“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. 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. Signs in windows said, “No DP (displaced person – or as some used it “dumb Polack”) need apply.” Some 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.
His wife, her mother, and their six kids ran a bakery in their home, living in the small second story so the oldest, including my father, could go to college.
My other grandfather made hand-made suits. We all learned a strong work ethic and America was a land of opportunity for us. (Want to know more: this is my post on my family’s experience, Mother of Exiles.)
I did not have to work as a child, I could play. A favorite card game was aptly named “Spoons.” Somewhat like musical chairs there was always one less spoon than players. A card was turned over, then we each added a card in turns until the first card was matched, and everyone made a dive to grasp a spoon. You played in rounds until there were only two players left and one spoon. The one who failed was eliminated…and there was a winner.
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 dealt amid the tears. I would “throw” games of “Go Fish” and Rummy….but not Spoons. Something about getting that last spoon lit a fire in me to win.
Usually, I was one of the winners. Later, I learned to compete against myself instead, and spent my career helping others win a spoon. My life experiences enabled an understanding of ambition, yet a desire to create more parity for others including refugees, and shapes my view of immigration policy.
At this moment, I look around and see those who think this country has one too few spoons to share with those dreaming an American dream. Many want taller fences or big 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, their family acquired their spoons the hard way like mine, working in mines, shoveling coal into blast furnaces, bent over assembly lines, or like my paternal grandfather pounding railroad ties. Often this was a family business. Sons followed fathers and grandfathers into this backbreaking work to have security, food on the table, and a pension at the end. Some of the anger misplaced onto immigrants comes because generations “sweated blood,” as my mom would say, for jobs that 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, downsizing, lay-offs, lost or reduced pensions, and fear for themselves, their children, their future, and for their country. It was a disappearing way of life, a vanishing culture.
To those who have enough to feel secure, it seems as if building fences misses the renewable bounty on the table of America. The jobs illegal immigrants are willing to do, do not match the blue-collar, but middle-class income jobs that have gone away, and we know the coal miner’s son in West Virginia is not going to trim tobacco blossoms in the Carolinas, pick fruit in California, apples in New York, or produce in Florida for pennies.
America is still the same Field of Dreams that made the Irish, the Germans, the Polish and the Italians come more than a hundred years ago. It entices immigrants today, and with farm workers come students and tech geniuses, engineers, doctors, and entrepreneurs to build bigger tables. Research shows the economy grows in times of high immigration, but we can’t just blithely say, “Build a bigger table.” We must see the losses and fears behind those with anti-immigrant anger and we need to refresh their dream.
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 room labeled Hell, angry people around a huge table stretching elongated spoons to reach a bubbling stewpot in the middle. The spoons reach it, but, only able to hold them by the end, the people cannot bring the food to their mouths and fights erupt.
The second cell shows the same room, large table, and stew in the middle. Each person there has an identical spoon still long enough to reach the stew, too long to bring to the holder’s mouth…yet 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. Our country has an expandable 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.