What Scaling Back Reminded Me About Being Poor
I picked up the chipped bowls, poured the rest of the Mongolian tea into the dog dish and heaped them, once again, into the large steel bowl for washing. It would be the fourth time today. The bowls were always in use, the dishes forever getting dirty. Jazeera, the 72-year-old matriarch of the Mongolian family that was hosting me, was getting used to my willingness to take care of the washing. People were coming in and out all day drinking tea, eating milk products and the ridiculously good yogurt and honey. Me too.
I was happy to do the work. There was a lot of it. Jazeera was very happy about that.
That way she had more time to take the grandkids by hand, a big white bag in the other, and head out to search for cow patties for fuel.
We had to do that all day every day, too, for as the fall slipped silently into winter it was starting to get very cold. The tin stove that was the heart of every ger had to be constantly fed. The only steady source of fuel was cow shit. The only source of wood were the thorn bushes, and we only used them to start the patties.
The water was schlepped in on Jazeera’s aging back from an ice cold river about a half mile away. You learn to be mindful about how much water you consume when it’s that much work to use just a little for dishes. You get used to washing your face and hands as opposed to your whole body every day.
For five days I helped with housework. My friend and guide from a previous trip, Seku, is Jazeera’s oldest son. I was on an extended trip designed by Zavkhan Trekking, which was allowing me to get a full immersion in Mongolin life. And how. I herded goats and sheep, picked up cow poop, gathered sticks daily, and did endless daily chores. These people are very poor by Western standards. The dishes are badly chipped, their clothing worn and faded by daily use. Everything looks used because first, there’s not much of it, and yes, it’s used all day every day. Until it breaks or falls apart.
It’s a hard and simple life. Reminded me a lot of growing up on our farm in Florida. That was long before dishwashers. It was years before my dad could afford a washing machine, so Mom and I did the wash by hand. Like Jazeera.
As I wind down my home to get ready to sell, I’ve been boxing up belongings, furniture, clothing and the many things I used to use every day. I threw a lot away, donated or sold a great deal more. As a result, what I now use is a lot like Seku’s family. Just a few dishes, a few pieces of clothing.
It doesn’t take very long for dishes to get badly chipped when you use and hand wash them three or four times a day. I stopped using the dishwasher weeks ago. Hardly need to. But the few plates and cups I have now look a lot like Jazeera’s.
I packed away the bulk of my clothing, so the few pieces I have are starting to looking worn. Because they are. I’m damn near shredding the same pieces, day after day. That’s what happens when you don’t have much.
There are several lessons here. Being with Seku’s family brought back a great many memories, but also reminded me of why living simply can reduce a lot of stress. When your entire existence and everything you own has to fit inside a moveable ger, it’s a lot like tiny homes or living in an RV. There just isn’t the space to jam with too much shit.
Lot to be said for that.
Since I often live out of a backpack, it’s not much of a stretch for me to deal with the same clothing every day. It’s an adventure, it’s temporary, and you know that when you get home, you have more variety.
On one particularly grueling four-week trip in Canada last summer, we had our supplies changed out midway. A plane came in with my supplies, both food and a blessed change of clothing, and carted out the rest, which I would pick up at trip’s end.
In one bag I had a brand-new Icebreaker turtleneck.
I shoved that shirt into my face to breathe in the new clothing smell. It was heavenly. Turned out the shirt was a tad too small but I didn’t care. I wore it anyway, the scent of fresh new unworn clothing wafting into my nose for…at least a few minutes. Then I sweated it away.
I would posit that Jazeera has never had the pleasure of that smell. Many poor people haven’t. When I was a kid on our farm, when a new Sears dress arrived, it would be hard to describe the untrammeled joy. One Kelly green checked dress, decorated on the hem with white rick rack (Boomers remember rick rack) still stands out for me as the single most amazing, beautiful, gorgeous and life-altering piece of clothing I’d ever gotten.
Because up to that point, my folks bought second-hand clothing from my father’s egg business clients. No new clothing smell. They sported tears, stains and sometimes had smells my mother had to bleach out.
I still love Kelly green. And I’d bet it was because of that one dress.
As I was packing my closets, I stumbled across a rattan basket that held buttons, needles and lots of thread. I didn’t pack all of it. Because today, as when I was a child, and as Jazeera did for a pair of pants for me, things need repairing. I can’t just toss and replace. I’m saving pennies for a new place.
The few dishes left in my cupboard are cracked and chipped. Only a month ago they were brand new, bought on sale at TJ Maxx. There’s a good reason people use plastic. Lasts longer, but it isn’t as pretty. It doesn’t chip. Looks cheap, and it is, but it’s more serviceable than fine china.
If you can afford fine china, chances are you can afford to replace it.
One of the many reasons I travel is because I am allowed to sit, eat and laugh with families whose experience of material things is often limited to what they can find in the wild, grub out of garbage cans and what little people may give them. I have in every single instance been given more than my fair share of food, far more than I deserved in attention, and a level of gratitude that threatens to bring me to my knees.
A few years back I was in a very high, isolated village in Myanmar. I had been visiting the shaman’s family. The wife, who was impressed that I would drink her tea (other tourists refused), plied me with what had to be at least a week’s worth of peanuts. You cannot refuse such generosity. But the poor understand gifts more than most. The real gift is attention, attending, listening, sharing simple food, and not being the slightest bit concerned with what anyone wears, how tattered it is, or how chipped the bowls are, if any exist.
I’m not the first to say this, but it bears repeating. The more stuff we acquire, the more we attend to our stuff than our substance. The more we worry about what we have than who we are.
Poor has nothing to do with poor of spirit. If anything the opposite is true. Which is why so often, when we scale back we also remove the scales we form on our souls when our stuff determines our value.
I don’t intend to die poor. I may be penniless, but I plan to be rich: with friends, love, and laughter.