I’ve been working for almost 50 years now including an eight-year stint when I worked every day from dawn to dusk on a two-acre home farm in the high mountain desert of Arizona to grow enough food to feed our household and write about how I managed to do it. And write a few poems about the desert and the importance of taking care of the land when I had a little time. Apricot trees, aloe plants, tomatillos, salmon-colored calendula flowers with their peppery petals, everything thrived in the hard-fought-for bounty as I spent days crawling up and down the hills in the wadis installing sprinklers to save water and trying to outwit one wily desert creature after another. My partner, a woman ten years older than me, told me one day she was acting about actually loving me and left me high and dry without any warning. “I am an actress, you know,” she said with a flourish of a kind after she gave me the news about her intention to leave me. She had studied acting in New York but it made no difference to me. I lost it all.
Of course, gay marriage would have helped me out at the time, but you get the picture. I was tricked. A green, organic gardener, I cared more about the earth than many people did at the time. I trusted Linda. She lied to me until the realtor came through the front door with the sale papers in hand. Only at that point did she let me know her plans. I had no place to go or any place to move my gardens. Some of the plants went to the Flagstaff Arboretum and some to neighbors. After I found an apartment, I went to work transcribing essays for psychics at a new age magazine and tending the rose bushes for the owner. They trained me to write about walk-ins and visitors from outer space in order to tidy up their prose. A job was a job and at the time, in spite of what happened to me and the loss, I thought and still believe we all have to trust each other in a world like this one in order to make the world work. Our lives depend on relationships, friends, lovers, mother, father, neighbors.
Years earlier as a younger woman and at the end of my study on a fellowship in the Syracuse University Graduate Writing Program, I found out my father had a stroke, and I went home to work in his place in order to save his business. I stayed running his corporate travel agency in Teterboro, New Jersey, for many years even after he lost his leg and much of his mind. I stayed to make sure both he and my mother would have enough. When my father died, I sold his business and helped my mother move to Las Vegas near the Episcopal Church where she seemed to have the best of both worlds, one-armed bandits at night and volunteer work in the thrift store or in the food bank during the day.
Earlier, at the time I began teaching after I sold the travel business for my mother, I found only lower-paying part-time jobs, and I struggled to find time to write. As a college professor, I developed the first classes in the country for writing English 1 essays on climate change at William Paterson University. It was 1987. I wrote and published poems and essays at the time to keep up with my original studies, but I had to work most of the time in order to make barely enough to live. I discovered working hard and earning money did not mean I’d earn enough money to get by. I cared about the students and created an environmental studies essay writing class which was latter picked up for use in the Environmental Studies program at the university, but this happened years after I left, and I received only a letter of “thank you” from the program chair.
Years later, after teaching and losing my garden farm, I taught college again at Cal State and the College of the Desert in Palm Springs where I still live. I taught twice as many courses as was the custom and tried to live with lower pay and did some freelance writing for others. I wrote for professionals with good-paying jobs who did not know how to write. An educator writing a thesis needed my help, and a police consultant writing reports for the courts faxed me his reports for rewrites every other week. I applied for one full-time job after another and interviewed for many. It was at this time that a woman I loved very much, Debra, a Broadway dancer, told me no matter how much she loved me, I did not have enough money to make her happy and that was that. She said a good life and money are absolutely synonymous — every relationship depended on that. I tried to increase my prospects, but I was older at this time and employers wanted younger applicants no matter how skilled the older applicant. I was a good-looking lesbian but my growing older showed.
Years later, after I worked at many more jobs (one time I worked five jobs at once including creating classes for Mensa kids), my mother passed away at her home in Las Vegas, and I found out she spent all the money I worked to get her even though she had received a large social security check every month and had few expenses. She even let the life insurance lapse. She was 95 years old and drove a gold souped-up Camaro, and she wore a red hat when she went to the casino. I had to take money from my slim savings to pay for her to be buried with my father on the east coast. This was her final wish, and it was at a greater amount than I thought possible.
For the last decade after that, I worked reading essays for College Board, a difficult job on the computer, a job I often compared to the work of an air traffic controller without the planes since all the essays I read had embedded essays within them, shills, essays meant to catch me in an error. I had to read 14 essays an hour and rate them perfectly to keep my job. I adapted to the constant stress and became good enough at this work to earn $15.00 an hour, a boon, but without benefits of any kind. I lost my job in the pandemic when schools closed last year and lost the job again when the work came to an end for good. College Board canceled the tests altogether. They offered me no pay as they canceled months of contracts to work for them with barely a goodbye.
So, here I am at 73 years old (my birthday was in July), an organic gardener, a rescue dog advocate and lover, a lesbian, trying to put together a collection of my over 400 published poems and finish my narrative nonfiction book, Becoming a Gay Woman in America about my life after my high school sent me home at age 13 to be cured of being gay and the ramifications over a lifetime. It looks to be done at 266 pages. And I’ve signed up for a few more online jobs during the second bout of the pandemic sweeping the land. I decided to stay in my apartment near the old oasis because I don’t know where else to go in the present economy with so much uncertainty. In April, only four months ago, my best friend of 45 years passed away. Anna and I talked every day and she helped me for many years, bought us lunch out on and off and gave me money, especially for my dog’s needs. She always encouraged me to press on even if the numbers never quite added up. I miss her every day.
My friend Susan from Colorado phoned me today to tell me she loved me. I think she does this because she is always trying to make a go of it in spite of her circumstances. Susan and I are the same age and went to high school in Massachusetts together. After heart surgery, her partner left her when she needed too much help from him. She moved into an apartment complex for the poor and lived on the fourth floor, barely making it up the stairs some days, moving one step at a time, but she did it. She managed to find a job with Uber a year later and made a good enough living to move into a shared home she found on Craigslist. Now, she is out of work again and staring at the ceiling in her room, or so she told me. She is looking for work and unsettled again as she has been so often over these past years.
It is Saturday night and I am sitting in my Swedish chair writing an essay about how writing may be good for the soul and the spirit and how I write about what I know. Anything is possible. No job is too small or requires too much. My 13-pound honey-colored rescue dog Honey is sitting next to me in order to help the writing process. She always has good instincts about what matters and when I need a little moral support for what I do. She was thrown off a pick-up truck in Desert Hot Springs eight years ago and left there in the middle of the desert to fend for herself. We are a team and best friends, and she has helped me write even when my back is to the wall. Tomorrow we will get up early and go out for a walk together, collecting flower buds on the rose bushes to put in water, bounty in the middle of the heat of the desert this year at the beginning of earth changes in California. There is a haze over the mountains from the fires up north and the humidity is like New Jersey humidity. Over breakfast, I will think up some new ideas for what to do now. Job ideas. How to save money. A budget that might work better than what we have now. I have lived this way for many years, trying to make the little more than it is.
The roses will bloom by tomorrow morning. They always do.
I hope you see what I’m getting at. Part of living life for me is placing a few flowers on the table and eating as if there is always going to be enough. Tomorrow I will make lentil soup with garlic and vegetables and a little pasta. It is always delicious. The older we get in America now, the harder making do is, especially for the many of us who still work through no fault of our own. Learning to make a go of it in spite of what is going on around us is part of living now. I adapt like I always have.
Am I the only person who cannot make it today in a world with rising prices and the constant risks of the pandemic? A world geared for the young and the even younger and the technologically cool? There are not many jobs around for people like me and even at 15 dollars an hour, some of us are unable to make enough money no matter what we do or how hard we work or how much we care about the world, or how many times we do the right thing and try to give back.
So, this is what I have to bring today, and this is how it is for me in America. I do my best. Life goes on. •