Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Back when I was a church-going man, I would spend the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at our "simple supper", a communal meal of bread and soup, usually both homemade. I usually brought a big pot of lentil soup (less than $5 for about a gallon of soup) and two loaves of homemade bread. I suppose the goal was for the austerity of Wednesday night's meal to stand in contrast to the ostentation of Thanksgiving, but the meal felt like a luxury to me, surrounded as we were with good friends and food made with care. And the cooking itself was a nostalgia trip, since I developed both recipes in the days when Carrie and I were living well below the poverty line.

There were two big differences between the poverty I lived and what I think of as "real" poverty. First of all, I was just starting out. I had a college degree under my belt and valid reasons to feel hope for the future. Secondly, I had a strong safety net made up of friends, family, and friends' families. If I'd needed help, the list of people I could go to for help was long and diverse. There was no way I was going to starve.

But that doesn't mean I was never hungry, nor does it mean I didn't economize. I learned to make bread because I could make it for $1.00 a loaf less than it cost at the store. Meat was a luxury, as was anything fresh. I always ate leftovers, and never threw anything away if I could help it. But I got very good at cooking from canned or dry ingredients, which could be bought on the cheap, often in bulk. Even with economizing, a trip to the grocery store meant first balancing the checkbook so I'd know how much to spend, then making a list based on what I could afford, and, finally, keeping a running tally in my head to avoid the embarassment of telling the clerk that something needed to go back. In a discussion with some friends on the nature of wealth, I was asked to define "rich". "Not having to check the bank balance before I go shopping," I said, "and impulse buys at the grocery store." That was a long time ago, and I've long since become rich, according to that definition (mostly by refusing to do the credit card thing).

A lot of folks aren't so lucky. A lot of folks are out of work, in debt up to their eyeballs, feeding their families on minimum wage, or otherwise at the end of their rope. Luckily for me, a group of local radio stations are doing remotes all over town, raising money and food for the Central Missouri Food Bank. I drive right by one on the way home, and I'll be stopping by and dropping off. It's not the least I can do (that'd be nothing), but it's the least I can do and still feel good about who I am and how I live.

This could be mistaken for charity, but it's a selfish deed, really, dressed in charitable robes. For one thing, I've received much more than I've given over the years, so this is just paying down that debt. For another, I never feel so rich as when I decide I'm rich enough to share. I call it Good Deed Therapy, and if you've never tried it, give it a shot. 'Tis the season, right?

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