I’ve always been enamored by idealists, the dreamers. The mind-speakers. The norm challengers and status-quo re-writers. The people of second and 99th chances. The ones who stomp in puddles and sing in the rain while everyone else is inside dry, … Continue reading
When I first saw her walking down the street, I confess I wanted to ignore her. She was wailing, flailing her hands, and muttering jumbled words I couldn’t make out. On a cloudless 65 degree day, she was walking down the street in a long wool coat, baggy pants, and worn sneakers. The wailing grew louder, and I put on my helmet, fiddling with my bike lock, ready to leave the cafe I just got done dining in. My friends had all left, and my bike lock was stuck. Annoyed at the lock, then annoyed at myself for thinking my dad’s high school U-lock would still work in 2014, I finally got the lock undone and pulled my bike away from the street sign. The woman was walking down the street toward me, and I was coming toward her direction to go down the road that would take me home. I planned on smiling at her and looking her in the eye to say, “Hello,” expecting I might get asked for money. It’s happened plenty of times before, so my thought was not unfounded. But instead something else happened.
Our eyes stopped glancing toward each other, because our ears heard something. We both turned our eyes toward music we noticed coming from the cafe’s outdoor speakers.
Jump On It, Sir Mix A Lot’s 1996 hit, was coming from the speakers for all passers-by to hear. She began to laugh. I began to laugh. She started dancing, moving her hips then pausing them at the precise time when the “dun-na-na-na-nah-nah-nahs” came on, laughing with her whole mouth. I couldn’t help myself. I slid right next to her just in time for the part where you turn around, swinging your arm over your head as though you’re waving around a lasso. Her infectious joy caught onto me, and the two of us—she in her long winter coat, and me wearing a neon shirt and bike helmet— danced like two fools intoxicated by the music and the warm sunshine that sang of spring’s soon-to-be debut.
We kept dancing, and I was grateful they played the extended remix version instead of the regular, as to get every minute in with my new dancing partner. Alas the song drew to a close, and we finished facing the sun, arms extended, our smiles and laughs communicating to one another, as if to say, “Gee, that was fun!”
I asked her for her name. “Terryn,” she replied. “I’m Melissa,” I replied back. She began to walk the other way, and started laughing at a car driving in reverse. I guess she expected it to go forward in drive, and the sight of it going the other direction was enough to set her off laughing. As I turned the corner to head home, she went back to talking to herself. But I was so grateful we got to dance together, if only for those few moments, in lucid clarity.
A colleague I work with was recently telling me about a training she went to in which attendees were required to go out in the community wearing headphones that played a recording of voices talking in various tones to mimic what people with schizophrenia go through. Instructed not to take the headphones off and not to adjust the volume, she and her friends in the training had to complete tasks around the community— find the nearest bathroom, ask someone on the street for directions, etc. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she shared. “For the life of me, I couldn’t concentrate, and I felt crazy inside not being able to shut off the noises we were hearing. It gave me compassion. We really have no idea what it’s like,” she reflected.
I thought back to my colleague’s comment as this woman was walking down the street, back to talking to herself, and tried to put myself in her shoes. While I don’t know for sure that she had schizophrenia, I thought about what it would be like if it happened to me. How powerless or misunderstood I might feel. Maybe, I’d just want to love everybody I’d meet so fervently, but for the life of me, my words, thoughts, and behaviors wouldn’t be able to follow through. The woman I danced with, though, had a beautiful lucid moment, as though she was trying to love like that.
It reminds me of my favorite poem by Mark Nepo called “Life in the Tank.” In it, he describes an experience in which a child filled a bathtub for his fish to swim in while he cleaned their fish tank. Though the fish had the entire tub in which to play, they stayed huddled together in a corner, as though they never left the tank, when all surrounding them in every direction was fresh water to explore. Muses Nepo,
“Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs were unacceptable and that certain jobs were out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous.”
I wonder if the same can be said for our interactions with people. How many of us were told what people were “safe,” what people to avoid, who to talk to, and who to not even make eye contact with? Many of us were cautiously told “don’t talk to strangers” by someone who loved us with the best of intentions.
But is that the best we can do out there, in the real world? What soul-to-soul conversations have we missed because we were following the “don’t-talk-to-strangers” framework? What divine spark have we missed out on; what song did we miss dancing to, what high five did we not exchange because of the “life in the tank” mentality?
Caution has its merit, and so does instinct and prudence. Our hearts can’t be given away to everyone and anyone. But I wonder if our hearts are more malleable than we think. I wonder if we are meant to escape from the constricting layers that tell us to “just keep walking,” as if to keep every part of ourselves intact, not risking the opportunity for community and connectedness?
All of these things I ponder as I bike home after my interaction with my dancing stranger friend. The news in most cities- Baltimore, no exception- often shout of violence and try to covertly scare citizens into never coming outside, or to go outside- if you must- but don’t you dare come out of your shell of self-protection. My heart breaks over stories of innocent people victimized by violence for no apparent reason, other than the cliche “they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But maybe it’s time we start daring ourselves just a little bit more to believe in the possibility that we might be “at a great place at a great time.” That now is the perfect time to start dancing to the music- the music that may or may not even be audible. To be a little foolish. To invite someone new into conversation with dignity and sincerity. Yes. I’ll bike through these streets with both circumspect acuity and a posture of openness- open and ready to sing, dance, or high-five when laughter is our gain and excessive guardedness our loss.
I can’t stop thinking about them; their cuddly little bodies and jovial clucks. While the weekdays can often slip away, one of my favorite ways to mark a no-work weekday snow day is to take a stroll up the street to an urban farm in my neighborhood and play with them. The minutes pass by leisurely, a slow drift from morning snow to calm evening walks under falling flakes, shining like miniature sugar cookies against the street lights. Somewhere in between those morning and evening hours, I take pictures of them like these:
They’re chickens. But not just chickens. They’re Barred Rock, Leghorns, Orpingtons, and Black Chochins. They’re not just breeds, but have names, nicknames. Belle. Scratch. Buddy.
I’ve always wanted to go vegetarian and have done so in small bits and spurts. But after reading an article in Christianity Today this past October about Lamppost Farm, which provides chicken killing demonstrations in order to teach people about the sacrifice of Jesus’ death, my decision to go vegetarian was re-affirmed.
“One by one, the birds are hung by their feet on a backboard of metal sheeting with wood bracers, where their throats are cut and bled out. Next, the limp birds are scalded in 150-degree water before visiting the de-featherer, then the stainless-steel cleaning table. There, the feet, head, organs, lungs, and trachea are removed, in that order. The next bird does not die as gracefully. I make the cut more quickly, drawing the knife deeply through the throat in a single back-and-forth, like a violin bow. But when I release her, she flaps wildly for a moment in spasms that don’t seem involuntary. So violent is the reaction that the chicken actually kicks loose one of her legs from the holding prongs, and I must refasten her. Then, she’s still. ‘It’s disturbing,’ [a participant says]. “It’s supposed to be,” [the farmer says]. “We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.”
The fact that this group kills living creatures—creatures God created, mind you— in an attempt to show people that God loves us crushes my heart as I scratch my head, wondering, once again, “Have we missed the point of faith?” That people can disregard life and kill it in the name of God is beyond me. All of this left me feeling that I am no longer detached from the killing process that goes into eating meat. I now know, graphically, what a murderous process it is.
So since reading that article, I’ve been spending some with these chicken lovelies and my life has not been the same. Cuddled in the nook of my arm, this beautiful hen, softly cooing, pulls my heart, ears, and eyes in closer. The chickens taught me that we can choose to keep things close or far away. But if you are brave enough, and willing enough, to get really close instead of passively, comfortably at a distance from the unknown, things will change, will become real. Become visceral. You will be changed and you won’t be able to look at things the same way.
Because you chose to get close.
The closer I am to these creatures, the more I want to love them, hold them, see their inherent worth and dignity as a living creature, and do everything in my power to protect their life and well-being.
And isn’t that the way it goes with everything? The closer we get towards what we don’t understand, the more compassion we feel for others.
The closer we get towards poverty, the more we understand why not everyone can simply “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”
The closer we get towards people from sexual orientations other than heterosexual, the more we realize how unjust it is that these fellow sisters and brothers are denied 1,138 rights that heterosexual couples are freely granted.
The more we choose to center our lives around loving our neighbors and living sustainably, the more we reject capitalism and living solely for ourselves.
The more we leave our houses and two car garages, the more we interact with the world around us. As Jack Kerouac once said,
“The closer you get to real matter, rock, air, fire, and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”
The more spiritual the world is, the more we are willing to sacrifice a car ride for a bicycle ride, and light switches for natural light. We become close enough to crave the sanctuary that the trees and humming rivers provide and see God far beyond steeples and pews, into everything the daylight and moonlight touches.
The more we get to know the names, life experiences, faces, joys, struggles, and dreams of someone from a religion other than our own, the more we come to recognize that we come from the same God, and we now see no divisions, just a flowing river of love pouring from my heart to your heart and everyone else’s heart in between.
Yes, outside, everyday, are people, places, and animals that invite us into holy, intimate connection. Into what many South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, call “ubuntu-” the concept that we teach each other how to be human. That I cannot become human without your humanness, for we learn how to become moving, walking, talking people from each other. “You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains. “ We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
The birds of the air, the waters of the sea, and even these adorable warbles of chickens with thick feathers and skinny legs have something to teach us. The invitation is waiting. The world opens up wide as you expand your heart in the spirit of closeness, togetherness, ubuntu, attachment, and learning.
The God in me greets the God in you.
A common question on Sesame Street is often asked through song. “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” jovially asks everyone from Telly to Ben Stiller, Ralph Nadir to the blue faced grocer, named, well, The Grocer. It’s a song I ponder while riding to work each day, a morning commute that I can’t believe I waited so long to get back into.
I cycle up my street, feel the rush of the morning wind as I zoom downhill, and listen to the gurgling sound of the Jones Falls. Birds sing happily as I inch closer to downtown. You can feel the sound of a new day unfold right before your eyes, an invigorating hum of motivity. Construction workers in orange vests begin to create from the hard work of their own hands and tools. I see a runner getting in a morning workout, and we both nod heads at each other. “Good morning!” I call out, as he gives me a peace sign. I instantly smile at the connection, one that wouldn’t have happened had I commuted by car this morning.
I head into the heart of the city and hear the clanging engines of the MARC train, filled with government workers, students, lawyers, businessmen and businesswomen, some folks still half asleep drooling over their morning coffee, and some news junkies catching clips of NPR on their iPods.
I pass by local coffee shops with owners who probably dreamed about brewing java and greeting customers by name several years ago, and probably still feel a twinge of nostalgia as they remember the journey of opening their store.
I pass by an elementary school that’s relatively quiet and wonder who those kids might become one day.
I pass by the city jail, but my biking path is blocked by a city truck with a dumpster attached behind it. That’s unusual, I think to myself, and that’s when I discover news crews surrounding the 83 encampment. Turns out, the city had posted fliers surrounding the encampment stating, “No sleeping, camping or storage of belongings is permitted in this area. Any property remaining in this area will be removed or discarded at 8:00 A.M. March 8, 2013.”
It was 8:35 A.M. on March 8th. That dumpster blocking the bike path contained the discarded belongings of the homeless people living under Camp 83. And I was witnessing the aftermath.
In mid-February, Baltimore City gave homeless men and women living in tents under the 83 expressway an eviction edict. Since then, activists and advocates from all walks of life have been speaking out. I thought back to an article I read just yesterday in which readers were asked what should be done about this situation. Many comments about “they just need to find a job” and “stop using drugs” were thrown in, amidst comments such as “provide affordable housing.” But those comments seem too simplistic, and don’t take into account the stories of women and men who have been sexually molested at homeless shelters or those who have had bed bugs from sleeping in shelter beds.
Tears rush to my eyes as I watch advocates holding brightly colored placards stating things such as, “housing is a human right.” These tears have become a familiar part of my bike commute, as just last week, I was touched by people standing outside the city jail protesting the death penalty.
Who are the people in our neighborhood?
We are activists.
We are dreamers.
We are peacemakers.
We are people who believe in justice for ALL, not just some.
We have stories- the woman under the bridge, the man in jail, the biker you wave to, the mail carrier, the coffee shop owner, each of us.
We are a city of people with stories.
We are a city of people with voices.
Who are the people in your neighborhood?
You get to decide.
You get to decide how you will use your voice in this neighborhood. If you will speak up, or if you will turn a blind eye while our brothers and sisters struggle to find a place to lay their head tonight.
You get to decide, shape, impact, and meld our city.
Let’s be neighbors.
Let’s join hands.