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Corbyn Hightower

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Life After My Family Lost Everything

Posted: 08/29/2012 5:59 am

Popular wisdom teaches us that making changes slowly and deliberately is the only way the new ways will stick. You can do a month-long liquid diet and lose an easy thirty pounds, but without achingly steady, determined steps over a long time, new patterns won't gain a necessary foothold. These hard economic times haven't been a flash or a blip -- something we'd suffer and move through like a quick removal of a bandage -- instead, it's been a gradual insistent grind, with no real end in sight.

This recession has changed us. It's radicalized and marginalized my family and my friends. The Big Picture -- on a national, political scale -- is surely too complex for me to understand. I actually understand a lot less about everything now, anyway. One thing I thought I knew: if you go to a good college and you are good at your job, if you're smart and ambitious and valuable to your employers, then you will build success upon success. You will be a productive participant in the chug-chug of the economic train as it speeds reliably down the track of capitalist democracy. You'll raise kids who will reap the benefits of that work, and you will know peace because you are doing the morally defensible thing by working hard and providing for your family.

My comfy position in outside sales was eliminated within weeks of Wall Street's 2008 crash. My family's economic downfall was set in motion then and, though we didn't know it at the time, the course of events was as sure as a pinball sliding into its ready position. Things would never be the same for us. In spite of Herculean effort over the course of the next few years, we were unable to regain the sort of salaried, ambition-driven positions we'd previously enjoyed. It wouldn't get better, not for our family or almost anyone we knew.

We didn't see that at first. At the beginning -- as friends and family became unemployed or underemployed, as people close to us lost their retirement income, their investments, or their homes -- back then we were desperate to get back to the old ways. As I sold the family car, and weathered a cancer scare without the health insurance that full-time employment brought me, and when the rental we lived in started veering headlong into foreclosure procedures, during all that I was tearfully desperate to get back, for myself and my family.

Slowly though, what seemed unfathomable, and then temporary, became permanent. We'd had a nest egg, as did a lot of people I know. But all around us, nest eggs broke open and a whole new culture emerged: we came out of it a bunch of chicken-farming, bike-riding, car-sharing, bartering, freelance DIY-types who are communally raising our under-scheduled kids. As for me, I shed my own corporate drag and morphed into the joyful, creative writer my career path had stifled. I had been a busy, well-paid sales executive, high heels clicking purposefully through airport terminals, rushing to make the flight for yet another business trip. I feel like, in the last few years, I've become sort of a recession-borne, moon-dwelling fairy cosmonaut, wearing spangled cloaks and silver superhero boots. One thing's for sure: I'm here for my kids, I'm doing good things, and I'm participating in my community. There are no conference rooms, no fancy hotels, no quarterly sales reports or industry expos where we'd "network" during "meet-and-greets." But in exchange, there's been a whole lot more berry-picking, patching holes on torn clothing, and making-do.

There was no one moment when I stopped waiting to return to what I'd had and started accepting what I have. But somewhere in the deepest part of the struggle, we did manage to band together with our neighbors to create a community of mutual support. We came out of our houses and blinked in the glare, and we found each other. And it's not just my local tribe where we're circling the wagons -- in the world of geographically-distant online friendships, we've become job- and resource-miners for each other. I'm as familiar with my friends' resumes as I am with my own. We cheer each other's successes and come through for each other when funds need to be raised.

Back at the beginning, when we started to lose our security and our creature comforts, I had this panicked sensation of grabbing what we'd had and holding on. If we could just make it through this rough spot, I thought to myself, it'll be over soon. We have savings. We'll survive. We'll get new jobs. Things will improve soon. The children will never even know of the struggles.

Instead, we've settled with varying measures of resignation and peace into this spangled, even joyous, junkyard. We live surrounded by breaks and fissures, yes. But now grass and vines have started to grow in the cracks.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

 
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