The first real story I ever wrote, in seventh grade, was about a princess who falls “madly, deeply in love”—not with one of the rich and charming men her wealthy father, the king, has picked out for her, but with a “lowly” gardener. The king, angry at his daughter’s rebellion, orders the lover to be executed by drowning. The sentence is carried out. And the princess’s response is to row out alone in her little boat, lower herself over the edge, and kill herself.
I called it “And Then—Darkness.”
Before earning my first dime, I’d rejected wealth. Before my first kiss, I’d rejected the possibility of a romantic peer. Already, I’d decided not to accept largesse on the world’s terms. Already, I “knew” the world would snatch from me what I’d worked hard for. Because of my terrible (and, given my childhood, not entirely unfounded) fear of rejection and abandonment (crossed with grandiosity, self-righteousness, and a host of other unsavory traits), already I’d developed a life strategy that, unbeknownst to me, was based on a lie; on a form of dishonesty with myself.
The lie was about the extent and the nature of my desire.
Here’s how, in my working life, that panned out for me.
I left my job as an attorney in 1994. Still married, I’d squirreled away a couple of IRAs of about four grand apiece and a “nest egg” of twenty-eight grand that I put in a couple of mutual funds recommended by my (now late) father. For years, I would believe that money “enabled” me to write. I would believe that money was my hedge against working at another job that killed my soul.
Almost immediately I found freelance work, writing legal motions and briefs that paid first seventy-five bucks, and eventually ninety bucks, an hour. I worked only enough to pay my expenses, which at the time were minimal. My husband and I split the $700 monthly rent; I owned my car (a paint-peeling gray Mazda).
In 2003 I sold my first book for a $40,000 advance, and decided I didn’t need to work freelance any more. I sold my second book in 2006 ($110,000), and my third book in 2009 (thanks, economic meltdown: $7,500).
Averaged out over the twelve years it took to write and publish those books, and minus the 15 percent agent’s fee, that’s $11,156 bucks a year. I made money other ways—selling essays, giving talks—but that whole time I was making and/or living on probably $20,000 a year. (According to a report by the California Budget Project, as of 2007 a single adult in Los Angeles needed to make $28,126 a year to live “modestly”). I also got divorced during that time, which meant that I lost the health insurance I’d had through my husband’s job and my expenses doubled. Every so often I’d dip into my nest egg, but for the most part, there it sat. It did grow (though the market crash of 2008 wiped out at least a third), but there it basically sat.
And there I sat, too, working my tail off, obsessing about money, and thinking, When am I going to be discovered? When is the windfall coming? I did everything I could to promote my work. I went on a tour for my first book. I put up a website. I joined Facebook. I made it a point of discipline, pride, and love to respond to every e-mail from a reader.
But paradoxically, because I had the nest egg to fall back on, I wasn’t particularly moved to earn; and because I was loath to spend any of my money, I might as well have had nothing.
Meanwhile, I steered social engagements toward coffee rather than lunch or dinner. I clothes-shopped at Goodwill. I had the same purse—a good purse, a $275 Donna Karan purse—but still, the same purse I’d bought fifteen years before while I was lawyering. I drove across country, twice, staying at Motel 6s, friends’ houses, and monasteries. I like walking around abandoned railroad tracks, freeway underpasses, warehouses, and vacant lots, I kept telling myself. I like the edges of things, the fringes, the high lonesome highway, the blue trail of sorrow. I’m feeding my work.
All that was true, in its way, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I was following my dream, to be sure, but over the years I also subconsciously adapted my dream to fit my fears around money. I eventually moved up from the Mazda (to a ’96 Celica convertible). I eventually moved from ghetto Koreatown to a wing in someone else’s huge beautiful house in Silver Lake (a hipster neighborhood in LA) that could have graced the cover of Dwell.
I’d developed a disciplined and authentic spiritual practice. I’d evolved to the point where, in my better moments, I wanted to be of service and to give of my gifts. I just couldn’t believe that I was also “allowed” to make money.
St. Paul observed that love of money—note: not money, but love of money—is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). We tend to think “You cannot serve both God and mammon” means that we’ll love money and hate God but it’s just as bad to love God and hate money. If you hate something, you fear it. You don’t want to look at it, you purport not to care what it’s doing. And yet you’re obsessed with it. You won’t look it in the face, but you’ll watch it like a hawk.
My spiritual bottom around money didn’t consist in not being able to pay my creditors—I didn’t have any creditors. My bottom wasn’t realizing I lived in squalor; I lived in relative splendor. My bottom was realizing that something was fundamentally wrong, for a person who had graduated from law school with honors and passed three state bars; who could write, edit, speak, and teach; who was hard-working, well-organized, conscientious, and energetic, in seeing $900 as a livable monthly wage.
My bottom came in acknowledging that the way I lived invited me to be “brave” in some ways that were foolhardy, and in other ways not to be brave at all. My primary goal had become not to give all of my gifts but rather to conserve all of my money. My “living on the edge” was really living in the wrong kind of comfort, and the spiritual life calls us always out of our comfort zones.
What did I really want? I wanted to have faith in God—not in my nest egg. What did I really want? I wanted to be able to earn freely and spend freely. What did I really want? I wanted to stop giving money the wrong kind of attention.
When we start paying the right kind of attention, our strategies around money can yield startling discoveries.
The following is an excerpt from Loaded: Money and the Spirituality of Enough, published by Franciscan Media.