Todd Walton: Austerity


From TODD WALTON
UnderTheTableBooks
Mendocino

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.
~
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)
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