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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.


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.

Why I blog

Once again, Liz at happy sighs has started a great discussion that has my wheels turning. Talented woman, that one. She asked the question ‘why do you blog?”

Why do I blog?

Well I don’t blog for myself. Of course I essentially do – there’s definitely no one paying me or holding a gun to my head – but I know my momentum would fizzle out pretty damn fast if no one read what I write. I do find writing to be therapeutic and there are times in my life when I have reached for it as a way to cope, mostly during my angsty teenage years. Back then, I would scribble bits of poetry in the margins of my notebooks and occasionally keep a diary of the unique dramas of being in high school. I also remember going through a tough phase in grade ten when I realized how shitty the world can be and was moved to arrange those thoughts into an essay. I’m pretty sure it was a little misguided and a lot melodramatic, but I spent a long time on it and was proud of the outcome. And it really was just for me.

I do love that having a blog lets me have that kind of occasional therapy session in words, like this. But my life is simply not sufficiently angst filled at this point for me to require weekly appointments. So no, blogging is not simply about me – if I were writing purely for myself, I would write quarterly in a diary, not a blog.

I also don’t blog because I crave the writing. Don’t get me wrong, I do get a lot out of the process of writing but like a lot of other rewarding things, I find it difficult. Writing forces you to form complete thoughts and commit them to words; there is no flailing of arms or lifting of pleading eyebrows to fill in the blanks when you are not sure of what to say. And if you want anyone to follow your thoughts you have to know clearly what it is you’re trying to say, requiring thought, patience, and deliberation – all activities that I try to limit to my working hours.

But when I find the inspiration to do it, and do it properly, I really enjoy seeing my thoughts neatly laid out in sentences instead of tangled up in synapses, destined only to see the light of day when they are forced out by an influx of alcohol. Still, I will readily admit that I don’t enjoy the act of writing for its own sake enough to continue it in a vacuum. Until I started blogging, I hadn’t written anything ‘for pleasure’ in years.

So why do I blog? I blog to share. And no, unlike what many people assume of personal bloggers, that doesn’t mean I’m self-involved, or think my life is terribly fascinating (quite the opposite), or that I need my choices affirmed by others. It means I want to have a space to be as honest as I can in hopes of connecting with other people who are going through the same thing, or going through things that are different enough to lend me another point of view. I blog because my late twenties has found me far removed from many of my closest friends and missing the kind of conversations that keep me sane and grounded.

When I started, I had the vague goal of connecting with people but I didn’t really know how I would measure my success. It wasn’t about reader numbers – I was too scared to even dare think of that. Of course I wanted some people to read my blog (and I will admit to doing a little happy dance when I see my reader number go up) but as is my friendship philosophy in real life, a few loyal readers outweigh a bunch of randoms any day. So I’ve started to realize that “success” to me means reaching far enough into someone’s brain to get their wheels turning and hopefully start a conversation.

Lately, I feel like I might be getting closer to that goal. I love that I have found a community of intelligent women (and perhaps the occasional man) to navigate this phase of my life with. It has filled a void in my life for rich, honest, funny, and real conversation. So thank you – yes, you – for being here. I obviously would love to have a conversation with each of you, but even seeing your little visit number tells me that something I’ve said somewhere has resonated with you.

And that is why I blog.