Desert Grasses

I've known Whitney since we attended an early arrival dance program before entering our freshmen year together at Goucher College. She was the first person I had ever met from Alaska, and has always been a person to take great leaps both in the dance studio and in life. An adventurous being, I hold vivid images in my mind of Whitney jumping off rocky cliffs, headstanding in cobblestone streets, hugging trees, bounding (with a natural dancer's grace) across bridges, and cartwheeling among fountains. Above all, Whitney is a lady in motion. 

And while she currently awaits the arrival of her first baby, she remains forward thinking and reflecting upon how to teach her child some of the our country's most difficult concepts. 

Whitney shared this piece with me the day after the recent presidential election. She wrote it the day before, on November 7th with pre-election jitters... yet all still remains fiercely relevant as we enter next week's inauguration. -emidobz 


 November 7th, 2016

“Mommy, what is cultural segregation?”

I’m out gardening in front of my house, digging up some yellowed, dried-out shrubs with the plan to replace them with “California natives”, or, plants that do well with little water.  The summers in the Sacramento Valley are brutally hot, and gardening is better done in the fall, when the rain comes and the morning dew sticks around long enough to keep the soil damp and workable.

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Working in the front yard is always a little awkward, with cars driving by and kids on their bikes startling my jumpy dog, who likes to be near me but needs to make sure she’s the only one who is.  It feels so public, to put oneself on display at one’s residence.  In my men’s oversized plaid flannel shirt and work jeans, I feel especially self conscious as I bend and stoop, kneel and stand, realizing that the jeans, which used to be too large, may soon live on the high shelf with clothing that I won’t access until well after this pregnancy is over.

Lowering a pot of desert grass into my freshly dug hole, I remember gardening with my dad when I was a little kid: how to squeeze the plastic pot to release the plant, to loosen the roots while trying not to tear them.  I remember all of the little annuals that we used to buy because I liked the flowers, and the small kid pride I felt at knowing I was involved in their beautifying our surroundings.  I wonder if my future child will like to garden?  That’s not to say that I particularly love it myself; I don’t feel that I’m very good at it, but, like I said, I do wonder.  

In an instant, the thought that people are like plants enters my mind, and my brain has run away with ideas about how I would garden with a child, how I would explain things to him or her, and how they would make sense later in life.  

“Well, sweetie, let’s try and think about it this way.  You know how, when we plant flowers, we have to loosen them gently from their pots to make sure we don’t rip the top out of the soil?  And once the plant is out, then we gently loosen the roots so that they can grow into the dirt around them.  What would happen if we didn’t loosen the roots?  Or even, if we didn’t remove the plant from the pot at all, we just put the whole thing in the ground?  That’s right, the roots wouldn’t be as able to grow…”

Then would come facilitating the imagining of a family who has just moved to a new country, who has little access to resources to help them integrate to their new, foreign land, or little understanding thereof, and how some societal systems and human habits may end up putting them all in one place together… trying to explain that some people choose to stay segregated, seeking to live with others who look and live like them, while others simply don’t have any choice but to live in a certain place, in a certain way…

This is where it gets harder for me to imagine whether or not this analogy would make sense to a child.  It’s starting to make less sense even to me. 

Would I talk about racial discrimination wherein black families weren’t allowed to buy houses in certain neighborhoods? 

Or the Chinese immigration boom in the 1970s, when, in Paris, the new skyscraper apartment towers in the 13th arrondissement were what was largely available to them, and so they all moved in to the same neighborhood, and started businesses, and had little reason to integrate with the rest of the city? 

How much do I even understand cultural segregation on a personal level? 

I think about the neighborhood where I live and what I see while I’m out for walks with the dog, and I remember that the area is two-thirds white, and a number of houses have signs and bumper stickers supporting Donald Trump for president; would I feel safe or welcomed here if I weren’t white?

I fill in the hole in the ground and rake some mulch back over top of the newly churned dirt.  I doubt my unborn baby will ever ask me to explain what cultural segregation is, so I just file the plant analogy away. -Whitney

Whitney Rickards Wilde