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My English composition students have been revising their first, low-impact, warm-up essay assignment this week. We’re mostly working on organization and sentence style at this point, so the assignment is cognitively easy: write about some aspect of “food culture” that they know from personal experience. I’m receiving numerous essays about family food traditions, everything from grilled steaks to cherry pastries to pastelillos to Chinese dumplings.

Grandmothers and grandfathers figure prominently in these essays, as do mothers and fathers and cousins, all assembled to be “brought closer together,” partly through food. It’s amusing to note how my writers are suddenly aware of the formerly-taken-for-granted labor of the women who typically pull off family feasts. And it’s charming to witness how much these very young adults treasure family traditions, shared from generation to generation.

What happens when that continuity breaks? Some of them wonder in their essays whether they will carry on these traditions themselves. Who knows? They’re only eighteen or nineteen, most of them. Who knows what the world will be like in their misty, uncertain future?

I’m a little wistful when I read these essays because I grew up rather unmoored from my family’s previous generations. Three of my four grandparents were dead before I was born. The third had succumbed to benign dementia by the time I knew her, and she died when I was twelve. I was by far the youngest of my cousins on my mother’s side, and I never met my father’s two sisters or their families. Ever. They were never spoken of. There was no family lore from Dad, ever, for reasons that to this day remain mysterious.

I took this kind of generational loneliness for granted, since I never knew anything else. Even from my parents, I felt a kind of generational distance. They were born in 1926; I was born in 1965. What a different world they lived in! They were shaped by the Depression and World War II, by the post-war economic boom, by the American Songbook. I was shaped by… Watergate? Glam rock? Stagflation and Reaganomics?

My father could not understand why, as young adults, Ron and I struggled to pay bills—how could that be when we had so much education, the key that was supposed to unlock upward mobility? Were we just being irresponsible with our money? I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain how real wages had declined and health costs soared—or any of the reasons for economic differences between the 1950s and the 1990s. I think my parents assumed that the world should be staying the same. Their kids would play the adulthood game by the same rules they did, but with more advantages. That’s the American Dream, yes? It assumes the game is at least mostly stable, that the world changes only gradually.

But the pace of change has only accelerated. I hesitate to give my adult children any advice because they are struggling to manage in a yet-again vastly different world. The decline of the established church and the rise of the “nones.” A gig economy and a labor rights resurgence. A poisoned public discourse and the disintegration of governance norms. Gender fluidity. The wake of the digital revolution and the rise of AI. Climate change and an ominously uncertain future. I didn’t even understand the world I grew up in—how can I understand theirs? I partly understand their generation’s innate distrust that any institution, any system will deliver on its promises, but I benefitted from institutional stability in a way they probably never will. They simply assume everything is in flux, because it is.

Distant from my parents’ and their parents’ worlds, scrambling to understand my children’s world, I feel a kind of chronological loneliness. That’s the term I came up with to describe this feeling of floating between.

I wonder: is this feeling new? No, it can’t be. Traditions have always gotten challenged or disrupted by the vicissitudes of history and by rebellious young people. There are probably ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets that read: “Kids these days!” But is chronological loneliness more acute right now? Possibly.

Not only older folk like me are subject to chronological loneliness. I commend to you this beautiful essay by Katie Van Zanen, a writer in her early thirties that I have admired since she was a student at Calvin. Her presenting question in this essay: how do I live in a world where everything I have loved is dying? She writes about her denomination (the CRC), about people de-churching, about climate change. “I feel heartsick at least once a day,” she writes.

Well, that’s something we have in common, then.

My students in a different class read an essay this week by Beth Minh Nguyen, author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. In the essay, Nguyen recounts her own story of generational disconnect. In her case, the disconnect was sudden, violent, and driven by the Vietnam War. Her family escaped Saigon in 1975 literally as the city fell to the Viet Cong. Well, some of her family. For complicated reasons, her mother got left behind. Beth grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has struggled with identity and continuity all her life, even more poignantly now that she is a mother herself.

Many, many people throughout history have endured the severe chronological loneliness of immigration, refugee desperation, trafficking, conquest, exile. I can hardly imagine that kind of disruption. My own tiny ache doesn’t even register on that scale. Nevertheless, I wonder what to do with this feeling. Do I need to “do” anything? Maybe it just is what it is.

I do know that furiously clawing back toward some imagined, ideal past is a futile and destructive way to deal with one’s chronological loneliness. Bunkering down with only the like-minded of one’s own generation doesn’t help, either. Personally, I’m not the least bit tempted by either of those options anyway. Instead I listen to my students and my own children and wonder: what do I carry with me—what knowledge, what experience, what wisdom—that can help them as they do their own work of navigating this world in flux?

I suppose we are all left with E. M. Forster’s famous phrase, “Only connect.” And perhaps with Matthew Arnold’s idea, expressed in his admiration for a friend who “saw life steadily and saw it whole.” Connect across the generations as best we can. Try to see life steadily and see it whole. Whatever the church is becoming, could we try to create renewed spaces in it for those endeavors? I believe the only path to deep connection with each other, to deep wisdom about ourselves and our world, is to live, as best we can, before the face of God. That’s a gift I carry and want to pass along. How?

It’s very hard, I know. The older I get, the more I struggle for perspective, the more I try to hold in my mind at once all the teeming generations of history, the bewilderments of the present, wild speculations about our human future. All this in my mind and a quiet loneliness in my heart. I try to find God there, too, Ancient of Days, balm for all aches.  

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

8 Comments

  • “I believe the only path to deep connection with each other, to deep wisdom about ourselves and our world, is to live, as best we can, before the face of God.” I love this, Deb. Thanks for your words this morning. I needed them.

  • RZ says:

    I have two immediate reactions to test with other readers:
    1. Most of the challenges you list here are self -imposed, a direct consequence of our own self-centeredness. Pace of change certainly accelerates this!
    2. The church’s deconstruction in modern western society is not unlike that of previous church failures throughout history. The same might be said about our US empire. The church is a mile wide and a foot deep. The foundation is too dependent on structures, power, image, perpetuation and tradition, not to mention superiority-in-doctrine fixation. We lack humility and self-reflection. So we continue to do what we do, with predictable results. The church’s “stability” was too dependent on tradition and loyalty. A friend recently commented that most people in her church claimed to be Reformed but had little idea what that meant beyond an obscure loyalty to Heidelberg, John Calvin, TULIP, and THE denomination.
    Thanks to you and Katie for naming what we all feel. And thanks for proposing a hopeful solution, reconnecting across the generations and reflecting in the context of a broader history, if I read you correctly.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      What we expect of you. Insightful, reflective, creative. A meditation. Two personal reflections. For me, the church’s tradition mitigates the loneliness, especially when we go for a deeply traditional Eucharist ( with incense) at the Anglican monastery nearby. Also, I realize that my job in my extended family is to be the memory keeper and memory teller, especially of our grandparents, with whom I connected deeply. It’s a privilege, and helps keep my family from being totally lost on Cormac McCarthy’s Road. Remembering and forgetting are Old Testament themes that you know about. We experience time as Cartesian, in which we are discrete dots on line, as the past gets ever more remote, as you say here. The OT experienced time as a a river, a wave, whose crest we are riding, and all the past is moving with us, and we actually do not “fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” Tomorrow at Holy Communion, remember the holy church Catholic from ages past till today.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you, Deb. As we jocks would phrase it, “You sure can write!”

    My parents passed without my ever knowing anything about them. I never asked.

    When my daughter was little, we were standing by Lake Michigan. I complained that I used to be able to think of it as clean water. She replied, “At least you once could.”

  • Cathy Smith says:

    A thoughtful read this morning. Thank you.

  • Henry Baron says:

    “All this in my mind and a quiet loneliness in my heart. I try to find God there, too”.
    You give eloquent and poignant expression to what many of us experience, Deb – thank you for sharing.
    If misery loves company, loneliness surely does.

  • Edward DeVries says:

    Debra.
    Im a new subscriber to Reformed Journal, but a native of Western Michigan with all of the traditions and mores it contains. I was asked to construct answers to a year’s worth of weekly questions submitted by the ‘kids and grandkids. Your narrative parallels mine almost to the details, but I’m a decade or two older and my parents were born in the early 1900’s. Nevertheless, life was apparently harder for the grandparents and parents with noted shorter life spans, limited methods for communicating across generations. Now as an orphan when I might have the time to sit down and ask ‘those questions’ we wonder about makes me aware of the loneliness that still exists in our culture. So the answer to the request to “Tell me about your grandparents” will be a very short answer,” I only can surmise what they were like as three out of four were dead before I was born.” Thanks for your thoughts!

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