Slow Progress

When you report symptoms of depression and anxiety, the doctors give you a chart to fill out. Rating on a scale of frequency, it asks questions like how often you feel like you’d be better off dead, or take little interest in doing things. Though I caved to trying psychiatric medications years ago, they still haven’t found anything to bring down my scores from the most extreme.

One question on this chart has always stood out to me. It asks, “Do you feel that you are being punished?”  It’s such a strange question to ask someone who has had to let go of everything in life – a career, a family, an extended family, a home, convenience itself. How am I to look at my experience and feel that I am not being punished?

I started my research on economic inequality from a place of anger. Anger is great for writing if you know how to edit yourself out of saying something absurd and indefensible. It heats my blood, which is also great for my poor circulation. It motivates me to put one word in front of the other.

But each fall and winter, my depression puts my emotions into hibernation. Writing is more of a task than an escape. The motivation has been sucked out of me, and the fight to eat and sleep is more pressing than the fight to keep telling the world about how awful it is. How I’m so lucky to have sponsors and patrons and clients, when so many of the people I know don’t have those opportunities, yet I’m still dragging along, clinging to my vices because they’re all I can afford.

My need to be grateful fights with my depression. I don’t have a right to be depressed, my depression tells me. Yet every day, as I break down in the kitchen because I’m tired of cooking chicken and rice and stretching out the food stamps to last, as I take hours to accomplish basic errands because I cannot afford a car, as I work to find more work for myself that can be done at home, I know that I need to keep speaking about poverty, because it is a relentless monster that is hurting so many people.

There are extremes to poverty. But to have that conversation would mean breaking down the entire nature of the word “poverty.” As I study the economic complexities of eradicating poverty, I’ve learned it’s important to ask why poverty exists in the first place. I think the religious answer has always been that poverty is a fact of life, it just is a thing that happens. There’s a vague notion, both among the religious and nonreligious, that those who are poor pretty much deserve to be poor – it’s Karma or fate or punishment for being a bad person.

Another punishing element of poverty is that it’s literally criminalized. If you don’t have enough to pay, you’ll be punished with, of course, having to pay more money. This applies to late fees, interest on debts, counts against a credit score, and parking tickets. I once had a job where everyone but the managers had to pay to park, and if I couldn’t get my boss to let me run outside and refill the meter, I’d get a ticket. It doesn’t make sense to punish lack of money with charging more money – unless the whole purpose is to exact money from the poor. As has been circulating on revolutionary social media, “Punishable by a fine means legal for the rich.”

Growing up, I thought I was poor. But I was not – everything was just spread really thin because we had over a dozen people living on a single middle-class income. My parents didn’t like the idea of handouts or laziness being rewarded, and treated poverty like it was a choice. Something they had chosen by having so many children. I was reflecting on the mixed messages recently, realizing I couldn’t wrap my head around them at all. We were poor because of how many people there were, my dad loved to say. But he also loved to say that everyone should have large families because children aren’t actually that big of an expense.

Pursuing an economic narrative that holds water has not been easy – that is, I was looking in all the wrong places at first. I once religiously read Tim Ferris’ books on how to get ahead financially. I believed that the solution was in my own productivity and output. That was what I’d been taught, and all of my siblings are so obsessed with being productive that we can’t relax. Now I’m reading about a much bigger, older world than the one I was introduced to. A 6,000-year-old earth simply cannot hold the vastness of our evolutionary history. A 6,000-year-old earth cannot even hold the many dynasties and civilizations that predate Greco-Roman-European-U.S. rule.

Now I see that poverty is relentless for the exact reason that wealth relentlessly flows to the wealthiest among us. I once researched and argued for trickle-down capitalist economics, and I hope this gives me some understanding of those who still believe what I used to. But once I found myself homeless and employed, the dragging hours of having nothing to do except swelter in a car between shifts were a worse punishment than anything my parents concocted when I was a child.

Poverty is so impersonal. From the homeless on the streets of the U.S. to the 2 million displaced people in Yemen, the poor suffer the collateral damage of other powers. There is no control over the situation, except to keep selling your labor. So what happens when you realize that no matter how hard you work, you’ll never get ahead? What if, in fact, the system was designed to keep you running in place?

These are the questions I’m working on answering. But right now, instead of feeling angry, I feel very depressed about it all, and the researching process takes about ten times the energy output I have to give. Every movement drags. Every experience is tainted with a cloud of depression. Genuine emotion comes in short outbursts, and mostly, they are more helpful to my therapy than to my writing.

I ponder often Amanda Palmer’s amazing book The Art of Asking, in which she goes to great lengths to explain that it is perfectly acceptable to ask, and keep asking, when you’re an artist in need. But it’s not that easy when you’re poor, and while I adore Amanda and her work and what she’s done for artists, her affluent background with a dependable family and full education in art makes it hard for me to relate. But I hope one day to emulate Amanda Fucking Palmer and embrace my art with as much revelry and abandon. I know that such things cannot be fabricated. They take the practice of reflection, mindfulness, and dedicated work on the art that matters. That is the work I am prioritizing in my life. As always, please do not give to your own detriment, and only give if you can spare. But if you want to help me stay housed this month, my PayPal and CashApp information are here.

I sat down to write about how my mind and body are going through a lot, and it became about my immediate needs. I want so badly to break beyond this threshold and get to a point where I can give of my excess, rather than struggling to get by. So often, I see people saying “I want to get rich so I can give my money away.” I think this is a noble enough goal, at least in capitalist-colonist terms. Yet the real solution would be something far broader – a redistribution of resources that doesn’t define wealth according to currency and property. For now, what we can do for each other is spread resources to those in need.

Needs come to the foreground every time I talk to my therapist, and it hinders me to be worried about life as it is, because I’m trying to recover. When life is as full of punishing hard knocks for a young adult as it was in their rocky childhood, what are we to say about recovery as a whole? People want to hear a story of victory, and to hear that a survivor is doing well, recovering and getting better. But I’m stalled, hung up on the need to survive, and it’s tempting to constantly worry about the present instead of processing the past.

I am finally coming out of my freeze, and after several months of slogging through the effort of trying different medications, it seems that I’m on ones that work now. I’m so grateful to everyone who has been helping me along on this journey – more than words can say. 

As the months have passed, and it’s been over a year since I’ve been able to drive, life has slowed down and I am learning to be patient with its pace. I have to plan around bus schedules that take hours to take me to appointments. I’m trying to read more, and get on social media less. I’m also working a lot on my book and on videos, because this month I was given a new camera and microphone! Thank you so much to those who sent them.

I believe that we can help alleviate the punishment that capitalism inflicts by helping each other. Life is relentlessly slow when you’re poor, right down to having to walk everywhere, including to carry your groceries home from the store.  

I will never be “better,” or in perfect health. But I feel like I’m finally regaining some executive function over myself, and that’s awesome. Thank you for believing in me through the times that I couldn’t believe in myself.

Art Worth Making

“Don’t use your memoir to air old grievances and to settle old scores; get rid of that anger somewhere else. The memoirs that we do remember from the 1990s are the ones that were written with love and forgiveness…although the childhoods they describe were painful, the writers are as hard on their younger selves as they are on their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived without resentment to get on with our lives.” -William Zinsser, On Writing Well

I’ve been reflecting on what’s important to make art about, and what it means to me to make good art. For me, music is worth making, but I’m not in a position in my life where I can afford musical instruments and I am very out of practice on my piano lessons. I love music, which is why I put so many music lyrics in my blog posts. In my own self-deprecating self-talk, I think of writing as a lesser form than music or less of an art than painting. When I think about how many tears I’ve cried over my book and the heartfelt essays and stories I’ve written, though, I know that it is art. Sometimes the pain of the process looks less painful when it produces such beautiful things as songs and paintings.

Over the past several months, I’ve been having a very difficult time writing at all. It’s why my posts, which used to go up daily or at least weekly, have dwindled to one or two a month. I keep giving myself breaks from it all, going to therapy and working through the shit I’m writing about, and then trying to write about it, bouncing back from the dissonance of revisiting trauma, and it’s very difficult to accomplish much at all. That said, I’m making progress on the book and I’ve finished a few chapters that took me literally years to get out, going back to the same memories until I’d finally told the details fully and clearly.

So, it’s difficult. Such is the life of making art, I tell myself, so I shouldn’t complain. I often question myself, though: what kind of art do I want to make, and what kind of art is worth making in the first place?

In attempting to answer the first question, I’ve been working my way through memoirs to better acquaint myself with that particular form of writing. I’m writing a memoir, so I want to know what made great memoirs great, and what details of the story are truly unique experiences. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is that my childhood was not among the worst things humans can endure. I’ve read and heard stories far more brutal and cruel than my parents ever were or could be. While I know things could have been worse and I was lucky in a lot of ways, I don’t have to be grateful that it wasn’t worse.

Back in 2014, I was so shocked by what had happened in my family, and was so full of grief over losing my little siblings who I’d helped raise, that I wrote from a place of anger. I didn’t embellish facts, though my dad is still trying to convince the world that I did. But today, that anger has found rest. I’m wondering now how much longer this back-and-forth will go on, and whether I should directly acknowledge and respond to my dad’s many posts about me that he’s made recently. I am young, and so are my parents, and this could escalate to legal proportions as the years drag on. These are all things I took into account when I decided to write about my parents’ abuse. I am just…apparently still chewing what I bit off, which includes my dad’s hypocritical attempt to damage my reputation by calling me a liar who’s trying to damage his. Which, full disclosure, I’m well aware that I hurt his pride and ministry – two things I do not value. But I have not hurt my siblings by writing, I’ve helped make sure they were put in school. This is something I explained to my Patreon patrons a few weeks ago, and I want to explain it here now. I’m not angry anymore. And I want my memoir to reflect the perspective I’ve gained in the years I’ve spent building a life for myself.

The memoir as an art form is like a self-portrait. It doesn’t have to be an exact likeness, but can be abstract or in whatever the painter’s style is. Showing yourself to the world is a vulnerable act, and good art is raw because artists do the hard work of reaching within themselves to make manifest representations of universal experiences. As I’ve read memoirs that are similar to the one I’m writing, I’ve been observing what I do and don’t want to do in my memoir. I don’t think I’ll be calling my mother a bitch over and over like Christina Crawford did in Mommie Dearest, and I won’t be writing from the same place of confused pain that I first wrote with almost five years ago. It’s taken me this long to get to the point where I am even able to take the outline and notes I’ve been working on and start seriously drafting. But at last, the draft is underway. After walking away from the book for a month and coming back to it with fresh eyes, I have two more chapters done. The process now is to just keep taking it word by word, not letting myself procrastinate in the name of perfection, still looking after my mental health as I write, and forming the best possible memoir I can write, no matter how long it takes.