OPEN LETTER: ‘A community turned toward one another … is more safe than a community pulled away from one another in fear & hate’

This is a letter for you, from Sarah, a neighbor whose husband was among those first on the scene when a murderer shot and killed 25-year-old Edixon Velasquez this past week.

To My Dear West Seattle Community,

My husband ushered our children into the back bedroom to finish their movie, unaware in their innocence, as the gunshots cut the air of our neighborhood. A quiet street I’ve only ever known to be full of dog walkers, joggers, and the occasional driver going a tad too quickly down a residential street, now filled with flashing blue lights, yellow tape, and chalk.

Our front window, which still looks out at a row of adorable houses that remind me of a rainbow, now also looks out on the memorial of a young man, our new friend, killed just steps from our front door.

It has been a hard week for us. And here, in West Seattle, as I go to my kids’ school, to work, and talk to our neighbors and friends, it sounds like it’s been a harder season for us as a community in general. We’re growing a lot, so many new people, so much less space, so many more cars.

And it seems as if it the growth is coming with more stories like the one that unfolded outside my dining room window as a life flowed out into a storm drain in the street while the kids obliviously sang along to “let it go.”

There are more stories of people hurt, hurting one another, kids discouraged from walking to school without a grownup – our ideals of safety threatened and somehow suddenly fleeting.

People seem more afraid and it’s coming out as anger; I get honked at more, glared at more, and if I’m honest, I’m honking more, snarkier with the person taking too long (in my opinion) in the checkout line, defenses automatically up when I walk out the door. It just seems we’re all more on edge. The tensions of our world, our city, and our community, stuffed down into raincoats with zippers increasingly too short to hold all the pain and wondering in, and so there are quick glances away if our eyes meet a stranger’s. Friend or foe? We don’t know, and we’re too heart-tired to find out.

But in the wake of the events this week, I’ve thought of our West Seattle community a lot, and I had a few very simple things I wanted to share with you. So, here it goes…

I think a lot about fear. If I’m honest, I can feel a lot of it on a daily basis. I’ve learned over the years how to use it as a catalyst for good, how to be grateful for my constant vigilance, seeing the many ways it has benefited my family, my community, the things I am involved with. Fear is like a yellow light – it’s not a directive to stop or to go, it’s just a sign it’s time to make a decision. And the more information I have about my trajectory, goals, and physical realities, the more likely I am to make a wise choice in response to that yellow light.

My favorite yellow lights are the ones accompanied by an accurate pedestrian crosswalk – that number countdown to the yellow light is what all lights should be, and what I wish life provided: adequate time to know what to expect and how to prepare.

But in real life, which has come way too close to home for us this week, it doesn’t work that way. While the yellow light of fear happens frequently enough, it is very rarely preceded by a gentle warning: “fear is coming soon – just wanted you to have a bit of time to prepare and plan your response.”

Here is what I have learned about fear: if we do not choose how we will respond when it inevitably comes, then in the face of fear what flows out of us is our worst, not our best.

Fear tells us there is a threat, and in the absence of an intentional response to fear, our instinct tells us to turn away, to pull in, to put up higher fences, install bigger security systems, and fortify our defenses. And we do. I do.

But, here is another thing I have learned, having grown up in a city where the literal fences were high, topped with barbed wire, and monitored by dogs and armed guards.  The put-up, pull-in, back-off mentality does not bring a greater sense of safety, nor does it diminish an actual threat of risk. Perhaps it does for a moment, but not for long. It is fleeting, and our belief in our own ability to singularly control our individual outcome in the world is like a drug: we need bigger doses of heavier substances to retain our feelings of control.

We are a culture that prides itself on self-reliance and individualism, and a city where politeness is paramount but our internal walls are high and we more easily turn away than towards. Uncomfortably, especially for us, this truth remains: the anecdote to fear is not an exertion of power or a reinforcing of our own walls. The anecdote to fear is togetherness.

This week has been incredibly hard for me and for our neighborhood, but it has been so softened by the fact we already knew our neighbors – even the ones who were the victims in this senseless tragedy. There was instant comfort in knowing that even in the midst of real fear we were surrounded by people who knew us, knew our kids, had us watch their pets, and came over for drinks or bbqs.

We didn’t know our neighbors on accident; there was no roster passed out when we moved onto the block several years back. There was a lovely bottle of wine dropped off, and a couple phone numbers swapped at a Neighbors Night Out. The rest has been slow building. It has meant going on evening walks as a family and stopping to say hi to anyone we see out and about, including getting into or out of their cars (and yes, it’s always awkward, and yes, it’s always met with eventual warmth). We introduce ourselves, say where we live, offer to swap numbers and remind people “we’re close by if you ever need anything.”

It has meant watching when the houses go up for sale, knocking on the doors of folks as they unpack their boxes, passing on the next bottle of wine, swapping numbers, and again saying, “we just live right there…so glad you moved in.” It has meant large group text chains telling neighbors about impromptu BBQs on the first warm Saturday of spring, asking for help managing our chickens while we travel, walking the mail incorrectly delivered to us over to its rightful owner a block away and choosing to knock on the door rather than stuff it in the mailbox.

Building community, which I recently heard described as common unity, does not happen through programs, or private groups. Neighborhood groups on social media help with the transfer of goods and information, but they are no substitute for a handshake, an eye-to-eye smile, or a knock on the door.

I’ve lived in a lot of places, I’ve been close to a lot of pain, and experienced it myself. I’ve had my sense of safety violated more than once, and know it will happen again. As much as some knee jerk part of me wants to do everything I can to gear up for battle, I’ve lived long enough to know the real war isn’t in the moment of fear, it’s in how I’ve prepared my heart, my family, and my community before it comes.

I’m a fighter, through and through; there is no flight in me. But I won’t fight fire with fire or violence with violence for one simple reason: love is much stronger than hate or fear. You see, hate and fear eat a soul alive while love self-repairs and grows stronger each time it’s shown. A community turned toward one another, intentionally woven together, is more safe than a community pulled away from one another in fear and hate.

It’s not up to me to decide what your block is like – that’s up to you. But here on this block, even after the week we’ve had, we’re going to keep turning in. We’re going to keep watching each other’s pets and kids, inviting each other over for warm pies, asking how the day was & waiting to hear the real answer. And the folks at the corner of the block are going to wrap this around the block and across the intersection, and I hope it spreads like the blackberries at EC Hughes until West Seattle is known as the part of town where folks know their neighbors, aren’t afraid of the ways our city is changing, and see the yellow light of fear as an anticipated reality that we get to respond to with choice.

I hope you’ve already planted your own blackberry patch of love and togetherness in your neighborhood. But if you haven’t, that’s ok, just consider this letter a starter clipping from mine. It’s all you need to get started, just drop it in the soil of a knock on a neighbor’s door, water it with a the swap of a phone number, and fertilize with a text when you’re running to Target and just wondered if anyone in the neighborhood needed anything while you were out.

Hate raised its head this week, and it will again, even today. But I’ll raise my head even higher, choose to look in your eyes a little bit longer, fighting for love a little bit fiercer. It’s the very best thing I know how to do, and I really, really hope you’ll join me.  

And you know, we live just down the block so if you ever need anything, just holler; and if you’re new, we’re so glad you’re here.

– Sarah

21 Replies to "OPEN LETTER: 'A community turned toward one another ... is more safe than a community pulled away from one another in fear & hate'"

  • Chris September 23, 2017 (1:00 pm)

    This is an incredible letter.   We have been feeling the stresses too of people on our bumper because we do not speed & having to get out of the way.   We have been seeing it in various ways lately.   We grew up here in West Seattle and it seems things have changed dramatically just in the last year.   We keep telling people that our joy is not others to steal…..it is not what happens to us, it is our reaction to it.   Nonetheless, we find ourselves still saddened by what we see happening around us.   Thank you so much for the inspirational letter.   There really are many good people around.  Wish this letter could really get out to many more than just here in the blog.   Thank you so much for writing this.

  • The guy who gave your husband a Kind bar September 23, 2017 (1:36 pm)

    Hi Sarah.  I’m a neighbor, too.  I recently met you and your husband, not as a neighbor, but through my work (unfortunately).  I love the letter.  Best to you and your family.

    • Sarah September 24, 2017 (10:07 am)

      Thank you – for your kindness to my husband, and your kind words here. As a neighbor, drop on by anytime :) 

  • Liz September 23, 2017 (1:37 pm)

    Sarah, what a wonderful piece. I’m so glad to live across the street from you and live in this neighborhood. Our neighbors are the reason we don’t want to leave! Thanks for being there in this tough time for all of us on this street.

  • Jethro Marx September 23, 2017 (2:30 pm)

    I like your letter, Sarah; I like that your block/neighborhood has found togetherness and connection in the midst of tragedy, too. I think a lot about the ways we’re divided into opposing sides, on everything from building walls to which way the toilet paper hangs. We humans place a lot of importance on our own needs and wants and that makes it easier for us to be rude in our cars and checkout lines.

     I think the antidote to fear might be peace. Not world peace, but being at peace with the imperfect world. Thank you for your thoughts, and may your street be at peace.

  • miws September 23, 2017 (3:04 pm)

    Beautiful letter, Sarah. It comforts me that a dear friend who is also of that neighborhood has you as a neighbor. 

    Thanks for sharing Sarah’s letter with us, WSB….

    Mike

  • Seattlite September 23, 2017 (3:38 pm)

     I’m so sorry for the loss of life on your block and the adverse effects it has garnered.  It’s not bad to be fearful of what is evil.  Living consciously and understanding one’s surroundings is an option in establishing confidence to cope with day-to-day challenges.  People starting at a young age need an abundance of love and guidance in learning about morals, ethics, boundaries  from their parents which, hopefully, will result in law-abiding, concerned adults.  My area has a few people I would call neighborly and who would help out other neihgbors in need.  Living in West Seattle for the past 66 years, I’ve seen all.  WS is not the community it once was and never will be again. I do recall that in the late 50’s in the Admiral district my older sister was walking home from the bus stop, which was two blocks from our house, after work (it was dark). On the corner of our block a guy approached  her and held a knife to her and threathened her.  He told her not to scream and started walking her toward the alley.  The good neighbors (Rice was the last name) who lived on the north corner of our block drove up in front of their home as the crime was taking place.  My sister was brave.  She screamed and the guy let her go.  She ran to the neighbors and they called the police.  I remember waking up to the police in our house when they were explaining what had taken place with my sister.   I haven’t thought of that incident until I read your letter.

  • TuesdayJane September 23, 2017 (3:57 pm)

    I’m so sorry for the tragedy, but this is a beautiful response. Thank you for sharing it, Sarah. Thank you, WSB, for posting it. After an instance of horrific violence, this is a goo reminder of the beauty of living in great communities. And we truly do. I’m once again encouraged to reach out to meet those friends and neighbors I’ve yet to meet.

  • Barb September 23, 2017 (5:08 pm)

    Beautiful letter and one that should be published in the Times. We are fortunate to have a very strong Block Watch  Group. If you don’t have one in your neighborhood it is easy to start one. SPD will help you with the process. 

  • Joyce Rice September 23, 2017 (5:53 pm)

    Sarah, you’re a wonderful writer.  I hope you do it for a living.

    Joyce

  • Nancy September 23, 2017 (5:58 pm)

    Well written, well said. 

  • Nw September 23, 2017 (6:09 pm)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful letter. My own take is this city maybe the region is so damn .ss backwards socially meeting people who are largely inward and “shy” maybe extremely self centered just too much why bother that’s where I have gotten to. I spoke once out of the blue to a guy in The Junction from like Indianapolis about something come to find out he had been here 4 yrs I was the only person who had talked with him out in public. Now that the city is growing as West Seattle is which is Seattle btw maybe we will or are getting folks like Sarah who are warm and welcoming people opposite of those “from here” . 

    • NW September 23, 2017 (7:07 pm)

      I am from here by the way well over 40 yrs in Seattle now born and raised. 

  • H September 23, 2017 (6:34 pm)

    That was pretty wonderful.

  • justme September 23, 2017 (6:40 pm)

    Thank you Sarah. I have been having some of the same thoughts, especially after the most recent tragedy. I think, or like to hope, in the light of current societal morale intensities, we are hopefully swinging toward a more loving community. I make small steps by saying “hello” on the street, smiling to a passerby, and having patience where I once would lose my cool.  Our young have an ambivalence to the value of human life, and that makes me sad.

  • JoB September 23, 2017 (7:06 pm)

    Sarah. thank you for being my neighbor

  • sc September 23, 2017 (7:54 pm)

    Such a beautiful letter.  I can only respond with a favorite poem by Emily Dickinson

    “If I can stop one heart from breaking,
    I shall not live in vain;
    If I can ease one life the aching,
    Or cool one pain,
    Or help one fainting robin
    Unto his nest again,
    I shall not live in vain.”
  • Chris September 23, 2017 (7:56 pm)

    We were at corner of California Ave S W and Admiral in our car waiting for the turn signal.   A senior blind lady stepped very carefully into the intersection.      A nice gentleman stepped out to talk to her and assisted her across the street.   It was very touching to see him reach out to her and offer assistance.   His family watched patiently from the curb.   We do have wonderful people out there.   We wish the news would show more of the positive in our society and not as much of all the negative stuff.    If the gentleman is seeing this, thank you!!!!!

  • Tis September 23, 2017 (8:09 pm)

    Beautifully written it made me cry! I live in sunrise heights on 31st as well not too far away and have for 14 years and love my neighbors. It is truly a great community here in west Seattle ..so sorry about this senseless tragedy  I think planting a tree might be a great way for the community to heal. Love is always the answer and sometimes a smile or a simple hello to someone can actually save a life you never know what battles someone is fighting . Peace neighbors .

  • Jenfin September 23, 2017 (9:20 pm)

    Thank you for this. So much pain. How to heal and move forward is to turn in toward others, our community, vs turn away and perpetuate divisiveness that is an undertone in everyday living. You really nailed the current environment with this piece. Your neighbors are lucky to have you and I am reminded there are so many good people in this community. 

  • Terre September 24, 2017 (9:32 am)

    Sarah, I’m printing your amazing letter and keeping it with me to remind me of the choices I can make. I ‘ran’ the yellow light a few days ago, when I could have taken a few seconds more to help someone at the grocery store. I’m gonna slow down a bit and pay more attention. Thank you so much. 

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