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.
originally published in November 2011 on shareable.net
Sometime in the darkest and grayest folds of winter, we have a “false spring” here in Northern California. It usually comes sometime after the glittering artificiality of the holidays are over, when the trees are just gray slashes against a sky so bleak that it has a yellow cast. The syrup of sunlight and warmth is like a gift and I wake up full of energy, with plans for the seedlings I’ve been nurturing on the windowsills. Neighbors emerge stumbling from their front doors, eyes blinking at the return of the light, greeting each other with the surprised shouts of unwitting hermits delighting in sudden fellowship. I fall for it every time, too. I take the heavy drapes down, throw open the windows, begin to plant the spring garden, and stow the coats in the trunk in the basement.
The chickens are smarter. They still hold their necks tucked under their wings in the semi-hibernation mode they go into, eating little and laying no eggs. They slowly swivel their heads our way and regard us with a jaundiced eye, as if to say, “are you really going to do this again?” It’s long weeks after this false spring that they begin their joyful chatter and busy-ness. The groundhog’s shadow is irrelevant; the tilt of the earth an alarm set by larger forces.
We’re not close to that time, yet. Here in my town, the leaves have turned and the wind has begun to sweep that golden-red glory away into bulging bags tied tidily at the curbs. Park visits end early as we tuck our chins down into the collars of our jackets. Beds are gaining layers of comforters, more every night. Mornings hold the visible frost of our words, moistening our itchy scarves pulled up high against the cold.
We won’t get our false spring until we’ve settled into our real winter, and remembering that gives me a sick, scared feeling. I don’t readily accept the gifts winter brings, and mostly I just bear up against the darkness as best I can, usually not without massive support efforts on the part of my friends and loved ones. The crowd around me presses on strong, and sometimes I just lift my fists up to my ears and close my eyes, and let them carry me along by my elbows.
The other day I was creekside along the trail near our house. There was a fire there early this past summer, and it was alarming to see the trucks speeding to the roaring blaze to put it out. Our trail is redolent with life. Wild turkeys fear nothing, and they’ll run towards a bicycle in motion. Skunks and raccoons come out around sunset or just past, and you can see the reflection of their eyes as they wait their turn to roam the neighborhood. We all share this strip of relative wilderness: Canada geese, quail, the feral cat population, as well as the rumpled drifters who find shelter under the footbridge.
The site of the fire has become a microclimate of sorts, showing its own “false spring.” In between and around the stiff black splayed fingers of burnt branches are sprigs of fennel, blazing chartreuse and yellow. Oaks suffering the devastation of browned leaves and singed bark show their bold olive-green new growth, as if challenging the growing cold. The earth that was black and bleak now looks loamy and welcoming, in this spot. Animals crouch low in the hunt for bugs. This is an area that was scorched, where new life is making itself stubbornly apparent.
We are just barely into this dark time. False spring is so far away, and real spring an almost unfathomable part of a distant future. The light leaves–and when it does, it leaves for a long time. It stays gone until you wonder if it will ever come back, and then when it finally does, and you feel like you are warm for the first time in months and can come safely out of your hole, it goes away again. The task for me is to go back to the scene of the fire and see the small signs of life there, some small spring.
I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career.
A couple weeks ago, I traveled back to New York City, the place where I nurtured my dreams as a young adult. As a teen in Long Island, I’d occasionally catch the commuter train in the early morning and spend the day in the Village, maybe take in a Woody Allen retrospective at a theater, drink coffee and smoke Camels, all without any awareness of the irony such cliches deserve. I left the area for college but moved back in my twenties, lived in a fifth-floor tenement walk-up and worked at a bookstore. I went to cafes as a pretension, sitting there and making a half-hearted attempt to write, or at least to pretend to write. “Look at me, won’t you? I’m writing in a cafe. Regard my thrift-store hipster clothing.” (I’m sorry, Hungarian Cafe near St. John the Divine, I don’t think I ever covered the rent on my chair all those hours.)
In college I majored in journalism. That was the compromise I made with my parents, who were, after all, fronting the bill for my tuition. There was one thing I was sure I could do, and that was write. In fourth grade I began announcing that I wanted to be an “author,” but despite years of trying, I couldn’t seem to translate that desire into the role of “journalist.” I wanted to write about emotions and memories. I didn’t want to chase after reality and chronicle it, I wanted to create my own, or at least poetically interpret what I saw, and I didn’t see how to do that in media.
I’m sorry now for my shortsightedness, and for the fact that I didn’t explore my options more fully. When I was asked (which I was, often, throughout my life,) “why didn’t you ever ‘do anything’ with your writing?” my pat answer was something along the lines of, “But I have. Everything I’ve done professionally and personally has benefited from it.” That’s a load of crap, and I know that now. I could turn a phrase in a thread of business emails, and express myself decently when I needed to put my best face forward. Resumes and cover letters came easily. I also wooed my fair share of lovers through my written sentiments and wordy rhapsodies.
When Facebook entered into the picture, I started to rediscover old college friends I’d been either too drunk or too careless to maintain contact with. Interestingly, many of them had become editors, were working in publishing, or were authors of books. I felt fleeting bitterness: I could have done this! Why didn’t I do this? After awhile, one or two of those friends began to quietly mentor me, and then I had a blog, and then a few more writing assignments came here and there.
I had to have the bud of a writing career lain blatantly in my lap, on the heels of professional ruin. Thank goodness for confessional blogs.
My professional experience as an independently-contracted sales rep became, ’round about 2008, an extraneous luxury for the companies I represented. If they didn’t completely change their business model to eliminate that position, at the very least the commissions dried up to nearly nothing. But now, years later, I’m sitting at a cafe around the corner from my house, writing long and hard for the few places that pay me to do so. It’s my work and I love it. And you know what? I’m noticing a lot more people writing here. It’s become difficult to score one of the good tables with an electrical outlet, now.
I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career. I will never downplay the struggles of our poverty, but I greet this artistic revolution with gratitude.
So I had my short trip to New York, in order to meet with some people who have been instrumental in my fledgling writing career. I got to sit on the subway not as a bitter and unfulfilled bookstore employee, but as a writer. I got to look at those long avenues with their rivers of taxicab yellow as a (very lightly) employed “creative,” and I felt younger than I ever felt when I was a resident of that great city, several long lifetimes ago. It was so good to come full circle with those lost dreams; to walk up to the brownstone building of My. Literary. Agent! I’m not embarrassed to say I cried.
I’m a person who is prone to crushing sadness. It’s a thread that has remained constant throughout everything I’ve done and written. As cornball as it sounds–and I’m actually cringing as I write this–I take comfort in what was my first spoken word: “light.”
That said, I am overdue to honor my mentors: Robert Feinstein, Jeremy Smith, Neal Gorenflo, Lisa Belkin, Candace Walsh, Brian Doherty, and Laura Jackson among the many who’ve shown me The Light, and other unnamed benefactors who let me have my moment. I finally get to be a writer now.
reprinted from my blog about surviving the recession at shareable.net
This is what people love to call a first world issue. I’m sitting at a cafe, trying to write with the vague promise of money for my efforts on the horizon, while my under-employed husband plays with and tends to our two youngest (healthy, brilliant, and adorable) children. My dream is that sometime soon, my memoir will be published, and I will be a real, professional writer, and we might not be quite so financially strapped.
Again I assert that I know my troubles aren’t Real Troubles. They’re Spoiled White Girl troubles. To use the parlance of the Californian New-Agers that surround me, I’m wondering when I’m allowed to “own” my struggles and stop sheepishly apologizing for them, as though by virtue of the things I have been given over my relatively easy life, I am not permitted to acknowledge my current suffering. I’m wondering: does it have to be, that I take a bus back and forth to a minimum-wage job in a dangerous part of the city to say I’ve truly “tried everything?” Nothing is beneath me; I will clean port-a-potties, I just don’t want to disappear far away from my life and my children day after day for the kind of money that wouldn’t ultimately make much difference for us.
I sold a bicycle my oldest had outgrown, a few days before Christmas. Craigslist is strange and wonderful. It’s so intimate. It’s like this complicated and nuanced Recession marketplace, and we’re each other’s saviors sometimes. A woman wanted a Christmas present for her school-age daughter, and I needed money for our holiday grocery purchases. I sent her photos of the fork, the derailleur, the pedals that could be adjusted as, like mine, her daughter’s limbs grew suddenly long and lanky.
We met on my porch. It was only seven or so, but dark enough that the dangling strand of half-lit, half burnt-out Christmas lights hanging from the leaf gutter provided the only illumination. I was glad for the forgiving darkness; maybe she wouldn’t mind the scratches so much. I knew they would buff out with minimal effort, and I doubted her daughter would mind. But then my words stumbled over themselves getting out, and I heard myself trying to give her an excuse to not buy it. “I understand if it’s not what you’re looking for. It’s not perfect, maybe not perfect enough for a gift? I could negotiate on the price, I understand.”
She eyed the bike, silently. “It’s not a problem if you need to change your mind. I understand.” I stopped the flow of words at last, and let her look without my interfering. I tried not to think about what the $125 would mean to us, and what it would mean if we didn’t get it after all. I didn’t want to wear that need.
The other day at the park, I spent hours chatting with another mom from the kindergarten, who is aerobicized and pony-tailed, yoga pants in a Lincoln Navigator. We had much pleasant conversation, and I was happy to open up to her and her world and see where we could connect. She had funny things to say about her twins, about how one of them is so tender and empathetic that he cries when he sees someone else get hurt. How she looked down at her own hands grabbing the rails of her hospital bed when she went into sudden, dangerous, early labor with them, and about how that’s her most vivid memory of that time: how her hands looked. She commented supportively about my son’s shoulder-length hair, and complimented my thrift-store dress. It was only later, when talking about the house they rent in Tahoe and the ski boots she bought for the boys, that she spoke haltingly, embarrassed. She talked about discounts, about Groupon, about her car and her life and the decisions she makes. She mentioned being poor as a child and how that’s not what matters, that it’s not what she remembers and that it’s not what my children will remember.
I can be abrasive, and when younger, I wore my convictions with a blazing cloak of righteousness. I’m still a person who doesn’t know when to shut up, but I’m hoping that in my dotage (!) that I am less judgmental and more approachable. I had not wanted this other woman, this mother like myself–familiar with the same set of vulnerabilities, hardships, and smelly clean-ups–to feel anything but at ease with me. But still, there was this chasm between us, of needs and not-needs, and she filled it with her own embarrassed rationales. I sat, smiled and nodded, full of sympathetic head tilts and raised eyebrows. I touched her arm, made dismissive noises, reassured her. This would have been me, had the Recession not hit us so hard and so relentlessly.
The other day, my husband’s employer told him that due to ongoing financial struggles, they would be reducing his hours from forty to thirty-two a week, for the indefinite–but, we’re told, absolutely temporary–future. This is confusing news. It allows me more time to write, which right now is the only (potentially positive) variable in income flow for us. There is the fact that we have our (much-needed) healthcare coverage still, and that against all odds, he remains steadily employed. There is also the opportunity to pull our heads out of our ostrich holes (do ostriches really do that? anyway . . . ) and see what other options are out there.
The woman bought the bike. She hurriedly and awkwardly passed me some folded bills, and I thanked her quickly and put the money in my pocket without counting it. It’s a business transaction, but the intimacy of it makes it feel like a social one, as well. We worked together to fit the bike into the back seat of her sedan, negotiating the position of the bicycle by micro-amounts to allow closing of both doors. It was the kind of thing you do with family when you’re loading a moving van, or wedging an oversized purchase from IKEA into your car in the parking lot. Eye contact, very little words, body language conveying the small adjustments that need to be made. I was struck with the urge to hug her goodbye before she drove away; my already loose boundaries are becoming even looser as these emotionally-challenging times continue. Also there aren’t established rules-of-etiquette for Craigslist business, at least none that I’ve thus far integrated.
So I’m writing this in a cafe, having had the ongoing good fortune to peel two rumpled single dollars out of my wallet to get a cup of drip coffee and use their Internet on a near-daily basis. Today, our monthly food budget resets, and we can finally fill in the gaping holes in the refrigerator. The children don’t suffer from want for anything, but there’s an unfair amount of pasta dinners during the last week of the month, which I know isn’t an experience unique to my family. I’m determined to write our story for as long as people want to read it, and for this time–one day in the far future–to be a time that brought us many great and surprising changes. I also hope, though, that I don’t have to decide which bill we can pay in a given month, and which we can put off for awhile longer. There is no romance in that, I don’t care what people try to tell me. But this morning, as I slept for the last precious hour or so before waking, I dreamed of eating bacon and lo! when I awakened, there was bacon.
Dreams come true.
I don’t know how we’re going to keep paying the rent, and we’re going to have to make some more tough decisions in 2012. The crisis has reached a secondary level, and for everyone I know it’s the “new normal” now. But I see inertia creeping in, and I wonder if we are conditioning ourselves to less effort, and using the extended economic downturn as an excuse.
“Now Mom, I’m going to have you sit on the floor in front of the hearth. Sisters, can you sit on either side of your mom? Put your hand on her shoulder, there . . . that’s it. Dad, can you hold Brother in your lap? Okay, hold that smile, perfect!” Five matching white shirts in a row, before an artificial fire.
That was a small moment, an attempt to mimic relaxation and family togetherness for the sake of a Christmas card. Now, five years hence, I’m fearful that we may be becoming too relaxed, this time in front of our wall heater on shabby carpet, no professional photos for the last several years, and wondering: is this recession making us soft?
The one unforgivable crime in my family culture when I was growing up was laziness. When I was an adolescent, struck with exhaustion from newly-active hormones and lengthening limbs and longing to sleep late on the weekends, I was routinely strongly encouraged to get out of bed at eight to go mow the lawn or otherwise be of service. My ancestors’ work ethic gained near-mythological status in our family’s oral history. Solid Midwesterners and Southern Protestants, of vague northern European background, stalwart and duty-bound. My grandparents were of that generation that could do no wrong, who suffered through the Great Depression as children and World War II as young adults, and handled both with noble aplomb.
My husband and I used to spend a lot of time preparing for the Christmas toy-buying season. It’s one of the opportunities of sanctioned shopping, and no one looks askance as you whip out your credit card time after time. No one wants to see the children get shortchanged, right? Writing long lists to Santa is a treasured childhood ritual. Missing any of the components—all the way down to the bulging stockings hanging from the mantle—is just downright unsporting. I don’t know how we determined the gift-quantity-to-child ratio, but it was generous. We would get fat catalogs stuffed in our mailbox every day, and it was no wonder, as we were probably on every marketer’s mailing list as affluent, profligate spenders. We weren’t really living beyond our means, as we had a year’s worth of savings when we lost everything. And before the holiday season arrived, we made sure to go through the toys in the playroom with each child and fill big garbage bags with donations.
But this year marked our third Christmas season of living below the poverty line. Each child gets one carefully-chosen “big” present, and my husband and I put things on layaway in order to afford them. I know that it is easily morally defensible to live in this more austere fashion. This year, though, I’ve been having an inner struggle, trying to reconcile the choices I’ve made with the values I was raised with. I know for a fact that most of my (estranged) family would respect me more if I were taking a bus to an overnight fast-food job an hour away for example, rather than do what I am doing, writing and working here-and-there when something comes up, while my husband suffers underemployment at a punch-the-clock low-paying job. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing or how and when it’s going to change. The first couple years of the recession left us struck dumb, all of us holding the bag and wondering what would come next. Our family made some dramatic decisions that allowed us to cling to the edge of the survival cliff, but it’s not cute anymore. We downgraded our lives, moved out of our tame and tidy suburban comfort, sold our only car, and learned to live without some of the more obvious luxuries. At the time, and for a while after, people respected our choices. Now, though, I see that inertia creeping in, and I wonder if we are conditioning ourselves to less effort, and using the extended economic downturn as an excuse.
Could I be doing more to provide for my children? Is it time to get back on the fast-moving train of ambition? I can’t even remember how to do that, and I don’t know if my bicycle will take me there.
Today we rode our bikes in the winter cold, eleven miles round trip, to enjoy a special and rare meal out at a favorite restaurant. We don’t make things too easy for ourselves, and the self-immolator in me likes that. I don’t want to wander down the garden path unless there’s some discreet auto-flagellation happening as well; it’s how I was raised. Our resources are drawing thin, though, and it’s happening everywhere. People are losing their extended unemployment, relatives and friends can’t be supportive forever, and the bottom of the barrel we’ve been scraping is really and truly turning up empty.
I can’t feel unhappy about my life. There is the joyous jangle of the sort of freedom that “fuck-it” buys you, and the color and clatter of our chaotic existence now gives me more pleasure than my corporate affluence ever did. It has to be an evolutionary imperative, doesn’t it, that we let some of the stress recede when it’s been suffered in perpetuity? My Scandinavian and Scottish ancestors populated Oklahoma Territory, and my Cherokee relatives endured the Trail of Tears and joined with them, relocated against their will to an inhospitable annexation. That land, that time, and the people that embraced these challenges mark each snarl of sinew and synapse of myself, and I struggle with my stasis now.
I don’t know how we’re going to keep paying the rent, and we’re going to have to make some more tough decisions in 2012. The crisis has reached a secondary level, and for everyone I know it’s the “new normal” now. For me, I just need to concentrate on the map inscribed at a cellular level and dig up the strength and capability to lift my family up and carry us through this.
My latest shareable post, this time on why I have a fetish for string lights and a stubborn attachment to incandescent bulbs.
http://shareable.net/blog/incandescent . . . and while you’re there, can you click on a star? And carry moonbeams home in a jar? You’ll be better off than you are.
As a child, I was known for being a daydreamer, a ceiling-gazer. I wasn’t looking at the ceilings though, it just appeared so. I was looking at the light fixtures.
My first word was “light.” My son’s, too. I love light in many forms: vintage lamps with yellowed shades, strings of Christmas bulbs, paper Chinese lanterns, the golden glow from windows at night, fireflies blinking in the Texas evening, the multicolored circles in a lens flare streaking across a shaft of sunlight in a late afternoon photo.
I’ve been known to put up our pink Christmas tree the day after Halloween. Not because I relish the holidays–in fact, it’s emphatically the opposite–but rather, because once the sunlight dwindles from the days, I need to be sure it blazes from a thousand twinkling places.
As a child, I was known for being a daydreamer, a ceiling-gazer. I wasn’t looking at the ceilings though, it just appeared so. I was looking at the light fixtures. Modern cubist installations, globes on staggered lengths of wire, glinting chandelier prisms. At home, I made mosaics with my Lite Brite and created “stained glass” to hang in the windows by melting crayons between sheets of waxed paper. I would stare mutely at the sparkling chaos of dust motes in bright sunlight. Hold my hand over a flashlight to see the fine network of life that’s invisible under normal circumstances.
I feared dusk because it meant the arrival home of the scary dad, so I would go around the house and start flicking on light switches once the tell-tale dimness settled over the rooms. When I spent time in other family’s houses I was introduced to the wonders of dimmer switches, recessed lighting, and spotlights artfully arranged to highlight the landscaping.
I’m supposed to wear glasses but I usually don’t, because unadulterated, my eyes turn every street lamp into a parhelion.
Overhead lights and the shadows they cast make me feel the smallest bit panicked, like nothing will stand up to the blazing illumination. I’d rather squint to read small print than have that naked blast from above.
I miss the neon lights of city living, though I get stars now, in exchange. I tell my children that they’ll go back to the stars someday, when they ask me about death and dying. It’s nice to have a visual aid for such an important parental lesson. You’re mine but you’re also a mote of light, and that life in you is fire.
This time of year gives me a feast of lighting pleasures, and I stop and pay it proper attention. I see the reading lamp through the lace curtain, the fireplaces in small warm living rooms, this cafe that looks like an especially inviting harbor in the premature darkness. I’ll take one humble strand of old-school Christmas bulbs and their candlelit haze, however, over an entire display of cold LED pulsars. I know I need to move past this obsession with the incandescent and the crackle of its inefficient filament, but for now I am going to lay claim to it and the specific warmth of its glow. It’s how I make it through, until spring comes.
A long time ago, we lived on Tatooine with no one but ghosts for company. And an empty porch swing, rocking fore and aft in the wind.
Here is my shareable post about that:
There was this one time we lived with ghosts.
Back when I had a real job, we lived in a planned subdivision that was specifically designed to foster the feeling of community and car-free convenience. Out in exurbia, it was far enough away from city center that it discouraged all but the most determined of commuters. We moved there after our family grew by the addition of two more children, at the same time the apartment complex we occupied downtown suffered the fate of its neighbors and was converted to expensive condominiums. Based on my income level and the seemingly-endless economic expansion, we knew we should buy a home but hesitated to commit before exploring our options more fully.
We scoured Craigslist for rental houses and put out feelers with everyone we knew north or south of the city. What we found in our price range were, without fail, located in shabby suburbs with high crime and troubled schools facing closures. It struck us that we were reconciling ourselves to suffering from the kinds of things that were supposed to be plagues of urban living, without any of the cultural benefits. Downtown had become a bastion of the moneyed, and though I was making a comfortable living as a self-employed sales exec, we could no longer afford the space needed for a family of five.
Complicating matters was the fact that we were a one-car family with a stay-at-home parent. I was on the road calling on accounts most of the time, while my husband stayed home to care for our three young children. Downtown living had suited us well, allowing as it did access to shopping, cultural events, and the kind of idle distractions that are sanity savers for otherwise isolated parents. However, after much desperate searching, we conceded that there was nothing remotely acceptable or affordable anywhere within city limits. We left the elementary school we loved, and grudgingly and sadly abandoned a neighborhood that had once been full of long-time city residents, now being forced out in turn.
I had a decent attitude about suburbia; like many children of the seventies and eighties, I was filled with good memories of the sort of freewheeling adventures kids concoct when left to their own devices. Sure I was an urban snob of the arugula-eating variety, but I had been lucky enough to spend many long years of my young-adulthood living in a few of America’s most celebrated cities. One thing I knew as I approached middle age as a parent of three impressionable young souls: I didn’t want to helicopter-parent them to death, something rampant at the tiny pocket playgrounds in our increasingly affluent city surroundings.
So after abandoning our efforts to find anything charming or safe or tolerable at all in suburbia, we drove further south past miles and miles of undeveloped acres and overgrown patches of wildflowers. Eventually, commercial districts began again, and we drove past one gloomy, treeless subdivision after another. When I had lost hope, we finally reached what would become our Valhalla. Sure, it was technically tract housing, but there was a distinctly retro flavor; the houses had shingles and window boxes and were painted in amusing sherbet pastels. White picket fences–plastic ones, but *still*–bordered each and every small lot, and every house was outfitted with a big and welcoming front porch.
There it was: our exurban paradise, on the far fringes outside of the deteriorating suburbs. Access was limited into the neighborhood, with only two or three unwalled entrances and a wide pristine arc of fenced golf course, marked “no trespassing.” Busy rural thoroughfares bordered each edge of this encampment, a thousand houses strong. We drove through and I oohhh’ed and aaahhh’ed at their spotless (if slightly uninviting) new elementary school. I pointed excitedly at the three playgrounds (which oddly all had the exact same play structure installed, an amazingly damning detail I came to find.) There were no privacy fences in sight. There was even a tiny business park with a doctor’s office, hair salon, and cafe. It was clear that every effort had been made to make this a new sort of subdivision: one that hearkened back to times when people could walk to market and school, where neighbors spent time in the evenings on their porches, chatting amiably with passers-by.
Oh, I wanted it. I wanted it BAD.
We moved into the new house over one long weekend. The streets were strangely empty, but as a longtime city dweller I was accustomed to the polite privacy people grant each other in close quarters. The emptiness, however, lingered. No one came to introduce themselves–but to be fair, we didn’t go knocking on anyone’s doors, either. Pristinely-manicured lawns contrasted with ours, which was already growing slightly wild. My husband and I spoke somewhat nervously about the unknown tyrant of the planned development: the HOA. We’d have to buy a lawnmower.
Things it was hard to miss, right away: most people drove their children the half-mile or less to the elementary school. There was never a single person sitting on any of the lovely front porches. We would sit out on ours, while the wind whipped through in that way that it does in rural Texas. We’d see the bright lights from the high school’s football field, and against that, the dark silhouettes of oil derricks on the horizon.
We were there for months, and we hadn’t yet laid eyes on any of the neighbors on either side of us. When we were home, we often positioned ourselves on the couch that faced out the windows, and beckoned each other excitedly when a car slowed somewhere on the block. We theorized that maybe these sweet houses, so perfect as to be reminiscent of a movie set, housed super-secret meth labs, perfectly and expertly camouflaged. We marveled that we didn’t know anyone’s name on our block, and didn’t even know where to take a letter that had been mis-delivered.
I know we couldn’t have been the only family that took a daily constitutional on the three-mile perimeter that looped the neighborhood, but our forays were so utterly solitary it became downright spooky. The cafe was small, depressing, and also perpetually empty. What was this? The mailboxes were at the curb, we knew people had to walk at least that far. Without any privacy fences we could see into everyone’s back yard, too, but I never spied a vegetable garden.
We hung coir baskets with ferns on the front porch, but they got decimated within days and turned into nests for aggressive bird families. This confounded us until we realized it was because the trees were all small and new, with pliable trunks and bright tender leaves. Nothing could rest on those limbs, no kids could climb them. And then we noticed there were no squirrels, either.
One day I tried to walk to the post office. After I made the circuitous exit from the development, I found myself pushing the double-stroller through knee-high nettles and brush on a busy street with no shoulder to speak of, with drivers slowing to ask if I needed help, and did I know this wasn’t a safe street for walking? We never made the trek again, much less the two-mile journey that would have taken us to the nearest supermarket. To get there would involve crossing a ravine and concrete drainage ditch, as well as a wall of bramble and several sets of foreboding fences.
The children grew weary of the identical playgrounds.
For awhile, my husband and I couldn’t quite make eye contact with each other when we talked about the move we had made. The dam finally broke when our oldest child came home and said kids were saying the president was the antichrist, and that the apocalypse was nigh. Then we began acknowledge that mistakes had been made. We had wanted a place that would give us the things we valued from living center city, such as a vibrant pedestrian-level community. There were kind families there without a doubt, and over the course of the single year we spent there, we did eventually become casually friendly with a few. We always said “howdy” and smiled, as that is the Texas way, and we are nice people.
You know what happened eventually? We had the mother of all yard sales, packed up a UHaul, and drove cross-country to start fresh somewhere entirely new. This time, we picked a crumbling old house in the middle of a small city, across the street from Wild Bill the tattoo artist and Puma the reclusive hippie, next door to Carlos the eccentric fruit hoarder, and on the same block with a mortuary, a pawn shop, a little bodega, and a soup kitchen.Trucks and cars pass us as we sit on our shabby front porch, and swarthy homeless men walk past and ask for change. You can hear live music from the busy nearby park on summer nights. On the day we moved in, the single woman who lives two doors down pushed up her sleeves and went to work unloading the UHaul with us before we even found out her name.
Her name is Heidi.
Earlier this week I wrote a self-pitying blog post for shareable.net. I’m happy to say that it didn’t get published before I had a chance to review it and revise it. Below are excerpts, which I’m embarrassed to share, but shame is sometimes an important emotion to feel, I think. It’s corrective, like guilt. The key is not to let the guilt and shame overwhelm your ability to improve yourself and your behavior. Let’s call this an exorcism:
I keep forgetting we didn’t do this last winter. We lost our car in March, and even though the dual-season monsoon climate of California still held us in its wet weather grips at that point, were nearing the end of that onslaught. Every week was a little drier, a little sunnier, a little more forgiving than the week before. Now there’s the relentless moving toward darker, colder, wetter days, and even at two p.m. the shadows are long . . .
It’s hard to engage in my sanity-savers, so my sanity is not being saved. My alone time used to be in the jealously-guarded evening hours, when I would put on my earplugs and listen to music on my long bike ride to the gym, through the rough neighborhood near the rail yard, where families sit on couches on the front porch, and there is shouting and tricycles and the smell of dinner cooking. Afterward I might find any excuse to wander through some store or other, maybe on a banana-obtaining excursion to Trader Joe’s . . .
What do I do, now? It’s dark, and it’s cold. It’s often raining, that wind-driven sideways kind of rain. I’m supposed to be bearing up, but I’m not bearing up. There’s not enough French toast in the world for this kind of bone chill and boredom. I can’t remember what I might have done back when we had disposable income and a vehicle or two. Did I find a reason to go to Target? Or Bed, Bath, and Beyond? Were there maybe more purchasing expeditions, outings that were diverting enough to alleviate the tendency to flop around the house in frustration, sighing, while the kids bicker and the dirty dishes accumulate in the sink? Is that why they invented Christmas—to give us all something to DO?
Pity me! Pity me!—right? Woe is me, I can’t go to the gym or idly shop at big box stores. I will say that the mood had a legitimate genesis though, and I can trace it back to a couple of events that happened over the past week.
One evening, my oldest, Rainer, had a choir performance and it was cold and raining hard. In order to be there to see her and support her, we had to bundle three little children (our two younger kids, plus a sweet little guy whose parents were paying us to babysit,) hitch up the bikes to the trailers, attempt to create waterproof cocoons for them, and bicycle hard against the clock, mostly uphill about 2.5 miles (not far by our usual standards) in freezing rain and wind. By the time we arrived, my skirt was clinging to my legs, soaked, my cold ears throbbing painfully in time with my heartbeat. The babies were warm and calm, so I left my husband to deal with finding shelter for the bikes and offloading everyone while I ran full bore to where the choir was supposed to perform in a minute or so. After shouldering through the crowd, all carrying umbrellas and posing for pictures in front of a giant outdoor Christmas tree, I finally found the choir director. They had already performed. They were trying to beat the worst of the weather, so they had started earlier than planned.
I kept calling and texting my ex to try and track Rainer down. Finally, I was told they were having dinner with a group of friends in a restaurant nearby. At that point, bitter disappointment and grief led to tears that I couldn’t seem to stop. I was soaked, freezing cold, and so ashamed that I didn’t have the resources or ability to get to where I was supposed to be, for my daughter. I couldn’t go into the restaurant like that. Instead, I stood outside the restaurant window while my ex sent Rainer out so I could hug her, at least. And apologize. The thing that hurt the most was her confusion and concern; I don’t think she understood my visceral sadness. I had to leave her behind to return to that warm, golden room, and go back and pick up the pieces so we could make our way home in the storm.
At this point, my self pity was getting a nice, running start.
Credit: In Her Image Photography
A few days later, I went to a grocery store to buy our Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. Things were going to be slim this year for sure, but we would be together in our house, relatively healthy, safe, intact and grateful for it. I spent a lot of time in the crowded market, making small talk with other shoppers, joking about my skills in the kitchen, getting advice from store employees, and planning our first home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. I went to the checkout with a cart full of groceries. When it came time to pay, my card didn’t work. That’s when I lost it.
We weren’t going to be able to pay. I didn’t know how, but I had miscalculated everything. There’d be no taking home these groceries, and it looked like we weren’t going to have any sort of traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Now let me be clear: we always have enough, and with the dried beans and grains, canned soups, tomato sauce and pasta, and assorted nuts and seeds in the larder, our family will not go hungry in the near future. It was just that this was going to be the first year that we couldn’t provide the traditional trappings, and that was the just last brick on a pile that was sitting on my chest. I cried right there at the checkout. Hard. I think I might have begged a little, telling them to please try the card again, and again. I remember making quite a spectacle of myself, and things progressed from there, involving getting escorted out by a man in a uniform, but I’ll just leave it at that. Hours later, I had been driven home by a friend, and my head was aching from the crying. No one in the family was able to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. It had been a hard night with lessons learned about expectations, and humility, and gratitude.
I am writing these words on Thanksgiving. Unexpectedly, a friend picked me up this morning, and drove me to the one grocery store that was open today. We had some money left on a food stamp card after all. Now I can smell turkey cooking, and along with the other most fortunate Americans we’ll be having the canned cranberry gel, the mashed potatoes and stuffing, some corn and peas, some pumpkin pie. About the only complaint today is that I forgot the whipped cream.
Fall and winter are always a time of reckoning, not just for me but for lots of people, I think. Short days mean long hours spent at home with your thoughts. The sun encourages extroversion; the lack of it turns your thoughts inward. Holidays bring joy to many, but for lots of us they are emotionally complicated, full of memories and some sadness. It’s a time of extraordinary parental pressures to provide abundance and tradition to the children.
This holiday season had a rocky start for me. This is the first time we’re doing it without a car, and without any money to provide the kind of comforts that the long, dark cold time takes away. But we have a pink Christmas tree, and if you have that, you can’t be hurting too much. A single strand of multicolored lights turns our porch into a warm welcome home in the darkness, and you don’t even need to squint to make it look beautiful. I was the worst kind of fool for not realizing we have absolutely everything we need.