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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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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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A knot usually builds in my stomach at the beginning of the month. It’s a turnover of bills that are due, namely rent and that one private student loan payment I can’t defer. I’ve looked for work seriously for the past couple of months. As a freelancer, I figure at least five regular clients with added one-time jobs will be necessary to be lucrative. I currently have one, and the added two who have hired me but I haven’t worked at yet. I’ve found in this industry, getting from “hired” to “paid” is a big leap.
Snapshot_20150302Last night, I sat and stared at the closed blinds. Coraline slept in my arms. I’d overspent on stuff for Easter by five bucks, starting the dance of waiting for paychecks and direct deposits before checks clear. I thought maybe I was getting depressed. I’d been scrambling and scraping for too long. The last year has been especially tough, often not having enough, but we’d made it. I’d found an apartment we could afford. All the years of college, of toiling over words, of long hours promoting myself, gave me this launching point. We’d made it to me growing my online platform to something I could be proud of, enough to go out and ask people to hire me to write for them. I felt like jumping up and saying a proud “TA DAH!” and presenting Stephanie Land, Freelance Writer, and all the jobs would come in. My small amount of income would triple, I’d pay off my credit cards, and I’d be able to leave the state and take the girls on a trip somewhere. But all of these weeks went by so fast, and it was suddenly four months into the year and I’d only accomplished a fraction of my financial goals.
DSCN1509Recovering from putting myself through college with a newborn was harder than I’d thought. I had no idea I’d suffer from a fear of my own mortalityI didn’t think I’d be so enraptured with Coraline that months of having barely enough income and support to pay the bills would be worth it. But I still made progress. I secured good shelter. I gathered resources to help us through this (hopefully) last time of needing them. I lowered my monthly bills by $140 while adding life insurance. I used my tax refund to pay off a third of my credit card debt and transferred another chunk to one with 0% interest. I applied for funding to write a book. I wrote. I submitted. I got published and started the process again.
I hope this foundation will carry us through the next several years.  
But last night I felt sorry for myself, tired and weary of the struggle. I searched online for blogs written by other single moms who had done the same. Who had their kids full-time. Who’d gone from depending on government assistance to successful careers. But most of them were written by former stay-at-home moms who’d divorced. A lot of them focused on dating. Then I stumbled on singlemomsincome.com and this lady had gathered a whole list of ways to work at home. She has ebooks and links and words of encouragement. Enough that I felt inspired. But it still came from a post-divorce woman. Someone who’d started her family with a platform of marriage, and had a partner in the beginning. Her kids visited their dad every other weekend.  
I thought instead of occasionally posting on here, I should do so with purpose. In the next few weeks, I’ll add a tab that lists resources I’ve used when my total incoming money was less than a thousand dollars. Sometimes a lot less. Writing or talking about living well below the poverty level hasn’t been an easy topic for me. I hold on to a lot of shame and guilt surrounding it all. It’s time to let that go.
With luck, this blog might reach another full-time solo mom, desperate to not have to fill out applications for assistance and pay all her bills while affording dinner out. Maybe she’s a survivor of abuse, too. Maybe she’s estranged from her family like we are. And I can comfort her a bit, or give her confidence, and say “I know, I’ve been there, too.”
That’s who I’m writing for. That’s who I’ve always written for.
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