Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Financial Hardship Teaches About Humanity

Acquaintance with financial hardship is not something with which most Americans want to admit. There is most often an attitude of condescension: "Surely he or she must have brought this upon him or herself." "The culprit must be irresponsible, a quick draw with the credit card." "He always seemed a spender rather than a saver."

We disdain the idea and yet most of us juggle some type of financial hardship on a daily basis. I don't mean the type that plagues most of the world--a poverty of resources that we can't even begin to imagine. No, this type is the kind that comes with living and having too many options sometimes. And quite frankly, my pride has kept me from expressing for years what has plagued my very existence.

Five years ago, we began plans to build a house. This decision was immersed in sweat, worry, prayers and more sweat for several months. Several times I talked us out of the decision. And finally, when it seemed we were dead set on the idea, something happened that told us to move forward; something that we couldn't orchestrate ourselves. We knew enough to know that there were plenty of mistakes to be made. And we made most of them. We tried very hard to be careful but like every other family who has EVER built a home (ask around and see if I'm wrong), we easily went over by 20% and we were already pushing it.

What we ended with was a beautiful, unique home, infused with an aesthetic quality we felt many of today's homes are missing. We were able to do this because of Tom's background in carpentry. What we also ended up with was a top-heavy mortgage. However, times were good and the equity cushioned the reality of being strapped. We had made our bed and now we had to lie in it, literally, every night, living in this kind of albatross. It was embarrassing. I was ashamed. To make matters worse, we live in an affluent area. And while I do not aspire to live my life with affluence, I now found myself faced with this as well. I was not only a duck out of water, I was an ugly duckling, split between my love and hatred of the whole situation.

Deep beneath it all though was this clarity that for some reason we were meant to be here. That was not a mistake. Twice we have tried to sell the house. Twice, people have oohed and ahhed their way through and not one offer. Most recently, we put it up for sale (like half of America), convinced that we had to get out, following months of unemployment last year. Our goal: to avoid foreclosure. With shame I had to listen to many who complained of the place Americans found themselves in for we were in that place too and I despised myself for it. Why couldn't we have chosen differently here, or done this instead? It is a cruel but true reality: Hindsight is 20/20.

Oddly, when I told God one morning He could have the house; we'd start over, he very clearly replied (not audibly), "Yes, I know you'll give me the house. But will you keep it?" What sort of insanity was that?

Tired of carrying my shame around, I began to open up about our reality. Neighbors would dismiss the idea of our moving away, kidding about how they could sabotage a sale. We'd laugh and then I'd say, ah, but if you wish for us to not sell our house, you're wishing us into foreclosure. That's one way to shock your neighbors. It wasn't that I was trying to stun them into silence, I just had had enough of keeping up appearances, if you will. We are real people who took a gamble and it appeared to be turning out quite badly. We took this gamble for our children, for an investment, for many good, good reasons. But we'd tangled ourselves in a snare in the attempt.

However, something funny began to happen. Neighbors and others in town began to open up to us about their own struggles. A lost job here. Worry over paying the bills. Little by little as the economy tanked and I got real about things, so did my neighbors. Interestingly, they weren't always telling each other these things. I could tell by conversations we had later with other neighbors. Suddenly, my ideal of people began to fall away. I was no longer intimidated or fearful of what others would think because I knew a good many of them had very similar worries to my own. Perhaps their troubles weren't even financial, but when I began to open up, they opened up about all sorts of struggles. When many drive down our quiet streets they see a kind of privileged life, safely tucked away from harm. What I see are homes with real people, families, trying to make ends meet; thanking God for work this month in some cases. People celebrating that we're all still here because no one really wants another to meet with failure.

Financial hardship has humbled us all.

Today, we pulled our For Sale sign out of the yard. I will not recount the hours and hours of wrestling with God over this house. I realize in the end it's just a house. Ultimately, He's not overly concerned where I live. He just wants me to be obedient even when I can't see the answer (Yes, but will you keep it?"). We have been expecting an answer from our bank. It is taking longer than expected. Thousands of homeowners are trying to save their homes. I am someone trying to save my home. We have done all we can. By all human account, we shouldn't even still be here. But we are. Because for now it's God's plan. I wanted an answer before I pulled the sign up, but recent circumstances made us realize (here we are still learning) that trying to sell was fruitless. We'd sell ourselves into foreclosure. So call it a fight, if you will. Perhaps its part disciplining for our choices. I can accept that. Perhaps God wants me to fight for it because quite frankly, some days it would easier to walk away. Perhaps when we relinquish all rights to anything, He is pleased to give back the very things we give up.

In tight-laced West Michigan where appearances have ruled the landscape for so many years, perhaps he knew I'm too unconventional to ever aspire to that type of life. If I can't live truthfully, I'd rather not live. It's not me. He just wired me that way. There's a lot of hurt out there--right next door perhaps--and sometimes someone just has to be willing to admit it. A kind of circle begins to emerge when we're honest with each other. A circle of recognition. Oh, so you're touched by this thing called humanity as well? I'll be darned.

Lack of money is a great equalizer. I have more of a relationship with some of my neighbors than I ever did before. I am privileged to know them for who they really are. Proving yet again financial hardships can render some of the most powerful blessings.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Waving Back

It happened again. This morning, waving to my son as he turned to walk into school, for a split second I wondered who in the world he was, where he had come from, and would his mother mind that I was signing "I love you" to him out the window?

When exactly did I become mother to such a brilliant force of light in this world--a thinking, cognitive human separate from me, yet from me? Possessing so much existence and future? It scared me a little.

When I became a parent, I was naive, self-centered, thoroughly caught up in how the little life I had produced through several hours of excruciating pain was going to affect my world because up until that time, it was just my world. I inhabited it, along with my husband, and various family and friends scattered along the edges. Like nearly everyone else, I spent years considering what I was going to be when I grew up, where I would go to college, what type of job I would find, who I would marry. Somehow those things were fulfilled as I was barely paying notice and so it seemed a clever thing to start our family next. And shall we just say everything from that point on was pretty much shattered.

Lately, I catch myself thinking: so I'm going to pour myself totally into these young lives, so that they can go out into the world and make a go of it themselves and then the cycle starts all over again with them. They'll spend years thinking about what they'll do with their lives, only to discover that was never the real goal. Maybe that sounds strange. I think it must have an awful lot to do with our American thinking--so centered on our own success and future. I know there's more life ahead for me (God willing). Probably more years than I will know what to do with. I don't feel bitter about this. I'm just realizing how when we're young, we're focused on one track of life. We have children and jump completely from that track to another. I suppose you might jump back later, or perhaps create a completely new track. But today you find yourself, taken aback, waving to an 11-year-old who embodies the very things you embodied just a short time ago. But these things aren't discussed ahead of time.

Can you imagine if they were? Say a high school or college course: "Plans? What Plans: The Birth of A Child 101;" "Budgeting with Children: Stop Crying Over Spilt Milk;" "Overcoming the Lunch Lady Syndrome: Breast Feeding & You;" and "You've Spent Years Thinking It's All About You: Get A Grip Childrearing I & II."

Instead, life gives you children and then daily feeds you with unavoidable (albeit humbling) moments of surprise. I could have avoided these experiences altogether; could have chosen instead to make a go at something, do well, make a mark, forge a new trail, climb a mountain, fulfill every motto of those ridiculous motivational posters, and what would I have to show for it? More frighteningly, what would I have become? I'd still be stuck on that one predictable "what I'm going to be when I grow up" track. Instead, I now understand that there are multiple tracks in life. Some will end sooner than expected. Others will resume later. Some must be followed diligently because lives are at stake here. All the while, those experiences, good or bad, are molding me into the person I was planned to be from the beginning; chipping off the edges that were narrow, self-consumed. Demanding that I love till there's nothing left and then start all over the next day. Abandoning my notion of future.

I think many of our hopes are meant to be unfulfilled. Many more become glaringly ridiculous in the reflection of our children. What then would we have to propel our children forward? I don't mean living vicariously through my child. The dream will look different, but we need some force, some passion to pass on. Think of all the immigrants, for example, who came to this country with nothing, fulfilled their one dream, and then passed the rest to their children. A better life, more opportunities were not for them but for their children. Those aren't concepts we're much acquainted with anymore.

Who but my child can deliver such surprises--shake me to the core, redefine my future, as he glances back over his shoulder, raises a waving hand and reminds me there is still so much mystery in the world. Still so much I might miss if I'm not looking intently, waving back with everything I have.