Wednesday, August 31, 2005

School of Mom

It occurs to me that not everyone has had to work as hard in their lives as I am currently to learn about community and how to build it. Lots of people go right out into their adult lives and meet their neighbors, form bonds with the everyday people of their lives like checkout girls and postmen and just generally feel at home where they live. Heck, it seems like every one of my cousins on my dad's side has gone out into the world and made it a better place for, at least, the old people in their apartment buildings or the neighborhood kids. So many people I knew left the community of college and jumped right into the community of their Chicago neighborhood or the married lifestyle they adopted in their suburb. Other people seem to be part of their community with ease, meeting people for coffee, writing novels, just hanging out at friend's houses because the friend lived a block away, having block parties.

But not me. I went out into the world and stayed isolated in my apartment. I drove between half an hour and an hour to work every day and back, stopping at the chain stores amd restaurants in the strip malls that happened to be on my route to and from home. Once home, I tended to stay inside, reading, grading papers or crafting. On weekends, I'd drive between half an hour and an hour to a friend's house or a restaurant to meet friends that I'd made in college or at the first school that I worked at. Sometimes, I would go out for drinks with the other teachers that I worked with after school on Fridays. My community, such as it was, was made up of people I chose because they appealed to me and was geographically dispersed. It was like a forest with only one kind of tree, none of which are very near to the other ones: not a very healthy forest at all.

Why? Why was I so abysmal at integrating myself into a community, any of the communities available to me like church, the neighborhood where I bought my house or even the internet? I had studied Inner City Community Development; I knew the theory of communities. I read books with beautiful communities, especially the books of Charles DeLint. I wanted community. So, why didn't I take the bull by the horn like any good Murphy would and just do it?

I think it's because I didn't know how. I could have learned some of the actual skills from my father. He build community within his offices and at church, but that activity took place at his offices and at church. I was mostly at home, so he wasn't modelling those skills where I could see them. As I got older and began to shadow him at work in inner city community development, I began to learn how to be a leader and a little bit how to interact with people succesfully (a skill in which I was woefully deficient until then). Still, though, Dad was past the point where he could show me the nitty-gritty of starting out in a new place.

So, why didn't I learn about building community from my mother? She was an at-home mom until Daniel and I were in junior high. Didn't she engage in the community around her in our suburb that was so nice to raise kids in? The answer is a very blunt, "No." I struggle with building community because I spent my time as a child learning about the rhythms of life from my mother, who did not spend much time building community. So what did this intelligent, funny, compassionate woman do if she wasn't attending PTA meetings, being a room mother, setting up play dates or volunteering to hostess church functions?

My mother was building family.

My mother turned her focus inward and built a family that is healthy and happy together. As kids, we go out in the world with a sense that our family is a foundation that will hold whatever life we build upon it. So many people that I know leave their birth families behind as liabilties or weak and sore spots in their lives like cavities and have to do the work of rebuilding a new foundation. (A certain amount of mixed metaphor, I know.) There are a variety of reasons why that happens but I have not had to start a new life as an adult on my own because my mother put her energy and sacrifice into our family. I know that her focus was successful because I can't stay in this utopia since they are not here. If even one brother moved out here, then I could stay. But since all five of them are resolutely living in the Chicagoland, I have to move back.

So, I learned how to build family as a child, the way women have always learned these things: from watching our mothers and aunts and grandmas and practicing those skills in games of "house" and role-playing with our dolls. (As a side note, I also learned how to shop this way.) So, when I got married right out of college, I put my own energy into building family. I didn't worry about meeting my neighbors or volunteering. I taught high school, often to kids that needed a good teacher desperately, practicing the leadership and people skills that I learned from my dad, but then I came home to my husband and put my energy and sacrifice into our relationship, just like I'd absorbed from my mom over the years.

So, when my husband left and I learned that although it felt like he was building family with me, he was actually just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear, and then when I lost my job teaching, I had to find a new place to put my energy and sacrifice.

There is no moral to this realization. I do not know if the choices I made were right or wrong, ignorant or enlightened, naive or preturnaturally wise. Similarly, I don't know if other people (or even myself) should model themselves on my parents or not, although their choice do seem to be right to me. But the question of "Why are you having to work so deliberately to learn this very natural thing?" arose in my mind and it feels good to have an answer.

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