OUR Shame Back Pack

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I once watched my father leave us in the middle of family dinner to break up a fight between the drunk neighbor and his even drunker brother that we barely knew because the wife called our house in a panic.

Our family living room was more like a counseling center the way that family, friends and mere acquaintances stopped by on weeknights and weekends to visit with Papi and seek his counsel. Papi always listened to them and prayed with them, in spite of the fact that he was often finishing a twelve-hour work day or a six-day work week and had a dinner that was growing cold on the kitchen table.

That old man of mine taught me how to take the time to buy food for the homeless. He would walk and talk with people in the most need and purchase a family dinner for them before looking them in the eyes and telling them how precious and special they were to God.

A few months ago, I sat next to him on a plane on the way to a family funeral in Florida and watched as he pulled out an Ivory Hallmark card with gold embellishments and a gold engraving that read, “Con El Mas Sentido Pesame.” I asked how much he was giving, out of curiosity, and when he told me I could not help but comment on how much this trip was costing him.

He gave me a big smile, his braces gleaming in between his thin lips. “I’m not taking anything with me when I die” he said with the tenderness of a father bestowing wisdom to his first born.

______________________

A few months ago, my sister was interviewed by a writer and philanthropist who was doing research on a book he was writing about childhood cancer survivors. Moved by my sister’s story, he offered to help raise the money to pay for the hearing aids she needs but has gone without for the past three years. He was not specific about what the process would look like, but we moved forward in making appointments and getting a full audiological evaluation.

Well – I moved forward. I think it’s safe to say I’m the mover and the shaker in my family. My sister is starting to follow in my footsteps, but in her defense there is a lot of coddling a.k.a. mimando that comes with being 1) the baby in the family and 2) a cancer survivor. And to top it all off, she’s currently in grad school – so she gets the pass on not being very proactive in this particular instance.

I contacted a good friend and mentor who is an audiologist and asked her for some recommendations. Without a second thought, she got us an appointment at her university clinic.

When the final invoice came in, Chiquita forwarded the philanthropist the information and expressed my interest to help in any way possible. He talked about strategizing how to raise the money and even encouraged her to write about her story on their Facebook group to get the conversation started. We did not hear back from him for another two weeks.

The radio silence was jolting. We had gotten so close to getting Chiquita the hearing aids she needed. I was nervous that the process would come to an indefinite stop if we didn’t have an alternative way to pay for the hearing aids.

My intention in creating a gofundme page was to create a central location for donations and get the process going. I knew that my sister was not going to request the funds on her own behalf.

God blessed me with the gift of wordsmithery. So I used my blessing to try and help my sister. I wrote an essay – a call to action – to help raise funds for something that she needed – excuse me, something that she needs. And I felt a lot of anxiety about it.

I posted essay number thirteen in the #52essays2017 challenge at 7:30PM on a Tuesday night. It was titled, “Her Life as a Survivor.” At the end of the essay was a link to the gofundme page I created on Chiquita’s behalf.

The jitters in my stomach as I hit the publish button had probably consumed most of the espresso in my Starbucks drink.

I called upon my community to request that if people had money to share they would donate towards a good cause – reinstating my sister’s hearing to almost normal again.

Minutes after posting the essay and gofundme dedicated to raising money for my sister’s hearing aids, the e-mail notifications started trickling in. Five dollars here, ten dollars there – all given with so much love and starting to add up to our goal.

You forget the community that you have until you are truly in need.

My audiologist friend contacted me asking follow up questions about the philanthropist I had mentioned. She too wanted Jeannette to have the hearing aids she needed and was confused as to what had happened to the funding this man had mentioned. I called her and we discussed the scenario in detail. She shared the gofundme with her audiological community on Faceook.

She assured me Jeannette was going to get the hearing aids she needed, one way or another.

When I got off the phone, all the messages that had been making my phone vibrate came through at once. Most of them from my father.

8:19PM: Hola hija. We just saw your post on facebook regarding Jeanette’s hearing aids. Please call me asap. We should have discussed this as a family before making a public request of this type. I would really appreciate if you take this down until we further discuss this as a family.

8:33PM: I need to know the total cost of the hearing aid, and how much help she was getting to determine the balance. I want you both to know we have no pride here. Just strongly feel we do not need to do this. If we can pay a mortgage and enjoy vacation each year, by the grace and provision of God, than it is time for us to trust that he can provide. Please take this down today and we will discuss the alternatives as a family. I am uncomfortable with this. Love you hijas. Can one of you call me?

8:39PM: Nia, I will be out of the shower in ten minutes. Please call me. Need to talk to you. In the meantime, please take the facebook page requesting financial assistance down.

My anxiety hit an all time high. Shame mauled me like a rabid dog. Hot, burning tears pooled in my eyes and overflowed down my face onto my lap.

I called my father back. He explained his disposition and discomfort at this public request for financial help – insisting that they would find a way to pay for her hearing aids.

I tried not to let emotion rule my responses, but found it near impossible. I explained why I didn’t think to come to them. How I knew that the savings they had was just enough to be deemed somewhat responsible for two older homeowners. How I had sent Chiquita the essay and gotten her approval on the information I was sharing. How I had created the gofundme as a central location for potential philanthropists to donate towards her cause. And how his reaction was causing me to feel deep rooted shame that threatened to crack me open like fragile glass.

He apologized, insisting that his response was not meant to shame me but also insisting that I make the gofundme private until we figured out what we were going to do.

He went on to text me later that night and tell me what a beautiful essay it was.

The shame was still there when I went to bed, although it was less violent. Instead it nipped at my heart like an overstimulated puppy.

________

What is wrong with asking for help when you need it?

I’ve read two essays on poverty and the shaming of people who ask for help in the last two weeks that I’ve been grappling with my feelings surrounding this interaction with my father.

In her week 67 essay, Vanessa Martir talks about the shame she felt growing up impoverished and attending a wealthy (mostly-white) boarding school on a scholarship. She describes in detail the shame she wore like a backpack as she swiped her Benefit card at the grocery store for the six months she spent on Welfare so that she could feed her daughter. And she goes on to make the connection and how it is that shame that makes it difficult for her to charge more money for the courses that she teaches.

The other day in class, a student said: “You can charge so much more for this class than you do.” This student is in a PhD program. He talked about the classes he’s taken, what people pay thousands of dollars for, where he says they never learn the craft elements of writing that I teach for $620 for nine five hour classes. Other students chimed in, echoing the sentiment. I felt that familiar shame lean in. I said: “I want to keep the class accessible to my community.” And I do mean that. I mean that with my entire heart. But I also hear the echo of the message I’ve been told so many times: that I don’t deserve to ask for or expect more. How do you balance this? I’m still figuring it out. I want to keep this class accessible to the communities that I write for and to, but I also need to live, feed my family, pay my bills, etc.

Logically I know I am worthy. Logically I know that this shame is not mine. It is poison. It is vitriol…but the heart is another matter, and it’s hard to push back on these things that have been ingrained in us for so damn long.”

Shame is a cesspool of toxicity. It clouds judgement and eats away at logic. And it burns in my belly at the thought of asking others for help. My father’s initial reaction was a reminder of that.

The second essay is titled “My Shame Back Pack” by Connie Pertuz-Meza. She writes about her experiences growing up poor in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. About a visit from the welfare agency lady where she walked around their apartment with a clipboard in hand as she checked the corners and the cupboards. About how she got accepted into VONA 2017 and is struggling to ask for help in raising the money to pay for the tuition because she cannot afford it.

I understand her shame. I feel pangs of both sympathy and solidarity at once.

I too applied to VONA 2017 but was not accepted. Not even waitlisted. Before hearing back from VONA, I wondered how I would pay for the conference fees if I did get in. I mentioned to my partner that maybe I could start a gofundme. He expressed that it wasn’t a good idea to start a gofundme for something like that.

______________________________

I don’t like to say that we grew up poor. Not because of shame. Because poverty in America is nothing like poverty in other countries I have traveled to. I never went hungry a day in my life. I don’t know what it is to be shipped out of my house at seven years old because I need to start earning my keep as a housemaid in someone’s else’s home.

But I also know that on the scale of wealth in America, we weighed in on the side of poverty. I was allowed one pair of sneakers for the entire school year. I had to choose between white and black. After my first year of white sneakers, I realized black was the safer bet. I envied all the girls with small feet who changed their sneakers to match the color of their outfits.

My father tells me of days where he used to take us to the laundromat to wash clothes and he didn’t even have a spare quarter to give us for the candy machine. I may have never gone a day being hungry, but we sure ate some questionable meals for the sake of using what we had combined with what was on sale. Even my mother’s fine cooking skills couldn’t disguise potato rolls with leftover potato salad. My stomach ached the night we ate that.

And yet I watched my parents give – their time, their love, their money – to their family, their friends and their church. Living through all this is what made me the generous woman I am today. I often wish I had more so that I could give even more generously than I already do.

So instead of focusing on the shame that nips at me incessantly at the thought of asking for help, or at the thought of having asked for help – I try and focus on the value of generosity. On the people I have given to and the people that have given to me. How it often all comes full circle.

And I think to myself what I would say if I did encounter a hypothetical someone who wanted to judge me or anyone else for asking for help:

If you don’t like what someone is raising money for, if you deem it irresponsible or want to make mental notes about everything you’ve seen them spend money on for the last two years – don’t donate! It’s that simple. Go about living your life and spending your money on whatever you deem a priority.

I get it. I really do. We’ve all been there – watching someone spend their money in what we have decided is a frivolous manner, calculating how we would do it differently. I would be a hypocrite if I said I’d never had those thoughts. But people have different priorities for money and you have to learn to accept that. I have.

But if you feel in your heart that someone’s cause is weighing on you for whatever reason it may be – give what you can. Because generosity, in any capacity – not only financial, is a demonstration of love. And this world would be a better place if there was a little more love and  a lot less shaming.

“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.”  – Maya Angelou

****this is essay 16 in the #52essays2017 challenge.

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