While I can speak only for those I’ve seen, surrounding the respectability of the average stateside military base is a ghetto. With an enlisted population that is very young, new to fiscal responsibility, and largely transient, outside the front gates are liquor stores, pawn shops and churches engaged in competition for souls. If you sneak out the back gate, you’ll find the strip clubs. Tension hangs above the base and its environment like the blade from a guillotine. As if serving one’s country isn’t stressful enough, it is exacerbated by the military’s dirty little secret: many service members and their families live in poverty.
At least my husband and I did.
Even with a non-taxed housing allowance, my husband earned only $14,000 a year for the first two years of his service in the Air Force. While he was in Basic Training and then technical school and then had to report to his first base in Kansas, I stayed behind in Michigan to finish my degree. When I finally moved to be with him, within a few months, I was humbled. At one point, we couldn’t afford to eat or pay two of our bills. Thanks to the Air Force Aid Society, we received a loan, two bags of groceries and two vouchers for the commissary. Grateful, terrified and ashamed, I accepted the job I had just interviewed for: I would gross only $1500 a month but that was better than living on handouts.
I stayed at that job for about five months until a better one came along: I’d be grossing $28,000 a year. But better wages did not mean a better life. Working in freight forwarding, I was on-call twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. I averaged sixty hours per week. I went in on Sundays. I went in at three o’clock in the morning. I was paged at restaurants, in the movie theater, in the bathtub. As the breadwinner, I suffered. In the twenty-three months I lived in Kansas, I was sick with five sinus infections and two pieces of my cervix were clipped off because a doctor thought I had cancer. Even on Christmas Day, in a dramatic scene reminiscent of Charles Dickens, with bronchitis, a fever of 102 degrees and wearing pajamas, I had to meet a truck driver at the office. Angry and ashamed, my husband drove me to work and remained with me until I was finished. We both knew that if I stayed there, this job would kill me; but we both believed that if I didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to take care of our basic needs.
But then arrived an opportunity out of the despair: we could finish out my husband’s last year of obligated service in Kansas, or we could extend for two more years and spend that time in Italy. This option excited us both until I discovered that there was a good chance I wouldn’t be working. Twenty percent of the jobs on base would be going to Italian nationals—they should; it’s their country, after all—and many of the professionals were civilians hired stateside. I was (blissfully) overqualified for most of the remaining jobs. Just what would the breadwinner do in Italy if she wasn’t working? How the hell would we be able to afford to live?
How could we afford not to? Sick, exhausted all of the time, and angry at my husband, the Air Force, the world, and my boss, I knew I had to take this chance. Whenever fear or doubt crept in, I kept thinking back to my initial reaction when my husband told me about this opportunity: I had smiled for the first time in months. Like a hug from God, relief and excitement had snuggled me, and even though I had buried my inner, guiding voice for nearly two years, she popped back up and insisted, “You’re doing this! You’re moving to Italy. If you don’t, you’ll end up divorced, dead, or both.” She won. We moved to Italy.
In Italy, my husband received a Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) which started us at about $22,000. Without me working, we lived on $20,000 less that first year…and we never lived so well. We were rich. We saved money to buy furniture. We paid cash for trips: by the end of my husband’s service, we had been to Ireland, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, San Marino and to Rome twice, Venice at least ten times, Florence, Pisa, Turin, and to meet my cousins in Sulmona. Eventually, I even paid off my credit card. And I began doing something that I used to only dabble in when I was a full-time student and then an overworked employee: I wrote. In Italy, we lived on so much less but we were happy. Truly happy: we had determined that we were going to embrace our new life not with fear, shame or lack. If we had approached this opportunity carrying all of the pain from Kansas, our time in Italy would’ve been more of the same. Instead, we chose differently…and learned a way of life, a way of being, that was beyond beautiful and connected. Sure, there was stress and illness but because we chose to be better, we dealt with those things in a positive and forward-moving manner.
For us, Italy was our Gold Standard. When we returned to the United States in 2002, we tried to bring that sense of connection and love with us. It was difficult from the start: we mourned what we left behind and who we had become. Worse, we no longer recognized the country of our birth. Reeling and terrified, and rightly so, America had become Fear. It’s amazing how quickly Fear can overtake you, especially if you’re already grieving.
In this state of Fear, my husband and I allowed ourselves to forget. We listened to too many conflicting voices and we bought into the American Dream, but one that wasn’t ours. It was my husband’s turn to work sixty hours a week, to always be on-call, to become angry and sick and shed twenty pounds he didn’t need to lose, and to bury his big smile and bigger Irish laugh. I determined to make peace with my grief and to write—and I did—but I also allowed myself to become lost in a house we bought that needed more plastic surgery than Hollywood. We walked too far from our path: having spent so much time, energy and physical, emotional and spiritual health on a job and house that loomed like cancer, Life made the choices we couldn’t. My husband lost his job. Our house—eighty percent of the work done by me—sold short. Appraised at $164,000 with a brand new roof, windows, flooring, walls, and fixtures, our house sold for less than a new car. Within a few years, our neighborhood had become tense, then poor, and then crime-ridden. It was time to mourn anew.
In standing back from all of this, I can see the truth. Whenever I sacrificed my writing for working on the house, I used to think, I have a feeling I’m doing this work for someone else. This isn’t meant for me. For us. Whenever my husband’s sadness flared up, I’d think or even say, Please just quit. We don’t need this. It’s not worth it. We’ll start again and live how we want. We already know how happy and beautiful life can be, so why not do it? When I acknowledge how I really felt while we were in that situation, it becomes easier to shake off the grief and then the self-recrimination and anger. And then, it becomes exciting.
Seriously. It’s not just the idea that great loss brings great gain; it’s that calling something loss is a matter of perspective. When we moved to Italy, we “lost” $20,000 a year in income…and never lived so well. When we returned to the States, my husband “lost” his job…and learned that his overall well-being and happiness are more important than a paycheck if that paycheck means he has to spend twelve hours at a job and another three at night dealing with the drama of office politics. We “lost” our house…and thank God, because it sucked our time, money and energy.
And this is important to remember—especially now, during this time of seemingly never-ending negative news, energy and economy. Not only are my husband and I still going through transitions, so is everyone else I know. On the surface, these changes seem to be about the loss of money and things; about lack and fear. But deep down, they reflect what could be gained: how much better would our lives be if we could just find the courage to walk away from the job, relationship or material baggage that steal the goodness from life and run toward what actually makes us happy?
It is possible. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to change your perspective. To admit that maybe what you’ve been doing for so long isn’t for your highest good. To allow the loss you need to actually happen. If you can view life from a place of gain and honesty over fear, life has a crazy way of meeting you and supporting you where you need to be. I believe this because I experience it in my own life.
Now, that doesn’t mean my life is without stress or that as I put myself more and more on my path, life manifests exactly how I want it to be. It doesn’t always. I haven’t yet won the lottery. I still get bills I hadn’t planned for. Sometimes, both my husband and I buy into the pervasive sense of fear and find ourselves lamenting and snapping at each other. It happens. But it only happens for so long. I can’t stand feeling unhappy or ground down by life. When I finally get sick of feeling sorry for myself, my mind remembers what my soul knows: I already know how beautiful life can be when I allow myself to live it correctly; and I know I can lose what seems to be my world and not only survive but come away from it stronger.
I know this to be true. For everyone reading this and for everyone I love, my sincerest hope is that you also come to know this. That you value yourself enough to live life with courage. When fear invades, tread in it only for so long; then pull yourself out of it with gratitude, a sense of abundance and a change in perspective.
Otherwise, life becomes a ghetto…and you are worthy of living in a much better place.
© 2001 by Syndy Sweeney