By the time they were my age, 34, my parents had started building their house, had babies, and made a homeland. Being home is like living in the comfortable belly button of the earth, and as a child it was my territory. But due to economic constraints, we rarely ever left. Because of that confinement, even in a land I loved, I lusted for the world. By 18 I was nomadic, spending long stretches of time outside of the country.
Now, back home, I try to imagine myself doing the things my parents have done, but whereas they have both made or built everything—from the house they live in to the tapestries that adorn the walls—I am a lifelong wanderer and have built and own almost nothing. How, I wonder, did they ever summon the courage to live the way they do?
One evening before dinner, we are sitting out on the porch at dusk with the hummingbirds, drinking: gin and tonic (my mom), homemade beer (my dad), and bourbon (me).
“Were you afraid when you moved to Arkansas?” I want to know.
“Of what? No, it was an adventure. We were finally going to create our own world, our own life,” explains my dad.
“It was a camping trip,” adds my mom.
“I never even thought about it. I was going to build a house, start a pottery business.”
“We were really naïve.”
“I had no fucking idea.”
“Somebody mentioned there might be copperheads in the pasture at night.”
“We were walking down to the tent barefooted at night with no light.”
“Ignorance is bliss. No, there was no fear of failure or anything like that,” says my mom.
This is interesting to me, because I feel like most of my creative ventures are mired in self-doubt and fear. I have always been an overthinker, prone to analyzing everything so much that I find it difficult to act. But what I have realized recently, and what calms my fears, is that there are no straight lines in life. Even actions that seem secure, things like going to law school or buying a house, are the equivalent of throwing yourself into the unknown. And so why not do everything you can to make a life and a world of your own, and to do it fearlessly, knowing that even if you fail to create, you’re still closer to feeling most alive? The act of creation gives me a sense of purpose, one that I otherwise have difficulty finding in our consumerist, money-obsessed culture.
People talk about my generation as one of apathetic slackers who have taken to living at home with their parents, as if it were simply a generational shift in personality. But the truth is that we are the debt generation, the ones so straddled with loans that pursuing passion is rarely a choice.
I know this, because I have no debt. I have watched my friends, many of them drowning in debt, give up their dreams. They are not people who made poor choices or went to schools that were too expensive, as the critics will say. They are simply kids who got caught up in the machinery of our corporate-model educational system. It is no longer possible to “work your way through school,” given the dramatic increase in tuition, which has nearly quadrupled in the past 35 years (in inflation-adjusted dollars), and has outpaced general inflation for decades. I have no debt because I went to one of the few schools in the country, Berea College, that is a work school: All students work for the school in exchange for tuition based on their household income. Because I have no debt, I have been able to pursue writing and have had the opportunity to fail time and again.
Talking to my dad about debt, he says, “If I had graduated from undergraduate school with debt, I couldn’t have made the decision to go make pots at minimum wage. I would have had to take a job using my degree that was going to pay me enough money to pay off my debt.”
My parents also realize, as I do now, that in order to be artists, they needed to own the space where they lived and made art so that missing rent or a mortgage payment wouldn’t mean being homeless. “I wanted to build my own house. I knew I couldn’t afford one. Nobody can take it away from me,” my dad explains. He and three of his brothers pooled their money and bought the land outright, and then they built their houses over a period of decades. And it isn’t just a house; it is an extension of my parents’ life philosophy about making vessels that contain life. Whether they be pots or boats or houses or chopsticks–nothing is too small to carry meaning and the imprint of the maker.
“When we moved to the farm, we were not concerned about money. We figured that we would survive,” says my mom. But in other ways she has been concerned with it. She’s plagued by the feeling that she has never truly supported herself via her art, weaving. “I have a rather unsatisfactory relationship to money because I’ve never earned very much,” she explains.
My dad adds, “I also have never made a lot of money. I use my body like money. I see my energy and my passion as a way of getting somewhere. You need some money, but you can make up for not having it by applying energy to make what you want, to get what you want.”
In many ways, the American dream is built on the idea of sweat equity, that you can, through pure work and force of will, arrive at the top of something; in our consumerist culture that usually equals climbing your way to the top of a pile of cash. I know that I can’t ignore money (mainly because I’ve tried it), and yet, I don’t want it to be the guiding force in my life.
“You can’t go around not paying attention to money,” my dad concedes later as we drive up the winding mountainous road to the nearest town, where we are going to stock up on lumber and fix the lawnmower. “To me, it’s trying to understand how you can use it. It’s not something to lust over, not something that fills a hole in your heart, although for a lot of people it is. Most people who are wealthy are not happy. They think they’re going to be happy, but they’re not.”
Whenever I think about the ephemerality of life, the only thing I worry about is whether I will have enough time to write and birth meaningful work into the world. When I think of death, I am not afraid of being penniless or alone—I am afraid of not having had the freedom to create.
This is not to say that I don’t feel the pressure that money exerts, because, if anything, my experiences as a child in our small Arkansas universe, which ran more on human energy than on dollars, makes me hypersensitive to it. In fact, at times, I have rejected material wealth to such a degree that it borders on lunacy. When I moved into my current apartment, after returning from a stint living in Mexico, I arranged all my belongings on the floor in little piles, because I had no furniture. I slept on an inflated mattress for weeks surrounded by my tiny mountains of things, until a friend said, “Alice, you have to buy furniture. You need to make a comfortable space for yourself.” But I felt unable to do it, because it seemed like such a big investment in things, one I had avoided for a long time by being nomadic. Eventually though, I bought a bed and began to make a home for myself.
Aside from money, my creative life has been haunted by the ideas of what society defines as success. I’ve wondered if my parents had felt pressure to do other things and if they were worried about being unsuccessful when they moved to Arkansas. But when I ask my mom she says, “No. I don’t remember any fears. I mean, I had to get accustomed to a wood heat stove. That was something new and nerve wracking.”
As my parents talk about their beginnings in Arkansas, they go back and forth about the meaning of money:
“We live in a material society. If you think you need things, then you’re going to be unhappy because you never have enough money, because there are always better quality things you will want. It’s all stuff that you have to work for and pay for or go into debt for,” says my dad.
“You know I loved my wringer washer. Do you remember it? I was totally happy with that wringer washer,” says my mom. “We were on a big adventure.”
“We were doing what we wanted to do.”
“We thought the world needed saving and we were going to provide a better model. And live with less.”
You would think that with parents like mine, I would be fearless, but I spent my 20s motivated by fear, speeding through undergraduate and graduate school and a postdoctoral fellowship as if degrees could validate me and make my creative desires legitimate. And at the end of that process, after all those years, I’ve realized that life is a series of experiences you create for yourself, and their validity depends on how passionately you pursue them and the sweat equity that you invest. I don’t know what my writing equals in dollars, but I know what it means to me and to my world view, one in which words are sometimes weighty enough to move the world in a more just direction.