Blog Posts, Personal Essays

Why do we give things up for Lent?

I wrote this post for Huffington Post’s religion section a couple of weeks ago when Lent started.

Now that we’re a bit into the the season of simplicity, I should reflect on how I’m doing on my giving up. Have I stopped bad-mouthing myself? Well, not entirely. It’s a hard habit to break. But my vow of self-positivity has given me pause a few times when I went to blame myself for something going wrong. It’s a good reminder that words do mean something, both in my own mind and in how I think about others.

I’ve also noticed how often I apologize for something that is not my, nor anyone’s, fault. How often I apologize for needing to be with Teddy or needing to focus on my work or being sick, etc. It doesn’t strictly fall under saying negative things about one’s self – it just implies it.

Anyway, here’s the post. Enjoy!


I went to mass and catechism every week from the time I was five till I went to college at 17. But despite all that quality time with the Catholic church, I seemed to have missed some important information.

Near the top of the list: Why do we give up things for Lent?

I think I was told it had something to do with sacrifice. Most of the time, people gave up their favorite food. After all, Jesus gave up his life for us, so the least we could do is stop eating Mars bars. Or maybe it symbolized the 40 days he spent wandering in the desert before his ministry began? Jesus fought the devil’s lies, and we fight off our craving for pizza.

I gave up being Catholic a long time ago. I still go to church, but it’s a pretty modern urban United Methodist church that welcomes LGBT folks and doesn’t give me lectures on birth control.

Still, the ritual of Lent has stayed with me. I’m drawn to its pared-down simplicity — the starkness of an undecorated church, the tolling bells that rang as we left mass in place of joyful hymns, the symbols of ashes and incense. It’s meaningful to me. Like the grey skies and bare trees of the end of winter, I feel the call to turn inward and reflect about what in my life needs pruning.

At one point in my life, I gave up giving things up for Lent. It was stupid, I thought, and superficial. Yes, I too love and crave chocolate, but at the end of 40 days, I will just eat up my share anyways in the form of a large hollow bunny. What’s the point?

Then a couple of years ago, I had an idea. I gave up buying things for Lent. I still let myself by food and necessities — medicine, toilet paper, etc. But I stopped buying little things for myself — a new lipgloss, a caramel latte, a sweater on the clearance rack.

It was a small thing, but it was hard. Sale at my favorite store? Don’t even bother going in. Need the right pair of shoes to go with that dress? See if you can borrow some from a friend. Drink a nice cup of coffee that you make yourself at home and curl up with a good book — one you already own or borrowed from the library.

I found myself being creative. Stretching how long I could enjoy something I already had. Finding substitutes for the momentary zing that comes from purchasing something new. Appreciating my many blessings.

At the end of 40 days, I could buy things again. But I didn’t. It changed the way I thought about my money and my resources. It changed the way I thought about what brings me joy and happiness. It caused me to question why I felt I needed to buy things and what that said about the state of my soul.

It wore off eventually. In fact, when I look at my bank statement, I could probably use to go back and do it again. But the lessons that I learned are still with me. It was a really meaningful 40 days.

I was thinking about that experience tonight as I pondered the beginning of Lent. What would I give up? The thought came to me instantly — saying negative things about myself.

I have a habit of putting myself down when anything happens. If I make a mistake, it’s because I’m an idiot. If I forgot something, I’m dumb. I spend a good percentage of my days apologizing for anything and everything and adding in how I’m deficient.

It’s just a little thing, but I do think it matters. Words affect us. When I put myself down, what am I saying to others about their mistakes? What am I internalizing about myself? And what about my son? He’s just learning to communicate himself, so what does it say to him when mama is always calling herself names?

I may not be Catholic anymore, but I am going to go back to my roots this year and give up something for Lent. It’s not really a sacrifice, but it will be hard.

At the end of it, I believe it will have changed me. But how? I’m not sure. I’ve got to give it up to find out.

Housing Reporting, Personal Essays

My city meadow: the future of LeClaire Courts

I cut my teeth as a reporter at LeClaire Courts. It was the location of my first Chicago Housing Authority board meeting. My first complex-wide shouting match between residents and the CEO, and the first time I really got to know public housing residents and see the struggle they faced to save their community.

It was also the first complex I saw shut down. I started reporting on public housing in 2008, long after the concrete towers of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes had been demolished.

I read “There are No Children Here”, by Alex Kotlowitz, but Henry Horner Homes wasn’t here anymore for reference.

It was a weird time in the Plan for Transformation–so much had been demolished, and a good amount rebuilt. But there were these outliers–communities that were in limbo–and LeClaire was one of them.

I came to LeClaire in its last year. Like many public housing complexes in the city, it was slowly being emptied. At one time, the 600 units sprawled over 40 acres were full.

But after the plan to remake the city’s public housing started, once a family moved out, their unit was boarded up and left empty. Some families were in the only occupied unit in their stretch of row houses.

It was a pattern I’d see over and over. At Lathrop, at Cabrini. The Chicago Housing Authority would decide to leave a unit vacant after someone moved out or was evicted. Little by little, the building would empty out, until CHA would declare it to be an “emergency situation,” which gave them the authority to close it in 90, 60 or even 30 days.

Families would be offered the chance to relocate to another CHA development or get a Section 8 voucher.

If it didn’t involve people’s lives and homes, it would have almost been funny. It was like knocking over one domino and claiming to be surprised when they all fell down.

Every story was the same–residents would fight to stay. But slowly, they would move out. The building would be closed, and eventually, demolished.

I don’t cover public housing exclusively anymore, but what I saw at places like LeClaire shapes my reporting even now.

I notice the same patterns in other city structures. A plan to let things disintegrate, a plan of intentional neglect, until they become too difficult to maintain and it seems no one can argue against the city’s plan to close them. It’s the mental health clinics, the public schools.

Even people are treated this way. Citizens are left in poor, resource-less communities for so long that generations of their families can’t escape pollution, unemployment, or lack of education. At some point, they’re either shipped out to other neighborhoods or left voiceless as people with power decide the future of their communities.

I saw it in the struggle for Whittier parents to save the fieldhouse they wanted to turn into a library. The parents said they’d been asking for the Chicago Public Schools to do something with the building for years, but instead, they waited and wanted to demolish it because they claimed it was in extensive disrepair.

I saw it again illustrated in a recent study on how TIF dollars are distributed to the city’s schools, with the least resources going to neighborhood schools, a list of which are slated to close each year for their failure to match the outcomes the wealthier schools report.

A few employees of a mental health clinic told me a story about how, after numerous complaints to the higher-ups, the ceiling fell in at their clinic. The cost of keeping open the clinics, especially with their crumbling infrastructure, was cited as one of the reasons to shut half of them down earlier this year.

With the closure of clinics, advocates say clients have been scattered and left to fend for themselves… much like those at LeClaire.

I wonder what happened to Natalie Saffold, the community president that demanded that the housing authority make a decision about what LeClaire would become before it was closed down.

I remember Michelle, a mother moving her two children from LeClaire to Lawndale, unsure about what the future would hold for them in a new community. Her oldest daughter, I recall, wanted to become a lawyer. Back before the complex closed in 2009, she walked me around the neighborhood and told me how its dwindling population had altered the face of her community.

LeClaire was also the reason I could never watch the cult-favorite “The Wire.”

The sprawling low-rise public housing complex in the show reminded me too much of LeClaire, complete with empty units ripe for gang members to use as hideouts and machine-gun armories. Yes, the show was very well-written, but it seemed wrong to be watching something on TV as entertainment when I knew people were living this life for real.

LeClaire was in my mind again after many years when I pulled off the Stevenson at Cicero Avenue to get gas. Memories flooded back. Even the panhandlers that always stand next to the traffic light seemed familiar–a sign that the place hadn’t changed much.

But things had changed. LeClaire is nothing now but a fenced-in meadow. Gone were the low-rise buildings, barbeques and offices. The child care center I visited one morning long ago, where I played with preschoolers on playground equipment covered with graffiti, is also gone.

An empty lot of trees and tall grass is all that’s left of a community.

For many residents, LeClaire will always exist–the place where they grew up, raised their kids, or a place they escaped from to hopefully find something better, something safer.

What will become of this city meadow? I asked Matt Aguilar, CHA’s spokesman, if any decision had been made about LeClaire’s future. He gave me the stereotypically vague response that the housing authority is known for.

“A Working Group composed of stakeholders has determined that the site has mixed-income community potential. Also, a traffic study evaluating the area is being planned through this summer.” So, it might become something vaguely described as mixed-income. When? Unknown.

In many ways, the meadow is a symbol of unfinished business in the city’s efforts to provide affordable housing – even if the CHA is promising a new, “re-calibrated” Plan for Transformation, dubbed the Plan for Transformation 2.0.

The Plan for Transformation 2.0 promises to reflect on “lessons learned.” What are those lessons? It doesn’t say.

Maybe the scores of residents scattered around the city? Perhaps the thousands of Section 8 tenants who’ve been sent to neighborhoods just as poor and segregated as the ones they left, without the support of their communities?

Or maybe it’s just the unoccupied acres–the ghosts of housing projects long gone, like the empty fields that used to be Robert Taylor, the vacant lots on the Gold Coast that used to be Cabrini, and the fenced-in meadow by Midway, LeClaire Courts.

This story was originally published on July 31, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Personal Essays

Student loan debt fear made me skip fancy schools for a free one

I can remember being 17, sitting in our Michigan farmhouse, across the kitchen table from my mother. “You don’t have to go there just because you got a scholarship,” she said. “You can go to any other college you want. We’ll make it work.”

A feeling of utter practicality took over my brain. Paying thousands of dollars in student loan debt or going to school for free?

I chose free.

Thinking back, I’m still surprised by my decision. Even though I came from a podunk town in rural Michigan, and my advanced-placement classmates chose prestigious universities like Brandeis, University of Michigan, MIT, Yale, and Northwestern, I chose a mid-sized, not-particularly-academic state school because it offered me four years tuition and room and board. I never looked back.

Now I’m in my 20s, and my colleagues have prestigious diplomas and mountains of student loan debt. Me? I only have the debt that I manage to rack up on my credit card each month. But didn’t I get an inferior education? I don’t think so.

My alma mater, Central Michigan University, has about 20,000 students in a mid-sized town in the middle of the state. In 1987, the school was number 16 on Playboy’s list of top party schools. Not exactly the mark of academic distinction.

Granted, a lot has changed since I graduated, but no one looks at my resume and says “Ah, Central Michigan – That’s a great school.” So why do I think I still made the right choice?

All of my professors knew my name by the second week of class. Why? Well, frankly, I was one of the only students in the room who cared about my education, and my professors responded to that. I got hours of one-on-one attention, invitations to attend conferences and help with their research. So many professors wanted me to study in their department that it’s no wonder I changed my major eight times.

My friends at better schools spent most of their four years in large lecture halls crammed with students. The professors didn’t know their names. They were lucky if they got an attentive T.A.

I’ve also learned that money may buy you a first-class education, but it can’t buy you a work ethic. My first summer internship in Washington D.C., I was paired with two interns from prestigious colleges – Bryn Mawr and Duke. I was intimidated by them at first, but soon realized they were two of the laziest people I had ever met. Within weeks, I was planning everything we were in charge of and making sure it ran smoothly. They only thing they seemed to plan for was happy hour.

My lack of a prestigious education may mean I have to work harder to prove myself, but working hard is something I do anyway.

To those critics who say my education may keep me from even getting in the door – I doubt it. I applied to one of the most selective post-undergrad programs in the United States – Teach for America, which accepts about 15% of its applicants, most of them Ivy League – and got in without a single question about my educational background.

I’ve lived my post-college life without the threat of student loan debt. While friends of mine had to pass on jobs they wanted for a job that would pay off their loans, I was able to do things I wanted to do: start a non-profit arts organization, move to a big city, and nurture myself as a writer.

But what about the numbers? Don’t students who go to more selective institutions end up making more?

Well, yes and no. If you take the whole of the student body of a lower school and compare it to a higher ranking school, yes – the students from the higher ranking school will out-earn the others by tens of thousands.

But when you take a closer look – if you compare students of the same aptitude that went to either school – that disparity goes away, according to studies from the National Bureau of Economics Research. If you’re a good student at one school, you’ll be a good student at another. The only group that doesn’t fit that pattern is very low-income students, who seem to see a large income boost by attending a more selective school.

I’m not knocking those who choose to take on student loan debt to get a great education. I’m sure that Harvard would have been a different kind of stimulating environment, and it’s one that I definitely didn’t experience.

Going to college is about growing up, taking charge of your life and making your own decisions. Whether you decide to spend more money on a selective education or not, take the time to educate yourself so you know exactly what you’re getting into, and exactly what you’ll be paying out in the end.

In the mean time, I’m college-educated and debt free, and I don’t regret that decision one bit.

This essay was originally published in March 2007 on