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Pennies and Penury

The Connecticut River: Deep & Pure, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

Fall has arrived in Vermont with a glorious, buoyant sheen. The days are sun-kissed warm and bright, as though the whole world has suddenly burst into Technicolor. There is color everywhere: on the golden leaves of the tall trees that nearly scrape the sky over the ten green acres we live on, over the ground where they fall—like pools of shimmering fairy dustand up through mid air, to be swept up by the wind, which whips them about like wayward strands of hair.

I am reminded again and again of the great beauty endemic to New England and, indeed, to all of the great Northeast coast where I grew up and have returned—from the imposing maples of Nova Scotia, to the salt spray of the Atlantic Ocean commingled with the pungent smell of begosa rose bushes of coastal Maine, to the warm, crisp colors of a Vermont autumn ripe with deep oranges and yellows, harvested fields, earthy squash and pumpkins. At this time of year I always reflect that there is no better place to be than here. I often feel that I am dancing on a canvas caressed by God’s benevolent paintbrush. Whoever and whatever God is must assuredly be here—full to brimming with this bounteous external beauty that can only be internalized as the universe’s lavish abundance. In other words: Love.

Keeping this lush abundance as the focal point of my mind’s eye is especially relevant as I work to stay continually present. Present despite the knowledge that my family is currently materially poorer than we’ve ever been. My husband’s carpentry work has dried up due to a withering economy. Respite work comes in drips and drabs, my own modest inheritance has been downsized by a weakened market, and a story which took the sum total of more than a day to write brings in the paltry payment of fifty bucks— approximately what I made per hour nearly 15 years ago when I scratched out rote health care news pieces for a PR firm in San Francisco.

My husband and I scan the Help Wanted section of the local newspaper. An opulent box ad for a pressroom apprentice appears at the bottom of page eleven.

“Learn a trade while being well compensated,” the ad announces. It refers to the job as an “opportunity” and infers that one should feel duly grateful even for the honor of applying. It goes on to mention the hours: 10 p.m. through 6:30 a.m., with split days off. The bold print describes a compensation of $11.85 per hour, adding (with what feels like a rib-poking aside): “get a $1 raise every year as long as you make satisfactory progress learning skills.”

I imagine toiling in a windowless basement room (minus ventilation) and stifling a loud series of yawns born of sleep deprivation. The aroma of a hot, toxic-smelling press assaults my nostrils as a devil with a pitchfork jabs me in the backside to keep me on task and make sure he gets the full $11.85 worth of work out of me.

Twenty years ago, I was a fresh-faced 24 year old living in L.A. with delusions of becoming a film director. I wrote a few bad scripts while working for $11.50 an hour as an administrative assistant at UCLA’s graduate school of education and felt, if not exactly well off, at least fairly compensated.

I finish reading the ad and roll my eyes at my husband, who takes his turn scanning the print. We silently twirl our index fingers in large circles at each other as if to say “big whoop,” and leave the newspaper with its esteem-deflating ad where it belongs—on the kitchen table, to be marred into submission and rendered unreadable by an angry blot of coffee stains.

We’ve often talked about the impossibility of making a living wage in Vermont, where property taxes are sky high and living wages are lower than the scrub bushes on our ten acres of land in New Mexico. Despite the floundering economy, we recognize that we could live some small vestige of the middle class American Dream elsewhere in the country. We could probably afford $2,000 per month for a mortgage rather than the $366.76 we spend now, along with a big LCD TV complete with dolby sound, several iphones, a new Macbook Pro, an entire Land End’s Wardrobe, and the fare to commute 45 minutes to work in heavy traffic. We might stay in a Parisian apartment during one of our allotted vacation weeks per year and in a Florida golf resort for the other one. We’d get a subscription to a real newspaper like The New York Times and take self-improvement workshops and go to meditation retreats every weekend. We could trade in the horses for a new SUV (or at the very least, a Subaru Outback), and buy $5 per loaf bread at the local Whole Foods instead of grinding the flax seed and raising the loaves ourselves. We could go out to dinner several times per week because there would actually be restaurants for our fast SUV to get to inside of five minutes.

So, I ask myself sometimes: what the hell are we doing here? What are we doing on ten acres with three horses, a goat, three dogs and a cat, an unfinished house with exposed ceiling joists, a wood stove for heat, and a laundry rack to dry our clothes? Why are we living hand-to-mouth, if not exactly off the grid, a very definite long stone’s throw from it? Don’t I have a Master’s degree, a decent brain in my head and the ability to make a six-figure income like the rest of my (sane) friends, all of whom live in reasonable places like San Francisco, Boston and London? Wasn’t my husband once a professional, wearing a suit and working as a manager for a suburban fitness company?

As I ask myself this disparate flurry of questions, my husband dumps out the vast stash of change he’s been accumulating in dusty little dishes onto our bed.

“Aha! Look, I’ve just counted four dollars and twenty-three cents here!” he announces triumphantly. “Should I raid J’s piggy bank too? I think there might even be some dollar bills in there.”

I tell him that raiding a four year old’s piggy bank is like prematurely ripping a bottle out of a baby’s mouth.

“Okay, never mind,” he says with an insanely gleeful smile. “I forgot about my state quarter collection series. There’s some serious cash in there.”

I hear the crash of silver as it hits the kitchen counter. Meanwhile, I sneak a look at our online bank balance and cringe. It would almost be laughable if the stack of bills next to our Lazy Susan didn’t keep growing in inverse proportion to our diminishing bank balance. As my sister once said about a lovable but ultimately unsuitable boyfriend: “He ought to have the word ‘penury’ for a middle name. With a capital P.”

I look out the window to the paddock below, where my beautiful Arabian horse and her three-month-old foal are happily munching on hay. A gentle wind moves through the softly undulating branches of trees, filling them with motion and warmth. I think of the reading I will give later today at a local coffee house, and of this easy low-tech lifestyle that has allowed me to bask in this glorious backdrop of loveliness and do the thing that is as natural to me as breathing. To do it whether we have only pennies in the bank or millions. I am writing more than I have ever written in my life. And despite my occasional irrational fear of ending up on the street, I am—in my heart of hearts—truly glad.

“Count it—ten dollars!” my husband yells to me from downstairs. “Hot damn!”

We’ll be able to afford coffee (and maybe a croissant) tonight at the coffee house after all.

“Pennies and penury,” I think to myself.

But damn it all, life is good.