a sustainable life

“You live a sustainable life,” I told her. “I admire that, because it’s something that I never quite seem to be able to develop for myself.”

I’m regretting the words even as they leave my mouth. Part of what I’ve said may make her life sustainable, I’ve said, is that my friend M. has serious physical limitations on what she is able to do, and she’s had to think long and hard about every aspect of her life because pain is factor in all of it. I don’t have pain like she does. In fact, I rarely have pain at all. I’m an active person, although I never seem to get around to doing the majority of the things that I intend to. She does, and she does. It seems, well, sustainable. Sufficient, complete.

She gives me a look, like I’ve disappointed her. We go back to the jigsaw on the table, a gift from her girlfriend for the weeks of recovery that her recent surgery requires. It’s an impossible puzzle comprised of forty-eight pinup girls. She’d already completed the edge pieces when we arrived, and systematically sorted the rest by color or body part.

“Anyone have a red high-heel on purple?” my girlfriend asks.

“They’re over there,” M. says.

“We should do more jigsaws,” I say. I’m forever stealing ideas for how to live, like a crow filching shiny things for her nest. On this trip, my mental list includes: a cleaner house, less activity, more edible gardening. Less driving, more jigsaws. I mentally chuck my own friends in favor of M’s.

“We always used to do puzzles when I was growing up,” my girlfriend says. She’s happy here too, I can see it. Add to list: happier girlfriend. More sustainable life.

I’m always in trouble when movies like this start to play in my mind. Like right now, I’m imagining quitting my job, spending my mornings in the cool of the garden, afternoons writing, dinners made of fresh things pulled from the dirt. Long evenings over jigsaws and scrabble. In a word, I’m imagining vacation. But people do live like this, a part of me argues. Some people do write for hours every day – they’re called writers, and that is a job. If a person lives on less money, she can spend less time making money. But that’s not always true, I argue back. Most jobs that require the most time make the least amount of money. And what about health insurance? What are you going to do about that?

That’s where the argument stops. Because I won’t be getting health insurance through my girlfriend, not in North Carolina, not anytime soon, nor will she be getting any through me. Most jobs don’t come with health insurance, not the ones that are available around here, and certainly not the ones that allow less than forty hours a week. If we were twenty, we’d be able to pay our own insurance, but as over-forty-with-health-issues, there’s no way. We can’t afford not to have it. My friend M.’s girlfriend works at a college which allows domestic partnership insurance, otherwise, she’s still be incapacitated by pain even more than she is now.

So, the argumentative part of me quarrels, you’re going to spend your adult life trying to be good enough so that you’ll pass for normal? Another factor is that I happen to love my job, where I spend hours every day encouraging a broader acceptance of neurodiversity, on both the individual and the societal level. In other words, I’m pushing for a broader definition of normal, one that allows a good deal of wiggle-room for those who can’t fit inside the standard-issue model, as well as for those who are tired of trying.

The standard-issue model has expanded, for sure. I’ve got a picture of my girlfriend on my desk at work, and people no longer automatically say, “You must be so patient,” when they find out that I work with people on the autism spectrum. Instead, they are likely to tell me about their sister’s autistic son, or their newly diagnosed granddaughter. They know people who learn differently, and they accept them as long as they’re able to stay in school, hold down a job. To pass for normal.

I got this job that I love by first working in supported employment: by helping people find jobs that were suited to them, and then by helping support that person in the job. I used to tell people that my job was that of translation: I would translate the standard workplace behavior and expectations into a language that my autistic client could understand, and I’d translate that person’s behavior and expectations back into a format that the workplace could understand.

In that job, for the first time in my life, I considered what a job meant. I’d been a musician at school, and a writer ever since. I had an expensive degree, one whose commodity was social rather than functional. But it was working as a translator that I learned to think about what people meant when they talked about work. I’d always just taken jobs that fell my way, as thoughtlessly as I’d accumulated thrift store clothing or pretty, mismatched china. Did I stop doing that. or did I just happen to love what I was doing? But I have always loved what I have done. It’s too exhausting otherwise.

My girlfriend was making some progress on the blonde in the red-and-white lingerie, but hadn’t found anything to connect her with the edge. M. was busy patching in the whole left hand side, scanning ruthlessly for color matches. For a moment, I feel the familiar, ancient ache of being left out of the group. They’re both better at puzzles than I am. But then I realize that I’m here because they’ve chosen me. They’re both careful, meticulous sorters: they wouldn’t have me here by accident.

“Hey, here’s one for your side,” M. says. She pushes three pieces towards me, part of a brunette with a sassy grin. It’s a start. The rest of her must be around here somewhere.


About Carolyn Ogburn

Writer, hiker, activist and gadfly. #Binder Writes @NumeroCinq555 / Blogs @pshares MFA @VCFA
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4 Responses to a sustainable life

  1. margo solod says:


  2. katherine says:

    Once again, a country apart and you articulate my exact challenge. Is there a way to construct a balanced life, broaden the path you’re on to make life and the escape look more the same?

    The two images, crow and puzzle solver, are circling in my mind. Are you stealing and piecing together your life? Are you slowly identifying what parts of your life fit together, and what it looks like? For that matter, is the crow sorting and completing his own puzzle, that he know exactly what it looks like? Do you get to build your own sassy brunette?

    Do I?

  3. Amy says:

    “I’m forever stealing ideas for how to live, like a crow filching shiny things for her nest.” LOVE this.

    And I’m so relieved that M. has sorted me into her friend pile too.

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