Frugality, my dear, frugality, economy, parsimony must be our refuge. I hope the ladies are every day diminishing their ornaments, and the gentlemen too. Let us eat potatoes and drink water. Let us wear canvass, and undressed sheepskins, rather than submit to the unrighteous, and ignominious domination that is prepared for us.
—Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, September 20, 1774
For the past ten years my husband and I (and later, our two children) have subsisted on an income of less than $25,000 per year. How is this possible? We wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’ve chosen this social class; each of us has an advanced degree and could be making more as a full-time teacher. As is, we both juggle a handful of under- and over-the-table gigs. With a constant query of peace and justice in this lifetime, we’ve continually drawn parallels between misuse of power and an excess of money. 1 Timothy 6:10 states: “For the love of money is the root of all evils.” Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Like many of our generation, we’ve been gravely affected by the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and are concerned about the mis-distribution of tax money toward military spending. My husband was deployed with the Wisconsin National Guard in 2003, and neither of us has had the same worldview since. Who has benefited from these military conflicts? Surely the Iraqi people have not benefited, nor have our American veterans. The American people too have suffered in the war’s wake. Only an élite few, with investments in weaponry, oil, and contracting have possibly improved their (worldly) situation.
According to the War Resisters League, the 2014 (fiscal year) United States federal budget allotted 47 percent of our income taxes (about $1,334 billion) to past and present military spending. This is a gross misuse of funds; the money would be better spent on a peace division, education, or health care. Our conviction is strong that war taxes should be resisted. Instead of not paying our due taxes in an act of civil disobedience, however, we followed the simplest path of tax resistance: not making enough to have to pay any blood money at all.
What is it like living so close to the poverty line (the latest Federal Poverty Guidelines list an income of $23,850 as the poverty level for a family of four living in the United States)? Really, it’s not too bad. If we are “poor,” our poorness is of a distinctly American white variety. We’ve never been hungry; we’ve never been without shelter; when we need medicine, we have access. Yet in our very small, safe sacrifice of wealth, we have made a decision to witness and ally ourselves with those in poverty. On his address on the 2009 World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI distinguished between “poverty chosen” (the poverty of spirit proposed by Jesus) and “poverty to be fought” (unjust and imposed poverty).
There is a poverty, a deprivation, which God does not desire and which should be “fought” … a poverty that prevents people and families from living as befits their dignity; a poverty that offends justice and equality and that, as such, threatens peaceful co-existence.… Thus it is necessary to seek to establish a “virtuous circle” between the poverty “to be chosen” and the poverty “to be fought.” This gives access to a path rich in fruits for humanity’s present and future and which could be summarized thus: to fight the evil poverty that oppresses so many men and women and threatens the peace of all, it is necessary to rediscover moderation and solidarity as evangelical, and at the same time universal, values.
Choosing poverty is an ancient tradition, present in spiritual practices across the globe. Carmelites, Dominicans, and Jesuits all take some vow of poverty. Siddhartha experiences poverty on his journey to enlightenment. In the Hindu tradition, a sādhu is a holy person who is not burdened by any material belongings. Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher, affectionately calls sādhus “Cracked Pot Babas” whose belongings are limited to only a bowl for alms, which is often salvaged from the trash. In Theravāda Buddhism the word sādhu translates to “it is well” and is usually thrice repeated. Again and again, poverty is used as catalyst to spiritual illumination.
Our family has had to make many life decisions based on our financial commitments. We live in an extremely affordable yet very rural community; we drive 30-year-old vehicles that we fix with our own hands. At several points in time, we’ve lived out of our van. We darn our socks; we save our seeds. We quite literally “chop wood and carry water,” as in the Zen saying. The children stretch their creativity and play with whatever supplies are at hand and know no other way of being.
In the arctic conditions of this past winter, having only the walls of our dwelling standing between our bodies and the subzero temperatures, plumbing issues under our old house made normal bathing impermissible. And though we could not afford to hire a plumber, our lives remained incredibly rich. Once the temperatures rose above zero, we bought a new pipe and learned quickly about plumbing. Still, as my husband helped me wash my hair in a bowl near the fireplace, I was not feeling impoverished, only loved.
In the freedom of our un-careered schedule, our family has been able to join a handful of peace walks: a daily meditation of traveling by foot, usually about 15 miles per day. Walking through the Appalachians with a group of conscientious sojourners in order to bring awareness of nuclear dangers, I chatted with an elder who has literally walked the peace path for decades. “Where have all the hippies gone?” I half joked as I looked at our diverse group. He answered quickly and earnestly, “They got jobs.” Yes, balancing a career job and social justice work is difficult. Though occasionally people can weave the two demands together, the time committed to a career often prevents the heart work from being a priority. Will I be asking in ten years, where have all the Occupiers gone? If a salaried job cannot also be my spiritual vocation, I choose not to have it.
On another peace walk, I stepped in line with a Japanese man who was part of the Nipponzan Myōhōji religious movement, a monastic order known for an ascetic lifestyle of walking and chanting the Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō mantra. Such monks subsist only on donations, and I inquired about their relationship with money. “Never ask for it,” the monk replied, “and never turn away what is given to you.” On a later visit to a Nipponzan temple, I noticed a jar of popcorn kernels, dish soap, and a Hello Kitty pillow on the altar. These were all gifts to the monastery, on display in thankfulness for the generous community.
Instead of a bank account, I rely on faith. So far, it has never failed us. I recall once when our savings dipped into the scary double-digits. I walked down our road in a prayerful panic until I fell into a soothing mantra of “God will provide. God will provide. God will provide.” Then, I experienced clearness: the little money that we did have was to be spent thoughtfully without any waste. In this experience, I was being given a gift of awareness.
In our old ages, I believe this divine buoyancy will still be there. We have no savings, and I don’t think many in our generation are counting on Social Security. Matthew 6:31–33 supports this: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
And yet, as a mother of two, I do not have many examples of families intentionally choosing this path. The Quaker leader James Nayler, upon hearing the voice of God telling him to go forth, “gave up his estate [and] cast out his money” then made the decision to follow God fully, and in doing so, left behind his family: “without any money, having neither taken leave of wife or children, not thinking then of the journey, I was commanded to go into the west … I was sent without bag or scrip, or money, into the most brutish parts of the nation, where none yet knew me, yet wanted I nothing.” Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi, Peace Pilgrim, and Mother Teresa all did their spirit work with the Big Family; the map of asceticism with children in tow is unclear.
So I will probably not be a Cracked Pot Mama. Instead I walk the Middle Way, requiring some in-flow of money to keep our family of four afloat and yet living always with the contemplation of Spirit. I pray that the modest income I do accrue covers only the necessities, and does not distract me from that which is real, without price, and transcendent. Our parsimony serves as one of the many pathways to God.
It is well. It is well. It is well.