Today is payday for my day job, which means that I sit down and pay the bills that will be due before the next payday. Perhaps it just means the capitalists have won, but the feeling of it being payday and sitting down and being able to pay all of your bills – there is truly nothing like it.

I get how sad that sounds. But I have spent a not-insignificant portion of my life – both as a child and as an adult – not having a lot of access to money to pay just the regular, everyday bills. Poverty changes your brain.

In my twenties, my business card said I was an “Account Executive”, but basically I helped rich old people hide their money from the government.

I was successful, in that I made good money and I was praised for my performance, but a failure, in that I hated the pressure my managers put on me, and I hated the pressure I felt to push people into solutions that made money for me but were of dubious real long term value for them. I was a failure because I hated my life, and wouldn’t do anything about it.

If you know the movie Glengarry, Glenn Ross, my life was a lot like a weekly visit from the guy from Mitch and Murray. I once was told by a manager that I just needed to buy a more expensive car – because then I would have more debt and thus be more motivated to close deals.

I hated that money drove everything in my life. I hated that it was the only way we kept score. I hated that it was all that mattered. I made good money (especially for a 28-year-old kid) but we spent it like drunken sailors, too.

Eventually, I noticed that I had to drink a pint of vodka in my car to work up the courage to go into the office, and I quit.

I made $96,000 in my last year of selling money at the beginning of this century. The next year I made $18,000, got a divorce, and moved into a friend’s attic apartment.

So, all that is to say, I have lots of screwed-up narratives in my head about money.

Earlier this week, one of our cats had some weird symptoms that we needed to take her to the vet. This was unplanned and unexpected, and I hate that my only hesitancy around taking her was that I was unsure how much this would cost. To be clear – it wasn’t that we had no money to pay for it – we do – but that open-ended question just hung over me.

I have broken teeth in my mouth I am scared to go to the dentist for. Not because of fears around pain or fear of dentists or even that it is likely that at some point in the next ten years I shall have to migrate to dentures – it is that it is a huge open-ended question mark around how much it will all cost and that there is every possibility that I will have a pleasant visit with a professional who will, at the end of our meeting, tell me I owe them $3500, with no warning in advance.

The lowest I have ever felt in my life was one summer morning in May, in Durham, NC. We had just left Duke Hospital, where my wife was being evaluated for eligibility to have a heart transplant that would save her life and give her a normal life expectancy, rather than the 3-7 years she had if she did not get it.

That morning, we had a meeting with the financial counselor, who looked at our insurance coverage and told me that if we did not get approval from one of our insurances to cover this procedure, I would have to show evidence that I had $20,000 in cash before they would list her as eligible for transplant.

I did not have $20,000. I worked at a small, scrappy grass-roots severely underfunded nonprofit that I had founded, and I made very little money while doing good work. I did not know where I could get $20,000. I had very little hope, under normal circumstances, of ever seeing $20,000 at one time.

And so, with a smile on her face, this nice person at Duke told me that because of choices that I had made around vocation and income and yes, money, my wife might die.

Spoiler alert: We got it worked out, she had the surgery, and she did not die.

But I still feel all sorts of anxiety about money. While writing the passage above about that day at Duke Hospital, I had to stop and get up and walk around, because even though it is almost 7 years later, it is all still too fresh in my brain.

So, when I decided to launch the membership program earlier this month as a way to make my writing economically viable, I had butterflies galore. All the old stories reared their head.

“Who are you to try to get paid money because you write things on a blog? It’s not like it’s real writing.”

“You aren’t good enough to get paid to write.”

“Nobody will support you, and you will just look stupid.”

“Writing is fun for you. Things that are fun we should do for free.”

“You are just going to be let down.”

But those are just stories I tell myself and have no bearing at all on what happens in reality. Because my brain is filled with old stories. Stories that are not kind to me.

In the Spike Jonze movie Her, the titular character says that the past is just a story we tell ourselves. And we can learn to tell ourselves better stories.

So, I’m trying to write (in my head) better stories about money, abundance, and scarcity, and better stories about my worth as an artist, as a writer, and as a person.

I’m trying to learn to tell myself better stories about myself.

And part of that is coming to believe that my labor has value and that other people believe that as well. That I need not apologize for making money for doing something which I both enjoy and do well. And that it is OK for me to ask for what I need.

The Shoes

It was the January of the year I was in the 4th grade that I learned we were poor.

In 1968, four years before I was born, the State of Mississippi finally saw the writing on the wall, and despite years of dragging their feet, it became obvious they were going to be forced to integrate the public school system. And suddenly, many churches attended by white people became concerned about education and felt called to start a “Christian” school.

I mean, look at the website of virtually any private religiously affiliated school in Mississippi, and it’s amazing how many of them have origin stories in the late 1960’s. It’s almost as if education wasn’t their chief concern.

Nine years later, I started kindergarten in such a school. In our county, there were several private “Christian” schools. One was the one you went to if your daddy owned the company, and the others were the ones you went to if your daddy worked for the man who owned the company. I went to one of those.

To be fair, I never heard a word about race, pro or con, there; I had no idea I was participating, however unwillingly, in white supremacy; that the Native American brother and sister that would come to attend there were being used as tokens; that our curriculum was written by young-earth creationists who denied science. I knew none of that.

It was a small school – for example, there were 10 kids in my first-grade class. And we all knew each other, or at least our parents did, and we were all pretty much in similar economic circumstances, although that wasn’t a concept I really understood at the time. But we spent the night at each other’s houses, and some of us lived in bigger houses than others, and some of my friends had their own room and I had to share mine with my brother, and some of us drove older cars and some newer cars, but nobody thought anything about that.

There was one friend – her dad owned his company, so she went to the good private school, and they had a maid that came to their house every day and cooked supper for them, but everyone I knew thought that was pretentious, even if we didn’t know that word.

I have no idea how much this school cost to attend, but I know we didn’t make much, and I know it was a stretch, economically, to send me there. And I know it was a stretch for lots of the kids I knew – again, we were the kids of working people, and the classrooms were often cold in the winter and the textbooks shabby and the hallways dimly lit.

But it was all we knew, and we were happy. Until the middle of the 4th grade, that is. There was a boy – I have done him the favor of forgetting his name – who showed up in January of that year. His family had just moved there from the city, and he had started attending after the Christmas break.

And he was weird. And by weird, I mean, different. He wore corduroy pants – we had never seen such – but worse, he pointed out that he wore “cords” and we didn’t. Sometimes he would wear jeans, but he didn’t call them jeans. They were Levis. Our pants, the sort worn by the great unwashed, did not have names – they were just blue jeans, often purchased in the basement of Sears and Roebuck when they would have clearance sales, and purchased with extra length and cuffed multiple times, so one could grow into them.

This boy’s pants fit him just as he was.

But the worst was the shoes. We wore sneakers. Or tennis shoes. He wore Nikes. Pronounced “Neyeks”, like the plural of Mike, with a long I and a silent E. I had never seen shoes that had a name before.

“Why don’t your parents buy you Nikes?” he asked? “At my last school, all the kids wore these. Well, except the poor kids.”

I asked Dad what Nikes were. He told me I was mispronouncing it, and he explained they were shoes that athletes wore and that they were expensive.

“Well, I want some,” I told him. It was the first time I had ever asked for anything by a brand name.

He said that I already had shoes – in fact, had just gotten new shoes for Christmas – and that maybe I could get some new shoes when school started back in the fall, but under no circumstances would we be getting Nikes, because we couldn’t afford them.

It was the first time I remember wanting something somebody else had, and understanding it was off-limits to us because we didn’t have the money.

It was the first time I saw myself as different, as less than, because of money. I was one of the poor kids. I was separated from this kid – with his fancy clothes and exotic stories of city life and his name-brand shoes – by economic status, and that was the first time in my life that had ever happened, or that I understood such a thing was possible.

But it would not be the last.