So if you hear someone telling you that a liberal arts education is a luxury in which only the independently wealthy should indulge, I’ll agree . . . if you mean the kind of education that makes you think of your own brain as an exquisite platter of pâté, to be passed around at parties and admired for its velvety richness. Don’t get that kind of education, no matter how much money you have. The world needs exactly zero of that.
But if you mean the kind of education that gives you the unshakable idea that life is interesting, worth thinking about, worth talking about…
The music of Bach is not something that, say, Barry Manilow could have achieved if he simply put in more hours. You can gather tinder all day and stack it like an expert, but without a spark, there will be no flame.
I used to fret over this problem a lot as a child. I obsessed over a book of saints, where the common thread seemed to be that these people had been different from the very beginning. Tiny Ludwiga could lisp the Pater Noster long before she even learned to say her own name; pious Edelbert would toddle away from his nurse every chance he got, only to be found once again sound asleep under his favourite spot, the tabernacle in the village church.
“How the heck can I compete with that?” I used to think.
I had a dream, and I’ll tell you what it meant, because it might be meant for you.
Quick disclaimer: I think that dreams are mainly a way for the quieter part of your brain to tug at the sleeve of the noisier part of your brain, and to say, “Hey, shut up for a second. Here’s what we really think and feel about The Thing.”
Sleep is a place where the supernatural, the natural, and the occult can all get a leg in. Aquinas acknowledges that God occasionally communicates with people in their dreams. But I’ve also heard many people say that they or their children had persistent dreams of malevolent rats, spiders, snakes, or other fearsome creatures — and that these disappeared after the room was blessed or some occult influence was rejected.
But most dreams are just your own mind at work. If my subconscious takes the trouble to put on a memorable show about something when I’m asleep, then it’s often something I really need to deal with; and so, especially with disturbing dreams, I make an effort to decode them.
The other day, I dreamt a long, long dream about running and hot air balloons and factories and meddling kids; but the whole time, I was putting off looking under the kitchen sink.
In real life, I have, in fact, been putting off looking under the sink, because I know it’s dripping. But in my dream, I got down on the floor and opened up the cabinet. I saw that there was a little valve controlling the drip, and I was pretty annoyed that it was such a simple fix. Why didn’t we just take care of this sooner? So I tightened it right up, and–
WHOOOSSSSSSHHHHH. The water came gushing out in a horrible flood. Oh, no, I must have turned it the wrong way! So I quickly tightened it up in the other direction, as far as it would go, and–
WHOOOSSSSSSHHHHH. Flooded again.
So, I put it back the way it was.
It wasn’t easy, either. You had to get the position just exactly right, and there wasn’t any wiggle room at all. It took a really light touch to get the balance perfect, to keep it from gushing and spewing and wrecking my entire kitchen.
And once I got it in just the right spot, it was still leaking. But at least it was a slow leak. And I knew I could live with that, at least for the time being. It couldn’t go on that way forever, but I was right up against the end of the dream, so I had to let it be for now.
I share this with you because it is November. Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas. For lots of people, this means yummy cinnamon smells and twinkly lights and hot chocolate by a fire. For lots of other people, who don’t live between the pages of Real Simple magazine, this time of year means having way too much to do. Way way way too much to do. Even way too many truly important things to do, even after we simplify and prioritize and trim off all the nice but extraneous things we’d like to do.
A good many of us are going to find ourselves not getting everything done — important things, vital things. We are going to walk around with a sense of guilt and dread because we know there is this steady drip-drip-drip of failures going on behind the cabinet doors; and we’re probably beating ourselves up for not getting down to business and taking care of it, you lazy, irresponsible bum.
But I’m here to tell you: It’s probably not your fault. It’s probably not a matter of just forcing yourself to squat down and adjust things until it’s all nice and tight and tidy and taken care of. Right now, probably that can’t be done. It’s just not a tidy time, and that’s not your fault.
Not only is it not your fault, but you’re probably already working really hard, and employing a lot of skill and talent and a delicate touch, to keep it that drip of failure as slow as it is. So let it drip! You can definitely revisit it later; but don’t blame yourself for not doing things that no one person could do. There is such a thing as doing everything you’re supposed to do and still failing. All of your hard work is keeping that drip slow. Good work, you.
Does this apply to everyone? No, it does not. Some people do need to work harder, get their acts together, and make a bunch of adjustments so that things get better. If you’re not sure about your own situation, then write down all the things you’re supposed do every day and ask yourself if you’d expect someone else to do them all perfectly. If not, then lay off yourself. Let it drip.
We’ll give the final work to the poet Spike Jones:
Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe you’ve just met your Water Lou!
I cried every night, the week before I finally applied for food stamps. I was so ashamed. Food stamps are for losers, people who make stupid, irresponsible choices,people who want to live a life of luxury while other people work hard to pick up the slack. This I knew.
We were homeschooling, because the schools in our town were wretched. We were in that town because we were renting a house from my brother-in-law, because we had been evicted from our previous apartment, because the landlord had sold the duplex, and nobody else would rent to us because they thought we had too many kids for the size of apartment we could afford.
So there we were, in a dead end town. But we were getting by. I budgeted like a maniac, playing Scrooge with the precious hoard of toilet paper, detergent, and apples we could afford. I once bought a used linen toddler dress for four dollars and blushed the whole way home, nauseated with the extravagance of my purchase. It wasn’t a great way to live, but as long as my husband could get enough overtime hours and WIC kept us in cheese and Kix, and as long as the kids could stomach a rotation of pasta, hot dogs, bananas, and tuna noodle casserole, we were okay.
Then my husband’s employer cut the overtime hours, but still required everyone to hand in the same amount of work. No, it’s not exactly legal, but there weren’t any other jobs to be had that year. His schedule still varied wildly and unpredictably from day to day, and we couldn’t find any jobs that would make up the lost overtime income and allow him to show up at either 8 a.m. or 11:45 p.m., depending on what else he was doing.
Now the kids got hot dogs for supper, and the adults got a hot dog bun with ketchup. We figure and figured and figured, and discovered that, no matter how hard we squeezed, we were always going to be about forty dollars short of being able to eat and pay our basic bills. Just forty dollars — something that, five years ago, when the economy was better, I would have spent on odds and ends at Target without thinking twice. But it was forty dollars that we didn’t have now, at all.
So off to the welfare office I went. And they granted us $800 a month for our family of seven. I couldn’t believe it. So much money! Boy oh boy, I thought. They were right about food stamps: you can live like a king on this stuff. No wonder people just sit back and let the free checks come in! I knew we weren’t like that, though, and I decided we’d just use what we needed, and let the rest sit there, so at least we won’t be part of the problem. I’d put money in the bank as a down payment on an apartment in a better city, and I’d only use my benefits to make up the slack that I had found in our budget, and no more. We’re no freeloaders.
And we followed this plan for many months. I salted away savings, and I strolled past the meat freezer in the supermarket, lusting after the trays of meat, scorning the shameless slobs who stopped and filled up their carts on the taxpayer’s dime. Freeloaders. Scum. Oh lord, look at that steak. Stop looking. Now go get some spaghetti.
You know what? I was still ashamed of myself for being on food stamps, even though at this point I was working, too, tutoring and then delivering Meals on Wheels while still homeschooling, while my husband worked what amounted to swing shifts at his job. I was obsessively drawn to arguments about food stamps online, and, feeling extraordinarily defensive, belligerently or pathetically pled my case to strangers over and over again. It wasn’t our fault. We didn’t mean it to be this way. We’re really trying. We’re not worthless, truly not!
And they hated us anyway. Oh, man. They told us everything I had been saying to myself: freeloaders. Not willing to work. What’s wrong with America today. Culture of dependency. And all the while, we went around the house with winter jackets and three pairs of socks on, because we couldn’t afford to turn the heat above 60 degrees when it was below zero out. My kids never got a new toy, never got new clothes. They learned never to ask for a popsicle or a box of crayons. We cobbled together a bizarre school curriculum out of whatever books were 25 cents at the thrift store. My husband’s glasses were taped together at the nose, we had no auto or health insurance, and I chose my driving routes according to how many hills I could coast down, to save gas. We prioritized bills according to how threatening they were.
And we were thoroughly, thoroughly stuck in a neighborhood where everyone was on parole for beating, cheating, or molesting someone else on the street. They set the actual street on fire once. I remember staring at the green catfish we kept in a tank, a leftover from our old life when we could consider buying luxuries like pets. He would swim around and around, and I would have these cartoonish, drooling fantasies about how delicious he would be, fried up in a pan with a little lemon juice. I’ve told stories about these things as if they were funny, but they were not funny. My kids were not safe in their own yard. I would let them play in the rain puddles only after checking for used condoms.
I couldn’t stay away from comment boxes about food stamps. And every single one told us that we were shit, because we needed help buying food.
So I went out and bought a freaking steak. And pop tarts, and ice cream, and chips, and asparagus, and mangoes, and all the things that we had trained ourselves to stop even looking at. And with the cash I saved from using food stamps, I bought a giant carton of cheap beer.
Everything else in our material lives was completely awful. There was no hint of luxury anywhere, no wiggle room, nothing simple or easy. Everything was dirty and sour, and everything was a struggle. Everything we tried to accomplish was impossible because six other impossible things had to be fixed first. The one and only expansive thing was the food budget. So I bought a freaking steak, and it was so juicy and good.
Not everyone has a story like ours. But not everyone has our advantages, either: the advantage of knowing that life isn’t supposed to be like this, that fresh fruits and veggies are important, that debt isn’t normal, that work is normal, that reading books is important, that family can be depended on, that kids need structure and order, that marriage and monogamy are normal.
Not everyone knows how to maintain a car. How to show up on time. How to file taxes, make photocopies, save paystubs, request forms, and fill out the reams and reams of paperwork necessary to keep the welfare office from cancelling your benefits — or, as happened to us one month, to keep from despairing when the welfare office makes a mistake and gives you too many benefits, and then, when they discover the mistake, it turns out you owe *them* money, which you pay off with the money you’ve been saving in the bank until you run out of money, which means you have to go back on food stamps because you can’t buy food.
It may very well be that the ratty, vulgar, freeloaders you see with their L-shaped leatherette couches, their flat screen TVs, their tattoos and yeah, their food stamp steaks are in the same position. They may be stuck. They may have been stuck for generations, and they may not even have anyone tell them that there is supposed to be more to life than getting as many benefits as you can. They may have been shrieked and sworn at, neglected and molested since they were babies. They may have lead poisoning and FAS. The may have been numbed and dimmed by being told from day one that they’re retards, so go watch cartoons and drink your orange soda, retard, and leave mommy’s boyfriend the fuck alone. They may never have seen anyone cook in an oven. They may spend their lives on waiting lists for another dank, foul, dim, narrow subsidized apartment with a yard of dirt and broken bottles. And all of this may be the only thing they can imagine, because everyone else they have ever known lives exactly the same way.
They may have tried to get ahead by getting a second or third, minimum wage job working overnight at a gas station, or sweeping floors at the tampon factory, and discovered that their food stamps are immediately cut by exactly the amount they bring home. They may hear that they’re not going to get any more benefits until they sell their cars (because that’s a great way to find a steady job) or get rid of their phones (because teachers, employers, and the welfare office itself really appreciate not having any way to get in touch).
They may hear that they should somehow miraculously vault over a lifetime of the degradations of generational poverty and just . . . be better. Be self-sufficient. Be a completely different kind of person out of sheer will power. That if they don’t do this, they are pathetic, and have no one but themselves to blame. Look how they live! Such luxury, on the taxpayer’s dime!
And they may get their monthly benefits and think, “Screw it, I’m gonna get something I want for a change.” They may buy themselves a freaking steak. And they may not care if you think they deserve it or not.
UPDATE: Several people have expressed concern about our financial state. I appreciate this very much, and would like to reassure everyone that this essay describes what we went through several years ago. Thanks be to God, we have been off WIC and food stamps for several years. I wrote this essay mainly to get it off my chest, and my husband encouraged me to publish it — so I did so assuming it would only reach my normal audience, who are already familiar with our family. If I had known this essay would get as much attention as it has, I would have made it more clear that we are doing (more or less) fine now, thanks!
Certainly Netflix and Microsoft are thinking of their bottom line, but they also seem to realize that their employees are people, not just cogs. Women (and men, of course) are capable of giving real attention both to work and to their children — but work and children can both be done better if working moms feel less torn, less rushed, less guilty, and less like every aspect of her life is getting short shrift. These are not impossible goals.
Women can’t have it all, and neither can men. Working and raising a family means making sacrifices — but, if employers are willing to be more flexible and imaginative, those sacrifices don’t need to be intolerable. The goal of making life easier for working moms is a very pro-life goal.
For some reason, nobody ever asks me to give the commencement address at their local high school or college. This despite the fact that I promised to wear pantyhose and everything, and to leave the bottle at home. Bunch of anti-Semites.
Anyway, I’m not one to be bitter. I’m not going to let this snubbing gnaw away at me. I’m just going to go ahead and write that speech anyway, and print out several copies of it, and keep them in the diaper bag in the car, next to the Luger PO8 and the farewell note. Because you never, never know!
Here’s what I have to say. Graduates, as I look out over your bright, eager faces, my heart wells with emotion and a single phrase springs into my mind: Better you than me.
Gee, I would give anything to not be you right now. What a horrible time this is for you. I mean, think about it: You’re on the verge of starting a new life. The possibilities are endless—what the future holds is bounded only by the limits of your imagination. You can be anything you want to be, if you only believe in yourself. You can shoot for the stars!
I’m so, so sorry.
Because that’s what people have been telling you, right? Isn’t that what your guidance counselor said—that there are no limits to what you can achieve?
You know that’s crazy talk, right?
I mean that literally: Only people with a mental illness would truly believe that you can achieve anything. People who actually get things done are the people who look at themselves and say, “Okey-doke. There are some things I’m good at, and many thousands more things that I am and always will be utterly unqualified to do. Starting tomorrow, my job is do the least amount of thrashing around and wasting of my parent’s tuition money as possible, while I figure out the difference between my very few strengths and my billions of weaknesses.
“Then, I need to figure out if there’s any possible way I can do what it turns out I’m good at, and also be a decent human being. If possible, it would be wonderful if the things I’m good at, and which allow me to be decent, are also things which will earn me a salary.”
And after you have that conversation with yourself, and preferably after you come up with a better plan than scrawling “FIX LIFE” on your memo pad, then you can go out drinking with your buddies.
Because here’s the deal, you poor deluded masses of inchoate ambition: Freedom is for something. Freedom is so that you can get something done. Yes, it’s valuable and precious in itself—but it’s not a resting place. Having potential is like being hungry: You want to resolve that in some definite way. All the best things in life come when you tie yourself down in one way or another, when you accept some limitations.
Think about all the things that make life worth living—all the things that people you admire are proud of. A huge project achieved? They neglected other things—fun things!—to get it done. A happy marriage? They forsook all others to remain faithful. A vocation of any kind? Saying Yes to one thing always means saying No to a dozen more. It doesn’t mean that all the rejected opportunities are bad. It just means that you’re only one person, and are here to do one person’s work.
This doesn’t mean you have to rush into it. There’s nothing especially admirable about going whole hog for the wrong thing (just ask the guy with the Betty Boop tattoo on his forehead). So take your time, look around, and don’t be rash. But for the love of mike, remember that this stage of your life is supposed to come to an end some day. Even if you never end up with a career at all, you will eventually have some huge choices to make.
Or you know what? You might not even get to make a choice: You might find yourself faced with some horrible situation, and guess who’s the only one who can fix it? That’s right, the guy in the mirror, the one who fell asleep in a trash can and his friend drew cat whiskers on his face with permanent markers. The lives of others may someday depend on you, Mr. Fluffy. Try to make at least some of your current behavior reflect that fact.
So congratulations, graduates! You did it. Some of you worked moderately hard to be here today, and I applaud you. Now go forth, act decent, call your mother from time to time. And remember, nobody’s life ever got better after drinking a rum and Coke.
Any normal person, when faced with a heap of excrement like this, would go get the shovel and clean it up. Maybe they wouldn’t be happy about it, but they would clean it up, because it is a pile of dog poop in the middle of the yard. Instead, I started listing all the things I had already gotten done that day, all the things I was still going to do, and I said, “No! It’s not my job! I had enough things that are my job. Not gonna do it. Not. My. Job.”
Happy feast of St. Joseph the Worker! I was a little confused (NOT THAT I’VE BEEN A CATHOLIC ALL MY LIFE OR ANYTHING) about the day. Didn’t St. Joseph just have a day back in March?
Yep, St. Joseph’s feast day is March 19. St. Joseph the Worker is a separate feast day instituted by Pius XII in 1955, “apparently” (according to American Catholic) “in response to the ‘May Day’ celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists.”
I came across this enormously encouraging thought on Facebook, via St. Zita Catholic Worker Community of Green Country:
Barely making it, for a family, is quite an accomplishment.” –A resident at St. Francis House in Chicago.
If you’re not where you want to be, relax! Keep working because God is in the work.
Somehow, that is a tremendous relief to hear. Relax into the work. Even if you’re not there yet, you’re there, because God is there in the work. This dovetails nicely with a quote from Catherine of Siena, whose feast day was yesterday:
“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, “I am the way.”
To be clear, it may not feel like heaven, but that’s because the world is like a damp spot, and original sin is like a mold that keeps growing over our front window over and over again. It’s hard work to keep clearing it off so we can see, but we do want to see clearly, don’t we? St. Joseph the Worker, intercede for us, so we have the energy to keep cleaning.
Children are good for society, fiscally and in every other way. Children who are well-cared for, who aren’t forced to go to school sick or spend lots of time alone, and parents who aren’t utterly exhausted and wracked with guilt at all times, make families who give stability and peace to society as a whole. So even if we’re only looking out for our own self-interest, it’s best for everyone when parents are given as much freedom and flexibility as possible to devote to their children. Children are not a hobby or a side interest: they are life itself. It only makes sense for employers to take that into account.