Today I told Jenna that I don’t like my job anymore. “All I do nowadays is call people collecting money, or tell them no, sorry, that’s not in our budget.” “It really is no fun,” she commiserated. We both laughed weakly. And then she asked me to call Dr. Carlton and tell him we couldn’t afford to pay what he billed for this new year, and see if he would agree to reduce his rates at least to last year’s level. I sighed, said sure, and went on to my day in the office—I administrate our community’s central office, organize people, handle logistics and communications for our members, and sometimes have a hand in the hard decisions that need to be made about what we can or cannot do based on our community’s finances. I also get to communicate those decisions.
Lately that’s been more challenging than in the past, since lately I’ve had to say no more often than yes; or OK, but only this much; or alright, but please shop for food at this store and not that one… These are all communications that go against my easy-going, free-flowing nature. I don’t like saying no or telling people what they can or cannot do, but this is what I’ve signed up for in my job in the central office. Jenna is my friend and boss, and the force behind our community’s purse strings. Her nature is conservative, constrained, and all about precision. She has taken on the burden of balancing our budgets and she is good at it. But that doesn’t make it fun for her either.
I live in a place I have called “Orinda” in past writings. We are a community of around 100 people. Roughly a quarter of these are children, roughly another 10 percent are retired in one form or another, and another 10 or 15 percent are fully employed by the community as child-care workers, teachers, crew on our boats, or just in the business of making things work around here. This leaves about half of us to try to earn enough to keep our economy going, and the burden rests mostly on the shoulders of 15 individuals who have accumulated the means to support most of the rest of us in comfort—at least for a while.
In the recent past, we have enjoyed an amazing amount of prosperity: our business ventures flourished, our investments paid off, we had one windfall, and then another, and working hard brought the benefit of capital accumulation and material gains, which were happily shared among our friends and families. Personal wealth was redistributed among our membership, and our collective standard of living rose, each year just a little easier and more flush than the last.
Then in 2007 and 2008 things started to get harder. Business was down, salaries and commissions were not as generous as they had been, investments were not returning at the rates that we’d gotten used to. We were worried about what the near future might bring. We started cutting back. We formed a budget committee, and met regularly about how to take practical steps to reduce our spending, how to inspire more income, how to deal with the potential losses we were forecasting. We cut our salaries by 10 percent, we started shopping at cheaper stores, we stopped buying cookies.
In September of 2008, when the bottom dropped out of the stock market, and investment banks and insurance brokerages started going bankrupt, we watched our collective fortunes decline as well. Our forecasts of loss were now coming true, and we had to look even harder at what was most important to us. We had to face the fact that where for the past 15 years, our collective balance sheet had continuously gone up, we were now in a period of rapid contraction. Along with the rest of the country, along with the rest of the world, we had to stop spending so much.
We met and agreed we had to cut back even more—both in our community spending and in our personal spending. We sold a boat that we loved and had enjoyed thoroughly for the past seven years. We took another 10 percent pay cut across the board, and decided to streamline the kids’ program, freeing up a few individuals to go out into the workforce and start earning outside money. We started a vegetable garden and bought chickens to raise for eggs. We stopped going out to eat as much, or buying each other presents, and we have had to cut back on the assistance we give to outside friends who have fallen on hard times. We’ve started saying no instead of yes, giving a little instead of all. Over the past year, this has continued to be an active discussion and we have kept a conscious goal of working together to spend as little as possible as a community and as individuals.
While aspects of my job are not as much fun as they used to be, I actually love the new attitude of frugality I see in my friends towards both our community finances and their own personal pocket books. The conversations we have had about what is essential to our lives, what we must continue to do, and what can we let go of, have strengthened our community and enhanced our commitment to living the best life we can together.
For example, we could have decided to close down our school and kids’ program, send the children to public school, have our teachers return to the workforce as regular income earners, and trust our kids’ education and personal development to the state system. This was not something we were willing to do; our children’s care and education is too important to trust to outsiders if we can do it ourselves.
But we did let go of an extra apartment in town, and moved closer together in smaller spaces. We did put some of our energy into growing food instead of shopping for it. We are moving towards sustainable living practices—lessening our energy requirements, and using our land more efficiently. We are doing repairs ourselves we might have hired out for in the past. We are finding ways to use our things, share our space, spend our time more wisely, and in the process getting closer and living better.
Driving home, I pass evidence of a recent forest fire. Where a month ago the hills were lush and verdant, they are barren and scarred now. The spring palette of sage, clover, and olive has been replaced by charcoal, ash, and sepia, and the few trees left are crackled shadows of their untouched cousins a few miles up the road. The fire is finally out after weeks of valiant firefighters working around the clock. It was one if the biggest, hottest fires we’ve had in decades, and it came closer to us than any in recent memory. If the winds had turned just a little, it would have threatened our ranch. But coming as it did while I was working on this essay, it made me think about what lessons catastrophe can bring—how in the face of natural disaster, people step up and join together to do whatever they can to help. Given the evacuation notice, what is really important becomes crystal clear—we grab our memories, our pets, and our people. Everything else is left to burn if it comes to that, and in the eye of the fire, it is easy to let go of things that moments before seemed so valuable.
It seems to me the crucible of hard times has had a similar clarifying effect: material riches matter little as long as we have our friends and families around us. True wealth is found in these relationships. Sometimes we just need a little reminder. And despite the loss of green for a while, removing the gnarly old growth allows new life to come up in its place.