I won $25 in the form of an Amazon gift code. I feel rich.
Just kidding. I am still super poor, but I wanted to make the point here that most people could lose $25 and not be terribly upset by the loss, while for me it feels like frigging Christmas wrapped in the lottery to gain $25.
Wealth is both relative and not relative. I have far more than someone living in a hut in the jungle in South America, perhaps, monetarily speaking. But I also have far less than most people living in North America, monetarily speaking. So that makes it relative in nature. But there are really easily applied formulas for figuring out what it costs to live in a particular place, and being from North America, and having no income, I rest way down at the very bottom of the poverty scale. There isn’t anything relative about that. I can’t be considered wealthy based on the conditions in which I live. And, frankly, I can’t afford to move to a hut in South America either, so I am stuck within those conditions, and my situation would likely not change were I to live elsewhere in the United States. (Canada is a whole other, and I dare say better, story than here. But I don’t think they give you a visa to utilize better social programs. They probably prefer people emigrate with useful skills, not disability status.)
So, if we understand that I am stuck where I am physically and financially, we can also understand that I don’t have monetary wealth. And that presents challenges that I often never considered.
There was a commercial on today for ADT security service that said something along the lines of “even in your nice neighborhood”. And I was taken aback as a person whose neighborhood would rarely, if ever, be considered nice. Are they specifically marketing to people in “nice” neighborhoods? What defines nice? Who thinks that bad things can’t happen in their neighborhood, even if it fits the criteria set forth for one that is nice? And aren’t there enough neighborhoods that are not meeting the nice criteria for ADT to make plenty of money? I know my building has an alarm system on every floor, even though there are no less than four deadbolts between the street and my apartment from any entrance. And it began to sink in that what nice means is a neighborhood with wealth.
Wealth, with regard to neighborhood safety, is also relative and not relative. There are far more shootings in the south side and west side neighborhoods of Chicago than in other areas, and these neighborhoods are also those that have the most poor households. (We will ignore for the moment that they also have the most people of color—or, rather, are composed almost solely of people of color.) It would seem that money equates with safety. But when we look closer, and assess types of crime, there are far fewer home invasions in my area on the west side than in wealthier areas. Nobody wants my not techie, super-old, very cheap electronics, or my Salvation Army furniture. I’m relatively safe, in that regard. I’m also relatively safe because my block is filled with families who own their homes and take pride in being good, Christian people, so they either don’t participate in criminal activity, or do so quietly and without drama and violence. (The neighbor lady sits out back and smokes weed every nice evening, for instance, but she isn’t dealing in heroin and guns.) So, being impoverished doesn’t necessarily mean you are unsafe, in a relative sense. But, there is also the issue of extreme poverty—the kind that leads to homelessness, prostitution, hunger, and the like. This poverty makes you very unsafe. Have you ever wondered why many homeless sleep in public parks during the day? It is because sleeping alone in the dark corners of the city is very dangerous, especially for women or children. The elements are dangerous. The alternate economies, like selling drugs or your body, are dangerous. There is no safety in extreme poverty. This is not relative. It is simply the truth.
And lately I sit on the precipice of this extreme sort of poverty.
I’ve learned to live in the burden of the relative poverty and the relative safety without too much difficulty. There were a few years between an innocent youth and aware adult that included sex and drugs and homelessness, and that I do not regret, because it taught me the truth. It made me know, beyond any uncertainty, that extreme poverty should never be, because you cannot be in it without being in constant danger. I was in constant danger during those years. Those years broke me, and started the process of rebuilding me anew.
What I lived then, I never wanted another human being to experience. I never wanted another human being to choose sex with a stranger over possibly freezing to death in the car. I never wanted another human being to steal tampons or soap from Walmart, because there wasn’t another way to get them. I never wanted another human being to learn the schedule upon which the McDonald’s dumpster received uneaten burgers from the previous shift, still slightly warm and wrapped in their lovely papers inside that plastic garbage bag, and ready for consumption. I never wanted another human being to sleep with an aerosol hairspray and a lighter at the ready, to create an instant blow torch to the face of any who might attack in the night. Nobody should ever live that way.
I moved from the extreme poverty to the relative poverty category when I had a child. Then you got all the wealth–$361 of wealth every month! It was like a heaven. A heaven where you had to decide between socks and diapers, or medicine and transportation, or tampons and toilet paper. A heaven where I would unroll all the toilet paper from the church bathroom stall into my purse every Sunday. A heaven where my daughter missed the 1st grade class trip because I couldn’t come up with $6. A heaven where I cried myself to sleep at midnight and then got up at five in the morning to do my own homework before I had to wake my daughter for school.
That heaven, sadly, is gone. I’m no longer eligible for more student loans, and I haven’t qualified for TANF since my daughter was five, and while I do get food stamps and a housing voucher, I don’t get any other assistance. My light bill and my gas bill and my phone bill and my medications not covered by insurance and my clothes and my toilet paper and a haircut and soap and laundry detergent and whatever else I need, that comes from nowhere. I’ve maxed out my credit cards and borrowed all that I was able from family, and now there is nothing. Now it is over. Now I stare at that space between here and sleeping with aerosol and lighters, and I see it narrowing, and I am afraid. Can I survive on the street now? No. I wouldn’t make it a week out in the elements. Would it come to that? I don’t know.
What I do know is that nobody on this planet, and certainly nobody in the United States, should see $25 as wealth when others wouldn’t notice if it went missing.
When I was younger, I had these friends who would take checks out of their mom’s checkbook and forge her signature and go out to eat and such. They would take my relative poverty butt along for the ride. I don’t think their mom ever noticed that they were essentially stealing her money, or she, at least, didn’t care and simply allowed them to continue the practice. Either way, it was a huge departure from the way I lived. I could not imagine a world where every penny was accounted for in the budget weeks before any income was expected. I could not imagine a world where money could just leave your bank account without you freaking the fuck out and tracking down the evil person who took it. I could not imagine wealth.
I still can’t.
I have friends who I would consider wealthy, and relatives that I would consider wealthy, so I see wealth and have been close to wealth, but my own mind doesn’t know wealth. It only knows scarcity. And when you only know scarcity, it is extremely difficult to comprehend or imagine wealth.
I do strange things out of scarcity and the fear of scarcity. I save bottles of product that are clearly empty, just in case I can somehow get more out, by pressing on the pump a thousand times, or turning it upside down and banging it on a hard surface, or by adding some water to dilute the product and potentially get at least partial benefit from the watery substance that is left. I keep clothes with holes and things that don’t fit, just in case there is never a way to replace what is in my closet with something else. I imagine everything needs to be saved and kept, albeit neatly, in the closet. I accept things from others that I would never choose for myself. I always take home leftovers, even if I didn’t like the food the first time and know I won’t eat them. It just seems like I always need to be prepared for a period where I am destitute. That day seems moments away. Always.
The stress on my body and mind from believing in this destitute day and my needed readiness must be outrageous. It is no wonder that people in poverty have shorter life spans. Stress alone is killing us, never mind exposure or illness or starvation or infection or assault.
I should feel wealth, and not scarcity. We all should feel wealth and not scarcity.
The other day on the bus I recognized a voice. It was a man I had spent some time talking with on the bus a year or so ago. I remembered this interaction vividly, because he was a pianist and a piano teacher, and also homeless. My mother was a piano teacher and a pianist, so we connected on that topic and he began telling me all sorts of stories about his days as a professional musician. He traveled to places exotic and new and he performed in all sorts of famous or glamorous or beautiful venues, but people gawked and made scowling faces as I spoke with him about his wealth of experience, because it was obvious that he now had no monetary wealth to speak of. I heard him telling a woman next to him that he was a piano teacher, and immediately was taken back to the memory of him and our lovely conversation. I looked over, and I hardly recognized him. He had the same glasses and the same torn pants, he still had a jacket too light for the weather and curly blonde/gray hair sticking out in all directions, but he had lost maybe 70 pounds and he looked gaunt and ashen about the face, instead of plump and rosy as he had been the day I first met him. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes and I looked away, putting on my headphones and immersing myself in something other than the empty feeling in my gut. He had slipped down the slope into extreme poverty. He is dying. Slowly, but with certainty, he is dying. And he reminded me once more of my mother, and the frailty she showed as her body slipped into death. All the wealth this man possessed was leaving him. But it should not have been. That history, that life, that wealth of experience should have been valued and respected and honored. It wasn’t, because he was poor and homeless.
I deserve to feel my own wealth, for once. I should be allowed to feel the wealth of knowledge and intellect I possess, and the giftedness of an artist and a writer and a poet, and the depth and the breadth of a life lived with fire and passion and play and purpose. I rarely feel that wealth. I never feel that wealth without doing so deliberately. Because the poverty pushes out all else. The monetary scarcity—the lack of financial resources—overwhelms any other wealth that we might possess, and leaves us bathed in insecurities and unable to promote our strength. It strips us of the goodness and leaves us only the worries of never having—never being—enough.
So, today I won $25. And all of this came out of that little Amazon gift card. All of this was the result of that one moment, when I declared that I am rich, even when I know that I am clinging to relative poverty with every cell in my body right now. Even though I know it is a lie. Even though I believe in scarcity, when I wish beyond all telling that I could trust in abundance. I don’t. I don’t know abundance anymore. Maybe I never did. And maybe I will go the way of my pianist friend, slowly losing life to homelessness and hunger once more, or maybe I will go the way of others, and win the lottery or write a best-seller or start a business and have millions to spend. But, somehow, I think that I might always be stuck in this pattern of thinking, no matter which way I go. Because being poor has become a part of me, and fighting to survive is the only fight I know, and scarcity has been my reality for so long that I don’t know that I could ever believe that it won’t be stripped from me, and that my true, scarce self will be exposed for all to see.
I find that really sad and terrible. And I do not have a beautiful expression with which to leave you, and a happy ending to this post. Because this is me thinking aloud and finding the truth in my own post, not me solving the problem to make you feel better. And, maybe you are a person who would benefit from sitting in this space with me, and acknowledging that the solution isn’t evident. Maybe sitting in my scarcity will help you see your own abundance, or maybe sitting in my scarcity will give you comfort that you are not the only one, or maybe sitting in my scarcity will inspire you to become passionate about sharing abundance and honoring wealth not monetary in nature. I don’t know.
All I can say for certain right now is that I am really excited to spend my $25. Now, should I buy socks or medicine?