An Update on Downward Mobility
I am, as the writer Jazmine Hughes said, blessed with absolutely no chill. This manifests itself in various ways, how I am always overwhelmed yet forever driven to be doing something (and usually trying to drag others along with me). Before we moved into this apartment complex, I had already planned out what I would write. Essays extolling the virtue of small living, shared spaces, 4 people in 800 square feet, solidarity with our neighbors, the glow of living like the majority of the earth. It’s what so many do, it’s already excessive in comparison, there are joys and benefits and blessings to be had, this is what I am choosing to do and oh, I don’t know, maybe you should think about doing it too.
Our journey (I used to call it an “experiment,” a word which now makes me shudder) towards downward mobility has taken a few twists and turns over the years. It began as a lark, an invitation from the landlords at the apartment complex where all of my Somali Bantu friends lived: you are here all the time, why don’t you just move in? Sure! Why not? We were newly married and working and in school and busy busy busy but I only had to take the stairs down and cross the street to do English classes. We had a baby and the walls closed in a bit but after we got our bearings I just strapped her to my chest and charged forward and pretended like nothing had changed.
When that baby was two we up and moved across the country and joined a mission order amongst the poor (oh, how I loved to say that aloud). For a year and a half we lived in a squat apartment and had a crash course in generational poverty in America, both the potlucks and the cockroaches increasing the longer we stayed. Then we were offered a gorgeous house a few blocks away and our little family of three grew to four smack dab in the middle of the most vibrant, diverse, extreme-weather neighborhood you ever did see.
Apartment, apartment, house, and now apartment again, this time on the far outer edges of Portland. We had done it before and I figured an extra person (a cute, squishy one at that) wouldn’t be that different. We moved in during the dry brown August heat wave, the walls radiating from fresh paint which didn’t mask the smells of another culture, another cuisine, the food and sustenance soaking into the walls and cabinets.
Quickly, the shine wore off. I had spent months dreaming about this transition, preparing for it, but when it actually came time to start carving out another hard-won space as an outsider among outsiders, I found myself worse than tired. I was bleak. I stood inside my ground-floor apartment and the sweat rolled down my back. I listened to the shouts of children and adults cooking and carrying on conversations and I was living next door but truly in another world. I heard the tantrums, the fights, the music, the parties, I felt annoyed and jealous and invisible. I looked up how much it would cost to rent a bigger apartment, closer to the real action of the city—the coffee shops and bookstores—but the prices soared high out of reach. What started off as a living situation based on values (wanting to live and develop friendships with refugees, with people on the margins) became a situation of necessity. Moving ate up all of our money, as did our car breaking down, as did having a baby, as did finding a new job and it taking months to build up a clientele, as did a delay with my manuscript, etc etc etc. We are stuck, for now, in the place we thought we would so enjoy—as long as it was our choice.
My baby has a fever today, which reminds me of a few short months ago, how wild and feral with fear I felt. Clutching my baby to my chest, vowing to never leave my parent’s house, pleading with prayers to pictures of mother Mary and her little baby, doomed to die. That fear dissolved into a gray sort of dread, the kind where I couldn’t pick up the phone to call old friends or plan what healthy foods to cook or leave the three mile radius around my new neighborhood (turns out depression can be helpful for being “rooted,” to trot out a beloved missional word). A low hum of anxiety kept me going, one eye always on our low low low bank account, another trying to make sure my children were ok. I was unproductive, uninspired, sitting-on-my-couch chill.
And then, suddenly, there it was: all my feelings came back, like a posse of old friends. My husband grinned It's so good to see you being angsty again, a sign that some things, at least, were returning to normal. I got riled up about our neighborhood school, about homeschooling, about prayer meetings divorced from neighborhood involvement. I drove around and noticed the shiny new courthouse and the sleek police station, but saw how I had to drive over 80 blocks to get to the nearest community center or WIC office. I knew I was missing the trees and the restaurants and the parks and the museums of urban Minneapolis—the hustle and the crowds, the good and the bad—but I thought it was all superficial. I didn’t know quite how to characterize my neighborhood, how it didn’t look like the inner city, yet it is the new face of poverty in America. The suburbs, built for independence and isolation, turned into a wild land of empty foreclosures and food deserts, of thousands of families yet no place to gather for free indoors, social services and bus lines and coffee shops and children’s museums all scattered very very far away.
But how can I write about any of this, how can I try and truss up the life we live half on purpose half by necessity? How do I explain how spare and unique this post-white-flight in-between city is? What the new face of poverty in America looks like, spread-out and scattered and lonely? The housing prices beyond any of our means, the long long waiting lists for families to get into apartments. How we have no playground, no real backyard, a tiny (and loud) library we haunt religiously; churches small and proud and full of only a handful of people on a Sunday; hispanic markets full to bursting on the exact same day; old motels surrounded by chain link fences; rumors of precious things like charter schools and community centers and fresh food markets swirling in the air but never coming to fruition. I dream about these things at night, but don’t know what to do. I vacillate between feeling trapped and hopeless, and wanting someone else to come and solve all the problems.
But truly: maybe I wouldn’t have known all of this, felt the lack in the my bones, if I didn’t live in a small apartment on the edge of the city with my family. In this one way at least we are no different from the thousands surrounding us: it’s a hard way of living for everybody. My good intentions and ideals were already shaky when we moved in, and now I feel something else take their place:
It is gratitude, for the mercies we discover new every morning, the blessings of having it being made so hard to forget.
I just want to say I am still feeling overwhelmed by everyone who liked/shared/commented on my brutal family update. I am still treasuring the warm glow I got from all of that. Thanks too for those that signed up for my newsletter! I finished the edits on my manuscript last week and now I feel incredibly nervous about it all. The next newsletter should have a sneak peek at the (intense!) cover art, so please feel free to sign up here: