A Perfect Life: The Virtues of Poverty — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia India South Asia Trips

A Perfect Life: The Virtues of Poverty — By Jennifer Shipp

At the Dalai Lama Temple in Mcleodganj. The Tibetans have been forced into something through a negative situation, but something tells me, they’ll make the most out of it.

In 2002, we were so poor, there was a time when we couldn’t afford to buy eggs and John had to bum change off a guy who was almost as poor as we were to buy gas to get home from John’s newspaper route (he had 2 of them at the time). That was in the first few months post-9/11. Our business had gone belly-up. Work prospects had dried up. I was pregnant at the time. And we’d just bought our first house along the front range in Colorado…and leased a new SUV. Lydi was two. I miscarried. John had to go throw newspapers when I went in for the D&C. He never got paid for the work he did that day. It was a hard time.

I pretended a lot then. Mostly, I pretended to not be poor. And people mostly believed that we weren’t. I pretended to be “okay” when I really wasn’t. I pretended to know what I was doing. And people mostly believed that I did know (or they seemed to). I pretended that I cared about the things that I thought people were supposed to care about. We pretended to be just like everybody else (except for that time the police came and took John and me in for fighting with each other in the street outside our house). We were just like everybody else. Yep. Just like everybody else. Or at least we thought we might be able to be.

Maybe we were like everyone else back in those days. Maybe those early experiences with poverty, desperation, and hopelessness changed us and made us different. Or maybe they just made us willing to be different. Desperation makes people do funny things.

There was one thing that John and I worked hard to avoid at all costs in those days: daycare for Lydian. We’d considered it. How could we not? If we sent Lydi to daycare, John and I could both have an income. It was tempting. But I was enrolled in a doctorate program to become a psychologist at the time and in one of my child psychology classes, we’d discussed daycare:

“Is it good for kids?” The professor asked us.

Students answered in different ways. One student noted the necessity of daycare. Another said that kids were “socialized” through daycare. The professor smiled wryly at us and asked the question again. “But is it good for kids?”

There was a long pause. I waited, but no one else spoke.

“No.” I finally said.

“Then why do so many kids end up in daycare?”

“Because it’s economically necessary.” I knew the answer very well from personal experience and middle-of-the-night anxiety attacks.

She sent us home with a stack of studies on attachment disorders that had been conducted on the cusp of World War II at a time just prior to when women were being recruited to leave home and go to work. When we returned to class the next night, the vibe was tense.

The professor told us, “Research proved many years ago that daycare is bad for kids, but by the time this information became available to the American public, no one wanted to know about it.” It was a humbling assessment of daycare, an economic staple in American society. It quelled any inklings that I’d had about Lydi and daycare.

After that, there was no disillusionment about child-rearing for me or John. We would not send our kid to daycare. We were utterly united on this front. Neither one of us had gone to daycare as kids.

But it was hard. We were poor a lot. We would’ve been excited to have been living month-to-month. Rather we lived about 6 months behind on everything. Whenever I took a job, John would stay home with Lydian, or I would take her with me to work. It was hard to find work that supported this kind of “irresponsible” behavior on my part. I did social work. I did staffing. John quit his job once at a call center and stayed home for 6 months when I found a job that paid better than his. We moved 22 times, not counting the time we spent living in our RV.

Being poor, at least the American version of poor, was never what bothered me the most though. What always catapulted me to take action for our family was some form of unhappiness. I’ve always wanted for our family to be happy. And I wanted us to be able to be together. John has always been a willing companion in any adventure I concoct. We jogged together. We taught martial arts together. We traveled together. We built a big life-sized Halloween village together. I grew up with my parents on a farm and I wanted my family to be like a farm family where mom and dad work together and the kids are incorporated into the goings on of the family business to some degree. It’s a tall order in today’s society. Many Americans laugh at it. Some are stunned by this kind of desire. Others still secretly yearn for the same kind of thing.

Poverty had its virtues though. It was impoverishment that made John and me hone in on what we really wanted from life. When we were poor, we had little to lose from taking economic risks. But most of all being poor taught me not to fear being poor.

Handmade Newspaper Bag
In both Delhi and Mcleodganj, some of the vendors had handmade newspaper bags that they used to contain things like eggs or rice.

Today, one of the things I look for when we travel abroad is poverty. I can’t explain it fully. Poverty just intrigues me. There are different versions of it all across the planet. Some forms of poverty are instructive, others are utterly devastating. Yesterday, John came home from his outing in Delhi with some eggs in a paper bag that had been made out of an old magazine and some glue by a poor vegetable vendor. Whenever I see something resourceful like that, it gives me hope. Here’s a person who came up with the solution to a problem. I think. Here’s a person who didn’t give up on something.

Maybe that’s overly optimistic, but that’s what I see. I see a bag where there was no bag before. And it gives me hope. Sometimes I think that I’m traveling the world in search of paper bags like that one; little bits of evidence that people are full of magic; that they can do  anything, step-by-step, if they want to badly enough. The only reason why people don’t do more magical things is because they aren’t properly motivated. But when they do actually do those things (however small) they’re as notable as the pyramids or the coliseum in Rome.

Lydi never did end up in daycare, by the way. We lived in our RV for 2 years until one day, the poop tank broke. It was the middle of the winter. We were shacked up in my parents backyard, icicles hanging from the ceiling of our “living room” (a slide out). Shit piled up under John’s and my bed (both literally and figuratively). Our shit. John crawled under there and tried to fix it. Lydi was four at that time. The snow was two feet deep and John and I would go outside to a nearby field to relieve ourselves in the middle of the night to keep the pile from getting too high. This is how poor we were.

There didn’t seem to be any solutions to our problem just then. But the shit under our bedroom kept smelling and the cold winter air was always a fierce reminder that something needed to change. Our plan had been to homeschool Lydi. But we were just a couple of rungs away from homeless. Public school and two traditional jobs seemed like our only option.

Fourteen years later, and 30 countries later, we’re on our second trip to India. John is a successful freelance Internet programmer. I’m a successful as a freelance writer. Lydian, 16 years old, will graduate with her associates degree and two college certificates next spring. She speaks four languages. We all work from a home that we own outright (it happens to be an old 16,000 square foot public school building, but that’s another story). John and I own several small seasonal businesses that we run mostly for fun. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like all the things that have happened to us could have happened in one lifetime, let alone half a lifetime. But maybe all these things could happen to anyone in one lifetime if said person were spurred to take action by the perpetual smell of their own shit and the cold reality of a life lived on the edge of oblivion. I feel lucky to have been poor. (Poverty can be motivating.) And I feel lucky to not be so poor now. (Not being so impoverished is comfortable.) I feel lucky to get to see poverty and destitution regularly and to remember that it wasn’t money that saved us. It was an idea. A thought. A spur to action. One and then another. And another. We tooks risks and we didn’t follow the rules. But most importantly, it was John and I working together and not giving up on what we really wanted (each other).

Recently, it came to my attention, that I need to connect the dots to make sense out of my life or else people will use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. Normally I stay tight-lipped on the home-and-business-side of our lifestyle, but I realize now that it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people how we can afford to travel or how we can afford to work from home. And explaining it isn’t that simple or straightforward (which might be why I’ve avoided it before now). I’ve mostly felt like it’s our private business, so to speak. No one else needs to know. These are very American thoughts. And there’s some truth to it, at least culturally. But I remember a time when a story like ours might have helped me. And it’s not like my private business is so valuable that it needs to be hidden like a secret. After all, I could break my back planting a garden in my backyard and it might be the most beautiful garden in town when it blooms, but if the fence is always locked and no one ever sees it but me, when the winter comes and the fence blows open, it could be like there was never a garden there at all. All our worldly adventures take place in a context that’s been carefully cultivated by John and me, and more recently Lydian, to support it. Our businesses, our work, our family, and our travels are aspects of our lives that we’ve designed from the ground up through pain-staking effort after hitting bottom back in 2002. We were never “lucky” in the lottery sense of the word, though I would say that we were “blessed” at times by the right kind of guidance at the right moments when we were open to seeing things for what they were. I believe that anyone can be anything they want when they’ve smelled enough of their own old shit and they’re ready for change.

Working from home…jet setting all over the world…it all seems so mystical and impossible to people who want this lifestyle, but don’t have it. I was that person once. I wanted what I have now, but I had no idea how to get it. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that we’ve given up a lot to have the lifestyle that we have. When we travel, we don’t get to be home. We say goodbye to all but a very few personal items and comforts. And traveling is a lot of work (but it’s worth it when we really want to be doing it). Further, working from home isn’t as easy as it seems. For those of you who freelance already, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t crossed over to the dark side of self-employment, but have dreamed about it, I’m sure the idea of having to pay the bills from the rollercoaster ride of constantly changing demand for freelance work is what keeps you on the sidelines. And mostly people with traditional jobs don’t acknowledge that the self-employed and freelancers have jobs too. This compounds the stress of deadlines when people ring the doorbell several times a day because they don’t think we’re really doing anything in there.

Our story is complex. This little post covers just one facet of how we ended up where we are right now. When Lydi was younger, we regularly thanked her (out loud) for the role she played in our life path. Without her presence in our family, we would have undoubtedly done things differently in our lives. But mostly, the most traumatic moments were the most important. The courage to work from home and travel the world came to us through a series of difficulties that ended with us “giving up” on a normal life and designing one that made us feel happy.

India is a great place to reflect on the idea of “a normal life”. It’s the ideal place to see how normal I really am in comparison with how abnormal I normally feel at home. If you could turn A Normal American Life upside down, pour oil, cow poop, and jellybeans into it, and then shake it vigorously, that would be what it’s like to be in India. I can say that right at this moment, as I write this in Naddi Village, near McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh, that I feel like I’m the normal one in a world of abnormality instead of the other way around.

After all these years, I guess I probably can’t really remember “normal” very well. When I was young, before all this travel, “normal” was The Only Way. Now it’s just A Way. And not necessarily The Best Way at that. I believe that life is something that’s meant to be shaped to have a purpose and meaning that’s unique for every individual. My life may not be normal. And it may not be desirable for everyone, or pretty to look at, but to me, it’s perfect. Not the only version of perfect, just my version of perfect. And as I see it, it doesn’t get any more perfect than that.

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