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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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I was born in a fundamentalist family, in a fundamentalist church. One of our favorite pastimes was Spotting End Time Events. The thing about end time events is that they can crop up just about anywhere. Looking back, I smile a little to think about how very het up we got over some particular piece of legislation, or war, or social trend. Our concern was less about what such things might be doing to the world, but how they might be heralded as harbingers of The Close of Probation, the Time of Trouble, and Jesus’ Second Coming. I remember my dad sitting in his chair one Sabbath morning mulling over an article in one of his religious magazines. The article apparently gave the number of Seventh-day Adventists, and the rate of church growth. He applied some Bible-based mathmatical calculations to that, and came to the breakfast table to inform us that, based on his calculations, a designated percentage of Adventists (I think it was one in ten or something) would equal 144,000 by a certain date.

He hurried to remind us that he wasn’t setting a time for the Second Coming, because the Bible said we weren’t supposed to do that. He was, in Rachel Maddow’s words, “just sayin’.” I don’t know about my brother and sisters, but I ate my Team Flakes that morning in nervous silence.

The date Dad had calculated has come and gone, and we have moved past a series of “end of the world” markers since then–I had a neighbor man who tracked them for me. Occasionally I watered his garden for him while he and his wife headed for the hills. He let us eat their tomatoes in their absence, so I got to kind of look forward to the “end of the world” alerts.

At the last political election my mom told me that we were moving into “end time events,” because a man running for the Oregon House of Representatives had proposed some piece of legislation. I believe it had to do with bike paths.

Looking back on our Millenium Alerts, I feel a sort of fondness for them, largely because I, too, have been looking at the world lately and if I’m not quite ready to announce that End Time Events are approaching, I must admit that increasingly I’m wondering how we are going to find our way back from some of the places we are going. The world economy is imploding. Natural resources are being exhausted. The ice caps are melting. Politics are become ever more polarized and extreme. None of these things are particularly new. Nor is the fact that those who should know better prefer to simply pretend that we can continue as we have been indefinitely. It means that measures that could be taken to halt or slow the devastation waiting for us don’t get taken, and we go careening on to who knows where.

But what if Jesus doesn’t swoop down and save us all from ourselves? We’ll have to figure out a way to survive in the mess we’ve made. How will we do that?

Short side trip here–bear with me; it’s relevant. When I was pregnant the lady who ran my childbirth class talked to us about the changes late pregnancy brings. For those who haven’t experienced it, ladies in late pregnancy pee. A lot. Night and day, we pee. Sleeping all night becomes an almost mythical attainment. The lady explained that though there are biological reasons for that (the baby’s sitting on one’s bladder, for one thing), those nights are valuable training for motherhood. “Those nights teach you how to wake up…and how to go back to sleep,” she told us. “That’s a survival skill for new mothers. You have to get up with the baby a lot. Can you imagine if you couldn’t go back to sleep afterward?”

The process of pregnancy is actually one long adaptation to keeping going under adverse conditions. It’s a lesson in adaptability. And maybe that’s the key here. I mentioned the economy several paragraphs ago. Things got very ugly here for a while. I ended up going to places financially I never, ever, expected to go. It was hard. And the hard lesson in those days was that if I was to survive, I would have to change. Throughout history, the organisms that survive are those that adapt.

The world is changing. I have no doubt it’ll get worse before it gets better. I think that in ten years I’ll look around and not recognize my life. And that’s okay, because if the world is changing those of us who weather the transitions the best will not be the richest, or the poorest, but those who are best at finding creative ways of moving into the new world–those who can adapt.

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This weekend my son’s school had a dance. I learned about it at 3pm yesterday. The dance was scheduled for 6:30. Here’s how it happened. One of Patrick’s friends was scheduled to come over for as much of the weekend as we all enjoyed. As the boys got into the car David (we’ll call him David, since that’s not his real name) said he wanted to go to the dance, and Patrick wanted to go with him.

Patrick doesn’t care for dances. I’m not quite sure exactly why. Still, there it is. I knew he was being polite in agreeing to go with David, and I’m all for him stretching his comfort zone, so I said fine, the dance it will be. We swung by the grocery store and bought healthy goodies (both boys are in wrestling, and training for the Regionals, and hopefully State), and started for Step Ahead. The boys stayed an hour, then I picked them up and headed for home.

The plan was to go to Ron’s, a local diner, for dinner. “Want to go now, or on the way to the dance?” I asked.

“Let’s go now,” said Patrick. “That way we won’t spill on our good clothes.”

“Good thinking,” said David.

So to Ron’s we went. Ron’s is small, has battered wooden booths and tables, and makes the most amazing hamburgers and beer batter fries I’ve had since Charburger stopped worrying about whether their buns were stale.

We talked. It turned out both Patrick and David are in art class. It also turned out that David likes to write; he’s planning a series of seven novels. All have been titled. He has the first 34 pages of the first one written. We talked about how he might turn that into a book, and how I might help him do that.

At home, the boys got dressed for the dance, decided they’d like to be fashionably late, and sat down to play video games. When the hour was fashionable enough to suit them I drove them to the school, dropped them off, reminded them to stay inside, confirmed the time I should pick them up, and drove back home to put my feet up.

After the dance I picked them up. Patrick was saying, “I hate dances.” David was full of how much he’d enjoyed it, and how he’d even persuaded Patrick to dance a bit. I listened, and didn’t say much. Dances were forbidden for religious reasons when I was in school; listening to the boys talk about something I had never experienced was both a revelation and a pleasure. I’m so happy I can give him this, was what I actually thought. And then I wondered if Patrick dislikes dances because he doesn’t know how to do it. Maybe I should sign him up for dance classes, I thought. Maybe we need to talk about this. And then I thought, Don’t pick at him. He’s only fourteen. He’s finding his way. Give him a little time. See if he comes to like them on his own. But maybe I should ask…

At home the boys settled on the living room floor for what apparently turned into a night of games and movies. I worked for a while, then went to bed. Leroy took himself off to my meditation room, where he could sit in peace and quite and lovely energy. Lilo came and curled up in my lap.

Leroy says the television finally went off at six this morning. We all slept till noon. Mindful of wrestling training, I gave the boys a healthy breakfast. Afterward we all hung out in the kitchen–all four of us–talking and laughing. The boys are in the living room playing games again. Lila is now trying to balance on my shoulder while I work some more. She’s purring.

So what’s the point of this blog? Nothing, really. Probably no one but I will remember this weekend. While a good time is being had by all, no one is going to pick this out as the highlight of a life. It’s simply a good place and time, one of a thousand such moments that I increasingly want to hold onto because as Patrick grows I can see them slipping by. This is my life.

This week I blogged about poor sportsmanship, and how angry it made me, and what I did about it. I’ve been blogging, facebooking, tweeting, and emailing about the situation in Wisconsin. I am in an all-too-familiar position, waiting for an overdue check to arrive. Taxes and finalizing the bankruptcy are both looming. All those things are real. But so is this wonderful, loving, nurturing weekend.

The paradox of my life is that while my civic and financial life is as fraught as everyone’s right now–I, too, worry about the projected increase in food prices, the GOP’s efforts to dismantle the recent legislative advances, and the attacks on women’s reproductive health and rights–my private life is a wonderful place to be. Years ago, when my nephews were little and we had season passes to Disneyland, I resolved that I wanted my home to be a “laughing place,” in the words of Brer Rabbit. Today it occurs to me that it has become exactly that not only for me, but for Leroy, for Patrick, for his friends, and for Lila and Lilo.

As Dickens put it, these are the best of times–and the worst of times. I’ve been talking about the worst of times–I just wanted to share a bit of the best of times, too. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I will be enjoying mine, here in my laughing place.

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