Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I saw this image on Jenna Woginrich's blog quite awhile ago and it's been sitting in my Evernote files since. It's a celtic symbol for "friend".
I think a lot about friendship now- about relationships and community. Consumer culture has taught us that we don't need to have relationships anymore; there is always something that can be bought to replace whatever need compelled us to be neighbourly in the past. No one goes next door for the proverbial cup of sugar anymore. It almost seems rude now, bothering someone at home when there's a Walmart up the street. Privacy is highly prized, and it comes at a price.
They say that good fences make good neighbours, and I understand where that comes from, but I think that what really makes good neighbours is the knowledge that they are there for you, and vice versa, when the need arises.
To wrench our independence back from the hands of big box stores and corporate chains, we need to learn to rely on each other again. We need to raise up the systems of barter and trade from the dead; we need to be generous and kind and open our doors once in awhile.
The family that tends their community relationships with the same care that they tend their vegetable gardens is the model for how we need to learn to live in this new world. In my humble opinion.

This is on my mind in particular this morning as I just drove my son to daycare in our "new" second vehicle. Remember a few days ago I told you how we were struggling with the idea of giving up our second car and living with one? Well, not 48 hours later, our friends gave us a car. That's right. They just gave it to us. It had been gifted to them and they had been planning on insuring their oldest daughter on it so she could learn to drive, but when the insurance company quoted them an outrageous coverage premium, they decided it wasn't worth it, and since they knew what we were going through, they offered it to us free and clear. I almost cried with gratitude, especially at the transportation office when the unusually nice teller told us we didn't have to pay taxes on it since it was a gift.

So know we just need to decide what to do with our broke down Kia. We still have a loan on it, and the repair quotes are in the $1500-$2000 range. The options are:
1- fix and sell
2- fix and keep
3- fix and have it voluntarily repossessed
4- don't fix and have it voluntarily repossessed
5- don't fix and keep

Some of these are obviously silly, but those are all the options. We're not going to fix and keep it; we definitely don't need three cars. The payments are $181 biweekly, which would be a huge relief to get out of. If we give it up, we will still owe whatever the difference is between what the bank can get for it, and what we still owe on it, which is roughly the current value of the car (in working condition). It would also reflect badly on our credit, but our credit couldn't be any worse right now, so I'm not worried about that.

So we still have some tough decisions to make. But right now I'm not thinking about that. What I am thinking about is how incredibly valuable good relationships are. Not because you get free stuff. Because friends, family and neighbours are like a strong spider web- a net of safety that offers security for everyone without interest or payments. Relationships on all these levels are the best kind of investment you can make if you want to be free.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

making peace

We live in a 137 year old house right in the middle of our little town here in Southern Ontario. We bought it two years ago when I was pregnant with Hunter. It has been a source of much angst and stress in our lives as it is pretty run down, and although I was the one that decided it was the place for us, my dear hubby is the one with all the skills to repair it.

There is not a right angle to be found in this place. Actually, there is such a sway in the floor that if you stand in the kitchen at the back of the house, and look towards the front door, you can't see the ceiling at the far end. A lot of the century houses around here are like that; this town is built on sand, and we're sloooooooooooooooooowly sinking in it. Our friends down the street joked that when they moved into their house, they had to decide whether to hang the curtains so they were level with the ceiling or level with the floor.
It's not a heritage home, and I'm grateful for that, because there's no historical hoops to jump through every time we tackle a new project around here. This plain little house isn't worth a tap on the shoulder from the sword of the historical society, apparently, and that's fine with me. It was an everyday working man's house, I imagine. It didn't have plumbing until the 1940's. I can tell where the outhouse was in the backyard, where the earth sinks into a shallow pit by the barbecue.
The backyard is why we bought this place, really. It stretches far back and is lined all around with cedars and gardens. It's private, shady, sunny, and has room enough for sandboxes, veggie gardens, compost piles, lawn furniture, a fire pit, and room to run around. It's a great backyard for a house in the main part of town. It's fenced in so I can let the dog out and not worry about him, and the gardens give me a constant source of meditative work that I love. I often start my days out here lately, with my journal and devotional book, spending some quiet time in the early morning sun before I am drawn in to the work of the day. I started my maternity leave early this time; I am carrying this babe very low and work was becoming very uncomfortable, so I left seven weeks before my due date and now have a few weeks to myself where Hunter is still in daycare full time. It's blessed time where I can rest, nest, and focus on myself a bit.
But back to this house.
It often feels like any money we spend on this place is wasted. We've talked about knocking it down instead of trying to repair it. You wouldn't necessarily see it from looking at pictures, but it needs a lot of work. The foundation is in bad shape, which is the worst part, but there's also no insulation to speak of anywhere, an attached shed that we fondly refer to as "the scab" that looks like a drowning cat clinging to the side of a boat, and speaking of cats- lots of nooks and crannies in the roof and stone foundation for all manner of wildlife to seek refuge in. Our big french mastiff banished the cats long ago, but it's still a constant battle to keep the smaller rascals out, especially come fall. Our first demolition job in the former mud room-turned bathroom/laundry room revealed many a mummified squirrel in the walls. I guess I can't say there's NO insulation. This year the wasps are the worrisome pest, as we've discovered a colony of yellow jackets building a nest behind a loose batten on the back of the house, in the kitchen wall. Ian blasted them with toxic spray a couple of days ago and spray-foamed the crack shut, and now we'll wait and see what happens. Hopefully we caught it early and
won't have to peel the boards off to clean out the nest.
Part of getting rid of our debt means we're not going anywhere anytime soon. We can't save up for a downpayment on a farm until we're in better shape, and that's going to take some time. So we have to make the best of this place. I found personally that once I resigned myself to that fact, I started to like this house a lot better. Once I accepted that this was going to be home for the foreseeable future, I gave up my animosity towards its crooked walls and made peace with it. I started to focus on making it a home instead of making it sellable. I thought less about curb appeal and more about what I wanted things to look like. It's easier for me- I'm not the one cutting baseboard and mudding and sanding- it's much easier for me. But it's a step I needed to take to make myself the grounded Mama this family needs right now.
I spend a lot of time dreaming about the future, and I used to couple that with resentment about the present. Now I still dream, but I dream in contentment and delight with all that I have, now.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

You've Got Mail

Financial troubles and a tendency towards disorganization share a strong commonality, I think. One of the hardest parts of digging ourselves out of debt has been figuring out what we owe and to who. Some of our old debts have gone into collections, like our old satellite tv and internet accounts, and, as I just learned yesterday, an unpaid speeding ticket I got last year. 
I handle most of the finances in our household, and over the years I developed a dangerous habit of avoidance when money was causing me stress, which was most of the time. I left mail unopened, I didn't clear up small debts to creditors I no longer obtained services from, and I generally let things slide until one thing or another would catch fire and I'd scramble to put it out, then continue to ignore the rest. I'd wait until the cable got cut off to pay the bill, or until something came in an ominous pink envelope from a utilities company instead of the usual white. 
I am really trying to change my stripes now, and to figure out where this defense mechanism of avoidance comes from in my life. I do it in my personal relationships, my finances, everything that is most important to me, it seems. So fixing our finances is as much about soul searching and personal character development as it is about balancing a budget sheet, for me anyway. 

It's never easy digging yourself out from a mess. Yesterday I set up an automatic payment to pay off my speeding ticket after my paycheque would be automatically deposited into our account this morning. I got up, made breakfast for my son, turned on Thomas the Train for him, and sat down at the computer to double check that everything had happened correctly in cyberspace overnight. Yes, my paycheque had come in at midnight, and yes, the ticket payment had already been processed. I picked up my BlackBerry and called the 1-800 number on my pink overdue notice to report the payment. They couldn't find my file. They couldn't find my name or address. They couldn't find my ticket. Nothing. I was on hold for about 20 minutes until the pleasant but very inexperienced-sounding (I'm being as nice as I can) girl on the other end said she'd have her supervisor call me back within the hour. Now I'm waiting to find out where, in fact, my 223 dollars was whisked away to this morning. 

I also paid off a small old debt to our old internet provider this morning, which did go through properly. That feels good. It's money out of our pocket at a tough time, but I know the only way things are going to get better is to get all of these monkeys off our backs one at a time, so we can start moving forward instead of floundering around from month to month. 

My new goal is to pick up the mail everyday, and to open it before I enter the house. No more stacks of unopened mail sitting in the mail box or shoved in a corner. That's a simple change I can make that may cause me some minor day to day stress (I have developed a subconscious negative gut-reaction to the mailbox), but it's the first step in stopping small problems from turning into fires. 

I'm off to change out of my pajamas and take the dog for a walk- down the street to the mailbox. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

things i have learned this year

I hope to look back on this stage of my life and call it "Learning". Not that I ever plan on stopping learning, but I like to think that this is the part of the S-curve where exponential growth begins. I am a (relatively) new mother, learning to farm in my backyard, and striving for financial freedom and the wisdom that requires. That's a heavy course load. I was blessed with a wonderful childhood, a privileged upbringing, and the freedom to be idealistic that children of well-off parents are afforded. I have no student debt, I got to immerse myself in every activity that interested me growing up, and I always believed I could do anything I wanted to. That is part character, but also part stability, of which I had nothing to do with. My parent's hard work granted me ease of early life.
I didn't always learn the lessons well. Some I did. I became a person of character, strength and ambition. But I didn't learn to steward my money responsibly, and I developed a habit of avoiding confrontation at all costs, the more I cared for a person.
So now I am learning.
Learning that...

:: Avoidance always increases the problem, whatever it is.

:: Some things are worth making from scratch (laundry detergent), but others are not (butter).

:: It takes a moment of laziness or inconsistency to allow your child to form a bad habit, and much longer to undo it.

:: Epsom salts are a wonderful fertilizer for tomatoes and peppers, and cayenne pepper keeps pests away.

:: Food won't grow in too much shade.

:: On any given day there are a million things a parent can feel guilty about, and most of them don't matter.

:: Meal planning is a huge money and time saver.

:: An emergency cash stash in the car can prevent a major headache.

:: Any vegetable that will climb grows better off the ground, saves space, and looks awesome.

:: A good relationship with neighbours can be a life saver.

:: Pay yourself first. Automatic savings transfers are a great tool.

:: Sometimes the worst thing you can do is hide your problems from your family.

:: All a child really needs is love and attention, not stuff.

:: Root veggies are better started in the ground.

:: Paying for everything with cash makes you more aware of how you spend your money.

:: Bees love cucumber flowers.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Here's the question hubby and I have been wrestling with the past few days: do we really need two cars?

It seems to have become viewed as a necessity in today's consumer culture: how could you possibly get by with only one vehicle? One person needs one for work, and so does the other, unless they stay home, in which case they need it for errands and such. Hubby and I both need a vehicle to get to work, though I am off on maternity leave now. We both have substantial commutes with no reasonable public transit options. We have a child in daycare that needs to be dropped off and picked up every day. Our dentist, doctor, veterinarian, and closest Costco are all 30 minutes away. How could we function with just one car?
The line we have been fed since we became a family of two almost a decade ago is: you need your own vehicle. If there's more than one of you, you need more than one car.

1.45 is the average number of light vehicles per household in Canada, as of 2009. This was the last time the federal government conducted the Canadian Vehicle Survey, from my research. That means that a substantial percentage of all Canadian households had at least two cars in 2009, even though we were in the midst of recession. Actually, that number was an increase from the 2000 average of 1.43.

Struggling out from under Debt Mountain has caused us to re-examine examine (okay, we've never thought about it that much before) many of the "truths" society has taught us about necessity, success and self-sufficiency. I'll admit that we're not a hundred percent on the same page all the time. Some times we're in different chapters altogether. But since the clutch in hubby's car broke at 70,000km and the dealer refused to repair it under warranty- faced with a $2,000 car repair bill when we are striving mightily to get our Emergency Fund up to $1,000 before baby number two is born in six weeks or so...well let's just say the Two Car Myth is one we have been regarding with increased suspicion lately.

Obviously, I would be the one without access to a vehicle during the week while hubby is at work. It would require much more careful planning in terms of scheduling appointments in groups, doing errands more efficiently and mostly on weekends, and learning to use public transit better, walking more, or just making do without whatever I thought I needed to go out for. I would need to stock my pantry better to avoid small trips to the store, and I would probably have to resort to renting a car for the day once in awhile. For that, we would save over $300/month in car payments, our insurance would go down, and so would our gas consumption. We would be down to one vehicle which we own outright- our 2003 Volvo XC70, which needs a new front wheel bearing but otherwise runs great.

It's a big decision, and not a simple one. We can't just abandon the car at the dealership where it's sitting right now without some serious repercussions. Our best bet would be to sell it. The black book value (yes, it's black in Canada) is only a few hundred dollars less than what we still owe on it, not including the repairs.

Honestly, the idea excites me. I've always found the challenge of frugality a rewarding and satisfying thing. The thought of not having a car to myself during the week doesn't make me feel deprived. It actually gives me a sense of relief. Life would be more complicated in some ways, but a lot simpler in others. It would take away a lot of day to day options that would make planning and prioritizing more straightforward. And it would force me to explore my community more, as I'd be on foot a lot. But it would still be a challenge, after years of being used to constant access to a vehicle. I think it's a sacrifice worth making, but it's not a decision we'll make lightly.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


11pm: Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Oh my- could I be more cliche? Late evening has always been my favourite time of the day- it's the only time that feels like it's really mine. Daylight demands chores, errands, motherhood, laundry, laundry, laundry, dinner, cleanup...but the darkness brings a precious hush that asks nothing, and offers the peace and space to do as I please.
So while hubby and toddler slumber away upstairs, I'm doing exactly what I've been looking forward to all day- canning peaches. The first four jars are bubbling away in the canning pot on the stove as I type, and I'm waiting to hear the delightful pings! of the lids sucking down and sealing to tell me all is well. 
This is my first summer of preserving. I dipped my toes in it last year, making raspberry jam and pear butter, but this year I decided I would really go for it and try to put up something that will amount to a respectable little portion of our winter sustenance in the coming seasons of cold. 
So far I have picked raspberries and strawberries with my mother, and done a combination of whole-fruit freezing and jam-making. The strawberry jam needs to be dumped out and re-boiled, as I used a recipe with no pectin and didn't boil it long enough, so it didn't set. Amateur. 
Most of the raspberries were turned into raspberry onion jalapeno chutney, which I have yet to try (I can't bear to break into those jewel-like jars already while it's still summer!). 
Then came blueberry barbecue sauce, which hubby broke into right away, and was quite yummy in the crockpot with pulled pork. I'll have to make more of that as I only made enough for two jars. 
I took a stab at my first pickle-making endeavour a few days ago when I noticed there were just enough cucumbers in the garden for about 1 jar of pickles, and the dill had grown enough to handle me stealing a handful. I practically squealed with glee when I added that jar to the pantry; my first jar of actual solid food. 
And now there are four beautiful jars of bright orange-yellow peach slices to add, and four more 3-litre baskets waiting to be peeled, sliced and canned. 
Someday, I hope that this work will be more than a hobby for me. For now I am just learning. Every bean I pick from the garden and every jar I put up in the pantry is a fun and educational experience, but really, there's nothing riding on it. I'm not counting on having that food to feed my family in six months.  The real harvest at this season of my life is Knowledge. Someday, when Freedom Farm is a real place with a mailbox and a wrap-around porch, I hope that I will have gathered enough seeds of knowledge to grow real crops of sustenance that will sustain us on our own brains and sweat. My dream is to one day produce the majority of our own food- animal and vegetable. But for now I rely on farmer's markets and grocery stores, and count the small daily handfuls of beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and salad greens coming out of our own backyard as a small bonus on top of a valuable education. 
My learning curve in the garden this year has been exponential, and perhaps tomorrow I will take you on a little photo tour and show you the many things that are thriving and the many things that didn't work out- but still taught me something. 
Yes, education is growing in abundance around here this year. Broccoli, is not.