unfinishing the basement.

it was the tall, four-legged orange tool-thing he set on the table that made me laugh.  the bottom third of an orange giraffe.  what it does?  i still don’t know.  I was sitting on the couch reading, balancing a toddler holding a knitting needle, while the huz walked a steady stream of tools out of the garage & into the house, across the kitchen, & down the stairs.

you see, we live in a house too big for us.  we had planned to move, to downsize so we could spend our time on more important things than a big house.  but Jesus is crazy, & here we are.

our main level is where we live, where we do all our art & cooking & reading & running around.  we would be fine if this were all we had.  but.

we have an entire second floor beneath us, with another entire living room, another bathroom, & so on.  it feels just that:  & so on.  to our family of six, it is superfluous.

so, we decided to unfinish our basement.  to move andy’s t-shirt room out in the main living area, scootch what was there upstairs or out the door, & then bring down armloads of tools & set up a maker’s space.  we had wanted to build a workshop outside, but we built it inside instead.  (work in progress. always, right?)
we never could’ve done this five years ago.  at that time, before we stuck our toes in the waters of minimalism, we had a houseful, with books stumbling out of bookshelves & teetering stacks creeping up the living room walls like literature ivy.  we had large & antique pieces of furniture, plenty of them heirlooms.  we had toys tumbling out of every crevice, never having thought to release anything into the beyond.

& then, one evening, sitting among stacks in our office with a toddler, a 4-year-old, & a 7-year-old in & out knocking all this important-ness over, i said,

“this is enough.”

we started just with that office, with one small stack in the corner, decluttering one file folder of manuals to appliances we no longer owned.  carload after carload filtered out the door.  garage sales were set up & torn down, again & again & again.  good homes were found for many heirlooms on craigslist.  the ten or twelve bins of kids’ clothes were siphoned down to one.

we brought the kids in on this, too.  i’ll never forget the day i took out their toy boxes, stored heaps in the basement, & set up just a few most-loved toys on a small bookshelf.  i did it at night & expected to wake up to their disappointment with their possessions having been stripped away.

what happened was the utter opposite:  the kids walked around their room, eyeing their toys as though they were in a toy store gazing on brand new things.  to them, they sort of were, having been hiding at the bottom of bins & boxes, the whole myriad of what they’d accumulated on display at all times, until that morning.  suddenly, they could see their favorite things without being bogged down with hoards (literally) of superfluity.

instead of tears, i got glee.
(& eventually they whittled the stored toys down themselves.)

the other bounty i harvested from our going minimalist was a truckload less picking up & putting away.  with less mugs in the cupboard, there are fewer dishes to wash.  with fewer toys, there is less mess (not less creativity or imagination.  truth!).  with a streamlined closet there are streamlined bodies.  just kidding.  (but fewer clothes means far less decision-making every morning.)

which brings us to now, when we’ve essentially given away our basement to the business.  do we miss it?  nope.  andy has room to breathe for t-shirt printing, & i have half the house to clean.  maybe someday, when the house is full of gangly teenagers (OY. VEY.), we’ll repurpose this space again.  but for now, this is the tweak that works.

plus, we saved ourselves thousands  of dollars by converting the basement into a t-shirt shop & a maker’s space instead of building two additional outbuildings.

but what, really, does this matter to you?  maybe nothing, but maybe you’ve been frustrated with the volume of things you have to manage.  maybe you’ve been rethinking the layout of your home but are afraid to do something different because it’s unconventional.  (unconventional can be scary;  i get it.  i came home once with a hoop in my nose.  that was a little scary.)

but our spaces should be like our lives, full of intention.

minimalism only means removing the things in your life, whether it’s possessions or commitments or whatever, so there is more room for the most important things.  like this guy.
so, give it a whirl.  you don’t have to cancel whole floors in your house.  but you could repurpose a drawer or throw out all the mangled twisty ties that get tangled in the scissors in the junk drawer.  you could donate those jeans that don’t fit & haven’t for years.  it’s okay.  you’re fantastic just the way you are, & you don’t need old jeans telling you otherwise.

& if you need a little inspiration, i’ve had this song on repeat all week:

because the truth is, we are all enough, & neither our stuff nor our homes define us.

keep tweaking the machine, friends.
it’s getting good.


we don’t have to do this.

i’ve got birthday party hangover.  you know what i’m talking about:  too much sugar, more coffee than necessary (such a gray area), the full feeling of having gathered your tribe to love on your kids for a few short hours over food & drinks & good conversation.

yesterday we celebrated my middle kids’ birthdays:  thalia turned 9 last week, kieran nails down 6 on friday.  i, because i am an american parent with a bit of means, had been fretting over this day for some time.  i do this every year.  am i the only who does this?  maybe.

it goes like this:  what food should i make?  who should come?  what present(s) should we get the kids?  what should we do for a theme?  we’ve always had a theme.  will the kids that come fit in our house, now that most of the basement isn’t play space anymore?  will they be bored with smaller space & far less toys?  am i doing enough?

then i roll these thoughts around in my head for a couple months, tacking up mental sticky notes to address them, crumpling up the bad ideas & scratching out new ones as the event gets closer.

but that’s just the problem.

event?  my kids don’t need an event, they need a birthday party.  (i use the term”need” loosely.  again, the privileged “problem” of our first world.)  in this day of pinterest, putting on just a simple gathering has suddenly become a hard road to navigate.

i was talking to my dear friend beth about this on the phone last week.

“come with low expectations.  we’re just doing a party.  no theme or anything.  just simple,” i said, a little sheepishly, putting it out there to see if that was socially acceptable.

“i love parties,” she said, meaning the kind without extra extraness.  just gather us together to celebrate.  enough. done. it’s okay to drop the guilt.

of course.  i felt myself relax out of the pressure i had let build up.  that kooky pressure we put on ourselves to perform superhuman feats of extravaganza for our children’s parties, or for any reason, really.  first tooth?  have a parade.  easter?  we’ll hire the bunny.  christmas?  let’s not even go there.  i’m joking, of course, but kind of not really.

i read an article a couple weeks ago about a mom who was skipping all the birthday fanfare for her only child this year, an 8-year-old.  instead of renting the venue & buying the gifts, the party supplies, the paper goods, the food (that was acceptable for each & every food allergy or sensitivity to all her little boy’s friends), & then entertaining all 30 (what?) kids for the afternoon (hold on.  i’m tired just thinking about this. . . .), she took her son & a friend to a posh hotel with room service & cushy bathrobes instead.  to her, that was the simpler solution.

which makes me think:  we don’t have to do this.

somewhere along the path of the last decade, childhood in this culture went from ordinary to super-ramped-up, high-input, all-in-all-the-time.  if you think back to your own childhood, it was not like this.  it was simple.  maybe even a little dull & boring (God bless you.  you’ve just proven the reason for your highly innovative spirit.).  as kids, we were not catered to.  our parents didn’t make up events for us.  our birthday parties didn’t have themes.

[caveat:  if you are the mom (or dad) who enjoys big events with fanfare & have the means to do it, don’t let me steal your thunder.  carry on;  as you were.  but if you’re like me & dread feeling like you have to perform to be a good mother or spend more to make an event “memorable,” let’s just drop this issue, shall we?  we can give each other permission.]

so this year, we sloughed off a little more cultural expectation, stepped a little further out of the standard american box, & had a simple, un-themed, no-games, slightly dull (perhaps) birthday party.  we blew up balloons & hung streamers & made food & served ice cream.  we invited family & friends, the kids received gifts, & my MIL brought a pinata (which we filled with fruit juice-sweetened treats & chocolate.  & homemade, personalized buttons.  okay, a little hoopla.)

my kids felt loved & celebrated.  done.

no complaints about our smaller space or fewer toys or theme-less party or that where the kids mostly played was 37 degrees & outside.

as i snuggled my six-year-old last night at 10:30pm do you know what he said?  i asked him, “so, was it a good birthday party, kier?”

one word.  “GREAT.”

i think we’re on to something here.

: : : :

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i was standing in front of the bulk bins at the store, contemplating dry black beans versus canned.  i was having a momentary existential crisis, churned up by beans, of all things.  black beans, of course, stood in for bigger money issues, which at the moment were giving me both a headache & a stomachache.  (such a funky-looking word, eh?)  i was not winning the war for valuing true wealth. i was losing horribly, actually.

as i walked back & forth anxiously between shelf & bean bin, i had to stop & ask for a good word:  “i’m screwing this up, not getting the peace part right at all.  please help me see what my life is really about.  i can’t see straight.”

i replaced the can of black beans & walked back to the bulk section, picking up my old granny jar to fill with flour.  as i scooped light brown powder into my gallon jar, squatting on the linoleum floor, an elderly woman pushed her near-empty cart alongside me, scanning the shelves & moving slowly.  she looked a little lost.  she was so small & frail.  she looked like she needed a thousand hugs.

i suddenly wasn’t thinking about myself.

“what is that?” she asked, eyeing my jar with the 1970’s red & yellow lid.

“spelt flour,” i answered her.  “i use it instead of wheat.  some of my kids are sensitive to wheat, so we use spelt instead.”

looking over the small collection of items at the bottom of her cart, she said, “i’m not supposed to have wheat.”

“you should try spelt,” i said, enthusiastically.

she looked warily at the rows & rows of indecipherable bin tags.
“maybe i could get someone to help me. . . .” she said quietly.

i nearly cried.

“I can help you,” i said.  “i don’t mind at all.”

“oh,” she answered, slightly embarrassed that she’d need help, that this tall bald woman was her solution.  “i just had eye surgery.  i can’t really see all those numbers.”

{GOOD GRIEF.  what had i even been complaining about in my head meager minutes ago?  i may have a tight squeeze in my checkbook, BUT WHO CARES.  I CAN SEE.  & i can move any-which-way, & i don’t have to relearn how to eat at 80 years old, &. . . .}

i crouched down easily in front of the bin near the floor, suddenly feeling like an acrobat, & scooped flour until she told me to stop, just 3 or 4 shovelfuls.  what a small amount, i thought.  of course, it is:   she’s cooking & baking only for herself. {GOOD GRIEF.  i have a husband happily alive at home (at least he should be.  who knows what the kids have done in my absence.) & four lively, huggable children.  i am not alone.  not even remotely.  (not even when i want to be.)  GOOD GRIEF.}

after i tied up the plastic bag for her & wrote the bin number on the twisty-tie, with “spelt” beside it in small block letters, i handed her the flour.

“that’s so sweet of you.  thank you SO MUCH.”

& then she wheeled her cart down the aisle, while i rethought my life.

: : : :

we’re powerful, aren’t we?

i didn’t plan on being anyone’s superhero, but sometimes that’s who we are & where we are.  sometimes there are people around us that need something from us:  a smile. a kind word.  a little help.  a pat on the back.  a scoop of flour.

miniscule things that take miniscule time or effort.

we each have a power to wield, for good or otherwise, every single day.  with our spouses.  with our kids.  with our co-workers.  or with grocery store clerks or the mailman or our kid’s teacher.  with tiny old ladies at the store.

to think i nearly missed it because i was obsessing over meaningless numbers in the bean aisle.  to think i nearly missed an opportunity to put value into the world because i couldn’t see out from under my huge self.


give me clarity, or send me home.

slightly off center.

you’ll forgive me when i forget we’re not the normal ones here.  on top of that, i’ve been thinking a lot about wealth lately, reading ben hewitt‘s Saved:  How I Quit Worrying about Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World.  tantalizing, eh?

we’re long past chasing traditional wealth, andy & i.  pretty much we stared her down when andy went into youth minsitry & i into english (an english major gets you nothing but stacks upon stacks of filled notebooks.  & a really strong sense of grammatical errors.). we decided, matter-of-factly, that we’d find our wealth elsewhere.  to be clear, youth pastors don’t make heaps monetarily.

now, of course, andy works for himself in our basement.  in fact, we just converted the family room into a t-shirt room, & the t-shirt room became a maker’s space.  we were living with a fully finished basement, which felt kind of silly.  we were never down there.  now we live upstairs & work downstairs.  but i suppose that’s another post.

anyway, when you work for yourself, well.  working for yourself means sometimes you just don’t work.  & me, in charge of the brood & the castle, i add nothing monetarily to the pot.  (i just stir it. . . .)  so if there isn’t t-shirt work, the living is slim.
i’ve never questioned that this wouldn’t be bad.

going without?  how is that a good idea?
isn’t that what we’re all afraid of, at the bottom of ourselves?

turns out, yet again, i am wrong.  you, i’m sure, are used to this by now.
let me tell you how this time.

friday night is pizza night here.  but this past friday leif had been sick most of the day with a nasty cold that moved into his ears so that he complained of his mouth hurting, even.  so, he & i spent some quality time curled up with ye ‘ol phone watching old mickey mouse cartoons.  one cannot make pizza dough from under a whimpering two-year-old.  i revised dinner in my head, & my first thought was takeout, or the wal-mart equivalent.  but honestly, even if we had a spare twenty on us, i wouldn’t spend it on dinner (unless we had celebratin’ to do, like thalia’s 9th birthday tomorrow – woot!).  oh, heavens, no.  that sweet bill would head straight into debt repayment or the travel fund.  which meant i needed to rethink dinner myself, as inconvenient as that seemed, as mickey mouse courted minnie on my (cracked, shared) handheld.  an hour later, the toddler wiggled out of my lap, no longer in pain, & went off to town with daddy, leaving me & the five-year-old to make dinner:  pizza dough, as i’d intended.  & was i inconvenienced?  again, heavens, no!  i was tired, but not inconvenienced.  i spent the late afternoon with the five-year-old who stayed home & rolled out pizza crust with me, i got the laundry in from off the line (our dryer has been out of commission since christmas day.  blessing, not curse.  truth.), & i caught up with the dishes (by hand.  dishwashers, though we have one & don’t use it, make me crazy.).  i felt rejuvenated by my diy-ness, flexed my resourcefulness a bit, both of which sprang out of the kind of necessity that my grandmother would have laughed at.  making dinner inconvenient?  i think i can hear her laughing. . . .

this is only one teeny example in the giant story of us.  for some reason unknown to us, we are being pressed down into whoknowswhat financially.  & the pressing down, the going without, the do-smaller-things-than-you’d-planned revisions continue to be good.  blessings, not curses.

i don’t understand it, but obviously that’s not my job.
there is a different kind of wealth here in the lower realms.

a couple weeks ago i woke up to this tangled idea of wealth, like a cat sitting on my chest.  as i came slowly into consciousness, with a toddler pressed into my left bicep, it occurred to me, “i have FOUR children.  how rich!   i could sell them they add so much richness to my life.”  in that moment, i felt a true & abiding sense of wealth.  “here they are, all in my house, under my control, & healthy, smart, & strong.  i might have it made.”  i am really & truly wealthy, & i felt it.  that kind of wealth feels good.

so, all this to say, i have no plan to begin chasing big cars & fancy furniture.  i will never sign up for a cruise.  my life is working just fine, even when it’s skimpy.  we’ll stay here, slightly off center.  but what i do plan on is continuing to chase hard & fast, nose to the ground-like, the portions of my life where true & abiding wealth lie:  family, friends, faith, health, meaningful work.  joy, peace, love, kindness.  & i will continue to redefine wealth, tacking on hefty items like resourcefulness.  ample free time.  open calendars.  hugs in great number.

& just for kicks, i bet we could throw in all the little things, too, after we’ve totalled the big ticket items.  wealth like sun warming the table in morning’s light.  little or big arms around mama’s neck.  a heartfelt apology, given or received.  clean clothes.  favorite ratty ol’ jeans.  full tummies.  a movie loaned from the library.  none of these things are expensive, but i’m darn rich if i can lay claim to them.

aren’t i?

travelogue: it felt like 37 below.

sluggish, sleepy feet firmly planted in the plush carpet at my parents’ house, I picked up the cracked phone andy & i share to check the weather while the kids played the wii in their pajamas, first thing in the morning.  we had come the nine hours (which inevitably squeezes itself into twelve) & 556 miles to snowmobile.  & no matter what the temperature was (-11, but weatherbug said it felt like -37), snowmobile we would.

this is how we vacationed this year.  not exactly tropical, or warm like we’d planned, but well.  it fit in the budget.  or lack thereof.

without further adieu, the nd travelogue:

I walked leif outside on our first morning there, & when I came back out one minute later, javin had him on the snowmobile, having the time of his life.

the last two years, my kind-hearted cousin kelly & his wife, who live “next door” to my parents (“next door” is a relative term, as they live over a mile away down gravel road & highway.) have lent us their teeny snowmobile, geared to roar up to a whooping 8 mph & to hold only the weight of a smallish child.  this is an act of extraordinary generosity, & my kids (especially the smallish 5-year-old) revel in it.  or on it.

out here, you don’t mess around with snow removal.

we even got to bring Gram & Pop back home with us for the weekend, which is good, since i completely neglected to take pictures of them in their natural habitat.  


in our grand life-of-travel scheme, we planned to spend a solid chunk of January & February somewhere warm, somewhere south.  we planned to be in a bus heading far away from ice & snow.  we planned to be not-here, with our kids on a grand adventure.  what we got instead was mini trips to MI & ND, both of which are decidedly more winterish than WI.

i’m beginning to realize my life isn’t about where I think i’m supposed to be or where i’d rather be.   it’s about where I am right now.
if i can keep that in mind, i think where i am can always be a good place to be.keep tweaking the machine, friends.
it’s getting good.

what we don’t talk about.

the following happened before noon today:

I looked out the window to see an otter playing along the ice of the river, the first we’ve seen in the five years we’ve lived here.  all six of us hurried to the window to watch him dip into the water, playing, & then leisurely make his way back on to the ice.  the sleek little guy entertained us a good while.  I was sad to not see him slink back up onto the ice.

then andy suggested javin look up what otters eat.  (turns out they’re rather carnivorous.  Kieran asked if we should feed him meat. . . .)

the fermented bread dough popped its jar lid coming to room temperature fresh out of the fridge while I was frying eggs, sending the thin dough out through the miniscule crack between lid & mason jar.  we had a literal dough volcano in the kitchen.  I called the kids over, of course, to see our dough monstrosity, to which i received a resounding, “ewwww!!”  (after my last instagram/facebook post about being non-sciency & completely unable to perform a volcano experiment, I must’ve given God a good chuckle.)

thalia found pinto beans in the fridge, pulled out the small cast iron she bought with her own money, & began refrying the beans.  this lead to andy’s teasing her in fun about being part Mexican (which she is:  andy is half Mexican, a fact that was of unbelievable allure to me when we were dating.  i’m not sure why.  sorry, digressing. . . .).  to this Kieran, the next in line at 5-years-old hollered, “what part am I?”  “you’re part Mexican, too, Kieran,”  andy answered.  “i’m MEXICAN?” Kieran replied, pure disbelief written all over his face.  at which point I realized two things:  1. we obviously could use a booster in ethnic heritage & 2.  (this isn’t new, but I need to relearn it often.)  learning is organic.  we went from refried beans on cast iron to my five-year-old coming nose-to-nose with his heritage.

somehow we got on the topic of handwriting toward the end of breakfast, which led to a demonstration in my best third grade handwriting of capital letters.  a capital “J” is very fun to write, in case you had forgotten, & the kids argued about whose names had better letters for cursive.

since they’d been at the chalkboard door, after breakfast the older kids invented a spelling competition to take place there, me giving the words, they making up all the rules.  this evolved to include math questions & a category similar to “the family feud,” if you can remember that Richard Dawson gameshow.  (I was reared on it.)  they played this for the better part of an hour & a half.  I was exhausted.

: : :

I don’t often write about my kids’ education, partially because it feels so un-mainstream (which it is), & partially because it is theirs & not mine.  temper that with a hefty swallow of fear-of-what-you-will-think, & we have a story i’m not keen to share.  but I vowed to be more brave in what I write about here.  plus, there’s something wonderful about being known.

so, if you’re curious about how the learning goes around here, please know that it isn’t always this measurable, & it usually involves a child screaming (you’ll remember the two younger boys).  but it does go on, regularly, in fits & spurts, sometimes in bursts.

&, like much of life, it is quite astonishing.

why travel?

lunch is in the oven, & i’m thinking down scones & potato salad.  the sink is full, & the laundry basket, & the living room floor.  i need to air out snowpants from newbie cross-country skiers, & there’s a cat around here somewhere.

just now i’m wondering why.  we’re tired, there’s much to do.  i just sent the little boys down the hall to do their screaming somewhere-not-here.  the long list i pencilled last night, an hour after we got back from michigan, is cackling at me, chuckling at my ambition.  tomorrow we leave for north dakota, the second leg of our first annual winter grandparent tour.  WI to MI back to WI to ND & back to WI.

why would a young family, toddlerhood still hanging off the last one, travel in the winter on a super-low budget to somewhere not-warm?

all i can offer for explanation is a few photos.

michigan tech’s winter carnival snow sculptures.

andy’s newest addition to screenprinting, ice t-shirts.  jay kay.

their first time on cross-countries & snow shoes.

they can fight even on skis.

i was so happy to see this random person flying a kite out on the lake.  because, why not?  my life could use a little more “why not?”.  yours, too?

then a trip to houghton’s library.  my boots:  actual size.

the SNOW, people.  i don’t know if you know.

& pasties with my cute MIL.  because PASTIES.

hanging out with papa.  & cousin Ever, the delicious.

the beautiful auntie Elizabeth brought over her watercolors.

& uncle Ben the Benevolent provided the entertainment.

ive-year-old selfies.  

so, truly.  why, when it’s a boatload of work, & inconvenient, & hours in the crumb-laden van, would we value travel as a way of being in the world?

i think it carries over to everything:  doing the things we really want to do, living our ideals, living an intentional life, is a boatload of work.  & though the work is just that, work, how can we not put in the extra grind?

andy said yesterday on our drive home, as we were talking life & philosophy:

we’re past impossible.

meaning, we’ve lived a long time referring to different pieces of our lives as impossible.  but is anything, really, if we’re meant to do it, impossible?  or is it just difficult, inconvenient, work?  i mean, i want the good life.  & that life is not the one on billboards or on the news, in the sunday paper advertisements.  it’s more mysterious than that.  it’s deeper.  i dare say it’s simpler.

& part of that inconvenience for us, that impossible, is back-to-back roadtrips with four smallish children in the winter to cold destinations.

it is travel.

did i mention the water heater just died?