Where’s the Village?

(This piece was written for RevGalBlogPals and is reposted here.)

“Well, honey, do you think this work is making a difference?” I ask my daughter, Lucy.  As a college student in New York, her part-time job is to be a Democracy Coach for high school students.  Twice a week, she travels to Harlem on the bus to meet with the students, under the wise eye of the classroom teacher, and work on the skills we all need to live in a democracy.

Each week, she calls after her class and tells me how much she loves the students, and how terrible class was.  The things she knows how to do aren’t working.  The skills she thinks the students will have aren’t there. She has assumed that these students will know the same things she and her classmates knew in high school.

She recalls, “The first day I meet my students they were working on a literary analysis essay analyzing “The Alchemist” by Paul Coelho, but they were having trouble with their analysis. And it wasn’t that their analysis was bad, but that they didn’t know how to do it at all. But beyond that, what stood out to me was their classroom environment. The students were loud, on their phones and most shockingly of all was that they were ok with doing nothing. In fact, they chose to do nothing or goof off instead of doing their essay. And while it wasn’t the whole class it was the majority. And their willingness to do nothing has continued. It wasn’t only a one-day occurrence, but something I see every time I teach.”

These students are just as smart, and the difference between their education in New York and Lucy’s education in our leafy Michigan suburb is depressingly apparent.  Lucy’s high school education was clouded by her battle with depression, and still she had a tribe of teachers and counselors who worked hard to give her options.  I wonder if that happens for these students.  Do they have a hidden village of people working for their good?

As Lucy says, “Nobody goes to school knowing how to be a good student. Everybody gets taught certain soft skills that make them successful in school. But my students never learned those soft skills, and I think that continually harms them to this day.”  Even seemingly simple lessons require going back a few steps.  One day the class is supposed to make phone calls, but no one knows how.  The students have to learn how to request a person by name, write down the name in case they have to call again and then ask for the information they need.  All of it is new.  It takes a frustratingly long time.

I can tell that Lucy learning a lot from her students, including how much she took for granted about her education.  I don’t know what the students are learning from her, if anything.  It reminds me – again – how political our education system is.  It’s so deeply shaped by money.  Parents who have the time and skills to be involved demand quality.  I used to feel a little sorry for the teachers in our school system, surrounded by all of us parents who were socialized to be pushy for the benefit of our kids.  Parents who are poor, overwhelmed and overworked get so much less.

I once asked a friend who teaches high school students in a Detroit school what would make a difference.  I thought she would say more money, or smaller classes, or more social workers to help with the stresses the kids bring to class.  “I need to get the kids in elementary school,” she said.  “I would open a boarding school, where I could make sure they get enough sleep, don’t have too much screen time, eat healthy food and have to study.”  With a sigh, she tells me about one of her students who has a baby now.  She’s feeding the baby Cheetos, because, she says, “he doesn’t like vegetables.”

It’s not news that our education “system” is a patchwork of money, motivation, discrimination and both heroic and indifferent teachers.  As I think about the students around me, and about Lucy’s students, I wonder what I should be doing to be part of the tribe that helps them succeed.  [Read more…]

You Want to Read This Book: Raising White Kids

On a recent Saturday night, one of my young friends and two of his classmates met up with the local police, who found a small amount of marijuana and some pills in the car. The two white students went home with a warning, and a seventeen year old boy I’m deeply fond of spent two nights in jail until he saw the judge on Monday morning.

The disparity in the “justice” they received continues to rankle. I hear, over and over in my mind, his smart, savvy mother saying how helpless she felt through all of this.

I also find myself wondering often what the two white students were thinking as their African-American classmate disappeared with the police. They drove his car home and parked it in front of his parents’ home. They didn’t ring the bell, or explain where their friend was. Back at school, they let him take the school’s discipline without volunteering the information that they were involved, too.

Did they think there was nothing they could do?

Were they already socialized to expect different kinds of justice, based on skin color?

Did they lack the words to explain, to comfort, or to stand with their friend?

Did they think it wasn’t their problem?

Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s thoughtful book Raising White Kids offers us hopeful and helpful tools for the white kids who will be involved in situations like this. If we’re longing for a better world, we need better tools, and Dr. Harvey has them.

As parents of white children, we have all kinds of power to help them navigate a racially unjust world, and to give them the tools to address injustice and racism when they see it. “Nonracism,” Harvey reminds us, “is not the same as antiracism.” Celebrating diversity ignores the layers of systematic privilege that come to people who are white.

We know that we have to talk to kids about sexuality, and we find ways to do it with wisdom, or awkwardness, or humor, or fear and trembling, but we do it. Harvey’s book gives us similar tools to wade into discussions about race and culture. As with talking to kids about sex, we have to keep having different conversations at different ages. We have to be prepared to address the stereotypes kids bring home from the culture around us. We want to share our values as we help kids develop their own principles. The same guidelines apply in conversations about race. Ignoring the topic isn’t going to help, and Harvey offers sample conversations for kids at different ages.

Harvey wisely points out that it’s not enough to be in favor of diversity, and it’s not even enough to convey a passion for equality and justice. Our culture is so saturated with racism (and other ills) that we, as parents, pastors, teachers and neighbors need to give kids the tools to see and then address the racism they will inevitably encounter. We can give kids, she says, a sense of purpose and capacity, “a vision of the kind of world they want to live in and a sense that their behavior and actions can help create that world.”

Because whiteness is the default in our society, we may think we don’t need to teach kids about being white. Race-conscious parenting, Harvey says, involves layers of teaching about what white skin can mean in our culture, along with not elevating or shaming anyone. It also involves teaching kids not to see anyone as the fulfillment of a stereotype, neither as a victim or just a recipient of discrimination. “Healthy white children,” Harvey says, “have been nurtured over time to be comfortable in their own skin…but also function well and appropriately in racially diverse environments. They are children who neither ignore…the racial identities of others but who also do not make assumptions about people based on their race. They are children who feel equipped and have strong moral commitments to interrupt and challenge racism when they witness it…” And if we can teach it to kids, perhaps we can learn it ourselves, too!

This kind of emotional and social health grows from conversations we keep having with kids, and Harvey notes that when we stay engaged in this process, “we teach our children to do the same. We’re not trying to hand them all the answers about racism…we’re modeling for them what persistence through difficult ideas and challenging encounters looks like.”

You can read the book’s Introduction here.

Harvey is both realistic and hopeful, and the insights she offers can be taken in bite-sized pieces, or in an all-you-can-eat buffet. I appreciate the concreteness of her examples, and her sense that this is a lifelong process in our parenting. Her book is a valuable resource for parents, educators, neighbors and churches. Get it! Give it to people!

The publisher gave me a free review copy, plus a copy to give away. If you’d like to have a copy, leave me a message below, and I’ll choose someone at random.


Visiting my daughter, The Teenager, recently, I notice she has a new travel mug, which seems to be…not so new. It has deep cracks in the plastic, fanning out from the lid. “Oh, I bought it at the thrift store,” she tells me. Looking at it, I feel divided between pain and pride.

The Teenager lives with her aunt and cousin these days, looking for a fresh start after depression stole two years of high school, and rearranged her life.

As her friends were applying to colleges, and celebrating their acceptance letters, she felt like there was nothing left for her in our little town. Every success reminded her how far she was behind the typical schedule. It’s hard to understand, at seventeen, that life has lots of paths.  Few happy people have hit every scheduled milestone.

Now, in a new city, she manages her own life, with wise advice from her aunt. She rides the bus to class and work, manages the small amount of money we put in her bank account and organizes her own days. She’s shed my daily, anxious reminders to take her medication.

The travel mug shows me how she’s figuring out how to make her life work.  It’s also an image of her story – cracked by depression, and still functional. Her years of high school are lost, but she has a new sensitivity to how fortunate her life has been.

The cracked reminds her that she’s resourceful, clever at managing her own life, a feeling I want her to always have. You can live on that feeling for a long time.

Keeping silent about the mug, I think about how cracked my own life is, too.

Like everyone, I have places of disappointment and loss. Failures pile up along with the wrinkles. Time goes by too fast. I sometimes think that if I were a better mother, my daughter wouldn’t be struggling. I feel sad about the things that I have lost, too – the chance to take prom pictures, be at the senior banquet and graduation. I miss the sweet feeling of success as a parent. I miss the parents I’ve known since kindergarten, but when I see them, I don’t know what to say to them.

My cracks reveal other truths.

Now, I finally glimpse the pain of parents who have kids with special needs, where there is never any typical path. I know what it’s like to lie awake worrying about a child, a sorrow I avoided for a long time. I see that the success grown out of bleak places is even more precious than anything expected.

The secondhand mug is a lesson in honoring the cracks. There is only our one “wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says, and the wild and precious joys we wring out of the broken places.

Hurdle the Dead

“I think the kids will enjoy this,” says the delightful mom who’s picking out the cross country team sweatshirts. “What do you think?”

She’s right – the kids are going to love it. They’ll think it’s hilarious, and I know I would, too, if I were them.  The design is funny, but I gasp when I see it.hurdle the dead

Vanquish the weak. Hurdle the dead. Arrive triumphant.

The first glimpse carries me back to the school next door to my church.

It sits across the parking lot, and when I first start work, I walk over to say hello. Our security guard watches me intently as I make my way to the door and they buzz me in. The principal and I talk, and then he offers me a tour. The classrooms, the charts on the wall and the computer lab all look like every other school. The emphasis on college – everywhere – is different. College banners and posters hang in all the halls, and in the cafeteria. The only days off from school uniforms are the days when kids can wear college shirts. Where I live, in my leafy suburb, college is in the air, like oxygen. Kids breathe it in from birth. Here, it’s up to the school. Along with information, they’re teaching a vision of the future.

As we walk through the halls, past rows of pristine school lockers, I see one covered with layer after layer of paper. Lined notebook paper, with messages in black pen. Colored paper, with drawings. The papers cover every inch of the locker’s surface, and overlap onto the other lockers on each side. I stop and ask the principal about it.

“That’s the girl who was killed,” he says, as if I’ll know. I look at him quizzically, and then the story comes back to me. It was just more Detroit bad news, remote until now. Kade’jah Davis, killed when someone came to her home and fired shots through the door.  The police believe that her mother had a disagreement with someone about a cell phone, and they came back to have the last word with a gun.  http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2014/01/08/detroit-man-gets-26-52-years-in-girls-slaying-over-cell-phone/

“I let the students post messages to her on her locker,” the principal tells me. Once they were up, it was impossible to take them down, a daily reminder of violence and fragility. I wonder what it’s like for the students to be so aware of the limitations of adults to protect them. The banners in the hallways, the urging of the teachers, and the emphasis of the academics all say “college,” all day long. The locker is a silent witness to another reality.

A few days later I return to the school for their memorial service for Kade’jah.

The CEO introduces me to her mother, Ms. Talton, who seems stunned by grief, remote and spacey, as if she’s visiting from someplace else. Planet Grief? I know that place. Her blouse is dramatically low cut, revealing a tattoo in honor of her daughter that covers her chest. From the neckline down to her bra, and from collarbone to collarbone, the tattoo artist has drawn her daughter’s name in gothic script. Under the elegant, ruffled blouse, her body is another witness to grief, a living tombstone.

At the memorial service, the school secretary sings in a voice so high and clear that the school cafeteria is instantly transformed into a sacred space. The students do a hip-hop dance and sing along with a CD on a boom box.

When the service is over, the teachers and students go outside to plant a tree in Kade’jah’s honor, and I talk to her mother for a moment. Her other children come up, asking her a question, and I get a glimpse of their life with a mother so distracted by grief.

For the family, this is personal tragedy that loops on and on. For the kids in the school, it’s a daily reminder that their teachers’ message competes against another kind of future. They already know that people will shoot you over a phone – what will make the other vision just as strong?

I look around and see that many of them are wearing t-shirts with Kade’jah’s picture. All of them are slightly different, made at different times. Some have the date of her death, and R.I.P.. Some have a school picture, and others have snapshots of her smiling, sitting at a table, or with friends. Some show her in her school uniform and others in casual clothes. I realize that I’m seeing one of the rituals of grief in the city. Now that I know how to look, I see the shirts advertised everywhere – R.I.P. shirts, or Rest in Peace Shirts. Or, sometimes, more formally, “custom memorial shirts.” Free design help. Twenty-hour hour turnaround.

No one here is hurdling the dead. They carry her with them, wherever they go

Dear JP Morgan Chase,

JP-Morgan-Chase-1[1]Dear JP Morgan Chase –

Big news this week, that you’re coming to Detroit to invest a hundred million dollars.

Any money looks good right now, so people are excited.

I know, I know, some people think it’s a PR stunt, after the mortgage mess.

Other people see you laying the groundwork to make big profits, when the city privatizes services, just like with Chicago and the parking meters. 

Here’s my worry.

I heard one of your executives explain that you’ll be sending people here for a month at a time to work on Detroit’s issues.

All good ideas are appreciated, but I wonder how much they can know about Detroit in a month.  Maybe if they spend all day walking around the city, talking to people, they can get an idea.  Or will it all be meetings and computer models?

They’ll never know Detroit until they meet people like Aralia, a single mother of two perfectly behaved kids who can sit quietly for hours, if they need to.  Their mom has been looking for work for months, and finally found a job in a fast-food restaurant.  Two buses get her there so she can earn a little over minimum wage.  The training is all on the computer, as the employees practice making the sandwiches and layering the ingredients quickly.  When they have it all memorized, they can start work.  I’m not so sure I could manage it.

Once  she visited my office to make a business phone call, and I asked her kids as quietly as I could if there was food at their house.

“Canned food,” her daughter told me.  I gave her and her brother each an apple from my lunch bag, and they ate them down to the tiniest possible core, something I’d never seen a kid do before.  The kids I know assume there will always be another apple.

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Aralia?

Or people like Geoff, who paid his rent faithfully every month, and spent his weekends fixing up his home because he wanted a better place to live.  Turns out his “landlord” didn’t really own the house, and Geoff got evicted by the actual owners, who were really happy with his hard work, so happy they moved right in.  Who would ever think to check that the landlord was really the owner?

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Geoff?

Or, Daniel, a young man in the neighborhood of my church, who wants to go to college, and has to pay for it himself.  He’s so desperate for a job that pays well that he recently had his dad drive him to Ohio for a job interview.  What he’s going to do if he gets the job, I’m not sure.  Then he’ll need a car, which will cost more money.

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Daniel?

Instead of bringing people here for a month, why not employ Detroiters for a month?  They can teach you about the Detroit you’re here to help.

I’ve lived in this area for ten years, and worked in Detroit for five, and I’m just starting to understand the city.  The deep city-suburb divide.  The ancient history that feels like yesterday, with people holding grudges for generations past.  The pride in a city that hustles harder.

You can’t know Detroit until you know the mixture of hope, passion and resignation in countless professors, attorneys, and educators who live in the city and pay what they call “the black tax” to stay here.  Higher auto insurance rates, alarm systems, and private security to patrol the neighborhoods because the police force is stretched too thin to do it.

You can’t know Detroit until you meet both the motivated high school students, heading from the elite high schools to college, and the equally bright kids who have given up, sure that nothing is ever going to be better.

You can’t know Detroit until you talk to the single mother working double shifts as a nursing assistant to keep her kids in dance, music and judo.

So, welcome to town.

But be sure you’re coming to help, not to make more billions off our pain.

Dante the Dog Whisperer

Image via Shutterstock.

Image via Shutterstock.

On the way to work, a dog runs in front of my car on a busy street.  This is not unusual in Detroit.

I can see it running frantically from side to side of the road, trying to get away from the cars.  People slow down, and go carefully around, but it will surely get hit in a minute.  Putting on my flashers, I open the car door and call to the dog, wondering what in the world to do if it comes.  Put her in the car and then what?  A collarless dog, roaming around my office all day?  An unwanted gift for my allergic husband?”

The dog runs around the corner, and I make a u-turn and follow.  A young gentleman in a battered jeep, music thumping, does the same.  Rooting around in my trunk, I find a box of dog biscuits left from a long-ago dog walking job.  Embarrassing, but handy.  I take a handful and offer him the box.  He tosses them toward the dog, slowly, one at a time.  We try to coax the dog toward us.

“I was afraid she was going to get hit,” I tell him.

“Yeah,” he offers, “I saw one car hit her already.”

By now, he has the dog in front of him.  She rolls over hopefully.  As we rub her belly, we can see scrapes and bloody spots.  After we play with her for a while, I ask, “Do you have a collar?”

“No, I’ll just pick her up.”  He does just that, and I walk in front of him to open the door of his car, still running, music still playing.

“Can I take some more of those dog biscuits?” he asks.  “Of course” I tell him, and then say,  “I’m Mary,” extending my hand.  He smiles at me. “Dante,” he says, as he shakes my hand.  We grin at each other, and get back in our cars.

Now as I drive that way, I think about the things I wish I’d asked.  He had nice clothes on – was he going to work, his day now burdened with a bloody dog?  What did he end up doing with her?  What did the elegant calligraphy tattoo on his neck say?  And where did he learn to be so kind?

One of the things I love about Detroit is that anything can happen.  Any stranger can make your day – or ruin it.  Life is so fractured that things happen in the gaps.  The cracks of everyday life have endless possibilities for connection.  On the way to work now, I watch for Dante, curious to hear the end of the story.


Pauline Saves

Pauline comes down the stairs from her bedroom each morning, wraps her robe around her thin frame, and starts making coffee. At the tippy kitchen table, she reads a worn Bible until it’s ready. Always, the plastic counters gleam in her kitchen. Fortified by the coffee and the Bible, she goes down another flight of steps to the basement, where her son lives.

The basement is Damian’s kingdom, with a huge flat screen tv, always on. The dark wood paneling and big, squashy sofa and chairs seem like a different world from the light, spotless kitchen upstairs. More removed from the world, more manly. Damian is in his twenties, and he seems both younger and older. Younger because he lives at home, where his mother cooks his meals, and watches over his day. Compared to other men his age, with jobs and kids, his life is easy. But the awareness of his illness makes him seem older.

After a lifetime of coddling, Damian is dying now, but Pauline won’t talk about it. Not to me, her hospice chaplain, not to her family, not to our nurse. He has lived a long time with an inherited disease, and she is sure he can keep going. Her life is about caring for him, and Pauline insists that he’ll be fine.

Grief guru Alan Wolfeldt says he doesn’t like the term “denial.” He likes to think of it as “resting.” We’re resting from what’s too hard, too awful, too painful to think about. That feels right. Pauline is resting from the knowledge that she’s about to lose her third son.

Her oldest son carried the family stresses until they became too much for him, and he turned to drugs. He died of an overdose a few years ago. Her second son was killed in a shooting. She doesn’t say much more about it, and I don’t ask, but I know that a mother’s grief is no less or more even when a child makes poor choices.

Her third son seemed safe from all of that, with the illness that kept him at home.

Now she is resting fiercely from the knowledge that Damian is dying.

She sorts it out in her own way. “We don’t need to know why,” she says. “We don’t ask God why things happen. We just trust.”

Her daughter Francie, a mother herself, pulls up in her van between trips to drive her kids home from school and on to football practice. Francie knows how tired her mother is, and she begs her to take a break, but she seems to know it’s impossible. Her mother won’t let go of Damian.

I wonder if Pauline keeps moving to keep her grief away. If she sits down, it all comes back.

I understand because I do the same thing. I can’t seem to sit still, except when I’m at work, hearing someone’s story. I can’t read anymore – it doesn’t hold my attention. No one else’s drama on the page can compare to the drama in my head. I think I must be hard to be around, but no one is brave enough to complain.

My work as a chaplain for this hospice started ten days after my brother took his life.

I wouldn’t recommend this, except that it saved me.

It was already planned, and I was too tired with grief to call and quit. Oddly, going to work with dying people seemed easier than calling a normal person to tell my story.

I had been to orientation, given an employee badge, and shown to my new desk, covered with a big pile of folders, full of people who needed visits. Then I left for an already planned vacation. It didn’t turn out quite the way I’d planned.

I came home from the funeral, and went to work.

Out in the suburbs, I would have gotten lost in my own story. Self-pity would have taken me over. Driving around Detroit, it was hard to feel sorry myself when so many stories were just like mine, or worse.

The mothers of Detroit become my teachers. The woman whose son went out with friends one night, and was beaten up, left with a head injury so severe he can’t work. The mother and sisters who visit the woman in a nursing home bed, unresponsive for six years, after an attack one night. The mothers of men paralyzed in shootings. They feel fortunate, compared to the sorority of women who’ve been to funerals and trials and only have framed pictures of their brothers and sons.

“We don’t need to know why,” they all tell me, in one way or another.

“But I want to know why,” I wail silently in response, but never say out loud. I want to know why. All I want is to know why.

Slowly, the truth of what they’re saying sinks in. Why doesn’t help. There’s no solace there. The truth is still the truth. Grief is still grief.

I never tell them my story, but I wonder if they see it in my eyes. Slowly, my teachers save me, and, in the silence, I hope they hear the power in their stories, too.

If You Give a Moose a Muffin…

Book by the amazing Laura Numeroff

Book by the amazing Laura Numeroff

On Mondays, I read children’s books.

My partner co-conspirator is an impossibly tiny first grader, with perfect braids and miniature sparkly Toms shoes.  In the winter she walks toward me in turquoise Ugg boots.

Our matchmaker is the Reading Corps for the Detroit Public Schools.  [http://detroitk12.org/readingcorps/]

When I pick her up in her classroom, she brings work assigned by the teacher to get her reading at grade level by June.  In her small hand is an easy reader book, or a word finder, or sentences to practice.  We walk upstairs to the bare room assigned to the Reading Corps, talking about her weekend.

One of the deep pleasures of motherhood, for me, was reading to my daughter.  When the stresses of the day had worn us out, we would read piles of books.  At bedtime, I was always a sucker for “one more.”  When we needed something to do, we went to the library.  As she got older and could read to herself, I read to any other kid I could get to sit still.

There’s lots of research about the impact of reading to children – about language acquisition, the number of words they hear before they talk, about learning how language is put together, and I believed it all, but mostly we read for fun.

As far as I can tell, no one has ever read to Taylor.  She says there aren’t any books at her house.

Her parents are busy with younger siblings, and maybe they’re not readers themselves.

The first week, when we finished our assigned work, I got a picture book out of my tote bag, and asked if I could read to her.  The cover picture of an African-American girl made her whole face light up.  The next book, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, made her grin at first, and then laugh, a sound I’ve come to cherish.  Now I pick books that I know will make her laugh, just for the joy of hearing that sound from a serious girl with a serious life.

We hurry through our assigned work so we can get to the tote bag of books.

The learn-to-read books for first grade are written by experts, well-chosen to teach certain sounds and words, but picture books have a magic they lack.  Richer, more complicated words.  The flow of a story.  The charm of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.  Illustrations that reveal something new every trip through the book.

It’s all new to Taylor, and with her, I see the power of books for a young child.  Always surrounded by books and readers, I never saw it so clearly before.

We walk back down the hall to her classroom, her sparkly shoes twinkling, and I wish I could come every day.


People like me don’t meet people like Raymond.

In my leafy suburb, we like to keep our Raymonds on the other side of Eight Mile, or safely behind the tv screen.  We see them on our neat crime dramas as the drug dealer, the young man in trouble with the law, and the misunderstood young man.  Young African-American men, with no job, no education, hanging out on the streets, being raised by a grandmother.  We see the outlines of their lives so often that we think we know them.

Raymond was twenty when I met him, as his hospice chaplain.

He lived in a nursing home, surrounded by older people, needing more care than anyone could give him at home.  Anger was his usual state.  Before I went to his room the first time, I asked the nursing home social worker about him.  “Oh,” she said, looking me over.  “Oh,” she said again with some dismay.  She started to say something, and then stopped.  She shared with me that none of the staff liked to go into his room.  He yelled and called them bitches and ho’s, screaming obscenities until they went away in frustration.

“Great,” I thought, and got ready for the anger.

Instead, there was silence.  His room was dark, curtains pulled tight and lights off.  In the dim light, I went over to the bed and told him who I was, and that I’d come to see how he was doing.  Silence.  “Is there anything you need?” I finally stammered out, unnerved.  Silence.  The same with the next visit, and the next.

I’ve stopped visiting people before, when they ask me to, or when I know I’m not doing them any good.  I could have quit seeing Raymond anytime.  He wouldn’t have cared.  But something in him kicked up a stubborn streak in me.  Raymond was dying, on our hospice program until the end.  Surely, as the chaplain, I owed him more than more anger, at the end of his life.

So I kept visiting his room, usually first thing in that nursing home, so I could soothe my uncertainty with more pleasant visits afterward.   Each time I asked if he wanted anything.  Finally he asked for a magazine, and I started to see how bored he must be.  Because he yelled and cursed so much, no one would take him out of his room.  Twenty four hours a day, in the same bed, looking at the same wall.

Raymond began to tell his story, little by little.

“I was where I shouldn’t have been,” he said, recalling the shooting that left him partly paralyzed.  His overwhelmed parents, who split up years before, didn’t know what to do with a seventeen year old with a disability.  Without much education, they didn’t know how to help him with the medical system, so they let him make his own choices about rehab and treatment.  When he got discouraged, he stopped going.  Staying in bed all the time, he lost more and more mobility.

In the early days after the shooting, he could use a wheelchair and play wheelchair basketball.  He could get out and see friends, and I wondered how he seemed to them, his life so changed.  Is that why he quit trying?  His ability ebbed away when he stopped working at it.  Then bedsores came, and then infections, and then the day when his family couldn’t take care of him anymore.  That led to the nursing home, and life surrounded by older people.  And the raging anger that this was going to be his life forever.

But not forever.  The infections were slowly taking over.  Like his older neighbors, Raymond was coming to the end of his life.

His questions changed.  “When am I going to get out of here?” evolved into “what am I going to do while I’m here?”  “Why me?” moved toward “when am I going to die?”  In the quiet of his room, he started to parcel out his story.

Slowly, he started to talk about God, and what God might think of him.  He asked to be baptized, and his aunt’s church made that happen for him.  When the infections took over completely, he went to the hospital, and I saw him there, in another empty room.  This one, though, was filled with his new serenity.  One morning I drove to the hospital, and found his bed neatly made, the bedside table empty and sterilized.  Raymond had died in the night.

Calling his grandmother, I heard her tears through the phone, and I know she heard mine, too.  Raymond had touched my heart beyond any category I had for him.

In the silence, all of us are mysteries.  But in the spaces between us, connection sneaks in.  Light comes into the cracks in our walls, and we illuminate the way for each other.

Hope in the Grass

Courtesy of PhotoBucket.

Everyone in Detroit seems to be mowing someone else’s lawn.

I spent a half day this summer at Sears (long story, bad computer system, great customer service) and so I had plenty of time to talk to everyone else who came into the waiting room. On the hottest day in July, all of them were there for lawnmowers.

A tiny, wiry woman in overalls told me she needed her lawnmower to mow lawns for all of her elderly neighbors. “I need a sturdy one,” she confided. “Some weeks I mow thirty lawns.” Her repaired mower arrived, and she gave her seat to an elegant looking gentleman. He mopped his forehead with a cloth handkerchief, and told me about the mowing the lawn behind his own, plus the yard of the neighbor who abandoned his house and moved away. “I can’t blame her,” he said, “but I don’t want to block to look bad, either.” He also does the yards of two elderly neighbors. His brand new mower arrived, and the waiting room was quiet until two men arrived. As they talked to each other, I overheard that they mow the city park on their block, now that the city of Detroit has run out of resources. A neighborhood group mows other parks. A co-worker mows the lawn next to his house, keeping up appearances so no one will know the house is abandoned.

One lawn at a time, people are struggling to take care of the city.

Detroit is full of people keeping chaos at bay, one lawn at a time. Every news story about Detroit is about the vacant lots and empty houses, about crime and vandalism. Gunshots get the air time, but the unseen Detroit is the sound of lawnmowers, and determination.