Well, hello. It’s been quite a long time since I have seen your faces. I’m sorry about that. I wish I had more to report to you all. At this writing, J still is out of work, though he is contracting a bit, so we have been out of crisis mode and just in a holding pattern. I wanted to quickly update, and report that I was asked to give a speech at the Annual Autumn Breakfast for the Open Door Food Pantry in Gloucester, Massachusetts this morning. Since they found me though my blog here, and since so many of you will recognize portions of the speech, I thought this would be an excellent place to stick it. Better than the junk drawer in the kitchen. I also wanted to report that I spoke with the director of the food pantry just now, and I’m pleased to report that todays haul was a whopping $12.000.00, which will be matched by an anonymous donor. Thank you all for hanging in, here and on facebook.
I had a dream the other night. I was in one of these gorgeous Beacon Hill townhouses that some of us have had the good fortune of being allowed to poke around in. There was an endless number of floors, a soft neutral palate of beige and cream, lots of light flooding through huge windows of colonial-era wavy glass. It was peaceful and serene and spotless. They say that when you dream of a house, the house represents yourself. I was vaguely aware of this as I tore around the grand spiral staircase in a panic, trying to find my way out before the home owners discovered me, a stow-away. I was someplace where I did not belong, terrified and out of my element, heart pounding and unable to find the exit from a life I did not belong in.
I was born and raised in one of the lovely W suburbs west of Boston to two hardworking and over-educated parents. I went to college and grad school and became a social worker. I specialized in the treatment of psychological trauma and devoted my professional life to advocating for the underdogs. My husband is an economic consultant, and had a very well-paying job that allowed me to stay home with our daughter. We thought we were blessed with privilege, opportunity, and security.
Our son was born in January of 2010, and my husband took three weeks off to be at home with us. He had been very slow at work, but everyone else was slow too. I remember him being concerned that no one from his office contacted him to say congratulations after the birth. I brushed him off, but intuition is rarely wrong. Three days after he returned to work, they walked into his office and told him that he was being laid off. They read from a script. He was downsized. I could try to describe the crushing fear, the panic, the tentative optimism that one feels. The anger, the sense of betrayal, the feelings of worthlessness. I could try to describe it, but so many already know first-hand.
After the initial shock, we sat down to review our situation, and surprisingly it was pretty good. My husband received a reasonably good severance package. We also had at least 6 months of living expenses in an emergency savings account, unemployment insurance, and no debt. We had been doing everything we were supposed to. We had been very responsible with our money, and we lived modestly. My husband had been working 80 hour weeks for so many years that we decided he could take some time off to enjoy his brand new three week old baby and two year old daughter. In many ways, that was such a happy year for our family and we are so blessed to have had that time together. After awhile, things became increasingly scary. We never would have expected it to be so hard to find work again. A year and a half into this ordeal we had no more savings, no more unemployment benefits. What we did have was a mortgage, two cars that were no longer road-worthy, two kids growing out of their clothing, student loans gathering interest, and a looming heating bill for our almost 200 year old house.
You start to look around and see everything falling apart; doors falling of hinges, all the dinner plates are cracked, drinking out of mason jars because the glasses are broken, it gets harder to find clothes in the closet that aren’t stained and ripped. The little things keep getting bigger and pile on. There seems to be no end in sight. You wonder if you’re going to be Miss Haversham, or Norma Desmond living in your rotting castle dreaming of the past. Sometimes the pressure makes your eyes burn and when you look at your kids you panic. The future seems less bright every day that goes by, and you feel yourself giving up hope. You feel it slipping away, as you look for what an apartment costs per month. If it wasn’t for the kids, this would be easy. If it wasn’t for the birthday parties you are invited to and can’t afford to get presents for and hope no one notices. If it wasn’t for the wedding you have to go to two thousand miles away in 6 more months, 2 more months, next month. Everything becomes a countdown.
We are good people. We work hard and save money and invest in the market. We give to charity and volunteer. We bring casseroles to people when they are sick, or have a baby. We are good tippers. We have never carried debt aside from student loans and mortgage, both of which we watch closely and refinance at low rates. We overpay our bills to get ahead. Our cars both have 130K miles, and we are perfectly ok with that. We don’t have iPads. We own one TV. We haven’t taken a vacation in years. We wear hand-me-downs and clip coupons. All of the clichés about something better around the corner, and windows and doors opening and closing, just sound like cruel, horrid jokes now. We were in the 47% for the first time in our lives.
You wish you could afford to be depressed. You start fantasizing about staying in bed all day and sleeping it off, taking Benadryl so that you can just sleep and sleep until something good falls in your lap. Then, the overwhelming guilt washes through you, reminding you how horrible you are for complaining while you still have a home, and your kids still have food, and you’re here complaining about not having a reliable car when there are children in refugee camps in the Congo. Depression can be so self-indulgent. You go to bed, and have to wake up every day and put the optimistic cheerleader face on again.
This is what it looks like, in slow motion. This is the unraveling.
It doesn’t matter if you went to a good school, come from a good family. It doesn’t even matter if you’re in good financial shape with no debt and never even got swindled by a big bank. You can be sitting there with all your ducks in a row, heat turned all the way up to 68 and before you know it, one little shift in the universe will send you and the people you love most into a tailspin. You will slowly start hurtling towards earth, then faster. And faster. And you will cling to anything you can find. You will feel pinned down, your eyes pryed open, compelled to watch as the ground gets closer and closer. You will be forced every night to lay awake and think about where you can get food, money, and the security you used to just take for granted. You look at your clueless kids and white-knuckle it. You will get really good at doing math in your head on the fly. You will feel yourself being observed and discussed. You know people get uncomfortable when you talk about it, and start to avoid you.
I didnt think about Next Year, or In Ten Years. I could barely think about next week. Everything was uncertain, from retirement plans to what’s-for-dinner. I didn’t know how I was going to stay in my house, how I was going to feed us, how the hell I was going to pay for heat this winter, how I was going to pay for the Halloween costumes I just ordered two nights earlier believing that there was a job that was going to start the following week. I could no longer recognize my life. It’s a terrifying place to be for anyone, and there are a lot of us here right now.
At some point I had to scrape myself off the floor, and start to plan ahead for my family. I have always been an advocate of fresh, healthy, real food, especially for the kids. When we lost our unemployment, eating good food seemed like an impossible dream. I became further depressed by the idea of big wheels of government cheese, and big tubs of government peanut butter on the dinner table. It took a lot of courage for me to come to the Open Door for help. I was terrified about what the experience would be like, about how people would look at me, what kind of food I would get. I was scared of appearing ungrateful or greedy. I was scared of being judged for being poor, or worse- not poor enough. Obviously, none of those things happened.
I received our first pickup at the food pantry and was just so overwhelmed by the experience. Thirty-three pounds of food! We got a chicken for roasting and stock, some fresh pollock fillets, cans of tomatoes, dry beans, bags of rice, organic lentils, some fresh sourdough bread , sweet potatoes, apples, carrots, pears, beets, lettuce from local farms, milk and eggs. Amazing. Fresh, healthy food given to us with a smile, with respect, and with compassion.
That food got us though several weeks with some stretching. It was a desperately needed bandage for us at a particularly dark and needy time. One less thing to worry about, which is no small gift when you’re in a place of constant worry. It was a bit of light shining through a crack. I had been kicked around for so long and had come to expect the poor treatment, shame, judgment, and harsh words that had characterized many of our interactions during this period. The staff at Open Door made it so easy for me to do this terrible and necessary thing. They welcomed me with a smile and open arms and casual chit chat. I will never forget their kindness, because seeking that help was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. What a valuable resource for our community, particularly right now when so many families are struggling more than they ever expected to.
This past winter, my husband started working again, on a consulting contract, more or less in his field. While it was an enormous sigh of relief, and some regular dependable income, the job still pays about half of his previous salary, and provides no health insurance or benefits. He has been interviewing for permanent positions, but nothing has worked out in our favor so far. We are out of crisis mode, thankfully, but still fighting the war. Our son who was born just before his layoff is going to be three years old in January. It has been a long fezzle. We may still need help from the Open Door again at some point. I never thought that I was someone who would need to seek out help feeding my family. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. The Open Door is not just there for people who live in abject, lifelong poverty. It’s for people in transition, who might feel like they don’t recognize their life right now. Many of us wake up one day to find ourselves living in a stranger’s house, desperately seeking a way back to familiar surroundings.