It’s More Than The Kitchen Table

Our 2020 vision needs to be bigger than that.

There is a towering silver-trunked crepe myrtle, a much-loved tree in Austin and in Texas, outside my kitchen window. I see it from where I sit at a caramel-colored cherrywood drop-leaf with carved legs and a lovely sheen. A table perfect in its beauty but also its function, expanding with leaves to seat eight. I remember the thrifter’s glee I had when I hunted it down from an ad on Craigslist and saw it sitting unassumingly in the seller’s den. Back then, I was always looking for a find, having quit my fifty hour a week mid-level marketing job to spend more time with our kids. I thought saving money was my best contribution to our finances.

Now, children grown, it’s usually only me here, eating muesli and writing. The table is still lovely, still simple and sensible under my window. But it sits in a house that reflects my privilege. Now I can afford to buy something more impressive or expensive. I am not as I was those years ago, stretching every dollar.

When the table first came to my house, I voted, of course. I was all over the aisle, swerving from Democrat to Republican, only slightly paying attention to governors and congressmen and women, even to presidents. At the time, my concerns, heavy and constant, were for the little people — my first-hand treasures — seated at my second-hand find. My thoughts were of teachers and school systems, the explosive growth of my city. I went to city council meetings. My politics were, as the saying goes, “local.”

I understand from experience the hierarchy of needs. How food and housing, and the jobs and money required to purchase both, are the imperatives that rightly sweep aside loftier hopes and dreams of a better life. I grew up at a chrome and Formica table, maintained and managed by a single mother who would“sling hash,” as she would say, for pocket change that, together at that table, we stuffed into paper rolls to pay the bills. After leaving my mother’s kitchen for my own, I too served coffee and burgers. I bartended, baked bread, and cleaned toilets. I sold real estate, typed other people’s letters, and moved up to have letters typed for me. It was an American way, and I took it. With hard work and education you could get ahead, farther than your parents.

I know my mother voted, although I never really knew her politics. Voting was a once every few years event, at best. Her world, like our table, was small, her cares focused. I remember, though, before the divorce, a heated exchange between adults one night when John Kennedy was running for president. As a child, I wasn’t part of the conversation. I later learned his Catholicism was behind it. Seeing those otherwise friendly neighbors argue at a block barbecue was my first experience of passion in politics. Of all the events that cram your head in a lifetime, the image of my best friend’s mother running away from the party in tears lives solidly in my memory. Kennedy’s religion had nothing to do with the day-to-day lives of the middle-class mix of people on my street, but in the emotion-charged way that prejudice and fear of the other are rationalized, it mattered.

There is a constant narrative these days, perpetuated by the media, that the 2020 presidential election is about “kitchen table” issues. While this, like the hierarchy of needs, is an immutable fact, it’s not the only one, nor should it be. And we have to ask ourselves; If most people vote with a vision extending no farther than the limits of their kitchen or religion, how can we hold together a country formed in an optimism that surpasses our sole survival, one wide and open, and panoramic in its possibility?

Having hired many people, in tedious examinations of experience and aptitude, and having had my own qualifications scrutinized countless times by employers as if they were scientists looking for plague bacteria, I find it strange how, by the sole merit of our citizenship, we possess this awesome responsibility; to hire for the leader of a nation of over 300 million people, a position mind-bendingly difficult, of paramount importance, and which most of us know nothing about. I know this sounds like dangerous talk, and I understand the “rule of the people,” that defines our democracy. Still, it doesn’t mean I haven’t myself taken it for granted and cast my choice more blindly than informed, more thoughtful of me and mine than the whole. And what is most troubling is that I’m not alone in my dereliction.

It’s most likely because of our kitchen tables, and the bank statements, homework, and hastily prepared meals that are stacked and served there, that many of us are okay and even grateful to delegate the responsibility of governing to others. There is not enough time in the day, or room in the limited brain space we have, to worry about the inner workings of something so removed from the heart of our homes and drama of our lives. It is our representative form that looks so organized on paper.

But not only do we delegate the management of our city, state, and country to others, we even defer the duty of selection of those people to the small minority who vote. Sadly, and right now, alarmingly, many of us leave it up to people we don’t know to elect others they may or may not know, to make decisions that not only affect our lives but the lives of many. Our action or inaction travels way beyond the furniture we possess. Free and democratic as it is in theory, in reality, it feels crazy.

But among the few who vote, this splinter of us who keep our system afloat, it’s apparently our kitchen tables that guide our choices, influence our evaluations, and dictate our preferences. It’s all about what we see when we look around and out our double-paned or broken windows. It’s about our particular worries of joblessness, the stock market, racism or health and illness. Whatever is the pressing or compelling facts of our individual lives. And it isn’t to diminish the vital and personal needs we have as humans to say as Americans that should never be enough. That our unique experience should never be the primary driver of our decisions when voting for the leaders of our country, a place with differences as vast as its size.

The hierarchy of needs, as it applies to a nation, is complex and faceted. As Americans, along with our freedom, we are given the responsibility to see a higher order. It’s almost illogically absurd to talk about the loss of jobs from the elimination of fossil fuels when, if we stay our current course, there may be no planet on which to become employed, in any industry. There may be nowhere to put the table. My kids, who will inherit mine, will be faced with more apocalyptic concerns than anything that previously piled up there. What name will the media give that voting metric, the Life as We Know It issue? This crisis of our climate, according to common sense reasoning, should be at the top of our hierarchy. But the generalized talk of this threat to our very existence is as if it’s just one more concern, weighed with others over eggs and toast.

This is not to say our personal struggles, our private grief, fears, and desires are not critical. All of those things can drive us in the most basic, primitive way to action that affects change for the good. In that lies the power of the indivual. One person can make a difference. But there has to be an intersection between the details of my life and the reality of my fellow citizens, a corner where I can see in many directions.

We need to stop talking as if American voters, the human resources department for arguably the most critical institution in the world, will cast their decisions first, and maybe only, as African Americans, or women, or immigrants or LGBTQ persons or union workers. We can’t forget we are people, united by our humanity more than our particular genetics or addresses.

Division is not only spread by the talking points of political parties, but by the media. Repeated enough, ideas can and do influence our thinking. Advertisers, and most famously our current president, have known this for a while now. Just because the media think Bill Clinton is so smart and keep echoing his words, “It’s the economy, stupid,” or when they tell us, one more time, we will vote our kitchen tables, we can’t let ourselves be hypnotized. We need to see how limiting and even “not smart” that kind of talk and thinking is, and remember the trust we’ve been granted.

When we go to the ballot box, we should imagine we’ve gone to work one morning and received a big promotion, and we now oversee all operations, domestic and international. In this fictitious company, we have a seat at the table, a big one, and it’s not in the kitchen. Instead of thinking only of our raises or PTO or promotions and layoffs, we must think of the whole; the branches and divisions not only in Chicago, Austin, and Los Angeles, but also in Flint and Puerto Rico and Billings. We are responsible, too, for the health of our global partnerships. We must understand how the success and welfare of each part affects the other. And now we’re in charge of choosing the person who will lead it all.

While I use this made-up company as a metaphor, there are fundamental differences between governments and companies. There are all kinds of glowing mission statements written, but in the spirit of capitalism, profit is the goal of commerce. Balanced budgets are part of the hierarchy of a country, but the principle stated up front, first sentence, in the Constitution, is the togetherness of “a more perfect union.”

So while some may think it a good idea to hire a (theoretically successful) businessperson for president, governing people requires a different perspective from that of leading a revenue-driven enterprise.

The difference between living in a country as opposed to an unmarked desert island is that it’s not only me in my hut, but all of us on the block in a city of a state that is one of many. Along with economic viability are the greater issues of living together. The genius of the framers was their foresight, passed to us in faith we would use it too, and look as they did, past the outlines of our place and time. We have a say, for ourselves, for people we will never know, and for a world we will eventually leave. In essence, in a democracy, we must see about each other.

While San Franciscans mill between zero lot lines and sky-scrapers as Midlanders drive open roads to oil fields, this fact of country joins them. Maybe around your table you’ve never had to worry about your next dollar or loosing your job to automation. Or perhaps you have, and you’ve pulled up your bootstraps and figured it out. But there are other tables where the stories are different, and the barriers and obstacles harder and deeper in ways we can’t understand because we haven’t lived them. Somehow, though, for the sake of our union, we must try.

There is a saying in spiritual communities, There but for the grace of God go I. I also read this as, There in the eyes of God am I.

I am a mother who could lose a child to gun violence. I am the granddaughter of a cotton farmer and an immigrant. I am the grieving relative of an addict. I am a woman. I am not a minority nor a victim of flood. I have clean water to drink. I have insurance. I am me, and you are you. But deeper than this, we are each other. And it would be good to imagine this oneness and our common desires and needs for safety, belonging, and the freedom and opportunity to be who we are and all we can be. This is what it means to be an American. This is what it truly means to move up, to something beyond ourselves.

Around our varied kitchen tables we may identify most deeply as woman, Texan, minority, veteran, or immigrant. But as citizens, we are bound together by more. When I go to the ballot box and exercise my right, I want to remember this. I want to look past my beautiful table and the silver shedding bark of the southern myrtles out my window.

Telling true stories. Words at Narratively, The Hunger Journal, Entropy, Brave Voices Magazine, Austin American Statesman. www.ginaharlowwrites.com

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