Thursday, 25 August 2022

Conversations on the train at night

 Written when my daughter and I visited the USA more than a decade ago. The years since then did indeed have a lot of unexpected problems -- I wonder how Allen is doing now, and if I gave him the right advice. I wonder if he was able to become a father. I hope so.

The Girl and I rode the night train across the middle of America. She dressed for a Missouri summer, but the train was kept frigid, so she wore two of my shirts over her sun dress. Drifting but not yet sleeping, she idly coloured the papers scattered on the seat trays, and the teenager across the aisle leaned over and spoke in low tones.

“Hey, you mind if I ask you a question?” His name was Allen, he had said earlier when we introduced ourselves.

Sure, I said.

“You seem like you have a really good relationship with your daughter ... like you guys do a lot together.”

Thank you very much, I said smiling. I’m lucky to be able to spend time with her.

“Well, I ask because my girlfriend and I are thinking about having a baby, and I want to get advice from about what we should do. We think sixteen is old enough to have a baby, and we really want one, but we want to do it right.”

Well ... first of all, I said, I think you’re doing exactly the right thing in asking people and not rushing into it. Right there, as a teenager, you’re showing better judgement than some people a lot older than you.

So I asked some questions. How long have you been together? Do you both work? What kind of family do you have around? Do you have any experience with children? What would you like to do eventually, and what does your girlfriend want?

He was very forthcoming – he and his girlfriend have been together a couple of years now, since they were fourteen. They both come from broken homes and have limited education, but they love each other, and they have relatives. He works hard, he said, and thinks he can support them.

You seem like you really want to do the right thing, I told him, so I’ll be honest with you – my advice would be to wait.

I gave him my reasons. Because if you don’t want to repeat the patterns of your parents, I said, you’re better off with more experience behind you. Because children of teenagers are more likely to have problems – not always, but more often. Because people should see some of the world while they can, and it’s harder with a child.

Because I expect the coming years to have a lot of unexpected problems, and if you lose your job, or one of you gets sick, it could make life harder for your child, and the world is already full of hungry children. You know how many people there are in the world now?

“Um ... thirty trillion?” he asked gravely.

Not that many, I said – it’s seven billion – but a lot of them are already going hungry, and many of those are children.

“I know if we have a child, I will really do everything I can to take care of it,” he said.

You seem like you really want to, I said – but no matter how sure you feel inside, you need to be in a really secure situation. And waiting probably won’t do any harm.

He digested this solemnly. “So you think we would hurt our child by having it now?”

None of us can know what will happen either way, I said. I’m just saying it seems riskier now, and there would seem less risk in waiting. Whenever you have a baby, though, break your parents’ cycle, and be the best Dad you can.

“I will.”

We talked a lot more, and when we arrived at our stop and before I picked up a suitcase and sleeping Girl, we shook hands. “Thanks, mister,” he said.

Bless you, Allen. I’ll be thinking of you.


Saturday, 13 August 2022

The Purpose of Free Speech


Ordinarily in this space I write about growing food, or paring down possessions, or trading with neighbours, or other pragmatic ways to cut expenses, increase self-sufficiency and improve community. I rarely mention timely news issues; in this bitterly divided age I want to talk about things that can unite people, and in this time of competitive virtue-signalling I want people to focus on the simple and the practical. All the practical advantages of life, though, mean little unless we live in a decent and free society, one in which you can speak your mind on an issue without having men show up at your door at night, or attack you on the street.

If you had been dropped randomly into any time and place in human history, however – from the time modern humans evolved perhaps 200,000 years ago until today, anywhere in the world – you would almost certainly have landed in a time and places where these values were unthinkable. Almost anytime, anywhere, you could be killed for speaking the wrong opinion, against the wrong person.

Freedom of speech has existed as only in brief flickers in history. One such flicker was the Athens of Pericles, for example, where in the middle of a horrific 30-year-war, Aristophanes could still write a pointed anti-war comedy. The longest period so far, though, began in Europe after the Enlightenment of the 1600s, and even then free speech was available only to certain classes in a few countries. Its gradual spread across much of the world is one of the great inspirational stories of the human race, and as much as I love traditional ways of life, this is one area where we have been the luckiest people in history.

The free era, though, might already be fading, buckling under pressure from many sides. We saw the first signs of this in 1989, when Muslim extremists condemned Indian author Salman Rushdie for writing a book that they thought criticised Islam. Rushdie has been called one of the greatest novelists of the last century, and his novel The Satanic Verses gently satirised many religions, including Islam – but for that he has had to live in hiding for most of the last 33 years. And last week, after decades of hell, Rushdie was stabbed and severely injured.

Many others associated with this book have also suffered – its Japanese translator was murdered, its Norwegian translator shot, its Italian translator attacked, and its Turkish translator barely escaped a mob that killed 37 people. Amazingly, few people were willing to speak or write in favour of Rushdie, with many European politicians siding with the terrorists instead.  

As another Indian writer, Kenan Malik, put it: These extremists lost their battles, as Rushdie’s books went on to be published, but they won the war, as hostility to freedom of speech has now become commonplace in the Western World. Former fans of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling denounced her, burned piles of her books and threatened her life after she expressed personal opinions that harmed no one. Author Jordan Peterson, whose self-help lectures went viral on the internet, has been the victim of a similar campaign, with mobs rioting and trying to shut down his public talks.

Rushdie himself said a few years ago that his book could probably not have been published today. Astonishingly, a May 2019 poll by the Knight Foundation found that almost half of college students thought that not hurting people’s feelings was more important than freedom of speech.

Most of us today like to imagine that if we had been around when slavery existed, or when the Nazis were taking power, we would have been foursquare on the side that we now know to be right. If you think that highly of yourself, ask yourself this: do you have the same opinions as your friends? As the media you listen to? Do you see yourself as being on a political side, and think of the other side as ignorant, violent and malevolent?

If the answer is yes, congratulations – you’re like almost everyone else in the world, hearing your own attitudes reflected back at you. Once in a while, however, you might hear a different voice – a voice that you don't enjoy, a voice that makes you blind with rage. You might feel complete certainty that they are wrong, and they often are. And occasionally, we – or future generations -- look back and realise they were right. When the entire nation “supported the troops,” they were the people questioning the war, and when many of the hippest intellectuals endorsed eugenics, they were the few speaking out against it. They – the unpopular, the unpatriotic, the annoying – are the voices we need, because sometimes they’re right.

You might not like or agree with Rushdie, or Rowling, or Peterson, but you need to be prepared to listen to and seriously consider opinions that anger you. That’s what makes us a free society, and we have been living with that blessing for so long that we no longer take seriously the real prospect of losing it.

I confess I had always meant to read Rushdie’s books, but never got around to it. So I walked into a bookstore today and bought two of his books. It was a tiny decision, I admit, but our lives are made of tiny decisions, so they might as well be votes for principles we believe in.

Sunday, 31 July 2022

Coming home for the first time


A couple I know lived in a century-old house in the middle of their town, a few miles from their jobs and surrounded by long-time neighbours. When the last of their children left home, they announced it was time they looked for a bigger house.

“Do you mean a smaller house?” I asked.

“No,” they said, surprised. “We mean a bigger house.” They had some extra money now that they were not raising children, and they wanted to invest it.

Their later years, however, did not turn out as relaxing as they had hoped. Both husband and wife had to work full-time to pay for their massive new house, and their few free hours were spent cleaning and maintaining it. They gave their old house to their son and his wife, who worked to pay for its mortgage and maintenance. The son’s child – my friends’ grandson — was put into day care while parents and grandparents worked long hours. I gathered that everyone ate on the run, often felt ill and depressed, and rarely saw their families.

It was not my business how they lived, and maybe there was more to the story. As far as I could tell, though, they had neatly divided an obvious solution into several problems.

If my friends had stayed in their old home with their son, they could have all pitched in to maintain and pay for it. If someone lost their job in this depression, others could fill the gap. They might have more time to spend with the grandchild, rather than pay exorbitant sums to see him raised by strangers.

I talk often with elderly relatives and neighbours from Missouri, Germany and Ireland. They all grew up in different worlds; a farm, an urban tenement, or the ruins of a bombed city. Ask them what has changed, though, and the answer is always the same: the ubiquitous presence of family and community.

Almost all these elders grew up with relatives in the home or nearby. Harvesting the garden, preserving food, praying in church – all these were done as a group, with children mimicking the adults. Even in urban families where most people worked, at least one relative stayed home to keep house, and families ate together, sang or played cards together, and shared beds or rooms. They may have made a fraction of the money as America’s desperately poor today, but did not feel poverty in the same way, for their lives were not spent drifting through a sea of strangers.

Inside the cheap energy window of the last few decades, however, family members were encouraged to live in isolation, first as a “nuclear family” and then as individual consumers. More households saw both parents working, more children warehoused in day cares and more families struggling to pay for escalating mortgages and expenses.

These days, of course, some of us are part of online “communities,” but there we often mistake breadth for depth. No amount of Twittering can build a relationship with the old lady down the road, and no amount of online eco-activism can substitute for pollarding one’s own trees.

Merging disparate relatives under a single roof, of course, is rarely simple – we all have different standards of cleanliness and privacy, different philosophies of child-rearing and cooking. But enough lines can also make a safety net, as more hands mean more people to fill in, more likelihood of a cook or gardener or mechanic in the family, someone who can tell stories or play music at the end of the day.

More of us will find ourselves doing this. Foreclosures and unemployment will force more people to move, as will a changing climate, and loved ones are generally preferable to a shantytown behind the parking lot. Smaller families and aging Baby Boomers mean more elderly relatives who need care. We should not wait for an emergency to throw us together, though – we are better off easing into the new grocery lists, new sleeping arrangements and schedules, and new boundaries of modesty and conversation.

This is likely to be the face of our future: a hundred million small and simple changes to reduce our debt and isolation, to cope with less money and weirder weather, to consolidate our possessions and needs. We might have to shed our load of rootless consumerism, but we might also rediscover what it means to be part of something. For some people, who have spent their lives searching for connection and meaning, it will be like coming home for the first time.


Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Older Than Ireland: Part 2 of my interview with Jack


Jack was older than the nation of Ireland when I interviewed him; he grew up without electricity or cars, had lived through the Irish Civil War and World War II, and through the transformation of Ireland in the last few decades. This is the second in a series of interviews with Jack done in 2012, in which he talks about his family’s experiences during the Irish Civil War. 

This is part of my project to gather the memories of people who grew up in a leaner time, and find out what values and habits sustained them through adversity. Several decades ago, most Irish lived with firelight and travelled by horse, effectively living in a pre-fossil-fuel era. Most older Irish remember how to live without the things we take for granted.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Older than Ireland


"Sometimes when you are asked a question, it puts your mind back to something you had forgotten about for years. For example, when you asked that I remembered when we used to say the rosary at night"

"There was eight of us, and we’d all say the rosary. And when we were done Daddy would say to us, 'that’s the end of that now –say your own little prayers, like good children.' Well all you’d hear was the tick of the clock, the all-weather clock on the wall. And that was all you’d hear was the quiet, but these days everything is buzz, buzz – noise everywhere, and people in a hurry all the time."

"I remember well my young days, particularly Black ’47. When I was born, the treaty had been signed but not ratified – I always call myself a child of the state, for I was born on Christmas Day 1921, and. I made my First Communion on Trinity Sunday 1928. There’s a lady here who was born in ’28, and I think I’m doing better than she is, I’m holding myself better. "

- interview with Patty Trabears, 2018. Photo taken in Ireland around the time of Patty's birth.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Still Life with Four-Year-Old

I wrote this 13 years ago. My girl is turning 18, and I think the things I wrote then -- especially the part about a risk of "civil war and public breakdown before she is grown" have held up pretty well. 

Tonight as I put my daughter to bed, she looked out her window and whispered, “Papa – look! There is a boy robin in the garden, on the rocks.”

I see him! I said, as our faces gazed out the window together. I think his missus is in the trees back there.

"Why doesn’t she come out?"

She takes care of the eggs, while he looks for food. He’s bright red so predators will see him instead of the missus.

"And there is our neighbour – he is smoking! That is bad for you," she said, pulling out the lung page of her children’s book about the body and showing me.

Yes, you should never do that, I agreed.

"And what are these?" she asked, pointing to the book’s pictures of red and white blood cells.

Well, the red blood cells carry oxygen to the … um … let me start over, I said. The red blood cells are lorry (truck) drivers, I said, and they take air from your lungs and deliver it door-to-door in your body like postmen. The white blood cells are gardai (police), and if a germ tries to sneak in, they pounce on it.

She asked to play red blood cells for a little while -– I swear I don’t make these things up -- knocking on each cell door and announcing they had an air delivery. Then she wanted to play white blood cell, creeping up on a naughty germ and saying, "I’ve got you now!"

After a while of this she asked, "Papa, what would happen if there weren’t trees?"

That would be very bad, I said. Trees make the air that lets us breathe – they are why the sky is blue. The sky is made by life.

"And they grow fruit," she said.

Yes, and nuts, and many other things to eat. What else can you eat that comes from a tree?

"Linden leaves!" she said.

Yes, and you could even eat sap and some bark, I said.

"Wow!" she said in delighted disgust.

It doesn’t taste good, but you could eat it if you were hungry in an emergency, I said. What else can you eat in an emergency? She cheerfully rattled off the list she knows from songs, and we talked and read a bit more before I kissed her good night and came downstairs.

I have often written here about my four-year-old, and the responses have allowed me to meet many kindred spirits far beyond my circle here in County Kildare. The moments with her are what give my life meaning; every day it tears me up inside to leave her with her grandmother, and go to a day job, and no amount of promotion or rewards will change that. A part of me dreams of being able to let go of my job, spending time with her all day, every day, and post daily four-year-old stories for years to come. But she will not wait for me, and today, already, she is five.

Of course a yearly marker does not make her a different person. But time will, and too quickly for me to do anything but run behind it, calling for it to stop. Perhaps it is because I am in my thirties now, and my clock was set long ago – like most middle-aged people, I feel a year go by when two or three have passed. Perhaps it is because the world events that I study have accelerated with harlequin abandon in the last few years; already we have seen so much of the world unravel, and might see civil wars or public breakdown before she is grown.

I only know that each moment flickers by like passing traffic out the window, too swift to observe as it happens, but only to remember dimly after it has gone. Part of me wants to live in a painting – Still Life with Four-Year-Old, a golden moment in amber. A part of me winces to see my toddler grow lanky and coltish, tapping newfound reservoirs of defiance and negotiation, her once-giant eyes occasionally rolling in the first fetal signs of adolescent ennui. I want to throw a hook into the blur and reel in the moments, pore over them, plead with each of them … stay. Please, don’t go. Linger.

But they won’t. She will be six soon enough, and ten, and fifteen, each age attended by its own moments of comfort and joy, its own arguments. I can try to be a good escort into her future and linger over the moments, knowing their blurred passage is all I will ever have. I cannot extend my life’s length, but you, my girl, allow me to extend its depth.

Thank you.