Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go

On this blog I've discussed societal trends ranging from achievement obsession to media overload to increased marketing to kids to a lack of time spent in nature to over-scheduling and helicopter parenting that I believe are converging to undermine the experience of childhood for today's children. I've vacillated and equivocated about what I meant by "last American childhood" -- Was it the one that belonged to my generation? To my parents? A suburban fantasy complete with tree-houses and jello molds? I've acknowledged the flaws in imagining there a time where most kids were freer, safer, happier than they are now. 

There was some brief period -- after most kids in this country stopped spending most of their day working on farms or factories -- and before most kids spent much of their free time plugged in or involved in supervised activities -- when kids spent more time playing outside and more time engaged in imaginary play. I've tried to think about ways to increase those activities and to recognize books, articles and projects that promote a more natural approach to child-rearing. I've revealed both my admiration for and disillusionment with some of the more vocal members of the hands-off style of parenting. I've exposed mixed feelings over raising a city mouse, shown my appreciation (I hope) for the little village we have here, indulging often enough in my own pastoral fantasies. I've tried to confront demons that block me from pursuing my own childhood writing dreams with more vigor, to identify what experiences in my imagination and in nature made the strongest impact on me. Through this loosely-tied together series of digital essays I began over 2 1/2 years ago, attended to with varying degrees of care and mixed in with unrelated personal experience, I struggled with both what I meant to say about the erosion of--borrowing from Virginia Woolf--"that cathedral space of childhood" and what I intended to do about it.

When the shootings happened in Newtown, Connecticut just a few weeks ago, I was left reeling like so many others as the devastating news unfolded. I wondered, as I tried to wrap my mind around what the parents of those kids were going through, did this tragedy resonate more than others because it was closer geographically, because we are often in Connecticut, because Alex and my sister work in schools, because I have a child of a similar age to those who were killed? Those factors may have brought the story into sharper relief, the heartbreak, it seemed, was nearly universal. The story was truly intolerable. Twenty little kids -- just days earlier before smiling and playing with siblings and friends, excited for Christmas, the night before, even, tucked safe and cozy into their beds -- now gone, and in such a brutal, senseless way. It was too far outside the realm of what one can imagine happening to kindergarteners in a classroom with its alphabet-covered walls, dollhouses and play kitchens, miniature tables and plastic bins full of markers and crayons. A room full of little, joyful people just starting their lives. 

Suddenly writing about protecting childhood in terms of limiting scheduled activities and letting kids play in the woods felt trivial. I asked myself how I could write about the tragedy here. Even the title of the blog felt thoughtless, inappropriate, in light of the childhood these twenty children would never get to live. And yet I did not want to jump to a "no one is safe" position. I agree with Lenore Skenazy on this -- school shootings are still very rare. And the world is not going to hell in handbasket--the worst school massacre, she points out here, took place in 1927. 

But still, I wondered if I had overlooked real dangers to childhood to focus on plastic toys that stifled imagination. The need for gun control is blatant, glaring, obvious, the need to support organizations like The Brady Campaign, to write letters to Congress, to sign petitions like the Daily News Assault-Weapons Ban. I've taken it as axiomatic that, as Tim Denis put it so perfectly, "The right to own a weapon doesn't trump the right of a six-year-old kindergartener to be alive", that our responsibility to the safety of children is paramount - not a question, a debate or an uncertainty. Yes there is a need to devote greater resources to mental health services though I agree with others that such a point is a distraction in response to the shooting. And yet all of this, I realized, is really a separate--though related--conversation. It was not the one I was having, though perhaps it's one I should. 

Dropping Wally off at school on the Monday after the shooting I pictured the parents in Newtown who had dropped their kids or watched them walk out to the bus just three days before and never saw them again. But excessive fear about kids' safety fueled by the 24-hour news cycle--I remind myself--is part of what limits children's freedom, partly what altered the landscape of childhood, partly what led to the erosion of their cathedral. One can't protect against every horrible possibility. Armed guards, vaccines, safety belts, supervised activities, school security (Newtown had it, in fact, and Columbine and Virginia Tech both had armed guards)--none of these offer full inoculation. 

Even lovely New England towns, quiet snow-covered towns you might have weeks ago envied as you saw the signs from 84 driving through - even these are not walled cities. I don't say this to point the way toward "No one is safe" hysteria, or to draw the conclusion: there's nothing to be done. There's lots to be done -- petitions to sign, letters to write -- but there is nothing to be done in terms of guaranteeing protection from tragedy. I don't know if anything good can come out of acting like you can. It's terrifying to acknowledge that you can't always keep your kids safe, that basic, most fundamental, primal responsibility as a parent, their total safety, is beyond your control. You could keep them inside every minute of their free time -- away from tics and predators, cars and mentally-ill people -- but unless you go so far as to hide them away in a dungeon they're still just as vulnerable as those lovely children in Newtown: Grace, Charlotte, Noah, Daniel, Chase, Jack, Olivia, Josephine, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Jesse, Ana, James, Emilie, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Allison and Benjamin, all either 6 or 7 years old, "the beautiful, the tender, the kind". 

So what then can you do then? You can choose wisely about how you spend your days together. Appreciate the time that you have. Today isn't a memory, yet. Today we are closer to the sun than we will be any other day this year. 

*title and quote, Edna St. Vincent Millay "Dirge Without Music" which begins:

"I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned."


  1. A recent relevant NYTimes Op-ed:


  2. Fantastic and fascinating article - thank you. What a great point- one I hadn't stopped to really think about. The true burden borne invisibly in this case -- like so many -- by poor minorities.


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