Suddenly I was beset by questions about this place where my daughter had entered the world. In seeking answers, I began to see Bloomington not merely as a way station on my career but as a working community, with its own history, its own strengths and weaknesses. I met people who volunteered at the hospital or the soup kitchen; I met people who were starting a food co-op, people who ran a shelter for abused women, people who fought to save and rehabilitate fine old buildings. I met teachers who stayed on after the school day ended to tutor children who were struggling. I met businesspeople who gave jobs to handicapped workers and donated money to local causes. I met politicians who bicycled to work and championed public land.
Of course I also met or learned of scalawags and charlatans and deadbeats, who were always on the take and never giving back to the community, but their like would have turned up in any town. I could also see that, because of the university, Bloomington suffered more than most places from transience, as students flowed in and out by the thousands every year, most of them taking little interest in the community during their temporary stays. Indeed, the majority of residents, here as elsewhere, appeared to go about their lives without giving much thought to the wellbeing of the city, collecting their paychecks and their groceries and assuming that others would make sure things kept running. Still, in exploring this place with a father’s eyes, I discovered there were many people devoted to caring for the community, enough people to steadily improve the quality of life in Bloomington.
About the time Eva learned to walk, my wife and I bought an old brick house within easy strolling distance of the courthouse square and only two blocks from a city park in one direction and a public school in the other. A mortgage hadn’t kept my parents from moving every few years; still, it was a sobering step for me to sign an agreement promising payments for the next thirty years. I had been alive only twenty-eight years, and already I had dwelt in ten houses. Ruth and I could afford this house only because it was small and run-down. No sooner had we settled in than we began fixing it up, and the sweat and hours we put into the work strengthened our marriage to one another as well as to the place.
“What about those shipping crates?” Ruth asked me one day. They were just taking up room, and she didn’t plan on moving again any time soon. After mulling it over, I took my hammer, dismantled the crates and used the wood to build storage shelves in the basement.
The neighborhood had been settled for most of a century, so the trees were big but the lots were small. We pruned our trees, trimmed the gangly bushes, dug up the flower beds and planted them anew. Neighbors stopped by with starts from their own gardens, with casseroles, with advice. The people living nearby whom we hadn’t met on sidewalks or in front yards, we sought out by knocking on their doors and offering gifts of our own, usually cookies or bread.
Before long, Ruth and I formed a daycare cooperative with other parents of young children in the neighborhood. We found another circle of friends who liked to share food and folksongs. Ruth located shops where she could buy supplies for quilting and weaving. I discovered the best places to buy used books and new tools. We sought out the Quaker meeting, to continue a form of worship we had come to know during our years in England. We joined local groups devoted to peacemaking and conservation. We called or wrote or spoke in person with our elected officials (a mayor who served for eight years lived around the corner from us), and at election time we posted signs in our yard to support our favored candidates. When meetings were held to discuss the future of the schools, the library, the parks, or the neighborhood, we always tried to attend.
Within a few years our second child was born, a boy named Jesse. His arrival only deepened in me the change begun with Eva’s birth. Here were two reasons for thinking hard about the importance of staying put. Children crave stability, a known world that is stimulating but safe. They also crave novelty, of course, but against a background of familiarity. For infants, the parents provide such a known world, but as children grow they need first the home, then the neighborhood, then a town or city for space to explore. Ruth understood from the beginning that Bloomington could be such a nourishing space for Eva and Jesse, and I came to agree with her.
Running errands about town, often in company with the children, Ruth and I recognized more and more of the faces we met. We knew by name the clerks in the credit union and the hardware store. We learned where our drinking water came from, what power plants generated our electricity. We discovered where to buy sound lumber, where to get our car fixed by an honest mechanic, where to buy produce grown locally by organic farmers. With enthusiastic help from Eva and Jesse, we planted a vegetable garden of our own, watching sunlight, water, and soil transform into beans, lettuce, and tomatoes. After putting up bird feeders, we soon learned the feathers and songs of the birds that lived here year round, as well as many of those that migrated through. We camped in nearby state parks, we hiked in state and national forests, and before long we learned the trees, the wildflowers, and a few of the edible mushrooms. We began to read in the local terrain the effects of bedrock geology, the traces of glaciers, and the patterns of human settlement.
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The best thing about being a young adult right now is that you, more than any previous generation, have the freedom and the resources to create your own religion. So, let’s get started.
The apartment you lived in your first year out of school, the walk-up with a view of the street.
I wanted to quit my job. I hated my boss.
His eyes widened, he became angry, and backed off of me. I told him he could leave now. Now. He said “With you being a good Christian girl, and me studying to be a priest, I think it’s important we not tell anyone what we did.”