The tightly woven circle of birth and death, sisters, brothers, teachers, friends, enemies, ginkgo trees, and slippery rocks in swift streams—our lives are made of such things. If we live in a city almost anywhere, the bitter facts of economic oppression, drugs, racism, harsh words in the night, and and gunshots spin this wheel faster than we can find our breath. This is the setting for Melody Ermachild Chavis’s book, Altars in the Street.
What is wonderful about this book is its current of persistence, practice and even joy in the face of small victories and large losses. How Chavis sees life and spiritual practice has nothing to do with complacency and everything to do with meeting life completely, however it manifests.
Chavis centers Altars in the Street in a Victorian house in Berkeley’s Lorin district that was bought with a down payment of insurance money received after her sister’s death. There Chavis raises children and grandchildren with her husband Stan. She learns the private investigator’s trade and, with skill and compassion, works on the defense side of death penalty cases. She also takes up Buddhist practice, first with Tibetan teacher Eric Meller and later with Sojun Mel Weitsman at the Berkeley Zen Center. Along the way she attends an empowerment with the Dalai Lama, forges ties with Christian ministers, and finds a dharma teacher in Jarvis Masters, a young African-American man on San Quentin’s death row. Masters becomes a close friend and astute advisor as he and Chavis employ the dharma as a path of peace through seemingly impossible circumstances. (He also becomes a marvelous writer. See this issue’s review of Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row.)
But as the world of babies, work and practice unfolds, Chavis’s neighborhood becomes a marketplace for crack cocaine and other drugs, bringing violence and fear with the drug trade. The real story of the book is how this sickness comes to rule the streets and how, with limited success and painful failure, Chavis and her neighbors resist greed, anger and delusion.
The narrative, like water in a rushing stream, divides into separate currents, eddies, and reconnects without losing continuity. The writing is deceptively plain; the words fit the flow as might those of friends talking across a kitchen table at night. Chavis’s spare portraits are sharply drawn: Ruth, who succumbs to tragedy and drugs; Mahalia, a police community service officer, who bears her own incomprehensible loss; Shyaam, who becomes a partner in the Strong Roots garden project for neighborhood children; the children themselves, at once courageous and confused by lives that have spun beyond control. These people and their stories feel intensely real.
A reviewer can’t always check what he or she reads against lived experience. In this case, though, I took part in the march Chavis led through Lorin when we made altars in the streets to mark the loss of young men; I lived in the neighborhood and was scared; I stood in the crowd that welcomed Nelson Mandela; I am familiar with the no-nonsense Zen teaching of Chavis’s (and my) teacher, Mel Weitsman. I can attest to the authenticity of the events depicted here and point out the authenticity of the author’s voice and courage. We may shed tears of recognition and grief when reading this book, but let us bow to the spirit that leaps from its pages. They contain more than good writing. Melody Ermachild Chavis shows us how to meet the dharma on a narrow road; she shows us how to become fully engaged.