Last night was the fourth. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, since I’m currently struggling to get excited about our country that’s occasionally so divided up into segments of population all shouting out a host of opinions. I sat on the porch watching the wind walk up the street during the thunderstorm, listening to that rolling boom that has nothing to do with pyrotechnics. I read some, and then I started watching TV. As it was I thought I was in for the night.
Then I heard the explosions starting, from what seemed to be a ridiculously close distance–say, next door. I wasn’t sure what our new neighbor might have gotten up to because I came home yesterday evening to her daughter throwing flaming batons in their front yard. I decided to investigate. As the booms increased in frequency and volume, I decided I didn’t want to miss one second of whatever was happening, so I ran across the house to get my shoes and slammed the door on the way out. I got to the street and looked down towards the park where it seemed like all the black people in our neighborhood (and maybe beyond), had gathered for a very large celebration. There were fireworks going off on the street, in the park, and from somewhere behind the new apartment buildings. There was a DJ. There were people of every age, some of whom I recognized from having lived here in Cherry for the past 11 years. A young man let off a mighty box of fireworks and brought the empty box back to the car that was next to the garbage can on which I was leaning. As he passed, i said, “Was that last one yours?” He looked at me with a smile, “Yes.” “It was terrific.”
I forgot to mention that on my way down to the park, a young white mother had come out with her six year old daughter to also admire the fireworks, but when a black woman in a sparkly dress got out of a car at the corner, clearly dropped off late to this party, the mother quickly gathered her daughter and turned around. Which was disappointing, since we’d just had a conversation while walking down the block about the fact that maybe her daughter would see this as the “real fireworks” and then the hassle of a car trip into uptown might be avoided.
It should be understood at this point that I certainly didn’t bust up into the party and make myself known. I quietly leaned against the side of a trash can with my glass of wine, and helped open it twice when people needed to throw things away (including the talented young explosives expert I’d just complimented). This is how I am in all situations. I quietly take stock, often from the edges of civilization. In new situations, I’m always a shrinking violet though to people I know, I’m certainly not shy.
The other day, someone asked me again where I’m from. The truth is I hardly have an answer to that question. I was born in one place and raised in a host of disparate houses, states and schools. I was always on the edge, looking in. There was never a time before the last fifteen years, that I was not the outsider in any situation. Its the reason I now cling so desperately to the communities I’ve found here in Charlotte, but I was thinking this morning it’s the very heart of myself, the weird outsider, the strange minority. I spent my life there, in new schools and new towns. i often watched life unfold from the sidelines of each new place, looking for the similar thread between my humanity and another’s. Not understanding our system of segregation in various parts of the country, searching for ways to experience belonging and sameness–basically with whomever would have me.
In my life I’ve often been the only white person for miles, and I’ve often been the only woman on a team. Over time I just became comfortable with the idea that I will sometimes be uncomfortable. I will sometimes be new, and I will not always know what to say or do. That’s what I learned from years of crying in the back corner of the classroom, or being the only person at school on Halloween without a costume, or moving to a new place where the dialect is different enough that it feels like learning a new language, or living in another country, where the language spoken is my second language, and i do not look like anyone else.
There was the time of being seperated from my then fiance in Seoul, who was hard to find because he was short with straight black hair in a sea of people who looked just the same as him. There was that time on Team Spirit where necessity meant that I needed to be part of communal bathing in the town where we were stationed. I’ve moved a hundred times in my life and observed all manner of community from the outside, trying to see in what ways we were the same and how I could best reconcile myself to “belong” wherever I was.
It means I often don’t have the same experience of fear as people I know. New or different does not equate to dangerous. When I walked down the street last night, I guess I experienced something very different than the mother from across the street. I saw a bunch of people (a few of whom I know, but most of whom I don’t), having a party, which happens every day, all over the world, but which especially happens in the summer in the US, and isn’t a reason to fear. But she saw something different, and turned around at the sight of the sequinned lady getting out of the car. It was a moment where I realized that perspective is everything. One moment we were having a conversation and the next she was walking her child back home.
Meanwhile I just stood leaning on the garbage can on the sidewalk, watching human beings behave like human beings. I did what I always do, which is to find the common thread of humanity we might have, and teather myself to it whenever I feel uncomfortable, whenever I’m existing on the fringes. Truly it’s that very thread that has always helped guide me home.