I saw a movie recently called “El Norte,” a poignant and disturbing story about two Guatemalan teen-agers, a brother and sister, who risk their lives to make the journey to “the north” — to America — and its promise of a better life.

Deceived by those who offer to help them, they endure hunger and exhaustion and thievery. Crawling through an abandoned sewer to avoid being seen by border guards, they’re attacked by rats. They face an even greater danger on this side of the border: a predatory economy in which illegal aliens prey on each other and gringos prey on everyone. In this fabled land, where, they had been assured, even the poorest of the poor have flush toilets, they get their toilet, in a rundown boarding house. Are they better off than they were in the misty mountains of Guatemala? When all you’ve known is hardship and deprivation, isn’t a little security — a paycheck, food — a kind of freedom? Is it better to be a peasant in a rich land than in a poor land? Isn’t a peasant anywhere, as Enrique’s father had warned him, just “another pair of arms?” Without stridency, “El Norte” compels you to ask such questions, for which there are no easy answers.

Ironically, for me the most stunning scene in the movie is when Enrique and Rosa first glimpse, from afar, the bright lights of a big American city, shimmering in the blue-black night like a vision. To their still-innocent eyes, it’s heaven on earth — and, for a moment, I saw it that way too. I saw the America that has always beckoned to the downtrodden, a land that with all its contradictions and failures is infinitely more splendid than I, who take life here for granted, can conceive. I forget what a fairyland this is, why someone would brave death to be invited to the party, to bellyache with the rest of us about the economy and the taxes and the pollution — while our tummies, full with dinner, gurgle happily; and the rain pitter-patters on the roof, not on our heads; and the children sleep safe from harm; and the car sleeps in the garage.

 

A few days after seeing “El Norte,” my wife and I went to a yard sale, hoping to find a few things for the house, a lamp most especially, maybe a rug. We were in luck; there was an old brass lamp for twenty dollars, exactly what we wanted at the right price, and a beautiful Oriental rug — though I was sure the rug was worth a couple of hundred dollars, way out of our range. Before I could ask the price, another couple bought it, for only fifty dollars. How disappointed I was! I stood there disconsolately, holding our lamp — which suddenly seemed to me awkwardly tall, and blemished, not much of a find at all — and watched them walk away with the rug, which would have looked terrific in our house, which belonged in our house, which should have been ours. I don’t know what surprised me more: that they had our rug, or that I was in a rage of envy over something so stupefyingly unimportant.

I rarely envy other people, at least not for their possessions. In the presence of someone more intelligent than I, or more articulate, or more sensitive, I can still feel backed against the wall of my old insecurities, and wish for a moment I was more like that. It’s personality, not property, I’m likely to covet; if we never get a rug for that upstairs room, it really won’t matter. Why, then, did a castaway rug, slung over someone’s shoulder, provoke me so?

It was, I realized, that I’d felt unjustly treated, not by anyone in particular, but by a capricious universe. For had we gotten there a minute sooner, the rug would have been ours. A minute! How arbitrary a judge time is. What’s that cosmic witticism? “Time is an illusion perpetrated by the manufacturers of space.” So it is. But in this realm of illusion, so is everything. The veils swirl around us, and we are utterly bewitched. We reach for something — some pleasure, some comfort — and we touch it, or almost touch it, or wonder if it was ever there. Time is the greatest illusion, the great deceiver, winking at us from behind aging and death and loss of every kind — inconsequential losses like this one, heartrending losses, all the promises life never kept. I thought of “El Norte.” I thought of people who go hungry because someone else got there first, or because an accident of birth puts one person here and another one there, at which point the forces of history and the fevers of nationalism and the fluctuations of the market take over, ravaging the human heart, making mine and yours, surplus and starvation, north and south. I thought: what if I’d come here not for a lamp and a rug but for food, food for my family, food suddenly in short supply? What if that man were walking away with a bag of rice slung over his shoulder — the last bag? Something keener than envy might take hold of me then; envy, in comparison, would be a romp through the flowers. Yet how many millions of people feel just so embittered toward us? We’re the ones with the bag; they, alas, are left holding an empty one. Hunger is a very compelling illusion, when you’re hungry. Even as great a saint as Gandhi knew, “If God were to appear to starving people, he would not dare to appear in any other form than food.”

 

So, I thought, I’d write this month about poverty. I’d say something about America’s indifference toward the weak; the needy; the unemployed; the working class families who can no more rise above “the poverty line” than fish can climb up out of the sea and onto the land, and who thus must learn to swim in the dark waters of low-paying jobs and high rents and unlived dreams. I’d consider the gap between the rich and the poor, which amazingly keeps growing, like ill will between an estranged couple, each certain that the other doesn’t care, that talking is impossible, that they may as well be living on separate planets. A visit to any American city suggests, in fact, they do.

There are statistics, so many of them, but they inevitably distort. Mathematics is a sacred art, subtle and highly symbolic; it serves the needs of special interests the way a nude body, flawless and sublimely proportioned, serves a porno director. Do numbers lie? Is sex dirty? It all depends. I ponder just a single dark statistic: one out of every four children under the age of six lives in poverty. In America. In 1986. But what does this mean? “There is something about poverty that smells like death,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. “Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet.” But words lie, too. I could write about poverty without mentioning my secret, which is our secret, which is no secret at all; without telling you how the statistics I was reading rose off the page — like children waking from sleep, rubbing their tired eyes, and staring at me — and how I slammed the book shut, slammed it down on their faces and on the numbers rising toward me with their outstrethed hands.

It’s good to tell the truth about ourselves. After all, if we can’t look honestly at what is selfish and harsh in us, as well as what is deep and holy, what does it matter how outraged we get at the indifference of society or the hypocrisy of politicians? (Mother Jones, the progressive monthly which specializes in outrage, tried to solicit a subscription from me recently by offering, as a free gift, a Ronald Reagan doormat, so I could wipe my feet on the President’s face — since, Mother Jones reminded me, the President has been wiping his feet on us for years. Well, perhaps he has, but the last time I looked we all had mud on our shoes. To villify Reagan, rather than his policies, is to make the same mistake we’ve made about each other since the dawn of time.)

But we live in absurd times. Isn’t it absurd for some people to have too much and others nothing at all? Who doesn’t feel sorrow about this — or anger, or guilt, or despair? Each of us, no matter how hardened, knows that others suffer; and each of us accommodates to this knowledge differently — most commonly, and unfortunately, by seeming not to care. Twenty years ago, as a newspaper reporter, I saw this as evidence of our cultural hypocrisy, a malaise most peculiarly American; now, I know we’re no more selfish than any other people. It’s something human, not American, that made Cain strike down Abel, that makes all of us turn from our culpability in other people’s suffering, and deny it, and deny them, and thus deny ourselves. Twenty years ago, I tried to convince other people to care, by writing as powerfully and persuasively as I could about the plight of the poor. Had I been more eloquent and less shy, I might have organized rallies, made speeches; as it was, I hoped my writing would arouse enough indignation to move people to act.

I still value that kind of writing, but my emphasis now is different. Radical change, I’ve learned, starts in individual hearts, in radical confrontation with our own fears. The barricades we’ve put up against knowing ourselves have to come down. The revolution only starts there, but unless it does start there, it ends in grief.

In the Sixties, for example, I thought it was shameful for so many people to be out of work; everyone should be guaranteed a decent job at decent pay. I still believe this, but I wonder. . . . What kind of job? There’s a difference, after all, between a job and work — between standing on an assembly line pushing buttons, and doing work that is meaningful and satisfying. Is making money the only criterion? In a society where you have to make money to buy food and pay the bills, perhaps it is. Don’t nearly all of us imagine that earning more will make us more secure? Why am I — who forsook a well-paying job years ago for the deeper satisfactions of living my own life — still subtly indentured to “security?” I joke with friends that God and I have a deal — God provides and I worry — yet it’s not a joke at all.

Gandhi, who understood the depth of our spiritual hunger even as he struggled to put food in empty bellies, insisted there is enough room for everyone’s need in this world: it’s we who have created scarcity. There is enough, he said, of food and air and water, of human ingenuity and artistry, enough for our need but not our greed.

This is something I try to believe in; The Sun an expression of that belief, sustained by modest resources and an immodest faith, yet a faith that sometimes wavers. In a world where the ideology of scarcity is so pervasive, where everything seems to remind me that enough is never enough, I find it difficult, sometimes, to go against the fear. So I worry — about paying the bills, or paying myself. If I write out a small check to a favorite charity, I worry that giving away “my” resources might make me unable to take care of my own needs, or my family’s needs (though that’s never been the case). If I really believed in abundance, I wouldn’t worry. I’d trust myself to know intuitively how concerned about money I needed to be, just as I trust my body to walk from here to there without worrying that I’ll fall. I’d remember that true inner wealth comes from acknowledging our oneness, that it’s a rich man who senses, keenly, the interdependence of all living things. I’d say with Thoreau that “money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.”

If I don’t remember this, then my heart closes up like a bank vault at night. When poverty grins at me toothlessly, from the newspaper or the television or the car window, I want to turn away. The conflict I feel — between wanting to help, selflessly, and wanting to protect the little I have — is too painful. But I know I have to embrace this contradiction, and feel a little compassion for myself, before I can truly serve. If I deny the conflict — if I make either my longing to help or my fear of helping into a secret, and suffer it silently — my life is the poorer, and I’m nobody’s friend.

 

To my surprise, writing this essay became a forced march into the heart of this dilemma, humbling me, reminding me pointedly just how self-absorbed I can be.

Though I had decided, after being moved so deeply by “El Norte,” to write about poverty, I found myself less and less willing to think about it as the time to sit down at the typewriter neared.

Ironically, I picked a month when The Sun was deluged with hundreds of new subscriptions. We had received a grant to promote the magazine and the promotion worked. After nearly thirteen years of chronic financial insecurity, the magazine’s survival no longer seemed in doubt. Suddenly, index cards to keep track of subscriptions seemed cumbersome; we needed to start thinking about a computer. We could replace the old refrigerator. Hire more staff. . . .

Each time I tried to write about poverty, my mind would drift instead to the stack of new subscriptions, to the future, to this little taste of success. I didn’t want to think about the have-nots of the world; I felt more separate from them than ever, with more to protect. Success in conventional terms had never been important to me, nor was it now. But sitting here early in the morning, it was success and not suffering I wanted to think about. The blank page in the typewriter called to me — from the ghettos, from the victims, from the luminous, wounded souls. . . . I didn’t want to hear them. I couldn’t bear to listen. I wanted to count the subscriptions, leaf through the computer magazine. I wanted to hear the birds, the traffic, the coffee-maker rumbling, the gentle whoosh of the veils as they swirled.

— Sy