"He’s a little crazy right now. He goes to Rhode Island School of Design, and his final project was to design a building. What architects take years to do, he has to do in a month." That’s what I like about other people's cell phones, if the talker isn’t driving or shouting. I get glimpses into the worlds of strangers.
The young man I’m overhearing at the moment is seated directly behind us in the train between Boston and New York.
"Morocco, yeah, it’s kind of been popping up…yeah, it sounds really good…, yeah…, yeah, huh! I guess India’s not much different. It sounds as if the cities are intense, and that’s where the tourism is… uh huh…."
India does not happen to be on my agenda. There too many places I want to return to, Taiwan, Israel, Mexico, rather than take on somewhere new. Maybe I’m getting too old, though Adolph’s sister, Merle, whom we just visited, is almost seven years older than I am and is going to Israel this month, next month to India, later on leading, with her husband, Marshall, a trip along the Silk Route.
"It’s good to talk to you again. I love you. Give my love to Grandpa…. I love you, too."
It’s night, we’re passing through Stamford, less than an hour to New York. That’s why I’m blogless, a Boston Barmitzvah’s to blame. But I’d better skip the blame game. The fact is busyness is the scourge of the 21st century, for those who are lucky. Lights suddenly go out, I’m writing in the dark, back on, an anticlimax. On or off, I haven’t seen the face of the man behind. I probably never will, just want to let his words simmer. Lights out again.
As I left the Shorewood Fitness Center last week, I overheard another cell phone conversation, a man walking to his car. "I’m about to go home now, call you when I get there," and a train of questions chugged through my head. How many people on earth can say I’m about to go home and actually have a home to go to, not a refugee camp, a shelter, a tin shack, a nook under a bridge? How many can say with confidence I’ll call you when I get there, knowing it’s safe to walk or ride, no shooting, no war, no drug dealers, forest fires,hurricanes, tsunamis?
Do we have any idea of what portion of the world has no home to go home to? Is afraid to walk the streets, if there are streets? And on the Amtrak train I think of revisiting Taiwan, Israel, or Mexico, while the young man behind us contemplates trips to India or Morocco. The man outside the Shorewood Fitness Center ambles to his car, talking on his cell, ready to drive home, sure of getting there.
And the millionaires and billionaires in Washington plot new ways to avoid paying taxes.
On Martin Luther King Day, as I listened to a replay of Dr. King's last speech, I mused on that sore spot in the psyche, the one that makes tragedy repeat itself. MLK, JFK, RFK, each time we celebrate their lives, I'm reliving their deaths, re-mourning their absence, and wondering how history would have played out if they were still here.
Our country needs Martin Luther King, Jr. more than ever. So does Shorewood. Last summer at a rummage sale I overheard a man ask a woman, “Did you move to Shorewood?”
She replied, “Never. You know me.”
“Why wouldn't you move to Shorewood?” I asked.
“Lack of diversity.” That's what I figured, and although I love living here, I felt ashamed.
Shorewood seems more diverse than it was when we moved here in 1969. One big change is all the Russian Jews, who walk the bike path fearlessly and shop along Oakland Avenue. I googled the statistics, and here's what I found: Shorewood Population - 13,763 (I suspect this is a couple of years old): Latino 2.5%, White 89.8%, Black 2.4%, Asian 3.2%, Other 1.8% Median income $56,698. Thanks to busing, the schools are somewhat integrated, but they should be integrated thanks to housing. We do have a lot of modest housing, Milwaukee bungalows and duplexes that would be reasonably priced if they weren't located here. People move to Shorewood for the schools, not the homes, yet living in a diverse community is a major part of education.
I heard a segment on NPR last week about a new study: Diversity Spurs Workplace Creativity. My personal education stems in large part from the places I've been, not from the places themselves but from the people I've met there, from trying to understand lives as different as possible from my own. That's the challenge for us all.
Where am I going with this? Possibly nowhere. The solution is affordable housing, and I don't hear anyone talking about that. Well, actually I do. As the housing market bottoms out, maybe Shorewood will become affordable.
The phone rang just as we were about to leave for the evening. “It's Jon Healy. Are you both sitting down? I have some grave news.” Maybe I'd misunderstood. Grave sounds like great in a world full of wishes that can't come true. Strange. A voice comes over the phone line. I don't want to hear it, yet I want to know. So I listened in a nightmare state. Jon's sister, Ellen, was hit by a pickup truck that morning. He hadn't said yet whether or not she was still alive. I waited, hoped. But there was no hope. She'd been declared brain dead.
My mind filled with images of Ellen, tried to erase that final one. She was more than Sarah's friend, was close to our whole family. I suddenly wanted to be sure: were she and Sarah really only four years old when they met? I looked through my old Hallmark date books. Yes. June 24, 1967, was their first play date. I'd wanted Sarah to meet another child going to JCC day camp. And that child turned out to be Ellen. Ellen's spirit, the oomph combined with innocence that sparked their friendship 40 years ago, never changed. Part of her became an adult, yet she kept the child within.
Ellen was unique, truly unique, simply herself, no pretenses, enthusiastic about life and learning, off the wall in the best possible way. And creative, always ready to play, always inventive. And brilliant. Her PHD professor said she was one of the best students he'd ever had.
I used to go out dancing with my kids and their friends. Ellen and I had a special electricity, would mime crazy, anything goes, skits to the music, even when her leg was in a cast. She collaborated with me when I started performing, acting out one of my short stories. Sarah and Ellen had that same sort of electricity. One summer they painted together in the Shorewood alleyways, inspired each others' company. I never saw the paintings Ellen did that summer, but I know Sarah's were some of her best.
Ellen often came to our family dinners with the Leplaes, a lively presence in our games of charades, story-writing, pictionary, or whatever else we figured out to play. After she moved away from Milwaukee, she and I always made sure we'd take a bike ride together whenever she visited.
Ellen's life wasn't easy, was haunted by illness and accidents, falling out of trees, sledding into one. She seemed to take it all in stride. She had facial surgery as a result of the sledding accident. When we visited her in the hospital, she looked like Little Lulu, yet didn't appear at all nonplussed, didn't have to apologize for her swollen face.
Ellen's core, her intense interior life, always showed through. She cared about nature, about the arts, about the world, cared about friends and family. And we all cared about her. You can get a sense of the impact she had on others' lives if you read the blogs written about her and come to the memorial service at Rosenblatt Gallery, located over Artasia at 181 N. Broadway, on Saturday, November 17, at 1:30 PM. Ellen grew up in Shorewood, and I hope some of you reading this will share your memories with the rest of us.
The world needs more people like Ellen, but tragically we have one less.
Adolph and I spent five days in Oshkosh last week, setting up an exhibit at UW-Oshkosh and giving talks and critiques. Adolph traveled there with a truckload of our artwork. Since I would have had to sit on the floor in the truck’s cab and look up only at sky and treetops for an hour and a half, I chose to take a bus.
I walked into Milwaukee’s new Amtrak Station almost two hours early for the bus to Oshkosh, and my nostrils curdled. The station isn’t new at all, it’s on its way to being new. Bus and train passengers have to wait in a construction site, overwhelmed by fumes. I went outside to breathe; the air was saturated with cigarette smoke.
This is nothing compared to what the people in southern California are inhaling, I kept telling myself. But then, we don’t have forest fires here. I’m sure an airport wouldn’t remain open to the public if its air were this toxic. Perhaps this is a class issue.
I asked a bus driver what the fumes were. “Glue,” he told me, “That’s why I’m out here.” He paused, then added, glancing at the solid glass walls, “The winds will blow right through there in winter. And it’ll cost a fortune to heat. They had the architects design it, didn’t want any input from the people like me, the people who use it every day.”
Another class issue, I thought. Bus riders, whether local or long distance, don’t count. Here we are, some voluntarily, some not, taking public transportation. We help in the fight against global warming, and Scott Walker wants to cut back local bus routes. He tried to get rid of the #15 of all routes, the East Side lifeline for those who don’t drive, the miracle bus that takes us from Bayshore to Bayview and beyond, never empty, never dull! Rather than Scott Walker, I’d dub him Scott Driver.
If intention were action, I’d post a blog every day. I always write one. In my head. Sometimes I write down the first paragraph, in fact don’t yet know whether this will be merely another first paragraph. I find almost everything interesting, but can’t find time to write about it. And if intention were action, I’d post a blog after every Second Sunday Soup and Salad Salon. First we share our food, after that our thoughts on a specific topic. We examine the issues that affect our lives, philosophical, environmental, cultural, political.
This month I resolved to write beyond paragraph one, maybe because our topic was voluntary simplicity, which covers every aspect of how we live. Simplicity enforced by poverty was not the topic, nor the simplicity that will be imposed on us as climate change progresses, but simplicity chosen by those who are lucky enough to have that choice. What is it, what does it require of the individual, where are each of us now? What is the media’s impact on this? Why do so many people buy into the importance of THINGS?
We touched on the range of complexity entailed in simplicity and how each of us deals with it. People mentioned personal quirks they were trying to work on, like the man with more shoes than Imelda, or the woman trying to get rid of her excess so her children won’t be stuck with it.
My view: to live simply we have to examine our lives, know our priorities, know what makes us content, recognize that things are merely things. Here are a few things I do, or avoid doing:
I don’t drive, but rather bike, walk, or bus
Grow my own vegetables, but what about all those trees that make the crop smaller each year?
Make sure my grandkids know how wonderful it is to eat food you yourself have grown
Use fresh produce, preferably organic, preferably local
Avoid processed foods, red meat, farmed salmon
Minimize eating out
Use organic products for cleaning and lawn care, avoiding pesticides and other poisons
Recycle, and that includes buying, when possible, at rummage sales
Keep the thermostat low and wear sweaters and long underwear in winter
Minimize water use, hard when I have a vegetable garden
Remind myself to let go, of things that don’t really matter, of the things I want to do and don’t have time for, of things I own but don’t need.
Use whatever talents I have to make people contemplate their own impact on their surroundings. That’s why I’m writing this!
There’s more I do, and much more I should do. One thing I want to say: every single item on my list enriches my life rather than depleting it.
Yvette wrote this to me after last Sunday’s salon: “I realized that my life has been simplified over the last 5 months due to a change in my eating. I've become a vegan (by default) to help reduce the tinnitus (ringing in my ears). I've reduced the amount of food I consume. I cook more and eat out less. I buy most of my veggies from local farmers markets and have taken the time to nurture myself in this way. It has been a worthwhile journey. Change your eating, change your world!...One point that we didn't discuss: Rhythms can greatly simplify our life. We create a harmonic rhythm to the day and it flows as we flow with it. We can also create a beautiful rhythm to tasks that come on a routine basis. It requires conscious thought and aware alignment, but ultimately as we align ourselves with the rhythm of the universe, we find flow and peace in voluntary simplicity.”
I wrote Glow Ball Worming for our Earth Poets and Musician performances last April. It plays around more poetically with my ideas on voluntary simplicity and ecological living, which are intertwined. I hope you’ll add any thoughts you might have.