It wasn’t unusual for respondents to disappear into seeming thin air. You’d check the jail and prison records, search for social media accounts, call any number you could get your hands on, knock on the door at any related address. A different respondent had disconnected phone numbers and when I went to her address a toothless young woman sat in the window, looking out at the day. She spoke with me through her perch in the open front window, explaining that the respondent was her cousin, but that she had no way to reach her. An elderly woman moved around inside the living room, disengaged from our exchange. I sensed the cousin had information she wasn’t giving up, which meant I would have to come by the address a second time. Two weeks later I returned, finding the house abandoned. Peering through the front window I could see that every stick of furniture, every possession, had been removed, leaving the place bare. It was an odd sensation, and I wondered if perhaps the “cousin” had been the respondent. No way to find out now. The respondent’s file went to the back of the stack, right on top of Jane Doe. Continue reading
We were at the end of the line, the final week of the field period where everyone had to take a hard run at their remaining cases, working every angle, every lead to get in touch with the respondents whose trails had gone cold. Sometimes you were still running down leads, feeling like you were one call away from getting the respondent on the phone, or that you finally had the address where you might find them at home during a drive-by. But there were always a token two or three with whom you’d had zero contact, dead ends every which way, no response, no known associates, no clue. Jane Doe (name has obviously been changed, along with identifying details) had become my white whale of the project. By the end I found myself obsessing about finding her, in a way I didn’t with the other missing respondents. Who was she? What did she look like? What was her story? I knew from her file that she was in her early thirties and that her kid(s) had been removed from her home. But as to her whereabouts? That was anyone’s guess, and my responsibility. Continue reading
You’re supposed to choose the former above the latter. Chris Guillebeau, an author and entrepreneur I admire refers to this concept throughout his guides to living freely. I’ve read his stuff and felt so on board with his ideas of finding our passions and making them our life’s work, about freeing ourselves from convention and seeking life on our terms, about taking bold, radical action, about using our talents to help others as an essential vein that runs through all messages. But I stumble when he gets into choosing abundance. Oh, that doesn’t apply to me, I think. Yeah, like it’s that easy, I think. Well, maybe I can just work the other stuff and ignore that section, I decide. Because at some point along the way I began living a life of scarcity and then it became my life. What started as a superstition, a reaction to crisis became my plain reality. It was, scarcity, because abundance may never come, and then at least you know how to live with less.
Was that right? Don’t get me wrong, when I started to live lean it served an important purpose. It helped me feel less bad about myself and my circumstances. If I didn’t want or need as much, it didn’t crush as hard when I didn’t get as much. Much of what? Luck. Opportunity. True friendship. Joy. The material. Love, even. It was just, I’ve narrowed it down to the basics, with the occasional modest luxury. Frugality began to feel like an art form, it was so creatively used. Needless/wantless. A lean startup of a person, if you’ll forgive the tech industry metaphor.
It wasn’t right. It stopped working. It started to look self-imposed at best, self-righteous at worst. Someone accused me of being sanctimonious. He was wrong, of course, but it was an interesting idea. Had I become so scarce I appeared to be looking down from some great height? Yes, I felt removed, but living on the periphery is comfortable, now that I’ve learned to accept it. The lone wolf side of my lone wolf extrovert personality/lifestyle deals in scarcity. There’s a deep streak of fierce independence that thrives on austerity. But does it have to exist across all aspects?
I used to expect so little of the people around me that small courtesies felt like large kindnesses. If we’re being honest, I’m still struggling with this. Only now I’ve rebranded it as gratitude: seeing immense wonder in the miniature. But during times of famine, it looks like a woman running into a pack of ex-friends at a nightclub and panicking, knowing she’s alone to deal with it, even though a new friend is by her side. The friend walked with me to a corner of the bar, not visible to the line outside which contained six cold, hostile people with axes to grind. By then I’d been not drinking for close to two years, and this crew had been there for the black-outs, been on the receiving end of and borne witness to my bad and reckless behavior. They hated me. And I hated them for ditching me as soon as I quit drinking. The timing was miserable, as we were there for a burlesque performance in a medium-sized venue with one restroom. We were all going to have to work not to run into each other. The friend ordered us a couple of drinks and I engaged in my silent freak-out. The friend looked me over, sensed it and said, hey, I think it’s going to be OK. In that moment my stress dissolved, her beautiful words washing over me. It was the nicest thing someone had said to me in recent memory, and I was grateful for her deep caring. I told her so. That is the kindest thing anyone’s said to me.
That’s not good, she replied. I remember her sitting back and looking at my questioningly, perplexed. At the time I didn’t understand why she couldn’t accept my thanks, take in my appreciation for her character.
Scarcity. I get it now. Telling someone you think they’ll be OK is kind, sure. But is it a great, large-scale act? In times of scarcity, yes. What I realized is that abundance is being in the life where those words are just a starting point. Where you’re willing to accept an arm around your shoulder, shielding you from the exes. Where you allow yourself to be comforted and protected. I wasn’t there. My friend couldn’t give me more than that because I displayed an inability to accept it. I had no place to put it.
I’m thinking about scarcity first, and how exactly it’s affecting my life. It’s not that I’m cleaning out my existential closet. You can be assured it’s been bare for a long period of time. It’s more that I’m seeking to understand the payoff of living that way, so I can change it.
An acquaintance casually told me this the other day during a conversation about her life, as though it was a self-evident, universal truth. In fact, the sentiment may have blown out the back of my head, that’s how revolutionary, novel and resonant it sounded to me. Talk about the right words at the right time. I’d been dealing with some unwanted change and conflict in my relationships (which are, as an extreme extrovert, the center of my world) that were causing me some major emotional upheaval. If you know me outside this blog, you understand how rather emotionless and flat I tend to be day to day. We joke about it, even. So being inside an intense emotional storm is uncharted territory for me, and I was struggling. I consider myself a woman of action, full-bore, straight-ahead, take no prisoners, let’s fucking DO this. This way of being has mostly rescued me and moved me toward a good life. But right now it wasn’t working. Continue reading
I’ve spent some time in these, haven’t you? And it’s nothing like Orange is the New Black, wouldn’t you agree? There’s so much less witty banter and gut-wrenching excitement. Mine were more about living under a system of strict self-imposed rules that governed every aspect of my behavior. That whole desperate to fit in thing I struggled with for (honestly) decades was either a cause or effect of that particular prison. I think the rules kept me from reacting authentically, and made me impossible to know, rendering me uninteresting as a potential friend. Do you ever do that thing of replaying the day’s conversations in you mind and taking a fine-toothed comb to everything you said, checking for lice? Not one (perceived) wrong word escapes your notice. And they were all wrong. A self-made prison where every utterance rings off the walls until your head is filled with static, a total confusion about how to react. Free yourself!
And see, that’s the best part of this special prison system, where you’ve created the structure. You’re free to dismantle it and liberate yourself at any time. Who knew?
I’m not sure I knew. It’s especially hard to see that fact when you’ve externalized yourself. It’s that inside out person thing. I’ve for sure lived extended periods of time where I’ve obsessed so much about what my experience looks like from the outside I’ve stopped living it from the inside.
I’ve had friends tell me about becoming so internally embedded they took in no information from the external. Locked away with no word from the outside. Can’t see much in that state.
Let’s not make either a life sentence, shall we? I just discovered I’d been living out what I think will turn out to be a nine year term. I’d confined myself to a small, comfortable space, which wasn’t so bad. It was kind of a white-collar resort prison, better than some of the lock-ups I’d seen before. I had the essentials, I was fine. Until I wasn’t.
It’s too easy and tempting to set up these ultimately claustrophobic and stifling places. Some of us take it further and create a torturous dungeon, and not in an exciting sexual way. I did it because I need a certain level of structure. Yeah, I know I’m all “fuck authority!” but someone has to keep my outrageous impulses down, and I’m the only one from whom I can accept direction. Sometimes I’ve clamped down too hard and created a prison. Sigh.
I really want to be better about this. I want to be able to spot when I’ve begun building the cell, before I put too much energy into it and have to live in it in order to meet the cost-benefit analysis. Wait, that makes no sense. Neither does constructing a prison and throwing the book at yourself. For me, this is going to begin with a decision to pay less attention to my environment, and more to my perception of it. That will mean I’m living in the world, rather than taking a deep dive into the details from which its constructed.
I didn’t even realize I’d done it until I looked around and saw that I had. I’m superstitious and fear disappointment just as much as the next person. I believe in Murphy’s Law, and that the universe is random and chaotic, and have a Midwesterner’s tendency to downplay good fortune. I do this to avoid inviting bad luck. I don’t count the eggs even after they hatch and have been sold at a profit. I try to be prepared for the worst, because doing so ensures a fairly well-prepared today. I have built a life on avoiding discomfort by attempting to maintain balance. I try to look out for myself and make healthy choices. The view I have of my life is a precious, hard-earned stability to be cherished. It wasn’t until very recently that I was forced to peer below the surface where I confronted a glaring truth: I had worked so hard to manage expectations for myself and my life, that I’m not striving for anything more than stability. Continue reading
Continued from Tuesday…
But what were the options in that moment? I couldn’t very well snatch the offer of fifty bucks away, I’m sorry, but I can tell you’re not into this even though you said yes, and in order to preserve your dignity I’m going to make your choices for you? Run out and hope she’d go permanently under the radar so QC could never reach her? I struck a deal with myself, do the interview but pay close attention for signs of discomfort and remind, in such a situation, of the respondent’s ability to skip questions or stop the interview at any time. It never felt like a convenient time to tell the respondent that if they answered fewer than sixty percent of the questions they didn’t get the cash. That wasn’t exactly in the consent form, but that was the expectation.
I dove in, starting at the beginning, questions I knew almost by heart at this point, what services have you been offered by DSHS? What services are you utilizing? And on into questions about ages and special needs of children in the home? What about the children not in the home? What disorders did they have?
She sat on the bed, fixing me with an intent stare that communicated in no uncertain terms, “I resent you for taking me through this.” Continue reading
By mid-field period I had called her about a dozen times, sometimes getting the pre-recorded message that “the subscriber you have dialed is not available” (a euphemism for “the subscriber hasn’t paid their bill”), sometimes getting a voicemail with that pleasant robotic woman reading out the ten-digit number, the pinnacle of cellular anonymity. There was no way of knowing whether or not the number was still good, and the respondent had long since left the address we were provided by DSHS. (We were to find out at the bitter end of the field period that someone at DSHS had screwed up royally, providing our Director with respondent contact information three months old, and in some cases older. With a transient population, as parents with active CPS cases tend to be, contact information changes often. Three months may as well have been three years. We had been behind the eightball the entire study, and while we’d sensed it, running down lead after lead, coming up empty handed, we’d accepted it as part of studying this population, never assuming DSHS wouldn’t possess updated, verified contact information for its own clients. In retrospect, of course we should have assumed the worst of this big, clunky, broken government machine. You’ve seen the headlines. Shit is always fucked up with CPS.) Continue reading