My Dusty Memory Bowl

As children, we could make my baby brother cry simply by chanting the words, “Okie! Okie! Okie!” Isn’t it amazing how prejudice is learned so innocently and so early? We loved our brother but it made us feel more powerful when we teased him.

Nowadays, that kind of “naming” cruelty is called bullying and it is usually aimed at people of color. In the  decade of the Dust Bowl, desperate migrants to California were mostly blonde and blue eyed.

Watching the The Dust Bowl  documentary was fascinating for all four of us kids since we were part of that great exodus from the mid-west to the promised land. We were very young (7,6,4,and 1) when we left Oklahoma in 1939. Now we are all in our seventies and times have changed.

The Dust Bowl story was peripheral to our personal stories. My parents were not farmers although they were both born in a small Missouri town and most of their neighbors did farm.My mother’s family were the richest people in that little town and they lost everything in the Depression. My Dad was simply travelling through and the two of them continued travelling after the wedding in 1932.

Like most immigrants, they didn’t talk much about their past. I’ve never been clear about how they survived the Depression. I do know they moved a lot. The four towns – McAllen TX, Waco TX, Beaumont TX and Tulsa OK – where their four kids were born were just the tip of the iceberg.

In 1939 they piled their four kids, and my Uncle Bob in the car and drove to the land of orange trees and hope. I remember Hoover Dam but everything else is second hand. The younger kids remember nothing.

My Dad had lived in California for part of his high school years and really wanted to return. My mother wanted to be with my Dad. My handsome young uncle wanted to be a movie star.

Money was always an anxious subterranean subject so I had no idea where it came from. I do know we lived in a small house and there was enough food. I also know my uncle worked as a singing waiter in a Pasadena Hotel because we heard him and the others sing on the radio every Friday night.

If my family talked about the more destitute migrants, I don’t remember it. Were the attempts to block indigent migrants from entering the state mentioned? My memories are all mystery. For some reason, I knew that being an Okie was bad. It took me a long time to work through childhood shame and money issues.

When World War Two started, my Dad went to work as a lathe operator in a machine shop. My mother sold dresses. My uncle was drafted and fought in the South Pacific for four years.

My real memories begin when I was in sixth grade. We lived in a government housing project. Most of our neighbors were fellow immigrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi. My mother felt she was far above her neighbors and, although she was an open-hearted woman, she worried about our grammar and manners.

I grew up thinking California was the best place in the world and everyone who had good sense lived here. I still hold some of that prejudice, although I now have wider experience to back it up. California really is the land of possibility.

When I watched Ken Burn’s The Dust Bowl, I enjoyed the retrospective. I learned quite a bit about those days and it helped me review some of my old feelings. If you get a chance, I recommend it because it was an excellent work of art.

It also allowed me to look at the shame I felt as a kid about not being a California Native. I thought about where prejudice comes from and why, in this day and age, people still cover their feelings of inadequacy by seeing  the “other” as wrong or dangerous. We know that bullies are full of negative beliefs about themselves whether it is  seven year old taunting a one year old or Hitler hating the Jews.

Of course, it is a long way from simple school yard pre-judgment and bullying to out-and-out war but the line from one to the other is unbroken. The first step in any war is to see the opponent as “the other”. We must despise the enemy so we create distance by calling them  names like Okie.

The questions are not, “Why are people cruel to each other?” or, “Why is there war?”. The question is, “How do we outgrow the shame, fear, and suspicion that creates the conflict?” Whether it is a move to block the gates to California or the current mid-East border bombs, conflict can be prevented.  The first step in healing conflict is nearly always to stop looking at people on the other side of the border as “different” and “less than.”

It is not enough for you and I to condemn cruelty and war. We must find ways to establish love and peace. Whether it is global or local, our consciousness of peace and possibility is already a help. Holding the light of wisdom high is a help to all people.

One step toward opening hearts and minds up locally is to bring the arts back into the schools. Art education helps more than you can imagine even if it cannot be measured on achievement tests. I  suggest we each speak up for the importance of the arts in the schools.

I believe the arts serve an important function – they illustrate our commonalty as humans. Although we are unique, we are also universally one with God. The arts teach this better than anything. That’s what drives me nuts about the cuts in school arts programs.

Long before I found Science of Mind, it was the arts that opened my mind and heart in a very powerful way. The arts helped me feel something in common with others and also helped me dissolve the shame and prejudice about who I was and where I came from.

As a former high school teacher, I know this is a nearly-universal experience. It is so amazing to a young person who has learned to detest her grandmother’s quilts to see very similar quilts on the museum wall.

My first artistic discoveries from the Depression years were Dorthea Lange photographs in the  books I found in the in the 7th grade library. The dignity and beauty of people who travelled toward the Promised Land helped me see my past in a new way.  The books that came out of “hard times” of the Depression made me see that those hillbillies my mother feared were real people with real stories.

The music of the depression years is the backbone of our American musical heritage. Whether it is gospel, blues, bluegrass or just plain country, it is great. We are still singing many of the songs in church. Some of us learned them in elementary school. If you don’t know the music of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly or Hank Williams, you should check it out. It lives!

I love the way art helps us explore our own beauty and self-worth at the same time we discover our love for our neighbor.  Today’s school children deserve to explore the richness of their cultural heritage and to learn about other peoples special artistry.

Write to your local school officials and to your State Boards of Education. Let your views be known. Technology and facts are important. There is no conflict and the arts are what make us human. Keep the faith!

Ask Yourself

What were my first experiences with art?

Do I agree that art programs are  really important?

Is there anything I’d like to do about that?

What artistic expressions delight me these days?


11 Comments on “My Dusty Memory Bowl”

  1. Maxine Kaye says:

    Love it and agree with you completely!

    XXOO Maxine 😍

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. As I read this entry, I wanted to stand up and cheer! As a Unity minister for many years, this is one of the messages that is taught over and over, and I often wonder if anyone hears it. You have made it real and personal. Thank you

    • janeclaypool says:

      Thanks for the kidn words, Rev. Eleanor. I’m glad to have a Unity minister reading my blog and I hope you will pass the address along to friends you think might also enjoy it.

  3. Ellen Sheive says:

    Dr. Jane, A piece of positive info. The arts in school are alive and well in at least one Carlsbad grammer school (Carillo Ranch) and the San Marcos Middle School. I know because my grandchildren attend. My daughter has chosen a Waldorf School for her children, so far, up in the Long Beach district (because she doesn’t think the schools there are so good). Waldorf does an enormous amount with the arts (they truly agree with you). It isn’t the same all over the U.S. We happen to know that the schools in NY State are also a “cut above” (we come from there and have many relatives there). People can make a difference in our wonderful country of “States within a country”. The States situation in the USA helps to break things down into manageable parts. We have lived in 3 different states and all three had different “personalities” in their schools. Dr. Jane, you “do” make me think of things I haven’t pondered in some time. Thanks!.

    Love, Ellen

    • janeclaypool says:

      Dear Ellen,
      Thanks again for your thoughtful reply. I know the Waldorf schools do a great job because my daughter was once very interested in them and I learned a bit. Did you know I started out an art teacher in Long Beach? At that time we had te best reputation of any school in that La/Orange country area where my classmates and I student taught. Times change and so do schools.
      I also agree thta every state has its own personality when it comes to schools. I was appalled by how mean the Massachusetts teachers were when I taught then and I discovered they had all been taught by Nuns themselves and thguoht it was how it was doen. Times change and so do Nuns.

  4. Sally Carroll says:

    Thank you for the food for thought… I am touched by the childhood experience- I believe that our minds develop as children – and from the collective conciousness of our past, and present reality. I am reflecting on a childhood experience I had growing up next door to a disabled girl four years younger than I was. Paula was my “wounded sparrow” and I learned a great deal from her. I went on family outings with she and her parents- many of those memories surface and I believe that I learned compassion at a deep level as a child… Wisdom abounds throughout this post Thank you Dr. Jane.

    • janeclaypool says:

      Hi Sally,
      I was just thinking I’d write and tell you how impressed I am with your progress on your grant writing. You are being very diligent and accomplishing things. Good for you. I agree that childhood memories color our lives and I am happy you have a compassionate heart. I believe we are here on Planet Earth to learn to love each other.

  5. Jane Pool says:

    I, too, was a child in the depression but I lived in a small, Iowa, blue-collar, railroad town and I didn’t realize we were poor because we were much like the rest of the residents. My mother and older sisters sewed beautifully and always managed to keep the family looking well clothed. My mother had been a one-room school teacher and she, like yours, believed in education in school and at home – manners and grammar. I agree that arts are great in schools but in spite of straight A’s in other subjects I was a complete dud in art and always ashamed of what I produced. It was a great relief to me when I got to 8th grade and art was no longer a required subject. I still remember finger painting with colored starch in 7th grade where my best friends made beautiful colored designs and mine looked like a brown splotch. I can laugh about it now and claim to be possibly the only person alive who would have failed finger painting if they had graded us on it but at that adolescent age was so embarrassed. I enjoy seeing beautiful artistic things and hearing music. I’ve just never been good at producing either.

    • janeclaypool says:

      Hi Jane,
      You and I have so much in common including grammatically correct mothers! You’ll be happy to know my mother went back to college to get a 4 year degree in her Forties and she swears she failed finger painting as well. I don’t think I ever tried it and certainly don’t plan to now. Art is much more than being able to finger paint or copy flowers from the wall paper onto your teacup and I know you are very sensitive to many of the arts.

  6. only122much says:

    Dr. Jane,

    Thought this might interest you. When I was Director of the Creative Arts Consortium, I learned that the reason for the founding of this federally funded non-profit was the actions of a Social Worker who worked with the homeless. There was a starving, homeless artist named ROMAN who scavenged through empty pizza cartons, not to find scraps to eat, but to find cartons with enough space to paint/draw. Now THAT says it all. The innate need for creative expressive exceeds the need to assuage hunger. Wow.




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