Sunday, September 30, 2007


Normally the pitter-patter sound of rain on the bathroom skylight at night-time brings to mind comforting memories as I listen from my heavily-blanketed nest in bed. I recall burrowing into my sleeping bag in the bottom bunk-bed, in the attic of my Grandmother's cabin. In my memory, the gentle sound of the rain adds soft percussion to the soundtrack of a now-raucous-and-now-quiet card game my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles play below me. The intermittent bursts of Aunt Eldy's contagious laughter warm the cabin like the notes in a sax quartet.

But last night, the rain-song on my roof chilled me. I envisioned the people we met on Saturday at Tent City, huddled under scratchy woolen blankets, with nothing but the thin fabric of a tent or tarp to keep out the rain and cold.

Specifically, I thought about Amber, a woman so pregnant that one might justifiably whisper "whoa" upon seeing the size of her bulging middle. There can be no doubt that Amber is housing a goodly human being in her belly, despite the fact that Amber herself has nothing but a tent to call home.

I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, contemplating how many times that night Amber would heave herself from the metal cot, leave the relative warmth of her tent, and brave the rain to waddle her way, through the mud, to the row of port-a-potties that serve as Tent City's restroom. I wonder whether she had batteries for her flashlight or if she stumbled around in the dark, fervently wishing her baby boy would stop boogying on her bladder. I wonder if she lay awake, too, worrying where she'll live when the baby comes, or, like most expectant mothers, questioning whether she's ready to become a mother, and what kind of mother she'll be.

"There are no children living at Tent City," the Welcome Tent Woman tells me on Saturday as we unload some food and supplies. She is unaccountably bright-eyed and chipper for someone who spends each night nigh under the stars. Her sparkling eyes reflect the flame of a hope that refuses to be extinguished, in spite of her circumstances.

I'd like to stay and ask her about those eyes, but the girls are Wild Things, running in and out of the Tent Pantry, declaring "You sure have a lot of shelves! And a lot of coffee! And a lot of juice! That's so silly!" The girls see the port-a-potties and, to my chagrin, muster enough pee to justify their use.

We pile into the van, and as we drive away, Eleanor says, pointing, "I want to stay in that tent."

"Well, that tent is someone's home right now, and you can't stay in someone's home unless you know them, and you are invited," I say to her.

"Were we invited?," Sylvia wants to know. "No," I reply.

"Well, they have juice there," says Eleanor, revealing her motive. Ah yes, a place where the juice runs freely, I think, a veritable juice paradise.

We drive home, and spend the afternoon indoors, as the rain drizzles outside. Sylvia helps me bake cookies, comfortably nestling her 4-year-old body on the kitchen counter as she tastes each ingredient (except the eggs) in her little bowl.

While dinner cooks on the stove, we watch Dan Zanes music videos on the computer. Entranced by Zanes' amazing only-in-America-do-you-see-such-straight-white-teeth and his funny, wild hair, we take turns flapping our arms like chickens and turning them into waving trees as we sing, all around the kitchen (cockadoodle doodle do), all around the kitchen (cockadoodle doodle do)...

That day, nothing more is said about Tent City, or their Juice Stockpile. Instead, our thoughts trickle out like a leaky faucet, over the course of the coming days.

This morning, Sylvia looks up from her legos to make an announcement, which she declares as a definitive solution to a problem we've all been pondering: "When someone in our house dies, then one of the people who don't have a home can come and live in our house instead of the person who died." "Hmm," I say hopefully, the lilt in my voice indicating that would be one way to solve the problem.

We're listening to Dan Zanes again on the way to gymnastics. He's singing, "pay me you owe me, pay me my money down, pay me or go to jail, pay me my money down." Sylvia responds, "That man wants the money so he can buy a home."

I recall the out-of-the-blue question Sylvia asked me last week on the way to preschool: "Mama, why did God not build a house for him?" Without explanation, I know instantly she is referring to the man at our exit, the one with the sign that reads, "Homeless. Anything Helps. God Bless."

I don't know how to answer this question, and I say so. "I know God wants everyone to live in a safe and happy way, Sylvia, because God loves everyone. But I don't really know why some people have homes while others don't."

"Yeah, that's not fair, right Mama?," Sylvia asks.

I wonder whether she's thinking too much about the man at our exit, and the people at Tent City. Surely these matters are too weighty for a 4-year-old to bear.

Then I catch myself.

Sylvia is safe. She does not need to be shielded from thinking of others, from demonstrating concern beyond herself.

I want her to listen to the rain, and know this: Sometimes the melody is joyful, and sometimes it is sorrowful.

Both songs are music, longing to be heard.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Homelessness: Questions & Answers

A few weeks ago I asked my bloggy-friend Jen-- who works at a homeless shelter and routinely makes an amazing difference in the lives of her fellow human beings-- if she'd write a post about the ways we can teach our children about homelessness.

Lately my children have noticed people-- the man standing with the cardboard sign at our freeway exit; the woman selling Real Change at our neighborhood supermarket; the man sitting on the sidewalk asking for money-- and they've wondered:

"What's that guy doing standing there?"

"What's the sign say?"

"Why doesn't he have any money?"

"What happened to his home?"

"Can't he go live with his Mama & Papa?"

"Where will he sleep tonight when it's dark?"

"Can we go home and get the dollars from our piggy bank and
bring it to him?"

"Do you think he'd like to come stay with us?"

These are hard questions. Ones to which I have no easy answer.

Jen doesn't either.

But she suggests several ways in which we can "find compassion for others instead of judgment, action instead of pity, drive instead of fear."

And really, that's a good place to start.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Whatcha Gonna Eat?

I'm posting over here again today, stop on by and hear me rant!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cross-Posting Today

Today I'm cross-posting over at Living Lightly. Please come check it out over here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

More on Good Neighbors

You may recall that assignments are like a crop-dusting pesticide to the tiny little bug of my creativity.

Evidently that goes for self-imposed assignments, as well as those given by others.

Because it took an emergency appendectomy to prompt me to fulfill my promise to write another post about building community in your neighborhood.

The bad part:

Feeling like I was in Stage Two of Labor, (note to new readers: I'm not pregnant) wondering when I'd be getting my epidural, I drove myself to the E.R. on Saturday night, pulling over periodically to barf my innards into a large plastic bowl. Never before have I felt such pain. (And let it be known, I have birthed three babies!) Official Diagnosis: Nasticus Useless Appendicus. The miscreant organ was medically evicted on Sunday morning, while a church choir sang and a preacher swooned over the operating room radio.

The good part:

Dierdre took my girls to the all-church picnic at a neighboring park.

Beth & Ramadan brought us a delicious meal, including rosemary chicken, Newman's lemonade and iced-tea, and potato chips for the kids.

Tricia brought over a delicious vat of lentil soup and homemade cornbread.

Angele took Sylvia & Eli for a dinner-included playdate.

Ruth brought the best chicken & rice soup that I have ever had, apologizing that it was too salty (but not knowing that salt is the Love of My Life!)

My parents, my fellow-preschool-board-members, and my co-workers all sent me flowers!

AND... my children all went to preschool or Kindergarten for the week, and I took the week off from work to recover (does this explain all of the comments I've been leaving on your blogs this week?)

Which leads me back to my assignment, which is to share with you ways to get to know your neighbors and build community in your neighborhood, so that you, too, can have good soup when you get your appendix removed so that you, too, feel a sense of belonging where you live.

1. Start a neighborhood group

Odds are that some of your interests match up with your neighbors' interests. I find it is much easier to get to know my neighbors while we're sharing something in common. Thus I've initiated:

a) a neighborhood Green Group that meets monthly to discuss environmentally friendly living ideas as well as to use our collective power to influence policies;

b) a neighborhood Play Group of mostly moms (but Tobin does go sometimes!) that meets weekly (with hosting responsibilities rotating);

c) a Babysitting Co-Op, which grew out of the relationships formed in the playgroup (we exchange points instead of money for eachothers' babysitting services, and log everything on a cool webpage the Tobin created);

d) a neighborhood Book Club, that meets monthly under the pretext of discussing a book (when in reality we mostly just chat and catch up in a luxurious kid-free environment).

These are the groups I've started, but the possibilities are endless for what you could do: Poker Club, Football Night, Tree-Planting Days, Neighborhood Clean-Up, Sewing or Knitting Night, etc.

Do you have extra fruit on your trees? Invite your neighbors over for a plum picking party (like my neighbor Tricia did), promising that if they help you pick, you'll give them some of the spoils you make.

2. Do nice things for your neighbors and create traditions with your children at the same time.

a) Do your children create as much useless art-project junk as mine? Put it to good use. Ask your child which neighbor she'd like to surprise with that beautiful drawing, and walk it on over. This is especially nice if you have an elderly neighbor who isn't already swamped with her own kids' drawings, but can also help break the ice if there is a new kid on the block who you'd like your child to meet.

b) Celebrate May Day! Distribute May Day baskets to your neighbors. This is cheap, fun, and will keep your children busy for days. You can create the basket by cutting down the edges of a 1/2 gallon milk carton and then papering and decorating the sides. Fill with flowers from your garden and deliver to your neighbors' door. My girls love this tradition, as do our neighbors who now watch for the girls coming up their stoops on May 1st.

c) Invite the neighbors over to carve pumpkins at your house. And not just the kids. Never underestimate the joy of an 80-year-old carving a pumpkin.

3. Offer your kind services to your elderly neighbors.

a) If you're making a trip to the drug store, call your elderly neighbor and ask if she needs anything while you're there. Better yet, if you have the time, invite her to come along.

b) Mow your elderly neighbor's parking strip while you're doing your own.

c) Offer your phone number to you elderly neighbors and exchange numbers with their family when you see them stopping by to visit. You never know when you'll need to reach them, and they'll rest easier knowing someone is close by to check on Grandma should she have any trouble.

4. Organize a community-building event in your neighborhood.

Most cities have grant money available for neighborhood improvements. Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods is just waiting to give away money (to those who properly fill out the forms).

a) Invite your neighbors over and brainstorm what project you'd like to take on. It could include: a parking circle to slow down traffic; a painting on the street in your intersection; converting someone's parking strip into a community space (think meeting place; park bench; book exchange; solar-powered tea station, whatever)!

b) Link up with other organizations in your city to do your part to support your neighborhood (tree-planting in your parking strip, participating in a food drive, or helping remove grafitti).

The point is this: You will feel a sense of belonging in your neighborhood if you know your neighbors. You can only know your neighbors if you interact with them. And in this world, you will only interact with them if you make an effort to do so.

Anyone else have ideas? Let me know if you're posting and I'll link you up.

Now get out there and be good neighbors!

And tell your appendix that you love it. Today.


Note to readers: I do realize that there are certain limitations depending on your neighborhood. Your crackhouse neighbor, for example, might not appreciate the May Basket you leave on the doorstep. Still, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't leave one all the same.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn

First day of Kindergarten. We've been eagerly anticipating this day for months now, but the reality of it has been somewhat lost in the shuffle of paperwork, the uncertainty of knowing which school Eleanor would attend, and the weary pace of our packed summer calendar.

It means a lot, this day. For where there was once a chubby-faced, sparkley-eyed baby, who was surely too small to entrust to the care of a daycare provider; there was then a small, rosy-cheeked, finger-sucking child, who was surely too young to go to preschool and make new friends so quickly; now there is a slender-bodied, bandy-legged, toothy-grinned young girl, who is surely too inexperienced to face the world of Kindergarten with such foolhearted bravery.

But she did.

She dressed in full Kindergarten splendor: a comfortable cotton dress (not a new one, but one of her favorites), with a long-sleeved shirt underneath, set off by her shiny new school shoes. She heaved her backpack on, and carried her lunchbox herself.

I hugged her to me, inhaling the sweet-salty smell of her hair. I whispered a prayer into her ear, hoping it would find its way into her heart, and then weave like insense up to the heart of God.

Dear God, thank you for Eleanor. Thank you for this, her first day of Kindergarten. Please be with her today. Keep her safe. Help her to make new friends, to obey the rules, and to have fun. Amen.

Despite the off-the-cuff comment of one of Eleanor's teachers at open house last week, that "you'd be crazy to put your kid on the school bus during the first two weeks of school" because the buses are so notoriously late, we loaded our first-born onto a freshly cleaned yellow bus this morning, knowing that our Creature of Routine would only be bothered by a we'll-drive-you-the-first-week-and-after-that-you'll-ride-the-bus plan. Better to bite the bullet, right from the get-go.

We talked a lot about riding the school bus. Each kid is responsible for his or her own behavior, because there are no grown-ups to monitor it. Seats are for sitting only, never for feet or for standing. If there's an emergency, listen for the driver's instruction and quickly do exactly as you're told. Sit where you see an open seat, and stay in your seat until you arrive at school. And don't worry, because the bus only goes to one place, which is your school.

Except that when we arrived at the bus stop, we met a 2nd-grader and 4th-grader, headed to a different school, who informed us that the bus first stops at their school, and then goes to Eleanor's. We relayed this new information to Eleanor, who listened, unfazed by this wrench in the Grand Bus-Riding Plan.

I thought about the "Tell Us About Your Child" form Eleanor's teacher asked us to fill out. What are your child's strengths, the form asked. Last night, I sat down and wrote:

Eleanor likes to make plans and collaborate with others to execute the plan. She is artistic and creative. She is a good problem-solver. She understands most things after receiving an explanation.

I paused and recalled an observation that Eleanor made while devouring airplane snacks on the way back from Colorado yesterday, her face scrunched up with seriousness as she peered into the miniature snack bag: "Mama, have you ever noticed that, with snack-mix and legos, the little pieces fall to the bottom and the big ones stay at the top?"

She's good at looking for the big picture; at connecting the dots, I continued. She has a great sense of humor.

I forgot to write: She is very brave.

But she is, nonetheless. Her eyes sparkled with anticipation and she smiled ear-to-ear as the school bus approached. "Goodbye, Mama! Goodbye Papa!," she yelled, as she traversed the formidable steps onto the bus. We saw her take a seat by another child, a stranger then, but no doubt a friend by the end of the ride.

With my hand, I waved goodbye, and kept waving until the bus was out of sight. With my mouth, I yelled goodbye to Eleanor, my big, brave girl. But with my heart, I quietly whispered goodbye to much, much more.