A letter to Sen. Andy Gardiner

Dear Sen. Gardiner,

I am writing to ask…no. I am writing to demand that you support Sen. Dwight Bullard and Sen. Darren Soto in their efforts to raise Florida’s minimum wage to a survival wage of $15 an hour by 2017. We need a $15 an hour minimum wage for our state. We need that wage tied to inflation. We also need that wage tied to housing costs. And we need it now.

The United Way of Florida recently released their Study of Financial Hardship for the state. Instead of using the outdated 1970’s formula to assess the financial state of Florida families, they used a more accurate method. The poverty of today is not the same as the poverty of the 1970’s. In the 1970’s things were still growing at a reasonably fair pace. Now, however, we have prices rising, and wages stagnating. Between 2007 and 2013, housing costs in the state rose nearly 8%; wages only grew 3%.

Yes, our state is raising wages. Yes we have a minimum wage that is above the national requirement. No, that isn’t helping. It’s too little too late. You waited too long. Instead of just fixing a small leak, now you have to replace the entire roof…and probably most of the carpet as well.

45% of Floridians are working low wage jobs. Jobs that don’t even fully provide our most basic needs. The majority of these jobs fuel our roughly $70 billion dollar tourist industries. To be more precise, 61% of Florida jobs fuel tourism. Yet we lose $39.5 billion to subsidize businesses that refuse to pay a living wage. This doesn’t seem like a sound financial decision.

This also means that we can’t just get better jobs because they don’t exist in Florida. They can’t. Most jobs in Florida are industries that cater to tourists and tourism. According to the most recent labor statistics, restaurants and retail stores make up 37.5% of the jobs in Brevard County. They are also the lowest paying jobs in Brevard County. Those fields are projecting double digit growth in the next year. We can’t get “better” jobs when these are the only jobs that exist.

Honestly, we shouldn’t be forced to either. You may not believe it, but most of us in low wage industries actually like the work we do. I hear people saying “That job isn’t meant to be a career.” Well why not? If it is something that I enjoy doing, why can’t I make it my career? Why shouldn’t I make it my career? Who decided that pride in my job should be limited to only a certain set of occupations? Why is it a bad thing that I enjoy a job and have learned to do that job well?

I hear “It’ll kill small business.” And honestly, I don’t care. If the only way your business can succeed is for my family to starve, then you can’t afford to be in business in the first place. Jobs are supposed to keep people off of taxpayer funded safety net programs. These programs are not for companies who take advantage of them in order to avoid paying their own employees.

This should be the same for any business. If a company makes billions in profits, there is no reason for taxpayers to fund their payroll expenses for them. Shouldn’t personal responsibility also extend to businesses using someone else’s money to pay their employees?

As a poor person, every single purchase I make is under constant scrutiny. We can’t own cell phones, get our hair styled, or buy clothes. That purse better be from the dollar store. Our cars better not be too shiny or too new because that would mean we are wasting money. We better be living in the ghetto too, otherwise we are trying to live above our means. We better not have internet or cable TV either. We can’t have a beer. We can’t eat sugar or meat. We better not buy a candy bar. And heaven forbid we buy our kid a cute birthday cake with food stamps! Literally every single thing we do in the run of a day, every single purchase we make, is under a microscope.

Why are we the only ones who get treated this way? Society says I’m a moocher and a freeloader if I have a charity pay my light bill so that I can buy my kids something for Christmas. Yet we consider it perfectly acceptable for a billion dollar company to pass their payroll off to someone else so that their CEO can make millions each year. Why am I the only one in this equation that is considered to be doing something wrong? Why do we question the motives of those who receive benefits, and not the motives of those keeping us on them?

I hear “It’ll increase prices.” That’s easily avoidable, just tie wages to inflation; especially housing. Plus, prices have already gone up. The overall cost of living in Florida has gone up 13%, and still climbing. Wages haven’t matched that growth. This is why it costs Florida taxpayers 39.5 billion in government, charity, and medical care to fund the existence of employers like Walmart and McDonalds. Which means these companies aren’t helping our local economy, they are hurting it.

I hear “The job’s not worth it.” Which is an absolute falsehood. Florida is a tourist based economy. In Florida, not only are these jobs worth it, but they are invaluable. Last year we saw a record breaking 97.3 million visitors. Service, hospitality, and retail sales jobs are more important to Florida than to any other state economy. These jobs drive our economy. Without these jobs, there would be no economy. It is unconscionable for anyone to tell a Florida service, hospitality, or retail sales worker that their job is not worth it.

If you truly believe that these jobs aren’t worth a living wage, then we can always stop doing them.

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Hi I’m Harmony and I’m a Racist

For a long time I thought I wasn’t a racist. I’d get immediately defensive as soon as my own racism was pointed out. “I have black nieces and nephews, I can’t be racist.” Or “I have black friends” Or “I grew up in the ghetto, I’m not racist” Or “I voted for Obama”

I thought I wasn’t racist because I didn’t automatically dislike black people. Because I honestly feel and believe that everyone in this society has a right to be treated equally and given equal chances and opportunities. I thought that was enough. Like everyone else around me, I felt like we no longer needed to talk about race because we had defeated racism.

I had a picture of racism and I didn’t fit it and neither did anyone else I know.

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These things are over and we now understand that they weren’t right. So that means we are no longer a racist society? Right?

Except, no.

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White middle class is the default. All others must assimilate into the white middle class to be considered normal. If you do not fit into this identity then you are not normal. If you are not normal, you should at least try to be as close to normal as possible. This is Racism.

I’m white. When people look at me they see white first and foremost. I have no idea what it is like to live and exist in anything other than white skin. I have no understanding of what it’s like to be black in our society.

But I do know what it’s like not to be the default. I know what it’s like to never feel welcome in my own society. I know what it’s like to always feel like an outsider. I know what it’s like to feel not normal compared to everyone else. I know what it’s like to have every opinion about me be based, first and foremost, on my non-default appearance. And I know what it’s like to feel like I have to change everything about myself in order to just barely be accepted. I know what it’s like to feel forced to assimilate against my will. This is how racism works.

Racism is like that one relative that you hate being around because they keep making remarks about you. They say things like, “Where are you going to get a job with purple hair?” or “Why do you always have to wear black?” or “Do you ever wear a bra?” Questions and comments designed to force you into conforming to the default against your will.

Racism is being forced into a default that you don’t want to, or can’t, conform to.

Racism is not seeing how we were built by a racist system where white is the default. The default white has been so normalized that we no longer even notice. So when it’s pointed out to us we can’t see it. Since we are used to the default, we don’t see ourselves as racists. Then we get defensive because we think calling out racism is a form of name-calling.

“But everyone has to change to conform to society. That’s how it works!” Only they don’t. We accept that this is the way things are supposed to be because we have accepted the white default as normal.

We don’t need to talk about slavery because that’s in the past…But let’s wave the same flag the KKK waves because it’s part of our history. And if you don’t like it, just change to the default and it will be fine. We don’t realize that flag is just like that one pissy aunt who always has to remind you that you don’t belong, and will never belong no matter how hard you try.

We don’t notice that every suggestion we have for black people, or brown people, or yellow people, or red people involves changing themselves to fit the white default. Change their clothes. Change their hair. Change their manner of speech. Change the words they use. Change their religion. Change the music that they make/listen to. Change how they listen to music. Change what they drive. Change what they watch. Change the way they act. Change the way they prioritize purchases. Change. Change. Change.

Our laws are designed to force everyone into the default. Our social structure is designed to push everyone into the default. Our schools teach conformity to the default. We refuse to accept or even acknowledge anything that is outside of the white default. The white default has become so normalized that we don’t even recognize that there is a white default.

We are racist because we were built that way. We can’t see it because we are used to it. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet. A fish knows that it exists in it’s environment, but does not understand that his environment is a wet environment. This is the racism that I’m talking about. It’s an entire system structured around a white default that punishes anyone who does not want to force themselves into that default.

We are racist because we have no idea how NOT to be racist. Trying to explain to the white default that they are racist is like trying to explain individualism to a Borg.

Resistance is Futile

Resistance is Futile

The first step towards fixing something is realizing that there is a problem in the first place. We are a racist because we have no idea how else to be. We are a racist because we have never been shown how to think outside of the white default. We stay racist because we continue to uphold the white default as the only possible normal. We stay racist because we choose not to listen when someone points out the white default.

Until  we, the white default, learn to listen without thinking in terms of the normalized white default things will never change.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

So I admit it. I was built by a system that glorifies a white default as the only option for normal within my society. I was built by a system that actively marginalizes or punishes anything that does not fit into the white default. I was built by a system that has taught me to be uncomfortable with anything that is not the normalized white default.

And if we all stopped being offended, and started being honest with ourselves instead, you’d realize that you had no choice in the matter. You were built to be a racist too.

I am a racist because I was built that way.

And so were you.

Let’s finally admit it so that we can finally fix it.

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I am Racist and (If You’re White) You Probably Are, Too

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I am a white man.

I am racist.

But that’s kind of redundant.

It’s like saying, “I am a fish, and I am soaking wet.

In some ways, I can’t help it. I don’t even notice it. I live my life immersed in a world of white privilege that most of the time I frankly can’t even see.

That doesn’t excuse me. It doesn’t mean I should just shrug and say, “What are you gonna’ do?”

But it does mean that the first step in removing that racism – in undoing the systematic subjugation of people of color – is recognizing my own culpability in that system.

It’s like being an alcoholic. The first step is admitting the truth.

I know I’ve pissed off a lot of people with what I’ve just written. This article isn’t about gaining new friends. But I’m sure I’ll have a lot…

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You should go on strike

Throughout history employers have never voluntarily paid their workers. If left to their own devices employers will pay as little as they can get away with out of their own pockets. This was evident in the prevalence of the slave trade, indentured servitude, and share cropping; just to name a few types of employer swindles. Its evidenced in the fact that a minimum wage ever had to be instated.

The new model has the illusion of choice through the idea of “Right to Work”, which is really just a way to protect employers from employees who would take action against their practices. It’s basically the workplace equivalent of “If you don’t like it you can get out!”

You have the illusion of choice in that you can always go somewhere else and work if you don’t like something about your current job. Only the reality is that you can’t because you don’t have a choice, only the illusion.

You can’t really just go work somewhere else because you can’t go without pay for the time it will take to start another job. And of course, since everyone pretty much pays the same, changing jobs doesn’t help anyway since it’s just going to be the same no matter where you go.

This is why people strike. Historically, mass labor stoppage has been the only thing that employers listen to. Employers are so scared of strikes, and other forms of work stoppage, that they are willing to kill to try and keep them from happening.

In Ludlow Colorado in 1914, John D. Rockefeller caused 11 children to be burned alive by his troops for the high crime of asking for fair treatment, decent wages, and reasonable hours.

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In 1892 in Homestead Pennsylvania Andrew Carnegie had 9 men killed and 11 more wounded by his troops for the same.

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On Blair Mountain in West Virginia employers went as far as to drop bombs on their employees. Meanwhile, sporadic gun battles cost the lives of between 50-100 employees. Blair Mountain was actually only a piece of a much larger conflict between miners and employees throughout the country that raged for nearly a decade.

Officers of District 17, UMW, say the bomb shown here was dropped from a plane which flew over their camps, coming from the direction of Logan. It was picked up by the miners during the march on Logan. The bomb is now on display at the offices of District 17 on Summers Street, Charleston. Charleston Gazette, 11 December 1921. mw24.jpg

Officers of District 17, UMW, say the bomb shown here was dropped from a plane which flew over their camps, coming from the direction of Logan. It was picked up by the miners during the march on Logan. The bomb is now on display at the offices of District 17 on Summers Street, Charleston. Charleston Gazette, 11 December 1921. mw24.jpg

In 1911 in Manhattan the Triangle Waist Company condemned 146 employees, many of them young women less than 25 years old, and some as young as 14, to be burned alive in the name of protecting their profits.

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And don’t be fooled into thinking that all of this stuff is in the past and won’t happen today.

The Upper Big Branch mine explosion of 2010 was directly caused by employers putting profits before the people making them those profits; resulting in the loss of 29 lives.

Upper Big Branch Mine explosion victims memorial

Upper Big Branch Mine explosion victims memorial

And this isn’t just happening to workers in professions like mining either. This is how McDonald’s workers were met when they protested the 2014 shareholder’s meeting, by cops in riot gear.

Fast Food Workers Protest For Increased Wages Ahead Of McDonald's Annual Shareholder Meeting

This is what happened in Seattle in May 2014 during peaceful wage protests.

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Employers would rather kill their own workers instead of paying them.

How sick is that?

Organized work stoppages are the only way to prove to your employer that you are the reason they have profits to withhold in the first place.

So really, you should probably go on strike.

Coming soon, Part 2 What Are Your Demands?

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A Flag of Blood and Lies

Those who know me know that I could not give two poops about the American flag. I’ve never been able to manifest that knee-jerk reaction to desecrating or doing anything at all to the American flag. It’s an empty symbol that means nothing to me. I simply do not care.

Recently however, I did have a knee-jerk reaction to a flag…one that really surprised me. I don’t think anyone noticed that I was silent for quite a while over the Confederate flag controversy, but I was. The reason for this was that my immediate emotional reaction was to protect it.

Within seconds of seeing the first suggestion that it be taken down I ran through a mental list of arguments protecting it. All of the rhetoric I was raised on ran right through my head immediately. I didn’t know I still remembered half of those arguments. As soon as that flag was threatened, I was whistling Dixie before I realized it.

I sat on my opinions for several days before I finally figured it out. Down here, we say “State’s rights!” and “Heritage not hate!” and other asinine lies. We have to believe in this flag as a symbol of pride; because the alternative, the truth, is too terrible to face.

2/3 of the population was too poor to own even a single slave. And yet, nearly every man in the south was duped into fighting to protect something that they could never obtain in the first place. That’s probably why we try and say that it was all about something other than commerce.

Confederates died at a rate of 3:1 compared to Union troops. That’s a lot of lives removed from a lot of families. Lives that should have been planting crops, or flirting with girls after church, or fishing, or kissing their children, or basically doing anything other than dying by the thousands. It had to have been for something other than commerce. But it wasn’t.

I think it is quite fitting that the Confederate flag is a red background supporting two thin blue stripes. Red for the blood of the thousands who died to support the thin line of blue-blooded capital. We know we bled for this flag. And after we bled, we starved because there was no one home to plant.

But it’s time to face the truth.

This flag was never ours. It never represented who we were. It’s covered in our blood, but it never stood for us. We didn’t bleed for ourselves. We bled for someone else’s money.

And that’s a hard thing to face.

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Can I Love My Blackness If I’m White?

Thanks to the crap storm created by Rachel Dolezal I have spent a lot of time questioning the legitimacy of the project that I have basically devoted my life to over the past few years.

A few years ago I discovered that my family used to be black. Up until the turn of the 20th century my mother’s family was considered non-white…something that continued to haunt us well into the 1920-30’s as well. My maternal grandparents have an ancestor in common. Said ancestor was my grandfather’s great grandmother, and my grandmother’s great, great, grandmother.

Her name was Susan and she was the daughter of a slave. Susan was born in Spanish East Florida in 1817 and died in the state of Florida in 1906. Susan’s story isn’t just about my family’s struggle, but the struggles of quite a lot of old Florida families.

Susan existed during the period when we were still trying to define the concept of race. Susan’s father was born a slave, but was purchased and freed by his “white” (although the term didn’t really exist yet) father, along with his mother and older sister.

This wasn’t really an uncommon thing at this point in Florida’s history. It seemed almost trendy to have a slave or free black concubine in your youth, then settle down with a nice elite girl when you got older. Other men, however, chose not to do the part where you settle down with a nice white girl. John Fraser, Zephaniah Kingsley, and George J. F. Clarke (Susan’s grandfather), all had African wives. Going over the baptism records from the time before Florida became a state, having fully recognized children with women of color, both free and enslaved, was not unusual. In contrast to what was happening in the newly formed United States at this time, having children with a wealthy white man could be a very lucrative choice for the mother and the children.

Susan came from that culture, but wasn’t able to live in it. By the time Susan was grown, Florida was a US territory, and she was a black woman. And that’s where things get complicated.

As far as Susan’s skin color went, she was “white”, but her father was a slave so that made her “black”. The largest part of Susan’s life was defined by her blackness. She had some privileges. Her business was listed in the white section of the city directories, and she went by Susan Rossignol as often as Susan Clarke.

But she was never allowed to legally marry either of the men she had children with because they were “white” and she was “black”. She was charged the black taxes and was forced to have a white guardian represent her. As long as any of her children lived with her, they were considered black, but they all held white jobs and became white once they no longer lived in her home.

She was a pioneer who helped establish a little backwater called Palatka Florida. She was there through two Seminole Wars and a Civil War. She was the matriarch of a small community of people of color who lived along the St. Johns River. She was a slave owner, although the slaves were officially held by her white guardian/un-husband Louis Rossignol. She had some measure of additional protection from the first man she had children with, Archibald Cole; who fully recognized the mixed race children he had with Susan.

Both of the above men had enough social (and financial) standing to keep Susan and her children mostly safe from the racism that was growing around them. The children were able to marry white spouses even though the community knew them as black. Their businesses were considered white businesses. Even after the Civil War they were still fairly well protected. But that changed in 1879.

By the end of 1879 both of Susan’s men had died. From then until the day she died in 1906, Susan was no longer in between. Up until 1880 Susan was listed on census records as “mulatto”. But in 1880, her record shows her as black, along with her daughter and a grandson who is living with them. Basically, the reason for the sudden shift in her race comes from men who lost everything after the Civil War using her, and families like hers, as a way to recoup their losses. Not being able to marry also meant not being able to inherit. And not being white meant not having the legal right to complain about it either. She was one of quite a lot of old Spanish families who were stripped of everything that should have been theirs by greedy, racist, whites.

When Susan was black she was a prominent, wealthy, respected, and well liked woman. But the price of white was everything. Her family once owned 33,000 acres of good Florida land. By the time Susan died, not a single bit of it was still in their hands. And ten years later her family is forced to try and erase her completely…or risk death at the hands of the KKK.

Because I know Susan’s history I now know what my current level of privilege cost. I know what it cost to be white. I will never “identify” as black because (aside from my having light skin) it would be an insult to everything that was lost to make me not-black. I’m not stupid, I know that when people look at me they see white. And I know that gives me some automatic privileges.

I love my (great, great, great) grandmother Susan. I love her blackness because it was what shaped her. It also shaped my history and the history of my home state. Opening myself up to that history also opened my eyes to the greater struggle of black Americans. For Susan, for what she lost, I make an even greater effort to understand. To be an ally. I don’t always get it right, but I still try even after I am told I got it wrong…and this might be one of those times.

My intention is to open up a part of Florida’s history that has been long forgotten. Susan is my vehicle. She deserves to be heard.

But after Rachel Dolezal I worry that I may just be trying to bank on blackness. Can I even mention it if my whole life has been spent living in light skin? I’m going to tell her story even if I don’t make a dime from its telling. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to make at least a little off of Susan’s story. Does that mean I’m selling her blackness? That I’m exploiting her?

She might have had light skin but she was still black. I love my blackness because it’s Susan’s. I love that I can say my grandmother was black, and it doesn’t lose me a job or get me pushed out of my community, or force me to drink from another water fountain, or get my house dynamited. It’s not right to keep hiding the legacies of people like Susan. If we were all willing to love our blackness, instead of hiding it or ignoring it, (or worse, appropriating it) maybe we could do a lot more good.

Everything I’m thinking here is great in theory. But now that I’ve seen what happened with Rachel Dolezal, I can’t help but wonder:

Am I really just doing the same thing? Am I exploiting Susan’s blackness, my blackness, for my own gain?

Is it even possible? Can I love my blackness if I’m white?

 

(The title and theme of this post was shamelessly appropriated from something that community organizer, Deray Mckesson posts to twitter fairly often: “I love my blackness. And yours.”) 

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Still Complaining, But Still so Blessed

My past few posts have been a study in panic. Because those things keep overwhelming me, I sometimes seem ungrateful for the things I do get blessed with. And I actually have a very significant amount of blessings.

For example, I was arrested in March for Contempt of Cop. I had court for it yesterday. But my car got repossessed early that morning.

I was blessed enough to have another vehicle available. We still have the truck my husband bought in high school. It’s a huge thing with more on it that is broken than working. But at least it’s here.

Except, the battery is dead and it won’t start. But my daughter’s new friend’s un-grandma (it’s complicated) may have some jumper cables. She did and was over in just a few minutes. When jumping didn’t work, she gave us a battery…and brought coffee. The truck wobbled its way down the road and I made it to court only a few minutes late.

I got lucky again in court. To begin with, my defense attorney is a freshly minted idealist. And, totally unexpected, so is the prosecutor. These two did weird things like pay attention to actual justice.

For example, one woman was there for a typical drunk fight with her boyfriend. No injuries, just the neighbors calling the cops on a drunk couple who was shouting at each other. But she argued with the cop so she got arrested and they threw the book at her.

She was being covered in fines, fees, and restrictions relating to how she was released after she was arrested. In the meantime she lost her job, apartment, and boyfriend. Her age made finding a new job difficult, and having no place to live made it even more so. So the prosecution and defense got together and asked the judge to intervene. The woman left the courtroom on her own recognizance, without the extra fines, fees, and difficulties.

In my case, my defense attorney was on a mini crusade to reduce contempt of cop arrests. She hadn’t lost a case like mine yet. But the really surprising part came when the prosecutor himself decided to drop the charges.

There was video, but the cops did not release it. They pinned their entire case on the cop’s word against mine. Since video existed, but wasn’t being released, it called everything the cop was claiming into question. (When I was arrested, the supervisor asked the arresting officer if he had turned on his dash/body cam. When the arresting officer said “no” the supervisor said “good”.)

From what I gathered, the prosecutor requested the video again and was again denied access to the video. This puts the prosecutor in a bad spot.

For one thing, it handed the defense their reasonable doubt. A lot of people are willing to go along with whatever a cop says in these cases, but only if there is video. The existence of video, and the willingness to present it to a jury, can win a case. Just look at how often there are blatant cases of brutality on video…and how often the public at large still sides with police. The act of releasing video is essentially the cops proclaiming that they have nothing to hide; which makes the jury more likely to side with them even if the video is questionable.

However, NOT producing existing video makes it look like the cops are hiding something. Since I’m an almost 40 year old white housewife/history geek, whose only criminal record are “papers please” violations, the jury was already going to be more sympathetic to me. Even if I was convicted, the resistance of the officer to produce the video would overturn my conviction anyway.

Bottom line, if the cops didn’t produce that video they had no case against me.

Five minutes into my prep the prosecutor walks in to the defense’s office and tells me that he is dropping the resisting charge himself. He wasn’t willing to risk taking a hit to his newly forming courtroom reputation for the sake of one cop’s ego. He told the judge that the cop’s resistance to producing the video called the entire matter into question and he wasn’t willing to take the risk.

In the end I faced only one charge, my expired license. The charges connected to my car were dropped since I no longer had the car anyway. I was given nine months to pay my nearly $500 in fines and my bond was released. I am completely free(ish) again.

I was blessed again.

When I came out of the courtroom I was again blessed to discover a guardian angel had donated some money to my cause…enough to clear everything up and make our truck completely reliable. In just a few days the entire thing will be behind me. My papers will be in order and I should have no more problems.

The car being taken turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We got caught by a predatory car loan in 2008 and had been trying to hold on to something that we could no longer afford. Between the payments and the insurance the car ate up almost as much as our rent.

But, now that we only have the truck we have no payments. Plus, insurance on the truck is less than $30 a month. This cut our monthly debt in half.

I’m not going to the Historical Society Meeting. The truck may be cheaper to own, but it’s not cheaper to drive. It drinks gas like you wouldn’t believe, plus, we still have to get all of our papers in order before we can risk driving through some of the speed traps and other small town income generators between here and there, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen by this weekend.

And that’s ok too. I’m disappointed. I’m heartbroken over not being able to go. But I now know that I’m worth cheering on and I’m going to live up to that.

Besides, if I don’t have anywhere else to be anyway, I can spend more time at the historical society archives. And if I don’t have anything else to spend money on, I can buy the records I need too.

For all my complaining, I also recognize my blessings. I am blessed with people who care and are willing to help us. I am blessed to be surrounded by people who can see through my poverty to see the person that I am.

Most of all, I am blessed with an abundance of love in my life.

 

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