A New Year’s Eve view of the world

On New Year’s Eve: a view of the world from the red house in the middle of the block

With 36 odd hours left in the year 2020, I am of a mind that way too many words have already been written about it. It’s still too hard, too close, too rich with learning and loss, gaslighting and distortions for me to try to sum it up. I need a longer arc of time to look back on it.

Looking ahead is equally perplexing. I’m making some plans, setting some intentions – and resolved that my plans not make me. Agility, even more than  resilience, is what I am looking to cultivate to meet the many unknowns. I am wary of another round of decision-making exhaustion of the sort that pervaded the early weeks and months of Life under Pandemic. I anticipate some version of returning to weighing the pros and cons of every outing or errand that needs to be run – once (if?) widespread vaccination and economic engines open life up in ways we can envision only through mask-fogged glasses and brains.

It’s been a no-brainer, and part of my privileged life, to pretty much confine myself to home and my walking neighborhood of perhaps six square blocks, since April.

I’ve encountered such wonders as a flock of yard flamingos, a colony of frogs in a variety of yoga poses, chalk drawings in the street, families out walking together with and without dogs, and a Sacred Datura plant anchoring the front corner of a neighbor’s yard.  I would have said that I live in a pretty much all-white neighborhood. Instead I have been pleasantly surprised to exchange greetings with many multiracial families.

My neighborhood has two styles of homes, all built in the late 1920’s. So far my husband and I are “aging in place.” It’s not just our home of 36 years. It’s the neighborhood that feels like home – the old trees – especially the sycamores –  the surviving drug store with soda fountain, a library, an old movie palace. 

Oh – and the best – one neighbor who has for years taken his mellow guitar practice outside during all the warm seasons: a neighborhood playlist. And another who has been securing our recycling barrel in the bed of his pick-up every week since Covid-19 worker illness shut down Baltimore’s curbside recycling in September.

So I was shocked to realize, as I prepared to lead a workshop on unconscious bias for residents from my and adjoining neighborhoods, that the role of “neighbor” has become a pretty weak part of my identity. Yes, I just delivered my seasonally home-made gingerbread up and down my block. Still, it seems like I have largely “aged out” of being a neighbor since having school-age kids in the house. And since aging out of the snow-shoveling gang that used to assemble from up and down our block to dig out cars and make the street passable as we last did in January, 2016 (see banner photo!)

I got to thinking how every neighborhood has its Rules for Living and belonging.

Some of these rules may be explicit – as in covenants. Others implicit yet baked into a neighborhood’s culture. How formal? How friendly? How distant? How quiet? And all of these rules are shaped by racialized and gendered histories  f wealth, property, ownership, financing – and by our own perceptions and behaviors.

I thought about “neighborliness.”

What does it mean to “neighbor”? - making “neighbor” into a verb for the moment.

When and how do I offer help, a suggestion, an invitation?

When and how do I inquire, speak up, step forward, step back, “mind my own business”?

What behaviors tell me “I belong” – or that I am stretching or testing the limits of belonging?

How do I treat property boundaries? 

Are there activities or toys or amenities – tomato and squash vines, for example that I believe “belong” in back yards not in front yards?

How about the aesthetics of holiday decorations? displays of the American flag, which has been so effectively appropriated by a certain brand of patriot? the Rainbow flag? the Earth flag? – unquestionably “my” people. And signs. Campaign signs, Graduating- Class-from-Home 2020 class signs, #Blacklivesmatter signs?

And the real clincher: what do I do when I see someone who is “a stranger” to me? When can I trust that calling the police is 1) warranted and 2) won’t lead to a terrible outcome?

So I am leaving/entering the year sitting with these questions:

How will I “neighbor”  in my neighborhood?

How will I think globally and act locally?

 

And how will I “neighbor” in the wider world – Baltimore? America? the world?             How will I also think locally – as in you, and you, and you – are my neighbors                       as I act globally?

How about you?

P.S May we leave behind our shattered exceptionalistic illusions, including “We’re better than this.” 

And may we seize every opportunity to reshape our consciousness and our world.

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FULL DISCLOSURE in the face of recent events

Version 2

The bumblebee I have been eyeing is having a hard time of it with the evening primroses, whose petals at high noon have mostly collapsed into soft mush. Every 3rd or 4th wilting bloom she lands on, she manages to work her way in to where the nectar is. Soon she gives up and goes for the easily accessible stalks of liatrus.

This morning, I am working at having a FULL DISCLOSURE heart and soul with myself. Because that collapsing evening primrose bloom is the body-mind of my country, spent, folding in on itself, and ready to fall to the ground. And I am the bee who insists: there is still nectar here, there is still something important to be gathered here. Don’t move on just yet.

To stay here, stay here, stay here long enough to weep, that is the challenge.

Last week I was full up with working against multiple deadlines. So when I came off an involuntary news fast the news from Baton Rouge was 3 days old, from Falcon Heights 2 days old, from Dallas, 18 hours old – an eternity in social media time. My heart rose to my throat and dropped to my feet all at once. My body went into its default state: dissociation.

Sorrow and determination, the same two words now rise in me again as they first did after the Freddie Gray Uprising in my home town, and then a few months later after the Charleston church shooting.

And something else, a fierce love for Baltimore.

A Mason-Dixon line city. A gritty city.

The-park-bench-with slogan-at-bus-stops-city: The City That Reads. Believe. Charm City.

Home of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center and HONfest.

The city of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Lenny Moore, Thurgood Marshall, Henrietta Lacks, Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday. And the city of Francis Scott Key, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Enoch Pratt, Philip Berrigan, Wild Bill Hagy, Barry Levinson, John Waters.

The history of my city and the goodness of its people are both rising up.

Native Americans have lived in this area since the 10th Millennium BCE, but were probably not inhabiting the land when David Jones settled a claim in 1661 on what is now the East Side. Thomas Cole settled the West Side in 1665, then sold it to Jones 14 years later. East and West Bawlamer remain vital cultural distinctions to this day, with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland “Health Systems” the respective dominant land-holders.

We became the Port of Baltimore in 1706 and Baltimore Town in 1729.  By the early 19th century we were a major port for the slave trade, attracting  slave dealers from Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. They built slave pens – yes, pens – near Pratt Street, now the major east-west thoroughfare that passes the Inner Harbor, a commercial development and community event and gathering place with a modern history of being inhospitable to groups of black youth.

I get the feeling that most any place I might step in the city I am obliviously treading on history, even holy ground, ground sanctified by suffering.

As individuals, we heal when we come out of memory into the present moment. We do this when we remember. When we bring into awareness our forgotten, suppressed, and frozen griefs and rages. When we feel them in our bodies. When we permit them entry and integration into our psyches and lives instead of acting them out.

This is the journey we seem on the verge of beginning as a nation. Towards naming our disappeared, both owned and owner.  Towards feeling slavery and all its repercussions in the civic body. Towards FULL DISCLOSURE. 

How can safety, justice, freedom,  reconciliation, possibly be realized in its absence? 

And this is likely to be a rough road, given how difficult it is to agree on “facts.” Given how poor we adults are at listening. Given our tendency to make the world over in our preferred image. Given the ways our tribal bonds have taught us to see the “other” as suspect if not outright dangerous.

I sit here, watch the bumblebees, hope the sunshine will thaw me into weeping.

Meantime, in this thirst to know my city, I sip bittersweet nectar, begin to gather historical facts to dignify some few drops of the lifeblood of all those who have been erased from my city’s narrative and living memory.


A wealth of historical facts is available through The Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland – case studies, interactive maps, and a searchable database: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov