Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Open Letter to a Phoenix Starting to Rise

Hi. You don't know me, and you'll probably never know me. I get the feeling that if I were to talk to you directly I'd only make you more uncomfortable.

You're obviously very uncomfortable. I know how you feel.

I'm the woman behind you in the checkout line, the only non-express checkout line in the entire store open at 8:30 on a Wednesday. It's quiet. That's why I'm here right now, keeping housewife hours. That's also why you're here.

You don't have to tell me what's going on. Your life circumstances are written all over you, in your demeanor, your clothes, what you're buying, the way you won't meet my eyes. You're in your early twenties, though most people would guess older. Stress does that to you. You're polite and quiet and you're waiting patiently for the person in front of you to finish so the cashier can ring up your milk, cereal, juice, eggs, and fruit.

I don't even need to see the little paper slips you hand the cashier to know that's how you would pay.

You're wondering why I'm waiting patiently behind you instead of going to one of the express lines. I could, that's true. You might also be wondering why I, a woman in my early thirties with a basket that makes clear I'm not worried about how I'll pay, would be waiting so patiently and smile at you for the second you look at me.

I'm there because I want you to see a friendly face, and because I want to make clear that if you didn't look like you'd break out into a run the moment someone noticed you, I'd talk to you.

Don't let the huge bag of dog food and container of fabric softener fool you. I've been at the exact same spot you are now.

You're either pregnant or have a little one at home. If I had to guess, pregnant. You either have no support or your support is stretched thin due to other circumstances. You've got a roof over your head and access to a washing machine, but not much else.

You could have been a spiritual, mental, and emotional copy of me as I was 8 years ago. Fresh out of a bad marriage with a toddler and a baby, living with my parents and my youngest brother. No money all around, the bills are barely paid, and the entire family laid low by my circumstances and my brother's recent health crisis. 6 people in one three-bedroom house in a small town in Arizona and one of those people could still die at any moment. A freak infection combined with a genetic abnormality killed my brother's kidneys. The medical crisis wiped both him and my parents out of all available cash. Then I came to live with them 2 months later.

Some people look at you and see only the result of bad decisions. I know better. I know shit happens, life gets fucked up, and your entire world can burn to the ground in an instant. Bad decisions often play a part, but are almost never the whole story.

I remember walking into the AZ Department of Economic Security office and applying. I remember being approved for food stamps, cash assistance, and medical coverage. I also remember the nice woman who helped me and how she told me she knew I wouldn't be on assistance for very long.

I didn't understand how she knew. Being a small town I thought maybe she knew my parents (I'd never lived there before) and drew her conclusions from them.

Now, looking at you, I can see what she saw in me. You're clean. Your hair hasn't been cut in a while but it's combed and tied back. Your clothes are showing wear but they're clean and hole free. You're not wearing any makeup and there's not an single show of frivolity on you. You're polite, you know exactly what qualifies for WIC and didn't buy anything else, and you handed the pen back to the cashier after very carefully signing your name. Your coupons are well organized, not balled up or crinkled. Most of all, you're dying of shame every moment you spend standing there while the rest of us wait but you're still there, shopping when you think the fewest people will be there to see you and when you will cause the least amount of waiting for others.

There's not an ounce of entitlement in your body. You're doing this because you must, not because it's a choice.

I know.

I spent exactly one day on cash assistance. Didn't even receive any cash benefits. The day after I applied I received the call that I'd gotten the part-time job I'd applied for and that I was expected to show up for training the next week. I'd work as a clerk at that state park for anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week for the next 2 years.

My supervisor at the state park used to be like you too. She knew what it was like. She moved heaven and earth to make my schedule work with my court appearances. She told me stories of when she was on assistance and how she'd drive 40 miles to get groceries so know one she knew would see her.

My father holds a membership to that state park now. He goes there every Sunday to walk his dog on the trails. He'll probably support the park for the rest of his life because he knows what the park did for me. He tells me it's all because he likes the trails and tours. I know better.

I used my state medical coverage to treat my chronic health problems. I made sure the kids saw their doctor, got their checkups, got their vaccinations. I hated every second of my dependence on state medical, but I used it.

I drove 1 1/2 hours to Tucson once a week to do blood tests and physicals while I went through kidney donation screening for my brother. Every time I went to Tucson I packed up the big cooler and used up my food stamps at a grocery store there. The food in Tucson was cheaper and better quality than what was available in the small town I lived in. Even though my food options weren't restricted my choices resembled yours. Bread, milk, cheese, pasta, juice. Staples, not convenience foods. I cooked from scratch and maximized my food stamps. I hated the food stamps, but used them anyway.

The only personal items I bought were bought for necessity's sake. The only recreation I had was either free or necessary to my sanity.

That's how I lived, much like how you're living now.

I know you'll get through this. I can tell. It's also written all over you. You're ashamed, you're hating every minute, but your back is straight. You won't look me in the eye, but you're not beaten either. If I had to guess, every bit of energy you're not spending on your child you're spending on surviving and then on making life better. No time for makeup or non-essentials but time to do your laundry and clean yourself up so you can be out applying for work. It's 8:45 on a weekday. You're not sleeping in or at home sulking. You're out being useful.

16 months after I landed in AZ I moved out of my parents' house and into an apartment. I held two jobs, one part-time (still at the state park) and one full time. I'd met my husband a few months before but we weren't together. I no longer qualified for state assistance, nor did I want it. 16 months from despair to independence.

If you'd been able to talk, that's what I would have told you. 16 months is how long it took for me to rise from the ashes of what used to be my life and make myself a new life. Whenever life goes horribly wrong (which it often does) I look back at that accomplishment and know that if my entire life is destroyed again I will rise like a phoenix once more. I did it once, I can do it again.

You can too, and you're already on your way. Brush the ashes off and get to living. Your new life is out there waiting for you.