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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Impromptu Family Trip To Canada

My sister and brother-in-law won’t be able to make it out for Christmas this year. But Lori has been having to work in Vancouver, British Columbia off and on for the last couple of months. Since it’s only about 100 miles away, Matt and I went up to visit her this week. My brother-in-law flew out as well, and we had a nice holiday gathering with the four of us!

Mostly we ate, drank, and caught up with each others’ lives. Isn’t that one of the best parts of the holidays?

We also visited the amazing Granville Island Public Market, open until 7pm, year-round. I love our Pike Place Market here in Seattle, but boy the Vancouver market is a whole other level of goodness!

Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market:

Place your mouse over the pictures for a description; click on the pictures for a larger version.

Granville Island Public Market Sign and Holiday Lights

Matt, Rob, and Lori


Matt Drools Over Italian Deli

Beautiful Pastas at Italian Deli

Dried Meats and Aged Cheeses

Lori and Rob Admiring The Meats

Stock Market - A great system, where they get the leftovers from farmers for the stock!

Beautiful Stock Made From Market Leftovers

Dried Herb Store

Legume Store

Making Caramel

Caramel, Fudge, and Other Yummy Goodies

In the evening, we settled in and talked, laughed, and partook of our newest holiday tradition: Panetone and local dessert wine. What a wonderful vacation!!

Panetone and BC Late Harvest Wine

I will be back tomorrow to answer all your wonderful comments, questions, and emails over the last several days!

10 Holiday Traditions That Are Simple, Low-Cost, and Fun

Candle by firemedic58 on Flickr

While Redefining The Holidays, I wrote that my family has some traditions that we’ve kept through the years, even as my sister and I have grown and moved across the country in opposite directions.  

We eat creamed eggs (and ham for non-vegetarians) on Christmas Eve. Does that sound like a strange meal? It was once a Christmas morning tradition, where we’d have creamed eggs for breakfast after opening presents. But then the extended family changed our gathering from evening to morning, and we didn’t get a chance to have creamed eggs for breakfast. So we moved it to Christmas Eve.

When my sister and I were just entering our teens, we decided we needed a new tradition. Long after Santa was discovered, we made a tradition that after our creamed eggs and ham, we would all sit together in front of the fire and pass around ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, each of us reading one stanza before we pass it to the next person. I remember once my grandmother called long distance while we were just beginning to read, and she joined us, reading stanzas from her copy in New Mexico.  

The tradition continued long after my sister and I left the house for college. When significant others made it home with us, they joined in the tradition. Sometimes one or both of us didn’t make it for Christmas, so we conferenced in via telephone, I in New York or Los Angeles, my sister in St. Louis.

After we read ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, we each open one present from beneath the tree. And then we either go off to bed, or – more likely – we spend some time getting our presents together for the next day’s celebration.

They are simple traditions, but there is comfort in tradition, isn’t there? Sure, sometimes we groan about reading ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, but in truth it brings us all together in the present, as it reminds us of good times in the past.

Popcorn and Cranberry Garland by Gare and Kitty on Flickr

Ten Simple, Frugal, and Fun Holiday Traditions

1.  Attend a Christmas Eve candlelight service at your church – children love this.  Or light a menorah or kinara each evening.  Or light a peace candle and place it in the window at sundown.  Remember that the ceremony is as important as the candle – make sure to infuse the lighting with meaning and significance.

2.  Work on creating your family tree together.  Each year, get together and research another generation of your family tree.  You might create a scrapbook for this purpose.  Add stories and anecdotes if you have them or can find them.  Read favorite past stories to youngsters and new members of the family.

3.  Make holiday gifts together:  eg, cookies, fudge, marmalade, jars of spices or seeds, calendars, salts, soap, bubble bath or bath salts, candles, sachets, knitting projects, sewing projects, dried soup mixes, coupons for experiences/services, your family’s traditional homemade foods (eg, frozen tamales, cannolis), and so on.

4.  Make holiday decorations together:  trim the boughs with holly and cedar, create bread dough ornaments, string popcorn and raw cranberries, make a wreath from plants in the garden, make pine-scented candles or potpourri vessels, build a homemade gingerbread house.

5.  Volunteer at your local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or food bank. While this is a good tradition to have other times of the year as well, in the Northern Hemisphere the holidays are the coldest time of year – when more homeless people need the warmth and safety of shelter and good meals.  This experience leaves a lasting impression on many children – suddenly meals, shelter, and gifts are not taken so much for granted.

6.  Decorate wrapping paper together.  Collect newspapers, magazines, used printer paper, paper bags, and other reusable paper. Then use holiday stamps, crayons, ink, scissors, and whatever else strikes your fancy – to personalize your wrapping paper together.  

7.  Redistribute the wealth together. If your family can afford to somehow help another family who is less well-off, get together and figure out the best way to help. Could you give the other family much-needed gifts? Invite them over for dinner? Make them some homemade frozen meals they can pop into the oven when they need them? Tutor their children in English? Help set up a scholarship fund for their children to go to school? Help parents get a job, or a better job with a livable wage? Babysit their children so the adults can have a night out together? Send the children of a parent who is serving overseas a care package? Be creative – it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it shouldn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Northwest Native Americans have a tradition of potlatch ceremonies, where the more wealthy families throw a big feast and give gifts for those who are less well off.  There is no expectation for the gifts to return – the return is the feeling that you have given what you can to help others.  But even if you don’t feel wealthy right now, remember there is someone else out there who is less well-off than you.  Give what you can – even if it is time and/or experience, it can be very helpful to others more in need.

8.  Play games together.  Dig out that old Scrabble board, Boggle, Pictionary, deck of cards, or whatever you have in your basement or closet.  If you don’t have any games, you can usually find them at local thrift stores and garage sales for cheap. Then spend the evening drinking eggnog and playing games!

9.  Sit in front of the fire and take turns reading a book together.  It can be ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, like my family (above). It can be a favorite family story, or a new book each year.  And if there are family members who can’t make it home for the holidays, call them on the phone and make them a part of this tradition.

10.  Reflect on the past year and make plans for the new year together.  What would you have done differently if you could?  What will you chance about yourself and your work as you move forward into the new year?  What goals did you reach this past year, and what will you strive to reach in the coming year?  How can those around you help you with your new goals, your new journey?  How can you support one another to reach these new goals?

Luminaria 'Estrellas' by jared on Flickr

Please Share Your Own Traditions!

I find it incredibly useful to hear what others are doing to create traditions and consistency throughout the holidays.  So… please add to this list!

Redefining The Holidays To Focus On What Matters Most

Sage flowering in the snow, Seattle, Washington by Wonderlane on Flickr

I wrote about Redefining The Holidays For The Current Economy on Thursday. Stephanie called me on the fact that while I was writing about redefining the holidays, I focussed mostly on frugal gifts and saving money. It’s a very good point, and I realized that this post needed a second part: Redefining The Holidays To Focus On What Matters Most. …

As many of you know, we had a recent call to reality here in our household. Matt lost half his blood volume due to an ulcer, was in the hospital ICU for several days, and is still recovering his red blood cells. I had a relative that died this way, so I certainly thought about the frailty of our own mortality. And how lucky we are to have our lives.

In my previous post I wrote:

Above all else, remember that the true spirit of the holidays is the celebration of all that we have – our families, our friends, and our dreams.  I hope that you are good to yourselves this holiday season, and allow yourselves to set economic and physical limits as you nurture yourself and those around you – in mind, body, and spirit.  

But there is more to say about this, isn’t there?

On Gift Giving…

I don’t want to completely discourage you from giving gifts. The reason is this: some of us truly enjoy giving gifts. We like to show our appreciation for others, to find the perfect and most thoughtful present for a loved one. But I do want to encourage us all to rethink our gift-giving.    

Please think long and hard about one single gift that will put a smile on someone’s face, and touch their heart.  It is not necessarily an expensive gift (for surely it would not make a person happy if they knew you went into debt to give them a gift), it is a thoughtful gift.  

What do you share with that person?  What good memories can you remind them about?  What matters to them most in the world, and how can you find a way to show that you understand and support it?  

Can you do this without spending money?  I bet you could find a way.

For me, gift giving isn’t inherently bad.  What is bad is going into debt to give people things that they don’t need or want.  Gift giving should come from the heart, from the depths of our souls.  It is not about things, it is about showing the people we love that we care about them deeply.  Truly, it should be the thought – and the heart – that counts.

Luminarias - Ski By Candlelight uploaded by santheo on Flickr

On More Than Simple Gifts…

Holidays are about more than giving and receiving things, aren’t they?  They are about coming together, sharing our love, being thankful for our hopes and dreams, learning more about one another, taking a break from our everyday lives, and warming our tummies, too.

The holidays are not a time to throw our values to the wind – in fact this is a time to reinvigorate our values, to remember what matters to us most, and to come together to share those values.  So I ask that you remember what matters to you, and infuse your holiday celebration with these beliefs.

This goes far beyond traditional gift giving.  How can you create a meal that makes you proud (for instance, it’s local, organic, seasonal, nutritious, from scratch)?  How can you bring your family and friends closer (many of you gave excellent suggestions in Thursday’s comments)? How can you show the world you care about our future?  How can you make a difference in the lives of people and creatures whose causes you advocate?  How can you remember the important issues in your life, and positively contribute to those issues during the holidays?

Again, it is more than money – it is time, it is your heart, it is your soul.  For these, you must give thought.  These are your gifts to the world.  And these are your gifts to yourself – for these are what matter to you most.

Deb G wrote, “I think one of the things I like best about this time of year is it challenges my creativity.”  Indeed, these gifts to your loved ones, your planet, and yourself require much creative thought.  Especially during these economic times, it is important to stretch those creative muscles and find ways to give of yourself that don’t require money.  And to redefine what we think of as gifts.  We can give gifts of time, of patience, of gratitude, of beauty, of love, of nurturing, of companionship, and of our whole selves.

So I Throw This Out To You All:  How Can We Give Gifts Without Spending Money?

Remember, we are talking about giving to our loved ones, our futures, and peoples, creatures, and issues we care about. How can we give our time, our hearts, our souls?

Recipe: Easy Homemade Cranberry Sauce

This recipe is so easy, and is so vastly better than the canned version, that you must try it! We love this sauce!!!

Continue reading Recipe: Easy Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Redefining The Holidays

Snowflakes with Greenery by twnklmoon on Flickr

For a year now, we’ve been in a Recession.  Last month, the United States lost over 500,000 jobs.  Many families are relying on credit cards to survive.  Many businesses are struggling.  Many jobs are tenuous.  And the prospects over the next several months look like the worst is yet to come.

I don’t mean to say those things to depress you or shut down your emotions. On the contrary, I think emotions and our ability to create magic in our minds will get us through these tougher times.  I think we just need to change the way we think about the holidays.

I know these discussions are not easy.  Contemplating not giving gifts, or giving fewer gifts, is not easy in our society.  We have social expectations – Scrooge is hovering in the shadows, and we fear of being seen as him.  I feel these pressures.  I walk through downtown Seattle, and see the beautiful store displays, with the festivity of shopping in the air.  I think of my cousins who enjoy new things, who need and want stuff for school and stuff for play.  I think of the smiles good gifts can bring to my friends and family.

And of course I fear the discomfort of receiving a gift and not returning one, too.

So what can we do about these feelings?  How can we create a celebratory feeling of the holiday season, how can we spread cheer and good will, how can we brings smiles to our loved ones’ faces – and not break our finances to pieces, and not take off years of our lives as we stress about the debt gifts bring?  And furthermore, when other families are struggling to survive during the holidays, how do we not feel guilty that instead of helping them, we buy stuff that we really really want, but maybe don’t need?  How, how, how?

This is not a small dilemma, it is not a simple dilemma, it is not an easily solved dilemma.  But we must figure out a solution!

Redefining The Holidays For The Current Economy

We can begin by redefining what the holidays mean to us, and redefining what they mean to our families.  Bring your families together and be honest about the economy and your personal finances.  And then brainstorm to find a way that you can all come together to have a happy holiday without breaking your banks.  If you all put your heads together and become part of this solution, feelings won’t be hurt and each of you will feel invested in your family’s new way of celebrating of the holidays.

Ten Frugal Ideas For Holiday Gift-giving:

1.  Have a gift exchange, where each family member picks a name out of a hat, and gives a gift only for that person.  You can create a maximum value for the gifts as well – eg, gifts must cost less than $25.

2.  Pool your resources together and go on a fun family outing.  If each person pitched in $20, what fun thing could you all do together?

3.  Buy gifts only for the children in your family.

4.  Make a rule that all of your gifts will be gifts of time and skill, rather than money or things.  For example, Matt and I may give my parents the gift of helping them put their home back together after their remodel.  If you sew, offer to mend clothing or help make new curtains, towels, pillow cases, or whatever they might need.  There are many, many opportunities here!

5.  Create a family gift-giving budget – you may want to use the envelope budgeting system here – and STICK TO IT.

6.  Keep traditions that don’t cost money.  One tradition my family has is to read out loud “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” before bedtime – with each person taking turns reading it as the book is passed around the room.  These are important traditions, for children to be sure, but also for adults.

7.  Buy sustainably.  Buy used, make gifts if you can, buy from local small businesses who are probably also struggling right now, and make sure to buy things that are useful and things that will last.  Think hard about what the gift receiver needs.  And if you can’t think of anything, buy gift cards to the local market or a favorite store, or buy coupon books for local businesses.

8.  Think about pooling part or all of your gift money to help those who are in greater need.  If you do this, make sure that each person in the family plays an active roll in choosing the recipient(s), and if you can visit the recipient(s) on a pleasant and meaningful trip, all the better.  Make this a meaningful and happy experience for everyone involved!

9.  At the very least, think about a one-gift rule, where you give each person only one gift that is not very expensive but is very thoughtful.

10.  What do you do?  Please let us know what solutions you’ve come up with for the holidays!

Above all else, remember that the true spirit of the holidays is the celebration of all that we have – our families, our friends, and our dreams.  I hope that you are good to yourselves this holiday season, and allow yourselves to set economic and physical limits as you nurture yourself and those around you – in mind, body, and spirit.  

A Non-Toxic, Frugal Way To Wash Your Hair Without Buying Shampoo

Hair Without Shampoo

I had heard of “no ‘poo” methods of washing your hair, but I was scared of the “transition periods” people wrote about, and the nebulous “just use vinegar and baking soda” methodology. I had a tough time finding concise instructions, and I was happy with my own shampoo. Plus my skin is extremely sensitive, my hair gets greasy pretty quickly and is extremely straight (which is a bad combination). So… I put it off, I made excuses, and life got in the way.

But now the economy isn’t doing well and we’re trying to tighten our belts a bit. My favorite online store stopped selling my favorite shampoo and I’m trying to buy locally. Plus, since I researched all those crazy chemicals in shampoos, I’ve been leery of getting them near my body. So despite any reservations, about 3 months ago I decided to try the “No ‘Poo” method.

The Results

I loved it the first time I tried it! No kidding. My hair looked great and my scalp felt invigorated! Since then, I’ve fallen more and more in love with this method of washing my hair. My hair has a slightly deeper color and shine. There it is, in the picture above. My hair doesn’t get any greasier than it did when I used my shampoo, and it feels, looks, and smells clean and wonderful!

It is a little strange and a little difficult to get used to, because you don’t shampoo with sudsing action like we are used to. But there’s that redefining normal thing again! We’re only used to a certain way because some marketer packaged this bottle of stuff and told us how to use it. So – this is how I clean my hair….


I started out using one recipe, which worked pretty well. But about 2 weeks ago, I did some experimenting and found a solution that works better for me. I’m listing both methods here, as we all have different hair types.

Recipe #1: The Paste Method

1. In a small dish or ramekin, mix 2T of baking soda with a couple of tablespoons of warm water, until it forms a thick paste. Add more water as needed – it should be a bit thinner than toothpaste. (Note: I have medium-length hair, so you may need to adjust the amount of baking soda if you have shorter or longer hair.)

2. Taking the paste into your hand, massage it into your dry scalp. Massage your scalp all over, for at least 30 seconds. (This will probably feel pretty good!)

3. Leave on your hair for a minute or two. Then rinse well.

4. In an old (and well rinsed) shampoo bottle, mix 1 part Apple Cider Vinegar to 4 parts Water. You can add essential oils or herbs if you like.

5. Coat your scalp and hair with the vinegar, and allow to sit for at least 30 seconds.

6. You can either rinse or leave it in your hair. (I rinse.)

Recipe #2: The Simple Method

There are two reasons why I switched to this recipe: 1. The paste idea was a bit messy for my taste, and 2. The apple cider vinegar smelled too strong for me. I’m much happier with this version!

1. Use an old shampoo bottle (well-rinsed) or a squeeze bottle of some variety (I reused one we’d bought from a local kitchen supply store). Mix 1 part aluminum-free baking soda to 3 parts Water. Each time you use this solution, shake well to mix. [Update: after writing this post, a number of readers have researched and found that baking soda is aluminum free - it's baking powder that often contains aluminum. My own research confirms this.]

2. Squeeze the baking soda solution onto your dry scalp, then massage your scalp for several seconds.

3. Leave in for 1-3 minutes, and rinse completely.

4. In an old shampoo bottle (well-rinsed) or a squeeze bottle, mix 1 part Organic White Vinegar to 4 parts Water. You can add essential oils or herbs if you like – I add 1 cinnamon stick (which lasts through several bottles of mixture) and 1/2 t vanilla. This masks the vinegar smell, and leaves your hair smelling spicy and lovely.

5. Leave on hair for several seconds, then rinse.


I will tell you there have been two times when I’ve washed my hair with shampoo during these two months: both times when I helped clean years of stuff out of my parents’ garage, and them made several trips to the municipal waste and recycling center. I… needed my hair to be super clean after I came home!!!! But other than those two times, I haven’t needed shampoo at all.

Other Resources

Several others that I know and love have used this method as well. Riana wrote about it recently. Green Bean does this, though I’m not sure she’s written much about it (correct me if I’m wrong, GB). Beth has gone no ‘poo. Katecontinued as well. Mon wrote a good article on the subject hereHere’s an inspiring post from Sarah, who has been shampoo-free for nearly a year. Here’s a whole lot more info.  In fact here is a whole forum dedicated to the subject.

I Encourage You To Try This!

I can honestly say that I feel liberated! I no longer have to deal with finding good shampoo and conditioner. Plus it’s much cheaper: I buy a package of baking soda and a bottle of vinegar, and they’re enough for months. I know it’s safe because I know where the ingredients came from. I also use fewer materials – there are only 2 ingredients (or 4, if I use cinnamon and vanilla), plus I only have to use this method once or twice a week. And lastly, it’s easy!

Will You Try It?

Will you try it? Or if you’ve tried it before, please give us your 2 cents – what method works for you? Please feel free to ask me any questions, too!

2/17: For more, check out my update here: No ‘Poo: New & Improved!

The Importance of Knowing Who We Are

These past two weeks have been time for reflection, for remembering what is important to me and my family, and for unwinding and regrouping before the next steps forward.  So I hope you don’t mind my sharing with you some of my pondering along this journey…

The Importance of Knowing Who We Are

I believe we are much happier and more effective people if we take the time and the energy to understand who we are and how we think.  Throughout my life, my self-awareness has ebbed and flowed.  I’ve changed careers several times, as I grew and tried to create positive change in the world.  The closer I come to understanding myself, the more I become aware of how my actions affect others – now and in the future – and the more I am able to effectively communicate and motivate.

Recently I spent some time looking at my Myers-Briggs personality type.  I took a couple of the free online tests (here, here, or you can even do one on Facebook – thanks for the link, Heather!).  Well, you know?  It was surprisingly accurate!  The more I read about my personality type, and the type of others close to me, the more I understood myself and the role I play in my community and the world.  It was truly fascinating.

I encourage you to take a look at it.  It may sound hoaky – it did to me, until a friend of mine explained it to me in detail.  The MBTI is based on solid Jungian psychology, and while it doesn’t peg you in incredible detail, I think you may find added insight into who you are.

Other ways of getting to know yourself are:  writing, reading, talking intimately with loved ones, meditating, and just giving yourself time and space to contemplate and reflect.


In case you’re curious, my type is INFJ.  We’re called “The Counselor”, “The Idealist”, “The Protector”, or “The Author”.  I am the same type as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Goethe, Chaucer, Emily Bronte, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, and Carl Jung. Interestingly, I am supposed to be creative, artistic, good with written words, and “focused on the task of bettering the human condition.”  Hmm…

More links:  Personality Desk - Wikipedia - - Personality Page.

What do you think?

I enjoy your thoughts at least as much as you enjoy reading mine, so I welcome any thoughts you have.  And while I don’t always answer your comments, I always, always read them – usually more than once!  Thank you all for contributing so much to this site.