Yet Another Way to Share

I’ve written with great pride about the Little Free Library in front of our house. I’ve also written about Chat Benches and Little Free Galleries and Little Free Gardens and even Bug Houses. Another friend recently sent me this little article about another wonderful idea: Stick Libraries for Dogs.

It seems that this gentleman’s dog loves sticks, and there were none in the dog park in New Zealand that they frequent. So, being handy, he built a box and filled it with smooth-edged sticks for the dogs who visit to use and return. What a delightful gesture. A lending library for dogs.

All these ideas have a recurring theme: Sharing. Sharing builds community. Sharing gives people a stronger sense of place. Sharing promotes generosity.

In a world that seems increasingly polarized, the guy who built this box seems to be saying, “I’m not worried about your politics or your religion or your race or your social standing. I just want to make your dog smile.”

I’m sitting here on the other side of the world, and the concept is making me smile, too. I hope it catches on. The dogs of the world would thank us.

Stick Library

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Little Free Gardens!

Recently I started a Little Free Library, and it’s been so popular that I can barely keep up with it. I’ve also blogged about Chat Benches, which is another community-building idea whose time definitely has come. From here, a friend told me about another fantastic idea: Little Free Gardens.

According to the website, “The goal of the Little Free Garden project is to foster communities committed to growing, sharing and cultivating food in small gardens, placed in residential or public spaces.”

What a brilliant concept. And it’s simple, really. 1) Build a box, perhaps 4 feet by 2 feet and 12 inches deep. 2) Plant vegetables or fruit therein. 3) Place it in your front yard or in an approved public space, so that the produce can be shared by anyone who wants or needs it.

Not only are you helping to feed others, but you are educating them about the value of fresh, high quality, local food, and encouraging gardening. It’s also a great way to meet your neighbors and build community connections.

What’s not to love about this idea? If you don’t have the time or space to plant a little free garden, please consider hopping over to their website and supporting this organization in its good works.

clases_doctoradoe

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Chat Benches with a Positive Spin

I’m 54 years old, and for 52 of those years, I was desperately lonely more often than not. So I’d like to think I can speak with good authority on this subject. There’s a certain stigma attached to loneliness. Being in that state makes you feel as if you’re a failure at life, because everyone who sees you as lonely tends to pity you or assume that you are, indeed, a failure at life. (And in case you’re wondering, the odds are quite high that you are NOT a failure. Please know that.)

Seclusion is a catch 22 situation. Often, to break out of it, you must first admit that you’re there, and admitting that you’re there could brand you as some substandard, clingy, desperate outlier, and that causes people to avoid you. Confessing to loneliness also makes you vulnerable, and opens you up to rejection.

So I was really intrigued when a friend shared an article with me about Chat Benches. I started looking into them, and I must say that I was delighted by the intent behind them, but not quite as thrilled by the media spin.

Chat benches seem to have originated in England, and the idea is quite simple. Put a sign on a bench that says, “The ‘Happy to Chat’ Bench: Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.” Brilliant.

I think of the many thousands of times that I’ve shared a bench with strangers and was too afraid to pass the time of day with them, for fear of making them uncomfortable. A bench with this type of sign would remove that hurdle, and make the moment pass by more pleasantly. And who knows? I might have made a new friend.

As we become more isolated, as we all bury our noses in our smart phones, we might need a little extra push to take that step into the land of social interaction. These benches provide just that sort of push. I applaud them.

I’ve read several articles on the subject now, and it seems that they launched this movement to coincide with United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. All well and good. The elderly quite often disproportionately suffer from loneliness and depression. The articles go on to describe how loneliness in that generation makes one susceptible to abuse and suicide. Also a legitimate concern.

Here’s where it gets sticky, though. As a friend says, “I think it’s a mistake, and unhelpful, to frame this as a ‘help lonely people by speaking to them’ story. Asking people to self-identify in public as ‘lonely’ is to ask them to publicly admit to social stigma, and asking the supposedly not lonely to provide public and demeaning charity by deigning to talk to the self-identified ‘lonely’ is to further that stigma. We could all benefit from talking more with each other in safe, casual public situations, stigma- and charity-free.”

I couldn’t agree more. I think these benches are a great idea. But I also think the media spin, and the public conversation, needs to shift. We’re all lonely at one time or another. We could all use new friends. We should all talk more, and listen more. I think everything that gets the community to interact with each other is worthwhile, and if part of that community just happens to be elderly, then so much the better.

What I hate is the idea that whoever sits on that bench first is projecting this “I’m lonely, please help me” image, and whoever sits there second is doing them a great favor. Based on the wording of the sign, that was not the intent of the creators of this movement. Good on them! But the articles I’ve read on the subject would have you believe otherwise, and that’s a great shame.

Hey, I just had a great idea! Perhaps every chat bench could be placed next to a Little Free Library. That way, the person who sits on this bench alone would have something to do until the next person comes along. The sign would make it obvious that person one isn’t so absorbed in the book that he or she isn’t willing to talk. And talking about books is a great ice breaker. Hmmm.

I envision a day when there’s a Chat Bench website, where you can register your bench and have it put on a map to indicate where the nearest bench can be found, just like littlefreelibrary.org does with its libraries. Incidentally, if you go to that website, you can see a bench design that includes little free library books in its base. (A bit pricey, but probably not that hard to imitate.) These two organizations could so easily go hand in hand. An idea whose time has come.

Meanwhile, if you do decide to put up a chat bench (and I hope you will), please make sure it’s in a high traffic area, so that the first person sitting there can avoid that wallflower feeling.

Bench Chat

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Incredible Kindness

Okay. Hoo. I’ve got something in my eye. Sniffle.

One of the most unexpected perks about getting married is that I’ve acquired a whole lot of new amazing family members. One of my favorites, Jenna, recently posted something on her Facebook page that moved me so much that I had to share it with all of you.

“Took the kiddos to a busy park today and watched a mom lose her temper at her kiddo…in a loud yelling, arm yanking kind of way. Another mom walked up to her, put her hand in hers and said, “Hey, we’ve all been here.” Then the super young mama went from red-faced anger to tears. They hugged, and then another mom joined, and another, then a dad joined them, and another, then there were like 10 parents, in a group hug around her. I cried from the sidelines trying to keep a close eye on my little ones, but It was astonishing to see the diversity of parents show their compassion, rather than judgement. We need to rally around our vulnerable parents. Lift them up, and give them strength. This kid raisin’ business is hard. #bekind #ilovemycommunity #tucsonkindness

I’m not one to fill my blog with Facebookishness, but this really hit me in the heart place. In a time when we’re all feeling so polarized and divided and downright depressed, this kind of behavior gives me hope. It is still possible to love thy neighbor. We can support each other. Si se puede. We can be a force for good.

Just sit with that for a while. Let it sink in. Let it be your thought for the day. Namaste.

Group Hug

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The Geometry of Love

I got to observe an interesting geometric experiment recently. It involved a variety of humans and some tennis balls. It made me change the way I look at love, community, and fellowship.

When I saw that the topic for a recent Sunday at the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington was “The Geometry of Love”, I was intrigued. It’s a rare day when I get to attend church. Usually I’m at work. But I had this particular day off, so I went.

The chairs were set up rather differently that day. There was a large empty space in front. At first, one volunteer stood alone. She had one arm stretched out from her side, and she was holding a tennis ball. She spun in a circle, to demonstrate that she was her own focal point, and her realm of influence was a circle all around her. (A friend of mine calls this a “love bubble”. Fortunately that cheesy term didn’t come up on this particular day.)

But no man is an island, as the saying goes. Next, two people stood side by side, at arm’s length. One had a tennis ball, the other did not. They both spun in a circle, and as their hands met, they would pass the tennis ball back and forth. They formed an ellipse, with two focal points. The love of two people has an even larger realm of influence than one person acting alone. And I truly believe that. Functional, loving couples can make a huge difference in this world.

But life is even more complex than that. We cross paths with many people in our day to day lives. Friends. Neighbors. Coworkers. Members of our community. And we all impact one other. At this point, about 40 volunteers stood up, and about 15 of them had tennis balls. They walked among each other in random ways, and as those with tennis balls encountered those without, they’d make eye contact and pass the tennis balls on. It was chaotic, but it was also beautiful.

If we walk in the world in a loving way, we are capable of creating many unique realms of influence. Ellipses with multiple foci may not have a pleasing, regular shapes, they might even be confusing at times. But as we encounter others, of different ages, genders, ethnicities, and points of view, and we mix and mingle and intertwine, we can motivate, inspire, and guide each other in many unexpected ways.

So, as you read this, I’m handing you a tennis ball of love, dear reader. I hope that’s not too “crunchy granola” for you, and I also hope you’ll pass it on!

https _i.stack.imgur.com_pU8gt

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The Ingredients of Happiness

It always comes as quite a shock when someone famous commits suicide. Hearing on the radio that Anthony Bourdain chose to take his own life nearly caused me to swerve off the road. This is someone I’ve envied. He got to travel. He had crazy experiences and met fascinating people. He won countless awards. No doubt he also made a boatload of money.

This was someone who was successful, rich, and had an exciting life. Three things many of us strive for, and yet, now he’s gone. On the surface, you’d think that his was a life worth living. But to make this permanent choice, he must have been in a great deal of emotional pain. He must have been suffering. Surrounded by all of us, who admired him, he must have been all alone. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. I doubt any of us will ever know the full story.

The only thing I can know for sure is that I am happier than Anthony Bourdain was. I would never have guessed this a week ago. But there’s incontrovertible evidence of this now. I’m still here.

So, what constitutes happiness? One thing is for sure: it isn’t money. I know that’s a cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason.

I know someone who is a millionaire, but he’s also a divorced, estranged father and a raging alcoholic. He’s one of the most miserable people I have ever met. Money does nothing to solve your problems when all is said and done. Most of us know this, and yet so many of us still seem obsessed with filthy lucre. It’s such a waste of time.

As far as I can tell, the two things you need to be happy are connections and purpose. Humans are social animals. They need community. The more you surround yourself with people you love who love you back, the happier you will be. And having a purpose, such as a job you love, or a goal to strive for, or even a hobby, makes life worthwhile. If you have none of those things, I encourage you to become a volunteer. Helping others is the noblest of purposes.

Don’t get me wrong. None of us can be happy all the time. People who are happy all the time are mentally ill. It’s how we cope with the rough patches that truly defines us. But there’s a lot that you can do to make your life satisfying overall.

If you are contemplating suicide or know someone who is, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Here in the US, a great resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255. Please, just do that one last thing before taking any steps that, once done, can never be undone. Surely you owe yourself that much.

Anthony Bourdain, I hope you have found the peace you apparently could not find in this life. I wish you had made a different choice.

Anthony Bourdain

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Farmers’ Markets

The farmers’ market in the small town where I just bought my house actually coincides with my regular day off. Yay! So my newest tradition is to go there every week while they’re open, June through September. It’s a delightful way to spend a summer afternoon. It beats the hell out of shopping at Walmart.

I like supporting local farmers, and not having to worry that my fruit and veggies were treated with harsh chemicals so that they’d survive a long truck drive to market. Often the things I buy are still warm from the sun and dirty from the soil. I love that.

And I tend to eat more fruit and veggies if I’ve made the effort to go to a farmer’s market. This is, of course, a win for me. And everything is fresh and usually delicious.

I also love that they take WIC (Women, Infants and Children) vouchers, and if you have an EBT (Food Stamp) card, you get 50% off. And then there’s the SFMNP (Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program). This provides low income senior citizens with vouchers that can be used for produce, honey, and fresh-cut herbs. Since I’m sure I’ll qualify for that some day, I hope that program still exists in about 20 years.

Even if you don’t qualify for any of those programs, the items available at farmers markets are usually very reasonably priced, because you’ve cut out the middle man. And you know you’re supporting the local economy. You also get to people watch, which is an added bonus.

I often buy cherries and then sit on a park bench to eat them and watch kids toss the ball around, women pushing babies in strollers, and cult members passing out leaflets. Politicians sometimes show up to glad handle their constituents, and often there are experts discussing recipes or giving good gardening advice. And I usually get to hear at least 3 languages on any given day. That’s music to my ears.

It’s a great way to meet local artisans, too. Butchers. Bakers. Candle makers. Purveyors of honey. Artists. Florists. I’m dazzled by the color and creativity.

I wonder why pet shelters don’t bring animals there for adoption? “Look honey, I bought peaches and a puppy!” I think it would be a perfect pairing.

Most of all, I like the sense of community that I feel at farmers’ markets. In a world that’s increasingly divided, it’s nice to be able to come together over something we can all agree on: good food. I’ve yet to see a fight break out at a farmers’ market. It’s kind of like an unspoken neutral zone.

Even though Autumn is my favorite season, I’ll be kind of sad when October rolls around and the farmers’ markets close for the year.  Take advantage of them while you still can, folks, and maybe I’ll see you next summer!

farmers market

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Creative Expressions of Grief

I had the distinct honor of participating in a reception for The Healing Center the other day. It’s a grief support community here in Seattle that is a welcoming and safe place to express your feelings of loss. They have been wonderfully helpful and understanding to me.

The reception, which is held annually, is called Healing Hearts. It is an opportunity for people to show the creative ways they have of expressing their grief. I have to say, this is quite a talented crowd. There were poets and writers there, and singer/songwriters and musicians and photographers as well. I was really pleased to be included in their number.

I read two excerpts from my book, A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude. Before the event, I was having trouble choosing which parts of the book to read, so I asked for feedback from some of the regular visitors to my Facebook group, The View from a Drawbridge. The entries we finally chose were I Am Not Who I Was Yesterday, and Scars.

My main takeaway from this event was that there are so many ways to express one’s emotions. In fact, that’s what art is, really: a way to reveal what is inside you. That’s why the arts are so vital to any healthy culture.

I truly believe that it’s very important to open yourself up. Your inner self needs to see the light of day in order to thrive. Things should not be bottled up, lest they fester. And that’s what communities like The Healing Center are all about.

If you are experiencing grief, you do not have to go through it alone. Seek out the equivalent of The Healing Center in your community.

grief-by-i_strad
Grief, by i_strad

Where are All the Bridgetenders?

Bridge operators are a quirky group. We like our privacy. We tend to be slow to trust. We like to be kings of our castles, so to speak. Plus some of us (not me, not anymore) work under some draconian rules and have to fear for our livelihood. That’s probably why there isn’t a widespread network of us out there. We aren’t communicating.

I think this lack of community is a pity. Not only would we benefit from sharing our best practices and telling each other about job openings, but it would be fun to exchange our crazy stories. I would dearly love to hear about and see other views from other drawbridges! So if you know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who opens a drawbridge for a living, please share this post with them, and also invite them to join my Facebook group The View from a Drawbridge, and my other group, Drawbridge Lovers. (Of course, the rest of you can join, too!)

Lets hope this whole 6 degrees of separation thing works, because I’m looking forward to meeting some fellow travelers! Anyone can be a part of Drawbridge Nation! You just have to open up! (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

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The Fremont bridge opens for a sailboat and a pontoon for the 520 bridge. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

The Importance of Including Stakeholders

I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with hundreds of other City of Seattle employees in which one of the many goals was coming up with ways to get the community involved in the decision-making process for city projects. Anyone who has been to Seattle knows that it’s a beehive of activity. Something is always under construction. Roads are being repaved. New transit opportunities are being launched. And all of these things, while being created, have an impact on the neighborhoods in which they’re located.

Sadly, the impact on minority neighborhoods is often more severe. When you cut off traffic flow to mom and pop businesses it can kill them, whereas a Starbucks chain can most likely weather the storm. And there could be cultural and language barrier impacts that you aren’t even aware of. In the past, the predominantly white male administrators of this city did not take these matters into account.

This reminded me of a cartoon I saw many years ago (which I desperately wish I could find on line so I could post it at work, but no luck so far): It shows a bridge submerged in a river, with only the spires sticking up, and on the bank there’s a guy in a suit, jumping up and down in frustration, and a construction guy is saying to him, “If you want one of those over-water thingies, you got to specify.”

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray spoke at the meeting I attended, and he had a lot to say on the subject. Fortunately, he was humble. He admitted that mistakes have been made, and he took responsibility for them. One of the more notorious city mistakes was the treatment of hookah lounges.

There are 11 such lounges in the city, and some people feel they are hubs of violence. People have been shot dead in front of hookah lounges. Surrounding businesses have been impacted. People started approaching the mayor and begging him to do something. So he came up with a plan to shut them all down. Read more about that here.

To say this caused a ruckus is putting it mildly. Many members of the East African and Middle Eastern communities protested loudly. These establishments are meeting places for them, and places to celebrate their cultural identity. And in truth, they can’t be held responsible for criminal acts that take place outside their walls. That’s a law enforcement issue. That’s a gang violence issue. Having some white men in suits barge in, thinking they have all the answers, without even discussing it with those people who would be most impacted by their decisions was offensive to say the least. The mayor had to back down on that one.

Now Seattle is one of the first cities in the country to employ RETs, or Racial Equity Toolkits. And it’s the only city in the country that requires that such a toolkit be used at least 4 times a year in every city department. This toolkit is a series of steps that get the community stakeholders involved in the planning process for city projects. It requires that planners view their projects through a racial equity lens. How will our actions impact this particular community? What can we do to reduce or prevent negative impacts? What important things might we be overlooking?

I left this meeting feeling rather proud of my new city. We may not always get things right, but by God we try. That a very important start, and it counts for a lot.

GARE-Racial_Equity_Toolkit