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.

Coal to Newcastle

A five-hundred–year-old punchline jabs the pointlessness of sending coal to Newcastle, because Newcastle, in England, actually produced coal and had enough. Sending coal to Newcastle is about pointless gestures.

According to this morning’s Associated Press report, gifts are pouring into Newtown, CT, from around the world. Money, toys, food, whatever. Two-point-eight million so far – that is $2,800,000. “On Saturday, all the town’s children were invited to the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown to choose from among hundreds of toys donated by individuals, organizations and toy stores.”

But Newtown’s median household income is $110,000, 220 percent of the national median. Commuters to Manhattan and elsewhere. Doctors, executives, white collar folks. According to its own website’s economic development fact sheet, Newtown has a total population of 27,000, a poverty rate of 2.2 percent, and ZERO children under age 6 living in poverty. Its housing is 94 percent owner occupied. This is a devastated community, absolutely, but it is not a deprived one. I’m guessing the children had enough toys.

At the risk of seeming heartless and cynical, let me be clear: their heartache wasn’t caused by lack of money. And won’t be fixed by contributions. Money – even large amounts of money – can’t make up for the loss of children.

Meanwhile, in Chicago on Saturday, two children died in a fire. Firefighters tried hard to save them. Two others escaped. The fire was started by a hotplate used to heat the house. Two children dead and Child Protective Services took the other two away. Mom wasn’t home at the time of the fire. But she wasn’t known for leaving the kids alone, neighbors said. Maybe she was working? The babysitter bailed, and Mom left the 7-year-old in charge, maybe taking on an extra shift so she could afford toys for Christmas? At UrbanSpirit, we regularly have groups solve their simulated budgeting and childcare issues by leaving it in the hands of the 8-year-old. Maybe rank-and-file newswatchers are already assuming the worst, ready to blame this mother. Prosecutors are thinking of felony child endangerment charges, according to the CBS affiliate in Chicago.

It is possible that we’ll charge the Chicago mother with neglect. And maybe she is at fault. Or maybe not. Sadly, poverty is a crime in America. When you choose among bad choices, you end up with a bad choice. But we’ll blame her. Then, we’ll put the surviving kids in foster care and pay the foster parents a stipend to care for them. We will NOT send large amounts of cash to her, and maybe we’ll continue to resent the roughly $103 per taxpayer per year (based on the $50,000 median income) that we contribute to things we call “welfare.”

We feel powerless; I get it. And sending money to Newtown is a nice gesture, I guess; makes us feel better. But there are more effective things we could be doing.

We’ll probably have some kind of show of a “national conversation” about gun laws. But we’ve never shown the kind of political will it would take actually to change the laws.

While we’re at it, though, while we’re on the topic of alleviating human misery inflicted by others, let’s have a conversation about regressive taxes, unlivable wages, inaccessible childcare. In Illinois, the average annual cost of infant care is $12,199. The median income for a single mother is $24,833. Illinois has a childcare support program, but does it work? We know that applications and processes can be overwhelming, and changes in work hours or address or income can wreak havoc, and social services are generally the first to get cut when times are tough — indeed draped over the altar of bipartisanship in Washington today. What went wrong here?

Maybe we can also have a national conversation about the state of low-income housing. The building owner in Chicago was “crushed” by the news. “Wind back the tape and a parent could have been in the house, get everyone evacuated and then everyone would be fine,” he said. But, despite his skillful deflection, it is worth asking what shape the rental was in. How was the wiring? The electricity apparently wasn’t shut off (appliances were working), so why were the hotplate and space heater needed? Is the building owner negligent? complicit? Are prosecutors considering charges against him?

One could argue that Newtown doesn’t need the money. Maybe they’ll use it to build a monument, dedicate a park in memory of the children. Maybe they’ll hire more police officers, though they’ve recently been #10 on a “Top 101 Cities” list for numbers of police per 1000 residents. Maybe they’ll establish an anti-gun lobby.

Meanwhile a mom in Chicago cannot afford to bury her dead children, and won’t be trusted to care for the living ones.

There are a lot of conversations to have. But we just keep sending coal to Newcastle.