A bad situation is a good situation. ~ Zen Master Seung Sahn

Staff turnover is never fun, especially in the middle of the busy season. When a soap maker leaves unexpectedly or a new farmer’s market hire fails to materialize as scheduled, its rough. We all have to take on extra work to keep the business running till the open positions are filled.

It’s exhausting, but not completely without a silver lining or two.

I didn’t get into the soap making business because I wanted to spend 40 or 50 hours a week in front of a computer, but over the years my job has gotten increasingly administrative and sedentary.

When we’re short-staffed, however, I have to get back in touch with the hands-on parts of the business – with the tactile, physical jobs that I started with long ago. I weigh fats and make soap. I get outside and start selling at the farmer’s markets, just like in the early days. It’s a nice change of pace.

And as this happens, I look at our processes with fresh, critical eyes. Gosh, this part of the operation is a pain in the neck! I’ll think. Is there an easier way to do it? Is there a piece of equipment or something that would alleviate the “pain points” in this job?

Anticipating bringing on a new person, I’m more motivated to clean areas that have gotten grubby, sort drawers full of clutter, and replace tools that have gone missing. I update instruction books that are full of notes that only the original author can decipher, and post clearer signage in the production area.

But wait – that’s not right! you might say. Why do these improvements have to wait till someone leaves! Shouldn’t they be happening continually, no matter what? Of course, of course! But I guess it’s human nature to settle into complacency when things seem to be chugging along without trouble.

At any rate, doing someone else’s job for a while gives me new insight into the work, and appreciation for those who do it. Especially the employees who hang in, keeping the ship sailing through the bumpy transition.

A friend who built a very successful business once told me that each time his business went through a big upheaval, it came back stronger than ever.  May it be so.


John and I spent a day poking around in Brooklyn last week. In parts of Brooklyn, you feel like you’re in a sci-fi world where where every being is a perfect specimen of youth. I felt a bit like this:

IMAG1017 (2) (from the Pratt campus in Brooklyn sculpture garden.)

But no matter. We had a great day in Brooklyn.

With its mix of old and new, its vibrant neighborhoods and acres of underused industrial spaces, Brooklyn has become an incubator for all kinds of hip young businesses. The place in bubbling over with “makers,” a broad term that includes tech innovators, traditional arts and crafters, and artisanal producers like whiskey distillers, soap makers and chocolatiers. As a “maker” myself, I love to see the spaces that other such producers work in. Here are several of the businesses we checked out.

SAIPUA SOAP AND FLOWER SHOP in Red Hook Beautifully scented handmade soaps. The blood-red peonies were being prepped for a co-workers wedding that afternoon.


BELLOCQ TEA ATELIER IN GREENPOINT.(I got some really good lapsang souchoung.)

tea2tea 4

MAST BROTHERS CHOCOLATE in Williamsburg.The Red Velvet cupcakes were an OMG experience (and I don’t usually like cupcakes).










10,000 mind-moments:
trying too hard

10,000 mind-moments:
cool breeze, warm sun
roosters crowing
the smell of wood smoke
slow boats on the river
my feet touching cool brick
monastery bells tolling
deep contentment















My complete Burma photo album:

Burma, 2014

I wrote this post last month, just before leaving for Burma.

It’s been a month driven by lists. There has been so much to do before my trip.

This weekend I started one final list that I titled The Last List, with just a few items on it. I’ve checked them all off, so surely I must be ready, right?

Now, with nothing more to do, I’m left with just me – with my jittery excitement and a touch of melancholy, because I’m making this journey alone, and I’d rather not be.

So here’s one more list. I’ll call it The Last Last List.

1. Remember that being alone is just an idea. Look around you. You’re surrounded by people, plants and animals – in fact, the whole world.

2. Remember that (in most cases) you can always rely on the kindness of strangers.

3. Remember that you can also rely on yourself.

4. Remember to bring kindness and curiosity.

4. Remember to bring the inner child along, but let the adult drive the bus.

5. Remember that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but of course, that is always the case.

I’m going to wear my Solmate Socks, in part to keep my feet warm, but also because they make me smile, and might attract good juju as I traverse the globe. Here we go:


The other day, I was chatting with a customer in the shop about her life since her recent move to the Cape. One the things she said was, “I must like being busy, because I’m very busy all the time.”

A bell rang in my head, and I thought, yeah, me too.

I write a lot about being busy, about the anxious, stressful side of having too much to do and not enough time. What I rarely look at are the ways I like being busy.

But I can honestly say that I often enjoy having a big list of things to prioritize, juggle, and check off.  It makes me feel competent and effective, and gives some focus and structure to life.

And the to-do list this past month was vast. Not only was it our first real holiday season at Summer House Soaps (with all its decor, product ordering, and staffing tasks), but there were lots of other things to organize as well.

# 1… in a little over a week I’m flying to Bangkok, and then on to Mandalay in Burma for a three week meditation retreat. Besides preparations for the trip, there are many things that need to be in place so the business can run in my absence.

#2….At the same time, we’ve been packing our gear for the NY NOW Gift Show, which starts on February 2nd. I’m flying 29 hours back from Asia and going directly to the show. (Talk about whiplash!) Fortunately Sarah and Chelsea will set up and work it for the most part…I’m just making a brief appearance.

With all this stuff to think about over the last couple of months, I kept waiting for the anxiety to kick in, for the sleepless nights.  But it hasn’t happened. I’ve been sleeping like a baby.

Which maybe is the real reasons I like being busy – it gives me no time to be scared, or depressed, or whatever else is lurking around. Is this a healthy strategy? Probably not. But it’s been working for me, so far.

Eight days to go.

Summer House Soaps all dressed up for the holidays…





I wish my mother was around to see my little shop. Two things she often said to me were, “You always get such a kick out of life,” and “You always like to make things pretty.” I’ve been getting a such kick out of making things pretty this Christmas.

In early September, a few days after a pep talk from my friend Deborah, I went to the Y for the first time. I thought I was going to swim but the pool was closed, so I took my first ever Pilates class instead.

Since then, I’ve gone to the Y most days, pulling myself out of bed at 5:15 or 6:15 in order to get the workout done before going to work.

Hope I don’t sound like I’m bragging, though I do feel proud of myself because I was pretty much a couch potato. Please indulge me while I share a few thoughts about it.

For one thing, it’s mysterious how sometimes we are able to make changes in our lives, and sometimes (usually) we are not. I’ve been intending to join the Y for years. It’s a beautiful facility, recently renovated, and only five minutes from my house. Why not take advantage? But somehow, I just didn’t.

Then last spring, a friend gave me a copy of Younger Next Year, which makes an impassioned case for vigorous, daily exercise as the key to healthy aging. I found it persuasive, even compelling (I’m on my third reading), but still it took me five months to take action. All I can say is, sometimes you’re ready and sometimes you’re not.

Perhaps launching a significant lifestyle change requires that you be in a position to make a “project” out of it. The only time I ever lost weight on Weight Watchers was when I was really into it, when I actually enjoyed filling out the booklets and weighing my food. Your diet or exercise program or whatever has to be your new hobby for a while, something you’ve got sufficient time and interest and energy for.

Which would not have been possible for me when I was working two jobs, or during the crazy/busy summer. This September, there was simply more breathing room.

Unfortunately, life has gotten crazy/busy again, and I’m acutely aware of how easy it would be to fall off the wagon. But maybe I won’t, because I’ve discovered how good an antidote to stress and overwork exercise is.

Usually, when I’m feeling weary and stretched too thin by life, I want more than anything to curl up in a ball, lick my wounds and get some rest. That’s what I think I need.

However, exercise tackles the problem from a different angle. Instead of aiming for recuperation and repair, it increases our up-front capacity. It helps keep energy and mood from tanking in the first place, so we are better able to deal with a demanding life.

Of course this is nothing new. Everyone tells you this all the time. But there’s nothing like discovering it for yourself.


In the June Summer House Soaps newsletter, I wrote about my intention to convert our backyard shed into a little retreat where I could sleep outside to the sound of crickets. Publically declaring a goal is said to be a powerful motivator. I promised to post my progress on this blog.

So here is my end-of-summer report on my little house project:

I’ve done zip, nada, not one thing.

I guess I overestimated the power of publically-stated intentions, and underestimated how busy June, July, and August would be. Oh well.

But here’s the thing. I have been sleeping outside to the sound of crickets.

During the meteor showers in early August and on several subsequent nights, I pulled an air mattress, sleeping bag, and pillow onto the second floor deck out back. There, I slept not only to the sound of crickets but the rasping of katydids and the yodeling of coyotes. I didn’t see a lot of comets, but looked up into the milky way and tracked the moon as it moved across the sky.

It was better than my fantasy cabin. I felt nested and protected, but no structure stood between me and the night. In the morning when I woke all damp with dew, I was surrounded by nothing but blue sky, green waving treetops, and the occasional gull soaring through the vastness.

So delicious.

There’s a lesson in this. Sometimes what we actually want is much simpler and closer at hand than we think. We don’t have to bundle it into a big project that makes it all-but-unattainable, or at least very costly in terms of time, effort, and money.

Maybe we think a wilderness trip or a cabin in the woods would give us a feeling of immersion in nature, and no doubt those would be grand things to do.

But sometimes it’s available, a few steps away, up on the roof.

Happiness can be found in odd of them is the dump. People who have their trash picked up at the curb don’t know what they’re missing.

Going to the dump is a chore, yes, but one that many people find gratifying, especially on a nice day. Okay, the upfront part is no fun: bagging oily cans and plastic, corralling the paper, the cardboard, and the trash bags stinking of chicken bones and shrimp shells, and cramming them all into the car. The ride over can be aromatic.

But once inside the gates at the transfer station, things get interesting.

First there’s the satisfaction of lobbing your bags of garbage into the open dumpster and watching them get smushed into a solid bock of waste. The compactor is a menacing beast with the sort of rusty industrial steel plates and noisy grinding gears that we rarely get so close to. Looking into its maw offers a little frisson of excitement.

Next, it’s up the hill to the recycling area. People there are cheerful and considerate of each other as they segment their items, carry them to the appropriate containers and maneuver their cars in and out. There’s a pleasant feeling of communal virtue in the air. We’re recycling! We’re helping the environment together! Perhaps it allays any guilt we might be feeling over the stupendous amount of trash we’ve generated in just one week. Imagine if there were no trash removal…we’d be buried in our own waste in a month.

Finally, if you’re there at the right time, there’s one more happy stop to make – a quick swing by the Swap Shop.

I stopped at the Swap Shop yesterday, and was amazed to see how many other people were there, inspecting the objects spread out on the tarmac and arranged on the shelves inside. It was a pretty sorry assortment of stuff (though maybe the pickings would have been better had I gotten there earlier) – various plastic gizmos, ancient appliances, old magazines, chipped mugs, and a basket of 8-track tapes. Certainly nothing I wanted or needed, but it was fun to look anyway, because you never know.

I wondered about the allure of these trash-picking opportunities. Why, when household objects are so cheap these days, when we can go to the Christmas Tree Shop and get exactly what we want, new, for a couple of bucks, do we enjoy the pot-luck randomness of the swap shop and the yard sale so much?

But maybe the randomness is part of the appeal, speaking to our inner hunter-gather.

And if we do find something useful, some treasure plucked from another man’s trash, we feel adventurous, frugal, and resourceful. Hey! I replaced those missing plastic salad tongs. For FREE!

Soon after. I was on my way home in a wonderfully empty car, to a house that was few degrees clearer of clutter and debris. I felt cleansed and free, like some space had opened up in my life. And that was the happiest feeling of all.


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