Stuck on Flat Ground

I’m about to tell you the story of someone I know. It’s a vulnerable story, but it’s also a story of resilience. I hope that’s how you find it to be and respond in kind.

Allow me to take you inside the life of a working single parent for a 36 hour period:

The mother wakes up early to make a warm breakfast for her youngest son. Though he is old enough to prepare his own breakfast, and is very good at it, she likes to do this act for him. She often thinks of asking one of her other sons to take the youngest to school, but she’s mindful of the things they have on their plate as well. Besides, she never planned on having to do this parenting thing on her own. The promise of “I do” was never supposed to become “I don’t anymore,” but that’s what she experienced – twice. Three times if you count the time that the father of her children left a poorly-thought-out reconciliation attempt. So as she made breakfast this day, she also considered if she should also make dinner for her sons to have while she was at work. This is the life of a single parent.

She drove her son to school and reminded him that it was his turn to pray as they entered the school parking lot. The ride was often a quiet one, but that was just fine. It was the routine and consistency she wanted to give him. As she pulled close to the entrance, she felt a common, sinking feeling. “I hope they don’t notice me today…not today…please.” You see, as much as she loved the school where her son attended, she was painfully aware of the tuition balance that she owed. And it would be really nice if she could avoid the eye of the principal today and not have to explain why she hasn’t paid the balance with money she doesn’t have. It’s funny that she could make the decision with her ex-husband to send her sons here, but she was left to bear the brunt of the completion. She thought back to the time she was last in court asking why the father did not have to pay any of the tuition, even though it was noted in the divorce order. “It does say he’s supposed to pay,” the judge had said, “but it doesn’t say how much.”

In other words, she was the safety net. Always the safety net. She could try to win that battle and not pay anything until he did, but she knew how that would go. He wouldn’t pay and they wouldn’t go. With the help of her family, and some tearful talks with the school, she had her youngest son in his last semester. Yes, she would pay. Somehow. Some day. But not today. Today she simply hoped that there were no unexpected expenses that would cause her bank account to go negative.

She remembered to stop by the pharmacy on her way home so that she could pick up her prescription for antidepressants. It wasn’t a strong dose, and she could probably be okay without it, but she also remembered what it was like before she began taking them. Those were dark days. Quite literally. She was working third shift, living on naps, and dealing with the stress of a failed reconciliation every day. No, she did not want to go back to that, to any of that. The prescription was necessary. It helped. And maybe one day she would consult with her doctor about stopping, but not today.

She came back home, and walked through the door with yet another sinking feeling. It’s nearly the end of the month, and she still had not paid rent. The owner had been gracious enough to allow the whole month for it to be paid, but how can you pay with what you don’t have? And the end of the month meant that another month was soon beginning. Which brought about another total on the wrong side of the ledger. She began to feel anger, as she often did. So she has the kids all of the time, provides them with housing, food, phones and internet for their classes, car insurance, and…he doesn’t have to pay a thing? Not a thing?!

Well, he’s supposed to. He just doesn’t. When the reconciliation attempt ended several years ago, the father of her sons went and filed for assistance as he had done before. But if you file for assistance, there has to be child support in place. And since she had been earning more and the parenting time was 50/50, she was ordered to pay. Ordered to pay support for the sons in her care…every…day. She fought it, or tried to. That’s when the judge said there was nothing to be done about it except ask for a review. So a review went out, and she submitted new information showing that her sons lived with her every day, and it was enough to swing the petition in her favor, ever so slightly. She would receive monthly support, not because she wanted it. But because it was the only way to not pay someone for the children she was raising. After a year and a half of having her paycheck garnished to go to an absent parent, she would start to receive a little support. Maybe enough for a week’s worth of groceries. It would help.

It would help if it ever came. It still hasn’t. For the last three years she has been waiting to receive one single, solitary penny. None has come. Last year she was hopeful that maybe she would receive some when her ex filed for taxes. But nothing came. He has been actively filing petitions saying he is unable to work due to medical reasons, so no money has been garnished. Yet when she went to file her own taxes last year, she found that one of her son’s social security numbers had already been used. Not by her. Not by her son. And, apparently not by her ex. Or, at least not under his name.

There was no time to think about all of this now. The time to go to work was near and she still had things to do. She took her work clothes out of the washing machine and put them into the dryer. Maybe she could rest for 45 minutes or so before she would get ready, make dinner for her sons to have later, and go off to work. Rest sounded good. It had been more than a week since she slept all the way through the night. She did as she planned. Rest. Ready. Cook. Off to work.

Work had not been very enjoyable lately. This wasn’t work she planned on doing, but after losing her job because of the pandemic, it was work that became necessary. But it wasn’t that the work had changed, just her outlook on it. A few weeks ago she was brought in to the office to talk with one of the supervisors. Never a good feeling. She went in, nervously, wondering what had gone wrong. It was then that she learned her employer had received a letter from the court about health insurance. Ahh, yes. One of the things that the court actually will enforce – making someone who has money to pay more. When the divorce order from her first marriage was written, it was determined that she would be responsible for providing health insurance. it seemed sensible enough at the time. She had health insurance, the boys were young and growing, and…she was the safety net.

That was 14 years ago. Since that time, the father of the children had obtained (and maintained) Medicare, making her sons eligible as well. That was often very helpful. Right now it was not. Last year, while unemployed, she tried to obtain Medicare as well. She did, but was reminded that she could receive no support beyond that because she was not eligible to claim her sons. They were already claimed – by their father – and he continued to do so. Now that this mother has gone back to work, the courts have found her, and will enforce that she have insurance. I’m not sure if you’ve looked at the cost of health care for small businesses lately, but essentially it means that she will be working a day (or more) for free. And, to make matters worse, the work has started to dry up. Ten hour days had become only eight, and sometimes less, and every day was a guessing game about how long she would work.

She began her work day, delivering packages to people’s doorsteps, admiring with some jealousy the quarter million dollar homes and private subdivisions. “Wouldn’t it be nice…?” she thought, but how could she even dare to dream it. She thought about the time she last felt slightly comfortable financially. It wasn’t that long ago in calendar dates, but it felt like ages. It was around the time she was sliding dangerously fast into a pin-turn disaster of a second marriage. All the promises. All the empty words. All the money…gone. Just…gone. It made her sick to her stomach that she could have ever been so foolish. It would be easier to forget that it happened if it wasn’t for the ongoing reminders. She was a week away from a court date for the financial judgment that had been levied against her afterwards. She remembered that court hearing too. Her second ex sat there, on the stand, and lied through his teeth about ten pages of a self-made spreadsheet of his belongings he claimed to have left behind. And she thought about the feeling when her attorney (who is also owed money) was not allowed to say anything. “The proper procedures for filing were not followed,” the judge said. It wasn’t the attorney’s fault. When this mother had received the original paperwork and realized what was happening, it was too late.

Heavy thoughts for an early afternoon. Maybe she should listen to that audiobook, that would help. She originally found the book for her middle son because it seemed to line up with books he was reading, but it seemed interesting enough for her taste too. The Obstacle is the Way was a book on philosophy in action and how to tackle the challenges before you. That sure sounded relevant. So she listened as the author went through example after example of exceptional historical figures overcoming great adversity. “Doesn’t sound very relevant to me,” she thought. “Sure I would love to write my book, work out daily, start a business….all those things…but there’s only one of me. Why isn’t the author talking about anything I can relate to?” She continued about her day, hoping that no one would be sent to help on her route and hoping that she wouldn’t get stuck like yesterday. That was embarrassing.

She finished her day, made her way home, and plopped on the couch. It wasn’t that the day itself was so exhausting, it was the constant tightness in her chest. Depression’s dear old friend Anxiety, that thing you can always feel, never explain, and no one else can physically measure on you. She noticed that the large pot of food had been wiped clean. No surprise, really, when you have three sons who work and go to school and work out. She warmed up two hot dogs in the microwave and called it a meal.

There wasn’t much time left in the day, but she had seen some emails about job opportunities throughout the day. She really hoped one of them would be a good fit. There were about five or six emails from a job board: “Hey, we saw your profile and would like to talk to you about our sales position….” She just sighed. She had sales experience but she didn’t return to school to sell cars or home furniture or real estate. She was called to ministry, she knew it. But those places weren’t knocking on her door. She had enough social work experience to work in that field, but no licensure. She had completed one graduate degree but not one that would qualify her for the jobs she really wanted. That’s why she was still in school now. Ah, schoolwork. She felt behind on that too. She felt behind because she was. She wished she had the opportunity to simply study, but there was not much time for that. Maybe one day. But not today. In the meantime, she was stuck between a rock and a…rock.

She glanced at the clock and knew she should go to bed. Tomorrow was another school day. Another early start. She did, but she did not sleep well. She woke up and anxiously checked her bank account. It was pay day. “Maybe today they….no…not today.” When she was hired on, she was told about a $300 bonus for working in December. Now almost February, she still had not seen that bonus. When she had asked about it at work, she was given the answer that no one really knows when it comes. One co-worker had joked, “Probably October.” She was starting to think that was true. She checked her bank account daily, mostly to make sure it at least stayed positive. Maybe one day she would wake up to see that the federal stimulus had arrived. It still hasn’t, and the IRS has no information about it. And today was not that day either.

Walking into the kitchen reminded her that she had not cleaned up last night, and she was tired. Pancakes on the stove instead of the griddle, that will work. It worked until she became distracted and the second batch of pancakes burned on the bottom. Sigh. It was going to be one of those days. She put a little peanut butter on the pancakes and gave them to the dogs. No need for them to go completely to waste.

She brought her son to school and thought of other options financially. All week there had been discussions of stocks and cryptocurrency. She learned about them and even tried to buy some of the stocks set to go up. It was a bit of a gamble, but she needed a gamble. And she didn’t have much to gamble with. But she couldn’t think of many other ways to make some grocery money in a short amount of time. But, as with most things, you need capital to make capital. And the day that she tried to capitalize, there were blocks placed against the activity so that she couldn’t participate. Three times. So much for that opportunity.

She got ready for work and was proud of the snacks she made to take along. That would keep her fueled during the day and out of the convenience stores. She didn’t have it in her to make dinner ahead of time, so she settled on texting the meal plan to her sons. She set off to work, again hoping that she would be allowed to finish her route so that she could have at least close to 40 hours this week. The sun was shining and she felt prepared…and then it happened. She got stuck. Again.

This one felt worse. Not only did it seem like she had not learned from two days ago, but this did not look like a situation where she should get stuck. There was a slight incline on the driveway, but it should not have been enough. Or so she thought. She used the tracks supplied to her to spin and work her way up to level ground, nearly able to turn…and couldn’t move. After 15 or 20 minutes of trying, she was forced to call and ask for help. While waiting for the rescue, the neighbor came by. He was a large man and offered little more than a few glancing opinions before declaring that he needed to go and get gas. The homeowner also came out, but could not offer any physical help since he had recently suffered two broken ribs.

The workplace always asked for photos if stuck so they understood the situation. This time they did not, and she was glad. Because to the naked eye, this van was sitting on level ground. There was about a foot it could potentially go forward if not for the divots of ice below the front tires. And the rear end was facing a direction that no one could pull it with another vehicle if they came. This felt like so much in her life. This moment right here. Good plans, good intentions, still stuck. She was always the first to help someone else if they asked. Just earlier this week someone asked for money for food and pampers. Sent. She took a call from one of the kids she used to work with who is now sitting in jail. A call that she had to pay for every time. She missed another call from a person she helps, and she guessed it was probably to ask for help on rent. Another had asked if they could come over to use a laptop for their work. Of course.

But this? Helping herself to get unstuck? She couldn’t. And it felt like any efforts she was making only caused it to be worse. Eventually her coworkers arrived. The homeowner had moved a vehicle so that, hopefully, she could pull forward to some clear ground. She was pushed just enough to get there. That allowed her to get enough momentum for the incline to get past where she was. But there was no chance to turn around. She kept going backwards as her coworkers pushed her on, until one flagged her to stop so they could check the busy road. Stopping was the problem. It meant that all momentum was lost.

That’s the most relatable piece of it for her. Stopping isn’t an option. As bills and burdens pile up, her only choice is to keep going. But yet, she also needs someone to help her avoid a possible accident. In other words, it is not realistic to ask her to do this on her own. After her coworkers tried pulling her van the rest of the way, and coming up short, she kept trying to go forward for momentum, but it was never quite enough. Finally, one of her coworkers came to the door and said, “I’ll get it out.” She hopped out and he took over driving, and was able to successfully maneuver the van out of the driveway. He told her about a way to engage all the wheels so that it could navigate the incline. “I didn’t know about that,” she remarked. “Well, now you do,” he replied.

She was not shamed or made fun of for being stuck. It happens. Sometimes even on level ground. She wished it could be like that for everyone, no matter what help they needed. She knew her family would help. They always had. But how many times do you ask for help before you feel like maybe you shouldn’t anymore? She wished that people would help without question, like she so often did. But what she really wished was that she could ask for help like others could ask her.

Maybe one day.

But not today.

********

The story you have just read is true. The story is mine. I changed and reversed pronouns so that I could remove myself from the story. I also wanted those of you who know me to read it without putting a face to it. But maybe you did. Maybe you know someone like this. Maybe you are someone like this. The other day someone shared that “survival mode is exhausting,” and it truly is. The truth is, you probably know someone who is in survival mode but they may not have made you aware. I am very good at masking my true needs. Most people who operate this way are excellent at it. We do not wish to be charity cases. We do not desire pity. And very often we are helping others even as we need it ourselves. This is not a flaw, this is a gift.

I’ve heard people comment before that I help others too much. No, I don’t. When you operate this way, you have learned how to live with very, very little. And if I have enough bread for two sandwiches, and you need one, you will get one. You might even get two. I’ll get more bread. But the reality of being stuck on flat ground is also true. I was never going to get unstuck by myself. It took the efforts of five people (besides me) to get out. The neighbor was the first to notice a need. The homeowner was able to clear a space. The person I called was able to send help. And finally the people who could actually help move the van did so.

I’ve been thinking about the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11a little differently lately. Many sermons have been preached on, “The poor you will always have with you.” But lately I wonder if Jesus said that because he knows our hearts. I think that Christians (and all humans) are more interested in helping the poor than in changing the conditions for the poor. When you help someone, you feel good. You did a good deed. And, so long as you don’t surrender your own comfort, the poor will continue to remain in need. And you can help them again at your leisure. I’ve done that. I know for certain I’ve done that. It’s a works-based salvation that we use to earn bonus points with Jesus. It doesn’t work that way.

Not today. Not ever.

If you haven’t had your eyes opened to the needs of the people around you in these last ten months, I don’t know what will do that for you. If I can fool you into believing that I’m doing okay, who else is fooling you?

I don’t like writing pieces like this. I really don’t. It’s vulnerable, and, to be quite honest, I feel like I should know better. You may have read something like this by me before, because it’s not the first time I’ve felt like this. And sometimes people offer to help which…is…I don’t know. Good? Except you know what? Every time I have something to give away, God sends someone asking for it. At our old house we used to have someone stop by from time to time. His name was Barry and I think about him a lot. He always had a story about how or why he needed help. He always offered to repay me. Neither of those things ever mattered to me. But the one thing that always always happened, was that Barry would stop by when I had cash. I hardly EVER have cash on me. One time I sold a table for $50. Someone drove from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids to buy it. Three hours later, Barry showed up. My options were to lie and say I had no cash, to say no to his offer, or to give him the bill that was in my pocket. If you know me at all, you know what I did.

I share this today because I know people who need the help and people who can be the help. I consider it an honor to know that people will let me know when they’re in need. I know what it takes for them to ask. I also know that not everyone knows people in need, but it doesn’t mean you won’t help. I’m just here to encourage you to look for those in your own life who might be stuck on flat ground.

If you want to see the Church, be the Church.