I am a dreamer. Head in the clouds and feet always steps ahead of tomorrow. This lack of attentiveness to the daily minutia of adult responsibility has caused no end of concern for those who care about me. I have never been very good at the whole 9-5 job thing—preferring instead the flexibility that comes with freelancing. I like to set my own hours, work at my own pace (that old adage “If it weren’t for the last minute, I’d never get anything done,” was written with me in mind), take vacations whenever I want, and always fit in a nap in the afternoon. I’m a big proponent of the siesta.
There are down sides to this particular way of life, however, and the main drawback is that there are definite times of feast and times of famine. When I moved back down South I landed a really wonderful contract design position that lasted just over a year. The work was great, I only needed to commute three days per week, the campus was beautiful, and the people I worked with were even better. But, as with all good things, it came to an end just a week before my wedding. I’d had my time of feast and little did I know, I was about to embark on the worst time of famine I have ever experienced.
My last check paid the last of the vendors. There were no pennies left in the coffers. We were bone dry. Just enough. We cut back as far as we possibly could and then we cut back some more by changing our honeymoon plans at the last minute. I held on to promises made from previous and prospective clients that work would be waiting on the doorstep upon my return. I came back to dry and brittle leaves and tales of cutbacks and delays. I began to come around to the reality of my situation: I had no job. I had no money. Li and I, not yet living together, still had to maintain two separate homes and I was already behind in rent and utilities. I looked at my child and thought, “Now what?”
I started applying for everything. Overqualified. Overqualified. Overqualified. Not to mention the number of scam artists out there that prey upon the millions of unemployed. Oh, the vitriol I spewed upon those who take the underprivileged for granted. As freelance work started to trickle in, I knew my situation would be temporary, but the plight of this country is far from over and I became infuriated at the sheer gall that anyone would try to rip off someone desperately looking for an honest day’s work.
As the days turned into weeks and kind-hearted friends began to quietly press handfuls of bills into my palm at church services, I wept in humiliation and slept in long bouts of depression. A dear friend sent me an email with a list of emergency services in the area that help those who cannot help themselves. It was two weeks before I finally pulled out the cardboard box containing all of my unopened bills that I knew were red-stamped for discontinuation of service. I would rather have faced a firing squad than faced what was in that box. An idealist doesn’t want to know that the reality of the situation is that they can no longer support herself or her child—even temporarily. She doesn’t want to admit that she’s reached the bottom of the barrel yet again and in order to pull herself up she’s going to have to swallow every ounce of pride and join the ranks of those who line up early in the morning to tell her story and lay her financial soul bare and hope and pray for the compassion of strangers. She doesn’t want to work a part-time, seasonal retail job for $7.75 an hour for the next two months to put a few presents under her kid’s Christmas tree while she waits 30 days for her freelance work to start paying off. What she wants is a miracle. What she gets is a friend who is willing to drive her there and sit with her during the whole ordeal.
So I found myself at the mercy of the volunteers at Crisis Control Ministry at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday morning. Armed with a legal pad, pen, and a blue folder containing all of the necessary paperwork, I was called into one office after another. Repeatedly telling my story of how I came to be there and why I needed help. Me. I needed help. My gut churned and a hard lump remained firmly planted in my throat. The physical manifestation of my abject humiliation. Just one in a room overflowing with humanity in need. Eventually, someone came to me with two checks. My heat would stay on. My water would keep running. Their lack of private funding prevented them from doing anything about my rent. So they gave me a list of other places I could go and I thanked them profusely and found myself shuffled into another room with a shopping cart placed before me.
Wait. What? I’m the woman who volunteers as often as I am able. I’m the woman who donates to food banks on a regular basis. I’m the woman who serves meals to the homeless and hungry. An unsmiling, tired woman with a clipboard is pointing out a shelf of canned goods and telling me how many dented cans of green beans I can take. I wanted to turn and run. I didn’t want this kind of charity. And then, somewhere in the back of my mind, a tiny little voice of reason spoke up and reminded me that I would not see a real check until mid-December and I had a child to feed.
I swallowed past the lump in my throat and backhanded the tears. I took the green beans and waited for my next instructions.
The following night our church held a concert benefitting a local food bank. The price of admission was at least one non-perishable food item. It has been a long-held belief of mine that you give even what you don’t have and so we showed up that night with four plastic bags of groceries. I sat in the second pew and watched the piles grow as my son took the cans, boxes of pasta, and macaroni and cheese from the parishioners and artfully arranged them. Everyone remarked at the bounty we had gathered. But my heart ached because I had the experience of being on the other side, of seeing how many people in just one morning needed assistance, needed help paying their bills, needed food for their tables—and just how small that storeroom actually was and how quickly those supplies dwindled. Our bounty wasn’t bountiful enough. It was but a drop. I closed my eyes and thanked God for giving me the opportunity to learn this lesson in humility and need, but also to know first-hand the lack of support we have in this country to fulfill the needs of the millions that are unemployed and underemployed.
I got my instructions that night: Pay it forward, child, pay it forward.