Judging by appearances, I am the product of the middle class American family from the mid-20th century. Myself, my mom and dad and my older sister were a picture perfect nuclear family unit in the then dominant United States of America. We were probably all watching together when American men walked on the moon in July 1969. I should be a stalwart member of every 20th century American middle class institution as a sort of inheritance.
And yet, the sustaining institutions that were a part of the American landscape are not a part of my life. I’m as “marginalized” as anyone else in that sense. Compared to my parents, I’m no longer a part of most of institutions that guided them and the United States for so many decades.
We could start with the military; I was never in it. My uncle, Bob Roush, was an authentic World War 2 hero; he was present at D-Day and would have been in the wave that took Japan had they not surrendered. When my Dad, his little brother, was drafted a few years later and sent to the Korean War, of course he went. It was horrible and my Dad had nothing glorious to say about his time in the US Army. And then there was Vietnam, which was playing out on the TV through my entire childhood. By the time I was of age to join the military, it had been less than a decade since the sad and deadly fall of Saigon; I had no interest in those “baby killers” as they were widely called and would hang up on the recruiters when they would call our house.
My parents were very involved with church throughout their entire lives as were both sets of grandparents. We went to church as a family every week. I went to VBS (Vacation Bible School) in the summers and I took my studies seriously. I’ve read the Bible in its entirety many, many times. There as aspects of the Bible that I love, and miss. But church as an institution, as a place to invest, never really took root in me. Reading the Bible, after a time, became counter-productive as I could not overlook so many odd and often absurd things I read there. It’s depiction of a God of jealousy and wrath did not comport well with the values I was to inhabit and worse yet, in times to trouble, Mother Mary did not come to me speaking words of wisdom. I could not let it be. If I was on my own, I reasoned, I would not beg for help. I’ve had to reinvent faith as I’ve gone along and it is tough, thankless work. A readymade God is useful, and a church is more than a building, but like many millions of Americans, that path is just not a viable one for me.
In both my house and my sister’s house, there are photos of our parent’s wedding. Those two young people from the fifties look so happy, and they made it! They were married for 58 years, and died within a few months of each other. Neither my sister nor I were able to put together a similar relationship and are estranged from our former spouses, of which there are four. I can’t judge myself, but I can provide an estimate of my sister; she is fit, sober, and caring. She is at least the equal to my Mom in all ways, and I am not unlike my Dad, but clearly, times have changed. If her kids or mine will be able to develop and sustain long term relationships and families, remains to be seen. Her kids are parents to wonderful children; mine have yet to start down that road. But either way, our kids are our families and we don’t have spouses. So while we are in families, we are not in marriages. That institution is one we’ve exited, and neither of us is likely to go back.
Speaking of my sister, she is a teacher in a public school district. Soon, she will retire after 42 years of service. In that sense, she topped my Dad who worked 37 years in the same industry. I have been employed continuously for most of my adult life, after a detour that lasted most of my twenties, but I was particularly hard headed and adventuresome. Still, I came around and work has been a regular institution in my life and I’ve never been on public assistance, and I hope my kids will not be either. Nevertheless, I am not, and neither is my sister, in a professional association, like, say, the State Bar, or a union, or a professional league. We do not own businesses. Our jobs don’t require uniforms and we are not identified through them. They are a means to an end as it was for our parents.
I vote, but I have not held elective office. I pay taxes, I track issues, I speak up, but I have not aspired to public service, and worse yet, public servants are as reviled now as the US military was at the end of the Vietnam War.
And so, in a single lifetime, marriage, Christian faith, public service, professional leagues, and to an extent a patriotic love of country has gone into decline and disappeared for millions of Americans. Under siege now are sports and the outdoors as many millions more retreat to their devices. Childhood is not the same at all for my kids as it was for me. Americans move around more than they used to and so even attachments to place, to neighborhoods, are dissimilar to the life ways of previous generations. We know less of our neighbors.
Much of my life has been in service of replacing these institutions and finding meaning in new systems, often ones I developed on my own. Both me and my sister are far more health aware than our parents. Our bodies really are our temples in a literal sense. I’ve upgraded my education and changed jobs continuously in an effort to grow, and that path has been largely successful. My life is not without meaning or purpose, and my children are a great source of joy. I’ve also been able to find and attach to things of great meaning, things like a study of the past, books of philosophy which might have been forbidden by a church, and more recently, the wonders of meditation and the contemplation of consciousness independent of the brain and mind. My sister and I are pioneers in that way, in new territories, cut off from the civilizations we were born to. It’s not easy and often tough lonely work, but we are forging a future as our pioneering forebears did. They did it with the institutions they were born to, and we are doing it with the institutions we must create.