A little box arrived from Chicago last week to my temporary digs here in Washington, DC. Inside were some of the trinkets of Christmases long past. Ornaments that used to hang on trees surrounded by mounds of gifts, plush Mickey Mouse stockings I used to fill with fruit and candy and little toys when my sons were younger, and a candle holder - absent the candle, of course, which had long since been burned on a holiday table brimming with food and with good cheer.
The box holds what is left of those middle class holiday memories. The box has become the only link to a home-for-the-holidays Christmas I can never again share with my children or my grandchildren. You see, like millions of other Americans, we lost our home. And with that loss goes not only the physical security of home and hearth but also the generational ties to stability and security and the sense of well-being that come with being home... with having a home to come to and a home in which to frame the happenings of our lives. We are the new economic refugees of this society. And no bail-outs are pending.
Who among us has not spent a time longing for the comforts of home? And that universal longing has little to do with square footage or amenities and much more to do with a place of comfort and clarity and sameness and steadiness that helps soften the twists and turns of life that we all must experience. But for those of us who become unwilling nomads with no permanent place to stash our stuff, home became a more elusive place - and not really a physical place at all, but a feeling, a memory, a fleeting image of happier days gone by.
Americans now losing their homes to the mortgage crisis and the millions more, like us, who have fallen prey to the healthcare crisis in this nation are losing far more than just an address or an extra bedroom or a driveway or a lifestyle. We are losing the boundaries of our lives - those intimate details of everyday living that make home a safe place to land and place to retreat when daily pressures are too great and - most vivid during this season - a place where our children and grandchildren can return for generational sharing and all the ups and downs that brings to a family.
One of the most heart-breaking losses we've felt in recent years as we tried in vain to cling to some semblance of middle class reality as health crises crushed us is the loss of holidays, the loss of traditions, the loss of intimacy and the loss of respect from our own children who see no home to come to - and no reason to interrupt more exciting holiday pursuits when we can no longer play host to any sort of Smith family soiree with the same sort of meaning.
Oh, folks will try to say that home is wherever the people you love are gathered, but don't believe it. Our lack of financial stability and the lack of that home in which to gather have damaged far more than just the edges of our lives. When pushed, the grown kids say they don't come to visit because we're not grounded - "There isn't exactly a place where we all grew up and you kept to come home to, is there?" asked one of our sons. No, son, there isn't. So, this year, like the past few years, he'll gather his children (our beautiful grandchildren) and take them to another state and another grandma's house that sits on land that the family has owned for many years and to a home with a whole basement converted to play space that holds literally thousands of dollars worth of toys. No, son, I cannot offer that.
I can offer the little toy box I faithfully move from apartment to apartment and a place at my feet to play. I can offer love beyond what I could explain. But I cannot offer stability of place and the home I so hoped to have until I died - or at least until I could no longer handle the physical constraints of home ownership. But the things I have left to own are not things, and our culture thrives on the ownership of things. So, I am the grandma without enough. And my wonderful husband, the man who gave his body and being to creating a home for us for so many years, is now the grumpy grandpa without enough stuff and without a house.
This is what millions of Americans now losing their homes and their jobs are going to go through all too soon. The unbending cruelty of judgment that comes from having lost one's home in the United States - or worse yet, having gone bankrupt in America.
You see, say what you will about forgiveness and love and peace on earth, but we Americans judge one another by our stuff and our attainment of things. Those who don't have a lot must not have wanted it badly enough, we think, or we didn't work smartly enough. And those who attain homeownership and then lose homes or go bankrupt just managed poorly, lived beyond their means, didn't tighten the belt enough... on and on and on we go with our judgments. I just heard it again this week on a mainstream media news program... people who go bankrupt, they mused, are gaming the system somehow and need to learn to behave better. Going bankrupt was viewed as sinful and irresponsible. These old and ugly views are part of our middle class DNA. I know, because I was taught the same way.
But then the bottom falls out. Health insurance leaves you bare to huge financial burdens. Job loss strips your ability to have enough cash coming in to covers the basics, savings dries up, all the bartering and begging to stay afloat begins to give way, and the wealth it took years to build is gone overnight.
And with that wealth goes a great deal more in personal costs. Some relationships are damaged beyond repair while others are twisted and tinged with guilt, shame or anger. And the holidays are packed away in little boxes of trinkets where peace on earth and joy to the world still can dwell, if but for an instant.
Home for the holidays? Never again. It takes years to recover from bankruptcy or foreclosure and for some of us, there are not enough working years left to do so; the big banking interests we just helped bail out will view us as too risky for a very long time. And our government will not challenge that reality. The best we economic refugees can hope for is that we can hang on to that little box of ornaments, stockings and candleholders as we move from lease to lease to lease making sure our rent is paid and we are warm. There really is no place like home for the holidays, and for many Americans, that Norman Rockwell sort of holiday setting will never again be possible.
When home is no longer home for so many, the generational and cultural foundations are crumbling in ways that will forever alter our national being. The ground truly is shifting beneath our feet as 2009 dawns. And this year, home is even more elusive for many. For some of us, it's carried in a little box.