I’m not here to demonize the suburbs. They treated me much better than an eerie depiction in an Arcade Fire video (though apparently that wasn’t their intent, either). On the street of my youth (ha!), we played road hockey from March to December. Older, younger and from pretty well every house on the block, we played outside til we were called in for supper or, if my mom was feeling disciplined on our behalf, piano practice. My wife Kate had a similar experience and more, with past neighbors remaining like family to this day.
So why have we neglected what nurtured us for our family of 5? We married with school to finish and being in the city meant good rent for a small studio apartment and transit to school. It’s almost 8 years later and we haven’t roamed far. And that’s sort of been the point. Urban parenting with 3 is a game of park hopping. In sunny weather we tend to get lost in a Bermuda Triangle of parks – Carter, Shamrock, Corktown. The parks are our backyard, only we’re going for bowling without bumpers. One of the best rhythms we have knocked out is Saturday strolls to the market and library. This winter has made it particularly easy to keep up with. It’s been refreshing to find that the pace of the city meets it’s match in our deliberate attempt to slow the pulse of our family. Especially since this usually unfolds after a pretend sleep-in and second breakfast. You know, PB&J or oatmeal with the kids then eggs benny or waffles depending who is more awake. We even venture to bring the whole fam damily to the tiny establishments bolstering Hamilton’s food scene. One birthday meal we foolishly accepted a bar table for 4 with no regard for how our 1 year old would manage without a seat of any sort. Ask Kate, the clam chowder was worth the juggling, shifting seats, and falling cutlery.
Yet, there has been and still is a pull to leave.
We don’t stay just for the Victorian charm because that is a nightmare to maintain. Clearly, not for peace and quiet because there are always sirens screaming and people yelling. The sirens and buses literally 5 steps beyond our front door become background noise, but the yelling is always unsettling. Maybe because we can sense the hurt behind it. We contribute some yelling with kids 4, 3, and 1 but we assume our double brick walls will take care of it (dad blog fail). If you yell on the Mountain or in rural Hamilton, does anybody hear it?
Yelling and what’s behind it is fine enough for me to endure as a grown man but what about my kids? Can I bear to watch my 4 year old venture off to an inner city public school? He’ll register this week. After Labour Day, I can no longer decide to be a layer of insulation at opportune times. He could have gone while still 3 years old but we didn’t think his skin was thick enough. What with the paved ‘playground’. And what about his peers? I hope his heart does not become calloused.
I have to keep coming back to something he said when Kate’s bike with child seat was stolen from our backyard. “It’s ok, maybe the person who took it needs it for their kids so we should share it with them.” Apparently that’s what I needed to hear to know that he’ll find his way in the city even if I’m still searching for mine. And while I’m on my way, I need the local church, the people around me who remind me that my hope is not in rising real estate prices. I can’t anxiously watch for houses to sell (over asking!) and think that things will sort themselves out in the long run.
Maybe you can see why my life feels a bit like a tale of two neighbors. It really is. Last week I was at the one house for a birthday party. They were actually hosting a friend’s, boyfriend’s party because they offer unmatched East Coast hospitality. After many introductions as the next door neighbor, I was surprised to be asked, “How did you meet your neighbor?”. The frank answer is that we share the same soil with only a few feet between our walls, but the real story is that we met quite naturally when they were moving in. It’s been a pleasure ever since. My introduction to my neighbor on the other side was him calling me to warn me of some things before we moved in. Suffice to say that his phone call was forewarning in another way.
Now, who should we show hospitality to? Our hearts and wisdom say to one house, Jesus says another. Thing is, when we finally mustered up the nerve to pray that we could serve all those neighbors who aren’t hosting guests, in a day, one was literally knocking on our door for help. Although, I still worry what this will mean for my kids if they aren’t insulated from these experiences. So why haven’t we moved?
I am more worried that we’ll insulate ourselves from people who need to be loved. My kids are tremendous neighbors. They’re like dogs but better. Waving and smiling goes a long way in starting to build community. Right now, they ride up and down the sidewalk while we serve coffee (and sometimes donuts) to those passing by. Next, is the school playground where more responsibility will be on them to love the beautiful and broken parts of our city. It feels like we’re asking a lot but they aren’t in this alone.