“Seventeen . . . eighteen . . . nineteen…” Brother Raul, one of the neighbors at QC Family Tree, is sitting at the bench in front of our hospitality house, counting planes as they depart the Charlotte airport. The planes take off to the north tonight, five miles west as the crow flies. They bank over the edges of Enderly Park, our west Charlotte neighborhood, to return other people’s neighbors to their cities and streets.
“It’s a perfect night for watching them,” he says. “Sky clear. Cool breeze. Quiet on the street.” Each syllable emerges carefully from his mouth. Each word is chosen with deliberation, and the diction is precise. Every note from his resonant baritone voice connotes a man of quiet contemplation.
“I’m going to count them to 50 tonight, and then I’m walking home.” Those steps to home, one third of a mile down the hill, will be as deliberate as his words.
For now, though, he sits at the bus stop adjoining our yard, as he does most nights. He is counting planes, but I think of it as keeping vigil. He is watching and waiting, ready for something to burst forth from the sky. And even when nothing comes careening out of the heavens, he still watches and waits. Even behind the closed door, as we begin our nighttime routines, we know that he waits and watches, and we take comfort.
“What do we do in an impossible situation? Asking this question, on porches and under teaching trees, is what neighbors are for.”
We are breathing together tonight. The oxygen that fills our lungs is, in part, a gift of the elderly post oak in the yard. When Abram first left Haran, having heard a whisper from the sky, he arrived in Canaan and built an altar under the oak of Moreh. An enormous oak, you must imagine – the kind that stops you, calls you to sit a spell, to listen for what music may fall from the heavens. A “teaching tree,” the ancient Hebrews called them.
Raul, my wife, Helms, and I often sit under another teaching tree, one that, like the ancient tradition we inhabit, preceded us and will outlast us by many, many years. On this night, huddled under the teaching tree, we are listening, seeking wisdom. Our eyes look up, beyond the planes, out to where our help comes from. But we also keep looking at one another, for there is trouble roaming the land these days, and we know our help will come from right here, in this soil, with these souls. We know the trouble did not start here in Enderly Park. What sweeps across our streets has been in the air for generations. The form keeps shifting, but the outcome stays consistent – those on the bottom of the hierarchy have calamity visited upon body and spirit and household.
The trouble – racism, greed, violence – crushes individuals. And now one we cannot figure out how to care for has shown up. “Squirrel,” Brother Raul calls him, because of the way he flit and floats, never able to focus. Squirrel has an addiction, and it is burying all the goodness in him that longs to get out. You can hear it, the goodness, calling out through his soft voice. You can imagine that he might be a gentle father, or little league coach, or an after-school mentor. But instead, he brings a spirit of confusion. His eyes belie a wrestling match going on inside him. The erratic behavior raises fear in everyone – the children, the new neighbors and the old-timers who have lived through many a tough day around here. No one knows what to expect right now. All the usual rules and boundaries do not apply. The unpredictable brings fear.
But we are not just afraid of Squirrel. We are afraid for him, too. His body and mind are being ravaged by drugs, but he refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem. In a desperate search for a fix, he is vulnerable to those who might take advantage of him. Police could take his body from him at any time, and though that could put him in the way of help, it could also put him in the way of more harm.
Which is why a little council of neighborhood elders has gathered a couple of times, on the porch under that old teaching tree. Its massive canopy may shield us from the worst of the summer sun, but it cannot protect us from the question burning in our hearts: What do we do in an impossible situation? Asking this question, on porches and under teaching trees, is what neighbors are for. Sometimes you need folks with whom to wander and wonder.
There is no way for us to fix some things. Addiction – whether to drugs or greed or violence or racism – requires coming out of the shadows of deception and into the light. One of our elders on the porch explains this to us. At 22 years clean, and still working at it, he is the expert. We have to speak the truth, he says, even when it is unwanted. Even when it feels risky. Especially when it feels risky, for that is when truth is most needed.
“For a person – or a culture – so deeply committed to falsehood, truth-tellers are not always welcome, but they are necessary.”
For a person – or a culture – so deeply committed to falsehood, truth-tellers are not always welcome, but they are necessary. It is the truth that will finally set free.
While we wait and work for the light of truth to break through, we can find little ways to keep one another safe. Our small council of elders will call on each other and listen to each other. We will be kind, but we will never join in the deception. Above all, we will keep being present, checking on one another for mutual assistance. While we do all this, we may be a little safer. But maybe not. The world can be unpredictably cruel.
Regardless, we will be doing what matters – creating a little space out on the edge of the Empire where we can thrive together. We are hopeful, though not optimistic, that in this space we might even turn enemies into friends.
# # #
The next week, I return home late on Friday, and there is Brother Raul. He is sitting at the bus stop again, keeping vigil.
“Sixty-one . . . sixty-two… sixty-three,” he says. “With this breeze, and a busy weekend for holiday travel, this is the best night in ages for watching the planes. I might count them to 100 tonight.”
I join him for this meditation, but only for a few moments. Tired, I stand up to move inside. I yawn as I do, and pass the contagious breath on to him as well. On a clear night, under an old teaching tree, we are breathing together.