Here’s how you know you’ve become a woman of a certain age: The anxiety dream that wakes you up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night isn’t the one about oversleeping your SAT’s, it’s the one about being a bag lady.
In my version, I’m trying to sneak a shopping cart full of all my possessions past someone in authority. I don’t know exactly who it is, but I’d recognize my superego anywhere. Nor do I need to go into analysis to understand what that dream is about or why it’s so frightening; it’s about being poor…and ashamed. The sense of shame is familiar; it’s the same way I sometimes feel when I find myself in a clothing store that doesn’t carry anything over size eight. In pricey boutiques like that, I am a worthless, undisciplined slob who deserves the scorn of the haughty, curveless, Armani-clad saleswoman whose baleful look seems to say, You brought this on yourself, it’s all your fault. And while it’s easy to minimize the damage to my self-esteem by staying out of stores like that, the shame associated with the bag lady nightmare isn’t something I can avoid by passing up a designer sample sale.
I knew someday I’d be old but I never worried about being poor, too. Even when I had no money, I never felt poor. I’ve been broke, but that’s different, in the same way being flush is different from being rich. I always thought of “broke” as a temporary condition that would be magically remedied in due time – which, back then, I had plenty of.
I’ve been writing for a living all my adult life. For nearly two decades I turned out a book every couple of years, as well as essays and columns and magazine articles. I had some good years and some not very good ones, but I managed to support myself and my kids without any financial help from their father. Much of that time I lived on the come or on credit; I used the next book advance to pay off the bills I ran up while finishing the last one. My bank manager used to say the loan examiners laughed when they read my file because it contained book reviews instead of a statement of assets. Sometimes I answered calls from collection agencies by saying I was the babysitter; occasionally I “accidentally” forgot to sign my name on the check to the phone company or the orthodontist in order to buy myself a little extra time. And often I compensated for feeling unjustly deprived of life’s little luxuries, like fresh flowers or out-of-season raspberries or even a manicure, by charging something much more extravagant that I really couldn’t afford.
When my kids were teenagers, I inherited enough money so I didn’t have to live on the edge any more. My middle class parents weren’t wealthy, but they’d lived through the Depression and were careful with money ever after. Like others of my generation, I was the beneficiary of their fiscal prudence as well as the long uninterrupted period of economic expansion that followed World War II.
The money was by no means a fortune but it was enough to make me feel pretty flush. I had my house cleaned regularly and massages twice a month and I paid my bills the day they came in with a frisson of pleasure that replaced the edgy excitement that used to come with slipping a check into a preprinted envelope and hoping it cleared. I spent money on my kids and, later, their kids, on my causes, my pleasures and my conveniences. I started a scholarship fund in my parents’ memory and celebrated a landmark birthday by taking my closest women friends to a spa in Sonoma for the weekend. And I always had that feeling that even if I was a little extravagant, the good times would keep on coming. In the go-go years when the economy as booming, it was hard not to think so, especially if you had money in tech stocks, where I put mine after I liquidated my parents’ much more conservative investments.
I’d had to ask them for help a few times over the years when a crisis threatened my tenuous balancing act with money – a hole in my roof, an unexpected medical bill, an exhausted transmission. It was always a last resort, because it made me feel like a child again. I didn’t want my kids to feel that way; even more, I wanted to enjoy my new financial freedom with them by making their lives a little easier while I was still alive to watch them enjoy it. So I helped them with college educations, and later, with down payments on their first homes, and I took them on trips and adventures, mindful of what my son said on our way back from Africa, after I’d sold the house that cost my parents ten thousand dollars when they bought it: “Not to be morbid or anything, Mom, but I’ll remember this trip long after you’re dead.”
I’d never planned to retire….certainly not when I as barely 40. But after I came into my money, other things seemed more compelling. Freed of the pressure to write for a living, I got a new passport; long before the expiration date, it needed extra pages. I learned to SCUBA dive, and then I spent a few months on a Caribbean island where I could dive every day; in the evenings I tried my hand at the kind of speculative writing project I could never have afforded to do in the days when I hardly took a breather between books. Predictably, it never earned a dime, but the process was its own reward; I realized what I needed to know to take my work in a different direction, and the next year I enrolled in a PhD program in order to learn it. The money made me feel in charge of my own life in a way I hadn’t, before; whatever else might stand between me and my desires and ambitions, for once the obstacle wasn’t that I couldn’t afford to reach for them.
Eventually, though, the stock market went south and my reckless ways caught up with me, which is why I’m having the bag lady dream and cleaning my own apartment and hoping the advance for the new book arrives before the property taxes are due. I can’t remember when I last had a massage and I’m running out of due time.
Nobody got me into this bind except me; no sweet-talking broker took advantage of me, no mendacious CEO savaged my pension fund. That’s what I tell myself as I ponder the three possibilities for getting out of the financial bind I’ve wrapped myself in: Finding a rich husband, breaking a book out of the midlist into the bestseller rankings, or winning the lottery. (What’s really scary is that, statistically speaking, the lottery is probably the likeliest possibility.)
Money is the last frontier of self disclosure, so those of my friends who were also left some by their parents don’t talk very much about what they do, did, or didn’t do with it (As opposed to those who earned it – money seems to figure more in their conversations). We recognized our co-inheritors by the slightly more prosperous lifestyle that followed their parents’ deaths – the second home, the exotic vacations, the vague allusions to taking early retirement or embarking on a second career. Generally we were careful who we discussed those things with, but sometimes not careful enough; I remember when a good friend who knew no legacy figured in her future said she couldn’t stand hearing about trips she’d never be able to take or ambitions she couldn’t afford to pursue. “I’m glad for you that you can,” she told us one evening when we were all slightly tipsy, “but it makes me really resent you because none of you will ever have to worry about money again and I always will.”
That was a few years ago, but now I know exactly how she felt. I’ve always been pretty open with my closest friends about my financial situation, and that hasn’t changed since my fortunes have declined. They know why lately I don’t pick up the check as often as I once did, or travel or shop or frequent expensive restaurants the way I used to, and our relationships haven’t changed.
My kids know I’m worried about money again, but they remember when they were growing up, and I was always worried about it, so they’re very reassuring: You managed then, you’ll manage now, they say, and they’re right – I did and I will. I seem to be much more bothered by my inability to be generous with them these days than they are: in fact, they keep reassuring me that I could always move in with them if I had to. I know they really mean it, just as they know that, much as I love them, I’d rather set myself adrift on an ice floe (although in my case it would probably be a raft in a tropical sea), because none of us ever wants to be that kind of burden to our children. As for my grandkids – happily, they’ve never confused my presence with my presents.
In the “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw the man who had no feet” department, perspective demands that I count my blessings: I’m not facing eviction, I’m in no immediate danger of having to eat in soup kitchens, and I’m not entirely without resources. Right after I came into my inheritance I read a book about the psychological meaning of money written by a very astute psychiatrist who said we all make agreements with money, but some of them are agreements that money can’t keep. ..for instance, that it will give us status, power or excitement. That statement resonated within me; I realized that excitement what was what I’d felt out there on the thin edge of financial disaster where I’d lived for so long. I decided that I didn’t need or want that kind of excitement in my life any more; thanks to my windfall, I could let go of it. So I made a new agreement with my money; that it would keep me from having to worry about my future, which was a lot further away then than it is now. But what I ignored was my part of the deal, which was to be a good manager of that windfall. Which is why now, in the middle of the night, when sleep doesn’t come, I wake up counting the assets I know I have left and the number of years I think I do, and worry what will happen if I run out of the second before I run out of the first.
I don’t regret a dollar I spent, gave or loaned, and I’m glad I had a good time while I was young and healthy enough to enjoy it. Even though finances rather than a visitation from the Muse forced me out of what turned out to be a decade or so of premature retirement, I’m kind of glad to be writing for a living again and grateful that I still can. However, I do wish I’d made different decisions in the good times – paid off my mortgage, diversified my investments, invested in a good long term care insurance policy when I was ten years younger and it would have been a lot cheaper. The excitement I feel around money now isn’t like the old days, when I lived in the future, sure that the breakout book or the rich husband or the winning lottery ticket or even the inheritance I felt guilty waiting for would someday materialize.
These days I get a kick – a small one, but a kick nonetheless – out of seeing how much less I can live on than I did when I was flush. Too bad I didn’t appreciate that kind of kick, that kind of excitement, a little sooner.