Chosen poverty.

June 30, 2012 § 8 Comments

My first view of poverty was given to me in the shape of stories told by parents and grandparents about the Great Depression.

Those stories had an unexpected luster, as if  they had been polished on a sleeve before being handed to me.

There was the one about my maternal grandfather risking death for two dollars to repair a broken elevator.

The one about my paternal grandfather and his brothers feeding their extended families out of a sprawling Victory Garden

The one about my painfully shy uncle telling a desperate lie to ensure that he would come home with the five cent loaf of bread when he only had four pennies—he claimed he’d lost the fifth through a hole in his pocket, and could he pay that last penny later?

Although they never made light of those hard times my relatives framed their experience as a series of small personal triumphs.  I grew up with the romantic view that hard times test our ability to cope–and that members of our family would always pass the test.

When we were young and poor in Baltimore my husband and I often shared dinner with our friends, Bob and Andy. The phone would ring and the conversation open with, “What do you have in your refrigerator?”  Andy and I would sing in the kitchen as we worked on a dinner built around eggs, summer squash, and “The Waters of Tyne” in two-part harmony.

When we were living aboard a boat in the Keys on the sporadic income of my husband’s commercial fishing and my art gallery we thrived on the fish we couldn’t sell to the fish house (no market value, but good eating). For entertainment we watched the sunset over the ocean, snorkeled, collected fish for our aquariums. Between meals I painted at the dinette.

Our friend, Love Dean, a writer and naturalist in the Keys had a phrase for what my husband and I have lived. She called it “chosen poverty.” She used the phrase proudly, chosen poverty being the price of living an adventurous and artistic life.

Most of our friends; artists, writers, musicians, teachers, and public servants, have chosen poverty along with professions that compensate the worker in every way except money.

Which brings me to an alternate definition of both poverty and riches.

The poverty I heard about in the stories of my childhood reflected only what my family members had in their pockets. Their riches included smarts, talent, curiosity, loyalty and hope. I know they were scared and worried, sometimes even hungry, but they could imagine a broader vista than the narrow view of the moment. They trusted their ability to get by, even thrive.

In our household and probably in yours hard times are on us again. I’m worrying more than is good for me, but the habit of choosing the interesting over the safe has cured me of wanting a whole lot of stuff that bears a price tag and has made me appreciate everything that does not.

Those who are suffering most today are those who suffer in any economy. Their poverty runs deep: no education, no skills, no hope, no picture of a better future, no stories that assure them they are smart and resourceful.

Bone-deep poverty reduces the future to this month’s light bill, food on the table tonight, gas for the car. This is a poverty that sits on your shoulders so hard you can’t straighten your knees.

No denying it, times are tough, even for those of us who have a knack for getting by, but Ray and I have our own sprawling Victory Garden. We have good friends and neighbors. We have half-price Mondays at Goodwill, a guitar and washtub bass in the living room, and we have our stories.

We are powerless to fix what ails this economy, but we’ll get by—even thrive. I bet you will too.

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§ 8 Responses to Chosen poverty.

  • craig reeder says:

    wow! you really show the importance of stories to create self confidence. it made me think of your new book Summer on the Moon. a story that may help others deal with poverty, both chosen and not. by the way, i never heard the the concept of “chosen poverty” before, but it is wonderfully empowering. thanks!


  • A., your blod reminds of the stories my parents told of their days studying in the seminary (Baptist) during the Depression. Like many ministerial students, Dad had a part time pastorate in a little ranch-country church north of Dallas. Mom and Dad studied all week (both doing Master of Theology degrees), then after lunch on Friday, headed for Krum, TX until Monday when they drove back to Fort Worth and classes beginning on Tuesday morning.

    Dad’s salary for this pastorate was a whopping $75 a month. I say whopping, because most little churches paid their seminarian part timers about $30 – not enough to pay for school, rent and food all month. Often these pastors and their families had nothing to eat toward the end of the month except what they got on the weekend as guests in the homes of their church members.

    My parents were luckier than most not only in salary, but in their members, who often sent them back on Mondays with home canned veggies and a roast or ham, etc.

    She knew their friends struggled while she and Dad didn’t. So she “had an idea” that they should have a prayer meeting / lunch on Friday to start the weekend of ministry off right. She invited everyone to bring whatever they “had left over” to the pot luck. Some came bringing only a few pieces of bread, but they came. They ate, they prayed and they survived until graduation and full time pastorates – their “chosen poverty”.

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s not money that makes our lives rich!



  • ammaponders says:

    Oh my…much food for thought in this one.
    I think we lived in “chosen poverty” when I was a stay-at-home home mom with 2 preschoolers. They are grown and have their own babies now–it was totally worth it.


  • KM Huber says:

    I’ve been savoring this post for awhile; it goes in my ever burgeoning Adrian file. I, too, grew up listening to stories of the Depression; like you, those stories have remained a resource for me. Ours is a chosen poverty–I will long remember your phrase–I really wouldn’t have it any other way.



    • I could wish for a little less worry, but do not more of the things money buys. Life is simpler without excess money, and it is mostly to the good. Or perhaps I feel this way because it is the only life I know, and I love my life; it feels complete, as-is.


  • My mother and father were scarred for life by the Great Depression. A bit of food on a plate nearly drove my dad crazy. My mother repeated over and over the day her dad lost his dairy farm.
    Nothing changes people like poverty. It can make you strong or it can destroy you.


  • I guess a hard time is better than “no time.”


  • deb reilly says:

    I know someone who has more than a lot of people: houses on the water, a steady income, a husband who loves her, more space than she knows what to do with. But it will never be enough. She will never have enough. That’s real poverty.


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