If I Think I’m Running Out of Time, Remember It’s Just a Thought

I used to struggle with money. It’s not that I didn’t have enough, but I thought that I didn’t have enough.

I’m fortunate to come from family roots where I don’t remember money being a problem. I also wonder if there were some problems that I didn’t consciously know of. It must be challenging to be a parent and to navigate something with such prominent social emphasis but of absolutely no significance to our human needs. We need love, belonging, connection, but sometimes it’s most important for parents to provide money. Okay, we also need food, shelter, and water, which money can buy, but we must acknowledge that money is a means of fulfilling these needs and money itself is not vital to our well-being.

In the case of my grandfather, he needed to provide money to his mother from the age of four or five and subsequently to his wife and children from the age of eighteen. As I grew and watched him excel in business, with nightly checks of the booked orders and his investment performance, scribbled neatly in this annual pocket planner, perhaps I was conditioned to think we – I – need more money, that these numbers were how I should measure my life at the end of the day. Could I afford the 14.95 meal instead of 11.95? The problem was not the three bucks but the fact that I thought of it.

I thought of my university’s salary report, indicating the average starting income of students with my same bachelors degree. And I felt shame knowing that I was earning some 60% even with an additional masters degree. I thought of the period when I took a loan from my parents to pay my first months’ rent when I started working and living on my own simultaneously. I thought of my adolescent years, when I diligently tallied my cash, coins, and bank account on separate printed pages, marking even 27 cents if I received change from buying a CD at Best Buy. Money was something that measured my well-being — until it didn’t.

In the summer of 2019, I took a sabbatical from my work. I was still under-earning my peers and over-working myself. Yet I mustered the courage to take a break, throw $5,000 at a month-long yoga teacher training. I earned a meager €450 a month in a so-called “mini job”. I sat at the edge of a pond and decided to quit my job and leave the city. But I had no plan. I returned to my apartment and lived a simple life: waking, writing, practicing yoga, visiting with friends, exploring the city, and realizing that vast portions of the population were out and about (and not holed in offices) during the day.

And then the fear crept in.

I feel it returning now, my chest tightening, my heart beating, my thumb and first fingers gripping the pen so tightly. It’s called anxiety, and it grew within me like a toxic vine as I watched my bank account gradually decline with each scoop of ice cream, grocery trip, a month of rent, a train trip to visit friends.

Along the way, I was engaged in writing morning pages and exploring Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way. There came a time when I should start to track my expenses. I did so. My childhood ledger advanced into a budgeting app – which set me back €5 – where I’d input each scoop of ice cream, where the notebook and pen I needed to write with became a fear of enough. I answered the question, “What is my relationship with money, and how was it first formed?” I quit the “mini job” and €450 turned to zero. Spend, spend, spend, and nothing coming in.

I unexpectedly started to receive solicitations in the same period that I finished the budgeting and expense tracking phase. Clients wanted to hire me and to know my rates. I could work 20 hours a week and earn the same as before? With little effort, my bank account reversed its decline. I stopped caring whether lunch cost 5, 10, or 30. I stopped debating whether to save 10% on a flight by costing a longer layover. I let go of anxiety around having “enough” money, and I trusted myself – to enjoy life and to trust that I’d take care of my needs.

Since this renegotiation of my relationship with money, I’ve started a long process of doing the same with time. I try to remind myself, “If I think I’m running out of time, remember it’s just a thought.” (There’s absolutely zero evidence that I ran out of time for anything in my life. My survival is not at stake.) Last spring, I spent five hours with a friend contemplating whether I was willing to separate myself from my employment, and I decided to commit my time to myself. (But I didn’t quit my job.) I explored the difference of intention behind working “for” someone and working “with” a company. (But I let myself become a dedicated follower, waiting for a boss to tell me what to do.)

I’m still renegotiating, but one thing is for sure: I have time. And researchers say time affluence is a vital component of well-being. Lucky me! I believe the opposite of scarcity is not abundance but enough, and I’m looking forward to embodying the belief that I have enough time. Until that moment, I hope you have a day, and thank you for reading!

P.S. I’m super proud of myself. Almost five years ago, I set up a category called “Café: Rumination” for this blog. I expected that my life in Europe would include ample time for sitting in cafés and writing about life. Well, now I can safely say I wrote at least one blog post from a café/bakery! If you’re ever in Berlin, I highly recommend Zeit für Brot.

My Privileged Diet

“Is this normal for you?” I asked my Italian-Danish friend at the counter of Social Foodies, a Danish shop that partners with African farmers to create quality food and sustain value in both communities. Why ask? Regardless of normality, ice cream before lunch is one decision I unapologetically support.

We tasted flavors like havtorn (sea-buckthorn/berry) and meandered through the coastal neighborhood to reach the beach, where small children enjoyed the seaweed strewn shoreline and their parents observed casually. As we dodged kids ferrying wet sand and toys and tiptoed over ripples of seaweed, I wondered for how many people was this just another day and how many families came to the beach because of the pseudo-holiday. The Danish government is required to call an election no later than four years after the previous, and this year, they chose to coincide with the national Constitution Day.

“So what’s the political state in Denmark these days?” I asked Nicola, back at home, between bites of fresh pasta and vegetables, facing each other with sunlight fully illuminating our skin and the peaceful ambiance of his rose garden below.

He explained that the immigration debate receded and climate is the critical topic of debate. A total of eleven parties nominated candidates and campaigned in this election, and the winners would be responsible for forming a coalition with their peers after the election. The liberal parties claimed that we are not doing enough to protect the environment and live sustainably. The parties that side with the conservative coalition took the position that the world is in tact and governmental policies have done enough to support and protect the planet. I wondered what affect this warm, sunshiny day would have on last-minute voters: yes, the planet is fine; no, this is abnormal. The next day, I learned that less than 5% of Denmark’s land is “wild,” the way it would be untouched by humankind. I wonder whether the myths of nostalgia or future distort voters’ perception.

I journeyed into the city by train, and spent the afternoon exploring the progressive cuisine and wares of Torvehallerne: ice cream made from bananas, oats, and dates; natural organic skincare products; potato-rosemary Skyr; vegan sandwiches; a real butcher, next to a knife sharpener and vendor; juices and health shots of many varieties; and a surprising amount of plastic packaging.

I stopped to write at Paludan Bogen, my favorite cafe. In the midst of reflective writing exercises, I recognized a burning desire to swim. I set that mini-goal for myself and stopped at Svanemølle Strand on the train journey homeward. I found the beachfront full of cheerful, attractive Danish families enjoying their half-day holiday. I wondered if the weather would decrease voter turn out. (The numbers showed 84.6% of registered voters participated, whereas in 2015, 85.9% cast their ballots.) The frigid water temperature quickly deterred any desire to do serious swimming, but I enjoyed a quick dip and an hour of reading in the sunlight.

Back at home, Nicola and Jonas arrived with a small batch of fresh produce to host friends for an election dinner and watch party. We cooked together and set the table in the garden. Promptly at 8:00, we needed to be in the living room to watch the first results from the exit polls. The news anchor announced the preliminary results with sophisticated graphics and live video broadcasts interspersed from each party’s election. In spite of not knowing enough Danish to understand the full broadcast, I was impressed about how well all three Danes and the two non-Danish residents explained the positions of each party and their opinions on whether their results were favorable. We watched the broadcast, with progressive updates as actual votes returned from the polls, for about two hours before people filtered out and decided to go home. The conservative, anti-immigration parties lost about half their support compared to the previous election, and the so-called “red bloc” saw gains. Fortunately for everyone, the openly racist, homophobic candidate didn’t earn the 2% of votes that are required to gain seats in parliament.

In the subsequent two days, I spent my afternoon at Respond, a conference hosted by the Danish engineering association, featuring talks and exhibitions about engineering a more sustainable future, including perspectives on food security, environmental stewardship, and management of plastic and toxic waste. The first speaker I heard asked how many audience members work for companies that have clear commitments to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I didn’t raise my hand; I don’t even know what the SDGs include, and I felt a pang of guilt that these important global needs aren’t a part of my conscience or dialogue. Two days later, I saw the SDGs advertised in the Vejle city center and again in a poster in my other friends’ home office. Get it together, Stephen. What can you do to contribute? I’m making a point to learn about the SDGs and figure out where I can incorporate them in my lifestyle and being. I side with the leftist Danes who believe that we – the humans who live and work on this earth today – need to live and work far differently, so that the planet will be a healthier ecosystem for all species to live and work in the future.

My privilege is having the choice to spend time on a beach with clean water and warm sunshine. My privilege is eating and cooking with fruits and vegetables that are imported from throughout the world and paying prices as if they came from the local farm; bananas don’t grow in North America or Europe, and apples don’t grow in June. My privilege is eating homemade venison meatballs on Saturday evening, from a deer that my friend shot on Tuesday. My privilege is paying less – financially – to fly from Berlin to Copenhagen than to take a train. My privilege is affording what I want to eat, and not limiting myself to a budget of starch and beans. My privilege is having the freedom to not eat everything on my plate if I feel full, while knowing that 1/3 of all food production goes to the trash. My privilege is having the financial security to spend multiple months traveling and living, without earning a paycheck, knowing there are people that can’t afford to miss a single hour of work, even when they’re sick.

Inconvenience costs now; convenience costs later.

“Is this normal for me?” Yes, my normalcy is full of privilege, and I believe it won’t last forever. I refuse to be unapologetically privileged. I’m committed to understanding my privilege and making decisions that allow more of the world to eat ice cream at 10:30 am, or at all.