Struggled into the car yesterday and braved the Saturday Shopping Crowds to acquire a few essential items for the celebrating of Matt on his birthday. No matter how old you are you have to have something nice to eat, and something to unwrap, because that is the definition of a birthday. It’s expected, most especially by the children. Which meant that I looked reality in the face and forayed into the highways and byways where goods and happiness are available for purchase.
At the wine store I stood in line behind a beautiful woman with twin boys who cheerfully informed the clerk that, “They are the reason I drink wine. Isn’t that right?” she turned to them, and they nodded sagely. She appeared to be strong and competent, not like she needed the bottle she was carrying away, but more like she wanted it. Which is a pleasant scene to observe unfolding–celebration rather than clawing insecurity.
Then I made my way to that great temple of American truth (Walmart) to find a broom which I then forgot to actually purchase, coming instead away with a variety of objects that were not on my list. It’s the lighting that produces, for me, disoriented wandering. But I’ve come to know and expect it, to give in to the experience rather than mentally fighting what is really the strangest and sometimes the most charming of shopping opportunities.
It helps, when I go in, to remind myself that this is Who I Am. I am not upper crust. I am not fancy. I am not drowning in cash. I cannot afford to feed my children free range organic grass fed unicorn hearts. If there is some item that I require to make the household go along in an orderly way, I ought not get above myself. I ought to go to Walmart, and so I do. And there, in Walmart, is the wide world–the poor student picking over bean bag chairs, the harried mother beating her way through five hundred pounds of tube socks, the silver-haired enjoying the yarn and crafting aisle, the brash and shouting micro-clothed young, the outdoor enthusiast whose everyday wardrobe consists of hunting camouflage, the contractor looking for new, incredibly sturdy coveralls–but mostly the very poor who can buy a lot by coming to this single place.
Here I stood in line behind a young teenage girl and her mother. The mother hung onto the cart in an exhausted way–overweight, distracted, looking like she would have done well with that bottle of wine, but that probably her fridge would divulge to her some mediocre can of beer if she could ever get home to it. The teenager had a glorious wide mouth and angular face, pink streaks in her hair, boots that were a little bit too big, and an envelope of money. She plunked six large boxes from the toy aisle–those complicatedly packaged pink items with hundreds of small individual bits–onto the conveyor belt. Couldn’t tell if it was a barn and animals, or a hair and make up chair contraption no matter how I positioned myself or arranged my craning neck. Nevertheless, I gaped in fascination as this young lady paid out her own money for a much younger girl’s toys. She was extremely satisfied with herself and took the bags and put them in the cart and the two of them pushed their way out of the store.Surely there must be some spiritual lesson, I always say to myself when I’m wandering around those aisles. The abundance of useful objects, of shiny glittering interesting bits of plastic, of shoes and clothes, of fruit and vegetables, of ice cream–it all comes to this one place and can be taken home for such a paltry amount of money. In many ways it is an incredible achievement of humanity. In no other time in history, and in very few other places on earth can I go buy a broom, if I can remember to do it, for so little.
The very rich like to look down on the very poor, to look at the plastic and the cheapness and sneer, to disapprove of the consumption of Stuff. But I like to imagine the comfort that so much of this Stuff brings to the one living in spiritual and material poverty. If someone likes a thing, why shouldn’t she go and buy it, if she has the money? She lugs it home and arranges it in her room, carefully extricating all the bits from the impossible packaging. If she were much richer and it was a car she was buying, would she be any better off?
The trouble is, whether you are rich and can buy a few expensive items, or whether you are poor and can only buy a lot of cheap ones, the fact remains that you are really poor. Having a lot of money doesn’t make you rich, doesn’t make you good, doesn’t make you into a person who can go on forever without turning and acknowledging the one who holds your breath in his hand.
The advantage of poverty, as Jesus so cleverly understood, is that the tenuous grasp you have on life is more obvious. You know how precariously you teeter on the cliff edge of destruction. But if you are very rich, well, you don’t see the peril of eternity in front of you. Fortunately, and mercifully, Jesus went to the rich and to the poor. The good news about himself was for everyone. So even if you shop at Target, you can still be saved. Better yet, though, go to church.