Friday, January 3, 2014

The Ragged Edge

At times it's difficult to describe experiences.  This is one of them.

When I was a younger woman and working as an engineer and/or technician for an engineering contract firm (or three),  my life was very different than what it is now.  It wasn't just a case of where I lived or how much money I had in the bank, although ultimately, that's a lot of what played into who I was.

I was a woman who was confident, happy (although hugely stressed by a bad marriage).  I shopped at malls, bought gold and gemstone jewelry, and when I wanted or needed something, I didn't have to wonder if there was money there to do it.  There was.  But it went beyond that.  When I was there, in those days, I could go into a room of strangers on equal footing.  I felt worthy, strong, friendly.  Coarse language never crossed my lips. I didn't have to worry about talking over people's heads, most of my friends were well educated.  And I felt comfortable in what I wore, no matter what it was.

When the kids were born, I became exposed to another kind of person.  I saw mothers and fathers who were what I'd call "rough around the edges".  They had good hearts, were unfailingly honest, often to the point of being unsociably blunt, and they were actually recognizable by the lines of their faces:  Deep frown lines on their foreheads, deep laugh lines around their eyes.  They seemed to swing between extremes of belligerent self empowerment and meek deferment, and they had some of the coarsest language I've ever heard.  These were the "poor parents"... other parents like me who had kids with disabilities.  It was easy, in some cases, to say that the extremism in the kids was the result of the extremism in the parents... although I had already seen some parents in the middle ranges, parents who were impoverished, angry, or beaten down by fighting for their own disabled kids.

Ultimately I came to realize that it wasn't just that the kids were disabled, but the poverty that resulted from that.  And that there were other mechanisms which would result in poverty, and similar socio-psychological results.

Social-economic status has a HUGE impact on behavior and self-image.  I've learned that the hard way.  Today that self confident and self esteeming young woman finds herself an old woman acting in those same extremes of angry rebellion and self effacing deference.  And developing a less than polished vocabulary.  In part it's because we adopt the language patterns of the people we most often associate with in order to fit in, and when you can no longer afford the activities and social behaviors of one class, you find yourself bumped down to the next.

It's an interesting phenomena for me, because who I am is localized.

Here at home, I'm a poor Section 8 housed disabled near senior.  Back in my home town, I'm still an educated woman who has simply temporarily fallen on hard times.  My behavior and feelings of self worth actually change as I travel north, where I am associated with a different socio-economic class.

There are situations where I still feel personal empowerment and self-esteem.  They are becoming rarer and rarer.  Long term poverty has been stripping those situations away from me bit by bit.   I can no longer pretend that poverty is a temporary situation for me, I can only hope that it's only temporary for my children.

The life I lived where I designed measurement equipment for research at a top 10 Ivy league school, or the feeling of pride in being much in demand in research and development at some of the best tech companies,  or when I competed in dance contests, felt beautiful every day... that life feels like a different life to me.  Today I have to prevent myself from cowering when I walk into a department store (I'm a thrift store shopper) and I am immediately aware of the socio economic status implied in different environments, and whether or not I "fit in".

Recently I've been aware of clothing.  I've been trying to dress "better"... and one thing I've realized is that I don't feel as if I look the "same" as other people wearing the same outfit.  Eventually I've come to realize if I think I look shabby in the outfit, or I see other women who look shabby in an outfit when I've seen it look well on women of higher socio-economic class, it has more to do with how the woman  is (or I am) carrying herself (or myself) in those clothes, rather than the clothes themselves.  When you feel raggedy you project raggedy.

I see the difference in deference in the girls as well.  I've tried to shield them from the effects of poverty with varied success.  Cay is able to successfully integrate into a higher socio-economic circle.  She does very well with her well heeled friends, and although she's aware she has less money, she sees it as a temporary state, and sees herself as inevitably a member of a better socio-economic circumstance.

Tay is less able to see any improvement in her future. She has dreams, but sees them as dreams.  She's intensely aware of her own failures and shortcomings rather than able to focus on her successes and potential.  Yesterday we were visiting the home of a member of a higher socio-economic class family, not as friends and equals, but because we were interested in purchasing a used piece of furniture they'd listed on Craigslist.  While I felt immediately crushed entering this home, Tay must have felt worse, and I notices that she stepped over and around what were obviously higher priced rugs rather than stepping on them.  In one case, where she would not walk on an area rug made of a patchwork of animal hide, she was so awkward that I was worried she'd fall, and her sister made verbal note of it, which only highlighted the embarrassment.

The embarrassment, in the most part, being my own, because I felt like we were complete yokels at that point.

I know where and who I want to be in life.  I wonder, at times, if the barrier of money is sufficient to keep me from being the person I was or want to be.  How much of basic survival is related to keeping to a socio-economic niche, and how much do you lose, or gain, trying to defy the socio-economic structure?  I've learned to adapt my behavior and demeanor in order to respond to my environment and needs... and slowly watched as those adaptations become less of a temporary response and more of who I am on a day to day basis.  I live along a ragged edge, where I can still remember the place I've fallen out of, and can almost see it from the lower spot I now occupy in the socio-economic strata.