I've spent the last several years writing blog posts about the Recession. Here's how it started: We decided to sell our only vehicle in order to pay the rent. An editor friend who, at the time, was working for a website chronicling the realities of the New Economy, wanted me to write about how we were surviving without a car as a suburban family of five. He wanted me to report on our family's experience living with financial devastation. About the choices we made, and the prices we paid for those choices.
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. It's too close to carelessness, and maybe that resemblance is a bad thing. You see, outside of places like Portland and maybe New York City, not having a car -- especially when you are a 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 and we had gotten rid of, sold and downgraded everywhere we could. 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 would prove more harmful than beneficial.
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. It was cool at first -- it was novel to us, and we felt we were part of a larger social upheaval that had a lot of beauty hidden within. We've done it all: bartered, gotten backyard chickens, grown a vegetable garden. Over the last few years, 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? -- 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 pink eye 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 and have my cruiser bike decorated like a parade float. I let my children dress with hippie 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 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 -- as is my husband, and we struggled to get these jobs and are thankful for them. The chickens in the backyard 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. 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 dangerous 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 a story for another day. I'm 42 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. Apologetic.