I Am Rich

Mom was the first to rise. I would peel open an eye to catch her brushing on mascara while Dad snored. Our one bedroom smelled of Shiseido moisturizer and the coffee that pulled her from fatigue into her day. The breakfast rice swelled on the stovetop. I went back to sleep.

I remember the colors of Christmas. We never had a tree, for the lack of space and the frivolity it was. But the lights we did, tiny red and green bulbs a scant garnish on the rail of my top bunk. Every December I’d tramp through grey snow slush to Woolworth’s with my cousins, the giant five and dime that offered everything under the New York sun. Chocolate, Maybelline with all her wares, Arrid roll-on deodorant, lines of nail polish. Instead of walking out with Christmas presents for friends and family, every holiday jaunt I would leave the store thinking, “I’ll have some money next year.” And it took me 14 years to realize next year never came. But my parents still came through.

Mom would do what she had to, ride as many subway cars as she needed to procure what her kids asked of her. Resources on the state of Maine for a school project, the cheesecake her girl loved. One call to the restaurant where she waitressed, and she came home arms full with shiny travel books and the box from Zaro’s bakery on Grand Central. She kept our home tidy between and around the 14 hours of work; and though she could’ve better discriminated how she fed us, my brother and I were never in want of food. She asked nothing of me, not even the dishes, except that I do my best in school. Like many of us, I grew up with no iGadget, the closest thing being Atari. Yes, I want it, Daddy. I could feel the weight of the purchase on his shoulders in the store. I got so good at the video game, I could play Froggie upside down. I lay, hair fanned out on the carpet, chin to ceiling, and steered the frog on the TV screen across the perilous highway whole and happy.

My mother woke resolute every morning. She worked so hard I wonder if she even had time to be afraid. I sacrifice sleep not to keep clothes on my son’s back but for the gratification of my art, the joy of writing in these secret hours. Although I’d rather do without it for spiritual reasons, it meant everything to me to be able to get the tree five years ago – not only Tennyson’s first Christmas tree but cmastreehis parents’ as well. One taller than we are with ornaments we had never handled to help make for our boy fuller memories of tradition we never knew. We had afforded him something to decorate and bring alive into the magic of the season.

I am seeing how the question of sufficiency impacts the choices we make and how satisfied we are. Do I make enough, have enough?Is he good enough to marry? From all the jokes on the last post, is she good enough to keep? Does my child? Have I lost sufficient weight? Are my grades up to par?  Were my parents enough? Am I smart, capable, healthy enough for the project, job, race? Have I accomplished enough? Each question makes for a post, if not a book.

The resentment I held my parents to much of my life was the assertion that they were deficient. While they did lack greatly in some respects, I am seeing with the years that they did not have much by way of emotional resources. They did what they could with what they had. For me. Although my husband asks little of me, it is when I want him to do or be more that I become discontent. My child comes to me and expresses his grievance when I wound him but he always returns to the place of forgiveness. I am astonished to find that to him, his father, and my parents, I am more than enough. I also have deeply loyal friends. And here you all are. I am so unworthy. No need to correct me; I didn’t say worthless. You would unfollow if you knew the thoughts I spin sometimes. We don’t know one another’s unfiltered story. But this I can tell you.

I am so very rich.

Paper Bag Treasure

We had recently moved to a better part of London to ensure that my brother and I could attend a decent school. Dad was a London cabbie, the kind that drove one of those large black London taxis in the era before the Uber invasion. He would usually drive off early in the morning and return home well after dark. After dinner, I remember that he and my mother would frequently close the frosted glass door to the kitchen and talk earnestly in hushed, worried tones. I sometimes sat silently at the top of the stairs, straining to catch any intelligible words that seeped through the kitchen door. When I did hear them, they usually had something to do with money: bank, bob, savings, tanner, tip, quid, fiver. The down payment on the house had exhausted my parents’ savings and the mortgage was a heavy burden, so my father’s tips determined our daily solvency.

These financial worries made a lasting impression on me. It was as if my new school, my new friends, the new house, all could disappear at a stroke. However, one evening my slipper fell down the stairs and as I skipped down to retrieve it, I felt a small lump under the carpet I had not noticed before. After carefully pulling out a flat package wrapped in a brown paper bag, I tore it open to find a thick wad of five pound notes, a king’s ransom to a seven-year-old boy with a vivid imagination and a penchant for adventure stories.

It was, I speculated, accidentally left there by the previous owners, maybe the proceeds of white slave trading. Or the sale of goods on the black market. A grin spread over my face and a glow suffused my body as I imagined the delight on my parents’ face when I announced that I had discovered a hidden treasure, the solution to our family’s problems.

I leapt to the floor and rushed into the kitchen breathless with excitement, screaming, “Look what I found!” and threw the paper bag onto the table. My mum and dad looked at the bag, looked at each other, looked at me, and then burst into laughter. The money was simply Dad’s earnings for the week, tucked away until he had time to go and deposit them in the bank.

I have never forgotten that things are not always what they seem and that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. I also have never completely shaken off the fear of losing everything. It has shaped my life subtly in different ways. I regularly go backpacking in the wilderness for days on end, not only for solitude and enjoyment, but also to prove just how little I need to survive. I practice stoicism to inure myself against unforeseen losses, and try to arrange personal and business affairs to limit risk while still allowing for upside surprises. Sometimes I still sit on the stairs and listen.

Malcolm Greenhill at Malcolm’s Corner

 

My Father’s Box

When my father died, I kept the wooden box in which he had stored his tools. Dad worked as a plasterer, so the box is scarred and coated in plaster dust.  But this box reminds me of all that I learned from him about earning a living.  From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.

I was raised in North East England. For the first decade of my life, we lived in a small flat with an outside toilet.  We bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire.  Dad could have earned more working for another employer, but he was loyal to the small family firm he’d apprenticed to.  He took pride in his work and often carried out jobs for family and friends for nothing more than a couple of packs of cigarettes.

We didn’t have much money, but neither did the people we mixed with. My friends were from our street, from my school.  Those who had more money and lived in wealthier areas, those who spoke with less of an accent, were labelled “posh”.

Whether we like it or not, we inherit our parents’ attitude to money. I still carry the values that came from my traditional working class background: the need to work hard, be respectable, not act above your station, respect your elders and “betters”.  My upbringing gave me a sense of fairness and a desire for equality.  But in some ways, I always felt that I didn’t quite “fit”.  I wanted an education and a career but I was the first generation in my family for which that was an option.  When I achieved them, I would often underplay my success so that people wouldn’t think I had gotten above myself.

Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us. I currently work as an area manager, responsible for a group of libraries and community buildings.  My job and my lifestyle now would be categorised as middle class.  Yet I will forever feel working class.  I can afford to do the things my parents never could, but I’m not always comfortable doing them.  I can eat in a fancy restaurant but never quite feel I belong there.  I can be intimidated visiting an expensive shop.  I value something because of its worth to me, not because it has a name that someone tells me I ought to value.  I often feel guilty spending money on myself, because the purchases are things I want but don’t need.  I would be horrified if someone called me “posh”.

I still feel as though I straddle two worlds: the world I was raised in and the one I have forged. Inside, I’ll always be that working class girl who never had much money.  And I’m proud of the woman she has made me.

Andrea Stephenson at Harvesting Hecate

My Fiction Put Me In Debt

Last week my father told me that his local Safeway had closed down, soon to be replaced with a Whole Foods. Normally this news would’ve tickled me – I’m a Whole Foods addict – but I was inexplicably sad. He now scans the weekly store flyers and shops the best deals.

Why did this conversation leave me feeling so tender, so emotional? I realized it was the first time I thought, I want to be like that. Like my father. Careful, methodical. Good with money.

The money story has always been big for me. As a small child I constantly compared myself to others – me often holding the short end of the stick. Everyone else got the best toys, the best food (hot dogs and sugary cereals), the best clothes. I got a dad who seemed to say ‘no’ to everything.

It made me angry. It made me sad. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. The really cool things were reserved for other people, and I didn’t belong in that world. I let my money stories form the reality that is my life now. I rebelled against my father’s practical ways, to the point where I’m in major financial debt. I’ve been on a hamster wheel, running to catch up to some elusive ‘there’. And the older I get, the further away ‘there’ seems.

But I’m getting that no one is responsible for this, but me.

I’m the one who’s chosen to interpret my life events as I have. I’m the one who’s assigned deep meaning to old memories…and this meaning no longer serves. For years, I viewed my dad in a certain way because I’d trained myself to see only what supported my stories.

Yeah yeah, he put food on the table and clothed me. Yeah yeah, he was expelled from his homeland of Uganda and lost everything he owned. Yeah yeah, his own father didn’t talk about money.

So what? He should have known better. Been more successful. Given me more. Showed me how to manage my finances.

Right.

These past few months have been transformative. I’ve really felt the emotional impact of my judgment and resentment. And I don’t want to carry them anymore. I know we’re not supposed to be ashamed of ourselves; shame is so disempowering. But I am ashamed of how I’ve held others responsible for the situations I’ve created. I’m now seeing the power I have to choose and to create differently.

My financial situation is a reflection of my inner state. The more I willingly, authentically release blame, the more I find space in my heart, and in my finances. Blame doesn’t have my money in a chokehold anymore. There is room for me to move, to grow, to be free, and to allow the possibility for new, loving relationships with those most dear to me.

Aleya at alohaleya

The Secret to Happiness

A friend of mine who suffered immensely caring for her ailing parents found herself an orphan in her 20s. She was left with such an inheritance that she could – by her own admission – stay in her room and live on take-out the rest of her life. Meaning, she was set. My friend was free to live not to work. To work not to live. The obligation of employment did not weigh on her life, and she was free to dream whatever she dared with the means to transform it to reality.

She continues to live with the guilt.

Because, she says, it is her parents’ money she is sitting on, not something she herself earned. No matter that she worked hard all her life in school, that she made it in the world of finance as an Ivy league graduate. When life served her comfort on a silver platter and swept clear her runway, she sunk into depression.

Her response back then was profoundly intriguing to me as I looked on while flailing for a financial foothold, after I had managed to study and make it into the world of designer clothes and country club dining. My life before and after this season was one hazardous patch of thin ice. I grew up watching my parents scrounge and sweat, and life without money struggles was a most curious fantasy. It happened to some but surely would pass me over. But the bitterness of the little girl became gratitude; in my newfound Christian faith, I realized that with so little I had nothing to lose. And provisions came my way in the most timely moments. I was about to shop for wardrobe to interview for head of the Gifted and Talented Program when my mother fell ill. I rushed back home to New York three hours away to be tied to her in the hospital until the eve of the big day. I was going to set out as unprepared as I could be when Mom sheepishly told me she couldn’t resist picking up a suit tossed outside a ritzy building on Lexington Avenue before I came. She had spotted it, good as it looked, on her way out after a long day of babysitting. Fit me perfectly and though I walked into my important meeting late, having gotten lost in the rain, I got the job over the women who looked the part of the upper-middle class community. I felt like Cinderella, though I’m not sure she was a bookworm. The assistant superintendent of the district put to me a grammar question the Caucasian candidates couldn’t answer. I know. Some of you are smiling. See? Learn your grammar. When later that year I told my principal the tale of the castaway suit, she remembered the way I’d walked in that day, said I looked sharp. She never would’ve known. But Cinderella did have to leave the ball.

When I left the district, there I was again – savings now depleted and too sick to work on my 30th birthday. Money can’t buy happiness but it sure pays the bills and puts food in your mouth. I know what it is to teeter on a tightrope without a net. One semester in college I sold my guitar so I could eat. The black hand of powerlessness slips a mask over your head and breathing becomes difficult. Now, you’d think it’s freedom on the other side of poverty, on the wide green grass of options. But even there you can become strapped – in fact, paralyzed. And instead of joy, you might find despair.

In his book and TED Talk, Barry Schwartz sheds light on what he calls the paradox of choice.

With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds and 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow. So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. That’s one effect [of the power of choice].

Another is the escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. The shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …” My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! — with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.

The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in – we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation – the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness is low expectations.

Finally, one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different kinds of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, even though the results are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves.

Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant contributor is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is. I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare.

He knows me. I hate Walmart. I don’t care about the prices. Store’s just too big and I lose precious time looking for what I want. There are few things I loathe more than shopping for jeans, which is why I’ve stuck with my two pairs the last ten years. This is what likely happened to my orphan friend: she became overwhelmed at the gala of options she had stumbled into. We pine and claim we could’ve done better if we’d been dealt a kinder hand. Loaded with all the resources anyone could hope for; money, time, smarts, education, she stared at the dark mirror. How could she best use her talents, make an impact, do justice to her parents’ gift of sacrifice? She was stripped of excuses. What if her choice wasn’t good enough? Oh, the burden of getting it right.

Notice the themes written on the mighty dollar. Happiness, guilt, blame, worry. There are more, too, in this new series on money that our guest writers have been waiting to help roll out. Look out for our oldies, thoughts on class and belonging and identity. You might see yourself in the stories. Here we go!

Calling All Artists, Thinkers, Writers, Part 2: The Luxury of Art

So the last time I called, it was to ask the meaning of art. This time I want to talk about its source and sustenance. Would you help me through my ambivalence on this question, follow as I st r u gg le? Thinking over the things my mother worked to procure for me – shelter, food, education – I noticed a glaring contrast to what you can find me busy reaching for. My writing. Mom was preoccupied with making rent and putting rice on the table. I am often lost in my search for the perfect word – whether I’m running around like a headless chicken or slogging through kitchen duty and the lessons with my son. Through it all I never waste a minute, too many things calling for my attention. So it is with moms, and I remember my mother flying everywhere all the time. But it was a different quality of time, a different meaning to it, between Mom’s and mine. Maybe one day I will write a book on the challenges that are my normal. It is on the soft bed of middle-class existence, though, that I do my battles, not the hard ground Mom walked. Would I pursue my writing in her worn-out shoes? I can take nothing for granted. I have mused at times that my world can be pulled from under me any moment. I’ve asked myself if I could keep up A Holistic Journey if I found myself a single parent without means. No. At least not with the time and fierce love I’ve poured into it. If a roof over my son’s head and food in his belly were no given but necessities that I had to clock in 12 hours outside the home for, I’d be foolish to consider my art in any space between the pressure. I would marshal all my resourcefulness and energy to meet my child’s basic needs today and prepare for his tomorrow. Survival trumps all, transforms many desires into nonessentials. Which leads me to conclude that art is a luxury borne out of class. Only now, 20 years after the required reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, am I able to write the paper with understanding.

PurseSo what do you make of Woolf’s famous precept that women need money and a room of their own to write? Unbroken time and space to think and hear herself. Woolf was insisting upon a level playing field in reaction to the socioeconomic disparities between men and women throughout the centuries that had impacted their art. It was men, and therefore male writers, who published readily. Women couldn’t get in the game a hundred years ago, let alone attempt to write through the demands of family life. Woolf wrote, “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.” Freedom was one of many things my mother did not have. Financial, material, intellectual. She certainly had no room of her own in a one-bedroom apartment. Though I am not made of money, I still enjoy a feast of options on the food, toys, learning materials I can get my son. I will also fight for the freedom to teach him exactly as I wish if need be. Against this backdrop I exercise my intellect in the luxury to imagine and wonder beyond the walls of my home, and create. I feel secure enough that the walls will not give way. There was no such thing as self-actualization for my mother. No time, no wherewithal. Because my starting point in the discussion was this financial duress stamped into my consciousness, the joy I take in my art feels like hedonism. Now Woolf wasn’t arguing for luxury as she was that money and time be staple provisions for women as they were for men. She resonates with the wild, helpless artist in me, of course. My words are not wine but water, air. I would thirst and gasp if I couldn’t write. Not a day goes by where I don’t begrudge the clock my due, petition the day the time to myself.

But isn’t the classic starving artist single? Or childless (as luck would have it), able to stalk his dream at the encouragement of an understanding, optimistic spouse? Stephen King and the rest who created successfully through the stress of providing for young children seem to disprove the archetype. Yet while King helped with the kids, he did write in his lunch hour at work – outside the home. And though he was often broke, he had a college degree. I grew up watching extremely talented musicians busking in the subways of New York. Street art and brilliance out of the ghettos make it an interesting question, doesn’t it? The circumstances most hospitable to art. Of course it’s ridiculous to say the poor cannot birth what is powerfully beautiful. All over the world we have evidence to the contrary; poets and novelists who wrote in the trenches and drew upon raw experience to bring the power of reality to their art. But don’t time and the sense of stability that money can buy give you not only a room but space in your spirit to conceive things bigger than your life? If art keeps your heart beating, do you need money in the bank to live more fully? Turning our attention to virtual art: anyone can open a blog account and not all bloggers are professing artists. But do those of you who are serious about your art out here consider yourself above the stated lower class where you live? Money is no panacea and some of the richest people are the most unfulfilled. The question is how sustainable art is and whether it can thrive where one’s pocketbook fits only so many coins and groceries and dreams.