It helps to have lived in Vietnam and the Congo. I mean, I've seen poor, really poor. People sleeping in shifts on the dirt floors of scrap-metal shacks. Rice or manioc as the only food at a meal, and everyone thankful to have even that. Students using every square inch, front and back, of a piece of paper, using pencils down to a nub. Water being hauled home in jerry cans from distant pumps.
So when the US economy--and my household income--hit the wall, the personal situation didn't seem as dire to me as it might have. I'm worried sick about the people who are losing their jobs and their houses, but me? I've got work I love, that I can't be fired from because it's my shop, and I'm proud to keep doing the work even without a paycheck. I've got a small, blessed safety net--a Social Security check that means I can always buy groceries. There are flannel sheets and a down quilt on my comfortable bed, a bed protected by a solid, almost-paid-for roof and walls. When I turn on the taps, I get clean, sweet well water.
Compared to the Vietnamese and Congolese I remember so vividly, I am, even in 2009, a person of stunning wealth. I remind myself of that when I'm tempted to feel deprived because I can't afford tickets for the symphony or a trip home to New York.
There's also a small Thank Heaven that every spare buck for years has gone into our mortgage, not the market, and not the mall. When Alan Greenspan urged home-buyers to use the equity in their houses to go shopping, I was outraged. When George Bush's rallying call to the nation after 9/11 was, Go shopping, I was ashamed that an American President could be so shallow. We're better than that. Our new President knows that about us. And we need to prove it now.
One way we deal with this crisis is to learn the art of thrift--and that ain't a bad thing. There can be real satisfaction for the previously privileged in meeting this challenge. How do you make cheap ingredients into delicious meals? Can we entertain each other instead of going to concerts? Let's find a shoe-repair shop to fix this broken heel. Is there somebody who can make the broken vacuum work again?
One form of economizing had me particularly worried. Gift-giving has always been a big pleasure for me and now it's a major expense that's been cut from the budget. So I announced to friends and family that from now on I'd be shopping the house for something they might love. Surely among the hundreds of books, pictures and mementos here, there would be something they might treasure.
First time putting that plan into effect: a January birthday for an 11-year-old granddaughter. I found a small hand-carved box on a shelf, put in a pair of tiny earrings my mother once gave me, and mailed them off to her. On her birthday, the phone rang and her excited voice was asking, "Really, Great Grandma gave them to you?" I'd never gotten a thank-you call from her before--my son emailed that she was showing the earrings to all her birthday guests, telling them the story behind the little gold flowers. Not a bad thing atall.
There are rough times ahead, and the Prime Directive is to help each other through. But learning the art of thrift can get us through the small stuff. And so much of it is, in the big picture, small stuff.