Six months after my husband left, it had become clear that he would not be contributing the money he promised to help pay for childcare and “Max-related” household expenses. He was not going to contribute to the mortgage to pay for the house we held in both our names, even though we had taken out equity in the thousands that had largely gone to Latin America to help his various family members. He was not going to be contributing at all because he couldn’t.
For six months I had been spending as though I had all that he promised. We had no savings. All our cash had flowed out to buy my husband a new van for his business, to address a huge family emergency he had. Once upon a time, when two incomes flowed into our house, we were able to get by even in times like these. The problem was, I was still stuck in that now irrelevant and practically ancient time and I was drowning in anachronisms.
I was living in a beautiful, relative well-off community and week by week, we were getting closer and closer to hungry. The checks to the babysitter bounced. The pre-school called me about the tuition payment checks that had been returned. Going to the ATM became an exercise in faith, and deep breathing to manage the stress. Colleagues left $20 bills on my chair because they noticed I hadn’t eaten lunch in days.
One night, in desperation I went up into the attic. I sorted through Max’s baby clothes, the ones I had been saving in case we had another baby, and put them in a pile for consignment. In one fell swoop, to take care of the child I had, I let go of the dream of a child to come. “Let’s be honest,” I told myself. “He’s not coming back. No partner. No new kid.” The light bill needed to be paid.
One Saturday night when I had truly hit bottom, I dragged out the change jar that was tucked in the kitchen closet. The jar where for 10 years Juan and I thrown our spare pennies and nickles, tossed them in as an investment in dreams down the line. When Juan and I were younger and poorer we would dig through the spare change jar for quarters we would use to order a pizza or buy ice cream in a romantic sort of “young and struggling” gesture. Yet no matter how struggling we were, even during those lean times, we never had to empty it. Not once.
I dragged the jar into the car and took it to the CoinStar machine at the grocery store where I turned it upside down, watching every last penny spiral into the well. When I got the receipt, I turned around and went in and used it to buy groceries. And I tried not to think about the empty coin jar in the cupboard.
What is surreal about this experience is that I had a job. A good job. Sure it was a non-profit job, but I was working for a decent salary. But still, no matter how I eventually cut my expenses to the bare bone, it was not enough. No matter how much I made, no matter how much I trimmed from our budget, it just wasn’t enough.
Its taken me years to climb out of that place where I felt so on the edge of financial ruin. It is still tighter than I would like and I am not nearly saving but bit by bit I have found a way to get by with what we have now. Yet, money continues to be one of the biggest stressors in my life. I know I am in good company here.
And I continue to bury that panicked feeling, the feeling that I was standing with one foot off a cliff, that I was dangling by some imaginary tiny thread over a slippery slope that would lead to my destruction. I have kept it stuffed down and far below. I do whatever I can to keep it at bay. I don’t ever want to touch that fear again.
A number of things are happening in life right now that are leading me to consider what would happen if I had to make due with even less and it has brought that fear screaming to the surface. I am toying with dreams that would require investment in tuition or an eventual shift to part-time work. “What would it mean,” I wonder “if I were to try some sort of grad school, part time, at night?” I do the tuition calculations, think about what it might mean to my income and work and suddenly I am back in that place, remembering the feeling of failure, of fear. The memories come flooding back. I can’t imagine ever going back to that place willingly. I slam the door shut.
The other day I sat to talk to a stranger at the part-time graduate program I have explored. I was sitting with her because I wanted to make a financial plan to get to school one day in the future and I needed information and ideas. She had so very few concrete solutions for someone as broke as me, we were both a bit frustrated with the course of the conversation.
What she did offer was a lecture on faith. She told me that I would have to take a leap and trust that the net would appear. She told me that as much as I wanted to see it all planned out there was no way to do that and I just had to see what would happen. Just jump she said.
Suddenly I remembered the baby clothes and the CoinStar in the grocery store and the fear and loneliness I felt as panic swelled and I thought about dashing out the door while she spoke to me of attracting abundance. I had no choice then, but would I ever take Max and myself through that again. I stared at her blankly with tears brimming. “Don’t you understand how much faith it has taken me to even get to this place?” She was so kind I chose to keep my next utterance to myself, “I may lack alot, but don’t you dare insuinate that I have a lack of faith.”
If I am being honest, really brutally honest, a lot of my story about the last five years does have to do with that word: LACK. Lack of money. Lack of time. Lack of patience. Lack of clean clothes. Lack of sleep. Lack of physical affection. Lack of a partner to support me. Lack of Vitamin D. Lack of energy. On many days I have taken all this lack for granted and I have stopped thinking about it in a conscious way. I shrug off the voices that come up complaining of want. I convince myself that I am a “glass half full girl” , that I concentrate with cheeriness on what I DO have. I share what time, money, energy and hope I have with joy.
But even though I can silence the whining voice, and tell myself I am grateful grateful grateful, I see that “the lack” is looming. I am trying to constantly make up for not having enough, for not being enough. I am apologizing always for what is not there. To myself, my son, my office, my friends, my family. It is insidious how “Lack” can sneak into our worldview when we are trying to live a life of gratitude.
Of course, when I take a step back, when I am at my wisest, most peaceful place, I know that I dwell in a land of
abundance. I am most very grateful for all we have. We have an abundance of community and love that surrounds us. We have an abundance of cats looking for warm laps. We have an abundance of interesting and free places to explore in an amazing city. And we have an abundance of kindnesses shown to us on a daily basis, so many that I can weep sometimes to think of them all. We have an abundance of silliness and laughter and joy, an abundance of friends willing to break bread together, and abundance of hugs, of inside jokes, of campfires and music and wonder. There are countless miracles unfolding in my life–big and small–most of them arising from a random act of kindness. We have so much. I am truly blessed. Really.
I know that Max and I won’t starve as long as we dwell here.
But, as disappointing as this may be, to me and anyone else who imagines me a better person, this is not the default position of my brain. I wish it was. Of course, there are moments, like when I am listening to a friend play music or when Max is laughing or when I am sitting at a table with friends, I sink into the fullness of my life, feel its softness and ease and joy and abundance. But, most moments,well, I have to walk myself through the paces to get here, to remind myself how rich we are.
Truth is, it is why I write about my community with such relish. It is why I want to recount the miracles I experience. It is why I tell my stories of joy and sweetness and laughter over and over and over again. Writing helps me remember. Telling the stories convinces me that we are not drowning, that we are in fact, afloat in a wealth of good things. Writing calms the fear.
And the thing that undoes me more than anything, is that I know that perhaps the graduate school lady is right. Perhaps the most important thing I am lacking right now really is faith. I can’t stand that that might be true.
I need to make a major shift here in my soul and is a shift I don’t know how to make. If I am ever going to put that fear, that mind-numbing, sob-inducing saber toothed monster to bed, I am going to need to shift something. It is more than endlessly counting my blessings. It is more than saying the litany of all that I love about my life, like a rosary. It is more than waking up grateful and going to sleep grateful. I know because I do all these things, and still, at the end of the day when it comes to making big jumps I cannot believe that if I let go one bit of my sweet little spot on the cliff here, that it will be OK, that I won’t be dashed to smithereens on the rocks of circumstance, dragging my sweet son with me. I know this goes against everything I want to believe. I’m just sayin’.
Can it be true that I lack the skills to let go of the story of lack?
There are people in my life who don’t have this world view. They expect good things to flow their way. They ask for what they need and they always seem to get it, one way or another, with work, always with work, but also with ease. When insurmountable troubles or unbelievable opportunity comes their way, they always seem to have someone rush in with a check or an scheme or a helping hand. Yes, they work their butts off but the stars seem to line up too. They tell me that the stars always line up when you dwell in a place of abundance. To be honest, I am not sure even what it MEANS to dwell in abundance. I feel so silly to be so ignorant, like the one pre-teen girl who doesn’t know about the mysteries of sex, who is trying to follow the teenagers giggling gossip about the weekend before. WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT I want to scream…but instead I hang my head shyly in shame for not knowing about what they speak.
Every circumstance is our teacher. And I know that this is the lesson that is being placed before me now. I am, bit by bit, taking steps that might open up new ways of being, even though it scares me, frustrates me, leaves me completely undone and bewildered.
Let me whisper this. I think that as scary as it was to be on the edge of financial collapse, it is even more terrifying for me to leave behind the story of lack. It is an uncomfortable story but I knew it well and it explained so very much, and gave me so many excuses. A mentor and dear friend looked into my eyes once and told me that making this shift in my worldview honestly, would be the most challenging thing I have ever had to do. At the time I thought she was crazy, how could shifting to a life of abundance be terrifying? I am beginning to see what she means.
4 boxes of Kleenex. (Wishing I bought more now)
3 blankets and pillows
4 bottles of bubbles to blow out the windows if we get stuck in traffic (or bored…or anxious…or tired)
Strawberries, bananas and grapes
Bread and cheese and maybe a little ham in the cooler–the better to nurture weary travelers on the way home
Crackers and chips and a bag of pretzels
A 12 pack of Orange Fanta and a lot of bottled water
Chocolate in every form
Art supplies for the long long wait.
DVDs for when everyone needs to crash and stop talking.
Hope and love and comfortable shoes for waiting and pacing and waiting some more.
This morning I will drop Max off to school and then walk up the street with all this loot to my friend Dave’s house. There we will load the van and along with Shuttersister Stephanie Roberts, we will pick up the guest of honor, my dear friend Odette. We will drive the 5 hours to New York City, to JFK, to the international terminal where we will pick up her daughters, accompanied home by the gorgeous and unstoppable Jen Lemen.
It is such an honor to be allowed to witness this dream coming true. The night Odette first moved in with us almost 3 years ago, we talked all night about her girls. For the last four years, since she was forced to leave them on a crazy journey, my sister Odette has held their coming to join her in the US up as her truest dream. When her oldest daughter got sick, and she was unable to go home to tend to her, our friend Jen made the journey and has never looked back.
This journey has been the harder than I ever imagined possible. I kept thinking that there was no way it would ever come true. It seemed as though it was doomed to failure from the start, and it simultaneously made me sick to my stomach and hopeful at the same time.
Yesterday, I kept calling Odette on the phone and screaming, “They are coming!” “I know!!!” she screamed back and we would both laugh and jump up and down. It finally hit us both yesterday though it all fell into place last Friday. And today she will hold them in her arms in New York City rush hour traffic, while I blow bubbles out the car window, believing in miracles all over again.
Every once in awhile over the last few years here I mentioned my housemate Odette. I spoke about her soothing voice and how she sang in the kitchen in her native African language. I spoke about how she and Max love each other. I spoke of her wisdom, her sambusa and mandazi I spoke about how my heart broke when she moved out and into a home of her own. But I never told her story here. Her story is hers and hers alone. She was and is simply a sister, as truly family as if she was born my twin and I didn’t feel the need to say more.
So unless you follow Jen Lemen, you might not know that Odette is also a mom. She has been separated from her girls for 4 years. They have been kept apart by two continents, unthinkable bureaucracy, illness and a host of circumstances worth of Kafka. But love and miracles and faith pay off and next week, when the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano finally clears (or a plane that will fly from Africa via a route not impeded by silica can be located) they will land in the US and begin their life as American teenagers, Silver Spring style.
Two years ago we threw a party to raise money to help the girls get here. That money has been spent many times over on this journey, through illness and relocation and schools and tutors and extreme measures that needed to be taken to against all odds get their visas. Jen Lemen is now raising money to pay for the tickets to bring them home. If you are so inclined and can give even $1 or $5 your kindness will go a long way.
Several years ago, I left the church where I was raised–driven out by disgust over sex scandals and hypocrisy. My faith in God was fully intact but my faith in the institution had crumbled. I needed a new home. After years of searching, I think we are settling in somewhere. But as lovely as that Quaker community is, we are slow to settle and have still not become regulars. Max hasn’t officially joined the Sunday school. At the end of Meeting for Worship, when it is time for visitors to stand and introduce themselves, there are always a few who look our way. We are settling in but we are still not home.
And it was with that in mind that I chose not to go to church. I remember how growing up, the priest used to admonish the casual visitors on Easter Sunday and Christmas. How the casual visitors, while theoretically welcomed, also annoyed the regulars by clogging up the parking lot and taking all the seats. The big parties of Easter and Christmas I have always thought are special times, community times and until I can become a regular, I will take a pass from the big events.
But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t go to worship.
No, Easter morning found me in my garden, attending to the miracle of resurrection playing out in my own yard. It doesn’t matter how many years I do it, each time I roll the stones and dead leaves away I am delighted and in awe to find that where once were only dead dried stalks stood, fiddleheads were raising their miraculous heads to the sun. Where there were once just withering vines, sweet woodruff was peaking up through.
Resurrection is a drama that plays out every spring, each time equally miraculous. It is the most magical and wonderous experience to see. In the fall we grieve the leaves, we let go of all that was life sustaining. The winter is cold. We witness the light die. We slow down. Buried in feet of snow, surrounded by howling winds we wonder if life will ever return. But it does. It always does. It is God’s promise to us. And yet, it requires faith beyond measure.
So instead of singing my Alleluias from a pew, I dug into the earth. Attended by Max and Kuro the wonder dog, altar boys of the garden, we raised our voices in joy, of discovering new life returning. Each hyacith, and hosta, and iris leaf wothy of an amen.