Wednesday, July 20, 2011


*Photo credit unknown

"The ways in which we need to grow are usually those we are the most supremely defended against and are least willing to admit even exist, let alone take an undefended, mindful peek at and then act on to change."--Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

When you're a worrier, life is a lot harder than it needs to be. A worrier gets a bill in the mail from their primary care physician for a large sum of money and instantly thinks, Oh no, I can't afford this! I thought my insurance would cover it! One quick (well maybe not quick) phone call to the insurance company would correct the error, but already the worry has done its damage. The worrier starts to obsess about an unreality: I'm going to have to pay $250 for that benign mole they removed at my request. It could have been melanoma. I might have died!

Or a worrier takes a harmless, or at best, ambiguous situation, and infuses it with doubt. I was in a cab once and the driver, a Haitian immigrant, starting singing in French. I was mindlessly scrolling through the Apps on my SmartPhone just to fill the time, but when he kept singing--his voice becoming stronger and sweeter--I put the phone away. It would have been rude to act like I didn't hear him, and he did have a nice voice. We started chatting and he told me that he was a musician and songwriter, and that what he just sang was an original piece he wrote. Then when I asked him how long he had been in this country, he said he was a refugee from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He went on to describe how his mother died in the quake, and how he tried to save her life and in the process seriously injured himself.

I didn't know what to say--what can you say to a stranger who tells you of such personal tragedy? Then I started thinking, maybe he's making this up for a better tip. Yes, I'm embarrassed to say that that thought popped in my head, and started snowballing until my empathy turned to anger. How dumb does he think I am? And how dare he use a true disaster for his own financial gain!

I threw out a cliche in reply, "Life is suffering," I said. How dismissive. I had a chance to demonstrate some compassion for the guy, but I let it go. How many times have I had the opportunity to show a small act of kindness toward a stranger and then didn't? I worry so much about being made a fool of that I find it hard to be openhearted sometimes.

There was a recent survey that named Boston the Least-Friendly City in America (not to mention the worst-dressed, but have they seen Newbury Street or been to the South End on a sunny Saturday?) Though I live just outside the city, I'm not one of its defenders. I DO think Boston is an unfriendly town. For a moment I was happy to learn that my perspective matched an independently-funded survey's. But instead of bitching about it, I could be part of the change I want to see in my neighborhood.

So I'm trying to think of it this way: we all face uncertain situations everyday. Maybe that person is lying, maybe the bill is accurate, maybe the woman who bumped into you meant to be rude. But when you chronically worry and doubt and spin out worst-case scenarios without knowing all the facts, you're going to experience more unhappy, unsatisfying moments than the average person--and the chances to connect with people with openness and compassion will float away like so many seeds on a dandelion.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The budget crisis


"We live impelled by desire. We hunger, we experience a fundamental and pervasive dissatisfaction with what is, and expend enormous amounts of time and energy in striving to attain a better external circumstance and a more satisfying state of mind."--Sasha T. Loring, from her article "How to Tame the Wanting Mind" in the July 2011 issue of Shambhala Sun

"Greater happiness lies in coming together--a transcending of the self. No amount of consumerism can ever approximate the happiness that comes through generosity and giving."--Raj Patel, in an interview with Andrea Miller in the July 2011 issue of Shambhala Sun

$30. That is my allotment of "fun money" for the week. I am finally going to be living on a budget, one that will allow Mike and me to live within our means, not accrue debt, and boost our Emergency Fund. For too long I have been looking at my husband as if he were the cramp in my spendthrift lifestyle. But the truth is right there in the spreadsheet in which we track our monthly bills. Some unexpected expenses coupled with Carmelita's $5 a day Bully stick habit ($150 a month if you're counting) means that for the time being we have to conserve our funds for just necessities. $30 each is what we can afford until our home economic recovery.

My reaction to scarcity is not that different from most people's--I go into panic mode, looking for any loophole, any extra income flow. How much change have I accumulated in my Vermont Common Crackers container? ($37.) How many summer pieces have I sold at the consignment shop so far, and when can I pick up my check? (12 pieces, end of July, although they're usually slow in paying up.) What about those rebate checks for the $80 worth of wine I bought over the last three months? ($10.) Does anyone owe me money? (Sadly, no. The only woman I loan money to is Linda, and that's only $5 here and there. I may be desperate enough not to be above a trip to the bank to cash two $5 Estancia rebate checks, but I'm not about to act as loan shark to a senior citizen living on disability.)

I've taken to squirreling away whatever money I do get. While visiting my parents in New Jersey recently, I pocketed the change from the $20 my father gave me to go into Starbuck's for his daily Caffe Americano. Two days of this, and I had earned about $35 not counting tax, but I also had to endure the ribbing my father gave me about his cup of coffee suddenly going up in price by 733.333%.

Why the obsession over nickles and dimes? Mike and I both have jobs, a roof over our head, fresh food in the fridge, health insurance, clothes, etc. I am not in desperate NEED of anything. I know I'm being irrational, greedy even. But being on a strict budget is like someone with a drug addiction finding out that his only dealer has gone out of town and left no forwarding address. I know that I won't have to live on $30 a week forever--the amount will fluctuate along with our income and expenses. Mike has to adhere to this amount the same as me, and he isn't suddenly looking for change in between the sofa cushions. Then again, he's an ascetic compared to me.

I have to face the fact that I use money as a salve for the emotions I can't control, the emotions that are a part of my being alive. Having money makes me feel safe, but so does spending it. As long as I have money to spend, I can shut out any sadness or anxiety that comes my way unbidden, like closing the screen on a window: the mosquitoes are still there, but instead of biting they butt their little heads against the wire, unable to penetrate.

A woman I work with said that back in Iowa where she spent part of her childhood, mosquitoes are just a part of summer life, so ubiquitous that you hardly notice them. This got me thinking again, the more you try to escape something, the more of a threat it becomes.

I have definitely curtailed my shopping in the last couple of months, but that feeling of wanting more money remains. Just yesterday I broke my budget buying summer sandals at a discount shoe store. Desire is always buzzing in the background. I just hope to reach a point where it doesn't bother me that much because our solvency as a couple means more.