“Being Poor,” Ten Years On

Ten years ago today, I put the essay “Being Poor” on Whatever. I wrote the piece, as I explained later, in a rage at the after-events of Hurricane Katrina, when so many people asked, some genuinely and some less so, why many of the poor people didn’t “just leave” when the hurricane smashed into the Gulf Coast and New Orleans flooded. I wrote it not to offer a direct explanation but to make people understand what it was like to be poor, as I had been at various times in my life, and could therefore speak on with some knowledge. The piece wasn’t about how people became poor, or why there were poor — simply what it was like to be poor, and to then try to get through one’s life on a day-to-day basis.

I posted it because I had to. I was in a rage at what was happening in New Orleans in 2005, but I was also sick, literally physically sick about it, and for days I couldn’t understand why. I had no direct connection to New Orleans and there was no one there I considered a friend, and other, equally terrible disasters had hit the US before and had nowhere near the same effect on me. Ultimately I began to realize the difference this time was that I was aware how differently the disaster affected people along economic lines, and how the lack of useful planning and response to the disaster essentially punished New Orleans’ poor.

I was not of New Orleans and I was not of New Orleans’ poor. But having been poor in my life, I remembered the difficulties being poor imposes, the lack of options it offers, and circumstances it presents, when no way through is a good one. I had been there in my life, and the lack of understanding I saw radiating out from people about the situation made me sick almost to the point of vomiting. I had to do something or I felt like I would explode.

We had donated money, of course. But it wasn’t enough. So I sat down to write something, anything. What I came up with was a list of things from my personal experience and from the experience of people I knew in my life about poverty and what it was like to be in it. Later some people said the piece was a poem, and I can see that, and they might be right. At the time that wasn’t part of my thinking. I just wanted to get what was in my brain out into the world. I cried as I wrote it, putting the rage and sickness I felt into words. Then I posted it up on Whatever.

And it ended up going everywhere.

It was reprinted in the Chicago Tribune and the Dayton Daily News and dozens of other newspapers. It was linked to and pasted onto hundreds of Web sites. It was read out loud on the radio. It was shared in emails and mailing lists. Eventually it made its way into textbooks and other teaching materials. Churches and religious groups by the score asked permission to use it. In an age before Facebook and Twitter (and even MySpace, really), the piece went massively viral. I encouraged this, of course. As famously “pay me” as I am, “Being Poor” is one piece I have never taken money for. I allow it to be freely distributed and when people ask about payment, I tell them to donate to a local hunger or poverty charity. It’s meant to be shared and read, and read as widely as possible.

It continues to be read, a decade on. There hasn’t been a year since it was posted that it hasn’t been one of the most visited entries on Whatever; this year, it’s currently the third most-read piece on the whole site. Year in and year out, people find it, or come back to it. This makes me very happy.

Which is not to say that people didn’t find ways to try to pick it apart. When the piece came out, I didn’t go out of my way to note that the piece was based on my own experience, so a number of people questioned the veracity of the piece, and my right to write it. When I did make it clear that the piece was largely based on my own experience, some folks then wanted to maintain that I hadn’t really been poor, or that “American” poor is not really poor compared to the poverty elsewhere in the world, or they would focus on one particular bit in the piece and declaim how it was in some way inauthentic, therefore throwing out the whole piece. Others simply wanted to blame the poor for being poor in the first place.

There is of course not much to be done in those cases. I lived my poverty; I don’t need other people to decide whether I was poor enough for them. The American version of poverty may be “better” than poverty elsewhere, but it’s bad enough, both objectively and in context. And while I understand some people prefer to believe poor people deserve the poverty they’re in, I know it’s not true, or at the very least, is such a small part of why people are poor. I didn’t deserve to be poor when I was a child; I just was. The people I know now in poverty aren’t there because it’s some sort of cosmic or karmic justice; they work hard and try to better their lives. But the fact of poverty is: It’s a rough climb out, and a steep fall back, and it’s not as if everyone starts out in the same place.

That said, I admit to being an imperfect vessel to speak to poverty in America. I have been poor in my life. I am not now, nor have I been anything close to poor for my entire adult life. In fact I am on the opposite end of the spectrum. You can even say that in many ways my life encapsulates the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” American Dream narrative that we have embedded into our national DNA: Scrappy ambitious kid takes his chances and makes a few breaks for himself and comes out on top. It can happen to you too!

Except the thing I know that gets elided here is that I’m one of the very few “rags to riches” tales I know of. Anecdote is not data, and the data says that it’s tougher to move up the socio-economic ladder here in the US than it is in most other industrialized nations. Not impossible, and I am here to speak to that. But tougher. And I am here to speak to that too — because I know the breaks that I caught, including the fact that I got a scholarship to attend one of the best college preparatory high schools in the country, which I attended while simultaneously living in a trailer park. I was launched into the ranks of the socio-economic elite and I haven’t come back down. But I also know that not every kid in a trailer park gets the break I did, a break contingent on one school deciding to let me in, not a state or national will to make things better for poor children in general.

I have been poor, and am not. That makes me not the best spokesman for poverty. But I continue to see poverty, where I live and in the lives of people I know, and I am in a position where when I talk, people often listen. So this is a thing I will continue to speak on.

And it is a reason why I’m glad “Being Poor” continues to be part of the conversation on poverty. For what it’s done and what it continues to do, I’m proud to have written it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.

The Big Idea: Rebecca Alexander

Writing can be an adventure or an escape, and it can also be a way of dealing with events around you, and to explore what they mean and do. Ask author Rebecca Alexander, author of The Secrets of Blood and Bone. She’ll tell you. And does, just below.

REBECCA ALEXANDER:

Ten years before I began working on the Secrets trilogy, I dealt with a number of personal losses, and death was a force of nature that I couldn’t understand.  I decided to explore the “big idea” of death through my writing. As a result, most of my main characters are poised on the edge of death, like people often are after desperate illness or trauma. Only in my books, that precarious state is actually connected to the magic of 16th century sorcerers like John Dee, Elizabeth Báthory and Edward Kelley, which modern day practitioners use to artificially extend their lives on “borrowed time.”

I started The Secrets of Life and Death (the first book in the trilogy) a dozen times, trying to find my central protagonist Jackdaw’s character. Jackdaw was balanced on that edge between death and the magic that keeps her alive, sustained by an ancient, bloody ritual but unable to truly live. She stayed in the shadows, afraid to get too close to anyone (besides her trusty wolf-dog) in case they found out about her past, and so in some ways it was as though she was already dead. Now, in The Secrets of Blood and Bone, she has decided to really live. She’s looking after Sadie, a feisty teenager, and she’s begun to fall in love with her scholarly friend Felix. In living a fuller life, her personality emerges to a much stronger degree than ever before.  I found I loved her loyalty and compassion, her warrior instinct. Felix is the brains of the group but Jackdaw’s the hero.

My ideas for the life-extending magic that Jackdaw and other’s use first sprung from my research into the Elizabethan alchemist Dr. John Dee. Dee was a remarkable intellectual, widely published in mathematics, astrology—and the ‘science’ of magic. As faith in religion had waned, the earliest books of science included what we would now think of as magic—alchemy, reanimating corpses and creating life. According to John Dee, he had succeeded in raising the spirits of the dead to tell him about the nature of death. I found John Dee’s necromancy experiments in his books about magic, which ultimately led me to his contemporary Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noble who is reputed to have killed dozens if not hundreds of young girls—all in order to push back ageing and death.

When Dee’s trickster associate Edward Kelley proved more interesting than Dee himself, I started writing from Kelley’s point of view, explaining the magical systems revealed from their channeling angels, as well as consulting many of the other sorcerers and alchemists in Europe.  They travelled through Poland and into Transylvania. Here the landscape was influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of my favorite books. In Eastern Europe at the time, death was difficult to define precisely—you were only completely dead when your corpse had a stake through its heart and your head was cut off.

The magic that evolved from Dee’s and others’ writings used sigils and signs, and mathematical equations that they believed evoked aspects of angels. They sought to save people who were dying, and if their magic worked I think people would still try to find that knowledge. In fact, wouldn’t pharmaceutical companies be interested (including the one run by a centuries-old Elizabeth Báthory)? By the time I wrote The Secrets of Blood and Bone I knew Jack, Sadie, and Felix well enough to test their relationships with each other and with the magic they’ve used, and to bring Edward Kelley face to face with the consequences of his actions in the first book. Re-animating the dead has consequences, for the revenant and those around them.

With The Secrets of Life and Death I played with the idea of being dead/undead at the same time, and in The Secrets of Blood and Bone I explore the idea that people could access a more savage, primal version of themselves as a way to fight against this binary and try to stay alive. Years ago, when my two surviving children and I fled to an island after a family disaster, the only house I could afford had a garden that was growing into the walls itself. That green, brooding inspection through every window of the house left a mark, and I re-invented the garden as a character.

When I wrote the trilogy, we were living in a house high up a hillside, surrounded by a couple of acres of wilderness filled with foxes, deer and badgers. Brambles grew under the back door and trees leaned in to the bedroom windows to tap leaves on the panes. The constant cawing of rooks, jackdaws and crows all made it into the book. They became the soundtrack to the story, very alive yet so associated with death.

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The Secrets of Blood and Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.