I haven’t written in a while. We’ve been busy moving from a too-small home on a less-than-friendly block in drive-everywhere suburbia to a just-the-right-size house on a stately urban block with old-growth trees, patio gardens, a block committee, and walkable groceries, ice cream, playgrounds, and (most amazingly!) friends. Counter to the usual cliche about the suburbs vs the city, we spend much more time outdoors now. From the time she wakes up (um, early), E is at the front door or the back door, demanding to go out. She wants to spend every possible moment outside, sticking her fingers in the dirt, filling cups with water from the hose, picking up tiny stones for her own inscrutable but deeply necessary reasons and expanding the sphere of her mastery. Our neighbors are frequently out and I have watched her go from apprehension to cautious familiarity to excitement as she encounters them day after day (more on the neighbors in a bit.) She has an incredibly endearing new habit of patting the ground (or the stone wall or the tree root) beside her to indicate that she wants you to sit down next to her. Who can resist such a thing? So I spend a fair amount of time sitting on the sidewalk, watching her explore a tree knot or an ant and feeling grateful to once again be part of the world and a community (more on communities in a bit as well) and nature, even in its smallest urban manifestations.
I knew moving was going to make a difference in our quality of life, but I am shocked by just how much better I feel these days. (Cue this song.) It has gotten me thinking again about the notion of the “good life,” a phrase that has been bopping around in my head on and off since I first heard it in college (it’s been a few years and hence I had to Google it, so apologies to all the humanities academics out there). For Aristotle, the good life — or eudaemonia (anyone looking for a fun and original girl’s name?) — was a life that allowed a person to fulfill their distinctively human function with excellence — arete (boy’s name!) — or virtue. He defined several virtues — moral virtue and intellectual virtue — but unlike our concept of virtue today, Aristotle’s concept of the good life included pleasure and leisure — in fact one of the goals of politics and civic life was to create order and structure that would free people to devote time to music, art, friendship, science, and contemplation. This has always appealed to me, the notion that the life that is good is also the life that is pleasurable. It is, I think, one of the not-so-good legacies of Christianity, the link between virtue and suffering. The life of harmony and generosity with oneself, others, and the world should feel good, no?
But back to our new neighbors, or rather their parents. They are a Chinese couple in their seventies who speak not a single word of English, not even “hello.” When we meet each other, which is roughly twenty times per day, we have a jumble of English and Chinese greetings and head nods and smiles. We share a common set of steps up from the street which leads to two front patios and two sets of stairs up to our respective front doors. The division between our two patios is entirely theoretical, however — it’s one big slab of concrete — and as it turns out their sense of this boundary is very porous. They do their washing in a small red tub on their steps and their blankets and jackets and boxer shorts are just as likely to show up drying on our porch railings as theirs. Every morning, the wife sets up a red umbrella beach chair with a roll of toilet paper in the drink pocket from which she regards the neighborhood all day — at times in front of “her” steps and at times in front of “ours.” Why in front of “ours” at times? I cannot say for sure, thought I have theorized that this must be how things go where they come from. Our back doors also open to a common set of steps, but then there’s a distinct left turn onto a deck that is definitely “ours” but that has no gate. More than once I have found the husband of the couple sweeping “our” deck at 6 in the morning, leaning against “our” deck railings and taking in the sunrise.
I’d like to say that this doesn’t bother me at all, but it does. These people feel too close by the boundaries that I am used to — my side of the fence vs your side of the fence. It flusters me to have these total strangers — I don’t even know their names because introduction efforts have been unsuccessful — in what I perceive to be “my space.” But every time I have the impulse to try to enforce a certain sense of distance, something stops me.
I read an article in the New York Times recently about the island of Ikaria in Greece where people live a long time in good health. It’s a good article with photographs of gorgeous older people, so I suggest you read it, but the upshot is that people on this island live into their 90s and 100s still walking and thinking clearly and doing their daily activities. There are many theories as to why, including the plant-based Mediterranean diet, daily wine and coffee, fewer processed foods, more daily physical activity (not in a gym, but walking up and down hills and gardening), tight-knit social structure (people know and watch over each other and act as both gentle social control and perpetual safety net), napping (daily!), and sex (over the entire lifespan!). I’m sure the truth lies in a combination of all these factors — but not, of note, in ascetic self-denial or fad diets or vitamin pills or the accumulation of wealth or statins or chemical peels. When you look at the faces of these people, they just seem to be at peace. It’s perhaps not exactly the life that Aristotle was envisioning — not a lot of contemplation of the spheres and calculus going on — but I think it also speaks to the good life. I’m not focused on living into my 100s, but I think there are lessons to be learned from the the Ikarians about how to be healthy in every sense of the word.
I have been complaining for years to anyone who will listen about the absence of a sense of community in my life — indeed I would say it’s one of my biggest disappointments and highest aspirations — but it has been hard to make the choices that would be necessary to create or sustain a community. Professional aspirations have taken me from city to city and the communities that existed at moments in my life have dissolved as people come and go, following their loves, their dreams, and their obligations. The world is a big place and it seems that the people I love most have diffused across it such that most of my connections are now via phone, email, text, and letter. Moving into this new neighborhood, I am realizing that if having a community is important to me, then I will have to commit to one place and to whatever interactions and connections that place brings over time. I used to love the novelty of traveling to or moving to a new place, the first days and weeks of discovery and personal reinvention. Now, whether as a result of growing older, having a child, or just being too tired for perpetual reinvention, I am curious about the potential of investing and reinvesting in one place, of being tied to place and people. I used to want to be a citizen of the world. Now I just want to be a citizen of West Philadelphia. (Or is it too ambitious to try for both?)
In the self-improvement-book, diet-and-exercise world we live in, it is easy to feel like living the good life is a solitary project, a function of your relationship with yourself. But I’m beginning to think that the mantra of individual self-improvement can only take you so far. Maybe the next frontier — beyond toning your abs and memorizing all the steps in the Kreb’s cycle and investing in your 401K — is to invest some of life’s most previous resource (TIME!) into building an Ikaria wherever you are, a net of social connections (does the internet count? I’m not sure) that is both a comfortable hammock at the end of a long day and a safety net for the times in life when you can’t do it all alone. For some people, this may not be new news, but for me it feels like a revelation.
The other morning, I was sitting on a little-kid chair in the kitchen across from E trying to interest her in some oatmeal. I was wearning an old Harley Davidson T-shirt of C’s (“Sworn to fun, loyal to one”) with the arms cut off and a pair of XL pajama pants my mother bought me the day after E was born so that I would have something to wear around the house despite the deflated balloon that had taken residence below my belly button. In other words, I was not looking my best. I looked up and there was my elderly Chinese neighbor, a few feet from our kitchen window with his broom. I felt exposed, jolted out of my early morning intimacy with E, self-conscious about my appearance. On the one hand, he was sweeping my deck: thank you! On the other hand, can’t a girl roam about her house in Godzilla-drag once in awhile? I resolved to write our neighbors a little note, asking them to stay off the back deck in the morning.
Later that day, before I had the chance to write my note, I went out on the deck to water my “garden,” which consists of a few pots of flowers that make me disproportionately happy. I have a honeysuckle vine that I bought in hopes of training it up a trellis and creating a bit of romance to our view of the brick apartment building across the alley. Ever since I transplanted it, it has been a bit melancholic, its stems a little browner than before, its leaves a bit more curled. I couldn’t figure out if I was watering it too much or too little, or whether it was just acclimating to its new residence (as it turns out, plants also resist change). Anyway, when I went out, I found that our neighbor had cut a whole in one of the cardboard fruit boxes that I had been “storing” on the deck (aka, not yet found the energy to dispose of), and had creating a little scarf for my new honeysuckle, ensuring that it’s roots would not be exposed to the full strength of the sun (see below for a blurry but still hopefully illustrative photo). It was a small gesture but it contained so much thoughtfulness and concern for the plant and for me, not because we are close friends, but because we both inhabit this place together in this moment. I didn’t know whether to giggle or cry. One of my Zen teachers once told me that life sends you the teachers you need and he was not wrong.
Needless to say, no note was written. Instead of worrying about how I look in pajamas and which side of the patio is mine, I have been thinking more about which honeysuckles might benefit from scarves, figuratively speaking, not only in my garden, but in the gardens around me. Meanwhile, I have found a community acupuncture practice nearby in the attic of an old firehouse where you can get treated in a communal space for a sliding scale and then sleep for as long as you want in an overstuffed recliner surrounded by other people seeking a little reprieve (Philadelphia Community Acupuncture). I have eaten in a Sengalese restaurant a few blocks down where the waiter is also the chef is also the owner (recommend!). I have started to learn the names of the other children who we see at the park. Next weekend we have our first block clean-up. I will be out there with C and E at 9am with our brooms, living the good life.
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Postscript: I started writing this post before the George Zimmerman verdict was handed down. I spent last night scrolling through the vitriolic, racist comments on the Washington Post article about the verdict, heartbroken but not surprised that our justice system still privileges the fear of the privileged over the lives of people of color. I hope that people will translate their anger and pain over this verdict into work on the local level to prevent laws like “Stand Your Ground” from turning fear into legitimate grounds for murder, not to mention all the other instances where ideology is driving irrational and dangerous legislation whose consequences are not well thought-out. It’s a cliche, but I’m finally understanding how profound it is: Think global, act local.