There’s no place like ‘the hood’

I’ve been instructed on more than one occasion not to take to the streets of my neighborhood alone, especially at night. This reminder has been bellowed at me by friends, neighbors and police officers. Aside from violence, poverty, prostitution and drugs, we apparently have a rather high robbery rate (different from burglary…but we have that too). I often tell myself to stop going out for runs at night, while lacing up my sneakers, sticking in my earbuds and making my way towards the front door.

I go through the same internal dialogue every time.

Conscience: ‘You’re doing it again.’

Me: ‘I know. This is the last time though. I promise. Don’t worry about it.’

Conscience: ‘You realize, this is how every 11’ O’Clock Evening News story starts, right?’

Me: ‘Yeah, yeah. But I’ll be running. And I’m fast. Like Flash. So, they’d have to catch me. Besides, everyone knows the only people who run in the hood are people being chased by cops. It’s all good.’

Conscience: (Shaking her head in disapproval)You’re a stupid, stubborn girl. And I have zero sympathy for what may happen.

Me: ‘Stupid…stubborn…zero sympathy. Got it! Chat when I get back. Gotta go.’

And then I’m off, out the door…Not before I set the house alarm though, of course.

I just can’t help it. As much as I’m told and as often as I tell myself, there’s just something that happens to me when the sun reaches down, pulling the Earth over top of her like a blanket–giving way to darkness. Like a moth, my feet are drawn to the street-lit pavement and beat up sidewalks.

Here’s the thing. I know that my neighborhood is ‘bad’. I don’t need to be told. I know it because of the parade of cop cars that come in and out as if some sort of invisible revolving door exists, giving them direct access, at all times. I know it because of the gun shots, cat-calls, and verbal threats I’ve heard on my street alone. Or because of the stories of this person or that person having been jumped, held up; or because of the amount of times my car has been keyed (AND hit and run), a friend’s has been broken into, or tires of neighbors’ have been slashed.

And if all that wasn’t enough (as if one needed more ‘evidence’), perhaps then it’s because my next door neighbor was shot a few weeks ago. Thankfully he survived but apparently some ‘unidentified’ person thought it profitable to ‘bust a cap in his knee’ as a warning, of sorts…

There’s something that has always fascinated me though. The evening hours, especially when the weather is warm, transforms my neighborhood. As I run along streets, dodging trash, broken up concrete that go by name of ‘sidewalk’, and glancing every so often over my shoulder to keep my wits about me, with my music loud enough to be heard but soft enough to notice an approaching intruder–the ‘darkness’ of my neighborhood ‘lights up’ at night. Exposing things that go unnoticed during the day.

Weary, tattered men and women can be seen setting up ‘homes’ against buildings and underpasses.

A young couple can be found shamelessly ‘duking’ it out under a bridge where their screams and threats echo back violence.

Multi-colored lights on storefront windows open their eyes for the first time, revealing a sort of Red Light District–where advertisements serenade passerby’s with choruses of hypnotizing lullabies made up of liquor warehouses, topless dancers, and Adult entertainment.

Sirens, in close proximity, scream out forewarning cries at lonely-evening wanderers. Their message: “Be warned all you who enter here.”

A wasteland of abandoned houses transformed into modern-day sanctuaries, holding the shrines of sex, drugs, and violence for nightly pilgrimages.

A woman in cut off shorts, with naked legs held up high by black stilettos can be spotted leaning against the brick siding of local ‘club’, while breathing in deep a cigaret that loosely hangs from her mouth as not to disturb the red lipstick that fills it in. Waiting there as a ‘secret’ invitation to knowledgeable men…

A man, in dingy jeans and disheveled hair is found under the overhang of a building nervously pacing. Incomprehensible mumbles flow from his mouth to the Voices who ceaselessly intrude his thoughts. Uninvited, they are now his only friends. His vacant eyes look through me as I pass by, as if the reality of my presence is nonexistent. His only reality are the Voices.

I’ve had moments in my late-night runs where these pictures overwhelmed me to the point of slowing down my pace and not for the need to catch my breath. Instead, for the need to fully absorb the condition around me. It’s in these moments that I am reminded of the condition in which I live, in which we all live: Brokenness.

I think we often spend our lives trying to ignore the existence of brokenness, in either our own lives or the lives of others, mostly because we don’t know how to deal with it. It makes us feel uncomfortable, awkward, out of control. We don’t know what to say to someone who’s been broken by life’s circumstance. We don’t know how to act in the midst of our own brokenness due to life’s circumstance.
So, we pretend it isn’t there by never addressing it, in our selves or others. We cover up our own brokenness with temporary life-Novocain’s like busyness, alcohol, television, surfacey relationships, good works, religiosity, contrived ‘hallelujahs’. And we cover up the brokenness of the hurting people around us by labeling their brokenness as ‘sin’ or ‘weakness’, downplaying its severity but mostly by ignoring its existence and pain.

Someone once said to me, “We’re all broken. We often just don’t get close enough to one another to see it.” I agree. And yet, sadly, there are those who can’t seem to identify their own brokenness, nor possess the ability to engage in the brokenness of others. I would proclaim that these are the first signs of their own fragmentation.

Brokenness hits some of us earlier in life than others. I don’t know why this is the case. God is the grand-weaver of all things, only he knows. Take me for an example, and those who share a similar story. I was born into brokenness (I’m not referring to our sinful nature, although that is the first contact every human has with brokenness and should not be overlooked). I was born into a family that was already broken apart by separation and divorce when I came into being. I entered life, fresh out of a ‘broken gate’. Then there were other manifestations of brokenness to follow in my family growing up. And just when things in my adult life seemed to be being ‘made new’, a new wave of brokenness swept over me that has left its scar.

In the past several years my eyes have been reawakened to the brokenness of life. I’m reminded of it because of its existence in my own life and in the lives of those most dear to me. It has come in many forms: death, disease, violence, divorce, betrayal, abandonment, poverty, mental illness, etc.

It’s been said that you’re in one of three stages in life at all times: just coming out of suffering, just about to enter suffering, or within the throes of suffering.

Those of you, whom God has spared, up to this point with minimal suffering and circumstantial brokenness–whose families are intact, sober and filled with safety and love–thank Him, and thank Him regularly. But also, hold on to those blessings with a loose grip. Remember the words of Job, “He gives and takes away…The words of King Solomon, “He who makes the straight paths makes the crooked paths.” And the words of Jesus himself, “In this life you will have many troubles.” Brokenness is a promise in life.

I don’t say any of this to promote disillusionment or to propagate pessimism and cynicism. I say it to keep us sober, and fearless. To give us a healthy and realistic worldview. And to challenge us to stop running from it. Its existence is inevitable my friend. Embrace it. Engage with it. Not just within yourself but within others.

Living here, in my neighborhood, forces me on a daily basis to come in contact with life’s brokenness. There isn’t a day that goes by here that you can’t help but notice it, in its many forms: poverty, violence, homelessness, racism, abuse, prostitution, etc. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion why I live here, why I don’t just move already?! Honestly, there’s something about being face to face with brokenness that makes me feel safe. I know that sounds counterintuitive. Crazy even.

But here’s the thing; the reality of my environment keeps me desperately clinging to my Rescuer, Jesus. It reminds me of what I have been and am currently being saved from. It reminds me of the beasts and brokenness that live within me, and that left to my own self-rule what utter destruction awaits me.

When I look into the eyes of Latoya, a homeless woman, or the couple at ‘war’ under the bridge, the man who argues violently with the voices in his head, or the beautiful prostitute who uses her body as a source of income, instead of a source of beauty to be revered, the only thing the separates me from them is grace. And it’s not that I have a grace that is not available to them, because it is. They just have yet to hear of it. And it’s not that I am no longer broken and they are. I am broken, very much so, but not alone and most of all, not without hope.

Keeping ourselves in the pathways of brokenness reminds us of our true condition and our absolute need of rescue. It keeps us clinging to the God-man Jesus. It keeps us desperately praying like the Psalmist,

“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed” (Psalm 57:1).

We must remember, the protective covering of his shadow doesn’t keep us from life’s storms and brokenness; instead, it gives us a safe shelter in the midst of it.

There are times where I have literally stopped my late-night run in mid-stride, closed my eyes, and breathed in deep the brokenness of my environment. I do it as reminder to myself that brokenness is reality, and the appearance of things any other way is an illusion. And to ignore my own brokenness or the brokenness of others is to lie. And there’s nothing to be feared because there is a hope that exists far beyond our circumstantial shatterings. It is the promise that one day, perhaps not in this life, but one day He will make all things new.

I’m a wanna-be

I don’t consider myself to be a super-artsy person. Although, to be quite honest, I think I’ve always wanted to be. The reality is though, I dress much too plainly to pretend otherwise and rarely if ever don hats (unless it’s a wool one in the winter and I don’t think that counts).

I remember in grade school, my next door neighbor and I would often put on ‘two-women shows’ in which we would transform her basement into a theatrical-otherworld, taking on settings such as the Land of Oz, where I would, of course, play the leading role, while she franticly ran around playing every other character in the story.

I have distinct memories of myself in middle school waking up early on summer mornings, racing my way into the living room to put in the VHS of The Little Mermaid. And there I would spend the next two hours intently surveying Ariel in order to learn and master all of her vocal intonations. Then for the next five hours I would take on the persona of a live-action playlist, belting out every song, singing my way through my daily chore list (which was quite long I might add)–mimicking every breathy and high pitched note.

In junior high school you could often find me filling notebooks with (what I guess could questionably be called) poetry or writings that took the form of the ‘essay’ genre. For whatever reason, crafting fictitious stories were not what drew my pen to paper; instead,  oddly I found myself compelled by the ‘essay‘ genre in which I would passionately address some unknown audience in some unknown place concerning a social issue such as freedom!, liberty! or justice! (which, lets be honest, I knew very little about). And upon completion of what I deemed to be an inspiring and even world changing essay I would proudly tuck it away in my personal writer’s folder, out of sight.

In high school I took art all four years trying my hand at several mediums: painting, etching, water color, pottery, pencil, portrait. It was then that my art teacher informed me of a little trick in creating portraits. He told me that drawing portraits with slightly larger pupils than normal would actually make the face appear more attractive. Let’s just say that every self-portrait of mine from there on out had unnaturally large pupils.

In college I could often be found on many Sundays wandering the halls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ruminating over the same works of Monet, Picasso, and Rembrandt as the Sunday before. I had (still do) this weird habit where I would get my face as close as I could to the painting of choice, where my nose was just millimeters away from making actual contact with the painting itself, so that I could fully see, appreciate and try to understand each brush stroke that makes its image. In hindsight that could be the reason I mostly went to the museum unaccompanied.

As a younger adult I took a cake decorating class and learned how to make art from frosting. The idea of art in the form of edible sugar was undeniably delicious and appealing to me in every single way.  However, after I found myself eating a cake a week throughout the first four-week course class, I decided it was best if I unenrolled myself from the last two four-week sessions.

During this time I also tried my hand at replicating Van Gogh’s Starry Night (which I completely adore). One evening I swiftly made my way to the art store and bought all the supplies that I would need to recreate it but this time on a stool instead of a canvas because I was too short to reach the top shelf in my closet. And seeing that what I really am is practical (which is why I could never truly be considered ‘artsy’) I figured this would be a practical art attempt. I finally finished it over the course of two nights.  It was definitely an…‘interpretation’ of Van Gogh’s.

Soon after I hid the stool out of sight and instead bought a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and had it framed and situated above my bed where I would often gaze upon it, allowing my eyes permission to get lost in tracing over its numerous swirls in the sky. I often reminded myself during this, ‘Steph, remember, he painted this from the room of his asylum after cutting off his own ear!’ I’m not sure why I felt the need to continuously remind myself of that fact, and not just allow myself to enjoy the painting for what it is.

Years later I saw the actual painting itself at The Museum of Modern Art.  And I remember feeling very overwhelmed that I was looking at the actual painting that Van Gogh himself had painted and touched hundreds of years before. It was the same feeling I had when I saw up close and personal Michelangelo’s The David. The idea that I was staring at a statue created by a man who actually believed that the image already preexisted within the marble itself before he ever carved it. Instead, he just ‘set it free.’

Fascinating.

In most recent times, the art form that I have taken up is dance. Where the human body is the moving art form across the canvass of a dance floor.

Although I myself am not really artsy, even though I make attempts at it, art as always resonated with me, spoken to me, so to speak, in all of its forms–music, literature, photography, poetry, film, dance, theater, etc. In fact, I don’t think a day in my life goes by without the participation in, but mostly the comfort or influence of art. I’m not sure where this interest originated. No one in my family has ever really had an appreciation for art that I know of. My parents never took me to art museums or the theater as a kid. Nor did they really encourage a participation in any sort of ‘art’. In fact, my parents and siblings are all in the math and science fields. I’m the only one with a Bachelor of ‘Arts’ degree. I’m the odd one.

Let’s get real. I’m an artist-wanna-be.  That’s why my junior year in high school when I tried out for the lead role in the school play, having never acted before in my life, the director, who although kept me in all three rounds of call backs before telling me that I just wasn’t quite right for the for the role, saw right through me to my ‘wanna-be’ artsy self.  At the time, why no one around me told me to aim lower, I have no idea. My go big or go home attitude sent me home that time around.

I find myself equally envious and impressed by ‘arty’ people. To have the ability to create something out of nothing that connects to the human soul as a way to express, represent, or articulate our humanity is absolutely extraordinary.  So, in the meantime I will continue on in my wanna-be artsy pursuits in hopes that perhaps one day I’ll catch up (which I know will never happen), while at the same time continuing to blame my parents for my underdeveloped artistic skills.