Letters From An MBI Student – 11/30

Dear Family,

Am I poor?

Please don’t answer that question. I think I know your answer. It’s not actually a question, or maybe it is. Consider it rhetorical, one I’ve asked myself daily.

Am I poor?

But I mean it in regards to money. I’m not talking about poor in spirit or poor in thankfulness or that sort of poor. But money poor. Pennies-in-the-bank poor. Tomorrow-is-the-1st poor. So maybe it’s not entirely rhetorical.

Am I poor?

I know what I have, pennies included. I know I have more than the average college student, but I know I’m hip-deep in debt, but I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, but I know that God’s will doesn’t mean debt-free…

Right?

Being a college student is doing weird things to my outlook on life. It’s hard not to resent knowing that when adjusted for Chicago living, I used to make more than my current bosses. It’s hard not to resent the fact that I don’t get to plan extravagant Christmases just because I can. It’s hard to look at church opportunities and support letters and the vast need for finances in ministry and to know that I have no pennies to give because I need fifteen cents for a scantron on Friday.

Am I poor?

I’m still learning to live like I’m poor, and I despise it. I still want to buy chocolate for my sister every time I’m at the store. I still want to ship random Amazon packages to my sister just because I can. I still want to take my siblings out for birthday trips to buy their new jeans for that year. I still want to send those birthday flowers, because this is year five and it’s a tradition now. I still want to give the way that money used to enable. That’s not selfish, is it?

That’s not a rhetorical question, either.

Am I poor?

No. Yes. No? Yes?

No. No, no, forever, no. Nuances to this conversation abound, but in asking this question over and over again, I’m realizing that the question itself is a dangerous thing. Because the minute I say “Yes,” I start living like it. And I start despising all those things I can’t do and other people can. I despise the Amazon boxes and plane tickets and resent the careless pennies of Apple and Spotify. I cut corners and bury my money in the ground and hope a tree of Benjis will appear. I stare at the sidewalk for the dime that will save my life, or stare out at sea waiting for my ship to come in. I wait and wait to not be poor because I hate it so much. Because I have chosen that as my title and it has made me so, so, so much less. It has shrunk my pennies to be tiny, bitter things, but it has also shrunk my perspective so that all I can see are those things that will never be enough.

Here, let me start this conversation again.

Am I poor?

No.

Why?

I am not materially poor because I have a thousand more pennies than I could, praise God. I have food in the fridge on even the worst day, an apple a day in the SDR, and three ways to make coffee in my room. I have gift cards to Starbucks and student discounts at Treasure Island Foods and rice cakes all day long. I have had gift cards in my CPO and emergency cash to tide me over to the next cycle and a doctor that takes very, very late payments.

I am not materially poor, because once upon a different season, I had the opportunity to buy many uncounted treasures: sturdy shoes, dress pants, a yogurt maker and coffee pot and a vehicle that has passed 150k with only the occasional murmur. I have clothes that meet the dress code, a winter coat that has lasted me four good years now, and Christmas lights stolen from home to drape around the window that looks at Chicago.

I am not materially poor, because I have a paycheck every two weeks and my church takes electronic deposits to take it off my hands the very next day. I had long days of work this summer and bosses that asked me to stay and the ability to take care of the little things and still, pennies in the bank.

Am I poor?

I’m trying to say that I think I may be as poor as I choose to be. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the thousands of priceless things that fill me right now: carols and Christmas lights and the hugs of a friend. I have my sister to bless me with words of cheer when I only have two pairs of jeans because I ripped the other one and when my six-year-old shoes finally give up the ghost and I can’t replace them. I have running shirts galore and sweatshirts I love that were $4 at Goodwill. I have plaid for days because “Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, that’s our store; we shop there because we’re poor!” I have a friend that trades me in coffee purchases and a mother that sends a jar of yogurt with me back to school every time. I have so many things I could try to count and yet still fail to value.

It’s true that I can’t pay my bills with high-fives, and smiles aren’t currency in the bank. So I sit in an office and make my pennies and save them for coffee at Joe’s and don’t go if I can’t leave a tip. I pay my late doctor bills with sticky notes of apologies and thanksgiving that I could actually pay it this time. I take out a loan with a sigh and a prayer for those pennies as the trickle their way to Moody and return to me tenfold in the wisdom and love of those who teach and care for me. I write a support letter for Chorale with the yo-yo of shame and marvel, because if I am poor I hate that I have to ask, and if I am not poor I am eager and brimming with the gratitude that these people will even consider sharing their pennies with us.

If I am not poor, these coins are not mine. These scraps of paper are not mine, whether or not they are printed with Benjamin Franklin’s face or “FINAL NOTICE.” They are just another choice, another opportunity like the thousands God has given before.

Sorry for the long writing again. I’ll get back to the short ones, but this is what is on my mind. Tomorrow’s December 1st and I’m trying to figure out what Christmas looks like, and I’m trying to do it without “POOR” emblazoned across my forehead. I’m trying to figure out what generosity looks like without “CAN’T PAY FOR IT” barring the way. I’m trying to figure out how to love in new ways when I can’t afford the old ones. I’m trying to figure out what joyous work looks like when it will never pay the bills.

They say that tithe is just giving back to God what is His in the first place. I don’t want to look at my pennies with the view that maybe He didn’t give me enough. The bank may not say it is enough, but what does He say?

So I work and wait and save and make decisions based on what I have. I won’t buy new shoes or those jeans or tickets to the Nutcracker. But, dear family, please catch me when I say “I’m poor.” Because I’m not, truly. I’m not able to buy you the moon, but I will lay out under the stars and laugh with you. I’m not able to gift you with the wealth of the world because I have none of it, but I will gift you with the wealth of what I have been given: pennies and joys and love beyond measure.

Because I am not poor; I just have very little money.

Maybe missing you,

~Rae

P.S. Also…how can I be poor when I have a wonderful family like you?

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