[Editor’s note: This essay is from a forthcoming anthology called Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis, to be published (initially as an e-book) by Solidarity Hall in January 2015. We should note: just as not all contributors to Solidarity Hall happen to be Catholics, neither are all contributors to the anthology Catholic. Over the next several weeks we’ll be publishing several additional essays as a preview of the finished book.]
Last summer I decided to try a little something new in the garden- cucumbers in containers. So I started a bunch of seeds to transplant. As I was leaning over to place the seeds in their little trays, I lost my balance, and dropped the seeds onto the tray haphazardly. It was unremarkable really, and if I’d had more time, I might have re-placed the seeds, but didn’t. A week or so later, they all emerged. Of the dozen or so cells, there was at least one seedling in each cell, but several had something like eight. Some had five or six. One had ten. I noted that I would have to get around to thinning them, planted them in my containers, and moved on; pausing to note that the two singletons were remarkably large and robust, no thinning required- perfect for planting out in a manicured cucumber plot. Six weeks later, I realized I’d maybe, kinda forgotten about my container cucumber project- possibly watering it four times. I rushed out to see what had happened. The singletons were flat out dead. The pairs were struggling to survive, and the group of ten… actually looked pretty good. It seemed that the more that were in the grouping- the better the grouping had fared.
I initially took this as divine revelation about family size.
As the year has come full circle though, and I keep returning to the ripe metaphor this presents, I keep learning from it. Now, the first thing is obvious. Keep your work space clear of shoes so you don’t spill seeds. But that aside, I think I may have been offered a small bit of wisdom about faith and community.
About four years ago, looking for a home for our family of six, my husband and I decided that home prices in the fair city of Ann Arbor, MI were never going to be rational, or even just reasonable- so we decided to look to a darker city- Saginaw, MI, 90 miles to the north. My parents had relocated to Saginaw in the late 90’s and it seemed like a good idea to be close to family. And the home prices were great. And we had this idea about saving the world with the way we lived our lives. It was simple really, moving from the Detroit suburbs to an impoverished Michigan city was the kind of change that we had been advocating for some time – and not only would we do this, we would encourage others to join us. It would weave everything together and our lives lived would be a direct action. We were blissfully unaware of our status as robust singleton seedlings en route to a barely watered container.
Now you have to understand that a neighborhood- an old city neighborhood- is really an organism- a living, breathing organism, not unlike soil. Children are born and raised there, their parents grow old there, and when the organism is healthy- some of the children stay, and raise families of their own. People look at that healthy neighborhood, and they think to themselves, that one day they’ll move to that lovely neighborhood with trees that touch in the middle of the street, where neighbors chat casually on a Saturday afternoon, and children ride bikes to the corner store for bubble gum and sodas. And the life-cycle continues. But sometimes, the organism gets an infection. It might get infected with a racial divide, or socioeconomic divides. Other times- outside forces might start starving a neighborhood economically, moving jobs, and resources that the community had come to rely on. Whatever it is, something catches hold- and the children keep growing up and leaving. And slowly, painfully- the thing that makes the neighborhood what it was just withers away. Sometimes neighborhoods remake and rebuild themselves – with transplants. And that rebirth and resurgence can be remarkable. But still other times, a neighborhood will slide into a terrible chronic illness: absentee landlords. Now I’m not talking about the guy or the gal that rents out a granny-flat apartment. I’m talking about the landlords on the other side of the state, out of state even, that are just pumping out money and taking a tax deduction. That’s a dangerous neighborhood illness.
Our adopted neighborhood is fighting to stay on top of its absentee landlordism, in addition to a nearly complete lack of jobs, and a lingering racism hiccup. This is quite the scene, and it seems so quaint now to think about how awesome(!) our ‘direct-action of living’ was going to be- while we’re just trying to keep the yard mowed, and the weeds pulled, and the prayers prayed, and the children fed, and the baby nursed, and the crayon off the walls, and the Mass attended, and the lessons learned, and the job worked.
So, first things first- we started having meetings, and we pulled together some good folks and started doing some things. The one really great thing that came from those efforts that is still going strong is our farm market co-op. Several folks chipped in bit of cash, and Saginaw Harvest is a cooperative of urban micro-farms in Saginaw county, we sell a wide variety of organic produce and eggs at the Downtown Saginaw Farmer’s Market.
But alas, our neighborhood is ill, and folks keep moving, and we keep losing some of our mojo. Next up, we connected to a great Catholic home-school coop, and got our children plugged in. Those connections have led to another cooperative- a mother’s club. We get together each week and clean each other’s homes, the children play, and the mommies chat. It is a heaven sent support network… but the moms are scattered across three counties. It’s a Catholic home-school group, there just aren’t enough Catholic home-schoolers in the neighborhood to make a go of something like this.
The other life curves we’ve navigated since our move have been death in our extended family, two births and a job loss. My father had passed away before we moved up, so we were especially motivated to move close by to make sure our children had as much time with my mother as they were able. Also, my eldest brother had been caring for both my parents in their later years, and we wanted to share that work with him. We had two and a half wonderful years here with my mother, and a Thanksgiving with many family members together before she passed, and that was a gift without equal.
But now in the aftermath, my brother struggles to find work in the area and to care for my parent’s large city parcel – 2.5 acres- along with three buildings that all need maintenance. He wonders if there is any way in this job market he can stay here in Saginaw and make enough money to maintain the family land and houses. Frankly, after an abrupt lay-off last March, and 6 months without work, we’re wondering if we can even keep our little raft afloat. It’s harder than you might expect in 2014 to find a telecommuting job for a tech worker. As is often the case- it is the births that give me hope. We’ve had such wonderful outpourings of support when our two Saginaw babies were born. People still know how to do that- especially in an old city neighborhood.
Our neighborhood association meets monthly (last Wednesday of the month at the Lutheran seminary) and is, frankly, the last line of defense against what ails this place. The good men and women of the neighborhood meet up and talk about any crime problems, invite speakers, get the word out about various city initiatives, plan garden walks and parties, select block captains, and welcome transplants to the neighborhood… and the ladies keep tab on the new babies, and show up- unannounced- with dinner, love, and goodies- for months- after the baby comes home. It is perfect. The only concern I’m left with, is who will replace these precious women when the time comes? Who’s going to take over nurturing this neighborhood’s immune system? Will they be the one or two children struggling to maintain the family’s inherited wealth? Or will there be enough social capital to support the coming generation in keeping this organism alive and healthy?
As I wondered somewhat fearfully about the answers to these questions, I came across a piece by Will Seath in Fare Forward, called “This is What We Do”. In it he chronicles the Catholic revival of a little slice of Hyattsville Maryland around a Catholic parish and school by – get this- transplants! And suddenly, I’m reminded that we’re transplants to Saginaw, and that we’d initially hoped to encourage more transplants to join us here. This is when the metaphor really hits me about my cucumbers:
We had never intended to be robust singletons in a carefully tended monocrop.
From the very outset we had hoped to have and be a part of something very much like the intentional Catholic community in Hyattsville. We had hoped that we could be the first folks that made moving to a place with a decidedly uncertain future a little less scary for other folks. We had looked forward to plugging deep into our parish- just a short walk away- and finding a cohort for our children. But that cohort has already moved out of the neighborhood. So what’s holding us back from a renaissance like Hyattsville’s? It’s very simple, there are no jobs to speak of here, and there’s no mass transit to get to where the jobs are.
What few jobs there are in public service and hospitals are held by folks in this neighborhood- most of whom are nearing retirement age- or by folks that live as far away from the city as they possibly can. And this driving into the city for your job, but living and paying taxes elsewhere situation is completely unsustainable. It’s the long term fear I have about our Mother’s Cooperative- we can’t tool around three counties in private automobiles for the next 20 years… we may not be able to do it for the next five years. And it’s the long term fear about staying here- having to drive across three counties to get to work, and that is just not a realistic or moral long-term strategy in a world of scarce resources.
So what to do? We need to get more transplants into the soil here, and we can’t support anymore transplants without jobs. What if the transplants brought their jobs with them? What if the transplants we encouraged were folks with an entrepreneurial spirit, and looking for an opportunity? That could be amazing, and I’ve written about that before. The start-ups that make it, would certainly be the next anchors of the community going forward.
Yet that seems like half an answer to me now. Many start-ups fail, and things are precarious enough as it is. But another opportunity has presented itself, and it echoes Hyattsville’s story. Our parish’s school closed this spring. There just are not enough students to keep the school open, so the diocese has consolidated Saginaw’s two remaining K-8 schools. How could a parish re-imagine the school space to bring in families, and replace the holes left by so many families that have fled the city? I’m not sure of the answer to this question. But I think it’s the seed that we need to germinate here.
Maybe this is a revelation about family size- but perhaps not nuclear families. I think this is an insight about the size of your spiritual family and communal family. Neither of these sorts of families can weather adversity alone. And if these are not adverse times- there is no such thing as adversity.