We are made of dreams and bones

This morning my friend Kristin sent me the link for 596 acres where vacant lots in Brooklyn are taken over to create community gardens. I checked it out and felt inspired, then spent way too much time searching for a local community garden to join on this supposedly easily-navigable sight oasis.  I couldn't find any nearby. We do have wonderful parks, all along the river. And nice playgrounds. And these lovely ornamental grasses all around our neighborhood. But I got really fixated on the idea of a community garden where kids really could dig and plant seeds and help weed and watch things grow. And then maybe even eat the things that grow, or give them to other people to eat. My neighbor friend Becky has long dreamed of a community garden on top of the eyesore parking lot in the middle of our complex. Kristin and Becky are both teachers, not gardeners per se. But like my sister, another teacher, they all know the value of kids spending time outdoors, in nature.

Lately I've also been trying to find volunteer opportunities to do with a four-year-old, thinking there must be stuff we can do together, like gardening or picking up trash or visiting seniors. But I can't find anything local for kids that young. Tomorrow is a Social Action Day organized by The New Shul with projects and games for kids at the Chelsea Elliot Houses right nearby. Families are welcome but the recommendation is for volunteers age 10 and up. I've asked people who are part of various churches if they have a service component that includes kids. No luck yet. And then I thought, if no opportunities for service with kids exist, I'll just have to start making some up. I mean, there's a lot we can do, even if it's not "official". Like maybe we could start collecting and bringing compost down to the Saturday morning pickup at Abdington Square on Saturday mornings. Even if we're not good enough citizens to collect banana peels all week long, maybe we can at least start with the apple cores and coffee grinds on Friday.

Just basically, starting small. Doing one, small good thing, rather than dreaming of elaborate idealistic plans for someday, a day that may never come.

These green dreams were in the back of my head as I went on with my work this morning. And then I went for a quick run before I had to pick up Wally. It was too windy, so I went for a short run, not all the way out to the river (I'm feeling wimpy today, probably because of too much drinking last night).

On the walk back I saw the kids in front of the public elementary school milling all about in a tiny, fenced in yard they have there. I've never seen them hanging out there before. I stopped for a minute to look, and I just couldn't help beaming when I saw they were weeding the patch of dirt that had once maybe been a garden. 

I wanted to take a picture but was afraid I'd be mistaken for a pedophile, and I know some people think it's illegal to take pictures of kids. It's actually perfectly legal, fine to post photos of children as well, but people don't know this because of the parental consent forms that go around and the general hysteria associated with protecting our children, which, as Lenore Skenazy points out nearly daily, does more harm than good. That is a separate story. Sad, that our society has gotten so suspicious, so scared of mostly the wrong things.

This is the public school that most of the parents I know in this neighborhood want to avoid with a ten foot pole because it has many kids from the housing projects (the same above mentioned, Chelsea-Elliot). One local dad even said he would let his daughter go there "over his dead body". They will do anything to avoid it. There's another cute, coveted public school nearby for which some of us in this complex are zoned (not us). In the fall there was a period of time when it looked like some redistricting would go on and we'd all be zoned for this school -- which made me so happy-- community! continuity! a small-town feel! our kids getting to go to school with all their neighboorhood friends! -- but caused an upset and well-organized protest by those zoned for the cute, coveted school. In the end, they won, and the districts remain drawn as they are. So - anyway, this is just to say that the school I mention is sort of the black sheep school, and it's the one I hope Wally gets to go to in 2014 and the one I hope I get to read books at and dig in the dirt with and paint murals on the walls of. But it would be considered far from perfect by most parents here, and these aren't even Tiger Moms or Snowplough dads. They're pretty bohemian and laid back.

So there I was in front of the imperfect school after the imperfect run. And because of our litigious and fearful society I didn't dare take a picture so you just have to take my word that the kids were joyful and free, hopping about in that tiny space, like too many fish in a small tank but still moving about and seeming totally alive. They were out in the sun. No jackets, despite the wind. No money required for this lesson plan. No materials, really. They were weeding, and enjoying it, gleeful with the excavation of each unwanted plant they plucked from the ground. I did stop and tell the teacher I thought it was awesome they were doing that, at the risk of appearing creepy ("Why are you watching first graders playing?"). She was sweaty and kind, hair falling out of her pony tail, holding a trash bag (hope they compost those weeds!). She looked happy.

I put my headphones back on. I was listening to Naomi Shelton, a gospel singer, "I'll take the long road" and kept it on a loop until I got home. "I'll take the long road, yes indeed, but surely surely I will get there." And it just felt so good, to know and accept and be aware of the fact that good things really do happen little by little. Even when you are little and the problems are big. It's Bird by Bird, inch by inch, the journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step, it's the tortoise, not the hare. Moving forward, and knowing it's going to be a long road and just facing that small task ahead of you because it's really the only way to make progress. Facing that one small step is the hardest leap to make.

One classroom of kids outside weeding the garden won't repair a crumbling public education system or reverse climate change and milling about in that tiny space won't make up for curtailed recess time and the need children have to run free, increasingly denied them. But it's a start. And that's really all we can ask for. They are out there. They are doing it. Their hands are dirty. At this forgotten school people only seem to go if they have no other choice, these left-behind kids were not left inside today. They may not get the tutoring, the art programs, the state-of-the-art technology other kids in the neighborhood get. They may not have the advantages others have. They may not have the same array of choices made available to them upon graduation. They may be forced to take the long road. But they'll get there. Working in the overgrown garden today, they were beginning to make their way.

Title: Garden Song by David Mallett

Pullin' weeds and pickin' stones
We are made of dreams and bones
Need a place to call my own
'Cause the time is close at hand


  1. Love Anne Lamont, love Naomi shelton, love NYC, love your posts! Also have been an avid reader of Lenore skenazy's ever since I read her wonderful piece in the new york sun about letting her son ride the subway alone. Have you seen the documentary "waiting for superman" or read Seth Godin's recent manifesto on making change in the current school system?

  2. Thank you!! So glad you are a Lenore Skenazy fan. Saw her speak last summer and couldn't stop laughing at her demonstration of walking wings. I haven't seen "Waiting for Superman" or read the Seth Godin piece. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction!
    (Happy to hear you know and love Naomi Shelton...)


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