It Will Be So Awful, It Will Be Wonderful: An Homage to Travel and Staying Home

Years ago, as a 20-something, I became obsessed with the idea of saving up for a year off, to travel around the world. I read, and saved and mapped routes and read some more.

Then I met my first husband, and instead of a year off those dollars went into savings for a house. There were trips sure, but there were kids and careers and that year-long trip around the world never happened. But at the time, it was my ultimate dream.

This was the early 2000s, and blogging was just starting up. And I stumbled across a travel writer called ‘Jet City Jimbo’ aka Jim Klima. He and his wife, Sue, went on an an African overland journey with Dragoman, one of the oldest overlanding companies. One of the most compelling installment stories I have ever encountered, it was called ‘It Will Be So Awful, It Will Be Wonderful‘. They spent a month trying to cross Zaire. They had to dig the truck out more than once. Flash floods. New people. It was both epic and amazingly human. The blog posts are sadly long gone, and I am firmly planted in my day to day life now. Still, despite the fact that Jim Klima and I never met, and he died too early of cancer, I owe him a lot. His words held me spellbound, and while I read many other travel blogs and books, only one other writer and book, Jeff Greenwald’s The Size of the World, ever came close to that level of immersive reading.

I didn’t want to just take the trip, I wanted to be that kind of brave and independent and free.

I started thinking about Jim Klima and his writing as we approach late fall here at Sithean. There’s still a bit of basil growing and some tomatoes ripening, but mostly it’s about harvesting everything we can. One or two batches of salsa verde are still waiting to be made, but other than apple chips and some applesauce, the preserving is basically done. Our CSA is winding down it’s last few weeks, and root and cool-weather crops dominate the harvest.

There’s no real travel being planned other than camping, and with infection rates spiking, we expect to turtle up even more. We are far, far from an overland truck in an African desert, but on some level, this is the same. We are deep in a pandemic in a time of political, climate and economic instability. Each of us, because contact is fraught, is traveling with a small group of people into strange places and circumstances we didn’t expect. We all hope that our jobs, pantries and bank accounts are going to protect us, but no one is sure.

Still, this odd time has also allowed Eli and to really consider how we want to live. I still think someday I would like to take that trip around the world, trekking the Dogon Escarpment, seeing the Fjords in Norway, and immersing in various cultures, but I am more focused in how we get, over the next several years, to a point of financial independence that allows us to do that whenever we are ready.

We’ve made some big outlays this year, and the most recent one was one that has been on the dream list for both of us for a long time – a small, tow behind RV. We knew we wanted one, but it keeps us safe and mobile for as long as the pandemic lasts, and long after.

But that, along with the other house maintenance and improvement projects, are investments for us. As we start to look forward to 2021 and onward, the number of things we need to spend money bottoms out. While we are a long way off from financial independence, it’s a place on the horizon. And while our outlays this year have been very large, we know they are for a purpose, setting ourselves up for a longer haul.

There’s awful to the pandemic, in that I miss our people, I miss traveling, and I worry about our kids being isolated. I worry for the world and people around me. But there are so many gifts also – time at home, the joys of watching my kids master sign language in homeschool, the slower pace that our mornings entail, the delicious food that comes out of our kitchen. The views from my morning walks, which never fail to take my breath away.

Tonight, it’s just E and I, and after a hike this afternoon, we will enjoy some homemade baba ganoush, pantzaria salad, made with garlic and beets grown less than 10 miles from home, and a recipe for meatloaf from one of my favorite cookbooks, Cooking From Quilt Country, based on a PBS series with Marcia Adams. The meat, too, is local. I love to roam, but I am also well-planted here, and content to be.

There’s no round the world travel in my future, but there’s a path to the freedom towards it. As we all traverse uncertain times, I hope my fellow travelers – all of you, are finding joy and wonderful in the awful.

And here’s to you, Jim & Sue Klima, for changing my little world.

When in Doubt, Make A Plan

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It rained again the other night the tail end of Hurricane Isaias, which means now we have more zucchini the size of baseball bats to harvest from the garden.  Which is okay, because in addition to eating zucchini spiralized and sauteed in a myriad of dishes, zucchini makes amazing relish, and I’ll be making some more this weekend.  With, by the way, my new food processor, which a wonderful friend sent me after reading my last blog post.  What an amazing gift.  I cried.

This is a busy year.   We finished most of the junk removal this week (and by we, I mean Eli) and now it’s on to plumbing and tree removal, and we decided to splurge to have the living room and hallway painted for us in a few weeks, because we were buried in to-dos.  I’ll paint the kitchen myself this winter, but we have a sectional coming in a few weeks for the living room – a splurge because our existing living room layout will not easily accommodate a family bigger than 4 – and we want it done before then.   We don’t usually spend like this, but these are much-needed and budgeted things.

The garden is ripening fast.  I have a Red Kuri squash that’s almost ready to be picked, and pumpkins and squashes coming up fast behind them.  Winter squash storage is going to be a ‘thing’ this year, and a fun problem to solve.

 

 

Home life is somewhat all-absorbing right now, between kids, garden, projects and taking care of the house and yard.

Still, that’s okay, because I’ve been thinking.  Massachusetts Covid-19 cases are already starting to rise.  I have to assume that this is a result of re-opening, and it has already caused some slowing and cutbacks of the re-opening plan.  Plans for returning to school are underway, but it’s unclear what’s happening there too.  I certainly don’t have the ability to see the future.   So we are, in that absence of clear knowledge, making our plans.  Plans for school, plans to add more sustainable resources to our little farmlet, plans for saving, and plans for future fun.

I’m a huge fan of plans.  Do they all work out?  Oh, no, nope, not at all.  They stop, change and adapt.  But plans are a path to getting where you want to be, the project plan component of goal-setting, the process flow to set you on your path.

I’ve ordered some homeschool books, had the kids started listing things they want to learn about and been working with our babysitter to figure out how to keep her as long as we can, both from a financial and time perspective.   While we’re still holding to see if our schools can make something work that doesn’t mean the kids will have a challenging experience, we know that we’re not the experts.  We’ve been working on lists of what the kids might want to learn about (thanks for the idea, Mom!).  And I’ve been soliciting help, most specifically from my ex-husband’s Aunt Mary, who is a retired educator and author who homeschooled her now-grown son.  My older sister and my brother-in-law are also very experienced in this area, as are others.  They can’t do it for us, but they sure can help.   We’re planning and that plan will allow us to be ahead of the curve this fall.

Which brings me to an important point about setting goals and making plans – don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it (and give when it’s needed in return).  When I bought Sithean, I had basically no business buying a 170-year old house in need of tons of maintenance on 1 1/4 acres by myself.  There was so much, from plowing the driveway to tree removal to even basic things I couldn’t do myself, and in most cases didn’t have the budget for.  Once Eli and I met – actually re-met – my life became much easier, but before there was him, there was my neighbors, my parents, my ex and others who just…helped.  I still remember one night when the kids were with their Dad and I was going to do just one small thing to make the house nicer.  The toilet paper holders in the house were silver-painted plastic, and ugly.  I bought nice ones, and towel rods, just to do a little thing – I was on a very tight budget, and this was a splurge.  So off the kids go, and I open up the toilet paper holders and all there was in the box was drywall screws.  Mine were both installed in the side of vanities.  I didn’t have the right hardware, it was 9 pm at night (not my best time anyway, as I’ve mentioned) and I couldn’t even do this one little thing without assistance.

I sat on the bathroom floor and sobbed because I was so overwhelmed.  The next day as I relayed this to my neighbor over wine she said “So why didn’t you call us?  Jay would have come right over to help”.  My ex said “Next time, call me.  I’ll help” and proceeded to install them.  And so on.  And you know what?  Next time, I called.  Not too much, and so many times I returned the favors with another favor, but still – just because it was my goal doesn’t mean others wouldn’t help me to get there (she says, sitting in bed under the gorgeous red ceiling her Mom painted for her and for which I will be eternally grateful).   This was the true beginning of a mutual-help arrangement that my ex and Eli & I have, and I value it so much.

When you set your goals and make the plans to get there know that especially for the big ones, there will be a lot of unknowns about how you get from where you are to where you want to be.  They need patience and periodic revisiting.  I wanted a rose covered garden gate.  So I bought a gate and then 2 years later the rose bushes.  This year, they are starting to climb. I water and fertilize them as they need, tending to my goal every day.   As I walk through it, I stop to see if I can weave the growth through the gate.  In a few years, I will have a rose-covered garden gate.   Was this practical?  No.  Could that money have gone elsewhere?  Sure.  But every time I walk through the butterfly gate I’m happy.  Every, every time.

That too, has value.

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In the background is one of our less-than-mentally -gifted hens, who still gets confused about how to go back in the coop. Every single time.

Start with ‘this is what I want’ and then figure out what it will take to get there.  Do not be disheartened if you can’t right then and there.  That’s okay.  Take a step.  Then another.   Even if you get somewhere you didn’t quite expect when you started,  it will be closer to where you need to be.

And then, as you find yourself weaving rose canes (did you know the branches of a rose are called canes?  I didn’t either) through your proverbial garden gate one summer, you will think “I’m here”.  And the joy and gratitude will flow like a river.

Looking Ahead

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Back in early 2014, before moving to Florida, moving back 2.5 years later, getting divorced and starting over with not even a fork to furnish an apartment (I took my clothes and a few small items, that was about it), and some major financial whacks over the head since then  – 50 foot pine falling on the house, appliances dying, major dental bills, etc.  In the before, I was deeply frugal, and within 10 years of paying off my mortgage.

But I was also pretty unhappy.

Fast forward 6 years, and I’m very happy, but for a long time I, and then Eli (who was also decimated by some health issues over the years) have been rebuilding our lives from a possession/asset/financial perspective.  Some of this was absolutely self-inflicted, and that’s okay.  You make choices, you live with them.

This summer, as we reconfigured the house as a first step to both accommodating all of us home all the time due to Covid-19 as well as ensuring we had places to sleep for more kids as we start our journey to adopt, we hit a point where we had actually basically acquired most of the things.  Sure, we still need a generator and Eli some more tools and all that, but basically, we’re done other than some budgeted-for home maintenance, like taking down more scary pine trees around the house so they don’t fall on us and dealing with the basement water issues.

Which leaves us in a place where we are free of all debt except the mortgage, and can turn our efforts to more long-term goals.  While sometimes it’s hard for me to look back and see 6 years of financial shakiness and upheaval, I can also look at what we’ve both accomplished, and feel incredibly proud.  Not only have we settled in here for good, we’ve also constructed a life that is exactly what we want it to be.  Can we hike, camp and canoe, 3 of our favorite, no-added-charge activities?  Yes, yes we can.  Garden, chickens?  Check.  Living spaces that are comfortable and make us happy?  Check.

This because when we do spend money, we employ foresight, and invest in things that will bring us joy for long periods of time – the garden, the chicken coop, and so on.

When we took out the canoe last weekend for it’s maiden voyage – because a canoe was not just a canoe, we also needed a rack for the car, a rack to keep it on here, paddles, life preservers and so on, so it took a bit of time and investment to get it to a place where we can use it on autopilot, I thought a lot about goals and foresight.  Upfront spend and elbow grease were required here – I ordered the canoe with backs on the seats because we’re already in our 40s and I know our backs aren’t likely to improve with age – we have a canoe we can use for 20+ years.  Eli built a rack that allows him to simply slide the canoe on the car, no lifting required.   The sheer joy we both felt as we (ok, mostly Eli) paddled down the river is now replicable over and over, without costing another penny.

So what’s next?

Well, so that’s the interesting thing.  We have some major goals and projects in the time ahead, and we’re already planning for them.

First up, is to cut our expenses down to the bare minimum so that we can save as much as humanly possible.  This is going to require us relentlessly reviewing every dime we spend, from my $6.99 weekly bottle of wine – which is actually really great wine – to what we spend on food, entertainment, and even whether we can save on electricity and water.  We’ve started talking through each expense.  Eli is naturally frugal, I used to be, and we’re going back to our roots to see just how much we can save and conserve. Frugality is the path that will allow us to maximize our dollars, and minimize the time it will take to achieve other goals.

Second, and deeply important, is to structure our lives so that we can ride out Covid-19 for as long as it lasts.  This means freeing up Eli from pounding the pavement for one-time illustration jobs as much as possible so that he can work on some more long-term creative projects.  The idea is that these pay off, but even if they don’t, we won’t know unless we try.  But also we’re freeing up Eli so that he can be more present for the kids, because my job isn’t that flexible during the day, and their Dad has to be physically at his workplace.  It also means budgeting in our babysitter at least through fall, as I have my doubts about schools reopening, or if they do, staying open.  The idea is that she is teacher some of the time, with our support and guidance,  if we have to switch to a fully homeschooled structure.  This costs us money in the short term, but we view it as an investment in their future.

Third, we have 2 house-related goals.  The first is to pay off the house as fast as we can, and the second is, in 2 1/2 years, to do some really major renovation.  This is our forever house, and we’ve spent some real time and money with an architect making a design that is meant for that.

And no, I didn’t type those two goals in reverse.  The house payoff goal is independent of the renovation goal.  Both are obtained by saving more, spending less – and slowly ratcheting up what we overpay on the mortgage.  Ideally, we manage both in cash, but we’ll see where we land.  We know what we have to do, it’s still just a little fuzzy to us how we do it.  But most things become more clear over time, and we have a time limit: no more house payment by the time Connor goes to college.  We’ve got time, but not a ton.  Still, like most longer-than-5-year goals, this one will evolve.  In the meantime, we continue to amp up our mortgage overpayments and watch what we spend.

Last, we have some other savings and spending goals.  Up our emergency fund to a full year of expenses.  Give, because we’re blessed and we can.  We currently support our local food pantry with a monthly donation and sponsor 3 children through World Vision, which is a great charity.  We certainly want to do more.  And once we have that full year of expenses  we’ll probably start to build out a fund for other projects. We may eventually buy an RV but we’re not sure.  We’re going to see how life plays out.

Goals are good for marriages, in my opinion.  Sharing goals and finding a path to get there together feels good, and strengthens bonds.  When, over 9 days Eli and I reconfigured 3 rooms and turned Connor’s new space into a room fit for a growing boy or two, we felt pride and partnership.  Setting goals together, like adoption or renovation, is next-level teamwork.  This doesn’t mean it all goes perfectly – did we bicker about whether my weekly wine expense was a grocery item or should come out of my personal spending money budget – sure we did.  Did we bicker while painting?  Oh yes.  But in general, this is teamwork above all, and we know that at the end of the day, both of our perspectives make it better.  And working together we accomplish so much more than we ever could alone.

These are BHAGs – Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals – that we set to challenge ourselves to meet over time, without getting distracted by the day to day.  Will there always be a cute sweater I want or a tool he wants?  Sure.  Will we ever cut out ice cream as non-essential spending?  That’s probably a no.  But slowly, little by little, we’ll position our lives and our finances so that we knock these goals off the list and strengthen our relationship as we go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Be More Effectively Productive

I have what is known in my family as ‘The Busy Gene’ .  For those of us with the Busy Gene, we are compulsively occupied with projects and things to do.  Leave us alone for 5 minutes and we’ll come up with 10 crackpot ideas that must be started immediately.  And we’ll want everyone else to do them with us.

Insufferable?  Possibly.  But never, ever boring.

In order to be effective though, I have to be productive in the right ways.  With a job that consumes me 50+ hours a week, 2 children, an old house, giant garden, animals, and my marriage, there’s a lot going on.  Add to that exercise, friends and family, and all the projects I take on, and being smart with my time is the only thing getting us through.  And honestly, that’s not always the case – sometimes I manage my life, sometimes my life manages me.  But as much as possible, I try to control the parameters I can, so that I’m ready for the things I don’t control.

What does that mean?  Well, first of all, it means planning our time here as well as possible.

This morning I had the day off, and we’re neck-deep in renovating a bedroom for my son, having spent the weekend rearranging the house to a large extent.  My job, before I go back to my 9-5 profession tomorrow, is to get as much of painting of trim and edging done today, so that my husband can just use rollers on the walls.  We made some good progress on the room yesterday, but there’s a lot more to do today.

I have observed there are three things that make me both productive and effective, and when used in concert, the sheer amount I can accomplish in a day is huge.  I mean, after a few days of that I need a nap, but hey, this life thing is a marathon, not a sprint.

First, Know Thyself

Despite the sheer amount of work waiting for me in the room we’re working on, I didn’t start there.    I started my morning doing chores and in the kitchen, figuring a little investment of time might make our day and week easier.

See – I know myself, and boy, howdy, am I an extreme morning person.  This means I can wake up at 3:30 am and function just fine but by about 8:30 pm you might as well be talking to a soggy towel for all it will get you.  Just ask my husband, who is just waking up and ready for prime time at that point.

So by 8:30 am, I had eaten, checked emails at work, scheduled our septic system to be pumped, popped in a load of laundry, made 48 paleo turkey meatballs for tonight’s dinner and for the freezer, roasted some pumpkin seeds and made some tuna salad for lunch.  In addition, I had thawed some pulled beef for our lunch tomorrow (I don’t know, it came with out meat share)  Oh, and the dishes were done too.  Also, I was thawing sausage and rinsing spinach to make some Paleo Egg Muffins for tomorrow’s breakfast.

So when I headed upstairs to start laying painter’s tape on my next section of trim,  I had our lunch prepped and made, our dinner mostly prepped and some basic daily chores handled, along with the start of breakfast and lunch for tomorrow.  Later on, when my brain is the consistency of a damp sponge, we’ll at least be fed.  I have learned if I don’t have a meal planned and food prepped at dinner time we’ll be eating takeout pizza every time.  Which brings me to point #2.

Leverage Your Strengths

Why me on the meal plan?  Under normal circumstances, with the kids away for the week with their Dad and Eli and i working on projects, I’d have jettisoned the meal plan and left us to scrounge.  But a few factors are at play – we have our CSA and meat shares coming this week, so freezer and fridge space will be at a premium.  We’re also starting a modified Whole30 until our vacation in August, so if we want to eat healthy and stay on track, we have to think about it.

And I do it because I’m good at it, and it will free my husband up to put all the bedroom furniture together for my son’s room when the painting is done.   He doesn’t have to think about food, it’s just there.  Which plays to his strengths –  I am lucky to be able to assemble basic things, but anything with more than 5 pieces tends to have to be left to the professionals.  Not so Eli, who can turn a bunch of sticks of wood into a custom canoe rack seemingly overnight.  Assembling things mostly makes me cranky and frustrated, but I can contentedly feed us for weeks on end.  For him, planning meals is enjoyable but significant mental load.  So we divide and conquer.

Know When to Focus

As I was writing this, between putting some of those meatballs, now cool, in the freezer for a later date I realized it was getting late.  My 9:15 target start time for painting had passed, and it was time to bring this blog post, as well as my other chores to a close.  It wasn’t that there weren’t more chores – there are always, always more chores in my life, but it was time to ignore them and spend 4 or 5 hours on accomplishing the things that we set out to do for the long weekend.  Are there weeds needing to be weeded in the garden?  Of course.  Tidying to do? Sure.  But not if I want to get this thing done, and as a side effect – because my husband really hates trim and edge work in painting, I want to make sure I make as much progress as possible for him.

Besides, the weeds will still be there next weekend.

‘Use What You Have’ Eating

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I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the ground – the sun is glowing and the sky is cloud-free, and other than a little wind blowing, it just added a sugar coating to a glorious morning.

We’re about 5 days into the spending freeze, and a good chunk of the grocery money is already used up.  I budgeted $450 this month just to see how that worked, which is about $100-$150 less than we usually spend.   That budget includes most of our meals – Eli works from home 100% of the time, and I do about 65% of the time.  We rarely eat out, although I tend to have to when I travel, which is reimbursed.  We pack the kids lunches 50% of the time, and breakfasts for all of us are home-based most of the time.  We try to eat healthily, and our meals include lots and lots of vegetables.

I spent $75 yesterday at Trader Joe’s on both food and wine (it’s a spending freeze, not a life of bleak deprivation).  Add to that what we’ve spent on things that arrive automatically and we should be ok, although this will be tighter than our usual.  All we really will need is lunch meat, milk, and fruits and vegetables and a few  staples.

Next week our Walden Local meat food order will arrive ($167), although because of the holiday and so many meals away from home, we still have a lot left from last month.  We have some Amazon Subscribe-and-Save items arriving as well ($132.66) that will come in handy, especially the 30 lbs of organic flour that arrives 2x a year.   And gets used, I might add.  At about $1.42/lb, it’s more expensive to buy organic flour by a fair bit, but knowing that I’m minimizing our pesticide consumption helps.  The next step is to get our flour locally, which will increase our costs but support a local, truly organic grower, but not yet. Add to that the food we’ve put up and purchased, and I think we’ll be in good shape, even though there’s a lot of January left.

We still have most of the sweet potatoes, a lot of regular potatoes, onions and 2 big butternut squash from our Thanksgiving weekend stock up.  We’re also completely buried in fresh eggs, so fritattas, deviled eggs, quiche and lots of other options can be both breakfast and dinner.  So long as we employ some creativity, we should eat well and healthily for the month.

Our biggest risk area for the budget is snacks – I plan to make some homemade granola bars next weekend (this recipe is great, even without the coconut, which is not my favorite), and there’s always cookies, popcorn, and homemade guacamole with some tortilla chips.  Plus I stashed some Nutella-and-Breadstick snack packs for when the kids are completely frustrated by the lack of appealing snacks later in the month.  It’s probably not a flawless plan, but it’s pretty solid.

Last night we finally used up the spaghetti squash that we came home in November with – I halved it, scooped the seeds and then baked it with olive oil, salt, pepper and a few cloves of garlic until it was soft.  Then I filled it with a mixture of cooked ground lamb seasoned with garlic, and then mixed in goat cheese and pesto, and I topped it with a little shredded cheese.  Spaghetti squash ‘boats’ stuffed with almost anything are a favorite of mine.     I had no idea that my husband had never experienced spaghetti squash when I bought it, but he was so impressed by both Mother Nature’s ingenuity and dinner generally that we’ll be adding it to the list of things we grow and buy in bulk this year.

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And on that topic, I’m thinking next weekend I might start some winter lettuce indoors to cut down on what I’m buying.  I don’t usually grow much in the winter, but it’s a pretty low-effort endeavor to grow stuff from scratch, especially in small quantities.

When you are trying to eat what you have, it’s the time to use cookbooks and food websites as a starting point, not in order to follow recipes precisely.  For example, find a recipe for stuffed spaghetti squash and then modify based on what you have rather than what the recipe says exactly.   Tonight for dinner I need both kid-friendly food and to start to tackle the red peppers that have been sitting around for a few days.  I pulled some beef bulgogi from the freezer, and that, along with a salad and some quick and easy popovers will cover down on dinner tonight and likely leave Eli some leftovers while I travel.  Those red peppers will be sliced up along with cucumbers for the kids, who consume both without question.

I have mushrooms  that need to get used up when I return as well, so I’m trying to decide whether to saute and freeze them now, or wait until I get back and turn them into something interesting, like a new variation of stuffed mushrooms, perhaps using more of the ground lamb that comes with our meat share.

Key here is to use cookbooks and web recipes for ideas.  I’m lucky enough to have a freezer and my pantry completely full, so my options are great.  But I’ve had times in my life where all I had was some flour and yeast, cheese and spaghetti sauce, and a few onions, and I made some really good homemade pizza with caramelized onions, which fed me until the next paycheck arrived.   I’ve used solid white tuna as a cheaper alternative to ground beef in pasta sauce, and it’s really good.  Surprisingly good.

Food writers, bloggers and chefs are always on the lookout for the newest and the freshest ingredients, and I love that – I have learned so much from so many about things I never thought I could cook at home, and flavor combinations I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own.  But the reality is that it isn’t how most of us truly eat – most people have budgets, food preferences, limited time to cook, kids who will try a very few new things.

But what we all have is the ability to be limitlessly creative in the kitchen – the worst that can happen is that what comes out isn’t that great, and the best that can happen is you pair flavors you like and come out with a new greatest hit.

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday Mindfulness

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

 

It’s 5 days until Christmas, and between work, life and holiday preparations, it’s a little chaotic around here.  With packages and holiday cards left to mail, and not yet even started on my wrapping, it’s easy to get lost in the list of to-dos. All that work on the Salsa Verde turned into gifts, with gorgeous tags made by my artist husband.  My spiced nuts are packaged up into gift bags and being delivered along with the salsa and cookies.

Modern life is so busy.   Not only are our houses supposed to be decorator-perfect but we’re always supposed to be doing something fun.  Creative.  Interesting.  Instagram-worthy.  It’s not enough to do enough – the pressure to do more and more is overpowering.  Yesterday after Connor’s first-grade concert, then it was class party.  We have Elves on our shelves, Advent calendars to fill, and even the kids at my daughter’s riding class were giving out gifts.  “I was supposed to do that?” I wondered, not for the first time, as I rushed out after to buy a last-minute gift for my daughter’s teacher.  

No wonder we’re all so tired.

Which means that this is the moment for some mindfulness.

We’ll do more baking this weekend, but it’s also going to be fun – Eli and Connor have an outing planned this weekend, while Kiera and I go into Boston with her close friend and the friend’s mom for a day of exploring.  We have a very special house guest coming to visit too – our former intern resident from last summer, H, is returning to us for a night.  We’ve missed her.

So it was time to remember that somehow, some way, the holidays always come together, and I know it will this time too. I don’t have to do everything perfectly, and if yet again I don’t get to making homemade truffles, it’s ok.  There’s always next year.  I have to remember that teaching my kids that holidays are a time of rushing and stress is not the message I want to send.

Instead, I want to send the message that yes, we put effort into things that make us proud to give, but what’s really important is what we give to one another.  There will be busy nights between now and Christmas, but ultimately it’s more important that Connor gets to wrap the gifts we’re sending to Auntie Liz and Uncle Joe over general perfection.  If dinner is ham and cheese and Cheerios occasionally, it’s hardly the end of the world.  If the Christmas cards arrive at some houses on the 26th, we’re not exactly committing a cardinal sin.

So this morning, after making sure the bunnies had food and water and were making it through the cold, I tossed in some laundry, put on the coffee and just..sat.  Looking at our tree.  Collecting my thoughts.

Breathing.

It’s ok to put it down sometimes.  No, it’s more than ok.  It’s necessary.  If your friends come over and there’s clutter in the corner, whatever.  Did you feed them?  Do they love you?  Is their presence more important than whether you did everything perfectly?

Today, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to go get my hair done, I’m going to work, I’m going to make something easy for dinner, and we’re going to sit and watch a movie.  Maybe we’ll make some sugar cookies, maybe not.

We are here, warm and safe, surrounded by love.  We have enough, and some left over to give to those less fortunate than us.  Are the tree lights perfectly spaced?  No.  Am I going to get everything done?  Nope.

Will I do the things that really count?  Yes.  Yes I will.  So will Eli, as he always does.  This year, our first year as a family, I don’t just want to celebrate what we’ve done, but also who we are.  We’ve accomplished a lot, sure.  But none of it matters if we’re harried and snapping at one another.

So sit.  Breathe.  Look at the lights.

Remember you do enough.  You’ve bought enough, baked enough, cared enough.

You are enough.

 

 

Springtime in Winter

Sithean March 2019

It’s been bloody cold lately, with snow coming at regular intervals.  Winter, as it always does at this time of year, is hanging on, not quite ready to let go.  There’s signs of hope though – forecasts for 50ish degrees later this week, the local Co-Op is advertising mulch rather than shovels, and tomorrow marks the beginning of seed-starting.  I rearranged the living room to accommodate the potting bench, and as soon as it stops sleeting we will bring it in.  The clocks changed last night, which is disorienting, but another sign that soon the white stuff will dissipate, and the earth will be closer to the sun.

It was icky today, with the weather changing from snow to sleet to rain and then cycling back through all three at intervals, so I postponed my long run for 2 days to avoid slipping on ice, and instead Eli and I went for a long walk.  A long wet walk, but a good one.  I’ve been thinking about goals a lot lately.  Setting them, working towards them, adjusting them.

Every year on New Year’s Day, we list out goals for 2019.  This is an all-in family endeavor and this year’s list included ‘finishing the garden’, ‘a new coop’, and ‘make new memories for the 4 of us’ among other things.  We’ve made steady progress on some, others not yet started, but as we head towards 1/4 of the year complete, I think we’re doing all right.  There is, of course, limitless things still to do, on our goals list or just on the to-do list.  So I did a lot of them, and then, after our walk and more things, I perched myself on the couch to watch the birds, write a little, and allow myself to ignore the endless things to clean, sort, iron and organize for a bit.  The kids are with Dad tonight, so the house is quiet.  Eli and I are going to make another batch of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen tonight, because this weather calls for comfort food for a little longer.

The big news here is the imminent arrival of 27 baby chicks – 26 girls and 1 rooster –  from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a combination of beautiful varieties, such as the Pheonix chicken and the Crevacoeurs.  I have wanted to place an order with them for as long as I have had chickens, or longer.  We got some good layers, but we also got chickens for their looks and cool factor.

McMurrayHatchery_RareBreed_Crevecoeurs

But the real news is the impending arrival of our new chicken coop.  After years of free range co-chickening with the neighbors,  and losing them all to the large variety of predators that abound here, we decided that we needed to provide better protection, and invested in a coop with an enclosed run, complete with wire underneath the run, predator-proof latches on the nesting boxes, insulation for winter, solar lighting and automatic chicken door, and last but not least, epoxy floors, nesting boxes, and removable trays for easy cleaning.  This is, to be honest, the Tesla of chicken coops, and if I have to make a plug for a vendor, I’ll do it for this one – Lancaster Chicken Coops was helpful, friendly and some of the best customer service I’ve ever had.  They even offered to bundle delivery with other area customers to make it cheaper.  The coop isn’t even here yet and I’m already in love.

Chicken Coop

It’s dark and cold tonight, but spring is coming, and with it the tiny peeps of baby chicks to our little farmlet.

Journey’s End

In Florida, where I lived for a few years, most of the houses are in communities, gated or otherwise.  One, in West Palm Beach, was named ‘Journey’s End’.  Whether their target audience was simply the elder end of the snowbird set, or they helped people speed the path to their maker in order to ensure consistently available housing inventory was unclear to me, but I could never go by it without a giggle.

When I moved to Sithean, I had some goals set in my head.  At the top of the list, though, was ‘Never move again’.  After 5 moves in just over 2.5 years and some serious life transitions, the kids and I needed stability and predictability above all.  While a little updating couldn’t hurt, and it was definitely in need of basic maintenance, the house has stood for 168 years, and it will almost certainly outlast me.

Most financial advice around housing presupposes that you will, at some point, move, and therefore things like market value, financial return, and renovations with an eye towards selling are 99% of the commentary.  But when you buy a house to live in for 40+ years, it changes your perspective.  All of a sudden, the things ‘the market’ might prefer don’t really matter.  That isn’t to say that one should jettison good taste, but honestly, if you like something and want to do it, ‘what will the next owner think’ isn’t an issue.  When there is a next owner, I fully intend to have become compost for my peonies.

Hopefully not very soon.

To pay off the mortgage early or not is a debate in finance circles as old as time.  It’s true you may be able to grow that money faster in stocks, which is what most financial planners would say.  Most of the frugality-focused financial folks, on the other hand, loathe debt and recommend reducing housing costs by paying off the mortgage early.

I see both points of view, but it’s my take that there are those of us who are comfortable with mortgage debt, and there are those of us for whom outsized interest payments and owing someone the roof over our heads makes our skin crawl, and you should behave according to which type of person you are.  I am, without a doubt, the latter.

I hate debt, but my decision to work towards being mortgage free also has more specific reasons.  My oldest goes to college in 9 years, and my younger child will follow her a few years later.  I want to be able to help them, and without a mortgage payment, that should be comfortably possible.  I may not have it knocked off for my daughter’s turn, but by the time my son launches, I intend to have the house owned by me, outright.  This was number 2 on my goal list when I moved here.

Today I have no idea how that happens.

Ok, I do.  You toss money at it until it’s gone.  For a time when you take on a mortgage, you pay more interest than principal.  As the mortgage matures, that situation reverses, and you pay more principal than interest.  The quicker you reduce your unpaid principal balance, the less interest you pay, and the faster you pay your house off.

But logistically, today, my plan isn’t feasible based on the calculators I have run.  I’m not even a little worried about that.  I mean, in the dark of night when I wonder how it’s all going to work out, sure.  But generally, nope, not concerned.   What I have learned over the years is that calculators are one thing.  Deciding you are going to do a thing and then working towards it is quite another.  While ephemeral determination is not something you can take to the bank, making a plan and figuring out how to get there as you go along is absolutely critical to getting what you want.

A critical rule of goal-setting – first, decide what you want to do.  Then figure out how to do it, adapting as you go.  For long-haul goals, you have time to experiment.  For this particular goal I have 1 and 3 year plans that involve all ‘found money’,  unexpected windfalls, and a percentage of income going towards it.  Once I get through the next 36 months, I should have a good sense of how much I need to modify my goals to meet my target.  Or modify my target if I must.

Most critical though, is to listen to your gut.  My gut tells me that I am at my best when setting my sights on a few big goals, with some smaller ones along the way.  I’m focused and determined, and more often than not I get where I need to be, even if the route takes longer than I had hoped.

Should you pay off your mortgage?  Only you can answer that – no one else has to live your life, not your financial planner, not the money advice columnists, no one but you.  Your inner voice should guide you on the big things, and this is no exception.  But if you do decide to, don’t worry so much if the numbers aren’t clear when you get started.

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

― Joseph Campbell

Sithean in flower