Thursday, December 4, 2014

Simple is okay, too.

It goes without saying that this time of year can make it very challenging to stay mindful, to slow down and to simplify. There's just so much to do. Even working part-time and being very cognizant of my desire to maintain my priorities, I still feel stressed, rushed, and pressured around this time of year and every once in awhile, I fly totally off track.

Last weekend, I found myself awake at 11:30 pm, frantically cutting felt with a rotary cutter into (supposedly) 3 inch x 3 inch squares, to be sewn onto another large piece of felt and made into a beautiful handmade advent calendar. Did I mention I had already spent three weeks embroidering the numbers on those stupid felt squares already? Did I mention I haven't embroidered anything since I was eight?! The embroidery wasn't the issue, that part actually turned out ok. It was the 48 squares that I meticulously measured and cut out, only to find that they were somehow a multitude of different sizes.

At midnight, I said "screw it" and took out 24 kraft paper envelopes and drew numbers on them. I slipped in pieces of paper with activities like "drink hot chocolate" "buy a family a goat" and "drive around to look at neighborhood lights". The next day I bought a package of chocolate covered pretzels and decided to put 2 on each envelope every other day until the 24th.

My kids were thrilled.

 As my husband said as he shook his head at the rainbow-coloured felt carnage that surrounded me that night, kids don't give a shit about hand-embroidered advent calendars. Parents give a shit about hand-embroidered advent calendars. Now, don't get me wrong; I am all about handmade things. I strongly endorse making something yourself instead of buying it at the dollar store. I am very aware of the hidden costs involved in buying cheap things. And if cutting out felt with a rotary cutter at 11pm on November 30th brings you joy, you should absolutely do it.

But for those of us who would rather stick a hot poker in our eyeballs than ever touch a piece of felt again, its important to remember that simple is okay, too. Holidays have become very elaborate these days and for some crafty mamas, that brings them great joy. They genuinely love making professional-looking cakes, complicated themed decor, incredibly complex Halloween costumes and theatrical scenes for their Elf on a Shelf. Again, these parents should absolutely do this stuff if they want to. But lets acknowledge that its not a requirement for spreading holiday spirit and joy. Your child will not think you love them any less just because you chose to buy a cake this year instead of making it by hand, or if you give them an envelope each morning with an activity rather than an heirloom felt embroidered advent calendar. I think kids are really good at focusing on the spirit of the day rather than the "stuff" that comes along with it. I was thrilled as a child getting my grocery store advent calendar filled with crappy chocolate. Thrilled. Would I have been more thrilled with a calendar hand-woven with unicorn hair? Probably not.

While I don't agree with criticizing moms who do go to great lengths to create these things, I do think its important to think about what sort of message all the Pinterest-ey stuff is sending to us moms (and dads,too). I consider myself a fairly self-aware person who knows very well my strengths and weaknesses and yet I still attempted this hugely elaborate felt disaster, knowing deep down it was more for me than the kids. I'm still susceptible to the message that we as moms have to constantly do MORE.  Its out there. Its an insidious message and while nobody can make me feel inferior without my consent, it can be hard not to feel a little crappy when I'm surrounded with these images and claims that this is the stuff that makes the holidays magical for kids.

Another important point of consideration is that while I truly think we should each do what brings us happiness, anyone who suggests they create elaborate elf scenes and then posts pictures of it on social media is only doing it for their kids is perhaps not telling the whole story.

My point is simply that its ok to do things your own way, during the holidays and all year long. We all have our ways of sharing love with our families. I spend hours in the kitchen so as to not let a frozen pizza cross the threshold of this house. That's just one way that I give, because I love to cook and because healthy food is right at the top of my parenting priority list. That doesn't make me better than someone who eats food out of a box and it doesn't make me worse than someone who can create a magical forest scene out of a cake and some fondant. This season, try to guard yourself against the temptation to always do more. Instead, do what you love, with the people you love, and leave it at that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

This Food

"This food is a gift
of the whole universe;
the earth, the sky, and the sun.
We receive this food
in gratitude from all beings
who helped bring it to our table. 
And we will respond to those in need
with wisdom and compassion"

Slowly, we are introducing Buddhism to our kids. This week marks Rohatsu and next Monday is Bodhi Day, celebrated by Buddhists as the day the Buddha became enlightened. This holiday time of year is a wonderful time to remind ourselves of how very lucky we are to be able to nourish our bodies with healthy foods, and how many people and creatures help us to do that. 

The blessing above is a combination of one written by Thich Nhat Hanh and another one I came across on the internet.  I plan to introduce it at our Bodhi Day supper as we light a candle and think of the lessons the Buddha has taught. We are treading gently as we introduce new ideas and traditions to our kids, but being grateful for our food is a good first step along the path of the Middle Way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Procrastination as Perfectionism

A wise person recently told me that procrastination is often just a symptom of perfectionism. As a lifelong procrastinator, who often bitterly attributed that characteristic to some kind of inherent laziness in myself, this was a whole new way of looking at myself.

I am a terrible procrastinator. It affects my work life, my ability to stay on top of housework, remembering kid activities and playdates, finding time to engage in my hobbies and interests, and most upsetting, my ability to intentionally live my true priorities. Its the real reason I don't blog as often as I'd like. Its why I often talk myself out of doing healthy things (exercising, avoiding junk food) and into unhealthy things (binge-watching Netflix, drinking too much wine).

I've always disliked this part of myself but have found it so hard to overcome. Probably because I was procrastinating! This part of my personality makes me feel sloppy, disorganized, immature, stressed out, and often like a failure.

So when I heard this piece of wisdom, I reflected on my own experience and yes, it does hold true. I spend a lot of time organizing myself by making lists and charts, schedules, routines and calendars and end up putting it all off because along comes a small bump in the road . I then tell myself that I'll start tomorrow. Tomorrow will be perfect. Of course, because life doesn't work that way, something pops up once again and I'm off the rails.

Nowhere has this been more evident for me than in my meditation practice. Most literature on meditation suggests doing it in the morning. I have visions of rising in peaceful silence at 5am and serenely meditating  while incense wafts in the air and my family sleeps.  In reality, I usually have at least one child  whose crawled into our bed over the course of the night sleeping on my head .  One or both of the kids probably woke me up, often multiple times, and usually just before my alarm is set to go off. Mornings are often cranky in our house and so there is no way on this green earth that I'm going to get 20 minutes to myself if either child is awake.  I could get up even earlier, but that's no guarantee because fairly frequently they decide to wake up at 4am for the day.

For the last six months, this has been a huge struggle for me. I really want to meditate early in the day, and ideally be able to enjoy a coffee in peace while doing some writing. But life is getting in the way and its just not happening. So rather than allowing myself the space to change the time of day that I meditate, I've just not been doing it at all or at the very least, doing it very infrequently. Not meditating, not connecting with that part of myself, really has a negative impact on my life. I need to prioritize it and make it happen, however imperfectly it may play out.

I've been reading an e-book by Leo Babauta which recommends making small changes each week throughout the year. The first change is adding a meditation practice, just a short one, whenever you can fit it in. This week, I've accepted that mornings are not working and I've been meditating in the evening after the kids are in bed, the house is quiet, and I can relax knowing no one is going to come into my room demanding a banana and Bubble Guppies. Its been lovely allowing myself this imperfect practice rather than demanding perfection or nothing at all.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A week for reflection

This past Wednesday I took the train into the city to see a new naturopath. I spent most of the right furiously refreshing Twitter as the horrific news of the day unfolded. I felt strangely vulnerable as I walked through the train station, unusually populated by uniformed police. And after my appointment, I felt a renewed sense of commitment to my family, myself and the values we are trying to live. I feel extremely blessed to be able to have such a fortunate life and to be so privileged as to spend some time making it even better.

My new naturopath is truly amazing and we made a collaborative plan that I'm sure will improve my overall health and ability to care for my family. Aside from some nutritional changes (so long, my dear coffee!), at the forefront of this plan is reducing stress which includes developing a more intentional waking and bedtime routine. And as I rode the train home, now filled with anxious faces and concerned whispers about the developing tragedy, I resolved to stop procrastinating and truly live my intentions. On this blog and in my life, I talk a good talk but I don't always walk the walk. I am an infuriatingly adept procrastinator and this often translates into endless lis-making and very little action.

I wrote down some intentions and some goals for living the life I want:
- a daily meditation practice, however short or interspersed
-a daily writing practice as well
- time spent doing things that nourish my body every single day, even on "rest" days
- nourshing my creative soul, recognizing my inherent artistic nature and cultivating that
- untethering myself from technology and looking people in the eye
- anytime I feel like procrastinating, asking myself "how about now?"
- practicing gratitude through journaling, every night before bed

Again, it is my immense privilege to be living a life that affords me the time and mental space to be able to contemplate and implement these changes. It is not lost on me that there are many who don't have this ability and during these challenging times, its even more important to live intentionally. I'll be lighting a candle tonight for those who've been wounded or lost this week in our capital city, as well as those who face struggles every single day.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Random Updates

I've been jotting down notes in my notebook daily, but always seem to be distracted at the last minute from posting here. A bit of what we've been up too...

Debt repayment has come back on track after a very spendy summer. Its true what they say about debt fatigue creeping in when you carry debt for a long period of time, and Jay in particular has struggled with the strict budget and feeling limited.  Our overspending for three months has meant that our repayment schedule is behind. In order to be debt-free by the end of the year as planned, we'd have to bring our budget even lower and I fear we'd rebel against the constraint. Instead, we've decided to change our repayment tactics. Rather than have everything set to auto-pay, we are keeping a small auto-transfer on payday into our spending account to cover the basics (groceries, gas, weekend entertainment) and putting $1000 to the debt that day.  The remaining money in the account goes to bills of course, and we will discuss any extras that come up over the subsequent two weeks. The idea will be to spend very little on extras, but allow ourselves some leeway for things like my birthday dinner, a drink with friends, etc. What's left in that account the eve of next payday will also go to the debt.

Our garden was a total bust this year. I've heard that from many green-thumbed friends this season so I know its not just us, but our harvest was miniscule. We've learned many lessons over the three summers we've been in this house and we're planning on changing the layout and structure of the garden next year. I'll also be taking on more of the gardening responsibility not only because my part-time work schedule makes it sensible for me to do so, but also because I'm the primary meal-planner and cook.

I'm really trying to be intentional about my priorities. When I write about what's important to me, its very clear: I want to have time each day with my family, time to exercise, time to create, time to meditate, time to write and time to read. Too often, I end up binge-watching Netflix and/or mindlessly surfing the web (sometimes often at the same time, while drinking wine). Ensuring that my daily activities reflect my intentions is going to be at the front of my mind over the coming months. 

I'm running in a 5K race this weekend and somehow committed to running the half-marathon with friends at the same race next fall. I'm very excited for drinks and dinner with friends as well as some time in the city, a full nights sleep in a hotel and of course, the race!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Project 333

Although I tend to jump into new things with both feet, minimalism is something I've been working at slowly. I was initially coming from a place of great excess, spending more than I was earning and using "things" to make me feel better about myself. I didn't see it then, but these days I'm often struck by how far I've come in my approach to consumerism and money. Mind you, I still have a long way to go.  Its not a race, its a process that can take a lifetime and in order to fully learn from the experience, I can't rush through it. So far, the journey has been messy, flawed and full of learning.

One of the areas of minimalism and simplicity that has always been difficult for me is paring down my closet, makeup and accessories. I've always been conflicted about these things; on the one hand, I've loved makeup and fashion since I was a little girl, on the other hand I don't like how important our appearance seems to be, particularly for women. There's two sides of me constantly debating the joys and merits of indulging in this guilty pleasure while recognizing its inherent superficiality. As a result, I've struggled to keep my clothing to a minimum and to truly embrace this aspect of living a simple life.

After grumping around one morning last week, lamenting once again that I had "nothing" to wear, I stumbled on Project 333 again. I've read about this concept before and thought it sounded like a great idea, but I wasn't really interested. Something about it spoke to me this week though, and I decided to give it a shot. Two days ago I picked out 33 items from my closet including clothes and accessories (I didn't include shoes because I love them too much. Baby steps.) I boxed up the rest and vowed to wear only these 33 items (not including outerwear, underwear and gym clothe

s) for the next three months.

Already, I'm amazed at how peaceful I feel looking at my closet, with so much empty space and so few choices. I'm amazed at how many combinations I've already thought of for those few items, and how much easier it is to get dressed in the morning. I'm hoping I'll learn alot over the next few months about what I really like and don't like. I'm hoping I can redefine the word "need" when it comes to clothes, and find a way to embrace both fashion and simplicity.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The space between

Lately, I've been craving two concepts: space, and peace. These thoughts have crept into my mind repeatedly over the summer.

I've been feeling a constant drive to clear out my house, declutter my mind, strip down my possessions and silence the noise.  I used to write all the time, when I was younger. These days my tired momma brain feels to weary to chug to life in front of the keyboard or even to bring pen to paper before closing my eyes at night. The words don't come as easily, dulled by chronic sleep deprivation combined with seemingly endless to do lists and worsened by lack of practice.

Time seems short and there's always too much to do.

I've struggled with blogging over the years although I long to maintain a consistent writing practice. Writing is, for me, a spiritual exercise. I've debated giving up on the whole idea many times, but just when I'm about to throw in the towel my energy is renewed and I decide to continue. Perhaps its a sign that I need to write.

Our simplicity journey has been challenged this summer. We've caught ourselves spending too much, wasting time, avoiding the garden that just didn't want to grow this year, exhausted by life and raising kids and forgetting our goal of being more self-sufficient. I've felt overwhelmed so many times with the seemingly monumental task of just keeping everyone fed and the house in relative order.

I'm hoping that the change of seasons will help us remember our goals and gently nudge ourselves back onto our path. I'm hoping this will bring the space, the peace I so desperately want. I've bought myself a journal so that I can steal a few moments each day to write and reflect and hopefully share some of those thoughts on this blog. I'm reminding myself is the journey, not the destination.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Setting an example for my kids

It doesn't take long for ideas to seep into the brains of our kids and it doesn't take much formal teaching. I've already noticed how much using our bike as local transportation has impacted our 4-year-old. He's already begun saying things like "look, there's a guy riding his bike! He likes to save the environment like us!" and "Let's take the bike today mom, driving the car too much isn't fun and isn't good for the earth". He's already reaching for his bike helmet when we're getting ready to go somewhere, assuming we'll take the bike instead of the car, this after only a few short months of changing our transportation patterns.

Imagine if we all started making these little changes and allowing our kids to see it. These ideas, growing our own food, consuming less, driving less and biking more, buying secondhand, they seem almost radical to us but they could be "normal" for our kids.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Importance of Being Visible

Recently, I’ve been thinking about visibility. Jay and I have been debating the idea of buying land and building a homestead, which is something he’d really like to do. I, on the other hand, really like the idea of staying where we are and building a homestead of sorts in our current, “regular” suburban home. Aside from the logistical advantages to staying where we are, such as maintaining relatively short commutes for both of us, staying close to friends and family and the kids’ school , and having a mortgage that can be paid off relatively quickly, I really like the idea of our lifestyle and our choices being visible.

I spent a lot of time as a teenager and young adult trying to fit in and be less visible so its funny that I’m now advocating to increase the visibility of our differences to those around us. Having an edible front yard garden instead of a lawn makes us stand out in our neighborhood. There are many curious glances from passersby and questions from neighbours. Many of them probably don’t give the idea of using lawnspace as a way to grow food a second thought, but maybe someone will walk by and think “hey, perhaps I could do that”.

When they see our kids participating in the gardening, perhaps they’ll see that you can incorporate “work” like gardening with family time. Perhaps they’ll think about the cost savings of growing your own food and the peace of mind that comes with knowing the exact origins of what’s sitting on your plate.

Likewise, with cycling, if people see us choosing to bike instead of driving, they might think “I could never do that” but maybe they’ll choose to bike the 0.5km to the library next time instead of driving like they always do. Maybe they’ll see one of us heading out to get groceries or go to Costco with the bike trailer and realize its possible. I like the idea of people in my car-heavy surburban neighbourhood seeing me go about my daily business by bike instead of by car, wearing normal clothes, on my $99 Canadian Tire bike from 9 years ago. They might think I’m weird, or not efficient, or that my life must be totally different from theirs to allow me to do these things. But maybe they’ll be able to picture themselves walking or taking the bike, even once in awhile, in their own day-to-day activities. And maybe when they start riding, they’ll realize the terrible lack of cycling infrastructure in our town and want to do something about it.

Maybe not.

But to me, putting our choices out there is a way of “being the change you wish to see in the world”. Preaching about sustainable food and alternative transportation will most likely cause eyes to glaze over and people to tune out. Going about our business in front of our friends, family and neighbors, just might result in change, even if its only one person. And if more people see that person doing things a little differently, perhaps we can get a ripple effect going in our typical suburban community.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Badass: Costco shopping by bike

This past Saturday I loaded a soft-sided cooler into the bike trailer with some resuable bags and headed to Costco by bike for the first time. Inspired by Girls and Bicycles, I decided to do so wearing a cute sundress and ballet flats rather than the workout gear I tend to change into when riding.

One of the things I really enjoy about G&B is that Sarah really endeavours to normaliize cycling as a legitimate means of transportation. I love that she wears heels, dresses, or whatever she wants when cycling and does it year-round in Edmonton, of all places. Where I live, cycling is either a recreational activity or a serious sport, but hardly ever a way to get around day-to-day. And almost never in your regular clothing.

And so, as I towed my trailer in my cute sundress, I was the recipient of more than a few curious glances on the way and especially as I arrived at Costco.  The ride was fairly easy and although I’m still chicken about riding on the roads, I did force myself to do so about 50% of the time. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be and for the most part, cars gave me a wide berth and were very respectful.  I tackled one long hill on the way there but managed just fine and took my time. It was lovely, not to mention being able to pull right up to the store and lock my bike with hardly a glance at the jam-packed parking lot. Amazing.

I am a ruthless slave to the list when I go to Costco to avoid spending oodles of money on things I don’t need. On this trip in particular, I wanted to be careful not to buy too much as I wasn’t sure how tough the ride back would be. As it stands, I was able to get my usual monthly shopping (coffee, quinoa, milk, butter, fish, frozen fruit, nuts, goat cheese, salsa, tea, balsamic vinegar) into the trailer with plenty of room to spare.

All in all, the trip took about 1 hr 45 min and was 18 km round trip. The longest ride I’ve done recently and boy did my bum hurt at the end of it, but it was a ton of fun. I got some exercise outdoors, some time to myself, knocked something off the to-do list and Jay and the boys had a great time while I was gone, visiting a local farm and buying some eggs.

So there you go, it is possible to do a monthly Costco shopping trip in the car-heavy suburbs. In a cute dress, no lessSmile

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Increasing “badassity” with a bicycle


I’m often late to the party and my recent love of bikes is no exception. Last December, when perusing Mr. Money Mustache for the first time (and by perusing, I mean devouring article after article when I should have been getting work done), I finally got it through my thick skull that I needed to be biking more. MMM is an ardent biking evangelist and this particular site is what inspired us to completely eliminate debt by the end of the year (which we are still on track to do, yay!) and just generally lit a fire under my butt to change how we live.

I’m a reluctant surburbanite, and when I’m whining lamenting the fact that I don’t live in a more central urban area, a lot of what I’m whining about is the lack of walkability or bikeability of the neighborhoods outside of the city.  Suburbs are designed for the car and as a result, most people drive everywhere. Its kind of a given that you hop in your car anytime you have to do something and truthfully I had never given much thought to trying to use my bike to run errands and y’know, get places. I’m ashamed to say that my bike sat in the garage for several years without so much as  a sidelong glance from me. This, despite the fact that our first home was within spitting distance of grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants. Our second house was far from anything we needed to get to, which was one of the reasons we decided to move.

After reading about curing my clown-like car habit and  getting rich with bikes, which both made me sheepish about my previous habits, I read this article about getting your groceries by bike and I knew I had to make a change. For funsies, I decided to look on Google maps and check out how close my house is to the places I usually go and, facepalm, virtually everything I need is within a bikeable, if not walkeable distance. I felt like an idiot. As someone who aspires to minimize my footprint on the earth, I’ve been stomping all over it with my excessive car habits.

What the hell have I been doing driving around all the time the last two years?!

I promptly went on kijiji and got myself a used bike trailer for $50. It being December and the coldest winter in like, 20 years, I did pretty much nothing about it until spring. I am still a bit fairweather about all of this after all.  The first nice Saturday this spring I had Jay tune-up my bike, hitched up my bike trailer and set off (somewhat unsteadily) to the grocery store. I took a nice quiet route and stuck to the sidewalks because I’m chicken and people text too much while they drive. I pulled up to the store and smugly smirked at the suckers trying to find parking spots in the frightening labrynth of a parking lot, locked up my bike and got my groceries. Advantage number 43897567 of biking to get groceries is that I couldn’t fit my kids in the trailer along with the food so I got to leave them at home, which left me in blissful peace to do my shopping. Fifteen minutes home and I felt awesome. I was sold.

Since then, I’ve had high points and low points, but I really am trying to use my bike as much as I can. Every week the kids and I bike to the park and the community centre to go swimming. I get groceries with the bike quite frequently. We went on a family bike ride to a local shop to get my mom her mother's day gift. Next week, I plan to go to Costco with my bike, which is a longer ride and the trailer will be much heavier. Check out THIS guy who is the winner of life for getting his Costco shopping done by bike with a real trailer.  If I have errands to do and I feel like I need to use my car, I’m trying to add the errands onto trips I already have to take, like driving to and from work.

Biking makes me so happy. Beyond all of the obvious financial and environmental benefits, I feel so blissful when I’m actually riding that I think I’d do it even if those other reasons didn’t exist. Truly, I feel like a dog with its head out of a car window when I’m zipping down the street. I love that I’m getting exercise and setting a good example for my kids, and heck, the neighbors too.

If you’re interested in the benefits of biking, check out this awesome infographic from about the benefits of riding your bike. And consider dusting off your bike, or getting one off kijiji, and see what you can do in your neighborhood by bike. You might be surprised how often you can walk or bike to things you’ve always just driven to out of habit.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

I don’t want that


I’ve felt subtle shift in how I view making purchases in the last few years but even more so in the last few months, since embarking on a journey to blow up our debt.
Just the simple act of asking myself a few questions: “do I really need this?” “how much is there left in the home/grocery/clothing budget for this month?” “Is this exactly what I’m looking for or am I just looking to buy something?” has really made an impact not just on how much I spend but on how much I want to spend.
I don’t really want to buy anything anymore. This is very strange for me.
I was recently in a store I love that was having a70% off sale. Much to my surprise, I didn’t want to buy anything. The prices were amazing, the clothing was lovely as always, there was a lot of things I liked. I just didn’t want any of it.
So weird.
I’ve been chewing over this for the last week or so. In the past, just driving up to the store would have made my heart beat faster and I would have felt excited. I would have swept through the store, accumulating a huge pile of things to try on and would have had a hard time convincing myself to leave any or all of it behind. I would have had a totally distorted idea of what I needed. So this experience was a real shift for me.
Its made me realize how much this money saving and simplicity journey has impacted my motivations and values as well as my choices. I’m not restricting myself consciously from buying things anymore – I’ve just started intuitively turning away from buying stuff all of the time. Its really quite refreshing, if unfamiliar.
It will be interesting to see how this evolves over time, especially when our debt is paid off and our disposable income increases by several hundred dollars a month. Will I go back to wanting to buy all the time or is this the new me?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Prepping for spring


I don’t think anyone who knows us well would accuse us of being organized. Oh, how I long for clean and minimal spaces where everything has a place and people could drop by unannounced without causing rising waves of panic in my throat. But that just isn’t us.

As a result, this suburban homesteading thing can be…interesting. Choosing to live a life focused more on getting back to the land and rekindling lost skills and less on convenience means, quite frankly, there’s more shit to do. When you have two lazy people whose home often resembles a fraternity by the end of the week (even with me working part-time), giving them more shit to do can be a recipe for disaster.

We’ve had a few summers in our home now and we’ve learned some lessons, many of which would elicit a “duh” from most people given that they’re kind of common sense:

- We need to have our house in decent shape before gardening season gets to be in full swing.

- We need to have a solid plan for our gardens including layout, function,  and what’s going to be harvested when.

- We need to start seeds earlier than last year. Or the year before. (Or the year before that…etc)

- We need to have a plan for preserving any abundance of food so as to avoid piles of tomatoes on the counter with no purpose or place to go, like last year.

- For that matter, we should probably plant less tomatoes.

We’re gearing up for seed starting in the next week or so which means I’m spending the interim time trying to take care of some nagging jobs around the house.  Cleaning cobwebs and nasty baseboards, purging closets, toys and make-up cases mean that once garden season hits, I’ll be able to focus on the outside without the inside going to heck. Wishful thinking perhaps but I’m telling myself this is the year we get it together.

Really. I mean it this time.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

“That’s Just Psycho” : On Being a Hippie Weirdo In the ‘Burbs

Sometimes I forget that we’re a bit “different” than a lot of folks in our immediate community. We don’t have cable, so we aren’t exposed to a lot of advertising. Some of our friends share a bit of our weirdness and those that don’t are used to us by now. Our families will sometimes ask questions, and our neighbors did double-takes last summer when we turned our front lawn into a garden, but overall I don’t often feel like the way we live is that far outside of the “norm”.

Don’t get me wrong, we are by no means cutting-edge in our approach to life. Our commitment to environmentalism, simplicity, frugality and breaking free of consumerism is deep and true, but in practice we are still refining things and finding our own way. We are relatively new to this urban/suburban homesteading thing.  There are far “greener” families than ours, that’s for sure. 

So I was really surprised a few weeks ago, when at a housewarming party for a work colleague, another colleague referred to me making my own yogurt as “psycho”. I don’t think she meant the comment to be terribly negative, but I found it odd that such a thing would be considered all that weird. The next week at the office, I overhead a group of women talking about it: “Did you know Kathryn makes her own yogurt?!” “Really? WHY?” “I could never do that”.

Last week my oldest son didn’t eat his school lunches. As it turns out, one of the other children told him his quinoa burger looked “weird” and “gross” and wondered why he didn’t have a “normal” lunch. Never mind that my son had been scarfing down the quinoa burgers like they were chocolate while helping me pack the lunch. He wanted a “normal” lunch too, which he informed me was things like chicken nuggets (store-bought), cheese strings, yogurt tubes and the like. He’s only 4. I thought I had more time until this stuff came up.

Last summer we put a garden in on the vacant lot next to us, with permission from the owners. You would have been forgiven for thinking we were planting pot, if you’d gone by the neighbors reactions. People looped around the street twice in their cars, slowing down to stare. People stopped us and asked us about what in the heck we were doing. Did we own this land now? Why would we put a garden in there? Does this mean anyone was allowed to eat the food ? People dumped their garbage in the garden. The by-law office was called because we used wood chips as mulch and someone didn’t like the looks of that. We were a bit flabbergasted – it wasn’t a meth lab for goodness sake, how can a garden be so controversial?

I’m not trying to sound self-righteous. We are by no means a family of eco-warriors, although we do aspire to be. We’re a two car family (for now) and we make many choices that are less than ideal from an environmental perspective. And while I do understand that some of the things we value and ds are not, shall we say, mainstream, its a little bit strange and isolating to feel so different from my peers. Moreover, I really worry about our kids feeling different as they get older. I believe in what we're doing, wholeheartedly. I truly feel that the only way we're going to make an impact on climate change is to stop trying to make everything convenient and easy, and rather re-learn some "old" skills like frugality, gardening, and cooking and most of all, learn to consume less. Its going to take a radical shift in values but its the kind of change that's actually achieved in small steps in our day-to-day lives with those little choices, like whether to bike or drive to the library or whether to make some yogurt at home or buy a 12-pack of disposable little containers of it.

Its a journey not a destination, and I don't think anyone should be criticized for whether they are on that journey. While I do think we are all going to have to change whether we like it or not because, lets face it, our current levels of consumption are completely unsustainable, we'll all have to find our own way in our own time. I'm in a much different place today than I was three or four years ago and I'd like to find a way to use my experiences as examples to my peers, so that growing much of one's own food on a suburban lot while working and raising young children doesn't seem totally impossible. I've spent a lot of my life trying not to be different or weird or anywhere outside of the norm. Its a silly and ultimately futile exercise anyway. Perhaps now is the time to just accept that as a family we do march to a different beat and that's ok. Hopefully we'll get some folks to join us along the way.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Blowing up debt

Its our dirty little secret. We were each in debt when we met; some school debt, some stupid consumer debt. I went back to school a few years later and we added some more student loans to the mix. We made foolish decisions, spent above our means, and didn’t treat our existing debt as an emergency. And so, despite two good incomes and not a lot to show for it, J and I have carried debt for our entire relationship. Almost ten years.

Over the last few years, we’ve made better decisions. We sold the monster home and began to buy into the concepts of minimalism, simplicity, and frugality. We got better, but not quite good enough. While we were making progress, the debt was lingering and it was starting to feel like a crushing weight in our lives. We knew that we should be able to live comfortably on our incomes and we knew the debt was preventing this.
Sometime in December, I found Mr. Money Mustache gave myself a good, solid facepunch. I realized how ridiculous we had been with our money and that we needed to blow up our debt. NOW. After devouring all the articles on that blog in a matter of a few days, I was ready to do battle. We are going to be debt-free in 2014.

Here’s how :
1. I made a list of our debts, their interest rates, current monthly payments. 
2. I added up our total debt amount and divided by 12 to give a rough estimate of the amount of money necessary for debt repayment each month in order to have the debt gone within one year.
3. I completely re-jigged our current budget using this tool by the awesome Gail Vaz-Oxlade. And by re-jigged, I mean I slashed and burned that baby. Grocery budget was cut in half. Other categories by 2/3 or more. I showed no mercy.  I was inspired by reading how little Mr. Money Mustache and his family live on and live well.
4. I automated EVERYTHING. We set up several no-fee accounts in addition to our existing chequing account: Vacation, Spending, Emergency/Contingency Fund, and two TFSAs. Every pay day pre-determined amounts go to each account. We only have our spending account linked up to our debit card. We are avoiding using our credit card right now entirely.
5. I signed up for to track our spending and manage our budget. It categorizes everything from all accounts and means we don’t have to use cash-only like other budgets, which we aren’t fond of. It’s a great way to get quick overview of our finances.
6. Pre-set amounts also automatically transfer onto each debt. We are taking the approach of paying off one debt at a time, so we are putting most of our debt repayment budget onto the credit card for now, and smaller payments onto the other debts. Once the credit card is paid off that money will go onto the next debt on the list, my student loan.

We’ve been following this plan since January and its going quite well ,although not without its challenges. We’ll be sneaking in just under the wire in February because we overspent in the first half of the month. These first few months are bound to be filled with some growing pains, but I’m confident we’ll learn better spending patterns as we go along.

I’ll keep posting more debt repayment updates over the next several months. As it stands, we’ll be debt-free by the end of the summer. I can’t tell you how happy that will make me/us. Having our financial house in order is important for building resiliency, which is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. More on that later.