Growing up worried

When I began this blog back in May, it was in part to explore and share a process that I thought, at the time, would lead to a big change. It worked well until I backed away from the big change—for which I’m immeasurably glad. Misty mornings, changing leaves, flocks of geese on the fields, clear night skies–and a renewed interest in spiffying up the place.

The blog was also meant to exert some discipline on my writing, which comes in fits and starts and is easily disrupted by – well – almost anything. That part hasn’t worked so well. Why is it that the thing I claim to want to do most of all takes second place to taking down the screens or ripping out the dead tomato plants? A topic for a future riff. Of course, this month it also took second place to meeting my newest granddaughter, which is more understandable.

Meet Nina Constance Dunning, daughter of Galen and Katharina, born September 11.


So, along with the blog,  Shifting Currents has stalled, some fiction I’ve been working on sits waiting for some critique and some more attention, and a couple of essays petered out after two paragraphs.

But it’s September. Late September. Time to re-focus. Here’s one of the essays I’ve been working on.


Sometimes I lie awake at night, or stare out my study window–wondering about the world we’re leaving to little people like Nina. She’s the littlest, but there are quite a few young people I care about heading into a future I’m worried about.

But then, I’m 68 years old, and I’ve been waiting for the world to end for most of my life. I make plans for next week, but next year has always been iffy. Perhaps I’m missing that “happiness gene” they’ve recently discovered. Or perhaps I learned to distrust the world at my mother’s knee—which would never have been her intent.

It was the early 1950s. I was seven. My parents spoke in hushed voices with each other and with their friends about the precarious state of the world. Occasionally they joined marches carrying signs saying “Ban The Bomb”. I didn’t know what the bomb was. I certainly had no comprehension of the geopolitical conditions that were beginning to be called a “cold war.” But I knew people were worried. Even from the security of my home, in a peaceful mountain valley of central Pennsylvania—Happy Valley, they called it—I sensed the world was a frightening place.

On a less global scale, I peered out the living room window into the dark, absorbing and sharing my mother’s anxiety as she waited for my father’s return on a snowy evening. She pretended to dust the brick-and-board bookshelves by the window overlooking the road that wound its way up the mountainside to our house. But she wasn’t prone to dusting, and she didn’t fool me. I knew she was scrutinizing each set of headlights until the familiar Packard station wagon turned the corner and began the final ascent—which it always did. None of the things I’ve worried most about have come to pass. But I worry nevertheless. You never know.

My playmates were oblivious to the threatening gloom. They played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, house, jail, school, doctor and nurse – all the childhood games that purport to mimic adult life, as though adulthood were a given. I played along, prepared to give it even odds, but I was always aware that a dark cloud floated above, subject to air currents beyond my control or understanding. No one ever wanted to play “Bomb Shelter,” or “Daddy’s Car Slid Into the Ditch, Killing Him and Leaving us Sad and Destitute.”

I wasn’t supposed to be a pessimist. My parents tried hard to point us toward more hopeful clouds drifting through brighter skies. Before I could read for myself, they bought a little book called The Garden We Planted Together, published by the brand new United Nations. It featured children from all over the world, dressed in their traditional garb, turning the soil, hoeing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and sharing the fruits of their cooperative labour. A little Dutch girl in her crisp apron and wooden shoes prepared the row for the Japanese girl in her kimono who followed behind planting the seeds and who was, in turn, followed by the Mexican boy in his sombrero, covering them with soil and the Eskimo in his mucklucks with a watering can. The book was accompanied by a 78-rpm record of cheery children’s songs about cooperation and brotherly love.

Social and political activism was the stuff of my family’s life. My parents’ determination to weave together the warp of hope with the woof of indignation resulted in a richly textured but emotionally confusing childhood, filled with hills and valleys of fear and promise. Kind of like adult life.

It wasn’t until much later that I recognized the loaded assumptions hidden within this landscape: Threats and or injustices can’t be ignored. People can make a difference (oh yes, and here’s the clincher—if you don’t try, the burden is yours). You need to speak to your convictions. And it doesn’t matter what other people think, as long as you’re acting in good conscience.

By the time I was 15, I had learned to juggle those assumptions. I knew that we lived on the edge of Armageddon. I read On the Beach and watched Hiroshima Mon Amour, I saw the civil rights movement in the southern U.S. take shape, and I promised myself that I would make a difference, if nuclear holocaust didn’t deny me the right to adulthood.

I also knew, as only a 15-year-old can, that it did matter what people thought. So, I learned to juggle there, too. True to my convictions, I wore a “ban the bomb” button—a white “crow’s foot” centered on a black background—but I wore it discretely, just under the edge of my mohair cardigan, revealing it when I felt socially safe or temporarily rebellious. And I almost never had the courage to wear it upside down (which meant ‘unilateral disarmament’, the most radical of positions to hold during those days of the Red Scare). My friend Roger wore it upside down proudly, making me feel simultaneously ashamed of my temerity and embarrassed to be seen with him.

Roger saw right through me. He knew—as I knew—that I wasn’t really doing my part to save us from disaster. The truth is, I never have.





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One Response to Growing up worried

  1. carolynrmiller says:

    Weaving together “the warp of hope with the woof of indignation”: I like this! My parents talked about these things, and probably worried about them but were not the activists yours were. And if you didn’t get the happiness gene, I’m sure I did get the obliviousness gene–or maybe that’s the same as the happiness gene.

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