There’s a lot of reflection that’s come with the impending birth of our first child. There’s the desire to raise a happy, well-adjusted, confident person, armed with everything she needs to be successful in whatever way she defines success. We hope that this person we’re making will leave the world better than she found it in some way.
I’ve found myself looking to connect some dots in my own life experience to that end. How we arrived at this design theme for our baby girl is entirely informed by our effort to gift some very specific life riches from our own experiences to our child.
I grew up in Waterbury, CT – a post-war industrial wasteland – which I’d call a small city with its population and opportunities shrinking with each passing year of my time spent there (1978 – 1996). It’s doing better now, so there are those who would take offense to my description, but that was my experience of it. Much of the development in the past 20 years were condemned buildings and arsonists’ playgrounds when I grew up there, the Victorian homes in a once-prosperous downtown were boarded up, many were crack houses, and former business areas were covered in For Sale and For Lease signs. In my 20s, I referred to it as a town of no hope.
It was always a town of immigrants. The most established immigrant groups, including my family, came from southern Italy and Ireland (Greece and Portugal to a lesser degree) and arrivals during my life there were coming from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Poland, Albania, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, among many other places. There’s a large black community. Far from being a beautiful cultural exchange, people were very segregated and there was (is) a lot of bigotry, racial/ethnic tension, and violence, as will happen when everyone is poor and feeling competitive over scraps. We all liked to eat, however, so we all managed to enjoy each others’ cuisine. Years after I moved away, the Palace Theatre (which was closed for my whole childhood) was restored and many friends have now passed through my town on tours of Broadway musicals. All have remarked to me that they found the people in Waterbury to be very angry and aggressive, and that there were times when they felt unsafe. Actor Dylan McDermott said, “My past is not pleasant; I grew up in a very tough town, Waterbury, Connecticut. I grew up in New York, too, but Waterbury was tougher.” I agree with that.
After a lonely childhood spent fantasizing about far off lands and obsessively reading about other countries and their cultures, I moved to New York City. I lived in many neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. My career gave me the opportunity to travel extensively and spend quality time with many different people with many varying life experiences and viewpoints. I spent 11 years immersed in that cultural melting pot, and my childhood dream came true when I was cast as Belle in the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast. I could relate to the girl who dreamed of escaping her provincial town and experiencing far off lands.
I then moved to Los Angeles, which was just as diverse and exciting but offered a higher quality of life. In 2013, exhausted and in the midst of a divorce from an abusive man, I took what was meant to be a three week job in Sonoma County, California and decided in a moment on a beautiful mountain to stay here.
I love Sonoma County. It’s a land of quality living and gentle beauty. It’s also given me an appreciation for a previous life I now know I had taken for granted. Coming from richly diverse and densely populated cities, I don’t relate to a lot of the concerns and perspectives of many small town rural people. What seems like traffic and over-development is hard for me to see, and their solutions to these problems often cause suffering for the poorest residents, many of whom are Latino families. It’s an overwhelmingly white place, and the concerns of white, affluent people are paramount. People of color are largely out of sight. Empathy, understanding, and perspective are lacking, even in well-intended people. This was most evident to me while living in the town of Sonoma. A several-years-long battle was going on over the possible banning of gas-powered leaf blowers. The affluent people in town didn’t want the noise or the dust on their cars, and the parents in town were concerned about airborne particles. Missing in this debate was any concern or conversation about the gardeners – mostly Latinos – who would be saddled with the financial burden of replacing all of their equipment. My roommate at the time quipped, “They can get new equipment – it’ll only cost them about $2000.”
At this same time, I was watching my black friends on Facebook in utter anguish over many police killings of black people, and seeing the pain and fear in my black friends, particularly those with sons. I was floored by the contrast of the two communities, both in perspective and stakes. It wasn’t until I saw this contrast that I was open to learning about the concept of privilege – specifically white privilege – and how well-meaning people without perspective can do as much damage in the lives of people in marginalized groups as maliciously-intended racists, misogynists, and homophobes, which is an important lesson, since I feel that most people (including myself) fall into the former category. I had always had an appreciation for the more fun aspects of world cultures – food, language, celebrations, fashion – but it wasn’t until I moved to Sonoma County that I began to learn about and really acknowledge the systemic challenges that people of color face, even though I had been surrounded by it all my life.
I married a man from Calistoga – in the Napa Valley, about an hour away – who is a source of endless joy and fun. He’s always lived in small towns, but his experiences going to college about 30 minutes east of Los Angeles, going on a church mission trip to Guatemala, and traveling throughout Europe after college with his best friend gave him perspective and an appreciation for both the riches and challenges of people from different cultures. Life with him has helped and will continue to help me grow my perspective and better understand small town people, issues, and living. In this way and many others, he makes me a better person.
Our hope is that we can instill in our child a love for the world, the people in it, an openness to learning about others’ lives, and empathy. We hope that she’ll experience the world and gain perspective. So, it is with great care and much thought that this room came together for our little girl.
Here we have a map of the world, a map of the country, and a map of San Francisco – our nearest major city. We have nods to China, India, Kenya, Nepal, and Mexico throughout. A skylight above will give her a view of the seventeen redwoods on our property, and the colors chosen for the walls connect to the trees and light outside. We want to connect her to the world in her immediate reach and the world beyond.
We hope that she’ll find this to be an inspiring space and that it can help us create in her a sense of appreciation, fearlessness, joy, and adventure. We’re doing the best we can – which is reflecting on what we’ve learned through our lives and trying to bring those gifts and loves to our child. We don’t know who she’ll be, but we look forward to collaborating with her in creating her life. She’ll be here any day now.