My income puts me four dollars over the poverty line, but this is a choice -- as school teachers these days say in a blaming voice as though that explained everything. I knew I would never get even the first book written unless I escaped Portland and deadhead salary work. I saw poverty as a kind of freedom, a purity, a simplification. So I retired a little too soon.
The picture in my head that I went towards was basically a cabin. Many times in my life I’ve moved to a new place by putting all my belongings in storage, driving ahead in my small van with only the basics (computer, mattress, folding table and chair, stack of books, fork and frying pan) to rent a marginal studio apartment and live in it, basically camping, until I’d made enough money to fly back, rent a moving van, and bring the rest. Though I was always happy to see my things again, I also cherished the month or so when the space was empty of all but light and appliances.
This little 800 square foot house seemed enormous at first, but filled up fast, partly because I had some of my mother’s furniture with me. But also because as soon as I had enough bookcases to shelve all the books and enough filing cabinets to sort out my boxes, they exploded to fill the rooms. This kept me from feeling impoverished even though I was still feeding myself the same way I fed the cats: open a can, dump it in a bowl, heat it in the tiny old microwave and eat. It was a chop-wood-carry-water life until I began to sink under undiagnosed diabetes, which I thought was just aging. Then I began to push aside the papers, neglect the yard, and nap with the cats. Now that I’m diagnosed, I’m rich in energy again, but there will be no more simple meals and fingersticks are part of what has to be a regular discipline.
I begin to understand that the world sees diabetes -- like everything else -- as a marketing opportunity. Even if I don’t need meds, I still need a doctor and the gas to go see her, a little machine and the supplies for it. I need advice and recipes and more access to better food. And my yard -- according to the neighbors -- needs a power-mower, plants, etc. George W. Bush wants me insured for drugs. I'm a pass-through for pharmaceutical profiteering.
The first book is written and sold but it turns out there will be no money for a year and then it will be a modest amount. The fact is that our culture no longer values writing. Our media has gone digital video and may not return. Everyone writes -- not very well -- but the publishing houses have crashed. Indeed, the newspapers and magazines are crashing. Writers are as unemployed as Detroit assembly line workers. Rolling poverty.
All this is expectable and rational to some degree. I didn’t expect this much inflation this fast (what cost $30 when I came in 1999 is now $50) and I didn’t expect this town to change. Our first Hummer is now parked in front of the post office every morning -- the driver has bought the Stone School Bed & Breakfast (a conversion of the first public school in Valier) and expects to live “a spiritual life” there with her two golden labs. (It has a quite remarkable purple chandelier as well as a view of our nearly dried-up lake.) The previous big city import insisted that we become a “tree city,” create a pocket park on the highway, and install water hookups for the campground -- even though there is not enough water in the town wells to water our little vegetable patches. My neighbors across the street -- the ones who complain about my yard -- have three bathrooms, a hot tub, a dishwasher, a laundry (2 kids, a LOT of washing), and underground automatic watering. I have one bathroom, no dish or clothes washer, no hot tub (or bathtub, since I installed a shower), one hose with a sprinkler on the end. There are no meters in town so we pay the same flat rate for water. Somehow there are a lot of people trying to force their lifestyle onto me -- shifting their financial burden first.
But I can suck it up, be a bit of a martyr, and consider myself a role model. I came expecting to stay maybe twenty years: I’ve been here seven years now and am mostly achieving what I set out to do. People in Valier never expected me to stay more than a couple of years and find it positive, if surprising, that I’m still here. The people who count cut me a little slack.
Social pressure in the United States is something else. Christian America has always been of the opinion (secretly or not) that a person who is not prosperous is not favored by God. Something must be wrong with them, whether sin, deformation, or laziness. This small town has its share of the alcoholic, the maimed, the never-quite-right, the trauma-survivors. The ones who have money are tolerated. The ones who get “big checks from the government for doing nothing” are highly resented, even by their own relatives. We hate the poor, as New Orleans demonstrated.
But now we’re moving beyond that. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts wants to require people to buy health insurance by law, punishing anyone who fails to do so with fines, and imposing health insurance on them by withholding the fees from their wages or taxes. In Montana we already have required auto insurance.
There are two forces entwined: one is the enumerating and classifying of everyone, a syndrome brought on computers IMHO. The government wants to number the hairs on your head -- all the while keeping their own heads covered with secrecy. The second force is redefining what might be simple incompetence or bad luck into a defiance of “God Government” and criminalizing it. We’re back to debtor’s prison. Can systematic weeding-out of “cripples” be far behind? Why wait for them to die of poverty, when they can just be neatly shot?
Moving here from Portland probably did as much or more to restore me than the diabetes diagnosis. Not only was the atmosphere there full of strange molecular substances. (I’m convinced the Portlandia Building is a “sick” building contaminated with fungus, etc., even while putting aside the day that bus exhaust so invaded the inadequate ventilation system that one entire floor began to vomit and was sent home.) In addition there was crime everywhere: in my apartment a cocaine dealer across the hall, a cocaine dealer who moved in with the woman who lived directly under me, cars stolen from the curb under my window or sometimes just their wheels, rapists in the news everyday -- some of them people we knew. Not the victims, the rapists.
Paranoia put all our cortisol levels as high as they would be if we’d been in a car wreck. Some people could not function without tranquilizers. Every clerk in the Permit Center was on mood elevators. There was random shooting on the streets, even in daytime, and constant bomb threats. Some guy flipped out and held hostage a high-rise building near us. It contained a TV station which could not broadcast what was happening for fear of tipping off the invader about what the cops were doing. This was in Portland, considered an idyllic green place to live.
It was like coming into an inheritance to return to this dry, windy, pop. 300 village. Now I’m wealthy in time, materials, ideas, security, sunlight... But that only increases the necessity of simplification, discipline, awareness. While this lasts. Across the street the little house of one of my neighbors has been emptied over the past week or so. She is in a nursing home. The very large family cleared out what they wanted, then held a “garage” sale. We wait to see who buys the little house. It is not grand enough to attract a Hummer driver, thank... um... Buddha.