There's a covered bridge over a stream that runs through our backyard. My father build it as an act of whimsy out of the steel remains of the trailer I lived in before my family and I moved back home to be with my grandmother and parents. The trailer was old and ratty because that was what we could afford. We called it our bicentennial trailer because it was manufactured in 1976. As an historian, I developed a kind of philosophic attitude about the trailer. In those days when I was battling leaky ceilings and warped floors, the promises of '76 seemed pretty sad and worn to me. I wasn't feeling like my bicentennial trailer or the nation I lived in offered me much hope of a brighter day. I pride myself on being able to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, but that old thing defied my best attempts. It was ugly, uncomfortable, and smelly. We lived there for a handful of difficult years. My husband's jobs were physically exhausting and disempowering. I was working on a Master's degree and raising two very young children. We had no money that wasn't borrowed and there were times when the pickings were pretty slim.
We stayed in that trailer until after I'd begun a doctoral program, had begun teaching classes at the community college, and was expecting my third baby. We still had no money at all. At one point, during my pregnancy, we were sleeping on piles of quilts on the floor because we could not afford a new mattress. My parents would have helped, but we often didn't tell them just how pinched we were. I guess we felt like we must have done something wrong somehow to be so poor. Both of us had gone to college (perhaps I was excessive about it) and my husband had worked hard since he was a kid. We were honest, hardworking, thrifty...the whole nine yards. We followed the rules. We did not take our first vacation until after more than ten years of marriage. We purchased everything second hand. I hung laundry on the line and even learned how to wash it in a tub since our machine (a used washer given to us by friends) was not always reliable. I learned to make my own cleaning supplies and how to cook on a shoestring budget. But we had huge bills and low income. There were medical bills and student loans and we ran up our credit card buying groceries and paying rent we couldn't really afford. I'm still making payments on food I bought for my kids ten years ago.
Eventually, the old trailer caught fire. We were lucky. It was an electrical fire between our room and the kids' room, but it didn't last long because it turns out that we also had a leak which put the fire out before it had a chance to grow. I woke to see the smoke and we went to my folks' house. It was not safe for us to return. My father and mother had already begun talking to us about moving into their home which they share with my maternal grandmother. The house was big enough for all of us and they needed help and respite. Grandma is a bright and witty woman, but she is physically frail and needs folks around to ensure her health and safety. My parents were both working full time and wanted to be able to have time together. They wanted to be able to travel too which was almost impossible without someone to "hold down the fort."
I was a stay-at-home mother who worked only one or two days a week at the college. I could also help by "being around for my grandmother" which means ensuring that as she ages, she would not have to live in a nursing home. I help with housework, meals, and watching over my grandmother. My husband, who has heavy equipment, plumbing, building, and other useful skills could help my father maintain the house and property. It is a good deal for all of us. My husband and I would get to live in a larger home where we have the help and support of my parents in raising our family. My parents would get to travel together and maintain the privacy of their marriage because they now would have the ability to take a break from the demands of caring for an elderly parent. My grandmother would get in-home care and assistance so she would not have to face the fear and expense that is associated with nursing homes.
So now we all live together. There are four generations under one roof which can get a bit chaotic (especially when aunts, uncles, and cousins come to stay with us!), but we are very happy together. My children are outnumbered by adults in the household. They run between my parents' rooms on the second floor, my grandmother's rooms on the ground floor, and our rooms in the basement. Everywhere they go, there are grown-ups who love them. My grandmother will be 96 this week and unlike many older women, she is not only still in her own home, but is the matriarch of an active family. Young and old, there's a place for each of us here so long as we're willing to squeeze in and share. I am thankful.
But back to the old trailer. When the time came to leave it, it was winter. After a few days absence, our pipes burst and further damaged the already substandard structure. There was no way we could sell it so, according to the mobile home park rules, we had to dismantle it and carry it away. The menfolk in the family recycled or found uses for most everything. Much of it was wood which is fairly easy to repurpose, but the steel beams undergirding the trailer were a bit more difficult. They were carried over to my parents' large yard until we could figure out what to do with them.
Eventually, my father decided to use them to build a bridge over to our island. It seems fitting to me that the foundation of our old family home, as dilapidated as it was, should become a bridge to something so wonderful. I like to remember that foundation and that old life sometimes not just to fuel my feelings of gratitude for a richer, more comfortable life today, but because I am thankful beyond words to be at home with my extended family. I am thankful for our laughter, our play, our work together, and for the love that surrounds all that we do. But I'm thankful too that we had that experience of struggling on our own. I'm glad I had that experience of failure. I've learned to be as grateful for our need for rescue as much as I am thankful for the rescue itself.
(Our covered bridge. The creek bed is dry in this image, but at times, we have a little rushing river in the backyard.)
(The island. Scene of summertime childhood adventures, and candlelit Yuletide scenes)
The thing about working hard, playing my the rules, and failing to thrive anyhow is that it knocks a whole lot of arrogance out of a person. I have watched my husband get sick and injured doing the most back-breaking work. I know what it is like to be frantic with worry about empty wallets, empty bank accounts, and empty cupboards. I know what it is like to try to fix a house with duct tape or to prepare meal after meal of rice and beans. I know what is like to be treated with disdain by those who size you up by the shabbiness of your home and your clothes. I know what it is like to be bullied into tears by people who think they are better than you. I know what it like to feel poor, and worn-out, and angry, and hopeless. And so I know too that I can carry that feeling with me over the bridge into my new life.
In my new life, I'm a college professor rather than a woman with postpartum depression living in a trailer park. I like how impressive "college professor" sounds. Who wouldn't prefer an ivory tower to a trailer park? But I'm not really in an ivory tower. They don't let me close to the towers. I guess I'm closer to the gatehouse. The lords of academe may just decide to kick me outside the protection of the castle walls at any point! Teaching at a community college as an adjunct is a job with few benefits. There is no health insurance. We can be dismissed without warning at any point, and we make significantly less for our work than full time faculty earn (and far, far, less than college administrators pocket each year). It is also one of the least prestigious teaching gigs a person with a doctorate can land. No one can boast about being contingent faculty at a rural community college and be taken seriously by other academics.
But I am glad of it, because it is my bridge. I can take the foundation of my old life and turn it into something beautiful, useful, even whimsical. I have an opportunity to be the professor who listens to students problems and does not dismiss them as "excuses." I can be the professor who teaches history in a way that is relevant to those of us who work and who struggle. I can be the person who tells them how brilliant they are, how useful, and wise, and wonderful they are. I get to be the person who sees their eagerness, their smiles, and their dawning enthusiasm as they begin to see their worth through my eyes.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm still often discouraged, sometimes deeply so. I still wish I could stand completely on my own. I wish I could afford better clothes, toys, and vacations for my children. I wish I didn't have to worry about how to pay for medical bills, insurance payments, student loans, and groceries. I wish that people looked at me with the kind of respect given to successful academics in fancy private colleges. I still resent being dismissed and overlooked. But here's the deal: those feelings of resentment and sadness remind me to use whatever I've got to help folks around me. They remind me to pour my energy into being an island of welcome. Let me be the smile that softens the edges of lousy day. Let me be a safe harbor. Let me be the one who offers love instead of contempt; hope instead of abuse. Let me be the one who says "yes" instead of "no".
It is important to offer bright welcome in the midst of naysayers. A community college is like an island in the midst of hard times. People come there because they are out of work or in dead-end jobs. They need training. They crave education. They want better lives for themselves and for their families. At a community college, there are lots of single mothers and dads looking for new beginnings after being laid-off from their jobs. There are young people hoping to save some money on their college expenses. There are lost souls finding themselves again after addictions, abuses, and hard times. There are lots of people with learning disabilities who struggle with college work. There are lots of people who have a hard time getting their schoolwork done because they are also working full time jobs and raising families. My students tell me about poverty, about violence, and about injustice at work and in the court system. Some of them are struggling with physical and mental illnesses or watching people they love struggle.
The world is hard. It hurts to live in it. Failure and loss are all around us. No one hands out candy for good work. Most of the time when you keep your nose to the grindstone, all you get is a bloody nose. Some among us do very well, but I can't see that they are more deserving than the rest of us. I think some folks mistake their wealth as a symbol of their worth. That's a bit funny, isn't it? As if privilege is an indicator of anything more grand than chance and good connections! I've learned not to believe the myth that "I make my own success." It is both physically and metaphorically impossible to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps. I too used to think that if I worked hard and was a good girl, I would gather in a harvest of plenty. But we do not live in a just and moral society. Fortunes are made of greed, dishonesty, and cruelty while good people, decent people, honest people, get slapped down every single day. My students do not deserve their sufferings and I have not earned my privilege. I am here only because I have been loved and helped. I'm here because I had parents, teachers, professors, and friends who offered a helping hand at just the right moment. And as love is my history and my legacy, it is also my responsibility. What I have, what any of us has, comes to us as a gift. What I have is only mine as long as I am willing to share it.
I don't propose that we can make the injustices of the world vanish just by holding hands. We can do everything right, but if we do it alone, we fail. And the world is full of failure. It is full of the suffering bred in the lie that we must stand on our own. We have believed that lie and built a society in which the rich feed on the poor and the poor are segregated by shame. We've created a society that is the opposite of a good family. We have a society that punishes those who are most vulnerable and which enriches those who are most callous to the cries of need around them. We have a society that despises the young, the old, the sick, and those who care for them while it glorifies selfishness, gluttony, and greed. But this is nothing new. The history of injustice is as old as history itself. It will take more than a few generations to create a just society.
But we have to start somewhere. When I am feeling low I try to remind myself of this. We have to start somewhere and we sure as hell aren't going to make a dent in this mess unless we tackle it as a team. We'll make our success together. It is love and giving, partnership and patience that brings wealth. What do we have to give? We have our work. We have our strength. We have our compassion. Let us care for the children and celebrate the elders. Let's offer hope and comfort in the midst of despair. Let us feed each other. Let us give thanks for the gifts we have received by giving of our time, our labor, and our resources. In a pinching, cruel world, let us be generous. Let us be welcoming. Let us be loving. In a dark world, we must shine. It is time for us to be each other's salvation. I am certain that the only way out of the poverty of our lives is each other. Love is the bridge. Hope is the bridge. Joy is the bridge. We have to become the bridge builders.