Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Here, on the other side of fear



Probably like you, I’ve been spending the last year watching the economy implode, witnessing friends lose their jobs and even a sibling fall into foreclosure, and trying to imagine myself without a dime, without a home, without a bookmark in society.

I have imagined two scenarios: one romantic, the other dreadful.

In my mind, my family and I are walking the rails with rucksacks and a bag of anemic potatoes, and the family dog is following along reluctantly, looking for an appropriate opportunity to return to the wild without hurting our feelings. In this scenario we’re singing Dust Bowl ballads and finally feeling free for the first time.

In the other scenario, I’m planting cucumbers in spring wondering darkly if I’ll be around to pick them in August. The mortgage payments are mounting up until they finally become a mirror of untold humiliations, sufferings, and scotched plans. Out on the front lawn, we’re selling everything, even picture frames, and no one is making eye contact.

This second scenario is the one that consumed me nearly a year ago when my employer was engaged in a round of severe cost cutting. I got so worried about losing my job, I came down with shingles all around my torso. Have you had shingles? It feels like someone is attacking you with a dagger for days on end.

But the pain had an unexpected benefit. I was bedbound and forced to confront my fear and put it in a headlock until it cried “Uncle.” Six days of shingles later, I’d been purified of worries. I came out on the other side of fear.

I haven’t lost my job. I could still lose it any day. Many of us are in similar situations.

With every headline of large-scale layoffs, with every appeal letter from every favorite charity arriving in the mailbox in ever-alarming shades of yellow, we cannot help but think of worst-case scenarios and desperately wish for stability in the material world.

But here on the other side of fear, I’ve been kicking the proverbial foundation of my home to see what it’s build upon. I keep telling myself my home is not that freshly painted, 104-year-old farmhouse that I cherish, though it takes nearly every cent I earn. Rather, my home on earth is my family and the people I love. And for me that home has to be built upon a foundation of rock-solid faith, because the goal in life is to get to heaven (or even just somewhere with a slightly milder climate than Zone 5).

Here on the other side of fear, I’m thankful for the fact that if I lose my job, lose my house and am forced to sell the patio furniture, I know I will still have something to be thankful for.
 
And on the other side of fear I am addicted to conversation with survivors of the Great Depression for whom envisioning catastrophic scenarios is a badgering birthright.
 
I knock on their door on Jug End Road in South Egremont, in Berkshire County. They call me inside. Arthur and Betty Duryea and their good friend and neighbor Stanley Farnum — all in their 80s, their consciousness forged by lean times — have survival tips to share from the other side of fear. 
 
I can give you their survival tips upfront if you want. Save your money. Destroy your credit cards. If you have a patch of land, grow food on it. And remember to laugh. Those are the main ones. Then there are the ancillaries: Do everything in moderation. Help your neighbor. And eat dinner with your family.
 
But mostly they don’t preach. Mostly they share stories from those times, of shooting their own food, canning their own vegetables, and smoking corn silk from pipes fashioned from hollowed-out acorns and pieces of straw. It’s all enough to make you want to rent a U-Haul and move back to the 1930s.
 
Nostalgia, you say? I strongly disagree. First, let’s listen:
 
“My mother had a way of canning bullheads,” says Stanley. “You could take them out in the middle of winter, and it was just like fresh fish.”
 
“My mother baked five loaves of bread every day,” says Arthur. “We’d eat tomatoes and bread.”
 
“They ate so many tomatoes that Hilda broke out in a whole big rash and blisters from too much acid in her system,” says Stanley.
 
“My mother would buy 25-pound bags of flour,” says Arthur. “We’d re-use the bags to make tea towels.”
 
“You could also use them to make night gowns,” says Stanley.
 
“Those were a treasure,” Betty says.
 
“We used get out of school and run right up the hill and go skinny dipping,” says Arthur.
 
“There was a big, old quarry over there,” says Stanley. “What was it: Forty-feet deep? Old Georgie Milke rode his bicycle up there one day, and all us kids were jumping in.” 
 
Long story short: Georgie’s bike wound up at the bottom of the quarry with Georgie hanging on to the handlebars.
 
“He didn’t come up, and he didn’t come up, and he didn’t come up,” says Stanley. “Finally, a couple of big kids went down and pulled him up, and he was just about done for. He wouldn’t give up that bike. A couple kids went down with a rope and drew his bicycle back up.”
 
“That was me!” says Arthur. “I took a piece of clotheslines and went down there, and I just tied it up. Had to go down there twice because I cut my foot the first time.”
 
Nostalgia gets you nowhere. We all know that. But such talk isn't wistfulness, rather it’s the sign of life deeply lived and loved, the pearl on the bottom of a pool.
 
On the other side of fear we know we are duty-bound. We dive for it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A RESOLUTION FIRMLY PLANTED

Even if he had the time to wallow in the famously unfun first few stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression -- a New Year's resolution is a New Year's resolution.

That's one way of looking at it, anyway.

One year ago, on Jan. 15, as he was preparing to die, Fred Berretta embraced acceptance, that final and most elusive stage.