Pennies and papers

Originally posted 10/19/2009

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services 2009 Poverty Guidelines, I am officially poor. The cutoff is an annual individual salary of $10,830. As a freelance writer, painter, and photographer, I am definitely below that margin.

I am a fledgling journalist, having just graduated from college, attempting to compete with skilled reporters who have years of experience under their belts. Due to journalism industry layoffs, the freelance market is more competitive than ever, with more people fighting for those rare stories that newspapers and magazines are willing to give to an outsider. In writing, my query letters to publications probably look like finger paintings compared to the masterpieces pumped out by real professionals. Now that I’m aiming toward the big leagues, I feel quite small and invisible.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a freelance writer. They usually say quizzically “Now, that’s interesting,” thinking ‘freelance’ is just code for ‘unemployed.’ They give me a pitying look, and then quickly change the subject.

In addition to working sans employer, I am also without a house. My boyfriend and I are indeed homeless. We have been looking for a place to pay rent for two months, but unfortunately, no one would like to rent to an unmarried couple who are both below the poverty line and identify as “barista” and “freelance writer.” I suppose “coffee artist” and “journalist” wouldn’t sound a whole lot better.

We are also both looking for second jobs, but on paper, perhaps we look unqualified for the positions we’ve applied for. I may have worked in food service for two years, but I have never waited a table. I may have been writing all my life, but I don’t have “five years minimum experience” in professional journalism

In an attempt to save the little money I have, I applied for food stamps. But, on paper, it appears I am too rich to qualify.

All too often, people make decisions based on what they see on paper. Although my boyfriend and I may be a responsible young couple, in writing we look like two paupers who can’t pay rent—even though, when you do the math, we can.

As far as I can tell, papers often don’t relay the most important information. Officials sit around in board meetings deciding whether or not to protect an ecosystem based on what the Environmental Impact Assessment states. But how many of them walk around the land, discovering its beauty and its worth for themselves? Other officials sit around in other board meetings and try to draft up peace treaties and resolutions for war torn countries based on government documents and statistics. Yet how many of them walk through the battle-worn streets, see the devastation and the starving children for themselves?

And here is the irony of it all.

If on paper, I am poor, homeless, and unemployed, then why do I feel so wealthy? Society tells me that if I am those three things, I should feel sad, dejected and worthless. Instead, I feel so lucky, because, when it comes down to it, pennies and papers are not nearly as valuable as the people in my life.

Although my boyfriend and I are technically homeless, we have not yet had to live on the streets, in our tent, or out of his car. We have been living on the generosity of others. Although right now we are on the edge of financial security, our friends have taken us in, let us stay in their houses, given us food from their gardens. Their generosity toward us is unconditional. Helping friends is just what friends do. They know we’re trying to get on our feet, and until we’re standing on our own, they won’t let us fall.

The kindness people have shown us brings everything into perspective. We never applied for anybody’s friendship. People judged us based on our personalities, not our papers. Although we’re barely making ends meet, we have access to the most important gifts in life: friends, family, our health, nature, music, art and knowledge. We spend our spare time with friends, call family members when we can, enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us, spend what little money we have on healthy food, play and listen to music, create and appreciate art, and read, read, read.

Today I was sitting outside a storefront reading The Sun Magazine (an amazing publication). The sun was bright and the temperature perfect. But, I felt discouraged because I had just looked at two more houses for rent that seemed out of reach after meeting the owners.

However, despite my negative feelings, in a span of about five minutes, three people passed by me and said cheerily, “What a great day to sit out in the sun!” It wasn’t until the third person had made this point that I thought, “Yes. It is a great day to be out in the sun!” Thank goodness I don’t have a job to go to right now! Thank goodness someone had the passion and motivation to publish this brilliant magazine that I have time to read! Hooray for the kindness of strangers and friends! Hooray for the sun! Hooray for the people who appreciate it! Thank goodness we don’t need papers or money to access its warmth and beauty.

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About devon

Devon Fredericksen is a freelance writer who specializes in environmental issues, social justice, and book reviews. Her work has been published in Indian Country Today Media Network, The Sheet, Eastside Magazine, The Planet, The Western Front, and Huxley College's book, Green Fire, a collection of environmental profiles. She holds B.A. degrees in environmental journalism and Spanish from Western Washington University. She currently lives in Bishop, CA.
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