Monday, February 20, 2017

Legislative Committee Meeting Road Trip

Today is President's Day. 

This kids are off school, wrestling around the bedroom as I am typing, because sleeping in on a day when there is no school just is not an option. 

We are going on a road trip. 
We are going to return to a few of our favorite Helena places.  
I might be bribing the kids a little bit, because I have an ulterior motive. 

We are making a quick jaunt over the pass to make an appearance at a legislative committee meeting to make a public comment on House Bill 361.  This bill revises the criteria for who is eligible for SNAP benefits cutting benefits for many low income Montanans while also costing the state upwards of $500,000.  Go figure.  I can only assume that the sponsoring legislator likes poor people even less than he likes being being fiscally responsible. Driving two hours to go speak for a few minutes about proposed legislation is a a new adventure for the three of us and I have to admit that I am pretty nervous.  I spent the last three hours writing and rewriting my comment.  Here is what I have come up with: 

Hi, my name is Heidi West. 
These are my children, Ivory and Sylvan.

House Bill 361 is not only fiscally irresponsible, but also displays an ignorance of the demographics, diversity and complexity of who and why people are poor in Montana. This bill goes further than just restricting access. It also undermines the judgment of professionals who work with SNAP recipients and make a system work as well as it can, for as many people as possible.

We are one of the many families that depended on SNAP. From 2009 until 2015 I worried about many things: I worried about holding onto 12 months worth of income documentation for my LIEAP application, I worried about getting sick with no access to health care, I worried about not providing enough opportunity for my children; I worried about finding houses to rent that we could afford but were also a safe; I worried about snow boots and warm coats and occasionally toilet paper but I NEVER ONCE WORRIED ABOUT HOW I WAS GOING TO FEED MY FAMILY.

SNAP benefits provide a small but essential buffer between having a home and being homeless, between being able to absorb an unforeseen expense and disaster, they are what allow thousands of Montanans to make it through each day and hope that though hard work, creativity, patience and planning they will create the right combination of opportunity and success to provide for themselves.

Low income individuals, and especially low income women and children, are members of a largely voiceless and under-represented demographic. In legislatures around the country, the value of lives is degraded into conversations about drug tests, sugary drinks and more generally the idea that SNAP recipients are undeserving.  The people that are being spoken about in these legislative proposals, are me. There is no accurate stereotype of who a SNAP recipient is:  they are moms and dads, they are kids, disabled folks, and people who for some reason or another are in challenging times; they could be your waiter, your kid's preschool teacher, your friends and your neighbors.

You have the opportunity and responsibility, to give voice to the voiceless and to represent the whole spectrum of Montana citizenry – maintain access to SNAP benefits and let Health and Human Service workers do their jobs.  Thank you.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Fresh Air

Sylvan stands on top of a rock on top of “a mountain” proudly announcing that this was the first mountain he had reached the top of while being six. This event  being categorized as his first summit as a six year old was true, but the definition of mountain was being applied liberally.  The landscape feature we are standing on top of is the same as the view out of our dining room window, or rather the view we used to have before all we could see are walls of shiny metal on the new townhouses, and that feature is aptly called Waterworks Hill.  “Let’s walk to the top of the Mountain”,  sounds so much more exciting, as does: “We made it to the top of the Mountain”.  

He holds my hand the whole way up and then the whole way down as he plans our first whole family expedition to Mount Everest. “That is half way around the world in Nepal,” I tell him, “and cold, with ice fields, steep slopes and a lack of oxygen.  We need to train.” He contemplates all the good hang gliding launching spots in his view shed. “Yes,” I answer him,” you can get hurt hang gliding.” He laments the emptiness left by the extinction of the pterodactyl. “They would be VERY cool to train and fly.”  He wonders which animals came before the dinosaurs.  “We can look up pre-dinosaur fossil beds, but those organisms didn’t have skulls like animals today”. Who was the first person and how if there was only one first person did they ever have babies?  “ No one has figured that one out exactly - and the whole process of becoming a person took a LONG time”.    

It has also been a long time since we spent impromptu time outside. Ivory broke her collarbone sledding and finally got the go ahead to venture outside again, but in the meantime fluffy layers of snow have compressed to spotty sheets of ice.  But beyond her ill timed injury, family life has fundamentally shifted into a new phase.  With two school age kids we simply see less of each other.  Adam is laid off less during the winter and two summers ago I accepted what began as a very part time job and the at the same time decided to run for public office.  I now serve on the Missoula City Council representing Ward 1 and that very part time job morphed into just barely part time and in the corner of my dining room are still boxes of mugs to be carved when ever I have a chance to sit down.  

Today we both needed a reset, some fresh air and sunshine.

We reach the almost level decommissioned road that connects the trail on the ridge with the switch backs that will take us back to the parking lot and I finally broach the subject of school.  “How was school today” , I ask.  He immediately becomes sullen.  “Bad.  Always bad.”  “Did something happen that made you feel left out?”  “Do you play with other kids?”  “Maybe the other boys are shy?”  He gives a dry kind of laugh, the kind that  for a moment makes him seem 60 not 6: “They’re not shy! They call me names.”  “What kind of names?” “I don’t know.  I don’t remember.  Let’s play I spy.  I see something shaped like an N.”  I look down at our neighborhood sprawling below us: “a big N or a little n?”.  “Little.” I squint against the setting sun, bright briefly between the gray clouds,  “The fence around the softball diamond.”  Two sides are  visible against  white snow while the third is obscured against the backdrop of a plowed road.  It looks just like an n.  “I spy and orange house.” “I spy an S.”

I don’t blame his teacher for not noticing.  After all,  for a  barely six year old, Sylvan has his kindergarten shit together.  His classroom is rowdy and, typical of a kindergarten class, the kiddos have a wide range of skill sets and behaviors.  She has her hands full.  But he notices that she doesn’t notice these little interactions and that really gets to him.  “But,” he told me on Monday, “ the kid that tipped me out my chair and gave me a very bloody nose,  that kid got a referral, and referrals are the worst.  He didn’t even get a timeout.”

We keep walking.

I don’t blame  myself.  I have spent the last year trying not to feel guilty;  about not being home after school every day; about sneaking out early to get additional hours of work in the morning so I can schedule a studio day into my life every few weeks; about the evening meetings that pop up in my new life and interrupt  family dinners; about how lacking my garden was last summer; about feeling guilty; about being grumpy because I feel guilty; about having to justify why I work so damn hard… There are days we undeniably fall short.  We forget to practice spelling.  The clean laundry piles up for days. We come home tired and cranky.  But at the same time, nothing has really changed.  Life moves on in a constantly new normal.  Adam and I stay up late, icing the damn rocket cookies Sylvan had his heart set on for his birthday.

I take them to his classroom.   One of the boys sitting on the rug in front of me tugs at my pants: “these cookies are good, but next time, can you please bring cupcakes?”.  It strikes me as inexplicably funny.  

We switch hands.  Sylvan is so busy looking at everything but the trail in front of him that he is constantly slipping and sliding of the trail. “I spy something blue”.  “I spy something green.”

“I spy a pterodactyl.”

 I spy it too.

 The junction of the trail we are walking on and the switchbacks down the hill look like a flying dinosaur with its wings outspread.