The winter my daughter turned one, I was living in a tiny island apartment with my husband who had recently been discharged out of the Coast Guard. He was working sporadically with friends and spending every cent of money he could get his hands on, on cocaine, weed, and beer. I was working as many hours a week as I could at a gallery and hiding every bit of money I made in secret spots around the apartment. I used the pay phone at 7-11 when I needed to make a call, I often bought groceries, like cereal, cans of Campbell’s tomato soup, milk, and bread (you can live pretty well on tomato soup and Cocoa Pebbles by the way) at CVS because it was the nearest place to walk with the stroller. It was not an easy life but it was my life.
My boss’s daughter had recently gotten married, moved off the island, no longer needed a bike and so she gave me her orange ten-speed which I then used to get 27 blocks away to work. I would leave for work after my grandparents or my in-laws, or whoever was babysitting for me that day, had driven to my apartment to retrieve my adorable Buddha bellied bald baby girl. On rainy days, whoever was babysitting would drive me to work and then leave with my child and come back to get me at the end of the day. Most winters the gallery closed after December 31st not to reopen til spring, but because I needed to work my boss stayed open off-season that year so I could work Friday through Monday, and people who loved my baby were willing and able to babysit, so I at least got four days of work a week. My rent was never paid on time on the 1st of the month and my oil tank for heat became empty too many times to count over that winter, but I managed somehow to get through every day, day after day, and each day had to hope that ‘this day’ would be better for me than the day before. To write that this was not an easy way to live would be an understatement.
My apartment came with access to a washer in the landlord’s garage and was located just 23 blocks from the laundromat where the nearest dryer was, so I would often do two or three loads of wash on Thursday night so that Friday morning I could evenly distribute the wash into two Hefty trash bags so I could stop at the dryers before work, so that after work I could fold my dry clothes and take them back to the apartment. If you have never had to ride a used orange 10-speed boy’s bicycle 23 blocks to the laundromat with a Hefty bag of damp clothes on each wrist, count yourself very lucky. It is a balancing act worthy of any Cirque Du Soleil show. One morning during the February of that winter one of the bags got lopsided as I pedaled, and as the red ties started to twist around my wrist, the bag began to spin and within seconds my balance of both heavy trash bags was thrown off and before I could stop the bike one of the bags got twisted up in the spoke of the front wheel and I went flying off the bike, and the one bag tore open and there I sat, on a cold morning, on a rather empty island, in the middle of Central Avenue, with a torn bag of wet wash beside me, and I cried. I cried so hard sitting there in the street and wondering what on earth was I going to DO…is this what my LIFE WAS GOING TO BE??…hardship after hardship after hardship…there was no light at the end of my tunnel, there wasn’t even a tunnel. I was in a hole. The pit of despair. I had made terrible choices and that morning accepted completely that my life was awful and it was awful because of the choices I made.
I did not want to move back home with my parents again, (I had moved back to their house when my baby was four months old, but moved out again by that September, I don’t know, even now, what made me hate living with them so much, that the alternative was better in my mind, and remains a mystery even these almost 30 years later) which was odd, since they had a big beautiful house with heat, air conditioning, and food, and my bedroom at their house was bigger than my living room, kitchen, and bedroom combined in the tiny island apartment, and they loved me, and were kind to me and treated me nicely…who would not want to live there?! What kind of idiot would choose the alternative?! um, yes, it was me…I have often wondered why I made the choices I did, what could possibly have made me think that being on my ‘own,’ was better than living with my parents and my sister? Why would I have chosen a tiny apartment with a mean man who neither provided for me nor really cared about my well-being, over my parents who loved me and my child unconditionally and had an empty room waiting for me…it still blows my mind to think about it.
There were moments that winter when I thought I might die; both figuratively from sadness and hopelessness, and literally by the hands of a husband who was often high, and terrifyingly strong, and terrifyingly mean, when he was drunk and on drugs. I don’t remember if he was ever nice to me that winter…did we ever laugh together or take a walk and hold hands, or smile at each other across the dinner table, or-or-or??? …I have no memory of butterflies in my belly or a kiss or a hug that made me feel loved or cared for, or any nice thing that he did that made my spine tingle…I do not know what I disliked so much about living with my parents that I CHOSE living with him…I did finally leave, later that June 1st, when I called my friend and asked her to ‘please just come,’ and she did…Who I was then and who I am now is exactly the same girl, woman, person…I still love to read, crochet, work, clean…the hours of my days then were rather similar to the hours of my days now, so little, honestly is different. I don’t know what made me think of all this today. I don’t know why I opened up a wound so long ago closed and healed.
I guess when I feel confused, conflicted, or uncertain, or at a difficult point in my present life, I ponder, in the big scheme of things, what is “wrong” now and the realization sinks in that the answer is honestly, “not much,” when compared to my life then. I find that when I compare my life to somebody who is living a seemingly better one; fun toys, fat wallets, taking vacations…I suffer, BUT that suffering is when I am comparing apples I guess to oranges…nobody has my life, nobody has my past, nobody has my blessings or my sorrows…they are mine to embrace or shed…comparing anything about myself or my present circumstances to anything or anyone is just being a glutton for punishment…it’s purposefully thinking about things that make me feel bad, so it is my duty to my well-being to STOP. To think only about what is good about my life today, now, at present, when I compare it to my life then…that sad, hard winter…
One of my dear girlfriends would say simply to stop thinking about anything or anyone or any situation that does not make me feel good, that does not make me feel positive about my life today. She also would tell me that it is sometimes very hard to do, but it is part of how she lives, to stop her thoughts when they stray to the ones that hurt her. It is part of her daily practice, to control her thoughts. So, WHEN I think about the life I have and live NOW and compare it only to the life I had and lived THEN, all those years ago during that cold lonely and scary winter, there is no suffering…there is no sadness there is no fear, there is only joy…Happiness and gratitude, beauty, smiles, laughter, a fullness, a quality of life that anyone, if one wanted to compare, would find to be perfectly fine…there is pure and true and honest happiness when I compare my life then and my life now. No envy of some woman’s fine jewelry, no envy of some couple’s fancy vacation, no envy of some friend’s expensive wedding, or exotic car, or designer shoes…just acceptance that I made many choices in my life, some very good and some very bad, but that all of those choices got me here, now, today, and I hope, well I believe really, that I’ve learned a little bit more, about what really matters, all of the many days in-between…
Thankfully, we’ve both learned (through very different circumstances) that to live happy is truly the ultimate goal. Perfect life? Nope. Happy life? I got that! And it seems that you do, too! And your HAPPY makes my HAPPY even bigger! 💙
I knew you from dancing school, Ruth. My sister sent me your blog. You have an amazing gift- you are an excellent writer. I write for a living- and I recognize talent when I see it. Please pursue your passion, whether it’s writing or something else that makes you smile. You’re strong and brave and you weathered the storm. You have a lot to be proud of.