Heather Seggel’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Hi. I’m poor. By any standard you wish to measure I am among the ducat-deprived. I’m also white, though, and was born and raised in the US, so mine is a qualified poverty, one that includes electricity and running water (at least most of the time; ten-day outages were common in my rural childhood), and access to lots of financial patch-kits. These days I even have a savings account. My clothes are second-hand and fit poorly, but I have enough of them to form several bad-looking outfits. I will forego medical care to buy books so I’ve always got something to read, and my work demanded that I get an e-reader, a luxury I never would have sought out otherwise. In lots of ways I am, if not rich, at least well supplied. So it gets confusing applying for food stamps, or being relegated to a no-choice health care plan based on my income. Money is nebulous when it’s anywhere other than in my hands. But a lifetime of frequent shortages has ensured that, even if I hit the lottery tomorrow, I will still walk this earth with poverty as my default mindset.
This uncomfortable truth was revealed to me years ago, when I was in my late twenties. An ex called to ask me if we could meet for a relationship postmortem, suggesting we go to a cafe near the coast and talk over breakfast. Out of concern for her needs and also free pancakes I agreed. The talk was fraught and ugly at times. There’s no way to prepare to hear that you were not just a bad girlfriend but a bad friend, and I was ill equipped to defend myself because I was blindsided, but also because the charges were true, and devastating. The pancakes were whole-grain with chunks of baked sweet potato and toasted pecans inside. There was real butter and real maple syrup and the coffee was very strong and piping hot. So: Basically still worth the trip.
After breakfast we wandered among the shops in this little fairy village and ended up in a used bookstore. I was admiring an old book about mah jongg. It was in good condition and aesthetically gorgeous, but it appeared to describe a different set of rules than the ones my friends and I were playing by in our weekly gatherings. I wanted it, but it seemed like a potential waste of money so I opted to let it go. When we got outside my ex erupted. “God! Just seeing that, all your weird shit around money, brings it all back again!” I didn’t ask for further elaboration, as I was still processing the list of failings I’d been presented with over breakfast and felt both carbohydrate-logy and something akin to a mild state of shock. But it was clear that what I thought was a secret set of access codes was in fact writ plain upon my face for all to see. I had weird shit around money, and people could tell.
As a kid, money was an ever-present source of worry. My parents worked inconsistently, and their decision to move from Santa Monica to the redwoods in unincorporated Sonoma County was ill-advised, since getting back to the land and setting your soul free also requires that you chop wood and occasionally dig up and install a leach line on a backed up septic tank. We struggled to pay bills, struggled with the perception that we were hippies in a town ruled by rednecks (a team to which I ultimately defected), struggled to remember why this move seemed like such a good idea in the first place. Most of this angst was unnecessary, but it made a strong impression on me: Struggle became the norm.
I like to fantasize that if we’d stayed in Santa Monica I’d have developed a veneer of toughness. I might have grown into a sleek queer with perfect hair, a veritable L Word prototype minus the heels. Maybe I’d have been a sous chef at Schatzi on Main or, even better, just a well fed fan-girl at the Border Grill. I may have found a way to refine and channel my humor into writing for television, a dream long postponed that still hurts like a phantom limb when I think about it.
I don’t regret the life I actually had for a single moment, not really. It got me to where I am today, and I feel immense gratitude for that. But it was a life defined by very low expectations, and I consistently lived down to them. This can have unfortunate side effects, like a tendency to assume the worst as a reflex disconnected from objective reality, as well as the aforementioned weird shit around money.
My mother tried to act as if we were middle class when I was a kid, buying blinds and fancy curtains for the bank of 48 tiny window panes that made our rented house unique (it was a 1920’s garage door. Very cool design choice in terms of upcycling, but the wood framing was ultimately devoured by insects). My dad was a dumpster diver, and also a thief. Anything not nailed down was fair game to him, so our decor was both pleasantly mismatched and also possibly not ours to begin with. From these divergent approaches to life I divined a path of my own making: I would take stuff from dumpsters and certainly accept charity, but would do so with an air of being far better than what was offered. I mean, have you seen these drapes? I’m somebody, damn it!
The new drapes didn’t match our used carpet, which someone scavenged from a remodeling job in the Bay Area. We unrolled it and several epically huge cockroaches ran out, thankfully never to be seen again. My dad and uncle installed it, reusing the manky old padding that had been under it in its old house. It was nice to have carpeting instead of throw rugs in theory, but it was dingy and mottled, and before long a few stray coals from the wood stove had burned holes in it. We could have just replaced a throw rug but the carpet, and the holes, were there to stay. Their permanence seemed to cement our failures for posterity.
The things I took away from this experience, and especially from watching my parents’ half-assed skills at navigating it all, set me up for a life spent trying to make meaningful progress with one shoe nailed to the floor. It makes no real difference to my travel itinerary to note that most of the time I’ve nailed it there myself, not Society, not The Man. I’m still going in circles and getting nowhere, trailed by a cartoon cloud with a dollar sign in it.
Here’s an example from my recent past to take this out of the abstract. I was living alone and receiving food stamps; being a frugal shopper by nature this essentially doubled my budget. I had a full pantry, which I was generously and without my knowledge sharing with a family of mice. A neighbor who received commodities from the local food bank was also giving me things from her box that she frowned upon as poor quality food, thus offering me a taste of my own ridiculous inherited snobbery covered in melted government cheese.
Long story short: I was not missing any meals, far from it. But when I saw a box of canned goods in the laundry room one morning I pawed through it and brought home some canned pears, baked beans and apple sauce. When I opened the apple sauce, it had both a color and a smell that said, emphatically, “No.” It was rusty, and sort of verging on black. I ate a cup of it anyway, and decanted the rest into a small Tupperware container. Then I got a splitting headache and stomach cramps, and vaguely wondered if I was going to end up in the hospital. The discomfort passed after a few difficult hours, to my great relief. So the next day I ate the rest of it, with the same exact results. At this time I had two full cans of new, unexpired apple sauce already in my refrigerator.
I recognize that this behavior is insane, that it means on some level I am literally Homer Simpson, soldiering through a decaying sandwich with a blind determination that it not go to waste. It can get in the way of my having a good time, this trait, as it suggests pleasure can only come as a result of needless and sometimes dangerous self-abnegation. It wreaks havoc on my whole life but especially my eating, and messes with my body as a result.
Ten years ago I lost a third of my body weight, primarily through strength training. I followed a book that was popular at the time, and the author never shut up about the need to reward yourself for every weight loss benchmark on your journey to a better self, or whatever his goddamn point was. I love lifting weights. It gave me aerobic capacity where before I had none, and made my size feel more like an asset than a liability. I will always be in the author’s debt for opening that world to me; it really did change my life. But it got to the point where I was putting Post-Its over his face, which appeared on every page with recommendations to buy an entire new wardrobe when you reach your goal weight! Take a cruise! Take up modeling! You’re worth it!
I would talk back to him while cranking out my reps: “Fuck off! I’m not here to sing ‘I Feel Pretty,’ I need to carry three bags of groceries home on foot because I don’t own a car. New wardrobe? Maybe I should get a pap smear for the first time in twenty years instead, now that there’s a chance I won’t get a lecture on my belly fat from someone whose hand is inside me. And yeah, I’d love to take a cruise, but since I’m doing your stupid workout in the tent that is currently my home it seems unlikely to happen, jerkass.”
I was a tad bitter. But it wasn’t his fault! Rewarding accomplishments is actually normal! Just not for the likes of me. And at the time, I really was doing the workouts while homeless, so vacation planning was kind of a back-burner item. It felt—and still feels—frivolous to buy good coffee when I could drink the store brand stuff that comes out of the pot like motor oil. If we’re bean-counting, isn’t that closer to what I’m worth?
Despite my overactive gag reflex where the Law of Attraction is concerned, it’s this disconnect between my self and self-worth that leaves me shaking a fist at The Secret while whispering under my breath, “I want to believe.” I want to believe I’m worth something, not based on my checkbook or my looks or my talents, but worthy simply because I have shown up to life. Sadly, to my mind that’s magical thinking on the order of having a team of pegasii who do my laundry. When you open the part of me where basic human value is rooted, moths fly out. I swear I am working to improve this, but it’s hard to unravel.
I don’t spend too much time mourning the past, since it could never have lived up to my fantasies. In Santa Monica, when I was a toddler, we lived in an apartment on an alley behind a Purina dog food processing plant. My dad dumpstered an antique tin that held “Army Dog” food from there that I still have today. My parents had parties and drank a lot. They didn’t supervise me very well, and everyone thought it was funny when I would steal someone’s drink and finish it. I liked the attention and would make an effort to do it every time someone wasn’t looking. I can’t imagine that story ending well without a change in scenery. My mother always made fun of me, calling me “Chicken Little,” but she never convinced me that the sky wasn’t about to fall.
Not long before I ate the apple sauce, my octogenarian landlord subjected me to some pretty severe sexual harassment. Then I was followed home by a homeless white boy with dreadlocks who, when I turned him away without the pair of socks he asked for, began taunting me when he saw me around town. After a decade of faithful squats and kickback lunges, bagels and I got reacquainted in a major way and I gained back some of the weight I’d lost. I stayed home and tried to figure out how to get down the stairs when my landlord blocked them with his body without it turning into the lap dance he was aiming for. I wondered if I could take my laptop to the library and get any work done without this beanie-wearing sack of shit cruising my table repeatedly, hissing, “Good morning, sis-tah,” at me, knowing that he knew where I lived and how permeable the space was. And I felt like this was precisely what life intended for me, and what I deserved, because I could not find or afford a nicer place to live. Even without spooning it out of the can directly, that applesauce was mixed into everything I swallowed.
In the old Warner Brothers cartoon canon there’s a lesser-known character who I think is named Beaky Buzzard. He’s a buzzard, clearly, but also cripplingly shy and prone to blushing and stammering. In one particular clip his mother is teaching her three sons to hunt, which makes no sense since they’d be hunting for roadkill, but oh well. They line up and rev their engines like warplanes on a runway and take off one at a time as she watches. One…two…she traces their takeoffs, then moves her head again but nobody has flown past. She does it again. No Beaky. He’s standing off to the side, head tucked into his wing, chuckling out a series of, “Doh-ma-ho-ho, no, no, I can’t do it”s. So she kicks him squarely in the ass, sending him aloft, head still tucked in, still standing and stammering until he happens to look down and realize he’s in midair. As quick as that he is not only flying, but doing so at his own, goofily laconic pace. Leaving the Immelman turns to his brothers, he’s going to bring home something for the stew pot when he’s good and ready.
Of course Beaky ends up getting royally screwed over by Bugs Bunny later, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s just hard not to notice that my pattern has also been to keep reinforcing whatever nest I’m in and refuse to leave until homelessness or death or unemployment forces the issue. All of those things have certainly kicked my ass, but not in a way that moved me forward. They were all losses, without so much as a squirrel carcass for me to claim in the way of reward.
When I go to the market and don’t buy what I really want to eat, even when that means favoring healthy food over Cheetos, I die a little inside. Virtue isn’t always its own reward. Sometimes it’s a prison of my own making. The punishment keeps the wheel turning, from what I’m denied to what I deserve and around and around again.
Living between places and struggling to find a home has been draining, but I’ve made it harder on myself than it has to be. Regardless of the effort I’ve put into searching, there has been a very quiet voice, a low burble, providing running commentary: “Do what you like, but you’ll end up in a place like the last one. And if it’s not like the last one you’ll MAKE it like the last one. That’s what we do! We ruin things. Stop trying to live above your pay grade.” This voice, which sounds a lot like mine, needs euthanasia, or it will continue to do the happy dance at my heels every time I fail.
The good news sprouting amid all this is that things have gotten, and continue to get, better. What’s hardest to work with is that my instincts and reactions are bodily things. My head may know it’s foolish to eat rotten food, or even too much good food, but a life spent waiting for the other shoe to drop, the power to be cut off, the next unwanted groping from the guy I’m paying rent to, is not a life that has room for plans beyond the present moment. I was doing a writing exercise recently that started with listing your goals (it wasn’t The Secret, shut up). I drew a complete and total blank. What do we want? I’ll have to get back to you! When do we want it? Presumably eventually! This is a problem. At least I saw it as something to address, though, which means there’s hope for change.
And in fact that is my goal: To change, even if it takes longer than I’d like. To reclaim my body and get my health back. To make minor purchases without getting hedonic treadmill whiplash or needing to breathe into a paper bag. To see that the sky is not falling after all, because I’m no longer afraid to look around as I take flight.
Heather Seggel is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bitch, UTNE, at Elle.com, SpiritualityandHealth.com, and she blogs with good intentions but no frequency at donkeywork.wordpress.com.