Two years ago I was very pregnant with my second baby, living in my parent’s basement. We only planned to stay a few months, to “get back on our feet.” Two years later, there we were still. It had been yet another year of constant car repairs, a failed business start-up, a new baby and no maternity leave. My husband’s Peruvian credentials were not the same here, and college credits didn’t transfer. We were stuck, and not in a way that coupons could fix.
Things eventually got better, but at the time I thought they might not. And now I see that as a gift.
I had to quit reading the books on how to save money (cancel what cable? sell what second car?). I needed advice on how to be. In our circle of friends, we were the ones on government aid, asking to borrow cars when ours broke down. Once a sweet friend of my parents asked me where we lived.
“Well we actually live here.”
“Oh yeah, what neighborhood?”
“I mean, we live here. Like, downstairs here.”
“Oh! I see.”
And I was learning to be. I knew too much to really feel sorry for us. I’d taught too many kids and lived in too many places to ask, “Why me?” because of course I would have to ask, “Why them?” Why, in fact, did I get to live in a warm, safe basement, with well-nourished babies and clean water?
I felt embarrassment as I held up the line with my WIC purchases. But there, red-faced, I became more myself, less my college degree. When friends came to visit, it was me, not beautiful possessions. The stress of those times was real, but there was goodness. This is partly why I cringe when I hear people throwing around the world “blessed” in relation to wealth– as if material things and blessings are the same.
During that time, I read A Mother’s Rule of Life, a book about ordering one’s life. In the chapter on finances the author describes how she dealt with financial stress, and put to words what I had been thinking:
“One day, I made a large poster with pictures of children and families from all over the world that I’d cut out of National Geographic magazines. I laminated it, and hung it in my kitchen. When I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t buy what I wanted, I’d go and sit desolately in front of that poster.
…I’d see the picture of the little boy, a patch over a damaged eye, his face ravaged by shrapnel and the pain of war, and compare it with the glistening eyes and rosy cheeks of my children who knew no more than sibling rivalry. And I’d say to myself, “Why them? Why me?” And I couldn’t come up with any answers, except that I had a great many blessings and a tremendous responsibility to be grateful for what I had. And I’d have to get up and say to God, “I’m sorry. Thank you. Help me,” and go do my dishes.”
You see, I only had to remember my friends living with so much less. The embarrassment I felt in the grocery store? My students’ mothers knew it well and their dignity helped me. Not people in magazines, but friends– friends living in far greater insecurity, with much smaller safety nets. My disappointment in our living situation? I’d been graciously welcomed into homes with no floors. Did I consider myself above that, for myself? I had to learn from their graciousness, too. Stress, worry, and self-pity were tempting; these memories helped me through.
I don’t mean to say that we should always ignore our own pain and think of what could be worse. An actual wound needs to be healed itself; comparison can’t do that. But in our financial struggle, my sisters the world over gave me strength. And now that things are better my temptation is more greed than self-pity. I need my sisters again to remind me what is real.
I’ve known people who don’t have floors, and I think my cabinets look outdated.
I’ve met immigrants who lost everything, and I daydream about better clothes.
I’ve lived in a basement, and I forget to say thank you for my home.
I want to be a lover of God, a lover of people, not of money or possessions. But that doesn’t come naturally. I’d really rather like to be the star of some show. I get trapped into wanting more, and more, and more. But in this upside-down kingdom, that’s not the goal, and that’s not what it means to be blessed.
May my dissatisfaction with my shoes turn into prayers for those without any. May I think twice about where I spend my money, and who is making the things I buy. May my estimation of what I need be informed by those the world over, not just those nearby. May I remember the basement, and remember what is real.
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