I have a very nice life.
It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but at this time in my life I am living better than at any time in my past.
For some people, life is a struggle from the moment they are born…and it remains a struggle until the day they die. The definition of struggle is subjective, of course, dependent on the lowest common denominator for survival in the society in question. But in my life, the struggle to simply survive, to have enough to eat and a warm, dry place to rest my head, often came perilously close to being lost.
A person living in a tipsy shack on the edges of Gugulethu might find that comment laughable, since I grew up in America, but it is no less true for all that my definition of privation is richer than hers might be. Before the word “homeless” came into common use, I found myself so, staying with a series of friends and working peripatetically. When I was able to establish my own place, it was an endless struggle to earn enough money to pay for that roof and eat. There were infinite days of hunger, eating one scant meal a day or living on unsweetened, milkless oatmeal for days at a time. There was a time that my entire cache of personal possessions could be rolled up into a sleeping bag and carried on my back.
This life of privation was not freely chosen, not a vagabond manifestation of my hippie soul or artistic free spirit, but the culmination of a series of events in my life, most of them not of my choosing. From the sexist paradigm that deprived me of a scholarship opportunity in favour of a less-deserving male student to the corporate ball-gazing that deprived me of a respectable career opportunity because their tests told them I was “too smart to be happy doing this work,” I found myself uneducated, unqualified, and unemployed.
For most of my life I compounded an unfortunate beginning with expedient choices that had short term advantages but were long term disasters. But hardship creates limits, not only on opportunity but on your thinking. Long term planning is not possible when you have been forced to focus and plan only as far as the next meal or the next night’s rest. It was a relief to come to a place where I could plan week by week instead of day by day. And it was a luxury when I could indulge in month-to-month living, although no less a struggle.
My life has never been one of plenty. Even when I reached a time of having an abundance of stuff, I knew no other way to live than to battle my way through life. I never lived in an upscale community, I could barely afford to buy a house in a working class neighbourhood and then it was a never-ending struggle to scrape together enough money to pay the mortgage. Twice I came perilously close to foreclosure, and only managed to get out from under by refinancing the house…increasing my debt and monthly burden, and paying the instalments from the proceeds of the new loan, a strategy calculated to end badly, but the only solution available.
I had dreams, but unlike others, I never mistook those dreams for reality, entitlement, or even goals. Life had ground me into a pragmatist, a person who knew her dreams were just that…castles in the air…pretty fictions to be enjoyed but never mistaken for reality…or even possibility. One of my favourite dreams was to come to a place where I could work for the pleasure of it, not for the necessity. In this dream, I would have a fine house…not opulent, but generously sized and nicely situated in a pretty garden…and I would drive a nice car. My life would have security and I would feel loved and valued by my partner. In this dream I would have a nice car…practical, of course, so I would not feel guilty for having it…but a quality marque. I would not have to worry about money…and although I would be able to surround myself with things of beauty and quality, lavishness didn’t seem to be a part of my dreams. And I would be forever relieved of the drudgery of housework…I had laboured as my mother’s maid from the time I was big enough to drag a chair to the kitchen sink and wash the dinner dishes, and the ultimate luxury, to my mind, was someone to wash my dishes and clean my bathroom on a regular basis without stressing my budget.
It is perhaps a supreme irony that I grew up in the richest nation on Earth and could not partake in its wealth. I was born with a fine native intelligence but that is not enough in a society that values educational certification over intellect and quickness, that values one gender over another, that substitutes supposition for empiricism. Like most women of my generation, I ultimately looked to marriage for my salvation but I soon found myself in another situation of short term gain followed by long term loss: marriage should never be entered into with ulterior motives, no matter how compelling they might be.
Ultimately I was able to have a life free of hunger and privation, but maintaining that life was an endless struggle. Always, I was one payday away from disaster, one severance package away from losing it all. In Silicon Valley, where I lived most of my adult life and where big companies eat little companies and giant corporations swallow big companies whole without warning, sudden unemployment is a fact of life. But in a place where an executive secretary earns less than $5000 a month but the monthly payment on a modest tract home in a lower middle-class neighbourhood can take all that and more, the distance between affluence and desperation can be measured in weeks of unemployment after a sudden downsizing or corporate buy out. When it takes all you can earn to just keep above water, when you are no longer earning, you drown quickly. And all of the months of princely earnings do not blunt the sword that hangs portentously over your head…on the day the pay checks stop, the sinking begins.
And so I found myself widowed, alone, my income cut in half, my obligations undiminished. Life insurance is an unattainable luxury when you have to worry from one month to the next if you will have enough money to make your modest mortgage payment, when you don’t have enough to put new tires on the 14-year-old truck or the 24-year old station wagon, when you have given up all of your costly vices and still have to scrounge for change for enough gas to get to work. What had been a modestly successful effort by two people to live with a modicum of comfort became the uphill battle of one person to survive.
But there was an epiphany in that sudden plunge into widowhood and self-sufficiency: the sure and certain knowledge that if I kept doing the same things, I would keep getting the same results. A never-ending length of days full of scrimping and struggling stretched before me…unless I changed something.
And so I did. I took out that loan and finished the renovation of my house. I took a long term temp job that paid rather well because the boss was especially odious and couldn’t keep employees from throwing up their hands and walking out…they had to bribe us with fat salaries to stay in our jobs. I just ignored her nasty barbs, icy demeanour and picky personality and put those voluptuous pay checks in the bank. And I began rewriting my life rules.
The first rule I rewrote was the one that said I had to pinch every penny and live close to the bone. I finally remembered that worry is a wholly unproductive activity…the only thing it is good for is to increase stress levels.
The next rule I rewrote was the one about being appropriate. I started wearing brighter colours, I quit fretting about my weight, and opened myself to new experiences, people, even foods.
I then decided that people who live in the past have no future and began planning the next chapter in my life rather than staying stuck in old ones.
Funny thing about opening yourself to new stuff…new stuff happens! Today, that little old tract house is someone else’s burden and I have a lovely, spacious home set in a third of a landscaped acre. My old pickup has been replaced by a Mercedes SUV, and that horrible boss is ancient history: now I employ the sweetest little maid you could ever want to meet and a weekly gardener. My new husband is a professional man who earns a respectable income, is investment savvy, and pays the bills without stressing me about finances. “It hurt me to think of you alone and struggling like when I met you,” he told me the day he increased his life insurance…this, despite his being considerably younger than I am.
I like my life. I live in a beautiful home set in a beautiful garden, all located in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My house and garden are superbly kept with very little effort on my part. I can buy what I want in the supermarket, although years of frugal living have conspired to keep me from being a spendthrift and I still shop the sales…but now it’s the steak and chops sales rather than hamburger!
Most of all, my life is filled with love. A horde of happy yappy little doggies dance at my feet when I return from an outing, my maid hugs me when she comes to work with her handsome little baby boy tied to her back and again when she goes home in the afternoon. And my husband…he has half a dozen pet names for me, he brings me chocolate when I least expect it, and tells me he loves me without warning or prompting.
Yes, I like my life. It is full, it is abundant, it is rich with those things necessary for a life of comfort and security and love.
Pity I had to come half way around the world to achieve it.
Saturday, January 05, 2008
I have a very nice life.