Over the past three days, I struggled with a previous version of this post; a version that was almost entirely politically based. I came off as self-righteous and preachy, so, I dumped it into the electronic trash-bin. I started this blog in order to practice writing what I mean and this particular subject – my worldview and its impact on my daughter’s – has been a challenging project for me. In the end, I’ve decided that the best I can do for now is describe key values I hold dear. I hope that someday my daughter will feel a real resonance with at least a few of them.
Content of Their Character
One of my most beloved quotes of all time is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” What simple, wise, beauty in that phrase.
While in college, I was encouraged to feel pride about my advocacy for those less fortunate. What I’ve learned is that it wasn’t advocacy…it was condescension. During my years at the university, it was drilled into my head that minorities and/or the poor need us to help them up the social, economic, and academic ladder because they couldn’t do it without our help. What a pile of fertilizer. What they needed was for us to get out of their way. To treat someone equally, you treat them equally. No special assistance from me was needed. Justice and fair practice were needed.
While I was growing up, my parents modeled (never talked about, but modeled) treating each person with dignity regardless of class, race or religion. I remember a particularly strong reprimand from my father after he caught me teasing a girl because she was from a struggling family. I can still see, hear, and feel him talking to me as if it were today.
“You are no better than anyone else, Jenny. Remember that. You ought to know that what you say and do can hurt someone else very deeply. You, my daughter, are no better than someone else’s daughter just because I make more money than her parents. In fact, you’ve disappointed us and I am ashamed of your behavior.”
At that point, the content of my character wasn’t so wonderful, but I listened and it has stuck with me for the past 40 years. My parents’ everyday behavior and attitude became a natural example for me when I left my rural community and met my freshman college roommate at Michigan: a wonderful young Black woman from inner-city Detroit – Pam. She and I spent the first few months tentatively asking questions of one another, both of us hesitant, but soon enough we were good friends. It turned out Pam was the only African-American on the floor of the dorm and I was the only country kid. She came from one of the best high schools in the state, mine was a class D embarrassment. Together, horrified, we realized the housing office used both of us as tokens — squeezing us into a single-sized room — so that we diversified the rest of the floor (all New Yorkers, all Jewish). I laugh now to think of it. My parents’ mindset (meaning they believed every individual is equal to begin with) helped me better traverse the new world I had entered than any sociology class I would ever take.
Bottom line: Focus on the character of a person and nothing else.
Every Job Can Be Fulfilling If You Love It
If I knew back then, when I was 20, what I know now, I wouldn’t have spent time and money in graduate school and would’ve found a career in horticulture or a cottage art—that type of work, producing something with my hands, is much more satisfying to me at the end of the day. I had some silly notion that an esoteric and intellectual field, like anthropology, was the epitome of success. I judged academia to be the golden kingdom and although I was taught to study artisan-based economies in other cultures, I didn’t realize it was an option for me.
My daughter loves art. She is good at it and when she is focused on creating something it transforms her from a jumpy, scattered girl into a confident and peaceful one. I don’t think she realizes that particular impact on her personality now, but I hope she discovers it sooner rather than later. If she came to me and said “I’m not going to a traditional university. I’m going to a design school instead,” I would not gasp in horror. I want it all to be open to her. If she decides that she wants to be a cabinet-maker’s apprentice, I’ll be thrilled. Master coffee roaster? Good choice. Organic farmer? Go for it. You get the idea.
Bottom line: A successful, happy life is one you create by doing what you love and turning it into your livelihood.
You Can Be A Non-Political Conservative
I am a conservative in that I like to reuse-repurpose material goods and try to buy what I need and not what I want. New is not always better. I know that faster/flashier/more- option gadgets are usually no better (and often worse) than simpler versions and are marketed so that people demand bigger, newer, faster in almost everything they buy. I don’t feel the need to impress anyone with what I possess and would rather roll naked in broken glass than go to a mall. I prefer local produce to that which is brought in from other states, let alone other countries.
I will drive out of the way to support a small, locally-owned business and I love neighborhoods that embrace their kitschy-past instead of knocking it all down and building strip malls and cookie-cutter houses. My street is this gorgeous amalgamation of ranch houses and small Colonial cottages and I love it. If they start building homes here that don’t fit the ‘hood, I’ll be devastated.
I support strong historic preservation initiatives and believe there is great value in a sense of place and an awareness of your past. No, I don’t idealize the past, but there are certain truths that are boundless by time and I gain a sense of peace by exploring them.
Never underestimate the support a religious community can provide you, your family and your neighbors. That same religious community can allow you to give back to others through your own unique talents and skills. In that way, I’m also quite conservative. The sanctity of our religious laws in treating others with justice and compassion is the strongest link I have to God.
I am a traditionalist but open to new ideas. I think we’d be better off trying to solve problems rationally than through the lens of a particular political party. Courageous leadership is solving problems through rational, creative thought instead of through ideological structure.
Bottom line: Tradition can be beautiful and conservation of both cultural and natural resources go hand-in-hand. Old can mean character and style.
(Part II coming soon: Books Are Fabulous, Get Your Hands Dirty, Family First)