IT WAS the fall of 2001, and though nobody close to me had died that September, my world contained little joy. By virtually every measure, my life seemed less than what it had been a few years earlier, and though I’ve been blessed with an optimistic nature, for perhaps the first time ever, I was a having a hard time summoning hope.
I had been a writer at that point for close to three decades, since I was 18. A couple of years earlier, I had published a memoir that met with condemnation not so much of my book as of my very self. More than one well-meaning friend had suggested that in the future, it might be best to use a pseudonym. Since then, I hadn’t been able to silence the shrill voices of critics in my head. I had begun and discarded three novels, and I worried that my creative flame might have burned out.
Although I had good friends and three children I adored, I had never felt more alone. That Labor Day weekend, my youngest son had left home at age 17 to travel in West Africa, after saving up his money from waiting tables at night—and while some of my friends were loving the new childless phase so many of us found ourselves in, I wasn’t. Divorced for a dozen years, with no partner, I missed coming home to a house pulsing with music and a hallway full of skateboards and big shoes.
At 47, I felt more and more invisible. One night while I was out sharing a glass of wine with my 22-year-old daughter, Audrey, a man about my age approached us with interest—but it was my daughter he was after.
That fall, Audrey went to Guatemala for an intensive study of Spanish in preparation for a volunteer stint in the Dominican Republic. I flew there for a visit. On one of our last days travel-ing together in Guatemala, we spent the night in a Mayan village on the shore of what is said to be the deepest lake in the Americas, Lake Atitlán. Something about the place—the air, the angle of the light on the water and the feeling I got diving in—moved me so much that I felt myself close to tears. I turned to Audrey and said, “You’re so lucky you got to live in this beautiful place. I wish I could do something like that.”
“What’s keeping you?” she asked.
Here was the bad news and the good: nothing.
So I cancelled my return flight. I found a tenant for my house in California and rented a little casita on the lake, facing the tallest of the three volcanoes that surrounded it.
Before leaving the U.S., I had put my life savings into a mutual fund; the broker who managed it had been recommended by a bygone boyfriend. The money was enough to get my middle child, Charlie, through his remaining years of college, with some left for his younger brother. For the rest, I’d worry when the time came, though truthfully—with no retirement plan and a huge mortgage from refinancing to meet college costs—I wor-ried constantly.
But an odd thing happened to me in the village where I lived in a house I rented for $300 a month. The heaviness lifted. My life was the simplest it had been since childhood, or maybe ever. I rose early and started my day with a swim and a cup of coffee from beans grown in the soil of my village. Mornings I sat at a table under a thatched roof, writing a new novel that had come to me after I threw away the 200 pages I’d labored on for most of that year. When I was finished writing for the day, I walked into town and bought my groceries for that night’s dinner. Sometimes I ate with a friend, often alone with a book or just my thoughts. I had no phone. No car. No music even, though morn-ings at my desk, I listened to the birds, and at night, in my nar-row little bed, I slept with the window open so I heard “lake wa-ter lapping with low sounds by the shore” (Yeats’s words, which my father made me memorize in childhood).
I stopped wearing makeup and coloring my hair. Back home, I had studied my face for signs of aging; now I barely looked at myself. One day I caught my reflection in a shop mirror and realized that daily swimming had changed me. The muscles in my arms were defined. My face was thinner. But mostly, I just looked happier.
I made some friends in the village—a few Americans, a few Brits and Canadians, an Italian woman, a German. Indigenous people, finding my name hard to pronounce, took to calling me Feliz—“happy,” the rough translation I’d come up with for Joyce. Children stopped by my house because I kept crayons handy and occasionally made them popcorn or gave swim-ming lessons. A man passing through took me dancing some-times. No romance there, but we got good enough at salsa that we performed in a town pageant, in which he successfully flipped me 360 degrees—a flip so wild I had to buy a pair of red underpants to wear when performing it, with a dip so low that the top of my head grazed the ground.
Once a week I’d ride a boat across the lake to a town with an Internet café. My children checked in now and then, but they were occupied with their lives. I finished my novel, e-mailed it to New York and sent word to the people renting my house: They were welcome to stay through the winter.
On one of my weekly trips, I e-mailed the stockbroker, re-minding her to disburse money for Charlie’s tuition. Hearing nothing back, I wrote again the next week, asking for confirmation.
Another week passed with no word, though there was a re-minder from the school bursar: Payment for the upcoming semester had not been received.
I didn’t think about this as much as I should have. I was busy swimming and writing, scooping out avocados and chopping cilantro. Listening to birds. Studying the stars.
Another week and another. I knew I needed to call the bro-ker, but the simple act of making a telephone call seemed like a terrible intrusion into my lovely, quiet life, so I sent another e-mail instead, insistent now. Please disburse tuition immediately. Send confirmation.
It was the end of December. Word came from New York: My editor liked the new novel. I’d need to revise, but the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t write anymore had been si-lenced.
My visa was about to expire, and so, not wanting to return home, I set out by bus to the Belize border, with the plan of crossing out of and back into Guatemala—a trip of three days, with the sole mission of getting my passport restamped.
On the last day of the year, in the little village of Livingston, just on the Guatemalan border, I stepped into an Internet café. Finally, a message from the brokerage firm. But the sender was not the woman to whom I’d entrusted my savings. An unfamiliar person had written to say I didn’t have sufficient funds to make the disbursement. My broker had invested my life savings on margin—an unauthorized action for which she had been fired and was under investigation. None of that changed the fact that my account was now several thousand dollars in the negative column.
I can remember the walls at that little café—the last page of the calendar curled up around the edges, indicating the end of 2001—and the sound of Garifuna music in the street, as New Year’s Eve got under way. I had a feeling that this was the kind of moment in which a person would cry, and I remember thinking, my life will be different now.
“But it is different already,” I reminded myself. And directly on the heels of that realization, this one: I will be all right.
I thought about what I could do to keep my son in college. But I worried about this only briefly, because the next e-mail I opened was from Charlie: “I hope you won’t be too upset about this, Ma. But I’ve decided to withdraw for a semester to join Willy in Africa.”
No tuition needed after all. Not that season, anyway.
I made my way out of the café. I found a restaurant, where I ordered a beer and a plate of fresh shrimp. The next day, I re-turned to my rented house and calculated that, apart from a heavily mortgaged California house, I had about $500 to my name, with a very small amount coming in from a royalty check. No stocks. No savings.
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