I am not sure if it took me three weeks to write this post or whether it took me three weeks to finally become honest enough with myself to write again. Maybe it was the little event at Fred Meyer’s a couple of nights ago that finally took me over the top.
I had made a purchase of basic staples—mostly vegetables, lunch meat, juice and milk. But, I also bought a 6-pack of beer and two cans of cat food. I was dressed sharply as I had just returned from a preaching gig 135 miles away. The clerk and I enjoyed a light and enjoyable conversation. We talked quickly about our work—his shift and my speaking/preaching.
Finally, back on script he said, “That will be $56.13.” I slid my food stamps card through the machine and waited for him to tell me the balance for the uncovered items. “You have a $10.53 balance.” Everything was fine up to that moment, but then he added, “$8.99 for a 6-pack of beer? Isn’t that a lot? It better be worth it.”
I answered automatically, “Oh, it is!” before I realized what had hit me. I had just received my first encounter with food stamp shaming. Never, in thirty five years of buying beer or wine had a clerk questioned the price of my purchase. But, after seeing me pay 80% of my bill with food stamps he couldn’t resist finding a way to say, “I can’t believe you are buying pricey beer while using food stamps.”
I certainly don’t need to justify myself to him or to you, but something about that experience broke through a long couple of weeks of internal wrestling. My writing had gone underground while I negotiate my way through this unexpected financial desert. Part of that is simply due to the 11-hour days from construction go-fer job 45 miles from my home. But the bigger reason is that a recent series of job rejections shook my confidence and scared my writing voice away. While it was more subconscious than conscious I think I found myself musing, “Who am I to talk about soul matters when I can barely handle survival matters?”
Really, I should know better. I am by profession an ordained preacher. I have resorted to the wisdom of the Psalms many times to express the feelings and the desperation of the darker side of life: “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from me?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” And, for God’s sake, I have been a hospice counselor. I know how important it is to honor our own grief and feeling of lostness. But, apparently, I forgot.
It’s funny that while I have been on pilgrimage I have given myself permission to share both the highs and the lows of life. I have had no problem describing both the ecstasy of reaching a mountain top as well as those profanity-laced moments when headwinds, logistical problems and cramps have dogged me. But, at least, for a moment (or three long weeks) I fell into the trap that sharing a little struggle was okay for a pilgrimage, but showed weakness or incompetence during normal life (whatever that is).
And then I got shamed for buying beer. It was just the gift I needed. It took me over the edge. I found myself driving home and giving the young man an earful as if he was sitting right next to me. “Do you have any idea how hard I am working at this? Is it not good enough that I have given up just about everything that I consider normal and you want to take this too? Am I not entitled to even a small bit of pleasure!”
Of course, I was not really mad at him. He was young and could not have known the full story that has found me relying on free health care and food stamps. What he saw as abusing my welfare benefits I saw as finding a small, simple and cheap way to hold onto a vestige of my former identity and lifestyle.
But, the surprise shaming was good for me. It forced me to remember that the way the universe is unfolding is not a personal attack on me or a statement about my worth. Ever since my first pilgrimage in 2011 I have been convinced that we who live in this time are caught between two worlds—one that is now dissolving and dying away and another that is being born, but cannot yet support us. It is a vulnerable and awkward place to be.
Right now I live someplace between that which is no longer and that which is not yet. I am thankful for to be working at a job that allows me to survive. I am grateful that I live in a society that supports those who find themselves in vulnerable places. And I am thankful for good beer. Always thankful for the beer!