Hard Times: A Story & Lesson

Lost Dreams
“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor; there’s a song that will linger forever in our ears; oh hard times come again no more. Tis the song, the sigh of the weary, Hard times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have lingered around my cabin door; oh hard times come again no more.” ~Stephen Collins Foster~

Hard TimesThe woman was all used up. Hope was a naked beggar shivering within. Her unemployment benefits were thoroughly exhausted—there’d be no more extensions. She’d been told that in a cold and matter-of-fact manner, and yet here she was in line, waiting to plead her case.

The room was wall to wall sad stories inside human skin. She stood stiff and tall, refusing to be seen as a victim. Her five year old daughter held her hand—ruddy-faced and smiling, she possessed the same determined pride as her mother. They wore their very best clothes, which were faded and threadbare, but crisply clean.

A skinny man cursed in front of her, tore up papers in his hand and stomped outside. She moved closer to the counter. This was not the way she planned or expected life to be. Long ago and far away, she’d been a top-notch student, with prospects and dreams. The small town she’d grown up in provided security and stability, but few options.

She married her high school sweetheart a year after graduation, then in what was viewed as a huge opportunity, the newlyweds relocated to the big city because he got a good job. They found a nice apartment in a comfy community and were blissfully happy. She worked the counter at a local Starbucks and enjoyed the fast-paced interactions.

Eighteen months later their little girl was born. Not long after that blessed event their world began to collapse. Her husband developed severe pain in his back. To relieve it, he tried every over the counter and home remedy imaginable, but it got steadily worse.

Hard Times2A trip to the doctor resulted in a series of tests that came back with a brutal diagnosis; pancreatic cancer. It was already quite advanced. A cycle of radiation treatments and chemo therapy was horrific, and ultimately helpless. Life became intensely focused on his survival—she poured herself into every task associated with his care, but to no avail. Her strong husband withered and shrunk into a skeletal shell. One year after the positive identification of the disease, she was beside his hospital bed clinging to his hands as he gasped his last labored breath.

Fugitive Refugee
“While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting at the door; though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say, oh hard times come again no more.” ~Stephen Collins Foster~

Hard Times3The agony in her soul screamed for comfort, but the days folded in on each other as she simply plugged away and cared for her daughter. Demands and expectations came rushing at her, and she shouldered them all with a grim resolve. There were gaping holes in their insurance coverage—the medical bills were astronomical.

Soon the distressed family was forced to move into a smaller apartment. The red-brick building, in a rather seedy neighborhood, was old and creaky, with water pipes that coughed and groaned like some lunatic chained inside the walls.

In the midst of her husband’s battle for life, the economy had taken one helluva nosedive. The stock market bottomed out, money dried up, and the unemployment rate began a continual uphill climb. Evidently the politicians running the country weren’t the economic geniuses they put themselves forward as on the Sunday morning talk-show circuit.

Shifting from one low-paying job to another, she struggled with childcare dynamics. Making the emotional and financial ends meet kept her in an extreme state of stress. There was never any respite or rest.

She took work where and when she could get it because she came from sturdy bluecollar stock—miners, millwrights, maids. The value of honest labor was deeply ingrained in her. To be without a job chiseled away at self-esteem and made her anxious—it’d been just short of forever since she’d drawn a real paycheck.

Hard Times4Now she was this fugitive refugee, staying scant inches ahead of a slew of trials, awaiting an opportunity to make an urgent plea for a sliver of grace and goodwill. There was a burning sensation deep in her belly—a combination of genuine hunger and a gnawing realization that regardless of what she’d say the effort would be futile and the result fruitless, but she had to try. Pressures were encircling her like a pack of deranged wolves snapping and snarling with vicious glee. She took a tiny, shuffling step forward, inching nearer to the point where bureaucracy had grown deaf to the passion and cries of individuals caught in a meat-grinder.

Her daughter tugged for her attention—she was innocently smiling at her mother in a manner that steeled the distraught woman. There were only two more clients in front of her—soon it’d be her turn.

Hope Deferred
“There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away, with a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day, oh hard times come again no more.” ~Stephen Collins Foster~

Hard Times6The kitchen cupboards were bare and the refrigerator wasn’t in much better shape—there were a couple slices of nearly gone to rot bologna and a cup or so of milk. She was two months behind on the rent, with another due date rapidly approaching.

The landlord, a gruff and greasy middle-aged man she thought was a gentleman, had been slyly making suggestions about letting her slide if she’d put out—oral sex would do it for him. His thinly disguised innuendo made it clear that it wouldn’t be a onetime exchange of favors. She remained morally centered and unwilling to succumb to such a filthy proposition, but beat downs and repeated kicks were taking their toll. Her grit had been strained tight for such a long spell that it was like an abused rubber band—there was no stretch left in it. She was deathly afraid what the twin tormentors of weariness and desperation were capable of doing to resistance and perseverance.

The clock was ticking in a bad way. Living on the streets or going to a homeless shelter was becoming a real possibility. Putting her little girl through such rigors terrified her, but her choices were becoming stark and forbidding—she didn’t have two dimes to rub together.

Hard Times7It was finally time for her to show evidence and make her argument. She began the carefully rehearsed presentation, but halfway through was cut off by an uncaring thud of a rubberstamp that planted DENIED on her claim. Before she was even aware that she was walking she was at the curb staring bleary-eyed at a gray streaked cotton-ball sky.

There were some Bible words from childhood that popped into her brain on occasion—they did so now as she crouched beside her little girl and wept: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”  The woman’s heart was sick—perhaps lethally so, yet she kept taking one step at a time, summoning tattered fragments of hope and weaving them together as she searched for a longing to be fulfilled.

Song’s Invitation
“Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave, tis a wail that is heard upon the shore, tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave, oh hard times come again no more.” ~Stephen Collins Foster~

The above story is fiction. It comes easily from the daily news—actually it and uncounted similar tales can be found in the shadowy crevices between headlines and statistics.

Those suffering or striving to fight the good fight are always around us. The woman is just one of thousands or more likely, tens of thousands rising upwards into the millions.

Perhaps she’s a friend, neighbor, or acquaintance. Maybe you pushed past her on the sidewalk this morning—a nameless, faceless stranger that you didn’t even see.

Hard Times8Hard times are everywhere. The song Hard Times Come Again No More captures the harsh and oft-times cruel realities of life. It was written in 1854 by Stephen Collins Foster and was sung by North and South during the Civil War. The lyrics are a compelling admonition for understanding the nature of the human condition; an invitation for us to embrace our common humanity.

Sometimes its title is minimized to Hard Times, which seems entirely appropriate. It’s in the category of what came to called folk-blues, and indeed might be the first tune ever made popular in that genre.

The song came across my radar courtesy of Bob Dylan. He included it on his 1992 Good As I Been To You release on Columbia Records. His version has a jagged razor edge—it nicks and makes rough cuts that bleed all over the place. It immediately resonated with me and continues to do so because it lines up with my experience and observations.

Hard Times10A number of years later, around Christmastime, a good friend from some mean streets in Iowa gave me a fine CD called Appalachian Journey by the string trio of Yo-Yo Ma on cello, bassist Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor on violin. It features James Taylor on Hard Times Come Again No More.

This rendition is sharper and more finely tuned musically, but the terse message remains blatantly honest. The performance is emotional and evocative, with the strings—especially the cello—conjuring haunting imagery that’s relentless.

Hard times come because they must. We make great efforts to do so, but we cannot insulate ourselves from the endless ramifications of Adam’s curse—it’s stark and unyielding, and no one escapes its bitter vagaries.

We’d do well to heed the clarion call of Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More—to fully grasp the meaning and wonder of our common humanity. We ought to accept the song’s invitation to embrace the weaknesses of flesh and blood by deliberately reaching out to those who are hurting, lonely, broken.

Zero Guarantees
“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor; there’s a song that will linger forever in our ears; oh hard times come again no more. Tis the song, the sigh of the weary, hard times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have lingered around my cabin door; oh hard times come again no more.” ~Stephen Collins Foster~

Grandma & GrandpaMy Grandma Major was fully acquainted with hard times—she and Grandpa started their family at the early stages of the Great Depression and raised six children over the course of a difficult era. Economic woes were everyday obstacles to climb over or scoot around for more than a decade. When World War II broke out, shortages and rationing suffocated a fledgling recovery.

It was a hard-edged world back then, but as an ancient poet and purveyor of truth put it: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

It always has been, always will be a strenuous, burdensome, merciless world—that’s life and life only. Multiple generations have been coddled and spoiled by the post WW II explosion of affluence, but strip it away and we discover the veneer of prosperity can only mask or delay hard times—all the gold bars stored up in all the vaults in the whole world cannot stop the inevitable troubles and ravages of being human.

By the time I got to know my grandmother she was a walking wealth of wisdom. When her bumper-sticker snippets are practically applied they are transformational—if one puts her insights into practice negativity is given the old heave-ho and perspective takes on a positive bearing. There was one particular phrase that got embroidered into my makeup. It eased out of her whenever confronted by someone’s suffering—it served as a reminder of the random scattering of adversity.

Her eyes would be full of sorrow and remembrance as she’d say it to her grandchildren or whoever was present: “Except for the grace of God that could be me or you.” A soft or silent prayer often followed this profoundly serious judgment.

We cannot know the whys and wherefores of a person’s circumstances, but we can comprehend that with a slight change in the ebb and flow tides of happenstance we could be standing inside their shoes. The peculiar fickleness of life is an everpresent certainty; life has zero guarantees. We need to appreciate those seasons and moments when the tender mercies of the Creator allow us bits of sweetness.

IF we respond to those blessings with expressions of appreciation, our gratitude generates in us empathy for those encountering hardships or heartaches. When THAT outlook is cultivated we realize that regardless of how tough we figure it is for us, there’s always a sadder story nearby, which should smother self-pity.

Misery and setbacks are commonplace—hard times come in many different disguises. We’d be wise to live in constant recognition that we could be the next one all used up by the misfortunes of life.

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