Saturday, June 25, 2011

World of Imagination

I have a very active imagination.

George and I went to the zoo in Baltimore today.  George had never been, and it was really neat to show him this place which holds so many memories for me.  It's not like it was when I was a kid - there are things that are the same, but the travel, the moving around, is a lot different.  No more prairie dogs at the entrance, no more pink flamingos, and most importantly, no more secret and unguarded entrance to the scum-soaked, dilapidated boat lake.  It's more limited now, and the feeling of getting lost in this maze of animals and of parkland is gone.

I remember going to the boat lake with my dad.  We walked around the green-tinged water, and stared off into the boat house, and we imagined what it must have been like - back then, you know, back then when the world was different and a little bit brighter.  The boat house looked as if it were about to fall apart with memories - dancing, picnicking, romance, and quite a lot of wood rot.  Dad and I talked and created the past like wisps of perfume, champagne, and elusive music.

The entrance of the lake was guarded by a white marble fountain, and I used to sit on the rough stone and think about dipping my feet into cool water.  This place was a secret.  This place was death-in-life, and it and its memories belonged to us.  Sweating, beating, soft-sweet-low, impressions of something gone and never to be recovered.

It's very easy for me to imagine the past.  I grew up with hundred year old transferware, and furniture to be perched upon, and pump organs, and choral music.  The past is a known quantity, in some ways - we have artifacts and treasures that give us something so full of dead passion and grace.  I can imagine the past because we, as a community, have lived it.

The future is a lot harder.  Technology beats its own drum, and things change in this uncontrollable way that is both inevitable and unbelievable.  I'd like to think that my life will continue in some known way - just like life is now, but a little different.

I feel like I'm missing something important when I think about Columbia, because when I look at the buildings I have nothing to imagine, or nothing I am capable of imagining.  That music isn't there - the scent of still waters.  We in Columbia are engaging in the practice of creating the future, and I don't quite know where I stand in that process.  I have no connection, no boat lake, no dancing with fireflies.  That doesn't mean that I won't have those things eventually.  New buildings become old, and my life becomes a part of someone else's imagination.

There's an incredible amount of love that comes from knowing the past.  I think I've mentioned identity before, and history creates identity in a lot of ways.  I don't know what it means to be a Columbian, because I don't feel I have an identity that is rooted in trees, parks, architecture, change, and the whispers of the past.  In Columbia, I don't have a boat lake.

But I want to.  I want to take my children, as my father took me, and tell stories of the imagination.  Someday this place will give me the gift of secrets, of antiquity, of the stark People Tree and still waters.

I love Baltimore, but I'm not giving up on my life here because I am determined to be a part of that thing, that soft thing, that means home.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Real Columbia

A woman stands in the grass, the hem of her long cornflower skirt rustling, her dark skin soaking up sunlight.  She has black hair, fine and thick and curled, and a nose that seems to be a story in and of itself.

My fiance and I stop at the light on 175 and Snowden.  I stare at the woman - not at her face, but at what she has in her hands.  I look in my purse for money that I know isn't really there.  Her sign is simple - white with black block letters, and the words, "Please, in the love of God," make me hate myself and feel ashamed.

I hadn't really seen people beg on the streets in Columbia until the recession hit.  It hit hard.  I suddenly saw women - well-dressed, beautiful, mothers - with signs and hunger and bitterness and somehow still the desire, the strength, the need to protect their children.  Women you might meet at work, or at the dentist, or in Target.

Homelessness in Columbia is a shock to me - not because I'm shocked by poverty, having grown up in Baltimore and staring at the pavement and away from the desperation of urban life.  I'm shocked because I - perhaps like many others in Howard County - just don't think it could be true.  We're a community of suburbanites, yes?  Of minivans.  Of good schools and government jobs and computer programming.  How can poverty happen here?

It happens.  I see it, and working in the school system I saw it, and I felt the floor open up under me as my outdated delusions of 'burbhood became irrelevant.  We do not live in paradise.  Maybe some of us do - maybe there are people in Columbia who are living the magical and, to most, unobtainable dream of being financially secure, but I think that there aren't as many of those people as we are supposed to believe.

Columbia was an idea, a vision of intermingling, of wholeness, many races, many religions, and true happiness like marshmallow on a snowball.  But we don't really see it that way - at least not now.  We're trained not to see or not to accept the differences.  The "I don't have enough," or the, "I have too much;" the "I don't speak English," and the, "I think you should;" the "I need help," and the, "Stare at the pavement."  I've lived in Columbia since I was twelve, and it took me at least ten years to realize that there is so much disparity in this community of blind-eyed, candy-coated idealism.

I'm not trashing the original concept of this planned community.  I want us to be multi-ethnic, to have different jobs and names and village centers and identities.  That's great.  That's what a city is.

What I'm questioning is this - why did it take so long?  Why didn't I see before that there are differences in the lives of Columbians, and that we're all not doing enough to be good neighbors?

Why didn't I see that this place is turning into a city?  We've got poverty, and homelessness, and I (so help me) look in my purse because I can't face what's right in front of me.  Columbia is changing, and I think that instead of closing my eyes and maintaining the peace of a child with fingers in its ears, I should look up and say, this is what change means.  Instead of calling for new restaurants and theatres and the glitz of urbanity, maybe I should look up at the beautiful woman, for the love of God, and become a citizen of the real Columbia.       

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Storm

We've just experienced a terrible storm - the kind that makes you think you're going to see Dorothy, and it's not even Pride weekend yet.  Up on the third floor, in our condo, the trees have bent nearly sideways, coniferous fronds dancing violently against the siding.  It's black - the sun hasn't gone down yet, but it seems like the night will go on and on, tossed into dark with the swift crack of hail and the sharp call of sirens.

A storm.  A storm that breaks the oppressive heat.  A storm that makes me think that the world is about to be reborn, pale, naked, and twilight purple.

After the rain comes a bright, strident note - birdsong.  It's like dawn.  I asked George where the birds hid when it rained and we thought that some might fly into it and some might cling to the inner branches of the big pine trees.

The world is changed.  More sirens, more noise, and a shocking quiet like the night about to breathe.

I think that this place, Columbia, must be like that.  Some things need to be broken down into their most fundamental parts - branches and leaves and birdsong - in order to be stitched together into a whole.  I've met people who've lived here their whole lives, and they tell me that change is good - unless there's too much traffic, or not enough parking, or too much development.  I've also met people who are eager for something to break, some great dam bursting forth with promise and wildness.

Plans are made.  Trees are cut down.  Buildings go up.  And I'm looking toward the future, afraid of the storm, and looking into it - looking to something that I can't possibly know, can't imagine.

I can see why that might be scary, especially to those who have known this Columbia for so long, and who see the storm of change as something purely destructive.  And yes, it can be scary - after all, when I'm driving from my condo to my mother's house, I mourn the trees on Oakland Mills that have given way to what I can hardly believe will be "park land."

But I need that storm of change; I, who miss living in the city, who love this school system, who need open air, who need dancing and late nights and art galleries and yes, even that, even the occasional traffic jam.

It's so dark now that the doors to our porch are like golden mirrors in the lamp light.  I don't know what tomorrow's going to look like - if it's going to be hot and hellish like today, with sweaty teachers and children and parents, or if it's going to be cool-blissful as I think June should be.

Either way, I can't be afraid of the change.  I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning and be in a world I know not, and I need to be ready.