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Saturday 8 June 2013

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

‘I woke up into the bleak winter morning on my twenty-first birthday, the window-sill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.’

So ends one of the great short stories of world literature, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, written by the enigmatic Delmore Schwartz in 1934.  It’s a beautifully crafted line from a poignant narrative about a young man on the eve of his 21st birthday.  The man finds himself  at a cinema in a dream, watching a film where the characters are his parents meeting as a young couple about to begin what he knows from bitter experience is a disastrous marriage, but in the audience he is powerless to change the outcome. Schwartz wrote this story at the age of 21 himself, capturing the full insecurity of the moment, the need to reflect on one’s origins, the conflict one can feel with one’s family and past, and the sense of reaching a ‘threshold’ without necessarily feeling in control of the journey ahead.

I have been thinking about this story a lot as the Foyer Federation celebrates its own 21st birthday later this year.  Turning 21 forms part of a tradition of ‘coming-of-age’ literature and film, when an individual begins to experience the growing awareness and responsibilities of adulthood with a greater sense of what life is and what possibilities or the lack of them lie ahead.  While 21 is a very much a western obsession, the ‘stage’ of transition can be experienced through many different ages.  In an advantaged thinking sense, it is about becoming aware, beginning to recognise one’s identity, starting to play a more independent role in creating the future, and bearing the greater expectations of society with nimble shoulders.   Many of the young people we work with have had to experience some of those things at very early ages, without all the structures and relationships in place to deal with them. As an individual at a Foyer once told me, ‘I’ve been living the life of a 21 year old for years, but everyone forgets I’m only 16.’

The transition of young people into adulthood remains a complex and at times scary narrative that we still don’t how to tell properly.  Not everyone makes it to the end; we never seem to learn from our mistakes to spot how we might change the story.  Watching a child see their parents fighting in the street below me, listening to a rage of obscenities echoing the stresses of their lives, you sense a future being shipwrecked in front of you. I still remember the first time I watched an adult throw a brick through a window at me, how that moment broke forever my trust in authority. The butterfly wings of the smallest things reverberate through the rest of our lives.  
Schwartz’s character watches his past play out before him, powerless to shape its conclusion; but it is the future we see being created around us every day. Looking across the youth sector, we possess all the skills and resources required to influence a better outcome. Somehow, though, we remain stuck in a story not of our making, restricted within the disadvantaged thinking of others, forever ending homelessness and poverty instead of creating the conditions for a more positive world.  Charity has the responsibility to craft a different tale to make a better future happen.  Who is doing that?

After In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Delmore Schwartz played out the rest of his life never realising the exceptional ability shown in his early work. He died in a squalid New York hotel, left in the morgue for 2 days before anyone even knew who his body belonged to.  That’s a warning from history. The Foyer Federation has reached a critical stage in its journey as a charity. At 21, it is fully aware of what it and we as a society need to do to turn the potential of all young people into future talent.  The morning has already begun - wake up to it.

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