I’ve been thinking a lot about Harriet Tubman. I’ve been thinking about how, in the midst of slavery, she declared, “My people are free.”*
Harriet Tubman wasn’t just courageous. She wasn’t just brilliant, and skilled, and purposeful, and determined, and compassionate.
Harriet Tubman was a visionary.
She could see beyond the circumstances she was born into, to a more beautiful, expansive future. She could imagine a world where Black people were no longer enslaved. But also: Harriet Tubman knew that her people were free even when they were enslaved.
It is this kind of freedom, the kind that can’t be granted, that I want to live into in this moment. This freedom lives in my heart and my imagination, no matter what is happening to my body, no matter what is in front of my eyes.
In Harriet’s vision, I am not separated from those ancestors who still make their home on the African continent. I am in contact with people living seven generations in the future, watching them enjoy the shade of a tree my children planted.
In Harriet’s vision Tamir Rice is alive. It is the day of his birth, and his mother is cradling him in her arms.
In Harriet’s vision, Breonna Taylor has started her new job, and she’s loving it. She is a healer, mending folks’ bodies with her skills and their spirits with her smile.
In Harriet’s vision, George Floyd is napping peacefully on his sofa on this lazy Saturday afternoon. The living room window is open, letting in a warm breeze. He is surrounded by all of his ancestors and all of his descendants. They are breathing with him, for him, though him.
My people are free. My people are free. My people are free.
My second child, known as “Baby” Busling on this blog, is nonbinary.*
They’ve been telling us in different ways throughout their 10 years on this planet, but they told me directly—or as directly as they had language for—at age seven. The words they used were “gender neutral,” and they explained those words to mean that they didn’t feel like a boy or a girl, or maybe they felt like both a boy and a girl, or maybe, they felt like something beyond all of it, something that English does not have a word for.
When they first told me, I said all the correct, affirming things that parents are supposed to say in these situations.
But inside, I was devastated. I didn’t want a ticket for this particular ride. Even as I searched for children’s books about gender and met with teachers to discuss my child’s identity, I secretly hoped this was a “phase” they would soon outgrow.
For one thing, I simply didn’t understand.** We had raised our children to question gender expectations and norms. We had told them that their gender did not limit who they could be in this world. I wondered: If my child can be a boy and still dress and act and be however they please, why do they need a different label for it? And if they grew up understanding that boys come in all different packages, how do they know—in their bones—that they aren’t a boy?
But much stronger than the confusion, which I could live with, was the fear. I was devastated, not because I believed that there was something wrong with my child, but because I knew there was a lot wrong with the world they lived in.
Raising a Black child in this sick, violent, white supremacist culture is terrifying. I have struggled with that truth since my daughter was born in 2007. But at least a Black child can find some refuge, encouragement, and safety in the Black community. Where can a Black transgender child find refuge, encouragement, and safety?
Every time I looked to my sweet Busling’s future, all I saw was rejection and violence. In those first months (really, years), I was ruled by fear. And if I’m honest, it wasn’t just for my kid; I knew that the rejection would extend to me. My parenting would be questioned. I would be forced to reckon with bigotry in what had previously felt like circles of safety.
In other words, I could no longer simply profess solidarity with transgender people. I could no longer limit my support to sharing my pronouns or participating in the occasional march. I would have to live in the world from the other side of the divide, to actually experience the contempt, the erasure, and yes, the danger.
But fear is one thing. And love—love—is another.
I can’t make the world safe for my child. Full stop. But I can make my heart and my home safe for them. I can walk beside them with pride. I can stare down bigotry whenever (and in whomever) it arises and insist that everyone in my child’s life honor their full humanity.
I don’t understand what gender is. But the one thing I know for sure is that my child is beautiful.
They have always seen the world from a particular vantage point. For as long as they’ve been able to talk, they’ve astounded me with their astute, insightful observations. I’m constantly asking myself how it is that it took me over 40 years to unlearn nonsense that this oracle of a human sees through right away.
Busling is a gifted visual artist, writer, and dancer. They enjoy origami, welding, basketball, baking, and nurturing almost anything living. They hate bathing and practically live in torn, stained t-shirts and jeans, but they also love dressing up in fancy, sparkly outfits and gathering dropped camellia flowers to pin in their hair.
They will play any game (outside or in), with anyone, anytime. If I walk by someone on the street in need of help and neglect to stop, they always remind me. “Mom, didn’t you see? That person needs a few dollars for food.”
If this is what it means for my perfectly made, second-born child to be who they are, why would I want them to change? Why would I want them to “fit in”? I can’t take the particular beauty of this particular human and leave their gender. It’s one package.
Watching the person I had the honor to bring into this world understand, name, and embrace who they are has shown me who I am. And I don’t like what I see in that mirror.
I am a rule follower, someone who regularly chooses acceptance and approval over truth and freedom. I have spent my life tiptoeing and contorting, hoping to be liked, to be picked, to be “good.” As a child, I was such a pleaser that I rarely even knew what I wanted; I just automatically did what was expected of me. Because I didn’t know how to be true to myself, pain and confusion leaked out in other ways. It’s been a long road back to me, and to be honest, I’m still on it.
Thank god for beautiful Busling, my teacher. I watch the way they look inside for guidance, the way they walk in the world with courage, and I am convicted.
I am honored to walk beside them on this journey.
*If you don’t know what this means, the Gender Reveal podcast has a really great Gender 101 episode.
**I’ll admit that I still don’t—at least not fully. But my child’s identity is not for me to understand. It’s for me to support and accept.
Even before COVID-19, I didn’t fly much. Like my decision not to drive, it started as an attempt to limit the resources I—only one human out of billions—consume. But it soon became a way of life that suited me: staying grounded, finding adventure and newness and discovery close to home. We take the family to Detroit once a year to visit my in-laws, and occasionally, my spouse travels for work. But mostly, we stay put or find alternatives to flying.
The biggest thing I miss about traveling is, interestingly, the same thing I miss about driving: visiting people I love. So many girlfriends I live far from have asked and asked (and asked) to schedule a girls’ trip, and I always find a reason to put it off.
But in late January, my friend of many years, C, lost her mother, and staying put was not an option. C requested that, in lieu of traveling to New Jersey for the funeral, our friend T and I visit her in the DMV after it was over, during the quiet, lonely time after the chaos.
T and I made the trip in the last days of February. It was a perfect visit, spent mostly catching up: hours of sharing, laughing, crying, eating, drinking, and (bonus!) riding the Metro.
Because I had never been, we visited THE museum, and it was every bit as profound and beautiful as I had imagined. I felt all the feelings. We stayed all day.
In the evenings, after C, T, and I had talked ourselves out, I would lie on my hotel bed and flip through the pages, staring at the photographs of her handwritten notes, feeling equal parts voyeur (Should her private papers really be available to strangers?) and loyal daughter learning sacred traditions.
In the middle of our trip, T received a text from a friend back home. There’d been a death from COVID-19 near Seattle.
Before that text, coronavirus was in our consciousness but not top of mind. We’d heard about the fast spread in China and about the first known U.S. case being identified in our state. Weeks before we left on our trip, elected officials and public health experts had begun encouraging us to wash our hands thoroughly and frequently. News of the death was alarming, but coronavirus didn’t feel like a direct threat.
I made it home on the evening of March 1, full from my girl time, ready to rejoin my family and return to my routines: library trips, neighbor visits, walks to dance class, and of course, bus rides.
When school was canceled, I knew we had crossed into unknown territory.
On the first morning of everyone home, I woke up early. I felt a need to serve my family, to do something grounding and comforting that would bring us together at the beginning of a scary and uncertain time.
I opened that little book I had bought in DC a few weeks (and an entire lifetime) earlier and turned to the page with the photograph of Ancestor Rosa’s famous (in her family) “featherlite” pancake recipe, written in her own lovely handwriting on the back of an envelope.
As I read my shero’s notes and gathered the ingredients, I felt a deep connection to her. She was with me as I measured and mixed, as I heated the skillet just so.
Rosa Parks’ life was so unjust and difficult. As a young girl, when the Klan terrorized her town, she had to stay awake all night, the windows of her grandparents’ home boarded up and her grandfather sitting in the rocker with a gun across his lap, prepared to do whatever was necessary to protect his family. As a young woman, she spent her non-working hours investigating sexual assaults against Black women for the NAACP.
During the boycott, she endured near-constant death threats and lost her livelihood. (She and her husband dealt with financial insecurity for many years after the boycott ended, even after they moved to Detroit.) She suffered stress-related health problems, including painful, persistent ulcers. Despite being introverted and extremely private, she spoke at large events across the country and submitted to countless interviews.
And yet, on some mornings, in the midst of the trauma and uncertainty and physical suffering, she rose early and mixed batter, stood patiently at the stove until it began to bubble, served stacks of fluffy featherlites to loved ones—with butter and syrup, or powdered sugar and jam—perhaps with a side of bacon or grits or scrambled eggs.
I was comforted by this thought then, and I am again now, as I set my alarm to wake early tomorrow morning and cook Sister Rosa’s famous featherlites for my family.
“Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds, will continue in others.” – Rosa Parks
I met my friend Lawrence* because he lives in my
neighborhood, and I know—at least by sight—most people who live in my neighborhood.
Lawrence and I frequent the same bus stops and walk many of the same routes. After
crossing paths numerous times, we officially introduced ourselves. Eventually,
we became friends.
Lawrence has lived in Seattle for his entire life. Because he can no longer afford housing, he now lives in his van, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t running. The front windshield is smashed, and at least one of the tires is flat. Lawrence often needs money for propane, so he can keep warm at night. Like me, he suffers from a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome, which causes pain and numbness in the hands and feet during even mildly cold weather. He also has arthritis.
I worry about everyone in our city who is houseless. I especially worry for those people whose faces and names I know, people I have formed bonds with. Every single night, I worry about Lawrence.
Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lawrence and I exchanged
numbers. I told him to call me in case of emergency, like if he was out of
propane, or just needed someone to help him problem-solve. About a week later (around
the same time our region was beginning to understand the seriousness of coronavirus),
I decided I could no longer live with the idea of him suffering on the floor of
his van night after night. I texted to ask if he’d like to spend a few days in
a hotel. He said yes.
I chose the Best Western Pioneer Square because I know
someone who has stayed there several times and liked it. It is a fairly short
bus ride from our neighborhood, is clean and comfortable, and includes a hearty
breakfast. I called to make a reservation, then took the 27 to the hotel to provide
my credit card and give them Lawrence’s information.
As I waited in line, the hotel staff were very busy, answering calls from people canceling reservations and helping guests check out early. It occurred to me that the fallout from this pandemic had created an opportunity for an emergent strategy of sorts. Hotels were losing business and would soon be empty. Houseless people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. What if we, concerned citizens of Seattle (and every city), pooled our resources to rent newly cheap hotel rooms for our houseless neighbors?
When it was my turn to register, I attempted to provide the hotel with some information about Lawrence, who, not surprisingly, isn’t as clean or neatly dressed as someone with access to shelter. I struggled with whether I should say something; I didn’t want to violate his privacy. On the other hand, as a person of color, I know for sure that disparate treatment happens. Lawrence is both houseless and a person of color, so I wanted to make sure that he didn’t experience any hassles when he arrived to check in.
I said, “This room is for my neighbor. He’s fallen on some hard times and is living in his van, and I just want to ensure that he will be treated with dignity.”
The person who was helping me leaned forward and widened her eyes. “Are you saying that he’s HOMELESS?”
I said, yes, that’s what I was saying. She said that the hotel doesn’t “do” homeless.
I should have left immediately, but I felt pressed. I had already given Lawrence the hotel’s information, and it wasn’t always easy to reach him. I had to help another neighbor with childcare (back when we were still allowed to do that) in less than an hour.
So, I pushed back. I said the room was paid for, Lawrence
was a human being, and the hotel’s policy amounted to discrimination. She
doubled down on the discrimination and asked me to assure her that there wouldn’t
be any drug use.
Finally, after conferring with a coworker, she agreed to let
Lawrence stay. I reserved the room for three nights.
On the third night, I decided that I could probably swing at
least one more. Nighttime lows were still in the 30s, and I hated to imagine Lawrence
back in his van under those conditions. I called the hotel to extend. The
person who answered the phone cheerfully looked up my reservation. But as soon
as her computer retrieved it, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to
extend this reservation.”
I asked if I needed to come in and present my credit card again. She put me on hold. A moment later, a manager picked up. “We’re not going to extend this reservation,” he snapped. “If the guest can’t afford the room, then he shouldn’t be staying here.”
Lawrence is now back in his van. Everything is closed—libraries, community centers, coffee shops, every public space—so his van is the only place for him to be. I don’t see him very often these days, because I rarely leave my home. But sometimes, when I am out for fresh air, I see him walking to the store to buy water; he has no access to plumbing. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how likely it is that he’s able to wash his hands at all—let alone frequently.
Even though we had a bad experience with the Best Western Pioneer Square, I’m still convinced that the idea—to provide guests for empty hotels and safe housing for those in our community who are most vulnerable right now—is a good one. Certainly, there are independently owned hotels that are on the verge of closing completely that would welcome a steady source of income.
All of us are threatened by this virus, and all of us are suffering
from the havoc it has wreaked on our communities. Think about how you’re
feeling right now—how lonely, fearful, and uncertain. Imagine spending every
hour of every day uncomfortable, with no distractions, no people out on the
street to help you with a few dollars, feeling abandoned and desperate AND
scared of getting sick.
As we do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and financially afloat, we can’t forget our houseless neighbors. We as a community need to offer them more than “socially distanced” mass shelters. One obvious, short-term solution is for the city to rent rooms in empty hotels (owned by compassionate, openminded people) so that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, can stay safe—and as comfortable as possible—during this challenging time.
Can we find the will and focus to make this happen?
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.
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.
I am a Seattle girl to the core. My hometown has my heart – even if it is currently breaking it. But there’s another place (aside from my city-in-law, Detroit) that I’ve managed to make a little room for: my home for most of the 90s: Houston — aka the H, aka H-town, aka City of the Purple Sprite — Texas. I attended college in Houston (go Owls!) and then taught high school there after I graduated.
During my time in college, I worked a lot of odd jobs. Only one of them – photocopying dissertations for physics PhD students – was on campus.
I worked as a summer and after-school nanny, until one father decided to regularly remind me that he was “looking for a mistress.” I sold lingerie and men’s clothing and was equally bad at both. I did general office/clerical work for a woman who ran her own medical billing and transcription business – and who also chain smoked in her windowless office, all day, every day.
I was a waitress at a Bennigan’s that had approximately zero customers, which suited me, except that it is perfectly legal in Texas (and many other states) to pay tipped workers far below minimum wage, and it’s hard to make rent when you earn $2.13 per hour. I worked as a driver for elderly people who lived in expensive, private assisted-living facilities, regularly enduring questions like, “You’re not a n****r, are you, Carla?” from “curious” residents.
Of course, none of these fantastic jobs paid well, and because of school, I wasn’t working many hours. So, for the majority of time I lived in Houston, I either couldn’t afford a car at all, or I drove cars that were only occasionally functional. Sometimes, I was fortunate enough to have a job that was easily accessible by bus, like the brief time I worked in the basement of Hermann Hospital, retrieving supplies ordered by medical staff.
Because Hermann Hospital is in a part of town that is well-served by transit, and because it is expensive to park at or near the hospital, I and most of my coworkers commuted by bus. One of those coworkers was a dapper, fortysomething man whose name I can no longer remember. In fact, I only vaguely recall what he looked like. But I will always remember his gorgeous collection of shoes – distinguishing him as fashion-forward despite the required uniform of blue scrubs — and what I learned from him.
I often say that my spouse was the first person I ever met who did not own a car on purpose, but that’s only because my memory is faulty. My shoe-blessed Houston colleague was proudly carless way back in ’93, long before I met my beloved Bus Nerd. Since, like most of us, Mr. Shoes took the bus to and from work, and since he was single and not dealing with multiple schedules and errands, he didn’t need a car during the week. He saved his running around for the weekends, when he shopped for groceries, went to church, visited friends and family, and partied.
The way Mr. Shoes saw it, it didn’t make sense to him to pay for and maintain a vehicle that would remain parked at his home for over 70% of his waking hours, to say nothing of his sleeping ones. So, instead of buying a car, he rented one every weekend. He would get a weekend deal on a luxury model (usually a Cadillac), buy the insurance, and spend a worry-free two and a half days traveling in style. On Sunday night, he would return the car and hand off the cleaning, maintenance, and responsibility to someone else. The rental car company even provided rides to and from the rental office.
Back then, Mr. Shoes’s way of life seemed revolutionary – and yes, a bit crazy – to me, a person who wanted more than anything to own a reliable vehicle. The idea that you would use a car only when you needed it instead of having one at your disposal was simply beyond anything my 21 years of conditioning (even as a product of a bus-friendly family) had prepared me for.
Now, all these years later, I realize that I am Mr. Shoes — except, sadly, for the shoes. No, I don’t rent a car every weekend (and, as far as I know, Cadillacs aren’t available through carsharing services), but I have embraced the concept of using one only when I need to. On Saturday, we drove a Zipcar to White Center for a fundraiser that lasted late into the evening, far past the time I was willing to wander down rainy, sidewalk-free streets (in heels) looking for a bus stop. Next Sunday, we will ride with my dad to Tacoma for my sweet niece’s third birthday. On the other 29 of this month’s 31 days, we will use our bus passes and feet for travel.
So often, our ideas about money and life and choices are limited by our imaginations. We think things are either/or, yes or no, black or white. What Mr. Shoes’s example reminds us is that sometimes, we have more options than we think we do.
Sometimes, the options include a Cadillac every weekend.
Today has been an emotional day. It’s Father’s Day, and I am so grateful for my 77-year old dad — still on this earth and right nearby — and my amazing husband, who is an outstanding parent and role model for our children.
At our church’s annual Dads and Grads celebration, we honored two young people who are graduating from high school on Tuesday. It was so beautiful and moving to see them standing up in front of the congregation as young adults, as we relived all the beautiful memories of them through the years. During the celebration, my mind wandered to the day that (God willing) my own children will stand up there, and I felt excited and sad and terrified all at once.
It was in that weepy and nostalgic state of mind that I stumbled upon –in the process of updating a few links — this post from seven years ago.
Eastbound 14 (et al) stop, 5th & Jackson
A 60-ish, somewhat disheveled man approaches and addresses me in several languages (Amharic, Spanish, Italian) trying to figure out which I speak. We finally settle on a mix of French and English, and (thanks to my growing belly) immediately start talking parenthood. He tells me I remind him of his daughter, who was recently married. “It was in the New York Times,” he says, fishing a crumpled piece of newsprint out of his wallet.
He points to some text under the photo of the handsome, smiling couple, the part that tells about the bride’s family in Seattle, then pulls out his license to show me that his name matches the name of the father listed in the announcement.
“See? That’s me,” he says. “Me.”
We talk for a few minutes longer, about Chicklet, and my due date, and how I am feeling.
Abruptly, he pulls a wilted, slightly blackened red rose from his coat pocket, thrusts it into my hand, and prepares to leave.
“Take care of the babies,” he says, smiling. “Take care of your precious babies.”
His eyes are filled with tears.
Happy Father’s Day, sir. I haven’t forgotten your advice.
Around midday today, I boarded the 27 behind a young woman wearing white pants, a gorgeous green and blue blouse, a Seahawks cap, and a long, light-blue wig. Her magnificent outfit alone is reason for sharing, but there’s more.
As I passed the woman to sit down, she said hello as if she knew me and then asked about my kids. I couldn’t place her at all, so I assumed she was someone I see when I’m out and about walking. But this woman interacted with me as though I must know her as well, announcing almost immediately that she was a mother now, too, and walking over to my seat to show me the adorable baby photos on her phone.
I am ashamed to say that I pretended to know her, which made our interaction somewhat awkward. (Of course, bonding over babies can take the edge off of almost anything.) Finally, our conversation revealed who she was: “Miss Danielle,” a young woman who had interned at Chicklet’s preschool one summer. Chicklet, who has always been a tough customer, adored Danielle, because she was patient and compassionate and a good listener.
Back in those days, Danielle was a student at Garfield. After her internship ended, the kids and I would sometimes see her on the bus or around the neighborhood. She always made a point to say hi to Chicklet.
On the bus ride today, I learned that Danielle lives in Puyallup now, and that she has started a job at a sandwich chain all the way downtown. She lives near the transit center, so we spent a good long time talking Sounder versus 578. Sounder is more expensive and doesn’t run often enough, but it has bathrooms, great views, and predictable travel times. Plus, she was given an free unlimited ORCA card through a school program, so for now, cost isn’t an issue.
After she got off the bus, I thought about the Danielle I had known when Chicklet was in preschool, so different in appearance from the young woman I had met today. I thought about the fact that neither of us could have pictured the future she had walked into, one choice and changing circumstance at a time.
This is not an idealization of the past, nor is it a self-righteous hand-wringing about the perils of young motherhood. It is, at least in part, a rage against the unfairness that pushes a young mother searching for housing to the distant exurbs. But mostly, it is a meditation on change.
In the few years since Danielle left our neighborhood, it has become a place she might not recognize. (The preschool where we met her, which has been serving children in the same location for over 50 years, is one of the few institutions that endures.) In those same few years, she became a person I did not recognize. I wonder what changes she saw in me.
Dear Danielle, tenderhearted preschool helper, mama of beautiful babies, hot mama wearing the heck out of her blue hair and white jeans: I hope to meet you again on your journey.
“Part of the mystery of walking is that the destination is inside us and we really don’t know when we arrive until we arrive.” — John Francis
I recently watched this very interesting talk by John Francis, aka “Planetwalker.”
I don’t remember how I came across the talk, because I had never heard of Francis or his extreme walking before I happened upon it.* A little background:
In 1971, when John Francis was in his 20s and living in Inverness, California, two oil tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge and spilled close to a million gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. The resulting devastation disturbed Francis deeply. He volunteered to participate in cleanup efforts, but it didn’t feel like enough. So, after some soul searching, he decided to give up riding in motorized vehicles and walk to get around.** According to his official bio, Francis “started walking because he felt partly responsible for the mess that washed up on the shore.”
A few months after this decision, Francis also decided to stop talking – at first to take a break from the arguments with friends and family that his new walking lifestyle had prompted, and then as a discipline. Not talking helped him learn to listen and, paradoxically, strengthened his ability to communicate.
Over the next 22 years, this silent walker (and occasional cyclist and sailboat rider) earned several degrees, including a PhD in land resources; taught university courses; wrote oil spill regulations for the US Coast Guard; started a nonprofit; and traveled the world as a UN ambassador.
But what is interesting about Francis’s talk is that it is not about the decades he spent walking. It is not about the struggles, triumphs, accomplishments, or even the recognition that resulted from his steadfast adherence to a decision he made as a very young man.
No, Francis’s talk is about the reasons he decided to stop walking — or, to put it more accurately, to start riding again. He didn’t change his mind about what he believed, nor did he simply grow weary and disillusioned and give up. Instead, he evolved. Over the years and miles, Francis’s understanding of humanity’s abuse of this planet deepened and broadened.
“Environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other. Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.”
He began to see the connections between our disrespect for other human beings and our disrespect for other species. He began to see justice and ecology as intimately intertwined. And he began to see that he had an obligation to spread this message as broadly as possible. To do this, he would have to put his days of taking years to travel across states behind him.
“I realized that I had a responsibility to more than just me, and that I was going to have to change. I was afraid to change because I was so used to the guy who only just walked. I was so used to that person that I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t know who I would be if I changed, but I [knew] I needed to. I [knew] I needed to change because it would be the only way that I could be here today. And I know that a lot of times we find ourselves in this wonderful place that we have gotten to, but there’s another place for us to go, and we kind of have to leave behind the security of who we’ve become and go to the place of who we are becoming. And so, I want to encourage you to go to that next place, to let yourself out of any prison you might find yourself in, because we have to do something now. We have to change now.”
I relate to John Francis on many levels. I relate to his love of walking. I relate to his deep appreciation of the natural world. I relate to his horror and sense of helplessness in the face of unprecedented environmental destruction, motivated by unprecedented greed. I relate to his extremism, which in my case, has its roots in part in an “all or nothing” mentality and in part in a self-righteousness that I have only in the last few years begun to acknowledge and attempt to address.
I relate to his conviction that racism, war, inequality, colonialism, environmental destruction, and all forms of abuse are symptoms of the same sickness: the sickness of disconnection and separation, of viewing “self” as being contained within the walls of one’s skin, rather than as one essential part of a beautiful, connected whole.
I relate to the way he tied his identity to his mode of travel — and especially to his eventual chafing at this connection. For many years, my identity — or at least, my public persona — has been built upon how I choose to get around. Yes, public transportation is something I deeply value. It speaks to me on many levels, and I intend to keep riding as long as I am able, which I hope is for the rest of my life. But my identity is not dependent on my transportation choices.
I will never tire of writing about buses, because they are much more than a way to get around. But I have more to say – about motherhood, and community, and spirituality, and justice, and history, and ecology. And I, like John Francis, believe I can do a better job saying it without the yoke of an identity that is no longer serving me.
Though our family will continue to live without a car, and I will continue share my love of public transit — here and elsewhere — I’m ready to write about more than just buses. And really, it’s about time.
* Of course, after the talk, I went straight the library and checked out his book. I’ll report back.
** I have no idea why he didn’t consider using a bicycle to facilitate his travels. Perhaps he has the same mental block that I do.