“Spare change leads to spiritual change”
My mother worked at a school for orphans in India for thirteen years. Those years profoundly shaped the rest of her life stories and much of mine. In a simple way that was never offensively moralistic, she reminded us, even—or perhaps I should say especially—at the end of a month when grocery money reached a serious limit—to be thankful. Gratitude was a way of life for her, and giving.
I’ve traveled a winding road since those lean years, and my mother is gone, but I think of her when I walk the streets of Berkeley and give money–or don’t. I feel blessed to have her example so deeply branded in my memory—though the sense of not being able to live up to it remains uncomfortably with me as well.
I’m blessed not only by her example, but, more presently, by my husband’s. As I wrestle with my own anxieties about money, ownership, the painfully visible inequities we all live with here in this polarized city, and at this time of rightful and vigorous protest, it helps me to watch him talk with the homeless people who stop us as though he was just hoping they’d stop him to ask for money. “What’s your name?” he asks, as he fishes through his pockets. “Where you from?” “Tom. Good name. My grandpa was named Tom.”
My brother engages any and everyone with similar genuine interest. At our father’s funeral, though he and dad had had some hard times over the years, he gave a touching eulogy about how Dad would welcome conversation with anyone from the school custodian to a CEO with a natural egalitarianism that seemed to come from what was sometimes an utter and awkward lack of class consciousness. “Who are you?” he wanted to know. “What can I learn from you?”
The money exchanged on these occasions is not, of course, incidental. It isn’t enough to look people in the eye and speak with them. My brother carries a roll of quarters for the purpose. Dad sometimes brought people home for something to eat. But what I have learned from these whom I have loved, and from many others in my fortunate life is that gratitude is a dimension of giving—gratitude of the kind that says I’m so glad you asked me for money! I’m so glad I found you just on this street corner while the light was red. I’m so glad you picked my freeway exit and I saw your sign, even in the rain. I’m so glad I happen to have some money right here in my pocket.
Some days I rush past the people who need what I have. Busyness and hurry erode generosity. Some days I occupy myself with my first-world problems. I’m grateful for the days I don’t. I’m grateful for the people who have taught and continue to remind me that what isn’t shared is wasted.