Minimalist-ish Family Series: Cassandra and her boys

Another post in the Minimalist-ish Family Series, this time from a single mum of two young boys. These stories always give me something to think about and I know they inspire a lot of you. If you’d like to share your story of simplifying – doesn’t matter if you live in a tiny house or a sprawling six bedroom home – we want to hear about it. Email me at: the minimalist mom at gmail dot com. 

1.) Tell us about your family, who you are, where you live and things that you love:

My family is a triangle. I wish I could brag about being a perfect equilateral, but in truth we are more like an acute scalene.  At the base of the triangle you have Me: the highly analytical domestically challenged single mother. Left side is Son 1: the 5-year old Bruce Banner in training. Right side is Son 2: the 3-year old Hulk in training. The Pacific Northwest is where we currently reside and we have all fallen in love with area. There is always some forest trail waiting to be explored or some great quest waiting to be conquered (like the 100-hour reading challenge at our local library). We are also unique in that the boys are half-Mongolian and we try to incorporate that part of their heritage into our family culture, which works well with minimalism since the Nomadic Mongols have been minimalists by necessity for centuries!

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2.) When did you first hear about minimalism and what was your initial reaction?

I came to be a minimalist in an organic way rather than making a conscious decision. Life as a nomadic Navy Brat set the foundation for my minimalism but it was when I joined the Peace Corps and lived in a tent in Mongolia that I really embraced life with less. It was actually on a parenting website when I was pregnant with my first son that I came across the concept of actually self-identifying as a minimalist, and that you could still be one even if you are not a fan of the monochromatic minimalism that most people imagine. It was amazing to find that community (which actually lead me to the Minimalist Mom blog)!

3.) What do you find most challenging in trying to live with less stuff?

Kitchen gadgets. I have always been a sucker for infomercials, especially when it comes to kitchen gadgets. Do I really need the electric egg boiler? No. But it gets used twice a week on average and I always have perfectly easy to peel eggs with zero effort!  I’m fully recognize that I am a bit lazy and not the best house mom so anything that can make my life easier when it comes to cooking at home is awesome. Sometimes minimizing stress takes precedence over minimizing stuff, and I’m okay with that.

4.) What do you find most rewarding in trying to live with less stuff?

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and too much stuff will literally put me in super stress mode if I’m having a difficult day. I love that I never have to worry about what to wear. I love that my boys can pull out every toy they own and destroy their room and it is cleaned in less than 30 minutes. I love that I don’t feel guilty when I do decide to splurge on something nice or expensive because it is a rare treat that also serves a need (like the hydration hiking backpacks for the boys)!

5.) Do you see any challenges (older, bigger kids, retirement, etc) to continuing on with this lifestyle in the future?

I’ve been looking at homes and hope to purchase in the next year and it is next to impossible to find a house that is as small as I would like in the school districts I like. People look at me like I’m a bit crazy when I say I want something under 1500 sqft. I also have no clue if my boys will be as naturally drawn to minimalism as I am. When they are young it is easy for me to control, but I definitely get anxious imagining the hoard that two teenage boys could accumulate!

Cassandra just sent me this update: since my last email I’ve moved and we now live in less than 800 sqft. Got rid of our couch, dressers, guest bed, and my “office” desk (since the kitchen table works just as well with a laptop)! Yeah Cassandra and her boys!

Where to Move to When You Can Go Anywhere

WE LEFT THE CITY.

It happened. We did it. We moved to a small town from downtown Vancouver, a metropolitan area with a population of almost 2.5 million. Yes this city-loving condo dweller now lives in a house in a neighbourhood that deer frequently roam through.

While some of our friends and family were surprised at the suddenness of our move, my husband and I researched alternatives to living in Vancouver for two years before making the leap. We took short one night getaways to Vancouver Island, Easter weekend jaunts to the Sunshine Coast and day trips to the Fraser Valley, not just as fun travel but as research for where to move to next. These trips really helped us refine what we were looking for as an alternative to living in a big city.

Since sharing our news about leaving Vancouver, I’ve had quite a few people either share their own big move story or tell me they were planning one themselves. I wanted to share our process of scouting cities and why we chose the one we chose to move to. If you could move almost anywhere how do you decide where to go?

Our Wish List

  • not more than a day’s drive to Vancouver. We’d like to visit the city a couple of times a year to see family and give the kids some city experiences.
  • walkable. Top of the list was being able to walk the kids to school. A grocery store, library, a few parks and a swimming pool/recreation centre that are walkable would be great too.
  • medical and health services. Dentist, small hospital, availability of family doctors.
  • diversity. We hoped to find a town with some cultural and ethnic diversity.
  • affordability. Vancouver single family home prices are well over a million dollars. We wanted a city or small town where you could buy a modest home for a lot less than that.

Initially I felt strongly that we wanted to live in a city with a minimum population of 20,000 people. Don’t laugh/hate on me but I wanted to be in a city that was big enough to have a Starbucks and a Crossfit gym. This seemed like the right barometer for services and amenities. There would be a hospital and a sushi restaurant and maybe even a Mexican restaurant. There would be a good sized library, multiple parks and hopefully bike paths. A multiplex movie theatre would have been nice too and proximity to an airport with flights to Vancouver and Calgary.

Where we looked for a new home:

  • Nanaimo. A bigger 90,000 person coastal city on Vancouver Island with a direct ferry to Vancouver.
  • Courtney/Comox. Two smaller cities right next to each other in the northern Vancouver Island area.
  • Parksville & Qualicum Beach. Smaller seaside towns along the coast of Vancouver Island.
  • Gibsons & Sechelt. Small towns on the beautiful Sunshine Coast, just a short ferry ride from Vancouver.
  • Abbotsford and the Fraser Valley. An hour to two hour (or more depending on traffic) drive east of Vancouver’s downtown. Fast growing area that used to be mostly rural.
  • Kamloops. A 90,000 person city in the southern interior region of British Columbia.
  • Vernon. A 40,000 person city outside of Kelowna in the Okanagan region.
  • Smaller towns in the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia.

Apparently we’re pretty picky. 

As we toured through cities looking for that right mix of walkable and convenient we were continually stumped/disappointed by the familiar pattern of seeing a historic downtown that’s fallen into some disrepair/under use, with beautiful character homes nearby (also usually in disrepair) mixed in with some mid-rise density. What looked like an ideal place to live – convenient, walkable – had lost a good portion of its residents.

Outside the historic city centre subdivisions and big box retailer/mall areas had formed. The ‘new’ area of the city was filled with families, schools and amenities and none of it was walkable. Sure you could live in the historic area of the city but the local elementary school may have closed down and the empty shops downtown meant you’d have to get in your car and drive out to a strip mall for some services. A lack of families in the area meant that the playgrounds were also being underused and not being maintained or updated. We saw this same scenario repeated again and again as we visited small cities and moderately sized cities across British Columbia.

We also visited places that ‘could’ be walkable but that no one walked in. Abbotsford was one of them. We tested out walking from the downtown area to a park and we felt invisible to cars. We had a few instances where drivers pulled into us when we were in crosswalks. Sure, Google maps may tell you it’s a twenty minute walk but it’s twenty minutes on busy streets where you’re the only pedestrian you see for the whole walk.

Contenders

There were exceptions. We really liked the West End neighbourhood in Kamloops. It was just a few blocks of older houses but it was right next to the downtown and close to the river. There were two schools within walking distance and all of the downtown’s amenities. The other contender was the Easthill neighbourhood in Vernon. Again, it was an older neighbourhood right next to the downtown area. Both of these cities still had vibrant and in use historic downtowns. The kind of downtown that is pedestrian friendly and has mostly local retailers.

Other BC cities we liked were Sechelt and Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast and Parksville and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. Being on the coast was very appealing. But housing costs were still relatively high with the proximity to Vancouver. We also started to come around to the idea that if we were going to uproot ourselves and move somewhere for more time and a lower cost of living, why not make that cost of living a lot lower than Vancouver. And maybe that meant not only moving much farther away but also somewhere with fewer places to spend money.

A Surprising Front Runner

Early in the summer we had a trip lined up to visit family in a small town in the Kootenays, a region in southeastern British Columbia that borders the US. We decided to take the trip as an opportunity to check out Kamloops and Vernon. I wasn’t hopeful about those towns because I have always viewed myself as being a coastal person. But I surprised myself. We liked Kamloops and its riverfront and the charm of Vernon and all the lakes nearby.

And then we visited my brother in his small town and… we really liked it. We were having a big family gathering there and a birthday celebration. We met a lot of locals and asked them about their experience living there. Everyone we talked to loved the lifestyle of living in a small town though most of them had been raised in big cities. The comments just kept coming back that the slower pace and quality of life – lots of outdoor opportunities like affordable golf and skiing, great hiking, cycling, etc – and the affordability made for a great lifestyle. Add in stunning scenery and, oh yes, my brother lives there, and this small town had a lot going for it. We spent an afternoon floating the local river and I think that’s when Chris was sold on the place.

Making the Move

Six weeks after visiting the town for a family gathering we returned and put an offer on a house. A week later we listed our condo and it sold the following week. Three months after visiting this small town for a family gathering we moved here.

This town is small. Under 5000 people. There is no Crossfit. There is no Starbucks. There is no multiplex movie theatre. But it’s very walkable and easy to get around on by bike. It’s beautiful. And, the big one, we have family here. Not only do our kids have cousins just a few blocks away but we have my brother and sister-in-law. We already know some of the challenges of moving to a new city from living overseas. As we thought more about making a move to something quite different from Vancouver the chance to move where we already had family started to make more and more sense. We’d have a social network as soon as we moved there. Other family already visited this town to see my brother and now it would be a two for one deal.

Change is scary. And stressful.

We’ve talked and planned all this through many times over but, you know, life happens. I can’t say for sure this will be our forever home. I can’t predict the future. But I do remind myself often of that parable about the two travellers. The first one asks a farmer/monk about the village he is heading toward and if he will like it. The farmer/monk asks him about the place he has come from and the traveller says it was terrible, rude people, worse food and terrible weather. The farmer/monk tells him he will find the next village much the same. Another traveller comes along and asks the farmer/monk about the village ahead and if he will like it. The farmer/monk asks him about the village he has come from. The second traveller says the village was delightful, the people welcoming, the food excellent and the weather invigorating. The monk/farmer says he will find that the next village is much the same.

Anywhere can be home if you want it to be. I’ll be leaning on that parable about the two travellers and the monk/farmer as we enter into our first snowy winter and face the usual pains of adjusting to a new place.

*This town is so small that for now I’ll just be referring to it as our small town or if I think of something fun, a pseudonym. As my children get older I feel a need to keep some things private. 

If you had a choice in where to live, how did you make the decision? Was it solely about where jobs were or lifestyle or family?

It’s Not About the Clothes (Project 333)

I had a chance to see Courtney Carver speak in Vancouver a few weeks back and wanted to share some of my take aways from the event.

First, if you haven’t heard of Courtney and her minimalist fashion project, Project 333, I’ll get you acquainted. Courtney has been writing and speaking about simplicity through her blog BeMoreWithLess.com for many years. I’ve linked to her blog posts and writing often. Her minimalist fashion challenge called Project 333 began almost seven years ago and continues to have a large and dedicated following. Below are the rules for Project 333.

  • When: Every three months (It’s never too late to start so join in anytime!)
  • What: 33 items including clothing, accessories, jewelry, outerwear and shoes.
  • What not: these items are not counted as part of the 33 items – wedding ring or another sentimental piece of jewelry that you never take off, underwear, sleep wear, in-home lounge wear,  and workout clothing (you can only wear your workout clothing to workout)
  • How: Choose your 33 items, box up the remainder of your fashion statement, seal it with tape and put it out of sight.
  • What else: consider that you are creating a wardrobe that you can live, work and play in for three months. Remember that this is not a project in suffering. If your clothes don’t fit or are in poor condition, replace them.

Courtney was in Vancouver speaking and I was lucky to score tickets to her second night after the first night quickly sold out (Vancouver loves her!).

Takeaways from Courtney Carver’s Tiny Wardrobe Tour

I didn’t know what I liked. This statement from Courtney really stuck with me over the evening and into the days that followed. While Courtney’s speaking engagement was under the “The Tiny Wardrobe Tour” banner, her talk gave us so much more as she delved into her personal life and journey towards simplifying.

One thing Courtney talked about was that her idea of herself was of someone that loved shopping. As she went further along in her minimalist wardrobe experiment she saw that she actually didn’t love shopping. She loved the pick me up from buying something new. She loved the temporary high of a purchase, the distraction from any worries in her life. She didn’t love shopping but she also didn’t know what she really liked. It was a slow process for Courtney to get back to things that had fed her soul as a teen: photography and hiking. Finding out what she liked, becoming curious again, was a big part of her simplifying journey.

There is no perfect capsule wardrobe. I think Courtney kind of blew a few minds with this statement. There is no item of clothing that will make you feel your wardrobe is complete. This idea of perfection, this idea that theres is something out there that we can buy that will make things perfect and complete, is what keeps us shopping and consuming. We’re never satisfied. As Courtney shared she used to buy clothes for her clothes. It was never enough. It will never be enough. You need to let go of the idea of perfection.

Make your rules for your life. There were a lot of questions about wardrobe choices and counting for people’s different lifestyle needs. Courtney kept coming back to the same answer: create rules for what works for you. If you are just starting out and you have a lot of jewellery, count it as one item. Same for if you have a strict formal dress code for work: count work clothing as one item.

I wanted to share with you that Courtney has a new book coming out in December called Soulful Simplicity. One reviewer basically called it next level Marie Kondo and after hearing Courtney speak I’m excited to read it myself (pre-ordered and coming to me end of December!). Courtney has some great extras for anyone that pre-orders that you can find here . *I’ve ordered and paid for the book with my own money – this is not a sponsored post. 

Have any of you tried Project 333 or any other minimalist fashion experiments? What was your experience like? I naturally gravitate to a small wardrobe but I’m thinking of being a bit more deliberate and using the Project 333 guidelines.

Also, shout out to the lovely Minimalist Mom readers that came over for a chat after Courtney’s talk. Always fun to meet other people trying to navigate parenthood with less stuff. Stay strong on the kid’s clothes ladies (it does get easier). 

You’ve Won the Lottery (But There’s a Catch…)

You’ve won the lottery. But there’s a catch.

It’s not millions but enough say to buy yourself a home outright in a small town.

Here’s the catch: if you accept the winnings you have to move far away from your hometown and family. Not just a few suburbs away but a good six to twelve hour drive away and to a town a fraction of the size you’ve been living in. You likely won’t ever be able to move back to your hometown: once out of the explosive real estate market you would have great difficulty getting back in as home owners (and rents are very high).

You really love your hometown. Most of your family is here. It’s rated one of the most livable cities in the world and it’s beautiful. It has a lot of great things: beaches, a lovely seawall, ethnic and cultural diversity, an amazing public library, multi-modal transportation in the form of walking and bike paths, car sharing and bike sharing, really good and really inexpensive sushi. There are so many great parks for your kids and they’ve really started to enjoy the beach (and they’re all now out of the sand eating stage). You have friends here and a community. It’s not easy to leave.

Of course, the city you love isn’t perfect (no place is). The downsides are many. It’s expensive. Very expensive. Your family earns a good income but that income comes with long hours and a spouse that’s away a lot. Taking a local job would mean both parents would need to work outside the home and the hours in their industries are long. And what about the kids? You’ll never have enough money to help them get into the housing market and rents are incredibly high – what will they do here? Again, the work hours required to live here edge in on other parts of life like volunteering, family time, self-care, etc, etc. And people are leaving. Lots of people. They’re finding it too expensive or they’re lottery winners too and finally decided, hey, why am I working so much when I could just cash in and live somewhere else with a lot less financial and job stress?

Also, some of the upsides to your city are lost on you. You’re not cool (and never pretended to be). When you’re outside at nine o’clock in the evening – a rarity – you marvel at all the hip folk walking your neighbourhood visiting bars and restaurants. Sure you’re happy to get out for cheap tickets to the occasional Beck show and maybe once a year go to a cool new restaurant but it certainly isn’t part of your everyday or even occasional life. Besides, that stuff is really expensive! Nice coffees, $20 sushi for two and your Mobi membership are your splurges.

You also increasingly see that the biggest want in your life is time. One of your kids really needs a lot from you. You want to give him as much as you can while also being able to care for yourself and your other kids. That’s a hard thing for you to do with a spouse away most of the time. You want time to patiently teach your kids how to clean a bathroom or to spur of the moment go for a hike or to consistently tutor them in a literacy method that you took an intense two week course on. You want to NaNoWriMo before you turn 40 this year. Those things can’t happen (or happen consistently) with your current family dynamic of a spouse away three weeks of the month.

Do you take the money and the time or do you stay in that beautiful city that gets more expensive every day and that your children likely won’t be able to afford to live in?

We’ve been wrestling with this question for the last two years and recently decided it’s time for us to go. Packing (and culling) and preparing for the next adventure right now.

Embracing minimalism eight years ago, trying to live with less stuff and fewer wants, has lead us to another chapter and change: seeking more time for ourselves and our kids and to give to our community. More about the move, how the book I wrote this spring gave me more motivation to take this huge step, and what/where we are moving into/to in the coming weeks.

Thank you to all of you that have followed us on this ever changing journey to less stuff through all of our moves and growing our family. Your comments, advice and encouragement have been more helpful than you could possibly know. We’re often the weirdos: many years with no car, no gift birthday parties, happily living in small homes and completely out of touch with what the latest toy/clothing/gadgets are. Your stories of making the best choices for yourself – even if they defy conventional practices – have given me a community that I cherish. Thank you.

Tell me, has anyone else made a radical lifestyle change in the name of getting more time? Left a job? Moved somewhere with a lower cost of living so you could work less? Downsized home/lifestyle/stuff to reduce your costs and move closer to retirement?

Four Things Your Kids Really Need for Back to School

It’s back-to-school time for us and I see parents anxiously requesting information on the best places for new backpacks and lunch boxes and fretting over fall wardrobes. Like most holidays or life events (weddings! college!) we tend to zone in on preparing ourselves by buying stuff. Yet, the emotional, psychological and physical strain of these changes and events usually can’t be smoothed over with new shoes or a fresh hair cut. So in response to these lists of must-buy-now-to-ensure-student-success lists here are four things your kids really need for back-to-school.

Four Things Your Kids Really Need for Back to School

Sleep

Yeah, that’s right, your kids really really really need good sleep. So don’t worry if their jeans are running a bit short or you don’t have a winter jacket for them yet, try to encourage and enable good sleep. Limit screen time in the evening and insist on lights out at the same time each night. Your kids need sleep like they need good and nutritious food. It’s essential. And the benefits are not just less grumpy and more energetic kids: quality sleep reduces their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Reassurance

Change can be hard even for the most adaptable and easy going kid. We notice during this season of transition back to school that even our no fuss kids can have a rare meltdown or explosive behaviour(this book is really helping my family right now). If you have a sensitive child or one that struggles with change or transitions – you probably already know that the next few weeks are going to be tough on all of you. What to do? Give them some extra reassurance that you’re there for them and that even if it’s a rocky start to the school year, it will all be alright.

Lunch. Plain and simple.

This is the time of year where articles keep popping up with ’30 school lunch ideas’ and Instagram is filled with beautiful bento box lunches that look like a boutique Manhattan deli made them. If beautiful school lunches are your jam and something you love doing for your kids – enjoy! For the rest of us: just pack a lunch. Note: I got these YumBox lunch boxes for our family a few months back on sale (Vancouverites: Vancouver Community College clears them out at the end of the school year at a good discount) and they have actually made our life easier. I so rarely recommend products here but these really are great. We eat very simple lunches – fruit, vegetable, something substantial that is easy to make or leftovers – and these containers have made it easy for me to offload lunch making to my husband and the kids. They’re also so fast to fill up that if we are in a rush before leaving for a day trip I can have these things packed before I convince myself that buying lunch out is a good idea. 

Your attention.

Even ten minutes of your time each day in the next few weeks can be gold. No television on, no multi-tasking, no checking your phone. Be with them. Ask them how it’s going, who’s in their class and if they have any concerns. If they don’t want to talk about it and then do something with them: play, a board game, Lego, a walk around the neighbourhood, reading a chapter book together.

My oldest needs a new pair of shoes (and we will get them eventually) but I also know that the more important back-to-school items for him are sleep and a lot of quiet time as he gets used to a new school, new teacher and new classmates. My youngest also has a transition this fall so we won’t be planning much for the early evenings the next few weeks as he will be extra tired and emotional. And yes, I have to remind myself of all this stuff too as the onslaught of what to buy for back-to-school is everywhere. It is so pervasive that I even start to think, do we need to go shopping? What are we missing that’s important? Guess what, we’re not missing anything. The bigger things my kids need in a season of change can’t be bought in a store.

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