The Generosity Equation.


This is the story of my life :

Last month we paid all our bills (mostly) on time. Hubs and I planned to take a short vacation to see friends in Nashville where we had a fun, happy, warm weekend. We drove home listening to Ryan Adams and generally loving life.

But the love ran out about thirty miles short of home.

The car began to overheat. Repeatedly. Nothing fills me with a deeper sense of dread than a breaking down car sandwiched between rumbling semi-trucks on a highway in Illinois, and so I freaked out. I prayed desperate, beggy, cursey prayers that God would keep us from blowing up right there on the highway. Somehow we made it home. Once there it occurred to us that we cannot afford to fix the bleeping car until I get paid on Friday, because of course. With no choice but to grit my teeth and bare it, I decided that if I drove very slowly and glared at my temperature gauge, the car and I might survive the next five days.

No such luck. When I made the drive to my therapist’s office early the next morning it started overheating almost immediately, red lights flashing and alarm bells dinging. Impending doom! Explosion imminent! I decided it would be better to have a panic attack in the presence of a professional than alone on the side of the road, so I cursed prayed some more and pressed on to my therapy appointment. Very very slowly, of course. Judging by the swerving traffic and sign language, I annoyed the living hell out of every driver in suburban Chicago on their morning commute, but I didn’t care. I was too busy patting my dashboard and talking to my vehicle as though it was a ravenous animal about to eat me alive. Good kitty. One more mile, kitty. Don’t kill me, kitty.

I somehow made it to my therapist’s office. I collapsed onto her couch and shared my sob story. She listened to all my fears and reminded me that my inner child was triggered by all of this sudden instability and that I am not an abject failure at adulthood or life. At the end of the session she gave me a hug and sent me to her mechanic a couple miles away. For the briefest moment I was a fortress of calm and determination as I drove my blasted car to the shop. I was a  warrior in a Chrysler Sebring with mad survival skills. But then the mechanic took one look under the engine and pronounced it dead on arrival. The deathtrap was not worth the $2,500 it would take to fix it.

I cried. I wailed. I cursed. I donned sack cloth and ashes. I called home. Dad instructed me to pay for the minimal repairs and he’d fix the rest next weekend. I put on my brave face and relayed this message to the mechanic, who agreed to only fix the leaking radiator and ignore the tire rod situation. I pretended not to notice his skeptical eyebrows and walked outside. It was March in Chicago, cold and grey, a wasteland of cruddy black snow piles and trash, its bleakness a mirror of my pessimistic soul. A variation on a theme. So many different versions of this same scenario have happened over the years, that I’ve come to believe it’s my lot in life. I will probably die at the hands of a faulty transmission somewhere in Indiana before I can afford to invest in any sort of life insurance.

What my therapist tells me is true: whenever the car breaks down or a big ugly bill shows up, it taps into that deep-seated fear from my childhood, which began with my mother’s illness and has lingered long after her death. It whispers to me that I am not enough, the money’s not enough, things will never be okay. We’re too poor, too sick, too broken, too car- and money-illiterate to ever outrun the black cloud. It doesn’t matter that I’ve paid down thousands of school debt and paid off my credit card and started paying bills on time. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard we work, there is simply not enough to go around. Scarcity.

It’s not just my inner voice that tells me this, there are other voices too. The ones that say that if you have to ask for help you don’t deserve it. Generosity is irresponsible. Handouts don’t help. Unless people use their own bootstraps, they won’t learn.

But I don’t know a life that neat and tidy. Life is messy and hard for most people I know and the only way we’ve ever made it is when kindness reaches in to grab us from the muck. An anonymous check to help my parents make ends’ meet when my brothers and I were small and mom was sick and dad was working himself to the bone in job after underpaying job. Christmas presents when Santa was broke for a few years. Meals and prayers and hospital visits. Loaves and fishes. Abundance.

So I took a deep breath and called my best friend. She promised to come get me in an hour, so I waited in the lobby with a novel, listening to the screeching and banging from inside the repair shop. Soon she showed up and we went to lunch together. Over falafel and hummus we commiserated about life, I with my car troubles and her with her boy troubles. We talked about the broken things, vehicles, relationships, plans, dreams. We reminded one another that we are worthy.

I exhaled a sigh that was not quite relief but something like it, a prayer of thanksgiving for the people around me who make sure I’m not abandoned and alone in my brokenness, and who occasionally let me do the same for them.

Because who am I kidding? Love doesn’t run out. There is always plenty to go around. And I’ve always been bad with math. Thank God.