Raining, Reading, and Rambling

Something about a rainy Sunday gives me the permission I need to do the most indulgent of things: wake up and start reading without even getting out of bed. I’m quite happy to say that here have been a lot of rainy Sundays lately.

To that end, I just finished a memoir called Educated, by Tara Westover. It’s been on a lot of reading lists, and as far as I can tell from the length of the waiting list at the library, on a lot of people’s nightstands.

It’s a really good book, but it’s not about money so much as it’s about freedom. I’m not gonna recreate the wheel when reviews are available here and here and here, but this is the short version: Westover grew up in a Christian fundamentalist, survivalist family that eschews education and believes women are intended to serve and obey men, full stop. Later, she triumphed over these conditions and some severe abuse to get her PhD and her own damn life. It’s a story about the impact of trauma, the question of what we owe to our families (or don’t), about memory, and about the imperfection of the healing process. I highly recommend you read it.

The book is making a cameo in this blog because one night when I was guilt reading at 2am despite having to work the next day I came across the following passage:

“I had a thousand dollars in my bank account. It felt strange just to think about that, let alone say it. A thousand dollars. Extra. That I did not immediately need. It took weeks for me to comes to terms with this fact, but as I did, I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.”

For some context, Tara was enrolled in school but had no support from her family, who considered education a tool of the devil, and she had received a grant to help her with some health needs. She went on to say:

“My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens. My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.”

Even though this was the very beginning of a new chapter, I wound up just turning of my book lamp and thinking about not thinking about money.

I know the feeling of not being able to be present because of various instabilities, financial and otherwise, in my own life. While nothing like Tara’s situation, I went to college as a nontraditional student, not just age wise, but in that I had escaped some pretty traumatic and oppressive circumstances and made a complete 180 into completely unknown territory in order to pursue an education. I also did it while wholly unsure I’d be able to support myself, because I was so afraid not to, which is another story.

I’d also done it by the seat of my pants. I only had a plan that lasted about a month or maybe a semester at a time, at best, and in other aspects I was literally taking it a day at a time. I lived just a little better than paycheck to paycheck, and even more stressfully, I found myself at the mercy of a steely and unkind bureaucracy that dangled the carrot of a scholarship just past the stick of not being able to pay rent on time if I didn’t work so much, which would likely preclude my ability to excel enough to get the scholarship. It’s an unkind system that I am still perversely grateful for, especially in the absence of another, better one.

To make a long story short, I’m done with school and out of that place of terror, but the feelings Tara described still terrify me. Poverty is traumatic and haunting. According to a lot of research it also leaves a permanent imprint on your brain, and if you are a child, can affect your ability to learn, which is a real kick in the ass since your ability to learn is a pretty strong determinant of your ability to get out of poverty.

Poverty, in my experience, also sticks with you in ways it’s difficult to understand if you haven’t been there.

I am going on my third year of the FI-way. A combination of hard work, privilege, and dumb luck have found me in a position where I own a home (or at least rent it from a bank with better terms than from a landlord). I have a retirement account, two even! I have fantastic health insurance. I don’t live paycheck to paycheck. I save almost 50% of my income. If I say no to something because it costs a lot of money it’s because that’s my choice, in alignment with my values and principles and long term goals, and not because I have to say no or I’ll go without eating. I’m not paying the poor tax anymore. I still have student loans and a mortgage but I have no consumer or other debt. I have money to invest in myself and to take risks.

But, I still am not sure I’ve developed the ability to think of things besides money.

Like I keep saying, part of this is because of the trauma of being poor. Being poor wrests control over a lot of parts of life from you. It means that even relatively small unexpected circumstances, anything from a sprained ankle to a parking ticket, for instance, can impact your ability to take care of yourself properly. It means that bigger unexpected things, like a car repair or a break up, can completely derail your life. It also means that there is a significant chance that the small will become large, as the poor tax tends to lend itself very easily to a domino effect of devastation.

Like I said, I don’t have to worry about this much right now.

But I do.

Living through a lot of uncertainty, particularly as a child, instills in a person a belief that life is mainly predicated on things that cannot be controlled. It makes you feel like you can do everything right, but still someone can come along and pull the rug out from underneath you. It can make you lack confidence in your own abilities, in part because circumstances largely outside your control trumped your abilities when it came to determining your life chances in your formative years. It can also make you always feel preoccupied with waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Now that I have some of the basic freedoms I was looking for when I started pursuing financial independence, I have a little more time to focus on other freedoms that I want to know. Reading that passage from Educated made me painfully aware that although I’ve made so much progress in so many ways, I have to challenge myself to acknowledge that progress and spend more time nurturing my wins instead of fearing potential losses.

Here’s to a rainy Sunday and a new commitment to finding a balance between pursuing FI/RE and seeing what it is I’ll think about when I’m not thinking about money.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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