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
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.
Labels: lack and plenty, soul and spirit, the writing life
this post lives all by itself here