Sunday, November 24, 2013

Adventures in Tinking!

Along with about 20 other women, I'm participating in a 2-month long knit-a-long at Knit and Caboodle, my favorite fiber/yarn/knitting/crocheting/spinning shop; the project for November/December is a sweater. For the past three Thursday evenings, I've enjoyed seeing what everyone is making, the beautiful yarns they're working with, and the various techniques they are using. This past week, a lady at "my" table mentioned that she needed to do a bit of tinking.

I'm fairly new to knitting (only recently returned to it and moving beyond basic square and rectangular items) and the only things I know how to do are knit, purl, increase, and decrease, so I figured I needed to pay attention. I looked over to see what she was doing and saw that she was taking out some of what she had already knitted; I realized that "tink" is merely "knit" backwards!

The following evening, I dropped a stitch. Because I don't know how to fix a dropped stitch, I had to stop for the evening and planned to take my sweater to the shop to get some help. I realized this would be a good time to slip my stitches on to waste yarn (extra yarn not being used) so I could try it on. Ten minutes later, my slipped stitch was the least of my worries -- my sweater was too snug!

Saturday morning, I took my sweater into Knit and Caboodle and tried it on for Connie, the shop owner and one of the most patient, gentle people I have ever met. She agreed with me that it was a bit too snug (somehow, my gauge swatch assessment was incorrect), and we discussed various options. She pointed out that I had purchased good quality yarn and was creating a garment that would last for many, many years. I knew that even though it would be painful to unravel 3 weeks of work (about 1/4 of the body was complete), I wouldn't really be happy with the sweater unless it fit correctly.

I went home, fixed a cup of tea, and began tinking. Before I knew it, I could hear Kenny Rogers in my head:

       You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
       Know when to walk away and know when to run.
       You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
       There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

I'm not sure about those last two lines, but I do know the old gambler was right when he said a person needs to know when to "fold 'em", when to simply scrap something and maybe, as in my case, start over from scratch.

I know there have been times I stayed with a project or situation too long. The friendship gone toxic, a work situation that became unbearable, a craft project that was beyond my skill level, just to name a few. Until a few months ago, I suffered until the very last page of more than a few books that either didn't turn out to be what I was expecting or that were poorly written.

But in the past year or so, my perspective has changed. Oh, I haven't been quitting things right and left. I am, however, abandoning books with one-dimensional cliched characters and horrible plots. I've also thrown away 2 half-finished projects -- things I started before I had to box up everything when we put everything in storage to build a new house and that don't fit with the colors in my new home or my current style. It felt wonderful to cross them off my "projects to complete" list; I didn't realize until I threw them away how guilty I had been feeling about those unfinished projects sitting in my craft room!

I've also walked away from a few relationships. I gave up on a friendship with a person who rarely returned calls, who was happy to get together if I was driving a couple of hours to see her but who cancelled any plans that involved her doing the same. I simply stopped calling and leaving messages; when she never contacted me, I accepted the fact that the friendship meant more to me than it did to her.

Instead of finishing a horribly-written book, I've spent more time on my own writing. Rather than finish projects because I feel guilty, I'm spending my time creating things that bring joy to people I care about and to me. Giving up activities that I was doing out of habit -- turning on the television as soon as I walk in the house every day, for example -- has freed up time for new, enriching activities such as a daily walk, journalling, Bible study, and blogging.

Tinking my sweater wasn't much fun, but I didn't feel all that bad as my sweater was replaced by 2 rewound skeins of yarn. I've knitted a new gauge swatch (I'm going to have Connie check my count), and I'm ready to start again. I'm also ready to do some more tinking. I'll keep you posted!


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Taking Stock Financially

Finances can be a difficult topic to address; not only are money-related matters very personal, they are also amazingly complex. And although money is, of course, quite neutral (after all, it's just metal and paper), a discussion of how much we have and what we spend it on can quickly become an emotional minefield. No wonder many of us were taught as children that it's not nice to "talk about money".

Before I go any further, I want to stress a couple of things:

1) I'm no financial expert and will never claim to be. I've made my share of mistakes -- some small, some not-so-small. Fortunately, I've learned quite a bit from those mistakes.

2) I certainly do not claim that the decisions I've made are the right ones for anyone other than myself.

Of course, there's a huge backstory to my current financial situation, but I don't want to get bogged down in that, and I believe what I'm going to share will make sense without it. If not, feel free to ask any questions via a comment or email, and I will respond as best I can.

I am ashamed to admit that for most of my adult life -- single and then married -- my idea of budgeting involved getting paid, paying the bills, and spending whatever was left. A single's lifestyle and then married with two kids in school and active in Scouting and sports or other activities, meant spending what was left wasn't a problem. To my credit (no pun intended), after I started my current job 3 years ago, I began contributing to a Roth retirement fund and put aside money every month in a savings account to cover non-monthly expenses such as personal property tax and gifts (Christmas, birthday, etc). Still, though, no budget.

While re-reading a favorite nonfiction book last week, something I had obviously skimmed right over on my previous reading caught my eye. The author challenged readers to pull out their checkbook and any credit card statements; tally how much money was spent on various "categories" such as housing, entertainment, charitable giving, etc; and then honestly assess whether or not their spending reflected the priorities they claim to have. 

Ouch. I didn't have to pull out the checkbook to know the answer, but I decided I was going to meet his challenge and see how far off I was and make some changes. I logged on to my  online bank account and got to work. Using the electric bill pay part of my account, I quickly determined my average monthly payment for every bill I have (house payment, utilities, etc) for the past 12 months; using my online bank statement, I tallied and categorized all remaining spending for the past 6 months (because I had to do this manually, I could only force myself through 6 months worth of statements).

Using an online budgeting tool (at, I input my monthly income and each of my own average monthly payment by categories (housing, transportation, food, charitable giving, etc), broken down even further by bill, if applicable. For example, under food, I had "grocery store" and "eating out". What made this such a valuable activity, to me at least, is that the online budgeting tool shows not only the dollar amount spent for each category but also translates that dollar amount into the percentage of total spending.

I quickly saw that my initial hunch was right -- I wasn't spending my money in a way that reflected the values and priorities I claim to hold. In some respects, I was on-target, but I was actually farthest from the mark in the very areas that are most important to me.

As time allowed for the next several evenings, I went back to the budget printout. I pencilled in changes, ran the numbers, erased and wrote in new numbers. Finally, I came up with a budget that reflected what's important to me. In a perfect world, I'd be done. I'd begin implementing my new (aka "first") budget beginning with my November paycheck.

Unfortunately, I can't. Because of my current housing situation, the percentage of my income that *must* be allocated for housing and related expenses is too high and, as a result, throws the lower-end items out of whack.

As a result, I went from having no budget to having 2 budgets. The first is that budget I just described, which I now call my "Target Budget". I also have a 2nd budget, which I call my "For Now Budget", which is as close as I can get to my target budget at the current time. I also have action steps that will take me to a point where I can implement my target budget. The largest action step involves selling my current home; I had already put it on the market, and this budget-making process confirmed to me that I had done the right thing in doing so.

I have to admit that I am absolutely amazed at how great I feel after performing an activity that I have avoided like the proverbial plague and that involves my least-favorite (to put it mildly) subject -- math. The financial experts are right -- a budget is a wonderful thing!! I'm actually looking forward to payday and to implementing my new spending plan. I'll keep you posted!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thankfulness -- Really?

I don't remember the first time I read or heard that the key to being happy is being thankful. I do know that by the time my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I knew that one form or another of this principle could be found in the teachings of almost every belief system and philosophy.

In the first few days after my husband was diagnosed, I didn't think about thankfulness. Needless to say, my thoughts and energies were spent on "being there" for my husband and children, dealing with paperwork and phone calls, and trying to make sense of the new world my family had entered. But as the days passed and fear and sorrow threatened to consume my heart and mind, I remembered that I was supposed to be thankful "in everything".

I tried. Sporadically. When my mind wasn't occupied with medicine schedules and doctors appointments and "what nows" and a thousand other details that only those who have dealt with a debilitating disease up close and personal would recognize. When I look back at my journals from those weeks, I see evidence that I tried to be thankful but that I was struggling -- the same two or three things are listed every time -- that we found Dr. T, that my husband was eligible for a promising clinical trial, that many, many friends were praying for him and being so supportive. That's it; the same three things repeated like a mantra. I just couldn't come up with anything else.

After Steve passed away, thankfulness was far from my thoughts for months. The mental fog parted only when I was interacting with my son or daughter, dealing with some important piece of paperwork I couldn't ignore, or performing duties associated with my job.

Finally, though, I knew I had to make more of an effort to (oh, how I hate this phrase) "move on". I couldn't spend the rest of my life going through the motions and escaping through hours of television or sleep. One Friday after work, I stopped by the local Barnes and Noble, bought a chai tea latte, and headed over to the journal and blank books section. I knew myself well enough to know that unless I was very intentional about being grateful, unless I committed myself in some very tangible way to the act of being thankful, I would never be successful in focusing on gratitude. I found a beautiful red leather lined  journal, gulped at the price, bought it, and immediately sat down at a table in the cafe area to write my first entry.

That red journal filled up quite quickly. Not with a list of things I was grateful for; some days I wasn't really thankful for anything, and I wasn't going to be a hypocrite about it. Instead, I simply journaled on the topic of gratitude and how hard it was sometimes to practice an attitude of thankfulness. In the back of the book, starting on the very last page and working backward, I began a list of things I was thankful for. Eventually, I committed to writing down one thing per day. I quickly learned I needed another guideline -- no repeats. Before that rule was implemented (day 17), I had written "my children" 10 times!

I got into the rhythm of my list-keeping, but it had become fairly routine and uninspired when, one day while wandering around Barnes and Noble, I saw on a small table display a book titled One Thousand Gifts: Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp. I did something I don't remember ever doing before -- I bought it without even reading the back cover!

That night I began reading, and I discovered that while Voskamp and I have very little in common (she is a home-schooling mother of several young children -- I am the mom of two adult children; she is married -- I am widowed; and so on), we do share the practice of keeping a list of things for which we are grateful. Reading One Thousand Gifts changed my perspective on my practice on gratitude, and I moved from simply listing an item to slowing down (either then or, if absolutely impossible, later in the day) to contemplate that item and express my gratitude in some way. Many days, I simply thank my Creator; other days, I do that and more. For example, if I wrote down that I was thankful for "Lori", the helpful young lady behind the counter at Starbucks, I sent an email to the corporate office sharing with them my experience and what a great job "Lori" had done.

So is it true? Is thankfulness really the key to happiness?

I'm not