Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Yo-Yo and a Flashlight

Both Paige and Isaac were born in Alaska, which means I don't know what it's like to raise kids anywhere else. I know my childhood in New York City was very different; and I know my parent-friends "outside" have different challenges than we do. But I don't get a genuine glimpse of what those differences are unless and until my kids spontaneously reveal them to me. 

Once while visiting New York, Isaac pointed to a pigeon and said, "Look mom, a ptarmigan!" Last August we were in Philadelphia for a wedding, and Paige was floored by the summer-time darkness, fireflies, and ants (which she mistook for a kind of spider). I've noticed that my kids and their friends eat seafood and love it. These kids have seen a pod of orcas navigate the channel in front of their school. They play in snow so deep they can't escape without help, and many of them learn to skate and ski as soon as they can walk. They go barefoot in 50 degrees and insist on swimming at 57. They're used to hiking and biking long distances. They're accustomed to airports and long flights. They learn about Alaska Native culture and history in the classroom, or from their ancestors who have lived it. This is the only life they know. 

I went to a private school, which was a big expense for my parents. But they stretched because they wanted me to have the sort of education that was harder to come by in New York City public schools at the time. Many of my peers in private school came from families with enormous amounts of money and possessions. I coveted these things. I asked my parents why we didn't have "a country house," as if that was normal. I wanted to leave for spring break and come back with a tan. I was grateful for my education, but I hated the way it made me feel: inadequate, inferior, and ashamed ... for nothing. No, actually, for worse than nothing. Back then, I was immature and felt sorry for myself. Years later and upon reflection, it was hard to forgive myself for those feelings. So I just felt ashamed in a new way. It made me want to run away from a culture of stuff forever, and I might have succeeded at that. The overall lack of materialism in Alaska is to me the most noticeable difference about living here. 

This year, Isaac asked for a yo-yo and a flashlight for his birthday. Sure, my kids have too many toys thanks to their generous and overzealous grandparents; they love presents; and they'll beg for something when it's right in front of their face. But they don't actively covet things, and neither do I. Not anymore, and not for a long time. Maybe they're too young to care and it won't last. Or maybe this isn't something unique to Alaska kids. After all, I also don't know any other life as a parent. All I know is that when Isaac asked for a yo-yo and a flashlight for his birthday, I felt pretty happy. Not happy for myself in a smug and superior "Oh, I'm so proud of myself and my non-materialistic children" way. Just happy for them. That they might never feel trapped and burdened by the empty pursuit of material things.

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