Back in the day when folks lived by tradition, we followed standards. To be part of a group meant to be alike. Looking good outside, even if barren inside, gave us stature. A college classmate’s immigrant parents personified this. Climbing the societal ladder, they bought a beautiful split level house in the suburbs but had scant belongings within, for there was little money left.
They dwelt in a shell of a home to be part of a community.
When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, women had started breaking from tradition. Many frustrated housewives stepped from being an indistinct Mrs. to a husband to an educated professional with a career. TV’s Mary Tyler Moore modeled this. Her character was an Associate Producer of a news broadcast who rented an apartment. Besides her, I didn’t see any women living alone, owning a home, nor running a business. Now, many do. I didn’t know of men keeping house nor rearing children. Now, they do.
Women and men began following inner callings and living apart.
When I was in grade and high school, adults were always right. Youngsters were forbidden to ‘talk back’. Doing what you were told was expected. Teenagers could conform, rebel or leave.
When I became a teacher, in the eighties, children grew visible and audible. Individual needs mattered. No longer labeled ‘stupid’ and left to sit in the back, as my childhood friend, Dave, was, students who couldn’t read were identified as dyslexic, given individual education plans and an aide to read to them directions on tests.
Formerly, indistinct members of a group, individuals have peeled away from the whole.
“My way or the highway!” has become “Have it your way!” Families no longer need to choose from set TV programs at given times and perhaps argue over what to watch. Each member can pick from endless options on her own device any time. She can even produce news and entertainment on Facebook and YouTube.
We’ve become seemingly self-sufficient. My friend’s teenage son sits in his room at a computer, door closed, playing games for hours. He gets himself to the frig to grab a chicken leg and cherry soda. He moseys to the bathroom. He’s ‘good’. His mom worries he’s not fostering friendships nor getting fresh air.
And everything’s particular. Buying a shampoo in the health food store, I think, “Is my hair dry or oily? Dark or light? I want organic and no animal testing. Do I like lavender, rosemary or fragrance free?” Such complex calculations go into buying milk, bread, and cheese.
We walk narrow paths of our own preferences.
Our nation’s legislators used to hang out in D.C. Talking over drinks and dinner, Republicans and Democrats would bond across party lines. Now, many go home, hardly communicating outside of sessions. Lately, the political divide’s grown incomprehensible and we can’t reconcile our perspectives.
Caught up in our own worlds, we forget relationships.
I was telling a high school student, Alyssa, how wonderful her classmates are. “Yeah,” she said, “teenagers are angels one at a time but put ’em together; they’re a different beast. They act cool, follow the crowd; they lose themselves. Too bad we can’t be ourselves together.”
Examining a dead cell on a microscope slide merely captures a moment. Observing a live specimen separate from its surroundings cuts out critical factors of real life. When we look at the world through narrow lenses our view is hard edged. We think our 1” x 3” picture is the whole story.
In the past, personal points of view didn’t hold water. Today, truth drowns in a sea of perspectives.
I was talking to my cousin about my having a housemate. “I could never live with someone, “she said. “I like my space; I have my ways.”
“Of course, it has to be the right person,” I explain, “But I like the company. And living with someone, I see new sides of life. It can be challenging but it keeps me from getting stuck in my ways.”
Rocks rub to smooth out each other.
Folks in impoverished nations seemingly have nothing. Yet amid broken governance and infrastructure, ragged clothes and homes, meager belongings and meals, many are happier than we are. They manage life’s difficulties with each other. We struggle to escape life’s hardships. Isolated, behind bulwarks of material comfort, we forget each other.
Nowadays, we need to remember our togetherness.
We’ve been through a cultural revolution, awakening to our inner selves, relinquishing unconscious group think. But we develop ourselves not for ourselves alone. Separate, we’re mere strands. We must weave ourselves back into life’s tapestry, not in the old, self-annihilating patterns, but in new ways that value our distinct threads.
We can now come together as self-aware individuals.
Last month I went to New York to visit my elderly aunt and uncle who are like parents. In the past, I’d do whatever they wished and be upset. This time, I spoke up. Aunt Jenny loves an uncluttered home. My piling packages of tempeh and bags of leeks and carrots in the frig made her anxious.
“What are you going to do with all that food?” she asked. “There’s not enough room.”
“I’m keeping it on that one shelf. “ I explained.
She sighed and left.
That night, as I fried kale for dinner, Aunt Jenny, who keeps a spotless kitchen, hovered. Oil splattered on the stove top. “What a mess!” she gasped, “You’re ruining my stove.”
“I’ll clean it up,” I explained.
“You don’t know how to clean it right,” she cut in. “Don’t touch it.”
She turned, called Uncle Rod and they sat for dinner. I lingered then joined, holding back tears. Forks and plates clanked as we silently chewed and swallowed then cleaned up. I went for a walk stepping outside. Treading up and down hilly streets, glazed eyes taking in rhododendron and weeping willows, my heart settled. Raging rants of my aunt’s rigidity and my frustration relaxed into clear reflections of her household habits and my visitor needs. “Somehow, they could fit together,” I thought and walked back.
As I entered the kitchen, Aunt Jenny ran in from the den, crying, “I’m sorry, Donna. I’m afraid you’ll never come back.”
“No, Aunt Jenny, I will,” I explained, “But we need to find a way for us to both be comfortable.” Trembling, we grasped each other.
The next evening, I steamed carrots and leeks not to make a mess. My aunt sweetly called across the wall from the living room, “You can put a dish clothe over the rest of the stove to catch the grease.”
“Thanks, Aunt Jenny,” I replied.
We can break down and build new ways to be with each other.
It’s hard to picture getting along when in the past differences weren’t allowed. Yet, having taking space to find ourselves, we can now come together in a new place. A friend doing mission work in Africa shared, “You must enter a new land, quietly. Listen first, then speak.”
In The Education of Little Tree, an Indian boy, Little Tree, tells of his grandparents talking late at night, “Granma would say, ‘Do you kin me, Wales?’ and (Granpa) would answer, ‘I kin ye,’ it meant, ‘I understand ye.’ To them, love and understanding was the same thing,’ “(p 38)
“But,” a friend, Julie, remarked, “The older generation never talked, came to understandings and resolved issues. They just pushed things under the rug and coped.”
My family and I are renegotiating our relationship. We stumble through rocky terrain, yet we keep reaching for each other. It’s a relief to find we don’t have to give up, fight or isolate. After all,
We’re individual in so far as we’re part of a whole.