As Luck Would Have It

“Several studies suggest that when we feel gratitude we’re more generous to strangers. When we’re reminded of luck’s importance, we’re more likely to plow some of our own good fortune back into the common good. But, we underplay luck. Because we can recall our own struggles far better than the fateful but fuzzy role of chance. And because the very idea corrodes our faith in free will. But mostly because we’re deeply invested in our own autobiographies.

Take me. My parents went broke a couple of times. Once we had to put all our stuff on the lawn to be auctioned. I went to college almost totally on aid. But I always knew I was going to college. Even on nights when dinner was leftover Kentucky fried chicken I brought home from the job. I knew that this was temporary. So I can say, Wow, I’m really self-made. But I know I’m not. Sure, I always kind of knew I was lucky, but not until working on this series did I really begin to understand what that meant.

Hard work is real. But bootstraps are bunk, and social mobility, a myth. Unless a nation chooses to build the infrastructure, the roads on which a person can move upward, you pretty much can’t get there from here.

—Brooke Gladstone, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myth,” On the Media podcast

harli-martenIf you’re not listening to On the Media’s series on poverty in America, you’re missing out on investigative journalism at its most vital.

I’ve written previously about the stories we tell ourselves.

But one of the most insidious stories we hold dear in America is that of the self-made success story. It infiltrates conversations about class, about gender, and yes, conversations about race.

Insidious because to insist that we have earned what we have is to imply that those without have earned what they have not. Is to pass judgement, however unconsciously. Is to be blind to the many ways chance plays a hand in each of our lives.

My life has been financially precarious off and on since I had children. There have been tradeoffs, but, because I’ve always nurtured low expectations, they’ve never noticed the lack. No family vacations, for instance, no Disney World. But we have enough. And I know, no matter what, we’ll always have somewhere to turn if tragedy strikes. Even on the worst days I know I’m lucky — to be healthy, to have kids who are healthy, to have a roof over our heads and rewarding work.

Whether you’re just getting by, i.e., what they call “stable poverty,” or if you’re at a happy place in your life where money isn’t a concern, tune in to this series.

Unless we can face the role luck has in all our lives, for good and ill, we will never recognize that the poor are no different from any one of us, and no less worthy of our compassion. To believe otherwise betrays a larger poverty, of mind and spirit.


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Last week the trees were full and blazing with color, but now the October wind blows and the leaves fall by the hundreds. Out the window I can see a tree already half-barren that shone gold just yesterday morning.

Georgia runs outside to spin and laugh among the raining leaves. This is the first year that she’s tuned in to the changing seasons and how one leads to the next, how time works.

I love that maniacal laugh of hers, and the crescent shape of Aidan’s eyes when he smiles, and Vincent’s up-for-anything grin.

They’re not perfect, and there’s at least a minute or ten every day when I want to lock them up in a padded room and throw away the key, but even as I curse them under my breath I love them with a ferocity that bewilders:

How is it that I’m a mother of three, that this exuberant trio belongs to me? I know how, obvs, but still, how?

bistrian-iosipOctober makes me panicky. Another year is accelerating to its end, and I think, I’ll be 90 when Georgia’s my age, which is not a useful thought but there it is.

When Mum died, I lay down on the bed and tried to imagine it, being dead and absent from my kids’ lives, missing it all. But I felt my breath catch, my heart stutter — I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t go there. I want so much to be here.

Of course, it feels verboten to verbalize this, as if I’m inviting disaster. Such superstition we have! I’m already picturing the clickbait AOL News headline (“Mom Blogs About Fall, You’ll Be SHOCKED by What Happened Next!”).

I can’t be the only one — I’m not that original a thinker. (And not that I waste any less time than the average overly self-aware person either.)

But when we walk to school, smelling the organic clove rot of wet leaves on the sidewalk, or see the slow creep of frost on the windows first thing in the morning, it’s the kids, always my kids who catch me out, and get me out of my own self-orbiting head. I won’t be here forever, but the least I can do is be here now.





What We Give

〈”We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” — “Mirrorgrams,” Altoona (PA) Mirror, 1944〉

I grew up in eastern Massachusetts. My dad was a Teamster, a truck driver, the youngest of 8, raised with a strong sense of obligation to family and community. And every other month, he would drive into Boston to give blood.

I remember this so clearly because he often took a few of us six kids with him. Orange juice, cookies, and the Rainbow Swash are some of my defining memories of Boston growing up.

All these years later — Dad gone, Mum gone, that familiar dank smell of fallen leaves a reminder that the year’s going too — that post-donation process is still much the same: metal chairs at large plastic folding tables, with the addition of bottled water to the array of canned juices.

Now it’s me going every other month, and I bring my kids when I can, too. I want to show them, the way Dad showed us, that giving blood is as normal and necessary as breathing. Blood drives at the community center down the street are my favorite, because the volunteers there bring homemade cookies, and they’re usually delighted to keep the kids company while I’m busy with the blood-letting.

red-crossI bring this up because honestly, I’m finding the tenor of events in our nation disheartening, and one of the best remedies for despair I know is to be of use: to paraphrase, when I feel low, I go high.

And giving blood rocks the Usefulness Scale; it’s to give life in the most literal form there is.

Mum needed several blood transfusions during the course of her cancer treatment, so even without the memory of Dad’s dedication, I’d have still felt the need to pay it forward.

If you’re feeling discouraged about these dark days (and you’re already registered to vote), think about what’s meaningful to you, and how you might grow that light. I’m a blood donor because it matters to me, and it makes me feel good, but not everyone is able to give blood.

Maybe for you that means volunteering at the local food pantry, phone banking for Hillary,  donating to your favorite public radio station or nonprofit poetry press, or finally packing up those extra clothes to donate.

Or something as simple as baking pumpkin bread for your neighbor, apple-picking with your kids, running a race for charity (or both simultaneously), or exploring the local Goodwill for interesting Halloween ideas after you drop off your donations.

Whatever works for you, whatever helps.

If all else fails, and the kids are being rotters to boot, you might turn to The Happy Hedgehog Bandtum tum te-tum, diddle diddle dum, ratta-tat-tat, BOOM! — it’s the Pied Piper of books, a sly rally of percussive joy that no kid can resist.

Sometimes what we really need is to bang the drum, and bang it loud. Drum beat,  heart beat — give life, celebrate life. There’s work to do, but here’s to remembering why it matters.

If you’d like to become a blood donor, and have a smart phone, try the Blood App from the Red Cross. You can make and keep track of donor appointments, your donation history, and watch the progress of your donation as it’s processed. Plan ahead! You’re more likely to donate if you know where and when you can.





The Mystique of Work

I’m not thinking of the exotic here.

I count writers, musicians, and artists among my friends, and what they do is work, but what interests me are those out of the spotlight — stage designers and managers, roadies, or the folks who work in frame shops. People who work in offices. There’s no end to the work that gets done in offices!

Yes, there’s a lot of grappling over how we as people over-identify with what we do, but that’s not what this is.

I’m thinking about how little we understand what the people in our lives do with themselves in their workaday world.

At gatherings we chat with our friends about the kids, the books we’re reading (The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough), must-see TV (“Elementary“), and work is only mentioned with the vaguest flap of our hands.

hector-labordeBut I’m fascinated by what my friends do for work. No one wants to talk about it after-hours, however. The most I get is generally a job title, which I forget seconds after I hear it because I have no framework for understanding their words, and a quick description, which, again, words.

My husband will ask me what a new acquaintance does, and I’ll shrug, “Something for sure. More than that, I can’t say.”

This is one of the reasons I like LinkedIn, which I resisted joining for ages. Facebook is a dinner party where you can listen in on conversations, give hugs, click on a link & disappear, and then return for dessert.

On LinkedIn, you get a real idea of how your friends spend their days. How they’d describe their professional lives to others in their field. Get a feel for who their colleagues are and how they connect. I love it!

Imagine: Take Your Friend to Work Day. Pick the friend whose field intrigues you the most, and then shadow her for a day, or even contribute! Y’know, depending on whether that sort of thing is welcomed, or not. Probably you wouldn’t be allowed to assist in phlebotomy, for instance.

The possibilities, though! Think of the friend that always seems to be traveling for work. Or maybe the one that works funky hours. We’d learn and understand so much about each other if we had the opportunity to spend a day in each other’s professional shoes.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if I ask you more questions about your days. And then ask again when you wave them away with, “Oh, you know, work.”

No, I don’t know — tell me. Really.