by Angeliska on November 26, 2015
It’s Thanksgiving time, and the cornucopias are overflowing. Refrigerators are stuffed full, a fruitful spread laden with more dishes than the table can hold, bellies filled to bursting. It’s a harvest pageant, an ancient feast where we eat our fill and spit in winter’s eye, daring our good fortune to hold out through the bitter months. Fields that will soon lie fallow under dead leaves and ice, are now full of bounty. Our winter rituals teem with excess and extravagance – to prove our victory over the vicissitudes of the seasons, over nature. As this holiday season rolls forward, I find myself thinking often about the concepts of abundance and scarcity. I hear these words bandied about quite a lot, and many times, I am the one bandying them. How many times have you said a little prayer (or a big one), did a spell or ritual, lit candles and wished – for more abundance? How many times have I? Oh, plenty and plenty. The truth is: we have more abundance than we know what to do with. If you’re reading this on your very own computer, you know that that’s true. So much of the work I have been trying to do for the past few years really boils down to: “If you’re going to talk the talk, you really have to walk the walk.” For me, in this instance, that means figuring out what the hell I truly mean when I use these words, and understanding better how to come to terms with my own own beliefs about the ideas behind them. Being clear in yourself, in your truth, means that you have a much better chance of making yourself clear and true as you make your way through the world – and are much more likely to respond to others from that place of truth. So, I will do my best to convey my thoughts on this subject (even if I only end up clarifying things for myself). This is something I’ve been pondering and having conversations about with friends for many years, but I’ve never really tried to write about it until now. Recently, I had an experience that brought it to the forefront of my consciousness, and asked me to come to an understanding. I’m still working on that understanding, weeks later. Perhaps this will help.
This experience (call it a dream, or a vision, perhaps) vividly catapulted me into an alternate reality – a place of barrenness and famine. It feels like there’s a part of my soul that’s been trapped in this place for years, maybe even eons – and I’ve been doing retrieval work to rescue it, to make right whatever went awry there. I got trapped in this place again for a bit – shivering and shaking with cold, feeling weak and ill, and dizzy with hunger. I went to that dark place where so many have perished, and knew the terror of being completely without the means to survive, firsthand – huddled in a ball and weeping with helplessness and empathy for all the people whose last moments on this earth were full of fear and wanting. Can you imagine what it would feel like to be so frail and unwell that you could not chop your own wood, nor carry it inside to keep your fire going? Provided that’s there’s even an “inside” to go to. Imagine having nothing left to eat, not enough blankets, and nothing to hold in your hands except the knowledge that no one is coming to rescue you. I was in a stone cottage on a high hill, looking over a desolate plain. Blackened tree stumps dotted the roll of the moor, and there was nothing growing there. The feeling of being completely alone in the world was pervasive. Only the sound of my own labored breathing, and the howling wind to keep me company. Think of all the people who have died in their beds, or on the cold earth, utterly alone. This is the part in the movie when someone is supposed to come, bustle in the front door, get a fire going in the grate, put the kettle on for you, make some porridge and spoon it down your throat until you get your strength back. Like a story from Dickens, where everything is awful and bleak forever, but then suddenly something wonderful happens, and there is hope again. I know that does happen, sometimes. Maybe more often than we know. The thing is – I do believe in miracles. Perhaps, too much. I never want to give up hope, always want to try and stay optimistic, because I know how dark and saturnine my Capricornian nature can be. It can drag you down, deep, and hold you there. I’m having a hard time even writing this, because it’s such a goddamn downer, but the truth is – this is how it happens, for countless people. This is how it happened, for many of our ancestors. This is how it is happening, for many people alive (or just barely) right this very minute. Having this experience put me directly into those beat-up shoes, and forced me to contemplate the harsh fact that for so many, there is no rescue, no respite. There are so many places on this earth where there is just not enough: not enough resources, not enough light, not enough compassion or awareness. People freeze to death, perish from exposure, from starvation. Every damn day. I don’t want to forget it. Once you see, you can’t un-see. But it’s one thing to see it: on television, on the news, on the street corner. It is quite another to feel it yourself, to be so enmeshed in that version of reality that you fear you may die there. At the time, I felt a bit despondent about having had to spend time in that terrible place. I learned what it is to feel hopelessness, and how to accept it. Later, I was so frustrated that I hadn’t been able to use my lucid dreaming tools, my breathing methods, every bit of magic in my bag to get myself out of there. I had to stay there a long, long time. I felt very sorry for myself while I was there, but my self-pity wasn’t the key that freed me. I’m free now, and I’m very grateful for it – and for the knowledge of what real poverty is. For the fact that I do not live that way.
My instinct tells me that some of this vision was given to me through ancestral memory. I came from people who starved, on both sides. The Eastern European Jews on my father’s side, who left Poland and Czechslovakia (before the Holocaust) escaping anti-Semitic pogroms, the Romani in my mother’s line, who have always been persecuted – and the Scots-Irish from her too, fleeing the ravages of the potato famine. All my people came to this country with next to nothing, desperate immigrants. This does something to you, changes you. The memory of going without, of dying without, stays in your DNA. For a long time, healers and lightworkers have known that your ancestors passed down more than their genes to us – we can also inherit their experiences, and their traumas. Many scientific studies have now been done on this subject, and the data is in: Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes
If your people were famine survivors, if they were the victims of persecution for their ethnicity or their religious beliefs, if they were abused and forced into slavery, if they were refugees fleeing war-torn homelands, if they clutched ragged shawls around them, crying, “No fuel for fire, no food for baby!” – then you might find yourself affected by what has come to be known as poverty or scarcity mentality. I perceive poverty mentality to be something passed down to us, inborn – but also something that has been intentionally cultivated by the society we live in to keep us always wanting, always hungry, never satisfied. It can be hard to shake, especially when we’re exposed to media that reinforces this constantly: there’s never enough – you always need more. Unfortunately, poverty mentality is often written off as a mindset that one can just make a choice to change when they are ready to adopt gratitude as their mainstay, and focus on their abundance. I want to believe that, but I had a hard time facing the agony of my ancestors watching their subsistence blackened with blight, evicted from their homes, dying in the road. Maybe I should have told them, “Well, you’re just really giving in to that poverty mentality, you know. Visualize abundance!” Granted, most of these terrible incidents in history would never have happened, or never have happened to the horrifying degree countless occurrences have – without other humans not helping, or more often, even taking specific actions to make it worse. Sometimes there’s a bad winter, and everyone suffers. Sometimes, there’s genocide. I can’t help feeling that extreme poverty is always unnecessary. No one should ever die from deprivation, or go without shelter – especially in this world where so few have more than they will ever need or use, and so many have next to nothing. There’s a sly, underlying notion I come across all the time in our society that anyone who is poor just didn’t work hard enough, or they did something wrong, they made foolish decisions, or they indulged themselves to the brink of poverty. That they’re somehow choosing to remain on the bottom rung, scrabbling in the dirt for leftovers and scraps. People make these judgements on the poor because it makes it easier to avert your gaze, to turn the other way, to do nothing. In Barcelona I remember being shocked to see the beggars there: always making an effort to dress very respectably, but kneeling on the ground (on a cardboard mat or their backpack), head bowed, with open hands or a bowl extended. The picture of contrite shame. Forgive me for being poor. Please help me. People would rush past, toss a few coins, not looking, crossing themselves. There but for the grace of God go I.
This subject brings to mind 5 of Pentacles – a card in the Minor Arcana of the Tarot that is associated with worry, and with shame. Two beggars huddle beneath a stained glass window, gazing up wistfully and wishing they could come inside and get warm, eat soup, feel safe. But they are riddled with wounds and injuries, they wear foul-smelling rags, and their bodies are weak and malformed. They have no money. No one can see them out there behind the colored glass – no one can hear their mewling, pitiful cries muffled by the snow. They are too ashamed to go around to the front door to knock and be let in. Shame is what disconnects us from each other. It’s this same emotion at work when you ignore a homeless person at a red light. Roll up the window, blast the AC. Turn your head and bob to the music to avoid the pleading eyes. I have found that making eye contact, and offering a smile, a peace sign – some form of acknowledgment, “Hey, I see you. You are not invisible, even if I can’t easily help you right now.” It does make a difference, a little one. You can try offering that, even if you aren’t prepared to give money, or your light is about to change. Just connect. Or connect, and then give, if you want to. You can’t help every person, but sometimes you can help one. Handing out water bottles on hot days could potentially save a life. I remember the fairy tales of my childhood, where the heroic fool, or brave true-hearted girl helps the grizzled beggar-woman who turns out to be a good fairy. You just never know. Helping someone can feel like such a blessing. This past summer in Texas was blazing, and being outside in the noonday sun felt like baking in an oven. I passed by an old woman trudging across the bridge carrying heavy grocery sacks. Without even thinking about it, I pulled over and asked if I could take her to wherever she was headed. It took me less than five minutes out of my way. To see the joy and relief in her beautiful wrinkled walnut face was such a gift, smiling big with not very many teeth, giving me a kiss and calling me “mija” – my daughter.
I didn’t know my family was poor, growing up. I never saw it, never thought it – until much later. It was just normal, my family’s humble life – I thought we were no different really, from anyone else. Even when I went to a wealthy family friend’s mansion as a kid – I was too little to register that their relative opulence meant that our financial status was far lesser. They just had a much bigger house. More stuff. A larger television set. When I was young, I thought that boll weevils were called “bowl weevils” because they floated in your cereal bowl and you had to just eat it anyway. For some reason that didn’t seem as bad as at my best friend’s house, where there was never any milk, and you had to eat your generic cheerios with water instead. I didn’t know we were poor when us kids would be behind the old Ford Falcon, push-starting it in the pre-dawn November blue, our ears burning with cold, the smoke from our breath and the sputtering muffler making big clouds shaded scarlet from the taillights. The elementary schools I went to were all built in the 1950′s or so, low brick buildings with aluminum casement windows and cold bathroom stalls that had banged up metal doors, enamel paint scratched with 30 years of naughty children leaving their marks. All the kids were kind of scrappy there, except the girls who had mothers to put matching bows in their hair. There was no obvious class distinctions that I was aware of, other than that I couldn’t participate in the weird trend that developed in 5th grade of wearing double socks and double t-shirts, both matching. You’d wear a pristine pink t-shirt with a white one underneath, the sleeves of the white one rolled up over your shoulders so contrasting color cuffs showed. The socks would be pink over white, rolled and scrunched perfectly to show both colors. It was dumb, but I wanted so badly be able to pull it off and just be like other girls. But I was lucky to not wear the same grubby sweater days in a row. Even then, I knew I wasn’t as bad off as some. I still didn’t think of it as being about money, really. I thought it just had to do with having a mom to dress you. My dad did a great job raising me on his own after my mother died, but I looked pretty feral during those years when it was just he and I: long tangled locks, strange outfits I picked for myself and wore continuously, and a perpetually grubby face.
I first learned that we were poor when my dad remarried, and I had to switch schools. Even though we lived way out in the boonies, in a neighborhood bizarrely populated with shitty suburban tract homes, fancy mansions, and trailer parks – but all mixed up together instead of designated into either gated communities or the wrong side of the tracks. We lived out there so my step-brother and I could go to the “good” (i.e. rich) schools in that district. My eyes goggled the first time I saw my new middle school. I thought it looked like a shopping mall. Everything was new, shiny, and well-lit. I felt instantly alienated. Perhaps the timing of puberty played a part in the sudden awakening to my own awkwardness and outsider status, but it all became very clear to me that I was a have-not, surrounded by haves. Forget double-stuffed t-shirts and socks (with matching double scrunchies, how could I forget?) You were less than nothing if you weren’t wearing Z. Cavaricci, or Marithé+François Girbaud jeans with a Hypercolor t-shirt (that actually changed color according to your body heat! Whoa, so cool – and it really kind of was, except it did show when you were all nervous and sweaty like if you liked someone, I guess. So it’s probably good that I never had one.) I wore no brand names, but only because I had access to none. Our clothes came from garage sales, or discount markdown stores called Solo Serve, or Wiener’s. Buying clothes or anything other than some curly fries or gummi worms at the mall was out of the question, and even those were a stretch, a very special treat. I remember hearing my stepmom sobbing late one night, crying to my dad that we only had $17 dollars in the bank to get through the month. We went on the dole for school lunches, the special card you had to flash to remind everyone that you were one of the scrappers. My parents seemed to be worrying always, and then came that feeling as a child when you start worrying, too. You wonder if maybe you could sell some of your toys to help out (and then you start worrying about the day you’ll have to sell off all your toys). Your folks tell you with grim faces not to get your hopes up with your letters to Santa, because “Christmas is going to be light this year.” It didn’t help that I was a deeply traumatized kid, who often dealt with my overwhelming grief by having tantrums and acting like a spoiled brat. I associated things and stuff with love and attention, but no matter how much I had – I always wanted more.
I didn’t know the phrase until recently, but looking back, I think that there were times we were definitely “food insecure”. There never seemed to be enough to eat, though my parents always managed to scrape together our simple meals. Macaroni and cheese with frozen peas and tuna. Arroz con pollo. I left home at 16, to get away from the discord in my struggling blended family, and to hang out with my friends in town. I was technically homeless, but I never had to sleep on the street. There was always somewhere to go, even if it meant sleeping on the floor of the kitchen in an older friend’s garage apartment. Big cockroaches would march over me en route to the dirty dishes piled in the sink, but even though I could have moved back in with my parents, I picked bugs crawling on me over dealing with the situation at home. I just didn’t want to be there. Eating out of dumpsters felt adventurous and resourceful, like a smart raccoon foraging in the wild. I met so many of my dear friends at the food pantry where the gutterpunks and homebums filled their packs with donated dry goods. I felt like I had found my people, and I claimed my place among them as a proud rag-tag urchin, spare changing on the street and scorning the yuppies who avoided our eyes. I moved to New Orleans when I was 20, and began to learn what real economic disparity looked like. I used refer to myself as “poor” all the time. I’d say, “I can’t go to the movies with you, because I’m too broke right now.” I’d call myself “a starving artist”. But “starving” does not mean living off of beans and rice and cheap tacos or even packages of ramen. Starving means that your body begins to eat itself, when it has gone too long with nothing else. A group of my friends and I went down to the Yucatán, to Tulum, back when it was still cheap as hell and not too full of tourists. We were all fairly skint, staying in concrete block cabanas painted Pepto Bismol pink, with sand floors and ghost crabs dancing sideways over our toes. Still, it was a real vacation, and I realized seeing the way the street kids looked at us there, that in fact, we were quite rich. I have friend who has taken to saying that to remind himself, “I am so rich. My life is so rich!”
There have been plenty of times have I sat at my kitchen table with my head in my hands, wondering how the hell I was going to scrape up the cash to pay my electric bill, my credit card debt, the errant payment for my root canal that was sent to collections, the money for a reliable car after my 30-year old Volvo finally crapped out. And it’s always come. I’ve always been able to work, and I’ve worked since I was 12 years old or so. I’ve always worked, and I’ve always worried. About the rent going up, about not having enough, about always being stuck behind. This worrying though – it almost always occurred within my own (more or less) structurally sound shelter, with a roof over my head, and food in the pantry. There have always been enough clothes to wear (way more than enough! Too many!) and plenty of friends and family who would readily come to my aid, if I ever found myself otherwise. I know this, because so many did – after I lost nearly everything I had in Hurricane Katrina. I do believe that it is possible to shift the energy that we carry from the past – to try and move in a healthy way towards healing, towards a feeling that there is enough. Maybe not much, but enough. To find the abundance in what is already around us. Making use of what we have. Trying not to want for much more. This has an alien concept for me. I have a wishlist a mile long. I inherited my mother’s champagne taste – and her beer budget. Her letters to my grandmother are rife with money worries, and wishes for better things, a better life. It was during the recession in the 80′s, and jobs were scarce. She soldered computer circuit boards in an unventilated basement where she probably picked up the cancer that killed her – for $2 an hour. She had a fine education, intelligence, and was brimming with talents galore. She worked her ass off, and scrimped and saved for decently nice belongings. My mother never got to travel, never left the country she was born in to visit all her favorite paintings in European museums. I did that for her – I was able to travel widely, and to explore the world. I am privileged to live in a time and place, (and in a body) that affords me to have a much higher standard of life than she was ever able to experience. Did she suffer from poverty mentality? Reading her stressed out, embarrassed, always needy letters, yeah – I would say so. But her poverty lead to her untimely death. It wasn’t a concept, or a state of mind – it was her whole fucking reality. So much of abundance versus poverty is just the luck of the draw. Born into a rich family? Lucky you! Go do something awesome with it. But don’t believe for an instant that it has anything to do with your worth or value as a person. Born dirt poor? Well, shit. You could say this one ain’t your turn to be lucky, but sometimes you can turn it around. It does happen, that rags to riches story. It doesn’t have to be riches, even. Just enough – however much that is.
Yesterday, I bought a used velvet sofa from the 1940′s off Craigslist. It’s the first nice sofa I’ve ever had in my life. I paid $375 for it. Until I have a place to put it, it’s stashed in my friend’s storage unit. It’s such a bizarre concept: storage units to keep stuff we don’t need or aren’t using – protected and secure from the elements, climate controlled. We’ll pay for buildings to keep our stuff safe, but not provide housing to the homeless. There’s a guy who lives out of one of the units – a shitty one made of corrugated tin, with no electricity. His clothes are on a rack in there, and he gets dressed and puts on cologne before he goes to work. He has a place to sit inside where he can read a book. He might sleep in there sometimes. It costs $100 a month. I write this tonight, in my beautiful bedroom, with many candles burning in honor of the full moon, from a bed piled high with silk pillows. I went to the fancy grocery store today and navigated a hectic press of shoppers filling their carts with last minute feast preparations. I bought raw honey, lavender blueberry lemon pancake mix, and bright carnations the color of a Revlon lipstick: Cherries in the Snow. Luxuries. I lay these things out in the memory of my ragged ancestors. I enjoy all that I have thoroughly, and hope that somewhere, my mama’s spirit eases up a bit, knowing I’ve found a way to do alright for myself. I work hard, like her. I’m luckier than her, too – and I know it. I am fully aware that despite the humble way I was raised, that a combination of focus, determination, and privilege have aided me in being to pull myself out of that cold place. Privilege is another word that’s being used a lot lately – often in a way that’s meant to be negative, to invoke more shame. Check your privilege: like, check your fly – your wiener’s hanging out. Your privilege is showing. If you have it, yes – check it. But check it with a sense of gratitude when you take a minute to think on how truly blessed so many of us are, with whatever we have that affords us a privilege. Not to feel guilty, or shitty about it, because that never really helped anyone – but to acknowledge it, and to honor all you’ve received. To do something kind and loving with it. To be aware and awake. To remember where you came from, and honor the memory of your ancestors, whoever they are. To honor the ancestors of those who have not been so lucky. Offer help when and where you can. I guarantee it’s more often than many of us really do – and that includes me. We are so privileged to have roofs over our heads, and food to eat. To be able to feel safe in our homes, and to sit on the internet and read articles about whatever the hell we want. We have clean water to drink, showers and flushing toilets, and electricity so the lights stay on. Many of us have air-conditioning, heaters, and washing machines. Most people I know are still dealing with crippling debt from student loans and credit cards. Most still don’t have health insurance. It ain’t easy out there – but we’re still doing okay, way better than okay. My parents are really struggling this year – physically, emotionally and financially. So our Thanksgiving is going to be a small hodgepodge we’re cobbling together, with pre-made stuff from the grocery store, and dishes donated by friends. I’m bringing food and pies and love to the table, to my little family – in hopes that we can just be grateful for what we do have. Still, so much. More than enough. I’ve been thinking of some of my friends who I often see bowing their heads in a silent prayer of thanks before every meal. I’d like to be as mindful as them, to always stop before I dig in – and say thank you for all that I have. They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone – and that you can’t take it with you. This is true. Be glad for whatever is there. Hold on to that, your thankfulness. Try not to hold too tightly to anything else. Share what you have. There is enough for everyone, if we could all do that.
The Irish in America: Long Journey Home: The Great Hunger
Ashley Davis – Na Fatai Bana (feat. Paddy Moloney of the Chieftans)
Ashley Davis, one of my wonderful singing teachers at the Irish Music retreat I attended recently, taught us a song in Gaelic about the terrible blight that killed so many. She originally heard it sung in the documentary above, and tracked down the lyrics, which are a powerful paean and love letter to the humble potato. Peatsaí Ó Callanán (1791-1865) wrote “Na Fataí Bána” (“The White Potatoes”), originally a thirty-three verse lament on the state of Ireland in 1846.
Na Fataí Bána/White Potatoes
A thousand farewells to the white potatoes
For as long as we had them, a pleasant hoard
Affable innocent, coming into our company
As they laughed us at the head of the board.
They were help to the nurse, to the man and the child,
To the weak and the strong, to the young and the old
But the cause of my sorrow, my grief, my affliction
Them rotting away, without frost, without cold.
What will buy a shroud for those to be buried?
Tobacco, pipes or a coffin of wood?
And, of course, it would be a release if we could.
Mo mhíle slán do na fataí bána,
Ba subhach an áit a bheith in aice leo,
Ba fáilí soineannta iad ag tíocht chun láithreach,
Agus iad ag gáirí linn ar cheann an bhoird.
Ba chabhair don bhanaltra iad, don fhear is don gharlach,
Don lag is don láidir, don óg is don chríon,
Ach fáth mo dhocharna is ábhar m’angair,
Gur lobh na preátaí gan sioc ná síon.
Céard a cheannós bráithlín don fhear a sinfear
Tobac ná píopaí ná cónra chláir
Ach Ard Rí Fhlaithúnais le cabhair is slí ‘gainn
Agus ar ndóigh b’aoibhinn dhúinn dhá bhfaigheadh muid bás.
And, some more food for thought:
“In some First Nations tribes, if a person begins acquiring too much land and possessions they are considered mentally ill and a shaman is called in to heal them.”
“Own it if you want to be rich. Claim it if money is important but don’t hide behind the word abundance, because it’s now just a fancy word for greed.
I’ve changed my thinking around “abundance” since my mom died. I used to think I had a poverty mentality and I needed to work harder at getting comfortable with money. But now, I’m just grateful for the small. Since being gutted, I see clearly the fragility of the earth and how little control I have over my day. I’m dedicated to my path, almost militantly sometimes but I don’t do what I do in hopes of making more money. I do what I do because it fills me to the brim. I’m so fucking abundant it’s hard to bear but this has nothing to do with my bank account.”
In 2014, 48.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, including more than 15 million children.
This means that 1 in 6 Americans, and 1 in 5 children, lack consistent access to adequate food.
Forty percent of the food in the United States goes uneaten.
Americans throw away a pound of food per person, per day — or well over 100 billion pounds of food per year.
This number does not include the huge amount of produce discarded by millions of backyard gardeners.
“The Arabs used to say, When a stranger appears at your door, feed him for three days before asking who he is, where he’s come from, where he’s headed. That way, he’ll have strength enough to answer. Or, by then you’ll be such good friends you don’t care. Let’s go back to that. Rice? Pine nuts? Here, take the red brocade pillow. My child will serve water to your horse. No, I was not busy when you came! I was not preparing to be busy. That’s the armor everyone put on to pretend they had a purpose in the world. I refuse to be claimed. Your plate is waiting. We will snip fresh mint into your tea.”
– Red Brocade
by Naomi Shihab Nye