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Community Means Holding on for Life

by Tom Tolan – epilogue to a 6 part series

An Epilogue to the History of Riverwest

There is a poem that says, “There is nothing you can really know/ Only holding on for life, and letting go.” Some people know quite well how to make commitments, but could use some practice in letting go. In this neighborhood, though, and in American society today, it seems to me that it is the holding on for life we need to learn. Some people who write about the social atmosphere of America say that lifetime commitments are hard to make today, in these times of turmoil. What is needed, then, is commitment in the face of doubt and peril. What is needed is a leap of faith. This kind of faith, if enough people practice it, can build strong communities, and strong communities can make the world into a place that people will want to save. What I’m talking about is not faith in a particular set of doctrines, but rather as a psychological attitude, a way of living in the world. Wendell Berry, the poet and essayist who owns a small farm in Kentucky, talks about it in terms of agriculture. He says American farmers lack faith because they are too concerned with making profits and not enough with caring for their land. As a result, he says, they plant crops that will give them a quick return, and ignore that those crops may cause their soil to erode, destroying their land’s future value. Berry says that many American farmers plant their land almost exclusively with field crops, which produce a harvest in one year, and hardly at all in tree crops, which take many years to produce, but better keep the soil in place. In contrast he cites old and stable farming communities in Europe, where hillsides are regularly planted with nut trees. “The model figure of this (European) agriculture,” Berry writes, “is an old man planting a young tree that will live longer than a man, that he himself may not live to see in its first bearing… He is planting it because the good sense of doing so has been clear to men of his place and kind for generations.” Then Berry writes: “While the planting of a field crop, then, may be looked upon as a ‘short-term investment,’ the planting of a chestnut tree is a covenant of faith.” Berry’s words on farming can also apply to city neighborhoods, including the one west of the Milwaukee River. When I say this I am thinking of an interview I had with Father Gilbert Arciszewski, then pastor of St. Casimir parish, in 1981. I asked if he thought of St. Casimir’s as an agent of social change, as St. Elizabeth’s parish had been, in the neighborhood west of Holton Street. He said no, that he though the Church should not be a political institution. I then asked him what effect St. Casimir’s had on its neighborhood. He thought for a moment and then answered: “If your yard is in shape, the likelihood is that somebody else will see it and fix up their yard. If you’re sloppy, you encourage others to be sloppy.” He meant this literally, of course: The parish’s buildings and grounds are carefully maintained, its lawn immaculately trim. In addition, many of its most dedicated members live near the church, and their neat homes and yards set a high standard for the neighborhood. I think, however, that Father Arciszewski meant something more. By analogy, he was saying that if you follow the Commandments, other people will be encouraged by your example to follow them, and if you break them so will others. The social influence of St. Casimir’s, then, and of the neighborhood’s other churches, is to encourage people to live right. For the last two and a half years, my model for this sort of faith has been a gentleman named Harry Poschadlik, who at 94 is one of Father Arciszewski’s oldest parishioners. Harry is my landlord, and lives downstairs from me on E. Center Street. He was born in 1888 in the Russian-controlled section of Poland and grew up under the Russian Czar. He came to the United States in 1907, served in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry in the border action against Pancho Villa in 1916, and operated a dry goods store on E. Center Street until his retirement in 1953. Because he is 94, Harry seldom forgets the closeness of his own death. “When Almighty God says come,” he often says, beckoning with his finger to illustrate, “you come. There’s no excuses.” Despite the fact that his death is a constant possibility — or perhaps because of this — Harry pays close attention to the details of living. He cooks his own meals, at the same hour every day, and washes his dishes, and his false teeth, directly afterwards. He does exercises that he made up himself, every morning and every night at bedtime. Every Saturday morning, I hear his vacuum cleaner going downstairs. “By me,” he says, “everything’s like a clock.” He attends closely to the condition of his house — he is having it painted this summer; next year, he says, if he lives that long, he might put insulation in the attic. When I moved into Harry’s upper flat, part of our agreement was that I would cut the lawn in the summer and shovel the walk in the winter. When I started cutting the lawn, Harry was extremely particular, and at first he followed me around, pointing out spots I had missed, demonstrating the use of the clippers and otherwise being a pest. When he determined that I could cut the grass to his satisfaction, however (and that he was getting on my nerves), he backed off and said it was up to me to decide when the lawn needed cutting. After that, if the grass started looking long, he wouldn’t tell me directly to cut it, but would mention that the recent rains had certainly made the grass grow, or point out that the neighbors took good care of their yard. This approach might sound corny, but given my personality, it was probably best: I’m absent-minded and quite lazy, but basically good-hearted. I knew how important the yard was to Harry, and so I decided to keep the lawn cut, as well as I could, for him. As time passed, however, something else started happening. I began to enjoy the work, and to appreciate the value of keeping a neat yard. Especially just after doing the lawn, I took great pleasure looking down from my kitchen window on the orderly green square of the backyard. My second summer with Harry, I began on my own to dig the dandelions — a job Harry had done before. In addition, I made an effort to keep his flowerbeds weeded, and my girlfriend brought over some squash vines and planted them in an empty spot in the garden. This year, I put in a small vegetable garden between the dahlias and the phlox that Harry’s wife planted years ago. Harry has had to mention the recent rains once or twice this summer, but mostly I take care of the yard as needed. And now I’m not just doing it for Harry, but also for my own pleasure — and even more, because I can see that it is proper to do. Now, though it may seem from the outside that I have been doing favors for Harry, from the inside the story is different, and it feels as if I have gotten more from him than he has from me. In this exchange with Harry I feel on the receiving end of something ancient: a respect for community standards, and for discipline; an attitude of attentiveness, which takes care of problems as they arise; a stronger appreciation for life in its brevity. I have to admit that I am nowhere near the perfect embodiment of these ideals. Still, I feel as if something has been planted in me, and is growing. And in fact, in passing on these ways of living in a community, Harry is doing exactly the same thing that the old farmer does when he plants a chestnut tree on a hillside. He is planting something that he himself may not live to see in its first bearing. He is making a covenant of faith. Editor’s note: Tom Tolan’s Riverwest: A Community History, published this summer, is the latest version of a neighborhood history he first completed in the summer of 1982, when he lived at Fratney and Center streets. That first draft concluded with an essay on community. Most of this essay was cut from the book’s current edition, but part of it is reprinted here, as we thought it might be of interest to our readers. Tolan wrote this in 1982. Harry Poschadlik, the old man at the end of the story, died in 1983. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2- Issue 9 – September 2003