Start with a dilapidated but cheap house. Move there under duress perhaps, maybe because it’s cheaper or because you need safe haven from things that are harming you. Make sure the tree is there, in front where it can greet you with low branches, and soften the sun’s glare with its canopy. It must be really big and full of blossoms when you pull up with your moving trucks containing everything you value. It has to have been there awhile, it must have witnessed families come and go before yours.
The house should get abundant shade from that tree. This must be a sort of house that is old and has no air conditioning, a house where you throw open the windows on the first hot day after you arrive and welcome the outdoors in, and even where there are no screens, you tolerate the bug visitors because you can smell your tree and feel the breeze and its comfort. There is no hum of a machine to cool you, only the shouts of neighbors and the bugs and this tree, and a wide open front door.The blossoms need to fall, the way blossoms do when the fruit is on its way, and you should probably feel surprised at the beauty of the carpet of petals that densely covers your porch and front walk. You remember the days that petals on your car would bother you in spring, the way they would cling to your window shield after a rain and get caught in the wipers and then rot. But these are petals, and they’re beautiful, and they’re causing you no problems, even when the children track them in on their shoes.
When the apples start to fall, they’re green and bitter and they get smashed on the street out front. Bees and flies flutter around the pulp, and neighbors kick the crushed ones back toward your yard with some irritation. This is the work, this is where it starts. The same irritable neighbors come over periodically and help you manage this early growth, irritation is softened, and you climb branches and shake the trunk and all of you laugh at the hail storm of new fruit when it hits the ground with a knocking sound and rolls around like ball bearings, making you stumble like you’re already drunk on its fermentation.
Create games on the fly. Start keeping score: who can pitch the most apples into the compost bin, without missing? Have a running tally with the guy across the street that goes on for days; shout your number with a challenging tone. Welcome the gardening couple who have no children and have time to read about what to do for the tree, let them help you prune and cull and fertilize with compost tea.
Provide beer. Sit on the porch and chat.
And when there have been some days when too many have fallen and there are too many frustrations, go gather. Make the kids do it when your back goes out. There’s always more. Pile what isn’t salvageable into baskets and dump it into the chickens’ feed bin, and stop and spend some time watching them bob their heads and dart their beaks into the crunchiest sections, leaving the mush for you to rinse out later.
What you have gathered is good but needs care. First there’s the washing—be thorough—and then of course much coring and chopping. Leave the peel on, and put the pieces through a juicer. There will be a lot of foam on the top, and it might be too tart for the children at first. Pour it through a strainer and sweeten it slightly with honey or maple syrup.
Then you must strain again. You need to rid yourself of the bitter foam and remember the delicate beauty of those blossoms when the tree greeted you. You need to do the work and make it right, make the sweetness linger on the tongue, soften the sharpness of too much disappointment that led to this bushel of fruit that must be processed in order to nourish you. You freeze some for the long winter that seems far away but that’s really right around the corner, when the tree is bare and scratching against gunmetal skies, relentlessly holding its arms out and waiting for the spark of light to return. Those are hard months and you will miss this sweetness.
It’s bound to be surprising, how many tart little apples it takes to make a quart of golden juice that makes the children smack their lips and stop what they’re doing to savor. You pour it out in measured doses so it’s not taken for granted. Each mouthful contains some small story of the year that’s passed.
Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.
I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers. It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass. To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord. Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use. Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.
We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.
We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.
Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.
What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why. Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now. And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging. We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”
I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.
I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.
I’ve spent the last several years writing blog posts about the Recession. Here’s how it started: an old friend of mine got ahold of me. It turns out he was an editor for a website about the new economy, and he wanted me to write my story. This is a familiar sort of occurrence among people of A Certain Age: thanks to the wild accessibility of really pretty much everyone through Facebook, we are all reconnecting with folks we were too drunk or too careless to keep in contact with. For some time now, I’ve been ludicrously rewarded for decades of bad behavior. Turns out that all of my exes and a whole bunch of lost friends are excellent people, which makes me feel a whole lot better about my taste, but even worse about my carelessness and the time I lost.
Which brings me to: carlessness. My word processing program doesn’t want to even acknowledge it’s a word; it’s just a snippet of the zeitgeist and that takes longer to integrate. It’s too close to carelessness, and maybe that resemblance is a bad thing. You see, outside of places like Portland and maybe New York City, not having a car–especially when you are the suburban mother of three–is a sign and symbol of having Blown It Big Time. But we are without a car. It was an easy decision at the time: we couldn’t pay the rent. What we had was a paid-for, valuable hunk of metal parked in the driveway and a roof we preferred to keep over our heads. Some people make another choice: to move in with family, perhaps. “Temporarily,” of course. But it was no accident that we had found ourselves in Northern California, far away from both of our parents’ households in Texas. We had severed the ropes of that safety net and had no regrets. You see, there are some sorts of safety that are so fraught with danger and damage that calling upon them feels like a sort of suicide.
So we carry on, working menial jobs and trying to shake money from trees. We take our children on errands in our bike trailers, pedaling in the sweltering heat or in downpours, faces held in caricature expressions of grim determination. It’s been an adventure. A noble experiment. So many others around us are in similar straits, so this whole thing–newfound poverty–has an air of camaraderie to it, and whole new ways of doing things have taken root. We’ve done it all: bartered, gotten backyard chickens, grown a vegetable garden. I’ve written so many essays about the New Simplicity that I’ve started to think of my style as “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” This ghetto for my writing is eye-rolling in its tendency to put a positive spin on things but still keeps my work out there, in front of appreciative eyes.
But something horrible has happened to me this year, and I don’t know what to do. At some point–was it after the hundredth “no?” The thousandth? Was it day number 1350 of not having enough, or maybe day 1351? But somewhere along the line I realized this is not going away, and that struggling to pay the utilities is a monthly reality with no end in sight. That making Top Ramen for dinner had stopped being an amusing indulgence in crappiness, and has become–at times–economic necessity. I look at my children and I want to say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry you’re having to wear this need and pretend it’s okay, I’m sorry there are no birthdays at pizza parlors or dance lessons. I’m sorry I can’t send you with a handful of change that I don’t have so you can get a candy bar at the corner store. I’m sorry you notice what other families enjoy–simple things, a drive to the country and a weekend of camping–and you notice the difference and have to ask me why. I’m so sorry I cannot provide for you the things that were provided for me. I’m sorry that a simple trip to the doctor to check for pinkeye has to be a negotiation based on the twenty bucks in co-pay expense versus what may be curable with time and the hive mind of online medical care advice. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
I wear bright pink lipstick and have my cruiser bike decorated like a parade float. I let my children dress with hippie freedom. We played by the rules and we lost everything that offered us safety and security, so to hell with the rules, I teach them. You will get screwed-over six ways to Sunday, so find the hidden magic, I say. Do you see that smooth brown stone? Pick it up and shift it towards the light, and you will see small bits of glitter like tiny stars. I try to tout this lifestyle as one we would have chosen back when we were flush with income and silly material wants, and YES: there are lessons we’ve learned. Yes, you can be a band of hobos in satin and velvet castoffs, and yes, there are blackberries that grow wild all over this town.
But I’m done. The truth is that I’m toiling for not a lot over minimum wage, and those chickens in the back yard have come home to roost. There’s only so long you can go on before all your resources are tapped, and the barrel you’re scraping has well and truly reached bottom. I know we are required to be grateful for what we have: no one in the family has chronic health issues, we have good public schools for our kids to attend, and we live in a patch of paradise that makes living without a vehicle or air conditioning a tolerable option. We have–praise ye gods!–health insurance from my husband’s soul-sucking, low-paying retail job. We have a marriage where our struggles manifest themselves in silent regret and disappointment (and a lot of space between us in our marital bed) versus thrown fists or addictions. But no amount of health-insurance-provided antidepressants can prop me up forever, and it’s me who has to keep this ship afloat. It’s doubtless my lifelong sense of entitlement that has probably contributed to my lack of ability to turn things around and make something from nothing, which is probably a story for another day. I’m forty-two years old. I have three children. I pull them where they need to go. I look at my husband while we sit on the porch and the hand I reach out to him is conciliatory. Apologetic.
This originally appeared on my blog about the recession at shareable.net
I’m at a café right now that’s across the street from a vacant office building. The low-slung seventies-contemporary structure used to house our family dentist’s business. Today, parked in strategic places around it, are several fire trucks standing sentry while firefighters navigate the drama of the flames licking the charred window frames. Great eructations of dark brown smoke take cumulus form for a two-block radius. I think it’s called a “controlled burn,” though I associate that with forests and greenways. This is practice for the rookies. I’ve been watching. The building is maintaining structural integrity, though the interior is a black maw.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing what I guess amounts to a Confessional Blog here on Shareable. What’s included in my writings, with a tip of my hat to this website that gave me my start, is the concept of sharing. Mostly the ways in which sharing–community exchange, connections, and support networks–has addressed the value of combined resources and collaboration during these hard times. What my writing evolved into, slowly over time, was a continuation of our family’s story, including successes, poor decisions (and the occasional good ones), and strokes of crazy luck that came our way.
This epoch has been a watershed one for my family. We lost so much, let go of so many things we had gained and built over time. Things we were praised for, by our extended families, bosses, friends and neighbors. We released it all. And yes, in the process of rebuilding, things took different form. The sharing habits took hold, and made community a critical part of our new way of doing things, so much so that I don’t remember how to go back to an insular existence. We hope to always live this way now: a lifestyle that involves reuse, repurposing, childcare exchange, car sharing, donating, barter, and a much wider net cast out among the people we count as neighbors and fellow travelers.
These are all good things. But aspects of my family’s life are changing in ways that dilute my message here, I’m afraid. We have climbed out of the deepest part of the pit and, with the support of my publishers, readers, husband’s raises, etc. we are no longer at the scariest part of our own suffering. The recession is still aflame and many are dealing with struggles far greater than ours ever were. It feels disingenuous to write any longer about the sacrifices we are making to stay afloat. We can pay the rent, I’m getting some writing work, we have health insurance. Our lives are full of abundance and luxury, even as the concept of “luxury” has taken on different meanings for us. (No amount of money can buy the experience, for example, of gathering eggs still warm from the coop and turning them into an omelet using spinach from the garden out front.)
We own a few fancy electronic gizmos. We still don’t have a car. We have no air conditioning, but Molly has dance classes and I get the occasional manicure. We’re not hurting, and I don’t want anyone to think we are pretending to be. I wrote a piece for a national magazine that was recently published, and awakened the very next day to a bombardment of hate mail in my inbox. Apparently some of the choices we have made during these strange, scary, wonderful years trigger great anger in some readers. I never intended to write a how-to for surviving the recession, and I certainly never thought I was writing a manifesto for living the Simple Life. But this has been a blog about sharing, and now it’s more about sharing my thoughts, personal history, internal struggles, strengths and weaknesses.There are ways I’ve become a better person, but loads of ways I remain beholden to avarice, lassitude, ego, and stubbornness. I drive myself crazy. It’s always a mountain to climb, this journey of self-knowledge and self-improvement. If any of you out there really feel you are Where You Need to Be in your heart and mind, I would love to study at your feet.
And no, none of this can be fixed by a Choco-Taco. I speak from experience.
So from my vantage point at the café window, the “caution” tape has been strung festively around the burning building. I can see that the structure is still intact, and it seems the firefighters have done their job at controlling the flames. But that building will never be the same. Even if they don’t knock it down (as I suspect they will), the burn has done its damage. All of us have experienced this destructive fire, and some are boarding up the gaping holes with plywood and spray-painted X’s. I am choosing to leave it all open, doors and windows. The ceiling beams are craggy, and even though burned (maybe especially because of it), they smell like the power contained in the trees from which they were hewn.
By request, a consolidated list of published pieces:
Huffington Post, May 10, 2012: “The President Recognizes My Family” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/marriage-equality_b_1505784.html
Huffington Post, May 21, 2012: “My Husband Had a Vasectomy and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/husband-vasectomy_b_1495617.html
More Magazine, May 2012: “Broke But Not Broken” http://www.more.com/broke-not-broken-finances-post-recession%20
NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, April 7, 2011: “Feeding Your Family From a Dumpster” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/feeding-your-family-from-a-dumpster/
NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, June 15, 2012: “Memories of a Father’s Rage” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/memories-of-a-fathers-rage/
Scary Mommy blog, August 9, 2011: “These Chickens, This Life” http://www.scarymommy.com/these-chickens-this-life/
Yes! Magazine, Sept. 2011: “Living Right on the ‘Wrong’ Side of Town” http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/living-right-on-the-wrong-side-of-town
Yes! Magazine, Spring 2012: “Renting With Style: How I Found Bliss in a Creaky Old Rental” http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/making-it-home/renting-with-style
shareable.net recession-living blog: http://www.shareable.net/users/corbyn