Spring in February

The weather here in Milwaukee, like much of the Midwest, has been crazy warm for a while. Warm spells in February aren’t unheard of here but this one is longer than usual. While I’m a little bit worried about triggering perennials to bud out too early and then get damaged as temperatures return back to normal, it’s been nice to get outside. The kids and I have been to a few parks, they’ve broken out shorts already, and the ground thawed enough that I was able to do a partial clean out of the chicken run.

Changing seasons has me thinking about change in general. We’re on a good financial path right now. We ended 2016 low in savings but we’re quickly making up that ground in 2017 and by the end of March should be able to resume a more aggressive debt payment schedule. Maria’s variable rate student loan keeps creeping up but the priority remains the much higher mortgage rate. But in mid-January I realized something else did need to change.

I was gaining weight most of 2016 and by early January 2017 I was 240 pounds and feeling sluggish, bloated, and blah most of the time. I was trying to diet but it was clear I was having a hard time moderating carb intake. Despite ridiculing grain-free and, even more so, low carb diets I decided to try eating very low carb. I’m in a ketogenic diet group for inspiration, support, and ideas but I don’t track strict macros. Instead I eat completely grain-free, and eat small amounts of fruit and high carb veggies like potatoes and carrots.

For someone who loves to bake with wheat flour and has invested in such things has stone flour mills, this was a big plunge. Amazingly, I feel great and rarely deprived. I still struggle with cheating certain sweet things, like dark chocolate (in excess), but surprisingly I don’t miss grains much at all. Except beer – I do miss that! – but I should be able to add it back (in moderation) once I reach my goal weight range. Also interestingly, I used to only be able to tolerate cheese in moderation without having bad gas and sinus congestion, but now I can successfully use cheese as a good source of fat and protein with very little discomfort at all.

In a bit over a month I have lost 10 pounds. My mood was, for a week or two, quite unstable – particularly anxiety – but that seems to have also settled down. Combined with the warmer weather I’ve been feeling good enough to be more active again, both doing cardio and some resistance training again. I need to get in shape for the gardening season, after all!

Another change I’ve made is developing an interest in firearms. I’ve always been casually interested in guns but never to the point of even buying one. We recently bought a pistol intended for self-defense use and I’ll be getting my CCW permit in the next month or two. I take the required training class in March and should have my permit to carry by early April. In the meantime, I’m carrying around the home all the time to get used to the weight of a gun and evaluate my choice of holster. Occasionally I will open carry while at parks and such. While perfectly legal in Wisconsin, I do however prefer to wait until I can legally carry concealed when in public.

The pistol I chose, for those curious, is an FNS-9C. It’s a little heavier than single-stack carry guns but it fits my hand nicely and I’m already turning out pretty good groupings at the range for my experience level. I’ll be saving up to buy another gun soon, probably a .22 caliber pistol or rifle, depending on where I can find a good place to begin teaching the kids basic gun safety and marksmanship. I may also set up a little Airsoft range in the garage. They’re too young for most of the ranges around here.


Thoughts on 2017

The beginning of a new year naturally triggers introspection and reevaluation. I’ve approached this in many different ways over the years. Formal resolutions, S.M.A.R.T. goals, informal resolutions, sorta-kinda wishes. I like the path I’m walking on currently. There’s not an existential desire to step off the path and blaze one in a new direction. What there is in my mind today is a desire to reflect on the path and balance out a few things.

Balance will be one of my mantras in 2017. I like where I’m at individually with Maria, the kids as a father, the kids as a teacher, the homestead, but I feel like these are too often disparate arenas of my life, not a cohesive hole. Priorities juggle, time spent on each comes and goes in fits and starts. I want to blend my life better.

While on the path I also need to open my spiritual senses better, understand my faith as it stands, as I wish it to be. I’m comfortable saying that I believe in a god, that I pray, that it is a personal relationship. There is a spiritual presence that has walked with me for many, many years. A presence, a voice much like conscience but which does not feel wholly internal. I’ve long struggled to interpret it and think all of my interpretations have so far been mistaken. It is what it is. I am who I am. God is, whatever it is. I’ve talked in other posts about forms of magic, about ways the divine clearly (to me) emanates in the physical world.

There is no need to have answers on this by the end of 2017. Indeed, one of the best things about spirituality is the need to accept mystery. The restraint to keep it at that rather than formalize and sterilize into ritual and doctrine.

Simply, I want to be a better person. We should all wish this, each and every year we journey on the earth. For me, part of becoming better is cultivating this spirituality. Make it a part of my every day life instead of something I’ve partitioned off and only occasionally remembered to re-examine. I’ll likely write more about this through the year but I think that is enough for today.

A few of my favorite pictures from 2016 (in no particular order):

First baby rabbits born!

First baby rabbits born!

First homegrown egg

First homegrown egg

Posing one of our first rabbits.

Posing one of our first rabbits.

A look at our crazy urban homestead early in the summer.

A look at our crazy urban homestead early in the summer.

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The day I finished the chicken run, though it's seen a lot of changes since.

The day I finished the chicken run, though it’s seen a lot of changes since.

Last day at the rural garden before everything froze and snowed. Excited to see what this will yield in 2017

Last day at the rural garden before everything froze and snowed. Excited to see what this will yield in 2017

Spreading compost with the kids in March.

Spreading compost with the kids in March.


The role of death

Have you ever focused on how many things must die in order that you must live?

The centrality of death, indeed the life-giving power of death, is a central role of the Catholic faith I was raised in and am reevaluating. Jesus died (many believe) to give us new life in the resurrection. One of his famous sayings was that of the seed that must die in order for the plant to be born. Death and resurrection is critical to the faith, but it was never personal for me as a believer. It was a saying, a tenet of theology, not something I felt in my heart of hearts.

Nature is a brilliant symphony, beautiful yet efficient and wholly violent. Things are constantly dying (or, in the case of inanimate matter, being subsumed and transformed) and being born. Everything is food for everything else. Even we, apex predators, are dirt and to dirt we must return. Do we appreciate how much life we take in order that we live? Do we appreciate the intimate role of death in every meal, every day, every year we walk on the earth?

Those who read my homestead blog know we’ve had a lot of death this year. They upset me, both in terms of emotional trauma and in terms of wasted effort because the animal could not go on and be productive for us. The past few mornings I’ve gone out prepared to find dead (or dying and needed to be put down) kits as we’ve lost two weak ones to the cold weather.  Finding them didn’t affect me as much as the earlier deaths. Was I getting callous? I initially thought so.

Then I remembered that death is absolutely central to our lives. Every day we are killers, not because we are monsters, but because that is what life is. We lose something when we sterilize our relationship with life energy. When we are always presented with sterile food we have no intimate connection with, death can only ever be a terrible and traumatic thing.

Being a homesteader, participating directly in the circle of life and death, has given me a new perspective. Death has a role other than trauma. Death is absolutely necessary. If we participate in it ourselves, we enter into a powerful stewardship role with the life energy we too easily take for granted.


Sacred Magic and Finding the Divine

I’m writing this to work a few things out. I’ve changed tremendously over the past few years. What’s amazing is that with all that change, my relationship with Maria has only gotten deeper, more wonderful, and showers me with gratitude our lives are linked on this journey.

For some reason, religion has been coming up a lot in conversation lately, so it’s prompted me to pull a few mental programs out and re-examine them. I’m comfortably settling in to my post-Catholic belief in some form of the divine even at the same time Maria attends church and our children are being raised in the faith we both grew up in. At the time I wrote this post, my position was still relatively new. If you’re a newer reader, most of what I wrote there is relevant to the beliefs I have two years later but I’m not going to rehash the same points. I’d read that and then come back here.

Humanity’s knowledge of the world has progressed very far since the founding of the major world religions. Dismissing religion as something needed only to explain what has not yet been explained is not something I see as correct. If anything, as science has progressed from early reductionism, we’ve discovered more mystery. Soil-food webs, ecology, the microbiome, epigenetics and more are fields that are revealing incredibly complex networks. The interconnectedness of all life is mind-boggling. I’m okay if they never get explained. Mysteries, to my mind, provoke more respect than positive knowledge.

I diverged from the Catholic tradition in a lot of small ways over time. Looking back with the perspective of a few years’ distance, the division was forced by two wedges.

Wedge #1. The sacred is absolutely a thing. The author of Meditations on the Tarot is absolutely correct when he refers to the sacraments of the Church as sacred magic. While I’ve experienced mystical peace in several settings, my two most powerful experiences were in churches. The sacred energy in the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and, even more so, in the crypt churches of the National Basilica practically bowled me over. When I was a believer, the sacred energy in the Eucharist was incredibly powerful, nor do I look back on it all and see it as a figment of imagination.

The Church, and in truth probably all faiths that have not twisted themselves to the dominion of others (e.g. fundamentalist currents or other perverted currents like the prosperity gospel), possess conduits of immense power. This is going to sound relativistic, but if those religions work for their believers, all power to them. The divine is like pure white light, and each religion a prism that breaks the infinite oneness into slightly different discrete, but understandable, spectrums comprehendable by our finite minds. Humans tune in to the energy around them.

But despite my respect for the sacred magic in the possession of the Catholic Church, I had to leave. My experience of the sacred power in the Basilica’s crypts was 2 years after leaving the Church. I know the sacred energy is there, but I can’t tap into it in the form its active believers do. There are just too many differences between me and the stated teachings of the Church. The principle three are as follows.

I’m bi-sexual. I believe this is the first time I’ve “come out” to many of the readers here, so it may shock some. I realized my dual sexuality only somewhat recently and in fact I used to be an outspoken anti-gay person in my youth. Looking back with new clarity, in hindsight a variety of small experiences growing up make a lot more sense. I’m obviously happily married straight, so this really doesn’t change my life, but it is who I am. Moreover, I don’t see anything wrong with homosexuality. Embracing it creates a lot of good. Oppressing it through legal force, stigma or by ‘curing’ people creates a lot of tortured souls.

I think the Catholic position on reproduction is wrong, or at least is not universally workable. If science could develop a 100% effective birth control method that wasn’t permanent, I think it would be a major coup to human well-being. Sex is an incredibly important bonding experience. Having been through three surprise pregnancies, even though we did want to keep them, was a trying emotional experience for me – and I can only barely comprehend what they were like for Maria. Seeing the intense emotion of a partner is a shadow of experiencing it for yourself.

Life has a way of surprising us, it’s true, and I don’t think perfect control is necessarily the ultimate good but no one should have to go through that if they do not want to. Unwanted and unloved children live miserable lives. Yes, there’s adoption, but first the massive social stigma associated with carrying pregnancies to term and then giving them up needs to be fixed. The clusterfuck that is the family court system also needs to be fixed. Seriously, talk to any foster parent.

Abortion is not a good thing in my mind. Like many not-very-good things, however, it’s been with us for nearly all of human history. Wise women of many cultures found and secretly passed the knowledge of natural medicines to terminate pregnancies down. Until unwanted pregnancies can be prevented, abortion is going to be a thing, and taking away access to it before solving the rest of the issues is folly.

It’s a mess no matter how you look at it but the more I compared my inclinations versus the teachings of the Church, it drove me away.

The third issue is my distaste for the intensely hierarchical nature but a lot of this feeds into the second full wedge.

Wedge #2. Jesus said “Wherever two or more are gathering in my name, I am with them.” The central ritual – and most potent sacred magic – co-opted the Jewish blessing before every meal, the breaking of the bread. The central prayer asks God to “give us our daily bread”. The sacred magic is in the gathering, in the food, in the home.

The sacred magic was quickly co-opted by an elite priesthood. The ritual was taken out of the home and put back into temples where believers face the invisible God instead of facing each other and finding God in the connections between us all.

Think of how much wealth and life energy has been tied up in religious structures over time! Monuments to the sacred have their role, something my own experiences can’t deny, but still I wonder what the human landscape would look like if the major religions devoted their energy and money to neighborliness instead of capital-intensive structures. Plain communities, for all their human flaws, give us a glimpse at what might have been and could be.

Joel Salatin and I would disagree over the social issues I highlighted above, but a thing in his Christian faith I absolutely respect is his commitment to ‘home church’. They worship in the house, as I think it was always intended by Jesus himself. They have an intensely personal relationship with God, and the families who share the journey with them. This faith energy is bound up in the home, in the meal, in each other – not an impersonal structure separated from the home. It’s powerful stuff.

In his most recent book, he talks about Jesus’ parable of the wheat, that only if the seed dies can it give life. All life requires death. Every meal, every breath we take is the result of a sacrifice. Our fundamental relationship with creation is drawn to a head around our table. Do we worship with our food? Do we worship with those we share a meal? Do we worship in the home? Food, life energy, is so important. Disconnecting the central ritual of Christianity from this basic truth is a mistake.

I’m not sure how to go about finding partners on this journey. I’m not arrogant enough to say I have truth. I’m no prophet or priest. My beliefs are so different from the norm. They’re also nebulous, wisps of wordless thought I can barely grab onto long enough to force into words. I’m frankly surprised this piece has come out as coherent as it has.

If you have one, what is your faith journey like?

Do you search for the divine outside of a conventional religion? What is your ‘worship’ like?  Have you found others to share it with?


Illness two ways

I’ve spent two of the last three weeks sick, depressed, crippled with anxiety, or all three. Both physical illnesses have been things with few symptoms other than overpowering fatigue and some nausea. I’ve spent a lot of time laying down listening to podcasts because I’m too tired to be “up” but not tired enough to fall asleep, my brain requiring stimulation even though my body wasn’t capable of doing much.

With the exception of a few good days scattered about, depression has also been kicking my ass lately. Not sure why, but all of a sudden my mood stability has vanished. I have tools and techniques acquired in my long battle with this that help, but it’s so disconcerting when you go from stable to a mental and emotional wreck in a span of hours.

It’s both easier and harder because I homeschool the kids. Easier because we set our own schedule. Harder because every day I’m sick or otherwise disabled I feel like I’m failing the kids. Which of course feeds the depression monkey in a self-hatred loop. Not exactly helpful.

Yesterday the kids and I walked to the library to get books for the kids to read in their free time and materials for a school unit I want to do. By the time we got home I was so tired I just fell in bed until dinner, which thankfully was just leftovers that needed to be reheated. I hate accepting limitations, I’m a very stubborn person, but I have to accept them or things only get worse.

Yesterday we also got confirmation that Maria’s car will need a whole new transmission. The rebuild is estimated at about $2700. I knew this was a very real possibility, and we save aggressively to keep it from being an undue hardship. But it’s still a gut punch. It’s not progress towards our ultimate goals.

Fall is normally my favorite season but it’s sure been shitty this year. I keep doing the work I can and I know I’ll turn the corner.


An update after pulling back

Making the decision to share significantly less financial details and exiting the MMM forum community has had the effect I wanted. My depression and circle of self-hatred around my perception of our progress has lessened considerably. This was definitely the right decision. I appreciate the kind words many of you wrote here and in my forum journal.

Just today I completed another step and purged a lot of old posts here on the blog. With web archives, nothing ever truly disappears from the web, but I deleted all of the financial detail posts other than net worth, which I plan to continue updating as it’s a nice big-picture look at our journey to financial independence. I also deleted a bunch of old posts that just don’t really fit with the blog anymore, cutting the post numbers by about 25%.

I’ve been doing some structured school with the kids, but for the most part the past three months has been an unplanned experiment with unschooling. I’m building more school back in but the next two months will remain somewhat busy as I am busy preserving the harvest and closing out sections of the garden for winter. I’m also learning the idiosyncracies of our livestock.


Pulling back and moving forward

I don’t talk about it very much, but long-time readers and many who know me in person know that I struggle with depression. While I don’t have a clinical diagnosis, in a lot of ways I suspect I’m actually bi-polar. Thankfully for my homesteading, often the manic periods line up with the times I need to be the most active getting projects done. Unfortunately, the last couple weeks have been really rough on the depression end of things.

Depression is hard to explain for those who don’t struggle with it themselves, and people experience it differently. One change it’s clear I have to make is pulling back on how much I share about personal finances. I’ve learned and benefited a lot from a popular frugality and early retirement-focused forum but sharing details on there contributes to a lot of self-hate when I feel like I’m spending too much or making inefficient decisions. In reality, we’re choosing our values, and no one is living this life but ourselves.

Sharing financial details, even when no one makes critical comments, makes me implicitly feel the need to justify every expense. We’ve spent a lot of money lately getting our rabbit-chicken enclosure up, I ordered a second chest freezer, and many other things that help support our chosen lifestyle. Which in turn leads to a self-hate criticism feedback loop that is, for obvious reasons, not healthy. So I’m closing the book on that part of my life, at least for the time being.

A second change I’m contemplating is separating out the homestead posts into a new blog and keeping this one for personal reflections. As I build a little business, I think it makes sense to segregate things a little. I’ll for sure post here when that is up and running if I do end up going that route. I’ll probably also create a Facebook page for quick little posts, like interesting harvests, etc.

I’ve been busy, affected by the depression, and my carpal tunnel has been severely acting up – all of which leads to me writing much less than usual. I thank those who do read and comment. Sharing parts of my life has helped me work things through, and maybe my lunatic gardening has inspired a few of you. The garden right now is a little sad looking but I’m already compiling ideas for how to make it better next year.