This year has been the year of money, specifically money shortages for my lovely little family. For a few months, I’ve been researching beliefs about money in an effort to understand a topic that has never been dear to me.  I have always dealt with money only when I had to.  At best, it seemed to be not very interesting as a goal.  At worst, it seems to make people do bad and selfish things.  Somewhere in the middle, and mostly commonly, it seemed to make people spend a lot of time on not very important things. But now, well, I need to get a handle on money for my own sanity and my children’s security, so I’ve been curious.  Is there another way to look at money?

Last Saturday, we went to a lion dance at the Chinese garden in Portland.   It was the beginning of the New Year celebration.  The dances were very wonderful, and the spot is beautiful, but what I loved were all the rituals the Chinese have to celebrate.  So many of them focused on prosperity.  A bare tree in a tiny secluded courtyard was covered by red ribbons weighted down with coins. It was surprising and festive against the white walls and grey sky. Ribbons were thrown onto the tree as wishes. They fluttered there like hope. In the gift shop, there were carved narcissus bulbs ready to sprout, and a huge surprise — a little money tree. Coins formed the leaves, and it had little jade stones beneath it.

Could it be that money does grow on trees in a certain way, metaphorically perhaps, that there is a kind of abundance that is a natural part of growth?  I want to believe in that, a human side to money that I can discover.  Money isn’t always dehumanizing.  Hermes was the god of money, and he was at least half human, that is until he played his way to immortal status.  He was a god, but the trickiest, most entertaining one, and he ruled the crossroads, the market, the exchange.

Red envelopes are given to children at the Chinese New Year, with money in them.  The more you give, the more money the child will attract.  What seemed most striking is the sense that giving to a child draws more giving to them.  In a way, it seems an obvious concept, like the American concept, “it takes money to make money.”  But it is not quite the same.  It describes an attractive principle. The child given gifts by her family attracts more gifts, and thus we should give much to our children so that they will live gifted lives.  Takes money to make money is a principle of investment, of interest.  The one is about human relationships, about gifts.  The other, the American version, is about exchange where the relationship is taken out.  It is “just” business.

In American society, in capitalistic societies, money is never imagined as a having any organic or human qualities. It doesn’t attract or respond to wishes.  As David Graeber argues in his wonderful giant tome, Debt: The First 5000 Years, money is separate from human economies that situate us in relationships with others.  In fact, money has often arisen at times in human history when these relationships have been broken or degraded through violence.

I’ve heard it said that money is a form of energy. This seems impersonal too, though maybe we can create “good energy” for or with it,  Maybe it is like Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha,or soul force.  Soul-force mostly works for good.  That’s how families and communitites work, through love and cooperation and respect, but as in history, with money, it is most notable when soul force is broken, or when money stops operating for the good. As I’m afraid it seems to be at this point in history (not for all but definitely for some).

The little money tree had good energy, mainly because it was part of a tradition of meaning, and because it was beautiful. These things count — meaning and beauty.  The money tree seems to have to do with relationships, and even associates our relationship with money with our relationship to the physical world.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, but maybe what we have to sell actually does, whether it is the actual food we grow or our talents, which can be fostered like other natural gifts.   I love this sense that money can have something to do with beauty and that this beauty can draw prosperity.  Maybe I should go back to the shop and get that little money tree.  Or maybe throw some red ribbons on the tree in front of our house, to signify our wishes for prosperity, the meaningful, wonderful kind.