The following entry contains poverty and eating disorders.
The headmistress of my school in 6th grade set up a mandatory extracurricular, the subject matter of which is difficult to define. I remember that were taught the horrors of addictive, recreational drugs…and then how to manage an online stock portfolio. In hindsight, I very much appreciate that she took a genuine interest and care in our knowing what she knew. In one such lesson, she dropped a statistic that I remember well but haven’t checked: At every stoplight in the capital city of India, an average of 30 to 40 beggars tap at the car windows and call for spare change or food. (This was back in 2000.)
If that statistic holds true, then Metro Manila doesn’t have it as bad—not that I’ve stood at the stoplights and taken a proper tally either. When I’ve been the one in the car, I’d say that maybe every fourth stoplight would have three to five beggars approach. Maybe every tenth stoplight, one of those beggars would appear adult (with an infant) or elderly (with an adult assistant, to aid the elderly in begging), but the rest are almost always children. Most times these children say that they’re sad because they haven’t eaten in so-and-so days, sometimes they’re offering to sell handmade garlands of sampaguita flowers, or lanterns (there’s a popular local Christmas song that starts out that way and continues, unironically, with pious holiday cheer…so, child labourers living in desolate poverty have become just another feature of the season), and sometimes they beg those in the car to buy something from them because they haven’t eaten in so-and-so days. I don’t as often find the ones who wipe down the windshield with rags anymore. As my mother wryly observed: Those ones aren’t paid for their windshield-cleaning service, they’re paid to stop trying to be helpful and to go away and bother somebody else.
My country doesn’t have foster care, or safety nets for the unemployed. Disability benefits don’t include mental illness, when I checked, I’d found that the government benefits offered to those with physical disabilities haven’t adjusted for inflation since Marcos the Dictator first signed it in (in the 1970s.) That’s just on paper. I imagine the time and effort to file for those claims might not be worth it, even if a single extra piso made the difference between half a mouthful of bread with precious calories to fuel the next action and not. As a pedestrian, I’ve passed by a woman in tattered clothes, crooning as this baby in her arms reaches out, tiny palm open and up, and practices what’s probably this baby’s first words: “Meron ka’ng barya?” (This translates to: “You got any spare change?”)
At the time, I really didn’t have spare change. I did have the privilege to wonder what it’s like to grow up like that, but I doubt that’s tenderable.
When it had been an emotionally bad day (month…okay, year) I’d blogged that I was in an unenviable position. That wasn’t honest. Because I wrote that in English, on a blog that I can manage because I have the technology and knowledge, with a roof over my head, clothes on my somatypical-presenting body, and access to drinking water and food. I’ve gone to schools that taught me how manage a stock portfolio, because that’s the sort of thing that the adults in my life envisioned my older self would be doing.
I still don’t feel as though any of those were or are mine. I live on a lot of luck, regardless, and I’ve got to admit it. That’s why I could relate a lot to this article, which I’d interpreted to be an excellent articulation of the orthogonal lines that (what I call) Glamour draws between social class and economic class.
The System of modern civilized economy is broken and/or rigged, I’ve understood that much; Still, I haven’t made the best decisions that I could within it. My mother grew to resent supporting her children, especially feeding them, and I’d sensed this and took to starving myself (and suicide attempts—I’d recognized that I was a waste of a life.) The therapies to reverse that condition, physically and mentally, must have cost much more on average than the food I hadn’t eaten, and were a luxury of the middle class to even consider.
Later, much later, after I’d stopped being sad and started getting angry, after my mother passed away from cancer, and after my sister had taken to substance abuse and physically abusing me…I did my best to leave. My sister had full control of the inheritance, a university education, a network of age-peers, and four years seniority that granted her touchpoint status with my mother’s peers. It’s probably a cultural thing, but then again, well… I had a 10th grade education at twenty-two years of age, no friends, no references, no clue, an uncontainably insane wellspring of pain and anger that made me out as someone you really want to bond with (not, it did not), fatigue, issues with attention and memory processes, and increasingly vivid hallucinations. I’d sought refuge with my godmother, who tried to reconcile my abuser and me; then with the estranged extended family, who tried to reconcile my abuser and me.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” my godmother had said, “But, excuse me, remember that I don’t have to take you in.” So, I left and—
“You have all these places to go! I don’t have that!” My sister had sobbed, “You’re turning everyone against me!” (I was not, for the record, because this was not a possible thing to do, but it still stings that she’d continued with—) “People have accomplished so much more than you, with less!”
“You don’t know what it’s like to go hungry,” my uncle stressed, even though he’d known about my eating disorder. Which he must have remembered, because he’d added, “Or maybe you do, but it’s different when you’re really poor.”
I discovered a boarding house that rented cheaply, moved out, and continued writing transcriptions. Unlike articles, blog posts, or fiction my mind at the time could actually accomplish this (and now it still can, along with articles, blog posts, and fictions. I’ve recovered a lot. Not enough. And not without collateral damage. But a lot.) And on the way out of my abuser’s dominion, I had stolen our deceased mother’s secondhand laptop. This was about five or six years ago, and what with technological obsolescence and lacking the funds to upgrade have limited my options with freelance writing and navigating those job sites…but, this laptop still turns on when I press the button, still saves text documents, still lets me edit sound and image files. I should know how to make something of this.
Still, I starved to make rent and utility payments that I still fell behind twice.
And, my uncle had been right: it was different. There’s a lot of fuss about food, and I’m not proposing that calories vitamins minerals lipids essential-acids and textures (yes, textures; try chowing down on a tough stick of barbecue when you’ve got a sore throat, and then maybe imagine that you don’t even have molar teeth because they rotted away because you can’t pay for dental care,) and flavors are unimportant. It’s just that—first, once I couldn’t “cheat” because I was living in poverty, it was dehydration that I suffered the most from. After my middle-class eating disorder, I don’t get hungry anymore: I start to guess that I should have eaten something when I start to feel dizzy. Thirst, on the other hand, razed and swelled the inside of my throat up so it hurt to swallow and it was difficult to breathe, and lowered my blood pressure so I was always seeing colors if I tried to stand and walk. I could survive more days without food than I’d given myself credit for. Without water to drink? Less time—I say, vaguely, because I didn’t try to test this.
Second, unlike with the life of luxury I left, I didn’t want to test this. I still didn’t want to be a bother—I hate that between my sister and Cecilia are a string of people who my plight moved to invite me into their homes and I have failed so many people so many times—I don’t want to be as stuck as I am on their lack of hospitality that I can’t speak the thanks for sheltering me as long as they did and own where I fucked up (but I am, and I can’t, and I don’t), I didn’t want my eighteen-year-old cousin sleeping in the same bed as both her parents because they gave me her bed and all I did in it was lay in it and cry, I didn’t want my godmother to have had to ask my sister to give me an allowance from her inheritance and them both tsking as I fail to pull my bootstraps up—but, away from all that, alone with the memories of all that, somehow, that’s when I felt sure that I didn’t want to die.
The best meal in my life that I can remember was from this time. I didn’t have a kitchen, or anything to cook with. Gentrification hadn’t taken the neighborhood so I’d walked the street and cobbled a meal together from here and there. One cup of white rice from a canteen. Three large, griddle-roasted pig’s ears on a stick, from the unbranded barbecue set on the corner (manned by one lady with a tray stacked with pig’s ears, chicken intestines, cubes of coagulated blood, and—oh, but fifteen more pesos on that and I wouldn’t be able to afford a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast the next morning, and the evening after that I expected the bank transfer from my freelance writing online to come through, never mind, I’ll stick with the pig’s ears—barbecue). And, one “snack pack” sachet of beans in tomato sauce, from a mom-and-pop general store that was about the size of a closet. I went back to my room, put it all together. It was tasty. The rice was adequate—not burnt or stale or the cardboard-y quality that usually goes to farm animals (but people who run a small business like a canteen sneak it to people, to cut costs, not that I blame them). The ears were crisp and brushed with the most perfectly balanced barbecue sauce I’d ever tasted, and the tomato beans rounded it all off.
It had more than that.
Folklore warns against eating fairy food. If a bowl of milk went as an offering to the fairies, then they’ve taken the essence—what I call Wildeval, a conceptual point or object in the process that is Glamour—and eating it will leave a person insatiably hungry. If you wander into Fairyland and get curious about the canapes at some party over there, be warned that by eating it you’ll belong to them forever. That’s a clue as to how Wildeval works, too.
But, I realized, everyone does something to the Glamour societal (not only the Glamour mystical, the fairy’s magics—or maybe it’s the same.) This was the first meal I can remember that didn’t taste of resentment and obligation. This, I believe, was food that managed to keep its Wildeval. Or do I imagine it was there?
I imagine that my uncle would refuse to take this the way I meant, that starvation from poverty is in any way better than some vain, neurotic, attempt at emotional blackmail via two-year tantrum over nothing, and that’s all. Though he’d never said this, it’s his voice most of all that echoes in my mind, sarcastically: Go ahead, fine, live like that. Torn shoes, tattered shirts, and a bowl of pig’s ears to eat every three days. You’re happy like that, without family, without support, without a future? Be happy while you’re crazy, then! Be happy while you’re sick in the head, be happy while you’re poor—It all only proves that you deserve it. You’re right where you belong. You’re a waste of love and life, and too spoiled from your childhood to ever wake up to such an obvious fact.
I just do, I can’t help it.
…Now where can I put this contrarian energy?
I’ve added a fourth part to this fanfiction trilogy, Songs of the Sunset (previously Spectrum) for the Otherfaith, and noticed that the Wastes are a landscape that I find my imagination drawn to. Not necessarily one that I’m confident in having the mindset to understand, though. This despite my living in a third world country and this year’s monsoon season started strong. The Wastes are the part of the Otherfaith otherworld associated with the Ophelia. As the Ophelia is a god of cleansing, the Wastes are hers, full of what gets cleansed: the waste products of civilization. In my experience, this definitely includes people.
I try to write more as a way to figure the place out.
As a possible metaphor for how the Calvinist linage of philosophy survives Stateside as detailed in Alley Valkyrie’s article linked above (or, hey, I think it’s well worth linking again), and an exploration as to how that interacts with the presumption of absolute personal sovereignty?
Lyra had little patience for it. “This place gives me the heebies,” she blurted to her two companions. “It was just like this before the war, so there’s no excuse. This is THE WEST. If they live like this, it’s ’cause they WANT to.”
I’m certainly not the best writer of regional accents that I’ve never heard live. (I’d originally planned for Lyra to have a bonding moment with Lilibell about something something abandoning daughters, but my headcanon Lyra just sort of went, “Daughter? What daughter? I don’t have a daughter.”)
Irene holstered her own gun and pointed at where Sham lay. Their mission was technically accomplished. The princess reached into her back pocket for a plastic card, which she offered to Lyra. It glinted with holograms.
“If you’re paying me,” Lyra cautioned, “You’re not supposed to give me this whole thing.”
Irene looked mildly confused for a moment, shrugged in the next, and nudge-fanned the air until the hunter accepted.
I like the idea that Irene’s an old world fairy, from where the gold disappears at dawn. My headcanon of her understands that gold can be exchanged for goods and services, but misunderstands the value of it as residing in the shiny and the pretty. Not for the way a currency represents time, effort, agency, dignity, innate worth, communal consideration of worth, and luck or lack thereof in life circumstance. She may (or may not) benefit from holding the title of Princess in a world where not everybody does, but I’d argue that as far as economic classism goes, she’s innocent.
Irene hadn’t known enough of the language to ask why the West wouldn’t send supplies, and stop the spirits from becoming ghosts, or even spare them the unnecessary suffering.
Too innocent. The answer to this might have simply been that noblesse oblige is more complicated than that. Listening to the beneficiaries is the easy way. There are harder ways to learn what poverty is like, and then what to do to help.