$5,000 per week forever

The envelopes try so hard to look official they become comic, like a seven year old pretending to be a grownup. Faux identification numbers, computer bar codes, hastily “stamped” announcements, all designed to create a single emotion: anxiety. “Don’t be a loser!” the envelope screams, “we’re trying so hard to make you a winner!” I feel bad for ignoring all the effort someone put into this come-on, the way I do when someone I am not really interested in is interested in me. I open the envelope with a sense of empathy for this sender, who so badly wants to make me rich.

Once inside, I am confronted by a maze of actual stamps, “official” documents, detailed instructions on “how to claim my prize”. It’s a game! I lay all the pieces of the puzzle in front of me and begin. Let’s see, the early bird stamp goes here, the expedited prize stamp goes there – oh! and a stamp here is if I want to DOUBLE MY WINNINGS! YES! OH YES I WANT DOUBLE MY WINNINGS! But wait – more stamps, what are these for? Oh right. It’s a publishing house. They want me to order a year of Home & Garden. Absurdly, I actually pause to consider it. I don’t need magazines – but look, there’s other stuff I can order!

A quiet voice intervenes. “Ben, you are being duped.” But I’ve already stamped all the stamps, and I’m ready to seal the return envelope, except . . . I haven’t ordered anything. And they went to all this trouble. Bulbs. Flowering bulbs. They’re . . . organic and . . . natural . . . and you know, I’ll be outside planting them and they’ll make my house look nice so . . . bulbs. I’ll order some bulbs. And I do. You see, I really could use $5,000 per week forever. Publisher’s Clearinghouse 1. Ben 0.

The bulbs came a week ago and I realized I had no idea how to plant them. I knew dimly that they should be planted in the fall, then they sprout in the spring. I texted my ex-wife. “Look on the packages the bulbs came in” she advised, “everything you need to know is there.” And she’s right.

In the interim between signing up to DOUBLE MY WINNINGS and planting bulbs this morning, my life has been a rich brew, which took a very sour turn yesterday. Two blows landed in quick succession at work, one having to do with patron relations and the other with money. I spiraled downwards. Money, you see, is a trigger for me.

I have been amazed to notice the following in my life: I am a capable financial manager professionally, and a serial financial disaster personally. After years of beating myself up about it I have learned to keep it simple. I don’t make enough money to meet my obligations. So reduce your obligations, or raise your income, I hear you say. And of course you are correct, in the way that numbers and math are always irritatingly correct. That is the answer.

What the numbers have no interest in of course is the story. I always want to tell my story to the numbers, to negotiate, to sit down with the numbers over a coffee or tea and work something out. See, I’m a single dad and my kids are both going through some challenging stuff right now and so um I really need to be present in their lives as much as I can and you know getting a second job (and I had a second job earlier this year which I I had to quit because it made my schedule too nuts, and it’s already nuts even WITHOUT the second job so don’t think I’m lazy I mean I gave it shot but then my daughter started having the panic attacks and I knew what my priorities had to be) just isn’t in the cards right now, and anyway I am ON FIRE about my full time job which is building an innovative artistic nonprofit dedicated to transforming people’s lives through performance creative by nurturing the citizen artist who uses his/her gifts in service to communities, and the work has been growing which is cool and I just became the Artistic Director of the improv ensemble at the center of my organization so there’s a lot going on and a second job would really diminish my ability to work at my full potential and lowering my obligations? Yes I could tell my kids we have to go without cellphones and cable, which are really the only two “discretionary” expenses which would bring things into balance by cutting them so, no, I’m not willing to do that because if you live in the 21st century and you have teenagers you know those two things are not “discretionary”, and yes, I am trying to refinance my mortgage, a seemingly endless process, I’m now onto my second broker because the first one got torpedoed by a shitty appraisal and the debt-to-income ratio is a problem, but I’m hoping that once that comes through if it comes through it will lower my monthly expenses by about $200. But even then I will still be short. Ha, ha, if you know me you’ll know there’s a self-depreciating joke there. Self-depreciating. That’s what this journey with money is. Self-depreciating. Get it?

I stare across the table at Mr. Numbers and Ms. Math and they have horrible, dead smiles on their faces. “You need to lower your obligations,” says Mr. Numbers,  “Or raise your income,” chirps Ms. Math cheerfully.

So my sweet little nonprofit took it in the teeth yesterday, and we’ll get through it, but since money is a trigger for me, today I had to drop everything. I got the kids off to school and then lay down on the brown couch and turned on CNN real low and drifted in and out of a sad, depressive sleep. Then I got sick of myself and thought – bulbs! I’ll plant the fucking bulbs!

Outside on an unusually warm November day, I worked up a sweat and it felt good to be in the dirt doing something that had a beginning, middle, and end. Something that at the of it would allow me to say with integrity – I did that. I planted those fucking bulbs. So I planted three rows each in the remains of the two raised beds my ex had put in. I contemplated the end of a marriage, what I would do with $5,000 per week forever, and where all the damn rocks were coming from. And faith. I contemplated faith.

Faith is hard dirty work.

Consider the bulb. You put it in the ground right before things get real cold and hard, seasonally speaking. The bulb is neither dead nor alive – it’s in some weird in-between place. It is a silent prayer, and you put it in the ground with the faith that when you have passed through the cold darkness, it will somehow know when the earth is tilting back towards the sun, and in an act of epic victory it will break through the ground, reach for the sun and show you its flower next spring.

Faith has to bear “why bother?” Faith has to bear the mockery of rationality, of convention, of the ordinary. Faith looks and sounds crazy to the ordinary, and the faithful are frequently outcasts and eccentrics in a world devoted to conformity and data. Faith admits mystery, and lives in the same corner as the underdog and the prophet.

But if you let faith in, she stays. She is as stubborn as the green shoot in April, and once planted in you, she settles in to your own dark corner with you, and you and she can say the silent prayer together.

The envelope was made by no person – it was made by an immense machine. A machine that runs on the fuel drawn from the sea of American financial anxiety, and there am I, treading water with the rest of you, hoping I don’t expire too soon. The bulb was made by no machine. And by no person neither. The bulb was made by _______ . But the envelope brought me the bulb. And all that means to me is that ________ is leading me away from dead things, and towards what has heart and meaning.