Some thrive, some just get by -- Pearson

Jean Pearson beachcombs at Yeomalt beach. Objects she finds are scanned in and incorporated into her art. - JULIE BUSCH photo
Jean Pearson beachcombs at Yeomalt beach. Objects she finds are scanned in and incorporated into her art.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH photo

For Jean Pearson, it’s a challenge to stay put on an island steadily going upscale.

Years spent sliding along with the island’s tides scuffed but never broke the old glass plate on Jean Pearson’s windowsill.

“It’s like me – a castaway,” Pearson said.

She held up the Depression-era plate, where innumerable scrapes and scratches cast the sunlight in a hazy, green glow.

“It has survived ups and downs and changing tides.”

Pearson hit rough seas at birth: her adoptive parents took her in at a young age but abused her as she grew; her early marriage ended in divorce; she raised a disabled child on her own while attending graduate school and working.

Middle age failed to calm Pearson’s waters. Her daughter, Sara, died at 20 after a long fight with an undiagnosed illness. At the same time, Pearson’s own battle with epilepsy grew, preventing her from holding a job.

“Now I’m on disability,” she said. “Now I go to the Helpline House. For my daughter, I would have asked for the moon. But for me, I didn’t feel entitled. I thought that I had failed at this point in my life, to have to ask for help.”

Pearson moved from Seattle to Bainbridge Island six years ago seeking refuge from the high prices, high crime and vastness of the big city.

“Here, I don’t have to wonder after dark if I’m going to get knocked over the head,” she said. “It’s quiet, peaceful and I can go almost anywhere by walking.”

She found a quiet home at a Finch Place apartment where the rent leaves enough of her monthly $700 government check to cover basic needs.

Pearson stays busy beachcombing with a friend, finding shards of pottery, polished glass and bits of driftwood. She combines these finds with flowers and scans them into her computer to produce gift cards.

“People throw these things away, but I turn them into something beautiful,” she said. “It’s a transformative process.”

Pearson said she’s grown connected to her home, and, especially to other residents in her building. Also on fixed-incomes, her 28 neighbors share meals while swapping stories.

“I’ve heard (about) the most amazing lives” from residents ranging in age from 57 to 97.

But, as much as she has found a sense of calm and stability here on the island, Pearson fears changing tides may force her off the island.

“Over the last six years, I’ve seen the character of the island changing,” she said. “It’s so much now about having the biggest car, the biggest house.”

She points toward the growing stack of condos across a nearby street.

“Where did the people go who lived there before?” she asked, referring to the moderately priced apartment building torn down last year.

“How long will this place I live be here?” she asked. “No one can tell me.”

Pearson jokes that she could maybe scrape together enough money to buy one of the underground parking spots another new condo development plans to sell for $25,000 each.

“Well, I can always save one slab of concrete and put up a tent,” she said.

If it’s not swelling property values that push her out, Pearson may find that the rising cost of living gives her an early shove.

“It’s everywhere, even at the grocery store,” she said. “I recently had a friend drive me to Costco. I got my glasses there for $300. Here on the island, I couldn’t find anything less than $600.”

Pearson also crosses the sound for her dental work, where she pays about a fourth of what she’d pay here.

Finding an island dentist presented other challenges as well.

“They wouldn’t take me when I told them I was epileptic,” she said. “I was a little surprised, but I wasn’t shocked.”

Despite the island’s highly educated population, Pearson has found a general lack of understanding for her condition. Pearson suffers one to three seizures a day, which often leave her confused and exhausted.

“I’ve been asked by people here why I don’t work,” she said. “That’s hurtful, being criticized for not working. People don’t understand how it affects me and how it would be for me in the workplace. When I’m challenged by people for not working I want to show them my resume.

“Look what I’ve accomplished despite the rocks that have been dropped on my head.”

Pearson said islanders are becoming disconnected or insensitive toward people who do not share common experiences, challenges and incomes.

“Look down at Eagle Harbor at the ferry yard,” she said. “Some people call that an eyesore. But people work there.

“They’re putting food on the table and a roof over their children’s heads.”

Rather than craft new city ordinances that preserve the island’s diversity and help those most in need, Pearson believes a general values shift is in order.

“You can’t stop progress, but maybe you can redefine it,” she said.

This, she said, means more than designating a few parcels for “affordable housing” among mansions and condos.

“I don’t believe in artificial planning,” she said, “of putting poor people on a reservation surrounded by rich people.”

Rather, Pearson’s definition of island progress includes more people living simply with less buying, less accumulation and more acceptance.

“There’s more to life than competition and speed,” she said. “There’s stillness, love, peace.”

Maybe it’s a tall order, but Pearson said that her daughter, who spent much of her life confined to a bed, lived by these values.

“She had a different mindset about progress,” Pearson said. “She acknowledged her illness and had a strong sense of identity while not denying her limitations. She said, ‘What I do best is be Sara.’ She gives me courage to forge ahead.”

* * * * *


These two profiles are part of an ongoing series on Bainbridge families and individuals, coinciding with a new project called Islandwise that’s looking for shared community values. To get involved in fireside chats on community values and vision, call Dwight Sutton at 842-3011.

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