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.