In April of 2009, I was 22, debt-free, and a month away from graduating from an expensive, private liberal arts school whose primary focus, beyond education, was the careful comfort of its 2,000 students. This was a place where free cocoa was dispensed in the library lobby beginning at midnight, where students could invent and design their own major, and where parents—from their darkened dens—could elect to send ‘Spoil ‘em Long Distance’ care packages from the college’s online bookstore; they were delicate wicker baskets containing pucks of brie and water crackers. My parents—a pharmaceutical chemist and French teacher who’d fallen in love on that same campus—had paid my tuition in-full, an average of $48,000 a year, insisting there was no need to apply for student loans or even federal aid. It was a gift, they told me simply—something they could easily afford, and would.
“Our contribution,” they said often, though in truth, it was one of many.
What I didn’t know then—what I would learn several years later—is that the month following my graduation marked the highest rate of unemployment in the ongoing economic crisis, and while the majority of my peers faced unpaid internships or regression in the form of moving back in with their parents, somehow—and against what I perceived to be all odds—I’d been offered admission into the prestigious University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and offered a full-ride to do so. I would teach my own undergraduate class, the director told me, and design my own assignments. The fellowship not only made my move across the country and my subsequent enrollment possible, but also provided a monthly stipend that could, if I lived frugally, offset the cost of bills and rent, a tank of gas and a few trunk loads of groceries. I believed my future bright and it seemed nothing—most especially finances—could keep me from my dream.
Flash-forward four years: I am now nearly $40,000 in debt.
It started small, as these things do: in this particular case, with a 4’ x 8’ cargo trailer rented with money I’d saved from nannying—from tying shoes and making lunches and designing intricate scavenger hunts with clues I’d hide around the house.
Find me where Daisy-Dog dreams and sleeps!
I’m hiding in a spot the postman feeds!
I was ecstatic, to put it simply: pleased with the universe and pleased with possibility and pleased, most of all, with myself—for finding a way out of Pennsylvania and the dusty riverbed trailer parks and one-lane bridges and gravel dead-end drives I’d long called home. Iowa was a place not altogether different from Pennsylvania, but still everything about it seemed sexier: the fields of yellow corn stretching outwards to touch a blue-green sky, tall men standing in prairie grass, children in denim overalls with wide-mouthed Kool-Aid grins and white blond hair. Never mind the critical insight and self-awareness that would present itself shortly thereafter and with unparalleled intensity: how I’d been privileged from the start, how I’d long had an upper-hand, how the position where I now found myself had about as much to do with me as it did cosmology, or Reiki energy. I’d been lucky, plain and simple, and advantaged from the start.
Still, in August I loaded that U-Haul with what little possessions I owned, crossing one state line and then another. Months earlier, I’d found an apartment on Craigslist for a mere $700 a month, which was still a good $150 more than I’d budgeted, but it was serene and beautiful, with hundred-year-old Murphy Oiled hardwood and floor-to-ceiling windows that I liked most especially for their rumored morning light. I knew from my conversations with the landlord that the building was occupied primarily by young professionals, and I liked to imagine my carefree days, writing thoughtful and inspired essays, and my nights spent on the building’s stoop, where I’d grill shrimp and trade books for books.
“Raymond Carver is talented as fuck,” I’d say, and some man eight or ten years older would laugh in a way I’d later think about in bed.
And yet when I arrived to my new town and my slightly over-budget apartment, it was not awe but bewilderment that pronounced itself nearly immediately. My colleagues were baffled by my indulgence, by my lack of hesitation or anxiety. Their own apartments cost between $450 and $525 a month—this is the beauty of Iowa City—or else more and they took on a roommate. Most had partners or they were married or they freelanced often or they worked part-time. Every penny counted, they reminded me, every dollar one less I’d have to earn when the summer months interrupted our monthly stipend.
“You live carefully enough around here,” they said, “and you can keep that time for yourself, carve out a good four months where you can write exclusively.”
Why did I not listen? These were the brilliant minds with which I shared my time, and they were on a full-ride, too. Like me, several were, thus far, free of the shackles of student loans, but still I disregarded any and all warnings. My apartment seemed a necessary indulgence, a quiet space in which I’d work and read without the concern of a noisy roommate. So what if I took on a few student loans? Where was the shame in having a little extra money thrown my way? If anything, it seemed smart; unlike the majority of my colleagues who’d been out of school for many years, I had no savings cushion, no chunk of change I could withdraw if I had a flat tire or an emergency. My scholarship granted me an annual salary of $11,416 in addition to a $2,600 award—which is fine money when you live in Iowa—but what if a disaster presented itself? What if an opportunity arose? I was 22 and wanted everything; to know the world, when I’m being honest—to see and experience and learn existence as much as I possibly could.
It was naïve, of course. I know that. But there was an urgency—a feeling deep within me that I have a hard time, even now, explaining. I wanted to avail myself to everything, to whatever life could possibly throw my way, and so I excused myself when that first semester, I took out the maximum amount possible: $8,500. But then I took to worrying about my too-high rent, about the cost of groceries and car insurance, the many unknowable and unanticipated expenditures that adult life might entail, so I took out the same amount the following spring. And then that fall. And then that spring.
It quickly became a pattern. I had friends—many of them, really—but I felt isolated and alone and hungry for a lifestyle I did not yet have. Everyone around me was in love, and I wanted to be in love, as well. I wanted a partner, someone with whom I might share my work and my time and my space, my from-scratch cookies and my roasted duck. I wanted, frankly, to share a life. And because I did not yet have that—because I’d moved a thousand miles away from my family and my longtime boyfriend and the only home I’d ever known—I thought money could keep me company. I thought through purchases, I could usher in a more fulfilling life.
At the risk of full-disclosure, I have been accused, on many occasions, of thinking via catalogues. Consider my brain like a Pinterest board. It has always been this way, though it was further perpetuated by my first boyfriend and our pseudo-adult materialistic lifestyle, celebrated in graduate school by my mentor who said he admired it above all else about my prose, and what I’ve otherwise been told by boyfriends is both ‘problematic’ and ‘rather charming.’ Ask me about the future and I’ll tell you what I want via color-coordinated sleepwear and tents with roll-away, screened-in skylights.
Ask about the children and I’ll tell you all about my plans for headboard bunting.
Anonymous faces on the Internet have, on occasion, criticized my writing—and as it’s a reflection of the self, of course me, too—for this careful cataloguing of objects as indicative of the deepest sort of immaturity, but on the contrary, it’s precisely these images that stand in for the deepest meaning: within the tent is intimate fun and family. In the sleepwear, the face of love.
Objects signify for me what is otherwise inexpressible; because love itself is so abstract, I reroute my emotions to the concrete, and in the case of my three years in Iowa, I rerouted them specifically via my credit card. My classes—those I took and taught—were always scheduled for the evening, so each morning, I woke early to get in my car and explore the area’s home goods stores. There were the ones I was most familiar with, Kohl’s and Home Goods and Target, and the new Midwestern stores, including Von Maur and Stuff and Gordman’s. I’d walk up and down their careful aisles and peruse end tables in vintage cherry. I bought artwork I deemed professional. I bought a $350 kitchen table and my first-ever flat-screen TV, a shower curtain in pleated lavender, and five throw pillows for $40 each. I bought a decorative glass mixing-bowl set, a milk frother, a Bodum clear glass teakettle and a—I kid you not—crème brûlée water bath.
I took to assembling a certain lifestyle, the kind I imagined enjoyed by my contemporaries, and I fit these items into my apartment the way I began to fit them into my life.
There was even a faux tree—one that stands now in a box in my parents’ basement—and this I remember distinctly for the phone call I made just before its purchase.
“Is $120 too much for a faux tree,” I asked a colleague, a man for whom I’d long harbored a crush, “if it really compliments the space?”
“Yes,” he said.
Still, I could not be stopped, most especially by criticism. I was young, much younger than most of my peers, and I wanted to feel through physicality what I felt inside the classroom: that we were equal, more or less. That my youngness was not necessarily an impediment to my thoughts or my impressions or my criticism of a colleague’s work. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I didn’t know how else to do that except through a general “chameleoning” of goods. I’d outgrown my former apartment—the one I’d rented in Pennsylvania, complete with neon swivel standing lights and a cheap poster of Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace on the Place du Forum,” which I owned only so that I could say I’d seen the site for myself in the French town of Arles.
“Look,” I’d say, exuberant, removing from a nearby photo album the picture of my tiny, twenty-something hand, bitten-down nails and chipped polish alike, holding up a postcard-sized version and, beyond it, the inspiration, the canopy still a deep goldenrod and drooping in a way that suggested a need to nap.
I wasn’t altogether oblivious. I knew even then that the choices I was making would not come without proper consequence, but the hope was always that it would all work out: I’d sell a book or acquire a lucrative job offer or otherwise find a stable salary upon graduation, and amazingly, that proved true; two weeks before graduation, I was awarded a writing fellowship at Colgate University, which carried with it a $35,000 salary. And yet I was $38,866 in debt. And while Colgate was located in an inexpensive, rural town where I could live comfortably for, say, $700 a month, I again made an unprecedentedly indulgent decision in the form of a 100-year-old farmhouse located on 380 acres of pristine, rural New York countryside. It was idyllic, or so it seemed, with sloping shutters and a sleepy exterior, a red-stained porch and a big back yard. In the side lawn, under a giant tree, was an all-glass table and some patio chairs and a view of Scottish Highland cows grazing under a soft pink moon.
The monthly rent alone should’ve been enough to dissuade me, but it wasn’t, nor was the additional expense of the monthly oil delivery—necessary from October until the end of April—as the house took kerosene, a characteristic I’d—however naively—initially deemed “romantic.”
You know what I’m going to say, here—how I pictured a man reading books to me aloud on a lazy Sunday, his feet propped up in shearling slippers, his reading glasses crooked in a way meant to invoke from me lighthearted laughter.
The cost of both combined—the oil and the farmhouse’s rent—was unequivocally outrageous, consuming nearly all of my monthly pay, and this time, for the first time ever, there was no loans available to back me up. This, at 25, was the first time in my life in which I had to live from careful paycheck to careful paycheck, and always it seemed surprising to see how quickly they disappeared.
“Oh my god,” my friends would coo at night from their couches a thousand miles away. “You’re living a life like in a movie.”
“Sure,” I’d say, “totally.” But I was aware even as I said it how steeped in privilege my life now was, how unnecessarily indulgent and self-serving, how wasting money now seemed engrained. It wasn’t until late winter, until a night in which it snowed so hard I worried aloud about the ceiling caving, that I realized my own reality: I was alone, utterly alone, in a nightmare of my own making. I was surrounded by my purchases, insulated teapots and ticket stubs alike, but there was no one—not even one—who would sit beside me and invoke their use. No amount of money could ever manifest another person, or a sense of serene security, or prolonged, grounded contentment.
Nearly a full year later and 300 miles from that old farmhouse, I recognize now to myself that there was more to my story than that; this was more than a case of excessive nesting. I was sad, and right to be. I had been taught—my whole life—that the combination of hard work and determination yielded an earnest, honest love, the admiration of a good man. Above all, I believed it protected you from the worst of what life offered.
But in that same month in which I’d been granted admission to Iowa—that same night, if you can believe it—another story was unfolding, this one of a friend who suffered psychosis and unprecedentedly murdered a 19-year-old girl. This is not about that—something that makes its way into my writing so very often—but it is about one’s sense of safety, the way grief can interrupt your normal processes, the health functioning of heart and mind.
This, I realize now, had everything to do with what I did—not his actions, necessarily, but how they forced within me an awful awareness that no act of kindness or compassion could protect you or the ones you loved. No one, in this life, is safe from the vast and deep unknowable, and it made me desperate for security—if not a man in embodiment, then a home that was clean and nicely scented.
In furnishing my home—in spending nearly 40,000 dollars of students loans on linen curtains and homemade granola—I hoped to usher in a catalogue lifestyle, complete with dog and friends and family. A home so nicely furnished it seemed antithetical to violent crime.
In May, that fellowship ended, and the student loan bill I pay each month is high, of which only approximately $50 directly applies to paying down my loans. The rest cover the accrued interest. And yet when I’m truly honest with myself—as I’ve been known to often self-deceive—the fact is I don’t regret my indulgent and repeatedly foolish decisions. Often, I feel guilt, or shame, or vanity at my own materialism, but I’m forgiving of my own mistakes because I think I have to be. Because I think they were necessary. Only in spinning wildly out of control (or, the wildest one can within the confines of a home goods store) did I learn the truth about myself, my internal processes, my need for help. I can joke about it now, but in truth, I “retail therapied” my way into therapy. It took monthly statements of all that I owed to realize what I’d been seeking all along; those loans and all that debt—they caused me to finally deal with the tragic and violent thing that long ago happened. And so when one day I do finally have a family—or, at least, a partner who knows all of me, the good and bad alike—the silver lining, I think, is this: at least I’ll have a healthy space that’s warm and ready.
Photo via paulidin/flickr.