These times bring up all the times of plenty and of want that characterize our lives. Surprise at the plethora of strawberries in the store, across from a bare shelf where eggs and butter have been grabbed by earlier shoppers. Feeling both grateful at all we still have and trying to drown out the anxiety of not now knowing for how long that will be true. Jane Hirshfield published a poem in the SF Chronicle about saving an ant while sheltering in place, but I find this old favorite more appropriate for the times.
My mind spends less time pondering the experience of being cooped up, instead obsessing about the essence of our lives—about who and what is necessary when so much has been stripped away. That’s what this poem has always meant to me.
It was like this: you were happy
It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.
It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.
At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent — what could you say?
Now it is almost over.
Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.
It does this not in forgiveness –
between you, there is nothing to forgive –
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.
Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.
It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.
Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.
– Jane Hirshfield
I started this blog—and chose the name—several years ago while finishing my dissertation. My intent was to write about my research on the shrinking public sphere and the persistent narrative of scarcity that characterizes governance in the U.S. I called it “beyond austerity” because I thought most scholarship on austerity was simplistic and that we needed to think about austerity more broadly. How do communities, and societies, decide what is enough? What constitutes plenty, or luxury? What do we each really need to thrive as individuals? How does it happen that music or art become seen as frivolous, rather than necessities? How do discussions about taxes reflect profound differences in how people think about security and relationships? How do we each normalize the amount of eduction, or money, or clothing, or healthcare, that we are entitled to, or that we resent others having?
I began with an academic interest in how austerity is produced: who makes decisions about how to make do with less. Today, these questions are more pressing for me personally (being on a school board these days is all about implementing austerity). I decided to resurrect this site a few weeks ago because a job change gave me more time to write about how much our society reflects the weird combination of scarcity and plenty, and my own experiences observing how society is made up of so many invisible individual contributions—the “public” is so much more than government. And then the coronavirus pandemic took hold here in California.
The Bay Area is less than a week into a full-scale shutdown, and every public entity is bleeding revenue: bus systems, BART, bridges, and soon local and state tax systems as incomes drop and the impact of reduced consumption decimates sales taxes. The importance and fragility of our public sector have been thrown into stark relief, as have the web of individual actions that keep our private sector—our restaurants, bookstores, volunteer programs—alive.
How will this crisis make us think differently about what we each need to survive? About what, and who, is vital to a functioning society? About what is not necessary to keep our bodies alive, but is necessary for our spirit? And so for day one of this resurrection, I offer a possible answer to the latter:
The shelter in place order many of us are living under—along with the other events of the past week—has made all of us poignantly aware of what constitutes public and social life. This week’s poem by Laura Kelly Fanucci captures this perfectly.
When this is over, may we never again take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors
A crowded theater
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine checkup
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend
The stadium roaring
Each deep breath
A boring Tuesday
When this ends
may we find
that we have become
more like the people
we wanted to be
we were called to be
we hoped to be
and may we stay
that way — better
for each other
because of the worst.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
~ William Stafford ~
(The New Yorker, 1975)