From There to Here
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I emerged into the world at the age of 23, a destitute mother of three children.
In 1991 when I was 14 years old, my entire extended family sold their homes, left their jobs and drove out of Maryland in a caravan four vehicles long. We laughed and joked on walkie talkies between the cars and the moving truck. As we made our journey to the promised land, we celebrated and sang together.
Sing Our Song
Oh Give me home
Where the buffalo roam
And the Traditional Catholics play
Where never is heard A Novus Ordo word
And the Protestants are far far away...
My Protestant father had been dead and buried just two months. His passing at the age of 42 left my mother free to seek life in a Kansas town "fifty years behind the rest of the world", where an old-fashioned family could protect their children's souls from blue jeans, rock music, birth control, television and Eastern forms of meditation.
There I remained for the next ten years, isolated from and conditioned to fear the outside world. I was brainwashed, prepped and primed for submission to the abusive husband with whom I would enter into a loveless, duty-bound union at the age of 19.
Somehow I mustered up the strength and courage to leave a dangerous cult and an unfree life.
At first, I waited for God to take care of me.
When I left, my abusive husband and the cult had consumed half of my young life. Even though this had now become a matter of survival for me my family couldn't "condone" my actions. I knew I would be banished. I accepted my banishment, and went to live alone with my children in low-income housing on the far edge of town.
Food stamps, welfare, rent of $3.00 per month (what percentage of zero income is that?) Medicaid and food pantries took care of my kids. I refused to enter the workforce because I feared placing my kids in daycare. I had been brainwashed to believe that it would seal the damnation of their souls and mine.
I clung desperately to the routine of making my kids breakfast, taking them for walks and to the park, putting them down for naps and cleaning the apartment. After all, this was the role I was reared for, motherhood and domestic life. This I knew how to do. Make a living, live within the real world, provide a future for my family--this I had no clue as to how to even begin to manage.
I had no plan to go forward but couldn't fathom going back.
But God wasn't going to just take care of me. It didn't work like that.
The repo man came for my van. I hadn't made any payments since I left my husband. With my vehicle gone, I had to admit that denying the difficult road in front of me wasn't going to take it away.
The next day, determined to survive, I put two kids in the stroller and started out across the field between the low-income housing and the bank building on the farthest edge of town. I pushed the stroller with one arm and led my oldest child by the hand with the other as he toddled over the brown grass and dusty soil.
I turned to the bank for help. I sat in front of the loan officer--me, an impossibly young woman, dressed in hand-made clothes like a relic from the dustbowl, with three children under the age of three climbing all over me--and asked for a car loan.
With my three noisy toddlers fussing about me, I told him what had happened. I had left an abusive husband and my van had been repossessed yesterday, I said, as if that were something that just happens all the time and obviously necessitates a trip to the bank to ask for money. If he would give me a for a car, I told him, I was going to get a job and I was going to make every single payment.
As I looked at this cool, composed, well-dressed, well-educated loan officer in his beautiful office, I had no idea what I must have looked like to him: a desperate, impoverished single mother with three children climbing all over me asking for a loan. I had the audacity to ask for a loan with no skills, no education and no job. I had to look--and sound--like I was completely out of my mind. The only thing worse than my presentation was my unmitigated niavete.
As improbable as it seems, he gave me the loan.
In spite of everything, he gave me the loan. He treated me as if I were a normal person, normally dressed, with paystubs from a steady job, and sense to leave the kids with a sitter.
With that loan, I bought a used car. I put my kids in state-subsidized daycare and began the life of commuting daily to Topeka, almost an hour away, for the low-paying but white-collar office job I landed almost immediately. In my naivete I was sure of exactly how this was going to go, and the favorable outcome was no surprise to me. I had yet to discover how cruel a place the world I was entering could be.
Just like that, I had become a poster child for rugged American individualism.
After a relatively short while I didn't have to worry too much about having "enough" for myself and my children. I had “extra”. I went on to be a successful entrepreneur. I had health insurance. I bought a house and hired someone to clean it for me. I was living the American dream.
It would be easy enough, and even expected, for me to stop here and talk about my own strength and determination, or about the generosity and kindness of a loan officer to whom I should be forever grateful.
Yes, I did it. I beat the system. Not only did I win, now I get to set myself up as the perfect role model. If I can make it, anyone can. Right?
But as an artist, I have to ask of myself, my work, and you: did I really get from there to here solely on my own merit?
Art challenges us to look at things from a different perspective. Over the years I played my story over and over again in my head. I have been haunted by unanswered questions about my own life experience. There is definitely something unsettling here.
What if I were to change my perspective? What if I change an element of my story? How does that affect the outcome?
Imagine I am a young black woman with her three children climbing all over her, asking for a loan.