therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the month “December, 2015”

Mangers Everywhere

DSC01536Two days shy of the darkest day of the year, silhouetted against a rainy twilight sky, I watched a young woman emerge from a tent, tugging a stroller behind her. A young man followed. They turned the stroller around and bumped it down a muddy knoll, lifting it over a ditch and onto the sidewalk. Their tent, pitched next to Interstate 5 at the 50th Street exit in Seattle’s University District, flapped behind them, sagging under the relentless rain, leaning half-heartedly against the wind, ready to cave in to the next good gust. As we waited for the light to change, all I could see of the baby in the stroller, across the two lanes of traffic that stood between us, was that at least she or he was covered with a blanket.

My husband and I were on our way to see the latest movie version of Macbeth. The very first shot in the movie is of a dead baby. And the weather in medieval Scotland, as seen on screen, was only slightly worse than the weather outside the theater in mid-winter Seattle. I shivered at the thought of living in such brutal conditions: no heat, no light, mud everywhere. But that is exactly how the young couple I’d seen coming out of their tent were living. Right here in my own high-tech hometown. Right now, in 2015.

As we drove home, we took in the sparkling lights of all the construction cranes in South Lake Union and downtown. It’s as if they’re competing this year for the most festive displays: long strings of brightly colored lights, even trees and Santas perched high above the city. And why not celebrate the ongoing construction boom? Five years ago, Seattle was dotted with half-dug holes, half-built buildings, half-done projects halted by the recession.

But the young couple with the stroller haunts me. How do two young people come to be so desperate that they pitch a tent on the edge of the freeway? And they’re not alone. The tents are everywhere. It seems that for every new crane hanging over another new construction site, there are dozens more tents popping up a few blocks away, often in places we haven’t seen them before.

It’s not my imagination. The Seattle Times reports that as of late November, 527 unauthorized homeless encampments were shut down by the city this year. 527. Those are just the ones that were actually shut down. That’s up from 351 in 2014. 131 in 2013. Eighty in 2012. On November 2, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a homeless emergency and authorized five million dollars to be spent on shelter and services for people found sleeping outside.

Meanwhile, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, nearly 21,600 rental units are currently under construction. But the Journal is also reporting an “alarming deterioration” in the local apartment rental market. Deterioriation! What could this mean? Here’s what it means: rents have dropped an average of $59 a month in the last quarter, in all neighborhoods except South Lake Union. Twenty percent of landlords are even offering “incentives” such as a month’s free rent. The vacancy rate is up from 4 percent to, wait for it, 4.3 percent.

Is this really how we define “alarming?” The fact that rents have taken a baby step backwards, towards actual affordability, is “alarming?” And you can bet rents are still so far from the reach of the people in the tents that they may as well be millions, not thousands, of dollars per month.

I don’t know what to do about the young family I saw coming out of the tent. Should I have pulled over, that evening, and given them whatever crumpled bills were in my purse? How much longer can I rationalize that doing the same small things, over and over again—volunteering when my church hosts homeless women and children overnight, buying diapers and toys for the families we sponsor at Christmas, giving coats and sleeping bags to the neighborhood kids who are collecting for their school, handing energy bars to panhandlers—is enough? And yet we, I, can’t not do these things. How could we not?

Mayor Murray is promising that the city will find shelter for the tent people. But is it? Are we? What’s going on in Seattle? Where and how are we going to find room at the inn?

Back to Macbeth for a moment. In this latest interpretation of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play, director Justin Kurzel and actor Michael Fassbender as Macbeth are unflinching in their portrayal of a warrior who could have been a true hero and leader, if only he had found the strength to resist the temptations of power and greed. And we know where those temptations got him: to one of the most cynical, sad moments in literature, when he pronounced life “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But life is not that. If it were, the couple in the tent would just give up. Instead, they went out in the rain, presumably in search of food and help for themselves and their infant. Because, as theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “we are called to be people of hope.”

But Nouwen also said this: “we cannot go around despair to hope. We have to go right through despair.”

There are mangers everywhere, in this Advent season.

Father Solstice

12294725_1023642207693534_3470832158015669034_n 2 I was in it for the Beaconettes. What’s not to love about a holiday choir decked in sky-high beehive hairdos festooned with strings of lights? So I braved the bone-chilling Seattle December rain and headed for the annual tree-lighting at our neighborhood’s new gathering spot, a mini-park called the Columbia City Gateway. My husband was waiting for me, hot chocolate in hand. Aahhh.

We tried to figure out where the tree was. Turns out it was a telephone pole. This would be a pole lighting. But that’s OK—it’s Columbia City, where even a pole lighting in a downpour can somehow still promise to be festive.

There were some mercifully short introductory remarks, and then the night’s celebrity guest was introduced: Father Christmas himself, or, as the announcer added, “Father Solstice, if you prefer.” And what a FatherSolsticemagnificent Father Christmas/Solstice he was: fur-crowned, green-robed, cascading white beard and hair.

I was kicking myself for not having added one more layer to my winter-rain getup and feeling anxious to see the Beaconettes before I crossed over into hypothermia. My husband saw me shivering and put his arms around me. Then Father Solstice stepped up to the microphone, wrapping us all in his gentle yet commanding presence: the kind of presence that long years of addressing such crowds can give a man, especially one with mythical tendencies.

I’m paraphrasing here, but this is what I remember of what Father Solstice said: “I won’t talk long, I promise. I know you’re wet and cold. But I just want to remind you about some refugees you might have heard about. Two thousand years ago, they were looking for a place to stay, because one of them was about to have a baby. Door after door was barred against them. And I’m bringing them up because this year, we’re more tempted than ever to bar our doors against the refugees of the world. More tempted than ever to act out of fear, instead of love.”

“Who remembers,” Father Solstice went on, “when Seattle was declared a Sanctuary City in the 1980s? Maybe it’s time to reclaim that vow.”

The soggy crowd was quiet.

“OK,” said Father S, snapping us back to the present. Let’s count down and light that pole!”

We all counted down, clapping and cheering when the telephone pole lit up. Then the Beaconettes stirred and glowed and we crowded in so we could hear them over the deluge as they belted out their trademark carols featuring rewritten lyrics about contemporary life in Seattle, which this year included riffs on marijuana, Amazon, Fitbits and Bertha the wayward tunnel-digger. They were hilarious, as always.

But it was Father Solstice who stayed with me, as we walked off into the dark.

Is it still possible to be a sanctuary city? What it technically means is that Seattle is a city where police officers are not allowed to ask about an individual’s immigration status. What “sanctuary city” also meant, in the 1980s, was a place where many churches and activists provided sanctuary for refugees fleeing violence in Central America and, later on, other turbulent places in the world.

Is it possible, in these times, not to offer sanctuary? In his Sunday speech from the Oval Office, President Obama called the terrorists of the Islamic State—which is neither reflective of more than a tiny, warped sliver of Islam, nor a state—“thugs and killers.” How can we not offer sanctuary when murderous thugs are driving waves of terrified people into exile? How can we be the ones who cry out, “no room at the inn?”

And yet: what kind of sanctuary are we, when our country is flooded with firearms, bedecked and bedazzled with them, to a degree that must make the violent thugs of the world quiver with envy? When our politicians shout, “yes, bar those doors!” even as they encourage the flow of guns from the factories and into the hands of everyone who wants one or two or two dozen, whether they’re terrorists, armed robbers, or duck hunters?

Turns out Father Christmas/Solstice is a long-time peace activist in Seattle named Bob Barnes. I had the honor of meeting him, and thanking him for what he said, after the pole-lighting; an event, I told him, that I won’t soon forget. Thanks, Beaconettes, and thank you, Bob. The holiday season in Seattle may be dark and sodden, but it has its bright moments. “Bright,” as in happy strings of lights on beehive hairdos and on one telephone pole. And “bright” as in: a man in a green cloak and furry crown, willing to shine a light right where we need it most.

In the mood for another seasonal tale? Here’s one I called “A Manger Story,” published this week on the Patheos Good Letters site. 

Radio news: After four years, The Restless Nest has retired from its weekly radio spot on KBCS. This will give me more time to work on some longer projects. But I’ll continue to post here at least a few times a month. 

 

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