This Post-Family World: Cecilia Woloch, “Slow Children at Play”

Reading Cecilia Woloch’s “Slow Children at Play,” I can’t help but think about three people. The poem:

All the quick children have gone inside, called
by their mothers to hurry-up-wash-your-hands
honey-dinner’s-getting-cold, just-wait-till-your-father-gets-home-

and only the slow children out on the lawns, marking off
paths between fireflies, making soft little sounds with their mouths, ohs, that glow and go out and glow. And their slow mothers flickering,
pale in the dusk, watching them turn in the gentle air, watching them
twirling, their arms spread wide, thinking, These are my children, thinking, Where is their dinner? Where has their father gone?

I don’t know what the details mean yet; I haven’t combed through the poem carefully at all. There’s only thought of:

  1. A girl whose father was so emotionally abusive and controlling that I often wondered if she would have been better off without him in her life at all
  2. Someone I knew whose father walked out, and that resulted in a number of problems I wouldn’t wish on anyone
  3. Of two single moms I know, one in particular whose child is absolutely crazy about his dad but whose dad could care less for him

The quick children above are being taken care of for an authority higher than their mothers. The authority is higher than their fathers, too. Even though “household management” is the original meaning of economics, it still shocks to think about how materialistic the family as an institution can be. The thing that strikes me is that a materialistic world will break up the materialistic family, not because it explicitly tampers with the family, but precisely because the world and the family mirror each other too well. There’s no proper distinction between the two, no way to keep each thing in its place. One thing that should frighten you is there are tight-knit families where the children are in some kind of world out of Ozzie and Harriet. They won’t make a peep in church, they’re usually homeschooled, Mom knows her place as does Dad and the conspiracy theories about the rest of the world and gossip about the neighbors abound. I can safely tell you that fundamentalism does not make a proper family. It makes a petty, closed world where people reject others not merely for being different, but for just seeming different. We do worship the almighty dollar because of what we think the dollar gives us, and people should be angry with themselves: thag sent me a wonderful rant on education that makes me wonder if we ever had anything resembling imagination (Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school”). Now that I think about the more basic issue of how we relate to each other, the education issue doesn’t seem to matter as much.

The slow children are the children of a spiritual world: their only true father is their Heavenly Father. The mothers flickering like fireflies is a shadow of an image from Yeats’ “Byzantium,” a poem I have memorized that I will probably never blog and that you should all read and know like as if it was the only thing you’ve ever read or knew. In “Byzantium,” the Emperor’s city is filled with flickering flames – “flames begotten of flame” – and I don’t think I really need to expound on the image of a flickering mother being between heaven and earth in the most tragic way. The spiritual world here is that of wonder – “oh’s” are gaping mouths, nothing articulate except what resembles a zero. Not even a blank, for “blank” in Dickinson can be tied to potential. We’re all like fireflies, a tribe of individuals, united by sometime light and sometime dancing. There is no unity, no order: fireflies know what they have to eat and get to it. Not us, who can starve to death, who can leave our children to starve if we will. Again, the materialistic world doesn’t come with any morality except in the sense of control. Control, however, implies what one lacks control over as well as the willing abdication of responsibility. The “spiritual” world can be nothing but the questions given us by the material world; what seems to define the spiritual world is mere awareness of sin.

What makes religion so, so important is that it is about love. A few of you have asked me about where conservatism can feasibly go, and I’ve been reluctant to answer that because all the financial issues, all the concerns about freedom, all the bureaucratic incompetence and Leftist idiocy and hatred are a sideshow. We live in a world that in many ways we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. Our political sense generally is numb to these issues, and when it does engage them, it can only moralize or retreat into fear, instead of looking and mouthing “oh.” What conservatives and liberals need is not merely a culture of life, but a sensitivity to life that does not sugarcoat the amount of pain in America. Even the most ambitious would rather be with their Dad than be President; we can only wish the family were a social construct so easily dissolved.

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