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.