A memory: The last time I saw my mother

Today is Mother’s Day, and I wanted to take the time out to share an excerpt from my book. I polled my beta readers and the following story is not the one that won the most votes, but it was the one that my heart said to share with you. Let me know your thoughts, I always welcome feedback and I can’t wait to have the book available for sale. 

My memory is a little fuzzy. The last time I saw her, the air was filled with the sweet fresh flower aroma that the large magnolia tree wafted every spring. But, if memory serves me correctly, the flowers only bloom briefly between April and May before the leaves bud to provide summer shade. My memory is fuzzy because I can’t believe the last time I saw her was in the spring before she passed in July. I went two months not seeing her before she passed? Perhaps, it saddens me now to think that is so. But the memory of the smell of the flowers is so strong in my mind, I can’t help, but believe that it was spring when I last saw her.

She was out of remission and was to be readmitted to the hospital that morning. I was upstairs and my father yelled from the bottom of the stairs for me to make my mother some eggs before she left for the hospital.

I took a shower, got dressed, and made some eggs. I didn’t think anything of it. I just was going about my morning routine. When I brought her the scrambled eggs with toast, she and my father yelled at me for taking so long. I stood there, watching her in her robe and turban take a bite of the eggs. She spit it out, threw the fork on the tray, and yelled “It’s too salty!” “What is wrong with you? It’s too salty, I can’t eat this. Take it away now!” My father proceeded to yell at me and told me if I hadn’t taken so long getting dressed, I would have paid more attention to making proper eggs.

I was upset. I tried the eggs as I walked back to the kitchen. They weren’t salty.

I was lounging in my room, upset that I was yelled at when C, a family friend came over to drive my mother to hospital. My mother was in the passenger side seat of the jeep, while C and my father gathered her belongings to pack up in the car.

I ran outside, the aroma of the magnolia flowers followed me. I ran up to the window and told my mom “I’m sorry I made the eggs too salty and took too long to cook them.” She looked at me, eyes filled with sadness, touched my hands, and said “It’s okay.” I wanted to say so much more, but C and my father walked outside and it was time for her to go. So I ran back inside, but first I caught the look C gave me; such pity. I didn’t need pity, I needed a mother.

 That is my last memory of her. My last in person memory of her. We spoke on the phone, but I didn’t see her again.

Years later when my father was remodeling the house, he wanted to cut down the magnolia tree to make room for the upstairs expansion. I screamed, I yelled, and I told him it was wrong. The tree could not be cut down and if he went through with the decision to cut down the tree, I would chain myself to the tree and embarrass him in front of the entire neighborhood. He ended up compromising and cutting a few branches.

 What he didn’t know, the magnolia tree was my goodbye to her. She loved to garden. I could walk by the tree every day and see her. Though I didn’t get to see her before she passed, I could still look at that tree and smile. Smile when it bloomed and it released a fresh aroma. Smile when the buds sprouted leaves large enough to provide protection from the sun in the summer. Even smile when it laid bare after fall or all covered in calming snow in the winter.  In reality, there was no last time I saw her. I see her every day in that magnolia tree. 


An urban planning PhD student finding peace in creating a balance between the mind, body, soul, & environment.

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Photo Credit: Lisa-Marie Pierre

The maus that roared: A tinyhouse story

On this blog, I like to showcase individuals who are making a difference in the world. Sigma is a student in the Arizona State University urban planning and sustainability programs.  I have always admired her professionalism, poise, and creativity, so I knew I had to invite her over to the blog. She  is currently working on building a sustainable mobile home with solar panels and composting toilets. It’s amazing! I will let you be the judge, below is her story. 

Housing is a universal need, but how we develop housing is different from country to country and region to region.

In the American context, the whole nation felt the shocks of a recession brought on by the subprime mortgage crisis. Underlying that tangled web of finances, however, was a steady trend towards bigger, shinier, newer.

Since the 1970s, the average house size has increased 700 square feet despite household sizes decreasing- just like adding a four-car garage to your house. Average house price in the U.S. has gone from $162,070 (adjusted for inflation) to $305,900 in 2006.

So we’re making houses bigger and pricier, but not necessarily out of better materials. We’re harming the environment, harming our own indoor air quality, and putting ourselves in serious financial jeopardy by just trying to do the adult thing- get a job, get married, get a place of your own.

The Tinyhouse Movement has its roots in some 80s and 90s architectural articles and books, starting with Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big House, espousing a “build better, not bigger” ethic. And since the early 2000s people have been coming up with extremely inventive ways to have their own space, under 1000 square feet- even under 400 square feet (a 2 car garage!). Each of these houses has its own character and features. Some have stoves and wraparound porches. Some are mobile and present an entirely new take on the RV. Some are completely off-the-grid.

I’ve always loved the idea of tinyhouses. They represented independence and individuality. And as a sustainability student interested in urban issues, they are the balancing act of resource efficiency and a happy, healthful lifestyle. Tinyhouses, at 400 square feet, may not be for every American family; people with four to five kids must be sweating at the thought! But for the young adult and young couples just starting out, tinyhouses represent an investment in something that is theirs. It’s security, and peace of mind, and it’s not thousands of dollars in rent lost forever.

Meet Maushaus.

Maushaus is built on a 7.5’ x 16’ trailer. I’m working with an interdisciplinary group of graduate students at Arizona State University to build an efficient living space that is completely solar powered, in under 120 square feet.

Equipped with an 8’ x 7’ loft and eventually an Ikea sofabed in the living room, Maushaus will sleep up to four people. There’s a full 32 x 32” shower, there will be a compostable toilet, and counter space sufficient for a toaster oven, a 19 x 19” stainless steel sink, two electrical stovetop burners and a dorm-sized minifridge.

The windows are dual paned Low-E windows that let in sunlight without the heat. The walls, floors, and roof- instead of traditional wood framed construction –are made out of SIP (structurally insulated panels), which has a crazy high insulation rating. Like, 47! It’s nuts.

We’re hoping to install a Quirky+AROS air conditioner to keep Maushaus cool in the summer. Six 250 watt solar panels from Sun Valley Solar on the roof and five 12v deep cycle batteries mounted underneath will keep the whole house ticking throughout sunny days. If there’s a cloudy spell, it is possible to hook Maushaus up to the grid as a backup, but she’s being designed to be off-the-grid, 24/7.

Maushaus has to carry her own water, this is true. Two portable water tanks will sit on shelves underneath, 45 gallons each; one to provide clean water for showers and the sink, and the other to hold grey water. They’ll have to be filled and emptied every other day, but it’s a great way to be very aware of your water use!

We took on this project because as residents in an urban context- people who have housing, some of us who own, some of us who rent, all of us who think sustainability is important –we wanted a chance to show people what it’s like when you walk the walk. We wanted people to really envision what it would be like to live life with less, and still be happy. Or even happier than they were before!

We’re hoping that after an open house on ASU Tempe Campus May 1st, Maushaus’ construction will be completed over the summer and in the fall she’ll begin her life as a sustainability showcase and educational tool in the Phoenix valley area. We see students climbing inside and being amazed and what fits in a house only slightly larger than a parking space. We want them to tell their parents that when they grow up, they’ll make their own Maushauses (or “micehice” as one of our team member’s son calls them).

And why do we urban planning, sustainability, engineering and environmental science students even bother with this? We do it for the challenge. What can we learn about constructing the barest minimum? What do we learn about how people function in small spaces? How do we incorporate solar into everyday functions? And as students, with our constant writing of papers, what is it like when we get our hands dirty with drywall and sawdust, and put our thoughts and research into action? We don’t just want to study the city. We want to shape it!

I hope you will keep up with our build progress. Many thanks to Lisa-Marie, who has been an amazing supporter of our work (and a buoy of sanity when I think I’m going nuts!)

– Sigma Dolins, ASU MUEP 2014

Photo Credit: Maushaus

March: My blog’s month end review

March was an amazing month and  getting closer to meeting my 2014 blog goals!

Some numbers (March 1 to March 31, 2014):

Page views:  1,075

Unique page views: 965

Visits: 816

Unique visitors: 730

Average site duration:  48 seconds

Average time page: 2 minutes and 33 seconds

New email subscribers:  1

Number of blog posts:  8

Number of comments: 5

Guest blogger: 0

In case you missed it, here are the blog posts for March:

My thoughts

March was amazing! I had two blog post get a lot of hits and shares on social media, so my blog traffic increased almost double and as of April I’ve already bypassed my numbers for 2013!

Things to improve

I am working on introducing more of my research interests on to the blog, so I need to work on to make it interesting to my readers. In addition, I need to capitalize on the traffic that is coming to my blog. I really need to finish my eBooks!



An urban planning PhD student finding peace in creating a balance between the mind, body, soul, & environment.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Worthen 

3 methods I use to budget money effectively while on a graduate school stipend

Graduate school has been a great place to engage in intellectual discussion, learn new things, and network with future professionals. It has not been the best place for honest discussions about challenges graduates students face financially, professionally, and emotionally.

PhD programs are usually funded during the academic year, August to May. From mid-May to mid-August, you are on your own, unless you are able to find a paid internship or job.

I am still putting in applications for summer positions, but I had to plan for the worst case scenario- that I will not have  income for three months. Since August, I have been saving money with the idea that I would not have an income stream during the summer.

I typically make my budget four months at a time and last night, while revising my budget for summer, I nearly had a panic attack. I realized when I put aside all my money for the summer, I forgot to calculate money that would need to go towards car registration, insurance, gas, summer transit pass, and a new Arizona driver’s license. 

This overlook was a careless error that I rarely make when it comes to money and I now I need figure out a way to make up for this mistake; hence my near panic attack.

Besides this mishap, I follow a simple framework to effectively budget on a  graduate school stipend. Earn, save, spend. Master these three key components of personal finance and you will be closer to financial freedom. 

 1. Earning

 Your ability to bring in money is considered earning. You can earn money by:

  • Inheriting money
  • Having a job that pays well
  • Getting a raise
  • Creating a side hustle/hobby 
  • Starting a business
  • Selling items
  • Gaining a skill
  • Increasing your marketability
  • Becoming more educated/trained

Earning is my weakest link on my three pronged framework. I do not make that much a month from my stipend and my freelance copy editing business has slowed down considerably since I started school. However, because I am working toward my PhD and also have several skills, my earning potential increases greatly. Once I get situated in my career and work on marketing my business, my earnings will increase. In the meantime, I need to get creative in how I earn money while in school and I have a few ideas that hopefully I can put into fruition during this summer.

2. Spending

Using money to pay for a good or service is considered spending. Your ability to spend minimally and wisely will determine how much money you have in the long run. You can decrease your spending by:

  • Becoming a minimalist or living frugally
  • Creating a budget
  • Cutting out unnecessary services
  • Learning how to shop wisely
  • Paying little to no interest 
  • Cutting out the big purchases 

If you spend more money than you earn you will obviously have negative returns, however if you spend less than you earn you will have positive returns. If you want to increase your surplus money, you need work on spending way less than you earn. This should be a major goal.

Spending is my best link on my three pronged  framework. Because I don’t earn a lot, I had to become really creative and disciplined. When you are barely making any money, you need to get really creative when it comes money allocation and spending.

3. Saving

Earnings not spent is considered saving. Savings is your ability to create, grow, and use surplus wisely. You can increase your savings by:

  • Putting extra income aside
  • Stocks/Bonds
  • Being logical about how you divide your savings
  • Always contribute to savings
  • Creating a plan with goals – what are you saving for and how long will you save?
  • Paying off debt
  • Saving first spending later

Saving is the medium link on my three pronged framework. I know I should put aside my savings first, but I actually put whatever is left over from expenses into my savings. Many people put 10% of each paycheck aside and while I would love to do that, I put away about 5% of my income into savings. My philosophy is that it’s better than nothing. When I earn more, I will be able to save more because I will not increase my spending.

Mastery of Money

The ultimate goal should be to master each one of these prongs in the money framework, if you master each step, you will have mastered money and be one step closer to achieving all your financial goals.

As a graduate student, I’m making enough money to survive month by month, but not enough to survive year by year.  I use these basic money building tools as an educational experience. If I can survive on what I am making now, I know once I graduate and get more than triple the money I am making now, I will have the foundation needed to be financially literate and smart.

I  will not take my earnings and overindulge, spending erratically, I will save and invest my surplus earnings so I can guarantee a secure future for me and my family.

This is not something I learned over night. It has taken trial and error to understand, earning, spending, and saving. I still am learning and I have a long way to go. But I made it my goal a few years back to not let not earning a lot of money stop me from saving.

In a future post, I will go over how I create a budget and share some tips that might help you.

Do you have anything to add to this post? Share in the comments. I am far from a financial expert, so I would love input! 



An urban planning PhD student finding peace in creating a balance between the mind, body, soul, & environment.

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Photo Credit:  401 (k) 2012