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October 7, 2008

Dear people who put the TV in our elevators, can you please change the channel?

In the mornings lately the elevator ride is frightening -- watching people get sucked into the tiny TV monitor inside the elevator is fascinating. They oooh, they ahhhh, they groan with wild abandon when they see the Dow numbers ticking downward on the screen. Sometimes I worry that they're going to hyperventilate or keel over right there in the elevator and I will have to climb over them to get to the free coffee in the galley before those Government Lending folks get in and drink all the coffee.

Hi! And how are ya'll?

So my mom and I were talking on the phone yesterday and she asked if all the financial news I get all day long is making me depressed. I do get a lot of financial news across my desk each day and I read it to keep up with what's happening in the world (and, I admit it, I want to see if the Euro is getting cheaper so I can go eat chocolate and wine some place far away.) But I'm not depressed about it -- or the election stuff for that matter -- because if I decide to fall into a deep abysmal existential fugue state about world events it still has ABSOLUTELY NO OUTCOME WHATSOEVER on those world events. My emotions about the Dow have no effect on it at all. In fact, it's much easier to check the foreign exchange numbers every day instead and realize that my wine and chocolate just got two bucks cheaper. Yay me. Victory for French wine and Swiss chocolate ensues.

Some people would think this was cavalier, my decision to not worry myself into a funk of doom, as if I am not patriotic or normal or concerned. That also doesn't change the outcome. So I go about my life calling my cats Mr. and Miss and Lord Queen Monkeypants (guess who gets which preface) and watching Dancing With The Stars (I admit it, I got sucked in. AGAIN.) and learning to make cornbread and understanding there isn't any reason at all to get really mad or frustrated or upset since that has no bearing whatsoever on the banks, the lenders, the world or the weather.

Now, if I could change the weather, maybe that would be a different story. Ya'll know I would be all over that cute Dallas Raines like white on rice. We could tan together and discuss who we want it to snow on while the Valley would be 75 and breezy and sunny every day for eternity. But I digress. (Also do you think one day Dallas Raines will do a google on his own name and wonder who on earth is this crazypants woman with all these cats who lives in the Valley and obsesses over the weather?) (Hi Dallas! Call me!)

Like most people my relationship with credit cards and slippery money started during my first week of college in the University Center where a cheerful group of strangers were handing out free backpacks and clock radios if you just filled out a credit card application. Looking back now, I think this activity should be 100% ILLEGAL. Because what college student -- especially a poor kid on scholarship who thinks Jon Bon Jovi is the second coming -- would qualify for a credit card? I MEAN REALLY NOW. Except we all did, me included, and having had zero education on credit management and budgeting and finance I looked at that credit card as an extension of my income. My relationship with credit started with me clueless, in dire need of college supplies and holding one brand new shiny Master Card. It was a very bad start.

It wasn't until much much later when I found myself alone in my thirties in the middle of a messy and expensive divorce with four cats and a gargantuan load of consumer debt that I began to mature financially. In other words, I had to grow up and fast or I was going to be living in a shed with a herd of felines and my shoes. And eating beans from a can and wondering if zappos.com missed me as much I missed it. There was no more easy credit, there was no more shopping to make myself feel better, there was no more dual income and blaming it on someone else or letting someone else handle the money. It was all my mess and mine to figure out alone.

(By the way, you can download my free Excel Budget Spreadsheet if you too are in the sordid, messy and expensive place. The spreadsheet is pink, which I think helps!)

It took me a long time to get out from under my debt and to this day it's one of the best things I have ever done for myself. It sucked sometimes (no more expanded cable, no new stuff, getting rid of my lovely and pricey manicured nails, no trip to so-and-so, writing down every red cent) but it was awesome, too, watching that number on the credit card statements go down every month, watching my savings go from nonexistent to $40 to $200, to $800 to $1200. Being able to pay my folks back (three years later) for the money they loaned me for my divorce lawyer. Being able to buy AWESOME NEW SHOES ... and then deciding not to. Not because I can't afford them but because I can and choose to put the money elsewhere. There's a difference.

There are two big things I learned during my own personal financial crisis. One: No matter how big a hole you're in, you can choose how you feel about it. And two: You are not your stuff.

That first one was a huge shift for me (in every part of my life, not just finances.) I used to be someone who spent a LOT of time arguing for my unhappiness. I heard myself one night on the phone to my parents, it was about four years ago and my ex-husband was still a then-husband and he had moved out and my mom was trying to tell me something positive, I don't even remember what it was, and I started off with a long list of why that particular positive thing wasn't good at all. Because of this, and because of that, and this other thing, and I was giving her a whole list of all the reasons I was unhappy. I was arguing for my unhappiness. I could actually hear myself there on the phone coming up with all the reasons my life was awful and empty and dire. It was sad, being that person, the one who doesn't stand up for her happiness but instead defends all her misery.

So no matter how deep and wide and vast and dark the hole is that you're in, you get to choose. You get to decide if you're going to make a list of all the things you lack, loathe, fear and worry about. Or you get to sit in that exact same hole and say, "Wow, this is a big dark hole I am in. It sure will be nice once I get out of here. While I'm here, though, think of all the nice people who have been concerned for me down here, or who want to hear my jokes. I still get to eat. I drink wine. I have really cute cats. I might go try on some of my shoes now, since I am paying them off and all. Thank God this hole is wide enough for me to walk around in! I can wear all my shoes!" And so on.

By the way -- if someone had told me this little gem when I was in the "my hole is deep and dark and it is all his fault and I will cry now" phase, I would have hit them with my cute shoes. I had to get there, and I had to decide to change my perspective for me, not for my friends or family or co-workers or the mysterious "They" who judge us silently from the sidelines. I knew if I didn't change my thinking I was going to be bitter and empty and living in fear and that was a choice I had to make. Argue for my unhappiness or find a way to see something positive and be grateful for that one thing, even if it was so small I might have overlooked it before.

The other concept I got a handle on, finally, is that I AM NOT MY STUFF. I am not a better person if I wear designer labels. I am not a kinder, smarter or even happier woman if I have the most expensive handbag. I am not sexier or more successful if I drive a nice car or own my own home or get my nails done or have an ipod. I am not my stuff. I enjoy my ipod -- believe me it is a saving grace on the bus -- but I am not lesser of a human being for buying a refurbished one or not buying one at all. I am not my stuff. My worth as a human being is not contingent on driving a fancy vehicle -- and thank God, since my Jeep qualifies for extinction, I think.

Yes I love pretty things, and I like shoes and I love to shop at the grocery store and buy the stinky yummy expensive cheese. But all of it is just stuff. It took a while for me to disassociate who I am from what I have, and sometimes it was painful. I had given all these little things -- things with no value -- so much sentimental value that I had a house full of clutter and my life was cramped and confusing and uncomfortable. Because of stuff! Stuff I'd bought to make me feel better in a lonely and sad marriage, stuff I'd bought just because it was on sale, or because I thought it made me look better, or I thought maybe this one thing is what I need to make me happy once and for all. Can you imagine when I finally started getting rid of even the smallest bits of clutter how much my emotional load lightened? Being free of objects that had all these old ideas and memories and hopes wrapped up in them was like letting go of a false self.

So anyway, I am not worth more or less because of what I wear, own, buy or charge on a credit card. There's integrity in that knowledge. There's happiness and contentment in having things you know are within your means and not pushing yourself into debt. There's happiness in appreciating something that you enjoy just because it's appealing to you, not because of its price tag alone. (And then you're not awake at night wondering how to pay for stuff, either.)

That's not to say I don't enjoy fancy things, but I think I'm more clear now on whether I like something because I just like it or because I'm supposed to think it has value (and by extension, gives me value.) Nothing gives me value. Real worth can't be purchased at a store and gift-wrapped and placed on a credit card, no matter what anyone tries to sell you. Also later you can hand me some of crackers to go with my yummy stinky cheesy text because I know this is cheesy, but it's still true. You are not your stuff.

Getting in the elevator every day is a little microcosm of humanity, I watch the folks watch the TV screen and I wonder, can we ask management to change the channel? Can they put on The Food Network instead? I think people would be much happier each morning if they got to watch a little Food TV on their way in to work. And it would have just as much effect on the Dow as if they watched the news. Or maybe we could watch The Weather Channel -- that's something we also have no control over but people don't seem to fall into a deep existential funk about it all. Unless they maybe live in the Valley.

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ALSO! Congratulations to all the folks who won a copy of The Green Beauty Guide: Natalie and also Trudy both from Indiana, Jackie in Connecticut, Janice in Victoria British Columbia, Tari in New Jersey, Laura in North Carolina, Stacy and Lee both from California, Lisa in Tennessee, Connie in Ohio, Cora in Florida, Thalia in Maryland, Theo in Oregon, Jennifer in Idaho, Gayle in New York and Allison also from North Carolina.

So far four people still haven't responded with their addresses so I'll re-send them an email of winningness. Thanks to everyone who participated and the next give-away is knitting related and won't be in the comments, I promise! With all this helpy going on you'd think I could help myself to some form-coding but I blame it all on politics, the economy and of course the weather!

Posted by laurie at October 7, 2008 8:25 AM