activism, Giving

Of Money and Mouths

money-in-bank2
Not enough to buy a senator, but it ain’t zero.

The afternoon lull is the devil’s playground. The task list hasn’t diminished but the energy to tackle it has. In creeps a craving: Pastry. Muffin. Want want WANT.  The Hunger — altogether different than being hungry — wells up and threatens to wash me out to the closest Panera.

At some point along the way, the occasional treat becomes a regular fix. I start plucking a couple of dollars a day from my already rickety financial scaffolding while simultaneously weighing myself down with doses of sugar. Treat turns to habit.

I’m ready to break it.

Continue reading “Of Money and Mouths”

community, Friends, Giving, Uncategorized

A Gift of Need

We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.


Maria Popova in the postscript to The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

Fruit Gathering

A friend wrote to me with an offer of help. A generous spirit by nature, she also follows Momastery which further expands the reach of her care. She has a modest surplus in her family this year and felt called to support the extraordinary Together Rising Holiday Hands project. After a bit of soul-searching she made a brave overture: she sent a note offering me a small financial gift so Bug and I could get through the holidays. Continue reading “A Gift of Need”

Giving, Growing Up, Things I Can

10. Things I Can Find: Riches

When you find $20 in your jeans you forgot was there, it’s win. Even if you don’t believe in karma, luck, or any other breed of metaphysical sentience, your rationality clocks out for its afternoon break. Someone out there has pinned a blue ribbon to your chest and given you a thump on the back. “Today, you get the prize.”

Why, you might ask?

“Oh, just because you’re you. And you deserve it. Let’s leave it at that.”

There’s a bounce in your bones when you stroll out the door. Continue reading “10. Things I Can Find: Riches”

Choices, Purpose, Things I Can

8. Things I Can Calculate: A Gift to Someday

Three weeks makes the difference. Twenty days of walking past the 7-11 with my own coffee has settled me into a habit of ignoring temptation. The devil and angel are no longer battling it out for my attention and my cash.

To consistently stop (or start) doing something for about a month seems to be what it takes to erase the pesky decision point and establish a new routine. This applies well beyond money. Take the stairs, stop playing brainless games on the phone, speak an affirmation, no sweets after 8pm. It’s not necessary to waste brain space considering the alternative. The new way is just The Way.

In two days, the financial fast ends. The exercise has worked wonders in our little family. Friends came for dinner one weekend and for board games another, giving us an excuse to pretty up our home instead of going out. On our quieter evenings, Bug and I read together and made art. The credit card bill has never been so low.

Tonight, with spending tamed for the time being, I dare to tackle the dreaded late winter chore: installing Turbo Tax.

Yep, this is Friday night in our rock-n-roll household.

At two hours past bedtime, Bug is still playing Minecraft on the couch. Meanwhile, the software whirs on my computer, masticating numbers and spitting out financial data with about as much compassion as a bathroom scale. I sip chamomile tea and brace myself for the blow.

Which turns out to be a sweet nothing.

For this odd, impossible moment, we have a clean bill of health.

The numbers have to spin and calculate two or three more times before I believe them. It doesn’t compute. It’s Tee’s year to name our boy both as a dependent and as a child care expense (tax code is a strange tongue for speaking human worth), so he’ll be absent from my return. This should mean I owe big money. I have to cut a sizable check each alternating year even though my salary is already stretched so thin, you can see the writing on the Goodwill tags.

This year, Turbo Tax tells me we may end up with an actual refund. Ten bucks or so, but still.

Event the slowest learners stumble into awareness eventually, so long as they keep plugging away. Five years into this single-parent deal, and I’m starting to figure a few things out.

Apparently, owning a condo means something other than crippling mortgage payments and neighbors reorganizing their anvils at 1:00 in the morning. It comes as a shock to exactly no one but me that mortgage interest is deductible. Sure, the bank makes off like a mob boss with a bag full of interest each month, but enduring the extortion means a smidgen of year-end relief in the form of a small credit back to moi.

Then we’re looking at the retirement account. This year, my income is higher than it’s ever been in my life (which isn’t saying much). I took on a few teaching gigs and an extra set of tasks at work, negotiating a temporary bump in pay. As December rolled around, I remembered it was Tee’s year to claim our boy, so I sent the paperwork to HR to take my entire salary for two pay periods and dumped it into pre-tax retirement. I came home and gritted my teeth as I wrote out a check with too many zeros and put it my traditional IRA.

This shell game wouldn’t have been possible without the few thousand liquid bucks chilling in my checking account. This is where the financial fast — and frugality in general — makes its mark. Forgo a takeout pizza here, a movie ticket there. . . In my non-child-claiming tax years, the spare change adds up and can land with a little weight in my retirement account. Thrift allows me to stockpile not only the upfront dollars but the deferred cash I would have had to pay in taxes on a higher income.

Sure, these scarily big deposits took a bite out of my checking account. But the pain paid off, quite literally. A lower income figure on my W-2 translated into a tax savings of nearly $2000. That’s a couple thousand bucks I don’t have to hand it over to the IRS. Instead, I stash it under my future self’s mattress. She’s breathing a bit easier now.

She even sends me a thank-you note.

With year-end paperwork all around, I slice open the statements for my personal IRA and my employer’s retirement plan. Another tilting moment finds me re-reading the numbers printed three and then four times. Added together, these accounts hold a measure of security that I hadn’t allowed myself to imagine. Not this year, not ever. My future self grins as I blink and turn it over in my hands.

This number — my number — is one that would make your average 41-year-old professional cringe, especially one with looming college costs and no spouse to share the pain. It’s a modest number at best. Hell, it’s not even a fixed number. 2014 was a good year for the stock market, and we all remember 2007 all too well. I won’t be kicking back anytime soon.

That said, now this:

Wow.

This lovely, round, many-figured number, planted right at the spot I’d tilled with all my anxiety? It is a marvel. If I retire today, I might be able to live about three years on that little plot. But I don’t have to retire today. The number and I, we have time to expand, to compound.

This number didn’t just fall from the sky. It is a nourished by habits. It is miles of walking instead of driving, months of Friday nights at home making pizza with my son, yards of outdated fashion hanging in my closet. This number is planted in rich soil. It drinks intention. I get to keep feeding it with thrift and care, each watering a small gift to the someday me.

She is watching. She welcomes what grows here.

She is what grows here.

Creativity, Poetry

Economy Class

Here’s my kid in his Jack Sparrow
goodwill T-shirt, belly-down
in a spill of hand-me-down legos
pressing flat planes
into airplanes
singing
“I’m gonna pop some tags
Only got twenty dollars in my pocket.”

What what?

The contraption has train wheels
on the front end and truck tires
backing mismatched engines
but it takes wing
with guns blazing, enemy fighters
crashing in a fiery screech,
no match for the patchwork leviathan
my kid is smoking
like threads
like foes
like the beat he pulls
with a what what
nod
from the hole
in his pocket.

Apologies to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Thrift Shop.

Home, Living in the Moment

This Home Here

Story
 
In the back seat of the car, my son flips through the pages of Dolphin Tale. Bug fell in love with the story of Winter and her prosthetic tale when the movie premiered. His obsession has reached a fever pitch since I announced we’d be taking him to Clearwater, Florida the day after school ends.
 
“Do you know who lives there?” I asked.
 
He thought for a moment.
 
“Do you want a clue?”
 
A nod.
 
“It’s not a person but it is a living thing.”
 
His eyes widened, a light flashed inside his skin, and he fell over backward on the rug. Lying there with his arms spread wide and his whole face beaming, he cried, “The dolphin!”
 
Now, he follows the story. From the back, I hear him slowly piecing the words together. “Sawyer was worried that Winter might not make it back.” These are word bubbles popping along a graphic version of the story. And that is my son, reading to himself.
 
Did you catch that? My son. Reading. To himself.
 
When I ask what is happening in the book, he does not respond. In the rearview mirror, I watch his gaze dances over the page. He is bent to the work. His focus is absolute.
 

Sport
 
When I pick him up at Chicken School, Bug is playing Uno with his buddies. “Ready for basketball, kiddo? Or do you want to finish the game?”
 
He has two cards remaining in his hand and is inches away from victory. Nevertheless, he tosses them onto the discard pile and hops to his feet. “I’m done. Let’s go.” He gives his best friend a pat on the head and tells him he won by forfeit. Then he races out the door.
 
The red barn has two hoops bolted to the side at two heights. We slip-jog down the hill to the woods to schlep up a trio of lost balls. On the concrete, Bug squats and leaps, sinking one basket after another. Airborne and streaked with sweat, he stands as far back as he can and hurls the ball with all he’s got. Pow. It’s in. Again, again. He walks up close, darts to the side, heads to the edge. Every angle. Low basket, high basket, sometimes just bouncing the ball off the rust-red clapboards to see how close to the pitched roof he can get it.
 
He does not say “look at me.” He does not even ask me to play, though I do anyway, moving all around him. He barely registers my presence. He races after the ball, brings it back, mutters a sharp “Yes” to no one when he makes a perfect swish.
 

Journey
 
Once home, Bug says he want to walk the dog with me. I grab her leash and we run run run down the cul-de-sac to the green corridor between houses. Grandma is putting the finishing touches on dinner but we are sure to be late. We bound into the fern-shagged carpet of the woods. Dry leaves up to our shins, mud in the creek.
 
The dog takes off up the hill and Bug leaps down into the ravine. “Do what I do,” he says. And so I scoot under brambles almost my belly even though going over would be so much easier. One after the other, we scale the eroding creek-bed wall, slip on the exposed vine, cross the creek on the fallen tree, back again, then shimmy down the tumbling rocks. Bug ducks and darts and clambers ahead, whistling back the pooch and making sure I don’t cheat. “You can’t just go over, you have to step on it,” he tells me. I double back and do it right. He sees a frog and shrieks with delight.
 
Up ahead, the dog grabs a mouthful of something white. She skitters away but we chase her down back towards home. She eyes me warily as I pry the bone from her jaws.
 
“Can you see what it is?”
 
“A head,” Bug says.
 
“Huh. I can see why you think that. But look here. You see that hole going down through the middle? And the wings?” I turn and lift my shirt from behind, bending so he can see my spine.
 
“Oh! It’s a backbone!”
 
“A vertebra.” I touch one of mine. “They’d be in a string like this, all down the back. Probably a deer?” Below his blue t-shirt, I press my fingers into his ridged line. “It protects the spinal cord that carries all the messages from the brain to the rest of the body.”
 
The dog is panting and watching my every move. I return her prize and Bug picks up a walking staff twice his height. He uses it to fly between stumps. He calls it a broom. He chases down an invisible golden snitch.
 

Art
 
I finish the last verse of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as Bug finally puts down his legos and crawls over me into the bed. He props himself up against the turquoise fleece cushion and picks up his pen and clipboard. I sing my way through “Baby Beluga.” He has a calculator now. He puts 10 tiny tick marks into 15 small triangles, does a quick calculation and announces, “A hundred fifty people.” He pulls the page off, lets it fall, and starts on the next.
 
I wend my way through the deep blue sea and Bug make an arc in fine blue ink. A box. Tiny wheels, a platform (which he spells out carefully) and trucks along the edges. His feet press into my side, squirrel under my back, find their cave. His eyes do not leave the page. With the morning sun, another day’s begun, you’ll soon be waking. . .
 
The song comes to its dozy close. Bug does not register anything different in the world outside of his design. He continues to add tidy, miniscule circles around the edges of the machine. “How does it work?” I ask.
 
Nothing.
 
“What are those boxes for?”
 
A pause. He rubs his nose. “People.” That’s all I get. Pen back on the page. His gaze is steady, tracing the leading edge of the ink.
 
Immersed, he has no need for conversation. He belongs exactly there inside his unfolding creation. Nested with his mama in a bed that works just fine, he is free to cross into the sanctuary of his imagination. His expression is both zeroed in and a million miles away. He’s found the sweet spot. He’s in the flow.
 

Dwelling
 
As I watch my little boy inhabit that generative wrinkle between ticks of the clock, I see how we live there together but in complete singularity. I cross that same threshold when dance fills me to soaring, when paper covers rock and its ink hushes the world. I know the place because it is where I walk under stars when my skin slips free and all I ever was and will be is night.
 
Story. Sport. Journey. Art.
 
Friend.
 
Song.
 
Clan.
 
We erect these places by the simple act of returning to them again, again, and shoring them up with whatever we dig from our pockets. When we come up empty-handed, we bend and scoop up fistfuls of breath. Of soil. Of our own flesh. Pack them into the cracks. Fortify our belonging.
 
We sing them open and fix our mezuzah on the door. We map their coordinates upon our names.
 
Here am I. Here are you.
 
We dwell in this Here we’ve chosen.
 
This here.
 
This, our home.

Determination, Divorce

In the Stocks

For once, little stubs of green
numerals wink
hinting
they could buy me out
of this hunched perch.
It is just me here, me and my accounting
of the meager spoils I seized
when I fled. The penalty
for desertion could be far worse.
I tally the fortune
of this accident of birth.

Iced rain falls and
in town, surely
a band warms up.

The remaining stocks
sway like burnt timbers
against scouring wind but still
stand, their earnings enough
for one eighth of a used car
one hundredth of a used house
one year of heat and power

a one-way ticket
out of here.

The charred posts
have never flowered no matter how
much they drink.
Ah well. No need to fret.
I grow thinner by the day and
night is falling. Under me
the stunted sprouts are, yes,
still green. Chance being
so capricious (what a marvel that must be!)
I decide this will do. It is enough.
I stretch my shoulders. I arrange
my spine. I pad my wrists
with cash for spring
time.