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“We’re going to the State Pen,” Dad said one night as he waited for Mom to finish filling his soup bowl and buttering his bread.

“The Pen?” my brother Matt asked. “What for?”

“We’re gonna chop their alfalfa. They didn’t get enough to bale, but they need to clear the fields so it doesn’t ruin the next cutting. We’re gonna do it. I’m gonna go talk to’em tomorrow about it; there’s a lot of restrictions.”

The next night at supper he was full details. “They didn’t want to let you girls in,” he told Mom, Sally, and me. “There haven’t been any women contract workers inside for over fifteen years—only the guards. But I told’em, ‘You haven’t met my girls. They’ll be fine. They’re my crew, and if they can’t do it, I can’t either.’ The warden talked to a few people, and they finally said it was okay, but there are some rules.”

“What rules?” asked Sally nervously.

“You can’t go into any building without a guard. There’s a bathroom in the dairy barn, but if you need to use it you have to get a guard first. No talking to prisoners. They’re not going to be allowed in the fields we’re cutting. There’s to be no contact. Absolutely none. And no provocative clothing.”

I wondered if he was joking. I was frightened at the very thought of being inside the prison compound, with no walls between me and thousands of dangerous men, and what with one thing and another our wardrobes were the very definition of ‘non-provocative.’

Still, though, Sally and I made a special effort. The day we started work at the Pen we dressed for the occasion by donning long-sleeved flannel shirts, buttoning them up to our necks and around our wrists, pulling bib overalls and then coveralls on, braiding our hair tightly, and stuffing it up under John Deer “gimme” caps. It would have been funny, if it weren’t over a hundred degrees out, and our trucks un-airconditioned. We were boiling hot, but we felt safer for our camouflage.

We drove our unlikely caravan up to the massive concrete walls and stopped at the heavily barred gates. Guards with guns stared down at us. Dad got out of the pickup and walked up to the guardhouse. Uniformed men carrying what looked like machine guns came out. They walked toward the trucks. I gripped the wheel nervously. Dad stepped up on the running board.

“They’re gonna search the trucks,” he said. “The scale’s outside the walls, so you’ll have to stop each time you go weigh, pick up a guard, have him ride to the scales with you, and drop him off on the way back. They have to be sure we’re not smuggling anything in.” I opened my door, dropped to the ground, and watched as the guard poked around in the dust, alfalfa leaves, and desiccated chopped corn that had accumulated under my seat. To my mortification, his probing turned up an unexpected mummified mouse. He sneezed, buried the mouse again, and backed out, satisfied. “It’s clean. Go on in.”

I hastily shoved the mouse corpse out the door with a gloved hand, then climbed back into my truck and pulled it into gear. The massive gates swung open and we chugged through, then waited for Dad to get back into the pickup and lead us to where the prison farm foreman waited. Men were everywhere. They turned as we drove in, gaped, and called to other men who came running and gaped, too. I pulled my John Deer cap down to my eyebrows and drove by, trying not to look at all the murderers, robbers, arsonists, and rapists. And around us all, on the high towers, stood the guards, staring down at us, machine guns at the ready.

We pulled up to the farm office. The warden came out, a gun holstered at his hip. He talked to Dad, who came back and told us, “Just follow the warden to the field. The bathroom’s in there—” he gestured to the dairy barn—“but you have to come here first and get a guard. Remember that. No going in buildings alone.”

Sally and I shook our heads. No, we wouldn’t go into any buildings alone. The murderers, rapists, arsonists, and robbers circled like sharks, keeping a safe distance, mindful of the guns overhead. Our caravan pulled out of the prison yard. Matt’s truck, pulling the bagger on the trailer, turned right and chugged out of sight around the dairy barn. Sally and I followed Dad and the warden’s pickups down a dirt road. The road wound out of the farmyard and past a massive gray building on the right. A huge yard, fenced with cyclone fencing and topped with tangled razor wire, ran beside the road on the left. Guards patrolled the perimeter. Inside men in blue denim shirts and jeans lounged, played basketball, and smoked. They looked up at the sound of our engines, stared, and ran for the fence.

“How do they know?” Sally asked, tugging nervously at her cap.

“I don’t know,” I answered, and tugged at my own, resolutely not looking at the crowd of men who now stood packed along the fence. We left the prison yard behind for a row of pigsties, then we were in familiar territory—fields. A cornfield came first, followed by a fallow field, and then the alfalfa field we would be cutting.

A man in a blue denim shirt and jeans drove a tractor in the fallow field. He stopped and stared as we drove by. Sally and I drove into the field and pulled up behind Dad, resolutely ignoring the man on the tractor. We unchained the chopper and Sally climbed into the high cab, fired it up, and backed it carefully onto the ground while Dad set the jacks and unhitched the trailer.

Matt drove up in the other truck, climbed into the idling chopper, shoved the throttle ahead, and we were off. Dad and the warden chatted by the field while we filled the trucks. The convict from the neighboring field climbed off his tractor and joined them. The three men talked until Sally’s truck was full, then the warden led her back to where the bagger was set up and Mom waited.

I pulled into the field and Matt filled my truck. I followed Dad’s pickup back to the bagger. Dad stayed to help Mom empty the trucks, and Sally, Matt and I were basically on our own. When I got back from dumping my truck I interrupted Matt and the convict from the fallow field, leaning against the chopper, talking. Sally said she saw the same thing. All day, Matt and the convict talked between trucks. When Sally or I showed up the convict hot-footed it back to his tractor. By the time we pulled up he was industriously tilling his field again.

The day heated. The alfalfa had been lying in the field for far too long. It chopped into a fine powder and coated us with light green-gray dust. The trips fell into a pattern: the fields, then the pigsties, then the prison yard with the watching men crowded along the fence, then the farm yard, then a wait if the guards were transporting a prisoner from the old prison to the new maximum security building, then the bagger—if the warden hadn’t asked for the load to be weighed—and then the whole trip in reverse. A guard rode with me the first time I took a load outside the walls to the scale, jouncing along on the passenger seat, gun in hand. He waited while I weighed the truck, then we jounced back. The next time he simply waved me through. The whole thing would have been monotonous, if it weren’t for the guns, the convicts gazing enthralled at pale green women completely encased in flannel and denim, and the pickup loads full of convict farm laborers.

The pickups—tiny Datsuns packed with men—seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time careening past the field we were cutting. When we met on the road the men filling the cabs and beds of the pickups and standing on the running boards grinned maniacally and nearly fell out of the trucks with the vigor of their waving. And then there was the jogger. The jogger never waved. He simply ran, every day, long, even, single-minded strides, his dog running with him, tongue lolling.

And, back at the field, there would be Matt and the convict. We learned his name was Reg. Reg told Matt he had been framed for armed robbery. The warden said Reg was in for murder. “Reg is a nice guy,” the warden told us. “He was a Golden Gloves boxer; his hands had to be registered as lethal weapons.” Reg was in prison because of a woman. “He just can’t stay away from her,” the warden told us. “Problem is, she cheats on’im, then he gets mad and loses his temper. Last time he took a swing at some guy made him jealous, and killed’im. So now he’s here.” He shook his head at the perfidy of the woman, forcing a nice guy like Reg to kill somebody and go to prison. “If he could just make a break, get away from her, he’d be all right.”

“But he said he was in for armed robbery, that he’d gotten drunk and was asleep in the car and the guys robbed a liquor store and—” Matt started.

“Son, in here they was all framed,” the warden said gently.

Every time I pulled into the field Reg would be ambling back to his tractor. Once Matt came over and swung up on my running board and stuck his head into my cab, grinning.

“Reg has been in here too long.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked, curious.

“He said, ‘You’ve sure got some good looking sisters.”

I laughed. Sally and I, though we both cleaned up fairly well, were, if not frights in those days, certainly very, very plain. We had set out to be. Matt laughed with me. “Let’s go, ugly girl,” he teased. And away we went, still laughing.

That night at supper Sally and I were discussing the jogger. “I didn’t know they could have pets,” Sally said. “What is he, a special case?”

“Maybe he’s blind,” pondered Matt. “It’s nice that he gets to have his dog in prison with him.” Matt’s dog had been hit by a car a few years before, and he still missed him.

“But he runs. The dog follows him,” I objected. “He can’t be blind.”

“I’ll ask Reg,” Matt said. Reg had quickly become our authority on all things penal. Matt wasted no time. After my first trip he came over to my truck and said, “I found out about the jogger’s dog,” he said.

“And?” I asked.

“The jogger’s a mass murderer, in for life and then some. They let him run for exercise. The dog runs with him so they don’t have to send a guard. The dog’s been trained to kill him if he leaves the road.”

I lifted my eyes and looked up the road. The jogger ran by, strides long, even, powerful, looking neither to the right nor the left. The dog ran beside him, tongue lolling. I imagined him running, running, then leaping for the wall, hands tangling in the razor wire at the top, the dog savaging his back.

“Let’s go, ugly girl,” said Matt. We filled the truck and I started for the bagger. One of the farm pickups careened by. By this time I recognized the faces, though I had spoken to none of them. When they waved I waved back, lifting my hand nervously. At the bagger I sat in the truck, ran the chain belt unloader, and watched the convicts in the yard playing with a little black and white kitten. They had named it “Cop Car.” Cop Car looked fat and sleek. As I watched a prisoner picked him up and tickled his round little belly.

The day grew warmer. I had emptied my water jug, and now had to go to the bathroom. I held it for several trips, too embarrassed to ask a guard to take me to the restroom. I considered peeing in the field, but had no idea when or from which direction one of the convict pickups might come. Sally was in little better condition. Finally we gave up and went to the farm office together.

I knocked on the door. A guard stuck his head out. “Yeah?”

“We need to go to the bathroom,” I muttered, red-faced.

“Just a sec.” He disappeared and then emerged, carrying his rifle. “Follow me.” Sally and I slunk through the pathway of prisoners in his wake, knowing that every person in the farmyard knew exactly where we were going, and why. At the door of the barn the guard stopped. “Everybody out!” he shouted.

Men filed out of the barn and lined up in two rows. The guard went down the rows, checklist in hand. When he was satisfied everyone was indeed outside he cocked his gun and led Sally and me past the gauntlet of eyes and into the barn. At a door halfway down the dim passageway he stopped, knocked, pushed the door open, and looked inside. “It’s clear,” he said. Then he turned his back and stood, feet apart, gun cocked and ready, while Sally and I scuttled into the filthy bathroom. We looked around nervously.

“We could get AIDS,” Sally said nervously. And what are those funny lights on the floor?” I tore my eyes off  the filthy black sink and looked at the floor. Little circles of light lay everywhere. We looked up, tracking the lights to their source. The bathroom walls were full of bullet holes.

We had come too far to back out now. We raced through the process, dropping our pants, peeing from a safe distance above the seat, and foregoing washing our hands so we wouldn’t have to touch the filthy taps. I balanced on one foot and flushed the toilet with my boot. We opened the door to see the guard’s broad back. When he heard us he turned. “Finished?” he asked impassively, then led us back outside and to our trucks. Of everything I experienced at the penitentiary, going to the bathroom was the scariest.

It was easy to forget that the truckloads of men who smiled and waved at us were in many cases guilty of terrible crimes. We were farmers, working with other farmers, as we had for years. These farmers never spoke to us, but they talked to Matt, and to Mom—even though it was against the rules—and they waved. Sally and I soon thought nothing of waving back. The trips past the prison yard were the worst, though passing the new maximum security building with its narrow window slits was almost as bad. Matt told us that he had seen a face on one trip. The man had had to turn his head sideways to fit both eyes in the narrow window slit, but he had done it. He was looking out the window, watching us. After that whenever I passed the big concrete building with the neat little prison cemetery nearby I looked for faces.

I left the penitentiary a changed person. The convicts had become more than beasts in numbered denim shirts; they had become people. It was easy to forget their crimes. Even the mass murderer with his dog had lost his aura of terror—and I found that loss of fear more than a little frightening. Was I losing my natural survival instincts, or was I simply becoming more humane? I didn’t know.

We spoke of Reg often, laughing ruefully at Matt’s conviction that he had been imprisoned for too long if he could find us attractive. Early that fall Dad told us over supper that the prison had called again; we would be bagging their corn. We looked forward to going back and seeing the familiar faces grinning and waving from the racing pickups, to hearing what Reg had to tell Matt about prison life, to watching the prisoners play with Cop Car. Sally and I still dressed for the occasion in loose, concealing, aging clothing, but we only put on the John Deere caps when we drove past the prison yard.

We arrived on a crisp, cool morning. The guards saw us, opened the gate, and waved us in. We roared past and out to the field, looking for the racing pickups full of convicts. The pickups were there, but the faces had changed. Reg still chugged around the fallow field in his tractor. “That has to be the best-tilled field in the state,” Sally and I joked, but we were relieved to see him there. Maybe he could tell us what had happened.

Matt filled my truck and I made the trip to the bagger, passing Sally on the return trip, as usual, and arriving at the field to see Reg jogging for his tractor. Matt waited for me to stop, then swung up on my running board and said, “A bunch of’em got sent back inside the walls.” “The Walls” was how the convicts referred to maximum security.

“Why?” I asked.

“They were growing pot in the cornfield and the guards caught’em.”

“Really? In the prison cornfield?” I snickered.

Matt chuckled along with me. “Yeah. Sally and I found their little garden on our last pass. It was sort of sweet, really. There was a watering can, and a blue shirt. One of the guys must have been out peacefully tending his little garden when they caught him.” The image of the convict gardener tenderly caring for his pot plants, nurturing them lovingly amid the cornstalks until the guards came crashing in like Demon Kings, struck me funny. The sheer gall it would take to do such a thing in a prison farm awed me. Matt and I started across the field. Sure enough, deep in the heart of the cornfield was a little clearing, trampled corn, a little tin watering can, and a twisted blue denim shirt. We left it as a sort of memorial, though to what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps initiative. Perhaps quiet rebellion. I missed the familiar faces.

Cop Car had grown into a teenage cat, and no longer liked to have his tummy tickled. His convict owner had been released. The days passed hot, sticky, and long, even though it was fall. And then one day everything went wrong. It was hot and still. The prisoners in the medium security prison yard stood by the fence, staring and hooting at Sally and me. The chopper kept plugging. I had to go to the bathroom, but was too embarrassed to ask the guard to take me. My head and neck ached. Sweat stung the in scratches on my hands and arms. Early in the afternoon I pulled into the bagger, engaged the chain drive, and waited for the truck to unload. Dad was operating the bagger. I wondered where Mom was, but then she appeared at my door, a plastic bag full of little ice cream and orange sherbet cups in her hands.

“Here,” she said.

“I didn’t know anybody’d been to town,” I said, surprised. I took one, peeled the top back, and let the icy goodness slide down my throat.

“Nobody was. Reg stole them from the prison cafeteria for us. Here, take some more; there’s a whole bag. And take some out to Matt.”

I choked. My mother was knowingly giving me stolen ice cream. “He ripped them off? From the prison cafeteria?” The thought of Reg risking getting sent back inside the walls for ice cream cups horrified me.

“He just handed them to me and said, ‘You guys look awful hot out here.’ What was I gonna do, tell him to take’em back?” She laughed ruefully. I ate the ice cream gratefully and took several out to Matt, who reacted much as I had—first with shock, then with laughter at the sheer improbability of it.

But the laughter wasn’t the end of it. Those ice cream cups made me question myself. Would I have thought to bring ice cream to the convict farm workers, hot as it was? I doubted it. I hadn’t really seen past the number-stamped denim shirts, the guard towers, the razor wire fences, the guns, the dog trained to kill a running man. I had been thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” convicts, who slept within walls here, and free contract workers, who slept within walls half an hour away. Where was the difference? Reg’s ice cream cups said, “There is none.” They spoke of our common humanity, rather than our putative differences. “There is no “us,” they said, “there is no ‘them.’ There are only people, some kind, some terrifying, most a mixture.”

As a general rule people don’t get into the Washington State Penitentiary for parking violations. Most of the people there had done some very bad things. Reg himself was in for murder. I had always believed that it was right and proper that dangerous people be locked away from the rest of us. But then I thought of the ice cream cups, and I realized it wasn’t quite that simple anymore. I could no longer simply write off men behind bars as “them.” Instead, it had become “we,” hungry, thirsty, hot people, who felt better for the kindness of a little stolen ice cream. “Us” and “them” had become moving points, defining the person using them more than the people defined.

I would have liked to have thanked Reg, but the rules were there, and there for a reason. “Tell him thank you,” I told Matt.

“Will do,” he said. “Let’s go, Ugly Girl.” Then he swung up into his cab, still licking ice cream off his little wooden spoon, shoved the header into gear, grinned, licked his ice cream again, and we roared across the field and past the forlorn garden. The mass murder and his dog jogged by. Reg puttered around in his fallow field. Everything looked the same—and utterly different.

 

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In light of the jobs report, let me offer not a solution, but a new way of looking at the problem: The story of Harriet and Betsy. I’ve posted this before, but it’s been a while. Enjoy the story–and consider a trip to the junkyard!

The last few years have been hard on all of us. When things started going south financially I started thinking about this book, and how much it helped me in the times when my life broke down. And so I’m posting it. For those who want a beautiful, designed copy, it’s available for sale on Amazon in both  childrens’ and  adult, annotated versions (that’s what I’m posting here). But I suspect that the people I’m really posting this for are the people who don’t have money to spend on books right now. So this is my gift, to all of us. Enjoy it. Pass it on. If you’d include my name somewhere I’d appreciate it, but I’m not going to send the book cops after you if you don’t. So here’s to our dreams, and to getting our lives hammered into something better soon.

Building Something Better

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Meet Harriet. She’s from a farm in Oregon. Meet Betsy. She’s from a factory in Detroit. The years have been hard on Betsy. When I first met Harriet and Betsy I had a good job with great benefits. My bills were paid. I lived in a pretty apartment. I wore elegant clothes. I dated a man I hoped to marry. And one night every week I drove from Los Angeles to Claremont, sat in an icy cold office, and tried to figure out why I wanted to die. Drawing gave me peace, so in the evenings I sat in my pretty apartment with the cool breeze lifting the curtains and the lamps lit, and I wrote about Harriet, Betsy, Bud, and Rex, the junk yard dog. somethingbetterbodyadults-5

Harriet writes to the factory. I didn’t mean anything by it—I just wanted to be happy for a little while, and drawing Betsy helped. I’m a farm kid and a summa cum laude graduate of the “beat it to fit and paint it to match” school of mechanical design, so I made my story about that. It wasn’t great literature, but it beat the heck out of standing in my pretty peach and green bathroom wondering why my eyes looked so old and tired, and why I lived trapped behind them. I sent Betsy off to a publisher and got back a very nice rejection letter. I stuck Betsy into the closet and forgot about her. Then my life broke, and I learned what every person in the worlds knows: a broken life is a kind of death. In my case, a chance revelation destroyed family relationships I had thought would last forever.

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The factory writes back (sort of). My world changed in an instant. Rather than answer the hard questions my father said I had a “weak grip on reality,” and told his class at  church that “the girls are mad and making outrageous accusations because they think we made them work too hard.” My brother said, “I can’t have a relationship with anyone who believes something like that about my dad.” Never mind that the information had come from Dad himself. A sister said, “She didn’t have it any worse than the rest of us. She’s just trying to get attention.” The first part of that was right—I doubt if I did have it worse than anyone else, but that was no comfort. somethingbetterbodyadults-9

The junk yard has lots of parts. “Yup,” says Bud the junk man. “We can make’er look like new.” Harriet thinks.” I don’t want her to look like new,” she says at last. “I want her to look better.” She chooses some other parts. My parents had taught me that no one outside of the family was to be trusted. And now my family was stripped away. I lived second to second. “Now I’ll open my eyes. Now I’ll roll on my side. Now I’ll swing my feet to the floor. Now I’ll sit up. Now I’ll stand. Now I’ll take a step. Now I’ll take another. Now I’ll take another…” I forgot my grandfather’s face. But somehow, I kept taking those steps, one by one. I survived. I rebuilt, and one day I looked up and realized that the sun shone warm on my hair. It had been a very long time. Betsy and I hit the road again, a little less boldly than before. somethingbetterbodyadults-111

Then she makes them fit. We hit the road, but before long Betsy’s engine developed a new knock. My supervisor at work left and was replaced with a screamer. I discovered that the person I hoped to marry didn’t want to marry me. Then I discovered that I was pregnant. In the end, I found myself alone with a newborn baby. Trying to be a mother, manage a career, and keep up a house on my own was hard, but I worked with the life I had built because I was too tired and too scared to change it—and because it still sort of worked. It was only a matter of time, of course, before Betsy died again, flogged to death on the freeway. I had no car, no job, and enough money in the bank to pay the rent, which was due, or the bills, which were also due, or fix Betsy. I looked at my sleeping child that bleak afternoon and felt shame. He deserved better. He deserved security. He deserved a tranquil mother. He deserved not to be stranded on the damned freeway at rush hour. I finally admitted that Betsy was really, really broken. somethingbetterbodyadults-13

Harriet paints Betsy. I swallowed my pride, picked up the phone, and did the thing I had sworn I would never do. I called my family—my angry, dangerous family—and asked for help. I went to the junk yard for my son. It was full of things discarded because they hurt too much to keep, because they didn’t work anymore, because someone else decided they were worthless, because I just couldn’t get them to fit into the life I built—the one, incidentally, that was lying on the floor in pieces around me at that very moment. I had thrown most of that stuff away for good reason. And now I was back, poking around in the broken things, the outgrown things, the rusty things. Sharp edges, broken glass, blood on seats. I didn’t want to be there, but my old life was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. I needed to build a new one, and all I had to work with were things I had discarded in the junk yard of my past. My junk yard was terrifying. It demanded a strong heart, and stronger stomach. I didn’t see its infinite possibility for a long time. somethingbetterbodyadults-15

Then she cleans up. What I saw was failure. I lay awake at night with my stomach in knots, knowing that if I’d just tried a little harder, been a little smarter, lived a little more frugally, taken better care of myself, been more practical, more—oh all right—been somebody else—I’d have been fine. I wouldn’t have had to ask my family for help. The shame was deep, and corroding. Would you have the nerve to pursue your dreams if it meant losing your house, your job, your pride, your spouse, and your security? No one except William Blake, who opted to Starve for his Art, chooses a broken life. I didn’t. But when my life was spread all over the garage in jagged, greasy rusty pieces it finally occurred to me that I could afford to dream. After all, things couldn’t get much worse. At last I realized that a broken down life is more than a disaster—it is also a priceless opportunity. somethingbetterbodyadults-17

She takes Betsy’s picture and sends it to the factory. I went to the junk yard for my son. The wrecks in my junk yard made my bones hurt just to look at them. Picking through my past wasn’t fun. I acquired new cuts and bruises. I wouldn’t have chosen my junk yard, but it was what I had—and in the end, it was enough. I took my love of drawing (“You’ll never make a living at art”) my love of writing (“What will you do with it?”) and my commitment to raising my son (“You don’t have a choice—you have to put him into day care”) and I  got Betsy rolling again, this time with a baby seat buckled in the back. It wasn’t easy. I scraped. I scrimped. I got  scared in the middle of the night. I was still beating the heck out of some of the pieces. But I was getting closer. somethingbetterbodyadults-16

The factory writes back. I started working on frills—buying a home rather than renting a house, getting health insurance. We started shopping for a puppy, and saving for Disneyland. And then the bottom dropped out of the economy, and several of my long-standing clients went very, very quiet. Several others said they were “scaling back.” That knock is back in Betsy’s engine. Times are hard, and getting harder. The other day I put my head down on my computer keyboard and cried. Betsy is falling apart around me again, just when I thought I had her all put together, painted, and running like a dream. I hate it. But I have been here before. I have the courage to tinker, even tear her down to the tires and head back to the junk yard if I need to, and in the end, she will not be “like new,” but better. somethingbetterbodyadults-21

Harriet reads Betsy the letter. Then she puts on her new hat and some dangly earrings, and takes Betsy out for premium gas and hot dogs. And now, before you close the book on Harriet and Betsy, do me a favor—take a minute and look at the illustrations of Harriet—not Betsy— in order.  See? Harriet fixes Betsy up, true—but in the process she changes herself into somebody brave, somebody clever, somebody creative, somebody handy, somebody better. That’s the gift of a broken life. My life is breaking, but I have been here before. Rebuilding my life in dark, terrible, times changed—and changes—me. Rebuilding your life in dark times will change you. It won’t be easy, but one day you will look around and realize you’re simply not the same person you were. You will be different. You can be better. Don’t leave the discarded bits of your life lying around cluttering up your house and garage—take them to the junk yard. But keep track of them—you may need them later. It’s funny what we know without knowing it—when I first wrote about Betsy and Harriet I intended nothing more  than a children’s story. I didn’t  mean for them to turn into a metaphor, let alone one that held the secret to not only surviving hard times, but embracing them for the opportunities they offer. I didn’t mean for it to happen—but  that   doesn’t make Betsy and Harriet’s truth any less valid. My life broke, over and over. Each time, I thought I would die. And facing that failure has set me free. Each time, I have rebuilt better, stronger, happier. And now my life is breaking again. But I have been here before. This is my opportunity to dream. If you life is breaking, too, remember Harriet. Go see Bud. Be careful around the rusty metal. Pat Rex. Watch out for his teeth. Get out your blowtorch and the paint. And when you’ve got Betsy up and running again—and you will—put on a new hat and maybe some dangly earrings. Then go out for premium gas and hot dogs.

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HuffingtonPost has an article up today about a disturbing trend among unemployed college graduates with high student loans. They’re killing themselves. HuffPost blogger C. Cryn Johannsen writes:

I first started appreciating the depth of the problem of suicidal debtors a few years ago, with a post on my blog, All Education Matters, entitled, “Suicide Among Student Debtors: Who’s Thought About It?” I was stunned by the responses. In comment after comment, people confessed to feeling suicidal.

Some of the people who write to me are quite specific about how they plan to kill themselves. One person said, “I think about jumping from the 27th floor window of my office every day.” For suicide prevention experts, this is a dangerous sign, as it means that the person has actually devised a plan to carry out the act. In recent months, the notes have increased, and if anything they are even more desperate. One individual admitted that he thought about killing himself all the time. Another even claimed — which was beyond disturbing — that prior to writing his comment, he had been sitting in his car, with the garage door shut.

Johanssen points out that law school students are some of the most frequent responders to her blog; many have amassed crushing debt, haven’t been able to find a job, and are faced with default.

The Dave Nee Foundation’s website notes that the legal profession is already plagued with high depression and suicide rates. In the wake of law school student Dave Nee’s suicide, the Foundation formed and developed a program, Uncommon Counsel, that  they present to law school students highlighting the problem of depression in the legal industry. The ABAJournal notes:

The statistics on law student depression merit concern. Law professor Larry Krieger of Florida State University studies how the law school experience affects students’ mental health. He has reported that between 20 and 40 percent of law students suffer from clinical depression by the time they graduate; that the incidence of clinically elevated anxiety, hostility and depression among students is eight to 15 times that of the general population; and that, out of 104 occupational groups, lawyers rank the highest in depression and fifth in incidence of suicide.Complicating this is the fact that student loans are some of the few debts that cannot be mitigated by bankruptcy. Johanssen writes that, though there has been no formal study of the problem, there have been studies linking unemployment to increased suicide rates, and anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide is something that increasing numbers of debt-ridden college grads are considering.

The economic downturn has only exacerbated the problem. For a profession already plagued by suicide rates, the fact that large numbers of law school graduates are now facing  under-or unemployment.

Last year, The Boy came home with an assignment–we were supposed to sit down and develop a plan to get him through college. It was enlightening, to say the least. Like everybody else, we will be facing the issue of steep educational fees and limited income.

That assignment was enlightening. We’ve managed to develop a plan that should, with dedication, see us through. Mostly, it highlighted the fact that if we are to get him through college without a crushing debt load, we are going to have to change the way that we think about college. For what it’s worth, here’s what it looks like we’ll need to do to get him educated.

1. Stop compartmentalizing. The old system, where one went to high school, then college, then found a job, then married, simply isn’t going to work for us. For college to happen, we will have to stop thinking of it as a stand-alone activity, and see it as something that takes place in conjunction with other things. Things like what?

High school. Our part of Oregon offers high school students the option of attending college for free or for sharply discounted rates. Easter Oregon University runs a summer program that allows high school students to stay in the dorm, attend college, and earn credits for sharply discounted rates. Our school district offers high school students the option of attending Blue Mountain Community College and earning college credits for free through the Expanded Options program. One of the students in my writing class graduated from high school–and from BMCC with her AA degree–this spring. Taking advantage of programs like this can dramatically reduce the cost of college.

Working at a trade. Students have long defrayed the cost of college by holding down jobs, but the jobs students can typically work around their schedules tend to pay very little, and offer little in the way of security or incentives. As part of our college plan, we’ve decided that The Boy is going to be learning a specified trade–typesetting and presentation development springs to mind–that he can pursue while he goes to college. He needs a job that will pay enough to cover college and living expenses, and flipping burgers just won’t do that.

Living his life. We can’t think of college as something he does in preparation for life, but as something he does while he lives his life. Working and going to college takes a long time. If we don’t have a plan that keeps our life livable while eliminating the need for student loans, those years are going to be very long indeed. The old formula of high school-college-job-marriage simply doesn’t apply. Maybe he’ll need to stay at home longer. Maybe we’ll have to build a small second house on the lot. Maybe he and his partner, if any, will have to work and live and go to college. Life is long. Whoever said that college had to be over by thirty? Or fifty? We’re going to have to be flexible.

There are other, incidental things that we’ll try to exploit where we can–things like employee discounts, since I teach at a college, and alumni opportunities at the college and grad school where I got my degrees–but the bottom line is that our reality has dictated a change in how we approach higher education.

In retrospect, 2008 was the end of the world as we knew it. Our financial and political systems are collapsing under the twin weights of greed and ideology. Thriving in this new world is requiring that we rethink everything. We are being forced to revisit issues that we thought we had put behind us–things like women’s rights and racism are being re-examined and challenged in sometimes-frightening ways. The idea of job security has become a joke. Our world is breaking.

So what’s the bottom line? Darwin had it right–the organisms that can adapt and evolve to meet and succeed in a changing environment are the organisms that survive. If we are being challenged, we are also being offered opportunities to evolve. If these are frightening times, they are also exciting times. With a little creativity, a lot of elbow grease, patience, and open-mindedness we can meet the challenge.

But in the meantime, pay attention. Keep track of the students and unemployed graduates with big student loans. Understand that they’re a vulnerable group. If you love them, keep them safe. And let’s find a way to help solve the problem for all of us.

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Illustration from Patrick Saves the Troll, available on Amazon

The year is 2002. The Boy is just four, and we are at Grandma’s house. It is early summer, evening. The Boy is preparing for bed in my old room. The windows are open and the cool blue evening breeze is blowing the curtains. The first stars stud the sky, even as the last of the day turns the horizon to pearl. Bathed and pajamaed, his hair still damp, The Boy climbs up onto the bed.

My mother tucks him in, and then she asks, “Would you like to talk to Jesus?”

And here is where things get a little sticky. Prayer does not figure large in our home, largely because I am a witch. I am raising my son using one rule–the Hippocratic Oath, a simplified version of the Wiccan Rede (If it harms none, let it be). When we feel the need for guidance we meditate, then pull out the runestones, the Tarot cards, or the scrying bowl. When we need help we invoke the appropriate image of deity and cast a spell.

So there is my son, being invited to converse with a stranger. My heart sinks. I flash back to my own childhood, when my mother was teaching me how to pray. There was a certain language (King James English), a certain set of topics in which Jesus was interested (missionaries and colporters, the Vast Harvest Field, starving people everywhere, any sins I had committed, Grandma and Grandpa’s salvation…you get the idea), and a certain posture (Kneeling Up, or standing on one’s knees, hands folded with fingers laced, head bowed, eyes closed).

“Sure,” says The Boy. He is nothing if not game. And it’s not like the concept of prayer is completely foreign to him. After all, we do come from a Christian family. He has seen the process many times. He’s seen the posture. He understands that people pray and ask God for the things they want or need. He’s just never done it.

With the confidence of someone who has no clue what he is doing, he scrambles to his knees on the bed, turns to face the window, folds his hands, closes his eyes, and says, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” (We might not know about prayer, but he’s solid on his nursery rhymes.) And then, heaving a sigh of satisfaction at a job well done, he scrambles back around, lays down, and holds up his arms for his “good night” kiss.

Grandma and I oblige. We do not look at each other. We never talk about it. I know she is horrified and saddened that my son does not know how to pray. Though I have made no real secret of my new spiritual path, neither have I actually forced the information onto my family. I have allowed them to simply see me not as a practicing witch, but as a “Backslider,” the Adventist term for members who have, in the parlance, “wandered away from the fold,” “forsaken the narrow way which is rocky and hard” for the “broad, easy way that leads to damnation,” and are “drifting.” At the time I stopped being one, the Adventist view was that while members might “backslide,” they never adopted another active spiritual path, that somehow the very rightness of Adventism had forever spoiled them for other things.

I can’t tell my mother that while The Boy might not know how to seek answers and help on his knees, he’s very good at finding his answers in Tarot cards and runes. So we just walk out of that bedroom in silence. And we never, ever, talk about the fact that my son doesn’t understand about prayer.

We don’t talk about it, but I have thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot. And  I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong. I think of myself, finding a quiet place in my heart (my mom kneeling), focusing my will through the use of ritual acts and words (folding her hands, closing her eyes), reaching out to Something or Someone Beyond(“Dear Jesus…” “Star light, star bright…”) grasping hold of the promise of present abundance (“we ask these things in Jesus’ name… I wish I may, I wish I might…”). I think of temples full of rats, of shrines to ancestors, of saints’ faces painted gold. I think of this beautiful, bountiful, troubled planet, all of us on it, heads bowed, holding our hands out to Something Beyond, seeking connection, and our words arise like incense, carrying our hopes, wishes and dreams, weaving a web of hope, of contrition, gratitude, and I wonder if somewhere, in a place so far beyond us and our small ideas of religion and gods as to be unimaginable, and as close to us as the children we hold to our hearts, our prayers don’t meet and become one.

So mote it be.

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