This post is a submission to the Living Well Spending Less Secret 13 essay contest. You can find out more about the contest here, read about Ruth’s new book here, and visit the blog itself here to read finalist’s essays every Tuesday morning. Thank you, Ruth, for the opportunity to participate!
I study the grimy, peeling linoleum on my kitchen floor. The textured yellow-brown pattern glares back at me silently. The refrigerator hums. Tim creaks the piano bench in the next room as he listens to a recording of his new song through headphones that are up too loud.
We’ve been talking (again) about how we can make a go of making music. Maybe I could audition for a better choir or the opera company up the highway. Tim wants to get his lip back up to snuff on his horn. Sometimes, when the kids are in bed early and we’re not too tired, we still love to play and sing together. We should try to record an album someday, we say. (We’ve been saying that for years.)
That was part of what brought us together—making music. We used to sing together everywhere. Favorite songs, folk songs, Tim’s songs. He lived and breathed through his stereo, his euphonium, his guitar…always practicing, always playing. Always wishing he could do it better, even though he was already good.
We always said we never wanted or needed much money. We just wanted enough so we could get by and still make music together. We wanted to be able to live a good life—a real life, a meaningful life—outside of working a nine-to-five job. We never wanted to be so tied to the system that we lost our sense of freedom.
The desire to live well has weathered the passing of the last ten years. Yet, time, age, and responsibilities have worn us down a bit.
We have an affordable mortgage, but of course a house comes with costs besides monthly payments. We have to repair our chimney and put on a new roof this spring. And perhaps rebuild our sagging front porch.
Plus, we’re expecting our third child—which necessitates expenses like a bigger car than our rusty ’97 Civic. So we bought a ’98 Odyssey with its own share of little maintenance problems. And, of course, birth and babies aren’t free.
We’re doing it all as savers who pride themselves on buying everything in cash—but that can be pretty tricky when you’re living just above the poverty level. And in the midst of all those bills, sometimes you forget about just living well and not worrying about making money.
But let’s not pretend that money is the only distraction from leading a meaningful life.
I am tired. There are too many messes to clean. Preserving our garden and cooking from scratch is draining. I’m working to make supplemental income through voice lessons and writing while primarily staying home with the kids—and struggling to find the balance. I want to sing more, but young children make it so hard to practice efficiently. I want to homeschool, but I often question my ability to do so cheerfully and thoroughly.
As for my husband? He is often discouraged. I have no marketable skills, he says. I have three degrees that I am not using. I will never make much money. My musical inadequacy is lamentable, especially considering how much time I’ve put into it. I have no remarkable store of knowledge. I have done absolutely nothing notable. I have wasted years of my life working towards things that don’t matter.
But they matter to me, I tell him, over and over again. I think we’ve had this conversation probably a hundred times since I’ve known him. He has a work ethic like nobody else I know. He is self-disciplined, kind, faithful, thoughtful, and upright. He is the best husband and father anyone could ask for.
Who cares whether or not you are ever acknowledged for what you have done? You are a good man, I reply. I wouldn’t trade you for anyone else.
But discontent grows when you see people you know and love make great achievements before you you’ve even found your footing. Like when your classmates are making a living making music. Or when your peers are getting operatic roles that you will never get a chance at because you are home, changing diapers, not practicing. Or when your family is full of distinguished professionals in their respective fields, making good money and a good name for themselves.
Failure can eat away at you, breeding bitterness, despondency, and envy. You focus on things like your terribly ugly kitchen floor that you can’t afford to replace. Or the songs you’ve practiced that no one will ever hear. You harden your pride and gloat about your frugality because it helps you to save face and cover your own deficiencies.
One night my husband sat down with a storm in his mind, to write a song. I went to bed early; he stayed up late recording. The next day, I listened:
A plain truth found me on a Wednesday night.
Fate or fortune, strength or weakness, we may both regret
Our own submission to this solemn anonymity;
But, I love you, and I love him.
My boy, he knows no greater joy
Than you or me—
No love greater than ours.
Contentment is his to teach, and it’s ours to learn.
It’s his to teach, and it’s ours to learn.
Love me still, my wife.
A plain truth. Hot tears came to my eyes.
Contentment is his to teach… Our boy is happy to feel the grass between his toes, to play blocks, to cut papers, to snuggle and read at the end of the night. He is curious, carefree, bursting with energy and life. He sees beauty in everything he touches. He is satisfied with the world around him.
Dare we take that from him? Dare we trade his joy for resentment? Dare we teach him that he needs wealth, recognition, or a life of ease to be fulfilled?
We may never make music that anyone will care to hear. Our names may never be remembered. Our entire lives may be spent with our noses to the grindstone in boring daily duties. We will most likely remain largely unknown, living in quiet obscurity.
But we can take a lesson from our boy. We can learn to find the good life in the everyday blessings that God has already given to us.
If I would only open my eyes and look around me, I might see more good in the life I have presently. The steadfast love of my husband. My children’s sweet words and charming habits. Satisfaction in working at the routine tasks I normally so despise. Beauty in the commonplace.
There is goodness found in the most mundane of lives. Perhaps working contentedly at a quiet, normal life, is in fact more of a good life than discontentedly chasing vain ambition.
Later, Tim added this section to the song:
Though my feet may wander far from home,
May my heart here never leave.
May my soul be knit to yours alone,
All my fortune here to see.
All my fortune here to see.
There was no secret to finding the good life. The plain truth is that it was in front of us the whole time.