Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dough, Cheese, Cash, Mulaaa

My old friend, Laney, just wrote a fantastic article for The Bill Fold, that really got me to thinking and reflecting about my relationship with money, and what aspects I want to change, and what aspects I want to stay the same.   In this article, Laney charts her rather sudden move into the middle class with a new job and a higher salary, and how this initially changed her habits of spending, and eventually led her to reexamine what she wants to do with her money (her approach).

Everyone has a different history with money, and I think much of it starts with how you grew up, and whether you were financially secure as a family or not.  I grew up in a financially secure household, and didn't have to worry about money in a serious way as a child or young person.  That of course has  had a significant impact on the way that I interact with and conceive of money (whether symbolically or literally).  Fashioning and fancying myself as a free spirit, I metaphorically disavowed myself of an interest in money, although in reality, this was more a testament to my privilege than my idealism.

Outside of my upbringing and family, I've further developed my own idiosyncratic relationship to money through what has been a fairly nontraditional decade following college--when as a young adult freshly matriculated, I first took financial matters into my own hands.  The first three years of my post-college employment were spent as a volunteer (AmeriCorps, Peace Corps), where it seemed like even the small amount I received was more than enough, likely due to being a completely unburdened person who happened to live in small Ugandan villages.  Right off the bat, I was confused about what a good salary or 'enough money' meant or looked like: the bar started off majestically low.  Then, I moved back to the states, and suddenly found myself working full-time at a non-profit and earning more than I ever thought possible (in this case, about 30,000/year).  At the time, I lived with my best friends for an impossibly low rent, and barely spent money on anything, out of habit and perhaps misplaced idealism.  Then, I went to Lao for two years, confusing myself again with a new foreign currency, and losing all sense of orientation for what financially solvent in my late twenties might/should look like.  I somehow moved back to the states with a lot of money saved up, which was confusing.  From making an average of $1,300 over two school years, I had $10,000 in the bank.  In my present situation back in the states, I'm still all mixed up, but the difference now, is that I make less money than I did the last time I worked in the states (3 years ago), in addition to paying more for rent.  If I hadn't been dealing with Lao Kip and Ugandan Schillings and AmeriCorps stipends for much of my twenties, I might be freaked out right now. Or maybe not.

It's out of this mixture of privilege (not having to worry over money in the past), some stubborn idealism (I really can't help it), and general financial confusion, in which I'm now sitting-completely at peace- with my salary and financial situation- even though the dollars are disappearing much faster than they did in Lao or even the last time I lived stateside.  Additionally, I have found that I've been giving away my money in much higher quantities than I did in the past, including charitable donations and also via casual gifts or help to friends/family.  Yes, I know- there are arguments why I should be more worried about my retirement fund/ROTH IRA/mutual something/savings account.  I realize that and highly admire my friends and family members who wisely attend to this; I also recognize that it is a privilege not to be worried about this.  However, as my friend Laney writes:

"The more money you make, the more you'd like to keep your money, it seems.  Paul Piff, a psychologist and researcher at UC Berkeley who studies generosity and class, said in an interview with The Atlantic: "the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people...[they are] more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."

I don't think this is true of all wealthy people, but I do recognize that it seems truly human to always be wanting more (and the more you have, the more you want).  My friend Laney's resolution this year is to not get rich.  She wants to step up her charitable giving since she now has more disposable income than before.  This is her resolution because she noticed that she was actually giving LESS with her significantly larger salary than she was before when she had a lower paying job).  I'm not immune to disaster or old age or health costs, and of course, I'd ideally like to have enough money set aside to take care of any issues that come up.  What I don't want, is to find that I need more and more money.  If I can live comfortably on my current salary (less than $25,000/year), unencumbered by children or loans or car payments or other financial obligations, why shouldn't I?  If I can still be generous in supporting organizations and helping the people I love, why shouldn't I?- even if these actions (or non-actions) require a certain broadness of mind in which my privilege, idealism, and life circumstances somehow mix, complicate, and play off each other.  In other words, I think it should be okay that I prioritize my current modest lifestyle over long-term financial goals deemed appropriate by others as long as I'm conscious of what I'm doing and aware that not everyone is able to do so (or even finds value in such an approach).  This approach seems all the more relevant when I reflect on how much I have been financially helped throughout my life; I graduated from college and grad school without any loans due to my grandparents' and parents' assistance

Right now, a modest lifestyle and generosity (including charitable giving) are what I value, although I realize that this could change or evolve over time as my life circumstances shift.  For now, I'm trying to come to terms with my inherent complexity, contradictions, and compulsion to be 'good' or 'appropriate' or 'on track', and follow the current of my soul as it flows down the shifting banks of what I hold to be beautiful.

I too, follow Laney's admirable lead of resolving not to get rich.

Life- a fluid, protean dance.

Posting this, quite belatedly, from September:

Life changes; moist green leaves flush into a shocking red overnight.  You take a deep breath, somewhere on a freeway in Wisconsin, and then realize that your current life is unrecognizable from 3 months ago.  What am I doing on a freeway in Wisconsin?  In the forest flying past me, there's bright peeks of fire red leaves, that flash at me every few seconds, sending out SOS to me as a fellow shape-shifter:  change, change, change... And, mid-breath, I'm suddenly breathless, because I'm finally accounting for all that is suddenly different.

Lao.  This word is soft and expands inside of me.  The meandering Mekong, the sunsets, the people.  It is this persistent, glowing warmth.  I rolled away from it, just as gently as I had once come to it.  It's farewell a gentle thing, that still ripples gently, not a black and white goodbye.  Maybe that's why it's hard to accommodate for the black and white changes that have happened since then.  "Just home" became 3 months, and now suddenly there's occasion for me to be sitting in the passenger seat of a car that is returning from a small town in Wisconsin.

If there's anything I can black and white believe in, it is that everything is fluid and always changing. Including me.  I respect this and resonate with so deeply.  I've always felt like a very grey and protean individual.  Sometimes when asked a question, I can find myself changing my mind midway through an answer.  My body itself seems to undergo a myriad of changes throughout a week, or even a day.  I wake sometimes, a strong, glowing creature with wings.  Other days, I am heavy and fatigued.  We swell and recede with breaths.  We grow beautiful in our confidence and shrink when feeling weak.  Yet, I'm still blown away by the speed at which I adapt to a totally different context.  It makes me feel far away from who I was just a few months ago.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The need to go on retreat

The dust of arrival having settled, I'm able to look around more now.  Coming back from SE Asia has been altogether a much gentler experience than coming back from Uganda, probably due to a number of factors including age (hopefully a bit more mature now) and degree of culture shock experienced (from a rural village in Uganda to a semi-urban setting in Lao).  I've happily landed in a funky, convenient house in the Seward neighborhood, easy bike ride and walk away from all sorts of cool places.  I've landed as well in a great job, where I get to interact with a diverse set of adults in a shabby, friendly school in NE Minneapolis.  I'm reconnecting with old friends, and forging brave new friendships with people who very much reflect my values and interests.  I came home at the right time for me.

Some things are harder to adjust to.  I've found that many people in my circles have moved onto a slightly different stage of life, whether that means a committed relationship, having kids, or simply a more focused outlook or approach to life.  In some ways, I probably have changed too.  It's a big difference going from your early/mid twenties to your late twenties/early thirties, and I'd hope that that's also reflected in a more honed type of focus that better reflects my self-knowledge, outlook on life, and passions.  Nevertheless, I'm finding it less than automatic to find  a community here, and I can tell it'll take a lot of initiative and exploring if I want to surround myself with meaningful human connections.  It'll definitely require a fair amount of risk-taking and reaching-out, the latter which isn't always a strength of mine, given my introverted tendencies.

Something else hard to adjust to has been the dichotomy between 'work' and 'life' here.  Even adages such as "finding a work-life balance" freak me out because it points out the bizarre need to search for such a thing in the first really reflects US society that so many of us are searching for a balance that should never be a concern in the first place.  I never want to find myself in a position where my job assumes such importance that it co-opts my life and I have to actively fight against it to gain free time.  Work is just another thing I do in my life, not more or less important than other activities I involve myself in, and I don't think it should assume priority over anything else, or that it has to be its own special category to resist.  If work becomes so integral to who I am, then it has the potential of eating up all of my energy, so that I'm not able to reflect any light day to day, outside of it.  I want my energy and love to always be reflected as I move through life, not just for certain categories.  Along the same vein, I don't want to have to 'go on retreat' or holiday as a way to escape from the stresses of life in America.  I want to live my values in all of my moments, on work days, on weekends, and not have to experience joy and harmony in small, explosions of retreat.  I want to always have it with me.  After all, I'm not what I do, I'm the specific energy that I bring to the world, and the way I move through the universe.  I'm not a 40 hour work week or a task list or unread emails.

I think stripping cultural paradigms bare, like work ethic, relationships, etc, really helps me to see them for what they are, and realize that deviating from them is just to allow yourself to be a bizarre, imperfect, and loving human creature.  It allows for yourself!

Love and Learning,