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Controlled Burn


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.

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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.)

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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.

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9 thoughts on “Controlled Burn”

  1. But….but….but why would they be angry? You’ve taken good care of your children, you’ve worked your way though a totally foreign to you world and life, learned powerful lessons about yourself and are coming out the other side of this “growth experience” and amazing woman with an amazing family. Color me confused.

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  2. Hate mail? Why oh why? You have done a great job of documenting the life of one family, with honesty straight from the heart. Don’t take it on!

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  3. Some folks are frightened by the idea of “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. Fear turns into anger directed at the source of the fear (your situation), thus hate-mail.

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  4. I can understand the anger. There’s a whole movement on staying in that place of buying “nothing new”. It’s a lifestyle choice people have adopted, a manifesto, if you will, of staying out of the “consumer” way of life. It can create a sort of smugness – “I’m saving the planet more than you are!” But never anywhere did you say that you wanted to stay like that, and sometimes people just assume things…and you know where that leads. Please, please keep writing. You are exceptional.

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  5. I can not imagine what kind of hate mail you received. You have been an inspiration and source of comfort for me during these times. I too have revised my life into what is and isn’t important. What is and isn’t necessary. It is a shame there are so many small minds out there. Keep doing what you are doing, your writing is amazing.

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  6. Making life work as a suburban permaculture existence. You might add a composting worm bin; think about home brewing gruit – medicinal herbal beer (low alcohol content) from herbs grown in your garden… and know you have another compadre on your side.

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  7. Corbyn,
    I’m stunned to learn that you were barraged with hate mail following the article in MORE Magazine for it’s that very article, that brought me to look for your blog online, today. I just finished reading the article. And although I am finished raising my son, and I am divorced and living alone, the emotions I felt in your article could have been mine. The sacrifices you described could be mine. When you mentioned being at the end of the month, and your food stamp allotment for the month was all used up and you were basically trying to hold on till the next month…I could relate.

    I had a long professional career in HR management, for close to 20 years. I gave it all up to fulfill a lifelong dream to own my own restaurant. I put every cent I had into that restaurant and fulfilling that dream (back in the late 90′s). I lost it all because like most, I just wasn’t able to turn a profit. I lost my home. It pushed my first marriage over the edge, over a cliff. I had to declare bankruptcy.

    I managed to come out smelling like a rose, because I allowed myself to be “rescued” by a man who had his own business and was making a fortune. I allowed him to treat me like a princess and introduce me to a life of luxury. I enjoyed the finest of everything, fancy luxury cars, trips to Paris, you name it. I wanted for nothing.

    But he gave up his business to move to Florida with me, hoping his partner would buy him out, which failed, and we ended up with no income. We reinvented our financial situation by starting e-commerce businesses and for a while we’re continuing our life of luxury. But one day, one of our suppliers failed us and cost us all the money we had. We were broke. We had to declare bankruptcy (for me, a second time). The lack of money eroded our relationship. Our marriage ended after around 12 years.

    There was no money to speak of to afford me support or alimony. For the first time in my life, I was responsible 100% for my life, my support, my finances. And at 58 years old, having been out of the HR field for over 15 years, and knowing nothing more than how to wait tables or be a hostess or manage generic operations and websites, I have been struggling.

    I am over qualified for most jobs that are out there. Companies can look at my resume and do the math and determine that I’m no spring chicken and probably would not only cost them a fortune to hire, but probably am close to retirement age, meaning higher health insurance costs to them…etc. I couldn’t even get a job at Target! They sent me an email telling me I wasn’t qualified for any positions they had available. What? I’m not qualified to run a register??

    I had been living on unemployment compensation from a job I was laid off from back in August of 2009 and food stamps and had been borrowing money from my mother. I’m out of unemployment extensions and now all I have is food stamps. You can’t trade the money on an EBT card for rent or electricity.

    I’ve been trying to sell my car (because I can use my mother’s car-she’s in assisted living and doesn’t drive anymore), but no one will buy it for what it’s stated value is and I am not desperate enough to just “give it away” for anything I can get.

    I sweat out paying the rent and utilities every month. The one splurge for me, when I have a few extra bucks, is a manicure and pedicure. It makes me feel better to at least look good.

    I recently had to take a job for a little more than minimum wage, working from home as a customer service agent. I will start training in a week. I still won’t make enough money to put me over the poverty level or pay my rent. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I wish I could find the extra little jobs to make $20 here and there, so I could add them to what I do and for every 5 like that I can make an extra $100 towards my living expenses.

    There are days that I feel like I’m living in a nightmare, but I keep getting out of bed, and perusing the job openings, sending out resumes that I know I’ll never get a response to, and hoping that one day I’ll wake up and at least have my life back instead of feeling like I’m living in limbo until I am “whole” again.

    Your article was inspiring. I was reminded that I’m not alone in my financial nightmare. There are many like me, out there, who once had a full and wonderfully rich life. And many, like yourself, with children to raise, and more to contend with than just paying rent and utilities. I admire your character. And I’m so glad you have managed to pull yourself out of it. I hope someday I’ll manage to do that as well.

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  8. I read your article in the Yes magazine and shared it on my FB pages – The Simply Living Challenge and my personal page AND tweeted it. I also private messaged it to a friend who is losing her house and searching for rental. Yep I found it that inspiring. I loved that you painted the walls in bright colours in your rental. When I followed the link to your blog I liked you even more when I saw your blue hair. I have blue hair on (though I suspect your’s might be your’s – mine is my favourite wig) in my profile pic at my blog – astalander.blogspot.com.au. I am a simple liver who loves retro, blue hair and crocheted blankets! (Do you rescue greyhounds as well?) I am looking forward to getting to ‘know’ you better. Keep sharing your life. There are always going to be people who don’t like us no matter who we are or what we are doing – but you have a message that is worth sharing. Thank you! Asta x

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