Imperfect Serenity

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Slowing Down

This morning my seven-year-old son Luke said, “Sometimes I’m having so much fun I forget I’m alive.”

The kid is good at living life to the fullest, though sometimes he has so much fun he forgets to look out for oncoming traffic. It’s a tricky balance, keeping the presence and engagement of a child while remembering that life requires maintenance—the eight bags of groceries we bought after returning from vacation, the five loads of laundry, the bills that need paying, the prescription I still haven’t renewed yet, and the phone calls I have to make before I’m ready to start teaching Friday. Whenever we get back from a trip, I struggle to keep the spirit of relaxation and fun alive as I sort through a living room of damp sleeping bags and obligations.

But I have to say that Lake Champlain was beautiful.

After three days camping in Vermont, we took the ferry over to the Adirondack Mountains where we visited friends for another two nights. On the way I remembered Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and the Quakers who were talking at Residential Yearly Meeting about driving the speed limit to save gas and reduce their impact on the environment. I adopted this practice myself for the Lent after September 11, 2001 and found it incredibly difficult. I think it was the combination of my impatience and the impatience of other drivers that did me in. This time I decided to just focus on slowing down, rather than getting obsessed with the speedometer. Not being in a hurry helped, as did the beautiful view.

Mountains always show up my schedule for the sham it is anyway. When we went hiking the next day and Luke pulled up some moss to throw at his sister (in fun, of course), our host Hollister explained to him that the moss had been growing for 100 years. When we kayaked to a waterfall that afternoon and my daughter Megan found a displaced piece of moss, she dipped it in the water and tried to replant it, as Hollister had shown them. Luke joined in and they went about trying to fix the moss damaged by previous hikers. It wasn’t clear if their efforts would work, just as it’s not clear if a few Quakers driving a bit slower (though still driving quite a bit) will fix the climate. But my children looked purposeful as they replanted the moss—present, alive, and having fun.

I need to remember the lessons of childhood and nature and try not to rush as we enter one of the most hectic times of year for a family. It helps to remember that moss is both soft and durable.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Urban Life

I was walking a friend’s dog last night and saw a groundhog disappear into a scrap of garden, bordering an abandoned lot. The neighbors have planted a few flowers and green peppers around the cars that use the lot at night for spillover parking. Later on my dog walk I passed what looked like a more formal community garden, an old Quaker cemetery, and a surprising amount of green for a neighborhood that also has plenty of crime and litter. It got me thinking about the life that inhabits the city, often unseen.

First there are the creatures, like the groundhogs, which seem to be everywhere this year. Early in the summer, we had one in our back alley that was getting quite bold about dining on my neighbor’s little garden. The children chased it away a few times, until it turned up dead on Henry Avenue. Then there was the brown snake that was living under the black plastic I had laid in my other neighbor’s yard to kill her weeds. She’s in her eighties, and all that has survived of her gardening days is one pink rose bush that rises up out of the honeysuckle every spring. The rest of her yard is a tangle of invasive vines now dancing with the cherry tomatoes I optimistically planted this spring when I first rolled back the black plastic to reveal bare earth and the snake. Tom saw another snake this spring as it was carried off by a bird. I often forget to notice the birds, though we get cardinals fairly often in our yard, and I just saw a goldfinch in a friend’s. Most exciting are always the red hawks that circle over Germantown, the neighborhood where my children go to school and where I was walking the dog last night

A few weeks ago I was talking to a cousin who lives in West Chester, a distant suburb. “Do you still live in Germantown?” he asked incredulously. Well, actually we live right next to Germantown, I explained, bristling at the racism I heard in his question, since Germantown is more predominantly African American than our neighborhood. “Aren’t you going to get out of there?” he asked, as if I was imbedded with the insurgency in Iraq.

“No, we like our neighborhood,” I answered. “We like our neighbors,” I added, suspecting that he knows we have African Americans neighbors. Later I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t explicitly addressed the racism I assumed was behind his question, even though I know it would have been pointless. This is the cousin who once told me it’s better not to pay your bills every month because it just wastes stamps. He’s also told me that it was alright that he beat up his grown daughter to teach her a lesson. He’s not an easy guy to reason with, let me tell you. He’s an alcoholic, under house arrest since he got out of jail, and he thinks his daughter is a heroin addict. And he’s worried about my neighborhood because we have a few black folk on the block.

Like many white Americans, I think my cousin’s only image of the city is of drugs and the gun violence he hears about on the news. I don’t want to discount the gun violence, which has risen to more than a murder a day, but I think it’s wrong to disconnect what happens in the most violent neighborhoods with what happens in the suburbs. Like the natural world, the human ecosystem is interconnected in intricate and invisible ways. A girl using heroin in the suburbs is fueling the drug trade in north Philadelphia. Yet all the fingers point to the city as the source of the problem. This isn’t new, of course. I saw more drug use at my elite suburban high school than I’ve ever seen since moving into the city, but that’s certainly not the image people have of my Main Line private school.

A few weeks ago I was reading some of the comments on The Philadelphia Inquirer web site in response to an article on the city’s gun wars. It’s amazing how a little online anonymity brings out the ugly in people. Although many comments had a racist tinge, the most disturbing to me was the one that suggested we should just let all the black men kill each other off. I posted an online response, but it was like trying to talk to my cousin, facing a philosophical divide so wide I recoiled with vertigo.

I have to figure out how to face these situations better. I’ve been reading Lifting the White Veil: An Exploration of White American Culture in a Multiracial Context. The author Jeff Hitchcock points out that working to address racism in the white community was what Stokely Carmichael wanted white civil rights workers to do, though most gave up once they could no longer do the exciting work of leading marches. As one said of organizing among whites, “Frankly, we’re just not ready to face it yet.” That was more than thirty years ago.

I hope that becoming more conscious myself will help me to become more articulate and brave among my own messed up folks. I’m working on being more observant, for a start, taking note of the questions with the racist edge, taking note of my own reactions, too. For example, I noticed that I was more nervous about my dog sitting duties at night. Our six pm walk was long and leisurely, but when I let my vacationing friend’s dog out one more time for a pee before bed, my urban girl radar was on orange alert. I had to wonder if it was the same racism ingrained in my cousin that made me more nervous walking at night in a part of Germantown that’s mostly black, or if it was just a rational response to being in a neighborhood that does have a higher crime rate, though far from the worst in the city.

At first I noticed my own fears. Then I noticed that every African American man I passed, on the sidewalk or sitting on the porch, made a point of saying, “Hey, how you doing?” As I progressed down the street, I had a sense of being watched, not cased for a crime, but looked out for. It’s part of the invisible life of the city, I realized, people looking out for each other, whether it’s trying to save a neighbor’s rose bush from the vines or watching a passing dog-walker get safely home. It’s part of what I love about living in Philadelphia, a sense of community that I never felt in my own suburban neighborhood growing up. It's part of what I didn't know how to explain to my cousin, the fact that I felt safer knowing that the brothers were out on the stoop watching me, or the fact that I'm thrilled that my kids are out every evening on the sidewalk with the new African American kids next door. I want my kids to grow up with a sense of community, not fear, which is partly why we've set aside the idea of looking for a house with a bigger yard. We've got great neighbors, and that seems more important than a little more grass.

It's funny that I'm ruminating on urban life today when we're packing to go camping in Vermont. I'm looking forward to seeing the Adirondack Mountains tracing the sky over Lake Champlain. But it's nice to have somewhere to come home to, too, and this year more than ever I'm feeling grateful for my community.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Birthday Blogging

I suppose a blog post written on my birthday should be especially reflective—taking stock of the past year, looking forward to the future, something like that. And I think it is a good time for an assessment. It’s been eight months since my mom died and eight years since we moved to Philadelphia. That’s actually the longest I’ve lived in one place since childhood. It will be our family’s fifth year at Greene Street Friends School and my sixth teaching at University of the Arts, which is the longest I’ve ever had a job, other than motherhood. In many ways, my life is rolling along, year to year, with less change than in any previous decade—at least on the surface.

The most noticeable difference between this birthday and my last is that we won’t be bringing the leftover birthday cake to my mom’s. That realization this morning brought a wave of sadness that I haven’t felt much since she died in December. A year ago, as we prepared for our August vacation, I was worried about mom being alone in our absence. I bought my first cell phone so the hospice nurse could reach us, and checked our answering machine regularly when we lost cell coverage in the mountains. I thought she might die while we were gone. When she lived four more stressful months, I was grateful the hospice social worker had encouraged me to take a vacation.

This summer our biggest dilemma is whether or not to bring the new puppy camping. After realizing that driving to Vermont with him might negate the relaxing effect of Lake Champlain, we started looking for pet sitters. One of the first women we called said no because she had actually met dear Spud at the local dog park and thinks he might be a little too high strung for her own elderly dogs. We’re making other calls and also checking out minivan rentals so we can ride safely with Spud, if we must. It’s helpful to remember that this is a much easier situation than the one we were facing last year.

I have some decisions to make in the coming year, but most of the stress I feel about them I put on myself. The external burdens are lifting. Mom’s estate will be settled soon—a benefit of being the only child of an organized mother—so my last daughterly duties will be winding up. On the other end, the children are now old enough to make their own lunches. Even swimming with the kids is noticeably easier this summer as they no longer need to hang on me to keep from drowning.

My work is changing is subtle ways, which is probably part of what keeps it interesting. Most of my jobs I’ve quit after a few years, as soon as I got bored. But motherhood changes constantly. Just when I could change a diaper in my sleep, I had to learn how to paper mache piñatas. Once I knew how to mediate a spat over the Leggos, I had to deal with arguments about gender roles. I sense we’re on the brink of a whole new phase, so I’ve been hugging my nine-year-old as much as possible this summer. I don’t know how much longer she’ll want to hold my hand when we cross the street.

That little girl who still holds my hand may be settling my estate some day, but hopefully a long time from now. Although two friends recently gasped when they heard I was turning forty-four (“That’s really in your mid-forties now,” Claudia said.), I feel I have a lot of life ahead of me. I sense more will develop with my writing in this next year, and this leading about racial justice will get clearer. The last fortune cookie I got said, “Good things are coming to you in the due course of time.” In truth, good things are already here.

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