Who are the People In Your Neighborhood? You get to decide.

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.

Come.

Let’s join hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=tgzBZnI-xLw

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The Peace House

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There’s a street in Baltimore where incandescent lights, flags, Christmas trees made out of recycled bicycle tires, and lit up crabs brighten cold December nights as people gather together year after year. Some hold hands, others push strollers, but each meander down the sidewalks with a sense of lifted spirit and joy, a little twinkle of hope somehow rising within them like the sun, undismayed and resolute, shining even if it’s going to be a cloudy day. Now in its 65th year, residents of W. 34th Street in Hampden, Baltimore put on a dazzling Christmas light display, multi-colored lights strung from one side of the street to the other unite neighbors in cheer as a “labor of love.” People from all over the world gather to check out this earnest display. Residents of each house on the block participate to emanate joy and unity, even though for them, this means a hike in their BGE bill, crowded streets with even more limited parking, and people roaming your street until all hours of the evening.

Each resident allows visitors to come up on to their porches and many leave out guestbooks for people to sign, noting that they delight over seeing where people have traveled from. I made my way down this street for an annual pilgrimage yesterday, just a short walk away from my house. I confess I began the evening with a slightly heavy heart exacerbated by too many conversations and images in the past week centered around gun violence or gloomy media portrayals of the fiscal cliff. I had just come from work, where I sat down with a man who had withered down to no more than 100 pounds, hospitalized from an opportunistic infection stemming from an HIV diagnosis. The holidays fast approaching, he whispered softly that his family doesn’t speak to each other. My heart broke. But this man had such a heavenly spirit in him, and warmed my heart with his resiliency, perseverance, and strength to keep hope alive for one more day. Needless to say, the presence of lights, people holding hands, arms draped around each other’s, smiling for pictures, made my heart grow warm on a chilling, windy evening. Of all the houses I visited that night, one stands out the most:
The Peace House. If you go to this neighborhood, it will be halfway down on your right. You can’t miss it. It’s the lawn with this emblazoned on the grass, welcoming you in:

IMG_1160I climbed up the steps and approached a table on the porch with a note from the house owners, Elaine and Ed. They describe the joy of living on this block, being able to mark a holiday season characterized by hope, goodwill, merriment, and joy. “Family and friends come together and peace seems possible. Whether it be a bright smile or the shiny eyes of a child or the kindness people show to one another, peace is all around.” They then invite each guest to write in a notebook what their vision of peace looks like, encouraging people to sign their name and mention where they’re from. Some of the comments in the book were funny, like “peace signs and pizza” and others were more serious, talking about being at peace within one’s soul to intentionally commit to bringing peace in interactions with each person one comes in contact with. Choked up, I continued to look around the porch. Pieces of fabric with “peace” written in over a dozen languages garnered the top of the porch like paper chain decorations. Dozens of rectangular flags criss-crossed above our heads: colored fabric with yin-yangs, the Star of David, the Celtic Cross, and other peace symbols. “Pray for peace” banners and rainbow “peace” pennants blew gently in the wind. “We can be the change we wish to see” emblem stitchery and a “Coexist” sticker (with the Islamic IMG_1181Star and Crescent, peace sign, the Jewish Star of David, and Christian cross) displayed to usher in the observance of peace as not only possible, but already occurring in this world. Also adorning the porch was a “world peace” display with newspaper footage of individual leaders who have stood for peace, containing images of faces such as Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, and Mohandas Gandhi, reminding each of us to take a stand for peace with whatever that looks like in our own creativity and passion.

It was beautiful, and just the reminder the world needs to hear more and more each day.

But perhaps what grabs me most about The Peace House is that when this couple moved here, the Peace House, as we know it, did not exist, but rather, what transpired came from the creativity, beauty, and imagination of their souls. Sometimes, we are met by doubters, by naysayers, by collective media and acts of violence that try to usurp beauty and harmony with discordance and chaos. But every day, we have a choice to make: to go along with the cynics or intentionally create acts of peace, beauty, and love for as many to experience as possible. The Peace House gave me hope that no matter what the news stories might say, or whatever the political or religious divides exist in the world, there are still places in which hope and peace and optimism dwell. That there are still compassionate people who want nothing more than to see the world engaged in love; people who don’t just pray prayers (though prayer may certainly be a part of the process), but actively, deliberately create safe places for peace to blossom. The type of place that offers a downhearted or weary wanderer just a little bit of hope, as if to say, “Don’t let your candle burn out just yet.”

Standing there on that porch, surrounded by words and phrases of such beauty, including a Christmas tree adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, and a banner crosshatched with “peace” in several languages, I knew, irrevocably, that peace can still be found and that even those who say peace on Earth is mere fallacy are welcomed in too, here at The Peace House, here in this world, where we can be active facilitators of peace, reconcilers of wrongs, through our homes, our relationships, our souls, and whenever we feel we cannot find it, that is where we must create it. Yes. We have to make peacehouses. We have to sing songs not just for our own ears, but together, whether on street corners in December or through rolled down windows in the spring time, laughing over off-key renditions of whatever catchy song plays from your radio at that moment. We have to speak and say a hearty, “hello!” to strangers, not waiting to speak only if spoken to.

Because there is more peace to be experienced on this Earth. We need only to get outside of our own microcosms of regularity and normalcy to create something more compelling, more inviting. And together, we will collectively taste shalom, pax, la paz, whirled peas, on Earth as in Heaven, this holiday season and always.

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The Fiscal Cliff: Like the Wall Street Crash, “We Need a Little Christmas”

There are two hackneyed words that have droned on the web, radio, television, social media, and even in some conversations I’ve had this week: fiscal cliff. Not being an economist, I confess I dismissed most of it, just interpreting it as another way of phrasing the “not enough money” message we’ve been hearing about for the past five years, that further reiterate the messages of budget concerns I hear on weekly conference calls at work. Deciding, however, to become a little more informed, I found this Washington Post article to express “the fiscal cliff for dummies” (my words, not theirs). For those who can resonate with not quite understanding this issue, here’s a few main points:

The 2001 Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire on December 31, causing, among other factors, congress to discuss taxes increases/decreases and budget cuts. Congress has set a limit on how much money the U.S. can borrow, therefore, a deal must be reached.

Half of the scheduled annual cuts will come directly from the national defense budget, half from non-defense.

Social Security, Medicaid, supplemental security income, refundable tax credits, the children’s health insurance program, the food stamp program and veterans’ benefits will not be cut.

Discretionary programs (those that do not have earmarked funds) could face cuts. This includes educational and public health programs, to name a couple.

The Tax Policy Center has calculated that the fiscal cliff will raise taxes on 90 percent of Americans.

The tax hike would be largely progressive, with the tax rate increasing more on high-income Americans than lower-income taxpayers.

Those are a few highlights. There’s still a lot over my head. But that’s enough for me right now. I took a break from public radio this week— even though I enjoy listening to all the unique highlights and interviews I wouldn’t hear elsewhere— because somehow, whenever I’d leave for work in the morning, and whenever I’d leave in the evening, I always seemed to catch the headline news update. And most headline news reports this week have felt dismal. Parking my car after work this week and hearing words like “fiscal cliff” and “economy” swirling around my brain began to dull my ability to enjoy the blissful Christmas lights adorning the homes and entryways of my neighbors. So I decided to take a “media fast.”

A day into this “fast,” I went to Baltimore’s annual Monument tree lighting celebration, in which the city comes together for the lighting of Baltimore’s Washington Monument. Strolling the streets after the lighting and celebratory fireworks, I came across a quartet of women singing, “We Need a Little Christmas,” right there, on the sidewalk, taking a moment out of their evening to stop what they would have otherwise been doing, slow down, and simple sing a song of joy. A multi-racial crowd gathered around, cheering on the carolers, lauding them with applause. I listened to an older man with a broad smile tell me his about his favorite Christmas song -Oh Holy Night- and the joy that singing brings him. As we waved goodbye, tears warmed in my eyes, a little lump forming in my throat. I’m not normally this sensitive, but it’s just that this peaceful act of beauty has been missing from the news, often times, and, while I’m at it, missing in my life. Like when I complain about how long the grocery store line is instead of striking up a conversation with the man or woman in front of me, grateful to have an abundance of food to choose from and the ability to pay for it. It’s been missing from the world, as we shift our attention towards banter and money and taxes, when really, can’t this whole thing work itself out if we’d all just be a little more peaceful, a little more civil, be a little bit more willing to listen, and be a little bit more willing to cooperate cohesively as citizens of the United States of America? What would happen if, say, we shifted towards the spirit of unity that can so embody this time of year, a time in which every major world religion has a holy day to celebrate, or just finished celebrating a month earlier, as in the cases of the Hindu holiday Diwali and the Islamic New Year.

I think that’s what was captured in the gathering of people surrounding this beautiful quartet. Coming together, instead of dividing; finding hope, instead of despair; giving out of a loving heart instead of hoarding our riches to bless ourselves… isn’t that in the teachings of most major religions, anyway?

Interestingly enough, “We Need a Little Christmas” was sung in the Broadway musical Mame. The song is performed after Mame has lost her fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and decides that she, her young nephew Patrick, and her two household servants “need a little Christmas now” to cheer them up. Patrick protests, “but Auntie, it’s one week from Thanksgiving now!” Intransigent, Mame insists, “It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough. For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older, and I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder. I need a little Christmas now.” I think Mame knew something powerful: the joy of this season can bring hope even in the midst of despair, like in the Great Depression Mame faced.

Though a fictitious story, the lesson that Mame teaches us in the mantra of “We Need a Little Christmas” parallels to times today. No matter how pollyanna or naive it seems, we too can experience peace and joy in the midst of daunting or disheartening headlines that reflect anything but the Christmas spirit. And maybe, if we could focus on things to be joyful about, like stories of kindness and cheer in the media this month, a little bit more than we’ve done during the other months of this year, perhaps that spirit of kindness will help us become united as one this holiday season. As the saying goes, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” For me, as someone who is guilty of taking life too seriously as I all too frequently rush around with my own agenda, only half-heartedly listening to the world and those around me, learning how to express gratitude and gratefulness in the midst of my selfishness and apprehensions. What about you? What about us? What if this holiday season, we learn that we are truly brothers and sisters, neighbors to love? Let’s reflect this spirit  in anyway we can; you use your gift, I’ll use mine. Perhaps your gift is being able to spread a smile across someone’s face as they gather around neighbors-becoming-friends as they hear you sing mellifluously of hope and joy. Perhaps it’s inviting some friends over for no reason at all other than to be together, celebrating the life we’ve each been given. Perhaps it’s gathering your family together and choosing an animal for a family halfway across the world to use as a source of income. Whatever it looks like, it looks like love, it looks like togetherness, and to me, it epitomizes the true spirit of Christmas. Yes,—-

For we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
“Happy ever after,”
Need a little Christmas now.