Zensights provides a space for gentle contemplation in a world filled with hectic action and stressed-out situations.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sign of the Times

Find a penny pick it up
And then all day you’ll have good luck.
Ancient Proverb

Walking is not only good exercise, it can be lucrative. Other than running around after my three year old granddaughter, walking is my major form of exercise. I have a two-mile course through my neighborhood, and my walking adventures afford me good muscle tone, a calmness for thinking clearly, and a full piggy bank.

I am not particularly superstitious, but it is hard for me not to pick up abandoned currency. Whenever I see a round glint on the pavement, I can’t help but bend down to check it out. So far, I have collected about $12.97 in the three years I have been actively seeking good health. To be honest, ten dollars of my treasure came when I found a frayed $10 bill flapping in the gutter of a vacant house. The rest of my stash, however, is made up of lackluster nickels, quarters, dimes, and pennies.

At first, the occasional lost coin didn’t seem extraordinary, but then I realized every time I walked, I netted at least a penny, and sometimes much more. Sadly, as the financial climate in America started to deteriorate, so did the number of lost coins and errant $10 bills. I have gone on a month’s worth of walks now and have found only one penny. It was so blackened with tarnish, I thought it had actually been lost much earlier and only recently been unearthed during our hurricane season.

The drought of lost money started me wondering. Could these hard economic times be the reason? As the bear market snarls and snaps at us, are we clinging to the tiniest piece of change in our pockets? Maybe this is not such a bad thing.

My grandmother Irene lived through the Depression, and her “waste not, want not” attitude carried her successfully into the 90s. She reused Mason jars and bread bags. She saved foil and rubber bands, and she squeezed every penny from her paycheck so the church got her tithe and her savings account grew. She knew exactly how many pennies she had in her purse, and I can’t imagine her letting even one of them slip through her fingers to lie in a gutter somewhere.

She was exceedingly thrifty. When her husband died, she sold their house, paid off what was left of the mortgage, put her money in savings, and then took a job as the house mother at the ATO Fraternity of Drake University. For many years she was paid to live there rent free as long as she provided good council to the young men in the frat house. When she was quite old, she even made a quilt from the abandoned ties left by her fraternity sons. Imagine the brilliance of such a crazy quilt! It is one of my most prized possessions. My grandmother never let things go to waste.

But her thriftiness did not mean she loved money or she would do anything to keep it. She simply respected money and knew if a person took care of the finances—that you bought things when you actually had the money to do so—then there would be money later when you needed it. As a result of her sound fiscal policies, she could be generous.

I almost cried at my 35th birthday party when she sent me a $5 bill in my birthday card. Aside from the fact she couldn’t let go of my childhood, she was never going to let me go without the little things. She even left enough money when she died to give each of her 6 grandchildren $250 apiece. What a treasure she was!

Sub-prime loan defaults, credit card debt skyrocketing, and bail-outs would surely have had my grandmother in a tizzy, especially after what she went through to survive the Depression. She would never have let a $10 bill get away from her and into the streets. Instead, she would have stretched that money into a pantry full of canned summer produce. Her pennies mounted up until she could buy what she wanted. And what she didn’t spend, she saved for a rainy day, which is what we have now.

I hate to think we Americans were once so blasé about our fortunes that our bulging pockets couldn’t contain all our coins. Our opulent mentality—one where people feel an indefinite flow of cash is always to be had—is probably what has now gotten us into trouble. Maybe if we had been a little less loose-fisted with our small monies, we might have more big money to show for it now.

I also hate to think we need hard times to provide us with an appreciation of the little things—things as lowly as pennies. Maybe the lessons which I learned from my grandmother will now be taught by economic turmoil, when all we should have done was respect the small change. It eventually makes a fortune. We should not take our money for granted nor should we let it fall from our pockets for others to pick up as they exercise.


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