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.

What Is Love?

Period 5 throws passionate effort into debating the sincerity of Gatsby's love for Daisy.

“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy… One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other…”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“So, we’re going to have to prove that what looks like love from Gatsby isn’t actually love. And that’s going to take some reading.”

The serious declaration floats across the classroom to me, from where one half of a debate team prepares their argument for tomorrow’s debate. I’m briefly amused by the novel discovery, that preparing a literary argument “takes some reading.” This is our second debate regarding literature, and in my opinion the more interesting of the two.

Resolution: Jay Gatsby loves Daisy Buchanan.

For those unfamiliar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this won’t make much sense. Suffice it to say that these two characters pursue relationship after a long separation, and all that results is jarring disappointment, a reflection on the American Dream of wealth and happiness that manages both cynicism and pity in the same breath. Today, laying aside all questions of the viability of the Dream or moral relativism–both topics that have occupied much of our time lately–we return to  a more basic question. Did he really love her at all?

I hear snatches of interesting discussion from both sides. The pros consider Gatsby’s sacrifices, the extent to which everything he becomes is with Daisy in mind. I hear them wonder aloud if it will be strong or weak evidence to point out the many times he says he loves her in the book, before concluding that it’s weak. Talk is cheap, but look at what he does! From the cons across the room, I hear “He’s just in love with the idea of her, the past her. He doesn’t even know her now” or, the most striking, “He’s just obsessed with her. He’s romantic, but romance doesn’t always mean love.”

This makes me smile, given the romantic excitability of our students in general, these kids who plan elaborate, proposal-strength “askings” to the Christmas Banquet and gamely buy one another candy grams and singing valentines every February 14th. They are the ones who arrived in my classroom on Valentine’s Day, found it full of flowers, and prodded me with teasing giggles until they learned where all the flowers came from. They like romance.

And yet they aren’t captured by it. In their discussions, I hear a healthy critical note, an eagerness to test these emotions for truth. I think of the proverbial admonition to “guard your hearts,” hear them guarding against the too-easy sweetness they read here. Oh, it’s romantic, they admit, that moment when Gatsby stretches out his arms to the faintly glowing light across the water, lit by the woman of his dreams. It’s lovely, but we’ll settle for nothing less than truth.

This impresses me. When I was sixteen, I read The Great Gatsby with teenaged giddiness, rather guiltily aware that I’d been tricked into siding with an adulterous relationship. I thought the story was tragic, but tragic like Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed, it’s-not-anyone’s-fault kind of tragedy. It took me until adulthood to see the fatal flaws, the hamartia that draws all the characters to their fated ends. I’m impressed to see, already, the serious readiness of my students to squint past the shows of love and look for the heart of it, the substance that is, in the end, what matters.

In their confidence and maturity, they reflect the great security of growing up knowing God, the source of love, and testing all feeling against His great standard. We know sacrificial love, the love of a Creator towards his masterpieces, the saving love of Christ.

Then does Gatsby love Daisy? Probably not.