Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Coal Picking, Kite Flying and 70-Year-Old Gangsters

This year my father is retiring. He has worked his entire adult life as the executive director of a non-profit organization for the prevention of child abuse and neglect in a small town surrounded by rural poverty.

While I was home for the holidays we talked about what he would do now that he won’t be going to the office. But the office is only part of it. He’s been working everyday for more than sixty years. My dad grew up poor and had his first job working in a grocery store when he was eleven-years-old. He lived in a mining town and when he was a child he picked coal on the rail road tracks to heat his family’s apartment.

By the time he was in high school he was in a gang. He won a scholarship to college based on a writing competition but was completely unprepared to go because he’d been tracked into shop classes. And he didn’t graduate with his class because he was being disciplined for “pranks.” But the prospect of leaving home was motivation enough to see him finish school, then college and graduate school, and eventually a fellowship at University of Michigan where he got his PhD and became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and radical education.

This new era is significant because my father isn’t just retiring from his job—he’s looking at retiring from the demands and expectations made of men. And he has at this moment little context for living without these demands and expectations; to work, to provide, to be an expert, to be tough. Demands that he likely saw right through from the beginning, aesthetics he adopted so he could survive a brutal town and an uphill battle to be educated. Ways of being he took on so that he could get funding for what is perceived as the “gentle” field of child advocacy, a field that reveals the darkest sides of class politics, gender inequality, and violence.

I want there to be no sentimentality about my father’s retirement or the work he did. What I want is for him to be flying a kite on a beach somewhere. Far away from the errors in thought that pit men against men and men against women, and leave children to pay the price.

What I want is for him to retire from all of it—the coal picking and the politicking alike.

This Christmas my older brother gave me a framed photograph of our great-great grandfather standing in the foundry where he worked; the fire of the forge a bright blur behind him and the heat and filth of the place evident.

I suspect images like these are still riding my father’s heels. And that the fear of not working, for working class people, is deep and old.

And I want to tell him this: his life is more than his job and his ideologies and his tough-guy past. It’s more than the talents of his kids and his grandkids, more than the legacy of the organization he started, or fights with the cops on the quad when he was a young father.

It’s the joy and curiosity and openness and love that made all those things possible. He has lived the phrase “You are what you are becoming.”

And now he is off the tracks, out of the classroom, away from coal breaker, and the office chair.

He is what he wanted to be from the very beginning. Free.

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