I have learned to pay attention to the words, “Somebody oughta…”
It is universally acknowledged that the United States is at a particularly divisive point in our history. Not, as some have said, the most divisive (try the early sixties or the Civil or Revolutionary wars), but definitely a hard time. It’s leaving me wondering what to do about it. Not what ‘people’ should do about it, but specifically me.
I have come to believe that large scale change never comes simply because of a grand heroic gesture. Heroes don’t fix problems. They have a role, but it’s not to directly address the issue. It’s to inspire the rest of us to do a little bit each. When that happens, it’s a movement, and movements — accumulations of small shifts among many, many people — really change things.
I have also become convinced that real transformation happens in the context of human relationships. If we want the people around us, and ourselves, to grow, shift, and change, we have to come to know each other across the lines that often separate us. Sure, there are times when those relationships get too toxic and we need to step away, but as much as I can manage it, I want to engage, and actively dismantle my own assumptions about people, and theirs about me. Real relationships tend to do that.
In one conversation with friends about how to respond to the moment we are living in as a nation, I said, “Somebody oughta make a big sign we can put on our houses to show that we want to do the work of being community. That if your car battery’s dead, or you need a ride somewhere, etc., mine is a door you can knock on. I want to know my neighbors. I want to develop real relationships so that we can have real conversations and they can actually be productive.”
Then I realized what I had said: ‘Somebody oughta.’
Usually, a few seconds after I say those words out loud, I remember that I am somebody. Maybe I’m the one who should do it.
So on Christmas Eve, my eight-year-old son Mason helped me nail a large banner into the siding on the front of our house. I wrote the text, and designers at Kudzu Brands made it pretty. Then Kudzu printing made the banner for me. Big. Three feet by eight feet.
For the record, I live in a fairly diverse neighborhood in a not-so-diverse town. Within a three-house radius in any given direction, there are several houses with people of color, and several not, there are people with disabilities that are readily perceived and others whose disabilities are harder to see, some large and expensive houses and several that are under 1000 square feet, some stick-built and some manufactured. Some young people, some retired.
There are same-gender couples, single folks, married and not. People who work in manufacturing, at least one other musician, an arborist, a firefighter, a retired professor, etc. And there are Republicans, Democrats, and Other. There are ninety-year residents (he’s ninety, and his parents lived nearby, too) and recent transplants.
That’s all within three houses from my own.
This sign says part of what I want to say to my neighbors. It’s an invitation. Folks have been responding really positively. I’ve had some great sidewalk conversations with people I didn’t know before, and people with whom I’ve had polite nodding acquaintance have gone deeper with me. Just about every day I see a car slow way down to read. I’ve heard through some neighborhood friends about other neighbors’ responses, and, in my real neighborhood, it’s been good.
Then, a week ago, I put it on Facebook. I suppose what has happened since counts as “going viral.” If not, it’s at least a pretty nasty head cold…
135, 926 people have seen it on Facebook. That was the count as of Wednesday morning, one week after I uploaded it.
And it’s still going. We will see what happens from here. I’ve had a few (three) nasty comments on Facebook, but on the whole, it seems to be connecting with how a whole lot of folks feel. I’m glad.
The message is not “let’s just play nice and pretend everything is fine.” Things are not fine. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that if our goal is to move our nation in a better direction, our best bet is to actually know each other, to develop the relationships that lead to hearing each other’s hope, pain, history, and fear. That’s where real transformation happens, not in being shouted down or ostracized. Politics isn’t football, where hurting the other side is how we win. It’s more like marriage, where hurting the other side hurts us all.
So this is a small thing. It’s just an invitation to real relationship, and a promise to try to be here for my real neighbors in my real neighborhood. It’s not a big thing, but I firmly believe that it is an accumulation of small efforts that changes the world.
Let’s be neighbors.
Folks have asked about making a yard-sign size as well, and that is in the works — stay tuned. If you want to download the art for free, so that you can have it printed at any size you like, on any material you want, you can do that here: www.letsbeneighbors.org