YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Frontier spirit carries us through a tough year

The recession didn't figure into our plans to start anew in the pastoral Sierra foothills. But thanks to the kindness of neighbors, family and community, we survived and -- dare I say -- thrived.

January 10, 2010|By Samantha Dunn

Two years ago, my husband and I pulled up stakes in L.A. and headed north so he could take a dream job with the California Conservation Corps. I, meanwhile, imagined myself penning a great oeuvre, ensconced in the pastoral splendor of a farmhouse and commuting to L.A. or San Francisco when other work called.

Sure enough, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada we found wide-open land, scenic beauty and an opportunity to make a fresh start. Which, in retrospect, sounds a little like what brought the Donner Party up here too.

And like those Western emigrants who didn't anticipate the mountains' heavy, early snow, neither one of us saw the avalanche of economic woe until it landed on our heads.

But first there was good news: As if fulfilling the promise of renewal, not long after we moved I became pregnant. Sure, millions of mammals do it all the time, but in my case it actually was nothing short of miraculous. Doctors had long ago explained to me the reasons I couldn't get pregnant, and so I'd resigned myself to being childless. I was actually at a pre-op appointment for a hysterectomy when they discovered -- whoops! Score Mother Nature 1, medical science 0.

Our son -- our perfect, healthy, beautiful son -- was born last January. And then the blizzard hit Donner Summit, so to speak.

At first, Lehman Bros., AIG and automaker bailouts was just stuff happening "out there." We were blissfully cocooned with Baby Benen. But then came the news that in order to close billions in California's budget shortfall, 200,000 state workers would be mandated to take three unpaid furlough days a month. Two hundred thousand workers, including my husband.

Presto! Income slashed by about 14%. And, of course, there was also a salary freeze. He'd taken the position at the corps at a far lower pay rate than he'd expected, with the understanding that he'd get an increase after one year. Um, not.

But, hey, he didn't take the job for the money; he's committed to the mission of the CCC. Besides, we were optimistic he could pick up the odd freelance gig on furlough days. Except, as it turned out, more often than not he was still doing work for the corps on those off days, because his obligations didn't get downsized, just his paycheck. Freelance gigs seemed to have dried up along with credit lines anyhow.

Meanwhile, I struggled to keep writing, trying in vain to meet the deadline for my next book while caring for the baby full time. We didn't want to put him in day care, but the point was academic anyway. There was no way we could afford it, period. So I blew my book deadline and asked for a three-month extension, which, as any author will tell you, is not usually a huge deal. Except in the worst economy since the Depression, and at a time when publishing in general is in the dumps. My struggling, independent publisher canceled my contract (along with all the other pending contracts), and just like that I lost half a year's income.

Now is about the time you're expecting us to turn feral and eat our own. I would have thought so too, but that's not what happened.

Just when we were down to the bone, grace happened. It took the form of community, a generosity that humbles me and brings me to tears when I think of it now: Our neighbor -- himself out of work -- insisted we take a huge load of firewood to heat the house and as many eggs as we could eat from his chickens. Our parents, themselves on limited incomes, sent baby clothes and had a way of showing up with carloads of groceries; friends hired me for little jobs I knew darn well they didn't really need done; local stores dropped off our deliveries and said, "Just send us a check when you can."

On top of that, those furloughs allowed my husband time with the baby he wouldn't have had otherwise, and, without money for travel or entertainment, on warm nights we sat on the porch together and watched the sun set. When it got cold, we snuggled on the couch and competed with "Jeopardy!" contestants, shouting our answers at the TV screen (we haven't missed cable, thanks to free digital signals).

Like this we made it through 2009. Apart from the baby now walking and jabbering away, not much has changed -- or will, probably -- in the new year. The state's budget fandango persists; publishing is still less predictable than gold panning as a way to make a living. Yet I feel weirdly optimistic. Corny as it sounds, I know that no matter how bad the economic climate, we possess the most valuable equity on the planet: People who love us, and love for each other.

Samantha Dunn is the author of several books and an instructor in the UCLA Writers' Program.

Los Angeles Times Articles