Friday, March 23, 2007

Cash Poor, Life Rich

Kim has given me the Thinking Blogger Award, which, if you ask me, is fraud. Kim, I know this is not an award at all, just your attempt to trick me into doing a meme. A meme! Don't think you can get anything past me. But since I'm feeling generous, I'll make this one-time exception.

So yesterday I was at the grocery store to pick up another 4L of milk since Jason is apparently going through another growth spurt, and I stood in line at the 8 items or less lane, behind a gentleman who complained that the package of spaghetti that was scanning in at 88 cents was actually advertised at 77 cents. My eyes were practically rolling involuntarily because really, is 11 cents worth a price check? But then I thought: what if 11 cents is meaningful to this man?

I have been poor myself, or at least, I have felt poor.

When I was a kid, we were poor.
Not living in the ghetto, eating white rice and honey poor, but poor.
What we had, we had because my mother took my father's meagre paycheque and worked magic (well, more like made personal sacrifices) with it. She somehow managed to meet the needs of 6 pretty needy people, but I felt (comparatively) poor. There are lots of things I would have liked but never asked for, because I was embarrassed. Poverty embarrassed me; my parents lived paycheque to paycheque, and with 4 kids and a hefty mortgage, I don't know what would have happened if my father had ever lost his job.

When my parents divorced, we went from poor to poorer, because my father didn't believe in child support. My mother went to work to provide for her family, but as is usually the case, the hardest workers are paid the least. What little she had, she gave to her kids. She went without for many years, and I know that I could not have been so strong.

But when I left the house, I knew I was on my own. My mother had always told us that there was no college fund for us kids; if we wanted an education, we'd have to fend for ourselves. I earned every scholarship I possibly could, and I paid no tuition in all my years of school, but I did have to take out loans just so that I could live while learning.

There were weeks and months when I didn't live much - I ate baloney and wore my jeans until the crotch fell right out of them and cut my own hair. I lost my licence because I couldn't afford to renew it, and some friends because I couldn't afford to drink with them. I worked while I went to school, and I kept a roof over my head and food in my belly, and when I had my diploma in hand, I thought it was all worth it, and I kept on being that naive until I went out to look for a job, and found out that being poor would keep me from earning money.

I may have been qualified and passionate for the work, but if I didn't have a car, or at least a licence, there was no place for me. When a 47-cent box of mac and cheese was a staple of my diet and I couldn't afford to shop in the place where I worked, I believed that the poverty had a point to it. I thought I was working toward something. But we live in a world where money begets money, and I didn't have much. If you drive drunk and kill someone with your car, you can keep driving as long as you can afford to hire a good lawyer, but if you're poor, your licence can be removed just for being poor.

Canada is a great, rich country, and I wouldn't trade it for any other, but the truth is, there are still inequities here, and what I have experienced doesn't begin to scrape the bottom of the barrel. On the subway the other day, I saw a poster that said If this is a land of opportunity, why is an MBA driving a taxi? Officially, this was on behalf of immigrants, but whether you've been a Canadian for 3 days or 3 generations, if you don't come from money, it's very hard to get your hands on it, no matter how hard you're willing to work.

But when you're getting into social work, like I was attempting to do, you know you're not in it for the money. I wanted to help. And, having a degree in psychology, previous volunteer and work experience in the field, as well as a personal history of coping with the transition between an abusive household and an impoverished single-parent one, I thought I was in a good position to make a difference. The fact that I had taken out a $60 000 loan to earn maybe $30 000 a year in the non-profit sector wasn't an issue for me, because I felt good about making a contribution. But sadly, I was told that until I put myself further into debt to buy a car I didn't particularly want (and couldn't drive since I couldn't afford the licence either), I would not be hired in my field.

It took 4 months to find a great job that I was excited about starting, and I did it with the modest start-up capitol of one fabulous power suit for interviews, and a few sheets of bus tickets. To be hired, I would also need $26 for a criminal background check and $110 for a first aid certificate.

But then I got sick. As one surgery led to another, and the months of rehabilitation and pain stretched on, I was unable to work. The small emergency savings that we'd had was quickly gone, and soon we were selling possessions just to pay the rent. It was hard, and only got harder when Jason lost his job for taking time off to be with me in the hospital. We gave up our cell phones to pay for my prescriptions, and then we gave up cable to pay for my physical therapy. Every week we went to the pawn shop so that we could eat: goodbye DVD player, Jason's watch, then his palm pilot, and the laptop. Pretty soon the only thing we seemed to have left were my tears, and it's too bad they weren't worth anything, because those I had in abundance.

It was devastating, but the student loan sharks don't care if you're having a major medical crisis, they just keep calling. So when we eventually cancelled our landline and pawned the phones, it was a bit of relief. We were possession-poor but rich in love, thank god. Thank god we had each other, because when you don't have anything else, your only solace is that you aren't alone.

Eventually we even gave up our home in Ottawa, and moved to a small town where Jason's earning power would be diminished, but my health care would be more accessible. We had a lot of tough years, and there were some days I didn't see how we would possibly make it through. But we did.

By the time I was able to work again, Jason didn't want me to. He knew I was disillusioned with social work. And though I volunteer in the field today, I will not volunteer for any organization that refused to hire me. Yes, it's selfish. Yes, it's prideful. Yes, it's the one thing that keeps me sane. Ultimately, Jason knew I should be writing, and he's the reason I'm able to. He supports me, knowing it means we won't have much money in the meantime, and knowing that the pay-off is never a certainty.

We're in a much better place today. Jason makes a really good living, and once in a while I surprise us all by actually selling some words. We don't have to haggle over 11 cents, at any rate. But no matter how much we have now, or in the future, we will always remember the days when all we had was each other.

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