The Blessings Ledger:
The Union of Money and Compassion
Signs and Wonders
There is a practice in mystical Judaism that exhorts us to count our blessings. Not as in "1, 2, 3 ," but as in recognizing the blessings that already are, and calling in new blessings of our own. We are counseled to make a hundred blessings a dayand who does that, in practice? But its said that it doesnt matter. For by the time we have the first few under our belt, the "Thank you for the sky!" and "Thank you for the land!" and "Thank you for my breath!" and "May this day be filled with grace," we find ourselves talking not to some machine outside but to the most inner places in our own, forgotten heart. We have joined with the Divine, we are bringing forth creation, we are lifted and stunned and awed by blessings, until we can only speak without words.
When it came clear that no books and no workshops, no schemes to get rich, no financial management agendas on their own would bring all of me into the process of learning what I had to learn, or drownthen it felt the only thing to do was to bring my spiritual practice to the still overwhelming situation of finances; to turn my wandering into a quest, and to trust where I could trust. I would be a mystic in the marketplace. I would look, and I would bless, as I could. And I would see what came to pass, and as best I was able, I would bless that, too.
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There seemed nothing to do but start from the beginning: to begin exactly where I was. If I barely had a penny to account for, then that "nothing" was the only context I could work with. And so was born the Blessings Ledger. Like all conceptions, it began without a name. At first it was jut a piece of paper I brought with me when I spent any money, like an amplified check register with an additional column called "Blessings." I managed to pull some blessings out of the usual transactions: a smile received from a check-out clerk at the supermarket; an awareness with an artists eye of the sheer pendulous beauty of the contents of the produce bin.
And these small noticings counted for something, for they gave a different focus to my usual dulled, unwilling, and solitary shopping experiences. But it was when I began to venture out of the usual moldthose things that I had to allow myself to spend money on because survival required it, or because they fit into the pre-programmed categories covering what I was and was not "allowed" to spend money onthat I began to fell an undercurrent tug, as if I were being drawn toward something sweeter and larger than any advertising campaign could instill in me as a concocted, hypnotizing desire.
After I had amassed a large handful of unnamed blessings ledger forms, whose lines were scribbled in with details that did, if I looked back, form a kind of story rather than a collection of meaningless data, there arose in me the desire to condense the facts and figures so they took up a minimum of space, and to give a good deal more space to the blessings.
Consequently, I took an 8-1/2" sheet of paper, punched three holes in the left margin, bought a looseleaf notebook for about $2 in a franchise stationery store, and tried to remember to bring this ledgernow officially called my Blessings Ledgeralong with me any time I went out to do anything having to do with money. If I did not remember to take the notebook, at least I could bring the sheet of paper and insert it into the notebook later on, at home. And failing that, I could at least make a quick note or sketch on the back of the receipt I received for my purchase about the blessings that took place in the course of the transaction, whether directly financially-related or not.
If I could not look into the future and see where my next dollar was coming from, and even though I needed money to come in rather than go out, still, what I did with what I had was in my control. I could decide to make every financial transaction, no matter how small, a way to look for and bring about blessings. Whether these blessings came to me or from meor whether those distinctions, themselves, turned out to be two sides of the same coinI hoped, in the course of noticing these grace notes, to make room for unfoldment and further increase.
A Lens of Possibility
BLESSINGS LEDGER EXPENSE SHEET
DATE: April 24,
Im hungry while out doing errands, and have only a little bit of money, slightly more than last timea whole dollar. Andronicos is, again, the closest store. But this time I find the prospect of entering it less daunting. Maybe I can buy myself the best I can afford of what there is .
There are packaged sandwiches in a raised bin, surrounded by cheese wedges and rounds, all over a dollar. There are two black cauldrons of soup on a cart, onion and minestrone, with cardboard containers below. The soup costs $2.50 a pint. But there is a tiny fluted cup for tasting, and a ladle in the cauldron. I take two cups, spooning first a splash of onion soup into one, and now minestrone, fragrant and filled with beans and broth and macaroni, into the other. I could stand here and make a meal from these tastings, and never even spend my dollar! I am both tickled and embarrassed by this thought. Yet it occurs to me that this meal is only possible because I have allowed myself into what was, until quite recently, forbidden territory. In the discount markets where I tend to shop, there are no offerings of free food, invitations to sample before you buy.
I stop after one cup, each, and move toward the produce aisle in a luxury of enjoyment, astonished by the beauty of the vegetables. A half-block of misted bins holds leafy, wondrous lettuces with their edible petals tucked one into the other, leaf folded over leaf. Bright red radishes cluster at the tip of long green stems. There are baby carrots the color of sun and no larger than two joints of a finger; barked, gnarly yams and twisted sweet potatoes; purple potatoes, purple eggplants the color of night, fanning leaves of dark green spinach, sprays and sprigs of fresh green herbs Id never seen looking so much like plants. Everything is arrayed so pleasingly, and its all there for the picking. My hand wants to curl around a cool long smooth red bell pepper, not because I want to eat it but just for the pleasure of touching.
The fruit is on the opposite aisle. Winter melons, round and hard. Piles of polished apples, red and yellow, in a dazzling array of varieties. Falls of grapes spilling over the bins edge, seeded and seedless, green, red, and black. Tiny orange kumquats with their thick, exotic rind. Large and perfectly round oranges. Huge fleshy grapefruits, woody coconuts, out-of-season strawberries with their green, elfin caps, spotless yellow curved bananas with their rubbery skins. Clearly, nature is not stinting. If anything, there is an overflow, a glut of earthly offerings, a true cornucopia. It is only the price put on such offerings that makes them out of reach for some.
What are the prices? I count it as a blessing that up to this point I have not paid attention. Otherwise, all my attention would have gone to the pricehow high it was, how I couldnt afford it, the nerve of such a store to charge like that, and my inevitable desire to slink out the door with my tail between my legs, or to regain my lost esteem by scorning what I could not have. Now, I have, in one sense, already feasted. These vegetables and fruits have been seen and loved as if they were posing for a still life. They exist in relationship, not simply as products to fill a need or check off on a shopping list. To paint a cascade of purple, rounded grapes, noting the roundness, the flecks of light, the weight of the fruit hanging on the stems, and then to eat would be to commune with the food, not just grab it off the shelf.
It is something like touring another country to let myself pass slowly by the shelves I otherwise would have passed by altogether, too hungry within to even look at what I knew I could not have. There is an exotic display of foods from other countries, each packaged with the allure of a foreign stamp, a souvenir from far away. English water crackers and marmalades in opaque white glass. Fabric-topped glass jars of French jams and confitures, the very language delicious on my tongue. There are green olive oils from Italy, there are fruited vinegars in tall triangular bottles. With fresh green salty olives and wedges of soft brie and Greek feta cheese, I could serve something elegant and simple to some mythical guest. I conjure up a heavy-laden tray, served on a patio overlooking white beaches and translucent blue-green waters, while the sun warms my toes and my mythical friends and I talk and nibble and stare out to sea. All this from the label and packaging of imported, exorbitantly priced, foods! I shake my head in wonder. Am I more fanciful than the other buyers, or am I tuning into exactly what is being marketed: hopes, fantasies, atmospheres, upscale mass-marketed dreams? Even a peasant can dream, though. Even a cat can look at a king.
So I check the prices, one by one. The English water crackers cost $1.89. The French confiture, with whole jellied berries, is $5 and change. The English marmalade is over $4, the olive oils $12, the vinegars $7. These prices are so out of reach that I scarcely know whether to sigh or to laugh. Even if I had $12to spend it all on olive oil !
I move on to more ordinary, domestic foods. But even here, everything is beyond my reach. Bread is upwards of $3 a loaf. Cookies (not that I need them) are between $2.50 and $3. Cereals in boxes are almost $4 a box! This is no longer touring. This is the country I must live in. But how can I afford to? How will I survive? Not by eating boxed cereal, okaybut if these are the prices !
It is focusing on the prices that is causing the panic. It is extrapolating from the price of one thing to the price of another, and then another three, and then another ten, and then there is no specific numbering for it, no accounting, it is total, it is everything and everywhere, and I am overwhelmed and will have to leave, still hungry, before the din of the clash between what I want but cannot afford overtakes me and makes so much noise inside my head that there is no sorting things out to be had. I can feel the panic like a hand around my throat, a shortness in the chest, an indistinct and frightened fuzziness in the brain .
This is it. This is it! This is the blessing beyond blessings, that I am having the reaction I usually have in a supermarket like this and am actually present for it. To catch this moment, to see this usually invisible dynamic is to interrupt the cycle at its most underground-insidious. And to recognize this as a blessingto be caught up in the usual, but freed of it just enough to see my own entanglement, my own contribution to it, and to know, in the midst of this suffering, that to catch this in the act is a blessingis blessing upon blessing upon blessing. I stand by the cereal aisle, grateful and humbled. I might never again be able to afford the Rice Krispies of my childhood, but without having yet spent a penny, much less my whole dollar, I have gained some wisdom and perspective that might easily have cost upwards of $85 in a therapists office. And even that pat on the backthe money saved by dint of what I didnt spendis a lower-level healing than the perceived reality that a new door has opened, and that I will be able to take things into account by keeping myself company inch by inch; that I be will able to discern, to figure, to measure well and weigh.
Right now, all that seems like a foreign teaching, fully as exotic as English marmalades. But I have slowed the automatic pilot down to a more human pace, I have momentarily tried my hand at the controls and found that I like the feel of the wheel under my hand. Could there actually be a connection between becoming aware of my inner process and developing the ability to deal well with finances? What a blessing if it were really true! Because the inner part, I do have some control over. And even if I dont, I have some control over how I respond when I feel out of control. And even if I dont, I can still witness what is happening without harsh self-judgment. And even if I cant .
One can starve, philosophizing.
I am amused by myself, my intense concentration. Im also a little dismayed that its so easy for me to blot out the existence of others. Other people do shop alongside me, passing me on the left and on the right. It is not like Im literally alone in this place. But I am also not alone in this interiority. All the shoppers move within the radius of their own carts and needs, like drivers inside cars. Except for families shopping together and absorbed in conversations of their own, the most common words exchanged among shoppers tend to be "Excuse me" when two carts get in each others way and some words of routine greeting to the check-out clerk. I have not created this isolation all on my own. But neither have I done anything to alter it, yet, nor do I know how.
I make my way back to the produce aisle. Im too hungry to think of anything but food. At least I know I can afford a few bananas from this store. I am examining the thick, fibrous stalks of the bananas when suddenly a store clerk, wearing a green apron and unpacking a crate full of strawberries, lifts up one basket of perfect strawberries and holds it out to me. "Would you like a few?" he asks, smiling.
Without stopping myself, I reach for two, then three, from the overflowing rim. I bite into one of them eagerly. The sweet juice spurts into the cave of my mouth.
"Thank you," I say gratefully. Yet I cannot help but ask: "What made you offer them to me?" I am thinking: Is it my shoes? My clothing? Is hunger written on my face? Is it clear that I am not a local habitue of this store, or any other store remotely like it? Is my poverty etched in my aura, my face, and is this charity?
The young man smiles a little shyly. "I dont know," he says. "You looked like maybe you would appreciate them."
The two remaining strawberries are large enough that they can make a near-meal on their own. In the refrigerator case I find gourmet-style yogurt for 89 cents. I think of using the strawberries as utensils, but the area by the soup has bins of free plastic spoons.
Everything, and more, has been provided.
The Blessings Ledger is a book in progress. Copyright © 2005 by Naomi Rose. All rights reserved. (P.S. Keeping a Blessings Ledger really works!)
Naomi's other writings:
[more to come]