pleat hooks and parent trap

I was walking through the arts-and-crafts store over the weekend, wandering down the upholstery aisle, admiring printed fabrics and wondering if I had anything that needed a facelift. I didn’t. But as I wandered, looking at all the various hardware and interesting devices, my eye fell on pleat hooks. Pleat hooks? you ask quizzically. Or maybe you know. Yes, I answer enthusiastically. Pleat hooks.

I have no need for pleat hooks, as I have never as an adult chosen drapes designed to require them. But I knew what they were, because my mother taught me how to use them. When I saw them in the craft store, I was suddenly flooded with awareness of things I know about, not because I have degrees, but because my parents told me. Because my parents had time to tell me. Mother taught me to sew and hang drapes and mend things, how to “put up” peaches and get out stains. Dad taught me how to use tools, how to tell the difference between screws and bolts, and how to choose the right washer, and how to countersink the head of a finishing nail, how to change oil and plugs and plug wires. I know about wood grain and selvage edges because Mother’s sewing cabinet and Dad’s workbench were both open for my imagination, with generally only one rule: put it back where you found it. I am thankful for that.

It was a good moment, there in the craft store. I am a generally well-rounded adult (disclosure: that is a self-assessment) with a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things.

It came back to me later, as I was on my back under the kitchen sink, replacing the sprayer on the faucet. I thought about parents who don’t have sewing cabinets or workbenches, who don’t have time because they spend it all at multiple low-wage jobs, with little energy left for their kids when they get home, little resource for anything besides meals, maintenance and a bedtime prayer that somehow, against all odds, tomorrow will be different. Exhausted, stressed and less-healthy-than-average adults who constantly are blamed for their “failures” as parents. They are the people who make our world work, and they are the ones we continually deprive of the riches they more than others work to produce.

I’m telling you this because Nanette wrote a letter this week to the newspaper.

“All the school tax increases, social services, ‘tough on crime’ voters and ‘war on drugs’ money will not make a dent until each parent takes responsibility for his or her own children and raises them correctly.”

(And Nanette gives the impression she knows exactly what “correctly” means.) She goes on:

“It is not the government’s responsibility to feed your child breakfast, lunch and dinner… to read to your child, to stress the importance of education, respect for others, discipline and civility… to provide a stable home environment…. Get yourself up and out of bed every morning, feed your child, use decent language, turn off the TV and video games. Give them structure, routine and discipline. Pay attention to the human being you’ve created. … When each of us does what we’re supposed to do as parents, there will be more than enough room in the jails.”

Wow. Nanette has some strong opinions, and perhaps some anger. But she shows little evidence of understanding. In fact, if all “those people” were to stay in bed next week all on the same day, Nanette would be up a creek. Her life depends on them going to work despite whatever else may be compelling.

I invite her, and you, to enter into someone else’s world for a little while. To put away your presumptions and gain some perspective. Is there an epidemic of lazy, self-absorbed parents who don’t love their kids? Or is there an economic system that operates like a hamster wheel, forcing even the most well-meaning parents to run in place rather than get anywhere? (Shameless plug: UrbanSpirit will help you figure it out.)

Responding offhandedly that “no one helped me and I’m doing ok” is the least helpful approach. Even if that were true (and I’d argue that it is impossible), no one of us can paste our experience onto someone else’s life and assume it is accurate – or even relevant. Entering someone’s reality means honestly, diligently asking and hearing what the barriers are to good parenting and economically healthy households. Then, confessing our complicity in devastation — and pledging to be better neighbors, to do something to change the system.

For those who claim faith, this is really a no-brainer: nearly every faith tradition has sacred texts asserting the importance of upholding the dignity of workers and caring for the poor and vulnerable. Likely including yours.

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Style, life.

I style my hair. You may not know it today, and frankly I’m not happy with it, but I do spend time on it. It’s too short right now, but it will grow. It always does.

I have a style of clothing that makes me happy, makes me feel comfortable and confident as I do my daily whatever. It usually includes Birkenstocks. About 13 years ago, pumps and stockings fell by the wayside, no longer a style I was willing to deal with. I do still wear suits. And black Birks and flip-flops for dress-up. (They go well with clergy collars.)

My home has a style. Across the pine living room floor, an old 8-foot shutter leans against one wall; a black window screen from a much earlier era hangs on a different wall – next to the charred oak lid from a Four Roses bourbon barrel; a bowling pin signed by my high school teammates is on a bookshelf, along with a marching band hat, a wooden shoe-form, spindles from an out-of-production textile mill, a hurricane lamp filled with buttons, and several small flower vases in the shape of dogs or antique cars; there’s an ancient mirror that used to be on someone’s dresser now resting on the andirons to cover the fireplace in the off-season, and in the wine rack are scarred rolling pins that once belonged to someone’s great-grandmother. In the middle of the floor is a long-retired and fairly squeaky railroad cart, gray with age and – some would say – begging to be restored. I like it better unrestored.

Old, worn, used, perhaps unkempt. This is my style.

This is the busy season at UrbanSpirit. Groups from other places have come to Louisville for an experience, a simulation, of life in poverty in America. They are well-meaning, out of their comfort zones, encountering realities they never knew existed, discovering causes and consequences they couldn’t have imagined. And they are struggling for words. Trying to put language to such an unbelievable state of existence. I appreciate their efforts. And one day I’ll be excited to vote for one of them, the candidate who can see something new and isn’t afraid to pursue it. But in their struggle and ours, there is a word I would like to banish.

“Lifestyle.”

Poverty isn’t a lifestyle.

Lifestyle suggests preference, taste, choice, options. Lifestyle is about whether to buy porcelain or pottery for your everyday dishes; lifestyle is whether to go camping or stay in 4-star B&Bs for vacation. Whether to tailgate at the stadium or hang out in a sports bar – or eschew sports altogether and take up knitting. Lifestyle is about cashing in your split-level ranch and moving to a condo in a high-rise. Downsizing so you can travel more, deciding to move to a city where you can take the train instead of owning a car. Lifestyle is vegetarian or pantheistic or community garden or philanthropic. Lifestyles are subject to change, to whims, to trends.

Lifestyle is voluntary. Even if you prefer picking foods from dumpsters, buying clothes from consignment stores, and bartering for babysitting, if you choose to live this way, this is lifestyle.

Poverty is not a choice. In fact, poverty is lack of choice. Social mobility is a huge problem in America. People born poor tend to stay poor, held there by myriad social policies and political agenda. Our simulation participants learn the very difficult lesson that poverty is not merely lack of ambition or a poor work ethic. Despite their creativity and effort, they are knocked around and tripped up by a system that doesn’t much give a damn. As I’ve argued before, the “system” depends on poor people, thrives on poor people; the system – the ‘American Dream’ for some – requires there be poor people in America to do the jobs that we need but don’t want to pay a lot to have performed.

Lifestyle? Living every day uncertain of food, shelter, employment, health?
Lifestyle? Sleeping poorly at night worried about what the next day will bring to shatter the fragile equilibrium or undo the tiny step forward you’ve somehow made?
Lifestyle? Knowing that people are blaming you, demeaning you, sacrificing you for their own comfort?
Lifestyle? Living with hopelessness, having no reason to believe that anything will ever be different?

Worn, used, perhaps unkempt.

Not a lifestyle. Not even much of a life.

Redneck Central

You know I love antique malls and flea markets. I love browsing through rusty, dusty piles of cool stuff from earlier eras. Wash it down, call it vintage, and make your house feel more like home. Sometimes the stuff isn’t actually old; it is someone’s art or craft, made from found whatevers, but likewise hoping to barge into my heart and home. I tend to wander past this stuff. No judgment; it just isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Lately, I’ve noticed the escalating assault of crafts bearing the name ‘redneck.” Redneck windchime made of beer cans; redneck wineglasses made of mason jars; you get the idea. An entire industry is developing around the use of toothpicks, shotgun cartridges, peanut shells and hub caps.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this makes me really uncomfortable.

It isn’t just about arts and crafts. A pastor I was in conversation with recently referred to a place as “redneck central.” He wasn’t talking about a flea market or craft shop; he was talking about a neighborhood. Redneck Central. You can even substitute the word “hillbilly” for “redneck.” How short a leap is it after that to the term “white trash”? Sadly, I still hear that phrase as well, white trash, used to describe actual people, generally people living in poverty, people whose choices and opportunities don’t align with ours, people who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

Folks who could not imagine hurling racist slurs, who long ago quit saying “queer,” are still okay calling someone “redneck.” Why is that? Am I wrong to think the intent is pretty much the same? What are we really saying?

At UrbanSpirit, we begin every program week talking about the power of language. It matters how we talk to or about people living in poverty, living in the aftermath of conviction and incarceration, living on the fringes of what we call “normal,” “acceptable,” “honorable.” Words are codes sometimes forcing our hearers to draw conclusions, to ride the undercurrent of our meaning. And if they disagree, we say we didn’t mean it, we were kidding, they took it wrong, whatever.

I know there are people who describe themselves as “redneck.” Like black rappers who use the n-word and gay activists who use “dyke” or “queer” to identify themselves, they siphon honor from painful historical realities. Each of us has the privilege of describing ourselves in whatever way we choose. The problem rises when we assign words to others, words that bear our own unnamed ignorance, fear and disdain. I did not get the impression that the pastor who called the place “redneck central” was hoping to move there.

So, why didn’t I say something?