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.
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.
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 these recent tweets.
After a few years of planting saplings in our woods, my crew has leveled up. These days, we’re collecting pine cones and trying to grow trees from the seeds. The results have been mixed (OK, we’re failing), but the process has felt like a revelation.
How has taken me 46 years to recognize the miracle of a pine seed?
It has never been hard for me to appreciate the majesty of The Mountain. Or the ocean. Or a vast forest. But somehow, I never noticed that a seed is all of that, an entire world, packed into a tiny spec.
And it’s not just the seeds. As I come to terms with the deep brokenness of the big picture, I’m starting to notice small miracles all around me. In the thank you card from my five-year old niece. In her baby sister’s wrist rolls. In the water that runs from my eyes as I chop onions for soup.
In all of the human hands and all of the earth’s gifts that made it possible for me to bake my Chicklet’s 11th birthday cake. In walking to dance class in the twilight.
In watching my 3rd grader fall asleep to the sound of my heartbeat.
Last Thursday, I barely missed the 8 on my way home from an errand and so found myself alone at a bus stop, loaded down with potting soil and live plants and with a decent wait ahead of me. It was one of those close-to-the-road stops with no shelter or bench or trash can, only a damp ledge in front of a nearby apartment building. I dropped my load and sat on that ledge, feeling restless and ready to get on with my day.
But on this particular Thursday, I decided to push through the restlessness. To not sink into a book or my phone or some other distraction to “kill” the 12 minutes OneBusAway told me I’d be there. Instead, I sat on the ledge and waited.
It’s October, so the trees were showing off, alive with that fleeting explosion of color that always feels like magic. The leaves were falling, not in big clouds like they do on windy days, but one at a time. The maple tree closest to my ledge released each leaf gently, like a mama bird pushing her baby out of the nest. I felt like I was part of something sacred as I watched each one drift to the dirty street.
Those twelve minutes I spent waiting have as much to do with why I ride as the extra time to read and connections with fellow humans. After all these years, my life on the bus continues to transform me. It reminds me that I am not in control, even if these days the waits are shorter and we have tools that can tell us just how long those waits will be. It teaches me to cherish the moments life offers me to simply be still.
And watch a bright orange leaf sail into the gutter.
I started riding the bus alone at eight years old, younger than was common in 1980, and most certainly younger than is common in 2018. My initial solo bus trips were to school and involved a transfer downtown. After a few months of practice, I started branching out: riding to local stores, to my grandma’s apartment, to doctor’s appointments, even on adventures with my siblings. Even though at eight I was a bit on the shy side and pretty risk averse (OK, I still am), I never felt any reservations about taking the bus alone. I was confident in my abilities and proud that I could get around the city on my own.
Ironically, it was at around 14, an age when it is common to move through the world without the assistance of an adult, when I started feeling afraid to travel alone. This was the age when my body started to look like a woman’s body and, consequently, the age I first began to experience street harassment. My parents had prepared me well for the logistics of traveling by bus, but no one prepared me for life on the street as a woman.
Groping happened rarely, but leering and yelling were near constant. Back then, I didn’t know how to respond to the shouted comments about my body, the insults, the lewd jokes at my expense. I would cross the street to avoid encountering groups of men and hold my breath every time I passed a construction site. I would smile politely when disrespectful strangers pressed their phone numbers into my hand, because it didn’t take long to figure out that saying no to a man who feels entitled to your attention can activate rage. When men grabbed my arm, I would pull it away and keep walking (faster, and without turning back), so busy feeling scared and intimidated that it never even occurred to me to be angry.
But I’m angry now. Angry that experiencing this type of harassment so early in my womanhood changed the way I viewed myself and my right to move through the world. Angry that, when I was considering giving up my car 15 years ago, what gave me the most pause was not the logistics of how I would get where I needed to go, but the prospect of being on the street outside of normal business hours. Angry that my daughter, who will turn 11 in exactly one month, will soon face the same abuse I did as she ventures out on her own.
Even now, at several years past 40 (and mostly past the street harassment period of life), I regularly constrain my movements because of my gender. I repeat: I, a grown-ass strong, intelligent, capable, adult, regularly constrain the way I move through my city because of my gender. This is true for every woman I know, but, because I get around by bus, it’s especially true for me.
It goes without saying (but I’m gonna say it, just to be sure it’s clear) that harassment is not unique to public transportation. It’s a cultural problem that manifests itself in every corner of our society. (Ahem.) But the particular problem of street harassment happens more often to women who spend more time walking and standing outside. And yes, to women who share space with men on buses and trains.
Public transportation represents freedom. It provides mobility for everyone, regardless of age or ability or economic status. But women and girls will never be truly free to use transit until they no longer have to contend with abuse every time they walk outside.
Public transportation offers us the gift of contact with our community. But we cannot expect young women to embrace (or even tolerate) contact that is often demeaning and is sometimes threatening.
Public transportation, like any public good, is only as healthy as the culture it is a part of. If we want women and girls to embrace life on the ground, then we must pay as much attention to the misogyny that pervades our culture as we do to travel times and vehicle design.
May is Foster Care Awareness Month, a time when we commit (or recommit) to understanding the conditions and needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens. But beyond educating ourselves, what can we do to help?
This is the part where I’m supposed to encourage you, dear reader, to become a foster parent, to “be there for a child” or “change a life.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
I don’t mean to be glib. In some ways, it really is that simple: A child needs a safe, loving home, and an adult (or adults) with the desire to parent steps up to provide it. But to truly show up for our kids, we need to do much, much more.
I was a foster parent in 2014/15. The experience was transformative for me. It taught me more about love than anything else I’ve ever done or been through. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was messy and exhausting and it required me to stretch in ways I didn’t feel ready to. But the emotional toll, the love and loss – and yes, occasional drama – were human experiences that deepened my compassion and helped me grow. Interacting with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services was the exact opposite.
Here’s the thing: I believe in caring for children in need, in making room in our homes and hearts and learning what it means to love someone — not with a particular outcome in mind, but just for the sake of it. I believe in the overused aphorism “it takes a village to raise a child” all the way to my core. These beliefs are what drew me to foster care. But to be a foster parent, you must participate in the foster system. And the foster system is deeply, deeply flawed.
And it’s no wonder. Our child welfare system is only as healthy as the culture it has grown out of, and – despite the “family values” rhetoric of some politicians — our culture does not prioritize families. Instead we prioritize profit, allowing “the market” to dictate who has access to human necessities like food, shelter, health care, and education.
Kids are placed in foster care when their families of origin are unable to care for them. In about 35% of cases, this is due to physical or sexual abuse. In the other 65%, it is because of neglect, which can happen for all kinds of reasons. Some parents struggle with addiction; others simply lack the resources to meet their children’s material needs or provide the supervision our culture currently deems appropriate. (We must remember that norms for supervision are extremely contextual and also that our current expectations require time and money that many – perhaps even most – families do not have.)
Child welfare systems across the US have a history of harming people of color — in particular, African American and Native American families. This harm has happened in egregious and obvious ways — Native American boarding schools, for example — and in subtle, insidious ways, such as the overrepresentation of children of color in foster care. In Washington State, Black and Native American children are removed from their families of origin at higher rates than white children, even when their living conditions are the same or similar. (And, of course, families of color are also disproportionately harmed by other systems, which makes them more likely to have contact with the child welfare system in the first place.)
Foster care, like many other critical services in Washington State, is underfunded. Social workers have more cases than they can handle and not enough resources to provide essential services. This means that even dedicated and well intentioned social workers will not have enough time or context to make informed decisions about what is best for a child’s future, and even when they do, they will not have the ability to meet every child’s needs.
So yes, we should show up for kids right now, as foster parents and mentors and even perhaps as social workers. (People of color, it’s especially important for us to show up.) But we must understand that serving the system as-is will not create the wholeness we are seeking for our children. We also must be willing to do the harder work of building a society that truly supports their well-being.
The best thing we can do for children is to sustain the families they were born to. This means we must build a society that prioritizes people, where living wage jobs, health care, child care, housing, accessible transportation, safe streets, and humane schools are available to all. We also must work to strengthen our communities, so that families have healthy social connections and can rely on support from friends and neighbors for short term needs or in the event of a crisis.
We must address the racism that is inherent in our child welfare system –- and all of our systems. This means that we must first acknowledge the harm that was caused in the past. We must look with clear eyes at the ways white supremacy and racial bias continue to influence the outcomes we see today. Then, we must commit to changing those outcomes.
And finally, we must fully fund agencies that are tasked with caring for people, particularly agencies involved in the foster system. Because when the state takes the monumental action of removing a child from her family of origin, the state is morally obligated to provide that child the safety and resources she needs to thrive.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party. I recently interviewed Elmer Dixon, one of the founding members of the Seattle Panthers, about the party’s work in the community and as a community — and about how his experience as a Black Panther continues to inform his life today. I hope you enjoy our conversation, and if you’re in Seattle, I hope you attend one (or more) of the many commemorative events happening this week.
I live in a gentrified neighborhood. The Central District was once the heart of Seattle’s Black community. Now, skyrocketing housing costs and rising property taxes have pushed all but a very small number of Black folks out of the neighborhood. The circumstances that led to displacement in the Central District are not unique, but the community was. And what has been lost can never be replaced.
As a (mixed) Black person who can afford to live here, as someone who did not grow up in this community but who is the daughter of a man who started his life mere blocks from where I now live and the granddaughter of a woman who lived here for a good portion of my childhood, my relationship to the changes is complicated. I am angry and sad about the loss of longtime residents and of this neighborhood’s identity as a black community, but I also understand that I am only here because of my own privilege. And I recognize my status as a relative newcomer, having purchased my first home here after prices had already risen beyond the reach of many longtime residents.
But this post isn’t about my complicated relationship to my neighborhood. (That post is coming; I only need another decade or so to process all of my thoughts and feelings.) It is about the community’s most recent loss.
The Promenade Red Apple Market, my neighborhood grocery store, closed in September. The property the store was leasing was purchased by a developer, and that developer’s vision did not include Red Apple. The store sat empty for several months after its last day of operation. Then, last month, the bulldozers came.
The loss has been difficult logistically for our family because there is no longer a grocery store within walking distance of our home. But it has been much more difficult emotionally. It seems strange to say, but I am in mourning.
I’ve shopped at the Promenade Red Apple regularly for 15 years (and occasionally for even longer). In those years, I have visited the store close to 2,000 times. Red Apple wasn’t perfect. The many customers who walked to the store were forced to cross a giant parking lot that was at least as big as the store — and never more than half full — to reach the front door. Prices were (understandably) higher than you would find at a large chain. The produce wasn’t always the best quality.
The management and staff of Red Apple showed that they valued people by the products they chose to stock, continuing to carry foods that are culturally significant to Black folks long after the demographics of the neighborhood had shifted.
They showed that they valued people by affirming our dignity, allowing anyone to use the restroom or come inside to warm up or cool off.
They showed that they valued people by asking about our days and asking after our loved ones.
They showed that they valued people by celebrating with us, hosting holiday parties and Easter egg hunts and backpack giveaways year after year after year.
The plans for the new development look lovely. There will be better pedestrian access and new apartments and even (if the early designs are followed) some sort of outdoor plaza. More housing in a city facing an extreme housing shortage, a built environment that makes walking safer and gathering with others easier — these are important improvements.
Except accessible design does not make a place accessible. And physical beauty is not the same as soul.
The new apartments will be unaffordable to all but the very wealthiest slice of this city. The new stores will likely be as well. If history is any guide, gathering will be restricted to those who are perceived to belong.
If there’s a grocery store in the new development, it will surely have perfect produce and squeaky clean floors and plenty of selection. But I’m guessing it won’t carry pig feet or turkey necks. And I know for sure it won’t host a holiday party where customers can do the Cupid Shuffle with Santa.
Happy holiday, everyone! As I’ve mentioned many times, Martin Luther King Day is my absolute favorite holiday, because it’s all about celebrating justice and equality and community. So today is the perfect day for me to share my interview with Estela Ortega, a woman who has spent her life fighting for justice and building community. Estela is the executive director of El Centro de la Raza (“the center for people of all races”), a revered institution that has been serving the Latinx community — and many others — in Seattle for over 45 years.
There are many things I could have talked to Estela about, but the focus of this interview was El Centro’s recent success building affordable housing — across the street from a light rail station — in a city that is rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of the rich. Without access to housing, there can be no community. And, in the absence of a government response our city’s housing crisis, we will need more organizations to learn from El Centro’s example and extend their service to the community by providing quality, affordable homes in every neighborhood.
To learn more about El Centro’s founding, listen to Episode 2 of Remember, my interview with Larry Gossett.
As you probably already know, bus drivers are my version of superheroes. I am consistently awed by their kindness and humor and professionalism. (And yeah, I have had more than a few bus crushes on drivers.) Here are a couple of recent examples of the goodness they add to my life.
Thursday before last, Chicklet had a restroom emergency on the 48. By the time we reached our stop, she was approaching panic mode, and we hustled off the bus in a bit of a distracted state. Somehow, in the commotion, my phone fell out of my coat pocket. I realized I had dropped it just as the bus was driving away.
After we made it home, I tried calling the phone a few times in case there was someone sitting near it, but no one answered. I kicked myself for my mistake, filed a lost item report on Metro’s website, and let it go.
When Bus Nerd arrived home, I filled him in on our (mis)adventure. Ever the problem solver, he texted my phone with a message for whomever found it to please call his number. I wasn’t optimistic that this would work, since, like most people, I have a password on my phone. Miraculously, about 20 minutes later, Bus Nerd got a call. The 48 driver had found the phone! He let Bus Nerd know when he would pass through our neighborhood again so that someone could meet the bus and get it. Like the last time I lost something important on the 48, my beloved was kind enough to handle the retrieval.
I still have no idea how the driver saw the text (was he holding the phone at the exact right moment?); there was no time to ask during the quick exchange. But superheroes can do anything, right?
A few days after the miraculous phone recovery, this delightful human drove the 27 I rode home from a Saturday morning appointment.
She had left a sweet surprise on every seat.
On the way off the bus, I complimented her on her decorations — and her kindness. She said, “I figured, if I have to work the holiday, I might as well bring it with me.”