The government shutdown has forced me to perform a reverse Marie Kondo analysis on my life: If something brings me joy, and that’s all it does, it probably has to go.
I spent the first weeks of the new year teaching a creative-writing workshop in Denver. I told my students it’s a good idea to introduce some kind of ticking clock into their stories to add tension and focus—a deadline, contest, appointment, or trial. Then my husband emailed me a ticking clock.
He was in Phoenix at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting—but the hundreds of scientists who usually attended from NASA and NOAA were absent. The president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, where he works, informed UCAR’s 1,400 employees that if the government shutdown didn’t end soon, they would have to choose between furlough or receiving half pay, and then get the other half when the government reopens again. UCAR is a private nonprofit, but NCAR, the federally funded research-and-development center it runs, relies on federal funding through the National Science Foundation for some 95 percent of its budget. “How long can we last?” my husband asked.
Good question. The same day, I learned that The Dallas Morning News had laid off 43 employees, including the books editor, Michael Merschel, for whom I’d been writing reviews for eight years. I wrote 122 book reviews during that time. The job brought me great joy, and I like to think that some readers picked up books I’d recommended, thus sparking their own moments of private joy. But book sections, joy-giving as they might be, are often the first thing to be cut.
In class, I shared with my students the literary agent Donald Maass’s advice to cut all scenes featuring their character alone, mulling things over in the shower or while brewing a cup of tea. Or, say, pondering their troubles while shopping solo at the grocery store. These scenes are usually low in tension. But I found that shopping with the prospect of my family’s income soon being halved—the option my husband would take over being furloughed—brought a clarifying snap of tension to the normally somnambulant experience.
I determined to spend half what I usually do per week. The aisles seemed garish in their bounty. While other shoppers breezed around, tossing items into their carts, I analyzed sale signs, calculating which products offered the best price per ounce, and determining which sales could be combined with coupons. I’d scrutinized our cupboards before shopping, selecting recipes that required only a few ingredients. I had carrots, celery, and broth for chicken soup—I could buy a small bit of chicken. I’d found some eye-riddled potatoes in the pantry that were only slightly green. These could be redeemed with cheese.
In class, I told my students that detailing a character’s financial pressures is a reliable way to build sympathy. I guess that’s true in all cases except if your characters are members of a different political party from your readers.
At home I labeled granola bars and yogurts with the kids’ names so there would be no fights about who got more, and I told them this was all the groceries for the week, so they had to pace themselves.
I can’t pay half a mortgage, half a car payment, or half an electricity bill, so I searched for other items to cut. Our monthly donation to PBS. My newspaper subscription. Maybe Netflix. The bill for the kids’ piano lessons loomed. Although I have to cajole and bribe them into practicing, when they finally play, there’s nothing that brings more warmth and life to a house than the sound of a piano. Practice, I tell them. Give yourself something no one can shut down or take away. Even their hesitations and missed notes are beautiful to me. I love the sound of the same measure repeated until it’s learned.
In college at Notre Dame, I took a theology class from John Dunne called “Religion and Autobiography.” He taught us about Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs. Maslow believed that there were five categories of human needs and that the ones most essential for life—the bare minimum of food, shelter, and safety—must be fulfilled before a person could consider more ethereal needs, such as the “self-actualization” at the top of his pyramid.
But Dunne, who had a more generous conception of what it takes to sustain a human being, had one reservation with respect to this theory. “Really poor people are not just concerned with necessities,” he said. “They’re concerned with all the levels.” He had us read Child of the Dark, by Carolina Maria de Jesus, who lived in abject poverty with her children in the favelas of São Paulo. “Carolina steps back at night and writes in her diary,” Dunne said. “This is her precious moment every day. She’s sunk in poverty and misery, but there’s a basic liberation in writing that diary.” The Brazilian journalist Audálio Dantas discovered de Jesus’s writing and helped her publish it. The book became a best seller.
Even without that ending, which I might call unbelievable if it appeared in a student’s work of fiction, de Jesus’s story is instructive. My family and I are not poor. We’re lucky to have a used piano, a houseful of books, and some resources. Those harder hit by this shutdown are likely, at this moment, trying to cling not only to the things that keep them alive, but also to those that keep them human.
I’m thankful to those 800,000 federal employees who are enduring weeks without pay. If this shutdown ends, it will likely be because enough people were finally moved by the suffering of these workers—or at least by the inconvenience the suffering of, say, a TSA employee causes in other people’s lives—to end the impasse. These workers are on the front lines of this crisis, taking the hit for the rest of us further down the federal funding stream.
My ancestors survived the Dust Bowl and Depression years on farms and in small towns in Nebraska. Further back, they immigrated here from Ireland and Bohemia, fleeing famine and political instability. My farm-raised mother, one of nine siblings, taught me that there’s no dab of tomato sauce too tiny not to save, and that the rejected ends of bread grind up nicely into bread crumbs that stretch a meal. Last Sunday, I baked bread with a motley collection of bananas I’d been freezing since July, one at a time, before they went bad.
Some ancient instinct inside me recoiled after the 2016 election. I knew as surely as I’d ever known anything that with this president, we were not safe. This one would prove indifferent to the suffering of his fellow citizens. In January 2016, I stocked up on canned food and pasta. I’m glad I did.
In class, I told my students not to solve the problems of their plots by sending in the cavalry. But I was glad for the cavalry when it arrived, at least temporarily, in my life. On Thursday, we received a reprieve—UCAR announced that the NSF had extended its funding for 30 days, staving off the furloughs and half-pay jobs for the moment. But I have no confidence that the shutdown will be resolved by then; and for hundreds of thousands of others whose livelihoods depend on the federal government, there has been no reprieve.
As trouble visits my own home, I might have to eat ramen. But I will do everything I can to keep the piano. And I wonder whether together, as a nation, we might reframe the conversation about what is essential. If we keep cutting the things that bring us joy, insight, and wonder and those that promote empathy and cross-cultural connection—from books to music to scientific research to national parks to museums and cultural institutions—won’t we just end up with more of these unbridgeable deadlocks?
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