Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. (p 162)

desert20solitaireI very rarely review books here before I’ve finished them. A couple of years ago, I read a few novels and posted multi-day reviews of them, but in general, I make it a practice to read first, review later. This isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish because I derive an almost obscene pleasure out of completing tasks before the deadline. It satisfies a part of me that is just on the edge of obsessive compulsive to do so, and writing about Desert Solitaire before I’ve finished it has the opposite effect. I’m antsy, frustrated, distracted by the fact that I don’t have time to finish one item on my agenda before moving on to the next.

Occasionally when this happens, I choose to post about a poem. However, given that I’m neck deep in edits for my own novel, as well as editing a resource book for Pilgrim Press that has seventy contributors, I foresee a few poem Thursdays on the horizon strictly by necessity, and I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to talk about this glorious book. Written in the sixties, Abbey spent a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah, and this is his luxurious memoir about those months.

I visited Arches with my husband a year and a half ago, and when I heard about this book over Christmas break, I asked for a copy from my father-in-law (my Southwest wilderness expert). He obliged, and then life got busy, and I forgot all about it until I was back east in March and saw that my brother also owned the book. I borrowed his, brought it all the way home, and then remembered I had the book on my kindle, which is where I’ve been reading it every night as I wait for my son to fall asleep.

Once inside the trailer my senses adjust to the new situation and soon enough, writing the letter, I lose awareness of the lights and the whine of the motor. But I have cut myself off completely from the greater world which surrounds the man-made shell. The desert and the night are pushed back—I can no longer participate in them or observe; I have exchanged a great and unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one. By choice, certainly; the exchange is temporarily convenient and can be reversed whenever I wish.

Finishing the letter I go outside and close the switch on the generator. The light bulbs dim and disappear, the furious gnashing of pistons whimpers to a halt. Standing by the inert and helpless engine, I hear its last vibrations die like ripples on a pool somewhere far out on the tranquil sea of desert, somewhere beyond Delicate Arch, beyond the Yellow Cat badlands, beyond the shadow line.

I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. (p 16)

Having grown up in the northeast, I was completely unprepared for how much I would love the west, the southwest, the northeast. Friends are always asking when I’ll move “home” to the quaint steepled towns of New England, and although a part of me will always treasure the years I spent exploring streams that flowed beneath covered bridges and forests broken up by old stone walls, my heart found its home under the huge wild skies of California and Colorado and Oregon. The canyon lands of Utah, the sacred responsibility that comes of making camp deep in the Grand Canyon, the rivers and rapids and stone of our country’s backyard – those are the haunts that beckon to me now.

Reading Abbey’s book – its blend of journal and myth – reminds me of how alive I feel just knowing that a place like Arches exists. His opinions and mine don’t always overlap, but it is a privilege to see the land through his eyes. I cannot rush through his journey any more than he could slow or speed up time that year, and I wouldn’t want to. Half a chapter at a time is as sweet to savor as water in his desert. I only hope I can make it last until my own thirst for the out of doors can be quenched with a beautiful adventure.

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless. (p 158)

 

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson

And then, at four a.m. I decided that the only thing that would cure my insomnia/ anxiety would be a long walk. In the snow. I pulled a coat on over my nightgown, slipped on my flats, and went downstairs. My foot was killing me as I tiptoed outside, nodding quietly to the confused man at the night desk, who looked puzzled to see me leave in my pajamas. Then I walked out into a New York night, which was muffled by snow, a thick white blanketing of powder that not a single person had put a step into. I could hear a drunk yelling for a cab down the street but it was comforting to not be the only person out in that weather. Sure, I was in my pajamas and I had been stabbed in the foot by arthritis, but at least I was mostly sober and not too far from a warm bed.

My foot ached. As I took a step the sharp pain shot all the way up to my spine. And that’s when I just said, “Oh fuck it,” and carefully stepped out of my shoes into the gleaming white snow.1005_furiously-happy

It was freezing, but the cold effortlessly numbed my feet and aching hands. I walked quietly, barefoot, to the end of the block, leaving my shoes behind to remind me how to find my way home. I stood at the end of the street, catching snow in my mouth, and laughed softly to myself as I realized that without my insomnia and anxiety and pain I’d never have been awake to see the city that never sleeps asleep and blanketed up for winter. I smiled and felt silly, but in the best possible way.

As I turned and looked back toward the hotel I noticed that my footprints leading out into the city were mismatched. One side was glistening, small and white. The other was misshapen from my limp and each heel was pooled with spots of bright red blood. It struck me as a metaphor for my life. One side light and magical. Always seeing the good. Lucky. The other side bloodied, stumbling. Never quite able to keep up. (loc 833-846)

Jenny Lawson, better known across the internet as The Bloggess, has been a hero of mine for many years nows. Online, she has long been known as a beacon of hope, insanity, laughter and truth to a proudly peculiar tribe of people. I read her blog faithfully, content to follow along as she writes about everything from the effect depression and chronic pain have on her, to a life-long love of crazily taxidermied animals, to the outrageous “arguments” she has with her husband Victor.

She is one of only a handful of people who can make me laugh to tears (and not occasionally – a few times a month, at least). Lawson is also an incredibly brave and vulnerable writer, and her ability to open up discussions about topics often deemed shameful by polite society has saved lives. I loved her first book, but there’s no doubt she has only gotten better with this second one.

Her epic ability to weave her life stories into a book that speaks to its readers on so many levels is undeniable. Instead of sugarcoating her own struggles, she presents them bare faced – half the time as jester, the other half as bedraggled seer – recognizing that many readers will walk away from her book feeling more known than they ever have before.

Her life has been anything but easy, and although she has achieved fame and fortune she probably never imagined, Lawson hasn’t lost her perspective in the least. She’s still a friend to hurting souls who need a place to lay down their burdens and laugh for awhile. She’s still a person who understands intimately just how heavy those burdens can be. She’s still a treasure to those of us driven to speak about the unspeakable.

Do you know about the spoons? Because you should.

The Spoon Theory was created by a friend of mine, Christine Miserandino, to explain the limits you have when you live with chronic illness. Most healthy people have a seemingly infinite number of spoons at their disposal, each one representing the energy needed to do a task. You get up in the morning. That’s a spoon. You take a shower. That’s a spoon. You work, and play, and clean, and love, and hate, and that’s lots of damn spoons … but if you are young and healthy you still have spoons left over as you fall asleep and wait for the new supply of spoons to be delivered in the morning.

But if you are sick or in pain, your exhaustion changes you and the number of spoons you have. Autoimmune disease or chronic pain like I have with my arthritis cuts down on your spoons. Depression or anxiety takes away even more. Maybe you only have six spoons to use that day. Sometimes you have even fewer. And you look at the things you need to do and realize that you don’t have enough spoons to do them all. If you clean the house you won’t have any spoons left to exercise. You can visit a friend but you won’t have enough spoons to drive yourself back home. You can accomplish everything a normal person does for hours but then you hit a wall and fall into bed thinking, “I wish I could stop breathing for an hour because it’s exhausting, all this inhaling and exhaling.” And then your husband sees you lying on the bed and raises his eyebrow seductively and you say, “No. I can’t have sex with you today because there aren’t enough spoons,” and he looks at you strangely because that sounds kinky, and not in a good way. And you know you should explain the Spoon Theory so he won’t get mad but you don’t have the energy to explain properly because you used your last spoon of the morning picking up his dry cleaning so instead you just defensively yell: “I SPENT ALL MY SPOONS ON YOUR LAUNDRY,” and he says, “What the … You can’t pay for dry cleaning with spoons. What is wrong with you?”

Now you’re mad because this is his fault too but you’re too tired to fight out loud and so you have the argument in your mind, but it doesn’t go well because you’re too tired to defend yourself even in your head, and the critical internal voices take over and you’re too tired not to believe them. Then you get more depressed and the next day you wake up with even fewer spoons and so you try to make spoons out of caffeine and willpower but that never really works. The only thing that does work is realizing that your lack of spoons is not your fault, and to remind yourself of that fact over and over as you compare your fucked-up life to everyone else’s just-as-fucked-up-but-not-as-noticeably-to-outsiders lives.

Really, the only people you should be comparing yourself to would be people who make you feel better by comparison. For instance, people who are in comas, because those people have no spoons at all and you don’t see anyone judging them. Personally, I always compare myself to Galileo because everyone knows he’s fantastic, but he has no spoons at all because he’s dead. So technically I’m better than Galileo because all I’ve done is take a shower and already I’ve accomplished more than him today. If we were having a competition I’d have beaten him in daily accomplishments every damn day of my life. But I’m not gloating because Galileo can’t control his current spoon supply any more than I can, and if Galileo couldn’t figure out how to keep his dwindling spoon supply I think it’s pretty unfair of me to judge myself for mine.

I’ve learned to use my spoons wisely. To say no. To push myself, but not too hard. To try to enjoy the amazingness of life while teetering at the edge of terror and fatigue. (locs 3265-3294)

Honestly, if I were you, I would just head over to her site and drink it all in, and then buy her books and spend the weekend in bed feeling loved and known and crazy in the best possible way.

 

The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey, Edward Abbey and John Blaustein

Over the Christmas holiday, I had the supreme pleasure to read not one but THREE books, all of them gifts I bought for other people that I then stole back while family members were cuddling the baby. The most luxurious of these was The Hidden Canyon because it’s such a large, unwieldy book. It would have been nearly impossible to get through without the help of many hands. It’s not even available for Kindle, with good reason – a huge part of the reading experience comes from Blaustein’s photographs, taken over many years on trips down the Grand Canyon. The book simply couldn’t exist without those images.

Reading it immediately transported me back to my own trip down the Colorado in 2008. In my life, there has been nothing that compares to the experience I had rafting down the Grand Canyon for three weeks. Having a child changed my life by magnitudes, but I was expecting that. People have babies. It’s a thing that’s done, and it is unquestionably one of the best things I’ve ever experienced, but being a parent connects to me to, well, just about everything. I’m part of a web of humanity, past, present, and future, and I feel that connection to other people in ways I had only dreamed of. Rafting through the Canyon, on the other hand, exposed me the natural order, and to a primal version of myself that I never even imagined existed.

An experience like that (and I have been on other rafting trips that were a lark, a bit of good fun, an easy way to spend a week) strips away the pretense of character. That illusion I presented to the world? Gone. The very real isolation and danger of such a journey took so much effort that it didn’t leave me any energy to mess around. I was who I was, for better or worse – at times better, and others, worse.

A part of me never wanted it to end. I didn’t want to leave behind the deepest part of the canyon. I had a little tribe of people, including my future husband, father-in-law and sister-in-law, who were good company. Everywhere we went, beauty badgered us. Mysteries waited to be uncovered. My body even eventually  hardened to the elements (our trip took place during the last week of March and the first two weeks of April, so bitter cold, and eventually unseasonable heat were a factor), and my fear got real comfortable living right on the surface.

Looking back, I was deeply ignorant of just how dangerous the experience was, which is probably as it should be. When I opened up this book and dove in to Abbey’s experiences on the same river, it was as though no time had passed. Names I thought I had forgotten surged to the surface. Campsites reemerged from foggy memory banks. Rapids that had terrified me were scarcely mentioned, and rapids that demolished him, I remember with fondness.

The book was recommended to me by a good friend who had been on the trip with me, and I purchased it for my father-in-law, or the man with the golden ticket. He was one of the last people to “win” a trip on this river from the waiting list he had been on for twenty years (the system changed to a lottery the very next year). I still remember exactly where I was when he called my (not yet) husband to invite him on the trip. When the phone was handed over, and I heard him ask me if I wanted to join a crew of sixteen (all of whom were much more experienced than me), I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t research. I didn’t ask if it was safe. I just said yes.

After reading about Abbey’s trip, I was reminded of that exuberant yes. Of jumping headlong into an experience that would change me forever without a moment’s regret. I was terrified  for so much of that three weeks, and yet I know I would say yes again in a heartbeat. I suppose it’s not so different from having a child after all – filthy clothes, questionable hygiene, unmitigated laughter and gibbering terror – although without a doubt, down in the canyon, there is a much deeper quiet to be found.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Welcome to 2016! I’m not going to crack any jokes about making or breaking resolutions a week in as it’s been years since I’ve even considered making some of my own, and honestly, the only other thing I can think of right now is that we’re now officially in Election year, and the whole political circus is going to be amped up to eleven until November. Just thinking about it is making me tired, so instead of dwelling on the questionable success of new starts and uncontrollable windbaggery, let’s break open that bag of emergency marshmallows (what? You don’t have an emergency bag of marshmallows?!) and make some reading-escape appropriate cocoa.

20910157Now, that we’ve settled in, I have to admit I’ve been on a little break from novels the last two months. During November, I was doing my own new-mom adaptation of National Novel Writing Month, where, instead of writing a completely impossible 50,000 words, I was trying to finish the first draft of the cozy mystery started last summer. Spoiler alert: I failed. I did get five chapters written, which was certainly better than nothing, but I had to extend my deadline to December 31 (which fortunately, I was able to meet). 

The whole endeavor was surprisingly difficult even though I was only eight chapters from the end. It was also much harder than any of the years I’ve done a traditional NANO novel, probably because I care more about this book than I do the crazy stories I’ve written in great speed in the past. On top of that, I care more about my son than I do about deadlines, which is both wonderful and challenging. On the one hand, writing makes me feel like a million bucks – on the other, well, I’m not the first parent to struggle with this particular problem.

But I digress. I was talking about my break from novels, not lamenting the existence Hermione Granger’s time-turner. I like to take a break from fiction when I’m doing a lot of my own writing. It clears my head and allows me to focus on working through those ideas rather than procrastinating with another writer’s story. Obviously, I can’t just give up reading though, so I often find myself a little niche to explore. This time around, it has been comediennes. 

Amy Poehler’s book was a recommended read after I finished Mindy Kaling’s, although it was a far different experience. Poehler is a much more serious person than I realized, and her book certainly reflects that. Unlike Tina Fey or Kaling, her focus is less on a laugh out loud read (although I did) than it is a grittier look at her own experiences. She hasn’t sugar-coated her past failures here. She’s done some things that certainly don’t endear her, but her response to those choices, and her perspective as an older comic and woman were powerful and worthy of respect. 

This is a woman who has worked incredibly hard and has lived a fascinating, if challenging life. She hasn’t done everything perfectly, but that’s shaped her comedy and made her, in my opinion, more worthy of her success. It was passages such as this one that touched me deeply and made this book special:

The hardest day in Haiti for me was when we visited a few orphanages. Some of these places were doing the best they could. Others had a long way to go. Jane’s colleague Noah and I saw babies living in cribs that looked like cages. A little boy named Woosley jumped into Noah’s arms and wouldn’t let go. He was desperate for attachment, and men were especially scarce. Woosley held on to Noah like a bramble. We were filled with anxiety because we knew we would have to say good-bye. Noah had to drop him back off at his crowded room, and Woosley hung on and started to get upset. He finally got down and faced a corner as he cried. It was the loneliest thing I have ever seen. A teacher went to him, but it barely comforted him.

Those kids needed so much holding. Kisses and hugs and clothes and parents. They needed everything. The enormity of what they needed was so intense. We ended up talking in the street with Jane, and crying. Jane was agitated and passionate. She talked about all the work left to do and all the small changes that can improve children’s lives. I was once again moved by her ability to steer into the curve. Jane was a big-wave rider. She didn’t make the mistake that most of us make, which is to close our eyes and hope the waves will go away or miss us or hit someone else. She dove in, headfirst. That night, I read the deeply calm and at times sneakily funny Pema Chödrön, one my favorite writers: “There are no promises. Look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.” Pema reminded me to practice tonglen, which is this meditation breathing exercise where you breathe in all the pain and breathe out nothing but love. It felt like the opposite of what I had been doing for a year. I felt one tiny molecule in the bottom of my heart feel better. (loc 3224)

The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore, Marla Paul

A few weeks ago, our family flew back east so that we might visit with relatives while I was a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since we were ten years old, and along with her other best friends (one she’s had since infancy and one from college), I was asked to give a joint toast – no small feat with just a few weeks notice and a brain that felt like it was composed of rice pudding.

It wasn’t until I was firmly ensconced at my parents’ house and they were able to take the baby for a few hours that I was able to even get started. I’d had a number of false starts back home in the evenings when my husband was available, but what I really needed was to hide away in my childhood bedroom and reflect. That sort of proposition required the kind of doting only accomplished by new grandparents. Once I’d managed to arrange that, I had only three or four more (very badly written) opening paragraphs before I pulled out a book that I read earlier this summer and began to look at sections I’d highlighted. This passage jumped out at me, and I was on a roll:
We all know women who are friend magnets. People are drawn to them like hummingbirds to nectar. They make new friends with a silky ease and hang on to old ones forever. We may envy their magic, but we can cast the same spell ourselves. It’s simple. Be an intentional friend, one that pays careful attention to a pal’s life and needs. Treat a friendship like the gift that it is. (loc 2415)
This section described my friend to a T, and after reflecting on it for a few minutes, I was able to write the toast I really wanted for her. When I got together with my co-bridesmaids and read their drafts, I realized this section really had been the perfect inspiration – if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought we’d all read it and based our speeches on the very same idea.
Unfortunately, not all of us are friend magnets. Most of us have to work incredibly hard at making and maintaining friendships as adults. It takes a lot of work, and when combined with family, professional obligations, and hobbies, it can be difficult to find the time. I found that after I quit my job and started working from home, it became a hundred percent more important to me to do this. The energy it took was completely worthwhile because without the friends I was making (and keeping) my life would have been very lonely indeed.
Now that I’ve entered the ranks of parenthood, it’s become even more crucial that I have friends both with children and without, and that I have time with those friends both with children present and without. I love my family very much, but it would be cruel to ask them to be everything for me. I crave the confidences of the women who have become my dear friends. I love the laughter of a rowdy dinner party. I get excited to go on a hike (even when accompanied by tiny-legged people who make for a long time walking a very short distance). Healthy friendships make me a more clear-headed person, and I say that as an introvert who also dearly values time alone.
The wonderful thing about Paul’s book is that she not only discusses the importance of such friendships, she also offers a roadmap to finding the kind of people her readers might want as friends. She provides resources for networking (whether professionally, personally, as a parent, via a hobby, etc) and techniques for approaching new people. She also discusses the challenges that may arise both in starting new friendships and maintaining older ones and is open about the potential for failure. Not every person is meant to be a best friend, and some may never be more than a casual acquaintance – or nothing at all – but she assures us that it’s okay. Sure, not everyone is right for us, but some people are, and those people are just waiting to connect if we’re willing to work at it.

The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, Ron Lieber

This week, I finally settled down and read a book that my husband had found for us. Technically, it’s not about babies. He and I are both terrified of our children’s adolescence (and yes, I recognize we have a few years, but it’s never too soon to start worrying about things over which you have little control, like the passage of time), and although we both spend enough time with teenagers to know we’re comfortable with them, we’re not nearly so comfortable with the value based conversations around finances we want to be able to have with them. 

I wasn’t sure it was necessary to start reading up about this topic so early, of course, but as soon as I started Lieber’s book, I was completely engrossed. Here was practical advice about how to approach the topic of money with children as young as three or four years old, as well as how to keep the conversation going until children are out in the world making their own financial decisions. As I was reading though, I had a powerful realization that of all the strengths my parents instilled in me, financial savvy was not one of them. Do I know how to be generous? Yes. Do I understand the basics of budgeting and taxes? Yes, after many years of guidance from friends (and my very patient husband), I have workable knowledge. Do I feel comfortable comparing investments, the stock market, or retirement plans? Not really. More importantly though, having grown up in a family (to be clear – one like almost every other I knew when I was a child) where money was a completely taboo subject, I recognize that my spending priorities are not always what I want them to be, and they certainly aren’t as astute as I hope my own children’s will one day be.

I think it’s possible that by being capable in many other areas of my life from a young age, I tricked my parents into thinking I was also a fiscally responsible person. I didn’t gamble or get into credit card debt when I left home, but that sets the bar lower than I’d prefer. Back then, I knew a few kids who had notebooks with budgets scribbled into them; they would keep track of how they spent birthday money, or, if they got one, an allowance, but even so, I don’t remember any of them having a real understanding of the family’s finances from a practical standpoint or a value-based one. Many of us also had little savings accounts at the local bank, but I didn’t really know what that meant. What was I saving for? And why? 

When I was about six, my dad and I were at Osco Drug (he and I would occasionally have a special walk in the evening if he needed to pick something up, and we were both content to browse for an hour or more – something my mother and brother were more than happy to skip). I wanted him to buy me something – a toy, a special pen, or maybe a notebook – and he told me he didn’t have money to get it. I asked why he didn’t just go to one of the machines in the wall that would give him money; my understanding of an ATM was that a code was entered and cash appeared. It was years before I grokked where that money came from.

That story sums up just about every discussion of money I remember having as a kid. Even though we were an average middle class family, I was often told “we can’t afford that” – unless, of course, I was allowed to have it. My parents’ generosity was flexible, and looking back, somewhat baffling from a child’s perspective. I suspect I spent a lot of time whining to get things I didn’t really want or need because I didn’t understand how my parents were making their decisions about what I got and what I didn’t. 

We’re aiming to do three things: set some spending guidelines to lean on; model a few sensible tactics for our children; and adopt family rituals that make spending fun— but only on things that have real value and meaning. With this foundation, we’ll give our kids the best shot at thriving no matter how much money they end up having or what is going on with the economy. (p 73)

The truth was, we could afford that pen or a little toy. My parents just recognized that I didn’t need it and made the decision to use a well-worn phrase to turn me down. I witnessed this innumerable times as I was growing up. Every single parent I encountered used “we can’t afford it” as justification at least some of the time. I never thought to question it because I had no idea where to start. The Opposite of Spoiled is the book I wish all those families could have had back then. Lieber understands the myriad challenges and potential shame or awkwardness parents face when it comes to talking to children about finances, and he has a solution for just about every problem. His favorite starting point is this:

In my years of research on the topic, I’ve determined that there is one answer that works best for any and every money question. The response is itself a question: Why do you ask? This response is useful for many reasons. The first is a practical one. By training myself to respond this way, I’ve guaranteed one thing for certain: that I will have at least 10 seconds to think through potential responses, depending on the reason for the question . Yes, it’s a stalling tactic. But be careful. There is a right way and a wrong way to question the question, given how vulnerable kids are to the belief that certain topics are off-limits. So I always try to say “why do you ask?” in the most encouraging tone possible. If your tone sounds suspicious, like an accusation or an expression of disapproval, it may shut down the whole conversation. (p 22)

As he points out, many times, young children especially are asking questions about money (are we poor; is X rich; why does my friend have Y when I don’t) that are fleeting observations about their social situations and may not require much more than a brief, honest response (we have enough money to buy what we need; I don’t know how much X’s family has; we all own different things – isn’t that nice because it means when you play together, you can bring Z while your friend brings Y). He says if children continue to push and question, it’s actually a great opportunity to start exploring the topic, but many won’t. Even with older children and teenagers, questions about money can lead to frank conversations about how much families are paying for housing, food, utilities, etc. 

The hidden message of offering the truth to children is that you and your children can work together to manage difficult issues. Children also learn that if they ever need a straight story, they can count on you. (p 20)

Lieber sets out reasonable guidelines for talking to children in age appropriate ways about spending, saving, and giving. He’s upfront about the fact that it’s easier to start this when children are young, but also offers compelling evidence that even with teenagers who haven’t been exposed to discussions about budgeting, it’s possible to set guidelines and have conversations that will improve their perspective on spending and save them debt later on. Personally, I was thrilled that he covered everything from introducing an allowance to helping children budget on vacation to how to set reasonable expectations for expensive gadget purchases – all questions that have been plaguing me for years. I want my children to have what they need, and beyond that, to feel treated to some things they desire, but I also want them to understand boundaries and respect them – not just for my own sanity, but for their future financial independence.

By the end of the book, Lieber had moved into a powerful discussion about making financial choices rooted in the value system of a family. He had many wonderful stories to share from parents of many different backgrounds (part of his work is writing the “Your Money” column for the New York Times, but another significant chunk is traveling to schools to speak with parents about these ideas); his point in sharing these stories was to illustrate how unique each family’s approach to this topic was while still being successful. 

You’re telling your children that your values helped you decide some of these big questions, that this is a value you hold dear to your family. What’s potent about that is that it’s part of how a child acquires an identity, which helps dictate behavior. Values should drive behavior. And you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes you whole as a human being. That’s worth teaching. (p 33)

The point he makes throughout the book is that these decisions are not one size fits all, except in the idea that money should be a topic of honesty. His core belief is that by opening up what has long been a taboo topic, we can improve the lives, not only of our own children, but of the larger economy by introducing ever more educated, thoughtful generations into the conversation. I, for one, am with him on this.

For more about Ron Lieber, head over here.