Molly Fisk: Tithe & Teeth

Yesterday, I went to the farmer’s market wearing a lavender tie-dyed dress, and one of the farmers handed me a lavender gladiolus flower that exactly matched it. I was delighted, and she was delighted — there was a bubble of sheer happiness around both of us for a minute — and I thought to myself, Oh, this is what the phrase “wreathed in smiles” looks like . . .

Did you know one of the most common activities in World War II concentration camps was gift-giving? And nobody had anything to give, really. People gave each other their last bite of stale, moldy bread, a corner of moth-eaten blanket, their own body heat. They gave their voices in song. Often the generous people made it through, where miserly or more desperate ones did not. Giving is a powerful marker of humanity. It shows a commitment to connection that may be required for survival in extreme circumstances, whether you’re on the receiving end or the giving one. It’s a sign of autonomy and strength, even for people who can’t stand up any more or lift a hand to feed themselves.

One of my friends just began “tithing.” Not the practice of giving money to a church, or the medieval dues paid in agricultural products by serfs to owners of the land they were farming, but a newfangled version. “Tithe” literally means a one-tenth part of something: your income, your grape harvest, your salmon catch. My friend heard it might help more money come her way. And it might: a Buddhist I know raises employee salaries when business is slow and says it always turns things around.

I’m happy to improve my cash flow, but what I’m working on now is cultivating deeper consciousness of and gratitude for my privileges: being born middle class, white, able-bodied, and smart into the First World during a prosperous century. I’ve done a lot of whining these last years while trying to save my house, and it’s time for that to stop — at a certain point it’s really bad manners. I don’t want to forget I’m luckier than most people on this planet.

I do give away books, and time. I read poems at almost every benefit I’m asked to. But I’ve never thought I had enough money to spare. In case I’m wrong about this, for the rest of the year I’m going to give away some of my income. Not a tenth, because I’m still paying off debt. More like 4%. Every two weeks I’m going to write checks to organizations or people I believe in. My friend says it’s an interesting process, because of course, some weeks you really don’t think you have enough and want to keep it all. What happens when a big dental surgery bill comes up against sending $53 to Doctors Without Borders? I’m looking forward to finding out. Having 32 teeth in your head is also a middle-class American privilege, after all.

It’s very possible to be wreathed in smiles with fewer of them.

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  • Deb October 17, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Hi love this Molly. Thank you.

  • Mele Rose Huffman October 15, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Interesting essay, as usual. The word “white” startled me in your list of gratitude and privileges. I participate in the Membership, Diversity & Community Outreach Committee for the Renaissance Society. I don’t think a lot people have a personal understanding of the term “white privilege” and how being born in this racial identification allows such huge advantages in our American and World cultures. Have you published other or extensive works on this commonly perceived advantage?

  • Molly Fisk October 15, 2016 at 9:58 am

    You’re welcome, Shirley! I had to laugh at the placement of the “donation” button just below the piece today, though. That was not my planning, although giving some love = money to Women’s Voices for Change is definitely on my list. Gratitude has become something of a modern cliché, which is really ridiculous. I have to watch out not to get turned off by the trendiness and ubiquity of the subject and remember the bedrock underneath. Best to you and thanks for reading my essays and commenting so often! I appreciate it. xox

  • Shirley October 15, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Molly, you are so right about being grateful. I am guilty of forgetting to support regularly worthwhile causes. Thanks for this very timely discussion.