Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Teach Your Children

I came upon Grace Paley’s story, “The Expensive Moment,” while I was writing An American Tune. In it, Paley does the “sideways” thing she was so good at. You think you’re reading a story about Faith’s affair with Nick, a famous sinologist and how the affair feeds her political curiosity about Chinese culture, offers a counterpoint to her intellectually but not physically passionate relationship with her husband, Jack, and provides conversational fodder for the never-ending dialogue with her best friend, Ruth. It’s Paley at her best: politics, poetry, men and women, work and the worker, friendship, children, sex, love. But about halfway through, the story takes a turn. There’s an edgy conversation with her revolutionary son, Richard, who accuses of her of naiveté and criticizes her for being ignorant about political theory. Faith approves of his politics, she’s proud of the work he does with the League for Revolutionary Youth. Still, his intensity unnerves her.

She thinks, “What if history should seize him as it had actually taken Ruth’s daughter Rachel when her face was still as round as an apple, a moment in history, the expensive moment when everyone his age is called but few are chosen by conscience or passion or even only the love of one’s own agemates and they are the ones who smash an important nosecone (as has been recently done) or blow up some building full of oppressive money or murderous military plans; but, oh, what if a human creature (maybe rotten to the core but a living person still) is in it? What if they disappear then to live in exile or in the deepest underground and you don’t see them for ten years or have to travel to Cuba or Canada or farther to look at their changed faces?”

She ponders a mother’s responsibilities, wondering if it might have been wiser to raise her boys to be doctors or lawyers, people who could have done a lot of good…“healing or defending the underdog,” rather than to have instilled her own revolutionary passion in them.

What happened to send Ruth’s daughter, Rachel, underground is something the two friends avoid talking about, but it is such common knowledge in the Movement that when Faith mentions Ruth to a Chinese woman she meets at a conference sponsored by the U.N., the woman says, “Yes, the lady who hasn’t seen her daughter in eight years. Oh, what a sadness.”

Later, Faith gives the woman a tour of her neighborhood and, afterward, in Faith’s kitchen, the woman talks about the effects of the revolution on her children. She asks, “May I ask you, do you worry that your older boy is in a political group that isn’t liked?” But Ruth appears before Faith can answer. “We were speaking,” the Chinese woman says, “About the children. How to raise them.”

She goes on. “Shall we teach them to be straightforward, honorable, kind, brave, maybe shrewd, maybe self-serving a little? What is the best way to help them in the real world? We don’t know the best way. You don’t want them to be cruel, but you want them to take care of themselves wisely. Now my own children are nearly grown. Perhaps it is too late. Was I foolish? I didn’t know in those years how to do it.’”

Ruth says nothing.

Faith says to the Chinese woman, “Oh, Zie Feng, neither did I.”

Faith would have come of age in the 40’s, a product of the Depression and World War II—thus, the parent of teenagers in the 60’s, which might have been the worst time in the history of the world to weather the turmoil of your adolescent children. “The Generation Gap,” we called it. Even Faith, whose politics were very much in tune with the times, felt it.

The more conservative members of that generation felt it far worse than she did. Coming out of those hard times, they craved a normal, comfortable life. They were determined to give their kids everything they’d longed for when they were young.

Then, suddenly, those beloved children turned on them. They looked like bums, with their long, unkempt hair and ragged jeans. They smoked dope, slept around, blared appalling music on their stereos. They spouted radical politics at the dinner table, scorned everything that their parents had worked so hard to achieve.

CSN’s “Teach Your Children” was an anthem of those times. I still love the song, still know it pretty much by heart—but it strikes me differently now. So, well, condescending. Our parents were in their forties, for Pete’s sake. In the prime of their lives.

“And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.”

These lyrics must have driven them mad if they actually listened to them.

For Christ’s sake, they must have thought. As if we have one foot in the grave! As if they have the slightest idea what the hell they’re talking about!

We Boomers are way older than our parents were then, watching our own children navigate their adult lives. They’re like us in some ways, perhaps in spite of themselves. Unlike us in other ways, having determined consciously or subconsciously what all we did wrong and made up their minds not to live their lives differently. It’s hard to watch them sometimes. All too often we see the mistakes we made reflected in their heartbreaks. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve figured out, like Faith and the Chinese woman, that we “didn’t know in those years how to do it.”

Nobody does. In fact, regardless of generation, parents who believe they know the one right way to raise children probably do more damage than the ones who do their best and admit they don’t really have a clue. By the time we even begin to figure out who our children are, what they need, they’re already heading into the turmoil of adolescence.

It’s a time when young people struggle to find themselves, we say. But it occurs to me that those years are complicated by the fact that parents are trying to find their children, as well. Adolescents often feel unnerved and uncertain about the person emerging, as if there has been some alien inside them now trying to get out. Someone who’s nothing like the teenager they wanted or were expected to be. Parents often clash with their emerging teenagers, especially when their teenagers seem so little like the children they meant to have—the ones who’d turn out smarter, happier, better than they did because they had worked so hard to create perfect childhoods for their children.

“But we gave them everything,” the parents sometimes lament, especially the “perfect” ones, when their grown children’s lives show little or no evidence of the values they taught them. “How could they have turned out this way?” In fact, what they probably gave (or tried to give) their children was everything they, themselves had longed for when they were young.

By the time you figure this out (if you figure it out), it’s too late. Life has no rewrites. But you can acknowledge your mistakes, which can bring insight to your grown children’s struggles to make a life that will be happier if they don’t feel bound to make it look like the one you planned for them when you first held them in your arms.

So if you’re holding a new baby in your arms right now, read this poem by Kahil Gibran. (Read it, even if you’re not.) It’s the absolute best advice on raising children I’ve ever heard.

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes no backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
And he bends you with his might
That his arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.
For even as he loves the arrow that flies,
So he loves also the bow that is stable.

Where were you when this song was playing on the stereo?


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Escape from Christmas

Anyone who knows me is all too aware that Christmas is not my favorite time of year. But when I was invited to have a book table at this year’s Christmas Craft and Hobby Show, I accepted, being in the mode of do whatever you have to do to sell books. I’d done a holiday fair once before, years ago, and it was quite nice. There was a special section for authors near the front of the fair, each author was assigned a volunteer to help with sales and promotion.

I figured, why not?

So my daughter Kate and I loaded up yesterday for the scheduled gig at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. When we got there, we walked past a life-sized Santa made of dozens, possibly hundreds of twisted balloons in his sleigh, which was also made of twisted balloons, to the office, where a woman vaguely directed us, “Way back.” We followed her pointed finger along an endless aisle of Christmas and every other kind of crap to the far corner, where we found a sign on an easel that said, “Author Signings” and three empty tables.

We set up at one of tables, a small island among hundreds of booths offering everything from the predictable Christmas ornaments and decorations, stockings, earrings, sweatshirts, candy, talking Santas, candles, and stuffed elves to kitchenware, baseball caps, perfume, license plates, garage signs, sun porches, windows, table-top models of Indiana sports stadiums and Greyhound rescue. (Where, exactly, would you stash a Greyhound between now and Christmas?)

There were elderly ladies in Christmas gear: one in a gargantuan green sweater with embroidered candy canes all over it, another decked out in Christmas fabric from head to toe, including apron and mob cap; middle-aged aged ladies in too-tight jeans wearing headbands with glittery reindeer antlers or Santa hats. There was a whole herd of young women all sporting red and green feather boas and glittery red top hats.

We set up.

We sat.

I was reminded of a book signing I did years ago, for my first novel. The bookstore people had forgotten I was coming. They had seven books, in a display in the front window, along with a poster that had my picture on it. They had no table, so they took a few books from the window and put them on the counter, then put me put me in a rolling office chair nearby. You could see me through the plate glass window—you might even have noticed that I was the same person as the one on the poster; however, if you didn’t make that connection, I must have seemed like a stunned secretary who'd been astro-projected to the bookstore from her office cubicle. People regarded me with puzzled expressions.

Some asked, “Can you tell me where to find the Garfield books?”

Or, “Where is Thinner Thighs in Thirty Days?”

I sold one book that day: to a friend’s mother, who knew I was going to be there and came in on her lunch hour to buy it.

The thing is, like an idiot, I stayed the whole two hours. (I thought I was obligated to do that.) Then I went home and took to my bed, like a Victorian lady with the vapors.

Yesterday, I sat with my beautiful books for a half hour, watching freaky people go by. A half hour passed. It seemed like an eternity.

I felt the vapors coming upon me. I was supposed to be there four hours.

“Uh--Mom, this is so not your audience,” Kate said.

We laughed, sort of hysterically.

Then packed up and fled.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Other Woman

A few weeks ago, my annual mammogram revealed irregular calcification. In the following days, I had a second mammogram, a biopsy, a diagnosis of breast cancer, and an appointment with a surgeon at the Simon Cancer Center, one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. I had surgery within a matter of days. I’ll start radiation treatments soon. My prognosis is good.

I never felt the tumor. According to the surgeon, by the time I’d have been able to feel it, the prognosis would have been dire.

Just call me the poster-woman for mammograms.

Pay attention! Get yours, if you’re due. Bully your mothers, friends, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, and nieces to get theirs, as well.

But what I really want to write about is a woman I saw at the Breast Center when I went for my second mammogram. She and her husband were ahead of me, checking in. They were in their mid- to late-forties, dressed in a way that made me know they didn’t have much.

Her husband was on the phone, talking in a low voice, but I couldn’t help hear what he was saying—and I wasn’t the only one. “Please,” he said. “I know, but...” Silence while he listened. “Look. We’re pinching pennies here,” he said. “I’ve been laid off, my wife just got laid off.” More silence. “All right, then.” He set the phone back into the cradle, turned to his wife, put his arm around her shoulder, and they walked toward the exit, heads down, as quickly as they could.

“I’m sorry,” the receptionist said to me—as if the problem lay in the fact that I’d had to witness what had just happened. Not that I fault her. It was an awful, awkward moment. What else might she have said?

The thing is, I can’t stop thinking about that woman who was turned away.

Was she there for an annual mammogram—or a second mammogram, as I was? Had she made the appointment because she’d found a lump?

Would whatever procedure she’d come for have revealed that all was well, alleviating her anxiety and her husband’s? Would she have needed a biopsy, would that biopsy have revealed cancerous cells and are those cancerous cells growing inside her right now, as I recover from my surgery?

It’s impossible to know. She vanished into the parking lot, onto the highway, home—one of millions of women who might die of breast cancer because they can’t get the care they need.

“Show, don’t tell.” I say to my writing students. One good detail is worth a thousand explanations and arguments. Details make things real—and, believe me, that woman is very, very real to me. I will never forget her.

So, like I said, get that annual mammogram.

And please, please, vote on Tuesday for that other woman’s right to get the healthcare she needs, too. Of course, every woman and every man deserve the right to good healthcare.

But it’s that one woman I’ll be thinking of when I cast my vote.

I hope you’ll think about her, too.