The Blessings Ledger:
The Union of Money and Compassion
A Closed Door
When I was newly separated from a marriage of 22 years, I found myself in the position of having no money, no know-how with finances (although I had worked independently for the length of the marriage), and a broken heart in the bargain.
As a woman thrown suddenly onto my own resources alone, I knew enough from the hearsay of popular culture that I was supposed to set my sights on becoming "financially independent." But grief was not the proper frame of mind in which to pursue this ideal. For one thing, pursuing anything other than my own healingwild and raw as I interminably feltseemed tangential to my real survival. And for another, I had never appreciated, desired to cultivate, or even effectively possessed the quality of energy and aggressiveness that seemed required, even encouraged, in order to succeed financially. This self-referential aggressivenesseven more now than during the "security" of my married pastseemed more the wounding than the cure.
For common human conditions, like being in or out of love, or trying to unravel the entanglements of childhood and free something fundamental in ones nature to emerge, I more often sought my learning from other human beings. But for practical skills that Id never felt Id had, especially if I did not initially understand the motivation and the context of that skill well enough to approach a human being and stand, hemming and hawing, before that person, in need of mentoring and comforting, I would seek out books. So it was that during this transitional period in my life, from living as a "we" to living as an "I, I, I," I often went to the library to see if by chance I might hit upon a book that would address what it was inside me that did not even know enough to know what I did not know, throw me out a net upon the waters, so to speak, and with that net of accessible, compassionate knowledge, allow me to become immersed, like others, and yet contained, buoyant, held by the net.
As I lay in bed at night, feeling the almost comforting weight of the host of books Id lugged back from the library ranged around me, I anxiously pored through my finds in hopes that one of them would speak to my particular situation. Financial Independence for Women. What Women Need to Know About Finances. Even The Widows Guide to Financial Survival (death being the closest match that acknowledged the emotional rupture of divorce that existed alongside the financial). But none did speak to me. None began from where I was.
# # #
I did not at the time have the focus to declare that what I was looking for was a book about both money and compassion. More, I longed for a book about money that was itself compassionate, and that might lead me out of my confusion and shame and connect "finances"this mysterious, wholly exterior part of my life (which had taken up so much of it in adulthood and had had such an obliterating effect on my marriage)with something that I would not then have dared to call my "soul." But I sensed that what I needed was more than a financial how-to, alone. There was something else I was seeking, something more fundamental, something that was more universally human; something that, like literature, music, joy, sorrow, prayer, and the unforced arising of gratitude, existed beneath the surface, gave depth and continuity to the seemingly discrete bits of data that constituted social existence. Something that would not so much let me enter the prevailing bastion and ways of money as enter the secrets of being, and from there learn better how to live on an everyday scale. In the midst of my great wild raw grief, I barely dared to hope that a more extant, deep, sleeping aspect of me might grow, in this rip between the worlds; might breathe its released, unfamiliar air, grow leaves and feathers and wings.
It was a difficult prayer to believe might be answered. For not only did I need to mobilize myself in a time when all I wanted was to lie down and dream and heal, but I had no idea where to begin. People did not seem to talk about money, other than through the details of its regulation. I could not find a human hook, a primer for beginners, a link to the person I had once been. I often felt as though the worlds of money and finance were like a secret club with secret entrance knocks and handshakes. And while it was both emotionally and psychologically costly to be outside that club, there was a large proportion of me that had no wish to penetrate that clique and be absorbed into its exclusive mysteries. Yet if that was the only playing field in townthe sink or swim, eat or be eaten, grab what you can while you can and inoculate yourself from your longings in that common, socially lauded fashionthen I had no hope of both surviving and becoming the kind of human being I secretly wished to be.
But I also had the hopeactually, the requirementthat if another order of interaction underlay the apparent, piecemeal, fragmented order, I could find it as well as any other human being; that it was possible to rely not solely on information and external knowledge (which had neither been bequeathed to me nor sought), but on internal, universally human potentials and attributes that I as well as any other human being might have my share of, in wait if not in current time. Much as I felt myself to be dangerously ignorant about finances, I knew that there was something elseanother level of realitythat a person might contact by internal means. It had taken me years to find the way in to that mystery, to encounter something more essential and enduring in myself. It had taken years, years that would doubtlessly whiz past in the blink of an eye when it came time for the souls accounting of my life, to reconnect even ephemerally with the seamless, stunning wholeness I had known as a child, before there were words to describe ita wholeness that had somehow dropped away, without explanation or a word of goodbye. But it had left hints, breadcrumbs in the forest, and I had followed these as I could. And over the years, I had found that there were certain practices that would keep me going, that would give me a better chance to look through the veil and have a direct impression of the world I had thought was irrevocably left behind.
These practices included the cultivation of observationthe ability to witness impartially what arose within me in response to inner or outer stimuli; the cultivation of instinctual wisdom; a respect for intuition, that nonlinear deep reason that puts one in the right place at the right time; meditation to clear the mind and engage with the present moment; meditation to expand the heart and stretch beyond ones lonely confines; prayers so intimate theyre like whispering to yourself, that bring about a miraculous correspondence in the outer world, as well.
All this was not in place yet, as I lay in bed with go-gettem books around me; and indeed, I hardly believed that anything I had done so far or might yet do in the way of my spiritual healing would have the slightest effect on my financial straits. But there was nothing else I knew how to do than try to marshal my internalized knowledge, and weep, and, in my own disbelieving, water-logged way, pray.
The Promise of Music
My husband was a musician. He played beautiful music on a woodwind instrument whose reeds vibrated with his breath, and were sliver-thin, thinner than the width of his fingernails. He spent hours concentrated over the rough bamboo, whittling it into infinitesimally slimmer measures so that its fragile pairing with its identical twin would conduct the breath from out his body and translate it into Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, sounds of fast-fingerwork jubilation and slow, dark-toned, exquisite mourning.
When I first met my husband at the age of twenty-one, at what felt like the peak of my internal withering, the separation inside of the nut from the shell, I was amazed to discover that light existed through music. I had always loved music, and had even harbored a secret wish to sing, as I freely had as a very young child; but although music was a part of my parents culturedness, it played a background, furniture-like part. The classical radio station played for hours, at home, one symphony merging into the next, punctuated only by the deep voice of male announcers whose knowledge and pear-shaped speaking tones seemed to stamp the music as a rare possession, something apart from anything I myself could claim. Once, I had fallen into a nap while the radio was playing, and awakened some time later with an exquisite tune in my head. "Da-DA, da-DA, da-DA-da-da-DA-da," I hummed over and over, wanting to memorize this gift from the gods that had somehow graced someone thick and dense as myself. "Im a genius!" I thought secretly, wildly delighted. Years later, I heard that same melody on the radio. "That was Peleas and Melisande by Gabriel Faure," the announcer enunciated, in his slow-pouring honeyed voice. And in that instant I understood that I had fallen asleep to the radio, years before, and had heard this same melody playing in my sleep, and had woken up with it as with an original dreamand that I was not a musical genius after all.
When I first met my husband, I realized inside, "You will marry this person." It never crossed my mind to wonder how he would make a living, or what his career prospects were, or how much money he would bring into my life. He would bring music into my life! He would plump up the waned dreams of my too-fast-old young life. He would play music for me and, dared I hope, with me. He would breathe me into being, would vibrate me like a reed carrying air into the denser body of the instrument.
# # #
We lived together for a year before we were married, near the university town where we both became graduate students for lack of anything else to do. We rented an eight-room farmhouse on a small plot of land from an elderly coupletwo very friendly Jewish chicken farmerswho had emigrated from Eastern Europe around the time we had been born. Our rent was $90 a month. We had enough room to fill the house with friends from the city on weekends and still have room left over. We had so many rooms that some were left vacant. We had a bedroom, a living room, a sewing room, a reed-making room. I made burlap curtains for all the many, drafty windows of the farmhouse in olive, cobalt blue, coral, cocoa brown. I exulted into the new role of loved one, or at least one who had the resources to play house on such a scale. I made lime chiffon pies with chocolate graham-cracker crust. I mopped the kitchen floor. Our landlady brought over gifts of gigantic farm-fresh eggs, and homemade jellied calves feet that I thanked her for and secretly threw out. And there was music in the house, not only from the radio. There was woodwind music live, as practice and as pleasure, on cue and on the wing, for hours on end.
I was happier than I felt I had any right to be.
One afternoon, shortly after we had started living together, we shopped for food together in the supermarket, foraging side by side. It was early enough in our relationship that everything was still stupendous, unimagined, and new; that it was thrilling just to be standing together by the breads, reaching for loaves and for crackers as the midday sun poured its sweet light in through the large plate-glass windows that looked out on the parking lot dotted with winter snow. And as I watched my beloved lean down toward the lower shelves to scrutinize its contents, his reed-wise lips pursed in fierce concentration, his wild, dark curly hair falling into his eyes, I realizedin a way that was both startling and privatethat I was beyond the gates of choosing whether to be with this person or not, in any weighing-and-measuring or other rational way. He had become, over the course of our daily approximations of adulthood and our nightly burrowings inside each other (expanded with desire, contracted with mute fears, given to halting confessions in the middle of the night, memorizing each others contours so that we should have always known each other), the sea in which I floated, the forest in whose shade I grew. Our every action together, even grabbing jars of peanut butter off the shelf, took place inside a larger, more shimmering reality, so that no action was simply an action in itself but it carried the weight and the echo of all my yearnings. When my lover reached for a jar of mint-apple jelly, it was not just a mundane need to stock our larders that I saw, but, as if I were in a bubble with in-held breath, a miracle of belonging.
How could it be that I was here, and loved? How could it be that one life, as Id lived it until recently, could be so whole-cloth exchanged for another? Here we were, in another state of the country altogether, where the winters stung with cold and where we clumped through frozen snow; where there was land between the houses, and where, when there was not snow but warming sun, there were flowers, both wild and planted, and sometimes even vegetables, astonishingly more fragrant and lovely on the vine than in the supermarket bins. And here I was, my stoppered-up yearnings for someone to love no longer a fantasy, no longer cut off at the neck as a cynical conclusion that dried me out prematurely. Every yearning had a place to go, every simple action between us was an intimate as signing into a hotel together under an assumed name. "What do you think of this?" he asked me casually, holding out a can of Scrapple. "Yuck," I laughed, and he got it anyway, tossing it into the cart; but the sheer process of conferring about our joint domestic life thrilled me more than I dared tell even myself.
This was my chance, then; I could grow up and sensuously ease into something other than what my parents had. I could do the same things Id seen them doshop for food, cook, work, hunch over a desk in private to pay bills, talk about art and literaturebut I could do them differently. Love and desire would pull me in a different direction, like riding a spoke toward the sun. I was no longer all on my own: there was a "we." And although it sometimes frightened me to have so little familiar ground under my feet; and although sometimes, unexpectedly, I was assailed by the conviction that this could not really last, and I might be left alone again, recalled to whom I had been before; even so, here I was now, moored like a buoy by my loved one next to me as he scouted the contents of the shelves up and down and yelled out funny things to me as we threw our items into the cart and pushed it up the aisles. This was the center of the universe, this was the stable center point, it moved as we moved, aisle after aisle, radiating life and joy and heat from its center, swallowing past and future in its thick, pulsating pull. I almost wanted to hide, I was so sure everyone had to be looking at us, sure our dense, viscous bond was palpable; but even if that were so, I was ready to bear through it, despite my edge of fear. It was worth it, to be highlighted by love.
# # #
The sun was at its brightest by the checkout stand, only a few feet away from the plate-glass windows. My lover bent over our cart from the front, dipping into its contents and plunking them onto the black roller belt, while I unpacked the cart from the rear. Cans of soup, that Scrapple, applesauce to go with it, cheeses, bread and crackers, jams and peanut butter, chicken, ground beef, ketchup, onions, cornflakes, gelatin, two boxes of chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies, dish liquid and toothpaste and more made their way out of the shopping cart onto higher, public ground.
The sun through the window illuminated our arms, turned the hairs on our arms into fuzzy haloes. It was winter outside, I could see the remains of snow, but my arms were warm in the indoor heat of the sun refracted through the glass.
That was just how it was between us. All of my history, like the snowy cold outside, said there was a harshness out there, in the world beyond the immediate environment, and that even the immediate environment could not forever hold the harsh cold out, it inevitably seeped in and did its numbing, icing work. But here we were, my near-illicit lover and I (did we look unmarried as we waited for the checkout clerk to get to our array of things?), and light was falling down onto our arms, seeping into our skin, erasing all crusty disappointments from the past, opening us to each other and the long-overdue youthful spirit of eating Mallomar cookies and dreaming each other awake in the night. In the light of day, now, visible traces of the nights confessions and skin-to-skin absolutions were barely to be seen, like Mona Lisas smile; but they underlay the ordinary action of shopping like a chord played some time earlier, whose reverberation had not yet come to a final close.
Oh, how utterly extraordinary it was just to be here, together, doing this! I had shopped with and for my parents hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times; had sought the items that matched the list and dully put them into the shopping cart, paying with my parents money and a great, tight weariness of my own. Now, under the guise of ordinary life, I was lit by a private love so banging at the gates from within that it threatened to spill over and announce itself despite me, to sing and call attention, make messes in the aisles. Everything, the aisles themselves, the foodstuffs on them, the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, the strangers shopping like drivers around us, even the air itself, seemed charged with electric wanting and the equally electric possibility of having. Everything shimmered. Nothing had outlines. Everything called me to itself in a great belly-lurching heart thump. I hardly existed, and, poised between longing and terror, I wasnt sure I cared. It was like taking the largeness of the sky and trying to contain it in a small, nondescript box. The sky kept leaking out; and the sky was what was in me, and I did not know if I were stretching to the infinite like the sky with this love, or if I were simply leaking. It was almost too much. I could not hold this heightening and overlapping of realities without wanting to burstinto laughter, or tears, or a language I didnt know.
The checkout clerk began to take our items from the moving conveyor belt, ringing each one up on the cash register with quick, efficient fingers. His arms, too, were in the sun, but he did not seem, to me, illuminated. The very speed at which he moved removed him from the charm of my secret, wedded circle, the difference between a sunset and a postcard of a sunset with a factory-printed inscription saying, "Wish you were here." His blurred, expert gestures were part of the outer worlds machinery. As he moved our goods along, lifting and examining each one with a cool, perfunctory glance, I tuned him out, neither understanding nor caring in the least what he was saying.
"Ground beef at 59 cents a pound for a total of $1.58," he rattled on, his fingers flicking the cash-register keys. "Bread at 49 cents, a gallon of milk at 49 cents, five cans of soup at 39 cents each is $1.95, onions at 15 cents a pound times"he stopped for a second to weigh them on the scale"two and three-quarter pounds is 41 cents ."
He sounded like the clattering of trains, or a recitation of chemical names droned on inside a science lab, unremarkable sound bereft of music or meaning. But it didnt matter. I didnt have to understand. My lover and I both had graduate-student jobs at the local university, I in literature and he in music. We made enough money so we didnt have to think about it, just deposit our paychecks and pay for things as the need arose. Gas cost 29 cents a gallon. Scallops cost a dollar a pound. Thick white swordfish steaks, locally caught, were also a dollar a pound. Sometimes, when the weather turned warm and a tease of spring came tickling at our necks, drawing us forward through the remnants of the snow, we would break through winter in our own way, like ice crust, and drive to the agricultural schools retail dairy outlet, where we would make some dutiful purchases of milk and yogurt but thaw our senses completely at the ice cream counter. All the vats of ice cream were fresh from the churning, you could smell the local berries in the Blueberry Cheesecake Swirl. The white-aproned clerks were students who grinned as we ordered what amounted to their term papers and dished out abundantly generous wedges of the thick, creamy stuff, charging 50 cents for a cone or a cup and $2.50 for a gallon that was so densely packed you could stand a spoon up in it. We ate our ice cream with summer inside us, the thick cold softness coating our tongues and sliding down our throats as if we were children defying all harsh, adult, things-to-be-done weathers.
What did we need with budgets or money-thoughts? We had more than everything we needed. The produce of the land and the seas, like the expanse of the land itself, was generous. And didnt this just fit my brand-new life, this new, turn-of-the-coin era in my life, that things had once been wholly one, bleak way and now they were another? What I had done to merit such a change I did not know, and there was a chance that it could all be reversed and taken away, and I flung back into the poverty of earlier life that stayed with me like a sidewalk paving some buried, archaic civilization. But there was this current, tremulous life, burgeoning with everythingnewness and kisses and music and touching and sunlight and darkness cradling our bones. And this flow of unexpected grace, material and otherwise, lifted me out of my history, and caught the frayed, unraveled strand of something begun so long ago that I could not sense what it was; only that I had been too young to fear or foresee any danger requiring the mistrust of everything given, the shoring up against the loss of everything known. In such a place, everything needed was given in plenitude, without even asking, as available as breath. And now, everything I needed was given again, in plenitude again; and if I was no longer that child, if there was too much of the pavement between us, still what was being given to me now was so much more than I expected or could possibly deserve, far more than I could have ever thought, or dared, to ask.
# # #
When I first saw the checkout clerk packing our purchases into large brown paper bags, my first thought was not, "How much did it come to?" but the private, secret pleasure that every one of those items was imbued with the atmosphere in which my beloved and I had bought it. Nothing was merely an end in itself, an ingredient for supper, a ready-made breakfast. Everything spoke to me of him, recalled our laughter back, made monuments in memory of our forays through the aisles. Everything was touched by our heightened play, as if wed arrived straight from lovemaking, languid and trembling, clothes hastily buttoned, light and warmth pouring out of us, skin remembering skin. From the brim of the bags I could see our chocolate-covered Mallomars, our crackers, our cut-up chicken, our loaf of bread. Even the Scrapple I was willing to embrace as part of the "we," even though I had no plans to eat it.
"Thatll be $28.43," the checkout clerk announced briskly, wheeling round to face us and holding out his palm.
My lover dug his hand into his back pants-pocket, pulled out his wallet and began to look inside. "Oh how lovely, hes going to pay all on his own," I thought, having been ready to open up my purse and see how much cash I had. And it wasnt that I needed for him to pay for all of itI was fully willing to chip inbut this gesture of generosity moved me immensely, told me I was loved, was wanted more than my fears of rejection knew; told me he would care for me, surround me with his love, be the solid tree trunk against which I could rest.
"So," he asked, still looking through his wallet, as casually as if questioning which brand of peanut butter to buy, "should we use your money or my money?"
My mouth, on its own, fell open. I felt enveloped by a fog, sudden and dense and edgeless. I felt like someone traveling in a foreign land who had just gotten used to its unfamiliar ways and now found herself at a border-guard station, asking bemusedly, in a language that no longer had currency, "Oh, are we in another country, now?" It only took that one moment, the time it took him to ask that innocuous question, for our heightened, magical world to stop in mid-turning, to sink down into the pit of my belly and touch dread, for the crack his words had made in the world to fissure out and uproot everything.
"What do you mean, your money or my money?" I asked in a quavering voice. "Its all our money, isnt it?" We were sharing a house, a bed, music threaded through the days and nights, horizons beyond telling. How could our union be divided into numbers, apportioned with the cold precision of a scalpel separating tissue from bone? This was like the contraction into self after lovemaking, the awkward wrinkling into skin that had just before been smooth, expanded, flushed with mutual desire.
He shrugged, expressionless. "Ill do it, this time," he said, indicating the trajectory of future times; and he handed over money from his wallet for the food.
But I knew that this was not the payment I had thought I had seen in his earlier gesture, when hed first looked into his wallet, before he had said what he had said. This was not an extended act of love, straight out of our clowning in the aisles, but a separation, a withdrawal from the union that had melded us in everything.
Why should money be so sacrosanct as to be outside the realm of love? How was it that we could incorporate buying the childhood indulgence of Mallomars into our expansive play, but not money? What was it about money that caused this sharp contraction, this withdrawal of emotional deposits as if they had never been? Even my parents, as tortured as they were, knew (in my mothers case, adamantly, self-righteously) that it was crucial to be generous with money and things; that there were human values that, if not met, caused you to mortgage your soul. True, I had often known the cruelty that was the shadow of that share-the-wealth ideology; true, the existence of ideals had often, themselves, been a whip. But the moral impress of generosity was branded on me as an automatic response, and my lovers action, so simple and nondescript, had turned everything on its head. As suddenly as a windstorm, something was terribly, terribly wrong.
While my lover paid, got change, and took the printed receipt, I stared out at the now-narrowed world, the sunlight not a halo but a blotch on our skins. What could be given could be taken away. Love did not encompass money. Love could be separated from, into money. I could not comprehend, standing there at the checkout stand, my world narrowed down to the size of a quarter, how love could be conserved like this, bottled with a lid on, like catching fireflies. All the worlds-breadth magic was torn away, and now everything looked like the checkout clerk, brisk and efficient, uninflected and cool. This person, my lover, this strangerwho was he? How would I live? What would happen now?
And although I knew I would stay with this man, and long for his music, and link my life with his, I could not have foreseen how, way down the road, the withdrawals would vastly outweigh the deposits, and there would be standoffs and lesions and rages over money; or that the scars these battles would leave would obscure all recall of our original love, just as my own original light had been obscured and forgotten; until the harmony that Id been sure would be oursthe beautiful music we would make togetherwas displaced by a discord of the most cacaphonous kind.
The Blessings Ledger is a book in progress. Copyright © 2005 by Naomi Rose. All rights reserved. Stay tuned for the complete version, coming soon enough, with God's help and Naomi's persistance and ability to take her own book-development advice.
Naomi's other writings:
[more to come]