Beneath the loquat tree that flows over the fence from Grandmama Darlene’s yard, I squat this morning to do some gardening. Through the fence, I listen to laughter and jostling in the street. I am enjoying the eros of teenagers. To the beat of rap music, I hunker down my fifty-two-year-old body into the soil. I breathe in the scent of ripening and reach up and loosen a loquat to eat. Savoring the wet flesh of the fruit, the life heat of teenagers, I feel through the soles of my feet to the deep warm earth. For a moment, I sense, everything feeds into this: a sweet, tart streaming.
A violent blast from the street ruptures the sultry stillness of the afternoon. Through my study window, I see a semi-truck stopped, the driver leaning out of the cab toward the teenagers on the street. The truck rumbles off as the teenagers drift into Grandmama Darlene’s house. Cautiously, I step outside and descend the steps to find out what has happened. I am greeted by a gaping hole and missing posts along the stairs—until seconds ago, the home of our mailbox. Reactions burst inside me—chaotic, fearful.
Jagged pieces of metal and posts from the balustrade are cast every which way around the sidewalk. The facing of our house has been battered by flying shards. I breathe in and out to steady myself. But self-protectiveness grips my heart. I think of my daughter Caitlin, age nine, about to come home from swimming. I picture the metal mailbox exploding, imprinting our house with shrapnel. Who did this to us?
“What do you kids know about my mailbox?” I hear the threatening timbre of my own voice. I am standing up on the landing of Grandmama Darlene’s several hours after the mailbox blew up. Young Michelle, now fourteen, lives here with her older sister and her grandmother who, as her memory has deteriorated, rarely leaves the inner recesses of the house. With the older sister off with her boyfriend, there’s no supervision for these kids. Teenagers—more of them than I had expected, girls with halter tops and nose piercings and boys with baggy jeans and untied hightops—are milling around the landing, passing in and out of the screen door.
Michelle, with whom I’ve often exchanged hellos and favors (car washes, a loaned jacket), whispers, “It was a bomb, one of them M-80’s.”
Daryll, who lives across the street, adds, “That truck driver said he saw two kids run that way.” He points towards the hills.
A gentleness shivers through me: a recognition of our history here, yard next to yard, sharing the shade of a loquat tree. I address Michelle, and then Daryll. “I’m not saying you did it. You wouldn’t do something like that…”
“Not to my neighbor, anyway,” says Daryll.
What can I say to that? But my punitive voice breaks through, “I want to warn you that the police will be coming over here to ask you kids what you know about this. What will you say?”
Michelle, chin jutting out, flashes back, “We didn’t do nothing!” And Daryll, “Why you coming over here asking us all these questions?” Both faces flatten, expressionless, eyes suddenly hooded. They may not know any more about this than I do, I think. I’m doing this all wrong.
I feel an ache of sadness. I am reminded of the salt pang I felt yesterday when I saw Michelle’s mother Dee—recently out of jail again—hanging out on the corner. She walked past, her shoulder hunched away from me, her eyes averted. Still drinking and living on the street since she was thrown out by her older daughter, Dee shows up at least once a day despite a restraining order against her. She and I used to stop on the street to talk—about her daughter Michelle and my daughter Caitlin, about Grandmama Darlene’s illness and her own sister’s death. It now occurs to me that Dee, with whom I’ve shared some tears on several occasions, hasn’t met my eye for close to a year.
Disheartened now, I retreat from the teenagers and back down the stairs towards our house, and they too retreat into Grandmama Darlene’s. As the cop car rounds the corner and the last kids duck away from me, the screen door bangs out a sharp whack—punctuating our separation.
Joining with our backdoor neighbors as we have every Sunday for years, we enjoy pooling whatever edibles we have on hand for a makeshift dinner. It is a week since the M-80 blew up our mailbox. We stave off loneliness and worries about pre-4th of July pranks through eating with friends and singing show tunes.
Got no mansions, got no yachts,
Still I’m happy with what I’ve got.
I got the sun in the mornin’ and the moon at night…
Leaning toward one another over a tablecloth splattered with peanuts and coconut shreddings, we clink glasses smeared with curry sauce. Our neighbors Amy and Bart, my husband Patrick, Caitlin and I sit around our kitchen table by the window that overlooks both our yards. I love the image of this circle of neighbors, singing, laughing and sighing together.
You gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart.
Oh, it’s fine to be a genius, of course,
But put that old horse before the cart…
We sing off key, with improvised rhythms and stumbling lyrics, Amy’s sure voice establishing the basics of tune and word. Caitlin, sometimes too active to snuggle, relaxes in my arms, and I am aware of the sweetness of her cheek grazing mine. Patrick, who often seems preoccupied with cooking or cleaning up, has found the rhythm; a jaunty eyebrow raised, he whistles the melody.
In the safety of our circle, we allow for and relinquish our disappointments: a soccer game lost, a proposal rejected, a continuance denied, a design project unfinished. As we recover old melodies learned in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, we tap into a shared culture, and we yearn toward what feels like a wider family.
Sister Sal who’s musical has never had a lesson.
Still she learned to sing off key,
Doin’ what comes na-tur-ally…
A firecracker bursts down the block. I sense our little group drawing together. With a pang of loss, I feel the narrowness of our little circle, bound off from the broader community that I long for. As shouts of fun and roughhousing pick up on the street, I reflect on the tension between our family and the folks next door. This past week, all of the kids, even Michelle, have stared right through me, ignored my awkward hellos. A shriek of laughter from the kids outside reminds me of the moment when I ate the loquat, the experience of our common stream of aliveness. That feeling seems so far away now.
An exchange of angry shouts from the street overpowers our voices. Is it just the kids? Or has Michelle’s mother Dee come back drunk? Touched off by my uneasiness over the kids, feelings of discomfort about Dee seep through my limbs. I remember her ensconced in her sleeping bag, asleep in the back seat of our ’69 Toyota, where, after she found her way in again and again, Patrick and I finally allowed her sanctuary. Now I berate myself: after those many months, I should never have kicked her out.
Or should I have? I review the neighborhood meeting where other families from our block let me know how upset they were that Patrick and I let her sleep in our car. On the lawns and gardens between the houses, they said, we had invited Dee to store her decaying bags of clothes, toss her bottles and empty her bowels. A longtime community organizer—admired by neighbors, the police and social workers—turned to me in shock and said, “You encourage her to sleep in your car? Why would you do such a thing?” With an image of myself as a naive do-gooder-cum-neighborhood-nuisance, I could no longer look anyone at the meeting in the eye.
I think back to the following Saturday morning when, fueled by my neighbors’ criticism, I rapped on the door of the Toyota. Her bad leg and her crutch propped up at the window, Dee awoke with a start, then seemed relieved that it was me. “Just a minute, baby. I overslept.” She looked at me with bewilderment and then hurt as I told her I’d like to help her find a homeless shelter or somewhere else she might stay. Not wanting to beat around the bush any longer, I simply told her, “You can’t stay in our car any more.”
Remembering this exchange, my thoughts flip-flop. Have I been a traitor in my dealings with Dee, or am I simply widening my sense of what it means to be a neighbor?
As Bart begins to serve the ice-cream and raspberries, we take up another song:
Consider yourself—at home.
Consider yourself—one of the family.
A sudden quiet overtakes the group, and Amy points out the open window. From our second floor view, we can see over the fence to the neat line of cat bowls extending in front of Amy and Bart’s garage. At the far end, chasing off the cats, is a mama raccoon and three cubs, churring and hissing.
A hundred and fifty years ago the arid streets of this neighborhood were organized around creeks that flowed from the hills to the bay, and the grass and wetlands teemed with wildcats, elk and grizzly bears. Each time I see the remnants of this wild heritage—possums and skunks, deer and raccoons finding life where the creeks break through their culverts—a chord resonates deep in my belly.
I remember another meeting at which neighbor after neighbor blamed raccoons for overturning their garbage, threatening their pets with rabies, and digging up their newly planted roses and tomatoes. One woman suggested others follow her example and, instead of putting out bowls of catfood, put out poison. Someone said we should trap the raccoons and send them north where they could be released into the woods. A competing voice said, “No, when you transport them, they won’t survive.”
As our dinner comes to a close, such a mixture of feelings are stirred up—the excitement of song and the tenderness of communion, outrage, hurt, self-doubt—I am chafed inside. As Amy and Bart carry out their casseroles and salad bowl, we keep singing with Caitlin intoning opposing parts: the basso profundo of the hero, the sweet tones of the ingenue, the impish glee of the pickpockets.
There isn’t a lot—to spare
Who cares? Whatever we’ve got, we share…
After Patrick puts Caitlin to bed, I sit in meditation. I am heavy with the stale swelter of the day. As I watch my breath and my sensations, I notice waves of thought—self-blame and pride, guilt and self-righteousness. Gradually, the grip loosens on some of these feelings and the self-images that feed them. After I meditate, I continue to sit and to reflect. I allow my imagination to descend through the beams and walls and floors of our house, beneath the garden to the shifting layers of rock—sedimentary, metamorphic, igneous—to the fiery veins and molten core of the planet. Experiencing this fundamental earth body through my own human body, I am replenished and expanded. Settling here, breathing in the steamy summer air through the skylight, I reach to encompass this neighborhood as myself.
Voices from the neighborhood meetings bombard my consciousness. What I saw as generosity to the homeless Dee seemed to others to encourage screaming fights, broken windows and police sirens. What I saw as generosity to the raccoons was seen as an invitation to those raccoons to menace the neighborhood.
How should I look at all this? With fifty-two years of living life and twenty-four years of meditation practice, I have no idea. And what am I that is doing the looking? There are so many ways I conceptualize what I am, and all of them raise more unanswerable questions.
As a creature among creatures, I ask: Whose world is this anyway? Is it anyone’s world? Do these streets and gardens belong to me and other human “home owners”? Do they belong also to the teenagers? To the homeless? To the raccoons? How large is the family?
As a human animal, I ask: Does my role as a person—with capacities to witness, to think and to make choices—mean that I hold myself separate from the rest of the world? Can I relate to the world with the tender awareness with which I sensed Caitlin’s cheek grazing mine?
As I reflect on the contradictory weave of relations in this neighborhood, I try to figure things out once and for all. But how can I know what is right? How am I to act? My mind is racing, chasing out concepts: heroine, victim, traitor.
I begin to feel exhausted. Passing into the hypnogogic state just before sleep, my thoughts churn with images. In my mind, I see another mailbox, this one a mailbox of the whatever it is I think I am, of all the creations of myself—mother, neighbor, meditator, human, animal, expression of livingness. Instead of a bomb inside, I see glimmerings. All the constructs are just that, constructs similar to those other confused humans dream up to describe themselves. I imagine this mailbox, instead of exploding, simply dissolving. But dissolving into what?
Unexpectedly, I feel another surge of fear—fear of the violence on the street, fear of my own reactivity, fear of so many things, and underneath all of that, fear of not knowing—of not having anything to hold on to. As I keep on sitting, I notice the fear tighten my belly, separating me from my own experience and from the rest of life. Just noticing that, there’s a moment of release. Like the juice of the loquat, I sense aliveness flooding through me, my family, Amy and Bart, Dee and the teenagers, the raccoons. At the same time, I see Michelle pulling her cap down over her eyes as I pass by. I see Dee crossing away from me to the other side of the street. I see my own tendency to make pictures of who I am, who everybody else is. I see so much I don’t yet know how to change. For now I’ll just be with that. I let out a long sweet sigh.