Saturday, May 26, 2018

253 cans: Digging deep to find gratitude


Some days the sun shines, wildflowers bloom and my life overflows with joy. Other days, rain pours from the sky and I find myself standing on a sticky cement floor waiting to redeem 253 empty beverage cans and bottles. Yes, I'm an advocate of recycling, but my passion is more personal. I needed change to tide me over until my next check from freelance writing arrives.

Today was one of those sticky-floor days.

This morning I loaded five enormous bags of aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles into my car and drove a 54-mile round trip to the closest town, La Grande, Oregon. On the back side of Safeway is a sheltered open-air space with a cement floor that's sticky with the dregs of soda cans. It's where people who are down on their luck stand in lines with shopping carts piled with enormous sacks of collected recyclables to get cold, hard cash to make it through another day.

Today I was one of those down-on-their-luck people.

Two grey-haired men fed cans and bottles into the reverse vending machines' gaping mouths. As each container slid down the gullet, another dime was added to the total value of the stash. The men's hands worked quickly, but both had shopping carts piled with empties to redeem.

As I waited for my turn, my hands rested on a shopping cart stacked with bags of empties I'd collected with the help of friends. A few months ago, I had lugged recyclables to this same spot, but as I’d stood waiting, I’d changed my mind. I had watched a man in ragged clothes unloading bags of empties from his derelict car. I weighed my life and his life. I have clean clothes. I have a warm, dry place to sleep. I have never gone hungry. I have family and friends who would not allow me to be homeless. I realized that despite my dwindling bank account, I was blessed in so many ways. 

This man needs the money more than I do, I had told myself. 

So I had given him my bags of cans and bottles.

"Are you sure?" he had asked me incredulously, as if I'd offered him a million dollars.

"Yes," I insisted.

But this time, my financial circumstances had eroded further. I would not be giving away my recyclables. Today I needed the cash. So I pushed my loaded shopping cart onto the sticky floor and waited my turn.

So this is what it's come to, I told myself.

Seven years ago, I had a full-time job as communications manager at a nonprofit organization. I owned my own home in a middle-class neighborhood. I had excellent health insurance as well as dental and vision insurance. I had my teeth cleaned twice a year. When my vision prescription changed, I purchased new glasses. Back then, in my old life, I did not consider a visit to the dentist or new glasses to be a luxury. Now I do.

Like many middle-aged, middle-class people, the recession knocked me on my behind. I lost my job and my house. I have not recovered financially. Truth be told, I may never recover. I am 58 years old. My working years are running out and I have been unable to get a living wage job. Despite reports that the economy is booming, my own personal economy has tanked. This is true for many people, just like me. And just like you. 

The statistics indicate I’m not alone. Years after the recession ended, “jobless older workers are the forgotten story of the economic recovery,” says a Reuters article. “U.S. employers are creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs every month, but millions of older workers who want a job cannot find work.”

Age discrimination is alive and well in the workplace, despite the fact that it’s been illegal since 1967 when the Age Discrimination in Employment Act became law. The news is even worse for women older than 55 who experience a higher jobless rate than men of the same age. One study found that when workers age 55 to 64 do find work again, 29 percent of them earn less than two-thirds of the median wage for other workers of the same age bracket.

Here’s the streamlined interpretation of these statistics: Being over 55 and unemployed sucks.

Through my financial difficulties, some well-meaning friends and family have said some thoughtless things to me:

  • If you're having a hard time financially, it must be your own fault. 
  • You've made bad choices.
  • I don't understand why you have moved so many times (Answer: Lack of money to pay rising rent costs.)
  • I don’t know who you are anymore. (Answer: Someone who is struggling just to keep her head above water.)
  • Just get a better job. (Answer: That’s easier said than done--especially when you're older than 50!)

Let me share this nugget of truth: Sometimes bad stuff happens to good people. And sometimes, one bad thing after another happens to good people. I refer to the last seven years as my own personal series of unfortunate events. It’s my new normal—and the new normal of many people just like me.

I am a good person. I work hard. I pay my bills on time. I believe in the golden rule and in being my sister's keeper. I am a straight-laced, law-abiding woman. I do not waste my money on cigarettes, beer, pot, illicit drugs or lottery tickets. However, I do admit to spending some money on Dove dark chocolates. I just unwrapped a Dove chocolate with this message: “Be fearlessly authentic.” I smoothed out that wrapper, folded it and tucked it into my wallet as a reminder of who I am. If nothing else, I am fearlessly authentic.

Here’s some of my authentic story: During most of last two years, I have been without health insurance because I couldn’t afford it. I was penalized on my taxes because I was uninsured. In order to avoid the tax penalty next year, I recently applied for Medicaid. That’s health insurance for poor people. Now I have the Oregon Health Plan. I have not used it, but if I do get sick or have an accident, I can seek medical care without financial ruin. I still do not have dental or vision insurance.

Here is more of my authenticity: I have not been to a doctor or the dentist in two years. My scratched eye glasses are six or seven years old. My car's windshield has an enormous crack that nearly covers the glass, but my insurance requires a $200 deductible for a new windshield. If you don't have $200, you can't somehow produce it from thin air. So my windshield remains cracked until my income improves.

Here's one more nugget of authenticity: I pick up filthy pennies from parking lots. 

It’s not as if I’m lazy and do not want to work. I have been looking for a living wage job since 2011 when I was laid off in the aftermath of the recession. After I was laid off, I was unemployed for about four months. It was the first time in my life I applied for unemployment. After applying for many jobs, I was hired to write in the newsroom of a daily newspaper. I am grateful to the metro editor who gave me a chance to prove myself. That was a life-changing opportunity for me. It taught me to be a better, faster writer. I learned how to really listen to people and to pay attention to the details so I can write the best story possible. But my salary was a 37 percent cut in pay from my job at the nonprofit. It paid the bills in my new, streamlined life. But just barely.

After four-and-a-half years at the newspaper, I still was not earning a living wage. Housing costs had skyrocketed. At first, I rented a one-bedroom apartment, but when my car needed an expensive repair, I saved money for the repair by living in a backyard shed/artist’s studio with no heat, running water or toilet for three months. It was by the grace of my retired minister and his wife that I finally found a real home while I worked as a newspaper reporter. They opened their home to me and rented me their mother-in-law suite below market rate.

Even though I enjoyed writing in a newsroom and I won a regional journalism award, I was not getting ahead financially. In fact, I was getting further behind. Almost two years ago I had an opportunity to start a new chapter in wild Eastern Oregon with the Mountain Man. So I’m freelance writing and living a good life in a tiny home-camper with the man I love. I am forever applying for yet another prospective job that would pay a living wage, offer health insurance, dental, vision and retirement. But that job offer hasn’t materialized yet.

Since being laid off seven years ago, I have applied for dozens and dozens of jobs for which I was well qualified. In total, I’ve spent weeks completing myriad requirements for online job applications: employment history, education, references, answering essay questions and attaching resumes, cover letters, college transcripts and samples of my writing and editing. I link to my online portfolio of my published writing. Some employers give applicants writing assignments and projects, which take additional hours to complete.

Of those dozens and dozens of jobs I’ve applied for, I’ve had maybe twenty interviews. I’ve been interviewed via phone and Skype. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to be interviewed in person. I have been interviewed by a panels of up to 23 people asking me questions. I have participated in group interviews in which all the candidates sit or stand before the person or large group of people conducting the interview. In some interviews, I have been two to three decades older than the people interviewing me. In those instances, I already know I don’t have the job. People don’t tend to hire workers as old as their mother.

Two weeks ago, I drove a 700-mile round trip to be interviewed for a very good job for which I was well qualified. When I applied for this job, I’d sought advice from former co-workers and completely revamped my resume. One friend with experience hiring people listened while I practiced answering potential interview questions. On the day of the interview I even wore Spanx to smooth out my midsection after consuming too many Dove chocolates. And I wore a new dress—the first dress I’d bought new (not from Goodwill) in several years. I looked good--for a 58-year-old woman! I really wanted the job. It was an arduous, three-hour interview process and a timed writing test. During the panel interview in which seven people asked me questions for an hour, I discovered I was one of only two finalists. My hopes soared. I had a 50 percent chance of getting this job. The professional communications position paid an excellent wage—twice as much money as I’ve ever made, and four times as much as I made last year.

Maybe this is it, I dared to tell myself. Maybe I will finally be okay financially. Maybe I’ll be able to breathe again.

But after I’d driven the long miles home, unpacked my suitcase and swore an oath that I’d never again wear Spanx, I got a phone call from the human resources director. I didn’t get the job. They chose the other candidate, who was a local person.

My hopes were dashed. And I worried about how I’d pay my car payment next month. For a few minutes, I allowed myself the luxury to cry in frustration. Then I put on my big girl panties and faced the fact: I needed cash. Soon. I did a very hard thing and called my mother to ask to borrow money. Then I pitched a story idea to a trade magazine and started looking at new job postings. Next I loaded the cans and bottles into my car and drove to town to get some cash.

In the past few years, I’ve developed a practice of writing three good things in my gratitude journal each day. But recently, life has thrown so many obstacles in my way that it’s been more challenging to keep a joyful attitude. On days like this, I have to dig deep to find gratitude buried under worry and even panic. How do I push myself to keep moving forward without allowing life to overwhelm me? Some days I can’t even open my purple gratitude journal. I can’t think of a single thing I am grateful for. I imagine you sometimes have these kinds of days, too.

But after I stood on the sticky floor and deposited 253 cans and bottles one at a time into the recycling machine, I came home with $25.30 in my wallet. That helped relieve some of the stress that has crept into my life and attempted to rob me of my joy. Here is what I wrote in my gratitude journal today:

  • I am grateful that a year ago, Oregon's bottle deposit increased from a nickel to a dime per container. That means I collect a dime for every container I return.
  • I am grateful for the little bit of freelance work I have coming in. (But I need the strength to tirelessly pitch my story ideas and hope I’ll soon be getting more work.)
  • I am grateful that I found two good potential jobs. I’ll apply right away.
  • I am grateful that on this rainy, stormy day, I have a warm, dry bed, enough food to eat, the love of the Mountain Man as well as many family members and friends.
  • I am grateful that I’ve written 25 chapters of my memoir. Only eight chapters to go!
  • I am grateful that I have enough. May I never forget the countless people who do not.











Thursday, February 1, 2018

Strong women hold me up

Circa 1912: My maternal grandmother, Lydia Blomgren Smith (front, center) with her sisters Judith, Anna and Amy. The family emigrated from Sweden to Montana in 1906.
Last week I took my young adult daughter to an event called ROAR: Fierce Female Storytelling so that she could hear women tell true stories about overcoming obstacles and hardship. Hearing brave women telling their stories inspired both my daughter and me. And it reminded me to not give up. No matter what.

 Sometimes in life we slam against hard times that threaten to steal our confidence and our joy. We wonder whether we can keep going. Have you been there? I certainly have.

Like many folks, I've endured some hard times. I've lost a job, a house, and even family. Somewhere along the way, I also lost my courage. At age 53 when I was low on money and had to choose between paying rent or getting my car repaired, I lived for three months in an artist's studio/shed without heat, running water or plumbing. It wasn't easy, but I did it because I had to. I didn't have a choice.

In the past seven years since my divorce and job layoff, a shortage of funds caused me to involuntarily downsize to cheaper digs. I moved seven times in five years. My housing footprint dwindled from a 2,400 square feet house in the city to a 323-square-foot camper in the foothills of the Elkhorn Range in Eastern Oregon. Sometimes, that hasn't been easy. In the heat of summer, I found a sleeping snake curled up on my pillow. On a sub-zero winter morning, it was so cold inside our camper-tiny house that my clothes froze to the closet. Yep. Sometimes, life is hard.

Even so, the hard stuff I've pushed through is nothing compared to what my maternal ancestors endured. I am upheld by a long line of strong, gutsy women who inhabit my family tree. When I've doubted whether I could handle another hardship or obstacle, these women stand behind me--reaching across decades and even centuries--offering me strength to continue paddling through turbulent water threatening to capsize my canoe.

Meet my maternal great-grandmother, Edla Christina Rasback Blomgren

My great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, on the family's Montana farm. She raised 10 children plus many grandchildren.
I never met my maternal great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, but the few photographs I’ve seen of her paint a picture of a tough, no-nonsense farm woman unafraid of hard work, and able to handle any hardship life dealt her. Although she was a caregiver surrounded by children throughout her life, those who knew her did not describe her as affectionate. In one black-and-white photo, a white-haired Edla is sitting on the porch of an unpainted farmhouse. She’s holding two babies in her arms, and six other children stand around her. No one is smiling. One little girl is bawling.

Edla didn't have an easy life. She was not Sven Blomgren’s first choice for a wife. He was engaged to her older sister, Charlotta, but she died of tuberculosis in May 1885. Seven months later, he married Edla, who was 19. Over the years, the couple had ten children. Sven scraped together money to buy a small farm, but it was a meager existence for the growing family. Like many who sought to escape widespread unemployment, poverty, and famine, the Blomgrens dreamed of a better life in America.

By the time the family emigrated from Hedemora, Sweden to the Helena, Montana area, in 1906, the children ranged in age from 2 to 20. Sven and the five older children arrived first. The family’s passage was paid by Edla’s sister and brother-in-law who had emigrated earlier and owned a ranch in Montana. Sven and the older boys worked on the ranch to repay their debt. The older girls worked as seamstresses and household maids for large ranches.

A few months later, Edla, 40, crossed the Atlantic on the steamship C.F. Tietgen with their five younger children: Anna, 10; Stoney, 8; Gunnar, 6; Lydia (my grandmother), 3 and Samuel Finn, 2. Was she exhausted from caring for her children in crowded steerage accommodations when their ship reached New York? To my knowledge, neither Edla nor any of the children spoke English. I don't know how they made their way from Ellis Island and boarded a train to Montana without knowing any English.

I’m certain Edla was used to making do with what little they had. Imagine cooking for 12 people on a wood stove, and on that same wood stove heating water for dishes, laundry, and Saturday-night baths. Edla and the children likely hauled water from a well. The bathroom was an outhouse. Were Montana winters harsher than Swedish winters? Did Sven and Edla find happiness in America?

They endured the heartache of burying three children in Montana. David, 21, drowned in the Missouri River while working on the crew building Hauser Dam in 1909. Their youngest child, Samuel, who had a weak constitution, died at age 10 from an unidentified ailment in 1915.


My maternal great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, who raised 10 children and then raised several of her grandchildren on a Montana farm with no electricity or running water--just a wood cookstove and a water pump.
 
After raising her own children, Edla was called on to raise her grandchildren when her daughter-in-law, Kerstin, died in 1922. Edla was still mothering those grandchildren when her daughter, Judith died, leaving behind a brood of seven children. Judith’s children were divided among relatives, and Edla gathered the two youngest under her wing. Now 59 years old, she was mothering two families of grandchildren. She'd been raising children for 40 years. No wonder she looks tired in that photo! Who wouldn't be? Imagine her fortitude to keep going after so much hardship and heartache.

My maternal grandmother, Lydia Fredricka M. Blomgren Smith
My maternal grandmother, Lydia Blomgren Smith, with her brother, Sam, on the family's Montana ranch, about 1914..
Edla's youngest daughter was my maternal grandmother, Lydia Fredricka Blomgren, born on December 20, 1902 in Hedemora, Vastmanland, Sweden. Lydia was the ninth of ten children.
Grandma's family were farm folk who worked hard for every nickel. I'm certain Grandma spent much of her childhood helping her mother with cooking, cleaning, and farm chores. At age 19, Lydia married my grandpa, Michael Smith.

In stark contrast to Grandma's down-to-earth farmers, Grandpa's family was a well-heeled, educated family from Vermont. His father was a physician, and his grandfather, a diplomat assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. I am intrigued and inspired by my grandfather's three aunts who defied convention and society by remaining unmarried and insisting on living life in their own terms. Unfortunately, I cannot find any  photographs of my great-great aunts. Here is the little I know:
  • The middle sister, Helen Louise Willoughby Smith (1862-1932) became a physician in the 1880s, when it would have been very difficult for a woman to do so. I believe she received her medical training in England or possibly Scotland. She is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
  • The youngest sister, Clara Amanda Smith (1874-1907) was an artist who worked in Italy and died in Davos Platz, Davos Graubunden, Switzerland at age 32. 
  •  The oldest sister, Catherine Hermione Smith (1858-1900) was called "Hermy."I know nothing else about her, but knowing that she was among such independent-thinking sisters, she must have been like minded in her pursuits.

Grandpa had turned his back on his family's money, education, and privilege and headed West for adventure. I don't know how or where my grandparents met. Perhaps they met while Grandpa was working on Henry Sieben's vast sheep ranch in Wolf Creek, north of Helena, Montana. Perhaps Grandma was cleaning house or cooking for Sieben's ranch hands. Perhaps they met at a dance in Wolf Creek or Helena. I wish I'd bothered to ask Grandma their story before she died. Is their story lost forever?

My grandma, Lydia Blomgren Smith, a young wife and mother,
with her two oldest children, early 1920s in Montana.

Mike and Lydia built a log cabin along the Little Prickly Pear Creek. They set about raising sheep, a garden, and eventually, their 11 children. By the time my mom was born in 1934, the Depression had settled over the country like a shroud. However, they were self-sufficient people of the land who chose to live without electricity, running water, and central heat. They fed their large family from their garden and with wild game. Perhaps they kept chickens for a Sunday dinner of chicken and dumplings. Even into the 1950s, my grandparents chose to live simply on the land without modern conveniences. I don't think my grandparents considered their lifestyle a hardship, but an adventure. But even so, looking back across the decades, it certainly doesn't look easy. 
My mother, Joyce Adela Smith Parrish Peterson

Mom, Joyce Adela Smith, Grass Valley, Calif., 1941.
My mother vehemently denies being brave or strong, but she is one of the bravest, strongest women I've ever met. She is the eighth of eleven children, and was the first to graduate high school. Mom is resourceful and hard working, but she also loves to have fun. She took my three siblings and me camping, swimming, and ice skating. Mom was unflappable and encouraged my siblings and me in our antics. We often put on plays, backyard carnivals or made big projects and messes. And extra kids--cousins and friends--always were welcome in our home and on our adventures.

Lydia's 41 grandchildren 

===
About a third of the 41 first cousins at a family reunion at a family reunion at the farm in 1963. I am in the front row, second to the left, wearing the light pink short set. I'm standing next to my cousin, Dave Smith, who is sporting super-cool sunglasses. Notice that many of my female cousins are wearing dresses, but Mom let me wear shorts so I could run and play.


I am one of 41 of Lydia's grandchildren. That's cousins galore for all kinds of adventures we dreamed up. My enormous family sometimes gathered at my grandparents' log cabin. Grandma was not a hugging, affectionate grandmother who called anyone "sweetie." She always spoke frankly, and she didn’t care whether her words left a mark--even on her beloved grandchildren. Her terms of endearment were "I'm going to cut off your arm and beat you with a bloody stump!" or "I'll beat you to death with the stove poker!" We knew she was kidding--but still, she wasn't your typical hugging grandmother who showers grandchildren with praises.

Perhaps Grandma Lydia's demeanor was the result of being raised by the stern Edla, growing up in a family of 10 children and raising 11 children of her own. However, I saw a gentler side of Grandma when I was 16 and our extended family built her a log house across the garden from our farmhouse. I'd visit her after school, and she had buttermilk cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven and a cold glass of milk waiting for me. She taught me to play gin rummy and we talked about the books we were reading. My favorite conversations were when she talked about the old days. I wished I'd recorded her voice telling those stories! I wish I'd written down her stories. Why didn't I pay more attention?

Now as grey hairs are sprouting on my head, I think about these strong women who reach across the decades  in my family tree. If they had an opportunity, I'm certain they would join me on a dragon boat. In low moments when I'm feeling defeated and alone or up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, I imagine these women sitting with me in a dragon boat, paddling together, pulling the heavy water with their strong arms and determined spirits. Even in the rain, we could propel the boat forward because we are strong women who do not give up easily. Or at all. Knowing that they endured hardship encourages me to keep going.

When a particularly aggressive wave threatens our boat, we turn the bow toward the wake, and then we paddle harder. We pull the boat through the water. And we're laughing.


Paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women.