Plenty of Time

clock jacek yerkaI’m racing for the light. The flashing orange hand counts down. On the other side of the street waits the supermarket where I’ll load up on almond milk and broccoli before hurrying back across to pick up my son at school. Still twenty yards away, my legs groan in resistance. The backpack chafes my shoulders. I curse under my breath.

When did reaching the other side of the street rise to such prominence in the pantheon of meaning? What is it I hope will happen when I achieve this singular purpose? In all likelihood, the produce section will revert to its simple functionality. Cinderella’s pumpkin at the twelfth stroke. I’ll grab what I need and try to outrun the lady with the full cart who’s headed for the short checkout line. The purchases will turn into a hasty dinner and an even hastier breakfast. At the office tomorrow, I’ll hustle through tasks, trying to stay a step ahead of the next item on the list. Then I’ll dash out to catch the metro in time to catch the bus in time to make it to my son’s school in time to pick him up at after care in time to go home and have dinner and do it all over again.

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Right Side Up

playground

Face down. Flung across the bed. He cries and cries, body shuddering with sobs. Something has happened outside.

I heard about it first from an upstairs neighbor who called me after witnessing the melee from her balcony. Then two little girls, teary and clutching each other, filled me in on oh-so-many details of Bug punching one of them. The bigger kids arrived in a pack to corroborate.

My boy, the one who hits.

My boy, the object of this witch hunt. Hiding somewhere. Shunned.

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This Can Happen Here

chagall dreams

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

– Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4

Someone vandalizes a church and a Jewish community center in Northern Virginia. They paint swastikas on buildings and dark words over a sign supporting Muslims. This happens on the first night of Passover, at the start of the Christian holy week. The story is here.

Then the police track down a suspect. Dylan Mahone is a 20-year-old man who has found his way into white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles. A student at the community college. A neighbor who lives just blocks from the house my former partner shares with his two kids. A young man whose Facebook page drips with racism and hate and noxious fantasies of violence.

White. Christian. Educated. Male.

One of ours. One of us.

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Our Shadows Live Here Too

dore dark forest

Someone is pooping in my neighborhood.  On the edge of the path that connects the playground to the AT&T parking lot, a pile of black feces swarms with silver-winged flies.  They are doing the important work.  All around the heap of waste are scattered thick restaurant napkins, crushed, stained with smears.  Someone squatted right here.  Right where our kiddos play.  Not in the brambles, not behind a tree, but right here.  When he (because I assume it’s a he, who else would be so bold?) finished, he left his tissue all over the ground.  The garbage can is 20 paces away, and there is another at each corner of the park.  Continue reading “Our Shadows Live Here Too”

Come As You Are

Oks New Friends III

Harmony calls out a greeting from behind the geraniums.  She folds a bookmark into a paperback and steps off the patio.  Noodle leaps all over her.  She chuckles and pets her then asks about my knee.

“Still hurts but I guess that’s normal.”  My recovery is slower than I’d like, in part because of an overzealous gym visit 3 days after surgery.  I’ve since re-discovered ice and moderation.  I bend it a little and show her.  “The boss has let me work half days from home, and walking at the pool has helped.”

“Oh, you go to the pool?  With your son?”  Noodle is now snuffling in around the mulched shrubbery so I pull her in closer.  After retiring, Harmony and her husband moved here from the Midwest and within two months, they had new floors, bathrooms, and bird feeders.  With a tidy patio set on top of a red striped outdoor rug, their condo is one of the most welcoming in the complex.  The kiddos in the neighborhood have already knocked loose two of their solar lights playing soccer on the sidewalks, and I don’t want the dog to add to the damage.

“Sometimes we go together.”  I wave vaguely in the direction of our small community pool where the kids are squealing.  “Mostly I’ve been making myself go to the rec center, though.  I can swim laps there, and there’s usually a free lane during the day.”   As I say this, a family ambles by.  The toddler carries an inflatable swim ring as big as her, and the mom lugs a bag of towels.  “It’s nice to have a place to get together here in the summer, though.  Have you been yet?”

“Oh!” She laughs, steps back, sort of half sits down on her patio chair.  “I guess I have a swimsuit packed away somewhere that hides most of the awful parts.”

A beat.

My stupefied gaze.

Did she really just say that?

I stumble over my astonishment and laugh along with her.  “Oh, geez, come out!  Everyone is welcome.”    She says she has another friend in the complex – a friend her age, she makes a point of mentioning – and they haven’t done it yet, but they’ve talked about going swimming.

So they can. . . what?  Band together?   Protect each other from the forces of evil?

“You know how you get a beach body, right?  You take your body –” I gesture towards her and then to me, “ – and go to the beach.”  We smile at each other.  “Just come be with your neighbors,” I say.  “The pool is for everyone.”

But she’s not giving an inch.  “Well, I never had a body like yours, even when I had the body I felt good in.” She laughs again.  It’s a strained laugh this time.

Are we still doing this?  In 2016 at 60-something years old, she’s still doing this?  Will I be in 20 years?  Who is going to tell us we can’t be at the pool?

This is what I need to say to her.

To all of us, tucked inside our soft and hungry bodies.

We want you.

As you are.

We want you in our community, just like we want the kids in their swim diapers, the lady in the wheelchair who zips around walking her giant black dog, the folks who grill out at the picnic area.  This pool is the closest thing we have to a common house.  Three months a year, this is our town square.

We can’t let scars and bellies and imagined impossible ideals keep us from being neighbors.

Things are not so great in this country of ours right now.  We have some tough battles to fight.  But we’ve already fought some and we shouldn’t have to keep revisiting that scarred ground.  For nearly 100 years, women have had the right to vote.  We can work.  Serve in the military.  We can pursue scientific research, write and paint and dance and sing.  We can sleep with any consenting adult, marry whomever we please or not marry at all.  We can write laws.  Change laws.  Have babies without men.  Ride motorcycles across the country.  Play professional sports.  Design rocket ships.  Run companies.  Run for president.

And yes, wear whatever the hell we want to the pool.

So put on a swimsuit.  Or a caftan.  Or a clown suit or a business suit.  Or a veil or fishnets or scuba gear or culottes or Go-Go boots.

But please.

Come to the pool.

Or sit here on your sun-dappled flowery patio and read all summer if that’s what you’d prefer.  Of course.  That’s totally cool too.  Because being a 60-something retired gal in the suburbs of an American metropolis means you can follow your bliss.

But please let go of being wistful or lonely when you can hear the chatter and cannonballs from that pretty patio, when you see your fellow residents flip-flopping past with their sun hats and iced tea.

We want you.

We need you.

As you are.

Let’s put to bed the notion that we live in a world populated by sylphs and Veelas, and that you are some mutant monstrosity.  You are a human in this neighborhood and you live in your body.  It is strong, it is weak.  It is the same body that installed the stone sculpture and refills the birdseet.  The same body that greets my dog, my son, me.  The body that has grandkids up the road who love you.  The body that filled years of a career leading art programs at a children’s hospital in Wisconsin.

You belong here.

We all do.

As we are.

We have to start showing up.  Pasty hips and jiggly arms, acne, wrinkles, spider veins, all of it.  We all have to show up in the bodies that carry us over the earth.  Because what’s the alternative?  What purpose or good do we serve by staying home?

I can’t promise you that everyone will think kind thoughts.  The cellulite will be visible, and some of us – present company included – have indulged petty comparisons.  I can promise you, however, that neither the stretch marks nor the judgments will matter one lick to any outcome or relationship that matters.  Here in the everyday world of our neighborhood, the distribution of wealth, luck, friendship, leadership, respect, and opportunities for love has no correlation to flab.  The only thing the size of our backsides influences is the size of the underpants we wear.  This is a pretty flimsy standard upon which to base any decision of consequence.

I understand you want to lose weight.  I do too.  I fight this damned fight every day.  This body you say you envy?  It’s packed on nearly 15 pounds in less than a year.  Stress, depression, thyroid problems.  Scoliosis, chronic pain, disordered eating.  Acne, bunions, insomnia.  And now?  A bum knee.

This body here houses all these things.  These are features of my physical form much like the roar of freeway traffic outside my balcony, the windowless shared walls, the claustrophobic  8-foot ceilings.  Sometimes focusing on the flaws becomes an addiction all its own, and those dark patches press in like glaucoma narrowing the vision.  But then I remember that this is my home, and it is the place where this full, loving life of mine is being written.  Then I notice the art.  Then I thrill to the blessings.

I live with these things also here in the home of my body because this body is like a physical address.  It holds the scars and all the rest of it, too.  The emotive poetry, the sketching, the puttering in the kitchen with garlic and oil and greens.  This body is hiking, friendship, sex, tinkering, and books.  It carries the late-night cuddles with my kiddo, the volunteer work, the advising sessions with students, the adventures, the confusion, the kaleidoscopic memories that comprise the narrative I believe is me.  The whole twisting, unfinished, colorful, at times plodding, and always character-rich story of me lives here  in the home of this body.  All of me.

Inside your body, you.

I want to know you.  You have so much to contribute to this place, so much you already have.

When you show up, good things happen.  The connections between all of us here grow stronger.  You have already helped us grow from neighborhood towards community.

When you show up.

You have to show up.

You are my neighbor.  I am yours.  I want to know the you who is unfolding within your skin.  That skin that holds glorious, kind you.

Your neighbors want to know you.

Please come.

As you are.


Image: Leon Oks, “New Friends III”

Settle In

Durrie Winter Scene

The first flakes are dusting the sidewalk. My son and his little buddy are engaged in a take-no-prisoners Pokemon battle in the living room. They munch on microwave popcorn and negotiate rules while I re-pot the frozen rosemary rescued from the balcony. Beans for soup are soaking on the kitchen counter. Next to them, a bowl of sourdough rises under a cloth.

My Mister stops by after his final run to the store. He delivers a sack of whole wheat flour, two head of garlic, and several minutes of hugs. While all of these are unnecessary for survival, it’s nice to be provisioned. Cooking is my second-favorite snow day diversion. My first includes hugging, but  because my Mister’s kiddos need him home to batten down the hatches, this fleeting squeeze will have to suffice.

After he rolls out into the ominous gray, I tear cardboard for the fire and stack towels by the front door. Noodle tip-taps around the living room. She snuffles up fallen popcorn, stopping by the window to gaze at neighbor dogs getting their last long walks before the whiteout.

After a strategic play involving Rapidash and Magmar, my boy demolishes his friend. They toss cards aside and yank on coats. Bug presses his feet into the new boots we bought at Sears yesterday. They were sold out of almost every size and we had to dig through shelves to find a  pair that wouldn’t give him blisters. With a shriek and a whoop, the two race out into the deepening white.

Here I wait without waiting. For the first time, the season’s hushed pulse matches my own. Soon enough, this low-bellied sky will carry in the night. We will play music. We will dance with the dog. We will finish Rick Riordan’s Lost Hero and crawl into flannel sheets as winter, at last, blankets our world.


 

Image: George Henry Durrie, Winter Scene in Connecticut, 1858, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

Action as Antitdote

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Buried in the back of the Sunday Post behind Sudanese child soldiers and Syrian refugees is this story. In a part of Detroit well on its way to eroding into yet another ghost suburb in the strange narrative of post-industrial suburban decay, residents are re-claiming the place as their own.

They say that action is the antidote to despair.

The problems seem far too big. Arson, illegal dumping, sex work, drugs. Houses are gutted and razed, whole blocks turned into weed-choked lots. How could anything resembling vitality ever return to this place? Maybe the natural laws of decomposition and succession could redeem the story, but only after the place has lain fallow for a few generations. It’s a distant and sorrowful kind of hope, but it’s the best we can do.

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, are doing far better.

This neighborhood is too broken to re-animate in the here-and-now. The notion is folly. Absurd, really. Because when you sweep your gaze across the whole panorama — absence of stores and services, distance from economic opportunity, prevalence of crime, abandonment by residents — you throw up your hands and say, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, just begin.

They begin with confronting one truck dumping one load of building debris. Or they begin with one piece of plywood over one burnt-out window. Or with one garden bed on one abandoned lot.

The tenacity of these neighbors is gritty inspiration. They remind us that “getting” what we want in our lives and communities really means making it from scratch. Steady, courageous, intentional effort and unwavering focus are required. So is using every spare moment — even those that have to be stolen from elsewhere — and every tool at hand to hack through the brambles and lay the groundwork.

Intensity of focus, however, is just one critical element, and insufficient at that.

These neighbors show us that we need each other.

Even though many of the Brightmoor pioneers have all the demands pulling at them the rest of us do — jobs, kids, aging parents, school, commitments pressing against the clock — they find each other. They cultivate the kind of we’re-in-this-together relationships necessary for building the future they want to inhabit.

They are hope in action.

They somehow got over the myth that first beguiles and then cripples so many of us in this increasingly commodified and solipsistic nation: that the neighborhoods, schools, and relationships we want might be out there somewhere. If only we could find them, if only we could crack the code! The folks of Brightmoor recognize that a dream is something you have to cobble together. . . together.

Their future is an uncertain and often unwieldy work in progress. These neighbors have to improvise. They have to trust in the messy process of winding up half-formed notions and setting them loose on rough, living ground.

With this courageous, dedicated, and wholly foolish commitment, they come a little closer to getting what they want for themselves and their children. Closer, perhaps, than most of us ever will.

They also heal one small corner of the world.

It’s more than a pipe dream. It’s happening right now, right up the road, at the hands of people just like you and me.

Photo credit: Digging Detroit