Blue and balmy, and the hoarse call of a raven in the distance. The raggedy leaves of a banana tree are swaying in a neighbor’s yard, but mine is dark and dank, a tangle of bare twigs and branches where the dormant grape vine clings to the fence, only the ironwood tree pushing high enough to catch the sun.
On the street where I went to breakfast with my brother and a friend, brown nannies were pushing white babies, and dogs lapping at the water bowls the stores and cafes put outside their doors for them. Between well-fed white babies and well-fed adored dogs, it’s hard to say who has the softest life in San Francisco these days. An old New Yorker cartoon by Gardner Rea shows a large dog flopped comfortably on a couch between one couple sitting stiffly in straightbacked chairs and another couple seated on the floor. The man on the floor is saying, “Oh, he was rather a problem at first. But now he just goes his way and we go ours.” Leading a dog’s life ain’t what it used to be.
I’ve been out and about much more the last week or two, catching up with friends and family. It’s been a relief to emerge from the dark hole I’ve been hiding in. Sunday some old friends just back from six months in South Africa spent the afternoon with us, talking, eating, gossiping. Monday my eldest son and his wife and one-year-old daughter arrived announcing they were cooking lunch: home-made sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and Brussel sprouts with bacon. “We wanted German food,” my son said. They met in Berlin, in a wagonplatz made up of old circus wagons, lovely in summer when everyone cooked together and hung out at tables under the trees, but miserably lacking insulation for those long, cold winters. But happy memories, apparently.
My granddaughter, who is exposed to English, German, and Turkish on a regular basis, is babbling with great seriousness of intent, but I have no idea what she’s talking about. Her parents do better. “Mama mama mama,” she says. It turns out she is not demanding her mother; mama is the Turkish word for baby food.
An Egyptian friend who bore her children in California in the late fifties was told she’d do them terrible damage if she and their father spoke both English and Arabic to them. “They’ll never learn either language properly,” the ‘experts’ told her, “and it may affect how their brains develop.” Since they were being raised in the US, their parents opted for English–to theirs and their children’s bitter regret. You have to wonder how, even all those years ago, the ‘experts’ could have failed to notice all the normal-functioning bilingual children in California whose parents had immigrated from Latin America and China.
I love that the Bay Area is so filled with people from every part of the world that it’s hard to find the mainstream anymore. Visiting a children’s playground is like a trip to the UN. It gives me hope that the stereotypes and injustices of the past won’t dominate the future. March 16th is the 48th anniversary of a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that I participated in. The dream of an integrated society with equal rights for all has not come to fruition, but the social landscape is changing in ways we couldn’t have imagined back then, and there may yet come a time when race is not the defining factor in children’s lives. I wish I could live to see it.
The world is big. Some people are unable to comprehend that simple fact. They want the world on their own terms, its peoples just like them and their friends, its places like the manicured little patch on which they live. But this is a foolish and blind wish. Diversity is not an abnormality but the very reality of our planet. The human world manifests the same reality and will not seek out permission to celebrate itself in the magnificence of its endless varieties. Civility is a sensible attribute in this kind of world we have; narrowness of heart and mind is not.
No one is, or should be, so naive as to believe that all the problems of the world will be solved by good will and civility alone. Indeed, it may well be true that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. But it is at the same time inconceivable that the road to the other place will be paved with bad intentions. Good intentions may not be enough, but they are better than bad intentions.
–Chinua Achebe, Bates College Commencement Address, 1996