Monday, March 27, 2017

Free Essay: "A Very Modest Life" by Shawn Michel de Montaigne


[Note: I posted this to my subscribers last March. It is part of a collection of essays
titled
To Make an Assay, which I will release in May.]
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A Very Modest Life
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THE LAST full week of April, Kyla and I will travel to San Diego to collect the rest of my (our, really, but most of it is mine) stuff from a storage facility in El Cajon, which is a suburb of that city. The storage is running almost $100 a month—a ridiculous, borderline criminal, amount.

There isn't much to move. It’s mostly small knickknacks and other personal effects I've brought along during an increasingly long life. Really, as I said, it isn't much at all, nothing a five-by-ten locker couldn't handle.

That's astonishing. The sum total of my life—all fifty-four-plus years of it—can be measured by the contents in a five-by-ten space, along with the space in this thirty-four-foot motorhome.

Not much at all.

I've never owned much. I've never "owned" a “real” home, for example. (I put owned in quotes because, truthfully, almost no one in the modern era owns a home. The bank or mortgage company does. The same is true for "one's" cars.) I've never "owned" property, as in real estate. I've never "owned" a boat, jet skis, diamond jewelry, a cabin in the woods, a condo, fancy cookware, or even fancy clothes. Of clothes, I have two pairs of pants, both jeans, and maybe a dozen shirts, almost all bought from thrift stores. I wear one pair of shoes—tennis shoes—and a pair of sandals, both worn out to the point that they need to be replaced. I use the same hair brush that I did three decades ago (yes, it's clean); and I own several plants, including a ball cactus that will be thirty next year.

There are other knickknacks, not many, and a few cherished plushies, one of which has been with me since I was five. His name is Ralphie. You may know him from Sesame Street or The Muppets.

I could literally put my entire life's worth of belongings in the average suburban garage and have plenty of room to spare, probably well more than half. I think of that sometimes and it blows my mind.

I never had children, and don't plan on starting.

I don't have a pension. I am, at the time of this writing, virtually penniless. Since I'm fifty-four, I'm considered even more useless than the world judged me at thirty, which means that getting a "regular" job, should I need to, would be very difficult if not next to impossible. Employers aren't legally allowed to be ageist, but we live in a society that habitually ignores such strictures and gets away with it.*

I came from a moderately wealthy home that was thrust almost overnight into poverty when my father left. He was the sole breadwinner and proceeded to sue my mother successfully over the course of the next eight years with his teams of dead-eyed attorneys until she and we, her five children, were bereft. She was dying at the time from a horrible disease, which made his cruelty even more barbaric. I have never been able to escape the impoverishment he sentenced me to.

I went homeless for a month in January of 2002. Most of the meager possessions I owned I had to throw away. It was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do. I had enough cash to store the rest in a tiny locker; I retrieved them when my natural mother (I'm adopted) grudgingly offered to help me out. The little U-Haul she funded to get me to San Diego was literally running on fumes by the time I got to her place. My entire life was in that tiny truck, all of it, top to bottom. As a lesson in humility, such a fact has few equals.

I've made less than half a million dollars through the course of my life. You might think that sum large. It isn't. Divided by fifty-four years (my age), it comes out to less than ninety-three hundred dollars a year. If you ignore the first eighteen years of my life and recalculate, the figure falls just short of fourteen thousand dollars. The most money I ever made in a single year came in 2002-2003 when, working as the lead mathematics teacher at Job Corps in San Diego, I pulled in forty-six thousand (before taxes; and yes, the irony of getting the highest-paid gig of my life scant months after being homeless isn’t lost on me).

But the job was killing me. A doctor looked at my blood pressure one day and listened to my tale of woe about eighty-hour weeks and hateful administrators and gave me a dire warning. "You're well on the way to a full-blown heart attack," he declared. "You've got a choice." When I complained that I really didn't have one, thinking of my month on the streets, he patted my shoulder and said, "We've all got a choice."

He was right.

I quit six months later. With it went my income, of which I was saving over half each month.

My apartment was virtually empty. The living room was empty save for a couple of plants and a coffee table my birth mother gave me before I moved out. I had nothing in the kitchen nook save my ancient desk and computer and books I managed to save before I hit the streets. I had my bed—no frame, just mattress and box spring—the single largest thing I owned. The clothes I still owned could easily fit in one side of the small closet. I put my dresser, also ancient and falling apart, into the extra space. That was it.

I got around by walking or taking the bus. I became an expert with the San Diego Metro Transit System. The money I'd saved was fast draining away despite my spartan existence. To survive I started privately tutoring kids. The Great Recession eventually killed my struggling little venture.

Before leaving San Diego for this area in 2012, I walked to the summit of a nearby hill in El Cajon, where we were living at the time, and looked around.

It wasn't properly the country, but close enough that I wouldn't argue with you if you insisted that it was.

The sun was setting. It was quite beautiful. To the northwest was a new development. They were all custom-built status castles, freshly minted.

I was fifty, which meant that my same-aged peers probably "owned" those McCastles. They had spent probably thirty years fighting for the privilege of having the wealth necessary to put such wood-and-mortal boils up and pay the bank absurd payments on them indefinitely.

They, like me, had chosen.

I didn't have that wealth. Even if I did I would never build such a thing. As I gazed around, a powerful realization overcame me. I didn’t want that wealth, not if in its attainment I could not have what I already did: less than half a garage of items ... along with the stories and characters and worlds that present themselves to me each and every day, and which hold a value infinitesimally close to zero for the rest of the world.

I know when I go back to San Diego I'll be thinking a lot about that. Because I'm convinced, and was while standing up there on that hill, that I made the right choice, despite the sometimes intense struggle simply to survive.

*With Trump as president now, even more of those strictures are going to disappear, most notably the ones that prescribe decency or morality where others are concerned.



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Thank you for reading!

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