Growing up poor has left me, even in confident adulthood, with echoes of envy. We’d all like to believe that whatever experiences shaped us as children, somehow evaporate in maturity. That might be the story of someone else, but I am reminded with infrequent pangs that I cannot intellectualize my way out of baser feelings. I can, however, work to lessen their power over me.
Yesterday my husband baked an acorn squash. It reminded me of the days when, as a child, we lived wholly off squash and green beans and homemade applesauce. We ate “johnny cakes” (pancakes of corn meal, water, and salt) and blocks of government cheese and butter. This was American poverty, which through international translation, is not true poverty. We had food, shelter, clothing, and school.
Our family of 6 lived in a two bedroom apartment on Main Street in a small town in Iowa. We had a parent, sometimes parents, who was concerned with our grades, our upkeep, our behavior. While our home was rife with alcoholism and domestic abuse, we were clean, fed, and polite kids.
And then there was true wealth.
If I went down the rickety back stairs to the alley and walked north half a block, I was at the public library, a square three story building with small lions on each side of the stairs. My memory is faulty. Maybe there were no lions, but I always imagined there were. I looked for pictures online, but the old building is gone, replaced by a nondescript brick building – as if to disguise its riches in mediocrity. I spent most of my childhood there, creaking across uneven, waxed wood floors for the next book and the next one and the next one.
In my own family circle, no one had nice stuff unless it was stolen or donated, but going to school opened the doors to want. Pretty dresses, new shoes, superhero lunchboxes. These always seemed to be accompanied by pretty people with sparkly personalities and friends. I watched from afar through thick glasses wearing my second or third-hand clothes, shy and envious.
This laid the groundwork for advertising vulnerability, as the inextricable bond between happiness/perfection and stuff was created. It is a mental connection that I must talk myself out of continually. My Amazon account would indicate that I’m not a particularly good at it.
My body also did not escape this want, having struggled with weight most of my life. Hell, I’m an American woman through and through. Even when my weight is fine, I still struggle. But my body remembers hunger. My brother and I would get up in the night and “steal” food and my mother would lose her ever-loving mind to discover only half a loaf of bread was left in the morning. There was only so much to go around.
I over-buy. Our cupboards reflect that. Two of everything. I tell myself that since we’ll use it, it’s not a waste to buy two instead of one. If it were not for my compulsive organizational habits, our house would groan with the weight of my wants. Fortunately, living in small spaces all my life has been useful. My wants are constrained by my desire for space and neatness.
In the more tumultuous years we moved a lot. I learned to know exactly what I had in my possession. I know what I need to grab on the go. My stint in the Army reinforced this habit. This is where the weight of my want can entangle me, make me lose time. I have to straighten and inventory often. Everything has its place. My family doesn’t have this compulsion. I’ve stopped fighting their entropy and maintain my own spaces.
It is frustrating, at 51, to recognize the source of my behaviors and to still frequently feel at their beck and call. I can only walk myself through it, slow my actions, and try to remember that it is pointless to try and satisfy this gaping maw of want. This kind of hunger has no end, only a beginning, its imprint indelible, but not unmanageable.
Today, my daughter and I volunteer at our local food shelf. She has never known want. She will likely never stockpile, covet, or look longingly at others who have more. I’m very glad of that and in exchange, I have taught her the value of civic service – an awareness of the many people who are not so fortunate and our responsibility, as fellow humans, to ease their burdens. This is the gift of my want – empathy. It is a hopeful reminder that no matter how we started, we can decide who we become.
Lately, I feel like I’ve been moralizing a lot. I think I do this as a way of combating the anger I feel when I see and hear the many people in our society who believe in the bootstrap bullshit, even as they blame everyone else for their woes. None of us advance without the assistance of others and our society is defined by how we treat the least among us. Herein ends the sermon.
On a lighter note, I met Walt’s challenge of writing a creepy story under 899 words. Get some heebie-jeebs over at Waltbox.
18 thoughts on “The Weight and Gift of Want”
And an excellent sermon it was, very human, and vulnerable. I grew up never wanting for anything material, but needing much more than ‘the material’ from alcoholic parents and the television that watched over me. It took more than forty years to realize life is meant to be lived, not consumed or purchased. I say that as if in hindsight, but the realization is ongoing, the correction still correcting, if you will.
On a lighter note, thanks again for your buggy contribution to ‘Waltoween!’ I enjoyed getting a glimpse behind the curtain (or maybe a performance in front of it, in this case) and I’m sure others will too! 🙂
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Thanks, Walt. My realizations are always ongoing as well. Like most habitual things, it’s easy (and often comfortable) to slide back into an old way of thinking. My daughter tends to serve as a course-correction, because I worry about being a bad example. But also realizing time and time again that if this “want” makes decisions for me, I’m not making decisions that are rational or constructive. We’re always, like our writing, works-in-progress.
FYI: I killed another one of those bastards in the shower this morning. If you don’t hear from me again, you know what happened.
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Thanks for sharing some of the back story that formed/forms who you are today, Michelle. And, as for moralizing? I didn’t hear a ‘you should’ anywhere.
Thanks – I’m glad it doesn’t come across like that. I think that’s where we run into mistakes, when we universalize our own experiences. All we can do is tell our stories and if it resonates, that’s good, but when I read about someone unlike me or who doesn’t share my experiences, that’s another opportunity to cultivate empathy.
That was a great sermon! I can relate. People who grew up poor, even people who still are poor, can be more generous more empathetic, more kind than rich people. You don’t have to be religious to understand the truth that it might be hard for a rich person to get into heaven. They can start by giving away some of their wealth. And I can start by not being judgemental of other people, whatever their backgrounds or flaws. Even if they are rich. But especially if they are poor. Write on!
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I try to understand people who have wealth, but it seems apparent that when a person has it, they spend the rest of their lives trying to keep it or grow it. Despite my sense of want, I also have a sense of gratitude for what I do have, even if, in the world at large, it seems a small life.
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Another wonderful written insightful piece. Best advice I ever received as a woman – Never apologize for what you do!
That is different from empathy, those of us who by luck or talent have risen to another level of existence from humble beginnings get there because of empathy towards others.
This is the second blog I have read today about the importance of libraries and books in rural communities in shaping the blog writers. These are the things that make us better people – expanding our intellectual minds.
Power to the written word and those to create.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day – what would we be like without books? I imagine without all that early childhood spent at the library, that I’d be a different person entirely and not for the good.
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I think I would have had no dreams! I grew up with over 3000 books at our house without a TV that was what consumed our winter days (besides working my parents farm). I would daydream of all the places I could explore in the world through a book. Once I was able to travel the world, that wealth of knowledge came back to me in really exploring the areas more than just on the shiny surface of a tourist. I have had some wonderful adventures via the start with books. Thanks… for sharing your experience with books with the world!
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Seeing the gift in all of it and using it to instruct is how we grow. Don’t apologize for the sermon. We could all be doing a little proselytizing right now and who could blame us? Thanks for inspiring us to reflect on the sources of our better natures. It’s not always what we might expect, and that is what makes life so damned intriguing. Great post!
I feel like I’m frequently having to “re-orient” myself to my better nature in this current environment. How easy it must be to constantly give into every angry urge and hostile thought – if Twitter has shown me anything, it is a steady stream of people writing with no impulse control. Being decent, trying to be kinder or more compassionate, is never tougher than when facing flying spittle. But I think we’re up to the challenge.
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The best sermon I’ve experienced in months. I used to have a little sign hanging over my studio table “Wanting is Structural” to remind me that the “gaping maw” cannot be filled. It’s just an old scar. But those mental scars are so hard mistake for truth. Every time I wake up in the middle of that primal hunger is a victory. For you, too, my friend.
This was a really helpful comment – thank you. I’ve been pondering it over the last day and I think “Wanting is Structural” needs to go up on my board as well. It is hard to sort the truth from scars and the myths we tell ourselves. I have been thinking so much about stories lately – what we tell ourselves, what we tell others, and what the truth may actually be. So much to mull over here!
My father in law was a teenage prisoner in a Siberian Labor Camp. When he was 14 in Pomerania in 1943, the Russian army burned down his family farm and took him prisoner. He almost died of typhoid that winter in the camp but somehow miraculously survived and came back to Germany after the war to marry and have a child, my husband. They became a middle class West German family but my FIL never recovered from that youthful experience. He suffered from untreated PTSD for the rest of his days. He was a hoarder, excessively frugal, and his house fell into scary disrepair. His son, my husband, moved to the US in his 20s, married me, and has lived here ever since. The consequences of his growing up under that kind of experience were not at all clear to me when we married and have been the source of a number of conflicts between us over the years–about money, and about what it means to save and to spend, about what one needs to do to maintain a house, and about the very meaning of home. Those experiences never leave you. When my FIL passed away in 2015 we found among his personal things notebooks upon notebooks covered with Cyrillic script. He was still obsessed with Russian, into his 80’s, up until the very end.
That is quite the harrowing tale with understandable consequences. Often, when you talk to older people who lived through the Great Depression, a lot of those hoarding, saving behaviors followed them through their lives. Many of us cannot imagine being without, but entire generations experienced it. Beyond the traumatic events that mark people, it is endlessly fascinating to me how we carry so many beliefs and behaviors from our childhood. One can only hope to find enough introspection as adults, to discard those that are destructive or impediments to a sense of fulfillment.
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This was a great sermon. It is always better to look at what you have and be thankful than look at what somebody else has and be envious.
Thanks. I think that comparing oneself to others is a recipe for unhappiness. Appreciating what we have is a gift, even if it’s one we have to keep reminding ourselves about – I have to keep practicing that one!
[…] written before about my own sense of hunger and want. But growing up poor cannot be an excuse for greed and as we go through another consumer season, I […]