I’ve lived most of my married life in low-income or affordable housing (almost nine years now). I’m known for waxing poetic about the great things about life in the upside-down kingdom, about the benefits of downward mobility. But here, on my first full day of living in my brand-new-to-me house, a house that I bought and that I own, I have been thinking a lot about all the apartments in my past. I’m 32, married, with two kids, I cook and clean and wrestle strong-willed small people all day long. I go to parent meetings at the local elementary school, I shop at the discount liquidator grocery stores, I try and exercise every now and again. Tonight I stared into space as my baby splashed in the bath, tired after a long couple of days of moving and unpacking and painting. Our new bathtub is nice—new fixtures, a shower head that actually has water pressure. As my baby happily babbled to himself I thought of a movie and a scene that had struck me. My husband and I watched the film Short Term 12 a few years ago and in it there is a scene where the protagonist takes a bath. Lining the bathtub was a strip of mold, dark gray/green. When I saw that scene, I gasped. I too, like taking bubble baths from time to time. It is the introverts haven—also, no electronics are allowed. But for the past nine years I have lived in places with disgusting bathtubs—cigarette burns and yellow stains, mold lining the sides no matter how hard you scrub with bleach. And still, desperate for some peace and to get away from my crazy life, I would light candles and pour in the soap and maybe carefully break a bath bomb from Lush into four pieces and use one section, saving the rest for a later date. I would grit my teeth and take a bath and try and forget everything around me. So what did it mean to me to see that girl in the film take a bath in an old, grungy tub? What did it mean for me to see it and identify with her, and realize that she was poor, in that this is what luxury she was afforded? I suddenly know: this is what she lived with, and she did the best with it that she could.
That’s what I tried to do, too.
Here are some things I did not like about living in low-income apartments:
Mold (in the bathtubs, windowsills, creeping up the walls when the upstairs neighbors overflowed their toilet).
Ants (one time we had anthills literally explode out of our carpet)
Not having screens on our doors/windows
Listening to people scream at each other
Listening to people drink themselves to death.
Listening to our upstairs neighbor pass out over and over again, crashing like a ton of bricks onto the floor. Listening as he fell out his window and broke his arm.
Outlets that never worked, or that cords would just fall out of.
Doors that were warped and didn’t close properly.
Door with holes in them, doors that previous renters had punched in their anger.
Carpets that smelled likes years of cigarettes and grease.
Entryways littered with cigarette butts.
Entryways with shattered bullet proof glass.
Trash in the shrubbery, always.
The fire alarm for the entire building being tripped constantly, usually after one of my children was already asleep and in bed, forcing me to wake them up and take them outside in the cold/dark, wondering if there was really a fire this time or if it was another case of too many sticks on incense.
Stoves that were temperamental, burners that were stuck on high, ovens that were lopsided.
No counter space.
Loud neighbors, even when they are cute toddlers or people celebrating their glorious holidays in their own culturally appropriate ways.
So many other things, most of which are not appropriate to write in a public blog.
Here are some things I do miss about living in low-income apartment complexes:
The people. The glorious, chaotic, amazing, troubling, people. Oh my Lord they broke my heart in so many ways, Oh my Lord they healed me of things I didn’t even know I needed fixing.
My neighbor told me she will no longer open her window anymore, since both I and our dear friend both moved out in the space of a few days. Before, I could not sit in a chair on my porch without one of these two women calling out to me, usually asking me to come over and visit. Not once, not once, did I sit in a chair and drink a cup of coffee and contemplate anything. There were too many people I knew, too many others living life in this communal space. This neighbor, she looks at me very gravely. I have shown her my new house as we walk back and forth to school, and I tell her that she will visit. She says she will, but I don’t know if she will. I tried to give her a few things as we moved, but she waved me away. She didn’t want anything. All she wants to do is sit in the sun by herself and think for awhile. She might be moving soon, herself. A refugee, she is used to instability, used to saying goodbye.
I know the right words to say: we bought this house to invest in this neighborhood. And it’s true, as true as I can make a statement be. But the layers of meaning—that we were able to get a loan, for instance, or that my husband earns enough to pay the mortgage, that we don’t have to send every extra penny we make to family members across the globe or in our own city, that we have the freedom to think of ourselves—it all adds up to something more complicated. I am happy for my children to have their own bedrooms, to decorate them in cute ways, I am happy for a backyard for my active little boy and the hardwood floors that thrill my heart.
I know I only moved around the corner, that I will see my friends at the school and at the grocery store and at English class, but I am still so afraid. I am afraid of what this all means, owning my first home and how I know the cares of life grow sweetly around us until all of the sudden they have choked the good news until we cannot recognize it. Because the thing is the good news for me has always been made real in people, in the poor and the sick and the sad. In the midst of mold and cockroaches and loud noises. And so I am afraid of distance and safety and comfort and pleasure and I am scared of how to be me in this unequal and unjust world.
Jesus, I have stopped asking you to make it easier. Now, I just feel comfort knowing that you lived your life with an eye to the inequalities too. Is that what makes our hearts and homes such fertile ground for your kingdom to grow? I don't know. All I know is my place right now just happens to look like a beautiful little house in the middle of a neighborhood full of the struggling. A place where I look at my gorgeous baby in that white tub, feel grateful for all that I have been given, and still burst into tears at the thought of all the sorrows that surround us.