Note: This one's long. You might want to piddle before you start.
In the past week I've experienced a significant shift in . . . focus, I guess, until I can think of a better way to describe it.
You might remember that a few weeks ago I wrote about a major physical house cleaning, finishing with this thought:
"The trick will be—always is—to use this cleanse, this created breathing space, this new awareness—to change the habits that brought on the overflow in the first place."
Well, somehow writing that out, really owning that idea, opened me up to new inspirations. Before I could again quite fill my closets with 17 colors of this season's Old Navy t-shirt (they're really cheap! Because they're made by Chinese children in sweat shops!), I suddenly found myself inspired to create an ACTUAL budget, so that I REALLY knew, and that Ian REALLY knew, what we were spending each month and what we needed to spend, instead of just guessing (me with better accuracy than Ian, but then, I do manage the finances. Or rather, I "manage to spend" the finances.)
I haven't had an actual budget—where you put aside money out of your monthly paycheck for things you hope to do in the future, and have an emergency fund for items such as replacing the hot water heater or your transmission—since I was in high school, and it's arguable that that budget, supplemented with a roof over my head and loving parents, was not quite as realistic as those that most adults my age are dealing with now. When I was going into 8th grade and my brother was going into 5th, our parents decided it was time to teach us how to save money and budget. On a long drive (to, as it happens, Jerome Creek), we tallied up all the things Deane and I needed money for in a year—including week-day lunches (cheaper, but harder from the grocery store), clothes, gifts, and entertainment; divided the numbers by 12, and my parents gave us that amount of money each month. Dad came home from work soon after with ledger books (mine was blue and Deane's was brown, faux leather with gold piping around the edges), and each month I would carry over any balance from the previous month and add in my new $90 (it was the '80s and $90 went a lot farther than it does now . . . although I could probably get a dozen Old Navy t-shirts on a good day today), and keep track of everything I spent, down to the penny.
Deane and I were actually both frugal kids—in part, I'm sure, because before we could drive, there was absolutely nowhere we could go to spend money. There was no corner store (it was a mile away and for a treat it was easier to just suck surreptitious slurps of Hershey's syrup out of the can in the fridge), and there was certainly no amazon.com, Ian's and my current nemesis. Deane and I ended up with regular surpluses. One summer, we cashed in our savings on plane tickets to southern California and visited cousins for a week. Another time, when I was 16 and presumably could've found a place to spend my money on myself, I convinced Deane to withdraw his savings and add it to mine and we snuck off to Renton in the used, cigarette-smelly Ford Escort, and paid off and collected the dive equipment Dad had been slowing buying, with money he'd been budgeting himself, from some neighborhood car repairs he'd been doing.
We drove out to the barn that spring afternoon in 1989 and found Dad, greasy, grimy and hard at work on someone's farm pick-up. We jumped out of the car and slammed the doors, our faces aglow with the surprise.
"What's up, kids?" asked Dad, coming around from the engine of the truck and wiping his hands.
"We took out our savings and we went and got you your wet suit and your oxygen tanks!" I cried.
"You what?" he asked, incredulous.
"We got you your dive stuff!" said Deane, "From Renton! That you had on layaway for months!"
Tears filled his eyes as he shook his head in disbelief. "Wow," he said, marveling. "You kids aren't bad. You kids aren't bad!"
He spent the rest of the afternoon in full gear, breathing slowly at the bottom of our swimming pool.
When Dad died in 1992, Deane and I inherited his share of some family property that ended up in a lucrative sale a few years later, and on my 25th birthday I suddenly gained control of a sizeable chunk of change. I didn't become a Gates or a Hilton by any stretch of the imagination, but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half later and my graduate student insurance covered a mere $2,000 of Round 1 (three surgeries, two 3-month stints of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation), I was able to pay for it all without adding financial stress to the baffled horror of being a 20-something cancer patient.
I was in the fortunate position to buy a house in Seattle at the very leading puff into the housing balloon, and I've been able, for the last 13 years, to pretty much have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it (oh, curse you Amazon Prime for aiding and abetting me so, so seductively with your fulfilled promises of music, books, wine glasses, wool clogs, cameras, glitter fabric, and more!). In part, I have not completely lost the practicality I had as a child and so I bought a top-end 4-Runner instead of a top-end Range Rover, and this has kept my practices relatively sustainable over the years. Also Ian, always looking out for my happiness above all else in our lives, has greeted each new purchase, be it clothes, housewares, or dog toys, with words of praise. "Good job, Sweetie-pie!" he says earnestly. "Isn't that a beautiful sweater/mixing bowl/squeaky shark!"
And it has been lovely, and I do like these things, and I have enjoyed giving in to my shallowest whims and barest inklings of desire. But there's always been an undercurrent of guilt that, try as I might, I haven't been able to completely stomp into submission. No matter how many sweaters from Anthropologie I layer onto the face of this guilt, I have never quite been able to suffocate it. And, frankly, I myself am practically suffocating in sweaters now.
I have tried to use my cancer as a justification to spend what I want—I'm a poor, poor thing who has a difficult challenge and so I should be repaid, or at least rewarded, for my suffering—but to be honest, deep down, I don't buy that (as it were). No, deep down, I know we all have struggles and we all have gifts, and in this world, you don't get monetary rewards for having cancer.
I have claimed to myself that shopping is an artistic outlet—and there is a tiny kernel of truth in that for me—I do find satisfaction in putting together outfits and decorating my house and entertaining my dogs—but that claim also smacks of me doth protesting too much.
Ian and I also don't have kids who need their own clothing or their own food or their own squeaky sharks or future schooling, and so why, I ask myself, shouldn't I have a fourth pair of perfect jeans to go with the three pairs I already love?
Here is why:
Because I have music in my life, and it doesn't give a shit if I'm wearing that J Crew sweater that's the perfect shade of dark orange, a pair of purple cords and one of the Old Navy t-shirts (a nice mushroom-colored one), or simply the red fleece robe my mom made me that, let's face it, I'm in a large proportion of my waking hours.
Because I have nature and animals in my life, both under my daily care and under my periodic care, endlessly entertaining and challenging and thought-provoking, and they don't give a shit if I'm drinking wine out of glasses with daisies embossed on them or the mug someone gave me in college.
Because I have writing in my life, writing which allows me to have a profound relationship with my inner being, and with the inner beings of my friends and relatives, and writing doesn't give a shit if . . . okay, well, writing does actually find the squeaky shark annoying.
The point is, this last week, I watched a performance that tipped me into a new chapter in my life. A friend of mine, competing in a jazz singing contest, got up on stage at Jazz Alley here in Seattle as herself, her true self, doing the thing she loved most, and that she's held onto through her own pretty unbelievably difficult life, and sang her heart out. It was one of the best live performances I have ever experienced, on a completely different plane from the rest of the contestants. I sat blinking back tears, shivers running through me as her music, her soul, filled the room. She didn't win the competition, but I don't see how she could have. She wasn't doing the same thing as the other people at all.
Anyway, I'm tired of filling my house and my life with facsimiles of truth and meaning. I'm tired of giving in to the first impulses of my over-indulged ego. It was fun while it lasted, but I've grown out of it now.
I'm ready to sing out my soul.