I heated up some donated leftovers yesterday. The freezer was pretty full when I saw one of my Facebook groups asking for help providing food for a regular meal they serve every weeknight in downtown Portland. I responded, pulled out a bunch of bags that worked well together, and dumped them in foil pans. It took me maybe 10 minutes.
I often wonder whether anything I'm doing is making a difference. Is the food really needed? Isn't it harder to find drivers and servers and people with funds to buy supplies? Couldn't a large-scale food business provide meals much more efficiently? I have to remind myself that it's not about efficiency or simplicity. It's about community.
It takes at least a dozen people every day of the week to put together these meals for about 100 people in the park. The diners may or may not be homeless, hungry, discouraged, lonely. It doesn't matter -- everybody is welcome, no questions asked. We've been doing this for a few years now, and a distinct community has developed. The guests know one another and have opportunities to visit, make new friends, ask for help, share resources. These are some of the kindest and most generous people I know, even though they have very little. They recognize that the community itself has great value.
It's not just the diners who benefit. None of us could do this alone, and it's scary sometimes. We've experienced the decline of supportive communities. The more crowded our neighborhoods get, the less we know our neighbors. It's easy to feel alone among a mass of humanity. I can't lift much or stand very long and I often don't have the car. Others may not have money for gas or a container big enough or refrigerator space. But somehow, together, this meal happens, every night M-F, 6:00, rain or shine, mostly in one location but moving if that's what it takes. Whatever it takes, this group works, gathers, improvises, cares.
It happens because a few people recognized a need -- not for food so much, but for community. It started with one guy who took a pot of hot soup to an under-the-bridge camp during an ice storm. I think he got beat up that first time, but he didn't quit. A few friends were inspired, then a few hundred. Now it's a network of thousands, providing those downtown dinners and picnics in other parks and delivering food and necessities to camps throughout four counties. A few other cities have started their own groups.
It's called Free Hot Soup. Not a charity or club or business, just a Facebook group. Guidelines have developed, moderators have stepped up. One great man dedicated his whole truck to mobile beverage service to support the meals. The group's tool is food, but its product is community. In a world where almost everyone feels marginalized one way or another, where we've had to harden our hearts to protect them from despair, where we feel helpless against the need we see all around us, this group empowers. It finds solutions where there was impossibility. It lends a hand when all hands are already full. It stretches when need has already forced too much stretching.
Community can do these things, things that individuals can't, that businesses won't, things that charities fail at, because they focus on the wrong end result. It's not food. It's care. Courage. Determination. Those human qualities that inspire and change us, that push us to accomplish greatness. The human spirit is brought alive with energy, hope, love, because people witness one another in acts of stupid, impractical, illogical, magical kindness.
Humankind has reached an important turning point. As all the graphs of population, development, and waste are now showing nearly vertical growth lines, we have to take a look at our priorities. In early human history it was simple. Our purpose was to survive. We sought food, water, and shelter, we raised children, and we joined forces to defend ourselves against nature, predators, and unknown tribes.
As society became more complex, the answer to "What is our purpose?" also evolved. It's mostly qualified with "You mean besides survival?" We still acknowledge, barely, that surviving is important to us as a species, but we expect a whole lot more from ourselves and one another. This is a good thing. It inspires heroes and public servants and philosophical thought. But it also feeds our desire to do more, have more, be more, contributing to the upward slope of all those aforementioned graphs.
Is it time to do less, have less, be less? Maybe. At least it's time to accept that many people are choosing that direction, and that's a valid choice. Many more are forced into simpler goals by lack of access to fundamental needs. In America, one of every eight people is food insecure, meaning they have to choose which fundamentals of survival to fight for. Do they work overtime to pay rent? Buy food and lose electricity? Search for free food and financial aid, cutting into time available for work? They certainly aren't pursuing higher education, entering politics, starting new businesses, or evaluating their purpose. They're surviving.
Why do we look down on people who are surviving? Knowing there are limited resources, who are we to think that those who have more are better? If we're willing to look a little deeper, we'll find a massive subculture of hard-working, generous, intelligent people who have chosen not to participate in the more-is-better game. People who give away what they don't need, who abhor waste, who walk gently among us and on our planet.
I admire people who live with less, whether by choice or circumstances. These people are connected to the true sources of life, happiness, and meaning. Each day presents an opportunity to meet their own and their neighbors' needs. There's no greed or ego or power games. There's cooperation, understanding, courage.
Those of us who still over-consume, over-achieve, over-spend and over-waste can learn a lot from the poor among us. All we have to do is meet their eyes and start a conversation.
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I have a relative who's between a rock and a hard place right now. Her husband is in prison, and bad as that is, it's not as life-changing as losing the income he contributed to their household. She now has 1/3 of the money she's used to, with all the debt. She can't possibly make ends meet. Because she's part of a large and supportive extended family, she's going to be OK. Some people can give her a little money. Others can help get debts forgiven. Some can call and visit and help her through the stress and emotional pain of her situation.
What if she wasn't part of our family? She'd be like most people in the world when trouble hits -- broke, hungry, lonely, probably homeless, potentially resorting to some substance or other to dull the pain. It's very nearly the same impact that people suffer when they're shunned by their community. I know groups that believe shunning protects the rest of the group by getting rid of those indulging in bad behavior. One can't think too much about the shun-ee, because the inhumanity of this practice is tough to justify. Isn't that what we're doing, though, as a greater society? Shunning, ostracizing, marginalizing -- call it what you will. There are people we don't approve of, or don't understand, or are afraid of, so we choose to ignore their existence.
When I moved to a conservative suburban community after I divorced, believing it to be a good environment for my kids, I was shocked to learn that some neighbors wouldn't allow their children to play with mine, because I was divorced. I don't know what they thought was wrong with that -- was I a troublemaker? Needy? Bad at relationships? A victim who would suck others into my problems? I have no idea, but we definitely weren't part of those people's definition of the neighborhood.
Steering clear of people or situations we don't understand is a common practice and has been for hundreds of years. But the more urbanized our culture becomes, the more cost there is to avoidance. We need to know and care about the people near us. Everybody needs a hand once in a while. If we don't care, if we don't participate in the whole spectrum of our society, we're eventually going to have so many broken, hopeless, scarred neighbors that society as a whole will crumble. The few can't support the many.
Maybe you're scared. Maybe someone married to a man in prison is uncomfortable for you. Maybe someone who suffered an injury and was over-prescribed pain medication seems weak or irresponsible. It doesn't really matter why people strike us as different. The important thing is that we overcome those differences. We need to talk to the stranger, feed the hungry, warm the un-sheltered. We don't have to put ourselves in danger, but we do have to care. If we cease to care, what are we?
dMy son-in-law keeps fish. He's nuts about them. I think we have seven tanks going right now, with lots more parts and plans and ideas floating about. The big tank holds 150 gallons and is home to a few varieties, but mostly goldfish. They're showy creatures, and if you watch long enough, you start to see behavior patterns, even attitudes. There's a definite pecking order. There's a deep sense of entitlement, especially with regard to food. They've learned to swarm in the corner where food gets placed, to indicate that they want some. They are beautiful and entertaining.
One night I was dozing back there, keeping an eye on the baby while the kids were out. I woke up in the wee hours and looked toward the crib to make sure my grandson was still asleep, and I saw a fish in the tank beyond the crib that scared the bejeezes out of me. I had no idea such a critter existed, let alone lived among us. He's a plecostomus named Morpheus. Apparently he's nocturnal, and he eats the algae off the glass, keeping the tank ecology balanced. Now that I know what he is, I'm fascinated.
I didn't get a photo, but my first view was his belly, as he hung from the glass by his large round mouth. Seriously large. Of course he was all black in the night, a dramatic contrast to the shiny goldfish gently glowing in the dim light. He's also about ten times the size of the largest goldfish. I swear I thought I was looking at a monster or alien or some unknown invading creature. Or maybe I was dreaming. I was seriously creeped out.
The plecostomus has a chameleon-like camouflage ability that helps it stay hidden in the shadows. When he's out at night, alone, fairly sure that his tank-mates are asleep, he changes from a near-solid black to an intricate scale-like pattern that blends with the rocks and gravel. He doesn't want to be seen. He may believe he's homely and a social misfit. Even when food is provided, he waits, in the dark, in the quiet shadows. The bright goldfish eat everything. When they finish their flakes, they go after the plants -- leaves, roots, everything. They pick at the rocks looking for specks that might have been missed. They compete with one another and race to grab food before the next guy can get to it. Still, Morpheus waits.
Not until long after everyone else has settled down for the night does he slowly emerge. He's very careful to stay away from the others, even though they're asleep. He carefully places himself against a wall or a rock and extends his lips. These are serious fish lips. Wait, let me find a picture...
He eats only what the others leave behind. He doesn't compete. He doesn't hurt anybody. He doesn't need the fresh, best food. He doesn't need attention. All he needs is to be allowed to live among the others, unobtrusive, only taking enough to survive.
Why, do you think, does this fish community remind me of Portland?
My son and his girlfriend have been living in a small one-bedroom apartment with their cat for the past year. I basically kicked them out of our house when my daughter announced her pregnancy, since living space is the one asset we have that could help our grandson get off to a good start in life. Bill and Simone have been struggling and making do, and hopefully they're learning more of what it takes to make it in this not-user-friendly society we've created.
It's Bill's birthday today, and I just saw him briefly. They have new roommates, he says. A couple with a dog and a cat. A pregnant cat, it turned out, so now also seven kittens. I assume the newcomers are settled in the living room, since the bedroom is occupied and the kitchen is tiny. He sounds good about all this, though. There's more help with expenses and always somebody to hang out with, and they all love animals.
This is a typical living situation for their generation. Kids born in the 90s just missed the booming economy of the 80s and the affordable college of last century. We lost our nest egg in 2001, when Bill was 11. Overcrowded schools, an ADD diagnosis, a propensity toward anxiety, and a gentle spirit don't provide much support for a young teen. Three college attempts resulted in quite a few non-transferable units and a good chunk of student loan debt. Jobs? Yeah, good luck with that. Even those with master's degrees are working in call centers and driving buses.
It's not just this particular decade. Baby boomers who were patriotic enough to serve in the military are now experiencing poverty and over-extended veteran's programs. We take leftover donuts to them and just that small kindness makes their day. Veterans commit suicide at nearly 40 times the rate that soldiers die in combat. It's estimated that at least half of the homeless people in America are veterans, mostly over 60 years old.
Happy birthday, Bill. Here's the bright future we promised you. We hope you enjoy the used clothes, hand-me-down car, and cheap food. In a country that was built on cooperation, community, opportunity, and vision, we haven't done much to protect and maintain those values. Watch your backs, retirees. There's a spirit of revolution brewing.
I spent a very informative hour with some extremely hard-working people at Portland Public School District's offices. I initiated contact with them at the request of a group of parents who are working to reduce waste and improve recycling programs in schools throughout Oregon.
Did you know that nutrition services is not part of the school district? It's a contracted program. This is a good thing, because it allows the district to demand outstanding service from the provider, rather than having to stretch district resources ever farther to provide nutrition as well as all the other needs our kids have.
The single biggest thing we can do to improve our children's education (besides reading with them) is to vote for them. We don't only vote with our election ballots, although those are important. We vote with how we spend our money and how we use our time. Every parent who can should be volunteering in their child's school on a regular basis. Those who can't because they work should be contributing a few of those earned dollars. Teachers need all the parents to check in, ask what they can do or provide. Parent/teacher clubs are often pitiful little groups that try to run a cookie sale to pay for field trip buses. They used to be the hub of the community! Everyone should be involved, should know what programs are struggling and where to lend a hand. These institutions were never meant to be a gift to the public. They're only gathering places. What makes a school successful is the commitment it receives from the community.
We need to stop, as a society, criticizing our institutions while contributing nothing to them. Oregon citizens hate tax increases, and you can tell from the state of our infrastructure. Families think the schools are there to provide everything their children need, from education to meals, from challenging their minds to providing daycare. It's OUR responsibility, parents, to educate our kids. The schools are there to provide structure and guidelines, to introduce material and nudge kids along, but it's up to families to inspire them, to share their dreams, to walk alongside them as they learn and grow and think and imagine.
Thank you to those who have supported my efforts to reduce food waste in Portland Public Schools. I'll continue to work with them and help every way I can. But let's not stop there. Let's provide what the schools, and our kids, really need. Let's invest ourselves in the schools. Imagine what we can create together!
PS: An important department of PPS is the sustainability team, officially called Resource Conservation, a division of Facilities & Asset Management. The "team" is one staff person, Nancy Bond, and one Americorps intern. And Nancy will be retiring at the end of this year. If you really feel there's waste in Portland schools, I suggest you check in with Nancy and ask how YOU can help. If we want sustainability in our schools, we're going to have to fund it, build it, and support it.
Thank you, Nancy, for your hard work over the years. Your commitment to getting the most for our kids out of limited resources is vastly under-acknowledged. I look forward to learning from you in this final semester of your career.
I grew up with privilege. Even before our current societal awareness of white privilege, I knew I had significant and rare advantages. Not money or great schools or opportunities. I had family.
My mom's siblings have always been a tight-knit, supportive group, including all their spouses. Even after my dad died, my mom reconnected with a friend from childhood, who had been part of the social crowd when they were all teens. Well, mostly teens. Mom remembers being the left-out little kid when her all-older siblings, along with my stepdad and his brothers, were dating and entering college and starting their adult lives in the late 1940s.
Through the years they all stayed connected. I have wonderful memories of holidays with my cousins, while Mom's brothers and sisters hosted the Morehouse clan. When Mom married into the Pierce family, a whole second chapter of close siblings and all their kids were added to the mix. My mom & dad's "immediate" family exceeded fifty people.
Dad is six years older than Mom, and Mom's eldest sibling is nine years older. Their support and wisdom saved her many times in her young years. But Mom is in her 80s now. Dad had a heart monitor put in the other day. Mom's two middle siblings, Hap and Shirley, both died in the last year. Eldest sister Margie is in the hospital, as is Shirley's widower, Kirk. This is a hard time for my mom.
These people shaped us into who we are. Each of them is a part of me, and I'm so much better, wiser, stronger, and more capable because of their influence. I can't imagine how much more they are a part of my mom, but I know they are in her mind and heart and spirit. She's generous because they gave to her. She's kind because they cared. She's wise because they taught, and brave because they shared their courage.
Every day, I meet people who are alone because their family all died, or left, or gave up on them, and I am reminded how privileged I am. Even as my mom's heart breaks while her generation's lives reach their end, none of us are ever alone. We all live in one another, and as I watch my daughter become more like my mother, I am grateful for the family that came before, for the legacy they gave us. Most especially, I'm grateful for my mother, for her commitment to family, for the sacrifices she continues to make without a second thought, because family is her purpose, her strength, her gift.
Several articles have come out this year about power causing brain damage (cited below for your convenience). No big surprise there. The more power an individual has, the less he/she needs to empathize with others, the less he/she has to understand or care, the less he/she is motivated to take on helping anybody else. In a very broad, general sense, of course. Most super-wealthy people give generously to charity.
So power, in and of itself, broadens the divide between the rich and the poor, and contributes to the decline of our middle class. But I don't think power, or even wealthy people, can be blamed for our failing democracy. As we watch the power of the people wane and see a modern feudal system developing, in which giant business interests can pay below-poverty wages, We The People have to take some responsibility.
The blanket statement that money is power is treason in a democracy. It's giving up. It's allowing oneself to become a victim, thereby increasing the truth of the statement. The power of the people isn't something that comes naturally in this world, and our forefathers worked very hard to create a power-of-the-people society that bucks tradition and history. We want to rise above petty competition and labeling people and classes/castes and slavery and bowing to anyone as if they were better than us. We want to hold our heads high, no matter our income, and speak out for truth and justice. If money is power and power damages the brain, our duty as ordinary citizens is even more important than we realized.
The only thing allowing money to corrupt, allowing power to disengage from compassion, is our failure to speak up. Each and every citizen in a democracy has a responsibility to be educated, aware, and to praise the parts that are working, expose the damaging bits, and be willing to carry a share of the weight to make everything work, with or without money. I don't have money, but I have a voice.
The United States is on a collision course to failure. Mankind is on a collision course to extinction. We can change these paths, but we can't do it sitting around musing over the mess. We have to take some steps, or make a call, or write a check, or join a team. We have to serve a meal, share a room, complain about excessive packaging. It doesn't really matter what action any one of us takes -- if we all do SOMETHING, we can change the world.
Once Halloween is over with, the candy has been disposed of, the costumes and spiders are all back in their bins in the garage, it becomes the season of anticipation for me. The weather is changing, the clocks are falling back, the evenings are dark, the mornings are damp, and turning the oven on seems like a good idea. We bought apples for a pie. I've started thinking about what small gifts would be most appreciated by the kids -- a rolling pin for Will? some fondant tools for Katie? (My kids love to bake -- big surprise!)
This year, there's far more anticipation than usual. My grandson is due in mid-December! Just a few years ago, I was pretty sure neither of my kids would be having children. Will, at 27, still seems dead-set against having a family. But Katie & PJ surprised us all, and I couldn't be more delighted. PJ is head and shoulders above the other young men she dated, and his capacity for parenting is already very visible. Katie turned into a mature, responsible adult practically overnight when she learned she was pregnant. Now we're in the last six weeks of waiting.
It's going to be a cold winter. We're wondering if it was wise to go with hard floors instead of carpet, and whether little Carter will have warm enough sleepers. Or whether we'll be able to turn up the thermostat a little and still manage the power bills. PJ is going to take a few weeks off work and be there for Katie, a tremendous blessing for her and a scary choice from the budget point of view. Sometimes it's a little difficult to honor our priorities and not become a slave to money or sell out our family for perceived security. We've always gotten by before, and thanks to supportive family, we will come out of the other end of this winter just fine, with an amazing new member of our family to show for it.
These are normal anticipations -- some traditions, some pleasures, some worries, and overall a deep gratitude for the comforts and joys in our lives, homes, and families. It's heartbreaking to know that these aren't the simple wishes of so many people. Katie was just telling me about a friend who is having a baby next week. She and her boyfriend live in their car. She wasn't even aware she was pregnant until six weeks ago. They both smoke, drink, do recreational drugs, and don't have any prospects for their future.
In Oregon, it's not OK for kids to be homeless. The system assumes that a foster home with a roof and food security is better than living with parents who can't provide those basics. I wonder if Katie's friend knows this? Probably not -- so many of the young people trying to live off the grid or outside of boring old traditional lifestyles have no idea what the consequences will be. And that's just the people that are choosing non-conformity. So many more families are willing and eager to work, have always fought to provide for their kids, and find themselves unable to accommodate a 50% or more jump in rent all of a sudden.
What would you do, if you couldn't come up with an extra $500 a month and were suddenly evicted? Would you have family or friends who would take you in? Would you be able to add another part-time job to your schedule to afford higher rent? Or would you find yourself in an old motor home on someone's unused garden patch, because parking it on public property is illegal? Would you live in the minivan? Make room for the kids to sleep in a make-shift bed while you tried to catch a little rest in the driver's seat? Would you have to wash as best you could in the Burger King restroom with paper towels, and then go off to work as if everything were under control? Would you seek help, or would you hide from authorities in order to keep your children with you?
I am so, so grateful that my daughter, her husband, and their baby are going to be here, secure, warm, and fed this winter. That my son and his girlfriend also have family support, choices, and all their needs met. There are no guarantees in this world, and the privileges of family and safety nets, for us, are very deeply appreciated.
I hope you and yours feel as much gratitude as I do in this season of anticipation. These are two of the emotions that make life rich and full.
Like it or not, the season has changed. That doesn't just mean that Christmas merchandise is already hitting retail shelves (bah, humbug). It also means the weather has taken a dramatic turn. Rain. Wind. Thunder. Flooding. Power outages.
True, we've got it very good compared to Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas, but it's definitely chilly. Dark in the early evening. The sound of the furnace kicking on in the wee hours. Pulling the crock pot out. Keeping a mug of something warm nearby all day. Halloween costumes under construction. I love this time of year! Who doesn't?
The people without shelter, of course. The people who have lost their apartments due to sudden rent hikes, who don't know how to be homeless, who never considered it would happen to them. The working poor. The families that have to choose between gas for their homes or gas for their cars. The elderly and disabled who didn't think to keep a tent or waterproof clothing because they felt safe.
Unfortunately, nobody is safe. NPR recently reported that 40% of Americans cannot accommodate a $400 emergency. That means a blown transmission can cost someone their home. That having to stay home with a sick child for a week can result in a lost job, which balloons into homelessness in a matter of days. Nearly half of all children in Oregon are experiencing food insecurity. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to bed hungry every night (although many are). It means that families cannot juggle living expenses, and getting help with food helps keep many from crossing the tipping point. Food stamps, emergency food pantries, and free meal programs are critical to a tremendous number of our neighbors.
Of course, friends are embarrassed to admit that they can't make ends meet. That somehow their obsolete career or reduced work hours make them failures. We don't know who is huddled under three sweaters because they can't pay the heating bill, or who is trying to keep a positive attitude about the empty pantry being an opportunity to clean the shelves. I didn't realize how worn out and thin my clothes were, but my mom noticed, and she bought me a few new basics. I never would have thought that a long-sleeved shirt and slacks without any holes would be a luxury, but they are. My $800-a-month disability check would have me living in a box if it weren't for family.
As we start the seasonal baking and nudge the thermostat up, I hope we stay aware of the half of our city that can't do either of those things. I hope we tuck away a few dollars to donate, or start a box of a-can-a-day foods that we can take to our neighborhood emergency pantry. Many of my friends are making as many sandwiches as they can afford, and then handing them out to the tent camps and new tiny home communities, where people are huddled with minimal resources and just their courage to keep them from despair.
Every day, especially in the cold season, it does us well to take a moment for a thought of the other guy. To write down that little idea that might help one neighbor stay warm or eat well. To take a small action, any action, that can snowball into hope for innumerable strangers.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.