“Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument
of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and
And that a kelson of the creation is love…”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
I’m lucky. I have a great job and plenty of occasion to pay plenty of taxes. But I remember the years when my first husband and I were both in graduate school, with three small children and an income of well below $10,000 a year. I remember being so poor that it was a catastrophe one day when I broke a jar of mayonnaise. We used powdered milk, sure. We dressed our children in hand-me-downs, brought an ironing board home from the trash, and slept in two castoff twin beds, pushed together, one a full inch higher than the other. A federal grant made it possible for my then-husband to attend graduate school as a candidate for what was then a new program, the Doctor of Arts. We paid my way. When I got adjunct teaching, that was great; each time it stopped, I collected unemployment—stood in line with the guy who wrote “Hud,” and chatted about Anna Karenina. My husband did yard work on the house we rented to reduce the rent. I typed and edited other graduate students’ dissertations. I canned fruit. We did not take a vacation longer than a weekend for over ten years. We were probably toward the bottom of the 47%, and working or studying or taking care of children about 19 hours a day. Did we feel like victims? No, because we were working toward a future: Ph.D’s in English and government, lives spent teaching. Was it stressful? Yes. Were we grateful for social services? You know it.
For over twenty years my present husband and I have lived and taught in Mississippi. There are, of course, great discrepancies of wealth as of everything else, in Mississippi. But I’ll never forget this story, told by a friend of ours who recently earned her Ph.D. in public health, about a family of several generations in the Delta, each generation of which was more severely mentally afflicted than the last. It turned out, they were too poor to buy enough flour to feed the family, and so they were stretching it by digging up and mixing in what they called “sweet dirt” from the ground around a gas station.
Kids around here used to wear slap bracelets that said WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? Well, Mr. Romney…?
Ann Fisher-Wirth is the author of four books of poems, most recently Dream Cabinet. She is coediting The Ecopoetry Anthology, forthcoming from Trinity University Press early in 2013. She teaches English and directs the Environmental Studies minor at the University of Mississippi; also she teaches yoga at Southern Star Yoga Studio in Oxford, MS.