“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
~ Irish Proverb
Today I was talking with a young woman about the importance of taking care of and nurturing those we love. We concluded that sometimes we know intuitively how to do this. Yet sometimes we aren’t so sure we are on the right track…
As our conversation unfolded I recalled the title of a book that speaks to the significance of doing the best we can for those we care about, our families. Mary Pipher’s The Shelter of Each Other make us conscious of the realities we are facing in life, and the choices we can make to rebuild our families, create safe, caring homes for our spouses and children, and find renewed meaning in our lives. Our country is in a profound crisis, of decency, of civility, of character. Our best instincts are undermined at every turn. And our families, to which we turn in crisis, are feeling the strain with great intensity. Mary Pipher understands this. She is a good writer and a good listener. And what Pipher understands she can express in a manner that goes directly to the heart. Writing from her immersion in her community, and from her experience as a therapist, she has found words to express our innermost feelings.
Pipher believes that our culture is at war with families… I couldn’t agree more…
“Families in America have been invaded by technology, mocked by the media, isolated by demographic changes, pounded by economic forces, and hurt by corporate values. They have been frightened by crime in their neighborhoods. Parents worry about their children’s physical safety and children are afraid of strangers. When I speak to or smile at children I don’t know, I see fear and doubt in their eyes. I know adults who no longer touch or spend time with children they do not know well. (They are afraid of misunderstandings.) A culture in which children fear adults and adults are uneasy around children is an unhealthy and dangerous place.” Mary Pipher concludes that families are “thirsty in the rain.”
Families today are experiencing a new set of realities. Working parents, if they are lucky to have jobs, are stressed, tired, and overextended. They struggle to protect their marriages and children from the enemy within, the grip that technology has on all family members that keeps them from exploring healthy physical activity and authentic social interactions with others. Pipher says that in some ways we have “houses without walls.” Her book, The Shelter of Each Other, offers ideas for simple actions we can all take to help rebuild our families and strengthen our communities. Her goal is to help us reconnect with the source of our greatest energy and strength, our families.
Strategies for Protecting Families
Today family members are often living in the same dwelling, but frequently they are not interacting. Interruptions and pressures keep members from spending time together and even from knowing each other. The outside world pours into the living room, the kitchen, and the bedroom. People begin to define themselves by their possessions and can easily lose all that truly matters.
To be strong and compensate for this invasion, the family must build walls that give the family structure, identity, and power. These walls are built by making conscious choices about what will be accepted and rejected. Such safety “walls” can be constructed in various ways — by time, space, celebrations, stories, traditions, and connecting rituals. Let me explain…
Time shelters families. We must find and practice ways to protect “family time.” Some common examples are to limit the activities of family members, having one day of the week as a “family day” where no one schedules activities, or having a regular mealtime when phone calls and texts go unanswered. I recommend that families experiment to discover what works best for them. It is helpful to try something for at least a month and then reevaluate. For example, some families really enjoy game nights, others prefer going to sporting events, out for meals, or walks in the park. Family meetings work nicely in some households, but not all. One family I admire sets aside Saturday mornings between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. (after chores and before lunch and structured afternoon errands or play) as their scheduled weekly meeting hour. This ritual, developed years ago, was the perfect time to catch up on how everyone’s week had gone, discuss any issues brewing in the household, and map out a general agenda for the week ahead. It was a predictable “connection” that all family members could count on as a time to assure that household and interpersonal needs were not ignored. Family members trusted the process and as a result felt safe and continually reminded of their strength as a unit.
Any act that’s done with love becomes a ritual, not just scheduled family meetings — things like making school/work lunches, tying shoes, feeding the cat and scooping the liter box, doing the dishes. Drinking hot chocolate and listening to classical music can become a ritual for watching a first snowfall. Reading aloud to children before bedtime is a powerful ritual in many households.
Think about how you use time in your family, and the healthy rituals you already may have in place. How can you strengthen those rituals? What new ones might you add? Are there other ways that you could protect family time for you and those you love?
Places shelter families. Just as time can protect families, places can as well. Families can have their special spots — front porches, garden plots, community parks, swimming pools, favorite restaurant, or street corner — where they like to be together. When our girls were growing up one of our “sacred places” was the family room sofa on a Friday evening in front of the TV with a remote control, series of fun sitcoms, and a HUGE pizza — fondly referred to as “TGIF.” What started out as a fun activity one dreary evening, morphed into a ritual that included a sacred place where we all felt rejuvenated and content.
Reflect on places where your family likes to gather and what it means to them. Generate a list of other sacred places — kitchens, ball fields, beaches — where your family might like to congregate. Try out a new one soon!
Interests shelter families. My father enjoyed wood-working, as did his father. Growing up dad involved all four of us kids in his basement workshop projects based on our ages and levels of interest. I loved helping him draw plans for something he wanted to build, thoroughly enjoyed turning the huge power saw on and off, as well as the smell of sawdust and helping to scoop it up at the end of the day. On a more challenging level, I took a huge interest in learning how to hammer a nail in straight (with limited success!). My memory of my sister is that she enjoyed checking in on the progress in the basement, but preferred to be out and about with her friends. Although, as a grown woman, I am most impressed with so many of her “handy” projects, skills she clearly must have picked up from dad!
Our brothers, however, took the art of wood-working to a stellar level, thanks to the instruction dad provided and the interest he generated among of all of us throughout our years growing up, and beyond. In my living room is a rocking horse that was the inspiration of one brother and the collective accomplishment of father and both brothers. I smile at the memories and impressive skill and talent that went into its construction, and feel honored to have the privilege of sharing it with my children and grandchildren… Our youngest brother took the woodworking enthusiasm to the highest level — becoming an impressive finish carpenter by trade. I am in awe of the work he does, requiring tremendous talent and patience… I couldn’t afford to pay him what he is worth to redo my kitchen, but I would like to try… So, a shared interest in woodworking has defined and sheltered my family for a long time.
Are there interests that define your family? Can you think of any interests that might be cultivated that your family or its members could benefit from?
Celebrations protect families. In our fast-paced world, people who stay married for fifty years really have multiple marriages to the same mate. They have a romantic relationship, a child-rearing relationship, and later a relationship strong in companionship and caretaking. One marriage ceremony at the beginning is not enough to hold such a marriag in place. Couples need new ceremonies and rites of passage, second honeymoons and even third and fourth ones. It is good to renew vows and write new vows periodically, which few of us regretfully take the time to do.
Sibling relationships need much more support and celebration than they receive in our culture. Often as adults, we find that our siblings are the people who have known us the longest, know the most about us, and share the most life events with us. Particularly in our mobile society, sibling relationships offer us a shelter that few other relationships can provide. If we are lucky (as I am) our siblings are our built-in lifelong friends. And yet as a culture, we have virtually no specific ways to celebrate or validate these primary relationships.
Sibling relationships can be strengthened in many ways, though — by regular phone calls, visits and letters, by reunions and shared celebrations. Some brothers share camping and canoeing trips. Others enjoy hunting adventures. Some sisters take vacations together, or work on family genealogy. I know two lovely sisters who work together cleaning homes, and two others who love to put up pickles each season… My mother and her sister talk weekly on the phone, sometimes for hours, and despite the fact that they have lived on opposite ends of the country for most of their lives, their relationship is seamless…
Most families easily celebrate the “happy” markers in life —births, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirement. We don’t do as well with honoring the “not-so-happy” events in our lives — divorce, illness, death…
What are some of the ways that your family celebrates important relationships?
Connecting rituals protect families. Reunions are good ways to help us reconnect our family with extended family and celebrate the happy changes in life while making sense of the losses we all experience in our families… I have a kind uncle, one of my father’s brothers, who for many years opened his home as a location for a huge family reunion. In a family with nine children, this was quite an impressive undertaking! So, for many years we all gathered on the first Saturday in August, celebrating the arrival of new members, grieving the loss of others… The memories are priceless…
Too many of the original nine siblings have passed away, and the sheer number of members makes the gathering practically impossible, so smaller unit celebrations have taken hold, but the importance of family connection has a special place in all our hearts. My husband and I work at how to carry on the reunion tradition with our own crew… So far the May beach week has become our favorite.
Connecting rituals can be grand yet simple. One of my favorites is the random phone call to or from someone of the “tribe.” How about for you?
Stories and metaphors protect families. All families have stories that they tell over and over… When one of my brothers died suddenly a few years ago, many of our family stories helped to guide us through the pain of confusion and loss. They helped to remind us of an important core that kept us connected despite losing him.
Stories reveal what a family wants to believe about itself. They say something about the family, and about its character, history, and values. These stores are important because they say this family cannot only survive adversity but they can laugh at it and keep on loving each other.
One old story from my dad’s family is about “the flood.” Flooding after a difficult Pennsylvania winter caused a dam to break quickly forcing water and mud to the communities below. My father, a perhaps 12-year old at the time, helped his father carry heavy wood furniture from the first floor of the house to the second, and then from the second floor to the third… It broke his heart to watch so much of his family’s hard earned furniture damaged or destroyed in the process. And without a doubt, his love of caring for wood stemmed from this profound experience. Dad also vividly recalled helping his mother, with new baby in arms, into a canoe from the third floor window of the flooded house so they could be carried off to safety. He told this story often, and at times I wondered if it was also a story about being recognized as a man in the family — working beside his father to protect and care for the others and their possessions. The experience made a lasting impression on him.
Some stories are about adventures, awards, and good deeds. They announce an important family, a smart family, or a beautiful family. Some stories are about the family heroes, and these teach the family what behavior is considered heroic. In some families, artists or writers are heroes. In others, it’s the uncle who sings or the great-aunt who volunteers at the local hospital well into her 90s.
Many stores are cautionary tales. They tell of the cousin who gambled or the one who left home never to be heard from again, or the uncle who drank too much.
Families also have hardship stories that underscore how hard the family has worked to survive. As my parents’ generation lived through the Depression era, such stories have been passed along in my family and provide inspiration and hope.
Families also have metaphors that stand for what the family loves and values. Sometimes that metaphor is a person who is deeply loved by all family members. Sometimes there is a family saint, who is often a grandparent. While the grandparent is alive, the family organizes around him/her, and after death, there is much sadness. Family members unite around their memories of the love they share for the departed. On holidays they may drink toasts to them and tell the jokes that they loved.
Sometimes a family’s metaphor is an activity. With the Kennedy family it was football. With the Bushes clan it was sailing. For some it is golf, others ballroom dancing.
The metaphor can be a place, such as the kitchen or grandma’s front porch. It can be an object, such as the round glass kitchen table, or the Bradford pear tree in the backyard. These objects symbolize and make real the family’s roots.
Food is often tied up with family metaphors. Gathering for a good meal was the heart of the kitchens of both of my grandmothers. They cooked well, and nurtured each of us with food prepared with love, no matter how simple or elegant. Growing up with my mother, and later visiting her, the tradition continues. She is a wonderful cook. A favorite made by all three women was a hearty chicken noodle soup for a cold winter evening — certainly a testimony to the healing power of good food. And, I am struck by the amazing cooking skills that both of my daughter’s exhibit, and their love of cooking and serving delicious and healthy meals… Their enthusiasm and talents must be genetic, but skipped a generation! Indeed, the rituals that surround food are an essential part of our family’s life.
In some ways metaphors are the most important protectors of families. When all else fails, there are always memories and stories. According to Mary Pipher, “…metaphors can transcend time and distance, poverty and ill health. These metaphors of food, places, trips, beloved objects, and beloved people become the connecting tissue of the family. They give family members’ lives a context and meaning, a history, and a philosophy. The protective walls of a family are not made of stone, but of love.”
Certainly in this age of social instability, our home environments take on greater importance and meaning. We all hope that home can be a “safe haven” — a place where each person can find comfort and safety during rough times, on good days and bad.
Pipher reminds us that we all come from families, which are the backbone of our society. We know that we are in trouble at this point in time, but it takes our personal conviction and determination and a bit of inspiration from this clear-sighted author to show us what is wrong and point us in the right direction.
Pipher, Mary. (1996). The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families. Grosset/Putnam.