neighbor-sign

Discomfort

My daughters collect the rocks and sticks that dot our front yard, each amassing a collection using a formula that makes sense to only them. “See, Mom? These are my walking sticks and I’ve broken them down so when I see people of other sizes I can give them each a stick.” They affix small rocks with glitter glue to a card for a beloved neighbor, recovering from surgery in the care of his husband, who we text with questions of, “how’s the patient today?” Their instincts of inclusion haven’t yet dulled.

My youngest and I walk to story time at the library. On our trek a mere two blocks, we pass the Chinese food shop, not yet opened for the day, and the car repair place with the Spanish-speaking man who always waves to us and shouts “Hola! Hello!” The old police station, being converted into housing for transitioning homeless families is quiet, but the condos going up just next to it are abuzz with myriad construction sounds. We pick up pine cones and count the cars that pass as we wait for the light to change. At this time of day, I see drivers from Maryland speeding into the city, driving through our corner of the world on their way into work, not paying attention to what’s happening just off the thoroughfare that’s taking them where they need to be.

Our home is in Washington, DC, a place so often considered only as a tourist destination, a repository of museums and government buildings. From the hilltop a few blocks down, we see the Capitol building, the “swamp” that our new President vowed to drain. And I think about how so many people fail to see the vibrant life just beyond the dome of that building. My husband and I wonder if we’d be better off leaving DC, moving to the suburbs, and settling in to a new normal away from the grit. Become people who actually vote for the members of Congress and send them to our old stomping grounds. But that feels like a sanitized life – it’s not what matters most to us.

What matters most is the discomfort. This has been a slow realization since the election in November – that love and family and health are important, but I’ve been sitting with discomfort, and that’s what drives me nowadays. There have always been people who push the boundaries of decency, whatever that might mean to whomever is determining it. The people who stare down injustice and refuse to budge; who use words and imagery and their bodies and their minds to take discomfort to the masses. There are so many populations who have sat with discomfort for so long, I can only imagine it’s frustrating (and perhaps refreshing?) to them that the traditionally comfortable are finally taking some of it on. It matters to me that we raise our daughters in a place and in a way that lets them know in no uncertain terms that life is not fair; imparting to them the knowledge that their privilege gives them a perch atop the shoulders of those who’ve come before – the total luck-of-the-draw genetics that grant skin tone and status – and the absolute understanding that it’s their responsibility to reach out and pull up those without that same advantage. That we expose them to neighbors who work twice as hard for half as much, and encourage them to ask, “why?” We embrace the recognition of differences and the celebration of them. Seeing how the Chinese food restaurant, the auto repair shop, the homeless shelter, and the brand-new condos compose the fabric of this neighborhood we share. What matters most is exposure to injustice; to the words and actions of those who seek homogenization of this country. And it matters that we work tirelessly – but happily – every day to let everyone we meet know they have value and purpose; those people who experience life the way we see it, and especially those who don’t.

When I see my daughters file into the cafeteria at the end of each school day, balancing coats and backpacks and lunch boxes while sharing knowing smiles with their classmates, I take mental snapshots of the scene around me. The triathlete mom with a shock of pink hair, leaning over to make eye contact with her son’s friend, whispering a quick word of encouragement. And the mom on leave of absence from work, balancing the mental exhaustion of caring for her son, recently diagnosed with leukemia, with maintaining a sense of normalcy for her Kindergartner, whose smile beams bright each time I see her. The mom collecting dress-up clothes for a neighboring school, one without the resources to provide playtime props for their preschoolers. The dads – who are taxi drivers, small business owners, professors – chatting with one another before the doors open to let in their children, who reflect diversity in both skin tone and socioeconomics. My girls’ teachers, a set of four amazing individuals, bring the best of themselves every day. In being themselves – both brand new teachers and experienced ones, black and white and Asian and Jewish and energetic and calm and logical and enthusiastic – they open the minds and eyes and spirits of their young learners. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how idyllic it is, and remind myself that we work hard to surround ourselves with the best people. We have the luxury of that, and it adds to my discomfort.

I see in my daughters’ actions, and hear in their words, that they absorb the intricacies of the world around them, and process those intricacies through the filter of their upbringing. The filter that shows them beauty and responsibility as two sides of the same coin. The filter that they will hopefully carry with them into adulthood and share with anyone else interested in adjusting perspective, encouraging them to determine on their own exactly what matters most.

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