Saturday, May 13, 2006

Not Martha Stewart!

Today I’m preaching to me again, but y’all are welcome to listen and chime in when desired.

It’s about finances. I think I’ve mentioned that it’s tight for us here in River City. We love it, we’re not planning on leaving, but sometimes we run out of pay cheque before we run out of month. That said, we have ways of doing things to survive that are legal, moral, sane, and even healthy. I’m not just talking about at the grocery store, but just life in general. There are all kinds of ways to make money go farther. Our garden this year will be huge and beautiful, filled with flowers and colour. And we spent less than twenty dollars. How? Friends who were clearing out their garden and redoing it gave us bulbs, seeds, and rootings. We bought plants that were on sale. We belong to a local online group called “Plantshare” for frugal gardeners to share plants, extra pots, lend tools, etc. We don’t have the fanciest furniture but we keep it polished and clean. Our house isn’t decorated to the nines, but it’s comfortable and inviting (seems to be, from the number of people willing to come over). There are ways to live well on very little (many years of military spouse-hood taught me that!).

So what sparked this train of thought? A letter to an advice columnist. The writer said that she and her family lived in the “poor house” on their block; she couldn’t work for medical reasons, so they were living on her husband’s paycheque and home schooling their children. But they had a house with books, music, pets, a huge back yard, etc. When people came over, she said, whether it was adult friends or her children’s friends, they never came back. She was very hurt and ascribed it to snobbery, because her furniture was old and her house not very fancy. The columnist’s response was good, but it didn’t go far enough, I thought (although I know those get edited down, so it’s possible she really said more). She said that attitude counted a lot, and if the writer was defensive or insecure about how the house looked, then that would affect the way guests saw the place. The writer may or may not have said anything that would sound defensive (“no, we can’t afford pop; here’s some water”), but her attitude would come through nonetheless. My thought was yes, perhaps it’s her attitude, but maybe there’s something more going on. There are lots of ways to live well on a budget, even an extremely tight one.

I’m thinking of an acquaintance who was an accomplished dumpster diver. She haunted yard sales and estate sales, and was not averse to picking up furniture left on the roadside for the garbage haulers to pick up. She knew how to refinish and reupholster, she was imaginative at seeing other uses for things, and she wasn’t afraid to make do. Her home was very comfortable—not elegant, that wasn’t her style—but a place you felt happy to be.

And it was clean. That’s important, too. Keep the pet hair to a minimum, clean the yard after your dog, wash the dishes, put them away, keep the laundry out of the living room, dust once a month or so (she says, tongue firmly in cheek).

Just because you can’t get new furniture doesn’t mean your house can’t look decent. Not everyone can upholster, true. But it’s very cheap to refinish a tabletop, or toss a blanket over a worn easy chair. You don’t have to have a sewing machine to make simple curtains from fabric you find in the remnant bin at the fabric store. “Plantshare” and its sister email list “*Freecycle” are great ways to get things to people who need them while getting what you’ve been looking for, and clearing clutter. I have actually found that an internet connection really pays for itself. Besides needing it for sermon research and blogging (hah hah), emailing my family cuts down on long-distance calls, I can read the headlines and obits in the local paper for free, not to mention papers from around the world, I can do research and have access to resources without having to purchase them, print coupons, and so on. You can trade expertise with a friend—she helps you refinish the table, you help her bake a special birthday cake for her son. I really hate to sound like a housekeeping pamphlet from the 30s, but there are so many ways to have a nice (not fancy, but nice) house without spending a lot of money—it just takes some imagination and, sometimes, a little more work. None of that is costly.

Maybe the writer of the letter was doing all those things. I don’t know. But I wonder.
How sad she sounded. How desperate. How lonely. And I wonder if she has tried some or all of those things I mentioned (after all, it’s not rocket science; if I can figure these things out, anyone can), and they just didn’t work for her. And I wonder if there’s something else going on, that she feels so isolated, and seems so friendless.

Maybe it’s resonating with me because I was once in a similar situation, although I didn’t have any children at the time. I was living in military housing in another country, I didn’t speak the language, there were no jobs available, and we didn’t have much cash. For the first three months, I spent my time borrowing trashy romance novels from the library, reading all day while drinking too-sweet instant coffee. Can you spell depression? The only reason I didn’t spend the afternoon watching game shows on TV was because the Armed Forces channel showed children’s programs all afternoon.

I didn’t get out of that rut on my own; and it wasn’t overnight. But I learned that the way to have friends is to be a friend. I learned to look around and see what’s right in front of my face. I learned to enjoy things that are free, and how to find them.

That sounds like Pollyanna, I know. But to modify a cliché, you can’t make lemonade until you’ve been handed some lemons. I’ve had some lemons. And I’ve learned how to make a passable lemonade.

So I’ll pray for that woman tonight and tomorrow and next week. I hope she finds what she needs, and some extra sprinkles on top as well.

*”Freecycle” and “Plantshare” email groups are found all over the US and Canada. The idea is that when you have something you don’t need anymore (kid clothes, a stroller, books, dishes) you post that on the list, and people who can use it email you; you give to them. When you need something (a crib, a posthole digger), you post, and people who have one or can loan it to you contact you. They are local, so you’re talking to someone across town, not on the other coast. “Plantshare” works the same way with garden stuff (wheelbarrow, seeds, plant identifications, etc.)


JoeVampire said...

Actually, I'm guesing that the reason people didn't come back to visit again had more to do with the not working and home schooling. I have found with people I know who have insular lives, that they aren't very interesting. As the saying goes, they need to get out more.

And, Rainbow Pastor, your couch is really not very comfortable, but I come over for the company, not the furniture. I'd come over if I had to sit on the floor.

Rainbow Pastor said...

I think that's what I found sad--that the woman didn't seem to have any real contacts--and it doesn't have to be that way.

OK, OK--we've been hesitating to get the couch redone, but I think that's the final push. We'll start getting estimates this weekend. So you won't have to sit on the floor. With Mr. M and the cats.

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...