I'm Grateful for Nothing

Nothing gave me a lot of Somethings. It gave me a deeper compassion for the human struggle. I understand poverty from the ground floor.
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This is where I used to live.


And this is the abandoned building in front of it, that used to be a squatting ground.


Last week, I pulled up to this building and took my sons out of the car. After another long morning of whining about all that I don't let them have, I wanted them to understand. I needed them to see. They are so incredibly fortunate, and part of that began here with me.

This was my home.

A bug- and rat-infested two-bedroom tin can with an open sewage line out back. As soon as you opened the aluminum-foil-covered front door with the busted lock, you could literally walk straight into the bathroom. If you turned your head left, that was my mother's bedroom. Turning right, you'd walk down a little narrow hallway. Just before it ended, on the left was the closet-sized room that I shared with my two sisters. We slept crammed together on a small twin bed. Sometimes one of us opted to sleep on the floor, but then there was a higher risk of something crawling on you, so we mostly stuck together. There was a tiny window that we didn't dare open, as the sewage line was directly below. The coolest part of the room were the two built-in armoire closets. Clothes would have to be shaken off each time, however, to get rid of the rat feces. At the end of the hallway, it opened to a small living room, and past that was a kitchen/dining room combo.

The cabinets and fridge were often bare. My older sister and I took turns missing school to care for our little sister when we couldn't afford daycare. My first stepfather had (thankfully) disappeared, taking most of our belongings with him, but leaving his debt. My mother worked tirelessly to try to support us, but often it simply wasn't enough.

My boys don't know what it's like to live without electricity. They think candles are only used to make a room smell pretty. They don't know what it's like to live without water. To knock on a neighbor's door with a couple of empty jugs and beg for water from their hose so that you can flush the toilet and wash a few dishes. They have never emptied a few jugs of cold water into the bathtub and played rock, paper, scissors to determine who got to clean themselves first. They have never accepted food donation boxes from church. They don't know what it's like to wear the same outfit all week, because a washer and dryer are a luxury.

They have never felt shame under the pitiful watch of the secretary at the town hall summer lunch program, when you're the first one there every day because it's all you look forward to.


This is what I think about, especially in November as my Facebook feed is barraged with posts about what everyone is grateful for.

I am grateful for nothing.

Nothing gave me a lot of Somethings. It gave me a deeper compassion for the human struggle. I understand poverty from the ground floor. It pains me to hear news anchors and others around me weigh in on the "types of people" that live in poverty. They speak with a judgmental air, detached from the burden of it because they've never experienced it firsthand. I wish it on no one. I wish it on everyone. Because when you are forced to live that way, you soon realize that many of those people you judge are merely lost in an unfortunate set of circumstances, trying to claw their way back out.

Having nothing made each accomplishment all the sweeter. It gave me perspective when I was faced with challenges. It kept me humble, even at my best. I worked hard; I fought for myself. Nothing slowly gave way to Everything.

Up until that day, I had never spoken so candidly with my boys about my past. I wanted to shelter them, I suppose. Keep their innocence a bit longer. I realize now that I was doing them a disservice. Our children need to know there is suffering in the world. They need to understand the privilege of running water, indoor plumbing, electricity. So many are living without the things that most of us would consider necessities. And they don't have assistance programs, like the one my town had, to feed them.

We don't have to share all hardships with our kids. We don't need to burden them with that. But we do need to teach them how to want less, how to be grateful. Part One is sharing; Part Two is showing them how to give back.

I think they understand now.

After several quiet minutes spent taking it all in, my youngest son walked back to the car. My oldest stood solemnly next to me. Finally, the trance broke. As we drove away from my old house, he said, "I'm sorry you lived there, Mama. That place is sad." I met his eyes in the rearview mirror and said, "Don't be sorry, baby. I'm glad I did. It all led up to you."

And for that, I will always be grateful.

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