Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review: Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, A Memoir by Caitlin Shetterly

Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home
by Caitlin Shetterly
Voice (Hyperion)
247 pages 

Is that not the most gorgeous cover ever?  It's spectacular, and the story that is Made for You and Me is one of the best-written and engrossing memoirs that I've read. It's the story behind the statistics of what has been, for countless people, the disappearance of their American dreams at the hands of the American recession.

It doesn't take a psychologist to figure out that the reason this one resonated so much with me is because I identify with Caitlin and Dan so much. Our story is very different, yet there's some similarities.

I read this back in July but am deliberately posting it today, because it was exactly four years ago today, in November 2007 that we moved to a different state and into a large beautiful house that represented everything we had worked for during the past two decades. Yeah, in hindsight we didn't need to buy The American Dream, but isn't that what we're taught to do, to aspire to, to believe in? We're conditioned to believe in the possibility of new beginnings, to chase our dreams and to take a risk and a chance.  So we started what we believed to be a new chapter - but then one person and then another and then another beat us down. The housing market plummeted, the economy crashed into a recession, the writing was beginning to be written on the wall in a Sharpie marker. We decided that we could either wait for the inevitable or get out of that state - mentally and physically - while we could. The Husband took a new job six hours away, I got fired, we sold the dream house at a huge loss and wiped out everything we'd saved to cover the loss and try to preserve our credit and keep our family intact. (Both of which we did. Thankfully.)  

W're luckier than most and fortunate to have what we have (and had), but like many Americans and in the words of John Lennon, we're starting over. The logistics - finding an apartment and our way around a new city, finding new jobs and schools - have all come together (and kind of nicely, really).  What's been harder is shaking the feeling, as Caitlin Shetterly writes in Made for You and Me (I AM getting to this review, really!) of  "feeling essentially flattened," of feeling that we can no longer afford to dream.

Caitlin and her husband Dan were like many young married couples when "the recession came home" to them in December 2007. Dan's full-time job as a photographer was reduced to part-time, downsizing his salary by more than a third. A second job as a bouncer didn't help cover the rent on their apartment (Caitlin worked as a freelancer and with a theater company she'd founded). Knowing that their lives would be changing dramatically, they decided to move from Maine to Los Angeles in hopes of new opportunities.

Caitlin writes of their journey west in poignant passages like these reflections upon driving through Washington, D.C. at night:   "Even in the dark, the majesty of our white buildings and gray stone structures, shining with a post-rain sheen, belied the pain of a country embroiled in two endless wars, beginning a devastating recession, with many of its values and laws so desperately challenged that the people were morally lost and defeated. The alabaster monuments stood, powerfully silent.  Dan said, 'I hope I never get this close to George Bush again,' and we both halfheartedly chuckled, because the purpose of our journey west and the place we found ourselves in as a nation really were sobering facts." (pg. 49)

"As we got farther and farther away from home, America seemed so big and bruised and foreign that our sense of who we were felt complicated by each mile we traversed. And it was this complication, possibly, that made the journey worth it. As we went, we were becoming citizens of America, really, not just of one place, one state, one town. We were witnessing our selves and our hopes, dreams and goals against the backdrop of places and people we didn't know or even, maybe, relate to. This rootlessness kept us wonderfully open to seeing and experiencing everything around us with the freshness of babies." (pg. 53-54)

Caitlin and Dan's dream turned out to be ... well, the stuff that John Lennon was talking about when he said that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

Finding work (and enough of it) to sustain themselves proved to be more of a challenge in California now that the country was in a recession. Safe and affordable housing became an issue.  And then Caitlin became pregnant, with life-threatening complications during the entire nine months. A beloved pet died. The bottom was quickly dropping out of their world, taking with it the hopes and dreams of the new life they had planned for themselves.

"Still, for us, in our young marriage, in our story of of our lives falling apart while we tried to do whatever it took to take care of our son, our dog and ourselves, we felt, essentially, flattened. Actually, it was worse than that: What we felt was that we could no longer dream. That was, possibly, the most dangerous aspect of what had happened to us." (pg. 3)

Made for You and Me has its roots in Caitlin's emails to friends and family as she chronicled her and Dan's journey west.  The emails turned into a blog, which turned into a feature on NPR.  Being so open with her story has made others see themselves in her story (as I certainly did), but it has also brought out the snarks who consider Caitlin to be whiny (I did not find that to be the case at all; you would know it if I did). There are the cynics who espouse a "woulda-shoulda-coulda" attitude.  They shouldn't have moved.  If they would only get out of this dream world of being freelancers and get a real job, things would be fine. They shouldn't have had a baby.

Isn't it funny how everyone becomes an expert on life when it's not their own?

The thing is, we all make choices and decisions based on our circumstances and on what we feel are the best options at that time.  Some work out, some don't - and when it's the latter, it's hard enough beating yourself up without having other people lining up to do it for you.  It doesn't mean you don't appreciate what you have.  It's that sometimes when you've lost so much and are hanging by a thread, you're too scared of losing what little you have because then where will you be?

I really liked Made for You and Me because there are very few of us who have not been affected by this prolonged recession, and stories like Caitlin and Dan's remind us that we're not alone.  I think that is so very important in these times, to know that there are others who are struggling to make our way, to pick up the pieces of what remains. There's some comfort in that, in knowing that there are others who are also very scared about what our personal and collective futures hold and that, just like this land was made for you and me, it's going to take all of us, together, to try and get there.

What Other Bloggers Thought:

The Broke and the Bookish
Erin Reads

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1 comment:

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I'm definitely putting this one on my list. My husband and I both have college degrees, steady and somewhat secure full-time jobs and decent health benefits ..but we're barely making it each month. We are not in debt and haven't been overspending as one might think. Neither of us has had a cost of living raise in so long that I can't even remember the last one. Yet, the cost of living continues to rise. I'm not whining either...just like you said, this recession is hitting us all...