America-bashing is so in vogue. Teenagers, especially, are vulnerable to this general sense of “how bad we are,” based on a couple of tragic elections and a war of lies. I’m brokenhearted over these things, too, but the “how bad we are” mantra grows wearisome when it comes from what is, according to a recent study by the Representative Democracy in America Project, the most apathetic generation of American youth on record.
Here’s what I tell the kids in my life: Stop whining about how bad “we” are in between trips to the mall and viewings of Austin Powers, and do something. I have a friend who serves soup once a week at a homeless shelter, and the best thing about it is that she sits down and eats with the women she serves. A couple of families I know stick to one car by biking nearly everywhere, year round. And I’ve grown genuinely attached to the “peace people” who stand, rain or shine, at the east end of the Franklin Avenue Bridge.
Another old friend was born in Zaire and raised in France. Years ago, when I was homeschooling my kids, she tutored them in French. She now has her own son, who is two. Just recently she told me how grateful she is to be raising him here, because in her very worldly experience, this is the place that offers the most possibility. Maybe I can relate, because a sense of possibility is something I fought for and won.
When I was ten and my mom got divorced for the second time, we hit the skids pretty bad. We had to take in a series of boarders to make ends meet. Strange were the folks who sought rooms for rent in the home of a single mom in Casper, Wyoming, in the late seventies. Mark kept porn magazines under his bed and bacon crackers in his closet. Karen was actually living in sin with her boyfriend, and using her room at our house as a place to store clothes so her parents wouldn’t know. Diane had two little kids of her own and was fundamentally Christian in the worst sense of the word. She ended up storming out within a couple of weeks without paying rent (but she did teach my sister how to make a terrific grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich).
Meanwhile, I had a knack for seeking out friends who, by contrast, only made my own situation seem more extreme. Norah lived on the edge of downtown in a Victorian home so large and rambling that I sometimes got lost in it. There was a whole room on the third floor for her gigantic dollhouse, and a widow’s walk on the roof where we’d hang out and write poetry. Norah’s dad was a partner in his own law firm. On weekends, I’d join the family for trips up Casper Mountain to the construction site of their enormous A-frame “cabin.”
Renee’s family owned the largest car dealership in town. We would walk from school over to her family’s stately brick colonial for lunch, and her mom would send us upstairs to play while she cooked us a hot meal. When our toasted peanut butter sandwiches were ready, she’d buzz us on the house’s intercom system.
Holly was probably the friend I loved best of all. Her dad was in oil and her mom drove a wood-paneled station wagon. They were Mormon, so their house was overrun with kids and toys and general hubbub. Still, Holly enjoyed her own room with a waterbed in a house ample enough to include a living room and a family room, a piano room, and an enormous fenced yard. I spent some of my happiest childhood nights sleeping side by side with Holly, afloat on her bed after a day of warmth and fun.
As I scrutinized these other lives, I realized two things: One, I wanted my life to look like theirs someday, and two, I wanted to be a writer. I was hell-bent on jumping over the tracks, and beyond that, I was willing to work my ass off to do it. So I did, and while I’ve never gotten lost in my house and I don’t have a mountaintop A-frame, neither does my life look like the one that boarder Mark waltzed into with his bacon crackers. I’ve even had enough left over to join the Sierra Club, give to the food shelf, and lend a bit of support to my favorite candidates. Maybe I could have done this anywhere–after all, in England, J.K. Rowling got rich and famous by writing Harry Potter in cafes while she nursed coffee paid for with welfare checks. But that’s just what I love about writing–which is the very thing I appreciate about this country: possibility. As I tell the kids, you gotta grab it and run.