Back in my craft show days, I used to bring my smaller spinning wheel to the venue to while away the hours between customers. Spinning fascinates children; at the shows, I was a child-magnet and soon I realized I was also the babysitter.
“Look kids,” the mother or father would exclaim pushing sweaty hair out of their eyes, “she’s making string!”
The kids would gather round and then the parent, after a pause, would slip away, no doubt figuring their children were safe for a bit while they had a few moments to themselves to maybe check out the hand-blown glass booth. At first I was surprised that parents would leave their kids with me, then I felt flattered. Then I felt a surge of parental responsibility. Heck, I figured, I ought to educate these kids. So I would explain how “in the old days” people spun fiber to create thread—not string—to weave into cloth to sew into clothes.
“Why don’t they just buy them at the store?” one little girl asked, unimpressed.
“They didn’t have so many stores,” another child replied. “They only had stores that sold barrels of flour.” (Apparently a devotee of the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series.)
One day I was spinning mohair—the fiber from the Angora goat. The usual crowd of kids was around, so I launched into my spiel. “This is mohair,” I said. “See how lustrous it is? It’s used for—“
“—what’s a Mo?” a boy from the front row interrupted.
Another time, I decided to give them the whole shebang. I began with the carding combs, demonstrating brushing the fibers into line and peeling off the rolags to be spun. Since the children looked so dumbfounded (which I interpreted as amazement) I began to explain the principles of spinning, explaining how the microscopic scales on wool fibers caught with each other—sort of like Velcro—and that was what allowed the thread to form, and was also what was responsible for felting. About this time, a scrawny boy with ill-fitting clothes and scuffed sneakers moved closer to the spinning wheel. His eyes flitted from me to the spinning wheel, back and forth, with more and more urgency as I continued to lecture. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore.
“Just do it, already!” he burst out.
His unwashed face and dark-circled eyes, so different from the scrubbed and well-fed faces of the kids who lived in this prosperous town, looked intense; his eyes burned. I began to spin.
The other kids eventually drifted away, or were picked up by their parents, but he stayed, rapt, watching the spinning wheel create thread, as if seeing magic in the world for the first time.
We drove past Sandy Hook and Newtown on our way home from Virginia this Memorial Day and next to the exit sign was a hand-lettered placard: “Free coffee and doughnuts.” This community had twenty first-graders and six teachers and administrators massacred by a man with an assault weapon. And what were they doing on this Memorial Day? Trying to keep drivers alert…and alive.
I hear people defend their right to own assault weapons because they say they need to be safe from “bad guys with guns.” I hear people say they need to protect their own. I never hear them say they want to protect their neighbors. I never hear them say they want to help. I hear them only expound on themselves and their rights.
But Sandy Hook, a town whose children did die from a bad guy with guns—they care about keeping you, anonymous you, alive.
Who has the bigger heart? Who has the richer soul? Who holds the future of our species? Do you want higher walls, bigger guns, more rampant paranoia? Or do you want the compassion of a town trying to keep holiday drivers alive, even as they continue to mourn the senseless slaughter of their children?
Earlier this week I researched female education in the late 17th — early 18th centuries in Massachusetts for an essay I’m writing for my local historical society and I can honestly say that I really, really love research. I love finding little snippets that seem like gold, the piecing together of bits to make a story. I love the quiet and the books in the reading room of the research library. I love the sheer amount of potential that surrounds me–the potential of learning, of discovering, of finding interests, of creating.
On the drive home my friend and I were discussing our new life changes—a new career for me and retirement for her and she said how the funny thing about retirement is that people tell you what it is like, but what they really mean is what it is like for them. That resonated, because that’s how I feel about this nascent career of mine in writing children’s books. People tell me how hard it is to get published and make a living and then ask me what I’m working on. If I say a picture book, they tell me I should really be writing a chapter book because that’s what’s popular now. If I say a young adult novel in verse, they say verse doesn’t sell.
But, as with my friend’s experience with retirement, these people are telling me what it is like in their sphere of knowledge, based on their experience, in their own life. Which is, when you pick it down to its bones like that, a pretty limited viewpoint.
All of our viewpoints are limited. They can’t be anything but because they are necessarily based solely on our own experience. Which is not going to be someone else’s experience or the next person’s experience either.
So here’s my idea–instead of giving people advice “for their own good” (which is almost never why it is given) how about we all just encourage the heck out of each other. Let’s all admit that we don’t know the first thing about someone else’s potential and so the best thing we can do for them is to trust that they are onto something and tell them to go for if that’s what they feel like doing.
What we are really doing when we encourage another person is telling them that we believe in their belief in themselves. We are supporting their belief in their own potential–and that, to my mind, is the truest ‘advice’ we can give.
Trained to look at the bigger picture and to deconstruct what seems to be apparent; I am pushed to apply these ideas to the massacre of children. As a forty plus year resident of Connecticut who only recently moved to Massachusetts, I still feel like a Connecticut-er, and the killings in Sandy Hook affected me in a familial way. These were my people, my state. Any news of people being slaughtered will shock and tear but these were my babies. That is how it feels.
Beyond the grief, then anger, comes a desire to make sense of it all. Make sense of our society, our nation. Why, I ask myself, are we like this? Why do we need to have guns, and more basically, why is ‘personal freedom’ so pervasively core to our priorities in this country?
Religious freedom (which, ironically, became intolerance to anything differing from the new religious practice) is the historically taught cornerstone for the establishment of many settlements in the colony of America. But the idea of a place to go away from King and class restrictions had to have been appealing to many of this country’s first settlers. And then there were the amazing natural resources of this country. People came here for opportunity. This is how most, if not all human societies start. One culture usurps another and then works out how it will establish itself and grow. As it matures, it faces and addresses the growing pains of being a society.
The United States, as a nation, is a young society. I think of us as adolescents. We are not children anymore, but we are not adults either. We still think our personal freedoms are more important than what is good for our society as a whole. Like adolescents, we are the center of our universe. Our wants and needs are the most important thing to us. This is not a bad thing, it is the way things grow. Before you can look beyond yourself to establishing your place in the world at large, you must first figure out who you are. That is the role of adolescence.
In the United States, we are figuring out who we are. And like individual adolescents, our black and white ideas are being challenged. Some of us need to feel we are free by being able to own guns, and others of us need to feel free by feeling safe from people owning guns. Whose freedom is the right one? That’s what we are wrestling with now. I have no doubt that, as a society, we will grow and mature like all successful societies have. And that means limiting personal freedoms for the general good of the society as a whole.
After all, if a society cannot keep its children safe from itself, then it has failed its primary purpose—that of perpetuating itself. All successful societies have realized this at some point, and it is at that point that personal freedom has grown up and become collective good.