would-be memoirist writes less-well than she should



Yes! Magazine: Living Right on the Wrong Side of Town

I wrote this piece on the recession and how it has affected my family

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.

All That Glitters

reposted from my blog about surviving the Great Recession over at

I am a happy poor person. There are many things I have had to give up and get adjusted to, going from a comfortably middle-class, corporate-suburban existence to living a lifestyle far below the poverty line. But make no mistake: I’m happy. Extraordinarily so. More than I have ever been. I’m not sure I talk about that enough. It’s time to rhapsodize.

We live in a neighborhood that is not as safe as it could be, not pristine, not the suburban enclave we once enjoyed, but it’s filled with joyous secrets. There’s the hot pink fire hydrant at the base of the hill covered in volunteer daisies and ivy, the giant, bald tattoo artist in the well-manicured house across the street, the Russian family that comes over to cheerfully pluck apples from our tree. There’s the trail head that you can see from our backyard, which leads to patches of blackberry bramble, glens of lichen-covered oaks, and pebble-covered beaches where the kids can frolic and wade in the clear, bubbling water. We take that trail for miles and miles; without a car in our lives, its narrow curving path has become our major thoroughfare for pretty much anywhere we have to go.

Have I told you about the library? It’s designed like a hobbit fortress, with a vaulted ceiling twenty feet high topped with stained glass. So cool and dark in there, and there are hot days when we stay for hours and hours, away from our intolerably hot house. The librarians know the children, and don’t comment on their bare feet and rowdy ways. Over an arched and ancient footbridge, there is a playground that is canopied by old-growth trees, so much so that it’s ten- to twenty degrees cooler there on a hot summer day. There’s a painted dolphin statue and a turtle, too, and kids can climb them. There’s a tennis court in this wooded park, and casual players shout smack at each other on the cracked asphalt ground while the balls go Thock! Thock! Mexican families have birthday parties on the long rows of aluminum picnic tables; there is always a piñata and a radio plugged into the street light pole.

Our street is short and zoned partially commercial, but there is the childless couple next door who never show up at our house without four cold bottles of beer in hand. The day we moved in, the wife shouted, “Hey! Do you need help?” And before we could answer, she had pushed the sleeves up of her corporate casual and proceeded to give us two or three hours of grueling labor. And we didn’t even get her name ‘til halfway through, she was too busy hauling. Now, they give me monthly rides to Costco, and we repay them with mismatched dozens of eggs in a bright pink crate, when the hens are productive.

If a neighbor sees a rogue chicken, they will run and catch it and bring it home to us.

When our internet was shut off, we had more than one offer to hitch a ride on a neighbor’s Wifi when needed. I sat on someone else’s porch with my creaky laptop, paying bills and responding to emails. We share tools and harvests with the neighbors, too. As a group, we all erected and planted raised garden beds in the front of our house, on the driveway concrete pad that hadn’t had a car parked on it for the year since we sold ours. There was a big hill of soil dropped off from the nursery, and we all had shovels. We would stop for beer breaks and watch the children climb up and down the loamy pile.

The other night after the babies went to sleep and I was alone, curled on the couch and reading, I heard shouts and happy laughter out front. Then I heard apples falling—lots of them, all at once. I suddenly remembered a neighbor whose wife works at a garden supply store had told me he was going to cull the early apples to support the future harvest. I looked out between the blinds and saw him in a crook of the trunk, shaking the branches with all his might, while the tattoo-artist guy shoveled loads of tart, tiny green apples into the compost bin. The wives were there, too, helping, shouting encouragement, gathering the bigger apples that might be good to eat. All of this in the dark of a late summer evening, under a clear night sky with a cool delta breeze blowing just enough to break the heat of the long June day.

I lost my wallet at the grocery store, and a stranger bought our small bag’s worth of groceries while I wiped away tears of frustration and desperate gratitude.

There is the giant, somewhat-dilapidated old rental house that is our creaking ship in these recession-rocked seas, complete with sails made of patchwork quilts. We’ve painted every room a different color, and the spiral staircase is wrapped with fairy lights. No longer do we live in the fancy new suburban home with the balcony, but in this place the children can wrestle and climb, erect forts, and raise up baby chicks under a warming light without us having to be concerned. This is a house in which you can ride tricycles.

Getting everywhere by riding bikes and walking—exclusively—means you might notice the patch of strawberries growing on the curb outside the Goodwill parking lot, or the smell of the night-blooming jasmine as you bike back from a late evening concert, or the blackberries as they begin to ripen on the trail. What would be a quick weekend errand by car ends up being a day of adventure and, sometimes, travail. But then you have a story to relive: “Remember that day? We must have walked for miles, and we never found it. . . . ” More things happen by accident, like the day we ran out of water waiting for a bus that never came, and ended up playing in the sprinklers outside an office building, drinking from a broken, bubbling pipe. We went home muddy, pink, so happy and tired.

Everything takes an extraordinarily long time to get done, but I look back and wonder what I was in a hurry to do when everything could be accomplished with money. It was as though fun and happiness were something that required planning, provisions, and car seats, whereas now it just happens on the walk to the grocery store. And they know all the kids because we go there to escape the heat, too.

There is noticing the red glitter shoe-cubby shelf left on the curb, there is the energy and time to bring it home. There is the excitement of finding just the perfect glorious castoff versus the twinge of guilt that comes after spending at the big store. Sometimes there is wanting, when making-do becomes a struggle, and the electronics are wheezing and dying one by one. But the cost exacted to acquire, replace, keep up, and obtain is too dear. The thrift store is so much more fun than the mall.

I was so afraid to lose what I had when we were making good money and “living well.” The panic of  what if: “What if I lose my job and can’t make the car payment? What if we have to move from this safe neighborhood? The kids will miss the pool! The school is so good . . . ”

Now, I feel peace and joy while we ride the rocky waves. The crests are so much higher than I thought they’d be, and the troughs are filled with other people, treading water and holding out a hand.

This summer post seems so long ago now.

In a previous entry of her Great Recession diary, Corbyn described waiting for the results of a biopsy….

Not a whole lot else is important when you find out you don’t have cancer. Then after awhile, everything is even more significant than it was before.

Even in this heat, there is gorgeousness around me, and I try to remember to appreciate it every day. I know I’m teaching this by example: this morning my four-year-old said, “Look at the spider living in our house and doing its work! This is a magical moment!”

It’s hard to remember gratitude in the course of this heat wave, which makes me as still as a lizard. There are oscillating fans all over the house, watching their invisible tennis match. I sit as motionless as possible, one leg thrown over the arm of the chair. We’re running the swamp coolers, which lower the temperature by four- or five degrees, with the price paid in increased humidity. The intense sunshine is meaning great yield for our homegrown vegetables, but I wish our cool California nights would return.

Several months ago, we relinquished our car and many of our inessential luxuries, which marginalized us far more than I thought it would. It took us out of the game, but took us back to the garden. Riding our bikes everywhere as a family makes me feel like we’re a pack of grubby kids, off to buy candy for our tree-fort. I think we all feel more connected to the environment in a house with little climate control, and I know growing our own food has done that, too.

Our community elevates us and supports my family. A loving friend drove me to my recent surgery, and then tended to my children. I know if the prognosis had been worse, I could have counted on any number of people for the needs that would have come.

When I was worried about a malignancy, I felt further marginalized. I shrugged my shoulders and dyed my hair pink.

I painted the rooms of my house vibrant colors from the “miss-tint” shelf at the hardware store.

I started making candy-striped hula hoops.

I thought I wouldn’t be here much longer, which inspired this sort of frenzied creativity. Finding out I was going to be okay made everything stop. Things were going to unfold differently than I expected, and I could put down my paintbrush and just enjoy living in the beauty and color around me, versus racing a premature end to it. There’s nothing that can’t be bedecked with flowers.

Rainy Day Tribal Parenting

(originally published as part of my ongoing blog of surviving the great recession, on . . . with love and gratitude to Jeremy Smith and Neal Gorenflo.)

Corbyn’s oldest daughter has three mommies and one daddy. All photos of Corbyn’s kids by In Her Image Photography.

One evening last week, we rode our bikes in a long caravan to an open house at my oldest daughter’s school: me, my husband, my ex-partner Mimi, her partner Patty–and all three of our children.

Somewhere along the way, what had initially been a light sprinkle turned into an insistent rain-shower. We didn’t lose momentum; our pack kept making its way over railroad tracks and through puddles, without slowing or sharing concerned glances. It’s just rain. We interact with weather so much more, traveling this way, and who cares if we arrive soaked? It’s freeing, living at the margins–when you’ve stepped away from some of the busy-making currents and you find yourself apart from the others, squatting in the tidepools, holding something and regarding it curiously.

I am doing a better job parenting, now that we have let go of so much. There was an intensity to our days when business travel often took me far away from my children, and when our downtime was divided over the seductive demands of television, Internet, commerce commerce commerce. Others do it better than I did, I’m sure.

We don’t make clean breaks; our parenting is messy, as with our haphazard style of co-sleeping (every combination, sometimes several different iterations in one night, especially the kind of nights when fans are whirring, and blankets are kicked off in the swelter). Now the days take on a framework defined by things like the wilting garden plants that need our attention, and the warmth of the slides at the playground and whether they will burn your bottom and if we should wait ’til the shadows grow longer.

That rainy night at the elementary school open house, we made a tribal appearance–for my ex-partner Mimi is the other mother of my oldest child, Rainer. Mimi and her partner Patty live a half-mile away, and it is they who facilitated our relocation from Texas to California in the midst of our recession-driven crisis.

We had been sharing custody of Rainer for five years, trading off school years, summers, and major holidays. When things came to a head financially and professionally, we joined forces, sold off some belongings, rented trucks, and made it out here to ride out the crisis and, also, to unite Rainer’s caregivers. (Patty has lived here all her life, and Mimi and I have an amazing network of support here as well.)

The agreement was always that we are in this together, and that our broken and vulnerable contingent would find strength and security in the tribe. Since that union was forged, more jobs were lost–and gained–but we weather those storms as a group, and not alone anymore. If one has a bill that cannot be paid, another is there to find spare change under couch cushions.

My husband and I have two children of our own. They belong to Mimi and Patty as well, now. They insist on seeing each other, loving each other, being a family . . . even when the bonds and tangles become too sticky for us grownups, making us retreat to our separate corners. We spend all holidays together, and since no one we know can afford to fly anywhere to visit relatives these days, we have begun to form our own traditions. Doing the charity 3K run for hunger on Thanksgiving felt that way: all seven of us, trading stroller duty and snapping photos in our matching shirts.

For awhile, there was the default arrangement of group dinners on Sunday evenings, but that faded in favor of a more relaxed approach, and now we get together when it works, though our efforts as parents are negotiated on a near-daily basis. No matter how evolved the relationships, the communications in regards to coparenting are high-intensity, with a lot at stake. Care is taken, words are chosen wisely.

There’s little separation between households; we are reliant on each other in ways that are complicated and demanding. Add to that a little girl who is entering the morass of puberty and middle school, and, well, let’s just say I am thankful there are four of us, ever vigilant, passing the baton and trading duties.

I was a single mom once, briefly, long ago. I remember the stress of our insular world, the house of cards I built every day to do this, by myself, balancing and trying to breathe and knowing I could never be at ease or unfurrow my brow. I can’t imagine that, now.

That evening, we bicycled in a row across the miles in the rain, and I could see all my children, and they were happy, muddy, wet, and safe.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Our iPhones

Corbyn in the mirror with her link to the world.

There are times when our new ways make me feel liberated and peaceful, and times when I feel strangely broken and vulnerable. My tongue returns to the holes my molars have left behind, and I’m reminded that if I had managed to keep all of my insurance, my failed root canals would not have had such dire consequences. I see people living on the street, missing teeth and too-tanned from time spent walking long distances by the side of the road. Pulling my children in a wagon to a distant destination and feeling the relentless sun on my back makes me wonder how far I am from this. When I am feeling low, it seems closer.

This month has sapped some of my joy with its stresses. We have gotten letters taped to our door notifying us that foreclosure is imminent, as our landlord has not paid his mortgage in the year we have been here. Moving to this rambling, cheap house was our anchor through this storm, and thinking of moving again forces me to reckon with myself and assess what elements of our struggle are recession-related, and which are really my Own Damn Fault. If I had been forward-thinking, I could have and would have saved a great majority of my income when I was so very gainfully employed. I didn’t need the nicest, safest SUV complete with leather seats and XM radio.

God knows I probably didn’t need an iPhone. I’m typing this on my iPhone now, even while we struggle to pay the electric bill. It’s a link to a lost lifestyle (about which I feel conflicted and more than a little embarrassed), but more importantly, it’s my everything now. With no cable and no Internet connectivity at home, it has become my link to a virtual community, to entertainment… and to work, like writing this blog.

I find the idea of living without my iPhone almost incomprehensible. It reminds me not to feel too pious about the sacrifices we have made. I can look at environmental catastrophes and feel holy that we are living car-free, going without air conditioning, shopping at thrift stores or not at all, and growing organic produce.

But if I am honest, I have to acknowledge that the most dramatic changes we have made were those that were forced upon us. There are current circumstances that make poverty easier to weather: a global recession that means less pariah status and more resources for surviving, and environmental concerns that make living simply worthy of high regard.

Not long ago, the thought of going without cable, a car, Internet, a cool and comfortable home on a hot summer day were unthinkable. One by one, we got rid of these. Not only did we survive each one of these in turn, we actually found glorious benefits hidden in each decision. Our struggles have created stronger, quicker, deeper, and more rewarding bonds with our friends and neighbors. The relationships we create now feel like survival. Our friends are intimately involved with us, and we rely on each other more than we used to.

It begs the question: could I give up my iPhone and find similar benefits? For some reason, I feel like this might have to be my lone holdout. Virtual communities like Facebook makes so much of this tolerable. I rely on my good phone to save me when I am lost on my bicycle with my kids. I count on emails, texts, and social networking to pull me through the emotional isolation of joblessness, poverty, and a frightening illness. Writing this blog is also a link to my successful, working identity.

In two days, I have relatively-minor exploratory surgery for what may turn out to be a horrifying prognosis. I have the support of my community, both the 3D and the ethereal version. I will be driven to the specialist while my children are lovingly cared for. I will update my status. Friends will bring beer and pizza. I will write this blog, gain comfort in my garden, find solace in the air conditioned library, and play Facebook Scrabble with a friend from high school while I convalesce. I am loathe to give up any type of community, my most abundant and important luxury.

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