Grocery Store Blues

I was at the grocery store last week and kept literally almost bumping into a woman and her two small children. I was hungry and tired from cleaning all afternoon and I had a heavy baby tied to my body, and honestly, this little family was seriously getting on my nerves. And my first instinct, the first thing that I did, was judge this mom. Her kids had dirty faces and the mom looked like she was wearing pajamas and hadn’t showered in days and they were all loud and irritating me.

The kids were little, a girl about 4 years old and a boy about 2, and they were just wild. Running through the store, one chasing the other, yelling loudly. Running into displays and carts and people, all the while with their mother chasing them, yelling at them. Ironically, yelling, “We don’t yell in the store!” I was honestly trying to avoid them and their tornado path. Everyone was.

And what I started thinking was that woman was not a very good mother. That she should take those bratty kids out of there so we could shop in peace. That they were undisciplined and that my kids don’t act that way. I was judging her.

And then I remembered how much I hate that the first freaking thing that we do is judge. Judge someone when we don’t even know them, much less the story that got them where they are. I mean, I despise it so much that I devoted a big chunk of my life to writing a book about how women judge each other’s lives. And how we are all alike in so many ways, as wives and mothers, and how we are just trying to make it through the day, no matter what our day looks like. And yet, still, here I was, judging.

Her kids were undisciplined, that’s true. As I turned a corner, I saw the mom physically trying to wrestle the youngest into the cart while he bucked and fought her with all his might, resulting in the loudest screams thus far. She couldn’t get him in the cart and they both knew it wasn’t working. And that’s when I realized that it was too big for her. Even trying to get the situation under control was too big for her. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, that kid wasn’t going to learn manners that afternoon in the grocery store. It takes years. It takes patience and good decisions and solid parenting and lots and lots of factors that that woman just didn’t have, at least not in that moment.

“If people can’t take care of them, they shouldn’t have kids.” This is what I hear in my head, and what I’ve read SO MANY TIMES on the internet about everything from poverty to formula feeding to anti-vaccinations to homeschooling. But I really freaking HATE that statement. You know why? Cause those kids are already here! They are alive and breathing and here already, so how about we all just recognize that and come up with some workable option that doesn’t involve going back in time and not having kids? What if we see if we can find a solution instead of just placing blame?

Because here’s the thing… That woman was doing her best. Her kids had dirty faces and they were running wild and she was yelling so they were yelling and she didn’t have control. But she was trying. Just like you try with your kids and just like I try with mine. Because I guarantee you that there are times my kids are dirty. And there are times that I am just flat out exhausted and so done that you might as well stick a fork in me. And I need a shower and I can’t get my kids wrangled. It just is what it is. Life is not always picture perfect.

And really, you and I don’t have the same capabilities in math, or writing or water skiing or chess, so why the hell should we in parenting? For all I know, that mother was raising those kids on her own, trying to shop on her last $43 dollars in the world. And she was tired and her ex doesn’t pay his child support and she hadn’t had a break or more than 5 hours of sleep in years. Or maybe she was just having a very, very bad week. You don’t know. I don’t know. But I do know that all of those possibilities used to be my life, and it was very, very hard.

So maybe, the next time we see her, or someone like her in the store, we ask if we can help. Or maybe, we just say something nice, anything nice, so that she knows we see her trying. So she doesn’t feel alone. Because the thing she probably needs most in the world is for someone to tell her that they’ve been there, and it will get easier.

And because I still believe that we are all a lot more alike than we are different.

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Poverty

For a very long time, basically my entire adult life until last year, I lived in poverty. The extent of the poverty varied, from well below the poverty line to just hovering around it. Either way, I was poor for a long time. For my girls entire childhoods. Pretty much since I had them and until Steve and I moved in together.

I never talked about it for the same reason that no one I know who lives in poverty talks about it. Because they are ashamed. And because pretty much anyone who lives above the poverty line will basically tell you that it’s your own fault and you aren’t working hard enough. ** There are exceptions to this, but it’s rare. Very rare. **

The real problem with poverty is exactly that. The assumption that it’s the poor persons fault. So you have this person who doesn’t have enough of anything and we beat them down for it. And anyone who has raised a kid or made a friend knows that you don’t get very far with someone by belittling them. Especially when they are already feeling bad.

I worked. A variety of jobs, always trying to find a better one. Or a job with better hours so I could work a second job or just one job so I could actually be around my kids and go to their activities. But here’s the thing… Jobs that pay 7 dollars an hour don’t care. They really don’t. Not about your kids or your sick mom or your school schedule or anything. So scheduling around taking care of kids or another job is impossible. Plus, they don’t want to insure you so they keep you under 30 hours a week. Which, if you do the math, means you take home $217.50 before taxes. Try raising a family on that. Try just paying rent on that. Forget eating. Eating is cereal and Mac and Cheese because YOU HAVE NO MONEY!

Then there is that wonderful little meme floating around Facebook that says that if you don’t like minimum wage or poverty, you should go back to school. Or, be a good employee and you will get paid better. But I was a very good employee. I’ve never had anything but positive feedback and reviews in all the jobs I’ve had. They just don’t want to pay well because it hurts their bottom line. And someone always needs a job so you are replaceable. It’s really that simple.

And college, well… 30k in debt for someone who is already so poor that they can’t afford food is kind of bad math. It’s supposedly a better option than most but it’s not a good one. Going into debt when you can’t make ends meet is just bad math.

And really, we need people to work in the service industry. We all buy pizza and groceries and gas for our cars, and the people who work those jobs deserve to be able to pay their bills. First off, they deserve it because they are human beings just like us, but also because we depend on them to live our lives so conveniently. They deserve a living wage, even if they aren’t highly educated. Why does that have to be for everyone anyway?

I’m not someone who pretends to know the answer. Do I think paying people a living wage would help? Yes. Do I think higher education should stop being a for-profit business at the expense of people trying to make their lives better? Yes. Do I know how to make that happen? No. But I do know that if we don’t talk about poverty, and it’s so taboo that people are shamed into silence about it like victims, then we aren’t ever going to get anywhere.

For me, poverty was traumatic and something I’m honestly still trying to recover from. It’s scary to not know how to pay the rent or the water or heat bill. It’s scary to know that 20 dollars is all the groceries you can buy for a week. It’s crushing and heartbreaking to finally ask for help from someone and be belittled and talked to like you are a failure. But do that for many years and it becomes traumatic. Something you need to recover from, not something you can just leave behind.

It’s strange now, to buy good healthy food and not think twice. To not have to constantly total the groceries in my cart so that I am sure that I have enough money to pay for them. To have the rent paid, to be buying a house, to drive a vehicle that has no problems at all and is safe to take on trips. I feel lighter. But I also feel lucky.

I think of poverty like a walled city. And the “help” and government assistance out there is like someone handing you a little toddler steeping stool and telling you that if you try hard enough you can use it to climb the 20 foot wall around the city. But you have to be special, like, Michael Jordan special, to make it over that wall. Or, you have to have someone willing to reach in there and pull your ass out. And these days, no one wants to do that. It’s every man for himself these days. Families scatter and resent being asked for help. From my experience, asking for help paying a 400 dollar heat bill so you don’t get shut off will result in hours of belittling for a week straight. And it may get paid, and of course you’re grateful, but you pretty much feel like the most worthless person on the planet. Only you are doing all you can and trying your best but the government stepping stool that everyone raves about just isn’t fucking high enough. And no one can raise a family on minimum wage. It just isn’t possible.

So how did I get out? How did I get so incredibly lucky that I thank my stars every single day?

I married a man with a good job. Someone who came in and saw how hard I was working and how difficult my life was and he didn’t run. And he didn’t belittle me or judge me or assume that it was all my fault. He looked around at my life and who I am and what I was doing and he believed in me. And no matter how many times I told him I was fine and that I didn’t need him, he kept trying to help. He kept coming back because he knew that I wasn’t really so hard and tough, but that I was so afraid of being honest and admitting that I’d been drowning for years and really did need someone to help me. And so he did. Just like that. Which I guess you could call luck but really I think of it as a miracle.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of poverty in America. But I will tell you it’s everywhere and you know lots of people living there that just can’t admit it to you, because they are afraid of what you’ll say and how you’ll treat them. So I’m saying all this here now, and if I get bashed for it from anyone, whatever. I’m going to try really hard not to care. Because I do know that the only way to change poverty is to change the way many Americans view it, and we can’t do that it we refuse to say it out loud. So I’m starting the conversation.

10 BOOKS

My friend Ale nominated me on Facebook to list 10 books that have shaped me or been special to me. This is hard, because I can think of like 100, but 10? Just 10??? That’s hard. Plus, no one should nominate me for things like this because I ramble on forever… Which is why I’m doing it my way and just turning it into a freaking blog post. So here goes, in no particular order.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver- What can I say about this book? I’ve read it over 40 times. My dad told me once that I’m probably trying to subconsciously memorize it. This is probably true. I love the characters so much and I’ve read it so many times that I sort of feel like I carry them around with me. I hear quotes from the book at appropriate times, as if the characters are advising me. I always have the urge to call Barbara Kingsolver my friend when I refer to her, only we’ve never met or anything like that.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle- If there is one book I wish everyone could read, it’s this. The ideas inside of it literally reshaped my brain and how I think of the world. I swear I am a bigger, better person from having read (and re-read) this book until I could wrap my little brain around it. It’s a game changer, for sure.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- This book made me so freaking mad that I had to actually set it down numerous times before finishing it. Who is Henrietta Lacks, you ask? Well, you should know. We should all know since she’s done more for medicine than maybe anyone ever has. Except she was a poor black woman so she (and her family) were treated terribly despite the way she changed the world. Read this book. It sheds new light on science but especially inequality.

Still the Mind by Alan Watts- Really, read anything by Alan Watts. That guy will take your brain and turn it inside out and make you look at the whole world new forever. He chases in circles but always comes back around. He’s deep but funny. He’s amazing. He is the person I’d have lunch with if I could have lunch with anyone, dead or alive. I named my cat after him because I love him so.

Big George- The Autobiography of an Angel– I don’t know where this book came from and it’s out of print with no author listed. But it’s available on Amazon on occasion and it’s worth paying for if you find a copy. It’s a magical little book about an angel that comes to earth in the form of a premature baby, sent here to teach us to love one another. It warms my heart every time I read it.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert- I found this book some time before it was popular. Someone dropped it in my lap. Isn’t that how it always goes with good books? It was exactly what I needed at the time. It’s about one woman’s struggle to find herself after landing in a dark corner within herself. At the time, I could so totally relate. I think we all can at some points in our lives.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris- I was reading this book at the doctor’s office once while I was there for a check-up. I laughed so hard while in the waiting room that it took me straight through being weighed and measured and into an exam room before I could get my shit together. I was a little afraid that they were going to put me on a 24 hour psych hold because I was literally in tears. David is the funniest guy ever and I recommend him so very highly.

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan- This book is sad and dark and strange, written in the second person voice so it makes the story seem eerily yours. Set in Friendship Wisconsin just after the civil war, you are the town’s undertaker, pastor and sheriff during the midst of a diphtheria outbreak. Like I said, sad and strange, which is why it still haunts me.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn- I often times don’t like books that really hit it big, but I liked this one. It made me say “Holy shit!” like 7 times. I don’t often find books that keep me on my toes like that. I kinda couldn’t put it down.

Dreaming Out Loud by Michelle Roth- I have to list my own book, because if we’re listing books that shaped us, writing a book is for sure on the list. If reading a book can change us, then writing one will change your whole life. I highly recommend it for anyone who has even the slightest inkling, but I warn you that it will challenge you and make you face demons and skeletons you’d forgotten years ago. At varying points in the process, I compared writing a book to an endless road trip without a working odometer, to pregnancy and to childbirth. That said, I wouldn’t change it for anything and it was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done.

How Things Change

When Georgia was younger, she wanted to get her nose pierced in THE. WORST.WAY.

She’s always had a unique sense of style and she leans toward the funky and fun stuff, in clothing and hair colors and everything else. So I’m not surprised that a nose piercing would appeal to her. But when she was about 13 or so, it became something of an obsession. She tried to make all sorts of deals and bargains with me, like helping around the house or maintaining perfect grades. Only she already got perfect grades and she could’ve solved world hunger and I probably wasn’t going to say yes. My answer was just flat out no. I told her that when she turned 18, she could do what you wanted, but until then, her body would be under my rules.

Georgia isn’t really one to give up easily, and the attempts at convincing me kept going through the years. I just kept saying no. I felt she was too young. I worried that she wouldn’t care for it properly. But mostly, I worried about the stigma it could attach to her and I felt she was already fighting an uphill battle with that. She was a kid being raised in poverty by a single mother, with no dad in sight. We attach stigmas for all sorts of reasons in this day and age but I felt that we were already vulnerable and I didn’t want anyone to exclude her from anything based on who they thought she might be. Now, this goes against everything I believe in, because we are not our clothes or our haircuts or our cars or our piercings. We aren’t defined by that really, but other people get to make up their own minds and definitions. I didn’t want any doors slamming shut on her because of an extra hole in her nose. Period. End of story. I don’t know how many times I explained it. A lot. I said it A LOT of times. So much that the whole thing was just plain annoying.

Then one afternoon when Georgia was about 15 she came into the house after spending the night at a friend’s house. Georgia just lurked by the doorway, blocked from my view in the next room. I called hello to her but she said ‘Um… Mom?”

She sounded scared, so I got scared. Did something happen at her friend’s house? Was she hurt? I asked her what was wrong and was taking my computer off my lap when she stepped into the living room and that’s when I saw her very red nose. I knew right away what she had done. And I totally lost my shit.

“TAKE IT OUT! TAKE IT OUT! TAKE IT OUT RIGHT NOW!” I yelled at her, all but slamming the computer onto the dog kennel and making a beeline toward her. I guess I scared her cause she kind of took off so it turned into something of a chase. I don’t know what my plan was, I was just wild crazy mad.

“Okay! Okay! I will.” She said as she ran from me towards the kitchen. “I just need to take a picture to send to Auntie Holly first.”

“THE FUCK YOU DO!” Like I said, I lost it. I was chasing her through the house screaming obscenities. This is the sign that you have lost it.

She had that thing out of her nose in 30 seconds, probably because she might’ve been afraid for her life. I stood outside the bathroom door and tried to keep my head from popping off of my shoulders from the pressure. In that short time, I found out that she and her friend Sarah did it in Sarah’s’ bathroom. But they were educated enough to sterilize the needle. Smart, right?

“Happy?” She asked, now with a hole instead of an earring in her nose. And now she’s mad. And crying. Lovely. Like I wasn’t clear that the answer about piercings was no? Jesus.

“No, I’m not even remotely happy. You’re grounded. More than grounded.  Go to your room and don’t come out until you’ve written me a 5 paragraph essay on flesh eating bacteria.”

She went up the stairs, the mumbling turning to yelling, her feet louder on the stairs the closer she got to the confines of her room.

It’s all funny now. 3 years ago, not at all. It took a while. Trauma with our children is like that. But I never heard another word about the piercing again, at least not asking for it again. It turned into a funny story when she was about 17.

Las month, Georgia turned 18. She was heading to Madison with a friend who was getting her belly button pierced and she asked me if I’d mind if she got her nose pierced. She told me they would go to the place on Willy Street by the coop and wondered if I was okay with it.

My how things change. Cause I said yes. She’s 18, she’s worked hard. She’s about to head to New York City to go to school for theater. She’s starting her own life. And you know what else?? She asked. She asked when she didn’t even have to. Which means she’s finally mature enough to have it.

When Kids Grow Up

“Looks like we’ve made it
Look how far we’ve come my baby
We might of took the long way
But we knew we’d get there someday

They said, ‘I bet they’ll never make it,’
But just look at us holding on
We’re still together still going strong”

Just over 18 years ago my daughter Georgia was born.

5lbs and 13 ounces. Red peach fuzz and blue eyes and she came into this world screaming. She has been very insistent about her wants and needs ever since. At least for me, the babies that I brought home from the hospital are the same personalities that I have living here in my house. And Georgia has been a spitfire from the start, animated and ready to take on the world.

Georgia is my first. My best foot forward in parenting and the kid I had to figure it all out with. The first illness that scares the crap out of you. The first injury. The first tantrums and kisses and first words. The first everything, I shared with her. And it was just the two of us, so all those early times and moments felt so intimate. Those times were ours.

I was 21 when I got pregnant with Georgia, living in the mountains of Colorado. Georgia’s father thought me having a baby was a bad idea and told me over and over that I was making a mistake that would lead to a life of misery. Then he just stopped talking altogether. He met her, saw her a handful of times, but he’s been completely absent for many, many years now. But those words back then, how adamant he was: “The two of you won’t amount to anything. It’s basically a death sentence for both of you,” is what he said to me during one particularly horrific fight. I will never forget those words. And how he really believed them. And how, sobbing and terrified and young, I could’ve believe him. I could’ve chosen differently. Only really, I knew that the only choice that I could make was to have the baby. She was there already, tiny and growing. And that was that. Making a choice meant doing something. Doing nothing meant allowing things to be as they were. (And I want to clarify here, I am prochoice in terms of what other women do with their bodies and their choices. I don’t feel that my opinion or anyone else’s should change that.) But for me, it wasn’t a choice. Even if everyone thought I was wrong, I was going to have that baby.

The choice I did make was to believe that everything was going to be fine.

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And now, in just over a month, she’s going to New York City for college. After a long 18 years. Or in the blink of an eye. I don’t even know which one.

I was pretty okay with her leaving until the other day when we bought her plane ticket, and it suddenly became very, very real. And because she is going to NYC and her orientation is mid-week, and I have a 3-month-old baby and a 4 year old in 4K and a husband who commutes 3 hours a day, (and a photo business and a book I’m promoting), there is no way that I can take her to college. I’m going to have to put her on a plane with some bags and send her off to one of the biggest cities in the world. She’s going to go off on her own, without me. I won’t be there to see her dorm room or subway stop or college. I won’t be there to make her dinner or check in with her or kiss her goodnight. I just won’t be there. And she won’t be here. After all these years, just like that, she’ll be gone.

I know that this is an everyday thing. People send their kids off to college all the time.  I even know that it’s a really good thing. She was accepted into one of the most prestigious musical theater schools in the country. And she’s worked so hard for this. And since she spent most her life being raised in poverty by a single mother, she had no vocal training or coaches to help her. She used the things she was taught in her public school choirs and theater shows, and then she worked her little butt off. When she went to her college auditions, it was with music she had bought and taught herself. So really, she made something out of herself. I am so very proud.

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I look back at all the years, from the place I’m standing in now, and I realize that Georgia and I grew up together. Obviously I was the adult and she was the kid, but I believe that we are all works in progress. I had a lot of growing to do. And I think that so much of that happened not just in spite of being a young single mother, but because of it. And also because of Georgia being who she is, a little tornado on a mission, determined to take the world on with one bite.

I don’t really believe in taking credit for our children. She isn’t who she is because of me, but at the same time, we influence those around us, in good and bad ways. I do believe that Georgia is determined and successful because she had to work for whatever she got, because I couldn’t just hand her everything. And the absence of a dad in her life probably gave her a sort of nudge to prove that she was in fact worthy. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some of that, too. Wanting to prove him wrong for what he said so many years back. Wanting to prove to myself that we could become more than some sad statistic together.

“Ain’t nothin’ better
We beat the odds together
I’m glad we didn’t listen
Look at what we would be missin’

They said, “I bet they’ll never make it”
But just look at us holding on
We’re still together still going strong

You’re still the one I run to
The one that I belong to
You’re still the one I want for life

You’re still the one that I love
The only one I dream of
You’re still the one I kiss good night
You’re still the one”

 

And the thing is, I know that Georgia is going to be fine. More than fine, in fact. I know that she is going to thrive in the competitiveness at AMDA, she’s going to love living in the city and being among so many like-minded souls. And I love that city so much that I feel a little pang of jealously for her getting to LIVE there. And now we have a great reason to visit. But still, she won’t be here to mess up my living room with all her tap shoes and music, or to play with baby Lincoln, who she loves so much. She won’t be here where I can listen to her sing or have her make me laugh.

I know she’ll come home for few visits. For next summer, hopefully. But our children travel in concentric circles in our lives. At first those circles intertwine, but slowly over time, so slowly that we don’t even notice, the circles inch outward. First, your baby never leaves your arms. Then we set them down for just minutes, or hours. They learn to crawl and then walk. We eventually leave them for the whole day, or overnight. The circles inch farther and farther apart, meeting up less and less until your child suddenly has a life of their own, and then those concentric circles only touch along the edges on occasion. That day is coming so soon.

But she will always be my first. The lessons we learned, both of us, they shaped who we are. She’s taking that with her. The lessons I learned being a mom to her first will be applied to her siblings each day. And I know that she is always going to be with me. That’s how it works with our children. She’ll still be the one I kiss goodnight, only now I’ll do it in my heart.

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*lyrics by Faith Hill

Reflections of My Porch

 

Some guy drove his car into my yard and knocked out my front porch this weekend. He was on drugs and completely incoherent and didn’t even realize where he was much less what he had done.  When the neighbors went to see if he was okay when the car finally stopped across the street, he was laughing! And drooling!

No one was hurt, not even the guy who did it. Thankfully our street was quiet at that moment and none of the kids who run around on our block were outside. Thankfully none of us were coming out of the house at that moment. Thankfully he didn’t hit our house and crash into our living room. Thankfully our cars weren’t parked in the driveway. There are a million thankfully’s that I can think of because the damage he did to the porch was so horrific that I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened to a person.

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We weren’t even home. Steve and I were in Madison shooting a theater show, so we had our phones on silent. The girls both had work that day and Brice was with his Dad. I assumed everyone was tucked away and safe. By the time Steve and I checked our phones that afternoon, we saw numerous missed calls from the girls and texts saying “Call me!”

I panicked. I assumed the worst, because I’m a mom and we do that. And because the girls don’t stalk me like that unless something is really wrong. I imagined something terrible happened: an accident or my mom and about a million other worst case scenarios. Then Steve got Georgia on the phone, who told him that our porch had been run into and collapsed. And you know what I thought? Thank God! That’s what I thought. It’s just a porch. Thank God! I took my ass back into the theater, still all shaky, to go finish shooting the show. I left Steve on the phone with Georgia to get details and I went back to work. I was honestly so relieved.

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Don’t get me wrong. It’s also a pain in the ass. Georgia’s brand new bike was totaled. She rides that to work each day and was taking it to New York City for college. And my beautiful little garden that I planted with love when I was 9 months pregnant and that I have been tending for months was completely destroyed. There was a demolition crew here for the better part of the Sunday taking the porch off and cleaning up, closing up the holes on the front of the house. It doesn’t exactly look classy around here right now. And gawkers drive by 24/7 to see it. Cause we live in a small town, so as they keep telling me when they stop by, they all heard it on the scanner…

But we weren’t sitting out on the porch in that moment, like we so often do. The vehicles we desperately need to get to work and cart kids around weren’t in our driveway in that moment. And really, we’re moving into our new house in a couple weeks, and this one is just a rental. In terms of bad things happening, this is the best case scenario. And I have to think about it that way. I have to because If I gave myself even 20 seconds to think about the worst case scenario, I would build a brick wall around my house complete with a moat and none of us would never leave again. For real.

And the biggest thankfully I have? Other than that we were are all totally safe? I am not that guy who hit our house. I am not SO MESSED UP and out of control in my life that I could crash through a house on a quiet residential street and laugh because I’m so out of it. Can you imagine that life? I don’t want to think too much about that either. But I can still be so very thankful that it isn’t mine. That it may have skimmed the surface of our lives, but it doesn’t live here.