The jingle of a tin cup

November 16th, 2008

One very late night among many very late nights lately, Georgia spoke up before falling asleep. Does this mean I am a professional? she asked. I assured her. Yes, you are a professional.

My nine-year-old is a professional. A professional beggar. She was the last in a cast of dozens given a role in our little town’s live theater performance of “A Christmas Carol.” She is deep into final rehearsals and costume fittings, and this is where our story turns. She was cast, or so we presumed, as a beggar girl. The costume is for a beggar boy.

You don’t have to tell me that to a nine-year-old, the difference between a boy part and a girl part is unfathomable and untouchable. And although she has been counseled by her parents that there is little to be done at this late and desperate hour, no fix or balm; although everyone has tried to convince her that playing a boy is Oscar bait for pretty girls, she cannot be sold or satisfied.

Because she is safe in expressing all of herself to me, her deep and dark feelings, she does. Every morning and night she tosses them up to me, her worrisome frets and ceaseless spins, about how to change the costume, how to replace it, get around it, make one more phone call, concoct one more reason, convince the powers that be, etc. etc. chapter and verse. (Mind you, she does not under any circumstance want to quit the show. She is an actress, first and last.)

On the way to school on Friday morning she lifted her chin and said again, as if anew, “I still really need to change that costume,” perhaps hoping that phrasing it as a need instead of a want would score results from her miracle-making mom.

I stopped cold and said icily, in a voice that would freeze your eyeballs: IT’S NOT IMPORTANT!

And it’s true, it’s not important. It just wasn’t a very nice thing to say.

We are beggars, the both of us. She is begging me to do something. And I am begging her to do nothing. We are, each of us, nearly always begging for what we don’t have.


A long time ago I had a Buddhist boyfriend who dumped me (but that’s another story) and as he got sick and tired of me he started to say abruptly rude things. They were probably true, but as the saying goes, I wasn’t ready to hear them. I hear them now! One thing he said was that I needed to learn the difference between need and want. He probably said it in the context of my complete debasement, in the midst of vain and endless pleading, while I clutched his pants leg, being dragged across a parking lot, wailing But you can’t leave! I need you!

The difference between need and want? I hadn’t a clue at the time. He set me wondering even as he set me wandering and I presumed that he had achieved some lofty kind of Buddhist understanding far beyond a groveling earth-dweller like me.

(Beware any Buddhist who appears to have attained any understanding, particularly the lofty kind.)

He hadn’t achieved anything, but he was right. I really didn’t need him, although my “needing” of him did set me off on this path to satisfy my wants, and I really did need that. We all do.


What is the difference between need and want? One starts with an “n” and one starts with a “w.” That’s about all I can distinguish. They are just words we either like to use or don’t like to use, choose or don’t choose, to label our dissatisfaction, our unfulfilled desire. Because really, whether we sanction something as a “need” or not, do we really need it? And when for a breathless moment we want something, do we really want it for long? I guess not, because look how easy it is to live without all the things we once wanted, and none of the things we don’t have but still think we need.

Life really is pretty easy by itself, unless we need or want for something different.

Needs and wants are the things we beg for, whether it sounds like begging or not, whether we are aware or not, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the costume. Begging is the role of a lifetime. The curtain rises, and we start begging. The curtain closes, and who knows what becomes of the beggar? The real question is this: when, in the brief span between the rise and the fall, will we ever stop? When will we ever enjoy the show?

Shhhhh! It’s starting.


A reminder to put my whole self in the cup, and get the world in return.

Photo originally uploaded by Alastair Bird.


  1. Georgia’s even more of a professional by playing a boy. Extending her acting skills beyond her born sex as it were. That requires greater skill.

    I, myself, want many things. I need nothing but to get rid of the wanties. And, no, wanties is not an official word. But I’ll argue ’til I’m red in the face should we play scrabble. ;o)

    Comment by Shalet — November 16, 2008 @ 3:41 am

  2. A few weeks ago my son said, “Mom, I don’t need candy. I want candy.”


    Comment by mapelba — November 16, 2008 @ 4:48 am

  3. Perhaps it is the time of year. Perhaps it is the number of discount cards and coupon books being hawked for good causes. Perhaps it is the sinking value of our net worth, or talk of a global recession that I still don’t really understand. Whatever the reason, I too find myself reexamining my wants and needs. I “need” my boys to listen to me. I “need” some new cold-weather clothes. I “need” to get the carpet cleaned before we have a house full of visitors in two weeks. Need need need. Want want want. I’m begging for a break from my desires.

    Comment by RocketMom Cheryl — November 16, 2008 @ 4:51 am

  4. Oh gosh, I so needed this today. I’m in a stupid place where I have everything I need (and then some) but I don’t want any of it. Which would not be a problem, except that I can’t find anything I DO want…
    There is no sense in it.
    Thankyou for another perspective

    Comment by kazari — November 16, 2008 @ 6:26 am

  5. What a wonderful teaching, Mae, thank you.

    Comment by Wendy — November 16, 2008 @ 11:52 am

  6. I find that there is nothing but freedom in letting go of the needs and wants. Like a big huge sigh of relief freedom.

    I’m looking to do it more and more.

    Comment by Mon @Holistic Mama — November 16, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  7. I’ve been focusing on listening to what I want, finally, and trying to get that. So that may be why I’m thinking there may be no way around Georgia’s needing a girl costume.

    Comment by Mary Ann — November 16, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

  8. Oh, my. This is a fabulous post – and one with perfect timing for me. I see myself in so much of what you have written here.

    Having struggled lately with trying to get my (newly awakened) needs met (although they are actually deep, unmet parts of me from wayyyy in the past) – I have all but begged and pleaded. The wants are so keenly felt at times that the sense of desperation is overwhelming.

    Thank you for reminding me to practice, practice, practice – and to sit back and enjoy the show!

    Comment by Lisa — November 16, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

  9. I want to tell you that I need your posts like a scorched earth needs rain. That’s the truth.

    Comment by Holly — November 17, 2008 @ 12:28 am

  10. I often like to say that I NEED things like a fancy sparkly collar for me cat, a new pair of shoes or a pair of earrings. It feels funny to me and reminds me to not get so caught up in the endless begging, wanting, the never-ending search for filling an emptiness that won’t be filled by a trip to Target.

    Comment by Mambinki — November 17, 2008 @ 4:39 am

  11. Oh Holly, you and I know that rain would be far more satisfying right now! Thank you just the same and pray, everyone, pray for a shower here in Southern California.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — November 17, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  12. This is perfectly timed for me, a teaching I need to hear.

    I’m sending you rainy thoughts from a dry place. You and others for whom I care are constantly in my thoughts right now.


    Comment by bluelikethesky — November 18, 2008 @ 1:21 am

  13. Yes, thanks for teasing this apart in this way, for creating some cracks through which I can see a little clearer.

    Comment by Stacy (mama-om) — November 18, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

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