…a kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I’m the queen…

Evangeline has decided to be Queen Elsa from the movie “Frozen” for Halloween. This came about after several weeks of planning to be a pirate, and then switching, suddenly and upsettingly, to Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” for a bit before settling once and for all on Elsa, although she did agree I made a very compelling case for Wendy from “Peter Pan.” It took a bit of discussion to understand why she came to Elsa so late in the game, but it sounds like she found out most of the girls in her class were planning on being princesses of one kind or another. She and I were having a chat about it her choice when she changed her mind from being a pirate.

“Well, I really want to be Elsa but Myra (a friend of hers at daycare) told me she is being Elsa so I had to choose another princess, so I chose Belle,” Evangeline told me. I can get almost any information I need to out of her when we have popsicles on the front porch swing together.

“Okay, but who or what do you want to be for Halloween?” I asked her. “Nobody else gets to make that decision for you – not even mommy.”

Evangeline considered. “Well, I really want to be Elsa,” she concluded. “She has magic powers. Pirates don’t have magic powers.”

“Then, you can be Elsa,” I said definitively, managing to keep my less charitable Myra-related thoughts to myself.

I’m actually relieved she chose Elsa as her costume, not only because it was easily purchasable but I was nervous she’d be really upset when she realized just how many little girls were dressing up as Elsa this year. I never felt comfortable offering it up as a choice for her but at the same time knew she could end up crushed, seeing all the other Elsas out in the world on the evening of Halloween. I’m glad she came to the decision by herself and that, while being just one of a million other Elsa’s, she’s standing up for herself in a way.

I read somewhere that Disney made a major miscalculation by believing girls would prefer Anna’s character over Elsa, assuming since Anna had the love interest AND performed an act of true love she would garner the favor of little girls everywhere. Instead, it was Elsa, with her magical powers, independent nature and easily identifiable theme song that drew children in and kept their attention rapt, and having listened to “Let it Go” belted out more times than I could possibly estimate, I think I understand why.

I have watched my three and a half year old daughter, clad in dress up shoes, various blankets and well-placed scarves, running from room to room in our house, belting the lyrics to this song. Her commitment is unquestionable, her passion all-consuming. And, after listening to the lyrics for the hundredth thousandth time, I get it. I really do.

“Let it go” is the perfect anthem for all the little girls who are told to be nice, be good, act like little ladies, smile, be sweet, be kind. It’s the kind of messaging girls start receiving incredibly early on, and even as a woman who tries not to instill gendered expectations on my daughter , I find myself communicating those messages on occasion, snapping at E to “act like a lady” when she’s lifting her skirt over her head to show everyone her underwear or to calm down and be kind when a friend is upsetting her. I like to believe that I’ll pass the same messages on to Duncan – that we don’t walk around showing off our underwear, no matter how cool they are, or to always take a deep breath when someone is invading our personal space, but I know that one of the reasons I communicate with E the way I do is because she’s a girl.

I do cut myself slack for this as often as possible – I’ve seen so many of my friends tie themselves in knots over every parenting moment and that’s not how I want to live, but I am trying to be mindful of how I communicate with E and what expectations she might infer from me. And, no matter how tired I might be of the soundtrack, I am thankful to “Frozen,” for giving her lyrics that help her feel like she can break out of the “nice girl” narrative, run and stomp through the house with abandon and cry at the top of her lungs to let it go, let it go, let it go.

the view from my front door

Sunday morning, after a luxurious (for us) wake up from the kids at 6:45 a.m., with no plans to attend church because of road closures, Duncan down for his morning nap and Evangeline ensconced in her puzzles, I filled up a bucket with window cleaner and hot water and headed for the front of the house, determined to finally wash our windows. It was a bit cooler than I had anticipated but I didn’t mind. I was finding so much satisfaction in dipping the squeegy window thing (it’s real name) in the steaming hot, bubbly water, splashing the water all over our large front window and then meticulously squeegying the excess water off the window that very little could have dampened my mood. Our street is a relatively busy one and a lot of people were out and about already, walking dogs, chasing toddlers or going for a morning jog.

“Early start,” I heard a male voice call. When I turned around I saw a middle-aged man with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby strapped securely in his Ergo carrier, trying to contain an excited beagle on a leash.

“Oh, no – we’ve been up, had first breakfast and are now just down for morning nap,” I replied, jutting my chin in his child’s direction. “We have a baby too.”

“Oh, yeah – we are heading for morning nap too, right after we finish our walk,” he said. “I’m Adam, by the way.”

“I’m Courtney, it’s nice to meet you.”

The rest of the conversation finished in the average way you would expect it to, so it would be difficult to immediately discern what was remarkable about it unless you lived on our street with us for the last five years. What I found astounding was that the conversation happened at all.

Five and a half years ago when we chose our house, we did so with the understanding that it wasn’t in a great school district, and that it did, in fact, exist mere blocks from one of the worst neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. At the time we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to have children, and even if we were able to, they existed merely as figments of our imagination, so we weren’t concerned with school districts.

It’s one thing not to be terribly concerned about school districts, and entirely another to realize what it means to live on the border of a “bad” neighborhood. Within weeks a drug deal went bad in our back alley, resulting in one of the kids breaking into our neighbors’ house while they were home to hide out from his dealer. A few weeks later, a woman was raped in a nearby park. For the first two and a half years we lived in our house, it wasn’t unusual to witness a rotating group of prostitutes circle in and out of one of the nearby apartment buildings, or to watch for used condoms and syringes when walking our dog. Occasionally we despaired about our choice of location
but, typical first-born children that we are, we mostly owned our decision and went about the business of restoring the house we bought and appreciating the fact it was within walking distance of work and our favorite restaurants. We did adopt a pretty big dog.

After I became pregnant with Evangeline we talked much more deeply about what we should do.

“We may have to lose money on the house,” Sam would say. “But we can recover from that if need be.”

“Kids need more green space,” I would say. “And fewer drug deals going on behind their house.”

“Preferably NO drug deals.”

“Well, yes, preferably. But even the suburbs have meth and heroine and teenagers.”

But while I was busy making and nursing babies, an amazing thing began to happen. It happened so slowly as to practically be imperceptible, until one day Sam and I were drinking coffee on our porch and noticed a brand new BMW parked in between the identical Mazdas my neighbor and I own.

“Well, that person obviously doesn’t live here,” I said.

“No, he does – down the street in one of the condos,” Sam said. “And someone nearby owns a Range Rover, too.”

I know gentrification has its downside but that’s not exactly what we are experiencing yet – I think, we are experiencing pre-gentrification, maybe? We’ve always had a solid set of neighbors, the majority of them child-free by choice, for whom school districts have never been important part of choosing a neighborhood. Now, between the frequent sightings of various couples in their late thirties, generally dressed either for the gym or a night on the town or the more transient, dislocated people who circulate in and out of the apartment buildings four blocks away from us, we are meeting young families. So many young families, in fact, that my neighbor Carmen has declared a baby boom in our neighborhood. And students! College and graduate school students, moving in with their Ikea furniture and beat up cars, asking with heartbreaking sincerity at the bus stop “if the bus is usually on time?” as we wait for one to arrive.

For several years I always found Sunday afternoons the creepiest time in my neighborhood. I usually found myself all alone in the park when I took my dog for a walk, save for one or two men sitting on the benches, a restlessness about them that screamed drug addiction. Even though Skylar is fiercely protective of me and sort of scary due to his size, I rushed through our Sunday afternoon constitutionals, never feeling completely comfortable or safe.

Now, though. Now. Sunday afternoons! A nearby yoga studio conducts classes in the middle of the park while parents bring their kids in wagons, on bikes and in strollers, laden down with t-ball equipment, beach balls and toys. The park is poetry in motion, all kids on bikes and babies on strollers and parents, coffee in hand, chasing chasing chasing. It is now one of my favorite places to spend time on the weekend.

Over the years we’ve talked about moving to the suburbs, to a house in better shape than ours – one perhaps with a better bathroom and yard big enough for a trampoline and more green space for the kids, but something continually keeps us in the city. Sometimes it’s a reminder during our minister’s Sunday sermon that as Christians we are supposed to travel lightly and not become bogged down with the more more more our society encourages, other times it’s realizing that adding an actual commute to our daily lives could be our undoing. Whatever the shifting reasons happen to be, they’ve given us an opportunity to witness real change, and the way a neighborhood can evolve over time, and endless opportunities for gratefulness.