Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999
June 22nd, 2010

Amongst other things, someone called me classist this week. Normally, I’d just write it off as totally stupid: I’m just not sure how you can grow up poor, stay poor, have times of homelessness, have no health insurance your whole adult life, not have part of anyone else’s income to rely on (including your parents and from an age where that’s unlawful), be unable to complete or enroll in educational programs because of poverty, have a homeless parent, work in and around shelter systems, et cetera, and be a socialist and be classist.  The claim also came from someone I know has very little right to make that claim and who made it out of malice.

Mind, we can be whatever-ist within a group where other people can be the same kind of -ist to us. For instance, living in Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago, I heard more than my fair share of racism from my neighbors towards Black people, even though both groups are deeply impacted and oppressed by racism. I grew up hearing my mother’s Irish family talk about my Italian Dad, and even myself now and then, in a profoundly racist way (which you and I know isn’t a race issue, but good luck explaining that to my mother’s parents). Both downtrodden groups/families because of poverty and immigration stuff, but that didn’t stop them from the slurs any. I have also met more than one misogynist woman in my day, to say the least. So, it’s possible, I know. It’s just one of those things where in my case, I have never felt like this one was an -ism I needed to watch out for taking part in myself, save when it comes to how I think of and treat people who live at incomes greater than mine.

But it crept under my skin all the same, most likely in part because I had some feelings earlier this week that were bad enough, though the realization about them was worse, and it fed into those feelings.

I’m in this place where the rent is basically the same my last rent was. My share is $600 here, after $400 goes for rent of the office. That’s even $300 a month less than the rent at the old place was about to be with an incoming increase. I also expect my utility bills to be substantially lower here than they were in the last place.

At the last place, I got to pay all that and go a winter with broken heat and everything else falling down on me. Even in summer, it was bitter cold at night from all the drafts due to 100-year-old windows and walls. I had to fix things on my own all the time, and things were constantly breaking. Often, in fixing or tending to things, I was not able to deduct costs from my rent. I probably don’t have to tell a lot of people here that’s hardly an uncommon experience. I, maybe like plenty of you, especially living in cities, have paid for broken or falling-apart places more than once.

In the new place, I’m paying a reasonable personal rent for something that is NOT falling down. Sure, it’s rural, so that’s part of the deal. The economy sucking is likely another part (otherwise, rent would likely be a lot higher, or the owner would be able to sell this house).  Not only is this place not falling down, it is AMAZING. It’s beautiful, it’s clean, and someone redid tons of it to the apparent specifications of James Bond.

Seriously, maybe living in old, run-down places all my life I just haven’t kept up with the times, and all newer places are exploding with gadgets like this.  But I don’t think so.

Here’s the gadget roster so far:

  • Lights, everywhere. The living room/kitchen/loft area alone has 18 different fixtures, all built in, controlled by  10 different switches, some with tiny dimmers next to the switch.
  • In-floor heating, with a thermostat you can program to go on and off at different temps at different times of day, including making a given setting for weekdays vs. weekends.
  • A stacking, front-loading washer and dryer, also with programmable timers.
  • Disability-accessible door handles.
  • Windows that open with nice, working levers, not with every ounce of energy you have in a day.
  • Drawers with back magnets so you only have to nudge them and they pull in (suffice it to say, this house is very, very well-equipped when it comes to my hand disability).
  • A dishwasher and fridge, both working, spacious and shiny.  The fridge makes ice and has a water filter, as well as drawers you can set for fruit or veg.
  • Hookups built into the walls for speakers, throughout the house.
  • Vents in both bathrooms.
  • A functioning compost bin (which sure, isn’t really a gadget, since it’s as low-tech as it gets, but I’ve never been able to have one I didn’t have to build, so).
  • A sprinkler system in case of fire.
  • A working and properly vented woodstove.
  • Outlets EVERYWHERE (that huge box of extension cords I brought will be gathering dust).
  • An in-wall vacuum cleaning system including a spot in the floor of the kitchen where you can sweep your dust pile over, move the switch with your foot, and it sucks it right up.  I am so not kidding.

I say “so far” because the property manager told us she’d come by soon and show us how to work the house.  That sounded silly to me until we started finding all of these gadgets.  There may be some we don’t even know about yet.

Anyway, when I was packing up last week, I got seized by this really intense feeling I can only describe as abject-stupid with a heaping dose of institutionalized guilt on the side.

I felt very certain I did not deserve to live here. I had moments of panic and worry that this was some kind of cosmic joke, and that I’d get here and it would be made clear I’d been punked, as expected. Even in saying this, and hearing how ridiculous it sounds, some part of me is still wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. Intellectually, I knew and know better, but my brain had little impact on my emotions.  In the midst of that feeling, I was seized with this equally foolish feeling of being a charlatan of sorts; of not only having something I shouldn’t and probably am just imagining, but having something that, despite costing no more, somehow makes me a traitor to the other people in my life and outside it who grew up the way I grew up and who live on the level of income I have and do.

Here’s one of the seriously stupid parts of this. Most places where I have lived before have been crap. In crap neighborhoods or crappy places or both. I have managed to make most places I have lived in, even the crappiest of the crappy, nice enough. I don’t tend to mind that, because I’m a creative person, so see it as a creative opportunity. But the thing is that none of that is free, either. It costs money, time and effort to do that. The pain and the brushes cost. The fabric costs. Whatever furniture you don’t dumpster dive costs.  Cleaning all the time because a place is in horrible shape costs. Spending days and days painting takes a lot of time. None of those things are free, and they all add to the “bargain” cost of a crappy place. As inane as it’s going to sound, for some reason, none of that resonated until now, which really is quite dumb, because it certainly always has had a palpable impact on my wallet which was impossible to overlook.

We came here and….well, nothing needs to be done. It’s already very clean. The pain isn’t chipping off the walls, the floors aren’t falling apart. There are light fixtures everywhere, making most of my lamps unnecessary. I probably have a good five boxes of stuff I just didn’t even need to move here: stuff I have accumulated over the years to makes places liveable that didn’t have what one needed in them to live there.

And yet, here I am, in this beautiful place that not only costs me around the same as other places, but which will probably wind up costing me less, sorting through these feelings. They’re going away fast enough, but that they take up any real estate in my mind at all really bothers me and makes me upset with myself, upset with anywhere I ever got any messaging to support these feelings. Particularly since what I’d like is to just be able to enjoy the place, my good luck and good fortune and have a chance in my life NOT to be stressed out about where I live, but to have a place of peace, solace and function to call home. I’d prefer not to have to keep telling myself that I got a two-year lease, and need to accept that after these two years, I may not be able to live this well again, that that’s okay, but that I also need to not take a second of this for granted or I’ll be a ungrateful (to whom?) asshole.

The big epiphany in all of this that has me really steamed? It seems entirely possible that I could have been living somewhere similar to this way before now, just like I am now without needing any more income than I have to make it happen. I realize that it’s been bred and manufactured into me to feel like I’m feeling, to be sure I can’t do any better, to be sure that this was simply beyond my means and my ability. Plus, I have been way too receptive to suggestions or accusations that I need to be keeping down with the Joneses, as it were, and living the way someone of my means “should” be living, which is to say, poorly. I’ve also had so many messages that so many other people had it as bad, or that someone else had it worse, and took those so seriously, this is an area of my own life I’ve not really allowed myself to sit with, accept and unpack, sorting out what from it I need to heal from and work to get past.

Mind, sometimes we just can’t do better than we think we can. Back in the mid-nineties when a few stupid choices and a really bad set of financial circumstances hit me, I was thisclose to being back on street or needing to be in shelters. A parent from the school I once ran offered me a place that was really pretty crap: no heat, cement floors, no security, the works. But not only was it kind, and what I could afford, I do think it was the best I was going to do at that time with no time to find other options, and no services available for me. I called around everywhere in a frenzy, including to social services, and was just shit out of luck. This included a phone call where a woman at social services suggested that if I got pregnant, I could get benefits I didn’t have, so that might be the time to consider that. I wish I were kidding, and also wish I were kidding when I tell you that when I asked if she had any sense of the impact statements and suggestions like that made on people on welfare, or of what kind of effed up suggestion that was to choose parenting, she was completely unconcerned.

I was also without the kind of freedom then I have now per flexibility in where I can work, which is a pretty huge freedom that makes a very big difference (though Blue reported that his commute yesterday was no big deal at all). I was locked into a low-paying internship I really, really needed to finish to get job training if I had hopes of not living that way anymore. Again, I had also made some idiotic and reactive choices that very much limited my options.

But when you grow up poor, stay poor, and absorb the messages you get poor and from other poor people who have clearly all also been institutionalized, you hear a whole lot more about your limitations than your options. Same goes double for growing up with one poor parent who was a social justice activist. (A la, “It’s fine we don’t have things we need.  Good people are the people who don’t have things. Only bad people who oppress other people have things.”) Out of necessity, there’s a solidarity that forms between everyone that in some ways can be very positive and supportive, but in other ways can assure everyone is kept down and stays down. People who try and reach a little further can be put down by others with suggestions one “thinks they’re better” than those who either are in a place of absolute stuck at the moment, or who have simply given up trying to claw and crawl out, which is a weariness I understand and have experienced. Again, if you grew up like this or around this, or within other systems of oppression, I’m saying things totally old hat to you.

Yes, there are also messages that if you just work hard enough, then you can move ahead.  But since those messages also sound a lot like “You’re only poor because you’re lazy…” or “If you just worked harder, you’d be doing better,” things we know often are simply not true, they’re not very effective messages. Plus, again, sometimes working more or harder works and does help you get a leg up. Other times, it only makes you more tired and just as poor, sometimes even more poor, depending.

I think a lot of this stuff was why my father was freaking out so much about this. Over the last month and some, since we decided to move here, it got to the point where I was having to spend an hour or two on the phone with him daily to assure him this was a good place where everything really was nice and not broken, where we’d be able to eat and be safe: he really didn’t believe it could be within my budget, either.  I had to tell him again and again how big the island was, how I could take a ferry or water taxi to the city, how we do have a downstairs neighbor, how I have my bike, a phone, how there is a grocery store and other people who live here, and so on. Considering we spent some of the poorest years of both of our lives together, including two years in a row where our ghetto apartment literally flooded with sewage from the drain outside it, that attitude and fear is unsurprising. Considering that more than once my father’s “good fortune” really WAS an illusion, I get it a bit more now.  Next time I call him, I’m going to bring all of this up: I think the two of us both have so much of this kind of baggage that we’d benefit from hashing it out together.

I’m not asking for reassurances with this, by the way.  In fact, I think it’s really important that I work on providing them for myself, rather than getting them externally. I also don’t have any grand conclusions here I can draw: mostly what I needed was to try and exorcise some of this, which I’m hoping will at least unpack some of it from my head.

It’s a beautiful day here. Given, even when it’s rainy and grey, it still looks beautiful here, but today the sun is out, the green is blinding and the air is warm.  I’m a bit behind on work because despite all the gadgets, the phone and ‘net didn’t work here for four days.  But right now, I think catching up some more can wait one more hour so that I can get outside.  My appreciation — the earnest kind, not the guilt-ridden variety — is not just about the indoor space here, but about where that space is, nestled so wonderfully into such lush woods just waiting to be explored.  I think it’s pretty obvious that this move, this space, this place all have a lot of lessons to give me that I need, around the issues I talked about today as well as others.  One of them it seems particularly well-equipped to assist is in my willingness to take care of myself and my making that a greater priority. I don’t have to pay a fee to go see the museum that is right outside, find a ride and hours or days to get to somewhere like this, or acquire something I don’t have.

I just need to put on some shoes, open the door and walk right out into exactly what I need. Which is what I’m going to go do right now.

79 comments so far

  1. Bix Says:

    I love reading your writings here! I can relate to this one; I grew up with a certain amount of guilt about living well; even though my parents were middle class, they grew up during the depression and had a very depression-centered (scarcity) mentality. I felt guilty at first for living in a nice neighborhood here in SF; I’ve only ever lived in bad neighborh0ods in cities before, because that’s what I could afford. I can’t really afford to live where I live now, either, but I’ve been managing to make ends meet, more or less, because I really love my apartment and the quality of life it brings. That being said, there is still a lot wrong with the place and I can’t get the landlord to fix things (I end up fixing them myself), even though I’m paying more rent than I ever have before. Since this is SF, though, it’s still below the median for what I have.

    Enjoy your new place!!! I can’t wait to see it.

  2. Jenny Says:

    Just wanted to drop you a note to let you know that I am so happy for you with regards to this move, and that I hope you find the new place to be the safe, restful, and nurturing home that we each deserve to have!

  3. Jenny Says:

    Also? I totally want to visit =P.

  4. Heather Corinna Says:

    Jenny: please, please do! I so miss seeing you, and there is plenty of room. Once it’s set up, flatly the guest space will be nicer than any place in the rest of the house. :)

    Bix: Blue’s father was/is a whole lot like you’re describing with your parents, too.

  5. Robert Says:

    Someone caling you classist is just digging for an insult that they hope will hurt you. Not worth of your consideration. Perhaps I should move to the Puget Sound islands but I like the semi-rural (small village) life in Stirling.

    Both of my parents came of age during the Great Depression and were very frugal with their money. It has done my father well in his retirement.

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