Friday, May 22, 2009

Mine or Yours? [Erica, Frogtown neighbor]

Emily came home from school especially hungry one afternoon. She told me that for the previous couple of weeks, part of her lunch was missing by the time she got to the cafeteria. In fact, it was the same item missing every time and her favorite part of her lunch – a tube of berry yogurt.

She thought she knew who might be taking the food from her locker, but she hadn’t told anyone about it before our conversation that day. I think she was motivated by a desire to protect the suspect, who already got into more than her fair share of trouble.

My instinct as a mother and citizen was to put a stop to the stealing. Emily could talk to her teacher. I could call the school. She and her friends could hide out and try to catch her classmate in the act. This train of thought seemed normal. I quickly played out the scenarios in my mind, subconsciously gauging the probable success of each option. Intervening didn’t just seem like the right thing to do, but the only thing to do. How could we let this wayward child get away with thinking that stealing was okay? If we didn’t put a stop to it, who knows what criminal activity might be in her future?

But, something stopped me from opening my mouth. For a split second I wondered if there was another option, another way. Seconds turned into minutes and my mouth blessedly stayed closed. Something in me was drawn to the possibility of breaking the pattern of reactionary, punitive approaches to disagreeable behavior. What else could we do?

Being the middle of three children, I got an early education in the laws of “mine” and “yours.” Sometimes the dividing lines in my shared bedroom were made visible by tape, string or a line of shoes. Most times the lines were implied yet understood and respected. As I got older, I didn’t need visible lines or long negotiations because I had developed an intuitive sense of personal space and boundaries. I kept track of my things and generally left everything else alone unless invited otherwise (with the exception of my sister’s closet, which is universally forgiven after adolescence).

This lesson on my relationship to possessions has shaped my worldview and, therefore, my behavior. I am generally grateful for this – I would have been quite a societal misfit had I not learned these lessons early on. The downside is that these laws of “mine and yours” became almost absolute. Sharing “my things” felt strange and gradually became the exception to the rule of hoarding and protecting what belonged to me. As with most patterns learned in childhood, this was soon embedded in my brain as the normal, acceptable and right way to live. And generally, it probably is. But this experience with my eight-year-old daughter was sparking a re-thinking of these patterns and leading me to imagine a looser interpretation of “mine and yours.”

I saw this as not only a teachable moment for my daughter to learn how to face problems like this, but it was an important moment for me. Is someone in her mid-thirties capable of re-imagining human interactions and changing patterns of thought and behavior? I am a glass-is-half-full kind of person, so I hoped so. Here was a chance to put it to the test.

Before fully forming a complete strategy in my head, I threw out an idea to my daughter, who was by this point finishing her after-school snack and only halfway paying attention: “What if tomorrow we put two tubes of yogurt in your lunch box?” What if, in anticipation of another visit from her mischievous friend, we chose to share instead of hoard?

Emily steadied her spoon and looked at me. I could see her mind processing this unusual solution. Perhaps she was expecting her friend to take both and she would still be left without a full lunch. Or what if her other friends found out and teased her for being nice to the class outsider? She didn’t say “no” right away, so I pushed it a bit further and suggested something more: “What if you also wrote a note and attached in to the second yogurt, showing that you know what is going on and mentioning that you have something in common – you both like yogurt?”

This evoked a sly smile, like she wasn’t sure if I was serious or if this last part was a clue that I had been teasing all along. I insisted there was a way to do it with minimal chance of embarrassment to her. My daughter bravely agreed to give this route a try. We got out pen and paper and Emily penned a note that said something like, “Enjoy the yogurt. I am glad you like it. I like it too, so please save one for me.”

Such a small thing and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it that whole next day. The reality is that we have more than enough food in the house. As soon as that box of yogurt was gone, we could afford to go to the store and by another. Our kids have never known a day of hunger in their lives. And although I am not certain that the stealing was motivated by hunger, there is a strong chance of it as our kids go to a school where over 90% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Regardless of the student’s motivation to take the food, the issue was becoming less about her and more about us. There is just too much we don’t know about other people’s behavior so we can only stick with deciding our own. In this case, will we share or hoard?

Sharing felt really good.

I recognize there are risks to approaching adverse behavior this way and I am not sure how this strategy would work when the stakes are high. Admittedly, the stakes couldn’t have been much lower than they were in this scenario.

But there is also a risk in teaching our children to be strictly governed by the laws of “mine” and “yours.” This worldview too easily sets people up to be enemies or threats. In a simple way, our daughter had a chance to do the unexpected and show kindness instead of retribution or malice. It was wrong of this classmate to steal, and we made sure Emily understood that. But I felt it would also be wrong of us to teach our daughter that the only ways to respond would be to either ignore it or turn it into something that could break up a friendship.

We don’t know of any changes in this other student’s life. We do know of a change in ours. The tiny spark of a “what if…” question and the resulting experiment in kindness was strangely liberating and has opened our eyes to new possibilities.

That next afternoon Emily came home a little less hungry. She made it to lunch with her meal intact and felt more satisfied. The extra yogurt was gone and the note was left in her lunchbox. This continued for about the next two weeks and then the mid-morning visits to Emily’s locker stopped. We like to think the student is now reformed and no longer sees stealing as an option.

Or maybe she just doesn’t like yogurt anymore.

Friday, March 20, 2009

In North [Heidi, North Minneapolis neighbor]

This compelling post is from Heidi H's blog, "Life with Little People": Heidi, Stephen, and their two little people live in the Hawthorne neighborhood of North Minneapolis. Thank you, Heidi, for sharing your gift-of-words with us!]

In North I bring my kids out onto the front porch where they can play and watch the usual activities of the neighborhood; it is a very busy neighborhood. There are kids running everywhere, a continuous stream of cars, and a constant trickle of pedestrians, as our house is on the way to the bus stop. On any given afternoon I can look out my front door and see a football game commencing in the largest area of free space available for activities: the street. There are clusters of children everywhere, all interacting, all joining together in one big unsupervised play-date.

In North people actually use their front porches a lot. We have a grill on ours that we use regularly. Our five-year-old neighbor Jonathan has tried to buy steak and hamburger dinners from us. Sometimes, if we see him playing outside before we start cooking, we will add extra for him.

In North I was sitting out on my front porch one day when I met Kelly. She was waiting for her kindergartner to get off the bus. We started chatting and she told me how she had just moved into the neighborhood from Northeast, she didn’t really like North because it was too violent. She is 25 years old and she has seven kids, the oldest is eleven and her youngest is two weeks older than my seven-month-old. She had her first baby in eighth grade and she is proud of the fact that she has just one baby daddy. She has been with him more than half her life and he was eighteen years older than her when they met. We talk several times a week now while she is waiting at the bus stop, and we’ve been invited to her birthday party.

In North my daughter asks, in two-year-old fashion, “What are them doing?” when she hears people conversing through shouts from opposite ends of the block. I say, “They are talking to each other.” She tries to copy them, yelling out unintelligible noises. I try to tell her that it is not nice to shout at people like that, but to her it is just what people do. It’s just another way to have a conversation.

In North I am starting to recognize homeless faces. My neighbor knows several of their names and though I don’t yet, I will someday. For now I give them cash and feel sad when the nights get colder and colder because they are the same faces that I saw standing out there the last time the nights got colder and colder. I wonder how they keep hope. If I don’t have cash, at least I offer them a smile, just to say, “Hey, I notice you.”

In North a snowy afternoon might bring several different groups of elementary entrepreneurs to our door, asking if they can shovel our sidewalks. If we have cash we say yes, even if that means we usually need to shovel again after they are done. If we have cookies we pass them out, but we don’t invite them in for hot chocolate and I am not sure why.

In North the police, fire trucks, and ambulance can arrive on the scene at lightning speed. When my baby was born in the backseat of the car last February, I could hear sirens in the distance before my husband even hung up his 911 call. Amidst all the standard crazy day-to-day activity, the quick arrival time makes me feel safer.

In North it is not every parent’s dream to have a park just two short blocks away from home. My husband was at the park with the girls one day and heard gun shots on the other side of the community center, less than 50 yards away from where my babies were playing. When I put my daughter to bed that night she described to me, “Them cars caught them. Cars wif lights. They went up the hill. The kids were runnin’. Them cars caught them. Why did them do that?” I didn’t have an answer for her.

In North there are times I don’t bring my daughters outside in the middle of the afternoon because I don’t want them to see that the neighbors across the street have gotten so angry they are throwing punches. I don’t want them to see one neighbor holding the other neighbor against the wall, fists pounding, until the cop car races up.

In North nighttime can be even more eventful than daytime. One night I awoke at 2:00am during a raging thunderstorm, while still lying in bed I looked out the window and saw the back of two little heads about 20 inches from my face. A dad and his five kids, their ages about three to eleven years old, were camped out on our lawn chairs on our porch under a No Trespassing sign. The police did not believe this man and his children had walked from an impossibly long distance away. They said they were waiting for Grandma to come and pick them up, as Mom was too drunk for them to go home. After calling Grandma, to re-explain the whole situation and remind her why she was picking them up, she arrived five minutes later. The six of them piled into a five-passenger car with Grandma, and the police watched them drive away.

In North gunshots woke me up around 5:00am. I looked out my bedroom window to see three men pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of our house. One of them was on the phone, agitated, and I was glad that someone was calling 911. A car screeched to a halt at the corner. It seems, instead, they were mad because their ride was late. One of the men pulled a gun out of his pocket and they got into the car. He unloaded his weapon into the air before they squealed away. I am not sure what he was trying to say, but I heard him loud and clear.In North we were also woken up a week before Christmas at 4:00am by someone pounding on the door. When we didn’t answer immediately, we heard, “Police! Open up!” The cops wanted to know if we had heard or seen anything unusual in the past few hours. Yellow crime tape stretched from the corner of our front porch and to the stop sign on the other side of the street. We found out later that a man was shot and killed a couple of houses down the block. We didn’t hear a thing.

In North the next time someone was shot and killed on our street it happened before 10:00pm, while we were still awake. We were sitting at the kitchen table when it suddenly seemed like there was an overly decorated Christmas display on the other side of our drapes. We looked out our kitchen window to see an entire fleet of emergency vehicles appear within two or three minutes. We went outside and overheard someone say they saw a body lying in the street less than half a block away. It was dark and we couldn’t see anything. Our entire intersection was soon blocked off with the yellow crime tape. Two kids, trying to get home, crossed it and got thrown onto the hood of a police car and patted down. Most of the neighborhood showed up. Detectives followed, along with a news crew. People gathered on our front lawn and when they heard the news of who had died some fell to the ground, screaming and wailing. We listened to it while we lay in bed and tried to fall asleep. The next day when we looked out our kitchen window we could see balloons and flowers marking the spot where our neighbor had fallen and died.

In North we are surrounded by empty houses. Five of the six houses directly surrounding our corner are vacant. They are boarded up and condemned. Soon after we moved in we took a walk down the block and counted the houses on our street that we could tell were vacant. From our corner down to the other end of the block were 16 boarded-up houses. Now these houses are falling down around us. The city has decided to bring in cranes and trucks and knock them down. This rocks my daughter’s world. She keeps asking me, “Where did it go? What happened?” We woke her up early one morning so that she could watch as the house across the street was reduced to a pile of boards and bricks; we hoped it would help her understand. Honestly, though, the bizarreness of it all rocks my world too. Especially when it’s the next day, when people scrounging through the massive pile of rubble, pulling out the aluminum siding to sell. It looks like scene from a third world country. Now I don’t know if I want my daughter to see and understand, to think this is normal. There is nothing normal about it.

In North you can hear on the new about a man getting shot and killed on a sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon, and that might mean something to you. It means something else to see a little 10 year old girl strip down to her t-shirt and jeans on the street when the weather is below zero so that she can teach her friend how to win a fist fight. While bouncing around with her fists in the air she says, “You don’t ever wear no hood. They can grab onto that so fast and pull you down. Make sure you don’t wear no hoods.”

In North we have a fire bowl out on our 8x16 piece of lawn. This is where we hang out with friends and meet our neighbors. We met Rob, who sat down to bum a smoke from one of our friends and ended up staying for a couple of hours. Our next encounter with Rob was when he stopped by to see if he could do some yard work for us to make five dollars. We said sure and gave him ten. He was really excited that he could not only buy cigarettes, but toilet paper as well. A few weeks later he knocked on our door at 11:00pm to tell us that he had just been in the hospital with a bleeding stomach ulcer. He wanted to know if my husband would sit on the porch with him and drink a beer. My husband said, “Sure, let me get dressed first.” I went back to bed.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jesus shows up everywhere...[Ben, Urban Neighbor]

[This is an excerpt from an audio interview with Ben, an Urban Neighbor in North Minneapolis. To hear the full .mp3 audio version, go to:]

Seeing God at work here in the city is almost a constant thing once you start seeing things through the eyes of a Kingdom perspective. You begin to see glimpses of hope in kids’ eyes. As you pour into their lives, they begin to grasp this idea that maybe things could be different. Or seeing the hope that’s already here… You see Christ at work everywhere if you have eyes to see it. You can see his heart beating throughout the city, his heart beating for things that break his heart. When you’re in tune with the things that Jesus was passionate about, you begin to see him just showing up everywhere, and it’s incredible.