Trees and Cities

Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years.  So I decided to read it.  Then I saw how thick it was.  I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them.  Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous.  Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre.  All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it.  I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.

What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century.  They couldn’t vote.  Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well.  Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate.  Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely.  I’m certain there are other messages in this novel.  Other lessons to be learned.  Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book.  As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.  These days that combination can get you into trouble.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God.  When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story.  Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating.  I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone.  I can’t image having that taken from me.  Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God.  Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing.  Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft.  For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read.  It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.

Always Have with You

The place wasn’t meant for a family of six. Properly speaking, it was a one-bedroom house, or hovel. The attic, from which we could see the sky through the roof, was divided into two rooms, with no doors. You had to pull down the stairs in order to climb up there and that trapdoor had to be kept closed in the daytime. The house was heated by a single, oversized gas stove that sat in the middle of the living room—no ducts, vents, or radiators here. The bathroom had only a sink and a toilet. No tub. No shower. The only window that opened was the kitchen window, and before we moved in my mother insisted that my step-father pull out the nails that held the vinyl blinds permanently closed over the windows that would never open. The only reason we weren’t called “white trash” is that we lived above the Mason-Dixon line.

Reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was, therefore, a little bit uncomfortable. First of all, bullies who care only for the wealthy are nothing new in American politics. Second of all, it reminded me of how, when I was found without a job, no college or university wanted to hire a guy with no connections, despite the Ph.D. That’s business as usual in these United States. What I have realized is that in this nation of self-made individuals, those allowed to make it often start from a class higher than my own. I was a first generation college student, and once my step-father gave in to the pressure to put a proper bathtub in his house, I’d come home to find carp swimming in it. White trash and ivory towers clash, don’t you know.

The saddest part of this book is that nothing has changed. Four centuries on and we still treat the poor with contempt. We love rags to riches stories because they’re so rare. The vast majority of the poor have a very hard existence. Even though, according to government statistics, we were considered a poverty-level family, we had it better than many. True, there were too many cars in the driveway, all of them used—very used, and the house was bulldozed as unfit for habitation immediately after we moved out, but many have it far worse. This book opens some old wounds, but it should be required reading for all politicians. Not that it would make much of a difference, though. The suffering of the poor is just far too easy to ignore as long as there is money to be made off of anyone less fortunate than yourself. That’s the American way. It always has been.

Domesticity

One of the truly disturbing aspects of religion is its tendency to become domesticated. What I mean is that it becomes so much a part of the everyday scenery that you forget it’s there. I recently read a story about priests in the Church of England who don’t want parishes in poor neighborhoods. The reason given? They don’t want their children educated among the poor. That took me back a step. As someone with more than a passing familiarity with the Episcopalians, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t want poor parishes. Of establishment Christianity, Anglicans are on the economical high end of the scale. I knew a few future priests like that at Nashotah House. Stylish worship and excess cash go together. But not to want your children educated with the poor? Is there fear of contagion?

I grew up poor. When I visit my hometown I’m reminded that although it featured in an X-Files episode, it will never be an affluent place. The people there, as a whole, struggle financially. I didn’t know any rich people growing up (I had to become an Episcopalian for that to happen) and I don’t think anyone rich lived in our town. Education, however, was a different thing. We went to school together and we learned. Some of us, despite not attending the finer establishments, managed to move through the educational system and on to college, seminary, and graduate school. Ironically, some of us even came to teach Episcopalians in seminary. A poor boy instructing the rich. But quite apart from that, it’s impossible to read the Gospels and not notice the concern for the poor in the founder of Christianity.

Image source: Julius Ejdestam: De fattigas Sverige, Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians weren’t Episcopalians. They were actually Jewish. Although a few of them had means, this new religion appealed primarily to the poor. As one of the earlier believers in the movement is said to have said, the rich receive their reward here. More and more Christians are coming to believe that this world is the locus of receiving rewards. Heaven isn’t so much on the radar anymore. We’ve been to outer space and it’s not there. Rather than put ourselves at risk among the poor, it’s better to blend in with the establishment. We can still rail aloud that the church is important and shouldn’t be ignored. But paying customers only, please. The poor? They’re a dime a dozen. And when we come to think of people that way, religion has become domesticated.

The Morning After

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Quite apart from seeing a live performance of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has been on my mind a bit this Christmas season. I suppose that’s not surprising since it has been suggested that Dickens “invented” the modern Christmas, but it is really, I think, because of how the wider world seems to be spinning backwards. The poor have always been a personal concern of mine. I grew up poor and I know how much suffering it entails. My case was a rather mild poverty—we were never out on the street, and we didn’t actually go hungry. We had nothing in the way of luxuries, though, and I could see the possibilities even as I could see the sky where the boards on the roof were pulling apart. It wouldn’t have taken much for us to have been cast out in a cold Pennsylvania winter. Others have it much worse.

On my daily walks to work, I see the homeless. Some sleep in cardboard boxes, some in tents. Others are out under the stars. One morning I walked by a particularly creepy and sad sight of a person sitting, shrouded in a blanket over his or her head, on a subway vent to catch some of the ambient heat. I know that I don’t have the means to buy each one a meal. Their number has been going up, not down. And I think of Bob Cratchit, threatened and bullied by Ebenezer Scrooge. He will lose his job if he’s not in early today, the day after Christmas. Because of his change of heart, Scrooge buys his clerk a pot of “smoking bishop.” And herein lies the only possible cheer.

My wife got me started on Dickens. She also sent me a story from NPR on smoking bishop. It seems, according to the story by Anne Bramley, that British Protestants delighted in making fun of church offices by naming their tipples after titles. Churchmen (and they were men) were largely exempt from being poor and, according to historians, often supported the Poor Laws that made the fate of the poverty-stricken even worse. In a kind of perverse revenge against privilege, drinks were named after various ecclesiastical offices. There’s little that the poor can do, except to try to find the scant humor in a situation where no one has the reach of a Charles Dickens anymore. Ebenezer, unlike Bob, is a biblical name. It means “stone of help.” In these chilly days dare we hope that help may come, even from a stone?

The Least of These

Despite criticisms to the contrary, the pre-Reformation church did have concerns about the average person. About the poor. In those days church offices commanded a good deal more esteem than they currently do among the populace, and being a priest was a position of power. The concern for the quotidian human—at least of the Christian variety—was demonstrated in All Souls’ Day. Although the date migrated around the calendar before settling on November 2, it came part of one of the very serious (days of obligation) annual celebrations along with All Saints’ Day, November 1. It was recognized that not everybody could be a saint, and all the faithful departed deserved a special day of commemoration. Through a complicated history this two-day celebration came to be associated with Celtic beliefs about the crossover day between worlds, samhain, giving birth to Halloween. It seems appropriate on All Souls’ Day to think about the poor.

An article in the Washington Post reports on findings that poor children, in their words, “that do everything right don’t do as well as rich kids who do everything wrong.” There are indeed deficits that attend the poor all their lives. Those of us who began in such circumstances can sometimes break through in a system that favors the upper classes, but it is rare. Good paying jobs are reserved for friends of the wealthy or to those who might pay them back in some way. The poor have little to offer beyond their souls. Our system, the so-called “free market” deals in souls. The poor are, make no mistake, chattels. Even in higher education, where we’d like to think thinkers think, positions are granted based on privilege. The loftier music and liturgy is, after all, reserved for All Saints’ Day.

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Like many raised in humble circumstances, I grew up hearing about the American dream. If you work hard you can succeed. But that really depends on who you know and how much they’re willing to help out. Stats are now beginning to back up what those of us who have lived experience in the lower register already knew. Having faced it throughout my career, I know I’m not alone. Just the other day I met someone else who grew up poor who’d hit the bullet-proof ceiling carefully installed by children of privilege. Not ambitious beyond desiring the basic comforts of a job that covers the bills and allows for some reasonable amount of surplus against lean times is, it seems, more than the wealthy are willing to grant. After all, All Saints’ must come before All Souls’, for even Heaven has its hierarchies.

Banned Truth

bluesteyeBanned Book Week is one of my favorite holidays. Don’t worry—you haven’t missed it—it occurs the final week of this month. I’m not very good, however, at guessing how long it will take me to finish a fiction book, so I start early, just in case. My banned book of choice this year was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s not easy to read a novel which is so close to the truth. As any writer of fiction knows, just because something didn’t happen precisely as described doesn’t mean that it’s false. Indeed, fiction is often factual. It’s not easy to read because the “race”—a dubious distinction at best—to which I belong has often throughout history victimized others. While I’ve never knowingly participated in this criminal action—and despite what politicians might say, it is criminal—it’s never comforting to hear from the victim’s perspective. The Bluest Eye is about African American experience in the land of the free. At least in name.

What becomes clear from the beginning is that the families around which this story revolves are pushed to their limits. In an affluent society they are forced to live with less than their “white” neighbors have. Slavery may have ended, but the superiority mindset that permitted it in the first place hasn’t. I grew up in poverty but I didn’t have the added burden of being treated badly because of my “race.” Stories that remind us of that reality are never comfortable places to be. We’d rather think that since slavery ended prejudice went away with it. In reality, however, it is still here. Interestingly, the culture portrayed so vividly by Morrison is deeply biblical. Indeed, surveys of Bible reading in North America show that African Americans tend to actually read the foundational book more than their oppressors. The biblical worldview spills easily across the page.

Although the Bible made it onto the list of top ten banned books last year, The Bluest Eye was challenged because of its sexuality. That’s another defining aspect of the novel. It’s a frank exploration of the human condition. The protagonists are not only African American, they are also all female. Their perception of sexuality is, in many ways, inherently that of victims. Not that love doesn’t enter it, but rather that poverty often leads to a state where sexual gratification is held up as one of the few positives in a life that includes regular mistreatment, poor pay, and jail time. It isn’t an easy story to read. Morrison’s deft hand, however, prevents the story from becoming gloomy. It is like spending a sunny day knowing there’s something you shouldn’t see in the basement. Banned Book Week may be some time away yet, but it is always the right season to read about the truth.

This Year’s Apocalypse

Sundays are notoriously slow news days. The local paper, therefore, ran a whimsical headline: “Will the world end on May 21? Are you ready?” Nearly 40 billboards are asking Garden State commuters (as if they aren’t already stressed enough) if they are prepared to meet their doom. This year’s apocalypse is sponsored by Howard Camping, a California prognosticator with an history of calculating the world’s end. Given that our daily experience confirms uniformitarian processes on this planet have been in place for millennia – and even longer – the belief in a cataclysmic termination of billions of years’ work is rampant as ever. The end of the world, as touted in the media, is always based on religious precepts of some sort or another. Our scientifically scheduled apocalypse is about five billion years away when the sun becomes a red giant. (The biggest threat to capitalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

Why do so many religions want to see it all burn? Life certainly has more than its fair share of misery and suffering. Apocalyptic scenarios abound in disadvantaged communities – the final leveler of all inequalities will put us all in the same place. Privilege creates as many problems as it does boondoggles. A truly evolved race would wish to share its good fortune to those without access to resources of the more fortunate. It is a severely effaced line between inequality and iniquity at the best of times. Those who don’t get a fair shake in this life look for a better lottery pick in Heaven’s jackpot.

But why do affluent people share this urge to watch it all explode to a theological fantasy-land? The local electrical engineer funding the billboards, is quoted by Star-Ledger staff as saying, “Seven billion people are facing their death! What else could I do?” My humble suggestion would be to put that money toward helping those who do not have enough. The underprivileged could be made to suffer considerably less with the obscene income of the Left Behind franchise. Instead that money is being funneled into questionable political causes. Maybe it is best that the world end next month after all. I’ve put it on my calendar, but I’m still expecting to be around for the 2012 apocalypse as well.

An apocalypse worth waiting for!