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Controlled Burn

Some Small Spring


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.


Mashed Sandwiches and Empty Water Bottles

There is no “check engine” light when you’re a car-free family. Or . . . something like that. My latest piece is up over at shareable.net; please click a star and share if so inclined.

Craigslist and Other Intimacies


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’m Too Lazy to Write This Piece


reposted from my blog at shareable.net

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.

Incandescent


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.

To Exurbia and Back in One Short Year


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.

The Worst Kind of Fool


(reprinted from my blog about surviving the Great Recession at shareable.net, with deep gratitude to Jeremy and Neal)

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.

Blackberries Are Free


(a version of this appeared in my ongoing diary of recession living over at shareable.net)

And then there’s the foraging we are able to do when we’re communing so close to the neighborhood flora. Blackberry bramble grows wild all over our town, and many consider it a menace. It’s invasive, and it will choke everything out and take your fence down in the process. It’s easy to identify, with spreading thorn-covered vines and broad elliptical leaves. Sometime in the late spring, it’s covered with white blossoms that eventually turn into tight, chartreuse clusters that mature until they become soft, darkly purple berries by July or August. It’s hard to buy blackberries: they’re fragile, and so expensive. You pay a king’s ransom for a half-pint container, and by the time you get home, the bottom layer has burst and run with juice, and maybe you’ll find one with a faint moldy fur that quickly overtakes the rest.

I’m not sure why more people don’t pick them. It’s true, you have to keep your eye on them so you don’t miss the window of time after they’re no longer too sour and before the summer sun has finally had its way with them and they’ve become hard, shriveled black husks. There are micro-climates, like the broad swath of shade underneath the highway where they ripen more slowly but in far larger numbers, you need to notice that. You also have to be prepared to wrangle with the thorns. It’s not like roses (to which they’re related,) where you can clearly identify the spikes and avoid them if you’re careful: blackberry bramble has those big visible spines too, but they also have a more insidious, fine and imperceptible brand of prickles that seem soft until they’ve covered your forearms with itchy misery.

So what I’m saying is, you have to be observant and you have to protect yourself. We kept watch on them every time we’d pass a patch on foot or on our bikes. Over and over, we’d come across new thickets of them hidden along roadsides or beside the trails. You can really get good at spotting them if you know what you’re looking for, and in the spring when they’re blanketed with blossoms, it’s like a patch of melted snow where the sun hasn’t quite reached. We watched, made note, and shouted to each other about what we saw: there’s more here, we need to remember this spot. There’s some pink on the berries now. When the time had come, we piled the kids into the big orange gardening wagon and set off for some of the closer thickets, just to start. We brought jelly jars, but not big ones—big ones would mean too much weight on the bottom layers. Larry and I traded wagon-pulling duty with Rainer, who moaned and complained. It was hot, and we were wearing long-sleeved shirts as armor against the thorns.

When we got to the best, most abundant spot, we propped a long wide plank up against the bramble to give access to the higher areas. Everyone had a jar, and we wore layers of latex surgical gloves and stripped them off as they became shredded. We worked quietly, some happy buzzing but mostly just commenting on finding a good one or avoiding a bee. Molly worked too. Everyone ate about one for every three picked, which was the tax we exacted for our labor. We talked a little about what we’d do with them: Rainer wanted to freeze a few quart bags for smoothies. Molly does most of the chicken chores, so she wanted them to have the ones that weren’t quite ready. “Dan’s got peaches ripening,” Larry said. “I’ll bring a few jars to trade.”

Some teenage boys passed us on the other side of the busy street. They asked us what we were picking, and then if they could come join us. I glanced over at Rainer to search for embarrassment and found none, so I handed them some gloves and a jar. I asked them, “Did you grow up here?” and was surprised when one said yes, they had. I wondered: do their parents not care about blackberries? Because you’d have to actively not care. Here were blackberries! So cherished that they cost about the same as caviar. They’re available for such a short time, and specific to this part of the country. There aren’t many places on earth where something so succulent comes at such low cost: the only price you pay is in scratched up hands and stained fingertips. The new pickers took awhile to get the appropriate technique down, and Molly warned them against the ones that have “too many red bubbles,” as they are too tart and not yet sweet and juicy.

We worked for a few hours, long enough that the teens who joined us eventually mounted their skateboards, leaned back, and rolled off with lackadaisical efficiency. They didn’t say goodbye, but it was a benevolent parting, and it was clear we had earned a little of their admiration. After that, we got quieter and more focused as it became harder to find worthy berries. Rainer looked up at me and said something after awhile; I was busy and lost in thought, and I couldn’t be sure I heard her right. I had her repeat it: “I love our life,” she said. “I’m so glad we’re doing this.” And I am glad that she won’t have to grow up in northern California without ever having learned about picking blackberries.

Chaos Strawberry Farm! Marathon Bike Trip, Part Two


Corbyn Hightower decided to take a two day bike trip to a wedding with her friend K., both towing their kids behind them. This is part two of what happened.

We decided to take our time the next morning. We had thirty-seven miles to ride on that day, but the weather was cool and we wouldn’t be able to get access to the hotel until late afternoon, anyway. We couldn’t have predicted that the day would go so completely, horribly wrong, and that we wouldn’t arrive at our next resting spot until after seven that evening.

I sure got tired of looking at K's rear.

So with the bliss that ignorance brings, and with our thermoses full of local, organic, blessed by fairy dust Davis coffee, we set off for Fairfield. Pretty quickly out of town, we entered the kind of regimented pattern of grids that defines an agricultural landscape. We came upon a belching little factory that turned out to be a Campbell’s Tomato Soup tomato processing plant, and got lost right around there because we were trusting Google’s suggested bike route.

K.’s kids were bickering in her trailer. I rode behind her past the miles of cornfields, watching the boxing match from behind, fists poking the nylon sides and top. My little ones were docile but started asking “are we there yet?” alarmingly early in the ride. This part of the journey was comfortably flat, but time seemed to slow for everybody, and what felt like hours turned out to be less than one. We figured it was the barbaric wind that seemed to be pressing us backwards as we pedaled.

Utter chaos!

There was a sign ahead of us, we could see it from a distance, but until we got too close to make any sort of change, we read: PAVEMENT ENDS. Pavement *ends*?! This could be bad. We advanced with caution into what turned out to be thickly-laid gravel, that also had a wavelike pattern of crests and troughs, making it feel like we were biking through sand while also waterskiing over choppy waters. It was dispiriting. K. allowed one of her girls to stand and ride backwards, arms out–it was all she could do to gain respite from the shrieking and fisticuffs. And there was the wind, the wind.

K. informed me that we were only moving at five- to eight miles per hour. I was slow and steady, but K. was struggling. The gravel had a purplish-gray cast, and to either side were acres of obscenely large sunflowers, their heavy heads bowing with seeds. An opalescent turquoise dragonfly darted beside me and seemed to stay with me for awhile, and the sky was cloudless and still. The sun was bright but it wasn’t hot; this could be far worse, I thought aloud. K. struggled on, complaining in a way that was uncharacteristic. We reassured ourselves that with the absence of hills and traffic, this would be an easy ride once we were on pavement again. Well, if not for that wind.

We started running a little low on water, and everyone needed a pit stop. Like magic—magic, I tell you!—an oasis appeared in the form of Yoon Chao’s Pick-Your-Own Strawberry Farm. They were in possession of the world’s cleanest porta-potty, and the door slammed open over and over as the wind took it. We bought everyone their own pint of strawberries (we didn’t Pick Our Own,) and stayed there so long that the man at the farm stand looked out at us, confused. They didn’t have any water, which was curious. Not even a stray garden hose. The wind was so strong it took our words away before we could hear each other, so after a few shouted conversations we just took to being quiet.

We set off again. We were now on asphalt, but our newest obstacle was a very narrow shoulder and a lot more traffic. Fast traffic. K. started to ease over onto the brush, and I followed her off-road as it seemed the only sane thing to do. I was struggling horribly now. Could the wind have gotten worse? Was our siesta at the strawberry patch too long? Something was wrong. I could barely move. My butt and thighs were screaming at the effort. And then I knew. I looked back and saw that one of my trailer wheels was flat. And then I saw that my front bike tire was flat as well. I shouted at K. just as she was shouting back at me; she had a flat, too.

There were a string of curse words issued forth by both of us that were lost in the wind and thusly, shan’t be printed here. It was when we investigated more closely that we realized exactly how completely hopeless the situation was. Apparently, when we made our small forays off-road, we encountered our new nemesis: the Star Thistle. Centaurea Solstitialis. It’s a beautiful plant in a modern, mid-century Sputnik sort of way, and certainly noticeable in the landscape but not necessarily recognized as the merciless adversary that it was. And each of our tires had several dozen of the spines deeply embedded, making tube repairs utterly impossible. The tires themselves would need replacing, even.

I would like to say that this trouble was a surprise, and it certainly was in terms of how it manifested, but I felt a sort of peaceful resignation that things had, indeed, gone horribly wrong. There must be a pessimist buried deep inside my blindly optimistic exterior, and anyway, people had said we were crazy to attempt this. So here it was, mission aborted halfway through. We made the appropriate cell phone calls, sent out distress signals, and settled in to wait for whatever form rescue might take. Only problem was, we were still on what had been the most dangerous section of the ride so far, and we had preschoolers who were restless. Cars zipped by with startling speed and disregard. We got a little panicky and decided we would try to walk our bikes the last eight miles, Star Thistle-be-damned. There was no happy solution, and there was the wind and the sun and water bottles that were reaching bottom.

I have never felt so patriotic as I did when a big ol’ honkin’ extended-cab pick up truck pulled up across the street, and an airman in battle camo got out and stood at parade rest, looking at us. Travis Air Force Base! I remembered gratefully, and I’m not ashamed to say I began to do jumping jacks in order to subtly transmit our S.O.S. He looped back around and parked in the shoulder. We barely made introductions, and we didn’t even offer him a way out of helping us. We were determined, and we managed to get both bikes and trailers into his truck bed, while we identified the closest bicycle repair place.

He stayed with us longer than he had to. Zeke whispered to me, “can you believe this isn’t a dream?” as he shyly eyed our rescuer from behind my thigh. The bike repair employees laughed and took pictures of our ravaged tires. We stayed there for hours, camped in the corner and eating Cliff Bars while we charged our phones. The kids sat on tables and watched the repairs being done. We washed wind-driven soot from our faces and chests, and started to see the other attack we had suffered: K. and I were horribly sunburned. It had been a long day under a big sky. The babes had all been shaded in their trailers, and yes we had used good zinc sunscreen, but didn’t repeat application.

I don’t want to write the rest right now. Suffice to say, we had more hours of riding ahead of us. When we arrived at the hotel at near sunset, I think I can honestly say I had never been so happy to arrive anywhere, ever. We donned swimsuits and plunged our sorry selves into the frigid pool in the courtyard, and steam rose from our red shoulders. Oh–and the beds were rreally very good, and the room was twice the size as the one the previous night. We were in the middle of nowhere, and it felt fantastic to just be in those cool sheets.

The take-home message for our day? Apparently, if you get assaulted by a hundred or so Star Thistles, they send the U.S. Air Force out to rescue you.

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