If you go through life minimally aware of the survival-based reality of billions of people around the world, a sunny morning walk around your single-family neighborhood, with clear views of the beautiful Hudson highlands, ought to make you feel pretty lucky, if not altogether privileged.
I recently had added reason to feel grateful. I was just emerging from a case of the flu and a week on the couch, exasperating over our Trump-driven news-cycle and trolling political discourse--while some 200 countries rolled-up their sleeves on climate change, and Canada welcomed the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees. I deflected my civic fervor for an hour, and welcomed the balm of record-warm December sunlight.
The serenity of my suburban promenade was first disrupted by an irate dog on a wildly long leash. "Friend of yours?" I asked the passing mail person, as I jumped off the sidewalk for safety sake. He chuckled. My attention turned to my neighbors' disparate tastes in holiday lore, complete with "Keep Christ in Christmas" signs, the Grinch who stole "it" and an inflatable Santa on a Chopper.
Feeling chipper and assured of my recovery, I began rounding a corner lot featuring a white house with red shutters and bright blue Adirondack chairs. "Red, white and blue," I noted, vaguely. A baby swing, colorful beach toys and a small soccer goal-net sprinkled the yard with playfulness. I smiled and imagined a lively household of young children, full of curiosity and innocence. Childhood memories were just waddling in when my eyes landed on a sign pinned to the property's gate. It read, "Nothing here worth dying for," and it was illustrated by a gun-bearing hand, pointing straight at you.
The concrete sidewalk turned spongy under my feet, and a chill sped down my back, in spite of the layers and the weather. This was my neighborhood? My mind played out a scene of young children running about that yard, then over to the adults in the home, as they hung that sign at their gate: "What does it say, Mommy?" "Why is there a gun in that picture, Daddy?" "Is that your gun, Daddy?"
I collected myself and walked home, fast, the shortest way I knew.
But I couldn't put down the questions for hours to come... How does a parent explain that sign--that message--to a young child without robbing him/her of child-like trust and innocence? How have the families on the block explained it to their children? A middle-class American family living in a secluded suburban neighborhood feels the need to post a menacing, fulminating sign on the gate to their children's playground and home. What sign--what messages--are we to expect from families with children born into such opposite realities as war-zones, ongoing displacement, subsistence economies, hunger, food insecurity and poverty (right here, in the land of plenty), neighborhoods marred by gang and drug violence, chronic unemployment...? Was I making too much of this sign? Was there any room for doubt in the message's intent?
All the day's beauty and balm couldn't seem to quiet these disturbing considerations.
Several hours later, dusk approaching, I joined an outdoor holiday event in our town. There were free cookies and hot-chocolate, live music, dancing and sing-alongs--Rudolph and This Little Light of Mine. Bright white lights hung from tall pines and chocolate-smeared kids from the shoulders of parents. Friends and strangers greeted and smiled at each other. Santa sported a real beard and made self-deprecating jokes. Night fell and a Christmas tree and Menorah--made out of bicycle wheels and parts by a local sculptor--were brightly lit.
A Rabbi spoke of the Menorah's points of light as reminders of the light we each bring to the world, with our different ways of life and being. "What is important to you, and what is important to the guy to your left and the woman to your right, it's just as important."
The program came to an end, but children lingered around and inside the Christmas tree, now spinning the bicycle wheels, now standing still and dazzled by the light. I hoped with all my heart that the children from the house with the gun-wielding sign were there too, somehow. That they too could feel safe and dazzled, outside their gate, surrounded by strangers, under the night sky. Many lights, many colors, bearing many different beliefs and aspirations.
I rested my thoughts and walked home at peace with my town.