(Mostly) Unrelated Thoughts

I haven’t said much recently. But our first “real snow” fell yesterday in Cincinnati and I figured I’d use the quiet and calm of the snowy days to finally put a few thoughts together.

The past few months have been rough. I don’t want to go into the specifics here because it’s already been processed and the funk is (hopefully) moving on its way soon enough. But the difficult days have led to a lot of reflecting and self-assessment and big questions about identity and calling.

For as long as I’ve been self-aware enough to realize it, my biggest identity “trap” has always been the question of achievement. This appears in the form of questioning my contribution to the world, how my achievements measure up to those of my peers, and what my career/art/lifestyle resume would say. The big questions come back to me every few months, it seems, and I’ve (mostly) learned to talk them down. I’ve learned the error in valuing myself based on these things alone. And I’ve learned to recognize the way it negatively affects my relationship with the people around me.

But I still want to know that I am “making a difference.” That my contribution matters.

My oldest child turned six last month. I am crazy about my son and I am really enjoying these years of devotion to him and his sisters. But when those questions of personal achievement creep up on me, it’s hard to quantify the value of these years.

My kids are healthy, happy, and thriving.
But are a few decent kids really enough of a contribution?
Will I let it be enough?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about public expression, about social media, about the things we say and do and show online and why we do it. Why do we take so many photographs of ourselves? Of our children? Of the hip clothes we wore today or our newest home gadget or the awesome meal we just made? Why do I feel the need to make an “official statement” about every news story and viral conversation? Does the world really need to know what I think about women wearing yoga pants? (The answer: no.)

This has all underscored, to me, how desperately disconnected we all are. The world of online validation does not make me feel better about myself, how well I executed our last meal, and how well I dress my children. It just makes me feel lonely. Because, you see, I don’t want to show you a picture of last night’s meal or a picture of my kids. I want you to share that meal with me at our table. To talk with me, in real time, about the news and the world and what I think about women wearing yoga pants. And I want you to know my kids. I want you to hear my son’s jokes and my daughters’ songs.

I want to learn how to experience life with other people–not just show them my life online. But I’ve noticed that digital prowess does not translate into social capital. And it doesn’t breed true community. I am not a better wife, mother, or friend thanks to my online persona. In fact, I am sometimes worse because of it. I actually find it harder to connect in real life.

Six years ago, I was staring a new baby in the eyes, amazed by how much I could love someone I didn’t even know. I’m learning that it doesn’t matter if the world of Instagram thinks I love him. It doesn’t matter how many pictures I take of him or memories I keep tucked in a box under the stairs. Time is short and things move fast. He needs to know that I love him now.

It’s the same with all relationships–my husband, my family, my friends, my neighborhood, and my city.

(Somewhat) related: I have a few friends who are trying to navigate the world of dating in their 30’s. And dating today is, apparently, quite a bit different from dating even twenty years ago. Men don’t call. Everyone texts. Relationships begin online and don’t transition well into real life and real conversations.

My heart breaks for my friends who are single and want a partner, but can’t seem to connect with anyone. And, yet, here I am. Married to a wonderful man. And I choose to disengage for the sake of self-preservation and emotional independence. It seems silly, doesn’t it? Silly and sad.

We are so blessed and we don’t even know it.

Have you been to Over-the-Rhine lately?
This neighborhood is alive, so alive that I sometimes feel like a kid watching the merry-go-round at the playground, not sure I move quickly enough to jump on.

I wonder if this neighborhood is leaving me behind. I wonder if there is a role for me to play, if there is anything left for me to contribute. For ten years I’ve loved and worked in this neighborhood. And for seven years I’ve lived here. And if I feel this way after living here only 7 years, how do longer-term residents feel about all the changes?

Do all relationships get the seven-year-itch?
Even our relationships to a place?
How can you love a city through its changes?

The past year has forced my husband and I to reflect a lot on our calling, specifically to this place. Did I ever tell you that we moved here to plant a church? Ask me sometime and I’ll tell you the whole story. (In person.)

So now we ask: is our call to a specific mission, or to a place, or to a people? Again, how can you love a city through its changes? Through the seasons? Through its growth and the ebb and flow of development and the insecurities born from watching the thing that you love walk on without you?

This city doesn’t need me. And that’s a good thing. Because, like I said above, I need to get over myself and my compulsive need to make a contribution. I need to love this city for what it is, not for what I want to make it. This has been an important lesson to learn.

In case it’s not clear, the past year has been full of questions for me.

How can I be a better wife? A better mother? A better friend, daughter, and sister? A better neighbor?

What if I never write another blog? Or another song? Or another smartass Facebook update? Will I feel like a lesser version of myself? Why?

Can I learn to appreciate the small influence I have, where I am, with the people that need me most?

Can I embrace the relationships I’ve been given, rather than the ones I wish I had?

Can I exercise my voice in small circles, with people who are actually listening and learning and teaching me, as well?

Can I balance my responsibility to the most important people in my life with my desire for a contribution to the world outside my door?

I know these things might seem (mostly) unrelated, but they add up to something significant. Namely: where do we go from here? How much of this story is still left to be played-out?

This year marks my tenth anniversary in Cincinnati. I’m hoping that it brings a renewed love for this place, stronger bonds with the people I love, and a little clarity about how I can contribute to making it all better.

Making all of it better, including myself.

“Not For Happiness…”

A few weeks ago, I stayed up until nearly sunrise writing about the concept of vocation and what it means to be “married” to your life’s work. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for much of the past few months, as I struggle through understanding the value of this season of my life and the next phase in our family life.

The post I wrote that night was somehow deleted as it was being saved at the end. I lost a lot of mental energy on that post, but ended that night reading through similar thoughts by one of my favorite authors.

So, if you’re interested, I’ll just let Frederick Buechner speak for me.

Like “duty,” “law,” and “religion,” the word “vocation” has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all. Vocare, to call, of course, and a man’s vocation is a man’s calling. It is the work that he is called to in this world, the thing that he is summoned to spend his life doing. We can speak of a man’s choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation’s choosing the man, of a call’s being given and a man’s hearing it, or not hearing it. And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing. A man’s life is full of all sorts of voices calling him in all sorts of directions. Some of them are voices from inside and some of them are voices from outside. The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for?

When you are young, I think, your hearing is in some ways better than it is ever going to be again. You hear better than most people the voices that call to you out of your own life to give yourself to this work or that work. When you are young, before you accumulate responsibilities, you are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and to what you really want to do with your life. But the danger is that there are so many voices, and they all in their ways sound so promising. The danger is that you will not listen to the voice that speaks to you through the seagull mounting the gray wind, say, or the vision in the temple, that you do not listen to the voice inside you or to the voice that speaks from outside but specifically to you out of the specific events of your life, but that instead you listen to the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status, and that if it is gladness you are after, you can save that for weekends. In fact one of the grimmer notions that we seem to inherit from our Puritan forebears is that work is not even supposed to be glad but, rather, a kind of penance, a way of working off the guilt that you accumulate during the hours when you are not working.

The world is full of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and are now engaged in life-work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something which could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else. This does not mean, of course, people who are doing work that from the outside looks unglamorous and humdrum, because obviously such work as that may be a crucial form of service and deeply creative. But it means people who are doing work that seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.

In John Marquand’s novel Point of No Return, for instance, after years of apple-polishing and bucking for promotion and dedicating all his energies to a single goal, Charlie Gray finally gets to be vice-president of the fancy little New York bank where he works; and then the terrible moment comes when he realizes that it is really not what he wanted after all, when the prize that he has spent his life trying to win suddenly turns to ashes in his hands. His promotion assures him and his family of all the security and standing that he has always sought, but Marquand leaves you with the feeling that maybe the best way Charlie Gray could have supported his family would have been by giving his life to the kind of work where he could have expressed himself and fulfilled himself in such a way as to become in himself, as a person, the kind of support they really needed.

There is also the moment in the Gospels where Jesus is portrayed as going into the wilderness for forty days and nights and being tempted there by the devil. And one of the ways that the devil tempts him is to wait until Jesus is very hungry from fasting and then to suggest that he simply turn the stones into bread and eat. Jesus answers, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” and this just happens to be, among other things, true, and very close to the same truth that Charlie Gray comes to when he realizes too late that he was not made to live on status and salary alone but that something crucially important was missing from his life even though he was not sure what it was any more than, perhaps, Marquand himself was sure what it was.

There is nothing moralistic or sentimental about this truth. It means for us simply that we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously. Everybody knows that. We need no one to tell it to us. Yet in another way perhaps we do always need to be told, because there is always the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth of it is that we do not. We have only a life, and the choice of how we are going to live it must be our own choice, not one that we let the world make for us. Because surely Marquand was right that for each of us there comes a point of no return, a point beyond which we no longer have life enough left to go back and start all over again.

To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go,” and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one that we answer. No one can say, of course, except each for himself, but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: we should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed. Where we most need to go. Maybe that means that the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness. What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint on canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.

And also, where we are most needed. In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad…

Thou, Who art the God no less of those who know thee not than of those who love thee well, be present with us at the times of choosing when time stands still and all that lies behind and all that lies ahead are caught up in the mystery of a moment.

Be present especially with the young who must choose between many voices. Help them to know how much an old world needs their youth and gladness. Help them to know that there are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless they speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless they do them. Help them never to mistake success for victory or failure for defeat.

Grant that they may never be entirely content with whatever bounty the world may bestow upon them, but that they may know at last that they were created not for happiness but for joy, and that joy is to him alone who, sometimes with tears in his eyes, commits himself in love to Thee and to his brothers.

Lead them and all thy world ever deeper into the knowledge that finally all men are one and that there can never really be joy for any until there is joy for all. In Christ’s name we ask it and for his sake. Amen.

 

Excerpt from The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner.

(Mr. Buechner, many apologies for the gross overuse of quoted text. There was so little I was willing to toss out.)

How Your Church Can “Strengthen The Hand” of the Poor

Have you ever been in a room full of educated, middle-class American Christians talking amongst themselves about the “issue of poverty?” They know there is a problem. They know that they have the power and responsibility to address the problem. But, all the passion and commitment in the world cannot force them out of their seats and into action. They have no real, tangible ideas of how to address poverty in their community or around the world.

I am not an expert on poverty. I have never been poor. Sure, I’ve been financially stressed. But I’ve never been truly poor–left with no resources, no safety net, no way to pull myself out, and no one to call for help.

And I’m not an expert on ministering to the poor. Yes, I’ve worked for and among the poor, both in ministry and in my occupation. Sure, I’ve lived within steps of the poor and have had the poor living (quite literally at moments) on my back steps. But, I am still young and naive and don’t have but an ounce of wisdom in how to address the complexities of cultural and institutional poverty.

But, if any of my Christian friends want to know what their churches can do to address the issue of poverty right now, I have a few suggestions.

First, address poverty at its root. Poverty is not as simple as a lack of money or consistent employment. And it is not always (or not only) a result of personal error. It is a complex cultural paradigm and often generations in the making. Solving the the problem of poverty means tackling it at its root, in the systematic injustices and personal failures that perpetuate it. If you really want to pull someone out of a cycle of poverty, you have to get strategic and address a few key issues. Find an issue that you can (or your church can) personally address and commit to it. You may not be able to address it all, but you can certainly do something.

- Educate. During my two-year stint in AmeriCorps, I worked with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Catholic order of Sisters whose mission is to share the goodness of God through education among the poor and marginalized. We could learn a thing or two from these and others who are committed–vocationally–to the issue of education among the poor. Without a proper education (at least through high school), the opportunities available to young men and women are limited. Something as simple as after-school tutoring could be a place to start, but perhaps you are capable of more. Other ideas: Start a community school or a co-op; become a teacher at a struggling school system; sit on the School Board; become a high school academic counselor; create a college scholarship program.

- Promote Strong Family Systems. There is a strong relationship between the stability of a family structure and poverty. In 2013, of the 11% of the American population living in poverty, 31% of them were households with a single mother. And, according to the statistics that same year, a married couple is much more likely to avoid poverty in the first place. Seeing as we are now entering an era in which almost half of the babies born are born into unmarried households, this might be an issue that the Church can address. Not by shaming unwed mothers. Not by ousting unmarried families. Not by coercing marriage. But by strengthening existing couples and encouraging healthy relationships, teaching basic conflict management skills, marital counseling, and by encouraging young women to abstain from sex (crazy, I know) to avoid becoming another “poor, unwed mother” statistic. For women (and men) currently parenting alone, churches can provide training in parenting skills and support in the way of daycare and counseling. And, for children who have already become victims of broken families, foster and short-term respite care, as well as adoption (open or closed, through public or private agencies) are great opportunities.

Improve the Quality of Life and Housing Opportunities. Have you considered the environmental and lifestyle issues that make it difficult for people to move out of a cycle of poverty? The availability of healthy food, access to public transportation options, clean, safe, and well-maintained neighborhoods–they all matter. What if your church started a housing ministry that rented or sold decent homes to low-income families without the mess of government subsidies? Or started a community housing co-op that enabled lower-income members to build equity in shared property? What if you started a community garden that provided fresh produce to local families in need or organized a block watch to promote community-led policing? You can plant trees for increased safety and air quality; you could provide free medical care or health education.

Teach Job Skills and Provide Employment. What would you do if you wanted to find a job that would provide for your family, but had a minimum education, few employable skills, or possibly even a felony on your record that (in an employer’s eyes) disqualified you from hundreds of available jobs? You or your church can help teach important skills that help secure employment for the otherwise unemployable: computer and technical skills; handyman, carpentry, or maintenance skills; cooking or cleaning. You could also take it one step further and start a business that employs those who have a difficult time finding employment or hire an under-employed person in your community to do odd jobs (at your church or your home) for extra cash to help make ends meet.

Give Financial Guidance. There are financial skills that some wealthier people take for granted–things they learned from their parents or peers about how to manage their money, how to save money and stay out of debt, or how to make smart investments. Don’t take for granted that other people know these things. Things as simple as how to open a bank account, balance a check book, or pay a bill online might be a mystery to some folks. Without basic financial knowledge and wisdom about managing wealth, a sudden increase in income that comes with new employment can destroy a family’s financial future. Your church can provide something as simple as free financial counseling or as complex as interest-free personal or business loans.

Fight Institutional Injustice. Sure, plenty of people living in poverty are victims of their own bad decisions. But, many are not. And, regardless of how they got into the mess they are in, there are mountains upon mountains of institutional injustices that can make it feel impossible for them to climb out. Christians should be in the business of pleading the case of victims. Either find a way to advocate for those who are in danger of being further victimized and left with no resources and no support, or use your skills and influence to work within the system to bring justice on an institutional level. The judicial system, banking, legislation, urban planning and community development, immigration–take your pick. Globally, nationally, or locally.

Soothe the symptoms of poverty. Emergency assistance will not stop the cycles of poverty, but it can soothe the symptoms. And Christians should not be afraid to meet a need where an obvious need exists. Educate yourself about what resources exist in your community, but also consider how you can step in with a more personal touch. I know that a lot of us are afraid of being taken advantage of or being made fools, but churches should be places of hospitality and generosity. You can be wise about the help you offer while still being generous and merciful. Keep healthy boundaries, but keep your doors open–physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Pray that God refines your discernment to know where the real needs are.

 

And, there is the key element here that I haven’t mentioned:
Helping the poor–I mean, really helping the poor–requires knowing not only the “issue of poverty” in a theoretical sense, but actually knowing the poor in a personal sense.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to sell everything and move to a characteristically impoverished area, though I think many are called there. And I’m not suggesting that you go out and make friends with poor people out of pity or a savior complex or mere duty. But if you (or your church) realize you are ignorant of the needs surrounding you, then you need to readjust your vision. Walk outside and take a look around. There are hungry, hurting, poor people everywhere. (Yes, even in places where everyone else looks just like you.) And I would venture to say that if you literally cannot find people in need among you, in your church community, or if you think you have to drive across the country or fly across the world to “minister to the poor,” you may be doing something very wrong.

 

Let me leave you with some wise words from a man who worked for 40 years in my neighborhood to “strengthen the hand of the poor” before he sold us his house and moved away to live nearer to his family. As thankful as I am for this home, I think a little more time spent learning from him could have done me some good.

 

“Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: ‘This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’

“That’s also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

“And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to ‘strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’

‘Strengthen the hand’ is the King James wording. Modern translations say ‘help the poor and needy.’ And there’s a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That’s charity. It’s doing for, not doing with.

“My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, ‘Wooooh, colder than charity.’

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That’s risky. You’re vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

“Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches — which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we’re afflicted with the American curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe — a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us “the Israel of God” — the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, ‘The poor you shall always have with you.’ He didn’t mean that as a curse — the notion that the poor are an inevitable nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, ‘You shall always be among the poor.’

“When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: ‘However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . .’ It’s a glorious responsibility and promise.

“And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor — and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

“As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, ‘God save the United States of America…’ “- Jack Towe, “God’s Wrath.”

 

Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t list “Provide Spiritual Guidance” on my list above. I have two reasons for omitting it:

1. I take for granted that Christian people–especially incorporated church communities–already understand that they have a responsibility to preach the Gospel to all people whether poor or wealthy. Spiritual poverty knows no economic boundaries, so providing spiritual guidance should be a given, at all times, to all people. “Strengthening the hand of the poor,” however, is a particular command given to the Church in relationship to a particular group of people and can be discussed with spiritual realities presupposed.

2. I believe, like folks such as Tony Campolo, that it’s hard for people to hear the message of Jesus over the grumble of an empty belly. Perhaps there is a reason Jesus did so much of his teaching while sharing a meal. Perhaps we should learn to do the same.

Read This: The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs

I was very happy to discover this today, as I searched for a few links to include on my letter to Cincinnati’s City Council regarding proposed parking changes in my neighborhood. I might post that letter a bit later but, for now…

An excerpt:

“…cities desperately need conservatives. These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?

Read it here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/the-conservative-case-against-the-suburbs/

Welcome to the Neighborhood

I’ve mentioned before that a lot of people give me the ol’ “Oh, I’d love to move downtown, but…”

“… but we love our kids’ school.”
“… but my husband/wife would never do it.”
“… but we don’t want to leave our perfect house.”

Etc.

So, then, what drives a family to actually pick up and move to the urban core? More than that: what motivates them to not just rent for a year to “test the waters,” but jump in head first and invest in a longterm residency by purchasing a property and then launching an entrepreneurial project to boot?

Let’s find out.

Meet the Bethunes.

When I met Levi Bethune, it was a brief “Hey, a friend told me I needed to meet you!” kind of moment. We had a few mutual friends who knew that, among other mutual interests, we both a) had a few kids and b) were into living downtown. Heather (his wife) wasn’t around at the time and I wasn’t sure when we’d run into each other again. But over the course of the next few months, I connected with Heather online and we started spending time together. It’s been a pleasure to know them through this exciting time for their family.

The short version of their OTR story is this:

Man lands a job in Cincinnati.
Man and wife sell their house and move to Cincinnati, with children in tow.
Man falls in love with OTR.
Wife begins to, as well.
The property hunt begins with strict parameters and, therefore, little hope.
Craigslist yields a magical buyer-seller relationship.
Rehab loan.
Permits, permits, more permits.
Hold-ups.
Construction begins.
And here we (well, they) are now:

Simple Space. Have you heard of it yet?

SS-Bethunes-Emily

The Bethunes (with friend/Simple Space partner Emily) via impulcity.

 

You see, what started as a small “what if we moved downtown?” inkling has grown into a full-on family business endeavor. And what could have been a simple rental unit or renovated single-family home is set to become an exciting community resource–a space for entrepreneurs, artists, party hosts, etc. to stretch their legs in a prime location but with a low-stress, short-term commitment.

You can read more about Simple Space itself at the above link. I’d rather focus for a second on what it’s like to be a woman/wife/mother who takes the leap from renting in the first-ring suburbs to committing long-term to the urban core.

What would drive a woman to move her family into OTR?

Well, I asked Heather a few questions to find out.

Whose idea what is to move to Over-the-Rhine?

“Initially, it was Levi. He had the pleasure of riding his bike around and through downtown on a near-daily basis to get from Northern Kentucky (where we currently rent) to his office at Longworth Hall. He was “romanced” by Cincinnati in this way… getting to experience all the alley ways and historic architecture up close and personal, interacting with people enough to start to recognize faces & names… it did something for him. He’s always loved cities, and Cincinnati has such a wealth of history, feels established and yet… isn’t overwhelming. Instead of being intimidating as big cities often are- Levi felt welcomed and in turn wanted to be a part of what’s happening in the heart of the city. Once he realized how he felt about it, and why, we started being more intentional as a family about spending more time downtown and in OTR. We wanted to see how our kids would respond to the urban atmosphere and also, of course, if I would love it as much as Levi did. And I did. Though my experience and perspective isn’t identical to his, I truly love Cincinnati and sense that I will only grow to love it more. I am drawn to cities for their intricacies and smart uses of small spaces. I love the creativity that cities can draw out of it’s inhabitants. I can’t wait to be one.”

Can you remember a moment when you realized “Yes, I want to live here?”

“I think I had several of those moments walking down a street with Levi and the kids on a beautiful day. That (alone) will do it.I am also completely in love with the architecture of OTR. I remember the first time I started to really look at the spaces above the store fronts and realize, “People live there! What must that be like to be able to just walk out your front door and go to ____ (wherever we had just come from)?” I know that’s a bit of a romaticized view but I think that’s okay. As with anywhere you live, you have to be a bit dreamy-eyed about some of it to balance out the challenges it poses (for instance, living in suburbia and having to load all your kids in a gas-guzzler to drive to ANY place you want to go because there is nothing but a mailbox within walking distance of your front door).”

What are you most looking forward to about living/working in OTR?

“Walking to as much of our everyday living as possible. Off the top of my head: parks, library and little shops like the shoe repair or hardware store. I’m also excited to be near the hub of public transit – especially the streetcar. Once that’s in it will definitely expand our borders and make it very easy to shop at Findlay Market and enjoy the riverfront more. I’m also really excited to own again. We bought our first house in Virginia only a year before moving here, and since selling, we’ve rented. We’ve never owned a building and commercial space before, so I know we’ve got a lot to learn. But I’m excited to do that and to be a part of the story of Over the Rhine.”

Would you like to know more about the Bethune Family and their new creative child, Simple Space? “Like” them on Facebook and, if you’re so inclined, you can contribute to their Indie GoGo campaign. (Don’t worry. Donations go specifically to the commercial event/retail space, not to outfitting their private residence.)

Welcome to the neighborhood, Levi and Heather!

Go Play Outside: 10 Tips for Hiking With Kids

Hiking with my kids is perhaps my favorite family activity. I’d take it over a walk downtown, over a romp at a playground, and easily over a trip to Disneyworld. Not only is hiking a fantastic way to exercise, it’s a fun way for me and my kids to burn steam. Living in the city, we need time away from the concrete jungle to beat our bodies against the earth and breathe in some fresh air. It’s good for the soul. Lately, my oldest kids (who share a bedroom and are homeschooled so they rarely spend time apart) have had a hard time getting along while we’re at home. But, the second we are outdoors–the moment there is a tree to climb or a trail to hike–they are best friends again.

For all these reasons, I try to get a hike in at least once a week for me and the kids, even in cold weather. Some of these hikes are in easy, paved areas, but I try to find more rugged, difficult trails if possible. And even though we have a few favorite spots, we’re always trying new areas to keep it exciting.

Even though we hike often, we still have a lot to learn and I still need to seriously amp up my personal fitness before I can consider myself a real hiker. (As a sidenote: for a serious hiking family check these guys out.) But, even if I can’t count myself among the real hiking fanatics, I have learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share. Specifically, ten quick tips for hiking with kids, especially when they’re very young.

So, here you go:

Hike often and hike year-round.

Consistency is key. Because we hike often, we have developed a bit of a rhythm and our kids know what to expect. There is no “But, Mom! It’s cold outside!” conversation at the start of the day. We do our morning at home as usual, then pack up our gear, a snack, and a picnic lunch and then head out the door. We might actually hike for only about an hour, but we leave time for exploring other areas and (usually) a picnic. Because we do this often and in all kinds of weather, it’s now as normal to my kids as a trip to the grocery store. It’s a part of our family culture and something familiar and consistent.

Dress for the weather.

With a few obvious exceptions, I think the adage is true that there is no truly bad weather, just a lack of proper preparation. Think smart–not just “warm.” Dress your kids in layers, not just bulky items. In even moderately cold weather, protect extremities–fingers, toes, and ears. A nice, warm head can easily make up for a few degrees of chill. Consider investing in waterproof hiking boots for the kids and a pair of nice wool socks, rather than expecting them to hike in rain boots when the ground is wet. Look for deals on fleece and wool (its natural counterpart) and quick-dry synthetic materials rather than jeans and cotton. (Why not cotton? Read here.) Keeping your kids comfortable in less-than-perfect hiking weather is key to a successful day out in the woods.

Wear the right shoes.

Your kids might not notice the difference between a $10 gently-used pair of hiking boots and a $80 new pair from REI, but you will. Eventually, cheap footwear takes a toll, so take care of your feet. Especially if you intend to carry one of your children for even part of the hike, don’t skimp on your footwear (or socks!). I have had a few awesome pairs of outdoor shoes in the past. These days, I gravitate toward either a) a pair of light-hiking, waterproof mid-ankle boots (like this) b) a breathable shoe like this, or c) a pair of strap-on Teva waterproof sandals, depending on the weather and where we’ll be hiking.

Invest in a good baby carrier.

If you want to include the littlest members of your family in the hike, invest in a decent baby carrier. Yes, most really great baby carriers will cost you a little money–between $40-150–so I really do mean “invest.” You probably won’t find a good one for $10 at the thrift store, but you can pick one up used on Craigslist or borrow from a friend until you find one you can afford. I bought a Beco Butterfly carrier (most similar to their new Soleil) when my son was just about two and I chose it for three main reasons: a) it was made in the US (not sure if this is still true), b) there were not extra infant pieces to buy like the Ergo and c) it can be used up to 45lbs. I have had the carrier for about 3.5 years now. I am now on the third child using it, and it is still in perfect condition. I use this carrier to carry my one year-old when I hike–usually on my front when she is napping and on my back while she’s awake. When she is a bit older, I will let her hike and use the carrier as a backup when she gets tired. Just a note: when my third child was a teeny infant, I used a Moby Wrap that a friend gave me and it was perfect, especially for chilly days. Also, I know some people use real “hiking carriers.” I’ve never had the budget for one, but I’ve heard good things about them especially on longer hikes or when you need a backpack on in addition to the carrier.

Learn what to pack (or not pack) in your bag.

Unless my husband is hiking with us to carry it, I don’t bother carrying a backpack since I’ll be carrying a baby. Instead, I let my five year-old carry any of our “gear” for the hike. Unless we’re on vacation away from home, our hikes are under 2 miles and we don’t need much more than the cursory emergency supplies. In his small backpack, my son carries: a water bottle that we can share if we need it, a small snack for emergencies, safety whistles (with built-in compasses) for him and his sister (sometimes they wear them), my car keys, a small first aid kit, a headlamp (mostly just for fun), and a set of binoculars. I carry my phone in my pocket (unless I don’t have a pocket!) and a trail map, if we have one. I’ve been looking for a small fanny-pack that I can wear with my baby carrier if I need it. And it’s almost time for my three year-old to start to carry a backpack, too. But, our car has a pretty substantial emergency kit stocked at all times, so we have things at our disposal if we need them when we arrive at our hiking location or back at the car after the hike (extra diapers, blankets, extra hats and gloves, emergency snacks and water, first-aid, phone charger, etc.).

Learn how to read a map, then teach your kids.

Before planning our hiking location for the day, I look up a trail map online and save it to my phone. This way, even if we don’t have cell phone reception in the woods, the map has been saved to my phone. I have a great sense of direction and am working on teaching my son basic orienteering so he can read the maps himself. Most Cincinnati and Hamilton County parks also have paper copies of their maps, so you can pick one up when you arrive. I usually try to pick a loop trail that will pass us by a ridge or creekbed and then back to our car.

Let your kids take the lead.

Whether they know how to read a map or not, let your kids lead the hike as much as they are inclined. When we hike, my two oldest trade off in the front and I stay last in line. I may remind them of things like poison ivy (when I spot it) or to slow down when the trail goes downhill or “Hey! Look at that!” when I spot something cool. But it’s a lot of fun to let them set the pace and explore on their own. It’s amazing the things they notice and find interest in. As their parent, take note of those things so you can follow-up at home or during your next hike. Don’t make it more “educational” than they can stand, but take moments to teach about edible plants, interesting natural phenomena, or other cool stuff like mushrooms or animal remains. Yesterday, we spotted an in-tact bird skeleton on the trail. Super cool. And, lately, my kids have been “hunting for Big Foot.” (I’ll let you know if we find him.)

Open your eyes; open your ears.

Stop every so often. Maybe stop and sit for a while. Look down; look up. Find something you’ve never seen before. Guess what it might be. Encourage the kids to close their eyes and listen. Our lives are surrounding by so much noise, it’s amazing the subtle sounds you can hear when the noise of life is absent. Birds. Falling acorns. Breeze. Distant city noise. Yesterday, we noticed that fall–Autumn–was literally happening all around us. We could tell by the bustle of the woods. It was busy!

Invite friends.

We hike alone quite a bit, but it’s always fun to invite friends to join us. A few years ago, I started a Family Hiking Club, but it was too hard for me to maintain a Saturday schedule for the hikes. I’m now toying with the idea of starting a new hiking club, specifically for people with babies (older kids and friends would be welcome to join, as well). But, you don’t need a “hiking club” to explore the woods with some friends. My kids love hiking with their friends and it’s nice to have another mom/dad/mom & dad to talk with while the kids keep busy. You can also share hiking tips and snacks and nature trivia as you go. Some of my best hikes have been with people who knew far more than me about wildflowers or bird calls. I still have a lot to learn!

Be a good example.

There have been times when I thought I was going to pass out on the trail (like when I was 8m pregnant with Number 3 and two year-old Number 2 insisted on being carried up that last hill). Your kids will take cues from you. Whine and complain, they will whine and complain; show fear when you spot a nasty, crawly insect, they will be afraid. But, let your sense of adventure and curiosity get the best of you and they will, too. Even if you aren’t sure you’ll make it up that next hill, spend more time encouraging them to “keep going” than worrying about yourself. You’ll all make it together. Practice responsible hiking, be smart, and take care of those hiking with you. Be a good example and your kids will grow into excellent, responsible hikers as they age.

 

It doesn’t matter if you’re pushing a stroller down a paved walkway or bolstering yourself for that final pass. Pack a bag, grab the kids, and head to the woods.

And then I’d love to hear more tips for hiking with kids, or hiking in general.
Share them if you have them!

Parking Permits, Grocery Trips, and The Dream of a Car-Free City

So how, exactly, are we going to pay for the operational costs of our new streetcar system? That’s the question of the age in Cincinnati, isn’t it?

A few solutions seem obvious to me: rider fares, sponsorships, and minimal tax increases in the immediate area (known as a TIF district). Beyond that, I’m not city-savvy enough to even pretend to have any easy solutions.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Cranley made a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion that the City simply charge downtown and OTR residents a couple hundred bucks a year for a residential parking permit and that those funds be used to operate the streetcar. I’m not going to waste time making judgements about the Mayor’s intent in proposing this solution. Instead, let me offer my perspective on the idea itself.

First, OTR absolutely needs a residential parking program.
This has been a topic of conversation for a few years now as the development in the neighborhood brings more and more non-residents into the neighborhood and as more employees need a place to park during open hours. On a personal note, the difference between the ease of parking four years ago and the situation today is nearly night and day. And with a 600-seat music venue opening around the corner, I’m preparing for a rude awakening for all of us in a few weeks.

The folks at UrbanCincy.com think that the Mayor’s idea is reasonable. (You can read the editorial here.) The basic gist of the editorial is that driving is already subsidized in many ways and that it’s reasonable to begin asking residents to actually bear the cost of their driving habits. They compare the average monthly parking rates in the area to market rates in other cities. And they suggest that this could be implemented city-wide with the funds being used for various developments in other areas.

I’m actually sympathetic to the idea of charging residents for parking permits and, in some ways, I agree with the UrbanCincy.com editorial. But I think there are a few errors here.

We know that the $300 suggested permit fee is hundreds of dollars above the yearly fees in other cities. Some might suggest that the lower fees of other cities are too low and that they don’t even come close to matching the current subsidies. But I argue that, even if that is the case, it’s still unreasonable. It’s unreasonable because it’s asking residents of our city, which is only now catching up to comparably-sized cities to pay exponentially more for the benefits found in cities that are steps ahead of us. It’s essentially asking us to pay 22nd Century prices for 20th Century amenities.

You might say, like UrbanCincy.com, that the $25 a month that it would cost is still significantly lower than the average monthly parking rate (on lots and in garages) in the neighborhood, which is about $89. Well, yes, you’re right. But that $40-110 a month pays for security and availability. My $300 would not guarantee me a spot anywhere near my home. It would simply guarantee a spot somewhere on a “resident-only parking” street in the neighborhood which, with increased meter hours on every other street, might not mean much at all. Heck, we can’t even find the means to enforce street parking restrictions and vehicle-related crimes as they stand now. Do you really think the city is going to work hard to protect my $300 parking space?

Now, if we’re actually suggesting that every resident in every neighborhood with publicly-funded transit (including road improvements) is going to be asked to pay the same fees, I would get behind that. But good luck getting city-wide resident support for a $300 yearly fee to park on city streets. A more reasonable fee that is comparable to other forward-thinking cities seems like a better idea.

Second, the Mayor was quick to suggest that low-income residents of OTR would not have to pay these fees. So, a couple living in a $300,000 condo (that did not already have a safe, convenient parking garage that they are willing to pay for) would pay the $300 fee and then any random resident who can prove they get mail at an OTR address but don’t make enough money to pay the $300 can park for free? Let’s assume that by “low-income,” we mean the standard measurements used for subsidized housing in OTR, which is essentially, those making less than $35,000 a year. (I talked about this more in a recent post about “affordable housing.”) But what about those making between $35,000-120,000 a year? You know, the working- and middle-class residents? There is a reason many of us don’t pay for monthly parking spaces: we can’t afford them.

I’m not one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, so I’m not willing to write off the whole idea. I do think the City should institute an official residential parking permit program. But I think the rate must be reasonable, attainable for middle-class residents, and must be instituted in all areas of the city where the City is paying for transportation improvements.

Lastly, let me speak from a mother’s perspective.

As much as I’m sympathetic to the young urbanist agenda for car-free, rail-strong cities, it’s important to remind everyone that a strong urban core must make room for families, not just empty-nesters, yuppies, and the childless creative class. Joel Kotkin who is always good at upsetting people with his views on urbanism, said it perfectly in a City Journal article a few years ago:

“In California, particularly, state and local officials push policies that favor the development of apartments over single-family houses and town houses. But by trying to cram people into higher-density space, planners inadvertently help push up prices for the existing stock of family-friendly homes. Such policies have already been practiced for decades in the United Kingdom, making even provincial cities increasingly unaffordable, as British social commentator James Heartfield notes. London itself is among the least affordable cities in the world. Even middle-class residents have been known to live in garages, converted bathrooms, and garden sheds.

“…Ultimately, everything boils down to what purpose a city should serve. History has shown that rapid declines in childbearing—whether in ancient Rome, seventeenth-century Venice, or modern-day Tokyo—correlate with an erosion of cultural and economic vitality. The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own. If cities want to nurture the next generation of urbanites and keep more of their younger adults, they will have to find a way to welcome back families, which have sustained cities for millennia and given the urban experience much of its humanity.” - “The Childless City”

But, why does this matter? What is the correlation between parking and families?
Well, let me speak from personal experience: the logistics of raising a family in the city can be really hard. Particularly when you have to consider transporting multiple bodies and nightmares like unloading a trunk full of groceries with three kids in the car and no available parking spaces.

My children and I have definitely adapted to a semi-pedestrian lifestyle, can go days without hopping in a car, and are accustomed to walking a few blocks from car to front door. And my kids know no different. So, many of my childless friends think I should just get rid of the car and save myself the $300 and the bother of finding a convenient place to park.

It’s that simple, right?
Oh gosh, I wish it was.

Maybe for a family with 2 or fewer children; maybe with no family to visit in the suburbs and across the country; maybe without my husband’s side-work that requires complete mobility; maybe in a city that isn’t surrounded by hills that only an olympic cyclist could pedal with kids in tow; maybe in a city where ZipCar had vehicles that would actually fit a family (or even mentioned kids or carseats on their website!!); maybe in a city where any of my closest friends were actually willing/able to live in the urban core where we could walk to see them rather than drive.

But I digress.

Look, I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to stick it out here, kids and all. So, let me clarify: I don’t think that true, urban living is ever truly “convenient” in the modern sense. And I believe, completely, that anyone can adapt to a pedestrian lifestyle which becomes more convenient in many other ways. But I think making car ownership an impossibility for so many of us, based on its cost alone, means cutting off a demographic that is too valuable to the city to lose.

There are some magical places in the world where a large family can live in the urban core without a vehicle–and without a $250,000 income. (Seriously, you’ve heard of this woman, right?) But we don’t live in one of those places. We live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is still struggling to rally residents around the thought of a simple commuter lightrail line. Heck! It’s taken years to coerce one of the country’s largest grocers to open a legitimate urban-platform store in its home city!

Our urban ininfrastructure is far, far behind, my friends.
We may get there some day and I hope I’m here when we do. But we are not there yet.
And if we think that charging a few thousand residents $300 a year to park on city streets is going to usher our city into the next era of urban renaissance, we are wrong.

I think our attention needs to focus more holistically on creating a livable city for everyone–all incomes, all demographics–where people don’t just come for $10 hotdogs, but can actually live and shop and raise kids and open businesses in the same place where the Symphony rehearses and the Reds play.

This is the kind of city I want to build.
Not one for the elite; one for my children.
And a $300 parking permit might not seem like a huge deal in the entirety of the transit issue, but it’s just one more example of how the urban middle-class of our city may be destined for extinction.

And, if there is no place for the urban middle-class in Cincinnati, then maybe I’m in the wrong city.