The Common Good

Shoulder to Shoulder, Brick on Brick

We bought our rickety old house almost seven years ago: an eternity of time, it seems to us now. It was winter then and we had just one child — a son, our first, a little butterbean with bright blue eyes whose bright flaxen hair stuck out like cotton from the top of his quilted coat.

St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. Photo illustration by Cathleen Falsani with image B
St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. Photo illustration by Cathleen Falsani with image By Matti (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativeco

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We were “older” parents, arrived at the end of our long bohemian youth with little more than a pile of books and records. The townhouse had gotten small, its narrow rooms thick with the smell of diapers and breast milk that overlaid our modest possessions.

It was a time, furthermore, when the price of houses in Washington, DC, was climbing relentlessly, daily upward, and the news media screeched constantly about the run on real estate: dozens of contracts per sale, mandatory escalation clauses, sellers making hundreds of thousands on mid-century ranchers built on the G.I. Bill.

(How long ago that time seems to me now, when the ubiquitous Rick Sharga of Realtytrack.com appears on the news to talk about the week’s advancing foreclosures.)

We’d already been priced out of the so-called “good” neighborhoods, with the fabled public schools, where a middle class family with a part-time working wife could no longer afford a house.

Otherwise we might not have ventured out on that snowy weekend morning, across the line into Prince George’s County and up into these forgotten, hilly 50s streets. We’d already heard of the veiled references that people in other parts of Washington made about the county: “It's really far away, isn't it?” we heard more than one Upper Northwest matron ask, the vague trepidation in their voices signaling a racist and classist code.

For this Prince George’s, we were to learn, was not only the black county — it is, in fact, the wealthiest majority African-American county in the nation, although that wealth comes chiefly from its luxurious, farther-out Mitchellville and Upper Marlboro suburbs, rather than the modest neighborhood grid we found that day when the real estate agent directed us with a printout from Mapquest.

Prince George’s, we were to learn, had originally been the redneck county—the landing point for Appalachian whites who'd fled for work to the nation’s capital during World War II, and a decade later, for middle-class whites fleeing over the District of Columbia line after the prospect of integration became imminent.

(And indeed, the liquor stores and taverns on the commercial avenues are littered with the ghosts of Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, even as their cinder-block frames are now the homes of Jamaican carry-outs and nightclubs devoted to Go-Go, Washington, D.C.’s own distinctive R+B hybrid.)

And that was to say nothing of the Prince George’s that our part of the county was becoming: the home of the earnest policy problem solvers, the post-racial families, the land of the community listservs littered with screeds about car theft and illegal parking.

For to think of that was to think about our own generation, its gifts but also its limitations. To think about that would have been to think critically about who we ourselves were, and what we wanted from family life — out here at the edge of all this affluence.

But we were thinking about none of that on that day in 2005. On the icy streets, we were grateful for the four-wheel drive on my husband’s Blazer. The baby's cheeks flushed pink as the heavy Detroit-made heater on the dashboard pumped warm air into the car, and we clutched our foam cups of 7-11 coffee.

We crested the hill and there it was: a square little brick two-story that had been improved just a little, with a welcoming windowed front and a high, aerie-like upstairs. It was the cheapest house we’d seen, and because it was 2005 and things were crazy, we spent about twenty minutes deliberating and put in a contract with a modest escalation. When we found out later that the house was ours, we found out we'd beaten out another family. The house had been listed barely a day.

As we found out later, we’d put in the contract on the feast day of Saint Xenia of Petersburg, a nineteenth-century Russian “fool-for-Christ” who'd mourned her army colonel husband’s death by donning his uniform and living as a pauper in the city's streets, performing unasked acts of generous service.

It is said that at night she hauled bricks to hasten completion of a church’s construction, and on the internet you can find a copy of this wonderful icon, St. Xenia hoisting herself on a brick construction wall with her long grey hair swinging.

One of the things for which St. Xenia is said to intercede is to help people in finding housing. For the longest time it seemed auspicious to us, that St. Xenia had intervened on our behalf to bring us home.

I still believe that.

Seven years later, though, in a neighborhood where job losses and risky loans have led to a plague of foreclosures, we live in a house for which, it seems, we seriously overpaid. I wonder whether this wise Fool for Christ had another lesson in mind, about the ephemeral notions of earthly “value,” and the folly of trusting in things.

But even in this fear, there’s St. Xenia’s example: Piling up brick on brick, until the cold hard task is finished. This weekend, my husband will rake the leaves, I will kasher the counters with hot water and a sponge, and Sunday afternoon, a whole raft of Cub Scouts will run around in our yard.

We could use a new dishwasher and new drywall in the basement, but the cement block walls still stand firm up here on this hill, and serve to keep us warm. When Anna Maria was born, our friends brought us food for six weeks. The passions of the neighbors are still lighting up the listserv, although the car thefts seem to be going down.

Shoulder to shoulder. Brick on brick.

[This post originally appeared via the journal Image.]

portrait-caroline-langstonCaroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Maryland.

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