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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website, PlantingDandelions.com

Plenty



A year ago, Patrick and I were profiled in our local alternative newspaper for a cover story on families who have given up the two-week paycheck to become masters of their own destiny. They ran a photograph of us enjoying family time with our kids on the porch swing, blissfully emancipated from the stress and strain of running the rat race, and another of me earnestly sorting and storing boxes of cereal bought on sale with coupons. It could have been World War II poster for rationing: let's all do our part!

The day the story came out, I rang up my girlfriend Bridget, who, along with her artist husband and their kids, had also been profiled. We were both feeling excited and self-conscious about our notoriety. Bridget wondered what I would do the rest of the day.

I laughed. "Well, I'd like to go to Starbucks and get a coffee, but I don't dare blow my cred'."

A few days later, I bumped into a friend as I was coming out of a discount shoe store.

"Five dollars! Clearance table!" I declared in (mostly) mock defensiveness, pointing to my shopping bag.

I never wanted to be the poster girl for frugal living. As I told the reporter, I enjoy material comforts as much as the next person. Patrick was still in his first year as a freelance graphic designer. We still had our retirement savings from his years in corporate advertising. I was looking at coupons, and sharing a car, and hand-me-downs as short-term pain for long-term gain, not a permanent way of life. In the meantime, we were reveling in the flexibility of our schedules, the novelty of being home together everyday.

We had all the zeal of the newly converted. For the most part, the story was well-received by our friends and neighbors. I even had a phone call from a total stranger, who said she felt trapped in her upscale lifestyle, and found inspiration in our example. Not everyone approved, of course. Money is a taboo topic among southern gentility, and I know the word "tacky" crossed some people's minds, if not their lips.

I told everyone that year to quit their day job. The security was an illusion anyway. The days of the "company man (or woman)" who would be cared for into retirement have faded into the mythical past. You could be downsized out of your steady job tomorrow. And the so-called benefits? When I switched to high-deductible health insurance, and realized the tens of thousands of dollars we had thrown away on the employee health plan for me and the kids (which still left us with co-payments and out-of-pocket expenses), I was floored.

The design studio did better in the first year than I would have believed possible. Although Patrick had talked wistfully over the years about striking out on his own, I had no confidence in his ability as an entrepreneur. I just could not see my laidback husband hustling for business. I vastly underestimated the motivating power of independence. He methodically and determinedly sought work, and work came. At the end of year one, he had nearly matched his last corporate salary. This year he is on track to better it.

Most people starting a business might take months, even years, to plan. They would have an operating fund in place, their debt squared away, financing secured, ducks in a row. We aren't most people. Patrick's unheeded wistfulness came to a head suddenly and dramatically. There was no plan. Our ducks were free-range.

We had a few, not-very liquid assets. We had some credit card debt, not a dramatic figure for a family on a regular payroll, but we added to it as thirty and sometimes sixty days passed between billing going out and money coming back in. There are no parents who can float us through the lean times. There has been no margin for error. A couple of slow months in a row could tank us, and almost did, right before we left for Ireland last winter. We were two months behind on our mortgage and barely keeping the lights on. Patrick wanted to cancel the trip, which was all expenses paid. He couldn't reconcile the disconnect between living it up abroad for two weeks with the situation we were facing at home.

I laughed wryly, remembering my father scrounging for cigarette money within days of flying off to read poems in Bologna, Munich, Oslo. I kissed him on the head. "Welcome to a writer's life," I said. "Grab it while you can."

We cashed insurance policies, crashed the retirement fund. We caught up, fell behind, caught up again. Sprinting has become the rhythm of our life. Work flow is feast or famine. Nearly every month, there is a point at which we think the last job has gone out the door. No one will ever give us another dime. And then suddenly Patrick is deluged and working 72 hour stretches. Remind me how this is less stressful than agency work, I am tempted to ask him at those times. Remind me about all the togetherness, I want to say, when he is in his office from morning to night and I am feeling nostalgic for Monday-Fridays, eight to five.

Promise me we're going to be okay.

I have found that I have to keep my horizon line at very close range. If I look more than a few weeks ahead, I go blind with panic. But if I can just stay focused on our immediate needs, I find that we are okay. Today, there is always enough.

Day by day, we have somehow been making it work for almost two years.

This summer is as low a trough as we have been in since before Ireland. July was a slow month. The credit card companies continue to up the ante. How they can ethically, or even financially, justify penalizing people at their most vulnerable is beyond me. Each late payment triggers a domino cascade of consequences. More and more of our income seems to go into a black hole of overdraft charges, overlimit fees, and late payment penalties. It feels like we are peddling harder and harder and getting nowhere.

I am not supposed to talk about this, I know. It's tacky. But it is the biggest thing going on in my life right now, and I don't know how to write around it anymore.

We met for an emergency meeting with our financial advisor last week. Big, previously untouchable items have been placed on the table. We tiptoe around them gingerly, like we walk around each other. I think each of us secretly wishes the other would just suck it up, grow up, get a real job.

Rescue me.

***

My children have been able to stay in private school on full scholarship. Last Friday was registration day. My third-grader saw the brochure for after-school chess classes and asked me if he could sign up.

"I don't have money for that today," I said, as matter-of-factly as I could muster. Another mother at the registration table turned and stared at me like she didn't know how I got in there. A moment later, another parent walked up beside me, the mother of the kid whose used social studies book I had bought for my son. In what would have been a comedy of errors if it hadn't been so embarassing, the check I had written for it had bounced, and then the check I had written to cover that had bounced. The book wound up costing me and arm and a leg after all the fees had been paid. I can't imagine what she thinks of us. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt a chill.

This weekend, I had an email from the soccer league. We have received financial aid to play the last couple of seasons, during which time I have served as the team mom. A question had been raised about our need, since my son attends private school.

Not one of these events in isolation would have phased me. I know it is okay to tell my kids when we can't afford something. As my friend who works in a posh boutique assures me, even wealthy people bounce checks. And the person who sat and judged whether my son deserved to play soccer this year or not based on his school uniform is not worth the breath I would spend on a retort.

But all together, it was just too much. I have cried more this past week than in the past year. I feel like we are failing our kids, that we are risking their security to indulge our own pipe dreams.

***

On better days, I tell myself it is as if we had left our jobs to go to medical school. We are striving toward high-level professions, and it will all pay off in the long run. If we were in med school, we would be stressed, exhausted and in debt up to our eyeballs, but we would know it was going to be okay.

It's going to be okay. Patrick's client base and work portfolio is healthy and growing. My writing is getting picked up by big newspapers, magazines. "Now is not the time to take your eyes off the ball," our advisor, our cheerleader, tells us. More essays will be published; sooner or later, someone will pay me for a regular column; eventually, someone will give me money for my books. It will happen. I've always known it will. It has to.

On more recent days, I berate myself and us for being spoiled brats. Too good for a cubicle job, are you, I say to the woman in the mirror, to Patrick in my head. Why shouldn't we be going back and forth to the office everyday? Millions do. What makes us think we are exceptional? Who do you think you are, anyway?

***

Last month I had to ask my mother for help, something I haven't had to do since before I became a mother myself. It was incredibly hard, mostly because I knew she would want to do more than her fixed income would permit.

Earlier that day, I drove past a man on the freeway holding a cardboard sign. "Could use a little help," it said. I had ten dollars in my purse, and I didn't know where the next ten was coming from. I was on the wrong side of the highway. It would make a nice story to tell you I did a U-turn and gave him half of what I had, but I didn't. I borrowed his sign and hung it on my heart instead.

I emailed my mom through tears. We could use a little help.

***

A check for an essay arrived yesterday. Just in time for the car payment. Another for Patrick is on its way. I might be able to make the July mortgage. I am grateful, but why is the reprieve always at the eleventh hour, the last possible minute? I know that my ambivalence about money is at least partially damming its flow. I don't believe that the law of attraction is the only law, but I do believe it is a powerful factor. I am always focused on enough. I have come to the realization that my "enough" barely covers the bottom of the needs pyramid. I am tired of it. I am ready to evolve past mere survival, beyond the skin of our teeth. I want money to flow easily. I am trying to substitute "enough" with "plenty."

***

I woke up early, unable to sleep. I came downstairs, knelt down, and began to pray. I don't like to write much about my religion here, because too many people will assume they know who I am and what I stand for because of it. But I will tell you that I prayed a prayer I don't normally use in private. I prayed for daily bread.

Later, a neighbor turned up my door. She and her family were off to South America for a holiday. They had a refrigerator full of food they needed to get rid of, could we take it? We have yet to face a day where we couldn't pay for groceries, but I gratefully accepted the offer anyway. Inside the bags were gourmet cheeses, organic vegetables, olives and nuts from an expensive market. Moments afterward, a girlfriend dropped by with a fresh baguette from an artisan bakery. And then I found a basket of warm, ripe blackberries on my front porch, a gift from Lennie.

None of these people really know what shape we are in. They didn't know that what they were bringing to my door were affirmations of plenty; permission to ask for more than "enough" from life. Each gift came with the message that sustenance is more than mere survival, more than plain bread and water. It's okay to dream of living well on work that isn't soul-sucking. It's okay to joyfully accept opportunities that come our way (like Chicago, and Ireland, and in a few weeks, my semi-annual retreat in North Carolina) even when the rest of life seems hard and uncertain. Hardest of all for me to swallow, it's okay to admit when you need a little, or a lot, of help.

You can ask for bread and be brought a feast.

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19 Comments:

Blogger Kristine said...

Kyran--Just found your blog a week or so ago. Your writing is absolutely beautiful; my bet is that you're going to make it. Stay strong.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Deb said...

Brave chickee,
Thank you so much for your post. It is decidedly not tacky, we need to talk about the stress of less, and especially the outrageous fees, fines and outright abuses of creditors. It can be incredibly demoralizing, and really is incredibly common. Knowing you aren't alone and aren't judged doesn't mitigate the desperation one family can feel, but it can unify us. I'm with you, sister.

9:18 PM  
Blogger LetterB said...

Hear, hear! It's what all of us who aren't in high-rolling careers are dealing with on some level or another. A steady paycheck alleviates some of the stress but nothing alleviates not making enough to ever imagine a life without major, soul-sucking debt. You took the leap and are still waiting for the net. (Honestly they should call it freefalling instead of freelancing.) But as you so eloquently express it the net is the same as faith in the net. Faith in your abilities to weather, cope and thrive.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Katherine Gray said...

We were where you are a few years ago. I remember waking in the middle of the night--mid panic attack--and sitting, naked, on my living room floor, wondering how we were going to get through this. We were living on the equity in our house. We had *no* income. And we did it. I got more clients. He got the job he wanted. And now we've both got what we want. And we're very comfortable. I'm so glad you have a cheerleading finacial advisor.

Now, you know you will eat. Pray for the thing that's hard for some of us to ask for: Recognition. You've proven that you can ask for help. Now be the one in the position to be listened to, to be the one who people come to (for inspiration, beauty, clarity...whatever it is you want to offer people).

12:46 AM  
Blogger laurie said...

Bless your heart Kyran, and bless you for your beautiful honest writing about such an impossibly hard topic. We are right alongside you, paddling like hell to our own non-cubicle jobs, wondering when we're going to be able to afford a motor for this dang boat and occasionally wondering why one of us didn't become a high-paid money earner instead of a snobby creative type. Is the self-righteousness worth the drowning feeling? I don't know. But I do know I'm going to re-read this post over and over to know that we're not alone.

Not that it puts food on the table, but you're not alone.

xo

9:32 AM  
Blogger Prisca said...

I appreciate you naming so many of the demons we all struggle with. Keep talking and writing about them-- you are giving solace to others in the midst of your own uncertainty. I am sending every possible good thought and a few prayers your way.

9:37 AM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

how beautiful, honest and brave! just as you are.........

10:12 AM  
Blogger blackbird said...

You cannot imagine how this post touched me.
I think I met you at blogher, that we exchanged business cards...your situation is not unlike mine.
But I'm not as brave as you are and, after 20 years of freelance life, you would think we'd be used to it.
For me, sometimes the key is to remember to be grateful.
To try not to obsess with worry.
To trust us.

I'll be thinking about you...

7:42 PM  
Blogger patsyrose said...

Every single one of us has been in that leaking boat at one time or another in our lives. We all understand and we all know that "this, too, shall pass".

8:12 PM  
Blogger Iblukcan said...

Fabulous post. Great writing. As a writer myself who is the partner of a man who is in the medical field, I know what you are talking of. I see everyday how his soul is getting closer to being sucked out and I dont want that to happen. I worry that what Im publishing isn't paying anything right now... that the paid gigs I do get for public readings aren't consistant enough and yet, I don't want him in a job where he will lose his soul.
This post was important for me to read. Keep up the good work and incredible faith.. and let's stay in touch. You seem pretty amazing. Take care of you.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Jennifer/The Word Cellar said...

Thank you for being so raw and real about this "taboo" topic that we should all talk about more often. You write with such grace and honesty. Please keep sharing with the rest of us.

12:51 AM  
Blogger littlepurplecow said...

Love to you, sister. Stay true to your soul and continue to pray for confidence and support.

10:38 AM  
Blogger island sweet said...

dear kyran,
you've made choices. you're intuitive and wise enough to know that you've made the right ones.
don't look too far down the road right now.xxx

12:07 PM  
Blogger onward and upward! said...

A blogger named Flea wrote eloquently on the experience of poverty and shame in the U.S. Then Grabapple, another blogger, followed suit. You are not alone.

I've groused about my own situation on my blog, as well.

However, I'm different from you in that I'm "one of the millions." I suck it up every day and go to work in a career that's not my passion. I do it to take care of myself, my husband and my son. I do it to avoid debt. I do it to pay the bills. When I think back to how hard my Mom and my grandparents worked to have what little they had, in my book, there's no excuse: if you need more income, then get a job. Work outside the home. I know that's terribly old-fashioned and Protestant to some, but to me it just is what it is: taking care of business. I don't have a choice, in my view. We also live frugally, methodically, practically and eschew most modern conveniences.

However, I think a lot of people could live their dreams (including not having an office job) on less, if they went without cable t.v., cell phones, hip houses in tony neighborhoods, SUVs, that fab kitchen remodel, etc. We are not in that category, but many are.

What's weird for me is how those of you who avoid the typical day job view my life. It can be boring, challenging, and frustrating, or incredibly hectic and stressful, but it's up to me whether or not it sucks my soul out and compromises my artistic and creative goals. I'm choosing to not let it do that. I do believe it's a choice.

I'll probably get some snarky comments on this, but it's just food for thought.

Oh and I agree that a high-deductible health plan with a savings account is a great alternative to employer-sponsored health insurance.

12:33 PM  
Blogger tallgirl said...

I am with Onward and Upward. I am one of the millions in a cubicle. Sometimes I look at myself and kinda laugh because it really reminds me of so many movies I laughed at in college. BUT, I am comfortable. I am happy. My job is good and even when "the man" tries to screw me, he can't because even he is powerless.

In the end I look at work as work. As the super models say "It isn't easy."

Money troubles eat me up. I hope you get it worked out. You are lucky that you have the option to go back to an office if you want. A lot of people in a similiar situation as you don't have that option. It is important to follow your heart, but I wouldn't consider it a failure or assault on my pride if I wasn't able to do it right the first time.

Now back to work for me... did i mention I like my job?

7:57 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Wow, this post gives me so much hope for my own situation. Thank you, Kyran.

It also reminds me of Ephesians 3:20, where it says that God is able to do superabundantly above all that we can ask or think. Thank you for that reminder.

4:20 AM  
Blogger Meg said...

Kyran-
Thanks so much for this brave and honest post. I am reading it with tears dripping down my chin--tears of recognition, tears of empathy.
While I do work outside the home, I work in social justice. I have turned down the potential of a cushy salary to do work that feels meaningful. I refused to compromise this decision when my husband left and I had to make it on one salary. One night I sat up in a panic, counting the change in the spare change jar, cashed it in and used the proceeds to pay for groceries.
What I learned from it all is to ask for help. Its amazing what comes your way when you are open to it. I loved what you shared about asking and receiving the blackberries and cheeses
Hang in there. Your writing is so beautiful and true. I have fallen in love with your blog. Thanks again for sharing on something so difficult and tough. Daring to utter the words has I am sure made others feel less alone. I believe you have touched many with these words of yours.
meg

3:11 PM  
Blogger natalie said...

something a dear friend of mine is teaching me...pray with intention and they will be answered. your writing indicates you may be doing this.
i'll keep you in mine and enjoy the ride. we all struggle and know that you've got cheerleaders (beyond financial adv) out there.

10:47 PM  
Blogger D' said...

G'day, I a friend in Little Rock referred me to your link and Wow! I would never be able to explain my life nearly as eloquently and touching as you have. It is though I am reading about myself. I stay-at-home with two little boys while my daughter attends public school. My husband still works very hard in an office but I am a freelance graphic artist. Sometimes it's as though I am being punished for my decision to keep my children at home. If I worked outside of the home then we could buy a house and move out of the rented apartment. Living hand to mouth can be just as stressful as any corporate deadline. I pray you guys make it because it is people like you that give us all hope. Just like those leaving editable food on you porch, your words of struggle and success feed our souls. When you make it, and you will, then we will be watching and we will also know our decisions were not in vain either.

10:41 AM  

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