Thursday, April 2, 2015

The best things in life are free

"If you were a best-selling author, what would you do with all your income?" Kate asked.

Income?

What, has she been hanging out with my accountant father? Where'd she learn that word?

Our eight-year-old is studying financial planning in third grade. They're working on a unit in social studies. They list out examples of the differences between "needs" and "wants".

Food is a need. Minecraft is a want.
Shelter is a need. A toy is a want.

"A toy is a want?" I argued. "I don't think a toy is a want. A toy is a need. Toys help children's brains develop and teach creativity and life skills."

"Mom. A toy is a want. You won't die if you don't have a toy." My eight-year-old said this. What is wrong with kids today?

"Well, your soul dies," I said.

I don't know whose idea it was to teach budgeting to children, but I see the point. My credit-card statements prove I paid no attention to my parents, who BOTH have accounting certificates and spent decades working in offices, keeping track of companies' financials. If kids don't learn how to spend their money wisely at home, it makes sense to round them all up and give them tips that could prevent future bankruptcies and spousal arguments. It might be nice to live in a community where everyone isn't constantly stressed out and grumpy, wondering how they're gonna pay their bills.

It's not all rainbows and unicorns, though. The teacher also incorporates fractions into their financial planning assignments, so it's a win-win in efficiency. Kate brings home worksheets that have columns and pie charts and diagrams explaining how a student could choose to spend their money. Kate wrote:

I'd use 1/4 of my income to pay for food.
I'd use 1/4 of my income to pay for my house.
I'd use 1/4 of my income to pay for my games and toys and fun stuff.
I'd give 1/4 of my income to charity.

"Wow, 1/4 of your income to charity? You're super charitable," I said, poking Kate on the shoulder.

"Yeah. I don't need that much money, so I want to share it with people who need more money," Kate said.

My heart melts when she says things like that. Thank God she's not greedy! It helps me feel better about the rather desperate financial situation I've put our family into for nearly four years now, when I quit my full-time job and took a part-time position so I could spend more time at home writing and spending time with my family. Unpaid time, but priceless.

I was going through a bad time in my life. My brother had died a few months before. The grief over his loss, the grief over not being able to convince him there was a good reason to live, to stop drinking and get a liver transplant, that everyone deserves second chances and social support, it was too much, on top of my already fragile mental health state. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the many things that my doctor says led to my PTSD is the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of the very brother who had just died. He and his neighbor friend sexually abused me. I developed PTSD, anorexia, chronic anxiety, fibromyalgia, and all sorts of mental health problems. My brother became an alcoholic. The neighbor friend moved away. I don't know what became of him. My best guess is it's not a happy story.

My doctor suggested that in addition to my prescription for psychotropic drugs that I try taking time off work to help combat my panic attacks that increase in frequency when I start to feel overwhelmed with responsibilities and other stressors that exacerbate my PTSD. And, she wanted me to get back into cognitive therapy.

I wanted to try something different. What about writing therapy?

I've had numerous therapists over the years. A few of them have offered good book recommendations to me, for example, the life-changing book The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. But I didn't feel like most of my therapists offered any additional insight into my condition than I could gain from reading a good book. I got more help from the public library than I did from talk therapy.

Not to bash talk therapy. It's life-saving and incredibly helpful to many people. Just not me at this point in my life. I'm too good at faking it. Putting up the mentally-healthy, charming, self-actualized facade and getting the therapist to say ridiculous things to me like, "Becky, I don't think you actually need therapy. You seem to have a pretty good grasp of how to live a healthy life." I've had three therapists over the years "break up" with me, cancelling my future sessions, telling me not to come back, that they had nothing else to offer me. How upsetting is that to a mental case like me? You tell me I'm fine? I'm healthy? I'm on the right track? Fuck you! Then why do I have trouble getting out of bed each day? Why do I chronically worry about everything? Why do I feel so shitty? You're just kicking me out of your office because I've used up my measly six-week allotment of mental health visits this year, and you're afraid I'll be unable to pay out of pocket.

Which is a perfectly reasonable assumption. I can't afford to pay someone hundreds of dollars a month to listen to me tell them I feel shitty. I've got a husband for that. He'll listen to me whine for free as long as I listen to him bitch about his own problems. That's love, baby.

I can't blame therapists for wanting to earn an income. It's nearly impossible to do work that you love with no expectation of gaining an income from it until you're retired and drawing social security. Not in this society. I once had a therapist tell me flat out, "I don't do this because it's my hobby. I'm not a volunteer. I do this because it's my profession, and I need to get paid."

Fair enough. I totally understand that. I just wish we lived in a society that allows mental health practitioners and their patients more time to get to know each other and work through everything the patient wants to work through. None of this time's up, now run along and take your meds and don't come back til the next calendar year. 

Thank God for the book recommendations. Reading good books has helped me maintain a healthy psychiatric balance and follow recommended schedules like a good insurance policy holder.

My latest doctor recommended I cut back my work hours outside the home to give myself time to grieve both my brother's death and my abuser's death, which would take a long time, especially since they were one and the same person. I took it as a prescription to start writing.

Writing frees me. My brother and the neighbor friend told me not to tell anyone what we were doing. "Don't tell, Becky. You don't want Mom to go back to the hospital, do you?"

Mom had been involuntarily hospitalized by her husband and her mother on two different occasions a couple of years before Mom divorced Jim, met my dad, got married, and had me. "Nervous breakdowns." Every time my brothers and sisters would tell me the stories of what it was like when Mom had to stay in the hospital, they said she had a "nervous breakdown". When I got Mom to open up about it, to talk about what she remembers during her time in the hospital, she says the same thing. "I had a nervous breakdown." I used to think that term is a cop out. That's not a real medical diagnosis. When I grew up, when I became a woman in our society, I understood what Mom went through. Her husband was cheating on her. Her mother was abusive. Sometimes the crazy people aren't the ones with the diagnoses. Sometimes the crazy people are the ones telling you you're crazy without acknowledging all the crazy social constructs we live with daily.

I believe many people are misdiagnosed with a mental illness. Or, even if they do genuinely have an altered brain chemistry like me from early childhood trauma, it's not always the illness that's to blame for the shitty situation. If more people felt empowered to speak up, to let their voice be heard, if we give people opportunities to express their grief and grievances, to bitch and moan and say FUCK THIS SHIT even though it's not a very nice thing to say. If more people told their stories and ignored their abusers and bullies and friends and loved ones and said, no, I'm not going to keep quiet any longer, if more people could find the courage to open up about the crap we all slog through we could learn how to help each other better. Tell us why you hurt so we can help you heal.

So I decided I'd write a tell-all. The Great American Novel. An autobiographical fiction book about a woman whose brother has just died of alcoholic induced liver failure and how difficult it is to grieve his loss, especially since he sexually abused her when she was a young girl and he was a young teen.

For some reason no literary agents wanted anything to do with it.

So I tossed that manuscript to the back of my desk drawer and started over.

I'd write a tell-all. A memoir about how my brother has just died of alcoholic induced liver failure and how difficult it is to grieve his loss, especially since he sexually abused me when I was a young girl and he was a young teen.

I basically just went through the first manuscript and changed the names and pronouns and I was done. Unfortunately this also was not good enough for the literary agents.

I got discouraged. After all, I'd had my mother telling me since I was twelve and wrote my first story (about a girl with anorexia...they say write what you know) that I was a gifted writer who was bound to become a best-selling author some day.

I thought about self-publishing for a minute or two before I googled some instructions and got a headache just looking at all the intricate details. I'm a writer. Not a literary agent. Not a marketing expert. Not an editor. Not a wealthy business person who has money to blow on a depressing confessional story. I simply don't have the kind of brain that works that way. I like to write my stories, share them, and move on. I don't have the patience or discipline to work on revision after revision after revision. I don't have the motivation to write a proper query letter or book proposal. I just want to write and then push the "publish" button.

I didn't let my slackerly writer ways get me down completely. Just because I can't seem to follow the rules of being a successful published author doesn't mean I can't write and share my stories with an audience.

I started this blog. It makes sense. I'm a navel-gazing narcissist, so it's a good fit for me. I've kept diaries off and an throughout the years. But I wanted something different than a personal diary. I wanted a way to share my stories with others. I've found that the more I open up about my abuse, the more other people open up to me about their abuse, and the less we all feel like freaks who must keep our dirty secrets to ourselves. Blogging is like group therapy only everyone's at home sipping wine on the couch wearing yoga pants. I mean seriously, how do people with agoraphobia meet for group therapy? It's called social networking.

Blogging is an excellent way to share my stories with the public without having to get approval from any kind of authority. I'm the author. I'm my own authority. Blogging frees me to write about anything. I've opened up and let out forty years of mental anguish, bizarre situations, and even a few jokes. It's wonderful.

As great as blogging is, though, after failing for three years to find someone who wants to pay me to write a book, I decided to go back to work at the library full time. I could still blog. But we could also afford to go on family vacations and buy our daughter a new pair of shoes that form to her own feet instead of giving her hand-me-downs from Will's cousins and people in the community who donate shoes to the thrift store. We could pay off our credit cards and start saving for college.

But getting a full-time job is tough. It's been eight months of applying and I've only gotten an invitation to three interviews, none of which landed me the job, despite my twenty-two years of library experience.

The problem is, during my part-time library sabbatical, I rediscovered my love of working with kids. I began teaching Sunday School last year at our progressive Presbyterian church. Three to six year olds. We read stories and sing songs and make crafts. This volunteer gig is some of the most rewarding work I've done, paid or unpaid.

What can I say? I dig kids. But I don't have a degree in early childhood education. I have no direct on-the-paid-job experience doing story times. Just my volunteer Sunday school gig. I've been working in the adult services part of the library for the past nine years, but that doesn't mean I never work with kids on the job. It's just not my official position. I answer every library patron's questions, regardless of age. I'd be happy to continue in my current position, helping all ages of people, but what I really want to do is tell stories. I want to be Miss Becky, the story time lady.

Mom took me to three different story times at three separate libraries each week until I started kindergarten. My favorite librarian asked us to call her Auntie B. She was so nice. So sweet. So funny. So caring. I love her. I wanted to be like her when I grew up. A librarian story time lady.

Then life happened. I got too shy, too self-conscious, too emotionally unbalanced. I had a lot of work to do on myself before I felt ready to sing songs about sunshine and shake my sillies out in front of a group of grownups. If it were just the kids, I would have been fine long ago. Kids don't intimidate me. It's the parents who make me worry if I'm doing a good enough job.

I've always loved kids. I had been a nanny on summer break during college, and I'd worked as a child care aid at an in-home daycare during high school. I began babysitting at the age of ten. I used to beg my mom to have another kid after me, the youngest of six. I'd draw pictures of what I imagined my family to look like when I was a grown up. I always had a least ten kids.

Then real life happened. Because of all the hard work I had to do mending my psychological wounds and building confidence and emotional strength, I ended up not settling down with Partner Right until I was one-month shy of thirty-four. It took us nearly a year of fun, yet infertile, romps in the sack before Will and I were able to conceive Kate. By the time she was born, I was thirty-five. My doctor recommended that, even though it took us a long time to conceive our first child, we should use birth control until Kate was at least six months old to give my body enough time to heal. Many women are super-fertile in the month or two after they give birth, even though it's stressful to the human body to give birth in short intervals.

We followed our doctors orders. When Katie was six months old we gave the leftovers in our Costco-sized box of condoms (evidently we overestimated the amount of fooling around time we'd have as parents of a newborn) to our single friend, and, voila! I got pregnant. All on my own! Well, Will helped. But you know, no doctors' prescriptions for Clomid and Estrace. No taking my temperature and charting my cycle. Just by expressing love with my husband. We were thrilled.

Then, on Will's birthday to make matters worse, I had a miscarriage. I was barely pregnant. I'd just peed on the stick a couple of days before. But still. We were disappointed, to say the least.

We were disappointed, but hopeful. Will had knocked me up unaided, after all. We were convinced he could do it again. But my aging, subfertile body refused to cooperate and we never conceived again.

For the first few years, I was too busy working a full time job outside the home and taking care of Katie when Will was at work to notice my need for more babies. Then, when Katie turned four, she suddenly became obsessed with wanting another sibling.

"Pleeeeeeeease, Mama. Have another baby! I wanna baby brutha or sista!"

It broke my heart that my ovaries were being so stubborn. "Ovulate, Goddamnit!" I'd say when I was feeling resentful, staring at my lower abdomen. "Dear God, please help us conceive another child," I'd pray softly and meekly whenever cursing at my womb didn't seem to do the trick.

Turns out my ovaries and God had another plan for me. I hate that. I'm a feminist, for God's sake! I like to feel in control of my own body. I get to decide when I will or will not procreate! I'm the boss of my own body!

Nope. Sorry, Ms. Missy. Not gonna happen. Your ovaries and God have other plans. The Universe gets to decide when you will procreate, not you. No matter how much you want it, you don't get to decide the moment you become pregnant. It can take months, years, and sometimes never. You can take pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter guaifenesin. You can practice mindfulness. You can pray. You can take up yoga and eat tons of bok choy. You can measure your body temperature and track your hormones and estimate when you're at your fertile peak. You can go to the goddamn doctor's office and have a technician shove an ultrasound probe up your vagina so you can see the contents of your uterus on a freaking screen the whole room can see. You can see globs of darkness the doctor says indicates your ovary has released an ovum and you can call your husband and make arrangements to meet you for a nooner, and still, you have no guarantee that your lovemaking will produce a baby.

I don't know about you, but it's scary to think that I lack agency in my own life. I should learn to accept it. I mean, the Universe won't let me live forever, after all. The Universe gets to decide when I die. Why wouldn't It get to decide when I bring new life into the universe?

Politically, I'm pro-choice because I don't believe the government should control our bodies, but personally I laugh at the term. Pro-choice? Ha! It's not my choice. My choice would be to just snap my fingers and I'm magically pregnant. Like Jesus' mother, Mary, only with a warm hospital bed and an epidural.

Because my own child is now eight and I only get to work with my kiddos in Sunday School for an hour, once a week, I decided to feed my jones for kids by trying to find a job in our youth services department. It made sense to me. I need a full time job, but I need one that doesn't stress me out, so what better job to have than one in which I feel gratified working with kids? Reading stories to kids and teaching parents how to help their children learn early literacy skills, recommending books to awkward tweens and telling teenagers, "It's good to see you today" is important work. Instead of feeling overwhelmed when I work with kids, I feel overjoyed.

But like I said, so far, no luck. I can't just snap my fingers and I've magically got a full time youth services job. I've decided to take on another volunteer gig working with kiddos. I'm applying to work with a Head Start facility in our community. They need classroom helpers to come in once a week or so and read stories, sing songs, and make crafts with preschoolers. I can do that! It's unpaid, but so what? It will be good experience. I figure the more opportunities I get to hone my skills at being Miss Becky the story time lady, the better. And, what volunteers lack in income they more than make up for in rich, interpersonal connections.

So here are my unpaid labors of love: caring for our daughter, blogging, Sunday school teaching, and next, story telling in preschool. I feel proud of myself. Usually.

It's sometimes difficult to feel good about unpaid labor. Our capitalistic society reveres the highest earners--doctors, lawyers, business people. Our youth librarians and preschool teachers are on the lower end of the income spectrum. Stay-at-home parents and volunteer child educators are at the very end. Jack squat. People who want to spend their days reading stories and singing songs and making crafts with four year olds are not paid in material wealth. We must, as a society, begin to see the value of unpaid workers. Whether it's unpaid artists, unpaid caretakers, or unpaid community volunteers. We must learn to respect people for reasons beyond their net income.

As far as I can tell, Jesus didn't have a steady income. He lived off the kindness of strangers, slept on Good Samaritan's beds, broke bread and drank wine with his followers, but I don't recall any stories of him ever picking up the tab. Does that make me love Jesus less? Hell no. Look at all the influence he's had these past two-thousand years? He's spreading the love! His lack of material wealth didn't hold him back. It set him free.

So, I'll continue to write for free. I'll continue to take care of my child for free. I'll teach Sunday school and help out in preschool classrooms for free. And it will set me free.

"If you were a best-selling author, what would you do with all your income?" Kate asked.

This blog is about to hit 100,000 page views, so I've been talking about it a lot lately. Talking about how I might not be a best-selling author, but I feel like what I have to say is reaching people, and that makes me feel proud.

"Oh, I dunno," I said. I thought about it some and couldn't come up with any good ideas. It felt like when either Will or she ask me what I want for Mother's Day or my birthday.

I dunno. Just spending time with you is present enough.

"It can be anything," Kate prompted me. "If you were rich, what would you like to buy?"

"I dunno, Punk. I don't really think about it. I'm not exactly the kind of person who would enjoy being rich. I'd feel guilty and worry all the time about the people on the planet who were starving and homeless and in need. If I were a best-selling author and rich I'd buy our family a nice, comfy house and some good quality clothes, and you know, send you to a really good college and probably travel and see the world. But I think I'd end up giving away most of my riches to charity," I said.

Kate smiled. "Yeah, I knew you'd say that."

Seeing the look of pride on my daughter's face when I finally realized that even if I made tons of money off my writing, I'd probably give most of it away, so why not just give it away for free like I've been doing? Seeing Kate's face at that moment is worth more than all the riches in the world.


"The Best Things In Life are Free" written for the 1927 musical Good News, covered by Lily Bee.
Uploaded to YouTube with this dedication: 

"A cover song dedicated [to] open science and all things open source. Because the best things in life are and should stay free."

Here are the lyrics:
The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life are free
The stars belong to everyone
They gleam there for you and me
The flowers in spring
The robins that sing
The sunbeams that shine
They're yours, they're mine
And love can come to everyone
The best things in life are free
Amen!