Money never went far enough when I was a single mom. Food stamps were quickly spent, a welfare check covered a few basics and the child support check, on the rare occasion it arrived, covered even less. I stood in lines for heating assistance, showed up for bags of government rice and cheese, and cultivated friendships with folks who liked having my kids to dinner.
It was 1980. I was going to school, worked part-time and had two kids. In third grade my daughter, Kristen, came home from school and announced that she no longer wanted the free lunches given to children on welfare, because the other kids were making fun of her for being poor. I sat her down in the rocking chair for a talk.
‘It’s very important that you understand the difference between having no money and being poor,’ I said.
‘Being poor is a state of mind that reflects a deep internal sense of lack. Being poor is when people believe they will always be deprived of the good things in life. They expect scarcity and get it, because they don’t know any different. Being poor is when you don’t understand how to use your creative skills to make ugly things beautiful. I don’t think you have the makings of a poor person. Not having money for awhile is different. That means that our financial supply is low, but it will get better, because we are not poor on the inside. We deserve good things and eventually we’ll understand how to have them, even if we don’t know how right now. Money has nothing to do with self-worth or who we are as people. It’s just pieces of paper. We are presently without money, so the government, the school and other people are helping us. There is no shame in that. It’s a smart thing to say yes to what we need. Let’s try an experiment; do you want to?’
She nodded her eight-year-old head in agreement and adjusted her weight in the chair. ‘Great, close your eyes and look deep inside yourself.’
She wrapped her little hands around the wooden armrests like she was bracing for a space launch. ‘You’re doing great, now relax a little. Her hands remained firm but she tucked her chin.’
‘Okay,’ I coached; ‘now tell me what you see.’
‘I don’t see anything. Everything is dark. ‘
‘That’s normal.’ I moved closer and lowered my voice.
‘Just keep looking. Go so deep inside that you can tell whether your spirit is rich or poor. Either way is fine, but it’s important to know; keep searching until you know. ‘
Her brow furrowed in serious concentration as she navigated the uncharted territory of her inner world. Finally her face softened, a smile crept across her lips and her eyes sprang open. ‘I’m rich inside. I’m not poor at all. I saw a beautiful princess.’
‘Ah, just as I suspected. Remember when we bought our panel truck and how ugly it was, and how we fixed it up and made it beautiful?’
She nodded, sliding from the rocker to a pillow on the floor. ‘Well, that’s what I mean, because we didn’t leave it ugly. We made it nice. We can be rich in what we do, in the way we think, and the experiences we bring into our lives. Get it? ‘ She smiled and I knew she understood.