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City Mice and Running Shoes

September, 2000

It's hard to believe that I've been officially, in a geographic kind of way, here for three months. To be honest, it didn't entirely feel as if a real thing until school started in Vermont. Up until that time it might have been just a summer lark. I got e-mails from a number of school friends and colleagues on the first and second days of school. Indeed, I was not there; I was not sharing in the experience of getting ready; I wasn't tense and stressed and participating in one of the traditional sleepless night for teachers. I was here. It felt real, and I started to feel the path diverge a bit under my feet.

Slowly I have been unpacking. The suitcase was easy to empty as was my bookbag heavy with absolutely necessary books. Unpacking spiritually and emotionally has been an entirely different matter though. I wasn't surprised though after initially wondering about feeling at loose ends. I' ve never spent much time in a city, much less a city with something like 15 times the population of the whole state of Vermont. I have so long defined myself as a part of a family unit, it felt odd to be alone. Having solitude I'd sometimes craved made me remember the old adage to "be careful what you wish for, you might get it."

I certainly don't want to paint a negative picture though. It was fun. I tackled Philadelphia's public transportation system and begun exploring parts of the city on foot. I got home on as regular a schedule as I could manage. Paul and Jane Kronick were in town for a good week before going to Vermont for the summer. They are wonderful people-generous and hospitable. Jane took time to show me around, introduce me to her meeting and set up participation in some local Quaker events. Cilde the executive secretary, herself preparing for the Triennial, took time to set aside some projects that helped me acquaint myself with life at the Friends World Committee.

For all of my middle age and supposed maturity, part of me was intimidated by the city. Saying the right thing or, rather, saying a necessary thing in the right way so the line behind me didn't get blocks long was challenging. I quickly decided the way to ask questions was defined by region. Knowing what to ask for and what to figure out for myself offered some confusion too. A number of times I was in quandary. It was a variation on a theme- my old "refuse to ask for directions" thing getting in the way from my increasing knowledge and from my enjoyment of situations and experiences. What if someone thought I was an outsider? Well I was. What if someone thought I didn't know what I was doing? Well, I didn't. I'd like to say that letting go of that was easy. I can say that whenever I managed to really let go I was always wiser for the experience.

How do city people differ from country people? Greatly was my first thought when I came to Philadelphia at the end of June. I thought "I'll never be able to do this!" I was marked by every panhandler and mooch. City people have a different aura. They walk differently. They talk differently. In a strange combination they both ignore insulting behavior and take offense more quickly. Once this summer on the subway a shouting match began. It was crowded and hot. A homeless man, seemingly mentally ill, was talking to himself. When he scowled at a very well dressed business type in the wrong way, the business man challenged him. "What are YOU lookin' at?" Of course the homeless guy rose to the bait, or was it the business dude that rose to the stare?

No matter. I sat in my seat and said to myself "Okay, Mr. Smarty-Pants-Peace-Nik. What are you going to do? Pretend not to notice like everyone else on the car? Say something which will surely been seen as confrontative by one of these people or the other. Or both of them for that for that matter." Both these men were acting like rare flowers (I don't remember the Latin, but the common name is Blooming Idiots) with voices rising, faces red. You could almost smell the testosterone. There wasn't much opportunity to ponder. Finally at a stop I got up and stood, giving my seat to someone else and obstructing their views of each other. I even managed to do it with some subtly. While the argument ensued, it lost some of it's ardor as they had to lean around me, who in turn was doing my utmost to sway with the train and stay in their way.

I don't know if that was the best way to deal with the situation. Perhaps it was, perhaps it was only hot air that would have dissipated as the train reached its destination.

But what I learned-relearned--from that situation is that there is a time to set aside worrying about the what the thing to do is. I came to understand that more often than not my assumptions come from fear. Letting go of the fear left the experience there for the taking and my own growing.

It is easy in a place as contrary as this is from home to generalize things as just plain different. Much of the subway line I take runs into the city as an elevated train and goes through some pretty impoverished sections of town. It's easy to see the boarded up windows and the blistered peeling paint and the unkempt nature of many of the houses. Looking closely though and letting go of expectations, there are some brightly colored doors with fresh enamel, and trimmed shrubs, and flowers in bloom and parents hugging their children, and people going to work. And laughter as well as tears.

When I came to Philadelphia a person who's friendship has been the source of much joy and wisdom ended an e-mail with some advice: Philippians 4:8-9. "…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

I love the rhythm and the repetition of "whatever is" and "if there is". It reminds me like a Celtic prayers I've been reading lately, a Breastplate of Patrick. It moves by itself bringing a focus and a direction to the time that precedes it. And marks a path to follow.

I always use to rankle a bit when people said there wasn't any diversity in Vermont. It is there, but you need to look through the conformity to see it. Not so here in Philadelphia. The place oozes diversity, and diversity of every single kind. It's easy to see…the colors of our skin, the languages we speak and the clothes and badges we chose to wear. It's amazing. Certainly here in Philadelphia the diversity is easy to see; it's our commonalities we need to be sure we search out. I love watching folks and noting how different we all are from one another. Often on the ride into to city center, or on a lunch time walk I'll pick one thing and take note of the breath of differences. The backs of earrings for example are easy to note on the subway and there are a variety of options. One afternoon I was looking at shoes. There were platform shoes and spiked heeled high heels without backs and wing tips and flip flops and Birkenstocks and every imaginable brand of running shoes.

But you know, as I looked at the diversity of foot wear I realized that what made them shoes was that they all had soles. Or else they wouldn't be shoes. So it is with us. We are different as night and day from each other. Even at home in Vermont there are back-to-the-landers and McDonald junkies. Rednecks and yuppies. Gays and straights. Irish and French Canadian and Lebanese. Monday night football on TV types and Saturday afternoon opera on public radio types. Ben and Jerry and creamees. But we all have souls. It's not our diversity or our sameness that's at issue. It 's that spark of the Divine that we share.

When I was a kid, there was a story that I loved, and it has been bouncing around in my head since I arrived in Philadelphia. It's about a mouse who goes to the city to meet his city cousin, and than (memory fails me a bit here) the city mouse comes to the country. They both have challenges with fitting in, and as I recall they each are happy to get home. City mice and country mice both are happiest where they started out. If I have the plot line correct, there are a couple of things I'd change. Maybe they'd split their time between urban and rural. All running shoes have souls after all. And than there's Philippians 4:8-9


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