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


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

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.

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.

When Life Gives You Crabapples, Make Something Somewhat Palatable


reprinted from my blog about surviving the Great Recession at shareable.net

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.

 


All That Glitters


reposted from my blog about surviving the Great Recession over at shareable.net

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.

Talking About the Debbies


(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.

* * *

Here had come the first birthday for one of the kids after we’d lost the car. I strapped an empty box to the back of my bike with a frayed bungee cord. Before experience taught us alternatives, to get to the store I would take the four-lane busy road over the highway, dodging the cars accessing the on- and off-ramps. The drivers always looked surprised to see a cyclist. I respected that, and accommodated with painstaking care and near constant use of my bike bell. I should have made the cake myself, I thought. I was in the grocery store, feeling the efforts of the grueling bike ride in the pinkness of my skin, and the sweat that was beginning to trickle down in hidden places, making the sudden shock of air conditioning an uncomfortable thing. I was regretting not having planned ahead, knowing I should have come days ago and bought the flour, the baking powder, vanilla. This was new, this needing to be so exacting with the errands of daily life. Now here was this day, my son’s fourth birthday, and in these last hours, I was trying to secure this single-serving cake so that it wouldn’t shift in the box on the long ride home. Helium balloons were tied to my handles.

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.

Reflecting on a Year of Shareable Living


(reprinted from my blog about surviving the recession over at shareable.net)

I’m writing this on Earth Day, 2011. I’ve watered the seedlings in the raised garden beds; the tomato plants have blooms, and the variety of squashes and pole beans are straining upward, still small but impressively strong, with their broad leaves facing toward the sun. Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of this spring, red all the way through, without the slightly-too-tart tang of previous early-season pints. We tried to savor them, to make them last, to appreciate each strawberry for how it’s slightly different from the rest. The way the sparkling flavor and the seeds make it taste almost carbonated, like a festival, a joyous clarion heralding the long sunny days through the power of sensory memory.

even the tween helps with bed-building

even the tween helps with bed-building

Our raised beds are new. We erected them in an unexpected place: atop the concrete pad of our unused driveway. The symbolism was not lost on us.

The other day, an acquaintance posted a status update on Facebook that she was newly car-less, due to a failed transmission where the repair exceeded the cost of the vehicle itself. I added a comment to the thread, something along the lines of “try going intentionally car-free, and see how it feels! It might work for you,” probably followed by a smiling emoticon to make sure she understood I intended no pressure. (I’m sensitive to sounding like a tree-hugging crank.) Immediately after I posted that, though, someone else wrote, “WHATEVER. Living without a car in this age isn’t realistic in ANY WAY, unless of course you’re Amish. But even they have horse-drawn carriages.”

A little over one year ago, we sold our car and embarked on a new phase of our family’s story. Looking back over that year, I’m remembering the freedom we felt at making the decision to liquidate and downsize, to buy ourselves time during a time of financial crisis that had come to a head. It started with just a couple text messages floated in the middle of the day, back and forth with my husband, in which we decided not to replace the car we were selling. “Screw it,” I typed. “I’m thinking we should consider not getting another car at all. Let’s just outfit everyone for biking instead.”  I was surprised when he wrote back, “Tell me more . . . ”

group effort

group effort

There were some hard lessons learned in the early days, straight off. One thing you realize is how important it is to fully plan each day’s outings, making sure you have all equipment and necessities for every task. My husband had to do the six-mile ride between our house and my son’s swimming lessons four times in one day, when he arrived sans swimsuit and towel at the first go-‘round. Ouch. We had a few other debacles that stick out, mostly during the long rainy winter, when there was someplace we had to be, with cold wet miles stretching between us and the destination, and not enough time to make alternate arrangements. I assure you, a rain-soaked skirt clinging to your thighs after getting caught in an unexpected downpour on the way to your oldest child’s choir performance is not an enviable experience.

Our learning curve has been long, not steep. I expected we’d have all this mastered by now, but we still cheerfully fail at every turn, sometimes in fantastic ways. It seems like each lesson squeaks uncomfortably through an opening cluttered with the comforts we once enjoyed. Oh, interesting, we can’t haul home four-foot-long planks of wood on the bike trailers, what now? Hmmm, can’t fit both preschoolers and that fifty-pound bag of chicken feed, I guess I’ll have to make this seven-mile bike ride again, alone next time . . .

Hilda the hen

Hilda the hen

I’ve written a lot about the ways simplifying has brought new color, beauty, and grace to our lives, but the real gift is much harder to put into words, but it is this: the year of strife has opened us to a way of living that is so much more reliant on how intertwined we are with our neighbors and friends. We had some dental and medical crises come up this year also, and because of our situation, we were open to some unconventional arrangements with our caregivers. Our dentist greets us with hugs; her staff has cared for our children for hours on end, with crayons on the floor and the kind of barefoot comfort that feels like family. The dentist hopped into her car between patients and drove me to the endodontist. Just being open with your needs can result in surprisingly-loving connections with those you’d least expect. Our letter-carrier was reluctant to deliver the foreclosure notice she worried would devastate us, and even suggested we not sign for it. The diner owner sent us on our way after a rare meal out, trusting us to return after our debit card got unexpectedly declined (turns out it was a clerical error, whew.)

Once we took the bus to the supermarket, but found out that the bus we had taken to get there was the last bus running that route, and that we’d be stranded. There was a moment of regret and frustration with what seems to be at times a constant barrage of small obstacles, but then relief and comfort when we realized there were literally a half-dozen or more people who would be able to come scoop us up in an instant, whenever needed.

Social resources, for us, have proven more valuable to our lives than financial resources. Or rather, when financial resources are less available, social resources fill in the gap in a more rewarding way, like replacing a missing table leg with a gold-painted cherub holding its arm upright. Instead of finding a lid for the jar, you get a bouquet of flowers to put in it.

apple and pear trees are "blooming most recklessly"

apple and pear trees are “blooming most recklessly”

I don’t mean to overstate the case. What with our landlord’s foreclosure crisis, the scary era when we were waiting for biopsy results, and the thefts we’ve (thankfully, rarely) endured, there have been threats to safety and security coming from every direction. But it is no exaggeration to say that this has been the watershed year of our lives, in the best possible of ways. Things and people have fallen away, but what has taken occupation in exchange has been everything we didn’t know we needed.

The other day, we built new raised beds in our unused driveway. A truck dumped the delivery of beautiful soil into a black and loamy heap on the sidewalk, and neighbors came over with shovels, advice, cold beers, and spare seedlings. We’re all planning for a big harvest trade, maybe a “family” grill-out with all the folks on our ragtag block using the zucchinis soon to come in that charmingly vulgar, over-abundant way that they do. Our chickens have been loud but prolific, and true to the roots of Easter celebrations, there are plenty of eggs for all of us right now.

yep, those are eggs from our hens--undyed!

yep, those are eggs from our hens–undyed!

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