It’s 6 am on December 22, 2021. The news is all about the Omicron variant causing yet another wave of COVID-19. Everyone is cancelling long-awaited trips and Christmas get-togethers yet again. We’re coming up on two years of this pandemic and judging by the much lower numbers of cards and letters we’ve received this Christmas, it seems we’re not the only ones feeling a little deflated. “Maybe next year . . . “ is the wistful refrain and sometimes the only optimism we can muster.
Even though it’ll be a little later than usual, I’ve decided to fight through my own apathy and write to you again this holiday season. You may recall that we missed last year and I’d rather not extend the gap of our family story that is recorded in these letters. The truth is, not writing last year had nothing to do with COVID, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
In the meantime, we have two years to catch up on, so let’s get started.
When I wrote to you last, it was this post on our Big Family Small World blog. We’d just finished our one-year trip around the world and were having a great time settling into our new home in Prince Edward County. When we’d originally planned that trip, we thought it would be in 2019/2020. Lucky for us, we moved our departure date up by a year. It made preparation a little hectic, but if we hadn’t done that, we would have been overseas (Southeast Asia?) when the pandemic hit, without a home to come back to because we’d sold ours before we left. Lots of long-term travellers found themselves in precarious situations when this all began. We were lucky.
Now we’ve been living in Picton for about two and a half years, about 80% of that time has been under the thumb of this virus we’re all so sick and tired of. Despite this, the County is such a wonderful and neighbourly place that we’ve been able to make lots of friends. We just don’t get to see them much. Maybe next year . . .
Over the years we’ve moved a lot compared to most families. We started in a Collingwood subdivision for three years, moved to our big “forever home” outside of Collingwood for five, then moved to bustling Whitby for another five years before travelling through 22 countries for another one, and now we live in the heart of a small town called Picton. After cramming ourselves into tiny AirBnBs for twelve months, this 1800sf house felt spacious, but we have to admit that we’ve been feeling a little squishy for the past two years. We recently had a dinner table conversation with the boys about the option of looking for a bigger house outside of town. Although they love the idea of more space, they love living in town more. We all do. I guess we’re planning an addition 🙂
You’ll learn a little more about our town and what we like about it as I tell you about what we’re up to individually. But first, I’ll introduce our newest family member, Phoebe. Yes, we got a COVID puppy.
I recently heard a quote by the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, about the necessary conditions for happiness: “Someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.” If it’s one of those days when it’s hard to find a human to love in our house, there’s always the limitless affection and acceptance of our golden doodle to satisfy that first condition. As for “something to do” – here’s what we’ve been up to.
Owen is now fifteen years old and in grade ten. This year and last he has attended “VLC” which is an established online high school. Holed up in his room, surrounded by a jungle of plants he tends to daily, most of Owen’s time is spent feeding his mind. And just like his stomach, it can’t seem to get enough.
We all know school can be frustrating, but as parents, we hope our kids will find a way to stay motivated and keep trying. Owen has certainly found that in himself. Not only does he put enormous effort into getting excellent grades, but he consistently goes above and beyond, starting a chess club, being a leader in the photography club, and investigating opportunities beyond high school.
Even though he was late applying, Owen has been accepted into the International Baccalaureate program for grade eleven. This will mean a bus ride to a bricks-and-mortar school in Belleville next year, along with a heavier but more interesting workload – not to mention real-life classmates.
Outside of academics, Owen’s interests span photography, programming, and botany. Of all the places he could have applied for a job this past summer, he only submitted one application – to a garden center just outside of town called Lockyer’s. Even if the work was hard, he just wanted to be surrounded by plants all summer.
At fourteen years old, Jake is our second chance at navigating the minefield that is parenting a teenager. But Jake might be a little more typical than Owen in his drive toward independence and the value he places on his peer group. We can’t blame him; travelling for a year, then settling down only to have COVID isolate us from each other put a damper on his social life. Rather than continue with homeschooling, Jake chose to attend PECI, our local high school.
Jake has done some pretty amazing things since moving here. He knows more people in town than Linds and I do largely because two summers ago he started “Mow Bros”, a lawn-mowing business. For the first summer, Owen and Jake operated the business together, but this past summer Jake went solo. It’s not easy jerry-rigging a lawnmower, edge-trimmer, leaf-blower, extra fuel and a backpack of snacks and hydration all together, but Jake did it. Not only did he make good money, but more importantly learned all kinds of valuable lessons about running a business, dealing with (occasionally difficult) people, and earning a reputation as a hard and reliable worker.
These days Jake spends his free time repairing small engines, Snap-chatting until his fingers bleed, playing guitar, and perhaps his most serious hobby, building models of WWII planes and vehicles. Just like with his lawn mowing business, he invests in good equipment (you should see his modelling station), and the models he creates display incredible attention to detail, even on parts that are barely visible.
Ben is now twelve years old and has also chosen to attend mainstream school this year if only to meet more kids his age. Even though he’s a little small for his age and still quiet and introverted, there is a friendliness and confidence in Ben that has established him as a leader in his class, academically and socially – who knew? When Ben found out that Eli was getting bullied (long story), Ben immediately responded, “Who’s doing it? I want to know. I know people.” Ben is about the least aggressive person you’ll ever meet which is why a statement like that is even more powerful.
When he’s not at school, Ben has two serious hobbies. The first is writing and he goes at it with such steadfast discipline (“Sorry I’d love to play a game but I haven’t gotten to my word count for the day”) that he’s already on his third novel, “Space Ranger 3”. This futuristic space opera is full of interesting characters, non-stop action, and laugh-out-loud humour. When space-faring, quirky teenagers meet nefarious, conniving aliens, it’s a recipe for a whole lotta fun.
Ben’s second hobby is programming video games. In a way, it’s an extension of his literary genius, crafting worlds where the player is immersed in the reality that Ben has created. He’ll spend hours and hours on a single animation of a character jumping or being wounded; days are spent working out glitches; a single game could take months of work. He even makes his own music using online synthesizers.
Eli hit the double digits this year at ten years old. Like his brothers, he was also excited to go to “real” school this year. Unfortunately, so far it isn’t turning out so well. He misses the freedom that homeschooling gave him to dive deep into subjects he’s interested in, at whatever pace feels right. School’s a little boring, but what’s far worse is that some kids have chosen to bully Eli for the last several months. He was trying so hard to tough it out that he didn’t tell an adult about it until just a few weeks ago. Heartbreaking. But now we have a plan, with Eli in the driver’s seat, so we’re hoping that the second half of the year will be better.
Fortunately, even the significant problems at school haven’t been able to dampen Eli’s spirits overall; he’s still the happy and excitable little human he’s always been. Whether it’s playing a game, helping me in the workshop, or just chatting, Eli is always up for anything that involves other people.
When he’s on his own, Eli is either enthusiastically devouring science and engineering videos on YouTube – 1.5 hours per day, strictly monitored and enforced – or making something. After the desk in his room had overflowed with creations, along with a three-foot radius around it, he commandeered a small table in my workshop. He’ll go out there regularly and come back a few hours later with some new and surprising invention that blows our minds. Most recently he’s been obsessed with submarines. Too bad we don’t have waterfront property. Or is it?
Lindsay and Matt
Linds and I are a lot more boring than our kids, perhaps because most of our lives revolve around trying to feed them, clothe them, and gently nudge them along a path of self-sufficiency and not self-destruction.
Linds has the hardest job of all – taking care of all of us. Even though it might feel mundane a lot of the time, we are incredibly appreciative of everything she does for us. One way that we’re particularly lucky is that Linds’ main creative outlet is cooking. We eat like kings and princes every single night. It’s quite unreal what she comes up with, and it’s new all the time (even as I edit this, the smell of homemade enchiladas is making my mouth water!).
Even through COVID, Linds has continued to volunteer at a friend’s farm (Vicki’s Veggies), which she loves to do. That friendship helped us launch a little business that we’ve wanted to pursue for a few years: Mattlin Woodcraft.
Linds and I have always loved designing things together, then I go off to the workshop and build them. Now we have a real business through which people can contact us for custom orders and we have a variety of smaller items that we’ve been selling locally. It’s lots of fun and a great way to meet other creatives.
You may recall from our Christmas letter two years ago that, even after a year of travel, I was not finding part-time emergency medicine to be interesting or enjoyable anymore. I was about to give up my licence when COVID hit. No one knew what was going to happen at that time, and I decided that I wanted to stay licensed so that I could help however I was needed. Turns out that was at a local COVID assessment centre, not the ER. So, that’s what I did, about a million nasal swabs for about a year, until they didn’t need me anymore.
But my involvement in medicine is not completely shut off. I’ve been giving talks about personal finance for physicians for several years and last year around this time I was asked to do a presentation for a large Toronto physician group. Even though the talk was an hour-long, I mentioned to the organizer, who is also a physician and a friend, that I had at least four hours’ worth of material. His response: “Do you want to create a course about money for doctors?” And so, moneySmartMD was born. It’s in the early stages, but it feels great to create a forum where my colleagues, many of whom really need the help, can learn essential money skills, and finally feel in control of their financial lives. It also dovetails quite nicely with the investing blog I’ve been running for several years now.
Why no Christmas letter last year?
In the moneySmartMD course, I try to get people to think about what money is actually for. Sure, money is for buying things, but that’s just the beginning. The bigger purpose of money is to give us time – not necessarily to retire but to work on what needs work. Because sometimes life throws you a curveball, sometimes you get knocked flat on your ass by something so brutal that you need all the time and energy you can muster just to get through it.
Last year at this time one of our kids was in the hospital. He spent two weeks there, including Christmas. It was an involuntary admission for mental health reasons. No, it was not because of COVID, but because of a gradual decline into severe mental illness that was kept almost entirely a secret. Until it wasn’t. And that’s when the sh*t hit the fan and the hardest work of our lives began. For all of us. This was a family effort.
Why am I writing that on a public blog? It’s important to us that these Christmas letters be honest. There are three big reasons for that. First, because they are a record of our family that we look back on, and we want them to be accurate. Second, we want you to know what’s really going on with us. Even this. And, third, when we needed it the most, we drew strength and courage from others who had shared their experiences, so this is us doing the same.
We’ve decided not to identify who this happened to; not because he’s embarrassed – he is justifiably proud of the incredible amount of work he’s done and the progress he’s made – but because mental illness is not what defines him. It’s just a part of him. You can see from each of their sections that the boys, like everyone else, are interesting, and complicated, and multi-faceted. There’s a risk that something like this could define the individual in the eyes of others, and that would be a shame. We are more than our struggles.
On the other hand, we feel that it is so important to share this with you rather than keep it private. We are not the only ones who are struggling with mental health problems in their family. It’s part of the human condition and it’s no one’s fault. Keeping these things a secret simply adds to the isolation, which is the biggest hurdle to getting better.
I’m happy to report that, after months and months of gut-wrenching uncertainty and anxiety, we are finally at a stage where we are starting to feel confident that the worst might be behind us and we have the skills to make this work going forward. If any of this sounds familiar to you, believe me, there is hope.
If that all seems a little depressing and un-Christmasy, I apologize. The truth is that, despite COVID, this holiday season is far merrier for us than the last one.
This letter will find all of you content in some ways and struggling in others, so I’ll leave you with a quote by Hemingway that I think of often.
The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.Ernest Hemingway
We can get stronger at the broken places. Take care of yourselves and remember: someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.