The Right Responses

Ok, I’d like more of a discussion on this one.  I don’t think I have many readers yet, but I hope I have enough to start a thoughtful discussion.

So, this year, people have asked us how our Christmas is going.  Those that aren’t running the checkout line, those that know both our first and last names, ask with a bit more intent.  And, if they’re already running on their merry ways, the most fabulous answer to give is, “Great!  Thanks…” fading into the distance.

With a little more intent comes the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  This involves a moment of thought, in which you’re allowed to give the asking party a grimace, a brilliant smile, or a look of pain, by means of avoiding the full answer.

And then there’s the doozy, coming from the very well-intentioned friend who is one genetic code away from being a sister.  She sets her hand on your shoulder, checks for eavesdroppers, then asks, “How are you doing for Christmas.”  Emphasis on “you.”  If you have a family, that emphasis encompasses them as well.

"Maren, Be Cheerful and Brave," painting by Julie Rogers

My first instinct is to give the, “Great!  Thanks” response, then I realize that she really does want to know, and really is ready to help.  If she didn’t want to help, she would not have asked in such an intimate manner.

And my response of, “Great!  Thanks!” becomes a very pregnant pause.  Then I nod my head and say, “We’re learning a lot this year.  We’re really small-scale and I am so impressed with my kids and their gratitude over whatever they get.  You know, I have a friend who is a lot worse off than I am.”

She eyed me for a moment and pursed her lips.  “But do you need anything?”

Well… I mentally shuffle through the list that I had written just a day ago.  At least $70 worth of seeds to plant this spring.  Some 2×4 framing beams for the larger chicken house, the hardware to construct it, then a few more baby chicks to house in there.  A new set of athletic shoes for both me and my husband, as we try to keep him away from a recurrent heart attack.  Rubbermaid bins so I can construct a graywater recycling system so I can have more garden in this evil desert.  Hmmm… NEED anything?  We pay $350 per month for heat, $150 power, $150 phone, $50 water, $1,300 a month rent (which I will defend til my last breath, since my amazing landlady lets me have gardens and chickens, and once let a homeless friend sleep on my floor for months.)  A little bit in savings to pay for the licenses and fees that go along with owning my own business…  Yeah, savings would be nice.

Oh, and there are food costs, clothing costs, and school fees.  All of this is a LOT cheaper in the summer, when we’re eating our landscaping, stitching up old clothes to work in the garden, and not paying any school fees for a few months.  But, honestly, I don’t count food, clothing, and school fees in the monthly budget.  Because, by the time the mandatory bills are figured in, there is NOTHING LEFT for food, clothing, and school fees.  We catch these when we can, when a client gives me a gracious tip or someone buys a bulk order of soap, then I run straight to the store for a package of gluten-free bread mix.

But do we need anything?  I really have a hard time answering that one.  I’m not the type of person to say, “Yes, money would help.” or to even detail the problems, since that might make the asking party feel responsible for any of them.  My problems are my problems, and I believe cultivating habits of taking care of our problems has gotten us into an existence where we CAN grow/butcher/cook our own food, sew our own clothes, and survive a zombie apocalypse if we had to.

In addition, who am I to cry my needs when I have one friend who is homeless, along with her daughters.  Another friend rents a home, but is extremely lonely and can’t quite figure out how to crawl himself out of that loneliness.  A sister who just bought a home, but who is battling multiple health crisis with herself, her daughters, and boyfriend.  And more… enough to take up pages!  So who am I to sob about what is tough in our lives, if those resources can go to someone who needs them more.

"Sisters in Zion" painting by Julie Rogers

So, instead of answering, I usually give that knowing grimace that affirms her question.  And she understands.  And she makes things happen… more things than would have happened if I had just said, “Great!  Thanks!” but fewer than if I detailed the worst of these problems.  But that’s not my style.

Recognizing that all of our styles are different, that shyness to someone is audacity to another, I’d like to hear how YOU would have answered.  And why.  And maybe give me some stories if something similar happened to you.

What’s Wrong with Just Being Happy?

In May of 2012, it will be three years since we told the cable company that we did NOT want to continue service as we moved to a different house.  The salesperson argued with me, trying to make deals.

“Is the service unsatisfactory?” he asked.

“No,” I said.  “It’s always been great.”

“Can we offer you a deal on the price?  We can waive the transfer fee to…”

We actually didn’t pay for cable, due to a promotional special when I signed up for internet service through the same company.

Bewildered, he asked, “Then why do you want to cancel?”

“We don’t want it,” I replied.

A moment of silence on the other end indicated that this argument hadn’t been covered in the training manual.

“Whenever I turn off the TV, my kids have fits,” I said.  “My husband and I stay up past midnight to watch tv, when we could be getting up early to exercise together.  We haven’t enjoyed any real hobbies in a long time.  I do not want TV stations.

We had NO stations coming into the house, since this was shortly after the digital conversion and our television was pre-digital.  And I missed it… for a short time.  Then we started to fill the evenings with walks.  I started painting again.  We went to bed at a decent hour.

Sure, we still had a television.  We rented from Netflix, but we made every dvd count, looking for the next movie or series in the mail so we could watch it together.

People didn’t seem to understand.  Really, why would you want to be without tv?  Is money that tight, that you have to get rid of such a basic joy?  And though we did save money without cable service, the rewards were far greater.

And the biggest, most giddy reward of all?  NO COMMERCIALS!  I have no media invading my house, telling my family that we’re not supposed to be happy unless we fulfill the middle-class style of living that it represents.

Three years… that was when the economy really started to slide downhill, and businesses freaked out.  The December before our anti-cable move, I remember Kmart’s slogan, “Kmart Saves Christmas!

Had they really resorted to something that we had been warned against, every Christmas season, since childhood?  Equating stuff with happiness?  Walmart’s current slogan, though not seasonal, reflects a similar attitude.  “Save money.  Live better.”  Does this imply that affording more stuff makes a better life?

Three years ago… that was a landmark year for us.  Beginning that year, I started my own business.  My husband, a linguistic anthropologist with a Master’s degree, a man who speaks ten languages, recently lost the contract that had given us a modest but comfortable income.  His second job became his only job.  But he had a job, unlike a huge portion of Reno.

Now, with my new business, I had a chance to take some of the load from him.

In March, I got the call from my doctor.  “Please come into the office to discuss your test results.”  Doctors don’t make you come in so they can tell you good news.  Four biopsies later, with each result worse than the last, I faced surgery to get rid of the cancer.

We barely made the bills when I worked a full schedule.  How could we possibly make it if I had to be out for two months post-surgery?  And what if the surgery didn’t fix the problem?

And though this was one of our hardest years, it was one of our happiest.

No, really.  It was.

At that same time, our car broke down and we couldn’t afford to fix it for over four months.  We went grocery shopping with backpacks.  We found out that my husband’s office was only an hour and a half away if you walked at a good clip.  A lot of meaningful conversations can happen in an hour and a half.

Friends came up to us, trying to sympathize.  “Oh, you poor thing.  How can you live without a vehicle?” or “Your husband just needs to work harder, then you’ll be doing great.”

They honestly did not understand how happy we were.

Those television-free evenings allowed for family time as we walked down to the river.  We experienced the joy of supplementing our food from the garden, which was the start of a new obsession for me.  A friend found herself homeless.  She and her little girls slept on my floor for three months, and we realized that food stretches much further when you’re sharing it with someone worse off than you.

I had my surgery at the end of November.  I came home Thanksgiving Day.  The hospital had required a hefty copay. I couldn’t work until after the end of the year, and my husband took several weeks off so he could care for me.

Christmas shopping was not going to happen.  All of those things that people trample each other for on Black Friday?  Nope.  No standing in long, cranky lines at the mall.  No stressing over whether the people on my wishlist would just return what I had bought.  As soon as I could sit up straight, I started to crochet.

If any of my friends are reading this, and you received something crocheted for Christmas that year, then you’re priceless to me.

Two weeks after the surgery, the final pathology came back.  I was cancer free.  It was then that we told the kids why I had been sick, and why I had been in the hospital, and why the tree was very bare.  They didn’t freak out about the illness or the lack of presents.  They just gave me a big hug and told me that they were glad I was better.

They cherished their hats and scarves.  There were no video games, no designer jeans.  No dolls, no Legos.  Not even a cheesy manicure set, the kind designed for last-minute emergency shopping, that nobody ever uses.

We had hats, scarves, and a cancer-free mom.

Don’t tell us that we’re not supposed to be happy with our simple existence.  Our house is too small, our clothes are worn, our touchscreen electronic devices are nonexistent.  At the end of the paid workday, we start unpaid work to fill in the gaps.  But, if we can cut out all of the voices that tell us we’re NOT supposed to be happy, then we can hear the truth:

It’s ok to find joy in simple things.  It’s ok to rejoice in your loved ones, and in laboring together to provide for each other.  It’s ok to enjoy hard work, even if you’re still in debt after the work is done. 

It’s ok to just be happy.