Unbricking Windows: What if we decided to consciously let things get in our way?
Nose pressed against the cold glass, I remember as a kid sitting in the backseat of my parents car. Every time I would breath out, the glass would fog over. I would wipe it away with my sleeve so that i was able to see.
I remember being stuck in traffic, but I don’t remember where. New York? Boston? A big city where we didn’t live. We were on a raised highway and outside my window was the wall of a building with an enormous mural. The painting was of windows. Each window was a different scene: some had polka dot curtains, some had flowers pots on their window sills. One had a smiling child sitting on the ledge, petting her cat.
Each window scene was painted over a space where a window actually had been, but were now bricked over so that you could not see into the apartments behind the wall. I remember wondering if the lives inside the apartments were like the lives in painted windows. However, it was a grim building and didn’t seem like a place where flower pots of sunny faced red gerber daisies could grow.
Nearly every place I have ever lived has been invisible, too. The neighborhood where my son was born was cut off on three sides by highways with only one exit out. My own neighborhood now also has a bypass that cuts past the public housing and past my own backyard — a carefully designed route for commuters to drive in and out of the city without seeing us. It is lined with beautiful bradford pears, which will bloom soon. If I didn’t know they were a shield, I would think they were pretty.
Road projects, housing policy, zoning laws, and the way districts are drawn historically have always been ways to keep those windows bricked up and keep cars driving by. Neighborhood boundaries and school zones help keep track of who is us, and who is them. The “thems” have always been aware that they are not an “us” — causing a schizophrenic dysphoria that trails us even as we code switch and traverse cultures and “yes ma’am” our way to make a living or to get our kids into a good school. It is a complex system that keeps us from seeing one another.
The other day I was in a meeting in a community center and a pastor was a part of our group. Briefly and in passing, he mentioned a family who had been coming to a food distribution at his church. They were a large family, maybe six children, so he put aside some meat for them, thinking it might help. But when he offered it they declined, explaining they did not have any electricity, so keeping the meat would not be possible.He learned that they had not had power for almost six months. They asked him to please get it to another family.
After the meeting, I watched a friend of mine go up to the pastor and hand him something.
“I know what you did,” I said later. I knew she had written a check to get the family’s power back on. That is the type of heart she has.
She is wealthy and lives in a neighborhood that I don’t see, because it is in an area of town I would never have reason to go nor would I feel comfortable in. She is deeply conservative and we differ on about ten thousand things politically. When I told her I had seen, she humbly said “I knew that family’s story had been put in front of me for a reason.”
And I think that she is right. I do not know if it is something divine or something magical or something with how the stars line up or if it just good old fashioned luck, but I do know that people instinctively do good things when something is before them. I have seen a man who was homeless run to put out a fire in another man’s tent, reaching in and saving the other man’s shoes when he couldn’t extinguish the flames. I have seen the stodgiest and grumpiest man in my neighborhood cradle a small kitten he found in the brush. I have seen a stranger run into a cloud of pepper spray to protect another person’s child. I have seen my own father, who as a rule stays out of everyone’s business, run into the street to comfort a child when all the other adults were too busy fighting, fist drawn, crowbars grabbed.
Like my father, I have an instinct to keep to myself, to shelter my small family and to ward off danger and conflict and hardship, to mind my own. But I know that the opportunities to actualize my full humanity — to live fully and freely and with grace — is outside my small world, outside my work, outside my small home, outside my comfort and out in the street.
There may have been a time (I am not qualified to say) when “doing your little part” in your little spot in the world was enough; but I know that is not enough today. Today we must actively leave our little spot. We live in a staked out land — a land where we are assigned — assigned by race or gender or immigration status or how much money we have in our pockets — to exist at the either center or at the margins but never both. So many of us live in monolithic, mono-cultural spaces without the opportunity of difference, diversity or dissent. To be clear, I do not think we choose this, but I do know that rarely do we challenge it.
And we must. We must actively place ourselves into both in the us and in the them and in the discomfort and discord in between. We must bear witness to communities that are both our own and that are none of our business — not to dictate, save, or control, but simply to listen and embrace the humble fortuity of following someone else’s lead. I am weary of charity and of social justice missionaries (who might heist their values on others) but I am enamored by the quiet listener who will sit at tables that are not their own. We can not send in aid or well wishes without crossing the boundaries ourselves; we can not pursue justice without standing in the mud.
What does this mean? It means that even as I slowly eek out a living and move my family above the poverty line, I do not ever want to leave my community from where I came. It means that I did not apply to the academically better but all white school outside of town for my son. It means that I don’t want all the houses on my block to fit my aesthetic, and I hope that my rowdy neighbors can stay right here with me. It means that I need to take inventory of the spaces in which I exist and socialize and work and ask if I am there on purpose, or if they are places where I just, without resistance, slid.
It is not enough to try to listen from where we are, we must put ourselves in places where we can hear. The place where we become fully human is when we let things get in our our way.
I am grateful to my friend who will put herself in neighborhoods from where she is not, and allow the opportunity to give to be before her. I am grateful to my father for abandoning his privacy, his live and let live that upholds the status quo, and entering the public space of confusion. I am grateful for the work of white allies, as they are equally looking at themselves as they look towards and to others. I am thankful for the work of activists who are bringing the stories of immigrant and dreamers out the shadows, to the men who are asking more questions, to the professors going into prisons and bringing in books, to the drivers who take the exits, because they know there is something valuable for them to learn in each neighborhood they go.
These are criterion of our collective futures, unbricking the windows and letting light in.