Recessionista Genie aka Genie of the Shell, 10 Years Earlier and Later

10 years ago, I started the Magic Nutshell as a blog for the "poor and fabulous." It was a bit like the Mr. Money Mustache brand for people without rich parents. My blog didn't earn money or become famous. It was, however, gloriously silly, so there's that. Over the past 10 years, I've become un-poor and evolved the Magic Nutshell into a catalogue of the thoughts of an aspiring novelist. It is has become a blog for the "bougie and prosaic" during a strange time for our country, when the middle class and normalcy are both endangered.

organic, free range dandelion garden; PBR; old Halloween costume; coupons; tools for dirty work

avatar inspo: Barbara Eden's domestic and magical character in I Dream of Jeannie

Now in my 30s, I've made it to a comfortable place in my life, not by investing money so much as investing thought, practice, and pride into the originally imagined American Dream, which financial advice website The Balance paraphrases as "equal opportunity to pursue a personal vision." That's a lot broader, and a lot different, than pursuing wealth and fame to keep up with the Joneses. Or the Kardashians. Or any popular standard of achievement.

My parents and I used to be upwardly mobile, which is, of course, how I rose from poor to not poor. My parents are hardworking and frugal people who made big sacrifices to give me opportunities they didn't have. I grew up feeling immensely grateful and also a bit resentful of my obligations to fulfill their visions of success and "happiness," not my own. From earliest childhood, I felt strongly that my responsibility to protect my parents' emotions and pride far exceeded my own rights to make decisions and pursue my own happiness. I couldn't shake that feeling, but I rebelled against it more and more through adolescence and young adulthood.

The film American Beauty captivated my anxious mind as a teen preparing to apply to four-year universities, something neither of my parents had been able to do. For me, the film stunningly captured the Great American Nightmare: that of achieving the outward signs of success at the expense of everything that makes life truly beautiful. Unlike my dad and many other relatives, I had never known deep poverty. I did know the taste of government-issued welfare food and the smell of thrift store clothes, but I had never starved. I grew up with none of that primal dread shared by many of my relatives, including my grandfather, who ate the cores of apples long after the Great Depression ended, for as long as he had his own teeth. Instead, I grew up with the first-world fear of soulless life--in an age of eating disorders, anxiety, drug addiction, and deaths of despair.

I did not take it lightly that every known female relative in my dad's line of the family--cousins, aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother--had been institutionalized at some point for serious mental illness. (On my mom's side of the family, the women are successfully medicated.) "But you're different," my mom would say firmly--menacingly, as if she suspected I might enjoy using an excuse to fail her.

As I grew up, I started to understand how denial and forgetfulness helped both of my parents cope with their childhoods and escape the cycles in their own families. I found myself unable to do the same. The more I tried not to think about an anxiety or a dreadful pattern of events unfolding, the more it consumed me. I wanted my parents to understand me so they would know that I wouldn't fail them on purpose but that I could not become the vision of perfection in their minds. So I dragged them out to see American Beauty.

My dad wasn't a perv in a midlife crisis, and my mom wasn't a Type A career woman, but I identified with the daughter character Jane's ambivalence toward the mindless pursuit of material gain. My parents' reactions to the film were, predictably, different than mine. My dad sort of scratched his head and thanked me for showing him such an artistic film. My mom identified so strongly with Carolyn in the mother-daughter interactions with Jane that she drew great satisfaction from the scene when Carolyn slaps Jane in the face. (My mother has never slapped me in the face, nor was I ever as snotty to my mom as Jane.)

It was then that I began to realize, through the veil of late adolescent egocentrism, that my parents and I had some irreconcilable differences in our worldviews. My solution to this was to withdraw as much as possible into independence. I had to prove to them that I could survive on my own. I couldn't wait to move into a dorm in college, where I kept a rich private life they didn't have to know about. I took classes full of scholars and professors who were there to explore and discuss topics far beyond the subjects my parents found palatable to discuss. I worked hard--very hard, and sometimes risked my own safety and health--to achieve those outward marks (grades, mostly) that meant the world to my parents, to justify my secret life of heresy and carefully self-regulated sin. I graduated on time and achieved the highest score at my highly competitive school on the final exam in my degree program--in fact, one of the highest scores in the nation. Meanwhile, I swallowed and suppressed a growing mass of resentments at the egos, bureaucracies, and corruptions I had to navigate as one of the least financially advantaged kids at a rich school. My new favorite film satirizing American culture became Fight Club. I did not ask my parents to watch it with me.

By the first year of graduate school, I felt like I had done more than my share of time to atone for the original sins and failures and oppressions of my ancestors. I had started out doing so well that I had been asked to tutor other students in my class, and maybe that's what pushed me to drop out--I could claim that at least I quit while I was ahead. I made the extraordinary choice to embrace the ordinary lifestyle of the Common People with my new lover, an old high school acquaintance who had similarly grown up on the struggle bus (but in actual, deep poverty), felt obligated to care for his own parents as a child (but much more literally, as his parents suffered tragic accidents resulting in disability), launched himself into the role of fulfilling his own parents' fantasies of success by excelling at academics and violin and fencing and jewelry making and theatre acting and scholarship acquirement (so much fancier), burned out (quicker and more spectacularly, after only a year and a half at Oberlin) and also loved Fight Club as though it were a new religion.

We moved into a slummy apartment downtown full of toxic mold that made me chronically ill, waited in line for charity food infested with bugs, and took the bus to work at our low-wage jobs. I carried weapons--sharp objects and pepper spray--in my pockets for the incredibly shady commute and practiced all kinds of ways of confronting and repelling sexual harassers and shifty beggars. We threw really good parties and tripped on pot brownies at the annual Pride festivals. We enjoyed our poverty as only the children of (particularly in my case) parents who are no longer poor can do. I knew they'd keep me from dying of actual starvation or homelessness, I told myself, but I'd reach the threshold of death before I'd ask for help.

My now-husband proposed to me with an emerald ring from his mother's collection, and we planned to wed in a couple of years. We eloped a few weeks later, at a rural county courthouse, because I had a toothache and no insurance. (We still had the wedding at the planned date.)

The experiment in living poor had been interesting, but I knew I needed safe housing and nutritious food immediately to head off a lifetime of chronic illness. So we took advantage of a sweet deal for new homeowners (right before the crash) to obtain a mortgage with no money down on a house we couldn't really afford. It is a lovely and comfortable house, which we still own (now with equity!) because we found creative ways to get by. We filled the house with roommates to help pay the bills, and I dug an ambitiously large and deep vegetable garden. My grandfather gave us books and tools used by himself and his father when they subsistence farmed. My husband bought an old wood-burning stove from a farmer and installed it in our house with the help of a strong buddy.

I cooked vegetables from that garden, and my husband heated our house with wood--always plentiful around here, where there are big downed tree limbs after every storm and the power company trims the trees every so often and all the neighbors let us know when they're having a tree cut down.

The roommates were mostly awesome and fun, except for the last one, who started using heroin and stopped paying rent and finally robbed us and fled the state. That same year, my husband lost his job, and we had a new baby.

It was the baby that saved us. My daughter broke me of my pride in independence and brought me closer to my parents again. I knew that my parents, especially my dad, longed for a grandchild in a deeper way than they had ever wished for me to get the highest scores and attain wealth and fame. And in this case, I shared that secret wish. I had always wanted a family of my own. But my parents had learned not to push me. I could see them carefully trying not to bring it up, but my dad hesitantly let the question slip as I entered my late 20s.

"Maybe when we can afford a decent car," I joked.

My dad promptly gave me a nice car.

I accepted it and stopped taking birth control. I had a pampered pregnancy full of care and organic vegetables and gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl. And then our financial life fell apart.

Meanwhile, my dad's income had risen steeply. My parents' lifestyle didn't change much--they still live in the house where I grew up and think twice about purchasing name brand groceries--but they were able to pay off debts and sock away enough to retire at age 60 with the ability to take some vacations. My obligation to save my parents from poverty is gone.

Giving birth to my daughter felt like getting smashed apart with a hammer--not just physically but emotionally. The parts of my former self rearranged into the shape of a mother. My daughter became my everything, more important than pride or agency or my own personhood. I accepted not only material help from my parents but lots and lots of hands-on care. I accepted time and advice and the viewpoints of my elders. My stoic German-French grandmother came over and told me fantastical-sounding but true stories of her own childbearing years and her mother's.

Grandparents, y'all. They are probably the key to all human success and should never be taken for granted. As NPR reports, "In a nutshell, humanity's success may all be dependent on the unique way our ancestors raised their kids [with the help of many other people, especially grandparents]. Thanks, Grandma."

My daughter is eight now, and she's happy, healthy, bright, kind, and has many friends. Nothing else gives me as much satisfaction as this.

And 10 years after launching my blog for the "poor and fabulous," I'm not quite as "fabulous" (I don't party or get tipsy at art openings or travel adventurously or even shop for quirky fashions at thrift stores--bedbugs, you know), but I am no longer poor either. In financial terms, I'm probably lower middle class. In terms of all social privileges, including my fancy education, I'm probably positioned above average. I'm healthy and reasonably fit with a happy domestic life. I work part-time at a job that allows me to live close to extended family and fulfills the ikigai. (You've seen the infographic, right?) I work part-time at a hobby I very much enjoy, creative writing, which is therapeutic in practice and might earn income one day. I'm that eccentric mom who walks my kid to school every day, in hellacious weather, even when we are slipping on ice and swimming through snowdrifts. Sometimes, I mow the lawn with an old-fashioned manual cutter, and sometimes I heat with wood. I remove snow with a shovel. I've never felt the need of a gym membership. My home does not look like a magazine spread, but kids like to play in it, and I like to cook and bake in it. For fun, I read a ton of library books and watch foreign films on Hoopla and sometimes belly dance to YouTube videos and occasionally laugh hysterically with my very funny and creative friends. I "shop" in my own closets, which are spacious enough to keep fairly well-organized and where I can hang onto clothes and accessories for 20+ years. (It's like keeping a wine cellar, but for my own vintage clothes!) My lifestyle is nothing to show off on Instagram, but it's comfy and suits my preferences.

I think I might be resting easy in the eye of the hurricane.

Next up: climate change, socio-political unrest, and economic uncertainty. Looking toward the future, I have three big goals:
  • imagine good stories
  • develop practical skills
  • invest in the infrastructure of a regenerative homestead

I want to keep my creative mind alive and maybe even tie some income to that. Specifically, I want to publish one of my novels, and I've hitched my hopes to Matka Danu Miklagarth.

I want to develop more practical homesteader skills, now that my daughter is getting older. Someday, I might like to join a community like The Gathering Society, a women's group for sharing traditional knowledge about foraging and crafting with native plant materials. I want to try out new gardening and home renovation techniques.

I want to work toward achieving some of my Dystopian Dreams for a Suburban Family.

And maybe, if I can do all that, I'll finally start using Instagram.


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