The road back through time and memory is fraught with the demons of the past and the wonders of rebirth in the present. This summer just past, I left my five-year–new home in Copenhagen,Denmark to revisit my natal home in Illinois, including parts where dwell my family, and friends-who-are-like-family. This was July 1, 2017.
No matter how many times I have returned to Chicago,in my mind’s eye, and in reality, it is always the city by the lake where the iconic skyline stands silhouetted against a distant sky, pregnant with moody clouds; it stands against harsh Northern winds off Lake Michigan. The summers are deceptive, ever so hot, ever so busy, with traffic streaming along the lake front; while other vehicles grunt along the packed, serpentine expressways. Day or night time, the city is lighted by it’s own reputation, by the gossip of midnight-good-times, and the sound and gabble of the all–too–frequent gun horrors. From this memory and opinion, I had long ago escaped. Though my brothers, who made their lives there, at a point, could have easily become a Laquan McDonald, a Treyvon Martin, or a Michael Brown. God be praised, not all the sons of the women in my family have been as fortunate: two of my once young male relatives live off and on behind bars; another one, older than I, is now deceased, having lived the hip life of a player too fast,too long.
I was born in the winter in this city upon the Illini plains, and the Hawk blew me away to the South in the 60`s. Once I had returned from the red clay and uncivil wars of Alabama, (l970), I taught and lived in the Windy City for three years. Living within me was the pressed ugly memories of the death of Emmett Til, and the horrid brutalities of errant law enforcement; chilling me was the reports of drug crimes deaths in alleyways; and the reports of miscreant political dealings in high and low places, all of which established the furtive lowering of blinds, the redundant front door and back door blockades with wrought iron; each resident of those times became a resigned witness living in suspicious neighborhoods, domiciled in anxious, unsafe households. This is my picture, this is the attitude. Or shall I say was.
I found after my arrival, that the front porch in the neighborhood on the Southside where my 100- year -old aunt still lives, dares to be a rampart for fresh air, where she and my cousins, other neighbors share an unguarded hoot and holler with neighbors who have lived “on the block”,”in the hood” for more than 40 years. The streets have the familiar curbside litter, but not the degradation of a destitute ghetto, No, contrary to the broad national reports in the news, in the newspapers, about gun violence and the terror in the streets, in this Chicago neighborhood, residents, carry on as if there is not a worry in the world. They maintain routines of waking, eating, cleaning, talking, tv watching ,ignoring the worry of an addict behind the boarded up windows. They blot out the would-be drug dealer or a gun totting loser waiting to pounce, burgularize, murder or batter. No, not even the careless parking of cars on unimproved city-owned lots seems to be an affront to their casual acceptance and promotion of life as it ought be, life as life goes on. Bills are paid, children are born, barbers cut hair, block parties blare, and the grey stone houses stand.
It is a sunny day in July, the 4th of July to be exact. The City of Chicago is partying non-stop in every neighborhood and downtown in the Loop. Flags fly Bar-b-que fragrances the air; folks stroll in miscellaneous outfits of red, of white, of blue, with wreckless stars and strips on caps and shoes to described their independence. I get brave. I take a walk. It is up the block and, lo!
I discover, a little set-aside cove. It is quiet, slightly surrounded by modest bushes, and with a stone slab pathway–a labyrinth–placed in an S-shape on the ground. There are wooden benches in the manner of the Japanese . There are lotus plants. I am amazed. On the wall of the building, which belongs to St. Stephens Church, reads the word: PEACE. I look around. There is a man seated in a comfortable lean,thinking, maybe, waiting. But there,out in the open. He is not under assault. He is free to sit, to meditate.
The church itself sits across the empty street which welcomes little traffic, so today there are no hot rods zooming, across the speed bumps. Next to the church, is an empty lot of children. They’re playing kickball; Several t-shirted men laugh and jive, and mothers watch a few girls jump rope. It is astonishing to me. It is so normal and wholesome, and I wonder at my prejudice. I am of a mind to sit in the garden, to trust the Spirit that has allowed a new vision for this neighborhood, for myself. I have found a living possibility. It is there for whomever seeks.
I walk the labyrinth, it is short, but not without meaning in slow motion. I sit, and trust to close my eyes. On another day, an SUV will roll through with the speaker blaring rap music and it will disrupt the peace, but not today. Today “the Hood” is in nearly an imperceptable motion toward. It is a future born in the present. This little copse of stone and flora offers a different pathway of being; today the Peace Garden testifies to hope. I have come back as a witness.