Moving on Up! (Or perhaps just over)

Greetings, all!

The time has come to migrate my site to a place that I hope will be easier for both you and me to use: I’ve gone to Substack!

Those of you who are subscribed to my blog through email have been automatically transferred over (I think/hope/pray), but those who are following me through a WordPress account will need to subscribe over there to continue receiving notifications when I write something new.

For now, this should be your last email notification from this site; from now on, they’ll be arriving through Substack.

Thank you all so much for reading, commenting, and encouraging me personally. You make me excited to keep this writing thing going! 🙂

I’ll see you over there in my new place in a bit. Again, here’s the link: https://sarahedevries.substack.com/

¡Hasta pronto, amigos míos!

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My Rejected Article

For the first time a couple weeks ago, an article was rejected by the paper I write for. I was told that it was because it wasn’t clear, but I think it probably had more to do with the fact that it might scare away or otherwise put off advertisers.

Not wanting it to go completely to waste, I’m pasting it here for something a bit different. Behold!

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Back in the late 1990s, the filmmaker Michael Moore had a show called The Awful Truth. If you’re familiar with his style, then I can tell you that it was pretty much the same as the rest of his work: he’s made a career of hounding and usually embarrassing powerful people in the pursuit of justice through a mix of persistent questioning and clever antics that do a fantastic job at balancing the humorous and the poignant.

In one particularly memorable episode, he talked about the frequency of incidences in which primarily black and brown people were shot and killed for carrying things in their hands that the police would later report they believed to be guns.

A common offender was, apparently, one’s wallet. To draw attention to the problem, he set up a “wallet exchange program” in which people could exchange their regular black wallets for nylon “safety orange” ones, thus ensuring the police would not mistake those wallets for guns. The police officers standing by who made it into the final cut of the episode were clearly annoyed.

Issues of police killings in the United States seem to have become worse since then, not better. The key word here, of course, is “seem.” Incidences like these have always been common; we just didn’t have the proof of what was actually happening until it became the norm for average citizens to carry around high-definition video cameras connected to the internet in their pockets.

The presence of those cameras and the evidence they give us have sparked many a protest, and even an entire social movement. My move to Mexico pre-dated the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I’ve watched from afar the reactionary “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” demonstrations as well.

To me, these movements were uniquely American. As a result of our difficult history, racism is baked into much of our national discourse north of the border. Regarding the movements above, it seems that most people can be divided into two camps: 1) “Hey, we see you behaving especially violently toward black and brown people and mostly getting away with it and it is not okay, man,” and 2) “We ask security personnel to risk their lives every day to protect us, it’s a stressful job, and if people are acting suspiciously, then they should know they’re going to attract the wrong kind of attention. The police are people, too!”

 I myself am squarely in the first camp, having found my sympathy for people with weapons who can cart you off to jail fairly limited. I’ve rarely met anyone outside of the United States in the second.

So imagine my surprise when I read about marches being held around the country demanding that a group of soldiers, who had shot and killed five innocent people in a truck, be released from jail.

Huh? Honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

Unlike in the US, it would be hard in Mexico to argue that the killings had anything to do with race. That’s not because racism is absent in Mexico, but because it’s a different flavor, born of a different history. The fact that average Mexican citizens do not and cannot own guns (and like it that way) also means that many killings that might otherwise take place simply do not. Here, they seem to understand on a deeper level what many of my fellow paisanos give little credence to: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Still, though, there are some eerily familiar elements: young men with guns, uniforms, and official authority: check. Suspicious, nervous young men (in this case, traveling in a truck with no plates or lights late at night, possibly up to some mischief but certainly not criminals): check. A panicked reaction from a scared driver who surely thought he was in trouble and knew the reputation of uniformed people with guns: check. Civilians failing to obey orders: check. The security personnel doing exactly what the victims feared they would, which is likely what caused them to try to flee in the first place: check.

I used to think that accusing victims of police violence of not having been perfect, model citizens who therefore “had it coming” for having spooked their stalkers was a uniquely US rhetorical habit. Apparently, that’s not necessarily true. The argument from the soldiers is a familiar one: things were chaotic, and the suspects did not obey orders. It’s a stressful situation, and they wound up doing what they’ve been trained to do: eliminate the threat.

What security and personnel on both sides of the border seem to need much more training in is successfully identifying threats and non-threats in the first place.

The armed forces, of course, are not without their defenders, President López Obrador being one of the most enthusiastic (to the surprise of many that voted for him).

But gosh, protests. To let soldiers out of jail for killing five unarmed men. I must be missing something, but what is it exactly?

Then there’s this question, repeated in my head with, I’ll admit, a derisive snort: The defenders need defending? If they do, then what are they even for? It’s a hard sell for me that people using guns against unarmed civilians are the true “victims.” The army is hardly defenseless. In fact, one could easily argue that it’s stronger than ever under the current process of militarization that the president claims is not militarization. The fact that the army is also expanding into the tourism business means that whether or not they get a big chunk of the national budget in the future will be practically irrelevant: they’ll have plenty of their own funds.

 Yes, police officers’ and soldiers’ jobs are hard. Very hard. But they choose to do them; unlike “black lives,” “blue lives” is not a condition bestowed upon one’s birth.

What responsibility do people in the armed services have to those they are sworn to protect, even when those needing protection are behaving erratically or obnoxiously? I’d venture to say, “a lot.”

When the people they’ve sworn to protect wind up on the other side of their guns, that’s very worrisome. When average citizens are clamoring for them to face no consequences as a result, that’s downright perplexing.

All In the Family

Like all the rest of us, I’ve got a pretty diverse family background. Both historical and modern characters range from mystical and holy to so damaged that they became hands-down evil to those unlucky enough to live in their realms. (Thankfully this latter group has mostly died out or had their worst instincts blunted by the advent of institutions like Child Protective Services, though the damage they caused can still be clearly seen and felt.) Some of the really stellar people, especially if they happened to have been women, don’t have their greatness recognized until much time and reflection later.

Pieces of these characteristics get either passed down or ignored in strange ways. Mystical mothers do not necessarily beget mystical sons, and fathers who seem filled with evil do not always beget abusive daughters. It’s all so much more complicated than that. We think we’re patchwork quilts, but really we’re a million moving pixels arranged “just so,” always on a slow, lava lamp-like move with an occasional earthquake jolt to scramble things up a bit and make life more exciting, or more terrifying. The possible results of those combinations may seem endless, but they’re probably a lot less surprising than you’d think.

I’ve been thinking about my own family a lot over the past few days. My therapist recommended I see someone called a “psycho-traumatologist.” She says their job is to uncover any hidden trauma in my past that is affecting me now (and she apparently highly expects there’s quite a lot to be dug up). It’s a short treatment, and patients she’s referred, she says, have shown remarkable improvement after the 3-4 typical treatment sessions they go through.

To be honest, I feel a little embarrassed to admit I’m spending money on this. With so many problems in the world, going to such great lengths to “fix myself” feels ridiculously indulgent. What combination of early experiences and subconscious messages planted that belief in me, eh? It calls to mind my friend and department coordinator where I taught high school for a few years doing her best thickly-accented Frued impression: “Tell me about your mother…”

Two days ago I had my first “evaluation,” as it’s possible they’ll determine that I, in fact, do not have any significant trauma that needs to be unearthed and dissolved.

My reaction to the beginning of it, though, I think says it all. The evaluator was very kind, and not at all threatening. But I thought my therapist would be there (it was in her office), and she was not, and I was unexpectedly alone in a closed space with a strange man, something that has always scared me on a primitive level and that I have often actively sought to avoid. Where does this fear come from? Sure, I’ve had my butt grabbed on the street a few times, but I’ve mercifully never had to endure the horrors of rape or physical assault.

My own unprofessional conclusion is that my mother’s scars somehow got embedded under my own skin, making me jumpy and untrusting as a result of the knowledge of how much damage can be done; I grew up with a front-row seat to that damage and its resulting long-tailed sorrows. She did have to endure those things, throughout her entire childhood, and if that doesn’t really, really mess someone up, I don’t know what will. I also know that if she were alive today, she’d let out the most painful and heartfelt howl if she thought that her own experiences had damaged me in some way. So much of her intentional parenting, after all, was focused on keeping us safe from the monsters she knew for a fact could lurk in any human heart.

She was always in pain, but she was always so kind. How did this happen? Her parents were monsters, but she must have had angels somewhere that managed to get to her beautiful heart first (I feel pretty sure my namesake, her grandmother Sarah, was a primary one).

Because of the abuse, she mostly kept us away from her family. My sister and I don’t know many on that side very well. Heroes and villains of the past have been lost to memory. We’ll all be forgotten eventually, but damn if those shreds of what was don’t get passed down. “Look, you just made apes with anxiety!” an exasperated angel complains to God in a cartoon.

I like to think of myself as staying “above the fray,” a notion I recognize as a laughably unachievable solution. Taking a global view has its merits, but there’s a tendency — at least in me — for that global view to erase the importance of the individual. Yes, I’m special. But so is everyone else. So if everyone is special, how can anyone be special? And if none of us are, then we’d do good to stop engaging in so much naval gazing and embrace our dependence on one another and the joy that that can bring. I’m a sociologist, not a psychologist. I’m concerned with the big picture. So what right do I have to over-value myself, just one little tiny portrait?

But take the mirror down, and my delusion is exposed. Is my daughter special, and deserve every advantage that I can possibly give her? Oh, no need to even ask. My partner? Definitely. My sister? The list goes on, and recognizing these important people in my life and how much they matter makes my thesis crumble to the ground. I know my blind spot, I just can’t focus on it because it’s, you know, a blind spot.

My therapist has repeated to me often: “The message you give yourself is, ‘I’m not worthy;’ but why do you think that? You’re very worthy.”

Let’s just see what the psycho-traumatologist has to say about that.

Crawling Back Out

Hey, y’all.

It’s been a while, I know.

Here’s the truth: I’ve been pretty depressed for the past few months. In January, when I basically stopped sleeping altogether, I finally got up the nerve to admit defeat and march myself down to my old therapist’s office, who promptly referred me to a psychiatrist, who promptly prescribed anti-depressants.

The adjustments to the medicine — something I’ve always been ambivalent about anyway, but hey, I’m trusting the good doctor for now after “healing myself” definitely did not work — have been weird, and I don’t think it’s over: while I’m generally feeling better mood-wise, these last ones have made me so sensitive to caffeine that even some chocolate triggers a migraine; all of the ones I’ve tried have weird sexual side-effects that I feel fairly certain would simply not be tolerated if antidepressant use were as prevalent among men as it was among women. Switching makes me impossibly sleepy or keeps me awake, and I’m never quite sure which a change will bring.

My therapist, a lovely and wise older woman who reminds me of some kind of lion goddess and who I’d basically like to be by the time I’m her age, has gotten me through some tough times and is doing so again. Her advice was simple: “Do the minimum you can, and don’t put pressure on yourself. Pretend you’re hibernating while you heal; there’s no way around slowing down for a bit; hunker down until the spring, the natural season for waking back up anyway.”

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. It turns out, though, that even in doing “the minimum,” there’s still quite a lot to do to keep my household afloat. Most of my various jobs are somewhat erratic: it’s fairly impossible to keep a schedule because, for the majority of them, tasks are offered to me when they’re needed, which means I’m constantly playing a making-money version that fruit ninja game with little control over when/if it comes flying at me. I did manage to get a steady-ish gig, at least, which has me feeling a little more tranquila. It doesn’t pay as much as the others which means I have to spend more time doing it, but a little security can go a long way when it comes to one’s mental health.

So, I haven’t done too much creativity-wise other than what I’m paid to do; for the rest, I’m still in hibernation, though the sun is starting to peek into a crack through the door, at least. Will spring really and truly arrive? Like, all the way?

That said, I believe my depression is situational, perhaps with a dash of genetic predisposition thrown into the mix. The world is crazy and sad. AI is coming, inevitably, for all the ways I make money in a world where no one has to give you a job but you do have to work to survive. My ex has been, preposterously, insisting for over a year now that he doesn’t have the couple of hours to spare needed to mediate our divorce, meaning I’ll have to sue him at some point if I ever want it to happen (I very much do).

But I’m trying. I’ve got a list of project ideas if I can ever work up the confidence and energy to see them through. I’m happy with my partner; I’m happy with my daughter. I have a nice family and good friends. And I came over to write to you, so that’s progress, right?

Soon, soon. Finding the strength to make things better for ourselves and each other is all any of us can hope to do.

All About Us

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a much-adored friend in Texas. She asked when my birthday was, so I naturally did the same. “So are you a Capricorn or are you right on the cusp?” I asked.

“Actually, I follow Vedic astrology,” she said. I quickly looked it up. Though the signs are the same, the dates are a bit different, and considered by many in the Eastern world to be more accurate. I quickly looked up my own birthday. Conclusion: still a Leo, and still with a Pisces moon, though my rising sign, instead of Cancer, switched to Gemini.

I’ve been interested in and drawn to astrology since my early teenage years. At different points in my life, I’ve both embraced my fascination and shunned it, keenly aware of the improbability of being able to reduce all our various personalities and temperaments of the human race into a handful of categories. An agnostic that never misses reading her horoscope? Now, that’s just silly.

Then again, is there really that much variety when it comes to the human experience? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from social psychology, after all, it’s that we’re all much more alike than we think. And if there’s one thing that my daughter has taught me, it’s that we are certainly born with innate personality traits, a belief I tried hard to logic out of myself before I had her.

As I get older, I get more tolerant, even to “woo-woo” things that before would have me rolling my eyes to shield my discomfort. The universe is big and I am very small. Who knows what unseen forces are at work? “None” is one possible answer, as is “several” or “a whole lot.”

Astrology is ultimately about understanding ourselves. And the goal of understanding ourselves, I believe, is ultimately to forgive ourselves. It’s to see ourselves as the gods might, imperfect and vulnerable, yes, but also totally adorable and fascinating in our clumsiness and our moments of redemption.

I’m a Leo, and possess a lot of “typical” Leo traits. I both like and seek out attention and connection with others; I’m a natural performer. I secretly (alright, it’s not that big of a secret) think of myself as royalty and am surprised and hurt when not treated as such, which is a lot. I’m an extrovert: when I spend too much time by myself, I go dark like a computer that’s been left idle for too long. I’m generous and open and tend to accept responsibility for both good and bad things, whether I’m actually responsible for those things or not. I hate the cold.

I wear my heart on my sleeve as plainly as any puppy; whatever I’m thinking or feeling will pretty much always be apparent, as saying something that’s simply not the truth is nearly impossible for me (much to my dismay…I can’t help feeling I’d be much more successful if I could learn to be a good liar). And even at my age, I’m quite gullible…at least at this point I realize it, though, and actively choose to take the risk of being ripped off sometimes as an alternative to always thinking the worst of people.

My daughter, and incidentally my partner, are both Sagittarians under Western astrology — they actually have the same birthday! Neither of them, however, displays any of the characteristics of Sagittarians, who are known for being happy-go-lucky extroverted adventurous types.

First, they are both very clearly introverts. They are both naturally and somewhat intensely private, with clearly big feelings that get carried around underneath at all times. They smile when they have a reason to smile, and seem to have a natural distrust of others; whereas I like pretty much everyone immediately — at least until they do something to make me really, really not like them — they take their time to evaluate and then warm up to others. They’re not afraid to cut off those who show themselves to be undeserving of their attention. They are noble and loyal. They might enjoy playing and goofing around for a bit, but their natural “resting” state is aloof and serious. While they’re both wonderful people, gregarious free spirits they are not.

When my friend told me about Vedic astrology, I immediately looked up their birthday and was unsurprised by what I found: Scorpios. Of course! Both of them are Scorpios through and through. It fell on me like a revelation, and also made it necessary for me to do some adjusting of my assumptions.

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When listening to an astrology podcast this morning (about Leos…I’m kind of on a kick right now!), someone joked that Scorpios were all born with switchblades in their hands. There were a lot of these types of jokes, the assumption being that we’re natural enemies, or at least find each other to be off-putting. Sagittarians and Leos, on the other hand, are supposed to be natural BBFs. While I love both my daughter and my partner deeply, I’ve never had that particular kind of chemistry with either of them.

I’ll admit, I’ve always felt very wary of Scorpios, noticing plainly the degree to which their characteristics naturally clash with my own…oil and water, anyone? And it’s true, they kind of do. My aversion applies to actual scorpions as well: the first year I lived with my now ex-husband, he insisted on getting a pet scorpion. I was in love so ultimately let him convince me, but when he dumped it from the carrying box into the fishbowl, I cried in fear and disgust.

But we Leos are nothing if not expansive, right? There’s room for everyone. And besides — I loved them well before this “revelation,” and that love is permanently imprinted. They might be Scorpios, but they’re my Scorpios.

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There’s a new show about Wednesday Addams that’s come out on Netflix. I’ve often joked over the years that my daughter has a lot in common with Wednesday Addams. In addition to her somewhat flat affect — if I smile like an idiot all the time, she stares into people’s souls — even now, she has a deep fascination with the occult and begs me to describe, in detail, every horror movie I’ve ever seen (I do not). She’s already informed me that she thinks she’ll be “dark” as a teenager, and I’m basically mentally preparing myself to have Winnona Ryder’s Lydia from Beetlejuice as a daughter (I’m going to try hard to be cool like the ghosts instead of deeply annoying like her parents, and hey — I’ve always wanted to try painting a room black!).

And then a few weeks ago, I saw a drawing of Wednesday and her best friend and roommate on the show, a cheery, sunny, werewolf (the artist is @shaynedesu on Instagram, and is well worth a follow!). Immediately I recognized us: me and my kid. It could very well be me and my partner as well.

Astrology might very well be bullshit…it’s a possibility I’ll always leave open, as there are so many different ways to see the world. But oh, what an interesting lens through which to see things for a bit!

If you need me, I’ll be over here snuggling with my sweet scorpions.

Teenage Bird

There’s a video making its way around social media that’s meant to be adorable but won’t stop haunting me.

In it, a small open-mouthed bird marches after a worm. It gets close to the worm, and the worm wiggles away. The bird seems nonplussed for a moment, then follows it and opens its mouth again.

This repeats a few times, and a text appears to explain what’s happening: when baby birds leave the nest, the only way food has ever gotten into their mouths up to that point has been from their parents putting it directly into their mouths. Apparently, there can be some confusion about how to make it happen on their own.

It’s pretty adorable unless, as I do, you horrifyingly see your current self in the baby bird.

But the bird’s probably got it easier than you or me. We all see the straightforward solution to its plight, and we know that it will eventually figure it out. It’s got instinct on its side, after all.

For me as for many others, those open mouths might stay open for a very long time. I know I’m the bird, but what’s the worm? In my case, it’s a symbol for nourishment: work that can get me the things I need like food, shelter, and possibly massages.

The video showed up for me during what’s turning out to be quite a rough time. As a writer and translator, I’m a contract worker everywhere; though I’m constantly on the lookout, I haven’t managed to nail down an actual full-time job with fair pay or benefits. It seems my generation was 10-15 years too late to the good employment party…what a difference I see between the opportunities of those currently in their 50s and 60s and my generation!

For most of the year, things have been great: I’m good at what I do and have had a constant stream of assignments that have kept me living well (in Mexico, anyway) and able to provide myself and my family with the benefits that a job won’t, like health insurance and some meager savings.

But since October, things have gone down. I’ve gone from being constantly busy with tons of fun work to having almost nothing to do, and am facing some very serious financial setbacks very soon if something doesn’t change.

Being in Mexico means that most new job offers want to pay much less than the going rate (“You don’t need that much, you’re in Mexico!” being the main assumption).

I’m officially “hired” at several different places (never put all your eggs in one basket, as they say!), but I can’t force anyone to actually give me work assignments. The word for the past couple of months has been, “Sorry, we don’t have anything for you right now…but we’ll let you know!” In the meantime, my savings are dwindling and there’s no new money coming in. Like that little bird, I can’t oblige anyone to give me work, no matter how willing and talented I may be. If I stay a contractor forever, this will be my working reality forever. I just can’t seem to get that steady job worm to hop into my mouth, and I’m not sure how to scoop it up myself.

Humans being the superstitious creatures they are, and me being human, I’m of course trying to find some meaning in all this.

Is it a sign? The message from the gods would seem to be to not depend on outside employment for income, but how do I “do my own thing” and make enough money at it to live?

I’ve long dreamed of becoming a professional organizer and decorator, which is another creative passion of mine: making places beautiful. But how, especially when I live in a place where people would likely not be able to afford what I’d need to charge to make it a real business and not simply volunteer work? And more importantly, how do I get money to support myself and my family in the meantime? It’s not that I’m trying to make excuses to wiggle my way out of a new venture, I just need to see a path where we’ll get to keep eating while I figure it out.

How, oh how, do I scoop up that little worm?

To end, here’s another great meme I saw, in the form of a headline (the satirical news site Reductress always brilliantly saves the day): “‘I Need a Second Job,’ Says Woman Who Actually Needs Different Economic System.”

Ah. There it is.

The House

My sister told me that she dreams of the house we grew up in all the time.

“That’s weird, I’ve never dreamed about it.”

My most recurring dream, though, is always about houses. In them, I’m in a house that, were it not in a dream, would be unbelievably creepy. Sometimes these are houses I know and have been in before, and other times they’re places that I haven’t seen — at least not consciously — in my waking hours.

When I’m inside these dream houses, I’m excited. In my dream, I’ve just remembered: oh yeah, this is my house!

I then proceed to come up with decoration ideas for each and every room, and almost always, additional rooms appear as I walk through it and I think “ah, of course! How could I have forgotten about this one? I can do so much with this.” I do this until I wake up, never actually beginning the decoration process.

Since I told my sister that I never dreamt of that house (which was only a week ago), I’ve dreamt of it three different times. The dreams are never very nice. I’m always stuck in it somehow, unable to make changes and feeling vaguely unsafe, usually with some gross task (last night, it was cleaning up piles of poop, which isn’t drastically different from one of the actual tasks I did there).

While my recurring dreams seem like an obvious metaphor for my subconscious, the dreams about this house seem like one for the constrictions of everyday life: feeling the limitations, the unfairness, the need for some kind of yet-unknown wily trick in order to escape it.

I had a great time during my sister’s visit, but since she left, the stress of everyday life has been closing in: the places I normally work (always as an independent contractor, though I’d much rather have a “regular” job) have suddenly stopped giving me much work, seemingly all at the same time. My partner is stressed and sad, his own business plans not panning out. There’s more to be done, certainly — the universe is full of infinite possibilities, and at least to some extent, the economy — but trying to explore and try out new avenues when you’re against the clock and oh, so stressed is like trying to run a race through molasses. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but there are some major walls of cortisol to break through, and the evidence is clear: a lot of people simply don’t and just spiral down instead. Social problems disguised as individual problems abound.

The house we left was beyond any repair that we were able to give it, and there was no choice but for my dad to abandon ship. The roof needs to be redone, there are holes everywhere, and it’s infested with rats, so much so that I needed to wear a mask while working inside of it to keep from getting a headache from the fumes. Luckily, the new buyers are enthusiastic about it and have the means to fix it and make it beautiful again in ways that wouldn’t have been possible for us. My dad moved into a place not without problems, but that at least doesn’t have rats or a leaky roof.

Will we also be able to escape a sinking ship? My dream world seems to have its doubts.

This Old Cat

This year, for the first time, I can feel my body actively aging. My feet hurt to walk on when I first get up. I noticed this week that my left eye is not seeing clearly anymore, even with my glasses or contacts. My muscles are stiff. I’ve easily put on 20-25 pounds in the past six months. Yikes!

I’m torn between resisting turning my body into a project and really wanting to feel (and look) good. The psychological gymnastics around it are tricky. I don’t care about how other people look: they can be fat, wrinkly, and slow, and it 100% does not matter because I can easily accept that everyone is just human. Why can’t I extend that grace to myself?

Admittedly, I’ve let myself go, which is a loaded phrase but an accurate one: it’s as if my body were a house that simply hasn’t been cleaned or paid any attention to, a sin I’d never allow to fall upon a physical space where I reside.

So, it’s time to clean up. My body is my home, after all. This morning I followed a yoga video, and it was hard, a new experience for me. I’ll get my eyes checked later on today. And I’m going to have to eat in a way that “cleans” me as well, rather than stuffing every inch of my digestive system with too much sugar. I’ve been most successful eschewing it completely, and I think that’s what I’ll need to go back to: treating it like an alcoholic treats alcohol.

I’m okay with getting older, but my goodness, not with feeling uncomfortable all the time. A poem I read once had the author referring to her aging body as “this old cat,” which I like: older, maybe a tad lazier, but always able to find what feels good, and always elegant. To cathood!

Snippets, Installment 1

Note: I’m going to give shorter, “soundbite” blogs a try for a bit, and try to post every few days rather than every few weeks. Longer than tweets and statuses, but shorter than essays. Why? Partially, because I have few illusions about our collective attention spans. And partially because sometimes I’ve just got a bit to say, and not everything has to be fleshed out. So here’s the first:

In meditation, and in yoga, you’re supposed to concentrate on the breath; the breath will ground you. I’m still not very good at “quieting the mind,” and my feelings of anxiety just don’t allow me let go of the things I’d like to be able to, even temporarily, because they feel like emergencies.

Isn’t it just so unfair that when you feel bad, life punishes you by making you feel worse?

Things go badly – things that might even affect your ability to survive – and you get stressed. You’re stressed, so your body tenses. Your body tenses, and you get headaches, and fatigue, a higher susceptibility to illness, and a primal drive to overeat until your pants don’t fit your anymore. You gain much more weight than you should, and then you’re more fatigued and unhealthy, and then stressed about it, which leads to more bad feelings. “Oh, you’re not doing so well?” says life. “Why don’t we just keep that going.”

It’s totally unfair, and I’m mad about it. This game sucks.

All the Money, Part II

One of the headline news stories in the New York Times the other day was about the Providence hospital system, a “non-profit” organization required by law to provide free care to patients who make 300% below the poverty rate.

The deal they have with the IRS is that “in exchange for not paying taxes, they must provide free care to the poor in the communities they serve.”

Apparently, this is not what’s happened, and they’ve been exposed for hounding patients into paying for their care after all (sans itemized bills, of course) and sending them to collections agencies. Many of the patients’ credit scores are ultimately ruined. Doing this was, of course, illegal, but guess who paid for it? Absolutely no one… except for the victims. Doesn’t this just seem to be the way things work lately?

My mother worked at Providence Hospital in Waco after training as a respiratory therapist in the ‘90s, her first truly middle-class job. She liked her work and was proud of what she’d accomplished in learning an in-demand skill that could support herself and her daughters.

Still though, at least from what I can piece together from my memories, she was forced to take on debt to keep all the moving pieces together.

She switched jobs a couple of times as she moved up the ranks in reputation for her work, but in the spring of 1996, was fired, essentially scapegoated for a higher-up’s consistent mistakes with patients.

I first remember us getting several calls a day from collections agencies as a middle school student. In the beginning, I’d dutifully and politely pass the phone to my mother when asked. She’d try to tell me to say she wasn’t there, but I’d just stare helplessly as I tried to get her to take it (I’ve never been a good or willing liar).

Soon, she’d taught us to always say she wasn’t available for one reason or another when anyone called asking for “Miss DeVries” (always pronounced the wrong way), as they were always collections agency representatives.

I was not comfortable with it at all. I hated lying, and I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t just do what she was supposed to do so I wouldn’t have to. One time when I told a bill collector that she was “in the shower” he became aggressive. “I know you’re lying.” “No, I’m not!” I said nervously and hung up the phone. My heart raced for at least 15 minutes after that.

Now, I get it. And I wish I could apologize to my mom. She was literally doing the best she could, a realization that I think all parents hope their children have at some point in their lives.

It’s not that she simply didn’t feel like paying them back or was trying to chat anyone out of their money, which is what the cultural message was (and remains) about those who fail to repay their debts. But rent had to be paid, car payments had to be made, groceries had to be bought, and it would also be nice to give her kids some Christmas and birthday presents, which I now see she made a great effort to do.

I also see a few more layers of context at this point. First, the macro: our economy is built on debt; it enriches a lot of people and keeps things going, and keeps people spending on things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If everyone decided to “be responsible” and not use debt to buy anything, our economy would collapse, full stop. When people can’t pay, we scold them, but if everyone ceased to use it because they can’t pay, this would all be over.

A bit closer to home for me was the debt post-divorce.

I remember several tirades growing up from my father as he railed against credit cards and credit card companies. “They want people to spend money they don’t have so they’ll have to pay back even more money!” I didn’t pay much attention since I didn’t totally understand the concept of credit; I just knew he was against it.

Fortunately, for him, he could afford to eschew the system entirely. If things got tight, and they often did, he could always obtain “personal” credit through his older family members, and was helped out in ways that counted for so much… ways in which I can’t even imagine being helped myself.

How must my mother have felt seeing him being gifted several cars over the years, as well as the house where he lived (to be fair, half the house officially belongs to my sister and I, which is the only inheritance I’ll see) as she struggled to support us, even with child support, as debt collectors kept her own phone ringing more than ten times a day for years? Did she know about the shoebox full of “IOUs” that my uncle once gave to my dad as a Christmas present, all his “debts” forgiven? And how much was she kept up at night worrying about how she’d get everything paid for and about her daughters’ obvious discomfort with “covering” for her several times a day as if she were some sort of criminal?

Thinking about it inspires so much sadness and compassion.

Things got better when she married my stepdad, another respiratory therapist. Suddenly, we had money to spare. We moved to a nicer apartment, and got a better car, finally trading in the only new one my mother had bought years later.

But then, double-tragedy struck: Richard had a heart attack and needed bypass surgery. Right around the same time, the hospital they both worked at shut down from one day to the next for mismanagement and fraud. It declared bankruptcy, and, as far as I know, completely got away with having let go all of its workers at once, as well as not having paid the insurance premiums that had been taken out of their paychecks. Low and behold: the surgery wouldn’t be covered by insurance after all, and they were both out of work. Back to square one.

They both got new jobs, but my mother was not the same. She started having some more serious health problems around this time, and they soon realized she couldn’t work. And though she was fainting frequently, hitting her head and breaking her bones, she was rejected for disability benefits; “falling” isn’t a disability, they said.

Our economy, after all, is not made to help people that aren’t in optimal working condition. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick and can’t work. Though she clearly couldn’t work, the assumption was that she was a drug addict who was trying to live off the government because she didn’t want to. No one gets lectured on “personal responsibility” more than those struggling to survive, it seems.

I’ve had much better luck than my mother. To start, I had a great mother who took care of me the way she never had been through a childhood of abuse so bad it was a wonder she even survived long enough to have us; I also had two great dads, and a grandmother who was often there to help fill in the gaps with our care (and payments for ballet classes and braces). My uncle, the one who forgave my father’s debts and gave him the house, paid for the college of his nieces and nephews in full, so I am mercifully not saddled with student debt.

I am saddled with debt now, though. Partially, it’s just life: it’s expensive. Sometimes you have to pay unexpected taxes, or travel to another country because your mother is dying, and those things can get you into just deep enough a hole that the “what the hell” effect kicks in (what’s a little more debt?). It’s usually later that you realize your financial optimism was not a great position, and an endless string of independent contractor and freelancer gigs stop being as consistent as they once were. Savings are accumulated, then spent plus some for rainy days that come because gigs are, by definition, not that steady. A global pandemic hits.

But debt collectors don’t stop calling. Money from the poor doesn’t stop rolling endlessly up to those who have more money than they could ever spend. And we’re the ones who feel bad about it.