27.9.12

I went out for ice cream and came back with a homeless woman - Part 6

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Tuesday night, while the kids were getting ready for bed, April appeared again. She was making a trade, her bike with the busted tire for one that worked. The guy she traded with waited nearby at a distance for her to bring the bike out to him.

I asked her what time she wanted to leave the next morning for her appointment. "I'm not going to go," she told me. "I got a bed at the rehab place, I go in on Thursday. So I'm just going to call them and let them know I'm doing what they told me to do first. There are some things I have to get together to take though, before I can go in. Could I come over tomorrow so you can help me figure out what I need and where to get it?"

I had given her $10 the night before to get minutes on her phone which is how she got the news.

"I'd be glad to." I told her, really happy that she had a bed, already mentally rifling through the linen closet so I knew what I could give her for bedding.

Little asked me if she could give April her dessert, and April smiled and thanked her as she left, banana bread in hand.

I was home all day Wednesday. April never came. Thursday dawned and I hoped she had made it to the rehab place, that she'd managed to get a ride and all the supplies she needed. She still had a bag of clothes and the cards she had for her kids sitting at my house.

For 2 weeks I hoped and prayed she was in a facility, with people trained to help her, and getting better.

Then we decided to stop at the park after the library one day. The low sun shone on the transition between kid hang out and dusk gathering of people who have no where else to go.

April was there, sitting astride a bike, talking to a group of guys.

"What happened?" I called down. "Why are you still here?"

"Well, I'm working on it," she called back. "I still have to get all my stuff together so I can go in."

"Why didn't you come to see me so I could help you."

"Well, I'm going to these NA meetings and they are on Thursdays and they last for hours and it takes me a long time to come back and I had to organize my stuff in storage first."

I nodded, choosing not to call her on what sounded like excuses just then and simply said, "Let me know if you need a ride. I know it's a ways away. I'll drive you there if you ask me."

The kids played, she stayed to talked to her friends. I waved goodbye as we headed back to the car.

The next day she was back at the gate, to pick up her bag of clothes, and cards.

"Did you get to that doctor I told you about?" I asked as her fingers fumbled with her things.

"No." She hung her head like I was a teacher asking about homework.

"Why not?" I asked. "It's right next to where you go every Tuesday and Thursday."

"I just don't care very much about myself these days I guess," she mumbled.

"Well I care about you," I said, knowing how little difference that would probably make for her but angry at her answer.

She told me a bit more about how she needed to get stuff together for her admission into the rehab facility.

I offered again to help her, told her she could come the following day to do her laundry if she wanted.

As she went out the gate and turned to close it I said, "Please take care for yourself. If not for you, for your baby boy."

I got his name a little wrong. She corrected me laughingly.

"Right," I apologized, "Now I remember."

Then she road away and I haven't seen her since.

I think she must still be on the streets nearby.

**********************

Some thoughts.

I tried to just show you what happened, rather than tell you what to think about it. Here's some of what I think about it.

I know for some people doing something like this would be really freaky. For me it's something I'm used to and grew up with. Someone commented about how awesome I am for doing this. I really don't feel like it. For me I knew I would sleep better at night if I did something than if I didn't. It's that simple. There were moments when I was nervous. And I hope you notice the caution in how we went about it.

I don't regret helping her. I know everything she said could have been a lie, but even then I wouldn't regret giving her a safe place to sleep until she was strong enough to move on. (Also, she totally had the body of a postpartum mother. I would know.)

I want to give you a nice happy ending with a pretty bow, for her sake, but you may have noticed that real life seldom works out that way, especially because people have this pesky thing called free will, and they make their own choices, good or bad.

I do wish Aaron hadn't had to leave so soon and I could have had a bit more time, at least to get her to a doctor, and maybe actually get her to rehab.

I think returning to her life on the street when she did was not helpful in her follow through.

But then I remember that she had the sweetest offer from my in-laws: a room in their house, a real bed, and their love too, and she turned it down.

She was too afraid!

I think she didn't make it to rehab for the same reason. For one thing, they would try to get her to talk about the things she's been working so hard to forget, so she can learn to deal with them instead of avoid them.

Also, you get used to what you know. There's an illusion of friendship, camaraderie, this is the way it is and this is all I'm good enough for, that gets reinforced the longer you're on the street. And when it gets ugly, well, that's what you end up believing you deserve.

I also think her drug and alcohol use were self medicating for untreated PTSD after being attacked in her own home and stabbed multiple times, and grief for losing her kids, however that happened. (I'm totally not a licensed professional. I wish she would see one.)

I think the system failed her, if not as an adult and the victim of a crime, a story I only know a fraction of, then as a child in and out of foster care. Who does someone like that have to fall back on when things go bad? Why do you think there are so many 18 year old kids about to graduate out of the system who are still hoping someone will adopt them?

I write the part of her story that I got to be a part of because I want you to know that she's a person. Her story and life are complex, and shouldn't be easily dismissed by anyone, just because she's homeless.

I suspect it's easier for her to stay where she is than try and face disappointment. I suspect that she grows less, and less sure that her baby isn't better off in foster care than with her as time goes on. Social workers sometimes have a way of doing that to moms in her situation.

I hope you will join me in praying for her. Maybe someday she'll gather the strength she needs to try again and succeed this time. My door will always be open to help as I'm able. Maybe she'll find her way back to it in the end.

25.9.12

I went out for ice ceam and came back with a homeless woman - Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

While it was still daylight I started to pack up April's things. I did my best to be respectful of her property, just putting things in paper bags rather than sort through or look at anything. In 4 nights she had really moved in and had things everywhere. I put the bags with her things at the side of the house, along with her bike, still broken. We hadn't been able to find a repair place yet.

Then I packed up the tent and all the gear and put it away.

When I told my mother in law about the day, and that I didn't know if she would have a guest that night she was concerned. Especially about how angry she got in the car. She told me to call Aaron's brother and ask him to stop by on the way from work. If she wanted to go stay with them tonight, he could give her a ride, and if she was upset, well, he was around. (When your husband travels a lot it's nice that he has 5 brothers around to lend a hand when needed. There are always a few in town.)

Levi came over, worked on his homework, and the kids got ready for bed. I saw her come in the gate while I was singing to them and went out to see her.

She was cheerful. She was looking for a piece of paper to get signed because she had just been to an NA meeting. She couldn't find it in the bags I had packed up. I held the light for her while she searched.

"Do you want to go stay with Aaron's parents tonight?" I know what an amazing house they have and how warm and loving they are. I tried to help her see what an amazing offer this was.

"I don't want to go to a new place I've never been to before in the dark?" She protested.

Well how about I leave my brother in law here with the kids and drive you there myself. You can look around and if you don't want to stay I'll bring you back."

"I want to be able to see where I'm going. I don't want to go anywhere far away."

"I'll be there first thing tomorrow to drive you to your visitation, and the doctor."

"I'm too scared to go someplace I don't know, with people I don't know."

"I understand. But where will you go then?"

"I can go to lifeline, (a shelter) my brother loaned me this bike so I can get there." He wasn't really her brother, but they'd been in the same foster home when they were kids. You might be surprised at how many of the people living on the street today graduated from the foster care system when they were kids by the way. It's a very large percentage.

I tried again to convince her to go to my in-laws, to reassure her that this was a good thing.

She didn't choose to.

"Well, let me know how it goes with your interview on Wednesday," I said.

"Oh, I was hoping you could drive me there again."

"I would love to," I told her. "I'll be here."

Picking up two cans of long island iced tea that I found in the tent when I packed up, "For my brother," she explained, she said goodbye and went out the gate once more, saying she would come back later for some of the dinner I had offered her.

I told Levi he could go home.

As midnight drew near I remembered I hadn't told her about the doctor, and since she didn't appear to be coming back I wrote all the information down and drew her a map, attaching it to her things before heading to bed.

I heard her, through my bedroom window, rustling through her bags, much later.

I lay there deciding whether or not to get up and go talk to her again, perhaps she was hungry, but sleep won in the end. I prayed she would be safe tonight.

Part 6

24.9.12

I went out for ice cream and came back with a homeless woman - Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

After the first day or two, whenever April was awake, she was rifling through this gigantic stack of cards that she had and writing in them and addressing them to her kids. She put in photos she had of herself with the new baby as well. She asked if I had any stamps.

The first time I asked her, "I thought you didn't know where your kids were. Do you know how to reach them?"

"They are in Escondido with their dad," she said. "I'm not allowed to see them though."

She claimed to have 10 children. I think it might have been true, judging from how many cards she wrote and the different names on them.

Sunday morning she had gone out for a while, to mail cards. There was an entire container of leftover brownies that disappeared about the same time she left as well. Not that I cared much about that. But the container did belong to someone else.

Monday morning, we were back into our regular routine, me making breakfast for the kids and talking them through their morning chores. I heard her outside on her phone. She had a pay as you go cell phone.

"What are the kids doing? Are they getting ready for school?"

It was obvious she missed them.

"I was a good mom," she claimed. "It was the only thing I was ever really good at."

Monday morning she asked me for coffee.

"Do you like coffee?" I asked.

"No, but I want to try some, I need some energy. I have to get off the streets today."

She downed 2 whole cups in less than 10 minutes and started to get jittery.

I was making calls and checking maps to figure out where to take her and how to get started when she came in.

"Okay, I'm just gonna go by myself then and get this done. I can't waste any time today. I have to take care of some things."

Between the rest and the coffee she was a completely different personality.

I told her what I was doing and what the plan was if she wanted to wait for me to take her and she decided to come with me.

The first place we tried gave her an appointment for Wednesday. It's an amazing program. They take homeless families in for 3 years and teach them job skills and life skills and she could keep her son with her once foster care released him.

She was devastated that it wouldn't happen that morning. "I need to be able to show the court that I'm trying. I have a custody hearing in September. I need to get in somewhere today. I need to get in somewhere that will let my husband join me when he gets out of jail or he'll go right back to using."

They asked her point blank if she used any drugs. "Sometimes," she answered, "I can't deal with my life so I take things to make it hurt less."

They suggested residential recovery programs.

I stopped at the store to buy her oranges, to help her calm down. She said they helped. I could see that she was really trying, and really struggling, and was getting more, and more on edge. I didn't connect it to the caffeine right away though, which I would regret later.

Somehow, the way our conversation was going, with her so jittery and on edge I was unable to truly just talk to her, explain about Aaron being gone and needing to find her somewhere for the night, and to plan what would be best to do. She just needed action to feel better.

We called one residential recovery program as we sat in the car in the grocery store parking lot.

That's how I learned her last name, and her age, and that she had the baby while in custody for drug possession. I believed her that she hadn't used since she found out she was pregnant. I'm not sure she knew she was pregnant until she was arrested though. I also believed her that she hadn't been high since the baby was born. We didn't mention alcohol though.

They told her they would put her on the waiting list. She started telling people we talked to that she was going to just go out and get high again if she couldn't get in somewhere. They bumped her to the top of the waiting list.

After the 3rd place and more disappointment she came up with a plan. She would go and get food stamps so she could eat that month. I tried to talk her out of it. I was still waiting on some answers from people I called for the night, for medical care for her. I didn't think that food stamps were a very high priority right now. She needed to feel like she had accomplished something that day.

I had stopped at Del Taco for lunch, the kids in the back seat feeling hungry. Wanting to be kind I offered to buy her a Dr. Pepper, along with lunch, because I remembered she liked it. She had had nothing but water at my house until that day, even though she didn't like it, because I had nothing else. I kept pushing it at her to get her to hydrate.

I had already forgotten about the 2 coffees in the morning. As we drove I asked her about why she couldn't see her other kids. It had something to do with her not testifying against her attackers 3 years earlier. But she was vague.

"Were you in the hospital a long time." I wondered. "Is that why CPS got involved."

She was silent. "I really don't like to talk about it," she said. "It was a horrible time in my life that I don't like remembering."

"But maybe there's a way to fight it," I wondered. "Why would they not let you have custody just because you were attacked."

She was starting to get angry, horribly agitated. "Now I'm going to have nightmares! Now I'm thinking about it again and I won't be able to sleep. I don't want to talk about it!"

"I'm sorry," I told her, "I'm just trying to figure out how to help you."

"Everybody's sorry! Everybody tells me they're sorry. Well, sorry doesn't fix it, sorry doesn't make it go away. No one really cares."

I wanted to ask her why she thought I had already spent hours that day driving her around if I didn't care, but I didn't.

The food stamps office took forever. After more than an hour she was still not even in the first line. My kids were getting restless, they all had coughs. We played outside as much as possible to stay out of that horrid office. I read them many books. A woman stared at me point blank for as long as I nursed Judah.

We people watched. There is a community there. People greeting others and asking after them. Glad to see they are ok after hearing bad news. I enjoyed being reminded that no matter where you are, people mostly care about each other.

Aaron's mom called me. I had asked her earlier if they might be able to give her a place to stay until her appointment on Wednesday. They called to say that yes, they would take her. They were getting the spare room ready.

I found her and suggested we leave and try another time. We could get ready to go over to my inlaws. I would pick her up the next day to drive her to her visitation with her baby.

She was adamant. "I have to finish this. Otherwise I have to start all over again later and then all my time here was wasted. And I don't know why you even want to me to go and stay with these people I don't know anyway." Her voice was starting to catch. I wondered if she thought I was rejecting her by trying to arrange a new place for her to stay.

She started to walk away. Again. The whole day had been trying to chase after her and make her stay still long enough for a conversation that accomplished something.

I understood that all this motion was her way of trying to keep it together, so I was trying to be patient. But it was past just me being patient any more. If the kids were taken care of I could have stayed with her all day. But they needed me to take care of them now.

"April," I called. "I can't stay much longer, the kids are really tired, Bam Bam needs a nap, they are coughing and sick, and getting other people sick."

"Fine, go!" she huffed. "I would take the bus back if I had any money to get there. This will be my last night at your house and tomorrow I'll go do what I have to do on my own."

I had no cash.

"Can you call me on your phone when you're done and I'll come and pick you up?"

"I'm out of minutes."

The security guard standing nearby gave her money for the bus. Shocked that I would want to leave early after waiting so long, not knowing the rest of the story.

"I'll try staying a bit longer," I told her, "but we really can't do much more today."

While we waited I received a call. I had found some information about a grant that funded free care for homeless people. I had left a message and they were now calling me back. They were so sweet, and helpful, and found me the closest medical clinic, less than 2 miles from where we were, and told me how to get her in. "Go before 3:30," she warned, "walk ins close at 4."

I had told them that I was concerned about her. Her hands often stopped working properly, she couldn't grip things tightly. Also that she was 7 weeks postpartum, had had no follow up care, and was still bleeding.

They told me to tell them it was urgent and they would see her right away.

Only one problem. I couldn't find April. She was lost in the maze of offices and no one could tell me where to find her because of confidentiality reasons. I waited. I looked. I walked to the car and loaded the kids and did another slow drive by to see if she was done. By then it was 4. There was no chance of seeing a doctor today. My kids were way past done, and I drove home, praying she wouldn't find someone to give her drugs while there and break her clean streak.

I wondered if she would come back. If she came back would she be high? How would I get her to my in-laws house if she came back after bedtime? Did she even understand that she wasn't going to be able to stay at my house another night?

Part 5 

23.9.12

I went out for ice cream and came back with a homeless woman - Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

Soon after I returned home the police had let April go. However, she had by then forgotten my address and had wandered a while trying to find me.

So I invited her inside, and offered her something to eat.

While I heated leftovers she sat at my dining room table, across from Aaron working on his laptop, and admired my house and asked how many kids I had.

You must understand as I tell this that her story changed daily, with the same elements, and I believe that each iteration got us closer to the true story.

That night she told me about the kids she had, the brutal attack she endured in her home, the way she was afraid to testify against her attackers because they threatened to harm her children, and how her former husband had moved away with them to keep them safe.

At the first telling she didn't know where they were and she stayed in this neighborhood hoping they would come back to find her. I let her talk, she was comfortable talking that night, her manner diffident, and occasionally she almost cried.

I offered her some ice cream. "Oh, no thank-you she said," automatically. "Wait, I haven't had ice cream in forever. Could I please just have a little bit?"

"Of course," I answered and dished it up for her before going outside to set up the tent and bed.

It's a quick tent to set up, but by the time I got back in she was fast asleep, face down on the table, ice cream melting in the bowl beside her. I showed her the bathroom to wash up, found an extra toothbrush and helped her get settled. Then went inside to work a bit more before going to bed.

for any early risers.

She slept for almost 3 days!



When she finally woke on Friday that day was almost gone and breakfast was long past. I gave her something to eat and asked if she'd like to come to our fundraiser that night and help out. She was shocked that I would invite her to something, and shy. She went out to the tent and when I checked on her 5 minutes later she was asleep again. She was still sleeping when it was time to leave.

She awoke after we got home around midnight, and had a few of the extra brownies and left over pizza we bought for the volunteers before going back to sleep.

That's when I found out that she gave birth to a baby boy 7 weeks ago and he was in foster care. She had been living on the streets since he was 3 days old.

Saturday she woke up and accompanied us on our walk to Starbucks. My friend Brenda came down for the show and stayed the night so she came with us too. While we sat and talked April went over to hang out with a group of guys, also obviously homeless, that apparently she knew.

I really didn't think she would come back with us when we left. To my surprise, she did. But then on the walk home she needed to pee really bad, which is likely 7 weeks postpartum, but I also suspected her of other motives.

But she arrived at my gate 10 minutes after we got home and smoked a cigarette she had bummed while I made breakfast burritos.

We rushed off after that, we had a party to go to, and left her in the tent again. "Do you want me to leave?" she had asked when I told her.

"No, go ahead and stay. We'll be home in a few hours.

She was asleep when we got home.

Sunday afternoon, I invited her to my in-laws with us. A group of friends gets together for a potluck and bible study on the occasional Sunday. She was worried they wouldn't want her there.

So I texted my MIL to ask if it was ok and then showed her the reply. "Are you kidding me? You have to ask? Of course?"

She still wasn't sure.

When the time came to leave I found her in the tent and asked if she had decided. "I just don't feel like I can," she said. "All I seem to be able to do is eat, sleep and cry."

Tears started spilling onto the pillow. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm crying. I just feel so sad all the time."

I held her hands and said, "You've been through a lot recently. Your feelings might be finally catching up, now they have a chance. Go ahead and sleep some more. Tomorrow I'll drive you to some places I know of that might be able to help you."

I didn't tell her yet that Aaron was leaving in the morning, on another business trip, and he was nervous about leaving us on our own with her. So I had a day to find her an alternate arrangement.

Part 4 is next.

18.9.12

I went out for ice cream and came back with a homeless woman - Part 2

Part 1

April is far from the first homeless person I ever tried to befriend. My dad used to invite people to stay in our basement. For several years in college I lived in his big old house downtown as he filled the rest of the rooms with alcoholics, drug addicts, gambling addicts, etc. all in some stage of rehab. Many transferred there out of halfway houses. The first guy he invited to stay was living on the street before he knocked on my dad's door asking for change so he could buy beer at the liquor store 2 doors down. Dad invited him into his kitchen for a burger instead.

I've volunteered at soup kitchens and passed out sandwiches in parks, been part of Christmas celebrations for the friends outside with my church, shared a dinner in a pub with an older man who gave me a teddy bear from the vending machine, and sat on cardboard mats talking and being friends as the cold settled into our bones.

I've known some to be very, very protective of their stuff, the few things they carry around with them in this world. So I was very concerned when April didn't show up at my house soon after we talked. I had one of her bags. If she didn't find me and I didn't get it back to her I was sure she would think I had robbed her, or cheated her. As long as I had that bag I was entangled. That's just the way it goes.

So I went back out looking for her, taking my phone of course. I didn't have to go far, one left turn and I saw the police cars, parked at opposite angles blocking the road, one officer standing over her shining a flashlight as the other dumped out the contents of the bag she had held on to.

So I walked closer, "April, I was worried when you didn't show up. I still have your bag, I didn't want you to think I stole it."

If she was going to jail tonight it was still important to me that she knew that I wanted to take care of her stuff.

"Please stop right there ma'am." The officer barked. I obeyed, spreading my hands in front of me.

"Do you know this woman?"

"I know her name is April and I offered her a tent in my back yard tonight to sleep in."

They might as well know. It's probably safer for us if they do.

"You would do that for someone you don't know."

"Yes, it's just my back yard."

"Even if that person had a record a mile long?"

"Why would you say that?" April demanded, as she sat on the curb, head in her hands, "I've been arrested once."

"Even then," I decided as I said it, "I'm am far less comfortable with the idea of leaving a woman out here alone in this neighborhood than I am with the idea of her sleeping in my yard tonight."

"I have her other bag," I reminded him. I really didn't want them to take her to jail without it. I didn't want to have to keep it safe for her for who knew how long.

"Where do you live?" they asked.

I gave them my address and they told me to go home saying, "We'll probably go over there in a little while."

I honestly thought that would be the end of it. They would arrest her for loitering or some such, Maybe I should have offered to drive her home? Maybe that was where she was supposed to be? At least lock up was warm and had the possibility of being safe.

I put Bam Bam to bed. I worked. We had a big fundraiser for The Charis Project coming up the next night. I walked back over to the corner the officers had stopped her at but all was silent.

"I still have her bag," I told Aaron ruefully. "Shoot. I should have gone back over there with it right away."

I put the bag around the side of the house under the eaves. I debated whether to pour out the big soda she had in the front pouch. I decided not to.

Just before midnight I heard, barely, a voice quietly calling my name and looked outside to see a bike propped against my fence.

"April? Is that you?"

Part 3 coming soon

17.9.12

I went out for ice cream and came back with a homeless woman.

I would never have seen her if I hadn't gone to get ice cream. Aaron was doing that thing he does at night after the kids are in bed where he wanders the kitchen, opening and closing things and then walking away. So I asked if I could get him anything.

With Bam Bam strapped into the car we headed to the store and she was sitting there on a corner, 2 blocks from my house, huddled over, next to a bike. I drove on.

She was still there as I drove home, and looked a little longer as I went by again.

It wasn't until I got home and parked that I realized I had left the grocery bag in the cart outside the store. So I drove back. It's not that far away, and this was ice cream we're talking about!

There she was again. She looked as though she was trying to hide, on the brightest corner on the street. I drove on.

The bag was still where I left it and we drove back home again.

By this time I was starting to get that feeling, you know the one, deep in your gut, that says, "Do something."

It's always uncomfortable when that happens.

So on the way back I rolled down my window and called out across the street, "Are you ok?"

She sat up then, face appearing from under the hair she used to hide it. "Yeah, I just don't have anywhere to go."

She said this in tones of resignation, and sadness.

A car was coming behind me so I drove on and parked at home. While I unloaded Bam Bam and the ice cream I told Aaron about her, and that I thought I needed to do something.

"Do what you need to do," he said.

So I drove back over to her, this time parking and getting out of the car.

"Hi, it's me again. What do you mean you don't have any where to go."

"I just don't have anywhere to go. My bike has a flat tire and so I'm stuck here. I grew up around her but now I don't have nobody or any place to stay. [reducted] I'm just trying to sleep, and stay warm."

It was one of the first days that really felt like fall was on the way. Fog was hanging in the air, it was chilly.

"So why on this corner?" I wondered.

"This house has a dog that barks so I thought it would wake me if someone comes and it's well lit so maybe it's safer."

I stood and pondered for a moment, but already I knew what I was going to say.

"Well, I'm freaked out by the idea of inviting someone I don't know to stay inside my house. But I do have a really cozy tent, and air mattress, and sleeping bag I can set up for you in my back yard. It's really safe, the fence is high, no one will know you are there. I only live 2 blocks away if you want to meet me there."

She only thought for a moment, and then, more like a child than a woman she ducked her head and said, "Ok."

"What's your name?" I asked.

"April," she replied.*

"Mine's Carrien," I told her, "Just go left here, and then right at the next block. Go down to the end of the street and it's the second from the end with the big wrought iron fence. Do you want me to take one of your bags while you carry your bike?"

She handed me a heavy bag and wobbled a little as she struggled with her bike. Once I saw her underway I got in the van and I drove home to meet her. So I didn't see when the police showed up.

Part 2 coming soon.

*not really her name, I changed it to protect her privacy.

12.9.12

Some More Thoughts on Poverty

In my last post On Having Stuff I talked about the type of mental poverty inherent in holding onto stuff you don't need, because you fear you might need it later. In this post please bear with me as I put on my professional hat. As a person who works in the area of poverty relief in the third world, [see thecharisproject.org] I want to come at this again from a different angle.

As I said last week, being poor really isn't simply tied up in how much stuff you do or don't have.


An assessment of the degree of poverty based on how much stuff someone has misses the fact that poverty is more of a mindset than a condition. Poverty is manifested by the inability to find a way out of an untenable situation. Put Bill Gates, with all his knowledge and business experience in a rural village in Thailand with the exact same resources as all of the other villagers and it would not be long before the village was different, and he was running a successful business that gave people something they need, or want, and accumulating wealth again.

The poor don't think that way. The poor think only of what they can get right now. Systemic poverty can cause cultural shortsightedness, the inability to plan beyond the next harvest, the next season. Imagine an entire culture that is only able to think in the present, because the future has always been so uncertain. It's the constant tyranny of what is urgent governing daily decisions and crowding out what is best for the long term.

It's not just people in the 3rd world who do that. How many people do you know who are in over their heads with credit card debt because they got what they could, when they could, because they thought that if they waited until they could really afford it they never would?

How many people do you know who blow a big paycheck on stuff that they want, without putting any of it away for a rainy day, or toward anything that could help them toward more long term financial stability over time?

It's a mentality of feast or famine, with no thought for the long term because things will never really change. If we have, we get stuff we can hold onto, because we don't know when we might have again. It's just as impoverished a way of thinking as a peasant who can't think or plan past the next rice harvest.

 

Of course, most of the world's truly poor never have a paycheck to blow, and most work very hard and never get ahead because of the systemic injustices built into their culture. Before Muhammad Yunus pioneered micro-finance, the poor were at the mercy of corrupt moneylenders who charged impossible interest and imposed restrictions tailored to keep the people they lend to impoverished and dependent. It is still the case for millions worldwide.

In fact, it's still the case here. Ever seen those money lending places? They give you pay day loan advances, and also offer check cashing and other services for those who don't have a bank account. Would you take out a loan if you needed to pay back 20% in interest? That's how those places make money, by preying on the poor and desperate.

But there are also those who use those places, not because of utter necessity, but because the habit of spending money before they have it is deeply ingrained. We all do it to some extent. We imagine what we will do with the money coming in, well, anything extra, we know what we'll do with most of it, pay bills, and buy groceries, etc. Most of us have it spent already in our head, long before we get it. But some people actually spend it, in advance, leaving nothing in reserve. In this case, poverty is in their mindset, more than their check book, and the poverty that they remain in is one that they perpetuate without realizing it.

Poverty is not simple, and there are many factors that contribute to it. One of the things we can change, however, is how people think.

When Aaron is in villages in Thailand talking to people he starts asking them, "What does your community need? What could you provide for your community that would help them, and become a business that could help you and your family as well?"



Not having enough can become a habit of thought that even those who are well off fall prey to. We know it in one of it's manifestations as keeping up with the Jones's. In rural Thailand near the Burmese border, where they have experienced missionaries and aid for centuries, the habit of thought we encounter most often is that they need a westerner to help them, they can't do it on their own.

The idea that they could do something to help their community, and to bring a change is revolutionary, but once they grab onto it it's amazing to see what changes in them. They come up with great, practical ideas. They start to think long range, 4 or 5 years down the road even. It's so moving to hear them say, "We had no idea we could do something to help the children among us, to help each other."

So the question for myself, and for you today is this. Do I truly not have enough, or is thinking I don't simply a habit I've fallen into? Do I really need that thing I can't afford, that I'm struggling to pay for? And is there something I can do to help the people around me, even with what I have right now, and with where I am? What if we stopped looking at what we can't do, and don't have, and started making the most of what we do have and can do? Would that make a difference?

Because I'm telling you, if generations poor and persecuted hill tribe villagers can think of things they can do to help their community, to start a business, to make a change, I'm certain that we can do it too.

5.9.12

On having stuff

I was talking to a friend on Sunday about how tight our finances are. It's at the point where I know exactly how many days grace period each company we get bills from allows before they charge a late fee, because there is nothing in reserve, and Aaron's payment schedule has changed so I almost never have what is needed in time. I've been lagging in the grace period for months now, and I'd rather not talk about our credit card balance because it's just depressing after not carrying a balance for years and years to have so much on it now.

Yes I'm whining a little. But that's not my point.

My friend kindly asked if the kids had everything they needed: clothes, books, toys, etc, and I surprised her, and myself I think by responding "Absolutely not. I'm still trying to get rid of things. They have too much stuff."

Which felt silly to admit. Here I am going on and on about the difficulties of living on a reduced income when my kids have more than they need in terms of clothes and stuff and I'm still in a house with the electricity working. (Though I have had to leave the phone bill for long enough that I've lost internet for a while. That sucks.)

As stressful as it is always being so close to overdrawn and not being able to get or do things that would be good, like, being able to pay for the kids school registration this fall on time, not to mention how much I'd like them to do things like dance lessons and martial arts and such, I don't have to worry that my kids are without basic necessities.

By that standard I'm well aware that we're not really poor, just average, stretched hard for capital, cutting back in every possible way, which I suppose many people are these days.

But that conversation got me thinking about the relationship between stuff, and poverty, and how it's not as straightforward as it would initially appear.

I consider my accumulation of stuff a symptom of poverty, rather than abundance, and it's something I am trying to overcome. It's not like I spend a lot of money of clothes and toys and furniture. It's almost all second hand, most of it given to us by others. It's not that I spent money on stuff we really don't need that is the problem, so much as how much of it I feel like I need to keep.

Have you noticed how in western culture even those struggling to make ends meet have more stuff than they know what to do with? I once knew a person who had no income other than welfare and her 4 children often looked a bit ragamuffinish, appearing in mismatched dirty clothes, like they rummaged through a laundry bin in order to get dressed. So good, kindhearted, people would buy all the children lovely clothes and for a while they would look nice again before gradually returning to dirty and disheveled. It wasn't until I went to help her clean up one day, CPS told her to clean it up or they'd take the kids, that I realized what the real problem was. The children had enough clothes... They all had mountains and mountains of clothing. The dirty laundry took up the entire floor of the master bed room and walk in closet, knee deep! The problem was that the children had too many clothes, far more than what they needed. They looked dirty all the time because there was no way their mom could keep up with that sort of laundry. But she kept everything, because she didn't know what else to do.

Too much stuff is kind of it's own sort of mental poverty. It's not the stuff itself so much as the un-curatedness of it. In a poverty mindset household there is no selection, or discrimination. There is a tendency to keep everything out of fear that you might need it later.

I grew up poor. My dad was trying to make it as an independent visual artist and designer, and my mom grew up poor, in a feast or famine, get it while you can, sort of household. I learned valuable skills in my childhood. I learned what I don't need. I learned how far you can stretch a food dollar. (You can stretch it really far btw.) I learned how to make things myself, and to find other ways to get what I needed besides buying it. It's served me well.

The first time that I realized that normal people just go to the store and spend some money to get what they want was a bit of a revelation. It was just so simple, so painless. No shuffling through thrift store racks trying to find something that you could take home and alter until you finally had the thing you envisioned. No learning to repair and fix up old things that no one else wanted so you too could have a bike. You just walked in and bought it. That was liberating. I loved being able to just buy something, instead of scheme for it.

Alas, I am back to scheming again. Thankfully I'm kind of good at it.

But there were other things I learned also that aren't as helpful. I learned that a house filled up to the rafters with stuff that you may never use but might need some day was normal. I am recovering, over the years, from an extreme reluctance to throw anything away. I might think of a really cool way to use that thing I tossed right after trash day. (I actually have before.) But the thing is, just because you can make a snowman decoration out of your old styrofoam coffee cup, doesn't always mean you should.

I do have home school supplies all the way up to high school stored in the house because that stuff is expensive and I don't want to buy it if someone is giving it to me for free now. I will use it. I also have clothes packed up by size in closets, and books I love languishing in boxes in other closets and the point is, while it may be very cleverly frugal of me to hold onto some of that stuff, I don't need it all. I need to take the time now to choose what is worth saving and pass the rest onto someone who might actually need it. In order for that to happen I need to not allow fear to be my primary motive.

I need to stop acting as though this stuff of ours can protect us somehow from financial hardships. I need to be discriminating. To be free of the tyranny of things it is helpful to understand that you must hold them lightly, as the temporary and transient bits of flotsam that they are. Things are not magical talismans that provide security against the great unknown future. They are just stuff, and can be as much of a prison as a stronghold if I'm not careful.

Let the great purge begin.

Last weeks clothing purge. Only keep 5 or less of each type of item. The pile is everything else to give away.
PSSST. I have a really big announcement over here, and my latest motivation to really, really purge what we don't need. Also, you could win an iPad. Thailand Bound - Finally - We Need Your Help


2.9.12

The shorter version

It's been a crazy week.

I have this one idea for a post that I keep trying to write in the wee small hours of the morning, and falling asleep over. I had an unexpected guest and spent a lot of time trying to find her the care  she needed. And there's school starting and schedules and curriculum to work out, and work and stuff...

But I did manage to hang with my kids this week. And Brenda and Bug came to visit for a day and do some crafty sorts of things. It was awesome to have time to visit in that unhurried, finish your wine sot of way.

Here's the recap in pictures in case you aren't following me on instagram or facebook. (why not?)

went to get ice cream
which led to this
She slept for almost 3 days, aside from waking to eat.
Waiting at government offices sucks, but this one had climbing trees.
wine, goat cheese, mango ginger chutney, a friend to share it with
Then Brenda came
painting happened
we sorted a lot of clothes
and ended here.





I promise more complete sentences and stories coming soon.


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