New money

Yesterday, I came into some money. Not a huge fortune – just a couple of thousand dollars. A nice chunk.

When the check cleared, I opened the Garnet Hill catalog and took a deep breath. I dialed and when the woman on the other end asked, “How can I help you?” I opened my mouth and let myself order something that I wanted…. just because I wanted it.

The cashmere shawl, I said, keeping my voice even. The blue one…

I hung up shaking. This was real shopping, as opposed to my usual way of perusing the Garnet Hill catalog, aka Fake Shopping. And it took a long minute for the reality of what I’d just done to sink in. I had spent money – 160 dollars, to be exact – on me.

I wasn’t always like this. I grew up in an affluent suburb of Long Island – Great Neck, New York – the first town outside the NYC  border, where the nouveau riche built their mansions – funded by cash from the rag trade and the entertainment industry – and the well-heeled ladies lunched at Millie’s Place, browsed the high-end boutiques along Middle Neck Road and had their hair and nails perfectly polished at Peter’s Place.

In Great Neck, shopping was like breathing.

Of course, if you came from a weirdo family with an artist mother and a social worker dad, and you couldn’t afford the Landlubber jeans and Huk-A-Poo blouses, there was always, you know, stealing. (Because you had to keep up.)

And later, credit (which was – or so it felt, to me – another kind of stealing – cuz if you could stay on top of the monthly payments, you never had to pay it back.)

When I married my husband, I had already racked up over $20,000 in credit card debt. My ‘out of control’ spending (his words) met my need for constant infusions of designer clothing, fine dining, extravagant (his word) vacations met his frugal (I had another word for it, then) nature, and his never-ending quest to never spend more than we earned (to which I scoffed, ha!) and BOOM.

We paid it all back

My husband insisted I cancel all but one charge card. He froze that one in a block of ice. Then, after I’d melted it down and had a binge through Target and several pricier establishments, we cancelled that one, too. It took more than ten years to pay it all back. And in the fallout, I left a piece of myself behind. I’d entered the marriage as a bright-eyed size 6 world changer in a snappy Ann Taylor suit. Now, she’d morphed into a harried mom in stretch waistbands and a really bad perm.

I don’t blame my husband for this, by the way. Like all marriages, ours is a story about differences meeting differences. Some couples work it out. Others, like us, wind up bargaining away precious bits of self to keep the peace. My husband, a free-spirited visionary architect and artist, gave up his freedom (his words) for the love and companionship of family, home, security. I got a man willing to pay the bills when I couldn’t, who loved my children and me – unconditionally.

In exchange (or so I believed) I traded my need for stuff, for a certain kind of space (the dream house) and oddly, for hand-crafting. I stopped making things  – which seems strange, given that handwork is a great way to save money. But somehow, all of it was tied together.

It was something to do with self-expression, suppressed rage – and, of course, I was pretty busy weaving the false self that I’d pulled on over the real one.

I used to think: I am living the story of Sleeping Beauty. I pricked my finger (symbolically) and fell asleep. Or was it more like the story of the Selkie – a Celtic folktale about a man, a woman and a seal skin? Or The Crane Wife – a Japanese folk tale about a wife who wove, for her husband to sell, the most magnificent shirts… at the cost of her life?

It was all of these stories and none. It was my own tale, woven of my own story, my own skin – and I was living it without an important part of what made me me.

I spent several years sublimating my feelings and my champagne and caviar tastes with, well, things that tasted good: Heavy cream and raw honey in English Breakfast tea, cheesy meat lasagna, butter on butter. Yum.

But, oy…

One afternoon, during a reunion of old friends in Great Neck, a friend asked, “What happened to you?”

“What?” I asked, reaching up. “My hair?”

“No,” she said. “Everything.”


After two kids, twenty five years of marriage – a bad real estate deal, several lame financial decisions and, a lot of cream sauces, I’d given up. I didn’t care how my hair or nails looked, and I didn’t know what size I was. (For the record, a snug 16.) More disturbingly, I also didn’t know WHO I was.

Grateful for that wake-up call

I will always be grateful to that candid (albeit rude) friend – and in the years since she’d made me look in the mirror, I’d been turning things around. I’d sorted out the false equivalency I’d made between high-priced fashion and MY value and gotten a shot of self-esteem from a very good therapist.

Fast forward to 2009…

I was earning good money. I’d worked my way back down to a healthy size 10, and I was stocking my closet, slowly but surely with things I wasn’t ashamed to be caught photographed in… mostly.

BOOM all over again

When the recession hit it was a different, less personal BOOM, but a boom nonetheless. My husband’s architectural practice tanked, leaving us living from my paycheck and the small nest egg we’d managed to sock away.

A couple of times the electric company showed up at the door to collect payment

Though we’d been keeping our heads above water – at chin level, with the occasional snorting of water into our noses – now, we were drowning. With two kids in college, we lost our health insurance, went late on many bills, including the rent. And I started panic-stocking the frig. It’s what I do when I’m worried.

I tightened our family belt. We ate a lot of ground meat and tuna fish – and we thanked Heaven, again, that we hadn’t purchased that new house.. I gained a new respect for my husband’s frugality. Thanks to his insistence that we never use credit cards we entered the recession without debt.

And since we’re both healthy, scrappy entrepreneurial types who know how to eke out a living; shop in thrift stores and juggle bills, we made it. We’re starting to make money again. My husband has some solid new clients and his long-standing, anchor clients are returning, ready to build again. And though I’m still loading the frig, my  indulgences – Raw Walnut Date cookies, heirloom beets, organic butter  – are healthier.)

So when that check cleared I felt nearly Rockefeller-ian.

It was incredibly reassuring to see all those digits – even a comma! – in my checking account balance.

I exhaled

And I bought a little cashmere, two pair of shoes, a bottle of wine and some yarn I’d been coveting: a lovely, lavender merino wool that just happened to be on sale that day – 40% off. Then, I paid what bills I could – the dentist, an old parking ticket. I even made a dent in one of those college loans.

As the money dwindled down, I felt the old familiar ‘lack’

There were still so many other things I wanted and couldn’t buy:  a real designer handbag; a new outfit from my favorite designer –  Eileen Fisher, a cuddly cape like the one I’d seen on a tall young woman at Eataly on Sunday.

Hey, stop here, the little voice told me.

I was on my way home from visiting my dad, when I got a ping of guidance as I passed the Goodwill Store. “We close in half an hour,” the salesclerk called as I started flipping through the racks. And that’s when I found them: Three Eileen Fisher outfits, a brand new Ann Taylor cape, and a beautiful gently-used Louis Vuitton tote bag.

A Louis Vuitton TOTE bag! A real one, genuine – the kind the ladies on Middle Neck Road would buy retail to shlep around their laptops. And it was 22 dollars. Wow.

What a remarkable life this is

And here I am again – amazed, grateful, standing in the middle of my almost middle class life – with bills to pay and the BOOM of my marriage – feeling so incredibly blessed.

I love my life. I love my husband. I love the way that I am guided, always, to the things and the people who’ll delight me. The things that help me to peel away the false self that I no longer need, to find myself again – one choice at a time.

It’s not about shopping

It never was. I’m onto that trap and the other one – that makes me fill my grocery cart – and my plate – the moment I feel uneasy. I’m following these threads, not making myself wrong for wanting nice things, not labeling myself as superficial, spoiled or extravagant.

Letting myself want what I want, picking up my knitting needles and casting on this beautiful lavender wool, one stitch, then another – All of this leading me back to that young and hopeful woman, letting her – and the remarkable gifts God strews in my path,  lead me back to joy.

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