An old fashioned idea worth revisiting
To be raised by immigrants in America is, no matter the culture and more often than not, to be raised with ideals—with Elementals, as I call them—culled from another time and place; as if that which you are being taught as important is drawn from a black-and-white photograph of people who do not look as people look today, who are dressed as people do not dress today. It's to be raised with old-fashioned values.
I remember at 19 years old, coming home from a friend's house at midnight who happened to be a boy. What will his family think?, my mother demanded, incensed. It's the futile song of the immigrant child to try to explain that his parents probably thought nothing. Americans were okay with their daughters coming home at midnight. It was we who cared, we who lived by Elementals that had fallen out of fashion.
My parents were concerned—above all—with my character. A term that now, peeled of all the power it once held, pretty much pertains to describing someone outlandish, someone who makes us laugh at a cocktail party because he's not afraid to be louder than the rest of us...
My parents, and my parents' generation, and the generations before them, cared deeply about character. My mother's concern for the quality of my character is what drove her to ask, What will his family think? She was asking—What will they think of your character? Of your level of self respect and dignity? And she was asking me, Don't you, yourself, don't you care about these things?
I admire my parents for sticking to what they believed to be vital Elementals. It certainly wasn't easy raising four, strong-willed children in New York in the '80s and '90s to live by the values of Southern Italian culture circa the '40s and '50s, but they held to their convictions. Above all, my parents and their generation valued respect.
Respect was how we were permitted, and not permitted, to speak to our parents.
Respect was how we cared for ourselves.
Respect was having enough self confidence that no man or woman could make you feel small, no matter how powerful or famous they were.
Respect was bella figura (presenting oneself well to the world), because showing you respect yourself demands, in turn, respect from others.
Respect was not putting ourselves in situations that compromised our dignity.
I can't say I unfailingly exhibited self respect. But oh did I feel it when I did not. I felt it because, even if unconsciously, I knew I was behaving out of alignment with one of my Elementals. There are many rooms I wish I could rewind myself back into, often inhabited by some guy whose last name I can't even remember anymore, and Ieave at the first sign of this or that, the first whiff that I wasn't appreciated. To have the conviction of dignity. To exhibit self respect.
We were taught you respected those who were older than you. You stood up when they walked into the room, and you gave them your chair.
You respected your belongings. They reflected how you cared for yourself.
You respected your work, because your work is a mirror into your character.
I confess, ashamedly, that when I was much younger, I wondered why my father, who founded a successful landscaping business that supported our family, bothered to take photos of the flowers he'd planted at his clients' properties, and then insist we look at them with him. In my myopic and obnoxious concept of what art was, I saw it as just landscaping; in other words, something not worthy of such respect. In America, writing was Art; landscaping was work. Art you could respect, work was something you just had to do.
That one could equate any type of labor with beauty, pride and a sense of self worth had not yet occured to me, but my father deeply understood this. Work is your mark upon the world. Work is an expression of your identity. In craftsmanship you said something about yourself. And in the beauty of the final product, you culled the satisfaction of having created something worthy of admiration—something, in other words, worthy of respect. It may have taken some maturing to sink in, but my father was teaching me this Elemental through not only his words, but his actions.
I like to visualize self respect as a radius we draw around us. A space we clear in this world for our existence, into which our dignity emanates. You know people who have it when you see them. Beyonce has it. Miley Cyrus of the foam finger phase, less so. People who stand in their dignity demand deference by the virtue of their grace, and because they know and honor their worth, the world gives it to them. Respect may have fallen out of vogue, but I think, like the resurgence in popularity of many old fashioned craft arts—knitting, woodworking, leather-making, small-batch everything—it merits a revival.