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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Hippy Childhood

Cruising through a friend's Facebook page the other day, I found a link to an article that brought back all kinds of memories of my early childhood.  It's called 29 Signs You were Raised by Hippies: Your friends think you're liberal? If only they knew how liberal a home you're from.

Not all apply in my case.  To my knowledge a doula did not preside over my birth, my mother and father went for a traditional name (Victoria),  we had a television at home and I was baptized into the Roman Catholic church when I was an infant.  Born in 1965 in Seattle, Washington into what you might called a "mixed" household, my father was a computer programmer for the state Revenue Department in Olympia.  He was, as I recall, a moderate conservative.  His mother was a second generation German Catholic (with, she said, Jewish roots) from Missouri and his father was the product of a Lutheran Norwegian family from the Midwest.

My mother was more local.  She was born in Seattle in a working class neighborhood called White Center to a family with French-Canadian roots and had relatives in farming communities in Eastern Washington, Idaho and Wisconsin.  First a student at the Evergreen State College (an alternative college with no grades and a DIY program ), she later worked for the school and did photography (she is still a gifted photographer).  Our family followed the pattern of the times which meant that my mother had most of the responsibility for me and my brother when we were young.

That meant not so much tie-dyed clothing but lots of t-shirts and jackets with the logo of the college and its mascot, the geoduck.  These was combined with jeans and tennis shoes which made for a very functional ensemble.  I did have fancy girly dresses for special occasions which were hand sewn by my mother who was and is a skilled seamstress.  Growing up there was no, I repeat, no white sugar in the house and no processed foods. Mom made tofu milkshakes for breakfast (yuck) and I remember trying to eat carob (tasted like chalk).  The only food item that I really liked that came from the co-op was kefir.  The very first thing I did when I finally got an allowance was to spend it on candy at a local store.

Yes, I know who Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia and Buckminster Fuller were and I've seen far too many dusty copies of the Whole Earth Catalog tucked into sagging bookcases - the Kama Sutra too which is a much better read.  I was as familiar with the smell of marijuana as I was with cigarette smoke and I won't tell you at what age I first inhaled the former and tasted my first hash brownie.  To those who argue that pot is a gateway to worse things, my experience was that the whole business simply didn't interest me much as I got older.  Taking drugs as a form of adolescent rebellion simply loses any meaning when the adults in your life have already claimed that territory.  Other ways had to be found.  So, one day I came home and informed my mother that I had joined the Young Americans for Freedom, a very conservative youth organization.  To my disappointment my mother replied with something very mild and along the lines of, "That's nice, dear."  My mother is no fool.

If I may add another item to the list which would bring it up to 30?  Hippy daycare.  At some point in the 1970's when my mother was at Evergreen we were placed in a daycare called Nanny Noodles.  This was an old rickety house on the outskirts of town with a barn and lots of pasture.  On rainy days we spent most of our time in the kitchen which was very messy but warm (I think it had a woodstove) or in the barn.

I do not think that even the most "progressive" or Left-wing of my friends today would have approved and they sure as hell wouldn't think of putting their children in such a place today.  There were no scheduled activities - no attempt whatsoever to socialize or educate us in an explicit way - no language, music or art classes tailored to the under ten set, no nap times or play times or snack times.  For the most part we were left to do what we liked with very little supervision:  play in the barn, play with the goats, run in the fields,  read books, listen to music, coo at the cat that just had kittens and stuff like that.  We were allowed to get very dirty and no one ever chastised us for playing in the mud or running in the fields.  When we were tired we could come in and sleep.  If we were cold we could sit in the kitchen by the stove and one of the ladies would make us something hot to drink.  At least once I was brought along for a real adventure - we hitchhiked into town where one of my caretakers conducted her business and I got an ice cream cone.

By today's standards, it was not particularly hygienic or safe or even licensed as far as I know. But it was a lot of fun and if I had a "happy childhood" (something Americans hold to be important) it was in part because of this place and the ladies who ran it.

Being a kid with a kid-centric view of the universe, I always thought Nanny Noodles existed for my pleasure.   It was also, unbeknownst to me, part of something a bit larger.  In the 1970's some people in the feminist and gay liberation movements lost faith in the larger culture and decided to create their own spaces where they could live separately.  They were called "intentional communities" and some were full-fledged communes and others were just houses owned in common where the residents committed to a certain shared way of living.  Nanny Noodles was one of these houses established by a group of lesbian women.
As part of this, lesbians came to the conclusion that heterosexism would not allow for gay equality, so we had to create women’s space to build up our own equality. And so we did by creating intentional communities across the country. Olympia was one of those areas were people migrated and created collective households. So in this way, this movement for intentional communities went from the national or macro level to local then to the micro level, which is the household unit.
Why did these households spring up in Olympia, Washington, of all places?  "Some people say these collective households sprang up as the alternative sorority and fraternity houses for Evergreen, which opened in the late 1960’s ."  The Evergreen State College was founded as an alternative school and become something of a magnet for people who wanted to live outside the mainstream culture.  I think it also had to do with the mix of rural and urban areas where one could live out in the countryside but still come into town regularly.  And Olympia was certainly at that time way off the beaten path.  Even today students coming to the college from the east who take a train cross-country end up at what passes for a train station out in the middle of nowhere.

I once read that person's life can be read in layers - each period from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to middle and old age is a city that falls into ruins and is built up over and over again.  When we excavate later in life only bits and pieces remain.   It is very tempting to project the present onto the past and say, "I am this today because...." so we must be very careful and not trust our memories too much.

What bits and pieces remain of that hippy childhood in the 40 years that followed?  Does any of it remain in woman that I am today?


When my children were little and going to preschool (Maternelle) here in France  I hated everything about it.  I thought it was too regimented, too strict, too organized.  Compared to the benevolent anarchy that reigned at Nanny Noodles, this was a Fascist dictatorship.  My elder Frenchling was once forced to sit at the table after lunchtime because she refused to eat her cheese and one of the caretakers decided she was going to fix that. The caretaker broke before my daughter did and I was secretly proud of her for not giving in.  Going toe to toe with a small child over a bit of cheese struck me as pretty silly and I just couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

In fact an awful lot of the child raising advice that I was urged to take in the Hexagon rubbed me the wrong way.  It felt like "command and control" and every time I saw a father haranguing a child in the grocery story or a mother sending her child off to play with the warning to be sage (good) and not to dirty her dress or my mother-in-law insisting that my children sit at table just so (space for a rat in front and a cat behind),  I would wince.  And I'll admit that I snapped a time or two.  Pure projection of my own North American upbringing which included a strong belief in that "happy childhood."  The French have another way and today I can see some of the merits in it though I don't think I could ever swallow that philosophy wholesale, much less live it.  If I ever have grandchildren, I imagine that I will be just as American in that role as I was as a mother.

Another piece of the ruin that I have kept with me is a lifelong belief in feminism coupled with a deep mistrust of government and the tyrannie de la majorité.     No one at Nanny Noodles ever told me not to soil my dress (I didn't wear them) and I was treated no differently from the boys.  Free to Be You and Me was the album of choice and was played so often on the record player that I still remember some 40 years later the words to many of the songs ("Don't dress your cat in an apron....")  This was reinforced, oddly enough, much later at the Catholic high school I attended which was another "intentional community"  run by and for women.  "God gave you a mind, " a sister said to me one day, "Use it!"

As a child and later as a young woman I was well aware that both communities were at odds with authority and the larger culture.  I may not have known why at the time but I knew something was going on.  It manifested itself in the way the more mainstream people in Olympia looked at us, comments directed at me at school, and the attempts by lawmakers to shut down the college.  I never experienced this directly but there are reports of harassment by the police and outright bigotry on the part of the local citizens:
Once we got to the senior center, we saw that the Senior Center director had stayed late specifically to meet us and tell us we couldn’t meet there because we were beasts and that we didn’t belong in his building. Then he threw us all out. It was one of those horrible experience of straight up, in your face bigotry. So there we were in the street, staring at each other, and when other women arrived, we explained we had been kicked out. While just about everyone had come prepared for a rousing political debate about our differences, we instead found ourselves quietly facing the reality of how much we needed each other. This was an incredibly unifying experience for everybody - - we realized that we were a women’s community and that we needed each other to pull together to survive. 
I do not agree entirely with Ronald Reagan's statement that, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,"  but having seen situations where the local government and populace are either hostile or unhelpful to good people who simply want to be left alone, I retain a deep mistrust of both.  And to hell with the polls and surveys which try to determine the will and feelings of the people.  The "people" can be dead wrong (and foolish and unjust and downright petty and mean).

Having spent two formative periods of my life among the "internal exiles" - those who opted out of the larger community to find spaces where they could live as they pleased - I was well disposed later in life to go into exile myself.  

What I found a few thousand miles away from where I was born and raised was not something better or worse then the place I left behind.  It was just different.  In any case, it was a one way trip.  Not only are none of us getting any younger but the places, people and ideas we remember have moved on in our absence.  They would have done so in any case whether we had stayed or not.  As Christian Wiman pointed out in his eloquent essay, My Bright Abyss,  there is no way to  “return to the faith of your childhood...” You are no longer a child and the faith has changed while you were away.  Nanny Noodles no longer exists as either a daycare or an intentional community and the nuns shut down the high school a few years after I graduated.   The university I attended when I lived in the U.S. has become a labyrinth of new buildings and paths.  Even the region where I grew up has become a "foreign territory" to me to some extent.

The day I realized all of this is the day I cast aside the idea that I was a Sojourner in the Hexagon and redefined my identity as an immigrant Settler.  I suppose that if I live long enough that too will fall into ruins and be built over with yet another layer of something else and that's okay.  My program says, "We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it." Or, to put it another way, Wiman says,  "It follows that if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life."

If I had to sum up the reality of my life today, I'd say this:  I love where I'm from, but I've bloomed where I was planted.  I hope the ladies at Nanny Noodles did too.


Unknown said...

Very nice, Victoria!

That sister was right... you did, and you do... and your readers are lucky that you do!

Tim said...

I am much younger than you but I can still remember going on the hayrides at this place.

Like just about everything else in N Andover, MA it went upscale and "yuppie" during the late 1990s tech boom.

I remember as a kid when this butcher shop was known for fresh food and "low" prices(in a run down building) now it is known fresh food and "high" prices and the large number of expensive automobiles in the parking lot.

Blaze said...

Unlike Tim, I am much older than you and am more of your parents' era. I was one of those hippies for a while. Unfortunately, I must have eventually decided it was time to grow up.

Living in my new condo building reminds me a bit of communal living of the hippie era. Like the octogenarian retired opera singer who teaches opera to other women in the building, those who have dogs or cats sharing them with those of us who don't and the ability to rejoice in other people's kids without the responsibility.

I must say, though, I have not caught a whiff of marijuana yet.

Blaze said...

Do you wonder what happened to those women at Nanny Noodle? It piqued my curiosity, so I Googled it.

The only thing I was able to find was a children's book, Nanny's Noodle Day. Unfortunately, it is not your Nanny Noodles.

Which of the kids are you in the photo? The one with the wire rim glasses? I remember them well.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Lucy, Thank you. You know I still miss the nuns. They really were something.

@Tim, Thanks for the link. Yep a lot of the stuff I knew in my child went yuppie. There is a co-op in Seattle that is quite the "in" thing. Even funnier is that the Evergreen State College today has a really good rep and my mom's degree (Economics) is actually turning out to be useful. She finds this pretty amusing.

My daughter told me this funny story the other day. She was in Seattle and brought her boyfriend to see the grandparents. After the dinner my daughter told him that grandma was a "Greener" (graduate of the Evergreen State College). Her boyfriend laughed and said, "That explains EVERYTHING."

@Blaze. I kinda miss those intentional communities. I remember one that was called the Sunnyside Bisexual Club (sounds much worse than it was - there was even a minister involved).

No marijuana? Damn....

I'm curious too. All that I found by Googling was one link. Try entering "Nanny Noodles, Olympia, Washington).

Yep, I'm the kid in the John Denver glasses. Next to me is one of my childhood friends, Erin and the little boy with the winning grin is my little brother. This was taken at the KAOS radio station at Evergreen sometime in the 1970's.

Anonymous said...

Nice reflections. Thanks for sharing.

bubblebustin said...

I'll glad that you enjoyed cruising around my Facebook page ;-) Come back any time.

Tim said...

There have been a couple of articles published in the last few days about these EPA photo journals from the 1970s that have come to life. The two links below show pictures of Logan Airport in Boston and the surrounding neighborhood in 1973 collected as part of one EPA project.

What is perhaps most strange is how little has changed in the area photographed. Eventually the residents and the homes were bought out and demolished but Neptune Road still remains as a "ghost" street. I personally did not realize the very distinctive Air Traffic Control in Boston had already been built by that point(still there today).