Oral Histories

It’s both heartwarming and troubling to hear the stories old people tell about their youth. It’s heartwarming to hear that what endures in that swiss cheese we call memory includes stories about making a fort out of pine needles (“which lasted fifteen years, because it was left alone”), playing cops and robbers in the woods, playing sand lot softball after school with “whoever showed up,” and swimming every day “from springtime to  fall.”  There is a sense of timelessness in those memories, a sense that the unstructured halcyon days of youthful play have been important events, when all is said and done.  I am glad to hear these memories, but also convinced that those days are pretty much over.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

Michael Chabon writes eloquently about the loss of childhood freedom in his wonderful essay, Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood:

“The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.”

And that’s the troubling part.  As I sat and listened to an encore presentation of a wonderful oral history project last night, I could not help but be troubled by the knowledge that our present day children have been largely robbed of the experience of being alone, fending for themselves, “killing time” outside, quietly (or noisily) being kids amongst other kids.  I remember those days, the days when mom said “go outside and play” and so we did.  Was my mom a lesser mom than these modern day moms who smooth everything over for their kids?  I don’t know.  No.  I don’t buy it.  Kids need less structure to their lives.  They need to find out who they are … when we are not orchestrating everything they do.  And if that works out for mom … it’s a bonus.  No guilt.  “Go outside and play,” is still some of the best advice my mom ever gave me, and it’s not something you’ll generally hear moms say that much any more.

So, heartwarming as it is to know that pleasant childhood memories of vast empty days endure into old age, it’s sad to reflect on how we have structured our present day lives to deprive kids of time alone, away from moms, dads, organized sports, play dates, and other mediated events.  Maybe it’s guilt on the parents’ parts.  Maybe they think they are doing a better job then their parents.  I don’t think so.  It didn’t hurt me to be sent outside to play, and it didn’t hurt me to be told to sit still in church …. for an hour.   Why must everything be convenient for kids?  I hated sitting still, but I did.  It was probably good for me, but certainly not traumatic.

Last night, amidst the carefully orchestrated presentation which the adults had arranged, and students took part in, a steady stream of kids kept getting up and leaving the auditorium, opening the door, letting in light and generally making a nuisance of themselves, simply because they took a notion to stretch their legs, get a drink, go to the toilet … or whatever.  None of the old timers with weak bladders needed to get up, but kids… you know.  You can’t expect kids to sit still.  That’s how kids are, right?

For those of you with facebook accounts, there is apparently a link to a facebook event related to last night’s screening.  I say “apparently” because I do not have a facebook account.  Here’s what I can do for the rest of you, though.  Go here and listen to Rufus Wainwright’s song, Oh What a World

Why am I always on a plane or a fast train
Oh what a world my parents gave me
Travelin’ but not in love


4 thoughts on “Oral Histories

  1. Well said. Childhood is an experience that hold dear to my heart. Not because my parents took me to the park. Not because my mom or dad organized my soccer team. Because they did say, “Go outside and play and don’t come in until lunch”. I had to use my imagination and create my fun. My friends and I did wonder through the woods and play tag for hours. When spring came around we did not buy our kites, we built them. It’s amazing what can be made with a little balsa, string, tape and a garbage bag.
    So what memories will I share with my grandchildren; probably the ones when my mom said, “Go outside and play”.

    • You know, Garrison Keillor has a whole thing about “go outside and play” being the stock answer his parents provided whenever he asked for unreasonable things, like family vacations to places out of town. It’s funny stuff.

      Fallenmonk was inspired (by Michael Chabon) to do a whole prelapsarian riff on his childhood play habits, and I know I have “gone there” in some of my writings. Have we become mere caricatures of ourselves? Do you find yourself saying “back when I was a kid” or “kids nowadays” more and more?

      God preserve us all (especially me) from Andyrooneyitis.

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