Lord Voldemort and (an)Other: Naming, Power and Street Basketball
In my continuing urban education, my street wisdom comes in bits and pieces. As I’ve written before, I’ve been immersed in another story. I’ve learned that there’s compassion and grace needed like never before; I need it from those who are host to me, my family, our story. We come from a culture that writes its story differently, with different characters, structure, literary cues, expectations, behaviors, and plot lines. I’ve felt the friction of my projecting my own story on my hosts, which has been a significant source of stress in my life. Culture shock, in other circles.
One of the most difficult places has been our very home. Well, at least our corner. We moved in after some folks who partied. A LOT. As in, SWAT teams 3 times in 1.5 years. They’ve still got some close family members in 3 houses in direct vicinity of our corner, some in our row. (We live in a row house.) Over their time in our place, and the months it stood empty for reclamation, people came to understand it as the place to be. Folk of all ages knew this as the place to be. We’ve had folks we don’t know hanging out on our porch, leaning against our car, letting basketballs repeatedly strike the side of our house. It’s been tough; its still a busy corner.
However, its calmed down quite a bit; folks don’t congregate on our porch like they used to, the car is less a butt rest, and the ball isn’t is active as a hammer on our siding. However, the basketball continues to be a part of my education. Somehow, the aforementioned still-local family members acquired a mobile basketball hoop. (These are ubiquitous to youth life in Pittsburgh.) About a month or so ago, some elder teens moved it from the alley on the other side of our row-house row, and walked it through the narrow sidewalk behind our homes to our street. They played the first game, setting the precedent as the place for street b-ball. (They haven’t been back since.) The tweens took over, and now don’t bother taking it back to the yard it belongs too. It’s a permanent fixture on the street across from middle of our row house, where they play to (and past, sometimes) midnight. Grrrr. (The physics of a basketball bouncing between two row houses amplifies the noise to ultra annoying levels.)
Here’s a confession: the basketball has become traumatic for me. The moment I hear it bouncing on the street at our corner, cortisol flushes my veins. I may never get over this; it makes me sad to think so. It’s associated with curb ball, a simple game of even the littlest ones in our neighborhood, and often the source of bumps and bangs as the ball endlessly hits the side of the house. I also would find my stress remaining elevated as they continued to play curb ball, or basketball for that matter. I felt like a caged animal in our house, waiting for something to happen. (Part of this stress is connected to the stories our neighbors told of their own experiences with both the family and the corner, and the not-so-innocent presence of folk on our corner. According to them, these kids push the envelope to see what they can get away with. This is true, to a point, but unfortunately maybe a bit more overspoken than is for a majority of them.)
Harry Potter knew something that many of his peers -and elders- didn’t: unnamed fear/s breed more fear. We create a reality around our perceptions, for lack of truth or awareness of the other. It blinds us to our stereotypes, and jails us into something that is based on limited interactions and imaginary creation. The mystery feeds the darkness and demonization, perpetuating the created false story of the other. Encouraging violence, our self-told stories fail to engage with the true fear, only fighting the created ones. Although Voldemort embodied some of the most violent and ugliest of fears, Harry knew when we failed to name them they only became mythical, epic, unreal. When you can name your fears, you can begin to release them.
But I was granted with grace early on. I had learned a couple of names of our young neighbors, starting with the day before we moved in. When I stuck my head out the door at the pounding, it was no longer nameless, strange others in the street. It was my neighbor, someone whom had an identity. A name. They belonged to someone, bestowed with meaning from past family perhaps, or significant people in their parents lives. I’m sure it was less romantic for others, and a name was just that: something to be called. No matter what the history of their name, it took away the power for me to keep them at distance, to hold them as an enemy -or worse, demonize them- as they played a game six feet away, on the other side of our wall.
Breaking the Violence of Stereotypes: The Boy Who Lived
The power that the situation holds over me has shifted, even if slowly. It’s still a work in progress. But I know more names now. More stories. Just bits and pieces for some, but he-who-should-not-be-named is no longer is mysterious, or even dangerous. He is a 12 year old kid, a seven year old boy, an eleven year old girl. They have distinctive laughs or vocal timbre; someone eats those fruit flavored tootsie roll things. When I step outside, we have a foundation of mutual respect, ever so slight, because we know each others names. They aren’t being malicious, with intent to harm or bother. (Such is my narcissism, that the activities of neighborhood kids is about me.) They are living life, utilizing the small space of the urban context to re/create with games. They are just being kids.
It also has softened my approach. According to my wife, I have a “street voice.” But lately, I haven’t used it as much. I know their names now, and I can respectfully ask/tell them to stop playing basketball, “because you see, it’s midnight.” I’m slowly understanding their stories, even collectively so. The violence I’ve done in determining who they are or what they will say or how they will act is breaking down into actually experiencing it from them. I’ve realized I’ve been holding my fist clenched. Fear and the unknown have driven my response. Learning someones name has provided salvation, invited story telling.
Harry was known conversly to Voldemort as The-Boy-Who-Lived. Is there any irony in his intuition to name his fear, and his successful struggle to live? Is that not part of living life, to face our fears without becoming incarcerated by them? “And this day I tell you, choose life.” (YHWH, Old Testament)
Lord, hear our prayer.