Friday, September 05, 2008

Notes From Below the Threshold

I've been really poor before. And I mean really poor, beyond the general working-class single-parent lifestyle that I've been living for the last five years.

My parents brought us up in what could probably be considered extreme poverty; we lived in a one-room house without running water until I was 12. But I never felt deprived: we had plenty to eat and a happy family, and what we didn't have was never mentioned. I didn't even know that we were poor until I hit middle school and started to compare our house with others'.

When I was a teenager my parents' divorce and mom's severe mental illness led us into the deepest poverty I've ever known--not because I haven't had less money, but because of the hopelessness of that time. The emblem of it in my mind is this big banana box of cans we got from the local church's food pantry. We were offered the whole box because all of these dented cans had lost their labels, and no one could determine what was inside them. The box sat on our dirty kitchen floor for about six months. At the end of the month, before the next month's check and food stamps came in, we'd dig into the box for supper, never knowing what it was going to be. Canned potatoes or pineapple? Baked beans or asparagus? And whatever it was, that's what we'd eat. I tried to pretend it was a game, but I never quite convinced myself, and I still have shame when I think about that box and pineapple for supper.

Then after Daughter's dad and I split up, I moved back in with my dad and step-mom, and then when I finally got my own place after that I had to have three jobs to make my bills. That particular experience is what made me so determined to get a college degree.

What I learned from that time is that not being able to buy stuff isn't so bad. There's not really that much that people need to survive, after all: couple of meals a day, warm place to sleep, an absence of violence. Pretty much everything else is gravy.

But getting to that point was painful, because it's not the not-having that's hard, it's the wanting. I tried very hard in those years to scrub out any desires for unnecessary things, and I mostly succeeded. I forgot some of these lessons in the years since, and I am relearning them painfully this summer.

I am lately fascinated with the urge to buy that wells up in me--I just want to go and get something, to treat myself or Daughter to something nice. My conclusion is that sometimes spending money is a shortcut for caring or caregiving. It's usually not really the new shoes that are the issue, but the fact that I want Daughter to feel good about herself at school, or that I feel bad that we argued all weekend, or something.

Sometimes I want to buy myself a coffee because I feel like I "deserve it" somehow--that a difficult day entitles me to steamed milk. Which is, of course, bullshit--but useful bullshit. What I really need is some self-care, and buying a fancy coffee is one half-assed way to get it, but there are other, free ways, like taking a walk or a shower or painting my toe nails or baking some brownies.

I watch advertisements with the eyes of an outsider these days, since everything is beyond my financial reach, and I can't help but wonder if all this consumerism--the tumble of convenience items, housewares, personal care products, exercise equipment, gourmet food, plastic crap--isn't a manifestation of national psychic malaise. How would people cope with their insecurities about their bodies without personal hygiene products and expensive clothes? How would we demonstrate to people that we loved them if we could never buy them gifts? Can society exist without instant communication?

I know it's more complicated than all of that, but I think that those issues are all wrapped up in there as well. It's a good thing to to think about, on this side of the poverty threshold.

1 comment:

Dawn on MDI said...

per usual, you stun me with your words. Well written, well communicated and well felt. Thank you.

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