the security of being a permanent employee

“Your tears are black,” my son says in surprise, pulling away from my hug.

I get to tell him how mascara works.

I don’t mind my son seeing me cry, although I don’t cry often which is probably why he’s shocked. I’m less okay that he’s just overheard a heated – and let’s face it, at moments ugly – conversation between his father and I. About money. Which is really about stress, and security. Which is about Trust, which is about Faith, which is about seeing the world as it is. And now my boy, my nine-year old, he runs through the house ridding his wallet of change, and “bottling” up some maple syrup to sell. “I want to help you find money,” he tells me now. “I can shoeshine,” he tells me.

I’m still crying but at least I have the sense not to cry over this too, not to be maudlin my kid gets to go through this. I sit down on the little speaker-amp in our warm kitchen and I put my arms around him. “Little dude,” I tell him, taking a deep breath. “You have one job, and it’s to be a Little Guy. That’s your job. It isn’t your job to give us money or to try to find it. Your parents are grownups and they can handle the money stuff.” I tell him. I can feel him relax a little – thinking about the job of being a Little Guy, probably. He puffs up a bit. He can be a Little Guy.

Money trouble means you can’t keep shit all tidy. As much as you might try. I’ve got a sense of purpose and dignity though. I don’t apologize when paying for gas with change and I don’t apologize when we find ourselves in some ridiculous scenario (I could name five this last week!) – as long as I haven’t wronged someone by being there. Not-apologizing and not-blaming are the practices that keep me grateful, keep me grounded. Helping others – it keeps me grounded. Taking help when it’s offered (I could name five times this last week!) – keeps me grounded.

There is so much letting-go involved in financial and food insecurity. Faith and letting-go are part of the process, like a dance, and sometimes you get that wobble. Now I warm up the car and I take a deep breath. I gotta be careful not to get addicted to the hustle; to live my life such that if one day I don’t have to hustle, I can step gracefully into that new life. I hear people say you can get addicted to Drama and I get it. Drama keeps us distracted, tells us our Plan is a good one, or a necessary one, or that we can let ourselves go because Suffering, or all the above.

Driving off my little guy is speaking to me and I can hear him, because I can take those deep breaths. I tell him It’s okay Nels. We won’t let you down. We never have. Promise. We turn up the street and he’s relaxed fully; into a local shop selling computer scrap. Nels takes some candies from the jar and I run up, then down the stairs, leaving the box behind. I get down to my son in his little knit cap and I’m the Luckiest Woman on earth.

"Clothes are never a frivolity: they always mean something."

Last night I told my husband I was so hurt about something I simply didn’t want to discuss it anymore. Somehow our roles had become reversed: he wanted to talk, talk, talk it out, and I didn’t. This wasn’t because I didn’t have the verbiage to offer. In fact I felt like we’d discussed the subject much over the last year – at least. I was done. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I didn’t know what he was going to do. But I’d said my piece, I’d heard his, and I simply needed a break.

The issue? Clothing. My clothing. Currently, at this juncture in my life, my largest frustration. For weeks as this chewed on me more and more I’d felt shallow for my little obsession. But a few days ago I came to the realization: food, shelter, clothing. Basic needs. I think even the cavemen with their depleted frontal lobes had that shit down tight.

Now my family, we have food. We have shelter. My husband hustles at his job in large part pursuing these things; food and housing are our largest expenses as a one-income family of four (39.5% of our take-home pay). Our clothing allowance in our spending plan is currently at 0%, modeled to come out of an “everything else” fund (that would include road trips, fundraising efforts for our childrens preschool, technology for the house, late-night runs for cough syrup or flea medicine, gifts for friends and family, you name it).

I am responsible for the acquisition of, laundering, care for, and inventory of my family’s clothing. At any given point I can tell you how many pair of shoes the members of my family have, what I’ve set aside for consignment earnings, what items are going to the Salvation Army for donation. I mend, I grift, I sew (when I’m not cleaning, cooking, or writing). I have begged and borrowed to supply my children with good winter coats and shoes. I spend a significant portion of my daily chores laying out the wool socks by the fire and folding every t-shirt of my husband’s to its proper place and making sure my kids don’t leave their coats out in the wild.

You can predict where this is going, right? Because as it turns out the lack of formal acknowledgment of the fiscal burden of clothing coupled with the de facto assignation to myself of the practical elements has left me: dead last out of four, wearing holey jeans, my husband’s socks, and (this is the worst, the absolute most demeaning) broken, cheap bras that work so ill my breasts actually ache.

This month it started raining in earnest.

And then a few days ago my husband, beneficiary of a small financial windfall, tells me he is going to buy himself a guitar.

Now, I want to be very careful here. My husband has the right to his guitar. First of all, this is his money. Secondly, he is a songwriter, a good one. His artistic endeavors are as important as, well I don’t know as clothing, but they’re damned important. It isn’t that he’s buying a guitar, or the rain is setting in, or that when it comes to clothes (and clothes alone) at this point I carry a huge crazy-person backlog and a skewed perception of poverty. It’s my fault, entirely, for letting the backlog reach this point. But the guitar: that point where the codependent machinations of intimate relationships threaten to overcome my more logical, Buddhist spiritual mindset. I find myself at first reeling in the grips of the former: the fact he could even think to buy a guitar when I don’t own a coat without holes! I am wearing shoes I bought when last pregnant – approximately one hundred thousand million years ago! A mental picture: I’m outside, kicking the hell out of my car’s passenger-side radial, and shouting, “F*cking, stupid, asinine, selfish a*%hole!”

But, I am incorrect. And I don’t allow myself more than a few tortured mental moments imagining my husband as this monster. And I don’t kid myself: the situation is, in large part, my own fault (he is left on his own to figure out his responsibility). And if he’s reading this and decides not to buy the guitar, after what we’ve discussed since on the subject, I will punch him directly in the nuts.

I typically don’t find the need to justify our financial sacrifices for the life we want to live. And I am not a clothing princess (as I type this I’m ill-attired in my husband’s pants, a pair of panties from Ross’ bargain bin, and a free t-shirt). The point is, my values are not being expressed in my clothing. This trap is entirely of my own making. I can speak of the tell-tale numbers of our financial plan all I like, but the truth is up until now I myself have been out of alignment.

What, then, is my proposed plan? After our conversation resumed last night (and this morning), my husband and I have a plan to recommit financial resources to the family’s clothes. I feel defeated by the lag of what I need (raingear, for instance, for bike-riding the kids about in the rainforest in which we live. I still feel stung at my husband’s lack of practical support coupled with what has felt like an expectation of impossible frugality. And most baffling I feel – and this is the laughable part – I will betray my own self and find myself, months or years hence, as starved, frustrated, out of sync.

Ask me in a couple months when I have a modicum of waterproofing, at least one sweater, and a pair of shoes that don’t leak. Perhaps my perspective will have cleared and the real and true will have emerged, leaving the parts of the martyr (a role I do not play well) left behind.

Our clothes are too much a part of us for most of us to ever be entirely indifferent to their condition: it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul. – Quentin Bell