Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Then and Now

We all get to an age where we can look back over our lives and track change. I remember the 1970s in New York City, where we used to visit relatives fairly frequently. The city truly was grittier, dirtier and more chaotic back then. I remember high rises going up, relatives shaking their heads and wondering where all the extra people were going to fit in the city, the explosion in crime, and most of all, my mother's regret that New York was not the way she remembered it growing up.

I'm not usually a great David Brooks fan but enjoyed his column in today's New York TImes, which discussed crime in New York City in the 1970s and now: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/18/opinion/18tue1.html?hp.

My mother loved New York, loved the possibilities it presented for a young immigrant, the easily accessible arts and culture, the window shopping, the good educational system (including free college tuition for those that qualified) and the safety. As a teenager in the 1940s and early 1950s, it offered her a tremendous amount of freedom. She died in 1980, and one of my regrets is that she didn't live to see New York return to what I imagine is something akin to the city she remembered.

Who knew in the 1970s what would happen?

A few years ago I saw a play from the 1970s, set in NYC, that captured all the grittiness of life back them. It was set in an English class for foreign speaking immigrants, and its theme was that we continue to live in a tower of Babel of miscommunications. It was funny, but played on situations that seem archaic now, at least for NYC--a broken elevator, a lost contact lens. While it accurately described a world I remember, it might have been set a 100 years in the past. I thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House books, who woke up one day and realized what was, to her as a child, ordinary life as a covered-wagon pioneer, was now the stuff of history books and movie adventures. I remember the jolt I had when I recognized that something as simple, natural and seemingly timeless in my childhood as a pick-up baseball game organized by neighborhood kids "sent out to play" was as exotic a fantasy to my son as traveling to the moon. I remember feeling a sense of loss ... who knew that this easy community and freedom of childhood, of all things, is what would go away? We never know.

Brooks traces the phenom of worried, helicopter parents to the fears of the 1970s, when the crime rate was high and people were fleeing to the suburbs or traveling nervously from their urban homes. I think genuine fear, love and anxiety does lead parents to hover, to the extent that we do, but I also take a darker view of the competition and triumphalism of some parents for whom "ultimate hovering" becomes a form of conspicuous consumption and a highly visible sign moral superiority. To the extent that it seemed not genuine (and I've certainly met the genuine), it bothered me, because it seemed to be based on the premise that "I can" do this or "we have the power." Often, it seemed a way to flaunt leisure time or status: of course "my husband" can time blocked out of his schedule to come to the little league game. How often did I hear, "I'm so lucky my husband can support me" or "Can you imagine being one of those mothers who let's someone else raise her children while she goes to work?" I would wonder about the women who had no choice (of course, the idea of "no choice" was pooh-poohed) but to work. Being in a situation of having to work--especially a low wage job-- seemed evidence of moral failure and hence "the sins of the fathers" was fitting retribution for the children. And a high school friend who had her child in her 40s reminded me of the pressure that a bullying Queen Bee mother can bring to bear even on her privileged peers--my friend wanted to tell off the tyrannizing younger woman who ran a preschool playgroup but didn't for fear her child would be ostracized. In my childhood--at least as I want to remember it--when children could make their own friends more easily, parents had less incentive to kowtow unhealthily to the "Nazi brigade." This kowtowing, while well meant, is not good role modeling for the children--our children. My friend knew all this, and yet felt helpless.

I'm glad crime has decreased and cities--at least New York City--are safer. However, I deplore living in a society where we're not in it for everyone's children, where there's such a push to protect mine and mine alone. Aren't we all supposed to be brothers and sisters? Isn't everyone's child in some sense my child? Isn't this what Jesus preached? It seems to me, looking back, that we had more of that sense when I was growing up. Of course, from what we know of history, at least in Western civilization, parents have always put their children first, but it seems to me that in the 1960s and 70s (and before, from what my parents would say) that there was more of sense of building bridges to other children to give them a hand, not pulling in behind the moat and watching for the safety of the ramparts as these families flounder. How can Quakers be part of the solution? Or am I misremembering?


Hystery said...

My own parents were very busy with careers that involved defending and nurturing other children, but outside of school (which was nightmarish) my sister and I did not experience what my mother describes as a time in which kids moved freely from house to house. I think my folks' education and work experience exposed them to the awful, too-often unspoken secrets of that seemingly golden time in memory. In that grown-up knowledge, they were more protective of us and are even more protective of their grandchildren. I was raised with an awareness of addictions, abuse, neglect, and violence as the unfortunate reality in which too many families in my community lived. My own feeling is that I want my children to be aware of this pain and to offer their skills in service to humanity when they are mature enough to take on that burden. Until then, I am extremely careful to protect them and watch over them. I do not want them to be personally exposed to it and physically endangered by it at too young an age.

Diane said...

HI Hystery,

From what I've gathered in cyberspace you are a truly caring parent who isn't trying to win a competition. I do remember some of the darker aspects of the "freer" days, though they didn't register at the time. Letting the "kids" roam the neighborhood en masse presented dangers. My bf's father was a physical and emotional abuser, and though didn't realize it at the time, my friend was constantly hungry. It wasn't until years later that I recognized that knowing how to make a worcestershire sauce sandwich and which seeds in the birdseed packet are edible are signs of hunger, nor did I wonder why she was always asking for food at my house. We just happily fed her in my smaller, more homey, scuffy place, and sent her off to her pristine, perfectly decorated designer dungeon without a second thought. Of course, the fact that she had the freedom to come to us for a meal wasn't such a bad thing ...

Hystery said...

Diane, :-) I certainly am not trying to win any competitions. I know so few people who are parents. I know only one other person my age with kids in my town and she is my best friend from girlhood. Seems as though everyone else has moved far away.

I often think about how difficult it is to feel close to other Friends and I wonder if it is related to part of what you are saying here. Hospitality is a great spiritual gift. I do not refer to the hospitality in which people try to impress each other with fine homes and fine foods, but the kind of hospitality in which hearts and homes are open with a genuine generosity. Could we model that with each other so that Friends' children grew up in a family that extended beyond their biological and/or adoptive kin? We could then model that for others in our communities. How well do we know each other? It is not enough to share an hour of silence followed by polite conversation and a cookie. We have to make ourselves more vulnerable to create a beloved community. That is a difficult and a frightening thing to do for many of us including myself.