If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food, either. Joseph Wood Krutch

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The straight scoop

My post on Monday, August 6, was based on actual facts in my life but I did exercise a touch of poetic license in that I turned three homes into one composite home. Today, I wanted to present the actual facts as they existed then.

Shortly after I was born, our family began to slowly sink into poverty. We were somewhat middle class for a while after I was born but it was before I was truly aware. My very first actual memory is that of a rental home near Noti, Oregon that had once been a stage stop. We lived there until I was four when we moved to a second home near a wildlife preserve. This is when we reached the lowest point of our poverty and this home, and I use the term loosely, is where we had no indoor toilet. Just an outhouse out the back door next to the chicken coop. We did have a small tub in the kitchen surrounded with a cardboard box and there was one spigot in the kitchen sink that put out brackish cold water from a shallow well but the pump on the well was not reliable so water was a real fight sometimes. The house itself was merely a two-room shack with large holes in the walls making it impossible to heat. We did, in fact, huddle together under blankets to stay warm when the weather turned cold. The roof leaked and we had cans on the floor to catch the drips. We lived in this house for about for about two years.

The last of the three homes we lived in was called "The Sailor Farm" and at this point we had clawed our way out of poverty enough to have indoor plumbing, hot water and a nice kitchen. There were also a lot of incredible places at the farm for three boys to run and play. Of all the places I ever lived as a child this one holds the best memories.

In all three homes in Noti we were impoverished to some degree, depending on whether my dad was working or not. My dad found work when he could, usually temporary or day jobs, so we usually had very little money. Some months were better than others and there were days we had no food. One entire month we survived on just a fifty pound bag of potatoes and nothing else. We speak fondly of the unknown person that dropped that bag of potatoes on our porch to this day.

Most of what we ate during our years of poverty came from what we could grow or raise and once a month we picked up government food commodities. For a few years we also had sixteen dairy goats and some chickens. We sold the milk to a large local dairy; they used it for cheese-making; and also had an honor system egg booth on the highway to Florence. People were very honest and just took what they needed and left the money. These endeavors generated a little cash but it was certainly not enough to feed a family of five.

During these years, the 50's, a family living in poverty was left to starve. The Food Stamp program would not exist until much later; 1964. Commodities were the only government help available and those came just once a month and were limited. The community helped us but we were not the only family needing help, the whole area was depressed, so that too was limited. Still, the community felt an obligation to help and it did. Much of this community spirit has been lost in our society now and that is sad.

So life in Noti sounded dreadful, right? In my memory, they were the best years of my life. As a family, we were happy then and even though we struggled and starved, were cold and faced the elements, we looked out for each other, worked together and survived. I did not know then of the things a rich life could bring. The toys, the comfort, the worry. I didn't know then we were impoverished and since this was the only life I had ever known, it just seemed normal. You just assume everyone lives that way and not knowing any different you are happy. Once you achieve some richness though, I am sure it is difficult to go back and be as happy.

My oldest brother, seven years older than me, has a very different recollection of these times because he personally witnessed our family's slide into poverty from middle class and was old enough to understand. Being older, he also had more chores which created a great deal of contempt since we, my other brother and I, were too young to chop and carry wood or clean goat pens and chicken cages. He had to do it all.

Our poverty ended when my dad found work in Seattle as a hospital repair technician. He remained with that job for about eight years, then began his own company which was very successful. Even when our situation improved though, we were never what a person would call rich in U.S. terms, but the job in Seattle did give my dad a good living wage with benefits. We began shopping for groceries instead of growing our own food and we no longer picked up commodities. My mom no longer canned or made fresh bread but our pantry remained full of food at all times. We also discovered the TV dinner and many nights, while my parents were out doing other things we would make our own dinner and eat while we watched TV. Life seemed good to all of us...for a while.

It was inevitable that this quick return to "wealth" from such deep poverty would change our family and it was a rather quick decline. The cohesiveness that poverty mandated disappeared and it took only about six years before our family unit completely disintegrated. Our new rich life looked good on the surface, but deep inside it brought with it a great deal of unhappiness which destroyed our family.

I would not want to go back to the abject poverty of Noti and would not wish that on anyone. Part of my happiness then was just a state of unknowing bliss and I had no idea we actually lived in squalor, starved and were so susceptible to weather and disease. Looking back now I can see that life was not that great and my parents and oldest brother, having witnessed the slide into poverty from middle class, have a much less fond outlook than I do on those days. I did in fact spend a good deal of those years sick, had nearly all the childhood diseases know to man plus a few more and twice nearly died with mono and German measles.

My post on Monday may have made poverty sound like a wonderful thing...it is not! Poverty is definitely cruel and heartless and the only good I can see in it is that it does force a family to work together and stay united simply to survive. If done right though, this positive can be carried forward into a better financial standing but it does require work. Our family, however, did not survive the transition and the end was rather ugly.

I am not "rich" now by any stretch of the imagination. By U.S. standards I am probably lower middle class. I am not in any present danger of homelessness, and poverty is a distance away but I do feel poverty's presence at times and wonder if calamity will ever strike and give it a chance to catch up for a visit. Staying rich requires a person to always run faster than poverty and not stumble, regardless of how rich you are. If you stumble, poverty is waiting. It can happen to anyone.

Even though I am not considered truly rich, like Donald Trump, my lifestyle, when compared to most others on the globe, is definitely "Rich". I have tons of stuff, eat well, drive a nice car, have more clothes than I really need and have electronics galore. Books are a true addiction for me and I have enough books to cover nearly an entire wall in my office, even after I recently sold and gave a lot away.

Where I go my stuff goes and I lug all it all here and there, even though it is a lot of work. I am attached and sometimes I think it owns me, rather than the other way around. When I go backpacking I always realize how little I actually need to survive and that the rest of my stuff is truly "wealth". But I soon forget and just keep holding on to my stuff as if I need it for survival.

There is a parable in the Bible about a very rich man who could not find happiness. He came to Jesus who sent him away and told him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor. He was so attached to his stuff though, he couldn't do it. He chose instead to remain sad but wealthy. Sometimes I wonder if I am a little like that rich man. It is difficult to get rid of stuff and I don't really know why. When I do manage to dispose of things it feels as though I have lifted a small burden off myself but...I still hold on. Why?

I did return to Noti to find the old houses where I lived. All of the houses were actually gone, but the flood of memories I spoke about really occurred causing me to be quite emotional, right out of the blue. The memories were both pleasant and painful. Nearly everything else in Noti looked the same as when I was a kid. The elementary school, the barn at the sailor farm except that it had been repainted bright red, the little store that doubled as gas station and was run by a guy named Proctor who was also the barber and our landlord. All of it seems to exist in a time warp because the highway was rerouted and now bypasses Noti completely leaving it isolated and alone.

I enjoy the things I have and there was a time I thought I needed then to be rich and happy. I'm not sure that is true. I no longer desire to be rich but I do hope to avoid poverty. I strive to be content now with just enough to feed me, clothe me, house me and quench my thirst. I want to live more simply with less reliance on fragile technology, and more connection with God, community, family and myself. Success in some of these things still escapes my grasp but I have not lost heart and push on, trying to unlearn the lessons of rich living and find simplicity.

Peace to you all.

There is one that makes himself rich, yet has nothing: there is one that makes himself poor, yet has great riches. Proverbs 13:7


Sharada ganesh said...

This is a very moving story, very well written.. You're right in saying how less we need to survive and yet we go on accumulating stuff which we just need for luxury. Even though it seems very simple to leave everything and go away, we realize how much we are caught in this web and we get pulled back each time.

Scott said...


Thank you for your kind comments. Right now I am facing a move soon; which means disposing of more stuff; and it is so difficult. With my heart I want to just pretty much dump it all but something in my brain says "You might need that someday. Better keep it." I'm going to try and let my heart win this time though. We'll see.