This morning, my evening glories were still in full bloom, and they paused to have their pictures taken before I left for school. I found myself repositioning the camera lens so as not to capture that yard down the street where there have been two shootings in the last five days. “Teen violence,” an officer told me. “Two injured. Shooter not yet apprehended. You rent?” I nodded. “So when are you moving?”
The officer’s words echoed in my mind as I watched the sunlight dance through the leaves today, putting halos on the baskets of hanging impatiens. Unparalleled beauty in the foreground. Sinister foreboding in the background. Move? It’s time to renew my lease, and I had simply been deciding between one year or two. Assuredly, the events on my street should color my decision, but I admit at the moment I’m glad I don’t have kids.
No, I wouldn’t raise a family on a street where rivaling teen gangs are trying to earn their reputations. But it’s just me. I know enough to keep myself out of harm’s way… and I have an alarm system and 9 mm standing in ready defense if it happens to darken my doorstep. These teenagers aren’t statistics. They live in a foster home on the corner. They go to another school in my district. I likely have friends who are their teachers. I was just sitting down to knock out some lesson planning last night when I heard four gun shots. From my front porch, I could see the aftermath of the drive by, hear a woman yelling at the kids to get inside, and feel the presence of all my other neighbors doing the same as me.
A year ago, this was their street. Now it’s ours. I’ve built a home here for myself. In the absence of a husband or children, it’s these magnolias and azaleas and hydrangeas that greet me every night. On Tuesday mornings, my neighbor Ray brings my trash cans out to the street. On Wednesdays, my neighbor Zach and I mow our lawns at the same time. At least once a week, I chat with Mrs. Washington two doors down about our gardens.
It’s not the hassle of moving that keeps me planted here in downtown Hampton, though I don’t plan to stay in this house forever. There’s something reassuring about the predictability of my life that I’m not ready to abandon. I’ve moved three times in the last three years, and I’ve come to enjoy writing here on my white wicker loveseat with the familiar sounds of the crickets and my butterfly wind chimes, the occasional barking dog or passing car inserted into the soundtrack. Admittedly, I’m a creature of habit and routine. A gunshot could enter the bass line almost as effortlessly as Zach’s laughter does right now as a hummingbird flutters over my head in the evening glories’ great white blooms.
The vines have grown so tall and thick that I can barely see the porch light of the foster home. When I planted them months ago, I never would have expected they would serve as a protective barrier during writing nights. While the evening glories to my right couldn’t shield me from a bullet, they keep me focused on my own yard and my own problems.
Yesterday, my assistant principal showed me a funny video of a little girl trying to buckle herself into her car seat, resisting her father’s attempts to help by saying, “Worry about yourself.” I can’t do anything about the troubled kids down the street. I could pack up my little world and venture off in pursuit of safer pastures, but life has taught me the grass is rarely greener on the other side.
For me, this has rung true in homes, jobs, and relationships. We leave one set of circumstances convinced that if we could just be free of that landlord or that coworker, we’d be happy. We enter a new set of circumstances and discover a nosy neighbor or callous boss takes their place in our discontent. Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves and how we respond to the world around us. We cannot control the actions of others, only how we react to them.
When my marriage ended and I left my home of ten years, there was little trace left of the woman that I used to be. In fact, I type this blog in a word document that I started twenty-eight weeks ago entitled simply, “I Used to Be” because those were the first words I wrote after years of silence.
“I used to be a writer and a poet and a novelist. And a singer. And an actress. And a media tech. And a computer repair geek. I used to be a little sister and a big sister, a babysitter, a housekeeper, a business owner, a gardener, a receptionist at a hair salon, an intern at a church, a tutor at a private school, a certified personal trainer, a model, a Nashvillian. I used to be so many things. Even a wife.”
That’s how I began these weekly writing ventures. In the entry that emerged, I admitted that I feared there was “nothing left of value to write in me”, that my used-to-be’s would “dominate my writing material”, that the act of writing would bring me “face to face with the current disillusionment of this decade of my existence”.
The grass was not greener after I left my marriage. I found myself single in my thirties with an ache for a family of my own and a precarious relationship with God. I had escaped a set of circumstances which had me at death’s door, if only emotionally, but I was plunged into a hell of my own making. It did not matter that I had chosen it. If anything, waking up to an unfamiliar, anti-habit, anti-routine existence of my new normal forced my anger inward. In the year that followed my divorce, my greatest opponent was myself.
It would have been easier to cast the blame elsewhere, but my mind betrayed me. I fixated on those qualities within myself that led me to my marriage in the first place. I poured over decades of personal journals in which I had detailed my daily battles with the world around me. There was always a struggle, especially in my prayers. The pages of my journals are littered with accounts that could have prophesized the demise in my marriage after our first date.
“Worry about yourself,” the little girl said. The girl I used to be wanted what she wanted, and she got it. She was a lot of things, but I’m not proud of that girl. I prefer the honest existence of a woman humbled by brokenness and failure. I prefer to live with beauty in the foreground and foreboding in the background, where the flowers are in focus and what’s behind them doesn’t crowd the picture frame.
If I had a family, I wouldn’t live here. I choose to stay because I’m not ready to leave this little house where I just started starting over. The first time I sat down in this very spot to write, I believed that I would unearth an epiphany that would change everything. Twenty-eight weeks later, I’m still pursuing it. Every week, I uncover some nugget of truth that changes something.
I grow with my garden. I’ve given up on taming the evening glories. They no longer need any re-directing. They bloomed where they were planted, and I will do the same, regardless of the teenagers on my street that are fighting their own daily battles, struggling to find their places in the world that we share.
They’re not statistics. They’re just growing. So is my garden. So am I. No, I’m not moving. I’ll continue to sit on my front porch and listen to the street’s symphony, writing my way to clarity, focusing not on a threat or greener grass in the distance, both of which are beyond my control, but on the expanse of evening glories, the beauty beyond brokenness in focus.