Back door magic

When I was a young bus chick, getting off the bus at the back door was a really big deal. It wasn’t the actual act that was important, but rather, the moments of apprehension as I stood there, wondering if the driver would see me and open the doors without prompting, or if I’d have to draw attention to my shy self by hollering, “BACK DOOR!” at the top of my lungs – possibly even <gasp!> more than once.

Responses to a driver’s failure to open the back door are unique and telling. A polite reminder. A demand. A desperate entreaty. Other riders share the anxiety of the person who stands alone at the rear exit, trying to maintain cool and decorum as the panic slowly rises. Sometimes we show solidarity by adding our voices to the request, a chorus of back door!s rising together in the precious few seconds before the bus leaves the stop.

But just as the transfer trade has been diminished (though not altogether eliminated) by ORCA card payment, so too will back door panic slowly fade to the background of bus experience. Fellow bus chicks, behold.

back door magic

These are the rear doors on one of Metro’s new(ish)* buses. There is no need for help from the driver; simply tap gently on the yellow bars and the doors will magically open. The experience of using these doors is transformative. Amazing. Empowering. Magical. But, for a nostalgic type like me, it’s also a little bit sad.

In the short term, we will still have our back door drama. Most Metro buses don’t have the new doors. And the drivers I’ve talked to say most riders haven’t figured them out yet. They either don’t notice the instructions or do see them but shove enthusiastically on the doors, which won’t open if pushed too hard.

But over time, as coaches get replaced and riders get experience, “BACK DOOR!” will be no more.

RIP.

***

* They’ve actually been around for about a year, but it took me a minute — ahem — to get around to writing about them. In my defense, I did talk about them here.

Westbound 2, 12:20 PM

A group of middle-aged people, dressed like teenagers and walking a tiny dog, board at Broadway. They make their way to the back, chattering as they go.

Woman 1: “I’d rather talk to people I don’t know.”
Woman 2: “I know, me too. After people get to know me, they’re like, ‘I don’t like you. You’re a b*tch.’”

Evolution

Last week, between Monday morning and Friday evening, I took 52 transit rides, 30 of them with kids. It was a record for me. It was ridiculous and amazing and exhausting. I was excited to share it on my blog, because where else could I record the magnificence and insanity of a week of 10+ bus rides per day but on a blog about the bus?

I wrote most of the post — which was filled with details* of my bus savvy, my kids’ bus running abilities, and my entire family’s general awesomeness — before I decided against sharing it. It reminded me too much of the posts I wrote in the early days of this blog, which, when I look back at them, make me cringe. I wasn’t all that young (34) when I started writing here, and I’d certainly seen a fair amount of the real world. And yet, much of what I wrote back then – a combination of breathless, pro-Metro posts and tales of all the extreme stuff I did on the bus — comes across as either impossibly naïve or incredibly smug. Maybe both. Metro cheerleader with a side of self-congratulation.

What I was missing back then – or at least, what I failed to give enough attention to – is just how privileged I am to be able to live the life I do. I have access and options and adequate income and support and flexibility and health. Many – perhaps even most – people do not.

Encouraging ridership has its place, but these days, I’m much more interested in fighting for an affordable, accessible, sustainable transportation system that serves everyone.

Back in the day, my Metro cheerleading was based, in large part, on a desire to encourage people to make better environmental choices. Though the desire to live more lightly on the planet had a lot to do with why I gave up my car, it doesn’t have anything to do with why I love the bus.

As I’ve mentioned, my passion for public transit has its roots in a deep craving for community. The concept of dozens of human beings, of every conceivable appearance and experience, sharing space and conversation, passing through each others’ lives, often making a lasting impression, has always struck me as profoundly beautiful. The individual rides are not always pleasant, but there is beauty in humanity, in connectedness, in the messiness of our lives and interactions.

It is the people on the bus who inspire, infuriate, touch, and teach me. And it is solidarity with those people that motivates me to write and — even (especially) after a week of 10+ rides per day — to continue to choose public transportation.

I am so grateful that I can.

***

* Just in case you’re interested in the details: 7 (5x), 8 (9x), 14 (1x), 38 (5x), 48 (6x), 50 (18x), Link(8x).

Doors closing

One of my favorite things about public transportation is the culture that develops among riders. There are things we just do, regardless of our life stage or social standing, that identify us as bus (or train) people. If you’ve never hollered for the driver to open the back door, panic rising in your voice; woken from a nap just in time for your stop; or engaged in at least one book discussion or sports debate with a stranger, you haven’t been riding long enough.

And if you’ve never hurried to catch a vehicle, only to have it close its doors (or pull away) just as you arrive, well, then you can’t call yourself a transit rider.

Watching this Gothamist video feels like looking in the mirror.

Context

My Chicklet is a woman’s woman. Almost as soon as she could talk, she was proudly asserting her gender identity – and allegiance. Now she’s eight and a half, and for the last few months, she’s been talking about feminism and women’s rights in ways I hadn’t even thought to introduce to her yet. Her delivery is a bit on the self-righteous and unforgiving side – she comes by that naturally (ahem) – but she’s not wrong about any of it.

Chicklet’s newfound feminism has caused some sibling tension. Whenever she makes an assertion about men’s role in women’s oppression, or asks to participate in something that is for girls only, her little brother gets upset. Really upset.

In their most recent exchange, he burst into tears as soon as the subject came up. “Don’t say stuff like that,” he sobbed. “You’re making me feel bad about my gender!”

Some background:

Sweet Busling is one of the most open-hearted, fair, and inclusive people I have ever known. In his world, the power balance is clearly tilted in favor of his older sister, whom he adores and looks up to. And, though his dad and I have been proactive about teaching the historical roots of racism, we have kept most of our discussions about gender to general concepts of equality, which Busling has taken to heart. He simply doesn’t see sexism as something that hurts women. Instead, he sees any attempt to single out or exclude someone based on their gender as wrong. And, he is personally offended by any suggestion that there is something wrong with being male.

For months, I have struggled with how to handle Busling’s reactions to his sister’s gender-related complaints and assertions. My instinct has been to comfort him, to push aside my daughter’s very valid critiques in the interest of protecting his feelings. After all, he has no context for understanding women’s oppression. And he certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. Plus, he’s my baby! Every time I look at his sweet face, I want to reassure him that everything is OK.

But here’s the thing: Everything is not OK. Sexism and misogyny pervade our culture. If I avoid or dismiss or sugar coat the truth so that my child can feel good, I have done him – and all of the girls and women he will interact with in the future – a disservice. And really, we’ve had enough recent examples of self-absorbed, entitled young men who see their feelings as more important than someone else’s freedom or safety.

solidarityMy son’s perspective about women’s equality is my responsibility. (Actually, it’s mine and his father’s, but you get the idea.) He doesn’t have any context about women’s oppression because he is new to the world, so it’s my job to provide it. This doesn’t mean I should teach him to feel bad or guilty about being a boy. Instead, I must teach him that oppressive, hierarchical systems hurt everyone, that his freedom is bound up with everyone else’s, and that it is his responsibility to challenge systems that harm people.

Experiencing my own child’s inability to recognize sexism has helped clarify many things for me, including the refusal of many seemingly sane white people to acknowledge the existence of racism. In the past, I assumed that such people feigned ignorance to mask their hostility or indifference to black and brown pain. But now, I am starting to understand that they simply have no context.

Racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy are facts of life in the United States — part of the very foundation of our country. And yet, it is possible for white children to make it to adulthood without ever being forced to deal with this reality. Schools do not teach the truth, and parents – even those who consider themselves anti-racist – often exacerbate the problem by avoiding difficult conversations or substituting platitudes like “skin color doesn’t matter” for substantive dialog.

Of course we want our children to feel good and have a pleasant life, but our children’s comfort cannot come at the expense of justice. Parents of white children must educate their families (starting with themselves) about racism. They must teach the truth about our nation’s history. They must point out examples of racism and give their children the tools to recognize and resist it in their own lives.

We are all born into systems of oppression we had no hand in creating. Sometimes, they benefit us (in an immediate, individual sense, though certainly not in a long-term collective one); often, they don’t. Either way, it’s our responsibility to help dismantle them. Even if it’s uncomfortable.

On milestones, memories, and marriages

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.

Building the beloved community

Several of the writers I most admire say that they write to make sense of the world, to explore topics that trouble them or make them curious. Through their wisdom, I have begun to understand that writing isn’t about having answers; it’s about looking for them. Hallelujah (!), because 1) I have no answers – ever, and 2) asking questions is my specialty. (Guess I forgot one skill back when I was making a list.) Folks, if you could get paid for wondering stuff, I’d have a lucrative career on my hands.

I digress.

One topic I spend a lot of time considering is community. Resilient, interdependent, connected communities are critically important to our mental and physical well being. They are necessary for educating children, caring for elders, protecting our natural environment, and building movements. And yet, very few people I know can claim themselves a part of one.

On a superficial level, I am steeped in community. I am married to a man I adore and am mama to two amazing children. I live in the city where I was born and raised (a physical place I love deeply), and I still have family – including two nieces and a nephew (!!!) – and longtime friends here. I like and spend time with my neighbors. My kids attend the local public school, which is a half mile from our home, and both my spouse and I are actively involved there. Our church is a mile away. We vote and volunteer. And, because we are bus riders, we regularly share space with the people we share the world with.

All of this sounds good on paper, but in reality, it’s a disjointed mess. My in-laws live thousands of miles away. My mother is deceased. My father is out of town for several months every year. My two siblings who still live in the area are long freeway rides away. All of my closest girlfriends live either across town or across the country and are so busy with work and family that even phone conversations are a rarity. And while our church is close to home, only a handful of our fellow members still live in the neighborhood. Even our pastor lives in Kent.

What this means is that the people I have deep, long-term, soulful connections with are not the people I see every day. I am fortunate that my neighbors, the people I do see every day, are fantastic. We are slowly building bonds, but they are not (yet) the people who know my secrets or who I would call on to hold my family up through a crisis. I am making an effort to spend more time with them, but making time to see people is not the same as making a life with people. And to be honest, I’m not even sure how to do that.

The details of my specific situation aren’t particularly important, except for the fact that they aren’t particularly unique. Many of my friends and acquaintances are in the same boat: living their daily lives far from those they hold dearest, and lacking the time or ability to connect in meaningful ways with people in their immediate vicinity.

So how did we get here? What has brought us to this place of such profound disconnection? What does community even look like, and why are so many of us missing it?

We experience community in many different ways, including, these days, through the world-shrinking miracle of the internet. But what strikes me as most critical — and also most lacking — is a robust, connected, compassionate network in one’s immediate physical location. Instead of merely access points to the other places we go every day, our neighborhoods should be unique, diverse, dynamic, home bases, where we care for one another and the physical space we occupy, and truly build our lives.

OK, yeah. It sounds a little “woo woo” – and a lot naïve. I realize, perhaps better than anyone, that the idea of community is often a lot rosier than the reality. Dealing with people is hard. Dealing with conflicting ideas and interests is hard. But we have buried our humanity so deeply under the layers of nonsense our culture prioritizes, we have made it a lot harder than it needs to be.

In the United States, we have a history that disconnects us, on many levels. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on a history lesson, but I will point out that building a nation through settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, oppression, and exploitation of the natural environment tends have a negative impact on community.

The people who colonized this part of the world – perhaps because they didn’t originate in or understand the places they settled – lacked reverence for them. Again and again, settlers arrived in a place, assessed its “value” by the natural resources that could be dug up, cut down, caught, or killed. Human beings were also devalued – exploited, oppressed, or exterminated – in service of the goal of material wealth. “Race” became the justification for this devaluation – and it continues to inform our connection to place and to each other.

The system of separation, of using race to create winners and losers, of privileged people seeking the next “frontier” to exploit for profit, persists. In our extractive, profit-focused economy, places are interchangeable. Companies move on when resources are exhausted, or when another location promises cheaper labor, lower taxes, or fewer regulations. The wealthy grow wealthier by actively undermining community, while the victims of this exploitative way of life are either displaced, forced to leave their homes in search of work, or incarcerated.

Even if we are fortunate enough to find a means of survival and a permanent place to settle, the structure of our society prevents us from being in community. Most of us have to work long and hard – sometimes at more than one job – just to get by. (Don’t get me started on the cost of living in this town.) Those of us who are privileged enough to earn decent wages often work at jobs that require long hours and round-the-clock availability. All that time spent working leaves us precious little time for people.

Our built environment also fosters isolation. For many decades, communities have been built to prioritize cars — with multiple lanes, no sidewalks, and few public gathering spaces. Travel happens in an isolated bubble between parking structures and involves no contact with human beings. Neighborhoods become less important, because we can drive anywhere we want to go. Coveted homes in these car-centric communities are built to be self-contained. Their big yards, rec rooms, and entertainment centers preclude any need to interact with others for leisure.

All of this (plus the complete absence of a social safety net and sane family leave policies) creates a society in which we are disconnected from the fact of our interdependence. We see the world in terms of ourselves, our partners and children — and possibly our extended families. But even most families have a sense of impermanence. Our kids grow up, move away – often, far away – in search of opportunity or independence and start their own families. There is no shared memory, no inter-generational support system, no continuity of connection.

No wonder we feel so alone.

I don’t know how to build the beautiful communities I envision. (Shoot, I don’t even know how to keep my own children from arguing.) But what I do know is that we cannot build anything until we start digging ourselves out from under all the layers of racism, individualism, and materialism and rediscover our humanity.

We must be willing to acknowledge, understand, and atone for our nation’s history. This means that the truth must be told, from a variety of perspectives, in formal and informal settings, at every opportunity.

We must radically restructure our economic priorities. We might not be able to overhaul our entire economic system, but we can act in small and large ways to prioritize human lives and relationships over productivity and profit. Obviously, we can vote and advocate for appropriate policies. But we can also lean on each other when we face economic pressure by sharing our skills and resources. We can offer – and ask for – help when it is needed.

We must foster a sense of place. In the United States in 2016, it is rare for people to settle in the same physical location for multiple generations. Mobility is part of who we are. But, we can work to build resilient communities while we live in them. We can do this by learning the natural and human history of the places we live and trying to understand how that history informs what is happening in the present. We can do this by meeting our neighbors – and finding ways to interact with them beyond the obligatory greeting at the mailbox. We can do this by giving of ourselves — planting trees, picking up trash, coaching a team — and taking advantage of local resources. And we can do this by getting outside as often as possible. Walking anywhere, even if it is just around the block, provides an opportunity to see our neighborhoods from a different perspective and to rejuvenate our spirits with a little fresh air and exercise.

So much is wrong with the way we live today. Our problems are structural, but they are also spiritual. They are destroying our natural environment, but they are also threatening our emotional well being by keeping us self-centered, lonely, and sedentary. The only way to respond is by making choices that directly counteract the forces that separate us.

I am encouraged by the perspective of one of my sheroes, Grace Lee Boggs, who taught us that change isn’t a top-down process. Instead, she said, it happens “from many small actions occurring simultaneously.” Here’s to using our lives — and our daily, small, actions — to improve the systems we’re a part of.

grace boggs

Poetry on Buses (and trains), 2016

poetry on buses 2016

The folks at Poetry on Buses have announced their 2016 theme: “Your Body of Water.” Last year’s theme, “Writing Home,” was provocative — so much so that I thought it might actually inspire me to write a poem (it didn’t) — but props to the new poet planner, Jourdan Keith, for selecting this one. Wow.

“Your Body of Water” is a poetic exploration of our connections to water and how it is protected and cared for by Seattle Public Utilities and King County.

We are all bodies of water, connected to one another through the water web. Your body of water is connected to streams, rivers, lakes, tides, waterfalls, toilets and faucets, to present homes, childhood homes and ancestral ones by memory, by the water cycle, by stories. Come, tell your story through poetry.

Yes, please.