cash poor, asset rich

Posted by on October 24, 2006


As a part of my forty day mom-and-baby pajama party retreat (see “forty days with baby bird”) I’ve taken to burning through BBC drama mini-series. My favorite has been Ballykissangel, but since I am, so sadly, reaching the end of that series, I’ve turned to a new one set in Scotland, called Monarch of the Glen, which I don’t enjoy nearly as much. Even though, while growing up, my dad had the “Mason Family Crest” hanging in a cheap frame in a marginalized wall space next to our kitchen pantry, and claimed Scottish descent somewhere in our distant past (whatever you say, dad), it isn’t so easy to relate to a show about a family from an aristocratic bloodline, living in a gorgeous castle in the Scottish countryside. Still, one episode included a phrase that stuck out to me. The young, urbanized son learns that his family is actually close to bankruptcy, and will be forced to sell all in order to pay off their debts: they are “cash poor, but asset rich.” I decided that, in a more humble, drastically paired-down, non-castle sort of way, this phrase works well to describe what I feel about my life.

There is something kind of crazy about a family that is broke, yet living in a castle hung with tapestries, fine art, first editions of old books, and an absolutely gorgeous view of lake, woods, and hills. There is also something kind of crazy about a graduate student and his unemployed wife, and new baby living in a decently nice apartment, eating decently nice food (even eating out more than we should), renting DVDs, having nice books to read, wearing decently nice clothes, and driving a decently nice car, with plenty of gas to put in it. All of that and more. And if I was worried about having a baby on our ridiculously broke budget, that has been no worry either. Baby gear, clothes, supplies have come in from every conceivable point on the compass.

When we moved to South Bend in July 2005, I was so worried about our situation. I felt sure that the ground was going to open up and swallow us if I didn’t get the right kind of job, right away. That didn’t happen– not even close. I ended up working at Starbucks last fall “temporarily” until I could find something better. “Something better” seemed to come along in an opportunity to work at a commercial printer, but that turned out to be a misery-inducing job for me, so I quit right before Christmas last year. Then, I found out I was pregnant in January. I kept applying for serious jobs, interviewing in my first, nauseous trimester, and generally making myself sad and nervous. I proceeded to give myself over to the fatigue of pregnancy, and went into hibernation for several months. I finally got a temporary job in May that lasted through the summer, doing easy clerical work in an office full of nice people. It was fun, and they were sympathetic to my pregnant state, which was merciful (you can read more in “the happy hippose of holy absurdity”). That was when the sun started to come out over the midwestern landscape for me. Then I had Esme, and the sun got even brighter.

Now everything is different. I’m still not sure what is going on or how this is happening. It’s like we’re on a road trip and haven’t pulled over to get gas, but somehow the engine keeps miraculously running. Perhaps this is the way wives of priests feel. Maybe they should get together with wives of graduate students and swap stories. Yes, we’re partly living on loans, which is unpleasant to think about. But really, the loans aren’t that much. Family helps us tremendously– I’m not even sure why. I always wanted to be self-supporting–no missionary life for me– but now I’m being supported, and didn’t even have to ask. It fell into place without my permission. I’ve also learned not to spend money, which is something I couldn’t say for myself in the days when I was supporting myself with a respectable job, living in a fun city, in an interesting apartment. I don’t think I’ve bought more than a couple of frivolous things for myself in over a year (though my mother-in-law sometimes buys frivolous things for me). I also began gritting my teeth and buying as much of our grocery list as I could from Save-a-Lot and Family Dollar. But even though our spending is so confined, I still feel rich in one sense. I’m sure this is partly because I live in the richest country in the world– the brattiest, and most spoiled– yes, I know. (We could probably live off what a typical American family puts in the trash.) But also I feel that maybe God decided to spare Jeff and me from the total disaster that seemed so possible and eminent when I gave up a perfectly good job out east and moved to this strange town– a town which seemed to keep saying, “no job for you, no job for you,” for months on end, try as I might to win its approval.

The picture above is the view from our apartment at sunset. It’s the roof of an ugly warehouse next to our extremely generic apartment complex, and beyond that, Grape Road, which is that road in every town which serves as portal to all franchise/strip mall shopping. The paradox is that I think this view is kind of pretty at certain times of the day. I think I must thrive on paradox.

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