Thursday, March 5, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 1)

A long time ago I once mused sadly in conversation that the universe had never picked me up by the scruff of the neck and given me a good shake.  What I meant was I felt that nothing terribly bad had ever happened to me to test my mettle and ability to cope with unusually stressful situations.

"What are you talking about?" my future husband (Rick) asked surprised.  "What about the time you were almost homeless?"

Really? That silly little "incident"?

He pointed out that because of how I had handled that situation I never perceived it as something terrible.  Instead it was a rather empowering and door- and eye-opening experience.  Not one that I'd wish on others of course, but one of those character-building events that can change the course of one's life.

There's been other "scruff of the neck" instances in my life that I would like to share with you throughout this month.  My purpose in recounting these tales is not to brag about how "awesomely I overcame adversity", but rather how I applied three very simple principles that turned potentially catastrophic situations into positive opportunities for growth.

These principles are:

1) Don't play the victim
2) Keep calm and vigilant
3) Do what you can and then let go

With those three ideas in mind, here's the first "Scruff of the Neck" occasion:

Event: Almost Homeless in Pittsburgh
Age at the time: 19

I'd been going to college at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for a year by this point and enjoying every minute of it.  I was living in the school-sponsored housing on the North Side and walked to and from the city every day for school and my part-time job.  My financial aid only covered the first year of housing and I couldn't afford to stay for the second year (I was in a two-year program).

No worries.  I had managed to hook up with a group of 1st quarter students who were going to rent a house.  I put in my share of the security deposit and had even gone to look at the house.  Everything was looking good.

Right before the quarter ended however the students disappeared.  No one returned messages and I never saw the security deposit again.  The school was no help and my parents, though certainly not indifferent, couldn't do anything being hundreds of miles away.  When the quarter started back up in two weeks I would officially have no place to live.

1) Don't play the victim
I certainly could have wailed and moaned, "Oh woe is me!  I've been robbed and have no place to go!"  But I didn't.  Was I annoyed? Yes.  Frustrated? Sure.  Victimized. No.

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Instead I approached the whole thing with a calm detachment.
In my naive little mind I had no viable reason to be in college in the first place.  I was miraculously doing this all on my own with scholarships, grants, loans and the tax money Mom and Dad were getting back for me attending school: my parents couldn't afford to help me out any other way financially.  We were poor.
The last person in my immediate family to go to college was a great-grandmother who had passed away a few years before.  And yet here I was.

The way I saw it I was going to school purely on God's grace and there was no freaking way I'd have to drop out because of something silly like not having a place to live.

I had complete faith that if I didn't spaz out then something would turn up.

That didn't mean I could just sit back and wait for all the cogs to align for me; I knew I had to do my share of the leg work.  I'd have to keep my eyes open and do what I could to find a place to live.

3) Do what you can and then let go
My roommate at the school-sponsored housing offered to let me "hide" at the apartment until I found a place.  Touching, but the place would get cramped pretty quick with a new roomie arriving with all her things as well.

This may sound appalling (and maybe a bit terrifying), but I was honestly eying a hole under the 7th Street Bridge.  It was well above the river, looked easy enough to get into and was sheltered from the weather.  I was even making mental plans on how I'd keep my clothes clean (in large garbage bags that I'd be able to snag from work), and how I'd keep myself clean (spit baths in the bathrooms at school and the occasional shower at my old place).

I found this whole plan oddly exciting and would have had no qualms with following it through.  Of course it never once occurred to me at the time that someone may actually already be living in that hole or how I'd keep my stuff secure during the day while I was at work and school (the blinders of youth are a blessing sometimes).

Resolution: I had been getting rides back to my parents' house in between quarters with Rick, who was also attending AIP (this is how we'd met initially as our parents lived near each other).  He knew of my situation and said he had a friend whose parents would likely let me stay with them until I found a place more permanent.

Sounded much better than the bridge actually.

So when it was time to return to school Rick drove me out to their place and I met the family.  They'd just had a bad experience with a roommate and weren't eager for a new one, but I was so wide-eyed, meek and courteous that they decided to let me stay for a month or two.

That "month or two" stretch out to the remainder of my time in college.
They even moved into a bigger place to accommodate me.
I helped with the dishes, cleaning and walking the dogs in lieu of paying rent.  I served as a crying shoulder and a friend.

No, it wasn't always happy rainbows and sparklie unicorns, but it was a safe place to live while finishing off my degree.  And an experience I would never have had otherwise.

Call it "luck", call it "grace", I call it being willing and open to see opportunities.

Stay tuned for another fun story next week.

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