I’ve been reading an interesting little book of late, entitled, A Little History of My Forest Life, by Eliza Morrison. It’s an account of her life in the latter half of the 19th century in northern Wisconsin, and Madeline Island in particular. A woman with both European and Native American ancestry, Eliza had been schooled sufficiently to read and write as a child. As an adult, Eliza had been requested by a good friend to write down her recollections of her life in those early days, and the book is in large part a collection of her letters and stories.
As difficult as life was in the rugged north, Eliza’s autobiography is surprisingly positive. Her stories of arduous summer work, seemingly always in preparation for the winters to come, are exhausting just to read. Her descriptions of mid-winter days on Madeline Island, and her regular hikes across the three-mile channel on Lake Superior between La Pointe and Bayfield, are enough to give me shivers on even the warmest day.
But her attitude rarely changes; she is an optimistic and grateful character who would rather give thanks for the steadfast loyalty and partnership of her husband, John, than to curse the vagaries of available work in the region and his need to follow work wherever it led him. John often found it necessary to migrate across borders and communities in order to feed Eliza and his family of six. Often alone with her children for months at a time, sometimes in winter nearing the end of provisions with no means of replenishment, Eliza nonetheless offers a perspective of one who has been greatly blessed in life.
Her letters offer an intimate look at both the activities and the psyche of this immensely strong woman. The tenacity of Eliza’s spirit resonates throughout her letters. But in between the accounts of paddling a canoe across the wind-driven swells of the Superior Ocean (for such it must have seemed to a solitary paddler on a gusty day) or leading a team of dogs through waist-deep snows to deliver provisions to John, there is also a plaintive voice that speaks up in unexpected places. It is there that I began to understand Eliza Morrison and her life.
In her note to friend Catherine Gray on December 15, 1894, Eliza provides a glimpse of what else lay deep in her heart. In the midst of a report about her sister in Michigan, Eliza reveals something else. “My sister is a widow now and an invalid. How I would like to go and see her. She lives in Lanse, Michigan. Her husband use (sic) to be a Methodist minister. Sometimes I think it is hard to be poor and my mind will just turn and think may be it is the Lords will and than I content myself. I have (children) Bennie and Eunice with me. They both go to school….”
Among all of the optimism and positive thinking that marked Eliza Morrison’s character, this singular notion cries out like some primal scream for recognition and justice. Eliza was not an ignorant woman; she understood all too clearly the reality that she was poor and that there was something fundamentally wrong in that. So wrong, in fact, that she could not fathom how her circumstances could be so low, thus having to rationalize the inequity by ascribing it to some unknown, undecipherable divine edict. In the midst of a world that holds so much, how could she accept her poverty other than by ascribing it to a heavenly will? And in fixing the responsibility there, she could somehow better accept the unfairness, the incredulity of it all.
Upon reflection, I think that I experience this same kind of rationale in Nicaragua all the time. Impoverished Nicaraguans, recognizing the great wealth and resources of the world, cannot logically fathom reasons for their circumstances. They know enough of the world to see how others live. They read enough to recognize how politics often maintain a strong foothold on the back of their necks. And yet they cannot comprehend easily the disparity between beans and caviar in a world which has plenty of both. So they are forced to look for the explanations elsewhere, in the divine, in some inscrutable plan by God who, for some reason, wishes them to be poor. That’s what extreme poverty can do: to drive a man or woman to so convolute his/her spiritual beliefs that the pains of hunger and want become reasonable and even justified states of affairs by no less than the Creator himself.
This may be the ultimate ignominy of poverty, that somehow it is right with the world, that it is part of a divine plan, that there is not only a remedy to be sought but that somehow to seek such remedy would be contrary to the will of the universe. There might be no greater insult, no greater humiliation, than to see oneself as a divinely-appointed “bottom of the barrel.” But that kind of thinking is all too easily fomented by the incessant anxieties and stressors of being very poor.
Some may cite a nobility in being poor. If there is strength to be achieved through adversity, then the poor certainly must possess great reservoirs of calm and resolve to see them through their consistent crises. But such nobility only resides in those who have chosen a poverty way of life, a number which is very small. For the rest of the impoverished, the condition does not offer consolation or meaning, only hopelessness.
I have come to regard the poor in a very different way in recent years. When I meet them- which in Nicaragua is very often- I do not immediately see hunger or deprivation. What I feel first is empathy for people who may actually believe that their condition is both warranted and valid, a belief that ultimately must break their hearts as well as my own.
Sometimes I think it must be hard to be poor. And I know with growing certainty that it is hard for the rest of us to be rich….