I had the privilege to spend last Thursday in a hot and humid school gym with somewhere around a hundred (give or take) other people, listening to Donna Beegle, PhD tell her story while educating community members, like myself who are living in poverty, about the fact that we aren’t the enemy, poverty is.
One of the issues she addressed is poverty segregation – poor people hang out with poor people because that’s who we know and fit in with. Middle class people socialize and network with other middle class people for the same reasons.
Both make assumptions and have false beliefs about the other, as well as themselves, which are primarily myths largely perpetuated by the media. Unless you’ve been there or been accurately and effectively educated, it’s virtually impossible to identify with and relate well across the borders of poverty.
Two bits of experiential wisdom Donna shared have stayed with me and are encompassed in two phrases, “if everyone you know is out of salt and butter, talking to them isn’t going to help,” and, “time to get to work.” The first means that expecting to get the answers and solutions to getting out of poverty from others who are in it, won’t work. If they knew how to do it, they’d be out already. The second one is a call to action for how to think about and interact with those who come from life experiences not molded by poverty.
I had an opportunity to do this yesterday.
Lap swimming has become my exercise of choice, but am not consistently able to do it because I don’t regularly have someone available to be with Luna while I do it. It’s the only exercise I can do for more than 30 minutes at a time which doesn’t trigger a fibroflare of intense pain and profound fatigue. So, whenever Keith is home I try to make a point of going to the pool at the local Parks & Recreation Community Center next door. I made it a priority for us to pay for a year long family membership when we had our tax refund money back in April. We qualified for the maximum scholarship amount of 50% of the cost, which was just under $300.
However, there always seems to be difficulty in me doing my actual laps. I am still a fairly slow swimmer, plus with my physical difficulties and size I need to have half a slow lane to myself and truly need to swim from wall to wall in order to change direction and do a full lap. If more than three people want to swim in a two lane section between ropes, they are supposed to swim in a circle and the slower person is supposed to stop to allow the faster ones to swim past. This means if I wind up with more than one additional person in the designated slow lane, I have a much harder time doing my laps.
Weekends mean reduced opportunity, since the center opens five hours later and closes several hours earlier. Summer schedule makes it more problematic as well, because they hold swim lessons seven days a week. There is also parent/preschool swim time followed by open swim time when folks of all ages occupy all but two lane sections.
Jerry took Luna out for several hours yesterday morning and I got to the center about 15 minutes after opening. It looked like there were six lane sections open and just a few swimmers. By the time I changed, showered, and got on deck, every roped section was occupied. So, I stated swimming in the unroped section next to the shallow bay used by the parents with littles. Meaning I encountered floating toys not being used.
I was in the middle of my second lap set when I noticed a man and woman enter the deep end of the section I was swimming in. When I approached that end, the man stopped me and informed me that they regularly use that corner to exercise and requested that I end my laps several feet before the wall to accommodate them. I attempted to explain my needs and situation and I requested that they just shift over when they see me coming. He responded that he was just trying to keep people from getting kicked and tensions down.
I continued swimming and made the effort to do as he asked, but it hurt my back to stop and change direction without using the wall. The woman thanked me for trying and I swam on.
As I did so, bitter and resentful thoughts began rising: they probably can afford to pay a gym membership to a gym with a pool. They probably have access to healthcare. They certainly have the money for decent swimsuits and accessories. They are probably being frugal and trying to save a buck. This is my only affordable option for taking care of my health. I know it’s a community pool that their taxes help fund, but I started thinking that just because they can, doesn’t mean they should and just because it’s their routine to do this, it doesn’t give them the right to expect to be accommodated during lap swim time.
Then, Donna’s words came back to me. I realized that they weren’t deliberately trying to make my process more difficult and I should just let it go. Then I felt conviction in my mind and spirit that I needed to talk to them and, if possible, educate them.
So, on my next lap cycle, I stopped swimming, and politely asked if I could have a conversation with them. They were open to that, merely requesting that they continue with their routine and invited me to join them.
I think we must have talked for about 15 – 20 minutes. I explained about the conference on poverty, told them about Donna Beegle, and shared some of my situation with them. It turned out to be a very constructive time. I found out a little about them and learned about the exercise routine they have developed. I now have a couple of friendly acquaintances who have taught me something that can help me continue my journey of healing and recovery. Hopefully, they now have a slightly expanded and modified view of poverty realities in our community.
Have you ever had an encounter with a stranger that left you with agitated, bitter, or resentful thoughts? How did you handle it? Would you be willing to risk talking to a stranger to educate him in a constructive way about what you are experiencing?