Monday, November 19, 2007

in praise of "boring old mothers"

Lately I've been reading a lot of Wendell Berry (more follow-up reading from Crunchy Cons). A prolific essayist and outspokenly agrarian farmer from Kentucky, Berry has been for several decades the voice of rural American heritage against the industrializing trend of society. There's far too much of his work that bears repeating--more than I could possibly offer on my little blog. In this respect, all I can say is, read his stuff. But one passage I read last night really stood out for me personally. If that wasn't enough reason to post, I realized this morning that it may encourage my "boring old [God]mother," and others whose kids don't always appreciate what they do (or don't do). In the 1980 essay "Family Work," Berry writes:
How can we preserve family life--if by that we mean, as I think we must, home life--when our attention is so forcibly drawn away from home? . . .

We can see clearly enough at least a couple of solutions. We can get rid of the television set. As soon as we see that the TV cord is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household, we can unplug it. What a grand and neglected privilege it is to be shed of the glibness, the gleeful idiocy, the idiotic gravity, the unctuous or lubricious greed of those public faces and voices!

And we can try to make our homes centers of attention and interest. Getting rid of the TV, we understand, is not just a practical act, but also a symbolical one: we thus turn our backs on the invitation to consume; we shut out the racket of consumption. The ensuing silence is an invitation to our homes, to our own places and lives, to come into being. And we begin to recognize a truth disguised or denied by TV and all that it speaks and stands for: no life and no place is destitute; all have possibilities of productivity and pleasure, rest and work, solitude and conviviality that belong particularly to themselves. These possibilities exist everywhere, in the country or in the city, it makes no difference. All that is necessary is the time and the inner quietness to look for them, the sense to recognize them, and the grace to welcome them. They are now most often lived out in home gardens and kitchens, libraries, and workrooms. But they are beginning to be worked out, too, in little parks, in vacant lots, in neighborhood streets. Where we live is also a place where our interest and our effort can be. But they can't be there by the means and modes of consumption. If we consume nothing but what we buy, we are living in "the economy," in "television land," not at home. It is productivity that rights the balance, and brings us home. Any way at all of joining and using the air and light and weather of your own place--even if it is only a window box, even if it is only an opened window--is a making and a having that you cannot get from TV or government or school.

That local productivity, however small, is a gift. If we are parents we cannot help but see it as a gift to our children--and the best of gifts. How will it be received?

Well, not ideally. Sometimes it will be received gratefully enough. But sometimes indifferently, and sometimes resentfully.

According to my observation, one of the likeliest results of a wholesome diet of home-raised, home-cooked food is a heightened relish for cokes and hot dogs. And if you "deprive" your children of TV at home, they are going to watch it with something like rapture away from home. And obligations, jobs, and chores at home will almost certainly cause your child to wish, sometimes at least, to be somewhere else, watching TV.

Because, of course, parents are not the only ones raising their children. They are being raised also by their schools and by their friends and by the parents of their friends. Some of this outside raising is good, some is not. It is, anyhow, unavoidable.

What this means, I think, is about what it has always meant. Children, no matter how nurtured at home, must be risked to the world. And parenthood is not an exact science, but a vexed privilege and a blessed trial, absolutely necessary and not altogether possible.

If your children spurn your healthful meals in favor of those concocted by some reincarnation of Col. Sanders, Long John Silver, or the Royal Family of Burger; if they flee from books to a friend's house to watch TV, if your old-fashioned notions and ways embarrass them in front of their friends--does that mean you are a failure?

It may. And what parent has not considered that possibility? I know, at least, that I have considered it--and have wailed and gnashed my teeth, found fault, laid blame, preached and ranted. In weaker moments, I have even blamed myself.

But I have thought, too, that the term of human judgment is longer than parenthood, that the upbringing we give our children is not just for their childhood but for all their lives. And it is surely the duty of the older generation to be embarrassingly old-fashioned, for the claims of the "newness" of any younger generation are mostly frivolous. The young are born to the human condition more than to their time, and they face mainly the same trials and obligations as their elders have faced.

The real failure is to give in. If we make our house a household instead of a motel, provide healthy nourishment for mind and body, enforce moral distinctions and restraints, teach essential skills and disciplines and require their use, there is no certainty that we are providing our children a "better life" that they will embrace wholeheartedly during childhood. But we are providing them a choice that they may make intelligently as adults.


Laura said...

I earned my "boring old mother" stamp today when I informed my daughter that she is too young for a boyfriend. "You can have friends that are boys, but 'boyfriend' has a different connotation and one you are not to explore right now.'"

Think it was the big words that made me "boring?"


Trevor said...

Maybe--but you make having a boyfriend sound so intriguing. How could forbidding it not be boring?