I don't make a lot of money. In fact, I make very little.
This makes my parents crazy.
They bring it up every time I see them. Every time! Sometimes, people don't believe me when I say this. They think I'm exaggerating. Especially because my parents are generally careful to bring up my finances only when we're alone. Talking about money in front of guests wouldn't be polite. And as you'll see from what I am about to tell you, if my parents care about one thing, it's being polite.
Anyway. Anticipating charges of exaggeration, more than a year ago, I started keeping a running tally of each time the finance issue came up. And the tally shows that my folks have mentioned my income (usually in a disparaging way) every single time I've seen them in the past 16 months. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
Sometimes the comments are veiled. "Are you working this week?" my mother will ask. As if I might suddenly NOT be working. As if I regulary take off weeks at a time to indulge in sloth and gluttony. At other times, she takes a more straightforward approach. "Young people need to work! How do you live!? You should get a job at the government." These sorts of assertions are the most fun, for obvious reasons.
I do, in fact, have a job, so explaining that I need to work seems rather pointless. As for living... well, I am clearly alive. Sooooo... check. AND the extra 30 lbs I have hanging around my middle would seem to indicate that I'm living quite well at the moment, actually. So.
That said, I have to give her the third point. The government job thing is entirely my own fault. I don't know what's wrong with me. The Canadian government keeps banging down my door with offers of mind-numbingly-dull positions complete with bankers hours and excessive sick days. They're giving those jobs away like candy (sort of like they did for racialized women like my mother in the 1970s), but I'm an asshole, so I keep sending them away. I'm refusing to thrive, goddamnit. It's ALL MY FAULT.
My pop's comments are generally more direct. And while more pointed, they are less obviously critical to the casual observer. He favours a "just in case you're an idiot" approach to my general education, which he still feels responsible for. "Do you realize you spend more than XX% of your gross income on rent?" he asked recently. Or "You know… when you freelance, you still have to make Canada Pension Plan payments. Did you know that?" The good part is that I've learned that I can answer without even listening to his questions. Because the answer is always "yes."
Yes. YES. Yes, I realize these things, I am aware of these things, I know these things. Yes. Indeed. Yes. But thank you for mentioning it. Again. I know you only have my best interests at heart. I also know that even though I've been living on my own since 1998, I probably missed a lot of basics along the way. I am, after all, an idiot.
I don't initiate these conversations, I swear.
Here's the thing: in 2008, when the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit and the recession got going, a lot of people had to downsize. But not me. I downsized my life by choice. When I lived in Vancouver, that is to say, in my previous life, I made quite a bit of money. I had a whack of savings tucked away for my half of a downpayment on a house my then-partner (a total douche) and I eventually planned to purchase.
We slept in separate bedrooms but were still planning to buy a house together. Does that sound smart to you?
Nonetheless, my life looked good from the outside. My parents liked to brag about my job, which they were able to understand. ("Journalist" is so much clearer to them than "writer/editor" for some reason.) I had a huge apartment, complete with two living rooms, two bathrooms and a dining room that we never used. In other words, I had a huge amount of useless space that I filled with equally useful (but often beautiful) furniture.
My life was like a handbag. Does that make sense? Bear with me for a moment while I explain. My life was like a handbag that I had to fill up. Because why carry a handbag if you have nothing to fill it with? And if you're a woman of a certain age in North America, you can't go around with no handbag! What would people think?! So I got my handbag and I filled it up. And once it was full, I began to imagine that I needed the things inside it. I began to imagine that all those things were necessary to my life. The only solution seemed to be to get a bigger bag. Which I did. And I filled that bag too. And it started to get really effing heavy.
Up up up. More more more. That was the only way to go. Spend more. Get more. Buy more. Get married! Buy a house! Get all that documentation in order to PROVE that I'm a valuable person.
What a load.
In part, the drive to acquire was what kept me in a terrible relationship for more than five years. I was afraid of having less. And more importantly, I was afriad of what having less would look like to other people. The idea of downsizing was terrifying.
For the first time in my life, I have a job I like. It doesn't pay much, but it pays enough. And it leaves me lots of time for other things, like blogging and crafting and going to baseball games and playing volleyball and reading novels, which is all, as it turns out, pretty darn great. Doing things BESIDES working is pretty darn great. Who knew?
And I know what some of you are thinking. That this is just laziness. But it's not. When I work, I work hard, but I don't work all the time. And I refuse to leave a job I like just because it doesn't pay as much as other jobs out there. Finally, I can feel good about the work I'm doing. I used to get home at night and feel ashamed. Ashamed to be part of the consumerist machine. Ashamed of the bullshit I was selling with my writing. And now, I don't. I feel proud of the work I do, and proud of the small contributions I make. And that good feeling is worth more to me than a few extra dollars an hour. It's worth more than several extra dollars an hour. Mor that that, even.
I used to work all the time. ALL THE TIME. And I felt like shit... all the time. Now I work some of the time, and I play a lot of the time, and I feel good most of the time. It's not rocket science.
Oh, and I don't make a lot of money. It's not embarrassing. Why should it be? Rethinking the notions of ambition and success has been nothing but awesomesauce. You should try it. Seriously.
Nate and I live in a smallish apartment, which we rent. And every time my landlord shovels our walk, or fixes a faucet, or mows the lawn, I feel glad to be a renter. And when I hear my friends talking about their mortgage payments and their dry wall problems and their furnace issues and their weeping tile and their vapour barriers and their flooded basements and their condo fees... I feel AWESOME. I mean, no major disrespect to home owners, but sometimes... your problems are boring. And they sound endlessly frustrating and expensive. I don't envy you. Would it be nice to own a house? Sure. Maybe. But it might not be "worth it" to me. And to understand that, you might have to think about worth in a new way.
In March, I noticed a lot of hoopla online about ar recent study conducted by UNH psychology professor Edward Lemay
and some of his colleagues at Yale University. The study showed that people who feel loved and accepted by others place lower monetary values on material possessions than those who feel insecure and/or unloved.It makes sense, but it's not exactly common sense. According to the study's press release,
researchers measured how much people valued a specific item, such as a blanket or a pen. In some instances, people who didn't feel secure placed a monetary value on said item that was five times
greater than the value placed on the same item by a more secure person.
“People value possessions, in part, because they afford a sense of protection, insurance, and comfort,” said Lemay in his press release. “But what we found was that if people already have a feeling of being loved and accepted by others, which also can provide a sense of protection, insurance, and comfort, those possessions decrease in value.”I now own almost nothing that I couldn't live without. While I love my home and my many (many) things, the thought of getting rid of them isn't daunting in the way it used to be.
I'm not saying 'all you need is love' or anything stupid like that, but still.
Halloween 2008. Nate is an investment banker/panhandler. I am a Newsie. We are poor, but happy.
Now, it's only fair to explain that Nate and are in a relatively unique position. Eventually, we expect to have to move to accommodate Nate's job, but we don't know where. We might have to go across the country, or down to the States, or somewhere else entirely. And it seems pointless to aquire too much in the meantime. But interestingly, I've also found that our meagre income actually helps facilitate our ethical aspirations. Having less, strangely, allows us to do more. Why buy something manufactured in a sweat shop when you can get something unique or vintage? Why pay someone else to do or make something that I can easily do or make myself? Making stuff, it turns out, is fun! More fun than buying stuff. As long as you have the time, of course. And I do. All these things are connected.
Since we're not caught up in the craziness of acquiring, we been able to realize that we don't need more. And subsequently, we feel able to give more -- by making donations and that sort of thing. Because we already don't have much, so what's a little less? I give more to charity now than I ever did when I had money. It's so strange.
Nate and I sleep in a double bed. I know so many people who cringe at the thought. It seems nobody wants to go smaller than queen-size these days.
I used to feel that way too.
I worried that I wouldn't be able to sleep. I worried about my personal space. I worried about being too hot or too cold or too crowded. And in the early days, I admit, the transition chafed a bit. It took us a little while to settle into a good sleeping pattern. BUT... we got used to it. We evolved. And now I love our double bed. It doesn't matter that our arms touch, or that I sometimes wake up breathing his breath, or that I occassionally kick him with my spazzy jimmy-leg. I like that closeness. He likes it too. We don't want a bigger bed. We don't need a bigger bed. This is something we've talked about
Anyway. This is a very long post and I don't really know what I'm getting at. I started out wanting to call out my annoying parents for being so ceaselessly, relentlessly critical, but the piece has morphed into something else.
I'll try to bottom line it for you, by way of an ending:
For me, having less has driven home a truth about the world that so many people fail to notice: it's no big deal. It's not a hardship. Having less has made my life infinitely better. Having less has amounted to having more. So there.
All images licensed under creative commons, from Flickr. 1) Follow your dreams Banksy image by Chris Devers.2) Graffiti house by Miss Muffin. 3) Withou money photo by Toban Black