our neighborhood of strange privilege
By Hillel Weintraub
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Georgetown is like a small town, swathed in a blanket of seeming safety, a relatively quiet residential pocket within a big city. When I take my girls to the parks in Georgetown, even after only a few months living here, we see the same familiar faces, including children who are in my daughter’s kindergarten class. She tugs at my shirt and points to them, feeling shy for a moment, and then she overcomes her shyness and runs to greet them by name. On Halloween, while walking down the lovely brick sidewalk to go to a pumpkin carving party, a girl from her class appeared in her doorway, also preparing for trick-or-treating, and yelled, “Hi Esme,” from across the street. Later the streets were full of trick-or-treaters and parents, moving about in a festive mood beneath the street lamps.
All of this feels very cozy considering that we only showed up here two months ago. And we will only stay for another seven or so. Every experience we have here is qualified by the knowledge that we are only here temporarily. The way we did Halloween this year will not be repeatable next Halloween. And then our experiences are colored slightly by the knowledge that we are not a very stable addition to the general rule of stability in a neighborhood like this one, student families being, after all, temporary by nature. Sometimes I wonder if our time at Notre Dame was only long enough to trick us into a feeling of stability before the inevitable whisking away.
Georgetown is very comfortable, and very privileged. Although Esme is now enrolled at the public elementary school a few cute blocks from our apartment, to me it may as well be a private school, so high are its standards. The principle knows each child by name, and the parents are very involved. They volunteer; they support the teacher and communicate with one another by email. I never remember anything like this happening once in my twelve years of middle-of-the-road public schools.
I well know we might as well be foreigners here with a visa hurling toward expiration, but still I wind up succumbing to a sensation of strange privilege. In spite of myself I am gaining insight into just what wealth can buy you, even while approaching all of this extravagance with sense of stand-offish skepticism. I feel the ease of life here drawing me in against my core of (relatively) anti-extravagant values. It is strange to think that we–so long accustomed to the simple life of graduate student realities in a cold-north, mid-west, slim-pickings town in Indiana– are now sharing and enjoying the same neighborhood perks as senators and ambassadors, but entirely without the high-pressure life demanded by such careers. The mothers of Esme’s classmates include heads of human resource departments for government agencies and litigation lawyers working for downtown firms. I know, because they were standing in front of and behind me in line for popcorn on the school yard during movie night.
And I must remember to RSVP for Esme’s school fund raiser, which happens to be a soiree at the French Embassy with a silent auction. If I go, it may be only for the motive of curiosity. That and being able to say I went to a soiree at the French Embassy. Certainly, I won’t be placing any bids at any auction.
I ask myself what I am doing here. Surprisingly, I don’t feel terribly out of place, chatting with other parents at the beginning of the year school picnic, and so forth. I just feel that my own life trajectory would never in a million years lead me into the heart of this particular neighborhood, so the fact of being here feels strange and curious, as if I’m a novelist researching an unfamiliar lifestyle enclave for a book, pretending to be an insider.
Mostly I reflect on the fact that I am here without having earned, as my two year-old would say, “a spot.” To earn the right to be here, to afford the real estate and the other costs that come bundled together with an address in Georgetown, you would either have to be an inheritor of this way of life, with a trail of private schools and European cars and nannies behind you and your mom and dad, or someone who has striven to attain to this way of life and attained it only by wanting it badly enough. That would be the person who had a fire in his or her belly to work his or her booty off as early as seventh grade in order to enter a college where he or she would work his or her booty off so that he or she might be ushered straight into a lifestyle of working his or her booty off for a lifetime. Then, and only then, the entire showcase would be his or hers!
But what occurs to me is that even here among the materially privileged, are the under-mothered, under-cloaked. There is childish road rage. Even tonight my husband came home from the Chipotle on M Street, telling a story of a woman dressed to the nines, screaming and cursing at the poor employee making her burrito because he made an error.
To be heir to a large metaphorical woolen cloak, a human cloak of love and nurture, pre-woven and ready for you to enjoy and pass on to yours, is to be a truly privileged human being. As far as I can tell, DC is filled with the materially privileged but the humanly disenfranchised, the improperly raised, the rude, the pushy, the driven-to-be-more-than-human, the type A, the emotionally abandoned child, the emotionally neglected child, the adult who is really the adult-child, dressed up in a suit.
Sometimes someone has to stop and blaze a trail into the immaterial; to devote their lives to preparing a human inheritance.
I have no career to speak of. Here I am just walking, sometimes by myself and sometimes with one or both of my daughters, through the brick sidewalks. I walk and walk in a different direction depending on the day, noticing loose bricks that need repair or gingko trees or embassies from African countries with ornate stonework, sometimes using my ten fingers like the knots of a prayer rope while gripping the handles of a stroller. I am not a nanny or a luxury car or an ambassador, but I am supposed to be here and I have a career. I am here to mother myself so that I can properly mother my children, to overwrite under-mothering, break generational cycles and chains of various and sundry sorts. I am trying for the risky, hard-labor approach, so that one talent might someday spring as if by magic into two, five, or ten.
No one can see how much energy this secret weaving work is taking below the surface. I am not patching; I am increasing something without seams in order to get it bigger. By right it must not have seams; it must only increase from the stuff that it is, the stuff that was handed to me, in order to adequately cover me and my children. Then, when that is done, it must get bigger yet. At least, I hope to wrap it toward my own aging mother, and then backwards (outwards?) in time toward her mother, my grandmother, who is no longer living. We say the names of the departed in prayer because they missed out on nurturing too. Sometimes their names are hard to say, because they wreaked so much havoc. This is why I know I have quite a bit of work to do.
My life, like the white streaks left by airplanes in the DC sky, will pass quietly through this neighborhood of hurried professionals. I suspect I will remember this time as a season of un-hurry. In our nation’s capital, I am The Person Who Is Not In a Hurry. My career is to take my time, to observe and receive my own peculiar education, my eyes squinting in the sun, the sleeves of my shirt rolled up, even on a crisp, fall day. On a very lucky day you might even see me on the sunny porch of the National Gallery, tiny beneath the hyperbolic stone pillars, one of the few people there at mid-morning not wearing a school uniform. I an walking through an autumn of remarkable perfection and duration, and as I do I am working in more ways than one. My heart and my blood both go faster and warmer.