All photos by Corbyn Hightower.
I don’t mean to feel a little disappointed when I see headlines that the recession has ended. Recovery will be slow? How slow? When do I have to give up this “austerity” that we have grown to value and enjoy more than any of the luxuries we had to give up when the economy collapsed? I am aware that we could have it worse: Our rental house is underpriced. The climate in our area isn’t hostile to living sans car. We have medical and dental insurance, room to grow food, and a community filled with family-friendly amenities that cost us little or nothing. Slow recovery? We have been recovering since we learned to let go. We’re not done yet.
The other day, the kids and I spotted a big, clumsily-built, funky old dollhouse at the thrift store. The rooms were painted different colors, the windows catawampus, the floors finished with squares of mismatched carpet. The carpenter had neglected to provide doors or stairs. But it was oddly, compellingly charming. I pondered whether we should buy it—it cost a king’s ransom for us ($15.99,) but after many anguished minutes and a lot of guilty text-messaging back-and-forth with the husband, we hauled it home. We put it smack-dab in the middle of the living room and admired it for many days. We discussed plans and ideas for how best to go about making it the most awesome dollhouse ever.
There have been some false starts. We didn’t know that the entire front was made of particleboard until we tried to use citrus paint stripper on it, which broke it down enough that we’re going to have to create a new façade: I’m thinking we’ll mortar small rocks from the parking lot near our house. Q-tips—the wooden kind—are going to make perfect curtain rods. Paint chips from the hardware store might make cool kitchen tiles. We’ve been methodically sanding the layers of stained and dirty paint from the walls and exterior, taking our time, involving everyone in the process of creating our new, magical castle.
We spend a lot of time with the kids doing things like this. Just playing. Or walking. Taking long days’ adventures, exploring where this or that dirt path leads, or following the creek until the brush becomes too thick to navigate. We fill our time with things that are free, versus the weekends we used to have, when we would do a lot of driving to this or that big box store for “necessities.” At the end of a typical weekend, we would have run a lot of errands and spent a fair amount of cash, but surprisingly little fun would have been had. Maybe I would have wasted an hour or so (and a lot of money) getting a manicure and pedicure, something I used to think as a sort of business expense. I wear thrift store clothes now, and I think I’m on the annual pedicure schedule. I miss it less than I thought I would.
The guilt and fear bubble up sometimes during the evening time, when I picture other families leading more responsible lives. Kids getting picked up from preschool, protected from the rain in big, comfortable cars with the windshield wipers’ reassuring rhythm. Kitchen tables where parents finally sit after a long day tending to the business of careers and income-earning. I panic a little about what I’m not giving my children. Ten percent of the population is unemployed, and virtually everyone I know is under-employed. I still feel guilty that right now I’m not trying harder to find a way—any way—to add to the family income. We need to reestablish our savings, pay for more incidentals, and have money to afford the airplane tickets required in order to visit aging relatives. We have no emergency cushion. We don’t have any way to pay for anything extra for the kids, ever. I know when the recession is finally and fully over, I will have no excuse not to be a fully-productive member of the economic machine, and honestly when that time is nigh, I think the guilt of not being one of the working throngs will get to me.
What I know right now is this: we have a garden that needs to be shifted over to the autumn crops. We are also working on our dollhouse. Maybe we’ll add doors and stairs, or maybe we’ll build a slide or a firepole. Maybe we’ll thatch the roof with the dried grasses by the trail that runs along the creek. But there is work to do and fun to be had, and we’re not finished yet.