Money and the Middle Way

A baby boomer warms up to cold hard cash

| September / October 2004

When I was 5, I soaked a bucketful of pennies in blue starch. It was that kindergarten kind of starch, a magical substance. Before I went to bed, I poured the pennies under my pillow. The plan was this: While I dreamed on top of them, God would take them for the poor in heaven.

In the morning, it was a moment or two before I remembered that a miraculous absence lay in wait for me under my pillow. I lifted the pillow up from the bed -- but it wouldn't lift. I pulled until the pillowcase ripped, the pillow came away in my hands, and then I saw it: a greenish foam of copper pennies congealed in sour-smelling glue.

I was stunned. The starch, which was to be the medium of transformation, had instead become the medium of a ghastly stasis in my bed. The shiny pennies, which I had been gathering and admiring for weeks, had turned on me. Fortunately, my mother was understanding. She didn't scold me for the ruined sheet and pillowcase, or for the mattress that had to be washed and dragged into the sun. She explained that there were no poor people in heaven and that God had no need of money.

From that morning on, there was a gulf for me between money and God. I had made a valiant attempt to become intimate with money. I had slept one whole night with it in my bed -- and I'd been betrayed. I had mixed it with my soul's aspiration, in the form of the magic blue starch, but the coins had revealed their gross material nature. Money had fallen out of grace.

When I went to church and heard 'It is harder for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,' I believed. I had seen for myself that money was a dirty thing. Throughout my childhood, those smelly coins mingled with images of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneylenders, Saint Francis preaching to the birds in his brown robe and sandals, frail Bernadette of Lourdes bent under her load of sticks. As a teenager in the '60s, I easily grafted these images of Christian poverty to the bare feet, the paisley clothes, the yurt, the homemade yogurt thickening in the sun, the plastic bags hung out to dry, the backpack and hitched ride that were the modest emblems of my generation's giant plans to save the planet. Then, discovering Buddhism at 18, I was drawn to yet another powerful tradition of simplicity: the monk and his bowl, the moon in his hut, the raked rock garden, the twirling of a single flower that expressed release from the suffering of desire.

Some years ago, at a friend's behest, I filled out a questionnaire: 'What's Your Money Personality?' I came out with the highest possible rating for the 'Spiritual Poverty' type. When I read the definition of this type, I recognized myself -- along with most of my friends. For us there was a link between being poor and feeling blessed.

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