One of my favorite authors, Kent Nerburn, speaks of a moment in time when he was teaching young men and told them that he had been asked to give a dinner presentation to their fathers. He asked his students what they wished their fathers knew. The essence of what he heard from the boys was that they wished that their fathers would give them something meaningful to do. Something important. Real. Essential.
Kent has worked and written extensively about his experience on the Native American reservations. What he shares about their culture, and the traditional role of the young people, is that they occupy a very unique, irreplaceable, essential role the community. The same is true for the elders.
If either the youth or the elders failed to meet these vital obligations the community’s well-being, and ultimately very survival is threatened. In my opinion, in our culture, we have gotten away from all of that.
To be blunt, I believe we mostly warehouse the kids and the elders. Delivering the not so subtle message to all, that they have nothing of essential value to offer. Perhaps that is why, from my perspective at least, we are a culture of the young wanting and pretending to be older, and the oldsters doing the same to appear to be younger.
Reflecting on my own childhood, I thought about the family homestead farm, which made up our “tribe”. How did we reflect that all family members had an innate sense that they were of value to our “community’s” well-being with how we lived our lives?
We lived a very simple life. Everyone, it seemed, had essential tasks and roles. The children did not play, and the elders did not rest while the adults worked. Men and women played essential parts.
As a young boy, I remember spending a lot of time as a part of the crew that looked after our farm machinery. When we were not actually planting, cultivating, caring for or harvesting crops, we were fixing and maintaining the tractors, implements, and tools.
What of importance could a youngster do? Run (not walk or meander) and get a forgotten tool they needed. “Hold” a wrench, on a bolt, in an area tucked away that was too small for an adult hand. Read the print that was too fine for the aging eyes of the adults.
At the same time, I was learning the names of engine parts (pistons, spark plugs, distributors, bill hooks, combustion chambers….) tools (water pump wrench, pliers, logging chains, pins, clevises…) and the terminology that was used to describe (overhauling, lubricating, tune-ups…) what was being done. The wisdom of the elders.
Not being there to help was never an option, it was just what I was supposed to do. Play came after the work was all done. Which did not happen all that often - even on rainy days, there were fences to be fixed.
There was a time when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, that my Grandfather, Uncle and I each had a tractor and hay baling outfit. We would go to other farms in the area who didn’t have this equipment to help them bale their hay. My grandfather was a “custom farmer.” Someone who would do the actual crop work for other landowners.
Each morning we would show up at a farmer’s place and “bale out” that field, go on to another farm and repeat that scene three or four times a day. Sometimes we would each go our separate ways, and each of us take care of two or three farms each. I operated my hay baler and tractor during the day by myself, while my Uncle and Grandfather went other places.
Each night my job was to clean and grease all the equipment, fill the tractors and balers with gas (by hand pump), check the water and oil levels for the next day, and line all the equipment up under the big tree so that everything was ready to go the next morning. Meanwhile, my Uncle would be milking and feeding the cattle while my Grandfather would organize where we were to be going the next day.
I am sure somebody else could have done my part, but there was nobody else there to do it. I know my brother, sister and cousins also played similar roles in contributing to our and their own farm’s viability.
When I was in elementary school my Grandfather would drive up and park outside the window of my classroom, honk the horn, which everyone knew was the signal that I was to leave school and go do what needed to be done. Since I was the only one who got to leave school, for that moment in time, walking out on all my classmates (and especially the teacher), I felt special and important. I was the only one there that was allowed to leave school, and not get in trouble. I was being called to help with the planting, or cultivating or harvesting, whatever the chore of the day happened to be.
I remember when I was 5 years old being tasked with walking to my Great-Grandmother’s home each evening to make sure she had enough wood fuel for her cook and heating stoves.
Looking back on those days, in those very small ways, I guess I was deemed essential. It sounds idyllic as I reminisce, but it didn’t have that feel to it back then. Even though it was difficult, and I wouldn’t say it was fun, the indirect message was that I was important, and I had value.
I also remember a time when my Dad was preparing to open a motorcycle shop and was building out the showroom. One day he took me to the site of the shop. (I think maybe Mom was trying to get me out of her hair.) He dumped this big bucket of bent nails that he had saved and said, “I need you to straighten these.”
All day I spent straightening nails in a vise on the work bench. I prided myself in making those old bent and rusty nails as straight as any new one. Every half hour or so he would come pick up the nails I had straightened and go back to his construction project. That is what I did all day.
My Dad was not the kind of guy who had lunch or took a break, we just worked until we were done that evening. When we got home that night Mom asked how it had gone. Dad said, “I couldn't have gotten done what I accomplished without him.” At the time I thought he was probably just being nice, but as I look back on it, it did seem as if I was contributing in some meaningful way.
Looking at these collective experiences, I have realized that I did not have to sit down and ask my elders for wisdom. It was simply integrated into everyday life. A look here or a comment there. There was no separation, it just flowed.
So, rather than simply lament the loss of our culture’s senses in terms of giving real value to the young and the elders, I have decided to aspire to reinstitute these factors in my “community” of people. When talking to people over the age of 70, I’ve begun asking them (acquaintances and strangers) what wisdom they have collected that they would pass on to the generations below them. The answers have been amazing and as profound as anything I have read in a philosophy book.
I have also begun interacting with children differently. When I have a chance, I ask them to tell me how they see and hear the world. For example, when we both sit looking at a mountain sunrise, what goes through their mind? I will tell them “You have 8-year-old eyes or 12-year-old eyes and mine are 75-years-old and they don't see what your eyes see. Can you tell me what you are seeing?”
They look at me weird. They should. For the most part, no one has asked them what they see, or hear, or sense, or think and allow themselves to be influenced by what they hear.
I would invite you to share your memories – ways in which, as kids, you were given what was seen as essential chores, that perhaps, only you could do. What and how were you taught that you were an essential part of your “community’s” survival.
What are you doing, now, as an adult to give such messages as “you are essential to the survival of our family/community” to the young?
If you are 70 years old or older, I would love for you to share a piece of wisdom. What one thing, would you tell the generations below you? During these times, it is more important than ever to share your wisdom, since so many of us have big targets on our chest and back.
And if you ask a child to share what they see or experience, I would love to hear those stories as well.