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!

Struggling

This month has been a struggle for me to write.  I had planned to update more frequently and work on a novel for NaNoWriMo, but that has not panned out.  I believe there are many reasons for my stuggle, but rather than focus on those reasons, I want to talk about  what I’m doing to overcome the challenges.

I noticed, through my meditation and mindfulness practice, that I am using Facebook and phone games as a way to avoid feelings.  However, I end up feeling more mentally busy and cluttered when I finish these avoidance tasks.  I am also craving alcohol for reasons other than enjoyment of the experience.  For these reasons, I have decided to abstain from these things through the end of the year.  I feel more present after just one day away from mindless Facebook scrolling, and the relief of just knowing that alcohol is not an option for me is less stressful. Just like my shopping ban is letting me just throw sales announcements and coupons for Black Friday in the trash without giving any mental energy to considering whether or not to purchase anything.

I think an amazing amount of energy goes into “managing” unhealthy habits.  Saying “no” feels a lot like decluttering physical possessions.

Here I am, world.  Thanks for having me back.  I may continue to struggle, but at least I’m writing again.

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.

Beginning a Meditation Practice

As I dig deeper into my work on minimalism and health, I have found the appeal of meditation as a path into greater mindfulness is growing.  While I’ve been practicing yoga on and off since I was 18 years old, I’ve never actively practiced meditation.  I didn’t know a lot about the subject, so I’m giving myself a month to work towards establishing the habit and seeing where it leads.

I checked out Meditation for Dummies from the library to give myself a general overview of the topic and some basic first steps.  The book is a good guide for beginners who want to know more about different styles and types of meditation.  I took a yoga class with a 15 minute meditation at my gym.  I’ve decided to keep a meditation journal for this month as I try to give over five or more minutes each day to establishing a practice.

I am noticing that it is easier for me to observe something about myself (a lack of flexibility in one hip, being hungry during preparation for a medical procedure, etc.), and not immediately jump to correct it.  The letting go of internal judgments has been very good for my productivity at work and home.

Although I have set my intention for my meditation practice to seek contentedness, I believe that it will help me move from a mindset of “self-improvement” to a mindset of “self-acceptance.”  There is great irony in seeking to improve yourself by no longer seeking to improve, but instead to accept and appreciate.  I acknowledge this complexity.

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.

Debt Elimination Project–August

This has been the hardest, darkest month of our debt elimination project so far.  I tend not to dwell on the negative in this blog, but there have been many days in August where I felt like giving up on everything and resigning myself to the idea that we might be in debt forever.  All the credit card bills from the trip to Korea came due, we’re hanging out on the edge with almost no emergency fund, and we couldn’t seem to get back into our frugal groove when we returned home.  I’m happy to report we’ve ended in a good place, thanks to acknowledging our struggles and finding a way to increase our income, but this was a rough month and the numbers reflect that.

What’s amazing to note is that even though I spent way too much this month and wanted to give up and just go mega-consumer, the good outweighed the bad and we did reduce our balances by a bit.  Not much.  But any progress is good.

Progress from August:

  • Made it through a tight month and didn’t give up completely.  This is a win.  We’re still in this fight.
  • Opportunity to practice forgiveness. I’m going to forgive myself for screwing up this month.  I’m going to start right now.  I made mistakes, yes.  But I do NOT have to continue making them.
  • Second job.  Offering hope and light at the end of this dark tunnel.
  • Progress on Credit Cards.  Here are the numbers for the end of August:
    • Home Improvement Loan: $2,497.52
    • AmEx: $7,743.81
    • Balance Transfer 1 (0% for 12 more months): $2,949
    • Balance Transfer 2 (0% for 14 more months): $9,567.00 (Yes, this balance increased.  The 0% is for purchases, too.  This was a very, very bad month.  Practicing forgiveness.)
    • TOTAL: $22,757.33
    • Amount paid off this month: $208.50
    • Amount paid off TOTAL: $8,198.67

A bit of perspective for me:

I’m writing about my financial progress this month as if this was a terrible month, but when I look at it from a different perspective, I’m grateful that not making progress on debt is what we can consider a “bad” month.  That’s an incredible privilege.  We did not suffer any reduction in lifestyle for us or our children, and we did not go backwards.  I feel frustrated and overwhelmed by our lack of progress, but realistically we are in an incredible position to be able to worry about financial goals so divorced from the basics of survival.

It is easy to feel, as I read financial blogs about the success of others, that not having the same level of success is a failure.  It’s not.

I’m not failing to provide for my family or enjoy life.  I’m rich with opportunity and possibility.  I do better when I remember how important it is for me to be a good steward of the incredible resources available to me through fortune (privilege) and past success.

Goals for September

  1. Own my responsibilities with grace.
  2. Don’t get sucked into a cycle of negativity.
  3. Crack down on those creeping bad habits.  Now.

Attitude of Gratitude: My Health

We have been back in Maryland for one week now and are (mostly) adjusted to the time zone differences and general travel exhaustion.  Yesterday afternoon, however, all of us seemed to be in the grips of the final “ugh” of jet lag: I had a slight fever, an insatiable appetite for snacking, and cold symptoms; H had a fever, a tendency to cry hysterically, and a refusal to nap; Min was morose and felt no sense of accomplishment in completing the awesome task of reclaiming the jungle that our backyard had become; and J was restless, irritable, and showing signs of TV addiction.  It was a bad scene.

However, we worked through this and this morning, I resumed an early morning work out class routine and healthy eating regime.  I had a productive day at work and will complete my first return volunteer shift at hotline tonight.  Min and the kids seem in better spirits and are back to routine.  I feel more relaxed and at peace.  I believe my ability to transition from an afternoon of misery to a Monday of productivity and wellness is a function of my (relative) good health.

For many people, it will seem shocking for me to say that I am grateful for my good health.  I have two major chronic diseases: ulcerative colitis and type 2 diabetes.  I am still classified as “overweight” on the BMI scale, and have in the past been “obese.”  Despite my love of group exercise classes and hiking, I have a hard time classifying myself as “fit,” and I am often the one modifying choreo for ease, using only bodyweight for lunges, or taking breaks every 50-100 feet on the trail.  My health, in particular my two chronic diseases, are a major impediment to any goals I may have related to early retirement or travel (U.S. health insurance is a major problem).  I have often maligned and cursed my body for its limitations and resistance to good health.

Ever since becoming a mother, my relationship with my body has changed.  First, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding were the first experiences I ever had where I had been awed by my body and its abilities.  The creation and nurturing of life is something my body did–twice–and it still amazes me.  Second, I know that whatever attitudes and habits I have with my body will be part of my children’s own health story.  Focusing on the amazing things my body can do helps them see their own bodies as purposeful and positive.

For me, good health is about recognizing and celebrating all the ways my body supports me through my mission in life.

I’m not perfect, but since 2014, I have lost about 40 lbs, attained remission with maintenance medication for the ulcerative colitis, been diagnosed with and controlled the diabetes without medication (some medication during pregnancy #2), and become a regular (at least 3-4x week–enough that the trainers and other participants know me) participant in gym classes.  I feel more comfortable moving through my daily life and stronger when attempting physical challenges.  I’m not the strongest I’d like to be, the size I want to wear, or as effortlessly consistent with my healthful eating habits as I desire, but I know that I can achieve those goals through consistent effort and acknowledgement of the power of my body and my health.

I am grateful for the ability to pursue these health goals.  Not everyone has the luxury, support, or financial ability to prioritize their health.  I appreciate all the ways I have been able to arrive at my present state of good health, and commit (as ever) to investing further in my health.

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

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