Last Saturday, after a day spent with family, the Bus Fam found ourselves on a late-night 4 ride. I was exhausted and anxious to get the kids home ASAP, so I was grateful that the handful of other passengers on the bus were quietly minding their business.
At 17th, the driver stopped, rather abruptly, several feet beyond the bus stop sign. Through the window, I saw an older woman, somewhere between 55 and 70, hurrying from the area where she had been waiting to the front door of the bus. On the way, she paused and bent to pick up something from the ground.
When the woman finally boarded, she glared at the driver and said, “You knocked my phone out of my hand.”
This was a curious statement. It’s possible that she didn’t have a tight grip on the phone, and the air current from the bus caused her to drop it. But certainly, it is unlikely that the driver had done anything to cause this woman to drop her phone.
I assumed that he would either ignore her accusation or apologize and keep it moving. Instead, he responded, immediately and aggressively.
“No, I didn’t!”
“Yes,” she said, louder this time, “you did.”
The driver pulled away from the stop.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
They went back and forth like this, voices escalating, while the woman held tightly to the pole diagonal to the driver’s seat, and the bus careened down Jefferson.
Finally, the driver shouted, “You need to sit down! You’re crazy! SIT DOWN.”
By this time, it was clear that the woman was struggling to maintain her balance. Her back was hunched significantly, either from pain or a more permanent condition. She was standing because she was unable to sit while the bus was moving.
At 18th, the driver stopped at a red light.
“You need to sit down,” he repeated.
She responded, quietly this time, “Now that you stopped, I can.”
The woman turned, with effort, and sat down in the reserved section. Then, she began making the kinds of sounds someone makes when they are in pain: whimpers, moans, yelps, gasps.
I noticed that she held a bunched up hospital gown in her lap. I remembered that she had boarded in front of Swedish. And I wondered.
I wondered what it must feel like to be released from the hospital after 10 p.m. on Saturday night. To be expected to make it to the bus stop under your own power. To have no one to wheel you or hold your arm or wait with you or just be happy that you’re out. To be suffering mightily, maybe because the painkillers they gave you (if they gave you any) are wearing off. To be barely holding it together while you wait for the bus in the dark, and then to have that bus pass you as you stand there—alone—at the stop. To drop your phone as you hurry to catch it, terrified that it will pass the stop altogether. To exacerbate your already excruciating pain as you bend to find that phone in the dark, knowing that the next bus won’t come for (at least) 20 minutes. To have the driver who passed you dismiss your righteous anger, dismiss you with his eyes and the tone of his voice and with that word—crazy—on this already humiliating night.
I come from a family of tall, attractive athletes. I have three siblings, and all of them are over six feet. (My sister Carey, the shortest of the three, is 6’1”.) All the other Saulter siblings played sports at a high level. And all of them have head-turning looks.
Unfortunately, those genes missed me. I am barely 5’5”. I suck at pretty much every sport (and TBH, don’t particularly enjoy playing). And the looks … well, let’s just say that no one will ever mistake me for a model. Then again, I did spend a year as a model bus rider back in the day.
The only trait I share with my sporty-looker siblings is that I love watching sports. Basketball is by far my favorite, and the team I loved my whole life—starting before I could have imagined the existence of a WNBA—was the Sonics (RIP). I am tempted to spend several paragraphs ranting about the evils of the NBA and professional sports in general, but I will refrain for now and try to stay focused(ish).
This year, for my birthday, my brother Jeremy gave me a gorgeous classic Sonics jacket. It’s far too cool for someone like me, but you don’t have to ask me twice to represent my city. The jacket is lightweight, so I wore it a lot in late spring, before the burning fires of hell descended.
I was wearing the jacket when I boarded the 3 early last month, on my way to get a tattoo. (More on that in a future post.) The driver—who, happened to be tall, attractive,* and athletic—was wearing a Sonics mask. We shared the raised eyebrow of recognition and then exchanged compliments.
“Nice mask.” “I like your jacket.”
It was midday and somewhat early in the route, so for a few stops, I was the only passenger on the bus. I paused at the front to answer a few of his questions—where I had gotten the jacket, who was my all-time favorite player—thinking we would exchange a few pleasantries before I made my way to a seat near the back door. But he was so friendly and curious and interesting that we kept talking, and I eventually settled into the BDP seat for a real conversation—at least, as real of a conversation as you can have from several feet away, through masks and a plexiglass barrier.
We started with the Sonics, then moved quickly to my current love, the Storm, who were (are) having a great season. By the time he asked me which sports I played, there were several other passengers on the bus to hear my loud (though muffled) cackle.
I asked him how long he had been driving for Metro and whether he liked it. Four years** and yes. Mostly, anyway. We talked about our kids. He has an eight-year old who is kind and loves football and video games and wants to be just like his dad. Finally, as we headed down the hill from Harborview, I asked his name. Robert.***
At Third and James, a wheelchair passenger was waiting to board. I recognized this man from well over a decade of seeing him on buses and at stops. Robert recognized him, too. They greeted each other like old friends while Robert lowered the ramp, and I moved back to make room for the chair.
For the rest of the ride, I had a front row seat to their conversation. I listened as this elderly man, whose life beyond the bus I had never considered, talked of his younger days, of decisions he wished he had (or hadn’t) made, of relationships that had ended badly. I had never, before that day, seen this man smile or laugh. I watched in amazement as he called Robert by his name, gave him advice, and told him that his “friendly personality” made a difference.
“You’re a really good guy, man,” he said, just as I stood to exit.
Robert paused to look in his rear-view mirror before responding to the compliment.
“Bye, Carla,” he said. “It was really nice talking to you.”
________ * He even favored my brother a bit. ** To be honest, I don’t remember what he said, but I’m pretty sure it was less than five. ***It’s not his real name, but I’m not trying to share all the man’s business on the internet.
It’s 5:40 a.m. and 79 degrees outside. I’m up early, so I can go on a walk with my kids before it gets too hot to be out. At around 6 p.m. yesterday evening—otherwise known as 98 degrees Fahrenheit—I left the living room where my family was gathered, went to my bedroom, and closed the door. Then I sat on my bed and wept.
The best way to describe how I’m feeling right now is like the other shoe is dropping. I have known this was coming—not just intellectually, but in a deeper part of me. I could feel it. For decades, but especially since 2009, summers have been … different. Warmer. Drier. Longer. Other people’s comments—“Strange weather we’re having, huh?” or “Wow, what a great summer!”—would confuse me. Weren’t they feeling what I was feeling? Wasn’t it obvious that this was ominous rather than amazing?
As the intensity of the crisis has increased, my motivation—or rather, my ability—to respond has decreased. I can’t face the deeply disturbing changes or the misery they are causing, so I turn away. I retreat into my escapes—basketball and books—and obsess to the point of paralysis about my personal choices. I wash and reuse disposable plastic bags and then wonder if using the extra water is better or worse than throwing away plastic. I wander the grocery aisles searching for food items that aren’t wrapped in plastic, don’t contain palm oil, weren’t shipped from thousands of miles away, and on and on, until I can’t settle on a single food. Yesterday, I found myself arguing with my spouse over the carbon impact of buying a fan.
I don’t have control over that. So I channel my energy into things I can control, like planning my family’s entire Saturday around four hours of bus travel, so we can attend my nibbling’s birthday party in Tacoma without renting a Zipcar.
I don’t know what to do about the fact that our rivers are overheating, killing salmon and starving Orcas—or the incredible reality that the Olympic rainforest now has dry spells. So, I haul buckets of water to young trees my family has planted at various planting events around our neighborhood. One summer, during a particularly long dry spell, my kids and I spent hours, day after day, hauling water from the faucet in front of their elementary school to the mini-forest where we had planted trees a couple of years earlier—a good quarter mile each way. (We eventually figured out a more effective—and less strenuous—guerrilla watering strategy, but, much like Smooth Jazz‘s identity, it shall remain forever secret.)
These days, we are “forest stewards” (a bit of an inflated title, to be sure) at a park about five blocks from our home. On Thursday, in an attempt to repeat our previous baby-tree-preservation strategy, I used our hose to fill two buckets and carried them over to the park. My plan was to water a couple of the newer trees. But when I got to the planted area and saw how dry everything was, it felt stupid and pointless to be standing there with two not-quite-full buckets. What was a few gallons of water going to do against 110-degree heat? Who was I to pick and choose which of these distressed plants deserved a drink? What was even the point?
I told myself that it was better to do something than nothing as I dumped a bucket on sweet Shirley, the grand fir we named for my friend C’s mother.
The next day, I returned with two more buckets, repeating, like a mantra, “It’s better to do something than nothing,” during the difficult walk to the park, and again as I walked by all of the dry, desperate plants I was not watering.
But is it? Was what I chose to do helpful, or did it just make me feel better? (To be honest, I’m becoming skeptical about the effectiveness of tree-planting efforts in general. But that’s a post for another time.) Did the watering just give me something to focus on, in the same way not driving gives me something to focus on—something other than what I know to be true: I am part of a culture that is making survival impossible for many of the species we share the planet with, including our own.
All over the world, humans are dying because of climate change. In my own city, people are working in dangerous conditions and suffocating in overheated apartments—if they are fortunate enough to have an apartment. Thousands are living without shelter, exposed to the extreme temperatures with few options for relief. The smoke will be here soon, and those of us who are able will again find ourselves hiding inside while others suffer and even die.
Whenever I ride the 48 past Massachusetts, I pass the Century House Apartments, where my Grandma Bernice lived for several years during my childhood. This means that roughly 10 times each week, I have a visceral memory of being with a person who loved me well.
I don’t come from a “close” family. The only relatives I spent significant time with growing up were my dad’s parents, who separated when I was very young. Grandpa Marcellus was fun. He taught us to play poker and dominoes, to saddle a horse and bait a hook. He let us ride in the back of his truck and fed us strange treats like horehound candy.
But my grandma, she knew how to love.
Grandma Bernice stayed with our family often. She slept in the basement, on a bed with a sky-blue spread, and we kids always, always slept with her. She played with us—catch and dress-up and paper dolls she made herself—baked with us, listened to us. She had an ability to be present, to treat us like fellow humans instead of “children,” that felt like magic. No matter how long she visited, whenever she announced that she was ready to go home, we would beg her to stay “just one more night.”
Even better than Grandma’s visits were those times—maybe once a month or so—when she would invite one of the older kids to stay at her apartment. For me, there was nothing more coveted, more sacred, than an invitation to spend the night with Grandma.
I don’t remember much about that apartment at 23rd and Massachusetts, other than the rough texture of the cheap carpet and the rather institutional smell of the hallways. I have only snapshots of the time we spent together there. I remember “sewing” on her magical sewing machine. Listening to stories of her childhood with the six sisters she missed so desperately. Brushing my teeth with salt and soda. Watching her remove her wig and re-braid her white hair into two scrawny plaits before climbing into bed next to me. The feeling of her cool fingers as she scratched my back until I fell asleep.
And I remember our walks.
Grandma Bernice didn’t drive. For most of her life, a car was out of the question, an impossible expense. When her own children were young, she transported them on Seattle’s then-trolleys or on foot. Many years later, my dad tried to teach her in his own car, but she found the experience terrifying and abruptly discontinued the lesson.
For my entire childhood, my grandma bused and walked everywhere she went. When I was with her, I bused and walked, too.
Sometimes, on those one-on-one visits, Grandma and I would walk to the store. She would buy ingredients for dinner and maybe a copy of the Enquirer, which she considered evidence that we were living in the End Times. Sometimes, we would walk all the way to Douglass-Truth for story time. Sometimes, we would walk just to walk.
Grandma Bernice was the only adult I knew who really noticed things. As a country girl living in an apartment with no outdoor access, she missed dirt. When she walked, she would gather leaf skeletons and flower petals, which she sometimes used to make art. She would ooh and ahh at people’s gardens—and sometimes sneak a flower or two. (Later, she would press those stolen beauties between the pages of her Bible to preserve them.) Sometimes, she would walk up to a tree and wrap her arms around it in a true embrace. If I listened closely, I could hear her whisper, “Thank you.”
This practice of walking just to walk continued far beyond my grandma’s time at Century House. She walked no matter who she was visiting or where she was living, no matter the conditions. Nothing deterred her—not stormy weather, not heavy traffic, not even repeated purse snatchings.
Even though I cherished my time with Grandma Bernice, I didn’t always cherish those walks. When we walked to get somewhere, I couldn’t match her pace. I’d find myself blocks behind, exhausted and miserable. When we walked just to walk, I quickly grew bored. When could we go back inside and do something?
But somehow, over time, I have become my grandma. Of course I love the bus, but walking is my favorite way to travel. I walk to get places, yes, but I also walk just to walk. To clear my head. To experience the seasons. To notice. Sometimes, I even stop to thank a tree.
In the US, we are trained to believe that we can be self-sufficient—that if we just work hard enough, save enough money, buy enough insurance, hoard enough toilet paper, or build tall enough fences, we can insulate ourselves from what is going on “out there.”
This has always been an illusion.
The truth is, most of us eat because other humans grew and harvested food, then processed, packaged, shipped, stocked, and sold it to us.
The truth is, even the most “self-made” among us were brought into this world and then kept alive by other humans (not to mention the ecosystems that sustain us).
The truth is, if someone drops a cigarette in a drought-stricken forest, the smoke will affect our lungs, too.
The truth is, if one of us is sick, none of us is well.
On a cold morning last January, when Covid cases were still rising in King County, and every bus ride felt like both a gift and a risk, Busling and I watched a not-uncommon scene unfold at a stop. While we waited for the 48, an 8 pulled up and parked. The driver turned on the hazards and opened all the doors, then walked to a seat near the back, to a sleeping passenger whose mask was on the floor near his feet.
The driver tapped on the seat until the passenger opened his eyes.
“Sir! Sir! I need you to put a mask on.”
The passenger looked blankly at the driver for a moment before his chin drooped to his chest and his eyes closed again.
The driver tapped on the seat again. As he tapped, he repeated, “Sir … sir! I need you to put a mask on.” The passenger—60-ish, clearly intoxicated, and very likely unhoused— continued to open, then close, his eyes. He never spoke or moved to retrieve his mask.
Finally, after several minutes, the driver gave up. He left the passenger and mask where he had found them, returned to his seat, closed the doors, and drove away.
I have seen versions of this scenario play out many times on my Covid-era transit rides. And we have to talk about it.
What I love most about the bus is that everyone belongs. The world I’m trying to build is one in which public transportation is free, safe, and accessible to all. This means that I support any and all efforts to decriminalize transit infractions. It means that I don’t have a problem with someone riding the bus to stay warm (or cool). AND it means that no one should be exposed to a contagious, deadly disease while riding—or driving—a bus.
Every time something happens on transit that feels threatening to me or my children, I do a gut check. Do I want to keep doing this? Do I want to keep doing this in a pandemic? Usually, my initial response is a reflexive, almost visceral urge to turn away. I want to stop riding the bus, stop being exposed to risk. What I really want is to stop being exposed to reality.
It’s true that there’s nothing inherently unsafe about transit. (Cars are far more dangerous, especially to children.) But the bus requires us to experience our fellow humans directly, to share the ride with the people we share the world with. If one of my fellow passengers is hateful, or harmful, or in distress, I will experience their suffering in real time.
Because here’s the thing: We can’t create safe communities without first ensuring that everyone’s needs are met. A society that leaves thousands of human beings without shelter from the elements harms everyone, including those who are comfortably housed. Including those whose jobs require them to serve the public.
The driver and passengers on that early morning 8 were faced with unnecessary risk and few safe (or satisfying) options for addressing it. This fact should galvanize us—not to create more rules or more enforcement mechanisms, but to end the conditions that created the situation. The problem isn’t what we should do about a passed-out passenger on the bus without a mask. The problem is, we haven’t figured out that our well-being is connected to his.
We cannot look around at the misery in our city and decide that the answer is to insolate and insulate ourselves—or to turn on those who are suffering. We must see our neighbors in distress as a sign that we are all sick. Then we must do what’s necessary to heal.
It’s 2021, and we’re still deep in the pandemic. Since my last post, two people in my extended circle of love have died of Covid. Two of my closest sister-friends are currently ill. One of them has been hospitalized. Twice. Things are definitely not back to normal.
And yet, several obligations that require me to travel outside of my neighborhood have resumed.
So, I’m back on the bus.
In many ways, my return to Metro feels like coming home. Last Tuesday, I found myself on a 4 Smooth Jazz was driving. He was healthy and laid back as ever, and I have never been happier to see him. I happened to be riding to the end of the line, so I stopped for a (masked) conversation on my way off the bus. He shared updates about DDC* life (driving during Covid, that is) and then blessed me with suckers and chocolate to share with my crew. It was like old times. Better, even.
Riding my regular routes again, checking OneBusAway to see what’s coming, having (distanced) chats with strangers at stops, tapping my ORCA card on the reader, hustling across the street holding hands with one of my kids—all of that feels really good, like I’ve regained some of what I’ve spent almost a full year missing.
But so much of what was beautiful about riding the bus is still missing. My pandemic rides feel, well … stressful. I no longer relax into my seat and stare out the window or sink into a book. Instead, I eye the other passengers warily, watching for mask and distance violations.
There are no more spontaneous conversations with fellow riders. No bus-wide discussions. No seat-sharing with acquaintances I run into on my rides. These days, I perch on the edge of my seat, alone and on alert, until I arrive at my stop.
But despite the enforced separation, I am feeling more solidarity than ever with my fellow riders.
There’s been a lot of discussion about all the trips that have disappeared since March of 2020. But thousands of daily trips never went away. Covid has laid bare what people who depend on transit have been saying: “Rush hour” isn’t the beginning and end of a transit system. The trips that continued, uninterrupted, throughout the pandemic—daycare drop-offs and grocery runs and laundromat visits and medical appointments—are. These trips, and the people who take them, should be at the center of our transit planning.
A transit system designed around the needs of essential workers, poor people, disabled people, immigrants, youth, and the elderly is frequent, all-day, affordable, accessible, and reliable. In other words, it is a transit system that works for everyone.
Let’s make sure this critical lesson lasts beyond our return to “normal.”
What I will remember about this year, in addition to the obvious:
Over the past several years, as my climate anxiety has increased, I have become more and more interested in plant life. One of the ways this has manifested has been in an increasing obsession with house plants.
I have channeled much of my pandemic grief and helplessness into nurturing struggling and/or discarded plants, including this sweet baby, which I found next to a “free” sign on someone’s porch. (Note that photos are, per usual, Carla quality.)
We also attempted (and mostly failed at) growing food. I ambitiously bought packets of seeds (basil, parsley, tomatoes, carrots) in March, thinking the project would be a good learning experience for the kids and a good way for us to stay connected and grounded during a time defined by screens.
The experiment started well; at least, the seeds germinated as expected.
Unfortunately, very few of the plants made it past the start stage. After many months of tending (during which only a few plants survived long enough to be moved outside), we harvested a handful of parsley, enough basil to make one batch of pesto, and zero tomatoes. The carrots, which we attempted to germinate outside later in the spring, never sprouted at all.
Our pandemic experiment was not the first time we failed at growing food. In past years, we’ve planted collards, lettuce, broccoli, and pumpkins. We cared for all of them according to the experts’ instructions, without success.
After this latest debacle, I decided that growing food was not my/our “thing” and vowed to limit family farming adventures to harvesting the apples from our tree. But then last month, when we soaked some dried black beans a bit (OK, a lot) longer than necessary, several of the beans sprouted. What could I do but put the sprouts in some dirt?
As I type, I have bean plants growing on my bedroom windowsill. One has an actual bean pod. So maybe, just maybe. We shall see.
Since 2018, the kids and I have served as “forest stewards” at our neighborhood park. The title is impressive, but the job is pretty basic: We manage a small planted area of young trees and native plants. This year, we (OK, I) spent most of our work hours removing invasive blackberries.
Digging up blackberries is tough work. And, though I love nature in theory, I’m not really much of an “outdoor” person. I’m cold natured and comfort seeking and a bit on the skittish side. But the hours I’ve spent on this strenuous, sometimes painful job have been some of the most satisfying I’ve spent since the pandemic started. Each time I do it, I become so focused, I lose track of time, rescuing tree after tree from the choking vines, until it’s too dark to see. I leave feeling tired and proud of my efforts. And even a little bit hopeful.
For me, the most beautiful thing about 2020 has been watching people take care of each other. From Seattle Community Kitchen serving free chef-cooked meals, to Covid-19 Mutual Aid delivering groceries and hygiene products across the region, to the Seattle Transit Riders Union creating a solidarity fund to buy propane and other necessities for unhoused neighbors, to Bike Works and 350 Seattle organizing a bike drive for emergency transportation support, folks stepped up and stood in the gap for each other.
2020 pushed us toward the future many have been working to build for a long time: a future of, peer-to-peer support, without roles like “giver” or “receiver.” A future where we recognize that our destinies are intertwined, and we finally, finally start acting like it.
Mrs. Wyatt’s loved ones planned a “drive-by” parade. Folks drove past her home at an appointed time, playing music and waving signs from their cars. Our crew walked up, of course, which meant we had the honor of being Mrs. Wyatt’s birthday elves. We transported gifts and cards from her well wishers’ car windows to a box just inside her front gate.
We celebrated Chicklet with a few of her closest buddies in our front yard. We set up a projector and screen in the late afternoon, just as it was starting to get dark. Then, we lit lots of candles; passed out blankets, handwarmers, and hot cider; and watched an outdoor movie.
For my other two beloveds, we gathered outside and shared stories (and, on SC’s big day, Seahawk-themed doughnuts).
Nothing was as we would have wished, but we did what we could. Because if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s to give folks their flowers—and “Happy 100th birthday” cards—now.
The badasses of the WNBA
One thing I don’t write about much here is my lifelong obsession with basketball. So for those who didn’t know: Basketball is my sport, the WNBA is my league, and the Seattle Storm is my team. (Yes, I spent 30+ years as a Sonics fan. And yes, I’m still bitter.)
I appreciate the WNBA players so much—their leadership, their integrity, their sports(wo)manship. This year in particular, the players showed leadership in the fight for racial justice, putting forth a social justice agenda and insisting that the league adopt it.
Watching the games in the “Wubble” kept me sane this summer. And watching the Storm play team ball all the way to a fourth championship was my idea of basketball nirvana.
Much respect and gratitude to these women of talent, principle, perseverance, and integrity. They held me up (and down) when it felt like everything was falling apart. Their courage and strength became my courage and strength, and helped me rise to the many challenges this year presented.
I don’t have any illusions that the hardships we’ve experienced in 2020 will vanish when the calendar changes to a new year. But I do have hope that we, the people, will continue to unify around the things that matter: care for each other and our shared home. Let’s make 2021 a year of transformation.
P.S. – Here’s a list of the books I read in 2020. It was tough to find time (and often tough to concentrate), but I’m grateful for the ways these authors shifted my understanding, enhanced my knowledge, inspired my action, or just plain entertained me.
One thing I’ve heard repeated a lot this year is that Covid has clarified what is important. This doesn’t resonate much with me, in part because I have never really struggled with perspective—certainly not since watching my mother die prematurely from a prolonged and horrific disease—and also because I haven’t reached the same conclusion as most of the people saying it. For many, Covid has reinforced the importance of family and other close relationships. For me, it has reinforced the importance of random encounters with semi-strangers.
I’ve ridden the bus four times since March 12. This is, of course, an indication of my privilege. Every member of my household is working or schooling remotely. We bike for groceries (a practice we started three years ago, when Red Apple closed). With work, school, and food covered, we don’t have any essential trips. So, out of respect for bus drivers and other essential workers who must ride, and out of respect for load limits, we’ve been staying off the bus. Truth be told, except for daily walks around the neighborhood (and occasional work at the park where we volunteer), we spend most of our time inside.
I’m profoundly lonely, but not for the reasons you might think.
Yes, I miss my family and close friends. I haven’t held my youngest nibbling, who turned one last month, since she was barely out of the newborn phase. I haven’t spent time indoors with my siblings or dad since the first statewide stay-at-home order. I haven’t hugged or shared a meal with a girlfriend in even longer.
Despite all of this, I have managed to stay connected to my people. We Zoom. We talk on the phone. We meet for walks. We email, DM, IM. I send letters (and bus stickers!) to my nibblings. I text ridiculous memes to my brothers. I Marco Polo with my bestie. I communicate with nearby neighbors via group email and text. (My neighborhood even gathered for masked, distanced outdoor movie nights over the summer.)
So, while I certainly would prefer to be present with my beloveds in the ways I am used to, I am still very connected to everyone I was in a definable relationship with before the pandemic. (I am also deeply, deeply grateful that everyone in my immediate circle is still healthy.)
The people I am missing desperately are the people I never call. The people whose numbers (and sometimes, names) I don’t know, but who I am in relationship with nonetheless.
I miss the school crossing guards. The front desk folks at the library. The bus drivers. The bus regulars. (I saw Miss Ida walking down Yesler in September and almost cried with relief and joy.) The dance school receptionist. The Real Change vendor. The not-immediate neighbors I’m on waving/”How you doin’?” terms with.
These are people who bring texture and connection and beauty to my life. I have always valued these relationships, but I didn’t realize how much I relied on them until overnight, all of them were snatched away. I don’t know if these folks are OK. I have no way to check on them or offer support.
I am not a “people person.” I am a deep believer in community and a lover of humans, but I am also a shy, introverted homebody. Left to my own devices, I would live my entire life in my head. My daily travels—walking a kiddo to school, picking up a library hold, stopping for a paper and a quick chat, greeting (and then thanking) a bus driver, running into an acquaintance on a ride—are my way of connecting to my community. They help me remember I’m not alone.
So yes, I miss my loved ones, but I never really lost them. The network of humans that held me up pre-pandemic might never return.
I think a lot about our culture’s dysfunctional and abusive relationship to the land, and how that unhealthy relationship influences much of what is unhealthy about our society. Our relationship to place, which begins with our relationship to land, is foundational; it influences everything else we do, including how we get around.
I’m not referring to the exhaustively discussed connections between transportation and “land use” (though that term does provide some insight into our cultural context); I’m saying that that the way we think about and relate to land influences how we get around. And, how we get around influences the way we think about and relate to land.
Our culture does not see inherent value in land. We have been trained to relate to it as a means to some end: either extracting “resources” for profit, or dividing it into pieces (“real estate”) to be owned by individual human beings. Taking from and abusing land is in the DNA of this settler nation. In big and small ways, we live as though land exists to please or benefit us, but not as though we owe anything back—or as though there is a limit to its ability to support our taking.
(I wrote more about how settler colonialism influences our relationship to place here.)
Our lack of connection to land keeps us from seeing beyond what we can extract from a place. We want to get “there” as fast as we can, do or buy something, and then get to the next place. Cars support this way of being, so we focus our communities around them. We are surrounded by roads, driveways, parking lots, and strip malls. We rarely consider that there is land underneath all that concrete.
And, because we’ve built an environment that revolves around cars, we can’t imagine (or often even manage) our lives without them. We use them for every trip, of every distance and level of urgency. This means that we are always moving too fast to have experiences that connect us to the land. And we are always moving too fast to notice the harm we cause.
When your days are spent driving a two-ton steel cage from your garage to a six-lane road to a freeway to another garage, you don’t get to know a place. You don’t feel the changes in terrain. You don’t experience the seasons. You don’t notice all the non-human beings who share your surroundings.
We don’t know the land, so we continue to degrade it by driving. We feel less connected to that degraded land because we drive. We become desensitized to “roadkill” and traffic deaths and exhaust and streets slick with oil. And the more disconnected we feel from the land we’ve degraded, the emptier and more restless we feel. We want to go somewhere else, to “nature.” And to do that, we must drive.
But once we get there, to “nature,” we don’t know how to be with it. We only know how to consume. And before long, all of our driving to and consuming of does more damage—to the land, and to us.
So what can we do to reclaim our relationship to the land?
The work isn’t fast. We’re in a crisis, but there is no quick fix. There is no magic policy or set of policies that will get us there. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue meaningful policies that prioritize the health of humans and all living beings. It does mean that no policy will save us unless and until we transform.
Of course I understand that for many of our ancestors, participation in this extractive, disconnected culture wasn’t a choice. But all of us, to varying degrees, have been indoctrinated into this harmful way of being. And our work is to find our way out.
We must start by acknowledging the truth.
Acknowledging the truth means mustering the courage to look at the harm we cause, knowing that we won’t be able to eliminate the direct harm of our own actions and choices, nor reverse the massive, planetary harm perpetrated by the culture we participate in.
We must grieve what has been lost, including our own ancestral connections and cultural traditions. Then we must begin the slow work of reconnecting.
We must pay attention to what is in front of us.
Paying attention means noticing. How the air smells after it rains. What is growing in the garden on the corner. The intricate pattern of the spider web on the balcony.
We must change the narrative that has brought us to this crisis.
Changing the narrative means learning to see the land as living, as inherently worthy, as deserving of our attention and appreciation. It means removing ourselves from the center of the story, and remembering that, to a mountain, to the ocean, even to a tree, our lifespans are a blink. What gives us such a sense of importance? What gives us a right to determine the future for all species?
We must learn the meaning of enough.
When we stop reaching for more, we can appreciate the gifts we rarely take time to appreciate. Air and water and soil and sunlight. All of the beings and processes that make it possible for us to eat. Shelter. Laughter. Music.
When we stop reaching for more, we realize that what we really want is love, and a sense of connection to something bigger.
And then, when we have done the work, when we have faced the truth and slowed down and noticed and reframed and found gratitude and satisfaction, we will be ready for transformation.
I am taking full breaths for the first time in four years. My body is just now beginning to process the stress—the deep terror and impotent rage—that has been gripping me for so long. I will spend the weekend taking those breaths, trying to recalibrate my nervous system, and just reveling in the relief. (Also, listening to this song.)
But I’m not naïve.
If we think of a just society as the top of a mountain, then last week, we were at the bottom of that mountain, on our backs, being stalked by a ferocious mountain lion.
Today, we have stood up. Now, we must battle (or escape) the mountain lion. If we manage that, we must begin the arduous climb.
It’s going to be a long, exhausting road. But I’m really glad to be standing.