10 things I’ve learned in my first 10 years as a bus parent

Today Chicklet turns 10 years old. My tiny little bus buddy is now a fourth grader, a self-described “horse crazy girl” who loves Prince, PAWS, books, trees, her baby cousins, and politics. Seriously, politics. She is the kid who insists on helping me fill out my ballot (which reminds me: gotta get on that), who enjoys watching debates and could easily name every elected official who represents her, from the senate to the city council. Despite her introverted nature, Chicklet wants to be one of those elected officials someday — and not just to make the world a better place. She has admitted (more than once) that she wants to “be in charge of people” just for the sake of it.

I digress.

Having a decade-old daughter means I’m 10 in bus mom years. I’ve learned a lot of lessons in 3,653 days of life on the ground — schlepping stuff and managing disasters (mostly minor) by bus. Here are 10 of them.

1. Creativity and flexibility are a bus parent’s most important tools. There are plenty of parenting practices — and even some products — that will make busing with kids easier. But the key to a successful bus parenting experience is an ability and willingness to adapt to whatever circumstances you are presented with.

Long bus wait? Play Connect Four. Heading to the beach? Pack tiny buckets. Struggling to keep up with youth ORCA cards? Get a lanyard (and a label). Toddler throws up on the 8? Use everything in your bus bag.

2. A plastic bag can solve almost any problem. A plastic bag is an essential item for most bus riders but especially essential for parents. Plastic bags are (unfortunately) abundant, free, easy to carry, and incredibly versatile. They can be used for on-the-way shopping (though these days, I carry an actual shopping bag, too), trash collection (for those random snack wrappers, banana peels, dirty tissues, diapers, etc., etc.); laundry (remind me to tell you about the time Chicklet sat on a mysterious brown substance at a bus shelter downtown), seating (to cover wet benches or ledges), and even, in a pinch, vomit (expelled by sick kiddos or those unfortunate individuals who are busing while pregnant).

Even if you’re not great at packing, it’s easy to keep at least one plastic bag in your backpack, purse, or pocket. And it’s worth it. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

3. Busing prepares kids for life. Several years back, I wrote a post about how busing makes kids smarter. It might have been a bit of a stretch (and it definitely scored high on the smug scale), but I am convinced that bus kids are more ready for the world than kids who are driven everywhere.

Busing involves waiting. In the early years, this can be challenging, but kids do get used to it. They learn how watch the world, or daydream, or make conversation, or read a book when they’re bored. This comes in handy when they’re in line at the grocery store, in the dentist’s office, at a restaurant, or pretty much anywhere kids are expected to keep their bodies calm and minds occupied for more than 30 seconds.

Bus kids build physical stamina from all the walking they do. Kids who walk a lot are healthy, ready for almost any outdoor adventure, and able to keep up with parents on shopping excursions and other walk-intensive outings.

A Monday walk to school

Bus kids learn to navigate at an early age and develop an intimate, on-the-ground knowledge of their community. This prepares them to get around on their own long before they are old enough to drive.

Bus kids learn to interact safely with people they don’t know. They practice setting and respecting boundaries, and they are exposed to people of all different ages, colors, orientations, incomes, temperaments, and abilities. This helps them understand that everyone belongs. And the way I see it, there’s nothing more important to learn.

4. Policies matter. Back in the dark ages, when my kids were still portable, Metro’s stroller policy required parents to remove children from strollers and collapse the strollers before boarding the bus. This made some sense from a safety and space use perspective but absolutely no sense from a parent’s perspective.

Long before I became a bus mama, I knew I would never bring a stroller onto the bus if I could possibly help it. And when I did have kids, I wore them in a carrier as often — and for as long — as possible. When they started getting too big to be carried in a pack, I struggled. There was a good six-month stretch when I was willing to walk very long distances in bad weather to avoid the bus, because the stroller hassle was just too much.

The benefit of this excruciating period was that I was very motivated to get my kids walking on their own. Both of them started their “walk training” before they turned two and were full-time walkers by two and a half. To this day, they have incredible stamina and patience and can out-walk most adults.

Again, I digress.

These days, Metro has a sane stroller policy. Parents can leave their child (and stuff) in the stroller and can use the lift and wheelchair area if it is not being used by a wheelchair passenger. It’s not a perfect solution, since parents sometimes must unhook, unpack, and fold in the middle of a ride, but it’s impossible to perfectly balance the needs of a diverse group of riders in a vehicle with limited capacity. And certainly, the current policy is significantly better than what I dealt with — so much better that I sometimes wish I had another baby just so I could take advantage of it.

OK, no I don’t.

There are so many examples of the positive impacts that thoughtful, people-focused agency policies have on riders. (There are also plenty of examples of the negative impacts of poor policies.) I hope Metro continues to incorporate feedback from folks on the ground into all of their decision-making processes.

5. Bus drivers are the best people. I’ve always been a bit in awe of bus drivers, so it’s beautiful to see that my kids feel the same way. I’ve written so much about the ways drivers have cared for and entertained our family over the years, I don’t have much more to say on the subject. Except this:

6. Seattle needs more public bathrooms. One of the most common challenges we deal with on our bus adventures is the restroom emergency. (The fact that the emergency is mine as often as it is one of my children’s is a minor detail.) Being stranded at a bus stop with a potty training kid who has to go (or a diapered kid who already did) is a not awesome aspect of busing with babies.

If the world were as it should be, there would be clean, safe restrooms at Link stations and all major bus stops. The world is not as it should be (so very not), so bus riders (and everyone else) must fend for themselves. I make it my business to know all the restroom options in the neighborhoods I visit frequently. My preferred restroom hierarchy: public (library, community center, government building, park [except YUCK]), private but accessible (hotel lobby, large restaurant), private but inaccessible (small restaurant or coffee shop with a key or code).

In case you’re not a restroom savant, there’s — obviously — an app for that.

7. Bus parents don’t “run errands.” When Chicklet was a baby, I was desperate to prove that our family could live like everyone else. Or, at least, that we could do everything other middle-class families did. This was in part because I was still in my “bus booster” phase (Who am I kidding? I will always be in my bus booster phase.) and was therefore more interested in proving that carfree living was possible than I was in analyzing its limitations.

Yes (thanks mostly to our proximity and access), my kids get to dance classes and sports practices and birthday parties and doctor’s appointments. Yes, we have food in our refrigerator and clothes in our closets and all the essential hygiene products in our bathroom. Yes, we go on fun outings. But the effort, time, and physical and mental energy that is expended to make all that happen can sometimes feel overwhelming. (Carrying capacity has always been, and as far as I can tell will remain, a huge challenge for me.)

And even with the basics covered, there are plenty of things we choose not to do, or do less often than we would like, because we don’t have a car. There are other things that we only do when we decide to rent a car.

What I have learned over these years is that we aren’t, in fact, trying to “live like everyone else” by bus. Instead, we are building and modeling a different way to live. And really, that’s always been the point.

8. The journey is the adventure. Sorry to resort to a cliché in an already cliché’ “10 things I learned” listicle, but folks, we’re talking transit here. Schlepping kids across town on the bus for an everyday errand like shoe shopping when you’re tired and pressed for time can be a hassle. But riding transit to go on an adventure is, well, an adventure.

When we take the bus (or train) to an event, or to a beach or park we rarely visit, we try new routes, walk in new neighborhoods, and enjoy new scenery. We spend our travel time focusing on each other instead of the road. These transit adventures have made some of our best memories as a family, and they’re a beautiful reminder of why we ride.

9. Our “sacrifice” is a privilege. While it’s true that our decision to live without a car requires determination and some amount of sacrifice, it’s also true that it wouldn’t be possible at all without a number of privileges lots of people don’t have. Living the way we do is possible for us because we have work that is flexible and accessible by transit, reliable internet access, and sufficient income. We are able-bodied and live in a centrally located neighborhood with sidewalks, pretty good transit, and nearby services. Because we are fortunate enough to own a home, our housing costs are stable, and, barring some unforeseen disaster, we can count on the access we need to keep doing this.

Back when I started my carfree adventure almost 15 years ago, Seattle was already an expensive city. But, it was possible (if challenging) for many carfree families to save enough on transportation costs to afford to live in a small space in the city. Now, city living is inaccessible to almost everyone. It is no longer a matter of tradeoffs or determination; it’s a matter of not having enough money to make it work, no matter how you get around.

And it’s not just about access. If any number of circumstances in our lives were to change, we wouldn’t be able to live this way anymore. If, for example, someone in our family developed a medical condition that required regular appointments or procedures or that made it difficult for them to walk long distances, we would need a car. If we decided to foster another child, who might attend a different school than our other kids and would almost certainly have family visits and other appointments outside our neighborhood (not to mention his or her own share of middle-of-the-night illnesses), we would need a car. If one of us started a job that involved a non-bus-friendly commute or that required us to travel around the region during the day, we would need a car.

For a few years now, I’ve been wondering about the point of it all. Why make a choice that constrains our lives in so many ways if it’s not a  choice most others can emulate? Is there value in doing something so outside of the norm if it has little to no real impact, especially if we could be of more service to our community and extended family if we drove?

All I’ve got is this: You have to start somewhere. Sure, lots of people can’t get by without a car. But some of people can. And those people should. If they don’t, we cannot expect to see change in our lifetimes. Or ever.

So, the way I see it, our family needs to make the tradeoffs and feel the occasional discomfort and keep living this way for as long as we are able. We also need to fight like hell to make sure the privileges we have are available to more people. We must insist on affordable housing, so that working people can live in the city. We must insist on sidewalks in every community. We must advocate for more and better transit and safe bicycle infrastructure.

We must do this because living without a car should not be a choice only for the desperate or dedicated. It should be an option available to everyone.

10 Holding hands is awesome. The challenges of bus parenting change over time. You go from the physically exhausting infant period, to the squirmy, bathroom centric (and also physically exhausting) toddler phase, to the payment logistics and window-seat battles of the early school years, to the scheduling struggles of the older kid years, to … Lord only knows.

But the joys of bus parenting? Those remain constant. Playing “telephone” while waiting for the 8 on a rainy night. Reading books — together or separately — on the way to visit cousins, Running into school friends or church members or neighbors on almost every ride. Holding hands, sitting close, telling jokes.

I will continue to be grateful that we can do this, even on days when I’m exhausted and resentful and over it already. Because the truth is, busing with babies is beautiful. And we are so fortunate.

I have a podcast!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to think (and write) a lot about community. I believe that connected, resilient, inclusive, interdependent communities are essential to our well-being as a species and are the best hope we have of solving the planet’s most pressing problems.

In the podcast, which I’m calling Remember (as in re-MEMBER: bring back together), I plan to explore ways we can strengthen the communities we are a part of and use our collective resources to create a world we want to live in.

This first episode is essentially just an introduction — in other words, me talking to myself — but future episodes will almost always include interviews with more interesting people.

I’ll be posting all future episodes here. I hope you’ll listen — and tell a friend!

God at the bus stop

When my kids were small — preschool and toddlerish — a sixtysomething man introduced himself to the three of us at a bus stop. His name was Emmanuel, a name I knew I’d remember  because of its beautiful meaning: God with us.

Emmauel told me that he looked out for our family. A few months earlier, he had met Bus Nerd — or, as he called him, “Detroit” — at the park, through a mutual friend who is widely admired in the community. Any friends of such a stellar human were OK in Emmanuel’s book. So, when he saw us around the neighborhood, he kept his eye out. Made sure we were OK.

Emmanuel and I talked for several minutes (periodically interrupted by the tugging and whining of my bored children) while we waited —  about books, and city history, and parenthood. But when the 14 finally arrived, he didn’t board with us. Instead, he waved goodbye and headed the opposite way down the street.

After that day, as often happens after I make a bus friend, I started seeing Emmanuel everywhere: at the library, the pharmacy, the community center, the park. Every time, he was happy to see me, like we were old friends. Every time, he was full of questions and observations and ideas, ready to continue our conversation where we had left it.

A couple of years into our street friendship, Emmanuel’s appearance started to change. He grew thinner. He lost teeth. His skin started to sag. One day, on my walk home from work, I came across an apparently homeless man holding a sign at an intersection. It wasn’t until I approached him with a small offering that I realized it was Emmanuel, thinner and more ragged than ever. He tried to preempt any questions by saying he was having a tough month and waiting on a delayed check. I went along with the pretense of lending him a few bucks until his check came through.

After that day, I continued to see Emmanuel around the neighborhood, but instead of holding court in front of the library, I would find him holding a sign on the side of the road. After that first time, it got easier for both of us. We returned to our friendly conversations.

On one of my chance encounters with Emmanuel, I was with the mutual friend who had introduced him to Bus Nerd. That friend told me he had known Emmanuel for almost 50 years, since his days as a student at the University of Washington. They had been part of the small group of student activists that had founded the university’s Black Student Union. Emmanuel’s passion and intelligence had helped inspire our friend to devote his life to public service.

These insights into a man I knew only superficially reinforced so many truths. That our circumstances and choices and predispositions and the systems we are subjected to all work together to create our life path. That when we’re young and passionate and full of potential, we are not able to predict — or sometimes even imagine — the paths our lives ultimately end up taking. That our soulless, unforgiving, profit-driven culture routinely breaks people. And that, even now, in this future he did not imagine for himself, Emmanuel is still inspiring people.

Emmanuel. God with us.

Eastbound 14, 2:30 PM

A couple is having a — ahem! — personal argument in the back corner of the bus.

Woman: “It only lasted one minute. I’m going to start calling you Minute Man.” She scoots forward in her seat and begins to shout. “Minute Man! Minute Man!”

Man: “Come on! It was at least three.”

I spent three days on an island with no cars

In late June, after SPS finally released its hostages for the summer, our family made its annual pilgrimage to Bus Nerd’s hometown of Detroit. In the past, our visits have mostly been confined to Detroit proper and its nearby suburbs, but this year, at my insistence, we ventured out a bit.

I had been dying to visit Mackinac Island, a small island in Lake Huron between Michigan’s mainland and its Upper Peninsula, ever since I learned of its existence a few years ago. Because of its beautiful setting, old-fashioned vibe (think quaint Victorian village), and preponderance of fudge shops, Mackinac draws a lot of tourists — almost a million every year. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not be eager to visit a crowded island that bills itself as an homage to a “bygone era”* and boasts a giant military fort (complete with regularly firing cannons) as one of its main attractions. But in this case, the circumstances were not at all ordinary: Mackinac Island does not allow cars. (!!!)

When “horseless carriages” came on the scene in the late 19th century, Mackinac was already a popular tourist destination. Residents did not appreciate the presence of motorized vehicles on their lovely island; they were noisy and dangerous, scared the horses, and generally disturbed the peace. So, in 1898, the municipality formally banned automobiles. The ban remains in effect today.

The idea of experiencing life without cars, even in a somewhat contrived setting (and despite the irony that I had to ride in a car to get there), was too compelling to pass up. So I dragged my crew all the way up there for a three-day visit.

And, what a beautiful three days!

To my children’s delight, there are still plenty of horses on Mackinac. They pull the “cabs” and sightseeing carriages that ferry tourists and also do the bulk of the hauling and delivery. But bikes are the most common form of transportation on the island. Bikes are everywhere: available for rent by the thousands, parked in front of every business, covering porches, filling the streets. It is amazing.

One of the most striking things about Mackinac was the quiet. Without the constant roar of traffic, you could hear the sounds of people. There was a band playing at the public park near the ferry dock on the evening we arrived, and the sound carried all over town. The quiet also allowed us to enjoy the near-constant clip-clopping of horse hooves.

Our first morning on the island, we got up early and biked around its perimeter on M-185, the only US highway where motor vehicles are banned.

M-185 (aka best highway ever), very early in the morning

One of the recently installed markers on M-185 commemorating many thousands of years of Native history on Mackinac

I don’t have the right words to describe how it felt to just ride, without the fear, without the constant vigilance. I never had to worry about a car crossing the center line, or following too closely, or turning into us in an intersection. In other words, I never had to worry about dying (any more than I usually do, that is) in the course of my travels. Instead, I focused on the beauty of the island, the feel of the wind on my face, the pleasure of zooming along under my own power. The kids loved it, too. They never had to get off their bikes to cross a road or look and look and look and listen and then tiptoe past the parked cars and look again. All of us rode freely and with total joy.

After that first ride, I was desperate to get back on a bike ASAP. We spent more than we should have on bike rentals, because I could not get enough of that feeling of freedom and exhilaration. On our second rental, I even let Busling convince me to skip the helmets, since, as he pointed out, we were the only people on the entire island he’d seen wearing them.

Couldn’t stop grinning, even before I agreed to ditch the dorky, ill-fitting rental helmet

Those few joyous rides made me realize that I had never, not a single time in my 45 years on this planet, ridden a bike without worrying about encountering a car.** And they reinforced the fact that what stops me from riding more often when I’m at home is not helmets or rain or even hills; it is the absence of a safe place to do it.

Since we’ve been back in Seattle, I’ve done it anyway, finally fulfilling the promise I made to myself back in 2016. We replaced the kids’ old bikes with bigger ones (with gears and hand brakes!) and so far have ridden almost every day this month. Sometimes it’s just in circles at our local park, but sometimes, it’s to actual destinations. We’ve ridden to church on the Greenway two weeks in a row and have made several bike-based grocery runs.

I know I won’t be able to recapture that feeling I had on Mackinac. I also know that transportation infrastructure in cities that exist for reasons other than recreation will necessarily be very different from transportation infrastructure on a vacation island. Still, Mackinac Island has a lot to teach us about how to make our cities more livable for all. In addition to pretty postcards, I brought home with me a commitment to be part of a culture change that will lead to more safety and freedom in the “real” world.

See you in the streets! (Actually, probably on the sidewalk.)

***

* Those of us whose oppression is inextricably linked to those bygone days tend not to romanticize them. The current situation is bad enough.

** There were a few times when one of my parents put bikes on (or in) the car and transported them to a recreational path, but don’t count those.

This planet is their home

“We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try.” – Erica Jong

People often ask me how my decision to live without a car affects my children. Usually, I respond with my standard spiel about how we’re able to do all the stuff other families do (blah, blah, blah), because for the most part, it’s true — and because what usually underlies these questions is an assumption that I am shortchanging my kids, that I have sacrificed their birthright of a middle-class lifestyle in service of some extreme and unrealistic ideology.

The thing is, in a way, I have.

I look around and see friends and acquaintances driving their kids to water parks and on camping adventures and to premiere athletic competitions and to schools that are perfectly suited to their needs and temperaments. I see them participating in kid-focused organizations we would likely join if we owned a car. And sometimes, it feels like I am shortchanging them. Certainly, our life choices limit their access to opportunities many of their peers enjoy.

And then I remember that my children are not deprived in any of the ways that matter. They are loved. They are housed. They have access to fresh food, clean water, health care, and unlimited books (thank you, Seattle Public Library). They participate in sports and study the arts and play outside safely in their own neighborhood. And they see their beloved extended family regularly, if not as often as they (or I) would like.

Yes, their lives are constrained in some ways, but all kids’ lives are constrained by their parents’ values and circumstances. (Just ask my dad, a talented athlete who was prohibited from participating in most school sports because the games conflicted with his family’s religious observances.) And far more important than the minor, parentally imposed constraints they currently deal with are the very real threats to their future — climate change, extreme inequality, political instability — which are primarily the result of the very lifestyle they have been deprived of.

At some point, we have to acknowledge that what our culture values and prioritizes isn’t actually good for our children — or, for that matter, anyone else who’s trying to survive on this planet. We can continue to participate, or we can choose a different path, however impractical or unrealistic.

Several weeks ago, I came across this beautiful essay by Nicole Bradford, a mother of three whose husband is facing years in prison for participating in direct action efforts to stop fossil fuel extraction. Nicole’s insights are a gift, because they remind us of what we truly owe our — and everyone’s — children.

The accelerating instability of our earth is clarifying. And the act of rising to the enormity of what’s in front of us magnifies the commitment I made to them, when painfully, in love and toil, I brought them to this world.

I know that to use their youth as an excuse to not engage in this struggle would be to betray their existence. Together we are fighting for something all children on earth should be entitled to: a livable planet. And for Ben and me, the work of it becomes its own love story–to each other, and to our children.

Certainly, my family’s “sacrifice” (such as it is) cannot be compared to the Bradfords’ courageous stand. It’s difficult to even argue that our transportation choices are making any kind of difference — in the health of our planet or in our culture. But while the effectiveness of our resistance might be up for debate, the need for it is not.

Working for a healthy, peaceful, just planet does not conflict with our role as parents. On the contrary, it is the most important part of our job. We don’t owe our children fancy camps, or a perfectly curated school experience, or a spot on the best premiere soccer team. We owe them a future. We owe them a life.

 

Westbound 4, 10:20 AM

A thirtysomething man finds a seat near the door, directly in front of an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

Woman: “Good morning. How are you?”

Man: “Somebody took my wallet.”

Woman: “At least you had one for somebody to take.”

HBE, D, and me

Dear D,

I don’t know you, but we share a son. I realize it is presumptuous of me to say this, since you never willingly shared him, and since he was never really mine — or for that matter, anyone’s. He came into this world belonging to himself, a little light from God shining through so much darkness. I was his mama for such a short time. But then again, so were you. Except you will be his mama for eternity. He is from you. Of you. There is that.

I don’t know you, but I know what it’s like to grow a person in your body. I know the depth of that connection. I know the crushing weight of that love.

I know what it’s like to be desperate. To be so empty inside that you are simply unable to do what needs doing. To feel your own pain so deeply that you don’t have room for other people’s needs.

D, I don’t know you, but I know what it’s like to lose a child. Your child, as a matter of fact. I won’t claim my loss is the same as yours, because it is impossible to know what all of this feels like for you. But I can tell you what it feels like for me. There is an emptiness, a small space inside that can’t be filled. It aches and it tugs and it searches every moment of every day.

I know what it’s like to face down dread, to do more than you thought you were capable of  — for love. The day I met you, you had done just that: conquered fears and demons and risked your own freedom to show up for your — our — son.

That day, I noticed you are left-handed. Like me. Like him. It reminded me that all of his beautiful qualities — his dimples, his perfect skin, his gentleness — came from somewhere. Many of them came from you.

Your sister is our son’s mother now. She is the mama who planned the celebration of his fourth birthday, which, as you well know, was last Thursday. (Maybe you were there?) She is the mama who fixes breakfasts and bandages booboos and schedules appointments and snuggles in for stories. Unlike me, she is a blood relative. Unlike you, she is available.

Your sister doesn’t keep in touch (and maybe that’s for the best), so I don’t know how he’s doing. I also don’t know how you’re doing. Like I said, D, I don’t know you.

But we share a son.

What will happen if I don’t?

Last Friday, on a Portland light rail train, a white supremacist verbally abused and threatened two nonwhite teenage girls (one of whom was wearing a hijab) and then stabbed three men who tried to intervene, killing two of them.

Since I first learned about this horrific incident, I haven’t been able to think of much else.

For me, public transportation is a space to feel and be a part of my community. And a crowded train in broad daylight is one of the safest places I can imagine. I am not naïve. I know that sharing space with others isn’t always easy or pleasant and that transit reflects all of who we are, including our ugliness. What happened in Portland last week was a reminder that the ugliness can surface at any time, even in broad daylight on a crowded train.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I endured near constant harassment by grown men — on transit trips and otherwise. And, like every person of color in this country, I have experienced my share of name-calling and other forms of direct, in-your-face racism. I know that feeling of vulnerability, the stress of staying vigilant and alert for the entirety of every outing, so I can easily imagine the fear, rage, and humiliation those young women felt when an unhinged stranger loomed over them spewing hate.

I can also imagine what it felt like to be on the train when the incident happened. I understand the desire to turn away from conflict or confrontation, especially if you are personally vulnerable. Rachel Macy, a passenger on that devastating ride, described her initial fear in an interview with The Oregonian.

“I didn’t want to look. I was too afraid. It felt really tense,” said the 45-year-old Southeast Portland resident of Native American descent. “I’m a woman of color. I didn’t want him to notice me.”

She found her courage a short time later, when she rushed to the aid of one of the victims and comforted him in his last moments of life.

Of course, the perceived threat was not the same for the men who did step in. Most likely, they did not imagine that the encounter would end their lives. But certainly, it would have been easier to look away, to turn up their headphones, to wait for someone else to help.

Those men did not turn away. And their decision to act with compassion and decency did end their lives.

What happened to these brave people should not be a cautionary tale; it should be a call to action. We cannot turn away from the evil that is happening around us — in our schools or workplaces or in the adjacent aisle on the train. We must stand and face it. We must defend the dignity of our fellow humans. Standing up might risk our lives, but it will save our souls.

Thank you, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher.

“The question is not, ‘if stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘if I do not stop to help [the man] what will happen to him?’” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

On poems and pipelines (or, We are water, part II)

You might already know that I am a fan of Poetry on Buses. I’ve loved the program in all of its incarnations, but the post-2014 version is the best yet. The 2016/17 theme, “Your Body of Water,” was so timely and compelling, it motivated me to sit my non-poetic self down, write an actual poem, and submit it. I am so glad I did.

Last month, I had the privilege of reading that poem at the Poetry on Buses launch party at the Moore Theater. WOW. What a powerful celebration of art, community, and LIFE!

There were “poetry buses” parked outside the theater, where attendees could read and listen to recordings of some of the selected poems. In the lobby, there were more poems, as well as an interactive display where people could pledge to protect water. (I didn’t actually visit that display; I was too focused on being nervous about my reading.)

The poems read onstage were presented in four phases to evoke the water cycle, with the Native Jazz Quartet improvising beautiful water sounds between readings. Several local artists also performed, including the incomparable writer/rider/rapper, Gabriel Teodros, who just so happens to be my bus friend from the 48.

A poetry bus! (photo credit: 4Culture)

Poets (including me) onstage during the “evaporation” phase (photo credit: King County Metro)

The entire evening was masterminded by poet planner Jourdan Keith, whose mission in life is to remind us that “we are all bodies of water, connected to other bodies of water.” If there were ever a time when it was critical for us to understand this, it is now.

In her sobering 2010 Ted talk, Jourdan asks, “If you know you are a water body: capillaries, creeks, streams and rivers, containing runoff from farms, rooftops, airports, and driveways — your bladder, an estuary. If you knew you were as contaminated as Puget Sound, or the Orcas that swim in our waters, what would you do?”

This is the question we must urgently ask ourselves, as greed and disregard for life threaten the water all of us depend on – in Flint and Evart, Michigan; in Louisiana, New York, and North Dakota; and right here in Puget Sound.

Right now, Kinder Morgan is preparing to build a pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Pacific Coast in British Columbia. Known as the Transmountain Expansion, it will be the second pipeline to travel this route, with more capacity than the original. The project was approved by Prime Minister Trudeau late last year, and if built, will increase tanker traffic in the Salish Sea sevenfold, further stressing our endangered Orca population and dramatically increasing the chances of a major oil spill.

And so much is at risk if the pipeline itself leaks, which they all eventually do. Thank God there are people with the courage to resist.

Would we allow rapacious, profit-driven corporations to threaten our water if we understood that they are also threatening our lives? If we understood that the damage we inflict upon the planet shows up in our bodies? I am not confident of the answer, but I am grateful to Jourdan Keith and Poetry on Buses for reminding us of what is at stake.

Over 300 poems about our connectedness — to water and to each other — will be displayed on buses and trains throughout King County until this time next year. I hope they will inspire you to keep riding.