Desperate people, desperate times
The voice on the phone was desperate. “I paid my rent, but if I pay my electric bill, I will only have $25 left to feed my kids this week. What can I do?” Answering my phone while working in anti-poverty programs brought pleas like this every week. Fortunately, I was able to walk them through what they needed to do to get through their temporary crisis. No matter who you are or what your station in life, the potential for crisis, just like the potential for success, is always there. An economic downturn, loss of a job, an unexpected family illness; life has a way of surprising us every once in awhile and we can get caught up in situations we are not always prepared for.
During the last ten years, my job has allowed me to help many people through tough situations by showing them how to shop for and prepare food as economically as possible. I have also counseled on how to cut costs in other ways. I am able to do this because I have lived through experiences where I had to learn to do this.
Born in Oregon, I am still a child of the Midwest...
My parents were born in Iowa between 1927 and 1932. Living through the Great Depression affected them the rest of their lives and affected how they raised us children. World War II and the Cold War further changed how my parents lived their lives. I do not remember a year without a garden and my mom canning and preserving anything that they could grow or harvest locally. I never tasted store-bought canned beans or tomatoes until I was an adult – we always had home-canned vegetables. My parents lived in the city, and a third of our yard was taken up with a garden; our lives centered around the planting, growing and harvesting of food, which we stored in the basement bomb shelter. My father fished and kept our freezer stocked with salmon and trout, my mother made our clothes and we did more with less before it was popular to do so. I grew up in a household where everything was made from scratch. It was the perfect environment for someone who would be part of the 1970s 'Back-to-the-Land' movement.
Living on a Greek Island - age 19
In 1975 my husband and I, courtesy of the Air Force, were living in Northwestern Greece. This was not the Greece of American tourists. This was a Greece where people still gathered in curiosity around you when you came into their village, because they seldom saw Americans. There were no chain stores or supermarkets. There were a few stores that had more than one thing, but there were mostly specialty stores; the butcher, the vegetable vendor, the wine shop, a cheese shop to name a few. There were no boxed food mixes, no prepared foods unless you went to a taverna. Luckily, I had learned to cook from scratch when I was young. Early shows on TV like Graham Kerr’s “Galloping Gourmet” and Julia Child's shows had inspired me to experiment and be creative; I had no problem adapting to this new environment.
Living so close to the food source was a new experience for my husband. He was from Ohio and had never gardened, he didn’t really know what to do with food that was straight from the source. Going to the local markets, taking home chickens that had been walking around just a few hours before and getting produce direct from the growers were all a new experience for him. For me it was a return to what I had grown up with. We returned to the U.S., moved to Oregon and gardened in the city for awhile. Our subscriptions to “Organic Gardening” and “The Mother Earth News” were challenging us to take a more radical step and in 1979 we bought a 50-acre farm in West Virginia and went “back to the land”.
No, we were not Hippies... but my CB handle was "Mt Mama"
With Carla Emery’s “Old Fashioned Recipe Book” in hand, we settled on the farm with our six-month old little girl, fifty chickens and an old tractor. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Our only drinking water was a quarter mile up the road and we relied on a hand dug well next to the house for washing. You don't realize how many gallons of water a family consumes in a day until you have to haul it from the source. There was no phone lines up the valley we lived in so there was extreme isolation. I made everything from scratch; butter and cheese from whole milk picked up at the dairy, wheat was bought in bulk and ground in a hand mill for flour and I made bread almost every day. We lived on venison, chickens and squirrel, ( I drew the line at woodchucks). There are those reading this that might think this sounds idyllic, but there was a reason that women died at a young age a hundred years ago. While it is nice to know where your food comes from and what exactly goes into it, it isn’t really fun to work from 4 am to 11pm every day and fall exhausted into bed. Every day is a struggle to survive and you constantly think about food and how much can you put away for the winter. When you have harvested the corn for the winter chicken feed, but then rats get into it – that is discouraging, and kind of creepy as you lie at night listening to the gnawing.
Living off the land is no picnic and not to be attempted lightly. There is the joy of providing for your family for a year at a time, looking at your pantry and having a sense of accomplishment when you look at all your canned goods. There is also the fear when you have a cold spring and are running out of firewood and the snow has not melted yet; how do you keep the children warm? The main casualty of this experiment was my marriage. I headed back to Oregon with my children, back to civilization, telephones and clean running water.
Now a single-parent...
Living a single-parent lifestyle over the next 20 years continued to be a challenge emotionally and financially. I had to learn ways to keep food on the table, pay bills, clothe my children and provide decent shelter for them. There were bumps along the way; I had my electric service shut off a few times, we were homeless for a while and my kids didn’t often have new clothes. Through most of this time I was fortunate enough to be employed, although I faced many years without health benefits for myself or my children.
As a family, we embodied the sentiment in Thoreau’s “Walden” to not undertake any enterprise which requires new clothes. Make do with what you have was something that I lived out for my children and hoped they would also embrace. (Somewhere along the way, in the early 1990's, I became a convinced Quaker). My kids all turned out healthy and well-adjusted despite the trials they had to face. They never wore name-brand clothing, for many years they only received one pair of shoes per year. We rarely went out to eat and pizza was a treat in our household but living in this way was the perfect preparation for the reality of living as an adult in our volatile economy.
What to do with all this experience?
I have been able to help desperate people calling into our office because I have been there – I have had the cut-off notice, the need to have a few dollars buy food for a week, been kicked out of my house and left with nowhere to live. It is an agony while you are going through it. You despair for yourself and your family. But you can get through it. Every experience you have, even though it seems horrific, does enrich your life and deepens your experience here. Joy will come again, later perhaps, and it will be the sweeter because you have overcome the present trials that you are going through.
There are people who will come to this blog because they are in crisis – if you comment on a posting I will try to get an answer to you as soon as possible – but realize I don't have all the answers. Just a lot of experience. I can tell you that the hardest thing to do is to change your mind – change what you want, change what you need. Your expectations for your life have to undergo changes most of the time. That is where I will challenge you the most. This blog supports my effort to finish the book I started a couple of years ago that is my guidebook to how to live simply, make choices that support that goal, manage your household efficiently and also touches on the philosophy behind these choices. And I will strive to make my postings a lot shorter then this first one! So welcome, Friends. I hope you enjoy this journey.