Nine months ago during my graduation weekend, I sat in an audience of students committed to post-graduate service, and listened as a speaker shared with us her thoughts on our coming year. Though not all her words stuck that day, I do remember those she borrowed from renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney. From his poem Postscript, she read: “You are neither here nor there/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass/As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
I find myself living Heaney’s poetry this year. I am “neither here nor there” in the sense that I occupy two worlds at once. Half of my heart—my upbringing, my family, many friends—resides hundreds of miles and infinite degrees of difference away. The other half of my heart has become deeply rooted in a whole other world, that of Southwest Baltimore. The first time I walked through this new world, my wide eyes took in decaying row houses, boarded-up storefronts, uneven sidewalks strewn with litter, junkies sitting on stoops with their brown paper bags held tight. I was tempted, so tempted, to simply hurry through this place, stunningly different from anything I had ever known.
In my workplace at a family support center for young mothers and children, the differences could not have been any more palpable. The mothers, though many my age or younger, had one or two or three children. Snippets of conversation wafted over me, about boyfriends in jail, friends who’d been shot, relatives who were addicts. The toddlers I coaxed to sleep at naptime would jerk awake the minute I stopped patting their back, but incredibly, did not even wake up to the roar of police sirens. My hope—stemming from my desire to fight for justice in this neighborhood—was to find a way to fit in here; my fear was that nobody even wanted me to try.
It was a toddler, hardly able to walk or talk, who was somehow able to assuage my fear. After being at work for about a month, I came in a few hours late one morning. When I slipped through the playground gate, usually timid 18-month-old Javon spotted me. He swooped down the slide, exuberantly shouting baby-speak, and scrambled right into my arms. A radiant grin stretched across his face, and my coworker shouted, “You’re his girl, Ms. Sarah. He was waiting for you.” I spun Javon around, tossed him in the air, made him squeal with delight, all the while dancing inside with the knowledge that one baby, at least, thinks I fit in just fine.
From this moment of acceptance tumbled “big soft buffetings,” as Seamus Heaney might say, day in and day out. I started, slowly but surely, to discover that building relationships—and consequently working for justice—starts the same way regardless of what world you are in: with an outstretched hand and a genuine smile. When I was unsure of this early on, it was the babies and toddlers who set an example. “Ms. Sarah,” Kamora said to me one afternoon, “What are these? I like them.” She trailed her fingers over the freckles on my arms: “Can I have one?” Before I could come up with a suitable answer, she took my hand and said, “Oh never mind. Let’s play.” The children disarmed me completely, showing unbounded trust and love, and holding tight to my hand, rooting me to the ground when I would’ve been tempted to turn away. The neighborhood seemed so full of problems: drugs, guns, poverty, crime. And yet, through the eyes of these tiny, innocent kids, I started to see solutions.
Mainly, I saw love. Recently, I looked on as three-year-old Emonie comforted her crying infant sister: “Ji’Yah, don’t cry. You’re ok, Mommy’s in class.. I’m here now. I love you—really. Don’t cry.” In an equally breathtaking moment, I stood and watched an older brother sitting next to his little brother in the classroom. Amari was very carefully untying Tarhijae’s shoes, and I looked on as he gently tugged one sneaker off, then the other. Tarhijae hadn’t been himself all day—cried at breakfast, ripped a book, threw a tantrum—and now he sat, sock-clad toes wriggling, and giggled. Amari motioned for me to take Tarhijae’s sneakers. “Here. He told me they were too small.” Even though Tarhijae doesn’t speak yet, somehow, I knew Amari was telling the truth.
From babies and toddlers—from the people we look to least for answers—I have learned the most lessons this year. I have discovered, under their spell, what seeking social justice is all about. It is not, as I first thought, about the big picture, about eradicating poverty and solving world hunger, about rebuilding Baltimore’s vacant homes and getting drugs off its street. It is the much smaller picture that matters; it is all in the freckles and shoelaces. Most importantly, it is not being afraid to stumble into a new world, take a deep breath, and surrender your heart. The fight for justice can only begin when, to borrow the words of Seamus Heaney, you let your heart be caught off guard, and blown wide open.