The Blade and the Earth

A courthouse is designed to provoke obedience. Everything from the unforgiving stone floors and stuffy silence to the polished rails and guards in their creaking leather belts demands order. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a place where justice is meted out. A place where disappointments like us went to be punished.

We were nervous before we stepped inside, and the cop who checked us in certainly didn’t help.

“Sir!” he barked at my husband. “You can’t bring that in here.”

We looked around, wondering what contraband he could possibly be carrying.

The guard sighed and pointed at the waist of my husband’s carefully pressed black suit pants. “Your knife, sir. No weapons are allowed in the building.”

Born and raised in the country, my husband carries a pocketknife everywhere he goes. It’s as much a part of his ensemble as a watch, wallet, and cell phone, and neither of us had even considered our destination that morning as we prepared for what promised to be one of the hardest days of our married life.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” he stammered, sliding it from his belt. “Can I leave it here with you?”

“Nope,” the guard replied. “We’re not allowed to keep personal items at the desk.”

There wasn’t time to make the long walk back to the parking garage, and we stared, genuinely flummoxed and more rattled than we had been when we arrived. But then my husband saw a stand near the door that held plastic umbrella bags. He marched toward it, ripped one from the peg, and headed back outside to the courtyard. I couldn’t help but follow.

img_6399Choosing the closest planter, he wrapped the bag around the knife, tied it securely, and then began to dig a hole in the moist earth between a row of freshly planted purple and white pansies and the concrete wall. Then he dropped the bag in the hole and filled it in.

When he stood, I saw his hands were dirty—as dirty as I felt.

For weeks, I’d known this day was coming. It had been inevitable ever since we discovered the condo we’d bought, along with hundreds of others, hadn’t been built to code. Despite tens of thousands of dollars spent on repairs, which more than doubled our mortgage, the place still wasn’t close to passing inspection. In a few months, our savings account was siphoned dry, and bill after bill slipped into “past due” status.

Rather than continue to throw money into what had become an 1,100-square-foot pit (with new carpet no less), we’d opted to file chapter 13 and cut the rope keeping the financial albatross around our necks. Now, I imagined everyone who looked at me saw a scarlet “B” on my chest.

There was something so final, so disheartening, about stashing his knife that I couldn’t help but sob. It was like he was burying everything we’d worked so hard for—hopes for home ownership and putting down roots. Of finally being able to paint a wall yellow or blue instead of sterile rental white. All of it was going into the earth with that blade.

The rest of the day passed in a florescent-lit haze. We entered the courtroom and numbly sat down next to our lawyer. And when the time came for us to officially declare our insolvency, we stood and locked hands—more grateful than ever for each other. Shame, heavy as it might be, sits a little easier on two shoulders.

As the judge droned on for what felt like hours, we waited, letting the waterfall of meaningless words fall over us. The entire time, I imagined I could still feel that dirt on our hands, ground into the whorls of fingers and the crooked lines of life and love.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I thought. From it we were made, and to it we shall return—all at once or one piece at a time.

After the papers were signed, we escaped into the sunlight of a perfect Florida afternoon, exhausted and looking for the closest bar—unsure what to do now that we were, for all intents and purposes, homeless. We were so desperate to leave, in fact, that we nearly forgot the knife, but my husband remembered and went back. It reemerged as clean and sharp as when it went in, and—though it didn’t feel so at the time—the same would be true of us after seven long, lean years.

I won’t lie. Being flat broke and without credit was rather close to the bone, but it also had a way of clarifying things. The finances were tight, but somehow, there was always enough. The few things we did have were enjoyed richly. My husband and I grew to love each other in truer and more meaningful ways, and each day, we found the answer to Jesus’ question “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25) was a resounding yes.

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Jamie A. Hughes“The Blade and the Earth” was written by Jamie A. Hughes. Jamie is a writer, editor, and unapologetic St. Louis Cardinals fanatic who currently lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband, two adopted sons, and a pair of needy cats. A former high school teacher, she now works as the managing editor of In Touch Magazine and is struck dumb by her good fortune. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter @tousledapostle. 

It’s Just Money, Right?

I type in the web address, username and password. And then I cringe, panic, calm down, breathe.

“It’s just money,” I repeat as I wonder how to make it grow on trees, “It’s just money, and someday we’ll have more of it.”

Maybe. Someday. But not today. Today I have to pay the credit card bill. Tomorrow the mortgage; the next day the gas bill. Why did the price of internet go up? Every month is a scramble to make the numbers work, and sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever leave this place.

I would really like to leave this place, this financial ledge where our income and expenses are the same number. I would like a place to rest, somewhere we could breathe easy, but I can’t seem to find it. We’re too busy roping our family to the cliff every month.


There have been times that I have had a plan. The remnants of best-laid intentions litter my file cabinet–the bright pink budgeting folder I found at Target; the envelopes that held cash for entertainment, groceries, lattes. I create glorious systems that last, on average, for two to three months.

Then life happens. I stop collecting receipts. The car breaks down. I need new contact lenses the same month everyone gets strep throat. Christmas comes again.

And I wonder: does anyone stay on top of this? But, like most people, I don’t talk about money, except in the most generic terms. I just assume that everyone else has found a system that works for them, that they have way more discipline than we do, and that we are unique in our precarious–and somehow, deserved–position.   


Forget organization. The problem is either expenses or income–and since we hardly ever eat out  and buy our clothes at the Goodwill–my money (though not much of it) is on income.

It was only a few years back that I first heard the term “overeducated and underemployed,” and I immediately recognized myself and most of my close friends. At that time six of us–myself, my husband and our four closest neighbor-friends–held five master’s degrees and earned less than $100,000. Combined.

So, mostly, we were paying our student loans.

If I sound like I’m whining, I am. And I shouldn’t be–our salaries still made us some of the richest people on our block. We were not poor, and our predicament was not entirely an accident, rather, our choices had paved the way to an uneasy middle-class existence. We had stay-at-home moms and dads among our number who cleaned houses, pulled espresso shots, sold bikes, and shipped greeting cards to retain flexible schedules. All three of our “professional class” worked for nonprofits, which did not, let’s say, provide lucrative compensation packages.

We had made our cliff-ledges, and now we had to lie on them.

love people“Money isn’t everything” we said in our twenties as we chose the work that seemed most meaningful.

“We can make this work,” we said in our early thirties. Our kids were young then, and hand-me-downs abundant. Student loans went to forbearance. New couches were postponed. We bought each other socks and underwear for birthdays, cementing our identities as boring grown-ups.

“There are numbers that aren’t being counted,” we said, “like hours with our kids, the positive impact we are making on other people’s lives, the satisfaction… um, index… of an important job well done.”

And it’s all true. And it’s all worth it. But now somehow, as I tip toward my forties and realize that $3.62 doesn’t constitute a savings account, what seemed exciting and counter-cultural starts to feel irresponsible, and–well, exhausting.

I start to realize that financial instability is a place that I may never leave.

My husband says that this thought is completely depressing. “It’s not that hard,” he says, “We just get you a better job, and make some investments.” I give him an extended eye roll. Whatever–as if it’s that easy.

We’re in the kitchen, and he is shaking out peppercorns from a bulk container and chopping garlic from the backyard, preparing veal shanks that were cast-offs from our church’s foodbank. “I’m not sure how I feel about eating veal, even free veal,” I tell him, but it smells amazing. It’s Saturday morning and we have nowhere to go, the cats are posted by the woodstove, and the kids are outside playing in the snow.

Yesterday I cut our monthly expenses again, found a bit more freelance work, and directed some auto deposits to our savings account. Today I’m writing a story to meet a deadline for a blog that pays me nothing, and yet generates a different kind of abundance. It’s a balancing act I know well, and that’s a good thing–as I may be doing it for the next fifty years.

“Oh well,” I think as I prepare the hot chocolate that will soon be required. The rich smell of stew fills the bright kitchen. And we have everything we need.

At least there’s a nice view from this ledge.

* * * * *

jen bio YAH

A note about the photo: After I had finished this piece I was dropping my six-year-old off at school and saw this paper on her locker, a remnant of a MLK Day assignment. I asked her about the picture, and she said that it shows that love weighs more than money.

Next time I’ll let her write the post.