Start with a dilapidated but cheap house. Move there under duress perhaps, maybe because it’s cheaper or because you need safe haven from things that are harming you. Make sure the tree is there, in front where it can greet you with low branches, and soften the sun’s glare with its canopy. It must be really big and full of blossoms when you pull up with your moving trucks containing everything you value. It has to have been there awhile, it must have witnessed families come and go before yours.
The house should get abundant shade from that tree. This must be a sort of house that is old and has no air conditioning, a house where you throw open the windows on the first hot day after you arrive and welcome the outdoors in, and even where there are no screens, you tolerate the bug visitors because you can smell your tree and feel the breeze and its comfort. There is no hum of a machine to cool you, only the shouts of neighbors and the bugs and this tree, and a wide open front door.The blossoms need to fall, the way blossoms do when the fruit is on its way, and you should probably feel surprised at the beauty of the carpet of petals that densely covers your porch and front walk. You remember the days that petals on your car would bother you in spring, the way they would cling to your window shield after a rain and get caught in the wipers and then rot. But these are petals, and they’re beautiful, and they’re causing you no problems, even when the children track them in on their shoes.
When the apples start to fall, they’re green and bitter and they get smashed on the street out front. Bees and flies flutter around the pulp, and neighbors kick the crushed ones back toward your yard with some irritation. This is the work, this is where it starts. The same irritable neighbors come over periodically and help you manage this early growth, irritation is softened, and you climb branches and shake the trunk and all of you laugh at the hail storm of new fruit when it hits the ground with a knocking sound and rolls around like ball bearings, making you stumble like you’re already drunk on its fermentation.
Create games on the fly. Start keeping score: who can pitch the most apples into the compost bin, without missing? Have a running tally with the guy across the street that goes on for days; shout your number with a challenging tone. Welcome the gardening couple who have no children and have time to read about what to do for the tree, let them help you prune and cull and fertilize with compost tea.
Provide beer. Sit on the porch and chat.
And when there have been some days when too many have fallen and there are too many frustrations, go gather. Make the kids do it when your back goes out. There’s always more. Pile what isn’t salvageable into baskets and dump it into the chickens’ feed bin, and stop and spend some time watching them bob their heads and dart their beaks into the crunchiest sections, leaving the mush for you to rinse out later.
What you have gathered is good but needs care. First there’s the washing—be thorough—and then of course much coring and chopping. Leave the peel on, and put the pieces through a juicer. There will be a lot of foam on the top, and it might be too tart for the children at first. Pour it through a strainer and sweeten it slightly with honey or maple syrup.
Then you must strain again. You need to rid yourself of the bitter foam and remember the delicate beauty of those blossoms when the tree greeted you. You need to do the work and make it right, make the sweetness linger on the tongue, soften the sharpness of too much disappointment that led to this bushel of fruit that must be processed in order to nourish you. You freeze some for the long winter that seems far away but that’s really right around the corner, when the tree is bare and scratching against gunmetal skies, relentlessly holding its arms out and waiting for the spark of light to return. Those are hard months and you will miss this sweetness.
It’s bound to be surprising, how many tart little apples it takes to make a quart of golden juice that makes the children smack their lips and stop what they’re doing to savor. You pour it out in measured doses so it’s not taken for granted. Each mouthful contains some small story of the year that’s passed.
By request, a consolidated list of published pieces:
Huffington Post, May 10, 2012: “The President Recognizes My Family” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/marriage-equality_b_1505784.html
Huffington Post, May 21, 2012: “My Husband Had a Vasectomy and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/husband-vasectomy_b_1495617.html
More Magazine, May 2012: “Broke But Not Broken” http://www.more.com/broke-not-broken-finances-post-recession%20
NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, April 7, 2011: “Feeding Your Family From a Dumpster” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/feeding-your-family-from-a-dumpster/
NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, June 15, 2012: “Memories of a Father’s Rage” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/memories-of-a-fathers-rage/
Scary Mommy blog, August 9, 2011: “These Chickens, This Life” http://www.scarymommy.com/these-chickens-this-life/
Yes! Magazine, Sept. 2011: “Living Right on the ‘Wrong’ Side of Town” http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/living-right-on-the-wrong-side-of-town
Yes! Magazine, Spring 2012: “Renting With Style: How I Found Bliss in a Creaky Old Rental” http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/making-it-home/renting-with-style
shareable.net recession-living blog: http://www.shareable.net/users/corbyn
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.
(we have always lived in the castle)
When my sister and I would whisper in our beds, in the dark, we would review what we knew about The Debbies, two different girls with the same name we had each befriended at our school in town. I’d make a slope with my striped nightgown by bending my knees up and pulling the fabric tight. One by one, I’d trace the stripes with my finger while I listened to my older sister talk. “They buy that weird cereal that comes in a bag, not a box,” she’d say about “her” Debbie. This was somber information, offered in a disapproving hiss while I listened in silence. It had all been said night after night in this room with the tidy twin beds; we reviewed it as if studying a holy text, or as if committing something to memory that is so special or so awful that you never want to forget it. “I saw ants inside the house,” I intoned in turn, after respectful silence.
* * *
And it was last weekend that my husband and I crawled along the perimeter of our own house, searching for rat holes we could block with wadded-up steel wool. They’re starting to bother the chickens at night, and we can’t have them stealing the feed or threatening the egg production on which we’ve come to rely. The ants in the upstairs bathroom are of little concern to me. I look at them as I would look at dirt that moves, which doesn’t sound very enlightened. But we have forged an uneasy peace. If they happen to make their way into the shower stall, they will feel the fatal sting of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, otherwise they are free to take shelter from the wet and cold along these baseboards. I address them with grudging tolerance. I see you’re still here. If you make your way to the kitchen, there will be trouble.
* * *
“My” Debbie was my age, in first grade. I had been to her house exactly twice. The first time was for her sixth birthday. My mother had dropped me off in her unfamiliar neighborhood, one where porches leaned at the front of houses heavy and creaking like ships. Her birthday cake had been bright pink, her mother loud and wearing baggy sweatpants. Something about the cake had embarrassed me. It seemed not right, the frosting too thick, everything lopsided and the pink was really dark. Most of the celebration had happened outside on that groaning and rickety front porch. I was confused because instead of grass in their front yard, they had rippling dunes of hardened dirt, laced with tracks in the soft dust that had been made by the sorry-looking Matchbox cars that were scattered in miniature junkyard heaps. No one seemed to mind if you dug deep holes, so that’s what we did for a long time that afternoon.
* * *
I lost two of the five balloons in the wind that whips on the overpass. The cake did get smashed. But it was okay. Next time would be better.
* * *
The neighborhood my Debbie lived in made me think of camping. Places that didn’t look like places people could live had curtained windows and porch lights: absurdly small cottages in between and behind the big houses, garage apartments with high wooden staircases, making you feel like there was a tree house somewhere just out of sight. Hiding spots. Small places. People had brought out indoor furniture—with cushions and all—and used it on the porches, or even in the yard. One house had a entire living room set up, with a cord running long out the front door to power the TV with its catawampus rabbit ear antennae. Winters were long and hard here; people tended to want to be outside at every opportunity during temperate months, especially in this ramshackle quadrant. Cars were parked just everywhere, and people worked on them or leaned against them, talking and smoking. Our cars were always in our garage, and the garage door was never, ever to be left opened; that was the zipper fly of the house, and before the day was through, all toys and bikes were tucked inside.
“The dad was at home in the middle of the day,” I said, not knowing why this was wrong, but knowing somehow that it was. “He was on the couch.”
* * *
My underemployed husband comes home at four, and finds the door locked and himself without a key. He texts me: sit-rep? where are you? I forgot my key. Minutes later, at the park, he rolls up and takes off his helmet, strolls toward the kids. They climb him, scaling to the top like it’s a frantic and happy contest, and when they reach the buzzed scruff of the top of his head they free-fall back down. Before we can even greet each other, they are back to building this makeshift mountain, making a fence for their fortress out of broken sticks.
At home, we bring our bikes inside our garage-less house. They lean in a metal tangle in the dining room. The kids use them sometimes for part of their fort construction, carefully avoiding the oily chains so as not to sully the blankets. We have a permanent fort upstairs, built from mattresses in their bedroom. There’s no furniture to interfere, and they’re raised up on a makeshift bunk bed arrangement. Old patchwork quilts turn it into a spot as cozy as a rabbit warren. They’ve even got a lamp under there.
This is a fort-friendly house. There is nothing to mar here. Doors lack knobs in some instances, and windows don’t close completely. The chickens have taken over the back yard and the ramshackle deck. Vines grow over one window, which probably isn’t good for the house’s structure, but makes it look like we’re in a magical forest from the inside.
* * *
Debbie’s mattress was on the floor. I asked her where her headboard was and it was like she didn’t hear me. She belly-flopped onto the Raggedy Ann quilt. My Debbie had bicycles parked in her house. I couldn’t help but stare when I visited, though I did it with the appropriate shy politeness. It seemed so out of place to see a bicycle just leaning cavalierly against the wall of a bedroom, which meant it had to have been rolled through the front door and—horror!—across the carpet. Which, come to think of it, didn’t matter much, considering that what they had in the living room was a dirty turquoise shag, mashed flat in spots, cheerful but crumb-laden. Parts of their house didn’t have carpet even, just exposed floorboards that might give you splinters if you weren’t careful. I remember her brother, sitting on the floor watching cartoons while eating cereal right out of the box. He shoved his arm as far down as he could and pulled up a finger-full of sugary powder, licked, and then dove down for more.