Downtown Olympia can be test for ‘Mama Bear’

Mother’s Day is coming up, a time to thank our hard-working, imperfect, unconditionally loving moms for all they have given us. Life, for one, but also advice (whether we want it or not), a place to lay our heads and, hopefully, a sense of security in a sometimes scary world.

A friend gave me a mug that has a pink bear’s head on it and says “Mama.” I use it daily. I am not always a “Mama Bear,” fiercely defending my two cubs from all potential harm. If another kid hits my daughter I advise her to talk to the perpetrator, then try and shake it off. If my preteen son struggles with another player’s rough or rude play on the soccer pitch, I don’t yell at the ref. I tell my son to play safe and get tough, because there are plenty of jerks out there.

However, encountering one of Olympia’s high, drunk and/or unstable downtown denizens while I am out with my children brings out my Mama Bear. She is on the prowl in otherwise child-friendly areas of Olympia where disheveled people and their worldly possessions (often including a vicious-looking dog) are smoking and lounging. Public bathrooms are a definite no-go zone, which can be problematic when out and about with a preschooler.

I know these folks aren’t all criminals just waiting to assault me or my kids. Most seem too drug-addled to do much. Many are victims of life experiences I can only imagine. I have lived in far more urban places and seen far more threatening situations. But when my children are with me, I am on high alert.

I live relatively close to downtown. A few months back, I pulled into my driveway, let my daughter run ahead to the door with the key, and went to let our chickens out for some sun. There, sitting on the concrete steps of my back patio was a frail, pale girl of maybe 20, obviously on drugs. Shocked, I yelled for my daughter to stay inside (she didn’t), and demanded to know what the girl was doing there. She mumbled that she was confused. I, Mama Bear, firmly escorted this intruder up the long driveway onto the street, telling her never to return. I called the police, and to their credit, a cruiser drove by within a few minutes (I doubt they found her, although I never heard).

My daughter asked me why there was a strange girl in our yard, and where was her mommy? I told her that this girl probably had a very sad life and might not have a mommy to help her. For weeks after, my daughter was concerned about strangers coming into our yard. Frankly, I was, too. Taking away the security of a 4-year-old is no small thing (not to mention a 43-year-old). But I couldn’t shake the nagging sense of guilt I felt that I hadn’t taken more time with this obviously lost person. Someone else’s daughter.

I love living walking distance from downtown, and I don’t want to insulate my children from urban experiences. We spend a lot of time and dollars enjoying our downtown. But when I recently asked my son what he thinks of downtown Olympia, he said, “sketchy.” It made me sad.

I talk to my children about the less fortunate, about how grateful we should be that we aren’t sick or come from terribly broken families. I have them donate to food drives and other causes. But I struggle with how to demonstrate compassion to a real, live human when that human is right in front of us. And isn’t that important? Shouldn’t I be handing a dollar to the dude with the sign on every intersection around here? Shouldn’t I have offered more help to that wayward girl in my yard?

When Mama Bear is out, I am sorry. I just can’t. My hackles are up and my claws are out.

I support our community conversations about downtown safety. I especially want to see better mental health services and drug treatment. I am happy to be living in a compassionate, progressive place. But as I walked past the artesian well the other day and heard a frightening shouting match break out, I found myself hoping our community won’t be afraid to temper our admirable compassion with some more serious approaches to bad behavior. Because there are a lot of jerks out there.

Sometimes you just have to get tough.