“Small Beneath the Sky” by Lorna Crozier was one of the books offered to be reviewed by one of the environmental groups I belong to, one based in Canada. I’m only an hour’s drive south of the border and have many family roots in Canada as well as having served a congregation in Saskatoon for a couple of years. Crozier was one of the first writers I learned about up there, a poet with a unique and mischievous view of the world.
This is not the review. I wanted to point out something. The prairie is a hard place to live and the Depression up there was ferocious. Lorna’s mother was “hired out” at age six to a neighbor who didn’t permit her to visit home. On that employer’s farm she did the scut-work, the constant and arduous labor of keeping wood fires going, meals prepared from scratch, cleaning, animals cared for, and so on. She ate separately in the kitchen, but she DID eat. And she spared that family’s child from any kind of labor. It was the old European system of handling low-class, low-income kids. Whipping boys. Princes and paupers.
Today’s homeless kids haunt the interstices of cities as though they were raccoons or possums, surviving by rummaging or begging. Today’s New York Times described these kids as they are in Medford, Oregon, a pleasant and seemingly middle-class town. The fact that jumps out at the reader is that no one wants these kids, no one reports or records their status as missing, and that most of the solutions sound a lot like Depression-era Saskatchewan or Dickensian London. That is, catch them, confine them, force them to be different -- like, to be hard-working. As though it weren’t hard work to stay alive in a public park with predators everywhere. Not that the predators want to accept responsibility for them either: predators are one-time users. They don’t take them home to keep. Kids are disposable.
Many of these kids are on the street because dynamics at home broke down under financial pressure, adults who couldn’t get jobs and whose mortgages were foreclosed. But others are there because there was no real family in the first place, no committed adult who was a biological parent of these specific kids. Serial co-habitation means money constantly lost to moving, divorce, abuse, drug addiction, prison. These seriously inhibit the kind of bonding that motivates parents to do their best.
Lorna’s father was alcoholic, which the family could deny because he was always able to get work in the oil fields, dangerous though that might be for a drunk. It was a pattern that our society knows well: hard (if cranky) worker in the daytime, reckless bon vivant in the evening -- or sodden heap in front of the TV. Historically even encouraged. Today the hard physical labor that justified the beer in the evening is gone. Very few of those jobs are left. The other part that has changed is that meth is QUITE a different story than beer. And society’s new understanding of women has not supported motherhood though it has discouraged abortion.
Most of the indignation in the NY Times article was attached to money: how can we spend money on banks and wars when our children go hungry? I’m not sure it’s a money problem at all. How much money does it take to sit down and listen to a kid? They need the listening far more than they need, for instance, a car. And yet, there are times a few hundred bucks can make a big difference in a kid’s life.
One of my classmates back in Portland right after WWII was a bad kid, ornery and mean to others, high intelligence but low performance. My graduating eighth grade class meets for dinner once a month -- they’ve mostly stayed in Portland where one motivated woman keeps them rounded up. When they reconvened, this ornery kid was quite a revelation: all grown-up, prosperous, generous, truly interested in the others. He explained that in high school a man who knew about his checkered performance simply came to him, put an arm around his shoulder, and took an interest in him. That’s what turned the tide. So now the ornery kid raises money for an organization that helps kids.
It’s not that there haven’t always been runaway kids who got beat up at home and are starving in the streets. It’s because there are simply so many people that even if the proportion stays about the same, the sheer numbers increase and increase. The social forces -- like the breakdown of old institutions (family, church) -- haven’t been replaced by new social institutions, new visions. Here and there are individuals who make a difference.
I do NOT want to start a new version of White Buffalo Home (the shelter for Blackfeet kids that always runs into trouble of one sort or another) nor do I want to take in troubled kids. I wouldn’t mind providing a listening service: a kid calls, we go for coffee (NOT beer!) and I listen. Counselors know that simply sitting there and paying attention (which is what parents are supposed to do, right?) can be a powerful force for change.
Maybe you’ve become aware that I’m co-writing with Tim Barrus who has all his life tried to help boys -- unconventional boys so he uses unconventional methods because he himself is pretty UNconventional. One of his main principles is getting the kids to run their own programs. It’s a job that needs to be done, the kids need a job, ergo, the kids should get busy on that task. They’re the ones who know the facts. If listening is what works, then why can’t they listen to each other?
In fact, they do. They protect each other, they rescue each other. They do not try to enslave each other or make money from each other. They are not quite forming communes or religious orders, as has been a response to desperate times in the past, but they’re close. This is not something happening somewhere else. As the environmental groups like to point out, when you throw something “away,” you are assuming there IS an “away,” but there is not.