The Canyon of Enough

"Migrant Mother," 1936, Dorothea Lange Caption: "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California."

“Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange, 1936
Caption: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with the food that is my portion,
That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or that I not be in want and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30: 8b-9

Thursday morning, the English teachers assemble in the upstairs kitchen of the school. We have classes to teach, papers to grade and lessons to plan, but for a moment we’re thinking of none of that. Though it’s just after breakfast, we’re thinking about lunch. Our highly organized supervisor sent out a spreadsheet a week ago, a sign-up sheet for soup ingredients, and the day has come. We dump our pre-measured and pre-cut containers of ingredients into one of our colleagues’ Instant Pot, and without much more ado, we go about our mornings, while Thai Wild Rice Chicken soup slowly stews one floor above us. We’re excited.

This week I’ve found myself in a strange literary canyon. Behind me is an opulent hillside of the 1920s, where F. Scott Fitzgerald spun his cautionary tale about youth, money, and the extent to which none of it is any good without love. Ahead, if I squint I can just see the austere outline of the 1930s, setting of Steinbeck’s miniature masterpiece, Of Mice and Men. For a week, we’ll be working on a research paper, letting The Great Gatsby sink in and then moving on to another Great, the Depression.

I’ve taught Of Mice and Men dozens of times, but the search for more complete historical context takes me to particularly grim places this morning. Though I’ve seen the famous Migrant Mother photo (above), I’d never known much more about photographer Dorothea Lange’s government-sponsored quest to capture the effects of the Great Depression. I get lost in a collection of her work, particularly drawn to the many pictures of families on the road, searching for work, for home, for a sense of stability that they lost somewhere back East, long ago.

In “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” a documentary film produced by PBS, I learn of a family she photographed during the Dust Bowl migration. The photographer pointed out that in the series of images focused on this migrating family, a large and mysterious roll of something always appeared to be falling off their truck. When she finally asked the family what it was, they confessed that it was their kitchen linoleum, taken from a long-lost home and transported around the country for three years now, in the hope of finding a new floor to cover. I’m glad that for a moment there are no other teachers in my workroom, so I don’t have to explain the tears rolling down my cheeks.

I’m struck again by the timelessness of literature, its critical importance in continuing to understand our world. Gatsby’s folly isn’t bound by the Jazz Age. In real life, a similar solitary billionaire skulks in a white mansion in Washington, each day discovering to his chagrin that no amount of money, no powerfully crafted image, no artfully spun tales, can buy affection of an entire nation.

And Of Mice and Men, tale of the wandering poor, searching for a place call their own, continues to describe our world, so much so that I long for a modern-day Dorothea Lange.I fear that pictures only work in retrospect, and wonder what the rich and stable thought of her in the 1930s. With photographs of the refugees floating across the Atlantic, bicycling into Scandinavia, or forging their way through blizzards to Canada, perhaps we’d understand, and listen, and care. Is there a camera powerful enough to evoke some empathy from our nation?

If nothing else, I pray that reading these stories, at this time in history, can help my students to learn empathy for those different from them, without the filters and blinders of current events. I hope that they learn that privilege and power mean nothing without love, and that seeing and caring for “the least of these” is one of our callings on earth.

When lunchtime arrives, the English teachers return from our separate classrooms and subjects to the kitchen, and ladle the steaming soup in our bowl. I won’t remember later what we talked about, nor exactly how the meal tasted, but for a moment I’m struck by the “just enough” of this moment. Caught between poverty and wealth, we’re satisfied by this thing we’ve created together, by a moment of community and rest in the midst of a busy day.

It’s not a fancy lunch out that I used to envy from my “fancy working friends.” But it’s also a lunch, dependable and satisfying, in a steady job, in a town where all of us have our own homes to return to. And that’s enough, I realize, a place from which to practice caring, and loving, and seeing. Thank you, God, for this enough. Let us know what to do with it.

Askew

But Mouse, you are not alone,


In proving foresight may be vain:


The best laid schemes of mice and men


Go often askew,


And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,


For promised joy!



Robert Burns, from “To A Mouse”

 

 

In You, O LORD, I have taken refuge; 

Let me never be ashamed. 

“We’re going outside today,” I tell my seventh period Honors American Literature class as soon as they arrive.

“Why?” they demand, ever contrary.

“Because it’s a beautiful day and you’re working in groups. It would be literally ridiculous to stay inside today.”

So outside we go, my four small Book Clubs situating themselves in separate corners of the yard adjacent to the auditorium. One group chooses to perch on the retaining wall by the creek, another to splay themselves like cats on the sun-baked cement of the parking lot. Winter has been cold, and we’re glad for the respite this afternoon.

Walking around, I hear snatches of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It’s been five years since I last taught this book–that time with Language Arts 11 at Ingraham–and this time I’ve split the students into small groups for ten days of intensive cooperative learning. They are pacing themselves, each group responsible for reading through a different literary lens as they follow the theme of belonging through the slim novel. I eavesdrop on different learning styles and readings strategies, pleased to see them approaching this responsibility from different and creative angles.

In Your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; 
Incline Your ear to me and save me.

While trying to help one group brainstorm the interactive element of their presentation (“So… you can’t just bring food. The food has to mean something. What could food mean?”), I hear a wail of distress from the parking lot. Rounding the parked cars that block my view, I sit down next to the group of four girls. Two of them have their hands covering their mouths, and all eight eyes are wide in horror.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, assuming that some bee has tried to attack them.

“We… we just read what happens,” one of the girls replies, brandishing the nearly-finished book at me reproachfully. “It’s horrible.”

I nod, and glance down at the page they’re reading, noticing that they haven’t even reached the most horrible part. The worst is yet to come, but I can’t bring myself to tell them. It’s all so awful.

For You are my hope; 
O Lord GOD, You are my confidence from my youth. 

This has been a hard book to revisit. Last week, when we began, I tried to warn them.  We read the Robert Burns poem from which Steinbeck crafted his title, and I asked them to speculate about the book’s outcome. What will this be about? If the title comes from this poem, about mouse homes getting bulldozed over and over again, what might it hold for the humans we meet in the opening chapter? They had ideas, but they forgot them, lost in the colorful dialogue between sharp George and Lennie, his giant, simple companion.

Last Friday, two students were reading the parts of George and Lennie, reading in the first chapter as the two migrant workers talk themselves to sleep with dreams of a ranch of their own someday, of living “off the fatta the lan'” and keeping pet rabbits. Such a beautiful dream, simple and poignant in a way that the Gatsbys, Carraways and Buchanans of the world would have scoffed at. As I sat on the table at the front of the classroom, this incantation of doomed dreams nearly brought tears to my eyes, hearing the hopeful words in the voices of my hopeful students, knowing the tragedies that lay ahead.

O God, do not be far from me; 
O my God, hasten to my help! 

I read somewhere, in preparation for teaching Of Mice and Men, that Steinbeck’s original title was Something That Happened. The original title reflected the reality of tragedy, how often there are no causes, no one to blame. This tragedy comes not from the selfish, destructive, toxic collisions of conflicting desires that brought The Great Gatsby to its grim close, but rather things inexplicable, like poverty, loneliness and disability. I’m left standing in the parking lot with these girls, without explanation or comfort. They know, we know, that it is real, if not true. It would have happened this way. We know it, and we hate it.

I’m lost, for a moment, in thoughts of suffering and hope, how they so often walk us hand in hand through our darkest and brightest moments. Of how I can’t explain the suffering of the world to my students, but can only show them the responses of others, can only stand with them as they encounter in literature what we all will (and some have already) encounter in life. I can only remind them to hope in the only solid foundation we have, to cling first and always to our Creator, our refuge in the face of life’s many tragedies. I can only tell them that the world is full of trouble, and that Christ has overcome it. In that we have hope, though plans go often askew.

But as for me, I will hope continually, 
And will praise You yet more and more. 

Psalm 71