Tag Archives: Poverty

MAID : Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive

My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.

Stephanie Land’s New York Times’ bestseller, Maid threw a flash-bang grenade into my mind unearthing memories from forty years ago. My husband and I were on a military move with everything in storage and traveling across country from California to eventually, Berlin, Germany. One morning my husband left to get the car washed. I never saw him again for eleven years. He disappeared with the location of our household items, financial records, military ID cards, checkbook and my personal identification. I tell you all this because my own experience colored my view of the book.

You might ask why I would select a book that pushed me back into my own black hole? I applaud anyone successfully reaching a place in life where food, housing, utility expenses, and child care aren’t luxuries. It is not an easy trip up from the bottom of the barrel.

The publisher’s summary indicated that Stephanie’s story was an uplifting memoir of a strong willed woman clawing her way from abject poverty through the kitchens and bathrooms of other people’s homes to become a successful author. Her experience as a household maid highlights what it was like for her to be trapped beneath the ledge of poverty struggling looking for that crack in the wall leading to a better life.

Evicted meets Nickel and Dimed in Stephanie Land’s memoir about working as a maid, a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America.”

Stephanie let a hook-up with unprotected sex force a course correction in her future plans. Unexpectedly pregnant, she had to make a choice – abortion, adoption, or acceptance. She knew, having grown up in a household that struggled to support a family, raising a child alone would be hard. She chose to keep her child and to love her unconditionally.

While Stephanie came to grips with her new situation she took advantage of many public assistance programs. She found that complying with their restrictions and conditions was extremely time consuming. The supplemental income came with a price. When you live paycheck to paycheck at a minimum wage job, she explains, risking your job security by taking time off and losing a day’s pay just to stand in line for hours is a big deal.

She describes the judgmental looks and outright verbal taunts she receives using her assistance cards when shopping. “Get a job.” “You can thank me.” After a while, she felt everyone was judging her; whether they were or not. Some of her negative experiences might have come from her choices of food items. Her preference to use only organic foods was certainly her right but having walked down poverty lane, I believe that she could have had more bang for her buck with lower cost healthy items.

Stephanie had an advantage unavailable to a lot of other single parents in her position; she received regular child support checks. She seemed miffed at the amount, but trust me, as someone who never got a dime, $250 dollars a month would seem like manna from heaven. Stephanie had an even better stroke of luck – the father and his family wanted a relationship with the baby. But from Stephanie’s point-of-view, the time spent with the father was used to destroy her relationship with her daughter. As Stephanie seems to find every relationship a confrontation and everything some one else’s fault, it is hard to accept that things are as bad as she tells us in the book.

You will notice that I haven’t touched on her work as a maid. That is because I really don’t think the story was about her work as a maid. She spent a lot of time describing the horrible conditions she found in each home, the long arduous hours, the costly unreimbursed travel expense and the poor pay. My question? Why stay with the agency when she herself stated she found her own clients that paid much more?

Let me be the first to say that making life decisions is hard when you are scared to give up any kind of paying job to try and grab that next rung up the ladder. Everyone makes stupid mistakes and poor judgement calls. There were a few times I wanted to reach through the page and throttle her. Grow a smile! Look ahead to a brighter life not look around and spend your valuable time in a perpetual pity-party. I know. (I moaned and groaned away my best friend before I stopped whining and took charge.)

Let me close out on a more positive note. Stephanie has revealed one of the biggest issues facing the poor. Childcare. Quality childcare. Reliable and affordable childcare. My greatest challenge was finding childcare for my son while I worked the night-shift. In many ways, finding somewhere to live is easier than finding someone to care for your child(ren).

Read the book? Absolutely. Fabulous book club book. Stephanie has exposed the underbelly of minimum wage workers and single parenthood issues.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

THE
ABSOLUTELY
TRUE
DIARY of a PART-TIME INDIAN : a novel

Author: Sherman Alexie

Little, Brown and Co. 2007
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Hardcover: 229 pages

The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association reports that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appears on the Top 10 List of Challenged or Banned Books in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.
Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, religious viewpoint, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence, depictions of bullying.

Author Information

Sherman Alexie

The title tells it like it is. Sherman Alexie was born a Spokane Indian. He grew up where the book is set, on a reservation – the “rez” – in Wellpinit, Washington State. He was, like his central character, hydrocephalic at birth, “with too much grease inside my skull”. And in his teens he attended Reardan High School, off the reservation, near the rich farm town, where all the other students were white. Many authors hum and ha when asked if their fiction is in any way autobiographical. This one makes no bones about it and yet skillfully manages to transform his actual experience into a novel. True fiction. Absolutely.

Source: https://theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/04/teenage.sherman.alexie

Excerpt

 Arnold Spirit, Jr says:

I was born with water on the brain. . . My family thinks it as funny when the doctors. . . sucked out all that extra water with some tiny vacuum. . .

My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other so my ugly glasses were all lopsided. . . I ended up with [42] teeth. . . Ten more than usual.

My head was so big. . . the kids called me Globe.

And oh, I was skinny. . .[but] my hands and feet were huge.

I also stutter and have a lisp. . . Every body on the rez calls me a retard. . . Do you know what happens to retards on the Rez? We get beat up. . .

Every kid wants to go outside. But it’s safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and draw cartoons. . . [I] draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. . .

[I] draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.

Book Review and Comments

Life on the impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation is rough on everyone but especially difficult for 14 year old Arnold Spirit, Jr aka Junior. His physical oddities and stuttering make him the perfect target for the mean spirited bullies on the “rez”.

Trapped by poverty and the effects of rampant alcoholism, he finds safety turning inward and dreaming of a better life off the reservation. He hides out in his room with his favorite books and resorts to writing about his life events – drawing relevant cartoons that express his deepest feelings and thoughts. One of my favorite cartoons depicts his parents lives if they were not handcuffed by culture, poverty and alcohol.

Determined not to be identified by his culture and circumstance, he never gives up hope to be seen as an individual on his own merits. We learn of his joys and sorrows through his diary.

Junior’s diary entries are written after the fact. They are openly honest and matter-of-fact; not offered as excuses or for shock value. They are sometimes startlingly emotional, often lonely, and at all times, written with unabashed candor and filled with optimism and hope.

As a child of two alcoholics, Arnold has seen first hand what alcohol can do to a family – hunger is a constant as Dad leaves to get bread and comes back drunk. His beloved Grandmother, who never touched a drop of alcohol, was run over by a drunken friend of Arnold’s father. His father’s friend was later killed in a drunken fight. His sister, Mary, and her husband were inebriated when they died in an accidental house fire.

FACT:   A popular blog on Native American life says that alcoholism is a disease that takes root like a parasitic plant that can affect every aspect of life, even including the potential death of its host. It seems appropriate that this candid view of the subject by Junior presents readers with an opportunity to view the ramifications of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Junior’s life takes a turn when he begins his first day in high school and he is issued an ancient textbook that he discovers had been used by his mother in the past. Faced full-on with the dead-end future he could expect from the inferior education on the rez, he reacts by pitching the text book injuring his teacher, Mr. P.

A week into his school suspension, Mr. P comes to visit him at home.  Junior, expecting Mr. P’s wrath, is surprised, when Mr. P says –

When I first started teaching here. . . we beat rowdy [students]. That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian [in you] to save the child. . . We were trying to kill the Indian culture. . . I want to say you deserve better. . . If you stay on the rez, we will kill [the spirit] in you. . . You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.

Arnold is disheartened by his father’s dependence on alcohol but he never doubts that he is loved by both of his parents. He tells them how important it is to him to leave the rez and transfer to the  high school twenty-two miles away for a better education. His father supports his decision although he knows that Junior will face deeply entrenched racism. His best friend on the rez, Rowdy, gives him a black-eye and a swollen nose as a going-away gift.  He might have been the victim of bullying on the rez but his leaving the culture in his rear-view mirror now labels him a traitor. Indian families follow tradition and stay together.

[His first day at the new school begins with] the white kids. . .arriving for school. They surround me. Those kids aren’t white. They were translucent. . .They stared at me like I was Bigfoot. . .[Their school mascot] was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town.

Junior/Arnold has a very hard time on all sides of his new life battling bullying and insults on both fronts. But as time goes by that first year, the “white” Arnold begins to emerge from his repressed rez cocoon at the new school excelling in academics and sports. He also finds racism, bullying, violence, drugs, girls, and hormonal explosion with exposure to raw sex.

FACT: According to the The Children’s Assessment Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan it is estimated that 40-85% of children will engage in at least some sexual behaviors before turning thirteen years of age (Friedrich, et al, 1991). It is believed by experts that 80% of children have masturbated by the age of three (Parenting, 1997). Children need to learn about sexuality. If children do not receive information about sexuality from their parents, they will receive it from their peers, TV, magazines, movies and other media, which may provide them with misinformation and cause confusion. 

I understand that some parents will prefer that their children acquire sexual knowledge at a time and place of their choosing. However, I am an old woman and I can affirm that when you learn about sex is usually far earlier than your parents think you are ready.

Junior’s life on the rez remains downcast until tragedy strikes his family and the entirety of the Spokane reservation pulls together in their grief and he is accepted back into the fold – with reservations- pun unintended.

By the end of his Freshman year, Junior/Arnold has a girlfriend in town and has his life on the reservation. He has learned many lessons during the year.  The view of the “white’ town, seen as a meca for educational advancement, turns out to be less than perfect- normal in its own way. The problems that plague the reservation may differ based on culture, but all communities have their good points and their bad. He has learned first hand how  poverty can make you feel inferior to those with money for new clothes and fast food. But he also learns that love and friendship can be color-blind.

I think that Arnold/Junior sums it all quite nicely. Yup. A cussword, Often my favorite.

format_quoteI used to think the world was broken down by tribes, I said. By black and white. By Indian and white.But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.

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My Name Is Lucy Barton

my-name-is-lucy-cover-with-frame

My Name Lucy Barton

Author: Elizabeth Stout
Random House
Literary Fiction       ★★★★☆

Jan 12, 2016 | 193 Pages
ISBN 9781400067695

  Ingram Best of the Best
  Indie Next
  LibraryReads
 Kirkus Starred Review
  Booklist Starred Review

ARC e-reader provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW REDUX
A year ago I posted a review of My Name is Lucy Barton. My book club will be reading it next month and I decided to re-read the book and to take a look at my last posting. What a sorry self-centered post! The book flushed out some submerged emotions from my own childhood and I responded with a pity party posting. Here’s the review I should have written the first time!

There was a time,and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks…To begin with, it was a simple story:rocking-chair-penciled I had gone into the hospital to have my appendix out…And then a fever arrived…About three weeks after I was admitted… I found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed…I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her…….

Lucy grew up in the tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois; one of those eyesore communities where homes were visibly decaying and their yards reflected their barren lives. In this hardscrabble community, Lucy’s family stood on the bottom rung of poverty.

Lucy’s childhood was lost in the tension and silence of a family struggling to survive.  Each face etched with hopelessness, just breathing to stay alive in the present, struggling with the past and praying to survive what ever the future would bring. The Bartons lived for many years in a garage with the barest of essentials; starving for physical and emotional warmth. The three Barton children suffered daily, facing harsh discipline while living in dire conditions.

Telling a lie and wasting food were always things to be punished for. Otherwise, on occasion and without warning my parents – and it was usually my mother and usually in the presence of our father – struck us impulsively and vigorously.

Lucy’s father harbored demons brought home from WWII and in unpredictable moments would release the Kraken in a moment of bizarre and uncontrollable behavior that Lucy named the “Thing”. Her mother, a lost soul herself, unable to express love, was torn between her marriage and her children.

Bullied by peers, alone in every imaginable way, Lucy sought refuge in the few books available at her small school. These books took her places she couldn’t have dreamed existed and in the end proved to be her ticket into the larger world. Lucy, without real friends, sought recognition through achievement and excellence at school. Yet at home, Lucy’s academic accomplishments were unacknowledged by her parents – preferring to ignore them in deference to her two siblings who showed no interest in education.

There were moments of kindness in her childhood – a friendly janitor who looked the other way as Lucy stayed late in her warm classroom to do her homework, the teacher who recognized Lucy’s hunger for reading and encouraged her, and a guidance counselor who helped Lucy obtain a full scholarship to college.

She guardedly made friends, flourished in her love of words, and astonished herself when she fell in love… with her husband, William. William, the son of a German prisoner-of-war, had been living on the East coast snared in the clutches of his needy widowed mother. He sought escape in a college in the Midwest. Buoyed by love and promises of a bright future, William and Lucy headed to meet Lucy’s parents with their happy plans to marry and move to New York City.

[My father] looked at William…I saw in my father’s face great contortions, the kind that preceded what as a child I had called..the Thing…My father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself.

My mother said, ‘Your father has a lot of trouble with German people. You should have told us’.

I know Daddy was in the war,,,but he never talked about any of that.

‘Your father doesn’t [talk about it]’

Why is that?

‘Because it wouldn’t be decent. Who in God’s name brought you up?’

Lucy and William did marry and moved to New York City.  They became the parents to two daughters who never knew their grandparents.

Lucy’s parents never came to the wedding and she never saw either of them again…until years later…Lucy went into the hospital with appendicitis. What should have been routine surgery left Lucy hospitalized for nine weeks with a fever of unknown origin. Her husband, terrified of hospitals, stayed home with the girls and worked at shutting out his wife’s needs.  After three lonely weeks, Lucy awoke from a nap to discover her mother seated in a chair by her bed. She stayed by Lucy’s side for five days in her hospital room.

Years after her mother’s visit to the hospital, Lucy attended a writer’s workshop. A prominent author leading the workshop encouraged  Lucy to write her story- warts and all.  She found that opening that door to her past was necessary to finding her way in the future. Central to her life’s story are those five precious days with her mother at the hospital.

As I re-read the book , I found myself reading it more slowly – savoring the words not spoken. The first time through, affected personally by own memories, I had missed what made those five days so memorable to Lucy. There’s a heavy air of loneliness and insecurity in Lucy’s life. But in the end, she has matured, grown, reflected and shed some of her emotional baggage in her efforts to find peace in her heart and in her life. Not everyone will agree with her decisions…but don’t we all have to reach for our true north to find our way?

The first time I read the following words, I missed the point. I saw only a mother who could not express her love to her daughter.  The second time, I felt the love in the silence and between the unspoken words.  This mother and daughter never grew close, shared words of love, or interacted in each other’s lives after the hospital visit. But there was solace in knowing her mother loved her.  As Lucy tells us…She was loved. Imperfectly.  And that was enough.

“Mommy, do you love me?
My mother shook her head. Wizzle, stop.
“Come on, Mom, tell me.” I began to laugh, and she began to laugh too.
Wizzle, for heaven’s sake.”
I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands.
“Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”
Silly girl…You silly, silly girl.
I lay back down and closed my eyes…”Mom, my eyes are closed.”
Lucy, you stop now. I heard the mirth in her voice.
There was a silence for a while. I was happy.
“Mom?”
When your eyes are closed, she said.
“You love me when my eyes are closed?”
When your eyes are closed, she said.
And we stopped the game, but I was so happy.

Highly recommended. Would make a very good book club selection.

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