D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: tiny apartments

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.

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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.

 

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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. 

 

 

 

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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:

Accidental Simplicity : Guest Post by Micha Boyett

I met Micha through the community at A Deeper Church and I am so glad I did. She exudes grace in her writing (much more difficult than you might think in our current online climate). She is a bone-deep thinker, with the heart of a poet. When she said she had a few words cooking on the topic of downward mobility, I was thrilled. I identify with this piece on so many levels--just this past week I realized my child was fascinated by COWS IN A FIELD (eesh. we need to get out of the city more). But really, Micha teases out all those tiny transformations that are changing us all the time, in her usual lovely way. You can find her blog here and her twitter handle here

 

 

 

 Accidental Simplicity : Guest post by Micha Boyett

 

 

We lived in San Francisco for almost two years, from the time my oldest son was fifteen months old until he turned three. We did laundry in our building’s shared laundry space, sticking quarters in and moving our underwear before the neighbors did. We kept the stroller in our tiny hall closet and my husband’s bike in the hallway.

Raising a toddler in the city was doable. My son was young so he didn’t know the difference between his life of walking ten minutes to the park and his old life of stepping outside the back door to play in his own yard. He didn’t notice the scope of his closet-sized bedroom that hardly fit his crib or remember the big, sunny playroom in the house we left behind in the Philadelphia area. But I did. I remembered.

I loved a lot about living in the city for those almost-two years. I loved the energy. I loved the restaurants and the beauty of the bay, just blocks from home. I loved the mosaic of so many types of people and languages, all smashed into a few square miles.

I also loved our church. It was the sort of church that never assumed that every one in the pew on a Sunday morning was a believer. It was the sort of church that existed because the city forced it to exist. It had to engage doubters and pursue justice. For the first time in my adulthood, I felt understood at church. And I knew it would be rare to ever find a church like that outside of urban life.

But when it came to my toddler, who screamed at the sight of a fly, I felt guilty. I felt like I was stealing the outdoors from his life. I felt like he needed space to play and explore. He needed a yard, a house, an affordable pre-school. The price of living in San Francisco felt unsustainable. (How would we ever save money for our kids’ college?) I longed for something easier.

When we had the chance to get out, to move on to “normal” life, we took it. My husband started a new job for a company headquartered in the Bay Area, but opening an office in Texas. We moved to a smaller, more residential city, where we could afford to rent a three-bedroom house with a lovely backyard and a two-car garage. Our son got a bike with training wheels and a bug collecting science kit. We had friends over for dinner and sat outside under the stars to eat it. We sent our newly three-year-old to preschool for a third of what it would have cost us in San Francisco.

And we were happy. Life was easier. We had a wonderful year in that yard. I wore sundresses and grew tomatoes. We saved money and bought outdoor furniture.

Then, one year later, my husband’s company changed their plans, closed his group’s office in that city, and gave us eight weeks to move back to California. Just. Like. That.

His new office would be an hour south of San Francisco. It made sense that we could move back to the Bay Area, but this time settle near his office. After all, our son would be starting Kindergarten in one year, and the public schools in that area were top-notch. South of the city, the weather was always ten degrees warmer than chilly, foggy San Francisco. We could have a house, which, though it would be a million times more expensive than Texas, was more affordable than an apartment in the city.

The downside? That year in Texas, for all the sundress wearing, outdoor eating, and preschool bike riding, my husband and I had felt the lack of diversity in our lives. All our friends were white. Almost all our son’s friends were white. We missed the simplicity of walking to the grocery store and seeing the same people at the park everyday.

And I realized that though I often claimed to care about pursuing justice for the oppressed, though I often talked about diversity and buying my food and clothes in an aware, compassionate way, it was so much harder to do so in my “easier” life. I had so much space in my closets, just begging to be filled. I had a Target two minutes away full of pretty gadgets that I was sure I really needed. I struggled to practice what I claimed to believe.

Somehow, after those eight weeks of praying and searching for a plan, my husband and I found ourselves downsizing to an apartment in the city, this time with our two kids. It wasn’t because we were super spiritual or even because we were set on taking steps toward living more simply. It really came down to community. We chose the city because we loved our church, because we loved our friends there. We chose San Francisco because we wanted to live among people who inspired us to do more than use the city for our own benefit. We wanted to engage the city for the sake of a holistic gospel: to make the public school system stronger from the inside, to participate in the art and food culture and all the searching souls within it, to strive for justice among the neglected and disenfranchised, to walk among both the poor of the city and the intellectually elite.

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This first year back in San Francisco, I’ve wondered, What are we doing here? I’m raising two boys in an apartment, even though I know we could spend the same on a big house in another part of the country. I drive as little as possible (parking is difficult) and when I do, I cram my car in the world’s tiniest garage. (I’ve scraped it about forty-five times in the past ten months.) I’ve had to simplify my wardrobe and keep it simple. (My petite closet demands so.) Fog or sunshine, I’m forced to get my kids to the park in order to burn off their energy (and then forced to get to know the people around me on that playground, doing the same thing). My son has Korean friends and Chinese friends and Jewish friends and he and I have had a lot of conversations about race and beliefs. I live above neighbors who don’t have kids, who don’t like noise, and I have cried tears over our situation with them, but I’ve also been forced to have compassion for them, respect them, and work towards peace with them. In other words, this city is refining me. Challenging me. And in some ways, accidentally turning me radical.

And also? My kid still hates bugs, even after that year with a yard.

Yes, my husband commutes an hour to work. Yes, I’m not thrilled with the school where my son is starting Kindergarten.  But, I’m confronted daily with severe beauty and severe brokenness. In the city, I can’t pretend that the world is a simple place. I can’t pretend that we don’t need God.

It’s refining me. But it’s not refining me alone. I’m surrounded by friends who remind me that living in the city with kids is not only possible, it’s good.

Did I choose Downward Mobility? No. I think it chose me. I chose the yard and the two-car garage and the pleasant life on our cul-de-sac. God placed me in the Inner Richmond, where the fog hits first before it rolls into the rest of the city. And I’m beginning to find the fog beautiful, like every other difficult thing about living in this city.

What I’m saying is sometimes you fight against the downward motion of simplicity. Sometimes you fight how it hurts you until you realize that it’s been healing you all along.

 

 

 

ImageMicha (pronounced MY-cah) Boyett is a youth minister turned stay at home mom trying to make sense of vocation and season and place in the midst of her third cross-country move in three years. On a slow journey of learning prayer with eyes open and arms deep in sticky dishes, she blogs at Patheos about motherhood, monasticism, and the sacred in the everyday. Her forthcoming memoir will be released in 2014 from Worthy Publishing. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the first post in the Downward Mobility series, click here.

For all posts, click here.

 

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