What Makes the Waters Freeze


December 31, 2009
West Marin Citizen


Browse in West Marin

I was down to my last ten dollars – or was it five? – and had asked a young lady out to dinner that Saturday.  She had been generous since I had arrived in New York, and I wanted to show my appreciation. (Two could eat pretty well on ten dollars back then, if you understood that the best food generally is served on Formica tables.)

But if I spent the money on dinner, how would I make it to payday the following week? New York City with no money is not an appealing prospect. But neither is the shame of having backed out on a gift.

I wrestled with this, and then went ahead. The next day, totally out of the blue, I was invited to lunch at the Tavern on the Green,  which was one of the city’s better restaurants. With that free meal – and rolls squirreled into my pockets—I managed to get through the next few days. It was one of the seminal lessons of my life.

It has been said many times: the hand that is open to give is open also to receive. I once gave five hundred dollars to a friend who desperately needed it. Soon thereafter I got that much and more through a small and unexpected inheritance. I met the great teacher of my life when I was looking for help for someone else. It is a law as definite, I think, as those of physics, and perhaps is an aspect of the same thing.

Yet it is more easily practiced when one is alone in New York, paying $49.50 a month rent on the Lower East Side, and living in the protective glow that follows the adventuresome, well-intentioned and young. Then families start, and obligations; and we become cautious, maybe even a little afraid. It was one thing to cast bread upon the waters when only ourselves might go hungry for lack of it. But what about our kids? And what about the times we got burned, and our generosity was abused?

We pull back. But the suspicion lingers that our caution makes the waters freeze. I think about this every time I confront a tip jar or a beggar on the street, or get a solicitation in the mail. Part of me wants to dig down deep.  I knew a lady in Washington who gave always when asked, even by panhandlers. This lady was not affluent. Yet she always had enough. She walked by faith not sight, and life took care of her.

The other part of me does the math. A few dollars a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year, plus checks to those worthy causes  – and jeeez, it adds up, at a time when the family budget doesn’t have a lot of slack. Yet maybe go-for-broke generosity would enlarge the supply. Maybe it’s the example my son most needs. (Though I do think he’d prefer Legos.)

The argument goes back and forth. I try to shut off the internal calculator, but it won’t quit.

Not long ago a young person in Point Reyes Station told me that he was desperate to finish junior college, but that he didn’t have the money. I wanted to write a check on the spot. Then I thought about the family bills coming up, and the argument started again. I went to a recurring fantasy in which I am rich like John Beresford Tipton on the old TV show The Millionaire, and could bestow such unsought beneficence. (For one thing, I’d start a foundation at which there were no applications and no reports.)

And then I thought, maybe there’s another way. What if enough of us combined forces, such that our small contributions could make a big difference? What if, say, three hundred of us kicked in five to ten dollars – a coffee and scone at the Bovine?  Then this young person could pay his tuition and get his degree. And what if an alert went out every month? One month it might be books for the West Marin School library. Another it might help a family heat their house in the winter.

No money would go to support an organization.  Every penny would flow through to a pressing human need.

We could make a real difference. Such a system wouldn’t get us off the hook individually. We’d still face the needs that came our way. But at least we’d get to see our modest means turn into major help. And once that wheel starts turning in a community, there is no telling where it might lead.

Even five dollars might be a challenge for some. Okay, then make it one. I think often about a woman I met once as a reporter. She had multiple health problems, from diabetes on down. To watch her wheeze about was almost as painful as for her to do it. Yet this woman spent most of her time helping others. “Real giving comes out of our deficit not our surplus,” she would say.

This woman was an authentic Christian, the kind the self-righteous bible thumpers who whine about their taxes would do well to emulate. The rest of us too.

If this venture interests you, send me an email at wmbucketbrigade@gmail.com (A project of West Marin Commons.) Or send a note to PO Box 427, PRS 94956.