Father

To men who made us
To men who raised us
And to the men who raised them
The ones who showed our fathers how to be decent
How to be kind
How to be steady
To the men who stayed

To those, even, who did not and

To the boys who fumbled in the absence of a good man
Who had to squint at the negative space to find the gifts of their manhood
And became whole

To the boys who couldn’t, and could only see the loss
Who grew into men that used their father’s broken tools
To build homes out of themselves where the floorboards are loose
And wind screams through the gaps by the windows
When the storms come

To the men our brothers will be
To the sons they will raise
To the men who will emerge from the
Tiny souls that I am tending
The boys who call me Mama

To the men who will love my daughter
To the men who love my sisters
To the men who love my friends
And turned them into mothers

To the men we lost and the men we grieve
Their faces in old photos, pure joy as they hold their grandchildren, their great grandchildren
Just as they held us
To the Papas who come home dirty and tired from a long day of hard work
And roll in the grass with shrieking children anyway
While Mamas watch from the kitchen window
Who a grown daughter watches for in her memories and searches for
In the faces of the men who might love her

To men
Who are the home where the heart of their family beats
I love you
I love you
I love you

The Mama Being Meen Book

My Instant Gratification Monkey is so wide-awake right now, you guys.

 

I’m pulling an all-nighter. Sorting, tossing, packing and repeating. Tomorrow is moving day- we’re going to live in our own place, me and these kids, for the first time ever. I’m afraid of what it will mean for them, what emotions it is going to bring up. Mostly it feels like a relief, like a prize at the end of a year of the hardest work I’ve ever attempted. Thinking about it like a prize is probably a good way to set myself up to have the wind knocked out of me by life again, so I’ll try and dial back my enthusiasm here to a solid “content and hopeful”.

My oldest has been horribly behaved lately- mean and sneaky, explosive with his emotions. I have been so absent since I started working full time again. We all started up a new routine at the same time. Summer ended and they went off to school and day care, I went off to work, and we’ve found ourselves in a place where we only see each other in the last few hours of the day. We are all exhausted, cranky and starving. We are all about to burst from holding it together all day long in the presence of other people and we all end up exploding together. One tantrum sets off another and the other, the fighting never ends. I shut down, robotically cook and clean whatever I can, half listen to them and say things like, “What? No I don’t know. Yeah. Hmm.” The only thing that snaps me out of my haze is when they eventually start bickering, or the baby stands up in his high chair to throw his milk across the room.

I do know that I am doing my best. I know that.

I wonder why my best isn’t enough.

I keep trying to figure out some trick, some thing I can do that will make me expand, that will make me, finally, enough. I need to plan and work and budget and clean and cook and do all the everyday maintenance things. I need to be present and listen and say the right things to them so they know they are loved and supported. I need to comfort them through the ongoing strangeness of our family being ripped apart. The strangeness of knowing that accepting things unfamiliar is our new way of life; of being completely and totally heartbroken. Especially because they don’t know that they’re heartbroken. They will realize it over and over in small ways until one day when they’re grown they’ll realize they’ve had a gaping wound the whole time. Who will they see when they look back at me? Is she enough? Are they going to forgive me for the spaces in their lives that I couldn’t fill?

I’m packing these boxes and being so careful with what we have. It’s amazing to me what we’ve managed to accumulate over the last year. I wonder how things will look in our new place. What paths will we weave once our space is our own? How long until it feels familiar? How long until we feel at home? How long until we start to heal?

 

 

God I do not want to keep working on this shit right now. It’s 2am! I have so much to do tomorrow, so much physical work. Staying up all night is a bad move, but I am not enough during the day to have been able to get this done in any other way. I knew it would be like this from the minute I signed the lease. I know it’s going to be like this for a long time. I am going to be up in the wee hours, borrowing energy from tomorrow, for years and years to come.

Cleaning up tonight, making room for bins of things that I still have to pack up, I came across Ben’s latest piece of non-fiction. I don’t remember stepping on the book, but it was probably when I was trying to drag the baby out of the TV room to get him to bed and telling them, for the five millionth time today, to clean up all the stuff they dumped out on the floor because we are MOVING IN THE MORNING FOR CHRIST’S SAKE CAN I GET A BREAK HERE?!

 

Without any further adieu, I present: Mama being Meen Book

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OK. 

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He took money out of my wallet and pretended it was his. It did not go over well. He didn’t want to talk about it, but I forced him to. Because I am MEAN.

20161023_010936This actually made me laugh at first, before it started hurting, because it is so absurd. I am the Berlin Wall of mothers. My eyebrows are made of lightning and my heart (not pictured) is made of ice.

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Mother: giver of life, ruiner of dreams. 

 

Damn, little dude.

 

So Many Gods

My dad used to pick me up at my mom’s house on Friday afternoons on his way home from work. Every other Friday afternoon, to be specific. The whole transition of it would buzz with energy, like I was changing selves or stepping into a different story. I was a different kid. His house was only on the other side of town and truthfully our weekends were made of typical weekend stuff- errands, soccer games, cookouts. We were always on hiking trails and exploring state parks; we’d spend the whole day walking around and climbing and never get bored. I would stay up late reading grown up books from their endless book shelves. War stories, more or less. Into the Wild, A Tale of Two Cities, Gone With the Wind, the Red Badge of Courage. I’d sometimes get brave enough to read the book jacket for a Steven King novel, and then I’d have to sleep with the light on while I cursed myself. Never again would I be so foolish.

While he drove, my dad would crack me up with stories of my brother, who was Terrible Two- potty training and refusing all food that wasn’t The Holy Fish Stick. On and on as my brother grew older my dad would issue solemn warnings for when we got home. Nicky had developed an obsession with toy guns and swords and I should not walk by the playroom without guarding my shins. The knights were launching tiny plastic cannonballs and the pirates were returning fire. At one point, Nick was banned outright from using the word “stupid”. He resorted to calling everyone “Stew” from the Time Out corner, usually after he’d plastic-pistol whipped our baby sister Caroline who was, and is, too pretty for war games. My dad would mime her big pouty lips and innocent wide-eyed bewilderment and I’d nearly pee my pants laughing while he described her drool bubbles. I adored how much he adored them. How he still refers to my stepmother as “My Darling Bride” in a silly voice but we all know that he’s dead serious. I liked being a character in this show and liked the person I imagined myself to be when I was with them.

I became sillier around my brother and sister, being so proud when I could make them laugh. I tried to break out of my crippling shyness at least once at a pool party. Maybe twice. It didn’t take, but that is OK. I remain Eddie’s kind of weird oldest kid that almost said Hi one time. 

One time I tried to be brave and watch Aliens with him, even though I just hid behind his armchair and watched the screen through the holes of a crocheted blanket. While I watched the movie he’d snuck over the back of his chair, silent as anything. He descended on me with a howl and his hands curled up like claws just as some terrible monster on screen did the same. I screamed for my life and I’m certain I peed my pants. I’d probably do the same if he managed to scare me like that today.

One afternoon as I buckled myself into the passenger seat, my dad rolled his eyes dramatically and gestured towards an enormous hard cover book on the floor. The Big Book of Why.

“He’s in his Why Phase. God help us.”

“What is a Why Phase?”

“Oh it’s when little kids learn if they say the word Why over and over again their dad’s head will explode.”

“…Why?”

He smirked at me and said, “Yeah, exactly.”

I picked up the book to leaf through it. Dad asked if I knew there was such a thing as a marshmallow plant, and I thought he was messing with me but it turns out the Big Book of Why is actually chock full of accurate information. This was back in the pre-internet days, when people couldn’t just decide to find out the history of modern marshmallows on a whim. If your punk kid asked you why rubber balls can bounce so fabulously, you had to already have that stuff in your head while painting the garage or doing the dishes or trying to drive to some birthday party without GPS. Or you had to schlep to a library and just sort of figure out what book or publication would have a satisfactory answer. Satisfactory for whom? Well, if you’re the sort of person that wants to answer your punk kid’s bouncy ball question badly enough that you left the dishes and went to the library then you’re probably the sort of person that will have to break your answer up into categories and talk about the composition and manufacture of rubber, elasticity in general, kinetic and potential energies…Man you’re going to be there all day. My dad is that sort of person. I think I’m that sort of person too, I’m just much more spoiled by technology. Sometimes I have the thought, “Ugh I don’t want to Google all of that!” and am sort of amused and appalled at myself that I can be overwhelmed by having to type my questions out with my Pretty Princess Fingers before I can actually read the answer that appears in front of my Pretty Princess Face.

Why can’t it just be inserted somehow into my thought stream?

Dad? Do you know why? Can you help?

 

 

My oldest boy is about to enter first grade. He has followed in his uncle’s footsteps of being a tornado of a boy who is feared and adored. My youngest boy is all of that, only concentrated into a thirty pound wrecking ball of shrieking demands for popsicles and an insatiable urge to destroy the homes of his grandmothers and aunts. My own pretty girl has big sparkling eyes like her aunt Caroline and can pout her way into getting whatever she wants. Mostly she uses her powers to get cuddles, but sometimes she’ll get a person to be her personal Piggy Back Provider for as long as she wants, and they do it gladly. It’s witchcraft.

These days, I am the one to brag about the wild creatures that live in my house and tell people stories of the outrageous and adorable things they do.

It’s now my turn to give the answer when a punk kid asks me a question.

I don’t know why I’m surprised that a kid that comes from me wants to know the answers to things like, “Mama, what comes after space?”

They don’t care much about bouncy balls but will march up to me first thing in the morning and sort of shout at me in bullet points.

  • Are bad guys evil?
  • Can anyone be evil?
  • Am I evil or good?
  • Mama are you a good guy?
    • How do you know?

 

There is not enough coffee in the world.

I tell them what I can as honestly as I can. These are questions that open secret passageways  and lead us on winding staircases that don’t actually go anywhere. They are not satisfied with non-answers. They want to know what comes after space. They want to know if a person can be a little bit evil and a little bit OK at the same time, and if I am sure.

 

Yesterday they got me good.

“MAMA! If there’s no god then who is everyone praying to?”

“Yeah! Who are they praying to if he’s not real and why would they keep on DOING it?”

They gang up on me like Existential Question Elite Forces. Sometimes they’ll high five each other for stumping me and then they run off. I’m left there holding my coffee cup and wearing one of my dad’s expressions across my own face. It’s a lot of eyebrow action and flared nostrils, and it means You’re All a Bunch of Punks.

Here is Thomas, or Tomzilla the Tom-Bus as I refer to him, who has also inherited the elastic faces of my father. He doesn’t say much yet, but he always lets us know what he’s thinking.

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“You’re all a bunch of punks.”

 

I never introduced the idea of the Christian God, or any gods, to my kids. I knew they’d pick it up from the dominant Christian culture and they’d bring me their questions as they thought of them. All this spirituality, fantasy and magic are around them in real life- there’s a god in their pledge of Allegiance, there are good witches and bad witches. Spindles can magic you to sleep, true love’s kiss will wake you. A single tear somehow has the power to bring people back to life, if it hits before the last rose petal falls, and some friends and family say bedtime prayers to a god as well. They sang God Bless America on Memorial Day.

I barely feel comfortable telling them what I believe because I don’t want them to think my answer is The Answer, the way it is for all the other stuff they ask me. Spiritual stuff is so personal and sacred and such a big part of being a human. It was for me, anyway. I don’t want tell them that there is or isn’t a god. I don’t want them to be satisfied with an answer from anyone but themselves. They don’t like this wishy washy business from me.

I tell them about the Abrahamic god that they think of as ‘the god in Heaven’, the one that everyone is praying to all the time. I tell them about the gods on Mount Olympus and how they were sometimes very good and sometimes very bad, just like regular people. I tell them about the Norse gods and the Egyptian gods and the magic that seems silly to us now, but was very real to the people who believed it. I tell them about how afraid we were before we knew things about our planet, how storms seemed like punishments or earthquakes seemed like monsters until we knew better.

I tell them the story of Arachne like my aunt told me when I pestered her with questions about gods and men because I knew she always told the truth. 

They love these stories, they cannot ask me “Why” enough and they listen so intently.

Still, they want to know what I believe. They’re looking at me for an answer.

The little punks.

I have told them honestly that I am an atheist, or a humanist, or maybe even a pantheist but without all that mysticism and god stuff. Sometimes I stare at the moon and think of becoming fuller, or letting go. It’s not in worship or belief in anything that I perform little rituals or celebrate the changing seasons. I just like doing things that people before me have done. I like stepping into the prints someone else has made in the snow. It makes me feel like a superhero or a goddess or a time traveller. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it just warms my heart.

When I was my son’s age, the world was a confusing and scary realm of spiritual warfare. My dad was technically Catholic but I wasn’t raised in his church. I lived with my mother and extended family and we attended a church that was a part of a Faith Healing cult. I remember lying in bed at night, terrified of the demons that I just knew were inches away from me. I tried desperately to pray in tongues to be able to keep myself safe. I pretended to catch the holy spirit in church. I waited as patiently as I could for God to choose me back but he never did.

God was a terrifying, angry figure that I was sure loved me very much, because everyone always told me so. He seemed dangerous, a man who liked to bask in attention and praise. The grown ups at church were pushy and cold and they used their piety as a weapon to compete with each other. God seemed to be more like the wormy guy with an ugly mustache who knew that I had to respect and obey him no matter what. He would call me Sister Jennifer and say “Hallelujah!” the loudest out of anyone, but he made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was sinful to think such things or question my elders, but I was always sinning without ever meaning to. I figured out early on that I was just evil and if I ever did anything good, it was only because I was pretending at being good. I just couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t figure out what bad meant, and I couldn’t trust anything that called itself good. Everything was a trick.

 

 

It feels really nice to be able to believe in nothing and everything now. I don’t feel like I’m setting some cosmic trap for myself. I am figuring out how to be a good person through trial and error, a lot of error. My punishment isn’t hell, it’s guilt and shame. Then those become the amends I try to make and then they become acceptance. I become better for the bad things I’ve done. I like my version of religion a lot.

My kids don’t know the scary god. My kids have no idea what Satan is and they certainly don’t think he’s waiting under their bed to grab them for messing up. They think the god in Heaven is a Santa type figure and that praying is something you do to ask him to use some of his magic for you. I like their version of religion, too.

I like that they ask me Why without hesitation or any guilt at daring to wonder, or not understand in the first place. It feels like some kind of divinity that for the times when I can’t answer them, I am not afraid at all to say that I don’t know and that we’ll figure it out as we go.

We’ll stay up late reading Big Books of Why. We’ll choose an answer and change our minds. We’ll look at our family’s faces and see ourselves reflected there and maybe that will feel a little bit like god, too.

 

 

I found a world of answers in the books that nobody forced me to read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working the System: Tales of a Welfare Queen

Oh, here we go. 

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

 

If the title of this post elicited such a response from you, then my click bait did its job. Maybe you just rolled your eyes, or scoffed a bit. Maybe you already knew that I wasn’t really going to claim the rhinestone studded throne of Welfare Queen, but you hope you’re at least going to see an angry mob of comments from people who are frothing at the mouth to yell “Bootstraps!” and “bleeding heart liberals!” but you’ll be disappointed because those chuckleheads are all hanging out on your hometown’s FB page or commenting on Yahoo! news anyway.

Maybe you’re related to me and you need to read this shit to make sure I don’t embarrass anyone, or myself, again.

Too late. I once wrote about farting in a snuggie, you guys. I post melodramatic essays about my mental illness and my inability to operate a microwave.

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This girl gets it. Tiny violins for us all!

 

Moving forward. I’d like to talk about government benefits, national attitudes toward “the poor” and a bunch of other things that end with me and gesturing wildly and scowling.

Perhaps I  will punctuate my sentences with a long drag on a cigarette from a pack- a carton even- which I bought with my EBT card at the gas station while you were waiting in line behind me angrily crushing your paper money with your hardworking fists.

I’ll pause often in conversation to chew thoughtfully on my Lobster in Red Bull Sauce. It’s a rare delicacy that we, the Welfae of Welfaerie Valley, feel completely entitled to.

Truthfully, I am not a faerie queen. I know. It’s hard to believe. I am receiving government benefits, though. My children and I are covered completely under MassHealth. We receive some $500 in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, or “food stamps” as they used to be known, each month. We also qualify for something called TAFDC, Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children. It is a cash grant that is deposited twice monthly to my EBT card.  I can use the card at an ATM to withdraw the cash portion of my grant, and my SNAP benefits are accepted basically anywhere.

It took me months to secure these benefits. I had to provide proof of citizenship, residency, immunization and all manner of identity for myself and my children. That’s perfectly reasonable, or it seems perfectly reasonable until you’re trying to obtain said proofs and you’re actually a homeless lady with three kids, no car, no valid ID, no bank account- not that you need one, since you have absolutely zero income or savings and you are existing on the undeserved (?) kindness of family and friends and riding the coattails of the guilt power that your cute children can wield over your blood relatives. That was me, that was I.

It is worth mentioning that a good amount of my important legal documents were in a storage unit in some town in the middle of nowhere Texas that looks and feels like it’s been parboiled. Also my baby was born there and it would take 8 weeks minimum for them to process a request for his birth certificate, and the state of Massachusetts absolutely required the official form before they’d enroll any of us in their system.

Even though they already had his social security number and his medical records proving his birth on US soil, which were won in a heroic battle against the yawning receptionists at my crapass former insurance carrier in Parboiled Texas and their even less interested third-party records department.

Even though my caseworker gave me a magic form that should have essentially waived this requirement due to hardship, and I got it signed and notarized and sealed with the blood of a Single Mom Dragon like I was instructed, but then the bored looking clerk at the documents window laughed quite meanly at me and wouldn’t accept it.

“Where did you get THIS? No, we need his-actual-birth-certificate, no exceptions.” After a pause she said, “Do you need an interpreter?” in a way that let me know she really meant, “Are you some kind of moron?”

My voice was low and husky because I was Not Going To Cry in the Welfare Office. Not that day, not after I’d allowed myself a little bit of hope that this stupid form, finally, was going to be the thing, the last hurdle, and I would be able to feed my kids and get some sense of normalcy back into their lives. I was going to make all their favorite dinners and German pancakes with strawberries for breakfast. They could help with the brown sugar cookies like they used to. I could make my aunt’s ginger chicken tortellini soup with a big loaf of crusty bread and grumble while picking up the bits of dough they flung around the kitchen while “helping”me knead.

Maybe I’d get those fruit snacks that I used to buy as a treat in Texas all the time, before their whole world was tossed upside down. I was making a grocery list in my head one minute and the next I was saying, “…but it…she said this was OK…the official form costs thirty five dollars…I can’t…I don’t have eight more weeks in me…”

And she said, “Excuse me? You’ll have to speak up ma’am!”

And then some mortifying, strangled sob-voice came out of me and I shouted, “I don’t HAVE thirty five dollars! I don’t have ANY dollars! That’s the whole reason I’m even HERE! Oh my god…Oh my god!” And then I stormed out of there looking as crazy as I actually am, which is not a good look.

This was somewhere around December 2015-February 2016 and I still today could easily start falling to pieces just thinking of how helpless I felt and how surreal it all was. Going through each step and expecting a result- getting absolutely nowhere if I was very lucky, but most of the time actually falling through a trap door and landing further back than I started. My license had expired and I couldn’t renew it until I paid overdue excise taxes, and then some fees for being late with those taxes. Then the registry was synching with some other registry and I had to go to the social security office and fork over more money that wasn’t mine to get some other form from some other Forms Czar.  Hurdle after hurdle. During this time I borrowed a vehicle from a friend, I begged babysitting favors off of people that were long tired of my grief and crisis. I was housed and fed by people who already had enough to deal with just housing and feeding their own families.

If it weren’t for all these people and all my unearned privilege in being an English speaking white woman with a background in business and an impeccable phone manner, I have no idea how any of this would have been possible.

I lucked out. It sort of came together in the end, and for a few months I could go to the grocery store and say “Yes!” when my kids asked for juice boxes and pepperoni slices and whatever animal cracker their little hearts desired. You bet we’re getting the big apples, kid. As many as you want, that’s how many.

Once my SNAP and TAFDC cases were approved I was able to apply for childcare assistance, which is like the Olympics of Welfare and I earned that gold medal. I got my baby into a day care and extended my big girl’s preschool hours so I could go to work, at a real job like a real person. I bought Isla this little Hello Kitty lunch box and nearly cried in Target when I realized it was the first thing that I had purchased for her on my own in probably a year. I am pretty sure Fight Song came on the radio while I was driving home, and I punched the power button and muttered to myself about how corny the writers for my dramatic life-crisis miniseries can be sometimes.

Expectedly, everything went to shit after a few months because of things that are minor annoyances to regular folks but which cripple Poor People who are barely hanging on as it is. My SNAP and TAFDC cases were closed because of some red tape nonsense and my childcare vouchers weren’t renewed as a result of that. Now I’m back hacking away at the same red tape, jumping through hoops and having a really hard time trying to stay positive and imagining that one day I’m going to be a regular person again.

When I think of what it must be like for another family to navigate these systems without the random luck that I walk around with every day, a pit forms in my stomach. My struggle is nearly killing me, but it is nothing compared to the struggle of a mother trying to do this work with a language barrier or a disability, one who could be fleeing an abusive situation, one who works two minimum wage jobs and simply cannot afford to take the afternoon off to wait and wait some more to be seen at the DTA Office, which of course isn’t accessible by public transportation.

It’s similar to how Voter ID Laws sound perfectly reasonable, until you consider that obtaining a photo ID is a lot harder for those populations that are already shamefully underserved; the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities and us poor folks in general. If that’s not you, or someone you know and love, you can shrug and move on. As a society, symbolically and actually, we have already done that. By the looks of the upcoming election, there is an alarming and growing number of Americans that are looking at people like me and seeing an enemy. A thief. A lazy con artist that doesn’t deserve their tax money.

Thankfully nobody has said any of these things to me, not in person anyway. I’ve been around long enough to know the kind of hate and fear that people have brewing. I know the things they say on message boards and in the comments sections of their local news sites. I know the way they bristle with rage because I saw them all the time when I used to work in a grocery store back when WIC issued huge checks instead of the WIC card. They’d sigh loudly as women and girls sorted their little piles of food and placed the giant checks on top of them like flags. They’d throw up their arms and yell, “Jesus CHRIST!” to nobody in particular if they were waiting in line behind a WIC recipient. A woman trying her very best not to cry as she realizes she has the wrong size cereal box, or that the brand of juice she was getting wasn’t covered anymore and we’d have to void the whole thing, or hold the line while she ran to get the right one. I held the line happily and flicked my light off a few times, and I felt proud and happy to be able to do that for someone that was clearly having a bad day. I was fourteen when I started working there and it seemed like common sense (because it is) to just not be a dick to people.

Now I’m an adult and I’ve been in a situation like this myself, thinking I cannot handle another goddamn hurdle, and certainly not while suffering the indignity of some stranger Looking At me and completely hating me for making an understandable and harmless mistake. What is this emotion that is ringing all around my chest at the idea of having to apologize to someone for my own bad day? Humiliated rage. That’s a new one. Being broke means you learn something new about yourself every day! #blessed

Poor people aren’t allowed to make mistakes, you know. That’s the point.

We’re already pissing everyone off just by going and living our lives and having problems right in front of regular, decent people’s faces. Just filling up our carts with whatever we want.

The idea that good food is only for some people and not others really blows my mind.

It is insane to me, truly, that some people think they have the right to decide what another human being deserves to eat. 

Think about that.

You get to decide which meals a mother can make for her children? Which cookies they can bake, which spices will always smell like home to them? What about an adult man who works full time but can’t make ends meet for his family? Is he allowed to have enough protein to sustain his body so he can keep breaking his back to provide for his family? Do the kids get fresh fruits and vegetables? Does the baby get whole milk? Do their bodies and brains matter at all? Their chances at a better future? Their humanity?

What is the criteria for being afforded a little dignity in a life that is already so devoid of it? Who gets to be a human?

Is it them? Is it you? Is it Donald J. Trump sitting on his actual golden toilet? (Did you know that he’s actually a pile of rotting, knobby gourds that someone scooped into a suit?)

It’s all of us, actually.

Every single one of us.

Even those among us who will grumble that nobody deserves a handout and that they themselves would never make the same mistakes or be the wrong sort of human, they would never be the kind of person that needs help.

Even those among us who think that poor people don’t have problems, but that poor people are problems.

We can look at someone in a difficult circumstance from a safe distance and easily point out their mistakes. Each piece of their humanity we dismiss is another brick between their reality and our own.

Well you shouldn’t have had so many kids. 

Well you should have just sucked it up and not had major depressive disorder.

Well you should get three jobs then. 

Have you considered not being poor anymore?

It’s too hard for someone else to figure out a solution, but it is super easy for them to pick apart your flaws.

It’s so frightening to look at people in need that we instinctively run as as if we could catch their disease. We hurl insults and place blame. We agree that companies should not have to pay taxes because they need to create JOBS. You know, the things that are increasingly difficult to come by, inaccessible to a lot of people, are being phased out by new technologies and don’t pay a living wage (not that we’d let that happen, am I right? Bootstraps!)

We vote for welfare restrictions. Our state governments reject Medicaid expansions and call it liberty, while their people suffer, proudly, because they don’t need handouts anyway. This is a free country, you know. We have rights.

When did we decide that we didn’t have the right to be humans?

Was it when we did everything by the book and found ourselves solidly middle class but still the insurance co-pay from our company sponsored plan was too high? Was it when we had to budget meticulously to be able to afford food for our family AND the car insurance to be able to get back and forth to our offices, where rumors of layoffs are constant and nobody’s seen a raise or bonus in years?  Was it when we stood in line behind some freeloader who just gets to have whatever they want and never have to suffer like a Real Person does? It’s enough to make a person lose their mind.

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This person has had ENOUGH. The little scraps they have could be yanked away at any moment and that is terrifying to them. Never you mind that Medicare IS government funded health care, and that it falls woefully short of what it could and should be.

 

I have no clue what the answers are. I don’t know how to fix any of it. I am only doing my best to point at the broken thing in the dusty corner and convince other people to get over here and look at it with me.

I write these things to raise awareness. I write these things because I want someone to know that I am a person, that my children are people, that this stuff matters. To these bloated systems, my children and I are nothing more than a data set. We are a number in an endless sea of numbers. There is not enough money devoted to these programs to sustain the great needs of their recipients. There is not enough money to be able to employ enough people, to migrate old systems into something more technologically relevant, to anticipate the needs of the state’s most underserved populations and respond with a system that actually works.

A system that doesn’t trap people in cycles of poverty, that doesn’t have such impossibly low income caps for families to be considered eligible for SNAP benefits that millions of people, good people who work hard and love their families and deserve the nourishment of good food and the stories it weaves through their lives, are silenced. They simply don’t get an ounce of help. No consideration is afforded to these people in the gaps. I know that because I lived in the gap for a long time, paycheck to paycheck. It was really scary. I wasn’t poor enough to qualify for any help, but the idea of budgeting $500 a month for food for my family would have made me laugh out loud if you suggested it to me then. I skipped a lot of meals. I let a lot of bill go past due. I know that my story isn’t unique.

The gap is full of regular people, 47% of Americans are $400 away from ruin. These are employed, educated, tax paying citizens. Nearly half the population. Why don’t we talk about these things?

Why do I get the feeling that some of you reading this are embarrassed for me when I say that I’m using food stamps?

That’s a lot of people that are cutting corners and freaking out over having to get new tires and praying their kids don’t outgrow the shoes before they can get another pair.

That’s a lot of people trying to exist and grow and learn while also kind of dangling over a cliff and knowing if they fall, everyone is going to blame them for their own problems and look down on them if they reach up for help.

We have to do better. We all deserve better, if for no other reason than that fairytale of a shared human experience.

 

 

 

Not Otherwise Specified

7/4/2016: This has been saved as a draft for over two years. I found it today because I’m once again in a weird place where I don’t know who I am or what I’m trying at. I’ve been reading old emails, scrolling way back in time on social media, I’ve even got a box of old diaries from my teens that I am not quite brave enough to look at. I always encounter a stranger when I read what the younger me had written. Today I started reading the words below, expecting to be annoyed with my old self for getting it wrong again and not knowing a thing about myself or life or anything at all. But I met myself here on this page, and it is such a warm and unexpected gift. 

 

Something…is wrong with me.

I either don’t know what it is or I’m hiding from it because the knowledge of this wrongness is too much to try and reconcile with myself. Changing seasons usually send me into a tailspin; in the fall it’s the worst but spring has it’s own way of tearing a person apart.

It’s times like these that English fails me because we just don’t have the words for this. This…bursting restlessness. I want to explode outside of my body and straight up into the sky. And I’m trying to fold laundry or make a cup of tea or drive somewhere and my body is screaming, “Wrong! Wrong!” It’s like my skin is hanging on by a thread. It feels so urgent, this change I need to make.

I posted a few old essays (that’s what I’m calling my blog posts these days. My collection of personal essays. Roll with it, OK?) yesterday, I found them while I was digging through the archives of my old blog. I was trying to remember myself and see if I was still the same person, trying to snap myself back into my body since it feels lately like I’ve been hovering just above. I grabbed a few that I liked, where I felt like my writing was either funny or relatable or very, very honest. Some of the others things I read were as if they were written by a stranger. Instead of snapping me out of my funk it made me dive deeper. How can I change so drastically? A lot of my writing, both private and public, used to focus on food. I was food obsessed, always trying to find the right combination, the right lifestyle, the right amount of food, so that I could finally be at peace with it.

When you have a history of disordered eating, any peace you can make with food seems like the most important thing in the world.

Going vegan was almost a spiritual experience for me, I felt such relief and I really felt that I had closed the door on my twisted relationship with food. I’m not vegan anymore, which is obviously where this post was heading, and I almost didn’t even notice it. This is because, and this will be shocking, my bad relationship with food has never actually been about food. It’s been about me. The whole fucking time! It wasn’t going vegan that made me feel at peace with myself, it was being confident in a decision and trusting myself. I never do things like that. I don’t see myself, ever, and I don’t expect others to see me. So even when I made a good decision with my diet, and I felt happy and proud, it still wasn’t about the food. I never even noticed myself in there.

What’s happening now…I couldn’t even tell you. Most days I don’t really know if I’ve eaten or not, or had anything to drink aside from coffee. Several times a day I find myself so caught up in my work or my task or daydreaming that my body physically pulls me back into reality because I’ve actually stopped breathing and don’t realize it until those alarms of adrenaline and ear ringing go off to let me know something is wrong. I stop breathing, and I don’t even notice it until I’m…I guess about to die?

I’m not caring for myself, I’m not noticing myself. It’s happening again, and the last place it showed up was in my food this time. It’s always just been a symptom of something larger and it’s so literal and obvious I almost want to smack myself in the face.

Oh look. I’m not giving to myself. I’m not making the right choices, my priorities are wrong, I’m not setting my future self up with health or happiness. I don’t like myself and I’m being a total dick to me.

And…it’s easier to continue on the strange broken down path you’re on than to stop and face the truth and make the hard decisions. It’s a matter of believing you can do the work, believing you deserve a different life or a different path, and having the support to know that you can start over and the messy pieces that come shooting out of the wrong life aren’t going to be the foundation for your new one.

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Object Permanence

I am such a sucker for minimalism. I love the whole concept, I love the inherent permission the movement gives you to release the things that no longer serve you. It’s a metaphor! I get it you guys!

There is something so lovely in how we refer to our things as our belongings, our possessions. They are yours and you are theirs, isn’t it true?

Everything I own is stuffed in a storage unit somewhere in Central Texas. All of my belongings. My coffee mug. The sheets from my bed. The shower curtain that I would whip over the rod so my baby wouldn’t yank on it during his bath. The process left me and every surface in that bathroom soaked. I remember being so irritated by it, having to constantly wipe things all over my home because they were being spilled upon by the little bodies that lived there with me. I had no idea what a luxury it would seem, to the lady I am now, to wipe up milk off the table and stack the cereal bowls that my stepmother bought for me at a yard sale when I moved into my first apartment. I miss my bowls. I miss the messes.

I have one prized blue glass jar.

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Had.

 

 

I know that I am supposed to count my blessings. I don’t need to be told that though, I already do that. I already know that people are more important than things, and I am brought to my knees at times with this constant practice in humility and gratitude for my family, who have opened their homes to my little displaced crew in our time of need. I am so grateful for them. I am so grateful that I have my children and we have our health. I am so grateful that we are together, that the heart of our home stayed alive with us on our journey.

Still, none of that stops me from missing my things. I want to go home. I don’t have one of those anymore.

I still miss my belongings and the things that possessed me. I can exist in both spaces, gratitude for what I have and longing for what I don’t. This whole experience has been so eye opening. I wonder if I would ever have known how much I love that stupid jar if I didn’t have to leave it behind. I wonder if I ever would have known how much I loved cleaning my kitchen. I took so much for granted, without even realizing it.

People say that sort of thing all the time but usually they’re talking about a person they loved and lost, and not a purple paisley box in the bathroom closet that was filled with all the play makeup and costume eyelashes and sparkly barrettes that would entertain my daughter when it was too hot to attempt playing outside during those seemingly endless summers in Texas. My memories of that place are hazy and hot, as if through a dream filter. Everything in Texas is bleached yellow or burned. The trees were all wrong there.

In December, around Christmas when my nearly ex husband drove up from Texas to…I don’t know what he thought he was doing actually. But he drove across the country and he filled the back of his car with such a random assortment of things to present to us. The vacuum cleaner. My coffee maker and the red coffee grinder that lived next to it on our counter, the one whose cord is permanently coiled now after I have wrapped it around and around the base so many times while chatting on the phone or shouting at a child to find their shoes as we rush about in the morning. There’s a pretty metal coffee scoop that my brother and sister gave me for Christmas one year. It has wire wrapped around the end of it and a little pearl-like jewel where I always rest my thumb. I think of them every single time I start my coffee ritual. He didn’t bring the scoop, but that’s not really the point.

He brought bags of clothes that I had meant to give to Goodwill and which had been sitting in Ben’s bedroom closet for probably six months before we ever left Texas. I laughed out loud at the absurdity. This is something I am so annoyed with myself about, it is such a stupid, bad habit of mine to let donation bags pile up. I’m constantly trying to de-clutter and am bagging things up and putting them in a closet to be brought to a donation center… and then I never bring them. Literally never. I try and try and somehow they just end up back in the closet. Sometimes I get them to the front door and think I’ll bring them out to the car on my way out, but I never get around to it. Actually I’m realizing now it’s because I was never allowed to drive anywhere or go anyplace by myself, and my hands were always full of children and car seats and diaper bags, and by the time I got them into the car to get where we were going, we were already late, and he’d say “Just get them next time, we have to go!”

Those donation bags are fucking haunting me, you guys.

 

I started to feel wistful as I surveyed these items in the back of the car. Covered in dog hair, reeking of cigarette smoke. I frowned at the carelessness. Doesn’t he love our things? Why am I even asking myself that question anymore?

I hadn’t cried the whole entire time. Not once, not at all. After he left and the kids were in bed, I was up pacing, probably drinking, and I crept into my aunt’s basement where these items were tossed in a pile. I ran my hand over Isla’s owl pillow and was so happy he brought it for her. I unzipped the pillowcase to straighten out the insert that was all bunched up but instead of the insert I found a throw pillow from my own bed. Small and rectangular, white canvas with messy black geometric patterns scribbled all over it. I bought it because it looked like my old math notebooks, the ones where I would doodle and scribble and not learn any math.

I couldn’t believe how delighted I was to find that little stowaway hiding in there. Little pillow, you are a sight for sore eyes! 

That’s when the lump started to form in my throat.

Next was a box filled with my books. I started to roll my eyes, annoyed that he had chosen my books to bring but not the kids’ books. Instead I found myself sobbing. I picked them up and smelled them and said hello to all of them, found the bookmarks I tucked into the pages. Scraps of paper, one had an actual birthday card in it that I somehow thought should serve as a bookmark. A receipt from the Walgreen’s around the corner from our old house. I imagined myself grabbing the receipt off the kitchen counter while stuffing it into the book, rushing to attend some emergency, like sprinting to the back door to let the dog in before his howling woke up the baby (again).

Seeing pieces of my home like that just fucking gutted me.

I was so confused. Dread started to creep in and so I started to float away. I stepped out of my body and tucked myself into the rafters to watch this scene unfold from a safe distance. I saw myself close my eyes and wince as the words rushed into me all at once.

You think seeing your BOOKS here feels strange and wrong? Your children are sleeping two floors up wearing borrowed pajamas in a room that isn’t theirs. You are actually, literally, homeless. Your whole life is in pieces. This is an emergency. This is a crisis. There is no comfort from home in this pile, wipe that grin off your face. This stuff is shrapnel. You are a fool.

 

 

 

 

Tonight at bedtime, Isla sleepily asked if we were going to say a prayer. I asked what she meant because we don’t pray. Did someone pray with her? Did she see it on a show? She shrugged and seemed embarrassed. I wanted to give her at least something, so I told them both that tonight was the new moon and since we don’t pray we could try to set some intentions that we want to see grow, just as the moon will become larger each night until it’s full. I told them that setting intentions is like planting a seed. It’s not magic, it’s just ritual. We plant our seeds together when we say them out loud, care for them as a family. I started with a seed for adventure, because we deserve to experience something new that isn’t traumatizing or pure chaos. It’s a no brainer.

Ben planted a seed for his stuffed penguin to learn to talk.

I planted seeds for bravery, patience and silliness. Ben planted seeds for ‘people who live in the trash’ to get one thousand dollars and have a house to go into. He planted another seed for people in jail to have kindness and say sorry, and get to go home to their families and have jobs give them money. I guess my six year old is planting seeds for prison reform and an end to homelessness.

I started tentatively plating seeds for our future home. It makes them sad to think about their things, but I don’t want them to forget either. I planted a seed for the kids to have their kitchen stools in our new home, wherever it ends up being. I want to have them helping me at the counter while music plays and there’s a great big mess everywhere because we are too busy being happy and having fun to care much about things like that.

“We used to do that at home!” Ben said.

“I know! And we’re going to do it again.”

“I can’t wait. Can Thomas have a kitchen stool, too?”

“Yeah of course! It’ll be our house. We can have whatever we want.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Mothering and Being Mothered

It’s Mother’s Day. Let’s get that out of the way. Happy Mother’s Day to everyone out there. All the cliche things. I really mean the cliche things, I truly do, but I’m not going to write about them today. Someone else will do it better and it will mean something to them, and it will reach the audience it is meant to reach and that is a wonderful thing. It is not my thing. Not today.

 

I’m getting divorced.

Not actively, because I have no money and no free time and truthfully no fucking idea how to get divorced. That seems like some technical thing that can wait while I work on other things. Things like gathering up the debris and shrapnel from my former life and trying to slap them back into something resembling a shape. A structure. A home.

I’ve been so afraid to talk about this stuff. It feels like a betrayal. It feels like a truth that’s not mine to tell. It feels unnecessarily cruel to come out and point a finger and lay blame. That’s all part of it, when you’re wrapped up in an unhealthy relationship, how you share the burden of awful secrets. When instead of reaching out for help, you burn with shame at this terrible thing that has happened to you. Even after it’s over, you still protect them, and perhaps you’re protecting yourself a bit as well. Your own ugly truth is on the other side of that coin. If you give it a voice you’re automatically giving a voice to your own pain and vulnerability. When you say you’ve been wronged, or abused, or mistreated…you’re admitting a thing to the world that you’ve been working really goddamn hard to pretend isn’t happening. That’s how you’ve been surviving it. Burying it deep, covering it up in shame and rationalizations and something like loyalty but not as clean. And then I came across these words from a Facebook friend and all of it finally took shape for me.

 

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I’ll be misunderstood when I say “My husband cheated on me” and “My husband abandoned me and my children emotionally and financially”. Those are true things, but they are just neat little cubes that were produced by a groaning, clanking, long overheating machine that nobody paid any mind to for far too long before it was too late. So I have these neat little packages of Reasons Why My Marriage Is Over but I feel like I can’t even use them because they don’t tell the whole story. I don’t even know what the whole story is. There is never a good guy or a bad guy. The end result makes him look like a bad guy, and that’s not the truth, and it lets me way, way off the hook for the things I could have done better.

I was supposed to be manning the machine, I was supposed to be paying attention to the warning signs. I didn’t see them. I didn’t know what to do when I did see them. So I did my job. I did my job well. My first mistake was partnering with someone who would not, or could not, give me the partnership that I needed. I picked up the slack, eagerly, and with purpose and love. Somehow I eventually found myself doing all the work, getting hurt all the time, saddled with the work of forgiving and understanding and making room and understanding some more. Casting myself aside.

My worst mistake, though, was continually accepting this lopsided situation that left me burned out and carved up. I had no idea that I wasn’t supposed to be doing all the work. I had no idea that it wasn’t normal to be in pain all the time. I had no idea that I had some kind of…choice…in the matter.

It wasn’t because I’m spineless or stupid. I’m not some moron that lets her idiot husband run all over her. And he’s not some idiot character whose lines are clearly drawn and it’s not that easy to erase someone’s humanity when you’re angry at them. Believe me, I tried. He’s a human just like I am. I took the raw deal with the misguided view that I was strong enough to handle it. I made up my mind that I loved this person, and I did, and that meant that you stick by them and support them and you absorb the blows and you did what you vowed to do. I found love, and it was real, and I was going to hang on to it at all costs. I thought I was doing the right thing.

The reasons for that are never ending, and I’m learning them as I go, realizing things about myself and about him, and about the people that raised me and showed me what love was supposed to mean. Realizing now, finally, what love really does mean. I’m all at once relieved and overjoyed to feel so human and held and understood and to have it be so easy. With that joy comes a shadow that reminds me of how sad I used to be. I wince. It is overwhelming and painful, but it feels like a long awaited gift. I am bursting at the seams with love and understanding and compassion and forgiveness for all of these people, me and him, all my parents and step parents, all of these experiences we all hurled ourselves through, doing our best with what we had. Most importantly I find all of that forgiveness for myself. I understand myself a little better. I am grateful for the lesson. I really, truly am.

Back then I was terrified at the idea that love didn’t mean what I thought it meant. I tried so hard to ignore it but we all know how that goes.

Some part of me started to rebel. Some part of me would cry out in alarm, and I would quickly silence it because oh my god that shit hurts. 

To think that I’m doing something wrong? To think that all this work is in vain? To think that I was just pushing off the inevitable?

No.

I’ll just keep working and flaying myself open and allowing myself to be wounded, allowing this person to take the role of wounding me without realizing how cyclical that shit was. How the guilt turned into resentment turned into more betrayal and self fulfilling prophecy of “I’m bad, I do bad things, I hurt the people I love” while I stood on the sidelines going, “Fucking DUH.” Both of us living in that garbage dynamic where we were so unhappy and so unfulfilled and so afraid to admit that because oh my god that shit hurts.

And so he was “bad” and I was “good” and we were both fucking idiots delaying the inevitable.

We were separated for a few months. It was like limbo. I didn’t know that’s what we were doing, even when I left him and our home and our sweet dog and all our belongings behind in Texas and I boarded a plane with my kids. Even when I sleeping on my aunt’s couch for a month, and then two months, and then three months. Even when I ran out of canned answers for my concerned family and friends. Even when he stopped doing video calls with the kids, when he stopped sending money, when he became a stranger. When I felt so free and alive and guilty for feeling free and alive without him looming over me. I remember saying, “Is this how it happens? Is this a divorce? I don’t know what I’m doing.”

And then life continued, and I became larger, my voice wasn’t a small part of me anymore, it was a roar. I mothered my children through the hardest thing they’ve ever experienced. They are still reeling. This stuff is far from over. They’re too young to sit and think and write out their thoughts when they somewhat sort them out, like I am doing here. No, they will let this stuff sink into them as symbols and feelings and while it settles into their bones it grows with them. Every part of them. Something, some thing,will make them feel unwanted. Unwelcome. Not worthy. They won’t know what it is, but that feeling will be there inside of them. Something will make them inherently afraid of doing something wrong that will make people stop loving them. There is a very real chance that they are going to grow up and be exactly the type of broken, busted up people that their father and I are. The type of people who do love all wrong because nobody ever gave them the tools they needed to do the job right.

But?

I’m here. I’m real. My voice is here, my influence is here. I can’t take away the pain, I can’t hide the truth, and anyway I wouldn’t want to. My job is not to shield them from terrible things. Terrible things are a part of life. My job is to show them how to plant their feet and brace themselves when, in the best case scenario, they have the good fortune to see something horrible coming. My job is to right their clothes and dust them off when the pain fucking blindsides them and they don’t know where it came from or when it will come again. When it is easy and makes so much sense to them to let it seep in and become part of them, when it’s easy for them to slip under, my job is pull them out.

My job is to create the safety for them to name their fears and call out their pain and shout their truths. To say: I hurt and it matters. My job is to show them how to create that safe haven for themselves, because I’m not always going to be here, and they are always going to need their voices, and they are always going to need to trust themselves.

I never knew that. I never learned to make a safe place for myself. I lived my whole life feeling like a burden and a hassle and an embarrassment. I felt enormous guilt and shame just for existing. I felt selfish and gross when I wanted something that made me feel happy. I felt like a monster when I dared to ask for a seat at the table, for my voice to be heard. That shit was in my marrow from the time I was a toddler. And one day I found myself living as a grown woman who felt disgusted with herself for being tired of wanting more, of being tired of forgiving her husband his latest indiscretion, of being tired of shrinking myself and hiding my magic away and dumbing myself down and clamping my hands over my mouth that was trying so, so hard to scream.

And so.

Mothering.

I am mothering myself just as much as I am mothering my children. I am learning and growing and stumbling alongside them. I marvel at the person they have carved out of the rubble that I used to think I was made up of.

My sister in law says that having children is like having little mirrors running around your home, showing you the hardest truths about yourself, showing you who the fuck you really are.

To be the mother they deserve, I have to look unflinchingly into those mirrors they present to me, especially when it’s torture. When it’s something I don’t want to hear or confront about myself.

I already failed them by not honoring myself. I let it go on too long, I was too comfortable living like a victim. And we lost absolutely everything, and some part of me feels like I could have prevented it, although I can’t for the life of me figure out how.

The mother in me is telling me that it’s OK to make mistakes, and you can’t prevent terrible things from happening, and you can’t let pain wash over you to the point that you think it’s what you are and what you deserve. You look for the lesson, you lick your wounds, and then you carry on.

So here I am, planting my feet. I am aware. I am looking. They are watching me all the while, and that is a sacred duty that I am both terrified and honored to have.

It starts with telling the truth.

And so I am.