The best of times, the worst of times.

December 8, 2010 § 7 Comments

The recession grinds on and on.

We are beleaguered, and no one believes we will return to the kite-high days of three years ago when our houses were appreciating wildly and getting rich was as easy as playing a game of Monopoly.

We were shocked to learn that we’d been fooled into believing in the Emperor’s new clothes.  Now that the shock has worn off we are scared and angry.  Almost ten percent of us are unemployed and the other ninety percent on edge.

I can attest that work has been scarce for self-employed writers.  Children’s book authors make much of our money visiting schools, talking about our work.  But if the money is not there to keep media specialists and music teachers on the job, it is definitely not there to bring in itinerate authors to tell stories and teach kids how to create stories of their own.

But I believe it is the stories we tell ourselves in tough times that save us.

My parents grew up during The Great Depression.  I experienced that time of privation through their stories—and it is interesting to see which stories they chose to tell.  The following two I heard from my mother.

One day there was nothing to eat in her family’s apartment but a piece of dry cheese.  My grandmother soaked it in water to soften it, then divided it between her two children, claiming that she herself was not hungry.

In the second, my mother’s father, a mechanical engineer, repaired an elevator that was in danger of plunging down the shaft.  For risking his life he was paid only two dollars, but his family ate that week.

Both acts were heroic, one quietly, the other overtly, but in neither story do my grandparents come across as victims.

My mother always described her father as proud.  Although usually considered a negative attribute, his pride was useful.  Often it was all that protected his belief in himself from overwhelming evidence that he was failing in the most basic way, that he was not providing for his family.  Pride told him he was smart and clever and honorable.  His essential self was embodied in that handful of words, his belief in them absolute.  He knew, without a doubt, that he was better than his circumstances.

My paternal grandfather cut everyone’s hours on his electrical crew, including his own, refusing to lay off anyone.  None of the families of the men under his supervision had it easy, but none went hungry.

Hard times display who we are in high relief.  No one knows for sure how they will respond.  As we cope with a change for the worse we study ourselves carefully to see how we are faring.  Like my grandfather, shielded by the words he chose to describe himself, the words we choose to label who we are and what we do matter.

As an under-employed writer money is tight. I could call myself broke, or cheap, or hard-up.  I prefer the term thrifty.  According to Webster thrifty means “Thriving by industry and frugality.”  I like that kind of thriving—it is respectable, and not the action of a victim.  My thrift includes tending a vegetable garden, reusing what others discard, baking my own bread, all activities that bring joy quite separate from the monetary savings they provide.

As for stories like the one about my father’s dad who preserved the jobs of his crew, they are quietly taking place all around us.  In this time of less, people are helping each other more.

We can call the help we give and receive charity.   Or we can call it neighborliness, or humanity.

We can call it love.

Words have the power to diminish us, or to affirm the truth that got my grandfathers out of bed each morning.  We can choose to be better than our circumstances.

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§ 7 Responses to The best of times, the worst of times.

  • In the mid 1930s my parents graduated from college, married and one year later left safe jobs-he as full time pastor of a small town church and she as a high school teacher-and enrolled in a Baptist Seminary in TX. They were following their vocation of ministry and making a leap of faith. During their years in graduate school they both studied for Master of Theology degrees and Dad had a part-time pastorate of a country church in Krum, TX which not only paid them the princely sum of $75 a month, but sent them back to school each Monday morning with home canned vegetables and fruits, baked goods, and eggs-sometimes even a ham or roast.

    Mother soon discovered that other students were not as lucky in their pastorates. By the end of each week their fellow students had nothing to eat until they got on the church field for the weekend. Mother and a friend began a tradition that stuck for the duration – they invited all of the couples in their neighborhood to a prayer gathering and lunch on Friday – each bringing whatever they had to contribute. They would share what they had and pray with each other before heading out to their various country and small town churches for the weekend. The invitations were well received and all gathered each week – some with very little to contribute, but feeling completely at ease with the prayer gathering. Mother and her friend and their husbands actually provided most of the food – courtesy of their “wealthier” pastorates. I think of all the stories I heard from my parents about those days before my brother and sister and I were born, this is my favorite. This spirit of sharing informed their lives and ours and has never left me.

    My other favorite story is the one about the baby pig a rancher in Krum gave them and some VERY hot sausage – but that I’ll leave for another post!!

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  • Judy Ransom says:

    “Hard times display who we are …” — so true. Our character is built moment by moment, decision by decision, each and every day. And when hard times hit, what we’ve built comes through, loud and clear. I think your attitude reveals good building, Adrian! May we all be as good builders.

    My father’s parents raised ten children through the Depression, on a coal miner’s salary of a few dollars a week. Grandmother made all the children’s clothes from whatever material she had. Flour sacks were good for long-wearing pants for the boys, and jumpers for the girls. The girls’ stockings were precious, and carefully mended on a regular basis, so they could always look their best at church on Sunday’s.

    Each day of the week held its chores for Grandmother — baking bread for the week, washing clothes (and running them through the ringer and hanging them to dry), ironing (an iron heated on a coal stove, after sprinkling all the clothes with water and rolling them up (no electric steam irons back then), mending, cleaning, and making new clothes.

    My father’s older brothers spent their summers getting up at 4am, hiking with food supplies and coffee till daybreak, picking blueberries all day, and carefully carrying the berries home, without crushing them. The girls would help sell the blueberries door-to-door, to raise money for the family fund.

    My father and his brothers and sisters squealed with delight on Christmas mornings, to each receive a prized, juicy orange … a rarity in those times. Sometimes they’d even get a new pair of shoes.

    And here we are now, faced with decisions on whether or not to keep the extra cable channels, or God forbid — to cut off the cable. When we look at the square-footage of living space per person in this country, compared with people in other nations, we are still rich beyond comparison.

    But we still have the jobless and the homeless in our communities. I pray we will still reach out, not only from our abundance, but also from our “necessities,” to help those who are truly in need.

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  • Judy, your description of your grandmother’s ironing routine matches my memory of my mother at the ironing board. Clothes were always sprinkled with water and then rolled tight. The Christmas oranges also matches a story my mother told about the joy of receiving a tangerine for Christmas.

    We have so much, even in our new poverty. What we have to relearn is the habit of sharing–and I see that skill coming back. Having less may just improve us.

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  • As I read your blogs, Adrian, I have the impression that you are clandestinely living my life. STOP IT! Nice blog.

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    • And as I read “Lawrence My Hometown” I wish I’d been sitting on the bench with you guys on the wall behind the bus stop. Except you wouldn’t have invited me–me being a girl and all.

      But I sure am having a good time hanging with you guys vicariously.

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  • We had a couple of tomgirls or tomboys(nice word and I think you have just supplied me with another column)who tried to hang out with us but after a certain age such a thing became difficult for most girls … but then there were some who tried harder? I’ve already wrote a short story about such a girl in my book of short stories “A Baker’s Dozen.” Her name was Jeanie. That’s the name of the story too. Take care until next time.

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