We were driving through our neighborhood a few weeks ago, and Vincenzo, with great disgust in his voice, says: “Mom, I’m tired of all this junky stuff!” Thinking he might be commenting on the state of the minivan, I was gearing up to launch into a tirade about how the kids never listen when I tell them to get their garbage and clothes and toys and books and papers and food and cleats and homework and treasures OUT OF MY CAR. But wait: might he mean something else? I did what the smart mom does before tirade launching; I know it’s the smart thing because of all the times I have done the opposite. Smart mommy that I sometimes am, I said: “What do you mean?” He clarified: “I mean all the dirty trees and houses, and all the junky stuff around the houses.”
He’s right. While there are lots of folks in our neighborhood who take great pride in their homes and yards, there are also plenty of folks who don’t, either because they don’t have the resources or because they are renters who don’t care or for various other reasons. The end result is that there are more than the occasional “junky-lookin’” houses and small straggly trees in our little corner of the world.
I agreed with him that some of the areas of our neighborhood were kinda junky; I tried to put it in a little bit of perspective, by talking about how lots of people probably work a lot, and don’t have much time to fix up their houses; some people probably don’t have enough money to really do things they might want to do. I tried to point out the houses that were nicer, the gardens that were clearly loved and tended. Nothin’. No response.
A few blocks away, just up the hill from the “flatlands,” as our streets are called, the homes get bigger and nicer, the streets get wider and cleaner, the trees more lush and plentiful. The junk factor dissipates. We were headed in this direction that day, and as we started up the hill, O Observant One says from the backseat: “Now THIS is what I like to see!” Is there no end to the things children notice?
It made me a little sad, that he thinks of his own neighborhood as junky and prefers somewhere else. But heck, he’s right: the neighborhood up the hill is much cleaner. I’d live there if I could; the trees alone make it so much more pleasant. I think Vincenzo was picking up on the difference between living somewhere beautiful and living somewhere…less beautiful. Is it easier to be happy when you live somewhere beautiful? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. But I know that it sure feels nice to look out the window and see trees and clean streets instead of “junky stuff.” Somehow, it sort of seems to make our forehead’s stop creasing, our shoulders straighten, our breathing deepen.
Luckily, my family gets to live in an oasis. Our own little garden is quite the little enclave of nature in the midst of a pretty working class, urban neighborhood. This is because my husband has transformed it from a run of the mill juniper lot to a space for native plants, flowers, and shrubs, for birds, butterflies, bees, and crickets, for strawberries, apples, tomatoes, ollalaberries and pluots for the kids to snack on while playing. It’s awesome. We have a windmill in our backyard, and from my bedroom window, I can the just see the top of it. I can listen to the windmill blades clickety-clicking and imagine that we live out in the country, instead of in urban, gritty Richmond. At night (like right now), I get to hear crickets chirping away; it’s become part of my story-reading routine with the girls to stop and listen for the crickets, and then again when I put them in bed, we stop and see if we can hear the little chirpers from the girls’ bedroom. Our garden is kind of like the field of dreams for native wildlife: My husband built it, and they have come.
So fortunately, even in the midst of junky stuff, I can still look around and say, “ Now THIS is what I like to see!” Not sure if my son is quite there yet, but someday, I’m sure he will be.