What does the good life mean to you? These readers tell us it means sharing food, helping neighbors, raising a child, honoring other gods, and being present with someone who is dying
For Dova, it takes a village by Roberta Wilson
Honoring other gods by Sander Daniels
The world in one neighborhood by Akaya Windwood
Building it by hand by Rick Dale
Living with Dignity by Wes Browning and Anitra Freeman
Choosing grace, choosing now by Akaya Windwood
For Dova, it takes a village
When my partner and I adopted our new-born daughter, Dova, I welcomed the neighbors who came to call on Dova. It added some adult company to my day. As she got older, there was always someone who would stop and talk with us on the pathway—or even better throw her up in the air to her delight.
Where we live in Winslow Cohousing, an intentional community on Bainbridge Island, Washington, we’ve got 30 small houses, a forest, an orchard and garden, a big common house where we can eat dinner five nights a week, and a pedestrian focus. One of our values is to consider children’s needs in the decisions we make. When we sometimes stumble in our understanding of what it means to live in community, the children’s experience here is apt to remind us of what is important.
As Dova started to walk, I could let her feel her independence, while I kept my eye on her out the kitchen window. Now she can run to a neighbor’s house to visit her favorite cat and run back, or pick strawberries with another neighbor, while I throw clothes into the laundry. Neighbors stop in and ask if we need something from the store, and likewise it is rarely difficult to find a baby sitter whom my child knows and loves. I reciprocate by giving the young teens an opportunity to make baby sitting money and by taking Dova to their classes or events when we provide their ride—or by being a child’s check-in person when parents are still at work. Because of this interaction, she is a child who sees the world as a safe place and people, even strangers, as potential friends instead of a danger. This self-confidence is what I see in many of the other cohousing children, young and older, especially those whose parents allow the village to nurture their children.
Some say it does not take a village to raise a child; it takes a strong family. I say it takes both. When parents are exhausted from commuting and work, children suffer. When parents are worried about making ends meet, children suffer. When there is famine and war, children suffer. I know I will not feel at peace until we make a commitment to all the children of the world—until we understand that the village is all of us. Then we will grow people who can be at peace with themselves and with others—like Dova.
Roberta L. Wilson
union organizer, Winslow Cohousing resident
Honoring other gods
As a traveling student in southern India in February 2004, I was told of the widespread practice of politicians harnessing Hindu and Muslim nationalism to gain political popularity. Some candidates for office have incited religious riots or stonings. Other politicians use subtler methods to create deep divisions.
One weekend, I traveled to Mysore, a historic trading post in the state of Karnataka, and happened upon a small city neighborhood where hundreds of people were packed from wall to wall in the winding streets. Strings of orange lights lined the road for two blocks. Men in white cloth, and women in their most prized saris held coconuts, candles, and flower petals as offerings to the gods.
As the only white person at this Hindu festival, I was quickly noticed by a group of young men my age, who invited me to their rooftop. From the roof, I listened to the sounds of firecrackers, prayers, and smashing coconuts. Three stories below, the throngs blended into a sea of color. Not only were the streets packed, but the balconies above every storefront were filled with people as well. Yet these people on the balconies were only observers. As it turned out, my new friends were Muslims, and this was a majority Muslim neighborhood.
While watching the procession of thousands dance through the city street on the way to the temple at the end of the block, I asked my friends how it was that such a loud, grandiose, Hindu celebration came to be put in this neighborhood. “Don’t you feel intruded upon?” I asked. “Isn’t this your neighborhood?” They looked at me with confusion, as if they misunderstood my questions. I dropped the subject.
Soon, a 20-foot high statue of the goddess Laxmi rounded the street-corner, dragged with rope by 25 men. My new friends bowed their heads and told me that I should do the same, that I should pray to Laxmi. I looked up in surprise. “But I’m Christian, and you’re Muslim, so why do we need to pray to Laxmi?”
They met my look with equal surprise, and said, “We all honor the same God, so we should all treat their god with the reverence with which they treat ours.”
At that moment I learned that these boys were living the good life, tossing off the reins of the political propaganda that saddles much of India and the rest of the world.
junior, Yale University
The world in one neighborhood
I have the good fortune to live in the San Francisco Bay area. There are people here from every place in the world. I don’t have to go somewhere to find the world; it’s right here in my neighborhood. I was recently at the dry cleaner. The woman who owned the dry cleaner was an Asian woman. A woman came in, a Latina, with her dry cleaning. Both the Latina and the dry cleaner woman had limited English, and I had limited Spanish. They could barely talk to one another, so I spoke in Spanish to the Latina and translated it into English so that the Asian woman could understand what she was wanting. The three of us were laughing the whole time and gesturing.
That’s why I live here. This is what happens in my neighborhood. But if I didn’t have the time, if I were rushing and I had a nine-to-five job, work, work, work, I might have had a whole different attitude, like here’s one more impediment, I just want to drop my laundry off so I can go. But I have the time to stop, connect, and help and laugh. There’s not enough money in the world to take the place of that.
facilitator, Oakland, California
Building it by hand
While I was a college student in northern Wisconsin, I spent a summer working at a local u-pick blueberry farm. My boss, Rick Dale, a hard-working yet soft-hearted man of 55, taught me more about life while we pruned raspberries and moved beehives than I learned in a full year of lectures and research papers at school. His passion for life and love of work was contagious, and his fusion of the two admirable. As a graduation present, he gave me a pair of pruning shears, saying, “This is a reminder that you don’t have to work in an office to achieve wealth and happiness.” Below are some of his thoughts on the good life.—Becky Brun
We grow our own vegetables and eat them year-round. I go have coffee with my mother every morning by walking up the driveway to her place. Janet, my wife, runs a day-care that has the biggest playground in Bayfield. I can choose when I want to work late, when I want to take vacation, and how long I’ll stay away. I don’t have much disposable income, but I don’t know what I would buy if I had more money. Janet and I made the decision a long time ago that this was the life we wanted and it’s been a fantastic journey.
Many people drive into the farm during the summer, look around, and tell us that we are the luckiest people in the world. But this farm took years of planning and hard work. We searched a long time for this piece of land before building our own house on it.
Often when people talk about the good life, somehow it gets equated with being laid back. But fulfillment—in life, relationships, work—is found through intention. The best opportunities in life are the ones that we make for ourselves. I believe that 90 percent of accomplishing something is deciding that you can do it.
farmer, Bayfield, Wisconsin
Living with dignity
Wes: When I speak to groups about homelessness, I am often asked, “What do homeless people need most?” The most important thing one can provide to a homeless person is the opportunity to give, to contribute. That’s the one thing we almost never receive.
Anitra: Poverty is often a result of society not valuing what people have to offer. There is a tremendous amount of talent out there (on the streets of Seattle), but people are rarely given the chance to show it. A long time ago, I was living in a homeless shelter where I was given everything I needed—food, clothes, medicine, a bed, safety—but other people were controlling my life. I had no freedom, and freedom is essential to human dignity. I couldn’t even sweep my own floor. Then I moved into a shelter that was run by homeless and formerly homeless people. We relied on one another and we became close friends.
Wes: Often, when people move from homeless shelters into public housing, they lose contact with their old friends. The need for public space—public meeting places—is very important. Otherwise, people begin to feel isolated. Community space is important for everyone—not just homeless people. Many people tend to think that the more public benches there are, the more homeless people will use them. But taking away public benches does not take away homelessness.
Anitra: In Portland, there are benches everywhere. All types of people—tourists and shoppers and little old ladies and kids—sit down next to strangers and engage in conversation. We will never put an end to poverty if we don’t acknowledge that everyone, regardless of their economic, social, or racial background, has something important to say.
Wes Browning and Anitra Freeman
writers, Real Change newspaper, Seattle, Washington
Choosing grace, choosing now
Volunteering with Hospice to sit with folks as they’re dying has taught me a lot about how to live. The hardest death I’ve ever witnessed was that of a young African-American woman who had not six months between her diagnosis and her death. She had a very painful kind of cancer. She wasn’t 35 years old, so dying was not on her agenda. The whole time, she fought death just as she had fought everything in her life. She was disabled and knew it, and she had cancer and knew it, but she wouldn’t admit that she had a disability or that she was dying.
Deciding to enter Hospice is hard, because it means admitting you’re dying, but once people enter Hospice, they say, “I wish I’d done this earlier. This is so much easier.” This young woman never stopped resisting, which interrupted her capacity to accept help. She had a hard time letting me run errands for her or take her to the park. If she hadn’t fought the inevitable so hard, it wouldn’t have been so hard on her friends, her family, and her community. The burden wouldn’t have fallen so squarely on one or two people’s shoulders.
The most graceful death I’ve witnessed was my mother’s. In some ways, it was similar to the young woman’s death. My mother, also African-American, was young, 59 years old. She was diagnosed and died within six weeks. But she said, “Well, okay, here it is. I’m going to do this at some point. This is a little sooner than I expected. But I’m going to do this.” And so she faced it gracefully, just as she had lived gracefully. She walked into the process. This made it easy for us to lend a hand.
Given the choice, I’m opting for grace. That means I need to live gracefully, so there’s no big transition to make when I die. This realization has had a profound impact on how I live. I realized I’m the only one in charge of the quality of my life. I decide what I do, how I spend my money, how I spend my time, what I think about, what I pray for. I have to choose well-being every moment.
The gift of being part of people’s dying keeps me in the immediate. Every time I walk through a dying with someone, it brings me back to now in a way that nothing else does. It’s a wonderful reminder of the importance of being awake, of being present. Now. Not tomorrow, not when I get down to it, not when I have time, but now. Right now.
facilitator, Oakland, California