Adventures in Being Broke, but not broken

Installment number II
As I was coasting down Wolf’s Grade this morning in third gear, because you don’t want to sacrifice your brakes for the sake of saving gas, I was thinking about my financial situation. Being frugal isn’t necessary morally superior, it is just what is called for in times of scarcity. Everything has its upside and downside. Even abundance has its downside. It can lead to waste. Sometimes it gives us too many choices and can make us a little crazy. Or it does me anyway. Okay, I will admit, I would rather the challenge of abundance than this, or to quote Sophie Tucker, the Russian vaudeville singer, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better.”
However, the upside of scarcity can be innovation and creativity and a deeper appreciation for what is all around you that is free. As Jonathan Swift remarked in Gulliver’s Travels, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” On a spiritual level it can be used as an opportunity to practice ignoring those Hungry Ghosts our advertising culture is always trying to activate.
In this adventure I have been given the opportunity to embark on, I am grateful to have the time and attention it takes to make changes. What I do have is a wealth of time and time is a form of wealth. You can’t enjoy what you don’t appreciate, so I am learning to appreciate it and spend it well. In fact, I would say one of my favorite luxuries is having enough time for something. I love to not be in a hurry. I have time to deep water my plants, or to get ready to go somewhere, or to finally write that card or letter I have been meaning to. Time to hem a dress by hand and enjoy the making of small even stitches. Making a meal and enjoying the green sleek beauty of a zucchini and the rhythm of chopping. Time to do things slowly and deliberately and with some flair.
Right now I see this learning to be more frugal, to simplify my life as part of my total plan. An equally important part is, of course job hunting and writing cover letters and resumes and sending them into cyberspace. At first I felt totally overwhelm by this, but I had the time to tackle it and practice until I got better at it. Once sent however, the results are out of my control, much the same way the seasons are.
Speaking of seasons, I am very grateful for this season of summer while my cash flow is firmly entrenched in a season of winter. The suns heat and light are saving me money and supplying me with simple pleasures. Not to mention growing the vegetables I will be harvesting not too long from now, and the flowers that are another source of free delight. I dried my hair in the morning sun today instead of using my hair dryer. I have been using a clothes line instead of my dryer and delight in the smell of line dried clothes. The towels are not as soft, but I see it as a good invigorating rub using them. I am teaching myself to get used to natural light. I find myself automatically turning on lights even during the day, I am so accustom to bright light when I am doing things. I go into a brighter room to read something that requires better light.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the freedom of choice that comes with modern conveniences and I don’t want to go back to the time before we had them. But I don’t want to misuse them, or overly use them, when we are in this economic season of drought for so many. I want to use this time to remember what abundance really is, not what the efforts of advertising and media try and manipulate us to think it is.


The other side of gifting…

Reflections on the other side of a gift oriented economy…..Accepting gifts. It didn’t occur to me when I investigated the concept of gift economies, or alternative economies, through the gifting circle and my involvement with the SGVC yahoo group, that there would be another side to it. It became apparent to me as I went about ‘collecting’ my gifts. Aside from the advice I got at the gift circle itself, I went to collect my first tangible ‘gift’ yesterday afternoon. I was being gifted a Reiki session by the soft-spoken young man who ran the most recent gift circle. I met him at the storefront building they use for the gift circle meetings late in the afternoon. We were the only ones there and it was quiet except for the background hum of sounds from the street. Here was someone I had only met once, albeit with like-minded people, who was giving me his time and skill with Reiki. I was not giving him anything in return. This was not a trade or barter. It was a gift, with no string attached. To my surprise, I noticed I felt a little guilty. I began to reflect on the cultural attitudes surely embedded in me about ‘getting something for nothing, getting something for free.’ Even when we don’t agree with those attitudes, or think we have rejected them, they often show up in us as surely as a suntan, or sunburn, shows up from being exposed to the sun. I grew up exposed to my own culture. To deny its effects on me would be to delegate them to my shadow. This wasn’t a situation where a friend or family member gave me a gift with all of the cultural sanctions and precedents that exist around that. This was different. When I reflected on it further, I asked myself, well what attitude is usually behind ‘getting something for nothing, getting something for free?” There is this sense that you have to trick someone into it, you have to beat or cheat the system; you have to put one over on someone. In short, there is something sneaky or manipulative about it. Maybe this is just a case of my being bad at receiving, but I am not sure about that. I realize in writing about this, that even using the word ‘collect’ holds the cultural residue of these attitudes. This does bring up the challenge that receiving poses to the damaged sense of self-worth most of us have. Most of us are self-worth challenged. The Dalailama even remarked on this when he first came to our country. At first he had trouble understanding our Western difficulty with self-esteem and self-worth. Is our ability to receive directly connected with what we think we deserve? Most people say so. What was my deserving capacity? Another way to look at it might be, “Do my feet, or my arms deserve to receive the nourishment from my blood?” Of course, they are part of my body! So, maybe I deserve to receive because I am part of the body of Consciousness. The more I cultivate an experience of this, the more my capacity to receive expands. This is a shift that may need to happen in all those contemplating and entertaining the notion of a this very different kind of economy. I started to image how I would say ‘thank you’ when the session was over; as if gratitude was some kind of exchange currency, and I needed to make sure I paid enough. I had to express my gratitude adequately. Combine that with the tinge of guilt I was feeling and you have a scene of me prostrating myself as I crawled out the door backwards, with over-the-top declarations of gratitude for a good half hour. Don’t worry, I did not do this. The embedded attitude in this is: “I cannot receive something without giving something in return.” A kind of tit for tat on some cosmic level. Although I needed to remind myself that accepting a gift wholeheartedly and graciously was actually a gift to the person who gives it to you. Heck, gift givers need receivers, or the system falls apart! What helped me to be able to do this was to rest in the knowing that we are all connected, we are all aspects of the One, or whatever you want to call it. Our gifts to each other are like the gift of oxygen our lungs give to our red blood cells, and our red blood cells bring to the rest of our cells. It is for the health of the whole organism. After my Reiki session I decided that the best way to acknowledge this was to dedicate this gift of healing to the benefit of all beings. Obviously this included him and myself. I wished aloud that all his needs be met and that he receive many wonderful gifts. It took 2 minutes and it felt complete. After the session I delivered a gift. I dropped off a loaf of my special curry, coconut, cranberry, nut bread to someone who accepted my offer of it at the last gift circle. My husband taught me how to make it and it is very yummy. I certainly didn’t want the person to feel guilty for getting it, or to think they owed me anything. They  accepted it very graciously and simply. It was a good lesson to be on both sides of the process in one day. I received another gift later that evening, a tarot reading. It was something I would have easily paid $100, if I had the money, it was so professional and helpful. So all in all, it was a day filled was wonderful gifts. The tangible gifts were wonderful, and the insights about what it takes to fully receive were an additional gift.

On aiming….

Hello day. I haven’t thought of greeting the day lately in a formal way for a long time. How will we dance together today? I could dedicate it to service, to the benefit of all beings. I could vow to surrender to a more encompassing will than my own egoic will. Sounds like a good idea. I guess that means that I have to have a period of just listening, rather than trying to figure out what I should do. It reminds me of something someone said at an Alanon meeting recently. He said, that instead of following the sane and logical sequence of, “ready, aim, fire,” he often got the sequence backward and it often went something like, “ready, fire, aim!” The listening seems like an important part of aiming. What am I aiming for? What is my aim today? Who am I in partnership with? I want to jump to “fire!” I think I also mistake generalized anxiety for readiness. It certainly is eagerness. I want to do something. I want to “fire,” that is, jump into activity to alleviate my anxiety, even if it only gives the illusion of addressing the problem. Getting busy can give the illusion of control and progress. So, I guess that means taking out the time to sit on my meditation cushion. I have gotten away from it in the past few months. I have been counting as a form of meditation the times I just lay in bed and let myself drift, not in sleepiness, but in switching myself, and my brain especially, into neutral and just observing my own processes; mental, physical, and emotional. I think those times are good, but I also think it would be good to get back to something more formal. It is funny and strange how I will use little things to block myself from doing something. I ran out of tea candles and I usually light one when I meditate. I have hesitated buying more because of my current financial situation. The silly thing is that it has put me off from sitting, which is totally ridiculous when you think about it. I have other candles, and I just have to get a different type of candleholder and set it up. Lots of them in fact. And who says you have to have a candle to meditate anyway?
I got into the kitchen drawer where I keep my stash of taper candles and actually found a minimally used tea candle. Then I got inspired to clear off my altar, clean it with a sponge, and set it up afresh. I set my special beeping meditation timer and sat my butt down. Wow, was my mind busy with figuring out what to do next, and I am talking about DO in capital letters. I noticed my attitude was to tolerate this inactivity, so I could get it done, and onto the next thing. I had ideas for the new cards I would make, who I needed to call, etc. Now it may be appropriate to do these things at some point but not now. Now they were just noise in my head. I was able to bring myself back to right now, just sitting, noticing my body; noticing what my senses were experiencing. The bird song outside, the satisfying swell of my diaphragm as my breath deepened, the alignment of my spine as I sat, the anxiety in my stomach, the smell of the lavender oil in my infuser. Then my mind would drift back into the whirlwind of planning, until I noticed and brought it back. When the timer went off, I wasn’t quite ready to blow out the candle and these words arose, so I said them softly aloud. “I dedicate this day to the benefit of all being, to the benefit of US. May I do my part, knowing I am an aspect of the Whole.”

Gift Circles

A number of things came together that got me to attend an evening gathering of the Fairfax Gift Circle. I had noticed emails about them for months and although I felt curious, I didn’t feel any compelling drive to go. Maybe because I used to work evenings, and I have been jealously guarding my evening since being laid off last December. As my unemployment wears on and my financial situation continues to wear me down, I have become more and more interested in alternative ways to get my needs met. The usual system of working for money and then paying for what I need, be it services or goods, is a less and less viable avenue for me. This is true for increasing numbers of people in the current economic climate.

I have always been a fan of garage sales, thrift stores, and the like. They have helped me to stretch my dollars and I like the adrenaline rush of a good find at a good bargain. Now I have fewer and fewer dollars to stretch. My response has been to get into my best Pollyanna cheer-leader outfit and make a list of ways to make this whole thing an adventure. To this end I turned my backyard, front yard, and side yard into a vegetable garden, put up a clothes line, traded volunteer work for classes I wanted to take, and I am practicing consumer abstinence, to name a few.

I also began to look closer at posts from a certain Yahoo group called the San Geronimo Valley Community Group, or SGVC. According to the moderator, it is a mini local, Craig’s list. Using their site over the last year or so, I have borrowed a portable crib for when my daughter came to visit from Germany, loaned some gloves out to someone to complete a costume they were putting together for a parade, gave away a bassinette, and got a free Ikea highchair when my daughter and her family moved back from Germany. As my financial situation has become more challenging, I have found myself eagerly looking for posts from the SGVC. I have had several things in mind that I wanted and knew I wasn’t going to get them at Best Buy or Target. One thing was a bike, a sewing machine for one of my daughters, and a computer, either a laptop or desktop.

I hit the jackpot over the 4th of July weekend. Posted on the SGVC was a yard sale that day and the next. They were selling a bike for $15 and a sewing machine for $25. Even those amounts were outside my budget, but since it was only a block away, I decided to look anyway. It turned out that she was more interested in these things finding a good home, than making money. The bike had dust ground into its gears at Burning Man, so it ultimate condition was sketchy. She gave me the bike and I bought the sewing machine for my daughter. When I went back to get the sewing machine, I noticed she also had a desk top computer. When I asked her nervously how much, she just gave it to me. It works. I am in heaven.

I was high as a kite. I felt I had won the yard sale lottery! Still intoxicated on these successes, when I saw the notice again for a gift circle, I decided to go. I would write about the experience. Hell, I am not finding any work in my field, why not play around a little with other interests I have? I had heard the notion of gift economies before and had a vague idea that they were based on, well, giving. But I didn’t really understand quite how they worked.

Here is a definition of a gift economy from Nation Master Encyclopedia.

A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future quid pro quo. Typically, a gift economy occurs in a culture or subculture that emphasizes social or intangible rewards for generosity: karma, honor, loyalty or other forms of gratitude. In some cases, simultaneous or recurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within a community. This can be considered a form of reciprocal altruism. Sometimes there is an implicit expectation of the return of comparable goods or services, political support, or the gift being later passed on to a third party. However, in what is considered to be in the true spirit of gift economics, many times giving is done without any expectation of reciprocity. Some examples would be:

  • Sharing of food in a hunter-gatherer society, where sharing is a safeguard against failure of any individual’s daily foraging.
  • The Pacific Northwest Native American potlatch ritual, where leaders give away large amounts of goods to their followers, strengthening group relations. By sacrificing accumulated wealth, a leader gained a position of honor.
  • Southeast Asia Theravada Buddhist Feasts of Merit, so similar to above that the About paragraph could apply; except that such feasts involve many sponsors of all types, and continue to this day mainly before and after Rainy Seasons rather than chiefly in winter.[1]
  • Offerings to a deity, spirit, intercessionary saint or similar entities.
  • A “favor network” within a company.
  • A family, in which each generation pays for the education of the next: this is an example where the gift creates an implicit obligation to give a gift to a third party, rather than to the giver.
  • Religious tithing.
  • Charitable giving or philanthropy.
  • Open source development and other forms of commons-based peer production.

A gift economy is sometimes referred to as a “sharing economy,” although many economists reserve the term “sharing” for the use of a single resource by more than one consumer, such as a common, a public library, or a shared car. It is also sometimes referred to as a “gift culture.”

Some have suggested that variations on a gift economy may be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.

This research was done after the fact, so I went without any preconceived notions of what to expect. I arrived around 7pm, when the gift circle was supposed to begin and the optional dinner was supposed to be winding down. But we were on Fairfax time and dinner was just starting. The meeting was being held in a downtown storefront, the site of other alternative ventures in recent years. It looked more like a living room than a store front, without the couches and chairs. Ten to twelve blue back-jacks formed a circle on the Persian rug doubling as a picnic blanket. It turned out that people took turns cooking and this week the designated cooks brought zucchini soup with curry, salad, and un-yeasted spelt bread. I had already eaten. People were expected to donate for the meal, $3-5. Someone offered to pay for my meal, but I came full, so passed on the offer, but felt the spirit of generosity in that moment and a slight pang of embarrassment that I ate before because I was trying to save money. There was a mix of ages, but mostly twenty/thirty some things. I and another gentleman across from me, with long gray hair, even longer than my own, were the elders of the group, and another older man came in after the meal looking like he might have come from a corporate meeting. I half expecting that everyone would be second and third generation hippies that Fairfax is famous for. One young man, with his short hair, sturdy body size, and baseball cap on straight and not sideways, looked downright Middle America. I found this encouraging and when he opened his mouth, his gentle manner was heartwarming.

After going around with names and our favorite person in history, we did a whirlwind meditation and were instructed to open our heart chakras, and think of a need or two and what gift we had to offer this evening. I would have liked to slow down the meditation process, but I loved whom our imaginations brought into the room. It was the likes of Beethoven, Jesus, Einstein, Mother Theresa, Merlin, Cleopatra, Dalai Lama, and others. Merlin was my favorite person. Then we started the process of going around and saying our needs and gifts. The gentle young man with the baseball cap needed someone to take over the room he had been renting. He had a lot of computer parts to gift to whom ever wanted some. The next man, thirty something, with medium length brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, expressed his difficulty with identify any needs, yet alone asking to have them met. He said he was basically self-sufficient.

This led to an interesting discussion on the taboo, especially for men, to express needs. One of the facilitators, Alpha, brought up the illusion of self-sufficiency that our economic system perpetuates. Just because you earn the money and buy something, does not make you self-sufficient, it just removes, or hides you from the reality of whom you rely on. I commented on how our consumer culture keeps us isolated and discourages community. These two factors make us better consumers, because we look to things to satisfy needs than cannot be met with things. Needs like relationship, community, being active and connected in the web of life. We can never get enough of what we don’t need, which is just fine with those who livelihood is solely based on consumerism.

Through this discussion he was able to locate and express a need; which was to have someone review a scholarly article he had written before sending it in for publication. I volunteered. So it went around the group. From a PhD assistant professor needing someone to review an article, to the woman next to him offering love potions (there were a few takers on that one). In this small group, most of the needs I expressed were met by someone in the group and some that I didn’t know I wanted. Like the tarot reading I am scheduling next week with the gentleman who came in wearing corporate clothes. Who woulda thought? On my list was; starting a compost pile, learning to change the oil in my car, and bodywork. I am going to visit the older gentleman for a lesson in composting and according to him, changing the oil in the kind of car I have is not practical unless I have my own car rack. I have only to schedule the bodywork.

It would have been helpful to have read the definition I looked up later because I realized I was a little confused about the process. Gifting doesn’t mean trading or bartering and I still had those concepts attached to it. I ended up offering more things than I really had time to do, thinking I was going to match up needs and gifts. In other words, if someone offered to meet a need I expressed, I thought I had to have something to offer in return. I offered general things, like sewing, knitting, and counseling. Someone took me up on sewing and I may end up making clothes for puppets, well, just to make clothes for puppets. Next week I think I will have the hang of it. What gifts can I offer this week purely as gifts, as give-a-ways?

I don’t know if this kind of thing is practical on a large scale, or at what size it breaks down, but right now it seems to be a manageable size. I do agree with the statement I read from the website: “Some have suggested that variations on a gift economy may be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.” I know it is helping to keep me out of poverty and it has the capacity to help many do the same. We can get blinded to the fact that our consumer system is only one of many economic models. During these challenging times, and perhaps as a way to keep us out of repeating the behaviors that got us into these challenging times in the first place, looking to other systems to replace or interface with, is vitally important. The SGVC is one example of a gift economy system; the type of gifting circle developed by Alpha and others at the Hub center in Fairfax is another.

They do more than help us navigate these times. They challenge us to change our basic attitudes about getting our needs met and living together in community. Can you image an economic system based on generosity rather than greed, or one based on faith rather than fear, and on creativity and abundance rather than scarcity? It is time to start imaging it, because imagination comes before creation. Imagine it is possible and then look for opportunities to create it, or join in where you recognize it happening.

This is what some of the folks from Tuesday night have done. Their gift circle is about 7-8 months old and they have been honing the form of it over time. After everyone expressed their needs and gifts, people reported on how the week had been in terms of the gift exchange and closed with expressing gratitude. It was a nice way to end the formal part of the evening. After there was an exchange of phone numbers and emails. If you would like to see a video of Alpha talking about gifting circles go to They have started another group in Berkeley.