I’m going to plunge myself back into the cone of silence I should have been in for the last several days, because I am behind on something I have no time to be behind on. Before I do, I want to give some answers to people who have asked, via e-mail and other ways, why it was I wrote the “Being Poor” piece.
The short answer to this was because I had to. I had made the sorry mistake in the last week or so of actually looking up from the deadline I am up against and watching news and current events and basically getting myself so wound up that by Friday I was genuinely about to vomit in anger. This had a detrimental effect on my actual work, not surprisingly; I was writing was crap because I was preoccupied (looking back, I would have benefited from this advice, had it been posted earlier).
Aside from being work-stoppingly angry, I was also somewhat personally alarmed. I know no one personally in New Orleans, as far as I know, so I didn’t have an obvious personal connection to the disaster there. To be blunt about it, I’m not the sort of person to get wound up about things; yes, I’m rather boisterous when it comes to my writing here, but this is also a generally effective heat sink for my irritability (or perhaps it brings it out) and most people who know me would attest I’m not the overly angsty on a day-to-day basis because, really, who has the time. New Orleans had me worked up beyond reason and I had to figure out why, because I wanted to get my head back.
What I eventually figured out is what prompted me to write “Being Poor,” which was that I had gotten myself into a state watching the people who stayed behind in New Orleans struggle and die, and listening to people wonder — some genuinely, some derisively — why they just didn’t get out when they were ordered to get out. There were enough people going “you idiots, they couldn’t leave, they’re poor,” including me, but if you don’t have experience being poor, ultimately that’s not helpful. I wanted to provide some context for what it’s like to be poor. “Being Poor” was my attempt.
I’ve been gratified that by and large people have taken it in the spirit in which it was written, but there has been interesting bits of pushback. I’ve already noted people pointing out that being poor in America is different than being poor in other places on the globe, which is of course an absolutely accurate and valid point, even if it doesn’t make being poor in the US any easier.
Other folks in the comment thread and elsewhere questioned the appropriateness of my writing about poverty, as I am manifestly not in poverty now, nor do I usually give any indication of having been poor. And this is also true enough: Point of fact is, there’s a whole bunch of stuff I don’t write about here, and growing up poor is (or was, anyway) one of them. And the “Being Poor” piece doesn’t necessarily suggest in its construction that any of those things happened to me. This is intentional, mind you: I didn’t want the piece to be about me in particular. Nevertheless, most of the things in that list happened to me or immediate family or the people we have known. It was genuinely difficult to write the piece, because I’m not keen on being confessional to people who are not of my inner circle of friends. But as much as I don’t like being confessional, I don’t like having my brain all pretzel-twisted, either.
So, yes: I grew up poor. Now you know. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of the fact of having been poor; it is what it is. But I will note that having been poor in some sense never leaves you. I was and am appalled that so many people were basically abandoned to the hurricane and the floods largely because they were poor; in another place and time and under not dissimilar circumstances, that could have been me as a child or people that I knew. The state and local governments failed them by not helping to get them out of harm’s way or adequately preparing and organizing the shelters they did set aside; the national government failed them in its criminally disorganized disaster relief. You don’t have to have been poor to be outraged at what happened with Katrina and its aftermath, but if you have been it provides an extra dimension of horror.
The third bit of pushback came from the folks who saw this as just another bit of liberal white guilt twaddle defending the dumb and lazy poor, and had a bit of sporky fun making fun of it and me. Well, you know, you have fun there, kids.
Overall, writing the “Being Poor” piece and seeing the response has been one of the moving writing experiences that I’ve had in a very long time, and much of that I owe to the commentors who stepped forward to add notes from their own lives and experiences. There have been over 350 comments to the entry, which is a record, and the overwhelming majority of them have been from people who had added something to the pot, as it were. Having a comment thread of any length not descend into flaming anarchy is rare; to have one go 350+ comments without doing so is a minor miracle. Thank you everyone. I have long believed I benefit from some amazing readers and commentors, and here is the proof.
Before I submerge again, one final thing: It’s never too late to donate.
Between now and finishing the book I’m working on, I may make some one or two sentence “bloggy” link entries, but don’t expect too much substantive here for several days. I’ve had my catharsis; now it’s back to work. See you soon.