Arms to hold us when we falter

A cool, breezy morning.  The fog burned off, now it’s coming back. An indecisive day.

Photo credit: Cistus Nursery

On my west fence, some of the grape leaves have turned crimson. It’s a fine leaf, a grape leaf: beautifully symmetrical and strongly-veined, a lovely bright new green in the spring (good for stuffing with meat or rice), sturdy green in the summer, and brilliant crimson in the fall.  There’s nothing wimpy about the leaf, unlike the small and almost inedible grapes the California wild grape vine produces.  The birds like them–which is important, don’t get me wrong–but for people they’re a big disappointment, sour and all seed.  I’ve no doubt my stern and frugal grandmother would’ve figured out some use for them, but I am made of frailer stuff.

My neighborhood market was crowded this morning, people stocking up on snacks and goodies for the endless line of football games that will occupy Sundays for the next few months.  It’s a pricey little market, reflecting the dramatically changed demographics of the neighborhood.  When we moved here more than 30 years ago, it was mainly families, most of them poor with lots of kids.  The houses were small, some of the roads unpaved with sleepy dogs lying in the middle of them, and we woke to roosters crowing from people’s chicken coops. There was a lot of drinking and drugs and the usual accompaniment of domestic abuse, and many people had guns, but it was nonetheless a close-knit neighborhood.  People looked out for each and for each others’ kids and when a kid turned up on your doorstep late at night, you gave him a blanket and put him to bed on the couch until his mom or dad could sleep off the alcoholic rage they were in.  If a kid was getting into trouble, his parents were called instead of the cops.

I don’t want to romanticize it. Some of those kids didn’t make it.  One of my younger son’s friends died of a drug overdose, another committed suicide.  One of the older kids who used to hang out at our house and loved looking at things through my husband’s microscope has been in and out of prison his whole adult life, and his older brother is a raging alcoholic. But his younger brother still lives in the neighborhood, took care of his father until he died, now looks after his mother, who has alcoholic dementia. He works, fishes, keeps chickens, shares his bounty with the neighbors, and is one of the sweetest guys you could find anywhere.

But we don’t know a lot of our neighbors anymore.  The place has gentrified.  Little houses have been replaced by big ones, vacant lots have been filled with huge monsters of houses that push their boundaries. They have two-car garages and decks and skylights and microscopic yards, and you rarely see their occupants because they open their garage doors with a remote and disappear inside without ever putting their feet on common ground.  It really is a tale of two cities, and despite all the problems of the old one, it was a lot more humane.

Jane Jacobs, a writer and political activist who died a few years ago, wrote that air conditioning and TV had ruined community life in New York City, because everyone got up off their stoops where they used to talk to their neighbors and keep track of the kids and went inside.  I think a lot of people everywhere in this country would like to have it back.


Somewhere, there are people
to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats

Somewhere a circle of hands
will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us
whenever we come into our own power

Community means strength that joins our strength
to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing.
A circle of friends.

Someplace where we can be free.

(Starhawk – Dreaming the Dark)

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