The face of the poor is my face, too

By Helen Thompson

I just turned down a job offer. I didn’t have to turn this one down, and part of me will always wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t. It’s sort of like that old saying about “When God closes a door…” except this time God opened one, and I sat there feeling dumb and not knowing what to do. Why? I want to see what other doors there might be beyond the horizon. I felt like I was playing Let’s Make a Deal, short of wearing a silly costume, and having to choose between one door with a known and many other doors with unknowns. I chose the unknown.

“Lead us not into temptation,” however, didn’t work. I was tempted by more money, a shorter commute—and a blinding vision of something else, yet to come, that was more in line with my vocation. After all; I didn’t “need” to take this job. I’m employed, and very good at what I do, if my evaluations and occasional awards are any indication. And I make a respectable living—although in this part of the country, it doesn’t go as far as I’d like it to. But I’ve been singing that sad song for years now, and honestly, it’s nothing compared to what I’ve been through.

You see, sometimes I know I’m lucky to be employed at all. When you look at the first ten years of my Social Security Statement, your first thought might be how on earth I managed to feed myself (and, by 1992, a family of three) on less than $10,000 a year. In 1996, I managed to break $6 per hour for the first time. Later that year, I got my first white-collar job, right before my 26th birthday, making $18,000 a year managing charter transportation projects for the University of Virginia.

So now you know how old I am. Another ten and change years later, I’m turning down positions that pay more than my Dad was making at retirement. He’s so proud of me, but then my mortgage payment is six times what his was. I’m a successful, award-winning writer, an accomplished editor, a Web 2.0 jockey and a DJ. On my way to a second, loving marriage. But sometimes, I still feel poor.

Poor. Even though the money I make could feed a village in many parts of the world.

You see, I have lived through the American incarnation of poverty. Sometimes it’s weird, seeing my present middle-class world through that lens. And I didn’t start there, having been raised in a middle-class family in an entirely average American neighborhood. But in 1991, I dropped out of college to marry a guy I’d had a crush on when I was 14 and didn’t know much more about him than I’d had a crush on him when I was 14.

And because he now works for a government agency and has a security clearance, I sometimes wonder if his biggest fear might be that I might write an honest memoir of that time period. Suffice it to say, that for the four years he and I were married, we lived off food stamps and WIC checks, my pregnancy was covered by the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia (thank you), and I tried very, very hard to find a path to productivity rather than get trapped in the system. I worked overnight shifts at a local nursing home while trying to get back to school, taking evening classes at the local community college while paying all the bills for our little family.

If you’d told me then that someday I’d be turning down jobs like the one I just turned down, I’d likely have laughed. But I’ve realized now that jobs aren’t about work, and aren’t even about career. They’re about calling. Even when I was at my poorest, I followed a call out of poverty, one that would later help me connect with people from a wide range of socioeconomic circumstances. Now I’m a homeowner with car payments and any struggle I ever have, I’m thankful for.

But to this day, when I look into the face of American poverty, I see myself staring into a dark mirror. I made it out because I had the cultural language to navigate my way out. On the one hand, I see people with privilege who never know want, dispensing charity with a pat on the head and a tut, tut of pity. On the other hand, I see the faces of a million other moms like the me of a decade ago, too proud to snatch that coin from the fingertips of the condescending.

For it is more blessed to give than to receive, true, but… what do you package with that “give?” To this day, I still wonder if people are looking at me like I have “Medicaid” stamped across my medical file. Heaven knows that most people with kids my son’s age are at least ten years older than I am. My peers are having kids now that they’re established in their careers, and they already know how they’re paying for junior’s college. I don’t, because, in spite of every blasted thing, I’m still poor. But that’s OK.

I know wealth and abundance in how it comes from the love of friends. I’ll wear my thrift-shop threads to the country club with pride. And I don’t worry about what next great opportunity will cross my threshold. And most importantly, I know there are other doors waiting for me—ones that when they open, I’ll know I’m supposed to walk through them. And I’ll be able to say, “Here I am. Send me.”

That’s faith, and it’s priceless.

Helen Thompson, known on the faithblogging circuit as Gallycat, is a writer living in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has written for the Philadelphia City Paper, RevGalBlogPals, Geez magazine and others. Visit her on the web at Gallycat’s Lounge.

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