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What’s your money story?

  • One thousand one dollar bills were stitched together by volunteers to create the back-drop for McEwen and Labanowski's performance of Legal Tender: Women and the Secret Life of Money." Contributed photo Phyllis Labanowski

  • Conway social activist and artist Phyllis Labanowski hangs strands of one dollar bill for a performance of "Legal Tender: Women and the Secret Life of Money." Contributed photo courtesy of Phyllis Labanowski

  • Williamsburg writer Christian McEwan began interviewing women about their "money stories" after the recession in 2008. Contributed artwork by Phyllis Labanowski



For The Recorder
Wednesday, November 09, 2016

In our culture, it’s not always thought of as “good manners” to talk about money — even as we think of money as being what defines success. Money is “the bottom line.”

If it’s so important, why don’t we talk about it? Two local women, Christian McEwen of Williamsburg and Phyllis Labanowski of Conway have devised a workshop to help open communication.

McEwen started interviewing women in 2009, she said, asking them to tell their stories about money partly because after the recession of 2008, she heard plenty of stories on NPR and other places about men and money but almost no women’s stories.

“That was got me on the move,” McEwen says.

Five years of interviewing more than 50 women provided fodder for a play, “Legal Tender: The Secret Life of Money,” which has been performed in various incarnations in community settings for the past three or four years. McEwen says she’s done some versions of the play in New York City, and locally in Northampton in the spring of 2014. In that version, 10 actors performed in front of a curtain made from dangling strands of 1,000 one-dollar bills, stitched together by volunteers.

“I suppose the poorest person I interviewed was a Tibetan refugee,” McEwen says. “When she did make money she sent it back to Tibet. At the top end were several people who had inherited money and had big bucks. One had about 4 million dollars… She told me this wonderful story about introducing herself at a gathering and somebody said, ‘That certainly sounds like an old money name.’

“She was also a lesbian. She found it harder to come out as someone with money,” McEwan says.

McEwan is teaming up with Labanowski to present a workshop entitled, “What’s Your Money Story? Anxiety, Abundance & the New Regime,” on Saturday, Nov. 19, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at The Art Garden in Shelburne Falls.

A poster for the event invites you to: “Explore your personal money story through lively conversation, art-making and creative writing.” A donation of $15 is suggested but no one will be turned away because of lack of funds. The afternoon includes a potluck lunch.

“People could bring a pot of soup or some finger food,” McEwen said of the potluck. “Particularly if someone can’t come up with the $15, it would be grand if they could bring something to eat.”

The Art Garden will provide art supplies, McEwen said, but participants should feel free to bring along their own journals for writing.

“Nobody talks about money,” McEwen says. “It wasn’t polite, that’s what we were told. This is really where the core of this project is: What happens when you open the door to those stories?”

Citing the title of writer and poet Adrienne Rich’s 1979 volume of selected prose, “On Lies, Secrets and Silence,” McEwan says, “There are so many lies, secrets and silences about money. It’s tremendously freeing and astonishing and almost giddying when you open that door.”

Labanowski, who comes to the arts through social activism, says, “Christian’s approach is much gentler on the soul than class activism, which goes right to why are some people rich and some people poor?”

Social activism takes a hard look at class oppression, Labanowski says, while, “Christian’s approach has been to gently encourage people to tell their stories.”

In a workshop setting, hearing excerpts from the play helps others to remember their own stories, Labanoswki says. Those stories in turn open up more stories.

“How do we explore this stuff?” Labanowski asks. “Because one of the things we both agree on is that emotional intelligence about money is really essential for our financial intelligence to be even deeper and wiser.”

Labanowksi, the daughter of a Polish fur trapper, grew up “scrappy,” she writes on the website www.legaltenderplay.com. Though she thought of herself as working class, access to education through scholarships and a surprise inheritance left behind by her hoarder father gave her an unexpected leg up in the world. In an odd way, Labanowski found herself catapulted into the ranks of the educated upper middle class, people she’d always thought of as the enemy.

“Working class people talk about money all the time,” Labanowski says. “I have found it more often true that working class people talk about money more than wealthy people do. But people at both ends of the continuum have trouble.”

There can be shame associated with being poor, she explains. And there can be judgments made against people with wealth that also cause shame.

“The reason I’ve collaborated with Christian is that I really do believe we need to talk about money. …For me, it’s like racism was a few decades ago: nobody talked about it.

“I’m really interested in looking at wealth through the lens of money and assets but also the other kinds of wealth that communities draw on: water, shared land, public schools and public health, food security.”

Both McEwen and Labanowski look forward to drawing women together right after the election, regardless of its outcome.

“There’s something constant when we turn to our communities,” Labanowski says. “My well ran dry and all of my neighbors were bringing me water, giving me keys to their houses so I could shower. Money doesn’t buy that. …We have to understand how the accumulation of wealth works but also the idea of wealth beyond money. This is a gentle opportunity for women to explore their relationship to money using story-telling, writing and the arts.”

Workshop details

What’s Your Money Story?: Anxiety, Abundance & the New Regime, led by Christian McEwen & Phyllis Labanowski, Saturday, Nov. 19, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at The Art Garden, 14 Depot St., Shelburne Falls, MA. Contact: 413-625-2782. Space is limited so please RSVP to christianmcewen@aol.com or phyllislabanowski@comcast.net by Wednesday, Nov. 16.

You can see clips from the play, “Legal Tender: The Secret Life of Money” at: www.legaltenderplay.com

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@mac.com