Not long ago, The Golden Boy was at swim practice, and I was taking a brisk walk on the levee that runs along Lake Pontchartrain. It was one of those ideal January days in New Orleans when the air is crisp, but comfortable. The wind was not whipping my hair across my eyes, and my ears weren’t sore and actively developing infections from gusts of brackish air shooting in one side of my head and out the other. The conditions were idyllic.
I zipped up my rose gold hoodie and let the hardcore joggers and the moms donning haute athleisure and Fitbits pass me by. The weather and what looked to be the first brushstrokes of a spectacular sunset gave me pause to not rush through this hour of solitude. I would not walk/jog until I could feel my heart pumping in my esophagus and then fester in my sweat in my SUV, watching reruns of Designing Women on my phone until the boy, wet and smelling like chlorine, tapped on the window at 6:05 as these afternoons usually go. No, I would savor the conditions and walk the length of the levee until the street lights emerged and the sun took its final bow.
And that’s how it went. For a while at least. I trod the well-trodden path of the levee and reflected on my blessings. It was one of those wonderful moments when, alone in your thoughts, you feel carried by all the goodness you recognize. It had been about a month or so since I lost a pretty significant copywriting client, yet I had found something in the meantime that paid decently enough to not worry about how I was going to pay for the tech suits that Golden Boy wears or the expensive soy sauce Middle Man requires for his Rainbow Rolls. I thanked God for the peace and tranquility of knowing things were going to be okay...somehow, some way.
And then, I reached in my pocket and found a crumpled up five dollar bill. That familiar burst of excitement filled me. “Five whole dollars!” I was no different from the little boy in the picture book, Bobby Has a Nickel, that I read every time I went to my grandmother’s house in Lake Charles. What would I do with five dollars? I could reward my walk and gratitude with a smoothie. I could count the five dollars toward the overpriced roast I bought earlier that day. I could save it for “cash only” snoballs when New Orleans’s version of shaved ice with syrup stands reopen in March. And as I thought about my five dollars, I flipped the bill between my fingers in the safety of my pocket and moved along the levee. Five unexpected dollars! Could this walk get any better?
But eventually I got hot in my hoodie and I pulled it off to tie around my waist. Before I continued on my stroll, I checked the pocket. The five dollar bill was gone. Somewhere between my euphoria over five dollars and my heat flash, I’d lost it. I immediately turned around. I retraced about one hundred yards of my path to a spot where I remembered having felt the bill in my hand. I looked like Groucho Marx with a hunchback, scouring the grass. The athleisure moms and aspiring marathon runners skirted around me, huffing and puffing and likely wondering what treasure this hunchback of the lakefront was searching for. An engagement ring? A driver’s license? Surely the middle-aged woman in her athleisure and Chanel sunglasses was not looking for a measly five dollars. But I, of course, was, and I continued my search -- down one side of the levee and up. My back ached after some time. My mind cursed the hour, and still I could not find that five dollar bill. I was so frustrated. I mean, I had just had it. I had just fondled it. So long, smoothies and snoballs.
I turned around and straightened my back. The sky was a chalky Wedgewood blue with swirls of clouds blending in and out and bursts of light peeking through the top. The horizon was soft pink on one end and gold on the other. It was the kind of finale that only follows one helluva show. And I’d missed it. For five flipping dollars. Five dollars that, frankly, I don’t need. Five dollars that would have accompanied more than five dollars each Sunday in the collection basket this past year if I weren’t attempting to (and often failing to) church it up at home because of the Rona. Five dollars that could buy the peanut butter crackers I keep saying I should keep in my car to give to homeless people begging at intersections and interstate exits. Five dollars that could pay for half of the ingredients of the stuffed shells I know I should have made and dropped off to a friend who just had a baby. Five dollars that I should have given away over and over a long time ago were it not for my endless excuses.
I shrugged my shoulders, gave my regards to the sunset missed, and walked back to the car, thinking, “Whoever found the five dollars needed it more than I do...Oh, and Annie, you’re an asshat.”
My reluctance to give away that five dollars isn’t central to this period in my life when paychecks are a little harder to earn. And it has little to do with the fact that I grew up in a paycheck-to-paycheck home. It’s a chronic hesitance to give, and not just money, but time, energy, and emotions. It is a paranoid side of me that doesn’t make plans until the last minute because “what if I’m tired Friday night and just wanna get in my jams and watch Designing Women on Hulu?” It is my reluctance to put down my phone or my work when my daughter asks me to watch the umpteenth dance she has created for some angsty Ariana Grande song...again. It’s what keeps me from volunteering with other haggard parents for the planning of school events (pre-Covid, of course) because the idea of agreeing to a meeting every other Tuesday at 7 p.m. for two months out of the year sounds downright heinous -- even if the gym floor is in such bad shape that the kids are coming home with splinters. Isn’t that the kind of volunteer work tailor-made for eager Kindergarten moms?
My aversion to giving is the calls ignored when I know I should answer. It’s running out of the door instead of taking the two seconds to say, “I love you.” It’s an insular life of obsessing over my problems and thinking a social media comment of “sending BIG love” to a friend who is in much worse shape than I’m in is enough. And it’s a fear. A dirty little fear that is afraid of inconvenience. It ignores the gut reaction and the little whisper in my ear when I know what I should do -- even if it’s inconvenient -- and instead tells me to do what feels good because “I’m such a good person and I deserve to rest.”
And I do believe I am a good person. I smile at cashiers and tell them thank you. I compliment outfits. I try to answer texts the day of. When I buy gifts I put thought into my purchases. I’m not rude to customer service representatives (most of the time.) And I tip my servers twenty percent. But just as frequently I blow off answering messages and phone calls because I don’t know how to respond because I’m not sure how I feel about what said text or message will require of me and so I just do nothing until time makes the situation so awkward that I look like a turd. I do lose my cool with customer service representatives who don’t seem to understand or care that the company for which they work is run by asshats. I convince myself with remorse that a gift in certain situations is too big a gesture, or I wait too long to give said gift and once again allow time to fill my void of generosity with awkwardness. And I take the people in my life for granted and skip out on invitations to dinner, coffee, or even a glass of wine on the porch with friends, or worse, I put off watching that funny YouTube video with my kids or I think about to-do lists as they blabber on about what happened in practice that day or who did the funniest thing at recess.
As kind and as good a person as I am, I am afraid to give that kindness and goodness to others enough to scold myself and sound like my mother when I painted the faces of my Hans Christian Anderson dolls. “Annie, what are you thinking?”
I know enough to know that the sunset, the peaceful walk on an unusually beautiful January day on the lake, and my hour of gratitude was a gift to me, and I ignored the offering because I couldn't part with five dollars without choosing to give it away on my own. My paranoia tells me there won’t be enough left for me if I give too much. And that’s not a terrible thought. As a recovering people pleaser, I know full well the pickles and pretzels that result from taking on too much without considering my own sanity. I do need rest. I deserve rest for all the good work I do on a consistent basis. As do you. I do need to practice frugality with my money. As do you. But there’s a difference between respecting one’s personal boundaries and limitations and giving our time and treasure anyway, for the sake of someone who needs it more.
The wisdom is in knowing the difference and not letting a sunset missed also become a lesson lost.