I grew up poor. Growing up poor does weird things to your brain.
My dad worked in the steel mills in southwestern PA until they shuttered their windows and barred their doors. I was young – elementary school aged – when that happened. Unemployment compensation helped for a while, but it does not last forever. Eventually he got a job in home construction. It wasn’t a terrific job; work was minimum wage and availability depended on the whims of the housing market. During my early teenage years, our family of five was living on $15,000 – $18,000 per year. Once my youngest brother started school (when I started high school), my mother got various jobs as well, but they weren’t full time. That money helped, but it wasn’t a lot. The saving grace of our situation was we had no mortgage; we owned the land we lived on, and we were slowly building the house we lived in. I don’t think I ever saw the house complete; up until I went to college, sub-flooring was the main floor and many exterior walls were non-drywalled – just exposed (but paper-faced) insulation. We had a modicum of comfort (certainly I had toys), but money was always on our minds.
This has had a lasting impact.
I enjoy photography as a hobby, but feel bad that I make no money at it. This is a result of worries as a kid — even our hobbies were built around whether or not they could provide some income. My mother knitted, crocheted, and tatted. My father did jigsaw woodworking. All these outputs were put up for sale at the local craft fairs. Even today, you can find my parents’ handiwork on Etsy.
Our house needs some repairs, but I feel bad about bringing in contractors to do the work. Why? Because I know how to do the work myself and should do it, and not pay somebody else to do work that I can do. But raising a family takes time, and so various house projects sit there unfinished.
Restaurants? Even today, I still look for the cheapest thing on the menu, because that’s what the biggest concern was growing up. Not, “Do I like this food?” or “What do I want to eat?,” but “Can I do my part to keep costs down?”
There were, thankfully, other factors in my growing up.
I also grew up smart. I was reading at age 3, and I learn quickly and know how to make analogies from what I do know to things that I am learning. Most new skills are not entirely new; they are just variations on skills I already possess. Of course, being a smart child in the United States puts you in the “weirdo” category — a geek, a dork, a nerd. I spent a lot of time in my own little world because the outside world was harsh. Some people saw through that and accepted me for that, but there are those for whom that insight came very late in life.
I also grew up kind and empathic. I fully support hunters’ rights because hunting, in part, kept our family fed. But I myself could never hunt; I could not be the one to pull the trigger or draw back the arrow that shot a deer. This also meant that, for the most part, I treated everybody with kindness and respect. Men and women, boys and girls, black or white, it didn’t matter. No one taught me that “real men” should be conniving to get the girl, or that “real men” didn’t listen to what girls had to day. No one taught me that men and women were “supposed” to be unequal; I just always assumed that they were equal and treated them as such. And I could not understand why the men on sitcoms went to great length to hide things from the women when a simple bit of communication would solve so many problems.
I remember being very uncomfortable when my parents bought me a Kathy-Ireland-in-a-bikini poster for my birthday when I was 15 or 16. Why would I want that? How creepy is it to have a picture in your house of someone you don’t know? Yes, I knew that I was “supposed” to be into that sort of thing at that age, but it somehow felt disrespectful. I knew nothing about this person other than what her body looked like, and that wasn’t enough for me. Still isn’t.
Of course, I did not date in high school. Between being pigeonholed into the nerd category and my strong empathy for others, I had an extreme lack of self-confidence. (“Why would anyone want to date me? No sense in trying.”) But this does not mean I ignored the girls. Yes, there were some that caught my eye, but by-and-large I talked to them as friends, not as potential dates. It was, after all, the kind thing to do, and most of them were capable of more pleasant conversation than they majority of guys I would talk to.
What does this have to do with anything? A lot.
I come from Trump’s America. I know what it is like to live in poverty. I know that the money isn’t always there to do as you please. In college, the pastor at the church in Swarthmore talked about opening his wallet to buy a game console and it boggled my mind — that was the sort of thing you saved up for a year to buy. True, he was using it as an example in his sermon that he had economic privileges that not everyone else did, but I heard the sermon from the complete opposite side. I can understand the frustrations with affirmative action; when applying for college, I was under a lot of pressure to get scholarships, but there seemed to be very few scholarships in the book of scholarships at the library for a white male. If I were less empathic, this could have led to anger and frustration which would have led to racism. I know where it comes from.
But I also live in Clinton’s America. My empathy, I hope, does me credit, and I count myself as an ally to my LGBTQ friends, to my friends of different races and cultures, and to all my female friends. Just as I could not understand thinking that somebody might be a match for me just for how they looked in a swimsuit in a poster, I can not understand hating somebody for how they look or who they are. Yes, I can be judgmental — I am only human — but my judgments are based on other criteria: how hard you work, how much effort you put in to understand a subject, how much you are willing to deal with people. And I try to not let those judgments show.
This, of course, comes back to this past election and our deeply polarized country. I have read recently a thinkpiece about how rural America (Trump’s America) needs to travel more to understand coastal America (Clinton’s America). Yes, this piece admits, coastal America also needs to understand rural America, but it is important that rural America travels to coastal America and meet people of different races, sexualities, and cultures. And I mostly agree. Living in our own echo chambers does nobody any good.
However, rural America should not be the ones travelling. They cannot, and if you think they can you are making assumptions based on your economic privilege. Travel, for them, is for the rich or the desperate, and these people are neither. In my memory, I have taken one vacation that did not involve seeing grandparents or in-laws, and that was two years ago when I took my own family to Maine. And yes, there was guilt involved in that trip: guilt on spending the money, and guilt on taking time off work and not visiting family. As a kid, the only thing that I can remember that came close was when we took at extra day travelling back from visiting my grandparents in Florida to come up through the Shenandoah Valley and visit the caves therein.
Growing up poor does weird things to your brain. Even today, I find it hard to justify spending money on travel. I have been from Maine (actual vacation) to Miami (as a toddler, and I don’t remember it very much) to Michigan (to visit one of Sarah’s friends after visiting her family). I have never left the time zone. I have never left the country. Growing up, it was a rare thing to leave the county. I have not flown on an airplane for the past 23 years. It is still true in my mind that travel is for the rich or the desperate, and I am not desperate. While I have a good job earning many times more than what my father did, I still have a hard time thinking of myself as having enough disposable income to travel. And this is after eighteen years of being on my own with a good income; certainly those who are not at that level of economic independence are even less likely to prioritize travel.
What, then, is the solution? It is obvious that coastal America should travel to rural America, but I know many coastal Americans that do not feel safe doing so. I will not urge anybody to do anything that they think would jeopardize their safety, but if you can travel, do so. Go to Monongahela, PA. Go to Aliquippa, PA. Go to Mansfield, OH. While you’re there, stop by Shelby, OH. Go to Detroit. Go to Flint. See the crumbling facades of buildings that were once grand testaments to Main Street America. See the grass growing through the cracks in the sidewalks. See the shuttered factories and mills. But do more than see. Talk. Talk to the people who live there and find out from their own mouths what they want. Talk to the elderly to find out the histories; each town has its own glory. Tell your own stories, both good and bad. Tell about your own needs (or the needs of your friends if you are going as a surrogate or ally) — more often than not, people are willing to listen if they feel they are being listened to.
Perhaps I can assuage my guilt over not making money from my photography by finding some way to do good with it. Photography tells stories, and for those who cannot travel it brings the world to them. Perhaps I, who can travel without fear through this country, can do so with my camera. I can take you to Aliquippa and to Monongahela. I can show you the falling facades of Shelby. I can make you see the places where once-proud industry has been reduced to naught but an empty shell. I can also make you see the results of bigotry. I can make you see that people — all people — are human. I can show the need to protect our environment and the majesty of nature, but I can also show the importance of commerce and the drastic results of the lack of it. I will find a way to do my part.
Fear takes many forms. Fear of other people, fear of a lack of income. Money cannot buy happiness, but a lack of money certainly inculcates fear. We need to take actions to combat fear in all its forms.
I do not believe that we should be a monolithic culture. Diversity is good, and differences of opinion drive us forward. I think that the differences that have caused this great divide in our nation can be remedied by talking and listening. I think that a solution exists that meets the needs of both sides. It will take time for this divide to heal; I do not expect overnight results. Fear takes time to dissipate. But racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny are born out of some sort of fear, and we need to address that fear. Only then will these feeling fade, which will go far to addressing the fear of their targets.
Perhaps I am being too naive. Perhaps people really are just nasty at heart. Perhaps I should be jaded and cynical. I know that there is more to this divide than some people not having enough income. But lack of reliable, predictable income is a petri dish for fear, and it make sense to me to use that as a starting place to address the issues. And I refuse to believe that worst of people without giving them a reasonable chance and doing due diligence on an effort to work with them. But perhaps this is because I grew up poor, and growing up poor does weird things to your brain.