The best of times, the worst of times.
December 8, 2010 § 7 Comments
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.