Very Small Things

As the lesson said, “mustard seed,” I thought there must be smaller things than that, things so small that is the size of the faith that I have, like, perhaps a speck of dust.  Last night I was taking the train home and suddenly realized that I had no money, and would never have any money again.

Then I played this game I like, which is, I need something/what do you need?  Feeling poor (as opposed to actually being poor, which I am not) is about thinking there is something that would make you happy, you just can’t afford it.

This game worked well, as the 4 train stopped and went and stopped and went along back to Brooklyn.  I couldn’t figure out what I wanted that I couldn’t have it seemed like I actually had what I wanted.

I had spent the evening watching a documentary about the New York pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair.  Many people have tried to protect and preserve the flying saucers on sticks that sit in Queens, patiently rotting.

The documentary was shown at City Reliquary, a place that was on my list of spots to visit in the city.  When I walked in, a woman with nicely curled hair said, “Welcome, admission is free,” and I walked through a turnstile for no apparent reason but the love of turnstiles.

Among the incredibly adorable things they have are:

  • a dancing mannequin in tribute to Little Egypt, the famous burlesque dancer, and a (formerly) nearby theater founded by Fanny Brice
  • samples of soil from each of the five boroughs
  • a pretend wedding cake from a beloved Mexican bakery now out of business
  • rocks collected at Rockaway Beach
  • a listening station to hear “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins, surrounded by information about the Williamsburg Bridge, which inspired the piece
  • pieces of stone from famous building of New York: the Waldorf Astoria, the Guggenheim
  • a hammer labeled “very old hammer”

The hammer was my favorite.

Earlier in the week, I had been to the Met’s exhibit about Jerusalem.  (For the bargain price of $1.)  They had stained glass windows, marble carvings, gold trays, Bibles and prayer books and Korans, it was all beautifully done.  It didn’t move me nearly as much as the grubby City Reliquary, though.

They did have two manuscripts written in Maimonedes’s own hand, as the label said, and that blew my mind.  In one of them, he is raising money to ransom people who have been kidnapped.  In his own hand.

Six years ago, I went into a junk shop in Iowa City and found this little bronze Arab-looking guy sitting cross-legged, and I loved him, and bought him, and took him home, and then I figured out he was Maimonides.  Maimonides is a strange person for me to love, since he is most known for his interest in the law and science, two areas which aren’t exactly my greatest passions.

After church I took the train to coffee, and on the way, I, and many of my fellow New Yorkers, had to walk a million miles under the Fulton Street station because  not only is the 3 train not running today, the A and the C and the 1 are not running, either.

When I finally got on a train, there was this foursome standing next to me, four adults and a baby I was making eyes at, they were trying to figure out how to get to 96th Street, they had taken the train downtown to get uptown, which is the worst thing in the world except taking it from Brooklyn to Manhattan to get to Brooklyn again.  “The weekend train is so awful, especially today,” I said, and then I chatted with one of the ladies.  “You just gotta have patience, what else can you do?”

We chatted a while until the guy with her tried to interrupt, and she said, “Excuse me, I’m talking to this nice lady.”

Then I told her to have a nice afternoon, and I got off at 14th Street, and I felt like I had what I needed.

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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.

Render Unto Caesar

Last week’s gospel was: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s.  I was definitely having rendering problems.  Render, in case you weren’t sure, means “to give what is due or owed.”  I possessed, each week, seven days and do the math, you know, a lot of hours, and I somehow felt like I spent most of my week doing things I didn’t want to do.  Why was I giving my time to areas where it was not “due or owed”?

It’s a practical problem—I want to be a writer but lack the domestic freedom of the writers of yore.  I have dishes to do, and then a demanding full-time job.  It’s frequently a difficult decision to balance the need for an organized space and a the need for a chunk of time for Art. 

Sundays are my usual cleaning days, and when my cleaning is done, I get to have a cup of coffee and writing time.  Every week, I fight a little civil war over the hours between three and four. 

I’d like to get to coffee and have a solid hour and a half to settle in and write before church.  I’d also like to start my dizzying work week with a clean kitchen and bathroom and the trash taken out, my clothes hung up or thrown in the laundry, the catbox ready for a new week of shit—that’s an absolute minimum.  I don’t like to begin Monday feeling already deficient.

This last Sunday, I had left for coffee unshowered.  Showering was what would wait.  I know.  It’s ridiculous.  I either shortchange my cleaning and come home later deflated by lingering squalor, or I shortchange my writing time and have to zoom off to church annoyed, my head still in my notebook. For the record, I did bathe when I got home.  If any of you compulsively clean Americans are keeping score.

I also couldn’t render things yes or no according to any reasonable system.  When my dad said, I want you to come over and look at furniture on Sunday, I just should have said, no, hell to the no.  I’m not talking to anyone on Sunday.  I have spent the last two Sundays trying to act like a good girlfriend (which is a stretch for me, I assure you), and this Sunday, with boyfriend out of town, all I’m going to do is read and putter and stare and read and fall back asleep until I have to clean up.  I can’t be a good daughter or a good girlfriend or any other kind of good this Sunday.

So the message is you’re supposed to look at the thing in your hand, and say, Hey, it’s Caesar’s, and Hey, this is clearly God’s.  Except that deep down, everything is God’s, and also, if you took a minute to focus and clearly look for a face in any situation, you would probably know what to do.  Even worse, although I’m not sure I even want to go into this, the meaning of “render” that the translator may have had in mind—the one that jumped out at me– suggests that there are requirements, not merely hippie feel-good options, for how one should spend one’s time.  That it is owed to someone(s) and something(s).  And what happens if you don’t pay up what is owed?

I was not focusing and looking clearly at my situation.  I was fretting, and whining, but I was not looking.  I was spending my energy and money without even looking at what I was giving out.  Was it a fifty?  Was it a five?  And the uglier, more practical, and more scandalous truth was that I had been doing exactly the same thing with my literal money.  Since I moved last month, I have blindly thrown purchases on my debit card (verboten!), not filled out my monthly budget, left unpaid at least one bill, and cleverly avoided calling my bank.  I was also greedily avoiding making my usual donations because I worked so hard for poor kids, which only serves to make me feel like a dried-up monster.  I spent some time a few years ago getting sober with money, and here I was acting drunk again.  It was good that I was reading Eric Clapton’s autobiography.  I wish there was a Hazeldon Center for money.  Well, I guess there is… federal prison.

But this wasn’t my point.  My point was that I guess I hadn’t even learned much of a spiritual lesson, it was just that Jesus and his notetakers had pointed out to me that if you aren’t carefully considering what you are doing, you are likely to do a lot of things you don’t want to do.  That a little time up front making a reasonable plan could really pay off.  A reasonable plan could ensure that you won’t end up with a lot of Caesar receipts mixed in with your God receipts, and that you won’t end up in federal prison.