Little known fact about me, I’m a huge advocate for philanthropy. I like giving as much money as I can to worthy organizations. I enjoy volunteering my time and giving it as a gift. For nearly three years, I’ve been the Chair of a decently sized charitable foundation. It sounds fancy, and it might be a bit high-brow, but that’s not why I tossed my name in the hat when the opportunity presented itself. I hungrily applied for the position because I wanted to be as connected to many charitable organizations as I possibly could. I wanted a front row seat to the change-makers, no, I wanted to run alongside them on that inside track and effect so much change that I could not only feel, but see that needle shifting.
And changes were happening! They ARE happening. While standardized test scores are falling, in other places, they are rising---where they shouldn’t be. Against all odds…against socioeconomic impact, against menacing demographics, against those that told them they couldn’t people are rising to the challenge and proving that they can. Amazing!
Last week, my beloved and I attended an event as a representative of said foundation. The location was in the gorgeous home of the board member of another organization. The place was really, really, really nice. (understatement of the year) I’ve been to several of these events and to this day, I’m still blown away by luxury and I hope that feeling never disappears. Despite what I’ve seen or done or what I will see or do, I hope that fanciness in my face will continue to wow me. Why? Not because of the wealth, but because of how each piece put together in these rooms was hand selected and hand placed by someone to make a statement reflecting its owner. It’s art and beauty. It’s like a mini museum visit. Anyway, here we are out on their terrace.
Behind us, you can see children gathering. They are 4th grade students from a local private school. They were setting up for their performance. They recited, with gusto, Henry Wadsworth Longellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” in its entirety and perfectly. Nine and ten year olds, in perfect rows, in perfect unison, reciting the poem as if someone were performing it. They captivated me. I’d first read this poem in high school and revisited it again in college. I liked it then, but now that I’m a parent, I relate to it so much more. I found myself filled with impossibly hopeful tears for these children. Why? Because they live in a zip code that has the worst high school in the state (and one of the worst in the nation). 3 out of 4 children that matriculate from this school go on to graduate high school, more often than not, from a preparatory or private high school in the area on scholarship. That other 1 will probably have gone on to the local high school, will not graduate. and more than likely end up in jail or living in poverty.
Break the cycle.
I’ve spoken of my mother instilling philanthropy in my heart at an early age. Likewise, I believe it is necessary for me to lay a giving foundation for my own daughter’s hearts. The other day, I heard a story of a running coach who inspired and trained homeless women to run a 5K. She took it a step further and had these homeless women raise money for children in Africa. Homeless. Women. Raising. Money. Marinate on that for a second, now ask yourself, “What else can I do to make a difference?”
Which brings me to my next point about being poor. I’ve thought about how growing up in poverty shaped my mother. How that in turn shaped me. I reflected on how she tends to hoard things, random things like pens, and how she holds on to so many trivial things for sentimental reasons. My siblings and I joke about it, despite how all of the extra stuff makes us uncomfortable. But all of that stuff is my mother and I love her for it. I still giggle at her comment to me, “Mija, when I pass on, you better not just throw stuff out without looking through it. I’ve hidden money here and there and you will never know when you will find it.” She’s right. Upon one of our cleaning crusades, we emptied out 6 boxes of items and collected just under $200 in bills and coins.
I look around my own house and see how my husband and I have inherited our mother’s hoarding habits and we feel suffocated by our things. About a month ago, my cousin house sat for us and during that time she gave me one of the greatest gifts. She organized and cleaned while we were away. More importantly, she organized and cleaned our master bedroom. I cried. Most of you reading this are probably horrified by the thought. I’m not. I prayed for a miracle. I’d even had a conversation with my best friend about it, on how she and I would keep one another accountable and try to empty 1 box of stuff from our house each week or concentrate on one tiny wall in one room of the house each week. My cousin bought me time and her efforts (over the course of those 5 days) brought me freedom. I could breathe again in my room. I had been embarrassed by our bedroom. What she did was no small feat. She started something BIG and each week, I do my best to maintain what she has done and take it another step in that proper direction. Again, imprints from generations long past, still ever-present in my life today.
I thought about how my mother’s and my father’s education and pursuit for a better life shaped mine. How it was never a question of if I was going to attend university, but which one. Of course, there were restrictions there, too. I dared not consider the Ivy League recruiting letters, nor any of the private schools letters of interest. We wouldn’t have been able to afford it and I knew that. I remember the look of worry on my father’s face when I told him I declared English as my major. He was an Engineer and the moment he stepped foot into the Corporate World, he groomed me for that environment. With my emphasis in Technical Communication, I found a niche that opened those doors of opportunity. For as long as I can remember, every single voice of any significance in my life told me I could be whomever I chose, do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t have to rely on anyone but myself. I am lucky and blessed. I was also adamantly told to give back. What I was given should be returned, including my gifts of time and talent. Wasting either would be a tragedy of epic proportions and completely disrespectful to all those who had gone before me.
So when John Scalzi’s write-up of “Being Poor” (also shown at the end of this post) hit my inbox, I found myself nodding and sobbing. I found myself understanding and wondering. This weighed heavily on my heart (and a tiny source of some of the melancholy I’d been feeling recently, my over-the-top ridiculous pity party for absolutely no reason whatsoever). If people only knew how much happiness they received in giving, I think the world would be much like appears in my eyes, well 96% of the time. We can make a difference! In our own child’s eyes, and in other’s eyes. I’m happily married to an educator who, yes, has a part-time job. Occasionally, we work as photographers to raise a tiny bit of extra money to support a craft we love…or pay for ballet lessons. We make ends meet the best we know how and the bits that we have leftover by the way of money, we do our best to give to others. And if I don’t have any treasure to give, I certainly have talent and time tucked away somewhere and endeavor to instill that same value in the hearts of my girls. We are trying to embrace the whole, spending less money on things and investing more in the experiences.
Next time you find yourself feeling low, it’s ok to embrace the muck happening in your life. And it is ok that you are feeling those things. But I do challenge you to take some time out of your imperfect day and perform a random act of kindness for a stranger in need. You’ll be hard-pressed to not feel your internal needle shifting ever so slightly. You might have even shifted that stranger’s needle a bit too.
September 3, 2005 By John Scalzi
Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.
Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.
Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.
Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.
Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours.
Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.
Being poor is living next to the freeway.
Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.
Being poor is wondering if your well-off sibling is lying when he says he doesn’t mind when you ask for help.
Being poor is off-brand toys.
Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.
Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.
Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.
Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.
Being poor is Goodwill underwear.
Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.
Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.
Being poor is your kid’s school being the one with the 15-year-old textbooks and no air conditioning.
Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.
Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.
Being poor is an overnight shift under florescent lights.
Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.
Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet.
Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.
Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.
Being poor is believing a GED actually makes a goddamned difference.
Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.
Being poor is not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids.
Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.
Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes.
Being poor is hoping you’ll be invited for dinner.
Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.
Being poor is people thinking they know something about you by the way you talk.
Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.
Being poor is your kid’s teacher assuming you don’t have any books in your home.
Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.
Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.
Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.
Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.
Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.
Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.
Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.
Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.
Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.
Being poor is a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.
Being poor is checking the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.
Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.
Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.
Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime.
Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so.
Being poor is a cough that doesn’t go away.
Being poor is making sure you don’t spill on the couch, just in case you have to give it back before the lease is up.
Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.
Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree.
Being poor is a lumpy futon bed.
Being poor is knowing where the shelter is.
Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.
Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.
Being poor is seeing how few options you have.
Being poor is running in place.
Being poor is people wondering why you didn’t leave.