We could become ordinary

It’s hard to admit this out loud and in public, but I’ve realized that many of my decisions (and especially my aspirations) as an adult have been fed by vanity. I want to be different and better. I don’t want to just exercise. I want to run marathons and amaze people with my endurance and determination. I don’t want to just live in a house and pay off a mortgage…I want to own multiple rental properties that help to cover our living expenses. Perhaps we aren’t meant to live in a medium-sized American city. Maybe we could go dig wells in Africa instead. “Institutionalized learning” is for suckers! Let’s homeschool roadschool worldschool instead!!!  It seems so unremarkable to go to work, pay the bills, put the kid on the bus, take her off, and bake cupcakes for her class on her birthday. No jaws will drop when you tell people that for family night you went for a walk in the park and then came home and watched The Princess Bride. Nobody hands out medals for walking 35 minutes on the treadmill at your gym. No one interviews you for podcasts when your accomplishments that day were to take you medications, pack lunches, get the kids home, and crash in a depressed state while your husband cooks dinner. I’m not aware of any “regular-sized house” movements. I’d like to think of myself as a minimalist, but the amount of junk all over my floors would seem to negate that. I’d like to think of myself as an ambitious professional. I work part-time.

My twenties seemed to be the time that I learned that I was not going to make my mark on the world at large. The graduation greeting cards lied. And in my thirties, it seems like my best efforts and all of my energy is barely enough to keep a regular life afloat.

I was taught from a young age that our lives are not about ourselves. They are about serving God. And I thought I was going to do that, but in a big way that brought (humble) glory to myself as well.

Ya’ll, I have been brought down to the basement floor. I thought I knew about being a good parent. And then I birthed all the willpower in the world, in the form of a tiny human, born with both fists raised. Despite that, after a while I thought I had things kind of figured out, so I had another one. And I got knocked out and dragged down by post partum depression. Which after three years has lost the soft mantle of post-partum and revealed itself to be the ugly treatment resistant kind instead. I lost control of my breath in panic attacks. While pregnant I injured my back and lost running. Two days ago I tried to lift something heavy and lost any movement at all for a couple of hours of spasmodic pain. This morning I had recovered enough to walk for fifteen minutes at the speed of 2 mph while my preschooler watched TV in the gym daycare. I’ve enrolled my kid in school.

And I’ve read the blogs and listened to the podcasts about extraordinary lives. Tim Ferris will tell you exactly which tea and what brand of hanging-upside down machine will put you in top-shelf highly productive mode. Paula Pant can tell you how to afford anything. Mr. Money Moustache, Go Curry Cracker, and the Mad Fientist will tell you how they retired in their thirties. A key element? Bicycles. And saving half your income. For a while, I was so inspired and determied to follow them. And then I realized–one everlasting excruciating day after another–that their path is not my path. Ya’ll, I am not meant to be around my kids 24/7. Everyone in this house is a happier, better person with lots of school and very expensive childcare. Even though that means taking a huge financial hit, we have to do it. For my literal sanity. Which also, by the way, rules out living in a bus or on a boat or a tiny house. It means not RVing the country or Air Bnbing the world as a lifestyle. I need to be alone to retain my personhood and right now that means also remaining stationary. And not saving half our income. It means we go to a church with a nursery, and live near a preschool with flexible hours. That I work a job that works around when the kids are in school. That we hire babysitters and pay for camps. That I have lots of unstructured time and feel like I get nothing done in it. Only the same clothes washed and the same floors cleaned.

People tell us that it will get easier (or “different”) when the kids get older. Which I suppose is true. But having just gone through the last seven years, I am leery. You can get everything you ever wanted out of life, and not be able to handle it. The best parts of life–your blessings of every kind, things you looked forward to and love–can beat you down until you can’t breathe or stand. That’s not hyperbole. That was two years ago and last Saturday. All my best efforts do not result in extraordinary anything, in living internationally, or heroic self-sacrifice. We’ve scrabbled our way to ordinary and are hanging on for dear life.

That is not to say that we are unable to build for the future. We own two duplexes (one of which we live in), work two jobs, save in our assorted retirement funds, and seek to build a frugal and hard-working life, run through and through with the love of Jesus in action. Which is good for the world, but bad for vanity. Maybe that’s the higher calling I’m supposed to answer in this season? To let go of vanity, of the idea of  having an extraordinary life (or even a clean house) and just bring honor to God and satisfaction to my soul by living an ordinary one.

Home Base

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of life that we might be able to have someday. This life would involve a lot of travel, so I have been sitting in on a lot of online conversations about nomadic lives of one kind or another. Folks who are traveling around the world with their three kids, living with only the belongings they can each carry in a backpack. Singles and couples who take it further, carrying their food, water, and shelter with them while trecking the Pacific Crest Trail. A former co-worker who completes one adventure after another, teaching ESL to folks in Boulder and Tokyo, hiking the AT, and training for marathons in Wyoming. Families that live all over the country in RVs with their 5 kids, fleeing cold weather and hurricanes, rallying in Las Vegas and Legoland, swapping tips on how to cook, store, and live within that unique set of challenges. I’ve devoured books by women who have built tiny houses and yurts with their own hands. Left their office jobs in London to literally set sail. I have learned so much from these people, and their stories make me actually ache to be on the move.

And yet.

There is something to be said for Home Base. And here are some of those things.

Staying put makes the most mundane tasks of living much easier. You get to keep your doctor. Your health insurance. You know how you are going to wash the dishes and your clothes. There are lots of systems in place that make feeding, clothing, and sheltering yourself and your kids a lot easier. Let’s hear it for warm running water and a dryer!

You get to keep your friends. It is true that we can keep in touch with people much more easily and frequently than before. But it is also true that a huge amount of friendship and fellowship is based on proximity. When we worship together, watch each other’s kids, and bring each other meals, we weave gently and honestly into each other’s lives. When you stay put, and the weaving happens for years on end, the result is a stunning and sustaining thing of glory.

The money thing. I hate bringing this up, because so many people have made nomadic lifestyles work by building online businesses, teaching abroad, or taking sabbaticals. It can be done. But for many/most people, it’s just easier to stay in place and work a steady, in-person job. For now, we own rental properties in a specific spot and work at specific jobs.

Maybe the best reason to stay put right now? Spring is just around the corner. Stay tuned.

Real Estate is Real

for blog

Two things got me thinking.

1. I’ve been reading more and more about real estate lately. I’ve found The Bigger Pockets Podcast, and I’ve started reading things like Building Wealth One House at a Time and Buy It, Rent It, Profit. I have been learning, but I’ve also been encountering some of the hype and read-my-other-book and come-to-my-workshop nonsense that comes with the territory.

2. I was listening to this week’s episode (#543) of This American Life this morning. They spent quite a bit of time talking about a new get-money-from-your-friends scam called Wake Up Now.

These things got me wondering if, by buying this investment property, we hadn’t bought in to some kind of scam. We are still at the stage where we are pouring money into this property and is not fully rented. What if it has all been some kind of mistake?

Well, tonight I was having a glorious couple hours of productive solitude, painting and cleaning at the new property when I heard someone knock on the door. It was the next door neighbor with a friend who wanted to see the place because she is in the market for a new apartment. So I showed it to her, despite the fact that it is knee-deep in construction debris and tools from one end to the other. It made me realize again that real estate *is* real. It’s a real product, with real customers who have a real need you are filling. And because it is a real business and not a multi-level marketing scheme, you don’t have to sell the product or the system to your friends. Complete strangers will agree to hand you money on a regular basis. And sometimes, they will even come knock down on your door to do it.

Believe the Numbers

Some people would think that the idea of “believing the numbers” is silly. What else is there to believe? Even those that put their faith in the supernatural, if they are numbers people, will talk about the number of ancient scrolls corroborating each other and our modern Bible. They will share with you the dates of various Biblical kingdoms, will quantify–in percentages–the likelihood of special creation vs. the unlikelihood of evolution. Numbers are a language by which the heavens and the earth can be understood.

For others, numbers are inherently untrustworthy. They say figures don’t lie, but liars figure. Statistics are manipulated every day. And how much can you trust cold, hard numbers to quantify the essence of life, anyway? How, really, can you trust the math of aerodynamics? What is to stop a ton of steel from falling straight out of the sky? Numbers are slippery creatures that can take hours to nail down in the right formulas, rows, and columns. And if you’ve forgotten a small decimal point? All is lost.

For much of my life, I have been the person in the second paragraph. And I’m writing this post in case any of you are like me. In case any of you have had to sit there in front of a spreadsheet and bet your future on the accuracy of the numbers in front of you. I’ve had to convince myself to trust the numbers. My gut would be much happier if we were that much closer to paying off our primary residence. But instead, we have taken out a HELOC and taken a chance on our future because of what the spreadsheet says. I’ll let you know how it works out.

Track And Face the Numbers

The first step towards Better Living Through Math is to track and face the numbers. It’s closely related to the notion of First, Admit You Have a Problem. Since this is my fourth post and we now know each other so well, I’ll dive right in and use a personal example: my weight.

Let me start by saying that I am sensitive to the issues surrounding fat shaming, unrealistic social expectations, body image, etc. So I am going to tread carefully and I am only going to speak for myself. I currently weigh more than is medically advised. With the help of my doctor, a nutritionist, and the people at the gym, I am changing that because I’d like to move through this world in a body that is strong and healthy and capable of enduring the crazy adventures I have planned, with minimal pain and maximum enjoyment.

How am I going about this? By tracking and facing the numbers. Specifically, the numbers on the scale and the numbers on my food-logging app. They represent the truth about how much progress I’ve made towards my goal, how much ground I’ve lost, and how far I still have to go.

To be financially healthy, you also have to track and face the numbers. Numbers like your bank balances, debt, credit scores, net worth, etc. Just like hopping on the scale, financial reckoning is very often painful. But if you are going to build the life you want, there is no way around it. So rip off the Band-Aid and figure it out NOW. Quantify your position. Take responsibility for it. Hookup your accounts to Mint.com (easiest). Track every single expense into self-made categories in Quicken (detailed and thorough). Use a spreadsheet (cheap, but harder to get the full picture long-term). Get a pencil and a scrap of paper and a stack of your bills (if that’s what you have, work with it). Just do something. And do it now. There are few guarantees in life. But self-made behavioral issues do NOT fix themselves. It’s your life. What are you going to do with it?

Better Living Through Math

measuring

It’s taken me three decades on earth to get to this point, but I now believe that when people say “I hate math” it’s kind of like saying “I hate thinking about my life in any quantifiable way. And I hate making measurable progress towards quantifiable life goals.” That sounds worse, right? Almost crazy. Because while we all know that “the best things in life are free,” the truth is that the things that are NOT free and/or are closely tied to math affect the “best” things all the time. Want to spend more time with your family? Let’s hope you don’t have a mountain of financial obligations that keep you chained to long hours at work. Want to send a kid to Bible camp? They will need cash to feed her while she’s there. Like going to church? The electric bill doesn’t pay itself. Value literacy? Educational and cultural institutions require funding. Do you like going for long walks on the beach? Let’s hope that the numbers on your bathroom scale aren’t directly impacting your mobility. This sounds harsh, I know. But it’s frustrating to realize how many people live less than optimally because they make poor decisions and figure that things will work out somehow on their own. In this series of posts–let’s call it the Numbers Series–I want to talk about the connection between numbers/math and living the life we want. Maybe if we can move past “hating math,” we can get on with really living.

The terror is subsiding

living room

We finally closed on our investment property one month ago today. And we have been hopping since then. Painting parties until 11 at night. Shopping for windows on the weekend. Showing after showing led to hours of screening and, one week after advertising, to signing a new tenant! We’ve got some work left to do, but it looks so, so much better than it did. Shout out to my dad for installing new windows with my hubby all Saturday long. Good work, guys! I wisely stuck to painting closets and window trim. 🙂

kitchen with stove

We put in some new cabinets and a new stove. We bought a washer & dryer (Thank you, Habitat for Humanity ReStore!). Hubby replaced bare bulbs with shiny new light fixtures.

bedroom 2I have to say that this is one of my favorite things about investing in real estate: the dramatic before and after effect. You can take a neglected piece of property and turn it into a beautiful home where responsible folks want to live. It’s highly satisfying…and a little addictive.

So I don’t forget later…I’m terrified.

After what seems like most of this year being in investment house limbo, we are on the cusp of closing on our first investment property. And I hope it works out. We’ve run the numbers, had the inspection, planned renovation projects, saved, borrowed, and been given money, and done more waiting than seems necessary for a fairly straightforward purchase. And I have a sick feeling in my stomach. I don’t know very many people who do this in real life. I know it’s a huge amount of responsibility, and just the amount of responsibility in regular life has had me anxious for ages. If this goes through, we will have three times the number of showings, screenings, fix-it-up-to-turn-it-overs, and problems. If I’ve run the numbers right and things go well, my future self could be very, very grateful for this decision. And for the hard work we are about to put in. Who knows? We may end up buying several houses and have rental property fund our stuff-lite, travel-heavy lifestyle completely. But right now none of that is true. Right now, my husband is spending days in the attic insulating, my daughter is singing to herself, and the baby is napping. And I’m scared out of my mind.