On late Saturday mornings, my father would sometimes walk up from the office to the house and make an inquiry, “Hey, want to go for a ride? I have some bushings that need to be repaired.”
Three hours later and halfway across the state, I find myself in the smallest of cottage-industry shops in the middle of nowhere. There are streams and lakes and fields and forests—and very few people. The late-afternoon sunlight comes in through the dirty windows of a repurposed filling station, standing as only one of three buildings at a singular intersection, marking the community’s center. Half a dozen people are bent over vice grips wrapping copper wiring around parts—by hand.
Unable to stifle my surprise, I lean into my father’s space to verify, “They wind these by hand?”
“Yes. The labor and new copper wiring are less expensive than a brand new part. They will ship them out when they are finished.”
On the drive home, we take a forty-mile detour (eighty in total) to purchase all-beef bratwurst from one of the only small meat suppliers left in the state. There is an upcoming drivers’ picnic to celebrate the end of the school year. Forty miles is nothing when considering some of the travel distances that the contracted drivers cover for charter trips or a single high-school athletic meet: three hours out, play ball and three hours back. In time, I learn to ask my dad about how far or how long the ride might be before making any solid commitments to a Saturday ride.
The bus service my parents owned, coupled with a propensity for long family road trips, means that I grew up reading maps and on the road again. There were “day trips” to Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee or the Quad Cities, when a minor-league ball team needed transportation. There were driving marathons to and from Florida, California and the East Coast.
A keen observer of design—both natural and manufactured—my father never tired of heading out on a road trip to appreciate the world around him and the people he served. A teacher by vocation, he was inherently curious and ready to discuss potential design improvements on almost any object or subject. He relished his personal time while driving. In retrospect, those long hours were the essence of his personal practice.
The gauge on my physical vessel is on “E” as I park in front of a middle-of-nowhere gas station. There is a huge sign in front, advertising freshly made pizza.
“What to order…” my mind is moving ahead of my feet. Hunger disquiets my mind like almost nothing else. And, racing on an empty belly, takes me far and away from peaceful center. I march over to the food counter feeling like an edgy, empty creature.
A man in his early 20’s approaches me, “Do you know what you would like to order?”
Grabbing a tri-fold menu from the clear plastic dispenser on the wall, I look down and answer, “No. But, it has to be substantial in calories and interesting in terms of flavor.”
“If you will permit me,” he says gently and patiently, “I can make some recommendations based upon combinations that our regular customers enjoy.”
This sentence causes a thin and brittle rod of urban self-importance that has been buried inside of me to snap. My hunger suddenly does not seem that important. I take a breath to readjust, wanting to meet the kind offer of this man’s exceptional professional care.
Listening carefully as my maître d’ of gas-station-pizza pies proceeds to outline “his kitchen’s” most favored combinations, he and I become two souls bent over one of Napa Valley’s best wine lists or, perhaps, a most exclusive restaurant’s menu. It amazes me that he, through the tone of his voice, choice of words and the cadence of his descriptions can transport me—transport us—to a place without time inclusive of luxury and exclusivity. To receive this gift of his singular countenance all I need to do is to step back from my own conceit and allow him to play his professional role.
Going outside to be under the sun’s light while the pizza is baking, I wonder how many opportunities to enjoy another human being’s countenance I have missed because of an absent-minded push or assertion on my part, regarding “me” needs, “my” opinions or the social roles I thought I needed to play.
Thank you, pizza man, for your superior care and the gift of this teaching.
Walking across town to the veterinary clinic to pick up some medicine for the dog, I observe the changes made to the landscape two days ago by a severe storm. The thunderstorm came with torrential rains and a solid five-hour flash flood warning. Dirt, gravel, brush and a lot of trash have been rearranged. There are a few puddles that the birds are still taking advantage of—as though each reservoir of precious water is a three-star-resort’s bathing pool in some forgotten Eastern European town—a real spa affair.
City crews put their backs into shoveling debris from around the openings of the storm-sewer’s drainage system. Everyone is glad for the mild spring weather.
As I amble down one street, an area of active revitalization, new plants are being set in around trees and in one neglected earthen bed. Mounds of urban dirt are turning green with welcoming arrangements of miniature shrubs and perennial flowers. The effort put into landscaping over the past five years has made a remarkable difference in softening the edge of social attitude toward this area of the city.
A new tea shoppe, where well-heeled members from the south-end of town now venture out for safe daylight jaunts (to enjoy sweet iced tea and light lemon cakes), is doing a booming business. All spit and polish, the cars in front of the shoppe have trunks waiting to be loaded with a little north-end kitsch, hand-dyed garments or some other off-beat booty.
Passing one of the landscaping crew, I thank the man pulling weeds. He sends me to express my gratitude to the main contractor, a woman, walking my way, “The arrangements and selection of plants you have made look great. Your work has made a real difference. Thank you.”
Beyond the store-fronts, I go through another residential area behind the clinic. An empty box carried by the storm from who-knows-where is waiting to be used. I commit to cleaning up a half-a-block’s worth of trash caught against a fence. Partway through, I meet a snake sunning a yard away. We say hello, and he gets to keep the dark plastic bag next to him. It may be acting as a heat sink and point of comfort for his body. I wish that were all anybody ever wanted—a place to feel safe while soaking up the sun.
With the box full, six blocks remain on my trip. Aware of my status as a pedestrian (in an automotive society) in a raucously large sunhat (sunhats of this stature were hip circa 1972) and sporting my favorite walking sneakers (fresh from the laundry), I realize that by all external appearances I am just another one of those colorful, local personalities who populates the sketchier neighborhoods on the north end of town. Yet, on the inside, my heart is all spit and polish for one concern: this precious landscape.
While studying in England, I sat a course featuring 20th Century US Literature, where one work by Ernest Hemingway was included. Around four o’clock over tea one day, the English students were having a field day denouncing Hemingway’s economy in writing as paltry, low-level and unimaginative in vocabulary and wording, as well as being moronically over simplistic in syntax. To drive their case home, one student reached for the nearby book and started reading the text aloud in formal, British English. The reader finished with a condemning wail, “This is not true and proper LIT-rit-chur.”
At this point in the conversation, I broke in and, taking the piece under question in hand, began reading the same passage in my thoroughly spare, flat and earthy Upper-Midwestern accent. You see, Hemingway and I are old neighbors. Delivered thus—orally—the work possessed a terse, full-bodied and weighty pregnancy that was undeniable. It was a less-is-more situation. The room fell silent.
Setting the book down, there was the quiet of a new understanding being born into that space. A new door had opened.
Whatever you express, communicate from the singular seat of your own authentic voice.
When I enter the cosmetology school, the young woman who greets me wears a baseball cap covering her closely cropped hair.
“It looks like we are well matched,” I comment.
“Do you want a Mohawk?” her face brightens with surprise.
“No, not a Mohawk, but I need my hair cut close to my head, except for the very front. I need to be able to wear a head scarf around town without having to answer questions. I am preparing to see the Dalai Lama in a few weeks.”
Newly covered by a fresh apron and with my neck snugly encircled by tissue-paper and the apron’s neckband, my student barber begins fishing through her drawer of possibilities. She is lamenting that she rarely, if ever, gets to go on any adventures. Then, her head pops up.
“How about an eighth of an inch?” she queries with the clippers already in her hand.
“Let’s do it.”
“I’ll give you the full barbershop treatment—with a hot towel.”
The metal blades on the clippers grow searingly hot, cutting through my hair. The top of my now naked ear meets with them once, which is enough. After she finishes, I comment on my long side curls.
“Yes, but to make it an authentic cut for Yeshiva School, I would have to clip your bangs off as well. I’m from New York. I grew up next to the largest Jewish community in the country. I plan to go back after I’m finished here and give haircuts kind of like yours.”
Moving to the sink to rinse away the clippings that evaded her assertive brushing, I experience an incredible lightness at leaving all of that hair behind. I feel closer to being ready to travel. The freedom and joy I feel at the loss of my hair makes me wonder, “Where does a person’s strength lie?” For me at least, dakini power is not found in a pile of hair.
My mind trips home to the book on my nightstand, Michaela Haas’ Dakini Power. It is waiting to be finished, another component in the preparations for my trip. With my hair rinsed, I watch as the student barber swings the steaming towel rhythmically through the air.
Water particles form billowing clouds. Next, my face is swathed in the moist folds of the towel. I rest with my thoughts: questions of strength, of things sacred and acts of devotion. Too soon my warm skin meets with the cold air of the school’s salon, and I am back in my own chair at the student’s station.
“You are going to meet the Dalai Lama?” the cosmetology school’s instructor asks quietly and respectfully. Reverence and awe are embedded in the tone of his voice and the question itself. Taking a seat in the empty barber’s chair adjacent to my own, I realize I have become part of the salon’s game of telephone.
My going to see the Dalai Lama has turned into meeting the Dalai Lama. I explain to the instructor that my haircut is an act of devotional preparation for going to hear the Dalai Lama speak. I am engaging in a ritual act of respect for my ensuing pilgrimage.
I lost a neighbor this year. Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Missouri of a bullet wound sustained during an interaction with a police officer. I live in another city. I reside in a separate county. I am a different gender, age and race, but I mourn the loss of this young man, his potential and what happened that day in Ferguson; because deep inside, I continue to ask the question: At what point do we, as a society, make the shift in our worldview from thinking in terms of “us” and “them” to thinking of ourselves instead as “we”—the members of this community?
We, who live in community, share crowded spaces in our most populated urban areas. And, whenever there are circumstances of large gatherings of people, it generates the need to have a few common codes of conduct—”the rules”—in place, so that we can go about our daily tasks and get on with the business of living. The thing is, when we have rules in crowded places, or even in sparsely populated locations, most of us prefer to delegate the enforcement of these rules to but a few chosen members from among our “other” neighbors.
Now, our “other” neighbors, who have been chosen to work in law enforcement, in many ways have a heavy burden to bear. On any given day, “they” are called to work with people who, sometimes having been flagged for not following the rules, may be high, drunk, insane, defiant or just plain angry—for any number of reasons. The truth is that our “other” neighbors are often called to serve, to the best of their abilities, while walking blindly into sometimes complex and frequently highly emotional situations.
In my community, I live in a section of town where, when I walk my dogs, I hear frantically raised voices “communicating” through closed doors and fully shut windows. I have witnessed young, desperate children race out into the street looking for help because the adults, to whom they would normally turn, are actively engaged in physical conflict. People have asked me whether or not I feel safe in my neighborhood. Yet, amid all of this chaos, I am able to retreat to the center of my being because I know that I have not been called to work or serve, as some of my “other” neighbors have, as a protector of our community’s rules.
Darren Wilson is the name of the police officer, who was involved in the shooting. I do not know him. I do not know what he might feel, think or believe, who his family is or what he holds dear to his heart. Yet, I do know that in my heart he, like Michael Brown, is also my neighbor. And, so my sense of mourning extends to him as well. Remembering the young Arizona police officer, Jeff Moritz, who lost his life while on duty, shot by Eric Clark, a clinically insane man, I think that something inside of Darren Wilson’s heart must have died the day of the shooting—because when life pushes any of us into the small cramped spaces at the back of our minds, amid open contention and with only a few seconds to make a decision about flight, fight or freeze, any decision we make or action we take will probably be without social delicacy, diplomacy or any other skillful rendering. And, ultimately, when behavior involves a violent action against the very fabric of life, our hearts sustain injury.
So, here we are, as a community, amid a sea of pain and division. While some cling to the rafts of “us” and “them”, “others” of us are asking the questions: How do we come around to seeing ourselves as the neighbors that we truly are? And, how do we resolve the inherent imbalances in our neighbor-serving institutions that cause repeated injuries to populations within our community-at-large?
Resolving imbalances in our community-serving institutions to prevent further miscommunications, fracturing, pain and loss of life is difficult and demanding work, requiring Herculean efforts of consistent community interaction and involvement. Voting alone is not enough. Writing letters and engaging in dialogue will not address the concrete changes we need to make on a personnel level to prevent another situation of “us” and “them”. Perhaps it is time to visit, or in some cases revisit, the notion that “we” need tolive where we work and work where we live.
This is one proposed approach to changing our neighbor-serving institutions. Such an approach would require us to refresh our methods of law-enforcement recruitment, hiring and retention. In the mean time, we need to consider more neighborhood/law-enforcement dialogue or, perhaps, revisit the concept of pairing officers of unique backgrounds into new working teams.
Ultimately, though, the most important work to be done does not involve external or cosmetic changes to our institutions, but it involves our internal attitudes and beliefs. What we all need to address is the matter of our internal divisions, so that we can mend our own broken and divisive thoughts, speech, actions and hearts. As neighbors, we each need to address the issue of closing the divide.