Now that school’s out, every time I leave my apartment I’m accosted by a kid who wants to do art with me. I offer an art class every week for kids in the Bridge Meadows neighborhood. For a few kids, I also have weekly one on one time to work on art and books and stories. But it’s not quite enough now that summer is here.
I know I’ve had this opportunity to become popular with kids because of my unique living situation here at Bridge Meadows. We are an intentional community organized to support families adopting 3 or more children out of the foster care system. On our city block in Portland, Oregon, we have 9 single family homes, and apartments for seniors who provide support for the families. We seniors get a sense of purpose; the children get a sense of permanence. There are about 30 kids under the age of 16 here.
In any other neighborhood, I might not know any of them, but here, I am welcome to form bonds with all of them. Their parents know I’ve been vetted — I’ve passed a criminal background check and gotten training on how to work with children with challenging backgrounds. I’ve been here over 2 years now and I’ve seen children grow from being distrustful and anxious to being playful and creative. It’s an amazing transformation and I feel so blessed to help open creative channels for them.
My life has become richer than I ever imagined. When I think of how I haven’t manged to “make it” as a writer, that I’m living on disability and occasional freelance jobs, at times I feel a sense of despair. I’m well into my fifties. Will I ever get my work finished and out into the world?
That I’m poor isn’t a surprise. When I first started writing poetry in my teens, I knew there wasn’t going to be much money or prestige in the writing life. I quickly figured out that if I was dedicating my life to the arts, I was essentially taking a vow of poverty.
When I was younger, my plan was to have a day job for money, and to write in my off hours. I’d already
|Typing poetry at age 19|
started having health problems but I still had that fire that young people are blessed with. Even though I had epilepsy and muscle deterioration from transverse myelitis, I felt these were minor problems that I could easily manage. I could have a family, work, write and be constantly creative.
After a certain age, though, it just wasn’t possible to keep that up. And now, even though I no longer have a job, I still struggle to find the energy to get my creative work done.
When I moved to Bridge Meadows, I committed to volunteering at least 7 hours per week to the community. The obligation is loose enough that things like sitting in the courtyard talking to the kids is considered supporting the community.
One day an 8 year old girl asked, “Can you sit on a bench?”
I said I could indeed. She wanted me to sit in the courtyard and watch so she could play outside without her mother worrying about her. I have to say, my bench sitting abilities are astounding.
What I found was that working with the kids was energizing. My productivity has increased. My imagination is constantly stimulated by these little muses. There are many days when the pain of arthritis would keep me from venturing out of the apartment if I weren’t looking forward to showing some kids how to capture their imaginings through stories and art.
I’m helping Noah build a robot costume out of cardboard boxes and we’re making a book of dragons. I’m
helping Monica and Karishma create a book about Marshmallow Land, where if someone eats your marshmallow head, it spontaneously grows back. Lily is creating a series of one line stories about animals. The latest was about a clownfish named Steve. I tell stories. And sometimes I teach journaling for all ages.
Community living has it’s drawbacks. Being involved with so many families means you share their grief and sorrows as well as the good times. I still have limited energy and can’t do all I’d like. I still hurt and am plagued by fatigue. But, like when I was young, these now seem to be problems I can manage and carry on.
Once, before I even moved here, a teenage artist who came to an art show I was in, asked me if you could make a good living at art.
I had to say no. But, I added, you can make a good life. It deepens your sense of your surroundings. It pulls you out of your anxious mortal life and lets you dream, imagine and create.
And here I am, a rich, rich woman. I am in this rich place because I was financially poor enough to qualify for the affordable senior housing.
No matter what else happens in my life, I know I’ve helped these children turn a page in their young lives. They have a restored sense of wonder — and so do I.
For more on Bridge Meadows, watch this PBS story.
I’m linking to my friends at Paint Party Friday.