Sunday, June 29, 2014

Breathing Was (Not) Good Enough

“Is He Alive?” We Wondered
A Shady Place in Summer

It sounds like this.
Late summer afternoon heat crept into his limbs. The warmth tired him and the nearby tree, abundant with its shade, beckoned him from beneath its boughs. Seeking respite from the sun, he lay beneath its leafy arms and succumbed to the siren call of cool sleep. Passersby noted his slumbering form and left him undisturbed to rest away whatever may have been his troubles of the day.
Sound idyllic? Like a nap stolen on a sweet summer day? The description is accurate, but it leaves out some important details.

But it was more like this.
The scene was no park, nor beach, nor sheltered place of idle, pleasant repose. The Citgo gas station parking lot of Military Trail in Lake Worth, Florida, has the just-described tree with its long limbs to provide shade and shelter from the searing heat of the South Florida sun in late June.
No grass cushioned the man I saw sleeping there yesterday just as we were about to pull away after getting gas. Clad in jeans, a shirt, and shoes, an unidentified bottle of refreshment nearby, he slept. Off to the side of the station, he wasn’t readily visible, but we saw him and noted his prone, unmoving figure. “Is he alive?” we wondered.
Samaritans we were not, but we did pause in our travels long enough to determine whether we could see the rise and fall of his chest, signifying breath and life. Confirming that breath and life, we drove on.
Today, I tell myself I’m just like those passersby in Internet-posted videos who see someone in distress and do not stop to help. I made the judgment, which may be accurate—or not—that he was passed-out drunk, or homeless, or drug addicted. Beyond waiting to confirm he was alive, I deemed he was not my concern.
I wonder, would I have done the same if he were well-dressed? Would I have done the same if he were in an upscale neighborhood or shopping mall and not in a depressed area that has more than mere hints of blight?
I also ask: Did I miss the chance to aid an angel of whom I was unaware?
I cannot answer these questions.
Instead I ask a question to which I know the answer: Did I pass by a chance to show compassion, care, and concern to another human? It is to my shame that I whisper in response, “Yes.”

Monday, June 9, 2014

Rubble Squats

Rubble Squats
Life Marked By Stones
It’s gone and I’m beyond distressed. Fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, tsunamis, floods . . . houses get ruined, destroyed, daily. Rubble squats where once stood a home, a place that wrapped its walled arms around people and kept them safe, secure, and warm. Those walled arms allowed them to slumber, ceiling overhead, the dark kept outside where it belongs.
Homes vanish at nature’s whim, the carelessness of humans, or by choice, to make way for something else. Those something elses can and do take the form of offices, stores, shopping centers, resorts, playgrounds. Those something elses take the form of highways on which we partake in the dance of travel, of movement, of getting where we want to be, where we think we should be, and where we think we must be.
Vivid pictures of that home had slipped across the miles and years of memory and into my expectations. A white house on a corner lot—brick fireplace on the east side. A bay window in the dining room, also facing east. Brick steps leading to the front door were embraced on each side by tall azalea bushes whose color blazed bright every spring. Five-foot-tall elephant ears once dwarfed the children in their shadows. Old-growth heirloom camellias, a hydrangea bush that blushed blue before summer’s heat dried its blossoms. Camphor trees with roots once dug for sassafras tea in the years ignorant of its toxins. Wood floors, polished to a reflective sheen. A swinging door gave passage from the kitchen to the dining room. An arch opened the living room to the dining room. An extra room off the kitchen and dining room had its windows long ago closed in. Its wall became shelves for hundreds of books. Windows throughout the house had separate panes of glass held in by wood painted bright white to mark the sections that let in light. A single bathroom for a family of six. A pile of leaves behind the garage composted and fed the abundance of worms just beneath the soil’s edge. A single-car garage on the side of the house stored a push mower with rotating blades, clippers for the azalea bushes, paint, tools, the things that make up a life—a home.
In the days preceding my journey there, I imagined pulling up and marveling at the yard and how small it would seem through adult eyes as opposed to child memories. I would have been courteous to the current occupants and grateful for any time they allowed me to observe and maybe even step upon and touch the ground on which my child feet once walked.
Possibility figured in my imagination—perhaps once again those wood floors would hold me up as I walked into the door, perhaps my eyes would look through the bay window and see as an adult as well as a child.
Google Maps could not find the location when I requested directions from my Central Florida home to those brick steps three hours north of me. I hadn’t lived there for fifty years. Maybe my memory had failed me on the exact address. The street was there and that was enough for me.
We exited I-95 and wound our way toward the neighborhood and nothing was familiar. The house on the first corner held no recognition for us. Once several blocks long, the street was short—only three blocks.
West of where the house and street should have been were massive piles of rubble—the remains of my childhood home. Stunned into mute grief, we continued to drive in the neighborhood. We found the cemetery we once used as a shortcut on our way to school. I scanned the grounds through the locked gates, and as I turned away for a moment, I saw a young man on the street. I called out to him, we spoke at length, and he confirmed what I already knew. Eighteen months earlier, the DOT razed the west end of the neighborhood for an I-95 exit.
So recent, yet so long ago. Time didn’t matter because gone is gone. I turned again to the cemetery. Entering a locked cemetery absent malicious intent didn’t seem wrong to me. I climbed through an open area in the fence. I explored the area alone, with reverence, respect, and silence. It was and is still a cemetery for Black people. In the years it was our path to school, the burial ground was overgrown and untended. It now has a sturdy fence and the locked gate discourages vandals. Grass grows around the graves. A paved road provides access. Flowers adorn many areas, and new graves are interspersed with old—some dating from the 1800s. New headstones stand near cracked and broken markers, some with dim letters that appear to have been etched by hand into unyielding stone.
Do the old-growth live oaks miss the feet of children playing at their roots?
I took that path to learning and I continue to learn. Part of what I’ve learned since my feet stepped on those grounds and since I was awed by the azalea bushes in the spring is gratitude. I am grateful for the years I spent in that house. I’m grateful that the cemetery is well tended, that the souls there rest undisturbed. I wonder, however, if the feet of children are missed by the ground and the old-growth oaks towering above miss the shenanigans and laughter.
What remains of my life on that street and all my childhood memories is a cemetery. As I processed the initial, stabbing grief of losing the home I knew and loved, I instead stepped lightly around another place of grief and loss and love.