On site (tethered to the upper cable) on the first pedestrian bridge he designed and built, working with a local crew to install the boards to form the floor deck, high above a gorge. This bridge connected a village to a community, even during the rainy season. Guatemala, 2012.

An Outdoor Bridge

One summer, my son worked construction, on a crew building a bridge on the interstate that sits near the state line, eight lanes of heavy traffic pretty much 24/7. Studying civil engineering in college, with plans for grad school and a career involving public-space and buildings, he felt strongly about having hard-hat project experience, not just walking a jobsite but deep in it, every day. He would leave before sun-up, driving his little compact car three counties away to his work site, parking on a berm of piled dirt, amidst the fancy pickup trucks of his crewmates. Each late afternoon, after over eight hours in whatever summer weather had wrought, he’d drive back home dusty dirty bone-tired, hot and sweaty, with his windows down and radio up. He’d stand at the kitchen sink drinking cool water, washing the grime off his hands and face. And my husband would say, “Wow, you got some sun today!”, looking at his forearms and back of his neck, nut brown from hours of sun and wind. “Yep,” my son would answer, “that bridge we’re building, well, it’s an outdoor bridge.”

I’d see him pack his lunch, loading an igloo cooler with Gatorade and bottles of water, sandwich, fruit, more fruit, maybe a vitamin water. My role was pretty limited: try to get the t-shirts clean, understand the jeans were going to ride heavier and lower because the hem was perpetually caked with concrete, and the boots were heavy with it. The car seat would forever be flecked with it. The hard-hat, reflective vest, heavy gloves, and sunglasses never left the front seat of the car except at the worksite — couldn’t do the job without them. Probably my role was the same as every single person who loves someone working a highway construction site: I slowed the hell down while driving.

But it was never my job to give him advice, to tell him how to ease his day or how to streamline his operation or change his approach. I did not share his experience, only witnessed it. He was truly in the trenches, and he was learning as fast as each day unfolded. His crewmates taught him more than any observer or outsider could ever hope. He had truly no patience with drivers complaining about the barrels or the lane closures or flipping him off; hey, this is your outdoor bridge, I’m just over here building it. Unless you’ve sweated the trenches of blistering work, stop with the advice. Look at what is happening, and take stock in how you can help make it easier. Take a hammer to the hem of the jeans before washing them to knock off what concrete you can, make a lot of ice, freeze grapes, hydrate hydrate hydrate. I try to channel the Brene Brown quote I like so much (“unless you are in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback”) and try not to sound all holier-than-thou, or holier than anyone else for that matter.

It’s actually difficult to not weigh in with advice or criticism sometimes. We all do it: impose our reality on someone else’s. It’s saying “just move” to people in flood zones, instead of recognizing their land in the lower Ninth Ward is all they own even as it loses value; it’s saying “put that dog down”, instead of realizing that blind deaf mutt has been a constant companion for fifteen years; it’s saying “quiet that baby”, “speak English”, “get a job”, “that food’s gross”; it’s handing out bottled water or paper towels to people who are suffering, rather than addressing the mess, being willing to trade being judgmental for being truly helpful.

Maybe you’ve emptied bedpans, or detasseled corn, or walked beans, or snaked sewers, or tore-off then installed roofing, worked bricklaying or post-hole digging. And if you haven’t done any work like that, the outdoor-bridge kind of work, you do not have a shred of understanding about it. Not a shred. My husband put himself through school landscaping. Early in our dating history, he drove me through neighborhoods where he had worked, pointing out hedges he’d planted, homes and estates where he’d cut grass and tended gardens, terraces and retaining walls he’d built. To this day, he’ll admire lawns that use creeping red fescue — his favorite — instead of Kentucky bluegrass or Bermuda or Scotch grasses. He will talk to any landscape crew he sees, about a two-stroke mower engine, deadheading roses, or the secret of Milorganite, reveling in their common shared language. Those experiences, the language, the heat, the challenges, stay with you, decades and generations later. And the respect for the experience never fades; the pride in triumphing over the elements and challenges burns bright lo these many decades later, still. It was a remarkable achievement, no matter how small or globally insignificant; to the one in it, it is defining them.

And yet, somehow when the demand is great, we find ways to diffuse or minimize someone else’s challenge or need. Right now, as families seek safety and asylum, we actually ask frightened people to rank their fear, as if there is a correct answer. That’s right: a credible fear interview is redundant. If a person sitting in front of us says they are fleeing an untenable dangerous situation, we have no place to say, ‘no, you are not’. To that I say, go ahead — you move there, you send your family there, then you decide if it is credibly dangerous, for you. Because for the person saying it is so, with roads and rivers and fields and seas of risk behind them, it is so. Maybe pull the lifeboat to shore instead of throw rocks at it.

The first step is close your mouth. Stop for a moment. Then open your eyes. You are looking at a damn outdoor bridge right in front of you. Once you see it, then open your heart. It wasn’t always there. Someone thought about it, and worked to make it happen, in risk and weather and growing heavier by the day weighted down and weary. It might be a harvest bounty, a trail in the wilderness, a child in a wheelchair, or a grandparent being cared for in the nursing home, an addict struggling to be clean, fresh clean water from the tap, electricity after the storm. See the bridge, build the bridge, honor the bridge, go ahead and be the bridge.

On site at bridge construction for the first vehicular bridge he designed and built. Guatemala, 2015.

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