"Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works." --Newt Gingrich
I was born and raised in poverty. Both of my parents worked full-time, over-time, and extra jobs from my earliest memory until the present. They have never accepted government aid or charity. They just work, and work some more.
My children were born and raised in poverty. When my daughter was three weeks old I started college classes and took on three part time jobs. I worked my way through graduate school, worked my way toward a professional career, worked without fail through illness and grief and loss. During the early years I was married to a soldier who never lived with us because he was working and, let me be clear, even with two working adults the family qualified by all economic indicators as poor.
I have struggled, strived, and schemed, working, always working to raise us out of desperation and destitution. I've done absolutely everything "right" - everything my Republican grandparents would have wished - but there was no way to permanently break the crushing cycle. Why? Because the legacy of poverty is extreme.
When I was twelve years old I was diagnosed with a form of cancer only found in people who have sustained massive radiation exposure, and a rare genetic disorder that has no known cause. I live with the consequences of that, in a daily sense, and you know what? It is hard. Not just because of the physical limitations, but because I need health insurance (hence jobs and husbands). In the United States, no matter how much money I earned, I would always be impoverished or on the precipice.
Without private, expensive insurance, I would not have access to the appropriate medical procedures required to maintain precarious health. But when I lived in the US I was literally uninsurable, except through a job or husband. If I was too sick to work, if I couldn't find or keep a husband with health insurance, if the husband got sick or died, the government would not step up. It wouldn't take much effort to kill me; in fact it could be accomplished through simple neglect. It takes a lot of effort to stay alive.
In the United States, the system is the problem. Not the solution.
I'm not alone in this thought or experience: enormous numbers of people are forced into bankruptcy because of the egregious and parasitic insurance industry. Others are trapped in jobs and relationships that restrict their aspirations, usefulness, and profitability, because they need the insurance. Health care reform hasn't happened in a fashion useful to me, and I very much doubt that it will in my lifetime. Not for lack of need, or care, but because the political will does not exist.
But instead of talking about the reality of poverty, and what it means to be poor, we get to hear presidential candidates shit talk our brothers and sisters, wives, husbands, children.
They say we're poor because we're lazy. I say I've never met a lazy poor person, though I have met quite a few rich people who lie and cheat and steal.
The esteemed Republican presidential candidate does not seem to grasp some basic concepts about life, work, or economics. Repealing child labor laws would certainly not have helped me as a child (my absenteeism being the result of cancer, not a bad attitude). My parents were already forced by necessity to take any job on offer, no matter how demeaning or low paid.
My dad is a janitor; Gingrich says we should fire janitors and make kids do the job. I would like to ask him what my father is meant to do? He is sixty-two years old, and has the best job he can find. If he loses it, there is no alternative career path.
When confronted with the intolerably punishing medical bills of their only child, my parents just took more jobs, worked harder. They deserve medals, parades, fireworks in their honour.
Instead, we get slandered. If we're already working as hard as we can, what is the next logical step? The workhouse? Jail?
Seven years ago I decided the only way to survive was to leave. When people ask me why I moved to England I say "I wanted to live in a society where everyone has equal access to free basic health care."
My children are swarming about the place, laughing. The house is warm, we have plenty of food, and really, what more could anyone ask for? This life is the best gift ever.
This month brings, amongst abundant treats, a visit from Holly Chernobyl!
Last night I went to an industry party, which means I spent the entire evening dodging strangers.
Why? Because I can predict exactly when it will happen, and what will solicit the remark. I make great efforts to steer the conversation elsewhere, but tedious verbal gymnastics only delay the inevitable:
"You look too young to be a mother."
Sometimes this is a compliment, or a pickup line. But more commonly the sentiment is accompanied by crossed arms, puzzlement, dismay, and often, extremely rude questions.
Now that I'm forty this observation is also patently false - it isn't that I am literally too young, but rather, that I do not fit the stereotype of what a mother looks like. Whatever that may be.
Strangers are very clear that I should not have children at all. When they learn that my son is fifteen years old, they are amazed. When I mention my twenty-one year old daughter, they look queasy.
This is just my life, the way it has always been and will remain. I was a single teenage mother and the world at large will never forgive me, no matter how hard I work, no matter what I have accomplished.
During the early years I thought it would change as I grew older, that the intrusive comments and judgmental inquiries would abate, or somehow feel less caustic. I was wrong. If anything, it is worse now, because I've lost the rage that fuelled my ascent. I don't want to argue, debate, or explain.
On a basic level I also do not understand why anyone would question the choice to have kids, regardless of age or income or any other factor. Many of my friends are embarking on the adventure of parenthood in their late thirties and early forties, and that is a choice I would emphatically not make. I know that my body and brain are not up to it; I'm not willing to deal with the stress and chaos. The fact that I have more money now would not make any difference. I'm too old to have a baby.
My friends don't see it that way, and that is their prerogative. I don't judge them - I think it is pretty amazing that they are so optimistic, so willing to take on a massive challenge late in life.
The fact that a fair number of these friends are the very same people who were snarky about my family status twenty years ago is interesting. But it would be rude to ask them why they waited - it might hurt their feelings, or trigger traumatic memories, or whatever. And fundamentally it isn't any of my business.
Just like it wasn't their business to ask me what I was thinking back in the day.
Yesterday I was at the grocery contemplating the phenomenon of Christmas pudding, a tradition that has survived modern concerns about hygiene, and an overall improvement in the gastronomic desires of the average Brit. I have never been offered a slice of the heritage dessert, but it is sold everywhere at this time of year, along with mince pies. Whatever they are.
Dimly, I perceived that the woman scanning my groceries was talking to me.
"I like your lipstick," she said. "It suits you."
I stared in shock, looked around for assistance. How to reply? My dusty, trivia clogged mind creaked and churned looking for an answer.
It took great effort to find the corresponding file and force myself to comply with the appropriate social etiquette: I smiled and said "Thank you!"
My brain balked because I do not understand the motivation behind the comment. For the most part, I'm just not paying attention. I don't know or care how other people look, so why would I want to hear what anyone thinks of me?
I did try to learn how to give and accept compliments, make casual conversation, flirt. I even took lessons (see Foment, years 2006-08). But I failed, flunked out, gave it up as a bad business. The intricacies of Ladychat will remain, forever, a profound mystery.
This might have proved a liability if I lived in my homeland, where a veneer of social grace is obligatory. When I visit the states I am baffled by the constant murmur of comment and compliment, a nonstop stream of strangers talking at or around me. Where did I buy my glasses, where did I get my shoes? I like your hair, that is a great scarf. . . it just never ends, and as far as I can tell, it isn't valid or true. Half the time people say stuff because they are supposed to, not because they mean it.
In the states, I often respond with a furrowed brow because I am trying to parse what is happening. Does the person have a tendency to burble, do they want something, do they mean it? Wtf?
In the UK, my delayed reaction time is normal, because the experience is so rare. It takes extraordinary effort for a British person to comment on anything at all aside from the weather. Compliments are therefore sincere, heartfelt, a gift - and just as worrisome to the sender as the receiver. We're an awkward nation. We blink and writhe.
When my daughter catches me acting gawky and dismissive she pokes me and says "that was a compliment! Say thank you!" When I have one of these encounters in the company my son, he just sighs and says "sorry that happened, mom."
Some burlesque performers from Seattle are booked to play a venue in my London neighbourhood for few months this winter and a friend asked for tips on where they should stay.
My first instinct was to answer "give up all hope," but that isn't very friendly.
The truth is that England in general, and London in particular, features the smallest and proportionately most expensive personal living spaces of any city in Europe. This means that affordable housing is scarce, sublets are either nonexistent or marked up, and nobody has room to let acquaintances crash.
600 square foot apartments are advertised as "generously sized." Rooms an American would consider small for storage space are listed as large doubles. This is true regardless of income: if you watch home design shows, bedrooms are given short shrift. Even in million dollar mansions, the rooms intended for children are never larger than 8 x 6, and that would be considered a "good" size. The occasional master bedroom might stretch to 12 x 12, but it would be expected to do double duty for other household purposes. The notion of space is simply different here.
My friend Ayun started her writing career with the East Village Inky, a zine describing life in small spaces in New York City. The first time I visited her, I marvelled at the compact nature of her apartment. Back then I paid a pittance to occupy a 2,100 square foot house in Portland perceived by myself and all of my friends as a modestly sized bungalow - possibly not quite large enough to suit a family of four.
Now I live in a place that is smaller than Ayun's flat, and twice as expensive - and it feels enormous, because by London standards, it is. Local friends come to visit and marvel not at how little I possess, but rather, by how much. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an open plan living/kitchen room: what abundance! The fact that it is all crammed into a little over 900 square feet is immaterial, because here, it is the number of rooms that matter, not how big they are.
Life in the middle of a city is a cacophony of sound and pressure, a jostling and overwhelming experience. To have a space of your own to withdraw to, a door to close against the madness, is the ultimate luxury.
But what about the children, shouldn't they have more space? I would argue no. Babies don't need their own rooms at all; toddlers just need a toy box. Middling kids should have a retreat. Teenagers require privacy. Families should have a place to cook, eat, and talk together. None of those mandates translate to specific architectural requirements.
At various times in my life as a parent I have had no more than a single bed in a borrowed room. I've lived on a boat, in a hunting shack, owned a bungalow, rented a three story Victorian terrace house. I've slogged through corporate apartments, hotel rooms, all manner of temporary and irritating accommodation, dragging my children along with me. Now we have landed in a modern efficiency apartment in the middle of a historic city. Some of the places we've lived have been better than others, and I certainly have strong opinions about style and design.
But the fundamental, true fact is that my children thrived or suffered because of the actions of the people they knew, not because of the pitch of the roof over their heads.
Now when I look at housing costs in places like Portland and Seattle I am amazed at how little people pay, but also, that they feel they need such huge properties. I still own the 2,100 square foot bungalow, and rent it to friends. During a recent visit several people commented on the quirky nature of the house, on how it might perhaps not be large enough for more than two people.
Throughout the fifteen years I've owned it, and the ten years since I moved away, I have thought of that house as home. Looking at it again, and listening to my friends talk about space as some kind of essential birthright, I just thought about London. I thought about my tiny little apartment surrounded by miles and miles of tiny little apartments. In my mind, I started to call London home.
Home is where we live. Not the buildings we live in.