I remember this quote from Prozac Nation:
“There is a classic moment in
‘The Sun Also Rises’ when someone
asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt,
and all he can say in response is,
‘Gradually and then suddenly.’ When
someone asks how I lost my mind, that
is all I can say too.”
— Elizabeth Wurtzel
When I was sitting at the food pantry a few weeks ago and asking myself how my life had fallen apart, this was all I could tell myself. Gradually and then suddenly. From a private university to welfare in the span of two months. That has to be a record.
I remember being a kid and my mom was on food stamps. Back when they were actual coupons that looked like fake money that you pulled out of a booklet. As a kid I would pick that time to find something else somewhere else to do. It was a humiliating experience that burned into my memory. When my daughter was born I found myself in the same situation. My experience being on welfare was traumatic enough that I chose the cold austerity of a shoestring budget over jumping through the government’s hoops of shame. By the time my daughter was in school, I was enrolling in college which provided the scholarships and loans that allowed us to get by and make ends meet. Things were hard, but they worked.
Now it seems as if after graduation I’m right back where I started. I honestly feel as if I’m no better off than I was with a GED and dead end job.
Applying for food stamps required a workforce orientation where someone shows us how to apply for jobs. Apparently being financially strapped equates to being an idiot.
So as I was sitting in this lobby waiting to find out if I would have to take the same basic literacy and mathematics tests as the people without college degrees (it turns out that everyone has to take that stupid test and my blood is still boiling) I had an epiphany. I would use this time to be academically productive!
I remembered reading Nickled and Dimed and being incredibly annoyed. In this book Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to experiment with poverty and write about it as if her experience was authentic. I remembered thinking that one cannot simply try on poverty. There’s a certain fear and desperation that is inherent with being broke. Something that Ehrenreich never was able to experience in her experiment.
So instead of lamenting my downturn in fortunes, I’ll make the most of the experience. I’ll see if the welfare system really can work and I’ll document my experience along the way. With any luck this will be a very quick experiment and I’ll either be employed or be in grad school by January.
Gradually then suddenly everything fell apart. Maybe gradually and suddenly they’ll come back together.