"Now Mom, I'm going to have you sit on the floor in front of the hearth. Sisters, can you sit on either side of your mom? Put your hand on her shoulder, there . . . that's it. Dad, can you hold Brother in your lap? Okay, hold that smile, perfect!" Five matching white shirts in a row, before an artificial fire.
That was a small moment, an attempt to mimic relaxation and family togetherness for the sake of a Christmas card. Now, five years hence, I'm fearful that we may be becoming too relaxed, this time in front of our wall heater on shabby carpet, no professional photos for the last several years, and wondering: is this recession making us soft?
The one unforgivable crime in my family culture when I was growing up was laziness. When I was an adolescent, struck with exhaustion from newly-active hormones and lengthening limbs and longing to sleep late on the weekends, I was routinely strongly encouraged to get out of bed at eight to go mow the lawn or otherwise be of service. My ancestors' work ethic gained near-mythological status in our family's oral history. Solid Midwesterners and Southern Protestants, of vague northern European background, stalwart and duty-bound. My grandparents were of that generation that could do no wrong, who suffered through the Great Depression as children and World War II as young adults, and handled both with noble aplomb.
My husband and I used to spend a lot of time preparing for the Christmas toy-buying season. It’s one of the opportunities of sanctioned shopping, and no one looks askance as you whip out your credit card time after time. No one wants to see the children get shortchanged, right? Writing long lists to Santa is a treasured childhood ritual. Missing any of the components—all the way down to the bulging stockings hanging from the mantle—is just downright unsporting. I don't know how we determined the gift-quantity-to-child ratio, but it was generous. We would get fat catalogs stuffed in our mailbox every day, and it was no wonder, as we were probably on every marketer’s mailing list as affluent, profligate spenders. We weren’t really living beyond our means, as we had a year’s worth of savings when we lost everything. And before the holiday season arrived, we made sure to go through the toys in the playroom with each child and fill big garbage bags with donations.
But this year marked our third Christmas season of living below the poverty line. Each child gets one carefully-chosen "big" present, and my husband and I put things on layaway in order to afford them. I know that it is easily morally defensible to live in this more austere fashion. This year, though, I've been having an inner struggle, trying to reconcile the choices I've made with the values I was raised with. I know for a fact that most of my (estranged) family would respect me more if I were taking a bus to an overnight fast-food job an hour away for example, rather than do what I am doing, writing and working here-and-there when something comes up, while my husband suffers underemployment at a punch-the-clock low-paying job. Honestly, I don't know what I'm doing or how and when it's going to change. The first couple years of the recession left us struck dumb, all of us holding the bag and wondering what would come next. Our family made some dramatic decisions that allowed us to cling to the edge of the survival cliff, but it's not cute anymore. We downgraded our lives, moved out of our tame and tidy suburban comfort, sold our only car, and learned to live without some of the more obvious luxuries. At the time, and for a while after, people respected our choices. Now, though, I see that inertia creeping in, and I wonder if we are conditioning ourselves to less effort, and using the extended economic downturn as an excuse.
Could I be doing more to provide for my children? Is it time to get back on the fast-moving train of ambition? I can't even remember how to do that, and I don't know if my bicycle will take me there.
Today we rode our bikes in the winter cold, eleven miles round trip, to enjoy a special and rare meal out at a favorite restaurant. We don't make things too easy for ourselves, and the self-immolator in me likes that. I don't want to wander down the garden path unless there's some discreet auto-flagellation happening as well; it's how I was raised. Our resources are drawing thin, though, and it's happening everywhere. People are losing their extended unemployment, relatives and friends can't be supportive forever, and the bottom of the barrel we've been scraping is really and truly turning up empty.
I can't feel unhappy about my life. There is the joyous jangle of the sort of freedom that "fuck-it" buys you, and the color and clatter of our chaotic existence now gives me more pleasure than my corporate affluence ever did. It has to be an evolutionary imperative, doesn't it, that we let some of the stress recede when it's been suffered in perpetuity? My Scandinavian and Scottish ancestors populated Oklahoma Territory, and my Cherokee relatives endured the Trail of Tears and joined with them, relocated against their will to an inhospitable annexation. That land, that time, and the people that embraced these challenges mark each snarl of sinew and synapse of myself, and I struggle with my stasis now.
I don't know how we're going to keep paying the rent, and we're going to have to make some more tough decisions in 2012. The crisis has reached a secondary level, and for everyone I know it's the "new normal" now. For me, I just need to concentrate on the map inscribed at a cellular level and dig up the strength and capability to lift my family up and carry us through this.