Tag Archives: community

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


Green Seattle Partnership sign

The first time I planted trees with my family*, it was pouring down rain. I had signed us up to participate in Green Seattle Day — despite the fact that getting up early on a November Saturday and digging in the mud was not my (or as far as I knew, anyone in my family’s) idea of a good time — because I wanted to plant a seed (if you’ll pardon the pun) in my children. I wanted to show them a concrete way to contribute to their community, educate them about the native plants of the region they call home, and encourage them to get their hands in the dirt.

On the appointed morning, it was raining — not Seattle drizzle or intermittent showers, but the kind of heavy, steady rain that makes you regret all your plans (and question your decision to live without a car). But we had made a commitment, so we pulled on our boots and hooded jackets and headed out to plant trees anyway.

And, we had a blast!

We were fortunate that our planting site was the tiny wooded area adjacent to the kids’ school – a mere half mile from our home. One of the stewards of those woods also happens to be a preschool teacher and the parent of a child in Chicklet’s grade.** She gave thorough instructions and let all of the kids participate fully in the planting process. Chicklet and Busling loved it. They shoveled mulch, dug holes, loosened roots, and gently patted soil around the transplants. They also named all five trees – and many other smaller plants — we made homes for that day. Our favorite was the first tree we planted, a tiny garry oak sapling that Chicklet named Acorn Butter.

Here is sweet Acorn Butter, on her first day in the woods. (As usual, I apologize for the quality of my photos.)

Just planted

It just so happened the stewards of our little woods had won a large grant, and there were hundreds of plants to get in the ground — far more than could be planted in one day. So, after Green Seattle Day, they hosted several additional “planting parties” throughout the fall, winter,*** and early spring. Chicklet and Busling insisted on going to every single one. Over the course of several months, we planted ferns, Oregon grapes, false lilies of the valley, bleeding hearts, dogwoods, red flowering currants, spruce, garry oaks, and many more saplings whose identities weren’t immediately obvious.

Since our first planting adventure, the kids have walked through the woods every day after school, checking “their” plants, talking to them, and looking for signs of growth. They reveled in the heavy winter rain, knowing it was keeping the soil wet for their babies’ new roots. And, they counted the days until springtime, when everything would open and flower and grow. For months, Acorn Butter looked just like she had on the day she was planted: a bare stick. Still, Chicklet checked on her faithfully, stroking her tiny branches and giving her encouragement and — I kid you not — kisses. Finally, in late March, we started to see buds.








Then, there were leaf starts.

Some leaves

The leaves got bigger.

Leaf starts

And here she is on Tuesday. (!!!)

With buds

In many ways, it has been a long winter for our family — and for our world. But thank God for spring, for fresh new buds, and saplings straining toward the sun.

In my dreams, Chicklet and Busling will walk into these woods with their grandchildren one day, pointing to strong oaks and tall spruce, telling the tale of how they planted them, with their tree lovin’ mama, many years ago.


* Not counting the three we planted in our own (tiny) yard: a vine maple, and apple, and a fir (in memory of my mother)
** She is also an all-around amazing person who inspires me with her generosity and commitment to community.
*** Yes, you can plant in Seattle in the winter. Historically, it rarely freezes, and there is plenty of rain; lately, it’s been even warmer than normal.

When I grow up…

I have a lot of sheroes. Some of them are world renowned, or breathtakingly talented, or otherwise leading big, public lives. Many are ordinary people who conduct themselves with dignity and integrity. And a few are just ridiculously good at riding the bus. Today, I add another person — one who has integrity in spades and a PhD in busology — to my list of ordinary sheroes. Fellow bus chicks, I present Ms. Janis Scott, “the Bus Lady.”

It just so happens that I attended the same university as Miss Janis. After I finished school, I stayed in Houston to teach, so I am familiar with the particular challenges of riding the Houston Metro. Of course, I lived there before the city had light rail, and long before the agency’s recent restructure, so I don’t have a very good understanding of what it’s like to ride these days. I do know that, in a city that is 627 miles square, with precious few sidewalks, it would take a miracle-working transit system to make busing convenient. But I digress.

Like Miss Janis, I love cultural events, and, theoretically, I take the bus to partake of them. (I say theoretically because I have kids, and I don’t get out much these days.) But there’s more. I, too, have served on innumerable transit-related advisory committees. (Too bad the committees in Seattle don’t offer free rides as a perk.) And finally, almost exactly seven years ago, I, too, had the honor of being featured in a Streetsfilm.

Maybe this means that my destiny is to follow in the footsteps of the Bus Lady. In my vision of my own future, I will be living much like Miss Janis does: doing my life on the bus, sharing my expertise with others, and helping to elevate the needs of riders.

“Common sense and mother wit.” Yes, indeed.

“Mix, mix, mix!”

On buses and boundaries

Earlier this month, I wrote a short piece for Seattle’s Child about how Bus Nerd and I teach our kids to interact with strangers. Here’s a taste.

[We] don’t discourage our kids from talking to “strangers.” Like most parents, we have taught them never to go with a person they don’t know. But we also encourage and model safe and positive interactions, including making eye contact and greeting people, engaging in conversation, and helping those who need it.

We teach our kids how to recognize signs that someone is not safe to interact with: erratic behavior, inappropriate or aggressive language, invading personal space. And we empower them to decide what sort of interactions they’re comfortable with.

I certainly don’t have a magic bullet to protect my children (or anyone’s) from danger and violence. But the thing is, the more we isolate our kids and hide them away from the people they share the world with, the more disconnected and dangerous our communities become. We end up with fewer neighborhood friendships (and thus, more strangers), fewer “eyes on the street,” and lots more people in cars. And, as the number one killer of American children, cars are a significant threat to the safety of our communities.

Here’s to saying hi!

On cars and community

My love of the bus has always had its roots in a deep craving for community. I have written extensively (here and here and here and here and here, for starters) about how my family’s bus-based life has enriched our sense of community and our connection to our city and neighborhood.

And it’s not just about sharing the ride. Living without a car has forced us to participate in our neighborhood in a way we never would have if zipping* all over the region was as easy as jumping in the car. Out of necessity, we play at local parks, attend the local school, shop for groceries at the local store, and get our check-ups at the local clinic. (Our church is the outlier at exactly one mile from home.) We frequent the library, community center, and city pool. And, we regularly socialize with our neighbors. Instead of spending our energy searching for something “perfect,” we focus on enjoying — and occasionally, improving — what is available. This way of living has added a richness and sense of belonging to our lives that is nothing less than magical.

But for all its community-building benefits, our carfree life also has a disconnecting influence. We have a network of family and close friends that spans the entire region, and we don’t see them nearly as much as we’d like to. Traveling long distances by bus is fine for adventures, but it’s not something you “fit in” to your day; it is the day. Almost as soon as you arrive at your destination, you’re figuring out how you’re going to get back.

So, we rarely eat Sunday dinner with my youngest brother and his family in Tacoma, or spend a spontaneous afternoon with close friends in Renton or Kirkland. We skip most birthday parties that are held at transit-inaccessible venues — in other words, most birthday parties**. We leave evening gatherings earlier than everyone else, because waiting for a transfer with two small people after dark is not my idea of a good time.

It is very important to us  to be connected to the Black community– both for our own social well-being and to foster a strong sense of identity in our children. While we are definitely connected to Black folks through family, church, and neighborhood friendships, we don’t participate in some of the organizations and institutions — specifically, those aimed at connecting Black families — we would otherwise be a part of. With Seattle’s small Black community now so dispersed — “automobility” is essentially a requirement.

Of course we know about (and occasionally use) carsharing, but, with car seats to schlep and no cars nearby, it’s not especially convenient or desirable for us. More than anything, the need to use a car regularly to feel connected reinforces how integral cars are to the way we practice community in the United States in 2015.

I don’t see a path to changing the way of life in this country so radically that cars (or for that matter, airplanes) are no longer necessary for maintaining relationships. Our culture is too mobile and often more focused on opportunity than community. But certainly, we can all work to build connections with the people we share our neighborhoods with. We can think of the places we choose to live as more than just access points to all the other places we want to go. Rather, we can think of them as the places where we build our lives.

As the late activist (and Bus Chick shero) Grace Lee Boggs said, one of “the most radical things [we can do] is stay put.”

* I should note that traveling around this region by car involves very little zipping—hello traffic!—but you get the point.
** Having a few friends over for cake (ahem) apparently does not cut it anymore.

10 years in

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of my full-time relationship with Metro. The milestone snuck up on me, which is actually a good thing, since I’m not in the mood for a retrospective, and I don’t have any wise words about what I’ve learned in a decade of living, working, and parenting without a car. Honestly (in case the five full months without a post didn’t clue you in) I haven’t felt much like writing about the bus at all.

What’s on my mind most of the time is how our family is going to continue to make this bus life work. We’ve lost a lot that we counted on: two of our nearest bus stops, frequency and hours of operation on two of our most-used routes. If the legislature decides–for the fifth year in a row–not to let local communities decide how to fund their own transit service, we stand to lose much, much more.

And we’re not the only ones. All over the state, people are losing transit service they rely on, while we profess a desire to care for our most vulnerable citizens and wring our hands over global warming, air pollution, and ocean acidification. The fact that transit advocates have to scrap and hustle (and beg) just to get enough money to preserve basic bus service leaves little hope that we will ever find the will to make the long overdue, revolutionary changes our transportation system desperately needs.

So the thing is, I’ve been tired–of trying to make things work with diminished access and diminished service, and of fighting an uphill battle to fund transit statewide. I allowed myself to feel discouraged. And really, really angry.

But then, I had coffee with Christine.

Like me, Christine is a bus chick. Unlike me (knock wood), Christine is expecting. Earlier this year, she contacted me over the internets to pick my brain about busing with babies, and I was more than happy to share what I know. I suggested meeting for coffee, because I knew she’d never read the 300 pages I would have typed if I had shared my thoughts over email. I don’t like to brag, but if there was such a thing as a PhD in riding transit with kids, folks would be addressing me as Dr. Bus Chick.

But I digress.

At some point during our conversation, Christine remarked on the relative dearth of negative posts on my seven-year old blog and noted that I almost never write about the challenges of bus parenting. I do intentionally try to keep my blog positive, but until my chat with her, I hadn’t really considered why.

It’s not that there aren’t challenges (are there ever!). It’s not that I am trying to paint an unrealistic picture of what it is like to parent without a car. It’s not even that I have an optimistic nature (see above). I tend to write about the positive side of carfree parenting because the challenges of living this way are already known—or at least, they are imagined.

There is a reason why so many people think I’m crazy. Why I’ve been interviewed for TV and radio for doing something that thousands of parents in this county do every single day. Why, after a decade of watching us live this way, friends and family still regularly offer us rides. It is because most people who have a choice would choose differently. This means they have already considered, imagined, and just plain made up all of the reasons why it would be stressful and inconvenient to try to get around with two kids and no car.

What most people haven’t considered is just how exhilarating, bond-enhancing, and three-dimensional it is to ride the bus with your children. How your kids get to experience their city from ground level. How they come to know each season intimately. How they run into church members, neighbors, school mates, family friends, and medical assistants from their pediatrician’s office. How so many of the regular drivers recognize them and give them suckers and transfers and high fives. How they learn every sidewalk crack, every overgrown bush, and every window display in your neighborhood. How they love the silly games you make up to pass the long waits. How you have time to read them so many books that soon they are reading books to you. How you can hold them close and talk in their ears and smell their hair while all of you zoom past the Space Needle, or across a bridge, or through a tunnel.

That is what I write about because that is what I know. It is why I ride. And it’s why I never stay tired for long.


Speaking of busing with babies…

Today after church, at a southbound 48 stop, I spotted one of my bus parenting heroes, a man I’ve never actually met. Back in ’08, when Chicklet was but a wee lass, I saw him playing Connect Four with his kid at a northbound 48 stop (in the shelter that advocates for what Bus Nerd refers to as “the right to safe trife“). Having already begun my bus reading adventures with young Chicklet, I was inspired by the concept of bonding in transit–and by the way the two of them interacted. Also, I love Connect Four.

But I digress.

Today, Bus Dad Extraordinaire had two children with him (the boy he’d been playing with that day, and a little girl, who was probably around two). By the time I realized who he was (and started elbowing Bus Nerd like I’d just spotted a celebrity), I heard the boy say something about Crazy Eights. There was no doubting BDE’s identity after that.

On the ride, the three of them sat near enough to the four of us for me to keep my eyes (and ears) on them. And you know I did. By the time we were getting off, the boy was shuffling.

BDE then, plus one:
Connect Four






BDE now, plus two:









Update, 10/11: Kathi from Ballard just emailed to tell me that she knows BDE. Even crazier? So do I! Her description of him made me realize that I have met him–at a transportation event, of course. (Yes, I realize it is beyond odd that I remembered seeing him at a bus stop three years ago but not meeting him in person much more recently. I blame it the short-term memory loss related to sleep deprivation.) Back when we met, he mentioned that he lived not far from me, and later, we emailed about getting our families together for dinner. It didn’t happen, but now, of course, I have to follow up.

How much do I love my bus community?

How riding the bus will make your kid smarter

One of the biggest benefits of riding transit with little ones is that you can actually pay attention to them while you travel. Instead of hollering in the general direction of the back seat (or worse, resorting to an in-vehicle entertainment system to keep order), PT parents can have meaningful, even educational, interactions with their little darlings. Here are some examples of brain- and bond-enhancing ways to use transit travel time.

  • Read! Reading is a great PT pastime for children of any age. Research shows that reading to infants and young children helps with bonding, language development, and imagination. Books are also portable and compact—an essential addition to any parent’s bus bag.
  • Watch the world. Talk to your tiny ones about what’s going on outside the bus window, and they’ll learn to identify natural wonders (mountains, bodies of water), city landmarks, different types of vehicles, and various animals and plants. Bus time is also great for pointing out seasonal changes (leaves changing color in fall, tulips and daffodils coming up in spring) and explaining traffic rules.
  • Meet your community. What’s going on inside the bus is often at least as interesting as what’s outside. Infants love to look at faces, and babies who ride buses are exposed to a great variety of them. They learn early that people of different ages, shapes, and colors are part of their world. Older children will learn how to share space and how to interact politely with strangers. Being exposed to difference will help them develop empathy, or, at the very least, a more realistic picture of the world they live in.
  • Practice number/letter recognition. Long wait with a preschooler? Use the time to identify the route numbers that pass your stop, or practice reading the destination signs. (Kids who can identify letters can usually memorize simple letter combinations and sight “read” short words. Children who are working on phonics can practice sounding out the signs.) You can also make up games, such as putting the child in charge of telling you when your route arrives, or of finding all the routes with a certain number.
  • Learn to get around. Bus riding offers plenty of opportunities for school-age children to practice map and schedule reading and other skills, such as assessing direction of travel. Give your little BCiTs some trip planning/wayfinding responsibilities when you still travel together, and they’ll soon become experts at getting around town sans parents.
  • Talk. There’s nothing better for teaching, learning, or bonding than a respectful, reciprocal discussion between a parent and child. Transit rides and waits (not to mention the walks to and from stops and stations) are perfect for good, old-fashioned, heart-to-heart “tawks.”**

I am not naïve enough to believe that my children will always be thrilled about taking the bus every-dang-where. What I do know is that, so far, our bus time has been great for just about every aspect of their development. (Folks, for your sakes I have exercised restraint and not mentioned even one of their many demonstrations of genius.) It has also been great for our relationships. Bus time is as much about togetherness and adventure as it is about getting from point A to point B, and every time we travel, we create amazing memories. As I’ve said before, I could never trade that for easier access to the mall.


*Tip: Always carry a few tried and true favorites, but make sure to keep your selection fresh. The library is your friend.

**As my friend Aileen would say.

Still more on community

In honor of Black History Month, I’m reposting this entry from last February.

What I learned on the 27

This is not a totem pole.

Douglass Truth Soul Pole
The Douglass-Truth “Soul Pole”

I never really looked at this library landmark (despite the kajillion times I have walked and ridden past it) until a late-evening bus conversation with a history-loving fellow native of the 2-0-sickness. After I explained the origins of Chicklet’s name, he decided we were kindred spirits and so proceeded to school me about–among other things–the history and meaning of this particular work of art.

Soul Pole dedication
“The First 400 Years”

I am grateful that he took the time to talk to me. I am also, as ever, grateful for the bus–and for the many opportunities it provides for me to form deeper connections to my community.

Happy last first day of Black History Month!”