would-be memoirist writes less-well than she should



Bright Pink Lipstick

1011074_10202997602243110_891455566_nI’ve spent the last several years writing blog posts about the Recession. Here’s how it started: an old friend of mine got hold of me. It turns out he was an editor for a website about the New Economy, and he wanted me to write my story. This is a familiar sort of occurrence among people of A Certain Age: thanks to the wild accessibility of really pretty much everyone through Facebook, people like me are reconnecting with folks we were too drunk or too careless to keep in contact with as decade after decade rolled past. For some time now, I’ve been ludicrously rewarded for epochs of bad behavior. Turns out that all of my exes and a whole bunch of lost friends are excellent and forgiving people, which makes me feel a whole lot better about my taste, but even worse about my carelessness and the time I lost with them.

Which brings me to: carlessness. My word processing program doesn’t want to even acknowledge it’s a word; it’s just a snippet of the zeitgeist and that takes longer to integrate into common parlance. It’s too close to “carelessness,” and maybe that resemblance is a bad thing. You see, outside of places like New York City and maybe Portland, not having a car–especially when you are the suburban mother of three–is a sign and symbol of having Blown It Big Time. But we are without a car. It was an easy decision at the time: we couldn’t pay the rent. What we had was a paid-for, valuable hunk of metal parked in the driveway and a roof we preferred to keep over our heads. Some people make another choice: to move in with family, perhaps. “Temporarily,” of course. But it was no accident that we had found ourselves in Northern California, far away from both of our parents’ households in Texas. We had severed the ropes of that safety net and had no regrets. You see, there are some sorts of safety that are so fraught with danger and damage that calling upon them feels like a sort of suicide.

So we carry on, working menial jobs and trying to shake money from trees. We take our children on errands in our bike trailers, pedaling in the sweltering heat or in downpours, faces held in caricature expressions of grim determination. It’s been an adventure. A noble experiment. So many others around us are in similar straits, so this whole thing–newfound poverty–has an air of camaraderie to it, and whole new ways of doing things have taken root. We’ve done it all: bartered, gotten backyard chickens, grown a vegetable garden. I’ve written so many essays about the New Simplicity that I’ve started to think of my style as “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” This ghetto for my writing is eye-rolling in its tendency to put a positive spin on things but still keeps my work out there, in front of appreciative eyes.

But something horrible has happened to me this year, and I don’t know what to do. At some point–was it after the hundredth “no?” The thousandth? Was it day number 1350 of not having enough, or maybe day 1351? But somewhere along the line I realized this is not going away, and that struggling to pay the utilities is a monthly reality with no end in sight. That making Top Ramen for dinner had stopped being an amusing indulgence in crappiness, and has become–at times–economic necessity. I look at my children and I want to say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry you’re having to wear this need and pretend it’s okay, I’m sorry there are no birthdays at pizza parlors or dance lessons. I’m sorry I can’t send you with a handful of change that I don’t have so you can get a candy bar at the corner store. I’m sorry you notice what other families enjoy–simple things, a drive to the country and a weekend of camping–and you notice the difference and have to ask me why. I’m so sorry I cannot provide for you the things that were provided for me. I’m sorry that a simple trip to the doctor to check for pinkeye has to be a negotiation based on the twenty bucks in co-pay expense versus what may be curable with time and the hive mind of online medical care advice. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I wear bright pink lipstick (one tube, annually, cheaply obtained) and have my cruiser bike decorated like a parade float. I let my children dress with lackadaisical freedom. We played by the rules and we lost everything that offered us safety and security, so to hell with the rules, I teach them. You will get screwed-over six ways to Sunday, so find the hidden magic, I say. Do you see that smooth brown stone? Pick it up and shift it towards the light, and you will see small bits of glitter like tiny stars. I try to tout this lifestyle as one we would have chosen back when we were flush with income and silly material wants, and YES: there are lessons we’ve learned. Yes, you can be a band of hobos with torn parasols, in satin and velvet castoffs, and yes, there are blackberries that grow wild all over this town.

But I’m done. The truth is that I’m toiling for not a lot over minimum wage, and those chickens in the back yard have come home to roost. There’s only so long you can go on before all your resources are tapped, and the barrel you’re scraping has well and truly reached bottom. I know we are required to be  grateful for what we have: no one in the family has chronic health issues, we have good public schools for our kids to attend, and we live in a patch of paradise that makes living without a vehicle or air conditioning a tolerable option. We have–praise ye gods!–health insurance from my husband’s low-paying retail job.

We have a marriage where our struggles manifest themselves in silent regret and disappointment (and a lot of space between us in our marital bed) versus thrown fists or addictions. But no amount of health-insurance-provided antidepressants can prop me up forever, and it’s me who has to keep this ship afloat. It’s doubtless my lifelong sense of entitlement that has probably contributed to my lack of ability to turn things around and make something from nothing, which is probably a story for another day. I’m forty-two years old. I have three children. I pull them where they need to go. I look at my husband while we sit on the porch and the hand I reach out to him is conciliatory.


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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