A big blue house has arisen near me. There was nothing there but the usual mix of tall canopy trees and saplings, but one afternoon a year ago I walked Harry and Aussie on the road and met an elderly couple, who happily informed me that their daughter would be building a house for her and them.
Over the past year I heard the endless loud rasping of electric saws and watched truck after truck drive up our country road loaded with the heavy trunks of trees taken down. A big clearing appeared, and then a big house with a deck in front and a deck in back. Big enough, I thought, to give separate living spaces for the daughter and the parents if they so wish.
As big as it was, it wasn’t big enough for me to live with my parents there.
I left my parents’ home a long time ago and proceeded to put much distance between us because I was sure I couldn’t become an autonomous adult anywhere in their vicinity. They wished to enforce an old, East European, orthodox Jewish way of life, resorting to violence when I was a child and pushing and threatening for many years later. I was an alien in their midst, weird, crazy, and always in the wrong. It took them years to mellow, during which they’d built their life in Jerusalem and I built mine here.
Now as I’m older, and especially after Bernie’s death, I think of what is missed when you live so far away from your family of origin, especially if, like me, you don’t have children of your own. I don’t miss my mother as much as I do my brother and sister, and feel my distance from their families, too. The Zen Peacemakers became an alternate family for me and I love to see them whenever we get together, as three of us did this past week traveling to the Black Hills. But we’re spread out and don’t usually come together except in shared programs or projects. I have to invest a lot more in local friends and community.
Then there are our Lakota friends, with whom I spent the past weekend. In talking circles and in retreats, I hear them talk a lot about the importance of being loyal to their tiospaye, or extended family, and to their nation. “All the skills that you develop, everything you become, has to serve the tiospaye,” said an elder this past weekend to the young riders who rode for three freezing days to join the gathering at Bear Butte. They listened, nodding silently. Nothing else was more important.
I have heard the same words said again and again at our summer retreats with them, and noticed, not with a little cynicism, that when they say this their white audience listens with bated breath, eyes gleaming with admiration. How many of you are really read to do this? I want to ask them. I ran as far from my tiospaye as my legs could carry me, and to this very day I don’t regret it. Most of us grow up trying to develop as individuals, find our own voice and follow our own vision. How many are ready to make the sacrifices necessary to put the family, the clan, the tribe, ahead of ourselves?
There are sacrifices either way. There is much corruption on the reservations, with governing bodies that favor one family over another, that award money, jobs, and patronage to members of their own tiospaye rather than to those who most deserve it. Top-down control is exerted unabashedly, discouraging entrepreneurs from starting small businesses and denying others opportunities that would benefit the entire nation.
The same is true in many Arab countries. From my experience I can attest to Palestine and Jordan, not to mention (from my readings) Syria and Afghanistan. We Westerners push on them a democratic form of government, which they pay lip service to, but Yasser Arafat stayed in control of Palestine as long as he awarded patronage to the heads of clans who then gave these out to members of their family. That’s how King Hussein stays in power in Jordan, it’s how the Assad family has retained control in Syria. Tribal heads control things in Afghanistan; no prime minster stays around long without their say-so.
This is part of the shadow of giving everything to the tiospaye. You get safety and security, maybe even a job or subsidy or gift. But what about the greater community? What about the nation? And what about the individual?
Then there are us Westerners, who grew up with a strong emphasis on our inalienable right to the pursuit of individual happiness. We cultivate our gifts, discover our voice, and ask ourselves again and again: Am I happy? If not, what will make me happy? The price we pay is that many of us are very, very lonely.
There’s no fault here anywhere, just a scale where one end talks always of serving the family and clan and the other points to realizing your own joy and satisfaction. We are somewhere on that scale, making lots of compromises and traveling up and down several notches. Regardless of where we land, there is usually a price to be paid.