gimme shelter

hutWhen I lived both in Edmonton and Winnipeg, a surefire conversation starter in the elevator was the weather. Moving west, want to chat with anybody from the Lower Mainland?  Talk about the housing market.

We moved here just over a year ago and ended up renting a single detached house in the neighbourhood of one of the schools we had carefully chosen for Aaron.  This sounds simple, but finding a neighbourhood and then a house was fraught with great drama.  We flew out one day in February, me shaking with anxiety about the prospect of not having anywhere to live.

Yes, boo hoo, thanks to everybody who reminded us that we brought this on ourselves by selling our house in Edmonton and choosing to move to Vancouver (well, Burnaby).  But life is for living folks – a rare work opportunity arose here for me – as I’ve taught my children – it is your responsibility to not turn opportunity away.

We found this modest home in the first suburb of Vancouver through the persistence of a realtor recommended by my sister-in-law.  This was the best $300 we ever spent.  The rental market here is tight (and whacky), and there were slim pickins to be had, especially for people with cats.  We showed up with cash to this house and secured it on the spot.  The housing rental gods were shining down on us that day.

We’ve happily lived here for the past 15 months while we settled into our new lives. Renting wasn’t as horrible as I thought.  Our landlord is a decent guy who kindly leaves us Starbucks gift cards every time he has to inconvenience us in any way.

But nice landlords aside, the downfall of renting is a lack of housing security.  The chill of anxiety returned earlier this year when there were rumblings from our landlord about putting the house on the market.  Then a cryptic text last month confirmed it and we were faced with the prospect of finding somewhere to live once again.

Lest you think this is a silly first world problem (and it is, of sorts), let me remind you of Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Some say shelter is the most basic of needs; this version says it comes #2, classified as safety (and after excretion).


I’d say my anxiety is just plain ole fear about having nowhere to live.  It feels like looking down a barrel of a gun.

So the great Vancouver question is:  rent or own?  (Unless you are eligible for a housing co-op, which we are not). The natural answer is to just buy the house we are renting, but (wait for it………), this house is only ONE MILLION DOLLARS over what we can afford.  Recall, my position is at a children’s hospital, which isn’t the best ‘get rich quick’ place to work.

And though I’d dearly love to move into the Main Street-Little Mountain area of Vancouver, a single family home there is about TWO MILLION DOLLARS over what we can afford.  So let’s just scratch the whole single-family dwelling in a neighbourhood of your choosing thing off our list.

Now, here I could get into a long monologue about housing prices.  I’ve dove into these conversations with others, which of course brings in the foreign ownership question, which teeters on a racial theme, where people often say:  it is the the wealthy Chinese, to which I respond:  well, remember 2008 when the housing market in the US collapsed, and wealthy Canadians giddily bought up cheap houses in places like Phoenix?  And how many people do we know who have vacation homes in Mexico?  It is the same thing.  This is unfettered capitalism at its best – if our government doesn’t regulate buyers, this is exactly what is going to happen in our global economy.  It isn’t the wealthy Chinese; it is our government’s own doing.

Rant aside, here we are, in need of shelter on September 1, 2016.  This has been a rather long, agonizing process of grief, scratching ‘must haves’ off our lists.

Must haves:
->I’ll take anything.

And then:
Three bedrooms
At least 1200 sq feet

Separate entrance
Two floors
->I’ll take anything.

We narrowed down the neighbourhood – so my husband can ride his beloved mountain bike to work, only five minutes is added to my reasonable commute & Aaron can go to his neighbourhood high school.

After dragging our boy to numerous open houses, we walked into a beautifully appointed condo with a view in a high rise.  (I know my Edmonton friends, who live in the land of never-ending land, are not going to believe we were considering apartments).

On our realtor’s urging, I wrote a letter to the buyers explaining why we wanted their home:  we loved their design choices, as prairie folk, we would especially appreciate that stunning view, and why we wanted to live in this small neighbourhood – a location purposely chosen with an eye to nurture Aaron’s independence.  In a community of 3,000 there was a chance he’d be recognized and known, and one day he’d be able to walk alone to the grocery store.  (A huge goal for us).

So once you find what you want, you just show up with your money and bid on a place, right?  In the Lower Mainland, this is a naive assumption.  The asking price isn’t the asking price at all, it is just the starting price.  So don’t even bother offering the asking price.  The realtors have caused such an artificial frenzy in the market they are all saying:  Bid over!  Bid over!  So everybody does and zoooom – the prices go up and up to infinity  and beyond.We overbid, but not enough.  

But our little letter pushed us over the edge and we were welcome to resubmit our bid, slightly higher, to match the highest bid.  After much sweating on our part, we were accepted.  The influence of my letter is my little glimmer of hope that the real estate market isn’t just about the money – there is a touch of humanity in there too.

A nightmare of breath-holding, banks who don’t understand small businesses, banks & mortgage brokers who err on the side of thinking you are trying to cheat them,  a gutting of savings, etc. followed these past ten days.

Yesterday, the deal finally closed.  Our financing was approved.  In 4.5 weeks, we will be downsizing by half and moving into our deluxe apartment in the sky.  (Anybody want any of our excess furniture?  Camping stuff?  Tools?  Free to a good home!).

Can we handle apartment living?  We shall see.  We have secured housing (and hopefully an eventual asset) for our boy, which is a huge relief.  The Rolling Stones sum up this whole post:  first with Gimme Shelter and then:

You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you’ll get what you need.

ps:  this is also known as:  when entitled Albertans eat humble pie + learn to adapt to the Vancouver way.

i’ve been fed a lie

Image 2
Since relocating to the west coast last year, I’ve thought a lot about what matters to me.  To move here, we chose to give up something (single-detached home ownership, high Alberta incomes) in order to get something back (living ten minutes away from the ocean, cherry trees, year-round hiking & cheap sushi).

Now we are considering wading back into the real estate market, but this time it won’t be for a big ole house on the prairies, it will for be a tiny townhouse on the top of a mountain (if we are lucky).  Everywhere I go in Vancouver, I see old homes being demolished and big mansions being erected in their place.

So I’ve been thinking:  does having a big house really matter?  Does having a big house make people happy?  And at what cost?

I can apply this thinking elsewhere.  I’m enamoured with various minimalist Twitter feeds, like 5 kids, 1 condo and Joshua Becker.   This less is more mentality isn’t just about stuff and space, it is about what ambitions we chase so we can acquire all this stuff and space.  Those high grades.  That university degree.  That demanding job.  The busy trap.  Then, when we are parents, we transfer it onto our kids: the over-scheduled children, the pressure we attach to our offspring to achieve more than we ever did.  My own daughter retired from soccer at the tender age of 15, when the demands of more training, more goals, more fitness equalled no fun and no life.  My eldest son chose the university-less road less travelled as a musician, to the horror of many of my other mom-friends.

And then along came our love child, the youngest of five, a child with a ‘dis’ability.  Many folks consider Aaron, who ironically has more chromosomes than you or me, as less of a person.  This has manifested in less playdates, less birthday party invitations, more questions about prenatal testing, and most recently, a school system who has given up teaching my son any academics at all.  As if I have to apologize for his place in this world. Which I don’t.  And I won’t.

Today Louise Kinross, writing in BLOOM, caused me to pause.  It is slowly dawning on me:  maybe I’ve gotten it wrong all along.  I think I was fed a lie about what is important in this life.  And I wasn’t force fed this lie; I willingly and thoughtlessly accepted it.  Is value in our lives attached to how much we do?  How much we own?  How big our house is?  What our child’s IQ is?

Maybe I’m overcompensating for my small rental home, my mini-salary and my kid with a disability.   One thing I know for sure:  I’d better not squander my energy here on this earth on the vapid and the meaningless.  For this very moment is all I’ve got.

It is after school here in Vancouver.  The rare sun hangs heavy in the sky.  The chickadees are at the bird feeders and Aaron is digging around in the kitchen, talking to himself, making a little snack of tzatziki and crackers.  As usual, Stampy is playing Minecraft on his iPad.  My daughter and I are happily texting back and forth news from our ordinary days.  I’m thinking about pouring myself a glass of wine and slowly assembling dinner (chorizo tacos tonight, yum).  All of this is my bounty.  And that’s gotta be more than enough.


welcome to our modest home

Three years ago, we made the decision to sell our big house in the leafy neighbourhood to move to a much smaller house in the generic suburbs.  I always say that we did it to get our son into the (more inclusive) school across the street – but the other reason we moved was to downsize.  We downsized our possessions, our house, our mortgage, our taxes, our utilities and our renovation bill in the process.

I follow the Becoming Minimalist blog.  Today’s post is called The Things By Which We Get Embarrassed and reading it gives me comfort.  Everywhere I turn, media and society tells us – accumulate MORE MORE MORE.  We are in our mid-40’s/early 50’s and apparently in our highest earning years.  We have friends building massive mansions with soaring ceilings, granite countertops and hot tubs in the walk-out basement.  I am not beneath feeling great envy when we visit these spectacular homes.

For the first 18 months of living at our new modest place, I felt very embarrassed.  In my Canadian way, I apologized for everything about the new place.  I’d be quick to say:  we moved here for Aaron’s school, and apologize for the miniature front entry, the commute to get here and the lack of street parking.   I’d never admit that the other secret reason we moved is that I hated seeing my husband lie awake at night, worrying about the next huge renovation on our 50 year old house.  Our youngest son was not welcome at the old neighbourhood school.  Our eldest son had moved out, and there was just 4 of us rattling around an excessive amount of square feet.  Sometimes we could not even find each other in the house.  This seemed a bit ridiculous.  So we downsized considerably – in price and square footage – and moved twenty minutes south to a newer, affordable neighbourhood.  We’ve now been here over two years.

We had our annual open house last Friday and our little house was stuffed to the rafters with 40 people.  I used to have a twinge of pride when people came over to our old, prestigious house, and bask in the glory of their compliments (oh, this is such a nice neighbourhood!  Oh, your house is so beautifIMG_3671ul!).  Now I’m like:  Meh.  Stack your shoes at the front door, cram yourself inside, and here’s a drink.  

The thing is, last Friday, nobody cared about the size or location of our abode.  They were here for the food, Christmas cocktails and company.  Kids zoomed up and down the stairs chasing cats, while the adults happily ate ham sandwiches and Christmas baking.  The size of our house did not matter to anybody but the old me.   This year, I was so pleased that people bundled up their little kids and took the time to make the drive across town and to celebrate the holidays with us.  It meant a lot to me.  It is obvious that it is about the people inside the house, not the house itself.

This may sound silly to you, but this is an epiphany to me.  Now that our daughter has also moved out, our nest is emptying, and there is just the three of us.  We are putting this house up for sale in the spring.  We have a kid with a disability to save for, and debt to get rid of, and a basement that we never use.

Next up in our minimalist adventures?  Moving to a townhouse.  Who would have ever thought that?  As Joshua Becker says, we are getting embarrassed over the wrong things.  What if excess became the embarrassment? And responsible living that championed generosity became the norm?

Next December you are welcome to our annual open house.  You might have to stack your shoes higher at the front door, and squeeze in tighter to find some space amongst the revelers.  But the welcome will be warm, the food will be tasty, the baking will be homemade, and the cocktails will be strong.  You are welcome to follow us wherever we go.


the busy thing


The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win,
you are still a rat. – Lily Tomlin

Around this time of year, I post the article The Busy Trap on my Facebook page.  Well, this year, in an attempt to avoid the Busy Trap, I’m now off Facebook.  So I’m going to talk about The Busy Trap here instead.

I have been wondering lately if the trauma of the empty nest comes from a terror of being given the gift of time.  Suddenly you have time not driving to soccer practice, not nagging kids about homework, not making meals for a crowd, not doing laundry.  You have time with your partner.  You find yourself standing in your kitchen with nothing to do.

Most of us like to fill that time with The Busy.  Joshua Becker on the Becoming Minimalist explains why we do this in his post:  Nine Lies that Keep Our Schedules Overwhelmed.

I own my own business, and have a decent writing and speaking career.  I also have three children and two step-children.  And a husband.  And two cats.  But I’m purposely not busy.  Aaron has helped me slow down.   I live a quiet life.  I might be in the minority, but Joshua’s piece reminded me that’s ok.

This may be an age thing.  I reside in a city that gains 2,000 new people every month.  There are traffic and crowds everywhere.  I crave the peace of a slower pace.  (I realize that this is why people retire in sleepy towns with warm weather).

Here’s what I have figured out:

You can’t be creative when you are busy.
You don’t pay attention to what’s happening around you when you are busy.
You can’t be grateful when you are busy.

And the sad thing is, when your kids are busy too, they can’t cultivate that creativity, mindfulness or gratefulness.  There’s just no time to think when you are dashing from place to place.

Try sitting on the veranda after work and have a leisurely glass of wine with your partner.  Drop the activities that are scheduled right after school, so you don’t have to rush after you pick up your kids.  Even better, don’t drive, and walk slowly home from school  instead.  Make the time for a long, hot bath with a trashy magazine.  Turn off your phone.  Hide your laptop. Stay in your pajamas on weekend mornings.  Sit around and read the newspapers.  Lie on your couch and watch Downton Abbey with a purring cat on your lap.  Go to bed early so you can read a long luxurious book.

I do all these things all the time.  Maybe this makes me lazy.  But I’m very happy to avoid the alternative, because who wants to be a rat?

return to the land of the living

lifeisbeautiful copy When I was 33 years old, I took up smoking. This was really stupid. Who starts smoking at age 33 as the mother of two young children?

My marriage had just broken up. I was living in Norway, where everybody smokes furiously. Smoking filled up that deep dark hole that had been shot in the middle of my heart.

Here’s the thing about addiction: once it starts, it feels good. I loved smoking. It allowed me to escape my single mom life for a few minutes on that Bergen balcony, and it perversely felt physically good.

Thankfully, ten months later, I started dating a really healthy guy (my current husband) and I was terrified he’d find out that I was a secret smoker. I brushed my teeth constantly and took a lot of fragrant showers. The weekend we went away camping together, I forced myself to quit cold turkey, forever. I was a bitchy, agitated mess, and I’m shocked that we stayed together. He’s a good man.

I will now confess that I have the same addiction to my iPhone. Here’s how I calculate I spent my time on this Earth:
-60% of time looking at Facebook, Twitter or Instagram on my phone.
-20% of my time rummaging around for my phone – digging in my purse, feeling in my pockets, patting my butt.
-20% of my time frantically searching for my temporarily misplaced phone.

I fell into some very bad habits. My phone was plugged in beside me in bed just in case a wayward child texted me. I checked my Instagram feed just before I went to sleep. I scrolled through my social media feeds to wake up in the morning. I glanced at my screen at traffic lights. I stopped thumbing through magazines at the grocery store check out, and instead waited with my head down, reading Facebook posts.

There was a thrill in seeing a new notification on Facebook or Twitter. I became deeply sucked into the zing that went along with that validation. After my article Far from my Tree was published in the New York Times, my Twitter feed went wild. My heart beating loudly, I took a screen shot of the dozens of notifications, knowing that I’d soon be back down from my high to one or two paltry mentions or retweets a day.

I knew I had a problem, but felt helpless in the face of this technology addiction.

I listened to Carl Honore at a conference, where he shared about the danger of technology and our endless need to get more, more, more. I read meditation books to help centre myself and be in the moment. I could zone in the moment for only a moment, before I was glancing down at my phone, which had become my sweaty third hand.

“Put boundaries on technology” said the experts. I’d hide my phone and then seek it out after 30 minutes, compelled to scroll again. Moderation wasn’t working for me.

Now, I know myself well enough that I never installed my email onto my phone. Remember in the olden days, when you’d rush home eagerly to see if anybody left a message on your answering machine? Well, checking my email was like that. Since I didn’t have every single bit of incoming contact on my mobile device, I would run upstairs and check the email on my laptop when I got home to see if any ‘good’ emails came in. (Remember when all emails were good? Now most of my emails are bad: spam, problems, people wanting me to do things for them). Because of the inconvenience of my laptop, which lived on the third floor of my house, I soon was able to keep the lid closed for hours at a time.

On my phone, it was a different matter. I carried it around with me like my little baby. (Be honest. How many times have you texted while in the bathroom?). Facebook was becoming a serious problem. I censored my feed carefully, but still felt like a loser when I read everybody’s shined up Christmas letter version of their lives. Extravagant vacations, robust social lives, perfect children, statistics on their recent marathons – the reasons for my envy were many.

Twitter pissed me off less, but reading those 140 characters was so addictive, and even better than Facebook – because I followed over 300 people, there was constantly an update on it. I could check it, put down my phone, and then two minutes later, five tweets appeared. For an addict, this was awesome.

I have a small feed on Instagram, and a little more control. But my Facebook envy bled into Instagram. Sitting in my car in the middle of frozen winter looking at beach photos did not help with my morale one bit.

Then I read Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain by Daniel J. Levitin. He says you cannot daydream while you are checking your iPhone. They require different parts of your brain. When I was groping for my phone at 6 am, my brain was immediately clicking into organizing mode. Any creative function clicked off.

Well, I’m a writer. I have committed to not having a Busy Life so that my mind has time to knock around aimlessly and I can think of ideas and reflect upon concepts. I stopped overscheduling myself a year ago, and this has given me the luxury of daydreaming. Except when I’m checking my phone.

Last week, I deleted all my social media apps off my phone. I deactivated my Facebook account. All I can do is text or phone. Twitter and email wait for me on my laptop upstairs. Otherwise, when I’m driving, or standing in line, or waiting for my son to finish playing video games at the movie theatre, I am actually present. I’m looking around (this is especially helpful when I’m driving a motor vehicle). I watch the kids giggle as they play pinball.  I join Aaron in a car race game, and we speed through the streets of Paris in sports cars.  I eavesdrop on interesting conversations at restaurants.  I smile at the elderly lady in the grocery line. I chat with the cashier.

Discarding the distractions on my phone has lifted my head up. I am no longer obliged to have my phone glued to my hand. Sometimes (gasp), I even leave my phone at home. For me, this is revolutionary.  It has been a week.  Can this almost-cold turkey with technology last?  Check back with me in a month and send me a direct message on Facebook – hopefully I won’t respond.

For right now, I’m back in the moment, and I’m paying attention. I’m weaning myself off the addiction of the validation of the likes, comments and notifications. I’ve rejoined the land of the living.