Category Archives: Sustainable Living

Cook a meal with just a handful of twigs, using a rocket stove!

I made a rocket stove!

Thanks to YouTube I was able to learn about the fabulousness of rocket stoves.

What’s special about a rocket stove is that you can cook using an astonishingly small amount of fuel – not that many twigs are needed to boil water, for example. The reasons I wanted one are a) to reduce the use of gas and make use of the vast amount of wood hanging round on the property, and b) to cook outside in summer and not heat up the house.

The basic idea is that you have an L-shaped bit of stovepipe (or chamber) that’s about 10cm in diameter, and you put the fire in the foot of the L, and sit the pot on the top of the L. You need to make a little platform in the middle of the foot of the L so that the twigs can sit on it and there’s space underneath for the air to flow in, providing plenty of oxygen for a good flame. The stove pipe also needs to be insulated, preferably with something that will hold the heat nicely. I watched a few videos, but in the end the simplest one was this: How to Make a 16 Brick Rocket Stove. I had plenty of bricks lying around. The only bit that foiled me was that in order to make the foot of the L the right size, I need to have a half-thickness brick. No go. And I had no chance of cutting one. In the end I solved this by placing a few tiles I found in the bottom.

This stove took me about an hour to make, including finding the drawers to sit it on and shifting them into a nice shady spot opposite our front door, and tracking down the slab of marble which I laid on top in the hope that the drawers won’t catch on fire, and tempting the redback spiders out of the holes in the bricks. If you only count the time to actually make the stove, well that’d be about 10 minutes. I put a big white tile behind the stove in the hope of protecting the fence, put in some paper and twigs, sat our pot on top, lit the stove and snapped this pic.

The white tile became black. The pot became black. The drawers were covered in ash. BUT IT WORKED! I couldn’t believe that something so utterly simple could actually work so well. It got up a nice big flame quite quickly, was pretty easy to keep going, and after a few hours the bricks and ash were so hot I could boil water on it super-quick with only a low flame. We filled that huge pot with stock and boiled it all day.

Storing Woollens

Now that it’s warmed up here in Melbourne, it’s time for people like me who live in very small houses to put our winter clothes into storage and bring in my summer garments.  I used to just shove all my woollies into a box and jam it into the shed, but now that I’ve made so many of my own clothes from scratch, I feel more inclined to look after them properly.  I think when store-bought clothing is so cheap it’s easy to chuck out once a button goes missing or a moth nibbles a hole in it.

But the leggings I knitted myself, which took me months.. well I want them to last as long as possible.  My down jacket made from my own home-reared chickens, my felted ugg boots from the fleece of my pet rabbit, and the garments I’ve spun myself then knitted… they were so very labour intensive, they have to last for as close to forever as possible.

So I’ve learnt how to store woollens and natural fibres properly.  This is my third year of doing it, and so far so good.  My clothes have had a a few nibbles, but they’ve all occurred while sitting in my loft, not in storage.  Here’s what to do:

  1. First step is to wash all the clothes, thoroughly and properly.  This is the single most important thing you can do, and if you only do one thing before shoving your woollies out of sight, this is it.  The moth larvae that nibble your clothes do so because they are feeding on the bits of sweat, grime and body oil that lives on them.  No dirt, no oil = no food for larvae, and they die, having done minimal damage to your clothes.
  2. Put your dry, clean clothes inside a tightly woven cotton pillowcase or bag.  Apparently the moths and larvae can’t nibble through cotton, but they can eat their way through plastic.
  3. Now, if possible, store the cotton bag inside something the insects can’t easily get into, such as a plastic tub with a lid, or a zipper bag.
  4. Optional: in with your clothes, you can add some sachets of herbs that will repel the moths.  I’ve read mixed reports about this – alone it doesn’t seem to work.  Whether it really helps much is questionable.  But I have lots or herbs in my garden and quite enjoyed making my sachets.  Simply gather a handful of herbs, hang them up to dry for a couple of weeks, then crumple them into a handkerchief or small square of cotton fabric.  Gather up the edges and hold with a rubber band or piece of string.  Or you can sew yourself some very pretty sachets.  If nothing else, they help the clothes smell nice next autumn when you take them out again.

If, like me, you are turning into the sort of person who actually does this, and looks after your clothes properly, there’s a companion job that goes with this: mending.  I did a huge pile of mending last week, when I spent the day at a friend’s house.  I brought my sewing box and damaged clothes, and in a few hours had made amazing progress.  I promised myself, when I knitted those leggings, that if I saw the teensiest hole, I’d sew it up straight away, rather than letting the leggings get ruined.  I’ve a gorgeous pair of slipper socks I knitted for myself a few years ago, wore about ten times, then discovered them later hideously moth eaten to the point of unwearability.  What a waste of all that knitting.  Never again.  I’m now a sworn mender.

I keep a running list in my diary of things that need mending/minor alterations.  There’s no point making a pile of them because these clothes are too much in circulation to dump in a mending basket.  And if I don’t keep a list, then when I finally get around to my mending session, I forget half the stuff!  While it only takes a minute or two to sew on a button or repair a small hole, I find it hard to do this whenever the hole first appears.  It’s easier for me to set aside time and do a whole pile at once.  My last session was probably about 6 months ago, so it doesn’t need doing all that often.

Do you have any tips for keeping your clothes in good condition, and looking after them properly?  Leave me a comment with your suggestions.

The 5 ingredients of a successful food garden

So many people grow food but end up with relatively little homegrown food in their diet, despite making a good effort. I see that often one step or another is missing, resulting in a lot of wasted effort. Afterall, there’s no point pouring your energy into growing food if you aren’t going to eat it. I think of vegetable gardens as an all-or-nothing venture. Go the whole hog or don’t bother. This is what I consider to be the essential ingredients of a successful food garden:

Prepare the soil properly with lots of food and aeration and weed removal. Plants find hard to grow in heavy, depleted soil. No dig gardens are popular but in my experience they often don’t do as well.

Use good quality plants/seeds/seedlings. A good quality broccoli, for example, makes a fat head rather than a few spindly flower shoots. Lots of seed from the garden shop is poor quality. Get your seeds from the same place farmers do or ask at your local farmer’s market whether they will sell you some seed. If you notice good quality seed, treasure it with your life and store it sealed in a dry container in your freezer.

Water water water. A single day of water stress will turn many plants bitter. They should be lush and bright green from start to finish. Don’t skimp on water. Even if you use loads of water, homegrown gardens tend to use less water than commercially produced products – you are still doing the environment a favour.

Immediate pest control. Every day when watering, watch for weeds that threaten to overtake, bugs or problems that will damage the plants and be ready to take immediate action. Waiting even a day or two can mean a lost crop and all your energy so far will have been wasted.

Harvest. Every day, pick a moderate amount of everything that is ready to eat and deliver it to the kitchen. Then process it and turn it into dinner. So many people neglect to harvest. I think the problem is thinking that you have carrots in your garden so when you next need carrots for a recipe you will go and pick some. This is not nearly as effective as simply harvesting whatever your garden has to offer at any time, and then finding a way to cook it into your dinner.

Here’s what I plant for a nice flow of food:

Every month, plant a square metre or two of a mix of:
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot, cabbage, daikon, rocket, peas (winter and spring), beans (spring and summer), lettuce, spinach (winter).

Sept plant:
Tomato, cucumber, eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin, corn, silverbeet.

January plant more:
Tomato, cucumber, eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin, corn, silverbeet.

How to really grow food in your backyard

For more than twenty years, I have grown food.  For the first ten years I had limited success, and was pretty baffled as to how an ordinary backyard could really produce enough food to feed a family.  Over a three year period, however, I made changes to what I was doing, and found I could produce 80% of my family’s vegies and roughly half the fruit from a normal suburban block.  Here, I share with you what I learnt, in the hope that it can help you feed your family from your garden too.

I’ve written everything I know about growing food here.

Tour of my house and garden 2014

Tour of my house and garden 2014 1

I would like to show you the cottage I lived in for almost twenty years. The front half I built when I was 22, with no building experience!  It cost $10,000, and I kept it cheap by doing absolutely everything myself.  The back half was added much later. I made this photo tour in spring of 2014.

This is what you saw when you came in from the front gate.  

Tour of my house and garden 2014 2

Here you can see the front of the original house, with its beautiful gothic arched windows that I got from an old church.  Back right was the chook house, and a wooden gate that went to the chook area and my son Jesse’s garden.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 3

This was the entrance to the new part of the house, the kitchen door.

Here’s the pretty herb garden beneath that kitchen window:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 4

And here’s my home from the other side.  I was inspired by French country farm houses, and I think it really does look a bit like one:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 5

Now come inside, let me show you the kitchen:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 6

All the cabinets were made from old weather boards.  The kitchen had the most glorious view from the window, which you can see in this photo here:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 7
Tour of my house and garden 2014 8

And here’s the table where we ate, chatted, and watched each other do silly interpretive dance routines on the ‘stage’ that was our kitchen floor.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 9

When we ate, the rabbit, who free ranged in the garden, liked to hang out near us outside the window, entertaining us.  It was nearly as good as interpretive dance.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 10

There was a lovely little Alice-In-Wonderland style arched doorway that went from the kitchen to the lounge room:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 11

Now step through into the lounge room, and you’ll see the wood stove, which made me very, very happy in winter.  When everything was grey and dark and wet, lighting the fire lifted my spirits.  I always did intend to have a wood stove but the one I installed when I first built the house was stolen (!!) and then we put a cupboard in its space, and after that we couldn’t figure out what to do with all the STUFF that we depended on in the cupboard, so I couldn’t replace the woodstove!

Tour of my house and garden 2014 12

Now here’s the front door, and through the arch window, you can see my fishing girl statue.  She was been trying to catch fish in that pond for years, but no go yet, unfortunately.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 13

Right in front of those lovely arched windows was my art desk, where I spent much of my time:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 14

I also made art in the bathroom (which you had to go outside to get to), where I had a bench for dirty/stinky jobs like plastering, soldering and spray-painting:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 15

It was pretty squishy in there, and the only reason I was allowed in there at all with my dangerous tools is because the room was in shocking state of disrepair with the roof about to fall in and holes on the wall. Later we fixed that and I moved my dangerous tools to my studio at the Abbotsford Convent. We had a composting toilet:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 16

Which worked great and didn’t stink at all.

Now come back inside and upstairs. This is the loft, which was home to our bath, and originally my whole little family slept there – all squished in like peas in a pod.  In 2014 the loft was just for Jesse:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 17

And here’s the bedroom, which was my favourite room in the house:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 18

Sitting up in bed, journaling, was probably my favourite switch-off activity, the best possible way to restore myself.  When we slept in the loft, that was pretty hard on my back, as I never had anything to lean against, and had to sit right in the middle of the bed so I wouldn’t hit my head on the ceiling.  Here in the new bed, I could spend hours journaling comfortably.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 19

I think my favourite feature of the room was the chandelier, which existed as a dream in my journal for years before I finally had space for one.  I made it from old forks, pewter jugs and other scavenged metals.  I took a metal-smithing course just to learn how to do this, and now as a result, I’ve got the skills to do other metalwork – it heralded the beginning of a jewellery making career!

Tour of my house and garden 2014 20

The bedroom had a lovely arched window:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 21

And a wardrobe made from salvaged timber:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 22

And this little corset I found in France, hanging on my grandmother’s coathanger:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 23

Ok, let’s head outside and I’ll show you the garden.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 25

If you went through that little wooden gate I mentioned back at the start of this post, you’d find yourself standing in front of the chook pen.  They had a little yellow house to roost in, and a big pen covered with a grape vine to play in.  But through the day we’d open the gate and they’d hang out in the orchard too.  See the black square bin in the photo above?  Worms lived in there.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 26
Tour of my house and garden 2014 27

Here’s Jesse’s vegie garden and cubby, fenced off from the chooks, who would otherwise have destroyed it:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 28
Tour of my house and garden 2014 29
Tour of my house and garden 2014 30

We had a separate pen for our meat chickens, and they hung out under our fig and mandarine trees:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 31

Now on the other side of the house, if you stepped outside our kitchen door, there was a garden of wild greens and the mosaic path, leading to my vegie garden:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 32

My favourite piece of garden art is here too, a stencil I painted onto a piece of tin, which was flattened and had some barbed wire as a frame:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 33

This was my vegie garden, where most of my gardening efforts were concentrated:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 34

It had raised beds, and a fence around it to keep out animals.  I tried to plant out roughly a square metre each month for us to eat.  To know more about how I produce maximum food from this, read my page, How To Really Grow Food In Your Backyard.

This bed here was just ripening up, soon to be eaten:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 35

We were already eating zucchinis and the last of winter’s spinach, broccoli and beetroots:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 36
Tour of my house and garden 2014 37

Past my vegie garden was my ‘food forest’:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 38
Tour of my house and garden 2014 39

At one end of the food forest was the composting station.  This was where the composting toilet results went, and all food and garden scraps, and entire dead animals.  In fact, my neighbours brought me their expired animals to dispose of here.  It burned hot and fast.  When I emptied stuff onto it, and came back a week later, it all looked like dirt.  Ultimately, this fed the vegies and fruit trees, which made for a nearly-closed system of fertility.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 40


The food forest was also home to bees:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 42

The bees thought they owned the forest and sometimes buzzed me when I was out there doing destructive things like weeding.  I learnt from experience that if buzzed, I get two warnings and then a sting.  If it wasn’t a good day for a bee sting, I’d head inside after the first warning.

Tour of my house and garden 2014 43

There was a fair bit of food hidden in my forest:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 44
Tour of my house and garden 2014 45
Tour of my house and garden 2014 46

And some lovely little spots like this one:

Tour of my house and garden 2014 47

And there we have it, folks.  Thanks for looking around with me. I really loved that house.

The best and cheapest humanure composting toilet

My friend Kat has framed a note I wrote to her before we met. ‘Hi, my name is Asphyxia, and I am wondering if I could come over to help you empty your composting toilet?’

Ok, I guess it is a rather unusual introduction. I had had three different composting toilet systems at my house and was appalled by all of them. I heard on the grapevine that this woman, Kat, had a good one, and wanted to know the details. Kat taught me the secrets to a stress-free composting toilet. This system has been amazing! It cost a grand total of $50 to set up (unlike previous systems which I had forked out thousands for) and never malfunctioned in almost a decade of use.

I’m sold. Want to know how to run a cheap and simple composting toilet system? I’ve put the details on this page here.

How to live without disposable products

I’ve managed to mostly give up disposable products in my life.  At first, in trying to imagine how I would do so, I felt completely overwhelmed.  But now that I’m on the other side of making these changes, I can vouch for how easy it is.  Life is actually no less convenient.  It’s about establishing a few habits, which become automatic once they’ve settled in, and about working out some new systems to replace the old ones.  Making the change takes time, but I promise, living with it is easy.

To get started, make a list of all the disposable products in your life.  Mine, originally, looked something like this:

Tissues
Wrapping paper
Toilet paper
Serviettes
Kitchen paper
Dishbrushes
Wettexes
Make up wipes
Water bottles
Plastic plates & cutlery
Shampoo bottles
Laundry liquid bottles
Dishwashing liquid bottles
Tomato cans
Cotton buds
Plastic cling wrap
Aluminium foil

Once you have your list, the next step is to start brainstorming non-disposable replacements.  It takes time to work out a new system, and the right system for you may take a few goes.  Just tackle a few at a time, and when they no longer feel challenging, add in a few more.  Here’s what I did for my list:

Tissues

I collected hankies from op shops, and also sewed myself a set of hankies from an old pretty patterned sheet.  If I was doing it again, I’d choose a flannelette sheets for some of the hankies – they are perfect when I’ve got a cold, but a bit bulky for every day.

Toilet paper

I sewed myself some flannelette cloths to use for wees. I use squares of paper torn from an old phone book for poo into a composting toilet, and for a regular toilet I still just a minimal number of sheets of toilet paper.  The phone book takes a bit of getting used to since it’s not absorbent, but the paper is strong and wipes well.  Don’t crumple!  This is still “disposable” but at least I’m disposing of something that is already rubbish.

Wrapping paper

I went to the op shop and bought a couple of fabric sheets / tablecloths in co-ordinating colours.  I cut them into a variety of sizes to use as wrapping paper.  I also bought a few silk and chiffon scarves in colours that go with them to use as ribbons for tieing up my parcels.  All these pieces now live in box, and whenever a birthday rolls around, I wrap the presents in the cloth, pin the cloth down with a sewing pin, and then tie it with a pretty scarf.  At the end of each birthday, the cloths and scarves go back in the box.  When giving gifts to people who don’t live in my household, this method usually works fine, though I often skip the sewing pins.  After the gift has been given, the piece of fabric generally lies on the ground – I just pick it up and take it home to use for next time.  Occasionally the recipient wants to keep the fabric, in which case I just figure it’s part of their present and am delighted.  Or if they are impressed by the fabric-wrapping idea, I suggest they keep the fabric and use it when they give a gift to someone else.

Serviettes

I don’t use serviettes at home.  When I go to a restaurant, I slip into my bag a cloth napkin and a couple of food containers, ready to bring home any leftovers.  On the rare occasions I forget, I simply don’t use one – I lick my fingers clean instead, and visit the sink in the bathroom before I leave at the end of the meal.  At friends’ houses I simply wash my hands in the sink rather than using a napkin.

Kitchen paper

I used to use these to wipe up grease or spills.  These days I use a facewasher instead, and chuck it in the washing machine afterwards.  I scrape any food grease directly into the compost bin.  When frying things that need to be drained on kitchen paper, I sit it on pieces of torn up paper bag instead.

Dishbrushes

These plastic brushes have to be thrown out every few months, which seems a horrible waste.  I bought myself a wooden brush from an eco store, and some replaceable wooden heads.  The wood is still disposable but at least it will biodegrade.  However, the true change has been in how I use it.  I never, ever scrub too hard with my dishbrush these days.  The bristles on the eco-brushes last longer than the plastic ones, but with care, I got mine to last two to three years.  For hard scrubbing, use a scourer – for soft rubbing, go the dish brush – carefully.

Wettexes

I thought I’d never be able to give up wettexes – those lovely absorbent sponges that seem to disintegrate far too quickly.  However, these days I just use a facewasher, and chuck it in the wash when it gets too dirty. I get towels from the op shop to cut up and use as cleaning rags.

Make up wipes

I have tried flannelette squares of cloth, sea sponges, face washers, old sheets and more – but they either don’t remove the make up as effectively as the wipes, or they leave my skin raw and sore.  I only use make up wipes when I’m performing, but when I’m doing a performance season, that’s twice a day I need to scrub off a thick layer of make up, and my skin barely copes.  The best I have managed is to buy a packet of wipes and an extra bottle of the cleansing solution I prefer.  I use the wipe carefully, making sure not to damage it, then rinse it out and leave it to dry.  Next time, I use it again, using the cleaning solution from a bottle.  I can use one wipe up to ten times this way.  It’s still disposable but far less so.  If you have a better solution, do let me know, though I hardly ever perform these days so this isn’t an issue for me any more. I don’t wear make up at other times.

Water bottles

Strangely, I found these the hardest of all to give up.  I have a habit now, of putting a water bottle in my bag before I go out, so I always carry one with me.  That part has been easy.  Occasionally I’ve been stranded without one, and in that case I find a sink in a toilet room, wash my hands well, then scoop water into my mouth.  The real difficulty has been in preventing other people from giving me water bottles.  When I go somewhere to perform, there’s often a water bottle given to me.  I politely give it back.  When I was hit by a vehicle at a carnival one time, I was in shock.  Someone asked if I wanted a drink of water and I nodded.  I was given a fresh new bottle of water, with the lid already removed.  It felt too rude to reject it at that point.  In restaurants I have to explicitly ask for tap water, and even then, the waiters often kindly “upgrade” me to bottled water.  The same thing happens on planes.  I think the best thing is to be at the ready with a polite sentence in which you explain that you are giving up bottled water for environmental reasons.

Plastic plates & cutlery

I am often given these at parties.  These days when I go to a party I quite often slip a plate, cutlery and cup into my bag, especially if the party is at a park or in a public space.  If the party is in a private home, and I don’t have my own set with me, I sometimes use the host’s ceramic plates, and make sure to wash, dry and put them away afterwards.  Or I stick to finger food.  When hosting our own parties in the park, I always serve finger food so that no plates are needed.  I have a set of cups that to use every party, wash and then store ready for the next one.

Shampoo bottles

At one time I found a place to buy shampoo in bulk, so I could reuse the same bottle over and over.  Others have started using a shampoo bar, like a block of soap, because of reduced packaging.  These days I mix bicarb and water, use that to wash my hair, then rinse with vinegar.

Laundry liquid bottles and dishwashing liquid bottles

I usually buy these in bulk, but my next step will be to learn how to make my own, from bulk ingredients.

Tomato cans and fruit cans

I have avoided using tins of tomatoes, fruit and vegies by canning my own.  You can read my post on how to preserve tomatoes.  This might sound like a phenomenal amount of work, but actually last summer I was able to bottle enough food to get us right through winter, just by devoting a few afternoons to the fruit preserving, and two days to the tomato preservation.  The first time it will probably take longer, as you sort out your supplies and learn your way.  But this can be surprisingly efficient.  The other benefits are that you get to eat local food all year round, you create less rubbish, the food is much cheaper, and the taste is phenomenal!

Plastic cling wrap

Instead of using this to cover food in the fridge, put food in a container with a lid, or in a bowl, and put a plate on top of it. Or invest in some beeswax wraps which are reusable. You can make your own too, using pretty fabric, if you have access to beeswax.

Aluminium foil 

Instead of putting it in the bottom of our griller or oven, we wash the griller plate regularly. In the bottom of the oven place a metal tray, which you can remove to wash.  Rather than using it to cover food in the oven, put the food in a casserole dish with a lid.  You can also avoid dishes that require individual wrapping in foil – instead focusing on foods that can be made without.

And there you have it, folks.  I’m sure your list will be different, but if you have any ideas to add, please do leave a comment.  And let me know how you go with getting rid of your own disposable products.

Eating traditional foods for good health

Image: The artwork is of a girl with a high black ponytail and fringe. She wears a pink sleeveless dress with a red lace pattern and polka dots and black and white striped stockings. Her eyes are light blue with smoky eye shadow and a little blush on the cheeks. She has tiny lips tinted black. Some dark grungy texture surrounds her on a light blue background. Black, bold text in the middle of the image says, ‘Eating traditional foods for good health’ and text beneath this says, ‘www.asphyxia.com.au’.

I believe you are what you eat. Every time I have changed my diet in a significant way, it has affected my physical health. My health journey has led me to try many different ways of eating, and each diet has made a difference to the way I feel every time.

After lots of experiments with raw food and vegetarian whole foods, I finally managed to pull my health together when a friend placed a copy of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon in my hands. So many ailments I’d had for years fell away. I wish I could have stayed on that forever, but unfortunately a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis (AS) led me to manage it for three years with a starch and lactose free diet (difficult – and I didn’t thrive on this). Finally I found a way to manage my AS with vinegar instead of diet, but I was so fatigued from eating such a strict regimen, I needed to just eat whatever, for a while.

Slowly, though, I have veered back towards the traditional food guidelines offered up in Nourishing Traditions, and tthis really does seem to be the way of eating that makes my body the happiest. I don’t believe there is any one diet that is right for everyone, but if you are struggling with health issues or craving junk foods, this way of eating might sort it out.

Read my notes from the book here.

An angora rabbit for sustainable textiles

Image 1: A picture of a gray-furred angora rabbit resting between a wooden paling fence and a tree trunk, with the vibrant green leaves and red flowers of a nasturtium plant in front.

Want to read the story of how I kept an angora rabbit who turned weeds into shoes and clothing that are incredibly soft and seven times warmer than wool? I wanted to understand if textiles really could be sustainable, and that took me on a long journey of weaving, spinning, knitting and being bitten and cuddled by a rabbit disguised as a fluffball. I’ve written about it here.

Organising My Memorabilia

You might have heard of Marie Kondo, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She suggests you only keep things which bring you joy. That may sound a bit impractical, but I decided to follow the programme she created to find out for myself. It was a mammoth job, to put every single aspect of my life in order, and complete all undone tasks. I thought I didn’t have much stuff, but it took three months of being my major project.

The rewards were huge – not only was all my stuff sorted, organised and well-stored, but I learnt significant skills along the way which I believe I will use for the rest of my life. I highly recommend giving it a go.

By far the biggest area for me was organising my memorabilia. I can’t tell you how amazing felt to have sorted and made accessible every photo since the day I was born, every old home video, every newspaper clipping and poster I want to keep. In retrospect, the most challenging thing was working out systems for storage of these items. Kondo doesn’t give precise guidelines for how to do that, so I had to make up some of my own. In case you’d like to have a crack at getting your memorabilia in order, I thought I would share my process. I can see that with my systems in place, it will be much easier to keep incoming photos, videos and other momentoes sorted, without letting them build up to the chaotic mess that I had when I started.

PHOTOS

First thing to do is gather all your photos into one place. Digitally that means into some kind of photo-organising software such as iPhoto or Lightroom (which I use). In real life that means you get your albums and boxes of photos and make a pile.

I started with the pre-digital era. I had an album my mum gave me when I turned 18 of photos of my childhood. Looking through it gave me much joy. I could have kept it as it was. But the problem is, my photo albums, when gathered together and stored in a large plastic tub are just too heavy to carry. They lived in our shed, so if I wanted to look at a photo, I’d have to heft the tub off the shelf, at great danger to my back, and then I could only carry one or two albums into the house at a time. The result: I didn’t do it, and never looked at the photos. We don’t have space in our small house to store all our photo albums, so keeping them on a bookshelf in, say, the lounge room, was out of the question. I decided to remake the album in its entirety.

Using an iPhone app, I scanned each photo. I didn’t want to damage the album in case I changed my mind half way through, so I opened up the plastic covering, left the photos in place, and positioned my phone above each one to snap a photo of it. I started at the beginning and worked forward, so that if I sorted by date, the photos would be in order. Then I imported into Lightroom and spent a bit of time with each photo, increasing the contrast, adjusting the colours and orientation. I created a folder on my harddrive called Family Photos, and a subfolder within that called 1974-1989 My Childhood, where I stored all the photos.

For my remaining albums, I decided that I had too many photos – multiple photos of the same event, too many of people I barely remembered. I also had boxes of extraneous photos. I sorted the loose photos, choosing only the best to keep, and chucking the rest. I put the loose photos wil the album that most closely corresponded to that time in my life.

Then I started with the earliest album and removed just the best photos, which I would keep, adding in the loose photos at appropriate spaces. Often I ended up ditching the loose photos when I realised I had a better one in my album from the same event. I made a stack, ordered chronologically, of just my favourites. I took them to Officeworks for scanning – I found using the iPhone app tedious, and later I felt that the quality of the Officeworks scans was much higher. The scanning cost me $0.40 per photo. I did this step in batches – first the era between my childhood until I met Paula, then Paula’s and my early life together, then baby photos once Jesse was born, and so on. To do them all at once would have been too unwieldy and overwhelming.

Once all my photos were tweaked and stored digitally in folders corresponding to that era, I imported them into iPhoto to make Apple photobooks. I don’t think the Apple books are necessarily better than any others, but I had already printed a couple of these books, was happy with the quality, and liked that my new books would be the same size and shape. They would be pleasing sitting together on my shelf.

For most pages I used the 6-photos per page design, which meant that many of my photos were printed quite small. Even in small size, the image jolts the memory and makes me happy, but doesn’t take up too much space. It meant that my entire life, up until now, could fit onto four photobooks.

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Image: Photo albums of my childhood arranged on white painted floorboards. The albums are titled ‘Asphyxia, Paula and Jesse’, ‘Asphyxia’s Childhood’ and ‘Our Wedding’. On the covers are photos of Asphyxia as a young girl, Asphyxia and Paula with Jesse as a young child, Jesse as a baby and on the ‘Our Wedding’ album, a circle of flowers.

I stored them on a shelf in my wardrobe. They are small and light and already have been passed around interested visitors, in a way that I would never have done with my old albums. The old albums I threw out, except for that childhood one which Jesse wanted to keep. I’ve put it in the box of stuff I’m keeping for Jesse for when he’s grown up. Whenever I print a photobook of our family life, I print an extra copy for Jesse and add it to his box. As my mum did for me, I’ll give them all to him when he turns eighteen.

Finally, I exported all my Lightroom folders of photos, and stored them on Dropbox, and also on a USB stick and an external harddrive, so I’ve got plenty of back ups. It’s easy to find a photo because there’s not too much to wade through, and they are sorted by era, and in more recent cases, by year.

VIDEOS

I got all my old VHS and mini-DV tapes and paid to have them converted to DVD. Then I used the free software Handbrake to rip from DVD to my computer. While Handbrake can rip at full size, I ripped a bit smaller. Like with the photos, I don’t need the highest quality image to enjoy it – I just want the memory. By ripping my videos smaller, it meant I could make a folder of home videos that is small enough to keep on my computer and Dropbox and that USB stick.

I used iMovie to edit the videos into small movies of around 5-15 minutes each, with a theme. I had a lot of videos of Jesse playing with his friends, dancing around wildly, so I created a dance video with clips of them from that time, all mixed up. It’s bright and fun and captures just their funniest moves. I made another video of my circus training days, that includes snippets of training on trapeze, web, cloudswing and more. I made a video of our family life for a particular era, and another video of my extended family. Each video I exported with the filename as YEAR_WHAT IT IS. Eg 2003 A day in the life of Jesse aged 7 weeks. That means that by sorting by title, they will be arranged in chronological order, and it is easy for me to scan through and find a video that would be of interest to show others.

I stored all my edited video clips in a folder called Home Videos.

WRITING

I had a whole box of my creative writing from when I was a child. Novels and short stories I’ve written over the years. Many were print outs for which I didn’t have a matching digital file. I discovered that one novel I’d written had disappeared altogether. Although every time I’ve moved computers, I’ve been meticulous about transferring across my writing files, and I did have them all in Word orginally, obviously some files have not come across and I didn’t realise at the time. Hence the importance of keeping hard copies of these sorts of things. I was glad I had the print outs. It’s also why I made sure to print photobooks of my favourite photos.

I used Evernote app Scannable to scan in my documents – I found that easy and straightforward. The result was a PDF for each novel. I then loaded the PDF onto Google Drive and opened it with Google Docs – that automatically used OCR software to turn it into an editable document. Some docs came across fantastically and only needed a bit of editing to fix them up. Other, older pieces, that were printed back in the 80s, didn’t come up so well, and needed a lot of work to restore.

I decided to use Lulu to print a single book that contained all my creative writing and novels. Lulu is a print on demand self-publishing platform and the prices per book are very reasonable. The books look incedibly professional. I downloaded a Word template, and pasted in all my stories, making sure to follow the formatting. Using Heading 1 style for the title of each story, I could then generate a table of contents. I wrote a little introdution which describes each story, so that later if I or others want to read them, it’s easy to find one that will appeal in the moment. For the cover of my book, I ripped off Penguin’s classic book cover. I created a file in Photoshop with my book design.

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Image: Paperback book with cover and spine reminiscent of the Penguin Classic series, with two wide light blue horizontal bars separated by one white bar. The ‘Asphyxia’ logo is in the middle of the top blue stripe. In the white middle stripe on the front is the title: ‘PLAY ME SONATINA AND OTHER STORIES BY ASPHYXIA’. A logo of small animal with pointed ears takes the place of the traditional Penguin logo in the bottom stripe.

I used the same templates for inside and book cover to create books with different coloured covers and titles, to print other items, such as my old digital journals, and a book I’d written about building my house. After I’d printed them all on Lulu and arranged them on my shelves, I was thrilled with how they looked. A key thing in creating these books was to keep it simple. I just used default templates and didn’t add fancy designs or fonts. All the books I printed have the same cover format. This saved me time and stress.

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Image: Six paperback books laid out in two rows of three. Their covers are reminiscent of the Penguin Classic series, in pastel colours of olive green, blue, purple, light blue, mint green and yellow. The respective titles are ‘Anorexia 1992-1994 Journals No. 14-16’, ‘Relationships 1996-1998 Journal No. 20’, ‘A New Baby 2002-2005 Journal No. 26’, ‘Europe & Riot Journal No. 28’, ‘The Grimstones 2005-2008 Journal No. 27’ and ‘Journal 20.5 1996 Yellow, Colour of my Life’. A logo of small animal with pointed ears takes the place of the traditional Penguin logo in the bottom stripe of each cover.
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Image: The six books described above stacked neatly on white wooden floorboards.

FOLIO

Over the years I’ve collected many press clippings from newspaper and magazine articles about me and my work. I arranged the best of these into plastic pocked folders, again in roughly chronological order, and included folded versions of my favourite posters and flyers from shows I made. I also kept a handful of posters which I rolled into a tube, which I might use later.

I ended up with three plastic pocket folders of clippings, which I’ve arranged on my shelf, along with a fourth one ready for future clippings, should there be more!

Digitally, I also organised my press clippings and work related memorabilia. For example, I had video clips of showreels for each of my circus acts, and I had videos and photos from various shows that I did. Since I do a lot of public speaking and am often asked to talk about my experiences, I find it’s helpful to have photos that reflect my history, but when the time comes, I can never find what I’m looking for. I’ve now made a single folder called Folio, in which I keep a record of publicity photos for my shows, key newspaper articles, and other achievements that reflect things I often speak about, such as building my house. I included a few photos of me as a child making dolls, and as a goth during my teenage years, to illustrate the way these fed into my creative life later. Again, every file has the year first, followed by a description of what it is. If I sort by title, they are in chronological order. Now if I give a talk about, say building my house, or obstacles I faced becoming a Deaf circus performer, I can grab the relevant images from my folio folder to illustrate my talk.

This digital folio also forms a wonderful record of my achievements to date and gives me much joy. Once I’d compiled everything and sorted by year, it was easy to include key files with my photobooks, so that my new albums also contain images of the shows I was working on at that time and articles in the press that made a difference.

I made a separate photo of Work Videos, again, each one titled with the year first, to put them in chronological order.

WRAPPING UP

The final step was to create a folder called Memorabilia May 2016, and store all my sub folders in it. Once a year or so, I plan to add in new photos, videos, writing and folio items, and then I’ll update the date on the folder name. I’ve backed that up by storing it on Dropbox, an external hard drive, and a pair of USB sticks, each stored in a different physical location. Having put so much work into organising my memorabilia, I’d don’t want to risk losing it!

All my physical items I arranged at the back of my wardrobe shelves. They take up about 1.5 metres of shelf space, and consist of my journals (that’s most of it), my photo books, a copy of each book I’ve had published, the Lulu books I made of my writing, and a few miscellaneous items such as some scrapbooks, a folder of drawings from when I was a child and a book my mum made about our ancestors. Also filed as if it was a book is a small book-sized box, in which I keep a few physical treasures.

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Since my wardrobe is deep, I also store other items in shoe boxes in front of my memorabilia. I don’t need to access my memorabilia every day, but now when I want to find something, it’s right there, not buried in a box in my shed, and it’s easy to move the shoe boxes out of the way to find what I’m looking for.

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Image: Journals, photo books, a copy of each book I’ve had published, the Lulu books, some scrapbooks and a folder of drawings arranged at the back of my wardrobe shelves. Some other items stored in shoe boxes in front of my memorabilia.

There you have it. Pardon the somewhat tedious descriptions. I wanted to show you HOW it was done. I would have found a guide like this really helpful, back when I was looking at boxes and boxes of stuff which didn’t, as a whole, bring me joy, even though the individual pieces did. Like I said, it took me about 2 months to do this, spending around 20-30 hours a week on the project. I wish I’d done it sooner. But now it’s done, I doubt I will ever let my memorabilia spiral out of control again. My systems should make it easy to maintain and catch up, with a bit of attention once a year or so.

All my creative things are stored and arranged neatly at my studio at the Abbotsford Convent.

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Image: View from above of tubes and jars of paint standing in a box. Each tube or jar has a splodge of its paint on the lid for easy identification from above.
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Image: A stack of folded pieces of cloth, each with a different colour and design.
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Image: Balls of different coloured wool stacked together in a box.
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Image: Ribbons, lace and braid of varying colour and design stacked together in a circular, floral tub. Among them is a tape measure and a large unidentifiable item with black and white artificial fur.

All this organisation makes for much less clutter in my brain It’s easy to find things, and I feel lighter and clearer.

When I threw out most of my clothes, I was a little worried that I hadn’t kept enough. I could later see that I had plenty, and could easily pare down further. Here they are, arranged in shoe boxes so they all stand on end. I took these photos when some items were in the wash so you could see the box system.

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We really don’t need much stuff to live well. It was amazing to have put my life in order, completely, and caught up all the un-done tasks that have been at the bottom of my to do list for years. I felt I learnt skills that I will apply for the rest of my life, for managing and storing my stuff. It was worth the huge life focus it took. I highly recommend it!