Tag Archives: community

Missing the bus

Back in the Before Times (aka, two months ago), when I actually went places, I would sometimes rent a Zipcar for the day, usually to visit family and friends who live outside of reasonable busing distance. Of course, when it comes to buses, I’m not above pushing past what is reasonable, but other obligations and service limitations do occasionally constrain my ability to spend an entire day traveling 23 miles.

I digress.

On those Zipcar days, every time I found myself driving near a bus or rolling past a full bus stop, I would feel a pang, even a bit of FOMO. Seeing a bus when I’m not riding hurts my bus chick heart.

This is how I feel every day now when I go outside—usually to walk in circles around my neighborhood—and I see 3s and 4s and 8s and 27s and 48s rolling by, often completely empty. Except these days, it’s not a just a brief pang. It’s an ache, a cracking open, an interior crumbling.

It’s grief.

As a naturally anxious person who has lived through many of Metro’s ups and downs, I have rehearsed a fair number of transit disaster scenarios in my head. But never, not even in my worst anxiety spirals, did I imagine the current reality: that the bus would become a vector of a global pandemic, that anyone with the option to stay home would be asked not to ride, that loving your community would mean not riding the bus.

How can I explain what the bus means to me? I have been writing this blog for 14 years and still have not managed to put it into words.

The bus is my stability, my comfort, my assurance that the world is as it should be. It is my opportunity to be with other people I would otherwise never have the chance to meet.

On the bus, I am invisible but also seen, alone but in community, moving but sitting still.

I can participate in conversations or (my specialty) observe from the periphery, absorbing, empathizing, integrating all of it. Or I can tune it all out and look out the window to watch the world.

When I am on the bus, I know that I belong. To my city. To humanity. To the ancestors.

I know that this is bigger than my personal loss. Drivers are risking their lives to transport people who must travel. Major service cuts are limiting those people’s access to food and jobs and medical care. The economic crash caused by this disaster will make it near impossible for Metro to restore service when it’s finally safe to ride again.

But the thing about the bus is that it is both personal and collective. My loss is the community’s, and the community’s loss is mine.

And right now, it feels like a cyclone has hit, and we’ll never get back home.

We are all bodies with needs

A few days ago, I started my period. This was insignificant in the big picture of my life—I’m 48 (!) and have been getting my period (roughly) every 28 days for 34 years—but significant to the coming week: my periods tend to be long and heavy and accompanied by debilitating migraines.

My period is one way that I mark time (as in, “Damnit, again?!”), so when my monthly visitor returned (uninvited) in the midst of a global crisis, it somehow felt unfair. At a time when almost everything else has been canceled,* periods persist?!

Yesterday morning (day three), I listened to a podcast while preparing (read: popping migraine meds and fortifying my menstrual cup with period underwear) to teach my class. The episode topic was disability justice, and the entire discussion was instructive. But as the conversation was wrapping up, one of the guests said something that grabbed my attention. For context, this was her full comment.

“And one of the things that it makes me think about … is the reality that we’re all in bodies. You know, it’s not like we’re just abstract thinkers that are somehow leaving our existences outside the door. All of us are always in our bodies, engaging with each other. And all bodies are valuable, and all bodies have needs and strengths and desires. And oftentimes, it’s expected that our needs get kind of left at the door somehow, which is impossible. And all of us have a variety of needs.”

Patty Berne on Irresistible podcast, “Organizing in a Pandemic: Disability Justice Wisdom

What I heard was this: We are all (all of us, not just those society defines as disabled) bodies with needs. We cannot separate ourselves from our bodies’ needs.

Soon after absorbing this wisdom, I logged in to Zoom and managed my 90 minute class—including the logistics of connecting a guest speaker—while bleeding heavily and fighting a headache.

This was hardly remarkable. Some variation of that scenario has been my reality (and, likely, the reality of untold numbers of people who menstruate) through hundreds of periods. But for the first time, I saw it differently. I realized that I was ignoring my body and its pressing needs in order to get stuff done.

Throughout my life, I have ignored (or hidden) my body’s needs again and again. Some examples:

  • Struggling through school and work in an achy, sleep-deprived fog in the early years of my period, when excruciating cramps kept me awake all night
  • Ruining numerous pairs of pants when I taught high school, because–period or not–I couldn’t find time to use the bathroom between classes
  • Commuting 15 miles (two buses plus lots of walking) to work and working full days during my first pregnancy, despite being exhausted and nauseous every moment of every day
  • Busing to Mercer Island on weekday evenings for Regional Transit Task Force meetings when my youngest was still a newborn, struggling to participate in the three-hour discussions while my breasts filled with milk and my arms ached for my baby
  • Lying under my desk in the shared workspace at the nonprofit I worked for, hoping my migraine would subside before my next appointment (usually a donor I was supposed to ask for money) arrived

I realize now that I have always carried shame about my body’s inconvenient needs, especially when those needs were related to menstruation or reproduction. It never occurred to me that I was actually pretty freaking amazing to manage work and life despite significant physical discomfort and logistical challenges. It certainly never occurred to me that it was OK to miss school or work for my period, or to cancel a meeting because of morning sickness or a migraine.

When my youngest was a week old, my spouse returned to work. I was fortunate to be able to stay home with the baby while I continued with regular life: writing my column, caring for our two-year old, and managing the household.

One day, when I was out and about with my newborn strapped to my chest and my toddler in a stroller, I ran into an elder friend who had raised her children in her home country of Eritrea. My friend told me that in her culture, when a woman has a baby, mother and baby “go to bed,” as she put it, for some months.** The mother’s extended community handles everything, and her only jobs are to rest and feed and nurture her new baby.

I remember aching with longing as she described this way of being, wishing for all the world that I could take my exhausted, sleep-deprived self “to bed” with my baby.

There are so many reasons this wouldn’t happen in the U.S. (one being that few of us have an extended community that would—or could—support us in that way), but one of the most important is capitalism. Our culture doesn’t value wellness, or bonding, or rest, because those things aren’t profitable. And because we live in a patriarchal society, we don’t value work that is traditionally performed by women.

I wish I could nurture my previous selves, tell them it’s OK to rest, that there’s nothing shameful about having a body with needs, that you don’t have to push, to deny, to “keep up” with everyone who seems to be managing it all better than you.***

Since I can’t do that, I will do my best to nurture my current self and to change the culture I’m a part of. I will rest when I am tired or sick. I will honor the rhythms of my body. I will remind myself and my children that there is nothing shameful about needing care, or medication, or accommodation, or extra time. And there is nothing abnormal or embarrassing about having a body that bleeds every month.

I will focus on others’ humanity instead of their output. I will encourage students and colleagues and community partners to listen to their bodies instead of sacrificing them to the religion of “productivity.” I will stand in the gap when I am able, trusting that others will do the same for me when I am not.

May all of us embody the care, peace, and rest that this moment demands.

Ase.

“Our bodies are a site of liberation.” – The Nap Ministry

* And speaking of … One day soon, I’ll write about how much I’m missing the bus in this new reality, but I’m not ready yet.

** I don’t remember anymore how long she said this period of time was. I think it was three months, but it could have been one.

*** Except you sort of do, if you want to pay your freaking rent. But whatever.

Shelter and safety for everyone

I met my friend Lawrence* because he lives in my neighborhood, and I know—at least by sight—most people who live in my neighborhood. Lawrence and I frequent the same bus stops and walk many of the same routes. After crossing paths numerous times, we officially introduced ourselves. Eventually, we became friends.

Lawrence has lived in Seattle for his entire life. Because he can no longer afford housing, he now lives in his van, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t running. The front windshield is smashed, and at least one of the tires is flat. Lawrence often needs money for propane, so he can keep warm at night. Like me, he suffers from a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome, which causes pain and numbness in the hands and feet during even mildly cold weather. He also has arthritis.

I worry about everyone in our city who is houseless. I especially worry for those people whose faces and names I know, people I have formed bonds with. Every single night, I worry about Lawrence.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lawrence and I exchanged numbers. I told him to call me in case of emergency, like if he was out of propane, or just needed someone to help him problem-solve. About a week later (around the same time our region was beginning to understand the seriousness of coronavirus), I decided I could no longer live with the idea of him suffering on the floor of his van night after night. I texted to ask if he’d like to spend a few days in a hotel. He said yes.

I chose the Best Western Pioneer Square because I know someone who has stayed there several times and liked it. It is a fairly short bus ride from our neighborhood, is clean and comfortable, and includes a hearty breakfast. I called to make a reservation, then took the 27 to the hotel to provide my credit card and give them Lawrence’s information.

As I waited in line, the hotel staff were very busy, answering calls from people canceling reservations and helping guests check out early. It occurred to me that the fallout from this pandemic had created an opportunity for an emergent strategy of sorts. Hotels were losing business and would soon be empty. Houseless people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. What if we, concerned citizens of Seattle (and every city), pooled our resources to rent newly cheap hotel rooms for our houseless neighbors?

When it was my turn to register, I attempted to provide the hotel with some information about Lawrence, who, not surprisingly, isn’t as clean or neatly dressed as someone with access to shelter. I struggled with whether I should say something; I didn’t want to violate his privacy. On the other hand, as a person of color, I know for sure that disparate treatment happens. Lawrence is both houseless and a person of color, so I wanted to make sure that he didn’t experience any hassles when he arrived to check in.

I said, “This room is for my neighbor. He’s fallen on some hard times and is living in his van, and I just want to ensure that he will be treated with dignity.”

The person who was helping me leaned forward and widened her eyes. “Are you saying that he’s HOMELESS?”

I said, yes, that’s what I was saying. She said that the hotel doesn’t “do” homeless.

I should have left immediately, but I felt pressed. I had already given Lawrence the hotel’s information, and it wasn’t always easy to reach him. I had to help another neighbor with childcare (back when we were still allowed to do that) in less than an hour.

So, I pushed back. I said the room was paid for, Lawrence was a human being, and the hotel’s policy amounted to discrimination. She doubled down on the discrimination and asked me to assure her that there wouldn’t be any drug use.

Finally, after conferring with a coworker, she agreed to let Lawrence stay. I reserved the room for three nights.

On the third night, I decided that I could probably swing at least one more. Nighttime lows were still in the 30s, and I hated to imagine Lawrence back in his van under those conditions. I called the hotel to extend. The person who answered the phone cheerfully looked up my reservation. But as soon as her computer retrieved it, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to extend this reservation.”

I asked if I needed to come in and present my credit card again. She put me on hold. A moment later, a manager picked up. “We’re not going to extend this reservation,” he snapped. “If the guest can’t afford the room, then he shouldn’t be staying here.”

Lawrence is now back in his van. Everything is closed—libraries, community centers, coffee shops, every public space—so his van is the only place for him to be. I don’t see him very often these days, because I rarely leave my home. But sometimes, when I am out for fresh air, I see him walking to the store to buy water; he has no access to plumbing. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how likely it is that he’s able to wash his hands at all—let alone frequently.

Even though we had a bad experience with the Best Western Pioneer Square, I’m still convinced that the idea—to provide guests for empty hotels and safe housing for those in our community who are most vulnerable right now—is a good one. Certainly, there are independently owned hotels that are on the verge of closing completely that would welcome a steady source of income.

All of us are threatened by this virus, and all of us are suffering from the havoc it has wreaked on our communities. Think about how you’re feeling right now—how lonely, fearful, and uncertain. Imagine spending every hour of every day uncomfortable, with no distractions, no people out on the street to help you with a few dollars, feeling abandoned and desperate AND scared of getting sick.

As we do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and financially afloat, we can’t forget our houseless neighbors. We as a community need to offer them more than “socially distanced” mass shelters. One obvious, short-term solution is for the city to rent rooms in empty hotels (owned by compassionate, openminded people) so that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, can stay safe—and as comfortable as possible—during this challenging time.

Can we find the will and focus to make this happen?

Image description: people holding a sign that says, “Housing is a human right.”


*Not his real name, which is much more awesome

Remember, Episode 8 – Elmer Dixon: All Power to the People

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.

All power to the people!

Remember, Episode 4 – Estela Ortega: Housing by the People, for the People

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.

Remember, Episode 2 – Larry Gossett: Progress is a Community Effort

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett is one of my great heroes. He is a true man of the people who has served his community in a number of capacities for over 50 years, and I was honored to interview him for Remember.*

The biggest challenge with this interview was that there was too much to talk about. So, this episode will be the first of a series with Councilmember Gossett. If you want to learn more about his incredible contributions to our community, read Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship, by Bob Santos and Gary Iwamoto.

CM Gossett at a community dinner for tiny house village residents, with a member of the hosting congregation

***

* Remember is a podcast about building community. Host Carla Saulter (me!) talks to guests about ways we can build connected, resilient, inclusive, interdependent communities to help us tackle our nation’s — and our world’s — most pressing problems.

I have a podcast!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to think (and write) a lot about community. I believe that connected, resilient, inclusive, interdependent communities are essential to our well-being as a species and are the best hope we have of solving the planet’s most pressing problems.

In the podcast, which I’m calling Remember (as in re-MEMBER: bring back together), I plan to explore ways we can strengthen the communities we are a part of and use our collective resources to create a world we want to live in.

This first episode is essentially just an introduction — in other words, me talking to myself — but future episodes will almost always include interviews with more interesting people.

I’ll be posting all future episodes here. I hope you’ll listen — and tell a friend!

God at the bus stop

When my kids were small — preschool and toddlerish — a sixtysomething man introduced himself to the three of us at a bus stop. His name was Emmanuel, a name I knew I’d remember  because of its beautiful meaning: God with us.

Emmauel told me that he looked out for our family. A few months earlier, he had met Bus Nerd — or, as he called him, “Detroit” — at the park, through a mutual friend who is widely admired in the community. Any friends of such a stellar human were OK in Emmanuel’s book. So, when he saw us around the neighborhood, he kept his eye out. Made sure we were OK.

Emmanuel and I talked for several minutes (periodically interrupted by the tugging and whining of my bored children) while we waited —  about books, and city history, and parenthood. But when the 14 finally arrived, he didn’t board with us. Instead, he waved goodbye and headed the opposite way down the street.

After that day, as often happens after I make a bus friend, I started seeing Emmanuel everywhere: at the library, the pharmacy, the community center, the park. Every time, he was happy to see me, like we were old friends. Every time, he was full of questions and observations and ideas, ready to continue our conversation where we had left it.

A couple of years into our street friendship, Emmanuel’s appearance started to change. He grew thinner. He lost teeth. His skin started to sag. One day, on my walk home from work, I came across an apparently homeless man holding a sign at an intersection. It wasn’t until I approached him with a small offering that I realized it was Emmanuel, thinner and more ragged than ever. He tried to preempt any questions by saying he was having a tough month and waiting on a delayed check. I went along with the pretense of lending him a few bucks until his check came through.

After that day, I continued to see Emmanuel around the neighborhood, but instead of holding court in front of the library, I would find him holding a sign on the side of the road. After that first time, it got easier for both of us. We returned to our friendly conversations.

On one of my chance encounters with Emmanuel, I was with the mutual friend who had introduced him to Bus Nerd. That friend told me he had known Emmanuel for almost 50 years, since his days as a student at the University of Washington. They had been part of the small group of student activists that had founded the university’s Black Student Union. Emmanuel’s passion and intelligence had helped inspire our friend to devote his life to public service.

These insights into a man I knew only superficially reinforced so many truths. That our circumstances and choices and predispositions and the systems we are subjected to all work together to create our life path. That when we’re young and passionate and full of potential, we are not able to predict — or sometimes even imagine — the paths our lives ultimately end up taking. That our soulless, unforgiving, profit-driven culture routinely breaks people. And that, even now, in this future he did not imagine for himself, Emmanuel is still inspiring people.

Emmanuel. God with us.

What will happen if I don’t?

Last Friday, on a Portland light rail train, a white supremacist verbally abused and threatened two nonwhite teenage girls (one of whom was wearing a hijab) and then stabbed three men who tried to intervene, killing two of them.

Since I first learned about this horrific incident, I haven’t been able to think of much else.

For me, public transportation is a space to feel and be a part of my community. And a crowded train in broad daylight is one of the safest places I can imagine. I am not naïve. I know that sharing space with others isn’t always easy or pleasant and that transit reflects all of who we are, including our ugliness. What happened in Portland last week was a reminder that the ugliness can surface at any time, even in broad daylight on a crowded train.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I endured near constant harassment by grown men — on transit trips and otherwise. And, like every person of color in this country, I have experienced my share of name-calling and other forms of direct, in-your-face racism. I know that feeling of vulnerability, the stress of staying vigilant and alert for the entirety of every outing, so I can easily imagine the fear, rage, and humiliation those young women felt when an unhinged stranger loomed over them spewing hate.

I can also imagine what it felt like to be on the train when the incident happened. I understand the desire to turn away from conflict or confrontation, especially if you are personally vulnerable. Rachel Macy, a passenger on that devastating ride, described her initial fear in an interview with The Oregonian.

“I didn’t want to look. I was too afraid. It felt really tense,” said the 45-year-old Southeast Portland resident of Native American descent. “I’m a woman of color. I didn’t want him to notice me.”

She found her courage a short time later, when she rushed to the aid of one of the victims and comforted him in his last moments of life.

Of course, the perceived threat was not the same for the men who did step in. Most likely, they did not imagine that the encounter would end their lives. But certainly, it would have been easier to look away, to turn up their headphones, to wait for someone else to help.

Those men did not turn away. And their decision to act with compassion and decency did end their lives.

What happened to these brave people should not be a cautionary tale; it should be a call to action. We cannot turn away from the evil that is happening around us — in our schools or workplaces or in the adjacent aisle on the train. We must stand and face it. We must defend the dignity of our fellow humans. Standing up might risk our lives, but it will save our souls.

Thank you, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher.

“The question is not, ‘if stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘if I do not stop to help [the man] what will happen to him?’” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Parable of the Good Samaritan