“Sure!” I said “My stomach is growling and I feel a little light-headed by the time I eat, but I’m just so busy at work it’s hard to take the time.”
“Why’d you mark it down as a 5 then, if you were actually light-headed? That’d be a 10 wouldn’t it?”
I laughed. Ten?!? Visions of bloated bellies and schmaltzy music and flies landing on the lashes of cow-eyed children who know way too much about suffering way too young, and are wondering why these do-good douchebags are pointing cameras at them instead of giving them a goddamn sandwich, some dignity and a pair of shoes floated through my head. “If I’m going to mark down TEN, I had best be inches from death. I am never close to starving. I have never in my entire life been close to starving. It’s pushing it to say five when I know I can grab something and put it in my mouth whenever I want to.”
My therapist looked a bit taken aback, and then softened. I think I gave her a little insight there into my inner workings and over-active guilt complex. But this is the way I think when I remember to think about more than myself. And this is the way I’ve been thinking all week — well, intermittently.
I spent the day at home today. The remnants of a chest cold and the chance to work at home equated to an easier no-spend day than yesterday. Still, there were challenges. But the challenges were parodies of themselves, really. I couldn’t have exactly what I wanted, exactly when I wanted it, and it frustrated me. And then it frustrated me that it frustrated me. The realization of how spoiled I am on a daily basis has really set in.
The documentary I watched last week on the “Lost Boys” of Sudan is really sticking with me. These men and boys walked for FIVE YEARS, only to end up at refugee camps that may or may not have water and food on a daily basis. In Darfur, getting water for your family means possibly getting kidnapped, killed or raped. And I am upset because I can’t spend 25 cents to buy AIR to fill up my low tires. Or because I’m addicted to “True Blood” and I can’t pay the $9.99 to stream it on megavideo without interruption, which means I have to wait 54 minutes between episodes. This is enough to frustrate me?
I don’t want to be shameful about who I am in the world, because we’re born into what we’re born into, and rather than having guilt for having what we have, the best thing to do is to use what we have to help others. But the realizations about how much I take for granted are coming hard and fast. I have to admit, I’m a little angry — I don’t know if it’s with myself, or with the world. And I don’t believe that anger is going to be the most productive emotion here. Because, truthfully, we’re all doing the best we can and it’s HARD to wake up to ourselves in this way. Once we’re aware, we have to consciously make the choice to change, or to ignore it. So not being aware is a bit of self-protection, which is understandable.
I have a lot to think about.]]>
First, I got up today and tossed my breakfast and lunch into my backpack, put the ingredients for a lovely beef stroganoff in the crock pot and scooted off to work, patting myself on the back for being well-prepared for a no-spend day. However, as I opened up my little microwave meal at lunch, a hideous stench vaguely reminiscent of dog food came wafting from the container. The smell alone was enough to make me nauseous, nevermind actually contemplating eating it. Yet, I struggled with my conscience — the food wasn’t spoiled, it was just gross. And on my budget for the week, it was what I could afford. Who was I to turn my nose up at perfectly valid food-type-stuff? But gawd help me if I could put a forkful of that mess anywhere near my face. I was nibbling a plum and trying to ignore my grumbling stomach when it was announced that it was Free Lunch day at work. Saved!
The funny part is, I usually avoid Free Lunch like the plague. I work in a warehouse full of underpaid indpendent musicians and on Free Lunch Day our little lunch room feels like a cross between Lord of the Flies and the opening scene of 2001. The whole scene is vaguely traumatic, (albeit kindof amusing providing you’re able to dodge the plastic cutlery) and I usually skip it in favor of a less eventful sandwich from the deli down the street. But today, as I queued up for my turn in the culinary thunderdome, I began to grasp the underlying struggle that makes Free Lunch Day what it is: Desperation. Maybe not acute, and most likely not even conscious, but that’s what it is. It’s hungry people with a chance to save a few bucks by stocking up on free food from work, and the extra slices of greasy pizza that are hoarded onto plates and slipped under desks, the grabby hands and the jabby elbows — that’s what it’s about; not having another option. Suddenly, instead of feeling frustrated at the behavior of my greedy co-workers, I felt pissed at the inequity of pay at my workplace that set folks up to have to function in survival mode. I slapped a third slice of pizza onto my plate in solidarity and skulked back to my desk.
In trial two of the day, the Universe saw fit to scare the bejeezus out of me by making my car refuse to turn over as I was leaving work. Click, Click – nothing. Click, Click – NOTHING. *panic* No money for the bus. Can’t call a cab. Can’t take my car in to the shop. Suddenly putting off that oil change seemed like the dumbest crap EVER. C’mon, baby. Not this week. Click, Click — and the engine roared to life. Oh thank gawd. Very funny, Universe. Now you’re just messing with me.
Trial three came about 15 minutes later when I got home to find that the little red ‘reset’ button on my power outlet had been popped out, which meant that my responsibly prepared crockpot dinner had been sitting cold and uncooked in my kitchen for 8 hours. On top of my own disappointment, I’d offered to bring dinner with me to my friend’s house tonight and I was embarrassed to have to text my apologies on such late notice and ask if we could fend for ourselves. My friend was gracious, thankfully. And I was starving, but with every other main course in the house unthawed and no time before our plans to throw together something from scratch, I was SOL on the healthy dinner front. As I munched my deeply unsatisfying cold sandwich, I had to laugh. I wanted a challenge. Careful what you ask for!]]>
The first modification to my lifestyle came this afternoon, when, instead of going out to eat as I normally would have with a friend, it was decided that she would come over and I would cook us a brunch. This, actually, was quite nice. I’ve not traditionally been much of a cook. Most of my forays into the culinary world have resulted in comic disasters involving fire alarms, melted spatulas and even, in one instance, the loss of my eyelashes. This is a fact of my life that I’ve been trying to change for the last several months, and it was a sweet satisfaction to cook an uneventful and even vaguely edible meal for a friend and serve it up. She brought over a ridiculously delicious fruit salad and I prepared a scramble with roasted fall veggies and cheese. It was nice, also, to not be around the din of other diners and to be able to sit in the sun on my patio and talk intimately without interruption.
I found, though, as the afternoon progressed and I got closer to my one expenditure for the week (a trip to the grocery store) I began to feel a vague unease. The combination of my lack of cooking skills, general confusion about grocery stores and fears of not buying enough of the right things to see me through the week without incident began weighing on me. As I made my shopping list, I began a mental checklist: What would it be HORRIBLE to run out of? Tampons? Check. Bar soap? Check. Diet Coke? Check. (see: caffeine addiction, which is likely something I’ll give up another week. *shudder*) Toilet paper? What was I missing?
In addition to nixing expenditure for the week, I also gave myself a budget for the shopping trip. I didn’t want to cheat myself on this experience by splurging wildly at the grocery store to cover all my whims in advance. This challenge is not just about being more mindful of how I’m spending money, it’s also about challenging my addiction to instant gratification and encouraging me to think creatively about comfort and security. So while I tossed a few items in my cart that don’t necessarily qualify as NEEDS (cookies, diet coke, a bag of potato chips) I didn’t once stray from my list — and while I often buy store-brands, I made a point of doing so intentionally on this trip with greater frequency.
As I drove home from the store, I was reminded of the first time I went grocery shopping as a 20-something after getting an above-minimum-wage job. My girlfriend at the time and I had just moved in together, and it was our first joint shopping trip. As the cash register rang up $150, my face went white and my palms started to sweat. I felt nauseous and instantly began sorting through the bags to put things back. Since I’d left home at 18, I’d never spent more than $60 at the grocery store — frequently much less — and that for a week of groceries. My girlfriend chuckled at me and told me it was alright, that I had a good job now and I could afford things like fresh vegetables and organic meat — but something inside me was horrified. I felt guilty, like a traitor to my class. Living off Top Ramen and saltines and scrounging together change for the laundromat was my way of life, and it was a commonality I had with my friends. As I surveyed the most well-stocked cupboards I had ever had, I set my jaw and made a promise to myself not to take it for granted.
But then I did. Over time, dropping that much at the grocery store became habit. I stopped thinking about it. But today, as I filled my cart, I remembered that old feeling of “This is all there is. There is no more.” I remembered the feeling of spending the last of my check and realizing that whatever I bought would have to see me through until the next one. I remembered agonizing over each purchase, having to choose between deodorant and protein, having to walk past the fresh fruit and veggies in favor of tinned peaches in sugar syrup and frozen peas.
I have no shame about having a good job and not having to struggle in the same way. Like anything in life, the fact that I’m able to indulge myself more frequently has come from a mix of hard work and good luck. But I am reminded today, and I expect to be reminded over and over again this week, about just how much about my lifestyle I am taking for granted, and about how many unconscious decisions I am making about the ways in which I spend money. This is going to be an interesting week.]]>
I met a friend for a Brunch-and-Wander in one of Portland’s art districts this afternoon. The point of the walk was to pester the local storefronts with my fancy little 100% recycled, vegan-soy-ink business cards in hopes of garnering new clients, but as I wandered from storefront to storefront, my spending finger got a little itchy. A new store opened up with adorable Dia de los Muertos items. An art gallery had an amazing painting that wasn’t too expensive. There was a shoe store with styles so sweet they made my teeth hurt. Yet, I didn’t spend a dime. In general, not buying “stuff” isn’t that hard for me — I’m not much of a collector. All-in-all, it was pretty easy to walk away empty-handed, and I had a heckuva good time congratulating myself on not being a consumer tool of the man. And then I lost my wallet. Holy Jeebus-Humping-Blind-Screaming Panic. Without ID or a bank card, it’d be DAYS before I was able to access my funds. The mere thought was terrifying. As I skittered back towards the last place I remembered having it, I couldn’t help but wonder: What if I didn’t have any funds to access at all?
Sure, it’s easy not to spend when you have the choice, but what kind of anxiety does it produce when you don’t? It’s moments like these, when you’re faced with the loss of what you have, that you realize how much you take for granted that you have it. I know from being poor. I did my time as a kid licking S&H stamps, standing in line for government cheese and wearing polyester bell-bottoms that were two sizes too small. In the 80’s. In the LATE 80’s. And I did my time as a 20-something, working three mall jobs just to make rent on my cockroach infested studio apartment lovingly deemed “Syringe Court.” But it’s been a long time since I’ve been hand-to-mouth, and I’ve gotten soft. I’m addicted to instant gratification and I’ve started to make the concept of money interchangable with the concept of freedom. And that’s a danger point.
So, tomorrow I fill up my tank with gas, I go to the grocery store with a well-thought-out list, and that’s that. I will spend nothing else for the entire week. Not a single solitary penny. On anything. No matter what. If there’s an emergency, I’ll have to figure it out. Beg, borrow, though I will draw the line at stealing. If I run out of gas, I walk. If I run out of food, I go without.
To up the ante: If I’m invited to something social, I can’t say no. I have to say I have no money and propose an alternative activity. If they offer to pay for me, I have to swallow my pride and say yes. This is to challenge classist shame within myself and to remember what it’s like to have to ask for help or confess being skint.]]>