Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bagging my fears

(Alert:  Potential spoilers!)

Dh & I are big Woody Allen fans, and a couple of weekends ago, we went to see his latest movie, Blue Jasmine, with Cate Blanchett in the title role.

The performances all round were excellent -- Blanchett is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination -- but it was NOT a comedy. By the end of the movie, Jasmine, the once-pampered, now-penniless ex-wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier, has been abandoned by her friends and family (or what's left of it), and is left sitting alone on a park bench talking to herself, popping pills and clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Jasmine is not a particularly sympathetic character and, as we come to realize, she is (at least in part) the author of her own misfortune. Still, dh & I walked away feeling rather stunned and unsettled.

In a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine article, Lisa Schwarzbaum suggests one reason for our reaction -- or, at least, mine:
...Allen deposits Jasmine in financial and psychic limbo, offering no clue as to what her fate will be. No clue, that is, except to me, and to every woman of my (baby boomer) generation or older who can read the signs in a fibrillating heartbeat: Jasmine will become a bag lady. 
She will wander the streets — poor, homeless, alone, unable to earn a wage or survive on her own. She will be shunned as crazy even when she’s not. She will become invisible. And she will be forgotten.... 

Jasmine is my secret nightmare made flesh. I have no heights of luxury to fall from, no jewels to lose. But I do have the nice, self-sufficient little life that I have worked to put together for myself: the funds allocated for rent, for food, for clothes and tickets to Woody Allen movies and a little bit allocated for old age. What if I lost that security and with it my standing in the world? “Blue Jasmine” hit me hard and depressed me silly. There but for the grace of a Chanel jacket go I.  
This is true of so many women I know. We can intuit Jasmine’s fate because ending up a bag lady is our darkest and clammiest fear. The possibility of falling into bag-ladydom is a terror so deep, so longstanding, so embarrassing to admit yet so matter of fact that we accept it as simply a part of being a woman. I joke with these friends — “I don’t want to end up like one of those, ha ha” — and they comprehend the confession behind the nervous laugh immediately. I also know that our shared dread has little to do with rationality and everything to do with what we understand about how we precariously bagless ladies get by in this world.
It IS irrational. I realize that by virtue of being born Canadian in the 1960s, I am among the most fortunate creatures on the planet. Growing up, my family was far from wealthy -- we ate a lot of fried bologna & Kraft Dinner when I was growing up -- but most people we knew in the small towns where I grew up were in a similar situation, so we seldom felt deprived. The gap between rich & poor at that time & place was much smaller, and with just one TV channel in my pre-teen years and no social media, there were fewer visions of a different lifestyle to aspire to.

The affluence of the 1960s gave way to the economic & political uncertainty of the 1970s and early 1980s -- energy shortages, the Cold War, high unemployment, skyrocketing lending rates (I remember when mortgages were 21%!!). Maybe that's where this lurking uncertainty in the back of my mind (and probably many others') has its roots? I know much has been said & written about the rotten job market facing today's millennial generation, but things weren't that great when I graduated from high school in 1979 or from university in the early 1980s either. I knew several kids who were engineering students at school;  at the time we entered university in the early 1980s, business was booming and there were three jobs waiting for every engineering graduate. By the time we graduated a few years later, though, things had reversed and there were three engineering grads for every available job.

Somehow, dh & I managed to finish school, get married, find & hold onto jobs, buy a house and pay off a mortgage, sock away some savings, carve out a reasonably comfortable life for ourselves and even consider early retirement.  And even though dh lost his job earlier this year, and even though the message is that more and more of us will need to keep working until 65 or longer, it looks like that dream is still within our reach. After going over the numbers ourselves (& over... & over... & over), we consulted a financial planner last month who assured us that it's still do-able.   

I did feel better after that. And yet there is always this small nagging voice of fear and doubt at the back of my mind... What if we're wrong? What if something happens to our health, to our pensions, to our savings?

Even if we're not just one paycheque away from disaster, there's always this nagging feeling that one wrong decision -- one bad investment -- external forces beyond our control -- and we'll be screwed and all our carefully honed plans will be for naught.

I can't help but think that being childless has something to do with this too. (In the movie, Jasmine has no children of her own, although she does have a stepson that she helped to raise -- who now rejects her.) Having children is no guarantee that you'll have someone to look out for you in your old age, of course -- there are an awful lot of lonely aging parents out there.

But it helps.

Of course, so many of us don't live anywhere near the people and places where we grew up, the support networks that families of the past relied on -- and even if we do, everyone is so wrapped up in their own lives and families these days.  And of course, when you're not a parent, you're not plugged into those parent networks. Even then, it's hard not to feel like an outsider sometimes. I was reading Peesticks and Stones' recent post about loneliness and there was a lot there I could relate to. 

Dh gets exasperated with me -- he's run the numbers over & over again, taken me to a financial planner -- and I can still write about my lingering fear of being left alone and in poverty.  He likes to joke that, should I ever be left alone, he'll come back & haunt the nephews to make sure they take good care of me. ;)

Reading this article brought those old fears to the forefront. At the same time, it confirmed for me that I'm definitely not the only woman who thinks about these things, at least once in awhile.

What about you? 


  1. This speaks to me too. Even more so since A and I split up. As we were never married, A took my relative financial security away with him when he left. Even though I have a large extended family who I am sure won't let me end up homeless, in my increasingly more frequent dark moments, I panic about the park bench!

  2. Hmmm...where to start. I'm actually more afraid of being very sick and alone, in the care of a caregiver who doesn't care about me (a nurse in an old people's home), hubby has gone before me, and I have nobody else to fend for my rights and I'm in no condition to ask for anything anymore (so I'll just suffer in silence). Brrrr...that thought scares me so much that I'd rather not dwell on it...

    Maybe it has to do with how the social system works here (benefits for the poor), but I think it also has to do with how life can surprise you nicely when you least expect it. When I moved to Finland, I had to leave my job and everything behind and "start from scratch" = learn the language all over again before I can even think of finding a job. At that time, though, hubby was unemployed still. True, he did get some benefit from the government, but it was barely enough for the both of us.

    I remember taking all my savings with me and no matter how much I tried to scrimp our expenses each month, I couldn't help using my savings bit by bit. THANK GOD then he found a steady job not long after I moved and then I started going on a Finnish course and I got some benefit from there, so we managed to save money whenever I was on a course and doing some work practice.

    When we bought this house, I was in limbo again with no job in sight nor anything else possible and we were scared about the thought of paying the mortgage...but again THANK GOD I got a job not long after that and here we are now, a few years ahead...of course there's this lingering fear of losing our jobs and then what to do...but based on what has happened in the past, I'd rather cling to the belief that it'll work out somehow even when there doesn't seem to be a way out. May heaven help us...

  3. Hmmm... I don't worry particularly about poverty or living on the streets. I've lived it so it doesn't worry me much (when you're abused as a child, the street is often better then beatings from your mother).

    I don't look forward to going back there but it doesn't keep me up at night wondering because I know I can handle it. Though I will admit that I view shelters with more misgivings than the actual street. I have stories...

    Interesting question. I should see that movie.

  4. Interesting post. Yes, occasionally I worry about our retirement - or not being able to retire, or find a job (a more immediate concern), or be able to afford the lifestyle we live now. Occasionally I worry that an earthquake will hit Wellington, where we own our only house and therefore have all our "wealth" invested. And yes, I worry a little that something might happen and we won't have funds, and the government will stop supporting the elderly, to ensure we can at least live a dignified life in our old age.

    I wonder if some of it is childless. I look at my sisters-in-law and know that they at least each have children they will be able to rely on should some disaster afflict them. But I think also some of it is age-related. As we get into our fifties, it is all too close and too possible!

  5. I struggle daily with similar fears Amel said above. My MIL and FIL, both in their 80s, moved into an assisted-living facility due to illness and dementia. My DH spends countless hours (willingly) to make sure their needs are being met and they feel happy. He checks in with them daily. Who will do that for us? The thought of it sends me into sobs. You can pay very nice, dedicated people to take care of you, but they will never truly care about you in the same way a child does. Maybe these are old scars talking. I wish someone had some words for me to help me see this in another way, and regain my sense of self. I am too sad to cope.