Everything Money Can't Buy

After losing a small fortune, she found a better life

By Joyce Maynard
Joyce Maynard at her home in Guatemala.
Photograph: Photo by Alex Tehrani

At another time in my life this would have made me nauseous. And of course, I was not oblivious to the fact that, de-spite the tuition emergency having been averted, large money problems lay ahead. But I had been living on very little for three months and was happier than when I occupied my beautiful house in Marin County. Suppose I had a few hundred thousand dollars, instead of a few hundred. Would the stars shine brighter?

I got the news of my financial wipeout seven years before significant numbers of Americans received theirs, in the fall of 2008. But I was fortunate to have been surrounded by people who never had the kind of security I had supposed I possessed. I don’t kid myself that there aren’t people in my Guatemalan village in desperate need of food and medical care. I don’t romanticize their poverty.

The lesson for me was that I’d had one of the best times of my adult life in a place with as little in the way of material comforts as I had ever known. A week later, I decided to host a writing workshop in Guatemala where—I could attest—mangoes, avocados and inspiration were all in good supply. That winter, I sold my revised novel. Eventually I hired a lawyer, who got some money back from the brokerage firm, at the rate of about five cents on the dollar.

The loss of my savings changed my life in all kinds of ways. Then again, at some point, almost all of us have to deal with losses, whether from a financial setback, a divorce, or a death or illness. Painful as these experiences are, I chose to view them as opportunities for growth and transformation, com-passion and maybe perspective.

I still have no retirement savings but luckily, plenty of energy and no desire to stop working anytime in the next 35 years. Some of my friends tell me they couldn’t sleep at night if they lived with my degree of uncertainty, but if the last year has taught us anything, I’d say it’s that none of us can know for certain what the future holds.

I work hard to take care of my health, and I do buy insurance. But to me, the best form of security doesn’t come from a six-figure portfolio; it comes from the ability to face challenges with optimism and a willingness to consider other ways of living be-sides the ones we were raised to expect.

That meant looking to Guatemala. After refinancing my home in California yet again, I bought a house on Lake Atitlán, where my greatest pleasures—the song of the birds, my dive into the lake every morning, the night sky—have nothing to do with spending money. Now I go back and forth between two worlds, renting out whichever place I’m not occupying. I find that my well-being has less to do with where I hang my hat than with who I am. And if I had not lost what I did, I doubt I’d have found the rich and interesting life I made for myself. 

JOYCE MAYNARD’s new novel is Labor Day. She’ll run the Lake Atitlán Writing Workshop again this winter (joycemaynard.com). And don’t miss Joyce Maynard’s funny,  moving essay about her breast implants

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