Gertrude and the Question of Class – By LisaB

Before I worked at Poke I had a lot of angst, despite my solidly middle-class background, about trying to make a living as a health care professional. This was partially bewilderment about how to make private treatments accessible and still make a living (I didn't know about community acupuncture then) but also, I struggled with feeling like an imposter; too scruffy, too queer, too many hangnails.

Having found my way to community acupuncture and enjoying the incredible learning curve and rock-solid confidence only possible through treating many many many people each week, I'd thought I was well over those niggling insecurities. I've found my place, I've found my people, and I have no doubt about my worth, about having something valuable to offer. The other day I emerged triumphant from the local organic dumpster with a bag full of wheat-and-gluten-free loaves and smilingly greeted one of my patients on my way out the parking lot. I believe that we were both unfazed by this.

But it's amazing how easily those insecurities pop back up. Last month the
smiling representative at the credit union (yes, the fucking credit
union) made an utterly uncritical mention of discerning my Character as
a factor in whether to grant me a loan to pay my income tax debt. I did not challenge her on this (thought I might still write a letter to VanCity.)

Today I had an unpleasant conversation with someone from Revenue Canada, the person on the other line intoning Legal Action, Further Measures, Collection Agency, sternly informing me that I have until early next week to call him or one of his colleagues early next week to discuss the personal details of my monthly income & spending and to determine a payment schedule.

I note how these interactions make me feel – as a someone housed, healthy, employed and generally confident.  One of the things that strikes me as incredibly positive about Occupy is the sharing of individual stories, often through simple handheld signs – being out of work, having staggering debt loads, being ill and not having adequate health care. There are many of us in the same boat, speaking to bankers and bureaucrats who use deliberately intimidating language, who treat us like irresponsible children. With the breaking of isolation comes, I think, at least a partial dissolution of shame.

I was reading over my old Myspace blog posts tonight, in search of a stray poem, and came across this piece about class insecurity, written while I was living in Manchester UK. Almost 4 years ago and so much in my life has changed, but some of it still rings true, still stings sometimes. Reposting:

Gertrude, and the Question of Class

been thinking about class lately, and how i situate myself. i’m 29
and paying the rent by working a minimum wage job. yes, i was hired
at my current job partially for my knowledge of Traditional Chinese
Medicine and herbs and for my north american attitude towards service
(which i’m told is wearing thin) but i was also hired for my strong
don’t think i’m hard done by, by the way. i’m not working up to
laying claim to a working class identity, like the downwardly mobile
activist with anarchist patches on his ripped jeans who tries for
some street cred by telling anyone who’ll listen that he doesn’t
take money from his parents and that makes him working class. i’m a
middle class girl and that’s in the way i talk, the way i move, in
my head full of strong white teeth and in the way i take a little
while to clue in to the fact that that Islington Mill got its name
because it really did actually used to be a working mill. (god, i
make myself laugh sometimes.)
as someone of middle-class background with an mostly-paid for college
acupuncture degree stuck deep into her back pocket (ie, on hold for a
coupla years at least, for various reasons i’ll not get into here)
who’d not make my half of the rent if i got too sick to
work for more than 4 days this month, where do i place
myself these days?
comes up at least partially because of a regular customer in the shop
i work at. i’ll call her Gertrude. Gertrude does not say hello to
me or use my name except to tell me to fetch something or to ask me
to put something into the bin for her. as an owning-class woman who’s
friends with my boss, Gertrude knows that i have to be extra-polite
to her, and she derives satisfaction from treating me like a slightly
dim servant. i’m not surprised to hear that her sons bully the
other children at school.
friend M points out that it’s always folks who are paid the least
who are expected to do the most work, take the fewest breaks, and put
up with the most shit. i’ve got some paid poetry work coming up
next month as part of an artistic development program with Apples &
Snakes. this will be the highest hourly wage of my life so far. i’d
like to say that i feel perfectly deserving of their investment in
me, of how well they’re treating me. but, i’m brainwashed by a
culture which isn’t so quick to value the hard work done by artists
(remember also that i hail from canada, which believe it or not has a
LOT less by way of funding for “emerging” artists)…and, i
also wonder if my middle-class sense of entitlement is developing
some thin spots.
class insecurity isn’t something i’m accustomed to. just as we
white folks often have the luxury of not really thinking at all about
our skin colour if we don’t want to, so too can we middle class
people ignore class, most of the time.
when Gertrude’s in the shop i am acutely aware of my position as
the hired help. when she’s around i find myself wondering how she
perceives me, what she thinks my background is. Gertrude evokes that
middle-class fear of falling that barbara ehrenreich refers to. she
makes me wonder if i’ve slipped class.
treats me in much the same way my mother, my sister, and my aunts
did, before i bought a one-way ticket to britain without telling any
of them where i was going. when i was severing my relationships with
each individual member of my biological family i thought the issues
tearing us apart had to do with incest, addiction,
sexism, homophobia, and rampant, cowardly denial. i didn’t
realise until years later that our conflict was also about class –
about my unspoken rejection of some middle class values and life
choices, and their seething resentment of that. their sullen fury
about what they interpreted as implied criticism of them.
thought that the women in my family were just abused, petty, insecure
and repressed. it took me quite awhile to recognize the very specific
middle-class flavour to their nastiness, to their sweetly smiling
barbs. the women in my family don’t yell or throw punches. i
almost wish they did.
hole left by the women in my family will never be filled. and just as
that wound makes me especially grateful for connection with women
now, especially around art and self-expression, it makes also
me deeply vulnerable to new hurt by other women.
thought i was going to vent my spleen, stomp my hooves, shake my
horns and log off satisfied. i’d like to end this on a cheeky note,
with a cuttingly witty comment directed towards Gertie which i’d
quietly smile about during her next sweetly condescending visit
to the shop. and i’d like to say that i don’t give a shit what
Gertrude thinks of me and that i’m better off without the women in
my family so to hell with them. but the writing demands more honesty
than that.
am i
planning on proving Gertrude, and my family wrong? is this business
of traveling, poetry tours, living in europe and now britain just
some overly-prolonged gap year between finishing college and starting
my “real” career? i will set up that acupuncture practice
someday. and i will charge women like Gertrude and my mother enough
to live more comfortably than i do now, and to be able to afford to
charge everyone else on a sliding scale. but these thoughts and plans
for someday don’t really serve to soothe me right now.
i’ve got no firm answers tonight.
and, surprisingly little comfort in the questioning.

Author: andy-wegman

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Conference Keynote: Breaking the Ceiling

The theme for this conference is “Breaking Barriers”. You know, there are so many barriers to break in acupuncture that it was really hard to choose which ones to talk about for this speech. But since I’ve spent so much time talking about classism as a barrier, I thought it might be fun to shift gears a little and talk about numbers.


  1. Lisa, I’m always impressed by how you cut to the chase, how clearly you see, and how forthrightly you express your feelings about what you see.

    Thank you for illuminating how so many of us feel/have felt.