Were I to strip all historical and political qualities to which Thanksgiving necessarily requires attention, I might say that today is a day that begs reflections of gratitude. The story I want to tell is one that has required no new reflection, because it has lingered in my thoughts daily since it happened. Though it is often on my mind, I have not told this story often, only because I know my words cannot do justice to the exemplary acts I wish to relate.
Earlier this year on an overnight flight, I flew across the Atlantic for the second time and arrived in continental Europe for the first. I was attending an important conference, and with a little financial help from various funding sources at my school. Because I am paid poverty wages to support a family, I was also adjuncting at another school. Because it was the end of the term, my student loans were nearly exhausted. Dipping into my own pockets to fund the majority of the trip came at a significant expense. I left the U.S. with the anxiety associated with this economic stress weighing heavily upon me and arrived with very little sleep and still under the influence of a sleeping pill that was intended to help me rest on the flight. My adjunct schedule required that I compress my trip, and so I arrived just as the conference began. So, I traveled directly by bus to the university where the conference was being held.
I arrived, seemingly visibly exhausted and beleaguered, because the volunteers working the conference registration table insisted multiple times that I leave my bags and jacket behind the desk. It took some insistence because when I travel the security of possessions I can’t afford to replace always trumps my comfort. Long travels by bus and train and staying in hostel rooms with multiple beds have made me accustomed to keeping belongings close at hand. But I was tired and did not want to miss a presentation by a friend on surveillance themes in contemporary science fiction literature. I put my bags behind the registration table and headed to the session.
Uncomfortable with leaving my belongings out of my charge, I headed to the registration desk after the session ended. When I got there, I saw that my jacket was on the floor and the backpack was missing. Despite the assurance from many, I instantly knew what happened. My backpack — containing my MacBook Pro, iPad, and many irreplaceable items (e.g., field notebook for my dissertation research) — was stolen. My thoughts immediately went to what this meant. While I have insurance, my deductible is high enough that I can’t really afford to use it in this situation. My computer backup is in TimeMachine, so it requires a Mac (a computer I cannot afford to buy) to restore. This is a computer I use for all my recording, which means my unfinished projects are gone forever and I won’t be able to record again for some time, perhaps years. Data for an entire chapter of my dissertation is gone. I might have to finish a Ph.D. without a personal computer. Fortunately, my passport and debit card were in my pockets.
A friend and colleague that is in a leadership position of the professional association sponsoring the conference heard about what happened and came to my aid. He later related to me that he knew about the financial position my family was in and that this setback would be impossible to recover from. He offered to help raise funds from association members. I could barely respond to the offer, because I’m not used to being around those who are capable of offering such aid. Or so I thought. Friends who heard about the theft on Facebook established an online donation page. The next day, my friend from the conference gave me cash he had raised, enough to cover the majority of my insurance deductible. Members of my masters thesis committee sent a check. By the time it was all tallied up, my friends had raised enough funds to exceed my insurance deductible. I could barely believe it. After replacing the stolen items, I had a couple hundred left over!
I set aside this remainder and over the next few months donated it to others in need. I often see situations like this, but can scarcely contribute. With my family’s budget and dependence on student loans, any surplus at a given time is budgeted for later. December and August are always times of financial desperation, as the loans have run out and the stipend checks aren’t enough to cover even the necessities. Before, when we were on Medicaid, we didn’t have to worry about what this situation meant, where now it means getting behind on insurance premiums and potentially losing our needed medical coverage. Wanting to pay forward the generosity of these friends and colleagues, I aided an activist out west to avoid being evicted from her home, helped a friend cover medical bills, assisted in paying the tuition of a student who was disowned by her family for coming out as a lesbian, and helped in a couple other situations.
I’m not a bad writer, at least when it comes to political and social matters that I know a few things about. But words escape me when it comes to expressing gratitude, and especially in situations of such generosity as what I experienced when my things were stolen. I know I’m incapable of expressing in words the extent to which I was moved by the aid my friends and colleagues so willingly offered. I’ve been wanting to write about this ever since, but every attempt seemed so trite as to offend the real sentiment behind the words. I also know that most who are in my financial situation haven’t the social capital to leverage to dig themselves out of such a setback, and so this story is also about my privilege. It’s hard to relate this experience, acknowledge this privilege, and yet show due appreciation to these wonderful people who helped me. So, for all the failures in my words doing this situation any justice, I offer these acknowledgments in hopes that those friends (and some strangers) who helped me in a time of need know that I’ve thought about them daily for months and I thank them dearly.