“When you are more fortunate than others, it is better to build a longer table than a taller fence.” Author unknown
Those of you who follow me know that my grandparents came from Poland. But for anyone who has just happened on my blog, the context to this post is that they arrived with little only to find they were not always welcomed. Some of my family members changed their names in order to escape the ski that gave away their heritage and kept jobs from them. Many in my family worked more than one low-paying job in order to secure a better life for their children. My father’s father helped build the railroad in the late 1800s and ultimately, secured a job as a conductor. My great-grandmother set up a bakery in their family home, so 3 adults and 6 kids lived on the second floor above it. Everyone worked in the bakery so the two oldest, including my father, made it to college. My other grandfather made hand-made suits. We all learned a strong work ethic and America was good to us. (Want to know more: this is my post on my family’s experience, Mother of Exiles.)
When I was little, my friends and I played a card game aptly named “Spoons.” Somewhat like musical chairs there was always one less spoon than players. A card was turned over at the beginning and each person added a card in turns until someone turned over a card that matched. At that point everyone made a mad dive to grasp a spoon because whoever didn’t get one was eliminated. You played in rounds until there were only two players left and one spoon. The game was won by the attentive and quick. Hard work didn’t matter. Age helped…as well as a certain willingness to do anything it took to win.
In this children’s game, the younger and slower could be quickly excluded, but the cards for the next round were just dealt amid the tears. The winners were determined to get their spoon at any cost, even if it left a sister or a friend in tears. I would “throw” games of “Go Fish” so my sister could win, not asking for a card I knew she had, hinting I had one she wanted and as I aged I threw her the card she needed to win in Rummy….but not in Spoons. Something about getting that last spoon lit a fire in me to win.
While I know this is not Lord of the Flies level stuff, I can admit to usually being one of the winners. Later, I would learn to compete against myself and spend a career trying to help everyone acquire a spoon.
So perhaps you can see my internal conflict and yet simultaneous understanding of ambition and drive. Perhaps you can also see that in regards to policies toward immigrants at this moment, I look around and see those who think this country has one too few spoons to share. Too many, so many, want taller fences or walls. They shake their fists, lean over the “treasure,” daring those who arrived late to the game to even think they should have a seat at the table let alone capture a spoon. “Mine, Mine, Mine, Get Away,” they seem to say.
Perhaps, they and their family acquired their spoons the hard way. They worked in the mines, or shoveling coal into steel producing blast furnaces, or bent over assembly lines mind numbingly putting hundreds of screws into pre-stamped holes as cars went down the line, or like my paternal grandfather lugging ties, pounding in the rails. Many of these were a sort of “family” business. Sons followed fathers who followed grandfathers into this work. Typically, it was unionized because often it was the kind of work where men died or were injured leaving needy families, but it was security, food on the table, with a pension at the end. Some of the anger we see comes because generations in their families “sweated blood,” as my mom would say, for jobs that now have evaporated like ice on a sunny day.
“Someone” took away some or all of their spoons. Robotics and other technologies, outsourcing and corporate closures of plants resulted in downsizing, lay-offs, lost or reduced pensions, and fear for themselves, their children and their future, and for their country. It was a disappearing way of life, a vanishing culture.
So while to many of us, those who still have more than others, or at least enough that we feel secure enough in our homes and lives to still believe in a future, it seems as if building fences misses the bounty on the table of America. To us, the idea that the son of a coal miner in West Virginia is going to want to pick fruit in California, or trim tobacco blossoms in NC, or pick strawberries in Florida, or apples in New York seems off kilter. The jobs illegal immigrants are willing to do, do not match the blue-collar but middle class income jobs that have gone away.
Many of us still see America as a Field of Dreams….the field that made the Irish, the Germans, the Polish and the Italians come more than a hundred years ago. Just build a bigger table and invite everyone in, we say because we “know” with the farm workers will also come student and tech geniuses, doctors, and entrepreneurs.
And we may be right. There is even a lot of research backing us up saying the economy grows in times of high immigration. But we may also be missing the point behind the election result.
So let me share again a favorite cartoon, this time with a slight twist. It is a two cell cartoon. The first square shows a small room labeled Hell with a large round table and a pot of food in the middle. Every person has a spoon long enough to reach the bubbling stew. But they are only able to hold the end of the long spoon, so, no one can reach their mouths. Everyone is angry. The second cell shows the same small room with the large table and stew in the middle. Every person has an identical spoon as before, long enough to reach the bubbling stew, still too long to bring to the mouths…but everyone is happy as they reach around the table and feed their neighbor. This is labeled Heaven.
I was really encouraged by the empathy I saw most recently about the plight of those who were turned away from our shores. We do have a huge table and we do have big spoons, some might label that second room as America at its best. And yes, we do need to invite EVERYONE to share in our bounty, and that must include those who have been steadily sliding out of the middle class, those who fear to let in the outsider in will further endanger them. If LOVE is to triumph and really defeat HATE, we need to work hard to be inclusive, and understanding, not just with the refugee, the immigrant, and minorities, but with anyone who is struggling or hurting or being left behind. Not everyone is a bigot – some are just afraid. We need to mean it when we say everyone can come to the table.
Don’t worry the real bigots won’t join us – they are too busy playing spoons.