Monday, May 2, 2011

Give What You Would Like to Receive

In 1999, I taught in a community leveled by an F-5 tornado. Our students went home from school on Monday afternoon, May 3, and did not return to school until the following Monday. The intervening six days were fraught with desperate attempts to find alternate housing for all those displaced. Most of those affected had only the clothes they happened to be wearing when they ran for shelter. Many had no shoes so the need for medical treatment included tetanus boosters for victims who had to walk on broken glass and metal to find a place to rest. Everyone needed shelter, power, and water, and the world met those needs as it is doing now in Alabama and earlier in North Carolina and all recently affected states.

Here, in 1999, churches organized food banks overnight. Drop-off locations for clothing and household-goods sprang up like fungus after heavy rains. Rescue squads from near and far worked through the night, and both the Salvation Army and Red Cross were on the scene so that needs did not go unmet. Volunteers stepped up to help in any way they could.

Some of those volunteers were people who had lost everything. Several of them said that they had their lives and they had each other so they were helping those who had lost more, those who might not recover from the trauma and fear, those who were broken in mind and spirit. Reports honoring these humble servants made me proud of the human race for they were the living embodiments of what we are capable. They proved that we can and do triumph over tragedy.

I knew several women who lost all their material possessions. One, choosing her words carefully, deliberately, said that she did not want charity from others, going on to say that many of the donations were items she would have to throw away. I pondered that comment before understanding that a fair share of the donated goods were so used or dirty that they were another insult, this time not Nature’s but their neighbors’. Since then, whenever I have dropped off charitable donations, I have observed torn and frayed fabrics, three-legged tables, and cracked dishes. I can only imagine that the donors thought someone would be grateful for anything they could get or that someone else would patch and repair what was broken before distributing it.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver writes about the women of the Congo who were indeed grateful for any and every scrap given to them. They had developed talents for re-purposing cast-offs. Old hub caps became cooking pans. Striped pants, perhaps thin and patched, met polka-dots, each standing out against the predatory forest. Style and fashion did not exist because basic biological survival was the single most important business of every day. The people spent all day getting and preparing food or in finding water and nourishing children.

If I believed that donors understood this and gave in the full knowledge of the conditions in which receivers struggle, I could find no fault. I do not believe that donors understand at all.

Walk in the shoes that Atticus tells little Scout to try on. Close your eyes, if you must, but imagine your favorite article of clothing. It’s the one that makes you feel pretty. It’s the one that never fails to gin up at least one compliment. It’s the one about which you are sentimental, remembering when you acquired it and from whom.

It’s gone. The wind or the water or the fire or decay snatched it from you. In its place, a stranger offers a dull fabric, worn slick with years of use, its hem sprouting threads, a button gone and a safety pin in its place. This is what someone thought could or would make up for what you lost? No, this is what someone was more than willing to part with as it is no longer of any use to him or her. This is what someone can release without a backward glance or tear of regret.

Play along just a little longer please, this time imagining that piece of furniture that mattered to you. Perhaps it is the first item that you and your husband saved to buy. You used the envelope system, each payday depositing a few dollars until you had enough. You were so proud. You are proud still even though many years have passed, and it no longer resembles its former beauty.

Perhaps the item is one handed down to you through the generations—a legacy from a great-aunt you barely remember. What you do remember is how comfortable you were in its presence. You used finger paints for the first time, swirling and slapping on that table, or you fell asleep in its soft chair shape, your cheek resting against the velvety fabric.

That piece of furniture is gone. It’s water-soaked and swollen. It’s broken, charred. In its place is particle board, scarred by chunks missing along the raw, unpainted edges. Cobwebs and some sort of cocoon droop below. A good dusting will not make it clean. This has spent its last days in a storage shed or a forgotten corner of the garage. This is something the first owners simply forgot to put on the sidewalk during the city’s clean-up days.

This is the spirit in which budget reform and assistance programs have been undertaken. Little is good enough for those who want. Nothing is good enough for those we suspect of malingering. Our advice to you malingerers is: Bundle up in the winter, baby; it’s cold outside.

Our desire should be to give generously, to give the best that we have within and without. Our desire should be to extend a hand so that those living in hard times can stand again. Please give. So many, especially those in Alabama right now, need your best.