It is the season for giving. Thank God we have such a season, for there are many to whom much should be given. As I type this, The New York Times has just completed running (this past week, December 9-13) a series of articles about a young girl, Dasani, who draws her never settled breath in and around one of that city’s many housing projects for the poor. Dasani and those who live with and about her need some giving. Hers, the articles tell us, is a terrifying existence, with not enough food for herself and her six siblings, where mice and rats race about almost at will in the chaotic room in which they “live,” while, outside–and inside–their building roam severely depressed and angry people; it’s a place where rapes, fist fights, knife fights, and gun fights can and do occur at all hours, day or night. Here’s an instance reported by Andrea Elliott, author of the series.
One night not long ago, Dasani and her brothers and sisters were
roused by shouts and a loud crash. Uncle Josh has punched his hand through a window and is threatening to kill Uncle Lamont. Josh lunges at his brother with a knife. The men tumble on the floor as Chanel [Dasani’s mother] throws herself between them. Upstairs the children cower and scream. Dasani calls out orders: “Nobody move! Let the adults handle it!” Sirens rattle the block. Josh is taken away in handcuffs as an ambulance races Lamont to the hospital with a battered eye. They had been fighting over a teenage girl.
The ability of Dasani’s parents to care adequately for their offspring was long ago compromised–by woefully underfunded and understaffed city schools which did or could not teach them the skills necessary to compete for jobs which would return barely adequate living wages; compromised, too, by intractable drug addiction, much too much alcohol, arrests, jail time, prison time, and other crippling choices and their scaring consequences. Minimally employed at the best of times, the welfare money they get from the government too little to allow them to comfortably supply even their basic needs, her parents are permanently stressed and anxious. To make a little money, Dasani’s stepfather cuts hair in the shelter and sells pirated DVDs on the street while her mother sometimes hawks small items from discount stores. “In a good month,” Elliott reports, they “bring in a few hundred dollars.” Not surprisingly, they fight about money almost every day. They are always on the hunt for cash. On this day, a day not unlike any other, the $5.05 the children have contributed to the family coffers (after returning empty cans and bottles they picked up in the building, on the street, and out of trash cans to a recycler), barely helping to alleviate the family’s lack of tender, Chanel is studying an abandoned mattress outside the shelter:
Chanel inspects the mattress. Clean, it might fetch $10. But it is stained with feces. Janitors wearing masks and gloves had removed it from a squalid room where three small children lived, defecating on the floor. Their mother barely bathed them, and they had no shoes on the day she gathered them in a hurry and left.
Despite all this, Dasani, smart, talented, quick of wit, wise beyond her years and circumstances, struggles to live a decent life and take care of those littler than herself (she’s 12) who depend on her, determined that she and they will not slide into and drown in the swamp of exploitation, despair, and human destitution which surrounds them each minute of each day. This is happening now in New York City, the richest city in America, the richest city in the World, the richest city in human history, in late 2013. It is going on as well in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, in Rochester, New York, near where I live, in Springfield, Massachusetts, near where I grew up, and, of course, it is going on Washington, D.C., near where our leaders live and, sometimes, work. It is also going on in hundreds of other American cities. (You folks who live elsewhere will have to tell me if any of this applies to your cities.) It is shameful.
Whatever we think of the poor–and the admittedly wrong-headed choices some make (almost always taken, by the way, so that they might escape, if only for a few hours, the horrific mental and physical places in which they live)–we would be hard-hearted indeed if we thought Dasani to blame for her plight. She’s a kid. She didn’t choose to live where she does. She didn’t choose to be poor, or do the things some people do to make themselves poor. Nor have her littler brothers and sisters chosen any of these things. Named, ironically, because her mother thought the name of one of those expensive brands of bottled water which we more affluent consume by the billions of gallons yearly was pretty, Dasani and her siblings are the living flotsam and jetsam of our lives, slowly rolling (sometimes roiling) on the dark banks of our global river of riches, their existence in these eddies barely noticed as we stream by. She’s a kid. Good for Andrea Elliott. Good for The New York Times for shining a bright light into Dasani’s almost completely unnoticed and forgotten, eddy. Good for them for reminding us that these children and the hundreds of other children who live in her horrific building, are doing their level best to swim along with us. Good for them, too, for reminding us that Dasani’s is only one of 152 similar homeless “shelters” in New York, and for reminding us that these children and all of those walking damaged around them are part of our great entail.
In my first post, I cited, as one of the many I honor in his great panoply of most serious thoughts, Ruskin’s remarks on the great entail we share and bear by virtue of the fact that we have had the privilege to have been born human beings. While, in the first printing of these sentences, Ruskin was reminding his readers of the responsibility they had to build great architecture for housing and inspiring the generations which would follow them, its broader application to what we are discussing here is clear. Here is the passage again:
God has lent us the earth for our life. It is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us…as to us. And we have no right, by anything we might do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath… Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard of things that are to come… Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them…
One of the things about Ruskin which I most admire is that he never lets you off the hook. He never lets you get away with thinking that “this is all very well, if lamentable; but it doesn’t really apply to me.” Not so, says Ruskin: like it or not, we are in life with Dasani, her brothers and sisters, her damaged parents, and all the others whose lives touch hers. We are each other’s entail. Of course, he also knew that, even when they were reminded of such difficult ties, that not a few would continue to deny or bury any suggestion of such links to keep the recognition of any responsibility at bay.
From the late 1840s on, Ruskin was deeply concerned about the lamentable state of British society, especially with the desperate condition of its millions upon millions of poor. In many different contexts, his writings and lectures pointedly speak to the unconscionable cruelties visited on the poor, weak, or sick by those richer and more powerful. Whether the cruelty was intentional or not, he argued, was not the point, for, whether the hurt consequenced as a result of ignorant action or a willed desire to exploit, it came to the same thing: intense suffering for some (never ourselves!), suffering which impaired the ability of these fellow travelers to draw their breaths without fear, to be creative, loving, and helpful to themselves and others. Not surprisingly, such “radical” thoughts were rejected as “idealistic” and “impractical” by many. “Yes, yes,” Ruskin’s critics, often speaking or writing in high dudgeon, would say, “that may be true, but it is impossible to change such things. The ‘real world’ is differently constituted from these kinder, gentler, imaginings of yours. Is it not the case, did not the great teacher of our religion tell us [the vast majority of Ruskin’s readers and those attending his lectures would have been Christian], that the poor would always be with us?” (Possibly so: As I write, other reports out of New York tells us that recent studies have shown that over 20% of the city’s residents live below the federally established poverty line and that another 25% are only a few thousands of dollars away from that dubious designation, these last living in perpetual fear that, at any moment, if any single, tenuous variable in their tightwalkwalking lives, shifted, they would descend into that more desperate category and, as a result, would have to start rummaging about in trash bins for empty bottles and contemplate the market value of a soiled mattress found in the street themselves. Put it differently: Given that New York’s population hovers around the 8 million mark, such figures tell us that nearly half of this city’s souls either are, or are perilously close to being, hungry, unable to pay the rent, buy enough clothes for their children in the winter, or buy the books or computers these children (Dasanis all) need to keep up in school–schools in the poorer districts of New York have few books and their computers are almost always outdated by two or three hard- and software generations.)
Well, said Ruskin, in reply to such critics, whatever your, my, hence our, great religious master may have said about the poor, he certainly did not say that we need to put up with the situation. In fact, he went on, if you read that same book attentively, the one you use to justify your notion that “nothing can be done,” you will find that this same master said in more than a few places that each of us should do everything in our power to mitigate human suffering and eliminate its causes. Brothers keepers and all that.
It was with such critiques and “impossibilities” in mind that Ruskin came to the end of his lecture, “The Mystery of Life and its Arts,” in Dublin, at the Royal College of Science, in May, 1868. Palpably aware that many of those before him that evening, dressed to the nines, with carriages and footmen waiting (im)patiently outside to drive them comfortably home, were among his dissenters, he told them that what he would say in his last minutes would be something simple, direct and possible. No atmospheric ideals. No astonishing, credulity straining, feats. No miracles. What I will do, he said (I paraphrase), is tell you what I believe it would be good and practical for each of us to do in light of the problem of immense misery which surrounds us, misery which, as you all know, draws its halting breath just a few paces from this very room where we, so very much better off, so very much more blessed by the accident of our birth, discuss their plight. (There is a strange hubris in this, don’t you think?) Indeed, he went on, so much do I believe what I am going to say about this path which I believe we should follow, I pledge that I will do what I say myself, and that, henceforth, I will do my utmost to influence and persuade any others with whom I come in contact to do these same things as their means allow. And here is what I wish to say: That, whatever our station in life, it should be obvious to us all that, if we are to fulfill our responsibility to each other as human beings in the small amount of time we have in life, we should decide, first, to live on as little as we can, second, to do all the wholesome work we can, and third, to spend everything we can spare to do all the sure good we can.
And sure good is, first, in feeding people, then in dressing people, then in lodging people, and, lastly, in rightly pleasing people, with arts or sciences, or any other subject of thought.
I say, first, in feeding people. And, once for all, do not let yourselves be deceived by any of the common talk of “indiscriminate charity.” The order to us is not to feed the deserving hungry, nor the industrious hungry, nor the amiable and well-intentioned hungry, but simply to feed the hungry! It is quite true, infallibly true, that if any man will not work, neither should he eat. Think of that! And every time you sit down to your dinner, ladies and gentlemen, say solemnly, before you ask a blessing, “How much work have I done to-day for my dinner?”
[In this context, the] first thing is to be sure you have…food to give. And, therefore, [we must] enforce the organization of vast activities in agriculture and commerce for the production of the wholesomest food and proper storing and distribution of it, so that no famine shall any more be possible among civilized beings! There is plenty of work in this business alone, and at once, for any number of people who like to engage in it.
Secondly, dressing people. That is to say, urging everyone within reach of your influence to be always neat and clean, and giving them means of being so. In so far as they absolutely refuse, you must give up the effort…only taking care that no children within your sphere of influence shall any more be brought up with such habits, and that every person who is willing to dress with propriety shall have encouragement to do so…
And then, thirdly, lodging people—which you may think should have been put first. But I put it third because we must feed and clothe people where we find them, and lodge them afterwards. And providing [decent housing] for them means a great deal of vigorous legislature, and cutting down of vested interests that stand in the way. And after that, or before that, so far as we can get it, through sanitary and remedial action in the houses that we have. And then the building of more [houses]—strongly, beautifully, and in groups of limited extent, kept in proportion to their streams, and…[so placed] that there may be no festering and wretched [buildings] anywhere, but clean and busy streets within [the city], and the open country without, with a belt of beautiful garden and orchard round the [town], so that from any part of the city perfectly fresh air and grass and sight of far horizon, might be reachable in a few minutes’ walk. This the final aim. But in immediate action every minor and possible good to be instantly done when, and as, we can: roofs mended that have holes in them, fences patched that have gaps in them, walls buttressed that totter, and floors propped that shake…
These, then, are the three first needs of civilized life…And out of such exertion in plain duty all other good will come. For, in this direct contention with material evil, you will find out the real nature of all evil. You will discern by the various kinds of resistance [you encounter] what is really the…main antagonism to good. Also you will find the most unexpected helps and profound lessons given, and truths will come thus down to us which the speculation of all our lives would never have raised us up to. [And you] will find nearly every educational problem solved as soon as you truly want to do something! Everybody will become of use in their own fittest way and will learn what is best for them to know in [accomplishing] that use..
After the lecture, Ruskin proved as good as his word, donating, for the rest of his life, as much of his income and resources as he could every year to feeding, dressing, housing, and educating all those in need of these necessities his extra monies could reach. In truth, at the time of this Dublin talk, he had already been doing such things for some time, ever since his father’s considerable inheritance (around $15, 000, 000 in today’s dollars) had become his. Less than a year after his lecture was delivered, however, (1870,) that fortune having been depleted by donations and expenses to nearly nil, to gain enough to live, he acquiesced to reissuing books written decades before (something he was loath to do for reasons too complex to explain here; maybe later). Fifteen years after, in the mid-1880s, when a visitor asked him why he did not spend more to make Brantwood, his home in the Lake District, more commodious, he replied that, in all conscience he could not, not when there was so much more real good he could do with the disposable income he had for others he knew to be in need.
Dasani and her family would have liked him. But as her presence, as well as the presence of billions of hungry and desperate souls who live among us–in the midst of a level of global affluence impossible to imagine mere decades ago–remind us, a century and a half later, our great entail continues. It is still the season of giving.
I hope you are well out there during this festive time.