In my bookshelf at home is an old tattered copy of the book Walden and another of Whitman’s poems, Leaves of Grass. Both smell of old paper and bring me to the moments I read them on hot New Jersey nights with the fan blowing in my room. Nearby in my front room are some of the first records I bought— Dave Brubeck, Bob Dylan, Incredible String Band and a Nonesuch collection of music from around the world. Each one an icon in my emerging selfhood that both helped shape me and reflect that moment in time— and thus, precious. I joke with my children about who will inherent the wooden spoon I bought at the San Francisco Zen Center garage sale for 25 cents back in 1973, my first attempt to stock a kitchen as a new adult and still useful to serve up brown rice.
Growing up, we had a modest income and though we never wanted for anything, a book or record or new baseball glove was something yearned for, worked for, hoped for and deeply valued once it came into our life. As a young adult living in voluntary poverty (with parents in the background to bail me out and again, always a roof over my head and enough to eat in the refrigerator), each possession acquired was prized.
In the past few years, I’ve sometimes gone out of my way to buy or make something special for a student at my school and lately, I get the sense that it instantly gets mixed in with a mountain of stuff and quickly forgotten. The kids I work with have much more than any kid needs and I believe it creates a deflation in the value of each thing. And the current media trends work against this sensibility as well— nostalgia for the downloaded song from i-Tunes and the moment of the download ain’t quite the same thing as that prized record. Likewise, the ephemeral Kindle book.
The other day, Sofia collected the gifts people had brought and bagged them for the 40 plus Nunya Academy kids— pencils, notebooks, books, little toys, a recorder each and T-shirt. They came back last night to play brass band music for us and many thanked folks for the gifts and showed off what they learned on the recorder. Afterwards, they showed us how they learned (and already changed) some of the games we taught them the other day (like Head and Shoulders) and then helped us learn some of their fabulous games (future Orff workshop folks, you’re in for a treat!).
I don’t like talking about these “poor kids” with a liberal twinge of pity, but the fact is that they are quite poor—economically speaking— by U.S. standards. And though they are rich in smiles and a sense of belonging, yes, some of them need health care or have been abandoned by their parents or don’t get as much to eat as they should. (All three true in the United States as well.) To simply get themselves to rehearsals with Nunya Academy (which charges nothing) can be a challenge and to finish high school, which may cost $100 for the year, a yet bigger challenge. There is a line below which poverty is anything but romantic, but there is also a level of simple living, one that I found in my first long-ago travels in Kerala, India, that is quite healthy in all sorts of ways— ecologically, for one! Some of these kids are right at the border between these two types of economy.
The point? A culture of scarcity breeds gratitude— genuine gratitude that is very difficult to find amongst privileged kids. And it breeds generosity as well. Throughout my travels, the most welcoming people, the most eager to share a meal or a cup of tea or offer a seat for conversation, are those dismissed as “those poor people.” And yet so rich in human warmth and hospitality.
By contrast, a culture of abundance breeds a different kind of person altogether, one more inclined to be suspicious and guard what they have. And also take too much for granted. The kids often don’t smile as much as their counterparts across the economic divide, might whine and complain that Johnny got more frosting on his cupcake, might be drowning in a sea of toys and machines instead of embraced by a vibrant community of adults. Naturally, these are generalizations with many exceptions, but true enough to bear some reflection. If you need convincing, just hang out with these Nunya kids and be touched by their warmth, gratitude, immense talent and deep sense of belonging.
And don’t forget to bring them some pencils.