There have been times in my life where $5 was often the running balance in my bank account. I would often have just barely enough or not quite enough to cover my bills and expenses. These times in my life were the hardest. The constant struggle to meet basic needs creates a certain kind of stress–the stress of living in a perpetual state of survival. This is something no one should have to face, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. Yet, it was in these moments that I learned so much about life, money, and people, and my own relationship to these things.
I learned in these moments to take sanctuary in the little pleasures of life, and to allow myself to fully experience and enjoy moments of happiness when they arise. A $2 cup of good coffee, now and then, while I was out, became the ultimate indulgence. I would savor the aroma and taste how the coffee, cream, and sugar combined to form this perfectly drinkable experience. And, I would let it be an experience. Or, I would enjoy the pleasure of learning for the sake of learning. I would pack up a lunch and gather my kids, and we would walk to a nearby park. I would lay down a blanket and read whatever I felt drawn to learn (something I have always enjoyed) for hours while my children played nearby. I have a deep appreciation for libraries and their access to free knowledge because of this. One summer, I read eight books by and about Mother Teresa, which led me to read books on prayer (an important part of her life), which somehow led me back to trying to understand the spiritual tradition I was raised in. So, I read books related to the spread of Indian culture, yoga, and Hinduism to the U.S. It was all so fascinating, and I learned so much. Mother Teresa, like many great leaders, felt called to make a difference in the world. She started her whole organization under a tree in India, by teaching children with the skills that she had learned from many years of being a teacher. Everything else grew from that. And even the spread of yoga and Hinduism began with Indian spiritual leaders feeling called to spread their faith to the West. It was in these little moments that I learned that if a feeling of happiness came to me unexpectedly, like a special moment with my child or a beautiful sunset, I should soak it in and feel it with all I had, for the next moment might go back to struggle and sacrifice.
I learned from these little pleasures and moments of happiness what a sense of gratitude really looks and feels like. It is incredibly hard to feel grateful for a too small apartment, with only a half bath, and no air conditioner, on a 100 degree night, with two sweaty children clinging to you in one queen size bed, and where, through the window there flows more wafts of cigarette smoke than cooling breeze. I must admit that I haven’t necessarily learned to be grateful while experiencing a moment like that. I have been most likely to feel angry or sorry for myself, living in a stance of poor me. But I have learned that it is possible to get to gratitude even when your life is full of such uncomfortable and intense moments. For however bad my situation looked and felt like to me, I would consider that there is someone out there who has it even worse. Or that, it could be even worse for me. So I learned to become grateful for what I did have. I would think, I have this food to eat, that someone else may not have in this moment. I have a shelter that is clean and safe, however small. I have clothes to wear. I have two beautiful children to love. I am poor, but poor in the U.S. is still a much higher standard of living than poor in other places. Or even, the most simplest gratitude, which is, I am alive.
I have learned about the generosity of strangers. I was once standing in line at a Chipotle trying to figure out the most amount of food I could get for my $10 to feed my two children and me. I would usually pack lunches and snacks for this reason, but sometimes it would happen that we would get stuck out and need to eat. This is incredibly hard when you really can’t afford to eat out. I have learned many tricks to work with this situation, like many Indian stores have $1 samosas, which are calorie dense and filling, or some cafes have day old muffins, or a bowl of soup is usually less expensive, but hearty and filling. But this time, the server realized what was happening, so she discreetly gave us a free kids meal with extra drinks and some free burrito coupons to come back another time. Another time, my car was overheating to the point of being dangerous. I had to pull over at a gas station, to fill it with coolant, but I only had that $5 or so in my account and the coolant was more expensive than that. The attendant came out to help and when I desperately explained the situation, he gave me a bottle of coolant for free. I have had many unexpected experiences like this. It is hard to describe the emotion that is felt in moments like these. It doesn’t feel good to be in such low and desperate situations. There is such a powerlessness, a helplessness to be in a place where you cannot take care of yourself. But when another person comes in and helps, and helps from a place like these people did, from this place of solidarity, like maybe, they have been there in some way themselves, these are the moments that really bring tears to your eyes.
I learned about humility, resilience, and resolve. There are moments where I have had to let go of all my pride, after all, I am a person that feels good about going it alone and taking care of myself, and have had to show up and beg for the help that I needed. There was a day where my SNAP benefits (food stamps) were turned off, not because I didn’t qualify any more, but because of some error in the processing of my regular renewal. This is an incredibly common scenario. If you have ever been on any public assistance benefits, you know the ordeal it is to work with the system. It is hands down, one of the most disempowering agencies to experience. And if you don’t understand the complicated welfare laws and your rights (most people don’t), you are at the mercy of your worker, who may or may not understand how to apply the laws and rules, which may, or may not, work out to your benefit. This day, I had to take a bus downtown to this office with my two children to wait for hours to speak with my worker. She insisted she could not turn on my benefits that day, but I insisted that I could not leave that office without them turned back on. All I had left in the fridge were condiments and I let her know this. It was only after I continued to refuse to leave and was directed to a manager that I did get my benefits turned back on. I sometimes wonder if these people realize how devastating a simple action on their part can be to another human being. Power or strong is not what I felt in that moment, I was just truly desperate and needing to feed my children. Another time, I needed to reach out for help paying my rent, because the child support that I had been expecting was instead spent on cocaine and crack. And there were times where I have begged utility companies to not turn off my power or gas, because I just didn’t have the money to pay them, not because I didn’t want to. Asking for help or speaking up for myself has never been easy for me, but these situations pushed me to let go of my ego and advocate for myself and my children. And these experiences later helped me to advocate for other women and families as a caseworker and a doula.
These situations have taught me about giving and receiving, and how intricately they are connected. Giving and receiving are a relationship. If you are only a giver, you are holding power over someone, you are relying on and getting some kind of power from them needing you. If you are only a receiver, you are giving your power away, you are losing power by being needy or dependant on another. By not being able to receive, you are not allowing other people to contribute to you. By not being able to give, you are not contributing to others. This is one reason that I always accepted gifts from my clients when I was a doula. Not accepting them would have conveyed the message that I was somehow above receiving something from them. By receiving the gifts, I acknowledged that we were in a relationship that was equal, where we were both able to give and receive. In fact, I usually saw it as a sign of success if I was given a gift (often something simple like cooking me a meal). Then, I knew they hadn’t seen me as purely a professional, but as someone who had contributed to them and to whom they wanted to contribute back. When I learned that giving and receiving were a relationship, I was able to come to a place where I could receive without guilt or shame, even in times of great need, because I knew there would come a time or place where I would give back, even if it was not at that time. We all have times of need and there are so many ways to give and receive from one another. Giving that comes from the heart has a special kind of power, because it comes from a space of love and not lack. Mother Teresa understood this concept. She once encouraged a wealthy woman who wanted to support her cause, to buy less expensive saris and give the difference to her organization. She did this because she wanted the woman to actually have the experience of giving, something she would not have had as profoundly if she had just written a check. When I was in this place of poverty and no money, new opportunities for community arose, because life became about supporting one another. I have had moments where I have spent my last $10 on another, knowing that there really was nothing to lose. It would come back to me, in some other moment, in some other way.
Not everything I have learned has been positive. I have also learned just how cruel other humans can be to those that are lower than them. I once had a bus driver, a woman bus driver, insist that I fold my stroller before getting on the bus. Never mind the five bags of groceries, the wiggly and squirmy toddler, the adventurous five year old in tow, that this was one of two buses I needed to take to get affordable groceries, and that stepping onto the bus first would actually allow me to get situated properly. Her power in that moment, or her need to be better and look down upon me, was more important than recognizing, understanding, and being compassionate to my situation. I also began to see how there are rules in place, that whether deliberately intending to or not, can shut people out. These rules are in place to protect the privileged, because they are created under the assumption that people have at least a certain amount of resources. For example, I once went to a library where they had a rule that only children could use the computers in the children’s section. On the surface this could seem like a reasonable rule, especially for patrons who come to the library for storytime and playtime with their kids, but it is also a rule that assumes parents with children only come to the library for these reasons. It assumes that parents with young children have computers at home to do business or other important things. When I tried to use the computers at this library to find a permanent place to live, I was first kicked out of the children’s section, but then when I brought my one and five year old up to the adult computers, other patrons complained about them acting the way little kids that age do. The librarians addressed this issue as though I was being negligent to my children, but with no computer at home, and no free or available child care, I was really just trying to use the library’s computers as a resource to find a home. There are a lot of these kinds of rules in place that shut people out and that often aren’t noticed unless they start to affect you personally. When I worked at the YWCA’s Women’s Resource Center, I received dozens of calls a day from people in need. I was always struck by the people who were experiencing a setback for the first time and frustrated with the rules that seemed more designed to keep people down than build them up. I made it a point to gently and politely point out, that yes, this is the way it is, and one of the reasons people get stuck on the treadmill of poverty.
The most important lesson I learned while living in poverty was about the real worth of people. Worth cannot and should never be measured by the dollars that someone has or has not. A person’s contribution to life, community, and other people is not always related to the magnitude of their wealth or power. There are many great people who had not much of either, but have contributed to the world in a meaningful way, and there are people who have had a lot of both, but who have not been a positive contribution to the world. And there are so many people who contribute in small unknown, never known ways like the Chipotle server or the gas station attendant in my story. Both did something for me not just in that they gave me something that I needed, but also in who they were and in how they gave to me. What’s more, there are many other ways to measure the value of something than through dollars and power. Who is really better off? The person that has learned to be happy with nothing, or the person who has everything, but is still not happy? And is power over others really a better form of power than the true power someone gains from mastering themself? This was something else that Mother Teresa often spoke of. She described what she called the poverty of the West, which she stated was a poverty of loneliness, spirituality, and love.
In learning about measuring the worth of other people by who and not what they are or what they own, I learned to measure my own worth and sense of self less and less on these outward measures and more and more on what kind of person I was. I started asking myself who I wanted to be in the world and what was it going to take for me to get there. This question is an ongoing one that I am continually asking. I strive to embrace every experience as an opportunity to learn about myself and others and to get closer to living the answer to this question. This was not easy transformation. For years, every time that I could not afford something that I wanted or needed, I would feel this heavy feeling of sadness, guilt, and shame. There was this sense that something was wrong with me, and I did have the experience of feeling as though I was worth less. When other people looked down upon me and made negative assumptions about me, on some level I absorbed this and believed it. I was often depressed, and I regularly felt hopeless. In fact, it was only just recently that I realized how far I have come. I have been laid off and living on unemployment for the past few months, and recently when I couldn’t afford something, I didn’t have any feeling or emotion over it. I just couldn’t afford it, and that was it. There is no longer any significance or story about myself and my worth because of not being able to afford something. It took a conscious effort on my part and a regular practice to get myself to this point.
I developed little rituals to get out of this poverty of mind and self kind of thinking. I learned to set aside a little bit of money each month to do something for myself, even is it was only $10 or $20. One of the impacts of not having money, is that I would feel shut out of social interactions that cost money or required me to spend money to participate. By putting aside this small amount, which was not enough to significantly impact my bills, but enough for me to enjoy some coffee or tea with a friend or some other small event, I gave myself some power to choose to participate in one or two small things a month. I would make it practice to give money to someone or some cause, now and then, as a deliberate practice to get out of the mindset of I don’t have enough. I learned to trust that in tough times it would work out, because one way or another, it always did. I started to view welfare benefits and other needs based programs as resources, so I wouldn’t attach significance to the fact that I had to use them. I learned how to receive, graciously. I found ways to nourish and take care of myself that did not cost money. I have always found solace in nature, so I started hiking regularly. I found fun and free or low cost things to do with my children. I would make our lack of money a challenge. How much fun can we have this $5 or $10? I realized how important these small acts of self care were to my overall sense of wellbeing. Another of these rituals, was to buy myself flowers, even, or most especially when, money was tight. Beautiful flowers can be had for as little as a few dollars, or even, free if you pick them, but their message is so much more valuable. I will always buy flowers as a symbol of beauty, hope, and worthiness–my own and others.