A thought that has run through my mind many times since March is “if I don’t do it now, I will never do it.” Well, at least not until long-off retirement, because I expect that is when I might again have time to get to things that usually fall off the radar… things that are not high priority, but that I’d like to do: such as make various things, learn languages (both spoken and programming); polish my microscopy skills; finish random projects around the house; establish a daily meditation practice; explore more of Minnesota; read various books; improve some crafting skills; pick up my old flute again, or dust off the piano.
During the initial stay-home order, while the ground was frozen and the wind still icy, I finally plowed through a shelf of books-to-be-read. I still didn’t have time to actually read all of them, but I began each and finished the ones that passed the 50-page test. I wrote my legislators, cleaned out my email inbox, filed taxes at the normal deadline, and deep-cleaned the house. When the ground became diggable, I got a better start on my vegetable garden than I have in years, and I’m still eating the greens that I planted in April. I joined a tiny outdoor tai chi class, and I’m moving through an online programming course. I kayaked, walked, and biked. Throughout the season, I pruned and weeded and enjoyed the garden therapy.
Much of my want-to-do list, though, remains undone. Time choices were made, and some roadblocks, small and large, appeared. Time was spent, and now it’s gone. Even when some of the normal things are reduced, the time still isn’t there.
I generally try to moderate my expectations for most things, but obviously need to consider them with regards to time as well. For me, feeling time-starved is a quick recipe to stress, so making all of my lists, mental and written, smaller might be one of the best actions I can take for overall happiness. Much of the time, I don’t need to do less, I just need to want to do less.
I’ve written about some of the thought work I’ve been working on for the last two years or so, and I have a new thought I’m really digging: “I live aligned with my values.”
What would that look like?
I’d move: walking, biking for transportation and enjoyment, running, hiking, swimming, playing with my kids, skiing, yoga-ing, and dare I say, dancing? I’d be outside in all kinds of weather: in the garden, in the yard, in the neighborhood, in parks, camping. I’d be on screens, sometimes: for connection, for efficiency, for learning. I’d be off screens most times: for connection, for efficiency, for learning. I’d be decisive, willing to fail, and imperfect. I’d be avoiding plastic and new goods wherever possible; I’d be using a bike whenever I could.
I’d be living with less stuff in my home so I wouldn’t feel so stressed out about it, yet with enough to feel abundant and cozy. I’d be working actively to be satisfied with my material goods, including whatever home I’d be living in, instead of always seeking the greener grass. When making purchases I’d be taking the time to shop at the hyper local shops I treasure – right now, I could 90% live my daily life within two miles of my home and 99% within 10 miles. I’d spend money free of guilt and not second-guess purchases large or small – neither being unnecessarily frugal just for the sake of it, nor spending in order to avoid a small inconvenience or more importantly, avoid or create any feeling. I’d allow myself simply to spend money, and not attach many unspoken and vague conditions in order to grant myself the right to spend. In doing so, I’d assert myself as a full and equal financial partner in the household with the right to achieve my own dreams and desires regardless of my partner’s level of comfort. I’d either have to be comfortable with setting aside some of my earnings outside of the household pot and/or earning some more through other avenues in order to control these funds in the pursuit of my dreams.
I’d be fully present without guilt at work when at work, at home when at home, and with myself when with myself. I’d create community in, well, creative ways and breathe life into some of my many ideas instead of just letting them knock around in my head. I’d chance to participate in the community life in ways I feel called, while accepting that those ways can also feel hard and give me a bit of anxiety. I’d embrace the plans I set for myself, whether for daily eating and tasks, weekly schedules, or steps to meet long term goals. I would keep seeking the balance of being considerate to others while not really caring what they think of me, my plans or what’s important to me in the world. I’d love my partner in life for who he is, neither putting him on a pedestal nor expecting him to be anything other than exactly just the wonderful person he is.
I’d be soft on myself when I forget my journey and my vision – when I’m in Target the day after Christmas excitedly acquiring more plastic detritus – remind myself, love myself free of judgment, learn and move on.
Last summer, two friends and I met weekly to garden together. We rotated yards, worked for a few hours and then had lunch, brought by the visiting gardeners. We’re continuing again this summer and our first session reminded me of how much is accomplished while chatting and not even thinking about the work. In two hours, we weeded a large plot in my yard that is now planted to be a shade garden. I’ll have to keep after the weeds continually until all the plants grow and spread, but just getting to this point would not have happened without the dedicated time to gardening and the aid of my friends. Next week we’ll be at Julie’s yard, where I look forward to seeing the results of our last summer’s efforts. We share plants, ideas, and skills along with labor and lunch, and all that sharing builds our overall gardening abilities as well as our gardens.
Over the years, I’ve had multiple cooperative efforts with friends, and all have been very rewarding. Various friends and I gave our kids a tiny preschool in familiar spaces; we’ve shared childcare for young kids on a regular, rotating basis; we’ve traded family-sized dinners and, most recently, workweek lunches. I had the idea for cooperative gardening years ago, but it took a while to find a group who was ready to try it. I hope it will continue for many years.
Ilse: The first time I planted my own vegetables I was a college student. It was spring, and the gray, cloudy days were warming. I awoke one Sunday morning with an irresistible urge to grow something, so I started some lettuce seeds in a planter on my porch. The following year, I expanded to tomatoes, and continued growing these basic salad ingredients on various porches and balconies until I bought my first house. I love to be outside, tending to plants.
Kelli: I’ve always been drawn to the time when greenery juuuuuust starts to grow. It’s kind of spiritual. And of course, I love a good challenge and the literal fruits of my labor.
How did you learn to garden?
Ilse: I grew up with gardening, and so it makes sense that I absorbed at least some of it. My grandparents’ small city lot was a Victory Garden in the 1940s, and although the vegetable portion of the yard decreased over time to allow some grass on which their grandkids could run around, we always ate amazing tomatoes in endless quantities during our summer visits (my childhood favorite: tomato sandwich on rye, with mayonnaise and pepper). In addition to assorted summer vegetables, my parents produced enough broccoli and string beans for the entire winter (stored in the freezer), as well as potatoes that lasted several months beyond the growing season.
Kelli: Total trial and error, reading books, trying stuff out. My parents have a decent amount of space but it’s terrible land – it’s on what’s called the Anoka Sand Plain, which is like a huge sand beach plunked across a good portion of two counties in east central Minnesota. So it was great for the potatoes people grew back in the day, and not much else, and we never grew anything to eat growing up, though my hubby and I have had several years of pumpkin crops since. I have always had a lot of shade in the places I’ve lived as an adult, so haven’t had much in the way of veggies, but am getting better at ornamentals and design, and have lost some fear of transplanting/removing/giving away ill-suited plants.
What does your garden look like?
Ilse: My first real garden was in Arizona. I found that the lauded raised bed made no sense there and created a sunken garden instead, to hold precious rainwater and stay cooler. My Minnesota vegetable garden consists of 8 raised beds and various spaces in my landscaping beds where I currently grow fruits and vegetables. I have fruit trees and berry bushes all around our 1/3-acre lot, but the vegetable garden has a deer fence around it.
Kelli: A hodge-podge of mostly hostas and some other shade-loving groundcover like wild ginger. For edibles, it’s two new raised 4×4 beds in the sunniest corner of our lot, which is bounded by alley and parking on all sides. One will be raspberries (where is that order, anyway . . . add that to the to-do list) and the other tomatoes. At my parents’ we’ll put in pumpkins again. I plan to tuck some lettuce right close to the house and might try some in a strip next to the garage too. A few containers with basil, and I think I’ll stick some carrots and beets in near the deck. It’s really where I can fit things in around life since the littles, dog, bunnies and squirrels have priority use of the yard, I guess!
What is in your garden this year?
Ilse: I finally got some seeds into the garden in mid-April, about 3 weeks later than I usually plant the cold-hardy vegetables like peas, kale, collards, broccoli, spinach, etc. My strawberries are starting to leaf out, and I am hoping that the asparagus I planted last year survived the cold January we had with no snow cover for protection. I always grow lots of leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.
Kelli: Ooh, now I want to plant kale again. So easy! So forgiving! I still have the seeds you gave me many years ago, Ilse! I should dig them out and see what I can get to still germinate.
Ilse: Kelli, collards are even easier to grow than kale!
Can you share any successful or unsuccessful garden experiments?
Ilse: After a couple of years of gardening in Minnesota, I realized that fantastic fresh vegetables are available for very low cost at the farmers markets, and I decided to grow more fruit. I’ve grown strawberries for about 15 years, and they are incredibly easy to grow… and they make more and more plants, which are a fantastic ground cover. Asparagus has been less successful for me. I’ve seen it growing wild around the area, so I know that it can grow… but my first roots died after a few years. I replanted last year, and am hoping the roots survived our vicious winter.
Kelli: Tomatillos have done really well for me both times I planted them, actually. And we LOVE growing and harvesting our pumpkins and squashes in the years we’ve done those. The year we had a full sun community garden plot we got so much zucchini we couldn’t see straight. Then I got preggo with my first and had a food aversion to . . . you guessed it . . . zucchini. Not so successful were the lingonberries the bunnies enjoyed down to nubbins.
What are your favorite plants to grow?
Ilse: The ones that grow really well! And also herbs… I love to garden around herbs, releasing their scents as I pull weeds and harvest. I added a smaller garden near my back door dedicated to herbs so that I can quickly get fresh basil, dill, oregano, chives, parsley, rosemary, or cilantro just before serving dinner. I usually try to bring some of them inside for the winter, but they never last very long.
Kelli: I’ve tried that with herbs too! Maybe I should do that again as well. On the decorative side of things, I love the spring woodland perennials like columbine. We have a few different delicate kinds.
Do you have any entertaining gardening stories?
Ilse: My second summer here, every night around 3AM, I heard the lid of our large trash bin slam. That was the announcement that the raccoons had arrived for the night. I heard them chattering as they climbed the fence into our yard, and I knew that the next morning I would find more holes in my tomatoes. They took a bite out of each tomato and left it hanging on the plant. That same summer I had planted what I thought was an enormous number of green beans, because I knew the rabbits would eat some of the fresh greens. I was right about that, but not about the quantity that they would eat, because they ate all of them. That was the summer that we began construction of the deer and rabbit fence!
Space to think, uninterrupted, has drawn for me since at least my early teen years, when my favorite place was a large rock in the middle of the creek in the woods behind our house, where I would sit, write, and listen to the moving water. I was entranced by the idea of Thoreau’s Walden life, and years later, by the seaside cottage of Gift From the Sea. Most people don’t have the option of taking a year off to build a cabin, explore nature, and write, and even a week of calm solitude can be unrealistic – I know it is for me. But thinking about the internal and external space that this would offer has me contemplating how I could create some similar space in my upcoming weeks.
I have memories of retreat-like days. Once while traveling, I was snowbound for an afternoon in a hotel. It was lovely. I read and wrote and thought, uninterrupted, for hours. A retreat need not be solitary or academic. When I was a grad student, burned out from exams, thesis research, and winter, I spent a weekend helping my parents paint a barn. The gentle labor in the spring sunshine left me refreshed and ready to return to books and lab. More recently, Thom, Mari, and I had a weekend retreat at a friend’s cabin. We like to go there in the off season, when the lake is quiet, even if the weather is unpleasant, because that increases the coziness and pushes each of us to the activities for which we rarely find time when at home.
What gets in the way of doing this at home? Even on a weekend, there are all the activities. Driving someone here or there, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, getting ready for the workweek, fixing whatever has recently broken in the house, car upkeep, etc, etc, etc. So a retreat at home requires planning, first of all – to choose a day in advance and prepare for it to be as quiet as possible.
Preparing for a retreat at home
Give permission: time for deep work and contemplation is as important as the time spent on all those other activities. The reason we don’t do it more often is that it has no deadline associated with it. Give yourself permission to take a day off from everything.
Choose the day to minimize disruptions: a day that everyone can linger around the house in pajamas is ideal.
Share the plan: it’s nice If everyone in the house would like to participate, and makes interruptions less likely.
Plan meals in advance for easy reheating and cleanup: cook double a couple of nights during the week and put the extra meal in the freezer, in a container that is reheating-ready. In addition to saving time cooking, cleanup is greatly reduced on nights these meals are served.
Do essential cleaning and chores during the few evenings prior to the planned retreat. Tidy surroundings are more peaceful, and it’s nice to know that everything is done.
Be flexible. I was preparing for Sunday to be a retreat day, but some urgencies disrupted the weekend. It is what it is. There will be another weekend that will work.
I’m on my annual winter planning kick. February is always a really hard time for me, and planning for spring makes it all seem that much more doable. This is the time of year that I revisit our budget, plan my garden and basically look at everything we do and make sure it’s going smoothly.
In the past I’ve relied on my phone calendar, spreadsheets and pages documents, but this year I am going back to analog methods. As much as I love technology, too much of it seems to decrease my productivity rather than increase it. My ADHD brain has trouble resisting the temptation to check Facebook, or email, and if I’m on my phone, I’m more likely to get pestered by my phone-less younger kids into looking up the land speed of a velociraptor, or information on King Edward I’s famous trebuchet, Warwolf.
A friend told me recently that she had heard that for ADHD people, all organizational tasks should be one step. Keep it as simple as possible, so you’ll actually keep it up.
My weapons this year are a simple, large desk calendar, a planner I found in the discount section, that I am using to track bills and expenses, and a notebook on my “Command Center” desk in the living room.
On Thursday, when family folders come home, I have kids come up to me one at a time. We go through them together and I write all important information on the calendar. Then I immediately toss the papers, because if I have extra papers around I get easily confused and overwhelmed. Any papers I need to sign are signed and immediately put in the children’s backpack, where they have about a 50/50 chance of actually reaching the teacher. But, hey, I tried. Papers the children need to deal with are put into their section of an accordion-style file folder. That part is not working quite as well as the rest of it. To be honest, that’s where homework, which is still not mandatory at the younger kids’ ages, goes to die. At the moment I am fine with that, because we can either take the time to do homework, or get our stuff ready for tomorrow and get in bed at a reasonable hour. There simply isn’t time for both, and with a 7:00am bus pick up time, I’ve chosen bedtime as my hill to die on.
For my financial tracking, I have every bill listed on it’s due date in the calendar section of my planner, and every payday, whether it’s Zach’s or mine, listed as well. I use a pencil for bills, and a pen for income, rather than colour coding, because all it takes is one day that I can’t find a red pen, and I’ll give up doing it. I can almost always dig up a pencil or a pen. If extra money comes in, I write it in on the date it came in, again in pen.
On Saturdays, I open the bank app on my phone (I do use a little technology) and copy down the expenses in the daily section of the planner. I make notes on what the money was spent on, and add it up by category. That helps give me a visual idea of what is going where, and how much is left in the budget for the following weeks.
My notebook is my catch-all for everything else. I tried bullet journaling, but the legwork of indexing and numbering pages, and figuring out how much space I might need for something was too much for me. I really do need it to be one step. Write stuff down. The end. I have 40 years of experience sorting through my messy, random thoughts. I’ll find what I need to find. I did find that I enjoyed the brain dump notebook a lot more when I had a nice set of gel pens and could make things colourful and prettier. I may need to put those on my list.
I do still need to figure out an efficient system for paperwork and mail. Right now I have a magazine file box that I just stick it all into, but I’m not good at doing anything with it, or finding what I need to find. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
We are heading into day three of a string of Polar Vortex no school days, and I thought it might be helpful to do a post of ideas for kids activities that are more fun than the Lord of the Flies shenanigans they seem to have planned. The novelty of movies has more than worn off, and they have serious cabin fever. I tried to pick things that don’t require a bunch of materials you might not have at home, because no one wants to go shopping in this weather..
1. Learn a dance from a YouTube Tutorial. The Waltz, Running Man, the Cabbage Patch, the Floss. It will keep them active, mind and body.
2. Homemade play dough. Use your real baking equipment and play bake shop.
3. Learn a new card game. Kings on the corner is a fun and easy one, or Crazy Eights.
5. Bake a crazy cake. No eggs. No butter. No milk. By this point in the cold snap, my supplies are running low. A crazy cake, popular in the Great Depression, is part science experiment, party history lesson, part tasty snack. If you don’t have the ingredients for frosting, you can dust it with powdered sugar, or even leave it plain.
6. Do a drawing tutorial from YouTube. Serve hot chocolate and make it the kid equivalent of a wine and paint night.
7. Make a toy village from recyclables.
8. Armchair travel. Watch a travel documentary on a faraway location, and make some sort of food from that country. Tortillas from Mexico, curry from India, or pasta from Italy. Pick something that you have ingredients for on hand.
9. Write your own comic book. Make up a new superhero and tell his or her origin story.
10. Build a fort. This is classic snow day fun for a reason. It’s cheap, easy and hours of fun.
From one stuck parent to another, may the odds be ever in your favour
Oh Black Friday. How I ignored your existence for so many years. Then we remodeled our house, and needed new appliances, so in 2011 the siren song of your deals sucked me in. And since then, while I don’t elbow or trample anyone in person, I do participate in the online frenzy.
What I love about Black Friday:
Deals, ok? I love the deals, especially on things I was already going to buy or waited to buy until Black Friday deals came up. In preparation, I made a good effort to locate all these items secondhand, and was successful on some fronts (I bought my daughter a big load of clothes, and found winter boots for both kids) but not on others. So: I bought shoes for the kids, a bed frame and mattress for my daughter, a new vacuum (this year’s killer deal winner), new jackets for the kids that we love from Gap, a few clothes for me, a few stocking stuffers for the family.
The thrill of the hunt, looking for the best deal. Notice that this will also appear below.
The gratification. I delayed it, then I got the stuff.
Related to the thrill of the hunt, the stacking of bargains. For some, I got the store’s discount, then additional $$ back through eBates, and my cashback through my credit card. Cha-ching on stuff I would have been buying in the near term anyway.
What I hate about Black Friday:
The human price of instant delivery. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to listen to this podcast episode about it because I know my feelings will be horrible. At some point, I need to (see “misalignment” below).
That I was willing to buy things new just because they were on a deal, when if I’d waited longer I could have likely obtained them secondhand, conserving resources and money. I don’t worry as much about the money as in the past, but the manufacturing load of new items troubles me. Except, it seems, when the deals are so good. So that leads me to . . .
Misalignment with my values. Why am I willing to morph into some crazy-consumerist one weekend of the year and not at other times?
The thrill of the hunt. Oh, there you are again. I wasted a LOT of time that weekend looking for the best deals on beds – and ended up buying one off Amazon for the regular price. I have been known to “buffer” with online shopping and see this is a negative activity for my overall well-being (“buffering” being a term from Brooke Castillo of The Life Coach School and meaning activities we undertake in order not to feel undesired feelings or urges).
I’m sure this will be fascinating to many of you, and make others want to lay their head down on the nearest pillow and fall directly to sleep. Or maybe somewhere in the middle? Not even sure why I’ve been thinking about this lately. Probably because in reading all of Ilse’s wonderful posts, I’m reminded of how long it’s been since I “met” her and Stephanie online and where my own outlook on money, frugality, simplicity, intentionality, etc. has meandered since.
So grew up middle class in rural MN. Mom and dad never talked about money, well, not the details, but we knew we had enough for everything we needed but not quite everything we wanted. I always had the distinct impression that I should not request designer clothing, for example, which pretty much I didn’t care about – or perhaps I didn’t care because I knew I wasn’t going to have, anyway. But we were able to do all kinds of school activities, and always had enough food and clothes and medicine and books and toys and everything.
When it was time to go to college, I was determined to do it without loans. I went to community college concurrently with high school for free, then an additional year there to finish up an Associate’s degree, which I planned to transfer to a public university where I would finish my degree quickly and with no debt. Until . . . I got overwhelmed by the prospect of that public university and I visited a beautiful private college with its immaculate grounds and super welcoming admissions staff and FREE POP AND WAIVED APPLICATION FEE. So I applied, and got accepted. I was so excited! Then the financial aid letter arrived, with its skillions of dollars in loans as part of the package. And though I’d stated my goal of no student loans for yeeeeeeeeears, my parents were like, “meh, debt’s part of life.” And so I signed and waded into my first student loan.
What I also didn’t know is that I needed an additional year at that private college to cover requirements not accepted from the community college. So. There are a lot of things a family doesn’t really understand when no one’s completed college. Now we know. Transferring doesn’t always equal saving money.
Ultimately I borrowed around $20K in loans, a modest amount to some but an amount that weighed on me. So after college and a stint working abroad, I got serious about actually taking some action to eliminate these loans. I’d also wracked up some credit card debt during a year of underemployment, so I had that on my conscience too. It was at that time that I discovered Your Money or Your Life, and the heavens parted and the angels sang and I drank the Kool Aid and counted all my socks and everything else I owned and was shocked into action.
I started working diligently to pay off all my debt in March of 2006. I documented my journey on a now-defunct website dedicated to tracking goals. By this time I had about $34K in student loan debt (I’d also started a masters program), credit card debt and auto debt (because, since debt bothered me so much . . . I had bought and financed a brand new car. Riddle me that.). I did all these odd jobs, I had a graph (I just recycled that sucker about a month ago, I couldn’t let it go for years because I was sooooo proud of what it represented). Finally, in 2011, all of it was paid off, and in the interim I’d finished the remainder of the masters program on a cash basis and taken several trips including India and Hawaii, and gotten married! Admittedly a dual income definitely helped knock out the last $15K or so.
I’ll bring you my married life journey in a future installment, which I’ll link here when it’s up!
I’ve mentioned before that ever since I’ve been back to work, freezer cooking has been my lifesaver. It’s not the first time I’ve used this method in my parenting career, and I’ve been tweaking my techniques for a few years now, and figured I’d share them.
-For a while, I did once a month cooking, but that ended up being too much to hack when the meals I was making were twice the size of the average family’s. I’ve never had a huge kitchen, and there are only so many dishes I could manage after an entire day of cooking. It would end up being a 2-3 day long event, after which I was really tired. I switched to cooking for two weeks at a time and found it to be much more manageable.
-I enlist the help of my older kids. James can make rice in the rice cooker, Bella can brown the ground beef, and Cheyenne can use her special cleaning magic powers to help me clean up. (I don’t know how I merited having a teenage daughter who likes to clean. I annoy her with my slovenly ways.) Even Travis, Charlotte and Veronica can open cans, or run veggie scraps out to the compost.
-Sometimes I compromise and buy things pre-chopped, like onions. I can get a bag of frozen chopped onions for about $1. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s not a bank-breaker, and the take-out I’d end up eating if I didn’t have food pre-made would be. Bonus points, no one whines at me about the onions hurting their eyes.
-I stopped using disposable pans. I do not love disposable stuff, and I freezer cook often enough to justify a little investment in the project. Walmart has 9×13 pans for under $4, so I just started buying a couple each time I went, and pretty soon had a respectable stash of them.
-If I’m making something like chicken legs, and I know it will be one of the meals I toss in the crockpot on the day we eat it, I’ll freeze the legs separately before adding them to the bag. Otherwise, they freeze in a clump, and it’s a craps shoot whether or not they will fit nicely in the crockpot on cooking day.
-Certain things, like chili, or beef stew, I never make in anything smaller than an electric roaster oven. We’ll eat it often enough that, if I’m going to go to the trouble of making it at all, I might as well make two or three. I usually make at least one roaster oven of some kind of stew or soup on freezer cooking day, which also doubles as that day’s dinner. We can all take a bowl and there is still enough leftover for two meals. This cuts down on what used to happen, spending all day cooking only to order a pizza for dinner.
Overall, this seems to be the method I’m having the most success with at the moment. Weeknight dinners are easy to make, and easier to clean up, leaving more time for spending with my kids. It’s kept my eating out budget in check, and given me more rest at the end of a busy day.