Thursday, April 24, 2014

Awkward Mom vs. Earth Day

There are 2 Holy Trinities; the real one, that 12 years of Catholic education, a Jesuit college, and a deep and abiding love of Father Ted has made me fairly familiar with, and the other one. The one that children of my generation hold in esteem so high, we'll never shake it off, even if we become lapsed and forgetful of the real Trinity. Our other trinity of Jim Henson, Star Wars, and recycling. I won't get into the first two because, well, duh. If you aren't worshipping those two in some way, I am not sure we have a whole lot to say to each other. Furthermore, I have covered them both on my blog before and will certainly do so in the future. But not today. No, today, I am here to talk about the calling card and inheritance of anyone currently in their 30s or 40s; our love of Mother Earth and all her inhabitants. I am not in any way saying that those of you of other ages and eras can't admire and take care of the planet and all her people, I am sure you do and are very good at it. I am merely speaking from my own experience with activism. It's a long story, so you might want to sit down. And why are you standing and reading anyway? That's kinda weird.

We can't help it. Our flirtations with activism, that it. Standing and reading appears to be all you. The people I grew up with were raised by parents who came of age in the late 1960s, where activism, hope, and a desire to change things loomed over them like the ever present cloud of ...well, you know. These are the people that raised us, and, whether or not they were full-on hippies, the lessons of your adolescence just shape you. Seeps right on into your soul and hair like the ever present cloud of ...well, you know. Guess I could just say cannabis, right? Might as well honor 4/20 in the same post as Earth Day since they both happened this week. Not that I know anything about 4/20 other than what the internet tells me..... Moving on.

Onto the 1970s and 1980s and a legion of children born of these hippies, wannabe hippies, and folks that just enjoyed a good pair of bell bottoms. On to us. And we couldn't all be Alex P. Keaton, so most of us absorbed our parents' optimism and faith, even as they themselves succumbed to the Big Chill and utterly hideous shoulder pads. Most of us took on this mantle of do-gooderness and ran with it right into the 1990s and our own coming of age. Some of us took it all the way in and are homesteading off the grid in Washington state in a microhouse with a composting toilet right now. Some of us shook it off completely with our Doc Martens and navel piercings and ditched it when we lost our taste for ska music and Kevin Smith movies. But most of us have retained enough do-gooderness and optimism to still check all plastic for the recycling code, buy organic bananas, donate heavily to charities, and adopt our pets from shelters. We've balanced out, but we still care. It is a rare human being who can maintain a life-long activist phase.

Activist phase? Oh, well, that is just a period in someone's life where they dive recklessly into some cause, usually only for a short period of time because they believe so passionately and work so tirelessly at this cause that they burn out completely. This phase usually happens in college, is powered by naivety and drugs, and will fall in 1 of 3 camps; earth, people, or politics. Within these three arenas are any cause or movement that you could wish for and which will suit your particular temperament and/or addiction choice. Long story short: The earth people resemble their hippie forebears with a love for love-making, poster-making, and joint-making. The people people like to build houses, drink, and can always be relied on for a really fun protest. The politics people enjoy staying up late into the night, maybe or maybe not on speed, but certainly on large amounts of caffeine, abusing the words proletariat and bourgeoisie. That your particular cause is chosen by your desire to date someone within that cause goes completely without saying.

I sound like I am making fun of this process and my fellow activist phasers, but I am not. OK, maybe a little, but it is with total love and understanding. I spent time in each of those camps. Wanna know how I had the energy and time to be in each of these camps? Well, unlike most of my 1990s brothers and sisters who had the good sense to hit their activist phases in college, with a slight foreshadowing grunge interest in high school, my activist phase hit when I turned 10. Which was really awkward, but come on. Did you expect anything less?

When I was 10, I discovered the music of John Mellencamp. (You guys really shouldn't need that link.) He was over his Johnny Cougar period, but he might still have been going as John Cougar Mellencamp. I didn't care. I didn't care because I had just discovered his Scarecrow album. The one described as being about "the fading of the American dream in the face of corporate greed." Something had been stirring within me for awhile; a restlessness that had nothing to do with hormones. Farm Aid had kicked off by then, my godmother had gone "back to the land" in a mega-Mother Jones way, and I was looking to fill an emptiness in me that no amount of MTV would fill. I decided to fill it with my burgeoning activism, which I focused on decrying agribusiness and its rape of the land and the noble family farm. This did NOT do wonders for my social standing in a small parochial school in the Chicago suburbs, as you can well imagine.

I also had a growing interest in mental illness and, more specifically, deinstitutionalisation and the impact of that on homelessness. You know what, you can just blame my parents for that; they made me love reading and then they left a lot of their intellectual and social justicey stuff just laying around. So, take all that, shake it up in one smart but unpopular preteen who wasn't having any luck with boys, and you have a recipe for some rather grand and misguiding thinking. In short, my plan was to create communes/family farms, peopled by social workers and the homeless displaced by deinstitutionalisation. It seemed like a good plan to my 10-year-old self, and somedays, it seems like a pretty good plan to my 36-year-old self.

I am rather embarrassed to see all that written out. I was so impossibly earnest. So willing to argue with anyone who disagreed with me. So sure of the justice and rightness of my plans. So convinced that some benevolent government would want to fund my ideas. I maintained my interests through high school, despite the increasingly clear knowledge that my less-than-stellar science skills were going to make farming pretty impossible for me. That was OK. I was going to leave the farming in the hands of the tons of people that were going to flock to my commune. I was going to be a social worker. With a side gig as a famous actress, which would pay for everything. Duh.

And I did. The social worker part, that is. The famous actress part went by the wayside during the first week of college. College was the revelation that it is supposed to be, and, since my activist phase crossed into all 3 arenas of earth/people/politics, I got to spend time with all the activists. I used a new found friend, Mountain Dew, to power my efforts. I was fearless, focused, and incredibly flawed. In addition to a balanced liberal arts education from the Jesuits, which introduced me to a strength and stamina that perfectly prepared me for motherhood,  I worked at a shelter all 4 years of college, gaining all kinds of knowledge and understanding about homelessness and its complexity that obliterated my commune plans but did nothing but strengthen my resolve to resolve the deeper issues behind homelessness.

Graduate school softened the edges, work built up needed boundaries, and having children reignited a flame of passion that was in serious danger of being blown out by stress and overuse. And here we are. I am no longer a social worker, at least, not with any formality or functional license. That's OK. That part of my life is over. Or on hold. I haven't decided yet. But what I have decided, or really what was decided for me by my decision to bring children into this world, is that my activist phase needs to morph into a teaching phase. I have 4 little activists to raise now. It's time to be like my parents; drop social justice tidbits into the dinner conversation, volunteer with frightening regularity, boldly conduct political debates at Thanksgiving, recycle, reuse, reduce. Teach 4 new people to love reading and then start leaving thought-provoking stuff all over the place, mingled in with the stickers and the Little Golden Books.

This all leads me to our recent Earth Day celebrations. (Wait around long enough and I will get to the point.) My children are natural nature tenders and primed people lovers; blame that filtered down 1960s-ness. For Earth Day, Super Kindergartener wanted to plant his garden. It was too cold, so he settled for re-potting the plants he has been growing in the kitchen window; some scary looking cilantro, a sick tomato plant, and a strawberry "bush" that he got for a dollar at Target and required something called a "soil pellet." Super K. has inherited all of my earnestness and earth-ineptness, but he tries. Super Preschooler spared a single look at the sunflowers that are growing out of his plastic cup at an alarming rate, despite a complete lack of water or care. I think he may have planted Kudzu instead. However, he was quite happy sorting some plastic bottles and smashing down some cardboard to take to the recycling center. Super Toddler decided to throw some rocks across the lawn after I vetoed her idea of getting a horse for Earth Day. She tried to complain to some passing cars, but they seemed pretty scared of her and just drove on. Super Baby just smiled beatifically at all of us. Super Kindergartener nixed all car use for the day, so we took a walk and picked up some garbage we found. We talked about Super K.'s garden plans and his siblings pretended to be interested. They really got interested when he told them they could keep some bugs and worms in it. Super Baby continued to smile at us all and we decided Earth Day was an unrivaled success.

My children will hit activist phases soon enough. Someday they will settle on Earth, People, or Politics; if I had to guess I would say it would be Super B. (earth),  Super P. (people) and Super T. (politics), but it all really depends on who they end up crushing on in college. Super Kindergartener is showing strong signs of straddling all three, like his mother. I also think his activist phase is already here and may be one of the rare, life-long, ones. Time will tell. But, know this, whatever cause they decide to support or follow, whoever they decide is worth protesting with, wherever their dreams take them; it is all good. Their mere presences on the planet better it. Their shiny eyes and willing hearts. Their happy smiles and caring hugs. Their openness, fairness, and thoughtfulness. Their gentle understanding that all are worthy of love, including themselves. Their laughter that rings in beautiful choral chaos. Just them, that's all the earth and her inhabitants need. Everything else they do is just extra. Just a little extra super for the world.

Extra Super, Indeed. 

Of course, whatever cause they end up championing, I am gonna have to pretend to hate it. They'll be teenagers after all. Gotta give them something to rebel against, or I might end up with 4 Alex P. Keatons. Shudder. 

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