A few years back, I made a road trip with my father to his hometown of Stafford, Kansas. It’s a tiny, rural town with a declining population around one thousand. It has six churches and one ever-blinking stoplight. We attended his all-class high school reunion.
At the time, I was pregnant with my first child and I was confused and emotional. I was too sick to continue the graduate program I had just begun, and I didn’t know what to do with myself (besides throw up). This trip was an escape to ground my thoughts in a place that I had always found solace.
As I sat in my dad’s time-warped high school cafeteria surrounded by octogenarians, I listened intently to the speeches from former graduates. No disrespect to the men, but I was astonished at what these women had accomplished. They formed associations that fought for equal housing during segregation. They spearheaded school programs that improved the lives, nutrition, and education of children in Stafford and beyond. They served their community and so improved the lives of their children and their neighbors’ children. The social initiatives that these women instigated produced a ripple effect that reached outward to the surrounding counties, as well.
I know that Stafford was not the only place where women fostered this kind of change. So, what was different back then? I wondered. The obvious answer is that in mid-century America, it was the norm for most women to be homemakers. They had margin. We’ve made great social progress since then, and I have no desire to go back in time. I’m grateful for the battle my forbears waged to ensure that my life as a woman was not laid out for me. I’ve been privileged to enjoy an education and a fulfilling career, and I do not take that for granted.
How could I, as a modern, American woman, honor their legacy? It was my desire to do so from the inside out. When my son came along, I made the decision to stay home. I wanted to be like the world-changing women at my dad’s high school reunion. I wanted to have margin to love and to serve. It was my quiet form of activism—to be the change I wanted to see in the world, so to speak. It’s been a sacrifice of time and money, but I haven’t yet regretted it.
Wendell Berry is one of my favorite authors, and I run to his words for inspiration when I need direction. This excerpt from his 1988 essay, The Work of Local Culture, sums up many of my feelings about being at home:
“I know that one revived rural community would be more convincing and more encouraging than all the government and university programs of the last fifty years, and I think that it could be the beginning of the renewal of our country, for the renewal of rural communities ultimately implies the renewal of urban ones. But to be authentic, a true encouragement and a true beginning, this would have to be a revival accomplished mainly by community itself. It would have to be done not from the outside by the instruction of visiting experts, but from the inside by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home.”
I am now the mother of two boys. We live in a bigger town in Kansas. The boys and I spend a lot of time wandering around our neighborhood hitting things with sticks, and in doing so, we have met many other stick-wielding neighbor kids. We know them by name. Each casual neighborhood interaction makes this is a safer, kinder place for all of us. Our kids are building a community here, just by being around. I hope that, to them, it’s normal to be friends with your neighbors and to feel safe playing outside. As time goes on, maybe they will feel a sense of responsibility to honor and care for the well-being of this place and its residents, as well.
I haven’t yet commenced any notable community-building achievements. My kids are barely not babies. But I like that our house is one of the ones with the lights on. I like that neighbor kids ring our doorbell with no notice and that I have the margin to deliver cookies to our next-door neighbor (store-bought—let’s be real). I like to think these small acts are like depositing coins in a piggy bank—after enough time, my investments in this community will really add up to something.
I don’t wish to stay home forever, and I’m reluctant to say that I recommend my method. There are many beautiful and healthy ways to raise a family and serve a community. But I do believe that allowing margin, one way or another, for our little ones—our precious things—is of key importance. After all, if they don’t have a firm foundation to stand on, how can they stand up for others?
I hope that someday my sons carry on my legacy of loving and serving. I hope they remember to allow margin to spend time with their families and their neighbors. I hope they value the unfashionable (but still worthwhile) wish to be at home.
How does your home life contribute to the warmth of your neighborhood? Do you know your neighbors by name, and do you feel safe in your neighborhood? Have you allowed margin in your life to give back to your community?
(Excerpt for this blog from the 1988 essay The Work of Local Culture from the book What Are People For? by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, 1990.)