Monday, April 19, 2010

Finding Abundance in Scarcity (April 18, 2010)

Among my collection of beloved children’s books is one by Barbara Shook Hazen that helps me explain the economic downturn to children. It was written in the 1970s during the recession when so many were unemployed. The book is called “Tight Times” The boy explains that “Tight times are why we eat Mr. Bulk instead of cereals in little boxes. I like little boxes better. Daddy said tight times are why we went to the sprinkler last summer instead of the lake. I like the lake better.”

Economists say that we are living in tight times right now- this is the first time since Barbara Hazen wrote her children’s story that unemployment figures have gone over 10%. We’re no where near the 34% unemployment of the Great Depression, but everyone is feeling the effects of the tightest times in a generation.

When I went back to California I heard that unemployment there is up over 10%, my one friend has been laid off 3 times in 3 years. Another said that although being laid off was discouraging, she is using the time to focus on her 2 young sons and pause and consider the big picture in this next part of her life.

Living in tight times calls for us to stretch ourselves in 2 ways. The first is to be prudent and use our resources carefully. I noticed that during the tech bubble of the early part of the decade, what folks thought of as “ordinary everyday expenses” expanded with the bubble. People around the country thought the economy would keep growing forever, and grew their spending and borrowing as if it would. The fear and loss of this economic crash has taught us some hard lessons. Americans are saving more than they have in decades and recent changes to the credit industry mean that folks are using their credit cards less often I couldn’t find any hard data on this- but I bet more families are paying more careful attention to their finances than they were 5 years ago. I bet everyone in this room has a example of something they have done to tighten up their budgets during this recession. [A pause as people are invited to share aloud their experiences]

As the wise Ben Franklin said: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. Speaking for my own family, we have learned to cut back a little at a time. There were things we thought we couldn’t live without, but it turns out we can live without them just fine. Other things we really need we’ve found new ways to get. Learning to cut back is easier when so many of us are in the same boat. Reporters started doing stories on such topics as “how to save 30% on your grocery bill” NPR ran a series “how to make dinner for a family of 4 for under $10. Suddenly it’s become social okay to talk about cutting back and saving money. It’s okay to say no to something because of the price. Many folks have taken the opportunity to enter into a period of “fiscal fitness,” through a practice of voluntary simplicity, and others through unrelenting necessity. Either way, I don’t think those of us who have lived through this crash will ever look at money the same way again.

But sometimes these new habits make me feel kind of miserly. I like being fiscally fit, but I don’t want to just say “no” to everything all the time. So the other important lesson of “tight times” is how to continue to be generous and to live abundantly. Just because our economy has shrunk does not mean that the gifts of life on this earth are any less abundant. We know for example, that folks go hungry in this world. WE might think from this fact that there is not enough food to go around. But those who study hunger , like the World Hunger Education Service, say that the food crisis is not one of production- there is enough food on the planet right now to feed everyone. In fact down in Florida they are plowing under their strawberry crops they are so abundant. No, hunger comes not from scarcity of food, but from poverty. Douglas Boucher, author of The Paradox of Plenty writes that: “We see now that [combating world hunger] is not simply a matter of whether food is available in the market; people must have the money to buy it. In a world economy in which food is a commodity, poverty will lead to starvation no matter how productive agriculture becomes.” (p. 77 quoted in Ellen Davis) So making sure there is abundant food for everyone requires us to be creative when conventional ways are not doing the trick.

Some of you will remember back in January I talked about the return of African farmers and eaters to native plants. They are moving from Western crops like Corn and Soy to things that grow abundantly in their ecosystem, like spider plant, African nightshade and vegetable amaranth.

So the second discipline of living in tight times is noticing abundance wherever we find it. This week, for example, the tulips up in Ithaca are mad with joy at this particular balance of sun and wet and cool. It looks to me like there are about twice as many in my garden this year as last. In fact, nature is the perfect model for abundance. Says green designer William McDonough:
“Nature is nothing if not extravagant. Four billion years of natural design, forged in the cradle of evolution, has yielded such a profusion of forms we can barely grasp the vigor and diversity of life on earth. Responding to unique local conditions, ants have evolved into nearly ten thousand species, several hundred of which can be found in the crown of a single Amazonian tree. Fruit trees produce thousands of blossoms – an astonishing abundance of blossoms – so that another tree might germinate, take root, and grow. Birds, too, seem to have a taste for the extravagant; who could say the wood duck’s plumage is restrained?” (Sustainable Planet, p. 13)

Even during tight times, we can find wonderful examples of abundance and generosity if we are looking. I heard a story on the radio the other day that guy who is giving away $10 to a complete stranger every day for a year even though he himself was recently is laid off. He calls it “A year of Giving”

So let’s take a moment of silence to think about some places in your life where you have observed abundance recently. [A pause as people are invited to share aloud their experiences]

So scarcity is real, and though it is painful, it helps us be fiscally smart and strong. And abundance is real, and helps us live vital joyful lives. In these times we are called to marry the two together, to create a life both prudent and abundant. I experienced this in my recent trip to California. My partner and I had saved up some frequent flier miles back when we used to do more traveling, and planned a trip to see our old friends. As we got ready for our visit I worried aloud to my partner: How could we enjoy this rare and special visit on a budget? How could we keep from feeling miserly and ungenerous? He said “We’ll buy groceries and we’ll cook for our hosts” and so we did. Almost every night whatever friends were gathered would bustle around the kitchen taking our time over a home cooked meal. (My goodness Eric has a way with a dry rub when he puts his mind to it, my friend learned an amazing mole sauce when he was in Mexico, and I managed to fake a Strawberry pie one night in honor of the early strawberry season in California). We’d hang out until past our proper bedtimes talking or making music, until finally everyone collapsed on some combination of beds, air mattresses and sofas. It was one of the best vacations ever, and it sure didn’t feel like tight times.

One of the days it was raining pretty steadily outside, yet all the kids were out in it undeterred. A bunch of the younger kids were playing princesses under the awning, but Nick was nowhere in sight. I finally saw him, about 10 yards up the hill rain streaming off the hood of his raincoat. He was standing next to a tiny lemon tree, and had dared to pick a lemon, peel it, and taste it. When he caught my eye, he showed me the lemon, bit into the exposed flesh, and made the puckery face mouthing “Sour!” before taking another bight. The tiny tree had a hundred or so ripe lemons weighing down its branches, and I told Nick he could pick as many as he liked. This he did, returning to the house only when he was thoroughly drenched and he had filled every pocket of his rain coat. None of the adults had seen past the rain to the bountiful harvest that lay just outside the door. This story reminds me of groups such as Village Harvest which arose for just such a purpose. It seems like everyone has fruit trees in their yards in California, and yet most of the fruit is never harvested. This group of volunteers goes neighborhood to neighborhood, and with the homeowner’s permission, will harvest their fruit trees, give the resident all the fruit they want, and take the rest to a food pantry.

I think that finding abundance in scarcity is one of the gifts of UUCAS. We run a pretty tight ship when it comes to our operating fund, and yet there is a sense of abundance and generosity in our community. The abundance of good conversation at our recent neighborhood desserts, the abundance of good food and shared talent last night at the our Open Mic night. Even in tight times we receive a profusion of gifts from one another.

Four our pledge drive year, when times are tight, we wanted to try a new kind of challenge. We wanted a challenge goal that everyone could help with, a goal where every gift matters. This year we want to challenge ourselves to increase the total numbers of people who make a pledge by 10%. We know that this is a diverse community, and that our gifts come in all shapes and sizes. So we are asking that everyone make that pledge, that promise, for whatever amount feels good to you this year. We need regular pledgers to keep pledging, and folks who have never pledged before to make their first pledge. Having a pledge drive that is more inclusive, that more people participate in is a goal we can feel proud of. This year we celebrate an abundance of gifts, in all sizes and shapes.

We can think of ourselves like the neighbors who come together to harvest fruit which might otherwise go unappreciated and un-tasted. We could see this as a calling of our community, to notice the abundant fruit right in our back yards, to help one another harvest and share. This year, let us find abundance in scarcity, noticing with gratitude the rain storm that quenches the land when it is thirsty, the tulips that fill the eye with color and joy, and the gift of the lemon tree hiding in our own back yards.

May it be so.


* 32 percent of consumers said they were using credit cards less often than they did a year ago
* "The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9). The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food."
* Other interesting programs include: Fallen Fruit, Harvest Sacremento, and and Neighborhood Fruit (NF)

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