Returning to Basics When Times Are Tough
- 2010 1 Dec
Editor's Note: The following is a reflection by author Bill Coffey on coping with the loss of his job and how that influenced the writing of his recent novel, Snow Day.
In the end, it was the bread and milk that saved me. That's what saves Peter, too. And I suppose that's fitting, since we're pretty much the same person.
I went through it first. I was the small-town guy without much in the way of education or ability. In the foothills of Virginia, that usually means your career path is a narrow one—farming or the factory. I didn't own a farm.
Not that there was anything wrong with working at the factory. On the contrary. It was a proven fact that getting hired into there was akin to finding a golden ticket in your Wonka Bar. Even now, seven years later, I can remember my first day. I can still see the plant manager telling me to relax. That the hard part was over.
And then he said this: "I just want to say congratulations. All you have to do is show up for work every day and stay out of trouble, and you'll have a job here until you retire."
Two weeks later my first paycheck came, and it was more money than I'd ever seen in my life. Three months after that, the textile industry collapsed. Five years after that, I was facing a layoff.
I had a wife, two children, a mortgage, and a car payment. And to add a little whipped cream on top of that big bowl of wonderful, it all happened during Christmas.
Three quarters of our household income came from my job, and my wife and I had a grand total of two thousand dollars in the bank. I had about two months to find a new career in what was becoming a national recession.
That's when I found out about the bread and milk. It seemed at first one of those things that was so apparent, so blatantly obvious, that it could be easily overlooked while life chugged along. Which is why looking back, I can see now what I couldn't then—God had a hand in what happened. It's not always easy to see His will when everything goes wrong. Life is like that, I think. The test often comes before, and what you need to know in order to pass that test comes after.
It took me about two months to rediscover some sort of equilibrium in my life and get things from wrong back to right. It was a hard test. And even though I didn't have any answers for it, I started thinking that maybe the answers weren't so important. Not right then. What was important, what God wanted, was for me to just pay attention. That's what I did. I wrote down everything that happened from the day I found out I would likely lose one job until the day I started another one. I took notes on what I felt and did, what I heard and saw, what I learned and didn't.
A friend of mine recently said that if you want to tell what you believe, write non-fiction. But if you want to tell the truth, fiction is your only recourse. To be honest, at that point I still didn't know what I believed. I did, however, have a bit of truth to share.
That was when Peter Boyd was born. I wrote my novel, Snow Day, with the intent to put to rest what was the worst period of my life, to take that hodgepodge of fear and worry and see if I could do the unlikely—find a reason for it.
That's why I say Peter and I are pretty much the same person. He, too, is a small-town guy who loses his factory job during Christmas. He, too, struggles with the knowledge that a man tends to base his self-worth on the work he does. That's what pays the bills. That's what provides for his family. Take away that work and you emasculate him. You rob him of his identity and his sense of purpose.
That's where you'll find Peter, waking up to a snowstorm on a cold December morning and wondering if this will be the day he goes to work and his boss tells him to go back home.
Searching for some way to regain control over his life, he decides to take a day off. His plans to spend the day sulking at home don't last long, though. Peter's wife Abigail needs him to go to the store for bread and milk. It's a simple errand that sets into motion events that help him understand why we all must suffer loss, and how life is made beautiful not by our big moments, but our small ones.
And where did this all start? With the bread and milk.
That's what Abigail sends him out to find in the middle of a crowded grocery store on that storm-filled day. Peter doesn't comprehend the reasoning behind his errand, of course. His family has more than enough groceries to weather the snow outside. But he's lived in the country long enough to know that everyone goes to the store for bread and milk when a storm hits.
It takes Peter most of the day to realize the whys of that. It took me longer. But in the end, both of us turn out the better for it. People don't need bread and milk—the basics—just during a snowstorm. We find that out as well. People need them during a lifestorm, too.
That's what Snow Day is about: the fundamentals of our lives, that solid and unmovable foundation upon which all else is built. Peter finds his and doesn't merely survive, he flourishes. He leans on his family and his town and his God to weather his storm, just as I did to weather mine. And in the end we both have found that when the bad of this world strips us of what means much, it allows us to experience what means more.
November 24, 2010