Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Hear Them All: Privilege, Poverty, and Guilt

I try to count my blessings daily. Recently I told Scott that you know you are truly blessed when you're operating at a level where you're dealing with what I call high-level problems. You know.... When you have the luxury of worrying about the fact that your son hates reading because you know you have a roof over your head and healthy food on your table every night. And trust me...I am thankful those are the problems I have to deal with. Those truly are white people problems.

And by white people, I really mean upper middle class problems.

I didn't always live my life as a fortunate son daughter, lucky enough to be able to think about these things. My childhood was spent eating pinto beans and cornbread most every night bought with the money my grandmother earned stripping tobacco. I remember going with her and doing the work myself on many an autumn weekend in freezing tobacco barns, paid something like ten cents for every hand of tobacco I tied. The little money I earned went right in with what my grandmother earned to augment my mother's meager salary and pay for our rent, groceries, clothes, medical bills, and whatever else we needed.

Although I will never forget where I came from, I choose not to dwell on it. I'd rather be thankful for the wonderful life I built for myself with my desire to leave my situation, the God-given intelligence to rise above the circumstances into which I was born, and a little luck along the way (like meeting and marrying a beautiful and brilliant man who does an amazing job of providing for his family).

Every now and then I get a big there but for the grace of God go I reminder of my roots.
Like today at Kroger.... A dark-haired young woman holding a beautiful little baby girl came up to me and my boys as I was wheeling my buggy out of the organic/natural foods section of the store, pausing to look for the $1 each Softsoap and anti-bacterial sanitizer that's usually in the center aisle.

She handed me a note written on the unlined back of an index card: "I have three babys and I lost my job. Can you help me?"

How could any mother hesitate to help? Surely that's why she chose me in a packed store. That and the fact that as I so often do with strangers, I smiled and made eye contact.

Yet, I did hesitate.
"I'm so sorry, but I don't have any cash on me," I replied to her note. I spoke the truth, but still felt guilty inside.

In broken English with what sounded like an Eastern European accent she then asked me if I could buy formula for her baby. "The kind with Lee-peel," she replied when I asked what kind.
Trying to imagine how desperate I would have to be to ask strangers at a grocery to buy formula for my little baby, I said I would and walked with her to the baby aisle. They were out of her formula, so she asked if I would buy some baby bottles and diapers.

I did, along with some wipes. While we were walking to the checkout, Brendan asked me why I was buying things for a stranger when I told him I couldn't buy the Horizon Organic Vanilla Milk because it wasn't on sale. I told him that everything in our cart with one exception (avoacados) was on sale and that I always try to buy things on sale to help save money.

As we stood in the checkout line, me unloading a buggy of grass-fed ground beef, fresh bananas and peaches, milk (not organic, but the big old gallon jug my boys drink every three days or so), three different kinds of whole grain bread, a bottle of wine,whole grain tortillas, and avocados, the woman told me she has triplets when it occurred to me to ask where her other two children were.  She said they were home with her mother.

She seemed grateful, but at the same time, she didn't carry with her the air of shame and regret that I imagine I would have felt in asking someone else to help me in that way.
I remember slinking around and wanting to hide when I was child and my grandmother used food stamps to buy our groceries. It felt humiliating.

Perhaps as a mother, you can't afford to feel ashamed when you're trying to figure out how to help your children. I don't know.

I do know that after she left I didn't feel the same sense of having committed an act of goodness that I usually do whenever I donate to charity or help someone in need. Perhaps it was guilt over having her witness my privilege while she was in need. Although, is it really privilege if it wasn't given to you? If you worked really hard to get to that point in your life and if you and your partner still work to maintain it?

Perhpas it was the vague sense I felt of being taken advantage of.... (Maybe she'd return the diapers and buy cigarettes for all I know.) Or perhaps it's just the knowledge that our society allows there to be parents and children in such need that leaves me feeling discomfited.
Whatever the root of it, I continue to feel a sense of unease and sadness regarding the situation. I feel both like I should have done more and like it shouldn't be me doing it at all, but rather her family, her church, her community, our government.

I guess in the end I know that buying some diapers and a few wet wipes, and some baby bottles really isn't going to change that woman's life and when it comes down to it that's what she really needs. A life-changing moment that turns everything around for her and her kids. A job that pays a living wage. Safe, affordable childcare. A community that cares about mothers and children and what happens to them.

In hindsight I think of all I might have done, but when you get shanghaied during a rushed trip to the market, what can you do?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. What would you have done in a similar situation?