06 June 2008

The larger bowl

There is poverty of spirit and poverty of stuff.

Once upon a time, my brother asked me:

"Our neighborhood, the one we grew up in, what was it? Middle-class?"

"Lower-middle class, bordering on poverty," I told him.

"That's what I thought," he said.

I haven't been back to that neighborhood since my mother sold the house after my father's death. I can't bring myself to visit it, in part because I don't want to see what's changed--I know it's for the worse.

Typically, we were the anomalies on that street. From the East Coast, with East Coast manners and accents. My mother, the daughter of a prominent Washington doctor, may not have had any money, but she had fine wool rugs to catch the pernicious Arizona dust that came in the doors and windows.

My "new" clothes may have come from the church poor box, but I knew which fork and knife to use for all occasions.

It sounds a little quaint and old-fashioned, but it wasn't that long ago.

We knew we were poor; we were the scholarship kids at school. We had jobs and our mother worked two. We had enough to eat, and even if the food wasn't nice, our stomachs were filled. On my tenth birthday, the dress I wore to school did come from the poor box, but it was new, if only to me, so I was pretty happy with it: a culotte dress from a red toile fabric. Some things you don't forget.

I'm not trying to sound saintly about this, but we accepted not having a lot of money, even though there were moments that were crushing. Simply put, there was nothing we could do about it, but I think to some extent we were unaware of it. And yeah, I got teased about wearing hand-me-downs, about not having stuff, but we survived, we had food and shelter and clothes, we were good at creating our own entertainment, whether chasing lizards or raiding the library. My family didn't have a color television until after I left for college. That was in the 1980s.

I never felt that I could complain about my lot in life because, yeah, we had no disposable income, but I'd seen poverty that was infinitely worse.

I was about the same age as the son, and it was a holiday. Maybe Easter, maybe Thanksgiving. I know it was cool because I remember exactly what I was wearing: a pair of trousers that I'd just had to mend again because they were slowly falling apart and a gold turtleneck sweater. At school, we'd put together food baskets that were going to the needy. I don't know why, but Sister A.M. asked me to go with her and Sister A.C. to deliver the baskets. Maybe because I was always willing to help out without comment, maybe because she knew I wouldn't talk about what I saw--I was as closed-mouthed then as I am now and as concerned about preserving others privacy and dignity--maybe because I was the scholarship kid and she wanted me to see what the bottom really looked like.

We packed the baskets into the back of the convent station wagon and headed west and south.

There were two reservations in that direction. One was poor, one was destitute. We were bound for the one that was destitute.

Sister A.M. obviously had been given specific addresses, but on the reservation, there weren't so many street signs. We drove around for a bit.

If you've traveled at all through the desert then I don't have to describe the houses to you. You've seen them, abandoned on the side of the road, or maybe they only look abandoned. Pre-fab stucco, maybe with windows, maybe with boards. What looks like junk piled around the outside of the house, but possibly part of what comprises a family's livelihood, weeds growing up and through the detritus. A broken bicycle, a child's toy discarded by the door. Probably a primordial, short-haired brown dog or two, walking or limping down what passes for the street.

This is the poverty that destroys. This is hopelessness.

I was designated to carry the baskets. I took them into the houses, put them where the owner gestured for me to place them and hurried out. I didn't want to see.

But one memory stays with me. A little girl, perhaps two or three, standing barefoot on a bare floor, flat black uninterested eyes staring at me, the tall white girl in her much-mended trousers, as I set a basket full of food on an otherwise empty, cheaply-constructed table. I only remember the interior of the house as dark, so dark; that the girl wasn't wearing enough for the weather; and that her mother stared at me with the same flat black eyes, but hers were filled with dislike.

I'll never know if it was simple expediency that drove Sister A.M. to ask me to help that day--I was strong enough to carry heavy baskets--or if she saw a larger purpose to it. I suspect the latter. She knew that our family situation was not good, not just financially, but emotionally. She knew it would be easy for me to fall into despair. I think she wanted me to see true despair.

It is lessons like that one, taught in a harsh desert so many years ago, that I hold on to now in the face of what passes for difficulty in my life: the hideous, obscenely expensive statue that a group of parents wants to donate to the school in our children's names; the harsh words the son has faced from other kids who are jealous of his academic success and the harsh words we got from a parent who wanted for his child what ours achieved for himself; the small bites the world takes out of me, the slings and arrows of others' utter stupidity that wear away at me every waking moment. I know these things are nothing, nothing, compared with what others live with every day, that compared with others, my troubles have always been small even when they were much greater than they are now. I know how fortunate I am, I feel guilt for my good fortune, though so much of it has come through my own hard work. I have trouble honoring that, though, when there is so much pain in the world.

And I know I can never give back enough.

Go listen to some good music: "The Larger Bowl" from the album Snakes & Arrows by Rush.

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