The Deja Vu Feeling of a Tanking Economy

Claudia Stack

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Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

With the Coronavirus upending people’s work lives, I was reminded of the period in 2008, when our family faced a lot of economic uncertainty. Here is a piece I wrote then, when I had started to job-hunt after just three months as a stay-at-home mother.

My six-year-old son Jack opens the deck door and says “Ma! I need the scissors for an arts and crafts project.”

By this he means, he wants a pair of scissors to cut open a bagworm cocoon. However, he has picked up on the fact that “arts and crafts” is a sanitizing phrase that covers a multitude of dark intentions, if not actual sins. I give him the scissors. The bagworms are damaging the shrubs at the front of our house, just as they do every other year in an inscrutable, gooey cycle. The shrubs are overgrown, but that could be fixed in an afternoon. Huge bare spots are another thing. Now I look at our humble farm through the eyes of a potential buyer, and I shudder at everything that would need to be done to make it ready for sale.

The first real sign of trouble at my husband’s plant came with a change in the books they sent home. At first the international company that bought Joe’s plant gave him shiny hardcovers, recent business bestsellers with titles like Good to Great. Another book urged everyone to embrace kaizen, the Toyota management philosophy of continuous improvement.

Then recently, when they announced plans to close the plant within a year, they sent home a book entitled Thriving on Chaos. More disturbing even than the title, was the fact that the book was a yellowed paperback, seemingly purchased for the occasion out of a remainder warehouse.

The announcement sent us scrambling. Just three months prior, we had decided that the stress and expense of my working was not worthwhile. Half of my salary was going to childcare and the stress when they got sick, which was often, was unbelievable.

For the first time in our family life I had a routine totally focused on the boys. I attended every school trip and function, and was able to shepherd them through afterschool activities and homework. While they were in school I worked on my film project, a quixotic effort to document the oral history of schools that local African American communities helped to build during segregation (I finally finished this film, Under the Kudzu, in 2012).

Now, our family finances were tight but workable. Then came the book, the book that implied that if we didn’t thrive on chaos it was only through some irrational refusal to do so, some personal failing that kept us from embracing the good in the layoffs and impending plant closure.

I am a flexible person. We have chaos on a regular basis at my home, but it usually involves mud fights, or fire ant hills, or an opossum getting into the cat food.

The employment chaos on the horizon is of an entirely different order. The only thing that is clear to me is that I need to get back in the game. I immediately began applying for jobs in education, my field of 17 years. For now we are holding steady; I have not found a job yet, but I am hopeful. Joe’s position seems stable for the moment, but the uncertainty of his company’s timing is stressful. However, I am trying to live in the moment, where things are actually all right.

I turn my attention back to washing the beans, which Jack helped me pick before the urge to dissect hit him. I have a vague notion that wholesome tasks, done together, will strengthen him in an uncertain future. Then I realize, that is a pair of scissors that cuts both ways: I need the beans, and maybe even the bagworms too, to help me stay grounded in the present moment.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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