Right Side Up

playground

Face down. Flung across the bed. He cries and cries, body shuddering with sobs. Something has happened outside.

I heard about it first from an upstairs neighbor who called me after witnessing the melee from her balcony. Then two little girls, teary and clutching each other, filled me in on oh-so-many details of Bug punching one of them. The bigger kids arrived in a pack to corroborate.

My boy, the one who hits.

My boy, the object of this witch hunt. Hiding somewhere. Shunned.

Continue reading “Right Side Up”

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This New Day

woman-registered-vote

The suffragette whites hung at the foot of the bed.  In the jacket pocket, I’d tucked a gold wedding band belonging to one grandmother and a pair of gold earrings from the other — the last Christmas gift she gave me before she died.  Both of these women were born before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

In their lifetime, my grandmothers earned the right to vote.  Even so, they didn’t have a chance to see a woman run for president.  One probably wouldn’t have marked Hillary’s name.  The other — a little blue dot in bright red Texas — would have. I wanted them both with me on election day 2016. Continue reading “This New Day”

Our Shadows Live Here Too

dore dark forest

Someone is pooping in my neighborhood.  On the edge of the path that connects the playground to the AT&T parking lot, a pile of black feces swarms with silver-winged flies.  They are doing the important work.  All around the heap of waste are scattered thick restaurant napkins, crushed, stained with smears.  Someone squatted right here.  Right where our kiddos play.  Not in the brambles, not behind a tree, but right here.  When he (because I assume it’s a he, who else would be so bold?) finished, he left his tissue all over the ground.  The garbage can is 20 paces away, and there is another at each corner of the park.  Continue reading “Our Shadows Live Here Too”

Think Global, Hike Local

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You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.


– Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

With a little vacation away from work and my kiddo off canoeing at day camp, it’s time for a fix of woods.  I pull up Hiking Upward to find something near enough to hit in a few hours but far enough for solitude.

This is the goal: solitude.  And its accompanying quiet.

Humans are social creatures, sure, and we need to be in proximity to people as much for a sense of connection as for all the stuff — the supermarket and hospital, the auto mechanic and school.  To survive, we need to be in community.  Even so, too much proximity to too many others can take its toll.  The buzz of engines and clang of machines, the soundtrack of urban and suburban life, can jam the signals.  When I start to notice myself too focused on the clock and task list, too alert, too aware of every demand and every passing vehicle, I know it’s time to seek out a forest.

Hiking Upward’s interactive maps let a user explore a stretch from southern Pennsylania to northern North Carolina.  The descriptions cover each leg of the journey and reviewers add details to keep things up to date.  Many of the reviews make note of the presence or absence of “road noise,” which is almost impossible to escape anywhere in the mid-Atlantic.  The site rates each hike on five characteristics: difficulty, streams, views, camping, and — yes — solitude.

For a mid-July hike in Virginia, shade would be more important than peaks.  Quiet, most important of all.  Out west in the Shenandoah and beyond, several hikes hit all the right numbers.

The problem is that lately, I’ve been taking care to drive less.  My dual commitments to frugality and environmental stewardship have me hopping on the bus and train when I can, even though this choice extends the commute.  Bug and I bike around the neighborhood for fun instead of driving to parks further away.  My shopping and entertainment are much closer to home, and I make every effort to combine trips by doing things like picking up groceries during my weekday lunchtime walk then lugging them home on the metro.

This desire for the woods is in direct conflict with the desire for sustainable living.  Still, the girl hungers to be out in the quiet.  By the time I’ve gone to bed, I’ve settled on a regional park about 16 miles out of town.  It seems shaded enough, isolated enough, and close enough that it would meet all the criteria without my little Corolla belching too much carbon monoxide back into the atmosphere.

Thankfully, sleep has a most refreshing effect on my conflicted mind.  Blessed is the deep rest that washes clear the path.

I wake to this thought: I want to go somewhere free of road noise, and I’m going to put my car on the road to get there?

The hypocrisy makes me smile.  I climb out of bed determined to make a choice that will honor both of my commitments.

With my hiking gear already in the car and my kiddo packing up his sunscreen and bug spray for day camp, I hop back online.  Where can I hike without leaving town?

Fairfax County, Virginia is home to environmental leaders whose dedication far surpasses mine.   My neighbors have been working for decades to protect the fragile watersheds that sustain our region.  In the 1990s, a critical mass of residents and leaders began to plan the 40-mile long Cross-County Trail. Its path  moves through vast ribbons of green whose undeveloped foliage act as sponges to filter pollutants from our streams.

This trail weaves in and out of neighborhoods.  It follows busy roads to connect sections of woodland.  I’ve walked parts of it further east, popular sections next to parking lots and ball-fields.   Those areas are wide and groomed, with bikes and families and runners.  But miles of the trail wind through areas that are hard to find unless you know where to look.

The truth is, I’ve never thought much of this local trail as a “hike.”

It’s time to change that.

One section of the trail happens to be within a few hundred yards of the bus pick-up spot for Bug’s camp.  The Corolla will clock exactly zero additional miles and I can be hiking.  So this is what we do, Noodle and me.  We drop the kiddo at the bus, I shrug into the backpack, and we start walking.

Around the golf course, behind houses, and into the woods.

Woods!  Woods like forest, like Shenandoah, like a wild place.  Creek crossings.  Lush carpets of ferns.  Damp oak leaves drooping across the sky.  Solitude, yes — in three hours, only four people pass us.  And while the occasional distant leaf blower or lawnmower jars me back to this zip code, the morning is almost entirely quiet.

“Quiet” isn’t the same as “silence.”  Truth is, when we need to replenish the spirit, silence is not really what we’re after.  Rather, we crave the absence of pressing need, the muting of the incessant clatter that keeps us in a heightened state of reactivity.  Quiet is far from quiet.  It’s a music, a pulse of wildness that tracks the beat inside us.  Quiet is the chittering throb of cicadas, the swooping cry of an unidentified bird.  The small crystal shattering of water over stone.

Eight and a half miles we walk through the morning, through our very own town.  I see its raw underside, the part that feeds us whether we know it or not.  It nourishes us without us drawing down its riches.

It’s here.  It’s not just in our backyard, it is our backyard.

It turns out that it is indeed possible to hike close to home.  Isn’t a hike just a walk with intention?  Even a cross-county trail isn’t a requirement.  A hike can cover suburban neighborhoods and city streets.  Seeing any stretch of ground as hike-able reveals a whole new terrain.

Of course, it isn’t new at all.  It simply asks to be entered as if it contains the possibility of wildness and wonder. It simply requires of us “a willingness to trudge.”

We teach our kids to revel in the natural world in ways that minimize damage to it.  We don’t let them deface trees or leave trash.  As grownups making our more complicated calculations, it’s critical to remember that the same simple rules apply.  If we want to keep finding refuge in the forest, if we want our grandkids to seek sustenance in the unbuilt world, then we need to do our part to sustain it.  Sometimes that means choosing not to go at all.  Sometimes means opening ourselves to the wild places waiting right outside the door.


 

 

Come As You Are

Oks New Friends III

Harmony calls out a greeting from behind the geraniums.  She folds a bookmark into a paperback and steps off the patio.  Noodle leaps all over her.  She chuckles and pets her then asks about my knee.

“Still hurts but I guess that’s normal.”  My recovery is slower than I’d like, in part because of an overzealous gym visit 3 days after surgery.  I’ve since re-discovered ice and moderation.  I bend it a little and show her.  “The boss has let me work half days from home, and walking at the pool has helped.”

“Oh, you go to the pool?  With your son?”  Noodle is now snuffling in around the mulched shrubbery so I pull her in closer.  After retiring, Harmony and her husband moved here from the Midwest and within two months, they had new floors, bathrooms, and bird feeders.  With a tidy patio set on top of a red striped outdoor rug, their condo is one of the most welcoming in the complex.  The kiddos in the neighborhood have already knocked loose two of their solar lights playing soccer on the sidewalks, and I don’t want the dog to add to the damage.

“Sometimes we go together.”  I wave vaguely in the direction of our small community pool where the kids are squealing.  “Mostly I’ve been making myself go to the rec center, though.  I can swim laps there, and there’s usually a free lane during the day.”   As I say this, a family ambles by.  The toddler carries an inflatable swim ring as big as her, and the mom lugs a bag of towels.  “It’s nice to have a place to get together here in the summer, though.  Have you been yet?”

“Oh!” She laughs, steps back, sort of half sits down on her patio chair.  “I guess I have a swimsuit packed away somewhere that hides most of the awful parts.”

A beat.

My stupefied gaze.

Did she really just say that?

I stumble over my astonishment and laugh along with her.  “Oh, geez, come out!  Everyone is welcome.”    She says she has another friend in the complex – a friend her age, she makes a point of mentioning – and they haven’t done it yet, but they’ve talked about going swimming.

So they can. . . what?  Band together?   Protect each other from the forces of evil?

“You know how you get a beach body, right?  You take your body –” I gesture towards her and then to me, “ – and go to the beach.”  We smile at each other.  “Just come be with your neighbors,” I say.  “The pool is for everyone.”

But she’s not giving an inch.  “Well, I never had a body like yours, even when I had the body I felt good in.” She laughs again.  It’s a strained laugh this time.

Are we still doing this?  In 2016 at 60-something years old, she’s still doing this?  Will I be in 20 years?  Who is going to tell us we can’t be at the pool?

This is what I need to say to her.

To all of us, tucked inside our soft and hungry bodies.

We want you.

As you are.

We want you in our community, just like we want the kids in their swim diapers, the lady in the wheelchair who zips around walking her giant black dog, the folks who grill out at the picnic area.  This pool is the closest thing we have to a common house.  Three months a year, this is our town square.

We can’t let scars and bellies and imagined impossible ideals keep us from being neighbors.

Things are not so great in this country of ours right now.  We have some tough battles to fight.  But we’ve already fought some and we shouldn’t have to keep revisiting that scarred ground.  For nearly 100 years, women have had the right to vote.  We can work.  Serve in the military.  We can pursue scientific research, write and paint and dance and sing.  We can sleep with any consenting adult, marry whomever we please or not marry at all.  We can write laws.  Change laws.  Have babies without men.  Ride motorcycles across the country.  Play professional sports.  Design rocket ships.  Run companies.  Run for president.

And yes, wear whatever the hell we want to the pool.

So put on a swimsuit.  Or a caftan.  Or a clown suit or a business suit.  Or a veil or fishnets or scuba gear or culottes or Go-Go boots.

But please.

Come to the pool.

Or sit here on your sun-dappled flowery patio and read all summer if that’s what you’d prefer.  Of course.  That’s totally cool too.  Because being a 60-something retired gal in the suburbs of an American metropolis means you can follow your bliss.

But please let go of being wistful or lonely when you can hear the chatter and cannonballs from that pretty patio, when you see your fellow residents flip-flopping past with their sun hats and iced tea.

We want you.

We need you.

As you are.

Let’s put to bed the notion that we live in a world populated by sylphs and Veelas, and that you are some mutant monstrosity.  You are a human in this neighborhood and you live in your body.  It is strong, it is weak.  It is the same body that installed the stone sculpture and refills the birdseet.  The same body that greets my dog, my son, me.  The body that has grandkids up the road who love you.  The body that filled years of a career leading art programs at a children’s hospital in Wisconsin.

You belong here.

We all do.

As we are.

We have to start showing up.  Pasty hips and jiggly arms, acne, wrinkles, spider veins, all of it.  We all have to show up in the bodies that carry us over the earth.  Because what’s the alternative?  What purpose or good do we serve by staying home?

I can’t promise you that everyone will think kind thoughts.  The cellulite will be visible, and some of us – present company included – have indulged petty comparisons.  I can promise you, however, that neither the stretch marks nor the judgments will matter one lick to any outcome or relationship that matters.  Here in the everyday world of our neighborhood, the distribution of wealth, luck, friendship, leadership, respect, and opportunities for love has no correlation to flab.  The only thing the size of our backsides influences is the size of the underpants we wear.  This is a pretty flimsy standard upon which to base any decision of consequence.

I understand you want to lose weight.  I do too.  I fight this damned fight every day.  This body you say you envy?  It’s packed on nearly 15 pounds in less than a year.  Stress, depression, thyroid problems.  Scoliosis, chronic pain, disordered eating.  Acne, bunions, insomnia.  And now?  A bum knee.

This body here houses all these things.  These are features of my physical form much like the roar of freeway traffic outside my balcony, the windowless shared walls, the claustrophobic  8-foot ceilings.  Sometimes focusing on the flaws becomes an addiction all its own, and those dark patches press in like glaucoma narrowing the vision.  But then I remember that this is my home, and it is the place where this full, loving life of mine is being written.  Then I notice the art.  Then I thrill to the blessings.

I live with these things also here in the home of my body because this body is like a physical address.  It holds the scars and all the rest of it, too.  The emotive poetry, the sketching, the puttering in the kitchen with garlic and oil and greens.  This body is hiking, friendship, sex, tinkering, and books.  It carries the late-night cuddles with my kiddo, the volunteer work, the advising sessions with students, the adventures, the confusion, the kaleidoscopic memories that comprise the narrative I believe is me.  The whole twisting, unfinished, colorful, at times plodding, and always character-rich story of me lives here  in the home of this body.  All of me.

Inside your body, you.

I want to know you.  You have so much to contribute to this place, so much you already have.

When you show up, good things happen.  The connections between all of us here grow stronger.  You have already helped us grow from neighborhood towards community.

When you show up.

You have to show up.

You are my neighbor.  I am yours.  I want to know the you who is unfolding within your skin.  That skin that holds glorious, kind you.

Your neighbors want to know you.

Please come.

As you are.


Image: Leon Oks, “New Friends III”

Settle In

Durrie Winter Scene

The first flakes are dusting the sidewalk. My son and his little buddy are engaged in a take-no-prisoners Pokemon battle in the living room. They munch on microwave popcorn and negotiate rules while I re-pot the frozen rosemary rescued from the balcony. Beans for soup are soaking on the kitchen counter. Next to them, a bowl of sourdough rises under a cloth.

My Mister stops by after his final run to the store. He delivers a sack of whole wheat flour, two head of garlic, and several minutes of hugs. While all of these are unnecessary for survival, it’s nice to be provisioned. Cooking is my second-favorite snow day diversion. My first includes hugging, but  because my Mister’s kiddos need him home to batten down the hatches, this fleeting squeeze will have to suffice.

After he rolls out into the ominous gray, I tear cardboard for the fire and stack towels by the front door. Noodle tip-taps around the living room. She snuffles up fallen popcorn, stopping by the window to gaze at neighbor dogs getting their last long walks before the whiteout.

After a strategic play involving Rapidash and Magmar, my boy demolishes his friend. They toss cards aside and yank on coats. Bug presses his feet into the new boots we bought at Sears yesterday. They were sold out of almost every size and we had to dig through shelves to find a  pair that wouldn’t give him blisters. With a shriek and a whoop, the two race out into the deepening white.

Here I wait without waiting. For the first time, the season’s hushed pulse matches my own. Soon enough, this low-bellied sky will carry in the night. We will play music. We will dance with the dog. We will finish Rick Riordan’s Lost Hero and crawl into flannel sheets as winter, at last, blankets our world.


 

Image: George Henry Durrie, Winter Scene in Connecticut, 1858, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

Action as Antitdote

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Buried in the back of the Sunday Post behind Sudanese child soldiers and Syrian refugees is this story. In a part of Detroit well on its way to eroding into yet another ghost suburb in the strange narrative of post-industrial suburban decay, residents are re-claiming the place as their own.

They say that action is the antidote to despair.

The problems seem far too big. Arson, illegal dumping, sex work, drugs. Houses are gutted and razed, whole blocks turned into weed-choked lots. How could anything resembling vitality ever return to this place? Maybe the natural laws of decomposition and succession could redeem the story, but only after the place has lain fallow for a few generations. It’s a distant and sorrowful kind of hope, but it’s the best we can do.

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, are doing far better.

This neighborhood is too broken to re-animate in the here-and-now. The notion is folly. Absurd, really. Because when you sweep your gaze across the whole panorama — absence of stores and services, distance from economic opportunity, prevalence of crime, abandonment by residents — you throw up your hands and say, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, just begin.

They begin with confronting one truck dumping one load of building debris. Or they begin with one piece of plywood over one burnt-out window. Or with one garden bed on one abandoned lot.

The tenacity of these neighbors is gritty inspiration. They remind us that “getting” what we want in our lives and communities really means making it from scratch. Steady, courageous, intentional effort and unwavering focus are required. So is using every spare moment — even those that have to be stolen from elsewhere — and every tool at hand to hack through the brambles and lay the groundwork.

Intensity of focus, however, is just one critical element, and insufficient at that.

These neighbors show us that we need each other.

Even though many of the Brightmoor pioneers have all the demands pulling at them the rest of us do — jobs, kids, aging parents, school, commitments pressing against the clock — they find each other. They cultivate the kind of we’re-in-this-together relationships necessary for building the future they want to inhabit.

They are hope in action.

They somehow got over the myth that first beguiles and then cripples so many of us in this increasingly commodified and solipsistic nation: that the neighborhoods, schools, and relationships we want might be out there somewhere. If only we could find them, if only we could crack the code! The folks of Brightmoor recognize that a dream is something you have to cobble together. . . together.

Their future is an uncertain and often unwieldy work in progress. These neighbors have to improvise. They have to trust in the messy process of winding up half-formed notions and setting them loose on rough, living ground.

With this courageous, dedicated, and wholly foolish commitment, they come a little closer to getting what they want for themselves and their children. Closer, perhaps, than most of us ever will.

They also heal one small corner of the world.

It’s more than a pipe dream. It’s happening right now, right up the road, at the hands of people just like you and me.

Photo credit: Digging Detroit