Set for Life

A few years ago, my dad and I were talking to a friend at a fundraiser who was telling us about a mutual acquaintance who had recently cashed out of his business for a tidy sum. The expression that kept coming up was that he (and his kids, and probably their kids) were “set for life.” Minutes later, dad turned to me (privately) and, with a sly smile, said “Wow. Sorry, Jen. You’ll never be ‘set for life’ based on what you get from your mom and me.” We both laughed.

I won’t pretend that money was or is of no importance to my parents (or me, for that matter). It’s just that we didn’t discuss it or concentrate on it much growing up. Like most middle class American families, we went through lean times (especially when my mom was at home raising us) and times that were a little fatter (allowing us to travel, pursue our passions and become well educated). As I look back on my life, I can easily identify those periods now, but throughout the eighteen years I lived at home, I was only marginally aware of our family finances. Instead of defining themselves by their income level or possessions, my parents have always defined themselves by their relationships— with family and friends, to their community, and to larger global issues/movements. For them, money has always been a tool to accomplish goals: to help people/causes they care about, to provide opportunities for their kids and, in more recent years, each other.

In fact, I’ve only heard my parents get excited about precise sums of money within the past thirteen years. Thirteen years ago, my mom brought Empty Bowls — a nationwide grassroots movement that combines art (in the form ceramic bowls/vessels, and bowl-inspired visual art/jewelry), soup, and entertainment to raise money for foodshelves and community resource centers — to her local community in Hopkins, Minnesota. It dawned on me yesterday, as I was trying to convince a group of grade school boys to try the carrot ginger soup (my favorite), that an entire generation of kids and families from Hopkins schools knows that the Empty Bowls event takes place every year on the third Tuesday of March. That’s because they or someone they know has made a bowl to donate (it’s built into the 4th grade general curriculum and that of the junior high and high school ceramics classes, and community bowl-making classes are offered throughout the winter), volunteered or performed at the event, or perhaps utilized the services of one of the two non-profits Hopkins Empty Bowls benefits— ICA foodshelf and ResourceWest, a multifaceted resource center for families living in the Western suburbs.

Making bowls to donate to Hopkins Empty Bowls 2010.

Year after year, Mom, an expert in the art of persuasion, convinces a host of prominent community members and companies to get involved and restaurants to donate soup. She mobilizes a breathtaking “army” of volunteers, many of whom have been involved in Hopkins Empty Bowls since the beginning. Dad, the entertainment chair, schedules talented members of the community to perform throughout the day– from professional musicians to senior choirs to school groups. It is a community event in the fullest sense of the term, and it has become my favorite day of the year.

A close second is the day after Empty Bowls, when I await  the phone call from one of my physically exhausted yet emotionally high parents telling me how much money was raised. Today it came from my dad. I don’t want to reveal the amount yet (before my mom has a chance to), but let’s just say it literally stopped me in my tracks. The amount raised this year, $90,000 as of 3/16/2011 (and the donations are still coming in), literally stopped me in my tracks. We celebrated for a moment, repeating the number a few times before he launched into a hope-filled update on a friend he’d been helping with a tough situation this morning.

Dad was wrong about what he said at that fundraiser a few years ago, or perhaps his joke was more layered than I had originally thought. Based on what I’ve received from my parents– an appreciation for knowledge, culture, literature and the arts, a penchant for action vs. stagnation, and, most importantly, compassion— I am already set for life. I wish I could say that I’ve always followed in their footsteps, but their shoes are big and my faults are numerous. However, I do know that the life they have shown me– embracing difference, recognizing both need and goodness, working hard (especially when nobody’s watching), and following through— has guided my life choices to a large extent. It is the reason I am married to an amazing partner. It is the reason I have a fulfilling career. It is the reason my heart fills when I see a grade school kid pour his allowance money into the donation box, or an octogenarian beam as she selects a bowl covered with tiny fish and seashells that was made by a local 4th grader. It is the reason I am drawn to things that are unlike my life experiences, anything that leads me to a greater understanding of this world and those in it. This is the only definition of “set for life” that makes any sense to me.