why I am not a progressive: now

I would say to people, “How should I pray? What should I pray?”, and they would say, “well, you can pray whatever you want to.” And I thought, “well, OK, but… I really suck. Why am I just deciding this?”
– a Southern-Baptist-turned-Eastern-Orthodox friend

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
– C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”, sermon at Oxford

Christians, too, live in many times.

Our own time is far removed from earlier ones. In many ways the knowledge and technology gained in the last hundred years have created opportunities and problems (in nearly equal measure) that are completely unprecedented in human history. Let me remind you of some things we take for granted: advances in medicine have changed the way we relate to our bodies, and the very new field of psychology has changed the way we relate to our inner selves. Our everyday lives are filled with gadgets and objects that did not exist a century ago. Our economy is extraordinarily complex – almost none of us make things with our hands, working instead for bureaucracies. And globalization is an entire beast of its own. Food, clothing, personal care, entertainment, transportation, cities, information, education – all would be nearly unrecognizable to a visitor from the 19th century.

In this context, it is easy to believe that the twenty-first century is better than earlier ones, and in some ways it certainly is. No one is arguing against longer lives, human rights, or lolcats. No one is arguing against new technology or new things at all. But amidst great personal freedom, millions of entertainment options, and a medication available for every mental discomfort, a vision for the end and the means of human flourishing continues to elude us. It is tempting to imagine that our age is fundamentally different from earlier ones, but in reality, people – our deepest needs, our beauty, our selfishness, our wounds, our anxieties and our places of rest – are exactly the same as we have always been. And that is why we need our past more than we ever have.

More to the point, Christians need the past more than ever. Often we talk as though our age is unique in its sexual immorality, its political divisiveness, or its economic stratification and cultural value of consumption. This is absolutely not the case; greed, lust, and wrath are familiar tormentors of every new prodigal generation. They are the sins for which God sent Noah’s flood. Our age is, however, far more individualistic than perhaps any other in history, and this is the cataract through which most of today’s Christians are attempting to produce that vision of human flourishing. A good idea – that every individual human has equal, and infinite, worth – has birthed a very silly assumption that every human should have equal and infinite ability (or freedom) to determine his or her own best path,  with howevermuch regard for the good of family, society, etc., he or she deems appropriate. Today’s disdain for hierarchies and rules – while a good and important corrective when those are being abused – is less a Christian value than a product of Enlightenment philosophy. It stems from an idea that individual beliefs, values, and desires should take precedence over community norms whenever the two conflict.

If our sexual immorality, our political angst, or our consumeristic greed seem more egregious than they have in the past, perhaps it is because that same individualism pervades them, the idea that no one has the right to “judge” (i.e. have an opinion about) someone else’s behavior. However, I repeat: I don’t think visitors from certain time periods of the past would be all that shocked by them. I think they would be shocked by the fact that we eat alone in our cars. By people, young or old, living alone. By our willingness to move far away from everyone we know for our careers. By our extreme disconnection from the land we live in and depend on. By our belief that we can – and even that we should – use our smartphones, our website bookmarks, our money, and his and hers sides of the mattress to craft a world perfectly amenable to ourselves that we do not have to share with anyone else; and most importantly, that our relationships are just one more accessory to those worlds. Friend bringing you down? Brush her off. Marriage? Only when you’ve fixed yourself up enough, when it doesn’t interfere with other “parts” of your life.

no way Martin Luther was so furtive and angsty.

This same individualism creates a vicious cycle for evangelical Christians. We do not want, or believe we need, to share the Christian life with anyone who makes it more difficult or uncomfortable for us. We have been taught all our lives that it is more important to stand up for our personal beliefs than to submit or belong to a group that is “wrong”; after all, that is how Luther started the Protestant Reformation. And Protestants have been “reforming” ever since by splitting away from one another to create their own enclaves of correct belief or practice. All these splits have isolated us from the vast expanse of our Christian heritage – the very heritage that might have shown us a middle way between blind submission to unjust authority on one hand, and a decidedly un-Christlike follow-your-heart decide-for-yourself spirituality on the other.

If it sounds like I just chopped this off in the middle of something, it’s because part two: Church is to follow. 

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why we all can’t help stealing from the poor

Pope Francis says wasting food is like stealing from the poor.

I think he could have said that wasting food IS stealing from the poor.

Equating the two exactly might be a little far-fetched on an individual basis. My spoiled lettuce could, in theory, have been given to the poor, but if it hadn’t gone to waste, it wouldn’t have been because I made a salad for the homeless guy outside. It would have been because I made a salad for myself.

On a corporate level, though – the systems that make it so easy for individuals to waste food – they are one and the same. Wasting food is stealing from the poor.

Our food is cheap enough to waste largely because of USDA subsidies to farmers. Among other strategies for manipulating the market, our government buys agricultural products from our farmers to keep them off the market and allow American farmers to set prices in the world market for many goods. The EU and other developed countries also have the resources to play along with various kinds of subsidies for their own farmers. This keeps developing countries, many of which are already crippled by debt owed to developed countries, from being able to produce or buy food to feed their own people (more here).

Working at the food pantry and with the Food Bank (the nonprofit wholesale distributor for food pantries), I see what few Americans see (or at least understand): I actually watch that food get wasted.

Some of those products are simply destroyed, but some are packaged and sent to the Food Bank. They are, in turn, made available to the food pantries for free or for pennies. Hooray!

Except not.

Generalizations, which can apply to a large group but should not be assumed about any individual, now follow.

Our clients don’t want them.

how would you incorporate this into your diet this week?

how would you incorporate this into your diet this week?

They don’t know how to cook very many things.
They, like most of us, like processed foods in brightly colored packaging.
They can get those foods from corporate donations to the Food Bank and using food stamps.
When the food stamps run out, they use their own money or go to the soup kitchens (which, admittedly, might find ways to use this stuff).

They’re just not in dire need of, and have no desire for, canned sliced carrots, or suspicious-looking bagged mashed potatoes, or dry kidney beans.

This includes me. I use my food pantry, but I’d rather pay money for fresh carrots than come up with something to do with these gross ones. I get the canned corn and tomatoes, which I know how/want to actually use, like everyone else. And which the pantry has to buy at grocery store prices because they are so popular.

Those 48 cans of carrots will not be gone for at least a year; meanwhile people an ocean away starve by the millions.

It is an uncomfortable and politically unpopular truth that American poverty, while a vicious and multifaceted evil, is generally a luxurious lifestyle compared with the lives of the world’s poor. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D in economics to see that our farm subsidies benefit huge farming corporations tremendously; small family farms a little; and America’s poor a negligible amount.

And they are actively feeding a system that results in the deaths of the world’s most vulnerable – such as mothers with children living on less than $2 a day.

Of all the things in the world that bother me, I truly have no idea what to do about this. This is a function of Congress and the agricultural lobby, and has nothing to do with my choices; more than that, it’s just about the least sexy, most complicated issue our legislators deal with. Don Draper himself couldn’t sell the voting American public on a “stop supporting our farmers” bill.

I hope that poorer nations will develop governments and markets strong enough to compete.

And I hope that Pope Francis will not be dismissed as “out of touch with reality” for his justice-oriented statements, the way his predecessors were for their morality-policing ones. Because, whether we like it or not, he is right. It is simple.

Wasting food is stealing from the poor.

The Farm Bill, reassessed every five years, is currently before Congress. Some more info here.

things they told me

love God, and do what you will.
St. Augustine

The don’ts were a bunch of made-up stories, while the do-list exhibited an utter lack of imagination.

Don’t be gay or you’ll become sex-crazed.
Don’t drink alcohol or you’ll end up addicted and pregnant.
Don’t wear short skirts because boys cannot contain themselves.
Read your Bible so you’ll be holier.
Listen to the sermon so you’ll be holier.
Give 10%.

All of us together, wound tight with fear and anxiety, battening the hatches down around the children, reminding one another that our boundaries were all that kept us safe. Sometimes they said it was a war, against The World, against myself, and I who thrive on challenge threw myself into the challenge of competing for blandest. Best Defender of Status Quo.

I kept striving and straining to Be Good, even though it didn’t really set my soul alight the way they said A Good Christian would feel. I wanted that badly to do right by the dying God-Man who, of all people, had looked in my eyes and said I love you this much. Atonement theories aside, I always knew He was real.

I never stopped fleeing sin, doing battle, loving sinners and hating sins, and it was always tangled – in this noble part of me that has to do The Right Thing, and this subservient part of me that would give anything, anything at all just to have them like me, please just like me. All it takes is a great, looming fear of failure and the tiniest smidge of self-righteousness as a reward for maintaining compliance for one more day.

I perfected the skill of guilt:
I remembered to bring my quarters to church.
I only swore when I was alone.
I tried harder to Tell My Friends About Jesus even though it seemed like they already knew. I berated myself for being so shy.

I stopped reading the romance novels but the words stayed with me. I never told anyone, ever; there was too much shame and how could I know all their burdens were greater than mine? How could any of us know we had all done unspeakable things.

They said it was all about being Sold Out and Set Apart, all the do’s and don’ts because sin would Separate Us From God, so I kept trying. I stayed afraid.

When did I discover – when did the truth first glimmer that all these Boundaries might just be prison walls? How did I first find out there might not be so much to fear? That all the walls around The Children and The Truth and My Relationship With God might really only be designed to protect myself and the 90% that was Mine?

I think it was when my school friends loved better than the church group,
when the Bible I never stopped loving whispered freedom and grace to my anxious heart,
when the North Georgia storms blew wild and dangerous and achingly, irresistibly beautiful.

I can’t resent being kept from teenage mistakes. No one was trying to hurt me. And in the same sermons, the same breaths that I learned fear and legalism I learned of a God big enough and loving enough to save, and I believe this God is winning.

Now I am old enough and brave enough for this God and I to break the rules. I give too much away and I pray at odd times and I smoke the occasional cigarette and I told you about the romance novels.

I am quite sure I will make real mistakes, painful mistakes, even that I have already destroyed much more than I ever intended, because this is the way of humans.  But that is just it. I grow more human the less I cower; I create better and love wider the less I micromanage my life. I am running wild and laughing loud because I have given it all to God – just like they always told me.

future employers STAY OUT

*psst* this is my name if you met me at church and can't remember and we've known each other too long for you to ask again because it's awkward.

*psst* this is my name if you met me at church and can’t remember and we’ve known each other too long for you to ask again because that would be awkward.

In a moment that managed to combine great thoughtlessness with great prescience, my parents gave me a name that sounds like several other names and then they spelled it like they wished we were Welsh. They have apologized for the ensuing confusion.

But really they shouldn’t have. Sure, I have a hard time introducing myself to old people; but my parents had me a little too early to recognize the genius in what they were doing, which was in fact making me extraordinarily Google-able. Once people figure out who I am, that is.

If you Google me, you will quickly find several pages that are actually directly related to me, along with other mentions of less-important Lyndsey Graves-es. It helps that I’m a fairly active participant in the Internet (in fits and bursts, at least).

Having, like most twentysomethings, little else to manage and interface with and delete emails from, I indulged in one such fit; yesterday I joined tumblr (find me so I can follow you!), and today I joined LinkedIn. I only wanted to follow people and save hipstery photographs (tumblr) and use other people for my own professional advancement (LinkedIn).

But that LinkedIn account sent me into a minor identity crisis here at my desk on Tuesday morning. I don’t know how to author one of those! I know how to write a résume – describe my mostly-adequate experience and accomplishments with aggresively grandiose jargon, prioritize experience most relevant to job applied for, and keep it out of the hands of people who actually know me. I also know how to write a blog post – be honest, and always include some run-on sentences (those are especially honest). And my Facebook profile is a hodgepodge of shared social justice articles and all the one-liners I’m going to put in my mockumentary someday.

Inviting my friends and teachers into my fledgling professional life, though – that’s something I’ve hesitated to do, and writing my profile I remembered why. THEY DON’T BELONG THERE, that’s why. Or, to be more accurate, I’d really just rather not have to combine the two. Where my LinkedIn profile says “Young Adult Ministry,” my friends have all heard me say “young adult ministry… whatever that means *snort*”.

The only reason I got an account is because I’m so Google-able. The care and keeping of one’s work life, online-writing-hobby life, and real-world-relationships separately is a quaint but unhelpful notion anymore. A savvy employer will find  me. I won’t get to print my information onto expensive heavy paper and hand in that version of myself. They will see all my snark, earnestness, controversial opinions, and personal celebrations, in descending order by popularity measured in page hits; and that will be the same picture whether they’re at a university, an online writing venue, or whatever coffee shop employs Ph.D.s in theology.

Every little piece of ourselves that we tether onto a corner of the internet becomes a dot that others can connect to form a picture of us – in most cases, an indelible dot. Another quaint but fairy-tale-ish notion from the past? Moving across the country and “starting over”. The activity from your past is recorded; your current whereabouts are in the searchable White Pages; and your online identity is a cloud made of thousands of tiny water droplets – every tweet, every like, every friend and “connection”.

Which makes it all the more difficult, even if you’re doing your best to be intentional about creating that identity. My coworkers are disconcerted that I wore jeans and only jeans in the winter, but have started dressing up in the summer. They need me to stay in one place once they’ve got me figured out. But it’s difficult, impossible even, to project a consistent image across multiple platforms, so they’re going to have to live with the uncertainty of knowing a dynamo like me.

In the end, though, I think I’m hopeful. I may never be able to convince a hiring manager that I’m a straitlaced, whitebread, grown-up individual with absolutely no slightly Communist ideals. But then again maybe all that overblown résume language, when it served to identify me, was actually as bad for my soul as it felt.

Maybe I am glad that where my LinkedIn account says “lead volunteer, Havenplace”, my friends are standing by, perhaps remembering the tears I cried over those kids and the ways I was changed by those kids. Maybe some of my connections will be those kids.

Maybe it is good that my name forces me to stand out a little, and I can choose to rise to that serendipitous, unlooked-for occasion. Maybe, even if I discover that everything I ever posted in my twenties was a gigantic appalling mistake, I’ll not forget that humility is the rarest and most endearing quality an academic – or a human – can ever possess.

Maybe the internet, this weirdly ephemeral medium that once flooded the world with concerns about anonymity, will finally make us better people by exposing us so.

May my own Facebook photos reveal integrity – a life actually lived the way my blog claims I hope for.

And may those two blog posts I tried to hide please dear goodness really stay that way.

there are some things you don’t think about

I’d like to write more here about poverty as I’ve experienced it this year. I think I’ve resisted because  when you talk about poverty people seem to think you’re inviting them to argue with you. I’m not trying to whine on my own behalf or to argue for or against any specific policy, action, or belief; just hoping to communicate a change in perspective and maybe inspire a little compassion.

My mail makes several stops before finally landing in my hands. It turns out to be a surprise letter from my friend at boot camp, and a surprise letter from the Department of Social Services. It is postmarked February 28 and contains a form that must be returned by March 10 if I am to continue receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Today is March 8, too late to mail the thing.

Fortunately it is a sunny day outside, and I leave work early on Fridays. I fill out the form, copy my most recent pay stub at work, put on some walking shoes, and head downtown. It is a mile to the DSS offices, housed in an enormous building with other county departments.

The suite number addressed on the form is not a place I can go, so I make my way to “food stamps undercare” on the building directory. I open a door, turn a corner, and am confronted with an exact replica of the waiting room at the Department of Health or my own food pantry – at least 50 people of all colors sitting in uncomfortable chairs while three exhausted-looking bureaucrats try to explain forms and rules over objections, excuses, language and literacy barriers and special circumstances. Babies squirm and fluorescent lights fluoresce. I stare for a few seconds, know at a glance anyone I try to talk to will tell me to get in line, turn around and leave. The woman I find in the office on the next floor up first directs me back to undercare, but I explain myself in a couple of sentences and she offers to send my form via interoffice envelope. Barring an administrative snafu, my grocery budget is safe.

All’s well that ends well – for me. I had an enjoyable afternoon walking through my city in the sunshine. But I’m lucky I had the afternoon off and could get my form in before the weekend.  It was a small inconvenience to fulfill the requirement of submitting a pay stub; I had to go home and get it and bring it back to work to copy it; but it’s a good thing my office has a copier I’m allowed to use. I’m lucky I live close to downtown and had no trouble walking to the DSS. Perhaps luckiest of all, I am competent and assertive in an office environment. I knew how to find a shortcut around the waiting room, and was not afraid or unable to succinctly explain what I needed to the person I finally apprehended. I consider her my equal and expected she could help me.

The world is filled with gatekeepers who exist in equal parts to help you and to keep you from disrupting the system. Getting what you need from them usually requires a complex set of skills and attitudes – respect and patience, but also confidence, firmness and persistence, as well as a general ability to communicate what you are asking the person to do for you. Those are skills and attitudes I learned watching my mother talk to doctors’ receptionists and bank tellers, and working in the offices of my high school and college. They are not skills everyone possesses. An office environment can be incredibly intimidating, especially considering the high levels of frustration often apparent on both sides of the desk for an issue as vital to a family as food stamps.

If I had not been able to turn the gatekeepers’ “no” into a “yes”, I would probably have had to take a number and sit in the waiting room. Assuming the office had not closed before they reached my case and received my envelope, the hour or two I would have lost may seem like just an annoyance. However, time is a resource many people cannot easily spare. You miss your bus; you’re late to get the kids from after school; you forgo your cheap or healthy dinner for a quick frozen pizza; you can’t get through all the homework help; there’s always another form to fill out.

I’m a no-excuses kind of person, but it’s the little things that make you feel powerless. Your mail comes late and suddenly, unforeseeably, your food budget is threatened by invisible powers with computers. Those bad days when things pile up and you’re overwhelmed by everyday life? That is, far too often, the life of the poor.

 

look out the window

This is my favorite snow – falling fast in big thick flakes. I still find all snow enchanting and the cold (usually) exhilarating; the days I am tired of it, it is because I miss home. The snow looks wet, it is blowing sideways, and I am glad to be sitting on a radiator behind two panes of glass. Nate and I are thinking of going to Lake Ontario this Saturday, which suddenly strikes me as silly. We are covered in Lake Ontario.

Two very small boys are playing at shoveling their drive. I have seen them do this with their father before, orbiting his dextrous work with their energetic flailing, shovels quite taller than they. I wonder if they will always imitate him so closely; I wonder if he is a good man. They run inside, half-finished making scrape marks in the piling white dust. I hope they have earned some hot chocolate.

I think it is an important exercise, to sit and look out windows. Occasionally time should be wasted with extravagant inattention, with trust that there is some healing joy in abandoning oneself to the television. But we are not so good at wasting time with intention, slowly, and then snow falls and boys play and all is left unconsidered, and it is not the time that is wasted at all but the heartrending beauty of the world going by outside.

subzero windchill, day 1

a proud Atlantan encounters the white, glittery dark side of Syracuse, New York.

Right Now: 14 F. feels like: -4.
know thine enemy.

Leaving my office, my face has I have already learned a lesson from the morning’s trek. My scarf winds around my neck and face five times to cover my nose. For one second I wonder if this will cause the people I encounter on the sidewalk to think I am dorky; then I realize, no, it will cause them to be insanely jealous of me, because they have frostbite and I do not.

Inventory: thermal shirt, other shirt, jacket, knee-length wool coat, tights, jeans, socks, boots, scarf, gloves, hat. I walk outside fairly confident in my armor, and am immediately hit by a blast of wind that causes my eyes to water. This response seems counterproductive, I tell my tear ducts. By no means do I want to be in any way wet right now.

I begin my tromp across the snow. 1.5 miles to go. Throughout my entire journey, I see six people outside, and we are all traveling in the same direction. I think this is so we don’t walk into the wind.

A ways down the road I see two kids, probably five and eight, getting off the bus or something. My first instinct is to run over, scoop them into my arms and tell them not to cry.  I remember that they have encountered many more days like this than I have, and imagine their reaction: “What do you want, lady? It’s a balmy several degrees out.”

There is a young woman taking her dog outside. This snowy situation is an aspect of New York dog ownership I never considered before. I make a mental chart:
Dogs
Cons:
want to go outside
Pros:
adorable
can be disemboweled for warmth

My hat is slipping down and covering the last three square inches of exposed skin on my body. As deliciously cozy as it feels to have warm eyes, I reluctantly concede that I’ll have to prioritize vision over comfort for now. I push my hat up. It slides down. I find a crochet hole to look through.

A bus slows down next to me. I’m pretty sure the bus driver expects me to get on. I don’t look at him or her in case this elicits an awkward shouting/sign language discussion about how much I love walking up enormous snowy hills. The bus pulls away, leaving me to my fate, like when Albert leaves Bruce Wayne. 

I get home and start taking off layers. Now I know what it’s like to be a hermit crab and shed your shell that’s the size of you and get a bigger one that’s the size of a house.

It turns out breath vapor will get your scarf wet 1,000,000,000 times faster than tears.

adventures are crappy and boring

The day after I saw the first Lord of the Rings movie I found myself moping around, feeling depressed. When I stopped to think about it, I realized this was because my life would never be accompanied by an epic orchestral soundtrack, nor would it ever deserve such a thing. I wanted to go on a quest of some kind, to ride a horse and meet with important delegates from other creature species, and I was stuck in the suburbs of Atlanta with nothing to conquer, evade, or cleave with a battleax.

I have since made a lot of decisions using the following criteria:
-Could it qualify as an adventure? or
-Is it a good story? or
-Is this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
If “yes”, do the thing.

This includes the decision to move to Syracuse and live in an intentional community and work at a church in The North. Doubts and fears? Necessary ingredients for a true adventure.

After three months abroad I have confirmed for myself what I have always, deep in my heart, suspected: adventures are crappy and boring.

What I don’t mean to say is that everyday life is crappy and boring. To me, this journey still feels like a good adventure story: new experiences (snowshoeing! liberals!), lofty goals (community! Christianity! un-povertizing Syracuse!), and interesting companions (housemates! mentors! kindly church ladies! The Love Interest!).

But a good adventure story also includes obstacles – the bigger the obstacle, the more epic the story. As much as we all feel Sam deserves second breakfast after all that walking, the story wouldn’t be very good nor Sam very heroic if the orcs carried a nice stash of snacks. In the movies, though, we get just a glimpse of the arduous work – “then the hobbits walked with their orc captors for many days” – and then are led to understand that the obstacles are really overcome in fiery climactic episodes by people with swords and magic.

The obstacles in real-life adventures are not so exciting. They are rarely even so clearly visible; often the first task is just to uncover what is really hindering you. And then the solution is usually to point yourself in the right direction, and then trudge. Up and up and up some grey mountain, against the mass of the whole earth drawing you back, away from the sky.

Such is community; such is church work; such is day-in and day-out life with the poor. You keep cleaning the kitchen and asking for help cleaning the kitchen and apologizing; you keep going to meetings and repeating yourself; you keep listening and stocking the pantry shelves. And none of it feels heroic.

So you forget you’re even having an adventure sometimes, unless someone reminds you that you could have done something easier with yourself, and you resist the urge to slap them for reminding you it’s your own fault you chose to do these things. And it’s all the more surprising when you finally do witness a miracle.

When housemates, who are as different as three professing American Christians could possibly be, start to really make a life together. When you’re eating lunch and making snowflakes with people who used to eye each other with suspicion. When you pray for workers for the harvest, and they show up. You know this is life victorious.

You live your days on hope and little victories and trembling fingers. Finally light bursts out of a darkness you thought would swallow the world before you’d get your match lit, and you shield your eyes even as you strain to take in more; you realize just how small you’ve always been, and you know only gratitude for all those days of drudgery as the Light whispers well done.

Someday there will be no place to regret choosing adventure.

joke’s on everyone

Out on Saturday night with a friend from another service corps, we found her car window smashed and my purse stolen. The take: 25-cent garage sale purse, 25-cent garage sale wallet, debit card (immediately canceled), credit card (immediately canceled), food stamp card (immediately canceled), driver’s license, $2, 10 Euro cents, 5 Thai baht, and 1 Canadian dime.

A lot went through my head that night. I’m pretty sure the first pre-rational thing I thought was that I’d like to find the thief and say, “do you know who I am?“. I guess because I think volunteers don’t deserve to have their stuff stolen, or because for all the money you’d make stealing from a volunteer, a Syracusean might as well start a banana farm. Less shimmying through shattered glass, anyway.

But even though the only loss to me was the time spent replacing all that stuff, I still felt somehow violated. The fact that there was nothing worth having in my purse made it feel that much more personal, malicious (although my bank’s phone system was down and I kept wondering if they’d find a way to clean out my account). Suddenly my friend and I were victims – powerless.

And I think we were both hit in a weirdly personal spot by the incident, because we work with the poor in our neighborhoods. It felt like the whole horrible system we were trying to undo had zeroed in to attack us and laugh at us and we felt. so. small.

For all that, though, this stuff just happens. That’s what I kept thinking, this is just what it’s like to live in these places, and you deal with it and move on. Really, the strongest emotion I feel at this point is gratitude – that I made the very rare decision to leave my keys at home, that I hadn’t gotten a chunk of cash like I usually do on payday. That I had used my extra cash the day before to buy fancy frozen yogurt for me and my boyfriend, even though it felt extravagant and profligate at the time.

People are senselessly, randomly violent, you can’t prevent it, the joke’s on everyone. Mean people don’t care who you are; you could lose everything at any time.

And it seems there are two basic ways to respond to this situation. You can move to the suburbs, make contingency plans and safeguards, wrap all your stuff ever tighter in security systems and blankets. You can give up the inner city for lost and flee, clutching all your belongings to your chest, eyeing your neighbors with suspicion.

Or you can laugh at the joke and learn to hold your things ever more loosely. The world’s a gift, you never owned it anyway. What made you think you deserved to keep it? Throw some extra in the Salvation Army bucket and buy your sweetheart some frozen yogurt, because what you give away can’t be stolen and love divided multiplies.

Merry Christmas and I forgive you, purse thief. I hope you have a coin collection.

welfare and reform

There’s no good way to say a lot of things about poverty. You don’t want to make generalizations about groups of people. Even if it’s mostly accurate, a generalization can too easily germinate into a stereotype, an ugly presupposition.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We nonprofit people love to talk about systemic change and removing barriers and how to fix government programs and schools blahdeeblah; but in the end, everyone’s story is their own story.

I’ve been invited/instructed to go to something called a “poverty simulation” in a few weeks. From what I know of it, the idea is that one starts off the evening/”month” with a certain family size and amount of money, and then goes to different stations (the pretend department of social services, the pretend grocery store) to try to make the family budget last. It may very well turn out to be an edifying experience, but initially I feel wary.

I don’t want to go to a poverty simulation because I am living in poverty. Not like a flippant use of the word “poor”; like I am well below the United States poverty line by any standard, and am trying to end the year with a small chunk of money with which to start grad school (first month’s rent, etc.). I have done/am doing the things I expect I will do at the simulation: navigated an application for food stamps, tried to figure out how to use the groceries available at the food pantry, existed on mostly rice and peanut butter for a few days til the next check comes in, weighed the costs and benefits of a $2 bus ride versus a 2-mile walk when I felt sick. I live in a questionable neighborhood, work a lot of evenings, and have no good way to transport a large amount of groceries (or anything else) on my own.

I hope this doesn’t come off as some kind of bizarre boasting. These are just some of the frustrating difficulties of life in poverty that you might not always think about, and that they might be able to simulate. If it gets people started thinking about some of the complexities of poverty, the simulation will have done some good.

But I sort of thought that joining The Lower Class would make me understand more than it has. Notwithstanding my education and other benefits of a well-off upbringing, notwithstanding all the help the nice church people give us, I thought that I would blur the line between Us and Them and have a better grasp of the problem (poverty) and the solution(?). How would it feel to be on food stamps? What would I do with the tiny allowance I gave myself after I bought toiletries out of it?

It feels fine to be on food stamps. They give you a little debit card that works just like any other debit card. You can buy pretty much anything edible with the money, and you know you’re not going to go hungry. And out of my little “discretionary” fund, I have bought a couple of clothing items and several burritos with friends. Unexpected things come up, the money runs out, I wish there were more, I wait to buy anything til the next 15th. And everything turns out OK. I am happy. I know I will get out of poverty.

This is why it’s hard to talk about poverty: because poverty – long-term, systemic, suck-the-life-out-of-a-city poverty – is not about money. Urban education is not about schools. And violence is not about guns. We want the world to be concrete and straightforward; then we can pick it apart and put it back together. We can study it and model it. We can simulate it.

What you can’t simulate, and what I would never experience no matter how long I lived on this income, is growing up like They did. It’s being abused, physically, verbally, or sexually; it’s no one telling you to do your homework; it’s a string of a parent’s significant others rotating through the house. You can’t simulate a lack of life skills like cooking and budgeting; a culture that derides education; or the desperation for love and attention that drives teenagers to become sexually active, birth control and public health campaigns be damned.

And the fuel driving the whole cycle around and around is the last thing you could ever simulate. You learn it every day, over and over, from all of those crappy situations above. It’s the thing I see everywhere, it will suffocate you if you’re not careful: the feeling – no, the absolute belief – that, powerless and unloved, you are utterly worthless.

Could it be that a poverty simulation is one more thing to keep us from having to face this? If I happen to be right, if that sense of worthlessness is the root of the toxic, self-perpetuating, all-destroying, cancerous poverty all these charitable people can’t seem to do anything about – how would we have to respond?

I think we would have to stop talking about poverty and money and school systems, and start loving people, one at a time. There is no gathering all the people and putting them through a self-worth workshop. If people are going to love themselves (and their kids and their neighbors), I think someone else will have to love them first. I think it’s a matter of looking a person in the eye and remembering their name. It’s inviting someone to your house for dinner and calling them when they don’t show up to make sure they’re OK. It’s forgiveness and patience and a thousand other very, very costly things. Because people are very, very costly.

But I think most people, the ostensible problem-solvers I mean, would truly honestly rather keep pouring money down the government and non-profit drain; keep holding benefit dinners and publishing research papers; keep finding ways around the poor and their individual bodies and souls, needy, sinful, beautiful, broken, precious as we all are. I think the policy makers would rather continue the debate between compassionless conservatism (“the poor need to take responsibility for themselves”) and condescending liberalism (“the poor can’t help themselves”) because it’s too hard to admit that real people are more complicated than all that.

I hope not. I hope we believe people should have their basic needs met and their situations improved, not to lower the crime rate or the welfare bill, but because the people themselves have intrinsic value. I hope we find a way to talk about poverty that includes poor people, all their raw ability to help themselves, and all the ways they need others’ help. May we remember those who built us up, who taught us what we were worth. May gratitude to the lover of our souls give us power to love someone else’s.

 

 

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