A nightmare woke me and the wind prevents me from returning to sleep. That and the particular sharp knot caused by worrying about our finances. After years of working multiple jobs to barely get by, sometimes not get by, I’d landed a job that I not only loved, but actually paid enough money to bump us into a middle-class state of mind.
By “middle-class,” I mean we no longer qualified for Medi-Cal, could pull off a family vacation renting a cabin for a few days on the Klamath, and were able to indulge the kids in piano and martial arts lessons – all while paying the bills and going out to eat when the thought of making dinner seemed a stretch. By “state of mind,” I mean the nights like this one ceased, the fears brought on by lack of funds quieted at long last.
I have to say at this part, my compulsive disclaimer: Yes, could be worse, much worse. We still more-or-less had our health, people who loved us and the beauty of Humboldt County to sustain us. No one ever starved or froze or had to sleep in a car. But sometimes knowing life could be worse does not mitigate the knowledge that it could also be a hell of a lot better – and if you’re the sort of person who revels in doing stuff and going places, who needs the comfort of noting “paid” across the myriad bills demanding such, who gains pleasure from impulsive purchases when a perfect gift for someone close presents itself, who enjoys driving a car that runs trouble-free, well, “a hell of a lot better” is a desirable place to be.
Granted, if I wasn’t that sort of person, if I were more Tightwad Gazette-inspired, then even with the minimal income, we’d have saved up. We would’ve stayed home, tucking our dollars away for a sunny day. Making ends meet. My husband would’ve like that – he and I would have fought a lot less. Not to say that I was careless, but the balance between spending and bill-paying was such that any error or overindulgence on the one side would lead to swift crisis on the other. I am happiest when I have a margin of error.
“Indulgence” is a funny word when you’re broke. Or rather, what becomes an indulgence as viewed from the poverty line is seen as normal entitlement from a higher vantage. We indulged in Thai food when trekking to UCSF for our son’s diabetes appointment. We indulged in buying local, organic food to the degree we could. I indulged in secondhand shopping at Willow/Rags. I indulged the kids in all the books I could find on sale or wrangle in trade for my own. We did not indulge in college funds, a savings account or acquiring a car made in this decade. Imperfect choices, perhaps, and I’d do better if I could go back and put my experience to use, but such is the nature of struggle. Besides, full of rocks and switchbacks and narrow trails along scary cliffs as this path I took may have been, it’s led me to where I wanted to be.
And then this job presented itself and I moved from working 50 hours per week making enough to lie awake at night worrying to working just as much for a living wage. A “living wage.” For the first time, the full meaning of that phrase permeated my life. I’m so lucky, so lucky, so lucky – I still think that several times a day in relation to my job. The difference between hovering around the poverty line and creating a comfortable distance between you and it is like the difference between living in the sketchy part of town and living in a neighborhood where you can leave your door unlocked.
So why the worry? A circumstance has changed and suddenly the demands on my paycheck weigh as much as the checks themselves. I can’t get into specifics as my family rightfully resists having all details of our lives splattered across my blog, no matter how much I assure them that no one reads it. I wouldn’t post this at all if writing about money wasn’t something I miss doing, if writing itself didn’t provide such a respite. Placing the words outside my brain eases it. Theoretically, we can still get by – if I am perfect in my budgeting and life is perfect in avoiding surprises. Given my track record of imperfection, uneasiness troubles me. As for life, well, I should be able to knock curve balls over the fence at this point, but it’s like I’m constantly in the 7th game of the World Series, two strikes and winning run waiting on third. More than that, I’m back at a place where spending money in the name of fun won’t work so well – and I’m having a really, really hard time not resenting that.
Tragedy everywhere and I’m cranky because my plans to visit my brother in New York City, where I’ve never been, are abruptly unrealistic. Because my dream of taking the kids to a warm beach so they can finally experience that pleasure will not be manifesting into reality any time soon. Because I have been working for 26 years with time off only for babies and college (even then, working more often than not) and thought the financial anxiety would finally be held at bay – and yet here I am, laying out the bills in the darkness of the morning, seeing what can be postponed, what juggling magic can keep us afloat.
And my other compulsive disclaimer: it will all be fine. Nobody will go hungry or cold or without shelter. The children will keep their lessons and shoes on their feet. I will still surf, holey wetsuit and all. Bobby and I will continue to invite folks over for dinner and brunch and walks on the beach. He will have new art to show. Ongoing medical issues will remain covered. I will be as fun and optimistic as always – it’s my nature and inescapable. I just might look a little tired.