The following is a letter received by the Rev. Jim Hale, pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Irvine, from a woman the congregation has been helping. It was written in anguish and anger over her need for support. The pastor has withheld the name but has agreed to share the thoughts and feelings she expressed to the community.
Hello, from one of the great unwashed now infesting fair Irvine. Here, shake! Go ahead. You may be surprised to find that the hand outstretched before you is clean and feminine.
None too dainty, certainly. Rather ragged nails (bitten, I'm afraid) and no time or vanity left to keep them polished. Basically, I'm too busy. I must make certain that my low profile remains intact. I am one of those people.
I wish I knew how to introduce myself to you. I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't know exactly who I am anymore. A few months ago--several, actually--I might have pointed with pride to my new Woodbridge town home and introduced myself as a proud new resident of this charmed community.
Now, I don't know. I suppose my bachelor's degree still counts for something. It did years ago, when I clutched a ribbon-bound proxy and dreamed of unending opportunities during one afternoon's stroll across Fullerton's campus.
My degree still looks nice. That's about all it does. Six months of job-hunting has rubbed the mystique right off unemployment. I have my kids. A marriage that wasn't meant to celebrate its very first year in debt-ridden poverty. And creditors. Lots of them. Especially the credit card companies we've borrowed from in order to buy food and pay the utility bills. Yeah, yeah, I know. But what did you expect me to pay for them with, my good looks? It isn't exactly accurate to call myself One of Irvine's Infamous Homeless. I still have my house. But my mother recommends that I quit-claim it now, before the big boys decide to play hardball with my hard-earned equity. I never meant it to be this way. I never meant for the kids to see me so hopeless and desperate (no forced smile or hearty laugh ever hid the truth from a child).
Why can't I get a job? Does the desperation show during those crucial, rarely granted interviews? What's wrong with me? Paper cuts from snipping out classified ads with my straight edge (it's faster). Weekly visits to my neighborhood copy shop for more resumes to mail, more stamps to lick, more cover letters to painstakingly craft during my "free" time each day--3 a.m.
Don't sleep until the house or laundry or latest job applications are done. Because the daylight is devoted to acting "normal" in front of the kids. And working as many odd jobs as you can find, just to stopgap some of the expenses. But don't forget to shop for dinner and cook and go over homework and thank God for this meal and thank God for the loving church that sent you the groceries in the first place.
And bath time--brush the hair ("but not the owie brush, mama!"), remember to check the ears and little fingernails, and everybody tell a happy something that happened to you today and "Mama, did somebody give you a job?" and for God's sake smile and just say no.
Because, if you have to say anything else, you just won't be able to make it. You just won't be able to go on. Because being out of work is like being out of friends, and being out of hope, and being out of sync. The worst lost feeling you can imagine. Because you feel like garbage. Worthless. Despicable to believe yourself good enough to have those priceless children in the first place. Ha! You can't even support them.
Garbage. Somehow invisibly soiled so that only prospective employers can see. Of course, your home is sloppier, your appearance less appealing, your harried manner unappreciated and certainly inappropriate for those rightful residents of this fair community. "Just tell me when they intend to plant grass. It's a sight!" And, "I see they're late to school again. She must party a lot to sleep in every morning. They just don't fit in around here."
Is it me? Am I hearing my worst fears spoken out loud? Do the "nice" people (the "right" people) suspect that we have become poor and wretched?
We aren't homeless. We have (just barely) walls. But we have no hope. Right now, we feel a bit used by life. Disillusioned by ourselves. Disappointed in ourselves. Hoping the kids will think that "pulling the belt a little tighter" is some kind of great adventure. That they will not be damaged by the frustrated battles that rage around them as my marriage slowly falls apart. I never wanted them to see their mother this way. They were a gift, you see. I promised to take care of them.
I'm trying. Pastor had to get on his knees and beg me to take the money he pressed into my cold, clenched fist. I looked at plastic bags filled with donated goods through shamed tears that burned my cheeks. I know so much more now than I ever expected to learn.