April 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Time of Writing: A Time of Healing

Sometimes there are just four people at our writing group. Sometimes there are as many as nine. We meet in the church basement.

First, if someone has brought something, we share a piece of professional writing that we like, maybe a poem or an except. Then the leader for this day gives us a prompt. We write for half an hour or so, share if we want to, plan for the next session, and go home.

The sessions are fun because I am challenged to write on new topics, and I get to see how others begin to play with the same topics. I am always humbled by the writing in the group.

My friend Chris drives me. When we leave the church, a neighborhood cat with patchwork fur is often sitting by the car. As we approach, he jumps on the hood. If we get in the car (and we always get in the car), he climbs on the windshield, and if Chris starts the car, he climbs to the roof. We laugh, and Chris gets out to coax him down. Though he flirts with everyone around the church, Chris calls him “our cat.”

One thing I love about the writing group is that I would seldom think of someone else’s prompt, so in the group I write about topics I would not have written about otherwise. Once, we wrote about something ugly that art might make beautiful. Once, we described what animal we would be if we were an animal. Once, we wrote about black holes, which for each of us, as it turned out, was a kind of metaphor for the universe’s ongoing creation and destruction, its inhale and its exhale.

This month, Chris gave us a prompt. She always gives us a doozy. She thinks of something (like black holes) that I think I have nothing to say about. Then I write for the half hour and am not nearly done.

This month, Chris read to us an article from "Northwest Wednesday" titled, “Three Girls Bakery Celebrates 100 Years.”

The article described one of three women’s businesses that were around in 1912, the only one still surviving. The article told us that in 1912, Mrs. Jones got a business license for a bread company. 

Three ladies owned the business, including Mrs. Jones. At some point, Mrs. O.F. Fredricks and her horse-drawn carriage delivered bread. They expanded to twelve shops for a while, but contracted back to one during the depression, when they moved into the market. They’re still there.

In our writing group, the others wondered about the women: what was it about them that they decided to start a business in a time when businesses weren’t run by women. Two of them were married. What did their husbands think of their enterprise? Why didn’t I think of those questions? They’re interesting.

Elizabeth wrote intensely, as she always does. She created the word “fragilize”: a perfect word. You know just what it means, don’t you?

I thought about how little I knew about this time in history, and about my house which was born somewhere close to the century’s turn. I tried to imagine: What was our neighborhood like when Mrs. Jones started selling bread?

I know that the Lovejoys lived in what is now our house with their son Stanley. I know because workmen in the attic always find boxes of letters from Stanley’s stint overseas during World War One.

We’ve also found Stanley’s homework papers from Franklin High School, which is still down the street. Stanley’s penmanship was impeccable, as I imagine any good students’ handwriting was in this day before computers. He was studying the same concepts in Geometry that Ann’s 21st century math students study. I guess some things don’t change.

Sometimes I try to imagine what life was like in our house then and how different it would have been from the way we live now.

The home, which was built sometime before 1904, was closer to new. Gas lamps lit the home. In the kitchen, Stanley’s mother—or maybe a servant—cooked over a fire in the fireplace that’s walled up now, though there’s still an odd square where the fireplace was, and there’s an old plate that covers what I’d guess was venting for the fireplace. We cleverly cover that plate with a clock.

Mrs. Lovejoy probably did the laundry outside in a washtub, but we have a washer and dryer conveniently in the kitchen where the pantry must have been. We only use washtubs to keep beer cold for a summer party.

I suppose our garage, which is just wide enough for our Honda Civic to squeeze in, housed a carriage. Maybe the horse was in the backyard.

Maybe there was an outhouse there, too. Whenever I think about bedpans in the night, or emptying them in the morning, I know that I was born in the right part of the century. Now we have two bathrooms, one upstairs for Ann and one downstairs with an accessible shower for me.

Of course, there was no television, and I suspect that the den where the television now broadcasts wasn’t there. Maybe there was a porch.

Who else lived in the neighborhood? Some of the houses around us now were built around the same time, I’m guessing. Not too many were built earlier as the long block where we now live had been the city dump, outside the city. When we dig in the backyard to plant a tomato or a raspberry, glass shards and bottle tops always bob to the surface. The dirt is still spitting out the trash from so many years ago.

Stanley was white; at least I think he was. The neighborhood’s racial profile changed several times over the last century. It’s still changing.

I don’t know much about this era in my neighborhood: about the days of World War One, The Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression. Sometime in there, I think around World War Two, it was primarily a neighborhood of Jewish people.

I’ve heard more about the days around World War Two, because that’s when some of my older neighbors moved to this neighborhood and started raising their families.  The neighborhood became increasingly African-American, which is what it was when we moved here in 1996.

Our older neighbors welcomed us and looked out for us, but some of the younger folks in the neighborhood weren't so happy to see us.

My partner Ann and I are white, and one day shortly after moving in, we were walking down Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd when an African-American man in his thirties or forties slowed his mint green Buick, rolled down the passengers’ side window of his car, and shouted at us, “Go away. We don’t want you here!” I assumed because we are white, but maybe because we are lesbians.

I guess he knew what was coming. The neighborhood’s changing. It’s mostly white people with money to fix up the houses now, and African-Americans are moving further south. My classmate Yvette, who is African-American and grew up here, finds the change sad. I do, too, because for a time this area was such a center for African-American culture. Jimi Hendrix went to high school seven blocks west of here. Quincy Jones played in this neighborhood. So did Ray Charles.

Maybe if I take the long view, I’ll see that the neighborhood’s always been changing. For a while it was a vacation spot for white folks with money; then it was a Jewish community; then Black; then a mixed neighborhood with older Blacks and younger white liberal types (that’s us), a disproportionate number of them gay (that’s us, too), and now there are still liberal white types, but those of us who have been here for a while are older than we were, and the new ones have more money than those who came in our era. (Many of the older black women--mostly women at the end--are dying or moving into assisted living, and their children are mostly selling the homes to white folks with more money.)

Last month on the park’s sidewalk, someone had graffitied in black paint on the walk: Operation Gentrification and Black Love. The graffiti hints at tension about the area’s changes. The graffiti was there for a long time until the clean-up crew covered over it with grey paint. I’m guessing it took them so long because they only had white paint and didn’t want to cover the black with white. That would be too ironic.

I have moved from North Carolina to Texas to Seattle’s University District north of here, to this neighborhood. We live in such a mobile culture that I thought I couldn’t understand attachment to a place.

I’m attached to this neighborhood now, though, and it’s even been hard for me to see the changes over the sixteen years since we moved here.

This used to be more of a racially mixed neighborhood, and there was evidence of the neighborhood’s history everywhere. The neighborhood grocery store was Roger’s, which is now the chain Grocery Outlet, commonly referred to as Gross Out. At Roger’s you could buy chicken feet and pig’s snouts. I don’t know how you would cook them, but I liked it that I lived in a neighborhood where you could buy them.

There was a little store called the Afro Market. It’s not there anymore. Up the street from Garfield High School, just seven blocks from here, Japanese people lived in the boarding houses until their internment took them away from the area.

I like living around so much history. In a history of redlining, so that only blacks would live here, (or really, they wouldn’t live elsewhere) and of Japanese internment during World War Two, there are stories of prejudice and pain but also stories of communities developing and people living everyday lives.

I wonder what the people who live in this house in 50 years will say. I wonder who they will be and what lives they will lead. I wonder what clues we’re leaving behind that say that we were here.

Will the clues show how much joy is in our lives? Will the clues show that we are a community of newcomers and old timers, learning from one another? Will the clues mark a time in history known by a single phrase, like “The Jazz Age”, “The War Years” or “The Depression”?  What will our phrase be? I don’t think it will be “The Great Recession.”

Maybe the upcoming election will determine our phrase. I hope the election will define us in some way that inspires hope and rebuilds health in ourselves, our environment, our neighborhoods, and our world. I think I’d like to have been part of “A Time of Healing.”

That would be good not just for me personally, with my history of brain tumors, but also for my country and my world.  

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