The Problem With Riding One's Bike to School by Ryan Koch

My daughter and I have been riding bikes to school pretty regularly the past few weeks. It is a great way to get out and notice things and people and small changes that are often overlooked. I see neighbors walking their dog(s). I see the leaves changing, burr oak acorns falling. I see the sun coming up a bit later.

Last week I saw something fairly mundane: two kids on a bike. They were headed in the opposite direction from us. One of the young people was standing on pegs around the rear tire while the other pedaled. Was that Scott?, I wondered out loud. I turned around to see that he was looking back at me, waving. It was Scott. I returned the wave and smiled as we continued to school.

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This young man is not really named Scott, but he is a real person that I see infrequently. I have sort of watched him grow up. I took him to a Shop With A Cop event one holiday season when he was pretty young, maybe ten years ago. A police officer went around Meijer’s with us as Scott filled up a shopping cart. We started in the toys, but soon we were in the clothes section. He got a few things for himself, and then stuff for his younger brother, Daniel. He may have gotten something for his mom. We also went to the food section. I remember him being fairly serious through all of this. More sober than joyful. We didn’t talk much on the way back to his house.

Then about six years ago Scott was in our SEEDS program. He worked hard, though quietly. He earned every bit of the stipend that summer. Later, after school had resumed, his mother bragged to me about the stuff he had bought for his brother. I made a comment about his still-new-looking shoes, and he flashed a smile we saw only occasionally through the summer.

Then this summer I was working with one of our two SEEDS groups when I saw a kid on a bike, yelling in a friendly (though distracting) way at our youth. It was Daniel, Scott’s younger brother. We talked briefly. He told me he wanted to be in SEEDS next year. I said, “Let’s do it.'“ Then Daniel rode away.

Getting back to work, some of the kids wanted to know how I knew Daniel. I told them I had known him since he was a baby. He was one of my neighbors. I asked if they knew Scott.

“Yea,” one boy said.
”What’s Scott getting into these days?” I asked. I had heard that he wasn’t going to school much.
”He does drugs.”
”O; dang,” I said. Because what do you say?

And, more importantly, what do you do? It has cost me nothing to be a sort of a neighbor to this young man and his family for ten years. I can’t say that I have sacrificed any of my privilege for his well-being. I can’t say that I know any more than I did a decade ago about how to serve him, or young neighbors like him.

But there goes a kid on a bike, a kid I care about. I wave and I smile. I wish him the best, silently, and I remain hopeful. Then I return my attention to the path I am on, this beautiful sun-rising bike ride by a park. Only now I am troubled. Now I am grieved. Now I feel just slightly unbalanced on this bike.

What We Came to Hear and What We Heard by Ryan Koch

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My son is ten years old. He has a growing understanding of what he doesn't like, and a growing confidence in his willingness to tell me what he doesn't like. Dinners are a challenge. Most meals are, really. And many leisure activities for that matter. This was all pointed out to me on a Friday afternoon as we drove to Raven's Run. We passed Man O War and Asher asked, "Wait, what are we doing?"

"It's called the Woodcock Walk. We learn about this bird and hopefully see it flying around at dusk," I gladly explained, barely veiling my excitement. 

"Uggh. I should have asked more questions before I said I'd go to this."

"C'mon: it'll be fun," I cajoled. "Plus, you like Chipotle.." I reminded him of the real incentive. 

"I do like Chipotle," he agreed as he looked out the passenger window.

We arrived. The park was closed, so this felt like a speakeasy situation. Asher and I and maybe twenty other people filed into the interpretive center. A guide showed us some slides about the Woodcock, where it lives, where it migrates, how it swoops and dives to impress females. We learned that it is a cousin of shore birds (Sandpiper, I think?), and that it has a flexible bill to assist with foraging.

We borrowed binoculars and headed out into the fields, into the late afternoon sky. We walked around the Prather House. Asher noted from behind his binoculars that he didn't know they had screen doors like that in the 1830s. We walked around an old barn that would not get much older. We were both glad to be outside on a clear night.

Then we stopped at the bottom of a hill. We looked up at the hillside to the south-west. Here was the day's last light. Perhaps the Woodcocks would be backlit here, so we could enjoy their flying. Our guide made a motion to stop and to listen. So we did. 

The next few moments were absolutely stunning. Have you ever stood silently in a field with twenty strangers, straining to hear some longed-for bird? The silence settled on us like a spell. A car passed. My heart rate slowed while my eyes and ears reach out to gather in anything, any signal. We heard peepers, frogs that I almost never hear in town. I scanned the sky with my neighbors. I saw and heard no sign of the Woodcock. I smiled at that. I breathed. I saw a couple slightly up the hill from me and Asher. They held hands, and then embraced as they looked together at the fading light. I can't tell you how long this all took. I took no photos of this moment. (How could I?)

Asher grabbed my arm and silently mouthed, What are we doing?

I mouthed back, I don't know.

Then let's go.

Biting back laughter, I nodded agreement. 

And we tiptoed out of that silence, that evening exhale, out of that field, into the parking lot, and into our car. My time is not my own. And my preferences are hardly the point. And the thing that draws us out in the first place is seldom the thing we savor when all is said and done. I will soon forget what I ordered on my burrito bowl, but I won't soon forget the frog song, the silent strangers, the hill and the field in the day's last light. 

Things I Saw in the Park by Ryan Koch

 A Nanking Cherry Bush at Castlewood Orchard

A Nanking Cherry Bush at Castlewood Orchard

The rain was more of a mist on a recent Wednesday morning when I found a box on the front porch. A tree had arrived. I grabbed the box, a shovel, an a few gallons of clover seed and drove around the block to Castlewood Park. The North Limestone Community Development Corporation is supporting Seedleaf to care for an orchard of 20 fruit-bearing trees: serviceberries, asian pears, cherries and persimmons. These were selected to be low-maintenece, pest- and drought-tolerant varieties that would not need to be sprayed. Caring for this small orchard is a labor of love. Lots of self interest in involved. I am patiently excited that one day there will be a bit of fruit here in our park.

I dug a hole, set the tree in the hole, covered it up. I poured a bucket of water onto the young tree. Then I started to scatter the clover seed onto the mulch around the trees. The mulch will break down quite a bit this year, and the cover will beckon pollinators towards our flowering trees. As I raked these seeds into the ground I saw something near the edge of the mulched area. I came closer to see that it was a small syringe. No needle, but still somehow jarring. 

I have come across this sort of litter in our park before. Syringes in the park remind me that some of our neighbors struggle with diabetes. Others struggle with intravenous drug use. Both sets of neighbors are facing an epidemic, a profound public health crisis, here in our community. Both groups of neighbors have been failed by our system of health care and food distribution. And what little I know about living with diabetes or with a drug habit is enough to be quite humbling. I know enough to be concerned, deeply grieved, and to feel completely helpless in the face of this storm. 

On the other side of this mulched area were four shrub-type cherry bushes, two of which had the audacity to be leafing out right now. I even saw a few flowers on one of them. We chose a Nanking Cherry because we wanted short visitors (children) to have access to this fruit. We will train the serviceberries to grow as shrubs rather than trees for the same reason. I feel a quiet delight when I picture a visitor discovering these fruits one day, an unplanned snack in the park.

Walking back to the truck I carried a bucket of seeds and a rake in one hand, and a very small plastic syringe in the other. I have a growing understanding of how to care for trees, and what fruit-bearing trees need in order to thrive. I also recognize too that so many of my neighbors struggle with addictions and painful medical treatments, and I am not at all sure how to serve them, how to walk alongside them as a neighbor. 

I set these things down in the back of the truck and I drove home. 

The Blame by Ryan Koch

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I was walking our dog on a recent Tuesday morning, our neighborhood's trash pickup day. The folks from the Division of Waste Management had already been by when I noticed a pile of packing peanuts laying on the side of the street. Presumably, a neighbor had poured these into the bin and did not bag them up. So here they were, resting beside the waste bin from which they had recently been liberated. I recalled hearing that our weather was expected to get fairly windy that afternoon. The liberation of these packing peanuts would likely continue if somebody didn't do something about this.

I considered my options. I was actually proud of myself for picking up all three poops that this big animal had contributed through our walk. I smugly pointed that out to my better self. I did not have time to take responsibility for all the little bits of trash that go unbagged on a Tuesday morning. The defense rested. I found myself not guilty. I sighed and continued to walk.

For our evening walk, as you can imagine, the packing peanuts had all discovered new and unique resting places: the lawn in the park; a holly bush; under a parked car. Almost none of them remained in the tidy pile on the curb where they started their journey that morning. 

That's when I recalled something else. A quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

"in a free society, some are guilty,
but all are responsible."

I sighed again (because breathing really does help in these moments) and I picked up as many packing peanuts as would fit in my jacket pocket, which was like 8 of them.