Monthly Archives: October 2016

On heartbreak and clean teeth

Two years ago Saturday, I met my foster son, known on this blog as HBE. That first night was difficult, in ways that are hard to fully appreciate unless you’ve instantly become the mother of a traumatized stranger, shortly after swimming lessons and right before dinner. The most difficult moment for me happened after all three kids were asleep, as I sat on the floor unpacking the large shopping bag of HBE’s belongings.

Until that point, I hadn’t thought much about HBE’s history. His relatives and relationships had been reduced to a handful of sentences on a DSHS form, which I had read only 24 hours earlier. But here was proof that he had real connections to other people: a stuffed dog, a box of favorite snacks, pajamas. At the bottom of the bag I found a tiny toothbrush, carefully wrapped in a paper towel.

Earlier that evening — when we learned for sure that a 16-month old would be joining our family — Bus Nerd had gone to the store to buy supplies, including a toothbrush. We had used that toothbrush to clean HBE’s teeth at bedtime, before I was faced with this evidence that someone else cared for him, someone who had likely brushed his teeth mere hours earlier, at the beginning of a day that turned his world upside down.

I set the toothbrush down and wept, for all of us.

On July 20th, 2015, HBE was reunified with his relatives. Nine months after unpacking his things, I was the one doing the packing. To keep focused on something other than my sadness, I took my time, making sure to include everything he might want or need: a photo book of our family, clothes for now and later, bath toys, favorite stories, the stuffed pig he slept with every night. The final item I packed was his toothbrush. As I slid the plastic baggie into the front of his suitcase, the tears began to fall. They haven’t stopped.

HBE’s other toothbrush is still in the kids’ toothbrush cup in our bathroom. That one I saved, in case he ever returned for a visit. We haven’t laid eyes on him or heard his voice since he left our care 460 days ago. But the toothbrush is still here. It is the evidence that we care.




Moving beyond the margins, part II

Recently, a dear friend of mine moved from Seattle to a small city in the desert southwest. It wasn’t exactly a voluntary exit (a casualty of the rising cost of living in our shared hometown), but the destination, selected precisely for its “different-ness” from the sparkling, blue and green beauty she was leaving behind, was a welcome new adventure.

Shortly after my friend and her husband settled into their new home, a series of unexpected circumstances conspired to leave them without a car. Their lives almost completely fell apart. Bus service in their new city is hourly on most routes—and essentially nonexistent after 7 PM. Sidewalks are limited. Crossings are inconvenient, dangerous, or both.

My friend and her hubby both have jobs. (Hubby works shifts outside of business hours, so no bus commuting for him. ) They also have many pets and so must haul giant bags of food and litter on the regular. And, of course, they must manage all of life’s other errands, obligations, and appointments. Without a car, their lives became consumed with figuring out how they were going to get where they needed to go. It was difficult and stressful and time consuming and not at all workable for the long term. So, they did what they had to do to return to the ranks of vehicle-owning Americans.

Talking to my friend about her struggles getting around reminded me of some similar struggles in my own past. As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t afford a car for most of the time I lived in Houston. Back then, I wasn’t proudly “car-free”; I was broke and desperate for reliable transportation.

Sidewalks are not a given in our nation’s fourth largest city, and walking is often isolating and risky. Almost every time I left my apartment, I was forced to walk through parking lots and in drainage ditches and an on the edges of roads. (As a bonus, I also regularly experienced street harassment.*)

Houston is huge – 628 square miles, to be exact – with no real center of commerce, so traveling by bus would have been difficult even on the best-run transit system. And back then (ahem), Houston did not have the best-run transit system.** Poor frequency, awful transfers, and some drivers’ tendency to blow past stops to avoid missing green lights (OK, maybe it was just that one driver) made it very hard to arrive anywhere on time. I was fired from one of my many college jobs for chronic lateness.

When I started teaching and could finally afford it, I bought a reliable used car. A few years later, I bought a reliable new car. I was so happy and proud and excited and empowered on the day I drove that car off the lot, I could not have imagined that, only a few years later, I would hand over my keys and never look back.

I have not owned a car in almost 14 years. To this day, I think of my decision to live carfree as one of the best I have ever made. It has changed my life in innumerable positive and beautiful ways. This does not mean that my choice has been painless or without challenges, but most of the time, and certainly on balance, it’s pretty darn good. I would argue, however, that a significant percentage – dare I say a majority? — of people who don’t own cars do not feel enriched by their circumstances. Instead they feel helpless, disconnected, and vulnerable.

So what makes the difference between being happily carfree and desperately carless? Certainly, a lot depends on where you live. In Manhattan, living without a car is easy. In Yakima, not so much. But in Seattle, or Pittsburgh, or Houston, or St, Louis, it can go either way. The most important determining factors are a person’s neighborhood and life circumstances. Shift work, kids and errands, sprawling communities, poor transit, mobility struggles, and high crime rates increase the challenges to living without a car.

It is in these “in-between” places where we have the greatest opportunity to improve people’s lives  — the most low-hanging fruit, as it were. In these places, we need to design our transportation systems to accommodate the shift workers, the errand runners, the physically challenged, and the vulnerable. This means frequent, reliable, affordable (preferably free) public transit, all day, every day. It means safe, comfortable transit stops and convenient transfer points. It means sidewalks in every neighborhood. It means protected bike infrastructure. It means accessible everything.

Of course, these improvements will benefit everyone, as they should. Living without a car, whether voluntary or not, should be as painless as possible, for as many people as possible. It is the only way we will build more equitable communities, or reduce car ownership, or lower the cost of living in increasingly expensive cities.

All we are missing is the will.

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)


* To be clear, this happens on pedestrian-friendly streets, too. In fact, the more dudes there are walking on a street, the more likely one is to experience harassment.

** Since I moved back to Seattle in 1998, they’ve added light rail and completely revamped the bus system, so I really can’t speak to what it’s like now. Hey, if it’s good enough for Janis Scott


Some truth

For me, the most important thing about writing is telling the truth. Ironically, this is precisely the area in which I fall short. It’s s not that my writing is untrue — I do my best to keep things factual; it’s that it is not as true as it could be. Curating facts to advance a particular point of view or present a certain image is one way to communicate, but it feels very surface. Only by exposing vulnerability and exploring ideas without an agenda can we truly connect with words. So today — and, hopefully, on many future days — I am going to share a bit of my truth.

The truth is, in this moment (as in most moments) I am overwhelmed by the suffering in this world. Suffering — of both large and small scale — surrounds us. Hurricanes, homelessness, famine, disease, and war. Child abuse, poisoned water, mass shootings, failing schools, and underfunded everything. Car crashes. Evictions. Convictions. Loss of parents and children. Loss of species and habitats. Exploitation. Violence.

I am beyond fortunate to have shelter, enough to eat, a loving spouse, healthy children, and access to medical care and transportation. Yet, even in my life, there has been plenty of suffering. And I do not doubt that there will be plenty more.

Right now, as I sit on my comfortable couch typing, there are millions of people who are living through their worst moments and millions – even billions – more who have never known comfort or safety.  How can I sit here, so complacent, while children die of drone attacks and women are raped by soldiers and thousands of people in my own city live on the streets? It is because my own fear of suffering keeps me paralyzed.

Ten years ago, I watched my mother die of cancer. Now, all around me, friends and acquaintances are being diagnosed with the disease. I grieve for them, because I know what they are facing. I also wonder: Am I next? Every time a child dies, or a terrible accident happens, or an earthquake devastates, I am filled with the pain of the people who are affected. But also, I wonder: Am I — are we — next?

Dread and despair are my constant companions. I can push them away, count my blessings, look for the helpers, focus on my breath, connect with my Creator, but they lurk beneath the surface and follow me everywhere – even into my most joyful moments.

I know for sure that fear is the opposite of love. One need look no further than the disturbing election that is playing out under our noses to see that. But I cannot conquer my own fear, or even, most of the time, keep it under control.

Fear informs so many of my decisions. It keeps me from standing up and stepping out more than I do, because standing up might be uncomfortable: physically, socially, legally, and in countless other ways. It keeps me from fostering another child, because I know it will be hard, and also because, if something catastrophic happens to me (see above), there will be three children without a mama. Fear even informs what I post on this blog. I worry that it will sound trite, that it will unwittingly offend, that I will be exposed as a bad writer or even a bad person.

I try to choose love over fear, as often as I can, in as many contexts as I can, because love — not the sentimental variety, but love as King envisioned it — is the only constructive response to the violence and misery in our world. But I am not very good at it. Thank God I have so many examples of courage and love in action to draw on for inspiration. I will keep trying.



A Cadillac every weekend

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.