life as we make it

Emergency Diplomatic Foray
February 22, 2010, 7:18 pm
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Friday began like any rainy day in January…..Jack was climbing the mulch mountain and yelling about being an airplane, while Jana and I were stuffing a wet cowhide into a (clean-enough) city garbage can for the first of a series of rinses that would prepare it for scudding.  Scudding, scraping the soaked and softened fatty membrane that still clings to the hide, is the next step in our home-tanning process.   Jana and I were grimacing, wrestling the slimy, hairy, stinky, unwieldy thing into the tub, and it must have looked like we were attempting to dispose of the corpse of sasquatch as the kids looked on when an official City of Portland truck turned down our drive. 

Gulp.  Jana and I locked eyes and continued our slimy struggle in as untroubled a manner as we could until the building inspector got out of his truck.  We established that I was the owner of the property in question, and I nearly fainted as he read the list of complaints about unpermitted work inside and outside.  My peripheral vision went black as I realized that the official kibosh would end life as we know it on our little homestead.  My “concerned but casual” cover was nearly blown…..literally……as I surpressed the urge to vomit.  Illegal outbuildings, illegal woodstove, illegal BATHROOM IN THE BASEMENT!  Trying to listen to the inspector, my mind flipped through the mental database of names and faces of friends and neighbors who could possibly know enough about our property to make these specific allegations.  I reeled, imagining that it might be someone who we have welcomed into our home and openly shared our space with, who has probably joined us around the firepit to celebrate some community events or holidays.

I’ll skip the details, but fortune was with us.  This inspector  had  no desire to shut down our compound.  With his long gray beard, wire-rimmed spectacles, and fair and reasonable manner, he was like a bureaucratic Santa Claus, explaining as he drove out of sight, “this is a complaint based process, and we will not be back unless this jerk tries to start another fight.”  Ho ho ho!  Well, those might not have been his exact words, but I think I’ve captured the sentiment.

And for a moment it felt like Christmas.  Sweet reprieve!  But relief quickly reverted to anger, suspicion, fear and sadness.  Who?  Why?  My immediate neighbors (good neighbors, whose covered deck currently smells like a butcher shop because it is occupied by our two curing cow-hides) and I have a running joke about our biannual nuisance complaints.  About twice a year, we’re delivered notice about some moldy pile of mulch or construction debris, expired tags, or other evidence of our uncivilized existence.  In higher times, we laugh it off and take it as a push to finish up and clean up the latest lingering project.  In lower times, we speculate unkindly on the identity of the culprit and rant about  anti-agrarian, anti-working class laws and codes that make it nearly impossible to improve our own property in an affordable and legal way.  My inner libertarian cocks my rifle, stands on the porch, and says, “get off m’land.”  But this felt different.  This felt personal.  And I just knew that it would happen again, probably with unhappier results, unless I could also do something personal.    So I confess it was not without a thought to garnering sympathy, that I elected not to change a thing in my ensemble.  I left Jana huddled over the soaking hide in the downpour and set off in my galoshes and babushka head scarf.  With Thor on my back and  a dripping, woolen shawl draped around both of us, this soggy, hunch-backed apparition sloshed off to win the hearts and minds of the disgruntled with honesty and sincerity–and a cute baby.

The feeling was almost evangelical.   Hands shaking, a fire in my belly, I was propelled by a  certainty that I could not fail.  How could anyone who knew our good intentions and hardworking family possibly object to our strange ways.  Who, when approached directly and respectfully could cloak their concerns with covert phone-ins .  I felt this intoxicating clarity of purpose that I was on a peacemaking mission to strengthen and unify the neighborhood, usher in a new era of open communication and local problemsolving, reach out to the disenfranchised,  push my community-building ethic to the next level.  Perhaps it is obvious by now that I am prone to grandiose thought and spiritual experience brought on by relatively mundane events.  This may fall under that heading.  But I was ready to convert the pope with pure charm and neighborly concern.  

I did not rehearse but had complete faith that the words would come because they were bubbling out straight from the heart.  And they went something like this:  A building inspector had just come with some complaints that were really scary because they were of a nature that would require some intimate knowledge of our property.  I was sad that someone in the neighborhood was offended by what we’re doing and upset they didn’t feel they could approach us with their concerns.  Admittedly, we do some things that are a little unorthodox, but we’re doing all the work ourselves because it’s what we can afford.  We love living here, and so much of what we do is for our neighbors to share and enjoy.  We’re building a life here, and this place is a hub for a lot of people who live nearby.  Everyone is welcome in our home.   I want this to be a great place to live for everyone in the community, and anyone can come and talk to me about what we’re doing–whether it’s for a friendly visit or to discuss concerns.  I am more than happy to craigslist that extra set of tires or  deal with what’s under the tarp if I know that it’s important to one of my neighbors.  But I just need to know. 

I should mention that I have changed names and construction project details to protect the beleaguered homeowners who just want to be left alone to improve their ways of life without everybody and the city getting all involved with the intimate details of their plumbing and setbacks, already! 

The first round of outreach yielded little in suspects but much in sympathy.  Stop one was a neighborly lovefest, ending with mutual reassurances that Molly and I were totally on board with one another’s boats, dogs, trucks and sheds and that at very minimum I was better than the last occupants who had a homeless camp in a shipping container and an open sewer pit in the backyard.  On the second stop, Roger and Ella echoed that sentiment and assured me that I was “probably the only one [they] never say anything bad about.”   Ella sent me off with a box of chocolates and a request that I not show my cleavage to Roger when I was working in the yard(?).  Next,  Lacey thought I was a wandering tamale lady (I’ll give her that.  I was sporting a pretty third-world sillhouette.) and denied me access through the front door.  Her husband come from around the back to fend me off, but I ended up with a full house tour and discussion of future remodel plans.  Down the road, Carol kindly offered to hold the baby while I had a stiff drink.  I declined.  Lucy, who I had never properly met before, hugged me.  Nora wanted to set up a playdate with the kids.   On and on it went like this. 

It was dark, I was beginning to intrude on dinner hours, and Thor’s sleeping head was bobbing backwards at an angle alarming to non-parents.  So, out of obvious suspects, I bagged the diplomatic mission for the night.  Comforted that none of our immediate neighbors are secret detractors, I am now venturing farther afield, approaching people with less obvious proximity to our property.  I’ve heard tale of a St. Johns old-timer that makes frequent rounds of the neighborhood, talking to people out working–maybe shooting the breeze, maybe collecting intelligence???  I’ve also heard that he used to make these rounds with his wife until her arthritis turned her housebound.  I continue knocking on doors hoping to find him, and talking to others, but the approach gets more awkward as a little of the evangelical fire burns off and I get farther from basecamp.  Many of these people truly are strangers.  A few blocks away from my own home I know very few people even by sight, let alone by name.  And as the mission gets tougher, it seems also more important.  Yes, this effort has strengthened some relationships that were suffering benign neglect–but creating new ones is the deeper work.  As someone with a self-professed “village” ethic, a belief in the shared life, it’s clearer to me now that we must  reach farther.  It’s not enough to sit content in an insular, exclusive ingroup that is easy to live with.  Reaching out to those who don’t understand or who are downright hostile to our efforts and finding common ground is essential.  This is building concensus.  This is the essential work of changing society. 

I work to create the world I want to live in, to make heaven on earth.  And so should we all.  But what happens when heavens collide?  When utopian visions differ?  When generational and ideological gaps create an impasse?  We put our ethics of localism and collaborative community-building to their greatest test.  We enlarge the scope of our collective vision.  And how can we  collaborate with people we don’t know?  Stop preaching to the choir and start knocking on doors.