for the single mothers.

July 16, 2011

sometimes the washing machine is broken and the pipes in the basement have decided to rain shitty water on the dirty clothes and who knows what else and the reality is that those clothes must get washed and dried by hand or we will have a Public Health Situation on our hands, or the car is doing that thing again where the engine just turns off and we’re in the middle of traffic and i remember why we went car-free for so long but the reality is that with my two kids and my girlfriend’s three kids and my girlfriend’s busy job and my sometimes desperate scramble for money anywhere i can find it, two single mothers sometimes need a car. even if one of them is opposed to cars and car culture and breathing exhaust (or making others breathe it) and a frenetic lifestyle…

sometimes other mothers laugh and say they would love the break from their kids and joint custody sounds about right to them but the reality is that even two days a week can be too much when you aren’t asking for it and it doesn’t come at the time that works for you or your kids and maybe you need childcare some other time and there’s this event you want to take your son to on the weekend but those are the two days a week the Powers-that-Be have you on record as agreeing to, and you wouldn’t want to seem uncooperative, now would you? no one likes an uncooperative single mother.

sometimes your friends see those two days a week (or one, or three, or a weekend a month, or whatever), and they say “wow, s/he is so involved, you are so lucky, isn’t it wonderful that he pays for that class, isn’t it wonderful that she took her to the park or that birthday party” and nobody says “oh, wow, you are so involved, yr ex is so lucky to know the kids are taken care of, you pay for all the basic needs and then some, isn’t it wonderful you go to the park so much and play seven rounds of chess and go to every birthday party humanly possible, even the ones at Flashing-Lights-Loud-Sounds-and-Animatronic-Monster-Animals-Pizzeria” because that’s just what you do. you are the single mother.

on the rare occasions someone does try to valorize you, to praise you, there will be a voice raised to remind everyone that you get help, “support,” breaks… whatever it is. the speaker doesn’t know: it could be $9.35 or it could be $0 or a trip to court and you’d better pay for and bring your own lawyer. never mind that if a storm comes and your roof caves in you handle it alone for your kids. never mind that if the car breaks down and your kid has school/a doctor’s appointment/a homeschooling playgroup it is you who figures out how to get there or how to break the news… on the weekend it is rarely time to say “i’m sorry, we can’t make it because of this problem or we can’t buy that because of a lack of money or our values around consumption.” weekends are for leisure and during the week shopping has been done, for necessities and for presents.

behind many a stand-up-guy there is a single mother being told to sit down or sitting herself down in order to assemble dollhouse furniture for $1 a perfectly completed piece. working from home means you are so lucky! you set your own hours, and there are a lot of them.

you will do what it takes because that is what you do, and sometimes people will see what you were willing to do and they will judge you from the comfort of their almost-totally-owned townhome with the two kids and the two parents and maybe a dog whose shit no one wants to pick up, but just keep on keeping on, girl… it’s just what you do.

John Michael Greer has written an excellent post, The Tyranny of the Temporary, over at his blog, the Archdruid Report, on a topic i’ve struggled with a lot myself, in terms of decisions i make around parenting and decisions about where to live, especially, as well as everything from how the kids and i travel to where we get out food.

my initial response to reading his post was to question why i even bother blogging about things other than cute-things-my-children-have-said, since there are so many very talented, intelligent bloggers writing smart posts about a lot of the “serious” topics about which i spend my time thinking, but then i remembered how easy it is to write a post about cute-things-my-children-have-said-which-relate-to-the-topic-of-the-collapse-of-civilization and decided to write something anyway. ūüėČ

as i’ve hashed out repeatedly on this blog, i have, through a complicated calculus involving balancing of long term risks¬† and short term economic strengths (i.e.-not needing to use a car) and a little bit of hopefulness (i have decided to believe our civilization has some chance to collapse slowly enough that some sort of life may be possible for us in the city for the next 10 years or more, and that the odds of that chance coming to fruition are greatly increased by people like me staying put in the city and trying to live as “sustainably” as we can here rather than spreading out into the countryside (i make an exception for those with both a calling to and skills for farming)), decided that the kids and i belong in the city. but i do sometimes think about what of our city life is temporary and on what time scale it is liable to fritz out on us.

i have made a bet, in effect, that the ability of people like me to afford to live a car-focused life will be among the earliest parts of our civilization to go, both due to costs associated with car maintenance and fuel in a severely downturned economy that, as events along the Mississippi River (flooding) and in Japan (tsunami, nuclear catastrophe, and limited electrical capacity) and in the midwest (tornadoes) hint, seems unlikely to arrest its decline and due to what i hope will be political pressure to limit all sorts of fossil fuel use due to the fact that intense climate change is already rearing its head in the form of melting sea ice, collapsing ice sheets, and generally chaotic weather, decades earlier than previously anticipated by most, and we need to actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now, not participate in or tolerate increasing it. i would be happiest to see this happen in the form of rationing (i believe it is the fairest way to limit overall usage), but a gas tax seems more likely (of course, neither seems at all likely at the moment).

in a situation where i can’t afford, either economically or morally, to drive a car, living in the city makes sense. and in a situation where most people can’t afford, either economically or morally, to drive cars, living in a city sounds great. i’d be seeing you all on the streets, walking/rolling/jumping in the rain and having fun. except that it really depends what else has such a brief half-life, and if everyone suddenly¬†couldn’t afford to use their cars, a lot more might be temporary than would be safe/healthy… the city doesn’t sound as great if large-scale sanitation services are short-term temporary and not everyone figures out about composting toilets or can manage to install them (streets as open sewers are as dangerous as they are yucky, yes?). it doesn’t sound so wonderful if the grid is short- or medium-term temporary (i.e.-institutional uses like treating/pumping water, hospitals, refrigerating perishable food in stores); although it still sounds preferable to me if personal, household level¬†electricity for the non-rich is short-term temporary.

also, historically, during recessions, depressions, and even famines, being in cities and towns in times of moderately strong government has been, excuse me as an anarchist for saying so, a positive thing in terms of accessing what services are available from said government… bread lines happen in cities and towns, not on your own personal slice of isolated rural heaven. if you, like me, do a lot of prepping (i.e.-storing food, having medical supplies and some level of knowhow, having a way to purify water, having a way to cook), you may feel you won’t need access to the bread lines or medical services a city or town will offer in these kinds of situations, but subsistence rural living leaves you very ¬†vulnerable to the ever-more-frequent crop failures due to bizarre weather (or just normal inclement weather), not to mention sickness or injury. although, not, of course, very vulnerable (if you are truly isolated) to the classic survivalist scenario of urban looting, although this is not something that has shown up historically in times of disaster (of course, you may make the argument that we are living in unique times and i will feel somewhat obliged to agree, as i think our current civilization is especially vulnerable around issues of long-term food and water disruptions… most people aren’t even prepared for three days without someone else providing these things to them, although, again, looting hasn’t shown up as a big issue even in areas where people have been without supplies for several days (after Katrina, for example)).

beyond these community size issues, i wonder about the proper way to raise my children during these times. there are some things that i feel a moral imperative about, like limiting our car usage and buying local food, that i also think are good for children and their communities anyway, and i would do them even if i didn’t think climate change and resource depletion were pushing our culture(s) towards the edge of a cliff. i do not discuss them with my kids in those terms, because i believe kids need to feel a greater measure of safety than a blunt description of our dilemma allows. i choose to focus on the positive aspects, like that all the walking we do leads us into adventures and interactions with people and helps maintain the health and develop the strength of our bodies. when we do discuss climate change or urban sprawl or other problems, i try to focus on the people who are battling these problems, either strictly in their personal lives or in a more overtly political sense. the kids make comparisons between these people and Harry Potter, among other heroic epic fantasy heroes. they want very much to grow into people doing right by the rest of their world. i worry a bit about the moment when the wool is pulled from their eyes, either by age (and independent inquiry into these issues or, as age appropriate, family discussions that delve deeper) or by circumstance. i can’t know for sure that the knocking of disaster on the doors of our communities won’t get too loud to keep from them. i worry that they will misunderstand my motivations for sheltering them in this way (or perhaps see them all too clearly?) if they come to believe, as i do, that industrial civilization is killing the planet as i focus inward on my family and our personal impacts and our future security… i worry about them asking me what i was doing when all of this was going on… just having us walk places and buy local food? visualizing world peace?

which character was i in this version of star wars? :

i don’t have a good answer for this one if they should ever ask it, and i’m not likely to have one.

i am fairly happy where we are, and feel confident that, for most short and medium term emergencies (so… not Yellowstone going kaboom) that could arise here in Portland, my kids and i are relatively safe. it is when i think about the ways the routine can change over time that i get more concerned. i don’t know what Portland will be like five years from now, what things will have already proven themselves temporary and how many people will have clung to them until the last possible second and then been left scrambling for stop gap solutions. i hope it’s a peaceful, walkable place filled with gardens and the laughter, playfulness, and hard work of all ages of folks who have the time and inclination to enjoy and benefit from each other’s company. i hope my kids and i are here, too, sharing all that with our friends and neighbors.

the one thing i don’t want to be temporary is a living planet for my kids to grow into adults on and on which they can raise children of their own, who know and feel that our planet is alive, alive with them and all sorts of other creatures.

(are you looking for the cute things my kids said? umm… i tricked you. i mean… it was a joke? not laughing? okay… just a few days ago my little one looked out at the grey, cloudy western Oregon sky and said, “mama, why do people paint the sky blue when it’s never really blue?” now if that isn’t cute, i don’t know what is! what? you want it to relate to the collapse of civilization?! and be cute? sorry!)

my littlest sweetie mumbles to me through a yawn, “i’m a country boy, mama…” and i can’t resist asking him what that means to him. he says “you know, horse riding, lassos, pretty much a cowboy but with an interest in all the wild creatures. for you i’ll add looking under logs for bugs.” this same boy frequently describes our neighborhood (a moderately busy one here in Portland, OR, but we have a big yard) as “smelly and loud.” if it weren’t for the fact that he likes to walk everywhere and completely detests spending time in the car, he would find nothing redeeming about our urban life.

i tell him i’m a country girl and a city girl, both, and that we are both a country family and a city family. once upon a time we lived in a little house in a meadow on the edge of a state forest. we are all marked forever by the year we spent there, messing about in creeks and on trails, building forts and listening to birds’ wings. i’d be lying if i didn’t say there was a sharp tug in my heart when we spend time hiking, which is fairly rare now that we don’t drive. seeing my children making their way through the muddy paths with their walking sticks (“i’m a gnome, mama!”), feeling the change in their demeanor after even just an hour out on the trail, i feel called to give them that again, the freedom to roam and the chance to experience the woods or the meadow not as a place you go but as a place you are…

and yet i would never live where we lived before again. 6000 people is too few for me to feel safe and loved and understood as a trans person. it is too few for us to have solid, long-lasting connections with other homeschoolers. and the drive to anywhere else when you live five hours from the nearest city of any size is depressing.

what i long for is present in so many books i read to the kids: the Moffats, Edward Eager’s books, Kiki’s Delivery Service (yes, the book!), and many others feature either country children who can readily walk to town or town children who can easily walk to the edge of their town and into the country. when i think of all the people in the communities around Portland who would like to live in Portland (if they could afford it), i’m very saddened thinking of how we could make room for them here in the city, how Portland could have a real edge and we could walk or bike there (if we didn’t use so much space for cars and their infrastructure).

or i imagine our neighborhoods having edges, like a more dense Hawthorne District opening up to a surrounding area with larger lots and open space on it’s edge that eventually grow smaller as you approach Foster-Powell’s dense neighborhood center, say…

In Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language¬†(if you only read one book i suggest ever in my entire life, let it be this one), one of the patterns is for City-Country Fingers, the idea being that city life only works for people when it’s vibrancy is complemented by access to open countryside, and, therefore, the city and the country should interlock with and penetrate each other in one mile (or so) wide bands, affording everyone in the region access to both. obviously, we are extremely far from this ideal here in Portland, even though we are very far ahead of many other cities in the country.

and meanwhile, my children grow, and my choice to do the ecologically responsible thing (as well as the thing best for mine and my children’s social, physical, and emotional health) and greatly minimize our car use is facilitated by our urban neighborhood while at the same time their access to the countryside is vastly limited by it.

i periodically look at listings of houses for sale (often in random places throughout the region or even the country). i recently saw one for a house on 14 acres with Columbia River frontage about an hour by car from Portland. i then went to walkscore.com and discovered that the library and grocery store (the town center) were less than a quarter mile from the edge of the property and i literally wept thinking of the ways that this kind of life is foreclosed for me and my children, by virtue of our society-wide planning and by virtue of my queerness (living an hour from Portland in a small town would likely be a bit awkward for me and my girlfriend and our five kids, even if i could sell my girlfriend and the charming teenager on the idea;), and the ways that it is foreclosed for the 70%+ of children in America growing up in cities.

and i know that if i lived in a place like that, i would come running back to the city faster than i left, because i do like the vitality and opportunities the city offers and because of my commitment to doing my part to save the world (which really has to mean making cities livable and sustainable). i just want my kids to lie in (or on the edge of) a meadow near our house (not a manicured lawn at the park) and watch butterflies and then pretend to be rabbits. i want Johnson Creek to be safe to play in (there are so many tempting places along Johnson Creek right here in the city), not filled with E. Coli, DDT, gasoline, and heavy metals. i would be fine living above a bakery in the center of our neighborhood (even with four floors above us) if countryside that was accessible to the public (like Europe’s picnicking rights) was a mile away or i would be happy to live in a country finger and share my slice of the country with the family that lives above the bakery so they could picnic all summer long.

interestingly enough, even the electronic distractions kids are sucked into more and more these days (not that i didn’t play my share of the Legend of Zelda) acknowledge the beauty of this possibility. my older son has a Pokemon video game, and he remarked that he’d really like to live in one of the towns in it. the main character in the game is a child who lives in town and can walk in a matter of minutes past all manner of shops and beckoning friends and be in fields, grasslands, or forest. there are bike/pedestrian corridors that take him to other towns where kids are able to do the same thing.

i want our neighborhood to be as enticing to him as his Pokemon town.