Introducing TWO New Demipinte Series

As of today, I’ve been on maternity leave since October 2018. Our son was born in November 2018 and my husband wrapped up his paternity leave in January 2019. We’re now in April, which means I have been flying solo as a full-time homemaker for five months.

Not only do I spend my days raising our son, I also spend them doing chores. Anyone who knows me and/or who has lived with me will know that there are some chores that I really can’t stand doing. Ever since moving out of my parents’ house at 18 I’ve been something of an undomestic goddess: I am very good at making messes in the name of DIY projects and culinary adventures, but not so good at cleaning up right away.

But now that we have a human baby and two furbabies, those days of letting any of my chores pile up are long behind me. In the name of sanitary and sane living for our entire family, my mornings and evenings are ruled by a chore rotation that allows me to keep things orderly in the small spaces of time I have that aren’t devoted to the baby.

And on top of keeping a baby alive while keeping our home clean, I’ve also been put in charge of our finances. Up until now my husband has been our CFO, but we both decided that it was finally time for me to take the reins and learn how to properly manage a true grown-up budget. It’s not like I’ve never managed money – I managed my own when I was single and scraped by – but now as a married adult with a child managing money is an entirely different challenge. In addition to keeping our living expenses reasonable, we are working on paying off the last of our debt as well as finally starting to set aside proper savings.

As both the new family CFO and head of household maintenance, I’m constantly trying to keep our finances well in the black without us losing a comfortable and decent standard of living. In the last few months I’ve learned a lot and I know as we progress through my maternity leave and eventually back into me being a working mother I’ll keep learning.

But right now I feel like I’m ready to start sharing what I’ve learned so far with you!  In light of this, I’ll be breaking down my experiences into separate blog posts in two new Demipinte Series called Snazzy Shoestrings, which is all about how we’re living happily while cutting costs and reducing our expenses, and  Spending Smart for the Home On… for my personal insights on very specific items that we own versus more popular versions of the same thing.

Today I’ll be doing the two of them together, but going forward I might split them into separate posts especially if they don’t relate to one another.  However, this week the Snazzy Shoestrings subject works really well with the one for Spending Smart, so it just seemed right to launch them together in one post.

Now, before we begin I will say that some of these are things we’ve been doing ever since we first started dating and others are things we started when we became parents, but they’ve all saved us a fairly decent amount of money to date.  Also, I’m not sponsored by any brands or companies and I’m not earning any money off this blog at this point in time.

Alright.  Here we go!

 

Snazzy Shoestrings
Reducing Household Waste:  The Food Budget

We’re not a zero-waste family and at this point in time, becoming one is not a goal we have in mind. But what we are striving for is a reduction in our physical household waste so that we reduce financial waste, especially in our food budget.  We found a lot of waste in our groceries (overbuying food or forgetting about what we bought were our biggest pitfalls) and in eating out (we ordered take-out more in our son’s first year of life than we did in all of 2018 prior to his birth). We approached this challenge from a couple of different angles.

We keep a master list of core items and food staples for the rest of our regular meals at home and we only buy what we need of perishables. We revise this master list every few months and we shop for these at various markets and grocery stores so that we can take advantage of what fresh local produce is in season as well as any weekly sales or flyer deals, and depending on where we shop any given week we also have opportunities to use store rewards programs such as PC Optimum to trade in points we’ve collected on previous purchases for a monetary amount off a larger grocery bill.

We do have a Costco membership as well, since shopping at Costco can give you a really good bang for your buck if you do it right. Some of the few prepackaged foods we eat as well as many of our bulk food items and non-edible household essentials are priced better at Costco than other stores we have access to where we live, so we get them there while store-hopping around each week for everything else.

One thing we decided to invest in was a GoodFood subscription. Having the GoodFood subscription gives us new recipes to try without us overbuying items we normally don’t buy, and gives us a break from our usual menu without the price tag of eating out or having food delivered. Our plan is the basic box of three meals (two servings per meal) each week, which costs us $65 CAD. It’s still not as cheap as cooking entirely from scratch for those three meals, but it’s not as expensive as eating out whenever we’re tired of our staple, more basic home-cooked meals. What we really like about the GoodFood box is that we get exactly what we need for each meal, we’re sticking to our policy of eating produce that’s in season, we’re supporting local farmers, and all of the packaging can be recycled or reused.

By the way, we still do leave room in our budget for restaurant food, but by setting a hard limit on what we can spend on restaurant food every month we’ve managed to drastically reduce our expenditure on restaurants. What’s nice about our restaurant budget is that whatever we don’t spend on restaurants in one month gets carried over into the next month, so once in a while we can afford to go out somewhere really nice for a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary. In fact, the prospect of being able to have a special date somewhere really nice is such a motivator that sometimes we actually don’t eat out at all one month so that for the next month we have double our restaurant budget.  And we’re not above using Groupon vouchers from time to time, either.

***

Working to reduce not only what we spend on food but also on actual food waste means overall we’re saving a fair amount every month in this budget category. Food you throw out, no matter how cheap it was, is still wasted money.

Are you also trying reduce your spending on your food budget without resorting to the eating habits of a broke college student?  How are you getting the most bang for your buck out of your groceries?  Let us know in the comments below!

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And now for…

Spending Smart for the Home On…
…Carbonated Water

We stopped buying carbonated beverages a long time ago, including carbonated water , but we actually drink sparkling water pretty much every day.  And we drink a lot of it.

Instead of buying Perrier or San Pellegrino, we use a carbon dioxide (CO2) cylinder to get our fix of fizz. We actually opted for a rented CO2 tank over a SodaStream machine, which is widely recommended when you’re trying to consume less sugary soda but  also keeping up at home with your cravings for bubbles in order to reduce the cost of doing so.  For example, The Financial Diet channel on YouTube cites the SodaStream in a few of their videos as an appliance worth investing in to save you money in the long run.

Before we go any further and start talking about how much things cost, I’m going to point out now that nothing below factors in sales tax, which where we live (Quebec) works out to about 15%.  However, because here in Canada the listed price doesn’t include the tax when you’re shopping, I’m going to follow that model and give all the figures as pre-tax amounts.

Here’s a basic rundown of SodaStream prices, using figures in Canadian dollars from their Canadian website as well as prices from Canadian Tire:

  • Starter pack: Anywhere from $89.99 for the cheapest model at Canadian Tire to $199.00 for the most expensive one on the SodaStream site; starter pack includes machine and one cylinder of CO2
  • Accessories: As shown on the SodaStream site, accessories range from bottle caps at $3.79 for 2 to bottles from $9.99 for one 1L bottle to $19.99 for a 3-pack of 1L bottles; and fancier 1L glass carafes for $15.99
  • Flavour packs: Individual packs at $5.49 for Drops, $6.99 for Classic, $7.99 for Waters, and $9.99 for Organics, or a variety pack of 3 Fruit Drops flavours for $11.99
  • Spare/extra CO2 cylinder measuring 14.5oz (just under 1lb) of CO2 to create 60L of fizzy water: $35.99 at Canadian Tire or $39.99 from SodaStream’s website, then extra for the gas refill

Using our own realistic purchasing habits and reasonings as a guide for a SodaStream purchase, let’s say my husband and I made an initial purchase of the following SodaStream products:

  • cheapest starter pack:  $89.99
    (comes with a tank and a machine as do all the starter kits but it’s $30 cheaper than the next model up)
  • one glass carafe: $15.99
    (this is me being extra — it’s for when we’re having a nice meal with people and the table setting needs to look pretty and Instagram-worthy)
  • one two-pack of extra caps:  $3.79
    (since caps tend to get misplaced around here)
  • one spare cylinder:  $35.99
    (so we don’t have to rush immediately to the store for a refill every time a cylinder runs low, we can pop the next one in and wait to/forget to replace the first one for  a week)
  • one flavour pack:  $6.99
    (we actually don’t flavour our fizzy water, but I’ll be honest and say that if we were to buy a SodaStream we’d want to try at least one Classic flavour)

Even going for the cheapest starter pack possible, our hypothetical SodaStream system would cost us $152.75 for the initial purchase, pre-tax.

With a rented CO2 cylinder we’re still able to carbonate our own water at home. Our CO2 cylinder rental from a company here in Montreal called Air Liquide and it’s huge:  it’s 50lbs of CO2. We store it in the kitchen next to our water cooler.

If you’re wondering why we would bother with a gigantic, unwieldy thing full of carbon dioxide that takes up floor space instead of purchasing a machine that can sit elegantly on our counter and doesn’t look so scary, we’ll have to do some math.  Actually, a fair bit of it.  Here we go:

  • cylinder rental (50lbs cylinder for 1 year): $75.00
  • gas lock line & carbonator cap:  $30.99 
  • regulator:  $56.99
  • 3 reusable glass jugs that originally held 64L of beer each: Free
    (an old roommate of mine bought them for the beer, I kept them to reuse as serving jugs)
  • 1 each of empty 500mL, 1L, and 2L plastic soda bottles:  Free
    (we get these as we need them from our friends and family whenever they have empty ones — they have to be bottles that contained soda or other carbonated beverages in order to properly introduce the CO2 to the H2O)

Pre-tax total initial investment:  $162.98. That’s $10.23 more up front than the SodaStream system, but hang on a sec.  We’ve got some more math in terms of the cost for consuming fizzy water using both methods, but for the sake of simplicity I will not factor in SodaStream flavourings (and realistically for my husband and myself we’d either not finish the flavouring within a year because it’d get lost at the back of the fridge, or we’d just not bother buying more once it’s gone.) From here on out we’re talking just bubbly H2O.

With a SodaStream, one cylinder is 14.5oz — which is a little under one pound, but for the sake of easier math let’s call it 1lb.  The 1lb SodaStream cylinder produces 60L of fizzy water, so if we drink 1L of carbonated water per day, it should take us 60 days, or roughly two months, before we need a new cylinder.  At Canadian Tire, we can exchange an old cylinder a new one is $19.99 ($16 off the original price of $35.99 for a brand-new one).  Even with two canisters we’d only be replacing one at a time, so instead of replacing one canister six times we’d be replacing two canisters three times each. In a year the refills for just the CO2 every two months or so would cost us $119.94, bringing the first year of owning a SodaStream to $272.69 before taxes.  

Now, for the CO2 cylinder system.  Going by the same math as SodaStream (1lb of C02 producing 60L of carbonated water), the 50lb tank gives 3000L of carbonated water.  We’d have to drink 3000L of carbonated water in a year to empty the tank so as to require a refill in the first year, which is ridiculous — but even though we don’t require a refill, it still costs us $75 a year as a rental.  Still, though, $75 a year is still $44.94 cheaper per annum than SodaStream refills.

To deplete the 50lbs tank entirely, we’d need to drink 1L of fizzy water every day for 8 years.  Without inflation (again, for the sake of simpler math) the rental cost per year would be $600. Under the same parameters our SodaStream refills, on the other hand, would total up to $959.42.  So, over 8 years in our home, a rented CO2 cylinder would be $359.42 less than a purchased SodaStream.

Here’s an extra little kicker:  the cost of $119.94 per annum for SodaStream refills assumes a steady, unchanging consumption of 1L of carbonated water every day for a year.  A household than consumes more than 1L of carbonated water per day will require more frequent cylinder replacements, driving the cost higher to own and use a SodaStream every year.  However, because a CO2 cylinder rental is a flat rate per year regardless of how much CO2 has been used in that year, consuming more carbonated water each day with a CO2 cylinder doesn’t end up costing more per year.  It might need to be refilled in 5 or 6 years instead of 8, but it still only costs $75 a year regardless of how much you consume that year.

And let’s say you’re a normal person who can drink flat water every day and only occasionally consumes carbonated water, but is thinking of investing in a SodaStream to enjoy homemade fizzy water a couple of times a week.  Here in Canada, 12L of Perrier at Costco (24 bottles of 500mL each) is $24.99.   Now let’s say your version of occasionally consuming carbonated water is 1L per week.  At that rate it’ll take you 12 weeks to get through that one case of Perrier.  Expand this to 1L per week for 52 weeks to go for an entire year this way, which means you’re consuming 4.5 cases of Perrier in a year.  Round that up to 5 cases for the sake of simple math, and that’s $124.95 for a year’s worth of bubbling water for you.

If you were to buy the SodaStream system as represented in my household’s simulation above at a cost of $152.75 to fulfill fizzy water consumption of 1L a week, you do not break dead even with your initial investment within one year and you would not even start on your extra cylinder.  A more realistic investment for somebody only consuming 1L of carbonated water a week would be just the starter kit, but if you go for the extra cylinder on the mere possibility that you might consume more carbonated water if you can make it yourself, that would cost you $125.98. 

While it’s a difference of only $1.03 it still means your Perrier habit costs less than the most basic SodaStream setup with an extra canister that you may or may not use.  If you cut out the extra cylinder for the dead-basic initial investment of $89.99, then you save $34.96 a year on carbonated water on 1L a week, and that is the only scenario in which a SodaStream works out to be cheaper than just buying Perrier at a consumption rate of 1L per week.

Still here?  Okay.  Let’s say you’re one of those people who’s looking at a basic SodaStream to replace consuming Perrier Slim cans once or twice a week.  Here in Canada a 10-pack of 250mL Perrier Slims is $4.95.  If you consume one can each week, it’ll take you 10 weeks and you’ll need 6 packs for an entire year, spending a whopping $29.70.  Consuming two cans a week will have you spending $59.40, which is $30.59 cheaper than the cheapest SodaStream without any extras.

BONUS ROUND:  Remember how I said above that none of my figures here account for Quebec’s 15% tax rate?  If you still feel like getting whacked across the face with figures, multiply all the totals I provided by 1.15 and you’ll get an even better idea of the cost of consuming bubbly water at home is around here!

Mawwage.

It’s been a long minute since my last post.

In all honesty, even though it sounds like a cop-out the only explanation I have for my long absence from the blogosphere is life happened.

I was recently engaged when my last entry went live, and with a wedding date of 6 months from the day of our engagement things just started happening almost as soon as I hit “publish.”  Even for a small wedding (37 people, including the bride, groom, and priest) taking place in 6 months, there was a lot of work to get done.

And then once we walked down the middle of my church, had some cake, and took some photos, we were in full swing to prepare for my BigSis’ wedding later that same summer.

From there, life just became a blur.  A happy, blissful, stupidly cute blur.

Oh, and we got a dog.

On the 17th of this month, we’ll be celebrating 11 months of marriage — 11 months that I can only describe by quoting Pedro Casciaro:  “Dream, and your dreams will fall short.”  Because let me tell you, looking over previous blog entries where I was discussing my love life and my relationship with God (and sometimes both together), I realize now that everything I have experienced and endured while trying to follow Our Lord was His way of testing me in fire and refining me into the woman that would deserve the man I now call my husband.

I am a Catholic who had not one but two crises of faith (one in late adolescence and one in my early twenties) who grew up in the Catholicism of Opus Dei, and I ended up marrying an atheist who was raised in a Protestant home.

If anyone ever tries to tell you God doesn’t have a sense of humor, feel free to point them in my direction.  I’m well aware that describing the faith-dynamic of my marriage sounds like the beginning of a joke.

But it’s not a joke at all, and while I can see the humor in it and say that God really does have a way of making life turn out so weirdly and unexpectedly, I know in the deepest part of my heart that my vocation to married life (and eventually motherhood) means I am tasked with a serious lifelong mission.  And the fact that a man of science and reason, not of faith, was given to me by Our Lord and bound me in Holy Matrimony makes it all the more serious to me.

In First Comes Love, Scott Hahn states:

God knows it is not good for us to be alone .  He doesn’t want us to be alone.  It’s the oldest story in the world, and it’s written into our very human nature:  He wants us home.

As a wife, this is the point of my vocation:  to help my husband live as good and meaningful a life as possible so that we may eternally rejoice in God’s kingdom together. It doesn’t matter if he’s an atheist; not only is this one of my core beliefs, it is one that he has chosen to accept and, even without RCIA let alone the slightest iota of faith, one that he wants to support for my sake.

I promised my atheist husband that I would never beat him over the head with the Baltimore Catechism or the Compendium, that I would never make his conversion a requirement to be in a relationship with me, and that I would never force him to to Mass if he did not want to go.  In return, he listens respectfully to me when we debate about religion, he never ridicules or belittles my faith, and goes to Mass more often than other Catholics I know.  He has even held my hand while I’ve prayed out loud for guidance or for a special intention, and genuflects before stepping into our regular pew at my church.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine an “inter-faith” marriage working so well, even though I was open to the real possibility of it and readying myself for the challenge of being a practicing Catholic in a relationship with a non-religious person.  Our courtship and engagement together lasted 364 days (we chose to celebrate our first anniversary as a couple by getting married on the 365th day, and God saw that it was good), but in that short time I never once felt shortchanged on any level by our differences in beliefs.

When we discussed the direction in which we wanted to take our relationship and I stood my ground and said I wanted to get married and commit for life, and if he didn’t like that then we should part ways sooner rather than later, he respected me enough to tell me that he was also of the same mindset.

Later when we talked about getting married and I told him that marriage to me meant getting married in the Church in any way possible, he told me that as long as I was marrying him he was cool with it.

Because of his acceptance and willingness to support me in my faith — not only did he come, and still continues to go, to Sunday Mass with my family and me whenever possible, he also made no argument about doing the Archdiocese-mandated Marriage Preparation course and had a long one-on-one chat with our parish priest — we were blessed with a dispensation to get married in my parish chapel with the full Catholic Rite of Matrimony.

Yes, you read that right:  I married an atheist with the full matrimonial liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.

And he never complained about “doing it my way.”

I may not have married a Catholic, but I am truly blessed in my marriage.  My husband’s name is Pierre, the French form of Peter, and he truly is the rock upon which I continue to build my house for God.  It does not matter that he is an atheist:  what matters is that there is love in his heart, and enough of it for him to support me in any way he can while I go about my faith each day.

He has seen me at my worst and knows where I have been and what I experienced before I found him, and he has forgiven and accepted and loved with all his heart.  And because of this, while I will never force a conversion upon him out of respect for his free will, I will always pray for him and always trust that God holds him in His hands just as He has held me.  Continuing to live my faith and follow God so that I am a strong example of Catholicism for him and for our future children while being respectful of his beliefs and of his free will is what I must do to keep our union harmonious and to keep God in it.

When we were dating, Pierre walked me home in the night even when we lived on different ends of the city.  By the graces given to us through our marriage I know he will walk with me to my Father’s home in Heaven.

When a knife in my back starts to twinge and turn

It’s been a month since I actually posted anything, which doesn’t really seem to fit the definition of “being back.” Mea culpa. Life has been pretty crazy in the last little while – when it rains in my life, it really does pour – and I’ve been fighting to keep my head up above the rising flood. But now spring has actually arrived, my life is calming down enough for me to write in earnest again, and I’m finding footing on dry land once more. And I’m more in love with life now than I ever have been.

One of the bigger things I’ve wrestled with in the last year-and-a-bit of my life was learning how to let go – of things, of people, of what never was meant to be. I was holding on to far too much of what lay behind me that I had no way to grasp the things I needed for the journey ahead.

And yes, I was holding on to a lot of pain. Far too much pain, really, but I held on to it because I was utterly terrified – of what, I’m not sure.

Was I terrified of not feeling anything at all? Was I terrified of what I might feel instead? Was I terrified of forgetting the hard lessons I had learned?

I don’t know. I was being pretty irrational about holding on to the hurt, to the point where I still can’t explain why I did…or why I kept it all hidden away and bottled up inside.

Then before Christmas last year, some of it bubbled over. Before I even fully realized what I was doing or saying, I blurted out to an old friend that I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

No, he assured me – there wasn’t, and there never had been.

And when I bubbled and blurted a little more about why I felt all wrong, he said, “Knives in the back are there for a reason. For us to learn and move on… It’s life.”

I chewed on that thought for a while after, and the next time I felt one of those knives in my back twinging and turning, I took a deep breath and pulled it out. It was the knife of a toxic connection that was starting to affect a couple of the longer, more meaningful relationships in my life. It was doing nothing to improve my life and instead making everything so much harder with all the negativity and anger it was attracting.

What filled the wound left behind was a better kind of love from others who mattered more and meant more than that one connection. I found myself standing a little straighter in my emotional state, and feeling stronger than before. I’d done it: I’d felt a knife in my back, I’d learned what it was trying to teach me, and I’d pulled it out and let go.

And it felt so good.

I’ve gone and pulled a few more out since then and done the necessary emotional first aid to patch myself up and get on with the business of life. Sometimes the process has involved letting go of something physically, such as a trinket or memento from some long-ago friendship or relationship; sometimes it’s involved taking a constant source of pain and turning it into fuel for a particularly grueling workout. But no matter what the extraction looks like, it’s as though I’m being given another chance to stand up for myself. Each new decision to pull out another knife turns the wound from a source of pain into a channel by which something better can flow into me.

I do see now why we need knives in our backs, but they don’t have to stay there. They’re more use to us in our hands than buried hilt-deep in our backs. Once we’ve pulled one out, it we can use it to cut loose something else that’s holding us down or holding us back. And while we’re doing that for ourselves, we’re reminded too that we shouldn’t be doing any more of our own back-stabbing.

Breaking Free

Winter came late to Montreal, but it’s felt like it’s lasted forever just as it does every year. Having finally hit my stride with regular outdoor running last fall, it’s been torturous these last few weeks to wait for winter to blow past my city entirely. Much like Hobbits take second breakfast, some areas of Canada get second winter and I happen to live in one of them.

Easter Sunday was bright and beautiful, and though it started off with a bit of a nippy breeze by the time I got home from my mother’s nest it was a lovely 13 Celsius and I couldn’t help myself. I had to run. After all, as I had said to my longtime Swedish friend just a few days before —

 

And it’s true. For me running is about the sun and the air and the wind; for him it’s the smell of fresh damp earth. But whatever gets us going when our respective frozen northland homes finally begin to thaw out, I know for me there’s something else that pulls me out of my apartment and towards those paths and trails I’ve come to know so well. It’s the fact that whenever I run outside, for however long I’m out there I’m free. There’s nothing but myself and the hybrid environment of urban and natural surroundings; nothing to stop me from stretching my legs out as far as they can stride; nothing to make me forget I’m alive.

In fact, running makes me remember I’m alive. It’s funny – depending on how far and how fast I go, I end up feeling like I might die! But there’s something about a racing heart and quickened breath and sore limbs at the end of the run that gives me a sense of strength and self-assuredness that I haven’t felt for a long time.

But this yearning, this longing to stretch and grow — it’s more than just wanting to break out of the indoors and be outside again after a long winter.  I was born a free spirit; my heart is wild and my soul has wings. But through a series of various events, when I turned twenty-five I looked at my life with fresh eyes and unexpectedly found myself in a cage of expectations, responsibilities, obligations, and limitations.

And I don’t like that one bit.

I know that growing up and “adulting” involves buckling down and taking on things that make you a contributing and productive member of society. But is the conventional way of becoming a contributing and productive adult really the way we all have to do it? It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round, after all, so what are the free spirits of the world supposed to do about growing up?

Something that doesn’t sit well with me is the fact that somewhere along the way somebody – I can’t remember who exactly, or maybe the reality is that it was actually several individuals – told me that the free-spirited, wild-hearted creativity I possessed would not serve me in good stead when it came to “real life” – that these traits were better left for hobbies and personal pleasures, and that my best chance at being a success in life was to go to university, get a degree, find a job in some big corporation, and work hard. And that while all this was going on, I’d be an even bigger success at life if I found a nice man, married him, procreated with him, and raised my offspring to be educated, hardworking specimens who would also perpetuate our race. Oh, and I can’t forget to use everything I’ve been given in the service of others and for the glory of God because that’s the bottom line of human existence.

Well, I’ve completed part one of that plan, and I came pretty close to having the second part as well. But it didn’t work out with that guy, and that made me re-evaluate a lot of things in my life that I had grown up thinking were “what I’m supposed to do.” And then I look at what I do on a daily basis and then at the talents with which I was blessed, and I get really uncomfortable because it’s revealed to me that part three is barely present at all. I don’t see how I’m serving man or God to the best of my potential – because the things I’m really good at are, apparently, only good enough for hobbies and personal pleasures.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to be employed twice over at two amazing companies; I’m blessed and I’m fortunate in these circumstances to have a means of supporting myself. I was raised on many principles including the one that states than any decent, honest job is worthy of respect, and I believe that whole-heartedly.

And that might be why it’s never sat well with me, this idea society seems to have that if you’re a non-celebrity pursuing a career of creativity and expression there might be something wrong with you, and the ensuing pressure that gets put on us to live conventional lives.

It still takes a hell of a lot of hard, honest work and blood, sweat, and tears to make natural creativity and curiosity into something useful for humanity. You still need to be responsible and make sure you have a means of supporting yourself and of getting back on your own two feet whenever you fall. You don’t have to be famous to be a successful creative person, but we seem to make fame and celebrity our benchmark for success in creativity and so we’re told to leave the creative pursuits to people who are already famous for them.

Which baffles me because if fame and celebrity is how we measure success in unconventional careers, can you tell me what’s so creatively meaningful and hugely important about certain celebrities that society worships – or, as my mother put it, “Who are the Kardashians and why do I need to keep up with them?”

Now can you tell me the name of the designer who brought us the POÄNG chair or the BILLY bookcase?

And now, who has a more direct impact on your comfort and quality of life?

If presented with two career options that require me to put in the same amount of effort, willpower, and time to serve humanity, I would much rather choose the one that gives more than ten percent of that back to society and the one that gives me more joy and more pleasure in putting in that kind of work in the first place. I don’t have to end up being famous for it. If the work I could do to turn creative vision and free-spirited dreams into something useful and improve somebody else’s quality of life, that’s enough and that should be our benchmark for what makes the pursuit of a creative career successful. I’m not saying I want an unconventional and creative career for the sake of being famous: I want it for the sake of improving the human condition by contributing my vision to those of others who break the mold for this same purpose.

So, what are you supposed to do when you realize that you’re an ill-fitting cog in a vast machine that takes all the work you put into its running and gives only ten percent of it to the people you’re apparently meant to be helping? What are you supposed to do when you wake up every morning feeling like there’s something else you could be doing with the time you’ve been given on this Earth to make it a better place for humanity? What are you supposed to do when you realize that people were wrong about you and about your talents being good enough only for yourself and for your nearest and dearest?

What do you do when you realize you’re in a cage when you’re really meant to fly beyond the horizon – to leap across the gaps between people – to run like hell on wild ground?

You can either stay where you are, which is the safe option.

Or you can be the daring, brave, and free spirit you were always meant to be, and just do it. Because you’ll never be able to help others and improve the human condition if you can’t even do that for yourself.

“But song, no wealth can buy.”

Something that tends to surprise new people in my life is that I was an award-winning musician in my youth. I played and sang in just about every iteration of musical ensembles in my high school, performed and ranked at high-profile national and international festivals, and took theory so that I could arrange and eventually compose my own music. I can read and play music in any clef and key signature, tell the difference by ear between classical composers, and see all the different parts of any song in sheet music form scrolling through my head if I shut my eyes and listen closely.

While performing music has, regrettably, fallen to the wayside in my adult life, none of this would have transpired if as an adolescent I hadn’t been a diehard metalhead with two bossy older brothers and very few friends.

I was actually sort of voluntold to take up the bass, as my brothers were already shredding away on their Jacksons (a midnight-blue Warrior named Layla and a black Randy Rhoads V dubbed Freya) and I was informed that if I wanted to jam with them I had to learn something that wasn’t lead or rhythm guitar. Our days as the Patridge Family Gone Metal were short-lived and we only ever did rock the high school gym, but as far as first steps go I’m pretty happy with where this particular instance of being bossed brought me.

The first bass line I ever learned by heart was from “Bed of Razors” by Children of Bodom. Using Guitar Pro 2.0 on an ancient laptop and the top four strings of my oldest brother’s abandoned five-and-dime six-string, I holed myself up in my room for hours on end until I could play along in real time to the song itself.

When I finally bought my first bass – a black LTD B-50 that I named Henkka after my COB idol and would later customize with ever-changing homemade decals of skulls, runes, Celtic knots, and grim reapers – I moved from the woodwinds to the rhythm section in concert band and joined the jazz band as well. I was encouraged to try the upright bass, known to some of you as a double bass or contrabass, and fell in love all over again with my instrument of choice. I loved that antique upright with its rosy finish and real band of ebony (exposed by a horrific chip from the time the tuba player clipped it with the U-bend of his brass noisemaker), its age and craftsmanship explained by the “Made in Czechoslovakia” stamp just discernible through the sound holes. And by the time I graduated in 2008, I played on three basses, having acquired a black-and-white Fender Jazz as well for the purpose of having an electric bass whose sound was more suited to jazz band and jazz combo than my so-called “axe” of a B-50.

Metal was my first love on the bass and it always will be, but learning to read a new clef and being exposed to all kinds of music really expanded my knowledge and skills as a young musician and, if anything, made it easier for me to play metal well. Whenever my short-lived career in music comes up around the dinner table, my mother always says that my fingers flew all over my instrument and that I seemed to unconsciously dance to the music. Those fingers played for so many hours daily that until now there are no prints left on the tips of my picking digits, and I still unconsciously move to music I really enjoy, even when on the first listen.

But I’m writing about all of this to tell you more than just the story of how I was a musician, once upon a time.

My dedication to music in my adolescence was born of an anger at an adolescent environment that rejected me, and an endless craving and need to be recognized as good at something so I throw myself defiantly back at whoever said I wasn’t good, thin, pretty, cute, or cool enough to be accepted.

If I was better at playing music than they were at playing sports, then I could walk into school every day with my head a little higher than it would have been without music. If I could say, “I can read and write English, French, and music,” then I wouldn’t get hurt as much by the other smart people in class who always teased and made fun of me if I got even one point less than them on a Math or Science test. If I had the best strings, straps, and amps that I could afford on my own dime it didn’t matter that my parents couldn’t afford name-brand clothing for me to wear to school. And from early-morning jazz rehearsals to concert band and music theory on alternating school days to nonstop activity on heavy metal internet forums, every way in which I encountered music in my adolescence helped me build myself up as an individual while also building up a small handful of friendships with other musicians which have lasted to this day.

And to this day, there’s music for every single one of my moods and emotions, with the exception of 2015. Last year pretty much the only time I listened to music was at the gym, but every song I had on my workout playlist was chosen to keep me in an upbeat, hard-hitting, go-get-em attitude because that’s what I needed to do: stay upbeat, hit back hard when life punched me, and be proactive about getting what I wanted out of the time I’ve been given. I will still howl into a hairbrush along to Bon Jovi when I feel empowered. When I am frustrated and angry I will still plug into Children of Bodom to channel the raw emotions. When I miss my father more than usual the only thing that eases the pain is Brahms’ “Lullaby.” When a long Montreal winter gets me down, I will play Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Summer” until I’m upbeat again. Hallowe’en is never Hallowe’en unless I play St-Saens’ “Dance Macabre” at least five times and Christmas is never Christmas until I’ve gone through my favourites by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The theme from Pacific Rim will always pump me up for a workout, Iron Maiden will always put me in a mood to read and daydream, and some songs will always make me remember the good times I shared with people who gave those songs more meaning for me. And whenever I find myself in a mood without appropriate music, well – as you know from the last two posts, there’s always a judgey-ass music nerd of a friend to help me out with that.

The Andrew Solomon quote I’ve chosen for this post’s featured image speaks to me on so many levels, and mainly because forging meaning and building identity is exactly how I survived high school, too. Instead of trying to create talents I did not have to be able to do activities I loathed simply because those were the popular past-times, I found meaning in developing the talents I was given in ways I enjoyed. And then I built an identity for myself that didn’t conform and couldn’t be hurt, an identity that kept me practicing through hours that my peers passed without me and then put me up on a stage where I was untouchable.

I was not meant to be a musician forever and I was not meant to find either my entire life’s meaning or my whole identity in being one. But for the time that I was in peak musical form, being a young musician gave me reasons to think big and dream bigger, and ways to make something of myself in an environment in which I was supposed to remain a nobody. A performing and award-winning musician I may no longer be, but music still means as much to me now as it did back then and who I was will always be a part of who I have become.

Everyone at high school graduation can throw their cap and say they did it, but I don’t think that everyone can say they survived. Doing it is still hard because it still comes with challenges that require a measure of strength to overcome – I’m not denying that and I’m not belittling the achievement. I know everyone has their own moments of difficulty and their own hardships to bear, but let me tell you from experience – as a teenager it’s hard to see that when you’re the one who’s always excluded.

So doing it, while hard in its own right, is very different from surviving it. Surviving means that in order to overcome your challenges, every day you have to find something worth getting up for, and then find enough strength and true grit in yourself somewhere to fight through the day. It means every morning brings with it the additional challenge of mustering up the courage to even start the day – especially after a sleepless night when you’ve been kept up by wondering if anyone would miss you the next day if you weren’t there.

I speak from experience – and because of music, I survived.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #8:  My Mom, Bestie Time (again), and Music (for real this time)

My Mom: Sunday is the only day of the week where I can actually chill out for more than five seconds at a time, and I spend a lot of it with my mother and sister. I also stay over at their place on Sunday nights, because it makes the task of getting to the gym for a 6AM on Monday morning much easier to accomplish.

At 5:20 this morning when I went to say good morning to my mom before getting ready to leave, my mother got out of bed and made me a smoothie to take on the go – banana, mango, and yogurt, to be exact, with just enough milk to thin it out and make it easy to drink from a mason jar on the metro.

While carrying around our ridiculously fat cat (no, really – he’s about 18lbs) and watching me scurry about getting my stuff together, Mom reminded me to take an umbrella because it’s going to rain today, to walk carefully because it might be icy outside, to bring back the mason jar I borrowed for my smoothie, and to call once in a while during the week.

Like any adult offspring, I just smiled and nodded and said, “Of course,” to every reminder. But even though I think I’m old enough now not to need reminding about things like this (well, except for the one about the mason jar, as I’m a kleptomaniac when it comes to food storage containers), I don’t mind when Mom does it. That’s just her way of saying she loves me, after all.

Bestie Time (again): Any time with good friends is time well spent, but time spent with my best friends is priceless and wonderful to me. Being one of those ridiculously busy people, choosing to spend some of my few free hours with friends is one of the ways I say how much I love them – but I realize too that the fact that they accommodate my strange and unpredictable schedule to be able to spend time with me is their way of saying they love me, too.

One of my best friends came over for dinner on Saturday night with a fantastic bottle of red (Apothic 2013). After a long week at work for the both of us and a particularly rough one for me in terms of physical health, it was a welcome kind of socializing: low-key, one-on-one, and at home. I was actually pretty bummed about missing the anniversary dinner of another friend of mine, but being able to have company on Saturday night nonetheless really re-energized this burned-out introvert.

It’s hard to believe we’ve already known each other for six years and, like the small handful of people I do consider my closest friends now, I really can’t imagine my life without him. It’s not just because he’s fantastic company and knows how to pick a really good bottle of wine, or that he’s a gym person too who’s working on his own transformation. He’s one of the funniest, most socially intelligent, caring, and supportive people I’m lucky enough to know and even luckier to call my friend.

Music (for real this time): After my last breakup in early 2015, I didn’t torture myself by lying on the couch eating ice cream out of the bucket while sob-singing along to all of “our” songs. In fact, the music on my phone underwent one of the biggest purges of its history so that all I had left on it were songs that were upbeat, empowering, and carried no connection whatsoever to the relationship that had just ended. This handful of songs carried me through 2015’s changes and transformations; they were there for every step I took on the treadmill, every plate I added to the bar, every drop of sweat I shed, and every ounce I lost last year (and also every muffin, piece of cake, chocolate bar, and Tootsie Roll I begrudgingly passed up).

My workout playlist was literally the only music I listened to for all of 2015. A couple of weeks ago, I received a one-year subscription to Apple Music as something of a late present, and I decided to dive back into my lost love of music. (This came up in last week’s edition of “In Pursuit of Happiness,” actually, when I shared with you the exchange I had with one of my good friends about Poison and, mainly, Bon Jovi.)

Having very quickly overdosed on downloading all the music I truly love, I found I didn’t want to hear just the old familiar sounds of the music I’ve always rocked out to. I wanted to dive into something new and discover more artists whose songs and sounds would maybe help shape and define this newest version of myself that I’ve been working on.

Thank goodness then, then for two things. The first is the NPR Music app, whose alternative rock stations introduced me to the likes of Screaming Females, The Frights, The New Basement Tapes, Cage the Elephant, Beach House, and The New Tarot. But something equally fun as discovering new music on your own is having good friends recommend things to you – which is why the second thing is that there are the judgey-ass music nerds in my life, and in particular two of them.

You’ve already met one (in last week’s Happiness post) and the other is a guy I work with at Job2 (he’s in a band with another person we work with). What they both have in common, besides the privilege-chore of knowing me, is an uncanny ability to recommend artists that are consistently good. Even though there’s almost no overlap in what they recommend to me whenever I bother them for music that they haven’t posted on Facebook and even though they’ve never actually met, I think it would be really interesting and entertaining to put them in the same room and listen to them discuss music together.

The former is arguably more judgmental than the latter but both are equally knowledgeable about what’s going on in the underground and who you should be listening to from down there. My current favourites from them are Automelodi, Antigone, and Three Trapped Tigers, and I have a long list scribbled onto a Post-It somewhere in my agenda of more that I should apparently give a chance. And I’m looking forward to doing exactly that this week.

By the way, if you don’t have any judgey-ass music nerds in your life, I highly recommend you go befriend at least one. Listening to their sighs and observing their eye-rolls at your music, sitting through their rants about the mainstream, and enduring the litanies in which they wax poetic about artists nobody knows about is well worth your effort for all the goodness they’ll bring to your musical life. Trust me, I know things.

***   ***   ***

So until next week, tell your parents or parental figures you love them, have a cup of coffee with your best friend, and tune into some artists you’ve never heard before – because that’s what I did this week and I wouldn’t be sharing it if it hadn’t succeeded in bringing some happiness to my life!

Holding on to what I’ve got

At various points in my life, I’ve felt like certain songs defined exactly what I was going through at that exact phase of my life. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon before and we all have a mixtape of songs that for one reason or another we felt were all about ourselves.  Now, I’m not entirely sure what song defined my life at the end of 2015, but I can tell you what happened and how I emerged in 2016 to be howling “Livin’ on a Prayer” into my hairbrush while powerstancing on my bed.

In the last few months of 2015, I actually went through a crisis of faith. Having already gone through similar experiences twice before, you’d think I would have figured out how to prevent them from happening again – especially with all the tools and formation I received from growing up in a devout Catholic household steeped long in theology, philosophy, and Catechism. Having faith was just as normal to us as breathing and the reminder to “just keep praying” was heard as often as “clean your room.”

But I was and still sometimes am a spoiled and rebellious child, and when things don’t go my way I get upset with God. And, depending on what didn’t turn out the way I wanted and how it didn’t turn out, I can get pretty temperamental and stubborn. Yes – right up to the point of throwing in the towel on my faith and going off to a dark corner to sulk and ignore God. “You gave me free will,” I once said in a Parthian shot to Him, “so I’m going to use it the way I want to.”

This last year in particular, on the two bookending occasions of 2015 that broke my heart, the pain I really encountered after abandoning my post at the Foot of the Cross was far greater than the pain I thought I’d had while abandoning myself to the Lord. During Advent, a season in the Liturgical year during which the rest of the Christian world is preparing to greet the Holy Child at Christmas, the hours I once spent on prayer were given over to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (No, really — I think I cried more in 2015 than I ever have in all the other years of my life put together.) For the first time in many years I didn’t receive Communion at Christmas Mass or on New Year’s Day, and for the first time ever I found myself really considering just breaking off from Catholicism altogether and giving up entirely on religion.

But I couldn’t jump off that side of the ledge upon which I teetered for many weeks, because if there was one thing I learned from my human father it was that even if your faith is in shreds, if you can find a piece of it that’s still big enough to hold on to you really should. And if there was one thing I learned how to do in 2015, it was how to look at something for what it really was and discern if it really ought to be in my life – to use logic and rationale instead of just blind faith to figure stuff out.

I’m definitely no expert at it because hey, I kind of just started doing it, but I’m beginning to at least get enough of a handle on it to start using this skill more often in my life. And when I took that long, hard look at myself on Epiphany Sunday, I realized I was a little too good at letting go: too good, because up until now the rejection, betrayal, or pain from one person was enough to make me let go of everyone in my life – including God.

After all, pure logic would dictate that if I believed God put people into my life for some unknown but good reason, then I should believe He took some of them out of my life for an equally unknown but supposedly still good reason. Along that same line of thought, twisted logic would say that if I wasn’t happy with anything, including God, I should just chuck it all overboard. But that didn’t make sense to me when I thought about it, because in a way that was saying I believed in free will but only when it was convenient – in other words, only when good things happened – and that whenever one of my choices, even a good one, cut me to the core it wasn’t on my hands but on God’s.

Once I figured that out, I spent most of Epiphany Sunday this year in dialogue with myself about all of this. I moved through the day talking myself through all the reasons why I kept abandoning my Catholicism when relationships didn’t work out, when I lost meaningful and formative friendships, or when I didn’t succeed at something I set out to do. I tried to determine why failed relationships and soured friendships had the effect of pulling me away from God so much to the point where the inevitable crash-and-burn in these instances unfailingly results in me uprooting myself from my Catholicism and putting my relationship with God on hold while I try to deal on my own.

The answer, in a nutshell, was that my efforts for others were often fuelled by fear – of being left behind, inadequate, forgotten, or expendable; of being seen as imperfect or ordinary; of being perceived as too outspoken and needy. I bent over backwards for many people who, in retrospect, I can now see as people who took me for granted, overlooked me anyway, or didn’t appreciate my acts of love beyond seeing them as things that got done for them.

Now, this is not to say that every past experience was wholly negative. In every relationship and friendship I’ve had that’s now just a memory, there really are good times. But the pain of the bad times and my own selfishness prevented me from keeping what was good and finding solace in the blessings I had received in being with those people. And because I couldn’t see the blessings I’d been given, I could not see God’s goodness – and so I abandoned Him, too, when I abandoned those relationships.

Before evening Mass on Epiphany Sunday, I went to Confession for the first time in many months and, perhaps for the first time in many years, I made it a good and thorough one. (I apologise profusely to the rest of the line – but if they haven’t experienced this kind of Reconciliation before I hope one day they will, because such a Confession can be one of the most beautiful and liberating experiences in life.) After I did my Penance I remained in prayer, taking the time to be in conversation with the Father I had ignored for so long to ask him for the grace I needed to do three important things.

One To rebuild and strengthen the good relationships that had been damaged by conflict with and fallout from others, because these were the people who stuck by me when I was too selfish and too wrapped up in my own pain to see the gifts of comfort they were trying to give me.

Two To see which connections in my life were damaging and toxic to the good relationships I was trying to heal and repair, and to eliminate them from my immediate sphere of concern – but without malice and without anger.

Three: To learn how to recognize good people when they came into my life as people intended to enrich my experiences and bring out the best in me – people who would inspire me through their own ways of giving to give of my time, talent, and treasure to others not for my own security and assurance, but for the greater good and well-being of others.

My father taught me to believe and to have faith, but my life experiences have taught me to question and discern, and writing has taught me that the simplest questions lead you to the most complete answers. So if I still believe in God and still have faith, then what I have to do with it is ask myself: what has God given me, who has God given me, why these blessings have been put into my life, where I can use them to fix my life, and how I can use them to bring joy into the lives of others?

All three things have been going rather well since Epiphany Sunday, and I’m glad to say that the third in particular has already brought blessings into my life in the form of new friends who encourage me to bring forward what’s best about myself and inspire me to share my authentic self with them and the rest of the world. I’m really looking forward to connecting more often with them and to building up strong friendships with these incredible individuals. I truly do believe their paths crossed mine at this moment in time for good reasons, and I know that it’s up to me to make something good come out of these encounters and connections. Some of them believe in the same things I do and others believe in very different things, but I appreciate them and love them all the same because they each bring out the same good qualities and talents in me I’ve ignored or kept hidden until now.

So how does this all lead to me singing Bon Jovi into a hairbrush while standing in a powerstance on my bed, and why is “Livin’ on a Prayer” the song that defines my life of renewed faith, hope, and love?

Well, even though Bon Jovi didn’t mean it as a song of praise, it rather succinctly sums up how I’m moving forward with my life: holding on to what I’ve got, understanding that what I do have really is quite a lot, and remembering that inasmuch as I can and should take agency of my own life I do need my faith and keep praying. I can’t live on just a prayer indefinitely, but when everything else disappears there’s always a way to find it all again through keeping my faith.