The Winters of My Discontent

When I started this blog, I set out to be real, to be authentic. Big buzzwords for my generation and culture right now. And this is me owning up to them. You want real? Here’s real.

I’m not having the best day. It started when I found a jump drive of Mark’s in the dryer, which turned out to have documents for not just one but both of his jobs. It went through the washer and three dryer cycles because I couldn’t get my act together and get the clothes out before they were a wrinkled mess. Three times. A+ wife-ing, right there.

On top of that, the dogs are being crazy (I just found Luna chewing on a tub of Vick’s Vapo-Rub leftover from Mark’s bout of flu last week, and Bolt has eaten no less than four bottle caps and almost a pen), and it’s raining today, dreary and cold and gray and fairly hopeless-looking outside. That’s where this is all stemming from, I know, the rain – I’m so weary of the fact that my insides are a direct reflection of the outside, or at least of the weather. I’ve had no less than three breakdowns today, and almost had another over some wrinkled pants, the tears on my face mirroring the raindrops slipping down my windows and the storms digitally rendered on my phone’s weather app.

I have SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder – basically a condition that morphs winter from just another season into a heavy burden to bear, throwing its sufferers into depressive episodes that last for months at a time. I understand why bears hibernate. Some days I wish I could hibernate. From the beginning of Daylight Savings until sometime around mid-March, my life moves in slower motion, the cold chilling me from the inside out, depriving me of light and energy and motivation. I get snippy and whiny and weepy; every vestige of myself that I can’t stand manages to emerge. (The biggest? The complete irrationality of it all. Who almost cries over wrinkled pants??)

February is particularly bad. I can survive November and December for the most part – as the cold starts emerging, the crispness of fall feels right, what with the annual dawn of sweater-weather here in the South. Thanksgiving means food and family and wine and friends and love, all for which I will put up with a little cold weather. And come December, scarves seem festive and cozy instead of restrictive and suffocating, and holiday shopping just doesn’t feel right without a bite in the air. But then Christmas is done, and the world is just cold and bare. January is so anticlimactic, and the downward slope begins, but February? February feels hopeless.

I’ll never forget, three years ago almost to the day, Mark and I were going out for a Valentine’s date. It was a day much like this one – cold, horrid gray skies, an Eeyore-esque cloud over everything – and I was trying desperately to find something to wear. Of course in that moment my closet bursting at the seams with clothes held nothing appropriate, and outfit after outfit went onto my body and then straight onto the growing pile on the bed. Eventually I lost it.

“It’s so cold!” I wailed. (Add melodrama to the list of unsavory qualities.) “You can’t look pretty in the cold!” At that point I sank to the bed in despair. “It will never be sunny again!”

Welcome to my annual February meltown. It will never be sunny again. Thank God I married a patient man. He wiped my tears that day three years ago and took me out anyway, and this morning he did the same, happily indulging my clinginess with lots of hugs.

I started out the morning spiraling, in a funk because I couldn’t seem to stop it, and at one point I was hell-bent on overcoming this day and the spiral and the sadness. To a certain extent I have overcome it – I didn’t actually cry over the pants, I ran errands, accomplished 3 loads of laundry and I have a clean kitchen. But I think this – and any day like this, caused by rain or a fight with a spouse or a kid who spills a whole gallon of milk on the floor or a dog who eats God-knows-what or whatever this is the time when you need your own kindness the most.

I talked for a bit in Sarah’s blog about being kind to yourself, and how important that is, and how it looks different for different people. It also looks different on different days, I think. Today, for me, it looked like cheating on our “eat healthy plan” and eating a whole frozen pizza and a (small) box of half-off Valentine candies while sitting on the couch, watching three episodes of Criminal Minds in a row.

I have to forgive myself for days like today. I don’t think it’s healthy to wallow, and I try not to – I take 800IU of Vitamin D every day during the winter, on sunny days I try to make sure I get sun, and I never let myself sit in the dark. I think being proactive is important for anything like this. But bad days are going to come, and it doesn’t mean I’ve failed at life (although that’s how it feels sometimes, how I felt this morning.) The best I can do is the best I can do, and sometimes that means taking the dogs for a walk even though it’s like 40 degrees outside because I need to move, sometimes that means plugging along at a snail’s pace because things need to get done, and sometimes that means sitting. Resting. Allowing myself to be in the moment, for the moment, and wishing for sunny days again.

Because as hopeless as February feels, the sun isn’t gone forever. As much as I hate winter, I love summer. There’s nothing in this world like that first day of spring, green grass growing soft and made for lying in. There’s nothing like the first day of no layers, sweaters abandoned at home on hangers, sun-kissed arms. There’s nothing like the first day of sundress weather, naked legs bared to the breeze, flip-flops smacking against winter-white soles, warmth and giddiness bubbling up from toes to belly to lungs and out in a peal of laughter.

That’s summer to me. And just as sure as winter will come every year, and I will feel dull and lifeless and sad, the sun will come out and I’ll be able to put away the Vitamin D and boots will be replaced with sandals and I’ll feel alive and vibrant and myself again.

Sometimes all you can do is hope, and wait, and remember that for everything there is a season – even crying over ruined jump drives and wrinkled pants.

Changing our Vernacular, Part 2

You know how I said this might be an unpopular blog series? Here comes the unpopular part.

I saw a meme on the Internet a couple weeks back that almost made me delete Facebook entirely (although that happens like twice a week, so grain of salt there.) It said something along the lines of, “I’m sick of being taxed to the breaking point only to have it given to a person who is able to work, but refuses to.”

I’ll be honest – I’m sick of that mentality. I wonder what Jesus would think of that mentality.

I cannot tell you how many times a week I hear iterations of that statement. And I wonder, how many people overhear? Who are the people who overhear? And what do they think?

There is such a stigma attached to receiving assistance. I don’t know where we get off assuming that everybody who gets WIC or receives Medicaid or has an EBT card is a lazy, good-for-nothing slob who flat-out refuses to work, but I know so many people who hold that belief. And it’s just not true. The majority of people who receive assistance are working, and some of them have paid their own taxes into that very system at some point. Some work two and three jobs. I would wager that the majority of us know people who’ve received assistance before, or are receiving it now, whether they’ll admit to it or not. (I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t.)

Government assistance is not a paycheck. There’s a commonly-held belief that people are “in the system” to get paid to be lazy, but that’s not exactly how it works. Here’s a very simple, dumbed-down-so-I-can-understand-because-I-am-a-nurse-for-a-reason breakdown: there are a bunch of different programs that the government offers. Among other things, there’s WIC, there’s SNAP or food stamps – two different things in and of themselves – and then there’s TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare. (TANF was instituted under Clinton’s administration in 1997, and isn’t the same thing as food stamps or WIC.) So the key to the TANF thing is the “temporary” part. According to the research I’ve done, if you receive TANF you have 24 months to find a job. Single parents are supposed to work at least 30 hours/week, or at least 20 if they have small children, and two-parent households must have 35-55 hours of work/week. You can only receive benefits from the system for a total of 5 years in your lifetime. Also, if you receive child support and are on TANF, the child support goes to the government, not to you. The CBPP website states that in 2013 in Alabama, single-parent families of three received $215/month from TANF. (This varies state-to-state, depending on the cost of living and the state government.) I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t think that’s much of a supplement, let alone a paycheck.

As for the people who aren’t working – first of all, do you know anybody who’s tried to get a job lately? Easier said than done. The economy is recovering slowly, but I still know an awful lot of people who’ve ended up with an awful lot of dead ends as far as the job searching goes.

And if that wasn’t hard enough, like I talked about in my last post, how do you choose between working and staying home with your kids when the childcare they require costs as much or more than you make? What if you have children with disabilities or devastating medical conditions that a $100-a-week (or more) daycare facility just can’t handle? What if you have a disability that affects your ability to work? (Remember, you can’t tell if someone is able to work by just looking at them. There are dozens of invisible illnesses that render people practically incapacitated, and you’d never know they were sick based on appearance.)

And what if you have no transportation? Or just one car that three people share? That tends to create a logistical nightmare, particularly in places that have inefficient public transportation. How do you get a job when you have no address? How to you find work when you don’t have a phone, or even if you do, it doesn’t have minutes on it?

If you’ve never tried to break out of the cycle of true poverty, I don’t think there’s any way to begin to understand how difficult it is, how the system is arranged so that it’s next to impossible. I know I certainly can’t comprehend it.

It’s easy to talk about how others need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That’s great when you have a support network, when you have access to resources, when you have connections, when you have a hefty dose of self-motivation. But how do you do that when you’re already working and you still can’t get ahead? How do you build self-esteem and self-motivation when you’re exhausted and potentially depressed because you’re in a hole you can’t get out of? Do you see how poverty becomes a vicious cycle?

(Let me also be clear here – I’m not saying that there are no people who work the system, that there are no people who are able to work and just don’t want to. But I would argue that even that is a learned behavior, and there are deeper roots to that problem than simple laziness. But that is another post for another day.)

I know so many people who are so contrary to parting with any of the money they’ve earned, particularly if it goes to assist people who don’t have as much. “Why should we pay for them?” they wonder. “Why should my money that I earned go to anyone or anything but me?” “Why do I have to pay someone else’s way when it’s their fault they’re in the situation to begin with?”

Well … partly because that’s kind of what Jesus says to do. In more ways than one.

First off, that whole “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” thing? Not a new concept, not a new problem. Let’s talk, for a minute, about how taxes work. (Disclaimer: I’m a nurse, not a tax accountant, so I don’t know all the minutiae. I just tried to do a little research on the info that’s available to the public.)

I know that theoretically, most people know this – not every last bit of your taxes go to pay for welfare. If you support the military, if you enjoy driving on the freeway or taking advantage of your local public library or if you send your kids to public schools, guess where that funding comes from? The government doesn’t just get generous donations from people to fix potholes or pay for wars. Social security also takes a hefty chunk of tax dollars at the federal level. So yes, some of your tax dollars do go toward Medicaid and food stamps and other assistance programs, but as far as federal taxes go, that’s 34%, and for state taxes in Alabama, 26%.

Some people feel that even that’s too much. But does Jesus not have a resounding message of taking care of those less fortunate than us? Does he not stand on the side of poor people throughout Scripture? In Luke, one of the many times He speaks at a synagogue, he was handed a scroll from Isaiah, and what did he open to?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4: 18-19

Of all the scriptures he could have read, he read that one. Preaching good news to the poor, liberating the oppressed. So many of us seem to be so outraged that our hard-earned money is leaving our hands to help the oppressed that we can’t even begin to think about liberating them.

And let’s talk about Mark 10:17-31. In that passage, Jesus tells a wealthy man to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, and states how difficult it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God, and talks about how the first will become last and the last will become first.

We need an attitude adjustment, here in middle/upper-middle class America.

We have such a lack of compassion for people. We are so quick to judge. “You can never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus Finch, one of my very favorite literary characters, once said. We are so hesitant, so fearful of donning the skin of others, of considering where they’re at before we call judgment onto them. Love is not going to fix the problem – I’m not that naïve – but it certainly is a good place to start.

If we profess to be Christians, if we offer up prayers on social media for strangers, if we’re claim to love our neighbors (and our enemies, which maybe we need to take another look at as well), if we are passionate about spreading the light and love of Christ to those who don’t know Him – how, then, do we turn right back around and haughtily complain about assisting those He called us to assist? How are we so vain to think that He’d be just fine with us keeping all of our hard-earned money when He told the people He came into contact with to give all of theirs away?

Less greed. Less complaining. More compassion. More contentment. More love. More empathy.

Why is it so hard for us to have empathy for people?

“There but for the grace of God go I” – why is that a difficult concept for us to understand?

And here, just one month post-Advent, a time of waiting and watching and longing for a Christ who came to set the captives free (really think about that for a minute), maybe this is a good time to start reevaluating how we think, to examine the spirit of our giving – how we’re so quick to give to some people, and so quick to dismiss the needs of others.

Change is never going to happen, the broken systems in this country are never going to be fixed, if we don’t first begin to change ourselves. Look at how you love. Look at who you love. Love in ways that make you squirm. Love people that make you uncomfortable. Put on the skin of people you don’t understand, people you don’t even like, try to see things from their point of view.

That is the way to make a difference. That is the way change comes. Slowly, uneasily slipping out of our comfort zones and into the uncomfortable, unconditional love of Jesus.