I was very happy when I first moved to Minneapolis seventeen years ago. I recall a sense of elation as I stared at the distant cluster of downtown skyscrapers while running around what was then called Lake Calhoun. I had discovered a place that felt like home, a new home without all the baggage from the old one. The last two years have been frustrating and disturbing. My children were quite needlessly locked out of their schools and placed in Google classrooms where their mental health suffered and they learned practically nothing. Businesses a few blocks from my house were razed to the ground in the George Floyd riots. It has been a strange time. I hear many folks say that. I know I have felt persistently hopeless and overwhelmed since the pandemic began. The teacher’s strike seemed like the final betrayal and I told my wife we could buy a bigger house in the suburbs as she has long wished. We made steps in that direction, but I’m not confident we will follow through with that plan now. My roots run deep in this place with the memories of so many experiences I’ve shared here with my family. Transplanting myself elsewhere at this juncture in my life feels traumatic and I am really about avoiding trauma right now.
Yesterday afternoon, I hauled five large bags of trash out of the nearby gorge where I often take my sons fishing. Readers will remember this as a redux of a story called “Trash Fishing” I wrote exactly a year ago. Spring arrived a bit later this season. Cold rain and sleet pelted my face as I worked to clean up the site from another vacated homeless encampment. This is my neighborhood. I am a caretaker of this land and this river. I discovered clues that it was a Native American mother living here along the Mississippi—a water bottle with the words “MINNESOTA INDIAN WOMEN’S RESOURCE CENTER OUTREACH” printed on it and a Baby Bjorn bassinet. She kept a large knife with her inside the tent, presumably for protection. It was not easy hauling these items out of the gorge. Her blankets were sodden with rain and melted snow. I was breathing hard and snot was streaming from my nose. I do not know how to help the most destitute of my neighbors. I can only clean up after them, and the fact that I care more for the land than the people displaced from it, is distinctly characteristic of my Minnesota niceness.
I had a talk with my youngest son recently about the importance of hard work. People tend to assign blame to politicians for societal failures, but ultimately a country cannot function unless individual farmers, policemen, nurses, and store clerks go to work each day and do their jobs. I was angry at the teachers when I said that. A lot of people have let my kids down. My wife and I are about all they have left to look up to. Sometimes the burden seems impossibly heavy. But as Tom Waits says, “you got to get behind the mule, in the morning and plow.” So that is what I do–one block at a time, one bag of trash at a time and one sentence at a time–until my sons are men. Then it will be up to them.
The illuminated spires of our downtown skyline are still visible from each of our urban lakes, and I still gaze at them with hope and wonder. The city still stands, as do I, each of us a work in progress.