2011. What seemed to be a mediocre financial start to a year slowly slipped into a year of bill juggling and involuntary fasting. Not that different from a character out of a Charles Dickens novel, I began to feel like a societal outcast while the big bad banker living behind the iron fence made my life miserable. Like many Americans, I have spent this past year struggling to make ends meet during the world wide financial famine. I am self-employed as a music teacher, a single parent of two children and live well below the poverty line. Because I live in a rental home in a middle class neighborhood, many are not able to see how much we struggle. Many have this notion that poverty is strictly bound to homelessness or trailer parks, with the kids running around shoeless and filthy, even though this is not always so. Some of us live in the shell of our former means; a silent poverty. You see, before the fall, I was married, enrolled full time as a Psychology student and had access to medical benefits and an income ten times greater than what I make now. I didn’t go out on a shopping spree or live foolishly above my means. I, like many moms, relied on another for support.
As Christmas approached, a holiday I usually love, I became nauseated. I lost many nights sleep worrying over not just gifts I wanted for my children, but meals and my car payment. I was loosing students, many for reasons beyond their control. To make matters worse, I was handed a lawsuit over a credit card I was unable to payoff, that was used to pay for car repair and the remainder of my daughter’s Tae Kwon Do contract. The collection calls were now coming 5 to 6 times a day, trying to collect on an education I was never able to finish when the banks felt my separated status made me too big of a risk.
My heart sunk as I struggled to understand what was happening to me. So many times, people say that Christmas is not about the gifts but they truly miss the point. My children live in a world where they are expected to accept the warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment when they succeed, but yet tolerate multi-layered punishments when they fail. The world we have set up for them is so saturated in negative reinforcement that children hunger for smiles and contentment. Christmas is the one time of year where children can enjoy benevolence and generosity for no real reason other than to celebrate every moment that they made a positive mark in their universe. Yet this year, I feared we wouldn’t be able to have Christmas in our home.
I received a call from a local school that was somehow aware of our financial difficulties this year and offered help. At first I turned them down. I never wanted to be the type of person who relied on welfare checks or food stamps for support under the fear I would never come off of them, and I had so far managed to limp along without them. Yet, once the stark realization hit me that I was beyond broke, I accepted the help. They requested I give a list of wants and needs, so I asked for help with groceries. I expected to get a few can goods if anything and hoped that would allow me to redirect funds I usually spend on groceries to gifts. Any small token of help was projected to be a great relief.
I never expected what happened next. The outpouring of help was astonishing. Not only did we get help with groceries, but also with gifts. Clothes, shoes and gift cards to various local shops came to us in abundance, but it didn’t end there. Friends picked up on my frustration began to help me in ways they could and I started receiving calls from local benevolent organizations and churches offering help. The help I received was so amazing, that I found it necessary to turn the offers away instructing they send help to other families in need. It felt so wonderful to say “I no longer need help because I have been given everything I need.”
This Christmas, the cupboards are full, there are gifts under the tree and all my monthly bills are paid up. I know that come the start of the new year the collection calls will continue and I still have that pesky lawsuit to pay, but at least for the next two weeks, I can watch my children smile and glow in the light of generosity. For this I send a humble, warm thank you to every stranger and every friend who felt our smiles were worth saving.