Support and affirm
The darn TV
Do it yourself
Home as Safe Haven
Building a life begins with family. We all want love and
connection in our homes. The issue is our commitment, our
willingness to give this a priority. Creating family takes
time and intention. As is so evident in our wider culture,
safe, reliable home life is not a guarantee. The family is
under constant attack from jobs that keep us away from home,
jobs that move us from state to state, advertising that pushes
dissatisfaction and fast foods. And the intrusive blair of
the television, pumping violence and cynicism into our living
rooms, right into the center of family life. TV undermines
all values. Creating family requires that we swim against
this tide, at least until we create a culture that truly supports
us and our families.
Creating safe families requires priority. Family must be
the most central focus of our lives. Most of all, we must
be present. My father, who was president of a large corporation,
always arrived home on the 6:10 train out of New York City.
Most days, I met him on my bike and walked him home. Dinner
at 6:30. He gave us a priority beyond the demands of his job,
and that made a great difference. For some of us getting home
for family dinner is easy. Others have less control. With
jobs paying less and less, with two parents needing to work,
sometimes two jobs, arranging regular times to be together
as a whole family may require extraordinary resourcefulness.
But we cannot build a sense of family unless we arrange to
be together as a family. Parents need to find that time together,
and it must come before kids activities as well. This needs
to be an overarching commitment, be it daily or several times
In our family, when the children were little, we had breakfast
and supper together In the morning we played Little Red Hen.
Whoever was up first, mostly me, could sing: 'My name is the
little red hen, I do it again and again, the children I wake,
the breakfast I make, Three cheers for the little red hen.'
It was obnoxious, but it happened every morning. Then we rated
each person as 'the little red hen' - first down to breakfast,
'sir speedy of snails' -the second, 'sir steadfast of snails'-
third, and finally the lowly 'sir snail of snails' usually
my wife Linda. We all ate breakfast together until high school
when the children were old enough to fend for themselves.
Every night sitting at table was like a religious ritual.
Julie once told us that her friends couldn't believe that
we ate together. It was a commitment all of us made to each
other. We could count on each other to be there for this act
of family renewal. As the kids hit adolescence, we began the
ritual of grace. At the beginning of the meal, not necessarily
before starting to eat, each of us thought of one thing we
were grateful for that happened that day. It changed the focus
from complaint to gratitude, and probably had impact throughout
These rituals were like the skeleton that gave some shape
to our life together. We could count on them, and on each
The less we spend, the more freedom we bring to our lives.
Every dollar represents a few minutes of work, draining our
time and our energy. When our daughters clambered for more
shopping money, my wife gave them a choice. Would you rather
have more clothes or have dad home for dinner? Thank God,
they said they'd rather have me. But that is the choice for
many of us. A new car, or more time to be together. Name brands
or generics. Shopping malls or yard sales. More stuff or more
Many families have no such choices. They already are in
the cheapest apartments, and can barely afford the cheapest
necessities. They need to take any work they can get, at any
hours. For them, what I am saying will remain a dream until
our entire culture really focusses on families and deals with
issues like minimum wage, family needs.
But many families have succumbed to the culture's insistence
that enough is not enough. We need and deserve the BEST. Two
new cars, a big vacation, brand name cloths, hairdos, plastic
surgery, fancy food and on and on. To pay for them, we take
jobs that demand our time and our souls, leaving us exhausted
and empty. Every dollar saved offers us freedom.
My car is sixteen years old. My last one did nineteen. Hand-me-downs
from family are half our furniture. My wife and I get clothes
and presents at yard sales. I have two pairs of shoes, three
pants for winter and three for summer. My wife cuts my hair.
I am not a fashion plate, and no one seems to care. But I
am home every day at six.
Again, this is a culture that supports dissatisfaction. We
are not pretty enough, we don't smell good enough, we are
not good enough. In our homes, we must support and affirm
each other. We must focus on the strengths and beauties of
our loved ones and tell them. Often. Oftener. It is crazy
that many parents think that it helps children if they don't
settle for who their children are, but demand more. More A's,
more little league home runs, and then our children will do
'better'. When Julie was thinking about college, we encouraged
her to take a course for the college boards so she could get
into a better school. After days of urging her, Julie the
wise acknowledged that with this effort, she could get into
a more competitive college but stated her preference to go
to a school 'that likes me just the way I am'. That stopped
our incessant pushing. Julie, just the way she is, is a happy
and successful adult.
What children need is affirmation. The message that they
are lovable and admirable, just as they are. We must offer
them that. Where else can they learn that they are okay if
not from us? If they are secure inside, of course they will
So we must support everything that they do right. We must
notice their small acts of kindness. We must shower them with
hugs and love. It is like throwing an internal switch to focus
on the positive, and we may have to work on it. But home needs
to be a safe haven from all the negatives that we all face
in this larger culture.
Home is also a place where we need to heal the wounds of
the day. Mom's latest job disaster, Julie's best friend's
meanness. We need to listen, hug and love. When Laura was
in sixth grade, school was a social nightmare. Every afternoon
she came home and cried. All the girls she wanted to hang
out with shunned her. Day after day. Night after night we
held her and listened and loved her. The same story all year.
Home was where she could come and recover. We could tell her
she was lovable and worthy, that all those mean girls were
stupid. That summer, she went to a camp where she made good
friends from another town, and the next year they became part
of her out of school support team. By eighth grade, she had
found friends in her own school and this crisis was over.
When our children were still young -4-6 years old- we started
having family meetings. The rules were simple: we all met
together, and no one left until we were done. We all listened.
We could say anything. These meetings occurred when someone
was upset, or, more likely, when there was tension and anger
under the surface. Linda was feeling like she had to do everything,
or I was feeling like no one listened to me, or Julie felt
like we loved Laura more than her, or Laura was upset because
Linda yelled at her. Or chores weren't getting done.
These meetings occurred about once a month. The kids hated
them. There was usually crying, some yelling. If our family
was a pressure cooker, these meetings were the release. Afterwards,
we all felt better, and we all relaxed and smiled. One essential
truth emerged: that we all cared deeply, and once a situation
was fully aired, we could respond.
We have always been aware of the amount of time our family
used TV, always regarded it as an alien presence to be watched
carefully. We had just one set, in the family room, and restricted
After the kids left home, we realized that we were both
wasting a lot of our lives mindless in front of our set. Ten
years ago, Linda and I finally agreed to unplug it. This has
added hours of awakeness to our weeks, and removed a series
of mind-deadening messages: violence, exploitive sex, messages
like "You're not clean enough", "You're not
thin enough", "You're not sexy enough", and
"you don't drink the right beer". We do still watch
videos, but we can chose them more selectively, and they are
over when they're over. What has happened is that we got the
gift of time, maybe eight or ten hours a week. We relax more,
read more, do more with our church, and spend more time with
our children and grandchildren. Not having a daily newspaper
also helps. We read the Sunday newspaper, and listen to National
Public Radio to keep informed.
Story has been a central theme of family. When the children
were little, we read them every night before sleep. The Little
King, Richard Scary's books were read and reread to all our
delight. For Julie's first night at college, Linda and I sat
with her and 'read' the Little King to her by heart. As the
children got older, story crept out of bed time and into any
time we all could find together. Jane Eyre, The Little Princess,
Anne of Green Gables, so many stories. Watership Down was
a lifetime favorite as Linda, our best reader, gave each animal
a different voice and accent. Again, it was time together,
happy, safe, enjoying these beautiful fantasies.
Our home has grown as an extension of our inner lives. Like
everyone else, our refrigerator has been a billboard of the
latest in our family life. First, kids paintings, then pictures
of family and friends. Linda and I have done our own painting
and wall papering- with lots of arguing. My idea is to get
it done and worry afterwards. Linda thinks we should do it
right the first time. But each time we finish a project we
are proud and have a sense of ownership. Anything home made
we put up. Linda's paintings find a place on our walls and
we have family photos everywhere. I'm proud to say we have
never consulted a decorator, and result is a home that is
warm, and unimpressive. People like it, and best of all, feel
at home here.
Probably the most extreme example of this do-it-yourselfing
is our home in Vermont. We owned some land, and about twenty
years ago, got tired of tenting in the rain, and decided to
build a shelter. A friend dug in 9 columns, I borrowed a book
on building and made up a plan. For that whole spring and
summer, Linda and I, Linda's brother Ken and his wife Barbara,
and Laura and her husband Brian with assorted friends arrived
Friday nights, dragging in lumber. We all got up early and
built all day. One friend was an expert at breaking glass,
so it took us seven pieces to get five floor to ceiling glass
panels in place. At one point, someone had to climb a ladder
twenty feet high, supported only by four of us at ground level,
to connect the first two sides. William O'Connor volunteered
and succeeded. He has been a family hero ever since. We learned
all about tin roofs, and were delighted to get thru our first
rain storm totally dry. Our shelter was twelve feet by twenty
one, and is now connected to a sister construction of the
same size that we built the next summer. For me, it was a
major dream come true. I'd had a vision of its rising roof,
sheets of glass panels looking out into the woods, and converting
dream to reality was one of the peak experiences of my life.
This building together was central to the shaping of our
family. We bonded with each other, and especially with Brian,
just married to Laura. He and Ken brought brawn and endurance.
Linda was willing to be the main cook and nurturer. I brought
what little know-how we had, and usually woke about three
AM to plan and then direct the next day's building. Laura
and Barbara hammered a lot. When problems arose, we all schemed
together. We were shamelessly proud of each small achievement.
The materials cost about two thousand dollars. It was truly
a labor of love.
Life slows down in Vermont. We also learn to respect nature,
as we need to stay inside when it rains, get into our sleeping
bags when it gets dark, or too cold. We get up with the sun.
Favorite activities include listening to the rain on our tin
roof, or admiring the lightening when it storms. So we are
both in awe of nature, and dominated by it.
Living exposed to nature was important to all of us. Lying
on our field looking up at the bright star world overhead
helped us to see our place in the universe. Some nights we
saw shooting stars, sometimes man-made satellites sailing
along. Some evenings were filled with fireflies. Sometimes
rain and enormous bursts of lightning and thunder so loud
we jumped. We learned to see the world as it was, unfiltered
by our insulated, sturdy, busy home in Marblehead.
Another experience of learning about nature was the several
years of maple sugaring. In the spring, we found some sumac
and cut off branches which were hollow tubes. We drilled holes
in our many maples, inserted the tubes just far enough in
and hung coffee cans from them. During the cold nights when
the maple sap flowed down the trunk to the roots, some of
it dripped into our cans. In the morning it rushed back up
and we had more sap. Every morning we rushed out to see what
we had collected. Each can full felt like a special gift from
nature. In several weeks, our daily collections filled two
garbage pails. For one whole weekend we boiled off the water
on an outdoor fireplace. We wound up with about two quarts
of very smoky maple syrup. Like so many things, it tasted
smokey, looked awfully dark, but it was ours.
Our home is often home to friends or even strangers in need
of a place to stay. For a few summers we hosted actors from
a local summer theater company in our back bedroom. Linda's
sister and her brother each had long stays with us. Two Swedish
students stayed the better part of the summer, but when we
found out that among other sleazy ventures they were making
up raffle tickets to benefit a nonexistent charity, we asked
them to leave. Not that we didn't continue taking people in.
Visitors to our church regularly stay here. This year, a friend
who separated from his wife, and then another friend who couldn't
deal with her somewhat adult daughter who moved in on her,
came and rested. Except for the Swedes, we have been vastly
enriched by these visitors. It is great to have guests who
stay and hang out, and help out and become forever friends.
Our garage is home to friend Michael's motorcycle, parked
each winter in front of my car. It blocks access to the gardening
tools, but who cares. And Matthew and Deenahs' bikes. We are
lucky enough to have the space and are happy to be able to