I’m Donning My Cape and Becoming Robin Hood

If ever the world needed a Robin Hood, they need one now. I’m seriously considering donning a cape and becoming a female Robin Hood. You think I kid. But I am not kidding because I am so sick of hearing Republicans say blah, blah, blah, and Democrats say blah, blah, blah. Really, everyone just be quiet for a bit. People need help, not principles (Republicans) and definitely not ideologies (Democrats). At least, that’s what I’ve found out.

The biggest thing about my newly transplanted life is that I have developed an entirely new group of friends. I know, that isn’t so weird, considering I moved. But, I didn’t move that far away, and the weird part is this: My new friends couldn’t be anymore different from my old friends than if I had moved to a foreign country on the opposite side of the world. The culture shock is just as real as an immersion program in Guatemala, which is fascinating, to say the least, but mostly eye-opening. Something I needed.

My new friends are people who work 2-3 jobs, don’t travel to Europe, don’t have second homes, don’t belong to clubs, their children don’t go to private schools, and they live minute-to-minute financially. It actually takes courage to live that way. Like I said, where’s Robin Hood?

They live hand-to-mouth, and yet are the most generous people I’ve ever known. I’ve benefited from their generosity. I’ve had a few bills slipped into my pocket with no expectation of a thank you. No expectation at all, except that if I am ever able to bless someone they hope I do. It is a code of honor among them. Those that have now, give to those who do not. Their biggest fear is the weekly work schedule, which goes out a week in advance giving them their work hours. It can change for reasons they have no knowledge of, and leave them with less hours and trying to find work in-between, which is anything from mowing yards to cleaning houses. They will do whatever it takes to make ends meet.

Here’s a recent example of the generosity I’ve witnessed. It happened this past week, Christmas week. One friend works for a very successful woman. That woman chose Monday, December 22, exactly three days prior to Christmas, to tell her employees (most of whom work 12-15 hour days for her) that this year there would be no Christmas bonus. Her timing was impeccable, don’t you think? How thoughtful of her to let them know before the actual day of. I seriously wanted to go all Robin Hood on this rich chick, as I had prayed with my friend that she would receive the much needed bonus, and we were both awaiting that decision anxiously.

cinthia milner--transplanted and still blooming--robin hood

Here’s how my friend and the other employees handled the sad news. The ones with more money (we’re not talking millions here), gave the ones who had children and less money, the bonus the employer felt she could not give. They did this by forgoing their own Christmas, or delaying the payment of an upcoming bill for a bit, and giving cash out of their own pockets. They calculated the amount the bonus would have been, and between them were able to provide bonuses for a few. (Again, we ain’t talking millions here.) So, where you ask was their rich boss while this was happening? Well, her company did not make enough this year to pay her workers a Christmas bonus, but it did, thankfully, earn enough to pay for her annual Christmas trip to the Cayman Islands for 2 weeks. We can all rest a bit easier now, knowing that her yearly trip was not interrupted by the company apparently making less money than per normal. Whew.

I’m going to call this what it is. Oppression. Making money on the backs of others. I’m also going to call it what it morally is. Wrong. God himself has a heart for the poor and counts kindness to the impoverished as kindness to himself. We’d do well to remember that, and all be Robin Hood in some way.

My last life included friends who considered health care, grocery buying, sick days and vacation days all part and parcel of everyday life, along with lunches with girlfriends, shopping when you felt like it, travel athletics for the kids, and exercising at the gym. I’m not excluding myself here, which is why the lesson of my new friends is so poignant. I thought everyone had these things except the very poor with no jobs at all. I didn’t know about folks who work dawn to dusk and still cannot provide for their families.

Tired, sore bodies, who are leaving one job to head to the next, was not a part of my back-then world. And sadly, I must say, neither was generosity–at least not on the level I see it now. One very rich friend often chided such workers for drinking Starbucks coffee, I mean that extra five dollars could go a long way, you know. (And no, don’t point out to me that it adds up. What do you do with your extra money? I thought so.)  Seriously, my rich friend would’ve done better by offering to buy their coffee, remembering that that worker earns in two weeks what she earns in five minutes.We’d all do better buying that cup of coffee for someone, and stop our projecting on how others should live.

We’d all do better to done a Robin Hood cape, and take from our own pocket books to distribute to those in need. And we’d all do better to stop expecting an impotent government to do anything other than argue, and be about the business of making things right ourselves.

Why am I on this rant? Well, besides donning my Robin Hood cape, I am awed by new friends. They have taught me a larger lesson that extends beyond their generosity–they don’t give up. They don’t close up their hearts, and their gladness, and their joy, and their love in the face of ugly treatment, shabby pay, rich bosses who haven’t a clue, no way to pay the rent again, tired feet, sore legs, heads hurting, and dreams dashed. They don’t quit or stop loving and living, they do just the opposite, they love more, they dream more, they risk more, they open their hearts more, and they leave more on the table. They hang onto hope, and make room for more.

They live abundantly, though they have no abundance.

What inspiration I have found among them. I, whose broken heart and broken pocket book was leading her straight down a bitter road, learned from those who live on little to open up my heart, even in the midst of it breaking, and make room for more. More laughter, more joy, more gladness, more love, more hope. Life is hard, and Robin Hood but a myth, or perhaps, a legend? At least, that’s what some people say. But, I’ve seen Robin Hood in the midst of my friends, as they take from their own pockets and place in another’s.



Need More Christmas Ornaments!

One Christmas morning we’d opened all the gifts, and were ready for church, which started at 10. It was snowy and overcast, but I braved the cold, and took the compost bucket out before we left. It was reaching the smelly stage.  The compost bin was up a hill, on the opposite side of the driveway from the house, and a little ways into the woods. After dumping it, I turned back to the house and saw my three guys framed perfectly in the living room window. Twinkly  lights and Christmas ornaments behind them, big smiles on their faces, my youngest in my ex’s arms, and my oldest playing with his toy (I think it was a transformer), they were having some fun time while waiting on me. It was definitely one of those moments. I was wearing my just-unwrapped Christmas sweater from Coldwater Creek. I am wearing it now.

Magical thinking isn’t just for children and I thought, if I stay right here, in the sleety, snowy, cold muck, in my garden-green rubber clogs, then they’ll stay there. If I move, I thought, then they’ll move. So, I stood completely still, sort-of holding my breath, freezing and watching my family. I framed that window-picture of them in my mind, wishing I could encapsulate time.

People say you don’t lose those moments, instead you keep them in your heart forever. I never really know what that means.

Our tree had those big colored lights on it because my kids preferred those, and ours was a family tree, not a themed tree. The ornaments were very personal to us.  It had Brett Favre, arm back, ready to throw for a touchdown (oldest son), a Pac Man machine (me), the Chelsea soccer team logo (youngest son), a logging truck (ex). We had a tradition of picking out a new ornament every year.  It started with me and my ex. Our first married Christmas we chose one ornament each, hence a tree with 2 ornaments and a lot of lights.  The second year my oldest was crawling around, so there was 5 ornaments on our tree. The third year 8 ornaments, and so on. By year 20 the tree was loaded. I kept a record of each new one, the year it was purchased, and who it belonged too. They’re in a box in my attic, now.

That presented the problem of decorating a Christmas tree in my new home, sans family. Do I? Don’t I? Because if I do, what do I do with a box of family ornaments collected over 22 years. So, I settled on a Fraser Fir candle until I figured it out.

You’re thinking, one stinking candle? Scrooge.

Yes, but here’s the thing. It’s a Fraser Fir candle. If you’ve never smelled one, then go ahead and consider me chintzy. But, if you’ve smelled one, I know you’re thinking ah, good choice. You’re deciding that’s what you’ll do next year–skip the tree and get the candle that smells exactly like the tree. I might even go so far as to say they smell better than the tree. And, since they are pretty pricey, I think we can take chintzy off the table. The candle presented itself as a good solution for my Christmas dilemma.

Until this year when I caved to the Christmas tree pressure. See, everyone wants me to be happy at Christmas, and they think having a Christmas tree will make me happy. But really. It was just me making them happy. (It’s because my Christmases are mostly spent alone now, and that frets my loved ones.)

My Christmas was stuck in the attic, with ornaments counting off like soldiers in a row. One ornament, two ornaments, five this year and then whoa, 8 ornaments and more ornaments until the Christmas tree can’t hold a bow. (Okay, a bit cheesy.)

But I’m gonna have to be honest here. My new cute, little tree (cute and little do not equal cheap–just FYI) decorated with birds, a fox, a badger, and an owl is kinda nice. A very native-y, natural thing going on. I call it my S-L-O-W, L-O-C-A-L tree. And, turning the lights on at night does make the place cheerier. I’m not sure it’s the Holy Grail of happiness, but it goes a long way toward not being depressed at Christmas.

Here’s what I think happened. I got confused. How could I honor the 22 years of Christmases–all every bit as perfect as that moment by the compost pile–if I had a different one? How could I open up that box of ornaments and decorate a tree when I celebrate alone now? And how could I possibly decorate without those ornaments that literally told the life story of my family? And so, I did nothing but light a candle that smelled like a tree. I suppose I thought if I decorated another tree I was forgetting the old one. But now I know, I wasn’t replacing it, I was making room for more. More grace, more people, more love, more Christmases and even more ornaments.

Fox in a Tree

My adorable ‘Fox in a Tree’

Merry Christmas.

One Good Mama One Bad Mama

One Good Mama and One Bad Mama

This is a tale of one good mama and one bad mama. I am the good mama.

My youngest son works at our local Ingle’s running the U-scan. That’s a grocery store. He’s worked there for 2 years earning spending money for college. I was buying groceries, and I did what I always do, stop to chat at the U-scan, and give him money for snacks. He was helping a woman who looked to be in her early 30s, and she got confused when he said goodbye. Was he talking to her?

“Oh, that’s my mom,” he said. “I’m just telling her goodbye.”

“That’s your boy?” she asked me.

She had blonde hair, was smallish in build, and if life had been kinder to her, she’d be stunningly beautiful. But, poverty was spread over her like a ratty blanket, and the lines on her face were too old for someone so young, not to mention the missing three front teeth.

“Yes, he’s mine,” I said, smiling and shaking my head. My goofball son was cracking jokes with the managers.

“You raised a good boy,” she said. “He treats me with respect, and is always kind to me. Some days, I come here because nobody else is ever nice to me, and I know he will be. He makes people feel like they matter.”

She had my full attention now. I’d been sort of half-talking to her. and half-watching my son. Her eyes were big and blue with a hint of the little girl she used to be. I grabbed her arm. “What is your name, please?”

“Amy. It’s Amy. Your son. You raised him good. You raised him right.”

That’s my son, alright. His heart is tender toward everyone. Especially those who are poor, who are overlooked, ignored, discounted. Oh, the friends he has brought home. Like lost puppies.  I was so desperately proud of him right then that I had to call a friend and brag on him. I also hugged Amy and cried standing in front of the automatic doors, so they kept opening and shutting while I was hugging Amy and crying.

I work in a store, too. A garden nursery that high end clients frequent. We’re busy making custom wreaths and swags and centerpieces for ladies who are having huge Christmas parties this weekend or next. Ribbon flies out the door, made up into festive bows: Bows for valences, mailboxes, mantles, gifts, light posts and tree-toppers. I listen to tales of just returning from England, or Italy, or France, or wherever, while I hot-glue red berries onto Fraser fir. It’s fun to pick out ribbon and colors for the garland, and chat while making up holiday greenery.

Today, a lady, about my age, who’d just moved to our mountain city from London, England was doing what I’d done the night before–bragging on her son–a college student at Fordham University who’d just scored a job on Wall Street.

“One thing is for certain,” she said, “He won’t come here.”

“Oh, why is that?” I asked.

“The rednecks, the uncouth ignorance that abounds below the Mason Dixon line. It’s too much for him. It’s really too much for me,” she said as if she was not insulting me, my family and every friend I ever had.

Because I prefer to keep my job, I kept my mouth shut and did not say what good Southerners say in that situation, “The road that brought you here will take you right back. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”

Just FYI before I carry on with my little tale of good mom/bad mom here: We Southerners do not care what you think about us. We never have.

Here’s what I wanted to say to her, even more than how she could find her way back to bloody England, one good mama to one bad mama, “You did not raise your son right. You raised him to be unkind, to be disrespectful, to shun others who aren’t his “equal,” and to look past the person and only see their circumstances.”

And if I had really gone redneck on her, I’d have said, “So, you raised a snobby little brat, did ya?”

I didn’t say any of that because we’re in a recession and I need a job. But I am saying it now because I am proud of my son, and his ability to see Amy, and not just her circumstances. I am proud that he knows everyone is deserving of his respect, and that kindness can make a person’s day better. It can make them feel like they matter, because whether you live above or below the Mason Dixon line, you do matter. We all do.

So one good mama to one bad mama: I am proud of my son who isn’t on Wall Street, but is on the U-Scan at Ingle’s helping folks like Amy feel like they matter. Really, in the big picture of life, does anything else matter?




The Burn Rate, Profit Margins and, Hiring the Next CEO

My very first boyfriend (age 15) remains a dear friend these 40 years later. He gave me great advice while going through my divorce, “Remove the emotion, Cinthia. This is now a business deal. You’re thinking profit margins here.”

Well, obviously divorce is very personal, but it was the best advice I got during that mess. The minute I felt a stage 10 meltdown coming on, I’d repeat to myself: This is a business deal. It’s not personal. Remove the emotion. Mind games, maybe, but true nonetheless. The person who was on my team for 20+ years was no longer on my team, and I had to get the best deal I could for myself. That was when I began to see my financial life as a small business, a mini-corporation. And, since, I was about to be one income short of broke, it gave me a way to view this new financial life without getting so wigged out that I was discussing it with the check-out-chick at the grocery store (who has her own D-I-V-O-R-C-E story, and little time for mine).

Now, when I am paying bills, considering purchases, or updating the budget, I view myself as the CEO of the Cinthia Corporation. It’s got a good ring to it, doesn’t it? Applying business tools to your personal finances is a good way to evaluate the overall health of your little corporation.

Ex: What’s my burn rate (defined as how fast I am running through funds, debt and savings)? Companies that have a high burn rate aren’t given much hope in the business world. For myself, let’s just say, I have prayer on my side.

What’s my profit margin? A simple definition of profit margin is the amount by which revenue from sales exceeds costs in a business. If you’re putting profits back into the business, and not spending it on drugs, which has crossed my mind recently (I’m just talking pharmaceutical prescriptions here, don’t panic), then that would be the retirement account.

Looking at your personal finances this way actually helps to remove the emotion and frustration, and let’s you play fast and lose with the numbers if you’re clever. Sadly, I’m not.

It also helps when evaluating long-term investments. Ex: Furman University, my alma mater, comes in on the tuition front at about 50K a year (that’s almost 10x the amount since I graduated). That’s 200K for 4 years if you’re slow on the math, and we’re not talking incidentals like books, etc. When my youngest was being considered for the Furman soccer team, I was proud but not crazy. We did the tour, and when the tour guide asked for questions, I raised my hand. What’s my rate of return on my investment, the 200K?

Excuse me?

Okay, so the tour guide was a sophomore, probably not the person to ask that question since she was currently contributing to her parent’s burn rate, but I know you hear me. And, was I really the only pareent there with that question? I mean, come on, like Junior is really going to pull that off? They say financial securities are commonly judged based on past rates of returns. Well, there you have it. Past rates of returns indicates I should give that 200k to the local homeless guy who walks the streets with his dogs. I mean, I totally like his dogs.

I knew the burn rate would be high for a couple of years after my divorce. I knew the profit margins would be negligible. I knew the gross margins would have no margins.

Setting up a new life after 2 decades of being in the same place is not cheap. But, I was clueless as to the challenges this CEO would face. After long meetings with the Vice-President of Human Resources (that would be Agapanthus, who prefers her full name in matters of business), I am considering Elon Musk, for the job, CEO for Telsa Motors, SpaceX, and designated the sexiest CEO alive by Business Insider. Hey, that doesn’t mean he isn’t smart. If he can get the job done while being cute: Bonus!

As a friend of mine says, “We is po.” Yes, we is.

Investopdeia suggests that when one is “po,” they should a) get a higher paying job (trying) b) get two jobs (done and done) c) get a roommate (I have one, he’s 20, I’m losing money on him). Investopedia aside, I think I’ll just do what Detroit does; hire the next CEO.  Burn baby, burn.

Or, consider non-profit. I hear they’re doing great these days.