All Gone to Look for America

A friend of mine posted this video about the town where I grew up, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Reactions seem to be mixed between people defending the area and those saying how glad they are to have left.

My hometown frequently ranks near the bottom of the rankings in crime and unemployment. Once a General Motors town, it has been difficult to find a job here ever since the auto makers started to close up shop here in the 1980s. The area has never substantially recovered economically, and the jobs that remain often pay less than in other parts of the country. Opportunities are often limited and many people with degrees are lingering in jobs well below their educational level, including my spouse. Areas surrounding the city, such as where I live, don’t have the high crime rate, but are still subject to the same job market.

We used to live in a big city in Texas, which I alternately loved and hated. I loved the faster pace of a big city and I loved the climate – both weather and economic – but I hated the social atmosphere. Everyone was caught up on shopping as recreation and almost nobody made a hobby of doing things for themselves. I missed having four seasons and having a sense of family and roots, so we moved back home. We regretted it almost immediately and have never regained our standard of living, and I spent many years desperately unhappy with being here. There’s a trait that seems unique to the area, which entails a sense of snobbery by the people who have “gotten out” toward the people still here. I bought into it too, so I felt embarrassed to be back here.

In the years that I spent unhappy here and trying to get jobs in other places, I developed and nurtured some new skills and interests that I never pursued in Texas. I’ve learned how to sew, knit, make soap, cook, bake and grow my own food. I can the vegetables that I grow and make them into pickles. Although I still enjoy shopping, my life doesn’t revolve around it like it did in Texas. Making stuff is both my hobby and uses skills of which I have become very proud.

Although I would still move for better opportunities, I’ve made peace with being here. I enjoy living in a place where I don’t have to spend an hour driving 10 miles in rush hour traffic. I enjoy having down-to-earth friends. I enjoy that I know my neighbors and can drive to see my in-laws in 20 minutes. I enjoy the traditions of taking the kids for caramel apples at the orchard in fall and to the beach in the summer. Land in an economically depressed area is cheap enough, especially compared to bigger cities, that I can have a beautiful house in a good neighborhood with enough space to grow a sizable garden and for my kids to wander away from the house.

My city is not unique. Dozens, if not hundreds, of small and medium-sized cities were dependent on one industry and are now struggling to reinvent themselves after their main industry closed. Not everyone can or should move to bigger cities instead. Those of us staying behind in the small slow towns are adapting and making the best of it. The things I’ve learned to do for myself have given me a sense of competence and security that is lacking in having the ability to pay someone else to do everything for you. Anyone relying on money to pay others is dependent, which is scary if you’re ever in a situation of having no choice. I’d even say that in my own way, I’m thriving.

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Trusting Neighbors

I’m not the expert on Halloween traditions since I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween as a child, but I’m pretty sure the tradition of alternative church events such as “trunk or treat” had not yet begun. Although I think the “trunk or treat” idea is kind of silly, it’s not my place to mock the religious beliefs of others. (Or at least I’m trying to break the habit.) Trick-or-treating at the mall is similarly ridiculous. But I am bothered by such alternative events for one major reason: it indicates a lack of trust in one’s community.

Sending your kids around the neighborhood to trick-or-treat is overwhelmingly safe, especially if they have parental accompaniment. The biggest risk kids face on Halloween night is from the other parents driving their kids around! Tonight I witnessed two minivans in my neighborhood, passing each other in opposite directions, while throngs of kids had to go off to the side to get out of their way. Those parents were making all the kids less safe while they presumably thought they were keeping their own kids safer.

I did a Google search and there are no reports of children being abducted, murdered or otherwise harmed during trick-or-treating. Ever.

But letting your kids go through the neighborhood to solicit candy displays an implicit level of trust in your neighbors, and I think that’s the biggest reason people turn to alternative events at churches, malls and grocery stores. My kids’ school won’t even refer to Halloween parties by that name, instead calling the event a “harvest party.”

My neighbors are not dangerous, and yours almost certainly are not either. I grew up in a neighborhood that was, in retrospect, actually pretty dangerous, but no harm ever came to my friends who went trick-or-treating, save for the occasional bigger kid stealing their candy. And even that likely could have been prevented by parental accompaniment.

Distrusting our neighbors has massive implications for society. It is the reason that parents won’t let their children play outside in their back yards unattended anymore, so instead the kids stay indoors all summer long, watching TV and playing video games. It’s the reason most kids don’t go explore their neighborhood on foot or on bike anymore. It is why many schools won’t allow parents to send home-baked goods anymore and why it is entirely possible to live in the same house for years without even knowing your neighbors’ names. It has changed the entire social structure of our communities, and I don’t think it has been a positive shift.

When we don’t know or trust our neighbors, it is easier to wash our hands of responsibility for each other and to believe that we are alone. This sense of aloneness can lead to feelings of isolation and depression, and make the world seem like a harsher place. But believing that the world is harsh slowly makes it become true.

Furthermore, I cringe every time I hear parents in a store tell their child to stay close so they don’t “get stolen.” I hear this nearly every time I go shopping; just yesterday I overheard a parent tell her toddler “you’re so cute that bad guys will steal you, so don’t let go of my hand.” I think this is incredibly damaging to children. Of course it comes from a place of genuine concern; obviously every parent wants to keep their child safe at all costs. But it overstates the risks by a huge margin; I don’t think there was ever a single abduction by a stranger in my entire area.

What does it do to a child’s psychological development to grow up with a sense of fear that kidnappers are lurking around every corner? It is all the more tragic because it frankly isn’t true and never was.

The world is safer than mainstream media wants us to think it is. If we hear an Amber Alert about a kidnapped child in our state, it makes us think it’s occurring in our own backyard, even though it often involves non-custodial parent abductions (the most common type, by far) and is somewhere else in the state. We think it will happen to us if it occurs to one child in a city or state of 8 million people, even though the odds of winning the lottery are higher. Then again, given the numbers of people who play the lottery, many people don’t seem to understand odds very well.

If we got to know our neighbors again and trusted our children to have brief, supervised encounters with them, maybe it would be harder to vote against millages funding schools and senior centers because we would know and care about the people affected. Maybe we’d form relationships with people who could help us, and in return we could help them. That is what life is supposed to be like; we are not supposed to be so isolated and focused solely on our own well-being.

It all starts with letting your kids accept some candy from the old lady down the street. I promise, it will be safe.

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Fulfillment

From the time I was in kindergarten, people have told me I was exceptionally bright and that my gift was in using words, specifically with reading and writing. I am not saying this to brag; in fact, I think it has been one of the biggest curses of my life.

To be clear, the curse was not in having those gifts, but the over-attention to them. Since I was in elementary school I felt like my life was planned for me, and I was supposed to do something involving words. (The obvious lesson here for myself and all parents and teachers: give your kids the room to discover their own gifts and goals.)

That led to dabbling careers in writing, substantive editing and librarianship. I have not found any of them particularly enjoyable or fulfilling.

There was once a time when I loved to write. In high school and for a couple of years after, I did not go anywhere without a notebook. I wrote everywhere: while waiting for appointments, on breaks from work, while watching TV. I even kept a notebook in my car because sometimes I had to pull off the side of the road to write! How many times I have wished and prayed for that to return.

My compulsion to write disappeared almost immediately upon getting married. While staying home with the kids I started my first blog, which I loved because I felt no pressure. I thought my friends were the only ones reading – though it eventually grew to a few hundred people reading daily and I got scary anonymous emails – and I didn’t censor my thoughts and said whatever I wanted. Writing a blog stopped being fun once I felt like it mattered.

Then I started freelance writing, and my love of writing died again. It’s still dead.

I’m making more money now from freelance writing than I’ve ever made at any other job (which is still not much, mind you) and I’ve achieved my dream of being published in a book and in national publications, but I hate every minute of it. I am finally realizing that the reason I lack motivation is not that I’m lazy but because I don’t really want to be doing this at all. I have spent most of the past 8 years working multiple jobs and attending school and getting excellent grades, while raising three kids. I enjoy being busy; I thrive on it.

I believe I am capable of writing beautiful words that could touch someone’s soul, but the harder I work to make a living from writing, the less connected I am to the spirit that I would allow me to write that way.

I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to be something other than what I am, what I perceive other people want from me. The only thing I truly enjoyed was studying sociology, but you can’t make a career from that. I tried desperately to be happy staying home with my kids because I do believe that a parent at home is the best thing for children, but it was an absolutely terrible fit for me.

I honestly believe I can achieve anything I want to, and so far I have. I just don’t want to achieve more in the writing field badly enough. It has been “just a job” since I started eight years ago, and not one I particularly enjoy. I believe that I should be a creative type person, working in an artistic or intellectual field, and that anything else is beneath me – but it turns out that’s not really me.

But I have periodically wanted to work in the medical field since my first child was born, and I’ve always talked myself out of it for numerous reasons. I am equal parts deeply intrigued and terrified by the medical field, but I don’t think it’s intellectual enough. I am analytical, curious, fascinated by the human body, and as the mom of three boys, I’m not easily grossed out. I want to be busy at work. I want to feel like I am helping people. And I want to feel like my work is physical and intense.

I am finally going to pursue the medical field, but this worries me too. What if rejecting what I’ve always been told I should be still doesn’t make me feel fulfilled? And even if it does fulfill me, what does it mean to give up on all those books I should have written? I feel like I am not living up to my potential. Not everyone supports me going into the medical field, either, and it’s clear that I am letting them down, which makes this even harder.

It is exhilarating and liberating to walk away from everything I was told about myself, but it’s also terrifying. What is my identity now?

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Life’s longing for itself

My oldest son is on the verge of turning thirteen. Just as I was, and as probably all kids feel, he is incredibly excited to have that -teen suffix on his age. He thinks it will change his life and that it will be non-stop excitement. In truth it will not be non-stop excitement, but a gradual unveiling of who he is as an individual.

Most people I know fear the thought of their children reaching their teen years. Rebellion seems to be what people worry about most, and that their kids will do something terrible to mess up their lives. If as a parent you ever had any illusion that you could control what your kids do, you would have to be delusional to seriously think you still had that control in the teen years. That’s the time when your child will start to make their own choices about the big issues that may seriously affect their lives, and there are so many more issues that determine what they will choose than just what you have taught them. With luck and grace, hopefully our kids will choose well enough to avoid negative, life-altering consequences.

However, I have wondered how much “teenage rebellion” is really just the child making a choice other than what the parents want. Our culture makes a big deal out of teenage rebellion, and psychology tells us that in our culture the teen years are a time of individuation, when each of us has to decide what our identity will be outside of our family of origin.

When I was a teen, appearance was the biggest issue of debate in my house. My parents would probably say that I rebelled a lot, even though I didn’t do half of the things I really wanted. I often think this is why I pierced my nose in my late 20s and still have it well into my 30s: I wanted it at 16 and knew my parents would have completely flipped out, so out of respect (and to avoid major punishment) I chose not to do it. Most of my teenage “rebellion” was either about wanting to control my own appearance or believing that their curfews were unreasonable. As an adult I now see that obeying curfews was about respect, but I don’t feel that way about the appearance issues.

Was it really rebellion that I wanted to get a tattoo at age 16, just because my parents didn’t like them? Was it rebellion that I wanted to color my hair purple or get body piercings? They thought I was interested in those things only because they didn’t like them, when that was just actually who I was. I wanted to do those things in spite of their opinions, not because of them. They couldn’t understand why someone could possibly want to alter their appearance in such a way that society considers unattractive, therefore they assumed it must have been rebellion. But when I was an adult and free to do whatever I wanted, I still went on to get more tattoos and to dye my hair in weird colors. I was trying to be my authentic self as a teen and it just happened to disagree with my parents’ view of my “authentic self.” That mismatch between my self-image and their image of me was the problem.

It makes me wonder how often teens are said to be “rebelling” when in fact they are just expressing that they have interests their parents don’t like. Certainly, when it comes to disregarding curfew or sneaking beer with friends after the football game, some behaviors are just typical for teens. But I know someone who is a devout Christian whose son became an atheist in his teens, and my friend assumed her son was rebelling. Why isn’t it possible that her son just came to different conclusions on his own? Painful for the parent, certainly. But there is no guarantee that our children will come to the same conclusions about life that we have.

As parents I think it is natural that we expect our children to turn out like us. Of course, the way we raise them will influence them. But our children are not us. They are individuals with their own minds, and opinions, and rights to make their own decisions. In order to become the opposite of me and my husband, our children would have to become fundamentalist hardcore right-wing sports fans. If that’s what they choose to become, it will be because that’s who they are, not because they are trying to be in opposition to me. It is their job to become who they are. It is my job to guide them well by my values while I can, pray that they will use the guidance well and respect who they become. I do not get to design them as a clone of myself, but I have to accept them for the individuals they are.

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I’m lost in open spaces.

When I was a little kid, I had two big dreams. One was to be a writer, and the other was to live in a big city. My uncle lived in a suburb of Detroit and I remember driving down to visit him for the first time when I was about 10 years old, and it made a huge impression on me. I loved how fast the cars moved, the lights everywhere, the way the tall buildings reached toward the sky. I knew that when I grew up I wanted to live in a downtown area of a big urban area, walking everywhere.

By the time I was in high school, I set my sights on living in Chicago. I drove out there at least one weekend a month in my senior year and swore that I would live there after high school. I spent part of my first summer after high school living there, but it was ill-planned and short-lived, so I came back home with my tail between my legs and drifted into one bad relationship after another. I finally found a nice guy and married him, and my driving force in life was the mission to get the hell out of Michigan again.

My husband wanted to move to Fort Worth, Texas because his sister lived there. I’d never been there before, so I asked him if it was like Chicago. He had never been to Chicago, but he said, “I don’t know. I think so.”

In case it isn’t obvious, Fort Worth is not at all like Chicago.

I spent 8 years in Fort Worth. I enjoyed the fact that it was much bigger than my hometown and so close to Dallas, though I rarely went to Dallas. We moved into the suburbs. My life since then has been driven by pursuit of the safe and familiar. I convinced myself that living in a small town in the same house for years was what kids needed, but it was most certainly not what I needed.

I’ve been a professional writer now for about 10 years, increasingly so in recent years. But one piece of my dream is still missing: living in a big city. It is still what I want. I keep shoving aside what I want for all sorts of reasons, ranging from fears that city life is too expensive to fears that I wouldn’t be able to find decent schools for the kids. But I am growing more unwilling to continue being so unhappy in such a small town.

Now I just have to convince myself that everyone else will be happy and thrive if I pursue what I want and leave the safe familiarity of the home we’ve lived in for five years. Only my oldest child even remembers living anywhere else, and they are all very resistant to leaving. But how much obligation do I have to keep them in the same place for their entire lives? I’m not sure that’s even a good thing for them, even if it’s what they think they want.

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Quaint Skills

I do a lot of old-fashioned things. I’ve made all the bread for my family for about three years without using a bread machine. I make cookies and muffins quite often, except in the summer. I sew on occasion, which I consider a hobby. I mostly sew things for my kids, like accessories for their stuffed animals, pillows and little tote bags. I occasionally make them elastic-waist shorts and pants to wear to bed. I patch up clothes and stuffed animals when they get ripped. In previous years, I’ve had large gardens and canned tomatoes, made pickles and made jam.

I enjoy these things, but I’m not really good at them.

The bread I make is more of the functional variety than artisan. I do think my baked goods are good and I’d rather have one of my homemade cookies than a Chips Ahoy almost any day, but I don’t think they’re any better than any other homemade cookie. My sewing level is only slightly beyond beginner; I still can’t put in a zipper. My garden got overrun with weeds every year to the extent that my husband didn’t want me to have another one this year.

In short, none of what I do is all that exceptional. And yet, the fact that I do these things is so uncommon in the present day that people often act like I’m some type of superwoman. My oldest son has friends who have offered to pay him up to $10 for a dozen of my homemade cookies, and all my kids always take extra cookies in their lunches to share with their best friends, who reportedly really look forward to them. I was shocked to learn that some of my kids’ classmates literally never had homemade cookies before. My father-in-law prefers for me to bake him a cake from scratch over any other gift I might buy. People are amazed that I make our bread, our own soap and that I can sew at all.

When did it happen that these skills became something so unique and exceptional, rather than something that every middle-class woman had to do for her own family? In the larger scope of human history, being able to buy mass-produced bread or having to throw out a pair of pants because you can’t sew back on a button that’s popped off is by far the exception. I worry very seriously about the degree of helplessness that most people have in modern society. Many people have more money than time and find that it’s not cost-effective to do some of these things, but the economy is declining and some reports say it may not recover. What happens if it becomes too expensive to pay others to do those things and nobody knows how to do them anymore? I take pride in being able to do these basic things for myself, and it bothers me that so many people seem to take pride in their inability to do them.

Somewhere along the way modern society has taught that doing these things ourselves is too difficult and time-consuming. Whether it’s breastfeeding a baby instead of using formula or cooking dinner from scratch instead of getting a box of Hamburger Helper, people now think that there’s no time to do things without shortcuts. I initially began doing some of these things for myself both out of interest and because we were in a situation where I had more time than money, but I discovered to my surprise that in most cases these activities were not as difficult or time-consuming as I’d been led to believe. I now work two jobs, 7 days a week and I still have time to make bread, sew a rip in my husband’s shirt and patch up the kids’ stuffed animals. Each of those tasks only takes about 15 minutes of actual effort.

I hear all the time from friends and acquaintances that they admire what I do and wish they had the time and skill to do it themselves. I wish I could convince them that they could do it, too. I didn’t know how to sew, cook or garden when I got married. I taught myself and have at least passable skills, so I think it’s more than possible for others to do the same. It’s not a gendered issue, either: my husband knows how to do these things as well.

Helplessness is a matter of status. Being unable to do things for oneself is usually a sign of having more important things to do and enough money to outsource it to someone else or to just dispose of items that need to be fixed. There was a point in time, not that long ago in the big picture, when it just wasn’t an option to be so helpless. Now such people are in the majority and those who can do such things are a little strange but intriguingly quaint.

Being unable to care for ourselves and disposing of things rather than repairing them are not sustainable choices. Depending on others to prepare all of our food is a little scary when you know about how little our food supply is regulated. What will happen when people suddenly need those skills again? Will there be enough people to teach them? For my part, I’m already teaching my kids; one of the worst things I can imagine is for my children to be completely helpless adults. If they choose not to do things for themselves, at least they’ll know how. But once you’re used to exclusively eating fresh bread, processed store-bought bread never tastes the same again.

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Itchy Feet are Growing Roots

For most of my life, I’ve had itchy feet. I wanted to travel to new places, experience new horizons and move from one place to another at will. For a good part of my twenties I lived in places for no more than six months to a year, even wanting to move across town from one apartment to another rather than stay in the same place and grow stagnant.

I always looked with disdain at people like some of my family members, who never lived anywhere else nor had any desire to do so. I thought that having no interest in living in other places or even seeing them lacked a sort of intellectual curiosity and was to act prematurely old.

Maybe I too have become prematurely old, but for the first time I have no desire to leave where I am. I’ve tried to do so numerous times over the past several years, only to be thwarted in every attempt by clear signs that it was the wrong time. In that time, I’ve lived in the same house that I own here and have become more attached to it. I’ve thought of moving to a different house across town to save money – although we would likely initially lose money on the sale of our house – and the thought fills me with disappointment and dread. If we had to move out of the area entirely for a job opportunity I could be happy about it, but I have recently faced the reality that I am really deeply rooted in this house, this neighborhood. We’ve lived here for five years, longer than any other place in which we’ve lived.

My kids know this house as their home. Children generally need stability and consistency and my kids have made it known that they want to stay here if at all possible. They don’t remember living in other places, even though they have; all of their memories of a house have taken place here. They have made projects and built things in the backyard.

So for the first time in my life, I am accepting that I may stay here and I am actually happy about it. There are things I hate about this general area, but it really is just a place. A lot of people attach a lot of emotional weight to this area, including me, as though living here somehow defines us, and it truly is only a place. This isn’t a big city with all of the related opportunities, but in my little corner of this area there are parades, apple orchards, neighbors who know all your business and spaghetti dinners to benefit seriously ill community members.

While I am open to moving if we get such an opportunity, there are many reasons that the odds are against it happening at this time. Of course it helps that we’re in the middle of a beautiful Michigan summer, which makes it easier to accept staying. But suddenly staying here is important enough to me that I have taken on more than double the amount of freelance writing work I did before and decided not to quit my job as I previously intended, just so we can try to make it here.

And strangely enough, it is now worth it to me to work that hard to make it here in particular. I used to think it would only be worthwhile to work so hard to stay afloat if we were in a cooler place; now the desire to stay in my house is the motivation I need. I really didn’t imagine that where I wanted to be was where I already was.

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