Since my husband left, I’ve struggled with feeling poor.
I remember what it’s like to feel poor. Really poor. You know, the kind of poor that causes you to know which gas stations will sell you 71 cents worth of gas because that’s exactly how much you found under the couch cushions. The kind of poor that makes you see, even in your sleep, the black and yellow packaging that shouts “17 cent generic ramen!” The kind of poor that has you heating the house by turning on all four burners of the gas stove and standing next to it, holding the baby and hoping you’re warming her rather than poisoning her.
Decades ago, that kind of poor defined my daily life.
Fast forward to the present. It’s been a rough few months. My December 21st paycheck has to last me until January 31st, punctuated by Christmas and its attendant costs. A few thousand dollars in expenses I didn’t expect, combined with a nose-dive in the household income, leave me panicking. Before this month, I hadn’t had a $46 balance in my checking account in decades. I play bill roulette, borrow from Peter to pay Paul, shake my tiny fist at the heavens, and curse what feels to me like my own carelessness.
My jeans are too baggy, but the boy child needs a haircut more than I need clothes that fit. The cupboard is bare, and the girl child buys groceries because “Mom, I’m an adult. It’s ok if I contribute.”
In a haunting repeat of my former life, the heater is broken. We sleep in socks and beanies until I get paid and can afford to get it fixed.
I pray that nothing else breaks.
I’m grateful beyond measure when dear friends give me socks and underwear and pajamas for Christmas, because mine are in tatters and I can’t justify the expense of replacing them.
I go to Costco. Knowing I can’t afford much makes me want everything: food, books, clothing. I leave without buying anything, angry at my wanting.
The final straw, the one that threatens to break my back, is when it rains. I have no raincoat and I’m soaked. The cold feels like poverty and failure.
I want to cry.
And yet, I know the difference. It’s not lost on me that I have only four months left of the boy child’s private school tuition, that my tight finances mean I put 20 dollars in the gas tank instead of 60, that I won’t miss a car payment or a tuition payment or a mortgage payment.
It’s not lost on me that among my beloveds I count people who live in houses in Mexico made of pallets and covered with leaky tarp roofs. Among my favorites, there are little girls who don’t know how their families will afford groceries this week.
It’s not lost on me that I’m probably in the top 10% of the world financially, even during a hard month.
It’s not lost on me that I can still afford grapes.
I get in the car, turn on the heater, and remind myself that cold is not poor. Wet is not poor.
I breathe, and pick up extra work. I deposit money in my bank account just before the balance dips to zero.
Friends send me home with leftovers. I feed the kids for a few days on meals of generosity.
I tuck 71 cents in my pocket to remind myself what poor really is.
It’s just a month, I remind myself. Just a few months. Just a year. A finite amount of time. I remember what my yoga instructor says, “You can do anything for three breaths.”
I take three breaths, another three, another three. I will breathe my way to payday.
The sun comes out, and I remember how lucky I am. I wiggle my toes in my new Christmas socks, eat my grapes slowly enough that they will last the week, and let the sun on my shoulders warm me.
It’s hard to feel poor in the sunshine.
It’s easy to feel rich in love and friends and health.
Nancy Alvarado is an elementary school teacher on the U.S.-Mexico border. She moonlights as a columnist for the Chula Vista Star-News. She is a mom to two lovely young adults and the reluctant human of Dobby the Dog.