Dad always proclaimed himself a “realist,” because it sounded more charming than “cynic;” as a parent, he sought to prepare me for life’s inevitable burdens and disappointments. During my most formative years, he never coddled me with fatherly reassurances, or let me know when I had done right; “you can do anything you set your mind to” and “I’m proud of you” were phrases foreign to his dialect. I spent my childhood pining away for his praise, but every disobedience was worth fifteen accomplishments. I began to wonder how parents earned their dictatorial status, their incontestable authority; I was “daughter,” he was “father,” but were we not both equally human?
Like all sons and daughters, my teenage years prompted an evaluation of the power dynamic in my household; “why, Dad, do you always get to be ‘right?’” He responded with an amalgamation of parental clichés, e.g., “life experience,” “hard work,” “I’ve been around longer than you,” followed by a reminder that I really ought to remember who I was talking to. It took a few years, two heartbreaks, three family tragedies, etc., for me to understand that some experiences must be lived to be known.
In Western cultures, there are few, if any, formal rites of passage which demarcate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The eighteenth birthday, though it bestows several rights and privileges reserved for adults, is more closely associated with commencement speeches than the commencement of “grown-up” responsibilities. When I celebrated my eighteenth, nearly one month into my freshmen year of college, I felt immodestly precocious for my age. With two years of part-time cashiering under my belt, and more than 1,000 miles between my father and me, I took pride in the physical and financial independence which I was certain differentiated me from my peers, and carried myself with a smugness which said you have no idea what I’ve been through.
When I moved from Charlestown, NH, a formerly prosperous industrial village where many residents still rely on the meager earnings of factory work, to the campus of a private liberal arts college, I felt alienated by my background for the first time. Most of my peers had come from nuclear families, with two working parents, brothers, sisters, the works; I grew up in a family unit which consisted of 2.5 members on average: my father, me, and his live-in girlfriend, of one name or another, who I could just never call “Mom.” No one seemed to know the meaning of EFC, the price of a monthly payment, or how much s/he had to earn to afford another year, but I crunched those numbers in my sleep ($9,000-$3,943=$5,057 more than our expected contribution) and walked Dad through financial aid forms over the phone. I had seen my parents’ marriage fail, watched my father lose all faith in fairness (and women), and tried and failed to convince him that Wheaton wouldn’t be the biggest financial mistake of my life.
In the late summer of 2010, our double-wide mobile home sold for $95,000; for Dad, the transaction bought three bedrooms, two baths, and forty acres in Edmonton, Kentucky; for me, autonomy. From then on, there were no things between us, no shared assets; like a divorced couple post-settlement, we parted diplomatically, each taking what was “his” or “hers,” leaving for separate places called “home.” When I chose to attend Wheaton, a decision in direct opposition with my father’s preference, it was the first time I laid claim to my individual rights. He couldn’t hold “the roof over my head” over my head anymore; we were two individuals on divergent paths, both entitled to the same self-directing freedom and moral independence.
In the wake of my first taste of freedom, my naiveté showed itself; like a child who wants nothing more than to eat ice cream for breakfast, I couldn’t wait to begin living my life by my rules. I made the mistake of buying into the notion of free will, assuming that it was possible to remove myself from the context in which I had come of age, and make choices which were entirely self-governed. Now, two years removed, I am confronted by how inextricably bound my personal identity will always be to the lessons, advices, and moral codes relayed to me in childhood.
Last winter, in a bout of whatthehellamisupposedtodoinkentucky, I took a long, deep look at myself, and was disappointed to see a watered down version of the person who I aspired to be. Perhaps, it was New Year’s tradition which prompted my spontaneous introspection, or maybe the squawk of Fox News in our living room forced my liberal-mindedness to manifest itself but, of one thing I am certain, an irrational fear of being disinherited by my “home people” had discouraged me from becoming “too different” or “too radical.” The monikers which I identify with today are controversial and, for a while, I justified using statements which marginalized my beliefs, e.g., “I’m not a feminist, but … I am disgusted by the hypersexualization of women in the media,” “I’m not a vegetarian, but … I try to avoid eating meat.” At home, I itched for someone to bounce my ideas off of, but conversations with my father had consistently proven to be less than productive; he was exasperated by all those “too-sensitive women at work who can’t take a joke” and “starving idiots in India who worship cows instead of eating them.” In January, I left the Bluegrass State as a closet vegetarian, armed with a resolution to kick my habit of self-censorship.
Five months later, I cut off all but four inches of my hair, bought a bicycle helmet, and hitched a ride to western Massachusetts. For the next ten weeks, I would be a full-time participant in Summer of Solutions, SoS for short, an acronym which, in my mind, would come to stand for “Summer of Soul-Searching.” My friend looked over her shoulder and waved “good-bye,” leaving me all alone in the dirt driveway of Harvest Moon Farm; I felt a resurgence of familiar tears, just like the ones I used to cry when Dad would drop me off at daycare. In the kitchen, our landlord puttered away on the sink; he was in the “finishing touches” stage of renovating the apartment where I, and my two housemates, would be living for the summer. At the time, it terrified me to be alone with this strange man, on the outskirts of a town which I had never seen before. Two weeks ago, I mailed a thank you card to Eric and his wife, and was surprised by the nostalgia I felt as I addressed the envelope; I miss 216 Wisdom Way, Greenfield, MA, 01301. If only I had been able to predict the change of heart.
In high school, I never had the financial flexibility to “waste” a vacation from school with anything but full-time employment. If I hadn’t worked at Ralph’s Supermarket for $7.25/hr, a college education would not have been possible for me; my obligation to scrimp and save took precedence over the desire to have meaningful and intellectually stimulating summer experiences. When my acceptance to Wheaton included an academic scholarship, I was ecstatic, even more ecstatic when I read that, as a Balfour scholar, my award included $3,000 to fund an unpaid summer experience or internship. By the summer of my sophomore year, I had learned my father’s cynicism for myself; the system was against people like us, people whose socioeconomic status chased away opportunities; though I had been fortunate enough to “get out,” I wasn’t about to forget the struggles of the community I had left behind.
Summer of Solutions is a youth-led community development program which strengthens participants’ abilities to address social, economic, and environmental issues. Through self-initiated projects, and with the support of leadership training, participants address the needs of local communities, and work to organize tangible improvements which will sustain themselves beyond the span of a ten-week program. In an age of austerity, today’s youth are learning that they must create their own solutions and build sustainable, just livelihoods; Summer of Solutions takes into account both local needs and local assets in its development of long-term projects.
My interest in the Pioneer Valley program stemmed from a desire to lend a hand in preserving the integrity of my homeland. Those who settle in towns like Greenfield and Turners Falls make a priority of location, trading the thriving economy of a larger city for the richness of natural beauty and resources found in the country. As the United States shifts to a more service-based economy, urban development becomes inevitable in even the most untouched of areas. Small towns do not necessarily need to modernize; they, instead, need to find a way to become relevant in the context of a changing economy. Rural America will soon face extinction, unless it is able to become self-sustaining. In reading the program description, the leaders of Pioneer Valley seemed to have initiatives in place which would make this entirely possible. I was particularly interested in perpetuating the “eat local, buy local” movement which appeared to solve two problems at once. Growing and selling food locally is healthier and more ethical for both the consumer and the planet; it reduces our dependency on corporate food, which relies on shady farming practices (genetically modified crops, use of hormones and pesticides), as well as our dependency on the fuel necessary to ship it.
Summer of Solutions was an opportunity for me to take a step back, to reconnect with the person I once was, the girl who played in brook-beds and made homes of fallen limbs. We have become a people so absorbed in passive forms of entertainment that we hardly know what to do with ourselves. I spent my summer free of distraction and, more importantly, idleness. I harnessed my creative energy, and learned tangible, practical skills; food preservation, composting, bicycle maintenance, bread making, plant identification, etc.
While a college education is certainly valuable, I am forthright in acknowledging how coddling the life of a student can be. I am proud to be able to claim a certain degree of knowledge, but after a summer of farm labor and 10 mile bike rides, I am more proud to say: “These are the things I do” as opposed to “These are the things I know.” As cliché as it may sound, I didn’t want to be the voice of change, I wanted to be the change. I didn’t want to be the “couch activist” who watches Food, Inc. and, for some reason, believes that going vegan for two weeks is enough to make a difference. Summer of Solutions was my starting point, the beginning of a lifelong endeavor to practice what I preach, the beginning of a lifelong journey toward autonomy.