Well, it’s officially here — The recession that everyone has been predicting and wringing their hands over. I don’t know anyone, literally, anyone, who has not been affected. People in every walk of life, at every rung of the socioeconomic ladder, of every political stripe — all of us are feeling the pinch. Some, more than others, but we are all in this boat together, and the boat has sprung a leak.
It reminds me so much of the tales my mom used to tell from “the olden days”. Mom was born in 1927, so she remembers the Great Depression very well. My grandfather lost everything when the markets collapsed. He had leveraged loans which he used to buy several real estate properties with a partner. When the market crashed, the loans were called in. Of course, Grandpa had no way to pay them back. He lost the properties and all the income that he would have been earning from them. He developed a severe infection from a decayed tooth, had what was then called “a nervous breakdown”, and he never recovered, mentally or physically. My grandmother supported the family taking in washing, working part-time as a saleswoman, doing whatever it took to keep her family together. My father’s father, a roofer by trade, with a wife and eleven children to feed, woke up while it was still dark every morning to get in a few hours of selling apples or pencils (I can’t remember which it was) on the street corner before beginning his work day doing construction. (I suppose there wasn’t much construction going on at that time).
When Art and I talked to Mom last year about the economy and Art cited the dire predictions she listened attentively and answered thoughtfully in a very subdued voice, “People are going to be jumping out windows”. It gave me the chills. And as it happens, I just heard a story of someone who had been laid off of his job who did, in fact, commit suicide. I didn’t ask how. It doesn’t matter. It was dreadful, and for once, I wished Mom’s prediction had been a case of her being a drama queen.
But I also remember from Mom’s Tales of the Depression childhood that there was a general atmosphere of can-do spirit. She described people as being generous and caring to the less fortunate. In spite of her own economic woes, my grandmother always kept her door open for passing strangers in need of food or momentary shelter. This was in no way uncommon. People did not worry so much about being victimized by the homeless or the desperate, although there were plenty of homeless and desperate people everywhere you looked. There was a spirit of cooperation. People pooled their resources. Neighbors looked out for neighbors. Children found ways to play that cost little or no money. They made go-carts out of orange crates. They literally made lemonade out of lemons (and sold it for a penny). Mom remembered playing stickball in the street. She remembered kids finding secret caves where they would light a small bonfire and roast potatoes. She said they were the best potatoes she had ever tasted. Shoes were mended and resoled until they fell off your feet. Clothing was handed down from the oldest child to the youngest. Everyone cooked from scratch because it was the cheapest way to eat — and coincidentally, the best way to eat. My grandmother was a first-rate cook and baker, and she could do it all on a shoestring.
I am not saying that I wish we would actually experience a Great Depression of our own. I pray that we do not. But in the I-Ching there is a symbol that signifies crisis and opportunity, each being opposite signs of the same coin. The economic chaos right now is certainly a crisis, but we can choose, if we wish, to also see it as an opportunity to explore the edges of our ability to cope and to re-examine our values and our humanity toward one another.
The holidays are upon us. It’s going to be a rough time for so many. Maybe this is the right moment to quote Tiny Tim in Dickens’ Christmas Carole: “God bless us, everyone!”.