Announcing, my forthcoming memoir: MAID: A Single Mother’s Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home

Announcing, my forthcoming memoir: MAID: A Single Mother’s Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home

On June 16th, I celebrated my youngest daughter Coraline’s second birthday. While she opened presents, I relished the memory of her entering my life. She was born a month after I’d graduated college, during a time when I was totally unsure of how I’d find enough work or how to make it as a freelancer. This year, as I watched her eat cupcakes, I felt our journey intensely—how far we’d come since the beginning— in part because that afternoon, I’d accepted an offer with a publishing company, Hachette Books, for my book.

announcementExactly 11 months after my essay about cleaning houses was published on Vox and went viral, I accepted the offer for my memoir—an expansion of that essay. For months, I’d spent what I felt were luxurious hours not writing for pay, but working, quietly at night, with a sleeping baby in my lap, crafting the perfect book proposal with my agent, Jeff Kleinman at Folio. It felt incredibly strange to be going after something I’d wanted since I was ten years old, and at first, I didn’t have much faith in it. For over twenty years, I had been writing, reading, and studying the art of writing. It was shocking to even have an agent.

Three years ago, I shared an essay with one of my writing instructors, Debra Earling, who now heads the creative writing program at the University of Montana. It was a piece called “Confessions of the Housekeeper,” which I’d written in a workshop the semester before. Debra and I met one afternoon at a coffee shop to discuss writing and my application for the MFA program. I timidly handed her the pages from across the table and got up to order coffee. When I returned, she was sitting in the exact same position, but with her hand clasped over her mouth.

“This,” she said, looking up at me. “Stephanie, this is going to be a book.” She went on to describe, in detail, my book tour, and my success, and even my finding love. It rolled out of her, like a fortune. On my walk home, I remember skipping a little. Someone believed in me and in my story.

Fullscreen capture 7162015 24823 PM.bmpI would work on that essay for the next two years, chiseling away at it little by little. When Vox bought it for $500, I about fell over. It seemed a massive amount of money, especially since I had spent the last eight years on assistance programs, and my current hourly wages from various freelancing jobs were about $10.00. I thought it would surely be the most I’d ever receive for my writing. When the essay went viral, with almost 500,000 hits in the span of three days, my career took off. Within two months, accepted a position as a writing fellow with the Center for Community Change, and had several more pieces published, including one through Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

In May, just before sending out the finished book proposal, I was finalizing a new essay with an editor at the EHRP, which would go on to be published in the print edition of the New York Times. I also sent her my book proposal–all 70-some pages of it–and asked if she might be able to show it to Barbara. Maybe Barbara could possibly read it, or even write a few sentences about it?

Two days later, she emailed back with sentences in quotes from Barbara, my journalist hero, a woman I have long admired:

“We need more books like MAID, with the view from the fridge and under the couch. Stephanie Land has something to teach us about both sides of the inequality divide. Neither is what you are expecting.”

barbaraquoteWith that, MAID became real. My book, my memoir, was finally happening. Not even a week later, I accepted an offer from Hachette Books to bring my story out into the world.

I spent four days talking to editors, publicists, presidents, vice presidents, marketing teams, and senior editors from publishing houses all over the country about myself and my book. I felt so small, just some girl in Missoula, Montana. I paced around my living room, headphones in, gesturing wildly. It seemed unbelievable that I was talking to the very publishers who had been responsible for bringing my favorite writers’ words into the world.

The sleepy Thursday afternoon of Coraline’s birthday was the first day since the publishing conferences had begun that I didn’t have any scheduled calls. The only call came from my agent, asking me what I thought about an offer by Hachette Books. Because four or five publishing houses were about to make a bid, they had made a preemptive offer to take my book off the table, in order to keep it from going to auction.

Hachette had been my last call the day before, and it wasn’t like the others. I talked to a group of four people, and all said they’d reacted to my story differently. Krishan Trotman, who would  become my editor, is also a single mother, and we gave each other a verbal fist-bump. I could tell by her voice that she felt a passion for the message I wanted to share.

During the meeting, I felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable. When they asked me what scared me most about writing this book, I answered honestly and easily. I closed my eyes, breathed in, and told them my fears of not writing the story as it played out in my head. Of not getting it perfect enough. Of jumping into something so huge when I was so small.

When Jeff called the next day to ask if I wanted to accept their (amazing, incredible, beyond my wildest dreams, life-changing) offer, I held my breath.. Alone in my tiny apartment, I said yes.  And then went out to buy cupcakes for Coraline’s birthday.

IMG_9341A couple of weeks after I accepted the offer, Krishan and I spoke again on the phone. “I just have to tell you,” she said. “Our office, our floor, is all open. When we received the news that you’d accepted our offer, everyone jumped up from their desks to cheer, and started hugging each other. Even the CEO of the company came out to give me a hug. I’ve never seen anything like that in publishing before. It was amazing.”

When I told this story to my best friend over a celebration dinner a few days later, she got tears in her eyes. While I’ve told this story several times to friends throughout the last couple of months, I haven’t been able to formally announce it through my platforms. There was a part of it that didn’t feel real unless I talked about it. This summer has been a hibernation of sorts, an internal resting and journeying, knowing that I was going to begin full-time work on the book in the fall. I slowed down with work, and stopped hustling to pitch and publish articles. I gave myself time to mentally freak out. I made some feeble attempts at planning the next two or three years, all the while knowing that I had no way to even imagine it.

While in this limbo period of time, waiting for the publishing agreement to be negotiated, I have worked less, which has meant less income. For most of the summer, the cupboards have been almost bare. Now, I’ll still have to budget, plan, and live the same life we are, but I can buy the groceries I want without feeling anxiety building in my chest as I watch the total increase at the register. I can get the axles fixed on my truck. Hell, I can get a real stereo for my truck. I won’t have to stare at this little piece of paper next to my desk, detailing which bills are due on what date, and for how much, figuring out who I can pay and when, and who I can skip.

I’ve been sitting on this news for so many long days. Publishing this post and sharing it with all of you is what finally makes it real. So I celebrate today with all of you, my friends, and followers, who have stuck with me through all of these years. Thank you for your support. Thank you for reading. I can’t wait to share my book with you. I can’t wait to change the stigma and narrative of single mothers in poverty. I can’t wait to raise my voice for the domestic workers who aren’t paid enough to make ends meet. I can’t wait to bring attention to how the system of government assistance fails millions. And I can’t wait to share my own journey, the moments of heartache and beauty, the bone-numbing exhaustion, the deep love I carry for my daughters, and the pride I feel for having gotten where we are today. With all my heart, thank you for being someone I can share my story with. Thank you for being someone I can depend on to read it. That support will carry me through the next year of this new journey, and writing this book, tentatively titled:

MAID: A single mother’s journey from cleaning house to finding home.

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Taking Strategic Withdrawals

IMG_0237Mornings have been different lately. We all get up together, and if Cora is extra grumpy, Mia and I switch duties. While I am outside, waiting for the dog to sniff out a good spot to pee and poop, Mia is inside, getting Coraline out of her rumpled, just-slept-in-pajamas, changes her diaper, and puts her in an extra-cute outfit for daycare. I hear them laughing and singing as I walk back inside, a sharp contrast to mornings when Mia was in Kindergarten, when we’d scream at each other in our fight to get out the door.

As a single mom, when you’re in the thick of things, you never see it getting any better. You can’t tap out to take a break, a breath, and do whatever mantras you need to get you through hard times. You have no way out. You just have to grit, duck your head, and push through. So when these sweet moments happen, a type of presence is required to soak it in, in the hopes that the memory will surface when the next tornado of chaos tries to sweep you away.

This morning’s sweetness wasn’t an “I have made it” moment as a mom. Last night, I was in tears over not being able to find a sitter to go to a reading by one of my favorite, and most influential, authors, David James Duncan. I saw him read almost exactly ten years ago at a church in Seattle. There, he mentioned he lived near Missoula, Montana, and that is how we ended up here.

I’m not sure what an “I have made it” moment would be in my field. I’m a writer. I support myself by writing. Living the dream, right? Sure. This month. I have a hard time believing that this life will sustain itself long enough for me to call it a career. I know it could if I wanted it to. If I wanted to continue fighting daily, weekly, monthly, to carve out ways to get paid.

Last week, last Monday, I was on the front page of our local, state-wide, daily newspaper. Even Mia commented that it means I’ve now “made it.” I’m a pro, as she said.

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Being on the front page of the paper made things a little odd for me as a writer, and as someone who had a fresh “Tinder” account. There was no longer an intrigue of “Hm, I wonder what this lady’s all about?” Even going to the grocery store, I avoided eye contact with strangers looking at me, trying to place where they’d seen me lately.

Then I had a spot on a national TV show.

The producers for the show “The Doctors” had reached out to me, but Coraline wasn’t in daycare full-time yet when they recorded the segment. I’d scheduled a sitter, then they pushed it back a week, I canceled the sitter, then they called about five minutes before they were going to record the segment and by the time I’d sloughed Cora off to my incredibly understanding neighbor, they’d already talked about my article and it was over.

Which was fine. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about it, in fear I’d be met with criticism. The article, on that day, had been warped on a tabloid in the UK. It was about to go very, very viral worldwide. For the next week, I’d have reporters emailing and messaging me to the extent that I’d shut down the ability to send me messages through my public Facebook page.

IMG_0256For the next couple of weeks, Coraline started daycare full-time, and I worked a staggering amount. In the week I had the reporter and photographer from the newspaper come interview me, I wrote about 11,000 words. I didn’t think of this as “writing.” This was producing.

Producing from a place of raw skin from a controversial article going viral. This was different from imposter syndrome. This was writing with the knowledge that every word I submitted could be rearranged to appear not anywhere close to the meaning I had intended.

Maybe it’s a “with great power comes great responsibility” moment. Suddenly, everything I wrote had weight. A heaviness. Maybe it was imagined, and the only reason I thought people gave a shit about what I wrote was because for a few days they cared a ton. I don’t really know. I write from a small apartment that faces north. It’s dark and cold. By the time I get through my morning rush of writing, reading, answering emails, pitching, and finding interview subjects, I stumble outside, in two or three layers, to find it’s 70 degrees, sunny, and a beautiful day.

*

I hid most of last week. Then I went to a reading on campus, and saw many of my old professors. I talked shop with them about agents and publishing. The heads of the English department shook my hand, hugged me, and congratulated me. John D’Agata raised his eyebrows at me telling him I supported my family by writing. I’d studied his books in school and he signed the one I’d just purchased “From whom we expect great things.”

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Once, being addicted to the rush of freelancing pushed me forward. Now I’m just being pushed.

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Through all of this, I’ve been single, and a single mother at that. I do not get time off. Almost every moment I have away from my children is spent worrying over how I will afford to pay my bills, which have recently doubled with the addition of daycare and the loss of government assistance.

But when good things happen, when the really really good things present themselves, I don’t have anyone to turn to and point at it and say, “Hey, come’re. Would you take a look at this shit? Isn’t this crazy? I mean, this is some fuckin’ rad stuff happening right here!” and they’d say, “Whoa! That is crazy awesome! Congratulations!” and then we’d hug or something and maybe go celebrate with ice cream and smile and I don’t even know what that would look like in real life. Because my real life is diapers, and tantrums, and caring for two children to the point where, after a weekend with them, I am completely hollowed, and crying over not being able to go see my favorite author read.

So last night, we were all sitting on the couch, snuggled together in a heap of hugs and “nigh-nights” and kisses and the dog trying to get in on it all. I asked Mia to get down a book of essays by David James Duncan. She had to get a stool. He’s on my top shelf. I read the essay he’d signed for me at that reading in Seattle a decade ago called “Strategic Withdrawal.”

            Strategic withdrawal: this prayer: When I’m lost, God help me get more lost. Help me lose me so completely that nothing remains but the primordial peace and originality that keep creating and sustaining this blood-, tear- and love-worthy world that’s never lost for an instant save by an insufficiently lost me

            “We’re all in the gutter,” said Oscar Wilde in the throes of just such a withdrawal, “but some of us are looking at the stars”

            strategic withdrawal:

            look at the stars

 

And look at the stars we shall.

 

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Zen and the Art of Treating Yourself

DSCN2288My tax refunds have, historically, been spent in the most practical ways possible. I pay off my most high-interest debt, buy much-needed pants or shoes, get the girls a fancy dress, and usually do one shopping trip that is basically replenishing all our toiletries and medicine cabinet. This year I decided to invest, instead, in a little peace of mind.

I still put a chunk in savings that’s enough to float us a month if needed. I made a little cushion on credit balances. I also treated a business trip like a vacation.

I hadn’t been on a plane in something like seven years. I hadn’t left Montana in two, and hadn’t really been out of Missoula much in the same amount of time. Any sort of traveling has been out of complete necessity. When I felt the force of the plane’s speed as it lifted us into the air a couple of weeks ago, I smiled like a little kid.

The sky was completely clear of clouds for the first leg of our trip. I forgot how small things are. How small I am. How my city blocks that I circle from my apartment to the store to grandma’s house and daycare and the bank get scooped up and disappear between all the mountains.

I wrote on the plane. I found out I get kinda air sick now. I landed in Newark past closing times, in awe that lounges in the airport had tables containing a tablet for every person. I successfully found a cab ride, accidentally tipped the driver 25 bucks, and flopped on my bed about half past midnight, totally wide awake.

The trip was no vacation. I was in training sessions for most of day one, and right up until I flew out on day two. But I got to shower for as long as I wanted. I slept in the shape of a starfish. I ordered room service.

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I’m still waiting on two larger paychecks, and I’ve decided to spend them. For the last month, I have carefully and intricately selected items and placed them in my Amazon shopping cart. I’ve decided it’s time to update the $30 set of pots and pans I got six years ago at Walmart. The girls need summer shoes. I’m getting a blender because I really want to give smoothies a try, dammit. I got us new pillows and sheets. I got Coraline some bath toys. I’m getting vitamins.

These are the things I spend money on when I have it. They’re the things I haven’t had money to buy in years. Either that or I felt something else needed cash thrown at it instead. I fight justifying these purchases, and I haven’t even bought them yet.

The general consensus in giving the poor cash is a resounding no. Many people living in poverty fight for the scraps the government has left them, jumping through work requirements and audits. But what if we just gave the poor some cash? Not like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is supposed to supplement the now extinct American Families with Dependent Children funds. The unemployed or even underemployed don’t benefit from tax refunds. People need cash to buy pants, shampoo, and maybe for a meal they don’t have to cook.

Maybe it’s a fear that the poor would go out and blow the money on non-necessities. And Americans don’t like people getting money for doing nothing. But the majority of people living in poverty, when they get some cash to spend, purchase necessities. Things that get taken for granted, like new toothbrushes and soap. Plus, all of that money would go right back in to our local economy, perhaps even creating a few jobs.

These are the things I think of when I stay up at night, carefully adding and subtracting items from my cart. Part of me still nags that I should be paying off credit card debt in sweeping gestures like I usually do. But for now, it’s good to have some cushion. It’s good to make life a little easier. And boy was that room service nice.

DSCN2289This morning, I decided to get some groceries after dropping Coraline off at daycare. I grabbed the bigger cart, the produce section glowed, and they had a lot of great deals on meat. I ended up grabbing a lot more than I intended.

When I got to the register, the cashier and I chatted a bit while she rang everything up. I loaded the cart and she told me the grand total. I paused a second before swiping my EBT card, an action that’s made me feel like I’ve had a neon “POOR” sign over my head for the last several years.

I looked at the cashier, and smiled.

“This is my last month on food stamps,” I said.

She cocked her head kind of funny, maybe taken aback a little. Then she smiled too.

“Congratulations,” she said. “That must feel good.”

I’ve never been able to support my family completely on my own before. It feels a thousand more times than good. It’s fucking incredible.

 

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The Still, Quiet Voice

I sent my older daughter off to school after I’d woken her up only 20 minutes earlier, walking around the kitchen with my hair all crazy, my mind foggy, holding a 26-pound little human to my bare chest who refused to stop nursing.

When I dropped that baby off at daycare nearly an hour later, bucking and screaming when I handed her over to the woman I felt empathy for, I ran away before she could say “No, not like this. Not screaming like this.”

I got home, made myself some food and a second pot of coffee. The dog curled up on the couch, then at my feet, thankful I’d returned home and hadn’t abandoned her like she’d assumed.

A lot of being a writer is not writing. Much of it is reading. I see these as two separate but vital things. The not writing comes in waves of piecing together, and for me it’s self-reflection; looking at parts of my life from all different angles, looking for the most vulnerable, tender spot for the truth. Sometimes it’s an act of chewing, or going through a piece I’ve researched to death and still don’t know how to talk about. Sometimes, when I am most lucky (which hasn’t happened in years until just recently), it’s in someone else’s bed, staring up at someone else’s ceiling, intertwined completely, listening to their contented sleepy noises, my nose buried in their hair.

Things find you. People. Words. Whole entire essays that sit down with you and see you.

“We—mothers who write, solo mothers who write and create—often, if not most of the time or all of the time, write for our lives. Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary. We can get lost in routine and duty, obviously, but getting lost in the love part—love of our children, love of writing—might prevent that. Part of that is self-love. Part of that is creative output. All of it meant to keep us connected to who we are, as creative beings, when external forces might sever or corrupt such connection.”

DSCN2207Khadijah Queen’s essay on “Mothering Solo” touched on so many aspects of being a sole caregiver without explaining, it came at almost a relief or sigh. Because I’ve felt the need to explain my situation for so many years. I think a lot of my writing in the last few months has been just that.

Since finding out about Coraline, I’ve fought-and sometimes lost-a horrible battle with a part of myself that slut-shames me. I don’t know how else to describe it. I feel people’s questions burning. The whens, whys, wheres, and hows. I have no explanation anymore. We just are. Us three.

Much of my social life is online. It’s where I share most of myself. Even now, in writing this, it will be my one chance to talk about my day. I never expect responses, or even that many readers. Writers are a special sort of breed that need to share their stories by writing them down for others to see. Even when I kept journals as a child, locking them up before hiding them so no one would find them, I hoped someone would. As a kid, I wanted to be like Anne Frank, with my diaries found and published years after my death so I wouldn’t have to experience the horror of people reading my thoughts. I think, even as a kid, I knew that part of it’d be hard.

My last post got picked up and shared by WordPress, and has since been read over a thousand times. Yesterday I watched, a little stunned, as the comments of love and support came in, and continued to this morning. “From the still quiet voice, that shouts in my mind, I am letting you know, that it does get better,” one said. “It won’t ever be perfect, but better. Please feel free to reach out to me should you ever need a friend or listening ear that simply understands.”

DSC01838I started this blog years ago, before mommy blogs were popular, as a way to pick out pieces of my often lonely days with Mia that I wanted to remember. I needed to do that in order to stay sane, but also to be a present parent for her. If I spent even ten minutes remembering, and writing, later that night when she screamed and fought me over eating or going to bed, I could go back to that place where I meditated on the way her hands looked as she carefully picked up a crab with a yellow plastic shovel.

I called it, this website, “Still Life with Mia” then. Most of the entries have been set to private. I want to tell the stories in a different way, in an older writing voice. I want people to read about our life then, but not in the near-desperation of how I wrote about it then.

When I decided to be a “real” writer, I stopped blogging and refused to say the word. Almost a year ago, I started, slowly, taking selected past entries out of hiding and creating new ones. I never imagined I’d have many followers. I wanted to be a freelancer, and in order to get clients, I needed some kind of writing sample. I never thought I’d consider my own website as a true platform, or anything people would seek out. Now that it is, I can’t help but get emotional over the support people so freely offer.

11816093_10153158450028282_1964318977357852109_oBecause it’s still just me, sitting alone, at a computer, staring at a wall of photos and grabbing a mug to take a drink of coffee that is long-since gone. I have to remind myself to get up, to eat, to stop staring, and walk around a bit.

I dropped my baby off at daycare this morning when she was upset and needing her mom so badly, running away from her neediness, so I could sit and listen to the still quiet voice.

What’s it going to say today?

When I used to have regular panic attacks, ones that’d come for no reason, ones that would cripple me into feeling like I was suffocating, ones that curled me up into a ball in a jacuzzi bathtub of a house I’d been cleaning, I found a mantra:

“I love you, I’m here for you.”

The further I got into this journey as a single parent, and found myself further and further estranged from my family, it became my mantra for life. I’d learned I couldn’t depend on anyone else, and fell back into myself as my only source of support.

Maybe that’s where I got my strength from. Reaching out became an action of weakness. Writing blog posts about my hardest moments were showing humility, admitting faults, in an action that is going against the grain of only displaying perfection. It feels necessary to me now.

Where we are raw is where we are alive.

 

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pour qui

Lately my nights are no longer a sleep, but naps lasting a few hours that I awaken from often. Work is this never-ending thing that I feel guilty stepping away from. I feel guilty watching a movie. Because deadlines and assignments and research projects and all the reading I must do. Then to write. And edit. And rewrite.

My recent and startling ability to pay bills and have enough money in the bank to pay another month’s worth has thrown me into a battle of comfort and mistrust. I feel like I should be working even harder to maintain my momentum. Because who knows when the floor will drop out again. Who knows when the truck will break down, or when I run out of stories to tell.

Every word and thought and event seems to shape itself into a beginning middle and end in a perfect 800-word format that I can send off in a pitch.

Yet my life feels pretty dull. I work around the clock, looking for subject matters, writing, waiting on emails, hunting down payments, and in the midst is a toddler and kid and dog who I love but only have a few minutes at a time for. I crave showers and eating while sitting. I pass invitations to go out due to exhaustion and being past the point of unkempt and because my right eye is permanently bloodshot and I’m not sure why other than maybe I just keep it open too much but then wouldn’t the left one be red too?

I know there’s balance in here somewhere. I know this is hard because of Coraline’s age and my lack of affording full-time child care. But maybe I like this life. This nocturnal existence I’ve created for myself, staying up past midnight to tap at a keyboard, writing and forgetting.

The New Apartment

Our apartment in 2010, above the freeway in Mount Vernon, Washington.

I’ve been writing about our little studio we lived in five years ago a lot lately, in such a nostalgic way. I thought we wouldn’t get out of there. For a time I thought I’d clean houses for years, possibly a decade. I thought that little room and those piles of dirty rags and the car that constantly broke down was our fate. I thought that was what being a single mom meant.

I used to sit out on our porch at night, after I’d wrestled Mia into bed, chain smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking when I could afford it, and sometimes when I couldn’t. The days hollowed me, and left me shocked in my shell. I miss it, the crinkling of the paper and the yellowed fingers. The stained lips from wine in jugs and scribbling in journals by the light of an outside yellow bulb. I miss being that romantic notion of the artist, and a tortured one at that. Maybe I just miss the smoking, though I don’t, really.

It’s almost 12:30 and I should peel off my clothes and go to bed. I need to get up early. I need to nurse Cora through the night while she turns herself in circles in the bed, snuggling up to me one minute and kicking me the next. I’ll have dreams about hiding under thin sheets with a man in beach houses under swaying palms where sand-filled shoes are left by the door. I dream my skin is tight with a fresh burn from the sun and wake up to the dryness of the Montana winter that is slowly creeping in this year and its looming makes me nervous.

I hesitate to write on my personal platform about struggles I have. Because I do love this life. I know my old self who climbs and hikes and gets out of the house often to dance is around the bend. That raising babies on your own is tough and unimaginably hard and I’m not sure how I do it most of the time. But it was nice to decide to write here. To know that this writing is for me.

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Writing Out of Poverty. Literally.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how it feels to live in poverty. I’ve been published or featured seven times in the last week. I’m waiting on three more to go through edits, and another two to go live. On Tuesday, I’ll stand on a stage in front of a class at the college where I just graduated and give a talk about freelancing. I took that class two years ago.

DSCN1960But that’s not even the biggest full-circle moment. I’m working my way out of poverty by writing about my experiences in it. By opening myself up and taking a risk of admitting to others (namely internet trolls) that I’m still struggling enough to qualify for government assistance, I am getting to a place where I don’t need it anymore.

My first piece through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project was published yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve ever published something that said the words “I’m on food stamps.” Yesterday I wanted to curl onto my knees and heave sobs because of those four words appearing on a website. It was admitting how hard this has been while knowing the journey is almost over.

The piece was about the stigma involved in being on government assistance, or welfare, as most incorrectly call it. It’s about being compared to a wild animal receiving handouts on social media. It’s about feeling that judgment and hatred every time I pay for groceries, or even select items off the shelf.

I can honestly say I’ve never felt encouraged to get a college education as a single mother. I especially didn’t feel encouraged to pursue writing. I felt encouraged to work. I felt like I needed to work as many hours as I possibly could, no matter how low the pay, to get ahead. This is an idiotic system. Why wouldn’t low-income people be encouraged to educate themselves to earn higher wages? Not only was I going to school, though, I was taking out the maximum amount of student loans to pay for our meager fixed expenses like rent, insurance, internet, gas, phone, and utilities. I worked my way through college, and received grants and scholarships, but still ended at $50,000 in debt. Graduating meant failing my family at a chance to own a house.

DSCN1965Without the degree, though, I don’t think I would have stopped cleaning houses. I don’t think I would have thought myself on the same level as the people whose houses I cleaned. I don’t think I would have set my sights on top of the mountain, instead of being okay with remaining in the comfort of the trailhead at a job that required little skill or brain-power. Not thinking, not going to school, only working, was easy.

In a sense, I still feel the pull to get a regular job. I’ve written about this before. I think it’s only because writing is such a hobby to me and I feel like I’m not truly working. What is work, anyway? To a low-income person, it means being on your feet, asking people if you can get them anything, and performing customer service in the most direct way possible. Even if you’re working behind the scenes as a janitor, you still have customers to please.

But we’re all working in customer service. We’re all freelancers. Nobody (hopefully) forces us to work and we can leave anytime. And somebody, somewhere, appreciates the work we do, even if they don’t notice it.

I’m sitting in a café right now. I have a store-bought coffee sitting next to my laptop. I’m waiting for emails from editors, sending off essays, and fielding comments on my social media platforms. Last night I stayed up until 2 in order to meet a deadline. The work is constant, a mad dash, and a delicious hustle.

I just found out The Guardian’s running my op-ed tomorrow.

I think I deserve the night off.

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Finding your Inner Mr. Rogers

DSCN1996Netflix recently made classic episodes of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood available, and I’ve been watching them with the girls. Or, more correctly, I sit on the couch, my mouth gaped open a little, a tear welling in my eyelid and balancing until I wipe it away while the kids putter around and play with the dog.

Mr. Rogers was a sort of hero to me. He was the grandfather I’d longed for. The friend down the street I wanted to visit, the answer to my uncertainty and angst at four-years-old. I used to stand in front of our huge, wood-encased television that sat on the floor, waiting for him to wave good-bye, and I’d kiss the static of the screen, leaving marks for my mom to complain about having to wipe off.

Watching the episodes Netflix chose to release, especially the one with the crayon factory, was to sit as a child again, remembering my small frame and long hair, listening intently to the nice man telling me I mattered because I was me and nobody else was.

I spent the entire month of August hustling to get published. I wrote stories about rape, edited others about abortion, and made lists of how Louis CK and Roseanne molded me in to the parent I am. I submitted, pitched, and submitted more. My rejection pile increased more rapidly than my accepted one, but as of today I’m forthcoming through eight publications, and most of them are new to me and large platforms.

In the midst of all of this, I got accepted to be a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change. This position is the equivalent of running across the room, leaping, and landing in a feather bed.  My boss is an enthusiastic cheerleader of my writing, my story, and talks me up to editors at lunches after listening to me talk for a couple of hours about my struggles over the last decade. Most of all, it comes with a stipend that, with the child support I fought hard to get and receive, pays my bills. My days of constant writing, hustling, and pitching for 12-14 hours a day were done for the time being.

Granted, I have very modest bills. I don’t have a smartphone, cable, a car payment, or high-speed internet. I only fill my gas tank once a month. I have housing assistance and qualify for other programs like free breakfast and lunches for Mia. Federal poverty level is at $16.50 per person, per day, and I’m still under that mark, but not as far as I used to be.

Currently, I just have one piece that’s due next week, and I’m waiting for instructions on another one. I’m taking an online writing class, but other than that I’m not writing. I went from writing over 1,000 words a day to hardly any. I had to take a break from myself. I had to stop reliving those painful moments. I had to shut down and stop being so damn open and vulnerable. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sometimes in a panic, asking “Why am I sharing these things?!” I admit, I’m an avid social media user, and have kept a blog off and on for years, but in this age of publishing online and facing scrutiny through dreaded comment sections, I often felt gripping anxiety over it all, wanting to hide, or pretend my online self wasn’t really me.

DSCN2018Most of all, I had to stop reliving those painful moments, editing my memories to form them into a story arc. Writing about heartbreak was putting myself back in that body, sitting with myself on that porch late at night, feeling that loneliness and isolation again. This wasn’t feeling the warm fuzziness from Mr. Rogers. This was lying in dark rooms, alone and scared.

Instead I’ve been giving myself permission to not write, not work, and take some time to read books or go back and edit pieces I’m passionate about. I take Coraline and the dog for walks, and Bodhi never pulls while we wait for the baby to catch up, holding a leaf or stick she’s found.

It was my birthday on Sunday. I meant to write something about turning a year older, or the fact that it’s the anniversary of conceiving both of my daughters. I wanted to recognize how far we’ve come in the last year, but I don’t need a birthday to meditate on that. I do it almost daily.

The only thing I wanted to happen on that day was allowing our dog, Bodhi, the chance to run without fences, long leads, or a nervous me calling her back constantly. We drove out to the mountains and I opened the door to the truck, watched her hesitate a bit, then run back and forth with the greatest doggy-smile on her face.

We got back to the house, and I ran to the store for dinner stuff. Mia sang “Happy Birthday” to me over cupcakes I’d bought. That night, everything was quiet, and I realized the only adults I’d spoken to all day were two cashiers and a friend I’d run into outside the grocery store. Years ago, this would have sent me in to a spiral of despair and sadness, but I didn’t feel that in the slightest. When I think of my life, minus the tasks of caring for all of us, I feel nothing but contentment. A freedom from want. A happiness. Maybe that’s what growing up means: finding your inner Mr. Rogers. Finding a way to be comfortable with, appreciate and love me because I am me and no one else is.

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