Wednesday, November 9, 2011

From Russia with Love

OK... so this is a continuation of my How I Escaped from the Rat Race series. To read the series from the beginning, click here.

Soooo... it was early-mid 1990's. I had recently broken up with BeerMan, and I was depressed. Actually, I was angry, I was hurt, and I was still digging myself out of the financial hole that the relationship had left in its wake. The truth is, I was feeling very sorry for myself.

It just didn't seem fair. All around me were seemingly happy people who had big apartments, or houses even, and jobs that didn't require them to stay until 10:30 at night, and nice clothing, and money to take lavish vacations, and who got to eat out as much as they wanted, and who seemingly "had it made."

On some level I knew that most of it was just show, and that it wasn't a reflection of true happiness or success. Plus, my lifestyle provided me with a whole host of priceless benefits woefully absent in the typical American life... but it's sort of hard to convince yourself of things like that when you're busy playing woe is me.

Anyhow, it was late, and I stopped by the all night grocery store on my way home from work. While there, I happened to pick up a copy of our little neighborhood freebie newspaper. Little did I know that my life was about to change in a pretty fundamental way.

So, I got home, and I was thumbing through the paper, when I noticed an article about a young couple who had recently immigrated from Russia... or is it emigrated? well, whatever. At the time Russian immigrants were quite the novelty, so I suppose that's why the story was viewed as newsworthy.

As I read the article, the giant iceberg of self pity inside of me began to melt into torrents of shame.

I wish I had saved a copy of the article, because it turned out to be fairly life-altering for me, but alas, we'll have to rely upon my memory.

So here we have our young Russian couple. They are living in a tiny studio apartment in a fairly rough section of town, they are both working minimum wage fast food jobs, they have no car, no television, no telephone, no paid vacation time, and yet they cannot believe their incredible good fortune.

They talked about how back in Russia they never could have hoped to have had their own apartment, at least not for many, many years. And they felt as if they were living like kings because chicken leg quarters were so cheap that they could actually afford to eat meat several times per week, something that was unheard of back in their home country.

I looked around me at my 275 square foot apartment, and suddenly, it didn't seem so small.

I remembered back about 10 years earlier when I was still in high school, I played in a local youth orchestra, and a few of our members had been chosen to travel to Russia in one of the very first cultural exchange programs between our countries back in the mid 1980's when Glasnost was still in its infancy.

My orchestra-mates had brought with them some photos of their homes and some magazines. When the Russians saw the pictures of their typical suburban houses, they wanted to know how many families lived there. And when they saw the magazines, what captivated them was an advertisement for a refrigerator, because it contained a photo of an open fridge overflowing with fresh food... and they couldn't believe that anyone could actually afford such luxuries.

I looked down at my plate, and around my kitchen at the cabinets heavily laden with food, and the magnitude of my privilege started to sink in.

I mean, here I was, I was in my mid-20's, I had a nice apartment all to myself, more food than I could possibly eat, more clothing than I could fit into my double closet, a nice car, a locked garage to store it in, a sweet little cat who could afford to be a picky eater, plenty of heat, a nice big bed, health insurance, a family who had bailed me out of my stupid financial mistakes, and an entire community of like minded people to support me.

It suddenly occurred to me that I really had it made... and I wasn't even trying! In fact, I had done just about everything in my power to shun "success" and still, here I was living the proverbial Life of Riley.

There have been many times throughout my frugal journey when I have been tempted to descend into the land of poor pitiful me. It's hard not to buy into the lies that surround us, especially when we are inundated day in and day out with messages that tell us that "more is better" and that we should "strive for success."

But when it comes right down to it... what do we really, truly need? It seems to me that once you sweep away all of the clutter and the BS, all we really need is clean water, healthy food, shelter, clothing, loving companionship, and access to health care... and that's pretty much it. Everything else is either a luxury or just plain old excess.

Somehow, reading that article made that all come into crystal clear focus for me. And once I began to recognize the luxuries that surrounded me on a daily basis, I simply couldn't help but be overwhelmed by a sense of incredible gratitude. All I had to do was open my eyes to the abundance that was already flowing through my life.

So every time I start to think that my life is hard or somehow not fair, all I have to do is think about that young couple from Russia, and it sets me straight pretty darned quick.

I consider this knowledge to be an incredible gift.

How about you... have any of you ever had a similar frugal epiphany?

For the next post in this series click here.


  1. Well, about five minutes ago I was standing in my driveway watching the steam rising from my poor car, and it occurred to me that I really could probably get away without having a car... if I had to. (They said I was mad, mad I tell you, when I decided to buy a house in an area because it was walkable instead of buying one in a 'fashionable' area where I'd be dependent on a car or else. Ha! laughs triumphantly)

  2. Oh, your poor little car! Hopefully it won't be something terminal. I went "car free" for a month or so this spring because my baby wouldn't start. I don't drive much... I think I'm at about 700 miles for the year, but it's one luxury item that comes in quite handy now and then.

  3. Yes. As far as I am concerned, the moment when we realize just how TRULY blessed we are has the potential to be life-changing. I am surrounded by so much and with or without all of the material things, I am BLESSED.

  4. American Thanksgiving must be this weekend, no? I think it's important for everyone to stop & be thankful for how lucky we really are to have the things & the freedoms that we have. It can ALWAYS be worse.

  5. @ Kristin - American Thanksgiving is Thursday, November 24. It is my favorite holiday BY FAR, as it is not about all the commercial trappings of Christmas and is a very nice family time. Another thing I like about it is that it's a holiday that brings people of different backgrounds together. For instance, my parent's neighborhood used to do this ecumenical service with the Jewish Synagogue, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, and Catholic churches. Totally awesome. And people not into organized religion celebrate the day too.

    @ EcoCatLady - One of my epiphanies was a comment a Lutheran seminary pastor (who had traveled widely throughout the world, including some really poor areas) said in the 1990s: "If you are living in the United States, in this era, regardless of how you feel about your circumstances, you are RICH." He was speaking, of course, about the many things we take for granted and how -- on the whole -- none of us lives in abject poverty.

    Lately I've started to feel weighed down by "stuff" and the time that goes into taking care of it. Getting rid of stuff is a freeing thing.

  6. Mary - I think the realization is as much a blessing as the reality.

    Kristin - Gosh... now that you mention it, maybe I should have saved this post for Thanksgiving! Didn't think of that! But I am TRULY thankful!

    Janeen - Yup. I think that when you have nothing but the uber-wealthy to compare yourself to, it's really easy to forget our status in this little world of ours.

  7. Just read this and went back and read your "Sink or Swim" post. I'm realizing that my current work schedule is not sustainable and trying to figure out what to do about it.

    After adhering pretty closely to the "extreme frugality" mentality through college and grad school, I feel I've started to slip from that a bit, if only in small ways.

    For one thing, as much as I try to fight it, there's a lot of pressure to buy things for the baby, and I think being exhausted and sleep-deprived makes it harder to fight the status quo and easier to give in to things that make life "better/easier."

  8. Melissa - Well, in my opinion the main reason to live frugally is so that you don't have to work so much. But it is a bit of a chicken and egg proposition. And if you're trying to be a model of frugality while at the same time working full time AND raising a baby... well, maybe you're Superwoman, but I sure couldn't do it.

    I think that at the moment what you need to do is be gentle with yourself. Your life has just undergone a quantum shift and if spending a bit of money will make your life easier right now, then by all means spend it! I mean there is only so much that one person can handle, and making some compromises in order to maintain sanity doesn't mean that you're capitulating on your morals or goals... it just means that you're doing the best you can with the current reality.

    For me the problem always seems to be that there's a very fine line between spending that really will make your life easier, and spending that only makes you feel better because you allowed yourself to spend money on yourself - does that make any sense? I always have to remind myself to "keep my eyes on the prize".

    Like... I need to have a door replaced because of damage from the hail storm. If I really REALLY had to, I could probably figure out how to do the work myself... but it would be a huge stressful thing and I just don't think it's worth it. On the other hand, I just picked out doorknobs, and while part of me wanted the really pretty fancy set with nicely shaped handles, it cost $40 more than the standard set and really it wouldn't make much difference in my life. Part of me was saying... "Well hell! If I can spend $500 on the installer, shouldn't I just spring for the extra $40 for the nice doorknobs?" But the difference is that paying for the installer will make my life MUCH easier, while buying the fancy doorknobs will only make me feel good because I allowed myself a frivolous purchase.

    Hang in there, and remember to take care of yourself!

  9. I need constant reminders, which is why I love little spots on the interwebs such as this. You frequently offer stellar reminders, and for that I (and my sanity) thank you.

    My husband is also really good at helping me to realize how totally blessed we are. I am so very typically American--always wanting the next shiny object, etc. My husband is so very Scottish. He doesn't have large wants and expresses gratitude over the smallest things. I have to stop and remind myself--he gets this. He gets this life thing way better than I do. Pay attention! Gratitude is a gift.

  10. Demandra - You know... we are blessed, with things, and money, and creature comforts... but there are plenty of ways that we are cursed by our culture as well (expectations about how hard we should all work, crazy body image issues, denial of basic humanity... stuff like that.) It would be really nice if we could find a way to enjoy the best of both worlds so to speak.

  11. I have epiphanies like this regularly, but the thing that is sticking with me at the moment is watching the documentary The Price Of Sugar.

    To see Haitians who were tricked into working in Dominican cane fields with no shoes, their identification taken off them, who oftentimes don't even get one meal a day just so America can fulfil it's poorly designed contract with the slave driving owners of the sugar can industry...I get paid by my government to do an advanced diploma and I can afford to live by myself in a large one bedroom flat 10 minutes from the CBD and I can afford to have pets, and feed and clothe myself. When I think about that, I wonder why I can't do with even less than I have now - and I thought I was doing magnificently!

    I caught myself last night saying "I'm hungry" and I realised I have no idea what that really means. I felt ashamed. It's easy to spiral into empathetic depression sometimes, we can't be ashamed of being born in lucky countries, but we can give of ourselves to help those less fortunate because I'm starting to feel like each and every one of us has a duty to do so in some particular way.

    Another great post (another long comment!)

    1. Eee Gads! There's yet another good reason not to eat sugar!

      You know, I am prone to descending into fits of guilt... guilt over my privileged position in life, environmental guilt, you name it. But the truth is that no amount of my feeling guilty is gonna help another soul.

      Sometimes I think that the real tragedy of it all is that those of us who did win the existential jackpot seldom actually enjoy any of the privileges that we have. I mean, most of the people I see around me are, on some level, utterly miserable. They're harried and exhausted, and in debt up to their eyeballs, and they live in a constant state of trying to keep all of their anxieties at bay.

      Not sure what my point is, but I'm trying very hard to allow myself to really and truly enjoy the luxuries that I've got - especially the simple ones. And the more I really enjoy what I have, and let myself be happy about it, the less I feel I need to acquire. Somehow I think that's a much more powerful tool than self-flagellation.

  12. Evil sugar! Australia is full of sugar cane. Queensland in particular where I live it's everywhere! As far as I am currently aware we are good to our sugar cane workers!

    I agree with you (again). I have been thinking about this stuff lately and I reckon my guilt will ease the more I learn to love with less (without depriving myself because I don't think that proves any point to anyone) and not be a mindless consumer, and also when I start giving back in some way, or several ways. I'm investigating now where my energies will go regarding that.

  13. I just finished the series, and wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. Perspective really is the one thing we need, and I learn that lesson over and over. Thank you for the reminder and for all these great posts.

    1. Awww thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed my rambling stories. And thanks also for giving me an excuse to look at these old posts and realize that many of the photos need fixing!


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