Mark and Matt on the banks of the haves

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the first installment of the Hugo House Literary Series, one of four events that brings together writers and musicians to create original works around a central topic. At each event, the artists present individual compositions in succession, creating a layered answer to each question.

This first event titled, “The Haves and the Have-Nots,” seemed timely in the face of OWS, though it was conceived months before. The question that each work sought to answer was, “Does having it all ever equal happiness?”

Megan Kelso, a coming-of-middle-age writer, brought us immediately inside her world — one of a professionally recognized yet financially struggling writer supporting her family. Balancing a wavering income with the hope for creative success, she and a writer friend have consoled one another over the years when books fizzled, assuring each other in those moments that, “They just can’t handle the shit we’re laying down.”

From there, Tara Hardy, a self-described queer spoken word luminary from Detroit, spun in graphic detail stories from her childhood that felt familiar: a sense of gray desolation in the Motor City, her struggle to escape the fate of its mindset, and her labor-class family who came home each night from auto manufacturing plants with the sole desire to retire in front of the TV.

Her frankness about being raped as a child, her life wavering for years at the brink of destitution, her fall and rise from alcoholism, her anger and desperation to escape the circumstances of her upbringing –and her own guilt about that– presented a series of uncomfortable truths for us to digest.

Tara spilled out the contents of her life, some ugly and brutal, and likely “worse” than many of us in the room. Her words held our heads down, forcing us to acknowledge what she had been forced to experience.

On one hand, I could appreciate Tara’s abundant passion and gift for emotional poetry — they are her haves. Yet it’s her life of have-nots –lack of resources, a safe childhood, the ability to limit herself to just one drink– that fuel her as an artist.

Without her have-nots, would she have a voice — or something to say with it? I ask myself this question often, given the circumstances of my own life.

My reflections continued this week on the #36 bus to work, which holds a different crowd than the Ballard yuppies with whom I typically share the #18: a young Middle Eastern couple, her hair in a sparkly purple headscarf, who laughed like teenagers and spoke in dialect; the single mom steeped in cigarette smoke who boarded with her eight-year-old son sporting a dyed green faux-hawk; two homeless men who the driver tossed out at Pine Street for sleeping; and a series of scruffy passengers who hopped out at James for the courthouse and Main for a hot meal at the shelter.

I couldn’t help but compare myself to these people — was I a have and they were have-nots? When I witnessed their their connection with each other –mother smoothing her son’s hair, husband touching his wife’s hand, one man helping with the other’s heavy bag– it didn’t seem that simple.

Thinking back to Tara’s reading, which was the most emotionally wrenching of the evening — is there a have-not with more impact or validity than others? Starvation? Financial destitution? Shattered childhood? Dreams or careers gone awry? Loss — of love, friendships, health, family, jobs, one’s home?

Is one person’s pain “worth” more than another’s?

I was surprised by my own small have/have-not struggle when I bought boots from Edie’s this weekend. I tried on several pairs before I found one that would take me through seasons — my mother had always taught me to pull double duty out of everything I bought.

When I looked at the price tag, I blanched, then reminded myself that I had needed new boots since last fall. I summoned a host of justifications to assuage my guilt — that I was supporting a local business, that I’d wear them a lot since I walk so much, that they’ll last for several years, that it’s difficult for me to even find shoes that fit comfortably, that they would be my Christmas present to myself.

As the salesgirl wrapped them up, I realized that my have-not childhood was at war with my have-adulthood; typically, this struggle has nothing to do with finances. I still felt guilty on my walk to Stumptown, passing people with holes in their clothes.

My have-not childhood was asking if I really deserved the luxury of those boots.

The only seat available was at the window next to a woman about my age; her books were spread acrossed the table. When I asked if I might sit next to her, she happily made space, brushing her bobbed hair behind her ear. For half an hour, she wrote in her tablet as I read the latest New Yorker.

When she asked me to watch her things while she used the powder room, my eyes strayed to her open notebook. The part I read went something like:

“…can’t think about anything else. Every time I try, my thoughts go there. Every day, I end up in the same place, and I just can’t help it. Or, I can help it — but I just don’t. There’s a part of me that is weak and wants to be made to feel this way. It’s when I eat, when I read, when I walk, when I sleep.”

The last line was set off by itself:

“Should I leave or should I stay?”

She smiled and thanked me as she packed up to leave — a young woman who could have walked off a page of the Anthropologie catalog — pretty, put-together, and haunted quietly from within.

Before I read those words, I might have considered her a have, just as I might seem to be when I put on those boots, which are still sitting in the box.

Even with more buying power in my adulthood, I can’t say that I know much about being a have. I feel much more comforted by rediscovering from moment to moment that we’re all have-nots in some way.

Maybe it’s justification or my overly philosophical adulthood talking, but I’ve come to appreciate what my life of varied have-nots have done for me: they’ve made me much more human –more sympathetic, more thoughtful, more grateful– than I would otherwise be.

Like Tara Hardy, I’m not quite over my have-nots –maybe I never will be– on the other hand, I’m not sure what I’d do without them.