Faces of Poverty Part I: Mine

I think a lot about social stratification. I grew up poor. My entire family was poor. One year my mother actually managed to take care of two kids, an injured husband, assorted dogs, goats, horses on 12K. I am young enough that that number should shock you. I am old enough to know (and knew then) that we still had it better than most. We were never on public assistance. I don’t say that as a boast, as “well, at least we were never on public assistance”. For whatever reason we didn’t qualify, and when I was about seven, mom stopped trying to get approved for it. I imagine it was pride. You can only worry about your kids being hungry and be told that you’re on your own for so long before you decide “Screw you, system.”

In the rural South, I can say for certain: that system doesn’t work. The face of poverty is complex, and for my part, I never felt impoverished. I owe that largely to a grateful heart, simple desires, and parents who believed that it was their job to worry. Not mine. I was not the typical face of poverty, and I had more than I needed. That’s a tricky word there: “need”. People don’t understand it. They want it to encompass more than basic clothing, food, and shelter.

We did not have name brand clothing. My first pair of Nike’s were hand me downs from one of Mum’s friends. I was in middle school. I remember them vividly. They were green and white, a size 8 1/2, and as I had gym for the first time in my life rather than outdoor PE, I was ecstatic to have shoes that gave my persnickety feet the extra support they seem to have always needed on man-made surfaces. I cared that they were “Nike” for all of two days, because they were my first pair, but it didn’t take me long to realize that they were an adult shoe, modest like the nurse who’d worn them before me, rather than the shiny, young kicks all the other kids were wearing. I was lucky that I didn’t care.  That I didn’t actually like the shiny wild kicks that my classmates were wearing (Though dear gods, I STILL want a pair of shoes that light up). My little brother did. He has always suffered from the need to fit in and belong. In a consumer driven country, poverty is especially hard on those who believe what advertisers tell them they need.

We didn’t go out to eat except for special occasions. There were no daily trips to McDonalds after school. As one might expect, we were healthier for it. We didn’t have a lot of bad for us, fake food at home. 3 square meals and an afternoon snack. I think the worst thing we ever ate (nutritionally speaking) was Mum’s fried chicken (SOSOSOSO GOOD) and the Little Debbies we had with our PB&Js. We didn’t go out for every birthday. Mum made our favorite meal and bought us a birthday cake. Going to Pizza Hut for cheesey garlic bread and cokes was a special treat. One plate split between us and Mum. I am proud to say that while my parents’ financial situation is a little better now that Da has a better job and they aren’t raising two children, she still continues that tradition with my nephews. Though now that E is a teenager, they add a pizza.

We moved a lot until I was eleven. First Mum and Dadai moved often for his job. I was along for the ride. I don’t technically know how many times we moved, but by the time Mum left Dadai I can remember at least five places around the state. I know that it was more than that, and as I was only five when they divorced, I think it was not so partially responsible for my inability to stay in one place for too long. (But that’s a story for another day).  After that Mum and Da moved us five times. Four between the age of five and the age of eleven. When I was eleven, we finally bought land and moved into a single-wide trailer in the country. They have that same property (though they’re no longer in the single-wide) still.

My grandmothers had less than we did. Mum’s mom lived in an ancient singlewide, shared by her two derelict sons. She actually had to move out because the oldest wouldn’t leave. (The youngest did get married and move out). I don’t remember thinking that she was poor. She worked at a sewing plant and I remember that we would take bags of  imperfects to the African American family who lived down the road. A lady with seven children, no husband, who struggled more than we did. I remember wearing some of those imperfects myself, but most of my clothes were made by Memaw. I didn’t realize that she had so little because she did so much. It wasn’t until I was much older and explaining why I like oven toast (only toasted on the top) better than toaster oven or toaster toast that I realized it.

On cold weekend mornings, we would dash down the length of the trailer from Memaw’s room to the kitchen. Once in there, she’d open the oven and turn it on. She’d tell me to stand close but not touch anything while she put the percolator on for coffee, a pot of water for grits, and put five pats of butter on each slice of bread for our toast. I remember watching in fascination as the toast browned in the oven, feeling the lovely warmth seeping through my nightgown. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was her only source of heat.

I still make my toast in the oven.

So yes, I grew up poor. We didn’t have regular health care or dental. I went to the emergency room when I got sick enough and like as not the bill came out of any possible state tax returns my parents got. People who aren’t poor always wonder why people who are poor are. I know that entitlement is a problem. I know that abuse of the system is a problem, but I also know–intimately–that these sweeping generalizations are not the answer. My parents weren’t lazy. Da and Dadai were both skilled laborers. Da is an introvert though and angry with it. He has always had a harder time finding a good job than Dadai and since child support from Dadai was not what you would call dependable, we relied on Da’s much lower income. Still, he worked. And Mum took care of us. She took odd jobs when we were younger and her health was better, but Mum’s family has a hereditary heart condition that had her in and out of hospitals for much of my life. Medical bills didn’t help in our dance along the poverty line.

We got by. I babysat. My brother and I did yard work. I helped Dadai on odd jobs that he took for friends doing electrical work. I had Sundance, so I didn’t feel compelled to get a car and my license like most kids do the moment they come of age. I got a job at sixteen and saved up so that I could afford to pay the car insurance increase my parents were going to see once I got my permit. Mum drove me to and from work and I bought the gas. I had my permit for longer than anyone I know. I got my license only a handful of months before I bought my first truck, with my own money, in my name. I paid for the taxes, tags and insurance, working, borrowing, and struggling my way through college. It took me seven years to get my BA because I had to go barely full time and work just shy of full time. Do I believe that there is a student loan racket out there along with ridiculous costs of education? Abso-damn-lutely.

But here’s the thing. It would have been nice if during our worst times, there’d been some kind of assistance. That year, for instance, that Da was out of work for six months while he recovered from spine surgery. It would be nice for higher education not to have put me into a ridiculous amount of debt. And yet…

The truth of the matter is that we are, none of us, entitled to these things. We are born into a country so wealthy that there is no reason for our basic needs of food and shelter to go unmet, but these are BASIC. This does not mean McDonalds, cellphones, cars, crab legs, soda, brie, and truffle oil. It means PB&J, rice, vegetables, chicken legs, and hamburger. It means cooking at home and hand-me-down clothes. It means off brands and rare luxuries. It means working hard if you want more than that, not being angry that someone else has what you don’t because of an accident of birth.

Life isn’t fair. We aren’t born in a vacuum. We’re born into a competitive biological system that manifests in the complex social systems of our times. As long as these systems are comprised of humans, there will be an uneven distribution of wealth and power. That’s just reality. Our social values determine the fluidity of these structures of stratification. As does how we view our status as well as those whose status is not our own. I certainly don’t believe in rigid class structures. I’m morally opposed to caste systems. But I am equally opposed to mindsets that suggest anything beyond hard work and social contribution entitles an individual to anything.

We are animals. It’s something that humans like to forget. If a creature is born and will not do what it needs to procure its own food and shelter it dies. PERIOD. Is it sad to see it happen? Well, maybe. I know that I don’t like watching something suffer and starvation is particularly awful. However, it is a part of natural selection. Animals who can’t take care of themselves die, preferably before they produce offspring. Somewhere along the way, humans have decided that they are above such safeguards, and while I believe that we’ve accomplished wonderful things that make us special, we have also found horrible things that make us unique.

We have to find some balance.


What I’ve Been Sayin’…only said better: Race Dialogue

As a Southerner I’ve kind of ignored the whole Paula Deen thing. Not because I don’t care, but because I feel that the stone throwers out there are “progressives” who have lost touch with the history of race in America, specifically in the South. I feel like people are masking symptoms and ignoring the complexities of the human mind and heart. I feel like the only places that I’ve ever had a meaningful discussion about race with anyone not my own was the bookstore where I worked with a brilliant manager who was my demographic opposite. African American and male. We are, however, both Southern and that matters. It does. The fact that Paula is Southern MATTERS.

Progressives have not been kind to the South. We are, a century after they really got underway, seeing the detriment in giving someone a fish instead of teaching them to fish. Race and class lines are worse, not better. Violence and exclusion have simply shifted forms. But there are good things too. A decent sized percentage of the population (at least in the upper South) has been brought together by that common enemy. And while we are small, we are willing to talk about the tough subjects, admit that we are human, help each other stumble through it, and strive to be better for all the awkward dialogue.

Maria Dixon has written a beautiful editorial that sums up how I feel without any ranting. I am sharing it with you. I hope that you will find it as thought provoking and meaningful as I have.

Saying Grace: Paula Deen, Progressives, and Race

Moving People: 10-80-10 Survival Theory Applied to ALL THE THINGS! :D

This morning, a friend of mine posted this onto our thinking group’s facebook page. I wanted to respond to the article, but it sort of evolved into a rather lengthy bit of musings, so I’ve moved them here and will send those folks the link to here.

In the 10-80-10 Theory of Survival (it’s an actual thing. There are books, but here’s a summary article: Is Your Brain Wired To Survive Disaster), when a crisis situation arises ten percent of the population falls apart and freaks out, eighty percent stands about basically catatonic, and ten percent steps up and does something useful.  Without an ounce of hard data, but years of studying people, I tend to apply this to a whole lot of situations. Today, I’m applying it to how most human creatures view drastic social change: as a crisis.

Humans have always been terrified of and resistant to change. Plato warned up-and-coming philosophers of this with the Allegory of the Cave. Change, new ways of thinking, etc are bad. And they’re bad enough for most folks to rally against and even kill the agent of change.

To return to the 10-80-10, the ten percent who step up are not all leaders, though most of them can be. Likewise the ten percent freaking out can make it difficult to get the 80 percent moving. Another obnoxious variable is that leadership does NOT equal goodness, so of those ten percent leading, it’s a smaller number wanting to affect positive change.

I think it helps to start by thinking in small numbers. Imagine that one poor soul has been given nine others to watch over. They don’t have to move them forward necessarily, just keep them from killing themselves and each other. That right there can be impossible enough! I believe the expression is “herding cats.” Now imagine that these nine are basically children to the one, they don’t understand why they need to do things that Leader suggests, or that their actions affect others (in some cases they don’t care), all they KNOW is that someone is telling them what to do and most of the time it’s easier to just do what they’re told. HOWEVER. One of the nine is sitting in a corner screaming like a loon every time the least little thing happens that they don’t like, eventually that panic starts to filter into the group of eight and it makes them increasingly catatonic, confused, and nervous. This makes them much harder to herd.

Have a headache yet? Anyone in education should understand this even better than I do. 🙂

So you have Leader. Leader may not have wanted the job in the first place (which is its own set of complications), but because of how Leader’s brain is wired for action in the face of crises, this is how it fell. Sometimes people will follow you whether you intend to lead or not.  Then you have eight Catatonic Sheep who have to be herded (or at least maintained) , but the herding is being greatly disrupted by Panicker.  Given how powerful that one disruption is at times, it can be impossible to do anything more than make sure the nine stand relatively still for a moment.

Now for every mini-herd of ten being driven by a Leader who wants to create positive social change, you have at least one, if not two, that is being driven by a Leader(s) who do(es)n’t want to create that change. There are many reasons for this, some more sinister than others. Some are as simple as these Leaders have found that it’s REALLY HARD to move their Nine forward at all, especially with Panicker screaming and falling down and requiring extra reassurance just to continue breathing and eating and being mildly contributive to their herd’s survival. Some Leaders find that for their own continued existence it’s best to just gently nudge the herd of Nine every now and then, to slowly correct courses and hope things get better rather than incite the herd to fear and violence and end up killed by the Nine (which would only leave Panicker in charge by the way. *shudder*). And some seriously wicked Leaders are not above letting their Panickers whip their Catatonic Sheep into a mass of fear and anxiety to maintain the carefully created status quo.

Imagine that on a scale that reflects the population numbers and it’s overwhelming at best. In the United States alone that’s over THREE MILLION Panickers (same for Leaders) and over TWO HUNDRED FIFTY ONE MILLION Catatonic Sheep.

This is why reform of any kind that doesn’t just shore up the old ways of thinking is so very, very hard.

Short version. The Church isn’t moving quickly enough for those who want positive social changes because there are fewer of us than there are Catatonic Sheep, and we’re evenly matched (at best) on the Leader front, and most don’t feel right using their Panickers to manipulate the CSs into doing what we know is best, because we believe in freedom of thought, etc, etc. Personally, I’m just mean enough to think it’s time we stop letting the Catatonic Sheep and the Panickers be controlled by Bad Leaders, but I also think that the only way anything is going to really change is by having a big enough disaster show up to wipe out a large enough portion of the 90% to which I don’t belong. I know that sounds gloomy, and maybe I mean for it to, though I certainly don’t think we need to give up. I know that I myself have converted at least one Catatonic Sheep into being a Thinking Not-So-Sheep and maybe one day they’ll be Good Leaders. Maybe one day, the numbers will change in our favor. It’s that “maybe” that is worth striving toward.

Reform: His- and Her- Story

I may have hit on this once before. I honestly can’t remember if it was here or my old blog, but either way, this is a new link to a great article, so here’s my Ryan Reynold’s movie anecdote:

There’s a cute little made-for-TV movie called School of Life about a high school history teacher, Mr. D, who speaks casually and often about the misconception of  history as “HIS-Story.” He calls it His and Her Story instead and as a historian who can tell you without question that women were integral to (and ignored by) the main historical narrative, I rather approved. (This isn’t all that the film is about, and I highly recommend it, though you’ll need tissues). I could say a lot more about gender bias and history, but the post that I’m linking to is long and says a great deal of what I would say anyway, and since I want you to read it (yes, all of it), I’m going to keep my own bit brief. And stop. Right here. 🙂

Challenging the “Women, Cattle, and Slaves” Narrative

I Know, I Know, this is supposed to be a blog about religion

One of the many things about which I am passionate is education. Here in the USA we need some serious reform. Most of what I have been yelling for years is summed up by this very smart man. It’s worth twenty minutes. Really.

Ken Robinson: How to escape educations death valley

And because this already raised a few flags on FB, I wrote this little bit of personal background info and opinions in response to concern over the speaker being dismissive of ADHD. I don’t think that he is. At all. But fyi, I am an unmedicated “sufferer” of ADD. I don’t look at myself as suffering. I was taught behavioral management at a young age, my mother encouraged me to be a child, and basically parented me. (Shocking, I know).  I am also on the autism spectrum, am a relatively high functioning sociopath who possibly rates as a psychopath, and I DEFINITELY suffer from narcissism. 🙂

I enjoy the speed and variety of my thoughts. I haven’t mastered them, but I’m definitely a brown belt. I can harness all that chaos and build amazingly in depth worlds. I don’t think that I’m “broken” because I sometimes get bored in the middle of listening to someone drone on about things that are meaningless to me. I just smile and say “Sorry, I missed that,” and have them repeat it. I don’t go anywhere without pockets if I can help it, because when I’m fidgety and want to touch things, I still keep my hands in my pockets and fidget with a worry stone like my Mum taught me when I was little. I don’t apologize to people for being able to think faster and about more things than they can per minutes. I am actually offended that children are being made to feel like they need to.

There are, however, many people who were not so lucky as I was in the parental department or in the willpower department, or whatever combination of nature and nurture that has so far allowed me to excel in academics, critical thinking, and kept me from hurting people (I kill them in fiction, thank you very much, because killing is bad. duh). That said:

I am incredibly passionate about ADHD, misdiagnosis, and over-medication. As a child who would have been medicated instead of taught management given the current (and past since it was twenty years ago) trends of medical and sadly many educational professionals, I cannot stand to see a child turned into a zombie for the peace of mind of others. I know far too many children who were medicated to save their parents the hassle of having to actually interact with them.This is not only problematic from a billion different perspectives (not limited to bad parents, intolerance, stifling creativity, thousands of children who become adults who can’t function or manage their own humanness, etc, etc, etc) but also because it is normalizes and homogenizes the experiences of thousands of children who actually suffer from some pretty heartbreaking conditions. People become less sensitive to severe or confusing disorders like autism, Aspergers, and Tourrete’s, and expect individuals who suffer from these disorders to simply “take a pill for it” and be magically “normal.” The fact that there is a “normal” that these individuals are held to is as ridiculous as anything else. For every child who suffers from “childhood” and being medicated because of it, we lose that much more perspective on serious conditions, and in our lovely country (though I’m sure we’ve not the monopoly on it) when we lose perspective we lose any chance of compassion and problem solving.

Discipleship: a take on information delivery

Are Sermons Becoming Obsolete?

A dear friend posted this article this morning. I found it very interesting, especially given the (obvious) comparison between college and church.


These were mine:

I love this article, and I can certainly agree from my own experiences that the most effective classroom teaching style is one that incorporates lecture and engages dialogue. Ideally, students come having read the same material, but even an unprepared student can be drawn into the flow of ideas and get something more from professor led discussion than one might from a lecture relying on the same level of prior reading. I think that traditional sermons suffer from the same malady. Too often those listening have no ideas of their own. Lecture does not encourage individual thinking, but rather (by the very nature of the delivery) places supreme authority with the speaker. Too many people then espouse the lecturer’s ideas as their own without having put any thought into those ideas. 

I am also a fan of anything more along the lines of how the early church seems to have been organized. Deep webs of hierarchy and bureaucracy take us too far from the purposes of discipleship and focus on external indicators of religion rather than internal realities of faith. 

While I do not imagine that lecture will ever completely vanish, I would love to see sermons shift focus slightly, and more in line with (good) academics, and become more about the presentation of information than persuasion. To many of us, when we speak in lecture there is an implied “this is my interpretation of what I’ve seen/read/etc” but in religious avenues the implication (whether the intent of the speaker or not) too often becomes “this is what <insert Divine Authority here> says.”