I have had many pleasant surprises in terms of sustainability and childrearing during our stint back in the US. I was expecting lots of consumerism and excess and bad influences on my kids, and there is certainly a fair share of that, but I hadn’t been expecting the ways in which living in Arlington, VA might be more sustainable, more healthy for my kids, than our life in Colombia. Perhaps chief among these has been the possibility of sharing the changing seasons with my boys, and thus getting to know a particular place in a very special way.
I think I’ve always liked the seasons of the temperate US, the regular, recurring cycle of change throughout the year. I grew up with a very fixed idea and set of feelings I associated with each season. Times spent inside, cozyand secure during the winter; the hope and ecstasy of spring (which is always pretty precarious and uncertain in Chicago, sometimes going back to bitter cold pretty late in the season, but usually skipping straight to stifling heat with little interval of mild spring); the reckless abandon and freedom of a kid’s summer; and finally the time of abundance and preparation of cool fall. I’ve always thought that fall is my favorite season, because it’s the time of harvest and good meals and new school years and Halloween. But this year, after another stark, drab winter, I realized that the onset of spring and summer feels like coming back to life after a collective depression. It reminds me that in many ways, I lived for the fleeting glory of summer as a child, and the rest of the year was just an exercise in self-control and patient waiting.
After having lived quite a long time on the Equator, I had forgotten the yearly drama of the changing seasons. I mean, I remembered in a factual sense that summer was hot, and winter cold, etc., but I had lost the visceral feeling of actually living through these seasons. In fact, that idea of waiting and change that we associate with climate in the temperate zones is totally alien to the Colombian context. I mean, there’s a dry season and a wet season, but more present in most people’s lives is that the temperature changes drastically when you move from one place to another, from the cool highlands to the moist, mild coffee zones, or down to the sweltering heat of the Plains and the Coast. And in each place, the weather is that way year round. So in hot places it’s always hot, in cool places always cool. There is no crisp, cleansing freeze, no bursting into life as the warmth returns. It is the total absence of the cyclical way I had of seeing things growing up, centered as I was on the passage of times and seasons. Even when we would fly from Colombia to Chicago to visit once a year, there was no sense of seasons or time. We usually would visit in the summer, and it was like a tropical getaway for us, accustomed as we were to our cool mountain climate.
I had gotten very used to this in my Colombian home, and certainly enjoyed the comfort of being able to choose if you go to a sweltering place or not, and the absence of bitter winter. In Chicago you don't choose these things--they're just thrust on you by the time of year. So it was a funny surprise to move to Washington and experience the US seasons again after so long, and then to share them, first with Sam, and then with Paulo (who now has never really known anything other than the temperate scheme of seasons). Starting with our arrival to DC in September, Sam and I would walk to school every morning and return walking every evening (later we rearranged schedules so my wife would take Sam and Paulo in the mornings, and I’d get them in the afternoon). It is not far, perhaps a half mile, so we would go with pretty much the same route every day.
Coming back from school, we would pass a huge red oak tree near a wall Sam likes to balance on, then the mercilessly pollarded catalpa trees at the corner house where Sam went trick-or-treating for his first US Halloween, then a mulberry tree that we eat from in summer, the house where Roxy the dog and her brother lounge in the yard most of the year, the high wall that Sam fell off of one time and hit his face on the sidewalk, the cherry blossom tree that blooms two weeks before the one across the street (because it’s next to a south-facing wall), and after that we go by the lion statue that we greet in Swahili. Sam has learned the names and habits of these trees, seeing how the maple gets bright red flowers in spring, which turn into small red helicopters, then become big green helicopters in summer and fall down in fall, before the leaves turn bright red and fall down too. He has gathered black walnuts from Roxy’s yard and opened them with me, only to find that black walnut trees don’t produce good nuts in Arlington, VA. He has observed the fallen beard-like flowers on the sidewalk, and known that there must be an oak tree near. He’s picked nascent magnolia blossoms to put in water so they’ll open the next day. And he’s harvested juneberries from all the trees we’ve scouted in the neighborhood, to make jam and smoothies.
In summer I would arrive at the boys’ preschool sweaty from my bike ride home, and we'd go to a nearby playground with a water park that we could all cool off in. In winter we’ve noted which trees stay green, and we’ve made snow castles using a box to mold the bricks. Paulo has rolled in the snow and made snow angels, following his brother’s lead. And on tremblingly cold nights we’ve recited Robert W. Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee as my father used to, to the point where Sam can recite entire stanzas from memory.
In short, my older son (and hopefully my younger son, though he can’t articulate it yet in words) got to know our neighborhood, our little part of the world, in the profound, visceral way you can only know a place after walking the same paths day after day. There are variations every day, either from our slightly altering the path we take, or from the changing seasons, or the unexpected people we run into on a given day, and these variations are also a part of our sense of place, and the boys’ learning that existence and identity are both static and dynamic. The maple tree is the same tree every day we see it, though it is never exactly the same as the day before.
Aside from enjoying the passage of seasons with my sons, I have been thrilled to find how easy it is to live sustainably in the Washington, DC area. We didn’t have a car while we were there, and never missed one. This would be impossible for us in Colombia; though we almost never drive in our own town, we do very frequently go back and forth to other places to visit family. In DC, the few times we used a car, we were lucky enough to have a good friend of mine from Chicago who now lives in Washington. Having grown up in the same socialist-Catholic-anti-consumerist setting as I did, he thinks nothing of letting us take his car for days at a time. I would bike to work every day, and much of our family plans we would undertake on bike or on foot, as well. We were a half block from the Metro, so when I felt lazy I could take it to work, and we would usually use the Metro to do things in central DC with our kids on the weekends.
Oh, and the things we'd do! Our default weekend plan was to go to the library in our neighborhood, or the massive park around the library. They not only have books, but even toys you can take out and play with while you’re at the library. But at least once a week we’d do a more ambitious trek, usually to one of the Smithsonian museums that are an easy Metro or bike ride away. We’ve gone ice skating in the winter, and seen high-quality puppet shows. Every Sunday we would walk to a Spanish-language Mass across from the boys’ preschool, and we'd play in the nearby playgrounds before or after church. Even going grocery shopping was a decent, car-free plan that we can make into a special outing with the boys. For older kids there are lots of cheap or free summer activities in the DC area (plenty of really expensive ones too, if you’re into that sort of thing!). Sometimes I regretted that we’d be leaving Washington before we could make use of these more structured activities that abound for grammar school-age kids.
In short, living in Washington, DC (actually in Arlington, VA, but we were closer to central DC than most of the city proper!) has been a real treat. I never imagined that we could find a living situation in the US that would allow us to do the things we want to do, live simply, and not need a car.
There were certainly drawbacks. I was appalled to see and experience firsthand the raw, blatant animosity and abuse toward Latinos in the DC area. My impression is that Washington, DC and its suburbs still think that the “rightful owners” of the turf are WASP-y whites and blacks, and all the immigrants (and there are now a lot of them) are somehow unwelcome guests. This is in strong contrast to Chicago, where our racism manifests itself as clear, grudgingly respectful lines drawn between white ethnic and black areas, and Latinos are sort of a special category that can live in peace in both black and white areas. Numerous times in our life in the DC area my wife has been harassed, threatened, and dealt with rudely by strangers in public places, and even by employees in places like museums and stores that were supposed to be catering to her! Sometimes it was when I was around, and these abusive idiots assumed that I too was some docile, scared Latino that’s too polite to talk back, until I would start yelling at them in English.
In general race is a toxic, omnipresent obsession in the US. I knew this before we got here, having grown up in a racially tense Chicago. But after having lived in other places where race is just one small factor in how people judge you, it was a jarring experience to enter the fray, especially with my wife and kids in tow who were at once less aware of the situation coming in, and more subject to people’s ignorance because of how they look and talk.
It’s been a constant query and challenge for us to introduce our son to race and teach him what he needs to know to keep from being either a victim or a victimizer. He’s had kids outright reject him because he’s from a different country, and also sort of subtly disrespect him in ways where you’re not sure if it’s because of the color of his skin or his background or just that some kids get along better than others. He’s also been stuck in between his natural urge to help other Latino kids in his school that don’t speak English so well, and his desire to fit in with friends that exclude such kids (and again, it’s never totally clear if the exclusion is because they’re foreign or just because they are new or young or don’t like Ninja Turtles or whatever).
And because my elder son’s appearance is ethnically ambiguous, it complicates things further. Surely he escapes much of the outright discrimination he’d experience if he looked more clearly black or Indian, but it also makes it more difficult sometimes to explain things to him. I can’t just say, “You’re white, so don’t oppress other kids for their race,” or, “You’re black, so make sure no one is treating you bad because of it.” Our lessons are always more like, “You’re white, and black, and Indian, and from the US, and from Colombia, so it doesn’t make sense if you dislike another kid because he’s one of those things,” or, “If someone tells you they don’t like people from other countries, tell him then you won’t be friends with him, because you’re from another country.” These lessons are always very specific to the situation, because I don’t know how to teach him larger things about the societal structure of race and class without either going over his head, or making him think the world is just a totally unfair shithole. What was I to say when Sam asked if all white people are bad after I'd read him a passage of Malcolm X?
Sometimes at my urging we review the skin color of our friends and family one by one, so Sam will be aware that there are all types of color and appearances in his family, and that it would be incoherent for him to single out someone for their skin color as a criterion for his friendship or dislike. Of course I don’t want him to be hyper-aware of race and think of each person as white John or black Ed or brown Tommy. But pointing out the diversity of appearances of the people he loves seems like the simplest way to teach him that skin color is just one relatively minor trait to define each person. At the same time, I realize that not everyone’s family is as racially mixed as Sam’s is, so what is my recommendation for them? How do parents in all-white families and communities responsibly discuss with their kids why discrimination is wrong? (The answer, all too often, is that they don’t).
What should we do when Sam loves a movie called How to Train your Dragon 2, where the bad guy happens to be the only guy in the whole movie with skin color like Sam’s or his sister’s, and with a foreign accent? What am I to say when we watch Dumbo, when after maybe 25 years without having seen it, I was shocked to see a bunch of jive-talking black crows playing the minstrel role? Or are these crows in fact the only example of sympathetic, empowered characters that try to help Dumbo (in addition to the mouse, who also speaks with a specific ethnic/regional dialect)?
Sample dissertation text for my four-year-old son:
"Sam, you should understand that these cartoon crows, which are decidedly not people, are nevertheless clearly identified with black American humans due to their speech and dance and movement. In some respects their speech is an accurate rendering of one dialect that is native to the US and neither inherently superior nor inferior to any other. However, their antics are offensive due less to the movie itself and more to our long history in the US of undervaluing black culture and life through both media depictions and through real violence visited upon black people.
I mean, the whole thing is sort of ridiculous. (I won’t even get into the whole ten-minute psychedelic drunken elephant sequence!)
At any rate, we've left Washington behind, both the beautiful, evolving trees and the bilious racial tension. It’s time to move on, once again back to the tropics. My wife’s and my careers in international development demand that we move around the world relatively frequently. This is a life we’ve chosen and that we love, but we it is still hard to say goodbye to all the things we’ve come to appreciate about a place. We will miss our walks to school, our changing seasons, our weekend routines and favorite museums. But we will take with us something we learned in the US: how to search out fun, free kid activities, wherever you are. Surely few places we'll go will have the rich offerings of the Smithsonian, but every town has parks and museums and streets and playgrounds to discover.
We welcome a return to the tropics, to the carefree, unstructured way of living when there is no winter frost or summer swelter. But as we enter what would be the fall months back in the States, I for one miss the feeling that comes with hunkering down for a long winter, protecting yourself in the cozy warmth of a well-insulated house.