Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Colossians 3:15

Thursday, September 29, 2011

'Hey, lady! Can you spare me a penny?'

Published in Cumberland Times-News Thursday, September 29, 2011.

"If Bill O’Reilly’s idea of a one percent federal retail tax should materialize, then I would see my investments working for the government and not for me."
In the past couple weeks, after finishing our grocery shopping, my brother, sister-in-law and I – exiting the plaza -- have observed a panhandler with a sign that reads “Jobless. Broke. Hungry.”

I always feel compassion, and a sense of “but for the grace of God, there go I,” along with a smattering of skepticism, when I see someone homeless.

My sister-in-law suggested we give the fellow a granola bar she handily retrieved from the car console, “since he says he’s hungry.” My brother reckoned, though, the beggar would prefer cash.

We ultimately decided against any gift. After all, I said, there are places where he could receive food; and we agreed that likely, judging from his plentiful tattoos, he would squander cash.

I recalled the time I encountered a vagrant outside McDonald’s in Sharpsburg. “Lady, can you spare me some change?” he asked. “No,” I replied, “but come inside, and I’ll buy your breakfast.” “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t eat here.” (Doubtful, then, I thought, he’d buy food with cash.) “Sorry. I can’t help you,” I told him.

My brother, sister-in-law and I postulated that if this beggar had saved the money he spent on eccentricities, he might have that cash, with interest now, for necessities. Of course, it is possible he changed his ways some time ago and simply has hit hard times. Without family or assistance, many more likely would be on the streets today.

Times are exceedingly tough. We all feel the crunch of stagnant or shrinking incomes, escalating expenses, diminishing returns on investments, and frozen or dwindling savings. We all have to make less do more; austerity is the new norm.

Suze Orman says,” I quoted to my brother and sister-in-law, “saving has to be more fun than spending.” For me, it is. I buy items on sale and use coupons. If it’s not a deal, then there is no deal.

I did make a few bad spending decisions, one wrong investment turn in my younger days, but I don’t expect any more of those.

I never could afford eccentricities; I always had a hefty monthly health insurance bill that still keeps me strapped. But praise God I’ve had health insurance all these years; without it, I’d be poor, possibly homeless.

Suze says health insurance is a must, to build security, along with investing in stocks. Now, that’s where I get nervous. Investing in a mutual fund, with a financial adviser, is what I consider my past wrong turn. I lost too much. Now my certificates of deposit earn a paltry penny (and less) on the dollar.

If Bill O’Reilly’s idea of a one percent federal retail tax should materialize, then I would see my investments working for the government and not for me.

Suze says if we choose solid stocks that pay dividends, then we can earn up to five percent and keep ahead of inflation – if we invest half our holdings for at least a decade, that is!

I’ve done some courageous things, mostly because I’ve had to; but I could never be that brave.

I might continue to consider, and then re-consider, putting a thousand dollars into a dividend fund, but I won’t make any hasty moves. One percent assured in the bank helps to pay my health insurance.

Perhaps Bill O’Reilly, and the president, would do well to panhandle for pennies and see how many they could collect. My guess is even a one percent tax would be too much for most.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My best life lesson I learned in the garden

Published in Cumberland Times-News Wednesday, August 31, 2011.
"The image of that scene remains in my mind’s eye; and even now, I feel the shift in my thinking that took place at that moment: The overwhelmed child grew a step toward becoming the industrious adult."

In my youth, my parents planted a bountiful vegetable garden. It stretched the 120-foot width of our lower lot, and about a third of the depth. A narrow path on either side bordered our neighbors’ yards and gardens, and across the bottom were woods.

Otherwise in that lot, across the road from our front porch, were a red raspberry patch, two Concord grape arbors, a half-dozen sour cherry trees, three German Prune plum trees, a red currant bush, a Yellow Transparent apple tree, a Winter Banana apple tree, a McIntosh graft on an otherwise generic apple tree, another sprawling apple tree that served best to support my suspended wooden swing, two Chinese chestnut trees, and a black walnut tree. The blossoms in spring were spectacular.

Later, my parents planted two Bartlett pear trees. The pears are delicious. The cherry trees broke to smithereens in an ice storm many winters back. The grape arbors, too, came down decades ago. The chestnuts are beautiful trees, though the fruits are wormy. The McIntosh graft is dead. The swing and its tree are long gone. The banana apple provides good shade now for the nearest neighbor, and fodder for the deer.

As my older siblings moved out, and we no longer needed it, my father seeded the garden in clover -- beloved by groundhogs (who always were troublesome in the garden). The lot serves now as a front yard for my 91-year-old mother and me.

In my younger days, we kept busy spring, summer and fall -- planting, weeding, picking, cleaning, seeding, canning and freezing. We had two sets of shelves in the basement, each four feet wide and six feet tall, spaced to fit quart jars. By summer’s end, we filled them with colorful gems of cherry, raspberry and currant preserves, grape juice and jelly, pitted plums and cherries, tomatoes, green beans, beets, pickles and relish, apple butter and applesauce, and peaches we bought by the bushel from a storehouse in Pinto, Maryland.

In addition to beef bought from my mother’s parents, who raised Black Angus and Charolais, our double chest freezer filled with bags of corn, peas and walnuts. The cabbage, potatoes, lettuce, green peppers, peanuts, onions and yellow squash we used during the season.

I learned my best life lesson from Mom in our garden.

The rows seemed to me, as a youngster, to stretch to infinity; and eyeing the length of the garden from my crouched position weeding, I lamented the magnitude of the job.

“Don’t look at what you’ve got yet to do,” my mother said. “Look at what you’ve gotten done. And keep weeding!”

The image of that scene remains in my mind’s eye; and even now, I feel the shift in my thinking that took place at that moment: The overwhelmed child grew a step toward becoming the industrious adult.

Still, when jobs are big, I draw on Mom’s wisdom at that moment in the garden. Big jobs require time and persistence. The long view comes into focus with completion of each task along the way. Looking back regularly, to appreciate accomplishments, provides motivation and direction. Then, when the job is complete, the satisfaction that comes with hard work and beautiful results makes the investment and diligence worthwhile.

And, in the end, life is like that.

What I learned in the garden that day is, rather than grumble when faced with a big job, or a small task – or life’s challenges -- I praise God for the place, the time, and the ability to do it. And I thank Him for the garden, the lesson, and Mom.