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Issue Date:  November 26, 2004

Jobless and living on manna


A year ago I lost my job. After 28 years in full-time parish work, it’s been quite an adjustment. I’m not ready to write about the emotional upheaval that goes with such an experience, but there have been many good parts. One is learning to live on less.

Finding another job would necessitate a move. It’s not like living in the city where there are other parishes. We’re in the country and my parish is the only one within easy driving distance that is big enough for a full-time pastoral associate.

We could move and lose our home, our community, and the comfortable proximity to our adult children, grandchild and our Aunt Mary who joined us here after she retired. Or we could stay and simplify.

The choice was easy. Fortunately when we moved out here eight years ago, my husband’s company invited him to continue working two days a week. That’s about all the commuting we’d want him to do. The rest of the week he takes care of our goats and chickens and bountiful garden. I had always dreamed that “someday” I’d work from home as a writer, giving occasional talks and teaching a bit.

Not knowing much about investing, we had put all our extra money into our mortgage, regularly doubling our payment. When I lost my job, we were able to refinance a 10-year loan and now pay less than our children’s rent for their tiny apartment. We jettisoned every expense we could imagine. For books, CDs, newspapers and journals (except NCR!) there are three libraries we frequent. For clothes and household goods there are auctions and resale shops. We heat with wood and there’s always enough to cut. For entertainment we read, rent movies and eat dinner with family and friends. We travel only when it’s related to work. I gave up haircuts and my once spiky hair is now past my shoulders. (Pat likes it.)

The most noticeable change is in food. We’ve had a garden and food-producing animals, but before this year, it was more of a hobby. Now we really depend on our land. We have milk from our goats and I make ice cream, yogurt and cheese. I’ve just perfected a ricotta that I flavor with garlic from our garden. Our chickens give us eggs. From the garden we have berries, peaches, apples and every vegetable I know about. We buy our meat from a local butcher by the freezer full. And I’ve learned to bake bread, cookies and custards. During fruit season we baked a dozen pies and froze them. For the few things we buy, we shop at our local discount grocer. That’s one thing that embarrasses me -- that I didn’t shop there before. It’s small, friendly and so inexpensive.

The scariest bogeyman of this whole enterprise is the lack of health insurance. After a lifetime of taking it for granted, our eyes are opened to what others do without.

We had a little warning so in our last weeks of coverage, we both went for thorough physicals. All the numbers were good. Pat got a bum knee taken care of. Now what? We’re middle-aged. That’s when things start breaking down, isn’t it? And there could be an accident.

We explored private health insurance. Unbelievable! Thousands of dollars a year we don’t have unless we take jobs sure to make us ill. Should we destroy our lives in order to preserve them?

We began to see that health insurance is a gamble where you bet against yourself. It seems a strange sort of thing -- betting against the home team, as it were. So we began to think the unthinkable and talked to others who are uninsured.

One conversation led us to a source of inexpensive insurance that covers the routine illnesses of an otherwise healthy person or the unexpected accident. There’s a community college just six miles from our home. We each take one credit hour and we’re eligible for student insurance. A thousand dollars plus the cost of the classes covers both of us for a year. My Luddite husband signed up to learn how to turn on a computer and I go to an aerobic exercise class three days a week, perhaps thereby delaying that middle-age breakdown.

It’s still a gamble with pretty high stakes. We’re not covered for cancer or a long-term illness. We’re not alone. The latest stats are that 49 million people are without health insurance or underinsured. It’s time to fix it.

Meanwhile, I’m adjusting to the rhythm of working at home. Following the advice of my spiritual director, I consider all invitations. I’ve had enough writing and presentations to earn what we need and keep me apostolically engaged.

And we kept our community. Not wanting the isolation that so often goes with losing a church job, we chose to stay in our parish. The work I love the most -- directing our parish choir and helping people with their annulments -- I simply continued to do.

Most of the hard feelings are healed. Life goes on.

Today we have what we need and we try to have confidence that tomorrow we will, too. As Aunt Mary says: “There are no recipes for leftover manna.”

Paige Byrne Shortal writes from her home in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004

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