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Cheryl Paley

Brushfire…

Over the past few years I have witnessed the downward spiral of the recession on my fellow baby boomers as a spectator, viewing the carnage from the sidelines. As friends, friends of friends and friends of theirs have become statistics in a slow burn that has blossomed into a brushfire, I have been bracing myself, but never really expected the fire would reach my door.
In times gone by witnessing someone losing a job was shocking, even scandalous, like watching a train wreck on television or rubbernecking on the highway with the accident on the other side of the road. 5 years ago this “losing your job” thing was mostly an uncommon phenomenon of short duration, and with any luck at all, some reasonable solution always seemed to appear for most people, even if the new employment was not ideal. Hearing that someone you knew lost a job was a distant storm, paired with a “thank goodness it’s not me” kind of dread, and then brushed away and forgotten.
While I have never regarded myself in any way affluent, I have always been blessed with the opportunity to make a decent enough living doing what I love, writing and directing theatre. And then 11 years ago I adopted my daughter and transitioned from “working woman/writer/director” to “sole support single working mother/writer/director”. Still doing what I love but looking over my shoulder at regular intervals, I began to feel the heat of necessity.
If I lost a job “before” it was just me and I knew something would turn up as it always had in the past. In my new single mother life it was now about “us” and I began to feel the burn. Hotter and hotter, closer and closer it flared, searing me with monthly bills, time management issues, sleep deprivation, multi-tasking, diapers and feedings, insurance, loneliness, dare I say it, dating? Worst of all was the guilt: will I, can I do right by her? Can I really do this by myself? Every time I walked out the door, leaving her at a daycare or with a babysitter the burning was there… in my heart. And while I became a champion multi-tasker, still the flames were fanning and the fire was the drawing closer, closer, closer. I just didn’t know how close it was.
And then in March, 2012 the fire reached my door. In an instant, my full time job with benefits, creating community based theatre for a prestigious New York City hospital, was wiped out almost instantaneously. As one of the first HIV prevention theatre programs in the United States, we were solid, secure and had earned our stripes, working in partnerships with the United Nations and the New York Attorney General’s Office. One day stable, the next day “up in flames”. “Unfundable”. They say the most dangerous fires come during a drought, and so it was for us as well. Arts funding all dried up, prevention funding all dried up. Ashes to ashes, I could no longer stem the tide of this historical phenomenon. No longer a spectator, I was now a statistic, joining so many others I had watched in my disconnected dismay. A charter member of the “what the hell do I do now” club.
I am steely if nothing else. I am a worker, a team player with a very solid employment history. And so I have begun to pile up short term, part time contracts, sifting through the ashes for cinders left behind that might be salvaged. $5,000 here, $2,500 there. It’s not enough, will probably never bring me back up to the modest income I took for granted for so long, but I’m still standing. And yet I find myself, at a time in my life when I thought I would be slowing down and smelling the roses, instead diving into the wreckage, figuring it out one day at a time as I create a “new normal,” and piecing together remnants in the road to salvage a living for my family.
I know at least 5 smart, successful, professional people who lost lucrative, Wall Street jobs. Ironically, all of them are currently living off their credit cards, racking up massive debt to institutions they used to work for as they watch the zeros in their checkbooks dwindle down. 2, 3, even 4 years later none of them have found jobs.
Another friend lost a marketing job and was granted a temporary reprieve 6 months later by landing consultant work on a 2 year grant. After paying for her own health insurance and taxes she takes home about half of what she is paid… gladly. More responsible than most, she also buckled down, putting enough away to buy herself 6 more months of freedom to find work when the grant runs out this summer. Back into the fire she will go, one of the lucky ones.
On my better days I find it quite fascinating. How are so many people surviving this? How are they “making do” with scraps and cinders when they thought they’d be playing golf in tony retirement condos? And how do I begin to tell my daughter “no” when I can’t afford the little indulgences I used to delight in spoiling her with?
Oh, what the hell, maybe it’s not so bad after all. I am grateful to have found part time work right away and who knows, maybe this will lead me to my next, great adventure. Maybe everything really does happen for a reason. Maybe it all works out in the end. And perhaps even this hardship may end up liberating us all in its “having nothing, having nothing to lose” austerity. Or maybe I’ll win the lottery?
I say let’s all of us meet in the park somewhere, let our hair down, and chip in for some cheap wine while our kids run around with a frisbee. We can burn incense and chant to the heavens for blessings of prosperity as we watch our old reality and all the expectations we had of a pristine retirement life near the pool in the Miami Beach sun, burn to cinders in the fire pit. Maybe we’ll come up with something new, help each other through the storm, find a community. And when we look back on this, years from now, maybe we’ll even laugh, finding ourselves wiser and more resilient, and safe in the knowledge that all was not lost in the fire. Just a little bit burned…

For over 5 years Ms. Paley wrote a monthly column about life as a single, adoptive mother for International Family Magazine as their “voice of the New Global Family.” She began directing issue-based theatre twenty three years ago and was a Founding Director for the NYC Board of Education SPARK Program’s Arts-in-Counseling Team, directing their youth theatre and creating their adult community based theatre, Family Arts Forum. As Artistic Director for The NiteStar Program she coordinated the writing process and directed over 20 productions for both school and community based audiences, including 3 productions of Vagina Monologues with HIV positive women. For the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute’s TE’A Project she directed “Under the Veil” with a commercial run at La Mama. She has also conducted arts workshops with at-risk populations including the formerly incarcerated, teen rape survivors, HIV positive women, teen fathers and sexually exploited teen girls. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Arts from Northwestern University and a Master’s Degree from the NYU Gallatin School and was a member of one of the first Apprentice Companies of The Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. She will now be joining The Director’s Company, a not for profit producing organization as Artistic Director for S.T.A.R. Theatre. She lives with her 11 year old daughter Zoe and their 2 cats in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

  • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

    Yes! Meeting you in the park with wine and incense! I think we can all relate to this piece, Cheryl. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Cheryl Paley

    Thanks Beth! If you’re in New York City look me up and we’re on! The more, the merrier and thanks for the post.

  • http://www.momsupport.org Jessica Shapley

    Cheryl Paley’s submission, Brushfire- What a voice of our times. Continue speaking the truth.

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