EDWISE 

EDITOR AND EDUCATION CONSULTANT

What is not communal?

Here I help define the communal with what are not features of a communal arrangement. A communal arrangement would be one where there is a large degree of equality among the participants, even children, elders and persons with disabilities. It would be democratic. No one person would have reigning authority. That means collective decision making, which entails group discussion.


Taking those points into consideration, a polygamous enclave would not be communal. Neither would a private school, where there would be authoritative oversight, central decision-making and planning and subordination of students. Neither would a typical religious center, as it would typically centralized authority, planning and decision-making.


However, it is possible for a religious center to be organized communally, if the congregation had the power and discussed and decided everything together. I don't know of any such religious commune. Some spiritual associations and retreats have had the appearance of being communal, but there always seems to be a central power of some sort, often (notoriously) a charismatic personality with a silken tongue who is usually a man. There may be sharing of labour and turns at speaking or leading activities, but there is usually a committee or single person behind the scenes pulling strings and staging it all, unfortunately.


Geography is not a determinant, as rural locality, agrarian or otherwise, does not a commune make.



Hostel Culture

In 1892, a holidaying society in Slovenia planned trips for youths setting up a system of hosts making spare rooms available. Hosteling began in Germany in 1909 when a school teacher was planning a trip for his students. After making use of his school to shelter the youth, that man, Schirrmann, opened the first hostel building in Altena in 1912 and founded the first Hosteling Association in 1919. The International Youth Hostel Federation, with members in many European countries, was established in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1932.


Both those years, 1919 and 1932, would have featured conditions that triggered the desire to create hostels. Many Europeans, especially young men, would have been displaced and impoverished by the end of World War One in 1918. Similarly, the conditions of the Great Depression would have resulted in mass migration as people were displaced by loss of jobs and businesses and searching for new ways and places to eke out a living. 


Conditions of great strife also bring about motivation for people in need to share resources. Hosteling is based on cooperation and sharing space and daily supplies to economise and address shortages of products. No doubt a particular culture arose because the same people were using hostels regularly and the hostels became became known as safe, clean and affordable places to stay. The inevitable socializing would lead to friendships and connect people wishing to travel or take on projects together.


Hosteling grew and became popular by the 1960s, once air travel became more common and the burgeoning middle class of the industrialized countries were raising young persons critical of their own societies, keen on exploring others with the time and means to do so. I guess the communal principles of hostel life expanded and took root at this time.


I recently had to travel to a Canadian city on a low budget, so I booked a bed in a hostel room. Because I have been writing about communalism, I took greater notice of the hostel environment this time. 


Hostels are fully blossomed communal sites. Users share sleeping quarters, bathrooms, kitchens, libraries, work spaces and games rooms entailing a high degree of cooperation. The specific rules are spelled out, though frequent users understand the norms and know what to expect. They know they must be tidy and clean up their tables and dishes. They need to return books and utilize minimal storage space. It's always been a nice experience for me. Everyone is courteous and considerate. They behave responsibly and peacefully. At the same time, users chat with each other and often exchange tips with or offer aid to one another about visiting the locale or traveling, and such. Exchanges of material things such as books and maps and even hats or umbrellas or shirts occur. Hostels usually offer some activities, such as guided tours, games, occasional communal meals, movie nights and the like.


These days all sorts of people check into hostels, young or old, students or professionals, workers or business people. Most want to keep travel expenses low, while some just prefer hostel life to hotel rooms because they love the communalism they find there.

The Cooperative Way

The cooperative movement encourages and assists the formation of worker co-ops. Advocates and their organizations lobby for legislation to require companies to first offer their employees to buy their firms before they invite other interests to do it. Such legislation exists in some states such as the UK and some within the United States of America. Some employers prefer to do this, for they respect their workers and their work and do not want to cause them harm. They may believe that their businesses would be in better hands were the employees to take them over rather than strangers and people who are not so familiar with them. 


Where there are allowances for workers to take over the ownership of enterprises, rules and a lending system are in place. The government provides low interest loans and a framework and training for workers' collectives to be able to run companies themselves. In some cases, workers can make arrangements and find funds on their own. There are organizations within the cooperative movement who can educate and facilitate such takeovers.


The cooperative movement does not challenge or object to trade unions; there need not be a conflict. Some unions support workers' co-ops, for they see them as allies and the co-ops, if unions are friendly, see the unions as allies. Collective agreements can offer ideas for the terms of a cooperative arrangement that guarantees and protects the workers rights and safe and reasonable working conditions. However, a worker-owned business would not need a union. Worker's unions are established as a defense against exploitation by owners as all owners of private enterprises profit from the labour of their workers and they do so by keeping wages down and trimming overhead costs by withholding resources and measures that would make workplaces safer, healthier and more comfortable. Private owners certainly do not want to give over the decision-making to workers--no way! They have management to impose restrictions such as time limits and methods. Workers are always pushing back to improve their earnings and conditions.


A cooperative is far more democratic. Workers within it, whether it is a fast food enterprise or a factory, meet and have an equal say in how the work is done. This arrangement is far different from the typical employment where the owner and his representatives command the workers, dictating everything they do at work, from when and how long to use the toilets and take meals to procedures and reporting. Contemporary workplaces may adopt a friendlier management style that shows signs of more respect and appears to consult employees, but you know that the employees' say doesn't count for much; it is still dangerous for them to say anything as their words can be used against them in the end. While there can be all sorts of personalities and ideas present in a cooperative workplace, the relationship of the employees to it and their work is fundamentally different. People simply cannot be abused much since their is no owner exploiting them and everyone who works there has an equal status. True, there can be variations in salary levels considering varying education or training and experience levels, and a bonus system can be implemented as an incentive or reward. 


The cooperative workplace has potential to develop a communal environment wherein workers get to know each other, socialize and assist each other with the problems and demands of life even outside work. In fact, there is a societal vision and philosophy around the worker-owned-and-run cooperative enterprise. It is a vision of a cooperative and caring society with a profound democracy. It is a new kind of communism, a society empowering the people at the base without a government functioning as a centralized decision-making order overseeing and commanding the society. Government has a role in providing services and resources and setting regulations and laws. However, it is one with proper representation of the people, not business owners that dominate and drive and bribe the government to do their bidding to make life richer and more comfortable for them alone. No, it would be a government with proportional representation, perhaps with regional and national election candidates coming from councils filled with nominated and elected workers from the cooperatives and other mass organizations.


There is also a vision of new kind of international relations based on cooperation and aimed at avoiding and settling conflicts through negotiations that would not allow war to break out. the United Nations Organizations would have to be rebuilt and refitted to serve these aims.


An model of a cooperative world has been drawn up by the "All things Cooperative" division of "Democracy @ Work". Here is a link to a video about it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-T0XOA5hI0





Life Without Community

Without the communal experiences that common people set up for themselves, life is harder and colder. Without the social and recreational organizations, ceremonial practices, neighbourhoods in action, nonprofit organizations and various associations in which relationships  and support networks, what is there? 


Workers do not have control over their workplaces, so communal experiences cannot be counted on there. Except for recognitions of birthdays, the Christmas party and occasional lunches together, if the they are lucky, employees must perform prescribed tasks on a given schedule and be subject to monitoring. Atmospheres and management styles can vary, but generally employees grab what chance they can to enjoy the coworker relationships but beat it home, happier to escape the confines of oversight and regime in an enterprise directed by others who reap the most rewards. 


School does not always provide relief, either. Private schools are generally business or religious settings run according to a corporate model with its quantifiable assessments and goals. In many countries, public school is an institution regulated and prescribed by government, and are often large. From upper elementary ("middle school" to some) through secondary school, the ambiance cools down and the focus on scores is sobering. After years of neoliberal austerity measures, too, there is nothing much in the budget to provide extra-curricular and cultural experiences. Even if there are student clubs and a student council, the object is career driven, with the ambitious eager to scratch notches on their resumes. Teachers and concerned observers complain how schools, reformed and relaxed somewhat in the 60s, have become like factories. 


At least any school is a place where friendships are made. The local elementary school might be the only locus of communal activity. The degree of communalism depends on the location of the schools. Some school boards that ascribe to a more humanist approach, especially as concerns the youngest of the student populations. Parents are involved. There could be exchanges and special days. Teachers can assess a student's wellbeing, family life and outlook and try to intervene with one sort of support or another. Volunteers from the community could be in the classrooms and hallways. Also, the school can be used for community meetings such as political campaigning and election polling. There may be continuing education classes run in the evenings and on weekends. 


Without much else in the way of community networks and activities, children and parents rely a lot on the school for social nourishment and growth. this could be why it is reported that many youngsters and teens suffered a lot during COVID lockdowns. Most people were cut off from communal experiences and community life. If both parents were absent from the home to earn their livelihoods or very preoccupied earning money from the home, even family life was inadequate. Families with more resources, of course, could manage better. It was the poorest who suffered most.


Without other communal offerings, people hang around shopping malls and parks. They may get to know others who work at or otherwise frequent those places. They may make and meet friends there. However, there is not much in the way program and structure. It's every person for her/himself. 


People who either start associations and get something going or pay membership dues and join some existing thing are much better off. Their lives are richer and more fulfilling. They should support people's associations and organize them to build society in a positive way.

Recreational Clubs

Recreational clubs are communal to one degree or another. I belong to several, as I like casual sports for fitness, culture, interest and social activity. They are all communal in that they are groups that share space to do things together using common resources. 

     For example, my ukulele club meets in a regular club house and plays together following a leading musician. We participants donate a few bucks at each session to support this leader. Members get to the session on his/her own means. We drink and chat together as well. There are no other meetings of this group other than practice/ play times. 

     My hiking club is another example of a common group experience. It is a couple of degrees more communal than the uke club. We have to register, pay a nominal membership fee each year and follow designated hike leaders who plan each hike. There is a publicly accessible website that bears a calendar, information on each scheduled hike,  and reports on past hikes. Our annual fees pay for it and liability insurance, nothing else. There is a car pooling system for transportation to each location of hikes; passengers pay a set amount to the driver to cover fuel each time they are driven to a hike. The trip leader ensures that there are a few photos taken of the location and participants of each hike, which will be posted along with that leader's brief report on the hike. While hiking, we get to know one another. We bring our own lunches, though. There is only one social event each year: the annual barbecue at a favorite lakeside place. Someone lends a barbecue or two and everyone who goes is supposed to bring a little food to share. However, the picnickers bring their own items to barbecue. There is minimal cost to participants and no cost to the club for this event. The province regulates and oversees all organized sports in the province, so this club must follow the provincial regulations and the insurer's stipulations. The city carries information on the club and provides a few gifts to distribute to club members on the day of the annual social.

     The most communal of all the recreational and cultural clubs I belong to is the lawn bowling club. This is a traditional English sport that traditionally serves older people. A whole community thus revolves around the local lawn bowling club. Although the provincial government sets the standards, the city provides a subsidy and the property including the equipment shed and clubhouse. Therefore, city staff clean the washrooms inside the clubhouse and manage the flower beds inside compound regularly. However, members do everything else themselves; it is a member-run organization, with members paying an annual fee to cover insurance, maintenance, outdoor equipment and kitchen and game room supplies. Besides the annual membership fee, we each pay a couple of dollars each time we play a game so that we provide additional funds for snacks, the maintenance of the green and seasonal prizes. Members can drop in any time to present themselves for games on bowling game nights three times a week and one bowling morning session once a week. There are competitions against nearby clubs at least twice a bowling season. The club also runs a croquet evening. There is always social time after games, which volunteers from among the membership organize to set up tables, prepare and serve food and clean up. Volunteers take care of grounds and run the games. In fact, this club is a full-fledged nonprofit society with an executive body. There is one official coach to train members and apply the rules. We follow international rules and techniques established ages ago in England. Though the club keeps some spare equipment, members have to acquire their bowling kits each containing four uniquely marked bowls and paraphernalia. 

      As such a developed tradition, community lawn bowling clubs provide vital opportunities for socializing. Seniors benefit tremendously and enjoy it for the outdoor setting, the company, the mild activity and thrill of the game. Older people can play this despite some physical restrictions and weaknesses as they age. People join as of their late 40s; they typically are people who enjoy sports but who have had some kind of long term injury or ailment, or are just looking for another way to relax outdoors on spare evenings. Many are longtime members who play until they are no longer able at a very advanced age. In fact, club archives with photos are kept and memorial plaques for the most active members are displayed.

      The social schedule of the season offers a lot, from the monthly barbecues to the holiday bowling lunches and the season opening and closing banquets. Participants bring their own lunches to the holiday games and salads and such to share at barbecues, when individuals bring their own items to cook on the grill. The opening and closing events are ticketed meals, but surplus club wealth is used to provide gifts beyond the raffles tickets that are offered at each banquet. 

     The bowling season is only three-and-a-half months long, but the club remains open all year round. There is one card, one darts and one carpet bowling session each week so that members can stay active and engaged with this community. Surplus funds from the summer season provide small snacks. People can buy beverages at each season; a volunteer keeps it stocked up.

    The games organizers keep stats of everyone's performance in all the clubs games, from bowling to darts, so that the persons with the highest scores and most wins can be identified and rewarded a little monetarily from time to time. 

    You can see that the lawn bowling is a full communal experience. It grows a community who do many activities, physical and social, together regularly in a communal space. Lasting friendships form. The membership develops to a more intimate level than other types of recreational clubs. Things are planned to be fair and inclusive.


Humans Helping Humans

I am reflecting on the memorial banquet I just attended. Friends, family and extended family came to share memories and catch up. Now I'm thinking how much such an event is a communal experience. First I consider who and what makes up a family. Then I consider how people rally around someone in need.

In the case of this gathering, close friends and extended family were quite a mix and acquainted in a variety of interesting ways. Of course, there was immediate biological relatives and relatives by marriage. In addition, there were several cases of close friends and family established by volunteer child raising. Here is an example. One man had been in a relationship with a drug addict who continued to help to raise her child well after breaking up with the girlfriend. That child is now a young man who attended the honouring of his quasi-uncle with his wife. Another man brought his biological daughter and grandchildren, as well as a teen-age adopted daughter whom he and his late wife met as foster parents when she was an infant; they looked after that girl for a few years and opted to adopt her after the natural mother, another drug addicted, passed away.             There was a young child at the dinner; she was there under the informal guardianship of her mother's friends, the mother being absent and unable to take care of her. These are all examples of stretching the perimeters of family to

take care of people where there is no obligation by birth or law; people help because they care.

     After the meal and the planned proceedings, informal chat gave rise to a few exchanges about different types of services and individual preferences. One issue is notification of the passing. One person may have a larger or different sort of network than another. How and who to notify? What is the responsibility? I got to thinking that various people well acquainted with the deceased through work or other organized activities and by proximity. If any of them learn of the passing, chances are that someone among them will respond on their own initiative and hold some sort of event to acknowledge it. Take community and leftist social and grassroots political activists, for example. It is normal for fellow activists, perhaps organization leaders or volunteers, to arrange something apart from what the immediate family or close friends do; the activity could be a letter to the family, a public message, a small gathering or a larger service. Work or recreational/ social club mates might react similarly.

     Then I got to thinking that there are a lot of situations of people helping people. Disasters are obvious examples. People will open their doors, provide food and supplies, donate money, etc. On the other hand, there is a lot of talk about how the population will respond to severe economic conditions as stagflation strangles economic life and a deep recession unfolds in the USA and Canada. I hear many expressions of fear. The gun promoters and survivalist convey great fear about their neighbours who they surmise will run rampage thieving and killing to stay alive ,so stocking up on guns, ammo and necessities and preparing to defend themselves or perish is recommended. I, though, believe in human kindness and concern. I think that many able people will organize to take care of each other and try to repair the crisis.

     Think about it. Who runs shelters, kitchens, mobile street services, and outreach and counseling? Who sets up charities and nonprofit or self-help organizations? Average people step forward to work hard finding resources, making public appeals, researching and sharing information, obtaining qualifications, getting funds, and so forth, and they are often volunteers.

COMMUNAL LIVING


Sorry for the lengthy absence. I do not like this blog format and input process, for one thing. For another, I did not have another theme except peace; I cover peace at my Just Peace Committee page on Facebook and my justpeace.blog (Wordpress) as well as in an internal newsletter for the International League of Peoples Struggles (peoplesstruggles.org), which is the Commission 4 publication called "Peace 4 the People". I also write statements for ILPS Commission 4 and Just Peace Committee, internationally and locally, respectively.

     In my activism for peace, we confront imperialism (domination, exploitation and plunder to make astronomical wealth for the few) that is the main source of various forms of violence and oppression. The long term goal is to build an alternative to monopoly capitalist imperialism, which concerned people involved generally call socialism. There are different types of socialism which are mainly state control of land and production and state laws and programs to provide social benefits and protection to the masses. Communist parties have been able to rule and institute vast state socialism through revolution and through electoral campaigns and reforms. We can think of Cuba and Venezuela as examples of one and the other. From the 1930s through the 1970s, US and Europe-based capitalism made compromises to socialize some industry, provide social programs, build infrastructure for working people, and so on. Capitalism's weaknesses, though, could not be avoided: wars, periodic slowdowns, debt and currency crises. The neoliberal approach of the 1980s to 2020 ruined that project by dismantling it and privatizing and deregulating everything. Politically aware intellectuals and working folk are talking about socialism again and decrying "the imperialist system" and all its violence and ills.

     Therefore, I have been thinking about socialism. Capitalism is not working out; it is in total crisis, at least US-based monopoly capitalism is. The crisis is economic (stagflation, approaching recession, debt), social (rising suicide, alienation, displacement, bigotry, disruptive and dysfunctional family life), education (rising illiteracy, lack of supports), health (insufficient public care for all, rising mortality and morbidity, mental health and opioids), unemployment or underemployment, housing (quality and affordability with rising homelessness). I don't have to tell you.

     If more people continue to get politically active and join protests, they can only be effective when they join forces, share info and materials and ideas, collaborate and make demands for change together. All the movements have to come together as one to confront imperialism. It has to have a grassroots, worker and poor people base.

     What alternative and how can we get there? Through collective action and discussion, forms of organization come into being: cooperative enterprises, committees, shelters and workspaces, bartering and sharing arrangements, social and recreational clubs, nonprofit enterprises and charities, popular non-corporate media, art projects, education and skills training programs, worker-owned factories and so on. Oh, you have heard of at least some of these? Yes! They already exist. You probably realise that they are each a product of local struggle. You probably know that they could not be accomplished by a single person, but rather had to be by a collective. When victorious, such endeavours result in people/ worker/ community-run, autonomous collectives that serve the people somehow. The struggle may have required and won state funding and legislation, so that many such collectives are state supported. It is this collective, popular action and organization that interests me, for I see it as the foundation for a whole new society that cares about and operates for and by the people. I envision a governance of representatives from among the communities and collectives that does not own and control projects and enterprises and programs but is designed to facilitate and support them.

     The socialism built in the Soviet Union and elsewhere has largely been systems of state ownership, control and direction of production and community life. I am not knocking what has been achieved. Clearly, the people fought and worked hard for it and benefited from it for a few decades. It is the top-heavy, top-down system that is vulnerable to corruption. Economic critics of capitalism have also reviewed former socialist states and come to accept that, to date, they adopted a capitalist production and distribution model, though wealth and production was not in private hands. State-owned enterprises used the monetary, price and wage system and accumulated wealth, which was to be redistributed into investments in infrastructure, homes, services, culture, and factories aimed at continuous expansion. In other words, they borrowed the capitalist model and changed some of the language. True, there were local committees and trade union and party locals from among whom representatives to the massive regional and state assemblies were regularly and properly elected. However, democracy was at risk and the state vulnerable to corruption as long as the economy and management were centralized. Too much power in too few hands.

     Today, new models of socialism are being discussed. Many prize communal life and governance. I want to think about this approach.

The next steps will be to look at examples of communal life around me. You probably have not held communism high, but that ideal is alive and well around the world as people continue to form and run various types of collectives. You likely belong to one or support one. I will discuss how much each case is "communal".

Communal living is my new thread to be discussed in the next few weeks, if not months. Stay tuned.

Blog

Eye of the Optimist-short story (Housecleaning)

Posted on May 23, 2015 at 7:08 AM
Housecleaning

She rounds the corner tentatively and surveys the scene that seems to have become frozen in time: two of her brothers sit, mouths open while her mother lays on the couch clutching a paperback romance novel, oblivious to all else. It is scary to her, the daughter. There ought to be talk, movement, a glance or some sign of life.

Sometimes the existence in this place feels like the shadows where death lies taut waiting to snatch them. It might just shut down. Their bodies might dissipate and turn into some vapor to float out and be absorbed by the pollution of decay and dust of the winds of time. She even has dreams when she dreams she is awakened while laying in bed when some ominous force pulls her against her will out of her bed and along the floor out towards who knows what. It is scary, this life but mostly it feels sad when she wants to feel happy. It feels morose when life beyond the house (she never calls it “home”) beckons.
This young budding woman of 14 shudders. The scene is always disturbing and she must look away. She steps back and retreats in some vague hope of finding refuge from the oppressive and forlorn silence. There is nowhere else go outside of school except into her own mind, not that it is very fertile ground for it is starving. There has been nothing much to feed it, though she craves knowledge, light, love and life. Some days she just tries to push her mind to create some feeling and some light inside her, but often she just gets a headache. She wants to read, and walks miles to the city library to get books until she has read everything in the section for her age group and the librarian tells her she is not allowed to read other things. Same goes for the school librarian, whenever the young teen reaches for the over-age fourteen material. Well, a lot of these books are not as interesting as their celebration heralds. Like the pop songs she used to strain to hear to drink in all the allegedly important content, the experience is just as disappointing and baffling. Anyway, she thinks she thinks too much, in fact. Also, she has seen enough of human weakness and failure that she feels afraid to learn more of some aspects of life. She wants to live—to feel something. Yelling and protesting or arguing for the sake of excitement seems to be her only resort open, it appears sometimes. She causes a brief moment of panic and a response of consternation, but nothing much else. They soon crawl away and back into their caverns of silence and futility.

She can feel a pulse at school. There are things to do, and faces that open their mouths and release words of acknowledgement and some praise, though mostly blandness except when the opportunities to scorn, scoff and criticize present themselves to others, mostly girls and women, who resent her for her appearance or the rumours about her. She believes that she somehow gets less of the the latter than some students probably get, and that may be because her modus operendi is to get along and be polite, stifling her own anger and critical voice, withholding her true responses for the sake of getting by and getting along. The teachers—they are generally a hopeless and mindless lot, in her opinion. For one thing, they do not actually teach. Rather, they manage classrooms and attendance lists and ratings. They mostly frown at her if they pay her any attention at all. They not actually show much control, for they mostly give way to the mouthiest students and parents, and we know who they usually are: the richer ones of course, the ones with dentists and doctors and lawyers or petty community leaders as fathers. The teachers look away, or allow her to receive a benign smile once in a while, when they are not saying, “That’s good, but…” No, it is her peers, the ones she hangs out with at lunch time or plays sports with or visits in their homes (on rare occasions) who have something positive to say, like “You’re smart,” “You could be a beauty queen,” or “You know how to speak to the teachers.” We all want some advice, some tips on what we should do in life, and how navigate life, but it all seems to be a game wherein we must guess and figure it out on our own. It is like their tests and procedures. They could just explain, give examples and methods, coach us and, you know, lead and really teach us skills and useful information, and let us discuss things. The young teen comes to the conclusion that the adults, despite their assigned roles and titles, have not figured out much and are just muddling through. Her parents are further evidence of that, for they seem bewildered and unequipped for life, and waiting for someone to instruct them, waiting, year after year, waiting…Yet, the required school life activities make her feel alive. She does any sport they let her do just feel herself move. She just wants to run, use her body, feel the wind and her pounding heart to let her know that she still is alive, and has not slipped away into the other side only to observe life proceed without her.

At age 14, she is already dedicated to self-directed learning. She figures she will have to get a real education, and it would be best to start now instead of merely passing the time until graduation. She believes she is on her own, and that basically every human is to one degree or another, and that she will need to learn how to defend, support and make decisions for herself, so she is alert to any clue at her disposal to guide her way.

For her, the street is not an option. She feels too vulnerable and ill-equipped. She wants to graduate, rather than leave school early. She does not want to run away from home, for that does not seem like a viable option. Anyway, it is not really that she has anything she needs to escape from. Rather, she needs to bring things into her life, into her home that fill it with life.

In any case, she possesses some kind of insight, some understanding of the workings of the world and what kinds of people and situations are out there, an awareness that some of her peers marvel at. She does not know how she came to such “understanding”, which feel like hunches, so she prefers to call it her intuition, not realizing that intuition is a form of intelligence. Not there have not been clues. Though not fully cognisant of it yet, she has a foggy notion about mental illness that she has gotten from association with certain relatives and certain school mates with certain relatives. That is a real danger, and she feels that she is a candidate to be one of those minds that slip into an abyss, so she is determined to avoid that by all means. Also, she has observed strange men in the woods on her trips to and from school since grade five. While her chums appeared to be oblivious, she knew that the guy with his pants down standing at the gate to the park path should be avoided. On another occasion, she observed a boy with an odd smile on his face walking out of the brush with a man lurking in the trees behind him, and knew that someone could be lurking around some trees or a dark corner and want to grab her one day. She preferred to be cautious. She has heard of knife fights around town that end up bloody, and sometimes deadly. She knows there is a drug trade growing in and around her junior secondary school, and that it was a trap to be evaded. She knows that girls and woman can be used, abused and traded. She knows enough by now, and does not need to discover more details about such goings on herself, thank you very much. No, as sad and as boring as it was, the best thing was to keep to the straight and narrow, stay the course of a basically conventional life for now until she could find some security for herself. She is committed to going along with the program until she thinks she is strong enough to take to her own path in life.

What to do, then? Though there is not much to the art department, and she has hardly had any encouragement about art, she spends a lot of time sketching, so that she gets better and better at it. (After all, no one has encouraged her much about anything, and she has been evaluated as ordinary and middle-of-the-road without talent but most likely to marry soon after high school.) She sketches everything, the teapot, the telephone, and moving on to plants and the dog. She really likes doing faces, though. She fills pages of her sketch pad. At the house, no one remarks on this activity.

She opts for a drama class, although there is no drama to act in. The lessons are about body movement and control—doing the tree, playing dead, imagining and so on. Her grade is supposed to be part of a collaboration with grade 10, but it is only the grade tenners who are given parts to play. We are to observe, take note and learn from them. Yeah.

She is so desperate that she joins a local church choir. She loves singing, though a lot of the Christian hymns get her down. No one comments on her ability or shows gratitude for participating. She hangs in there, for she likes the sensation of singing, even if she does not believe in the words that she is supposed to sing. She has enough faith in music. Also, it is a safe enough place to go in the evening and on weekends. (Eventually, she will join a school choir, which acts as the chorus for a school musical, and the director will praise her voice but say she is too quiet, without trying to draw her out or instruct her how to project her voice. It is all so lame.)

By this time, there is an ancient piano in the house. It has been abandoned by a relative. Her father refuses to get it tuned, and there is inadequate space for it in the basement where it is stored. Her mother remains neutral about the matter, but then she remains neutral about nearly everything. She finds enough voice to get a piano teacher, mostly out of the relative’s insistence (her grandmother, the previous owner of the piano) and he is a nice university student who comes once a week and remains steadfastly polite about the state of the piano, never hinting to her mother that it should be tuned, to her knowledge. He’s not a bad teacher, and he is encouraging. He chooses pieces suited to her personality and ability, and is playing some parts of concertos after only a few months. Her mother seems totally dumbfounded when she tells her daughter that the teacher said she had some musicality. (It was just like the time when her aunt told her mother that her niece was strikingly beautiful.) The girl tells the teacher that she just wants to learn for pleasure.

Although she most certainly does not want to be involved in any sort of secretarial work, she takes speed typing, which she decides is one of the few useful skills that schools offer these days. It is a skill in demand, that may help her survive. (It turns out that it does, later on.)

She elects to take other subjects that may help her in the future: languages and “home economics.” She already has a knack for learning French, much unlike most other students and is rewarded by pleased French teachers time and again. She takes the cooking class, not because she dreams of finding refuge in a marriage; she enjoys it and knows she will always have to feed herself. (It’s true, she did all her life. Friends and neighbours came to marvel at her ability to whip up home meals, though the family members continued to refrain from dishing out compliments in return.) She learned some basics, and gained a repertoire of survival skills and nutritional knowledge (such as it was in that day and age—the five food groups, and all ad nauseum…).

In science class, she got interested in plants. She does an impressive little experiment in nurturing a plant.

As she knows she will need money, she wants to start earning it as soon as possible. She has already taken up babysitting (much to the relief of her stingy father, who would prefer to give his very hard earned money to strangers and wager it on dubious causes than use it to see help his family thrive). By the summer after her fourteenth birthday, she accepts a job. Her mother takes credit for the accomplishment, and does not seem to worry that her beautiful curvy daughter is exposed to the elements of a lumberyard and hardware store.
At the house, though, there is not much to do. The boys take over the TV and she usually can not watch something she liked, not that she wants to waste a lot of time in front of the noise box. She reads, but there is never enough to read. (She used to spend time reading dictionaries and pages in the encyclopedia, even her mothers’ discarded cheap paperbacks, in her desperate desire to learn. By 16, she resorts to reading the New Testament of the King James Bible, things get so bad.) She takes scraps from her mothers’ futile and abandoned sewing projects, and cuts them into shapes to be glued onto boxes and colored glass bottles, but that cannot amuse her much these days. She would sing along to the radio, if she ever got to select a station or play a record when her mother or her brothers were not, but she found most songs to be silly or completely irrelevant. She used to bring a friend from school over once in a while, but that had gotten way to embarrassing. The house can be deadly boring at times.

That is why her fourteenth year becomes her housekeeping year. She takes to scrubbing, pressing, sorting, sweeping, folding and vacuuming the place. After all, nobody else is doing it. It needs to be done. She can be useful, even if no-one appreciates it. It empowers her, gives her an occupation and role at home, for herself, anyway. It keeps her active and it keeps her from brooding. She endures her mother’s scorn and the ridicule from her father and brothers who label her “little mother.” She endures the disapproving looks and shaking of the heads of her neighbours who see her hanging up something to dry on the veranda, or sweeping the stairs, or shaking out a dust-mop. She does not care what others think. It is worth it to be in action. It is a defense against the doldrums of this family’s shipwrecked life. It is resistance to the passivity and ineptitude. She does not want to be swallowed up in neglect and debris. She does not want to be part of the backsliding. She wants to pick up the dust balls, sweep up the trash, iron out the wrinkles, and place things neatly in drawers and on shelves where they belong. It is better to at least maintain some order, stick to some ritual and routine, than to let everything slide. She is on the side of tidiness and cleanliness and not on the side of slovenly lassitude that leaves things jumbled and rumpled, scattered with no conscious care and placement. She is not going to let Them turn Her into That. 

Categories: communication, living, positive thinking, new poetry, social justice and change

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8:44 AM on May 22, 2020 
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