This morning I heard on the radio that the unemployment rate is back up. It seemed to be down for a couple of weeks and the message was: Everything's fine--see it's going down! But each time it goes up (or down) I feel uncomfortable. It’s all numbers. Or, to use a term that the Bush administration coined during the Iraq war, it’s all collaterals. When you hear percentages like 8.4% do you think of the actual people who are suffering? I’m not sure. Very rarely do we read about the real effects—the terror, shame, and worse—that comes with joblessness.
It seems to me that rather than percentages and numbers like 14 million (which does not, of course, count the people who have fallen off unemployment, those who have lost the heart to keep searching for jobs or the countless freelancers who were never punched unto the system) we should be considering the fact that in New York City, for instance, the homelessness rate is the highest since the great Depression—and that 42,888 of those are children. I, for one, want to know the stories of those children. Or we should be hearing that the rising suicide rate in the US has been linked to this recession—again, I’d like to know (as painful as this is) who we’ve lost.
As all of you already know, I recently published my memoir about my own young family’s journey though the recession; my husband Dan and I lost our jobs (and, for a time, our dreams) and, shortly after the birth of our first child, we moved home with my mother. My husband and I are lucky in uncountable ways--one of the most obvious being that we had a place to go at my mom’s. Also, I wrote and sold a book based on our experience with the recession, so we have had that decent-though-not-life-changing amount of money for a while. But another way I've been lucky is that, because of my book, I have now been on a little book tour and at those readings, some otherwise unheard and desperate voices show up. And I get to hear them.
I end every one of my readings with a sing-along of Woody Guthrie’s famous song “This Land is Your Land.” At first this seemed like a fun thing to do—almost a moment of theatre in which we all get to participate. But then I realized something larger was going on. Not only are we reclaiming that song for right now—and remembering that it really was written as an angry song about the promise of the American Dream—but in the version I teach my audiences we’re singing a verse that has been edited out of the lyrics school children are taught today. It goes like this:
One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I saw my people--.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wonderin’ if
This land was made for you and me?
Everywhere I go—from schools to libraries to book clubs—everyone is laughing and belting out the words at the beginning of the song (it is, after all a national anthem of sorts) but when they get to the relief office verse I hear softness—almost wonder--come into their voices. They’re very often unsure of the words to this rarely sung part of the song. But also I sense that a larger moment of meaning is happening. We know—intuitively—when we sing those words about people who are hungry and people who are wondering if this land was made for you and me—that this is happening right now and it’s even happening to some of us in the audience.
I don’t know, really, in tangible terms what to do about the economy. Wiser people than me will have to figure out how to fix it and whom to blame. But what I do know is the story of the young woman who arrived at a reading of mine (in a cavernous Borders) clutching a little purple envelope with a letter inside it for me. She stood in front of me as I hovered while people settled themselves and the announcement of my reading went out over the Borders PA system. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She told me that her husband—with two degrees—has been laid off five times in the last three years. And that now, finally, they’ve moved in with his parents and he’s gotten a job as a custodian at a local retirement home. She told me that only now with his new job, do they feel that they can dare to start dreaming again for themselves and their two small boys. That night six people showed up at my reading (and one of them was my mother in law!) I said to them, at the end, “You know, I usually make everyone sing with me, but you’re such a small group…” And they said to me, “No we want to.” So I passed out the photocopies of Woody’s song and we started singing. Six small voices plus the voice of the Border’s employee who joined in (his headset still on, his maroon Border’s sweater pulled down over his waist, his nametag jiggling) ringing across the tables of stuff—books, games, chocolates, toys. And people who were milling around the store stopped and joined in at the parts they knew. And suddenly this small, sort of insignificant moment in South Portland, Maine, became something of a movement. I don’t know how else to describe it but it seemed that just in singing this song and these verses together we were somehow owning, in a totally human way, what has happened to this country. It felt good.
You know, I believe we're all in need of some kind of sign--a larger one than statistics--that we can get back to dreaming. And I think we can start with just, simply, singing “This Land is Your Land” (with all the verses Woody wrote) together. And by doing that we can begin to acknowledge the real human beings—not just numbers that we’re watching and hoping will affect the Dow—who have gone through (and are still going through) hard times in this country. Because, as I've said before, and I'll say again, America, was, in the end, made for you and me.