Regeneration through provocation: Detroit, hope, and a new world order

Heidelberg ProjectWe drove down the street on a blustery day in East Detroit, pulling off to the side of the road to step out into the drizzle and the grey. As we emerged from the shelter of the vehicle, what I could describe seeing are the same tropes many people talk about, when they talk about Detroit. The boarded up and burned out and abandoned homes. The razed lots, the empty streets.

But then we turned a corner, entering a stretch of blocks which was the reason we came to Detroit in the first place: an art installation called the Heidelberg Project. Blending art and street, the Heidelberg Project reclaims abandoned homes and lots, creating an open conversation between discarded objects, the streets of Detroit, and the people who come to visit the place.

Let me be clear: this is not a neighborhood beautification project. Some of the homes are splashed with bright polka dots that spill out from the front porch to the sidewalk to the street, bringing whimsy and childishness into an area which for years has been characterized by redlined blight and poverty. Others are covered with oversized stuffed animals, stapled, misshapen, and weathered by time and rain – a grotesque nod to those who once inhabited the space, to the passage of time, to abandonment.

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People tell stories about Detroit. We like to think we know what happened in the city’s history: the rise of the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s promise that each worker ought to be able to buy his own car, and even for a brief moment, the promise of Detroit as a beacon for racial equality. Then, the closure of various factories led to sweeping unemployment, highlighting racial divides across the city. Wages depressed. The interstate plowed through the city, destroying vital areas of town, particularly the neighborhoods where black folks lived. The 1967 riots ensued. Vast white flight, paired with the devaluation of homes, meant that many houses were simply abandoned by their white owners as they streamed out of the city. Much of this time, the cheerful music of Motown was touted for bringing people together, even as the city, in many places, literally burned to the ground.

In some ways, Detroit reminds me of ancient Jerusalem, the Israelite capitol that was razed again and again by its empire neighbors, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Romans. Of course, the repeated destruction of Jerusalem was not necessarily within Israel’s control. Instead, it had much more to do with power to control resources. Because it held the trade routes that ran from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the narrow passage that made up Israel was especially coveted by whatever up-and-coming Empire was next in line.

More recently, the way we within the United States struggle for resources has become somewhat more “civilized”, shielding ourselves from direct contact of violence. Instead, with our silver sword of capitalism we defend any action that turns a profit, cannibalistically ravaging our own cities and our own people through the powers of the pure market run awry.

Walking through the art in the blocks of Detroit, I felt at once hopeful for the resurgence of the city and deflated for this place that some once called home. I felt provoked: Provoked to ask questions about who once lived here and what their lives were like; about who still lives here and what their lives are like. I wanted to know the various iterations this neighborhood took on over the last century, what external forces and structures created a system that turned its back from this place – and who made the decisions resulting in that system. More than anything, I felt an uncomfortable disturbance dwelling deep inside me.

Because it is not only wars and empires that raze and ravage the cities of God. Often, we tear one another down more indirectly – through the suppression of wages, through unjust financial practices, through the disinvestment of our government from certain people and certain places, through looking the other way when our neighbors are in economic pain.

Wages deflate beneath a living wage, and the standard response is to ask why the poor don’t just work harder. But a person should be able to work full time and support her family above the poverty rate.

People go hungry, and the standard response is to ask if they are really budgeting correctly. But when there is enough food to feed the world’s population, no one should have to go hungry.

A woman is bought for sex, and the standard response is to ask why she chose that profession. But the real question should be: how is it that we came to live in a world where a price tag is put on a human body?

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These arguments are so pervasive that it is easy to read texts like today’s in 2 Thessalonians and hear the standard response ringing through our minds. Ah, we read: “Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat.” Yes–such true and vast wisdom!

But a closer reading of the text reveals that the people to whom Paul is referring aren’t just refusing to work. Instead, they are active – but they are putting their energy to ill use, what Paul calls “mere busybodies,” stirring up discord in the community. This passage has nothing to do with whether or not a basic safety net should be in place in society. But it is about how to solve problems and be in community with one another – especially when the gossip of a few can destabilize the whole.

Paul isn’t talking about the work ethic of a few – he’s talking about work ethics of the whole.

And in a very real way, the prophet Isaiah addresses work ethics, as well.

At the time when this particular text in Isaiah was written, most scholars believe Israel was under the thumb of Persia – a period of time marked by the contractual agreement Israel had with Persia, promising extra labor and taxes siphoned from Israel – like the cream skimmed from a brimming pail of fresh milk. Or, rather: like half the milk poured out onto dry ground, nutritious nectar wasting away, nourishing instead the thing that oppresses.

The standard response at that time might have been that Persia had the power – that this was what Israel had to do to keep the peace, to maintain status quo, merely to survive. But Isaiah is very clear about the Jerusalem that God will make new again: They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.

God’s new world cuts against the standard interpretation of the economics of power and resources. God’s vision of a new world is material – but it is a world in which a body’s daily work means also its replenishment at mealtimes and at night. God’s world both boggles our understanding of the way things are, and restores our vision of the way things ought to be.

Earlier this week, one of the houses in the Heidelberg Project was burned down – arson was suspected. It was the second time in six months the Project has experienced this type of vandalism, and when I was there two weeks ago, I walked amidst the remains of a different house, the ashes still fresh, but wet and cold from the rain.

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I felt despair when I saw the remains of that house, and when I read this week that another had been set to flame, I felt it again. A loss of hope: that the beautiful, creative things in this world are more often set to flame than they are celebrated.

But even in death we are promised new life. I noticed, walking in amongst the ashes, bright pops of color and new discarded objects that someone had placed within the rubble. Even in its destruction the house took on a new form, not ceasing to exist, but becoming different, confounding, troubling; provoking even more questions of anyone who chooses to engage with it. This, too, is how Detroit will rebuild: in the destruction and provocation and regeneration of all that it is.

Isaiah offers up hope when the world feels beyond despair once more. When the standard responses crowd the mind, when it feels impossible to know how to continue on, God promises the hope of a world made new. Like a ravaged city that provokes and disturbs us, the way of God generates in us the will to rebuild, to start afresh, to make our world anew. Like a bright green dot unabashedly painted on an abandoned home, the way of God jars the senses awake, bringing the head and the heart into a new understanding of this world order,

so that we may train the wolf to lay down with the lamb;

so that we may tame the lion to eat straw;

so that together, we may bring the fierce things of this world to be made new.

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Stitch by stitch: thoughts on grief and hope

Five years ago, in the first winter of our relationship, I knit my lover a pair of mittens.

They were perfect.

I bought the wool, hand-spun, from a vendor at our Farmer’s Market on Broadway in New York City. It was a blustery October day, and I bought more of that grey yarn than I needed. And so began the meticulous process of crafting something for the one you love: Edging the gloves with a simple ribbing, two by two. Making them fingerless, with a top that flipped down. Fastening on antique leather buttons. Inside one of the flaps, I sewed a tag, upon which was neatly printed, “Handmade by Alison J. Killeen.”

He loved them, and even better, he used them. Over the years, predictably, they began to wear. The neat little slit in the thumbs, meant for texting and for pulling out his metro card, was the first to go. And so I unraveled the tops of the thumbs and re-knit them, reinforcing them with a stronger thread. But it was an impermanent solution. The palms wore thin, first from grasping at railings on the train, and later, the steering wheel of the car. Moths munched on their edges while they sat idle in summer. Last winter, they found their final days as the thumb slits tore again and unraveled before I took care to mend them, my lover’s triangle-tipped thumbs exposed to the cold.

This fall, five years later, using what was left of the hardy grey wool, I knit him a second pair of mittens, almost identical to the first. Perhaps it was sentimental, but before we discarded them, we held a little ritual for the first pair in our kitchen. I held the mittens in my hands, and my lover held my hands in his. Together, we spoke of the warmth they had provided to the wearer, of what objects they had held between their palms, of all the coffee spills they had endured. As we examined the wear and tear the years had brought to these woolen miracles, they began to whisper of all that has lapsed since we first found one another.

It seems to me that time passes so illegibly. Despite our best attempts to keep things just as they are, in the end, we are helpless to the powers of the universe: to gravity, to change, to chaos, to love.

Most years in November I settle in for the long winter, reveling in my double-pointed needles and indigo-blue dusks. I cut the nights with candlelight, quell the snow with stardust, calm the cold with steaming hot tea.

But this year has been different. This year not only have the nights been long, but my heart is long as well, stretched low as an anchor grazing the bottom of the sea. For whatever reason, though no one close to me has been in danger, I am feeling the losses around me more keenly. A friend’s husband dies, then another, and another. Yet another friend’s mother is slowly losing her battle with cancer. A loved one struggles with addiction. Relationships around me disintegrate and break. And the dark blue night thickens, exposing a bruised and ashen world.

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via New York Times

Then last Friday, in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman overtook sweet Sandy Hook Elementary School, and like the rest of the country I am blindsided. I am struck dumb by the absence of mercy, by the presence of carnage, by the hot iron of an expired rifle, the tiny bodies riddled with bullets, the silence and the sobs, the blood, the innocence, the flesh, the grief.

Time trods on. The night expands. A star moves across the deep. Our hearts break, our worlds implode, and we are left to ask: what will come of this?

Part of the pain of tragedy is the need we humans have to seek out the meaning in suffering. As one who finds little existential comfort in “eternal life”, I look for a way to make meaning of what is happening in the here and the now. Even a father who believes his child will live on in paradise might not be comforted by his belief. The child is still gone, and he is still left to sift through what to make of a world in which 20-year-old men kill six-year-old girls, and nineteen other children, besides.

In the face of such tragedy, even hope at times is too much to ask. It is too much to petition grief to turn about so sharply, to reverse the path of mourning, to wait for hope, to hope for life.

No, I want mending of a more earthly kind. As a knitter darns a tear, as a physician sutures a wound, so must we go about the process of grief. Slowly and methodically we go, taking care to don the thimble and pin the fabric. Perhaps we set down our work for a time and come back another day. Perhaps we rip it out and start again. We work, knowing our piece will never be as whole as it was when it was new. We work, knowing that it will be prone to tearing again, even in the same spot in which we mend. But the thread and needle must keep working, ever tenderly, slowly onwards, if our hearts are ever to beat again.

The deepest, bluest night of the year is but days away. With the winter solstice will come the shifting of our planet’s tilt, a change so incremental we will hardly notice it, but it will be massive in its power. Such a tiny step lengthens the day by mere minutes, but it has the power to alter the seasons, to melt ice and ignite fire, turn branch to leaf, seed to sprout. Yes, we will hardly notice it. But its shift will lay the groundwork for our whole world to change.

I don’t know how the parents and children of Newtown will fare in the coming days and years, and what awaits our country in the coming months is yet to be seen. What I do know is that our first task must be to tend to our grief, for by threading the needle, by tilting a twirling planet, we act out our trust that hope will return to us one day. Perhaps hope is found just in putting down that very first stitch.