“From Below, Not Above” (a block story)

Home home home…

friends and changemakers  talking at the Connecting for Community gathering

friends and changemakers talking at the Connecting for Community gathering


Just a few hours ago, I arrived home from the Connecting for Community gathering in Cincinnati. I’m still buzzing with gratitude for the richness of soul, experience, insight, passion, courage and both raw and polished talent I encountered in the last three jam-packed days. As I “return to earth,” my mind has tightly logged the need to do all kinds of things–to process all that I heard, felt, thought, discovered and decided, to write something up, to edit down the million photos I snapped and share what’s worth sharing, and–oh yes–to sleep!

But before all that, there’s a fresh story coming out of me that I need to tell.

A couple of hours ago, my friend and colleague Anne Mitchell dropped me at my front door today after our two hour, idea and story-packed drive back from Cincinnati. The day was lovely, cloudy but bathed in a perfect blend of temperature that made being outside both pleasant and right.

As I clambered up the walkway to my house and entered welcoming darkness of inside, I could feel my body sink downward with relief and my heart soften with the promise of a bed’s sweet support.

But something else tugged at me.

When I’d gotten out of the car and gathered my luggage, I noticed my cross-the-street neighbors were sitting outside. I have made a commitment to getting to know my neighbors on this block…  should I go back out, tired as I am and perfectly “deserving” of rest, and make an introduction?

This was a tugging I know well, and one which has grown stronger since I moved here: a battle between the part of me that deeply yearns to create connection, neighborliness, familiarity and friendship closest to home–in my neighborhood–and the part of me that is completely terrified to do just that. Time and again, the first part yields to the part that’s afraid of looking like that crazy white girl, making some blind blunder among people my upbringing and society tell me are different than me… and maybe, sometimes, it’s simply afraid of connection.

In that moment, some wisdom arose from the talented pianist and insightful international changemaker Michael Jones, who I’d had the chance to hear and speak with at the conference. He encouraged us to pull our art, our music, or whatever our craft may be, including practice in community–from the bottom part of our body… down, not up. This is what his music teacher taught him to do many years ago, and has become a core practice in his art of both music-making and helping others “lead artfully” in the world.

pianist and changemaker Michael Jones sharing his gift

pianist and changemaker Michael Jones sharing his gift

Moving through the doorway, as I took pause inside and focused downward in myself, something interesting happened.

The fear faded. What remained was that great hunger–curious, adventurous, brave, and caring–in my feet. That hunger became my dominant emotion and thought, and I decided to go back outside. (Perhaps I also got some energy from the total immersion I’d just experienced in the three-day, globally diverse community of people in Cincinnati, whose feet are also hungry in this way.)

Earlier, when I was taking my stuff inside, the three men on the porch across the street had been talking to a young woman with bright red hair and a baby carriage. As I walked back out–still pretty terrified–they were still talking.

I awkwardly played with my phone as they talked, not finding the courage to break neighbor ice AND interrupt. Finally, after what felt like 10 minutes (but was probably only one), the young woman bid the men farewell and continued down sidewalk with her stroller. I swallowed, raised my head and walked toward the house.

“Hi!” I called, smiling and waving.

“Hi,” they answered, friendly enough.

“How ya doin?”

“Pretty good,” replied the man in the center, who was wearing a blue t-shirt. “Yourself?”

“Good, thanks!” I called back. Then added, “Do you live here?” (A creepy question? I don’t know. It’s the first that comes to mind more often than not.)

“I do.”

“Well hi! I’m your neighbor. I just moved in across the street there.” I gestured behind me.

He stood up and walked toward me down his concrete walkway, smiling. “Nice to meet you. My name’s Ray.”

I extended my hand across the hip-level black gate that encloses their yard, where it was wrapped into what I can only describe as a very “kind” handshake. “I live here with my wife Brenda,” he added.

Ray then called to his friends and introduced them–Chris and Anton. They also walked up from the porch, smiling, and shook my hand.

We reached that moment where we could have kept talking. But I let it go, and we bid each other a nice evening.

A part of me wished I’d held out a little to have a longer conversation. But, the moment had passed. What I took away was a beautiful “warm front” impression–the welcoming openness that greeted me when I had the courage to get over myself and make the first move.

*  *  *

Not fully satisfied, my feet took me down the street.

I passed a few younger teenage girls, who I sheepishly made face contact with. They half-returned my greeting. Then, and a few houses down, I noticed the young woman with red hair I’d seen earlier. She was at her door, getting ready to go inside.

Again, I took the risk and called out a greeting.

In a natural, gentle building back-and-forth, we got to know each other, and I had the great delight of discovering Laray. Warm, funny and perceptive, Laray shares my love for photography, people, and people of different races or cultures being together. Although she’s been here just a few months more than me, when she learned of my recent move, she said, “Welcome to the neighborhood!”

Laray and her son, Antoine

Laray and her son, Antoine

She continued, “It’s a good neighborhood. The people here look out for each other. My neighbors on either side here will call me if a cat so much as walks across my porch.” She laughed–“of course then I gotta tell ’em, ‘Yeah I feed that cat!’ but that’s alright.”

After we’d chatted for awhile and she found out what I do, Laray confessed that when she first saw me, she was almost positive I was an artist. This made me feel happy and funny at the same time–happy that somehow one of my qualities is so evident, and that I’ve met someone who, like me, looks at people with curiosity–and funny in that I am apparently so obvious about something, without intending to be.

The next thing she said made me laugh, inside and out:

“I had wanted to call out to you–‘Hey! Come here’ to see if you were [an artist], but then I stopped myself because sometimes people will think you’re crazy. So, I was glad when you called out to me first.”

Laray’s confession reinforced a belief that drives me: that people are yearning for connection. They, like me, are hungry to satisfy our curiosity about each other.

Sometimes we are very aware of that–like Laray, with whom, once that ice wall made of “the fear of being thought crazy/creepy” was chopped away, an easy flow of delightful common interests and qualities emerged. Other stories I hear prove to me that even those people who seem the most happy to remain isolated still deeply crave connection–whether it’s people labeled with disabilities who have almost no one but paid staff in their lives, “at-risk youth” who slough off well-meaning adult attention (or endless advice), or just those people who are, well, cranky and mean.

That hunger also lives between people who seem to have decided to hate or resist each other until the end of time–like the story another new friend at the conference today told me about two groups on opposite sides of the abortion issue who, upon discovering their underlying common concern for mothers and children, found a way to join forces toward this common goal, despite the–in reality–small percentage of things on which they disagreed.

It also tells me that we don’t have to be heroes or accredited experts to shift the culture and reality in our neighborhoods, communities and world–from isolation, segregation, and feelings of scarcity to connectedness, inclusion and the joyful, active, concrete knowledge of the abundance that lies within these places (and ourselves).  We just need a moment of pause to let that healthy hunger for knowing emerge–and, maybe a little bit of courage, born from encouragement or inspiration from other “connectors,” to take even the tiniest step forward and act on it.

As we walked back toward my house, Laray looked down at the curb. From when I first moved in, despite my intention to look primarily for “what’s good” here, I couldn’t help but notice and inwardly fuss over the litter that peppers the curb and some lawns. I’ve struggled with how to react… having always felt compelled to pick up trash wherever I’m walking as a “good citizenship” and care for place. But, I’ve been hesitant to do it here, aware of how my doing so may come across as a gesture of judgment and superiority. I worried about becoming just like the “revitalization” efforts I see in neighborhoods like this one, which, despite the best intentions, come in from the outside hell-bent on “fixing,” “improving,” and “cleaning up”–without ever taking the time to look, listen or enter into enough of an authentic relationship with neighbors to discover what is already working, good, strong and right.

Still looking at the curb, Laray said something which jolted me from my place of worry and stasis: “This is one of the cleanest blocks in this neighborhood. That’s because there’s these older women you’ll see every Sunday who come and clean up the streets.”

Suddenly, the litter looked different.  Yes, it was still there… but behind it, I know knew, is a story of care, community and “cleaning up” that already exists. The question then became, for me the newbie, became not, “to clean or not to clean,” but “how might I support–or celebrate–the cleaning that’s already happening?”

The answer to that question, almost too easily, was given to me by Laray (and probably much better than what I would have dreamed up myself.)  Inspired, she said, “Oh! That would be a great subject for a photo shoot! We could come out here and take pictures of them doing that.”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I said, inside and out. This felt right.

As we neared my house, I asked Laray to refresh me on the names of the neighbors I’d just met (who she’d been talking to.)  She did–Ray, Chris and Anton–and added with great sincerity, “Oh, man, those are some of the nicest people.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“They really help keep the neighborhood safe.”

She paused, then said, “You know, people knowing each other and looking out for each other–that’s really what makes a place safe. People say, ‘Oh, they look out for each other on that street–we’d better not mess with them over there.”

I could not agree more.

Laray and I spent some more time together–we both had to go grocery shopping so she rode with me down to Safeway, during which time I got to enjoy the company of her one-year old and share the photo books of one of my favorite photographers. We exchanged phone numbers, talked about possibly hanging out tomorrow night, photo outings, and–the crowning delight–she offered to her make me some of her signature cabbage and neckbone one of these evenings.

*  *  *

What boggles my mind continuously about the practice of connecting is how quickly abundance can be revealed for what, in the end, is not much effort. My conversation time with Laray yielded so much payoff for my small effort of “push” against that fear that gripped me on my home’s threshold earlier that day.

Besides the many delightful commonalities (a love for photography, people, cross-cultural connection, and cooking), it revealed the gifts she uniquely has–the gift of mothering, caring deeply for elders.

Furthermore, it made visible an abundance within our neighbors and neighborhood that I and others would not normally have seen or, more often than not, assumed might be there.  Since many folks here earn below the median income and some of the homes are in disrepair, our neighborhood is the kind that the majority of this community sees, relates to, and talks about as a place of scarcity, danger, brokenness and need. Through talking with Laray, I quickly learned that, despite the outside world’s assumption, there is abundance here.

There is caring here–neighbors watch out for each other.

There is wisdom here–neighbors know that what makes a safe neighborhood is not more police, but protection freely given between neighbors to each other.

There is action here for the sake of the whole–the women who clean up the streets on Sundays.

And, there is the will to do more good–Laray’s idea to celebrate those women by taking photos of them together.

What else is there, waiting to be uncovered, utilized, celebrated? I’d bet my life that this is just the tip of the iceberg. With each new conversation, my feeling when I drive home into my neighborhood shifts from what I’ve been trained to feel (detachment, isolation, fear) to a welcomed new set of emotions–comfort, curiosity, appreciation, respect, and joy.

Oh, what great wonders a little “Hello?” can bring!




For more of Michael’s insight, check out his TEDx Burlington talk:

~  ~  ~  acknowledgements ~ ~ ~

I want to thank the many people I met over the last three days at Connecting for Community for their kindness, encouragement and daily courage to “walk the talk” in their lives. There are too many to name, but a few are…

~ Tim Vogt and Sarah Buffie of Starfire Council for pushing me to write with my authentic voice about the subjects that I’m most scared to tackle

Michael Jones, for reminding me to go down into myself for that wisdom and fount of creativity I keep looking for up top, in my head or from outsiders

Angeles Arrian, Peter Block, John McKnight, Edgar Cahn, Chris Gray and Harrison Owen for infusing me with your unrepentent, unyielding commitment to telling it like it is–widely, freely and with great poetic candor

~ the coordinators of the Connecting for Community gathering and all of those people who helped me get there and back, including Anne Mitchell

to DeAmon Harges, for reminding me every day of my potential with his generosity of gift-naming, commitment to practice, and home-space

This entry was posted in Building Community, Neighborhoods, People Who Inspire Me, Public Space. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “From Below, Not Above” (a block story)

  1. April says:

    UPDATE: today the gift of connection just kept on giving: new neighbor-friend-fellow-photographer Laray called me and said “I’m right outside your door” — she invited me to walk with her to the “Candy Store”… I hadn’t heard of a Candy Store and was up for an adventure, so I went. Turned out to be a little store two blocks down, with a very tiny sign, that sells “smells”–incense, oils–and candy. And, a few snacky items.

    The owner, Ryan, is a young woman about our age with one of the most beautiful baby girls I’ve ever seen, has been running the shop since August when she bought it from her father who’s owned the building for many years. Right now, the shop is just paying for itself but once she gets the loans paid off, it’ll start earning her money. She was kind and easy to talk to, and suggested I try a “walking taco.”

    We chatted a bit, then Laray blew my mind by bringing up to Ryan that I do photography and art, and that she should have me do some photos of her baby so we can promote my work and get me some business. We then realized that Ryan can use my skills in art to design tattoos she has in her mind but can’t draw herself. Laray also offered her cooking skills to help expand Ryan’s warm food selection, and the two realized they could collaborate on beauty services since Ryan does hair and Laray can do lashes–bottom and top.

    I feel so grateful for Laray’s generous and beautifully strategic mind. This is such great proof that many neighborhoods don’t need “business development” trainings and certifications. This stuff is happening all around–we just need to look for it, participate in it, and support it…

  2. Nice blog, a little hello can do so much good and open many more doors.

    • April says:

      Thank you, Mayowa. And yes!!! I admire you and your housemates’ spirit of hospitality, neighborliness and invitation in your own neighborhood as well. Was great to meet your neighbor Frank the other night and I’m eager to further explore Chris and my dual passion for neighborhood-based economic/social justice… and Game of Thrones. 🙂

  3. This piece is absolute poetry. April, you’ve wandered your way into the realization of your life’s purpose. The capturing and sharing of your story and the stories of the people you connect with is a lesson in how we should all approach lives in our neighborhoods. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!


    • April says:

      Kirk, my wordmaster friend and fellow connector… you always manage to move me uniquely with your encouraging words. Thank you so much for the support!!! I still have so much to learn and consider you as one of my teachers.


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