This is what freedom looks like, people

Milk and garbage trucks once plied these unpaved alleys. Now look at them. They're almost impassable because the blackberry bushes have taken over.

Linda Bleck

We’ve got alleys in our neighborhood. Some are paved, and most are not. They’re left over from the days the garbage trucks used them, and if you squint even further into the past, you might see an antique milkman making his rounds. The system was handy and orderly. It was a bit of the commons, in a world increasingly devo­ted to the sacred freedom of the individual.

There wasn’t a lot of room for error with those garbage trucks, I’ll say that. The alleys were lined with flimsy garages with nothing holding them up but force of habit, and they sagged into the right of way in a stiff breeze. Ours burned down long ago, but those still remaining have been claimed by moss, mold, and an array of microorganisms, and are trying to be one with the earth again. 

Somehow, though, the garbage trucks always made it through.

Then something happened on a city level by way of progress. Everyone got recycling bins and yard-debris bins and new garbage cans, and the trucks got too big for the alleys. They’re arguably too big for the streets, too, but there they are, the size of aircraft carriers, piloted by drivers standing up on the wrong side with one foot dangling out, and they lumber ahead without ever checking to see if anyone is in the way. All surviving neighbors have learned to freeze in place when the garbage trucks come by.

Without a doubt this is an improvement. The city is making mountains of compost, a certain portion of stuff that ends up in the recycling bins actually gets recycled, and, in theory at least, there’s less going to our collective midden, the landfill. It’s still a horrifying display of waste.

Most of us have become avid consumers, as our economic system dictates, and everything we buy is mummified in plastic. We don’t know what to do about it, so we display it in front of our houses on garbage day and try to fend off shame.

Meanwhile, in the absence of the old garbage trucks, the alleys started to change. It seemed to happen organically, but that’s not really true. Individual homeowners made decisions, big and small, that changed the alleys, which began to meander, like streams pushing into soft silt, or like a toddler with no supervision. Ours, for instance, is no longer straight. 

Some of the neighbors sensed an opportunity to enlarge their yards. Some didn’t care. And alleys have feelings, too: They shrink from aggression and lean toward courtesy. Our alley sidles toward our yard, where my husband, Dave, put up his masonry wall well within the property line just to be polite. But if you want to grab a few inches of the alley for yourself, why, you can just go ahead and do it. It’s supposed to be a public right of way but nobody’s really in charge.

Other alleys are impassable altogether. The next alley over was altered at one end to accommodate an enormous recreational vehicle and people to the south can’t get through. Some people decided to grow vegetables in the alley, and other people decided it was a great place to stack up all their garbage. Sometimes neighbors consult each other, and sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes they just do whatever they want. Some of the alleys have been taken over by roving gangs of blackberries.

This is what freedom looks like, people. Some folks get tomatoes, some folks get extra parking, and some folks get left out. But nobody’s getting milk anymore.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.