On Mr. Rogers and Jealousy and Ugly Flowered Wallpaper

Away and home again after a quick trip to Northern California.

We saw dear old yoga family. We had a great retreat at YogaToes in Point Reyes. And we were introduced to the wonders of Daniel Tiger whilst enduring a flight with a wriggly 20-month-old.

I'm so pleasantly surprised by the social-emotional intelligence I've witnessed in just a few episodes of this Fred Rogers-inspired PBS show. We only let Duke watch maybe one a week. But — sing it, brother:

"When you feel so mad, that you wanna ROAR, take a deep breath and...cou-ount to 4."

What?! They're teaching meditation! They're teaching kids how to choose to react! Incredible.

Anyway — wonderful trip. A much-needed dose of My People. Grateful.

We were home for Halloween and it was appropriately gusty and rainy and wet. We trick-or-treated at about 5 houses with our cute little Dalmatian boy, who mostly appreciated ringing the doorbells. "Butt! Butt!" (Meaning "button," of course.)

He is a hoot right now and we are digging the verbal stuff coming out of him willy-nilly. It's incredible to witness the young sponge-like mind making sense of the world.

Spent Halloween day steaming and stripping wallpaper from the powder room of my sister's new house. It's a beautiful and spacious and light home with great bones, and will be even moreso now that all the 1980s floral wallpaper has been stripped and replaced with quietly elegant painted walls. (The house was built in 1996 and yet somehow managed to have fabulously-awful flowers on so. many. walls. This powder room paper was actually the same pink design we had on our bathroom walls in South Dakota back in, like, 1983. Talk about a time warp. Wasn't sure if I was 6 or 36.)

It was a meditation, for sure. The boys were tucked in at home snoozing for naptime, so I dug in. It felt pretty great to go hours without looking at my phone. To have it safely tucked away in my bag upstairs. Liberating and strange. (A sad commentary on how chained-at-the-hip we are these days to our devices, especially those of us with small children.)

Anyway, it was monastically, well, fab. I loved just sitting there with the steamer holding it on the ugly-ass wallpaper until it was wet enough to peel away, leaving sticky glue and messy walls behind. This was old-ass wallpaper and it didn't want to go anywhere. And it took about 3 hours to get through that tiny powder room. But, damn, was it rewarding. So nice to just be in my body (and to sit in Malasana for a good few hours) breathing and watching and listening. Almost enough to make me want to get a part-time job building or decorating or painting or something.


The glue-high probably had something to do with that, too. (Hoping for the sake of my still-nursing toddler that the 1996 toxicity levels weren't through the roof.) I was decently buzzed for a few hours afterward.

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield wrote a book called "After The Ecstasy, The Laundry: How The Heart Grows Wise On The Spiritual Path." I read a few chapters in the long lazy days right before Duke was born. And I actually threw it in the trunk the day we drove to the birth center, thinking for sure my contractions weren't real and we wouldn't end up having a baby that day. (I was wrong.)

In the time since, I've only been able to flip through it in bits and pieces. I keep meaning to dive in some night when I am not tired and have already practiced and met my writing deadlines and run the dishwasher and the little man is sleepily happily.

I love the idea — so Zen, of course — that some of the richest opportunities for awakening in fact lie right here in our daily manual labor. The washing the dishes. The painting the wall. The scrubbing the floor. That monastic ideal that employs the body to connect with the breath and yoke the chattering mind to our movements so as to quiet the incessant thinking and root down deeply into the body itself.

In other words.


(And hey, you get the laundry folded and the floor scrubbed at the same time. Bonus.)

I felt so quiet internally last Saturday after spending the afternoon stripping wallpaper. I felt grounded and peaceful. I wanted more. We need more of this in our lives.

There's an old vintage train that runs out beyond our house. It's very Mr. Rogers-esque, just three old charming refurbished cars, and it only runs 2-3 times a week. It's a total joy and revelation for my choo-choo-loving kid. And they've been working on refurbishing a 90-something-year-old red caboose for the last month or so, too.

At first when I saw they'd be doing that in sight of our window, I felt disappointed. Ugh. What an eyesore, right?

And then I realized what a magical opportunity it was. Everyday now we run to the window to see the workers' progress. Duke thrills at seeing them stand on top of the caboose, or strip the old walls, or put up plywood, or add shingles. I get emotional watching the workers out there in the rain. They remind me of my Dad, who loved doing shit like that. And they are so in their bodies. Not sitting at computers all day and only getting up to walk to the bathroom or to the office kitchen, where they microwave their frozen dinners and dutifully march back to their cubicles. These guys are alive.

And it makes me want the same thing for Duke, someday. That he might be intellectual and musical and compassionate and spiritual and yes, for sure, all of those things. But that he might also be embodied, willing to get his hands dirty and build and dig and take apart and realize the sacred labor that's involved in all of that kind of work. That he might not denigrate manual labor, or look down upon it, or judge it, or think himself better than that. That he might draw on the farmers' blood in his veins, learning to mow the lawn and change the oil and pull the weeds and be so fully in his body, too, that he can come home at the end of the day high on wallpaper glue, feeling quiet-minded and alive.

I read this article last night and it really slayed me: How Our Housing Choices Make Adult Friendships More Difficult.

The title caught my eye on Twitter (can we talk for a second about how much I love Twitter? So much content. So much less bullshit. So highly recommend) yesterday because I've been thinking a lot about A) housing choices, e.g. urban vs rural, and B) what it looks like to make adult friendships.

You know, how different it is to find Your People when you're a young family starting over in a new city, vs being a 20-something with endless time and space to get out and about to festivals and classes and lectures and the like.

The author, David Roberts, writes:
Our ability to form and maintain friendships is shaped in crucial ways by the physical spaces in which we live. "Land use," as it's rather aridly known, shapes behavior and sociality. And in America we have settled on patterns of land use that might as well have been designed to prevent spontaneous encounters, the kind out of which rich social ties are built....
It's only been comparatively recently (about 10,000 years ago) that we developed agriculture and started living in semi-permanent communities, more recently still that were thrown into cities, crammed up against people we barely know, and more recently still that we bounced out of cities and into suburbs.
So everything about how we live now is "unnatural," at least in terms of our biology. Of course, that doesn't mean it's bad...but it should remind us that socially constructed living patterns have shallower roots than we might think from our parochial perspective.
Point being, each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it — there's nothing fated or inevitable about it.
Why should it require explicit scheduling to see a friend who lives "within striking distance"? Why shouldn't proximity do some of the work? That answer, for many Americans, is that anywhere beyond a few blocks away might as well be miles; it all requires a car. We do not encounter one another in cars. We grind along together anonymously, often in misery.

When we decided to move to Portland, after endlessly researching neighborhoods and suburbs, we consciously bought a house in the city proper, for a number of reasons. Both my husband and I have largely spent our adulthoods living in urbanity, he in NYC and SF, and me in SF. And we really value the aspects of urbanity that allow for walking everywhere: to the grocery store, to cafes and restaurants, to libraries and parks, to school, you name it. And we cherish the spontaneous opportunities to run into neighbors and community members that come of that. The guy who owns the Thai restaurant. That neighbor with the dog who poops everywhere. Even the lady who runs the flower shop up the street. You get my point.

We ended up buying a beautiful rowhouse — think NYC brownstone — with lots of green leaves and brick walks and the like. I love everything about it: the 3+ levels, the elegant urbanity, the fact that we share walls with neighbors who have ended up being super cool and smart and thoughtful and artistic. It makes me feel urban and connected and present and alive.

That "anonymous grind"? That's what we were looking to avert. And we've been thrilled to have landed in a place where we hardly use our cars. Feels incredible to only fill up the gas tank very rarely. Feels empowering to walk most places. Feels like a relief when my active toddler wants to run and walk and pick up leaves and climb trees and pretty much do anything other than sit strapped into a carseat.

But I had a few pangs the other day, wallpapering. My sister's new house is gorgeous, and spacious, and big, and bright, and it backs up to a bubbling creek, with tons of green space out the kitchen windows and a nature preserve with trails literally just outside their driveway. It's so great. And just a quick 15-minutes out from where we live.

I felt jealous. I questioned whether we'd done the right thing.

Robb and I both know that if we bought a house in the suburbs, I'd end up pulling a Sylvia Plath head-in-the-oven pretty quickly. Too lonely. Too isolated.

And yet, we have no yard. Duke needs to run along the sidewalks or go to the park. I can't just send him out to play in the backyard while I make dinner. He will have to learn to mow over at Mariah's house. (And, oh yes, trust me, he will.) So there's a sadness I feel in not having that kind of space. A regret that when we drum and sing we have to be conscious of making too much noise. You know. City stuff.

It was fascinating to watch my thoughts curl and tangle that day, wallpapering. A whole conversation, a dialogue between urban and suburban, was spinning in my mind. And it left me feeling alternately proud and ashamed and confused and grateful and disappointed and passionate and inadequate and self-knowing and self-righteous and rich and poor and ALL THE THINGS.

This is how our minds work, eh? This is why we meditate. Because our minds would have us run movies about our lives all day long if we let them. So we yoke our thoughts back to the breath, and we steam, or we peel, or we scrub, and we breathe, and we take a deep breath, and count to four.

(Thank you, Daniel Tiger.)

When I read David Roberts' article yesterday, it was so damn affirming. It reminded me that we did exactly the right thing for us. We planted ourselves in a place where Duke can grow up largely sans-cars and deeply, intimately involved in his little Mr. Rogers-like neighborhood, with the chickens and goats up the street, and the tattoo parlor down the block, and the coffee shop and the barre studio and the nail salon and the library and the cigar cart and the grocery store all within walking distance. So that he might have his own little beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood. So that we might count the blue VW vans every morning when we walk by them on the way to school, and say hi to Grandpa Larry every time, who would've loved those blue VWs like crazy. So that we might say hello to the pumpkins, counting them on every porch, noticing when they've shattered, or rotted, or been turned into pie. So that we might see the same scruffy neighbor parking his car every morning at 8:30am, and wave, and smile, and feel connected, even for a second.

Michael Stone describes enlightenment as intimacy. Yoga. Literally being one with everything. Yes.

Roberts continues: 

Why do we form such strong friendships in college and form so few afterward?
I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was this: The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That's why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows....
Some of this natural social mixing follows us to post-collegiate life. We bond with people we work with every day and the people who share our rented homes and apartments.
But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don't leave except to drive somewhere.
Thus, seeing friends, even friends within "striking distance," requires planning. "We should really get together!" We say it, but we know it means calls and emails, finding an evening free of work, possibly babysitters. We know it would be fun, but it's so much easier just to settle in for a little TV.
Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or "dropped by" a friend's house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you?
Where would it happen? What public spaces are there in which you mix and mingle freely with people on a regular basis? The mall? Walmart? How about noncommercial spaces? Can you think of one?
(I've been moved witnessing the noncommerical mixing and mingling that my sister and brother-in-law and their family have experienced via their church community. Even though they've just moved here, they've been welcomed with eager hands for painting and drilling and stripping wallpaper and watching the kids while they unpack. Their church community has shown up in the most open-hearted, kind, loving of ways. I am struck and touched and inspired by what I see.)

Roberts goes on:
Say you're a family with children and you don't regularly attend church (as is increasingly common). There are basically two ways to have regular, spontaneous encounters with people. Both are rare in America.
One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist.
A robust walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc. Ideally, cities would be composed of clusters of such walksheds, connected by good public transit.
He goes on to discuss "refusing to accept the status quo of default isolation."

Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.
But I do not think we should just accept that when we marry and start families, we atomize, and our friendships, like our taste in music, freeze where they were in college. We shouldn't just accept a way of living that makes interactions with neighbors and friends a burden that requires special planning.
We should recognize that by shrinking our network of strong social ties to our immediate families, we lose something important to our health and social identities, with the predictable result that we are ridden with anxiety and loneliness. We are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us.
To some extent, economic and employment trends have made us rootless. We move around much more and remain in jobs for less time (or work in the "gig economy"). We don't stay in one place the way our parents and grandparents did. Those trends, which have brought good along with bad, are likely irreversible.
But we can do something about the places where we live. We can make them more conducive to community and spontaneous social mixing. We know how to do it — it's just a matter of agreeing that we need it and changing policy accordingly.

And now, for making it through all that sociology-nerd sludge, some gratuitous pics.



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