March 19, 2012

Shift Your Plate

Black Child Eating A Burger by Ginette Callaway

When my five-year-olds sit down at the table to eat, if their chairs are not aligned with their plates, they do not shift either the chair or the plate. They contort their bodies in such a way that they have one leg on the chair, the other on the ground, and they continue to reach for their food.

This must be an adaptation of childhood ~ accepting the world as it is and trying to fit yourself into it.  You have to because you have so little agency in the world, so little effect.

Maybe that’s one of our jobs as parents ~ to convince our kids that they can have an effect on the world.

And maybe this is the reason for teenage rebellion, the 60s, and the Occupy movement, these sorts of movements that are cyclic and reoccur every so many years.  Kids suddenly realize that in fact they can affect the world.  They’re also at the most idealistic of ages, and so they try to make the world a perfect place.  And they always think that their generation was the first.

Related to this is identity and career choice.  When you’re a kid, people make it seem like there’s one right choice for you in a career.  “Whatcha going to be when you grow up, Tommy?”  So you try on all these things, and rarely do you land on one thing that seems perfect.  One of my brothers is an exception ~ he always knew he wanted to be an engineer.  There must be something very comforting in that. And as it turns out, there was only one right thing for me ~ a writer and editor ~ but it did not seem to be the practical thing to do.  How can you make a living as a writer?  I vividly remember the day in college when I realized I could be literally anything in the world; I could learn anything in the world from a book.  What a day!

Maybe some of this is the reason we sometimes feel like we’re pretending to be grownups, you know?  I catch myself every once in a while and think, oh my gosh, I’m a grown up with a grown up life.  I AM.  Not someone else.  I’m responsible and I have a job and a house and a family.  That’s what grown up people do.

But I guess my main point is that there are some people who believe they have no agency in the world.  Sometimes it’s true ~ they don’t have the money or power or social influence. But sometimes it’s not true.  Sometimes the only thing that is holding us back is ourselves, our fear.

Yesterday, I read the story “Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson in the wonderful collection The Story and its Writer, edited by Ann Charters.  This and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, are hands down the best anthologies of short fiction in existence, IMHO.  The story is about an old woman who spends her life feeding animals and men and freezes to death in the woods. She did not have agency, to be sure.  Also in that collection is Dorothy Allison’s wonderful “River of Names,” about whole generations without agency.  Yet Dorothy herself was able to rise above it.  I’ve met her a couple of times, and I just love Dorothy.

Like Dorothy and so many others, we have to reach over and bring our plates to us.  Either that, or shift our chairs to be in front our food.

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