For when you are feeling poor

how to be poor

So you are poor. You are cold, you are hungry, you feel very sorry for yourself. You have four dollars in quarters, and your rent is due. You can buy a jar of peanut butter, but what do you do tomorrow? It is winter; outside it is raining; you feel suddenly alone.

Listen; we are all going to die one day. Life, as its final act, will kill you, but, as they say, it is very rare to die of hunger.

Listen; do not go out drinking tonight. Spend the evening in contemplation, in the absolute silence of your room. Fall asleep without realizing it, knowing that this emptiness, which is all around you, will always be free.

Walk everywhere. Walk to a river, to a forest, to a superfund site where there is an abandoned warehouse, a train trestle, the remains of a pirate ship. Walk to a new neighborhood, where the slant of the light is different. Notice the way the houses are set away from the curb, in this neighborhood; the way they are all identical, little two-room pastel houses with brick chimneys and awnings over the window that faces the street. There used to be a mill in this neighborhood, and this is where the workers lived. Now the houses are inhabited by African-American grandmothers, they are sanctuaries for housecats and grandchildren.

Walk to the bluff that overlooks the trainyard and the big gray river; climb the apple tree and sit in the crook of its branches, where so many lovers have sat before. Notice the way the bark has been worn by human hands, the smoothness of the finger-holds where children hoist themselves into the tree.

Feel nostalgic for this moment, as though it has already passed. Feel all of history, this moment, and what has not yet happened, all together.

You are poor; talk slowly. Pass entire days without speaking. At night, look at the stars. Peer at discarded objects. Notice color in unexpected places. Find pianos that need tuning, for free, on the curb. Touch the keys of these pianos.

Go to the library and study these things: orienteering, the plants that grow along the roadsides, the history of the people in your area. Read the classics; the classics are abundant and inexpensive. Read various translations; form opinions on which translations are the best. Read unabridged editions but skip the sections that bore you; linger over the descriptions of gardens, of longing, of the bewilderment of youth.

Go to mass in old churches, preferably in a language that you do not understand. Study the beautiful architecture, the stained glass, let the smell of the incense permeate you. Feel the mystery all around you, like light.

You are poor. Here is a list of all of the things which you have in abundance: The stars, the trees, the wind, the flowers in the springtime, the smell of clover, the sun, as much as anyone, when it happens to shine; the animals in the thickets, the sounds of bells, a sense of anticipation, the moon in its phases, the solidity of the earth, possibility, the morning, a sense of the unknown, the ocean.

You have inherited the ocean. Hitchhike to the ocean, and view your inheritance. Bring an old blanket and a dog (dogs are also poor, bring a friend’s dog if you do not have one). Let the dog run along the sand. Walk out towards the ocean and put your fingers in your inheritance. The ocean will always be there; no-one can take your inheritance away from you. At night, spread your blanket on a bluff above the ocean, and watch the moon shine on the water. Your inheritance is made of silver. Your inheritance is bottomless; it cannot be exhausted. Sleep. The ocean loves you. The dog will keep you warm. (Large dogs are best for this.)

Pay very little for rent; live in the place that makes you happy, but sacrifice what you must; space, comfort, amenities. Live in large, drafty rooms; live in small, dim spaces; live in backyards, in blackberry brambles, in vehicles. Live in treehouses, in sailboats at their moorings, in small clearings in the forest. Make your space beautiful, keep your space tidy. Own only two of everything; two forks, two plates, two mason jars for drinking. Leave all of the useless things- extra sweaters, books you won’t read again, knickknacks from other times in your life, on the curb in a cardboard box, for others to carry away. When you find cardboard boxes of objects, sitting on the curb in the rain, sift through the contents, and think about the histories of things, but take nothing home; you already have more than you need.

Take only as much work as you need. There is simple work everywhere; your hunger, the sharpness of your mind, and your sense of urgency will help you find it. Look at the boy at the end of the street selling rocks; look at the busy restaurants; look at the people in their nice houses who leave their anxious dogs all alone. Think about the tasks that make you feel alive, and look at what the people need. Eschew authority, tradition, the validation of institutions. Think of yourself as a creature in a complex and changing ecosystem; walk everywhere, looking at the sky, touch everything around you, until you have ideas. Pry, ask questions, be nosy. You only need a little bit of money; you live amidst great mountains of money. Spin your straw into gold.

In the fall, look for fruit trees. Gather hundreds of plums; these plums are for you. Also bosc pears, windfall apples, overly sweet figs. If you have a bicycle, ride it to where there is farmland and gather blackberries; make a pie from the berries and eat the entire pie yourself, over the course of several days.

When you have a little money, buy an expensive hat. Wear this hat every day. Take a beautiful girl to dinner. Buy a bar of very dark chocolate.

Often you will suffer; allow yourself to suffer. Do not deprive yourself of your own pain, which is one of the brightest things that you own. Rejoice, when you are able, in the sensation of your suffering.

You are poor; be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for the stupid things which you have done, the assumptions you have made, for the way you have been helpless in the face of your jealousy. Forgive yourself your desire to make some order of your life; tell the little child within you that everything turned out alright, that you got exactly the life that you wanted, and realize, for the first time, that this is true.

Talk to strangers. Have them tell you their stories. Listen to the way that life wends itself loudly through the fabric of time, in spite of everything. Listen to the quiet parts of the stories, the warm puddles of color, the explosions of light. Life contains time coiled within it like a spring but is also outside of time, everywhere, encompassing time. Encompassing everything, holding things together at every imaginable angle. There is color skewered with darkness, fixed to stretches of contemplation. A thing with dimensions we cannot imagine. As you listen to the stories of strangers, hear the sounds of their words, the way the sounds dissipate in the air. Try not to feel sorrow as you imagine the sheer magnitude of all of our collected stories, and the way that they dissipate. Listen to the stranger that stands before you, in broad daylight, and let the vibrations of her story move through your body. Let the story change you, in imperceptible ways, and become part of you, like mist.

You have guessed by this time that you are not poor. That it is not possible to be poor, that to be alive is to be wealthy. Now it is revealed that you have more than four dollars; there is a twenty dollar bill, forgotten in the pocket of your jacket. You are not only wealthy but indescribably wealthy; the sky has split open and fortune rains down upon you, like confetti. This world is unfathomably large and unspeakably brilliant; its strength lies in its fantastic complexity. It will always be too large to fit inside of us and yet, somehow, it does. We are so large and so alive as to be incomprehensible; there is nothing larger or more alive than you or I, right now. Don’t be afraid to feel what waits for you, in this bleating second of existence; it is the strongest medicine there is, and the thing that comes after it will be just as blinding; and it is the spaces in between, those pauses that are your birthright, which are made of solid gold.

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8 thoughts on “For when you are feeling poor

  1. Upon reading “How To Be Poor” my first reaction was to look for the attribution; I did not think it yours, It feels like “not you.” Does that make sense?

  2. Jerry- thank you!

    Art- I wrote this piece- is that what you’re asking? It’s me writing the thing that I wish someone would’ve written for me, “letters to a young poet” style. And for what it’s worth, it’s inspired by this passage from Les Miserables, regarding Marius-

    “The poor young man wins his bread with difficulty; he eats; when he has eaten, he has nothing more but meditation. He goes to the spectacles which God furnishes gratis; he gazes at the sky, space, the stars, flowers, children, the humanity among which he is suffering, the creation amid which he beams. He gazes so much on humanity that he perceives its soul, he gazes upon creation to such an extent that he beholds God.”

    Beautiful, no?

  3. Also, this is important! From Bell Hooks-

    “If patriarchal leaders in this nation, male and female, continue to act as though poverty is innately unhealthy, the breeding ground for pathology, masses of folks are then psychologically doomed, placed out of the circle of folks who can have access to emotional well-being. Poverty is an economic circumstance that need not determine psychological well-being. All over the world people are dreadfully poor and yet have well-being.” (Bell Hooks, Rock My Soul, p. 193).

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