Loving Life as It Is

Driving home yesterday after an especially productive day in the office, I noticed (as I often do) the fine weather and beautiful scenery in my hometown of Frederick.  I was excited to see my family and hear about their day.  I planned out dinner in my head and thought about the week’s schedule.  I listened to an audiobook, downloaded from the library.  I thought about my recent workouts and my plan for fitness for the week.  I felt calm and peaceful and connected with my life, exactly as it is.

I have not always felt this way.

For much of my teen and adult life, I felt compelled to leave whatever life I was living for something better.  I think I was trying to escape myself.  While I remain interested in self-improvement, I believe that my most profound progress has come through diving deeply inside my existence as it is–in seeking contentment, not distraction.

Yesterday was a moment where I felt that connection deeply.  I will keep working to seek those moments.  The habits I am developing (I cleaned out my car as part of my December Declutter project and focus on acceptance as part of my meditation) are part of allowing me to feel that content more often.

Attitude of Gratitude: Thanksgiving Edition

This is a picture from my wedding photo shoot in January 2010 in Korea.  Pictured are my brother, mom, sister, dad, me, and Min.  It was cold and had snowed the night before. I didn’t want to do a wedding shoot because I was still on steroids (long story) and thought my face looked bloated.  My brother, mom, and sister had caught a terrible cold during the week they’d been traveling in Seoul and weren’t fully recovered (not mentioning the bachelor/bachelorette shenanigans either).  My father was still in treatment for his cancer.  We were running late, and I wasn’t sure we’d have enough time to get everyone food before making it to the dance hall we’d reserved for the ceremony.

This picture is a miracle–all the things that led to these people I love–all being in the same place at the same time to support my marriage in a foreign country to a man they didn’t know.  It’s miraculous.

This year has taught me to appreciate how miraculous life really can be.

Many of the people I hold close in my heart have had a difficult year.  I have had close friends experience grave illness and permanent disability, lose family and close friends, lose their homes and vehicles to fires and accidents.  I have helped file a missing persons report remotely on a dear one who was planning to end his life, and I have given more money to GoFundMe’s than ever before.  I lost three friends, very suddenly–one just last week.  Two of them had young (under age 10) children.  My heart aches and my eyes get moist thinking about loss this year.

I am so grateful for the chance to live this beautiful life  To have the love of a kind, supportive husband and two healthy, funny children.  To have a career where I am paid enough to do something useful for students and to have an employer who challenges and supports my growth in this role.  To live in this wonderful home, this friendly neighborhood, this beautiful little city, in this great state of Maryland.  To have more than enough to meet all my basic needs and be able to engage in meaningful hobbies, side hustles, and financial goals.  To be able to travel with my family.  To have my health and my love and my intellect and the time to reflect on my enjoyment of these things.

I am trying to spend more time developing my gratitude for these beautiful things in my day to day life–without the need for the universe to show me loss to sharpen my appreciation for what is there.

This Thanksgiving, I hosted family and friends in my home.  This was not our plan.  Our plan was to travel to visit family and be guests.  When the plans changed at the last minute, gratitude is what made me appreciate the change and the opportunity–to welcome what is beautiful and work hard to make everyone’s holiday a bit more joyful.

Last minute Thanksgiving table with friends and family (and no Turkey–haha!)

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  Enjoy your miraculous blessings!

Attitude of Gratitude: Voting!

I voted today.  I love voting!

I consider it my patriotic duty to be as informed as I can about political issues and vote in each and every election.

I have done so at every opportunity–even primaries, even when living in Korea–since I was 18 years old.

Several of our state and local contests this year have outcomes that matter very much to me, my family, and my job (everything from the governor to the Board of Education), but I won’t be talking about any specific politician here, just my love for casting a ballot and appreciation of my small role in our great democracy.  Maryland has lots of early voting opportunities, which is great since I will be out of town on the actual day of elections this year.   I was able to take my lunch hour and wait in line to cast my ballot a full week before the actual election day.  In Maryland, you can even register to vote the same day as early voting!

Where did my love of voting come from?  I grew up in a DC suburb and very much enjoyed studying government in high school.  However, many people I grew up with became quickly disillusioned with how insignificant your vote seems.  Not me!

I remember staying up late with my college roommates for my first election night–waiting for the results to come in–and finally giving up and going to bed.  It was 2000.  It was a good thing I went to bed, since that was the election that took a month and a Supreme Court case to finally decide!  That was quite a wake up call about both the power and the impotence of voting.  Many of my fellow young voters were turned off by that historic election (one of the first where the outcome of the presidential election by electoral college was different than the popular vote), but I found it the experience instilled a kind of reverence for the way that each vote is cast and the role every ballot has in an election.

Sometimes, it is easy to get down about the results of elections if they don’t go your way.  Certainly, I’ve noticed a lot more people in my life talking about politics in the last couple years–for good reasons.  I have some anxieties about how policies regarding immigration will impact Min, who holds a green card.  However, I feel that it is important to keep election anxiety in perspective, even during really dark times.  The great news for U.S. citizens is that there is always another major election in just two years!

I appreciate that I have a voice in the direction of my state, local, and national government.  I am hopeful that this year’s results will favor the ideals and values I support.  I am grateful I can continue to contribute in my small way to the direction of my country.

If you haven’t done so already–VOTE!  It’s powerful and important.

Ways We Save Money: The Public Library

We are very lucky to have a wonderful place for our children to get lost in books (see above).

Other than the YMCA, our local library is the main source of our frugal family entertainment.  Earlier this year, Forbes published a (now removed) op-ed suggesting that libraries were no longer a meaningful use of public funds and should be replaced by privatized competitors.  The outrage in response to this article was swift and fierce, but I will add my own little voice of support for libraries here.  This blog post is a love letter to the public library–the institution and ours in specific.

Libraries have changed a lot from the shushing librarians and musty stacks still portrayed in movies.  Modern libraries serve as community resource centers, childhood literacy pioneers, and access points for all kinds of media technology.  Personally, I regularly check out audiobooks on a library app, which allows me to “read” on walks or while driving.  I use the library’s reservation system liberally, enabling me to quickly collect books–even ones at nonlocal branches–once a week to read without browsing the stacks (although I still love browsing stacks of books…).  I have attended library writer talks and book programs–all for free.

Our kids have grown up in library storytimes, playgroups, and STEM workshops.  One visit to our library will keep our kids entertained for hours.  The children’s area has toys, games, books, tablets, and workstations for learning.  The last few years, we’ve participated in the summer reading program as a family; the program not only encourages reading, but also exploring your local community and engaging with other resources in the world.  We’ve discovered some of our favorite parks, kid-friendly musicians, and activities through the encouragement of library programming.

And we don’t even use all of the library’s resources–like checking out music and movies, exercise classes (not kidding!) or technology/science programming.

The library is one of the few public, welcoming spaces for families that doesn’t ask for an entrance fee or purchase.  I don’t know if I would be as voracious a reader without the existence of libraries (either as a child or now); I’m sure my kids are better readers because of the library.

I used to avoid libraries because I worried about having to pay fines, but I’ve realized that the $10.00 or so in fines I’ve racked up in five years of heavy library use (most of which was due to a lost book on a camping trip last summer), has saved me a ton of money and dramatically improved my quality of life.  And even if the fine was too much, they have a weekend every year where they’ll waive your fines if you come in and ask them to do so!

Check out your library.  You won’t be disappointed.

High Costs of Living Impact Frugal Dreams!

When I was growing up, my mother would always talk about how “small” her house was and how little money they made.  I knew she was comparing herself to some of the households near ours that were much larger McMansions, which were plentiful in our area.  When I grew up and learned about privilege (we have lots) and poverty and money, I found her constant negative talk about our quite impressively upper-middle-class comfort to be grating.  However, I do think it is natural for people to compare themselves with others they feel are in a similar place to them financially.  We use the “Joneses” as a benchmark for how we are doing in life.  She always felt she wasn’t quite keeping up.

This week, I’ve had to adjust my personal financial benchmarks a bit.

I’ve described Frederick, MD (our wonderful hometown) as having a “moderately high cost of living” because while it is an urban area on the east coast, compared to big government-contract-tech-money neighboring DC-commuter counties Montgomery (where I grew up–with all the McMansions) and Howard (in MD) and Loudoun (in VA), it seems rather affordable.  All three of these counties are in the top 20 counties by income in the country, Loudoun and Howard holding #1 and #2 spots (yes, higher than Orange County in CA).

While we’ve felt pinched by high costs at times, we knew part of our struggle was our choice to live as a single-income family.  I still thought we were about the same as other families in terms of creature comforts; we just didn’t live in the bigger houses or shop as much at the high end stores.  Recently, my eyes were opened to how different our situation is than the majority of our neighbors by a study on poverty in Maryland that adjusted by cost of living in the area.

The United Way studies poverty levels and income in different areas through their study of households that meet ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) standards based on costs of living for different family structures and different areas.  According to the ALICE report for Frederick County, a family of four with an infant and a preschooler (our situation when we got into our massive debt the last few years) would need to earn over $84,000 for a “bare bones” budget that included no savings.  Considering that even with my recent promotion and significant raise, we have yet to hit that income, I began to understand why we (a family with relatively frugal habits and what I’d usually consider to be a healthy middle class income compared to the rest of the U.S.) are just now beginning to pull ourselves out of a hole.

Digging into this report in greater detail, 51% of the city of Frederick (37% of the county) falls below the ALICE threshold–so we are in good company!  I read a few posts/articles by people amazed at how many people were struggling in Frederick County, but my reaction to this report was the exact opposite.  Especially because only 18% of married parent households were below the ALICE threshold.

I am shocked–SHOCKED–how many people I thought were in the same boat as our family are earning so much more than we are.

However, the fact that most of my peers and colleagues are dual income households (or without dependents) means that comparing myself to them is not reasonable.  I have often felt guilty about not contributing more to charitable causes, stressed that we cannot afford all the activities our children’s peers do, or crippled by fear about our lack of college savings contributions for our children.  It turns out there are reasons other people I know are less worried about this–that second income is an incredible boon to the finances in terms of cash flow.

I’ve found it helpful to remember this context when I can only give $10, though I see everyone else giving $20 or when J’s friends are in twice as many activities as he is.  I am grateful that I can give $10 and pay for the activities we do–we are not really struggling the way the report suggests a family of our means in Frederick would be.

I can feel good when I look at the ALICE budget because we are quite a bit more frugal in several categories than the average budget for a family in a similar situation (notably in childcare, housing, and transportation).  In many ways, it’s freeing to think about how our frugality (stronger than ever as to date in 2018, we have spent about $12,000 less than this time in 2017) is setting us up for greater success and even possible early retirement if we continue on this path and my income rises as expected.

I remain incredibly grateful for our family’s good fortune regarding income and expenses. Some are the result of strategy, sure, but many are the result of incredible privilege and sheer dumb luck.

However, it is also surreal and strange to realize that we are in a quite different class than our peers in terms of income.

How do your perceptions of relative wealth stack up to the reality?  How do you know?

Attitude of Gratitude: Fall

My favorite season has arrived: Fall!  Or its more stately sounding moniker, Autumn.  No, this isn’t a love letter to all things pumpkin spice (though I do enjoy the flavoring in baked goods and black tea) or boots, scarves, and tights (though I will fully own my love for these easy ways to look put together in a dress).  Those associations with the season are sometimes the trappings of consumerism–it is omnipresent.  Fall has been my favorite season since long before I enjoyed these frequently-memed aspects of this time of year.

Fall is the best season for the weather in Maryland.  The air cools off and becomes less humid (perfect hiking weather).  The plants offer up the last blooms and fruits of the long harvest season (and fall veggies are some of my very favorites–from eggplant to squash to tomatoes).  There are wonderful local festivals that center around apples and pumpkins.  The trees begin to show brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red before they turn brown and crunchy–a reminder of the impermanence of everything in life.  Fall has wonderful holidays–Halloween and Thanksgiving and Korean Chuseok (reminding us to focus on fun and gratitude–two favorites of mine!).  Since I work in education, I also appreciate this season professionally–school is still new and students are enthusiastic in their studies.

This weekend, although we experienced a very rainy Sunday, I found myself enthused by my first attempt at a butternut squash soup (delicious, despite mistakes), excited to clean up my boots to wear this week, and invigorated by the breeze blowing in our house through the open windows.  In the evening, we participated in the jaesa ritual via Skype with our Korean family.  I felt at peace.

Fall reminds me to conserve my resources, because this bounty will not always last.

I appreciate the sunlight more as it begins to disappear earlier and earlier.  I savor these moments in nature and healthy practices.  I appreciate the comforts of my home and kitchen.  I am grateful to live in a climate that still has a long, beautiful fall.

I hope you are enjoying this change of season as much as we are.

Korean Summer 3: Connecting with Relatives

H with Min’s brother (Jakkun Appa) and mother (Halmoni).

We have just one week left before we are on the plane back to the U.S.  I am trying to savor my time with the people here that I love and who love my husband and children.

Visiting Korea is enjoyable and relaxing like a vacation in many ways, but world travel alone is not the reason we come here.  I lived here for three years, so I’ve already seen and done much of what I’d want from a “travel” experience.  Korea is where all of Min’s family still lives.  We have tried to cultivate the relationships between our children and their Korean family as much as possible.  When we are here, the main goal is to connect with family and friends.

Gomo Halmoni playing “airplane” with H.

Including this trip, Min has visited Korea five times since we moved to the U.S. in 2010 (once with J and once alone, so I’ve only come back 3 times).  We also hosted Halmoni and Gomo Halmoni (Min’s aunt, and one of my favorite people in the entire world) for a month in the U.S. when J was an infant.  In fact, the emotional pull of remaining connected with our Korean family through frequent visits has almost certainly contributed to our debt problem, though I don’t regret a single one of those trips.  This trip is bittersweet because we are committed to not incurring debt for anymore travel, including Korea*, so it will probably be at least three years (all consumer debt paid off and adequate savings accumulated) until any of us are able to return.

Something about this trip feels different in other ways, a kind of subtle emotional shift.  The heat has prevented us from enjoying many of the outdoor activities we love to do in Korea (hiking, temple visiting, sightseeing, festival-participating, etc.). More of my friends have moved away from Korea (or even just Daegu) and our old swing dance club is defunct as of June this year; those that are here are in a similar phase of life and busy with the demands of young children and in-laws.  We went downtown, and my favorite restaurants there are gone (replaced by what seem to be great places, but they aren’t “mine”).  While I’m visiting old haunts and enjoying the familiarity of this foreign culture, it doesn’t quite feel as much like a second home for me as it has in the past.

At the same time, Frederick feels more like home than ever after J’s first year of school, and my enjoyment of my new job.  Min even mentioned this feeling, though it is making him feel more anxious than me.  We love our home (new roof and all) and our life there.  We will always miss our friends and family in Korea and other parts of the world, but I feel happy thinking about spending the next 5, 10, or even 20 years in the same place.  I’ve never really felt quite that way before; I used to yearn for the life of the postmodern nomad.

I want to grow plants and keep routines and deepen my friendships and community ties in my chosen hometown.  I want my children to feel grounded in being from Frederick.  I still want to travel more (when out of debt, with my family), but I want to come home when I’m done.

* The declining health of a Korean family member has forced us to discuss possible emergency travel situations for Min alone; we are making plans to increase the emergency fund while paying down consumer debt to accommodate.  However, should the worst happen before we have the full amount, we will do what we can, even if it means a setback to our financial progress.

Challenge Day Twenty: Connections

Why is it that sometimes the things we are most afraid to do, are the things we need to do the most?

In late December, one of my closest friends and colleagues, Jessica Bowers, suffered a traumatic brain injury when she fell down a flight of stairs.  It was a terrible, random, life-altering accident.  It’s hard to look back at that time because for a few weeks, we weren’t sure she’d survive.  She did, but she’s still dealing with a host of medical problems and limited abilities.

I’ve been struggling with being unable to communicate with my friend as we once did; mourning the loss of our friendship, even though my friend is still here and fighting for her recovery.  We used to speak daily, go out for coffee/wine once or twice a month, and exchange witty commentary on Facebook.  We spoke about being parents of young children (her son just turned 4), great literature, and political injustice. She is a lively spirit with a wonderful sense of humor (see the bumper stickers from her previous car above), a musician and teacher, and a wonderful mother.  Her new limitations and staying in a rehab facility almost an hour away have made it difficult to visit.

The ugly truth is that while visiting Jess is inconvenient for my busy life, that is an excuse.  The real reason I have only visited her once is that her condition is emotionally draining for me.    I love my friend.  I want to comfort her and support her, but I allow my fear of feeling awkward and inadequate stop me from doing what I could to help.  I know how lonely and sad she must be, how important it is for her to see friendly faces, and how much greater the loss is her to her and her family than it is to me, but I am a selfish, timid, weak human being most of the time.  I am trying to change these things about myself I don’t like.

Today, two friends and I made the trip out to visit with Jess.  She was tired, but she roused herself and reached for each of our hands.  We read her a story written by a student who wanted to be sure she got the story.  She mouthed, “How are you?” and refused to let go of our hands and looked us in the eyes as we talked about life, students, friends, and how much we miss her.  She smiled a few times when we talked about Frederick and people we all love.  It was very emotional; I’m so glad we could make the trip.

It was hard.  I’m probably still going to struggle to give Jess as much as she’s given me through her friendship.

I had a vision last week, while I was walking around downtown Frederick for an outdoor art festival with music in the sunshine, of Jess–perhaps a year from now, further along her recovery, and present with her family and friends for this experience.  She would love it so much.  I will keep holding to that.

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Final Day, Reflections

Challenge Day Sixteen: Frederick Swing Dance

Performing a dance at our wedding in Daegu, Korea.

I started swing dance (lindy hop) in 2007, shortly before I met Min.  On the day of our first date (hiking), I had plans to go to a big swing dance party in downtown Daegu after the date.  Our daytime date went so well, Min wanted to continue the date, so I told him about my plans and asked if he wanted to come.  He did not know what to expect, but he ended up liking it as much as I did and took lessons with my swing dance club.  We’ve been enjoying dancing together since then.  Our 2010 wedding even took place in our local swing club!

When we moved to the U.S. later that year, we hoped to continue our shared hobby, but we always lived 40+ minutes away from the closest swing dance clubs/lessons.  After we had kids, it was very hard to justify that distance for regular dates, so we didn’t have as much chance to dance together regularly.  We went a couple times to some DC events with Gottaswing, but not often enough for it to be a regular event for us.

Finally, in 2016, Mark and Danae Tavenner began teaching lessons in Frederick through Gottaswing, and have continued to build the Frederick Swing community with monthly dances on the first Saturday of each month.  It’s local, affordable ($5), and fun!  Min and I go to the social dances just about every month (although this month, he can’t join me), and have taken a round or two of the intermediate lessons (less frugal, but worth it for the enjoyment, exercise, and benefit to our relationship).

I will go tonight.  I love getting to see my friends and develop a skill while getting some exercise.  I recommend social dance to anyone looking for a hobby that is active and naturally builds friends (one of the reasons I started when I was single and living in a new city).  It makes a fantastic date night for us, too, and we took our kids last time–they seem hooked as well.

If you are local to Frederick, I highly recommend giving swing dance a chance.  You won’t regret it!

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Prepare the House for Vacation

Challenge Day Eleven: Fireman’s Carnival

One of the best parts of being a mom and aunt to young children is getting to do all the delightful things you’ve grown up too much to appreciate.  I love local festivals as part of family entertainment, but few give the same kind of gleeful, childish delight as a small amusement carnival—the kind with traveling rides that set up for a week or so and then move on to the next town.

For the last three years, I’ve taken my children and niece to the one hosted by our local (still volunteer) fire and rescue company.  They have awesome deals for the ride-all-night tickets bought in advance (this year’s were $15 each), free admission, and pretty cheap food.  I also find it to be a perfect size for younger kids; the county fair is great, but a bit overwhelming (and expensive) for the preschool crowd.  Additionally, this carnival has good live bands every night (tonight was The Reagan Years) and attracts many people I know in the local community, strengthening those connections through shared experiences.  Although my kids are traveling in Korea right now, I treated my niece, AJ, to the Fireman’s Carnival as a birthday present for her (she just turned five).

All too soon, J, H, and AJ will outgrow the giddy pleasure of The Giant Slide, and will be unimpressed by the small Expo Wheel and limited selection of thrilling rides.  Right now, however, I will savor all the joy and giggles and shrieks and coaxing to overcome anxiety and the triumph of “AGAIN!”  We rode the gravity drop and danced to the music in 99 degree weather and terrible humidity.  I’m exhausted and full of love.

It felt like summer.  There’s a mommy blogger meme circulating right now about how you only get 18 summers with your kids that’s very poignant.  Today, I made the most of being an aunt.

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Clarifying My Values

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