Living in place

Despite the fact that we are well into January, I can’t seem to let 2016 go.  A friend recently asked me, without a hint of derision, how I can justify my impulse to celebrate the past year as a personal success.  After all, I can point to no career advances or acclaim, no rousing personal achievements.  As an out-of-shape, frumpy middle-aged mom with a couple of ordinary kids who lives in a small, run-down apartment, it’s pretty hard to explain how on earth I might market anything about my life as a triumph.  My culture says that I should be wishing for more, committing to 10-step plans for our betterment rather than sitting back to revel in my mediocrity.

I suspect that part of the answer comes from the fact that this life, humble as it is, is mine.  At least in some significant ways I’ve been granted the ability to choose this gig, rather than being fully coerced by my circumstances.

There is also something to be said for life in one’s 40s – something surprisingly freeing about arriving at a point in life where one’s identity resembles a finished building rather than a construction site.  Certainly, there are still projects to be undertaken, beams to replace and rooms to redecorate but the foundation is set and the basic structure is complete.  It seems that I have reached the point where I know how to live within it’s walls, to delight in it’s graceful archways and stop fretting over the tacky brown carpeting.

But I am beginning to believe that real meaning comes from somewhere else.  It hit me when I came back from visiting my parents in the Midwest this summer and knew, somewhat to my dismay, that I was really and truly home.  It may have been the first time that I recognized just how intimate my feet are with the paths and locales of my neighborhood.  My first impulse was to compare, as so many do, the singularity of this place to the grit and conflict of the Midwest.  After all, I live in a city that has become an adjective.

But I don’t believe that story.

We have been very lucky.  I find myself in a place where I feel supported in the true sense of the word.  My kids have solid schools and good relations with their teachers and no less than 10 doors in the immediate vicinity of our house on which to knock if they need help of any kind.  Some of our immediate neighbors are the kind of people I would be grateful to meet anywhere.  The fact that several have children of similar ages to mine seems almost to good to be true. But I’m still not convinced that a strong community is a question of the right people or the right place. I think it is largely a question of commitment. And the true cost of community is time, that commodity that is so mercifully scarce for the vast majority of families.

In reality, I struggle with this place that I call home.  It is changing so rapidly that I now deeply understand the kind of fear that breeds conservatism. Add to that the fact the fact that we simply can’t afford to live here.

But I live here.  Actively.  And, though it has taken more than a decade to reach this point, this is my home. I have begun to see all of it’s problems and flaws in much the same way that I see that tacky brown carpeting.

They are mine.

A Poem on Hope

It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there’s the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
anymore than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it, as you care for no other place, this
knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth.
It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask
for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land
and your work.  Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.

Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.

–Wendell Berry

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The personal and political of 2016

We spent New Year’s Eve in the Emergency Room.  Mr D has been sick and the experience was about as positive as any visit to the ER could be.  We were reassured that he’d be OK.  And he is, phew.

When talking with friends and family the past few days, nearly everyone has said the same thing. Sounds like you had a shitty end to a shitty year.  I know exactly what they mean by this and yet, as I reflect on this past year, I am having a hard time writing it off as merely “shitty”.  For me, 2016 was the year when the complicated relationship between the personal and political was driven home like never before.

On a personal level, 2016 was a special year.  No, there were no windfalls or spectacular achievements that I failed to write about here.  Nor was it all truffles and daisies. But this past year I came to really believe that the new road that my life began to take 7.5 years ago when g was born was the right one for me.  This was the year that I finally became competent at living the life that I’ve been working toward. A year of focusing on the things that are important. A year of simply living. In a year when the word identity was typically associated with the worst aspects of politics, I found that I have begun wearing my own in a way that has never quite felt so right.

If it had only been a normal year I’m convinced that I would be celebrating.  Or, at the very least, I would feel free to focus on all the little ways that I could make further improvements.  There can always be improvements – always a home to tidy, extra pounds to attend to and finances to improve.

But 2016 was not a normal year.  It was a year that shook me at the level of my core belief system.  It wasn’t just the ugly campaign season or the shocking electoral results. I am aware that for all my fears, and there are many, 4 years is pretty short in the grand scheme of things.  But I feel like I’ve been forced to reckon with the limits of my hopes for a world where individual actions carry real power, where dinner is revolutionary.  The reality is that, with the exception of a few power-hungry billionaires, our personal choices only amount to something significant when they are taken collectively. We can’t go it alone.

I’m not planning to abandon my road.  Not now when I’ve finally come to know it’s curves and bends well enough to really enjoy the scenery. But I wouldn’t want to live in isolation even if I could. And so, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to find ways to turn my efforts outward in 2017.

If only I could pretend that it isn’t awfully scary out there.