In front of my local police station, this sign in Spanish is prominent: No importa de dónde eres, estamos contents que seás nuestro vecino. It doesn’t matter where you come from, we’re glad that you are our neighbor.
I run past that sign sometimes, in the precious few months of the year when the temperatures outside are compatible with my asthma. The police station is a mile or so from home — ten blocks north — and it’s in the middle of a retail area I prefer to avoid on my runs, unless it’s very early in the morning and I won’t likely interrupt the commuters with their coffee and the college students with their hangovers. The first time I saw the sign, I thought wow, isn’t this a nice surprise? All over town, people’s Black Lives Matter signs were being mangled by anonymous angry people. A sudden outgrowth of more all-encompassing signs began to prevail:
IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE
BLACK LIVES MATTER
WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL
SCIENCE IS REAL
LOVE IS LOVE
KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING
We have that sign. It covers more ground, but not as much ground as I can cover in a ten block radius around my house.
On the way to the police station, I pass a Quaker meeting house and a community rose garden. Three blocks west is a reform synagogue, a Unitarian congregation, and a Presbyterian church. Everywhere I look, there are flowers.
I stop running, often, to steal these pieces of nature into my camera, to stare into later. I think to myself, as I look straight into the soul of a rose or a tulip, about how a whole universe lives inside that tiny center: organisms experience the entirety of their existence inside the middle of a flower. Bees enter and exit, tiny insects whose names I don’t even know hover in and out, and some creatures’ eternities begin and end in the season I spend running through my neighborhood.
It looks good in there, in the center of a flower. There aren’t any sick children in there, there aren’t any anxious teenagers or language arts papers to navigate and nag about, there is no sign of my computer and the work that awaits me. It’s just a rose. It’s just here for a few weeks, really. Better check it out while I can.
I run west, sometimes, past the apoplectic barking dogs next door and away from the painted lady homes and the cafes and the boutiques, all the way to the river, where a sculpture garden awaits. It’s a long path down a busy road, but it’s far enough back from the street that I can pretend it’s just me and the statues. Sprint for one minute and I’m at a new one, staring at a geometric dome, an abstract animal, or my favorite: a luxuriating, blissful woman, face to the sun.
I stopped to sit at her feet, once, on a day near the end of my comfortable season, with the wind biting my back and scraping at my lungs. She raised her head to a sun covered by clouds. She kept her gaze up, as statues do, and almost dared me to look up, too.
To get back home from the sculpture path, I pass three public schools, two elementary and one middle. Though my runs are mainly early-morning, some are later, when school is in session, and I admit that I peer, from across the street, at the playgrounds and classroom windows. Are my children safe? I know the answer is always, everywhere, mostly, because they are white, because they are well fed and amply loved and have a home to which they’ll return, because the one who was most often not safe in her early years was not-safe because of her cardiac anatomy, not because of her school. And now, anyway, my job is now far less to do with safety and far more to do with space-holding, hand-holding, hand-wringing. The middle school yard has a chain link fence on just one side, with big openings on the others. It keeps in soccer balls but not kids, which seems right to me.
Ten blocks south is the neighborhood where I used to live, ten blocks into my past. I left good friends there, who I visit often, but I don’t like to run into my history, past the long walks I took in the early morning with a colicky first child, past my old lonely backyard which was the sickly second child’s only “park,” past the isolation of the first two years of a baby I didn’t understand. I seldom run south.
East, though, is the direction of redemption, of rebirth, of the light in the early morning and the whole of the world at the horizon. East is where I find the lake.
The first time I ran outside, I mused to myself: could I possibly make it all the way to the lake? It sounded far, that all the way, but just over three-quarters of a mile seems longer when you’ve never run it before. I run past the gardens tended by a team of brothers, where new things bloom every single week from May to October; past the elevated train; past the neighborhood where some say you shouldn’t live but where my friends, in fact, do live; past someone’s parkway patch of rose bushes; past the fancy houses guarded by Buddha and Shiva and Jesus and abstract art; past the spot in the sidewalk where I tripped twice in one summer, catching myself on my hands and knees and skinning through the scabs the second time. I got up again, both times, and kept running to the lake.
I have gotten up from my life and kept running to the lake for the past seven years. I ran to the lake and away from my younger daughter’s crappy medical diets. I ran to the lake and away from my memories of her in the operating room. I ran to the lake and away from my older daughter’s unearned patience with me and with her baby sister. I ran to the lake after whooping cough and after my daughter was bullied. I ran to the lake and away from my fear that I wasn’t a good enough mother, a good enough wife, a good enough member of my beautiful, diverse, complicated, lush community. I run to the lake more than I run anywhere else, because I can pause my music, pause my thoughts, pause my effort, and come to a halt at the edge of the water.
I am glad that the lake is my neighbor, the schools are my neighbors, the churches and all the blocks — desirable and undesirable, depending on who you are. I am glad that the river sculptures are my neighbors, that my old neighbors are my neighbors, and that even the barking dogs are my neighbors. I love the cafes and the police department, the college students and the commuter and every last flower I pass. I’m grateful for the refuge they have all given me — under an awning or with my mind piercing deep inside the center of a black-eyed-susan, they have held me in the midst of every moment of turmoil.