Poverty & Privilege – Reflections on my Trip to North Carolina

A few weeks ago, my mom and I traveled to North Carolina to spend some time with family. It has been about a decade since I visited and four years since my mom was there. The landscape has changed, and the people are older, but the mentality remains the same.

I know I will never be able to adequately explain their way of life – trust me, I tried to explain it to Angie in our daily phone conversations and I barely hit the highlights – but here goes. Nearly all of my family on my mother’s side (except for my mother) live within spitting distance of one another on a 38-acre tract that was once my grandparents’ farm. If the word compound didn’t carry such a negative connotation, I might call it that.

A rough map of my family homestead.

The arrangement is equal parts communal living and family feud. Everyone sits down to Sunday dinner together but during the week, most can’t stand the sight of one another. It’s a deep-rooted hatred that goes back generations and because of it, cynicism and antagonism pervade almost every single conversation.

Like this one…which has been abbreviated in the interest of time…

“How’d you get here?” asked my cousin upon seeing me for the first time since we were both in high school. No hello. No how are you doing. Not even a smile as he spoke.

A’s first cake.

“We flew into Raleigh and rented a car,” I answered before turning my attention back to the cake my aunt was proudly showing me. One of the kids had baked it. It was her first one and she wanted me to take a picture.

“Must be nice to be so wealthy!” my cousin said, loud enough to be embarrassing. “Me, I live paycheck to paycheck. My family has never even been to the mountains.”

What do you say to this? I decided saying nothing was the best response, and I excused myself and went outside. Within about a minute, he followed.

“You’re not married?”

“No,” I answered.

“Why not? Just couldn’t find a good man?” he asked, trying to bait me.

After a few minutes on this line of questioning, I excused myself once more to go back inside. It had already been a week of all too many similar conversations and I was tired. But escape eluded me again, as he followed me.

“I bet you live in a big ole ranch house, don’t you?” he asked, continuing his interrogation.

“No, we live in an apartment.”

“An apartment! That’s no place for animals. How many cats you got? I picture you as a cat person.”

“One,” I replied as he pulled up a chair next to me.

“Why didn’t you bring your ‘friend’ with you?” he whispered, leaning closer and grinning, as if he was sharing a secret that he’d been waiting for just the right moment to reveal.

I paused for a moment, suddenly understanding why people might not like one another here. “Because I didn’t want to,” I said matter-of-factly. He started to laugh as if what I said had just exposed a rift in my storybook relationship. The truth – I hated being away from Angie but there was simply no way I was going to bring her into this hostile territory where “different” is unacceptable and “gay” is completely intolerable. “I would never expose her to this,” I added, gesturing to the room full of people.

It was about that moment that my mom turned from her own conversation. “Oh, Angie would never survive here,” she said. “She’s a quiet person and this noise and people running in and out all day long would drive her nuts. They’re practically inseparable otherwise. Always going somewhere and doing something fun. Have you shown them a picture of Angie?”

God love my mom! She had no idea what was going on and no idea how her interjection saved my day. With that one comment, she threw my cousin so off balance that it was he who started looking for an escape this time. In the end, I passed around a picture on my phone and chatted for a brief second with other folks in the room about our travels. My cousin, once he recovered, moved on to talk about someone else – this time it was our “rich” uncle who drew the short straw.

I wish there was a moral to this story but there really isn’t. People are mean sometimes, and they are unhappy for all sorts of reasons. Sadly, money seems to be at the heart of much of this unhappiness. The area where my family lives in North Carolina has a population of 2,026 and a poverty rate of 29%, which is more than twice the national poverty rate for the US. The median household income is $24,400 and jobs are on the decline. Of all the people living in our family commune, only 7 are employed; 5 of whom are under age 25. A few earn money through odd jobs, mostly construction, babysitting, and selling produce at the Farmer’s Market, but the vast majority have never had a job. Many receive government assistance. Some even claim to be modern day Robin Hoods. Had I grown up there, I might feel the same sense of defeat and envy that my cousins do. I might treat “outsiders” the same way I was treated and see “different” as a threat to my own way of life. I’d like to think not but I honestly don’t know what I would be like. I was privileged to have different opportunities.

We read a lot about acknowledging privilege these days and it’s easy to think that only white, heterosexual, males have it. They do not. Societal privilege exists as a result of the conditions a person is born into. Because my mother chose to leave home 50 years ago, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, went to a good school that provided me with plenty of academic challenges, and ultimately received a full scholarship to go to college. It is because of those opportunities that I landed a job making more in my first year than my parents were making after 25 years in the workforce. And it because of my privilege that I could choose to leave all that behind to live like I’m broke and do only the things I love to do. I am privileged, and I try hard not to take that for granted. I am grateful every day that I have always had choices.

Acknowledging privilege doesn’t mean that we have the right to look down on other people. The only difference between my cousin and me is the place where we were raised. We are the same age, from the same family. We’ve both had challenges in our lives but the opportunities, the resources, and the support systems available for each of us was vastly different, as was our exposure to different ways of life.

I won’t lie, I still want to smack him for assuming our different upbringings made me a snotty brat. His actions were mean-spirited and cheated us both out of the chance to get to know one another as adults. I won’t pretend to understand him. I don’t. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, any more than I know where to begin to understand this sad dynamic of hatred and distrust within my own family. Another cousin from Atlanta also made the trip along with us. He grew up on the farm (when it was still a farm) and is one of only a few of us to go to college. He told me after his visit, “It’s a different world there. A different economic system. A different social structure. A different everything. I may never understand it, but every time I go back, I realize just how fortunate I am.” I can’t help but agree.

My mom and aunt enjoying lunch out.

I’m glad my mom had the chance to visit with her sisters and brothers. I’m glad we shared the journey together. With my mom’s health always in question, we may never make this trip again, and the way I feel right now, I might be okay with that. Later though, I may change my mind. After all, for better or worse, these people are my family and the few who were inhospitable should not get to overshadow the many who were welcoming.

I am hugely grateful to my aunt for cooking many of our meals and sharing with me a great collection of recipes she has collected over her lifetime and to my oldest cousin for giving me an insider’s tour of a working homestead. Also the primary caregiver for his aging mother and an outsider himself, my oldest cousin and I connected over our similar lives and our love of doing things for ourselves (though, with poultry, livestock, a 2-acre garden, and his own wine-making operation, he has me beat by miles!). And I want to send a special shout-out to my youngest first cousin who just turned 13. He was a very good host during our visit, offering us sodas, and carrying on a very fun conversation about life, love, and video games.

You Don’t Have to Check the Mail

My mom and I were having a spirited discussion the other day on the topic of busyness. She is almost 18 months into her retirement and has yet to come to grips with what to do with her time. As a nurse for more than 45 years, she is used to doing two things – solving problems and caring for others. Caring for herself has never been her strong suit; so, while she may have more time now, things like relaxing, learning new skills or hobbies, exploring the world around her (even if it’s in the backyard), or eating (yes, eating) are not on her priority list. What is on that list, you might be wondering (as I was). Problem solving and caring for others, that’s what. If she’s not actively doing either, she feels as if her days are for naught.

At noon on Saturday, my mom made the remark that she “should have been done cleaning her bathroom by now” and that if she wasn’t going to be able to get things done, there was “no point in living”. I know I should have been more sympathetic but, in that moment, her words just upset me, so I asked why she thought she always had to be doing something.

“That’s the way I was raised,” she answered. “It was bred into me. Your work is your worth.”

“That’s crap,” I spewed. “This business of thinking you always have to be busy, that’s your choice.”

Since retiring, my mom is not the same person she once was. She will tell you that she used to work circles around everyone else, spending 8 hours a day at the hospital, taking care of two children, and keeping the house clean all by herself. I know she did all those things, but I also remember a mom that spent hours just sitting on the porch watching the birds, one who read library books and took us on trips to the places in those stories, a mom who biked 15 miles one afternoon just to see if she still had it in her, one who built tents out of tables with her grandchildren, a mom who never met a stranger and most importantly, one who taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons:

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.

I reminded her of this last part on Saturday. She smiled, as if she could see in her mind’s eye any one of the many times she drilled this into me as a child.

“Yes, I always taught you to be independent and that the only two things you ever have to do in life are pay taxes and die.” After a few seconds she laughed and added, “And now, I don’t even have to pay taxes anymore.”

Somewhere in our conversation, I think it finally dawned on her that I look up to her. Not because of her work ethic or her ability multi-task. These things are as irrelevant to me now was they were when I was a child. I look up to her because she has always lived life on her own terms. She and my grandmother were the strongest, most free-spirited women I ever had the privilege of knowing and those attributes, more than any other, are the ones that I try to model in my own life.

Hearing my mom say that she felt useless when she wasn’t busy felt like someone had turned the world on its head. It took both of us a minute to really understand that what she was trying to say had very little to do with busyness and a whole lot to do with contribution. My mom wasn’t upset because she hadn’t finished cleaning the bathroom. She was upset because cleaning the bathroom was the only thing she had to do, and she just couldn’t make herself want to do it.

When you are engaged in activities that bring you joy, even the mundane is tolerable. When my mom was working, cleaning the bathroom was just part of the routine. It fit somewhere between grocery shopping and ironing her uniform to get ready for her next shift. It wasn’t the be all to end all. If it got done, great. If not, maybe next week. Life was about the adventure of nursing and being a mother and grandmother, not about scrubbing the toilet. With many of these things now missing from her life, the whole focus shifts and yes, I can see how she would feel distraught.

Though my mom will never read this, here’s what I would like for her to know.

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do – not even clean the bathroom. You don’t have to keep appointments you never wanted to make in the first place. You don’t have to watch the news (I don’t). You don’t have to answer the phone (I don’t do that very often either). You don’t even have to check the mail every day. The world will not fall apart when these things don’t get done. Trust me, I know. And, no, you don’t have to take anyone’s advice, not even mine. But if you do…remember this:

  • Naps are good for you. It’s okay to take one every day.
  • It’s also okay to do nothing. Being still and present is actually really good for you.
  • There’s nothing wrong with what you already have. You don’t need to buy new things just because someone tells you that you should.
  • It’s okay to grieve the loss of a job, especially one that you loved. It will help you heal.
  • You are still a valuable member of society and you don’t have to do anything to prove that. But if you want to do something, there are hundreds of great ways to feel productive that don’t involve driving yourself crazy on chores that just repeat when you’re done. Try that hobby you always wanted to learn. Become a volunteer. Create something. The options are endless.

As someone who looks forward to the day when I don’t need to lease a portion of my time to money-making endeavors, I don’t always see the downside of retirement. Watching my mom struggle to find her identity again after leaving her job, has brought many things to light for me. I love my mom more than she probably knows and I want her to find her happiness again. To do that, I know I need to be more patient and understanding. She is not a minimalist. She doesn’t have the same ideas and interests that I do, so expecting her to be content just to sit on the patio and knit a hat is unrealistic. I have to meet her on her own terms, and if that means we clean the bathroom together until she finds her mojo again, then so be it. I’ll bring the mop.