I have been reading the Pope’s encyclical letter Laudato si´: On Care for Our Common Home. I am not Catholic (nor do I subscribe to any particular faith or religion), but this particular document is one for this age. I have not read all of it. It is slow going because in true historian fashion, I write margin notes as I read. And as I read, I realize how very privileged I am:
45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.
We moved to a house next to a multi-use trail that runs along a natural creek. The city owns much of the open space, and property owners observe an easement along the creek itself. It is a natural area, or as natural as is possible in middle of a small city. A couple of months ago, I watched a hawk eat his meal on the roof of a not-quite-finished house in our very small subdivision. Earlier in the winter, we followed a tail-less fox on our bikes: he ambled along looking like a rather large corgi from behind, and we were happy to note that he looked healthy. I am delighted by the many dragonflies zooming through our neighborhood; I am hopeful that they (or even better, their larval stage) are doing their best to control the mosquitoes.
The real estate agents tout the wonderful location of our neighborhood, and it is indeed wonderful. From a historic point of view, it is also a surprisingly diverse area. Within a 1/2 square mile of our house are wood-framed 1890s to 1920s farm houses, minimal traditional 1930s and 1940s cottages, tiny brick post-war houses, expansive mid-century architect-designed ranches, less interesting 1970s and 1980s condominium complexes, and late 20th-century and early 21st-century post-modern homes. Many of the houses verge on the decrepit, but gentrification marches on. Even run-down shacks start at $300 thousand, and people are apparently quite happy to snap them up and turn them into their “open concept hardwood floors granite countertops stainless steel appliances minimum 3 bedrooms 2 bathroom large yard” dream home.
This is my neighborhood. If I congratulate myself on being “green” because I can (and do) walk/bike everywhere, the Pope reminds me it is because I can choose to be green. I have the economic wherewithal to choose to walk, to bike, to have expensive LED bulbs, to have high-efficiency plumbing and mechanics, to have solar panels, to have environmentally sustainable wood floors, to have a finished basement to escape the worst of the summer heat because I also choose not to have air conditioning. And outside my door, I can enjoy a protected green space. I use the trail everyday, and while I see the low-income apartment complex a couple hundred yards down the trail from my house, I also know its days are numbered. The diversity that interests me on my walks is disappearing, and I am of course a contributor. It is all very safe, very sanitized, very middle-class, and I am guilty of complaining that I still do not have the promised landscaping around my new house. Luckily, I have the Holy Father and Mom (who would be appalled to know she had anything in common with a celibate white man who lives in a marble palace) to chastise me. Who knew she would be the Pope’s enforcer in reminding me to be humble?
I sweep the (sustainable bamboo) floors everyday, and because I am compulsive, I do it on my hands and knees. It is how Mom used to clean her floors, so it is how I do it. It is actually quite efficient, and I can wipe down pretty much the entire house in about 20 minutes. I hear Mom telling me not to be afraid of manual labor: “Do it right,” she says, “and no shirking.” And she reminds me that our fortunes were built, quite literally, on the back of her grandfather, the day laborer who started the upward mobility of his family by hauling salt for a living. I may have three degrees, but the floors still need to be cleaned.
I clean the floors, and most days I cry. “Don’t cry,” Mom says. “If you keep crying, Ah-ma is going to lecture me on how I didn’t raise you correctly to appreciate and understand the cycle of life.” Remember your roots, remember your privileges, remember to be humble.