(In)voluntary Poverty and the Pursuit of Purpose

A few months ago, I reduced my living expenses to $7,009.

I moved out of my downtown loft and into a retired pastor’s basement with pink carpet, ‘70s wood-paneled walls and Paco, a fluffy orange cat that likes to attack your legs when you walk by him. I had cut my budget to the bone—no restaurants, no new clothes, no subscription meditation apps or streaming services. I updated my dating profile to say that I’m looking for that spark, for someone who will send me inspirational sayings, songs and poetry… and maybe their Netflix password.

By this point, everything had fallen apart.

After leaving a marriage at 26, I thought the worst was behind me. I had moved into a new downtown loft, started a new journalism job and entered a new relationship with a doting chef. I felt empowered, happy, whole.

In less than two years, fault lines crept into the life I’d rebuilt.

Last year, as summer began, I realized my boyfriend had broken up with me and forgot to tell me. He just stopped coming to see me, and within two months, the phone calls and text messages dropped off. We’d been together for over a year. After a yoga class, the teacher asked me in all sincerity, “Ally, how are you?” I burst into tears. Between sobs, I said, “I just feel so alone.”

My boyfriend and I started dating right after the 2016 election. He was undocumented, from Mexico, one of the Dreamers. Five hours into our first date, I asked, “Sooo, can you get deported?” I wanted to know how attached I should get. At the time, he said, “No, I know my rights.” But as a year went by, his confidence faded and so did our relationship.

His mom went back to Mexico for the first time in 31 years, trying to follow the legal path to citizenship. They were close. I think that separation was harder for him than he cared to admit. Last I heard, she’s still stuck in Acapulco. He felt hopeless.

He’d been my biggest supporter, my No. 1 fan, and I couldn’t be there for him. I was an empty cup. I had poured every ounce of energy into my career as a journalist, which was deeply entwined with my identity. Dangerously so. Much to my shock and dismay, my job started looking a lot like my marriage. Unhealthy. Unsatisfying. Full of polite tension. I tried to hold on, but I knew what I had to do—I had to let go.

In less than three weeks, I left one job and lost another. The business I went to work for was on the verge of bankruptcy and couldn’t pay me. So, I started freelancing—as a writer, photographer and graphic designer—and found myself teaching a college writing course. But I’d lost all sense of direction. It felt like there had been a death.

There were long stretches of darkness, alleviated by pinpricks of light. For months, I was plagued by pulsing questions. What am I doing? Where am I going? Who am I? Am I still a journalist? Am I lovable, employable? Am I enough? My only answer was to keep living, to put one foot in front of the other and hope that a path would appear.

I knew I was in trouble again when I started looking at buying a house in Omaha or Albuquerque. Based on past experiences, I have one basic rule for myself in times of crises: don’t buy property or propose.

I didn’t actually want a house. I wanted comfort and stability, which was also the impetus of my misguided marriage. Fortunately, since I was newly single, I didn’t have to worry about proposing to anyone. But what that meant was, instead of sitting with the uncomfortable feelings of loss and pain and fear, I took up dating as a distraction. One of my male friends started calling these guys my “action figures.” I’d play with them for a little while, get bored and move on. While I don’t agree with that assessment, I will admit to not being in the best state of mind to be dating.

A couple weeks after everything fell apart, I agreed to go out for dinner with Francisco, a 25-year-old tech worker and Army veteran, born in Puerto Rico. We went to my favorite Indian restaurant. He was fascinated by the fact that I had grown up on a farm. He wanted to know what that was like. I told him about all of my animals—the cats and dogs and horses.

Fran looked at me and said with his thick Spanish accent, “What, you just left your horse behind?” Tears started welling in my eyes when I said, “He died.” I was about to cry because I was thinking, he died… along with all my hopes and dreams.

With one friend-turned-lover, at the end of the night, he held my face in his hands and whispered, “You’re beautiful.” But what I really needed him to say was, “You’re going to be OK.”

After 21 first dates in 10 months—including fathers, felons, a nomadic novelist, a bisexual atheist and a semi-pro athlete who wanted an open relationship but only for himself—I finally repeated my story enough times that it didn’t hurt anymore.

I met some people that I liked and cared for and connected with. Sometimes it felt good just to be seen. But none of my dates could solve the problem that disturbed my soul.

Giving up my loft was the final act of surrender. It was a gift from the Universe during my divorce. It was proof that I could stand on my own two feet, that I could make it on my own. It was my sanctuary. Yet, I thought I could let it go and find peace within myself.

At the eleventh hour, one of my freelance clients offered me a full-time job with benefits, bonuses and all the Keurig coffee I could drink. More importantly, it held the promise that we’d be making a difference. I was at a crossroads. I could live in voluntary poverty, piecing together my creative, vagabond existence. Or I could take my talents elsewhere. Only a week had gone by since I moved. My downtown loft was still sitting empty. I could take the job and return to the comforts of home. And that’s what I did.

I returned home, to myself—to rebuild, again.

I am—just barely—standing on the other side of intense uncertainty. Some days I still feel lost and like I’m searching for a guiding light. But here’s the thing about having everything fall apart: anything’s possible. There isn’t a path to follow because I am the mapmaker, the stargazer.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know this—I am going to absorb as much joy as possible, here and now, and wherever I go, whatever I do, I will be supported. I will move forward with a greater capacity for kindness and understanding. And instead of waiting for someone to tell me that I’m a star, I will look in the mirror and see a constellation.

*A version of this story was originally told live at Beacon Story Lab events in March and April 2019. The theme was Lost & Found.

Ally Karsyn is the founder of Beacon Story Lab, which creates more courageous, compassionate and connected communities through the healing art of storytelling. Live events featuring true stories, music and poetry are held monthly.

Upcoming Shows

Becoming

7 p.m. Thursday, June 6 at Be Yoga Studio

American Dreams: Stories of how we live, love and work

7 p.m. Friday, July 5 at The Marquee

August date and location TBA

Fish Out of Water

7 p.m. Friday, September 6 at The Marquee

*Stories ideas will be accepted through July 15. Email ally@beaconstorylab.com.

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