Month: May 2015

Money Craves my Attention

My relationship with money has been troubled for a while. The problem isn’t money, it’s me. I’ve been neglectful. Sure, I appreciate what money does for me. It keeps my car running, it feeds me, it even buys me coffee every Friday. But my appreciation is hypothetical, unexpressed. Instead of tending to my relationship with money, I mostly just try to avoid it. I just keep spending what I spend, charging groceries on my debit card, buying new tires on credit, and then hoping that when I finally get around to checking my balances, I don’t discover that my account balance is zero, or that I’ve surpassed my credit limit.

But lately, some things have been reminding me that money would appreciate my attention. First, a friend of mine left this on my doorstep.

 OWL

It’s a owl piggybank, an owl-pig. My friend has been buying piggy banks at Goodwill and then painting them, transforming them into talismans for prosperity. The owl-pig came with instructions. We must feed her coins and notes. We must talk to her about our dreams.

A few days after pig-owl arrived, I read a chapter from Michelle Tea’s How to Grow Up that describes the author’s efforts to change her relationship to money. The simplest take-away from this chapter is the Money Magnet chant:

I am a Money Magnet

Money comes to me

Money loves me

Money is sexually attracted to me

Money wants to be near me

I love money

I am money

According to Michelle Tea, the idea isn’t necessarily to seek magic or divine intervention (though we welcome those things too!), but to remind ourselves that we don’t need to live in an antagonistic relationship with money. Tea describes how she spent much of her youth avoiding money, and how this avoidance meant that she often found herself working for free while someone else was turning a profit. She writes, “I knew that in order to heal my abusive relationship with prosperity, I was going to have to start approaching this part of my life not with anger or hurt, but with love.” The chant simply helps remind the chanter that money is our friend. It wants to serve us.

With this in mind, I started to feed our owl-pig, and talk to our owl-pig, and also I said the Money Magnet chant a few times. Each time I said it I allowed myself to dream big, and over the course of ten days the following things happened.

  1. I placed one essay in the New York Times Motherlode and another in The Washington Post. Breaking into one of these markets was my big personal goal for the year. Now…DONE! (I think I might take a nap.)
  1. Kellie got an unexpected bonus at work.
  1. I got a letter in the mail saying that I’d already been billed four times for a co-pay of $10.36, and if I didn’t settle up within the week, the bill was going to a collection agency.

Of course I was ecstatic about items 1 and 2, but number 3 was in its own way a gift, a wake-up call, a reminder of exactly how careless I’ve been. Bills arrive in the mail and they migrate to the edge of our kitchen table where they gather crumbs and stains. I put off dealing with them for weeks, and when I finally open the envelope, I think: Huh, this medical co-pay invoice for $3.27 is dated April 3. I swear I already paid this. I think they might have sent the bill on the same day that I put payment in the mail. Then I put it aside and intend to call the office on a Monday, but then I never do because who cares? It’s $3.27.

Every time this happens, I think about my mother and how throughout my childhood she sat at the dining room table and paid bills every Saturday morning. (She probably still does.) She balanced her checkbook as she went. Paying attention to money was a part of her weekly routine. Every month or so I ask myself why can’t I do that? By the time I get around to paying the bills it takes hours and it looks like this:

Bills1

But afterwards, when the waste has been recycled, and the bills have been paid, and I see that there’s still some money left in checking, or I at least understand that we need a couple of months to pay the credit card back down, my world feels a whole lot cleaner. It’s not so much about having a lot, it’s about knowing what I have. I can breathe. I can make informed choices.

Bills2And so, I’m trying my best to remember that money is my friend, that the more I attend to money, the more money will attend to me.

That’s So Gay

From birth to age seven, I was an only child. I didn’t want to be. Our family home had two floors and more rooms than we needed. My parents had a room, and I had a room, and still there were two more bedrooms, each one filled with furniture, piles of books, and jigsaw puzzles—things we only saved because we had the room to store them.

My own bedroom was pale blue with a small crack that ran through the wall beside my bed. Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I traced it with my finger. I often played alone with dolls and stuffed animals, memorizing my favorite books. Every day, I daydreamed about how the house might change if I had a younger sibling crawling from room to room, filling the house with living sounds.

Up the street, my best friend Mandy Filcher lived with two older brothers. Her house was in many ways the opposite of mine, exploding with toys, bean bag chairs, Atari, and sibling rivalry. Mandy was a year older than me with brown pigtails and buck teeth. When we weren’t eating ramen noodles in the kitchen or watching The Price is Right in the den, we were mostly playing Barbies in her bedroom, which was so small it could barely hold all of her stuffed animals. The Barbies and the Kens belonged to Mandy, which meant that she was the boss of them. Always she assigned me Pink ‘n’ Pretty, who was the designated outcast. She was a genuine Barbie, but something must have gone wrong in the factory on the day she was made. Her skin tone had some extra orange so she looked like she was wearing a fake tan. None of the other Barbies liked Pink ‘n’ Pretty, and the Ken dolls didn’t want to date her.

Still, we had fun undressing them and having them skinny dip in the sweetheart pool or lie in the same bed. Because Barbies outnumbered Kens, they often danced with each other. One day, as two of our Barbies were slow dancing at the prom, Mandy interrupted to ask me if I knew what “gay” meant. Gay was the word we’d been tossing around when something was stupid or uncool, like admitting that you liked Mr. Rogers, or wearing sports socks with your Mary Janes: That’s so gay. Gay was the opposite of Awesome, the other word that Mandy had recently taught me.

“Gay is like when a boy marries a boy, or a girl marries a girl,” she explained.

I instantly felt relieved. I did not decide that I was gay in that moment, but I was happy, like she’d answered a question I’d long held somewhere inside of me. It mattered that we were using the word as an insult, but it mattered much more that such things were possible, that men could love men and women love women. I was happy for that option.

Baby_doll-Calineczka-2006Back at my own house, I lobbied for a baby. By the time I was six it had become a routine topic of discussion. At night, when I visited my mom in her bed, I told her I wouldn’t care if it were a sister or brother. I’d love it no matter what. At the dinner table, I hounded both of my parents for an answer, saying, “So is it yes or is it no or is it maybe?”

I didn’t realize that behind closed doors, my mother had been lobbying for the same thing. For years, she and my father had considered a second child. My father might have been happy to put it off forever, but as my mother approached forty her idea of a new baby, once distant, had evolved into a pressing desire.

One day in early autumn, my mother sought me out in our backyard. I was lying on the grass in the afternoon sun, when a shadow passed over me and I opened my eyes to find her standing there. “I have something to tell you,” she said.

I didn’t shout or clap my hands or jump up in the air. I just stayed there in the grass and felt a tingle in my belly—the joy of expectation—it settled there and grew. We were going to have a baby.

I was seven when my brother was born. On the night when my mother went into labor, I slept on the loveseat in Mandy Filcher’s living room. Her mother slept on the sofa across from me so I wouldn’t have to be alone. By morning, he still hadn’t arrived, and so I went to school as usual, wondering throughout the day if he had safely entered the world.

My father picked me up that afternoon at Mandy’s. I had expected the drive to the hospital to take a few minutes, but it was two towns away, and we kept driving through neighborhoods of trees and houses, comfortably silent. The hospital room was white, the sheets were white, my mother wore a pale blue gown, and there was my brother, wrapped in white with a tiny pink face and closed eyes. If I sat in the chair I could hold him. For such a tiny thing he had heft; he felt more like a sack of flour than a doll. He breathed and made tiny little half-cries as he slept.

Some children beg for a sibling and when he arrives, they beg to send him back. I didn’t. I bottle-fed him, spoon-fed him, cradled him, read to him, and sang him lullabies. On Saturday mornings, when he woke before my parents, I tiptoed into his room and brought him downstairs. He sat on my lap while I watched cartoons. Together, we ate dry Cheerios from a plastic bowl.

Note: This is the fourth installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. You can click on the Memoir Mondays tag below to read earlier installments.

Everyday Superpowers (and Superlimitations)

Do you know that feeling of being overtaken by a wave? One moment you’re happily body surfing, watching with curiosity as a wave takes shape and approaches, and the next moment—wham!—you’re underwater, being dragged across the sand by the current. You’re not in any real danger—the water is about two feet deep—but you are sore, and also: embarrassed. You stand up and look around to see if anybody saw that. You wade a little deeper and try to see if it’s possible to discreetly tug at your bathing suit and rinse some of the sand from your craw.

Dear Reader, that’s exactly what the second half of April has felt like. Here’s my best attempt to break it down.

  1. I caught a cold and tried to ignore it. We had a lot going on (see #2) and so I told myself this illness would take care of itself. I continued to eat cheese, drink wine, to miss hours of sleep, to live as if I were feeling fine. And when, after a full week of this, the cold turned into asthma and irrepressible coughing, I just bumped up the dose on my inhalers, and waited for the meds to kick in. But that didn’t work either. Gradually, over the course of the second week, my asthma got worse, not better. I woke every morning coughing and gasping for air. The inhalers took the edge off, but they didn’t pull me out of illness. It turned out I needed a doctor, and Prednisone, and rest.
  1. Kellie and I found a spacious mid-century house priced at the very upper edge of our price range. We’ve been on the fence about buying a house for years. We both want more space—we want things like a big room where the kids can mess everything up and be crazy loud and we can close the door—but the thought of a bigger mortgage makes us both tremble in our boots a little bit. We kept making decisions and then doubting those decisions; we took turns staying up all night; I spent an hour on the phone with a mortgage broker, and hours at the kitchen table with a pen and scrap paper and a calculator. Kellie and I kept calling each other at random moments during the workday to re-discuss the finer points until finally we decided to GO FOR IT!—and then, once again, we second-guessed ourselves. After hours of further discussion, we made an offer, and were amazed at how peaceful we finally felt. We went to sleep imagining our family spreading out in a house with two floors.

 And then the next day we learned that we’d been outbid.

  1. I had an essay go live that I was excited to share with the world—and within an hour of its release, I just wanted to hide beneath my covers. The essay was about the exhaustive decision-making process I went through with Kellie when deciding to have our first child. (See similar decision-making process as represented in #2 above. This is how we roll.) For a couple to negotiate different views on having kids struck me as a normal phenomenon, and it just plain never occurred to me that someone would read about that experience and judge me.

But twenty minutes after my essay went live, a commenter accused me of being emotionally abusive to Kellie, of coercing her into having a child. A whole thread of comments followed debating my character—was I totally reprehensible, or just a little bit manipulative? This was the real sneaker wave of April. I hadn’t predicted this reaction, nor could I have anticipated how totally raw and exposed a bunch of online commenters would make me feel.

To make things worse, the website where the essay appeared was set up to email me a notification every time someone commented. Throughout the day, I’d check my email and my heart would race each time I saw a comment notification. I held my breath and clicked on it, wondering what awful conclusions the most recent readers had drawn about me. It felt kind of like this:

Film: Repulsion, 1965

Film: Repulsion, 1965

  1. Two days after the comments fiasco unfolded, my car started rattling. It began a half a block away from my house as I was preparing to drop off my kids and continue on to work. Though the rattling was undeniable, I tried for a moment to pretend it wasn’t happening. I asked myself if maybe I could possibly just keep driving to work?

The answer was no. Within the next half block, the rattling got progressively worse, and I parked on the side of the road to investigate. Was my car about to explode? Or maybe it was something simple—was my muffler dragging on the ground? No, but my front right tire was completely flat.

Kellie had forgotten her cell phone that day, so I was on my own. I left the car where I parked it and walked the kids a mile to the bus terminal downtown. This involved alternately corralling Stump and carrying him against his will.

Later that evening, Kellie replaced the flat tire and as she lowered the body of the car back down over the brand new wheel, it slowly became clear to us that the spare was flat too. I filled it with my bike pump and drove it directly to Les Schwab—which had closed. I left it to sit and deflate overnight.

  1. When I came home the next day from picking up my car with brand new front tires, this had happened:

gutter

Actually, this one just turned out to be a cosmic joke. When Kellie came home, she fixed it in twenty minutes.

 While all of this has been going on, Stump has been cultivating a superhero alter-ego. He’s reached that stage in life where he wants to be—needs to be—a superhero all of the time. He wants to wear armbands day and night, and won’t take them off for the bath. He wants to wear a cape over his t-shirt. To Stump, this isn’t about wearing a costume; he’s claiming his personal style.

superheroIn the midst of a sleepless night last week (see #2 & #3) I realized that this was exactly the way that I needed to see myself, that even though I’d hit a point where I felt tired and wounded and embarrassed and tired again, I needed to put on my armbands, put a cape on over my work clothes, cultivate my everyday superpowers, and surrender to my superlimitations. It was two in the morning at that point, and as I lay there I took stock:

Superpower: My body can heal itself.

Superlimitation: I actually have to slow down and help it.

Superpower: I am capable of radical oversharing. Lately, the more I write, the more it seems like this craft is about discovering the most revealing, vulnerable thing that I am capable of saying and then saying it.

Superlimitation: I am completely unable to control or even predict how that writing will be received.

Superpower-limitation: I’m the only one who can save me. On the morning of my flat tire, I called Kellie’s work office to tell her about the problem. “I can’t get a hold of her until the afternoon,” he co-worker explained. “That’s fine,” I told him. “I made it to work already.” “Oh, so you don’t need rescuing?” he clarified. When I got off the phone, I realized how badly I’d wanted rescuing all week. I wanted someone to make my asthma go away, to get rid of those critical commenters, to wave a magic wand and give me a new house that suited all our family needs without a mortgage. But at the end of the day, it’s just me in my sweaty human clothes lifting my fists to the sky like Superman, trying to up-up-and-away myself.