On finding myself alone at a mealtime, I’d reach for something to read while eating. It was multi-tasking, something I still considered a virtue. Too often after a mealtime spent reading, I could barely recall what I had eaten.
As a child in Catholic school, I had been taught the Graces Before and After Meals, prayers that were rarely if ever said in the absence of clergy. On a day last year, alone in the house, and ready to tuck into one of my ample lunches, I rooted the recent mail for the latest New Yorker or New York Review of Books. To my surprise, an obvious and disconcerting reality entered my mind. Despite my best efforts not to think about such things, I found I was facing one of my own “inconvenient truths;” there were at that moment, millions of people all around the world for whom hunger was more than a marginal urge, for whom eating was more than a function of choices.
Unable to banish or deny the realization that there is actual widespread starvation in the world, that there were really children stunted by malnutrition, I fell back upon that long-remembered prayer, “Bless of Oh Lord for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” I put aside my intended mealtime reading material before starting my lunch. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
In the course of my life, I may have skipped a meal now and then. There were the Lenten observances and the days of fast and abstinence during my far off childhood. And even those, in our marginally observant family, were far from rigorous, and always open to the most liberal of interpretations. But among the far too many things I’d chosen to ignore was an unquestioned assumption that I held an entitlement to eat whenever and whatever I choose.
Being human is, of necessity, to live within the context of history. In this time and this place, we’ve been led to believe that we’ve been granted a unique dispensation from the flow of history. Solidly, if newly, middle-class in what still feels like the first of first world countries, I do not have to look very far back in my own family; three, four generations at most, to find more sobering attitudes toward the prospects of securing one’s next meal.
I’ve no personal documentation, nor do I need any, to assert that my Irish peasant ancestors faced periods of absolute need, of hunger and exposure, experiences utterly removed from my own experience. My father spoke of his illiterate and penniless parents emigrating here from the barren West of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. My mother’s people, more assimilated, deracinated might be the better word, laid claims to being in this country at the time of the Civil War. Only recently was I able to parse that assertion into the probability of their being what were called at that time, “Famine Irish,” a term that carries its own horrific story.
Never having known genuine scarcity, most of us have come to accept plenitude as our due. The very idea of “normal” presumes an unwarranted and illusory sense of permanence, an exemption from the too often dire consequences of history. It no longer seems necessary to sanctify the routine acts that are the basis of our sustenance, of our very existence. Once a year on the fourth Thursday in November, somewhere amid images of Pilgrims and Indians, we collectively participate in ritual expressions of gratitude for our bounty. For most of us, that’s about it. With my ancestral history as a personal context, the tuna salad sandwich on my plate began to take on sacral qualities, not something to be taken absent-mindedly with the day’s Op-Ed page.
I can no longer read while eating. Instead, I do my best to focus on my every mouthful of food, be it a bowl of cereal, a fast food sandwich or a holiday dinner. Within my small insight lies the possibility of ever more openings to gratitude, and within those, a hope that such revelations will encourage a more generous, more active charity on my part, particularly toward those who would find my need for distractions at mealtime beyond imagining.