Thursday, October 17, 2013

letting it go

I had to go back to work today.

Probably the less that is said about that the better, but that's not really my style; so here goes.

A few weeks ago, my husband heard a homily by our vicar, who is a very good priest and also a friend.  He said (recounted my husband - I attended a different Mass) that whatever funds we have after meeting our basic needs, the poor basically have dibs on.  On the one hand, I readily understand his point: what do I need but what I need?  I don't need things on my bookshelves.  I don't even need bookshelves.  On the other hand, I make a middle-class income and books and art are perfectly sound objects of my spending (especially when I get things at great prices!).  But...when people are hungry?  I went around and around.

Eventually, my ire settled on a single point: if I'm going to have only half my disposable income, then I am categorically unwilling to work full-time.  Already my life doesn't seem to have nearly enough time in it.  Sure, a lot of the things I want more time for are merely maintaining my material possessions; but on the other hand, I genuinely love the idea of restoring and maintaining a historic home (and would even if it weren't mine), and a lot of my pursuits aren't possession-focused - they're things like learning to cook better and bringing people to my house and feeding them.  And I don't get enough time for prayer, or exercise, and...and...and...

I'm not working when I would rather not work so I can just hand over whatever I make.  Not only is that not morally required, I'm not even sure it's morally acceptable.  I ought to have the time instead, to do good things with the people I love.

So there.

Sometimes, when we issue a challenge to God, He takes us up on it.  Maybe a week after these reflections began, I found myself about to have some time off from work - whether I wanted it or not.  (Let me be clear: I wanted it.  Aaaaalll of it.)  Many people similarly situated were bewilderingly grumpy.  I could not (and still cannot) fathom that they, too, did not have an endless list of things they would do with more free time, if only they could obtain some.  Personally, I didn't think that the taxpayer should pay me (or anyone) for time spent sitting at home (or, in my case, madly restoring the outside of my porch.  In between cooking and DIY shows, of course).  And absent other distressing circumstances (such as: someone has been out of work for years and just started a full-time job recently), I don't think that an adult professional with a good job should be complaining because he's living paycheck-to-paycheck.  That's bad financial planning - bad enough that if you're in that situation, maybe you shouldn't be airing a lot of opinions on the country's finances, you know?

So anyway.  My principal hope was that we wouldn't be paid for the time we weren't working; that would, at least, be one concrete way to cut down on the out-of-control spending.  I was, actually, pretty sure we wouldn't be paid.  And that seemed fair, although the very idea seemed to inspire panic in a lot of people (who may have anticipated a far longer time away from work than I did.  Or they could just be dumb).  After all, I had said that I would gladly take more free time for less money, if only that deal were available.  And there it was - being dropped in my lap.  But I felt I should cement my approach to the whole business - as a discipline against the greedy idea that I should get a big chunk of vacation and draw my regular salary, which, as a hope, would be contrary to the public interest and therefore uncharitable and just plain bad citizenship (good citizenship seems to have become unfashionable when it does not align with one's personal financial interest.  When did this happen?  Something must be done).  So I decided that, if I should in fact get this time off, and if in fact it should be determined that I would be paid for it, then I would donate the money (after taxes and my health insurance deduction.  And maybe my retirement deduction?  Hmm.  Need to think about that one).

And then, as you know if you were following, we did get the time off - twelve workdays, at final count (though I'd have had two of them off anyway).  And the idiots decided to pay us for sitting at home.  So my salary for that period will go to the Missionaries of Charity, who have a soup kitchen to feed the poor and homeless in the worst neighborhood in DC.  I realize that I get no moral credit for giving to charity if I then tell people about it - let alone if I tell the whole internet about it.  But that's OK.  I'm not trying to store up treasure in heaven.  I generally keep my mouth shut about fasting and almsgiving when I think it's warranted, but I don't think this is that case.  This isn't some act of great generosity on my part.  I think it would actually be wrong for me to keep the money, especially given how gleeful I was about the time off.  (Obnoxiously gleeful.  In fact, on our last day before the shutdown, I brought a super-decadent chocolate cake to work and forced a piece on everyone who complained.  Which is to say: everyone.  I was positively giddy, which was only partly attributable to the sugar high.  They criticized the Tea Party; I insisted they have cake.)

More to the point, when God pulls off a particularly good one, I feel somehow confident that He would like me to tell people about it.  He ordained that I would hear a strong message about uses of my money, one that I really needed to hear.  "Oh yeah?" says I.  "Well, what about better uses of my time?"  "Very well," says He.  "Here's lots of time, for you to use and enjoy.  Now, how about that money?"  And what can I say to that?  You win, God.  You always win.

I was committed to this program, but I realized it put me in a slight quandary.  With a potentially significant period of daylight hours available I wasn't likely to have again soon, I had to get cracking on my outdoor projects, pronto.  On the other hand, these required a capital outlay for materials, and I had promised myself to be disciplined about my spending.  (My DH was still working, but our disposable income was going to take a hit.  And God knows my shopping habits could use better discipline.)  Obviously, I would have to bite the bullet and buy the materials I needed, but I concluded I would have to exercise extra mental discipline regarding purchasing in general.  I definitely cut down on groceries.  On the second day I was off, I hosted a last-minute dinner party.  I didn't even need to go shopping.  (I decided to take the occasion as an opportunity to cut down on the excessive stockpile in my freezer.  Unfortunately, I didn't even make a dent.  The experiments in homemade ice cream may have something to do with that.)

Once I started the demolition for the porch, I quickly realized that the original siding still existed - and would be superior to any of the options I had planned.  So I took the materials I had bought back to the store!  And bought some replacement trim pieces and caulk and insulation and glue, but all in all, less than the value of what I'd returned.  Things were moving in a positive direction.  Unfortunately, every time I set foot in the big orange store tends to be hard on my bank balance, so I resolved not to go back for a week - even with all that free time.

By the time my little gift of time was at an end, I had entirely restored the porch.  All that's left is a touch-up coat of white trim paint, which will have to wait for Saturday and daylight.  I had also installed the rear fencing, with the help of my DH.  My list had only required me to begin the rear fencing, but after we got it in place along the rear of the property, my DH volunteered that we didn't really needed it along the side, where the bushes are thick.  I trimmed the leaves back to verify this, and I agreed.  So, a roll of fencing and three posts - back to the store.  Also on the list had been a picket fence in the front.  But the original idea for the fence was as a sound-break, and we eventually realized that would be impossible.  And we have a fairly nice hedge there (if we just kept it regularly trimmed), so I didn't think the fence was necessary for aesthetic reasons.  And it represented several hundred dollars in materials, and a sizable amount of hard labor.  I put the question to my DH, and he agreed that, with the back fenced in for the dog, we didn't really need a fence in front.  I decided I would just find a nice arbor to head the front walk, and grow climbing roses over it.  Score another one for the budget!

When I realized last night that I was headed back to my desk (and three hundred pages of mind-numbing legal arguments from opposing counsel to read and respond to, after answering a good hundred emails.  It sure makes painting and carpentry and cooking attractive!), I also realized that the shopping restriction was lifted.  That meant it was time to tackle buying the climbing roses for the front gate and the edge of the enclosed porch.  After poking around heirloom roses on the internet until, I don't know, way too late at night, I had found a winner.  This rose:


Actually, that's someone's picture of her bush, but you can buy that Alister Stella Gray here.  It's almost the same age as my house!

But then I found out that you are not supposed to plant roses in fall (unlike everything else).  Too bad I put my knockouts in the ground two weeks ago!  (But they immediately looked happier, and it's been a warm fall, and I feel fairly confident they'll survive the winter.  If I could just have figured out where to plant them in August when I bought them!)  So, it is not time to buy roses.  And then, after some research on the variety I want, I realized that the flimsy $15 trellis I bought won't remotely hold the roses' weight - what I need is tension wire and screws, and I already have those.  (And it will take years for the roses to be tall enough to need them anyway.)  So, the trellis is going back to the store.

As I lay awake last night, unable to sleep, thinking excited thoughts about how my office would be in chaos the next day and there might be high-pressure things for me to do (it wasn't and there weren't, and I am already sad and bored), something dawned on me about the front door.

I have mentioned screen doors here before.  At some length, even.  As you recall, one of my dilemmas was: why do all the people on the internet with beautiful front doors not need screens for them?  And the other one was: how do I get a screen door to look attractive?  The answers to these questions are interrelated.  And of course, to answer both of them, I went to craigslist.  Where I found this:


And that was the end of all rational searching.  I had to have it.  (I note that it doesn't have a screen at all, and also that that is totally beside the point.  The point, obviously, is that it is fabulous.)  And, also, I couldn't have it, since it wasn't even close to the correct size for my door.  So I embarked on a determined quest (much of it marching through my earlier blog post) to find the next best thing.  And I think this door might well have been:


It's been sitting in my hallway in all its packaging for several weeks now.  Part of me thought I might eventually find something more awesome on craigslist (and don't think I haven't checked regularly).  Then there was the part of me that didn't want to start in on the hassle of building out the door frame to fit (of course they don't make them in the exact size I need).  Then there was the part of me still undecided on whether I should stain it and varnish it, or paint it white, or paint it peacock blue to match my main door.  (Oh, I painted that.  Did I mention that?  I think it looks quite fetching now.)

But what I didn't realize was that there was also a part of me - the part that wanted to keep the door in its packaging - that realized all these other jabbering voices were totally on the wrong track.  Let's review:

(1) I have a very functional aluminum screen door that I hate because it is ugly.
(2) I also hate to spend money unnecessarily.
(3) I think my front door would look much nicer without a screen door at all.
(4) The only realistic screen option I have that would look historic will be a decent amount of work, and there are plenty of other things on my to-do list.
(5) There's already a historic-style screen door on the back porch (purchased by the previous owners) that previously looked mildly random but recently, since I've restored the white trim to the porch, has started to look really delightful - and we have just the screen closed on that porch much of the time.  So, the gingerbread look is being featured well elsewhere on the house.
(6) The second I opened the front door (leaving its screen closed) to paint it, my DH started complaining that the noise from the street is too loud and I need to close the door.  We're never going to use just the screen, no matter how nice it looks.  And...
(7) I've been trying to be more mindful of my spending.

At about 12:30AM, I was seized by an epiphany.  I decided not to share it with my husband, realizing I would not be able to keep the urgency from my voice, and understanding that at that hour he might very reasonably have me committed.  But I told him as soon as I got home this evening.  Then I had to show him pictures to persuade him.  I think he's now on board.

Somehow, it took all these reasons and anxious late-night contemplation to make me realize that all I need to do is take the aluminum screen door off, stuff it somewhere in the basement, patch the holes, and return the one I bought to the store.  I just got $67 and many hours richer.  And became one of those people I envy, with the awesome wooden front door you can see from the street.  The magnificent craigslist door had led me astray.

Craigslist: for when you need that one perfect item that you can't find or can't afford elsewhere.  Not as helpful when what you most need is - nothing.

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