If you have any presence on social media at all, you have surely seen Kitty O’Meara’s sentimental prose poem “And the People Stayed Home,” which has circled the globe faster than a corona virus in the past couple of weeks. O’Meara says that she had been feeling sad and anxious about the pandemic and the shutdown, and that writing the poem had a palliative effect. It has had a palliative effect on others, too; its calm intonations and hopeful message of a better future have resonated across the Internet. Because I teach poetry, many of my friends have sent it to me directly.
The words are often accompanied by a colorful folksy painting of a fox, a bear, and a girl, each cocooned in individual womblike sacks under the roots of a leafless tree, waiting for spring. In case you’ve been in a burrow somewhere without access to social media, here is the poem:
“And the people stayed home and read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
I understand the attraction to this poem. It’s calm and cozy and peaceful, almost like a glass of warm milk before going to bed. It has brought comfort and reassurance to countless people who have posted and shared and liked it and rewritten versions of their own. I’m happy for them. It’s always good to look for the silver lining in situations we can’t change. I’ve been doing that too.
But the poem has definitely not resonated with me, and the more I read its sappy sentiment, the more unsettled I feel. Here are my objections.
First, it assumes that everyone has the luxury—dare I say, privilege—of hunkering down in a cozy room with a good book, a set of art supplies, and a collection of board games. Doesn’t everyone have acrylics, brushes, easels and canvases in their closets? Doesn’t everyone have a sewing machine, scissors, fabric and thread? Doesn’t everyone know how to bake bread from the sourdough starter they inherited from Grandpa?
O’Meara is retired, living in Wisconsin with her husband and five rescue dogs. She doesn’t have to worry about providing meals, online lessons, and entertainment for bored children, nor is she concerned about whether her job will still be there when the shutdown is over. She doesn’t have to choose between art supplies and milk.
The poem and the graphic seem to idealize an agrarian life of planting, hoeing, watering, and harvesting. Of milking the cows and gathering the eggs. Of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising when it arises. But the agrarian life is harsh, at least for those who actually do the hoeing and the milking. Is that really what we want our future to be? Is it even what this poem presents? No. It assumes that we can huddle comfortably in our burrows while Amazon and Instacart drop off our books, food and wine every day.
My biggest objection to O’Meara’s poem is not its sappy sweet sentimentalism, but its overt underlying message, unintended though I am sure it is: The poem is highly elitist.
Yes, many people will weather this lockdown relatively unscathed. They have white-collar jobs that allow them to work from home, online services and skills that make it easier to teach their children, delivery services that bring fresh food and goods to their door, grocery stores and take-out restaurants nearby that provide a respite from cooking at home. They have books, tvs or computers in every room, and enough space for everyone to get away from each other for a few hours a day. Our home is like that, and I’m grateful. Lockdown has been a cinch for us.
But consider those less fortunate. Once a student asked me to help him with an assignment to write a process essay in which he described the process of getting ready for school. One of his chores was to “clean his corner.” Yes, his corner. Eight people lived in their 3-room apartment. He had the corner of a room in which to keep his clothes and books and other possessions. I often wonder how his family and others like them are doing right now, hunkered in tight quarters with no place to be alone. I can’t imagine the stress they are feeling. The risk of domestic abuse is rising. So is the risk of suicide.
Consider also the army of workers, many of them low-income, who are keeping supply chains open right now—the farm workers, processors, manufacturers, grocery clerks and delivery drivers; the utility workers and plumbers; the health care workers and bus drivers and pilots and everyone else who does not have the luxury of “stay[ing] home and read[ing] books” but feels grateful to have a job in this uncertain time. They fall into an exhausted sleep, with no time for games or art supplies.
This is how class structure begins and how it remains. In earlier times, when epidemics hit, the aristocracy could move their families to the countryside where it was safer, while the working class stayed in the fields and the factories, keeping the nobility class fed and cleaned and entertained and stocked with everything they needed. Under our current essential/ non-essential lockdown, it’s happening again: we elites stay home where it’s safe, while the drones work hard and risk exposure to illness in order to supply us. I am ever so grateful for each one of them.
I’m also offended by the philosophical elitism implied in the poem. If her first stanza is mildly sappy, her second stanza is downright offensive: “in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”
What a mindless, ignorant, and yes, dangerous assumption to make about her neighbors of the world and about the engine that has driven our economy and produced the conditions that allowed her to retire in good health with her five rescue dogs and her art supplies and her books! What exactly has been “heartless” about earning a living all these years? Does she consider driving to a job in order to feed and house one’s family “ignorant”? Is productive work “dangerous”? The only thing “mindless” that I can see is the belief that we could all hibernate under the earth with our books and our pets and our Netflix accounts until the crisis is over, and that all of our needs will be delivered to our burrows automatically and indefinitely–a pot of gruel dropped off by the National Guard perhaps?
And I think that’s why this poem troubles me so: I feel ashamed to flaunt my life of ease, able to read books and play games and write articles, while others work their tails off and take risks to keep me comfortable. It is truly “mindless” and “ignorant” to blithely recommend hibernation and ease when so many have no choice but to work during this shutdown. And perhaps it’s a “dangerous” position, too. Look what happened to Marie Antoinette when, after being told that the masses lacked bread, she suggested, “Let them eat cake!” Would she say today, “Let them paint pictures”?
In its final line the poem imagines a future when “the people began to think differently. And the earth healed.” Here is how I hope we will think differently:
And the people saw how businesses kept everything running. How they quickly retooled to make face masks and hand sanitizer and toilet paper. How private labs developed test kits and vaccines and cures. How grocery stores and restaurants and entertainment providers adapted to new needs and guidelines. How millionaires and billionaires gave willingly to provide paychecks to families suddenly out of work. How home schooling flourished and families came home.
And the people said to governments everywhere: Get out of the way and let the free market lead.
JoAnn Skousen is the founding director of the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival and co-producer of FreedomFest, “the world’s largest gathering of free minds,” which meet together at Paris Resort, Las Vegas, July 13-16. She teaches English Literature and Writing at Chapman University and at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.