Do you ever find yourself awake just before dawn, lying in the dark, your mind gnawing on some old, persistent anxiety?
This morning I was worrying about money. Not surprising — a lot of us worry about money these days. I was worrying about money because of an email yesterday from the Ew about a timeshare that she and Jeff had bought years ago when they were married.
In Which The Writer Unburdens Her Soul
[[Warning: This part of the post is a rant. My disdain for my husband’s ex-wife (the Ew) is apparent, but please do not think that I feel this way about everyone who chooses to be a stay-at-home mother. I have a huge amount of respect for that choice and know plenty of women who are wonderful at it. The Ew is not one of them.]]
Do you know what a timeshare is? The dictionary defines it as: “The arrangement whereby several joint owners have the right to use a property as a vacation home under a time-sharing scheme.” Scheme being the operative word. Or maybe a better one would be: scam. A timeshare is basically a sucker’s curse. Officially, you “own” a portion of a vacation resort and pay a monthly fee in exchange for time there — if you can’t use your time, you can sometimes exchange it for time at some other vacation resort. For naive wide-eyed innocents, it seems like a great idea at first, like being able to buy a vacation on lay-away. Except that they’re way overpriced and, in the long term, there’s no way out. Your contract locks you into an agreement to continue to pay maintenance and use fees indefinitely, whether or not you ever use your timeshare or exchange it. If you decide that you can’t afford those fees? Too bad. It’s almost impossible to sell a timeshare, and it is actually illegal to give it away. In fact, a whole new industry of re-selling timeshares has grown up to “help” people who are desperately trying to get rid of these white elephants, with companies promising to help you find a new buyer (usually with hefty upfront fees just for listing the timeshare — fees you have to pay whether or not a buyer is found, which of course means that timeshare re-sale agents have no incentive to find buyers at all).
In other words, a timeshare is like that horror movie, The Ring, where you watch an innocuous albeit creepy movie, and seven days later you die. The only way to get rid of it is to pass the curse on to another victim. Even if you can find someone as naive as you were who would be willing to buy it, you have to deal with that weight on your conscience. (Especially when your timeshare is for a shitty little condo unit up in New England during mosquito season.)
It was the Ew’s idea to get the timeshare, because her parents had one. And yet somehow, during the divorce, the timeshare (like the rest of the shared debt from that marriage) became Jeff’s responsibility, while the Ew took the house, the car and almost all of Jeff’s worldly possessions except a few boxes of books and an old spring mattress, and went off to start making babies with her new sugar-daddy.
This morning, the timeshare was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’d forgotten that we were still shilling out the monthly fee for the damn thing, until the Ew sent along her email requesting Jeff to contact the agency and let them know about our change in address so they would stop sending her notifications in the mail. Yeah. Because it’s such a burden for her to get junk mail about the timeshare that she wanted and that her ex-husband is still paying for after a decade of not using it. I feel her pain.
The timeshare wouldn’t have bothered me that much if we hadn’t just gotten through our most recent battle with the Ew over child-custody. Earlier this summer, she took Jeff to court to try to force him to give up custody of the kids because his job had moved him out of state. Since it’s not a sign of parental negligence to go where the work is (especially when you are, technically, the sole financial provider for four children and paying a higher-than-usual rate in child support so that your Ew can be a stay-at-home mom and raise another man’s baby), she didn’t succeed in shutting him out of their lives. But she did convince the judge that, as usual, it should be Jeff’s responsibility to pay for all travel expenses. She also convinced the judge that instead of a single three-month block of time with the kids, Jeff should be restricted to only a few weeks at a time scattered throughout the year. (I won’t get into the various lies and half-truths she had to tell to convince the judge that this was what was “best for the kids,” and I won’t share the name of the judge publicly, though he deserves to be called out for not even questioning her explanations or asking her for some kind of evidence to back up her bizarre claims.)
So instead of paying to fly to the east coast and back once a year, Jeff is now paying to fly four kids back and forth across the country several times a year or forfeit his custodial rights. All told, we’re spending more on travel expenses for the kids annually than I earned in a year working as a waitress. This is on top of the child support he pays, and the money we’re trying to put away for the kids’ college education in light of the fact that the Ew has refused to support them financially once they’ve graduated high school (the women who has never had to hold down a job in her life thinks that her kids can “work their way through college” while living at home with her, despite the rising student debt problem in this country and all the statistics that say kids who have to work full-time to pay their way through college are significantly more likely to drop out before they get a degree).
Jeff and I don’t live a lavish lifestyle, and we’re doing okay financially, so we are willing (if not happy) to pay all this money if it’s the only way to see the kids. If that were the end of it, we could go about our lives. But of course, it never is, and as the time nears for the kids’ first official visit under the new custody agreement, the Ew has taken it upon herself to make our lives hell by insisting that she dictate exactly which flights Jeff arranges for their trip out. (The Ew is very good — by which I mean, reckless — at spending other people’s money. She’s had a lifetime of practice.) She even tried to reduce Jeff’s time with some of the kids so that his oldest daughter could attend a birthday party. (Not only does this make a mockery of the thousands of dollars we’re spending to fly the kids out to Seattle and violate the terms of the custody agreement that the Ew herself insisted on, but it teaches the kids that it’s okay to verbally harass people and throw tantrums if you can’t get exactly everything you want all the time.)
In the midst of this, we get the email about the timeshare.
In Which The Writer Comes To The Point
And so I’m awake at 6 AM, in tears, thinking about the kids of my own that I will never be able to have (even if I wanted them), and the house we might never be able to buy (because we can’t afford it), and the thousands of dollars that disappear every year into the blackhole of selfishness and laziness so that the Ew can sit in the middle of her web and pull all the strings without spending a dime. I think of how uncertain the future is, how at any moment the economy could turn. I think about how obscene it is that we can even afford to waste so much money on idiotic custody issues when there are people in the world starving for want of a job, how much I hate that we are part of the upper-middle-class that benefits from economic injustice and yet how scared I am of slipping back down because it would mean not being able to see the people we love anymore, maybe even sinking back into debt again no matter how modest we tried to live. I seethe with anger at the Ew for willfully ignoring and perpetuating the injustice, for parasitically thriving on it. I am in a miserable, unkind mood.
Jeff is up and about, rustling in the dark, getting ready to head to work. He’s biking in extra early so that he can spend some time working on our final project for our volunteer naturalist training. Before he leaves, I call him over and ask for a hug. We talk. He reminds me of how good we’re doing money-wise, how in only a few more months we’ll be debt-free for the first time in our lives, how we live in a beautiful city and we know many wonderful, inspiring people who fill our lives with joy and gratitude.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “All this nonsense with [the Ew] is just our way of storing up some good karma.”
I don’t necessarily believe in the New Age version of karma, a universal tit-for-tat that makes victim-blaming oh-so-tempting. But I do believe in balance, I believe in actions and their consequences, and the subtle and sometimes mysterious ways of interconnection and causality. In times of quiet desperation, it’s hard not to feel like maybe you’re struggling under a burden that you somehow deserve, even if it’s not true.
“What I want to know is, what did we do to earn so much bad karma to begin with?” I say, sniffling.
“No,” he says. “I don’t think that’s it. We’re way in the black, here. We’re doing the right thing, and it makes a difference.”
I think about my brother, who recently left a well-paying job to go back to school and earn a PhD from Columbia pursuing a subject he loves. I think about my father, who has spent his whole life working as a government employee trying to help kids from broken and troubled homes get back on their feet. I think about my mother, who works for a non-profit that provides services to people with disabilities. It’s her birthday today.
Jeff’s phone buzzes — the alarm letting us know it’s sunrise. Outside, the sky is beginning to lighten. I’m still crying a little and muttering about how, if we really are racking up so much good karma, I wish I could give some of it away to my family, to make sure they get through the next few years, to make sure my parents can retire without worrying about losing their pensions, to make sure my brother doesn’t flounder under student debt while he’s pursuing his dreams.
When I glance up, there is a brightness outside even greater than the dawn twilight. Even without my glasses, I can see it through the window screen (and that’s saying something, because without help, I can’t even see the big E on the eye chart). I squint, and fumble for the glasses case on the bedside table.
I like to say that we only get obvious signs from the universe when we’re being particularly dense. One time at a festival, a friend was talking about how a woman he knew was so in tune with nature — when she first put down camp, she was immediately swarmed by hundreds of ticks, which she took as a sign that she was meant to be somewhere else. I resisted the urge to say, “Well, duh.” I tend to think that, when we’re in harmony with the patterns and forces of the universe, when we’re paying attention to the changes in the wind and the landscape, when we’re shifting and responding and fully engaged with the present moment, we often won’t get those spectacular hit-you-over-the-head-with-it signs and omens, because they’re not necessary. The universe doesn’t often expend energy on extravagance when subtlety will do.
But all of us are dense and foolish sometimes. And as I put my glasses on and look out the window again, I see something that takes my breath away: the light of the rising sun in the east illuminates low-lying clouds in the west, casting a rosy glow across the urban landscape broken only by the brilliant colors of a double rainbow that arches from horizon to horizon. It’s the brightest I have even seen.
And in that moment, I start to laugh at myself as I feel the joy and gratitude wash over me. The world is a beautiful place, for all its ugliness and stupidity and injustice.
And despite our condominiums and timeshares and custody battles, it is also utterly wild.