July 26, 2010

Sharing & Needing

“Is it weird? Seeing someone else with your car? You’ve been so good about sharing it. If it were me, it’d be weird, leaving the car I’d had for ten years,” Lacey asked as we stood by the car in question on my darkened street last night. I’d just given her my standing oval mirror and a small jewelry table.

I shrugged. “No, not really. I’ve had practice learning what I can live without. I lived a whole summer in a tent once.” A rather palatial tent by the standards of such things, with access to a bathhouse and meals provided every day, but it was still a tent.

The truth is, for all my many character flaws, sharing is not one of them. In fact, I like to share. It makes me feel useful, so you see, it’s not entirely altruistic. I like to be helpful. I like to show people things and teach them how to do stuff. There are limits, of course, and I can be impatient when it comes to showing someone the same thing for the third time, but I can usually stifle my annoyance and manage it with a smile.

If someone has a question, I’m right there with an answer, sometimes rather too quickly as I’ve been known to answer questions that weren’t addressed to me. I’ve discovered this enthusiasm isn’t always appreciated and learned to linger in the back of the classroom, only supplying an answer after others have had ample opportunity. And I have no particular attachment to things, or most things anyway. If you need a quarter or a book or a ride or even a car, if I have it, then you have it. I once gave my friend John my gigantic calculus textbook. He bought me a pop every week during class for the rest of the semester and I thought that an equitable exchange (the treat was certainly more fun than calculus had been).

Lacey is buying my car, the 1999 Hyundai Accent I bought brand new when I was nineteen years old. I’m the only person to have ever owned it. It’s blue and has a spoiler on its hatchback, which is absurd, but I rather enjoy. I would have given it to her, had I not needed the money. As it is, we didn’t even quibble over the price. She gave me a down payment and we’ve been sharing it until I leave. This week, I’ll see she gets the title paperwork and that’ll be it. The car will be hers, faded bumper stickers, stained seats, new tires and all. I’m glad she’s so excited to have it.

I sold my furniture to Barbara, who had “Best Grandmother” embroidered on her tee-shirt and spotless white sneakers. She just moved in upstairs.

“What would you like for it?” she asked. “I don’t want to insult you with too low a price.”

I shrugged and looked around. “I don’t know.” It’s my home, and it’s comfortable, but it doesn’t amount to much.

“How about $50 for the couch and the dining set?” she offered. “I can pay you next week when I get my social security. My grandsons can help move it on Sunday.”

“Yes, that’s fine,” I agreed. I probably would have agreed to the price of having the grandsons come take it away (especially if they were legal, cute, and it was hot enough to merit shirtless furniture moving, but that might have been asking a bit much).

It’s all gone now, along with the cobbled-together entertainment center and the last tall bookshelf. My house is a vast (500 square foot) desert prairie, with the occasional chair or box popping up above the faded Berber carpet. My cat sprawls languidly in the middle of the floor and surveys her domain, when she’s not stalking amongst the ruins and exploring the interiors of cardboard caves.

Elisabeth stopped over and bought the DVD player and a computer monitor. Dad came this weekend and helped move a few more things. He’d had a tetanus shot the day before and it was making him tired in the evenings, but he still wanted to help. My family is like that, so I guess that’s where I learned it. We took a load of boxes over to their garage and then he fell asleep on the couch in front of his big screen television, with little Lucy curled up next to him because Mom was away at quilt camp. He would snort and she would twitch her multi-colored ears and it was all very cute. When I finally went up to bed, I had to clear several boxes of craft supplies from the daybed in what was once the guest bedroom, the one I’ve generally thought of as mine.

I’ve always shared, ever since I was little, but these last few years I’ve also felt I needed less. I attribute that to my practice. I shop less and I buy less, partly because I have less money, but also because I don’t feel the need. I don’t feel sad when I can’t afford something I want. I really don’t want that much anymore. A few years ago, I would have been annoyed at the conquering army that is my mother’s craft supplies taking over what was ostensibly “my” space, the only bit of that house I’d ever felt was at all private. Now, I just shift the boxes and climb into bed. It doesn’t matter. How much space do I need for my glasses and mala and toothbrush anyway? Maybe mom should just get rid of the daybed. I won’t be visiting as much and when I do, I can sleep on the couch.

I also recognize that my sharing is as much about my ego as about the other person. I work on cultivating good intentions and not being pushy. Very shortly, sharing will take on an entirely new meaning, as I gain a roommate and his two-year-old son. I won’t be able to share entirely on my terms anymore. There is an opportunity to learn from that, if I can stay open enough to recognize it.

Compassion, we are often reminded means to “suffer with” another. Buddhism speaks about it often with its emphasis on suffering. But there is also sympathetic joy. There is also the smile I find on my face when Lacey posts a picture of her “new” car on Facebook with the caption “I LOVE IT!” Sometimes I think we could do well to talk about that feeling a little more.

I was watching a commercial about teeth whitening while Dad slept on the couch with the cat. When the woman on the screen smiled, I smiled. I didn’t even recognize it until the third time. We suffer, it’s true. But we’re also hardwired for compassion and sympathetic joy. We wince when someone else gets hurt and laugh when someone else laughs even if we don’t know the joke.

Sharing is a way of training for that empathetic response, which is why it’s so much more appealing to share in-person, with someone you know than to just drop things off at a thrift store for a nameless stranger. My friend Noreen might not need that shirt as much as the women’s shelter, but if I give it to her, I get to share her pleasure in having it. If we could find a way to incorporate this aspect into our charities, if our communities weren’t so divorced from the needy in our midst, we could harness a great deal more generosity.

Part of being generous comes from feeling wealthy. I don’t have much, by the standards of American society, but it feels like a lot to me, so sharing is never a burden. When I take boxes to donate to Good Will, I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything. Practice has helped me lessen the poverty mentality that makes us believe we need more than we do. I actually don’t need a car or a couch or ten pairs of jeans. That I have (for now) a car and a couch (there’s one waiting for me in California) and two (I gave the others away) pairs of jeans, makes me feel very fortunate. So there’s that, too – feelings of wealth and good fortune and sympathetic joy.

I’m going to my bankruptcy hearing today, but you know, I don’t feel particularly unlucky. I’ve got enough in my pocket for a piece of pizza on the way. I can pick up a little milk on the way home to share with my cat. When I get to California, I’ll have enough to buy a nice mattress, one big enough for two. My practice has helped me discover this and refine it. I may suck at meditation, but this I can do.

And here’s one way I can share it with you.


Qiana said...

Hi Monica,

I've been enjoying reading through your posts, especially today's entry. I love the dialogue and small details that you include (like the "Best Grandmother" tee-shirt!) and the way you've tied your personal experience to larger questions about suffering and sharing.

I'm also leaving this comment as an editor of Prapañca, an online Buddhist journal. (http://www.prapancajournal.com) I hope you'll consider submitting an essay or creative writing piece, or even expanding a post like this one for a feature. We'd love to have your insight in the journal.

If you're interested and have any questions, please let me know!

All the best,
Qiana (qiana@prapancajournal.com)

bookbird said...

wow - this is an amazing story and I am looking forward to reading more! Thanks for sharing... and I like the sound of that cat ;)

Monica said...

Thank you both very much. I've heard of Prapanca and often thought of submitting a piece. I'll have to give it a shot in the next few months. I'm glad you've enjoyed the site. Thanks!