“You took my bone!”
In the photo you see Henry staring at Aussie, who’s guarding the small remainder of a marrow bone between her paws. I gave them both bones, but while Aussie got to work on hers right away, Henry left his halfway up the stairs. Aussie wasted no time in getting that one, too, and bringing it down to the office. Poor Henry! If he so much as looked at it, she’d growl. He knew it had formerly been his, he could smell it. It didn’t seem fair that Aussie ended up with both and he with nothing, but Aussie wasn’t giving an inch—or an ounce. She would have all of two bones, and he would have nothing.
Humans are different. If I have two pieces of bread and someone close to me has none, I feel there’s a problem. Yes, I was brought up like that, I’ve been trained in precepts and ethical behavior, but it’s deeper than any of those. Humans by and large have a deep connection with each other. Call it empathy, walking in someone else’s shoes, or looking into one another’s eyes and seeing ourselves there—whatever you call it, we feel it physiologically: It’s not fair that I have two pieces of bread and that person has none.
The dogs in this house don’t feel that, but I think people do.
Till some 50 or 70 years ago, we didn’t feel much for what happened in the rest of the world, or even outside our state. The Internet has changed all that. Now when they talk of children dying from malnutrition or disease, we see it onscreen; we read of the horrors that the coronavirus pandemic will cost so many their lives, so many will slide into poverty, so many will not get the vaccine anytime soon. Once we recognize that these are human beings like us, it starts to matter.
Like many people, I’ve wondered about the acrimony that lies between what seem like two Americas, the sense of a society without a center, a moral compass gone adrift. A society that once prided itself in its image of welcoming immigrants and refugees, of helping the poor, of supporting social and economic mobility, now not only realizes that much of that was pretense, but that now many don’t even bother with the pretense. Many consciously don’t welcome immigrants and refugees, blame the poor for being poor, don’t seem to mind the enormous gap in wealth and even that most of the wealthy inherited their wealth instead of earning it.
Lately, a lot is being written on what has been lost over the past 70 years. Church and synagogue attendance are way down; participation in civic organizations like Elk and Lion clubs and Junior Leagues are way down. Kids leave farms and go to cities; Main Streets are abandoned. Writers like Wendell Berry remind us of how much kinder and stabler that old culture was, how cohesive and meaningful it was.
I admire Berry but have to admit I get impatient with this message. I’m one of the people who left my family (it didn’t nurture me at the time, unlike now). I went into Buddhism because Western religious institutions offered me no inspiration or meaningful spirituality; I could never see myself in a suburban Junior League. I volunteered in soup kitchens and teaching English, but I needed more than that. I needed a vision for the entire life, not just a small piece of volunteerism here and there.
The culture Berry describes has never resonated with me, maybe because I, too, was an immigrant. It’s from another time, too old, too white. It certainly wasn’t hospitable to people of color. As for kids leaving farms and families, kids have always left their farms and families. Half our books on those old days, such as Willa Cather’s, are written through the lens of someone who left to go East and comes back for nostalgia and celebration of a way he left behind. But—he left it behind!
Yes, government could have given much more support to family farms so they don’t have to struggle competing with giant agribusinesses. Here in New England we support our local family farms as much as we can. But with all that, this country has always comprised folks wishing to reinvent themselves, to re-imagine what’s possible. In these Internet days, it’s truer than ever before. Reminding us of what we lost hardly helps us find a better future.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Antoine de Saint Exupery, he of the magical Little Prince, wrote the above. I can’t remember where I recently came across it, only that I thought it was beautiful. Bring back the imagination, I thought to myself. Remind people—especially the young—that each generation must re-vision a new way of life, even new ethics.
We can’t go back to the way of life espoused by a dominant white culture anymore, we’re way too multicultural for that now. Men are no longer heads of the family, and what defines a family has changed.
“The trouble with you Americans,” a Filipino playwrite friend of mine once said, “is that there is no real American culture. In Europe, no matter where you go, each country has its historical culture. But in America, you take a piece from here and a piece from there, and you make that your culture.” She said these words to a group of New Yorkers seated round a dining table on Roosevelt Island, feeling perfectly comfortable taking a piece from here and a piece from there.
But it’s no longer just New York, it’s the country. Groups across the country are taking to the streets—and to Congress—to demand their share. I love watching Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a personification of Somalian refugees who came here, worked hard, learned and trained, and are speaking to that multicultural vision of a group that wants more than handouts; it wants to be part of a new American vision.
That’s what we need. The ones who will give it are not Wendell Berry, much as I admire his writings and the man; it will be the young. It will be that generation that faces the consequences of climate change; that won’t go into churches but for whom spirituality is essential; that may have friends around the world but has to redefine the meaning of community; that needs to come to terms with legacies of the past while committing to a more equal, ecological, and multicultural America.
Thank you for donations that arrived over this past weekend since my last post. Every penny, large and small, makes a difference. Jimena and I are talking it over.