or cardigan. Tighter pants go well with very long tops, which you can find plenty of on the Shukr website (US, UK, Canada, EU, Arabic Countries, Australia Other non-Arab, non EU countries).

Simplifying your color scheme also allows for more flexibility, interchangeability, and less clutter. It’s a good idea to choose about three or four basic neutral colors that you like, feel comfortable in, and look well in as your staples, around which you an juxtapose a couple of dominant color options. The idea is to have options, and not to get stuck working your wardrobe around the dominant color, but for it to be usable with a variety of basics. For example, I don’t wear much black or white, so I often gravitate to browns and greys for my stock pieces in neutrals. In the winter I go for darker browns and greys, with a couple of black pieces, and in the summer I go to lighter shades of grey and beije, with a couple of off-white pieces. For dominant color I go for purple and red/burgundy in winter, and turquoise and coral red/fucsia in summer. You can go one or two shades darker or lighter than the colors you choose, but by avoiding a large number of colors outside of your neutrals, you avoid having to purchase more items to go with each color, and gain flexibility with what you’ve got.

In terms of accessories and shoes, I have black, brown and grey bags to go with my black and brown shoes, but I also have a burgundy bag to go with my burgundy shoes. Sometimes it’s easier to have your accessories as accents, especially if you tend to go for more neutral, muted ensembles, but still wish to breathe some life into your outfit. I wouldn’t recommend having the scarf matching the shoes and the handbag, just because this disjointedness makes the eye wonder, unless you have very little of that color on the scarf or the shoes, just to hint at an ensemble, without breaking up the visual effect.

Staple Pieces

If you wear short items of clothing, they will be added in your number. I don’t wear short anything in my staple pieces, so that eliminates a whole range of tops and bottoms. But I do wear both skirts and pants, blouses, shirts, sweaters and cardigans. I rarely wear jackets, and keep my jeans to a bare minimum. In the winter I mostly wear pants, so I have more winter pants than skirts. In the summer it’s the opposite, and for the in-between seasons I have a few medium weight skirts. For jeans I have one pair of summer weight blue jeans, one pair of thick blue jeans, one pair of black jeans and two black jeans skirts (which I actually wear most of the year). Most of my staple pieces are Shukr pieces, which are pictured above. I can mix and match at will with great ease, as their lines are very well coordinated. I occasionally buy a print for special events, which I don’t count in my CW. But I do have a few colored pieces to brighten up my otherwise pretty bland color palette. I often gravitate towards a little dusting of color in my headscarves, and found that I get an awful lot of wear out of scarves in mostly neutral colors but with a little splash of brighter color here and there (a few examples are shown above). You will have to figure out which clothes you will get the most use out of, and gravitate the rest of your wardrobe around those staple pieces. It’s a lot easier than you might think! Once you have sorted your clothes, it should be clearer to you in which direction you want to go with your CW.

Coats aren’t included in the CW, but here too I go for the usual basics of browns and greys. The weather gets pretty cold and it’s messy for a lot of it, so I have a coat for every occasion. However, I do tend to use the same two coats (one charcoal grey and one coffee brown, both knee-length merino wool/cashmere blends) because they go with pretty much everything I wear, and they are warm, comfortable and practical. When I shovel snow, or play outside, I opt for more sporty, water resistant, lighter varieties. You will of course choose the ones that suit your lifestyle and wardrobe, and maybe you’ll notice, like I did, that you have more clothes than you actually need, so you can immediately start simplifying!

I hope that I have given you some ideas to consider as you start your spring cleaning, and that you will think more about your clothing choices in the future. Do comment below if you have any questions, or would like me to address any particular point in more detail.

Until next time, happy sorting!

The Best Cup of Coffee

Coffee has been an important part of my life as far as my nostrils can remember: my father prepared his early morning coffee in a stove-top mocha, and every time I make it that way I think of him! But I wasn’t allowed to drink it, until my godmother swept me off to Toulouse (France) to visit her family for the summer, at the tender age of thirteen! It never occurred to her that I might not be allowed to drink it, as kids start drinking coffe early in France, and I wasn’t about to protest French customs! It was in the form of French Pressed Coffee, and it was the most deliciously sinful drink I had ever had in my life! I was hooked! Needless to say, it has been my faithful companion since then! Black, that’s how I tasted it the first time, and that’s the only way I’ll drink it, unless my mom’s around (she insists I have at least a smidgeon of milk with it, or if it’s my third or fourth cup, and I am ready to dilute it a bit). But the black purity of my first morning espresso is not to be messed with!

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I’ve tried different varieties: mocha, espresso machine, French press, drip, filtered, even instant (oh… I wish I’d blocked that out!), and I’ll begrudgingly admit that I’ve succumbed to capsules when visiting with friends and family who own those wretched machines of environmental destruction. I’m addicted… what can I say?

I’ve also tried different brands, regions, makes, granule size, beans, freshly ground and store-bought pre-ground. And I’ve had LOTS of experience in pretty much every kind of commonly found coffees. As you know, I’ve moved around a lot (as I explained here ) so I’ve had to rediscover the best coffees locally available. As I’ve expressed before, I have a special place in my heart reserved for Somali Coffee, and I have a love-hate relationship with Turkish coffee, more about that in a future post.

I will confess that I haven’t been able to find a coffee that brings me the exhilarating satisfaction I experienced with Ravelli cappuccino, because at the Ravelli (you can find it on this map of Locarno, Switzerland) they made their fortune getting their coffee directly from the cultivators, in South America, they roasted and ground their own coffee, and prepared the cappuccino with their own whipped cream (not your regular store-bought kind that you squeeze out of a canister), this is rich, thick, sumptuous and curiously sweet cream. Oh… the cappuccino at the Ravelli… is utterly unique, and unmatched! I’d get my friends and family to buy kilos of Ravelli coffee beans (which sell at a premium), each time they came to visit me, but I can’t get my hands on the right type of whipped cream. Nevertheless, the coffee is unmistakable, and absolutely delicious. You’ll have to try it if you’re ever in Ticino (the Italian speaking region of southern Switzerland). If you are there, have it with their freshly baked brioches or croissants, which are some of the best in the area! It’ll be worth the detour, especially since Locarno is the most beautiful city in all of Ticino, and I challenge anyone to say otherwise! If you’re going to make the trip, try to go in the summer, especially around August, as that’s when they have the International Movie Festival (more information on that here ) in the Piazza Grande (which is where the coffee shop is, of course). The piazza is surrounded by century old three story buildings that act as a sound buffer, on top of creating a magical outdoor theatre with its beautifully maintained facades over the notoriously crowded yet homely porticos. The sound and light effects are simply spectacular, which is why many bands have chosen this very spot to record their live performances (such as the Simple Minds, if you’re old enough to remember them… I was there, and you might hear me screaming in the audience in their live record!). But I digress…

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Coffee! Yes, I was saying that I’ve tried hundreds, no, probably more like thousands or even tens of thousands. And this is my absolute favorite at home coffee. I won’t recommend any other coffee shops, simply because other than the Ravelli, I haven’t found a single one that makes coffee better than I do at home with the steps I’m about to share with you! So keep reading!

This coffee (I’m not getting commission, or any kind of remuneration for this, so you can trust that I’m being 100% unbiased when I say this), is not only the best tasting, but it also has all sorts of winning criteria: it’s fair trade, organic, sustainably made, and locally owned, made and operated. They sell their packages all over Canada and the United States, but they also sell online via a series of online businesses, such as Target, and iHerb. You can read more about this amazing company, their philosophy, their products, and anything else you want to find out about them here.

I like to get the beans and grind them each time I make a fresh cup of coffee. I also use my old, tried and tested espresso machine, which I inherited from my father. It’s a Mokita Café Creme from the 1990s, which is probably discontinued, but I attach a picture of it below, for your reference. He bought it in an Italian coffee-machine repair shop in Montreal’s Little Italy (Little Italy is located between St-Denis and St-Laurent, and spans from Jean-Talon to St-Zotique, all of which can be reached by the city Metro and buses), don’t ask me which, it was nearly thirty years ago!

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I use an average coffee grinder I bought at my local grocery store for 20$, but you can find good quality ones at thrift stores for less than half that. You definitely don’t have to go out and spend more than 20$ on a top of the line coffee grinder, is what I’m saying. No matter how sharp or fast it is, it won’t cut the beans as the ones you find in coffee shops and grocery stores, but it’ll always give you the freshness you want for your cup of coffee. All you have to do is time it, and look at it, you don’t want it too coarse (such as your regular drip and filtered coffee brands), because the water won’t have time to go through the thick shreds in an espresso, and you don’t want it too thin (such as Turkish coffee, which is ground to a powder), because it’ll clog up your filter and make a mess of your espresso. Somewhere in the middle is perfect.

You use about 2 Tablespoons of this ground coffee for each large cup (tazza grande) of espresso (you’ll need about 2/3 of that for a small espresso, or a “ristretto” as they call it in Italy). You need to stand there and look at the stream: don’t let it get watery, let the frothy thick brown liquid pour, but stop it before the stream changes color, which normally happens around the same time as the water temperature drops (the light will switch on). It takes a few seconds, so don’t just press the button and leave it, time it and remember that time-lapse. Each machine is different, but on average I’d say you need about 10 seconds or less, which is pretty much the maximum amount of time you’d want the coffee to be pouring anyhow, unless you don’t care about the negative effects of caffeine oils seeping into your system (remember this type of coffee doesn’t use paper filters, so you’ll be getting the full strength of the bean). You want to minimize the time, while getting the maximum flavor.

This is what a freshly ground, properly made cup of coffee should look like (the brown foam isn’t milk, it’s all black coffee):

And last but not least, a couple of words about cups. Porcelain cups are best, ask any reputable espresso-making coffee shop. They are smooth, so they feel great on your lips, and they don’t rob you from tasting every little drop of coffee in the cup (as rough-textured ceramic cups will do), plus they keep the coffee’s temperature for longer (porcelain is baked twice and can withstand very high temperatures, which they maintain for longer periods of time). Preferably, you should keep your porcelain espresso cups over your espresso machine, so they warm up before you are ready to use them, but even if you don’t, they are still better than ceramic. A close second is bone china, and vitrified clays (such as the brand Corelle in North America), which are as smooth and thin as porcelain, though not as luxurious. I dislike glass for my coffee, perhaps because I associate tea with glass (as I explain here) and white porcelain with coffee. I find that this combination suits me best, but of course, you don’t have to agree with me. I just thought I’d share my insights with you, as I do consider myself to be a veritable coffe aficionado, not to say connoisseur.

Until next time, enjoy your espresso!

Chai Masala

Indian tea, as I mentioned before (Chai), is called Chai, if you add spices to it (making it what we commonly call Chai) it becomes Chai Masala (literally spiced tea). Here I use this term to differentiate it from the water-based Chai for which I gave you the recipe linked above. In today’s tea recipe, I am combining Afghani Chai with Chai Masala, as the process is the same, the only difference is in the amount of spices.

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Afghani tea, as I explained here, is very simple, using only a maximum of five ingredients (water, tea leaves, cardamom, sugar, milk), whereas Indian Chai can be like a veritable soup of spices! You may add cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, pepper corns, ginger, fennel seeds, star anise, rose petals, mint, black or roobois tea, sugar, water and milk. In the winter people prefer to add pepper corn, clove and cinnamon, with milk, whereas in the summer you might prefer to opt for lighter ingredients like rose petals, mint, and fennel seeds, and maybe stick to water rather than adding milk. The basic recipe, though, normally includes cardamom, ginger and star anise, which you can combine in the quantities you prefer.

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Everyone mixes their chai to their own liking, which is why it’s usually a good idea to make it fresh each time. However, once you’ve established the spice mix that suits your mood, you could use dry ingredients and grind them together to add to your black or roobois tea, and label them (flu chai, refreshing chai, strong chai, or whatever name you want to affix to your particular blend).

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This is how you prepare Chai Masala, or Afghani Chai:

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Bring a cup of water and 2-3 tsp of loose black tea (or your favorite bagged tea) to a boil, let simmer for about five minutes, once the tea is nice and dark, add a cup of milk and cardamom pods (always crack them open to enable the flavor to ooze out), bring to a near boil once more. Some people prefer a larger milk to water ratio, I concur (1 – 3/2), it makes the tea creamier and richer. Also, because the milk is white and viscous, the tea needs to steep much longer, as do the spices. Even with Afghani tea (where light and fresh are the norm) you’ll have to boil the tea twice to get the taste to seep into the milk, and give you the rich caffelatte tinge to it.

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Here, if you’re making Afghani tea it’s ready to serve (remember hot and not too strong is the ideal), you may serve sugar separately, or include it before serving (unlike water based tea, milk chai is usually served sweetened). If you’re making Indian Chai Masala, then this is the time to add your other spices (star anise, ginger, cinnamon, etc.). Let it steep for about 5 minutes, and then serve, sweetened, unless otherwise requested.

Depending on the type of tea and the freshness of your spices, you might have to steep and/or boil for longer, if you’ve boiled it twice, stirred it nicely, and let it seep for a total of 10 minutes and you still don’t get the aroma of the Chai Masala flooding your nostrils, then double up on your spices and let it steep another five minutes. You should be able to smell the spices before you even taste them, if you don’t, the tea isn’t ready!

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It’s important to test the potency of your spices before preparing a dry mix, so you don’t end up with the wrong flavors overpowering the rest. So make a small pot of tea before you blend a whole canister of Chai preparation. You’ll have to try different combinations and explore what your taste buds prefer, and go from there. Chai Masala is a lot more demanding than regular Chai, because the milk adds a very thick layer of complicated taste and texture that needs to be balanced out. But once you have it figured out, you’ll be glad you bothered… seriously… it’s THAT GOOD!

I like to use a tea filter to sift out all the grainy bits of spices and tea, which you can return to the pot for further steeping. I prefer to drink my tea in glass cups, it reminds me of home, and I love the transparency of it. If you’ve gone through the trouble of finding the right spices in the ideal amount for you, and the perfect timing for the steeping process, then why not indulge in your favorite cup texture? Also, since you’re at it, and probably even more importantly, DO invest in a good thinly meshed filter, finding little bits of tea leaves, crushed mint, or grated nutmeg in your mouth when you’re expecting a sumptuously smooth drink, will just spoil it for you.

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Finally… kick back and ENJOY!

Spring Chill

Spring is around the corner, even though it’s been making itself scarce, it’ll show up eventually… and I have just finished my Spring Chill Shrug, using the same stitch pattern I used for my winter wool poncho (Knit a beautiful, easy, quick shrug with your spare yarn).

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This time I used thinner yarn, in a cotton blend with beautiful Spring colors, it requires size 5-5.5mm needles, but I used 7mm straight needles throughout. I used four balls of this yarn to complete the shall.

 

I cast on 39 stitches and worked them as follows: knit 2, yarn over, knit 2 together. You must have an odd number of stiches in a multiple of three in order to be able to maintain the same sequence at front and back. Otherwise you’ll have to adjust, according to what presents itself.

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Cast off all your stitches by knitting 2 and knit 2 together (omit the yarn over).

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Once I obtained the length I wanted, 110cm, I twisted the scarf once and sewed the ends together. This is the end result.

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Babel isn’t a mess, it just looks like one

Infinite possibilities, or almost. Seemingly endless possibilities.

Chaotic?

Random…

Inexplicable!

But it isn’t (Jorge Luis Borges)

There’s order in this madness (Oscar Wilde)

A pattern, perhaps

My order, my pattern, my possibility may not be yours, but it exists

Sharing the possibility of its existence is hope

My sense and yours may differ

Being alive means you must continue to try to make sense (Samuel Beckett).

Art is senses, beauty, imagination, depth, information, subjectivity, relativism all at once (Elizabeth Gilbert) and it helps us get there

Where the cacophony confuses… art makes sense

Absorb the quietude

Silence reveals more than words

Let it.

Thoughts, fears, demons. All sitting together, facing each other, in your head…

Be with them: no escape.

Silence

Make sense

Share your sense

Share meaning

All else is diversion.

Spring

Brimming with anticipation

I observed you peeking through the snow

Reminding me of why I long for you

But you resist my silent beckoning

You scornfully ignore the birds’ appeal

I invite you to stay a while

And you smile…

Your warmth gently caresses my cheek, promising to return

All in good time, you whisper

No matter how long I wait

You are welcomed with open arms

And I celebrate your arrival

Hoping you will linger a bit longer

But your appeal lies within your ephimerality

For renewal can’t endure

It must, always, return…

 

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