Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The nexus of my grief

My life has been mostly a train wreck since the economy suffered a near-collapse way back in October 2008.

I say “way back” because everything moves so quickly now; it feels like ancient history.

But several possibilities are likely: I’m broke because I’ve never made getting rich a priority, never fared well in the money economy, and some things, like voraciously greedy bankers, are simply beyond my control.

The forces at work today have made an already bad situation worse and seem to have burdened many others besides me.

A neighbor told me a friend of his who retired from pouring concrete 10 years ago is back on the job, just to make ends meet. He’s older, in his 60s, but thank goodness he’s got his health.

“It’s better than nothing, I guess,” my neighbor said.

“Yeah, but it’s a shame that someone who’s already worked so hard to enjoy his last years working less has to go back to the grind.”

“Oh, he doesn’t mind. He’s gotten used to it. He’s adjusted. At least he’s working.”

A lot of people seem to be making these “adjustments,” coming out of retirement, buying fewer consumer goods, picking up groceries at the weekly church food charity, and moving in with family to reduce expenses.

And not everyone’s lucky enough to be working. Fortunately, I’m working but not earning enough to cover the bills. I’ve also thought about calling up family to ask if I can stay with them to ride this thing out.

Last week, a fellow blueberry farmer asked me to give him a heads up if we had any additional work.

One of his tenants, a landscaper who was among the first to employ me last year when my magazine folded, needs a job.

“Oh, you bet. He’ll be the first to know,” I said. “He’s a good guy. Always pays on time.”

“Yeah, well, he’s having a really tough time right now,” the farmer said.

I’ve got barely enough work to keep one person busy. I’m mowing, weeding, tending the irrigation system, and making minor repairs. Soon, I hope, we’ll be harvesting.

Lately, I’ve wondered what future I have in working as a farm hand. Like the guy who pours concrete, I’m adjusting, making the most of a bad economy, but more uncertain about life than ever.

Print, which I grew up loving, went out of fashion just days ago, it seems, and has suffered its worst losses since the big crash. More than 30,000 journalists have lost their jobs in the past two years.

Online publishers, claiming a lack of funds, have taken advantage of writer angst and desperation, either severely reducing the amount they pay, or not paying at all.

The “free” mantra that governs the Internet has made it difficult for publishers to claim any proprietary interest in the material they post. Publishers better learn quickly they’ll never control content as they did when print reigned supreme.

It’s everybody’s business now. It’s open game for any and all; readers contribute and shape the news as much as the suppliers; and no one dare try to sell the stuff.

Additionally, digital space appears to demand less content with lower quality. I hope I’m wrong.

A recent episode of Frontline, Digital_Nation, showed that our young, who were brought up in this high-speed digital world, think they are capable multi-taskers, able to work on their computers, send text messages on their phones, eat lunch and have conversation with their friends all at the same time.

Studies are beginning to show that the more we multi-task, the more our dialog suffers. We simply can’t absorb all the data that kids today claim they can do with ease. They’re not that good at retaining information. They consume and write in bite-sized chunks. They can’t sustain a narrative beyond three paragraphs.

Everything comes in bits and pieces. The word, which once held a higher place in our public discourse, comes cheap. We don’t pay for words any more.

The complete devaluation of the word has made making a living nearly impossible for old schoolers like me who enjoy reading and writing stories that last more than three minutes.

I try not to begrudge the circumstances. The rush to throw up everything online will finally settle one day and, I hope, rest upon more established values than speed and efficiency.

I hope that we haven’t lost our appetite for stories, or our respect for storytellers.

My neighbor told me that he was also making adjustments, realizing that nothing lasts forever, accepting the inevitable—loss, change, and finally death.

At our age, we come to accept these things because there’s no use fighting them. The key, we agreed, is to embrace the changes, make the most of what we have, and move on.

That doesn’t make it any less painful. Rather than avoid the pain, though, we both agreed it’s better to grieve our losses. Why pretend that a train wreck doesn’t feel bad?

“I’ve had a hard time not getting sucked into the idea that this is a cold, mechanistic, and cruel world,” he said. He’d gone away last week and asked me to take care of his chickens. When he returned, he discovered someone had broken into his home and stolen some cash.

“I can’t think of anyone who would do something like that,” he said, more hurt by the possibility that it might have been someone he knew.

My girlfriend said later: “These are trying times; you’d be amazed at what some people will do when they’re desperate. Even among the ones you think are your best friends. If a person’s hungry, it doesn’t take much to justify stealing from another.”

My neighbor said he counters his negative thoughts with the belief that nature seeks exuberant expression; life energy finds its fulfillment in flowering and reproducing. We can choose to celebrate or rue our lives. Nature asks us to find joy, he said.

“The only way I know how to do that,” I said, “is to grieve. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, doing my best to let things go. I may never publish again. I may end up a farm hand for the rest of my life. It’s not what I envisioned when I started out…but I’m doing the best I can to embrace the changes.”

He looked at me a moment and then asked: “What is the nexus of your grief?”

I didn’t know what to say. I thought it was the disappearance and destruction of an entire industry—a way of life that I thought would last forever. Maybe it was the loss of a common story, a shared experience.

“I guess I haven’t gotten over the loss of my dad, who died just over a year ago,” I said. He nodded. “Or it could be that I have no idea how I’m going to make ends meet.”

“Money,” he said.

“Yeah, money. Sad isn’t it, that the lack of money could make a person feel so bad?”

Not even money can take away a person’s grief, I decided later, but it offers the illusion of safety and protection. It buys us small escapes from our misery.

The nexus of my grief probably goes beyond the loss of jobs, or money, or even of family; it seems to go much deeper than that, to the moment of my birth perhaps.

What I know most of all, however, is that it has connected me to my neighbor more concretely than online social networking, more simply than a smooth-running economy, and just as completely as any train wreck. §