Apartment 203 was snug and warm, with tall windows facing east, lots of natural sunlight, wood floors, an antique sink in the kitchen, a claw-foot tub with a window over it, a creaking radiator, and a shivering refrigerator. It stretched from one end to the other with little interruption, besides the door into our single bedroom.
To start, we all slept in the bedroom, Micaela in a crib on the other side. We quickly learned, though, how difficult it was to sneak out in the morning without her noticing. So we moved our bed out to the living room, which then doubled as a couch.
Every morning, we’d tip-toe into the bathroom by Micaela’s door, then to the kitchen, trying to avoid the creaking floor boards, to prepare our morning fare of hard-boiled eggs, yogurt with chopped fruit and pepitas. We’d eat our breakfast at the small, wooden table with the morning sun creeping up the wall. Micaela would begin to stir just as we finished.
I’d wash the dishes while Rachel nursed and changed Micaela. Afterwards we’d take a walk through the chilly, sun-lit streets, looking at all the colonial homes, some with smoke curling out of the chimney and down over the rooftops.
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Our most frequent stop was the Whole Foods down the street. It was our “local market.” A loaf of fresh, sourdough bread, eggs, apples. Occasionally a pound ground beef or sausage. We’d walk slowly, savoring the rich smells, while constantly re-evaluating our cart, trying to determine if we were spending too much.
The coffee bins were across from the cheese wheels at the last turn of the perimeter. This captured my heart, and we’d stand, timeless, sampling the cheese, drawing in the oily, roasted, tangy blend of fragrances.
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I only made about $10 per hour working at Trader Joe’s. After rent, we were left with $200 per week for food, clothing, utilities, internet, phone, household items, going out to eat, tithe and gifts. Anything and everything.
I felt very aware of our limitations. But Rachel didn’t seem to mind. As much as I desired to get another job that paid more, that promised more, and even tried, she didn’t want to see my heart get tied to a career when we were here for another task. She trusted that God would meet our needs.
And he did. Though we were only there for five months, I was constantly amazed that the ends were meeting.
This was when we started to budget. I created an elaborate, but simple, excel spreadsheet and attempted to categorize everything we were spending. We’d sit down every week and go over receipts and expenses versus income. It felt almost impossible to not feel guilty about any purchase, most of which were for food. It seemed that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t stay within our $75 a week food budget.
We tithed and gave a little extra toward other things. While it was hard, and while I may have struggled to do it, (and perhaps we gave too much out of obligation) life still felt full of richness. It was rich with market smells, the warmth of our home, and the smell of fresh baked bread with butter, waiting on the counter at midnight when I came home from work. We were living simply. Our work was for food and clothing, and this was our gracious provision. There wasn’t much else to be distracted by. We could not afford distractions.
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The farmer’s market was in the center of St. Paul. An old fashioned no thrills market with fresh vegetables, meats, raw cheeses, and beeswax candles from local farms and vendors. We regularly loaded up on squash, which seemed to be the best value for our money. A great filler for fall and winter soups.
Not being able to afford much variety, lentil soup was our staple meal. We’d soak the lentils in the morning, or the night before. Then saute onions and potatoes. Then add a little water. Then squash. Acorn, delicata, butternut. It didn’t matter. As long as it could be peeled and diced.
On one of my days off, we visited another farmer’s market, further out into the countryside, situated in a big field. It was below freezing, but the sun still melted the snow into a wet mush of mud and slop. We trudged through, picking up more squash, onions and cabbage while our hands froze. Micaela sat wrapped warm in mommy’s coat with her little white, polyester and cotton hat, with its ear flaps tied down around her chin.
With the cabbage we attempted our first crock of sauerkraut. We chopped and pounded the life out of it, juices accumulating at the bottom. For weeks it sat on our countertop, subjected to the miracle of fermentation.
On another cold day off, we ventured out to the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. Just as we arrived, it began to snow, and our car was soon blanketed.
The conservatory was a large, domed building with glass from top to bottom. It felt like walking through an inverse winter globe, snow falling on the outside. The air was fresh and warm, with life pulsing through plants, flowers and trees all around us. A beating heart in the midst of this cold storm.