After 52 days of homelessness—or more precisely as I heard it called “sofa surfing”—sleeping between the sofa and air mattress in my children’s homes, not eating their food unless invited, contributing to their upkeep, including cleaning bath tubs and dishes – I finally found a place that fits the basic requirement and income bracket for me, my daughter, her son and her former roommate (plus two cats). It was promised on the 11th, but up until the 14th nothing even remotely resembling a kitchen was in place. No appliances, no cabinets, not even a kitchen sink. But my daughter had already twice extended her lease at her previous address and we were up against a new deadline.
“We’re okay without a kitchen,” we said, so long as we can move in now. It was promised on the 11th. I’m not going to fudge on the dates, because almost every day we were told about one thing or another that would take ‘one more’ day. Two weeks later, I wake for morning prayer and meditation only to find water flooding beneath the refrigerator. And there is still a gaping hole where a dishwasher will one day be.
I’m not spiritually removed from my body, so when I wiped my face and arms after ablution, I used the same towel to mop up the water. Then I retired to my space for prayer and meditation, but upper most on my mind was the list of things “To do” for this next day. Meanwhile, I am up against a deadline for a public lecture on religious freedom and a chapter to an upcoming book on women’s reading of the traditions of Islam. I am thrilled to be sitting at my desk to work but my concentration is broken continually by the demands of the workers. Sometimes their intervention is friendly banter “How you like me now?” the window washer asked, because he happened to be cleaning the windows outside my office while I am at the computer. Other times it is to inspect services rendered, or confirm that a necessary part will not come for yet one more day so the job cannot be completed this time either.
I am honestly so thrilled to have finally emptied the content of my suitcases after travel from India some 8 weeks ago, and to sleep in my own bed, with my own sheets and covers (albeit without a door to close for a week) that I am NOT complaining. I’m loving this down time in my new “home”. On occasion, the service people notice my library of books or that I am actually working at this word processor (and not just playing solitaire) and they ask what do I “do” (as in what is my paid employment)? I give the same answer I have loved to give since it became true, “I am retired”.
Sometimes, I explain what I am retired from: University Professor – because really books and home offices are still at odds with some people. I must also acknowledge that the very idea of “retirement” is impossible for many people in America. Either they are too young or too poor to understand how a person would voluntarily give up a paying job. As jobs go, being a university professor paid pretty well. I mean, I wasn’t an hourly worker forced to clock in. I didn’t have to lift weights above a few pounds, climb stairs, ladders, buildings or mountains. In addition, I had a “benefits package.” One that basically said, ‘because you work for us, we want you and your family to have access to health care, insurance, and a retirement fund.’ Thank you very much.
“Must be nice”, one guy said. Well, yeah, it is nice NOT to be confined to the rat race. To do so, I also had to accept living modestly on a meager income. My calculations included raising five children alone, meaning with nothing resembling shared child support—ever. I felt compelled to offer them a certain standard of living: purchased a house in the suburbs for better schools, drove a reliable car to get to and from their after school activities, and occasional trips to enjoy Mother Nature.
I don’t actually know how much it costs per year to raise a child, but when my retirement service offered free one-on-one financial counseling I did not pass up the opportunity. In the end, she said, well there is nothing I can advise you on. How could that be, you ask? I grew up poor and so was not afraid to live without extras as long as I could live a life of dignity. I knew it would take far less to achieve that once I was no longer providing for my children. The thing is, too many people don’t know how to let go of all those benefits and to learn to live sufficiently. Some people are even afraid to live without constant acquisition.
I identify with the poor, not only in my own USA, but globally. So the moment my youngest child was off earning money to pay for her own college education, I down sized all my possessions and moved to Indonesia in working class neighborhood. I lived at the standard of those around me. Before my internet service was up I went to a Starbucks in the mall to access their service. I had to make a purchase to do this. One hot drink there costs the same amount as purchasing a meal: rice, vegetable, chicken, and tea, locally.
Recently I listened to an interview with Bill and Melinda Gates on NPR, you know among the top 85 richest individuals in the world. They were talking about philanthropy. Then I listened to a guy with a multi-million dollar income talk about income addiction. The number one characteristic, he described, is constantly looking towards those that have more than you. At some point in time we should all learn to live simply so others may simply live. At that point we may know when enough is enough. Yes, there is always more, but giving up attachment to it, really giving it up frees you to enjoy your everyday in so many ways. Try it some time.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.