Friday, December 2, 2016

For Sarah Kendzior, Part I: My Values and My Dreams

This is my 13th blog entry in 4½ years. As the title says, I have nothing much to say. This is about to change.

A few days ago, I read an article by Sarah Kendzior, a writer and anthropologist who studies autocratic regimes in Central Asia. It's a short read; I invite you to read it in its entirety before moving on to the grumbles that comprise the remainder of this post. For more of her work, read her book and follow her on Twitter:

What are my values? What are my dreams?

It's hard to answer these questions without covering some of the other things Kendzior talks about in her article. I need to say a bit about myself, my family of origin, and my roots. I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, USA, in the heart of what is now known as the Rust Belt. Toledo had not yet rusted during my formative years, and I can talk about the way life was then.

I was born to a middle-class family. My father had a small business which supplied enough income for us to have a modest house, a good car, and even a small summer place in Michigan. I have a sister 5 years my senior who now lives in Florida. My mother stayed home with us until I was old enough to come home from school with a latchkey, then she took a job as a legal secretary.

Our house, our car, and our other chattels were very like those belonging to the other families in our neighborhood. Most of my neighbors worked in the auto plants, the glass factories, and other industrial workplaces that were the heart of Toledo's economy. Life was good. This was the 1950s, a period of relative calm and prosperity for most of the country. This was a time when you could take a job in an auto plant or a glass factory and bring home enough money to own a modest home, drive a good car, and have enough left over to save a little and take vacations with your family.

Like many Americans, I long for such times again. This is a common sentiment echoed throughout our country as a whole, and the Midwest in particular, among those of us old enough to remember them. We will never see these times again. Most of the factories are shuttered or just plain gone. Gone, too, are the social institutions and structures that made that idyllic life possible. We had strong unions then, giving common people the collective clout to bargain for a good life in the face of rising corporations that made enough profit to expand despite having to pay their workers a decent wage.

We had an equitable tax code that compelled the wealthy to pay for the privilege of living in a country with vast resources and an efficient infrastructure built by the common people. All work was valued and rewarded. Almost anyone who wanted to make a living was entitled to respect. Almost.

There was an ugly side to 50s America. Throughout the country, and particularly in the southern states, African Americans and other people of color were denied even the chance to make a living, to earn respect. As the decade came to a close, these people were fighting a pitched battle for the rights all of us white folk took for granted - a good school for our children, a chance at a good job, respect. Those Americans who preferred the status quo fought back hard. The struggle was turbulent, often violent, often bloody. The status quo was wrong, evil. It had to change, and change it did. I changed with it.

When I was a child, I would hear others talking about African Americans in ways that are now considered deplorable, yet were perfectly acceptable in conversation then. I don't want to repeat the slurs I heard, but I can tell you how I came to disbelieve them. Our comfortable middle-class income provided us enough money to hire an African American woman named Beulah - I never knew her last name - to help my mother with the housework a few days a month. Beulah was a sweet, kind person who always had a smile and something nice to say to me. She and my mother would work side by side cleaning the floors, vacuuming the drapes, putting out the laundry. They would speak to one another in pleasant conversational tones. Mom never talked down to her. Mom treated her with respect.

Mom and Beulah taught me that all of the things I was hearing about African Americans was bullshit. I believed it as a child, as I do now. Although I yearn for the American Dream I lived as a child, I cannot live in a society where people are denied the respect they deserve because of the color of their skin, their gender, where they came from, or who they love. This is a core value, and it is one I fear I will not realize in the years remaining to me.

My mother was taken from me far too soon. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, and in the mere four years that ensued until her death, I watched her struggle, carrying the impossible weight of supporting her children in a society where women were expected to stay home and cook, clean, shop, and otherwise stay out of the way. The memories of her struggle are indelible. At the end, it became too much for her. She died reaching for the love and respect she deserved, only to discover she had been used.

I never talk about the circumstances of my mother's death except to people who become very close to me, but I can tell you that her death did not shape me in the way her life did. My mother once took in a fledgling sparrow that had fallen from its nest. She loved animals. She adored children. She was kind to everyone who had any presence in her life. She hated no one. In these things, I aspire to be like Mom. And I do not want to live in a society where any woman must struggle the way she did. I strive to be kind. I hope that I can in some way inspire kindness in others as she did in me. This is a core value, but it is one that is attainable if I can reach even one other person. If I can leave this world having brought a little kindness into it, I will not have lived in vain. This is the only dream remaining to me for my own sake.

The future of the world, to the extent that I will matter in the years to come, is in the hands of my 11-year-old daughter. She came to me very late in life, at a time when I had given up hope of ever having children and continuing my line. She is a miracle, and she is my blessing. She is also a lot of work, more work than I ever had at any job I ever held, but every day she gives me the will to carry on for as long as I can. I must do this for her. My dream for the future is that she will carry on for me. If I can teach her anything she will remember in a time of decision, in a time of crisis, my dream will be fulfilled.

Kendzior warns us that dark times are looming. I have no doubt that she is right, and I fear that I will not live to see the end of them. My daughter must. She must grow up in a place where she can have dreams of her own. My job now is to see that she has the values she will need to see her through to that place.

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