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.