In the June burst of green and sunshine, I am taking a bike ride through the historically black neighborhood where I live in Chicago.
Along the way, I encounter a heron and a flock of geese; I see wrappers and plastic bags littering the sidewalks, discarded in the gutters. I smell freshly-cut grass and wave at the park employee who is mowing. I see a dog alone in the grass defecating and then wave at another man who stands a distance away observing its behavior. I see peonies and irises in full bloom and smell the aroma of lilacs.
I ride over broken sidewalks and along side newly-boarded up businesses — a reminder of the recent Black Lives Matter protests throughout the city, nation, world. Practically every person I encounter is wearing a face mask; the common covering over their noses and mouths offering a clear reminder that we are still in a horrific pandemic, that we all are vulnerable — that we all will die one day.
As I observe the scenery, I am listening through my headphones to a discussion about how to be anti-racist, about American history, about the time of reckoning and transformation that we all are in. I am reminded that in the big picture, in the wider landscape of human history, the United States of America is truly a young nation. The USA is an adolescent who is coming of age and establishing its identity.
I’ve taught teenagers, and I truly love the energy and angst and discovery that happens at this stage of human development. It’s exciting to observe how a teen resists conformity yet conforms. How they rebel and reestablish who they are, how they are in the world. A lot of the teens I know are curious and visionary. They are passionate and eager. They have great ideas and energy and are willing to name the tough truths, to develop and grow, no matter how hard of a struggle it may be.
I was recently reminded that many of the leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement are teens. Teens are the community organizers and leaders. They are the ones standing at the front of the crowds with the megaphones and utilizing every nearby tool to invite others to act, learn, struggle and change.
Although our nation may be a teen in the history of the world, the people who are teenagers reveal how the time is full of exciting potential. And, believe it or not, teens have also taught me how to listen and pay attention.
On the bike ride, I stop to take a break next to a high school. I get off the bike and stroll down the sidewalk. I end up in a barber shop and a hair salon (newly reopened) and ask about prices. Returning to my bike, I wonder if it is truly safe to get a hair cut again, if the coronavirus pandemic is really in decline.
I notice a police vehicle parked on the corner and figure that the police officer sitting inside may have a better idea than me about the latest COVID-19 statistics. I walk toward the officer and ask him what he knows. I see that he is white and probably younger than me. He says that he doesn’t really know if coronavirus is in decline, but he thinks it might be.
I listen to him share what he does know. He does know that he is desperate for a day off, that he hasn’t had one since early March. (I see the exhaustion in his eyes.) He knows he needed the assistance of thousands of officers to arrest anyone during the looting the week prior, that police intelligence will eventually reveal what really happened on “the great Sunday” as he called it. He knows he was cursed at, had bricks thrown at him; he shows me his swollen elbow and bandages from working that day. He tells me that he cried when he saw the destruction in the neighborhood, that he loves this place. He tells me again and again that he just wants one day off.
I ride the bike back through the neighborhood, my mind swirling with questions and awareness, my heart full of sorrow and hope jumbled up together. I think of the lyrics in the new song from the Indigo Girls called “Sorrow and Joy.”
Sorrow and joy are not oil and water They’re hater and lover, they inform each other Attract and repel make us sick make us well But in the end we must hold them together
I return home and listen to the funeral of George Floyd on the radio. As I listen and pray and cry, I make a Black Lives Matter sign for my bedroom window.
A candle is lit in the room. As the candle burns it gives of itself and emits a heat and light. The candle is transforming and becoming something new. It is doing the dance of both-and; just as sorrow and joy inform each other, just as our nation could do.