Sandy lives in an apartment so small that when she comes home from shopping at Goodwill, she has to decide what to move out to make room for her purchases. She struggles day-to-day to feed and clothe herself and her four-year-old daughter on money from freelance writing and odd jobs.
Her ex-husband has long since disappeared down some unknown highway, probably never to be heard again. As often as not, her car decides it needs a day off and refuses to budge. That means bicycling (weather permitting), walking or bumming a ride from friends.
The things most Americans consider essential for survival – television, microwave, boom box and high-priced sneakers – are far down Sandy’s list of “maybe someday” items.
Nutritious food, warm clothing, an efficiency apartment, student loan payments, books for her daughter, necessary medical care and occasional movie matinee eat up what little cash there is to go around.
Sandy has knocked on more doors than she can recall, trying to land a decent job, but there is always something that doesn’t quite fit – too little experience or not the right kind, or hours that make child care impossible.
Sandy’s story is not unusual. Many single parents and older people grapple with our economic structure, falling into the crevice between being truly self-sufficient and being sufficiently impoverished to gain government assistance.
What makes Sandy unusual is her outlook.
“I don’t have much in the way of stuff or the American dream,” she told me with a genuine smile.
“Does that bother you?” I asked.
“Sometimes. When I see another little girl around my daughter’s age who has nice clothes and toys, or who is riding around in a fancy car or living in a fine house, then I feel bad. Everyone wants to do well by their children,” she replied.
“But you’re not bitter?”
“What to be bitter about? We aren’t starving or freezing to death, and I have what is really important in life,” she replied.
“And what is that?” I asked.
“As I see it, no matter how much stuff you buy, no matter how much money you make, you really only get to keep three things in life,” she said.
“What do you mean by ‘keep’?”
“I mean that nobody can take these things away from away.”
“And what are these three things?” I asked.
“One, your experiences; two, your friends; and three, what you grow inside yourself,” she told me without hesitation.
For Sandy, “Experiences” don’t come on a grand scale. They are so-called ordinary moments with her daughter, walks in the woods, napping under a shade tree, listening to music, taking a warm bath or baking bread.
Her definition of friends is more expensive. “True friends are the ones who never leave your heart, even if they leave your life for a while. Even after years span, you pick up with them right where you left off, and even if they die, they’re never dead in your heart,” she explained.
As for what we grow inside, Sandy said, “”That’s up to each of us, isn’t it? I don’t grow bitterness or sorrow. I could if I wanted to, but I’d rather not.”
“So what do you grow?” I asked.
Sandy looked warmly at her daughter and then back to me. She pointed toward her own eyes, which were aglow with tenderness, gratitude and a sparkling joy.
“I grow this.”
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