A letter from West Baltimore


FOR ME, this has been a year of quiet and extraordinary change. Very recently, on a clear, remarkably bright and breezy afternoon, a river of reflection, on which I have been floating for the past few weeks, was spawned. The precipitating events, to those with little or no emotional investment in them, may seem small and even insignificant. But for me, there seems to be a silent but powerful tidal wave of change sweeping away my panic about the future and allowing me to float somewhat serenely on warm memories.

On the clear day of my "awakening," I was, as I have for the past several years, walking my 11-year-old Rottweiler, Onyx, on our customary route, down Winterbourne Road, along the edge of Leakin Park. Familiar and not so familiar cars passed with a quick toot of the horn, a hurried wave or a brisk "hello" barely heard but certainly felt. We were walking very slowly, feeling the yellow sunlight filter through the bright green foliage on the trees along our path and enjoying the perfection of those rare and wonderful Baltimore spring days. Onyx paused to raise her muzzle, catching more breeze. I leaned over and kissed her lightly on her head and said "You have been such a lovely friend." We walked together closely, her eyes conveying perfect understanding.

It was the day of Spencer Lewis' funeral, a neighbor I had waved to daily as he drove by. What I remember most about Mr. Spencer was his kindness; he would slow down when Onyx occasionally strolled into the path of his approaching van. He was someone I did not know well but liked very much; I will certainly miss him. I watched mourners driving tentatively, scanning the block for Mr. Lewis' address.

A few days before, Charles Dorsey, another longtime neighbor and friend passed away. He was someone I had known practically all of my life, from my association with his children in elementary school and his help and kindness to my family. Thoughts of the many neighbors who had died brought on a longing for the past, which was gradually replaced by a feeling of appreciation.

For a moment, in what felt like a Wordsworthian "spot in time," I breathed in all of the joy and sadness of living in one place for a long time. The sights, sounds, smells and memories rushed my senses and sent me sailing into a reverie from which I have yet to recover. I felt thoughts about the passage of time take form like a large cloud, enveloping my sensibilities, while at the same time illuminating my understanding of a realization that I perhaps had always carried around with me in my head but never embraced with my heart: Life is change.

Regarding matters closest to my heart, I have pretty much resisted change, although politically I have been change's most ardent proponent. I have referred to my living in the same neighborhood for most of my life as being very similar to being in an unhappy love relationship: intellectually leaving makes perfect sense, however, emotionally, leaving feels somehow impossible. Wander though I may from the comfortable and the familiar, inevitably I return to old surroundings and lifelong friends, and there remain comfortably nestled for as long as the gods and my ambitions will allow.

Even during those times when I am feeling most ambivalent, I consider it a privilege to still live in the West Baltimore neighborhood where I was raised and where I continue to see people who, over the years, have helped to shape my life and thinking about community. Sadly, though, many are passing away leaving, what seemed for a time, "unfillable" empty places in our small, tight-knit community of Fairmount Park. I am an ardent observer of the changes taking place in the neighborhood, many of which have brought more sadness than joy. Like other aging urban neighborhoods, crime has caught up to us and whittles away daily at our ability to trust. Some of the homes, once meticulously maintained, are falling into disrepair. Traffic has increased, along with trash and noise. And some of the most powerful and vocal community activists, have moved on, grown old or died. And yet, despite these disheartening realities, something comfortably stable and reassuring remains. Some days it is as basic as a warm feeling that comes from leaning on a familiar old tree, pausing to admire a neighbor's thriving tulips, admiring a weather-beaten fence, seeing an old Ford parked where it has always been parked, hearing an ageless dog in his yard barking, watching a plump cat slowly meandering across the street. There are reassurances of survival in the perpetual lean of a pine, a sagging gutter spout surviving the storm, the chips of paint clinging to a wood frame house, a distinguished older gentleman who keeps himself strong by walking.

With the passing, in recent years, of my wonderful father, Luther Garlington, my dear friend, Sven Olsson, neighbors Rev. Howard Queen, Spencer Lewis, Charles Dorsey, lovely Vicki Turner (my "dog walking buddy") and recently, my precious Onyx, I find my walks, while sometimes tinged with melancholy, are, more often than not, opportunities to enjoy remembrances of loved ones whose spirits fill the air like perfume from the honeysuckle vines along my path. With the passage of time, I feel the empty spaces they've left in my life are replaced by vivid memories of them and our times together.

The constancy of the sun and the inevitability of the rain, the flawless timing of the jonquil and the October disappearance of green from the leaves, the predictable coolness of early fall nights and Indian summer days, the lacy first frost and the blue-shaded stillness of December snow all beckon me to rise above whatever sadness and discouragement I may feel, allowing me to view, without (though sometimes with) tears, the much larger picture. When hope is sagging, I take a walk. Along the well-traveled strip of woods I find the quiet drama of the seasons serving as my primer for a better understanding and accepting change. As I make my way into the network of winding streets, I can sense a blossoming of optimism fueled by children's laughter, the planting of new gardens and the pleasant chatter among neighbors who are also friends. All around me there are young families with dreams just beginning to be realized, old houses being restored, children passing to the next grade feeling stronger and smarter, and folks, young and old, making plans for better days, happier times and more voluptuous and fragrant roses to pause and smell.

And so, despite the losses, disappointments and claustrophobic feelings that sometime come with living in one place, for what may at times seem too long, I still find this neighborhood a fine place to call home. There is far more to keep me here than to drive me away. And the changes increasingly evoke a power and inner strength to persevere. As I look up at the sun on these summery July days, I think of my Dad, his lifetime of early rising and commitment to taking head-on the task, and I ask, "Daddy, what do you think?" I think I hear him saying, "Change is just a part of life, Jocelyn, and you'll be fine. And, by the way, you need to cut your lawn."

Jocelyn A. Garlington writes from Baltimore.

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