Embracing Lady Poverty

“Embracing Lady Poverty,” is what St. Francis of Assisi termed his eager acceptance of and fondness for living – um – extremely frugally.  He felt that by doing so, he removed many obstacles that stood between him and God – and he wanted nothing to stand in the way of his relationship with God.

As a single mother of three, I’ve known some pretty thin times.  But I never really struggled with poverty until after a car accident left me unable to work.  My meager savings eventually disappeared, I sold over half of my belongings, and moved to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, a place I’d fallen in love with just a few months earlier.  I lived in a trailer for the first time in my life – and I loved it!  The living room of the trailer had large windows on three sides and, since the small trailer court was on a mountainside, I was able to view the gorgeous scenery quite easily.  It was definitely an improvement over gazing at three stories of vinyl siding on the neighboring townhouses in Northern Virginia.

I tried to work, but even a job I thought I’d be able to do – being a tour guide at Seneca Caverns – required its guides to rake leaves, pick up sticks after wind storms, and heft 40-pound boxes of rocks.  Couldn’t do that!

After I broke my leg and developed blood clots when the cast was removed, a dear woman at the local hospital filed paperwork so I could receive Medicaid.  That has been a life saver!  When food supplies dwindled, friends suggested applying for food stamps – and that was a real blessing, too.

I couldn’t afford to put gas in my car, much less make payments, so I gave my car to my son.  When I could no longer afford the monthly trailer payments, my two aunts made them for me.  I couldn’t afford Internet service but I could always use the computer at the library.  I haven’t had TV in over 22 years, so that wasn’t anything I missed.

In July, I moved into an old Craftsman-style home, built around 1900-1910, I’m guessing.  It hadn’t been occupied for over 10 years so you might be able to imagine its condition.  But I loved this house immediately – I saw what it could become.  All those earlier episodes of “This Old House” (back with Bob Villa) and “New Yankee Carpenter” (with a stouter Norm Abrams) and my decades-old affinity for old “fixer-uppers” had found a focus.

I had no car and no money for one.  A dear church friend loaned me one – and twice, he’s filled it with gas for me.  He and another church friend, also an auto mechanic, have fixed the loaner several times and have never billed me for parts or labor.  (Now that I’m employed, I intend to change that.)

I had no money to pay rent.  So I made a deal with the landlord – I’d fix up the house for 10-12 months in exchange for living here rent-free.  I gave him a list of what I intended to do in the house (fix roofs, restore light fixtures, upgrade electricity, etc.)  He agreed.  Friends helped clean, a church youth group from Pennsylvania tackled the kitchen and front siding, and two friends helped pull off old linoleum from the sun porch floor to reveal solid oak hardwood in great shape.

In August, I was asked to fill in for a housekeeper who cleaned three rental cabins on Spruce Knob.  I didn’t know if I could do the work – making my own bed was taxing.  But, I wanted to try.  If I could do the work at my own pace, which included breaks as needed, I just might be able to do it.  And I did!  It was hard, and I depended on pain relievers,  muscle relaxers, and frequent breaks to get me through it.  But I could do it.  I worked in exchange for the cabins’ owner, a carpenter, to fix two leaky roofs on my old house.

When I had to clean all three cabins in short order, it was next to impossible for me – and the frequent rentals during October’s fall foliage season made it harder than ever on my back.  I had to ask for help from the owner’s daughter-in-law and her husband.

Cleaning the cabins gave me the courage to apply for a position as a sort of “visiting grandma” – picture someone who nurtures, supports, educates, and provides screening for families with children ages 0 (pre-natal) to 5.  That sounded ideal to me.  And it wouldn’t be so difficult physically.  I interviewed with the supervisor and was offered the position.

The first day of training, I had to drive a little over an hour away.  I had no money and I had an empty gas tank.  I stopped at the post office to check my mail, hoping that maybe a birthday check was in there (my birthday had been two days earlier).  And my former employer, the cabin owner and his wife, had sent a birthday card and check for $100.  That is how I put gas in the loaner car.

The day I received my first payroll deposit in my checking account was sheer delight!  I have never in my life filled out a check with as much pleasure as that first check for trash pickup!  Up until now, every time I had to pay a bill it was incredibly stressful.  I have a little plaque on my desk to help me overcome my financial fears – “I can do all things through Christ… Philippians 4:13”.  I ordered checks years ago with scenes of antiques arranged in attractive displays – I needed to enjoy the process of paying bills and those checks helped.  But during that first day of writing checks just two weeks ago, I didn’t feel a need for my plaque or the pretty checks – I finally had money of my own and was able to afford things so many take for granted – garbage pickup, for example.

My second payroll deposit was last Thursday – the day I arrived home to discover that my water pipe had frozen.  I figured the following day I could pick up heat tape.  Well, I did – I also picked up new fuses for the ones that had blown when my space heaters were struggling to supply heat to my house that night.  I woke at 2 in the morning to a freezing house – drove 45 minutes or so to Walmart, hoping they’d sell what I needed.  I was able to get a few things, but had to wait until stores opened at 7 for fuses and heat tape.  Until then, I had not been able to afford those things and fortunately, I had money in my account when I really needed to buy them.

Before I was hired for this new position, I’d sold my sterling silver – the last asset I had.  With the proceeds, I bought a stacking washer/dryer and paid off some debts to friends.  A friend has been doing my laundry for me since my 46-year-old washing machine started leaking, but I don’t want to be lugging loads of wash 150 feet from the house to the footbridge, over the footbridge, and to my car parked about 50 feet up the road – in snow or ice.  Had a glaze of ice this morning and it was unpleasant enough maneuvering across it without carrying laundry!

I’ve discovered that living here in the mountains, it’s far easier to live with poverty – and to embrace it – than it was back in the suburbs.  Here, we have no Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors or fast food restaurants or malls or theaters or any number of places conspiring to lure me in and take my money.  Goodwill and Walmart are about an hour away.  Landscaped  yards and manicured lawns are uncommon, unless you go to town, so there’s no need to “keep up with the neighbors”.  Yes, I take care of my yard, but it’s easier here.

Back in April, I started attending a conservative Mennonite church here.  I found my church home!  I’m still going through the Basic Bible Study booklet and have applied to be received into the church when I’ve completed it, but I have never been so at home with any church community or people in my life.  I even find the women’s apparel fits with my preferences so perfectly.  When I moved here, I opted to let my hair go gray as I just disliked the endless need to keep up with coloring my hair.  I didn’t feel a need to wear earrings or jewelry, and I had no one criticizing me for my fashion (or lack of fashion) choices.  When I started attending our Mennonite church, I loved the way that the cape dress worn by the women was sensible, modest, and attractive.  The same style of dress worn by my friends today was worn by their mothers and grandmothers decades ago – their family photos display the same dress styles we wear now.  I like that – I really like that our apparel is not dictated by a fashion industry or department stores.  Mennonite women take their cues for dressing from the Bible.  Cape dresses are handmade to fit each woman.  Up until yesterday, my four cape dresses were from second-hand sections of Mennonite stores in Virginia and Ohio.  I’ve been quite happy with them!  But for my birthday, a dear friend from church gave me two pieces of material and offered to make dresses for me.  Yesterday, another dear friend sent over a completed cape dress, made to fit me using material that had been donated to the church’s sewing circle.  I look forward to wearing it to church tomorrow!

As much as I enjoy wearing a cape dress each day, I also have come to recognize how liberating a limited wardrobe is.  I own only a winter coat that needs dry cleaning.  My clothes fit pretty easily on a hook or two – a small closet would be more than enough room to fit them all!  I don’t have to coordinate pieces or have accessories to match.  When it gets cold outside, I layer skirts underneath the skirt of my dress for added warmth and sometimes add flannel pajama bottoms!  It’s actually warmer layering like this than wearing jeans.

Mennonite women also do not wear makeup, and I find that incredibly refreshing.  My morning routine has been shortened by not applying the little bit of makeup that I used to wear – mascara (that would run in hot weather), blush, and under-eye concealer.  Occasionally, I would wear eye shadow or lipstick.  But to be free from that routine is truly delightful!  And I don’t miss buying makeup.

Trips to the hair salon are non-existent now, too.  I don’t miss paying $25-50 for haircuts, and not always being happy with the results.  When I moved to West Virginia, I decided to let my hair grow out; I’d never had long hair, even as a girl, and I decided to see what it was like.  Since attending our church, I’ve learned to pull it back in a bun and wear a small white cap called a “veiling”.  I actually prefer it to any hairstyle I’ve ever had.  I will wear this hairstyle for the rest of my life – no need to keep up with current fashion trends or concern myself (and my budget) with salon treatments.  The veiling is scriptural and many Christian women are now adopting veiling for themselves.  For me, it’s also a delightful reminder that God is in charge – He is head of my home.  As a single mother and a former teacher used to making dozens of decisions each day, it is a relief to NOT be in charge.  I GLADLY let God be in charge, to be attuned to His “nudges” in my life.

In two weeks, I shall gladly bid adieu to my Medicaid card, happy that I’m once again able to provide for myself.  When this last monthly food stamp allotment of $194.00 is gone, I will be delighted to let someone else who truly needs that service receive the money.  Both types of assistance were provided to me in times of great need.

My lessons in poverty will stay with me, I trust.  I’m reading a book about Christian budgeting, loaned to me by our pastor.  And I can see how, just coming into money as I am now, will make it far easier to budget appropriately.  I have most of what I need (eventually, I’d like to get a car of my own) and everything I could possibly want.  I truly want for nothing.

Living in poverty – with no income, dependent on Medicaid and food stamps – was very humbling.  Humbling, not embarrassing.  I learned what I truly need in order to live – and I greatly prefer my simpler lifestyle.

Back in April, I was staying at a friend’s trailer (had no money for trailer rental of my own, no where to go) when I met my new Mennonite friends, who’d come to the farm for a cottage meeting at the neighbor’s.  Had I not been so impoverished financially, I would never have been at that farm, would never have met the retired Mennonite bishop who invited me along, would never have known the incredible riches of my new faith walk in the Mennonite church.  I have placed my faith firmly in Christ and not once have I been disappointed.  I know without a doubt that as I trust Him to guide my steps, He makes sure I walk on firm ground.

I have been so richly blessed this year – yet, had I failed to “embrace Lady Poverty,” I would not be here today, so deeply happy, in a church I admire and thoroughly love, with a life full of dear friends, and with a career that I am so excited about.  I know, too, that “Lady Poverty’s” friendship will allow me to relate to others I meet here and help me reach out to them in a way that would have been impossible before.

St. Francis of Assisi’s embrace of the Gospel was pretty radical – taking a vow of poverty was not exactly something that religious orders of the Middle Ages espoused.  But he was so right about its value – simplifying our lives makes us more open to God’s will, to God’s daily miracles, to God’s guidance in our lives.  Poverty makes us radically dependent upon God for everything.  And when we turn our lives, our hearts, and our minds, to God, we will never be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas… Recalling the Truly Humble Birth of Our Lord

When I was expecting our first child, it occurred to me – on a new level – that Jesus’ birth took place in the most humble of surroundings.  In February of 1987, I was decorating a tiny nursery at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, with a dresser, a crib, and a rocking chair.  Little outfits were washed and stored away, plenty of diapers had been purchased and tucked away in the closet, and I’d taken Lamaze classes and read about breastfeeding so I’d be as ready as possible for our little one.  I was within minutes of the hospital, where I’d give birth to my firstborn in a warm, well-equipped room surrounded by nurses, an obstetrician, and an anesthesiologist.  This last staff member happened to be our next-door neighbor, who called home throughout my labor and delivery to report on my progress to his wife, who then relayed the news to our other neighbors!

That Christmas, I compared my preparations for our newborn with those of Mary and Joseph.  Surely, Mary knew about nourishing her child – that would have been something she’d have learned about by being around other newborns and new mothers.  She would have also been accustomed to birthing, if only from the animals around her home.  I think, though, that experienced mothers in her life would have helped prepare her for childbirth.  Prior to their journey to Bethlehem, had Mary tucked tiny little outfits, blankets, and soft rolls of cloth in a bag?  I think she must’ve known her time was near and would have wanted to be as prepared for her newborn as possible.  I wonder if she was a bit worried, with the prospect of being far from home and away from friends and family who could help with her labor and delivery.  It must have been disheartening, too, seeking shelter in a town bursting with visitors.  Over and over, Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem – any place –  and was repeatedly turned down.  How long was Mary in labor as she and Joseph searched for a room?  Fatigue from worry and the strain of travel must have been wearing them down.

After being turned away from one inn after another, and after enduring labor pains while riding a donkey, the humble stable finally offered to Joseph and Mary must have looked so inviting.  At last, Mary could ease off the donkey’s back and lie down, resting in the straw.  Joseph could kneel beside her, comforting Mary as her contractions became more intense.  Imagine the earthiness of this stable for a moment – dust and cobwebs, cow “pies” and donkey droppings to sidestep, a dirt floor covered with straw, the smells of the animals present, gentle munching sounds as hay and grain were eaten, soft calls of the stable’s occupants, and the warmth those creatures must have added to the stable.  This is the place our Savior was born in.  Was Joseph able to make a bed of clean straw for his laboring wife?  Did he heat the well water to clean Jesus and his mother?  Giving birth in a stable is nothing any one of us would aspire to.  Christmas carols sanitize the event – “Away in a Manger” never mentioned the possibility of splintered wood, wobbly legs, or dusty, prickly straw.  Things we take for granted now were not so simple for the Holy Family.

The first visitors to the newborn King were humble, too, simple shepherds alerted to Jesus’ birth by heavenly angels.  I like to think that Mary and Joseph were delighted by these visitors, who told the new parents how they’d learned of their son’s birth.  Being simple country folks, the shepherds carried some food and water with them, and they probably offered to share what they had with Mary and Joseph.  If there were older shepherds in the group, they most likely gazed upon the infant Jesus with admiration and approval, congratulating the new parents on their new son.  I think these older men would’ve clapped Joseph on his back, perhaps embrace him, and assure him he did a fine job bringing his son into the world.  And all these things Mary would remember, would treasure in her heart.

As Christmas draws near, I want to create as warm and as welcoming a place in my heart as I possibly can for Jesus.  I want my heart to be filled with gratitude for the many blessings he’s provided me, with abiding love for the cherished friends and family in my life, and with a deep desire to do what Jesus would have me do, not what I would have me do.  Jesus asked his disciples to share God’s love with the world, to be a little beacon of God’s light for all.

Mary and Joseph would have gladly stopped where a little flame from a candle or oil lamp beckoned them to rest.  Please, God, let me be a little flame of your love in my little part of the world.

 

…”we can do small things with great love.”

Two weeks ago, I was asked to fill in for a housekeeper who’d broken her elbow.  She is responsible for taking care of three gorgeous rental cabins on Spruce Mountain in West Virginia and should be able to resume her duties in two months or so.  Although I was a bit hesitant, due to some back problems, I agreed to help the owners clean up a cabin the following day and see how it went. 

Just days before, I’d spent a day and a half cleaning a local pavilion for a family reunion.  It was very tiring, but very satisfying work.  I wanted to see if my back could handle the added labor.

Well, Wednesday night, our Mennonite community had a clean up night in the church.  I scrubbed the two bathrooms and was just about done in.  I was trying to keep up with the rest of the crew and overdid it.  I decided I’d better bring along an extra helper in case I couldn’t keep up with the cabin the following morning.

For the cabin, I planned a bit better.  I took a pain pill and a muscle relaxer before I headed over to the mountain. That helped and I felt that I really would be able to take on this housekeeping position.

I am quite surprised by how much I enjoy doing the work.  I cannot imagine a more pristine setting – the view from the cabins’ decks overlooks Germany Valley and right now, all I can see are green leaves and trees everywhere.  Fall must be beautiful from this vantage point – and a winter scene of snow everywhere would be so delightful!  As I drove up the narrow mountain road this morning, two deer crossed the road in front of me.  Definitely beats any prior commutes I’ve had!

Besides the great setting, the cabins themselves are a pleasure to work in.  The owner built them – he’s a carpenter, and the care he took shows in every little detail.  The angles of the roof peaks are mitered perfectly, the handrails of the staircases leading to the cabins are routed on the edges and sanded smooth on the ends.  Really nice.  It’s truly a delight to work in such a structure, a privilege to be entrusted to keep it clean and inviting for the next guests.

One more advantage to cleaning these cabins – my spine is actually feeling stronger than it has in decades. I cannot imagine a better place to head for physical therapy! And I’d much rather do something truly worthwhile that sit at a machine doing exercises.

I probably like working in those cabins because my home is not exactly pristine – yet.  When I moved in the end of June 2016, it had been unoccupied for over nine years.  Cobwebs were everywhere and leaves filled the kitchen floor to a depth of about five inches.  Two windows were in need of glass and admitted all sorts of night insects.  I don’t miss those at all.  I’ve made a lot of progress in the house, and had a lot of help doing so, but it is still in need of paint and scrubbing.  A bit at a time, I’m bringing the house back to life.  Tending to those rental cabins gives me incentive to tackle my own house as well and give me a bit of a vacation from the chores back home.

This past Monday, more than 150 people gathered at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Paterson, New Jersey to honor the contributions of janitors in the community.  Housekeepers, maids, janitors – all have similar jobs.  I have always respected the folks who kept my classroom warm, clean, and repaired as needed.  When I’ve stayed at hotels, I appreciated the care taken to make sure the room is comfortable.  And now that I’m a housekeeper, I take pride in making sure the cabins are just what the guests are looking for.  I realize that it’s the housekeeper whose touch in each cabin is one of the factors that can make or break a guest’s visit.  I scrub spots off of the stainless shower fixtures, scrub any spot that looks out of place, basically treat the cabin like it’s my own and family’s coming to visit.  Grandma was born in Barry, Ontario and we used to be encouraged to “clean as if the Queen is coming.”  Well, the Queen is welcome to visit here!

Saint Teresa was canonized by the Catholic Church on Sunday.  One of my favorite quotes is attributed to her and I think it’s fitting to close this reflection on doing small things with it.

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”