activism, Giving

Of Money and Mouths

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:


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
“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
from the hole
in his pocket.

Apologies to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Thrift Shop.

Home, Living in the Moment

This Home Here

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.

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.

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.

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.
“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.

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.
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
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


Happy 100 Days: 29

The boys gather in the lobby of the rec center, one after the other striding out of the locker room. Blood warms their cheeks. Hair crazed by pool water sticks up in the back. They are swagger and ease. A mother in her track suit has brought pastries and Sunny D. They tear huge bites from their bagels and laugh silently on the other side of the glass, collared shirts tucked into belt and trouser. The tall one with the dark hair stands and slips a royal blue tie around the back of his neck. He talks talks talks, eyes bright, slipping silk and nylon around and around, up and over and through, not even having to think anymore about the rote motion of making that mighty noose.
Somewhere down the road, my own son rides in the back of his daddy’s 11-year-old Subaru past the private school. He is wearing Payless sneakers already rubbing bare at the toe even though I just bought them (yesterday?) He has on last year’s jacket. He won’t need it today. He plays and plays, building one version after another of a tower topped with armaments that can rule the world. He still believes everything is possible. He doesn’t yet conceive that anything is in his way.
There is this glass between these boys and me. I cannot hear them. Still, I hear. Their confidence booms. Today, I will go into the city and marvel at their grown-up counterparts stepping from the backs of gleaming black cars purring at the entrance to the Westin. I will make eye contact with one of the pair laughing with precision over half empty plates at a sidewalk cafe. The flint edge of his jaw will work against the sky as he drives home his point. He will glance back at me.
Fleeting. Maybe never there at all.
This summer December day. The worn out toe in my son’s shoe. The red leather handbag, butter and velvet, slung over the shoulder of the woman standing at the curb waiting for the light. The thin hips on the runner in the hot pink shorts, ponytail swinging as she turns the corner.
The bad taste in my mouth. The winter heat. The unresolved question. The pretty, the powerful, the cash, the castles.
Ancient ruins, cities rubble and weeds. We are gone. Everything we’ve ever loved and hated and coveted and ignored. Every truth, every law, every laugh.
Tiny braids spray across the girl’s narrow back, red hoops swaying from her ears. Her boredom, her long neck, her right leg crossed over the the left. Her lean, her gaze, her proximity, her anonymity.
We are dinosaurs. We are meteors. We are dust. We are the next big bang.
The wall of glass. The tight knot in royal blue. The worn out toe in my son’s shoe.
Nothing is in the way. Everything is possible.
Nothing is fixed. Everything is already gone.


Happy 100 Days: 41

A gnawing worry about the coconut cream pie woke me up at before 7:00am. Meringue instead of the planned whipped cream, I was suddenly certain. This meant I was up re-baking at 7:30. No sleeping in. A power nap before departure, then.

(“Oh, to have your problems,” I can hear the billions sighing).

The rest of the day was given to chosen family. Hugs. A walk in the sun. Noise. Food upon food accompanied by wine and more food. Clearing the plates, drying the dishes, stumbling over one another to share in the cleanup. Ziploc bags pressed into hands. “Take some, go on, we could never finish all this!”

More hugs. Home, quiet. A happy dog. Tomorrow’s meal now in the fridge. A walk under the half-moon. A big, empty bed whispering its urgency. Just for me, this night.

Measures of wealth are relative.

Happiness, too.


In the Bank

Personal finance gurus say the secret to amassing great wealth is to Pay Yourself First. Before you take care of your auto loan or head to the mall or supermarket, you put a chunk of change where it can earn interest. It helps if you have to jump through some hoops to get your hands on it.
Getting rich may or may not be in the cards for the 99%, but the psychological effects are as compelling as the financial ones. Conceiving of you – your very own self, your well-being, and your future security – as being more important than a restaurant owner or oil executive can do wonders for your momentum. The icing is that at the end of a decade or three, you have a nice little cushion for doing the things you really want, not just having things that slake the fleeting thirst.
When Tee and I were married and living on one income, we managed to siphon into a savings account a bit off the top of every paycheck. We found ways to save (I can make my own baby food! I can also cut hair!) and discovered that our quality of life did not suffer. The small bank balance we cultivated allowed us to split without either of us going into arrears. Even in my currently strained financial circumstances, I have continued to drop one chunk of my meager income into retirement every month, and another into a savings account. Both bits are paltry, but the habit of treating Shannon, Inc. as a creditor has stuck. It helps me breathe easier to know Bug and I have enough in reserve to survive the next disaster transition.
Where do you find these few bucks? I will not insult your intelligence with another collection of tips. You can barely turn around without bumping into another ten-point bullet list for plumping the piggy bank (Turn down the heat! Pack your lunch!) All the advice columns re-package the same simple counsel: Don’t squander the pennies on junk. They add up to real money.
Pay Yourself First!
Piquing my curiosity lately is the notion of what happens when this principle expands beyond the wallet. Maybe money is not the only currency that matters. Every so often, you have to stop and ask yourself, “What is really valuable?” Besides cash, what other resources can you invest in your well-being, to be able to do the things you really want to do in the future? To be the person you really want to be?
I had lunch with a colleague today who just told me she just received a significant promotion. She is moving from supervising one department to overseeing three. It is a new position, and she will be building it as she goes. The exciting opportunity gives her the chance to test the waters in two areas she has not supervised before, forcing her to learn new skills to navigate murky waters. It will give her a giant headache, and it may prove to be a disaster.
She took the promotion for not one cent more in pay. No raise for doing two whole new jobs? Is she crazy?  I asked her if she would have kept her previous position if they had offered her more money to stay. Her immediate answer?
“Not a chance.”
She is too curious, too excited, too ready to see where this might lead.
Open doors? A sense of professional adventure? Challenge and responsibility? These are currency.
Health and fitness?
Family and friends?
Peace and quiet?
All are currency. So is a safe and thriving neighborhood. So is a sense of contributing to a greater good. So is freedom, in all its manifestations. Even (ahem) love.
Your list is going to be different from mine. Only you know what you amass readily and what you waste. What things must you bank, every month or every day, in order to keep the system oiled and moving towards your best self?
For me, and I suspect for many others, the most precious currency is time.
Time is the Crown Jewels in terms of pure value. Like many parents, my most prized commodity – and my most overdrawn account – is the sliver of the week I have to myself. (Of course, the time with my kid is an investment in its own way, but stick with me here. . .) Between the office, the chores, the kiddo, the dog and the errands, these teeny tiny silvery, slippery strands of time drift around me, loose and hard to catch. I fritter them away for a whole host of feeble reasons (I’m tired! I don’t know where to begin!). Far too rarely, I weave these threads together into something moderately substantial, like an afternoon hike or a night making art with friends.
Time, as much as or even more than money, is what I can use to build a nest egg for my own rich life if I Pay Myself First.
Like the Better Homes and Gardens ten-point inventory for saving $2012 in 2012, a gal has to look at where she wastes time in order to sock more of it away. (Facebook, anyone?) I am not talking about idleness. Creative loafing is a noble art, and quiet stretches of unscheduled time nourish the mind and body. I am talking about the noise and clutter, the ways I lose time to activities that sap me while offering nothing in return. Besides the several-times-a-day detour into social media to check status updates that have little to do with things about which I care, I also find that I peruse the Groupon and Living Social deals that appear in my inbox five times a day, and jump every time the phone pings.
Like the financial gurus, I offer the same simple counsel here: Don’t squander the minutes on junk. They add up to real time.
The past few weeks, I have decided to Pay Myself First. Instead of letting those loose moments drift away, I have been practicing tucking them into places that hunger for them. It is turning out to be a fun and fascinating project. In my next post, I will write more on how it is unfolding. For now, though, time’s-a-wasting and the other work calls.