The Way I Feel about James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”

How should you feel when you learn that someone you love has tried, deliberately, to die? Has nearly died. Has cut himself and taken bottles of pills and waited patiently and hoped he would die.

You can’t feel angry, quite. You can’t feel overly relieved, either, when he fails – and feels the failure as another failure. You can only feel deeply, deeply sad.

This song is wrapped up, for me, in the weather of those few days.

Just before Thanksgiving, the sky was a steel gray that lightened, in the morning, to an enamel white and muted to soggy black in the evening. The trees were bare and seemed to seep ice.

My mother, sister, and I listened to a song about a suicide, driving through ugly Kansas City on an ugly night thinking about a suicide. It’s hard for me to drive through Kansas City now, when it rains. It’s also hard for me to hear this song.

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.”

After that night spent waiting at the hospital, we spent some time at home, and then (at night again) drove to visit him in the mental ward. He had jaundice and would barely look at us. Despite his intentions, his stubborn liver had saved him.

He was my little brother. We always were–and still are, I think–very alike. Both intelligent, imaginative, and rather hard-headed.

He’d gone through several phases over the years. A cowboy phase, a criminal phase. He’d lost a fiancée and isolated himself. But he’d call me sometimes, late at night, and we’d talk about our troubled Midwestern family and other, loftier things. He’d tell me he’d been listening to a lot of ‘70s folk music.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

I almost want to thank him now. And, by thank him, I mean fall on my knees and kiss his feet. Because he didn’t die.

He has a month-old son now and a wonderful wife. I get to see the sharp jut of his jaw and hear his wry jokes and know that he’s still with us. Just like on that night, with that sweet lovely song on the radio, we clung to that phrase–he’s still with us–and waited, listening to soft guitar.

Note: working draft from a longer work about music, men, and memory.

They Call it Strategic Default

I need to find a way to be less emotional about money.

It’s payday, and I feel furious again—and ashamed—and furious that I feel ashamed.

I’m dutifully paying my gas, electric, and rent, and I’m budgeting for a trip I’ll take next month to meet my newborn nephew. Once again, I am weighing my ability to pay my student loan bill with another expense: this time, it’s the money I owe my allergist. Online, there’s a newly fueled debate about student loans. It knocks at the edge of my consciousness and injects a little more anxiety into my monthly financial justifications.

I have a master’s degree—so, why do I feel so dumb? I feel like a financial ping-pong. I feel like the joke’s on me.

For the record, here are the financial mistakes I’ve made:

  • I got a master’s degree.
  • I bought a house.
  • I got married, and then divorced.
  • I struggled with depression.
  • I chose a career that meant I would help others, but also meant that I would remain poor.
  • I neglected to pay Homeowner Association fees when my house was so far underwater that I was in despair.
  • I stopped going to the doctor and dentist when having health insurance was more costly than skipping it. Again: despair.
  • I went out to eat too much, I often bought bottles of wine, and I put gifts for and fellowship with friends and family ahead of long-term financial health. Gradually, I embraced irresponsibility because the responsibility route just wasn’t working out for me.

I understand Lee Siegel’s New York Times piece [need citation]. It fills me with resentment and anxiety, but I understand it. It hits awfully close to home.

There have been some happy days: the day I paid off my undergraduate loans. The day I paid off credit card debt. Those were the days I believed in our financial system and felt proud to be doing my part. I was financially responsible! Morally right! I belonged.

It felt good to realize that my worst day in an inner-city classroom was better than my best day in a soulless cubicle. It felt good when I began teaching at a university–one of my lifelong dreams!

Then there were these days: The day I learned, from a friend, that the real reason a fiancee left without a word was my debt. Or maybe my underwater house. What did it matter.

The day after I paid off my undergraduate loans, when I realized I hadn’t even started paying for the master’s degree. This may or may not have been the same day I learned, from my employer, that because my master’s degree wasn’t in exactly the same subject I was teaching, I wasn’t eligible for the next level in pay scale.

The day I realized that if I wanted job security, I’d better stop being a university professor and go back to teaching high school. And then began laughing hysterically because, really, the absurdity!

The day I looked up at my therapist (the one my father paid for, when I was at my lowest) and said tearfully, “but I did everything I was supposed to do!”

These days, when I think about money, I veer between nihilism and shame. Like most Americans, I make choices: I don’t order cable television because I’d rather eat out. I will pay for my asthma medication but I won’t get my eyes checked. If my loving, generous boyfriend buys me a gift or takes me out to dinner, I calculate how I can treat him next time and also pay for new brake lights. I do not expect to ever be able to afford children of my own, but I will splurge on gifts for my niece and nephew. After experiencing first-hand the Phoenix housing market crash, I have neither the credit nor the emotional stamina to be a homeowner.

I sometimes don’t pay my student loan bill. I mean, it will always be with me, right? It’s insurmountable. What’s more interest? Another cup of water in the ocean.

And I am one of the lucky ones!

You see, I haven’t faced catastrophic medical problems. I am not, like my sister, a single mother. I have not succumbed to alcoholism or worsening depression, like some dear friends. And I voluntarily jumped off what I fondly refer to as the adjunct poverty train. Although I sometimes feel envious of my younger coworkers who dodged the Great Recession, I do the best I can to keep a healthy perspective—and to keep my head above water.

They call it strategic default—a term I learned in 2009. It’s when walking away is a better option than drowning. And if a mostly responsible, mostly hard-working woman like me considers it, our country’s financial powers-that-be really ought to start worrying.