Jane Devin

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A New Series: Beyond Joe & Jane Six-Pack and other Human Parodies

October 7th, 2008 · 10 Comments


We live in a world of instant everything. Every human situation, it seems, comes attached with cliches, platitudes, bromides, stereotypes and parodies. There is, conceivably, a box to place every person in, and a label to slap them with. There are also socially created barriers that inform perception, determine response, and decide opportunity, and as society evolves so do these barriers.

In the 1970’s, for instance, it was not unusual for job applicants to lack college degrees. Today, four year degrees are required for almost every corporate position, including those that are considered entry-level. In decades past, while having imperfect teeth wasn’t desirable, it was also not out of the norm. Now, with advances in cosmetic and corrective dentistry, a perfectly straight, bleached white smile is considered not only a sign of health, but an indicator of success and social status.

Throughout history, but even more apparent in today’s political climate, the have-nots have born the brunt of social stereotypes, bootstrap philosophies, and feel-good bromides. They’ve been romanticized in songs and novels, damned by social critics, and sacrificed at the altars of law and politics.

The pride and strength of the working poor is legendary — their clothes are old, but never dirty*, their love for each other overcomes all, and they’re only poor if they choose to be* — because it’s love, and not money after all, that makes a person truly rich. They bear drudgery and ridicule with hearty stamina, and sing and dance their way through meager lives filled with hardship, always hoping, always praying, and never losing sight of what’s really important.

At the same time, there’s something wrong with those people — something inherently flawed about them, like their character, their ambition, or their intelligence. It can’t be about any of the “isms” because, as we’ve all come to learn through the example of the rare exception, the -ism’s don’t really exist. After all, if Loretta Lynn can work her way out of a coal mining town in Kentucky, and Oprah Winfrey can become a billionaire, then anyone can. It’s just a matter of really wanting to achieve, and working hard enough to find success. And since there’s no such thing as luck, unless you’re talking about the kind people make for themselves, there are no logical reasons for failure, only excuses.

Last night, engaged in a conversation with a new friend, I had cause to revisit some of my darkest days as a young single parent. My husband had managed to get a divorce from another state, with the Navy’s help no less, stating that he had no children. He left while I was pregnant and had a one year old daughter. His legal maneuver left him off the hook for child support but still gave him the legal rights of a father. There was no legal recourse for me since at the time my state, Nevada, did not cross jurisdictions. It took twelve years to find even the minor relief of terminating his rights. He never paid child support, and never saw or expressed interest in seeing the children.

I worked two jobs, while struggling to pay daycare and rent. One job wouldn’t pay both, much less buy groceries, and I was evicted twice, and had my power shut off several times. One of the lowest points I remember was a cold day in October, when I washed my cocktail waitress uniform out in a dark bathroom, with cold water, because I had no electricity. No heat, either, so the babies were bundled in snowsuits and covered with blankets. We had no food in the house to speak of, and when I woke up to go to work, my uniform was still wet. I had to hop a bus to daycare, then to a casino where a poker player fried my leg and my last pair of nylons with the tip of his cigar. I broke down crying, and was promptly fired. I gave my son up shortly after that, which is another story altogether, but the rip-tear of my heart had no time to heal. I had to make a better life, and I had to do it as quickly as possible, and on my own.

Hope was tinged with desperation and need, and I drove myself past exhaustion, while at the same time trying to be the kind of mother I always wanted. One who was essentially happy, loving, and present. It took years, an incredible amount of energy, and living through multiple traumas to make a life that wasn’t desperate, or teetering on the brink of disaster. It wasn’t even a middle class life — there was no home in the suburbs, 401K, or college fund — but it was a life that could develop, and let my daughter thrive, with the essentials covered.

I know poverty because I’ve lived through its varied realities, from the grumbling hunger to the bone-chilling coldness; from the pain of infections I couldn’t afford antibiotics for, to being robbed because I lived in a bad neighborhood and was an easy target. I’ve suffered from the policies and punitive measures that steal hope, time, and money from those who can least afford to lose anything.

I know bootstraps and bromides. The romanticizing of poverty, and the damnation of the poor. In this series, I’ll be talking to women who have conquered poverty, as well as those who are still living in the trenches. Several experts will be interviewed, and we’ll discuss economic realities and policies, as well as the emotional cost of being poor in America, the richest country in the world.

(I hope this multi-part series will speak to each reader in unique ways, and that you’ll show your support by commenting. I think the dialogue after the story is every bit as important as the story itself, and often even more enlightening. Thank you!)

Excerpted from songs:
*Stevie Wonder, Livin’ for the City
*Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors

Tags: Celebrities · Child Abuse · Culture · Human Interest · Introduction to Poverty Series · Politics · Poverty Series · Sex/Sexuality

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kris D. // Oct 7, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    so here’s to ketchup sandwiches on stale white bread. to candle light stories in the cold cold night. to uncut hair and clothes that don’t quite fit and government cheese!

    your story touches me so, Jane. my heart aches in a familiar way….echoes of my own family.


    i look forward to your words and the dialogue that always always follows.

  • 2 Kate // Oct 7, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Oh god you are telling my story in so many ways….but I think you knew that already. I look forward to this series and I plan to send links if that is okay to anyone I can think of who might listen. Write on my hero!!! You are a fair and lucid and clear voice for a lot of us.

  • 3 Pamela // Oct 7, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    I look forward to this series. My mother was left with my sister and I - the road was long and cold at times. It will be inspiring to read about the REAL people and what they are doing to overcome - vs the political spin that exploits the poor to get votes.

  • 4 Jeanne // Oct 7, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Again - your timing is amazing. My 23 year old daughter is having a rough time of it lately…trying to make ends meet and go to school full time. She asked me today how I managed when I was a single mom - how did I make the dollar stretch….my answer…I just did. There was no formula - it was just week-to-week. My mother was a single parent and we learned to stretch every little thing. And, there was that nice butcher at the market that saw my mom stealing meat to feed my brother and I - so he made special mark-down packages for her. And oh - how I hated food stamps. We definitely learned to turn off lights and not waste things! I, like you Jane, worked my butt off so that my daughter would have the essentials and I am hopeful that my future grandchildren will have something better.

  • 5 Marcie // Oct 7, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    My mom was a widow at 34 with 4 children under 10 including me in the hospital with polio. We moved in with her widowed father for 7 years while she took care of me long enough to get me into school then she learned to type and got a job with the state. She made all my clothes, my brothers all wore hand-me-downs. Somehow she squirreled away $20 for each of us for Christmas Presents. We didn’t really know we were poor but we knew that other kids had things we didn’t have. Oh! How I longed for a Bobbie Brooks outfit!

    She’d put supper on the table and say she wasn’t hungry. If there was any leftover, then she’d eat. My favorite dish as a small child was bologna with mashed potatoes wrapped up and baked. I tried it as an adult — gag!

    You’ve all heard some of the sad stories of my mom and me after I entered puberty and then entered adulthood. But I have to admire her tenacity to do it on her own. But she didn’t have a choice, there weren’t food stamps yet, we didn’t have much family, my dad’s parents had both died young.

    I remember one year the Shriner’s asked if it would be ok to give me a new coat for Christmas. Mom jumped at it. She also jumped at it when the elders and deacons at our church went hunting and brought the “left over” food to us. She wouldn’t take a handout but “left overs” were ok.

    There were always books and somehow, each of us went to college for at least a year. Education was important to her. She wanted better for us and got it. I almost went through the phone when one of my brothers said his daughter with a master’s degree, married with 2 children and a husband who’s an engineer has it rougher than our mother! We weren’t signed up for sports or classes every day after school. That’s THEIR choice and if she’s tired after driving all over making their schedules, it’s her problem. She could be home instead of in the car.

    Jane, not as poor as a lot of people but I do know what poor is. As do many on this blog.

  • 6 Eileen // Oct 7, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Wow! Beautifully written on a perceivedly “ugly” subject. My heartelt compliments to you for expressing so openly and touchingly what many of us have gone through, and some are still, sadly, going through.

    May you continue to rise and give hope to others.

  • 7 Gia // Oct 7, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    Again, inspiration coming from a raw and so familiar place. Jane….You are amazing!

    Can’t wait for the new series!!! And congrats on making it on Huffington!!!

  • 8 Robbie // Oct 7, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    I came in and out of poverty as a child depending on whether my mother was married or not and to whom. I swore to not have children until I could afford them so I wouldn’t wind up like my mother. I’ve managed to support myself since I was 17. I put myself through college but couldn’t see how to afford it until I was 30 but I did eventually and without student loans. Unfortunately, the sacrifice I made was to never have children. I think for me I made the right decision but I wish it wasn’t a decision I had to make.

    I look forward to reading your story. Perhaps it will give me a new, and better, perspective of my own mother’s struggle as a single parent.

  • 9 Donna L. Faber // Oct 7, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Yes, I like this one, too … it makes me reflect on how fortunate I am, really, at this point in my life. Makes me reflect on my childhood, what my brothers and I went through.

    I’m looking forward to more, Jane.


  • 10 Pirate Queen // Oct 7, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    Well, this is where I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb. I’ve never personally known an iota of true poverty. There were times when I ’struggled’, but never did I truly go hungry, or not have a decent place to live and sleep.

    My adoptive parents knew some level of it, more than I was ever told about, I’m sure. Aunts and uncles gave snippets of details as I got older.

    Mom experienced it in England as the eldest of five surviving children in a poor coal mining town in Lancashire. Her sibs were given scraps and morsels so my mother could have glasses and candles since she was the eldest and smartest of the brood. She got plenty of support from her two Catholic nun aunties.

    Mom didn’t play by rules and once she got her college education in London, she refused to join the convent–the unwritten expectation for all that had been given her. Nestle’s heavy cream on fruit or a hot loaf of bread with a stick of butter were my mother’s favorite treats until the day she died. They were what she missed most during the bombings of WWII.

    My father had to drop out before high school in South Dakota as a teen so he could help the family try and survive the Depression. They all did, but all were uneducated in the formal education sense of the word. Dad’s greatest joy was two eggs over easy, bacon, toast with butter and a hot cup of black coffee.

    Having children late in life, having survived what they had with what little they had, brought an odd dichotomy to their rearing of three surviving children: Dad said since he did without for so long, his kids would never have to know what it was like and he’d make damn good and sure that we never go without that which we needed.

    Mom’s version was harsher: She had done without so much for so long that her children would learn how to do for themselves by suffering as she had. She would’ve said we’d suffer worse than she had, but we were always surrounded by enough that even she couldn’t pull that off.

    I didn’t grow up with everything. I definitely had to earn anything beyond food, clothing and a solid house with uninterrupted utilities provided 24/7/365. We were never the ones with anything ‘new’, never mind fashionable, but we never wanted for anything.

    I did my time living on raman noodles and boxed mac & cheese. Quesadillas illegally heated on a popcorn popper in my college dorm room was a god-send of a treat. But, no, I’ve never personally lived the hell that is poverty. I would apologize, but I’ve also done my share of scraping between lost jobs, worked multiple jobs at a time while putting myself through college, living with friends until I got back on my feet. I have been graced with many true friends and a formidable history and background. I’ve had a lot of opportunities that were well-timed.

    I have never forgotten what I was brought up with, nor those who have helped me along the way. I practiced ‘passing it forward’ way before anyone ever coined the phrase. I’ve always been thankful and appreciative of the lessons I was spared because I had been taught to listen to my elders. I also understood cause and effect–tho that seems to be a silly concept when applied to real life.

    I’ve never wanted fame, fortune or too much of anything to waste it. I know there are too many who would benefit from what I would consider unusable or old hat. I, by nature and nurture, give what I can, as often as I can to whomever I can. I know too many who have scraped by, having been beaten senseless by the machinations of bureaucracy. I have been privileged in my life and paying it forward is to me, truly, more like paying it back.

    I got opportunities and second chances aplenty. For those who cross my path and need just one person to give them just one chance, I would be honored to be the one to provide what I can for any who are in need of it. I owe that much to so many. And not from obligation, but because it’s the right thing to do.

    And, because I do know how ‘dear’ butter was to both of my parents due to rationing, butter is MY favorite treat.

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