4.21.2017

**Thanks for all of your support on the sharing of our big milestone. Being vulnerable like that is not one of my strengths, so I appreciate the kindness!**

IMG_8682J and his pocket chicken, Polly. She makes a great study buddy.

Yesterday, we bathed a chicken in our kitchen sink. I don’t have any photos because it was a bit of an operation, but it needed to be done. Poor Marigold had a terribly dirty bottom, and we discovered last week that she and most of the flock also have lice, so we decided a bath was in order, followed by a direct dusting of diatomaceous earth (DE). She didn’t much care for being plopped in the water, but she loved the sprayer and the blow dryer. She crouched on the counter in her towel, cooing and letting me warm her fluffy rump.

Lice. Just the word gives me the dirtiest, creepy-crawly feeling, and when I found them, I shrieked and squirmed, and ran inside to wash. I’ve since learned that they can’t transfer to us, and that their presence doesn’t mean we keep a dirty coop; it’s just a side effect of allowing the birds to free range the yard, a practice we’re not going to quit since our feathered friends help reduce the tick population. I’ll take lice over Lyme any day.

So we’ve collected all the sticks that fell throughout the winter and have burned them down to ash in our outdoor stove, and mixed all that good stuff into some DE for the girls to dustbathe. The DE will cut through the lice (literally) and kill them, but it’s known to cause respiratory distress, so needs to be mixed with other materials to bind it and keep it from billowing. Hopefully it helps! We’ve learned a lot in our first year of chicken-keeping, and will be making some changes as we go forward.

Today, I have succumbed to the late-season cold that’s been sweeping through town. I’m feeling crummy, and am perversely glad that the weather is also gloomy and weepy. I don’t think I’d take kindly to Mother Nature throwing me sunshine today. So I’m going to curl up in a blanket and get some work done from the comfort of the couch with my little snuggle buddies. My children, not the chickens.

this is huge

IMG_8678Four new babies arrived yesterday. Beans has tentatively named hers “Dirty.”

We hustled this year, as we’ve never done before. It’s about to pay off. And my goodness, I can hardly contain myself when I look at what we’re poised to accomplish in the very near future!

I was loathe to share any real details about my goals in this space last year, preferring to hold them close and work on them quietly. I think there was a good amount of fear guiding that decision – of failure, and yes, of judgement. Shame. That’s the real word. I’m ashamed, and I’m a bit nervous to share even now, but overriding those nerves is the belief that it’s good and important to acknowledge the problem and the long road to ridding ourselves of it.

$35,000. That’s a HUGE number. A huge, embarrassing number. Six and a half years ago, that is the credit card debt that we carried. Not cars and student loans and mortgage. Just several years of STUFF. A big TV. A new leather armchair. Trips to the winery and many dinners out. When J was working nights, I went shopping. When he wanted a new Xbox, we charged it rather than saving up. We lived beyond our means for a variety of very personal reasons, and our monthly budget was a carefully balanced series of card payments. Our credit scores were phenomenal, but our debt to income ratio was dismal. We covered about half the cost of our wedding ourselves, but on plastic rather than in cash. Then the recession hit the same year we got married, and several short periods of unemployment were covered by credit cards – we’d charge groceries and gas so that the paychecks could go to the bills. It was a miserable blow, and those experiences were a huge turning point in how we operated.

I sat down in the fall of 2010 and took a hard look at what we owed, and it sucked. That day, I cut up all of our credit cards but one (for emergencies), and we moved to a “real money only” system. Some people find success with a cash budget system, spending only what’s in the grocery envelope on groceries for instance, and then it’s gone. We found however that when we used cash, it would disappear and we wouldn’t have a true sense of where it went, so we opted to use only our debit cards and log every. single. receipt. in Quicken. This way we could really see our spending, line by line, and review each expense as we entered them. We could anticipate how much money was coming in and when, which big payments would go out during a certain pay period, and categorize each expense to see where we were blowing our money – like buying lunch at work and going to happy hour (hi, that would be me). This tracking system was hugely beneficial for us.

Another big step we took was to utilize a debt consolidation company. Now, this one has definite pros and cons, and depending on the situation, might not be a good fit for everyone, but it helped us. The company took on the task of contacting all of our creditors to negotiate a lower interest rate and monthly payment. We would pay one lump sum to the consolidation company each month, and they would distribute it. As an account was paid off, that particular payment would be rolled into the remaining balances to achieve a snowball effect. This way we had one payment, one due date. The downside to this system was that in consolidating, our accounts were effectively closed for business, meaning that even as we paid down the balances, our available credit was still $0. Our credit scores didn’t really take a hit, but they didn’t improve either.

We had some serious setbacks along the way. When Swee was born, we decided to become a one income family rather than send her to daycare, which necessitated us making even more cuts. We sold my beloved VW hatchback and dropped to one car. The week I found out I was pregnant with Beans, a drunk driver totaled our remaining vehicle while it was parked in front of our house. We went from being one year away from paying off our car to taking on another five years of payments. Swee was later hospitalized for five days with an infection, and the medical bills were ridiculous. And of course, living apart for nine months before selling our house was the biggest hit. We didn’t take on any new debt, but nothing was ever paid on time. One account even went to collection because I was literally making choices between buying food and paying bills – there just wasn’t enough money coming in then to support everything that needed to happen.

So! Here we are. This morning, I paid off the last of that original $35,000, plus the first of my student loans. We’ve finally repaired the damage to our credit scores from that time apart. We’ve got cash set aside for new truck tires, and we’ve even got a small emergency fund.

I look back at the long, crappy road we’ve taken to get here and I get pretty disgusted. We weren’t living well, despite making more than enough money to be doing so. We had to go in the clear opposite direction to make the necessary change. No more recreational shopping or retail therapy. No new electronics or furniture. Having kids pretty much eliminated happy hours, but I’ve had to get serious about packing J’s lunches. Since I don’t leave the house for work, we’re saving on gas, parking, dry cleaning. I don’t buy cheap junk anymore, just because it’s cute. And I use both Ibotta (grocery rebates) and MintVine (online surveys) to bring in a tiny bit of extra cash. That money mostly went toward Christmas gifts this year, but it usually gets applied as an additional payment to something. (Those are referral links, so we both get a bonus if you sign up to try them out!)

For us, it came down to personal deprivation and sheer will-power. Changing our priorities and remembering that the high of buying new things is really a lie. The rush doesn’t last, and really, we don’t need all that shit anyway.

And that’s not to say we haven’t slipped. We splurged more than we should have in the past six months (see my Frugal February thoughts): a few higher-dollar gifts, a constant supply of beer in the fridge, more snacks and purchased meals at work. We hadn’t felt the belt loosen in years, and goodness, it was nice to relax a wee bit.

This is the humdinger of goals for me. Yes, we will still have the rest of my student loans and our car payments, but those debts feel a little bit different because I have something to show for them – two degrees and two reliable vehicles. We will no longer be shackled to this mystery debt, never really even sure what we spent that money on. We may not have moved ahead yet with most of our more visible homesteading plans, but I’d argue that this is an even bigger step toward self-sufficiency. This is huge. This is freedom.

 

soon.

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Spring has finally found us. I heard the peepers last night for the first time since last spring, and their song is filling the kitchen as I write this. The scilla bloomed, perhaps just this morning, reminding me in true Easter fashion that new life truly does come after the cold dark days.

I have not had many words for sharing lately. I’ve hardly picked up my camera except to capture my children, and those images are also not for sharing. There us so very much happening that is not quite ready for sharing. And as our efforts have been all-consuming, they’ve not left space for much living that can be shared. I’ve been squeezing snippets of our days onto Instagram, little squares of calm as a million things fight for head space, for release. Soon, I hope.

So a Happy Easter to you all, however you chose to spend your day. I hope that you are as happy and content as those dirty, stinky chickens bathing in my former tomato patch.

 

itchy

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If you can’t say anything nice… I have been out-of-sorts. I have no desire to complain, particularly not here, but every time I sat down to write, that’s all that would come out, and so instead I said nothing at all. Going quiet for a little while seemed to be the right thing to do, to work through the cranky, unsettled feelings I’ve been feeling. It could be called cabin fever, I suppose, though really I’ve just felt itchy. Everything is on the cusp of exploding around here, and I’ve been twiddling my thumbs, itching to do something but knowing it’s not. quite. time. And that’s just frustrating.

On the first day of spring, I got up and out of the house early to walk with some of the other mamas, a feat I had not accomplished in many months. Three miles down, I had shed some of the irritability that had been plaguing my days, if not the extra pounds that have also been building through the weather-imposed hibernation. That relief was a fleeting sensation as we were quickly beset by more snow and ice plinking against the windows as I scrolled an Instagram feed of other people’s daffodils and cherry blossoms. I am missing the greenery of living in a place where spring really does arrive in March.

A friend posted the first photo in her #100happydays series this morning, and a prompt like this may be just what the doctor ordered, for when I’m reminded to look for the good in all of this stress and uncertainty… There it is, plain as day.

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Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a few minutes to browse the photos on my camera card. This past weekend was Maine Maple Sunday, and because of some time constraints, we chose to stay local and visit a new sugarhouse right here in town. It was quite cold, but very bright and our neighbors were so welcoming. My little ones enjoyed a bowl of ice cream with fresh syrup (at 9:30am, no less!) and we connected with yet another family of transplants. My big baby led the way through the woods to the sugar shack, and I watched my not-so-baby baby truck along with her Daddy. Oh, the love for these sweet little ones of mine.

That’s about all that I’ve got today, though thankfully it’s more than nothing at all.

 

it’s all connected

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I spent over two and a half hours last night in the company of local women, most of whom I’d never met before. At first glance, I didn’t think we had much in common, but as we went around the room, introducing ourselves and giving a bit of our stories, little snippets popped out at me: the loneliness of working at home, even while being so very grateful for the opportunity to do so; the desire to cut ties to an unfulfilling life and forge a new path; wanting and needing to care for ourselves so that we can continue to care for our families; learning that who we are is more than our job title. On and on. It was an affirming experience, and a reminder to me to carve out time for interpersonal connection. In the midst of our crazy days when I am frantically looking for ways to make more hours, it’s this type of interaction that usually gets deemed “non-essential,” and therefore excised in favor of “more important” stuff. Wacky, yes?

I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out who I am now, beyond mama and wife and worker bee. Lately, that endeavor has led to many evening hours spent buried in a book. My “Currently Reading” shelf on Goodreads has six titles, five of which fall into the how-to or personal development category. Some of them are work assignments, but several I’ve been working through of my own accord. I’ve been taking my time with The Happiness Projectreading a lot more slowly than I usually do because I want to absorb the information. In fact, I’m moving so deliberately, I’ve had to renew it three times. It’s good, and difficult, and good because it’s difficult. I’m finding a lot of parallels between the author’s insights into her own behavior and what I’ve been noticing about myself, and it kinda sucks to turn on that light bulb of self-awareness. In a good way, if that makes any sense at all. Reading her systematic approach to increasing her personal happiness has prompted the thought, I’m not the only one, more than once.  One of the bigger takeaways so far (and there have been many) is that things that are fun for other people may not be fun for me, and that’s ok. I need to know what makes me happy and stop wishing that I could enjoy or be something else. I need to just Be Kirsten.

I’ve also been the recipient of much happy mail recently. In a past life, you were almost guaranteed to get a birthday card from me on or before the actual day. I usually remembered anniversaries and often sent notes or trinkets that reminded me of someone special. I was very deliberate about putting important dates in my planner and sending greetings on time. Somehow, that habit has gone by the wayside. Part of the reason is that my life is a lot busier now, physically taking care of other humans and truly managing a household and a family. Yet another part of it is the doubt, that niggling feeling that the recipient will think it’s silly, or that because it’s a drug store card and not Papyrus, I shouldn’t bother. Thinking why should I send something when they surely can buy themselves something nicer than what I can offer. Ridiculous. I am enough. Why should we feel otherwise?

Part of my happy mail came in the form of an advance copy of Never Unfriended by blogger Lisa-Jo Baker. I love the real voice to her writing, and so when I saw the chance to join the launch team for her new book, I applied. Happily, I was chosen and this beautiful little package arrived in my mailbox. It’s all about female friendship, and the crap we put ourselves through as women trying to connect with other women. Another good and difficult read, and once again, there’s been a lot of I’m not the only one! I’ve just finished it, and again, saw familiar thoughts and patterns, particularly the hesitancy to put myself out there for fear of rejection, of being too much. Why do we do that to ourselves? I have to be willing to go first.

Go first, and be real. Be Kirsten.

The rest of the mail was just as wonderful. My Nana sent me a ton of seeds from her garden, enough to share, which allows me to perpetuate the cycle – a double gift. My beautiful sorority sister freely sent me a huge package of something I’d been wanting to try and was willing to pay for, just because. I won a fun giveaway on Instagram, and now wear a beautiful leather diffuser bracelet for my oils – and I’ve connected with a lovely like-minded lady.

If I feel so spoiled and loved by these gestures, why oh why would I think others would not? We are more connected now than ever, with more opportunities to connect, and yet we’re all starving for connection. Despite that relative ease of getting in touch, our real friendships just sit there.

So I sent some happy mail of my own. Photographs are on their way to far-flung friends and family, printed at Target and wrapped in notes on regular old printer paper. I snapped some quick photos at a sweet birthday party, and sent the files to the little friend’s mama because she’d been holding the cake instead of her camera. They weren’t perfect, but I know I’d want them if it was my baby. I kept a play-group date last week, despite all of the crazy we’re living right now, and I’m going to share some of my Nana’s seeds with a newly pregnant mama friend, and include an offer to help plant. I made some imperfectly-sewn baby gifts, and sent them with perfect love to a dear friend that I am so terrible about keeping in touch with.

Go first. Be real. Be Kirsten. Give to others and keep trying. Do something about it. It’s all connected.

 

a day in the life

img_8414Lunch at my desk

“I will never stop being your Beanie.”

I’ve just come out of the bathroom and there’s a jammie-clad Beanie standing in my doorway. The clock on the stove is glowing 2:56am, so I scoop her up and we both crawl into bed where she declares her love as I tuck her in. I doze off with her little arm flung across my neck.

The sky is still half-dark when she stirs next to me, and tells me that the sun is awake. Thankfully, she’s content to snuggle back in for a few more minutes so I can wake up slowly, but it’s not long before we hear Swee padding through the kitchen to join us. The girls trade spots, and Beanie toddles off to lose the sodden overnight diaper. She returns with a bag of Cheerios that she found “next to Daddy’s back-back” and so begins a cereal picnic in our bed. It’s 6:20, and I needed to wash the sheets today anyway.

An hour later, we’ve finished breakfast (toaster waffles with local maple syrup, strawberries & raspberries, milk: a mix of healthy and easy) and I’m on my second cup of coffee. The washer is going, and I’m standing at the coop in my pajamas with a still-warm egg in my hand as the chickens bicker over the trimmings from last night’s slow cooker roast beef.

The girls decide that their ponies need “a hair-dress” and settle themselves on the couch. Taking advantage of such a peace treaty, J and I occupy the kitchen table to go over the day. I have appointments at 9am and 10am today, and he’s speaking with the Dean of Nursing at 11. We need water, and he needs to check in with the mechanic about my still-broken car. We have a quick conversation about bills and paychecks, and then suddenly a list of demands arrives from the living room, including a request for a new baby sister. On that note, we kill the pot of coffee and we’re off to the races.

Make a lunch, pack a back pack, find the mittens, floss the raspberry seeds out of little toddler teeth, trade my own pjs for clean yoga pants and fresh socks. It is school spirit week so I dress Swee in “something with words,” and after many kisses and hugs, I head to my desk. Seconds later, the door bursts open and in stomps a Beanie to show me her pigtails, Daddy’s newest skill in the hair department. All of my people head out the front door, then honk the horn as they pull away and I discover that my first call has been pushed back. Daddy and Beans are going hiking while Swee is at school, and I have 45 minutes to catch up on the email that has accumulated overnight.

Today is a work day for me, meaning that J is off, and I will spend the entire business day at my desk with few interruptions. The difference between other jobs I’ve held and this one working remotely is that when I am at work, I am working. I don’t lose hours to meetings about meetings, or in the car going between campuses, or sitting through impromptu status or brainstorming sessions. I don’t catch up with people around the water cooler or make personal phone calls in-between emails. I work, and that is the only reason this setup is manageable. On days that J has to go to his own job, I’m in my office until roughly two o’clock, and then I’ll come back after bedtime if I need to. Sometimes I’m in here during naptime or on the weekends. Is it perfect? No. It’s tiring, and it makes the transition back to being “just” mama a little more difficult because of the full immersion into work-think. And I miss lunch with colleagues and making connections face-to-face, but overall, it’s a really good arrangement that allows our family to pursue our current goals, and that’s the priority.

An unexpected meeting fills my afternoon with good and necessary conversation around goal setting and subsequent projects, and then it’s time to change my hat again. My Swee has popped in to ask if I’m done working, and will I please shut it down – how can I say no to that? I join her in the living room where J is braiding pony manes, and stitch a few rows on my current project. This is the hardest part of the day for me, and it’s worse when J has left for work and I have to hold my nose and jump into the deep end alone. I’ve yet to find a really effective way to close the door on work and reset my mind for the evening.

Beanie comes flying down the hall sporting some serious bed head and no pants. She’s in a splendid mood, which is not the post-nap norm. Typically she spends half an hour playing the yes/no game and screaming inconsolably, so this is a really nice turn of events. J says, “It’s 4:30. Which means it’s time to start dinner,” and I respond,”That’s my line!” before heading to the kitchen. The menu is chicken in a white wine sauce with sun-dried tomatoes, and peas. Not a difficult recipe – just a little more time consuming than I typically would choose, but J is home and I try to make a little more effort on his nights off. Plus, I know both girls will eat this meal, equaling less strife at the dinner table. Cooking with wine means I get to drink a bit, too. J runs out to lock the chickens in for the night, trusty mutt at his side, and then returns to join us at the table. The girls each have their dinner time chores: Beans provides napkins, Swee sets out the silverware. Attire for our little ladies includes pink fairy wings, and we finish our dinner with a kitchen dance party before they strip down and two little white bottoms streak past me to climb into the tub. Daddy handles baths when he’s home, and I’m on cleanup.

I’ve got the dishwasher started, and the pots and pans are almost done when J appears and yells, “It’s seven o’clock!” We both forgot that he has back-to-back classes tonight, so the dishes are abandoned, and I take over jammies and bedtime while he logs into his seminars – Genetics and Statistics. It’s the final week of the term, and it’s become crunch time.

Two stories, many songs and snuggles, and an hour and a half later one is asleep and one is not. J takes a quick break to help me flip our battered old mattress in a vain attempt to make it more comfortable, and I put the clean sheets back on before showering. I manage just one chapter of my book before turning out the light. It’s 10:30. J will work for another two hours or so before falling asleep in his chair. He’ll eventually make it to bed around 2am, not long before we start all over again.

 

 

make a break for it

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By my quick count this morning over breakfast, I’ve left the house a grand total of five times in the month of February. Only one of those outings was made alone. To the grocery store. Part of the issue is that my car has been out of commission for close to three weeks now. It took a while to get down to the mechanic because it was all we could do to keep the driveway clear enough to get the working vehicle out. My little RAV4 is at the garage now, for the third day, and I’m hopeful we’ll have a diagnosis soon. The girls and I don’t go out much once J leaves for work anyway, but with the unpredictable weather and no vehicle, it’s been impossible.

But the bigger reason is just the nature of not only working from home, but working from home on our crazy schedule. I know I’ve kind of glossed over what our days actually look like around here, alluding to the fact that we off-shift, but not really getting into how we make it all work. I’ve been thinking about writing sort of a “day in the life” type post – would that be of interest? Our schedule isn’t perfect, and it wouldn’t work for everyone, but I know that so many families feel stuck in the 9-to-5 grind, never seeing each other and only having their children for the two hours between dinner and bedtime. The flexibility of my job allows us to have breakfast and lunch as a family every day, and I’m really grateful for that. There are drawbacks to every arrangement and our own situation is certainly no exception to that rule. The very reasons for loving this schedule become the shackles that keep me in place: without an actual reason to leave the house, I wind up not leaving at all.

It builds and festers, and then I have a moment like this morning when I catch a whiff of fresh air off the dog’s fur when he comes in from doing his business, and suddenly I need to get out. To go, to drive with the windows open even though it’s only 42*, to make a break for it.

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So today I’m parked at Panera. I scored a window seat with an outlet so I can feel the sunshine and watch the people come and go. I’ve got iced coffee and Dispatch is playing on the in-house speakers while I answer email and promise myself to do this more often. To be intentional about a change of scenery so that it doesn’t feel like I’m escaping my life every time I pull out of the drive, because isn’t that the point of this whole endeavor? To build a life that requires no escape plan.