Sunday, January 14, 2007


Because my stomach has been so unsettled, I'm making my way slowly through a bowl of homemade rice soup. I love my rice soup. It's full of healthful things like celery and carrots and almonds and onion diced up finely into the rich cream broth.

I've crumbled one of my homemade rolls over the bowl so the hearty crumbs can soften and soak into the soup.

Even though my right side aches sharply, I'm still very hungry. So I have to make foods that are tasty yet also soft and digestible. My rice soup would qualify here.

My physical discomfort makes me dwell more strongly on thoughts of hunger. Anyone who has ever been hungry knows it is not an experience ever forgotten. Not hungry in the sense that you've missed a meal, or have a craving for Thai cuisine tonight.

Hungry meaning: you truly don't know where the next meal is coming from. And even if you did, someone else must eat it first and you can have what's left over.

I hear people say this all the time: There's no starving in this country. No one in this room has ever gone hungry or wanted for food.

And that is simply not true.

I can say that because I have been hungry.

Not that you would know it to look at me now.
For that matter, not that you would have known it to look at me then. I was pretty good at keeping up appearances.

I was a young mother in California once, with an infant son, working full time, overtime, and still not making enough money for both food and rent. I often sold my books and clothes and compact discs to find the next meal.

I learned to look vague and disinterested as I slung my belongings across the counter, acting as if I couldn't care less if they bought my items or not. Shifting my backpack more noisily than necessary, to hide the growling in my stomach.

Sometimes I had no choice but to go to churches and ask for food.

A person compromised soon learns the difference between gifts of demonstration and gifts from the heart. Because your choices are few, you're glad to get either -- but the latter kind lasts longer. Their generosity, in turn, somehow magnifies your own view. I can't explain it.

I had to knock on their doors and remember not to slouch, even when the women sometimes wrinkled their noses at me distastefully as they handed me boxes of stale pastries from the supermarket and dry formula to let me know that they truly considered me as a failure -- as mother, citizen, and a Christian.

I will always praise the Roman Catholic women who put extra formula in my box without complaint, talking to me cheerfully about the weather. "I feel so guilty taking food from you," I blurted. "I'm not even Catholic."

"God gives," the woman said, kindly.

I remember answering a telephone survey one winter afternoon as my young son chortled and played with building blocks: the sunlight pouring through the big front room window, and me drinking in an almost liquid nourishment from the light and the joy on my child's face. The person on the telephone said: We're doing a survey on hunger in America. Can you answer some questions for us?

Of course, I said. Feeling most qualified.
Has anyone in your household ever had to miss a meal because there wasn't enough food?

Yes, I said, and my voice broke over the lumpy admission. I started crying into the phone: I have. I do, every day. Can't you do something about it? Do you realize how much diapers cost? Isn't there anywhere I can go?

His voice seemed to break in sympathy. Call the United Way, he said sadly. I don't know what else to tell you. I'm so sorry.

I was a young mother in California once, standing alone, starving, with empty pockets, blocks from my apartment. Standing on a curb in Chinatown with paycheck stubs in hand to claim government food rations from the United Way. A harsh-faced man threw six or seven cardboard boxes full of cans and dried staples out of a truck and told me to get them off the sidewalk now or he'd have me arrested for abandoning government property.

I stacked them up vertically and tried to carry them all, sweating and staggering up San Francisco's fantastically angled streets, while the Chinese grandmas sniggered and pointed. I made it two blocks before I tripped and crashed to the dirty sidewalk.

The boxes fell on top of me. I knew my cheek was scraped and that I was probably hurt, but the weakness and the exhaustion had a kind of numbing effect. I simply couldn't move, not even enough to budge the boxes away from me.

I watched feet walking past me, not slowing, not stopping. I had the hysterical thought: this is how I'm going to die.

Dear God, I can't die like this.
But there's no one to help.
I'm all alone.

Someone did stop. Someone carefully picked the boxes off of me and extended a calloused black hand to help me to my feet. I don't know who he was. He appeared out of nowhere and had three pairs of pants tied in a knot in his hand. He told me that if I carried his clothes, he'd carry my boxes. A deal was struck and we traveled together.

He told me that I had to take care of myself if I was to take care of my son. (I hadn't told him I had a son. We'd just met.) He said I'd been taking on too much and couldn't continue the way I had been. That the most important thing, right now, was to take care of myself and then I could set things in order.

Then we were on the corner by my apartment and he said, "You should be all right now; this is where I stop. You can make it from here." He asked me if I'd remember what he'd told me. I said I was, thank you, and I would.

But before I remembered to thank him, I turned back and he was gone. Just plain vanished, as abruptly as he'd appeared.

I am somewhere else now. I am very fortunate and blessed with a family and a home that's full to bursting with food and comfort. But there will always be that part of me that remembers what it was to starve.

I went out that day looking only for food for my son. I came home with nourishment for my soul -- nourishment that feeds me to this day, when I'm in pain yet still hungry.

God gives.