I have watched three debates in two different locations, neither of which is my home. I have been on the road every weekend for the last month to help out with my grandson Harry while his father travels and his mother is a full time graduate student and instructor.
I sit now, in Saulte St. Marie before I give a talk at a conference called “Writing Across the Peninsula”. I feel unmoored, off center. After five weeks away, I ache to be in Minneapolis, dealing with the temperamental heating in my home, running across to Bewitched for a scone, making my coffee.
This feeling of losing my sense of identity because I lack the context of home, has deepened my respect for those who come here from across oceans. It has made me marvel at those who are homeless and struggle to give their children a sense of continuity: with the same stuffed animal, clean clothes from a late night visit to a Laundromat, or with familiar songs sung every bed time no matter where the bed, the room.
No one mentioned the homeless in any of the three debates I have seen so far. I think the word poverty was used once or twice and then ignored. After hearing Peter Edelman and Jonathan Kozol speak while I was in Chicago this past month, I was struck with how out of place these two men seem, with all their talk about the poor, the children, the run down buildings where some youngsters go to school. In his outrage over comments from those who say we can’t solve anything by “throwing money at it” Kozol struck me as someone who is so right and so ignored. I cannot help but wonder why poverty is hushed, escorted out of the room of public discourse. I cannot help but wonder why none of the candidates for the presidency, or the vice presidency, is willing to bring the poor to the table where decisions are made.
I read a novel recently called When we Argued All Night by Alice Mattison.
In his final years, one of the main characters writes a book in which he explores the idea that if we viewed all the world’s children as our grandchildren we would make the right decisions. Children would not go hungry, they would not have to sleep in unheated rooms or arrive at school in thin shirts and no socks in the middle of winter. Because grandchildren out live us, we would worry about the earth into the next century. We would work hard so that children today would have decent air to breathe and water to drink into their old age. We would strive to end violence of all kinds because so often the victims of wars and crime are children. We would build schools that are safe and clean and filled with art and music for every young boy or girl, because they are ours, we hold them all: their future is our own.
You don’t have to have a grandson or daughter to think of living in the world with these goals in mind. You simply have to imagine being connected to the children of this country and this world in the intimate ways grandparents connect to their grandchildren: is the heat working? are there fresh veggies at the market down the street? What books does he love to hear over and over again? How can I learn the songs she loves? Does he sleep through the night? Can she join he three-year-old soccer class at Soccer Planet this fall?
Those who are raising their sons and daughters and who live below the poverty line are asking these questions each day as we do. Yet they are often struggling with questions we don’t have to consider if we live in the comfortable middle class: What will happen if he gets sick? Where will I get his teeth fixed? Is there room at the shelter for tomorrow night? Will I be able to get a washer and dryer at midnight for her clothes?
We don’t draw on the strengths of people who feed their children as best they can despite being out of work. Even if they were invited to the debates, told to ask the tough questions about priorities, they may be on the night shift, or have added on more work hours in order to put clothes on lay away for the winter. They may need to help out a relative with car problems. They may not have money for a sitter in order to come to the table.
Poor people are so far from the consciousness of either presidential candidate that Kozol or Edelman or Bill Moyers’ words seem to be echoing in the wind. We are aware of a deep, uncomfortable silence after they speak, or worse, we are conscious of shrugs, indifference.
Maybe my feeling off center, yearning for home, is not only a response to geography. Maybe this sense of disconnection has as much to do with the skewed and grotesque priorities of my own home country; a place I am increasingly uneasy living in. When I arrive back in Minneapolis in a few days and watch the last debate, and I am sitting on my couch, after eating Maury’s home cooking, I am not sure this sense of being unmoored will leave me. I will know then that I am adrift in a way that goes deeper than land or my familiarity with the river two blocks from our home.
While I and my friends will work for one candidate over another, because we know that the difference between the two men means life or death for some Americans, we will have little sense of victory when it is over. We may look at all the grandchildren who will inhabit the earth, and we will feel deep despair for what they will inherit. We will find that being off –center and alienated is a constant, a way of life.