Intersection 2: Poverty and Shame

I last published on this site in June, and it was part one of a series on Poverty. I had intended to publish the second part earlier, but I’ve been living with a little too much fear to address the topic. Over five months later, here is part II.

I just wrote the check for my property taxes for the year. It’s been a hard-fought battle to get there; the money I had set aside for this is busy doing other things this year, so I had to spend the last 10 months scraping the pennies together to pay this bill. There are options to pay it in two parts, which leaves me vulnerable to having the lien bought by a third party whose goal is to own the house for very cheap. It matters to me to have the house free and clear. I want to pay the tax bill all at once and get it done.

This has been a tough year. I learned early in the year that the savings I had loaned to a friend would come back to me much more slowly and erratically than we had both thought at first. So I began to figure out how to put the funds together to pay the taxes at the end of the year while not living in misery all year.

The first rule is that I’m not going to punish myself. I won’t deprive myself of the occasional beer or coffee with buddies. I won’t deprive myself of the work I love, and that gives me pleasure, even when it does not pay. I will allow myself occasional treats, such as buying myself new shoes, paying for some else’s beer, or taking my daughter out to breakfast.

The second rule is that I’m responsible for my behavior and social actions. I won’t lean on others to make them responsible for my security. I’ll ask for help when I need it, and I’ll try to ask effectively, and I’ll expect and accept ‘no’ as a good answer. When a friend says ‘yes’ over and over but never actually steps up, I take note of that and check with myself first to see if I’m communicating well. When that answer is also ‘yes,’ I’ll recognize that some friends are not able to be as supportive as they would like, and I’ll stop asking. I don’t owe anyone every detail about my life, but I won’t lie.

Given that rubric, I’ve been saving money in some uncomfortable ways. At more than one catered event, I would ask the caterer afterwards if I could have the leftovers. A couple of times, I ate for a week on hors d’oeuvres that would otherwise have been discarded. After some church dinners, when there were leftovers that were not sugar/simple carb heavy, I would ask to take home leftover cheese cubes and pepperoni slices.

There have been some unexpected health issues that have added to the financial burdens, but the insurance I was able to afford via the healthcare.gov website due to the Affordable Care Act has made the scary and probably very lengthy struggle ahead of me less terrifying. Still, co-pays and days not working due to medical issues add to the money worries.

The struggle has been to maintain some personal self-respect during all this. Raised in a family system that values independence, I have standards of self-competence that are perhaps unrealistic. I expect to be able to pay my own way. I expect, given my care and forethought with money, that I will have some savings. I expect that I will have the resources to care for myself, my home, and my car and to cover my healthcare costs unassisted.

I didn’t make it this year. I had to turn to others, and it hurt. Living on other people’s leftovers comes with a burden of shame. Living on what feels (to my middle-class, white sensibilities) like the edge of desperation comes with a burden of shame. I had to turn to my father (and I cannot say how much I loathe asking my father), I really needed the times that friends paid for the beer, and I really needed the leftover food. Need comes with a burden of shame.

Shame is a bitch. There’s no good reason for it. It’s not like guilt or culpability—the knowledge that one’s actions have damaged others. Guilt is knowing I did something I should not have done or that I have caused harm. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person because of my choices or circumstances. Shame is the feeling that I am supposed to—perhaps even required to—feel pretty worthless.

One side effect of shame is that feeling worthless tends to drive me into isolation. My agoraphobia flares up, and I stay huddled in my house or my bed longer than I should. I only think of calling or contacting friends late at night, and then I decide to wait until later the next day, and then it feels like too long, and then I’m ashamed of losing touch, and I stop trying. And then I feel like a bad friend.

Reclaiming self-respect is hard when one is poor and white and middle class. Somehow we are not supposed to be poor. We have privilege (we really do) so we should be financially stable and well educated and employed. Struggling to respond as a faithful ally to all those facing injustice—and there are more every time. I know that the mere fact of home ownership puts me in a category of privilege beyond what many others have; I also know that the house is an albatross around my neck, anchoring me to a way of living that is probably not sustainable.

But I wrote the check for the property taxes, and the check is good. There is (thanks to Dad) a small account to cover long-overdue and necessary repairs. Thanks to a very dependable and dear friend, I had a great lunch with great company (and beer) every four to six weeks. He always let me pay the tip, and sometimes I got to pay for dessert, so I always felt like it was collaborative, and not like I was a charity case. I’ve been welcome to take leftovers, and my closest friends have let me set my own limits and they have mostly done so with grace and understanding. Some have had trouble understanding—their definition of poor doesn’t reach as deeply into small income numbers as mine does.

At the end of the year, I’ve had several friends show me real love and practical support. I’ve received gifts that go a long way toward easing the ‘up against the edge of destitution’ feeling I’ve been dreading this last month or two. A few of the friends I had counted on have had their own struggles this year, and some have chosen to distance themselves from my issues, or asked me to distance myself from theirs, even as they and I maintain a connection that may one day be richer—in every sense.

I’m grateful for my friends who have been there for me, and for those who could not be. I’m grateful beyond measure for the health insurance I could afford this year, and the confirmation that it will be cheaper next year. As I look forward to a year focused on repairing my house and managing my health, I’m looking at reinventing the way I face the world, and that’s both a little daunting and a little shameful.

And if you have to ask why, you don’t understand shame.

Posted in Anger, Ethics, Poverty, Self image, Shame, Social Commentary, Social interaction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Intersection 1: Poverty and Resentment

Poverty is exhausting.

Every choice is fraught with uncertainty and looming consequences. Last night I had to decide whether to drive to a church coffee house 30 miles away (2 gallons of gas = $7.00) or buy minimal groceries locally. The extra $7 just was not in the budget.

I’m working at holding down the resentment that I have to choose between eating and what is essentially free entertainment, social engagement, and opportunities to sing with friends.

Last week I attended a fundraising reception as part of one of my jobs. I was originally told that staff was not invited because it was hoped that all the places would be subscribed by donors. At the last minute, when it was clear that there would be some openings, staff were notified. I was able to piggyback it on to an errand in the area (saving gas $$) and it was a wonderful event. Afterwards, when the caterer was clearing up, I asked what would happen to the food. Since it would be thrown away, I asked if I could have it. The caterer and the venue were able to give me some bags and paper plates, and I walked away with four meals and a couple of desserts.

I sort of feel moderately okay about that one; the food did not go to waste, after all. Still, I live a life that requires me to ask for other people’s leftovers to make ends meet.  I’m working on not resenting that.

I loaned some money to a friend a few months ago, which is a great privilege. Being able to help someone else is a huge boost to my sense of self-worth. This friend is rather disorganized, and he makes a whole lot more than I do from a steady job, but he needed a lump sum all at once. So I offered the elastic portion of my savings on the understanding that he would have it all paid back by summer—by around now, actually—which is when I expected to need it. Other reverses hit him unexpectedly (mostly due to his lack of awareness and disorganization, he himself admits), so we have re-organized his payment plan to something he can handle. In other words, he has not in any way welshed on the debt itself, but he’s paying it back very much more slowly than was the original idea.

This week he and his partner have been posting selfies of their road trip to a large city about 4 hours drive from here. There are photos of them at the Hotel Swanky and comments about a marvelous dinner out. The likelihood is that they either got a really great deal, or stayed at Motelpickanumber and just took photos in the lobby of Hotel Swanky. They needed a trip; his schedule has kept him away from home a lot lately.
But I’m sitting here calculating gas money vs. food while they are having great time on the road. I won’t get any kind of vacation or space for myself this summer, in part because he’s taking so long to pay me back.

I’m trying like hell not to resent him taking care of his relationship—something I’ve actually encouraged him to do—on my dime.

A friend is helping me put together a website which might, over time, earn me a little income. A friend of hers, a professional designer, is creating the look-and-feel. I have been invited to weigh in, and it’s terrifying. All of this is a gift; I don’t feel comfortable giving directions for a gift. I was trained to accept what is given—if you don’t like it, you exchange it quietly later or use it somewhere out of the way, or even (shhh) re-gift it after a suitable time. [Once upon a time, children, it was more acceptable to give unwanted gifts to charity than to another friend or family member.]

This is going to be my website. It’s going to represent me in some way. If it’s even moderately successful, the look-and-feel becomes part of the recognition value; I can’t just change it later or put it in the hall closet to bring out when my friends come to visit. I have to weigh in.

The folks involved in the project know this. They are encouraging me to provide input. There is no judgment coming from them. It’s all me. It’s all my central-European-Roman-Catholic-heritage, how-to-be-a-nice-girl, mom’s-voice, Miss-Manners-says training. You do not dictate gifts. Not. Ever.

I am stuck in a vise-grip of my training versus practical reality. And I’m trying not to resent the ability of my friends to be generous with their time and talent.

I am without funds in a world that bases worth on social class, and social class on behaviors that are connected to certain levels of financial liquidity. I have the training (and the wardrobe) to enact the behaviors, but I don’t have the cash to back up the manners.

Having no money makes one extremely dependent. It also, at least for me, makes me extremely sensitive to the resources of others. I’ve always thought waste was a cardinal sin, and wasting someone else’s resources is a compound cardinal sin: waste + thoughtlessness.

I’m trying not to resent the fact that other people have different training and different, perfectly reasonable definitions of waste and of thoughtless than I do.

The fact that I had savings at all sets me apart from most people living in poverty. Almost everyone who lives below poverty in the US works. Most of us work full time or more. Most of us have dependents (kids, parents, partners) and most of us live paycheck to paycheck—barely. Few of us have any savings. I’m one of the lucky few—if it’s ‘lucky’ to have gained access to money on the death of a loved one.

I’m single and alone. My daughter is moving out on her own this month, and that’s good and also hard. Is part of my resentment about the fact that all these people either have stable relationships or are able to date while I feel abandoned? Is part of this about my own sense of worthlessness? Is there a distinction between having no net worth and feeling worthless? Isn’t that one of the lead weights of poverty?

The likelihood is that most people living in poverty do not obsess about why and how they find poverty depressing and exhausting; they don’t have the time or energy, especially with dependents. The ones who manage poverty well make the time to plan and budget and make decisions about what is and is not affordable today; they worry and squeeze, which adds strain to an already burdened reality. But they get by. Those who manage poverty exceptionally well accept the choices as necessary, make them, and move on; they enjoy what they have and do not worry about what they can’t have right now.

I’m evidently not one of those who do it exceptionally well.

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Anger Management

It’s much better than it was—the tight, furious ugliness that I learned to call “my temper” when I was a child and “my anger” when I was older.  Screw that—it’s rage, pure and simple.

People who believe one can “get rid” of anger do not know what rage is.  They think this is a choice, this storm of energy that fills the spaces and caverns in the soul.  They believe I can turn on and off the violent winds of self-loathing, self-hatred, self-contempt—the voices living in my head that tell me over and over that I’m ugly, stupid, lazy, fat.

“Ugly” is the earliest of these voices, and it speaks in the tones of the older women in my family.  When I was not yet in school they sat with me, talking to each other over my head while I played with a baby doll—the kind with yellow curly hair and blue eyes that opened and closed.  “She’ll have to wear bangs to make that big nose look smaller” and “I don’t know how much makeup it will take to cover those moles” and many other comments on what it would take to “fix”—not fix up, but repair—my face.  After all, I was a good Catholic girl—it was my job to find a husband and have babies.  How I looked was important, and my looks were not good enough.  I can still see my own hands on the doll as my grandmother lifted and placed my hair, trying to see which was the most remedial style.  Today I can’t stand those dolls.

“Stupid” and “lazy” are intertwined, and the voices are also.  I used to hear these two vocal tracks in my father’s voice until I spent enough time in therapy to understand that my mother was also speaking.  My first year in school I brought home perfect marks every time—straight A’s.  My second year I got lesser marks—these were all B’s.  Now I wasn’t living up to my potential because I wasn’t trying hard enough.  I was too bright to waste my time and energy.  Didn’t I know I had a responsibility to use the gifts I was given?  Clearly I was lazy and undisciplined, and not bright enough to understand what I was doing.

And there is a corollary—a vocal counterpoint—to being “stupid” and “lazy”: don’t look too smart.  Men don’t like smart women.  Don’t hide it, just don’t show off.  After all, it’s only some men, and maybe you’ll be lucky and find a man who appreciates you for your brains as well as…well, for your personality.  (The voice of my grandmother “fixing” my face enters here.)  It took a very long time to understand how much my mother was telling me her own story, and how little appreciation she found in my father’s long, cold silences. 

My father’s voice is clearest in that last of the quartet: I am “fat.”  I will always be fat.  I cannot avoid being fat—and I should try harder to lose weight.  As a child I was a dancer, and I was far from overweight.  But mom tended to eat her anger, anxiety, fear, and depression, so my early example was that food solves problems.  And there was my father’s voice—very clearly his voice—lecturing her about her weight while standing there with a box from the bakery.  He would buy half a dozen of whatever he liked, eat one, and leave the box sitting there for a week.  When mom had one, the lecture would play like a recording.  Then he would do it again in a couple of weeks. 

It was dad who told me the story of my mom’s mother—she had “died on the table” when her appendix burst because “she was so overweight the surgeons couldn’t find it.”  I never knew that grandmother; she died before my parents were married.   But the shadow of her bulk looms over me. 

So as a girl approaching puberty, I understood that fat was a horrible condition that was genetic in my mother’s family and that I would most certainly inherit.  It could only be avoided by a life of self-denial and pain—and it must be avoided, or I would never be attractive to anyone.  Since food was the medication I had learned to use for anxiety and pain, it was the treatment for the side effects of the “cure” for the disease that was food that was the treatment for the side effects…

Many, many years of therapy—all of it wrapped around the damage my rage did to myself and others—and I have learned how to manage and use the energy that rises from the structures of brokenness deposited in my personality by well-meaning relatives.  I still get angry, but I don’t throw things.  I still scream once in a while, but much less often and rarely at anyone.  Occasionally I still binge on food, but my body is older now and doesn’t take the abuse without consequences, and I can and do learn from my body.  Unlike the voices embedded in my circuitry, my body tells typically reliable truth.

Most helpful in recent years have been the many friends and colleagues who have, often unintentionally, given me versions of myself that do not match any of my inner voices.  Affirmations do not quell or vanquish the demons, but I have learned to compare the two, and there are (by now) many more positive images—strong, competent, smart, wise, beautiful, compassionate, hardworking, talented, dedicated, e.g.—than there are ugly, stupid, lazy, fat ones.  And the rage is more useful and less volcanic.

And yet.  Today an old acquaintance whom I was just getting to know again after almost a decade of absence decided to teach me how to live my life.  She did this in a public forum—and when a couple of my closest friends called her on it, she told them that “we’ve known each other for years” and that I would understand the point.  It seemed to really bother her when I did understand all too well; I called her out on the issue of talking down to me and patronizing me—implying that I’m stupid.  My responses were sharp, and I tried to keep them civil.  She offered a public “my bad” and a private non-apology (in the “sorry you’re so sensitive” style) and posted an indirect chastisement of me on a public forum.  After some back and forth in private messaging, where I pointed out that she did not have the right to say that she and I had “known each other for years,” she is not speaking to me.  To be sure, this is not much of a loss, but it’s a slap in the face—several, actually—and it hurts. 

And I’m angry.  I can’t sleep, I want to throw things, I want to scream.  None of those obvious, superficial responses will do more than take a tiny edge off the blade and make it too dull for effective use.  So I write, wondering if I will publish this, knowing that part of me, in the most petty and vengeful way, really wants to threaten my erstwhile acquaintance with some dire outcome from treating me badly—her business will fail, all my friends will despise her—something.  And I spend time running possible conversations in which I triumph over her rhetorical inadequacies. 

All of which is fantasy that benefits me not at all.  It wouldn’t benefit her or benefit the world around us—the place where all our children live.  So instead I use the energy to write, I stay up too late, and I mourn the delusional arrogance—mine as much as anyone’s—that keeps open the chasm between people in all kinds of cultures and circumstances.  In the other side of the fantasy, I really do want us to all get along and more or less like each other.

One minor, negative personal interaction, and the volume on those early voices spikes.  My anger is not about her thoughtless and unaware insults.  My anger is the outward expression of the self-contempt, self-hatred, self-loathing that grew from those voices.  The anger is not about her or her actions; it’s about me and my own history.

My hurt feelings at being treated unjustly will scab over.  The voices in my head that feed my rage will never be gone—they are integrated circuits in my identity.  All I can do is remember to use the energy wisely, and try to keep the volume low.

Posted in Anger, Body image, Ethics, Self image, Social Commentary, Social interaction, Uncategorized, Weight management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Losing it, and not…

In the past three years, I’ve gained too much weight. Some of this is a normal result of aging, but not by any means all of it. I’ve spent the past three years carrying a load of stress that I would not wish on anyone, and I’ve “managed” this stress with food.

On January 3, I checked my weight for the first time in several months, and I was three pounds heavier than on the day my daughter was born. For basic health I have to lose at least 40 pounds, and 50 would be better.

I changed my eating habits and lost seven pounds in five days. This is too much too fast, and in the following weeks I put a pound on, took it off, and then began to lose more sanely. After thirty days, I have lost nine pounds altogether.

My birthday fell in this period, and I was taken out to dinner and lunch by friends and family on several occasions. In addition, a very attractive colleague asked me to dinner to discuss diction issues and generally hang out, and I had a wonderful time. The food was good too.

And I still lost nine pounds.

I’ve started monitoring my protein to carbs ratio; ideally for me to lose weight I want that ratio to lie between 1:2 to 1:4 most of the time. In one of my blank books (see February 2011) I started a journal of what I consume and when. I recognized that I would have to find ways to eat less without being self-punitive; that is a trial in itself. But the biggest challenge is not punching people in the face.

To stave off social offers of snacks, I let people know that I’m working to lose weight. Generally, I get some kind of polite acknowledgement which is entirely appropriate. Much too often, however, I have to deal people who want to tell me how to lose weight. They tend to fall into two groups: those with fad diets that worked for them, and those with “tricks” that are based on faulty science. These folks don’t know anything about my medical history or my activity level. They don’t ask me what I need—they simply tell me what to do.

I have struggles with food addictions, and I have struggles with depression, and I have struggles with self-image that have nothing to do with my weight. I don’t really need to also struggle with my community for the right to self-determination.

They don’t mean to be patronizing or controlling. They aren’t asking me to correct their ignorance of basic nutritional chemistry, and they are not really volunteering to be punched in the face. So I listen politely with my hands otherwise occupied.  And I try to keep my angry shame to myself.

Please know this: If I want help, I know how to ask. If I don’t ask you, it’s not because I don’t value you, it’s because I’ve chosen another resource for this particular struggle. Thanks.

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Labels and Meaning: “Christian”

A friend recently suggested that it seems disloyal for someone ordained or seeking ordination in a Christian denomination to publicly say, as I have several times, that I am uncomfortable using the term “Christian” to describe myself. I’ve discussed this with other ordained persons, and while I know others who agree with me, I may be one of only a few who will say so publicly. I don’t know if it’s really about “loyalty” or just about my own choice to enact my religious trust in my own way, but here is an explanation for those who have questioned me and those who have their own struggles with religious labels.

In recent years, I have seen the terms “Muslims” and “Islam” used as synonyms for “terrorist.” Even though most of my friends recognized this as an over-generalization, very, very few in society at large actually challenged the equation of the labels themselves. Terrorists are not people fighting for a particular religion, they are people who use fear as a weapon to feel powerful. There is no religion that advocates this as theological tenet. (There are lots of writings–scriptures–that suggest it as a tactic, and some of those scriptures are used in Christian traditions.)

I started thinking about what a religious label is and what it does. When it became allowable to label an entire spectrum of religious tradition as violent and primitive and misogynist based on the public actions and speech of a few leaders, I stepped back and tried to apply the same standards to Christian public presentations. I did not like what I found.

I realized that it was allowable to equate a religion with a murderous tactic, as long as it’s not “our” religion. But it’s horribly inaccurate, biased, and out of balance to do so. Christians have used the scriptures of our traditions for thousands of years as justification for terrorist actions, including enslaving people, destroying whole towns, attacking clinics, murdering doctors, blowing up buildings (McVeigh’s theological statements were, for the most part ignored), and threatening family members at funerals. “Christian” interpretation of scripture is used as a justification for “conversion rape” of lesbians and for beatings and bullyings of GLBTQ youth and adults. Christianity is used as a political tool in every election cycle in the United States, in direct contrast to Article Six of the U. S. Constitution. And Christians have very little to be proud of historically in our treatment of women.

Yet the rhetorical response “This is NOT acceptable behavior for Christians”–or the more definitive “Such people are not true Christians”–is rarely made and even more rarely published. Instead, we have the quiet, personal response: “everyone knows that’s not what it really means to be Christian.” And “these are only a few extremists. They don’t represent Christians.” Everyone knows that, we are told.

Does everyone know? It turns out that, as a conservative research tank recently discovered, the most common understanding (over 90% of responses) of what it means to be Christian is “anti-gay” or “anti-homosexual.” Atheist organizations can, with some justice, point out on Facebook that 25,000 children starved to death worldwide during the period of the recent North Carolina referendum on marriage equality while self-proclaimed “Christians” argued both sides of the issue.

Christians also worked to feed, house, clothe, and support people all over the world during this same period. The word no longer carries a clear meaning, if ever it did. “The” church does not exist. Instead, we have many different kinds of Christian, and the elements we hold in common are rarely explored. The assumptions of commonality are endemic, and they are mostly wrong.

I am a member of the United Church of Christ, which was formed from four different denominations in 1957 and has added other theological streams since. We are composed of difference, and we uphold and respect and recognize the need for difference. Yet–the actions and theologies that impel the members of Westboro Baptist Church to harass the families of dead military men and women are not welcome or recognized in the UCC. But the word “Christian” covers all of us together…apparently. This bothers me.

I have clergy friends who have chosen not to sign marriage licenses–some because they are not comfortable acting as agents of the state, and some because they will not participate in the inequality of access to marriage. I respect this choice, even as I choose to continue to sign licenses when I act as a wedding celebrant.

In this same vein, I have made a choice about how I identify myself. I am not willing to be confused with those who target (physically or politically) women’s health clinics. I am not willing to be identified with those Westboro Baptists who attack the funerals of military personnel. I am not willing to be aligned with many of the political individuals who use their “Christianity” to sway voters. So I choose to describe my religious practice rather than use a convenient label that means both too little and too much.

I am a student of the teachings of Jesus. I’m happy and proud to say that I will preach Jesus as I understand his words and works, and I will do my best to follow Jesus and learn from Jesus. But Jesus the Nazarene never called himself a Christian.

So for now, at least until we find a way to reclaim the word, I don’t feel comfortable calling myself one either.

Blessings to those who do.

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Why I am single

I recently had an exchange with a friend about finding the right man. I’ve had this exchange with more than one person, and for reasons passing understanding, some women will not take me at my word. (I have no idea what men think; at least they are not trying to set me up with unknowns on the internet.)

The issue is that relationships take time. I know how to find a pretty face on the web. Then what? I’m not going to fall into bed with—or even seriously date—someone I don’t know. So the next step is taking the time to get acquainted. Which takes, you know, time.

Some women friends have tried to point me to the right bar or the best music venue to pick up guys. Last year, a woman I worked for—I had thought of her as a friend for several years—made it very clear that I was merely a utility. At the end of a project, she discarded me like a used paper towel. In addition to dealing with the confusion and hurt, I had to re-examine the entire relationship. One huge warning flag I missed was her perpetual desire to get me to use an internet dating service. I had spent a significant portion of our conversation time saying more than once I said I wasn’t willing to spend the time to develop a relationship. Yet, when we were traveling together, she crawled into bed with me and took my laptop to show me how easy it was to find “a boyfriend” on the internet. Her refusal to hear that “I don’t have time right now” really means “I don’t have time right now” should have been an indicator that she wasn’t paying any attention to me as a person. Friends who don’t listen are probably not friends.

I had spent a lot of conversation explaining my life to this woman, but she couldn’t hear past her own viewpoint. Although she claims to be a feminist, she evidently thinks that finding a man is important for women, and she’s not my only “feminist” friend who thinks like this.

My life is not focused that way.  Right now, and for the past several years, I have been working several part-time jobs at once in pursuit of career development and in an effort to stay above water financially. My goal is to be settled in a primary career by—well, by now, was the idea—and have a secondary career going as well. None of my career fields will pay a living wage, so I will always be bi-vocational at least. Such is the nature of careers in public service work and creative arenas.

In addition, I have a history of being dismissed. I’ve been ignored by some of the men in my family as well as by partners—and the occasional “friend.” So if I have to ask for or demand your attention, why would I trust that your interest in me is real? Why would I hang out with a man who’s not really interested? Why would I hunt for one?

If a gentleman is interested in me and shows me that, I’m likely to respond. If things look promising, I’ll make the time. But I have a life, and while I miss sex and intimacy and partnership, I know I don’t have the time to mount a search. And because I’ve been dismissed more than once, I’m not likely to trust anyone I would have to pursue.

I’m single because I can’t have what’s not there, and I can’t take what’s not offered. Show me a connection is there, offer me an opportunity—I’ll clear the time. But I have too much life to live—too much interesting work to do—to spend my time hunting.

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Poverty and identity

A few days ago I met with my ex. He bought me breakfast, and we talked about our 18 year old, and as we separated in the parking lot, he started to tear up. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “If there’s anything you need, you know you can just ask, right?”
I responded as gently as I could, “I tried that for 20 years and it didn’t work, did it? I asked for contact and communication and I never got it.” I was a little angry and I felt sorry for him.

I was also being a little cruel; his offer was sincere. He was offering help because I’m living below poverty and I’m on food stamps. Some part of his social identity is offended that his child’s mother is living “this way,” which is a code for “beneath me.” Sadly, he has no idea that he means anything like this; he was offering added support, and he meant it, and he feels sorry for me.

I pointed out to him that it’s hard to hear those offers of support when one is at the bottom, and all one heard on the way down were warnings and silence. Sympathy, pity, and charity are hard things to need and harder to depend on. They wear out and go away. One must live always with the sense that this support is unearned.

In middle-class white America, one is supposed to “earn” and “deserve” everything. This is oddly un-Christian and certainly un-Protestant. Grace, in Protestant theology, is never earned or deserved. Yet one of the oldest Protestant theologies, often attributed to John Knox, is based on the idea that favor (good things) is bestowed by God on the elect, on those who are chosen, who therefore “deserve” favor.

Poverty in America is often labeled as the result of laziness, stupidity, poor judgment, lack of ambition. Mine is in part the result of choosing to do what is right in my life and seeing money as secondary. As a result, much of my work (50-60 hours in a given week) is unpaid or underpaid. Because I don’t have a “career” job, one that I can stick with for 20+ years, I’m also seen as a dilettante. All of my jobs are interconnected; it’s what one friend calls a patchwork career. And all of them are about communication and pastoral support. But they are not “regular” jobs with predictable paychecks and benefits, and this lack of dependability reduces the level of respect I receive from many people.

Now I find myself at the low end of the income scale, yet still partaking of the privileges that being middle class, white, and highly educated convey. These privileges come with expectations, and failing to fulfill the expectations leads to judgment manifesting as disappointment from some and disdain from others.

One has to wonder if this judgment contributes to the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s not only money that separates segments of culture; it’s also the expectations placed upon us by ourselves and others. Those expectations reflect class and status; they are unconscious triggers of social placement. Our expectations of ourselves and others place us in relation to one another. It’s important to question those relational realities from time to time, even in parking lots turning down charity from the ex.

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