There is never enough. There is always just barely enough.
Both conditions have always felt true.
I began working at age sixteen, a summer job as a salesclerk: a women’s dress shop in a sleepy shopping center in Roseville, California.
I wandered around smelling the chemical odor of new fabric, telling women of all ages and shapes that whatever they tried on looked terrific. Being there felt like being underwater, not precisely unpleasant. I found I could dream while folding, rehanging, murmuring. Time moved slowly. I remember the pale stillness of the surrounding day, eating my apple outside at lunch hour, the blank sky.
I have worked similar jobs ever since, scraping together enough to eat, pay rent, take an occasional small trip.
I worked during the years I went to college, babysitting, housecleaning, washing beakers, canning peaches. My father, a college teacher whose pay was adequate but modest, and whom I loved desperately, would pitch in a few dollars sometimes. He’d sneak the money to me, stuffing a folded bill into my palm when I passed him in the hallway during visits home, because my stepmother hated me and watched my father hard for any signs of indulging or spoiling me, of which she could later accuse him.
My father drank heavily.
As for so many of my generation, especially its women, the getting of money, the infinite discussions, obsession, stealth, and frenzy around the getting of money, bored me when I was young.
I did not, in early years, experience my scabby financial reality as unfair. I felt free, unencumbered. I never feared work, always found work, completely trusted my sense that there would always be just enough money to survive. It seemed a birthright—an anointing. It felt endorsed by everyone admirable. Jesus. Lincoln. Yogananda. Hesse.
I disdained wealth, distrusted wealthy people. They seemed to prove my private theory: Big money—though it gets things done—really, really fucks you up. Wealthy people wore a manner: the gleam of distaste in the eye, the lean-meat-and-white-wine body. I found them pitiful. I felt sorry for all they did not comprehend, for all the life they were missing.
I traveled, worked, joined the Peace Corps, lived in Hawaii with bunches of like-minded friends, moved to San Francisco, began to write. Always I worked, living from paycheck to paycheck with no second thought, until around my forties.
Then the room began to shrink. Or rather, invert.
The change felt sudden. Yet in retrospect, it couldn’t have been.
Slowly—and then faster and faster—it became clear: whether or not you were cute, if you had money you could go on living in safety and comfort and freedom and privacy, entertained and educated by methods of your choosing.
Or you could fall down a sewer drain and die. The country did not care. No one did.
Thus, attractiveness changed definitions. As with so much else that evanesces with age, moneylessness lost its romantic charm. The misted garland evaporated. In its place hung a smelly albatross.
For men, the shift was deadly. No more summers of love. No free-spirited coupling. No longer could the Pied Piper, Peter Pan, or the Poetry Man get women. (In the insulated world of the academy they could, and still do. Outside that world, best of luck.) Men now needed a career strategy, a decent car, a savings account—better yet, an excellent line of credit. Prospects.
A loaded set of parents could not hurt, either.
My parents died young.
When friends inherit money I feel jealous, bereft—and ashamed of that.
Likewise, during a certain period of recent national history, when friends reported making terrific money from buying old homes, fixing them up, and reselling them, I think my husband and I both sensed that we’d missed a shrewd boat of some kind. We had missed our shot at triumphing over the game, even though that procedure, called “flipping,” was bitterly uninteresting to us—and at some more troubling level, vulgar. Like a pyramid scheme.
And it emblemizes, in miniature, the entire long history of ambition: of amassing wealth mainly for the amassing’s sake—which in turn, naturally, was never only about amassing. First it was about survival; then about being king. Latterly, it is about winning.
My husband is angry about money much of the time, for a million reasons.
If women feel done in by judgments about youth and beauty, he says, measuring men in terms of wealth sucks every bit as badly.
But that is the way it has always been, he says.
He says that part very sadly.
He also hates the smug, greedy, paranoid insularity of the rich. He hates the passing of the wealth torch inside families, and wishes everyone had to start to make their way, their fortune, pretty much from scratch.
I love him for this.
Human suffering hurts him, the way it did my own father. I love him for that, too.
But he notices—in anger—that no one in America wants to sit down and sift through the complexities of economic discussion. My own mind goes oozy and sleepy when he commences to lecture about tranches and derivatives.
I’m not proud of that.
On the other hand, the concept of forgiving a debt fascinates me. Like a magic wand, it re-rigs the agreed-upon reality—just because someone says so.
Simone de Beauvoir said, of relations between the sexes: “Women forgive men a debt they didn’t know they owed.”
Both my husband and I are damaged, probably, in relationship to money.
He comes from postwar northern England, where his family had no indoor toilet until he was a teenager. Newspaper served as toilet paper. Streets were gas-lit. His people ate bread spread with lard, seldom saw a fresh fruit or vegetable. I tease him that if he’d been fed properly he’d probably be twice his adult height, and I am genuinely surprised he never got rickets, polio, or scurvy.
Polio actually did quarantine his town once.
He came to the United States on a Fulbright, age twenty-six. He teaches college. His father is dead, his mother frail and elderly. He earns what might be considered reasonable money now, while almost nobody else does as the economy implodes. And in the midst of needy friends and relatives all around us, my husband often feels like the sun that holds a small galaxy in place.
My husband also says that if it were not for him, I’d starve to death.
That is close to accurate.
Without him, I would be renting a room somewhere, living on almost nothing until I died.
I would probably be shoplifting food. Not pretty, but what would the alternative be?
He calls me Shtetl Girl because I am reluctant to spend money on anything but books, food, shampoo, coffee, and gasoline. My reflex is to save all I can against some dimly imagined but imminent catastrophe. He teases me that if possible I would travel with a chicken sewn into the lining of my coat.
My late best friend died of breast cancer at the age of fifty-one. A divorcée, she lived alone until her death in a tiny one-room cottage, a granny unit in the suburb of a city two hours from me, the city where we both went to high school together.
She was a gifted but self-effacing thinker and writer. She had taught college English but, to hold on to a health plan and life insurance policy, worked for the rest of her life as an administrative assistant, as I have.
Admins, as everyone knows, are paid badly. My husband earns as much in an hour as I would make in two days.
Like me, my friend eked barely enough from her job. Yet she scrimped to send a small amount every month to her daughter, who lived with her father out of state. My friend and I corresponded constantly, by every possible means.
“I wish,” Deborah once wrote me, “that I had thought more about money, growing up.”
Like me, she had considered the subject boring, never given it attention, supposing that things would simply work out: a man would marry her and that would be that.
A man did marry her. But when she finally had to leave him (to salvage what happiness she could for what remained of her brief life), the cost was penury.
I never thought a man would marry me.
But I never doubted there’d somehow always be enough—if just barely.
When I met the man who is now my husband, I did not suppose we would marry. Yet gradually, I became aware that while I was with him, there would always be enough.
That was novel. That was new.
He has joked with me that this is the only reason I have stayed with him. I try to dispel the notion. There is tension under the joke.
Everything is about money, my husband says. Everything reduces, finally, to that. He says it with sadness. He says it, sometimes, with bitterness.
When he says it, I can feel my mouth and brain seize up in socially conditioned concert: But that cannot be—
And then the words stop short of emerging because I sense that he is right, that nothing has changed from the time we slew what we ate and dragged the bloody carcass back to the cave.
More politely, I could suggest that little has changed since Jane Austen’s day. It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .
A wise man, older by a couple of decades than me, once told me: “Everything is exactly what you hold it to be.”
It seems the mind can acquire or discard a cosmology, like a pair of tinted glasses.
When I am considering art, this fact can play tricks.
At lowest ebb, I sometimes see every contemporary work of art—a play, a book, film, even paintings and sculpture—reduce before my eyes to a contract and a check.
Or the lack of them.
I can’t speak for the visual arts. But a writer in our time, with lovely, enviable exception, pretty much pays to be published, in terms of the underwriting and spadework she must perform to enhance her work’s visibility.
It is one of the many quiet truths of making art in present culture.
(Whining is very much frowned upon among artists, in present culture.)
Still, I’d like to be able to put a pile of money in my husband’s hands and say, “Here. Do whatever you want with it.”
“And by the way,” I would add:
“Thanks. For everything.”
That would have to stand in for a great deal.
I used to fight bitterly with my husband about the fact that one does not make art for money. You just can’t bear money in mind. (We’ll leave screenwriters out of this.)
But some literary novelists do, eventually, get paid for their work.
And I have long fantasized that the writers who are recognized within our literary circuit, who have developed what circuit-dwellers call Names, have all the money they need.
I know this is a fantasy because a novelist friend whom I supposed enjoyed ideal success told me that her husband—a visual artist—once implored her: “Why can’t you write a best seller?”
I still assume that most established writers own a goodly amount of money, which buys, in addition to material security, writing time.
But then, to make art and have money at the same time also seems oxymoronic, unless you are someone like Wayne Thiebaud.
And even with the biggest guns, you never know! (No offense, Mr. T.! Love your work!)
Any number of artists chafe themselves bloody about money.
Read Scott Fitzgerald’s letters. He was making what was then considered fabulous money but ran through it fast and fretted constantly, crazily, about getting more.
Most of us don’t operate in Fitzgerald’s bandwidth, however.
Until quite recently, at lunch hour during the day job, I settled into the back seat of my car with a book, or a sheaf of my own pages to edit.
During that hour, I listened to the passing quality of the day.
I’ve always supposed there were two kinds of passing time: paid and unpaid.
All my life I have felt that the only practical way to handle the insoluble riddle of money was to make art while being paid for a grunt job. Then panic will not seep into the words on the page.
Also, you can use your own uniquely twisted little life for material.
But the artist who has money, I imagined, would never have to entertain the above-named distinction in the experiencing of time.
But besides being patronized by the Medicis, or by someone like that rich socialite who supported Peter Tchaikovsky, how often has the moneyed artist truly been a reality?
So why, you may reasonably wonder, did I squander precious life and time upon the day job all those years, when my husband earns a reasonable amount of money?
The answer: he makes reasonable money but not the equivalent of two reasonable incomes. I never wanted to become the wife who receives an allowance, who must wheedle for extras. (Not that I would have to wheedle: it is the psychology of being in a begging position I have dreaded with all my heart.)
My husband has understood this. He respects it—if, technically, I have nonetheless been an all-but-in-name beggar.
But he was always confounded, justifiably, by the cost of the money I earned.
The cost has been deep fatigue, and no little cynicism about the private sector’s habits.
In short: business eats its young.
I was determined to work at least a few more years, perhaps buy a better car, before defaulting to a minuscule Social Security payment (if Social Security still exists by then) and my husband’s generosity.
While I worked I could afford to buy my own books, as each came out. I could pay the myriad costs of supporting my work.
This comforted me powerfully.
While I worked I could purchase my own plane tickets. Contribute to fixing the toilet. Surprise my husband with a pizza. Buy Christmas gifts, stamps, face cream.
Face cream is astoundingly expensive. Even the lowest-level brands. I’m not talking about Nora Ephron’s league.
The late, marvelous Ann Richards, governor of Texas, lectured women wherever she went: Find the money yourself. “You should never depend on another human being for your income. Financial security is the greatest security there is.”
But earlier in her career, addressing the Democratic Convention in 1988, Richards also said: “We believe that America is still a country where there is more to life than just a constant struggle for money.”
Hold that in the mouth and mind a moment: more . . . than just a constant struggle for money.
Another writing friend suggests that without the carrot-on-a-stick of money, no one would do anything. Nothing would get done.
But sex would get done. And birth, and rearing the young, somehow. And eating, somehow. Art, never least. And death.
An “economy of care” never really took off, did it?
When I chose to take an MFA in fiction through a low-residency program, I had to obtain a student loan for about fourteen thousand dollars. It took me ten years to pay off.
My first week on campus I kept buttonholing people, asking how they were managing to pay the tuition, which, to me at that time, represented a fortune.
It was a source of intrigue to me. A mystification.
One said her grandmother wanted her to have the money. Some, like me, stood in long lines to complete paperwork for loans. Many came from wealth—as simple as that. I would walk away, trying to digest the starkness of the disparity:
You had it.
Or you did not.
A word about those Haves: they, too, have problems, only ratcheted up to a different level.
Like why the second, massively leveraged fixer-upper house has not yet sold. How to meet your nine-thousand-dollar monthly nut. Dodging taxes. Or whether people are being nice to you because of who you are, or because of what you possess.
These are real-life examples.
“What does anything mean,” a wealthy man pleaded with me by phone long distance, late one night. Drink slurred his words.
“I’m not a man,” the same man told me on a different occasion, weeping. “I’m the moon.”
Back on earth, problems remain more prosaic. My day job laid me off six months ago.
At first, all I could feel was relief.
I would no longer be responsible for—and judged by—performance of endless, sludge-raking chores. I could let the files rot, vanquish for all time the numbing office banter.
Then anger set in. Bad craziness.
I felt shoved off a lifeboat. Assassinated. What good had years of being good accomplished?
Never mind that it was a piddling flunkie day job. Sleep fled. Burning-eyed, I stalked around filled with fury, then listlessness.
“A real joy to live with” is how my husband describes it.
Many applications of diverse forms of psychic first aid later, I stood on a beach and came to an understanding.
There are plenty of ways to state this understanding. Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge voices one instance.
My husband puts it this way: “When you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.”
I am receiving unemployment insurance. I’m doing some freelance editing. I am able to savor hours alone in the writing studio, listening to the morning air.
How does morning air sound?
Baby-sweet. Cool, clear. Pure. Still. And most brilliantly, unattended. Like a seabed when the tide’s gone out.
Is it worth not being able to pay for stuff?
I’d be lying to you if I did not admit I still grapple with the answer.
In the end, of course—
When you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.
Recently I was invited east to read to the university press that published my last book, and the creative writing department that gave it a prize. Then I was invited to speak to a literary group in Florida.
During both visits, I was wined and dined. Roomfuls of people listened carefully to my every word. They asked respectful questions.
I was returned to the airport in a chauffeur-driven town car. I looked out the window at passing countryside and marveled: my writing got me this.
Please understand I am under no illusions. No law ever stipulated that art should fetch anything, including a thrown tomato.
But some sea-change is working within me.
I am unspeakably thankful.
A little nervous, too.
Now: roll back the odometer to the great leveler, the great room-clearer, when the vain, pampered, blinkered American visits Africa or India or Mexico (or Haiti or Chile) or just about anyplace that is not North America or Western Europe, and with no preliminaries her face is shoved into humbling mud.
Memory: the skeletal young woman nursing an emaciated infant, her hand outstretched for coins, near the Aya Sofia in Istanbul.
More distant memory: asking my late father what struck him most forcefully about life on earth. (How I managed to shape a question like that during my ego-blinded youth, I cannot fathom.)
His dear face took on that embattled inwardness—an expression he often assumed when he watched the nightly news—and he waited a beat before answering.
“The disparity between standards of living for human beings,” he said.
It happened that much of my latter adult life, I worked for millionaires.
It wasn’t lucrative, alas.
What they have in common—no surprise—is a flinty awareness of the bottom line.
They can make things happen. They can purchase the best of everything.
But they always, always know the price.
They groom and cosset their wealth with meticulous care. Of course, cliché has it that that is how they got rich in the first place.
But they carry with them a strange, latent anger about money.
They feel targeted, victimized, unfairly taxed, unfairly charged, unfairly asked to contribute to causes that should not, they believe, be their responsibility.
They watch the system, and use every method available to amass more.
And here is the part that slays me:
For them, I have seen, there seems to be never, ever enough.
Is it possible for anyone to be at peace with the money he has? Or with the money’s impermanence?
Anyone, that is, who’s not a Buddhist monk?
After all, the money is only a matter of numbers.
The way the Red Queen’s henchmen were nothing but a pack of cards.
But they are numbers that can change the quality of lived life.
Along which lines: I still grieve the conditions of my late friend’s death.
Though she chose those conditions, she paid for them.
You could even argue she paid with a shortened life, by way of the stress she endured.
Oh, money costs, money costs, money costs.
Yet Ann Richards was no fool. We insist our lives mean more than numbers. There is evidence for this from the worst of times.
There is evidence inside the toil of the daily—the uncertainty of the daily.
Though if we’re honest it’s difficult to deny that most lives, in their infinite, wondrous, wretched permutations, seem to wink out unnoticed, like phosphorescence.
Irrespective of money. Irrespective of anything.
But art does its best.
Its raw, flaming, wildhearted best.
That strange flower, the sun, / is just what you say. / have it your way.
Everything is exactly what you hold it to be.