Category Archives: deep thoughts

The losses we don’t name

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.

And that loss is profound.

On “using” the land

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.

Paying attention also means learning. The natural and human histories of the places we call home. Whose land we occupy. Where our drinking water comes from. What forces shaped the communities where we live.

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.

And we will walk into a new world.

Image description: The inside of a bus shelter, with a nature scene and the words "protect what you love" painted on the back panel

A love letter to my city

What does it mean to love a place?

In 1936, my paternal grandparents moved to Seattle. They were young and Black, fleeing the poverty and various forms of terror in their home state of Kansas. They would experience both (poverty and terror, that is) in their new home, but they did not know that then.

My Grandpa Marcellus arrived first, riding the rails west and then, eventually, north. He worked as a day laborer until he earned enough money to send my Grandma Bernice a ticket. She left behind her six beloved sisters—whose names I heard almost daily growing up—and everything she knew to travel to what might as well have been the end of the world.

Marcellus and Bernice married in Seattle. My dad, their second child, was born at Harborview in 1939. He knew a Seattle before the Space Needle, before I-5, before so many of the corporate behemoths that have come to define it.

I have always been simultaneously proud of my family’s deep roots in this place and ashamed of their participation in the colonial project that made it what it is. I understand that my grandparents were also victims of white supremacist settler colonialism, doing what they could to survive. They did not have the capacity to consider the impact of their presence on the original people of this land. I grieve for the Duwamish people and for my grandparents, whose own ancestral trauma required them to make their way in someone else’s homeland.

I hate what Seattle represents: genocide, Native erasure, Earth as “property” to be bought, sold, and exploited for profit. I recoil at the stories of razed hills and inconveniently meandering rivers filled with dirt to suit commercial aims. And yet, I am grateful that my family came here, and that they had some part in building the city that is my home.

What does it mean to love a place?

Like my father, I was born here. I have lived away—two years in Morocco as a child and eight years in Houston as an adult—but I have spent 38 of my 48 years within 15 miles of my first neighborhood. My family didn’t give me much in the way of culture or community or tradition or even a sense of self. But damnit, they gave me this place.

Alki Beach and Puget Sound. The Olympics. The 54 and the ferry. The 2. The Monorail. Air that smells of saltwater. Slugs and mist and mildew. Tahoma, mother of waters. Sword ferns and Oregon grapes. Supersonics. 1250 K-Fox. Chubby and Tubby. The Monroe Fair. Madrona Park. The Market. Gloomy Junes. Dark Decembers. Husky Deli. Cottage Lake. Roger’s Thriftway. The Fun Forest. The Facts building. Tahoma, Tahoma, Tahoma, the mountain that comes out.

What does it mean to love a place?

In the summer of 1990, right before I moved away for college, the Goodwill Games came to Seattle. For the first time in my memory, there was heavy traffic at all times of day instead of just during “rush hour.” Back then, I thought all those extra cars were temporary. They never left.

When I returned to Seattle eight years later, everything was different—not in a “change is constant, don’t get set in your ways” kind of way, but in a pollution and traffic, gentrification and displacement kind of way. Every day, as I drove to work, I felt uneasy. I felt like I was contributing to something brutal, to a mindless, self-centered death making. That was when I decided to stop driving.

What does it mean to love a place?

I never love Seattle as much as when I am on the ground, walking to, riding on, or waiting for the bus. When I ride, I am part of the living, breathing organism that is my city. I am invisible, unnecessary, and irrelevant. But somehow, at the same time, I belong.

What does it mean to love a place?

In November of 2015, our little family volunteered to plant trees in a wooded area near the kids’ school. I didn’t expect to enjoy it. (I suffer from Raynaud’s and am generally cold-natured, so I rarely schedule compulsory outdoor time on November weekends.) But I was hoping to connect my children to their community. I wanted them to put their hands in the dirt—to plant something that they could watch grow over the years.

Though I wouldn’t say I had a good time, I found moments of joy on that day. And my children had a blast. They named every single tree they planted. They remembered their locations and checked on them at least once a week. During the dry summer months, they hauled buckets of water from the faucet at the front of their school a full quarter of mile into the woods to keep the baby trees alive.

Years—and many trees—later, they still know all the names of those first babies, and they still check on them regularly. If my children are granted the gift of old age, and if the trees (and our species) manage to survive that long, I hope they will bring their grandchildren to admire them.

What does it mean to love a place?

We’re told that Seattleites love nature. After all, they’re always outside, hiking and boating and skiing and climbing and camping. What I see is a professed love that manifests as a need to consume, commodify, and conquer, not as reverence or gratitude or stewardship. “Nature” as entertainment, adrenaline, escape, instead of the source of our very lives.

What if loving this part of Earth meant that, instead of asking what it could do for us, we asked what we owed back? What if it meant accountability and not unfettered access?

What does it mean to love a place?

For at least 15 summers, I have felt uneasy. I don’t need scientists to tell me the climate is changing; I can see it with my eyes and feel it in my bones. Summers are hotter and longer. Mountains are barer. Madrone trees are stressed. Salamanders and slugs are a rare—instead of regular—sighting.

Other people celebrate the warmer summers, as if weather is some sort of ambiance that exists to please humans. But I feel every degree like a diagnosis. Seattle is dying, and not because privileged people can no longer make it through the day without being reminded of suffering. Seattle is dying because we have finally asked too much of the land that supports us.

The smoke that at this very moment surrounds us is our invitation to see clearly. What are we going to do about it?

Chicklet and Busling at Lincoln Park
Fourth-generation Seattleites, loving on Lincoln Park (August, 2019)
Chicklet and Busling at Lincoln Park
Chicklet and Busling at Lincoln Park

Spiritual lessons I learned on the bus

For as long as I can remember, the bus has been a part of my life. At certain times, it has loomed large, like when I was eight years old, riding across town by myself and feeling like someone who could be trusted with responsibility.

Or when I was 21 and couldn’t afford a reliable car but needed to get to work and school and wherever else I was going back then.

Or when I was 31 and decided to give up the car I could finally comfortably afford to become a born-again bus rider.

Now, I am 47. I have been living without a car for 16 years. The bus is still a big part of my life, but it doesn’t have the same surface importance. It is always there, facilitating my life—cherished, but not so much in the forefront of my awareness as a Really Great Transportation Option. My appreciation has moved to a deeper place.

I have always know that buses connect us by providing opportunities to share space, experiences, and conversation. I am just beginning to learn that riding the bus, if you are open and humble enough to accept the lessons it offers, can be a spiritual practice. This is true whether you love the bus or hate it. Maybe especially if you hate it.

Here are some of the spiritual lessons I have learned from my longtime love.

Practice surrender.
More often than I would like, I have to wait a long time for my bus. Sometimes this happens when I am in a hurry, or managing children (though mine don’t need much bus-stop management these days), or exhausted. Sometimes, it happens when it is raining, and there is no shelter at the stop. Sometimes (oftentimes), it happens when I am feeling impatient: wanting to be in motion, in progress, on the way already.

Occasionally, in those moments, when I feel the urge to pace, or check my phone, or pull out my book or to-do list to “kill time,” I decide instead to surrender. Surrender to being “bored,” to getting wet, to maybe even being late, and just accept the moment for what it is.

Surrendering can mean engaging in an interesting or deep or silly conversation with my kids or spouse. It can mean taking a breath and paying attention to my surroundings. Or it can mean squeezing everyone under one tiny umbrella and resigning myself to wet socks.

We don’t control when the bus comes, and we don’t control the conditions under which we are forced to wait. We do control what we do with the moments we spend at the stop.

Practice hope.
About five years ago, I had to attend an evening political meeting for work. By the time the meeting was over, it was close to 9 p.m., and I was in a hurry to get home. Back then, I didn’t have a smart phone, so I headed straight for the bus stop—which was several blocks away and in an isolated area—without checking a schedule.

I was a block and a half (plus a street crossing) from the stop when the bus pulled up. I knew that even if I ran as hard as a could, there was no way I was going to catch it. But I was so desperate to get home, so motivated to NOT have to stand at that deserted, dark stop for 30+ minutes until the next bus arrived, I decided to run for it anyway.

It was not a pretty run. I didn’t have on the best shoes. My bag and papers and meeting clothes (and, ahem, body parts) were flapping and bouncing all over the place as I stumbled along at my highest speed, fully expecting the bus to pull away before I even came close.

The bus stayed put.

I kept running. The bus kept staying.

By the time I made it to the stop, out of breath and disheveled, the bus was still there. I didn’t then and don’t now have any idea why.

The thing is, it really doesn’t matter.

When you run for the bus, you don’t know what might happen. Maybe (probably) you won’t make it. But maybe there’s a wheelchair that needs to be buckled in. Maybe someone will ask the driver for directions. Maybe a passenger will see you and ask the driver to wait. Maybe the stop is a time point, and the bus is a minute early.

You don’t have to worry about any of that. The only thing you have to do is run as hard as you can until the bus drives away.

Or, until you catch it.

Be curious.
I have the type of brain that likes to judge, label, and categorize. I’m an observant person, so I tend to notice patterns. My guilty pleasure is to sit with my spouse and categorize and label all the different people we encounter—on the bus and otherwise.

But every time I get curious and try to see the person behind whatever label I’ve attached, I learn. The more I practice this, the better I get at it, and the more often I remember:

We all love. We all suffer. Most of us are doing the best we can.

Judgments and assumptions isolate us from the people we encounter every day. Curiosity brings a richness to our interactions. It shines a light on others’ humanity. And it strengthens our own.

Don’t take it personally.
I often say that the best thing about the bus is being surrounded by other people. And, the worst thing about the bus is being surrounded by other people.

Sharing a ride with the people you share the world with can ground you in your community, help you feel less alone, and deepen your empathy.

It can also be annoying as hell.

Over the years, I have (semi-)regularly been cut in line, pushed aside, propositioned, called names, and interrogated about my ethnic identity. And don’t get me started on the bus fouls I’ve witnessed!

What I’ve slowly come to learn is that strangers’ behavior towards me is not about me. (How could it be? They don’t even know me.) Their rudeness is about their own issues and whatever they are going through in the moment.

I can set boundaries (a la Chicklet, who is a pro) or respectfully ask for what I need (for example, a seat, if someone has their bag on one), without taking the behavior personally or letting it affect my own mood.

Take it personally.
Just because a person’s bad behavior is a reflection of their own issues doesn’t mean that we can (or should) accept it. If someone is being harassed, and you are in a position to help, you should help.

Look for the beauty.
Everyone who’s ever been on a bus knows that it isn’t always pretty. But I know that it is always beautiful.

By way of explanation, I offer this.

Finally—and always:

Breathe.

Unless, of course, that would be a bad idea.