I’m in grad school, and my money situation can be quite stressful.
So if and when you’re feeling flush,
I’m in grad school, and my money situation can be quite stressful.
So if and when you’re feeling flush,
which inspired me to organize my thoughts a little.
I often thought, and said, that we should have a strong social safety net because, all ethics aside, when economic structures are top-heavy, societies turn into enclaves of a very few rich people behind barbed wire, and everyone else, who deals with significant crime and a lack of opportunity. I didn’t want to be right about this, but seeing the anger, that has always been there, plus no school, no jobs, people finally have time to think more about how they’ve been treated, and what that means. Particularly when the people who are pulled back to work, and pulled into danger, are people who are disproportionately black.
I’ve spent many years trying to explain racism and its effects, and plenty of people are not interested. The more time has gone by, the more I have understood that white Americans genuinely see people who are black (particularly if they do not work hard to present themselves as allied with the middle class) as odd, scary, and in many ways, past help.
I told you college was cheaper than prison. I told you that even at the school where I taught, with great amounts of support for students, they were significantly held back by a lack of funding and opportunities. Public colleges are public in name only. Some places in our country used to have actual public universities, by which I mean: tuition free.
Could the financial chaos happening now have been softened or even prevented by making sure everyone made a living wage, everyone had public education offered to them from preschool through college?
If we had excellent public transportation, so that a car problem didn’t immediately mean potential job loss, and a snowball of financial crisis, would this be happening in Kansas City?
It’s not just that I’m a bleeding heart liberal (which I am) or that I’m not ethically firm in my conviction that the government must provide a base level of services to all Americans, but it’s actually cheaper. Crime is expensive for a society. Riots are expensive.
Financially and emotionally, they are expensive.
Would this have happened if Hillary had been elected? I don’t think so.
Would this have happened if Trump had been removed after impeachment? I don’t think so.
Knowing your president supports racists has been deeply wounding people for years.
After the women’s march, I was pretty bummed out to see the movement splinter. There had to be multiple marches. People had to choose sides. This is what movements do. But for me, it hits me right where my parents’ divorce did: can’t you guys get along?
So pretty quickly after I was at protests, I was fretting about splintering. These people aren’t right enough. Those people aren’t authentic. That group is too extreme. That group is not extreme enough.
This person said this, and then didn’t say they were sorry soon enough, or the right way. That person didn’t speak up at the right time. That person didn’t understand soon enough, or that person attacked others who were just beginning to understand. Thus, we can sort this person into racist, anti-racist, ally, monster, protester, rioter, devil, angel.
As I’ve argued many times, labeling people as racist or not racist I find useless and destructive. Talking about patterns and thoughts and systems that are racist, that we can all do. It’s both more honest and more effective.
Evaluating other people’s goodness or rightness or wrongness is also destructive. While you are sorting out who is who, I would much rather be making phone calls or hauling water bottles or holding someone’s hand.
I understand needing to clarify your positions, and to build groups where people feel secure in knowing what the agenda, and the approach, will be. And I know we have to do some sorting, particularly in making political decisions.
But I am by nature a builder of connections and understandings. That was another outcome of my parents’ divorce. I’m always trying to figure out how to get people to understand each other. And I like big tent groups: Democrats, socialists, people who work for gun control, or for health care reform.
I feel a bit better thinking about how this is my nature, and my role as an educator and a writer. I don’t need to fret so much about how people divide themselves up. That is another part of human organization that just happens.
What looks uncontrolled and scary: look closer. I went to protest in Kansas City, and in Lawrence, Kansas. In Kansas City, where there is a horrifying history of violence, I was struck by how safe and peaceful the protest felt. I was literally wearing a sign that said to people: I am against racism. And so many other white people were, too!
Really I am still deeply in shock about that.
As someone who’s participated in plenty of protests, and thought about how to bring people out, seeing the largest protest in Kansas City’s recent history, I was overwhelmed.
Many of our usual outlets (movies, sports, school, restaurants, bars) are not available for processing, blowing off steam, or supporting each other.
I know I would have been out eating and drinking with friends if I could have been. Living through the past couple of months, I would have given myself full permission to go full tilt at a martini and some wine and hey, maybe whiskey later?
Why now, white people?
For me, I felt a little like I was back in New York City: a racially diverse crowd, an unstructured crowd, people just doing it for themselves.
And people taking care of each other in a huge way: there were multiple piles of snacks. Free. There were so many water bottles being offered! And people calling out, if you think you’re hydrated, you’re probably not, have one!
And so many people picking up trash. I brought a couple of trash bags myself, but they were not needed.
The way that I saw several protesters calm each other down to preserve the peace.
I ended up walking around Facebook live-ing what I saw. I’ve never done that before. I had so much restless energy, adrenaline from the cause, from suddenly being with so many other humans, and covid fear, I wanted to just walk and walk. And bear witness, I guess.
I went through all the journals I had handy and looked for the closest entry to today, May 18. It became an interesting document.
If I don’t occasionally go through old journals, I become convinced that all of my past was easier and more fun than my present. And all times have their fun and their burdens. Names are both abbreviated and changed, according to whim.
2004: All I did my senior year of high school was feel. And that filled hour after hour. I’m at Loose Park now. A boy is throwing goldfish from a ziploc bag into the pond, and his grandpa follows him, wearing a navy jacket. The ducks here are rarely interested in crumbs offered– they get fed so much. I never try to feed them myself. Just watch their sparkling green heads, the blue patches on the drakes’ wings, and thier sloppy paddling feet. Their fights, their landings on the water, ruffling the surface…. My drink at the Pig Saturday night reminded me again of how much I love it. So charming, safe, wicked. No smoking after July 1, though. I may cry.
2005: When I got home, I learned that C had called G to apologize for the ranting over Medicare and Christianity at Charlie’s. I had loved that conversation, and G had, characteristically, sat back, smoked and looked bored to suffering. I found it bizarre that C apologized for a) not interesting G in conversation and b) discussing Serious Topics over drinks.
2006: I ended things with Group A yelling at them…. And Group E insisting that we were going to be locked inside the building to review for a final exam. It was a last day more infuriating than mournful– ending with J going carefully through the study guide, M and I on either side of her.
2007: Churchill, and Spiderman, insist on the power-responsibility connection. Today I’m feeling rather tired of both. Angry at J for figuring grades wrong, at D for pushing me, but we made it through.
2008: T, in creative writing, claimed that he had learned nothing. I controlled my fury at this. We talk about drugs, sex, friendship, pornography, families, violence, and he learns nothing? I was so tired Friday. i was too tired to kill him…. I plowed through the last full day of the year so tired that when I finished all my grading and stuff, I didn’t want to go home. So tired that when I did get home, I laid down to try to sleep, and couldn’t do anything but squirm, move, rearrange my limbs, retuck my hands and renuzzle my face into the pillows.
2009: But– I just found the hotel I want to stay in in Rome– it’s in the Jewish quarter, easy walking distances, a rooftop bar, built in the 15th century, and joyfully, they have a room with a twin bed, which is quite cheap– affordable, let’s say, and I think they even feed you breakfast.
2010: That child should not graduate. Cannot read, write… I hate high-waisted pants, too. Now it’s skinny and high-waisted? WTF? Again. Gross. I was bored again today, actually. No class 4th hour. Not a lot of need for me. Read as much of the NYT as I could interest myself in. Sometimes I think if I don’t have sex with a man, I’ll eat me.
May 2011: Went to “D visiting” dinner last night. D kissed me on the cheek! Is he adorable or what? Said he writes a lot, on his typewriter, as he smokes and drinks Pepsi. Be still, my heart.
2012: Things to write about:
in a fog
2013: Somehow I didn’t enjoy the dinner last night because I’m jealous of L…. She’s never had to be single– swept off her feet by a guy who wants to support her! She can write all day, or work, or work part time…. I am jealous she lives [where it is] artsy and cool and there are flowers all the time… Why do I always have to settle? Why do I have to live in a second-best place…?
2014: When I got on the humble 2 train this morning (humble due to only 2 trains, from that station, and they go to Manhattan on the further-into-Brooklyn track. The announcement said, “The next stop will be BEEP,” very loud, censoring kind of beep. It was sweetly tragic.
2015: I hate everyone’s haircuts right now. I hate the stickiness of night now, too. And will I get a drink while i do laundry? Drinking sounds so good when you are dealing with an alcoholic friend… Talked with the boys (T, S) about God and T says God is telling him to feed his sheep when T helps a guy carry a stroller down subway stairs.
2016 : So this week I was told my ovaries have shut down. The next day my editor from H called me and gave me the most encouraging, positive feedback maybe ever, coupled with the names of agents he thought would like me… Somehow I’m going to have to pee at the Port Authority. That’s gonna happen. No. Doubt.
2017: I was overwhelmed with anger at K yesterday…. I emailed her back right away. Fuck her, fuck her….Yesterday, J asked me, “Have you ever been in love?” And E asked me, “Who do you prefer, Bach or Mozart?” Yes, and Mozart….
It kind of sneaked up on me how in love I am with them. T and her shooting a gun at the shooting range. J not watching the videos for her class and obsessing about justice so she can’t see the forest for the trees. G and her cohabitating no-nonsense and passion for a bad girlfriend. K’s fire for undocumented kids, and thirst for wrestling with race. C’s tenderness, soft-shell crab that he is.
2018: Finished the training videos from P that I had. Was at a very cool school today, but left my fucking sweater.
Also my feet hurt.
I did not get lunch 3/3 working days this week.
Also: need new pen.
I heard Tim Gunn interviewed this morning. He said that he was worried about his new fashion TV show being released during the pandemic. Wasn’t it wrong, frivolous, insulting? His network said it was uplifting. They put the show out. Thank God.
Yes, I wear jammies and loose shirts every day now. Pretty much. Easter I put on a nice dress. When I had a work zoom with people I didn’t know, I put on a work dress.
This doesn’t mean clothes and dressing aren’t important.
Even if I’m wearing my comfy clothes, those clothes are meaningful to me. I have navy pajama bottoms with constellations on them, a gift from my sister a few Christmases ago. I like how they are night themed.
I have my overalls I put on for the hard labor of taking out the trash. Down a whole flight of stairs! Around the house! Past my car! My overalls have rips and paint spots, too. Just throwing the straps over my shoulders makes me feel like I’m ready to do cleansing physical work. I got them to build a house in Mexico, and I’ve loved them ever since. They also still fit my new over 40 body, which is great.
I have a pair of yoga pants that I’ve had possibly forever. They are grey, they are thin from use, but they are the old yoga pant shape, loose and looser on the bottom, and soft, soft, and they don’t squeeze anything, anywhere. I love them, too.
I enjoy time with my extensive collection of sockies. No, not the sockies from Mario 3, that one stepped on to eject their former owners. I have black sparkly sockies, purplish stripes, stripes plus raccoon faces. They are the super warm super soft material that’s probably from space, without any grippies on the bottom, so I can slide around if I want to.
I wear my yellow dress with the burn hole. I don’t feel right wearing it outside, but at home, I love it.
Now that it is warm, my outside the house clothes are much closer to my inside the house clothes. In winter, I often hang out in the house in the long underwear I wore under whatever skirt or dress I took off. Now that it’s warm, summer dresses are back.
I had Tim Gunn’s show on my calendar from the time it was announced. It was one of the things I had to look forward to during… this. I haven’t watched the last episode because I don’t want to run out of watching artists putter and make things and poke me with new ideas for how to dress.
And beauty is harder to find now. Extravagant beauty. Because I can’t hunt it or gather it, exploring my favorite antique mall and my favorite vintage place. Flipping through racks quickly, because I know what I like, and what will please me.
I crave bright prints, as I usually do in the spring, big, bright, punching prints, and billowy skirts that let you sit in the grass or romp around with a dog or a kid.
I spent a little time looking through photos to appreciate clothes and outfits that made me especially happy.
I was crazy about the color of this long-sleeved t-shirt. CRAZY. It was rust, baby poop color. I loved it. I haven’t been so nuts about a color since I was nuts about Frank Lloyd Wright orange red. My obsession with mustard and brown/orange yellows continues. I always love a 3/4 sleeve since my arms are so long. Regular long sleeves are often too short.
Occasion: Drinks with friends at Harry’s Bar and Tables, in Kansas City. I was back visiting.
I still have, and wear, this little robe. It always makes me feel happy and snappy. And I always love stripes.
Occasion: coffee in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, on our way into the City, with my sister. That place had good bagels, but wasn’t very cozy.
This coat I bought while I was working at the worst job I’ve ever had. One of the few good things about the job was that it was very close to a great vintage store in Brooklyn. Immediately when I saw it, I thought of “Mad Men,” and I thought wearing it could make me truly happy. It does.
Occasion: getting ready to go somewhere in NYC, and being in so in love with it I wanted a photo.
Vintage black cotton eyelet lace boatneck with straps, knee length. This dress made me feel like Jackie Kennedy or Audrey Hepburn.
Occasion: Night of Obama’s first election.
Both the dress and the shoes, so special. The dress barely fit me, but it was lovely snug. I loved the color, the cut. I got it used. It was homemade, maybe a costume. Seams messy inside. And those shoes with it, people stopped me to love those shoes all the time. I need to have them re-heeled again.
Occasion: seeing the Jeff Koontz show at the Whitney. I realized I don’t like Koontz, and I was rather lonely, but I looked great. So there’s that.
This top from H & M I was so in love with. I still have the sash to use with other things. Great print.
Occasion: My first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, several years before I moved to NYC. I was just visiting. We drank a lot of wine in an Italian restaurant on the Brooklyn side.
This green t-shirt said NYC, and I loved it until it had holes in it. One of my top t-shirts of all time. (Others: ostrich, TMLMTBGB, C’est la vie whale, squid, samurai bear, princess, Coney Island.) The thing in my hair was my stepmom’s, from the ’70s.
Occasion: after a Fringe Festival “Star Wars” themed puppet show in Kansas City.
I still remember feeling cute as hell this day. Big asymmetrical brown sweater, the top with the tie, I love those, and my favorite jeans of all time, rolled up for my boots. I don’t think anyone else was wearing jeans and boots like that, but I didn’t care. It made me feel like a pirate.
Occasion: visiting the New Museum, NYC.
This red dress I wore in Rome, and on Fourth of Julys like this one. So comfy. Vintage from Hawaii. I love the other two ladies’ dresses, too.
I wore this to the opera, and to a silly Christmas thing. It might be the loveliest that fit me the best of all the dresses I’ve ever owned. I couldn’t find the fancy photo at the Met, but this shows the dress off in a fun way. It is vintage.
Occasion: Brooklyn Christmas drag show featuring Jesus and Mariah Carey.
Now we know: no one chose this trauma. It happened. It happened to all of us. Like suddenly there’s a worldwide pandemic and we don’t have enough food or we can’t get a medical test we need, or we are laid off.
Trauma can cause you to not be able to do anything unless you first feel safe. Never feeling safe is exhausting, as you may now know on a deeper level.
Many people in poverty, in dangerous neighborhoods, have felt this way every day all day long for your whole lifetime.
Living with a lot of people in the house means it’s hard to get things done. Cats wander in. Kids cry. The kettle boils.
People in poverty are more likely to live with extended family, or friends. In my experience, the less money people have, the more generous they are, particularly about sharing food and sharing space.
It’s hard to get things done when younger kids are crawling all over you, or people are cooking, watching TV, talking, in every space available in your house.
Like, say, your homework. It’s hard to focus on abstract work when there’s activity and unpredictability all around. Even kids who have access to great technology are struggling now. Kids without technology, or a space quiet enough to work in, don’t even get to try.
People who live with you must be cared for. Some of those people in those places bursting at the seams are likely to be elderly, ill (physically or mentally), or suffering from some serious PTSD from the jump. In Kansas, people who are black can expect to live 6 years less than their white neighbors (Census data, Kansas Center for Health and Environmental Statistics). Many people maintain differences in health outcomes are somehow not about systemic racism, but about people who are black being somehow different from other humans, in their abilities, or strength, or values.
Such thoughts are racist thoughts.
Many times kids in poverty are enlisted to help care for household members. I think that’s a good thing in many ways, but obviously too big a burden can take away time and energy that you need for other things. It can also cause kids to act really immature and wild at school, because at home they have adults responsibilities.
Now you may know (if you haven’t thought about it lately): if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. There are people who rarely go without. In this time, we have experienced having continuing desires to go places and buy things and have things, and there has been no way to satisfy these cravings.
If you are in poverty, you may be dealing with such cravings and yearnings 24/7.
Trauma makes it hard to remember. If I struggled before the pandemic to remember why I went into the kitchen, during the pandemic I have struggled to figure out, what did I do yesterday? Or the day before? And shoot I am in the kitchen, why?
All the memory work involved in schoolwork (of which there is, and must be, plenty, from sight words to medical terms) is significantly more difficult for people in trauma.
They often have other strengths, strengths of empathy and grace under pressure and loyalty and love. But they may need more time, and work, and smarter work, to retain information they need.
In times of trauma, you have to prioritize and let a lot of things go. Everyone who stopped wearing real pants now understands more about why when you’re struggling, you might let things go. You might look a little scruffy. We all do, right now.
More of us may now understand that if you don’t pay your rent, it isn’t necessarily because you are lazy or foolish. We are all at the mercy of our employers, our customers, or the amoral economic system. And the employers of people in poverty are often ruthless in their strategies to keep people poor, by giving them inconsistent work, work that isn’t quite full time, work without benefits.
The American government may step up and give money to the middle class. Americans who are struggling more are required to prove that they “need” help, to prove they are working hard enough to help themselves, and help will be limited to short periods of time.
The Kansas government, for example, will give people in poverty money 24 months over the course of your entire life (don’t have multiple crises!). A single mother of two in Kansas can make no more than $10 grand a year, or she loses help from the government. Raise your hand if you can live on $11,000 a year with two kids. (In rural areas, where there is little economic activity, work requirements are particularly draconian.)
Middle class people won’t be told they should have saved for a rainy day like a pandemic. Or asked to fill out a million forms. Nope. When middle class people are part of the crisis, the government deposits $1200 in their bank accounts. No one asks if they will spend it wisely, or if they can be trusted with money.
Have you applied for a small business loan or unemployment lately? You may now know that getting help from a government bureaucracy is difficult.
The systems don’t work right. There are hoops to jump through that don’t make sense. There are requirements for paperwork that you just don’t have. You have to show up in person, hoping that your time away from work or your kids or your granny will be short enough that no catastrophe ensues.
What we don’t have at this time is the additional difficulty of transportation to places where you can get help. In most cities, that is a huge barrier.
Kansas requires its WIC participants to get education about nutrition and cooking, as if not knowing how to eat healthfully results in a lack of funds. Or as punishment for the help other Kansans are offering you: hey, we will help, but you gotta be told how to spend your money wisely. Getting to classes on nutrition, when you have a job that has no consistent hours, and a child, is a big ask.
You may have learned some of this. You may have known all of this, but now you know it in your body.
I wonder if people who lived through the Great Depression knew this. I think many of them did.
Please don’t forget it. It needs to be said, people who don’t have money and resources are still people.
People who work in slaughterhouses and meat processing are also people, and their lives and their health is sacred. Homeless people are people. People in New York City are people. They are not worth less than people with money.
It feels weird to have to say this. But I’ve seen a mayor of a large American city saying, “We’ll be the experiment, let us start spreading the virus, and the people who die, die.”
Luck doesn’t make you more of a person. Working more or harder doesn’t make you more of a person. Having a degree, or a job with a fancy title, or having a job at all, none of this makes you more worthy. Being sick, with physical or mental illness, with addiction, with trauma, doesn’t make you less of a person.
A lot of major world religions, in fact, would say those experiences can make you more of a person.
So please, don’t forget when it’s time to vote.
Don’t forget when people around you say, “If those people were more responsible/went for more walks/ate less government cheese….”
Don’t forget when people complain that kids in poverty do poorly in school because they have bad teachers and bad parents.
When politicians pour money into subsidizing highways and oil, but not into busses.
Don’t forget when politicians say we can’t afford health care for everyone, or addiction treatment for everyone, or other kinds of mental health care.
Don’t forget when politicians tell you there isn’t enough money to help your fellow citizens. When your people are in trouble, you get them help.
Who am I to talk about this stuff? I’ve worked most of my career (almost twenty years) with people in poverty, mostly as a high school English teacher. I’m currently studying issues of race and education.
Image: “Angel Applicant,” Paul Klee, 1939, Metropolitan Museum of Art.