Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Porcelain Islands

Balance: $18.32

Panic climbed from my stomach up into my throat. I turned and looked over my shoulder at my little sister, sitting behind the wheel of her new used car, her only concern at that moment being the keeping of rhythm as she nodded her head to Toad the Wet Sprocket’s song about good intentions. I could hear the muffled lyrics mocking (or was it comforting?) me.

…When my head’s full of things that I can’t mention…

It was Christmas Eve, and a light snow was falling in quiet downtown Exeter, New Hampshire. Businesses were shuttered for the holiday and the sidewalks were empty, giving the snow a chance to hide the grey under a brilliant layer of white. Bright and happy holiday lights twinkled in windows, on lamp posts, and from the gazebo at the center of town.

…it feels like this has gone on forever…

I looked back at the ATM. White text against a black background predicted my immediate financial future, while at the same time demanding my input. Where is the refill button? A new father and floundering husband, I had less than twenty dollars in the bank and none in my wallet.

…There’s little relief…

And we needed diapers.

…I clench my fists, close my eyes…

We had been living in Seattle for a couple of years and had nothing but a 1972 Toyota Land Cruiser and a new baby boy to show for it. Our marriage was still uncertain, our apartment laden with mildew, and our financial prospects frightening to the point of uncontrollable laughter-the kind that echoed down the hallways of asylums.

I was not only broke, I was broken.

Our parents had wanted to meet their new grandson, and so they had sent us tickets to fly back to New Hampshire for Christmas, just two weeks after his entry into our manic world. We were putting on a good show, smiling our way through the visit in spite of the dreadful cloud of doubt that had followed us east. Caleb was a happy distraction from our woes, and an easy topic of conversation behind which to hide our terror, but dark times loomed ahead.

To this day, I remain thankful for the loving support system of parents that rescued us in spite of our pride, and the lame attempts we made at masking our plight. But not everyone has that same safety net. The raw and frightening reality that I felt in that moment standing at an ATM on Christmas Eve nineteen years ago is a constant, everyday reality for many, and for them there is no end in sight. To feel the weight of failure is heavy enough on a single soul, but when the uncertainty of how to provide for your spouse and children is added, that soul can crack and break under the strain.

Those of you who know me will know of my fascination with the smallest room in the house. It is the great equalizer. Everyone has the same basic needs, and everyone is subject to the natural laws of ingestion, digestion, and evacuation. It is one of the few things you can’t pay someone else to do for you, no matter how wealthy you may be.

Everybody has crap to deal with in this life. While some of it we have to handle on our own, there’s still a lot of it that we can help each other out with.

Who doesn’t know the sinking feeling that comes when reaching for toilet paper but finding only cardboard? A frantic, immediate search ensues, and you look behind you, around you, and even above you, as if by chance someone has hung a roll of the precious white stuff from the ceiling in case of a predicament such as the very one in which you find yourself. It takes only moments to realize that you are a castaway on a porcelain island in the middle of the sea, and all you can do is hope for the sound of footsteps in the hall, the lapping of water against a ship’s hull as it passes, so that you can shout and wave your arms, somehow capturing their attention and beg them come to your rescue.


Throughout the month of December, our family is accepting donations of unopened packages of toilet paper to give to the Kamas Valley Food Bank. Every roll counts; please give.

Because no man, woman, or child should ever know what it feels like to be an island.

Email me at for drop off location and information.