Way back when I took a semester off university and traveled to East Africa. I was having a hard time getting inspired by textbooks and wanted to see some of the work that was being done with wildlife firsthand. So I decided to go check out where Jane Goodall started out working with chimpanzees - Gombe National Park in Tanzania. I worked for two months to pay for two months of travel. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity. It was a life-changing experience for reasons I hadn’t expected. As the trip required the ability to carry everything I needed on my back, I learned about rationing. I also met numerous people who were happy though they owned very little. Food availability was different from what I was used to (understatement) and I often traveled hungry. I learned something about assigning value to tangible things.
Many of the people I visited with owned almost nothing in terms of material goods. On Zanzibar island a mud house with a partial straw roof and a dirt floor was something to be very, very proud of. A boat made of a carved out tree and some rope was a great asset. Some people were apathetic to the stuff attached to the one white girl on the beach. These folks wore no shoes, only smiles. Some would follow me around for days asking me to give them my camera, my shoes, batteries, my pen. To them I was the white girl with all that stuff. Even though all that I had with me fit into a bag on my back.
The interaction I remember most was with a small girl who had braids coiled up around her head. I had a particular fondness for this girl and we spent a lot of time together. Before leaving I pressed a small deck of cards into the palm of her hands. She looked up at me blankly, turned on her heel and walked away with the cards. There was no mention or gesture of gratitude and this was, however curious, fine with me. An hour later she returned and held something out in her hand. It was a pile of shells. She grabbed my hand and dumped the shells into it and then turned on her heel without a word and walked away.
A few days ago I did my hike up a mountain in the Adirondacks in New York. As it was still a very wintery time of year and there was lots of snow and even more wind, we were required to bring extra warm clothes and lots of food and water should an emergency occur. So I took the very backpack that trekked around East Africa with me and packed it full of everything down, wool, fleece and polypropylene that I owned. Well, not really, but it felt that way. Then I put cheese, raisins, almonds, veggie pate, cucumbers, apples, tortillas, a jar of peanut butter, oatmeal cookies, salami, and some carrots into the backpack. Like a whole package of each of those things.
It was to take 7 hours of hiking up and down the mountain on snowshoes, in the cold, carrying a pack. Here is the thing I learned. I took up WAY too much food. Perhaps if I had fallen down a crevice and got my hand stuck in a rock for 127 hours, this would have been the right amount of food. But it seemed I felt the need to bring enough food for 5 men for 3 days on this day hike.
During one of our short stops, my hiking partner and I came across a team of skiers heading back down the mountain. I took out my food bag and offered snacks all around. Some of the fellows partook, I think out of pity. Others just thought this crazy offering lady probably needed some oxygen due to the 4500 foot in altitude. They obviously didn’t know me. People that know me know that I never, not ever, go anywhere, at all, without a huge bag of food. Knowing that, how can I do a hike that requires some 3000 calories and not bring the entire contents of my fridge along?
I am a hoarder. I greatly fear that deprivation is around every corner. I watch for the possibility of losing it all any minute. For this reason I am almost always more than prepared. I have enough snowsuits and winter boots for my kids to clothe a small daycare (all bought for a handful of dollars at second hand stores of course). They use most of it, between the barn set and the ones they take to day care and the ones that we play with in the yard at home or at Nana’s in the city. But looking at the mountain o’ things sometimes makes me feel nauseous even though it gives me a strange comfort.
I recently read an article about how women like me (consumers? hoarders?) need to find a way to flick the abundance switch without stockpiling enough food or gear to fill a warehouse or spending enough money to keep a credit card company in business. One of the ways to turn this switch on is to focus on gratitude. When we are grateful for something, we are looking at what we have and not what we are missing.
Another way to embrace abundance is to become a farmer and try to grow all of your own food. Your husband will even encourage you to buy a second freezer so that you can fill it with your harvest. And if you are grateful for it you get bonus points.
But here is the thing. I do assign great value to the farm goods. I certainly understand how nutritious our food is, how fresh, how tasty, how handy, how much money we save in growing our own food. But I assign even more value than that by making it my life. It is my job. It is my worth. And it’s a darn good bit of worth if you ask me. And I know it. That’s the thing. That’s a kind of abundance and gratitude that no money can buy.
I must say that I think I’ve found a way to surround myself with a mountain in a way that is acceptable and almost coveted these days. I have enough food for my family to last a year (in order to make it back around to the same season again) and we grow enough to feed numerous families with some left over to give away.
I can only imagine what happened to that deck of cards that I gave to the little girl. Perhaps she cherished it for many years or perhaps she gave it away before I even received my pile of shells. She taught me something about the value of tangible things. With her lack of fuss, or need for ceremony, the quiet exchange, the way she seemed so happy without any shoes on and so proud to show me the home that she lived in that had no roof. She basked in all that surrounded her and didn’t need a deck of cards to make it better.
I work to be that girl who builds her life on something other than a house of cards. And I’m grateful I don’t have to fit all that I have in that one backpack.