My Path to the Craft

About a week ago, someone suggested that I write more about the “supernatural” stuff that informs my books: magic, spirituality, witchcraft, and the like.

It’s not like I’ve never thought about it, or even tried it. A few years ago, I started a blog called “The Pagan Coffeehouse,” which I intended to revolve around the topics my husband and I discuss when we–you guessed it–go out for coffee. But I got sick, and we didn’t go out for coffee or have those discussions anymore, and the blog ran only two posts. It’s still out there, if you want to look for it. More recently, Witches and Pagans magazine offered me a slot on their Pagan Square blogs. I turned it down. Looking at their blog roll and all the various topics covered there intimidated me. I didn’t think I had anything to add to the discussion.

When the idea came up again, I asked several people what in the world I could possibly say. I don’t think of myself as a teacher–in fact, I’m a very bad one. I have the relationship that I have with the world, both seen and unseen. It works for me, but I don’t feel any great need to promote or share it. I haven’t named a tradition after myself. In fact, I’m not sure anyone else would find it at all interesting. There’s just me, and sometimes my husband, and what I think and feel. What I do.

It seems I have a unique perspective, however: sometimes challenging, sometimes humorous, and often unpopular. This, according to those I asked, is what makes it interesting. I have the gift of seeing through things and saying what others don’t. Or so I’m told.

So, all right. I’m going to have a go at writing about magic according to me. And the first thing I’m going to write about is how I got where I am.

I identify as a Witch, but I don’t use the word to align myself with any particular path or tradition, as some do. To me, the word “Witch” encompasses so much, from the witches of folklore and fairy tale to the weird sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to frightening magic users of cultures that are not mine, to–yes–practitioners of Wicca and other Pagan religions who have worked so hard to reclaim the word and relieve it of some of its stigma in the common consciousness. It’s a word that suits me, as I have, since I can remember, had pieces in me of all those archetypes. And I think maybe leaving some of the stigma attached to the word is a good thing. Witches are not comfortable beings. They–we–can be the grandmother who bakes cookies and makes sure you have a dress for the ball, and we can be the crone who cooks wayward children in her oven. We can be the dream maiden of the Beltane fire and the Siren who lures sailors to death on the rocks. All of these things at once, without the need to distinguish. Most of all, witches tend to be terrifyingly practical and will suit actions to circumstances. I think this is what makes the Witch such an uncomfortable archetype to work with and be around. People like reassuring labels like “good” and “evil” and “beautiful” and “ugly.” People like boxes and the ability to identify those around them as one thing or another. Witches tend to defy these labels.

As far as I can remember, I’ve always been a Witch, even before I applied the word to myself. I wasn’t raised as one. My father was a Presbyterian minister–in my estimation, not a very good one. He was a brilliant scholar and historian, but I believe he would have been happier working the academic side of religion than tending to a flock that–again in my estimation–neither understood nor appreciated him. Anyway, I was raised nominally Christian Presbyterian, but it never took. Some of that was undoubtedly that as a preacher’s kid I saw behind the curtain on a regular basis, and seeing behind the curtain is a sure impediment to easy faith. And some of it was that I had eclectic reading habits from a very young age. I devoured Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythology.  Later, I got interested in Eastern religions and hung out at the Hare Krishna temple a few blocks from my home. I never could see that these systems had any less validity than the Christian mythos I had been taught, and in fact I saw a good many sticky contradictions in Christianity. I remember once asking my dad why Christianity was right and Hinduism wrong. He couldn’t give me any answer other than, “Because Jesus said so,” and “Hindus worship idols.” Which didn’t satisfy me.

I’ve always known things I should have had no way of knowing. At an early Sunday school class on the expulsion from Eden, I asked why what Eve had done was wrong because apples and serpents are both symbols of wisdom, and both are aspects of women’s power. So Eve had every right to teach Adam her wisdom if she chose. I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time. I remember, because my sister had made a Garden of Eden mosaic in college–she was an Art major–and I had been thinking about it. But where did I get that? I’m sure no one else in my family had ever mentioned such an idea, and I don’t think it had appeared in anything I had read. Later, in another Sunday school class, I pointed out that Moses was one in a long line of supernatural warrior saviors who claimed to be sons of river deities (in fact, I think you could make a case for Achilles, although his mother was an ocean goddess). I shouldn’t have done that, because my dad was teaching the class and Moses was an especial favorite of his. I got in trouble for mouthing off and was asked to leave.

I was never a normal, middle class, Christian-raised child. I worshiped the moon. I invented spells in my bedroom. I had long conversations with invisible beings and animals. I burned incense, and walked at night, and studied the stars. At twelve, I became fascinated with Tarot cards and bugged my parents until they gave in a bought me a cheap deck for my birthday. I laid them out in patterns and told myself stories about the pictures I saw.

I think I freaked my parents out a bit. I remember one time in second grade, I found a talisman of sorts on the playground. It was white, an Easter Island head about three inches high. There were blue rhinestone chips for eyes. I thought it was cool. But that night, my mother found it and had a complete, frothing at the mouth, fit. She took it away from me and ranted about idols and Satanism and all manner of other things. I have no idea what she did with it. I’ve often wished I could get another look at it.

I picked up bits of magical philosophy from odd Fantasy and Gothic novels without knowing I was doing it. Sometimes I reread those books now and I think, “Oh, no wonder.” But how much did the books influence me, and how much did I choose the books because of the person I was born? I can’t say. It wasn’t until I hit my early 20s that things started to fall into place, and it was two books that did it: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance. As seems to have been the case for so many who embraced Paganism at that time, I didn’t discover anything new by reading those books. But I discovered what I already believed, what I had always believed, had a name and a form. I’m a Witch.

That was thirty years ago, and I’ve done a lot in that time. I’ve worked at an occult bookstore. I’ve read tarot professionally. I’ve served as High Priestess of a coven and taught classes in ritual magic. I was initiated into the Guild of the Grey Owl. I’ve made charms for my friends and invented rituals for myself and those who care to join in. I’ve never been afraid of calling myself a Witch and I’ve never hidden my beliefs, but I’ve never felt the need to shout it to the four winds, either. It’s just what I believe, what I do. Who I’ve always been.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

–T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”

That’s my story. I intend to blog bi-weekly on magical and spiritual topics. I hope you will join me.

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Character Profile: Timber MacDuff

Last week, I did a “Meet My Main Character” blog profiling the heroine of my supernatural adventure series, Caitlin Ross. Since then, a number of people have requested that I do a follow-up profile focused on the hero of the series, Timber MacDuff. I told my friend, Jennie Davenport, that I’d do Timber if she did Henry, the hero of her upcoming novel, Hemlock Veils. (Obligatory plug: Hemlock Veils is NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER FOR KINDLE!) Well, she did. So I guess I’m obligated to uphold my end of the deal.

Say hello to Timber MacDuff.

Say hello, Timber.
Say hello, Timber.

I’m going to skip the questions of “is this a fictional or historical character?” and “What’s the setting?” because Timber shares these things with Caitlin, so you can look at her post if you like. Some stories covering bits of Timber’s early life, a few of which you can find under the “Timber MacDuff” menu in the sidebar of this blog, are set outside of the universe of the novels, in Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Los Angeles, California.

Moving onward.

What should we know about Timber?

It’s funny, but sometimes, writing mostly in the first person, I feel like I know other characters better than I do Caitlin, whose point of view I’m voicing. I think this is because when you write in the first person, you take on your point of view character’s thoughts and sensations, so you end up spending a lot of time describing what she sees and feels. More than you generally do addressing your POV character’s inner world and attitudes. In this way, it can be a challenge to paint a distinct picture of your POV character except inasmuch as she views the world around her.

Take that, all you people who think writing first person is for amateurs.

Anyway.

Timber Alasdair MacDuff was born in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the oldest of six siblings, all of whom his woodworker father, with a peculiar sense of humor, named for trees. “I got the generic,” Timber says of his own name. He grew up speaking Gaelic until he was seven, and in fact was named in Gaelic: Fiodh. About that time, his family decided to emigrate (his mother’s brothers already had), and the family started speaking English exclusively. Timber doesn’t remember a lot of his childhood language, except for bits hanging around in his subconscious and a rather extensive vocabulary of profanity (which his uncles took care that he should remember).

Timber had a lot of trouble adjusting to the United States, with the result that he got in a great many fights and was kicked out of school on a regular basis. He started running away at twelve, and at fourteen left home for good. For the next three years, he lived on the streets of various cities. Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, a family friend tracked him down and dragged him back to Oregon. This family friend was a shaman, and he took it upon himself to train a reluctant Timber in the shamanic practices of healing and making spiritual journeys. He also insisted Timber complete his education and go to college.

After this intervention, Timber did straighten up and fly right for the most part, although he still has a temper and has been known to take a flexible stance when interpreting the law. At heart, he’s a good guy. He’s good with children and animals–in fact, he has a remarkable ability to communicate with “creatures.” He gets along with most people, and can be exceptionally charming when it suits him. An attractive man, he likes women and women like him; these days, however, he is devoted to his wife, Caitlin, of whom he is fiercely protective. A risk-taker himself, he finds it infuriating when Caitlin puts herself in danger.

A carpenter by trade, Timber enjoys fly fishing and shooting pool. As well, he’s a mean hand with a broadsword and practices daily. When inactive, he gets bored easily and fidgets, which drives Caitlin up the wall. (And now this sounds like an on-line dating profile, so I’m just going to stop.)

Not in a good mood.
Not in a good mood.

What’s the main conflict? What messes him up?

Timber’s main conflict is finding a balance between the two sides of his personality, the warrior and the healer. He’s a larger-than-life personality, who should really have been born in an earlier time, when mayhem, bloodshed, and edged weapons were more the rule. He often feels too big for his surroundings, and he has a hard time keeping his inner violence in check. He hates to admit defeat or lack of ability, and this tendency has gotten him into trouble more than once.

Timber has a great many things messing him up. He doesn’t feel he fits in the world. He despises the injustice he sees all around him and feels powerless to address it in any meaningful way. During the course of an eventful life, he’s done things he wishes he hasn’t had to do. He doesn’t precisely regret them, but the memories torment him.

As the series progresses, we learn more details about Timber’s past and the true source of his conflict. When he was a child he almost died from a severe illness. During his delirium, he experienced a vision of his future which greatly disturbed him, in which he saw himself doing something he does not want to do and facing something he does not want to face. To date he has never told anyone but his shamanic teacher about this vision. Not even Caitlin, although he expects she’ll have to know about it sooner or later. (Right now, I plan to resolve this situation for Timber in what will be book ten, tentatively titled “Over the Sea to Skye.”)

What is Timber’s Personal Goal?

Timber’s not a very goal-oriented individual. He lives almost entirely in the moment. At most, he plans a little way ahead, to the next battle, the next job, the next confrontation. If he could have anything for himself, it would be to escape the future he saw, but he has little expectation that will be possible. In the meantime, it’s enough for him to love and care for his headstrong wife–as much as she lets him.

That’s as much as I can say about Timber without revealing too many of his secrets. If you want to find out more, read the Caitlin Ross series. Timber also has his own collection of short stories, The Fits o’ the Season, available here.

I hope you have enjoyed this profile. Thanks for taking the time to read it!

Timber by WolfenM
Timber by WolfenM

 

 

The Brutal October

Today, October 15th, is International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

OCTOBER 15 DAY

Pregnancy and infant loss is not something we like to talk about. Like chronic illness, it offers few pretty success stories and inspirational “survivors.” Losing a pregnancy, no matter what stage you’re at, is something you never forget. Even if you go on to carry a child to term and have a healthy “take-home” baby, the experience stays with you, causing grief at unexpected times. You learn to harden yourself against other people’s pregnancy announcements and the baby pictures crowding their Facebook walls. You learn to be happy, or at least profess happiness, for women who’ve had an experience you wanted but failed at for no reason you understand. You learn to sympathize with parents in your social circle when they remark on how much trouble a child is, how much it’s changed their lives.

Losing a child you’ve carried to term and birthed into the world…I can’t even imagine that.

One in four pregnant women will miscarry. One in a hundred and fifty will lose her child. Odds are it’s happened to someone you know.

This time of year is particularly difficult for me. My first child would have been due the second week of October, if I had carried it to term fifteen years ago. I have a friend whose oldest son was born around the same time. I watched her pregnancy progress, and every year I see her updates about her child’s birthdays, and I grieve, and I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t started bleeding that day in February.

That pregnancy is foggy in my mind. My husband and I hadn’t planned it, and I’m not sure how it came about, as we were using birth control rigorously. Condoms, but they still have a 97% effectiveness rate if used properly. I remember missing my period and not being too concerned, because I had a long, irregular cycle. But it didn’t show up and didn’t show up. I remember sitting outside the radio station on a Thursday night, taking a break from my show. I remember telling Michael I thought I might be pregnant. But I can’t remember what I felt. Scared. Excited. I don’t know.

We went to the store for a pregnancy test. In those days, the closest place to buy one over the counter was in Delta, thirty miles away. We came home, and I peed into a cup. The test came out positive. I wanted a home birth, so we made an appointment with the local midwife. I felt so ignorant.

The day after the appointment, I woke up with a terrible migraine. I woke up bleeding. Michael called the midwife, and she said some spotting is normal, and if the blood was dark I didn’t have anything to worry about. But it got brighter and brighter, and before I really had accepted the fact of being pregnant, I wasn’t anymore. I hadn’t made it much more than six or seven weeks.

I don’t remember feeling much of anything at the time. Other than missing my period, I never had any symptoms at all. No tender breasts, no morning sickness. The second time was different.

I went for my annual exam in August, and my doctor, half serious, told me if I go pregnant right away she wouldn’t have to repeat the PAP smear. So I told my husband I wanted to try again. I got pregnant right away, possibly on the first try. This time I wanted to do everything right. When I missed my period, I went to the clinic for the test. I made an appointment with my doctor. I wanted her to deliver my baby. I wanted her to be there, just in case.

I had horrible morning sickness, almost from the start. I took it as a good sign, but I still worried. I did daily Tarot readings, trying to find out if I would carry this baby to term. I made offerings to every goddess I could think of. I prayed. I counted the weeks, hoping to make it to the twelve-week mark, after which miscarriage becomes much less likely.

These days, I wonder if I stressed myself into the second miscarriage, because I did miscarry again. I passed what would have been the due date for my first child without noticing, because I was pregnant again. But then, around the ten week mark, I started spotting, and the spotting turned into heavy bleeding, and on Hallowe’en of 1999, I lost my second baby, too. It was an awful, painful experience, so horrible I didn’t want to take the risk again. I knew that with every miscarriage the chances of birthing a baby go down.

I regret that decision every day.

Those losses haunt me. They seem especially mine in a way I can’t define. I’m sure my husband has or has had feeling about them, but they never seemed to touch him in the same way. My babies never moved. They never showed. We never heard a heartbeat or saw an ultrasound. Those babies were part of my body, a part my body couldn’t keep. I never knew their genders. They never had names. So it’s hard, mourning them. I have nothing to hold onto. No personality, no idea. It’s just this grief that eats me from the inside out. Feeling of failure, sense of loss. Something I wanted I couldn’t complete, and regret for the fear of trying again until it was too late.

The candle I will light tonight in memory seems a bit pointless, as I remember every day. I’m still going to light it. By my belief, those children may have been born to some other mother, one with a body that could give them a safe place to develop. Or they may not have been. The stuff of them may still be part of the All of the Universe, waiting for the right time, the right parents. I wasn’t the right one, then. If, by some miracle, I regain the fertility I lost from medications and age, I still hope I can be. I’ll hope I can be until I die.

I never forget.

candle

 

Meet My Main Character!

Welcome to the Meet My Main Character Blog Tour! My friend, Sonya Craig, invited me on this outing. Sonya is the author of the Taiga Chavez adventures, a science fiction series about the struggle between a plucky heroine with a rude mouth and a mind of her own and a corrupt planetary government with visions of empire that threaten the galaxy as we know it. She’s also a classic car nut with a wicked sense of humor and a talent for art. So check her out!

My books are the Caitlin Ross Adventures, so, as you might expect, my main character is…Caitlin Ross. Caitlin is a Witch, both by natural talent and philosophical bent. Her talent gives her the ability to use non-physical energy sources to create physical changes in her environment. For example, she can bend light around herself to become invisible, or create a barrier between herself and a threat. She also engages in ritual magic and spell-work when appropriate, and is an exceptional Tarot reader.

A silly image of Caitlin I made with a manga generator.
A silly image of Caitlin I made with a manga generator.

Is she a fictional or a historical person?

Caitlin’s adventures take place in the “real” world, but she is mostly fictional. I say “mostly” because she keeps showing up at my house and raiding my fridge.

Where and when is the story set?

The series covers a lot of geographical territory and a number of years. Most of the books take place in Gordarosa, a fictional rural town in Western Colorado. The series also visits Boulder, Colorado, and Detroit, Michigan, as well as various Otherworldly locations. The time is “Present Day,” with the first book, THE UNQUIET GRAVE, covering events in the summer of 2007. The rest of the series proper has so far gone through winter of 2009, with the exception of the fourth book, a prequel novel, which is set in the summer of 1999. A related collection of short stories takes place in the fall of 2001.

What should we know about Caitlin?

Caitlin sees herself as reclusive, shy, and reserved. She also thinks of herself as relatively normal. She likes to garden and do various crafts, like embroidering and crochet. She’s musical, and when we first see her, she’s the leader of an Irish group, Red Branch, in which she plays the flute and sings. She loves her husband and her cats, but isn’t close to many others in her community. She doesn’t believe her supernatural abilities have anything to do with this, although she sees the world in a far different light from those she terms “Mundanes.” She never intends to get involved in the weird incidents that insist on barging into her life, but somehow she always does. Her curiosity is insatiable, and she can’t stand not knowing the answers to questions and not trying to solve any problem that presents itself. Sometimes she takes risks that put her in danger (much to the dismay of her husband), but she views this as the practical thing to do at the time. She feels responsible for those around her, whether or not she has any close connection to them.

What is the main conflict?

When we first see Caitlin, she has refused to use her powers for a number of years because a supernatural entity once warned her that doing so would have consequences she would not like. Caitlin has always had a love/hate relationship with magic. She’s most herself when she allows herself to be the Witch that she is, but magic has also been the root of problems in her life, especially with her emotionally abusive family, who consider it a symptom of a socially unacceptable disease. in THE UNQUIET GRAVE, a series of strange events at the bar where her band is performing require her to reevaluate her position. Although there is an antagonist she will need to confront, the main conflict is between Caitlin’s desire to return to living a magical life and her fear of what will happen if she does.

Subsequent books in the series follow Caitlin as she solves various magically-rooted problems and matches wits with adversaries both human and supernatural. The arc of the series as a whole deals with Caitlin facing the consequences of reclaiming a magical life. The books are also, in great part, about interpersonal relationships, both Caitlin’s with her husband and that of the world as we know it with the world unseen.

What is Caitlin’s personal goal?

Caitlin just wants to be left alone! She wants everything to be tidy and quiet, so she can get on with life. Unfortunately, her fate is to have a messy life, and a number of entities have plans for her.

Publication Information

There are six books in the Caitlin Ross series so far: THE UNQUIET GRAVE, SHE MOVED THROUGH THE FAIR, A MAID IN BEDLAM, THE PARTING GLASS, THE CRUEL MOTHER, and DEMON LOVER. I am currently working on the seventh volume, DEATH AND THE LADY, which I hope to publish in the late spring or early summer of 2015. All the books are available both in print and for E reader, and you can view or download excerpts from Smashwords. For more information, you can check out my Amazon author page, my Smashwords profile, or my Goodreads profile. You can also stay up to date on Caitlin’s adventures by signing up for my newsletter.

Sketch of Caitlin my cover artist was kind enough to provide at the absolute last minute.
Sketch of Caitlin my cover artist was kind enough to provide at the absolute last minute.

Next on the tour:

Angelina Williamson is a writer, gardener, herbalist, Vespa-rider, wearer of hats, and preparer for the Zombie Apocalypse. Her book, WINTER (Cricket and Grey), is available here.

Niko Staten is a Reader, Writer, Mother, Dreamer, Part-time sleeper and full-time geek. Pescatarian, former Vegan, former Child, former Human. Married. Redhead. Also possibly alive.

Both will be continuing the tour the week of October 20th, so stay tuned!

Visit my cover artist, WolfenM on Twitter or at deviantArt!

 

 

 

Class Privilege: Perspective

Lately my husband and I have been going through a rough patch comprised of health issues, a recurrence of my clinical depression, overwhelming financial woes, and general hopelessness over our ability to attain any kind of stability or make any substantial improvements in our life. A week or so ago, my husband was chatting with an old school buddy about our circumstances. Because neither of us is either inclined or suited to hiding our feelings, he was open about his unhappiness and sense of futility. After a conversation where my husband went into detail about our circumstances, his friend came back with this stunning piece of advice:

“You should stop doing the things that make you unhappy.”

My husband broke off the chat at this point, mainly because he was at work and had other business to attend to (also, shortly after his friend made this comment, the entire town where my husband’s school is located suffered a power outage). However, a good part of his lack of desire to continue came from incoherent frustration and anger at the inanity of the statement. I first heard about the interaction when Michael came home and said, “I want to slap ____ upside the head.” After telling me all about it, he said, “I want to tell him to please take some time to reflect on the utter foolishness of that suggestion before I go get the Stupid Stick.”

I encouraged him to do so, but with one thing and another–it was band rehearsal night and Michael hates any kind of confrontation–he didn’t. After a few hours of no response, my husband’s friend seemed to get an idea that his advice hadn’t hit the mark. So he amended it.

“Or maybe you should try to do more things that make you happy,” he said.

stupid stick meme

Michael and I are solidly lower class (and I mean this in a financial sense, without all the cultural connotations the term involves). Between my disability and Michael’s salary as a public high school teacher, we gross a very low five-figure yearly income with no benefits. Michael drives a beat-up ’97 Escort we bought used from a teacher friend. We live in an economically-disadvantaged area in a tiny house that’s been mortgaged up to our eyeballs robbing Peter to pay Paul. (My dad bought this house for us as kind of a wedding present twenty years ago. He paid cash. If not for that piece of generosity, we’d have been homeless years ago.) We do without a great many things most people in the USA take for granted, like cable TV, new shoes, and dental care. Our credit rating is so bad that the other day when we were watching Netflix and someone mentioned that a character had bad credit with a rating of 580, we laughed.

I’m not sure what social class I’d put Michael’s high school buddy in: probably upper-middle. He’s married to a woman who works in the hotel industry and earns a yearly salary that’s at least five times ours, likely more. His job is “minding their investments.” Over the years I’ve known them, they’ve lived in well-to-do areas because that’s where her work is. I have no idea how they spend their money or what their credit rating is, but I think it’s safe to assume they’re a good deal better off than we are.

I feel the need to insert a disclaimer here. I am not writing this to make Michael’s friend–or anyone–feel bad about having money. And I am well aware that even in this country there are people worse off than I am. So please leave those particular straw men at home, ‘kay? Thanks so much.

We don’t like to talk about class in the United States. We like to preserve the myth that any rugged individual can rise to any height on his or her own merit, and that those who don’t achieve “The American Dream” are at fault in and of themselves. Class is for those weird European countries with institutionalized nobility that prevents a person moving from one “station in life” to another. And in the United States, enough people do achieve some kind of class mobility to preserve the myth. These are the ones we hear about: The Black woman from the ghetto who becomes a successful surgeon, the steelworker’s son who becomes a Hollywood celebrity. We love stories of disadvantaged people overcoming obstacles. It’s part of the national narrative.

That’s not what I want to talk about, though. What I want to talk about is how our reluctance to believe in stagnant social class structure blinds us to the reality of class privilege, and how that, in turn, leads people to make idiotic suggestions to the poor about how to improve their lot. As in any discussion of privilege, the point here isn’t to make others feel guilty for what they have (as I stated above), or to imply that your social class is bad or wrong and that you should give away all your material goods. Likewise, it isn’t to imply that poverty is some spiritually elevated state. It’s merely my small attempt to encourage people to open their eyes a bit wider and take fifteen minutes to walk in another person’s shoes.

I have lifelong experience of being around people from a higher social class than mine, from being a scholarship student at an exclusive private school to conducting workshops in Tarot and spirituality for rich (largely white) people, to dating a guy whose father was a fantastically wealthy literary agent and investment banker in New York City. Along the way, I’ve noticed a couple things about rich people. Most of them aren’t bad or evil. Of course, I’ve known some slumlords and greedy real estate agents. But most rich people aren’t consciously out to screw the lower classes.

snidely

But most rich people don’t think that they’re rich. They think they’re “just like anybody else.” And this causes problems when they try to sympathize and/or give advice to those of us in lower social classes, because they come out with some incredibly stupid stuff. And those of us in the lower classes get pretty upset when someone who spends $250.00 a week at the hairdresser suggests that we stretch our $250.00 a month food budget farther by “cutting out the things you don’t really need.”

My dad was a prime example of this kind of thinking. He came to adulthood during the Great Depression, so he had an excuse. He counted every penny like Scrooge MacDuck. He was a minister and our house came with the job, so we never had to worry about rent or a house payment. We always had two recent-model cars and a well-stocked refrigerator (in fact, my dad had some food hoarding issues, so we usually had way more food on hand than we needed). I don’t remember ever having any of our utilities shut off. The credit cards were paid off every month. We went for a two-week summer vacation up north every year and most years we went somewhere in the spring. When he retired, he paid cash for the house my mom lives in now, just as he paid cash for the house I live in. And yet, I can’t remember a single day of my life when he didn’t complain that we were on the way to the poorhouse with every expense. When I reached adulthood and faced real, long-term poverty, I wanted both to laugh and punch him in the face. It’s the same reaction I have when a wealthy person tells me she has a way for me to “put $100 a month in a savings account starting right now” or recommends I simplify my needs by getting rid of my third car.

People who are well-off often miss the point about all this, or get defensive when you mention it, or both. When, a few months ago, I posted on Facebook about the irony of my father always thinking we were on the verge of destitution when we had all that we did, one of my sisters commented, “Well, but they needed two cars because Mom and Dad both worked.” The implication being that 1. Michael and I don’t need two cars because I don’t work outside the home, so stop whining and 2. Um, what does “irony” mean, again? as well as 3. My sister is clueless about the definition of poverty. Incidentally, she posted this from one of her semi-annual vacations to Hawaii.

I read an article recently about a formerly fiscally-conservative Republican getting a wake-up call to the reality of the world. It’s worth reading, but until you get to it, here’s the part that stood out for me: The narrator describes working at a school program for disadvantaged kids, where their parents sometimes went along on educational field trips. One of the field trips was going to a sit-down restaurant, and the educational part involved learning about ordering from a menu, using the tableware, and leaving a tip. The narrator thought this was the lamest field trip ever. It had to be explained to him that not everyone has had the opportunity to go to a sit-down restaurant. The experience doesn’t even enter into some people’s reality.

Or how about this: A Facebook acquaintance once commented on a meme about income inequality with the observation that “poverty doesn’t mean the same thing it did forty years ago. People don’t actually not have the money to pay their water bill.”

Elrond-Facepalm

Actually, I’d like to point out that there are many places in the United States–particularly in Appalachia–where not only do people not have the money to pay their water bill, they don’t even have running water, indoor plumbing, or central heat.

This is the kind of blind, classist nonsense that people need to get over saying. It’s ignorant, and it’s insulting. And when wealthy people encourage poor people to “think of all the advantages you have that people in third world countries don’t!” at the same time as perpetuating this weird denial of their own advantages over people who don’t have it so good, it comes across as unsympathetic and dismissive. Yeah, I have internet access and a refrigerator and a smart phone. These things do not diminish the hardship of having to decide between paying to heat my house and paying my medical bills. And before you suggest that I should do without “luxuries” I “can’t afford,” I’d like to point out that in all honesty I can’t afford much of anything. I’d also like to invite you to do without those same things for a week and see how you like it.

There are things my husband wanted to say to his high school buddy, but because he’s nicer than I am, he didn’t say them. I’m going to take the opportunity to say some of them for him.

When you tell a poor person just to “stop doing the things that make you unhappy,” you’re implying that they’re too stupid to have come to this conclusion for themselves and too lazy to have done everything in their power to alter their circumstances. Please remember that the next time you’re moved to repeat inane psychobabble as a solution to a real problem of material and resources.

Likewise when you suggest we “do more things that make us happy.” I honestly don’t know what you have in mind here. What makes us happy is anything that temporarily relieves the ongoing stress and struggle of life. It makes us happy the one day of the month we can fill up the gas tank of our car. It makes us happy when we can go grocery shopping and fill up our cart and pay in cash without having to worry that spending that money in that way means we get arrested on the way home for not paying our car insurance. It makes us happy to have our car insurance and registration up to date so that we don’t have to worry about getting carted off to jail if the local cops pull us over for the wonky taillight we can’t afford to fix. It makes us happy to see a refrigerator full of food and to be able to forget hunger for a few days. It makes us happy to pay every bill on time and still have enough left over to pay the mortgage. When we can scrape up enough for a meal out, it’s a celebration. We’d be deliriously happy if we could pay everything that needs to be paid on time AND still have money left over to go shopping. One month free of financial stress for us would be like a month at a resort with room service for someone else. Getting away for a weekend–just getting in the car and driving somewhere new, and stopping on a whim at a cute B & B, and sitting down to dinner at a diner–yeah, that would be cause for ecstasy. But it would cost half a month’s pay, and everything else would go down the drain, and in the end, it would cause more stress than it relieved.

When you get right down to it, suggesting we “stop being unhappy and start being happy” is a sideways way of saying, “just stop being poor, why don’t you?” Believe me, if it were in our power, we would. And really, when I hear that what I hear is, “I’m uncomfortable with your reality and I have no concrete solutions.” That’s okay. I’d rather hear that up front.

What I hear most of all, though, is “I have NO CLUE what poverty is really like.” So do us both a favor and take a few minutes to imagine it. Really imagine what it would be like to get by on less than a quarter of your current income. And after that, maybe we can talk.