Last night at dinner Uncle M said poverty isn’t the same thing as being poor. He looked right at me, almost staring at me, like he was driving home a point just to me. As he spoke everyone else turned to look at me, too, the recipient of his insight. He said poverty is something else. A lot of people are poor, but when people live in poverty you can see it in their eyes. It’s deeper than just not having money.
I sit here at the wood plank picnic table this morning, and I am surrounded by it. I’m so deeply immersed in poverty that I don’t think I will ever get the smell of it off of me. The whimsical orange, green, and brown tablecloth with cute little scarecrows on it doesn’t cover it over. The rotten beams hang over my head, threatening to crash down on me at any moment. I look up at the trees and the sunbeams for inspiration, but I can’t get beyond the dirt yard. The boards rotting up the side of the house make it look angry. It resembles black rotting teeth exposed by snarling lips. Even though this dying corpse of a home sits in the middle of the forest there is only one lone bird calling out to something. Not even the birds want to make these trees the refuge of home. They know there is no refuge on this hill. Or, maybe they tried but the thick dust that hangs everywhere in the air choked their little throats and robbed them of their songs. Just like it has choked me and robbed me of my words and my life.
Perhaps poverty comes when you’ve been poor too long, when hope fades, and you become keenly aware that you will live and die in this condition. You may even die because of it. Or, perhaps the empty, wanting eyes of poverty have little to do with the lack of clothes, food, and adequate shelter and transportation. Perhaps it is the rejection, the isolation, the fear, the blame, and the despair that create that haunting look. Just as I fear I’ll never get the smell of it off of me, it seems others fear getting too close to me just in case it is contagious. No one wants this disease. So, they wag their heads, point their fingers, heaping more shame upon me, and walk away quickly.
Set out an aromatic array of food in front of a poor child. His eyes will glisten, and he will greedily and gratefully devour all his body will allow him because he doesn’t know when he’ll get to eat like that again. Set it before an impoverished child, and he will sit, silently looking at you with that look in his eyes that Uncle M talked about. He’ll refuse to indulge even when you insist. He’ll only accept a morsel. His hungry body will rumble and twist at the aroma, but his mind will be locked. He knows he cannot partake in the good things in life. They aren’t for him. They never have been. They most likely never will be.