Still Waters

St. Paul was a New Yorker. People from New York are recognizeable by their svelte builds, the glow of 14 karat cultural immersion, and the easy eyes that own everything and are never impressed.  Two thousand years ago, you see, Rome was New York.  Now it is a tourist trap.  That might give New York a little humility, although with humility, New York would not be itself.

I don’t know how to describe Kansas City. I’ve lived here most of my life, so I can’t really see it clearly.  I try a few comparisons: it’s Detroit without Motown.  It’s Chicago with way less money, many fewer people, and better weather.  It’s Minneapolis without famous writers.  It’s Omaha, with more grit and slobber.  It’s home, which is always and never enough.

I have described Kansas City as a “backwater,” which isn’t necessarily an insult.  You won’t be swept away here.  Your talent might go unexpressed, unfired, or unappreciated, but you won’t be worn down by the current.  You won’t be tossed aside.  There isn’t that much force in the life here.  You can soak peacefully.

The things I do love in Kansas City are the western city things: the space and the broken and abandoned spaces in the city, the way people put things together and share.  What I love is that there is a rebellion to creating culture in a place where people don’t look for culture.  We make things for ourselves and for their own sake.  If your ambition was to set the world on fire, you wouldn’t be here.  But who needs the world?  What does that mean, anyway?  How dare other people define “the world” for us?

Other people are out front of us.  The coasts are trying things out, so that we don’t have to.  They make the bigger mistakes.  They make themselves fools.  We wait things out.  They think bigger and wilder.  We think deeper and sleep more.  Some days I think that the fateful events that kept me a Kansas Citian all these years strangled my ambition and muffled my voice.  That I am one of the lost, small people that no one cares about, where nothing starts and nothing flames up.

Today is the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. The day they share, although they both have their own individual holidays as well.  Today is the day they stand together, two people who had little in common, and almost definitely did not get along.  It’s encouragement to everyone now who goes to church with people they have nothing in common with, and don’t like.

St. Peter was from a backwater, and probably remained a person who would be dismissed by New Yorkers. He did not know how to navigate Rome.  I love St. Paul because he is the Chrysler Building.  While I’ve always loved Paul more, mouthy, scholarly Paul, I am probably more like Peter: his serviceable boat, his insistence on circumcision, and my about-town Honda, my dismissal of skinny jeans.  That doesn’t mean some of us won’t make a splash.  Some of Peter’s friends became quite famous, considering how boring and lame as Galilee was.  You just never know.

Money (That’s What I Want)

There’s this scene called “Dad paying the bills” that we all know.  (Yours might be called “Mom,” or “Grandpa,” but it’s quite similar.)  In this scene, you have a note from your teacher at school that explains how you have screwed up, and Mom tells you, “Oh, not now.  Dad’s paying the bills.”  What does this mean?  Dad is sitting at a desk he doesn’t normally sit at, and there are papers spread around.  My scene has a buzzing and spitting adding machine.  Should you interrupt Dad with your note from Teacher? Dad grumbles.  Dad sighs.  What is wrong with Dad?

Now I am my own Dad, so to speak, and I’m amazed by how nervous and ashamed I can feel about paying bills.  Especially in the last year or so, I read stories about people losing their jobs, eating through their savings, losing their houses, their health insurance, needing soup kitchen meals or utility assistance.  These scary stories make me more ashamed: how can I even stress about money when I am so comfortable, in comparison?

Shame isn’t like that, though.  Shame doesn’t listen to reason or gratitude.

Money is a great target for shame, especially for Americans.  In the U.S., capitalism and up-by-bootstraps mythology put money front and center in our idea of success.  You can be thrifty and “good with money,” or a bold investor, or a financial climber, or a dutiful saver.  I am sometimes thrifty, occasionally good with money, and pretty hopeless at the rest.

Paying bills is a great spiritual opportunity.  Great spiritual opportunities are things that terrify you, hurt like hell while they are happening, and then scar you in ways that might or might not be attractive.  I try to tell myself, before I go to pay the bills, that whatever happens at the desk, it is not a test of whether or not I am a good person.  Finally, I sort of go into a tape loop about what does make you a good person, which Christianity tells me is not the point, and Buddhism tells me is crazy.  (Hitler was good with money, right?)

I sat at the breakfast table today and looked at all the bills and fretted over some of them.  Barked at myself for how something had been handled.  Why had you not…?  Why did you…?  How did this…? My perfectionist voice says, If you were really good, you could save all your money and live like one of those air plants.  Why don’t we try eating ramen noodles for every meal?  We could pay off these student loans lickety-split!

You’re not supposed to talk about money, except to say that you have plenty, and that you manage it just fine.  I don’t usually explain that I’m not going out, or ordering a glass of wine, because my monthly fun-money allowance is spent.  You’re not supposed to talk about that.

I read a piece of Pema Chodron’s before I got the checkbook.  The gist of it was: be honest and non-judgmental.  Be honest about your money and what you really do with it (or don’t), and being non-judgmental with yourself (so that’s what I did, huh).  It’s a tall order.  I’m going to practice it, again, possibly after my next paycheck, or whenever I get around to it.