When I was young, my family of nine had little money. This meant a lot of things. It meant that “making it to month’s end” was just a way of life. It meant that all clothes were hand-me-downs. It meant that birthdays and Christmas brought necessities—underwear and socks. It meant that my brothers and sister and I saved the brown paper bag in which our lunch was graciously and lovingly packed by our mother for the first day of school, and we saved it every day thereafter until the threads could no longer carry a sandwich. I don’t think we thought about this much back then. It’s just what we did, how we lived.
What this mostly meant, though, was giving a lot and not expecting much in return. Then you would be surprised by how very much you got in return. We had (and have) loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and siblings. That is the biggest gift of all. We played all the time when we were really little. We always had companions. In fact, quiet space was at more of a premium than companionship, which was freely and abundantly given. When we were a little bit less little, we started to work to earn money for clothes we would buy ourselves and for going to the movies and such. We did so willingly and capably, and then we were grateful for every moment of spare time we had to read, play, and hang out. Our parents told us about this thing called college—my dad had gone, and my mom had worked to pay for two brothers to go—and they told us it was worth saving our money for it.
When I was in college, I ended up majoring in French and Spanish and minoring in Italian. Somehow I knew that all the people with whom I wanted to speak in the world and all the texts I wanted to read would not come from the English-speaking world. I didn’t know how to be career-driven, to think that I could or would just have any career I wanted. I didn’t know what an internship was because I still worked my minimum-wage job in the hospital microfiche department during every school break. I didn’t know how to “package” or “sell” my experiences to make them a coherent whole. I was a coherent whole, the sum of my loving family, my experiences, and my developing opinions about the world.
I did, however, imagine the wonders of studying abroad, of living in Canada or France or any one of the Spanish-speaking Latin American countries or Spain. Financial aid didn’t travel abroad back in those days, so I made do. Making do was hearing a language I spoke and wanted to speak better and going to speak it with the person (intrusive, I know, but I didn’t see it that way back then). It was reading books in French and Spanish out loud to myself to practice my accent and think it was normal for me to be speaking in another language. This was long before the Internet would explode with resources for people like me. Making do was seeing college friends study, work, and travel abroad and tucking the possibility away for a day when I could pay my way.
I remember when I was asked in the interview for my first job after college what I thought of all the students at the school being wealthier than me. I shrugged (not a great interview response) and said I didn’t give those things too much thought. The person who asked the question and I both laughed about it months later when my first car ever, a boat my dad insisted I buy so that I’d be “safe” on the roads, needed a jump in the school parking lot long after everyone had gone home.
At the age of 22, I went to a Grateful Dead concert. I had spent my life listening to Motown, funk, rap, and Latino music. While kids at my high school sported black concert t-shirts from iconic ‘80’s groups, I was forbidden to go to rock concerts because they were “a den of iniquity” and “a waste of hard-earned money.” To this day, though, I’m both amused and thankful that I was allowed to go to all the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts I wanted. This got me going into a lively city and realizing I had a city vibe waiting to be awakened. It got me trying new things with dear friends for life.
As I was saying, though, Grateful Dead space jams were decidedly not my thing. Nevertheless, when I arrived at the concert, I was taken by all the loving people. I really was. Everybody just sporting their tie-dye, weaving and dancing, wishing each other “a good show.” Tens of thousands of people (yes, drunk; yes, stoned) peacefully gathering together made an impression on me. I guess it made me understand the giant flowers my mother’s young sister had painted on the walls of her room in the late ‘60’s and the stolen kisses she shared with her then-boyfriend, now-husband of 40 years. I did also develop an appreciation for “Shakedown Street,” which is by far the best and funkiest of the Grateful Dead repertoire.
I’ve buried the lede here because, as you can see, I’m profoundly grateful for the family, friends, teachers, and colleagues who shaped my early life. At the same time, as a mature adult, I’m deeply distressed by how much hatred I see in the world. Besides the abominable political scene, which this blog takes to task for many of our politicians’ cavalier, me-first, discriminatory, and violent practices, I have been so distraught by the continued violence against black lives and the now-entrenched marginalization of people who are not white, male, or Christian.
I also have read the accounts (ABC News; The Chronicle of Higher Education) of the most recent hazing incident at Penn State and I can’t shake the images of the night’s events. (Here is an ABC News piece on hazing incidents across the U.S.) The “brothers,” now charged with involuntary manslaughter, seem never to have loved anyone, never to have given without expecting something in return. Their hazing practices are not rooted in true brotherhood or humanity or love for another. They are rooted in hatred and violence, and I just don’t understand these systems that foment violent, white male power and enact it in cruel and deadly ways.
What makes people open to loving others and adventurous about who the others might be? What makes people assert their own domination over others, never learning to truly love? How does this translate into a world view, a way of loving people and knowing people who love? How does it translate into the work we do, the work we do beyond the work day, the way we love this work because it makes a difference for people?
Is this not a way to exist in the world? And, if so, why aren’t we electing more of these loving people who will give and give and not expect much in return, only to find that they get very much in return?