catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 12 :: 2011.06.24 — 2011.07.07


Generating freedom

When my son Fisher was five years old, our neighbor invited him to her house to make a pinecone bird feeder with the other neighborhood kids.  Because Fisher was (and is) allergic to the peanut butter used to apply the bird seed to the pine cone, I handed her a container of shortening to use instead.  At the appointed time, I dressed Fisher in his winter clothes and pointed out the yellow house with the white gingerbread trim (a source of great pride to the neighbor who invited us).  And off he went.

Through the front window I watched.  True to form, Fisher didn’t cross the street of the cul-de-sac to go directly to the house, but took the roundabout way on the safety of the sidewalk.  There was something about the way he carried himself that let me know he was already thinking about something else, and I wasn’t surprised when he ran past the yellow house, almost to the next driveway, before he checked himself.  It was that moment he looked around, lost and trying to get his bearings in a world of impossible bigness, which caught me in my chest.  I could see him remember with a small-bodied start that he was looking for the yellow house.  With that he turned and ran toward the door, heavy in his plain blue coat and boots, running for the next step of his life that he understood: door.  He had no thought for what would come next, but like a miracle unfolding our neighbor opened the door, told him where to put his coat and how to proceed with the bird feeder.  She forgot to give him the shortening I sent over, and he used peanut butter.  He came home with hives on his hands, took some Benadryl and was okay.  For another day, he was okay.

As I watched Fisher run and then remember, I had one hand on my abdomen, which was just beginning to show the pregnancy that would result in my younger son, Riley.  After Fisher was safely inside the yellow house, my husband Michael and I chatted, a rare moment in our young parenting lives, to sit and talk like we used to in college.

Michael had been reading about generational theory, and his talk was filled with ideas and trends and possibilities.  This was the man I fell in love with, his big brain chiseling ideas in order to wrap his mind around them.  We are a good match when it comes to this kind of conversation — it excites us both.  Though this kind of shared intellectual excitement can deflate when faced with the pressures of supporting a family, dealing with harsh bosses and maintaining a household, it is also all the more welcome when it bursts into our lives again.

Generational theory was put forth by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their popular series of books, including Generations:  The History of America’s Future; The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy; and Millennials Rising:  The Next Great Generation.  Michael summarized for me.  Strauss and Howe write that since the beginning of U.S. history, there have been four recurring generational cycles.  The first generation in each cycle is the “Great Generation:”  the World War II generation, most recently, but before that the Civil War generation…and before that the Revolutionary War generation…and before that the Colonial generation.  These generations are the heroes who have fought the wars and stabilized the ruling ideals of the time; their efforts have led to greater peace and prosperity.  Following them is a Silent Generation who carries on the ideals of the Great Generation.  This generation tends to be made up of good worker bees who continue to build institutions around the ideals and values established by the Great Generation.  Third in the cycle is the Rebellious Generation.  Most recently, this was made up of the Boomers who became hippies and flower children in the 1960s, but before that were the Jane Addams and W.E.B. DuBois progressive missionaries of the post-Civil War generation…and before that the transcendental prophets, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln.  This third generation in the cycle challenges the ideals and values of the previous two.  This generation brings to the surface what the ruling ideal has been repressing, often in loud showy protest.

The fourth generational type in the cycle, my generation, also known as Gen X, are those who are left with the job of sorting out and synthesizing, as best they can, the opposing values and ideals of the previous three generations.  Strauss and Howe believe that the tension cannot be fully resolved by my generation; eventually, the next generation is also the next Great Generation, the start of the new cycle.  They predict that Gen X’s children will have to endure a great crisis or conflict in order for the tension to be resolved, and a new ruling ideal will take hold and grow until it, too, is challenged, unravels and moves toward its own crisis, another four generations later.

Sitting on the couch, my hand on my tummy, our son making a birdfeeder a few houses away, Michael and I talked about our generation in particular.  In that moment, it felt like Strauss and Howe saw us — they got it.  We have grappled with the messages from the World War II generation — our grandparents who loved us and doted on us.  We have listened to our parents’ stories about marching for equal rights.  We have read avidly of life in the 1960s, wishing we could have been part of it all, yearning to understand.  And now we have these children, these tender, vulnerable children whom we want only to protect — and yet we can feel conflict rising up around us, out of our control.  We can feel it in the constant tug-of-war between the Religious Right and the Radical Left.  We can feel it as the economic crisis looms: the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the danger of Wall Street predators.  We both struggle to make time to address these conflicts.  We write letters, we sign petitions; we try to clear some space to reflect on these issues, to sort through them.  We both engage in writing and reading, our own low-key scholarship on the concerns of our world.  As our children grow, we share our learning with them, conversing with them about everything: about typical children’s concerns such as cartoons and Pokemon and Monopoly, yes, but these topics also open up into discussions of war, politics, money, greed, religion, mythology, the soul.  We delight in their insights, in their fresh perspective. 

More than any other generation in the cycle, it feels the most powerless to be the fourth, because we are the generation overwhelmed by opposites and sending our children to fight the beast, when we would gladly go in their stead.  It feels like it is our helpless job to tread water, keeping our children afloat, as the sharks circle and the tide brings us into the sharp rocks.  Strauss and Howe articulate how we feel:  we sort and sift, we work hard to synthesize and bring together and find the bigger truths.  But we share their sense that all we are doing is laying the groundwork in our children, for the inevitably painful crisis that must come. 

That the crisis will come: this is what Michael and I were left with, that day on the couch.  When we realized that our conversation had come to a natural end, we sat silent in the winter afternoon light, taking it all in.

When Fisher was five, there was a transparency to him that looked like water: open, reflective, wavery and beautiful.  In my own thoughts, I got into a habit of describing his moods in watery metaphors: he looked as though he was about to collapse into a splashy puddle, or like he might evaporate into the air, or that his thoughts were drifting like clouds — he seemed always to be about to disappear into something bigger.  Now Fisher is fourteen, and he has developed a more muscular, solid part to his personality — through his karate practice he can flip me if he wants to, and he can run delighted circles around me when it comes to video-game speak.  He is tall, confident, easygoing and sharp.  But when he was five, I didn’t know any of this was coming.  I worried.

On that winter day at the appointed time, I watched for five-year-old Fisher to return with his birdfeeder.  As I watched, I wondered what the Civil War mothers thought as they watched their sons, in their rare moments of rest.  In 1850, when it seemed that their legislators would still find clever solutions for the problems of slavery and sectionalism, did these mothers ever feel a chill of fear as they watched for their sons to return from fetching water?  The forgotten boy who would become a friend of Walt Whitman, who would tend the wounded with him as a nurse, or the one who would read Leaves of Grass in wonder — did his mother have a hint of the weight he might carry in his tender lifetime?  Did she believe in the security of their new nation, or did she have an intuition that a war even more terrible and bloody than the Revolutionary War could come and tear her children’s lives and country apart?

What about the G.I. mother, who would watch her son travel across oceans to fight?  When he was young — when her nation was building more schools and playgrounds than ever before, celebrating their gift of children and wealth — did she ever listen to the voices that warned this couldn’t continue?  Did she imagine her boy facing the joblessness of the Depression just as he was ready to enter the work world?  Did she spend the extra money on his vitamins (a new practice at the time) hoping they would make him strong enough to face the voices of fascism?

I spotted Fisher, running again, running back home with his peanut butter hives red and swollen — running towards his destiny, toward the country’s destiny.  On that day it seemed that all I could do, as his mother, was to watch and hope and remind myself to buy more vitamins.  

But now, nine years later, I look at all we have done.  Our children have not gone to school — they’ve learned at home, from their own interests and from living our lives together.  Michael and I have worked hard to build a relationship with them that doesn’t rely on parental rules, but instead upon mutual respect, on problem-solving together and on being open to discovering what principles work best to govern our lives. Our family life has been as four full individuals, listening to each other and supporting each other.  I have allowed myself to be honest and vulnerable with my children in ways that adults are usually not.  Without burdening my children with my problems, I have shown up as a real person who often makes unconventional choices, such as studying Jungian psychology on my own and in depth, writing and not sending my kids to school.  I have encouraged them to do the same. 

Perhaps all these miniscule choices made day in and day out have formed a bigger whole, a whole that gives them space to choose their own path.  I feel a bit surer than I did on that winter day I watched Fisher run by the yellow house.  I feel a bit surer that both my children will have the inner resources to dig deep and get creative in the face of whatever their epoch dishes out.  I feel surer that they have a relationship, not just with Michael and me, but with who they are.  They may, indeed, get distracted and run past their destination.  They may have many moments of disorientation.  They may not plan thoroughly for the next moment, and the next, and they may make mistakes.  But I trust that there will be someone to open the door for them and show them the very next step — and I trust they will know themselves to be free to take it or not.

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