Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Easing Hard Days for Others

I know Buddy the Elf says that the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear, and he's got a point, however, I also recommend doing small acts of kindness. This week I had the opportunity to do small things for a few people who have done kind things for me in the past, and that was wonderful. It has been hard for me to be on the receiving end so much all these years. I love to do things for other people, but even if I made things mailing them off to friends was beyond our means or added to our family's financial stress. It's hard to describe the awesomeness of being able to mail off packages to friends! Yesterday I did just that, and I have hopes and plans for doing it more in the future. It's a clear sign that our financial situation is slowly getting better! Doing things for friends, especially for friends whose kindness you are repaying, is a particular kind of warm fuzzy feeling. That said, I love doing things for strangers at least as much, and probably more. 

Yesterday, as I stood in line to mail my packages, I realized the man behind me was empty handed. It turned out he was only buying stamps, while I had four packages to mail as well as stamps to buy. I let him go ahead of me. This is something I try to do whenever I am not in a huge hurry. And really, I'm rarely in so much of a hurry that I can't let someone go ahead of me in line if they have a few items and I have a cart full. My husband called me just as it was my turn to buy postage, so I let the woman behind me go next while I took the call. She needed to get to work so that helped her day go more smoothly.  

Later in the day we went to the airport to pick up my daughter's boyfriend. This is the busiest travel week of the year. The airport was packed full of people, at least half of whom were carrying a baby and/or holding the hand of a small child. The other half were travelling with dogs. That's a slight exaggeration, but the level of adorableness at the airport was at an all time high. I spend a ridiculous amount of time dropping people off and picking them up at the airport for a person who hasn't flown anywhere in over two years, so I'm familiar with the average level of adorableness at our airport.

While we were waiting for the luggage to show up on the carousel, a young woman approached one of my kids, asking for help. She was holding a credit card in her hand and spoke with great hesitation, English was clearly not her first language. My kid brought her to my attention. She was trying to get a luggage cart from the rental rack. Next to her I saw a huge box, 3 feet square, a large suitcase, a backpack, and a purse. As I tried to help her I found that her card was being denied. There was no way she was getting her luggage anywhere without a cart. I pulled out my card, swiped it, and helped her get a cart. Together we loaded the box, the suitcase, and the backpack onto the cart. She said her uncle was meeting her and I pointed her toward the doors that lead to the arrivals pickup area. It wasn't much, but in the past I would have been stressed about that $5, it would have been too much out of our budget for me to offer help without hesitation. As much as I love showing small kindnesses to other people, I know part of my good feeling comes from feeling financially secure enough to spend $5 on a stranger. It's not something I can do all the time, but now and then it won't add to my family's financial burden. It's hard when you want to do nice things for others but you lack the resources to make it possible. I'm so excited that with this holiday season I am also celebrating the beginning of a new phase for our family, a time when we can start giving back. The ability to pay forward the kindnesses that others have show us in the past, even in small ways, is something I am incredibly thankful for. I hope you'll join me in looking for little ways you can spread kindness in the world. It doesn't take much to brighten someone's day or decrease their stress level a little. 

All the Hard Days

This morning I was going to post something on facebook, and then decided to expand on the idea and write a quick blog post. While signing in to my account I saw the date on my last post, May 30, 2015. Some days are hard. There are the times when every day is hard and you are so busy surviving you barely have the time and energy to realize how difficult things have gotten. The past seven months have been just that. The struggles have been too personal to share, the challenges have been so great that often I couldn't even reach out and ask for support. And really, we've asked for, and gotten, so much support and help over the past 3 plus years, since my husband was laid off, that it felt greedy to ask for support when so many other people we know were struggling. And really, it was starting to feel like people were tired of being there for me, that my need for support had exceeded the ability of others to tolerate the depth and length of my string of hard days. 

But here I am, blogging. It's two days before Christmas. I will admit to being completely exhausted and emotionally raw. My To Do List is still rather long, but I'm accepting that some things won't get done and really, after the year we've had, I've done a lot! I probably don't have time to blog, but I have the desire, and that is something that has been missing. 

We are still in the midst of change and upheaval, but things are getting better:

For the past two months we've had a homeless teenager living with us. She now has a job, and last weekend she moved off our couch and into a shared apartment. 

For the past year we've had my daughter's boyfriend living with us, and this week he is moving out to his own apartment. In January he's starting classes at the community college! 

For my husband's entire career he has been under appreciated and under paid. The last three years he's been unemployed or seriously underemployed. In October he was hired by a wonderful organization as a member of their executive team. His new job is challenging, and involves some not very fun stuff, but he really likes his job! He feels appreciated and his work is meaningful. 

We have a long way to go before we are solidly on our feet financially, but for the first time in a very long time I know we can pay all the bills all the time, and still have money for socks and underwear. 

There are still on going challenges, there are still really hard days, and I'll admit that it's hard to believe that things are actually better and going to stay better. Things have been hard for so long that I'm really afraid of believing that we are finally climbing out of the pit of desperation and back up to the land of people who get to live life, not just struggle to survive. 

I'm so hopeful, and yet so afraid that all  the needs and repairs and things that need replacing are going to make staying in this more positive place impossible. But like I said, I'm hopeful! And hope has always been something I was good at holding onto, always the optimist, but hope is also something that I was beginning to lose sight of in all the struggles.

One of the best parts of things getting better is this: now I can be someone who supports other people. (That doesn't mean I don't still need support, believe me, I do!) Doing things for others has always brought me joy, and it's nice to have a little bit of that joy back in my life. 

My next blog post will share more about doing things for other people, I hope you'll come back to read it.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Panhandling on Virtual Corners

How bad does it have to get before you ask for help?
Last night I posted this status on facebook: I'm going to spare you the details, but our financial situation is bleak. If anyone is inspired to buy us a case of toilet paper that would be awesome...

And in the early morning hours, when I wasn't sleeping, but wished I was, I realized that facebook status was me standing on a virtual corner panhandling, begging, with a virtual cardboard sign that took the form of a facebook status. 

It's embarrassing to admit how many times I've been on this corner: posted a facebook status, written a blog post, or offered up items for sale, in a desperate attempt to increase our cash flow.

It's hard for others to know how hard we have worked, only to end up staring into the financial abyss once again. It's discouraging to recount how many hopeful job interviews have ended up with a "thanks but no thanks," and how many job applications never even got a response. It's hard to acknowledge publicly that once the mortgage leaves the bank account on the first we don't have any money to pay the rest of the bills, that we can't afford dental floss, that we need to ask our friends if they have it in their hearts to buy us toilet paper.

Sometimes when we pass a person standing on a busy corner, holding up their cardboard sign, I say, "Maybe it's time for me to stand on a corner and beg for money."

 Last night I realize, I already am. 

(Come join the conversation at Some Days Are Hard on facebook by clicking HERE.)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Choosing to Live Simply

Stories like this Piss Me Off!

She's a French Accountant who owns a house in France, which is being rented and is making her money. She *chooses* not to use that money. She has financial security, she has an education, she is French and does at least admit that because she's French she has privilege that illegal immigrants from quite a few other countries simply wouldn't have.

Pretentious, privileged people who *choose* to "live off the waste of others" get cute little articles written up about them - articles that shame homeless people for not wanting to eat food that comes from the garbage.

People who choose to live simply, people who choose not to spend the money they have, people who have financial security to back up their life if they ever face a crises of any kind, need to check their privilege. The difference between choosing to live simply and having no choice but to live simply is a vast chasm.

If you've never lived simply because society doesn't value the work that you do enough to pay you a living wage, because you have never had mental or physical limitations, because you've never faced prejudice, because of so many variables beyond your control, then don't hold your values and choices up as superior. You just don't get it, you can't really, unless you've lived it.

Here's the article that brought about the above rant: 

How to live a middle-class life in New York City on less than $5,000 a year
Marie is a French woman living in Brooklyn who has no job, no visa, and lives in a three-story house for free. Her secret: living off the waste of others

Marie was mixing basil for pesto on the kitchen counter of a brownstone in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn when the doorbell rang. Her friend Janet Kalish was early for lunch: the butternut squash was still cooking. “I found kilos of carrots yesterday,” Kalish said joyfully. “I have to give them away before they turn bad!”
Kalish had collected the carrots on the street, just like the parmesan Marie was grating had been rescued from the trash. The pair became friends when Marie started dumpster diving three years ago.
Drifting from the American philosophy of incessant consumption, some have adapted to a system of interdependence and sharing – and eating for free is just the first step.
Marie lives a New York middle-class life spending less than $5,000 a year. Kalish, who travels more, needs $10,000. They work, eat, have a home, but there’s no rent bill or grocery shopping. No regular salary, even. Money isn’t their currency.
Marie is a petite, black-haired French woman who looks just like the conventional fortysomething Brooklynite. But she has no job, no visa, and lives in a three-story house for free. Living in the US also comes with an additional bit of daring: she’s an illegal immigrant. For privacy reasons, she asked to be identified with her first name only.

Read the rest of this article HERE.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding Comfort through Netflix

Sometimes adults express frustration or irritation with small children who want to read the same book over and over, or watch the same video for days on end. Many parents (most parents?) set limits, control their kids' screen time, and down right refuse to play that video or read that book one more time.  Not me, I'm with the kids. When your mind is spinning, life feels out of control, or you are feeling worn out by all the everythingness of life sometimes you need to curl up and watch something you've watched before.

Yesterday I needed to make progress on some fiber projects that need to get done in the next week. Mentally I was exhausted from life, coping, supporting those I love: the neverendingness of poverty and chaos that permeates every corner of my existence. Heading to Netflix I tried watching a series I'd just started, but it was jarring and uncomfortable. Giving up on that show I clicked on the pilot of White Collar. There they were, those characters I'd journeyed with to the end of their story. My mind settled, my body relaxed, and, with my crochet hook in hand, I escaped.

Don't underestimate the power of the familiar, for you or for children. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day Can Be Hard

It's Mother's Day. For many people it's a day of warm fuzzies, love and appreciation. For many other people it is a really hard day. It is a day of longing, pain, and disappointment. Some people mourn the children they've never had, others mourn the mothers they wish they'd had. People who had nurturing mothers may mourn the passing of a precious person who they miss every day. Other's feel guilty because they are relieved their mother is no longer around. There are mothers who feel painfully unappreciated or those who are still so desperately trying to keep up with caring for their babies and small children that they don't have time for so much as a celebratory cup of tea.

I can't begin to list all the reasons people struggle on Mother's Day. It's a difficult day for a whole lot of people: mothers, fathers, children, and those who have never been mothers.

Some Days are Hard, holidays are often those days. If you are struggling today I wish I could give you a hug, bake you some cookies, and listen while you talk about your feelings. Remember, there are no wrong feelings. Feel your feelings, write a letter about your feelings, write a little to your mother, your child, or your younger self and tuck it into a secret box or burn it, draw a picture, buy yourself a plant and a pretty pot, yell, cry, dance.  Allowing yourself to feel your feelings is an important part of taking care of yourself. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

If I Lived in a Fishbowl.

If I lived in a fishbowl it would never be necessary for me to tell you what I wish you knew. You could see that my house is a beyond cleaning, my yard beyond taming, my existence a point on a line between holding it together and falling apart.

If I lived in a fishbowl you would know the days that start with a message from my bank telling me my account balance is below $100, or below $0. 

If I lived in a fishbowl you would witness the days when my hours are spent listening to my children, trying to be positive about their hopes and dreams but knowing there is no money to make even the smallest ones possible. "Mom, I'd like to go rollerskating sometime."  "Yes, that would be fun. Hopefully someday soon we can do that." Knowing full well that even rollerskating is not in the budget. You would see all the hours I spend being there for the members of my family, their emotional support person, trying to be what they need in whatever challenging moment they are facing.

If I lived in a fishbowl you would know about the hours I spend blogging and writing, trying to make the world a better, brighter, place from the dark corner of my bedroom. Working to inspire and encourage others, while deep down desperately hoping that someone will inspire and encourage me.

If I lived in a fishbowl you would see how many people I've hidden from my facebook feed. You would know that most days I want to be happy for all the people who go out to eat, go on trips, explore the world on their own terms, and shape their lives into the adventure of their choosing, but I fail.

If I lived in a fishbowl you would see the reality of my life, but would you understand it even if you could see it? When you said those words "I understand...." would you really? Would seeing it make it possible for you to realize how different our lives are? Would seeing my life more clearly stop the words "Oh, I'm right there with you!" from leaving your mouth when you try to compare your need to decide where to cut back so you can afford more adventures, to my need to stretch an income that doesn't even cover the bills just a little further?

If I lived in a fishbowl would it be any different from how it is right now? Me on the inside, swimming circles in my tiny little world. You on the outside, thinking I should be grateful that someone sprinkles a bit of food onto the surface of my water every day, telling me how lucky I am to have such a cute little bowl, decorated with duckweed and shiny rocks, because many other fish don't even have that.

If I lived in a fishbowl would you even look at me as you walk by, as you breath air, as you walk out the door into the sunshine. Would you think, in passing, that it's just too bad I don't have it in me to pull myself up, to grow a set of lungs, to stand up on my own two feet, because my life would be so much better - more like yours - if I would simply try harder.

If I lived in a fishbowl, would you even take the time to peer inside?

(I think of this a s spoken word poem, not a blog post. 

Hopefully, eventually, I'll find a way to make that happen.) 

Monday, May 4, 2015

So, I *Deserve* This Shit?

I got up this morning, did all the usual morning things, walked out the door to drive my husband to work because we only have one car and my daughter's boyfriend needed it to go to a job interview this afternoon, and there it was:

I'd like to think the trail of dog shit leading from the top of our driveway all the way to our front step isn't anything personal, but really? I can't imagine a dog did that on their own. For anyone who believes in Karma I'd like to point out that the night before last we put out a fire in our neighbor's yard while they were fast asleep. A big fire, a fire that could have caused a lot of damage for at least three homes in the neighborhood, including ours. I don't think our reward for that is dog poop on our front step. I don't think we get a reward for putting out that fire. We didn't expect one, we just did what needed to be done. 

I also don't think we deserve dog shit on our front step. Obviously someone does, but that's not what I'm contemplating at the moment. Right now I'm fixating on the word deserve. People toss that word around a lot and I find it annoying at best. "No one deserves this/that/whatever more than you." "You deserve better."  "They've worked hard and they deserve the luxuries they have."

"Poor people are lazy, they don't deserve help." "Poor people feel they are entitled, but they really don't deserve anything." "You get what you deserve."

I disagree. You get what you get. Some people work hard and are successful. Some people work even harder and live in poverty. Some people inherit great amounts of money so they can afford a lavish lifestyle, other people work for every penny they ever get. And yes, on average people who are successful have worked hard, but I assure you that, on average, people who are poor work at least as hard or even harder.

And while my yard is over grown and there is moss covering my leaky roof, we are the family that feeds the neighbor's cats when the neighbor's can't be bothered, we are the family that puts out fires, we are the family that struggles with physical and financial limitations that prevent us from keeping up our house in the way we'd prefer, and probably that our neighbor's would prefer. But really, I can't think of one reason why we deserve to have dog poop dumped on our front porch. Then again, I don't think that's something anyone deserves.

So now, before I go wash dishes I will go clean dog shit off my front porch. Gee thanks to whomever decided to gift me with that task. I hope you are kinder to your dog than you are to other humans. I'm sorry that you and your life are such that you decided that doing something mean to someone else would make you feel better. I hope your life is less shitty in the near future, not because you deserve it, but just because I wish that for everyone who is struggling.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Adversity is Our Strong Suit

For some couples adversity tears them apart: maybe the little things that chip away at their love until it falls to unsalvageable disrepair, or maybe a catastrophic event, some unthinkable tragedy that shatters the individuals and their love as well. And maybe some day that will happen to us. Never say never, knock on wood, and there are no guarantees.

But in our relationship, so far, adversity has been our strong suit. We are at our mightiest, our bravest, our most courageous, when it is us against the world. Our relationship is strongest, our love the most unconditional, when we are working through something that has proven to be the last straw for many couples who thought their love was forever. 

My first marriage ended when I least expected it, gone before I even realized it was in jeopardy. He was on to someone new while I was still planning our future together. 

My second marriage (this marriage) began before a future together was even a consideration. It began as we were parting ways in mutual agreement that our lives were headed in different directions. A rebound relationship for both of us, people at two different stages of life, heading toward different cities and new lives without each other. But then a new life brought us back to each other. We decided that we would be parents together. And, shortly after our child turned one, we got married. The three of us, committed to making a future together because we were a family now. 

Our little family grew, faster than planned, we were five lives connected forever. And here we are today, a family with three teenagers, already venturing into the world for longer periods of time. It’s only a matter of years, or months, or days, until they sever the last bit of umbilical cord and, untethered, float off into their own worlds. 

This week I realized, perhaps I had noticed it before, but this week it really stood out: what was true about us as a couple was true about us as a family. When hard times come our super power activates, and it is our love, compassion, and unwavering support for each other. Well, those things combined with a ridiculous sense of humor. 

I doubt we have seen our last hard day, our last challenge or struggle. But I look at all we have come through, together, and I have hope that, even if nothing else goes right, we have succeeded. Our family can stare down adversity, lift each other up, cheer each other on, cry together, and show each other compassion. Adversity is our strong suit. And while it sucks that we have had so many opportunities to prove that, to share in struggles together and grow closer in the process, it also fills my heart with love for us. We are an odd little family that doesn't really fit in anywhere, but we are really good at going through rough patches and finding ourselves, our relationships, that much stronger on the other side.   

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I Don't Live in Africa

Here's the thing, I don't live in Africa. For those of you who know me that probably comes as no surprise. So, why am I telling you something you already know? I saw a quote once, probably on Humans of New York, but I'm not exactly sure where, that said something about how in the place this person came from everyone was content and happy even though they didn't have very much. The comment was that in America everyone has so much but no one is satisfied with how much they have or happy. Or something like that. 

In my own mind, when I'm struggling with the reality of my life, I'll point out to myself that compared to so many people around the world I have So Much! We have a house, a car, electricity, running water, access to medical care, and the option of sending our kids to school. (We don't utilize that option, but it's there.) There are nifty websites like This One that will tell me that my family is in the top 20% of all the people in the world, when it comes to income. How dare I feel a sense of lack or consider myself poor??!!??

But I don't live in Africa or South America or anywhere else for that matter. I live right here, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America. My friends don't live in the little shack, hut, or apartment packed full of multiple generations next door. In fact, most of my friends don't live near me at all. Most of my friends make, or have spouses who make, tens of thousands of dollars more each year than my family does. Most of my friends have had some hard times, but they haven't struggled for decades only to still be struggling. 

My family lives a strange mixture of poverty and excess. My children have each been to Disney World, twice! But, they have each only had their hair professionally cut once in their life, and for two of them it was at a super inexpensive Super Cuts kind of place when they were very little. Ironically, the trips to Disney World and the once in a life time hair cuts happened only because they were paid for by someone else. We get to do cool things when other people help make them possible, and we are incredibly appreciative that people do make special trips and opportunities possible for our family. However, those bits of extravagance are the contrast to our daily life where just buying the essentials, like underwear and toothpaste can cause financial stress. When people look at our life and say, "Yes, but you've gotten to do this or have that! You shouldn't complain about being poor," I want to point out that while the extras are awesome, they don't take away the daily stress of trying to survive. 

If I lived where everyone else was hauling water from the one well in the area back to our tiny dwellings, I'd be right there with everyone else, hauling water. But I don't live there, I live here. And here we aren't all living at the same basic level. Here life is set up by and for people who have a steady income that provides enough money for the essentials and some extras. And while a huge number of American's don't have that, just like me, the media focuses on those who do. The politicians are people who do. The people I'm friends with on facebook and in real life are those who do. 

Having thought about all of this, a lot, I've found that two things stand out. First, I can't compare my life to people in Africa, because I live here. The amount of money I have in U.S. dollars would buy a whole lot in Africa, but that's irrelevant. The way I live, even with a leaky moss covered roof and feeling financial stress over buying toilet paper, may be luxurious compared to the lives of many people, but I don't have a close relationship with those people. I am not a bad person for feeling like my life is difficult and discouraging. It is! My feels are valid and should be validated. I remind myself that there are no wrong feelings. 

But that brings me to the second thing I've realized: while it's impossible not to compare my life to the lives of my friends and the people I'm close to, I do want to keep in mind that if everyone I knew lived at the same level I did I would feel more content. That doesn't mean I'm going to banish all my friends from my life and only associate with people who live in poverty. It means that sometimes it's helpful to reflect on what I would be satisfied with, where my level of contentment would be, if I didn't have friends whose income provide them with greater opportunities, comfort, and security. 

There are dark days when I have a hard time seeing the little pockets of contentment that are possible in my life. When those days strike I'm extra glad that I have to go outside and let the ducks out in the morning. Ducks are awesome examples of contentment. They get excited about a mud puddle, a small pool of water, or a handful of peas. Then again, that may be because they don't know about ducks who live with wide open fields and real ponds to swim in.... 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sometimes the Tank Needs Filling

Over the holidays our friends, family, and people we didn't even know were incredibly generous. Six weeks before Christmas we didn't have money for any gifts at all. As November ended, we had to ask if some money that would have been used to buy us, my husband and I, gifts could be given early to help pay the bills. Things were bleak and I was feeling stressed, fast forward to mid-December and friends gave us some amazing hand-me-down gifts for our kids, along with money for food and other extras during the month. I managed to sell quite a few crocheted items as well, we had more discretionary money then we'd had in years!

Two days before Christmas the tree, that my parents bought for us, was beautiful, there were piles of presents under it, and we were feeling rich! Then I went online and found that we'd spent every last penny of the money we'd been given. My stomach knotted up, my heart was pounding, and I began to mentally chastise myself. I thought it was such a stupid poor person thing to do, spend all the extra money, to be right back where we'd been a few weeks before. But then I caught myself, and started to think more clearly and rationally. We had presents under the tree! We had a pantry full of food! Our kids were getting some big gifts they really wanted, and even though the gifts were 2nd hand, they were awesome and the kids would be so happy! The bills were all paid. My daughter could go to the zoo for her birthday, which happens to be the day after Christmas, and then out to IHOP for dinner on the way home. We had a month of feeling comfortable! We had a month of going to the grocery store and not feeling stressed about buying toothpaste! We'd been able to pay for the supplies to do some electrical work, and for the required inspection. When the car needed a minor repair it wasn't the end of the world. Our holiday season had been merry and bright, we felt loved and cared for, it had been awesome.

Why is it that we poor people spend money when we have it? When you don't have any money in the bank, no savings, no retirement, no investments, nothing, for years or always, things are different. And when someone hands you $300 or $1,000 you may consider putting it in the bank, but $300 in the bank, when you have no money at all, isn't going to stay there for long. And if someone hands you $50 are you really going to put it in the bank if your gas tank is empty? No, you are going to fill up your tank.

I'm a big fan of saving money. From childhood, I've always been more of a saver than a spender. But I recognize that sometimes it's just more important to fill up the tank. That tank may be figurative, not a gas tank on a car, but the happiness tank of your family.

One of the things we did over the holidays was go out for Thai food. We don't usually go out to eat. Taking a family of 5 out to dinner can cost a weeks worth of grocery money, even at an inexpensive place. That night we didn't do take out, we sat down and had dinner, eating food someone else prepared! For me that's bliss. And to be able to go out for dinner knowing someone else was paying the bill made it a stress free, delightful evening.

As I reflected on the money and gifts we'd been given, and were we were at the end of December, I knew we weren't stupid poor people. The truth is, most poor people aren't stupid. Poor people are resourceful, creative, hardworking, smart, determined, and tough, but they aren't stupid. Poor people live with a set of circumstances you don't see from the outside.

We barely scraped by waiting for January to arrive and the financial aid to get deposited into the bank account and the food money to show up on our EBT card. There was a stressful week in there, but we made it. We may not have more money in the bank than we did two months ago, but we are so much better off! To all of our friends and family who helped fill our tank during the month of December Thank You!