Last night, after a long-awaited shimmering evening of poems, fiction, and other tales, I walked two miles home from the Whiteside Theatre in downtown Corvallis. The Oregon rain had made its official return: over an inch in one night. I had planned for the rain, but not for the buses to stop running at nine.
Scatterings of leaves glimmered in the splashes of light floating above the black sidewalk. My footsteps light. Somewhere between Oregon State campus and the harshly lit “red” Meyer on Kings, I was happy. Thankful I had not worn my durable but heavy Hunter boots. Relieved it wasn’t a wintry wet. And gladdened by a brisk pace, busied mind, and a full stomach.
My thoughts were never far from hunger last night. As I scarfed down a quarter pound classic burger with the works and french fries at the bus stop. As literary arts students passed around jack-o-lantern pails for food bank donations. And as I kept thinking back to the older woman in the checkout line in front of me just this week whose food stamp card wouldn’t go through. I had been so upset with myself that I hadn’t acted sooner. At first, I assumed my first order of duty was to not appear impatient, because I wasn’t, going so far as to pick up a Country Living to browse its “handcrafted presents.”
Soon, though, I realized this wasn’t another run-of-the-mill debit card glitch or forgotten pin. It finally dawned on me that this woman may not be able to pay for her food.
As a writer, full-time mom, and one of the many who never fully recovered since the Recession, I regularly feel the pinch of “not enough,” whether imagined or real. By the time I realized what was going on, I was already telling myself I didn’t have it. I can‘t afford someone else‘s groceries, right now we can barely afford our own. Except that wasn’t true. Was it? At least, from the outside, we must appear to be doing okay, right? There must be something…. I took out my wallet and started counting, and eavesdropping to try to hear a total. All I had was two fifties. Larger bills don’t spend as quickly. That might cover it. No wait! There was more. Last year, after making a goal to save a thousand dollars in cash for an emergency, I remembered I had been keeping a “day’s worth” on me, an amount that could pay for groceries, or a place to spend the night if wildfires or smoke drove us from our homes or—.
“One hundred thirty….” I grabbed another fifty, pulled the three of them together, looked up, and opened my mouth. And then closed it. The cashier either slid his own card or overrode the computer, I’m not sure, then gave her a receipt and wished her a good day. They exchanged a few more words about what to do to fix the problem, she walked away, and I was left with my own groceries to pay for, and the thought that next time, I would know how much money I had to help.
Last year, a similar thing happened. It was a few days before Christmas. The lines were crowded, and miraculously, everyone still seemed to be in bright moods. By then, families had started gathering again, while many still waited for our youngest children to be protected.
A particularly upbeat woman had been chatting up the cashier and started bagging her groceries. The man a lane over from us tried to run his card, but it wasn’t working. The total, it was so crowded nearly everyone heard it, was around three hundred dollars. This time I didn’t even have time to think of how to help. The woman in front of me dropped her last bag in the cart, pulled out her wallet, swiped her card, said Merry Christmas, and was gone before anyone could say thanks. And again, I was left to pay for my groceries, and the thought that one day I hoped I could do the same thing with such swiftness and buoyancy.
But why am I telling you all this?
Maybe I should return to last night. Before the rain. Before my journey home. Before the fullness and expansion November can bring. When I sat in a crowd. Yes, a crowd. After years off, the Magic Barrel returned to Corvallis and its literary and philanthropic community. For decades, once a year, the Willamette community of writers, and beyond, gathered to read and raise money for the Linn-Benton Food Share.
Why? When so many writers themselves struggle, sometimes even the “successful” ones. More than a few were still trying to promote books that had come out in 2020, some reading excerpts for the first time to a live audience. But we writers know, that writing never is a truly solitary act, but instead, a collective sometimes soul-crushing duty in service to humanity as a whole. Most writers, we don’t need much, we don’t ask for much, and we try to give as much as we can. Or at least I hope we do. And last night exemplified that.
Last night, we tried to fill a theater, so we could try to fill a food bank’s coffers, and selfishly, in return, words filled us. We listened, as a rock and a log had a conversation about life, and death. We listened, as a soldier despaired an end. We listened, as a boy left his home. We listened. For a night, we stopped, and listened. And I understood why it might have been named the Magic Barrel. Because for one night, we felt we were part of a ritual of influence over outside forces. And for one night, we were filled.
But I’m also torn. Because as I looked around, as I often do at events, I couldn’t help but judge that we probably could wipe out hunger. That we must have the resources. That it was more a matter of priorities. In the middle of the readings, I felt an abject reaction to everything we were doing there. Why did we need to reward ourselves with readings to give? Was there more we could do? Shouldn’t everything extra just automatically go to the food bank? And how could it be possible that there was “extra” when there still isn’t “enough”? Even I was there for other reasons. Would I have given to the food bank if not for this event?
I guess I tell you this because, yes, I hope my words fill you. But also because, maybe I want you to know that supporting me isn’t exactly about my writing, but that I hope you know that what I’m trying to do is make a better world, not in words only but through my actions. And, maybe, yes, if you are able to support your local food bank, I hope you might give a little more this season.
If you live in the Linn-Benton area: https://givebutter.com/csc-lbfs
And to my patrons, I hope you know, how very thankful I am for you.