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On giving

I am very fortunate. John and I are both employed and the paycheques that arrive in our bank accounts each month add up to more than we need to cover the bills. After many years as cash-strapped students, it’s a wonderful place to be and I am painfully aware how few young people can say the same in this tough economy. While it took hard work and sacrifices, we are aware that we also had the wind at our backs. We’ve had advantages, whether we knew it or not, and we’ve had luck.

Now I want to give to those who haven’t had as much. John and I agree that charitable giving is important to us. We want to donate to organizations that are reputable and provide concrete help to those that need it. Food. Clean water. A warm bed. A vaccination. Whatever simple need that will make life more livable, both locally and globally.

We agree on all this, so why is it that we only donated 0.2% of our income last year to charity? The facts should be simple: we have more than we need to meet our basic human needs right now and there are people around us who don’t. As decent human beings, we know we ought to help.

But then other voices kick in. Ones that say “what about saving for the kids you plan to have?” and “you really should put money aside to go visit your mom” and “there is no such thing as extra money when the bank owns most of your home.”

These voices are strong and they are smart. In fact, these voices have gotten us to the point where we can even contemplate giving in the first place. They often keep us home when we are tempted by dinner out or a weekend away, so they certainly make themselves heard when we are contemplating giving our money to something with far less instant gratification. The quiet satisfaction you get from donating to charity requires a more sophisticated palate to be appreciated. It becomes all too easy to put off. As we do.

I come from a family – in fact, a culture –  where charitable giving never entered the conversation at the kitchen table. In Finland and other socialist-leaning economies, the social contract doesn’t leave generosity up to individual choice – a highly progressive tax code ensures that those who have more give to those who have less whether they like it or not. In exchange, the government does a relatively good job of ensuring that no one in the country goes hungry or cold and the highly taxed can sleep soundly at night.

Now, in a country with a smaller social safety net, I simply don’t know how to negotiate the personal choice to give.

And it’s no surprise – there is very little guidance on how to negotiate this choice. In the secular, middle-class world, charity is such a personal and quiet choice it becomes very nearly invisible. In the finance books and blogs I’ve read, charitable giving is conspicuously absent from spending breakdowns, except maybe as a tax break for the wealthy or a teaching tool for young kids. For everyone else, the message is always focused on all the other places our money should go. Are young families simply not in a position to be giving money away? Or are they just not talking about it?

We should talk about it, because charitable giving is not easy, especially in isolation. If I’m completely honest, I’ll admit it’s hard to give up luxuries we enjoy, like dinners out, only to then give away the money to someone else. There, I said it. I might as well dye my hair rainbow and move to the Capitol. (Oh who am I kidding – we’re all already there.) Giving will always be a deeply personal choice and one that you have to prioritize for yourself, but I know more open discussion would help quiet those voices in my head and make the sacrifices easier.

John and I will always be somewhat cautious because it’s our nature, but we know we can do better than 0.2%. Yes we need to save for a rainy day, but there are people standing in the middle of storms right now. What we need is to find our own comfortable balance between the moral imperative to give and the practical imperative to save – while still preserving the life imperative to have fun once in a while.

What are your thoughts on charitable giving? And if you donate/plan to donate in the future, how do you balance all these competing priorities for your money? And I am specifically speaking about donating money – I think I’d like to talk about donating time in another post.

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To see clearly

My new paper weight

As promised, I am writing this post without the aid of any lenses, for which I am incredibly grateful.

My vision is not quite perfect yet but it is getting closer every day. When I go to bed now, I feel unsettled because clearly I have forgotten to take my contacts out; a blurry world was my cue to sleep. I am getting used to it amazingly fast though. In another 6 months I’ll probably be taking it completely for granted. We get used to comfort way too quickly.

I’m working on writing a description of the procedure and recovery because I feel this might be one of the extremely rare times that the internet actually needs my perspective. My typical, non-freaky, totally average perspective.

The intertubes really are the most fertile ground for growing horror stories. Every little complaint and freak situation finds an outlet and a flock of affirmations on blogs and obscure discussion boards and Google will happily dredge them up for you on command.

I know of what I speak, because in a moment of weakness the night before my surgery I googled “PRK recovery.”

This was stupid,  clearly. I had done my research, but like a good academic I had mostly confined myself to peer-reviewed, scientific literature. Fuelled by my nervousness, I was craving something more personal, more human.

I soon found blogs of people documenting their recoveries in excruciating detail and let myself get sucked into their stories and eventually into gut wrenching anxiety. They made the recovery sound so slow, so difficult. Commenters confirmed their experiences. I suddenly worried I had no idea what I was actually getting myself into. My ever-rational husband calmed me down by reminding me of how much the internet skews reality, but I still barely slept that night.

Of course in hindsight I can recognize that the stories that bubble to the top are always going to be the bad ones because they attract the commiserating masses. No wonder the innocent bystander who stumbles onto this mope-fest gets the impression that this experience is typical. It’s how this place works – misery loves company meanwhile the happy are out there living their lives, too busy to be chronicling every moment on discussion boards.

But I’m not too busy – I will chronicle it for you. No really, all I did tonight was eat dinner, cuddle with my dog with such dedication that John had to wait on me hand and foot so I wouldn’t disturb her, and snort-laugh through Thursday night’s hilarious TV line-up of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and The Office.

So if you haven’t completely lost respect for me after reading that, stay tuned!

Power of Kindness

So there’s this group of brilliant women I know. They are smart, opinionated, ambitious, and funny. I know about their dreams for their lives as well as their fears, and when they’re having a shitty day dealing with their bosses/mothers/dentists/cars. Though they are busy, there is always someone ready to lend an ear or talk it off, whatever the situation calls for. They are exactly the kind of community I’ve always wanted to find.

I only wish I got to meet them too.

I’m talking of course about the loosely defined group of women who gather on Twitter and around various blogs who have assumed the name Nosy Bitches. I can assure you that name is meant to be ironic because we are nothing but unfailingly polite in our enquiries of each other. Let me demonstrate with a (hypothetical) sample conversation:

“How is your dear family? Enjoying the lovely weather?”
“Oh yes, very much. I can’t believe how pleasant it is! And how do you do?”
“Quite well, I do believe I may go for a stroll later.”

Yeah that pretty much captures the gist of it, I think. There is definitely no anonymous account for sex talk or confessions or anything.

So being the lovely, polite people that we are, we decided to exchange gifts this year in the Nosy Bitches Non-Denominational Gift Giver exchange organized by the brilliant Ms. Bunny of Bunnies’n’Beagles. Which was thrilling, because it proved that I’m not making all of you up in my head!

My recipient was Nicole of Grape Soda Kitchen! Doing some internet sleuthing to discover what she might like was a fun little project. I settled on making her some jewelry and was thrilled to hear she liked it and even got to put it to use right away!

Then this morning I checked the mail in my groggy, got-this-cold-just-in-time-for-Christmas state and what do I find but a lovely envelope from Sarah of Inconceivable Life! And the package jingled in my hands as I carried it into the house!

A beautiful ornament – and the card is a magnet!

Sarah sent me a lovely piece of her hometown Tucson: a Ben’s Bell ornament! It’s a beautiful ornament but the message behind it is even more so:

Ben’s Bells are not for sale. They are created by the hands of many and are hung randomly in public places for unsuspecting people to find and take home as a reminder to spread kindness.

This is a Ben’s Bell ornament. It symbolizes the power we each have to change the world by committing to kindness, one interaction at a time. Your purchase allows Ben’s Bells to bring its kindness-spreading programs and activities to more and more people, and the ripple effect will be amazing.

Ornaments have a special place in my heart. Each year since I was a teenager, my mom has given me a beautiful Christmas ornament as a gift. I have garnered a good sized collection now and each year I hang them, I am grateful for this collection of love. This is such a perfect addition to it.

I decided it needed a more prominent place than the tree so I hung it right outside our front door. And since it looks perfect, there it might just stay.

Thank you so much Sarah.