Friday, April 13, 2012

Haves and Have Nots

The Bear Den, my home.

I bought my very first house in December of 2005, just two months after my beloved Grandmother left us. Some very dear 20 something friends came and spent New Year's with me, pulling up the carpet and painting walls. That night we watched a movie, projected on a stark white bedroom wall. We could barely hear the soundtrack coming from the laptop, but it didn't matter. We were four young people, an over 50 woman, and a beagle all snuggled in a pile of blankets and sleeping bags, doing what a community does. Helping each other.

Tiny Barton the Third, my beagle friend.
My house has central air, another first for me.  The following summer was a scorcher, and I remember turning on the air conditioner so my dog would be comfortable while I was at work during the day. I still smoked at the time, and was sitting on the back steps having a cigarette when I noticed the neighbors outside under a tree, hair and shirts soaked with sweat.

I started feeling uncomfortable. Here I was, a good 20 years younger than the old woman across the street, resting in air conditioning while she was suffering in the heat. I knew that I was better off financially than her family, and could afford the high summer electric bill. They didn't even have an air conditioner. Neither does the mentally impaired man that lives next door to me. He, too, has a much lower income than do I. I started to feel guilty. I went inside and turned it off. To this day I only run it if it is extremely hot. Otherwise, I sleep in the basement, where it is cooler. Somehow I feel it keeps me and them on the same playing field, the same level of humanness.

Some of you reading this may think I am being ridiculous. I have a feeling this way of looking at the world comes from my early Methodist upbringing - that the Christian thing to do is to share what we have with those less fortunate, that there is nothing admirable about having more than you need, especially when others are suffering. Somewhere inside there is a faint, far away voice that says "What would Jesus do?". I can't believe he would sit in the 1% while the rest of his community struggled. I am no longer a Christian, but I have discovered I still hold those beliefs. I cannot in good conscience sit in a cool air conditioned house while my neighbors suffer.

In Lansing we now have many more people standing on the corners of busy intersections, asking for help. They hold signs that say "Have Family, Need Food, God Bless", "Hungry, Please Help", "Will Work for Food", "Need Job, Must Feed Family". I don't like what I have become. I doubt them. I don't trust them. I don't believe them. Then I look into their eyes as I pass them by. I see their desperation, their pain. Feelings that are familiar to me now. They have no where else to go, nothing left to do but ask their fellow human beings for help.  Every once in awhile a car window rolls down and a compassionate soul hands them money. But most don't.

I want to tell them I am sorry I cannot help them, because I am not working either. I want to ask them what happened to them, what went wrong? I see them as children who got lost along the way, or were forced into poverty by the system. I want to take them home, give them a good hot meal, a warm bed, a song. I want to give them something to hope for, a chance. I think about my own life. I have nothing to complain about, I have a fairly new car, a beautiful home full of beautiful sacred things, I have clothes and a bed. I have dear friends and family who give me money and food. I am one step away from where they are. I don't know how to tell them any of that. I drive on.

I was once in a car with a conservative co-worker and we passed a homeless person on the corner.  "Get a job!" he yelled at the man, although fortunately the windows of the car were rolled up. Get a job. I am sure my co-worker never gave thought to what it means to have nothing. Or how one who has nothing is supposed to get a job. Especially today. No home means no stuff. No stuff means no clothes. No food. No money. No computer. No cell phone. It means that the only thing you can do every day is try to find your next meal or a safe place to stay. A job? Give me a break. I know how beaten down I feel having been unemployed for so long, I can't imagine not having my bed to sleep in. There but for the grace of God go I.

I don't think that we as a community really understand that there is a finite amount of money, most of which is in the possession of the wealthy. We non-wealthy folks don't have access to it unless the wealthy give it up. It really is pretty simple. The more wealth they accumulate, the less money that is available for everybody else. They call themselves job creators, but think about it. The major corporations show record profits. How do they get those profits? By reducing benefits, taking away collective bargaining rights and pensions, reducing insurance coverage, lowering wages, and creating jobs that pay minimum wage. Or ship the jobs out of the US. They can't possibly want to create jobs that are good paying with excellent benefits, that would cut into profits. It is all about money, remember. There is only so much, and they ain't sharing.

The definition of the word welfare is the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization. The word welfare breaks down into faring well. Who doesn't want to fare well? Who doesn't want everyone else to fare well, too? When did we allow the conservatives in this country to tarnish the meaning of the word? When did a certain group in our society begin to fill with hatred when the government tried to ensure that all citizens would fare well? Who corrupted the term "welfare state" to mean a country of moochers, when it really means a country that values and ensures good fortune, health, happiness, and prosperity to its citizens?

I will leave my air conditioner off this year, so as to stand on the same ground as my neighbors. And I will continue to offer help to others as well as accept help from others. We all want the same things in life. Health happiness, prosperity, and good fortune. Well fare. This I wish for you.

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