From Gucci to Gap to Goodwill and Grateful.
The other day I’m on my way to a vintage clothing shop, and I see two fellows on the bus bench in front of the shop.
They’re obviously homeless as evidenced by their grubby, layered frocks; mangy, matted hair; shopping cart of filthy blankets and extra, oversized army jackets; and the two liter bottle of cheap chardonnay they are sharing at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning.
The fellow facing me has brown hair and glaucoma. He asks, “Can you spare some change?”
I say, “Just a minute,” and go into the store, not wanting them to filch my cash, feeling paranoid they’ll steal my wallet, and somehow out-shuffle me down the street. I enter the store, search my purse and find two dollars. I go back outside—the other man has removed his jacket revealing a body riddled with scabs. As I approach the men, I smell stale urine. (I must note that I have chatted with a few home-lacking people, and they do not all smell foul. I ride my bicycle on the boardwalk and see plenty out of doors dwellers at the free public showers soaping up. The water isn’t heated. But I digress.)
I walk over to the men and hand them each a dollar. The fellow who didn’t ask for money and isn’t facing me, immediately hands his dollar to his friend, and I feel chastened having made the assumption.
I ask his friend, “What’s your name?”
I stick my hand out to shake his: “Anna.” His smile reveals heavy plaque and bad teeth.
His friend hasn’t turned to greet me, so I touch a clear patch of skin on his arm, “And you?”
He turns, “Wolf.” He shakes my hand, and I resist the urge to rub my hand on my jeans.
Jules says, “Did you hear about Joe?”
I reply, “No, sorry, I don’t know him, what happened?”
Jules says, “He died last night in the park.”
Wolf adds, “They found him with his dog, Wolf.”
Though I’m now confused about whether this man and the dog are both named Wolf, I say, “Oh, I’m sorry for your loss.”
Wolf has turned back facing the road and says, “Wolf stayed by his side until they found him.”
I say, “Well, he’s not homeless anymore, now he’s home free.”
They ponder this in a moment of silence, then Jules lifts a dirty shirt off the bottle of Chardonnay they’re discreetly hiding and offers, “You want some chardonnay?”
His graciousness catches me by surprise, and my throat tightens, “No, but thank you.”
“It’s good stuff. You don’t drink?”
“Not really, but I appreciate the offer.”
“You want a coat?” He points to his buggy, and I have to blink several more times to disperse excess eye moisture.
When I take my leave, I can’t help but think about my own habitation: I’m spending the winter in a cozy attic, and I’m happy about it to be sure, but it’s a long way from the old, comparatively luxurious home I sold back in Canada, not that there’s anything wrong with that either.
In a text conversation with a friend from home, my friend tells me: I admire what you’ve done, choosing the simple life.
I reply: I made compromises to have this freedom. No room for kids in the budget, not that I need that anymore, but you know what I mean. I made a choice. I’m happy I did.
I tell him about my experience with Jules and Wolf and how Joe died in the park with only his faithful dog trying to nudge him back to life and finish with: Don’t die alone in the park.
Years ago, after my divorce, but still in the snowball of an early mid-life crisis, I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a story about a psychiatrist finding moments of joy living in a Nazi concentration camp. It changed my perspective or at least tickled the notion of changing my perspective.
I realized a couple things: I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do professionally, and I wasn’t happy.
At the time I didn’t have the awareness to understand what I was doing ‘wrong,’ but I knew I’d have to make some major changes in my life. I started evaluating what was making me happy and what wasn’t.
Change is scary, but it’s the only constant, and we’re either taking charge of changes or following the stream of them. I decided to be proactive about my future happiness. I stopped doing the things in my work that I no longer enjoyed. I gave up a large portion of my income to do this; my reward was time.
Yes, you can buy time.
Cut to today: I’m living in a shared home in Venice Beach, California, working from one of three offices, namely the local area coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. I must now live within a relatively tight budget. I have enough Air Miles to get anywhere (thanks to my past career’s mega marketing expenses), the residual I receive from a modest investment property pays for food, clothing and attic.
A bonus of being an environmentalist is minimization; I’m content with what I have, plus I’d rather not add to landfills by purchasing anything new. I’m joyful (most of the time). My take on happy/joy is thus…
Happiness is situation based: event + perspective = reaction; joy is internally based: perspective = perspective.
I could have changed my perspective toward how I managed my business, but sometimes the little voice inside us (our intuition) says it’s time to move on. Don’t be afraid to listen to it. Or if you are afraid, listen and then dare greatly, anyway.
My friend from home tells me he’s taking a month off from work. Testing the cost of freedom. (Good for him, whatever he ultimately decides!)
I live a simple life now. I don’t have lofty goals or a major life purpose that drives me. I try to enjoy each moment. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to set up my life this way, though it was more by lucky default than strategic planning. And I’m grateful to wake up in a comfortable room with a space heater and not in a park with a bottle of Chardonnay, because there are many here who are just happy to wake up. Period. I’m glad I woke up.
What have I (re)learned?
1. Life is simple if not always easy.
2. The ease of life depends on our perspective of it.
3. We can change our perspective, and we can also change our circumstances.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Grant Baldwin Photography