Finding Peace and Sustainability from the Front Row Seats
by Jan Hart
“To live now as human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” — Howard Zinn
“Fear is the air we breathe. We subscribe to religions that exploit our dread of death. We do business in an economy of fear driven by consumer worries about keeping up with the neighbors. And we practice a politics of fear in which candidates are elected by playing on voter’s anxieties about race and class. And we continue to ‘collaborate with these structures because they promise to protect us against one of the deepest fears at the heart of being human — the fear of … a win-lose conflict in which we could lose something of ourselves.”
We fear loss.
Basically, we want things to stay the same — or at least how things used to be. Many of us still cling to images of the ‘American Dream’ which appear almost as ghostlike scenes from the 1950s or even 1970s. Things were simpler then. People could count on finding a job and buying a house. Most felt that their kids would have a better life than they had. Now we are not so sure. In America everything has changed and there is widespread fear of more changes coming — at least for all except the top 10%.
Fear producing words seep into our daily lives. Many of us begin each day by listening to the news on radio or watching a TV morning program. Some still get their news from a newspaper over coffee. Internet users now find news headlines popping up as they log into Google or AOL. We hear frightening news in our cars and from friends and neighbors. Fear is also burned into our memories. Most of us remember exactly what we were doing and where we were when we heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination and the 9/11 catastrophes.
Perhaps the most insidious form of fear is that advanced purposefully for political gain. Fear mongering is a political tactic used to frighten citizens and influence their opinions. We in the United States first experienced it with McCarthyism and then with the drumbeat to war after 9/11. The oft-repeated phrases, ‘War on Terror’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ worked to create fear and coalesce a predetermined mindset favoring war. And now even our respected news sources are becoming more politicized. The fires of anger and hatred are being fanned by fear-mongering talk show hosts who focus blame and shame on the disenfranchised — the poor, immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, ‘others.’
Our disenfranchised numbers are growing exponentially. Middle-class American workers teeter on the brink of solvency. In America today, the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks. And for the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth than all individual Americans put together. More than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and this number is projected to jump to 43 million by 2011. Does anyone even know about the backdoor cuts to disabled living allowances that now threaten those least able to recover? Like my son.
Those of us who are struggling to keep going after losing our homes or jobs or health are left incredulous as we hear shouts to continue tax cuts for the wealthy in the same breath with efforts to cut remaining social safety nets. Sure, we might get some relief with healthcare when the bill goes into effect in 2014 — if we can hang on till then. Single, older women like me are especially vulnerable. Among women over the age of 65, 11.9 percent are currently below the poverty line. Without social security benefits that percentage will rise to nearly 50%. How can any rational, feeling person not see all of this as absolute insanity?
Maybe they think it can’t happen to them. There is, after all still a pervasive cultural myth in the US known as ‘The American Success Syndrome’ that suggests if you don’t have lots of money, connections, social power, and success in business or the professional world, you just aren’t working hard enough. Please, let’s get real.
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I am one of the lucky ones. Fear and loss and realness came upon me early and forced me to start thinking about some new approaches. I was single and 54 years old.
I woke up in May 1996 in pain. My skin even hurt! I got up and showered but knew that something was fearfully wrong. Living alone in my beloved Ranchito San Pedro, I called a friend to take me to the local clinic. Unable to afford health insurance then, I depended upon a local sliding-scale clinic for my medical needs. By the end of the day I had been sent on to the local hospital emergency room, and then rushed to a Santa Fe hospital where I underwent emergency surgery to try to identify the cause of an overwhelming bacterial infection centered in my spine and threatening my life. An antibiotic resistant strain of Staph! (I had unknowingly contracted this staph infection during a previous back surgery 18 years before and my body had kept it isolated.) 6-1/2 weeks and 3 surgeries later I emerged with a tortoise shell brace, a walker and a quarter of a million dollar medical debt.
Having no health insurance or follow-up care, I depended on friends and the generosity of other artists who helped raise some money to cover my rent and living expenses while I healed. Paying off my medical debt was out of the question and I was forced into bankruptcy. (A study reported in the American Journal of Medicine found that illness and medical bills contribute to a large and increasing share of U.S. bankruptcies.) This was a big wake-up call of change and fear for a basically optimistic person who had always enjoyed good health and worked hard for a fairly stable lifestyle. I began to fear the future….
First I had to get past denial. If I don’t listen to the news or talk to others I can believe that everything is just fine. This was one of the coping mechanisms taught to me by my mother. In their later years my parents nearly wore out their video copies of ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ so that they could stay happy. Personally, I think that Denial (and its next door neighbor, Distraction) are perfectly fine short-term strategies. But in the long run they don’t help you move forward. Eventually the rational mind will try to find appropriate actions to take. I once bought the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway just to have it in my bookshelf. I never read it. I pretty much knew what it said inside and I just appreciated the reminder.
The next 12 years brought more changes as I struggled to fight my way back to success and the Middle Class. I taught watercolor, hosted workshops, got a loan to buy my New Mexico home, and published a book. But my preexisting condition made me unable to qualify for health insurance. When additional surgeries were needed I again fell into medical debt. I refinanced my mortgage to pay. The last refinancing was in response to one of the almost daily unrequested phone calls that I received from mortgage lenders just 2 months after my last surgery. Later I found out they were called ‘predatory lenders’ and that they obviously had access to my private financial information. Suddenly I was living in a financial house of cards. At the base of the balancing act was a mortgage swollen by medical debt — a shaky foundation. The entire structure was contingent upon continued good health, optimum rentals for the casitas, and plenty of students for workshops and classes. At 65 I had a small social security income but the $670/month would be impossible to live on. My savings were minimal — just for emergencies. So, in the pre-dawn moments of early 2008, as my sleepy mind sifted through my ‘what if’ list, I felt an initial jolt of warning — like the first tremor of an earthquake. All it would take is one slip on the ice-covered porch outside my front door for the entire, magical house of cards to come tumbling down.
While watching television a few nights later, I saw the too-familiar economic line graph showing a rise followed by the precipitous downward turn, and it occurred to me that I could superimpose that graph over my accumulated ‘wealth’ of things. Instead of ‘super-sizing’ my life, I would ‘downsize’ it. I would make the preemptive strike for a manageable life before I was forced to live in the rubble. I found online, and signed up for, a tour, “Live in Costa Rica on Your Social Security” — and a few months later walked into the little Tico house in southern Costa Rica, with the only horizontal surface other than the floor being the toilet seat, and I knew it was perfect.
Here was my blank canvas for the creation of a new downsized lifestyle. Here I might be able to live just on social security. As soon as I embraced the idea it became kind of fun. Like: how could I make enough money to move myself, two dogs and four parrots to Costa Rica? Five huge garage sales showed me how to let go of stuff I thought I’d never part with. When my sons decided they didn’t want the old, unsorted photographs — they got thrown out. I gave away paintings and clothes and furniture I couldn’t sell. Each time I would feel a twinge as I let go and then turned my attention to the next thing. I decided to walk away from my house that wouldn’t sell. My goal was to get enough money to take as little as possible to Costa Rica and start over, simply. At the same time my house moved into foreclosure, I took my first solo steps into my new life in a new country. It was Christmas Eve, 2008 and I had just turned 66.
Now in 2011, I feel safer and more secure — but not yet fearless.
I still have some personal and universal fears. My significant hearing loss and nerve damaged legs contribute to a feeling of isolation. Often I cannot understand foreign accents or conversation in a crowded group. Sometimes torrential rains smother me in auditory isolation under the metal roof and I feel very alone, very afraid. And I don’t like the dependence I have upon my car for mobility off my hillside home. Age-related and medical realities are part of my life. I am dealing with it by having close by my animals, internet, car, and telephone.
But the greatest fears I have are world fears that I feel powerless to affect. I remain connected to the U.S. — the home of my children, friends, family, past. I am afraid for my country. Some suggest just not listening to or watching news. Ignore it! But my curious mind won’t allow complete denial. I enjoy expanding my view of the U.S. in the world context through the eyes of ex-pats from all over the world. I’m even interested in conspiracy theories because so many of the old ones have ultimately been proven true — like the Iran-Contra Affair and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to name a couple.
The fear that worries me most comes out of the mouths of ordinary Americans. I hear the fear mongering rhetoric from Fox News or radio talk show hosts repeated as truth. Lying phrases like ‘Obama is a Muslim’ and ‘elderly face death panels to decide who is worthy of care…’ and ‘Islam is taking over the world’ are accepted as truth into the consciousness of ordinary citizens. Why is news distorted and fabricated? Political gain. And it works. It feeds fears that make a terrified populace accept actions like huge banker bail outs, accelerated war, and erosion of civil rights. If people are too frightened or tired or depressed to look for the truth, they take in the lies. And the drum roll continues.
To keep from being overwhelmed with universal fear, I developed some personal strategies.
I surround myself with positive people who avoid using fear-mongering generalizations like ‘Everyone gets robbed…’ or ‘It is all the fault of…’
I’m careful about what media news I let in. In the United States 90% of the mass media (TV, movies, books, newspapers, radio, videos, records, wire services), is owned by consolidated media corporations. In 1983 there were 50 corporations that controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S.; now there are five. In the U.S. today we are an extremely divided people. While I believe it is important to look at both sides of any issue, I don’t believe that Fox News is ‘fair and balanced’ just because they say so. I look for truth outside of American mass media. Occasionally I watch BBC news but I depend mostly upon sources like the Real News Network on the internet where I can read the top stories from around the world and focus on issues that especially interest me like Latin American news, U.S. politics, and the economy.
Meanwhile, a downsized (sustainable) lifestyle being modeled for me by my Tico neighbors. By using their ways instead of importing American habits, I can keep my expenses very low — like the Ticos. I have learned how to accept low water pressure, cold water detergent, hot water on-demand shower heads, simple unprocessed foods, year-round fresh gardening, minimal appliances. (I have no hot water heater, dishwasher, or clothes dryer). I don’t need heating or air conditioning and a simple ceiling fan helps move the air when it gets a bit too warm and also helps keep the flying bugs at bay. I admit that I kind of backed into this sustainable lifestyle, but it’s a perfect fit. And I’ve discovered that my sustainable life is also downsizing my fear.
o Fear of stock market losses, identity theft, and losing money in bank accounts? You can’t lose what you don’t have.
o Fear of falling and being wiped out financially due to lack of health care? As soon as I have my residency I will be covered by Costa Rican national health care plan with no exception for preexisting conditions. Meanwhile, medical/dental care is about 1/4 of the cost in the states.
o Fear of having enough money to pay for pharmaceuticals. I stopped taking all prescription medications when I moved here.
o Fear of illness. With all the fresh vegetables, fruit, and fish here I have not been ill since I arrived. Plus, my good diet has resulted in about a 30 lb. weight loss.
o Fear of lack of food and water. My garden is now producing organic vegetables and fresh fruits are very inexpensive. Local fish, eggs, poultry, and pork are inexpensive and very good. My water comes from a spring right above me and costs about $3/month.
o Fear for personal safety. Gun ownership here is rare and I feel very safe in my Tico house in my Tico neighborhood. If you don’t look like you have anything to steal you aren’t as likely to be robbed.
o My fear of isolation is helped when I know I can meet friends in more intimate settings so that I can hear better. My little dog, Seurat, can alert me to any strange sound in the night, and I can always drive down the hill to Billy’s or Anita’s if I need to be with neighbors. Frank and I talk twice a day by phone if we don’t see each other. My internet is pretty reliable and Skype works great. And the pounding rain or encasing clouds that make me feel so alone always end.
So now I find myself in a tranquil, sustainable life juxtaposed against a very insane world. Is it possible to embrace both the beauty and the apparent madness? Yes — if I feel like I can somehow help and also know how to find peace. Within.
I can help by offering a place for people to come to experience this Tico way of life that can inspire new visions, ideas, and hope. I offer a timeshare opportunity on my website as well as watercolor workshops. Having people come is a win-win for me. Besides the money generated that has enabled me to build the cabinas and studio, I have benefited from getting to know some great people and being able to see this place anew through their eyes. And they tell me they have had their eyes opened to new possibilities for living as well.
Embracing the madness is more of a stretch. But I have a way: Nature. I can walk out my front door to talk with my parrots, tend to vegetables, or sit on my deck to look out over the hills. At Frank’s organic farm I can walk with him to see the new plantings, pick some biriba, or appreciate a speckled tanager on the bird feeder. And peace sweeps over me. I understand that I truly am powerless to change much of what is steamrolling ahead toward the precipice. But if I am, as I believe, a part of this interconnected web of life, my quiet and peaceful heart is helpful to the whole. And that gives me hope.
Frank has a phrase he likes to repeat after hearing about another instance of world insanity. “Front Row Seats!” Here in this beautiful place we have front-row seats from which to watch — in peace and without fear.
Jan Hart is an artist, teacher, and adventurer. She is the author of The Watercolor Artist’s Guide to Exceptional Color (2007). More information about her work can be found at: www.janhart.com.