I was innocently standing at the foot of my hill by the mailbox, flipping through the envelopes, about eight years ago. And there, smack in the middle of the mail, was one from Bank of America, with the word 'statement.' I glared at it.
And heard myself say aloud, snarlingly, "Goddammit! I thought I was done with you!"
I took the Bank of America envelope home and put it on the marble-topped credenza in the living room. I continued to glare at it each time I passed by.
I didn't open it for at least ten days.
life and debt
Here's why I was so freaked out.
Five years before that envelope arrived (that is, some thirteen years ago as I write this), I bit one of the great American bullets: I got out of credit card debt, including some with Bank of America. With the help of Consumer Credit Counseling Services (CCCS) I paid off $32,000 worth of unsecured debt in five years.
So. I thought I was done and then --- that envelope.
Now here's the interesting thing. My reaction to the envelope was not rational. I had paid off my debts. CCCS had confirmed it by phone, mail and email. The B of A card had long since been cut up; I had not used it in years.
But did it dawn on me, as it should have logically, that this envelope could not possibly contain anything scary? Or that Bank of America might have made a mistake?
No. It did not dawn on me.
Here's where I went instead: why on earth is Bank of America harassing me? (Victimhood.)
Did I do something wrong? (Guilt).
Uh-oh...this could be really bad. (Fear).
What have I overlooked? (Disgust at my own incompetence).
Do I owe some secret amount of money of which I am unaware and which is about to fall on me and ruin my life? (More fear).
How come I can never get this piece right, when so many other people can, and when I have it together in many other ways? (Bewilderment).
If all those people who look up to me for the ways I do have it together knew about this, they wouldn't be looking up to me... Heck, I don't look up to me." (Shame).
Will I never be free of this? (Hopelessness.)
CCCS is a terrific organization; I recommend them highly. If you have the kind of credit card debt that comes with stomach-roiling wake-up-terrified-at-3:00 a.m. panic, contact your local branch immediately. CCCS's counseling is practical, objective, quantifiable, and effective: CCCS negotiates, strategizes and works with large financial institutions, mediating on behalf of individuals like me.
But, as the previous litany of screwed-up illogical mental and emotional processes make clear, even when debt is paid, individuals like me still have work to do. And it's not work that CCCS can do.
I kept on not opening that freaking envelope. With every day that passed, I gave it greater power. It sat there on the credenza, giving me a jolt of adrenaline and cortisol whenever I passed.
Because I am a writer and a self-improvement junkie, part of me observed these unpleasant contortions, which also fueled my determination to make an inner and outer life where this would no longer happen.
That's what this story is about: story itself, and money-fear, money-anxiety, money-terror, money-shame, and refusing to open the envelope.
Until you do.
the envelope please
I'm talking, of course, about not only the literal envelope, but the metaphorical one. The one which contains whatever we refuse to look at until not looking becomes more unbearable than looking.
Although one could extrapolate this to countless other areas of life in which we carry envelopes we refuse to open, my main one is of course, finances, and numbers themselves (I was finally officially diagnosed, at age 56, with a learning disability called dyscalculia; my math comprehension stops halfway through fourth-grade level).
Until one is willing to open a metaphorical envelope and examine its contents, there's no shot at understanding, let alone changing, that contents. It's a variation of the New Age truisms: "If you can't feel it, you can't heal it," or "What we resist persists." Put differently, the unopened envelope relates to Jung's "shadow."
But if one is willing (not ready, please note, just willing; one often begins this work without feeling in the least ready) and one does open the envelope, one starts walking the road to fundamental alteration. It's the legendary single step, the one which begins the journey of a thousand miles. (And it may turn out, when you do actually open the envelope, that it wasn't a thousand miles after all, only ten).
This journey is from where one is (typically fear; actual or perceived insecurity, loss, shame, chaos, in my case around fiscal matters) to outer stability and inner equipoise and peace: slowly, tentatively, finding ways to behave differently. And concomitantly, to feel differently. And: to actually be different. In realms both outer/transactional, and interior/private.
In my case, the outer, transactional realm means understanding and living in traditional fiscal responsibility, harmoniously "meeting obligations", "living within my means"...it meant, for example, the work I did with CCCS. It means opening every literal envelope that pertains to finances. In the interior, private realms, it means gaining insight, looking at what's going on, opening the metaphorical envelope. Why? Because this, combined with the outer actions of the first, will create emotional, psychological, and spiritual clarity and freedom for me around fiscal matters, as I have done, methodically, with many other areas in my life.
This is my journey.
Now. I must emphasize here that this is not a triumphant before-and-after story. This is a before-and-during story. And it is probably one I will tell in several non-consecutive posts over time because I am still mid-process.
Let me tell you, then, what I learned when I did finally open that Bank of America envelope.
I had a zero balance.
I owed them nothing.
All of that fear and craziness --- that was not out there. It was a story I made up. It was in here (she said, tapping her head.)
the eggs - or lack thereof - in the freelancer's basket
I revisited this recently because, to be frank, I am currently going through a rough time financially. Though I have almost no unsecured debt, my cash flow is undergoing a drought equivalent to California's.
And two envelopes, one from American Express and one from Green Mountain Power, a utility company, lay on my desk unopened for two days. I did not have full-bore craziness as with the Bank of America letter, but there was a frisson. I took note.
Being a full-time freelance writer is challenging even at times of personal as well as general socioeconomic stability, and I did pretty well during those times. But these have not been stable times --- in general terms, not since 2008; in personal terms, well, I'm coming to that.
I sometimes liken freelancing to being a parent bird with a nest full of eggs.
A few of the eggs in a successful freelancer's nest have already hatched, so periodically s/he leaves the nest, locates some worms, and flies back to feed the baby birds (for me, already-published books, which I "feed" by reminding readers they are there, continuing to generate sales).
Most eggs in the nest, however, have not yet hatched. Each egg is vital, yet at a different stage of maturation. Some are lively, wobbling with what is about to happen --- a chick-to-be in there! Though exactly when that chick is going to peck its way out is unknown, and until it's out of the shell, it could always die (in this category would be, say, a completed manuscript that my agent likes but is just starting to submit).
On some of these unhatched eggs there's a vigorous tapping from within the shell, even a hairline fracture, though they're still egg, not baby bird (the contract for the book or magazine article is signed, but the check is not here yet and the company's bookkeeper is on vacation; 17 people have signed up for the workshop but the online seminar booking agency does not send out checks until the 15th).
And then there are eggs which do not yet exhibit so much as a tremble, yet which must be kept warm out of the freelancer's faith, belief, pigheadedness, dogged persistence...all without knowing whether or not they will ever hatch (the manuscript you are working on; the long-shot application for a gig you know thousands others are also applying for).
In case you were thinking of freelancing, in case it's not obvious: you've got to have dedication as well as a mighty big feather-covered ass, to cover that many eggs.
And that's leaving out the all-important eggs you haven't laid yet. Those eggs called 'ideas.'
All this requires being able to switch from right brain (writing) to left (keeping track of cash flow, deadlines, submissions). Thinking in multiple dimensions time- and schedule-wise. Being realistic, yet optimistic; being big-picture, yet compulsively detailed, not just day-to-day but hour to hour. Breaking big projects into daily increments, while staying fluid. Focusing (there may be many eggs, but you pay attention to them one at a time).
You have to be able to have a lot more going on, many more potential maybes, than will pan out.
The last time I figured out the ratio, decades ago, it was something like seven projects in play for each one that actually reached fruition.
You have to find a way to be okay with that. To calm yourself down enough in the face of the inherent insecurity and unknowability of freelancing, so that you can both create, and keep all those eggs warm.
Do all this, and, if what you're actually offering is good, and you get just a little bit of luck, you can be a successful freelancer.
It's insanely time-consuming and complex. It's edgy for income-generation (fortunate is the freelancer with family money or a well-off supportive spouse). As my late father, Maurice Zolotow, also a freelance writer, used to say of our profession, "It's a hard way to make an easy living." (And he lived and worked in the golden age of magazine article writing, in the 1940's and '50's, when he could spend a couple of months on an article and get paid five or six thousand dollars for it --- stories writers now routinely give away as online "content").
I used to say, "Yeah, I get to choose which 70 hours of the week I want to work... But I love what I do, so there isn't that much of a line between work and play for me."
This is what writer Dave Micho calls a two-handed truth: I'm always and never working.
Or at least, that's how it used to be, back before a series of situational wallops took from me two essence-y underlying pieces of successful freelancing --- time and focus --- and blew them all to hell.
welcome to chaos; we hope you'll stay awhile
My mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow, made the journey from old, to elderly, to very, very old, to death. I accompanied her up to that final border, spending an increasing amount of time with her, from 2010 through 2013.
The week she died, a pipe burst in my home in Vermont, shooting a geyser of hot water for about a week, and destroying a third of my house. Insurance did not begin to cover the cost of repairs.
Three months later, my partner of the previous decade, filmmaker David Koff, who had been battling with depression since 2011, hung himself.
I tell you categorically: no human being can contend with all this and simultaneously be in business as a successful freelance writer.
As I write these words, it is now fifteen months since the last of these three events, David's death, took place. In all, it's been five years since I was able to be fully engaged in my profession.
To which I am now returning.
I've had a year of assorting and readjusting (thanks to the life insurance David left me, on which I lived, and for which I am profoundly grateful, sorrowing ever at the circumstances under which he gave it to me; thanks also to the help of friends, my extraordinary family of choice).
The thought of re-entering my professional life fully, reinventing, re-imagining, writing, working, planning, repopulating the nest with eggs, fills me with joy. And terror. I am thrilled and I am panicked.
I am also nearly broke. Do I feel humiliation about this? You bet; though not nearly as much as I did when I tottered into the CCCS office thirteen years ago. For one thing, I am debt-free. Still, in addition to the urgent need for immediate strategic decision-making, there is shame. I'm 62! I should have it together by this time! And of course, fear: you're running on fumes, CD! You can count on part of one hand the money you have for mortgage payments.
Oh, yeah. That again.
As you might expect, given that three tectonic plates shifted, I am a different person than I was back when I was last a freelancer, with different interior terrain.
What you might not expect is that the exterior terrain is also different. I can't just go back to doing what I did, because the environment in which I did it is no more.
The publishing business I grew up in is gone. What remains is in the throes of reinvention; it's the Wild West, full of possibility, potential, somewhat lawless. The Internet, self-publishing, e-readers and amazon are just four of the factors that changed publishing, forever.
Ditto, the other world in which I swim professionally: education, personal development, workshop leading, public speaking. The seismic shifts there are not only Internet-related, but reflect the general economic climate. Budget cuts, income inequality. (When I spoke at a certain educational association twenty years ago, I got $4,000. Last year, I was offered the "opportunity" to speak, to that same group, "for the exposure," for free. Eventually, $250 was offered.)
As JFK pointed out, in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is made up of two characters, one showing danger, the other opportunity. I, and every other writer over the age of, say, 50 (with the exception of the Stephen Kings) must deal with that, or bow out. In Bob Dylan's startlingly prescient words:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
The other day, as I was working on a piece of the challenging, thrilling business of re-engaging with what I do and how I am going to do it, I had a moment of deja vu with the two envelopes on my desk, not yet opened. I figured the American Express was a please-pay-your-overdue-balance now note (though I was only a couple of days late, so this was puzzling). I figured the other was a plain old bill.
The minute I felt that frisson, you better believe I ripped into those two envelopes.
And here is what I found.
Green Mountain Power informed me I should not pay them this month; I had overpaid them last month.
And American Express informed me that, due to an error in their billing practices on their automatic travel insurance products, I might be eligible for a refund if I cared to request it.
Once again I had told myself an untrue story.
I shook my head. I laughed out loud. I don't exactly believe in "messages from the universe", but there are times when you almost have to. This was one of them.
Here is what I think: there's hope for me yet.
Here is what I think: the need to hear and tell stories is inherent in human beings, and there will always be a place for those of us who can do both, though the means and form by which we do this will change continuously, as they always have.
Here's what I think: fear, and overcoming it, are always part of the process. Of writing. Of loving. Of living. Of any endeavor worth undertaking.
Here's what I think: letters from financial institutions that say 'statement' are simply that. Statements. Neutral information.
Here's what I think: the growth edge is uncomfortable, but energetic, filled with creative tension and possibility, danger inseparable from opportunity. I am willing to reinvent what I do so that it is perfectly in tenor with the times and with those who want and need it. Willing to be a dark-horse candidate for later-life financial success and stability.
Despite, maybe because of, all the things that militate against it.
Here's what I think: I may be close to broke at this moment, but I am not broken. If the loss of my mother, my house, and my partner couldn't do it, well, hah! This is minor!
Here's what I think. I'm willing --- not ready, but willing --- to push every envelope of fear and limitation I've got.
And to do that, I've gotta open them.