Reaching a new frontier

Book of the times
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 9, 2011

Is it weird that Caitlin Shetterly's book made me slightly envious? Yes. Shetterly's new memoir, Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home (coming out this week from Voice) is the story of hardships — financial, familial, emotional — not usually the stuff that inspires switching places. She and her husband, Dan, set out from Maine to Los Angeles in 2008, searching for better opportunities, seeking not to defer their dreams. Instead, when they reached California, life (and the recession) threw countless obstacles in their path: joblessness and resulting broke-ness, an unexpected and physically complicated pregnancy, shitty apartments, loss of loved ones. And in 2009, with a two-month-old son in tow, they turned around and came home to live temporarily with Shetterly's mother Downeast. Made for You and Me describes their journey there and back.

Why would I envy Shetterly her miseries? I certainly don't want the bottom to fall out of my own precariously arranged life. I don't want to know the fear, desperation, or frustration that she eloquently describes in her book. But if those nightmares come true for me, I hope to emerge with my soul intact, as Shetterly did, surrounded by feelings of love and optimism. To learn, as she did, "that the bonds of family will sometimes support me more than my career."

I hope to find the Little House on the Prairie resourcefulness that allowed her to feed her family (plus two animals) on less than $100 a week — "which, when you're trying to eat organic because you're nursing is a major undertaking," she writes. "I had never in my life been this focused on my actual survival. There was a desperation and, also, an adrenaline kick to trying to pull everything together so that we could eat and keep our bodies going."

Let me be clear: I don't romanticize the harsh realities of not knowing if you'll be able to eat or pay your rent next month; for the most part, neither does Shetterly. She honestly depicts the meltdowns, marital spats, and mother issues that accompanied her experience — and I don't envy any of those. And she knows that she was luckier than many. She had a safety net in her family, who welcomed her with (mostly) open arms and supported her emotionally and logistically. She had a loving husband, a good education, and she knew how to bake bread. Not one of these factors goes unacknowledged. But still.

Of the ride from California back to Maine, she writes: "With Rain Man-like repetition and Rain Man-like rhythm I was saying over and over again, 'Our lives are chaos, our lives are chaos, our lives are chaos.' I couldn't help myself. Our lives felt like fucking chaos. Each time, Dan took a moment to painstakingly explain that when I went into this mode it made him feel like there was no air in the car." Nope, I don't envy that.

However, like thousands of National Public Radio listeners who appreciated Shetterly's audio diary, in which she described what she and her family were going through, I responded viscerally to her plight. (That makes extra sense in my case: Shetterly and I have some key traits in common — including the fact that she used to write a column, "Bramhall Square," for this paper; she's only a little older than me; we're both writers and actors; we're both in love with men who know how to work with their hands and take our, um, spirited emotions in stride; we both relish good food.)

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